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  1. 1000 Words: David Milne
  2. Another Oakeshott Quote
  3. Rybczynski on What's Architecture
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  6. Snapshot of the Times -- Kodak
  7. Virtues of Localism: Group of Seven
  8. Guest Posting -- Adrian Hyland
  9. Inequality and the Rich
  10. The Forest and the Trees

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Saturday, September 27, 2003

1000 Words: David Milne
Michael Blowhard writes: Friedrich -- Your megafab posting on the Canadian painters known as the Group of Seven (here) reminded me of one of my favorite visual artists, the Canadian David Milne. Have you run into much of his work? He seems to be barely known in the States. Some of my artbuff friends haven't heard of him, and I know of him only because I saw some of his work at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario. I gather that in Canada he's seen as a national treasure, though even so he doesn't seem to be celebrated as proudly as, say, the Group of Seven or Emily Carr. But really, I don't know what Milne means to Canadian art fans. Perhaps a Canadian visitor can fill us in here? Milne lived from 1882 until 1953 and was friendly with the Group of Seven -- he was a big admirer of Tom Thomson's. Unlike them, though, he was always a go-it-alone artist, and he was drawn to oddball, quiet moods. He made plenty of oil paintings, especially early on. But he liked experimenting, and he was probably more comfortable with quicker, lighterweight, let-the-materials-do-the-talking, is-it-a-drawing-or-is-it-a-painting media -- drypoint, pen and ink, watercolor. His images are generally spare and evocative. They're tone poems, with nothing of the on-a-mission, lumberjacky quality that the Group's images sometimes had. Instead, they're caught-on-the-wing combinations of the fleeting and the sensual. They range from Bonnard-ish/Vuillard-ish interiors to icily delicate, calligraphic watercolor landscapes and townscapes. His work often has a modest, handmade, Arts-and-Craftsy out-of-it-ness -- a lucid, simple, and inquisitive attitude that shows no fear of the decorative. There was a modesty too in his use of modernist techniques and approaches. He was nothing if not an early-modernist, but he clearly saw modernism as an addition to the traditional art palette and not a replacement for it. I really love his images. To my mind, only the kinds of people who would let importance-rankings interfere with their pleasure and enjoyment -- and I'm sure there'd be no such person among visitors to 2Blowhards -- would ever think to dismiss Milne as a "minor artist." Yet, if you can accept the word "minor" not as a judgment but as a description (and I certainly can), a minor artist is exactly what he was. He was working in minor media, and in minor modes and minor keys. But he was wonderful -- a "minor artist" in the same way that, say, Isherwood was a "minor writer." A little bio: Milne was born in Ontario, and as a kid took some art correspondence courses. He moved as a young man to New York, where he supported himself making cards and window displays while studying at the Art Students League. Overseas during WWI, he never saw action but made a lot of images of postwar Europe; he received some English acclaim for this work. He lived in the woods in New York state and Massachusetts for a few years before moving back to... posted by Michael at September 27, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, September 26, 2003

Another Oakeshott Quote
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Oh, am I in a quoting mood this evening. Here's a passage I love from Michael Oakeshott's The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind. Oakeshott uses the image of a conversation to suggest what participation in a field is -- what a field may indeed be. Art, for example. In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no "truth" to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing. Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument ... In conversation ... thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other's movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions. Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part. There is no symposiarch or arbiter, not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials. Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation. And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy. Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, not is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering. Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another. Have I mentioned recently how enjoyable and rewarding the conversation that we've found in the blogosphere is? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 26, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Rybczynski on What's Architecture
