October 29, 2006
Grammar police

I wonder if anyone at the Washington Post thought to connect these two stories, which appeared in the newspaper on different days and pages last week. The first story notes how the teaching of grammar in schools went out of the fashion over the last few decades. The reporter claims a new "revolution" is occuring, with grammar lessons becoming more common, but he doesn't provide much evidence. He talks to only one teacher in the DC area and has vague quotations of just a few words from local officials.

The second story asks, why do "schools expect children to read -- and love to read -- when they are given material that is frequently too hard for them?" Considering that for some students, any material that required literacy would be too hard for them, it seems like a silly question. From the article:

The average fifth-grade student in Detroit and Baltimore, for example, reads at a third-grade level, he said, but schools still give them fifth-grade core reading and social studies texts.

That, he said, crushes a child's motivation.

This expert thinks the answer is easier textbooks; teaching children to read at grade level doesn't seem to have crossed his mind. Or the reporter's. She writes, "Many teachers exclude graphic novels and comics from reading lists, even though a graphic novel was nominated for the National Book Award this year." No one is saying that there isn't such a thing as a good graphic novel. Or that children shouldn't be encouraged to read them in their spare time. But are they the best way to teach a child to read at an advanced level? Should we give up teaching novels altogether? Unfortunately, the story doesn't bother to address the question of how we got to this point -- for example, through expecting children to read a language without an understanding of its rules.

I was particularly amused by how the piece started by arguing that since most adults aren't reading Proust, adults don't want to read books that are difficult -- so why should their children have to? In other words, adults aren't reading Proust, so high schoolers shouldn't have to read The Great Gatsby. I don't even know where to begin here. Many adults read plenty of "challenging" books, although perhaps not written by Proust. Many don't, of course. But when did the problems adults have become an excuse for giving them to children, too? It doesn't seem to have occured to anyone quoted here that perhaps if children were taught to read at an appropriate level and were given interesting, but challenging, reading assignments, they could become better readers as adults. The whole story has a throw-up-our-hands tone to it. It's too bad so many educators -- and reporters -- seem willing to give up.

October 28, 2006
On the radio

If you're up early Saturday morning -- and have nothing better to do -- you can hear me on a DC radio station, 630 WMAL. I talked with host Rick Fowler about new and upcoming movies, including Death of a President, The Prestige, and Babel. The show runs from 6 to 8 am. I was rather silly and forgot to ask what time my segment will run.

October 27, 2006
Fatal imaginings

I wrote about two smaller films in today's Washington Times.

The first had a small budget but has caused a big controversy:

Death of a President appears to be one of those films that serves as a mirror for the viewer's own prejudices. Liberal reviewers have gushed that this is a "landmark" film so insightful every thinking person must see it. Conservative reviewers have grumbled that this is a "snuff film" that advocates the assassination of President Bush for his foreign policy.

They're all wrong.

I also have a piece on Terry Gilliam's latest film, Tideland; it's the second item on this page. I spoke to him earlier this month. (I came across the very apropos line about him two posts down during some regular reading, not research, by the way.)

Catch up

I'm a bit late in posting this, but I had four pieces in last Friday's Washington Times:

Last Friday was the introduction of the newspaper's "Film Snobs Only" page. I believe my two Little Children pieces were on it. Looking at my schedule, my work will likely be appearing there frequently in the next few weeks.

October 25, 2006
Thought for the day

"Sometime after 9/11, the United States became a Terry Gilliam movie."

--Daniel McCarthy

October 22, 2006

Crunched Car.JPGSo much for the road less travelled. I've felt rather an aversion to thoroughfares of any sort since this happened. It's not quite James Dean's Spyder. But as the EMT put a blanket on me, I looked over at my baby and added sadness to my mix of feelings, emotional and physical. You'll notice it's the passenger side that's all smashed up; I was the passenger. Usually I'm the driver, but in this case, it was my (blameless) boyfriend.

I had a couple paragraphs here giving some of the details -- which are vaguely interesting -- but my lawyer (i.e., the driver) advises me against it. I'll just say that now that I come to think of it, this episode would fit right into Richard Linklater's new film, Fast Food Nation. Oh, and that I hope the police manage to locate the ... person that fled the scene of the accident.

I was taken to the hospital on a stretcher, which was an interesting experience. The EMT who sat in the back with me couldn't have been nicer. The time at the hospital itself wasn't so pleasant. I wasn't the only "journalist" there -- a television personality was there with a family member. It seemed they got through things rather quicker than I did, with plenty of attention from a couple of nurses, but perhaps I read too much into it.

Oh, and by the way -- an airbag in the face hurts like a motherf*cker...

