Writer’s Desk: Good for Nothing

artweek1There’s an old joke about how in Irish families, the boy who can’t throw a ball, well, he’s the priest.

A similar weeding-out procedure is suggested by this line from Rachel Kushner’s brilliant 2013 novel The Flamethrowers:

That’s what artists are, his father said, those who are useless for anything else. That might seem like an insult, he said, but it wasn’t.

So, in other words, run with it.

Weekend Reading: May 29, 2015

reading1

Screening Room: ‘Gueros’ – French New Wave in Mexico City

'Gueros' (Kino Lorber)
‘Gueros’ (Kino Lorber)
Style doesn’t go out of style. That’s why directors around the world are still aping the French New Wave, in good and bad ways.

Güeros is a grab-bag of the right and wrong ways to appropriate the Nouvelle Vague’s stream-of-conscious plotting and jazzy rhythms. It did the festival circuit last year and is now getting a limited release. My review from the Tribeca Film Festival is at PopMatters:

[Güeros] gets a lot of traction from its mainly directionless young protagonists. They wander through Mexico City through a couple formless days backgrounded by worries about the future and uncertainty about their place and purpose in the present. It’s a film riddled and with questions and switchbacks, circling in on itself time and again…

Here’s the trailer.

Bookmark: Neal Stephenson’s ‘Seveneves’

In 'Seveneves,' this blows up ... and everything changes. (NASA)
In ‘Seveneves,’ this blows up … and everything changes. (NASA)
Last week, Neal Stephenson released his latest novel, a big-thinking plot about the end of the world and a possible new start for the human race. Seveneves is another doorstopper of a piece, so in that sense right in line with just about everything he’s written since the 1990s. In many other ways, however—particularly in being a return to full-fledged science fiction and also curiously (for him) devoid of humor—this is an entirely new direction for the author of Snow Crash.

seveneves-coverMy take on the book and the arc of Stephenson’s career can be read at The Millions.

You can read the first couple dozen pages of Seveneves at Stephenson’s site here. This is how it starts:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero…

Quote of the Day: Memorial Day Edition

A casualty is ready for transport from the front line during the battle for Guadalcanal. (Library of Congress)
A casualty is readied for transport from the front line during the battle for Guadalcanal. (Library of Congress)

For this Memorial Day, a reminder from one of our great novelists of warfare and what it does to the men who take part in it, willingly or not:

This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE.

That’s from James Jones’ The Thin Red Line (1963) which follows the battle for a fictitious Pacific island and draws heavily upon Jones’ combat experience during World War II. Although his dedication shows a tongue planted firmly in cheek, the novel that follows is one of the deepest felt, most bruising things a man ever put to page.

Writer’s Desk: Going Your Own Way

So, your book is done. Awesome. Now you’ve got to make sure it gets sold. It’s not an easy thing these days, with thinner marketing budgets, digital clamor, and thousands upon thousands of books blooding the marketplace every year. As many authors have discovered, getting your book noticed often falls on their shoulders, even if they were lucky enough to be picked up by a real publisher.

blackmile1Social media marketing helps, among other things. But all that time spent marketing your way takes away from the job at hand: writing. As Jay McGregor writes for Forbes, self-published author Mark Dawson decided to risk doing the thing that is often recommended but is nevertheless hard to do: Give it away. That’s just what he did with The Black Mile, a heavily researched historical thriller.

There was the good news. He “sold” tens of thousand of copies over a weekend.

But:

… he was immediately presented with two problems. The first was that he’d made no money whatsoever from The Black Mile, a book he’d poured hours of research and travel into. The second was that he had no follow-up book for his new fanbase to dig in to.

Now, Dawson is a self-publishing machine, making a living writing, selling, and promoting his work. Of course, a lot of that is possible due to exciting new self-publishing technologies available from a host of companies.

But it still boils down to writing a good book to begin with. You know, the kind of thing that people snap up 50,000 copies of over a weekend. Next, be prolific. Very, very prolific.

