Wednesday, February 27

Cormac was so fucking happy

I must admit, I shed a tear when I saw him giving that standing ovation. And I'm not even all up in his oeuvre like that. But there's something really beautiful about a reclusive dude showing up at the Oscars and mugging it up a bit. Bravo, Cormac.

Sunday, February 24

HarperCollins, where authenticty goes to die

Liars suck. But worse than liars are soulless, disingenuous, obfuscating dipshits. For more on soulless, disingenuous, obfuscating dipshits, please read the following paragraph:
Susan Katz, publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said she was not concerned about a possible backlash against corporate sponsorship in books aimed at such a young audience. “If you look at Web sites, general media or television, corporate sponsorship or some sort of advertising is totally embedded in the world that tweens live in,” Ms. Katz said. “It gives us another opportunity for authenticity.”

Ah, authenticity! That's a great buzzword for the decline of human civilization! If we're gonna go down, we might as well go down authentically, mouthes open, happy to accept the marketing medicine that the corporate powers are generous enough to spoon feed us. Yum!

NO! Marketing is by definition the very opposite of authentic. This is so sad. Please, give the kids a book and allow them to escape the treacherous world of corporate oligarchy for a moment. Do not actively try to completely engulf our youth in the trafficking of material opiates. We are living in a distopia, friends. Capitalism has won. Humans have lost. Honestly, we didn't even put up a fight. I blame Susan Katz

Full Times article here.

The Elementary Particles

The Elementary Particles is a tale of two French half brothers who have only a glancing relationship with one another. Bruno Clément is a sometimes schoolteacher and full-time sex addict, Michel Djerzinski is a hermitic molecular biologist who changes the course of human existence. Somewhat less successfully, The Elementary Particles is an indictment of human society, probing topics such as the decay of civilization, the decline of religion, and the rise of consumerism and materialism. The novel packs quite a punch but is ultimately frustrating and uneven. I reject much of what Houellebecq espouses but I can understand why many find him brilliant.

Michiko Kakutani did not enjoy this book. In fact, it sounds like she hated it, "As a piece of writing, The Elementary Particles feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read."

I can’t really disagree with that. Nor, however, can I disagree with Paul Gent's assessment in the Sunday Telegraph, "Again and again Houellebecq digs below our platitudes to expose the raw and uncomfortable feelings we are often afraid to admit to ourselves. His bitterness is that of the disappointed idealist. You may remain convinced that Houellebecq is wrong in his relentlessly bleak assessment of society and human nature. But the novel makes you re-examine your beliefs, which is the kind of bracing challenge that literature is for. This is a brave and rather magnificent book."

It is a repugnant read. Houellebecq's nihilism is unpleasant, his characters are miserable human beings, and the multitude of pornographic passages can be off-putting. But there's a boldness here that is to be admired to go along with pleasing rations of humor. Houellebecq is not someone I would like to have tea with but sharing 264 pages with him was more than tolerable. The epilogue, detailing the extreme step taken to save humanity from its downfall, is bleak yet oddly beautiful. So, too, is the rest of the novel.

Saturday, February 23

Pseudonym surprise

There's this fellow by the name of Robert McChesney. He's a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has authored a number of books on the political economy of media. I read a few of these books in college, including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. More recently McChesney edited a fascinating book called The Future of Media. He's also the founder of Free Press and a personal hero of mine.

There's this fellow that goes by the name of Elrod Enchilada who writes about the Boston Celtics for Real GM.

Turns out Mr. McChesney and Mr. Enchilada are the same damn person! Maybe I was supposed to know this already. I did not. Consider my mind blown.

Here are McChesney's articles for The Nation.

Here's a clip of McChesney discussing the press's failure to cover the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.

Here's part one of a five part video on hypercommercialism in Hollywood that features McChesney and my Comm 101 professor, Susan Douglas.

Tuesday, February 19

Pornography on the autobus

Picture a bus packed with white collar workers tapping away on their laptops, getting a head start on the workday. Then picture me, wedged betwixt two such laptop tappers, doing my best to conceal the pornographic text of Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles.

I knew the book had "caused an uproar in France" and I gleaned from the back cover that one of the characters was a "raucously promiscuous hedonist." Even so, I could not have been less prepared for the events that begin in a jacuzzi, continue with discussion of Krause's corpuscles, and conclude with talk of saggy labia. I'm enjoying the book, but gawd damn it makes for uncomfortable bus reading. The wandering eyes of strangers, they make me nervous. To say nothing of the potential for embarrassment when I rise to exit the bus...

