May 28, 2009
Really, Tony Blair? Really?

"[Isaiah] Berlin's most influential work remains 'Two Concepts of Liberty', based on an address he gave at Oxford in 1958, when he was made Professor of Social and Political Theory. In the lecture Berlin distinguishes between old-style, traditional negative liberty, in which people are left to themselves to work out their own destinies, and the newer positive liberty, in which they are offered participation in a Grand Collective Project offering identity and self-realisation. To the casual reader, Berlin can seem merely to be engaged in an urbane, high-speed rap through ancient and modern ideas of liberty trying out various notions in order to see how they suit the age.

This is indeed how the former prime minister, Tony Blair, appears to have interpreted the text, when in 1997 he wrote to Berlin (shortly before the latter's death) suggesting that positive liberty, 'despite its depredations in the Soviet model', had much to commend it. Blair was fooled, as others have been, by the elegant Berlin prose. Where liberty was at stake, Berlin was never even-handed. He was a hard-line liberal seeking to save the tradition from those who would destroy it. It's a shame that Berlin was too ill to answer the Prime Minister's letter."

--Nick Fraser in The Independent

May 26, 2009
Chuck Palahniuk on the origins of his books

AP: Your books seem to be a commentary on what life has become in 21st century America. Is that the case?

Palahniuk: More often than not I see something that I'm doing and, in a way, I want to process and talk myself out of it. And that's what the story has to serve first because there was no guarantee that my work was ever going to sell to a publisher. So I wanted to make sure my work served me, that it was fun to do and that it dealt with a kind of personal issue. I found myself with that Ikea catalog at my work station, and I thought to myself, 'If I could just buy this sofa, if I could just buy this, then I'm going to feel grown up and I'm going to have a good life.' And I had to find some way to make fun of that and talk myself out of doing it. So that became that portion of "Fight Club."

May 18, 2009
Happy birthday

"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge."

--Bertrand Russell, born May 18, 1872

A novel future

I spoke with Netherland author Joseph O'Neill for the piece I linked to below on President Obama's choice of reading. The novelist was a delightful interview, and I wish I'd had room for more of his on-point remarks. I do want to post here one interesting thing he told me that wasn't really on the topic of my piece. He mentioned that he spent seven years writing Netherland, a period he calls "a long campaign," and went on to make a slightly frightening prediction (to writers, anyway) about the future of the novel:

"The writing of novels is going to become an increasingly lengthy business. There's so much rivalrous media out there. It used to be the case that a novel would bring news of the world quite easily. Even in the '70s and '80s, the Internet didn't exist and TV wasn't quite the force that it is. If you wrote a novel about XYZ, chances are people didn't know about XYZ. Now if you write about XYZ, chances are people have read a blog about it. There's no end to this veneer of familiarization that the Internet provides of the world. It's intrusive. Because the novel has become a more marginal cultural product. It almost has to be better than before to make a splash. It's scary and it's unfair. Why can't we just produce media products like everybody else?"

In print

I had five articles in Friday's Washington Times. The big piece was a look at President Obama as literary critic, including interviews with authors and experts:

President Obama recently told the New York Times Magazine that he had become "sick enough of briefing books to begin reading a novel in the evenings — 'Netherland,' by Joseph O'Neill."

The news that the president was tackling a piece of literary fiction immediately sparked an upswing in demand for the novel, whose author was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award in Washington on Saturday. Sales increased 40 percent, and Vintage Books moved up the paperback release a month, from June 2 to May 7, going back to press for a second printing even before publication.

Might the popular president find himself a literary tastemaker, too? And could the image of a well-read writer-president help further his goal of rehabilitating America's image in Europe and beyond?

Mr. O'Neill was flattered to discover the president was reading his book...

I also reviewed three movies. The first is Management, a small comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn:
Jennifer Aniston might be one of the world's hottest actresses — in every sense — but the woman who made her name on television's "Friends" has shown a fondness throughout her career for interesting roles in smaller films.

But, to be honest, her character in the indie romantic comedy "Management" isn't that interesting. Sue is your standard-issue hot corporate climber who dreams of starting her own charitable project to make a difference. Miss Aniston plays her with aplomb, of course, but the actress's job here is simply to be a slightly discontented pretty face.

It's Steve Zahn who turns what could have been a pretty predictable romcom into something surprisingly touching...

