Category for reviews + culture

Want success as a writer? Get rejected.

So argues Kim Liao, persuasively,  in Lit Hub. She said she managed 43 rejections last year — a personal best.

Last year, I got rejected 43 times by literary magazines, residencies, and fellowships—my best record since I started shooting for getting 100 rejections per year. It’s harder than it sounds, but also more gratifying.

In late 2011, a writer friend was sharing her experiences of having months of uninterrupted writing time at her residencies at the Millay Colony, Ragdale, and Yaddo. I was staggered by her impressive rates of acceptance. You probably have one of those friends, too—you know the one I’m talking about, that friend who is a beautiful writer, but who also seems to win everything? I could barely believe that she had the balls to apply to—let alone, get accepted to—several residencies, a prestigious fellowship, and publications in journals I had actually heard of.

I asked her what her secret was, and she said something that would change my professional life as a writer: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

This small piece of advice struck a deep chord in my fragile creative ego. My vulnerable ego only wants to be loved and accepted, to have my words ring out from a loudspeaker in Times Square while a neon ticker scrolls the text across a skyscraper, but it’s a big old coward. My ego resists mustering up the courage to submit writing to literary magazines, pitch articles, and apply for grants, residencies, and fellowships. Yet these painful processes are necessary evils if we are ever to climb out of our safe but hermetic cocoons of isolation and share our writing with the world.

Even simpler, of course, 43 rejections mean probably submitting a piece of her work to some journal or other every single week of the year. Impressive! Need to get back to submitting pitches and work on Fridays. Who cares about the irony of the process: get cracking.

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The Lost Brother — Latterly strikes again

To encourage interest and subscription, Latterly magazine, an on-line journal of stories from around the world,  run by the wizardly editor Ben Wolford, released as a “single” a marvelously rich and well-written, well-edited, and well-composed story about life north of the Arctic Circle, on an island off the coast of Iceland. It’s called The Lost Brother. It’s free, and it’s a journey into another world.

Grímsey had built a reputation as an oasis of the north — an island with endless supplies of fish in nearby waters, pleasant weather and peace (to date, there has been no recorded crime on Grímsey, nor has there ever been a local police force).

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Visiting Larry McMurtry at Booked Up

A few years ago, back in the days when the LATimes had a stand-alone Sunday magazine, Scott Kraft wrote a tremendous story about visiting Larry McMurtry, the writer, author of "The Last Picture Show," "Lonesome Dove," and "Terms of Endearment," among many other great stories, at his bookstore in tiny Archer City Texas. It's called The Loner.

A couple of noteworthy lines:

McMurtry lives in a majestic three-story home a few doors down from the single-story house where he grew up and not far from the high school where he graduated in 1954 among a senior class of 19. He moved back to Archer City, population 1,848, just five years ago.

He keeps mostly to himself, and locals know better than to try to engage him in chitchat. "He's a very conservative-type feller," says Max Wood, the town's 68-year-old mayor. Wood has known McMurtry since high school but doesn't consider himself a close friend. "Larry was always the type of person who was more of a loner."

Here's a picture of McMurtry, from a photo posted in one of his bookstores in Booked Up:

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Well, to put it simply, to learn that one of this nation's greatest writers has a bookstore — a monster bookstore — in a famous (from "The Last Picture Show") little town in Texas, and what's more hangs out at his store, and can be talked to — well, I had to visit. So yesterday, after attending a reporting workshop that gave me the chance to visit Dallas, two hours away, I did.

More below…

Felt a little nervous driving into town on Saturday morning. This person can get geeky in the presence of heroes, and McMurtry is without question a hero, if only for Sam the Lion's speech in "The Last Picture Show," and his Oscar-winning adaptation of Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain."  

("If anybody had any sense," says the writer Carolyn See, a professor of English at UCLA, in the Kraft story, "they'd throw out 'Moby Dick' and put 'Lonesome Dove' in the center as the great American epic novel. No question about it. His heroes in that book are just terrific. His women are just terrific. And he sustains it for 800 pages.")

So I found myself dawdling on my way, and, once inside the plain storefront of a bookstore that once contained a half-million volumes, a bit tongue-tied. I did note a fellow who appeared capable of being McMurtry, and expressed my amazement as he passed at the incredible multitude of "rare and fine" books in the store — no crap at all.

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"Somebody should put prices on these books," noted this fellow dryly.

