Quote of the Day: Trollope in China

Historian Simon Winchester in the Times Book Review on an unexpected encounter:

Traveling in China back in the early 1990s, I was waiting for my westbound train to take on water at a lonely halt in the Taklamakan Desert when a young Chinese woman tapped me on the shoulder, asked if I spoke English and, further, if I knew anything of Anthony Trollope. I was quite taken aback. Trollope here? A million miles from anywhere? I mumbled an incredulous, “Yes, I know a bit” — whereupon, in a brisk and businesslike manner, she declared that the train would remain at the oasis for the next, let me see, 27 minutes, and in that time would I kindly answer as many of her questions as possible about plot and character development in “The Eustace Diamonds”?

The lesson: Always know your Trollope.

Screening Room: ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’

"Power to the people" (PBS)

“Power to the people” (PBS)

After a series of documentaries that dug into the 20th century African American experience with uncommon power, Stanley Nelson (Jonestown, Freedom Riders) turns his gaze to the story of the country’s last great radical movement, and how it was destroyed just before falling apart.

My review of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which opens this week in limited release and will likely come to PBS sometime soon, is at PopMatters:

At some point, revolutionaries have to decide what else they want to be. Too often, they can’t. That’s why so many successful insurrections end up emulating the very same oppressive regimes they overthrow: fighters are often miserably bad peacemakers. That’s why Che Guevara ran off to die stupidly in Bolivia rather than figure out sugar cane production back in Cuba…

Here is the trailer:

Readers’ Corner: The Scary Printed Word

From the Duke Chronicle, regarding the school’s decision to have students read Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home:

Several incoming freshmen decided not to read “Fun Home” because its sexual images and themes conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs. Freshman Brian Grasso posted in the Class of 2019 Facebook page July 26 that he would not read the book “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality,” igniting conversation among students. The graphic novel, written by Alison Bechdel, chronicles her relationship with her father and her issues with sexual identity.

“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” Grasso wrote in the post.

funhome1And from a report by the American Association of University Professors on “trigger warnings” and letting students opt out of materials they find offensive or troubling:

The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and … it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.

Granted, some of us who are great fans of Bechdel’s work will object to these objections on strictly aesthetic grounds. But it could also be seen as a troubling trend toward absolving students of dealing with any subject matter which they would prefer to ignore. True reading, true intellectual discovery comes frequently from the new, the unusual, and even the disturbing. Coziness should never be confused with education.

Weekend Reading: August 28, 2015

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Screening Room: ‘Z for Zachariah’

Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Margot Robbie in 'Z for Zachariah' (Roadside Attractions)

Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Margot Robbie in ‘Z for Zachariah’ (Roadside Attractions)

Z for Zachariah is a quiet but intensely melodramatic story about three people trying to make a go of things after the end of the world. Unlike most of your post-apocalyptical adventures (and there are at least two more young adult ones due to hit theaters this year),  has threats aplenty but there of a more elemental nature: loneliness, boredom, starvation, bothering to go on.

It’s a smart piece of work and thusly more than likely to get lost in the end of the summer cinematic shuffle.

Z for Zachariah is opening this weekend. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘We Are Your Friends’

Zac Efron feels the beat (Warner Bros.)

It’s been about 40 or so years since DJ Kool Herc started spinning in the Bronx, but every few years the culture wakes up to the idea that, Hey, this DJing thing might be its own kind of creative expression. Thusly, ever so earnest films like We Are Your Friends, with Zac Efron as a striving DJ from the San Fernando Valley trying to make it in a cold, cruel world.

My review of We Are Your Friends, which opens this week, is at Film Journal.

The trailer is here; dance on:

Writer’s Desk: Inspiration Close at Home

Sometimes it comes easily. The words flow and the paragraphs and plot lock together with smooth and powerful precision like girders in a swiftly-built tower.

'A Woman Reading' by Camille Corot (c.1869)

‘A Woman Reading’ by Camille Corot (c.1869)

Other times (most times), it’s a struggle to get even a good page done after a full day spent at the writing desk. That’s where inspiration comes in.

But where do you find it when it goes hiding? Usually, you can’t wait, you have to just keep plowing ahead.

In a long, sprawling piece for the New York Review of Books called “Inspiration and Obsession,” Joyce Carol Oates describes how what can seem casual and inspired is really the result of hard labor:

[Emily] Dickinson’s poems, and her letters as well, which seem so airy and fluent, give the impression of being dashed off; in fact, Dickinson composed very carefully, sometimes keeping her characteristically enigmatic lines and images for years before using them in a poem or in a letter.

Sometimes it can help to simply look to one’s own life. That of course can lead to too much of the bildungsroman we see in modern fiction (one of the reasons we see so many wealthy, educated characters and so few poor, unless it’s crime fiction). But sometimes it can open the spigot; Oates calls it being “a time traveler” in your own life. She quotes Virginia Woolf, who found great success this way:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in.

So there’s one road to inspiration, when all else fails. Look at your own life, but from an angle.