Reader’s Corner: ‘Caste’ and the Other American Exceptionalism

In the newest book from Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns), she brings a sweeping narrative scope and pointillist detail to her argument that three societies in modern human history have established strict caste systems: Nazi Germany, India, and the United States. It’s a bracing stance and one that is likely to cause some heated debate.

Caste will be published next week. My review is at PopMatters:

…as Wilkerson writes, race is not only important to understanding the American class system, it is crucial. Talking about America’s “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid”, she says there are essentially only two notable corollaries in human history: Nazi Germany and “the lingering, millennia-long caste system of India.” For Wilkerson, each system relied on stigmatizing people deemed inferior “to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement.”

The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt here.

Nota Bene: Patricia Highsmith and Stan Lee

During World War II, Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee was working as an in-house writer for the U.S. Army (training movies about organizing your footlocker or field-stripping your rifle). He was still moonlighting for Marvel (then called Timely Comics), where the editor who replaced him, Vince Fago, was intrigued by another of their writers: Patricia Highsmith.

According to Highsmith’s biographer Joan Schenkar:

Vince Fago took Lee up to Pat’s apartment “near Sutton Place,” hoping to make a “match” between Pat and Stan Lee. But the future creator of the talented Mr. Ripley was not fated to go out on a date with the future facilitator of Spider-Man. “Stan Lee,” said Vince Fago, “was only interested in Stan Lee,” and Pat wasn’t exactly admitting where her real sexual interests lay…

Which raises the question: Who would win in a showdown: Captain America or Tom Ripley? Discuss.

Screening Room: ‘Kiss Me Deadly’

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My article on Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) was published at Eyes Wide Open:

For sheer brazen strange, it’s hard to top Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir adaptation of the skull-busting Mickey Spillane novel. It’s a mystery that never gets solved and a thriller that creeps more than excites. The closest that it gets to an explanation is a cynical, tired reference by the hero’s gal Friday to “nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit.” All this confusion very likely derives from Aldrich clearly holding Spillane’s book in some contempt (as he did most things). But then it’s hard to say that a greater fidelity to the source material would have cleared matters up much…

Here’s the trailer for the Criterion release:

Writer’s Desk: Story Over Style

The late graphic designer Milton Glaser was respected not just for his iconic creations (everything from DC Comics’ “bullet” logo to “I Heart New York”) but for what he had to say about creativity.

One of his best-known advice essays was a talk he gave called “10 Things I Have Learned.” While some are likely more relevant to the design business than other creative endeavors, lesson six is one that writers will want to keep in mind: “Style is Not to be Trusted”:

It’s absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your loyalty.

There are many writers who may unthinkingly box themselves in. Because they have always written narrative essays, they may think they cannot try fiction. Or a writer of cozy mysteries may not follow an idea for an autobiographical sketch dealing with family trauma because that is not “their style.”

Glaser’s point was more about not chasing trends, which is also valuable advice for any artist.

But in the end, it’s the story that counts, not your style.

Reader’s Corner: Add Your Favorite Book

James Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is one of those books that some readers eye with interest but trepidation. On the one hand, is there anything better really than poring over a compilation about the greatest books ever written? On the other hand, doesn’t this just end up adding to the already untenable pile of unread books in the corner?

It’s a challenge.

Either way, it’s worth going over to Mustich’s website. In addition to letting readers categorize the 1,000 books into three groups (Agree / Life’s Too Short / Want to Read), it also has the “Add a Book” function. Don’t see your favorite book? Suggest that he add it. (For instance: He has William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition but not Neuromancer and nothing by Roddy Doyle or Junot Diaz; however, he does have some welcome but less-expected choices like the first Nancy Drew mystery The Secret of the Old Clock and Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis.)

And by doing so you can add to somebody else’s untenable pile of the unread.

Screening Room: ‘The Rental’

In The Rental, the debut movie from Dave Franco (James Franco’s far less prolific brother), four hipsters, including a particularly oily Dan Stevens (a long way from Downton Abbey) head up to a secluded cabin for a vacation that turns, well, dicey.

The Rental is available for streaming and can be seen at some drive-ins starting this Friday. Check it out.

My review is at PopMatters:

In many horror movies, once the malevolence of the setting has been made clear, there remains a significant amount of celluloid left to run as the characters fight for survival. That is not the case in The Rental, which feels at first more like a gloomily-lit smaller-scale version of [co-writer Joe Swanberg’s] Drinking Buddies, a far gentler comedic take on two couples who lose sight of boundaries during a weekend at the shore. Not so here, where the foursome just starts to realize the threat of their surroundings when the trap starts to swing shut…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Radioactive’

Rosamund Pike plays Marie Curie in Radioactive, a visually inventive though somewhat dramatically challenged biopic from graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi.

Radioactive is available for streaming this week.