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Just to mess with all our minds for a few seconds, I want to pass along this passage from "The Most Beautiful House in the World," Witold Rybczynski's terrific small book about building his own house. What's architecture? And who's an architect? It would be convenient if architecture could be defined as any building designed by an architect. But who is an architect? Although the Academie Royale d'Architecture in Paris was founded in 1671, formal architectural schooling did not appear until the nineteenth century. The famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts was founded in 1816; the first English language school, in London, in 1847; and the first North American university program, at MIT, was established in 1868. Despite the eixstence of professional schools, for a long time the relationship between schooling and practice remained ambiguous. Not one of the three best-known architects of the twentieth century -- Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier -- received a formal architectural education. The great Renaissance buildings, for example, were designed by a variety of non-architects: Brunelleschi was trained as a goldsmith, Michelangelo as a sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci as a painter, and Alberti as a lawyer; only Bramante, who was also a painter, had formally studied building. These men are termed architects because, among other things, they created architecture -- a tautology that explains nothing. It's a mess, and ain't that great. Rybczynski's book can be bought here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 26, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Morning Musings
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- My head this morning is a-swim with half-formed ideas and observations, none of which seem to want to cohere into self-standing blog postings. So why fight the muddleheadedness, eh? * My audiobook-listening life for the last few months has been devoted to making my way through three long lecture series about science from The Teaching Company: a general survey of science (buyable here), a look at quantum mechanics and relativity (here), and a survey of prehistory and the first civilizations (here). I'm learning (if not retaining) a lot, and the profs have all done heroic jobs of organizing their knowledge and information. But ...first-class and admirable though all three of these series are, the profs giving the lectures aren't great presenters. They're OK, but they're a little dull. And -- superficial, arty soul that I am -- my mind wanders. A lot. I'm reminded that one of the reasons I didn't go into science, despite a slight Sputnik-era-kid bent that direction, was that I simply had a hard time staying awake during science classes. I got the subjects, I did well enough in them -- but, lordy, my kingdom for some personality! The lecturers on these tape series try hard to bring the material alive, but not one of them has a knack for metaphor, or for any kind of verbal or performance eloquence. And not one has a sparkling or infectious personality. Ahem: to say the least. They're brilliant guys, no doubt, but they're geeks. One's the curt geek, one's the enthusiastic geek, and one's the eccentric-prof geek. So each series is a little like having a geek read a well-organized series of encyclopedia entries to you. All hail brilliant geeks, of course * Did I ever lay on you my theory of why people wind up in the fields they do? Here it is: the field you wind up in is determined most of the time not by drive or desire, but by which high school and college classes you managed to stay awake during. But maybe I'm over-generalizing here from personal experience. * Speaking of audiobooks, I find audiobooks on cassette a near-perfect medium. They're easy and convenient; no matter where you last left off, all you have to do is press "Play." Alas, cassettes are being phased out -- someday soon, all new audiobooks will be on CD, or perhaps even distributed as digital downloads. This is progress in the wrong direction; I find listening to books on CD to be a pain. The CDs are bigger and more fragile than cassettes, and it's harder to find where you left off on a CD than it is on a cassette. So I was pleased to see (looking through an issue of a magazine devoted to audiobooks) that I'm not alone. There's a lot of buzz in the audiobook-listening community about the topic -- people are really pissed off. They like cassette-based audiobooks, and see no reason why the technology should... posted by Michael at September 26, 2003 | perma-link | (56) comments

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- * Tim Hulsey gives Wesley Clark a little -- no, make that a lot of -- what-for, here. * Francis Wilson reviews Lesley Branch's new biography of a famous Regency London courtesan, here. * Kurt Thometz interviews the droll Fran Lebowitz here. * I find webpages of video clips like this one here more exciting, or at least more promising, than most theatrical movies these days. * Theater critic Alfred Hickling explains the difference between French and English farces here, and hopes neither tradition is coming to an end. * More on parking! Virginia Postrel has a column about downtown Dallas and its ugly-parking lot dramas here, and the Cranky Professor writes about campus parking pressures here. Maybe it's becoming a genuine web meme. * Ian Hamet has enlightening things to say about story structure (here) and "From Dusk till Dawn" (here). * Martine is making eager if anxious plans to move into a house together with her boyfriend Blork, here. * Aaron Haspel has been giving thought to story structure too (here), as well as to Alexander Pope (here). My favorite recent Aaron posting, though, is here -- a bizarre kind of