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar

They have a blog!

Sunday, February 10


The King of Kong, a delightful little documentary about obsession and cliquishness in the cutthroat world of competitive gaming. I found it gripping and often hilarious when I watched it a couple weeks back but never once did I think it a paragon of objective documentary filmmaking. The Good vs. Evil, knock-down-drag-out drama that unfolds does wonders for the entertainment value, thus I was not complaining. But Billy Mitchell, the fellow who takes the form of evil in this picture, is.

Interesting dilemma, that. Walking the line between portraying those your documenting in the most accurate light and telling the most engaging tale. We are talking here about a cinematic tradition with a troubled lineage that includes the staged depictions of Inuit life in Nanook of the North, the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl, and, far more recently, the less than objective ouvre of Michael Moore. Ubergeek Billy Mitchell is hardly the first whose life has been manipulated on the big screen.

This question about the betrayal of reality in favor of telling the story one has their heart set on has got me thinking, fittingly enough, about the world of fiction. Specifically the untrustworthy narrator. Twain's young narrators Huck and Tom, The Sound and the Fury's mentally retarded Benjy and Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby come to mind. What others can we come up with?

Saturday, February 9

Pleasure bursts

Finally picked up a copy of Bookforum. What a swell publication. I've read their online offerings for some time but it was nice to have a hard copy in my paws. I was inspired to procure an issue after the recent widespread blogosphere upset concerning Bookforum's announced changes. Having now read a volume myself I agree that a move towards current events would be unfortunate. Anyway, as a Bartheleme fan I particularly enjoyed "The Beastly Beatitudes of Donald B."

The most instructive and valuable entry in the McSweeney’s comes from, yes, George Saunders, the outlaw nephew, who suspensefully analyzes the story “The School”—“How’s he going to take this Marx Brothers–quality romp and convert it at the last minute into a Postmodernist Masterpiece?”—and hits on Barthelme’s key stratagem: “Mr. Lesser Writer, in other words, realizing with joy that he has a pattern to work with, sits down to do some Thinking. Barthelme proceeds in a more spontaneous, vaudevillian manner. He knows that the pattern is just an excuse for the real work of the story, which is to give the reader a series of pleasure-bursts.”

Bang! Exactly! Spastic rhapsodies of silver staccato! Pleasure bursts are what it’s about in Barthelme, cherry bombs flung into a crowd of elegant pretenses to fend off unconditional surrender to the fetal curl of melancholy.

Pooh and Toad are friends

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride* was my favorite amusement at the Magic Kingdom prior to its closure and replacement by The Many Adventures of Mr. Pooh. Reviewing the tapes I can only shake my head at the softening of today's youth. Nevertheless, if anyone was to fill the shoes of Mr. Toad I am glad it could be Mr. Pooh. Of the hardbound books of my youth The Wind and the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh are surely the most worn. Did you know that A.A. Milne wrote Toad of Toad Hall, the stage adaptation of The Wind and the Willows. So you see, Mr. Toad and Mr. Pooh are practically related! At any rate, I bring this up because I was reminded of the ride when reading this piece on the "private torments" of Wind and the Willows author Kenneth Grahame in the Telegraph. Of Grahame's son we learn:

There has been speculation that the mercurial, manic and appallingly behaved Toad was a veiled portrait of Alastair himself. Certainly the boy was already exhibiting signs of peculiar behaviour.

One of his favourite games involved him lying down in the road in front of approaching cars and forcing them to stop. Stranger still, he had taken to calling himself Robinson, the name of the man who had shot at his father. (Several of the Toad letters are addressed to 'Darling Robinson'.) But it seems just as likely that Toad's exuberance was Grahame's own; he just didn't have an outlet for it anywhere else.

*The is obviously Disneyland, where, I am happy to inform you, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride remains intact.

Friday, February 8

L O S T: 'Confirmed Dead'

Hot off the presses, J. Wood on Powell's Blog:

Sawyer revives Charlie's 'Colonel Kurtz' quip about Locke, raising up the ghosts of previous discussions about Apocalypse Now, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and questions of post-colonialism, framing stories and point of view. Point of view may prove to be important; the opening scenes of "Confirmed Dead" give us multiple p.o.v.'s, starting with the underwater roving cameras surveying the crash, then Faraday's p.o.v. jumping onto the island, then Locke's p.o.v. staring up at the rain. We're moving quite a bit from a personal p.o.v. to a third-person p.o.v. If nothing else, it suggests that we the audience are now being brought a little deeper into the narrative by putting us inside the heads of characters a little more seamlessly, and not just inside their stories.

Media literacy

From the Guardian book blog, chatter regarding the inevitable takeover of the storytelling realm by video games. And the interesting assessment that we need "more real writers getting involved in making video games, not fewer." Also, thank you, Alastair Harper, for reminding me about Day of the Tentacle. What a freaking sweet game that was! And yet I had forgotten all about it. Anyway, Guardian blog:

When the popular novel was as new an idea as video games, the great and good were certain, as they were with early cinema, that no sophistication could come from this prose business, especially the sort of filth Samuel Richardson scribbled about.

They were proven wrong, as doubters will be about video games. As happened with comic books becoming graphic novels in the 80s, each year there are more developers willing to take risks with storylines, develop more complex moral situations and generally raise the bar so high that it's becoming plain ignorant for anyone interested in stories to ignore them.

Thursday, February 7

Oliver Sacks on Bookworm


Uberous prose

TLS reviews James Wood's How Fiction Works:

Wood is particularly good at analysing fictional register. He quotes from Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater:

"Lately, when Sabbath suckled at Drenka’s uberous breasts – uberous, the root word of exuberant, which is itself ex plus uberare, to be fruitful, to overflow like Juno lying prone in Tintoretto’s painting where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit – suckled with an unrelenting frenzy that caused Drenka to roll her head ecstatically back and to groan . . . “I feel it deep down in my cunt,” he was pierced by the sharpest of longings for his late little mother."

“What an amazingly blasphemous little mélange that is”, he writes.

"This sentence is really dirty, and partly because it conforms to the well-known definition of dirt – matter out of place, which is itself a definition of the mixing of high and low dictions . . . since the comedy of the subject-matter of the sentence involves moving from one register to another – from a lover’s breast to a mother’s – it is fitting that the style of the sentence mimics this scandalous shift . . . . Sabbath’s Theater is a passionate, intensely funny, repellent and very moving portrait of the scandal of male sexuality, which is repeatedly linked in the book to vitality itself. To be able to have an erection in the morning . . . to be able to persist in scandalising bourgeois morality . . . as the ageing Mickey does . . . is to be alive. And this sentence is utterly alive, and is alive by virtue of the way it scandalises proper norms."

Wednesday, February 6

Read this

The slippery slope of brain dope

Serious question, if we find out that Thomas Edison was brain-doping should we put an asterisks next to all his patents? The Toronto Star discusses how Barry Bonds' spirit is alive and well among intellectuals:

In the end, scientists and ethicists say it will be up to individuals to decide whether or not they will use cognitive-enhancing drugs. Several draw comparisons between taking brain-boosting meds and opting for cosmetic surgery; both essentially are about self-esteem.

Jeff Blackmer, director of ethics for the Canadian Medical Association, says cognitive enhancement is part of the overall trend to seek medical solutions for individual traits: Overweight people want a slimming pill; men with receding hairlines want a cure for baldness; students eager for higher marks will want a memory drug.

Self-esteem, sure, but brain-boosting and augmenting looks are also about getting ahead in the world: Landing the best job, finding the most desirable mate, making the most money, etc. Self-esteem, but also it is about the chase. In short, The Pursuit of the All-Time Home Run Record: Private Life Edition. It's often reported that Bonds began taking performance-enhancing drugs only after witnessing McGwire and Sosa go bonkers on the stuff. It seems likely that Bonds started down his slippery slope out of vanity. Essentially it was about self-esteem.

"the realm of some higher bullshit"

Ian McEwan chats with The Australian:

With a wince that suggests he was mystified as well as disgusted by what has been going on in academe, McEwan says the discussion and teaching of literature has taken a perverse, pseudo-scientific turn.

"Theory has taken hold of people's minds. So a language that is fairly repellent to the lay reader often makes it rather dull, and they are in the grip of other people's theories.

"I remember for a long stretch of time people would come to interview me, especially French, German, Italian journalists who were themselves quite academic, and they would say, 'What is your theory of the body?"' he recalls.

"And the fact that I have been asked that bit 10 times, you know that this is the latest thing. Before that they would say, 'Well, let's talk about the male gaze."'

At this point the gently spoken author's tone moves from puzzlement to full-on exasperation.

"That is when you know you are in the realm of some higher bullshit.

"And then suddenly, as if God had snapped his fingers, no one is asking you about the male gaze, no one is asking you about your theory of the body, because it's something else. And that is the danger of these theories. They have a shelf life of five years.

