Mr. James said he hoped the award would draw attention to the flourishing literary scene in his home country.
“There’s this whole universe of really spunky creativity that’s happening,” he said. “I hope it brings more attention to what’s coming out of Jamaica and the Caribbean.”
I read this work last year during a particularly busy time for me, so I didn't get to comment on it in depth. It was perhaps the best work of fiction I read in 2014. The story came in and out of focus for me--sometimes very vivid, other times a blur. Thematically the focus of the novel is pretty narrow--much of the action involves drug gangs battling it it--but James develops his characters with sensitivity and surprising variety--Americans, male gang members, Jamaican women. The language varies a lot, with Jamaican patois as the novel's most distinctive mode. It takes some getting used to. Overall, a very strong novel that deserved the Booker, and if A Brief History of Seven Killings is an example of what's going on in Caribbean literature, then it warrants further attention.
For the second year in a row, the Swedish Academy uncovered a seemingly minor writer almost completely unknown in the English-reading world.
Who is Svetlana Alexievich? She's a reporter, a writer of non-fiction, the first non-fiction writer to win the Literature prize since Winston Churchill in 1953. In this sense, her award is not only a surprise, but a breakthrough.
Her first work published in English was "Boys in Zinc," which appeared in Granta in 1990. The title refers to the zinc coffins in which the bodies of slain Soviet soldiers were shipped back from Afghanistan. In 2005 her book Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War appeared in English translation. The book was based on interviews she conducted with the mothers of dead soldiers.
For the next three years I spoke to many people at home and in Afghanistan. Every confession was like a portrait. They are not documents; they are images. I was trying to present a history of feelings, not the history of the war itself. What were people thinking? What made them happy? What were their fears? What stayed in their memory?
A while ago N+1 published an excerpt from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.
Pallavi Aiyar is in a unique position to view Europe today. Born in India, she spent ten years living in Beijing before moving to Brussels in 2009, Spanish husband and toddler in tow. Because she's a journalist, she knows her way around a global climate conference and she can delve into macroeconomic studies of the post-reunification German economy. Because she's a Chinese-speaking Indian, she has a keen eye for the lives of Asian immigrants living in Europe.
The latest book from this veteran journalist is New Old World: An Indian Journalist Discovers the Changing Face of Europe. The continent wasn't having its finest hour when she arrived. Europe was struggling with repeated debt crises, rising tensions over immigration, and decreasing influence abroad. Europe has clean air and water going for it, Aiyar finds, but its Sundays with closed shops are numbered.
Aiyar identifies two primary causes of Europe's troubles. The "labor elite," as she calls it, fights every effort to reform entitlements. European workers have forgotten how to work hard. Asian immigrants, meanwhile, have not. European politicians can't provide effective leadership because of endless deliberations and consensus rule. If there's one issue Europeans can claim international leadership, it's the environment, but Aiyar isn't impressed. She has particularly stinging things to say about European negotiators at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009. "The environmental ethics of people in the West," she fumes, "was born of privilege and prosperity and the environmental destruction in which these were rooted."
And then there are the Chinese. Indians have worked their way into the nooks and crannies of the Eurozone, but the Chinese walk around like they own the place. Which, increasingly, they do. Aiyar follows a group of Chinese schoolchildren on a trip to Austria, which they regard as little more than a giant Swarovska outlet. Later she pays a visit to a Chinese owner of a wine châteaux in a small village in Bordeaux. Even Aiyar is startled to learn he isn't the only Chinese owner of a local estate. Still, they're vin de pays estates and therefore not a threat to the Bordeaux order. No Chinese will ever buy a Premier Cru estate, a French wine official tells Aiyar.
Aiyar regards China as the anti-Europe, an economic juggernaut pushing European companies out of the world market. Old New World was completed before the recent Chinese stock market gyrations. China's seven percent annual economic growth doesn't look any more sustainable than the European welfare state. Sitting atop a wobbly economy and a restive populace, China's political order suddenly looks more fragile than Europe's. Aiyar couldn't have foreseen these developments, of course, but one can draw other points of disagreement. I certainly had some. I too was baffled by the European practice of weighing and pricing vegetables before the checkout line, but I dismissed it as a local custom to which one would have to adapt, not a sign of Europe's economic decline. Aiyar bristles at the paternalism of German mittelstands, but smiles upon the paternalism of Indian diamond merchants. She accepts, uncritically, an Indian executive's explanation for why Indian software companies are having a hard time capturing much of Europe's IT outsourcing business. "In Europe, the social sector is very sensitive," she is told. Maybe that's what Indian outsourcing companies tell themselves--that a recalcitrant "European mindset" prevents them from gaining a larger share, but there are reasons why India is capturing less and less of the global IT outsourcing business. These days there's a lot more global competition and Indian companies have been reluctant to adopt more collaborative methods of software development becoming popular in Europe and the U.S. Indian software developers aren't adapting to the changing social conditions of software development.
If her argument that Europe is losing ground to more dynamic economies in China and India gets tendentious at times, it's hard to dispute her main point that Europe is getting more diverse--or rather, is regaining some of its former diversity. Thanks to ethnic cleansing and other migrations brought about by two world wars, almost every ethnicity in Europe created a cozy nation-state for itself. However, the homogeneous European nation of the post-war era is an historical anomaly. European nations were diverse before 1914, and they're becoming diverse again.
Aiyar is an excellent tour guide of a (once again) multi-cultural Europe. She introduces us to a Sikh lumberjack in Italy and a third-generation Moroccan-Belgian woman who wears flowers in her hijab--and her Belgian husband who converted to Islam. We learn that Germany is the China of Europe, and that India and the E.U. have more in common than either would like to admit. Even though this summer's refugee crisis occurred after Aiyar wrote her book, Old New World details the conditions under which the crisis intensified. I wish she had spoken to some of the European workers she criticizes so frequently, but her book is indispensable because of all the other conversations she has.
This sign was designed for Angelinos to see not a gambling resort in the desert, but a supplement to the existing Los Angeles, one that made up for its deficiencies.
Its designer, Betty Willis, a Las Vegas native, died on Monday.
I am crushed by the changes made in every new printing of Claudia Rankine's Citizen. (These pages used to be blank.) pic.twitter.com/Lc7sOh6P8o— Kenny Coble (@kennycoble) January 6, 2015
The New York Review Books has released a new edition of Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps, a collection of Civil War poems originally published 150 years ago this month.
The poet’s erotically charged relationships with the men “not only offered physical and spiritual gratification,” [Drum-Taps editor Lawrence] Kramer writes, “but also provided the libidinal underpinning of political and social order.” The affections and the sentiments that arose in the field and in the hospitals during the war — Whitman cared for Confederate soldiers no less eagerly than for Union troops — would serve as a blueprint for the national fellow-feeling necessary for reconciliation afterward. “For Whitman,” Kramer concludes, “personal union was the basis of the Union.”
Whitman originally intended The Drum-Taps poems to express the idea of reconcilaition and a new after the Civil War. But, for reasons unknown, Whitman later incorporated some of the poems into Leaves of Grass, a thematically more diffuse collection, and abandoned his attempt to re-imagine the union in poetic terms.
There are two interesting quotes in Andrew Jacobs' story about Xu Yong's new book Negatives, a collection of photographs of Tienanmen Square in 1989. The first quote comes from Xu himself:
“This is an art book [. . . ] I have no interest in discussing what [the photographs] mean.
The second quote comes from Perry Link, an expert on China at the University of California, Riverside.
“[Negatives] is a wonderful way of capturing that underside of insecurity that attends the Tiananmen issue and that, in a larger sense, haunts much of official China today,” he said. “The artist seems to be saying: ‘Here’s the reality that no one looks at squarely but that everyone knows is there.’ ”
Roland Barthes located the essence of a photograph in the event it records. "The photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially," he writes in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. And in this repetition the photograph disappears. When we look at a photograph of ourselves, we say "that's me," not "that's a photograph of me." A photograph resists language because it is without signs or marks—it simply is.
Xu's photographs in Negatives are a veil over the mechanical reproduction of the events in Tienanmen Square in 1989. The photographs and the events are revealed simultaneously through the very modern act of looking at them through a camera. Xu claims negatives don't lie, but that doesn't mean they're not codes referring to the unspeakable.
This isn’t a best of list so much as a list of texts and experiences that are still with me at the end of the year. I've linked to the entries if I've discussed the text in this space; if not, I've provided the easiest way to get to it.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James. This novel could also be called A Field Guide to Jamaican Cursing. Pretty much everyone in James’ long and uneven novel wants to kill somebody. The characters voice their threats and gripes in dense Jamaican dialect. I usually find dialect narratives to be tedious to read, but once you figure out the speech patterns and decode the colorful curse words (I liked “fuckery” in particular), the action really comes alive. James is as good as anyone writing now in creating distinct characters through voice. The first two-thirds of the novel, which relates the events surrounding the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976, is better than the last third, when a new set of somewhat lackluster characters is introduced and the novel loses its focus and energy. James’ novel is the most original I’ve read from a major publisher in a long time.
