The Rumpus interview with Dinaw Mengestu

October 19, 2010 at 7:24 am (read)

I have an interview up on arts/culture website The Rumpus today with author Dinaw Mengestu.

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Dinaw Mengestu’s name may be hard to pronounce (dih-NOW men-GUESS-too), but you’ll soon be hearing it a lot more. Earlier this year, the Ethiopian-born author was named to The New Yorker’s list of the top 20 fiction writers under age 40, and his second novel, How to Read the Air, was published last week. Like his acclaimed debut, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the new novel explores the dislocation of African immigrants. This time around, the narrator is Jonas Woldemariam, a withdrawn and slippery character who, following the death of his father and the collapse of his marriage, retraces a road trip his Ethiopian immigrant parents took through the Midwest 30 years earlier. Just don’t believe everything he says.

I caught up with Mengestu last weekend before a reading at The Booksmith in San Francisco, where he talked about the importance of imagination, responded to his “ridiculous” recent New York Times review and lied to my face (by request).


Check out the interview here!



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The Best of the New Yorker Festival

October 19, 2010 at 7:18 am (Uncategorized)

Here’s a way-delayed cross-posting of my recap of The New Yorker Festival, which took place in early October.

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This past weekend, I went to the annual New Yorker Festival, where the magazine rounds up its formidable roster of contributors, subjects and friends for a weekend of talks and performances. The five events I attended had sex, violence, music, humor and mutant radioactive albino crocodiles. Here are the best parts of the weekend:

1. The Jason Schwartzman promo for the magazine’s new iPad app. The short film, which was screened before every event, finds the handlebar-mustachioed actor demonstrating the app in a series of odd situations (in the shower; at a piano singing about the cartoon gallery). It was progressively funnier for the first three viewings; the fourth and fifth were not quite as amusing.

2. Alec Baldwin’s charm. “Alec Baldwin is here because I love him,” said interviewer Ariel Levy. “I’m glad you could all be here for our date.” The 30 Rockboss has an undeniable smarmy appeal, brandished in discussions of his early ambitions (to be President), impressions of Tracy Morgan and Marlon Brando, and mockery of early roles like the tough-guy boyfriend in Working Girl. In 2008, The New Yorker published a fantastic profile of Baldwin, who, far from resting on his laurels (or Emmys), seems perennially dissatisfied with his life and career. At the talk, he pointed out (and repeatedly demonstrated) an acting tick that’s been bugging him, where he adds emphasis to Jack Donaghy’s lines by doing a “vibrating, metronomic” movement with his head. It sounds weird to call a large, 52-year-old man with a history of anger problems endearing, but he was.

3. Childhood memories at the “Sex and Violence” panel. Fiction writers Wells Tower (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned), Joyce Carol Oates (her latest isSourland) and Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) were asked about when they first experienced the thrill of violence. Tower revealed some fierce horseplay with his brother: “I hit him in the face with a bat and threw a knife at his throat.” Later, when talking about the hypersexualization of the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic-born Díaz recalled childhood advice: “Always have two girlfriends—play them off each other,” said mom. And from his uncle: “Only women with big asses. Remember that.”

4. The mutant radioactive albino crocodiles in Werner Herzog’s new movie,Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The 3-D documentary is about the Chauvet Cave in France where, in 1994, archaeologists discovered astonishing paintings, depicting rhinos, cave bears, horses and more, that date back 32,000 years. A postscript to the film features greenhouses, some 20 miles from the cave and heated with excess water from a nuclear power plant, that house hundreds of crocodiles, whose offspring include albino creatures. Herzog imagines what those crocodiles might think if they saw the cave paintings. The animals are actually alligators, and their mutation has nothing to do with radioactivity. “So what?” said Herzog. “There should be imagination, the ecstasy of truth.” And indeed Herzog has gone beyond simple documentation, musing, in his offbeat way, on spirituality, history and the very nature of human-ness.

5. The transformative power of performance at “From Russia with Spunk,” with Regina Spektor. In conversation with writer Michael Specter, the 30-year-old musician was adorable: tiny, giggly, with a high voice and a habit of saying “you know” every five seconds. Then when she took to the piano, she unselfconsciously unleashed bold, passionate songs and sounds, from a barking dolphin imitation in “Folding Chair” to the ominously beautiful, pounding “Après Moi.” Spektor’s songs have the drama and quirk of musical theater, so it’s welcome news that she’s almost done composing the music for an upcoming Broadway show based on the story of Sleeping Beauty.

