Writer’s Desk: Move to Paris

Sometimes you just want to chuck it all and move to Paris. That’s how travel writer Edwina Hart ended up there after reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in her twenties (a dangerous thing to do when young and unmoored from adult responsibilities). She got an attic studio apartment in Montemarte and proceeded to fall in love with the city, particularly Hemingway’s beloved Shakespeare and Company bookstore.

After losing her apartment, Hart blew into the bookstore as one of its resident “Tumbleweeds” (“a title given to fledgling writers that live in the bookshop for free based on the proviso they ‘read a book a day'”). According to Hart:

Although little writing was ever done, I began to truly feel like a writer. I adopted the French art of flaneuring – wandering around without intention or direction. Armed with observations of Parisian life, I would scribble my thoughts down at street-side cafes or in the shade of chestnut trees in Jardin du Luxembourg (where Hemingway used to hunt pigeons to feed his family). On weekends, Tumbleweeds would make crepes in the kitchen of George’s apartment above the shop. Sunday afternoons were spent attending tea parties run by an octogenarian Welsh poet who regaled us with stories of how George used to cut his hair by setting it alight with a candle, or leave his shop entrusted to an unwitting customer, only to return a week later…

Little writing was ever done. Nevertheless, sometimes it helps to just feel like a writer.

Reader’s Corner: Faulkner and the Trumps

Late next month, Simon & Schuster will publish Too Much and Never Enough, the inside story of the creation of Donald Trump from a close source: his niece Mary.

Unlike her uncle, Mary seemed to enjoy school, earning several degrees in psychology. While attending Tufts University, she studied William Faulkner, whose novels became a favorite. She appeared to be drawn in particular to his stories of the Compsons in novels like The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! According to the Washington Post:

The Compsons bore some similarities to her own family: Like Donald Trump’s mother, the Compsons immigrated to the United States from Scotland, and the family was riven by dysfunction. At the time, Donald Trump was running his Atlantic City casinos, which went into bankruptcy, and preparing to divorce his first wife, Ivana, and marry Marla Maples…

She may still see a connection. Last year, she created a company named Compson Enterprises. In order to maintain secrecy, her byline for her bombshell book was originally listed as Mary Compson.

Screening Room: Docs to Watch Out For

Last week’s online edition of the AFI DOCS film festival featured premieres of several documentaries that will be worth keeping your eyes peeled for later in the year when they hit broader release. I reviewed two of them for The Playlist.

  • 9to5: The Story of a Movement (pictured above): “Even in our supposedly more enlightened times, when people hear the word ‘labor,’ they are likely to conjure up a predictable set of mental images: Burly white guys in hard hats…”
  • White Noise: “A queasily riveting documentary that puts the audience far closer than comfort to some of the worst people in the world…”

Screening Room: ‘Irresistible’

In Jon Stewart’s new political comedy, two high-powered political consultants turn a tiny mayoral race in Wisconsin into an absurd battle for national attention.

Irresistible opens this week in VOD. My review is at Slant:

The film doesn’t focus its ire on Trump, conservatives, and the like, but rather on the cable news and consultant infrastructure that was accelerating America’s collapsing democratic polity long before anybody in a red baseball cap screamed “Lock her up!” and will continue to do so after Trump leaves the White House. This makes sense from Stewart, who went after Glenn Beck back in 2010 not through white-hot invective, but by holding a rally dedicated to polite, level-headed disagreement. These are desperate times, but if Stewart wants to tack toward a more Frank Capra vein, that’s just fine. We already have one Adam McKay…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Give It Time

In 1948, Evelyn Waugh sent a letter to Thomas Merton in which he offered the following bit of advice from one writer to another:

Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask “Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point when I could have fixed the whole thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?”…

Wall Street Journal

You might disagree with Waugh’s usage of “plebeian” here (he was, after all, one of the great snobs of English literature, a genre already replete with the type). But the point remains solid: Take a second. Look again. That sentence you thought was carved with beautiful simplicity like a jewel could now show itself to be a bit baggy, in need of a little more carving.

Screening Room: ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’

To celebrate Juneteenth, and also to act as a kind of counter-programming for tomorrow’s Trump rally, Dawn Porter’s new documentary about civil rights legend John Lewis (who will be also the subject of a new biography by Jon Meacham coming out this fall) is having a free screening in Tulsa today.

John Lewis: Good Trouble opens elsewhere on July 3. My review is at The Playlist:

Like any successful politician, John Lewis has a supply of anecdotes and applause lines to pull out whenever he is needed. One of the go-to bits we hear in the movie involves a memory from his childhood on a farm where, as a deeply religious and studious boy, he would preach to the family chickens. They would nod along, he says, but could never quite get to “Amen.” He more frequently pulls out a line that serves as his call to action. Arrested dozens of times over his career, Lewis cites the need for people to get into what he calls “Necessary trouble. Good trouble” in order to enact change…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Wasp Network’

Wasp Network

In the 1990s, the Castro regime sent several operatives to infiltrate the Cuban-American emigre community in Miami. Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network is a fictionalization of that somewhat forgotten sidenote of the post-Cold War years.

Wasp Network is available on Netflix today. My review is at Slant:

Based on Fernando Morais’s 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film starts out as a crisply paced, lavishly photographed, and character-based study of what the members of the so-called “Cuban Five” spy ring did and how they did it. Unfortunately, it spreads its attentions so wide and at times without consequence that the import of the events it depicts starts to get lost…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Babyteeth’

Babyteeth

Shannon Murphy’s stylized melodrama captures a terminally ill teenager raging against the dying of the light.

Babyteeth opens this week. My review is at Slant:

Babyteeth neatly threads the needle between tragedy and comedy. The film follows Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a teenage cancer patient who’s mostly given up on life when Moses (Toby Wallace), a slightly older drug dealer, bumps into her on a train platform. For her, it’s deep crushing love at first swoon and a reason to keep getting up in the morning. For him, it’s having an adoring fan to goof around with—especially when he discovers that her father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), is a psychiatrist who happens to have lots of pharmaceuticals lying around…

Writer’s Desk: Speaking Out Loud

When David Sedaris is trying to determine what works or not in his writing, he test-drives it in front of an audience:

Sedaris says that he has usually rewritten a story about eight times before he tries it in front of an audience, where he ends up reading it and making tweaks up to 40 times before it is published. What he learns during those readings accounts for about 20% of the changes he makes in his text.

“If something is on its feet, I can make it stronger by reading it out loud,” he says. “When I’m reading things on stage, I try to be a little bit different every night. It takes you a week just to learn how to read it. But if you read it only once? That’s why all those stories in Barrel Fever seem so crude to me now.” These days, he says, by the time he records an audio book, he has a well-rehearsed tape in his head…

If you don’t have an audience (at readings, Sedaris will draw a skull next to a bit that doesn’t play well), read your story out loud while recording. Listen to it later and evaluate as though you were hearing a different person. Edit accordingly and without fear of hurting the writer’s feelings. In the end, no matter how harsh your feedback, it will be more generous than many readers.

Screening Room: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The 2020 edition of the always worthwhile Human Rights Watch Film Festival is going virtual this year, like everything else. It’s a shorter than normal list of documentaries, but still contains some sharp and unforgettable work.

The movies range from Coded Bias (pictured above), which studies the ways white male coders can embed prejudice in seemingly impartial algorithms, to Welcome to Chechnya, a harrowing nonfiction thriller about the activists fighting to get LGBTQ people out of Chechnya before they are tortured and killed, to Radio Silence, a taut story about a Mexico City journalist being hounded by a government that cares more about investigating her than actual criminals.

My coverage of the festival is at PopMatters:

In a time when specialty movie events have been ever more narrowly targeted (festivals devoted to food, puppetry, and so on down the rabbit hole of monomania), the HRWFF went large. It served as a global snapshot of how humanity was faring in the fight to uphold basic standards of freedom and decency for its people. The unsurprising answer tends to be a variant on: Not well…

Writer’s Corner: Maintain Momentum

Waiting for inspiration is no way to write. One has to have a routine. Granted, that routine is likely to be a messy one. Take Lionel Shriver’s glimpse into her daily writing schedule:

Start with large, strong coffee. Read paper, doesn’t much matter which one. Concentrate on little stories. Dostoevsky snatched scads of ideas from newspapers. Self could not make this stuff up, so why bother?

…DO NOT LOOK AT EARLIER CHAPTERS. Do not pour through thousands of words searching for whatever Self called some character’s yappy dog several chapters back. First drafts rely on MOMENTUM. Refining adjectives does not count as work. Solving what-does-she-say-next and why-would-he-do-that, or making daily effort to construct at least one paragraph justifying stupid book’s existence – one paragraph other people might conceivably want to read in sloshing sea of unnecessary, look-at-me prose in which whole world is drowning – this is work.

There are writers who do not feel comfortable unless their prose has been raked over a dozen times until it is clean and sparkling bright. That can be done at one’s leisure, but as Shriver notes, momentum is all. If you don’t maintain a steady pace (helped along by routine) then you will not have anything to review later.

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Kill Chain’

In Christian Brose’s position-paper-ish book The Kill Chain, he lays out a strong argument for why the Pentagon’s complacency and ineptitude could very well doom the American military the next time they engage in a shooting war with a world power.

Here’s his scenario for what would happen in a Pacific conflict:

Cyberattacks would grind down the logistical movement of US forces into combat. The defenseless cargo ships and aircraft that would ferry much of that force across the Pacific would be attacked every step of the way. Satellites on which US forces depend for intelligence, communications, and global positioning would be blinded by lasers, shut down by high-energy jammers, or shot out of orbit altogether by antisatellite missiles…. [As] China’s hypersonic weapons [reaching five times the speed of sound] slammed into US bases, they would destroy fighter jets and other aircraft on the ground before US pilots could even get them airborne

The Kill Chain is out now. My review is at PopMatters.