Saturday, October 31, 2009

National Novel Writing Month

It is inauspicious, for me anyway, that National Novel Writing Month starts today. (Technically, for me, it starts tomorrow, since I ain’t done with Saturday the 31st yet.) I have to work tomorrow night, and then open on Monday - which means that I won’t have much time to write tomorrow night when I get home from work. I almost always have Sundays off; and on the rare occasions when I do work on Sunday, it’s usually the opening shift. You could probably count on one hand the number of Sunday closing shifts I have had in the last year. Tomorrow is one of them, though.

The goal of National Novel Writing Month is for writers to hammer out a novel of 50,000 words in the span of one month. That’s 1667 words a day, which is a pretty good clip - even for folks who make a living at it; and it would be 140-150 pages (depending on a number of factors), which is on the low side for a novel in terms of page count. It would actually be more accurate to call it National Novella Writing Month, although even among writers, novella is a word you don’t hear much anymore - like strategery, except that it’s actually a word.

I’ve been thinking about putting aside the novel I’ve been working on and trying to do this thing, and since there seem to me to be several compelling reasons not to do it, I’m trying very hard to convince myself that I actually want to do it. I could blog about the process, at the end of every week and every tenth day - and use that as part of the motivation to keep going even when it feels daunting. (I could also just blog the novel as I’m working on it, day to day, but I’m definitely not that brave yet. If I can do it this year, though, I might think about it for next year’s National Novel Writing Month.)

So that’s pretty much that. I just wanted to throw out what the idea was and post some links about it. Oddly enough, Macworld magazine is always where I am reminded of National Novel Writing Month. I don’t recall ever reading about it in Poets & Writers, although I did let my subscription to that magazine lapse. The links, all from Macworld, are here and here and here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ichabod's Sketchbook #2

The inaugural edition of Ichabod’s Sketchbook, a literary journal publishing out of Bookmamas here in Irvington, is now available, at Bookmamas, for $14.95 (plus tax). Deadline for submissions for the next issue is still December 18, 2009. Reading fee is $15 for three poems (up to 30 lines each) or two short stories (up to 1000 words each). Additional information at: ichabodsscketchbook (at) gmail (dot) com

A Serious Man

Despite what are really quite excellent production aspects - and what might well be a backhanded smack at the god of the Bible’s Old Testament - I did not get the overarching feeling that this was a particuarly likable movie. It is very well made - there can be little doubt that Joel and Ethan Coen are among the finest filmmakers working today - but the main problem is that it’s almost impossible to form any kind of emotional attachment to any of the characters. The writers of the Bible (especially of the Old Testament), whomever they might have been, were not encumbered by the need to reach their audience; they were penning a cautionary tale, almost as a parent admonishes a child without offering a sufficient explanation for some proscribed behavior or required task: “It’s not for you to like. It’s for you to do.”

Well...okay. But the Bible is not offered as an entertainment; it’s an instruction book of sorts - for those who seek admittance to the clubhouse - and it stands on a foundation of blind faith. It pretty much has to be blind, right? It is difficult to imagine anyone who could read the Old Testament and think, “Man, I like where God is going with this.” Indeed, if the Old Testament were stripped of its religious overtones and presented as a secular document - a political platform, say - the candidate would have no chance. “It’s not for you to like. It’s for you to do.”

On the other hand, no one - other than maybe Frances McDormand - is going to be thrown into the fiery furnace if they don’t go out and see this movie. Joel and Ethan Coen have reached that rarified place in American cinema where they can make pretty much whatever movie they want, in whatever way they want, and have that movie rushed into production and released by any one of half a dozen or so (surviving) indie arms of the major studios; and people will go to see these movies because past experience dictates that, by and large, films by the Coens range anywhere from very good (Burn After Reading, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to exceptional (No Country for Old Men). There are exceptions, of course (rumor has it that Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were nigh on unwatchable - especially if you believe all of the little old ladies who wanted refunds on the latter because of all the F-bombs) - but the exceptions here only prove the rule, that Joel and Ethan Coen are filmmakers of the highest order.

Which makes A Serious Man not a little frustrating. It’s an excellent film - but I’m pretty sure that I don’t ever want to watch it again. The art direction fuses 1950s cultural sensibilities with late-1960s kitsch so well that it’s almost like a new decade has been born; and if not for the repeating pulsations of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” you might well think you’ve slipped into some kind of Seuss-ian fantasy land beyond Thunderdome. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is in a complete comfort zone with the Coens, and his compositions really let a lot of scenes breathe and take on a life of their own - even if some of those compositions are a little too angular and fancy. And the actors, as is so often the case in films by the Coens, fully inhabit their roles; as a bonus, they also disappear into those roles here, as there are no name actors in the film. Leaving aside No Country for Old Men, the name actors in Coen brothers movies almost never disappear into their roles; instead, they inhabit those roles, and rather than seeing a combination of actor and character that creates something new, you see a known face creating a caricature of a ridiculous person who would not be at all interesting if not juxtaposed to a famous face.

