Monthly Archives: August 2005

Disposable Laptops

Philip Greenspun, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist and founder of Photo.net, argues that laptop computers have nearly reached the price where they are becoming "disposable."

So the price of a decent laptop is now converging with the price of an expensive cell phone." […] Will people still want to pay $1000+ for a laptop that they will have to guard from theft and impact when they could just buy a Thinkpad for $600 now and replace it two years from now for $450?

Jeff Nolan says he "wouldn’t be so quick to label a $600 laptop as disposable, but it’s definitely closing the gap with desktops."

Beauty, Purpose. Adams versus Lange

Watched the Ric Burns documentary on Ansel Adams, which places great emphasis on the photographer’s concern over environmental issues. No surprise, given that the documentary was co-produced by the Sierra Club. Adams, generally, eschewed "social responsibility" in photography, instead favoring "beauty and expression," according to Drew Heath Johnson. Johnson quotes a letter from Adams to his friend Dorothea Lange, characterizing the disagreement between photographers such as those in Group f64 and documentary photographers like Lange and Walker Evans.

Dear Dorothea, Photography when it tells the truth, is magnificent, but it can be twisted, deformed, restricted and compromised more than any other art. Because what is before the lens always has the illusion of reality; but what is selected and put before the lens can be as false as any totalitarian lie. . . . The connotations of much of documentary photography are — to me — quite rigid. . . .

I resent being told that certain things have significance. . . . I resent being manipulated into a politico-social formula of thought and existence. I resent the implications that unless photography has a politico-social function it is not of value to people at large. I resent the the very obvious dislike of elements of beauty. . . . I think it is just as important to bring to people the evidence of the beauty of the world of nature and of man as it is to give them a document of ugliness, squalor and despair. . . .

You happen to be one of the very few who has brought enough deeply human emotion into your work to make it bearable for me. I wish you would try and think of yourself as a fine artist — which you are; that is a damn sight more important to the world than being merely an extension of a sociological movement. Love, Ansel

Henri Cartier-Bresson, taking into account the turbulence of the Great Depression and World War II, was critical of this approach, noting: "The world is going to pieces, and people like Adams and [Edward] Weston are photographing rocks!" Johnson argues that Adams was unapologetic, saying in another letter to Lange: "I am not afraid of the term ‘beauty.’ By it, I do not mean prettiness. I mean intensity and clarity. I cannot see how the omission of beauty achieves anything."

Oddly, the Burns documentary, does not mention Adams’ work covering the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Moreover, while it notes Adams’ friendship with Weston, it does not make any mention of his friendship with Lange, who was just as unapologetic in her stance about purpose in art.

Everything is propaganda for what you believe in actually. I don’t see that it could be otherwise. The harder and the more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you’re a propagandist. Conviction, propaganda, faith, I don’t know, I never have been able to come to the conclusion that’s a bad word.

Technorati Tag(s) – photography.

Maud Casey: Author Interview

Maud Casey is the author of the novel The Shape of Things to Come and a collection of short stories entitled Drastic. The Shape of Things to Come was named a New York Times Book of the Year. The New York Times called Casey “a stand-up philosopher posing the most vexing questions about human existence while satirizing the materialistic ways we find to hold our despair at a distance. She’s funny and inventive…[taking] a dazzling narrative dare.” She received Pushcart Prize Special Mentions in 1997 and 2003 for two of the stories included in Drastic. Her stories have appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review and other publications. Casey received her bachelors degree from Wesleyan University and an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona. She teaches in the MFA programs of the University of Maryland and Goddard College.

Wayne: Though it’s often used to mask a sadness, there is a wonderful sense of humor in your fiction. It also ranges in style and tone. In Drastic, it can be simply offbeat and amusing, similar to what see from Eudora Welty or Anne Tyler, who populate their fiction with quirky characters. At other times, your fiction can be silly, satirical or poignant. In The Shape of Things to Come, the humor is more sad. Where does your sense of humor come from? Is humor usually sad, and is its source sadness–or something else, like exasperation?