I then stumbled on a book I last read when I was twelve years old, no lie, on the trail actually, a great book, a classic, in the same edition I read almost fifty years ago. I could not suppress my astonishment, and actually had McMurtry price the book (which had just come in).

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Well, to make a long story short, I was too shy to ask him all the great questions I had to discuss with this great writer, but I did ask him for direction on where to look for types of books, and did express my fandom, and did ask — in amazement — if he had read most or all of the books in his bookstore(s).

"Well, I have some books of my own," he said, and added, "I wouldn't say that I've read them all, but I've considered them."

And he encouraged me to do the same. Which I then did — for hours.

Thanks Larry.

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Stupid F*!’&ing Bird: To wake Chekhov from the dead

The big winner this week in theater awards for 2014 in Los Angeles was a Russian playwright who's been dead for over a century.

Well, not exactly, but writer Aaron Posner's brilliantly free adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull did win the L.A. Drama Critics Circle awards for best ensemble, direction, and writing. It's just spectacular, and won countless raves from critics, but maybe the best "review" is an inspired look at Chekhov and his six major characters, in their (imagined) words, from writer Adam Silver in the Examiner,

Anton Chekov: One day I got shat on by a seagull. I f**king said "Stupid f**king bird" and murdered a gull in a play.

Aaron Posner: One day I was reading Chekov. I f**king decided to adapt "The Seagull" into a comedy where people would actually laugh and could use words that people couldn't use on stage in a pre-George Carlin 1895. My life isn't bound by tradition. I could change the names of the characters as you'll see below.

Emma Arkadiana is first and foremost a famous actress: One day I got old. I f**king hate anything that reveals my age. My life is so desperate. I could forgive my lover's many infidelities as long as they are with talentless wanna-bes.

Conrad Arkadina, the twenty-something son of famous actress Emma Arkadina, the main character: One day I was too old for my wanna-be forever young mother. I f**king became an albatross dragging my mother into middle-age. My life is so depressing I could kill myself, twice.

Dr. Eugene Sorn, the older or younger brother of Emma Arkadina, is alone in life: One day, after years of basking in reflective adulation, I was too old to be Emma's brother. I f**king no longer lived in her shadow but threatened to darken her days. My life is empty. I could fade into anonymity.

Doyle Trigorin is talented enough to be a golden boy facing his mid-life crisis with assorted short-lived liaisons with young untalented ladies: My life is so boring I could use some melodrama and adulation-laced sex. One day I could no longer stand Nina's clinging talentless body. I f**king needed to be with someone who actually understood artistry and was too old to leave me.

Nina Zachery the childhood friend and beloved of Conrad wants to be an actress like Emma: My life is messed up. I could act regretful if I could act at all. One day I ran away with the lover of my neighbor and had a baby who died prematurely. One day I will be too old to be eye candy on stage. I f**king made my unhappiness.

Mash Amberson works for the Arkadinas: My life is depressing I could dress in black every day because I'm in mourning for my life and it makes me look thinner. One day I could no longer wait for Conrad to return my love so I f**king settled for dependable Dev."

Dev Dylan longs for Mash's love: My life is so humble, I could eat pie. One day I got married to the one I loved. I f**king am the only one with a happy ending.

Silver continued:

One day I went to the Theatre@Boston Court to see "Stupid F**king Bird," an adaptation of Anton Chekov's curious comedy "The Seagull." I f**king finally laughed out loud and found the comedy in this classic, that now includes references to Cirque du Soleil and smoothies. This is in large part due to Michael Michetti's crisp direction. In comedy, timing is everything and this ensemble cast gets is right with every nod, wink, stare and pregnant pause. Posner's adaptation doesn't just tweak by adding in some modern day references and plenty of swear words and punch up the sexual content with full frontal nudity–male and female, it also breaks the fourth wall and plunges into the potentially dangerous territory of asking for audience commentary, taking time for small impromptu, unscripted conversations.

And yes, let me say It's just great — more than great, it's unforgettable. Hope to see it again some day, though I doubt it could possibly be better produced than it was at the Theater@BostonCourt in Pasadena.

Here's a picture that gives some idea of its stand and deliver nature — a little:

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The photographer as fearless story teller

The highest compliment paid in the land of journalism, sez me, is to say that such-and-such a writer, Mike Royko in Chicago, say, or Carl Hiaasen in Miami, or Joseph Mitchell in New York, is/was "fearless."

