The Bat Segundo Show: Laurel Snyder

Laurel Snyder recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #313. Laurel Snyder is most recently the author of Any Which Wall.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Concerned about walls and their failed sentience throughout the years.

Author: Laurel Snyder

Subjects Discussed: The extraordinary conditions in which Any Which Wall was written, the flexibility that comes from being a small fish, a writing identity tied to poetry and waitressing, the tendency for books to come quicker in the children’s market, financial experiments that involve finishing novels, YA authors and creating a backlist, Norton Juster, Edward Eager’s Half Magic series, being too tied to homage, the virtues of sitting your ass in a chair, sexism in YA vs. patriarchal walls, patriarchy and gods, italicized passages, whether or not discussions with editors can prove violent, the degree of defensiveness within writers, the etymology of “bleckish,” debating the vital issue of whether or not rats actually dance in New York subways, Robert Sullivan’s Rats, old ladies on unicycles, godlike narrators, Don Quixote, sending books out without an agent, being scared of the first person, how rewriting changes books, Roald Dahl, believing in voice, reader reaction, an author’s inevitable pattern of repetition, the dangers of ambition, the element of control, the quest for authenticity, on not being satisfied by books that have been written, the joys of having written vs. the joys of writing, impatience, the unexpected work-related spontaneity that comes from children, J. Robert Lennon, dictating and driving, finding moments of silence, and balancing life and the creative exigencies of anarchy.


laurelsnyderCorrespondent: Henry opines that all meals should be hand-holdable and that forks and spoons should be against the law. You, again as the narrator — and this is interesting. You as the narrator.

Snyder: I’m a little intrusive.

Correspondent: Yeah, you’re a little intrusive and you start to question what your characters are saying. And you object to this line of reasoning, writing, “How could you ever eat spaghetti without a fork? And how could you live without spaghetti?” I must object to your objection.

Snyder: You can live without spaghetti?

Correspondent: No. No, you can still eat spaghetti without a fork.

Snyder: Oh, that’s true.

Correspondent: You can always slurp up the noodles. Now that’s going to make a big deal of a mess and particularly….

Snyder: You don’t have a two-year-old, do you?

Correspondent: No, I don’t.

Snyder: I have a two-year-old, and have seen people eat spaghetti without a fork. And may I say, it’s not pleasant.

Correspondent: But Henry may very well just want to slurp his spaghetti. What’s so wrong about that? He’s going through a sort of slurping stage, as opposed to the more civilized fork and knife.

Snyder: I think that Henry’s mother would object. No, the intrusive narrator thing is an interesting thing. It’s coming out in the next book. The first two books both have this. [Up and Down the] Scratchy Mountains and Any Which Wall both have this intrusive narrator. And it’s a voice that I take from earlier books. And I really like those kinds of books myself. But I’ve begun to realize that there’s a degree to which, if you assert that much as a narrator, the characters never fully detach from me. And so with the next book, I’ve let that go. And in the book that I’m starting on right now — the book that I’m not going to have a deadline for, the book that I’m going to try and do differently — I’m actually going to first person. And it’s scary to me. But I’m letting go of not only of not only my intrusive narrator, but the third person altogether.

Correspondent: But I don’t know if I agree with the idea of a nagging narrator getting in the way of character. If anything, it actually causes certain…

Snyder: But it creates a kind of meta. It creates a kind of frame for the book. As long as the narrator is there. This is something I think about a lot actually. In a lot of children’s books, the kid is telling the story. Like it’s a first person story. But it’s not a diary. And this happens in adult books too. It’s the sort of opening of “This happened last October” kind of voice.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Snyder: It’s like, “Well, who the hell are you talking to?” Who is that person talking to? When the narrator is stepping forward and saying, “You the reader blah blah blah,” it creates a kind of stage, right?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Snyder: It creates a kind of stage for those characters to be performing on. And I think on some level — there’s a sort of theatrical. It’s a voiceover. And it’s like, you know how when you’re watching a movie and there’s a voiceover or like music starts in the background, and kids will joke, “Where’s that music coming from?”

Correspondent: Yeah.

Snyder: It’s that moment of “Where’s that voice coming from?” I actually have an idea for an adult novel that I’ll probably never write where the book begins with a third-person omniscient narrator. And then on page 150, that same voices says “you” or “me.” And you realize that it’s the voice of god. That third-person voice is essentially the voice of god. Letting that god then enter for the second half of the book to be a character. I can’t imagine writing that book, but I like the idea of that existing.

BSS #313: Laurel Snyder (Download MP3)

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Review: The Road (2009)


In 2006, an incalculable number of retroussé-nosed snobs — most possessing little understanding or appreciation of speculative fiction — were justly charmed by Cormac McCarthy’s YA novel, The Road. It was a common weakness for such ostensibly erudite essayists as James Wood to not comprehend that McCarthy, like nearly every other speculative fiction author, was extrapolating his own values of fatherhood and manhood onto his fantastical canvas. Functional illiterates, without even an elementary knowledge of the exciting New Weird and steampunk movements then in full bloom, raved that The Road was “unlike any book you’ve read in a long time,” and that sentiment was certainly true if your grasp of speculative fiction extended no further than a Ray Bradbury story read under duress in a high school haze. But McCarthy’s novel — simple yet effective in its execution — went on to earn the Pulitzer Prize and was even selected by the middlebrow television queen, who proudly gushed to McCarthy that he looked just like he did on the back of the cover.

I am happy to report that The Road, in its cinematic version, lives up to this wanton accessibility. It lacks the apocalyptic punch of 1984’s Threads or 1982’s The Day After, and is far from bleak and depressing in its approach. But a liberal parent may very well argue that this family-centric film is fun for the whole family. I couldn’t help but wonder at times whether Viggo would coo, “Good night, John Boy,” under the acid rain of family values. The film does possess a streak of humanity comparable, at times, to 1983’s Testament, particularly since it is securely anchored by Viggo Mortensen, who conceals an effective bundle of husks, rasps, and laconic remnants within his spindly, half-starved frame. (He even delivers McCarthy’s contractions without apostrophes. This is a dedicated lead actor.) Joe Penhall’s adaptation is relatively faithful to the book, reproducing much of the narrative moments and the dialogue (although on film, the mind’s eye begins to see the question marks forming around lines, somewhat sullying McCarthy’s intent). There’s also gruff narration from Mortensen reading much of McCarthy’s prose, which I’m not sure was needed. Flashback moments involving Charlize Theron as the mother come perilously close to needless audience spoonfeeding.

