Writer’s Desk: First, Make Yourself Happy

Let’s face it: Sitting at a desk and putting words on paper or a screen and then (hopefully) printing them out in a big block of pages that will (again, hopefully) not immediately end up in the remainder stacks, can be drudgery. So find some joy in it.

Per Michael Holroyd:

The only happiness one gets from writing is doing a good day’s work, of suddenly discovering something on the page which works. You pick up the page, you shake it, it’s there, it doesn’t come to bits, and you didn’t know it at the beginning of the day and now you know it. Now that’s a real happiness, and unless there is some element of that, well why on earth is one writing? Because otherwise moving a pen across the page is not all that enjoyable…

Screening Room: ‘Mute’

The new sci-fi movie from Duncan Jones (Source Code, Moon) is called Mute and it premieres on Netflix today. My review is at Film Journal International:

What might happen if M*A*S*H’s Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce jumped about a century ahead in time, went AWOL and worked as black-market sawbones for gangsters in a post-EU Berlin? If you ever wondered about the answer to that question, then Duncan Jones’ Mute is the movie for you. If not, then your best bet would be to stay far away, as in Korea and Germany far away…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Party’

The new movie from Sally Potter (Orlando) is a quick-witted chamber piece starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, and Timothy Spall, among others. It’s playing now in limited release and absolutely worth seeking out.

My review of The Party is at PopMatters:

…from the first flash-forward appearance of a frazzled Kristin Scott Thomas brandishing a pistol through the onion-skin layering of the initially celebratory and ultimately catastrophic dinner party that follows, this is a high-spirited black comedy with a crackling, biting energy…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’

When Ta-Nehisi Coates published his third book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays on black American history and current affairs late last year, the country was still just getting used to its new presidential reality. Or not.

My review is at RainTaxi Review of Books:

Until recently, when the true desolation of the early Trump era has started metastasizing in even the most ardent optimist’s heart, America had a script to use after a catastrophe. Whether a mass shooting, natural disaster, or police atrocity, each event was termed an opportunity for a “national dialogue” on guns, race, class, climate change, or what have you. Those conversations never happened because there was always another catastrophe, and in any case, the culture had mostly lost interest in the public intellectuals needed to push forward such a conversation. That changed, however, in 2014, when The Atlantic published one of the most talked-about pieces of writing in recent memory, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” Suddenly, the country was having a conversation. And it wasn’t an easy one…

Nota Bene: Not the Country You Voted For

From Yascha Mounk’s “America is Not a Democracy“:

…across a range of issues, public policy does not reflect the preferences of the majority of Americans. If it did, the country would look radically different: Marijuana would be legal and campaign contributions more tightly regulated; paid parental leave would be the law of the land and public colleges free; the minimum wage would be higher and gun control much stricter; abortions would be more accessible in the early stages of pregnancy and illegal in the third trimester.

Writer’s Desk: (Don’t Just) Write What You Know

Nathan Englander (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) casts a little cold water on limiting your writing to what you’ve experienced personally:

I think the most famous piece of writing advice that there is is “write what you know,” and I think it’s—honestly, I think it’s the best piece of advice there is, but I think it’s the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is. It’s so simple and so obvious. It used to terrify me, this idea of “write what you know.” I was dreaming, I was in suburbia, in my house, dreaming of being of a writer, and I thought, what am I going to do with “write what you know”? What I know from childhood is I was on the couch, watching TV. So I should simply rewrite a whole series of sitcoms for you. I should write a book called What’s Happening? and then I should write a book called Little House on the Prairie is on at 5 o’clock. . .

Reader’s Corner: Surround Yourself With Books

Umberto Eco (1932–2016) was famous for having one of the world’s great libraries. It contained about 30,000 volumes and knocked the socks off pretty much everybody who saw it. (There’s a video here of the Foucault’s Pendulum author wandering through it.)

Did he read all those books? Of course not. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, that’s a good thing. Here’s Taleb quoted by Maria Popova:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.

Keep collecting those books, as long as space and money allow. You’ll get to them. Eventually.

Nota Bene: On Being a Black Nerd

From Lawrence Ware’s “Black Panther and the Revenge of the Black Nerds,” where he talks about what the release of a blockbuster adaptation of the Black Panther comic series means:

Now I know that to be a black nerd is by no means anomalous; there are millions of people who look like me and grew up loving comic books. Yet despite our numbers, we were underground for a long time. But now, there appears to be a widening cultural appreciation for what black people have always known: There are many ways to be black in America. The 44th president helped.

Barack Obama meant a lot to black nerds. Jordan Peele, the director of “Get Out,” told NPR back in 2012, “Up until Obama, it was basically Urkel and the black guy from ‘Revenge of the Nerds.’” President Obama showed us that to be black and nerdy could actually be an expression of black cool, what the author Rebecca Walker who compiled a series of essays on that topic, defines as audacity, resistance and authenticity in the face of white supremacy.

Screening Room: ‘Nostalgia’

The new movie from Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) is a quiet little riff on memories, starring Jon Hamm and Catherine Keener.

Nostalgia opens this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

When Susan Sontag wrote that photography “converts the whole world into a cemetery,” she could have easily expanded that to include just about any personal possession. Everything we own, from a favorite album from adolescence to a souvenir spoon from that visit to the Grand Canyon, stands ready as a potential repository of some memory of us after we are gone. That prehistoric sense of possessions being imbued with some kind of animist spirit is shot all through Mark Pellington’s dramaturgical flatline of a curiosity-piece movie about nostalgia, stuff and the things (in all sense of the word) that we leave behind…

Nota Bene: Pageants, Parades, and Mardi Gras

Now that Mardi Gras is upon us once again, it’s time to ponder what indeed it is like to miss New Orleans:

We end, as many things should, with the timeless poetry of Professor Longhair:

Writer’s Desk: Read It and Wing It

A notable anti-academic observation on the writing life from Kurt Vonnegut, collected in George Plimpton’s The Writer’s Chapbook:

I grew up in a house crammed with books. But I never had to read a book for academic credit, never had to write a paper about it, never had to prove I’d understood it in a seminar. I am a hopelessly clumsy discusser of books. My experience is nil…

Reader’s Corner: Afghanistan Book Business Booms

Only two out of five Afghans can read. But those who can are snapping up as many books as they can. In a country where foreign aid budgets and cheap imports have destroyed many local businesses, publishing is flourishing. Kabul alone has at least 60 bookstores and close to two dozen publishers (up from a mere two during the Taliban years).

Per the Times recent dispatch from the frontlines of Afghan bookselling:

In a turbulent, troubled society, curling up with a book has become the best tonic around.

“I think in any environment, but perhaps especially places at war, book reading creates a pause from day-to-day life and isolates a reader from their surroundings while they’re buried in a book,” said Jamshid Hashimi, who runs an online library and is a co-founder of the Book Club of Afghanistan. “This is powerful anywhere, but in a place like Afghanistan, it can be a means of emotional survival.”

Interestingly, many recent bestsellers have been Afghan translations of books by Westerners about Afghanistan, such as Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and The Envoy, Zalmay Khalizad’s memoir about serving as American ambassador in Kabul.

Screening Room: ‘A Fantastic Woman’

The Oscar-nominated A Fantastic Woman, directed by Chile’s great Sebastian Lelio (Gloria), is playing now in limited release.

My review is at PopMatters:

The most romantic element of …  A Fantastic Woman comes early and its absence is never quite filled. Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a 57-year-old Santiago businessman with a gentle sort of gravitas, is finishing up his day at the office and heading out to meet his girlfriend. Walking into a dinner club, he pauses to listen to the beautiful singer of the mediocre band. As she croons a tart little ballad about how “your love is like yesterday’s newspaper”, Orlando watches with eyes that simply drink her in like someone newly smitten…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: Ike Didn’t Love Parades

According to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, in the 1950s, some generals approached former general Dwight Eisenhower about having big Soviet-style military parades to show off American military might:

“Eisenhower said absolutely not, we are the preeminent power on Earth,” Beschloss says, recalling Eisenhower’s response. “For us to try to imitate what the Soviets are doing in Red Square would make us look weak.”

Reader’s Corner: ‘Heather, the Totality’

In this novel from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, the lives of a spiritually deadened uptown Manhattan family intersect with the downward trajectory of a New Jersey convict who never had a chance.

My review of Heather, the Totality is at PopMatters:

Nobody will finish this novel remembering a sublime fillip of dialogue or splash of lovely description. They are more likely to snap the book shut about three or so hours after picking it up—and they almost certainly will fly through it at that speed, because this thin blade of a book has a wicked magnetic pull—and pour themselves a couple fingers of something strong. To steady the nerves…

You can read an excerpt here.