My Struggle: Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Opinion about Knausgaard’s six-volume project is divided, to say the least. His story is a lot of the same thing, yet the novel works. Knausgaard is a sort of miserablist Proust. He remembers every beer he’s consumed since the age of twelve. There’s a theory--initiated by Sartre, I think--that says art advances by incorporating new kinds of experiences into itself. Knausgaard has us watch his hero wash dishes, walk to the drug store, and prepare instant coffee. It’s all weirdly fascinating, like watching a bedraggled Scandinavian family living in an Ikea store display. Knausgaard is overconfident about his skills as a writer, yet that’s precisely what makes the novel work. He believes in his material so deeply he's willing to stumble over his own awkward sentences to push it forward. My first thought after completing book one was, that was amazing. My second thought: Oh no, there are five more books of this stuff.
Redeployment, Phil Klay. It’ll be interesting to see what Klay does next. Will he move on to other subjects and settings? His mastery over his small but highly fraught world of US Marines in Iraq is so complete it’s hard to imagine him working with any other material.
Boyhood, Richard Linklater. Linklater’s big gamble is paying off in end of the year awards, which it richly deserves even if the attention is spoiling the film’s outsider vibe. I haven’t been astonished by a film to this degree since I was a graduate student in film studies, plowing through the backlog of great world cinema.
Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski. This film sprang out of nowhere during a Netflix session one Saturday night last month. Pawlikowski shoots it in an austere, precisely framed style, like Ingmar Bergman without the melodrama simmering beneath the surface. Agata Trzebuchowska plays the title character in a beatific deadpan. Agata Kulesza plays the aunt determined to disrupt Ida’s peace of mind. They trundle around Communist-era Poland in an incredibly flimsy car digging up secrets from the past. It’s hard to describe the film without making it seem slow and depressing—what could be drearier than the Holocaust and the Iron Curtain together in the same film? Actually, it’s very much the opposite of that.
Middlemarch, George Eliot. I’ll dispense with the excuses about my I’m only now getting around to reading it all the way through. Suffice it to say I was too young to read it before. Virginia Woolf once said Middlemarch was the only novel ever written for adults, and she’s right. Eliot begins where ordinary novels of the period would end: with a betrothal. Dorothea Brooke is young and smart, but this is England in 1832, so her prospects for happiness are narrow. To make matters worse, she seems to court misery by marrying Edward Casaubon, the most tedious man in England. (The marriage was supposedly based on a couple Eliot knew.) The novel follows Dorothea and her fellow villagers as they try to extricate themselves from their own bad choices. It’s a great novel, maybe the greatest English novel of the century. The distance between our time and 1869, when Eliot started composing the novel, can be measured in her starchy tone and occasionally lugubrious sentence structure. She's not humorless, though, and the novel gains power as you get caught up in the power of Eliot’s depiction of sensitive, intelligent people trying to right their lives.
Luftwerk show at Marina City. This was a slow year for architecture in Chicago. Plans for new projects have been announced—some interesting, others worrisome—but I didn't see any built projects worth mentioning. However, one pleasant night in August Iker Gil and MAS Context hosted a show staged by Luftwerk on the roof deck of Marina City. It was a great example of how architecture can frame an experience and change how you see the familiar. Speaking of MAS Context, check out the latest issue, ORDINARY. The highlights are an essay by Deborah Fausch, a project by Michael Hirschbichler, and a look at the Dingbats of Los Angeles by Joshua G. Stein. And Ordinary Architecture, a partnership of Elly Ward and Charles Holland, taught me “shonky,” an actual word.
Derrida: A Biography, Benoit Peeters. Does anyone still read Jacques Derrida? Probably not. Nevertheless, his central idea has become a verb in common parlance. Derrida would be horrified to hear people use the term “deconstruct” to apply to everything from a skyscraper to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He was famous (or notorious) for resisting all summaries and simplifications of his work. Reading his biography I could better understand why. Derrida was an extremely hard worker. His dense, difficult prose was the product of intense and nuanced intellectual labor. When he left his desk Derrida was a generous and, occasionally, insufferable man. By his own admission he was a poor father. He was a serial adulterer. He picked more fights with colleagues than he needed to. Like a lot of philosophers, he didn’t live the most eventful life. If you read Peeters’ biography, be prepared for a lot of conferences. Whatever your opinion of Derrida’s philosophy, he must be recognized as one of the keenest minds of the twentieth century.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson. The best film Anderson has made so far, it’s replete with off-the-wall period details like the coat check chit handed to a passenger after his cat was flung from the train. (Such Old World manners!) The plot isn’t worth summarizing; it’s really a vehicle for Anderson to link actions in amusing ways. Anderson keeps his customary whimsy at bay under the sobering influences of Stefan Zweig and Ernst Lubitsch. Ralph Fiennes is uncharacteristically sprightly as the busybody concierge, M. Gustave. The lobby boy Zero is exactly the kind of small canvas character Anderson excels in creating. With the exception of Bottle Rocket, the worlds of Anderson’s films are generally sealed off places where everyone speaks in the same punchy ironies. In this film you get the sense that just beyond the hills in Anderson’s imaginary Republic of Zubrowka some really awful things are happening.
