May 27, 2007
In print

My pieces in the Friday and Saturday Washington Times:

I declared Red Road the best film of the year so far. It's about a woman working as a CCTV monitor in Glasgow whose inserts herself into the life of man she sees on screen:

English writer-director Andrea Arnold made her debut feature, Red Road, largely following the strictures of the Dogme 95 school started by Lars von Trier. Everything is filmed on location; the action is captured with hand-held cameras through natural light; there's little music and no "superficial action." It is a taut piece of filmmaking.

Even with the restraint, Red Road manages to be a slowly revealed character study, a tense thriller and a moving drama...

I also reviewed Jindabyne, an Australian film starring an Irish actor and an American actress, based on a short story by the American master Raymond Carver:
Local legend has it that under the lake near Jindabyne, the small Australian town that gives the movie its name, is a "drowned town" whose inhabitants were overwhelmed by the tides. However, it's the people of the town above water who are drowning now, threatened by the tide of emotions unleashed by a single thoughtless act.

At the beginning of a fishing trip over a long weekend, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) and his three friends discover a corpse floating along the lake...

Finally, I interviewed Laura Linney, who stars in Jindabyne:
"It's been the great unexpected surprise of my life," Laura Linney muses. She's not talking about her two Oscar nominations (for You Can Count on Me and Kinsey). Nor is she talking about her two Emmys (for Frasier and Wild Iris). No, the talented and famous Laura Linney is talking about being a film and television actress at all...

May 24, 2007
Yikes

From a story in today's Washington Times on the Washington National Opera:

In its contemporary version of "La Boheme" -- a co-production with Teatr Wielki of Warsaw, Poland -- WNO will transform the central character, the writer Rodolfo, into a photographer to connect with younger audiences, Mr. Domingo said.
Gosh, I know some observers have been predicting the end of the novel (as I noted below), but do today's youth really not even know what a writer is?

May 16, 2007
Finally, a major literary event in DC to cover

I haven't seen much in the way of reports on Saturday night's PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction ceremony, held at the Folger Shakespeare Library here in DC. So I thought I'd take a page from GalleyCat's "Scene @" series and post something here.

I should say first that the highlight of the evening for me was getting the chance to sit down -- with just three other reporters -- with winner Philip Roth. (I'll be publishing some of his comments in a story in the Washington Times.) "I think it's the best of the prizes," he says of the PEN/Faulkner Award. "Writers read from their work rather than thank their psychiatrists."

He came off as a very genial man who refuses to rest on his laurels. "It's a job," he says of writing. "It definitely hasn't become easier. Neither has become harder." He still works between eight and ten hours most days. He does this despite the fact that he's "absolutely sure" reading is "going out of fashion." He says rather matter of factly, "They pay attention to numerous other things now. The age of the book is coming an end."

As for his own reading, he says, "I find myself reading and re-reading the old classics. It's my last go round with some of the great writers." (That last sentence is just sobering, isn't it?) He's been particularly taken with Turgenev lately, commending to our attention First Love and Torrents of Spring. I ask about the contemporary writers he likes. "The writer I felt the greatest admiration for died a few years ago -- Saul Bellow. Bellow and Faulkner are the backbone of American literature in the 20th century." (He says Faulkner wasn't an influence, just a writer he loves.) He also mentions Don DeLillo, John Updike, E.L. Doctorow, and Joyce Carol Oates. He doesn't mention anyone under the age of 68. But he did say earlier that he actually read PEN/Faulkner finalist Charles D'Ambrosio in The Paris Review some 15 years ago and sent him a fan letter. (For his part, the amiable D'Ambrosio told the crowd he knew he'd arrived as a writer when he lost to Roth.)

I ask Roth about the upcoming film adaptation of his novel The Dying Animal. He doesn't have much to say. "These things don't turn out very well," he offers with a rueful grin. (One wonders if he was thinking of the recent adaptation of The Human Stain.) "The child in me gets excited about it, but the adult in me knows better."

