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Monday, Apr 7, 2008
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waoby Junot DiazPenguinSeptember 2007, 352 pages, $24.95

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz
Penguin
September 2007, 352 pages, $24.95


The big news this Pulitzer year is Bob Dylan’s Special Citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”. That and the Washington Posts‘s near sweep of the Prize’s journalism section. The Post was rewarded for excellent public service, feature writing, national and international reporting, breaking news reporting, and news commentary.


There’s something rather gratifying in Dylan and the Post sitting atop the same cherry pie this morning, side by side, in recognition of their work: America’s brain rubbing elbows with its heart and soul. I like it.


As for the Letters and Drama Prizes, I found myself surprised once again at the list of winners, but happy Pulitzer hadn’t played into critic’s hands and deliver the obvious victors.


Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took the fiction prize, with my assumed winner Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke a nominated finalist. And Saul Friedlander’s Year of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945 won in the non-fiction category, with—how great is this?—The Rest is Noise by the wonderful Alex Ross a finalist.


Diaz is quoted today in the Miami Herald on his win:


I’m completely astonished ... For a Dominican kid with illegal parents to win a Pulitzer, a kid who grew up in New Jersey in a neighborhood where nobody gave a shit about us, a kid who delivered pool tables throughout college ... wow, man.


Diaz grew up in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic before moving with his family to New Jersey in 1974 at age six. He attended Kean College in New Jersey and Rutgers, majoring in English. He obtained his MFA from Cornell,


He is well-known for his short fiction, with stories appearing regularly in the New Yorker. His first book, Drown, is a collection of short stories. He is the fiction editor of the Boston Review.


Read enough interviews with him and a picture forms of an honest, unaffected artist who colourfully says what he thinks. He tells the Bostonist: “I think that the intellectual life is amazingly lonely in a country like ours.” And goes on to call his fellow MIT professors “fuckin’ genius[es]”.


He talks to Bookslut about the differences in effort writing novels versus short fiction: “People are always asking, ‘Did it take you so long because writing a novel is really hard?’ I’m like, dude, it took me seven years to write one story, one 20 page story.”


At Slate, he discusses his position as a so-called “Latina writer”:


We’re in a country where white is considered normative; it’s a country where white writers are simply writers, and writers of Latino descent are Latino writers. This is an issue whose roots are deeper than just the publishing community or how an artist wants to self-designate. It’s about the way the U.S. wants to view itself and how it engineers otherness in people of color and, by doing so, props up white privilege. I try to battle the forces that seek to “other” people of color and promote white supremacy. But I also have no interest in being a “writer,” either, shorn from all my connections and communities. I’m a Dominican writer, a writer of African descent, and whether or not anyone else wants to admit it, I know also that Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen are white writers. The problem isn’t in labeling writers by their color or their ethnic group; the problem is that one group organizes things so that everyone else gets these labels but not it. No, not it.


Strange that an author to watch, with one novel under his belt, should also be a Pulitzer Prize winner. But what a great day for the award, that a new novelist with such exciting vigor, insight, and humour should be listed beside Mailer, Faulkner, and Hemingway. Now that’s big news.


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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

Madonna’s “Four Minutes to Save the World”


Madonna: Come on boy, I’ve been waiting for somebody to pick up my stroll.
Timberlake: Well don’t waste time, give me a sign, tell me how you wanna roll.
Madonna: I want somebody to speed it up for me then take it down slow. There’s enough room for both.
Timberlake: Girl, I can handle that, you just gotta show me where it’s at. Are you ready to go, Are you ready to go?


