Wednesday, July 28, 2010

New Film Reviews! The Best of Youth (2003) & Atanarjuat, or The Fast Runner (2002)

I hadn't seen any movies for a while, due to a combination of factors: summer, the completion of my previous list, the simultaneous breakdown of all my movie playing machines, and the necessity, when I got a new one, of getting a new television in order that the new machines might work properly (my old television, now moved to the bedroom, dates from 1997). This being finally all amended, I began putting together a new list, which it is my habit to generally watch the films of in reverse chronological order; I am not sure why this is, but the sensation of going backwards in time slowly and ultimately not very far appeals to me. This is another reason by the way why I haven't been watching much at the moment--more recent movies don't tend to excite me all that much even though many of them turn out to be pretty good, so I am usually in no great hurry to set about seeing them.

The Best of Youth, which originally appeared on Italian television as a six hour miniseries, is to me a good illustration of the thesis that the cinema may be dying just as much as the novel and rock and roll are, or are said to be. It is not a bad movie, in fact it is a pretty good movie, but as it appeared on many people's top ten lists for the entire decade of the 2000s, my intuition would be to say that if this was one of the top ten films of the 2000s (very few films from which I have seen, by the way, none of which I thought were great--Oldboy was very good) then the 2000s was not a good decade for the cinema. To begin with, its whole presentation is highly conventional and bourgeois--I have seen its structure compared in several places to that of a 19th century novel--and owes a lot more to modern Hollywood and television (which it was originally made for, to be fair) than to what one thinks of as the classic strain of Italian cinema. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, though it has the effect that nothing especially interesting or surprising ever really happens in the course of movie. I am surprised that so many serious critics seem to think highly of it, as it seems like more or less the same kind of thing they must have seen a million times before. The movie is a baby boomer saga set from 1966 to the present (2003). The main characters are two brothers, one of whom goes the leftist/communist route and the other who joins the army and becomes a policemen. A lot of famous/infamous episodes in recent Italian history pop up (though curiously the Berlusconi era, which one assumes the militant leftist characters of the 60s and 70s must despise at some level no matter mellowed they have become, is glossed over under the comfortable security of houses in Tuscany, pretty clothes, that edgeless, prosperous, self-satisfied style of yuppie wine-drinking that is so annoying to look at). Politics are ostensibly highly important in the movie but I did not think they were handled in a satisfactory manner, since I still don't have a good sense for what motivated, for example, the fury behind the student revolts of '68 and the riots and Red Brigade bombings of the 1970s, nor why this fury abated or is not re-emerging to the same degree today, when there are seemingly just as many good reasons to be violently angry as there were in the 70s. It sounds as if I don't like this movie, which actually I do. Some of the characters were interesting, especially the right-wing brother (above). There was a photographer played an actress named Maya Sensa who I thought was very good-looking (the second picture on this page is not of her, btw). It was filmed all over Italy, which is always beautiful and poignant. One oddity is that they didn't do much to alter the actors' appearances over the course of years, so the mostly 30-35ish cast looks way too old when they're supposed to be in college, and after about the mid-80s when they settle on a consistent hairstyle they don't really change at all, so that at the end of the movie when they should be in their 50s or pushing it they all look presposterously good.

There is a bit split in Italian movies around 1980 or so when the older, classic generation--Fellini, De Sica,Visconti, etc--finally passed on, and the postwar generation began to take their place. This was already becoming evident in some movies that were popular around the time I was in college, like Cinema Paradiso and The Postman (I enjoyed both of these movies, but I remember when seeing the latter in the theater one of the most esteemed faculty members at my college, who had probably been friends with Neruda for all I know, stood up about an hour into the showing and walked out with an expression of disgust. At the time I figured the banality of the movie's psychology had caused this reaction, but now I wonder if she had really been intending to see the post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner movie of the same name which happened to be out around the same time). One of the to me more interesting characteristics of those movies, as well as The Best of Youth and other lesser recent Italian films, is the sentiment of discomfort with one's own prosperity, which is in its apparent pervasiveness through a wide swathe the culture seems to be a peculiarly Italian phenomenom. This discomfort has two facets. One of which is the sense of 'we were hopelessly poor and we were starving half the time and our lives were run by priests and so on, but we were also somehow more alive and we have lost that vitality'. The second is the sense not merely of being undeserving of the degree of comfort and wealth which the modern economy has bestowed on one but of finding it at some level absurd and vulgar as well. I think it is curious that Italian filmmakers have such a strong sense of this, since plenty of ancient and relatively poor countries have undergone single generation transitions to affluent modern technolife in recent years, but the impression of something profound having been lost--not that it is exactly made clear what that something is either--is not as pervasive in movies and artworks and such that I have seen from these other nations.

