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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007
by Connie Ogle
First Among Sequels: A Thursday Next Novel

First Among Sequels: A Thursday Next Novel
by Jasper Fforde
Viking ($24.95)

There is simply so much you don’t know about fiction: Thomas Hardy’s novels used to be hilarious, but someone made off with the humor. There was once a shocking outbreak of sensible behavior in Othello. Only 15 pianos exist in literature, and so they must be endlessly shuffled from Bleak House to The Mill on the Floss to Heart of Darkness and so on. Mistakes happen; one piano ended up in Miss Bates’ parlor in Emma, and Frank Churchill had to take the rap for dumping it there.

Such unsettling events occur regularly in the Bookworld, born in the furiously agile imagination of Jasper Fforde, creator Thursday Next of Jurisfiction, a literary detective whose adventures stretch uproariously across four novels (The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots and Something Rotten). Fforde has shaken up genres—fantasy, comedy, crime, sci fi, parody, literary criticism—and come up with a superb mishmash with lots of affectionate in-jokes for any book lover.

In the aptly titled First Among Sequels—tough call, but there’s a good chance it’s the best of Fforde’s novels—Thursday is no longer working SpecOps, or at least not to her husband Landen’s knowledge. He thinks she’s laying carpet, but she’s still leaping in and out of assorted prose and contending with non-literary mayhem. The genre wars continue, with Racy Novel’s threats to drop a dirty bomb into “Mrs. Dalloway.” Time may be coming to an end. The ruling Commonsense Party is running up an ominously high Stupidity Surplus (“Instead of drifting from one crisis to the next and appeasing the nation with a steady stream of knee-jerk legislation and headline-grabbing but arguably pointless initiatives, they had been resolutely building a raft of considered long-term plans that concentrated on unity, fairness, and tolerance”).

Worst of all is the introduction of Reality Book Shows, which will rewrite the classics based on audience approval. First up: Pride and Prejudice.

Fforde, also author of the even sillier Nursery Crimes series, is not even close to running out of targets. His satire is relentless and inspired; even his throwaway one-liners hit home: “The MAWk-15H virus has once again resurfaced in Dickens, particularly in the Death of Little Nell, which is now so uncomfortably saccharine that even our own dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell complained.”

Thursday may face a threat against reading in the Bookworld, but in the real world, thanks to the witty Fforde, she can rest assured that the demise of the book has never seemed more unlikely.

Connie Ogle
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007
by Phil Rosenthal and Michael Oneal

CHICAGO - Rupert Murdoch’s $5 billion conquest of Dow Jones & Co. is all but complete.

After an operatic, months-long battle of wills with the wealthy Bancroft family, which has controlled the business news empire for more than a century, Murdoch’s hefty $60-per-share offer finally prevailed on Tuesday. Ultimately, an agreement to pay the family’s advisory fees trumped fears that Murdoch might corrupt their birthright, one of the most respected and powerful news organizations in the world.

The victory of Murdoch’s News Corp. marries the staid, establishment publisher of The Wall Street Journal with a global media maverick and his company best known as purveyor of newspapers such as The New York Post and television shows such as “The O’Reilly Factor” and “The Simpsons.”

That coupling has sent chills through the world of establishment journalism and raised anew a question that has bedeviled the industry in recent years as audience and advertising revenue decline: Why can’t even the best newspapers find a way to pay for themselves?

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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007

Some important forwarded information

Protest the Corporate Take Over of Harlem

Rally and Demo for Bobby’s Happy House
Protest the Eviction of Harlem’s
1st Black own business on 125th St.
Friday, August 3, 2007
5 PM to 7 PM
2337 Frederick Douglass Blvd.
(Between 125th & 126th Streets)

Legendary record producer Bobby Robinson, now 90 years of age opened Bobby’s Record House, the first Black owned business on 125th Street in 1946. Robinson, a prominent African American independent record producer established six record labels between 1952 and 1962, Red Robin Records, Whirlin’ Disc Records, Fury Records, Everlast Records and Enjoy Records. Robinson produced numerous million-selling records by such notable performers as Wilbert Harrison, The Shirelles, Lee Dorsey, Dave “Baby” Cortez ande Gladys Knight & the Pips’ first hit, “Every Beat of My Heart”.