October 18, 2006
Thought for the day

"BBC Radio is not so much an art or industry as it is a way of life, a mirror that reflects the eccentricities, the looniness that make Britons slightly different from other humans."

--Morley Safer. The British Broadcasting Company was founded on this day in 1922.

October 15, 2006
Prize won

My piece on the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature was in Friday's Washington Times. Americans won every single Nobel Prize this year except for the literature and peace prizes. I asked a couple of smart critics -- The New Criterion's Roger Kimball and Bookslut's Jessa Crispin -- why.

Tyler Cowen, who sometimes seems to know something about everything, has recommendations on where to start with 2006 literature laureate Orhan Pamuk.

From the labyrinth

The late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick prophesied that songs by the Elizabethan composer John Dowland would one day by covered by a pop singer named Linda Fox, a thinly disguised version of Linda Ronstadt.

Such a scenario seemed less likely to materialize than Mr. Dick's predictions of a police state -- but now a single-monikered pop phenomenon has released an album of Dowland songs on one of the world's foremost classical music labels...

My review of Sting's "Songs from the Labyrinth" was in yesterday's Washington Times.

Thought for the day

"I remember feeling so grateful for the privilege and gift of being Catholic, but there was a part of me that thought, 'Yay! I'm on the A-Team now, the New York Yankees of Christianity. I'm on Father Neuhaus's team!'"

--Rod Dreher

October 12, 2006
Lost prize

My laziness has gotten the better of me. I had almost placed a bet on the Nobel Prize -- even clicking "Bet Now" -- but then decided it would be too much trouble to enter in all my information. So imagine how depressing it was to wake up this morning and discover that the man I was going to bet on, Orhan Pamuk, won the Nobel Prize. I really did feel very certain about this. And I think it proves that current events and politics matter more to the Nobel committee than anything else. That's not to say Pamuk isn't a talented writer. But who believes he would have been chosen now if the Turkish government hadn't been persecuting him over the last year?

October 11, 2006
Happy Birthday

"I leave out the parts that people skip."

--Elmore Leonard, born Oct. 11, 1925


Here's something unsettlingly interesting: The book that the UK literary establishment considers the third-best British-Irish-Commonwealth novel in the last 25 years isn't even in print in America. Anthony Burgess is the author of A Clockwork Orange; for that reason alone, you might think the book considered his masterpiece would be available here. (You can get it from Amazon.co.uk, though.)

Bouncing around Amazon UK, I learned that not only do celebrity chef books sell well there, but even celebrity chef wives are getting in on the action.

This finally gives me an excuse to mention what I think is the best book cover of all time: that of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of A Clockwork Orange, available only in Canada and Great Britain:



I had a very odd experience this week. I wrote a story about an event that hasn't yet happened; the story will be published after the event takes place. The "event" is the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature announcement. To get it into Friday's paper, which has our main arts and entertainment section, the powers that be wanted it ahead of time. So I took a gamble and guessed on what kind of person would win the award. If Philip Roth, for example, wins, the story falls apart. Or at the very least, will need to be heavily rewritten. But the bookies find that result highly unlikely -- although, interestingly, more likely now than it was when I checked the odds this morning. (I've always wondered how bookmakers come up with odds, especially for something as supposedly secret as the Nobel Prize. That would make an interesting story.)

As usual, I couldn't fit in everything interesting my interviewees said. So perhaps by Friday I'll fill out my newspaper story here.

October 10, 2006
Catching up

I was away this weekend at a Liberty Fund conference -- talking about ideas, getting very little sleep. So there are more than a couple loose ends here I need to tie up. Right now, I just want to mention some of the stories I've had in the Washington Times:

October 04, 2006
On the radio

If youre interested -- and up early -- you can hear me on the radio Thursday morning. Im filling in for another reporter at the paper who does a weekly radio spot. Ill be on The Morning Magazine with Mark Larsen. The shows based in Tampa, Florida. Ill be on at about 8:45 am Eastern time, chatting about the week in entertainment and the latest movie openings. You can listen live online.

Thought for the day

"The Swedes have a predilection for whimsicality and like to give it to unknown authors writing in small languages. If they awarded the prize for medicine in the same style, it would go to a chiropractor in Saskatchewan."

--Garrison Keillor on the Nobel Prize for Literature

King of terror

Sometimes the most momentous decisions are made for us by chance.

Take Nicholas Garrigan, the protagonist in director Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland, opening nationwide today...

My review of the film -- and Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin -- is in today's Washington Times.

October 03, 2006
Tag. You're it.