Well, in the land of photography, no one in our time has been more fearless than Duane Michaels. (Not even Robert Mapplethorpe, who to my eye may have borrowed a bit from his predecessor.) Michaels dares to not just capture moments, but to portray his imaginings, even the silly ones, and yet never seems to lose that connection to his inner self, his yearning being. .

Now an exhibit of his work is on display at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. The New York Review of Books gives us just a taste of this in a delightful set of his slide shows, beautifully optimized for the web, called Midnight Movies for the Mind.

Since most of us won't make it to Pittsburgh in the next week or so, let me offer just a taste of Michaels' inimitable style, half-funny, half-sexy, always seemingly inspired.

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This one from a show in l986 called The Bewitched Bee.

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Chris Rock on Christmas and Jesus: a rant

Back in 1965, Charles Schultz gave us perhaps the best of all Christmas TV specials. Because it's not just about the season, it's about all that comes with it: depression, loneliness, and self-doubting, as well as family and the sweetness and holiness of the Nativity. It's sad, silly, funny, touching. It won all the big awards, the soundtrack went triple-platinum, and anyone open to convincing that the holiday season has been corrupted by sell sell sell had to hear the message. 

I mean, after all, how can anyone forget the Charlie Brown Christmas tree?

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But that was nearly fifty years ago. Time for an televised anti-commercialization booster shot, which this month came from a surprising quarter: Chris Rock, appearing on Saturday Night Live. Saying lots of rude things, as is his wont, and making a lot of sense. 

I admire it, want to make this part of it more search and findable on the web.  

Take it away, Chris Rock

In America there are no sacred days. We commericialize everything. Do you realize we are only five years away from 9/11 sales? Yeah, [TV voice] come on down to Red Lobster. These shrimp are only 9 dollars and eleven cents. [normal voice] It doesn't matter what the holiday is. Martin Luther King Day is going to be the same thing. [TV voice] "These Toyotas are practially free at last, free at last!" "This MLK birthday, McD has got a dream!"

It's Ameica, we commercialize everything. Look what we did to Christmas. Christmas. Christmas is Jesus's birthday. 

Jesus's birthday. Now, I don't know Jesus. But I've read that Jesus is the least materialist person to ever roam the earth. No bling on Jesus, and we turned Jesus's birthday into the most materialistic day of the year. In fact we have the Jesus birthday season. It's a whole season of materialism. And at the end of the Jesus birthday season, we have the nerve to have an economist come on the TV and tell us how horrible the Jesus birthday season was this year!

[TV Voice] Oh, we had a horrible Jesus birthday season this year — hopefully business will pick up by his cruxifiction. 

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The unbearable whiteness of Wild: a black perspective

Perhaps the most interesting meditation on the movie Wild to date comes from Brandon Harris on the Talking Points Memo site. He frames the question a little less provocatively than my headline wondering:

Why is camping a white thing? 

He points out that the one black character of any stature in Wild, a self-described hobo, appears not to have been a black character in Cheryl Strayed's famous book, upon which of course the movie is based. As a black man, he takes no great offense at this "tokenism," but as a hiker and camper does explore the subject, noting a Sierra piece about black mountaineers, and pointing out that in the not-that-distant past, black people often did camp out — for their lives. 

For many blacks in the antebellum south, camping skills were essential. The faintest hope of freedom depended on surviving in the forests of the deep, still-wild south upon escaping from bondage, as some 100,000 African-not-yet-Americans did between 1810 and 1850. Mentions of rock shelters and bluff tops, which were used as hideouts and improvised camp sites, course through many of the most significant fugitive slave narratives, from Frederick Douglass to Sojourner Truth and onward. The ability to manipulate fire and navigate was often the difference between life and death. The railways one imagines when first hearing the term “underground railroad” were in fact swamps and streams, caves and rivers.

And then adds:

It’s not hard to see how this history of roughing it in the wild just for a chance to live free pushed black folks away from camping and hiking. For them, America’s great natural bounty has always signified more than leisure time.

Both the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Committee, perhaps the two most prominent of grassroots environmental organizations, have come out in support of protesters in places like Ferguson. 

When Al Huang, an attorney for the NRDC, is asked why his group and the Sierra Club supported the Ferguson protests, he replied:

Why wouldn't we? Our mission is to advocate on behalf of issues that impact the environment. We talk about protecting the ecosystem. Well, one of the most important part of any ecosystem is the people who live in it — without diversity, it's unhealthy. Without diversity in our human community, it impacts all of us. 