Maud: I’m thrilled to hear you find my writing funny. My humor has occasionally been mistaken for bitterness–I won’t name any names, but let’s just say that a particular anonymous review of Shape referred to it as a “bitter, little novel.” Still planning on getting a tee-shirt made that says “bitter, little novelist.”

I’m not sure where my humor comes from, though I see it as a form of resilience in the face of sadness. One of Lorrie Moore’s characters says at one point, “Life is sad. Here is someone.” Or something, a banana peel? My favorite kind of humor doesn’t mask sadness so much as embrace it. Life is sad, but there’s beauty and, often, hilarity to be found in its sadness. The great philosopher Mel Brooks once said, “Comedy is when you get eaten by a lion. Tragedy is when I cut myself shaving.” Humor requires a little distance from great sadness, so it can be a kind of relief. It’s a relief, but it’s also deeply, inextricably related to and entwined with sadness.

Wayne: Which writers do you enjoy for their sense of humor?

Maud: Some of my favorite funny writers, at the inevitable risk of leaving a gazillion out, are Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, George Saunders, Stuart Dybek, Gogol, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Josip Novakovich, Alexander Hemon, A.L. Kennedy, Pinckney Benedict (“Zog 19: A Scientific Romance” in particular). But again, this is writing that has made me laugh out loud that is also deeply tragic on some level. Humor relies on sadness, and the other way around. For example, “A Season of Madness” by Hanan al-Shaykh is a disturbing story about a Lebanese woman who is trying to get out of a marriage by feigning madness, and yet it’s infused with humor. The story begins, “I fell upon my mother-in-law, biting her nose!”

Adam Haslett’s story, “Notes from my Biographer,” a story about actual madness does a similar thing–the narrative voice is full of life and humor and wildness and yet underneath it runs a tension that is created by the juxtaposition of sadness with that rollicking voice. Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jewish writer who was killed by the Nazis, wrote two whimsical, lovely, surreal books–The Street of Crocodiles and Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass–which reflect the atmosphere of Poland in the mid-1930s as they woo the reader with talking horses and a father who turns into a cockroach.

Wayne: Does good fiction give solace or teach?

Maud: I think it’s safe to say that good fiction never sets out to teach. If it sets out to teach, it’s usually a didactic disaster. I’m afraid I’m becoming a quoting machine, but when all else fails, turn to the masters for better words. I read in an interview somewhere that Arthur Miller said, “I write in order to discover, not to explain.” Writing has, however, given me incredible solace–I think all good art does. That’s what it’s meant to do–take the raw stuff of life and transform it into something that makes sense or asks important questions of the otherwise anxiety-producing chaos.

Wayne: A sense of the transitory pervades both Drastic and The Shape of Things to Come. In The Shape of Things to Come: obviously, Isabelle’s jobs at Temporama; her retreat from San Francisco back to Standardsville, where she (and her old beau) seems to be waiting for something to happen; the different dates that come in and out of the life of Isabelle’s Mom. In Drastic, you talk about the fleetingness of memories and how relationships lead to other relationships. Are we always in transition (in your short story “Relief,” you talk about how a certain relationship ends because it revolved around possibility, not achievement), or is there an ideal, some kind of stability or stage that we can reach?

Maud: I wish I knew! If you discover some kind of attainable stability, please let me know immediately. Back to Arthur Miller’s idea of writing to discover, not explain–I think the reason the transitory nature of life has been such a subject for me is that it’s something I wanted to think about, ask questions about, on the page. I am, admittedly, someone who has moved around a lot (something ridiculous like 8 times in the past 12 years), but more than that, I’ve been interested in exploring that sense of being in constant motion even when you’re not moving. Stillness as something we aspire to but which never actually happens. But maybe we can be still-er? See, to discover, not explain. My next book is, in part, a road novel, so clearly I really don’t have the answer, and I think I’m more interested in the questions anyway.

Wayne: Additionally, death seems to be a recurring topic throughout your fiction. One of your characters takes that final step, and his friend seems envious that she cannot join him. Another says that “death is boring, death is boring, death is boring.” Is death seen by your characters as one of the only true resting stages, something to mock or is it a state that hangs over the mind?

