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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Alec Baldwin & "30 Rock"

Read this profile of Alec Baldwin in a recent New Yorker, which led me to this--it's brilliant:

Fw: Review-a-Day: Infinite Jest (96 Edition)

Amid all the chaos in the world of finance this week, I've still found myself thinking about David Foster Wallace quite a bit this week. I posted some links a couple days ago, which hopefully I'll incorporate into more of a post. In the meantime, this just landed in my inbox. It's not actually a review of "Infinite Jest", but rather a short account of DFW's literary career:

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Review-a-Day Wednesday, September 17, 2008
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Infinite Jest (96 Edition)
by David Foster Wallace
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More reviews from Los Angeles Times
Infinite Jest (96 Edition)
by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace: Idealistic skeptic
A Review by David L. Ulin

Post a comment about this review on the blog

I didn't know David Foster Wallace all that well. We met a couple of times, and once, I interviewed him onstage at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. I asked him on a few occasions if he'd review for the paper, but he said he'd had a bad experience and had sworn off reviewing for good. We shared a literary agent.

In the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election, we spent an hour or so on the phone one afternoon discussing politics, which he followed with the rabid fascination of someone who, despite all better judgment, believed the process mattered, that somehow, somewhere, there was a candidate who might see us through.

I never got a chance to discuss the current presidential race with Wallace; no one did. That's our loss, for Wallace, who reportedly hanged himself Friday night at age 46, was an astute observer, sharp and clear-eyed, idealistic and skeptical all at once.

His 2000 Rolling Stone profile of John McCain -- reissued in June as the slim, stand-alone volume McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope -- offers a vivid example of this perspective. Wallace sees the campaign mechanism for what it is while still recognizing something fundamentally different, real even, about the candidate, who eight years ago was in some sense the Barack Obama of his time. Here we have a hallmark of Wallace's writing, his unwillingness to take anything at face value, the penetrating focus of his thought.

An auspicious debut

Wallace emerged out of nowhere with the publication of his first novel, The Broom of the System, in 1987. He was 25, a graduate of Amherst and the master of fine arts program at the University of Arizona, and along with a handful of other then-emerging writers (William T. Vollmann, Jonathan Franzen), he helped transform American fiction in a fundamental way.

The 1980s, after all, was the era of "Dirty Realism," of small-bore, naturalistic stories in the style of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. For such writers, literature was essentially domestic, but Wallace blew that approach away. Exuberant, picaresque, cynical but also heartfelt, The Broom of the System hit the literary circulation system like a 450-page burst of amphetamine.

It wasn't a perfect book; like much of Wallace's early fiction, it wore its inspirations -- especially that of Thomas Pynchon -- on its sleeve.

But what The Broom of the System did was to offer up a set of possibilities, to remind us that the novel could be expansive, that it was possible to push the boundaries, to create a larger social landscape in fiction, that it wasn't wrong to be ambitious, to use literature to get at the unknowable heart of the world.

This was a promise Wallace would bring to fruition with the 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which at 1,079 pages, including 100 pages of footnotes, was a clear bid to create that mythical monster, the Great American Novel, albeit entirely on his own terms. That he may or may not have believed in such a monster only added to the achievement; this was a writer who clearly saw through the elusiveness, the futility, of his own striving and yet continued to strive all the same.

In the wake of Infinite Jest, the book's gimmicks -- the footnotes and acronyms, the arch tone and irony -- drew the most attention, not least because they were quickly popularized by writers such as Dave Eggers and Steve Almond, who adopted them as an aesthetic stance.

But in fact, it was Wallace's odd sense of double vision that most defined his sensibility. He was a humanist who could not help but see both sides of the story, who imagined himself into the gray middle areas of his writing.

This is the key to his McCain piece, or, for that matter, his best-known work of nonfiction, the novella-length A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, originally published in Harper's as "Shipping Out. "

Here, Wallace spent a week on a cruise ship, critiquing the infantilization of the journey, the way that, on board, every wish or demand was instantly fulfilled. Yet even as he pinpointed every idiotic detail, he found himself drawn in.

The power of the piece lies in its explication of that process, although that has less to do with Wallace lowering his defenses than amping up his empathy. However contrived or phony the experience, he felt the longing of his fellow passengers, their need to step outside their own complacency, the complacency of daily life.

The irony, of course, is that the cruise was all about complacency, but for Wallace, irony was not enough. His 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram" makes that idea explicit, taking on the irony-izing effect of television on American culture, while rejecting irony as a literary force.

That's an idea to which he would return in his writing, piercing the absurdities of contemporary culture yet also seeking something deeper, the core connection to which literature aspires. This is the ambiguity, the complexity, that transfigures his best writing, although clearly, these were issues he could not resolve.

Thoughtful advice

In 2005, Wallace gave a commencement address at Kenyon College in Ohio that has been widely circulated in classrooms and on the Internet. In that speech, he told the graduating seniors: "[I]t is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head." Up until this week, I would have said that those were words to live by, but in Wallace's case, perhaps, the opposite was true.

Rather than a repudiation, this just makes his work seem all the more urgent, especially the promise that "learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. "

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

Read more about this book

Three Decades of Quality Writing and Criticism

The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, is a non-profit organization consisting of more than 850 active book reviewers who are interested in honoring quality writing and communicating with one another about common concerns. To learn about how to join, click here.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace - links

I'll have to compose a proper essay of some sort..but for now, some links that will go into that:

(if you don't know why:

his book on infinity:

his book on hip hop:

his book about McCain:

An essay about him that includes the passage from "Infinite Jest" that has stuck w/ me for more than a decade:

"It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately - the object seemed incidental to this will to give on self away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what?"

