Mar 312018
 

It’s been a long time since I’ve taught a book where the gap between how much I loved it and how much my students disliked it was as large as it was with Karen Russell’s collection of short stories.

I can say without reservation that these stories are (almost without exception) marvelous. Funny and allegorical, they are a lot like bones: let them simmer slowly over a steady heat and they give up riches. Yet my students, who I thought would be sucked in by the fantastic elements and young adult protagonists, were put off and confused by them. They asked things like “Do the goggles really let them see ghosts?” and “Are the girls werewolves?”—which is fine but only if you’re willing to accept that the answer is “Yes. But maybe not.” And then to think about how “yes” changes your sense of the story, and then how “no” and “maybe” do. For reasons I don’t really understand, my class wouldn’t go there and got hung up on the ambiguity generated by the conceits.

Here’s my dream though: they have read the thing and someday, they are going to be at a cocktail party, trying their best to fit in and to impress but failing and when they leave and become self-hating and say to themselves (or to their significant other) something along the lines of “I’m like an animal and am not fit to attend these things and I don’t understand why anyone would invite me to wander loose among the humans like that,” they’ll remember this book and think “oh, wait, I get it now…”

 March 31, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 312018
 

The idea for this book is straightforward: cull the biographical material for enough details to describe a typical work day for each of the chosen writers.

I know most of the writers here quite well, and yet the resulting portraits turned out to be fascinating. A biography presents a life, but how someone fits the thing it is that they do into that life operates like a windows onto their personality and their sense of who they are.

 March 31, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Mar 302018
 

I’d used Macs throughout high school school but, for reasons of cost, had always had PCs through university. I didn’t switch to Mac until I started my PhD. At that point, I bought a mini so I could use Scrivener while writing my dissertation. I loved that machine more than just about any computer I’ve ever had, but eventually I upgraded to a MacBook Pro, which at the time had two video cards and lots of ports. Eventually, opting for a bigger screen, I sold it and moved to an iMac.

In the years since, I’ve had other Macs, plenty of iPhones and a couple iPads. And yet, over the past few years, I’ve been less and less satisfied with my computers. The early problems were all about gaming. I’m not a hardcore gamer, but I play games as a way to hang out with family. Increasingly though, playing games with them was not an option because so many games just wouldn’t play on my Macs. There might be a port, and I might be able to load it and “play” but having a game operate on the Mac at minimum specs is not the same thing as being able to “play with” other people. The reality of this distinction became glaring when I bought a retina iMac. It was beautiful, but could barely run any game I played even at 1080p.

So I sold it and bought a new MacBook Pro. This machine turned out to be a disaster. Even without the touchbar, it was extremely expensive and my experience of the machine was not good. I hated the keyboard, which seems petty, but on a laptop is a big deal. More importantly, I was getting beachballs all over the place as I worked. And this happened even on text-based documents.

There was nothing physically wrong with the machine, but it was not at all enjoyable to use. Thinking it might help, I wiped the drive and reinstalled the OS, but the machine continued to gasp as it did basic work. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it had to do with the fact that so much of its resources were being spent to run the display at native resolution. Yes, that screen was gorgeous, but it wasn’t worth the hassles it seemed to be causing.

After months of this I was fed up and called my brother. He’s got good sense and we talked through options. On the one hand, I liked MacOS and didn’t really want to give it up. I also did most of my work in DevonThink Pro and Tinderbox, neither of which worked on Windows. (Scrivener did.) On the other hand, with a PC, I’d eliminate the substantial friction caused by using a Mac in a workplace that’s purely PC. Becoming familiar with Windows again would also help me with the classroom and student tech. And yes, I’d be able to play whatever games I wanted to.

After talking through all this, I made the (in retrospect) extremely impulsive decision to sell my MBP and to order the parts I needed to build myself a PC. That was a little more than a month ago, and I’m typing this post on that new machine.

And what do I think?