But then McCarthy’s book was, in its own way, altogether too geared for mass consumption. One moment from the book, bearing the telltale indicator of a corporation wheeling over a rusty shopping cart of money, has been lovingly reproduced on screen. But director John Hillcoat and Penhall shouldn’t be held entirely accountable. They have indeed been true to the book, rendering every line of the following exchange:

He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca-Cola.

What is it, Papa?

It’s a treat. For you.

What is it?

Here. Sit down.

He slipped the boy’s knapsack straps loose and set the pack on the floor behind him and he put his thumbnail under the aluminum lip on the top of the can and opened it. He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said.

The boy took the can. It’s bubbly, he said.

Go ahead.

He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It’s really good, he said.

Yes. It is.

You have some, Papa.

I want you to drink it.

You have some.

He took the can and sipped it and handed it back. You drink it, he said. Let’s just sit here.

The stuff of literature! A book and a smile! And a film and a smile.

On the big screen, the thinking audience member, troubled not only by this product placement coming at the expense of verisimilitude, notes that warm and unrefrigerated Coca-Cola nestled for so long would surely have gone flat. (Indeed, the subject was argued about on Metafilter.)

The apocalypse’s visual elements involve tilted telephone poles, burned out office parks, skeletal remains, bituminious detritus, and frequent flickers of past civilization (paintings within a gutted out church, portraits in houses) cannily mirroring the father’s desire to “carry on the soul” and stay “one of the good guys” in a landscape populated mostly by cannibals. Alas, the sordid cannibalism doesn’t include the book’s infamous roasted baby, which China Mieville rightly called “a little bit camp.” We do see bloody bathtubs and sinks, a basement populated by living human meat, and chops and screams in the distance. But Delicatessen and Eating Raoul this ain’t. This grisly stuff should jolt or horrify, as it does on the page. But the film’s cannibals are more or less actors daubed up with grease who wear trucker’s caps. The intent is to depict humanity debased by desperate impulses, but it comes off like a cheap shot at red staters.

Still, some of the film’s pulled punches are redeemed by the solid performances (Kodi Smit-McPhee is good as The Boy) and a sound mix that knows the value of silence and knows when to intrude with creepy creaks. Robert Duvall’s presence as the old man is quite welcome and possibly more of a humanizing influence than the character’s appearance in the book. And while David Edelstein has pooh-poohed the film’s seeming “monotonous” quality, I must commend the film for the same reason. (Then again, it’s doubtful that Edelstein paid much attention. He claims that “having Mom lurch off is quite an evolutionary statement,” but failed to note Molly Parker’s presence at the end.) This is a film about process. Surviving in a wasteland when there’s no real reason to survive — other than the nebulous idea of “going south” — is one of the film’s (and the duo’s) reasons for being. It also helps that the father is, as the flashbacks and the incident with the thief reveal, hardly a flawless and glowing patriarch, and that his mistakes don’t necessarily coincide with the conditions.

Make no mistake: This is a feel-good apocalypse movie. And while the film is more entertainment than art, it’s just loose enough to provide any number of comparisons to the present economic shitstorm. Because of this, I suspect it may perform quite well at the box office.

Review: The Missing Person (2009)

THe Missing Person

Noah Buschel’s The Missing Person (opening in New York today) is, as the title intimates, yet another entry from the Hey, I’ve Got a Clever Twist! school of filmmaking. Now several clever twists, nestled within a narrative at unpredictable points, are perfectly wonderful. Some American independent filmmakers, such as Darren Aronofsky and Shane Carruth (the latter regrettably absent from filmmaking since his low-budget breakthrough Primer), have fulfilled this grandiose requisite of complex storytelling, which shares some qualities with the “prodigious fiction” identified by literary critic Tom LeClair in 1996. But an embedded narrative, whether brainy or entertaining, is only as good as the character qualities and developments it pitches at unexpected arcs.

I’m quibbling with the very quality that prevents The Missing Person from fleshing out its seedy and goofy potential, which is more concerned with the singular twist: that one revealing moment on which all action hinges upon. We can probably blame the unitarian “clever” narrative impulse, a clunky can rattling around the halls of cinema for the last two decades or so, on such overrated offerings as The Usual Suspects and The Crying Game — both competently put together, but emotionally hollow and reliant upon strong acting once you know the Big Reveal.

And like all Hey, I’ve Got a Clever Twist! films, The Missing Person is at its most interesting before we know the why. A former NYPD officer with the promisingly idiosyncratic name of John Rosow (played by Michael Shannon) lies in bed in a sparse rundown flat, complete with subway cars rattling noisily behind him and constructed of seemingly nothing more than blue concrete. We learn that he is an alcoholic, that his services now involve primitive forms of private investigation, and that he is not particularly adept at his job. Rosow’s work is ridiculously easy and ridiculous lucrative. $500 a day plus expenses. The missing man he must track on a train sits with his compartment door open. A middle-aged woman later throws herself at Rosow. A Los Angeles cop on a Segway hectors Rosow for smoking a cigarette. There is something of the Old World dying within Rosow. And the burned out quality is strangely augmented by Shannon’s mumbling and shuffling manner. Shannon even adds a tinge of Bogart to his inflections. (He isn’t the only actor mimicking a forgotten cultural figure. Frank Wood, playing the eponymous missing person, oscillates his deep voice so that it sounds eerily like Dick Cavett.)

We are therefore left to wonder why such an incompetent would not only get work — particularly during the present economic climate — but get handsomely paid for it. As one character says to Rosow, “You stick out like a broken nose.” This is an unusual character approach rarely seen in movies today, and Buschel manages to accentuate these incongruities with some understated humor. Rosow confuses the famous search engine with gogolplex. Rosow is more adept chopping up lemons and limes and pouring drinks rather than getting hard information. And while there are needless flashbacks to Rosow’s past interfering with his character qualities in the present, Rosow’s crude no-bullshit quality — seen when he defiantly fires up a cigarette in a cab and when he extracts a camera phone from a smarmy cell phone salesman — bears the funny conceit that even a relatively clueless man committed to single-minded pursuit can get results. This is, after all, an age more concerned with political correctness and passive aggressiveness.

