Weekend Reading: March 31, 2017

Writer’s Desk: Stay Strong

We lost the great Jimmy Breslin this past week. A shoe-leather New York scrivener who banged out columns and books and snazzy oratory since the 1940s, Breslin made the ink-stained wretches in The Front Page look like hacks. He was the writer you thought of when you heard somebody say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” This was the guy who could explain the soul of the city in a tear-inducing newspaper column and then go run for mayor with Norman Mailer on a lark.

A lot of people in New York had Breslin stories. One of the better remembrances this week came from Mohamad Bazi, who was a co-worker of Breslin’s at Newsday in 2003. Bazi was covering the Iraq War when he got an overseas call from Breslin, who wanted to compliment him on an article he’d written:

‘But you know, your lead could have been stronger,’ he said. ‘Sometimes you gotta hit ’em over the head.’ Then he asked why I broke up some paragraphs. I grumbled something about the editors.

‘What?’ he shouted. ‘Don’t let ’em [expletive] with your copy. You’re there in Iraq, and they’re sitting behind a [expletive] desk.’

Whether you’re embedded in Iraq or blogging from Buffalo, the advice couldn’t be better. Do the work. Tell the truth. Write it snappy.

And don’t let ’em [expletive] with your copy.

Weekend Reading: March 24, 2017

Screening Room: ‘T2 Trainspotting’

It’s been about twenty years, what have the lads from Trainspotting been up to? Much the same as before, only with less heroin, it would appear. T2 Trainspotting, the hit-and-miss but turbocharged sequel from all the original crew, is playing now.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The last we saw Renton (Ewan McGregor) in Trainspotting, that verve-and-nerve 1990s midpoint between Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, he was absconding with several thousand pounds that he and his junkie mates had scored in a heroin deal. The first we see of him in the sequel, two decades on, he’s still running. But unlike the first film’s now-iconic dashes through the streets of Edinburgh, now Renton, the onetime rail-thin hedonist and Iggy Pop enthusiast, is on a treadmill. In a gym. It all seems to have gone intensely wrong for him even before he has a good percussive pratfall to start this pell-mell sequel…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘After the Storm’

The newest movie from Hirokazu Kore-eda, After the Storm, opened this week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

When is success or hunting for it a trap? Is it better to have dreamed of great things and fallen short or to have never had ambitions at all? Those are a couple of the questions that Hirokazu Kore-eda’s TV-like melodrama about wayward fathers and disappointed women After the Storm tangles with. Fortunately for the viewer, Kore-eda leaves those questions mostly hanging in the air and not verbalized, leaving the screen to a group of characters who are less like a family than a house of cards just waiting to be blown down by the typhoon everybody is waiting for to strike…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Watch TV and Movies

Well, not always. But sometimes when you need inspiration, anything with imagery and people can do. Tennessee Williams liked to hunt for his characters, particularly women, in other media.

In his book Follies of God, James Grissom wrote about reaching out to Williams in the early 1980s for advice on writing. Williams told him that in his youth, the world of characters, what he called “the fog,” just came to him. Later on, it wasn’t so easy:

Writing early in the morning or deep into the night, Tenn kept his television set on, the volume set to low, a radio or a phonograph playing the music of people who had led him to fog-enshrouded stages in the past. An image would come across the screen and catch his eye, the volume would be raised, and a voice would speak to him. Tenn had notes and diagrams and plot outlines scrawled on envelopes, napkins, hotel stationery, menus from restaurants and diners and airport lounges. Once, he delicately constructed a plot outline on a paper tablecloth, which the waiter neatly folded and presented to him along with the check.

Whether Williams would have recommended public television, streaming, or reality TV for inspiration, is not known.

Weekend Reading: March 17, 2017

Writer’s Desk: Write to Write

In 1953, writer Aidan Higgins sent Samuel Beckett one of his short stories, hoping for some feedback. Beckett sent a long, constructive, and very generous critique.

As part of his response, Beckett included this aside:

Work, work, writing for nothing and yourself, don’t make the silly mistake we all make of publishing too soon.

Publishing too soon might seem like a small price to pay for getting one’s work out there—what struggling writer would complain? But Beckett’s advice is solid, nonetheless: Best to first be satisfied with what you’ve written before you send it out into the world.