Maud: Well, death is certainly still. It’s got that going for it. That character’s “death is boring” mantra is her attempt to fend it off with irreverence, though I think she’s more scared of her own inclination toward self-destruction than dismissive. Perhaps not the most effective strategy, but, let’s face it, she’s sort of a mess. I suppose death is a recurring topic in my fiction, but then again, it’s a recurring topic in life, right? It’s there all the time as much as we try to deny its presence, sometimes hovering on the periphery or happening somewhere else, sometimes crashing in on us. A character in Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries” says that every happy person should have an unhappy person knocking on his door all day long, which sounds like a real drag but I think there’s some truth to it. Don’t get too comfortable, or rather, don’t ignore what’s happening in the world all around you.

Wayne: Your characters often flit in and out of dreams. Are dreams more reflective of the past or future? What purpose do they serve in our lives and the lives of your characters?

Maud: Dreams are kind of amazing things. I mean, there you are, sleeping and your brain is producing this wild imagery, making bizarre yet seemingly meaningful connections. I’m not sure whether they’re more reflective of the past or the future–they seem like a hodge-podge of both, a place where the past is present again. Dreams are a dicey thing in fiction because they can appear to be a cop-out, a way to dodge the logic of the story. They’re always held up as the cardinal sin of beginning writing students–and then the alarm clock went off and it was all a dream. But when dreams work within the logic of the story, as a way to juxtapose the extraordinary with ordinary circumstances the way magic realism does, then they can be fun.

In my story “Arrangement of the Night Office in Summer,” a dream was an opportunity to use an image that would have been ridiculous and heavy-handed in the waking world of the story–a wedding ring being rolled like dice across a craps table. And the dream in “Relief” in which the character dreams she has insomnia. It was a way of showing just how anxious and unsettled the character was (based on a dream that came out of my own anxious and unsettled mind). John Gardner likened fiction to a dream you create in the readers mind. I like that idea, stories as dreams that readers enter into. The trick then, as the writer, is to make sure you sustain that dream for the reader.

Wayne: Isabelle in The Shape of Things to Come seems somewhat like a female Holden Caufield who temps. Over the course of the novel, we gradually realize that she occupies an alternate reality, even though her musings begin to ring more true than those of the people around her. How did “Days at Home” become The Shape of Things to Come? Why was it the story calling out to become novelized?

Maud: A female Holden Caufield who temps! That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about Isabelle. It’s going on the back of the “bitter, little novelist” tee-shirt as a rebuttal. The mother and daughter character in “Days at Home” were characters who I’d written about before in other stories so they were growing incrementally already. I was interested in the dynamic between this mother who appeared to be standing on the metaphorical table of life, screaming at the top of her lungs, and this allegedly grownup daughter who seemed to be cowering underneath that same table.

I was interested in the tension that arose from putting these two in the same house over the course of a summer. And I always liked Raymond in his falling-down polyester pants. Then right after graduate school I was living in, yes, my own mother’s basement in lllinois, working for, yes, a temp agency, and they sent me on, you got it, a mystery shop to a gated community. It was utterly bizarre–I remember sitting in my car outside the gated community memorizing not only the questions I was supposed to ask for the parent company (does the real estate agent call you by your first name upon meeting you?) but also the details of my made-up life (a salary that would have made it possible to live there, for one) and it seemed like the perfect job for Isabelle. And so the Holden Caufield who temps was born.

Wayne: Can you tell us about writers who have influenced you? Additionally, you’ve had an opportunity to work with and talk to some top-notch writers. Can you tell us what you learned that you think would have been difficult for you to learn on your own?

Maud: Always the hardest question because it would require a novel-length list to answer it, but, here goes. All of the writers I listed in the answer to the first question and, leaving a gazillion out: my parents, John Casey and Jane Barnes, Christina Stead, Barbara Comyns, Edward Jones, Walker Percy, Beth Nugent, Jayne Anne Phillips, Isaac Babel, Alice Munro, John Edgar Wideman, Nina Berberova, Eudora Welty, Max Frisch, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Chekhov, James Salter, Mary Robison, Elizabeth Tallent, Elizabeth Alexander, Virginia Woolf, Naguib Mahfouz, Kenny Marotta. I’ll stop there, though the list goes on and on.