But because The Missing Person is a Hey, I’ve Got a Clever Twist! film, the twist betrays these giddy possibilities. The talented Amy Ryan, who executive produced this film, is wasted as a throwaway Girl Friday. And her fate at film’s end is precisely what we expect. It doesn’t help that the Clever Twist, as is most frequently the case with such movies, isn’t very plausible. I won’t reveal what happens, but I must ask how the Missing Person can get away with his crime without any other government agency or insurance company locating him. He operates in plain sight. There’s a lot of money invested in his fate. Surely, someone would have found him before Rosow.

This major story flaw spoils what should have been a quirky little movie. I can commend Buschel for his blunt and slightly eccentric dialogue. “You’re putting me in a very idiosyncratic spot here,” says one character. A cabdriver states, “I’m not allowed to talk about directions. I’d get into big trouble.” There’s also a pair of FBI agents who offer Rosow an extra pair of sunglasses that they picked up from 7-11.

It’s evident that Buschel has a good knack for quirky moments that don’t feel particularly phony. And I regret that I haven’t seen his other two films. But after seeing The Missing Person, I suspect that Buschel has a movie in him that’s just as good as Wayne Kramer’s best films (The Cooler and Running Scared). He is clearly operating in the same mode. And since giddy filmmakers lifting from life (rather than Diablo Cody’s insipid cultural reference) seem to be in short supply these days, I certainly hope that, with future offerings, Bushel does away with his reliance on Clever Twists and trusts his crazy subconscious to offer us something more spontaneous and special.

The Bat Segundo Show: Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #312. Solnit is most recently the author of A Paradise Built in Hell.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Finding hostility within legitimate clarification.

Author: Rebecca Solnit

Subjects Discussed: William James’s second treatise on pragmatism, the alternative notion which means the same as a preexisting notion, General Funston’s martial response to the 1906 earthquake vs. Pauline Jacobson’s push for camaraderie, beliefs conditioned by response, the psychological reset position, assumptions about human nature, innate helpfulness, responses to the Blitz bombings, the minority option of panic, Enrico Quarantelli’s disaster research in the early 1950s, Caron Chess and Lee Clarke’s elite panic, Kropotkin, the question of community’s compatibility with institutional authority, the LAPD officer who was courteous to protesters, good cops vs. anarchy, how Argentina’s government affects the manner in which people come together, the 2001 Argentina economic meltdown, the failure of Starbucks workers to give ambulance workers free water on 9/11, Martin Luther King’s notion of beloved community, John Guilfoy, the joy of disaster, resorting to Hobbesian metaphors, Henry James writing to his brother in San Francisco in distress, the looting question in Katrina, Timothy Garton Ash’s response to 9/11, assumptions that journalists make in relation to disaster, quibbling with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, acknowledging contemporary suffering, the Republic Windows strike, mutual aid, the slippery nature of the definition of “civil society,” taking control of the vernacular, work with, alternative media, a new language of emotion and not being connected, capitalism’s regulation of society, Dorothy Day’s notion of not being able to admit how people have failed us, becoming a writer, value-added theory and programemd human response, and the Donnell Harrington/Dan Baum controversy.


On April 13, 2008, Rebecca Solnit published an essay on called “Men Who Explain Things To Me,” in which she rightly complained about “the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in the field from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world.” In a September 2009 interview with The Believer, Solnit expanded on these thoughts, stating to Benjamin Cohen that she despised “the more face-to-face stuff when I get squelched, dismissed, insulted, and presumed ignorant by silly men in passing.”

I was aware of all this before I talked with Rebeca Solnit and I set out to respect this temperament. Solnit remains an interesting and an original thinker. And The Bat Segundo Show has always been about embracing people who are misinterpreted or misunderstood. permitting them to clarify their positions in a challenging and admittedly idiosyncratic manner. But my basic approach of civil disagreement, applied even to viewpoints I agree with for any doubting Thomas piped into the podcast, occasionally gets me into trouble.

danbaumblocksmallI was also aware of Solnit’s dispute with Dan Baum, in which Baum, reviewing Solnit’s book in the Washington Post, quibbled with the “evidence” that Solnit produced in relation to New Orleans shootings in the Algiers neighborhood just after Katrina. Indeed, in asking Dan Baum to clarify his thoughts, he proved obdurate in his viewpoint and proceeded to block me on Twitter.

Additional investigation, revealing the full extent of the Algiers evidence, is available at the Nation site and a link to A.C. Thompson’s article has been provided on the Bat Segundo website. But during our conversation, near the end, I hoped to get Solnit to clarify the nature of this evidence on the record and she proved just as uncooperative as Dan Baum.

I asked Solnit a perfectly reasonable question concerning why she could accept Donnell Herrington’s account on its own, without legitimizing his claim further with supportive evidence.

Here are a few reasons why evidence beyond oral testimony is so important.

In 1987, Tawana Brawley accused six white men of raping her. It was later revealed that Brawley created the appearance of a sexual assault. Brawley managed to dupe all manner of well-meaning people with her unfounded assertions.

In 1989, a man named Charles Stuart claimed that an African-American gunman with a raspy voice robbed him and killed his pregnant wife, Carol. He had injuries (or evidence, by Solnit’s definition). Subsequent testimony revealed that he had orchestrated the entire incident. There was no African-American gunman. Stuart had preyed on racist sentiments.

In 1994, Susan Smith claimed that an African-American had carjacked her with her sons in the car. As we all know, she was the one who had staged the entire incident after she had killed her own children.

I will leave the listener to judge whether my questioning predicated upon these considerations was right or wrong.

For what it’s worth, I do not believe that Solnit is entirely ignorant. Her books have demonstrated that she is an accomplished thinker. And despite some minor caveats, I can wholeheartedly recommend the book which forms the center of this conversation.

But it is wrong for Solnit to confuse clarification with dismissal of her viewpiont. It is also wrong for any person who purports or aspires to be an intellectual, whether Dan Baum or Rebecca Solnit, to insist that any view is above inquiry or examination.



