Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

New Jobs in Louisiana

Whereas, much of the country is experiencing an economic depression, and while there are state government budget concerns and cost-cutting, according to an Associated Press report circulating today Louisiana, a state with a total population of less than five million people, saw an increase of new jobs during the month of November: an increase of 6,000 jobs. Consequently, there is reason to be a little more optimistic rather than less.

Film Appreciation Societies

Writer's Note: Several weeks ago I sent out a survey of film-related questions to people involved in Louisiana culture, and one of the questions was, What is the value of film appreciation societies? Here, below, are a few answers to that question.

Alexandyr Kent, film reviewer and writer of the Louisiana Movies web log:

I value them, but I think Netflix and subscriber services supplant them. It’s now very easy to obtain classic or obscure films and consume them at my leisure. Attending a classic film – for the Millennials, at least – may no longer be a priority because of the proliferation of exhibition options. The subscriber asks, “If I can get it cheaply on DVD, on my own time, in my own home, why do I need to go to a more expensive film society screening?” I would go because I privilege movie theaters over all forms of exhibition. Is that true for everyone? I can’t answer that.

All I know is that audiences are fracturing and that it becoming harder to foster face-to-face dialogue.

Susie Labry, actress, singer, and film community activist:

I see a strong value in our meetup groups. Not only do these highlights occur, but many members testify that it is because of meetup that they get jobs and some careers. There are months and months worth of work I got because of meetups, which make it much more easier and expedient to get on. It keeps us all on the same page and it is excellent to keep a united front when it comes to legislation and issues facing those in our industry. Louisiana Produces is 1200+ Members strong, and Baton Rouge Meetup is 1100+ strong. We all stay on the same page and communicate and cross and all help one another as one.

Paul Schrader's film Forever Mine

I saw Paul Schrader's film Forever Mine, which came out in year 2000, on television, and I liked it with reservations: the film Forever Mine, which I saw this past wekend, features lush locales and has warm, colorful cinematographer, rather than the dark black-and-white of film noir, but it is a suspense film as well as a love story, though some of it, as regards violence and vengeance, is too predictable. The film begins with male camaraderie, that mix of emasculating insult and mocking fliration, involving "cabana boys," men who work on a beach serving rich people. One of the young men, Alan Riply, is played by Joseph Fiennes and he meets Gretchen Mol's character, Ella Brice, a secretary who married her boss, who is played by Ray Liotta. Love and money, very American subjects. Fiennes looks boyish, slightly starved, and sensitive rather than sensual. Mol looks like a perfect blonde goddess. Her character is religious (she crosses herself; an afffirmation of faith, a seeking of protection). The two kiss within the first twenty minutes of the film, a film that seems a mix of fantasy and reality. The couple part; and the young man, Alan, cannot forget Ella and follows her. Her husband hires thugs who rough Alan up; and the husband tells his wife that Alan his dead. Her offers up the news as if it were dessert. Fiennes' Alan has been disfigured but he is recognizable to me, though not to Ella or her husband when he meets them again, after he has become an important businessman with a Spanish accent and a different name. (Fiennes slender body is unique: there aren't that many grown men who are that thin. His form would itself offer an echo of her past.) It is when Ella kisses the Spanish man (Fiennes) that she recognizes him and cries (very 1940s Hollywood melodrama there). Of course, there are a few determining confrontations before the film's end; and Schrader's filmmaking technique helps to maintain the viewer's regard.

Bike Theft; and, An Elusive Wholeness, A Paralyzed Ambition

Last Thursday, December 18, I rode bike, an old red bike in good condition, loaned to me by an aunt, to St. Martinville. There wasn't much of a wind and it was a mostly pleasant ride. I did some research and other work at the library in town. I was at the library for several hours and saw the bike shortly before I planned to leave, about 4 p.m., and I did a few more things on computer and put away a magazine and when I walked out the door, about 4:30 p.m., the bike wasn't where I left it, though it had a lock around the chain (and the wheel on which the chain turns) that made its back tire impossible to turn. I had seen a young man enter the library--wearing a black T-shirt with the word "Cajun" on it and tan pants (he was black, so that's why I noted the word Cajun and the pants may have been dirty near the leg bottoms); and he used the rest room. He might have taken it. I'm trying to recall, as well, if I saw anything else, such as a truck near the bike. From the library, I called the police department and a policeman came, took a brief report, drove alone around the nearby blocks, then took me home. He and I talked about the theft and also about the costs of being an artist. He said most of his family are educators and his wife is a writer. He said that being a policeman, he is a rarity in his family, although he did study art in school (and he couldn't see being a starving artist with three children, as he has). He told me he would keep an eye open for the bike. It is easy to feel, following the theft, both foolish and furious--and weak and wrathful. It's hard not to think that I should have gone outside to check on the bike periodically--to discourage any watchers; or that I should have left the library sooner. It's a telling thing: I had just been thinking days before that it might have been a sign of the difference between New York and Louisiana that the bike hadn't been stolen, as I had twice forgotten to put the lock on the bike, once in New Iberia, and once in Loureauville, but the bike remained where I put it both times, though I had left it for several hours each time. (The lock was on it when it was taken in St. Martinville. Following the theft, someone told me, That would happen in St. Martinville.) It's hard not to feel vulnerable and violated, and apprehensive about seeing someone with the bike. I half-hoped that the bike would be returned to the library (because the lock will make it inoperative, if it cannot be removed). I told my aunt, she who loaned me the bike; and she was understanding. My sister offered one of her family's bikes (they are in a shed on my mother's property). The theft has been unsettling; and I had trouble sleepiing for several nights afterward. The theft reminds me of some basic things: the need of personal transportation here, rather than the public transportation so easy to find in New York; my own limited funds and options (I cannot afford a car now); and the desperation and malice that often overtakes people (why steal someone else's proprerty; and why take and keep something that you cannot use?) . One keeps expecting the future to be better, for one's fortunes to rise, for one's neighbors to be transformed into a community; and the present, which is yesterday's future, remains as frustrating as ever.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cultural News

There are many cultural events occuring at year's end, and just as many topics for consideration and conversation...

“In Congo Square: Colonial New Orleans” is the name of an article by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in the Nation magazine, its December 29, 2008 edition (online December 10). The piece reviews two books: Building the Devil's Empire: French Colonial New Orleans by Shannon Lee Dawdy; and The World That Made New Orleans From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette.

The book Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans was inspired by the trouble following hurricane Katrina and people’s attempts to get back to normal life and their sharing of recipes with each other and through the New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune, has been getting some local Louisiana attention.

Edouard Glissant: “As a writer, I write in the presence of all the languages of the world, even if I only know one. Humanities today are developing a practical, divining sense of languages, and are using a far higher proportion of the capacities of the human brain. Multilingualism should not be boiled down to the development of the quantities of languages; it refers not only to a situation, but also to a new awareness, related to the way I frequent the poetry of the world.” Edouard Glissant wrote and said those words as part of the September 28, 2008 conference called the European Meeting of Cultural Journals in Paris; and his words were posted online by Eurozine November 26. I know Edouard Glissant’s reputation but not his most significant work, so I am pleased when I come across something short by him that I can read quickly—it’s a nice reminder to read more of his work. Glissant, who was born in Martinique and spends time there as well as in New York and Paris, is the author of fiction, poetry, and essays. (He was one of the heroes of someone I used to know.) Edouard Glissant’s commentary on multilingualism, available on the web site of Eurozine, also affirms a redistribution of the world’s wealth; the international dissemination of knowledge and the significance of journals; and the relation of each to all.

I miss visiting the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and ache a little more now, as reports that in January 2009 “The Museum of Modern Art, in collaboration with the Global Film Initiative (GFI), presents Global Lens 2009, a touring film exhibition conceived to encourage filmmaking in countries with developing film communities. The selection of 10 programs, each from a different country, which include films developed with seed money from GFI, represents a concise survey of contemporary filmmaking from areas where local economic realities make such expensive and technology-driven endeavors a challenge. Accomplished, entertaining, and thought-provoking, the films are also deeply rooted in the social and political realities of the countries where their talented and resourceful makers live and set their stories. Several of the films will also be screened for participating educational institutions and schools in the New York area as part of an educational project between GFI and MoMA’s Department of Education.”

One thinks of the Europeans as accomplished in many cultural matters but, apparently, there are failures of note. The press digest Eurotopics reported December 16 about a finding in a French publication: “Le Monde newspaper discusses how French and German are being neglected as foreign languages in the neighbouring countries. ‘The bad news is that cooperation is going through hard times. There are problems with French teaching in Germany and with German teaching in France, both of which are on the decline despite repeated promises at summit meetings.’”

For the online digest Sign and Sight (following a translation from the original German publication Frankfurter Rundschau), Arno Widmann writes about a philosophical study, Kurt Flasch's book Kampfplätze der Philosophie: “Flasch’s precise readings are interrupted by thoughts, ‘about the historical role of polemics’ or ‘praise of mediocre writers’ for example. These are not digressions but thoughts which lead to the heart of the sort of history of philosophy which is not interested in systems, big names or eternal questions, but which wants to find out how people in a particular place at a particular time learned about world th[r]ough thinking and research. And this was done by debating the ideas of the time and the time that went before. Written texts played a key role but they were never set in stone.”

On the demise of newspapers and the plight of journalists, Slate’s Jack Shafer (December 16) in “The Digital Slay-Ride” says, “The only reason we're so well-informed about journalists' suffering is they have easy access to a megaphone. The underlying cause of their grief can be traced to the same force that has destroyed other professions and industries: digital technology.”

Film Journal International (Harry Haun, December 16) profiles the wonderful actress Kate Winslet, who is now appearing in two well-reviewed films, Revolutionary Road and The Reader.

There seem to be some early bad reviews for Will Smith’s new film Seven Pounds, according to Greencine Daily.