That might have something to do with why I couldn’t get behind Larry Gopnik, the protagonist (uh, kinda) in A Serious Man. Michael Stuhlbarg, whose previous work includes a lot of things I have not seen and one picture I’m interested in seeing when it works its way onto video (Cold Souls), plays Gopnik; and he both inhabits and disappears into the role - a guy who has been oblivious to the little things in his marriage that have added up to his wife’s (seemingly) sudden request for a divorce - and in a way he manages to come off like a Coen character we’re used to seeing, but there is much about the character that is forced, including Stuhlbarg’s delivery and his situation in many of the scenes. I haven’t seen Stuhlbarg in anything else, though, so I can’t say for sure that it’s his performance that causes the sort of herky-jerky progression - but it would not surprise me if this were the case.

Gopnik is criticized by his wife’s new lover as not being a serious man, which seems to be a way of saying that Gopnik has not done enough with his life. He continuously protests - particularly to his wife, concerning her reasons for wanting a divorce - that he hasn’t done anything; and what he’s saying in the empty space of that statement is that he hasn’t done anything except what has been expected of him in his life. He’s a modern day Job, persecuted constantly for reasons of which he cannot conceive; but Job is comforted, to an extent, by his faith in his god. Gopnik, though Jewish - and the picture as a whole is not so much steeped in Judaism as it is positively drowning in it - pays only lip service to faith; and his attempts to receive counsel from the religious leaders in his life are rebuffed at every turn, which echoes the way God seems to ignore Job in the Bible.

But there is no sense of hope here, none of the reassurance readers of the Bible get that Job will one day find peace though he suffers constantly throughout his life. I’m sure the film's dearth of hope is by design; and as an overall criticism of religion - particularly of the god of the Old Testament - it’s effective. The suffering that Gopnik endures - being cuckolded, having redneck neighbors on one side and a wily temptress on the other, being strung along about getting tenure at work, boarding a brother who can’t seem to catch a break - is shown as ridiculous, as are his rabbis, a series of whom are recommended to him for counsel; and though all the roles are pulled off pretty well, especially Fred Melamed as Gopnik’s wife’s new lover, there’s not really a single character in the movie that you find yourself wanting to root for. And that’s too bad, because the space these characters inhabit is so well-constructed and expertly presented that it fairly begs to be lived in by people whose fates demand to be cared about.

I’m sure there’s probably some Big Theme here that I’m just missing - and that would make the picture open itself up to me way more than it did; and maybe a second viewing would bring more of that theme to the front of my mind, but I don’t know how long it might be before I ever watch this one again. I’ll tell you, though - there’s a scene toward the end where the cops come to arrets Gopnik’s brother; and if one of those cops had been John C. Reilly reprising his role as police office Jim Kurring, it might have made the movie a whole lot more interesting.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Left-Wing Movie Report

Capitalism: A Love Story
Believe it or not, I had never seen a Michael Moore movie before I saw this one. I don’t know that I’m missing all that much. With the rare exception (James Toback’s Tyson, for one), documentary film basically exists to inform rather than entertain - so for me, the mark of a successful doc is how well it sheds light on things I did not already know. Having said that, this film is hit and miss. What Moore tells us about the financial meltdown is not news; anyone who has paid even slight attention to the news in the last year or so knows most of these details. The interesting parts are when he goes out into the field and talks to people who have been affected by the financial crisis; there should be way more of this. Oh, and his thesis - that capitalism is the source of the trouble - is inaccurate. The cause of the trouble was greed. Capitalism does not work unless it is regulated. Period. End of report. Next case. Unfettered free market capitalism is no more viable than communism or Glenn Beck. The financial mess the world is in is proof of that statement, an enduring legacy of Ronald Reagan, one of the worst Presidents in American history other than his veep’s progeny.