Correspondent: One of the parties involved in this particular dispute…

Solnit: (looks at her watch)

Correspondent: This will be my last question. Don’t worry. One of the parties in this particular dispute actually blocked me on Twitter. And that is your online skirmish with Dan Baum. He blocked me when I was trying to actually ask him about this. I am curious. I want to just clarify this thing because there was considerable controversy over your use of the word “evidence.” You said, “I had the evidence.”

Solnit: Well…

Correspondent: Basically, when you wrote, “There are plenty of rumors, but the evidence was there.” Then you said, “I had the evidence.” Now I think the confusion of this whole needless pedantic skirmish had to do with the fact that you were about to describe what…

Solnit: Hang on just a second.

[Solnit interrupts and answers a phone call. Not recorded to protect privacy.]

Correspondent: Alright. Just to be…

Solnit: You know, in the short thing, I say that people go to jail on sketchier evidence that has been produced in a lot of ways.

Correspondent: But what specifically was the evidence? Was it the AC Thompson findings at the time? The FBI investigation? I mean, at least according to what was in the book.

Solnit: Well, the FBI investigation hasn’t led to any conclusions.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Solnit: But evidence to send people to jail depends on specific individuals being tied to specific crimes, but we have a lot of witnesses to…attempted murders, to bodies with bullets in them, in the area, and a lot of witnesses to men boasting of killings, etcetera. You know, there’s a lot of pieces. And there’s too many pieces to not believe that something happened and to not be pretty clear that what happened was that these vigilantes, you know. And these heavily armed vigilantes threatened, shot at, injured, and most likely killed black men in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Correspondent: So the testimony of Donnell Her….

Solnit: You know what? I’m not going to get into this. I’m not here to talk about a letter. I’m here to talk about the book.

Correspondent: Well, I’m trying to just clarify specifically what the “evidence” was. Was it Donnell Herrington’s testimony to you and AC Thompson when you were sitting at the table? Was it…

Solnit: It was a huge…it was a great many people who are not connected to each other coming forward with the same story. It was the medics and the common ground clinic telling me that they had many people confess to them in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that they had witnessed or participated in murders of this type. It was the videotape evidence of the Danish videographer’s videotape. It was Donnell Herrington’s testimony. It was, you know, other pieces of evidence about the vigilantes, including positive news stories about how they defended their neighborhood. It was Malik Rahim telling me and various other people, including Amy Goodman, at great length about what he had experienced in terms of threats and harassment and an expectation of a race war in his neighborhood, and bodies lying in the streets, including the body that he showed Amy Goodman and the Danish videographer on camera. It was the subsequent evidence that served us from the Pennsylvania detectives who went down who said that they found multiple bodies lying in the streets of Algiers with gunshot wounds and that they themselves heard many confessions and their videotape of yet another vigilante since deported, admitting, boasting of many killings. You know, there’s a huge amount of evidence. And the word “evidence” doesn’t mean that it’s conclusive.

Correspondent: Okay.

Solnit: But there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that all points to exactly the same thing. And Donnell Herrington — you know, I trust him a lot more than I trust you, for example. And he’s — you know, his story checks out in every way. The doctors who treated him talk about other people coming with bullet, with gunshot wounds. And, you know, there’s a huge pattern that all points to the same thing.

Correspondent: But in relation to the people that Herrington saved on the boat, did you talk to those people who he saved? To have some independent confirmation of his story or anything along those lines? Or…

Solnit: (pause)

Correspondent: Did AC or anybody else? Just to verify his story against other accounts and the like?

Solnit: You know, many say — you know, that wasn’t part of the story that we needed to check out. And, you know, I didn’t verify a lot of other people’s stories that they rescued people, that they did this, that they did that either. Because, you know, this isn’t a legal trial. And Donnell’s story checked out in every way that it needed to check out.

Correspondent: So basically, for you, “evidence” means what they told you on the…

Solnit: You know…

Correspondent: I’m just trying to determine what you meant by “evidence.” Just to figure out. I mean, I happen to agree that videotapes, photographs, and statements are evidence. I’m just trying to determine if there were other additional third party ways of verifying the primary evidence. That way, you have a really all-encompassing — like a ballistics report of the shots that were fired as well. That’s what I’m….

Solnit: You mean, on Donnell’s.

Correspondent: Yeah, exactly.

Solnit: Well, the shotgun wounds, the medical.

Correspondent: Medical reports.

Solnit: The medical reports check out. The doctor checks out. Everything else Donnell said checked out. We spent a great deal of time with him. And then part of the complication is that the coroner perjured himself in the trial, you know, in the fight to get the medical records in court. A lot of those records are missing. The New Orleans Police Department is incredibly corrupt and incompetent. They chose not to investigate the case when Donnell basically came up and said, “Somebody tried to murder me and I want you to look into it.” They have yet to open a case. So the legal — until the FBI stepped up, the legal system had completely ignored this. So the kind of legal testimony that’s often demanded doesn’t exist because the legal system, you know, is not, has not, in New Orleans and Louisiana has not been interested.

Correspondent: But how can you be sure that everything that Herrington said to you is absolutely 100% true? I mean, memory, as we all know, is the worst liar of them all. Even if he had most of the details right, he may have general details….

Solnit: Well, what are you calling into question? That somebody shot him twice with a shotgun at point blank range?

Correspondent: Well, that’s pretty clear based off of what we see.

Solnit: Well, there were two other men with him who corroborated what he had to say. AC Thompson talked to both of them. There’s the doctor who saw him when he came in. And then you have to — you know, and this is how…. Absolute verifiable truth, you know, is a metaphysical question. Courtrooms get into it in some ways. But, you know, this is not a criminal trial. Everything checked out. Everything made sense. We spent a great deal of time with him. I don’t know why you’re calling him into question to begin with, but…

Correspondent: I’m a natural skeptic, that’s all.

