Sunday, November 25, 2007

Joan Didion Skewers George Herbert Walker Bush

Recently, I posted a great metaphor describing Joan Didion's style, which reminded me how much I love her work and inspired me to catch up on some of her recent essays. So here's a lengthy quote from her work. If you're not familiar with it, you should know that she has an abiding fascination with how public narratives are constructed by politicians, policymakers, and influential people -- narratives that usually are seriously disconnected from what she has called "observable reality." She particularly likes to see the way this works when it comes to American foreign policy, which is frequently developed, as her essays invariably reveal, in an alarmingly offhand way, without concern for its human impact or "collateral damage." While the story below is not an example of foreign policy in its highest sense, it betrays a self-centered obliviousness that does not recommend itself for diplomacy, and which is all too common:

In August 1986, George [Herbert Walker] Bush, traveling in his role as vice president of the United States and accompanied by his staff, the Secret Service, the traveling press, and a personal camera crew ... working on a $10,000 retainer paid by a Bush PAC called the Fund for America's Future, spent several days in Israel and Jordan. The schedule in Israel included, according to reports in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, shoots at the Western Wall, at the Holocaust memorial, at David Ben-Gurion's tomb, and at thirty-two other locations chosen to produce camera footage illustrating that George Bush was, as Marlin Fitzwater, at that time the vice-presidential press secretary, put it, "familiar with the issues." The [personal camera] crew did not go on to Jordan (there was, an official explained to The Los Angeles Times, "nothing to be gained from showing him schmoozing with Arabs"), but the Bush advance team in Amman had nonetheless directed considerable attention to improving visuals for the traveling press.

Members of the advance team had requested, for example, that the Jordanian army marching band change its uniforms from white to red. They had requested that the Jordanians, who did not have enough equipment to transport Bush's traveling press corps, borrow the necessary helicopters to do so from the Israeli air force. In an effort to assure the color of live military action as a backdrop for the vice president, they had asked the Jordanians to stage maneuvers at a sensitive location overlooking Israel and the Golan Heights. They had asked the Jordanians to raise, over the Jordanian base there, the American flag. They had asked that Bush be photographed studying, through binoculars, "enemy territory," a shot ultimately vetoed by the State Department, since the "enemy territory" at hand was Israel. They had also asked, possibly the most arresting detail, that, at every stop on the itinerary, camels be present.
-from Joan Didion's "The West Wing of Oz," in Political Fictions, pp. 60-61.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cyril Connolly on E. M. Forster and Style

In 1938, Cyril Connolly performed a rather bleak assessment of the state of English literature. He singled out E. M. Forster as a novelist whose work seemed to be surviving the passing years. Here's part of what he had to say:
Much of his art consists in the plainness of his writing for he is certain of the truth of his convictions and the force of his emotions. It is the writer who is not so sure what to say or how he feels who is apt to overwrite either to conceal his ignorance or to come unexpectedly on an answer. Similarly it is the novelist who finds it hard to create character who indulges in fine writing.
Lest you think Connolly is an enemy of style, rest assured that he is not. But he does like precision, as he states with admirable beauty here:
The vocabulary of a writer is his currency but it is a paper currency and its value depends on the reserves of the mind and heart which back it.
In drawing this analogy, Connolly goes against the now long-established rule of literary criticism that one should not confuse an author with his or her work -- a good rule in general, though I can say from bitter personal experience that Connolly is absolutely correct, if I understand him aright, to draw a connection between a writer's prose and his or her personal qualities. Some of us are not made to write massive 19th-century Russian novels (never mind our inability to speak the language): some of us were made for (very) light verse.

--from p. 6 and 10 of Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Calvin Trillin Runs out of Spanish

Even when I seem to be doing pretty well in speaking Spanish, I can run out of it, the way someone might run out of flour or eggs. A few years after I passed up the chance to stay in Madrid, some friends and I went to Baja California to mark an occasion I can no longer remember, and I became the group's spokesman to the owner of our motel, a Mrs. Gonzales, who spoke no English. Toward the end of a very long evening, as I listened to her complain about some excess of celebration on our part, I suddenly realized that I had run out of Spanish. It wasn't merely that I couldn't think of the Spanish words for what I wanted to say. ("I am mortified, Mrs. Gonzales, to learn that someone in our group might have behaved in a manner so inappropriate, not to say disgusting.") I couldn't think of any Spanish words at all. Desperately rummaging around in the small bin of Spanish in my mind, I could come up with nothing but the title of a Calderón play I had once read, to no lasting effect, in a Spanish-literature course.