6. The range of writer Ian Frazier. The reporter and humorist spoke with editor David Remnick about his ambitious, 500+ page new book Travels in Siberia, which he’s been working on since 1993. He took five trips to the region, which has a tragic and mythic history, a vast geography spanning eight time zones, and a climate that alternates between frozen tundras and mosquito-blanketed swamps. But apparently it’s fun and funny there, too. Frazier, who wrote the well-known humor piece “Coyote v. Acme” (it’s styled as a lawsuit by Wile E. Coyote against the maker of defective, explosive products), described Siberia as a land of “extreme humor”: “Russia is like slapstick, only you actually die.” Little-known fact: before coming toThe New Yorker, Frazier worked for the Hugh Hefner-owned magazine Oui, for which he “wrote captions for pictures of naked people.”


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Say it again, Sam*

September 25, 2010 at 6:48 pm (read, watch)

One of my least favorite things about being a journalist in the era of 800 million news outlets is that you end up interviewing people who have been interviewed a dozen times before, asking them many of the same questions that all the other journalists asked them. I’ve had stories where I think I’ve gotten a good quote, and then I see the exact same one in another article.

But hey, it happens to the best. In the run-up to The Social Network, the Aaron Sorkin-scripted, David Fincher-directed film about the fraught founding of Facebook, New York magazine and The New York Times are among the publications writing about the movie that “defines the decade” (or so says Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers).

Here’s David Fincher to Mark Harris, in New York magazine’s Sept. 27 cover story, “Inventing Facebook:”

“I know what it’s like to be 21 years old and trying to direct and sitting in a room full of grown-ups who think you’re just so cute but aren’t about to give you control of anything,” says Fincher. “I know the anger that comes from when you just want to be allowed to do the things that you know you can do…”

Fincher to David Carr, in The New York Times’ “A Zillion Friends, and a Few Enemies:”

“I know very subjectively what it’s like to be 21 years old and sitting in a room full of adults who are all taking about how cute your passion for your vision is and how angry that makes you,” he said.

At Jonathan Franzen’s City Arts & Lectures appearance in San Francisco last week, he took a long pause before answering one question about family in his writing. He said that he’d been answering so many questions that he’d found himself repeating answers, and wanted to avoid that, but there were only so many ways to respond.

You can’t fault the press for asking relevant questions, and you can’t fault interview subjects for these semi-canned answers, because they want the press, and there really aren’t that many ways to impart the same information. Most people won’t read multiple articles on the same subject, unless they have read everything by Franzen and/or think Jesse Eisenberg (who plays Mark Zuckerberg) is very cute. There’s just the nagging question, what’s the point of 100, or even 10, articles about the same movie? I defended (or rather, had Lydia Davis defend) multiple translations of classic novels last week. But when I go to, say, the press page of the movie Touching Home, and see the links to 52 articles (not counting TV and radio interviews), one of which is mine, it starts to feel a little pointless. What to do? A) Only write about really obscure things, or B) keep writing until you can write the best damn article out there.

(Here’s looking at you, kid.)

*yes, I know “Sam” has nothing to do with this, but “David” messes up my not-that-funny joke.

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The Tricky World of Translation

September 16, 2010 at 9:21 pm (Uncategorized)

I have a friend who is translating The Iliad from Latin, for fun, and I have to admit that on hearing of his undertaking my first reaction was, why? Hasn’t that been done already, a lot? Yesterday The Paris Review’s blog provided a great reminder of the importance of new and multiple translations. Short story writer and French translatorLydia Davis, whose version of Madame Bovary comes out September 23, discusses a few cultural issues, then offers this gem:

How many ways, for instance, has even a single phrase (bouffées d’affadissement) from Madame Bovary been translated:

gusts of revulsion

a kind of rancid staleness

stale gusts of dreariness

waves of nausea

fumes of nausea

flavorless, sickening gusts

stagnant dreariness

whiffs of sickliness

waves of nauseous disgust

Multiply that by the thousands and thousands of words in a story or novel, and wow. Of course I knew that translation was far from a literal, straightforward process but this simple example made its nuanced and seemingly fraught nature much more concrete. Davis will be writing at The Paris Review about translation for the next two weeks; it definitely seems worth following.

