February 28, 2012

Why I Hate Meryl Streep (Even Though I Love Her)

Great actor and seemingly wonderful person. But she represents all of the bias you find in artistic evaluation. You can look at any clip of The Iron Lady, and you will never, ever believe it's a real person you're looking at. But she's Meryl Streep, so, ipso facto, it's great. Viola Davis's performance of Abilene was miles better. And I'll go even further: Kristen Stewart's performance in Breaking Dawn was miles better.

February 27, 2012

Why I Love Moneyball (Even Though I Haven't Seen It)

Movies and book tend to be about extremes. a death, a fall from grace, violence, falling in love---great topics all but somehow easy. There’s a certain amount of inherent drama that the creator doesn’t have to work for. What is more unusual is what I think of as “mid-tone” narratives: stories about a new idea in business (The Social Network, Moneyball), a decision about where to spend one’s life (Babette’s Feast), a moment of personal growth (The King’s Speech, Punch-Drunk Love). It helps if you can’t instantly name the genre of the movie.

February 24, 2012

Breaking the Narrative: Female Disempowerment

Gavin De Becker's The Gift of Fear is one of my favorite books. De Becker, a security expert, tells women to trust their instincts. Our instincts will tell us if a situation or person is dangerous. This has the dual benefit of warning us of danger but also freeing us from a generalized sense of fear, because we can trust that fear will kick in if there's danger.

My favorite line from the book is when he says (roughly), "Predators are animals. But you're an animal too."

February 23, 2012

Breaking the Narrative: Spousal

One of my favorite writers is an advice columnist. Carolyn Hax writes the Tell Me about It column for the Washington Post and is also syndicated. She once offered this advice:  Ask yourself if there's something you're afraid to say out loud to your SO [significant other].

February 22, 2012

February 21, 2012

Breaking the Narrative: The Medical Mind

Someone close to me was recently told he couldn't have a potentially life-saving treatment because two of his organs were too close together; even if the organs were 1 cm apart, they could do the procedure, but the organs were right up against each other. He was devastated—for a day. And then he woke up, called the doctor, and said, "Can't you just put something 1 cm thick in between the organs?" They thought about it, and said, "Yeah. We can."

This was at the number 1 rated cancer hospital in the United States (a slot it shares with Hopkins). My point is not that they're idiots. The opposite is true: they are brilliant and caring. But such is the power of received narratives:  A ergo B.

February 20, 2012

Breaking the Narrative: American Visionary Arts Museum

This week's theme is breaking free of the narratives that control our lives: stories of how things are done, what is possible, what we can be.

An easy start:  this museum of outsider art in Baltimore. AVAM is a total gem, with as satisfying a collection as almost any museum you could visit. Art by the unschooled, art made of paper plates or matchsticks, these pieces are not novelty items; they are beautiful pieces of fully realized art.

February 16, 2012

The Consolations of Literature

Literature, like music, packs our minds with lines and scenarios that become touchstones in our lives. Today Elizabeth Bennett's words keep coming to the surface, those about events that might ruin, "perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister."  

February 15, 2012

Best Written YA Novel of the Last 10 Years?

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is a good candidate. When the teenage protagonist Todd and the strange girl he's hit the road with, Viola, are sitting in a barn, trying to decide what to do next, they sink into silence because they're scared and confused. So they sit there and "overpet" the dog—and how perfect a verb is that? It's a new one, but any pet owner will know exactly what it means.

February 14, 2012

Shilling: Olds

How can you have made music for so, so many years and still come up with music as good as The King of Limbs or No Line on the Horizon or Innocence Lost?

February 13, 2012


I tend to like them short and sweet. Penguin Lives are great.  Jay's reading the new Van Gogh biography, which runs to 900 pages. And although I resist the notion that anyone could be worth spending 900 pages on, this kind of detailed recounting of a life gives you an irreplaceable sense of the subject's life. I worked on a good biography of Jack Kerouac some time ago, and my favorite part was when he gets on a bus in California to come back east. He's packed himself a bunch of baloney sandwiches for the trip, and Neil Cassady wants one; but Kerouac's pissed at him and won't share.

February 10, 2012

Gaming as Experimental Fiction

One of the coolest things about gaming is the way it makes you think out of the box. As a player, you get accustomed to certain story lines: enter cave, fight off minions, get to center, fight off boss, pick up treasure. But every so often you get stuck, unable to kill a beast or win a contest, and you have to pause and realize: This isn’t working.

Two of my favorite moments in gaming were like this. In Fable II, you fight your way to a showdown with the Big Bad, who launches into a long, megalomaniacal, speech about how he’s going to destroy the world. It takes a minute to realize you don’t have to wait out this speech; you can just stab him and be done with it.  More recently, playing Skyrim I discovered a valuable tactic I like to call Run Like Hell. After 20 attempts to battle past the baddies in one cavern, I gave up and just ran past them as fast as my little hide-shod feet would carry me. Success!

Veering from the script, seeing that you’re following a script to begin with, those are good moments.  