"Mrs. Gonzales," I said, "life is but a dream."

She looked impressed and, I must say, surprised. She told me that I had said something really quite profound. I shrugged. It seemed the appropriately modest response; even if it hadn't been, it would have been all I could do until I managed to borrow a cup of Spanish from a neighbor. Eventually, I came to look back on the experience as just about the only time I had been truly impressive in a foreign language.

-from Calvin Trillin's "Abigail y Yo," from The New Yorker, June 26, 1989, pp. 83-84.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Don DeLillo's Pseudonymous Novel Reviewed

One of my favorite all-stops-out novels is Don DeLillo's Amazons: An intimate memoir by the first woman ever to play in the National Hockey League, published in 1980, under the pseudonym of Cleo Birdwell. You rarely see it discussed anywhere, but it's one of the funniest things I've ever read. I'm not up to describing its varied pleasures, but lucky for you, I am able to direct you to a recent review. If you're a fan of plot or moral seriousness, skip it. Otherwise, here are your orders: acquire it ASAP. You'll likely have better luck on Advanced Book Exchange than Amazon (ironically), but use whatever works for you. Should you run across it in a used bookstore and find yourself wrapping your fingers around it just as someone else does the same, be ruthless. It's worth it.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Billy Wilder on Why Screenwriting is Worse than Playwriting

The tragedy of the picture maker, as opposed to the playwright, is that for the playwright the play debuts in Bedford, Massachusetts, and then you take it to Pittsburgh. If it stinks you bury it. If you examine the credits of Moss Hart or George Kaufman, no one ever brings up the play that bombed in the provinces and was buried after four shows.

With a picture, that doesn't work, no matter how stupid and how bad, they're still going to try to squeeze every single penny out of it. You go home one night and turn on the TV and suddenly, there on television, staring back at you, on prime time, that lousy picture, that thing, is back! We don't bury our dead; we keep them around smelling badly.
--from p. 421 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Michael Cunningham on Joan Didion's Style

Michael Cunningham on Joan Didion, quoted on the National Book Critics Circle blog:

She writes sentences that seem sculpted out of dry ice. She writes in a style that never feels like a style. You could put a drink down on a Joan Didion sentence.

He's not right that her style "never feels like a style" - on the contrary, especially with her more recent work, it feels mannered. But Christ, what a manner!

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On Taste - Wine & Marijuana

Okay, so first, Tom Christensen's quirky, entertaining blog linked this week to Jonah Lehrer's post describing some experiments with wine experts being given blind taste tests, with amusing results, quoted below. (Don't take them too seriously, though, unless you track down the original research, links for which are given in the many comments on Lehrer's blog.)

In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its “jamminess,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.” Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.

The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was a fancy grand-cru. The other bottle was an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were actually being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings. The grand cru was “agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded,” while the vin du table was “weak, short, light, flat and faulty”. Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said the cheap wine was.

I'm no wine expert -- don't really care for it, unless it's sweet, which puts my wine-loving friends into paroxyms -- so I always find the language used to describe wines both un-illuminating and amusing. (Probably the same way others feel when I talk about what makes one piece of writing better than another.) Imagine, however, how ludicrous it would be if a cadre of critics applied such language not to wine, but to marijuana?

Well, much to my surprise, you don't have to imagine: such critics evidently exist. Recently, on the "new books" shelf at my library, my wife noticed The Big Book of Buds, Volume 3, which turned out to be a coffee table book about ... pot. And not just any pot, but serious, genetically- modified pot that's nothing like your daddy's pot. It looks like ... well, pot on steroids. (I work in the field of adolescent treatment, as it happens, so I'm under no illusions that "you can't get addicted to pot," or that kids who use it aren't smoking several cigar-sized blunts a day and drinking as well, but I also believe in free speech, so the appearance of this volume at the local library gave me an ethical headache.) Here's how the "Sour Cream" strain was reviewed:
Sour Cream descends from two powerful North American lines. The New England "diesels" are non-haze sativas that push marijuana's citrus-like pungency into the realm of fuel. Sour Cream's mother is the near-pure sativa Sour Diesel, a clone-only strain derived from Chem crossed with Mass Super Skunk. This version of Sour Diesel is known for her sour Kush-like smell and her stand-out sour candy taste. The father, G-13 Haze, is a cream of the crop male that shows his true colors in this cross, but with improved yield. Sour Cream brings these two North American strains together for a complex, unusually calming stone.

--From p. 142 of the Big Book of Buds, Volume 3: More Marijuana Varieties from the World's Great Seed Breeders.

I only understood about a tenth of this, but my theory is that if you substituted the word "varietal" for "sativa," the word "wine" for "marijuana," and "glass" for "stone," you could post this on a wine-lover's blog and get at least 10 people writing in complaining that their local wine shop doesn't carry "Sour Cream" or -- better yet -- "Mass Super Skunk."

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ian Frazier on How Stories About Bears Help Them Survive

When Ian Frazier is walking in Montana and meets his first bear:

For some reason, I picked up a rock. I felt the weight of the rock in my hand, I smelled the breath from a wild rosebush, I saw the sun on the tops of the mountains, I felt the clothes on my back. I felt like a man -- skinny, bipedal, weak, slow, and basically kind of a silly idea (77-78).
He goes on to engage in what Anne Fadiman once referred to in an essay as "anticipatory plagiarism," i.e., stealing an idea I elaborated on almost a decade later about the supremacy the stories we tell about wilderness has over our actual experience of it:
Today, for grizzly bears to survive in the mountains of several Western states they must also survive in people's imaginations ... [In newspaper stories] and in magazines and on television, too, bears fatten on certain feelings people have for wilderness, and suffer for others ... In a way, a grizzly is as alive in the pages of a newspaper as he is walking through the trees from which the newspaper is made (79).

---from Ian Frazier's essay, "Bear News," from The New Yorker, September 9, 1985.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

John Dufresne on Talking Dogs

John Dufresne's book, Love Warps the Mind a Little, which I read a few years ago, was not what I signed up for - it was a lot sadder and much more affecting than I'd expected. But it's stayed with me. I recommend it, with the caveat that it starts out easy, and turns into a tough trip.

Here's one of the easy parts. The narrator in the following paragraph goes to the dentist, who gives him nitrous oxide for pain relief. His dog's name is Spot.

Under the gas I dreamed that Spot and I were cruising down a back road in Vermont. I was driving my father's car, the '71 Plymouth Fury. Spot was watching cows out the window and telling me that some dogs, mostly your purebreds, believed in an afterlife, but he certainly wasn't one of them. I said, Look at me when you talk. I want to see your lips move.

--From p. 154 of Love Warps the Mind a Little.

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John Dufresne on How Being a Writer & Holding a Job Don't Mix

"I was reminded of teaching and of how a job is incompatible with writing. So are a marriage, kids, religion, a bowling team. Probably everything is. And why is it called writing when the words are only a part of it? How do you explain to someone that your eyes are drifting up and to the left because you're trying to watch this actual person you made up cross the room and close the blinds, and that this is your job?"

--From page 6 of John Dufresne's powerfully affecting Love Warps the Mind a Little.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Homer-Dixon Connects Economics to Ecology

Thinking about alternatives to the growth imperative means thinking about alternatives to conventional economics -- an elaborate apparatus of assumptions, theories, and empirical research that reinforces the legitimacy of globalized capitalism and the power of the world's capitalist elites. At the heart of this view is the assumption that the economy is separate from nature and operates much like a machine. The machine's behavior is linear, predictable, and reversible, so it can be managed by a planet-wide class of technocrats -- including central bankers and government officials -- trained in the arcane science of economics. An alternative theory would recognize that the economy is intimately connected with nature and its energy flows. This larger economic-ecological system often doesn't act like a machine at all. Instead, its behavior is path dependent, marked by threshold effects, and often neither predictable nor controllable. An alternative view would also recognize there are no good substitutes for some of the most precious things nature gives us, like biodiversity and a benign climate. Because we can't adequately replace these things with something else once they're gone, we need to create ways of giving them explicit economic value so people will have an incentive to protect them. Such an alternative view, if developed in detail, would help everyone understand that conventional economics is not unchallengeable truth but rather a particularly potent ideology -- a blend of scientific finding, analytical gymnastics, value judgments, and self-congratulation.

--from p. 293 of Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.

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