Earth Days
This one was way better than I thought it was going to be. For whatever reason, I was expecting self-righteous hippie environmentalists decrying as a right-wing Nazi anyone who doesn’t live in a tree and who refuses to shower or to groom him- or herself. Instead, what I got was just a bunch of people who think it’s a really good thing to protect the environment and take care of our finite natural resources - and who wanted to share that concern with the audience. It’s hard to argue with this positiion when it’s presented in such an apolitical way. It even manages to give credit where it’s due to Richard Nixon, who was mostly a disaster, of course* - but who also created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Water Act and an expansion of the Clean Air Act.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon
Actually, there’s one other thing about documentary that’s really good - when it gives you footage of awesome people who died before you had the chance to become interested in them. I was five when John Lennon bled out on the steps in front and lobby of the Dakota Hotel in New York City, and twenty-something before I got (mildly) interested in the Beatles; and it was several years after that before I realized that I was really, truly a bleeding-heart left-wing liberal (this is also called coming to one’s senses, for those who still think that Rush Limbaugh and a whoopee cushion are substantially different things). Up until I saw this movie, I basically only knew anecdotal things about John Lennon; and there was quite a lot of good information in the movie to help expand that knowledge. The movie also opened up a lot of his songs, both solo stuff and stuff that he did with the Beatles.

* Has anyone else noticed that the last three consecutive, two-term Republican Presidents have been remarkable disasters? You’d think people would learn to vote better; but then again, the learning curve in this fading republic is flat like Kansas.

The Big List #16

Atheists Unite!

Richard Dawkins and his new book - and yet another link-heavy Cosmic Log blog. I’ve only read articles about and by Dawkins, but none of his books. I’m terribly fascinated, though. I got The God Delusion from the library, but had to take it back before I got around to reading it. Perhaps once I get some of my own books read and disposed (see below), I’ll get around to Dawkins.

Joe Biden Under the Radar

Excellent article on Joe Biden and what he contributes to the Obama administration. Everyone knew Obama would be an improvement over Bush; and while it makes sense that Biden would be an improvement over Cheney, Biden has his own idiosyncracies that are...well, not quite as criminal as Cheney’s - but potentially irksome, nonetheless. Nice to know that, so far, he has not taken up the mantle of the Sith that might have been passed down to him over at OEOB.

Needful Things

Most excellent post by Roger Ebert on how books can fill up the spaces in one’s life - and take on a life of their own. I freely admit to a love-hate relatioship with my books. On the one hand, I’m never at a loss for something to read. On the other hand, they take up a hell of a lot of space. Every year I tell myself I’m going to pare it down - and yet, every year, the stack of books I accumulate is bigger than the stack that I read and set aside to sell.

I Smell Sex and Candy

Esquire article on how surges in vampire popularity coincide with surges in “carnal crisis,” and also about how the current surge has to do with young straight women wanting to have sex with gay men - or so the author says. The first part of the theory is more interesting, and the only downside here is that the article is only about 1000 words. A much longer treatment of this idea would be terribly interesting.

And Just To Be Fair...

HOPE artist Shepard Fairey was disingenuous about which AP photo he used to create that Obama poster. Surely you’ve seen it, right? Liberals and Democrats are never going to come anywhere near the level of total suckage that the conservatives and GOP have achieved since Herr Reagan was sworn in - but that doesn’t automatically make all of them good, either. I could probably do a better job pointing out gaffes on the left, but honestly - who picks on their own side as much as they pick on the other side? Exactly. The problem with the right is that they have both the ideology and the methodology wrong; the left, when they err, usually only errs on the methodology.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Deep Thoughts #16

To see how retarded Twitter users, or maybe just Republicans, are, Google Meghan McCain, Twitter, and tank top and see what, ahem, comes up.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Deep Thoughts #15

Are we really supposed to take seriously those people whose comments make it clear that in their eyes Obama can do no right, no matter what?

Deep Thoughts #14

Complaining about Obama doesn’t make new racists out of people whose parents did such a bad job raising them that they already were racists.

Deep Thoughts #13

It’s very impressive how so many Republicans who were stupid enough to vote for Sarah Palin have become Nobel Peace Prize experts overnight.

Deep Thoughts #12

I like how President Obama gets slammed for an award he didn’t even campaign for. Do you birther Republican morons think he’s Norwegian now?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Jiallo's African-Caribbean Cuisine

Jiallo’s is a restaurant out on the northwest side (roughly 56th and Guion) that offers what they call African-Caribbean cuisine in what is certainly the most stripped-down and minimalist dining room I think that I have ever eaten in. I don’t know the west side all that well, and someone who does might be able to refute this next point, I don’t know - but this seems like a terrible location for a restaurant. There’s not much of anything in the area, no chance of attracting any foot traffic, and Guion Road is bloody annoying to drive.

