Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert

I was greatly shocked to see that Tim Russert died just a couple of hours ago of a sudden heart attack. Political commentator, NBC Washington bureau chief, host of "Meet the Press," and moderator of many of the recent primary debates, he was a huge force in the political media and an extremely good predictor of electoral politics. I've been watching him so long that I can't even remember when I started -- it can't be my whole life. I always thought he was a very even-handed, engaging, intelligent figure. That's not to say that I always agreed with his angles, but overall I always found him one of the ones worth watching. Especially given some of our other alternatives (that Gibson-Stephanopoulos hosted debate, anyone?) he will be sorely missed in this upcoming election and beyond. It leaves a gaping hole in our political coverage, which despite the blitz of primary attention is normally so unincisive.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Words, words, words

Once upon a time, a blond Florentine rode a cart into a great Mughal city and met the emperor who had an imaginary wife. He told the emperor a story about three boys, best friends, who grew up in Florence at the time when Savonarola was burning, and...

Likewise, once upon a time, there lived a man who wrote a book, wrote another book, hid from a fatwa, wrote more books, kissed Hugh Grant, saw that scene cut from the movie's theatrical release, married the host of Top Chef, divorced the host of Top Chef, and then... wrote a book that reminded people that he wrote books.

Salman Rushdie's new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, is a giant, complicated fairy tale set in the Renaissance era but moving all over (as you can see) from Florence to India to the New World and back. Rushdie has always been the kind of author who delights in words to the point where I think he must secretly get drunk on them, reading the OED until he falls over backwards... but this novel is simply loaded with gorgeous phrases that suit the fairy-tale quality, as well as the catalogs of synonyms that he loves. Like this: "Imagine a pair of woman's lips... puckering for a kiss. That is the city of Florence, narrow at the edges, swelling at the centre, with the Arno flowing through between, parting the two lips, the upper and the lower. The city is an enchantress. When it kisses you, you are lost, whether you be commoner or king." Or, for a reality check, a catalog of STDs.

It's a difficult novel to pin down in some ways, though it is a tremendously enjoyable read. For one thing, it's an odd genre-crossing novel, though quite decidedly a Serious Novel, I think. It's historical fiction, fairy tale, fantasy. It also provides a lengthy list of works cited with the promise to amend it if anyone complains (legal reasons? fear of the many plagiarism lawsuits that have plagued the authors of historical fiction like Ian McEwan lately?), which gives it a weird basis in reality for a novel about magic, beauty, love, and adventure.

What is more, Rushdie is famous for the overtly political facets of his novels; those are always more complicated to tease out in historical fiction/fantasy/fairy tale, though for sure they're there. His fairy tale Haroun and the Sea of Stories was seen as a commentary on free speech and the fatwa. The Enchantress of Florence is, in the same way, a musing on loyalty, religion and transnationalism just as overt as Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist that I blogged about just a couple of posts down. How could it not be, when one of the three friends goes off with the condottiere, becomes a Muslim janissary, and then comes back to be the last of the condottiere again? The nature of our interconnectedness just happens to be wrapped up in Florence and magic.

Truly enjoyable, truly beautifully written, and although it's so very long, the ending is very quick and rather unsatisfying -- I actually think it needed to be quicker and not introduce the character it introduces (there you go, no spoilers really) or else longer. Oh, and yes, I noticed in this one more than ever that Rushdie is not a great writer of women; he does pay attention to their thoughts and motivations, but talk about your confined gender roles. And don't tell me it's just the nature of the historical period. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend it. I'll have to reread it when I get back from Europe; this was a very hasty read, but I was absolutely dying to get to it after all the praise being hurled its way.