The Fast Runner is a movie from Canada, made entirely in the Inuktuit language. As you may have gathered, it is about eskimos. The critics, who must be deathly starved for anything novel, on the whole loved it. It won an audience prize at Cannes and was voted one of the top ten Canadian movies of all time by a Toronto film festival panel, which I take to have been a distinguished bunch. Personally I didn't think it was particularly compelling. It was shot in videotape, first of all, which I don't think I will ever like. It was nearly three hours, with limited plot development and action, which was may too much. It should have been 80 minutes at most. The arctic landscape, while objectively beautiful in its special way, also rather quickly becomes bleak and oppressive, and the lives of eskimos in general, to be honest, can be described in similar terms. If you then imagine nothing but these images and activities repeated without any break for over a thousand years, these impressions only get worse. I had no idea while I was watching it whether the story was supposed to be taking place now, or a hundred or a thousand years ago, and I found that that dislocation from time also bothered and oppressed me. (though I thought that most of the eskimos had been moved into government housing and were now television-addicted alcoholics, a part of me was not sure of this). The story is a legend of revenge in the name of tribal cleansing and purification. It is the sort of thing that ought to be powerful but I confess was not able to experience it at that high level of conscious being, let alone the higher one of unconsciousness.
The people in this see and communicate with spirits a lot, which phenomenon I do believe to have some kind of interesting basis in truth, though my own consciousness is way too overdeveloped to be able to accept or make contact with any of those intelligences.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Great Smoky Mountains National ParkI went here recently on vacation. It's hardly an unknown spot--it gets something like 10 million visitors a year, is the most visited of all the national parks, several of the towns around the edges of it are major, even notorious, tourist resorts--but I did not know much about it. My family when I was growing up was not much into parks or spending time in nature, so I have never been accustomed to think of these kinds of places as being on the list of destinations I might want to see someday. As far as I can tell, this area is not very well known in the Northeast generally. It is a pretty long way from New England but not terribly far--8 or 9 hours--from the Washington, D.C. area, not farther than Cape Cod and closer than Maine certainly, but I don't remember hearing of anyone going to the Smokies when I lived there either, though it is possible it did not register with me because at the time I did not know anything about the place and hearing about it probably would not have interested me.
As has happened in other instances over the last few years, I came upon the idea of going to the Smoky Mountains from my 1962 World Illustrated Encyclopedia, which offers travel recommendations rooted in the earnest enthusiasms and interests of an optimistic and aspiring middle class person of that time, with which sensibility I have a lot of sympathy. As I have noted elsewhere, this encyclopedia was especially keen on patriotic historical sites and parks, the main national ones of course, but a fair number of state parks or gardens and such were included as well. It liked the Smoky Mountains park a great deal, recommending the latter accompanied by numerous photographs in both the North Carolina and Tennessee sections (the park is located along the border of these states), but giving it its own article as well. Another set of (small) books I have from that same year, the American Geographical Society's "Know Your America Program" touts it enthusiastically and at great length as well. I was piqued and marked it down as something to look into, along with a few other possibilities within reasonable driving distance (defined this year as 12 hours or less either from New Hampshire or Philadelphia--Gatlinburg barely made the cut). Once I got on the internet and saw what a big deal tourism in the Smokies was and how fervently so many people loved it, and how fervently so many other people loathed the scene around the park and the masses who took part in it (no one loathes the park itself by the way) I was overcome with a very strong desire to go and see what this place was all about.
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (home of Dollywood) especially, my researches were telling me, were abominations, nightmares, horrid and tasteless spectacles, Wal-Mart culture at its most depraved, the poor man's Orlando or even Branson. They bulged with the spawn of southern America's trailer parks, an astoundingly (for this day and age) white crowd devoted to Jesus and guns and tattoos, most of whom had never had any exposure to real civilization at all, let alone been within fifty miles of even a semi-respectable school. This all actually did worry me a lot, though more for the sake of my wife, who (knowing nothing of the area herself) I thought might be really angry to find she had been dragged seventeen hours from home to find herself in a hellhole surrounded by stupid and nasty rednecks. However there was still the allure of the park, of which the consensus even of the most vociferous Gatlinburg haters was that it was super-duper, and also I read through a lot of personal blogs by people who loved vacationing there, and they seemed nice enough, and their lack of pretentiousness compared to east coast people was actually kind of charming--pretty young wives expressing enthusiasm about going to a favorite pancake house or a hotel with a heated pool, that sort of thing. I thought if it turned out to be absurd enough without being really disastrous I could at least get an essay out of it like the famous one David Foster Wallace wrote about his trip on a cruise ship which everyone loved so much.
The park is truly gorgeous and spectacular, well worth going a long way for. Being from the east, and therefore at a long distance from most of the National Parks, this was the first one I had ever been to, including Acadia. It more than surpassed my expectation, which was high but based upon a much lower scale. Now I am curious to see more, though I don't know when I might get around to doing that, as must of the other famous ones are really far away (and then what does one do in say, Death Valley, anyway? It isn't like you can go hiking in the middle of the day, can you?). The Smoky Mountains are unique and interesting in addition to their beauty, which salient impressions I am not always on a sure footing with in matters of nature. The trees and plants and animals at the highest (4,000+ ft) elevations are similar to our mountains in New England, and southern Canada, a relic of the last ice age, the more common southern vegetation which gradually overtook the rest of the region having never conquered these peaks. The lower elevations, especially on the North Carolina side, have a more southern appearance, with horse trails and white water rafting and sycamore and oak trees. The air when one is up in the mountains is fresh and even primeval compared with what in usual in that part of the country in the summer, and even in town though it was in the 80s and fairly humid the air was still cleaner than one would have expected given the extent of traffic and other environmentally appalling human activity taking place there.
On the way back we came some of the way, in both North Carolina and Virginia, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a scenic road that is also administered by the National Park Service (several of the pictures on the page here--I believe the 1st and 4th from the top--were taken in North Carolina along this road). We did not go the whole way, as the road is 469 miles long through mountainous country and is rather slow going. At many points in North Carolina I had a hard time getting above 35 miles per hour. In any event I came away from this trip impressed with the work of the Park Service. Apart from the nature in and through which they operate, the human incursions in these parks--bridges, roads, trails, visitors centers, signs, etc, are tastefully and thoughtfully designed and beautifully maintained. I found the presentation of such information as regarded the natural and human history of the areas under consideration to be at a reasonable adult level of comprehension and interest without being overwhelming or abstruse for the amateur. A lot of people don't like government agencies as being unnecessary and bloated with incompetent and expensive employees, but most of the ones I come into contact with at my level of society are far more reliable, serious, on the level and accountable to the general public without the necessity of hiring legal counsel than most comparable private enterprises.
The horrors of Gatlinburg (where I ended up staying), of which I was so apprehensive that I only reserved rooms for four days in case it should all be too unbearably awful, were decidedly overstated, such that I regretted I had not booked an extra night or two when it was time to leave. The polite travel writing community repeatedly emphasized the place as a mecca for the hee-hawing, tobacco-spitting Dukes of Hazzard loving community, and the kinds of amusements that appeal to this type; there were a few of these people, but no more than at the scruffier beaches or lakefronts in New England, of which there are more than a few. A person I know in New Hampshire who used to live in Nashville assured me when I mentioned where I was going that if I hung out in the town I would see the fattest people I had ever seen in my life; I did not notice that the people were on the whole any fatter than they are anywhere else other than perhaps Paris. In addition the ratio of attractive women to people who made one depressed simply by looking at them was considerably higher than it is almost anywhere in the east, especially at the socioeconomic level that frequents Gatlinburg. The area attracts a lot of families and as such most places are very relaxed about children, which is something I have to take into consideration. We did not stand out nearly as much in Tennessee as we do in much of the north, where families our size seem to be rarer and are considered quite big.
Other misconceptions. The traffic in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, it was related in book after book and site after site, was reputedly a nightmare. While there is some congestion in town that makes for slow going, "town" is about six blocks long, which maybe takes 15 or 20 minutes to get through and has the advantage of very good people watching and the ridiculous/fascinating conglomeration of shopping and outrageous attractions to distract one's attention. If you have ever driven anywhere in the D.C. or New York areas between about 2 and 8 pm on a weekday you will wonder what the fuss is even about. The first day or two I took the recommended shortcuts to avoid this, but I found I actually enjoyed checking out the strip and that the amusement this provided the whole family was well worth the extra twenty minutes it took to get into the park.
A lot of people nowadays (doubtless from both the pro- and anti-diversity contigents) like to make note of the racial makeup of popular vacation spots and take this into consideration when deciding whether to go somewhere. The National Parks especially have become suspect in the eyes of many in recent years due to the fact that they appeal overwhelmingly to white people. It is true that there were very few blacks or hispanics at this place, though still more than you will find at similarly popular vacation spots in New England, with the exception perhaps of the city of Boston. Nonetheless, given the general area of the park's location, the absence of black people would have to be remarked upon by any sensitive reporter. I did see a good amount of Asian Indians there, as I do at parks and natural places in New England as well, and while I did not see any Indians of the American variety, there is a substantial Cherokee reservation just outside the North Carolina entrance of the park (with a big casino). I did not see a lot of Koreans, Japanese, etc, which one does come across quite frequently in New England during the popular seasons. I wondered if they had picked up on the fact that the Yale crowd doesn't think the Smokies are cool and planned their vacation accordingly. It is true that one does not see a lot of people who look like they went to Yale there, though there are certainly plenty of people who went to the University of Tennessee (which is only 30 miles away), and people who went there (as well as plenty of people who didn't go there) really love the University of Tennessee to a degree that would appear bizarre to most state school graduates in the northeast, few of whom seem willing to express the kind of passionate affection for their alma maters that people from Harvard and Bowdoin (people who went to Bowdoin I find really love Bowdoin) and the major state schools in flyover country do. Penn State is a partial exception to this rule, but that is because the school is at least half midwestern in personality. PSU-love is not especially detectable in Philadelphia but grows in fervor the further across the state, especially westward, one fans out.
Another demographic circumstance I suppose I must note is that openly gay people were in serious short supply--I didn't notice anyone obvious at all--and by extension gay couples with children, of which there is at least one family in nearly every class/team/congregation/office I encounter in New England now, were nowhere to be seen. Being me, I actually hadn't noticed this at first. I only minimally have any kind of progressive instinct, and am only conscious of certain kinds of people when they are present and forget when they are blatantly absent to wonder what it is wrong with the place that they should not be there. It was only when I commented to my wife how I was surprised by how friendly everyone was, after reading about how backwards and hostile to anybody progressive or educated they were supposed to be, that she reminded me that yes, they were, but then we are conventional white people with a pretty large family (also of course, I can obviously easily pass for someone who is neither progressive nor educated). This was a good lesson for me.