Solnit: Why would somebody come up with — how else would somebody in those circumstances get shot? Uh, you know, it’s very clear he got shot twice with it. You know, this is totally fucked up and I can’t believe you’re doing this shit. I think it’s really obnoxious. It’s really off point and really kind of lame. And if you want, there’s a huge preponderance of evidence. It’s been checked out. It’s been checked out by CNN. It’s been checked out by The Nation Magazine. ProPublica, etcetera. You know, I’m not here. You didn’t ask me to bring a huge amount of documentation. I didn’t bring a huge amount of documen….

[Tape runs out]

BSS #312: Rebecca Solnit (Download MP3)

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White Men Sweep 2009 National Book Awards

Tonight, the National Book Awards gave every major award to a white man, demonstrating that snubbing women writers isn’t limited to Publishers Weekly. Even the honorary awards were given to Dave Eggers and Gore Vidal, proving that even in the 21st century, white men are still capable of winning everything.

The only woman who won an award was Flannery O’Connor for Best of the National Book Awards Fiction. Alas, she’s been dead for over forty-five years.

Here are the winners:

FICTION: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)

NONFICTION: T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf)

POETRY: Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE: Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Thoughts on the Mime

mime1. The difference between the theatrical and the theoretical mime. — In the one the performance is palpable, but removed from pragmatic use, so that the mime is widely reviled out of habit, even when his actions beckon a half-hearted attention. Some wish to beat the mime to a pulp. More uncivilized spectators, containing their feral thoughts within the imagination, ruminate over whether or not the mime’s hypothetical gush of blood will be as invisible as the box that he is “trapping” himself in. One sees the mime’s principles within his performance, but the mime represents both theater and theory in practice. This causes hostility. This causes ulcers. This causes many to complain to their spouses and, in the most extreme cases, a temporary shift in slumbering receptacle from bed to couch.

2. But in the theoretical mime, the principles are fully separate from the theatrical. The mime neither exists nor is permitted to exist. It maintains its imaginative perch within an active noggin and proves so stubborn a resident that hostility is eked out at the theatrical mime, who shares nothing more than this subjective projection and is thereby innocent. The spectator only has to look at a real mime to be reminded of these theoretical speculations, and no real effort is necessary; for the theatrical mime’s performance is far from subtle and mimes themselves are numerous within our society.

3. All mimes would then be theoretical if they had access to the spectator’s theoretical viewpoint, or if they could indeed speak. But mimes are only permitted to convey their thoughts and feelings through silent action. And the mime rules dictate that props and gait must be invented. Since the mime is so occupied with these inherent duties, the communication between the spectator who contains the theoretical projection and the mime is one way. A mime is a terrible thing to waste, both in its theoretical and theatrical forms.

4. The reason therefore that the spectator remains so hostile to the theoretical mime is because he is not dressed up in striped shirt and his face is not attired in white paint. If the spectator is asphyxiated by a necktie as he watches the mime and his mind is occupied by negative thoughts pertaining to his work, then the spectator is likely to project additional theoretical mimes upon the theatrical mime.

5. But dull mimes are never either theatrical or theoretical.

6. The mime, if he is lively, is drawing from his own inner theoretical mime, shifting his arms and legs and chest by subconscious instinct. He therefore contains more of the theatrical mime than the theoretical mime as he carries out his performance. But it is just the reverse with the spectator. And where the spectator feels hostility towards the mime, the mime, by way of inhabiting more of the theatrical mime, feels ebullience, which he then applies to the performance.

7. Just as we harm the mime by projecting our theoretical mime upon him, so too does the theatrical mime harm the spectator in failing to project the theoretical upon us. That the theoretical forms the emotional bridge between mime and spectator, rather than the theatrical, is the chief cause for the many negative feelings directed towards the mime.

8. There are many people who witness a mime in the same way as they crave Ian Fleming’s vespers.

9. There remains the possibility of rectifying the theoretical/theatrical balance, but this will involve a good deal of mime outreach to beleaguered sectors of humanity. And since outreach is associated with many of the regrettable sensitivity and self-help movements of the 1970s, and since mimes themselves have already garnered a hostile position within civilization, the only practical solution to destroying this dichotomy is for the mimes to become spectators and the spectators to become mimes. The difficulties with establishing a World Mime Day come with the necessary autocratic enforcement. For in order for mimes to be understood as theatrical beings, it will be necessary for 90% of the spectators to become mimes. This is a difficult ratio, one that will certainly cause numerous spectators to resist and one that will cause further anti-mime propaganda to be disseminated through various circulars, several social networks, and numerous snarky websites.

10. But let us momentarily adopt an optimistic position and assume that such a possibility becomes plausible. Many of the new mimes (formerly spectators) will have difficulties adjusting to the role, and may come to resent the theatrical mime further, retreating again to the theoretical. Some may indeed decide that their roles as spectators have been balderdash all along and may become permanent mimes. But would such born again mimes be finding the right role in relation to society? It might be sufficiently argued that being a mime for a day is much better than toiling in a maquiladora. Then again, if being a mime is largely voluntary and without compensation, one might also argue the reverse.

11. Eloquence. — It requires the theatrical and the theoretical, but the theatrical must itself be drawn from the true. Eloquence is a bit like a high school blood drive, but the stakes are higher and the ambitions are tantamount to climbing Everest.

12. Eloquent responses to the mime problem therefore require one entire year, whereby the shift from spectator to mime is staggered over a 365 day period, and the many impromptu mimes scattered into everyday society is not so shocking. Governments must institute special tax incentives, encouraging spectators to become mimes and let the natural eloquence of the theatrical noodle its way into the theoretical. We must believe that mimes are more than two conditions. In this way, the spectators might overcome their internal skepticism by momentarily embracing the obverse.

The Death of Ken Ober

Ken Ober is dead at 52. For all I know, Ken Ober was a nice guy. I truthfully hadn’t even thought about him for more than a decade until people fired the news my way. But since he is dead, his legacy — limited as it was to a somewhat forgotten and not terribly revered television show (well, that, and apparently writing and producing installments of Mind of Mencia) — will be framed around the talent he brought to said program. Like many who grew up during a particular era, I did catch several episodes. I even had a Remote Control T-shirt that I plucked from the Marshall’s bargain bin — largely for its bright hues and the affordability it presented to my parental units at the time. This sartorial decision resulted in me being severely ridiculed in the summer of 1989 by a girl I had a crush on (along with her friends). And even though this little anecdote doesn’t matter at all to me twenty years later, and I bear no malice towards the girl, the shirt, the program, or Ken Ober, I feel the need to preface any thoughts or feelings I bring to the table in order to avoid any possibility of prejudgment. It might indeed win me five points in the new game we are playing, which is certainly more complex than the older one.