Reader’s Corner: Speakeasy Bookstore is No More

Once upon a time, you could stroll to 84th Street on the Upper East Side, ring the right doorbell at the right hour of day, and find yourself in a magical little place: Michael Seidenberg’s Brazenhead Books. Technically a rent-controlled apartment, Seidenberg ran the secretive book-stuffed space as a hybrid literary hangout, multipurpose salon, and (occasional) bookstore.

Like all such ephemeral joys, Brazenhead is coming to an end, a victim of its increasing popularity and an itchy landlord.

Jessica Loudis wrote about hanging out at Brazenhead for Aesop:

It’s not mandatory to bring a bottle of whiskey to Brazenhead Books … but failing to do so could be considered bad form. That, however, is as far as formalities extend … Business comes through word of mouth. After being greeted at the door, strangers strike up conversations that trail off once a desirable acquisition is spotted and then stay for hours, squeezing into narrow rooms teeming with classic paperbacks and pristine first editions. Seidenberg is former puppeteer and street book salesman. Last time I went to Brazenhead—having visited only once, a year earlier—he told me he had been expecting my visit, as I had made a cameo in his dream the night before.

Weekend Reading: May 22, 2015

reading1

Screening Room: Chaos Reigns in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Vroom, vroom - 'Mad Max: Fury Road' (Warner Bros.)
Vroom, vroom – ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (Warner Bros.)
madmaxfuryroad-posterIt’s been three decades since George Miller’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Things have changed. No more Mel Gibson, for one. Also, the postapocalyptic subgenre that Miller’s series helped sparked off has practically gone full mainstream. Sadly, no Tina Turner. Now, here comes Mad Max: Fury Road, with Tom Hardy in the driver’s seat.

Mad Max: Fury Road (aka, the fourth one) is playing pretty much everywhere now. My review is at Short Ends & Leader:

A demolition derby of a chase scene occasionally interrupted by scraps of crackpot wit and Aussie slang-strangled dialogue, Mad Max: Fury Road burns through ammunition and fuel with abandon. You would think that the characters were video-game avatars possessed of endlessly replenishable digital supplies, not the starving and sickly remnants of humanity barely surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Unlike many action films, though, where such profligacy is determined by need for trailer-ready action beats, here it’s central to the film’s story and message…

Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron fight the future (Warner Bros.)
Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron fight the future (Warner Bros.)
Here’s the trailer, dig it:

Now Playing: ‘Every Secret Thing’

everysecretthing1
Diane Lane and Danielle Macdonald in ‘Every Secret Thing’ (Starz Digital)

In Amy Berg’s adaptation of the Laura Lippman domestic thriller Every Secret Thing, a pair of teenaged girls are suspected of abducting a small child years after they were convicted of stealing and murdering a baby of strikingly similar looks.

Every Secret Thing is out now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Alice (Danielle Macdonald) is both a ball of cheer and a pit of frustrated desires. She perkily pretends to audition for a reality show like some bedroom-dreaming girl many years her junior, and talks eagerly about her exercise and diet regimen. A few flashbacks to childhood humiliations and some choice scenes with her mother Helen (Diane Lane, dripping with well-meaning malice), though, make clear that Alice is marinating in a cold, calculated outsider rage even before the police come calling. Her fellow convict, Ronnie (Dakota Fanning), wears her anger right out on her raccoon-eyed, heavily made-up face. The story circumnavigates around Ronnie’s poor, straitened existence for most of the earlier stretches, focusing instead on Alice and her dreamy fantasy world in which few glimmers of reality ever seem to intrude…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Posterity and the Lack Thereof

Yes, Nebraska has writers.
Yes, Nebraska has writers.

Used to be, once a writer’s books went out of print, that was it for most of them. There might be a few copies moldering in a library’s backshelves somewhere, but generally not being out there in a bookstore or taught in a classroom meant that your work was going to be forgotten.