Al Gore Award. I know what you are thinking, I allowed myself to be overexcited by one of the sweet-talking Tennessee honeys and attempted an unwelcome and inappropriate love attack on her person, but no, though doubtless one can easily imagine a scenario in which such an unfortunate incident might come to pass, it did not do so on this occasion. No, it was my dear wife Sabrina, who hauled several large garbage bags of bottles all the way back to Philadelphia that she might recycle them, Al Gore's nominal home state evidently not having gotten around as yet to setting up a convenient system for doing this. When I asked Angie, the not bad-looking and slightly provocative-dressing manager of my hotel, what I ought to do with the bottles, she shrugged her shoulders and laughed mildly at the ludicrous earnestness of my question, and said in her Appalachian twang--I generally don't go for most southern accents but the Appalachian and general Tennessee versions really work on me for whatever reason--"Just throw 'em in the garbage."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Armies of the Night 3

"...his New York fever, that ferocious inflammation which New York always seemed to encourage: envy, greed, claustrophobia, excitement, bourbon, broads, action, ego, jousts, cruelty and too-rich food in expensive hateful restaurants." When I was on the 8th grade basketball team, I never got into games except at garbage time--even at that I may have gotten into 4 of the 10 games we played. Our team was involved in one very intense game, on the road, against a school from a relatively poor town which famously hated all the other schools in the league and took sports very seriously. The crowd was raucous and hostile, and there were several near fights due to rough play on the court. In spite of all this our team pulled away in the last few minutes and won the game by 10 or 12 points because we were considerably better than they were. The next day several of my more important teammates and various other people, including cheerleaders, were discussing the details of the game with one of our more jockish male teachers, and being always on the alert for a social in I placed myself near the edge of this discussion and, though I had not played a minute in the game, hoped that this fact would somehow be overlooked by the company and I would somehow appear as one of the actors in this drama that was being so eagerly rehashed. As this did not happen I said something, doubtless inane, at which of all people the teacher cut right to the chase and said, rather harshly, though with what I believe was intended as jesting laughter, "(Surrender), you didn't want to be anywhere near that court." This was not true. Now it is true that I would likely have failed miserably and looked ridiculous had I been inserted into the game, but to say that I did not want to be in the game was denying me any kind of ambition or interest in life at all. Yet people say such things all the time to show you that they think you are nothing. What then do I want, if not life? If not to be just like you?