David Bowie Is, Museum of Contemporary Arts, Chicago. The last days of this remarkable exhibition are at hand, so go revisit a time when it seemed like rock and roll really would never die.
“Paris . . . is a finished city.”
--Alexandre Gady, president of the Société pour la Protection des Paysages et de l’Esthétique de la France. Quoted in Adam Gopnik's excellent report on why Paris can't get rid of the ridiculous "love locks" on the Pont des Arts. By "finished" Gady means central Paris no longer needs, or wants, further development. Ever.
"Escape is not an option."
--Jason Mark on the film Interstellar, which depicts humans escaping from an ecological disaster on earth.
Kate Clark’s Little Girl, which Claudia Rankine used in her book Citizen: An American Lyric, to illustrate the conflict between an African-American woman and her psychiatrist. Read Ratik Asokan's interview with Rankine.
Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner says, “Something happened that nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million. That can’t be possible.” The mid-budget American film is disappearing, he and others claim. This is not a new trend for certain. It's not clear, though, if the extinction of the mid-budget film is hastening or if this is a continuation of a state of affairs in Hollywood that has existed since the 1970s. There are a number of consequences of the disappearance of the mid-budget film, if that's what's actually happening. Jason Bailey calls attention to the directors who can't get their projects funded. Spike Lee famously has to resort to Kickstarter to finance his latest film. David Lynch hasn't made a film in over a decade. Still, there are directors who regularly make mid-budget films. David Fincher's Gone Girl was made for a comparatively modest (by contemporary Hollywood standards) $61 million.
9 Kisses is delightful. It's like NYT knew that we'd need something to offset the torture report. http://t.co/upeNjm6xtQ— Meredith Hindley (@CapitolClio) December 10, 2014
The city of Marseille is making its homeless wear yellow triangles--one half of the Nazi-era Star of David--with health information. I'm guessing none of the badges are labeled "bonne santé."
Re-labeling of a different order occurs further to the north:
“Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.”
—A nervy twelve-year-old girl writing in 1846. Joan Didion cited it as an example of self-respect, which leads one to put fears aside and do what needs to be done. Writing in 1961, Didion observed, "people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues."
Today is Didion's 80th birthday.
Talk about a vanished world:
Jim Jarmusch and Joe Strummer pic.twitter.com/m2hdUzn3Z7— Le Cinéma (@lecinema_) December 4, 2014
“Our Secret Life in the Movies” has an extraordinary structure: Co-authors Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree have assembled a list of 39 obscure art-house films as the starting point for a collection of brief, jagged improvisations on their respective youths. The result is a double-barreled bildungsroman of gothic, middle-American squalor and ruin.
Fox News is so torn on the Cosby situation because they hate black people but love rape.— Mike Birbiglia (@birbigs) December 5, 2014
I love how diverse Fox News is pic.twitter.com/8yhJ0G3Z1S— Chris Rock (@ozchrisrock) December 3, 2014
done with news this week. just gonna sit here and stare at this until it's time to go home and drink. pic.twitter.com/94kotx8qQG— Marcus Gilmer (@marcusgilmer) December 5, 2014
Highland Park (TX) High School has “suspended” seven books from their approved books list after complaints from parents about crimes ranging from references to homosexuality to criticisms of capitalism.
Michael Shaub spotted Sherman Alexie, whose The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian landed on the naughty list, tweeting, "The real reason my True Diary gets banned? Because it's about the triumph of a liberal Native American rebel."
If they’re suspended, what do the books need to do to get readmitted to class?
Texans will note that banning books right before Banned Books Week is a VERY Highland Park thing to do.— Michael Schaub (@michaelschaub) September 23, 2014
One-Way Street [Einbahnstrasse, 1928] was Walter Benjamin's first effort to break out of the narrow confines of the academy and apply the techniques of literary studies to life as it is currently lived. For Benjamin criticism encompasses the ordinary objects of life, the literary texts of the time, films in current release, and the fleeting concerns of the public sphere. Following Benjamin's lead, this blog is concerned with the political content of the aesthetic and representations of the political in the media. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street, "He who cannot take sides should keep silent."