Judge Debra Magpie Earling, in presenting the prize, says, "Roth's Everyman is the most terrifying novel I have read in some time." The other two judges were John Dufresne and David Gates, who introduced the finalists -- Charles D’Ambrosio (The Dead Fish Museum), Deborah Eisenberg (Twilight of the Superheroes), Amy Hempel (The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel), and Edward P. Jones (All Aunt Hagar’s Children). All but Jones were there to read from their work. There were many fine words spoken, but perhaps the best introduction was the one for Amy Hempel. "If there's any living writer to whom the phrase 'writer's writer' applies, it wouldn't be Amy Hempel," David Gates begins, noting that the writer would disavow such a cliché. Hempel's work may also have gotten the biggest laugh from the crowd, when Gates read a line from "In the Animal Shelter": "Every time you see a beautiful woman, someone is tired of her."

I was thinking during the ceremony that, given that all four finalists are short story writers, perhaps short fiction isn't dead after all. (Roth's winning novel was also a short one, by the way.) Of course, I wasn't the only one who thought so: See this story in The Washington Post. It makes rather a lot of the same points I made in my Doublethink piece of exactly two years ago.

From the Post:

We live in an era, after all, when the universal complaint is that we don't have enough free time; in a nation that is full of shortening attention spans, that, as Edward Jones puts it, "lives on instant stuff." Doesn't this mean that there should be growing demand for the kind of fiction that can be started and finished over a lunch hour or on a long subway ride?

Well -- no.

Talk to enough writers, editors and agents and the attention-span argument gets knocked down pretty fast. "Any good story," as Eisenberg puts it, "is going to be compressed and very, very layered," which means it requires more of your attention, not less.

And here's a long excerpt from my Doublethink piece:

It would be easy to blame the decline of the short story on short attention spans, caused by the breathless amusements of MTV and unnecessary efficiencies like all the news you need to know in five minutes. But wouldn't a trend favoring economy result in short stories being more popular? Stephen King sells millions, and any one of his later novels is heavy enough to kill a cat (in hardcover anyway).

On the contrary, says Greg Hollingshead, author and professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. "TV and the Internet have easily consumed those short timespans that formerly might have been devoted to reading short stories." Maud Newton agrees: "It's easier to watch a half-hour TV show than to read a short story. I'm sure the rise of TV had something to do with the demise of the Saturday Evening Post back in 1969 and has continued to affect the demand for short fiction."

McGarry goes so far as to argue that television is the reason magazines have replaced fiction with non-fiction. "I think fiction upsets people more; it takes them out of their world; it entangles them in other lives in a very intimate way," she says. "Readers of slick magazines may be trying to resist this. They want diversion but they don't want to leave the safety and familiarity of their own lives and minds."

And while short stories may be short, they are concentrated. "A reader loses himself in a novel, but can stay there for a longer time, until the novel's world becomes familiar, comfortable," says McGarry. "A short story takes you in, but spits you right back out again." Hollingshead notes, "This was Frank O'Connor's argument in The Lonely Voice: Short fiction is about people at the margins, the novel addresses the mainstream middle class."

Newton suggests that the sustained popularity of the novel may be a form of rebellion against the brave new multimedia world -- a possibility that Hollingshead takes to the next logical step. "The strength of novels is that nothing else enables you to submerge yourself in an imagined world over several days or even weeks. And to be able to enter and leave that world according to your own schedule and even to carry the thing around with you, if you want. When technology comes up with something that can do that and that won't require the effort of reading, it will replace the novel. Meanwhile all mass literary hope rests with the novel."

The Post story is still worth reading, of course, and features interviews with some different types from those in my piece.

May 15, 2007
Thought for the day

"[T]he very nature of the genre does not require much in plot and structure. It only requires a lot of bullets."

