There is a fantastic story in this week’s New Yorker by Thomas McGuane. But hurry, because it will only be on the website for a couple more days. If you enjoy it and want to read more, try reading McGuane’s novel from 2002 The Cadence of Grass.
Two new books from Princeton Architectural Press crossed my desk recently. Jason Bitner is one of the guys behind Found Magazine, where bits of discarded ephemera are turned into art or maybe a decontextualized historical record of the present day. Bitner calls it “a show-and-tell project.” When he found over 18,000 studio portraits from the 1950s and 60s in the back of a diner in a small, Midwestern town, they became the star of a new show-and-tell project. La Porte, Indiana is the name of the town where Bitner found the photos and the name of the book he made from them. As Bitner describes it in his introduction to the book, “we rifled through an entire town’s population, as if it were a card catalog, a huge visual archive of Midwestern faces.” As with looking at any of the FOUND crew’s finds, flipping through this book leaves one with odd sensations. We’re not used to seeing stuff like this so lovingly presented, so it makes us look a little harder. As I flip through the book, I enjoy the unintentional artistry of the black and white portraits, but more so I wonder who these people are or were. There’s more about the book at this Web site.A Year in Japan by Kate T. Williamson is an illustrated travelogue. Williamson, an illustrator and filmmaker, spent a year in Japan, filling notebooks with her illustrations and observations. This book is like peering into those notebooks. Williamson’s curly cursive elaborates on her rich, colorful drawings. Most of the illustrations are of details of every day life: foods and clothing, but they are exotic both in being from in Japan and in the care Williamson lavishes upon them, presenting them in close up on the page. But there are also portraits, collages and abstract compositions.
If I had any sway in Hollywood, which I don’t, I would currently be urging Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers and the brass at Warner Bros. to begin an aggressive Oscar campaign for Where the Wild Things Are. But not for the actual film, no way (maybe cinematography). I’m talking about the trailer. I know, I know. Trailers can’t win Oscars, much less be nominated. But what if it wasn’t submitted as a “trailer,” but as a “short film?” A really short film. A film that run less than two and a half minutes in length. Why not?
I hate to say it, but the film left me cold for the most part. However the trailer was and remains to be a revelation. I remember sitting in the theater and seeing it the way I remember seeing full-length films. It all begins so quietly, forest sounds and footsteps. We see Max, in his famous wolf suit, being carried by one of the Wild Things. As if to prepare the audience for the experience that is to come, the Wild Thing says to Max “I really want to show you something.”
In the remaining 90 or so seconds we learn that Max is a lonely child, he runs away from home, takes a boat over rough seas to an island full of Wild Things and has many adventures. That is the book. The pace of the trailer speeds up, emphasized by the brilliant musical backdrop Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”. I was so hoping to hear this song in the finished version, but that didn’t happen. As we near the end, nearly every character is running, playing and behaving like real children behave. Spike Jonze says that this is a film about childhood, not necessarily a film for children. If he is talking about the trailer, he is absolutely right.
One of the main criticisms of the film has been the argument that there simply wasn’t enough content in the source material to warrant a feature film. After seeing the film, I spent the better part of two weeks trying desperately to find some way to disagree. But I can’t.
Part of this could be attributed to the ridiculously high expectations I brought with me into that theater. What was I really expecting, some sort of transformational experience? Yep. Call me crazy, but I was absolutely certain that I would have some sort of epiphany by the time the end credits were rolling. Why? That damn trailer.
I won’t say that I was depressed about the overall film experience. But then again, I can’t think of any other accurate way to express how I felt. A few days ago, for reasons I can’t explain, I felt the urge to see the trailer again. There have been several versions since that first one, some edited differently, some made for television. It took a few minutes to find the original cut. But when I watched it again, I realized that I had no reason to be depressed. Sure, the film was a letdown, but I didn’t need it. The experience I longed for was fully contained in this little gem. The emotions, the energy, the music, it was all there. The same way a tight little pop song can be more effective and memorable than a lengthy concept album, this trailer captured the spirit of Maurice Sendak’s book in its entirety.
I don’t regret my Where the Wild Things Are experience in any way. I’ve come to think of the full-length film the way I think of those indulgent overlong director’s cuts that always seem to show up on DVD. I know what the real film is and it doesn’t bother me at all. I feel bad for Spike Jonze, but I don’t blame him. He set out to make something great, and in a roundabout way, he has. He has created one of the best (and certainly most expensive) short films in the history of cinema. And I, for one, am thankful.