What I can state, after reviewing the above clip, is that I’m not terribly interested in Remote Control now, nor am I particularly impressed. The terrible fashion sense embraced by the contestants cannot be helped, for it was of its year. But I find the vaguely stoned looks of this trio a bit troublesome. This is not the kind of condition, whether real or staged, that should be photographed. Unless you’re making a fun little movie like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. There is a striving here without any real effort that absolutely resembles the Williamsburg hipster, which brings us again to the perpetuation of stereotypes without an effort to puncture these impressions. I’m also not sure if Ken Ober really brought anything other than a conventionally smarmy stand-up act.

This doesn’t resemble my memories from the late 1980s. I recall enjoying the program. But today, in 2009, I can find very little to like about it. As tenable concessions, I’ll single out Ken Olin’s striped shirt and the now extinct LED point system that they used to serve up in game shows of the period. But then I have a strange fixation on sounds and symbols that are antediluvian.

The snack breaks, featuring popcorn and other crud drifting from unknown heavens and making a mess onto the contestants, may have been a slight draw. But it was eclipsed by the sticky possibilities of Double Dare years later — a show, like Remote Control, presently in diminished standing. So why are we hanging down our heads? Is it name recognition? Brand recognition? Some galvanizing point for brain-dead television?

I will leave others who soak their noggins in this stuff to argue the possibly legitimate position that Remote Control is good television, or more worthwhile than my admittedly snapshot trip down a certain mnemonic ghetto, and happily read their viewpoints. I only ask this: Was Ken Ober necessary? Or could another man have filled his place? (I can see a young Kevin Pollack doing this much better.) And if the latter is true, then why bother to go to the trouble of spending serious time taking in the death of Ken Ober? Perhaps he was entertaining. And for those who mourn Ken Ober’s loss and who feel some stir inside the heart based on a tenuous cultural relationship, my condolences. But what did Ken Ober really do for anybody aside from suggest that we scarf down Hot Pockets and keep our heads into the sand? Maybe I’m just hostile to the sustained celebration of bad television, but I’m genuinely curious.

On the other hand, Edward Woodward is also dead. Now that’s a great equalizer.

The Return of Bat Segundo

After spending several weeks away from Bat Segundo, I’m happy to announce that I’ve figured out a way to carry on doing the podcast without going insane. There will be five more podcasts released in 2009, with the first new show released on November 20, 2009. This quintet represents three conversations I’ve been sitting on — one of which may prove to be one of the most controversial episodes in the show’s history — and two new interviews which I have scheduled. (Indeed, I actually broke my hiatus for one of them.)

Then, starting on January 8, 2010, I will be shifting to a weekly format, where I will release a new Segundo installment every Friday. The first installment will be a “Best of Segundo” special, featuring some of the conversational highlights throughout the show’s four year history. (Several friends and listeners have been asking for a “clips show” for a while. And I feel this will be a good way to break back into the format. And for those who believe this to be a “repeat,” I assure you that Mr. Segundo and his associates will provide new context for the collected madness.)

I’ve decided to cut down to one show a week for several reasons. I felt that Bat Segundo was taking up too much of my time and that the burden I had placed (thank you, work ethic!) was getting in the way of maintaining the ebullient nature of this program. As I’ve said all along, if it’s not fun for me, then chances are it won’t be fun for listeners. And the last thing I want to do is serve up boilerplate radio. But I’ve returned to a point where the show is fun again. And the weekly pace should permit me to carry on with clean hands and composure, while simultaneously tending to such pedantic needs as scrambling for work in this dour economy. There are also a number of long-standing projects that I’ve had going on for some time. But Bat Segundo was getting in the way. But the hiatus has permitted me to restructure my life around these projects, making Bat Segundo more of a secondary project that I can happily carry on with.

There’s also the simple fact that, with the previous pace, very few people, save the hard-core listeners, were able to keep up with all the shows. I feel that this was a great disservice to the many authors, filmmakers, and cultural figures who have kindly offered their time to the program. The weekly format will also permit me to be more selective, although I will remain just as committed to including small presses and independent filmmakers as I have in the past.

So that’s the new mandate. It is subject to change at any given moment. I assure you that Bat Segundo will return very soon to wreak havoc, goofiness, and insight.

A Significant Object!

geishabobbleI was invited by Josh Glenn to contribute to his marvelous Significant Objects project, which has writers creating stories around objects, thereby enhancing the object’s significance with the written word. I was initially sent a list of objects to pick from, but did not look at any them. I felt that it was my moral imperative to live up to the project’s credo and write solely around one object, randomly selected by the proprietor. Josh kindly obliged, and assigned me the object pictured on the right. I then set out to create a fairly wild story, which can be enjoyed here. Here’s the first sentence:

The resilient ruffians ran away with the geisha’s canes just after she refused to perform a classless act.

You can also bid on the item here. But do feel free and poke around the site for many more significant stories.

Review: 2012 (2009)


Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is slightly better than Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow — the hack director’s two previous opuses involving mass devastation. But that’s a bit like saying that imbibing a thimble of urine is better than eating a shit sandwich or employing an embalmed corpse as a surrogate dining table. That one must pay ten George Washingtons for the privilege of drinking a soupçon of pee is hardly a recommendation. But the piss remains compelling. For it has become every dutiful American’s duty to sit through vile cinematic “entertainment” in order to remain on the same page. Still, there’s a part of me pondering 2012‘s potential.

