Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
Brian Kellow
Viking Adult, October 2011
432 pages

Please note: Emily Murphy is not the author of this post, contrary to what it says. The author is Joshua Garstka. See the bottom of the post for bio information.

“This was the world teachers used to pretend (and maybe still pretend?) was the real world,” Pauline Kael wrote about The Sound of Music in 1965. “It’s the big lie, the sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat.” Thanks to this scathing review, and others like it, Kael was ousted from her critic’s post at McCall’s, but soon her impassioned opinions landed her a spot at The New Yorker—and from there, she began a relationship with movies more sensual than with any lover. Movies were the real world, for Kael, and they deserved real criticism.

Brian Kellow’s biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark wisely charts Kael’s life by focusing on her writing. There are few personal stories here (mostly about her domineering control over her daughter), but this isn’t much of a disadvantage; the movies were enough for Kael, and her columns were a breathless look at the senses these movies evoked for her. Out with film theory and self-important pictures, in with well-made B-movies. Kael on Planet of the Apes (1968): “one of the best science-fiction fantasies ever to come out of Hollywood. That doesn’t mean it’s art.” On Robert Altman’s war satire M*A*S*H (1970): “I’ve rarely heard four-letter words used so exquisitely well.” Why sit through humorless Ingmar Bergman when you could kick back to Funny Girl?Continue Reading

Finding Time to Write

Very few writers can actually support themselves with their writing. Since, like the vast majority of writers out there, I work during the day, people often ask me when I have time to write. After all, with a corporate job, family life, varying attempts at a social life, fantasy sports, television, travel, drinking, trading barbs with ignorant people on the internet, and sleep, who has time to write?

I do. I have several hours a week to write. And, I believe most people who want to write can make enough time for it, too.Continue Reading

Radio Drama and the Written Word

I once spent a year working as literary editor for a group that produced radio plays—dramatic adaptations of American short stories, which were then broadcast on NPR and BBC. Though I was never more than a novice in the radio world, I loved it—the collaboration, the energy of the actors, the process of helping turn prose into a script and then into a dramatic broadcast…but most of all the chance to wander around, ears open, in the world of sound. The things I learned during that time challenged me as a writer, made me look hard at the strengths and possible limitations of prose, and gave me a new set of ideals to aim for on the page.

The sort of radio drama we produced had no narration. Without recourse to a voice-over telling the listener “three men walked into the church,” or “it was a frigid winter day,” or “a week passed,” the challenge was to signal certain information subtly to a listener who might be tuning in from a car or kitchen or treadmill. Efficiency, too, was key; the finished recordings had to be compressed to 28 minutes and 30 seconds, leaving 90 seconds for intro lines and credits.  Continue Reading

ePocalypse Now

So! A quick caveat.

By night, I’m a poet: I write, I submit, I sometimes get an acceptance, I get a bunch of rejections, and I submit again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There’s notoriously little money in poetry, however, so by day I work in the digital group of a publishing company. The caveat I mention is this: for this post, I’m speaking as both a poet and a lover of digital media, and I am expressly not speaking as a representative of my company in particular or the publishing industry in general.

That said: something I’ve noticed in the course of my nine-to-five existence is that everyone’s super worked up about eBooks. There seem to be three camps: those who are convinced digital publishing signals the end of publishing writ large, those who are convinced digital publishing is the future, and those who aren’t sure, but are on the express train to Trepidation Towne because everyone else is up in arms. It’s the ePocalypse! The Mayans were right!Continue Reading

Margot Livesey makes us proud, yet again

Ploughshares fiction editor and novelist extraordinaire Margot Livesey has, once again, made us proud. Her newest novel debuts today, January 24th, 2012, and it’s already the talk of the town. With glowing reviews in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal, The Flight of Gemma Hardy is on everyone’s must-read list.

Here’s a quick summary from Livesey’s website:

A captivating tale, set in Scotland in the early 1960s, that is both an homage to and a modern variation on the enduring classic Jane Eyre.

Fate has not been kind to Gemma Hardy. Orphaned by the age of ten, neglected by a bitter and cruel aunt, sent to a boarding school where she is both servant and student, young Gemma seems destined for a life of hardship and loneliness. Yet her bright spirit burns

strong. Fiercely intelligent, singularly determined, Gemma overcomes each challenge and setback, growing stronger and more certain of her path. Now an independent young woman with dreams of the future, she accepts a position as an au pair on the remote and beautiful Orkney Islands.

