Writer’s Desk: Go Shopping?

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So there are lots of different kinds of writing programs out there. Depending on your location and availability, most are worth applying to because we could all stand to get paid to hang out somewhere and write on our own for a little while.

But how about shopping? As part of its twenty-fifth birthday, that great temple of consumerism, Legos, and fried walleye, the Mall of freaking America, is now sponsoring its very own Writer-in-Residence program.

According to the Mall folks:

The Writer-in-Residence Contest will give a special scribe the chance to spend five days deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere while writing on-the-fly impressions in their own words. The contest winner will stay in an attached hotel for four nights, receive a $400 gift card to buy food and drinks and collect a generous honorarium for the sweat and tears they’ll put into their prose.

“Deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere”? Hotel? Gift card for the food court? “Generous honorarium”? Sounds like a no-brainer. Let’s just say that the impressions garnered from people-watching, whether it be the packs of teenagers roaming the amusement park or the busloads of foreigners wandering dazedly about, are likely worth their weight in gold. Or cheese curds.

Applications are due March 10th.

Reader’s Corner: Vote Now

oscar-waoInstead of just announcing what the new all-city book club selection is going to be, New York took it to the people with OneBookNY. They chose five possible books and are asking people to vote on what they think everyone should read.

The five books are:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Couple interesting choices here. Coates’s book is nonfiction, departing from the usual novelistic mold, while Beatty’s (amazing) novel is set quite definitively in Los Angeles. Seems like either Diaz or Smith’s (also amazing) novels are the right choice here, but who’s to say?

Voting closes February 28.

Weekend Reading: February 24, 2017

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Quote of the Day: Book Burning

fantasticbeasts1When the verbose and gloriously opinionated J.K. Rowling had the temerity a few weeks back to tweet her thoughts on President Tiny Hands’ travel ban, the pushback was about the same as what happens whenever an athlete ventures into the realm of politics.

The conservative troll brigades swarmed and told Rowling the usual things: Stick to writing, woman, and stop saying what you think about anything. (Nevermind that her Harry Potter books are all about tolerance and the acceptance of minorities.)

Things hit a particularly ugly pitch when one twit tweeted that they would “burn your books and movies.”

Rowling’s response was one for the ages:

Well, the fumes from the DVDs might be toxic and I’ve still got your money, so by all means borrow my lighter.

Writer’s Desk: Be Ruthless

williamfaulkner1When William Faulkner was interviewed by The Paris Review in 1956, he was asked whether writers need to be “completely ruthless.”

The sage of the South replied in the affirmative, with vigor:

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.

He may not be right about the literary importance of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but the point is, nevertheless, an uncomfortable truth.

Weekend Reading: February 17, 2017

Screening Room: ‘Fifty Shades Darker’

The first great unintentional comedy of the year, Fifty Shades Darker is the second movie installment in E.J. James’s we-should-all-be-embarrassed bestselling trilogy of erotic novels. It opened last week, Lord help us.

My review is at Film Journal International:

In Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson)—these people have monikers that sound like superheroes’ secret civilian names—was a mousy, brown-haired wallflower who fell into a BDSM relationship with Grey. A controlling billionaire who flies his own helicopters and has secret lairs and a bodyguard—again, like a superhero, only ultimately far more boring—Christian took the dominant thing too far with Anastasia. She fled from the dark cruelty she saw in him. Now, in the sequel, he’s trying to win her back. But she’s making her way in the world, working at a small publisher and getting the eye from her just-as-chiseled boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), and not willing to put up with Christian’s domineering nonsense.

Until she does…

Writer’s Desk: Writing During Wartime

In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Tim Parks reflects on the sense of “heroism” that can come with readers and writers identifying with a greater cause in dark times. We’re seeing that now with the ways in which the literary community has been galvanized against the harbingers of reactionary authoritarianism and potential censorship in America.

But, he also cautions that this moral agency shouldn’t be indulged in for the wrong reasons:

Let us by all means defend our freedom of speech when and if it is threatened; but let us never confuse this engagement with our inspiration as writers or our inclination as readers. Above all, let us not get off on it.

 

Reader’s Corner: What the Bigots Had to Read

NightWieselA few months ago, some teenagers spraypainted swastikas and various other offensive things onto a historic black schoolhouse in Virginia. When they were sentenced, the judge said they were going to have to read a book each month for the next 12 months and write a report on each one.