My review is at Slant:

The way the film tells it, fame came easy for the Curies. In one initially comic yet foreboding scene, Pierre shows Marie a series of commercial products wanting to cash in on their glowing discovery: radium matches, chocolate, and even chewing gum. However, that acceptance was likely because the sexist scientific establishment could better stomach Marie’s seeming impertinence (“I’m going to prove them wrong, just like Newton did”) when she was paired with a man, and soon turns against her after a tabloid scandal reminds the French that she’s a foreigner…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: John Lewis and Thomas Merton

On Bloody Sunday in 1965, the late civil rights icon John Lewis (who passed away last Friday) was marching with other voting-rights activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama when they were attacked by a mob of police and vigilantes. Many marchers were hospitalized, including Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull.

Lewis had planned to be arrested, so he had a backup with a few essentials: fruit and some books. One of the books was The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer whose work Lewis studied during the civil rights movement.

Later, Lewis said the books were never recovered:

I just wished I had them. The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are always asking me what happened to them and I tell them I really don’t know.

Writer’s Desk: It’s All Material

A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser. A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.

Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out

There is one rule that should be learned by everybody who knows or is related to a writer: Beware. Everything that happens and is said is fodder for the printed page.

Nota Bene: Country Music’s Status Quo

Grand Ole Opry Billboard.jpg

Why is country music having a moment during the pandemic? And how does it relate to the COVID-19 prevention backlash? Spencer Kornhaber has a theory:

While pop tends to envision one big night where you transcend your boring condition, and hip-hop often touts material success turning an ordinary life into an extraordinary one, country fetishizes the day-after-day realities of homes, highways, and beer halls. There are exceptions, but typically it’s a genre in which work and family and place all are held up as things that must be defended…

The Atlantic

Reader’s Corner: Another Prize for Colson Whitehead

This must be some kind of record. But after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the Orwell award, Colson Whitehead (The Nickel Boys) was just awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. In a statement, Whitehead said:

I hope that right now there’s a young kid who looks like me, who sees the Library of Congress recognize Black artists and feels encouraged to pursue their own vision and find their own sacred spaces of inspiration…

In related Whitehead news, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of his alternate historical novel The Underground Railroad is supposedly still set to air at some point on Amazon.

Writer’s Desk: Write Like it Matters

New York, New York. Library of the New York Times newspaper. Editors and writers can look up every conceivable subject and get information not available in the "morgue"

This week, Harper’s published a piece from a list of writers ranging from J.K. Rowling to Malcolm Gladwell, Todd Gitlin, Dexter Filkins, and Dahlia Lithwick – as well as a range of other public intellectuals and artists (Zephyr Techout to Bill T. Jones and Gloria Steinem) – titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”

Here’s the gist:

We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us…

Harper’s

Remember your Ray Bradbury: “If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.”

Don’t think about what people will think. Use your judgement. Be thoughtful, yet unsparing. Write what is true. Put your soul into it.

If not, why bother?

Screening Room: ‘The Truth’

Poster image for The Truth

In the latest family drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche play a battling mother and daughter whose versions of the past are dramatically different.

The Truth is streaming now here.

My review is at PopMatters:

For Koreeda’s first non-Japanese movie, The Truth is not the sort of film that will likely introduce him to a broad new audience, even in a world where movie theaters were still open. Funny, thoughtful, and occasionally wicked, it feels closer to his more genial entertainments like Our Little Sister (2015) than his sharper and more barbed pieces like Shoplifters or Like Father, Like Son …

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’

Chad Freidrichs’ 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth challenged some long-unchallenged myths of the debate over public housing, not to mention the systemic racism embedded in some of the more infamous complexes, such as St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe (seen here being demolished in 1972). It is still an incredibly relevant piece of work.

My article on The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is at Eyes Wide Open:

As Freidrichs shows, the lessons supposedly learned from this ignominious episode weren’t entirely wrong but they certainly weren’t all correct, either. As usual, it was the poor and powerless who received the blame, while the powers that be escaping censure and pointing fingers back at those whom they were to have been helping…

You can stream the movie for free this month at Vimeo:

Writer’s Desk: Ignore Success

As a writer, one generally understands that your work is most likely going to be overlooked by the vast majority of humanity. That doesn’t mean you don’t hope for some vindication in the form of some nice reviews and maybe even a royalty check every now and again. But expecting any kind of reward like that is a recipe for disappointment.

On the other end of the spectrum is the recently late Charles Webb. The author of The Graduate and Hope Springs, he spent most of his career doing everything possible to avoid success. Per The New York Times, Webb:

gave away homes, paintings, his inheritance, even his royalties from The Graduate, which became a million-seller after the movie’s success, to the benefit of the Anti-Defamation League. He awarded his £10,000 [about $12,530] payout from Hope Springs as a prize to a performance artist named Dan Shelton, who had mailed himself to the Tate Modern in a cardboard box…

That does not mean that if you are so lucky as to have a book that gets made into a generational classic movie you should give your money to a performance artist. But if you are waiting for a big (or any) payday, you may have chosen the wrong profession.

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)