There were very early influences: Maurice Sendak, Richard Scary, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, whoever it was who wrote The Phantom Tollbooth. There have been so many revelatory moments in my life when I’ve picked up a book and thought, you’re allowed to do this? All of those moments were influential.

I’m incredibly indebted to each of my teachers whose writing has influenced me as well: Franklin Reeve, Phyllis Rose, Elizabeth Evans, Allison Moore, Dagoberto Gilb, all of whom, in one way or another, corny as it may sound, said, “Yes, you can do that.” Hearing that is crucial, because so much of the writer’s life is sitting in a room by yourself thinking, this is impossible and/or I have no freaking idea what I’m doing.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Stuart Dybek and it turned into an amazing master class in which he articulated notions of counterpoint and juxtaposition in fiction, the use of imagery, finding a way to translate the nature of memory onto the page, things I’d been obsessed by but didn’t have words for. My friend, Timothy Schaffert, a novelist, has taught me again and again about the lyrical possibilities of fiction. A beautiful example of this is his book, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters. It’s impossible to list all of the things I wouldn’t have learned on my own without all of the fabulous and generous writers I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting over the years. It’s part of what I love about teaching, getting to rub shoulders with colleagues who are incredible writers and thinkers about writing at the University of Maryland and Goddard where I teach in the MFA programs. Students too, are a tremendous source of new information–there’s a great essay [“What is Real?”] by Alice Munro a student brought into class once that I now quote religiously though I’ll spare you here.

Wayne: Anything you can tell us about your most current project?

Maud: It almost killed me for one. It’s a much different book than my first novel, bigger in scope, and in the beginning I kept thinking, I need to hire someone smarter than me to write it. Like The Shape of Things to Come., it grew out of a story from Drastic. In this case “Genealogy.” The novel will also be called Genealogy and it’s almost as complicated to explain as it has been to write.

Basically, it is the story of a family that, at the beginning of the novel, has already fallen apart. Bernard, an academic obsessed with the bizarre tale of Louise Lateau (a real historical figure about whom almost nothing has been written except for an article published in 1879 in The Catholic Review), a 19th century Belgian girl who developed stigmata every Friday after surviving a cholera epidemic, hit the road after discovering his wife, Samantha, in a compromising position with a carpenter hired to transform their bathroom into a bathroom worthy of a 19th century cure for mental illness called “the continuous bath” because Samantha has taken it upon herself to heal her daughter’s manic depression. Sara, the mentally ill daughter, however, has run away in the throws of a manic episode. Her brother, Ryan, also gone, took off in the back of a van with a mediocre rock band. Still with me? So the book begins with Samantha, alone in the family home, a converted train station in the Rhode Island countryside. Without giving too much away, there’s a tragedy in the first chapter that requires the family to go in search of Sara. So it’s part road novel, part meditation on faith, mental illness, and ecstasy, told in four alternating perspectives–Samantha, Bernard, Ryan, and Sara–and haunted by Louise Lateau.

I’m really excited about it–once I got over my own insecurity about taking on subjects that required quite a bit of research, and my writer’s block, and more insecurity, and more writer’s block, and more insecurity and more writer’s block, it was a pleasure to write. It’ll be out from Harper Perrenial in September 2005.

Technorati Tag(s) – books and writing.

Amazon Shorts

Amazon.com is now selling "new short-form literature from top authors for only 49 cents." After years of people predicting the demise of the short story, it is interesting to see a market participant with the heft of Amazon backing the form. About 60 authors have signed up for the program.

Jonathan Skillings suggests that the move will retest the financial viability of the short story.

In a world dominated by blockbuster novels such as "The Da Vinci
Code" and higher-brow long works from "The Kite Runner" to "The Line of
Beauty," short stories typically receive short shrift. Fans of the
diminutive form have to subscribe to The New Yorker or literary
journals, and writers who focus on the form generally must content
themselves with a love of their art. Enter Amazon. On Friday, the e-commerce giant unveiled Amazon Shorts,
saying it hopes the digital-only outlet "can help to fuel a revival of
this kind of work." At the very least, the online bookshelf will
provide flanking support for the English teachers of the world and
their well-worn volumes of Hawthorne and Hemingway.

