Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

This Year's Tree
(with oak table made for Jane Clare)
This Year's Family Photo
(taken at Thanksgiving)

This Year's Christmas Card Photo
(taken last May in Burano, Italy)

"Are you willing ... to own, that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life; to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness ... to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kindly feelings ...? Then you can keep Christmas.” (Henry van Dyke)

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Year's Best

The Year's Best Baby: Max Driggers

N.Y. Times notable op-ed pieces of 2007 (See esp. the one by Dick Cavett.)
Top 10 visual illusions of the year
Best book cover designs of 2007
A.O. Scott (N.Y. Times) on the year's best movies
John Pareles (N.Y. Times) on the year's best pop CDs
NPR Critics on the year's best books
Roger Ebert on the year's best movies
Fimoculous: all the "best of 2007" lists, hundreds of them

The best books I've read this year

Ron Carlson, Five Skies
Annie Dillard, The Maytrees
B.H. Fairchild, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest
Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat
Robert Haas, Time and Materials
Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma
Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs
John Williams, Stoner
The best movies I've seen this year

Charlie Wilson's War
The Children of Men
The Last King of Scotland
Letters from Iwo Jima
Michael Clayton
The Three Burials of Melchiades Estrada
The Valley of Elah

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"A Little Struggle," Tomkiw, Beasley

A Little Struggle

The older I get,
the slower words come.
I spend my time
making spaces
for the good ones,
sending runners
to bring them back
unharmed, still left
with a little struggle
and a strong heartbeat.
-- K.A.
A poem by Lydia Tomkiw in which each line is a palindrome, quoted by Paul Hoover in his blog:
Six of Ox Is

O, no iron, o Rio, no
red rum murder;
in moon: no omni
derision; no I sired
drab bard,
but no repaid diaper on tub.
O grab me, ala embargo
emit time,
Re-Wop me, empower
Eros' Sore
sinus and DNA sun is
fine, drags as garden if
sad as samara, ruff of fur, a ram; as sad as
Warsaw was raw.
Raymond Federman on writer's diaries:

I think all writers who keep a diary are insincere. They are aware that their diary will be part of their archives and that what they write will become public after they die.Therefore they invent things - they make up stories. One should almost read thediary of a writer as as work of fiction -- Andre Gide says that much in his Journal.Also it is possible that writers who keep diaries may censure themselves knowing thatwhat they write may injure their posterity -- or on the contrary they may write certain things to make people think they were better or smarter or more original or whatever than they were. They improve themselves in their diary. (from Federman's blog, December 13, 2007)
"The World War Speaks," a poem by Sandra Beasley in Slate

Monday, December 17, 2007

Arbus and Others

The New York Times reports that the Met recently acquired the Diane Arbus archives. 32 years ago, for Christmas 1975, Janne gave me a collection of Diane Arbus photos. That was four years after Arbus committed suicide at age 48. Since then, I've been fascinated by her work, the conscience and persistence she brought to her craft. More than any other photographer, she developed a consistent and rigorous philosophy about her art. She once said, "Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It's what I've never seen before that I recognize." In the introduction to the photos, which must have been written shortly before her death, she writes,
... a photograph has to be specific. I remember a long time ago when I first began to photography I thought, There are an awful lot of people in the world and it's going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them, so if I photograph some kind of generalized human bein, everybody'll recognize it. It'll be like what they used to call the common man or something. It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it'll be. You really have to face that thing. And there are certain evasions, certain nicenesses that I think you have to get out of.

This point about specificity reminds me of an anecdote from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an account of how a student in his class struggled to write an essay about her hometown until he convinced her that describing a building is easier than describing a town and that describing an individual brick is easier than describing a building. I try to remember that when I teach writing. The power of the close-up.

In 2005 the Arbus archives were on display at the Met. We happened to visit the museum the first day the exhibit opened, and I was delighted to discover it. But then we found that on that day admission to the exhibit was limited to those with special tickets. I had to see it though, so I snuck in through the exit and was able to see it all.

Don Aucoin profiles poet Afaa Michael Weaver
Sociologists are using Facebook for research into such topics as "triadic closure"
"Locavore" named "word of the year" by the New Oxford American Dictionary
As Oprah gets more political, a look back at her life and career by Lee Siegel
Poems from Guantanamo prisoners

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Two Films

Edith Piaf------------------- Marion Cotillard as Piaf
I've recently watched two films from Netflix: La Vie en Rose and The Namesake. La Vie, direced by Olivier Dahan, is a biopic about Edith Piaf, documenting her tempestuous life--raised as a child in a house of prostitution, discovered as a singer in the bars of Paris, gripped at the peak of her powers by drug addiction, finally rediscovered after rehabilitation but doomed to die young in her mid-forties. Marion Cotillard's Piaf is full of life, humor, and nerve, though deeply anguished in her darker moments--no doubt a true recasting of Piaf's actual character. But in the end I remain more moved by Piaf's songs than the plot of the movie itself. It just seemed to slip too readily into cliche--the talented, charming, sometimes self-centered wastrel ultimately done in by her excesses.
The Namesake, directed by Mira Nair, on the other hand, I find moving and effective. It seems pretty true to what I recall of the novel. It's a gutsy film in the sense that it initially focuses on Asoke and Ashima Ganguli, their arranged marriage, their move from India to the U.S., and tensions in this cultural dislocation, but then moves ahead quickly to their years when their son and daughter are teens and then young adults. So the story line shifts from the parents to the son, Gogol, and his attempts to negotiate between his American tastes and his at first tenuous ties to his Indian culture. Kal Penn is endearing and convincing in this role. And his parents are effectively played by Irfan Khan and Tabu. Visually wonderful, accentuating the heat, clutter, and family chaos of Calcutta as opposed to the frigidity of winter in New York.
My original blog with Xanga.com is still available here. There's not much to it other than some poetry experimentation, which I did along with the poetry class I required to keep blogs.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize Speech