“Something like this can only originate in Hollywood,” says a character early in the film. And indeed, Emmerich is right on this point. Emmerich is only a mite more talented than Uwe Boll, his fellow German sellout. But one shouldn’t compare two cultural criminals who have both severely setback the intelligent possibilities of mass entertainment. The film presents a primitive political viewpoint to entice the kooky charlatans now banging out insipid and predictably contrarian viewpoints for the New York Press. Two African-American male characters are presented here with noble intent — a humanist geologist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor at loggerheads with the cold and clinical Oliver Platt (here, with an American accent) and Danny Glover’s President Thomas Wilson (beckoning phony comparisons to Woodrow, whose first name was actually Thomas), who stays behind at the White House as giant waves and dust clouds ravage the nation. And while it’s heartening to see African-Americans shift from “magical black” side characters and wiseacres into take-charge positions, the film also serves up a distressing sexism. The Speaker of the House is, three years hence, a “he.” When a giant plane heads to a safe point in China, the women are compelled to stay downstairs while the men are summoned to the cockpit to witness recent developments. President Danny Glover insists that the people have the right to know about forthcoming disaster because “a mother can comfort her children.” Why can’t a mother kick ass? These misogynistic politics are at odds with the film’s purported humanism. Make no mistake: This is a film designed for an Armond White pullquote.

On the other hand, I cannot deny the sheer pleasure I experienced in seeing the two centers of vapid American entertainment — Los Angeles and Las Vegas — destroyed by cheap-looking CG effects. (It should be noted that Emmerich also manages to obliterate the Sistine Chapel, complete with a crack forming between God and Adam. But the man is running out of landmarks to destroy. Will public memory permit him repeats?) I cannot deny being amused by the fact that one million Euros, not dollars, is the asking price to get on board one of the arks destined to save the remainder of humanity. (There’s even a nod to Douglas Adams’s Golgafrincham, where one of the arks is damaged, proving unsuitable for the flailing crowds clamoring to get on board.) I was even amused at times by Woody Harrelson’s wild-eyed, pickle-eating, radio-ranting mountain man. But Harrelson serves the same purpose as Brent Spiner’s wild-haired scientist in Independence Day: a forgettable cartoon providing as much human depth as a TV dinner. Not that anyone will remember the formulaic similarities. As Harrelson says at one point, just after urging Cusack to “download my blog,” “You lure them in with the humor. Then you make them think.” It’s safe to say that Emmerich cannot follow his own crude advice.

There comes a point in any Roland Emmerich film in which anyone with a brain must give up and ponder why such superficialities remain a draw. For me, it came about ninety minutes in, as certain characters defiantly survived even the most liberal geophysics. It is also profoundly insulting for Emmerich (and his co-writer and composer Harald Kloser, who is overwrought in both of his “professional” duties) to offer us a character who reads books (Ejiofor’s Adrian Helmsley, “moving on up” just like Sherman did a few decades ago) and a shah using an e-reader, while also offering us this shoddy science behind the Earth’s destruction: “Neutrinos are causing a physical reaction.”

Here is a filmmaker so utterly stupid that he takes us to “the deepest copper mine in the world” in the opening minutes, features buckets of ice, and yet provides only a single consumer fan to cool the expensive computer equipment residing at the bottom. Here is a filmmaker so happy to whore himself out to product placement that the most important government representatives all use Vaio laptops. Here is a filmmaker so tone-deaf to politics that the President of the United States actually utters, “‘I was wrong.’ Do you know how many times I’ve heard that? Zero.” At the risk of invoking Godwin, Roland Emmerich is Hollywood’s answer to a dutiful Sturmabteilung. He was only following orders. And he will be rewarded for his hubris and ignorance by the considerable cash that this film will generate worldwide.

John Cusack, who is one of our most underrated actors, gives this material more sincerity and dignity than it deserves. The man (or his agent) clearly needed the cash or a way to boost his box office standing. He is, much like Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow, the Believable Presence. The guy to identify with. That guy is a writer named Jackson Curtis, the author of Farewell Atlantis, which has sold only 500 copies. Curtis is driving a limo to pay the bills. And while every other actor in this film understands that this assignment represents a fat paycheck, and is only partially exonerated, it is Cusack alone who obdurately refuses to ham it up. He is therefore just as culpable and responsible as Roland Emmerich. Let him suffer a metaphorical car accident worse than Montgomery Clift’s.

The film has lifted a good deal from 1998’s Deep Impact — the broken family gathered at the beach as a giant wave is about to hit, the older African-American President addressing the nation with the grim reality, the millions killed along the coastlines, and the efforts to alert a senior scientist of the impending catastrophe. But Deep Impact, as problematic as it was, had two half-decent screenwriters (Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin) attempting to imbue some humanity into the improbable scenario.

But 2012 doesn’t even provide the unadulterated fun of an unintentionally hilarious B movie. Emmerich, with considerable resources at his disposal, has made a dumb and unfulfillable movie. And instead of Emmerich using his exploitative skills to make his audience think, he has produced the cinematic equivalent of an audience member running out of toilet paper when she most desperately needs it. His audience is doomed to run around the house with pants around legs, hoping to seek out a Kleenex or paper towel substitute and praying to the deities that nobody else is home. But the film is so long (it runs a needless two hours and 38 minutes) and the quest so fruitless that it goes beyond any uncouthly rectified inconvenience. As such, 2012 is, to paraphrase Jefferson, the movie that the American public deserves.

[UPDATE: In a rare drift in sensibilities, Armond White has panned 2012 in what appears to be a hastily written review. The big surprise is Roger Ebert, who has awarded this film three and a half stars. I note Ebert’s review largely because he points out (correctly) that the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling has been inexplicably relocated within St. Peter’s Basilica — a detail that I failed to note in the above review.]

Ben Macintyre: The Latest Sourpuss to Run Away From Possibilities

digitalhandThe Times‘s Ben Macintyre has mangled his mind in a senseless shower of his own hysteria. The Internet, he writes, is killing storytelling. I could respond to Mr. Macintyre’s foolish article with a vigorous list of items, pointing to such recent projects as Significant Objects, which has featured notable writers creating stories around eBay items, and Electric Literature, recently the subject of a New York Times article. But I think the more important question to ask is how such a yutz could write such an uninformed article.

Reading, last I heard, hadn’t changed much from its basic approach. While e-books continue their slow crawl into acceptance, a recent report from Bowker Publisher Services indicated that e-books accounted for only 0.6% of consumer book purchases in 2008 and 2.4% of purchases in the first quarter of 2009. Unable to extract or cite such basic data, Macintyre then makes a sweeping generalization that “we are in state of Continual Partial Attention.” And he even suggests that blog alerts hector and heckle readers. I’ve yet to see a blog alert confront a stand-up comedian, but I’m sure some giddy innovator will concoct a sentient one in this age of developing AI and emerging smartphones.