Last night, a television fiction detective program, featured a woman whose body had been thrown down an elevator shaft and totally mangled. It was one of many dismemberments that appear—that are shown in detail—on such programs. One cannot help but consider the brutality of such a vision. (What is the nature of the gratification?)

A band I’m very fond of, Death Cab for Cutie, appeared on David Letterman’s late night television show last night but I was too sleepy to watch.

Singer Chris Brown was named artist of the year by Billboard magazine.

A Stranger on Earth (fiction excerpt)

Writer's Note: The plan for the novel A Stranger on Earth, a work in progress, is to have the work divided into two sections or books, with book one made of four parts, the first of which is the chapter "What She Thought," taking place in the summer, and about a woman named Sarah, an impoverished but gifted woman, and her work in a university, and the relationships with a professor and young scholar-musician that develop. The other sections in book one would take place in different seasons and would focus on related characters, and book two would return to Sarah and be mostly her meditation.

An excerpt from "What She Thought" in A Stranger on Earth:

Sarah was surprised to find that she woke up feeling disoriented, with pains in her joints; and when she tried to wash and felt faint, she considered seeing a doctor. She had an appointed with her new job counselor and did not want to miss that—she would have to provide documentation for why she was absent and the whole drama of the matter wasn’t worth it. The job search center was crowded. Sarah cringed. She did not want to see many people. Something in her shut down—she saw a few young, attractive people, and in another environment she might have been curious, but here she cut off eye contact and did not greet anyone. She did not want to have a conversation about her disappointments or hopes. She did not want to be vulnerable (obviously she was vulnerable—but why act it out?).

Sarah was glad to have only spent two hours at the center. She left the building, unsure of what to do—go home, walk around, do something amusing. She saw a television van on the corner, and a reporter and camera man near it. She looked around. Had something happened? She did not see protesting students or workers. What could it be? She wondered for a moment, but wasn’t interested enough to ask. Sarah heard two girls beside her talking about wanting to stop for something to eat. She heard two young men in front of her talking about international relations—one criticized Israel’s bombing of Lebanon, and the other said he didn’t think Israel would still exist as a country in twenty years, as it was antagonizing too many of its neighbors and no longer had any moral justification for its existence. Sarah walked beyond the television van, slowly, and toward the subway. How did she feel? As if she might still be weak. Was she suffering from bad nutrition, a lack of rest? Stress? It could be anything. Everything.

When Sarah finally went to the hospital days later, she was told that a lot of New Yorkers had the aches she was complaining. It seemed to Sarah like a strange thing for a doctor to say, but Sarah imagined it must be true—but then in any populous city, certain generalities could be made. The doctor gave Sarah painkillers and suggested a follow-up appointment with the hospital’s pain clinic. Sarah wondered if she wouldn’t have been better taking a couple of aspirins. She had spent a couple of hours in the emergency waiting room before seeing the doctor. It was only a little better than when she had made an appointment in the past. The appointment had to be made three months in advance. If she had been seriously ill, she might have died: but that’s the way things were with the city-sponsored medical insurance given to the indigent. Then, she wasted most of a morning, just waiting, waiting, waiting, before briefly being seen by a doctor. What they seemed to want was to keep you going back for appointments to milk the insurance. If you happened to improve your health, that was nice but not a priority. Sarah left the hospital slightly amused by how many ways there were to define poor—indigent, impoverished, needy, disadvantaged, deprived, underprivileged, less fortunate. There were some pretty ways of describing an ugly thing.

(c) DG


Writer's Note: This is a young person's poem. I wrote this poem in the 1980s. It is around the time I was particpating in a writing workshop in Harlem; and I had a young woman friend, also a poet, with whom I used to share conversations about poetry and other things.

Crisis: Covenant

And you ask, Where do I stand?
Other winters weathered left me
lean, trembling, my love mangled effort,
hurt heat behind my eyes,
wise as Socrates: ignorant and knowing it,
having been loved and loving, hated and hating,
having lain naked with truth,
having detonated so many lies
to protect my soul's cities,
risen thick smoke blinding me,
scattered rubble burying all truth,
learning again and again: defensible or defenseless,
the war is lost: life wins.
Still you ask, Where do I stand?
Have I begun to call death?
What of God?
Useless are my prayers,
desperation never being taken
for faith or love by God or men.
Though miracles fall at your feet,
like necessary tribute,
I can only believe in you,
your faith, your laying on of hands,
my body to rise, come
with my soul to cry sanctified!
walking with light.
Is there a new convenant we can make?

(c) DG

The Art of Losing, A Play: Excerpt

Writer's Note: This is an excerpt from The Art of Losing, a two-act play focusing on a family of brothers and their female cousin and several friends, including two “interracial” couples. During the play these relationships are both celebrated and challenged—and challenged not only by the demands of the individual personalities and philosophies involved but also by a terrible act of police violence and an urban bombing with an international source. (The play was partly inspired by the Amadou Diallo killing and the World Trade Center attack, but it is a fictional drama.) Who are we and how do we face unexpected experiences? Do we learn and can we change? Is there an art to losing?

The Art of Losing: Cast of Characters

Patrick – professor of literature; African-American, late 30s

Margaret – Patrick’s friend and cousin, smart, pretty, strong, an assistant editor; African-American, late 30s

Adam – brilliant graduate student, agile charming; of Euro-American descent, late 20s

Raimi – Patrick’s brother, a street vendor of art, fragrances, cloth; West African, late 20s

Risku – Patrick’s brother, a businessman; West African, late 30s

Anthony and Sarah– professors; an interracial couple, black male, white female, late 30s

Maxwell and Patricia – business executives, friends of Anthony and Sarah; an interracial couple, white male, black female, mid-30s

Robert – blonde boy, about 3

Michelle – pretty brown girl, about 4

Leonard Thurman – famous writer; African-American, late 30s

Act 2, Scene 4

(A few hours later. Patrick’s apartment. Patrick, Margaret, Risku, Anthony, Sarah, Robert, Maxwell, and Patricia are there. Robert is asleep in another room.)

Margaret – Oh Sarah, those kinds of African violets only need to be infrequently watered, and then only from the bottom. If water touches the leaves it damages them.

Sarah – I didn’t know that. They didn’t say that at the plant store and of course I threw away that little card the plant came with soon after unwrapping it.

Margaret – They make nice blooms. (quietly) Raimi had given me a couple.

Sarah – I never saw it bloom. I’ll have to get another one now that I know.

Maxwell – Should we turn on the television again to hear more of the news, to see if there have been any other developments?

Patricia – I feel bad about all those people. It’s a tragedy.

(Background music: Abbey Lincoln’s “The World is Falling Down”)

Patrick – We just had the television on thirty minutes ago. Most of what we’ve seen was a repeat of what we’ve been seeing all day. (Dryly) Planes crashing into buildings, smoke, running, screams, emotion.

Margaret – The buildings falling so quickly was unusual. Maybe the engineering was bad, or there was a lot of fuel dispersed and the heat melted the beams.

Sarah – I think tomorrow we’ll call and see what we can do. Donate blood or something.

Patrick – (After watching Patricia then looking at Sarah) You heard what they said about the chemicals that might be in the air. I wouldn’t go anywhere near it.

Maxwell – It is good to do something.

Patricia – The few people I talked to who had someone in those buildings sounded totally wrecked and the ones who aren’t sure where their loved ones are…

Anthony – (getting off the phone) The dean wants to know if someone can put up Leonard Thurman for a couple of days. He was staying in a hotel near the twin towers and he can’t get anywhere near there now. Could you put him up?

Patrick – I’m not in the mood to entertain visiting literary royalty.

Anthony – He’s not like that. He’s really easy to deal with.

Patrick – Let him stay with you.

Anthony – He’d have to sleep on the sofa, and we’ve got a child.

Patrick – Oh, okay, if you can’t find anyone else, he can stay here.

Anthony – Great.

Patrick – If you can’t find anyone else. (smiles) Why don’t you make one or two more phone calls just to see if you can?

Anthony - The dean called most of the people in our department. Most either don’t have the space or don’t want to expose their private lives. (They laugh)

Patrick – Okay, he can stay. Is he going to come over tonight?

Anthony – As soon as I call his cell phone, he’ll probably be on his way.

Patrick – (to Margaret) We’ll have company.

Margaret – It’s fine with me—someone new might distract us.

Patrick – Literary people are never new in that way. They always remind me of someone else, of someone long dead.

Sarah – Patrick!

Patrick – I just mean that they’re like the reincarnation of some great writer, usually someone who influenced them a lot. Or else, they remind one of their own work—you think you’ve heard something before and then you recall an opinion piece they wrote six months ago or a book they got a lot of attention for that you merely read a concise review of. (quietly) Anyway, he can stay in Raimi’s room.

Sarah – I’ll wake Robert and straighten the bed. What time is it? (She sees a clock.)

Margaret – Benjamin Banneker made the first clock in the United States in the mid-eighteenth century. A mathematician and an African-American, he also helped design the nation’s capital, the architecture.

Patrick – He published a weather almanac too.

Anthony – I’ll call the dean, then Thurman. We can stay until he gets here.

Patrick – Yes, do that.

Patricia – You still call it Raimi’s room?

Patrick – I do, as that’s what it is. (pause) It’s kind of disgusting for me to hear you be upset about some dead white businessmen you don’t know when you weren’t as upset about the murder of my brother, whom you did know.

Patricia – I told you. They were the husbands and wives of some of the people I do business with.

Patrick – But they weren’t related to you, and you didn’t know them.

Patricia – So.

Patrick – Why are you so emotionally involved with this?

Patricia – This is a world-historical event.