I also took a look at the Oscar-nominated documentary The Garden:
When the four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted in 1992, riots broke out in the city. The mad violence was concentrated in South Central.

Two years later, the city offered a salve to the inner-city, immigrant neighborhood. Fourteen acres of blighted city property in the middle of downtown were set aside for use as a community garden.

For a decade, low-income minorities grew food for their families in what was the country's largest such project. In 2004, though, those 350 families were given an eviction notice. In a closed-door session, the city had reached a settlement with developer Ralph Horowitz allowing him to buy back the property. The city had paid him $5 million in 1986, grabbing it under eminent domain for use as a trash incinerator, never built because of community outrage. The farmers transformed the wasteland into something useful, and their decade of hard work was about to be bulldozed.

Their fierce fight against the city and the developer is well documented in Scott Hamilton Kennedy's fascinating film "The Garden"...

And I reviewed the Mexican film Rudo y Cursi:
Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna burned up the screen in the smoldering 2002 film "Y tu mama tambien." The pair have reunited for the first time since then for "Rudo y Cursi," the directorial debut of "Mama" co-writer Carlos Cuaron.

Don't expect this Mexican movie to be a cynical rehash of the earlier one, though. "Rudo y Cursi" is too many things to be that. It's a spry soccer film, an intense look at brotherhood, an illustration of the sometimes heartbreaking disparity between passion and talent and a wicked satire of contemporary Mexican society. All of these big things are seamlessly wrapped into a compact film that's by turns terribly funny and terribly touching...

Finally, I interviewed Rudo y Cursi director Carlos Cuaron:
In a story for this column two years ago headlined "The stories of three amigos," I talked to three directors about their strangely collaborative friendship in the competitive world of filmmaking.

Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro all had critically acclaimed films come out within months of one another — "Children of Men," "Babel" and "Pan's Labyrinth." The directors, all in their 40s and hailing from Mexico, are good friends who provide very constructive feedback for one another, whether it's giving advice on scripts or cutting 10 minutes out of one another's films. The frankly gushing way they spoke about one another's work was unlike anything I had ever seen in the business.

While "The Three Amigos" seemed a fitting title for the Spanish-speaking trio, it has turned out to be wrong — there's now a fourth amigo, one who always shared that collegial friendship but has just started making feature films of his own...

I also wanted to post the reviews I wrote last week of two very good independent films that might get lost in the blockbuster shuffle. The Limits of Control stars French-Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankole as the mysterious Lone Man:
We all want explanations — for our own actions, for those of others, for the meaning of life itself. We certainly want them in our movies. But what if they're not so easy to find?

To an existentialist, Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control" might seem an especially realistic film. In following the very conscious proceedings of one man on a mission, the movie illustrates how humans define themselves through their actions, and create their own meaning, partly by asking the viewer to do the same.

Characters are listed in the credits as abstractions, not people with names, emphasizing how little we know of other people, even as we spend a couple hours watching them...

Goodbye Solo is also a wonderfully unconventional movie:
"Goodbye Solo" would have turned out a very different film had it been made in Hollywood.

The film would have focused on the meeting of two abstractions instead of the reluctant friendship of two individuals. The Senegalese cab driver and the Hank Williams-loving old white man would have shouted racial epithets at each other and debated the meaning of the American dream before tearfully embracing each other at the end.

There are few cliches in this spare and affecting film, though. The young independent filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has crafted a careful and subtle movie about both the promise and despair of life that's told mainly in the faces of its two very different leads...

May 17, 2009
Thought for the day

"My husband shares certain essential qualities with my father, which, in its fatefulness, is quite depressing - as if I had no hand in the choosing. Both are artists - that is, utterly preoccupied with their own stuff. This can be trying at times, but it's also useful, if it echoes your own needs and appetites - for solitude, for work. Parity's the thing. Every artist is most alive when alone - and they don't really take holidays, no knocking off at six. I get that. But I don't recommend it for my daughters. Not that recommendation comes into it. Each of us - if we really want to badly enough - finds the person with whom we can board the ark."

--Isabel Fonseca

May 14, 2009
Quote of the day

"Any writer who wants to do his best against a deadline should stick to Coca-Cola. If he doesn't have a deadline, he can risk Seven-Up."

--John Kenneth Galbraith

May 13, 2009
Happy birthday

"One day work is hard, and another day it is easy; but if I had waited for inspiration I am afraid I should have done nothing. The miner does not sit at the top of the shaft waiting for the coal to come bubbling up to the surface. One must go deep down, and work out every vein carefully."