Jonathan Yardley is probably my favorite book critic. Since I’m from Washington DC, and he is the elder statesmen of book reviewing for the Washington Post, my affinity for Yardley probably is at least in part due to home town bias. But Yardley also manages to go beyond the simple grading of new books that so many crics engage in. He also delights in guiding his readers to the myriad great books that are out there yet somehow hidden from view, be they long forgotten or merely obscure. Having such a trusted guide to the literary world can prove invaluable. His assesment of the year 2002 in books alone is enough to provide a plentiful pile of great new books to work through. State of the Art is a truly enlightening assesment of the last 125 years of American literature, and a must read for anyone who thinks they’ve covered all the classics. Finally, his occasional series, Second Reading, “reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.” The latest installment is a look at The Autumn of the Patriarch, the most overlooked of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s. As a big fan of Marquez, this article is really a treat for me, especially since I have never gotten around to reading Patriarch. By the way, did I ever mention that I once met Marquez.More Leonard MichaelsFolks must have really dug the fantastic Leonard Michaels story in the New Yorker this week, because many of this week’s visitors arrived here by searching for his name.
While most kids were playing with G.I. Joes or Barbies, we at The Millions were more likely to have our nose in a book. Finally, there are molded plastic figurines for us too, though its not clear whether they are fully posable or offer kung-fu grip action. We’ll take what we can get. Who among us wouldn’t enjoy staging our own literary roundtables with the likes of Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Dickens? Those who prefer their literary action heroes to be more macrocephalic, might prefer the Edgar Allen Poe bobblehead (pictured here).For those with less of a literary bias, there are actually quite a few of these “historical figures” on offer, from Marie Antoinette to Harry Houdini to Carl Jung.
Stendhal was apparently a noted womanizer and in that light, The Red and the Black, reads a little like a projection of his greatest fantasies. There is in the first place the iconoclastic Julien Sorel, who triumphs over a coterie of boring, conventional nobles for the love (and virginity) of the fair Mathilde de la Mole. It’s not a leap to imagine Stendhal dreaming of the same for himself.In the book, Stendhal also introduces an incredible stratagem for wooing women. It emerges when Julien seeks love advice from the Prince Korasoff of Russia under desperate circumstances. Julien is in love with the imperious Mathilde, who lets him climb up the gardener’s ladder to her room on two occasions but then has all sorts of moral/class remorse the next day and eviscerates him with vicious rebukes which are sadly only referenced and not spelled out (a major deficiency of the book).The Prince entrusts to Julien a set of 54 love letters that previously aided a Russian general in the conquest of an English maiden and which, if deployed correctly, are like a romantic weapon of lore, so powerful that none can resist it. Julien’s instructions are to send the letters at prescribed intervals. The plan is described as such:”‘Here I am transcribing the fifteenth of these abominable dissertations; the first fourteen have been faithfully delivered to Marechale. And yet she treats me exactly as though I were not writing her. What can be the end of all this? Can my constancy bore her as much as it bores me?'”Like everyone of inferior intelligence whom chance brings into touch with the operations of a great general, Julien understood nothing of the attack launched by the young Russian upon the heart of the fair English maid [reference to the previous use of the letters]. The first forty letters were intended only to make her pardon his boldness in writing. It was necessary to make this gentle person, who perhaps was vastly bored, form the habit of receiving letters that were perhaps a trifle less insipid than her everyday life.”So that’s the ruse, to send love letters and to make them so innocuous and boring at first that they will not elicit a rejection, but will at the same time habituate the intended to the correspondence. Slowly, the temperature is turned up; the epistolary fire builds, and by the 54th letter, love and desire floweth over.I’ve been out of the dating world for awhile now, so I’m prepared to accept that this is not the unstoppably brilliant strategy I think it is. But I do think it is pretty brilliant, and I suspect it would even work today. I’ve encouraged one of my most eligible bachelor friends to try it with all the single women he knows, even in passing. It obviously all depends on the quality of the letters, but out of a sample of 20 recipients, I’d expect there to be at least five who would be intrigued at the very least.Much of The Red and the Black is based on real events; I wonder if such a packet of letters was rumored to exist in Stendhal’s time or if it might be unearthed today. Even if found, it would surely require some updating. In fact, it would be a fun exercise to try and write a pre-fabricated sequence of love letters for today’s dating world.