--an IMDb poster on the upcoming (aptly titled) film Shoot 'Em Up

May 14, 2007
Amen

"I don't know why this chafes me so. I think it's because there's a certain strain of free-market conservatism which insists that the only values are market values and that whatever a market declares is the Eternal Truth. These are the loud people who tell you that CEO X, who has driven his company into the ground, must have been worth $140 million a year, because if he wasn't, nobody would have been willing to pay him the money. I hate these people.

I'm as much for the free market as the next guy, I suppose. But market failures are real and pervasive and much, much more common than most conservatives would like to acknowledge. Sometimes they work themselves out over time, sometimes they don't. In any event, I'm happy to live my consumerist life by the free market, but we should never allow it to dictate to us moral truths."

--Jonathan Last

May 13, 2007
Hello, Philly

I have made my first appearance in the Philadelphia Inquirer, with a review of Jim Crace's novel The Pesthouse:

America's future looks a lot like its past. At least that's the supposition of Jim Crace's dystopian fiction The Pesthouse...

May 11, 2007
KJT on PKD

The May 28 issue of National Review contains my essay on the new Library of America edition of Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick. You can read it online if you're a subscriber and the print edition should hit newsstands soon:

In 1981, less than a year before his death, Philip K. Dick wrote that managing to publish only one of the many non-genre books he had written was the “long-term tragedy” of his creative life. The science-fiction writer published over 30 novels and more than three times as many short stories in his lifetime, but the mainstream success he craved always eluded him. Like many American originals, Dick was taken seriously by the French — some even suggested him as a Nobel Prize candidate — before his own countrymen understood his talent. Even after his death, his reputation didn’t increase at the same rate as his name recognition: Hollywood turned Philip K. Dick into an identifiable brand, but one that was best known for providing a brainy basis for big-budget action flicks.

If only Dick, born in 1928, had lived to 78 instead of just 53. A quarter-century after his death, he is finally considered not just a serious American writer but one of the century’s greatest. At least, that’s one conclusion to be drawn from Dick’s inclusion in the Library of America: the first science-fiction writer to be so canonized in what is the closest thing to secular sainthood in American letters. Best known for collecting the works of such titans as James and Faulkner, the Library of America presents “America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions.” And Dick has been included not for his realist books, which finally started appearing in print posthumously, but for some of his most outlandish sci-fi creations.

Some may complain that a genre writer has beaten Hemingway and Upton Sinclair into the Library of America. But these four novels — The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik — are not simply outstanding examples of their form. With their haunting evocations of alienation, thoughtful meditations on reality and religion, and vivid prose style, they are among the best American novels written in the last century...

In print

I had a rather busy week -- I have six pieces in today's Washington Times.

The first is a feature on Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, entitled "Time to go, girl?":

One woman talks of "the book's grimness." Another goes further, declaring, "This is perhaps the most grim book I've ever read."

Another reader sums up the setting as "a colorless, hopeless post-apocalyptic world."

Such comments perhaps aren't surprising about a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize. But have they ever before been uttered of an Oprah's Book Club selection?

Oprah Winfrey chose Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road as the latest book to receive her influential imprimatur. "Oh, my goodness," Dianne Luce, president of the Cormac McCarthy Society, told the Chicago Tribune on hearing the news. "Those poor women don't know what they're getting into."

I interviewed some of those women. They were all surprised by the choice, but they might surprise critics with their reaction to it.

I gave three and a half stars (out of four) to both movies I reviewed this week, a rather rare occurrence. The first is a drama:

Away From Her is a deeply intelligent film about the burdens of marriage and memory. Given both the subject matter and the deft way in which it's handled, it's astonishing that it was made by a first-time director who has just turned 28.

Canadian actress Sarah Polley (Go, My Life Without Me) shows here that she's as talented behind a camera as she is in front of one. Not only directing, she has also astutely adapted the work of another Canadian, Alice Munro; Away From Her is based on her short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain."