Discussions about translation popped up this spring and summer in the wake of acclaimed Spanish translator Edith Grossman’s book Why Translation Matters. While addressing an art that is “often ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented,”Grossman explains her task and challenge (as Tim Parks cites in this article in The New York Review of Books) as:

‘To hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient, cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate.’

After which, the translator seeks to

‘re-create…within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work.’

Whew. In an interview on the New York Times blog Papercuts a couple years back, Natasha Wimmer, who translated Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666, described the special knowledge, beyond language, required of a translator—2666, for example, required her to research Black Panther history, WWII German army terminology and obscure divination and forensic science vocabulary.

Yet much of the time, a reader (or at least this reader) pays very little attention to a translation. A few months ago I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, which has a peculiar, quirky yet matter of fact voice. I actually forgot that I was not reading the original (Murakami does speak English), until it hit me partway through—“Oh right, this was translated! I wonder what is different.” Turns out, quite a lot: The English-language publication, translated by Jay Rubin, is actually an abridged version of the Japanese (under orders from Knopf, the American publisher). You can read an interesting discussion about translating Murakami on the Random House website.

That conversation also includes another vivid example of the elusive nature of translation (in this case, three-point translation), from Philip Gabriel, who translated the Murakami novel Sputnik Sweetheart:

In chapter five there was a short quote from Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin. In cases like this–quotes in Japanese from other languages–of course you need to find the original language, and with languages other than English, I try to locate a reputable, existing translation… I located four different versions of the poem, from which I copied out these translations of the lines:

(1) He had no itch to dig for glories/ Deep in the dust that time has laid.

(2) He lacked the slightest predilection/for raking up historic dust.

(3) He lacked the yen to go out poking/Into the dusty lives of yore–

(4) He had no urge to rummage/in the chronological dust.

…Seeing all four versions side by side was a mini-revelation to me. When I got home I pinned these all to my bulletin board–where they still remain–as a reminder of a simple truth, namely that there are so many possible translations of even one line.

These examples are only on a linguistic level, and there is of course much to sayabout the cultural importance of translation; about how translated texts open up the world of writing and help us connect with people and countries we otherwise never would. With that in mind, I’m going to head over to Words Without Borders—a magazine and website devoted to translating and publishing international literature—and get reading.

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The latest literary adaptation: “Baster” and “The Switch”

August 25, 2010 at 11:09 am (read, watch)

I have an essay on The Millions today about The Switch, the recent film adaptation of the Jeffrey Eugenides short story “Baster.” (Eugenides is best known for his novels Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, but “Baster” is a sharp, funny little story.) 

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In 1999, Sofia Coppola adapted Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides into her debut film. The movie was remarkably faithful—perhaps too faithful—to the book, preserving the languid mood, reverential but impersonal treatment of the doomed Lisbon girls, and unusual, first person plural narrative voice.

Last Friday a very different Eugenides adaptation, The Switch, hit the big screen. Based on a short story called “Baster,” which was originally published in 1996 in The New Yorker, the film stars Jennifer Aniston as Kassie, a 40-year-old single woman who decides to get pregnant using a handsome sperm donor. What she doesn’t know is that Wally, her neurotic best friend (and one-time boyfriend), played by Jason Bateman, has replaced the donor’s sample with his own during the drunken party to celebrate her insemination. 

Adapting a short story is a different animal from book-to-movie adaptations, and a challenge I’ve been thinking more about after spending the summer working at Zoetrope: All-Story. Francis Ford Coppola founded the magazine with the idea that short stories are more akin to film (and perhaps better source material) than are novels, as both stories and movies are meant to be consumed in one sitting. Each issue of Zoetrope includes a story that has been adapted to the screen: Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (The Illusionist, 2006), Alice Munroe’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (Away from Her, 2006), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008’s movie of the same name), among many others.

“Baster” is a good opportunity for an adaptation. It’s funny, with a high-concept plot, and it’s not impressionistic or experimental. (Neil Burger, who wrote and directed The Illusionistcalled the Millhauser story that was his source “unfilmable.”) The story lays solid groundwork, but its length—only 6 pages—and unresolved ending gives the screenwriter freedom to make it his own. And individual short stories rarely have a large audience, so aside from, uh, people writing on literary websites, there aren’t fans of the original telling the writers/directors how they messed up or didn’t honor the source. …

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Read the rest over at The Millions!

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In Praise of Precocious Narrators

July 29, 2010 at 7:38 am (read)

I have an essay published today at the literary criticism website The Millions, about my love for novels with precocious child narrators:

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In Dan Chaon’s story “Prodigal,” from his collection Among the Missing, the narrator says: “When I was young, I used to identify with those precociously perceptive child narrators one finds in books. You know the type. They always have big dark eyes. They observe poetic details, clear-sighted, very sensitive… Now that I have children of my own… I think of that gentle, dewy-eyed first person narrator and it makes my skin crawl.”

New York Times review of the recent novel Mercury Under My Tongue praised the book by saying of its protagonist, “Fortunately, unlike the precocious child narrators that populate so much fiction, there isn’t a whiff of gee-whiz wonderment or innocence about him.”

I love precocious narrators. Of course the child narrator is not a new construct, but some of the most buzzed-about novels of the 2000s, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, have featured memorable young leads. The books have met with both exuberant acclaim and accusations of being cloying, gimmicky, mannered, precious, faux-innocent, forced, unbelievable, exasperating, show-offy, or just plain annoying. But I admire the books’ inventiveness, and I love the characters’ idiosyncratic voices, unapologetic intelligence and bold curiosity. And, like Chaon’s narrator, and probably like many lifelong readers, I see a bit of myself in them.

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Read the rest over at The Millions!

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The pleasures and perils of meeting favorite authors

June 30, 2010 at 1:29 am (read)

Since I am an enthusiastic reader, there are a lot of authors with whom I would love to be friends. We’d meet at a reading, hit it off, grab coffee—and voila! I’d have a glittery and talented new companion who would not only tolerate my endless discussion of books and reading and the literary life, but welcome and enrich it. So it was with great interest that I read a couple of recent essays that chronicle disastrous meetings with literary heroes.

At The Paris Review’s newish blog, Justine van der Leun writes about meeting her (unnamed) literary hero, whose work she had been reading since age 15. She struck up an e-mail correspondence, then wanted more:

“If MLH [My Literary Hero] and I got along famously over e-mail, I figured, we could potentially be best friends in real life. So when I took a cross-country trip several months after my first e-meeting with MLH, I wrote to tell him I’d be passing through his outpost and asked if I could buy him a drink. By ‘passing through’ I meant ‘driving thirteen straight hours out of my way.’ ”

Alas, their encounter was highly awkward:

“The more I tried to impress MLH, the less impressed he was. The situation spiraled downward rapidly: My mounting insecurity obscured any charm I might have mustered. I blathered. I blabbed. I prayed for the power to shut up.”

Her general takeaway is, stay away, and don’t let the reality ruin the fantasy. But the temptations are many. Most authors are fighting for attention and readers and therefore have websites with “contact me” links, calling out for e-mails. And imagine the e-mails the author would send! Literate, witty, filled with the lyrical/ funny/ emotional/ sharp/ insert adjective here writing that made you fall in love with his or her books in the first place. But instead of being mass-produced, they would be just for you.

After that initial contact, the possibilities seem endless. The slippery slope—the idea that a relationship with your favorite author could progress from an e-mail or meeting at a reading to a drink to dinner to a whirlwind affair to marriage—is uncomfortably explored in Elizabeth Ellen’s piece from June’s Bookslut, called “Stalking Dave Eggers.” She lays out her tale of obsession and delusion:

“Dave Eggers and I were in love. The fact that no one else knew it did not bother me. I was similarly unbothered by the fact that my communications with Dave were limited to e-mail exchanges, the great bulk of which occurred between the hours of 8 am and 4 pm, Monday through Friday, or that Dave did not e-mail me from his McSweeney’s account, or from an account registered in his name, but instead wrote me from a Hotmail address which incorporated a Tragically Hip lyric and entered my inbox as “Homeless Funambulist.” I figured Dave had his reasons. He was, after all, a self-described genius who in the aftermath of his parents’ death had managed to raise his little brother by himself, start two magazines and write a bestselling memoir. Who was I to question his methods?”

Several times during the piece, she inserts this warning from a friend: “You realize, of course, that you come off sounding completely insane in this essay.”