blogger's autobiography. * Alexandra Ceely does one of her priceless compare-and-contrast postings, this one looking at three versions of The Ecstasy of St. Francis, here. * Lynn Sislo tells the story of the medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen, here. * Terry Teachout hears from a reader who has actually lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, here. Short version: it was beautiful and uncomfortable. * Did you know that Victor Salva, the writer/director of the "Jeepers Creepers" movies, is a convicted pedophile? Michelle Malkin (here) and Alan Sullivan (here) have observations to make. * Elizabeth Loftus, who a few years back helped blow the whistle on the absurd recovered-memories-of-sexual-abuse fad, is interviewed here. * Scott Chaffin, making proud mention that his wife has won a Dallas best-blogger award, here, gets in some funny jabs at the local press. * In an interview here, computer-usability guru Donald Norman talks about color vs. black and white, robots, fuzzy logic, and how videogames are beginning to turn into a kind of literature. * Will Duquette reinvents the movie medium courtesy of Imovie and his son's stuffed python, here. It's a three-part tale, all of them very amusing. * Deb English (here) sensibly decides that The Iliad reads like an action-adventure novel. * Polly Frost reads a book-length interview with the horror-movie director John Carpenter and does some thinking about audience-centric art, here. * Hallelujah -- The Oldie lives online, here. Founded a decade or so ago by Richard Ingrams as a kind of dodderers' version of The Spectator, The Oldie features rambling memoirs, meandering put-downs of what the world's become, and out-of-it scraps of this and that. It's the anti-celebrity, anti-edge, anti-youth publication, and one of the most amusingly eccentric things I've ever seen. Really, I love it: if Ralph Richardson were a magazine,... posted by Michael at September 25, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Snapshot of the Times -- Kodak
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Fascinating to read the piece about Kodak in today's WSJ by James Bandler. Did you have a chance to look at it? What the story boils down to is that Kodak, which still gets 70% of its revenue from film and film-based operations, is admitting that the consumer film business is dying. In the future, they'll be turning their attention almost entirely to digital products. A few highlights from Bandler's informative article: Over the next few years, Kodak will sell or close $1 billion worth of businesses. The company, which has terminated 30,000 jobs since 1997, will probably shrink even more. Kodak says that consumers are switching over from film to digital products twice as fast as was anticipated a mere nine months ago. Kodak will make no more big investments in traditional consumer film products. Bandler reports that Kodak is expecting to turn some of its attention to the home-printer market -- a risky move, given how competitive that field is. No word in the article about Kodak's motion-picture division. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at September 25, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Virtues of Localism: Group of Seven
Michael: As you hopefully remember, I wrote here about how misleading the notion has been that Modern Art has been a thoroughly international, de-contextualized exercise. To illustrate my contention, in another post (which you can read here) I showed how Picasso’s painting “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” derived from the religious, social and even military realities of France in his day. Well, a genius such as Picasso can be seen as a sort of permanent exception to every rule, so I thought I’d illustrate the virtues of localism in art—especially in Modern Art—with a more everyday example: the Canadian painters known as the Group of Seven. Before I get to their paintings, however, I want to sketch in some of the political, economic and geographic background and how it impacted the evolution of Canadian art. Although Canada’s history goes back many centuries, its "national consciousness" is quite a recent phenomenon. Beginning only in 1867 (when the British glued together the previously separate colonies of Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, & Nova Scotia and called them “the Dominion of Canada”), the new country expanded across the continent, signing on other British colonies as provinces. Manitoba, for example, came on board in 1870 and British Columbia in 1871, although thereafter the process slowed down; Alberta and Saskatchewan dragged their feet until 1905. During this first generation of nation-building, Canadian politics were an east-west matter but Canadian culture was oriented southward. This was, in part, a consequence of transportation: for much of the 19th century Canadians often found it easier to get to the U.S. than to other parts of Canada. As Dennis Reid remarks in his essay, “Impressionism in Canada,” during this era Canadians found it natural to express their national ambitions by borrowing the monumental landscape tradition developed by the American Hudson Valley School: …Canadian art was dominated by artists in the two principal cities of Montreal and Toronto who, following confederation some fifteen years before, had been systematically