I read about this place in the Star’s weekend section a couple of weeks ago, and mentioned it to Amy - the dish pictured in the review, jerk chicken with red beans and rice and fried plantains, looked appealing; and both of us like to try new things to eat and to support the independent place whenever we can. By an unusual scheduling fluke, I had today (technically yesterday) off, so we roped my mom into watching Jackson, and off we went.

By minimalist dining room, I mean one big open space with tables and chairs and a handful of booths; stark white walls; and a bar where no alcohol was being served and a handful of people were hanging out and not drinking. There were four other people at tables when we got there, so we took an open booth and sat down. The owner, Jiallo himself, brought menus and took our drink order, and we ordered dinner when he came back with the drinks. Amy had the jerk chicken ($11.99) we saw in the picture in the paper, and I chose the curried chicken ($9.99 - pictured). The menu said that each came with either red beans and rice or mixed vegetables, and we both chose the red beans and rice. The jerk chicken also came with fried plantains.

And then the waiting began. And continued. And continued some more. And then out came two plates of fried plantains, which were quite nice - though we were only expecting one side of plantains, the ones with Amy’s jerk chicken. They were crispy outside and tender inside - sweet, but not overly so, and not especially greasy, though there was a bit of a sheen left on the plate when they were gone. Next came more waiting and then - surprise! - some fried rice that Jiallo had just whipped up in the back. The review in the paper said that he often prepares things that are not listed on the menu, and then brings them out for people to sample. He’s got an interesting take on fried rice. It had a dusky, smoky sort of flavor and clumped together like it was sticky rice. Most fried rice I’ve encountered is made up of mostly rice, with bits of other things - usually vegetables and sometimes a bit of egg; this was pretty much rice, though Amy reckons she forked a wayward green bean along the way. I believe I saw a sliver of onion in there somewhere. Either way, both little plates of rice were gone in no time - and I think we’d both have a go at it again if it ever shows up on the menu.

Then more waiting. Later on, we learned that it had been especially slow that day because of the rain, and that they had run out of most of the prepared food around six o’clock or so. When the entrées finally did arrive, I could tell why they had taken so long. The chicken on both plates was literally falling off the bone, and that takes time. Mine was awash in brilliant yellow curry sauce that was flavorful without masking the flavor of the chicken - and it was very mild curry, so those who don’t dig on spicy food can order this dish with confidence. Amy’s jerk chicken was slightly spicier, though still pretty mild, and had a good sweet and smoky flavor that also did not get in the way of the flavor of the chicken.

The red beans and rice, as they were, left a bit to be desired, though; they were not bursting with flavor, but were instead dry and a little on the cold side. This was remedied, however, when Jiallo came back around and asked if we wanted some more "gravy" for the red beans and rice. We both said yes, and he brought out two little bowls of the sauce, which was full of ox-tail and great big white beans and had a very earthy, buttery taste that was easily the best thing I tasted during the meal. I poured it over the red beans and rice on my plate and then, magically, the red beans and rice vanished almost instantly.

And then he brought out two little plates of mixed vegetables, which neither of us had ordered and which were probably offered to make up for the long wait, which he acknowledged was out of the ordinary and for which he apologized. And the veggies were lovely - tender but firm, and very simply seasoned with pepper and just a hint of salt. Also to make up for the wait, he knocked off the drinks and sides from the bill, though we did not ask that he do that.

The food was a long time coming, but it was well worth the wait - and based on conversations we had with Jiallo and others which we overheard, the slow service seems to have been an anomaly. It’s also apparently anomalous for the place to be as empty as it was - just a handful of diners - when we got there at seven o’clock; and that’s encouraging, because it’s the kind of place you have to make an effort to get to. I’m cautiously optimistic that a return visit will be just as enjoyable from a service standpoint as tonight’s visit was from the culinary end of things.

4202 West 56th Street
Mon-Sat 11-930
Sun 2-8

Friday, October 09, 2009

Earth Days (#1)

Go see this movie. It's one week only, and there's pretty much no way you're going to have to worry that it might sell out. You might be surprised to learn that this isn't so much an activist movie about the envronment as it is a straight history of how the environmental movement formed, beginning with the publication of the book SIlent Spring, by Rachel Carson - and told by many of the people who were there at the beginning and to whom the environmental movement meant - and still means - very much. Almost entirely stripped of politics, the film tells the story of how people gradually woke up to the fact that what humans were putting into the environment, in terms of pesticides and pollutants from factories and cars, was eventually going to kill us - and what they started to do about it. Lots of stock footage, as you would expect in a documentary - but lots of nice sweeping shots of modern-day city skylines, too.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Boys Are Back

I imagine there is a segment of the movie-going population in the world that will not only want to see this picture (as opposed to being compelled to watch it in the course of doing one’s job), but that will also enjoy the movie once they have seen it. I reckon most of those are going to be women - at least as much because the male lead is the very, very pretty Clive Owen as because the weepy family story appeals to people who like to have everything work out in the end.