Yes. Yes, she does. But though her delusions run deeper than I imagine most readers’ do, who among the truly book-loving has not fallen for an author, either in an abstract intellectual-crush way, or because their jacket photo looks like Johnny Depp with sexy glasses? (And then you read Modern Love one weekend and find out that his wife died and left him a single father of a young daughter, and it’s so touching and now you feel like you really know him, because that’s the power of words—to bring you deep into a person’s life and brain and heart.) Books feel so intimate—as van der Leun writes, “The allure of a literary idol is, in large part, the unspoken conviction that you and this brilliant stranger understand each other.”

For Ellen, falling prey to that unspoken (in fact, entirely unacknowledged) conviction of a connection with Eggers made her feel deeply ashamed. Nicholson Baker, who wrote U and I, a literary memoir of sorts about his obsession with John Updike, talked in an interview with Salon about grappling with his own humiliation, like admitting that he felt hurt that Updike, who he did not know, golfed with Tim O’Brien instead of with him.

Since Baker’s book, published in 1991, popular culture has become quite enamored with memoir and self-exposure. Sharing highly personal details with the public is commonplace, and in fact is a pretty good way to get attention. I think what distinguishes these authors’ shame from, say, that which many reality show stars should be feeling, is the element of delusion. It makes people suspicious; it hints at mental imbalance, rather than poor taste, and comes with a side of pity. But fantasy is the playground of the creative writer.

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Though I have never stalked authors across state lines, I have written to several. Writing is such solitary business, and so often underappreciated, that the authors—all of whom wrote back—seemed genuinely grateful for my kind words. Then again, they are fiction writers.

The first author I wrote to was Amanda Stern, mostly to tell her about a specific moment I loved in her book:

In The Long Haul, the protagonist and her mother look at a picture:

“I love that picture of you,” she says.

“What picture?” I ask.

“That one,” she says, pointing to a picture of the Alcoholic. She picks it up, presses her finger on a blur in the background. The oil on her finger marks the glass over the unfocused girl, over me. I squint, press the glass to my face and examine. I see then that it is me. A foggy gray wind. My face is faint underneath, like panty lines.

I found the image of panty lines so offbeat yet dead-on that I made a painting based on it, using elastic cut from the edges of underwear. It was meant to evoke a fingerprint, a portrait, an absence. I used pale blue, because in middle school I had a pair of capri pants that color that gave me the worst panty lines ever, and I don’t think I’d yet discovered thongs.

Next I wrote to Rudolph Delson after enjoying his novel Maynard & Jennica, as well as his sparse yet amusing website. He wrote back, and told me that his next novel was about a troll. I eagerly await it.

J. Robert Lennon wowed me with his collection Pieces for the Left Hand, and I just wanted him to know that. When I came back at him this spring with a “So, I wrote to you before…” e-mail, he graciously agreed to an interview.

My favorite author—the author I talk about so much that friends and loved ones know to send me links to articles by and about him and make me birthday cards featuring blow-ups of his handsome (and mocked) headshot—is Jonathan Franzen. Several years ago, I spent a summer living in New York, and I had an epiphany: I am in New York. Jonathan Franzen lives in New York! I should write him a letter, and then maybe he will write back and then we will get coffee and then I already explained how this slippery slope works. I sent my letter off to his publisher, then waited. And waited. And the day I left New York, while sitting in the airport, I got a call from my ex-roommate that a postcard had arrived.

Reading it now, there’s a layer of sadness. I had mentioned that I had seen him read at my college, on my birthday. “I remember that Pomona reading well,” he wrote. “I was nervous with Dave W. & his wife there, and I flubbed about ten lines.” Dave W. is David Foster Wallace, a Pomona professor and a good friend of Franzen’s, who committed suicide in September 2008.

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A reader may engage with writers and their characters through simply reading, or by e-mailing, painting, going to talks or imagining love affairs. Understanding may go two ways, but probably only one. Yet holding someone’s heart in my hands and feeling connected as I turn the pages is what keeps me reading every day.

Plus, Franzen is coming to San Francisco in September, so maybe I still have a chance.

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Will the real Christina Aguilera please stand up?

June 13, 2010 at 8:15 pm (hear)

Christina Aguilera has always been my favorite pop star. From the moment “Genie in a Bottle” hit the airwaves in 1999, I was hooked. She was in the pages of my teen magazines, but unlike the other young blondes, she had a voice that soared. I saw her in concert in 7th grade, with Destiny’s Child opening. A friend once gave me her Christmas CD, and though now I can’t find it, I remember liking even that.

Aguilera has said that every album has been a 180 degree turn from the previous one, and her songs range from bubblegum pop to throwback jazz to pulsing club music. She reinvents herself yet again on Bionic, her electronica-influenced, split-personality new album, but what’s ultimately missing is humanity.

Despite her constantly changing image and sound, Aguilera’s songs are full of strong declarations about who she is: I am beautiful. I’m a prima donna. Thanks for making me a fighter. On the Bionic track “I Am,” co-written by Australian musician Sia, Aguilera sings:

“I am timid/ And I am oversensitive/
I am a lioness/
I am tired and defensive/
You take me in your arms/
And I fold into you/
I have insecurities/
You show me I am beautiful”

This song–pleading, twinkling and orchestral–is jarring next to the catchy but off-putting album closer, “Vanity”:

“I’m not cocky
I just love myself, bitch.
Mirror mirror on the wall
Who’s the fliest bitch of them all?
Never mind, I am
That bitch is so fucking pretty
Yeah I am”

Later in “I Am” come these lyrics:

“I am temperamental/
And I have imperfections/
And I am emotional/
I am unpredictable/
I am naked/
I am vulnerable”

Contrast that with the song “Desnúdate,” with these nuanced bilingual lyrics:

“Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (for me)”

Through Aguilera’s morphing styles, the connective tissue has been sex appeal. She has vamped her way through multiple incarnations: the teenaged teasing of “Genie in a Bottle,” the smoldering Latin sounds of her Spanish-language album, the drag queen make-up and corsetry of “Lady Marmalade,” Stripped’s sweaty, dirrty girl chaps, the retro-glam naughtiness of Back to Basics, and now Bionic’s robotic, sexed-up club girl with a penchant for leather and fetish gear.

But she has never been someone whose sex appeal seems effortless, who has that enviable quality of not trying too hard. (She has also been explicit about her message, that sexuality is empowering.) From the platinum hair to the tight clothing to the excessive make-up to the sexual moaning (ex: “Desnúdate’), you can see the work.

It is unfortunate for Aguilera that Lady Gaga arrived before Bionic, so outfits and come-ons that were previously attention-getting now read as desperate: At the recent MTV Movie Awards, she performed with a glowing, pulsing LED heart on her crotch. I want to shake her by the shoulders and say, “You are beautiful, no matter what gossip blogs say. So stop wearing shiny red hot pants over sparkly tights.” Or, as Tim Gunn would say, “I’m concerned about your taste level.”

Bionic marks Aguilera’s entry into electronica/dance music, with collaborators like Le Tigre and MIA, but she doesn’t yet seem comfortable with her new persona. The first single, “Not Myself Tonight,” with its NSFW bondage-sexy video, finds her declaring, “The old me’s gone, I feel brand new, and if you don’t like it: fuck you.” But the lack of authenticity—there’s plenty of auto-tune and synthesized beats—seems an odd stylistic choice, given that Aguilera’s strengths are her astonishing voice and the powerful emotions it can express, even through the oversinging. An Entertainment Weekly article about making Stripped talked with songwriter and producer Linda Perry about recording “Beautiful”:

“Perry ended up using Aguilera’s guide vocal — her rough first take — on the finished song. ‘She had a hard time accepting that as the final track. It’s not a perfect vocal — it’s very raw,’ says Perry… Still, Perry was able to convince Aguilera to forego perfection in favor of the track’s unvarnished emotion.”

That song maintains its hold: Glee recently used the empowerment anthem as a climax in the episode “Home.”

Aguilera’s 2006 album Back to Basics was a surprising twist from dirrty to Marilyn Monroe-glamorous, but it played to her strengths. Blues, soul, jazz, big band: they can be sexy and sultry, but also have playfulness and heart. It’s not on the album, but watch this video of Aguilera singing James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” at the 2007 Grammy Awards. I’ll wait.