Monday, June 9, 2008

I believe! (a bit)

In the spirit of finding out more about your leaders, I generally turn not just to the Colbert Report but to that awful genre, the political autobiography. I posted about this early in the life of this blog (see "Obamarama"). Political autobiographies are uniformly thick and bland, like rice pudding with no flavoring. Hillary Clinton's Living History was no exception; she can't afford to answer the questions you'd really like to ask. I remember Jay Leno mocking it relentlessly because she describes, in vivid detail, her shock and respiratory distress when Bill finally confessed that the affair with Monica Lewinsky was real. His punchline: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me six thousand times..."

But I went back to it, like Jonathan Edwards' dog to its vomit, now that Obama is quite definitively the Democratic candidate, and dug out Dreams from my Father: A story of race and inheritance.

It's amazing.

Not that there aren't moments of blandness or telling omissions, but there is also a lot of hard reality about the entanglements of racism and racial identity, and the awful unlimits of self-deception in those regards. His relationship with his white grandparents is the most revealing -- that would be the white grandmother he mentioned in his famous speech on race who was afraid of black men walking down the street. Here also is the story of his childhood in Indonesia with his Indonesian stepfather, his tenuous relationship with his father, his slow meeting with his African half-siblings (ending with the time he spent in Kenya getting to know them), and his ridiculous floundering as a community organizer in Hyde Park. This is, in essence, the foundation of that great speech.

It is, in some ways, just a big coming to terms with racial identity that could easily lapse into the McGreevey confessional, except that it is so extremely well written, with a more complex philosophy of creating identity. (And for those who cry ghostwriter, there's a lot said now about how his law firm was so annoyed that he would just sit in his office with his feet on his desk and write his damn book. I don't doubt that there was editing, but I'm willing to believe that the fundamentals are all his.) And well structured, moving back and forth in time to juxtapose key memories.

I have not been an Obamaniac, Obama girl, or whatever other nickname you can come up with, and as a disillusioned child of the 1992 election, I am still jaded about the bright young candidate with the Kennedy blessing. But this book made me want to believe.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Epic Movie

The Australia trailer is out. You can watch it here.

I am a sucker for epic movies. I am also a sucker for Baz Luhrmann, wide-open spaces, Hugh Jackman, and trailers that feature Patrick Doyle's music from Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (he's not scoring the film). But with an uneasy touch of cynicism, I note that the trailer already looks like Titanic and Gone with the Wind and a host of other all-too-familiar things, hopefully just a marketing trick. I also hope that the aborigines aren't just picturesquely primitive window-dressing, and that Nicole Kidman's forehead is not immobile for the entire 2+ hours. Regardless of any fears, this is one that I vow, here and now, to go see in the theater. I can't wait.

Monday, June 2, 2008


Fundamentalist. It's one of those words that touches a raw place in the brain, isn't it? Conjures up all kinds of other unpleasant words: extremist. Zealot. Terrorist. (And from there, some leap to Obama, but that's another day and an angry post.)

It was with considerable curiosity, then, that I began to read Mohsin Hamid's short novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamid lives in London, and the book was short-listed for the Booker Prize last year. I actually came across it through ads in the Tube when I was in London last month. The book doesn't shy away from its title, either, which is printed on a rectangle of green with five crescent and stars underneath.

And I loved it. It is, as I said, short. It is also painful, alternately wildly articulate and irritatingly obfuscating, and the ending may drive you mad. Changez, the protagonist and narrator, tells the story of his young adult life to an American tourist in Pakistan. His difficult, tentative romance with an upper East Side darling he meets at Princeton spills over into his increasingly fractured identity in the wake of 9/11, as his religion and country are more and more embattled against the country in which, as he says, he has no reason to be other than a high-paying job and a girl.

Perhaps the novel might have benefited considerably if Changez had probed more into the sources of his own discontent -- the alienation and anger he feels at America for its casual use of the rest of the world -- or maybe it would have collapsed utterly into a preachy, wet mess. As it is, it is just an extremely painful tale, almost a parable, with beautiful descriptive writing. A lot is made of the transnational elite from the Indian subcontinent and other areas of the world these days, but here's a look at the failure of transnationalism, and what it might mean for the future of international relations.