The change proved to be more disruptive than I’d imagined. I miss Apple’s core programs: Mail, Safari, and Notes. Microsoft’s equivalents aren’t. And yes, things are generally tackier and I’m less confident about security. But that said, Windows 10 is a decent OS, and so far I don’t have any regrets on that score. The change’s certainly made it easier to deal with IT at work .

As far as software goes, I miss being able to move files or to create replicants using DevonThink’s contextual menu. But other than that I realize, I prefer having my files sit in the OS file system rather than inside an app. Tinderbox is a different story. I’ve struggled to find tools for doing what I used it for. A lot of times I just wind up doing the work with pencil and paper. This is a loss, but not enough on its own to swing my decision.

So for now my life is bifurcated between an Apple iOS mobile experience for photos, notes and a lot of web browsing, and a Windows PC desktop for work and gaming. For now, that division is working well and I feel good about it.

To be continued…

Update: The irony of all of this is that as I post here, Apple has begun to support external video cards. Would this have solved my problem? Who knows. For the moment though I still feel good about watching from the outside as Apple finds a way to get its Mac hardware back up to speed. The computers they’ve sold these past couple years haven’t been.

 March 30, 2018  Reflections
Mar 302018
 

I was impressed by two things about this book.

The first is that, in an effort to get things right on a large scale by pulling disparate events together and identifying patterns, Harari is willing to risk being wrong by going out on a limb. The cruel irony of higher education is that it teaches most people to play it safe. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, but you’ve studied dammit and you want to be right about what they’re right about. So listening to or reading informed academics talk is a bit like watching rabbits chew lettuce: it’s all little bites with eyes on horizon, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. Harari isn’t like that at all. He goes out on limbs, sometimes in areas I know a fair bit about. Sometimes I questioned what he was saying in those areas. But in general, I liked those moments of the book the best because they made a claim and trusted I’d take the time to think about it.

The second thing that impressed me was the clarity with which his book demonstrated what anthropology offers as an academic field. I studied history as an undergraduate and continue to read it as an amateur. Somewhere along the line, I’d foolishly decided that anthropology was the historical study of people living without writing (and of cavemen and of the liberal arts version of evolution). Harari’s book makes me realize that this conception of the field is ignorant enough to approach idiocy. Anthropology is a study of Culture and conceptualizes the term with enough sophistication and breadth to make the “Cultural Studies” I’m familiar with seem parochial. This reassessment of the field is the most significant thing I took away from the book.

 March 30, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 222018
 

The first season of this show started out as The Matrix and ends up as Fight Club. As crazy as it sounds, I feel like I should have seen this switch coming several episodes earlier than I did.

The narrative here is gimmicky and the visuals and narration wallow in ostentation. Cramped framing of figures, disorienting jumps over key events, these are, I suppose, thematic. They are certainly expressive. At root though, they are a kind of stunt. And they work.

Someday—and I know what kind of day it will be: rainy or snowy, after a long week, when I’m feeling spent but alert—I’ll surely click “play” on the first episode of season two. But I don’t really feel much urgency about it.

 March 22, 2018  TV Logs Tagged with:
Mar 182018
 

This history of the Antebellum period is complex and breathtaking. The country changed so much in these years that Polk’s administration feels like a different world than Buchanan’s. There are lots of ways to track that change. One of the best I’ve read is actually a novel: James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird.

This history couldn’t be more different from that book. Whereas the novel watched the world from ground level and from a marginal space imagined within central events of the period, this history leaps into the political center without shying away from the details of committee conferences, vote counts, and the back-and-forth of parliamentary procedures. This is a story of power struggles played out in halls of government and across the western territories. Yet, the whole is handled with such a sure hand that the details enliven rather than obscure the developing events.

This book fits nicely across the joint connecting What Hath God Wrought? and Battle Cry of Freedom. Perhaps more unsettling is the way it seems to offer insight into the resentments and risks the States are muddling through today.

 March 18, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Mar 132018
 

I read this book in a rush, caught up in the world and the characters. This is great fantasy writing.

