Reader’s Corner: Getting Rid of Books


There’s an idea going around these days—well, for some time, really—that everybody needs to pare down their possessions. Nothing wrong with getting ready of excess clutter, of course. We could all stand to take an extra look around the ranch every couple of months and think, “Do I need that?” or “Will I ever use this?”

But many of us apply the brakes when the idea comes to getting rid of our books. Sure, there are some on the shelves that we’ve either read to pieces, read half of once, plan to but will likely never read, and so on. The pure pragmatist can take the (perfectly reasonable, mind you) Seinfeld approach:

What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses – like they’re trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?

He’s not wrong. They are trophies, to an extent. Or maybe they’re talismans. But a true reader’s books are more than just objet. They don’t care if anybody else ever sees them. We want to see them and have them around. They remind us of all the worlds contained therein and the joys that we felt experiencing them. You may as well start tossing out all your old photos.

1209_kondo-bookCover-209x300Then there’s the Marie Kondo approach. As popularized in her alarmingly popular books about minimalism, Kondo’s take on books is pure design minimalism wrapped in spirituality. You know the drill. And if not, Summer Brennan can break it down for you:

Like a lot of avid readers, I enjoyed Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but bristled when it came to the section about books. The gist of her now-famous method is this: go through all your possessions by category, touch everything, keep only that which “sparks joy,” and watch as your world is transformed. It seems simple enough, but Kondo gives minimalism the hard sell when it comes to books, urging readers to ditch as many of them as they can. You may think that a book sparks joy, she argues, but you’re probably wrong and should get rid of it, especially if you haven’t read it yet…

Brennan’s right when she asks, “what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose?” Is getting rid of everything not of immediate joy or purpose really meaningful? Does it do anything than present a more easily dusted shelf or more prettily Instagrammed wall?

Brennan again:

…the romance of minimalism relies on invisible abundance. The elegantly empty apartment speaks not to genteel poverty, but to the kind of hoarded wealth that makes anything and everything replaceable and available at the click of a mouse. Things and the freedom from things, and then things again if you desire. If you miss a book after getting rid of it, Kondo consoles, you can always buy it again. Dispose and replace, repeat and repeat. Ah, what fleeting luxury.

You heard it here: Keep your books if you want. Otherwise, the design fascists win.

Weekend Reading: May 27, 2016


Writer’s Desk: Freedom to Offend

It’s an intolerant world. All writers know this. There’s nary a one of us that hasn’t been on the receiving end of some kind of attack based on what we’ve written. The hate comes in all forms, from a simple “you idiot” screed to something more devious, hate-filled, and agenda-based.

That doesn’t mean that we censor ourselves.

It also doesn’t mean that we try and censor others.

When J.K. Rowling, who used to work for Amnesty International, spoke at the PEN America Literary Gala earlier this week, she talked about how “flattered” she had been to find her work so frequently banned and excoriated by religious zealots.

But she refused to countenance the repression of “alternative viewpoints,” even for the likes of somebody like Donald Trump. When an audience member clapped at her mention of an online petition to ban Trump from England, here is what Rowling said:

I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot … If my offended feelings can justify a travel ban on Donald Trump, I have no moral ground on which to argue that those offended by feminism or the fight for transgender rights or universal suffrage should not oppress campaigners for those causes. If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on them grounds that they have offended you eat, you have crossed the line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justification…

To put it another, more bumper sticker-friendly way: Mean people suck, especially when they hate your writing. But the alternative is always worse.

Weekend Reading: May 20, 2016


Screening Room: ‘Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising’


People with lesser imaginations might have imagined that after the bong-huffing and keg-emptying rager that was Neighbors, there was nothing else to be done with the concept. But it appears that Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are still irked to be living next door to a party house, only now it’s a rogue sorority instead of fraternity. Because: equality.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising opens this Friday everywhere. My review is at Film Journal International:

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising starts with Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne), one-half of the film’s perpetually befuddled Gen-X couple, announcing her pregnancy to Mac (Seth Rogen) by spewing vomit on his face while they’re having sex. It ends in a curiously anti-climactic scene with the Radners enraptured in honeyed two-child McMansion bliss. In between those polar-opposite moments roils a helter-skelter of moments that read like something stitched together almost at random from the notebook leavings of Rogen and Evan Goldberg (just two of the five credited writers)…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: The Point of Fiction?

Defining the difference between fiction and nonfiction gets overly reductive fast. The former as entertainment and the latter as information.

Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series of novels about a former military policeman who wanders from town to town dispensing rough justice, breaks it down in terms of early human history:

Fiction evolved for a purpose. Warnings and cautionary tales could be sourced from the grim nonfiction world. A sabre-toothed tiger will kill you. O.K., got it. Fiction pushed the pendulum the other way. It inspired, and empowered, and emboldened. It said, No, actually, there was a guy, a friend of a friend, who came face to face with a sabre-toothed tiger, a huge one, and he turned and outran it, all the way back to the cave, safe as can be. So don’t panic. It doesn’t always turn out bad. Then, perhaps a hundred generations later, the story evolved, and the friend of the friend killed the tiger. The action hero was born. Strength and courage would save us. And it worked. Fiction in its various forms proved just as powerful to our survival as any other factor.