Of course, everything works out in the end - and no, that doesn’t take anything away from the enjoyment of the movie for those who are going to enjoy it. This is the kind of movie that has to work out in the end - there’s not some question of what’s going to happen because it is not at all a challenging film. (Most of the people who are going to think that this is a movie they would like to see are people who are not going to be interested in being challenged by the movies they see.)

And yes, I’m pretty much just going to trash this movie - so if that doesn’t interest you for whatever reason, you’ll probably want to move on after this paragraph. The movie is about sports writer Joe Warr (Owen), who quite suddenly loses his second wife to cancer. This forces him to start participating in the upbringing of his young son Artie (I’m pretty sure that, at one point early in the movie, someone called this kid Danny - but I could be wrong), something he has not done much of in the almost seven years of Artie’s life. Joe brings home the bacon, and his wife Katie raises the kids and keeps the house in order. The fun quirk? Joe has another son by a previous wife (whom he left when he got Katie pregnant), and it’s time for that kid to come round for a visit, just at the moment when all of this other stuff starts to go to hell. Doesn’t it just figure?

Like I said, everything works out in the end. Don’t even worry about it. There are a couple of loose ends - including Joe’s fate at his job and the status of the relationship between Joe and his new friend Laura, who has a little girl who is Artie’s age - that director Scott Hicks leaves hanging; but most of the plot points are neatly resolved, as they are supposed to be. Does it matter that the main conflict in the movie, apart from Katie’s sudden death, turns on a couple of improbable incidents - losing a cell phone in an unlikely (and brief) bar fight, say - that make you wonder how much of the story screenwriter Allan Cubitt had to fabricate from Simon Carr’s memoir? Not really. Does it matter that there are seemingly interminable shots of the vast Pacific Ocean that seem meant to indicate how lost Joe fears he’s going to be if he actually has to try to be as good a father as his wife was a good mother? Not really.

It’s all just fluff and too many close-up shots that are either hastily or simply poorly composed, too many lines uttered in measured melodramatic cadence, and not nearly enough gnats and flies in a kitchen that Joe never makes much - correction, any - effort to clean up. “The place looked better when Artie’s mother was alive,” he says. There are a handful of genuinely moving emotional moments, about half of which occur in the surprisingly effective opening that kills off Joe’s wife; but most of the emotional punch is overwrought, and by the time we get around to an ending that is so cloyingly sweet and completely inorganic, you may have to be reminded that this film was based on a true story - because most of what you have seen smacks of bad fiction. Really bad fiction.

Friday, October 02, 2009

I'm Speechless. I Am Without Speech.

Tonight at work, I was reading an article about the scandal involving the guy at CBS who tried to extort money from David Letterman, and the text quoted below was posted as one of the comments to the article. If we could figure out a way to increase - and here I’m thinking something like an order of magnitude - the number of religious people on this planet who are as well-reasoned as the person who posted this comment (identity listed only at “walt2,” with no link to a profile or anything like that), homo sapiens as a species would be in so much better shape.

"To the other Christians out there; why should Christians expect non-believers to live up to, or be remotely interested in living up to the 'Christian' moral code? Honestly, that code, in and of itself, seems like foolishness to most non-believers. It's ridiculous to expect someone without the indwelling spirit of God to be interested in sin, holiness, etc. The only reason Christians are different is because of the new life (God's Spirit) residing in us. We aren't inately better in some way than everyone else. The main difference is that we have experienced regeneration which has opened our eyes to spiritual things in ways the non-believer can't see. But we are no 'better' than any one else. It is God's presence in us alone that allows us to consider as valid - and hopefully to live by - a different moral code. Why should we expect anyone who is not a believer to be interested in that same standard? Where were we anyway, before the presence of God entered us? Our life in Christ now is not accomplished by our own efforts, no matter how 'mature' we may be - it's all because of his presence. We aren't holy, he has become our holiness, our goodness. Dave is no hypocrite. He doesn't claim to be something he is not. I like Dave and think he is an incredibly gifted guy. He has undoubtedly hurt one or more people in his life by his actions. But infidelity is not the unforgivable sin. If we Christians claim to be something we are not - somehow 'better' than everyone else, we become hypocrites. The only difference is that we have had our guilt before God taken away by the work of Christ. 'We are saved by Faith through Grace, and that not of ourselves; it is the gift of God.'"