Screening Room: The Oscars Get It Wrong

You would have thought that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have thought that 2017 was a good year for engaging with a raging body politic and fracturing republic. Not so much.

You can read “In a Turbulent Year, the Oscars Retreat to Fantasy” at Eyes Wide Open:

What did [the Academy] decide? That in the midst of skyrocketing levels of economic inequality, near-weekly threats to the norms of American democracy, occasional panic about the itchiness of not one but two megalomaniacs’ nuclear-trigger fingers, and the normalization of white nationalism, the most nominated movie of the year was a fantasy about a woman in love with a merman.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Writer’s Desk: No Labels

One of our great writers of not just science fiction and fantasy but literature period is no longer with us. Ursula K. Le Guin passed away last week–read Margaret Atwood’s obituary here–and the world of letters is less for it.

She told John Wray a few years back that she got a little prickly when boxed in as just a “sci-fi writer”:

Don’t shove me into your pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.

Listen to what Le Guin said. Send your writer’s tentacles everywhere.

Reader’s Corner: Decolonize the Shelves

Junot Diaz (The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao) spoke to a packed crowd of booksellers and other literary business folk at this year’s Winter Institute in Memphis. The Dominican-born Diaz, whose latest book Islandborn will be out this March, talked about the importance of books to an immigrant like him:

… [arriving] in the United States completely illiterate, if it hadn’t been for the kindness of librarians,” he probably wouldn’t have found books. But he did. “Books became my shelter against the white world that sometimes felt like it was trying to destroy me.”

He stressed the need for book curators to help “decolonize the shelves”:

Bookstore owners and librarians are on the front line. It’s the smallest intervention that can sometimes create the most important, lasting change … I wrote my children’s book, Islandborn, because I believe there are things immigrants can teach that we all need to hear without which we will never understand this stolen land we inhabit.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Extreme Cities’

My review of Ashley Dawson’s Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, was published in the Winter 2017–2018 edition of RainTaxi Review of Books:

[E]ven though logic would dictate transforming low-lying shorelines into storm surge-absorbing wetlands, planners in cities like New York and Miami continue building right up to the water line. Meanwhile, even conservative modeling has seas rising over six feet by 2100. Set against that inexorable future, Dawson’s description of a “feckless capitalist culture of ruinous growth” has the ring of truth…

TV Room: ‘Altered Carbon’

Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk noir novels posited a future world where death is mostly a thing of the past. Everyone’s mind can be downloaded into a surgically implanted “stack” which at the point of death can then be “resleeved” into a new body of whatever gender or race one prefers. It’s a fascinating concept that Morgan mined for a hardboiled capitalist critique but is worked out for mostly action-junkie hijinks in the derivative 10-part streaming adaptation of Altered Carbon, the first novel in the series.

Altered Carbon premieres on Netflix February 2. My review is at The Playlist.

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Find a Group

In his great literary guide and memoir On Writing—read it now, if you haven’t already—Stephen King unpacked many secrets of the scrivening trade. Among the more salient was this:

Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.

Finding a writers’ group helps. So does suborning your friends and family to read what you’re working on. Feedback is never a waste, even if you end up ignoring it completely.

Reader’s Corner: Home Decor for People Who Don’t Read

People put up many pointless pictures on the self-reflecting pool of impending cultural demise known as Instagram. Food they ordered for its look instead of taste. Their feet in front of some gorgeous place they want you to know they’ve visited. Here’s a new one:

The social media chattering classes have spent the past few days rolling their eyes at #backwardsbooks, an Instagram-perfect interior design trend that takes the idea that books are pretty to look at and flips it 180 degrees. See, their unadorned pages, actually, can be pleasingly neutral and minimalistic when shelved in a row.

Good luck actually finding the book you want to read, of course.

Screening Room: ‘The Final Year’

The Final Year, which tracks Barack Obama’s foreign policy team in his presidency’s pell-mell final year as the shadow of the Trump victory looms darkly, is opening in wider release this week.

My review is at Film Journal International:

…[Director Greg Barker] highlights three key players: chief speechwriter Ben Rhodes, United Nations ambassador Samantha Powers and Secretary of State John Kerry. Although Obama offers a few to-the-camera remarks, for the most part he remains in the background as the leader whose policies these three power players need to mesh with their own beliefs and wrestle into some coherent and actionable policy. Powers and Kerry perform their jobs with such a sense of can-do urgency that even when the frequently hubristic Rhodes says that they “felt like a pickup team…to change the world,” one’s eyes don’t even necessarily roll…

Here’s the trailer:

 

Screening Room: ‘What Lies Upstream’

The bracing new documentary What Lies Upstream is a scarifying investigation that starts with a chemical leak into a West Virginia river and expands into an indictment of a nationwide regulatory system riddled with lax oversight and dangerous levels of compromise.

What Lies Upstream is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International.

Here’s the trailer.

Nota Bene: Weird Tales from the Yiddish Press

Eddie Portnoy’s book Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange But True Stories from the Yiddish Press is chock-full of goodies printed in prewar Yiddish-language papers in New York and Warsaw. The New York Times review approvingly noted Portnoy’s collection of stories about “vengeful lovers, demented blackmailers and unscrupulous abortionists.”

Here’s a good one, per David Mikics:

Portnoy spends some time on the story of Martin (Blimp) Levy, a professional wrestler who in his heyday weighed more than 600 pounds. Levy, who started his career in 1937, was, according to his manager, “a freak with class.” He was flexible, even agile: Bad Rabbi contains a photo of him doing the splits. Levi was also a bona fide chick magnet. He was married at least three times, always to young, svelte women. (In one divorce case, Levy testified that his spouse physically abused him; the judge ruled in his favor.) In 1946 he married an 18-year-old fan. That same year, he was barred from wrestling in the United States because doctors feared he would drop dead in the ring. A few years later he was reduced to playing the fat man in a circus. Levy, who ended up weighing 900 pounds, died at age 56 in an Alabama motel…

Quote of the Day: Moderation vs. Justice

From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Nota Bene: Anne Frank’s Family Tried to Escape to America

In 1941, Anne Frank’s had left Germany for the Netherlands and was trying to escape to America. Her father Otto Frank wrote to a college friend living there asking for help and money to cover the deposit for their visas:

I am forced to look out for emigration and as far as I can see U.S.A. is the only country we could go to … Perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.

Because of tightening restrictions on refugees from Europe, pushed in part by hardening anti-foreigner sentiment in America, Otto was unable to secure visas for his family. They went into hiding in 1942.

Anne, her sister, and mother later died in concentration camps.

Writer’s Desk: Keep it Professional

Writing is work. You wouldn’t show up to the office in your pajamas, right? (Well, maybe you would.)

For some writers, keeping a separate office and even a separate demeanor and outfit from their home routine helps keep them in a mental space that’s good for writing. Think of it as putting on your uniform before going to work.

Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro keeps it businesslike, even when there’s nobody around to know the difference, and for good reason:

It’s very easy to fool yourself that you’re working, you know, when you’re really not working very hard. I mean, I’m very lazy. So for me, I would always have an excuse, you know, to go – quit early, go to a museum, you know. So I do everything I can to make myself remember this is a job. I keep a schedule. People laugh at me for wearing, you know, a coat and tie to work…