Friday, March 23, 2007

Friday Poetry: W.S. Gilbert

W.S. Gilbert

There once was a man from St. Bee's
Who got stung in the arm by a wasp.
When asked, 'Does it hurt?'
he replied, 'No, it doesn't;
I'm so glad it wasn't a hornet.'

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Your Command Is My Wish

My new drug of choice is the V.I. Warshawski novels by Sara Paretsky.

I've only read five so far, and radically out of order, but it's clear I'll continue until I've read all twelve of them. V.I. Warshawski is a private detective, an expert in white-collar crime (which always seems to involve a disproportionate amount of murder), a relentlessly stubborn, short-tempered, independent woman with a tremendous command of knowledge and of herself. Mystery novels have never quite been my thing before—I've enjoyed the few thrillers and mysteries I've read, the economy of writing required to create the story, but I've never sought them out. This, however, is a thorough addiction. Paretsky doesn't have quite the same economy of style as, say, Thomas Harris, but these are mysteries and not thrillers, and she really takes the time to create the character's world, the people and actions who/that make up V.I.'s life. It's heightened to the point of being kind of inconceivable—having only read five of the books, it's a little ridiculous to imagine that one character could have this level of physical and emotional resilience—but that's part of what constitutes the appeal for me and, I'd imagine, for a lot of readers. Basically, it's wish-fulfillment.

If I ever, for some reason, went to law school, V.I. Warshawski is who I'd want to be. Reading the novels I find an alter ego; since Paretsky started publishing these novels in 1982, I can imagine that V.I. became a fast feminist icon, and that certain things about her character were a bit more controversial in the beginning (the amount of sex she has without committed relationships, for instance; I know it was only the '80s, and that had mostly come into popular culture, but the models of female detectives before she appeared on the scene *were* pretty different); Paretsky's also a distinctively leftist writer, which is interesting because, in my stupidity, politics never occurred to me as a salient aspect of mystery writing. But it has a great deal to do with the kind of crime V.I. fights, and why. The writing's evocative enough that a reader gets to be there with her, and the character's fascinating enough that I imagine a lot of women in the last 25 years have wanted to be there.

I'm happy to add myself to that list. I want that toughness combined with voracious intelligence, that clarity of vision, that supportive a network to catch me when I make egregious mistakes, that command of thought and action. Kind of nice to have a literary place to practice.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Friday Poetry: Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda
Your Hands

When your hands go out,
love, toward mine,
what do they bring me flying?
Why did they stop
at my mouth, suddenly,
why do I recognize them
as if then, before,
I had touched them,
as if before they existed
they had passed over
my forehead, my waist?

Their softness came
flying over time,
over the sea, over the smoke,
over the spring,
and when you placed
your hands on my chest,
I recognized those golden
dove wings,
I recognized that clay
and that color of wheat.

All the years of my life
I walked around looking for them.
I went up the stairs,
I crossed the roads,
trains carried me,
waters brought me,
and in the skin of the grapes
I thought I touched you.
The wood suddenly
brought me your touch,
the almond announced to me
your secret softness,
until your hands
closed on my chest
and there like two wings
they ended their journey.

Behind Closed Doors

Now this.

Not that I have any particular fondness for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but at least as the New York Times cites him, he seems, relatively speaking, on top of his shit. His ethical system is pretty gruesome, but he seems at least to be making an effort. Which is to say, if we assume the hearings to have been conducted and transcripts thereby released in a vaguely ethical fashion—a pretty ludicrous claim given the rest of the evidence and legal technicalities surrounding 'em, but let's try it for a second—then KSM is a martyr in the non-Jihadic sense. He's sacrificing himself at his hearings in the hope of casting greater shadows onto United States conduct. I mean, yes, there are plenty of problems there (he probably knows he's pretty well caught in any case), but the thoughts cited about this being a political war, a political act, is pretty interesting both in terms of being a fairly different treatment of jihad than we've previously seen in the mainstream press from the oft-cited mainstream members of al-Qaeda (I've never read the Koran, and I wouldn't mind it if someone who has would weigh in on this), and in terms of casting a wider and more direct lens on where and how institutionalized politics and institutionalized religion interact than I've seen in a while.