The leaders among the radical protestors of the 60s were somewhat different from the way one thinks of that type of person today. many of the men were brash, cool, confident with chicks, etc. They did talk about the government as if were a faceless, soulless, practically all-powerful entity to be fearful of, but this attitude had not been internalized the way it is today, where people seem to be much more resigned to their own futility and afraid of the consequences of really angering the ruling powers than they were in the 60s. The motifs of things like mass-produced white bread being the embodiment of evil, the "infiltrated enemy who had a grip on them everywhere" were already present, though Mailer seemed to find amusement and possibility in this attitude.

"Lowell made a face. He had an expression which only a fellow writer could comprehend..." It goes without saying that one wonders at what point a person becomes considered a fellow writers. "One could not communicate the horror to anyone who did not write well." Newspaper writers would seem not to qualify, as they are being castigated here for building an ever larger wall of distortion between real writers and the uneducated public, and cultivating terrible habits in the latter. Something of the same effect seems to take place in courts of law, where the unitiated public is strongly dissuaded from trying to actively participate in the refined proceedings, and is not infrequently punished for such breaches of etiquette as not hiring a proper attorney even for minor cases such as traffic court. It is the inattention to the proper subtleties that always reveals the untrained mental type, and to the expert practitioner, this is where all the substance is.

"The thousand days of John Kennedy had done much to change the style of America; nowhere perhaps more than to the sartorial sense of the liberal and Left Wing intellectuals now gathering for breakfast--some drabness had quit them since the fifties...a hint of elegance." I think it is agreed that this era, if it ever in fact existed (though I do think it did, from about 1961-'67, right when this book was written), was extremely short lived. "The whores were out: not a common sight in Washington. The Capitol was usually about as lively at 1 a.m. as the center of Cincinnati late at night..." I have memories of the Washington area just a few years after this time (the mid to late 70s), and it was just starting at that time to become less sleepy and resemble the metropolis it has since become in terms of energy, youth, wealth, and so on. At that time even coming from Philadelphia it seemed a very sedate and minor legaue place--much of the 'talent' that came to work for (or against) the government, which was far fewer people at that time than at present, remained in the area only for a few years and then when the administration changed or whatever would return to where they came from. Every time I go down there nowadays I am astounded at how much huger, richer, more crowded, more attractive to cosmopolites it has become (as well as how huge the government is). Philadelphia by comparision, or at least the parts of it I am most familiar with, though it has of course changed some and had a decent influx both of hipsters and immigrants, the latter mainly Korean and Indian (the Hispanic population in Philadelphia remains very small), is not in the same degree unrecognizable from what it was 30 years ago. Another incredible thing when one regards the state of things today is that in northern Virginia many of the schools (and presumably other public institutions) only desegregated in 1968, one of the last places in the country where this happened, and after the events of this book took place. I know this was the case in Manassas, because one of my uncles lived there for a time and married a woman from there, and also in Alexandria (Remember the Titans!), which my impression is that it is now one of the tonier and more progressive suburbs of the capitol.

"A generation of the American young had come along different from five previous generations of the middle class. The new generation believed in technology more than any before it, but the generation also believed in LSD, in witches, in tribal knowledge, in orgy, and revolution." The scary thing is, most of these people are still very much alive and many are continuing to wreak endless havoc as we tap.

"...the walking American lobotomy: the corporation office worker and his high school son." I think they're talking about me again...

I like his Cuban revolutionary theory, which is that you create the revolution first and then worry about what it is actually about, i.e. "...the revolution existed in the nerves and cells of the people who created it and lived with it, rather than in the sanctity of the original idea." This is actually common sense. Real revolutions take on lives of their own pretty quickly, and most of them, especially during the last 100 years, have reputations for turning out very badly, but this latter is not inevitable, while from time to time revolutions of a kind probably are, which is why it is always wise to try to cultivate a certain degree of civilization and humanity in the populace so as to limit the catastrophe when these convulsions occur.

Several film references were made with regard to the hippies' clothes. Have Gun, Will Travel? (This apparently was a TV show). Claude Rains in Invisible Man? Mailer was, again, quite taken by the stridency of the young people, and compared them to Crusaders, which quality they did seem to have something of, and which perhaps in the absence of material and sensual diversions and pursuits might have manifested itself even more completely.

"Mediocrities flock to any movement which will indulge their self-pity and their self-righteousness, for without a Movement the mediocrity is on the slide into terminal melancholia." There is some truth in this. I have actually been looking for such a movement for some time but unfortunately (and predictably) all the movements which might fit this description for me tend to be full of losers and lack attractive leadership. This means on the other hand that there may be good opportunities for a person or persons of real ability to do what the America intelligentsia and power elite have often expressed fears of, rouse up the demoralized and humiliated masses into a powerful following that will stifle and possibly tear apart the culture and the nation.

On his having gone for a stroll and missed Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech in 1963: " Mailer--trusting no one else in these matters, certainly not the columnists and the commentators--would never know whether the Reverend King had given a great speech that day, or revealed an inch of his hambone." I guess I thought the hambone bit was too funny in the moment.

Dr Spock was another celebrity protestor at the march. Mailer however "had an animus against" him, for "three of Mailer's...wives had used Spock's book on infant and baby care as their bible."

Mailer's admission of modeling his attitude at various moments after Marlon Brando in The Wild One is almost too obvious (this movie, which I have never seen, looks tremendous by the way).

I wonder if the famous episode of Ed Sanders, poet, vocalist of the Fugs and publisher of the unfortunately now-defunct Fuck You magazine, exorcising the Pentagon, remains celebrated because of this book. I had never heard of this guy. Maybe he stinks but he's a real make it happen New York kind of guy and he produces a lot of art, including, recently, 2,000 pages worth of verse constituting a history of the United States during the 20th century (I wonder if a lot of people have read that). These are exactly the kind of people I needed to know about as a young man, and for whatever reason did not. I listened to some his groups' songs; it isn't really my kind of stuff, but apparently it impressed some people worth impressing.

All the mystical gods/spirits/paganism 60s stuff, especially the various elements of it which involved naked young girls dancing and otherwise enjoying nature, does, I have to admit, seem like it was probably great fun at the time. It's no wonder that a lot of intelligent and now completely boring people have fond memories of it.

p.126--a reference to Matthew Brady's Civil War photos, which were apparently very popular at this time. I can definitely remember my father being into these, having several books on the subject, and often referring to them in his casual conversations about history or whatever with his friends as if he assumed they would be something familiar to everyone. Then suddenly Matthew Brady just totally dropped out of the public consciousness. I don't think I had heard or thought of his name in the last 25 years or so.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Re-Starting With Some Memes

Trying to do a few quickie exercise-type posts to get the blog running again. I had what seemed like a good idea for a post this morning but I have already forgotten what it was (Addendum--this 'good idea' actually came to me in a sleep dream, it was not a good idea, and it was based on wholly false premises). I haven't done a questionnaire for a while, so I thought I would look for one of those. My first researches didn't turn up anything good, but I did come upon a couple of picture memes I thought I would try. The first involved going to the 6th folder of photos on your computer, posting the 6th photo in that 6th folder, and explaining it on one's blog. Here is the result in my case: This is at the shopping mall in Concord, NH, sometime in March, 2008. My oldest son, who is now 8 and going into 3rd grade, would have been 5 and in Kindergarten at this time. He looks very little compared to what he is now. Going to the mall and playing on the various coin-operated rides they have there is something we have done numerous times, so I have no especial memory of this occasion.

The second photo meme involved publishing the 8th photo from the 8th folder. Here is the result of that:

This is a quite good picture, taken in the woods near the Brattleboro camp in April, 2008. By coincidence both pictures happen to be of the same son. This is like one of those old poems, which used to be produced in New England in great profusion, about "A Boy's Life" or some similar subject, come to life. He looks a little more like his present self in this photo than the earlier one, though it is only a month later.

Book questionnaires are pretty lame, but I'm not finding anything else much that I like either. I'll try to pick questions I haven't answered a million times before.

1. Hardcover or paperback, and why? Hardcover, especially from about the 1920-1960 era (I feel alienated from present intellectual life in pretty much all its forms), though it doesn't really matter, and there are certain paperbacks, usually giant ones (Clarissa!), I am fond of. I do like hardcovers for smaller books and plays, or collections of plays and poems if I can find them. It makes them feel more substantial.

2. If I were to own a book shop I would call it...The Dutch Bookshop. Because Dutch is a strange word, and I don't think anyone has any good sense of what true Dutchness really is, but again, the sound conveys substance somehow.

3. My favorite quote from a book is..."And was it his destined part/For only a moment, to be close to your heart?" from Pushkin, I believe, used as the epigram for Dostoevsky's "White Nights". It is actually kind of goofy, at least as translated, but it has lodged itself in my brain and often rears itself up at odd moments. I do not have a good memory for quotes, is the main issue here.

4. The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be... Dorothy Parker is too obvious, but I would like to have lunch with her, or somebody like her. Samuel Johnson is also obvious, though nobody who isn't a 55 year old Republican seems to like him anymore. Fitzgerald maybe. The young Evelyn Waugh. Somebody who drank a lot. Thomas Malory would be certainly be a different candidate.