Here’s the list of books they could choose from:

  1. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  2. Native Son, by Richard Wright
  3. Exodus, by Leon Uris
  4. Mila 18, by Leon Uris
  5. Trinity, by Leon Uris
  6. My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok
  7. The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
  8. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
  9. Night, by Elie Wiesel
  10. The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
  11. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
  12. A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
  13. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
  14. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  15. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
  17. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
  18. Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks
  19. Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle
  20. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
  21. A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind
  22. Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas
  23. Black Boy, by Richard Wright
  24. The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  25. The Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt
  26. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
  27. Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
  28. The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang
  29. Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  30. The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
  31. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
  32. Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
  33. Too Late the Phalarope, by Alan Paton
  34. A Dry White Season, by André Brink
  35. Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides

handmaidstale1Certainly several of these books would be considered standard assignments in any basic college course that dealt with multicultural or tolerance issues (Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alan Paton, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Harper Lee).

But others selections are more interesting, such as Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (a North Korean defector struggles to adapt to life outside the dictatorship) or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (dystopian fiction about a theocratic America in which women are merely vessels for reproduction). It sounds like the judge is looking at a broader idea of educating here that involves not just tolerance but empathy–which is, after all, one of the greatest lessons that fiction can provide.

Screening Room: ‘The Lego Batman Movie’

legobatmanmovie-posterartSo, now that Christopher Nolan has left Batman in the Affleck’s hands, we’re left with no new movies about the Caped Crusader. Oh wait, they would never let a franchise like that lie moribund for more than a year.

So, The Lego Batman Movie is finally upon us. My review is at PopMatters:

A sugar high of self-conscious product placement and satirical mock-epic, The LEGO Batman Movie strip mines Batman’s mythology for all its comic potential. Voiced by Will Arnett (reprising his role in The LEGO Movie), this Batman is part Christian Bale’s Dark Knight and part reality-show star, a showboater who loves saving the day but won’t let anybody steal his light or get close to him. Yes, there is a lesson here. But after three Christopher Nolan efforts and lord knows how many Zack Snyder bores, Batman could use a little therapy that doesn’t involve punching people…

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: February 10, 2017

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Screening Room: ‘David Brent: Life on the Road’

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The great thing about BBC shows is that they now when to stop: six or eight episodes and then they’re out. Maybe a season two. That’s how the British original of The Office was. But then there was the Christmas special. And now Ricky Gervais returns us to the further adventures of his signature character, who’s now decided that he’s going to be a rock and roll star.

David Brent: Life on the Road is opening in limited release tomorrow and will also be available on Netflix. My review is at Film Journal International:

Gervais, who wrote and directed the film without the assistance of his “The Office”co-writer Stephen Merchant, is building off his 2013 web series “Learn Guitar with David Brent,” in which the salesman indulges his love of performing and pontificating. Of course, just as nobody who worked for Brent back when he was an office manager actually wanted to work for him, now that he’s an erstwhile pop star, nobody is in the least interested in hearing him perform…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘I Am Jane Doe’

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The documentary I Am Jane Doe opens this week in limited release.

My review is at Film Journal International:

Nobody would argue that Mary Mazzio’s I Am Jane Doe is not squarely situated in the advocacy documentary genre. It doesn’t pretend not to have a little interest in debating the issue at hand. Normally, that would be a negative. But when the issue is a website that appears to be making millions off prostitution, including the trafficking of underage girls, it can be difficult to find people willing to defend such practices on camera…

Here is the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Dark Money’

darkmoney1Last year, the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer published Dark Money, a detailed expose of the massive, decades-long program run by billionaire conservatives like the Koch brothers to re-engineer American politics in a more libertarian, low-tax, and small government direction.

The paperback edition was just released, with a new preface that highlights how the agenda of the Kochs, who theoretically didn’t support Donald Trump, will nevertheless likely be supercharged under the new administration. My review is at PopMatters:

Written with the sharp but cool incisiveness that typifies her long form work for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer’s exposé is the type of book one reads first heatedly, then with a kind of sickened resignation. Her first book since 2008’s The Dark Side, a similarly disquieting investigation into the Bush administration’s legacy of post-9/11 abuses, Dark Money goes looking under a lot more rocks. Again, Mayer finds a cabal of authoritarian-minded Republicans looking to fundamentally alter the American landscape…

Writer’s Desk: Know Your Facts

lefthanddarknessUrsula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) is one of our greatest writers of science fiction and fantasy. She’s one of only two living writers to have their work included in the Library of America; Philip Roth is the other.

Even though she’s renowned as a fabulist, though, Le Guin’s hackles went up when the troubling new political term of art “alternative facts” was compared to science fiction. Le Guin responded forcefully to the smearing of literature:

The comparison won’t work. We fiction writers make up stuff. Some of it clearly impossible, some of it realistic, but none of it real – all invented, imagined — and we call it fiction because it isn’t fact. We may call some of it ‘alternative history’ or ‘an alternate universe,’ but make absolutely no pretense that our fictions are ‘alternative facts.’

This might be a decent lesson for writers in trying times. Remember that while fiction must be based in emotional and physical truth to be successful, it should never try to pass itself off as truth.

That’s not fiction. That’s propaganda.