But Gemma’s biggest trial is about to begin…a journey of passion and betrayal, secrets and lies, redemption and discovery, that will lead her to a life she’s never dreamed of.

Intrigued? Here’s where you can see Livesey read and pick up a signed copy of your own (in the Boston and NYC area). (For a full list, visit her events page.)

Continue Reading

Dear Dr. Poetry

Happy Life
by David Budbill
Copper Canyon Press, August 2011
122 pages

[Editor’s note: “Dear Dr. Poetry,” a new column by Shannon Wagner, will appear regularly on this blog.]


Dear Dr. Poetry

When I sold my VW van to buy my first suit for a job at Mega Corp, my aura began browning at the edges, deepening with every board meeting until my inner child was covered in a slop resembling the Woodstockian mud in which he was conceived. I don’t know how I lost sight of my ideals. Is it too late to return to my alternative lifestyle and find happiness?


Too Old to Feel UptightContinue Reading

Korean American Identity

I am Korean American and a writer. More often than not, I write about Korean American characters, though I don’t always focus on their ethnicity in my writing. I view ethnicity as one of many lenses through which one perceives the world, and it is by no means the most important one. Gender, age, class, education, geography, and marital status also affect the world views of the characters that I write about, but generally people who read my stories tend to focus on their Korean American background. For better or for worse, ethnicity still matters quite a lot in the world of literature.

My parents immigrated to America from Korea in 1978, when I was three years old, for a variety of reasons. While I was growing up, by attending a Korean American church and socializing within a tight-knit network of Korean American families, they tried to instill in me the sense that Korea is my homeland. However, since I also attended mostly Caucasian schools and was surrounded by American popular culture, which nation is my “homeland” is something I’ve struggled with my whole life. Many Korean Americans grew up like I did, in a segregated environment that attempts to preserve an immigrant culture against the back drop of mainstream America.Continue Reading

Literary Friendship Across Political Borders

If there exists a more solid foundation than this for a literary friendship, I can’t think of it: My words prompted readers to sever their connection with the publication. And my editor stood by me.

This is the second in a two-part blog about Hala Salah Eldin Hussein, an editor/translator in Cairo, and the connection we’ve forged through working together. (For the first installment, which featured an interview with Hala, click here.)

A quick re-cap: Hala Salah Eldin Hussein first contacted me three years ago. She was interested in publishing some of my work in Arabic translation in her on-line literary journal, Albawtaka Review. Her publication didn’t have the money to pay authors, since accepting government funding meant accepting government politics. But her mission— making English-language literature available to Arabic-language readers in Egypt and elsewhere— appealed to me. And to my surprise, the stories of mine that she wanted to publish were unequivocally Jewish in content: one set in the U.S. about a Jewish character, the other set in Israel, where much of my family lives.Continue Reading

What Rejection Means to Me

It took me awhile to understand that when a journal rejects your poem or short story, it isn’t an indictment of your character or a judgment of your ability as a writer; all they’re saying, really, is: “not this piece at this time.” I’ve never been one to take rejection personally, and I never thought that one rejection (or one dozen, or one hundred) might mean it was time to throw in the towel, but I can’t say it’s never gotten me down. Everyone knows rejection sucks.

We’ve all been there: you get home one evening to find three rejections waiting in your mailbox (do they coordinate these?). One is from a journal you pretty much wrote off four months ago, as they’d had your ms for a year at that point. The envelope looks like it’s been through a war zone, and when you finally get that envelope—somehow simultaneously soggy and burnt—off the note inside (the envelope’s adhesive strip is stuck to it), you’re greeted with a third of a slip of paper that more or less reads: “No, thanks.” You might get a half-apologetic “We regret the use of this form” or “the volume of submissions precludes a more personal reply” if you’re lucky.Continue Reading

Women In Trouble: Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life
Vivian Gornick
Yale University Press, September 2011 (Part of the “Jewish Lives” series of interpretative biography)
160 pages

In a new regular series, Anne Gray Fischer reviews books by or about “women in trouble.”

Last month, when the city’s crackdown on Occupy Boston was imminent, a wave of exuberant rebellion swept through the camp: amid the thickening police presence, protesters threw a dance party, pounding drums and moving their bodies in ecstatic celebration of their waning freedom.  The furious, creative spirit of anarchist Emma Goldman—who famously, if apocryphally, declared, “If I can’t dance, I’m not coming to your revolution”—came alive that night.Continue Reading