5. If I could go to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except from the SAS survival guide, it would be...Something Greek, though not philosophy. Probably Homer or Thucydides. And in Greek too--what better opportunity or excuse to finally learn that tongue than stranded on a desert island? Shakespeare would be bearable. I can't think of any novel I could bear to read exclusively forever.

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that...I have no imagination for gadgets. The internet, and its ability to instantly find what works/authors certain passages/quotations come from, as well as simply find copies of books I could not previously find, have solved the major needs I once had.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of...a used book barn that used to be in Bucks County, Pa, near the Peddler's Village shopping complex. I went looking for it recently but I couldn't find it. I suspect it isn't there anymore. I bought a box of green and mustard spined "World's Literary Treasures" there, among other things, which books carried a very pungent odor. They charged the 6% Pennsylvania sales tax though there was no cash register, and they recorded all their transactions on paper, which greatly annoyed my grandfather, who of course was certain there was no way the state was seeing any of that sales tax.

8. If I could be the lead character in a book, it would be...Prince Fabrizio in The Leopard. He was the finished product all around. The choices in this kind of question are between perfection of spontaneity/action and perfection of intellect/culture for the purpose at hand. My heart's desire obviously lies with the latter.

9. The most overestimated book of all time is...Of all time? I really don't know. True Classics really do become unassailable after a certain point because they become so embedded in the history of a people, language, etc. It's not an easy question. Still, I am prodded from time to time with an instinctive reflex
of feeling something might be overrated. One of my deep dark secrets is that I got this feeling in reading Huckleberry Finn, which nonetheless is not going anywhere as far as its classic status goes. I have similar feelings about the writings of David Foster Wallace, by whose genius even his own college professors were blown away, which is practically unheard of in modern humanities departments. But given his contemporaneity to me, his particular consciousness and understanding that are so captivating to the people who get it is probably still 20-30 years from becoming digested by the greater culture thoroughly enough to become comprehensible to the mind such as mine.

10. I hate it when a completely blind to its own deficiencies, betrays too much ignorance of the 2500+ years of literary history that preceded it, and is obstinately humorless where humor would be even occasionally acceptable or called for

11. What author do you own the most books by? I'm pretty sure it is Dickens, though it may be L Frank Baum. I have also accumulated a lot of Jane Austen books, a lot of singularly inferior minor editions of Shakespeare, and a frightening quantity of single Henry James novels (should have gone for the Library of America multipacks with him).

12. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old? Probably an Oz book. I'm not sure which one I liked the most at the time. I don't remember much about being ten years old.

13. What is the worst book you've read in the past year? Some book by Harold Bloom about appreciating literature, poetry, etc, and how essentially he is the only person left in America who properly understands this. I couldn't stomach it beyond 50 pages or so. I am depressed that such a person seems to be considered by so many people in our society to represent real literary culture. No wonder only pantywaists want anything to do with it.

14. What is the best book you've read in the past year? I haven't read anything all that great in the past year, to be honest. The House of the Seven Gables was better than I thought it was going to be, was quite good actually. Maybe that was it. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock was great fun--I considered at the time whether or not I could write something along similar lines--but was only 70 pages long. I wanted more. Of Human Bondage had some major flaws, but it had many merits too, and I enjoyed reading it a great deal, which must count for something. I also enjoyed Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley, and it was also much better than I thought it would be, but then I am a junky for anything from Britain between the wars. Anybody who wasn't would probably find it tedious.

15. If you could force everyone you know to read one book, what would it be? I have no desire to do such a thing.

16. What book would you like to see made into a movie? Hajji Baba in London by James Morier. It could be awesome, but no modern Westerner I think would be able to pull off the spirit. I would hire one of the hot young Romanians--the most high-spirited of the bunch--to direct.

17. What is the most difficult book you've ever read? Einstein's Theory of Relativity? Maxwell's Electricity and Magnetism? As far as novels, the Beckett trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, & the aptly titled The Unnameable, I must confess, totally defeated me, though not enough that I don't want to give them another go someday.

18. Favorite short story? I think it is still "White Nights". "The Cask of Amontillado" is also an old favorite, because it is so ecstatically absurd.

19. Favorite work of non-fiction? The Decline of the West, Ezra Pound's literary essays, The Spectator, the various Samuel Johnson-related classics by and about him. Nietzsche's various works. I can't think of much else. C.S. Lewis's Allegory of Love? E.B. White's New Yorker essays? I'm thinking of things I have and I look back into from time to time after I've read them.

20. Who is your favorite writer? At the moment, Shakepeare and Thucydides, because they seem to offer the most consistently different and interesting possibilities, especially to a tired mind. I do not mistake them for my special friends though.

