Monday, May 29, 2006

Even More Proof That The Seventies Were Magic

Photographer Roberta Bayley seemed to have taken a picture of everyone who was anyone if we're talking the seventies and rock. The Clash, Television, the Sex Pistols, and on and on. Visit her site for great shots of Blondie, the Ramones, and Elvis, dear Elvis, when he was young and didn't yet think that marrying Diana Krall was an acceptable idea.

Here is a self-portrait from the period.

This May Be The Look of The Future!

Courtesy of Seattle's KEXP, I just discovered that Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie did not write "Hangin' on the Telephone," which is one of my all-time favorite songs. It is a perfect piece of pop: anger, longing, melody, pretty, snarling girl being all angry and longing.

I want to be her when I grow up. And for the last three years or so Urban Outfitters, etc. have been preying on the wallet of every 15-to-34-year-old punk-hearted, or post-punk-hearted, girl who feels the same. (Uh, not that I, uh, ever set foot in Urban Extortioners.) Look at that picture! And I'm supposed to respond to Karen O as some sort of avatar of female rock and roll cool? You're kidding me, right?

The band that wrote the song was an LA power pop band called the Nerves. Complying with the requirements of obscure pop band hagiography, they made their rep with just one 1976 EP. Herewith:

The Nerves were Jack Lee, Peter Case, and Paul Collins. Peter Case went on to co-found the Plimsouls, who you might remember recorded that other power-pop classic, "A Million Miles Away". I found these liner notes--and thought I'd print them here because they're a perfect example of the genre. The hysterical mythmaking, the heavy-breathing of the geek who thinks he's a hepcat, the so-unironic-it-has-to-be-ironic-but-it's-not-ironic whiplash brought on by reading it. This was written in 1986 for some sort of reissue, I think. Enjoy!

The Nerves
by Kenneth Funsten

Whatever happened to the Nerves?
In the blitzed-out onrush of Los Angeles rock and roll there are always those bands that get left behind in the trenches. But in the legendary past of about 9 months ago, the Nerves had seemed to be at the very center of things here. In fact, anyone who was around way back then will probably find it hard to forget those three loud-mouthed aspirants to musical fame and fortune. And they weren't even punk! In retrospect, the Nerves set the "prototype" for L.A. Power Pop.
Jack Lee on guitar, Pere Case on bass, and Paul Collins on drums are the Nerves. It was these three who rented the dilapidated basement in the tacky movie studio at the corner of Sunset and Gower and dubbed it the Hollywood Punk Palace. From here, the L.A. new-wave was born.
At the 5 Punk Palace shows, the Weirdos, the Dils, the Zippers, the Zeros, the Screamers and many others all received their baptism under public fire. The Nerves, too, gained valuable experience.
Rejecting a loud and trashy punk image, the Nerves dressed in quiet-colored three-piece suits. They looked more like Hoover salsmen than rock and roll stars. They played only original material, crisp songs with strong melodies, like "Hanging On The Telephone" and "When You Find Out" off their EP (Nerves Records, dist. by BOMP). Their bare, skeletal sound made every lick seem memorable. They excelled in energy. People compared them to the early Beatles or the Dave Clark Five. And then suddenly, they were gone.
What Happened? Were they dead? Had they given up, stopped playing? Or (God forbid!) had they become accounting students, fanzine editors or perhaps something even worse?
None of the above. The Nerves had taken fate in hand and booked their own cross-country tour. During the first week in May, they played 3 nights at the Starwood in Hollywood. Then, loading everything into their black '69 Ford LTD Wagon ("the highest paid member of the touring organization"), the group took off for dates in San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. And that was only the first leg of their trip!
In an article for the Illinois Entertainer, Cary Baker called it a "Magical Blistering Tour." The band astounded even themselves by playing in Minneapolis on July 4, and then in Cleveland July 5. At one point they drove from Rockford, Illinois, where they'd been playing with the Ramones, straight through to San Antonio, Texas.
When it finally all came to an end after three whirlwind months on the road, the Nerves were in Chicago playing with Mink DeVille. It was by then the Nerves' thrid appearance in the Windy City. Altogether, they had logged 25,000 miles and played over 100 twenty to thirty minute sets. Whew!! As Jack Lee said, "We think we've lived up to our name."
And so it all becomes clear now. Or at least evident - the Nerves weren't dead. They were in training!
But in training for what? Since the end of July, the Nerves haven't been heard from. They've been writing new songs, of course, and talking to record companies about an album, but so far there's been nothing definite. "We've just been getting oriented to what our next move is going to be," explains bassist Peter Case. "I mean, say you're a new group, you've released your own record, you've run your own club, and then you went out and did your own national tour, now what do you do after that?"
Pete answered his own question recently at the Masque, the sleazy basement gathering place for L.A.'s young punks. There, the Nerves headlined two spectacular shows with the Avengers, the Zeros and Shock.
Their music is the same - only punchier, more refined, and as high-powered as ever. Of their new songs, "Paper Dolls" ought to become a classic. They picked up a lot from the Ramones ("those guys impressed us"), and they've changed their image some. Now dressed in streamlined, satin jackets and black stovepipe pants they have a very All-American look - that is All-American like some weird Las Vegas bar trio. But don't laugh! This may be the look of the future.
What does Nerves music mean? "It comes from being in the mainline. It's got meaning on its own for collectors," states Peter, "but when you write a song you want the greatest possible number of people to hear it. That's what every writer dreams about, and why not go for it?"
Go for it they will. They've got the brains, and the balls....and the nerve. "We don't want to be part of the scene," warns guitarist Jack Lee, "we want to be the scene."