--Sir Arthur Sullivan, born May 13, 1842

May 12, 2009
Mightier than the sword

(Photo credit: Claire Duggan, PEN/Faulkner Foundation)

My report from the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction on Saturday night was in yesterday's Washington Times:

It must have been a sweet night for author Joseph O'Neill. Just days after he discovered that President Obama was reading his novel "Netherland," he traveled from New York to Washington to accept the 29th PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction — his first, but unlikely to be last, literary prize.

"I've never won a prize before," he says, sneaking out for a little fresh air just before Saturday night's ceremony, before correcting himself: "I've won a sports cup..."

It was great to meet the beautifully spoken Joseph O'Neill just a few days after interviewing him by telephone. I spoke to him for a piece I've written about presidential reading habits which was to have been published last week; it will now appear this Friday and I'll post a link when it's up.

I wish I'd had more room to write about the PEN/Faulkner ceremony. It is, after all, DC's biggest literary event of the year. The star power was a little muted this year, unfortunately -- it was held the same night at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, one of DC's biggest events of the year, bar none. I was happier amidst the literati than the politicos and celebrities, though. There's always something inspiring about the PEN/Faulkner ceremony. Perhaps it's sitting in a room with a lot of people who believe literature matters -- matters enough, in fact, for most of them to be paying $100+ to celebrate it. Master of ceremonies (should that have been mistress?) Marie Arana offered, for a few moments in between the gaiety, some serious food for thought. She recited a long list of places in which the act of reading has been a difficult one: Cuba, the People's Republic of China, "the artist's hell that was the Soviet Union." She mentioned the book Reading Lolita in Tehran and stopped us cold by pointing out these women gathered in their hijabs in secret to read "fiction any schoolgirl can read" here.

Even with remarks like that, it's still the readings by the winner and finalists that are the real treat. It's always a varied group, which means you get a taste of different kinds of writing, some of which you might never have thought to read on your own. Some authors are better readers than others, and one this year particularly charmed, as I mention in my write-up.

What's also interesting is hearing what the judges have to say about those writers. Writers talking about other writers -- it might seem boring to some, but I was really struck by many of their well-composed comments. Antonya Nelson, for example, said Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's Ms. Hempel Chronicles was a coming-of-age story that shows we never really come of age. Randall Kenan said Susan Choi's A Person of Interest took place in "the world that CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News love to chew and spew at their viewers." Lee K. Abbott quoted Tom Wolfe's famous essay urging American authors to return to realism and become the new Zolas and Balzacs. The judge nominated Lush Life author Richard Price to lead that generation of "scribblers," writers whose goal is "to know lived life in all its front and back page particulars." (Price regaled us with a story about how, when he was a judge in 1981, he fumbled while reading aloud the citation a fellow judge had written for, I believe, winner Walter Abish's How German Is It?: "There was a word there I had never seen in print before.")

Nelson noted that while winner Netherland had often been compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the novel put her in mind of E.M. Forster: "Like A Passage to India, it's quietly political." That reminds me of an interesting fact. The PEN/Faulkner Award is only open to American citizens. O'Neill told me that he became a citizen of this country just in time to vote for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary. Sounds like it was a smart literary move, too, made just in time.

Afterward, as the celebratory drinks flowed, I had the disconcerting experience of sitting at a table and having a couple introduce themselves with the same names as a former Canadian prime minister and his wife. This couple might have been a more interesting pair -- he retired after running a traffic camera business, and she works at a Barnes and Noble. I commented that being responsible for those dreaded speeding and red light cameras must be akin to being an IRS agent, but he didn't seem to think so. He said something about red light cameras saving lives. I wasn't paying much attention to that -- the good-natured guy really intrigued me by saying there are actually ways to beat those cameras. But he refused to give me a single hint.

May 08, 2009
Everything you always wanted to know

Have any burning questions about the arts and entertainment world? Ask me during my live chat over at the Washington Times on Friday at noon Eastern. There's plenty to talk about -- the summer movie season (hello, Woody Allen!), Amazon's new big-screen Kindle, the summer television season (hello, Burn Notice!), the Star Trek reboot, what to see in New York (Neil LaBute's Broadway debut) and Washington (Tom Stoppard's latest from Broadway).

May 01, 2009
Reading adventures


I was booed last night at an author reading.

The evening didn't start out too auspiciously. I had gone to Politics and Prose to hear Arthur Phillips talk about his new novel, The Song Is You. I was about a quarter of the way through the book about a Manhattan director of television advertisements and the on-the-verge singer he anonymously passes advice on to, and quite enjoying it. But then, it would be hard for me not to enjoy a book about how some of us make music the soundtrack to our lives.

I arrived at the bookstore a bit early, planning to browse. I was in the midst of doing so about twenty minutes before the event when I heard a woman behind the information desk mention she was going to be introducing the author. Someone else asked her about the book, and she proceeded to give an extremely detailed plot summary of the entire novel, from beginning to end. My jaw must have dropped as I stood there. This wasn't a simple summary along the lines of, "Guy meets girl, guy stalks girl, girl likes it." She said very specifically what happens to each character over the course of the book, all the way to the finish. There were quite a number of people mulling around. I wonder how many people's reading experiences she spoiled then and there. The book hasn't even been out a month, and I noticed many attendees just buying it that night.

I still enjoyed the event, of course. Phillips, looking very natty in a well-fitting blue suit, is one of the best author-readers I've heard. Not all writers are good at reading their own material -- they often sound like they're doing just that, reading. Phillips sounded more like he was simply telling a few friends a good story. He first read the book's prologue, which involves a Billie Holiday concert. He asked if anyone could do a Holiday impression. "Young man?" he asked, his eyes on a boy who looked to be about twelve. The boy shook his head and after Phillips turned away with a smile, I saw the boy ask his father, "Who's Billie Holiday?"

The crowd, though filling nearly every chair, seemed shy. When he'd finished reading, no one went up to the microphone to ask a question. I was sitting very near it, so I decided to break the stalemate. I couldn't resist mentioning that the woman who introduced him had completely ruined all the suspense of his book. Though I mentioned this happened before his reading started, I don't think he realized I meant she had been speaking about it beforehand -- he seemed to think I meant her introduction, which of course didn’t contain such spoilers.

Next came the booing.

Phillips read, in addition to the prologue, a very hilarious section early in the book in which the protagonist's brother humiliates himself on national television as a competitor on Jeopardy! I pretended to chide the author for humiliating me with the set piece -- I had read it while eating lunch alone in a downtown restaurant, and couldn't stop myself from laughing out loud and possibly appearing insane to a large group of people. He said he hoped I had held his novel up, so as to advertise the book that was so amusing. I had to admit that I wasn't able to do him that service, because I was reading it on my Kindle.

That's when I was booed.

I might have expected that the owners and employees of a bricks-and-mortar bookshop might not be pleased by the advent of the Kindle. But I was rather surprised that an entire room of readers felt the same way. I'm actually reading rather more now that I have the device. It's much easier than a hardcover book to bring everywhere. And even when I forget it, I can use the Kindle application on my iPhone to continue my reading. As soon as I'm finished one book, I can immediately start another after buying it by wireless. And then there's just the fun of using a new gadget, which has also resulted in more reading.

I'd never been booed during such an occasion before, and I can't say I enjoyed it. I did still manage to ask Phillips about his own experience on Jeopardy!, though, and why he gave it to a character who is rather less accomplished. Actually, that's how I first became interested in reading his work. I'd seen him on the show, I think in one of the Tournaments of Champions, and was intrigued that a novelist also loved the show. You usually see lawyers, teachers, and computer programmers competing.

Phillips said he thought of his own experience and wondered what could have gone wrong with it -- the same method he often uses in developing ideas. A trivia-type would seem to make the perfect novelist, it seems to me. As Phillips said, "I know a little bit about a lot of things and nothing in depth." Perhaps that's why his four books range across so many topics, making his work seem much more varied than that of most novelists.

I felt a little bit better when a later questioner -- surprisingly, there were only a few -- admitted to reading Phillips' book on the Kindle as well. He asked what the author thought of electronic-reading devices. "They're not yet bad for writers, but they will be," Phillips said. "In the meantime, I don’t think they're any good for bookstores." He thinks that someone will soon figure out how to plug one Kindle into another and "suck all the books out."

And then, after the event, I was downstairs buying a drink -- and yes, I also left with a bagful of new books from the store that had so graciously let me attend its event without having bought the book there -- another patron came up to me and said he'd liked what I said. This was after yet another had said he also hates spoilers. So maybe the whole room hadn't booed after all. It just felt that way.