At issue is whether or not Bobby’s Happy House and other local Black businesses can remain in the “Harlem Has Arrived” corporate takeover of the world renowned community once called the “Black Mecca” in the US. For sure, the subsidized corporation takeover of Harlem is moving full speed ahead with the complicity of presidential hopeful Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Board of Trustees of Columbia University, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone and elected officials. Estimates are that over 50 local Black businesses have been forced out of Harlem and more will follow with the $50 million sale of 112-118 West 125th Street, 250 West 125th Street, 301-303 West 125th Street and 2331-2349 Frederick Douglass Boulevard not to mention new developments that are coming: Hotel 124 at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue;  21 stories Harlem Parks at 125th Street and Park Avenue;  a retail complex at 261 W. 125th St;  and a retail tower at 125th Street and Lenox Ave with luxury apartments. Columbia University’s bold land grab of over 17 acres in West Harlem and Mayor Bloomberg’s Uptown New York calls for the use of eminent domain to force local businesses to sell to private owners. And the legendary Copeland’s restaurant will host its last Sunday Gospel Brunch on July 29th. With all of these developments coming the number of jobs for the majority local Black population will be minuscule while undocumented workers will be exploited to the hilt! The Real Deal of course is money and backroom deal, all at the misery of the poor and working class. The real estate industry is projecting commercial prices over the next 18 months reaching as high as $2,000 per sq. ft.  The pressure is on and we are fighting back. But WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT! JOIN US ON FRIDAY, AUGUST 3RD.

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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007

Chris O’Brien, who’s written a book about beer and sustainability issues, told me about a trip he had taken to Chico, California, where he visited the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. It doesn’t publicize its efforts very much, but Sierra Nevada, it turns out, is fairly committed to environmentally-sustainable business practices, as this section of the brewery’s website makes clear. It wasn’t the easiest thing to find there; you have to peel a few layers back before you find the tab somewhat cryptically marked “Our Environment,” which takes you to the page that details the brewer’s efforts to supply its own energy and produce energy from its waste product and recycle and so on, all without compromising its product or its ambitions—currently Sierra Nevada is one of the largest craft brewers in the U.S. and its product has become fairly ubiquitous.

As Chris was telling me about this, I wondered, Can Sierra Nevada continue to expand its market share without undermining its environmental commitments? The question that seems to me central to sustainability and business is whether the pursuit of economies of scale doesn’t at some point require a business to sacrifice its commitment to sustainable practices, which seem to prescribe limits beyond which energy consumption and labor exploitation and various forms of resource arbitrage become inevitable. If consumers all decided they approved of Sierra’s methods and wanted to show it by consuming its product, it would become threatened by its own success, or become so expensive that it would reinforce the idea that conservation is a luxury of conscience for the well-to-do.

One could argue that the limits on a business’s ability to expand are organic ones, natural, constituting the natural size for human communities, but technology muddles the demarcation of these limits. Also, now that we are accustomed to globalized culture—the availability of the world’s output just about anywhere, the triumph of logistics and container-based shipping, etc.—it would be hard to experience a truly local culture as natural, to see the return to localized idiosyncrasies (which have always been typified for me by local music scenes) as anything but a loss in the richness of the fabric of life. Of course, it is easy to posit arguments about how local culture is actually richer, thicker with community involvement, community specific customs and mores—the lost folk culture I was lamenting in an earlier post. It also would make travel much more meaningful, because it would be much harder to replicate the consumption patterns one is familiar with elsewhere. A return to local culture might even displace the centrality of consumption to much of our leisure time experience.

But I know I would react badly to the loss of access to goods from abroad; I would feel deprived, even cheated. And it is hard to sell deprivation and lack of choice as a kind of liberation, though in trivial non-material cases, it sometimes can be; removing optional paralysis can sometimes lead to a lot more personal productivity, a lot less time wasted on choices that seem important but really route ones energy away from the activity the choice is supposed to facilitate and back toward a debilitating self-consciousness and endless procrastination: what will people think of me if I wear this shirt? What will they think if I read this book on the subway? You can use a prolonged decision making process to avoid doing anything while flattering yourself that you are wrapped up in important deliberations. I spent days agonizing over what kind of laptop to buy, dwelling on all the specifications and how they would impact my fantasy of using it to get all this work done out and about. If it weighs under 5 pounds, will I carry it with me more places to get things done? How much memory should it have, in order to run which applications simultaneously? Will I need it to be powerful enough to run audio editing and recording software, so I can use it as a portable studio? I thought a lot about these things, elaborating daydreams where the computer would enable me to complete all these aborted projects while spontaneously generating all these new and ever more absorbing ones. But now that I’ve bought one, all I do with it is connect it to my TV to watch downloaded shows.

The problem with taking away consumer choice in favor of local, sustainable business practices is that living with consumerism has instilled in us its values, which equate freedom of choice with freedom in general, so that an “arbitrary” limitation on our access to things—for arbitrary will be how it would seem, now that we are familiar with what can be made possible, with the great diversity that can be brought to our store shelves—seems like an encroachment on our rights as American citizens. We also prefer purchasing power as a proxy for a political power because it exempts us from coming up with a coherent ideology. It also reinforces another value pervasive in consumer societies, the primacy of individualism. Where consumerism reigns, individualism is less a matter of being able to do whatever you want without interference than it is synonymous with the ability to assemble a unique collection of goods that one owns personally and which seem to constitute one’s unique social identity. It’s easier to feel autonomous when your social role—who you are in your community—is determined not by what you are capable of doing or what you are permitted to contribute but by what the magic of the economy allows you to buy for yourself. This arrangement allows for the illusion of much greater independence from those around us; you can walk into a mall and experience the fantasy of being able to become whoever you want, immediately, through a series of well-considered purchases.

So in prioritizing sustainability and localized production over expanded consumer choice and identity construction, different values would have to be disseminated. Privileging local community and small-scale sustainable economies would have to seem like something other than vain utopianism (local communities, theoretically invested with richer and more-binding traditions, could possibly be more repressive than decentralized “open” societies) or nostalgia for a less complicated time. And people would have to reconceive the ways in which they understand their own potential and value—not in terms of how many options they can supply themselves with but in terms of how satisfying the relationships in their lives can be made (or some such rot).

That’s where Chris, if I understand him correctly, believes companies like Sierra Nevada can play a part. He found it odd that Sierra Nevada wouldn’t make more of an effort to link its product with the environmentally conscious manner in which its made. This might serve to take the taint of wishful thinking away from such sustainability projects as the one Sierra Nevada is engaged in and make it clear that it could be a feasible and natural part of the economy with which we are familiar. But the minute the brewery begins promoting itself as a green business, it instrumentalizes environmentalism and makes it serve as marketing tool, a reputation builder, rather than an end in itself. This could have the effect of alienating the very audience who remains skeptical of environmentalism by making it seem the province of the privileged, the latte liberals, the coastal elite, etc. They won;t buy into sustainability once it seems like its something people want to congratulate themselves for, once it seems a means to an individualist end—this seems to take the narcissism of consumerism and larders some hypocrisy on top. To put it in terms Jon Elster uses in Sour Grapes, a reputation for environmentalism is a necessarily a by-product and not something that can rightly be the aim of a set of practices. Publicity would undermine the perceived purity of Sierra Nevada’s motives. Instead, it must rely on people like Chris to spread the word of its greenness for it, protecting it from seeming to exploit environmentalism, reducing it to a trend. But then, any advocates must also be careful not to become too strident as well. Elster cites Stanley Benn, who argues that “political activity may be a form of moral expression,” but this must be tempered with care that it not become merely moral self-expression, “middle-class radicalism” as most forms of commodified rebellion expressed in shopping endorsements or lifestyle choices turn out to be. As Elster points out, “there is no such activity or kinesis as ‘acquiring self-respect,’ in the sense in which one may speak of the activity of ‘learning French.’ ”

The point here is that one must be a true believer to make proselytizing a worthwhile action; the minute one begins to consider how what one is doing makes one come across as the sort of person who does such things, then all is lost. One becomes a vanguard hipster who’s trying to pass for a fellow traveler—the social relations at stake are reduced to ego politics, and one’s praxis is a dim reflection of the system one pretends to want to change; one become a second-rate entrepreneur marketing a self-image. When the sincerity of your motives are in question, even if it is it seems as though it is through no fault of your own, you risk doing active harm to the cause you espouse—like Janeane Garafolo on the campaign trail in 2004. And once you become overly self-conscious about the effects you are trying to achieve, and how it reflects on you personally, your motives are suspect. What sets someone like me apart from someone like Chris is that I am riddled with these kinds of thoughts constantly, cursed with perpetual self-consciousness, while he strikes me as someone who never questions his causes or puts him own interests out in front of them. Were I to consciously try to emulate his m.o. though, I’d be compounding my probelm, still trying to achieve through direct action a state of mind that is essentially a by-product of thinking entirely of something else.

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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007

He was a true cinematic artist – even his name suggested the sort of motion picture masterpieces he would eventually create. Yet outside a significant period in the ‘60s, the history of film has more or less abandoned Michelangelo Antonioni. Not his movies, mind you. It’s impossible to dismiss such major contributions to the craft as Blow-Up, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse. From an early penchant for supporting the political underdog to a later life in service of his own self-designed ideals, the man born in Ferrara, Emilia Romagna Italy on 29 September, 1912 continuously walked the fine line between brilliant and baffling, intellectual and irritating. It would make up the majority of scholarly consideration of his canon, his lasting legacy, and generally define his cinematic substance.

It was always hard to categorize Antonioni. Growing up, he was a bourgeois young man from a comfortable middle class family. He didn’t start out as a filmmaker – instead, he pursued a career in economics. It was a pair of outside interests – painting, and writing criticism for his local newspaper that swayed him toward the world of film. Indeed, his 1939 hiring by the Fascist government for the journal Cinema did more to steer him toward directing than any inherent love of the medium. Though he followed the peasant perspective shifts in Italian movie making that would come to be known as neo-realism, he could never escape his upper class roots. As a matter of fact, his first film, 1950’s Story of a Love Affair used the genre’s implied authenticity to discuss adultery and love among a wealthy entrepreneur and his beautiful newlywed wife – not exactly the earthy arena explored by his fellow filmmakers.

Il Grido

Il Grido

Still, Antonioni flourished, even if it was in relative obscurity. Taking what he learned during his earliest days as a maker of documentary shorts, he used the next ten years behind the lens to hone his skills. During this time, he made eight films, including the scandalous juvenile murder anthology I Vinti (featuring three tales of murderous youth), a female-ccentric look at the Italian class structure (1955’s The Girlfriends), and the film that would signal the next phase in his career, the ambiguous and calculated Il Grido (The Cry). Each step along the way, Antonioni distinguished himself from the rest of the Mediterranean movement. He could care less about the common man and his woes. He was looking for light at the end of a dirt and dire movie manifesto, and he found it in the oddest of places – the human heart.

The connection between Cry’s multifaceted story of a failed romance and the next three movies in Antonioni’s oeuvre is quite obvious. Representing one of the first real onscreen efforts at representing reject and alienation, Cry comments on how a broken spirit – and the routine of romance – can hollow out a person. As our hero, Aldo (an excellent Steve Cochran) wanders aimlessly in and around the Po region, he tries desperately to reconnect with the reality that’s been lost to him, a world now out of reach after a fruitless seven year affair with a married woman named Irma. This notion of love gone astray, of couplings undone, and the then forward thinking theme of ‘finding oneself’ would become the hallmark of Antonioni’s most creative era. It would form the basis of the trilogy that would skyrocket him to international fame.

It all began with 1960’s L’Avventura, an usually effective psychological character study that achieves its internalized investigation through the use of very little dialogue and even less cinematic standardization. Stripping away all the conventions that create tension, insight, and deception, Antonioni decided to let his camera be his guide. The result is an astonishing work that reveals its casual lovers’ motives in ways unthinkable in similarly styled storylines. In essence, the narrative figures on the missing companion of a puzzled pair, a now absent woman who was the hero’s paramour and the heroine’s best friend. With the inherent intrigue of the missing person, and the mystery surrounding her situation, the director redefined the language of film, forcing imagery and ideas to replace conversation and convention. With its acknowledgment at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, L’Avventura became Antonioni’s calling card. His next two movies would only cement his status.

In 1961’s La Notte, a true sense of doom fills the air. Again, we are dealing with a couple – in this case, a writer and his disconnected spouse. Content to watch the characters basically drift apart as their marriage dissolves, Antonioni was beginning to develop a kind of filmic philosophy about emotion. To quote Annie Hall (Woody Allen was a great admirer of the Italian maverick), “Love fades.” Granted, it’s a fatalistic ideal, but within this brilliantly acted narrative, Antonioni made it appear like a natural condition of the human soul. Since neither entity in the relationship seems ready to work at it, it’s inevitable that ennui would force the sentiment to simply slip away. It’s the same with the final facet of this loose ‘alienation’ trilogy, 1962’s L’Eclisse.

An exploration of indecisiveness and angst, Antonioni stripped even more of the remaining pretense he was working with, and simply let the situations and the performers do the dramatizing. He developed a film idiom that included long takes, a static camera, and a crucial use of black and white’s distinct shadow and light byplay. Plot was no longer important. Instead, Antonioni was fixated on mood, atmosphere, ambience, and tone. He wanted to tell everything about a character through the most impressionistic means possible, and avoided outright expressions in favor of implication and inference. Representing the pinnacle of a new voice in Italian cinema, one that evoked the truth inherent in neo-realism within the shifting contemporary social standards in the country, Antonioni became a mirror for modernity. He would then ask the audience to look inside his movies to see if they saw themselves.