You know what also kills me about this? Other than the line "We want to be the scene"? Yeah! The scene is here. The scene is now! We are it! It will eat itself! This line: "This may be the look of the future." Indeed. So years later what passes for Underground Rock are all these bands with one word names, aping the sounds that these guys and Blondie laid down.

And so I leave you with more proof that the seventies were magic:

Sunday, 2:30 AM

Sunday, May 28, 2006

But I Am Onto Him.

This is the last time for a long time--I swear!--that I will be poaching from the Writer's Almanac. It is just that I discovered that today is Walker Percy's birthday. Percy, born in in 1916, died in 1990. His The Moviegoer is one of my most favorite, favorite novels. It is about the spiritual crisis of one Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker whose religion is movies and pretty secretaries. The Moviegoer, Percy's first novel, was published in 1961. A quick biography: he went to UNC, got his MD from Columbia, became a pathologist, and contracted tuberculosis in the line of duty. While recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitarium, he read the philosophy and literature he could not get to while in medical school; the novel came out of that. Percy was 45 when it was published. It won the 1962 National Book Award for fiction--beating out Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. Both books talk about what Percy, a devout Catholic, called the malaise, but Percy's book shows, dimly, a way out. There is hope. And: I am on to Richard Ford. I suspect that Ford created his Sportswriter in the image of Binx Bolling--they both love pretty girls with neglible occupations, both invent terms for what their fellow humans believe and suffer from, both speak out of elegant sorrow, but maintain an ironic distance from the cheap plastic world that is making them sorrowful. Here is one of my favorite passages. Bollings has returned to his parents' home for a visit.

Three o'clock and suddenly awake amid the smell of dreams and of the years come back and peopled and blown away again like smoke. A young man am I, twenty nine, but I am as full of dreams as an ancient. At night the years come back and perch around my bed like ghosts.

My mother made up a cot in my corner of the porch. It is a good place, with the swamp all around and the piles stirring with every lap of water.

But, good as it is, my old place is used up (places get used up by rotatory and repetitive use) and when I awake, I awake in the grip of everydayness. Everydayness is the enemy. No search is possible. Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength. Now nothing breaks it--but disaster. Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch.

In a sudden rage and, as if I had been seized by a fit, I roll over and fall in a heap on the floor and lie shivering on the boards, worse off than the miserablest muskrat in the swamp. Nevertheless I vow: I'm a son of a bitch if I'll be defeated by the everydayness.

(The everydayness is everywhere now, having begun in the cities and seeking out the remotest nooks and corners of the countryside, even the swamps.)

For minutes at a stretch I lie rigid as a stick and breathe the black exhalation of the swamp.

Neither my mother's family nor my father's family understand my search.

My mother's family think I have lost my faith and pray for me to recover it. I don't know what they're talking about. Other people, so I have read, are pious as children and later become skeptical (or as they say on This I Believe: "In time I outgrew the creeds and dogmas of organized religion"). Not I. My unbelief was invincible from the beginning. I could never make head or tail of God. The proofs of God's existence may have been true for all I know, but it didn't make the slightest difference. If God himself had appeared to me, it would have changed nothing. In fact, I have only to hear the word God and a curtain comes down in my head.

My father's family think that the world makes sense without God and that anyone but an idiot knows what the good life is and anyone but a scoundrel can lead it.