Reader’s Corner: Why Does Arkansas Hate History?

The word “censorship” gets thrown around a lot these days, not always responsibly. But every so often you see a case that seems to fit the textbook definition.

One of those instances happened this week in Arkansas, which you may also know as Missour-ah’s underachieving and even more miserable neighbor. The state legislature there is considering a bill that would actually make it illegal for schools to teach the books of Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States.

As Melville House noted:

[The bill] would force Arkansas educators to pretend that Howard Zinn had never written a single book, and furthermore (and this is the really crazy part) would require that they systematically ignore any secondary texts addressing Zinn’s scholarship.

By the logic of the law as written, even materials critical of Zinn’s approach to American history, of which there are many, may be prohibited. Teachers must simply pretend that one of the most influential and most discussed historians of the twentieth century never existed.

Making it illegal to teach from a historian known for his progressive political viewpoint? Sounds like censorship, plain and simple.

Weekend Reading: March 10, 2017


Screening Room: ‘Personal Shopper’


Equal parts behind-the-scenes fashion narrative, thriller, and improbable ghost story, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is one of more curious and rewarding movies of the spring.

After playing a few festivals last year, it’s opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The year is young still, but you probably won’t see a wiser, more headlong dive into the world of high fashion and celebrity than Olivier Assayas’ slippery, darkly glamorous Personal Shopper. With a cool and yet intimate approach, Assayas shows a deeper awareness of the seductive, boundary- and identity-blurring compromises than other more surface-sailing chroniclers of the beautiful life like Nicolas Winding Refn or Sofia Coppola. He also manages to string a taut thread of tension through the unlikeliest of narratives for this generally straightforward filmmaker to tackle: a ghost story…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Kong: Skull Island’


It’s been a few years since King Kong was smashing up the planet. Fortunately, the makers of Kong: Skull Island have remedied this problem with a half-gonzo reworking of the old giant apt smash-’em-up material set in the waning days of the Vietnam War.

Kong: Skull Island is opening wide this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

This is a movie so eager to show off its skyscraper-sized primate that it trots him out before we’ve even gotten to the credit sequence. In this iteration’s 1944-set opener, two downed fighter pilots (American and Japanese) parachute onto a tropical island beach and set about trying to kill each other before being interrupted by Kong’s glowering eyes…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Iraq + 100’

iraqplusahundred-coverWhen it comes to science fiction from the Arabic world, there isn’t much to speak of. The new collection, Iraq + 100, in which authors were asked to set their stories in an Iraq 100 years in the future, is one of the few additions to that limited canon.

Iraq + 100 is on sale now. My review is at The Millions:

Unlike almost every other book you will find out there about Iraq right now, the ambitious new short story collection Iraq + 100 has little to say directly about all the nation’s recent wars. This is somewhat remarkable. As noted in the introduction by the book’s editor, author Hassan Blasim (The Iraqi Christ), “Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” Still, any opportunity for Iraqi writers to get together and write about something besides the wars, even if that trauma shadows each word in this book to some degree, must be seen as a kind of victory…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Forget to Read

literarywonderlandsBrilliant, longtime critic Laura Miller was interviewed recently by Poets & Writers. One of their first questions was about a statement she’d made about preferring reading to writing.

Her response, in part:

We live in a time when everyone wants to write and seemingly no one “has time” to read. Everyone wants to speak and increasingly few people want to listen. People sometimes scoff when I make this observation and claim that aspiring writers read more than anyone else, but that is not my experience. I’m constantly meeting people who, when they learn what I do, always want to talk about the book they plan to write despite the fact that they seem to find no books worth reading. We fetishize the idea of being a writer in a variety of ways, most of them narcissistic. So when I meet a big reader who professes no desire to write, I think of them as a beautiful, almost mythical creature, like a unicorn, to be celebrated.

So while writers of course need (always) to get back to work (speaking of which, why are you wasting time on this?), it’s also helpful that they remember something. Save time to read, because if you don’t, you could well forget the joys of reading and thusly the reasons why anybody would want to pick up and devour what you yourself are spending so much time to create.

In other words: Write for the reader inside you.

Weekend Reading: March 3, 2017