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What’s Making Me Happy: The United States of Amnesia

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final topic, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming. This week: The United States of Amnesia, a documentary about Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal’s America.

I’ve been a Gore Vidal fan going on ten years at this point. Once, while working in the library in college, I successfully persuaded one of the library directors that she should read his novel Creation and she liked it well enough that she pitched the idea of a library-staff-led book club where we would take turns suggesting books and leading discussion. The idea fell through (for which I was relieved), but it felt good that she liked my suggestion.

G.V. is a polarizing, divisive, and compelling character. This documentary, which came out in 2013, the year after G.V. died, marries the large number of T.V. pieces V. did in his lengthy public career, with interviews that he did with the producers in the last years of his life. The result isn’t as restricted a scope as Errol Morris’ work on Donald Rumsfeld, but, at the same time, the outside interviews about G.V. (including with Christopher Hitchens) take a backseat to V.’s outsized, yet reclusive personality.

As any good biographical documentary would, it begins with G.V. as a young man and the relationship with his parents and their relationship to the American Elite–his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was one of Roosevelt’s aviation advisors (and may have had an affair with Amelia Earhart) and his mother, Nina Gore, was married from 1935-41 to Hugh D. Auchincloss, whose third wife was Janet Lee Bouvier, the mother of Jacqueline Kennedy. This was very much high society. G.V. liked to say that he was desperately trying to escape it.

But other than noting with some regularity, because how could one not, the strata of society that G.V. occupied, the documentary didn’t dwell on these relationships. Nor does it dwell on issues of sexuality and censorship that plagued him. Instead it worked to reconcile G.V.’s intellectualism and aloofness with his charismatic and aristocratic mien and his acerbic wit in the frequent appearances as one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals. The United States of Amenesia touches on all of the prominent controversies (including one where the BBC called G.V. and William Buckley “Controvertialists” rather than commentators) so that it can cover the broad scope of G.V.’s work and appearances, but (at 83 minutes) it doesn’t drag.

I don’t agree with G.V. entirely, but find him to be fascinating. Ultimately, The United States of Amnesia provides one final rostrum for an exceptionally insightful and utterly unabashed public intellectual to speak from. Love him or hate him, Gore Vidal remains worth thinking about.

On quitting

At one point in college I was simultaneously reading something on the order of twenty-three books. Then I stopped. Some of the books I finished, others, most of the others, I simply removed the bookmark from, closed, and put away. The problem was not that I couldn’t remember what was happening in the majority of those books, but that it dawned on me one day that I was often going weeks or months without picking up some or most of those books and so my gleeful romps though so many books was doing more to prevent me from finishing a book and getting the pleasure thereof than it was enabling me to read widely.

Since then, I have read at most two books at once and usually just one (class and research excepted, of course). Even when I do read two book at once, it is because I am reading one non-fiction book and one novel, and, as often as not, the non-fiction book is a new monograph on a topic related to my studies or peripherally to my dissertation and thus is me staying current–I have a stack, though I also dream of being able to read some other non-fiction books once I finish these. I justify the novels because they help keep me sane and because most of them help me become a better writer. Too, since I put this policy into place, I have given up on three novels: a thick review novel that bored me to tears, The Brothers Karamazov (during a particularly busy semester), and, most recently, Don Quixote, an unabridged version.

I am almost certainly going to give The Brothers Karamazov another shot when I have a brief respite, although perhaps with a better translation. Don Quixote I am not so sure about. The novel is funny, even beyond the relentless beating taken by the knight and his insistence on tilting windmills. For instance, there is a book-burning scene to rid the house of the novels that rotted his brain, and the hijinks of everyone around the wayward knight. But it is also allusive and repetitive, in a way that I found difficult to read quickly. There is a case to be made that I was simply busy, but I found the repetitive nature of the story and the antiquated language mind-numbing. So I skipped to the end and read the last few chapters, which seemed to lucidly tie the whole novel together. My main problem was that I didn’t know most of the Romances that Cervantes alluded to and without that, I felt that I got the bulk of his satire early on and thus that I was reading filler until the story came to a close some nine hundred pages later.