Chris Crum of WebproNews says readers will have the choice of three options: "including a ‘view now’ option, a downloadable PDF file, or they can choose to simply have the piece emailed to them."

The Wall Street Journal notes that the program is an evolution in how Amazon distributes digital content.

The Seattle company has been adding forms of digital content — books,
music and movies — to its Web site over the past year, with particular
emphasis on original material. Last December, it offered short films
that promoted products sold on the Amazon site. It later presented
short films from amateur filmmakers’ submissions to New York’s Tribeca
Film Festival. In July, Amazon Web cast short videos of celebrities
delivering Amazon packages to customers, and broadcast a full-length
concert with Norah Jones and Bob Dylan during its 10-year anniversary
celebration. So far, though, all these digital features have been free to Web
surfers, so the new Amazon Shorts program represents a departure.

Technorati Tag(s) – books.

Blur: Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter’s photo paintings can be viewed in The Contemporary Institute’s online gallery gerhard-richter.com. Wikipedia describes Richter’s technique.

Many of Richter’s most admired paintings are made in a multi-step process of representations. He starts with a photograph, which he has found or taken himself, and projects it onto his canvas, where he traces it for exact form. Taking his color palette from the
photograph, he paints to replicate the look of the original picture.
His hallmark "blur"—sometimes a softening by the light touch of a soft
brush, sometimes a hard smear by an aggressive pull with his
squeegee—has two effects: 1. It offers the image a photographic
appearance; and 2. Paradoxically, it testifies the painter’s actions,
both skilled and coarse, and the plastic nature of the paint itself. In some paintings blurs and smudges are severe enough to disrupt the
image; it becomes hard to understand or believe. The subject is
nullified. In these paintings, images and symbols (such as landscapes,
portraits, and news photos) are rendered fragile illusions, fleeting
conceptions in our constant reshaping of the world.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art also has an online exhibit of Richter’s work. Actor Jude Law once compared his process for creating characters to Richter’s photo paintings.

"What I try to do is to start out perfectly clear and then
kind of smudge things. You don’t want anything to
seem too perfect. Gerhard Richter does it in those
abstract paintings, where he paints the canvas and
then scrapes across it. The effect is really forceful
— they’ve got motion, but they’re out of focus."

Literature and Cultural Dispossession

In reviewing Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (NYT, 2/27/2000), James Shapiro argued that "influential American admirers […] badly misread [Heaney] when
insisting that his poetry can be appreciated independent of its
politics." Shapiro noted how Heaney might have had to defend himself from Irish readers wondering why the poet had decided to take on the task of translating an old English poem. In the introduction to the Beowulf translation, Heaney himself explained the evolution of how he grappled with the problem of language and cultural dispossesion.

Sprung from an Irish nationalist background and educated at a Northern Irish Catholic school, I had learned the Irish language and lived within a cultural and ideological frame that regarded it as the language which I should by rights have been speaking but which I had been robbed of. I have also written, for example, about the thrill I experienced when I stumbled upon the word lachtar in my Irish-English dictionary and found that this word, which my aunt had always used when speaking of a flock of chicks, was in fact an Irish language word, and more than that, an Irish word associated in particular with County Derry. Yet here it was, surviving in my aunt’s English speech generations after her forebears and mine had ceased to speak Irish. For a long time, thereforre, the little word was–to borrow a simile from Joyce–like a rapier point of conciousness pricking me with an awareness of language-loss and cultural dispossession, and tempting me into binary thinking about language. I tended to conceive of English and Irish as adversarial tongues, as either/or conditions rather than both/ands, and this was an attitude which for a long time hampered the development of a more confident and creative way of dealing with the whole vexed question–the question, that is, of the relationship between nationality, language, history, and literary tradition in Ireland. (W.W. Norton, 2000, p. xxiv)

Amsterdam Moving Day (photo)