The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Posts from — December 2007

Hiatus

turkey_ceiling.jpgI’m off to Ireland for four months and will be out of pocket for long periods of time. I have an idea for a novel I want to explore and will be assiduously avoiding the Internet while I work it out. If possible, I’ll keep a journal and will upload photos when I can. If I succeed in this, expect to see shots of London, Ireland, Berlin, and Paris.

While I’m away, feel free to read three of the stories I’ve listed on the left: “Feet of Clay,” “Love for Three Mangos,” and “Death in the Afternoon.”

A piu tardi!

December 29, 2007   1 Comment

Then She Found Me

helen_hunt.jpgI’ve never been a fan of Helen Hunt until I saw her adaptation of Elinor Lipman’s novel, Then She Found Me. Ms. Hunt wrote, directed, and starred in this gem of a film. Why is it so good? Well, Colin Firth and Bette Midler are excellent foils for Hunt’s character, a woman on the verge of being too old to have a baby, but who desperately wants one. Naturally, marrying the very funny Matthew Broderick (playing a mama’s boy at his deadpan best) is a great spur for everything that follows. It’s a film that touches all the right emotions.

December 29, 2007   1 Comment

Amy Hempel

One of the staff at Barnes & Noble, a buddy of mine with impeccable taste, recommended Amy Hempel’s The Collected Stories. She admitted she hadn’t read it, but said The New York Times had called it one of the ten best books of 2006. You can’t go wrong with a Times recommendation, she said. Boy, was I excited. I could hardly wait to drive home and read it.At home, I examined the cover, read the blubs, and noticed it was published by Scribner, a seeming rarity these days. There were three pages of praise. I read the introduction, “On Amy Hempel,” by Rick Moody, and was even more impressed.

Finally, I turned to the first story, called “In a Tub.” I read the first sentence, “My heart–I thought it stopped,” and I wondered where the funny smell was coming from? So, I read the first three paragraphs and tried to figure it out. And then I knew. It was all too obvious. The whole idea was to catch me by the throat and never let me go. Writing 101.

Just for comparison, I checked out some of the other stories, and found they had equally catchy first sentences and paragraphs. Had Amy been reading the Dummies Guide to Writing Fiction? I wondered. (Really, there is such a book on Amazon. I’m not making this up!)

Without reading another word, I put the book on top of The Savage Detectives and haven’t touched it since.

December 26, 2007   2 Comments

I Am Legend

200px-i_am_legend_teaser.jpgWill Smith is a funny, engaging actor, and the I Am Legend setup allows him to use his talents to full effect. The idea of recreating a deserted Manhattan with CGI is also cool. One can’t help being fascinated by one of the most iconic cities of the world inhabited by wild animals and little else. The problem is that it’s a zombie movie. A zombie movie!

I did feel twinges in my belly watching Will fight the deadly virus (which a very funny Emma Thompson unleashed upon the world) and try to avoid death at the hands (actually the teeth) of the zombies. Ultimately, though, the film doesn’t work, I think because it’s trying to be too many things–a horror flick, a love story, a science fiction thriller, an action flick, and, in a weird way, family entertainment.

Pass the popcorn, please.

December 26, 2007   2 Comments

Roberto Bolaño

180px-roberto_bolano.jpgRoberto Bolaño has finally hit the big time. As usual, for a writer, it’s a bit late. He’s dead. But in a sense, Bolaño is responsible for this state of affairs. Although he was a hard-working writer all of his life, he only began seriously promoting his work in the late 1990’s.

I first stumbled upon Last Evenings on Earth, a selection of stories taken from Putas asesinas and Llamadas telefónicas and translated into English by Chris Andrews, and was immediately hooked. Here was a man with a strange voice–at once immediate and remote–and the translation was first-rate. Most of the stories are first person accounts of his (presumably Bolaño’s) encounters with Latin poets and writers living in exile. (Bolaño fled Chile after being detained briefly by Pinochet’s government in 1973.) It’s the voice that gets you, full of charm and intelligence, but so distant and objective that you fear for him.

Next, I tried Distant Star (Estrella distante), a novella in the absurdist manner, full of references to obscure poets (as is normal for Bolaño) and rather heavy symbolism. I liked it, of course. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. My wife did not, however. After faithfully trying to read the novella for several nights, she finally turned to me, made a face, and wondered out loud why I had recommended it to her so highly. “It’s the voice, my sweet.” Rolling her eyes, she said, “Yes, dear,” and returned it.

Undaunted, I picked up a copy of his most famous novel, The Savage Detectives (one of the New York Times notable books). I happily read the first hundred pages or so, enjoying the adventures of the young, sexually active group of poets and writers in Mexico City, until Bolaño changed voices on me. Suddenly, I’m listening to obscure people I only know by reference giving me first person accounts of the individuals I’ve come to know and love from the first part of the novel. I slogged on, hoping it would get better. But it didn’t. It only got worse. There are more of these voices than you can count, and, eventually, you don’t give a damn about anything they say.

So, right now, I’m trying to get unstuck. The book sits on the dresser beside the bed, waiting for me to pick it up. I don’t. I can’t. Like someone I’ve met in one of Bolaño’s stories, I’m ready to shake hands and part company forever.