Another trip to Cannes, another Special Jury Prize, and the now celebrated director was literally on top of the world. His continued notoriety brought him to the attention of Italian producer Carlo Ponti, who offered him the opportunity to make movies in other countries. Naturally, Antonioni jumped at the chance to translate his peculiar sense of perception into other languages. His first effort in this category became his last universally legitimized masterpiece. Capturing the cosmopolitan cool of Britain’s swinging mod movement (including scenes with rock act The Yardbirds and a score by Herbie Hancock) merged with the growing sexual revolution, Antonioni delivered the dazzling Blow-Up. Featuring full frontal nudity, a peculiar pantomime finale, and a mystery made up out of the possibility of subjective interpretation, this David Hemmings/Vanessa Redgrave stunner proved that there was more to the director than torment and anxiety. Indeed, Blow-Up would explore similar sentiments, but in way that was freer and in some ways more confounding than ever before.

It stands as one of the ‘60s finest artistic achievements, mimicked by filmmakers as divergent as Brian DePalma (his blatant ‘homage’ Blow Out) and Mel Brooks (a seminal sequence in High Anxiety). Like the drug-fueled declarations of Timothy Leary, Antonioni was artist acting as revolutionary, an antagonist telling the audience to be wary of what you see, since your eyes (and by inference, the information presented to them) could fool you. Hemmings’ character, a carnal photographer who typically beds his models, becomes convinced he’s found a murder hidden inside one of his snapshots. As he continuously enlarges the image to get to the truth, his perception is skewed to the point of contradiction. Never quite sure what he sees, and unable to prove if there ever really was a crime, reality folds onto itself, resulting in a questioning of all that came before. In an era which warned against trusting anyone over 30, Antonioni’s Blow-Up argued that even something as secure as 20/20 vision needed testing as well.

Universally acclaimed, his first foray into English would, sadly be his last major success. The follow-up film, a recall of his early ‘60s scenarios set inside the US counterculture, was dismissed at the time as indulgent and dull. Indeed, Zabriske Point had all the trappings of a filmmaker finally believing his own hype. Hiring two non professional actors and working from a script with input from several divergent scribes, the almost 59 year old auteur was decidedly out of step with the dying youth movement eroding around him. Even a commissioned soundtrack featuring original music from Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead couldn’t countermand the public outcry. Flopping famously, Zabriske kept the director away from film for almost five years. He would return with his final US effort, the underappreciated Jack Nicholson vehicle The Passenger.

Less experimental and much more in tune with its times, this look at an idealist reporter’s investigation into guerrilla warfare in the African Sahara and his assumption of a gun runner’s identity played directly toward Antonioni’s strengths. It featured characters desperate to escape their unfulfilled lives and the metaphysical consequences of such self betrayal. Languid in its pace, disturbing in its ambiguity, and infamous for a final slow motion tracking shot that lasts almost eight minutes, it was pronounced pretentious and preeminent by a deeply divided critical community. Audiences, however, stayed away, having dismissed Antonioni as a filmmaker from a former era, unable to compete with the prevalent post-modern 1975 designs of novel newcomers like Coppola, Friedkin, and Scorsese. It would be another five years before the avant-garde medium test The Mystery of Oberwald (shot on video and translated to film), but after 1982’s Identification of a Woman, he wasn’t heard from again for nearly a decade.

It wasn’t inspiration that hindered Antonioni, it was health. A debilitating stroke in 1985 left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. As a result, many projects went unrealized, and he had to have the help of German filmmaker Wim Wenders to complete 1995’s Beyond the Clouds. A year later, the Academy decided to bestow a Lifetime Achievement Oscar on Antonioni (he had only been nominated previously for Blow-Up) and, in an emotional elegy, a deeply moved Jack Nicholson gave the ailing auteur his statue. Fate would continue to be cruel to the once jet-setting director. Thieves would later break into his home and steal the award (it was later replaced), and after a segment for 2004’s anthology film Eros, his physical state wouldn’t let him continue working. His death at age 94 on 30 July, 2007 was seen as a blessing by some who knew just how mightily the man suffered.

Unlike his fellow countryman Federico Fellini, who believed in imbuing his movies with as much life as possible, Antonioni was often quoted as believing all existence was meaningless and human interaction a futile joke. For him, the greatest journey was inward, toward a greater understanding of spirit and soul. The extrovert was someone to by shunned or scoffed at, while the introvert was examining the most important element, and should be celebrated for same. Many found his abstractions more demanding than delightful, and in a new millennial dialectic where all expression – good, bad, naïve, ill-conceived – is outwardly championed, it’s easy to see how Antonioni would be ignored. He wasn’t flamboyant or foolish. Instead, he was fastidious and arcane – personality quirks often associated with philosophers and fools. And true to his all-encompassing aesthetic, Michelangelo Antonioni was often both.

Trailer for Blow-Up

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