It's something of a relief that even in the AP they're now quoting Human Rights Watch folks when Guantánamo comes up, but nobody seems to be addressing the fact that a White House transcript of a sealed confession hardly qualifies as fact. At least we get this knowledge from the Times:

By tribunal rules, Mr. Mohammed was aided by a “personal representative,” not a lawyer. His attempt to call two witnesses was denied. And the tribunal indicated that it would consider classified evidence not made available to Mr. Mohammed.

Combatant status review tribunals are informal hearings created in response to a 2004 decision by the United States Supreme Court to judge whether prisoners at Guantánamo were properly designated as enemy combatants and subject to indefinite detention. Unlike the military commissions that hear war crimes charges, the combatant status review tribunals offer minimal procedural protections and are not recognizably judicial.

In the past, the hearings have been partly open to the press. But a series of recent hearings, involving some of the 14 so-called high-value detainees transferred to Guantánamo from secret C.I.A. prisons last year, were closed. In addition to the Mohammed transcript, the Pentagon yesterday also released transcripts of the hearings of Abu Faraj al-Libbi and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, top Qaeda operatives.

Not that the author's biased or anything, but hell, so am I. The hearings of both those last gentlemen were conducted in their absence. On al-Libbi's part, at least, that was a gesture of protest, though I'm not clear on the al-Shibh situation. Whatever grandiose and interesting KSM statements were released to the press, this whole thing makes me ill. I want to make some argument about the differences between this travesty of justice and, say, the proceedings at Nuremburg, to which someone else would respond that when Nuremburg rolled around the war in question was already over, which leads us always back to square one, the fact that a war on an abstract concept cannot be won. Abstract concepts are fucking tenacious. Particularly when no one besides the dictionary has bothered to define it, "terror" is going to stick around. (Drugs, astoundingly, are also still around.) Thoughts about the C.I.A. are a longer essay for a longer day, but especially with the Military Commissions Act now active on the table, the trickling manner of released transcripts and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's loose lips make me fear for, um, civil society.

I'll be hard-pressed to vote for a candidate who does not speak openly against the Military Commissions Act; that in itself is on my part an inadequate, sheltered American response. But not yet having access to it more visceral than my generalized liberal writer's empathy, I don't know where else to go. It certainly makes me feel that America's days as a democratic republic are, at the very least, on the wane. And if this is how we treat any sense of responsibility we once had, I think I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Left-Wing Extremist Meme

Hey folks, I know I've been falling down on the job recently. There are a bunch of essays in the queue that I've been either too overwhelmed or too lazy to finish, and they're coming. In the meantime, I'm taking this from Milligan. Not sure if he intended it as a meme, but it seems like fun. The basic tenet of it is that Time Magazine's blogger Joe Klein has defined left-wing extremism as being composed of the following attributes. You answer each as best you can to determine if you are a left-wing extremist.

A left-wing extremist exhibits many, but not necessarily all, of the following attributes:
believes the United States is a fundamentally negative force in the world.
At this point in time, I would say that the United States is much more a negative force in the world than positive, which is to say that the work we're doing which I'd consider "good" (obviously a reductive term) is more Band-Aid work than the "bad" work we're doing, which has more power to "fundamentally" change the structure of world politics, living conditions and the like.
believes that American imperialism is the primary cause of Islamic radicalism.
I like Milligan's answer here: No, it's one of three main causes, alongside Israeli imperialism and oppressive Middle Eastern governments.
believes that the decision to go to war in Iraq was not an individual case of monumental stupidity, but a consequence of America’s fundamental imperialistic nature.
A little of column A, a little of column B. Certainly the Project for a New American Century can't be ignored when analyzing the causes. And by their report this ain't an isolated incident.
tends to blame America for the failures of others—i.e. the failure of our NATO allies to fulfill their responsibilities in Afghanistan.
Given that we just this side of abandoned the campaign in Afghanistan for the one in Iraq, I'd say we played a role in that problem. And I wouldn't mind pulling the lens a little further back, too. Klein seems to think that every action exists without much relation to the actions that came before it.
doesn’t believe that capitalism, carefully regulated and progressively taxed, is the best liberal idea in human history.
No, no, I don't. Mostly because I think capitalism is in the end incapable of remaining carefully regulated and progressively taxed, but this one's a larger thought that I have to continue working on. Either way, there are far better liberal ideas (define that, while you're at it) in human history. Equality and equal access to education being foremost on my mind.
believes American society is fundamentally unfair (as opposed to having unfair aspects that need improvement).
American principles are not fundamentally unfair, looking to the Constitution and whathaveyou. Supposed attempts to act upon these principles have been fundamentally unfair since before the founding of the nation.
believes that eternal problems like crime and poverty are the primarily the fault of society.
Again, I'll take Milligan's: Given that some of our contemporary societies have achieved much lower crime and poverty rates, we might consider that we're doing something wrong here.
believes that America isn’t really a democracy.
As did the Founding Fathers, because we're all right: it's a republic. This nation is waaaaay to big to be a democracy. Whether we can make it a representative democratic republic is another question.
believes that corporations are fundamentally evil.
Okay, yeah, even I'm getting sick of the word "fundamentally" here, and I'm the Adverb Goddess. Anyway, to the point: something legally defined as a person but very much insulated from both the moral and legal reckonings to which individuals are prone/beholden cannot but be a little evil. No, I don't like the word "evil." How about: cannot but be amoral, and overly controlling, and possess far more power and influence than any individual whatever his/her level of political clout.
believes in a corporate conspiracy that controls the world.
It's not a conspiracy; it's right out there in the open. But I fail to see how, under current circumstances, corporations could fail to control the world.
is intolerant of good ideas when they come from conservative sources.
Examples, please.
dismissively mocks people of faith, especially those who are opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
I admit to having done this, particularly when I was in high school but it's spread upwards a bit, and I'm not comfortable with it. Growing up an agnostic New York Jew will do that to you. These days I'm too conscious of the power of faith, to whatever end, to dismiss it, though I see no reason not to mock on occasion. As to opponents of abortion and gay marriage, I certainly take them seriously because they have a lot of power. But while I understand distaste for dismissive mocking, I have to say parody's one of the best ways of approaching political thought.
regularly uses harsh, vulgar, intolerant language to attack moderates or conservatives.
Vulgar: yes, not publically. Harsh: sort of, but I cannot hold a candle to Ann Coulter. Intolerant: see "harsh." I certainly do my damnedest to see and understand my opponents' thoughts and points.

By Klein's definition I'm probably 13 for 13. Oh well.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Friday Poetry: W.S. Merwin

Note: A slightly different version of this poem is the epigram in Anne Lamott's book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. I got this one from Merwin's book The Rain in the Trees; I think I like the edits in Lamott's book a little better, but couldn't find the source. Either way, I think this one is stunning.

W.S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are stading by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on the stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Oscarblogging, Year the Second, Part the Fifth: It's Okay

First things first: I didn't see Iwo Jima. I was planning to get it in on Sunday afternoon, but I was ill and tired and just not interested enough. And I'm feeling perfectly comfortable with that.

I don't have much to say about the Oscars, at least their results; overall I was perfectly content. It was a career win for Scorsese, and really that's okay. As frustrated as I was with Pan's Labyrinth in the end, I was pleased that it received those design awards, because the visuals were bloody stunning, and though I'm sick of Will Ferrell, I was definitely a fan of the little dance number that the three gentlemen of comedy put together. I was particularly a fan of their focus on how hot Helen Mirren is. I mean, go her—and it is noteworthy and lovely that three of the five Best Actress nominees were over the age of fifty.

Gotta say, though, I was disappointed in Ellen. I recognize that her schtick is being incredibly low-key, slipping jokes in casually even as they're the point, but I thought she was glad-handing with the audience a bit too much, to situate herself as the opposite of Jon Stewart. She was clearly softballing at all times, trying to make it light and cute and, while irreverent, also irrelevant. Because she can use that style to be incisive—I've definitely seen it—I was more than a little disappointed.

But, though I felt I had to do a closure post, I don't really have much to say about the Oscars. Except—Pilobolus? WTF?

Onwards to posts that have nothing to do with the Academy Awards.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Friday Poetry: Carolyn Forche

Carolyn Forché
The Colonel

What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the televison was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We
had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table
for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type
of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The
parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and
pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes:
say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring
groceries home. He spilled many human ears onto the table. They
were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He
took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into
a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he
said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck
themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held
the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he
said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice.
Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.


From HelsBells, I got a hold of the Guardian's Top 100 Books You Can't Live Without. I've put in bold the ones I've read below:

1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
2. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
3. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
4. Harry Potter series, JK Rowling
5. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
6. The Bible [I've read a few books of it, but not enough to qualify as having read it)
7. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
10. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
11. Little Women, Louisa M Alcott
12. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
13. Catch-22 Joseph Heller (I've started this one about eight gazillion times, and just have not managed to click into it)
14. Complete Works of Shakespeare, William Shakespeare (close, but no banana—not enough histories)
15. Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
16. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
17. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
18. Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
19. The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
20. Middlemarch George Eliot
21. Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
23. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
24. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
25. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
26. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
27. Crime and Punishment,Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28. Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
29. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
30. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
31. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
32. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
33. Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis (I've read the first two, but I don't think that counts)
34. Emma, Jane Austen
35. Persuasion, Jane Austen
36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, CS Lewis (umm, I don't understand the inclusion of both)
37. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
38. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernières
39. Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
40. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
41. Animal Farm, George Orwell
42. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
43. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney, John Irving
45. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
46. Anne of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
47. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
48. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
49. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
50. Atonement, Ian McEwan
51. Life of Pi, Yann Martel
52. Dune, Frank Herbert
53. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
54. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
58. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
60. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
62. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
63. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
64. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
65. Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
66. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
67. Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
68. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding
69. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
70. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
71. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
72. Dracula, Bram Stoker
73. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
74. Notes From A Small Island, Bill Bryson
75. Ulysses, James Joyce
76. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
77. Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome
78. Germinal, Emile Zola
79. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
80. Possession, AS Byatt
81. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
82. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
83. The Color Purple, Alice Walker
84. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
85. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
86. A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
87. Charlotte's Web, EB White
88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven, Mitch Alborn
89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90. The Faraway Tree Collection, Enid Blyton
91. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
92. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
93. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks
94. Watership Down, Richard Adams
95. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
96. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
97. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
98. Hamlet, William Shakespeare (again, what's with the complete volume and excerpts therefrom as two separate items?)
99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
100. Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (I could sing the entire musical from memory, but I don't think that counts)

That's 33 for me. Not too shabby, although it does reveal some of the gaps in my literary education that I find embarrassing (for example, the fact that I've read neither Dickens nor Marquez). Also noteworthy is the fact that this list contains only fiction, not always at the top of my reading list in the last coupla years. I question a few inclusions (um, numbers 88 and 68 what?), but I don't really owe this list that much. And I do honor its inclusion particularly of numbers 4, 8, 48 and 63.

As per the meme, I'm also going to add seven books of my own that I would insist on carrying to a desert island (more than seven would, as Hels's folks pointed out, impede one's movement on a desert island):

Continental Drift, Russell Banks
The Paper Canoe, Eugenio Barba
Come to Me, Amy Bloom
Parable of the Sower & Parable of the Talents, Octavia E. Butler
The Skriker, Caryl Churchill
New and Selected Poems, Stephen Dunn
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

Pass it around. I like this one.