Patrick – (laughs) Anything that happens to Americans are thought by Americans to be world-historical. The rest of the world experiences terrorism periodically. Bombs go off in London and Rome and Paris every year. People die for political reasons in Africa, India, and South America all the time. There’s nothing world-historical about this. This is an American event and it’s recent, that’s all.

Patricia – I’m sorry that I didn’t mourn your brother the way you thought I should.

Patrick – Did you mourn him at all?

Patrick – I didn’t know him well.

Patrick – You knew him well enough to know he should not have been killed.

Risku – Patrick, both Raimi and all those people who died in those buildings should be mourned.

Margaret – I agree.

Risku – Death is a terrible thing.

Patrick – (quietly but angrily) What I want to get at is why Patricia didn’t mourn Raimi, and I think she didn’t because she didn’t value him—he was a black man and she didn’t expect much from him.

Patricia – But I’m a black woman.

Patrick – Married to a white man.

Patricia – What does that have to do with anything?

Anthony – I don’t think that’s relevant.

Patrick – It is possible for people to take on the values of the larger society, to see only certain lives as important.

Sarah – I don’t think that Patrick thinks being married to someone who doesn’t look like you means that you’re more inclined to make errors in judgment.

Anthony – Of course not.

Patrick – (laughs) Why don’t you let me say what I mean? I mean exactly what I said. Patricia has the values of the larger society—they are white bourgeois heterosexual values, utterly conventional and predictable.

Patricia – (stunned) I am old-fashioned in some ways, and I do believe in ordinary decency and I wouldn’t intentionally insult a visitor to my home and I know that for you to describe me as you have, short of calling me stupid, is probably the most damning thing you could say. It may be, in fact, just another way of calling me stupid.

Maxwell – Let’s not all react.

Patrick – (laughs) Why not?

Maxwell – We’re friends and we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Patrick – Max, we’re beyond that. Feelings have been hurt and on both sides.

Maxwell – That’s not funny.

Patrick – What’s funny is this unwillingness to hear the truth, to explore what’s true. You want to cover it up before we’ve even gotten a good look at it. (He puts on Ice-T’s “Straight Up Nigga”)

Anthony – Not everyone who worked in those towers were executives. There were people at all professional levels, people from different countries, with different skin colors.

Patrick – Those other people are not the ones Patricia is thinking about—and I’m interested in why. I think that this country still manages to get us to idealize Americans of European descent, white men. We see them as having greater complexity, greater possibilities, greater worth than others.

Patricia – Do you think we should still be angry at white men for what happened years ago?

Patrick – I’m not talking about being angry about the hundreds of years of slavery, social ostracism and prejudice that African-Americans have been subjected to. I’m talking about seeing Africans and African-Americans as fully human, as having as much potential value as anyone.

Maxwell – Potential value and actual value are not the same.

Patrick – Especially if you don’t believe in potential value. Raimi had both potential value and actual value.

Anthony – It would be easier to talk about this if it weren’t so personal.

Patrick – This kind of conversation is always personal for someone—for someone present or absent, whether we know it or not. What’s abstract about talking about how we see people? I don’t think Patricia is guilty of anything most of us haven’t thought at one time or another.

Patricia – That’s a small justice, though I may not be as guilty as you think. I’ll admit that the spouses of colleagues have concerned me and I’ve expressed that concern in a way that may be more vivid than what I showed for—Raimi. I didn’t like running through the streets not knowing what was happening. I feel as if I could have been in one of those towers. I feel that what disturbs my colleagues will affect me and what I do. I’ve also been trained to demonstrate—to dramatize—concern for colleagues whether or not I care. That’s the business world. I wanted you to feel I supported you after Raimi died but I also thought if I made a big deal over his death it would just make you feel worse, that the awfulness of it would have just been confirmed. It seemed better to be a strong person rather than a mournful person, a person of resource rather than a weakened person.

Patrick – I see.

Maxwell – It wasn’t some kind of depraved indifference to your brother’s life or death.

Patrick – No.

Margaret – (mildly) I still don’t know what Patricia actually does. I never seem to understand what people with high-level administrative jobs in large corporations actually do.

Maxwell – We’ve explained it—more than once.

Margaret – (smiles) I still don’t get it.

Patricia – (softly) I didn’t think of Raimi as anything more than your half-brother who was a street vendor and an obscure musician. I did not see more than that in him. You were right about that.

Patrick – What might we have done to change that? What can we do in the future—so that we really see?

Anthony – You’re asking a lot of human perception, of the world.

Sarah – Even when most of this society begins to see African-Americans differently, there’s still likely to be prejudice still regarding one group or another.

Patrick – What do we do until then? And after? (pause) Why is it that when I see interracial couples on the street they ignore me?

(Margaret laughs)

Patricia – We’re so used to being stared at that we just try to focus on each other and on safe things, buildings and stuff that won’t object to our being together.

Patrick – Why do spouses in interracial couples seem to go out of their way to adopt what they think of as the culture of the other and end up with peculiar tastes, like Patricia’s love of country music and Maxwell’s taste for only traditional African music and disregard for modern African music?

Maxwell – It’s very subjective to call something peculiar. Certainly you like all kinds of things.

Patrick – Yes.

Maxwell – Traditional African music seems very…pure.

Patrick – Modern Africans are the same inheritors of history and technology and diverse cultural influences as the rest of us and that’s what comes up in their music. To be preoccupied with only the traditional seems like an exoticism, a denial of the complexity of modern Africans.

Maxwell – It’s what I like.

Patrick – Okay, but taste is something that we develop, isn’t it? It has origins, and we can subject our taste to questions, to criticism, to standards, even though we can like whatever we choose.

Maxwell – We are changed by the people we love. They open us. I’ve been changed by you Patrick, and I hope you’ve gotten something from me.

Patrick – Anthony, did you play golf before meeting Sarah?

Anthony – Two words. Tiger Woods.

Patricia – I love Maxwell and we understand and misunderstand each other and have good times and argue and negotiate—it’s love.

Patrick – (wistfully) Did you know right away that it was love, when you met?

Patricia – We enjoyed each other.

Maxwell -- I asked myself whether I wanted to live with her or without her, which would be the better life.

Anthony –What are you doing Patrick, reducing us to specimens?

Patricia – He’s judging us.

Patrick – I’m trying to understand something.

Sarah – Some things cannot be asked of one’s friends. There has to be trust.

Patrick – None of my questions are as bad as the insane interviews and comments directed at me. I’ve been asked by someone who worked in a library whether there are any black writers. Someone else asked me if I ever cut my hair. The things people let slip. And in job interviews, it’s worse—the interviewers think every line on the resume is a lie or a miracle. (pause) I’m trying to understand something.

Anthony – What?

Patrick – What makes us who we are, why we stay that way.

(End of scene)

(c) DG, 2002


Writer's Note: I wrote this poem in the early 1990s, and it was inspired by different ideas and perceptions and the fact of a new friend, whose acquaintance I renewed this year.

A Classical Simplicity

My friend, I lived through the age of superstition
fear ignorance youth the rule of nature
and the age of reason
coldness knowledge maturity the rule of man
and each has it own monsters
monsters glimpsed through the night blinds
of partially closed windows
monsters glimpsed through the lines
of partially wise manifestoes
and still I'm trying to guess what come next
by closely reading each new text
thrilling at words whose realities I recognize--
ambiguity, fragmentation, the price of progress.

You return me to my younger self
with questions of a classical simplicity:
What are you feeling?
What does she mean to you now?
What will you do?
You have begun to live in me now
like a man in a story I must write or tell,
and this is my desire, this is my fear.
Let us not be those hollow men
for whom only words are alive.
Let us cling to the truths of our differing
ages, and create anew with each other and others.

(c) DG

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The World of Literature and Ideas

The poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander has been selected to participate in President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama’s inauguration.

In her December 4 Washington Post interview with journalist Bob Thompson, Toni Morrison discussed her own work, her perception of personality, and Barack Obama; and she said that she wished that some of her friends and colleagues, such as James Baldwin, were still around to see Barack Obama, whose writing talent and wisdom she admires. Asked what James Baldwin’s response might have been to Barack Obama, Toni Morrison said, “I think he would be desperately, desperately in love.”

Robert Draper is planning to write a forty-year history of race in America, beginning with Martin Luther King’s death and ending with Barack Obama’s election, according to and Publishers Weekly.

“The publication this month of the first volume of Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), edited by her son, David Rieff, is a significant event in the literary world,” begins Daniel Horowitz’s piece on Susan Sontag for the December 19 Chronicle Review (Chronicle of Higher Education). The journals document Sontag’s early life and education, and display Sontag’s intellectual ambition and commitment to experience (accepting both pain and pleasure as part of life), as well as her response to aesthetics and sexuality. Horowitz notes some of the editing errors regarding facts and chronology that might lead to confusion in interpreting Sontag, yet finds that the journals convey “the sources of Sontag’s transformation into a powerful writer and major celebrity.”

The online international publication Words Without Borders’ December issue focuses on “the home front,” the struggles of home life.

Paul Greenberg’s December 9 essay (“Bail Out the Writers!”) in the New York Times considers how plentiful the number of writers are and how the rewards for most writers have little to do with plenty.

The organization Poets and Writers has received a grant of two-million dollars from New Jersey’s Liana Foundation.

Poets from Australia, Ireland, Portugal, and South Africa are featured on the web site of Poetry International for December.

“The nonpartisan Council for A Better Louisiana has updated its Louisiana Fact Book with the latest data on demographics, economic activity, education, health care and public safety,” according to the December 17 Associated Press (and Baton Rouge Advocate).