Wow. I mean, really, wow. It’s one thing to watch the insipid video, which has unnerving, tranny vampire visual of Madonna spread eagle on the hood of some luxury brand automobile while the world crumples into a void behind her. There, at least, the viewer is rewarded with a morsel of symbolic truth. When you actually see the lyrics of “Four Minutes” flatly stated, it’s lobotomizing how empty this song is. Even superficially, it’s difficult to press this song for content. Is it simply her Mrs. Robinson pop claptrap, initiating young Timberlake into the Q&A game that is getting her to orgasm? It certainly sounds like she’s the Goldilocks of cradle robbing:  not too fast, Justin, not too slow. That she would connect her sexual gratification to “saving the world” says much about the tired, engulfing narcissism of cobwebbed Mega-Stars. If pop music ever had the kind of urgency suggested by the chorus, Madonna has certainly done her fair share to lesson its cultural impact beyond the fading, cyclical variations of style. But, wait, there’s more:


Madonna: Sometimes I think, what I need is an intervention, yeah.
Timberlake: And you know I can tell that you like it. And that it’s good, by the way that you move, ooh, hey hey/
Madonna: The road to heaven, paved with good intentions, yeah.
Justin: But if I got a night, at least I can say I did what I wanted to do. Tell me, how bout you?


Is this a transcript of their text messages to each other?  Even as traded flirtation, this song sags. It’s actually representative of Madonna in interviews where clichés, or variations of clichés, are supposed to be read with metaphysical weight. “The road to heaven, paved with good intentions” makes absolutely no sense in or out of context in this song, but gives the listener the illusion of wit by inverting a common phrase with a new, but imprecise meaning. Does she mean that Justin’s sexual desire for her will help him achieve everlasting afterlife, even while this song has exactly zero shelf life?  Or does she mean that having good intentions is just as good as doing good works, which would be the first criticism that I would level at her entire contribution to the pop canon. Either way, if the song wanted to be dirty, it would do well to have us not debating heaven’s asphalt. Where is the dirt of this liaison that dallies in abstractions or sideshow references to interventions and theology for dummies?  This entire track seems like an implosion of Madonna’s insecurities about her persona. She wants to be pervasively sexual, but enlightened in a desexualized mother-figure way. She wants to continue to rake in the cash of her image, but wishes to recast herself in this sacralized savior role. In the end, we get a song that’s ostensibly about screwing some young upstart for a handful of seconds in order to save the planet from impending destruction. If only.


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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

In an interview with Holly Golightly back when I was working on a zine (i.e. the analog blogs), she said that she didn’t like so much of what was currently called “garage” rock because it had none of the spontaneity and d.i.y. disposability of the original idea of a few friends with a few chords pooling their lunch money for a limited run 7” single.  I think “Shalalalalove”  by the egregiously named Sonic Chicken 4 captures all the sloppy, playful propulsion of garage rockers like the Mummies with the added confection of having a Mo Tucker soundalike slipping in to drop sweet refrains on top of power chords that have demolition derbied into one another.  Especially golden are those pop primal nonsense sounds in the chorus,  “shalalala”, so close to those first attempts we all have at grappling with language (a.k.a.,  getting what we want):  “baba”, “dada”, “mama”.  Yes, the secret to a great song is simply artful infantalization.  I’m kidding, but I do think this songs secrets have everything to do with having no guile, pouring sugary guy-girl interplay on scuffed guitar and having a chorus that inspires infectious Muppet-dance energy.


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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

This week at Re:Print, we’ll be talking all things Pulitzer, paying particular attention to the prize-winning books, fiction and non. The 2008 prize announcement happens this afternoon, and, for the life of me, I can’t even begin to predict which books will take home my literary favourite literary prize.


This is good, however. It means I’ll be surprised. 


My only prediction this year is more a hope than a forecast. I’d love to see Michael Weinreb’s Kings of New York, about the Edward R. Murrow High School chess team, grab the non-fiction prize. Because I loved it, and because it’s time Pulitzer recognized something a bit lighthearted. 


Writers at the San Francisco Chronicle have put forth their predictions, with the leaders Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying for the non-fiction prize, and for fiction, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.


Bybee at Naked Without Books takes a good guess at the fiction prize, with Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and The We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris among her picks.