December 25, 2007   1 Comment

Tony Bouza

2.jpgOne of my all-time favorite people is Tony Bouza, whom I run into now and then at my local coffee shop. Tony, as you may remember, was a former police chief for the city of Minneapolis. Of course, Tony doesn’t know me from Adam, but I always say hi and shake his hand. Today, I suggested that someone should write his biography. (Of course, I didn’t say that I should be the one to do this, but I’ve sometimes thought about it.) Tony looked at me and said that a biography about his life “would keep people up at night” and might give some insight into how things actually work. I said, “Naw,” and he laughed. It made me think, though. When did intellectual curiosity die? Has it now become politically incorrect to be curious about how our government works? I wonder what Tony would say? I’ll have to ask him the next time I see him.

By the way, you can catch Tony doing his thing on YouTube.

December 24, 2007   Comments Off on Tony Bouza

Leash Laws in the Burbs

There is an article in the Star Tribune this morning about Plymouth, Minnesota allowing an exemption to their leash law to allow cats to roam free. It turns out most suburbs have leash laws for both dogs and cats and allow no exceptions. Anyway, you have to apply for an exemption and it requires a signed statement from your vet to the effect that your cat is too wild to be confined indoors and would have to be euthanized if not allowed outside. This is mildly interesting. New of the weird, of course, but not remarkable.

What’s remarkable is what comes next. The author of the piece can’t express his own personal opinion, because he’s a journalist, right? Wrong. He finds an expert whom he quotes as saying, “An ordinance that allows cats to roam free is a death warrant.” There’s even more. He found someone at the Human Society who said that they “…strongly advise against cats running loose to prevent transmutation into road kill, dog chow or victims of ill-tempered neighbors.” By this point I’m laughing. Transmutation into road kill? Dog chow? The guy must be from northern Minnesota or a former official at the White House. Is this supposed to terrify me? My god, I guess to. I was so impressed I started a new category on my blog called, “What Passes for News.”

I’m certain the Star Tribune fancies itself as both objective and a major newspaper. What do you think?

December 24, 2007   Comments Off on Leash Laws in the Burbs

The Secret Life of Words

secret_words.jpgWhat is it about good titles? Like this one, “The Secret Life of Words.” Why are words so powerful? (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.) In this film, the hero and heroine both have terrible secrets, which we discover as they begin to establish a relationship. Both have paid steep prices for their sins, real and imagined. Of course, they fall in love.

I hope that wasn’t a spoiler!

The film isn’t remarkable for the story, as much as the perfect pitch of Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins. In fact, it may be Tim Robbins’ most remarkable performance since “The Shawshank Redemption.” It is Sarah Polley who is amazing, though. As she comes out of her shell, we believe every word she tells us, and when her secret is fully revealed, we feel the full horror of it.

As you can tell, I liked the film and highly recommend it. Include it in your Netflix queue. Don’t expect a major Hollywood production, though. This is an art house film and understated, despite the depth of emotions it touches.

December 24, 2007   Comments Off on The Secret Life of Words

The Inversion of Language

An interesting phenomena which emerged from the Rove era is what I call the inversion of language. Of course, it’s been with us since the dawn of civilization, but the Rovian mind has added a couple of new twists. Let’s take the word “fascism,” for example. In the minds of some, this now means anyone who espouses not attacking one of our declared enemies. That is, it has become synonymous with appeasement. This is a very neat trick, which all lovers of language should appreciate. If you take one thing (fascism) and make it mean another (appeasement), the original meaning of the word is muddied and eventually lost. I don’t think Merriam-Webster will add this new definition to their dictionary just yet, do you? (If they do, of course, we’re in big trouble.)

Are we sliding toward fascism? Yes, say those on the left, and they point out the terrible parallels with historically fascist regimes (totalitarian leadership, stolen elections, control of the press, propaganda being dispensed by the government, uncontrolled storm troopers, etc.). Yes, say those on the right, and they point out how liberal lunatics can’t see the danger presented by fanatics and terrorists who are out to destroy us.

It’s a dangerous game to play–not just with language, but with political reality. The question, the deep and abiding question for all of us, is whether this schism is temporary or permanent.

December 23, 2007   Comments Off on The Inversion of Language

Adverbs

No matter what you think about Stephen King’s work, his book On Writing is interesting and worth reading. Much of it has stayed with me, though I admit I’m not smart or talented enough to always follow his advice. His idea of digging in the archaeological pit for as many of the bone fragments as possible is a nice analogy for getting everything you can out of a scene, paragraph, or sentence. His belief that writers are born and not made is deflating. You can go from mediocre to good, if you work really hard at it, he says, but not from good to great. Ah well. One piece of advice I found particularly compelling concerned adverbs. He hates them and uses them only as a last resort. If you think about it for a moment, you’ll see why. They add emphasis, mostly hackneyed emphasis, to something which is already clear. King even eschews adjectives for the same reason. It’s a nice lesson, especially for me, since I tend to state the obvious rather too frequently. It comes from seeking clarity, but is insulting to the reader, who already knows much more than I think.

December 23, 2007   Comments Off on Adverbs