I don't know what either of them are talking about. Really I can't make head or tail of it. The best I can do is lie rigid as a stick under the cot, locked in a death grip with everydayness, sworn not to move a muscle until I advance another inch in my search. The swamp exhales beneath me and across the bayou a night bittern pumps away like a diesel. At last the iron grip relaxes and I pull my pants off the chair, fish out a notebook and scribble in the dark:


Starting point for search:

It no longer avails to start with creatures and prove God.

Yet it is impossible to rule God out.

The only possible starting point: the strange fact of one's own invincible apathy--that if the proofs were proved and God presented himself, nothing would be changed. Here is the strangest fact of all.

Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference. Is this God's ironic revenge? But I am onto him.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

In Memoriam

Today is the birthday of John Cheever. Let us raise a gin and tonic to his beautiful stories.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Twenty Years Ago Today...

this was the cover of Time. You know what's more than a little insane, other than the fact that Molly Ringwald somehow meant enough to the culture, or at least to the people who made the culture by writing about the culture, that she made it on to the cover of a major newsweekly? I still have a copy of this exact issue somewhere in my apartment. I think I read this story over and over the week it came out. I was thirteen. I remember that they mentioned her eating onion rings with ketchup and shopping for either Shiseido or Shu Uemura lipstick or eyeshadow in some Beverly Hills mall and that her jazz musician father, Bob, was blind. I guess when you're the kind of thirteen-year-old that I was--pale, plumpish, non-standard-issue, went around wishing she lived in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth, whichever--you would be pretty desperate for some sign from the outside world that you didn't have to be otherwise. I suppose that legions of cultural studies grad students have churned out papers on this topic, so you don't need me to wax on about it. Although it does now occur to me that my two formative girlhood obsessions involved two redheads with similar spirits: Anne of Green Gables and the Ringwald. More on the Ringwald: I went to a party once at her house and she complimented me on my dress. I really did think I could leave New York then--or get hit by a truck that night--and die happy. I had been to London, Paris, and Rome, and now Molly Ringwald approved of my dress. What did it matter that I was never going to be Joan Didion or Elizabeth Hardwick, or even Lorrie Moore? It has occurred to me quite a bit lately that if I was a man, all my youthful obsessions--comic books, rock bands, science fiction, movies, my raging or sputtering hormones--would make legitmate subjects for generation-defining novels. But if I wrote a novel that was a fantasia on the American dream involving Seventeen, the Smiths, Molly Ringwald, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Anne of Green Gables, it would not seem as grand or important a narrative. I have to admit a novel predicated on those cultural touchstones, as I think about it, does sound silly--it's sort of inducing a sprigged-muslin shame spiral--but maybe it wouldn't be silly. I mean, if you got Jonathan Lethem to do it.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Art, Libraries

The first quote is from Theodore Roethke, and the second from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yes, I've been at the Writer's Almanac again. They both have birthdays today.

Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't.

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Lapwing, Water Vole, Tree Sparrow

All, in one way or another, endangered or threatened in England, per the RSPB.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Public Transportation

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Fiction Writer And His Country

I just read “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” an essay by Flannery O'Connor that was originally contributed in 1957 to an anthology of contemporary authors writing about writing. It’s in Mystery and Manners, the collection of her prose.

She mentions an editorial in Life magazine that asked “Who speaks for America today?” The editorial said that no novelist working at that time did, because most novelists were pessimists who weren’t writing fiction uplifting enough to mirror the bliss that was postwar America. She felt that uplift wasn’t, of course, the job of a fiction writer. She is speaking below of Christian fiction writers, but her thoughts seemed also to speak to issues raised by the Times’ search for the Best American Novel of the Last 25 Years. How possible is it, really, to write a novel that speaks for everyone here? Should you even try? And if you didn’t try, but it ended up seeming like you had anyway, what would your book look like?

Also, see A Special Way of Being Afraid for a link to (and critique of) Laura Miller’s reasons for not voting. I agree with one of her points—I do think it’s easier to pick the best book of a given year, rather than the best book of a quarter-century. There’s less of a sense that you’re kingmaking. And it’s easier to do, because there’s so much crap pumped out in a given year, and the gold ends up shining brighter. Maybe?

Also, after reading O’Connor, I felt chastened for asking what America Philip Roth is speaking for—if he can make his own country of middle-aged misogynists live, which he seems to have done over and over again, then who am I to judge? Check back later, though, when the O’Connor has worn off.