February 9, 2012

Shilling: Cloud Atlas

This novel by David Mitchell is one of the most beautiful and complex you'll ever read. It's long, it's complicated, it's worth it.

February 8, 2012

The Great 21st-Century Narrative Art Form

The novel was the great narrative creation of the 18th century. Film of the 20th century. Will videogames be remembered as the great creation of the (late 20th and) 21st century? The novel gave story; cinema added visual art to story. Videogames add participation--both intellectual and kinetic--to visual art and story. 

The beauty of Skyrim:

February 7, 2012

Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights was a much-loved TV drama about lives of a football coach and his players in West Texas. It ended its run last year with an Emmy for lead actor Kyle Chandler, who played Coach Taylor, the stoic lead coach of the high school football team. Just as key to the show's success was the high school's lead booster, Buddy Garrity, played by Brad Leland with comic genius. He was the Falstaff to Coach's Hal: a man of big appetites, gregarious warmth, resourceful and just a touch iffy in the morals department.

Yesterday as my friend mused about writing some Buddy Garrity fan fic, I wondered what a "Hey Girl" series of posters would be like if they featured Buddy instead of Ryan Gosling.

February 6, 2012

Eye Dialect

Eye dialect is the practice of fiction writers to spell words incorrectly in order to signal something about the character speaking the words. Often there is no difference in pronunciation (e.g., "wimmin" vs. "women"). The irregular spelling can indicate ignorance of the word on the part of the speaker. Seth Lerer gives the example of Twain's use of eye dialect in Huckleberry Finn when the Duke and Dauphin do Shakespeare, and the Dauphin asks what an "onkore" is; the reader is reading not so much the sound of the word but what the Dauphin is picturing in his mind when he says the word.

Eye dialect can be tricky; Joel Chandler Harris's use of it to render 19th-century African American speech is infamous. But it can also be evocative and effective. In The Knife of Never Letting Go, the YA novel about an illiterate society with no thought-privacy, the speech of the first-person narrator, teenage Todd, is rendered with eye dialect in phrases like "investigashun." Since Todd is largely illiterate, this doesn't even quite translate into "a picture of what Todd is imagining the word to look like in his mind." Instead, it's what Todd might imagine the word to look like if he were literate. Because in this society, literacy has been lost for so long that  "correct" spelling would be lost, even if literacy itself were regained.

February 3, 2012

Our Mid-Atlantic

A photo from last summer at Rehoboth. Despite the time it was taken, it feels a little wintry.

February 2, 2012

Theaster Gates

This artist is on the cover of Little Patuxent Review this issue.  Click here to check it out. Gates scavenges old urban communities for objects like fire hoses and shoeshine stands to use in sculptures that reference the civil rights era. The cool part: he reinvests money from the sale of a sculpture back into the community where he found the materials.

February 1, 2012

Brown Wrapper Reading

Psst: Here's a secret. Women read a lot of pornography. It's called romance novels, and while there's lots of talk of "good stories" it's really all about the sex.

But still: It's hard to enjoy the sex if the story is in the way. And, more than any other genre, romance is hard to judge by the cover. Serious reviewers almost never review romance (one exception: the excellent Michael Dirda), and romance-specific websites are unreliable.

Here's the recipe: witty dialogue, an intriguing plot, and a delicately developing relationship between the principals. This last point is the most difficult. There has to be an obstacle to their relationship, but you don't want them overly antagonistic. Nothing is more of a turnoff than a romantic hero who constantly puts down or expresses anger toward the heroine. Another turnoff: estrangement based on some silly misunderstanding; frankly this is the worst aspect of Wuthering Heights, the fact that Heathcliff's dark descent into devilry stems from him hearing only one half of a misleading conversation.

The best plots throw the principals together and have their relationship develop in a way that feels realistic and affectionate. Reading a really good romance, I'll have flashes of my own romantic plot, little moments that remind me of what it was like to fall in love: the magic, the understanding, the trust that develops.

So herewith some of my favorite romance novels, in hopes that you will give it a go. Many of these have a strong heroine, and sometimes a specifically vulnerable hero. But not every heroine has to be a superhero. As one romance writer noted, making the heroine "strong" has its own pitfalls, as it turns the women into caretakers. So some of these novels have a very damaged female protagonist who finds a protector in the hero; but being damaged doesn't mean that you're weak---that's a subtle form of blaming the victim. Finding healing and refuge in a romantic relationship is a story that, hopefully, we can all relate to.

These are mostly historical romances, set in 19th-century England. But for fantastic modern romances, pick up any book by Jennifer Crusie.

One Forbidden Evening, by Jo Goodman:  A young widow is courted by a bachelor after anonymous sex at a masquerade ball.

The Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas: A woman turns to a notorious viscount for marriage when her guardians threaten her life.

Flowers from the Storm, by Laura Kinsale: A Quaker woman (and math prodigy) helps a young duke who has had a stroke escape from the family members and rivals who are attempting to commit him.

The Spymaster's Lady, by Joanna Bourne: A French spy and two English spies are imprisoned in France and decide to help each other escape.