It would be nice to think that in the era of digital publishing, that nobody’s work will ever be forgotten. It will just sit there in the cloud, each bundle of bytes ready for download just in case anybody ever wants to read that 1960s coming-of-age novel or 1920s society-lady memoir or 2010s zombie romance (first in a tetralogy).

That’s not going to be the case for most of us, of course. The average writer lucky enough to get a chance at getting her or his book published will get that one moment of attention (maybe) before returning to the anonymity from whence they came. And that’s okay; one has to make room for the next chap coming down the way.

For some writers, there may be something like this great project from Nebrasksa’s PBS affiliate on “The Lost Writers of the Plains.” Using written and audio essays, they cover everyone from black intellectual activist Bertram Austin Lewis (who fought the good fight on minority inclusion in the academy decades before it was au courant) and Margaret Haughawout (a poet who brought modernist literature and a taste for men’s clothing to her obscure little country college).

Even those lost to time may eventually get one more shot at being remembered.

Weekend Reading: May 15, 2015

reading1

Now Playing: ‘Slow West’

Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee in 'Slow West' (A24)
Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee get acquainted in ‘Slow West’ (A24)

Slow West Final PosterA teenaged boy embarks on an epic journey to track down the woman he loves … and bad guys intervene.

Slow West is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Indie westerns have blazed and snuck across screens for the past few years in a variety of flavors, from the lo-fi musings of Meek’s Cutoff to the bloody-minded vengeance of The Salvation. But none has been quite as surreptitiously odd and original as John Maclean’s Slow West. There are times when it plays as such a straightforward oater you wouldn’t be surprised to see a craggy Robert Duvall come riding up, Winchester rifle perched casually but authoritatively on his hip. At other moments the story slants sideways to resemble a loonier frontier-mad dream piece like Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja. It never quite stays in reach…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: But is it a Job?

Thomas Mann; he wrote.
Thomas Mann; he wrote.

In his essay for the Times on whether or not being a writer is a job or not (as opposed to a calling, hobby, or what have you), Benjamin Moser comes down very firmly on the side of, well, maybe.

He knows what it is: Grueling, exasperating, time-sucking, unavoidable.

He knows what it is not: Easy to define or easy to do.

Then there’s this:

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” Thomas Mann said; and it is good that no beginner suspects how torturous writing is, or how little it improves with practice, or how the real rejections come not from editors but from our own awareness of the gap yawning between measly talent and lofty vocation. Fear of that gap destroys writers: through the failure of purpose called writer’s block; through the crutches we use to carry us past it.

It gets easier, of course. For some of us, at least. But easy or hard, there is rarely a choice in the matter. As Moser says, writing is simply what one does. Whether or not it’s a job is in the end irrelevant.

Readers’ Corner: Collecting Rare Editions

Trarebooks1here are book lovers who don’t care about condition, they will take books in any kind of format: split-back hardcover, old 50-cent Bantam paperback with yellowing pages slipping out of the binding. It doesn’t matter: just gimme.

Then there are the book collectors, many of whom are still book lovers, but who are also entranced by the physical thing itself, the heft and weight of the paper and the delicate tracery of an embossed slipcase from the previous century.

You would think the latter type would be slipping into obscurity. But according to the Wall Street Journal (and they should know), book collecting is still a strong business in the ebook age:

Take JT Bachman, a 28-year-old architect with Rockwell Group in New York. He gets his news from digital sources but prefers printed material when reading for pleasure and says he has become a recent convert to book collecting. Mr. Bachman says he has about 100 new, used and out-of-print titles on his shelves, including the architectural tome “Herzog & de Meuron: Natural History” by Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, and plans on buying more.

Of course, it’s best if one doesn’t get into the business looking to actually make a quick buck:

Annette Campbell-White, the founder of venture-capital firm MedVenture Associates, in Emeryville, Calif., says collectors should be driven by their interest in books, not by the prospect of financial gain. “I wouldn’t encourage anyone looking for a quick profit to turn to book collecting,” she says. “If you make money, it is incidental.”