The second is a comedy:
The Valet is a thoroughly delightful farce. It's a tale of an ordinary man who finds himself in an extraordinary situation, and it's made up of elements with which we're all familiar: the love-hate relationship with the best friend, the rich guy with a sense of entitlement, the unappreciative girlfriend. And the best part is, writer-director Francis Veber has fun at every character's expense.

With such universal humor, The Valet should appeal to everyone -- rich and poor, young and old, American and non-American.

So I'm hesitant to report that The Valet's original title is La Doublure and that this broadly appealing farce was made in France...

I also interviewed the directors of both those films for the Beyond Hollywood column:
French writer-director Francis Veber has had perhaps more of his films remade in America than any other foreign director. But he was still surprised by the interest in The Valet (La Doublure), which opens in theaters today.

"The day after the first screening of the film, at the Los Angeles Film Festival, I had something like five studios fighting to buy the remake," he reports on a recent stop in the District. "I realized it must be less French than I thought."

***

[Away from Her is] not the first film that deals with Alzheimer's disease -- there are 2004's "The Notebook" and 2001's "Iris," for example. But director Sarah Polley, who adapted the screenplay from a short story by Alice Munro, has made it a first in one sense.

"The thing they all had in common that I really wanted to avoid in this film was the reliance on showing these people when they were in their 20s," says Miss Polley during a recent visit to the District. "It's like we need to justify making a movie about people who are older. There's something that rubs me the wrong way about that."

It's an insightful comment, but surprising coming from a first-time director who just turned 28...

And on a completely different note, I interviewed rap star 50 Cent in Los Angeles about his latest film role:
The actors and actresses playing American soldiers coming home from a tour of duty in Iraq in Home of the Brave, opening in theaters today, must have done grueling research. They probably talked to men and women who have seen and experienced violence most of them can barely imagine -- with one exception.

Perhaps playing a soldier was a cakewalk for Curtis James Jackson III, better known as rap star 50 Cent...

Read on to hear 50 compare himself to President Bush and talk about working with Samuel L. Jackson, who once declared he'd never act alongside a rapper.

In print

Speaking of being lazy, I forgot to post links to my Washington Times pieces of last week.

For my feature "High culture meets haute couture," I got to talk to one of my favorite pianists (and fellow Canadian) Angela Hewitt. In fact, I have comments from a number of great classical artists -- Leif Ove Andsnes, Daniel Hope, Lisa Kaplan, and Tanya Bannister -- and a couple insiders:

All eyes were on Jean-Yves Thibaudet when the pianist walked onto the Kennedy Center stage earlier this season.

It wasn't simply because the audience wanted to hear the artist's sensitive interpretations of fellow Frenchmen Debussy and Messiaen. No, one couldn't help but stare at Mr. Thibaudet because of how he looked.

Call it classical chic.

The pianist is one of a growing number of classical musicians who are partnering with fashion designers. They are part of a new generation of image-conscious concert artists who are bringing style, attitude and sex appeal to what was long viewed as a somewhat fusty vocation...

I also reviewed a French film that is a thriller without the thrills:
Revenge is a dish best served cold in The Page Turner (La Tourneuse de pages).

A wronged child waits until adulthood to get back at the woman who, thoughtlessly but inadvertently, changed the child's life. When the revenge-seeker goes in for the kill, she's swift and merciless -- The Page Turner shows both the wrong and its aftermath in just 85 minutes...

Postcard from Denver

Cousins.jpg

I thought I should offer up some proof that I sometimes neglect this space simply because I'm not around. (Other times it's because I'm busy; still other times it's because I'm lazy.) Here I am in sunny Denver with my cousin Melissa, who looks damn good after just giving birth to her second baby (who has the delicious name of Miles) a couple months ago.

Thought for the day

"Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book."

--Cicero

May 07, 2007
Thought for the day

"The only thing that makes it fun is the anticipation of applause."

--Tom Wolfe on writing

May 01, 2007
Thought for the day

"No one who liked swing could be a Nazi."

--Swing Kids