She is feeling the music, throwing herself into it, shaking that microphone, down on her knees on the stage, going all the way for a piercing high note that, though it enters shrieking territory, makes you hold your breath. Patti Smith later told Rolling Stone that it was “one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen…I sat and watched it, and at the end, I just involuntarily leapt to my feet. It was amazing.”

If you’re talking competitive advantage, what can Aguilera do that Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and other pop tarts can’t? Sing. Really sing, with a voice that comes from deep inside her. So even though there are some fun dance tracks on Bionic that seem to lift a page from my other favorite platinum blonde, Gwen Stefani, it kills me to hear Aguilera talk-sing her way through songs like “Glam,” coo on the limp and frankly kind of gross “Sex for Breakfast,” or be auto-tuned into oblivion on the title track.

In middle school I read Whispers From the Grave, a great book that unfortunately appears to be out of print. It was set in 2070, and was about a girl who discovers that her embryo had been frozen, and she has a twin sister who was murdered in 1970. She has to use her psychokinetic powers (strengthened by a special visor contraption) to go back in time and prevent her sister’s death. One detail that has stuck with me is that, in the future, all the music had artificial, robotic “singers” with perfectly tuned voices. So when the character goes back in time and hears songs from the ’60s, she’s struck by the humanity in the singers—that they occasionally miss a note, that their voices crack, that they contain emotion.

With Bionic, Aguilera has made herself into futuristic sexbot, trading depth for dance beats, her voice for vanity. But if she’s open to inspirations and collaborators, I’d say forget Gaga and go for Janelle Monae. On her new album, The ArchAndroid, Monae adeptly blends a futuristic vision with funk, soul and electronic influences, and her idiosyncratic, singular personality shines through. I’d love to hear what those two women would create, and who–finally–Christina Aguilera would reveal herself to be.

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So You Think You Can Dance killed my lifelong love of gymnastics

May 27, 2010 at 8:39 am (watch)

The seventh season of So You Think You Can Dance premieres tonight, and man, that show makes me wish I could.

I was a gymnast when I was younger, though you’d never know from the fact that now I can barely touch my toes until after an hour of yoga. I spent only a few months in ballet class when I was four years old, until I discovered that cartwheels were way more fun than trying to crank my feet into fifth position.

Since then I’ve watched nearly every championship meet, every Olympic competition. I loved Shannon Miller and the Dominiques (Dawes and Moceanu) up through Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin. My first job was as a gymnastics teacher. In college, I wrote a script about an elite gymnast. But dance? In my limited exposure, I found much of it prissy or self-seriously “about” something that I didn’t get. Thanks, but no thanks.

Then one day my new roommate turned on So You Think You Can Dance.

My rule is that I only watch reality shows where the stars actually have talent—cooking or fashion designing, yes; famewhores yelling at each other or making out in a hot tub, no. (I fell off the wagon recently with a binge of The Millionaire Matchmaker… but matchmaking is a talent, right? And I’m not the only one who has succumbed to Patti’s charms.) The dancers on SYTYCD blew me away with their skill, strength, beauty, unabashed love of and dedication to the art form, and willingness to attempt the foxtrot, paso doble or lyrical jazz despite being a krumper (see: last season’s winner, Russell). Dancing in pairs, the contestants must find chemistry with their partners, but they also must connect to the audience–after all, the fans call in to vote for “America’s favorite dancer.”

The biggest difference between the show and my previous experience was being welcomed into the world of dance. For the uninformed, dance can be alienating. Ballet is ruled by complicated, often rigid conventions and specific, French-named moves, and draws from a canon of works about which I know nothing. (Uh, Balanchine?) Modern dance can be plain weird, and use a vocabulary of movement so unfamiliar that viewers don’t know how to respond. One great advantage of SYTYCD is the behind-the-scenes footage. Seeing the choreographers talk about the inspiration for a dance—anything from addiction to a hummingbird pollinating a flower—and following the rehearsal process demystifies the art, helping a general audience feel engaged. Even Christopher Wheeldon, considered the most important contemporary ballet choreographer, presented short rehearsal films during the inaugural season of his company Morphoses (from which he resigned in February). As Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker in 2007:

“The films… were very good: sexy, sweaty. But their purpose, I believe, was to give the audience a toehold on the ballet before the curtain went up, and also to give them the pleasure, as they watched the piece, of recognizing steps. (“Oh, that’s the passage they were working on in the film.”) No art, not even opera, is more clad in snobbery than ballet. These little movies were an attack on that, and God bless them.”