The Center for Louisiana Studies was scheduled to hold a holiday celebration and book signing for yesterday, December 16th, featuring Barry Ancelet, Darrell Bourque, Carl Brasseaux, Ray Brassieur, Richard Campanella, Fred Daspit, Philip Gould, Greg Guirard, Reinhart Kondert, Dave Pierce, and May Waggoner.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Book Notes

Today there is rain and fog, although there are weather forecasts of bright, warm days ahead. Last week, it snowed in Louisiana for the first time in years, and many people were excited by that. It was briefly cheering as the late autumn/winter landscape here can be bleak, with the brown grass and browning trees and the mostly bare cane fields, the large combine tractors and their drivers having done their work. Books offer, still, some news of the larger world, past and present; and they can help a man to see the present a little more clearly. I have been reading two books offering a perspective on Louisiana politics: Louisiana: A History, edited by Bennett Hall, from Harland Davidson Inc. (1984/2008), and Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics, by Wayne Parent, from LSU Press (2004). The latter mentions a popular Louisiana T-shirt, “It’s Not the Heat. It’s the Stupidity.” The book informed me also that in 1930, the black population in Louisiana was 50% but only 1% were registered voters, a fact which says much about the balance of power in that time; and in 1980 the black population was 30% and 70% were registered voters. Of course, in the recent election, most African-Americans in Louisiana voted for Barack Obama; and the balance of the state's votes went to John McCain, who was not the victor in the national election. Times have changed, though not every mind reflects that change; and history, for better and worse, has had its effects…I have been reading parts of Richard Megraw’s Confronting Modernity: Art and Society in Louisiana, on the New Deal, modernity, and the relationship of modernity to local values. In the last few months and weeks, I have been “looking at” or reading various books, including Clarence Major’s novel My Amputations, a novel about identity, literature, ambition, despair, and conflict (FC2/University of Alabama Press, 1986/2008); and another fiction, Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy (Knopf, 2008), in which she fills the absences and silences of early American literature. The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, edited by Marc Smirnoff, has articles such as Peter Guralnick’s commentary on music and career, Carol Ann Fitzgerald on Bessie Smith, love, and sex, and Mike Powell on Fred Neil (Everybody’s Talkin’”), and Elizabeth Wurtzel on R.E.M., and other pieces (University of Arkansas Press, 2008). I liked Fitzgerald and Wurtzel’s work very much. The book is better than much of what passes for music criticism today, too much of which is the promotion of attitude and cliques rather than the exploration of music or its makers. Sarah Vowell’s historical research book, The Wordy Shipmates (Riverhead/Penquin, 2008), on New England and early American intellectual and political history, could be a companion piece to the Morrison novel. It captures something contentious and progressive in early American life. The photo book with text that is The Black List, by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell, is a great reminder of the progress that has been made by some African Americans and the work yet to be done; and it displays the images and words of Toni Morrison, Vernon Jordan, Serena Williams, Louis Gossett Jr., Lorna Simpson, Karem Abdul-Jabbar, Thelma Golden, Sean Combs, Colin Powell, Bill T. Jones, and others (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2008).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What's Going On?

I had a very peculiar dream last night, involving passports, a chase-and-run through a cane field, and violent persecution, a dream that seemed the result of various anxieties as well as recent television viewing; and when I woke I thought about freedom and slavery, peace and war. I thought about the choices we want and the situations in which we do not have choice. How are our rights ensured? Our rights are ensured by those who make a commitment to those rights, just as culture is advanced by those who make it and support it. It is now an important year for the advancement of human rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948; and this year is the sixtieth anniversary. The declaration affirmed freedom, and justice, and asylum, for all regardless of social categories. However, some countries abuse those rights still. “In situations of serious abuse, the human rights movement often cannot rely on local courts to enforce rights. Abusive governments have long figured out that killing, corrupting or compromising a few judges and lawyers is enough to secure impunity for human rights abuse. Instead, the human rights movement has developed the capacity to put intense pressure on abusive governments with the goal of forcing them to resist the temptation to violate human rights,” states Kenneth Roth in “The Price of Rights” on the web site of Human Rights Watch, commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. As strategies to protect human rights, the human rights movement uses diplomatic pressure, and advances legal prosecution of individuals who have violated human rights, and encourages military intervention in extreme situations (such as genocide).

In “Social Networks and Happiness” by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, a piece that appears online at the online site of Edge: The Third Culture (December 5, 2008), the authors Christakis and Fowler report that “We found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends—that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. We found that happy people tend to be located in the center of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people. And we found that each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%. For comparison, having an extra $5,000 in income (in 1984 dollars) increased the probability of being happy by about 2%.” These findings seem to be in line with common sense—we think, often, that like attracts like.

The online web magazine The Daily Voice reported yesterday, December 9, that Julian Bond has said that he will seek re-election as chair of the NAACP, the civil rights group. Previously, he had said that he would not seek the chairmanship again.

President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama has proposed a public works program that calls to mind the celebrated and useful projects of Franklin Roosevelt, and Obama’s proposals as reported are very practical, positive, and promising news, but today Barack Obama has made news by calling for Illinois governor Rod R. Blagojevich to resign, following reports of the governor’s seeking personal benefits for an appointment to replace the Illinois senate seat recently held by Obama, a corruption case that Jesse Jackson’s son has been implicated in, as a possible candidate for that seat.

Corruption is not unique to Illinois and in the past it has been notorious in Louisiana (Who can forget Edwin Edwards bragging about voters’ tolerance? Edwards said that he would get in trouble only if he were found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. And, more recently, a Louisiana politician was found to have thousands of dollars stored in a fridge, leading to various legal charges). However, following an investigation into a business decision of former Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco shortly before she left office, the December 10, 2008 New Orleans Times-Picayune (correspondent David Hammer) reports that “Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s 25-percent raise to the Road Home contractor went unquestioned and largely unnoticed a year ago, but not because of any intent to conceal the $156 million increase, according to a state inspector general's report released today.” Reporter David Hammer writes, “The change raised the amount that private contractor ICF International Inc. could be paid for its work administering the program by $156 million -- to a $912 million cap,” but “Inspector General Stephen Street, an appointee of Gov. Bobby Jindal, said he found no evidence that the Blanco administration was trying to hide the raise she gave ICF, even though the media and key figures in the Legislature didn’t know about it until long after she left office.”

Science Daily has a report on software being devloped to aid security (“Keeping Track: Software Locates People And Objects, Immediately Detects Unauthorized Persons”), as well as reports on smart fabrics that monitor health and plastic that conducts electricity. Science News reports on an imaging study that examines the parts of the human brain (and emotion) involved in legal decisions affecting punishment (in the article titled “In the brain, justice is served from many parts”).

The southern Louisiana newspaper The Daily Iberian (reporter Holly Leleux-Thubron) announces that “The ancient statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, a tourist attraction in the Teche Area for more than 40 years, was sold for almost $1 million Tuesday”at the New York auction house Christie’s.

I have not seen any films in a theater recently, something I regret, but I am reminded that are now good things to see, and will be more, in some theaters, though not necessarily any that are near me in Louisiana: Milk and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button dominated the nominations Tuesday for the Broadcast Film Critics Assn.’s 14th annual Critics’ Choice Awards, receiving eight nods each,” reports Susan King of the Los Angeles Times, December 10. “Joining Milk and Benjamin Button in the best picture category are Changeling, The Dark Knight, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, Wall-E and The Wrestler. (Note: The New York Film Critics Circle has picked Milk as best film, and its lead actor Sean Penn as best actor.)

One of the films I want to see is The Reader, starring Kate Winslet, which Film Journal International reviews. It is set in Germany and is about a young man and an older woman, and contains a significant historical theme. “On his way home from school, the young Berliner is taken ill and stumbles into the vestibule of a shabby tenement where he vomits. Resident Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a 30-year-old tram conductor, comes to his rescue, helping Michael return to his comfortable but stern Berlin family,” describes Doris Toumarkine, Film Journal International, December 10. “Working from Hare’s chronologically scrambled and energized adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s bestseller, director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) delivers a handsome and thought-provoking package that will attract critics’ praise and droves of quality-seeking audiences. Daldry also draws superior performances from his cast, especially principals Winslet, Fiennes, Olin and young German newcomer Kross.”

In New York, Renee Fleming performed at the Metropolitan Opera in Massenet’s “Thaïs.” “Ms. Fleming justified the company’s faith by delivering a vocally sumptuous and unabashedly show-stealing Thaïs. A glamorous courtesan in fourth-century Alexandria, Thaïs undergoes a spiritual transformation when confronted by an ascetic monk, Athanaël, whose fierce religiosity cannot contain his erotic desires,” comments the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini, December 9.

Poet John Koethe

John Koethe. North Point North: New and Selected Poems. New York. HarperCollins Publishers. 2002. 254 pages. ISBN 0-06-620982-X.

John Koethe is one of the most distinctive poets of our time: his work presents ordinary life and its’ contemplation with eloquence; it’s a philosophical poetry of deep feeling and true tones—and yet reading his book North Point North: New and Selected Poems was sometimes painful. The pain was not his fault: I kept remembering formerly well-forgotten feelings regarding two unresolved relationships with uniquely intelligent and sensitive acquaintances. The honesty of Koethe’s work calls forth one’s own honesty—and I remembered lies I told myself and believed (one, that we had understood each other and achieved a genuine intimacy; and two, that I no longer loved them after I realized we had not understood each other). I had shared with one of these acquaintances Koethe’s The Constructor, specifically a poem (“Threnody for Two Voices”) that concludes: “I want to see myself as I am, and look at you the way you are—/Is that a form of hatred? Or an intricate form of care/That lets another person be? Or a form of self-deception/Leaving both of us alone, but with our disparate lives/Uneasily together at the end, within a blank and/Intimate expanse? Maybe now you see.” And the acquaintance said he thought the poem brutal, while I said I thought it tender—two different ways of seeing that mirrored what Koethe himself was writing about.