So remember that when you’re putting a final polish on your dyslexic detective novel or zombie romance trilogy, you’re not just helping people to kill time, you’re helping out the species.

Weekend Reading: March 13, 2016


Screening Room: ‘A Bigger Splash’

Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson in A Bigger Splash. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

A rock star on vacation in the Mediterranean with her boyfriend get up to mischief with her old flame and his blonde young tart of a daughter in the newest film from Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love).

A Bigger Splash is playing now in limited release and will probably expand throughout the summer. My review is at PopMatters:

Ralph Fiennes takes A Bigger Splash hostage in much the same way that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman once did, taking over from the likes of Tilda Swinton and Matthias Schoenaerts and even filmmaker Luca Guadagnino. All appear perfectly happy to play along. It’s a game that works beautifully until Fiennes’ motor starts to sputter, and the film’s fragile dramatic structure becomes all too apparent…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Afraid of the Block

hitchhikersguideEvery writer gets blocked. The words don’t flow. Or they do, and you simply can’t stand them. Nothing works out.

But you have to work through it. There is no other option. Except, well, giving up writing. And since no writer ever wants to become a civilian, when the block sits in your head like a slug of granite, there’s nothing for it but to chisel your way around it.

Douglas Adams had one of the more infamous (and consistent) cases of writer’s block ever witnessed. It became one of his running jokes: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” After spending seven years not writing a contracted manuscript called Starship Titanic, he called up his old Monty Python writing buddy Terry Jones and asked him whether he could help out. Sure, Jones replied, how much time do you have left? Five weeks, Adams replied.

In a more famous case, Adams spent years not writing the fourth Hitchhiker’s book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. His publisher, Sonny Mehta, finally came up with a solution: Lock Adams in a hotel room and not let him out until he produced pages. Mehta kept him on a schedule—a swim in the morning, write, room service lunch, write, dinner around the corner, sleep, repeat—that went on for days, Mehta said:

Douglas would sit down at this small desk with a typewriter, and I would sit in an armchair at 45 degrees from that, my back facing him, and I’d read a manuscript. I’d wait for the sound of those fingers on his typewriter keys–which sometimes would kind of happen, sporadically, and then there’d be long periods of silence, and I’d turn around to check him out and see that he hadn’t croaked on me or something. He’d be sitting up, staring out the window at this roof terrace. And every now and then I’d say, ‘How’s it going?’ And he’d say, ‘Fine–fine.’ And you’d hear paper being crumpled and thrown into a dustbin.

Each of us have to figure out our anti-blocking tools. Because we don’t all have a big contract to fulfill and Mehta there to help us do it.

Weekend Reading: May 6, 2016


Screening Room: ‘Captain America: Civil War’


Roaring into theaters in the wake of Batman vs. Superman and before the summer movie season really gets going, the latest Marvel launching pad for yet more movies and series, Captain America: Civil War opens everywhere this week. 

My review is at PopMatters:

When Shakespeare wrote about the quality of mercy in The Merchant of Venice, chances are he wasn’t thinking about perpetually quipping guys in shiny suits slamming each other into walls…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘High-Rise’


Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise is opening this week in limited release and is already available on VOD. My review is at PopMatters:

Setting High-Rise in 1975, Ben Wheatley takes full advantage of what we remember from that time, the macramé, matted hairdos, condo living, and marital infidelity. But more important, the movie—based on J.G. Ballard’s bloody skewer of a 1975 novel and now available on VOD in the US—underlines the era’s capacity for antisocial mischief. Without today’s surveillance culture and social media, it’s easier for viewers to swallow the story’s basic conceit, that the inhabitants of a brand new luxury high-rise can, in mere months, whip up a self-contained, brutally violent maelstrom without anybody on the outside being any the wiser…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Fussy

Dr._Strangelove_posterTerry Southern, who was born this day in 1924, was a writer familiar with the movies. He adapted other people’s work—freely satirizing Peter George’s thriller novel Red Alert into Dr. Strangelove—and had his own work put on screen—Buck Henry adapted Southern’s sexual fantasia Candy for film in 1968.

So, when Southern has advice about writers whose work is so (un?)lucky to be optioned by Hollywood, it’s best to listen:

If a writer is sensitive about his work being treated like Moe, Larry and Curly working over the Sistine Chapel with a crowbar, then he would do well to avoid screenwriting altogether…The wise thing, of course, is to become a filmmaker.

Note that The Three Stooges in the Sistine Chapel would have been a keeper.