Let’s examine the data that Macintyre relies on. He cites a Microsoft research study — presumably the 2007 efforts of Shamsi T. Iqbal and Eric Horvitz (PDFs here and here) — claiming that it takes 24 minutes for a user to recover from an e-mail message alert. What Macintyre doesn’t tell you about the study is that these users were also engaged in answering email after the alerts interrupted them. Ten minutes were spent on task switches caused by the alerts, and anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes were spent returning to the disrupted task. But then, if you really needed to concentrate on an important task — particularly one as arduous as storytelling — you would be smart enough to close your email client. Iqbal and Horvitz’s findings are very helpful, and they split the task resumption time into intriguing stages. But the two researchers are investigating a multitasking environment, which isn’t always applicable to the manner in which people read and write online. What of the user who stubbornly adheres to one window or who shuts the email alerts off? Alas, that would get in the way of Macintyre’s silly generalizations, which don’t even cite the Microsoft Research findings correctly.

Having fumbled with computer science, Macintyre then relies on Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” to suggest an end to long-form reading, failing to comprehend that Carr’s article is a glorified opinion piece. Even Carr states in his article, “Anecdotes alone don’t prove much,” and later declares, “Maybe I’m just a worrywart,” which means that his article doesn’t really mean much beyond some of the quotes. But for Macintyre, Carr’s personal confession is the linchpin for “the narrative, the long-form story, the tale” as primary victim. Tell that to William T. Vollmann, who just published a 1,300 page book and has another one coming in a few months. (Indeed, later in his article, Macintyre confesses to “the astonishing range of biographical writing” in the Costa Award he is judging. But I thought the digital age was destroying all this?) Tell that to the seven women who marked up Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, who took a 500-page novel and spent several months providing interesting annotations. The annotators’ attention spans lasted over the course of three months. Here was radical change that was far from inhospitable.

Macintyre also claims that the Center for Future Storytelling was “aimed at protecting the traditional tale from oblivion.” But the CFS’s about page reveals no such eleventh-hour preservation. The CFS’s goal is to enhance the storytelling that already exists. And is it really so ludicrous to consider how emerging technologies can be used in relation to storytelling? David Lynch’s Interview Project has done just this, merging Studs Terkel-style interviews with the Web. The dude still has 68 interviews to post.

And there’s something inherently elitist about Macintyre claiming that “stories demand time and concentration,” while failing to point out that, if a story is good enough, a reader will demand time and concentration from the storyteller. If stories didn’t have that draw, then all the bars and restaurants in the world would go out of business. And with the Internet’s endless possibilities, there’s a storyteller for every reader and a reader for every storyteller. Barack Obama was indeed elected on the basis of his biography, but Macintyre has failed to observe that he was the first elected President to use online conduits to spread his origin story and raise money.

If you wish to soak up hefty tomes and you can’t understand how you can do this with the Internet, there’s this nifty thing on your computer called the ON/OFF button that you may wish to investigate. For the rest of us, there’s the endless material in Project Gutenberg and the recent partnership between the New York Public Library and Kirtas, which will make 500,000 public domain books available to anyone in the world.

But if Macintyre’s getting paid to turn out such gormless articles (he confesses that his own ability to concentrate is dwindling), then maybe he really should worry about not grokking these developments. His vitiated cry in the Times, which reads like an abandoned boy braying for his lost balloon, foreshadows his inevitable obsolescence. Let’s hope he gets with the program. Still, if Ben Macintyre buckles over because of his reading deficiencies, then I know countless people who the Costa people can call to pick up the slack. Nearly all of them are online.

Untapped Currency

Headspace hijacked by entirely unanticipated events. A slight reconfiguration of the brain, a sudden impulse to stop here and start there. Whittling down distractions. The very thing keeping so many others mired in pathetic fixations and unhealthy obsessions and desperate gropes at credibility as the whole operation burns into oblivion, with the remaining gaunt wolves sniping about at the remaining scraps. One need not be a depressive to survive, although miserable people sure do love their company. They are already starting to turn on each other, and it’s sad to watch. Particularly when one isn’t involved and one is powerless to intercede. One need not surrender to fear and complacency. It is reality which one must face. Not dwelling on a job you hate. Or the constant mining of personal experience and invading other people’s existences in lieu of therapy. Or the childish failure to be yourself. Or the reliance upon a fabricated identity you can’t believe in. Or the inability to be true.

No, I’m not writing about me. I’m writing to you. Not you, that guy who has his shit together. Yeah, keep it up and give me a high five. Let me buy you a beer when I have some money and you’re next in New York. And not you, the guy who gets what’s going on here. And not you, the dude who doesn’t quite grok, but isn’t afraid to flaunt it. Process of elimination. Yeah, that pack. See them? Yeah. They’re fucking terrified. I know. Man, I wish I had a job or some happiness to give them, but you know the old proverb about horses and water.

Well, where does that leave us, kiddo? I mean, we’re all busy fighting our own wars to stay alive. But can we spare a few minutes? We may not have dimes, brother, but when they take away your job, the new commodity is time. And that’s a unit you can budget. So how bout paying some of it forward? Nothing public, mind you. Off the radar. Collective savings. An invisible Federal Reserve trading in an untapped currency.

Reminder: Live Conversation with Sarah Hall on Tuesday!

sarahhall2This is a quick reminder that Sarah Hall and I will be in conversation tomorrow night (i.e., the evening of the week commonly referred to as Tuesday) at McNally Jackson at 7:00 PM. Since there is a good deal of weather within Hall’s most recent novel and weather forms the bedrock of all good small talk, it is very likely that we will be introducing meteorological patterns, either literally or figuratively, into the conversation at some point.

Hall’s fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, was the subject of a roundtable discussion on these pages. And I should point out that this conversation will not be recorded or released as a future Segundo show. This is a “one night only” performance.

For background information on Hall, you can listen to my previous conversation with her from last year. I also wrote about Sarah Hall’s first three novels for the Barnes & Noble Review.