21. What fictional character are you secretly in love with? I did really have a big crush of Ursula Brangwen from The Rainbow. And of course Dora and Agnes from David Copperfield would make for kind of an ultimate Victorian England threesome. There's got to me more. How about Maggie Tulliver from the Mill on the Floss? The main problem there of course is that she is largely modeled on young George Eliot herself (who did not exactly develop into a hot babe, for such as may be tempted to ask 'what's wrong with that?').

22. What book have you read the most times in your life? I don't know. Probably something in childhood.

23. Who is the most overrated writer alive today? Besides Harold Bloom...I don't usually have particularly ferocious responses to individual writers but for some reason I have always viscerally detested Francine Prose.

24. What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult? I have a weakness for a certain kind of right wing you're-not-dreaming-this-society-really-is-a-disaster type books, but I'm not sure they really qualify as lowbrow. Really blatantly lowbrow books I can't get through. I don't read 'popular' fiction. Some people say one should, but what I have looked into doesn't really look that worthwhile. I read Joe Queenan's book about trash culture, going to Red Lobster and John Tesh and Barry Manilow concerts. That felt pretty lowbrow.

25. Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer? Poor question. You might as well ask Smoking, Drinking, or Dancing (Milton would be Smoking, I think).

26. What book do you own the most copies of? I have a lot of Pride and Prejudices. I think that may be the winner. Huckleberry Finn and Gulliver's Travels are also represented numerous times.

27. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for literature? I don't have any idea who deserves to win it, but it seems like it's been a few years since a poet won. I have heard there are some great poets in Iran, and that seems to be kind of a hot country among the international intelligentsia right now, so it looks like a good match. Dark horse would be a poet from Brazil. That Murakami guy from Japan hasn't won it yet either, has he? He seems to be popular with all the right kind of people to make it happen.

28. What book would you least like to see made into a movie? No more F Scott Fitzgerald or Evelyn Waugh adaptations for a couple of generations at least. For whatever reason, what lives in the books dies on the screen with these guys.

29. Do you prefer the French or the Russians? The Russians are the best, but the French truly are the second best, and have maybe become a little underappreciated in recent years.

30. Roth or Updike? I don't know. I go back and forth. I do like both, but at the same time both are best in small doses, and I have no desire to read either's entire opus. Greatest hits will suffice.

31. David Sedaris or Dave Eggers? Sedaris does less than nothing for me.

32. Austen or Eliot? They are almost equivalently charming in their own manners.

33. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading? Germans! Non-Western greats. I can't read Latin. The Man Without Qualities. Gibbon. Deep dark secret #2. I never finished The Brothers Karamazov. It was certainly very great, but it was a school assignment that I started too late, got only to page 300 by class time, gave up, didn't participate even mentally in the classes, and the program moved on to something else. So that is still out there.
34. What is your favorite novel? All time I am not sure at the moment. Of the last five years, Tristram Shandy. It had the kind of spirit I have been seeking, and not too often finding, at this particular period of my life. Age 30-35: David Copperfield & A Dance to the Music of Time. Age 25-30: Tom Jones (?) I read a lot of the major English classics in this period, so it is surprising that nothing else is standing out. 20-25: Don Quixote & War & Peace. Age 15-20: Pickwick Papers & Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

35. Favorite Play? Another tough one. I am all over the place on plays. Shakespeare the obvious choice. Outside him, how about Our Town? I'm a sentimental guy at heart.

36. And...what are you reading right now? Cardinal Newman's Idea of the University. There are some nice defenses of liberal learning, and the idea of the community of learning--very St Johnsian--but his assertions of the ultimate primacy of Theological studies over the hard sciences in the university would be carved up and splattered like a pumpkin nowadays, to the accompaniment of much bemused laughter. I usually have a second, more recent, lighter, non-classic book going, but I don't have any such thing at the moment.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I still have not retired, but have merely been on vacation. I am back now, and will probably post something within the next couple of days. In keeping with my ongoing identity crisis, I went to Gatlinburg, Tennesee for my vacation, and I actually enjoyed it, or some essential quality I discerned in it, more about which phenomenom I will doubtless write in one of my future posts. Otherwise I am the same, strangely incapable for the most part of writing anything, or even of forming impressions into coherent thoughts. Perhaps I ought to pull a Samuel Beckett and start writing in French and translating myself back into a sparer and more elegant English--the achievement of which, hard as it may seem to believe, has been my dearest desire for some years now. My whole thought process in English has become both so overcluttered and so confined within repeated narrow grooves that I seem to have lost my ability to manage any part of it, and some part of it at any rate I really need to find some way of getting back.