John Koethe, educated at Princeton and Harvard, is a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he wrote The Continuity of Wittgenstein’s Thought. In the essay “Poetry and the Structure of Speculation” Koethe wrote, “I think that poetry and philosophy are both speculative activities, in that both involve the entertainment of propositions in the absence of certainty about their truth and often the absence of any means of even establishing their truth.” Koethe names as his influences John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot, and makes reference in his poetry to art and music (Satie and the Supremes), childhood, family, marriage and separation, work and teaching, and cities and neighborhoods—and Koethe’s voice, simultaneously critical, affectionate, and melancholy, seems its own confirming evidence and inspires belief in the significance of Koethe’s observations. Koethe has gained a growing readership, including the appreciation of other poets and also leading critics. His handling of language is so deft that it took me a while to realize that some of his poems contain rhymes. His poems are a means of facing the world and also fruits of “evasions” that are full of “melodramas of the mind” in a world that often “remains indifferent to our needs.” Koethe’s words are a splash of cool water from an elegant pitcher. In “Argument in Isolation” he writes, “I think the truest language is the one translated by the leaves/When the wind blows through them, and the truest/Statement is the one asserted by the sun/That shines indifferently on loneliness and love;/And that neither one is bearable…”

Koethe’s North Point North is a book that illuminates; it is also as satisfying as it is chilling.

(c) DG, 2002/2003

Literary Artist Gina Berriault

Writer's Note: We seem to live in a time when, for many though thankfully not all, art is an irrelevance at worst and an entertainment at best, rather than a necessity: a fundamental resource of beauty, inspiration, thought and truth. There are artists who remind us of the best that art can be and in her work Gina Berriault, now deceased, is one of them. I was first introduced to her work (The Infinite Passion of Expectation) many years ago (in the 1980s) by a new friend, a young woman who had lived in Boston and who was attending an "ivy league" school; and it was one of the best introductions anyone ever gave me...

Gina Berriault. The Tea Ceremony. Washington, D.C. Shoemaker & Hoard/Avalon. 2003. xiv + 200 pages. ISBN 1-59376-004-3.

A teacher who has enjoyed Japan returns to her American classroom full of memories and souvenirs, including a kimono; and one of her students, a boy, inquires about its price, in “The Tea Ceremony,” one of Gina Berriault’s well-observed, delicately written stories. “It’s not polite to ask those kinds of questions, she said, so we don’t answer them,” reports the narrator. (pg. 3) Money, like passion, is the fundamental stuff of social life—and literature. “The Tea Ceremony,” the story that gives its title to the book currently under review, a collection of fiction and nonfiction, is actually focused on the friendship of two girls, one outwardly beautiful and one more ordinary but in whom there are apprehensions of various kinds of beauty, the beauty of creativity and of human connections. It is also a story about how adult standards of value begin to be imposed on children even as adults fail to live up to those standards (a teacher shows a favoritism that might be wounding to others, though this is also a genuine affection that helps a particular child sustain a sense of self during a difficult time; and a status-discerning mother wants her lovely daughter to pick more obviously impressive friends, and this mother is publicly embarrassed by disclosure of her own sordid, adulterous affair). The injury and resentment one initially expects to occur between the girls does not occur, and instead one is made to see how strength in one area may be accompanied by vulnerability in another; and this personal meaning is shadowed by a great public event, the Japanese attack on the United States.

Berriault, born of Latvian and Lithuanian parents, lived in California, and was influenced by Chekhov, and appreciative of various writers—including Turgenev, Ivan Bunin, Nabokov, Primo Levi, Raymond Carver, and black and Hispanic writers. In an interview, “Don’t I Know You?,” near the end of the book The Tea Ceremony, Berriault remarks about her own work, “If there is a recurring theme, it’s an attempt at compassionate understanding. Judgement is the prevalent theme in our society, but it’s from fiction we learn compassion and comprehension.” (186)

In one of her stories, “The Vault,” Berriault deals with an obscure writer who receives an invitation to donate his manuscripts to a university collection, something that reveals his small lonely life, anticipation of death, pride, and a wry humor. Berriault is truthful. A proposed novel’s first chapter, “The Flood Again,” is here—and that, about a young actress’s affair with a powerful man, offers a mild but genuine intimacy. “The Naked Luncheon,” on the beginning of topless bars, is a piece of social history, while “The Last Firing Squad,” about executioners is, inevitably, about humanity’s darker corners, and “The Essential Rumi” is about the difficulty of picking a favorite book, three pieces of nonfiction that indicate the scope of this collection, which would seem random were it not for the unique consciousness and talent of the writer that pervade it.

(c) DG, 2004

International Music

All texts (c) DG

Excerpt from “The Search for Home: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Red Earth

Dee Dee Bridgewater traveled to Africa and found herself drawn to Mali, and many people told her of her resemblance to the Peul people there; and this album, recorded in Mali, is the result of her quest for a spiritual home. (She is reported to be building a house there too.) I have reservations about Red Earth, but I think it is, for the most part, wonderful!... “Red Earth” is about a childhood in Tennessee, blues music, a life of searching, of finding, with connections seen between America and Africa: “the red earth has always been so good to me.” (That affirmation reminds me of the book African American Environmental Thought by Kimberly Smith, published by the University Press of Kansas, 2007, a book that argues that the African-American response to nature—a philosophical and spiritual ethos regarding how land is lived on and with, how land is a vital part of private and public life—is a unique resource for the conservation movement.) That is recognition of the earth’s splendor that sees an individual human life as part of a larger whole.

Excerpt from “Reconciliations: Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale, Breathing Under Water

Traditional and modern music, eastern and western, acoustic and electric, male and female: they are all to be found on the recording by Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale, Breathing Under Water….She is associated with classic Indian music, and he with contemporary electronic music. Each has spoken of how natural their collaboration has been, allowing them to explore new aspects of their talents, while making a statement about how complementary different forms of music are: on Breaking Under Water, she, as composer and instrumentalist, handled some of the electronic productions and worked as a pianist, and he composed, and played guitar, drums, and even sang. Yet, her sitar is central to all the music they have made.

Excerpt from “Difference Is No Threat: Angelique Kidjo, Djin Djin

Angelique Kidjo is one of those people who seems to have a destiny; who seems to have expected respect and success. Her albums—including Logozo (1991), and Aye (1994), and Fifa (1996), and Oremi (1998), and Black Ivory Soul (2002)—have won her a loyal international audience. I recall being excited about Aye in the mid-1990s, and having a conversation with one person who was skeptical about Kidjo’s Prince influence (she apparently recorded Aye at Prince’s Paisley Park studio), someone who found her African essence compromised; and I recall speaking with another person who attended a Kidjo performance and championed Kidjo’s authenticity: I found the artificiality/authenticity question a bore. The only thing that mattered to me was that Angelique Kidjo’s music sounded good. Angelique Kidjo is a dynamic, intelligent, and intense performer; and with Djin Djin Angelique Kidjo may be posed to consolidate and expand her popularity.

Excerpt from “Comic Voice, Tragic Vision: Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

What is there but abundance, calculation, death, futility—and the subterfuge with which we approach or disguise them in the western world? What but consciousness and pleasure? In “We’ve Got Everything,” the narrator admits, “We’ve tried everything half-assed and as liars. That’s how we got everything.” One life can embody the consciousness of a world. One hears the triumph of a man who has gone through the worst, and maybe been the worst, and survived, still able to laugh—at the world and at himself. It is the triumph not of morality, not even of mind, but the triumph of spirit.

Excerpt from “Cuban Pianist, International Treasure: Bebo Valdés”

Even knowing that many of the associations one has with the island of Cuba are clichés of a vintage to turn wine into vinegar, much of Bebo Valdés music on the solo recording Bebo sounds like a lost score for an ideal life. Bebo Valdés has said that he absorbed all kinds of music, not only classical music but jazz, boogie, the danzon, and the rumba (with danzon being the name for the ballroom dance music, featuring brass, tympani or kettledrum, and woodwind instruments, played by Cuban musicians; and danzon had European roots, as did some of the other early Cuban music). Bebo Valdés played music in Cuba, working in clubs and for a radio station, but he, like some other musicians, did not feel as welcomed in Cuba after the Cuban revolution. He spent many years in Sweden, living the life not of a famous man but of a working musician, though he is now much acclaimed.

Excerpt from “Instruments Made of Ice: Terje Isungset, Two Moons

Terje Isungset’s Two Moons is likely to ring still as one of the most interesting musical recordings I have ever heard: all the instruments played on the album were made with Norwegian ice, and the music was recorded in an igloo and at an ice festival. On Two Moons, the musicians are Terje Isungset, who sings and performs with ice percussion and an ice horn, and Per Jorgensen, who sings and plays ice trumpet. Such stark and somber music is an affirmation of nature and of nation.

Excerpt from “The Beautiful Music of the Son of Ali Farka Toure: Vieux Farka Toure”

Vieux Farka Toure, a musician of guitar and calabash, studied at the Arts Institute in Bamako, and Vieux Farka Toure considers his own music a force that can oppose hypocrisy and speak for truth. I do not know the language, or languages, in which Vieux Farka Toure’s songs are written so I cannot discuss their meaning: I can only suggest something of what they sound like and their effect on one listener. This is music of many delicate notes, notes like softly splashing rain, refreshment for a dry season.

Excerpt from “We Are Not the Same: U2's Achtung Baby

“You’re dangerous ‘cause you’re honest. You’re dangerous ‘cause you don’t know what you want,” begins the song “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” about an acquaintance who is both attraction and trouble, like a glimmering piece of glass on a beach, very similar to the person described in “So Cruel,” someone with a lack of appreciation for love: “The men who love you, you hate the most.” I like the shimmering rhythm in “So Cruel,” a shimmer I identify with Daniel Lanois, who worked on Bob Dylan’s great album Time Out of Mind, and who is fond of imbuing music with—or finding within music—a rare mystique. The narrator of “So Cruel” concludes, “Between the horses of love and lust we are trampled underfoot.”

Excerpt from “African Rhythms, World Sensibilities: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Afro Celt Sound system, Femi Kuti, and Angelique Kidjo”

Listening to the latest Ladysmith Black Mambazo recording Long Walk to Freedom is like a visit to a grandparent one has not seen in a while, a visit that was occasioned by other concerns but a contact for which one is very grateful. I had been listening to the music group Afro Celt Sound System, and that reminded me of Ladysmith and other African musicians, such as Femi Kuti and Angelique Kidjo. One of the most fascinating recordings I have heard in a long time is Anatomic, the album by Afro Celt Sound System, a band that mixes Irish and African music. The word experiment is used to describe works that are little more than pastiche, but Afro Celt Sound System is genuinely experimental, and its experiments, inventions and explorations of technique and sounds, are beautiful successes.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Music by Death Cab for Cutie; The Dears; and Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan

I listen to the musical group Death Cab for Cutie's album Narrow Stairs and I hear intimacy, tenderness, drama, and honesty conveyed with musical clarity, a rhythmic strength that balances light and dark, and structure with energy. I like the lead singer's slightly boyish voice, even as I wonder if it is too ideal a sound. The changes in melody and rhythm and volume in the songs actually seem to have emotional correspondents. The work, the album, which is human and artistic accomplishment, seems both natural and beautiful.

It is easier to hear human lives, not just very intelligent minds, or well-constructed melodies, in the songs of the band The Dears, in the group's collection called Missiles. There is bitterness and fear as well as a commitment to one's own integrity in these songs. The album is coherent and is perceptible as a whole, though each song is distinct and works on its own; and, there is a fulfilling variety. The work acknowledges isolation and the fact that isolation is a state of being that can be creative or destructive but is not itself a goal.

Isobel Campbell's album with Mark Lanegan, Sunday at Devil Dirt, a generous supply of songs, is sometimes spooky. The album has qualities that seem both traditional and contemporary, and its beauty, which includes unexpected harmonies, can seem elaborate.

These three albums are pleasing to listen to, and interesting to think more about: Narrow Stairs, Missiles, Sunday at Devil Dirt.

New Orleans Art Exhibit!, Excerpt
("Prospect .1 New Orleans: A New International Contemporary Art Biennial")

"New Orleans was the first U.S city to host a recurring international art exhibition, beginning in 1887 with the Exhibition of the Art Association of New Orleans. In this tradition, Prospect.1 features art originating from New Orleans and Louisiana within an international context and provides the Louisiana public with new art conceived and developed for the city. 81 local, national, and international artists, hailing from over thirty countries, have been selected to participate in the inaugural edition of the biennial. Their works are being shown in museums, art centers, warehouses, and public spaces throughout the city, for a combined total of more than 100,000 square feet of exhibition space."

The exhibit opened November 1, 2008; and it continues until January 18, 2009.

News Good and Bad

I received different messages yesterday, which I only read today: a local weekly southern Louisiana newspaper is open to my doing some freelance work, and welcomes me to visit the office; and a friend of mine, an older man, smart and kind, is ill in New York.

The Land Has Its Secrets, and Some of Them Are Ours

There was a small wilderness behind the house and across the coulee (a large ditch) from where we lived when I was a boy; and it was there when I arrived in Louisiana from New York in September. I walked through it four or five times since I have been back--but for the last three weeks or so a bulldozer has been plowing down the trees, clearing the lot. I find it painful and pointless. Apparently, my grandmother's sister wants to leave a clean lot for her daughter, so the daughter can do something with it, easily, if she wants to. I must admit, however, that the land here has seen all kinds of changes. There is another bit of wilderness nearby and walking through it, I realized the ground showed a pattern despite the thicked of trees--it looked like somewhat flattened rows. I asked my mother about it and she said that, Yes, years ago, in the 1930s or 1940s, a woman neighbor had planted a crop there to make money to pay for her own wedding. Riding my bike again to a nearby town, I passed a spot that used to be a garbage dump but is now used for crops, though the dump became known as a poisoner of groundwater: a boy in my class died of cancer as a result, years after I left Louisiana. I wondered if all the poisons had been removed from the soil--and who was growing, selling, and buying the crops from it. An irony, possibly: on my first day back in the area, I remarked to the aunt and uncle who picked me up from the depot that there was so much land here and so much opportunity for development; but, now I am reminded that not all development is good.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Toni Morrison's A Mercy; Or, That's Mr. Misanthrope to You

I spent much of Thanksgiving Day reading Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy, an advanced reader's edition that I had since September and which I'd attempted twice without completion. Morrison's strengths are language, imagination, and wisdom; and her ambition is to deliver the truth, whether it hurts or heals, but there is solace to be found in her words, in her vision. Fundamental to Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy is an act of sacrifice and imaginative sympathy that looks like cruelty: and in that misunderstanding is a sabotage of character and an inclination toward submission. A Mercy is, like many books, about perception and interpretation, about language, but it is also, very much, about the split roots of the American past--of Europeans rich and poor, of native Americans befriended, exploited, and maligned, and of Africans who are touched with brutal hands, whether they are desired or despised. It is a book about civility and savagery, intelligence and stupidity, love and hatred: life and death. It also concerns a theme that may be as timeless: what children do not understand about parents, especially their acts as well as feelings within the treacherous churnings of history (thoughtful concern can look like indifference).

In A Mercy is a European immigrant farmer who assembles a homestead that seems remarkably free for all, in the age of slavery and indentured servitude, but which is based too much on will and whim to survive his illness or death. Weaknesses are exposed--and religion steps in to offer morality in the place of intimate knowledge, mutual respect, or even practical sense; and it is a pious and wicked religion which begins to make both love and work very difficult.

It may be a footnote, but this is one of the few instances in Toni Morrison's work when homosexuality is recognized as impulse and relationship, in presenting two male farm workers who work well with others and have a sexual relationship between themselves. It is as if Morrison is attempting every reconciliation in this book; and offering hope for the present by showing the shared tasks of the past.

The book contains a lot of details, emotional, sensuous and historical; and there were a few times when I felt too much the presence of research or thought Morrison's summaries were too overt, but, on the whole, I found the book one of mastery, an important and interesting interpretation. Toni Morrison has enlarged her own literary authority again, and added something that may be essential to our understanding of the past.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On Cities (On Individuals)

"Alone Together"
By Jennifer Senior
New York magazine, November 23, 2008

Excerpt: ….Cities, in other words, are the ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves (which may explain why half the planet’s population currently lives in them). And in their present American incarnations—safe, family-friendly, pulsing with life on the street—they’re working at their optimum peak. In Cacioppo’s data, today’s city dwellers consistently rate as less lonely than their country cousins. “There’s a new sense of community in cities, an increase in social capital, an increase in trust,” he says. “It all leads to less alienation.”….

The Clash

Today, I heard a music program on public radio devoted to the history and work of the rock band The Clash, hosted by Delphine Blue (she does a show on New York's WBAI); and it was very good to hear her voice again and to be reminded of the complex circumstances and motivations of the music group and the quality of what they accomplished.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Carole King, singer-songwriter

I heard today a public radio special on Carole King and her Tapestry album hosted by Rita Houston, who is affiliated with WFUV in New York (I heard the program on Louisiana's KRVS). That was an album I had bought, living in the country in southern Louisiana, when I was very young, through a Columbia House/TV Guide sale (you could get a bunch of albums for about a $1). I loved the album; and recall playing it for my sister and some nearby cousins (I liked "So Far Away," "Where You Lead," and "I Feel the Earth Move" and we all liked the story-song "Smackwater Jack"). I listened to the album Tapestry in New York, too. It was great to hear songs from it again. (I'm still impressed by the sincerity in Carole King's voice and her piano playing.) I spent a good part of the program with tears in my eyes (truth to tell: there were more tears rolling down my cheeks than lying still in my eyes); and I recall that I had a similar response recently to hearing an old Rickie Lee Jones song. It is hard to say why. Maybe just the fact that the songs are good and have been with me for so long. Carole King deserves tribute, but, like too many women artists, her work has not received the consistent attention it warrants; and this program, which discussed her career and the making of the album, was wonderful to hear.

Impression: Biking

I had several bicycles, including an English racer, before I was 18, and I enjoyed biking very much, in southern Louisiana; and after I moved to New York I would think at different times, with longing, that I should get a bike but I did not; and, now, riding again, out of both opportunity and necessity, there are times when I enjoy it and times when I come close to hating it. My legs seem long for the bike and I hesitate to adjust the seat, as when I used to do this when young it would make the seat undependable (and the seat would sometimes fall at surprising times, which would be dangerous when riding in town, in or near traffic). Sometimes my knees hurt. It is hard riding against the wind, as I have on too many afternoons. I have had three accidents: one when startled by traffic behind me, when I went into a ditch; two, when a broken, small branch entered the spokes of the back tire while I road on a sidewalk in New Iberia (I didn't fall but I still refer to this as an accident, as it was undesired and unplanned, interrupted my ride, and damaged part of the bike); and three, when on the road soon after leaving the house, I was distracted by my own anxious thoughts and the front wheel twisted all around and I fell. I worry about having a serious accident, of having a bone broken, or of dying. I notice, too, that there aren't very many people using bikes--and on most days I notice no one on a bike, though on some days I have seen a few people (usually very young or very old). It is interesting to me that there are more people in New York using bikes (I remember this from a few months ago; and I was just reading an internet article, today, on bike riding in New York and how police are trying to control it). Here, there are a lot of trucks and cars and tractors and a few motorcyles, especially large American trucks (trucks made by the companies that are doing so badly in terms of national sales). Biking is good excercise, both exhilarating and exhausting; and the landscape I ride through is often charming, soothing; and I would not have guessed that I could dislike biking.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fiction Excerpt from A Stranger on Earth

Writer's Note: Sometimes I think all writing is the same--language, thought, feeling; and other times I think that there is no form of writing more complete than the novel. I have found when trying to write fiction that one is both a creator and a supplicant--open to imagination, inspiration, energy, possibility, tradition, and more. This is an excerpt from the chapter "What She Thought" in the fiction project, the novel A Stranger on Earth, a work-in-progress.

(c) DG

“He had terrible parents,” said one girl, laughing.

“I don’t know. Each did what he or she thought was best for the family,” said a young man, quietly.

“Well, Susan, Mark, you both might be right,” said Dr. Whitaker, walking in front of the class of twenty students.

“I liked John at first, he seemed smart and professional, but as the book went on, he became less likable. He seemed wounded, cold,” said a sensitive boy, through plump pink lips, his small dark eyes uncertain behind his glasses, though is words were sure.

“It was like a detective story,” said the laughing girl, adding, “only solving the mystery would explain to the detective why he was the way he was.”

Dr. Whitaker looked at the girl with appreciation, and said, “It is interesting that the history everyone in the book knows is not the full story, or the true story. There is another history, a secret history, and that history is about questionable motives, personal transgressions, and power where we do not expect to find it.”

Dr. Whitaker quickly glanced at Sarah, who sat at the back of the class. She had dressed carefully, cleanly, wanting to be a respectable but not distracting presence for anyone, but with the glances of the professor and the other students she knew that her presence was considered special. No one knew what she was thinking: she was the mystery in the classroom.

“What is learned in the book tells us something about the creation of a particular individual, a particular community, a particular world,” said Dr. Whitaker. “John Washington uses knowledge as armor. He wants to be prepared, protected. Yet, he is accumulating armor after the wound has been delivered. He thinks he needs knowledge but what he needs is wisdom.”

“What’s the difference?” asked the sensitive young man, a worried look on his face.

“Paul, I think the difference is that wisdom gives you insight that you can use,” said Dr. Whitaker, “and it’s not merely functional, it is healing.”

“Aren’t historians just concerned with facts, not, not—spiritual stuff,” asked Mark.

“Historians are devoted to what happens and why, but the spirit of a man, or a time, can shape what happens,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“Like prejudice,” said Mark.

“Yes,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“Historians aren’t usually heroes,” said Susan, “but John seems heroic. We begin to know some of what he’s afraid of, and yet he persists in his quest. He is afraid of not knowing and the more finds out, the less sense some of it makes, the less he seems to know, until near the end.”

“I liked that he was smart, tough,” said Mark.

“He was a bastard,” said Susan.

“Actually, his parents were married,” said Paul, smiling.

“You know what I mean,” said Susan. “He was bitter and he took it out on people, his girlfriend, his mother.”

“What is bitterness?” asked Dr. Whitaker.

“Resentment,” said Susan.

“Thinking angrily about the best more than you think hopefully about the future,” said Mark.
“Self-pity,” added Susan.

“Constantly remembering something that hurts and angers you,” said Mark.

Dr. Whitaker smiled and asked, “Have you thought about this a lot Mark?”

“It’s hard not to. So many people are bitter,” said Mark.

Dr. Whitaker moved from one side of the room to another, in thought, and then he stopped, and looked at the class, and said, “Novels create an intimate space in which our minds can roam.

Novels give us scenes that touch our imaginations, our feelings. In The Chaneysville Incident we find a very smart man who is bitter and difficult. We think of bitterness as an attitude or emotion, but what if it is a form of atrophied thought, a kind of stupidity?”

The class listened to him, looking around.

He’s right, thought Sarah. He’s right. It is stupid, and even someone otherwise intelligent, someone visionary, can have blind spots, can be stupid.

Leaving the class, Sarah looked at the students; and, glad that she had come, she felt pleasure and pride in their presence, and a little envy and pain too. She was surprised that as she walked slowly down the hall, thinking about her own school days and her life since that time, to find that Dr. Whitaker had followed her, and was trying to talk to her. He seemed different—more intimate, warmer, as if they were friends. She tried to say how much she enjoyed the class, and though he seemed glad to hear it, it seemed also as if there was more he wanted her to say. She did not know what that might be, and it ceased to matter once someone he knew walked up to him and said, “Did you hear the news? The governor is involved in some kind of sex scandal with a prostitute. They’ve got him on tape, and he apologized on camera, with his wife standing next to him.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“Believe it. It’s all over the television, all over the internet. You’ll see it,” the young man told him. They might have been talking about a bargain at the food market, but were talking about the destruction of a significant public reputation. Sarah felt a moment of disappointment, as she had thought the governor would be more and do more than his predecessors, those do-nothings.

“The emperor has no clothes—and he’s got a stiffy,” said the young man, laughing.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” said Dr. Whitaker. “It seems like a stupid mistake.”

“He was a smart guy but as arrogant as anybody,” the young man said.

“Derrick, arrogance is not a crime,” said Dr. Whitaker, adding, “but prostitution is.”

“He should have known better,” said Derrick.

“Do you think he wanted to be caught?” asked Sarah.

Both men looked at her.

“Why else would someone—a lawyer, a governor—do what he did? It wasn’t done in ignorance of the law. It wasn’t done because he couldn’t find some woman somewhere to have sex with him for free. Doesn’t it seem willfully destructive?” remarked Sarah.

“It does seem bizarre,” said Dr. Whitaker.

The three stood in silence, in thought, until Derrick said, “Well, I’ll let you go.”

Alone with Sarah, as students and teachers passed them by, Dr. Whitaker said, “That seems to put everything in perspective. Here we are, thinking about philosophies and fictions and the world is being turned by money, sex, and power.”

Sarah smiled, sadly, for a moment. It was something she thought of often, how principles were necessary, how dreams and ideals made life more inspiring, but how the force of the world could smash everything.

Joyce Carol Oates, creative writer and critic

Excerpt from "Joyce Carol Oates on productivity: 'I love to write' "
By Robert Pincus
November 23, 2008 San Diego Union Tribune (c)

I love to write,” she stated. “It's a fascinating experience to deal with language and to tell stories involving people who are, for me at least, fascinating.”

Oates declined to be interviewed by telephone, preferring to answer questions by e-mail.

“There have been 'prolific' writers and creative artists through the centuries – most of them men, as the work of women tends not to survive in quite the way that the work of men has. We can assume that the products of a highly energetic imagination like Mozart or Picasso are natural to them, and not unnatural or freakish; the same is perhaps true for others of us, less 'immortal.' I don't truly think of myself as a 'workaholic' – in fact, I don't work nearly as much as I would like to.”

...Oates' fiction is provocative, often intensely so. She tends to veer toward disturbing, dysfunctional dimensions of our culture: a family deeply traumatized by a crime (“We Were the Mulvaneys”), a life that disintegrates in the face of fame and exploitation (“Blonde”) and, in her most recent novel, the mysterious murder of a 6-year-old ice-skating champion that destroys the rest of her family (“My Sister, My Love”).

Two of these books are rooted in actual lives: “Blonde,” a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001, takes up the biography of Marilyn Monroe. “My Sister, My Love” echoes the story of JonBenet Ramsey.

This intersection of history, events and fiction has been a recurring subject for Oates, whose 1992 novella “Black Water” caused a stir because its tale closely paralleled that of the car crash on Chappaquiddick Island with Ted Kennedy at the wheel that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

“This approach is of particular interest to me,” she stated, “when it allows the writer to explore the specific and historical, as if it were emblematic, representative and even, in some ways, prophetic....

Literary Critic James Wood

Excerpt from "How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood"
By William Deresiewicz

The Nation, magazine (c) 2008

An iron law of American life decrees that the provinces of thought be limited in the collective consciousness to a single representative. Like a poor man's Noah, we take one of each. One physicist: Stephen Hawking. One literary theorist: Harold Bloom. One radical social critic: Noam Chomsky. Before her death, we had one intellectual, Susan Sontag, and one only. (Now we've dispensed with the category altogether.) We are great anointers in this country, a habit that obviates the need for scrutiny. We don't want to have to go into the ins and outs of a thing--weigh merits, examine histories, enter debates. We just want to put a face on it--the logic of celebrity culture--and move on.

It has been decided of late that the face of literary criticism shall belong to James Wood. A writer first at the Guardian (from 1992 to 1996), then at The New Republic and now, since last year, at The New Yorker, Wood has long been considered, in a formulation that soon assumed a ritual cast, "the best critic of his generation."...

...Wood is centrally concerned with the ways novelists tell the truth about the world, how they "produce art that accurately sees 'the way things are,'" and it is here that we begin to see both his project's deepest motives and the first of its limitations. Wood's ideal authors are those, like Chekhov and Mann and the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, who are able to invent characters who seem to break free of their creators' intentions, who feel "real to themselves"--and thus to us--because they "forget" they are fictional...

Too much is sacrificed on the altar of this aesthetic theology--too much in fiction that is fine; too much, finally, that is true. Magical realism is indeed unconvincing in Rushdie and Morrison, as Wood says, but what of García Márquez, who integrates it into a seamlessly imagined world? Does it matter that Borges doesn't create realistic characters? Nabokov's characters may be "galley slaves," as the novelist boasted, but he is still able to use them as, in his words, "a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion." To Roland Barthes's charge that realism is merely a collection of effects, Wood correctly replies that "realism can be an effect and still be true." But so can antirealism. Wood defends realism, justly, from accusations of naïveté, but the terms in which he does so make him susceptible to the same charge...

Wood's unwillingness to confront the contradictions in his thinking about these matters--to distinguish between realism and reality, artifice and experiment, character and person--points to a larger problem. Wood is a daring thinker, but he is not a particularly rigorous one. His powerfully associative mind tends to run him into logical cul-de-sacs that his supreme self-assurance prevents him from noticing. He often wanders from topic to topic, always too willing to be seduced from his path by the dappled description, the blooming detail....

For so imperious a critic, Wood is surprisingly sloppy. He repeatedly writes "literature" when he means "fiction." He confuses Jane and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, thinks the Professor in Conrad's The Secret Agent is a real professor and fails to see that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza know exactly how they're depicted in the first half of Cervantes's work, since someone tells them at the beginning of the second (a particularly surprising oversight, given that their resulting self-consciousness shapes the couple's behavior throughout the rest of the novel). In How Fiction Works, he spends two full pages burbling over the delicious mystery, in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, of Mr. Casey's having gotten his "three cramped fingers making a birthday present for Queen Victoria" (Why Queen Victoria? Whatever could the present have been?), when anyone can see that something sardonically political is intended, a suspicion confirmed by Richard Ellmann's standard biography of the author. Wood's prodigious ability to trace lines of descent across novelistic history, usually so illuminating, can become first a bookkeeper's compulsion (he'll complete his double entry whether it's relevant to the discussion or not), then an obsessive's delusion. Cormac McCarthy's Anton Chigurh is not a "reprise" of Conrad's Professor, even if one makes Wood think of the other; the only thing the two characters have in common is that they're both scary...

... We are immensely fortunate to have him--his talent, his erudition, his judgment--but if American criticism were to follow his lead, it would end up only in a desert.

Turkish author Murathan Mungan

Excerpt, from "Chador by Murathan Mungan: Journey into Nowhere"
(a few lines from a review of the novel Chador by Mungan)
By Volker Kaminski, © 2008, Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Returning home can be a dangerous thing. Those who return to the cities of their birth after a long absence to search for relations or find their roots can get a rude awakening. They may find that no-one welcomes them with open arms and that the things and people they thought they knew are strange and cold to them....This is exactly how Akhbar feels when he returns to his native country after many years in exile. He lost contact with his family years ago, his father died at a young age, and Akhbar does not know whether his mother and siblings are still alive. Now he discovers that his beloved home has changed completely. Parts of the country have been destroyed by war; streets and houses are deserted...

The story begins with a drive over the border into a hot, desert-like country. The reader gets the impression that this country is Turkey. However, the world described in the book is not as the reader might expect. Many things seen through the eyes of the protagonist seem exaggerated.The reader gets wound up in events that seem fantastic, reason gives way to the fable, and everything becomes increasingly surreal until the reader realises that the things described in the book are born more out of a vision than any real experience.Mungan's language is very poetical. He makes every effort to achieve a clarity based on powerful images; sentences linger in the mind of the reader; atmospheres, smells, and noises become almost tangible, although the descriptions of them may seem a little exaggerated to western European readers.

Excerpt from "Murathan Mungan: The Muse of Mardin"
(a few lines from a profile of Mungan)
By Nimet Seker, © 2008, Translated from the German by Ron Walker

"Literature was long seen as a substitute for politics in Turkey. Literature was loved and popular in the service of politics."The words belong to Murathan Mungan. Mungan is a cult author in Turkey, every bit as well known and successful as Orhan Pamuk. He is not only a writer of literature and song lyrics – entire CDs have even been dedicated to him...Mungan stands apart in other ways too. It is not only his themes and his Kurdish-Arab roots that make him something of an unconventional figure. Mungan is homosexual and speaks openly about it. Like his characters, he too has an abrasive approach to taboos, and an outsider's regard for social norms and conventions...So far, none of Mungan's novels are available in English. A pity, it has to be said. It really is high time that the writer achieved wider international recognition.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Some of What's Happening Now

Stephen Sondheim’s musical about money and morality, Road Show, with a book by John Weidman, and directed by John Doyle, is at the Public Theater in lower Manhattan. The work of Sondheim reconciles passion and reason, fantasy and realism, and is impressive not only for its creativity but for its recognizable intelligence and truth.

There is a new collection of the music group Belle & Sebastian’s performances for the BBC from Matador Records; and a former Belle and Sebastian colleague, Isobel Campbell, performs with Mark Lanegan on the album Sunday at Devil Dirt, just out from V2. I expect these cult favorites will be welcomed enthusiastically.

I regret not being able to see A Christmas Tale, the new film about a troubled family with health issues at holiday time, by Arnaud Desplechin, featuring Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Almeric. There is no place nearby showing it or likely to show it anytime soon. Stuart Klawans, for the November 6 Nextbook, has written about filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin (and his new film A Christmas Tale): “Desplechin tends toward overstuffed plots, theatrical conceits, rapid shifts in mood and style, and outrageously candid gestures. To these traits, he adds an element found not in Almodóvar but in the works of Woody Allen, whose inspiration he often acknowledges: a high level of literacy among the characters, and a correspondingly flighty level of chatter…With so much honor being heaped upon Desplechin, this might be the right moment to think about another of his distinctions, and a very curious one: he is contemporary cinema’s most Jewish non-Jewish director. Though as Catholic in upbringing as Almodóvar, Desplechin populates the margins of his films, and sometimes their centers, with surprise Jews, phantom Jews, Jews who wear their identity as openly as a badge…In case it should sound as if Desplechin’s maybe-Jews are an unpleasant lot, let me give a contrasting example: the old father in A Christmas Tale. A wise man, good-humored despite his troubles and free of all vanity, this character might be said to look Jewish, bears the vaguely Jewish first name of Abel, and works in a business (textiles) often associated with Jews…”

For a long time, I did not know anything about Destiny's Child or Beyonce Knowles. Until she released her first solo recording, I hadn't given her much thought; and then she got my attention when she was cast in Dreamgirls and the comparisons to Miss Ross began; and now I do find her fascinating for her talent and a bit amusing for the ferocious directness of her ambition, for which she has not been punished yet (unlike other female performers in the past). I am curious to see how her career develops, regarding both music and film. Here are some of the observations of Beyonce Knowles on her new movie, Cadillac Records, from an article in the New York Times, November 14: “Ms. Knowles said that Ms. Martin and the other actors made her feel secure enough to delve into Ms. James’s demons, allowing her to elevate her work beyond her own expectations. ‘For the first time, I was able to feel that out-of-body experience in a movie that I feel onstage,’ she said. She put on weight — 15 pounds — to match Ms. James’s size and added a rougher physicality to her movements; she sings two songs associated with Ms. James with confidence and authority.”

There is so much culture in New York, though not everyone participates in it. There, as elsewhere, culture is the obsession of a relative few: though because the population there is greater, there is also a signficant amount of people involved in it, enough to support a lot of it. reports that “Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg presented the 2008 Mayor’s Awards for Arts & Culture to six individuals and organizations in celebration of their outstanding contributions to New York City's cultural life.” The ceremony was held at the Apollo theater, and hosted by singer-actress Vanessa Williams. The Awards were created in 1974 by the Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission; and the 2008 Mayor’s Awards Recipients included: Alliance of Resident Theatres / New York; Arthur Aviles of the the Arthur Aviles Typical Theatre and the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!); Dr. Sharon Dunn, an arts educator;Galt MacDermott, a composer and pianist; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for supporting the arts; and Rush Arts Gallery & Corridor Gallery.

The literary critic John Leonard, who championed a wide range of writers, in very eloquent and thoughtful language died November 5th. Today, it is reported that another well-known critic of dance and culture, Clive Barnes, has died.

Saturday, November 22, in Henderson, Louisiana, is the Atchafalaya Basin Festival, one of many fall Louisiana festivals; and on November 29 and 30 is a Native American gathering in Gonzales, Louisiana, a powwow.

News reports in the New York Times and elsewhere indicate Eric Holder Jr. is likely to be U.S. Attorney General, and Tom Daschle will be the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in the administration of Barack Obama.

In Louisiana, Brittney Gary, a 17 year-old girl who was missing for several days, has been found dead, another among a group of girls found dead, in Jefferson Davis parish; and a funeral fund has been set up in her name. People wonder if a serial killer is active; and, there have been reports that several of the girls had cocaine in their bodies. Much of the daily news--on television and in newspapers--is about crime, and even minor crimes are prominently reported. It is hard not to feel in danger when so much attention is paid to violence, even as one looks around as sees reasonably established security. That there is so much nature here--a fundamental wildness--also contributes to that sense of danger.

Meanwhile, regarding international affairs, the United Nations News Centre reports that Israel is blockading Gaza again, which has produced a crisis of poverty in the past.

What is reality? How much thought is based on belief, and how much on reason and fact? In author Ronald Aronson’s “Choosing to Know,” from the online magazine Butterflies and Wheels: “In over thirty countries, including every other advanced society, a higher percentage of the general population accepts evolution: in pious Ireland, for example, the number accepting evolution is sixty percent higher than in the U.S.! Americans are just as likely to choose to believe in ghosts and UFOs as Creationism, and only somewhat less likely to believe in witches and astrology…Truth, then, can never be the realm of the dogmatic, inflexible demand and the obedient, submissive response. Nor is it the postmodern space occupied by a near-infinity of individual and group points of view. Its spirit is not best imbibed passively, by rote, or by accepting that everyone’s claim to truth is as valid as everyone else’s. It is generated actively, among people, questioningly, challengingly. To choose to learn today is to accept living within this process, to embrace being part of the widest possible human community…”

In the Brooklyn Rail article “A New Type of Human Being and Who We Really Are,” a piece that looks at contemporary culture and how opposition often fails to have an effect, writer and thinker Robert Hullot-Kentor states, “This criticism of all things that amounts to criticism of nothing at all is what is being discussed here; the point deserves to be emphasized and expanded. No one doubts the degree of social dissatisfaction and distress; millions are now displaced in the wreckage of homes, families and any plausible future. Over the course of the past eight years an acutely ascending line has in full public knowledge graphed the growing distress that has culminated in this moment.”