"I think this whole style of treating literature started in the mid-1980s and it swept right through, but now I think - I hope - it is dying."

Tuesday, February 5

"a kind of intellectual scrap heap"

The New Republic has some tough love for Lost:

Like cramming fistfuls of metaphysical crayons back into their tiny box, the Island on "Lost" can barely contain all the colorful epistemologies in its midst. It is a big stew of Philosophy 101's greatest hits: from Sartrean hell-is-other-people existentialism to Rousseauian empathy ("pitié"), Hobbesian brutality to Hume's rationalism, from the cold calculus of Millsian utilitarianism and Darwinist survival-of-the-fittest to the reassurance of Aquinas's God. You could drive yourself crazy thinking about characters with names like Hugo, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and Burke, or wondering why so many seem to be bystanders in the backgrounds of one another's lives-or, in one case, actually secretly related to each another. It's like the Monty Python sketch, "International Philosophy," in which Greek and German philosophers battle it out on the soccer field (Socrates's winning goal is contested by Hegel as not being an "a priori reality"). Back on "Lost" Philosophy Island, the implications are just as absurd: After all, if everything is imbued with meaning, then how meaningful is any one thing?

One can't disagree with any of that. And yet one of the qualities I find most endearing about the show is how oftentimes these references are delivered with a wink. As I've said before, I think most of the literary allusions are red herrings. But that's all part of the fun. It's like a scavenger hunt within the show. That the show is consistently exciting while taking the form of a collage of ideas philosophical, literary, religious and pop cultural is a testament to the skillful writing. By the way, we haven't discussed the season premiere yet, have we?

We are not alone

We Americans fret about our deteriorating education system and worry about our younger generation falling behind the rest of the world. Well apparently the Brits haven't been hitting the books so hard either. Oh how I long for the day America's youth can grow up with the comforting beliefs that George W. Bush is a mythical figure and that Homer Simpson was a real person.

Monday, February 4

Ah Brady! Ah humanity!

As philosopher-poet Emmitt Smith aptly put it, "The strength of the Patriots team got debacled.”

Indeed. A perfect season debacled to a pulp. Following the game Randy Moss spoke of licking wounds and returning next season for another go at it. How does one lick their wounds following a loss like this? Tom Brady engages in coitus with a super model. Junior Seau goes surfing. Logan Mankins prepares for a major deforestation project on his face. Bobby Knight resigns. Ben watches a couple episodes from season 3 of Deadwood, reads "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and listens to One Be Lo's The R.E.B.I.R.T.H.

Each helped me escape in their own way. They enabled me to get from the final gun, to a restless night's sleep, to work this morning, with as little thought given to the calamitous on-field events as possible. Inopportunely, my working life consists of closely monitoring a sports website. Thus, the multimedia fortress of solitude that I had so carefully constructed was rudely dismantled by a onslaught of low-grade explanations and trifling declarations concerning last evenings football contest.

And after consuming all of the tripe I come away thinking, What more really needed to be said than, "The strength of the Patriots team got debacled?”

Sunday, February 3

On regressive avant-garde*

The Sunday Times asks, Is Dave Eggers now the most influential man in literary circles?

So, what is it that makes Eggers’s empire so influential? The most obvious driving force behind its dramatic rise is the charismatic and indefatigable founder himself, who is not only a beloved author and literary style guru, but has also proved to be a crafty entrepreneur, busily creating a very modern publishing empire. His book-publishing wing features works by Nick Hornby, Lemony Snicket and Robert Coover, a key figure in the American experimental-fiction movement. There is also McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a frequently visited website that offers a wide range of satirical content – some of its better entries include Some Relatively Recent College Grads Discuss Their Maids and the wonderfully satirical Jenna Bush’s Book-Tour Diary of Hope. In 2003, McSweeney’s launched The Believer magazine, a monthly that includes a variety of cultural essays, interviews and profiles, though its main distinction is its long book reviews, which share a decidedly positive tenor. “We will focus on writers and books we like,” the magazine’s mission statement claims. “We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.” Its editor, the talented novelist Heidi Julavits, wrote that the magazine was launched to combat “wit for wit’s sake – or, hostility for hostility’s sake”, and saw as its particular target the “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt” that she famously dubbed “snark”. More recently, McSweeney’s launched Wholphin, a quarterly DVD magazine “lovingly encoded with unique and ponderable films designed to make you feel the way we felt when we learnt that dolphins and whales sometimes, you know, do it”. (Which, evidently, they actually do.)

*this is a joke