Nevertheless, putting down Don Quixote was an admission of defeat. What has made the decision easier to bear was to move on and read other, shorter books. Most importantly, reading these other books has reminded me why I read these novels, not to slog through something that just wears me down, but because there are fantastic books that help me escape from those things that stress me. Thus it was the right decision to quit.

American Icons: Fiddler on the Roof

This past weekend, Studio 360, a radio program from WNYC, ran the latest in its “American Icons” series. In the series, they run a story that digs into the creation of the piece of culture and then try to explain how it qualifies as an “American Icon” and how it is changed over time. For instance, in the installment about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the host looked into how the portrayal of Uncle Tom changed from one of sympathy to one of spineless compliance and betrayer–and why the term remains virulent while the actual readership of the novel has fallen off.

The latest installment is about “Fiddler on the Roof.” The piece explains how a series of stories about Tevye the Milkman, written in yiddish by Sholem Aleichem about a particular place and time and set of circumstances in the Russian Empire became one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time (once holding the record for longest running play). The piece makes the argument that the play was conceived around the idea of tradition, change, and generational struggle that became and remain particularly resonant with immigrants to the United States (note: the play concludes with the emigration to the United States). Thus, while the individual details and songs are those of Jewish life, the story is a universal one for the American experience.

Find the story (written and audio) here. If you like this story, I also recommend the documentary about Sholem Aleichem, Laughing in the Darkness, which goes further into the author and his stories than does the Studio 360 piece.

Local Advertising and Concussions

Despite the national sports media members who loudly protest that they played through concussions and were just fine, concussions are serious. Of course players are going to try to go back into the game if given a choice, competitors are driven to compete and do not like being forced to watch, particularly once they reach a level where past performance validates their ability. That is why the coaches, the officials, and the support staff need to step in and protect the players from themselves. And, as Stephania Bell used to remind the hosts of ESPN’s fantasy focus podcast, it is a misnomer that there are “mild” concussions. Concussions are brain injuries that range in symptoms, but that are all serious and get worse with repeat occurrence.

Michigan football has a number of problems right now and while the fans are angry for any number of reasons, it was the procedure (or lack thereof) for a concussed quarterback, Shane Morris, who was allowed to go back into the football game when visibly in need of his teammates to stand upright after a vicious hit, that landed Michigan football on national TV morning shows. It was an NFL concussion lawsuit that saw a judge reject a 870 million dollar settlement because she believed the the settlement would not be able to cover all the damages (she approved it when they removed the cap on payouts). A new book, Boy on Ice, details the life of Derek Boogaard, an enforcer in the NHL, who suffered multiple concussions and then died of a drug overdose at 28; Boogaard’s family donated his brainstem to science because he underwent a personality shift in the last years of his life. Major league baseball has had issues with players hit in the head, colliding with walls and players, or getting kneed in the head while sliding into a base, which has derailed the career of a number of excellent players.

The list goes on, the point is just to illustrate that concussions are not an isolated issue and are hardly limited to contact sports. This is the context in which I am actually outraged at the radio ad run by one of the local car dealerships.

Fletcher Honda in Columbia, Mo, currently has on air a commercial imitating a football game. A player gets taken out in a vicious hit and the coach comes out to ask if he knows where he is. In a dim and woozy voice the player asks for a combo meal. The coach asks a second question and the player says he wants a super-sized combo meal. Then the coach asks if he knows where to get the best deal for his trade-in vehicle, to which the player more confidently replies that the answer is Fletcher Honda. Because the player gets the third question right, the coach proclaims he is good to go.

My problems here are that the ad is completely tone-deaf and that if I heard someone legitimately answer the first two questions I would diagnose him with a concussion over the radio, without needing any training or further confirmation. But then they imply that he is going to go right back into the game. Because he knows a bit of trivia that may or may not be true about a car dealership here. At least if anyone questions them about their message, they can say that their spokesman had a brain injury when he asserted it.

I am not in advertising and I am aware that local dealership ads are not easy and that this is their attempt at provide a humorous, catchy spot. And I have given some thought to how they might revamp this same concept in a way that relieves my concern, but I don’t see one. Making light of concussions is beyond tacky and I cringe whenever I hear it come on.

September Reading? Hardly.

Things have gotten a bit hectic around Casa de Nudell, so I didn’t read a single book cover to cover in September. What sealed the deal is that I played a deeply ironic joke on myself by starting an unabridged translation of Don Quixote. Mired somewhere in the middle, but before the second part, I am feeling every iota of the delusion, futility, and sardonic humor, but have not yet been able to extricate myself. I find myself wanting to read something lighter–at least physically–after this one, but we will see.

Comment on Comments

Somewhere in updating WordPress and several issues with massive amounts of spam, it looks like I accidentally deleted a bunch of comments. There aren’t that many lengthy discussions here, anyway, but if I deleted yours, know that I read it and I am sorry. I really need to figure out a more accessible way to manage them in general.

August Reading Recap

When there is time to do so, it is interesting to look at the cadence of life, particularly for those people whose lives are governed by regular and seemingly immutable deadlines that overlap with months of hectic regular activities, followed by periods of empty schedules. I had a dissertation chapter due the week before the semester began and then, nearly two weeks ago, class came back (punctuated by one of my least happily-timed holidays, Labor Day). I like what I do, but but the academic calendar is foolishly constructed for a society where children don’t need to go help on the farm anymore.

Anyway, I’ve been going through this week under the impression that it is somewhere between September 12 and October 15, depending on the day. So here is a somewhat belated account of last month’s reading.

The Towers of Trebizond, Rose MaCaulay

One of the books I picked up because I wanted to read more fiction written by women, the Towers of Trebizond is a novel written in the form of a travelogue. Laurie, the narrator, recounts an ill-fated expedition in the early 1950s led by Aunt Dot and an older Anglican minister, Father Chantry-Pigg. Oh, and Aunt Dot’s camel, who, most people are convinced, is probably deranged. As is the current fad, Aunt Dot is going to Turkey to write a book, but hers is going to focus on the plight of Turkish women (who she will liberate), Laurie is her artist, and Father Pigg has plans to convert the heathens. Along the way, they meet American evangelicals, a BBC television crew, and other authors. As one might expect, the expedition goes awry.

The story was funny and Macaulay erudite when it came to making references to religious and historical contexts and contemporary goings-on. For instance, two of the other adventurers who are supposed to have been in the area were Patrick and Freya, and it is an easy leap to identify those two given names with Patrick Leigh Fermor and Freya Stark. Laurie is a sympathetic character, although, like a lot of travel writing, seems to pass through the environments as a way of experiencing them without really seeming to develop. That you are inside her head for the duration of the story may also account for this impression.

The Towers of Trebizond is a funny and clever book and, as the Amazon blurb describes it, it does investigate “modern” spirituality, but when I read the introduction about MacCaulay, much of the sarcasm and wit became sardonic, overlaid with sadness from her own experiences.

A Sport and a Pastime- James Salter
The story of Phillip Dean, a Yale dropout, and Anne-Marie, his French lover in a town in the south of France, told through the lens of Phillip’s male American friend with whom he is staying. The affair burns while the narrator watches, the young couple seemingly untouched by the problems and responsibilities of adulthood, only preoccupied with themselves.

The book-blurb describes Salter as a master of writing and A Sport and a Pasttime is good (certainly in the Hemingway school of writing), but the most prescient thing mentioned in the introduction is that Salter tells a story that, within that self-contained universe, weaves between truth and fiction, with the line blurred. The narrator is self-described as unreliable, but whether that is because he wishes he were Phillip or with Phillip, or because he is writer spinning a yarn, or because Phillip is imaginary wish-fulfillment or he actually is Phillip, just telling the story in third person, is unclear. I favor wish-fulfillment or that he is Phillip Dean, but it is clear that the idyllic, almost prelapsarian, love-affair is impossible to maintain as the rest of the world tugs away at the couple. I was glad to have read the book, but, honestly, it did not stick with me in the same concrete way other tales of love and obsession have. It did not seem to be dated, which is a complaint I read before picking it up, but rather I didn’t particularly care for any of the main characters. Admittedly, I went in almost more interested in the “town in S. France” part than in the story itself.

The Naive and Sentimental Novelist -Orhan Pamuk

This book is the published version of Pamuk’s Norton Lecture series, where he takes the audience through his experience of reading and writing books (he really loves Anna Karenina). He argues that the thing that holds all novels together and sets them apart from other forms of literature is a “secret center,” that is, the core idea of a novel that makes it work as a complete story and the unspoken message (or moral without necessarily being “moralistic”) of the novel. In fact, one of his critiques of genre literature (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and you could even add YA literature here) is that the bulk of them are so relentlessly reliant on common tropes that they share a secret center with all the others. There is no need to bristle at Pamuk calling genre literature out as dreck; he acknowledges that the great examples of those genres transcend the tropes and thereby have a unique center and (to me) satisfactorily explains why genre literature may be boring.

Pamuk also goes to great lengths to explore how and why people have such a personal relationship with literature, particularly in that novels require an active give-and-take between what the author put down and the reader–and, if there is no ongoing series, the author is the passive participant once the book is published. The essays are theoretical without being filled with jargon and while much of it would be familiar to people familiar, particularly, with a bit of post-modernism, Pamuk is worth reading. I believe this also works toward explaining my aversion to movies and tv shows based on books I like.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane- Neil Gaimon
Talked about here. Gaimon’s short novel was my favorite book of the month. I don’t know how to say more than I’ve said without giving spoilers, so go read it.

I picked up Don Quixote for the first time at the end of the month and then got busy, so I am slowly making my way through that behemoth (I have the complete an unabridged one). The story opens with the eponymous character drying up his brains and going crazy because he reads the “trash” novels of his day. Between video games and the proliferation of certain genres, cultural critics don’t change a whole lot. It would not surprise me if this is the only book I read this month, though I am looking forward to reading either Old Man and the Sea or The Lives of Tao after this doorstop.

What’s making me happy 8/15

In an homage to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, I’ve wanted for some time to start at least a semi-regular feature here about what is making me happy. The reason for this is simple: my favorite thing about the podcast is that it is upbeat. They close every show with a roundtable discussion of what is making them happy, sometimes in the form of a recommendation, sometimes something more abstract. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety and like the reminder not so much to take pleasure in things as remember that I do take pleasure in things. So this is borne of both a reminder to myself and a desire to share things I enjoy with others. (Future posts will likely include a shorter introduction.)

What is making me happy: Neil Gaimon’s Ocean at the End of the Lane.

In his middle years the narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the Hempstock farm, where, in a flash, he remembers something that happened there when he was seven.

That’s the entire summary that I’m giving. Things happen, he had forgotten, but now remembers. I had heard good things about this novel, but really only picked it up on a whim and then read it over the course of the next twenty-four hours. Like the rest of Gaimon’s oeuvre that I’ve read, The Ocean at the End of the Lane bends truth and reality, as well as manipulating folk tales and traditions. This particular story tugs at the nostalgia strings about how one remembers childhood and about things that children know that adults don’t, begs the question of not whether, but how people change as they age, and how worth is adjudged. There is whimsy, there is sadness, and there is pettiness.

Gaimon’s prose is beautiful and sent me on a nostalgia trip of my own, complete with sweet sadness. I also enjoyed the brief interview with the author published at the end of the copy I had, as well as a set of reading group guide questions that pointed to particular features of the story that were fairly evident, but perhaps not articulated by the reader, and also prodded one to think just a little bit more deeply about what was just read.

I’ve been fortunate to have read some really, really good books this year so far and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is up there with the best of them.

James Bond

Elsewhere I wrote that one of my frustrations with Hollywood action films, above even escalating body counts, is the common scene of careless heroes wantonly causing collateral damage in the name of stopping “bad guys.” Yet, when I recently re-watched the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, I noticed the same type of collateral damage and was reminded of similar scenes in past installments, including Brosnan driving a tank through a Russian city, but the damage didn’t bother me nearly as much as in generic action films. Although the studio equation is not nearly so nuanced (boom = $), I wanted to tease out why the message in James Bond films bothers me less than the message in other films, even though the actual scenes are practically interchangeable.

James Bond to me: the perfect embodiment of British imperial hubris. Women, even if they really want to kill him, are compelled to sleep with him first, he has a tendency to tell everyone his name (useful for a spy), and, to the best of his ability, Bond operates as though no foreign government has the ability or authority to impede his mission. Bond is a sort of imperial terminator more than an actual hero meant to be emulated.

Because I see Bond as this sort of caricature, a personified tentacle of the Leviathan, collateral damage is par for the course. Perhaps this is a grim view of the state, and, certainly, government shouldn’t want to destroy cars and buildings, and should respect the territorial integrity of other states, but, well, as anyone checked the news recently? This minor difference makes it possible for my hackles to stay down when watching it on Netflix.

I don’t have anything more profound to say than that. Bond is imperial wish fulfillment. Flipping the narrative or turning the monomaniacal/communist/totalitarian/monstrous villain into a scrappy freedom-fighter would make Bond practically interchangeable with Mr. Smith from the Matrix.

Reflections on Guardians of the Galaxy

I read two reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy before seeing the film and heard two discussions of it since. The judgements, broadly speaking, fall into two camps: terrible soundtrack, shallow, cheesy, interchangeable with other action-comedies OR amazingly funny, clever, and beautifully composed. To these, I say “yes.”

Some bullet-points:

  • GoG was a ton of fun to watch. Chris Pratt was perfect for the goofy-yet-roguish hero (who really just wants people to take him seriously when he tells them his name is Star Lord). There were jokes, both verbal and visual and anytime it seemed that the film was going to fall back into serious mode, something would happen to remind everyone that this was a comedy first. Admittedly, some of the jokes were aimed at a younger audience and so erred toward the juvenile, but there were others, included dated material and topical inclusions, that had the adults laughing out loud and the kids silent.
  • Along similar lines (and as pointed out by the Grantland pop culture podcast), GoG maintained and even reveled in a sense of wonder in a way that is rare for action films.
  • I really enjoyed the jokes they got from tossing the whole story into space and then playing with what could happen when alien cultures bump into an American (well, human, but really American) culture.
  • The backgrounds were usually impressive, but, after the initial euphoria of the film wore off, it seemed to me that the world-building was minimalistic (in part because other off-world settings are usually backed up by extensive canons, such as Star Trek, in a way that this film was not). The approach worked here, but I would want more going forward.
  • GoG is incredibly referential, visually, cinematically, and in terms of plot. One of the reviews, though I forget which one, pointed this out in that GoG had little that was uniquely memorable. I agree with this critique, though I thought that this was by design. Nearly every shot, line, scene, etc referred the audience to something else. Likewise, the music drew the audience back to the 1970s, which I filed under “fun.” In this movie, it worked. I am skeptical that this model can work as a franchise. GoG made Scrooge Mc-Duck money (94 million opening weekend–largest ever in August), so it is guaranteed to be a franchise, of course, and I am sure that the subsequent movies will do well commercially, but I could see this being a reason to for the second film to be a letdown.
  • GoG was decidedly in the vein of good people do good things, bad people blow up things, and, in a refreshing change, they even made a point of having the good guys hold off the assault in almost its entirety until the line came over the channel announcing that the city was evacuated. I liked this. I just wish it had actually been true. First, the announcement came after an impossibly short time; second, in the scene that immediately followed the climactic crash, a crowd of (what looked like) civilians surrounded the heroes for the decisive event. Oops.
  • Saladin Ahmed speculated on twitter a correlation between shooter and adventure video games and the gratuitous on-screen body counts in action movies and, yes, GoG had one. For the most part, I think there is a reciprocal relationship between video games and movies and rising body counts, but I was glad that there was no one scene where I thought the sequencing was specifically designed for the video game tie-in.

In sum: GoG was fun enough that most of the cracks only showed through upon further reflection.

[Additional point: I agree with the critique that the film could have used more female characters, but I file this under a problem of Hollywood as a whole more so than this film in particular.]