I also really like that nothing here is a revamping of Germanic or Nordic mythology and that this isn’t a world of wise, white men helping young white men discover themselves and save the world. That’s a shift from the norm and it feels right.

Narratively, this book takes all kinds of risks with point-of-view and plotting. Yet somehow, by the end it pulls everything together. It’s a feat of strength and makes the book extremely satisfying.

 March 13, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Mar 132018
 

A reboot of The Matrix with Freedom standing in for The Real World and Keanu Reeves played by an autistic.

Less cheeky: part of what is compelling about Henry James’s novels is the pleasure of reading third person narration that is close enough to a character’s experience of their selves as to be near synonymous with it and yet that is also calmly, devastatingly clear-seeing to an extent that exceeds what we imagine to be possible for most people. That I thought this thought watching Elliot interact with the people in his life tells you which gear the first two episodes of the show shifted my mind into.

I’m excited for the rest of the season.

 March 13, 2018  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Mar 092018
 

I don’t really love this film. I maybe don’t even really like it. Mostly I just don’t care.

The problem is that here the Marvel behemoth feels like it’s busily dragging a few of its many feet forward as it lurches toward the Infinity Wars extravaganza where it plans to (and wants us to know it will) emit a thunderous bellow. And I find that exhausting. As I’ve said before, this massive studio-as-story-world is fascinating from a film history perspective and I’m curious about the technical aspects of project development and coordination, but the films themselves often feel like a burden, something to keep tabs on lest you miss a set-up or fail to grasp a winking reference to what’s come before, but mostly they come across as just fastidious and stale.

Without being anti-genre, anti-superhero, anti-sci-fi or -fantasy, I’m tired of them and wish they’d stop tying up talent that I’d rather see doing other work.

(Or maybe this is a better way of thinking about it: in this film, we watch Thor’s iconic hammer be destroyed, watch Odin die and Thor become King of Asgard in his place (after killing Death herself), watch the complete destruction of Asgard and the migration of its survivor’s to Earth. We also bask in the happy-making fanboy scenes of Thor and Hulk engaged in a battle royale and of Jeff Goldblum in high form. And yet, all of this—every last bit of it—is really just set-up for the only 30 seconds of the film that matter: the post-credit encounter with the purple guy’s space ship as it heads to Earth. When your entire film experience is demoted to a footnote by an ad in the final moments of the film, you’ve wasted your time watching.)

 March 9, 2018  Movie Logs Tagged with: , ,
Mar 042018
 

I meant to do this earlier in the week, but never had a chance. So in a rush, here’s my Oscar ballot (not predictions). In other words, these are what I’d vote for.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET, Call Me by Your Name

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

SAM ROCKWELL, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

FRANCES MCDORMAND, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

LAURIE METCALF, Lady Bird

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

—No Vote—

CINEMATOGRAPHY

BLADE RUNNER 2049, Roger A. Deakins

COSTUME DESIGN

PHANTOM THREAD, Mark Bridges

DIRECTING

PHANTOM THREAD, Paul Thomas Anderson

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)

—No Vote—

DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)

—No Vote—

FILM EDITING

BABY DRIVER, Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

THE SQUARE, Sweden

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

—No Vote—

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

PHANTOM THREAD, Jonny Greenwood

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

MYSTERY OF LOVE, from Call Me by Your Name; Music and Lyric by Sufjan Stevens

BEST PICTURE

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, Peter Spears, Luca Guadagnino, Emilie Georges and Marco Morabito, Producers

PRODUCTION DESIGN

THE SHAPE OF WATER, Production Design: Paul Denham Austerberry; Set Decoration: Shane Vieau and Jeff Melvin

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)

—No Vote—

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)

—No Vote—

SOUND EDITING

—No Vote—

SOUND MIXING

—No Vote—

VISUAL EFFECTS

BLADE RUNNER 2049, John Nelson, Gerd Nefzer, Paul Lambert and Richard R. Hoover

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, Screenplay by James Ivory

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

LADY BIRD, Written by Greta Gerwig 

 

 March 4, 2018  Moments Tagged with: