Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Top 10 things I learned since last posting

(Numbered for convenience, but in no particular order (nor do I know why I started with #10).

10. The thrift store operated by Roser Memorial Community Church on Anna Maria Island is a great place to pick up used books and other printed material that I might otherwise never have read. I've regularly walked from my parents' beach house to the little store with my kids since they were young enough to be pulled around in a little red wagon. Over Memorial Day weekend, I picked up two old issues of the London-based literary mag Granta. One of them, #54, published ten summers ago, was devoted to work by "the best of young American novelists." Prescience at work: The issue includes pieces by Sherman Alexie, Ethan Canin, Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Franzen, Lorrie Moore and a few other notables.

9. Lorrie Moore (see above) has taught at the University of Wisconsin since 1984. Moore, author of the often-anthologized short story "You're Ugly, Too" and many other polished little gems, had this to say about the relationship between teaching and writing (in an October 2005 interview with The Believer): "In general, teaching and writing use different muscles in your brains, and although they are both literary experiences of a sort, they are also exactly opposite, one taking place in solitude over large stretches of time, the other requiring short jarring bursts of community, which are sometimes very pleasurable and can make your own work alone at your desk feel more depressing." I need to remind my UW-bound English-professor friend M. to look up Moore when he gets a chance.

8. Plenty of writers, like Moore, and several friends (including O. Henry Prize winner Karen Brown) who are pursuing doctoral studies after graduating from USF's creative writing grad program, are torn between teaching and fiction writing. And many decide ... not to decide. Angela Pneuman, author of the aforementioned story on Moore, is described as "schizophrenically working on a novel and a Ph.D." I keep running into super-talented writers who and simultaneously maintain steady teaching schedules and crank out a lot of fiction. A very short list: T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates.

7. BTW, Karen's story, "Unction," originally published in The Georgia Review, can be found in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006 (Anchor Books/Random House). She's in great company: The anthology also includes stories by Alice Munro, William Trevor and Louise Erdrich.

6. Life is full of near-misses and what if?s. I knew this already, but ... my young daughter dashed out in front of a van at the intersection of Gulf Drive and Magnolia on Anna Maria. And from where I was standing, it looked like she was inches from death (and the a--- didn't even slow down). Just a few hours later, my brother-in-law learned that one of the two partners at his company was killed in a motorcycle accident in Tampa. No one's safe.

5. Brothers and sisters always fight. At my parents' beach house over the weekend, this was aptly demonstrated by three sets of young bro-sis siblings, including my own children. Is sibling rivalry more intense between siblings of the opposite sex than between those of the same sex?

4. Aaron Neville grabbed some well-taken screen time during a scene at a lounge in Mulholland Falls, the 1996 neo-noir period piece set in Los Angeles. Late at night, I flipped between that film and, mostly, L.A. Confidential, also concerned with LAPD police corruption in the 1950s. The latter truly is one of the best noir films since noir was noir (I'd put Chinatown in that category, too). Curtis Hanson elicited superb, perhaps career-best performances from Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell and even Danny DeVito, and you can cut the atmosphere with a knife. That reminds me: I need to get around to reading the James Ellroy novel that inspired the film. Hanson has gone on to more good work, including The Wonder Boys and the surprisingly rewarding chick flick In Her Shoes, but here's figuring he's gonna have a touch time relocating the oomph and cinematic drive and pure, instinctual storytelling he nailed with L.A. Confidential.

3. Teen-sex movies of the '80s, primed by National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), were far raunchier than the teen-sex movies of the '90s and early '00s, as Andy Sellsberg writes in an amusing and insightful essay in the new issue of The Believer. Why? According to Sellsberg: "Teenagers are now able to mainline pictures of nude women via the internet, so teen sex comedies need to bring something other than female bodies—they need to have story, characters, jokes. Fifteen years later, American Pie vindicates the teen sex comedy formula." I can tell you exactly where I was when I was titillated by Animal House: As a high-schooler, I caught it at the now-defunct Grove Park cinemas in Lakeland, with my then-best friend, Bobby Wyckoff. We also saw Alien together, at the old Jerry Lewis cinemas at the (now-defunct) Lakeland Mall. And when we were even younger, we sneaked into Serpico, at the old General Cinemas next to the (now-defunct) Zayre's store on South Florida Avenue. It was rated "R," but there was a bathroom between that theater and the one next, showing a PG, or GP movie. Sort of sad that I have to keep using the adjective "now-defunct" to describe some of the haunts of my childhood. It wasn't that long ago.

2. Phil Morrison's Junebug was the best "Southern" movie of 2005. Nice reading Gary Hawkins' assessment of the movie in the new issue of Oxford American, lately one of my favorite magazines (along with Paste, see below; No Depression; Film Comment; Cineaste; and The New Yorker). Amy Adams deservedly grabbed an Oscar nomination, but the Academy Awards folks didn't exactly give their props to the filmmakers, according to Hawkins: "When I asked Goldberg about her visit to the Oscars, she told me that she (the woman who made it happen) and Phil (the guy who brought the words to life) and Angus (the guy who thought it all up) were not officially invited, but scored a couple of nosebleed seats after endless badgering of the Academy officials." The references are to screenwriter Angus MacLachlan and producer Mindy Goldberg. For my money, David Gordon Green's Undertow was the best "Southern" film of 2004.

1. When it comes to pure pop/power pop, nobody does it better than Matthew Sweet. Sweet's Girlfriend was, hands down, one of the best pop/rock albums of the 1990s. And he sounds like he's back on track with Under the Covers, Vol. 1, a new collaboration with ex-Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs. It's a tribute to their favorite '60s artists. I just heard their version of the Left Banke's "She May Call You Up Tonight," and it has all of that jingling, jangling, wall-of-pop sweetness that you just knew it would have. Thanks to Paste for including the track on the mag's latest sampler, #22, in the June/July issue.

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