exploring the new national landscape. Their detailed, heroically scaled pictures, inspired by the work of recent British artists in the thrall of John Ruskin’s dictum of truth to nature and influenced as well by [American] luminist painters and Albert Bierstadt…embodied the optimistic expansionism of the age. L. O'Brien, Sunrise on the Saguenay, 1880 The Canadian Pacific Railway, finished—after a slow start—in 1886, finally provided a physical link for the new nation. The impact of the railroad on the Canadian art scene was intense: [The heroic landscape’s popularity peaked] in the years following the opening of the transcontinental railway in 1886—more than a third of the Art Association of Montreal’s annual spring exhibition of 1888 consisted of scenes of the newly accessible Rocky Mountains and West Coast… J. A. Fraser, The Sun's Last Kiss On The Crest of Mt. Stephen, British Columbia, 1886 The draw of America (economically and culturally) also rose to new heights in the 1880s as the Canadian economy fell into the doldrums. Large numbers of Canadians, particularly from English-speaking Ontario, migrated south... posted by Friedrich at September 25, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Guest Posting -- Adrian Hyland
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- I've written briefly before about my enthusiasm for the work of the young New Zealand film critic Adrian Hyland, so I'm pleased to be able to present one of his pieces here on 2Blowhards. Plus, hey, it's on a topic dear to this blog's heart. Is Film Dead? "Mulholland Drive" may have come and gone, but of all the reasons to see this most discussable of films an important one largely escaped public attention. David Lynch, one of the most cinematic of directors and a bona fide film "artist", shot what was widely received as his masterpiece using high definition digital video cameras. Up until now this technology has been pretty much the province of the CGI based director, in particular George Lucas and James Cameron, but in "Mulholland Drive" there are no special effects; Lynch simply used the new tools to achieve what was thought possible only when shooting on film: atmosphere, shadow and, most of all, a blazing colour palette. Perhaps it took a truly experimental film-maker like Lynch to really stretch the boundaries of the new technology and create something "personal", because despite George Lucas' noisy endorsements, other Hollywood experiments with HD have been largely unsuccessful. Witness the strangely uninvolving fight scenes in Michael Mann's "Ali", shot on HD by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and compare them with Lubezki's work on "Y Tu Mama Tambien", shot on film. The HD footage in "Ali" has a cold, harsh, almost surreal quality that keeps the viewer at a distance, while in "Y Tu Mama," the imagery is warm and suggestive. This, say purists, is the "magic" of film. They say that since film is a physical entity it is unsurprising that it looks "real" when compared with what is basically a bunch of 1s and 0s. Certainly film manufacturers Kodak, currently engaged in what can without hype be described as a global marketing battle with Sony, populate their advertising with words like "soul", "emotion", even "devotion". Grant Campbell, Kodak's Entertainment Imaging Manager for N.Z, points out that the Sony HD cameras come complete with a "memory stick", the purpose of which is to replicate as closely as possible the grainy, organic look of various film stocks. "Why would they want to do that?" Campbell wonders. At the moment the view within the industry seems to be that film is still aesthetically superior. Rob Verhoeven, Operations Manager at Auckland's South Seas Film & TV School, says of the Sony HD cameras: "If they believed they were as good as film they wouldn't need to imitate it. Film still has an edge, in terms of dynamics and contrast, over HD. HD is marvellously clean, but at the same time artificially clean." Kiwi Cinematographer Paul Richards, who has shot extensively with both film and digital cameras, seems to agree: "Film gives you greater latitude and a much broader palette, and you can achieve genuine colour. There are more possibilities with film." However the battle will not be... posted by Michael at September 24, 2003 | perma-link | (10) comments

Inequality and the Rich
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Some interesting postings on the topic of economic inequality from Daniel Drezner (here) and Jane Galt (here) have got me doing a little free-form ruminating of my own. Get ready for deepthink, Earthlings. Mainly about the rich, in truth. I've got nothing against the rich or the well-off per se. (I'm sure they'll be pleased to hear that.) I can't see why I should. In my experience, most of the top-one-percenters I've known have worked like hell to get there, and they also know enough to feel at least a little grateful and lucky to have succeeded as well as they have. They're no more likely to be saints or devils than people from other income levels are, god knows. And -- though inherited wealth does seem to change something fundamental in a person -- I've even known some pleasant-enough trust-fund babies. Besides, what's wrong with wealth? May we all become wealthy. Something that doesn't get spelled out often enough is who "the rich" are. Back when I was a smalltown