Thursday, November 19, 2009



I’m on a reading kick again. That’s not to say it doesn’t still take me two weeks to finish a normal-length book, just that I’ve regained the uncontrollable urge to read books that I’ve missed since graduation. My most recent read may be responsible…

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch : My outsized affection for this biography may stem from my lack of familiarity with the genre, but I believe this is the greatest book I’ve read all year. A life, from birth to death, with all its contradictions and unities, in one book: how wonderful. When that life is Flannery O’Connor’s, even better, but Brad Gooch doesn’t just rely on the inherent interest of his subject; he’s done his work, and made it seem effortless.

Flannery had a great way with names and titles for her stories, a talent I can only aspire to. There’s nothing I dislike more than an innocuous title. Flannery’s least innocuous and most evocative titles tend to be borrowed from philosophy, literature, and scripture, while some of my proudest achievements of recent years come from popular song (via The Smiths, New Order, Nico, The Damned, Yo La Tengo, My Favorite, Joy Division), film, film criticism, Shakespeare, and even a variation on one of Flannery’s most famous stories (though not by switching the adjectives, which would suggest a certain kind of story). My favorites of these are also the most inscrutable (“As It Is When It Was,” “No It’s Not Wrong But I Must Add”). I have a whole stockpile of Stephin Merritt quotes waiting for stories, the most promising being “How They Were Not Like Me Because.”

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy : Daughter of the eminent Helena Meloys, she read here last week, and her brother Colin will perform at my work next month. She has a fine way with dialogue, and the slowly revealed plot; these aren’t the types of stories I’m especially interested in, where what happens resonates more than the language itself, but she’s taken a style I associate with Richard Ford and his (non-feminine) ilk, and shown that it belongs to everyone.


I haven’t seen Precious yet, so I won’t pass judgment, but I’ve been reading about it with interest. The most common criticism (Newsweek, et al) seems to be that the film reinforces the notion that inner city black people are helpless and need outside support to overcome their tragedies. I don’t know if that’s true (and if it is, but the story is well-told, I don’t see why the filmmakers should have to provide an alternative), but the film that Newsweek wants Precious to be already exists, and it’s called Ballast. That film, like Precious is said to, piles tragedy on top of tragedy, and then slowly, by revealing a back story previously withheld but entirely plausible, allows its characters an out, so that it begins to pulse with an overwhelming, because so vulnerable, optimism. Ballast introduces a kind white man early on, but he turns out to be a red herring; the characters’ tenuous striving for a better life comes entirely from within themselves. The final two shots are so perfectly understated, but so precise and unambiguous, that I found myself silently shouting, like I often do, End! End! End! This film followed my command.

How does last year’s equally inevitable Best Picture-winner Slumdog Millionaire fit into all this? I never really felt one way or the other about that movie, and clever as the conceit is, I don’t have the brainpower to think through what it’s saying about improvement of the impoverished. Game shows are a rigged and frivolous form of self-improvement in which no contestant has the upper hand. But Slumdog has the answers! Agency! The host, like the protagonist, is Indian. But where’s this money actually coming from? I give up. But even a reading of the story arc as arbitrary and the style as poverty-porn still gives the film an advantage over the new Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blindside, which is sure to be the most racist movie of the year.

I was wondering why last weekend’s offerings at the Myrna Loy were drawing such big crowds, and then as I gazed out from my perch in the box office, I realized: Coco Before Chanel and Amelia are the first two movies about women we’ve shown since I was hired.

Whatever Works is hardly perfect, but I’d say it’s a better articulation of Woody Allen’s long-held ideas about the world than many of his recent films. And it’s pure fantasy, a mode he should work in more often. He also avoids clichés, stereotypes, and uncomfortable depictions of intergenerational romance (or not really, but when they do crop up, they exist, again, in the realm of pure fantasy), and this is especially remarkable given his biography and the typical homogeneity of his casts. If only Philip Roth was so lucky.


I’ve already voiced my approval of The Office [US], but I caught a rerun the other day that was great in ways I never thought The Office could be. It said things about pride in failing institutions, and paper, and art, that I expect from, well, great art. The episode concerns Pam’s first art gallery exhibition of her drawings, on paper, one of which depicts the building that houses the paper company for which she works. Only the often-blind (or too-seeing?) Michael Scott understands the beauty of this drawing—which I suppose is in a way the equivalent of having a tattoo of your own mother—and ends up privileging art and comradeship over financial gain in a way that might be a valuable lesson to those of my classmates who took jobs in the business world. Though I don't know of anyone who did.

I’ve wondered what Conan O’Brien’s complete indifference (it shows) to most of the musical guests they push through on The Tonight Show says about the state of the music industry. Does his discerning taste and relative youth signal the end of something, and the beginning of something new? But mostly I’ve been wondering if Flannery O’Connor would find him funny, and I suspect she would. That’s only fair, as Conan wrote his senior thesis at Harvard about her.


My favorite local artist is Jim Poor. His recent works are less colorful, and now on display at his studio.

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