What is such a writer going to take his country to be? The word usually used by literary folk in this connection would be “world,” but the word “country” will do; in fact, being homely, it will do better, for it suggests more. It suggests everything from the actual countryside that the novelist describes on to and through the peculiar characterisitcs of his region and his nation, and on, through, and under all of these to his true country, which the writer with Christian convictions will consider to be what is eternal and absolute. This covers considerable territory, and if one were talking of any other kind of writing than the writing of fiction, one would perhaps have to say “countries” but it is the peculiar burden of the fiction writer that he has to make one country do for all and that he has to evoke that one country though the concrete particulars of a life that he can make believeable….

The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live, and so far as he is concerned, a living deformed character is acceptable and a dead whole one is not….

To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world. The writer’s value is lost, both to himself and to his country, as soon as he ceases to see that country as a part of himself, and to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character.

Don't Sleep In The Subway, Darling

Because, say the Straphangers, New York's subway avengers, the cars are covered with schmutz--their word, not mine. They've released a report claiming that subway cars are dirtier than ever, the E and J/Z trains being the dirtiest of them all. They say that 66% of all cars were clean in 2003, 61% were clean in 2005, but only 47% were in 2006. Why the precipitous decline? The MTA says that it's because ridership is at an all time high--according to the MTA, in March, the number of passengers on an average weekday was the highest it's been since 1970, when the MTA started tracking that. They also say that they're concentrating on station cleaning and keeping trash off tracks, cluttered tracks being a fire hazard. Which I guess explains why none of the great subway short-outs of the last year or so had anything to do with a Blimpie cup going up in flames on the third rail. Good work, guys!

To give them credit, I do feel like I'm always seeing transit workers bleaching the station pavement.

Per the Times, New York City Transit, the wing of the MTA that runs the subways, said in a statement that "These figures defy both logic and common sense."

It's always been my feeling that Transit and the MTA are run in ways that defy both logic and common sense. And they're blind. Said Gene Russianoff, the cantakerous head of the Straphangers, in response: "We think you know schmutz when you see it." Riding the E and associated blue line trains lately, and this isn't just the rape-scene lighting in the A/C/E cars giving me that impression, I've thought, is this car totally covered in food and periodical refuse, or is it just me?

And I wonder, at the risk of sounding a conspiracy theory, whether the lines whose cars were the cleanest--the 4, the 6, and the 1, and that seems true from my layperson's eye--are clean because those lines travel through moneyed neighborhoods? The 4 going up the Upper East Side and dropping much of its freight, destined for the Connecticut suburbs, at Grand Central Station. The 1 going up the Upper West Side, which seems to me the tract of Manhattan that most closely resembles and sounds like the suburbs, and through the exceedingly well-heeled West Village.

I'll end this on a positive note. The other day I saw something I'd never seen in my nearly ten (good Lord) years of riding the subway. I was on the R train going into Manhattan and for most of my ride into the city, a man in his fifties, probably from the West Indies, dressed cleanly in jeans, sneakers and a button-down, was preaching at us. Loudly. Sonorously. Carefully. It was impressive, in its way. But I didn't have an iPod, of course, so I couldn't drown it out. And I couldn't read the novel I'd brought along because his voice filled the car. People moved away from him. The Orthodox Jewish guy across from me I swear started his own prayer in incantory retaliation. Each time this happens to me, I sit there for a good while wondering if I should get up and politely, and firmly, inform the preacher that if they're intending to win souls over to Jesus, they're probably doing the opposite. There's a violence in the preaching that I abhor. Anyway, about fifteen minutes into his spiel, when the car had stopped at a station, the conductor, a stout African-American woman probably in her forties, wearing those goggles that serve as glasses, said, politely, and firmly, "Sir, you're going to have to calm it down because the customers are complaining. They want you off the train. " He said something in response which I couldn't hear. She replied, "I understand that. But when the customers complain, as a Transit worker I have to take action." He said something else I couldn't hear, and she said, "I'm not against anything that you're saying. But again, if they complain, my job is to take action." And he got off at the next stop.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Oh, No.

Imagine my dismay when I learned that John McCain set foot on the campus of Liberty University to deliver a commencement address to some young Christian soldiers. But I suppose this is just what you have to do if you want to win over 40% (per NPR) of the Republican vote. You have to make nice with people you formerly described as "agents of intolerance".

Look at Falwell. What a smug old frog. Sort of looks like Scalia there in his robe. Very much the picture of an agent of intolerance.

Though this, from a Liberty press office release re: graduation and the the university's new church building, is unintentionally hilarious:

The church will move into its enormous new facility on Liberty Mountain on July 2, marking the 50th anniversary of the church and the ministry of its founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Liberty Mountain. Isn't that the amusement park with the Horseman of the Apocalypse rollercoaster and the Parting of the Red Sea log flume and where they show The Passion of the Christ in IMAX? Oh, wait, sorry.

And yet this, from a professor at the New School, where McCain will deliver another commencement address, and where students and faculty are protesting because of it, makes me want to roll my eyes. From the Times:

"Senator John McCain does not believe in a woman's right to control her own fertility," shouted Ann Snitow, a professor of literature and gender studies. "He has been opposed to Roe v. Wade for more than 20 years. He is a man who believes in female sexual slavery." Ms. Snitow added: "What would he have to do to not be invited? Would he have to say we should drop a nuclear bomb on Iran tomorrow?"

This too: Brittany Charlton, the vice chairwoman of the University Student Senate, said Mr. Kerrey's choice of speaker had left many graduates with unpalatable choices of boycotting commencement or attending and protesting.

"It is extremely distasteful and hypocritical to allow McCain, someone who does not value the ideals we have consistently been taught in our education, to speak at the ceremony that represents the culmination of our experience with this university," she said.

Peter Angelos, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, delivered my commencement speech. Which I feel in some way is an even bigger betrayal of a student body. You think that little of us that you're just going to serve up some local capitalist tool? Some Knight of Columbus, some Rotary Club honcho? I'd rather have Cal Ripken. At least there would be bromides proffered on perseverence and hard work that you could imagine were delivered somehwere from personal experience and had some sort of ring of truth. Now, back to 2006--if Rick Santorum was invited? That's a guy who really seems to want to enslave women by curtailing their reproductive rights. Then I'd protest. But the point here, sorry, is that I didn't expect our graduation ceremony--a public event held in a convention center, with hundreds of people I knew nothing about even though we ate and slept and studied within feet of each other for four years--to square with my four years of study, which was private and personal and not anything I expected anyone but maybe a dozen friends to understand. University administrators, not unlike our elected officials, hardly act in the interest of the students (and citizens) they are supposed to serve.

Hey, isn't that Al Franken to McCain's right? Does Falwell know about this?

Friday, May 12, 2006


So a panel of judges convened by the Times has picked The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years. Naturally, I've read hardly any of the books mentioned, because most of them were written by John Updike, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy. See here for a list of nominees and judges.

I've tried to read Beloved, which won, a couple of times, but I can't get past the feeling, and I know this doesn't make me look good, that there's an axe being ground, and the prose is simulaneously too diffuse and arch at the same time. I read most of Underworld when it came out--free copy from employer!--but then stopped because I was tired of it and I didn't think I was going to miss anything by not witnessing the ending, and the only thing I remember now is the baseball scene, which I've always thought was pretty amazing. I've read Gilead but not Housekeeping, which is wrong, I know, and it has been on my list for a long time. Though I have read Jesus' Son and Independence Day (the latter I just finished last week, phew!), and they're two of my favorite books. I guess I've been off reading the work of the judges: Paula Fox, Philip Lopate, Lorrie Moore, Cynthia Ozick, Thom Jones, Ethan Canin, Michael Chabon, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, George Saunders, Liesl Schillinger. (Just kidding! Though if you read the NYTBR, you can't avoid her.) Why isn't Mary Gaitskill on the list of judges? Perhaps she and Foster Wallace (wisely?) stayed away from this sort of thing. I'd nominate Gaitskill's Veronica, published last year, and Robinson's Gilead for this list. Why not give her two? And Saunders. Saunders' Pastoralia. Maybe Rick Moody's The Ice Storm. Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine? Jim Lewis' When the Tree Loves the Ax? Though I think Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, published in 1961 and nominated for the National Book Award, might be a more horrifying indictment of American suburbs, marriage, family, and work, than The Corrections, and I think it's a lovelier novel, what about Franzen's big book?

I can see where those novels/fictions just might be too recent, though of course Roth’s 2004 book is nominated, and it's too soon to tell whether they're Great. Though I think they are. However, I am not Liesl Schillinger or Nell Freudenberger or Curtis Sittenfeld. But I'm sure not every one of those Roth novels hits it out of the park, people. Come on. Or the Rabbit novels (the first one was written in 1960, which seems to be bending the last 25 years rule). Several young men I know and admire like Cormac McCarthy, but I don't think I know any women who do. And that's all I can say about that.

Oh, Roth and Updike. Updike and Roth. My betes noir! They're each a leg on the colossus that...ok, that metaphor's gonna break down any minute now under the strain of making it work, so I'll stop. Now I've been talking to some friends lately about those two, because I still have not made my peace with them. Though I have friends who love Updike, no one I know my age carries a torch for Roth. They read him, but then they talk about him like some groping uncle that they have to put up with grudgingly year in and year out at the holidays. We're talking men and women. Also, it seems that Roth is using the same persona—essentially himself—in each book. Now, if I ever wrote a novel, I know for damn sure the heroine (and it would have a female protagonist, at least the first one) would be some sort of mouthpiece for certain of my thoughts and feelings. But every time I wrote? I’d hope not. Does fiction deserve to be praised so much and so widely when it’s pretty clear that it’s the author talking every single time out and it’s really only the story of a certain segment of the population? Now, my favorite writer list is admittedly pretty white, but whose America is Roth describing over and over again? A friend recently described Roth and Updike this way: "They're like really, really smart seventeen-year-olds. They're no different than incredibly sexually motivated young men, but they're propped up by apparatuses that make us take them seriously." Later in the conversation I believe he termed Roth “a marauding penis”.

By and large, I'd rather read novels written before 1981, and when I do, they're usually either written by citizens of the United Kingdom or written in the 19th and earlyish 20th centuries, and often both. It's a problem. Or is it? I have some shame about this.

I’d nominate these novels/fictions if I'd been asked. But they're not written by Americans, so I'd be disqualified. And two are written by men, so you know it's not just the feminism talking.

There's Possession, which I read when I was a freshman in college because I was a Huge Dork. It's a great novel, full of astonishing tricks and voice-throwing and intelligence, but A.S. Byatt is British. It won the Booker in 1990. Scottish writer James Kelman's Joyce-like How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker in 1994. Zadie Smith's 2000 White Teeth, though I agree with James Wood that it's more than a little touched with hysterical realism and that sort of bothers me. From Japan: Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, published in 1997. Though Murakami, who loves Raymond Carver and American jazz and pop, might as well be American; he isn't revered in Japan the way he's beloved here. (That's him at the top.) Alice Munro's Selected Stories, published in 1996. Canadian. Like Roth, she writes about the same thing over and over again--mothers, daughters, rural Canada--but Munro, and one could discuss how female this is or not, seems content to stand back in the shadows of omniscience, and you forget she's there while her characters run around making mistakes. All these fictions have, in varying degrees, wide scope, wild imagination, and heart. I know I toss that word around too much, and when you deal with the heart, you risk messing with sentimentalism, but bear with me. "I think there's something wrong with our hearts," my friend A. said to me the other night. Meaning Americans. I think there is, too. We don't like to treat of it. We want to be tough, ironic, distant, sickeningly cute, sexlessly sexual, abstract, violent, misogynist. And it shows up in our fiction, both filmic and otherwise. Though Richard Ford is not afraid of writing about the heart, of looking at its problems head on, and I was suprised to learn he got a Pulitzer in spite of it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Hideko Takamine

I have a new obsession. It is the Japanese actress Hideko Takamine, born in 1924, who was one of Japan's biggest movie stars. She began as their Shirley Temple, spent some time as a young Judy Garland type, then became their Katharine Hepburn and worked with Mikio Naruse, my other new love, and Kinoshita and Ozu. She also introduced Kurosawa to his right-hand actor, Toshiro Mifune. I've never seen an American actress from the period (mid-century) do what she does--emote without becoming brittle or tinny or hysterical. The important thing for her, it seems, is the character and the story, and she seems willing to disappear into the film rather than decorate it or ride roughshod over it with her personality. She seems like a real woman--I don't know how else to say it. That's her in the picture above the post about Naruse, but here she is in a close-up.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


Thursday, May 04, 2006

Poisoned Milkshake Wishes And Caliente Cab Co. Dreams

Sometimes, all you want to eat is that New York magazine cover story about the two brothers who might have been murdered by their wives--one by a poisoned milkshake, the other was stabbed in the back. Literally. (When do you ever get to use literally correctly?) Sometimes you don't, because it's going to be just like that other story about the plastic surgeon/philanthropist/banker who got murdered by his dental hygienist/secretary/stripper friend. I'm not doing the genre justice here, but you know what I mean. I told a colleague a couple weeks ago about how much I relished the cover story about New York's finest hooker and the pimp who made and loved her, and he made some comment about how he finds that stuff totally boring and not titillating at all. Yeah, I guess. The older I get, though, the more I find myself drawn to narratives of the moneyed and depraved. Being a frustrated novelist and all. Anyway. It occured to me while reading it that maybe they didn't need 4,000 words. That maybe you would get the whole story if NY magazine just ran a list of people, places, things and quotes from the article. To wit:

Stratton Mountain in Vermont
Bill's wife, Elaine
who did ballet on skis
on his desk in Florida
didn't make it to college until a couple of years after high school graduation
a fur jacket
a 7,500 square foot Saddle River home on a couple of acres of land
a souped-up Chevy Le Mans
Doriane, his high school girlfriend
moved into a one-bedroom, $295,000 co-op apartment at 200 East 74th Street
a blonde Ivy Leaguer--University of Pennsylvania, then Columbia business school--sporty-looking, striking
she became the women world's mogul champion
on track to be an analyst for Merrill Lynch
Goldman Sachs, which shipped him to Hong Kong in 1997
became the only person who signed off on checks for the co-op
To me, he was a big phoney baloney
I just want to get this over with. I think I need some Valium.
eventually borrowed $2 million under the co-op's name
Wives don't know.
had managed a Caliente Cab Co.
she'd gone with their three children to avoid the Asian SARS threat
a good-looking, middle aged Vermonter
shown up at the house to repair her TV
and about the tattoo he'd taken her to get
playdate for his three children
ground-up cookies and strawberry ice cream
eight-pound lead statue


One of my favorite lines (and there are many) from Metropolitan happens when Chris Eigemann tries to defend his making up a story about a hated acquaintance-- more specifically, he makes up a victim of the hated acquaintance. "It's a composite," he says calmly. "You know, like New York magazine does."

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Her Lonely Lane

I've just fallen in love with the films of Mikio Naruse, a Japanese director who made most of his films in the fifties and was beloved by Kurosawa (Kurosawa at one time was Naruse's assistant). Courtesy of BAM. I guess you could say the films are Japanese kitchen sink dramas. Okay, I've just seen one film--Repast, about a housewife deciding whether to leave her distracted, inattentive salaryman--but it was so wonderful that I feel it's safe for me to say I will be just as moved and delighted by the next ones I see. And I plan to see as many as possible. The last time this happened it was 2001, I was sort of heartbroken, and I hightailed it over to the Film Forum and ate as many Eric Rohmer films as I could. The only male act of art consumption I've ever engaged in--as in, the last time I was in manic bordering on pathological completist mode, and I was relieved and surprised to discover I had it in me. The point here being that the films are as gentle and surreptitiously (and not so surreptitiously) devastating as Rohmer films, and apparently the New Wavers were fans.

Here's someone (i.e. Kurosawa) saying it better than I can, because the coffee hasn't kicked in yet. From Berkeley, earlier this year, when the university hosted a festival:

“Happiness is a concept that was invented in the modern world,” remarks a character in Mikio Naruse's 1952 film Lightning; the irony is that, more than any of the great Japanese directors whose equal he was—Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa—Naruse's world is the modern world. It's just not very happy.

Kurosawa once characterized Naruse's style as being “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.” Naruse's melodramas are character studies revealed in gestures, plots unfolding in a glance. Raised in poverty, he was drawn to those who live on the edge of society's comforts—whether emotional or economic—and so it is not surprising that his abiding subject is women, from the stultifying oppression of marriage to the tarnished rituals of the anachronistic geisha. The novelist Fumiko Hayashi was his favorite source for plots epitomizing his own vision that modern women are offered only illusory freedom. Audie Bock, who championed this relatively unheralded director years ago in her book Japanese Film Directors and in a monograph, writes of the “condition of trapped awareness” in Naruse's women.

If you like stately, unmelodramatic melodrama*, and telling shots of weathered shoes set out before doors and cats on rooftops coupled with shots of people just sitting around eating or drinking or reading the newspaper as if they were acts of prayer, and would like to see a film that feels you leaving like you read a novel, here's the schedule.

*Can we all work together on coming up with a word to replace the pejorative "melodrama" when we're talking about something that deals with emotion and allows the plot to hinge on feelings felt?

Breaking News From The Past!

Am sitting in the house writing when I hear the clanging of a bell that sounds way more broken down then your usual Mr. Softee truck chime. What the heck? Have some renegade Lubavitchers come to call on the Slope? Or the East Village Hare Krishnas? Is it the Spanish-lady-manned water ice cart?

Reader, it was a beat-up old red tin can of a mail truck containing a knife-grinder! On my little side street! Screw the Paw-Tisserie and the fancy lady boutiques on Fifth Avenue and the upscaling of the Key and Associated Foods! Del Re's Grinding, from Staten Island. Though someone's now-defunct blog tells me Del Re is from the Heights. I forgot the street address already that was hand-painted on the side of the truck. Don't know if it's the same guy they wrote about in the City section a while back. I should have run out there with the steak knives I've been using to cut tomatoes and onions since college. But I was too stunned.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Pope, Bush, Voltaire, Etc.

Good news? From the Times:

Ideals Collide as Vatican Rethinks Condom Ban

ROME, May 1 — Even at the Vatican, not all sacred beliefs are absolute: Thou shalt not kill, but war can be just. Now, behind the quiet walls, a clash is shaping up involving two poles of near certainty: the church's long-held ban on condoms and its advocacy of human life.

The issue is AIDS. Church officials recently confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI had requested a report on whether it might be acceptable for Catholics to use condoms in one narrow circumstance: to protect life inside a marriage when one partner is infected with H.I.V. or is sick with AIDS.

Whatever the pope decides, church officials and other experts broadly agree that it is remarkable that so delicate an issue is being taken up. But they also agree that such an inquiry is logical, and particularly significant from this pope, who was Pope John Paul II's strict enforcer of church doctrine.

"In some ways, maybe he has got the greatest capacity to do it because there is no doubt about his orthodoxy," said the Rev. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit physician who runs an AIDS clinic at the Boston Medical Center....

Those of you who know me may know that I have a fondness for the Catholics. (So fond of them that I converted, and then lapsed into an agnostic funk.) A fondness that endures even as they disappoint me for their increasing willingness to partner with the evangelicals for political culture-of-life gain. These are dark days because evangelicals, who usually refuse to soften their stance on anything, have within the last decade decided to reach out to The Christians They Formerly Described As Cultish Heathens--Catholics and Mormons--to work together on issues like abortion, gay marriage, etc. The thinking is that they should dissolve their differences and work together to establish a pro-life, sexually panicked hegemon.

The point is, I'm glad to see that the Church (yes! capital C!) is willing to even think and talk about condoms, even though yes, it's ridiculous that they ban them--while evangelicals also consider condoms as bad as abortion, I'm pretty sure they won't ever, ever budge on that. They don't like to admit they might have to do some thinking about an ill-advised stance. The sinister beauty of the evangelicals is that they do not have a head office like the Vatican, and so can avoid having to come together as a body to discuss policies and mistakes and wrongs against individuals and groups. In the same way I was glad that John Paul wagged his finger at Bush about Iraq whenever they met. That Pope was a hardheaded hardass too, but in geopolitical theatre, I'll take whatever cracks in the plot I can get.

I'm reading something now by a Canadian philosopher named Charles Taylor called A Catholic Modernity?. A friend of a friend recommended it. It's a lecture he gave in 1996 at the University of Dayton, followed by responses by four thinkers, George Marsden and Jean Bethke Elshtain being the two most "famous" ones. Richard Rorty, who I like a great deal, likes him. I can see why, as both of them think (seem to think, in Taylor's case, as this is the only thing I've read of his) a great deal about how to create ways to argue for and describe human freedom and tolerance without resorting to, as Taylor says below "ultimate visions". In the lecture his aim is to address the failures of Christianity and the failures of secular humanism. Third ways are underrated and underused.

Here's something from the lecture:

Thus, to say that the fullness of rights culture couldn't have come about under Christendom is not to point to a special weakness of Christian faith. Indeed, the attempt to put some secular philosophy in the place of the faith
--Jacobinism, Marxism--has scarcely led to better results (in some cases, spectacularly worse). This culture has flourished whenever the casing of Christendom has been broken open and where no other single philosophy has taken its place, but the public sphere has remained the locus of competing ultimate visions....

So a vote of thanks to Voltaire and others for (not necessarily wittingly) showing us this and for allowing us to live the Gospel in a purer way, free of that continual and often bloody forcing of conscience which was the sin and blight of all those "Christian" centuries. The gospel was always meant to stand out, unencumbered by arms. We have now been able to return a little closer to that ideal--with a little help from our enemies.

If only this administration understood the value of keeping the public sphere a locus of competing visions, ideals, philosophies. And evangelicals understood the value of help from their enemies (other than the Mormons and Catholics). So awful to think that ten years after this lecture, we'd need our own 21st century Voltaires to do some damage.