Doris Lessing, by Scanpix/Ulrich Perrey

Excerpt: Writers are often asked: "How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?" But the essential question is: "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration." If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

Braille tattoos, minimal chairs, and other new ideas and inventions in 2007


Scathing review of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke

Sunday, December 09, 2007


The current issue of WORLDVIEW, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association contains a message from President Kevin Quigley concerning "More Peace Corps," a plan to exert influence on presidential candidates--and other elected officials--to allocate more resources to the Peace Corps, desperately needed now at a time when the U.S. has alienated itself so widely. Quigley reminds us that JFK's plan for the Peace Corps quixotically envisioned a million volunteers per decade. To date, close to 200,000 volunteers have served. That's quite a few, but there could be far more, judging from the number clamoring to join and the number of countries requesting more help.
The same issue contains several articles on how technology is slowly changing the developing world. Cell phones are helping Indian fishermen market their catch and Maasai herdsmen sell their cattle. Sam Goldman, a former PC volunteer in Benin, is working on an LED light that could replace the potentially dangerous and expensive kerosene lamps used so universally in the developing world. And Wayan Vota provides an update on the lagging "One Child, One Computer" movement, Nicholas Negroponte's scheme to get cheap computers in the hands of students in developing countries. Here are answers to frequently asked question about the project.
Negroponte is facing several problems with this ambitious scheme. The cost of the computer is roughly twice what he was hoping for; thus, the "Buy one, give one" plan, which encourages people to spend $400 to own one and donate one. The problem there is that these computers are specifically designed for children who can work with others owning the same hardware and software. There's likely to be little demand for them in homes with enough money to make such a donation. Another issue is that while some countries (Peru, Brazil) have expressed an interest in purchasing at least some, the idea hasn't caught on in a cost-effective way. Educators need to be convinced that the "constructed learning" that the computers are designed for is a viable approach because it poses a radical change from a more traditional teacher-centered classroom.
One way to interest schools and communities in the so-called XO-1 is to give them to Peace Corps volunteers to distribute and use in their classrooms. That would be a way to both make the technology available and to ensure that it is used well.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Digitizing Books

My Office Wall

An article from The Weekly Standard announces Google's plan to digitize 32 million books. This is one of a growing number of developments that are taking the printed word increasingly to the computer screen. Amazon.com has recently announced Kindle, a compact handheld computerized reading device with a large storage capacity (over 200 books, newspapers, or blogs). The screen mimics black ink on paper, easy on the eyes. There are currently over 80,000 books available to buy, most of them 9.99. You can also subscribe to newspapers, magazines, and blogs. The cost for Kindle: $399. Another online reading service is WorldCat, short for "World Catalog," which allows you to search thousands of libraries for books, beginning with libraries closest to you. Some books are available digitally. One response to Google's ambitious online text scheme is the Open Content Alliance, a group of libraries that resist having commercial interests take over the online publication of books. The Universal Digital Library at Carnegie Mellon University is up and running with a number of books currently available. When I tried accessing it, I was denied access because of heavy traffic, but interestingly, I was given the option of trying one of 3 sites in India or sites in China or Egypt. I chose one in India and was able to get to Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. For a while, I've been aware of Bartleby.com, which makes available a list of free online books. The basic issue faced by Google, as well as its competitors is the obvious one of copyright violation for books still falling within the 28-year limit (extendable by 60 or so additional years). Apparently, they're seeking permission to digitize books where the copyright is still in effect. Interestingly, book publishers are beginning to face some of the same proprietary issues that have stirred up the music industry in recent years.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Kids and Photography

Photo by Zana Briski--the kids from Born into Brothels
Tonight Janne and I watched Born into Brothels, which won the 2005 Academy Award as the Best Documentary. Photographer Zana Briski went to Calcutta to take photographs in the red light district. When she saw the kids' fascination with cameras, she began giving them cameras and film and developing their photos. She talked with them about their work and about photographic principles, and some of the results are stunning. Briski arranges field trips to the zoo and ocean for these incredibly impoverished girls and boys.
Given their cramped existence in brothels where their mothers turn tricks on the other side of a thin curtain and where they come under constant verbal, sometimes physical abuse, it's astonishing that they are so full of life and so open to Briski's guidance. They are charming and in their own language (subtitled with English) can be very articulate in explaining visual effects. The most gifted is 11-year-old Avijit, already an award-winning artist. Briski works for weeks through agonizing bureaucracy to get him a passport so that he can represent India in a youth photography conference in Amsterdam. Incredibly, he's able to go. And later, like several of the others, he is admitted to a good boarding school where he has some hope for the future.
Most of the group, however, seem destined to remain in the brothels of Calcutta. The girls who remain will surely wind up on "the line" like their mothers. The film is visually intense, catching the teeming masses in Calcutta and the maze-like ghetto where the prositutes ply their trade illegally. The website for the film contains photos and descriptions of the kids, as well as samples of their work.
Similar to Briski's "Kids with Cameras" project is California photographer Jamie Lloyd's Ghana Youth Photography Project. Jamie served an internship with a newspaper in Accra, Ghana and got the idea of putting cameras in the hands of kids in Nima, a poor, predominantly Muslim district. I profiled Jamie in the Summer 2006 issue of Talking Drum, newsletter of Friends of Ghana. Jamie posted a YouTube clip on the project which has had nearly 250,000 hits. She sent in an update on the project, which may be found in the Spring 2007 Friends of Ghana newsletter. Jamie's own photos, documenting her extensive world travel, are found here.