On Tree of Smoke, Bybee writes:


Denis Johnson’s been around for a while, written lots of “serious” fiction and I guess he’s paid his dues. I find him slightly reader-unfriendly, but that didn’t stop James Gould Cozzens from winning with Guard Of Honor back in 1949.


On Then We Came to the End:


Then We Came To The End has gotten a lot of recognition, but it’s a first novel. The workplace setting and the peculiar first person plural narration might be fresh and quirky enough to garner a win.


The folks over at the Pulitzer Prize First Edition Guide have published their 10-strong shortlist for the fiction prize:


1, Exit Ghost by Philip Roth
2. A Free Life by Ha Jin
3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
4. Falling Man by Don DeLillo
5. Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
6. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
7. Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
8. Run by Ann Patchett
9. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
10. The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates


Is the winner in there? Will Roth do it again, or is it Oates’ turn? Will the young punks battle it out, or is it time DeLillo got up? It’s all so exciting!


We’ll take a closer look at the winners tomorrow, as well as looking back at past winners, nominees, and the historical significance of the award. I’m also going to dig deep within my own personal library and bring out a few rare gems I’ve found in my pursuit of every winning book from 1917. It’s an obsession, I will admit. But, man, it’s a pleasurable one.


 


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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

In his NYT column today, Paul Krugman, writing about food prices’ recent rapid climb, sounds a grim, almost Malthusian note, concluding that “cheap food, like cheap oil, may be a thing of the past.” Wheat prices are astronomical already, and rice stores have become so depleted in Asia that many producing countries are threatening to stop exporting the grain. (I have seen the writing on the wall. Last weekend, I went to Pacific Supermarket and bought a 20-pound bag of Nishiki brown rice. Get it while you can; that’s all I am saying.) Krugman cites a few factors contributing to the problem—oil prices, droughts—and really lays into the biofuel industrial complex.


The subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy independence and help limit global warming. But this promise was, as Time magazine bluntly put it, a “scam.”
This is especially true of corn ethanol: even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains. But it turns out that even seemingly “good” biofuel policies, like Brazil’s use of ethanol from sugar cane, accelerate the pace of climate change by promoting deforestation.
And meanwhile, land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis. You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.


Alongside the theme of neutralizing the farm lobby is a hint of population-control politics that we haven’t heard much about since its heyday in the late 1960s, when widespread affluence was considered a problem in the West and books like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb were being sold in drugstores in pocket-size paperbacks. The idea that food prices will remain high (i.e. that food supply will remain scarce, that we have reached some new plateau of productive capacity that caps that supply) could be seen as a harbinger of food rationing and famine, and an indicator that Malthus’s scenario is finally coming to pass—namely that food supplies can’t keep up with a population that grows exponentially. But now the problem takes a slightly different form; with so many people wanting to eat luxuriously, the resources necessary for everyone to eat at all are being hoarded and consumed by the more affluent. Krugman calls it “the march of the meat-eating Chinese” and notes “the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories’ worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet increases the overall demand for grains.” In other words, developing countries want to imitate the standards of living that Americans have inaugurated as the prerequisites of economic maturity. National diet (as with wasteful patterns of energy consumption) can function as mark of national status and can stifle potential political unrest with luxuries, and this leaves little room for conservation.


The problem, then, is not so much a population explosion, but an explosion of those who expect middle-class comforts (and those who use those comforts for political control). Not a Malthusian issue so much as a Veblenesque one: That package of expectations and the ideology of entitlement that goes along with it, will probably come under increasing fire. Hence the cult of asceticism that has derived from the environmental movement—the way to be even more middle-class in terms of prestige, from this point of view, is to deprive yourself for a noble cause—limit your choices by viewing them through the lens of “sustainability.” (Whether that can be adequately defined to make it an operational distinction is an open question.) With this ideology, at least the status hierarchy is being leveraged to accomplish some good.


Oh, and on a related note, Jon Taplin points to Merrill Lynch analysts explaining that American households spend more on debt service than food.


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