Monday, September 15, 2008

On Wall St

That is where I am right now, sitting on the steps at the corner of Wall and Nassau, across from the imposing NYSE.

Glad that lunch got scheduled for today down here, as it got me to come through here today, on this singular day in the history of Wall St.

Though (and this too reminds me of Grant's "Trouble with Prosperity"), the epicenter of today's events aren't literally on Wall St, but across in WFC and in midtown.

Overheard a guy sitting next to me on the steps, remark to his friend, no doubt in the context of a conversation about current events, that things have changed--case in point, that there are many more tourists here on the actual Street than there are workers.

But this is why New York. To be here, where its happening, as its happening. Or where it happened. Last Thursday, seeing the two towers of light from our rooftop, and spontaneously taking the 4-5 into lower Manhattan, to walk around the WTC site, to walk underneath those towers of light.

At the tip of the island at the center of the world. Or at least it was, for the 20th century.

Now that I belatedly have mobile email, look for some mobile blogging such ad this. I think being away from a full desktop & browser might be good for actually writing.
Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

Thursday, September 04, 2008

new Lauryn Hill?

Up late, watching the US Open (Nadal v Mardy Fish, men's quarters) and on the web.

At some point while in SF, I came across the "group blog" Pop+Politics. And now that I look at the site, I vaguely remember how--I must have read or heard something about the founder.

I hadn't visited the website in a while, but have been still getting their e-mail newsletter/updates..and today happened to scroll through it and saw this reference to a new Lauryn track. It's one of those YouTube non-videos:

Monday, September 01, 2008

A few NYT articles about Velib

Following up on my previous post about Velib, here are a few NYT articles that I've saved with the intention to post:

(1) An Travel section article from Oct '07, soon after the system's debut:
TRAVEL | October 14, 2007
Journeys | Paris: Finding Liberte on Two Wheels
Paris’s self-service bicycle docking stations make it easy even for fresh-off-the-plane Americans to explore the city in a way that you can’t by foot, by Métro or by taxi.

(2) A news article that ran this summer, about the success of the first year of Velib:
A New Fashion Catches On in Paris: Cheap Bicycle Rentals
A year after the introduction of the sturdy gray bicycles known as Vélib’s, other major cities, including American ones, are exploring similar projects.

(3) Another one that also ran in July, about how Paris is considering a similar program w/ electric cars!
After Bike-Sharing Success, Paris Considers Electric Cars
The new car-sharing program, expected to begin in late 2009 or early 2010, would bring a fleet of 4,000 electric cars and would be run by the city of Paris.

I will have to write up an account of our own (overwhelmingly positive) experience with Velib...perhaps I'll put it off until I finally upload our photos from that trip, since we've got a good number of Velib photos among those.

Fw: T.A. StreetBeat: "NYC Considers Paris Style Bike-Sharing"

About a year ago I joined NYC "Transportation Alternatives" (T.A.)--a group that promotes exactly that.  We got a nice T-shirt and the very useful NYC bike map out of the deal, and I also get their e-mail newsletter. 

I've been planning a post about Paris's Velib bike-rental system, which we sampled during our trip there in late May, and about how NYC and SF could use such systems (we did see a station of the DC system in Dupont Circle when we were there a few weeks ago).  

I'll eventually draft such a post; in the meantime, here's an entry from a recent T.A. newsletter with some encouraging news on that front:

NYC Considers Paris Style Bike-Sharing

Bike Share in Action

In Paris, Vélib and other public transportation options connect seamlessly to expand and improve the city's larger transit network

On July 9th, the NYC DOT issued a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) to bring a bike share program to New York City. The announcement came days before the one-year anniversary of Paris' Vélib bike share program, and amidst a bike-share craze spreading through cities as far reaching as Washington D.C., Chicago, Montreal and Barcelona. What all of these urban centers have in common is the realization that public-use bicycles can help municipalities reduce auto-use and switch many trips to more efficient modes.

When implemented correctly, bike share holds enormous potential to add a low-cost, sustainable and healthy transportation option, expand the reach and flexibility of the existing public transportation system, discourage the use of single occupancy vehicles, free up space on overcrowded subways and buses and enable a network of bicycle transit in a dense urban environment, all of which go hand-in-glove with Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC.

In fact, New York City is perfect for bike share because it has a rapidly expanding on-street bike network, the density and mixed land use necessary to generate sufficient ridership and relatively flat terrain. As the City collects expressions of interest from bike share operators around the world, Transportation Alternatives, along with the newly formed NYC Bike Share Coalition, will be working hard to advocate for bike share characteristics that have best predicted success in cities around the world:

  • 1 bike per 200-400 residents
  • A dense network of stations (1 every 1000 feet or a 5-10 minute walk)
  • Connectivity to where people need to go
  • Connectivity to other modes of public transportation
  • Strong anti-theft technology
  • Strong Mayoral leadership and inter-agency cooperation in planning and implementation
Please contact if you are interested in supporting T.A.'s advocacy efforts to bring a world-class bike share to NYC. And check out the Streetfilm about Vélib, arguably the world's most successful bike share program to date.