So then SYTYCD, a reality show—that crass, dumb genre—is a full-on assault on the rarified realm of dance. But the vibe isn’t violence—it’s openness. Nigel Lythgoe, the show’s executive producer, likes to pat himself on the back for bringing dance to the masses. Annoying self-congratulatory-ness aside, it’s true. Most people at home on the couch had probably never seen Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, let alone a strange contemporary piece about two crash test dummies falling in love, and now they’re being shown that dance can be for them, too. Last year I went to several dance performances, a direct result of enjoying the series.

Then a funny thing happened. In the fall, I watched the United States’ Bridget Sloan and Rebecca Bross take first and second place in the Gymnastics World Championships, and I felt nothing. Admittedly, we’re still in the post-Olympic slump, and there’s not a truly exciting talent on the scene, but where was the charisma? The emotion? Those young girls, inwardly focused, dutifully jumped and flipped, toes pointed, ticking off each routine’s required elements for the judges. But you’ll never see a gymnastics judge moved to tears by a performance, as happens surprisingly often on SYTYCD. The dancers are as passionate as they are technically accomplished, as Salon’s Heather Havrilesky summed up in this thoughtful examination of SYTYCD’s appeal:

“When you watch these kids learn a different style of dance each week, you’ll recognize how some of them struggle and fail to sell it, or they’re good little robots who lack a certain flair, while others creep and shimmy and leap and flail and sneer with the raw electricity of the possessed. These are the ones who’ll grab your eye, who’ll demand your attention and respect, these rabid little weirdoes, these odd little physical magicians, who can take a hip-hop or jazz routine and turn it into a transformative, emotional roller coaster.”

Watch season 5 winner Jeanine and Jason explore the tenderness and pain of longtime friends venturing into love, or the sinuous intensity of Jakob and Ellenore dancing a creepy, sensual Sonya Tayeh routine to Oona’s “Tore My Heart.” The karaoke schlock of American Idol doesn’t stand a chance.

My relationship with gymnastics had been physical: Look at the insane things that the body can do. Marvel at how someone can bend, flip, twist, contort, spin and somehow stick an upright landing, back arched, arms thrown skyward in triumph. But through, yes, reality television, I discovered the deeper pleasures of movement that is both physical and emotional. In the language of leaps and lifts, touches and glances, the dancers tell heartfelt stories, and I’m happy that I can watch and listen.

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The Girl Who Felt Déjà vu Reading the NY Times

May 20, 2010 at 7:38 pm (Uncategorized)

Reading Michiko Kakutani’s review of the third book of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, I was hit with a moment of déjà vu. There has been a lot of coverage of the now full-blown phenomenon of these books…where had I seen these lines before?

The opening sentence of today’s review:

“Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s fierce pixie of a heroine, is one of the most original characters in a thriller to come along in a while — a gamin, Audrey Hepburn look-alike but with tattoos and piercings, the take-no-prisoners attitude of Lara Croft and the cool, unsentimental intellect of Mr. Spock.”

The opening sentence of Kakutani’s 2009 review of volume two in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire:

“Lisbeth Salander, the angry punk hacker in Stieg Larsson’s 2008 best seller, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” was one of the most original and memorable heroines to surface in a recent thriller: picture Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft endowed with Mr. Spock’s intense braininess and Scarlett O’Hara’s spunky instinct for survival.”

Oh, right.

From today’s review:

“The second installment, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” attested to the author’s improved plotting abilities, moving backward into the past even as it accelerated toward a vicious and violent conclusion.”

From last year’s review:

“Though this novel lacks the sexual and romantic tension that helped spark “Dragon Tattoo” — Salander and Blomkvist share few scenes here — it boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line that attests to Mr. Larsson’s improved plotting abilities, a story line that simultaneously moves backward into Salander’s traumatic past, even as it accelerates toward its startling and violent conclusion.”

Kakutani wrote the sentences in the first place; she’s certainly allowed to re-use her descriptions and phrases if she wishes, and writing about a series necessitates some amount of re-hashing. The echoes just struck me as a bit odd. At least it wasn’t someone else ripping her off, or vice versa. And overall Kakutani has highly praised the series, so I guess it’s time to jump on the bandwagon and read the books.

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