middleclass boy encountering his first Really Rich People, I was horrified, hurt, and angry -- mostly for the sake of my hardworking parents, who weren't likely to be holidaying in Gstaad anytime soon. But as time has gone by and I've seen a few friends, relatives, and acquaintances grow prosperous, I've developed a more forgiving view of wealth. Most of the well-off-to-rich people I've known aren't Scrooge McDuck plutocrats. Most of the "rich" people I've known have worked 60-80 hours a week for decades, often in decidedly unglamorous businesses. They've lived for years out of suitcases, and on the road. They've made big financial and career bets. And now, in their 40s and 50s, they're finally doing well. One executive I know, for instance, is in his early 50s and makes more than half a mill a year. That's a pleasant lot of dough. But when he was 30 (not so long ago!), he was putting in endless hours, he was barely getting a chance to spend a weekend at home, and he was getting by on 40 grand. He's still working 60-hour weeks, by the way. In other words: most of them have worked hard and long for what they've got. And -- something I rarely see mentioned -- they're only going to last at this level for another decade or so, if they're lucky. In fact, most of the well-off people I know expect to be laid off in the next five years. They've gotten too expensive, and they can see the writing on the wall. Older-but-Wiser / Tiresome-Old-Fart Alert here: I've found that it's one thing to be young and indignant and say, Screw the rich, and quite another to watch a relative or friend devote decades of her life to making a success in a viciously competitive field. It's one thing to be young and indignant and say, Let's soak the rich for all they've got -- there's always... posted by Michael at September 24, 2003 | perma-link | (36) comments

The Forest and the Trees
Michael: We’ve discussed a few times why kids seem to get out of school these days having worked like galley slaves yet without able to put much context or background around what they know. I mean, I know my daughter does notably more home work than I did in high school—and I did more than most of my fellow students—and yet she is often at sea in discussing current affairs or political questions, despite being one of the sharper tool in the shed. I went to high school parents' night a few days ago and figured out at least one reason why kids today do so much homework and yet don't develop, for want of a better word, much perspective. At my daughter's school there is tremendous emphasis on what I can only describe as "teaching to the test." Every teacher is shoveling a lot of material at the students and, on top of that, every teacher is making them crank through lots and lots of reinforcement exercises. Let me give one example. My daughter is taking physiology. Her teacher first gives the kids a reading assignment in the textbook. The kids must take notes. The teacher then lectures on this material. Then the teacher hands out an exercise sheet—which the kids have to copy and hand back, to save paper(!!!)—with multiple choice questions about the material lectured on. On Thursdays, the kids can come in (on their own time) and find out the correct answers to these multiple choice questions. The tests for the class will be taken almost verbatim from these multiple choice question sheets. So on the one hand, all this makes things very clear indeed as to what you need to do (or write on the test) to get an “A.” On the other, it leaves these kids no time to ponder nuthin'. I walked away from our ten-minute session with my daughter's physiology teacher and thought, Jeez, that's just one endless memorization exercise. Granted I never took physiology so I have no idea if there is, or ever was, an alternative way to teach it, but what I saw seemed to offer no more possibilities for life lessons or higher thought than being told to memorize a 100 digit number for your final exam. It's doable, if you're sufficiently motivated, but to what end? And the issue is not confined to this one science class. Similarly narrow but very labor intensive challenges are thrown at them in history. Last night I helped my daughter cram for an exam on a lengthy portion of William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” Doing so meant I had to scan the pages of this omnibus volume for the first time in several decades. While Shirer’s book isn’t poorly written, looking at it last night made me realize how much such essentially extraneous detail (like the parliamentary maneuverings around the breakdown of the Weimar Republic) it forces you to crunch through to get to the highlights.... posted by Friedrich at September 24, 2003 | perma-link | (14) comments

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Story Structure
