Reader’s Corner: ‘The Last Days of New Paris’

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In the latest novel from China Miéville, the year is 1950 and World War II is still dragging on. Paris is in Stalingrad-like ruins from years of battle. Oh, and a crack in the fabric of reality has resulted in major works of Surrealist art coming to life and joining in the fight themselves.

My review of The Last Days of New Paris is at PopMatters:

Time is a slippery thing in China Miéville’s writing. Reality, too. Whether he’s cracking open the concept of language (Embassytown) or layering dimensions and urban histories on top of and through each other like so many strands of literary string theory (The City & The City), Miéville plays with the nature of consciousness in a way that few other writers of the fantastic manage these days…

Screening Room: ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

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Meryl Streep’s latest role requires her to do some stretching, as it involves playing a woman who was absolutely terrible at doing the thing she loved most.

Florence Foster Jenkins is playing now. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

There’s an old joke about the difference that money makes for people suffering from mental illness. Most mentally ill people are just referred to as “crazy.” The ones with money, though, are tagged as “eccentric.” Very few statements have more clearly defined the advantages that wealth bestows upon those who have it. Until, that is, the release earlier this month of Florence Foster Jenkins. It’s a dialed-in, feel-good period piece in which almost all the main characters bend over backwards to protect the fragile delusions of one extremely eccentric woman…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Wodehouse Kept It Simple

wodehouseP.G. Wodehouse (1881–1975) didn’t live to such a ripe age by worrying about things, like directions or keeping cash about the place.

In this 1975 interview from the Paris Review, he lays out a brisk but simple writing schedule:

I still start the day off at seven-thirty. I do my daily dozen exercises, have breakfast, and then go into my study. When I am between books, as I am now, I sit in an armchair and think and make notes. Before I start a book I’ve usually got four hundred pages of notes. Most of them are almost incoherent. But there’s always a moment when you feel you’ve got a novel started. You can more or less see how it’s going to work out. After that it’s just a question of detail…

Wodehouse made a living out of making his comedy, in the Jeeves books and others, seem effortless. But when a writer has more notes than final pages, clearly there was more going on under the surface than meets the eye.

Weekend Reading: August 26, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘Imperium’

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In his newest film, Imperium, the increasingly adventurous Daniel Radcliffe plays an FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a white nationalist group that might also be a terrorist cell. The playwright Tracy Letts (August, Osage County) and Toni Collette co-star.

Imperium is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International.

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Whistle While You Work

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Do you need absolute, deafening quiet when you work?

Maybe you’re one of those people that likes to work in a loud cafe.

Or are you the type that writes at home but with music on? And if so, what’s your album(s) of choice? Do you prefer background noise so that the lyrics don’t interrupt your train of thought?

undergroundrailroadIn the acknowledgments to his newest novel, the Oprah-picked The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead has some very specific notes along these lines:

The first hundred pages were fueled by early Misfits … and Blanck Mass. David Bowie is in every book, and I always put on Purple Rain and Daydream Nation when I write the final pages; so thanks to him and Prince and Sonic Youth.

That’s a fantastic range of music, but sterling selections all. Speaking from experience, this writer can attest to the imagination-fueling powers of repeatedly playing Daydream Nation, though be warned it works best if you’re writing in a minor science-fiction key.

Weekend Reading: August 19, 2016

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Quote of the Day: Nostalgia Kills

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From Peter Pomerantsev’s Granta essay, “Why We’re Post-Fact“:

‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new-ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’. Thus Putin’s internet-troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets to ‘Make America Great Again’; Brexiteers yearn for a lost England on Facebook; while ISIS’s viral snuff movies glorify a mythic Caliphate. ‘Restorative nostalgia’, argued Boym, strives to rebuild the lost homeland with ‘paranoiac determination’ . . . In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’…

Writer’s Corner: What Henry Miller Said

henrymiller1Courtesy of the folks at Flavorwire, here’s some commandments from Henry Miller on the craft of writing:

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

There’s a lot that’s pertinent here, but “Don’t be a draught-horse” seems like the most important one to keep in mind.

Reader’s Corner: Read Books, Live Longer

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There are many advantages to being a reader. Most importantly, it gives you something awesome to do on a rainy day, or pretty much any day, and doesn’t require electricity or feeding. Also, if you’re a child, being a reader doesn’t just build intelligence, it builds self-confidence.

Now, apparently, reading is positively associated with longer life. That’s the result of a study in Social Science & Medicine. According to the Times:

Compared with those who did not read books, those who read for up to three and a half hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die over 12 years of follow-up, and those who read more than that were 23 percent less likely to die. Book readers lived an average of almost two years longer than those who did not read at all.

As to what kind of books led to this kind of outcome, the study’s authors didn’t say.

Weekend Reading: August 12, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘A Touch of Zen’

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In 1971, former martial-arts director King Hu embarked on an epic reimagination of what the genre would look like. The three-hour A Touch of Zen was magical, weird, and breathtaking, often in the same scene. It was mostly ignored in its butchered release, except for some brief acclaim after finally getting a proper showing at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.

touchofzen-dvdSince then, the film—which deeply influenced Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—has been mostly confined to obscurity. Thankfully, Janus Films gave it a proper release earlier this year, and now there’s also a beautiful new Criterion DVD edition.

My review is at PopMatters:

The film’s second third comes as a relief after the deliberate mannerisms and fussy perfectionism of the first third. Here, A Touch of Zen pivots from quiet pastoral with supernatural elements to more John Sturges Western. As villainous forces marshal against Yang and the two fugitive generals who came to her aid, Ku uses his study of classic works of strategy to plan their defense. The set-piece battle in which the small army of guards are lured into the supposedly haunted fort for a spectacular night-time ambush is a marvel of geometric precision and subterfuge…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Lost Arcade’

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For years, the last arcade in New York was a gritty little spot called the Chinatown Fair. There, night after night, gamers gathered to compete, play, gossip, and boast until the early hours. Then it closed.

The Lost Arcade has been playing the festival circuit. It opens at the Metrograph in New York this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

Everything about the videogame palaces in The Lost Arcade makes them look like oases. Shot mostly at night, because that’s when the gamers come out, the arcades blaze into the darkness with their teenage-Vegas cacophony of strobing lights, electronic bleeps, and the hoots and hollers of victors and vanquished. Clearly, these are not just places to drop some quarters and kill a half-hour on the latest Street Fighter; they are clubhouses, homes away from home…

Here’s the trailer:

Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.: ‘St. Louis Noir’

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For over ten years now, the good folks at Akashic Books have been publishing a fantastic series of city-centric collections of noir fiction that cover dozens of locales, everywhere from Baltimore to Beirut.

This month sees the publication of their newest volume, St. Louis Noir. Edited by the inestimable Scott Phillips (The Ice Harvest), it’s a crackerjack anthology of stories that cover the dark and seedy underbelly of the Gateway City.

There are some fantastic new pieces by Phillips, John Lutz, and Laura Benedict.

My short story “The Pillbox” is also included.

Buy it now wherever noir is sold, like here, here, or here.

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Writer’s Desk: Keillor’s Influences

keillorreaderGarrison Keillor was born this day back in 1942, so happy birthday to the great Minnesota raconteur, poet, and all-around celebrator of the written word.

A few years back, a young writer sent a letter to Keillor asking for advice, what were his influences, and so on. Keillor’s response:

What influenced my writing was the King James Bible and the New Yorker magazine and which was the bigger influence, I’m not sure.