Monthly Archives: August 2011

My own private Idaho

Scenes from a family vacation. (Thanks to our daughter for her lovely photos of the horse next door, the rushing creek, the stairway of hollow blocks, and the clouds drifting past the treetops.)

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My one regret is not having the right equipment to capture the astonishing night sky: far from the masking glow of big-city lights, we could see a multitude of stars, in constellations familiar and strange; the low-streaking meteors of the Perseid shower (occasionally visible, despite the full moon); and the vast, majestic swath of the Milky Way, a bright pale river in the endless dark. Next time!

For larger images, click on the gallery thumbnails below.

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On identity beyond ethnicity (and other boundaries), cont’d: Tom Piazza on music, empathy, and the limits of “authenticity”

In an NPR interview, Tom Piazza discusses his collection of essays Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America. He points out that country music singer Jimmy Rodgers “crossed a lot of lines that, I think, at that time in our culture in the 1920s, were probably generally seen as being … less porous than he thought they were. He took it on himself to pick freely from the traditions not just of Anglo-American balladry, railroad songs, Western songs, but also from African-American blues, and he did it very convincingly.”

And he discusses Bob Dylan, who of course is a musical and cultural chameleon who didn’t (and doesn’t) have “a whole lot of respect for other people’s ideas of where the boundaries were supposed to come down.”

But Piazza puts it best when he reads an excerpt from an essay considering whether Gillian Welch — NY-born, LA-raised, with early forays into goth and psychedelic surf — can perform old-time country “authentically,” and whether it matters*:

It seems to me that it takes an extreme poverty of imagination to propose, implicitly or explicitly, that people can write only about their personal experience (or, worse, about the experiences peculiar to their ethnic/gender/regional/national group). It takes poverty of imagination, and hostility to the idea of the free human spirit. Any hope one might have left for a society like ours depends on the constant assertion of the possibility of that kind of empathy. Of course, as an artist, the further from your personal experience you try to reach, the more effort, intuition, honesty, humility, and/or luck it takes. The further you reach, the easier it is to do something that doesn’t work, doesn’t ring true. But the question is whether it works, whether it rings true, not whether you have an inherited visa to enter that territory.

Listen to the whole thing here. More thoughts on identity beyond boundaries here.

*Update: I’ve replaced my original transcript of the edited interview with the actual passage from the book, which I’ve since bought and enjoyed.

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Miscellany: Waiting for Irene; Neil Gaiman kicks my lazy ass; girl scientists rock (and so does Kirsten Gillibrand); Harry Potter ends; more atheist fun

Well, I’m back (and wishing I could have brought Idaho’s clear night sky back with me). And now we’re hunkering down in our apartment, bracing for the flooding from Hurricane Irene, which is due to hit New York later tonight: we’ve got all our supplies, we’re a storey above ground level, and we’re not in a mandatory evacuation zone (though we’re pretty close to one). We’ll make it through just fine. Bring it on.

Some old links to share before I start with fresh posts:

In an inspiring interview, Neil Gaiman links writing to punk rock and tells aspiring writers to get off their lazy asses and Just Do It. M. Molly Backes says the same thing, in a post with some wise advice to parents of would-be writers.

Take that, Larry Summers: Girls are excelling in science.

Roger Ebert has a very insightful take on what’s wrong with the Republican party today, why they don’t speak for most Americans, and why, despite any short-term victories, the tide of history is against them. On the other side of the aisle, my awesome hometown senator Kirsten Gillibrand talks feminism, politics, and the next generation.

As the Harry Potter saga comes to an end: Chloe Angyal at talks about Potter and feminism. Michelle Dean at The Millions considers the powerful and sincere appeal of J.K. Rowling’s story to the unjaded reader or viewer in us, despite the literary flaws and the calculations of commercial forces that the series’ critics are happy to point out. Bringing Potter into the messy world of terror and counter-terror, Dan Nexon at The Duck of Minerva speculates on why Harry won; and in the aftermath of his victory, a Foreign Policy article on “Post-Conflict Potter” gives serious consideration to what happens next.

Paul Boghossian’s essay on morality in the Times sparks a fascinating discussion on moral relativism. I don’t think I have (at the moment) a firm opinion on the subject, but I like reading up on both sides of the issue. Sometimes Sam Harris makes a lot of sense, and sometimes he doesn’t…

Which brings us to God and Godlessness territory. The New Statesman compiles statements from many prominent atheists and agnostics explaining why they don’t believe in God. Paula Kirby, pushing back against Governor Rick Perry’s stupidity, sets the record straight on evolution and why it’s a threat to Christianity; Richard Dawkins chimes in. Hemant Mehta links to some great hard-hitting atheist billboards. And, playfully sticking it to Intelligent Design, Paul Simms publishes God’s blog (be sure to read through to the “comments”).

And that’s it for now. More writing soon, after the storm.

(Photo by Kateri Jochum for WNYC)

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Gone swimming

This will be my last post for the next couple of weeks, as my family and I head out to visit the in-laws in Idaho. I’m looking forward to a break from the buzz and commotion of NYC; long stretches of reading and stargazing time; and, I hope, seeing a lot of this:

Happy August to all.

(Photo via Flickr)

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The case for optimism, cont’d: On dystopian YA fiction and our missing utopian futures

Though his very excellent Mortal Engines series (drop everything and go read it now; you’re welcome) itself has strongly dystopian elements, Philip Reeve nevertheless criticizes the pervasiveness and unrelenting grimness of dystopian YA fiction today:

Half of the science-fiction stories that I read in my teens seemed to predict terrible ends for us all, but the other half concerned themselves with bright, shining futures in which human beings would spread out among the stars, having overcome such trifling problems as poverty, war, and racial prejudice. As far as I’m aware, no one in the YA field is writing things like that anymore: if they are, their books have yet to achieve the same high profile as the dystopias. It’s as if optimism has become so hopelessly quaint that we can no longer allow ourselves even to imagine a better future. […]

Yet the world in which we now live is actually far closer to the hi-tech futures that the optimists of the 1950s and ’60s envisioned than to any of the blighted wastelands that the doomsayers predicted. It’s true that many of science fiction’s sunnier visions seem naive today: racism and war persist; spindle-shaped rocket ships can’t carry us to Mars, and I still haven’t got the jet pack and flying car that I remember being promised. Yet in many ways, our society is kinder and safer, and some of today’s technologies are far more impressive than flying cars. Some of this may have come about precisely because the children of earlier generations were excited by fictional visions of a brighter future and ended up as the scientists and social reformers, innovative engineers and hi-tech entrepreneurs who helped to make it happen. What sort of future awaits a society whose young people are taught that there’s nothing to look forward to but decline and disaster, and that decline and disaster may be all that they deserve?

It’s entirely natural that YA authors should try to reflect the fears about the future that young readers feel, but I’m coming to think that we also have a duty to challenge the prevailing pessimism of mainstream culture. Dystopian fiction, while appearing to offer a radical criticism of modern society, is often deeply conservative. Portraying our civilization as doomed, it looks to the past for answers — to the rugged individualism of the frontier spirit, or a meek retreat to preindustrial ways of life. I’m happy to celebrate and recommend the excellent dystopian novels that I mentioned above, and I’m certain that there are many others every bit as fine, but I think what we could really use right now are a few utopian novels to set beside them.

Read the whole thing.

The image above comes from another fascinating article, Alexis Madrigal’s “The Lost Dream of Trippy ’70s Space Colonies.”

More reasons for optimism here.

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