Good to see these groups doing something for the unrepresented — human and wild. 

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Flying tumbling vehicles: #1 movie visual today?

Took a look at the classic old disaster movie, Earthquake, from 1974, which has a great preview/trailer: 

This movie surprises, first of all, because its strongest images inadvertently connote 9/11. Not what one expects from a movie set in a natural disaster

Of course the plausibility question, so often an issue with disaster movies, cannot even be raised: heck, the Northridge quake of 1994, costing in the range of $40 billion in 1994, remains one of the worst natural disasters ever to befall the US. Earthquakes happen in Los Angeles.

So where do the writers — including Mario Puzo — choose to go for drama?

I can tell you where the writers of today go for drama — in this weekend's Into the Storm, to a couple of teenagers who barely know each other and find themselves on a video shoot in an abandoned factor as a monster torpedo spins near. 

Frankly, the dumbness doesn't almost matter — the movie does flying tumbling vehicles spectacularly well. Perhaps better than anyone. Witness the conclusion of the trailer, which uses silence and darkness to hint at a story — slightly reminiscent of the great preview for Twister — but thoughtfully short: 

Arguably flying tumbling vehicles — usually cars, but increasingly semis and even airplanes — have become the most dramatic visual of action movies (of various types) this century. Look at Fast and Furious, Transformers, The Dark Knight, the list goes on and on.  

Yes, all too often, that's what drama has come to on movie screens in 2014: will this tumbling semi-rig spin and tumble and crush our hero/the camera?

Okay, sorry. So in 1974. by contrast, with Mario Puzo of "Godfather" fame writing, where did the filmmakers choose to go for drama?

They focused on a love triangle around a super-successful architect/developer, played by Charlton Heston, who is being pursued by the extraordinarily beautiful Genevieve Bujold, dressed in neat peach-colored pants, turtleneck, and jacket. A single mom, she cares for her young boy more than anything, and saves him from a fiery and water disaster — in part due to her scandalous friendship with an influential married man. 

Probably her greatest role. The movie's great success and her bralessness made her a 70' icon, at least to some of us, and a website that tracks such culture epiphenomena as Susan Dey and Genevieve Bujold.  

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And how did the writers convince us that Charlton Heston, playing an architect/developer vaguely reminiscent of John Galt, is as successful and worthwhile as he is good looking? 

He has a telephone in his convertible. It rings as he's driving and he picks up and answers. Yes, it's true. In l974. 

Final point. There are a pair of characters — a daredevil and his supportive pal — who play a surprising role in both movies.

In Earthquake, it's the always appealing Richard Roundtree, who has a scruffy white pal who helps him make up the stunts, transport the bike, also wear the leather outfit with lightning bolts, etc. In Into the Storm, it's a couple of redneck stunt-loving bozos who just want to get themselves into a YouTube video and get a million hits. They drive a beat-up old pick-up armored with sheet metal, spray-painted Twista Hunterz. It's pretty hilarious. 

So: short comparison/review. Into the Storm is a crummy movie with only one character of any real distinction, a beleagured high school vice principal. A little humor, and a bunch of teenagters who all but snore in speech. Oh well, the images are so strong it almost doesn't matter. Earthquake is a richer and far more cohesive movie, more emotional and less random, and its effects — which won a slew of awards, and two Oscars– retain great power. Movie also has a great soundtrack by John Williams, as well a startling character, an angry cop played by George Kennedy. He loses his temper (before the earthquake strikes) and sits down at a bar like a corrupt beat cop in a big city, and has a drink and a smoke while on duty.  Unexpected!

Perhaps these people deserve punishment for their sins? It's an interesting question on which to hang a disaster movie. Distantly related to the Grand Hotel/Stagecoach/Lifeboat group drama, but arguably better, if not especially deep. Was nominated for a Golden Globe as a drama.  

But forget story about for a minute — these are disaster movies! What images do we remember?

From Earthquake, a semi tumbling off a high free-way bridge and tumbling down towards another freeway.

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From Into the Storm, an image of parked passenger jets at an airport being blown back and ever so gently lifted into the air by the oncoming tornado two miles across…

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The wisdom of Carl Jung on Eros and love (not)

In my medical experience as well as in my own life I have again and again been faced with the mystery of love, and have never been able to explain what it is. Like Job, I have had to “lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer.”

–Carl Jung

From Late Thoughts, a chapter towards the end of Jung's classic memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections

I falter before the task of finding the language that might adequately express the incalculable paradoxes of love. Eros is a kosmogonos, a creator and father-mother of all higher paradoxes of all higher consciousness. I sometimes feel that Paul's words — "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not love" — might well be the first condition of all cognition and the quintessence of divinity itself. Whatever the learned interpretation may be of the sentence "God is love," the words affirm the complexio oppositorum of the Godhead. 

In my medical experience as well as in my own life I have again and again been faced with the mystery of love, and have never been able to explain what it is. Like Job, I have had to "lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer." 

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You have to like the genuine humility, the not knowing, though I do wonder how in that state he couild help his love-stricken patients find their way through the mystery and the bewilderment of love. 

[image from the irreplaceable David Levine of the 1965 NYRB: available here]

Reminds me of an apparently very famous quote from the 20th century philosopher Wittgenstein, of the same era and similar background, who described his first great book about knowing and the metaphysical by saying in conversation, as described in a recent NYTimes review:

What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence.

"Thus the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein summarized his first, notoriously difficult book,’Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.” Wittgenstein’s declaration is usually taken to mean that talk about anything metaphysical — God or gods, supernatural phenomena, mystical experience — collapses into nonsense under scrutiny."

For Jung, it's easier to talk about God and the unconscious than love and sex. For Wittgenstein, it's easier to talk about talking about God than either God or the unconscious or love and sex.

Jung has no difficulty admitting he cannot talk about love — for reasons professional and personal. Is this admirable, or a bit of an evasion I wonder? 

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Overrated movie of the year: Snowpiercer

Yours truly sees all sorts of movies with alleged environmental messages (even the recent Godzilla, for crying out loud) to see how pop culture understands the on-coming prospect of planetary disaster.

One of the best such movies in recent years was "The Host," from South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, which at least one other critic called "the best monster movie ever made." That 2007 movie had it all: a classic premise, brought to vivid (and anti-American life); a bizarre failure of a man who became a hero more or less in spite of himself; an endearing child battling a ghastly monster; an odd but captivating sense of humor; great action direction; a surly Communist to set events in motion — surely one of the best genre movies of the century to date. 

So yours truly eagerly awaited the director's next major outing, complete with a plethora of stars: young Chris Evans; Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and the two most memorable Korean characters from "The Host." And so did other critics, evidently, for as a group they have fallen all over themselves in praising it — jeez, the usually reliable Andrew O'Hehir of Salon has called it "the best action film of 2014, and probably the best film, period." 

Its numerical rating on Rotten Tomatoes comes in at an absurd 94%. Metacritic's algorithm puts it at 83% (Though the real people rating comes in lower — 75%).

But folks, let me tell you, even if you like the global warming analogy (in which a substance sprayed into the sky brings on a freeze fatal to nearly the entire planet, within six months), you won't like this movie. Even if you enjoy the brutal parable of the 99% living on a train, trying to win some decency in life from the 1% who runs the show. Even if you can stand the ghastly axe-battling, the hoary disco decadence, the bizarre schoolteacher ruling the kids — all the metaphors, in other words — it's still a crummy movie, with some of the most banal dialogue in memory, the most boring hero imaginable (Chris Evans, showing not a smidge of the wit of his previous outing as Captain America), and a completely unreal setting. 

Politically I have no real problems with the movie (except for the preposterous ending). But I don't think it's too much to ask for a veneer of plausibility, or, if that's not possible, at least a compensatory outrageousness or, um, fun? This is grim, bitter, harsh obvious stuff, in look and in plot. 

Think you can see its dullness in this publicity still:

Snowpiercer

Weird thing is that the critics praise the movie even as they damn so many of its individual elements. O'Herir says it has "a creaky start." David Edelstein, perhaps my fave overall critic today, says the action scenes "are choppy and gracelessly staged, and the actors are high on the hog." Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, another critic who usually keeps her wits about her, calls the movie 

a tonal mishmash that can never decide between thoughtful political metaphor, lightheartedness and pulverizing violence. Bong seems most at home with the latter, which he stages with tiresome, slow-motion fetishism, mixing costumes and weaponry in an effort to distract from the scenes’ sheer repetitiveness.

And yet her mostly laudatory review is headlined: "All aboard a cold train to nowhere!'

Inexplicable. Perhaps the legendarily overbearing producer Harvey Weinstein twisted arms, or spiked the critics' drinks, or something. 

Demand better environmental apocalypse movies! Avoid this dumb one. Please. 

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