Shawn Macomber, guestblogging at Jeremy Lott's site, has asked. And, thanking Shawn for thinking of me, I respond:

1. One book that changed your life?

Would it be pompous of me to mention my own book? In my defense, I'll say I wrote the book at about age nine and don't even recall the title now. All I remember is that it was about a cat -- with some rather striking similarities, including the name, to my own cat, Mischief -- with special powers. The story won some sort of district-wide award for creative writing, and so was turned into a book, one of those wire-bound, laminated affairs. I'm sure this was one of the important events that contributed to my desire to be a writer.

But if that doesn't count -- no ISBN -- I'll pick something else from my childhood. The works of Lucy Maud Montgomery were certainly an inspiration to me then. Books like Anne of Green Gables and the Emily series featured plucky heroines who accomplished things -- like being writers. And L.M.M. herself was a Canadian (like me) whose work is beloved all over the world.

2. One book that you have read more than once?

There are many, many books I've read more than once. It's a luxury I used to allow myself often. I used to regularly re-read Jane Austen, but I can't remember when I last had the time. Or allowed myself the time. But if I have to name a single book, I'll pick Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. I don't think it was multiple readings that burned words and images from this book into my head, though. One reading of this memorable work would have been enough. But its familiarity makes it easy to open at random and just start reading.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

Does la recherche du temps perdu count as one book? If so, I'll take that. It would keep me occupied for a while, and take care of Number 9 below.

4. One book that made you cry?

I don't have a great memory for this sort of thing. But I feel certain some book by Graham Greene must have. Say The End of the Affair or The Heart of the Matter.

5. One book that made you laugh?

I'm not sure I have a great memory for this, either. I can think of plenty of books I thought were funny; I can't remember which of them made me laugh out loud. David Lodge's The British Museum Is Falling Down may have been one of them. It's a delightful book that I wish were better known, a funny, touching story that's also a very clever collection of pastiches.

6. One book you wish had been written?

A few other bloggers making these lists have had some variation on a book that would have stopped a dictator. But I'll do something decidedly less serious and say Sanditon. Because six Jane Austen novels simply aren't enough.

7. One book you wish had never been written?

Again, this is a popular moment for the dictator motif. Others quite creatively name the book they wish they were able to write instead. I'd like to name a book I wish I hadn't had to read -- like John Updike's Run, Rabbit. Maybe I was too simply too young. But I remember being rather upset that I'd forced myself to read this for a book group that then never ended up meeting.

I could also name a book I wish hadn't had to have been written -- like 120 Banned Books. (The Diary of Anne Frank was banned in Alabama for being "a real downer.")

8. One book you are reading currently?

Lately I've been immersed in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction by Joan Didion. This is really seven books, collected in a new Everyman's Library edition. It will be released later this month; I'm reading it for review. So perhaps I shouldn't say too much now about what I think of it. But I will say that Didion is certainly a writer's writer.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

There are far too many of these. One is a gift that I can't say too much about here, because if I like it, I might buy it for someone else. (There's only one member of my family that I think ever reads my site, and this is that member.) There are also plenty of books for review I should be reading. (And now I feel very guilty all of a sudden.) I do keep thinking I should read more Orwell. I have the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. It's wonderful to dip into, but I would like to make a point of reading it through from start to finish. Orwell could write about anything -- even the proper way to make tea -- and make it sound serious.

10. Pass it on

Let's be bold and try some writers I enjoy reading who don't really know me: Frank Wilson, Terry Teachout, James Marcus, and anyone over at 2Blowhards.

Thought for the day

"Loving someone means taking the risk that they might fuck up your nicely ordered life."

--Mark Haddon, A Spot of Bother (via R.)

Happy Birthday

"I've never been interested in playing good guys. I'm always attracted to dangerous characters. Those roles are usually far more interesting and I hold no fears about doing them. With my character in Croupier, you're never really sure where he's coming from. He's not really a good guy or a bad guy. But people generally aren't, are they?"

--Clive Owen, born October 3, 1964

October 02, 2006
Happy birthday

"In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths."

--Graham Greene, born October 2, 1904

Culture city

The National Book Festival took place on the Mall this weekend in Washington, DC. I talked to three authors participating in the event -- National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, National Book Award winner Alice McDermott, and novelist and The Wire writer-producer George Pelecanos -- and asked whether DC has finally become a real city of culture. My piece was in Friday's Washington Times:

"He writes about Washington as if it's a city like any other (it's not), filled with rich and interesting characters (it's not)," Nora Ephron wrote in her 1983 novel "Heartburn."


Her words may be harsh, but Miss Ephron was only voicing a common complaint about Washington -- particularly from New Yorkers. These critics claim the District is a boring, lifeless place filled with politicos and lawyers who do nothing but talk shop. Our city, they scoff, lacks any real culture...