Michael: On a few occasions you've given me the impression that you’ve sought out training in how to structure stories. Well, the only ideas I can contribute to this discussion derive from the fact that I have a DVD player in my car and I play movies for my two-year-old son to keep him happy on car trips. My son loves to watch “Stuart Little 2”; consequently, I have listened to this film a large number of times while out doing errands. Hearing the movie all the way through repeatedly, it finally dawned on me that its basic story structure is broken up into four roughly equal parts: Part I—Introduction to our hero/heroine’s inner, emotional problem Part II—Introduction to our hero/heroine's outer, practical problem and the explanation of the link between it and the inner problem Part III—First round of engaging the practical problem Part IV--Second round of confrontation with practical problem, culminating in ultimate success or failure While this accurately described "Stuart Little 2," I was curious about how generally applicable this model might be. During this past weekend it dawned on me to make a test. I happened to pick up a copy of “The Great Bathroom Book” while, ahem, hanging out in the bathroom, and, to pass the time while I was, ahem, occupied, I scanned a one-page plot summary of "The Great Gatsby." I decided to try the "SL2" model out on "Gatsby." It would appear to go like this: Part I--Gatsby meets Daisy during his training for WWI in Louisville; he falls hard for what she represents (youth, glamour, what his lower-class life lacks.) The end of this part would show Gatsby coming back from France, only to hear that she's married rich Tom Buchanan. Part II--Gatsby, who is broke but toughened up by the war, gazes longingly on Daisy from afar while going into the bootlegging business. He intends to make a lot of money fast so he can go after Daisy on a level playing field with Tom Buchanan. Part III--Several years later, Gatsby, now well set up from his illegal activities, buys a home near Daisy's, and starts entertaining lavishly to see if he can hook up with her somehow. He does, via the narrator, and starts an affair with her. He confronts Tom Buchanan about his affair with Daisy, but she’s ambiguous about leaving Tom. Part IV--Gatsby tries to gain possession of Daisy, but ends up getting shot by Tom Buchanan's mistresses’ husband, who thinks Gatsby killed Tom's mistress in an auto accident. (Daisy, of course, was actually at the wheel.) Of course, the first part of the SL2 schema is only glancingly referred to in the novel; the second part is reduced in the text to a rumor. I can see why F. Scott may have suppressed these parts; he had written about the issues of Part I exhaustively already, and my guess is he knew nothing and cared less about the issues in Part II. But the neglect of... posted by Friedrich at September 23, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Monday, September 22, 2003

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- I remember you as a grumpy undergrad at our Lousy Ivy University, hating the profs and their stuffy reading lists, and wallowing in Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane. Do you still follow crime and P.I. fiction? If you do and you're in the mood for something fresh, I've got a recommendation: Jack Kelly's '50s-set, noirish private eye novel Mobtown (which is buyable here). I loved it. Probably the most striking thing about the book is how straight it plays the P.I.-novel game. As you know, these days the usual thing for a writer considering a P.I. novel seems to be to look at the genre and think: "Hmm, tired and squaresville. Gotta bring it back to life somehow. Gotta figure out a new way to make the form sizzle. Otherwise, what remains, right? Just the routine. Just ... genre. And we don't want that! So where's the angle? Where's the edge?" The upshot? Po-mo shenanigans, literary grandstanding, attitude-copping, and newfangled updates -- Regional! Feminist! And why not, eh? I've enjoyed some of those books myself. But what Jack Kelly has done with "Mobtown" strikes me as deeper and more exciting; he's gone ahead and written the standard thing unapologetically, as though there were no reason not to do so. He does it so well and so eloquently that he makes you wonder: "Why don't we see conventions and forms as full of potential rather than as played-out?" (And, hmmm: "Perhaps we're projecting our own spent-ness on them.") Kelly plays the classic game in a classic way, in other words -- and the result is classic in the good sense (respectful of form in a way that brings out the full body of the material) rather than in the bad (ie., dead) sense; to my mind, an example of classic in the bad sense would be the movie of "L.A. Confidential," which though well-done struck me as embalmed in its own self-consciousness. (How did you react to "L.A. Confidential," by the way?) Kelly's a sophisticated guy, so this isn't a matter of someone naive lucking out -- it's an act of high-wire art daring. I picked the book up not knowing anything about Jack Kelly, and simply because it's set in Rochester, NY, the city near where I grew up. There aren't many novels set in Rochester, to say the least, and running into such proper names as Webster, Lake Avenue, the Red Wings, and Sodus Point was more than reason enough to keep me reading. But I also kept feeling knocked-out by the book's quality; it's a big, rumbling 18-wheeler full of fiction pleasures. For one thing, it's colorful -- surprising, given the ultra-whitebread setting. To me, growing up in the '50s and '60s, that part of the world meant vanilla, cornfed, nice people being tirelessly sweet to each other -- life only 20 miles from downtown was like "Hoosiers," if with the occasional David Lynch-esque interlude. Kelly looks at the same world, heads straight... posted by Michael at September 22, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments