Friday, February 28, 2020

Word substitutes

Some (mostly) analog sources of delight:
Snow — I don’t mind it, truth be told. Improves the view.

And I finally dropped plastic on the new Tool album/commodity fetish.
I’m still partial to the packaging of 10,000 Days but this is in no way disappointing.

Appropo of absolutely nothing, Scott sent me a copy of William Gibson’s latest — autographed to me!
Another book I’m reading — The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King.
We are having a moment here in Canada (begun some 400+ years ago). I have other books on the history of the matter, but this one’s been calling for a while — time to take and read.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Portis, Grossman, and the languishing of Great Works

RIP, Charles Portis.

In the '90s the cool kids were all reading Charles Portis.

His books were out of print rareties, for one thing — except for True Grit, which was usually buried in the Westerns shelf, alongside Louis L’Amour and Max Brand. If you wanted to read Portis — the real Portis, mind you, the stuff Hollywood couldn’t possibly bastardize — you had to keep a diligent eye out during your weekly trawl of used book stores.

In '91 Gringos was published. The bookflap made it sound like one of Robert Stone’s more realized efforts. My opportunity to become a full-fledged Portis-head, at last!

I put it down after 30 pages.

Still, the hip kids kept waxing hip about Portis. When his ouevre was finally re-released in the Aughts I picked up Masters Of Atlantis, figuring the subject matter would make it an easy finish.

It did and it was. I thought the novel’s ability to evoke was almost narcotic. It put me back in touch with that pre-digital era when a person could sit in an otherwise empty room and allow his thoughts to fill it. Blank walls, long winter nights, geographic solitude all conspiring to stir thoughts that had every potential of taking a dangerously religious turn — heady stuff, no question.

When I finished, though, the book went directly to the “out” box. The likelihood of ever desiring to pick it up again was just that low.

A younger version of myself would roll up his sleeves and either give account for why I remain unable to dig Portis, possibly taking the Great Man down a peg or two, or else begrudgingly assent to conversion. The 55-year-old version of me will simply note that, much as I was able to admire Masters Of Atlantis, Jim Harrison covers similar material and embues it with Harrisonian frisson — which draws me back for repeat visits. Similarly, although True Grit does hold a place on my shelf, I am more prone to revisiting Little Big Man or even Blood Meridian. For aging bloggers with limited time there is no accounting for taste, and those are mine.

Other, better Portis-'splication: the late D.G. Meyers adored Masters Of Atlantis. The concluding paragraph of Meyers’ lovely and compelling essay:
Portis’s secret in Masters of Atlantis is to tell the story of an obscure luckless religious cult, a den of nutcases, as if it were straight reporting, factually correct, without exaggeration for comic effect. The result is so funny you can’t read it safely in a public place. Masters of Atlantis is a great joy to read — it is the very novel for which the phrase “curl up with” seems to have been invented — but it leaves a curious aftertaste. You begin to worry if the intellectual independence of which you are so proud, the principled shunning of America’s consumer culture, the patient acquisition of rare and unpopular knowledge over the course of a lifetime, doesn’t make you just as nutty as the Gnomons. Who knows but that the literary life is nothing more than another esoteric New Age religious cult?
Read the whole thing here.
Flanked by the competition.
Some see the book [True Grit] as Portis’s albatross. Ron Rosenbaum, whose enthusiasm for the novelist’s lesser-known works was instrumental in their republication, found it necessary (in a 1998 Esquire piece) to distance Portis from his most famous creation (“too popular for its own good”), in order to make his case for the true gems of the Portis canon. But the novel occupies a position similar to that of Lolita in relation to Nabokov’s works: Though it might not be your personal favorite, it cannot be subtracted from the oeuvre; nor can his other writings fall outside its shadow.
 Over at The Believer Ed Park reckons with True Grit, in juxtaposition with Portis’ other work.

And finally: somewhere in this house is a copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate, with a bookmark firmly lodged one-third of the way through. Bookmark and book are likely in the latter stages of petrification — I bought and started the novel back in '85, put it down sometime before '90 and have yet to pick it up again. Odds seem long against me ever doing so.

Good thing Ashutosh Jogalekar did, though. Over at 3 Quarks Daily he culls some of the more memorable quotes from the novel while making The Case For Dumb Kindness. Also: LARB has recently published some terrific pieces on Grossman: Philip Ó Ceallaigh's “But There Has Been a Catastrophe”: On Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad,” here; and Vasily Grossman: Myths and Counter-Myths by Yury Bit-Yunan and Robert Chandler, over here. Anyone with even a passing interest in Cold War history and/or literature will be well-served by all three pieces.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Ten Thousand Villages, and Mennonite moms of a certain age

Over at The Drunken Menno SLKlassen draws a parallel between her mother’s passing and the corporate shuttering of Ten Thousand Villagesstores, not actual villages (so far as I know).

Ten Thousand Villages (TTV) stores were larded with tchotchkes, knick-knacks, furniture and fine goods from all over the developing world. This was an initiative begun over seven decades ago by the Mennonite Central Committee and thus devoted to fair trade many years before that became a catch-phrase and consumerist smokescreen.
10,000 Utputzdinja
When I first heard the announcement of closure I was saddened and, until I gave it a moment’s thought, surprised. Only when I read Ms. Klassen’s post did I think to equate the demise of Ten Thousand Villages with the relentless fading of her, and my, mother’s generation of Mennonite women.

At some point in the '80s the cornucopeia of our family Christmas gifts received character notes from the MCC “International Crafts” wing of their Self Help thrift stores. This wing gradually grew to become TTV and robustly expanded into the public square in the '90s.

My parents were in San Jose during the back end of that decade. My mother, on request, coordinated and managed the International Gift Faire — a TTV event held every fall in the church gym. By all accounts the yearly weekend business was robust.

When my parents moved back to Winnipeg, TTV remained a regular visit for mom. Even in my mother’s declining years as mobility became increasingly painful and difficult, TTV was usually included in her weekly circuit of thrift stores.

The thrift store circuit was a late-in-life innovation for mom — a way to continue enjoying the novelty of item exploration and acquisition without placing a burden on her immediate environment. Having already downsized from house to apartment, my mother adhered to a strict regimen of donating at least as many items as she was taking home. The staff at TTV neither bartered nor traded, but the outlets were still frequently placed in close proximity to Self Help stores run by MCC volunteers.

This past Christmas — the first since my mother died — the gift exchange was markedly leaner and less colourful. As with Ms. Klassen’s family, we survivors had never made Ten Thousand Villages a habitual destination. In fact, our most recent purchase at TTV was in the summer — a hand-tooled jointed wooden box in which we placed our mother’s ashes for interment at the cemetery.

Seems kinda fitting.

My condolences to Ms. Klassen.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

The Death Of Stalin

I blame Collective Arts’ IPA No. 12* but I found the first five minutes of The Death Of Stalin thoroughly discombobulating.
First off, who's that under all the nose-putty?
The opening scene is set at a classical music concert sometime in the past. The sound-tech guy takes a phone call and answers in English with a British accent. Whatever he hears coming from the other end throws him into a histrionic flap. He’s, what, British Secret Service? Nope, he’s in charge of this event. Maybe this is happening in London? No, too many visual cues suggesting somewhere in Russia. The absence of subtitles was throwing me off.

Next scene is somewhere else, with a guy who looks kinda like Stalin, also speaking English with a British accent. His right hand man returns banter with his own British accent. So okay, the Russians are speaking the King’s English in this movie. Kinda rare these days — even Tarantino resorts to subtitles — but I think I get it. Then Steve Buscemi shows up, sans British accent. Wait: he’s Kruschev??

This experience was akin to the first bike ride in spring. The derailleur is off, so no matter which gear you try the chain is slipping and you’re not making progress. One proper adjustment later, you’re flying.

For the next 90 minutes of TDOS I was flying. When the end-credits rolled I logged into FB, updated my status with:
“Seemed like a good weekend to watch The Death Of Stalin. Soviet enthusiasm for discharging weapons upon their own felt a touch exaggerated, but probably erred on the side of understatement. And Steve Buscemi’s Brooklyn accent actually kinda worked to set Kruschev apart, in character, from the other manipulators in the room.”
I hit post, then hit the sack.

In the morning the only response to my post was Joel’s, with a link to this video:

If you can’t be bothered to watch, the gist of the complaint is summed up by The Cynical Historian (“Cypher”) in his video description, to wit:
“Some of the license taken is necessary, but there are some dangerous falsehoods and misconceptions this movie proliferates. They needed to take greater care with such a touchy subject.”
And Kruschev never spoke English with a Brooklyn nasality. But, sure, alright. Since I was the doofus who raised the spectre of historicity to begin with, the correction was more than fair game.

However, Cypher’s finger-wagging — “They needed to take greater care with such a touchy subject” — is, to my mind, easily deflected. I could be wrong here too, of course. Maybe the world would be a better place if Shakespeare had “taken greater care” with Richard III.

Not that I equate The Death Of Stalin with Shakespeare. TDOS views more like a hybrid of Duck Soup and Natural Born Killers, concluding with heady finishing notes of Pineapple Express. That may or may not be to the tastes of contemporary Russian cinema audiences, depending. But it plays well to a certain subset of the American cinema audience.

Ironically enough, the Americans digging TDOS are the Americans most likely to earnestly take on board Cypher’s criticisms. They’re the same Americans who made a point of checking out Anthony Lane’s thoughts on the movie.

i.e., They’re the same Americans glued to the news this weekend, even though utterly assured that impeachment will be a wash.

To view TDOS as any sort of commentary on Stalin and Russia is to commit to a double misreading.

Writer/Director Armando Ianucci is the big kahuna responsible for rolling out the HBO political satire Veep. He left at the close of season five, when its satire couldn’t keep up with the headlines. Disembarking at the Land of the Rose he came home to a political scene every bit as bonkers as the one he’d left behind.

Satirists can no longer satirise the contemporary political scene using contemporary political touchpoints — there is no way to render them any more grotesque than they already are. So Ianucci reached for the most grotesque political moment in living memory, and recomposed it set to recognisably contemporary Western cringe-comedy beats.

We aren’t watching a satire of Russian history — we are watching a satire of the Western Populist Present, the goons and clods who “lead” it, and the rubes and plebes who throw themselves into its collective pyre, wittingly or not.

That addresses misreading number one. The second misreading is of the American movie audience, the bulk of which cannot be bothered with this movie. Within this enormous group is another subset posting “red pill” take-downs of Star Wars and MCU movies. This is the “Pinochet did nothing wrong” bunch, and they also can’t be bothered to parse “Great Man Of History” vs. “Change from the top or bottom?” issues of historical interpretation — for them the matter settles squarely in the “Great Man” camp.

This bunch thinks “Putin’s a great guy.”

I’m not knocking Cypher’s exhortation toward deeper reading and pondering — “The answer lies in further study” is a personal motto. But at this point in history, those who place any value whatsoever in the tradition of American Liberalism dearly need to get their eye back on the ball and keep it there. And getting touchy about The Death Of Stalin is a distraction.

*Honestly, it is time for Hogtown to relinquish “Centre Of The Universe” status to Hamilton. Cos Toronto — man, we haven’t had that Spirit here since 1979.