[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Emre writes:The joyous Sunday nights at college became my biggest tormentors upon joining the ranks of working people in New York. I’d get the blues every Sunday around 9 p.m., and in an effort to stave off Monday would stay up really late – usually drinking and watching TV.One such Sunday, I was so preoccupied with reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections that I did not even leave my bed the whole day – except, of course, to hit the toilet, get more coffee, make Bloody Marys and nibble on some cheese. The whole day passed and before I realized it, the book was finished, it was 4:30 a.m. on Monday, and I was thoroughly exhausted and depressed by the outcome. I called my boss, left a semi-drunk, highly strung-out message saying something along the lines of, “Dear Boss, it’s 4:30 in the morning, I cannot sleep and am terribly depressed. If I come to work tomorrow, I might go crazy. I am taking a mental-health day,” and hung up.When I went to work on Tuesday everyone seemed very concerned about my well being. My boss said it was totally OK to take mental-health days as I saw fit. And I thought, “it worked!” Or did it?Megan Hustad responds:I’m going to say yes, it did. Probably. But only because on an average day you were pretty reliable and conscientious. (If you remembered to call in with your regrets at 4:30 a.m., drunk, yes, I’m guessing “conscientious” applies.)You ever notice how some people like to arrive at the office a little late, say, fifteen to thirty minutes late, but every single day? And then there are those who are already stationed, pouring their second cup of coffee, always at 8:55? The first group, often, tends to think they’re getting away with something. (Or that being blasé about hauling ass to work in the morning is akin to joining the Wobblies. Subversive!) But truth is, making a habit of fudging procedure generally backfires. (There are brilliant exceptions, but…takes too long to explain here.) When the boom comes down, it comes down hard, and the chronically late types find themselves nitpicked and chastised for minor infractions. Seemingly more buttoned-down types, however, get to deviate wildly from norm on occasion, take huge allowances, or commit major indiscretions, and — more often than not — get away with it.Oh, and it’s not only that mental-health days are sometimes necessary. Here’s a line from John Wareham’s 1980 Secrets of a Corporate Headhunter: “Sometimes fail to arrive at all: your absence can be the talisman of your presence.” A perfect attendance record won’t get you the corner office, he argued, and if you’re also seen at every last party, you should probably make a point of not showing up once in a while. (In other words, don’t be all Eva Longoria and get dressed for every “hey, there’s a new Treo model, we’re rolling out the red carpet!!!” event to which you’re invited.) I like this advice. Uselessness rating: 2For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew
November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a group project which encourages participants “to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30” – (they couldn’t have picked a month with 31 days?). The quality of work produced by such speedwriting is questionable at best, I’d guess, but people seem to have fun doing it, just like some people seem to have fun climbing Mount Everest or participating in eating contests. The NaNoWriMo community also employs a lot of slap on the back, “you can do it!” type of encouragement, and the Web site lets you track your progress along with the other writers participating. I can think of many, many better ways to spend one’s time (and there are probably many, many better ways to write a novel), but NaNoWriMo is harmless, if a bit irritating if you stray too close to the frenzied participants.Perhaps there have always been NaNoWriMo haters (it started in 1999), but I don’t recall having seen NaNoWriMo haters before this year (although that may have more to do with my studied averting of the eyes from the NaNoWriMo frenzy). However, this year I happened upon Eric Rosenfield’s anti-NaNoWriMo post, which lays out a few reasons to hate the endeavor, calling it “nothing if not oblivious to the absurdity of its own project.” The Rake has also jumped in to explain why NaNoWriMo is like eating so many shrimp.In the end, though, hating NaNoWriMo is both too easy and pretty fruitless, like hating hippie music or “blue collar comedy.” It will always have its devotees, but the appeal of it probably doesn’t make sense to most people.Update: More NaNoWriMo
Picture this: A thin little girl—freckled, pigtails askew, barefoot—wearing a nightgown, holding a pistol in one hand and brandishing a sword with the other. No, it’s not Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz‘s character in Kick Ass), nor an infant Lisbeth Salander. It’s how you first meet Pippi Longstocking, on the title page of Astrid Lindgren’s first Pippi Longstocking novel, illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman. Pippi is where Grrrl Power got its start, and if you’re interested in the ancestral line of “grrls” like Lisbeth Salander, Hit Girl, The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen, or the slew of other gritty girls from the past year in film and fiction, Pippi Longstocking is grandmother of them all.
In Lindgren’s children’s novels, first published in her native Sweden from 1945-48 and the US from 1950-57, and their Swedish film adaptations, starring the superb Inger Nilsson (1969-70), Pippi is a nine-year-old girl with superhuman strength, ingenuity, and self confidence, an endless supply of gold (from her pirate Papa), and a beautiful, shambly house named Villa Villekulla, where she lives by herself with her horse and Mr. Nilsson, a spider monkey (her mother is dead and her pirate father’s at sea). Like her most notable descendent, Lisbeth Salander, of Steig Larsson‘s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, Pippi is most easily recognized by her distinctive personal style: Pippi’s hair is the color of a carrot, and usually done in two braids that stick out on either side of her head; she wears patch-worked dresses of her own devising, mismatched stockings, a giant hat, and men’s boots twice the length of her feet. And her motto, which promises and delivers a happy ending in all of her adventures, is “I’ll always come out on top.” In both attitude and fashion sense, Pippi’s nearest American relation is the spunky 1980’s television character Punky Brewster (same wild pigtails, freckles, animal friends, outlandish clothes; a plucky can-do motto: “Punky Power!”).
Lindgren’s Pippi lives a child’s wonderland life: no school, no rules, no bedtime, animals in the house, as many sweets as she can eat, victorious encounters with bullies, burglars, police, and pirates, homemade aeroplanes and air-balloon beds that actually fly. Pippi is invincible, irrepressible, fearless: What she sets out to do, she achieves. She’s generous even in triumphing over the numerous bad men who think they can best her (her preferred method of dealing with the inevitably farcical villains who take her on is hanging them on walls or in trees). And she always wins: even when she—a puny-looking girl—is faced with a man-sized job, rescuing her father from a slew of pirates or wrestling the world’s strongest man.
If any of this triggers a twinge of familiarity, it may be because Stieg Larsson modeled Lisbeth Salander on Pippi Longstocking. According to Larsson’s Swedish publisher, Eva Gedin, Larsson imagined Lisbeth as a grown-up, darker version of Pippi. Of course, there are tonal differences: Though Lindgren’s Pippi never quite breaks the laws of physics, she’s an impossible creature, a fantasy of empowerment: rich, self-confident, unnaturally strong, perpetually delighted, never compromising, never defeated. Larsson’s plots may have their fantastic and implausible qualities–Salander is a fantasy of empowerment too, if a grittier one than Pippi–but Larsson’s books do aspire to a certain realism and are particularly interested in the reality that the best and the strongest, the most strong-willed, don’t win every battle (even if they win in the end). While Salander is locked in mental hospitals and children’s homes against her will, turned over to a monstrous guardian whose abuses she cannot thwart, Pippi informs the police officers who’ve come to take her as a ward, “You’ll have to get kids for your children’s home somewhere else. I certainly don’t intend to move there,” and uses a lively game of tag to strand them on her roof. She then carries the officers out of the yard by their belts, giving them cookies as a no-hard-feelings parting gift.
Pippi’s endlessly obliging world certainly isn’t Salander’s; Pippi is a children’s book heroine, after all. But Pippi and Salander do share a fundamental character trait: a deep sense of justice and courage in the pursuit of justice—very real, if increasingly rare, human qualities. In one of Pippi’s first adventures, she stands up to five boys bullying a younger boy. She interrupts the bullies’ taunting of the little boy and brings their taunts on herself. The bullies tease Pippi about her red hair and her clown shoes, but Pippi just smiles her friendliest smile and seems not to hear their taunts. This enrages the ringleader and he shoves her. So, Pippi calmly lifts the bully up and hangs him on a high tree branch, telling him, “I don’t think you have a very nice way with the ladies.”
Pippi is, here and elsewhere, Lisbeth Light (or perhaps the other way round: Lisbeth is Pippi R or X). Both heroines are good at putting dangerous men in their places and both feel a deep sympathy for underdogs and innocents. Pippi’s bully-hanging is the child’s version of Lisbeth’s often much more gruesome acts of justice: Lighting her father on fire in an attempt to protect her mother from him; Taking on the Harriet Vanger case, not for personal gain, but out of a deep hatred of violence against women, a desire to see justice served—and, like Pippi, Lisbeth serves her justice by herself. But with Lindgren’s books—if you’ve got children to read to or if you can still muster a child’s delighted sense of limitless possibility—there’s a purer, simpler pleasure to be had in Pippi than in Lisbeth. This goes without saying, maybe: There are no atrocities in Pippi Longstocking, no dead and mutilated women, no chance of feeling like a sadistic voyeur or that the book’s nominal feminism is actually a slick form of misogyny. But it’s more than that: Pippi is a breathtaking vision of boundless, uninhibited possibility, and pretty funny while she’s at it (so is the dubbing in the movies: Pippi’s friend Annika has a NY/NJ accent that’s to die for). Pippi’s impossible, yes, a fantasy, but she might help you remember what it was like to believe in possibility, in unlikely powers and triumphs. She might also help you imagine a world yet to come of little girls who aren’t Ophelias in need of reviving.
“I can,” says Pippi, when a circus ringleader asks for a volunteer who thinks he can beat a towering, hulking strongman in a wrestling contest. “Oh, no, you couldn’t,” Pippi’s practical, goody-two-shoes friend Annika tells her, “he’s the strongest man in the world.” And Pippi cooly replies: “Man, yes, but I am the strongest girl in the world, remember that,” and climbs into the ring.
Guess who wins.