Friday, April 22, 2016

Wesley Stace's Bedside Reading

Wesley Stace Bedside

Recording under the name John Wesley Harding, English singer/songwriter Wesley Stace has fifteen pop and folk  albums under his belt. His debut novel, Misfortune, the story of a 19th century boy orphan raised as a girl, has just been published to critical acclaim. Stace, 39, spoke to freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Q. What books are you reading now?

I am not always reading a lot of contemporary fiction. One of my favorite book and the book to read now is Hadrian VII. It’s by Baron Corvo, whose real name was Frederick Rolf. It’s in a nice, new paperback edition by New York Review Books. “Hadrian” is an important book right now. Rolf was an eccentric English Catholic, who was thrown out of the Catholic Church. The book is about his fantasy of being chosen as pope. At the beginning of the novel, he’s sitting in his living room, saying how annoyed he is with the world. He goes to Rome and is picked as pope by some strange turn of events. It is a great book to read right now because of the pope’s death, and it has some of the most purple prose of any book ever written.

Another writer I love is Patrick Hamilton. He wrote the movies “Rope” and "Gaslight.” He is a fantastic novelist. It turns out that nobody reads him now, but he has one great novel, “Hangover Sqaure,” about a schizophrenic. I am reading his trilogy, which is called “Twenty-Thousand Streets Under the Sky.” His world is a world of thwarted dreams in the 1920s and ‘30s. His writing is phenomenally good.

There is a modern novel I’ve really been enjoying called “How to Be Lost,” by Amanda Eyre Ward. It is a funny and moving book of a family haunted by the kidnapping, disappearance of one of three sisters. I think it is a terrific novel.

Tom Bissell on his short-story collection "God Lives in St. Petersburg"

(Originally published in the Denver Post)

Desperate Times in Central Asia

By Dylan Foley

“The worst feeling is when you are robbed by a cop,” says the writer Tom Bissell of his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan in 1996. “It would usually start with a negotiation on how big the fine was. Once a cop reached into my wallet, grabbed a big wad of the local currency and said, ‘This is your fine.’”

The chaos, insanity and crime of post-Soviet Central Asia infuses Bissell's vivid debut story collection, “God Lives in St. Petersburg” (Pantheon, $20). The book is full of tales of isolated Americans acting badly from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan. In a sense, the stories are a twisted, gallows-humor version of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad.” Culture clashes are a given, and for some characters like the callow war photographer and an unfaithful and depressed missionary, events turn deadly.

Bissell’s own experience in the Peace Corps was a disaster. “I had a nervous collapse,” he says from his Lower Manhattan apartment where an observer can see a sliver of Ground Zero. "At the time, quitting the program after seven months was humiliating and mortifying, but I am really glad that I got things out of the way. Failing at something when you didn’t expect to early in life is pretty helpful, as is seeing a part of the world that is filled with suffering, just plain flat-out suffering.”

The 31-year-old Bissell, a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and writer for McSweeney’s, eventually went back to Central Asia, and wrote the 2003 travel book “Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia,” which chronicled his visit to the Aral Sea, the most polluted body of water in the world, a toxic gift from the old Soviet Union.

It was Central Asia that also formed Bissell’s fiction. “I wrote four novels in the past 12 years,” he says. “I didn’t really feel that I was saying anything different than any number of writers. It wasn’t until I came back in 1996 that I started writing these stories. I felt like I was writing stories that I hadn’t read.”

Isolation and loneliness are the primary themes. “That was one of the mainline of emotion that these stories hit, that sense of feeling totally alone in a place that doesn’t feel all that welcoming all the time,” says Bissell.

In each story, Bissell uses small fragments of his own autobiography. “The Afghanistan story was based on my brief, miserable career as a war correspondent,” he says. “I was sent there by a magazine that never published my piece.  I wanted to create a memorable character, a short, kind of fat lothario who has lucked into a plum war correspondent thing and is untouched by it.

“Just about every story has some screaming neon autobiographical detail, like the story with the guy who’s wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt,”says Bissell, pointing to his own chest. Bissell’s shirt du jour is an Aquaman t-shirt.

Bissell puts in the searing dance of a couple breaking up at the zoo, not pulling punches at himself. “That story is as nakedly autobiographical as you can get,” he admits, where the woman ending the affair draws the man close and pushes him away in the same sentence. “There is a choreography to breaking up. That story captures it, at least how I experienced it. The guy is kind of a jerk. I wanted to write about a side of me that is kind of unpleasant.”

Countries like Uzbekistan are full of American Christian missionaries. Though banned by the local governments, they try to convert Muslims and atheists. “I met a lot of missionaries in Central Asia,” he says. “I got the idea of writing about the missionary experience, but also about the question of religion and sexuality.

Central Asia turns American missionaries on their heads. “For a missionary, you grow up in your suburban Atlanta community or in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and your church is the center of your life,” says Bissell, who hails from Michigan. “Suddenly, you go to a part of the world where there are no Christians. You think, ‘This doesn’t make sense. There are millions of people, and none of them are Christians.’

“Traveling, at least for me, was a process of learning that reality is not in English, that truth is not American, and that Christianity is not the emotional and religious atmosphere that exists everywhere. For someone whose whole life is based on adherence to a certain series of articles of faith, to go to a place where they are entirely in absence is mind-blowing and hard to deal with.”

Bissell’s missionary characters comes from his own infatuations. “I have an obsession with religion,” he confesses. “I was a Catholic. One of the novels I tried to write was about the 12 apostles. I have an intense religious infatuation with religious arcana, and an interest in fanaticism. I am one of those people who when a Jehovah’s Witness comes to the door, I invite them in.”

The most compelling story in the book is “God Lives in St. Petersburg,” which won the Pushcart Prize a few years ago. The story starts as a farce about a gay missionary grappling with his sexual desires. It quickly turn into a dark tale, when a desperate ethnic Russian woman offers her 14-year-old daughter to the missionary, to get the girl out of the country where she has no future. The mother offers up the title of the story in a bitter rant about being an ethnic Russian in godless Central Asia.

“It is probably the most ambivalent thing that I have ever written,” says Bissell. The chilling ending leaves much room for interpretation. "I wanted that ambiguity and ambivalence in the ending. A lot of people, including  my family, want to know where the hell that story came from.”

The roots of the story come in a desperate circumstances of Central Asia and Bissell’s own trauma as a Peace Corps volunteer. “I had a friend who was offered a 15-year-old girl by her mother,” says Bissell. “It was so stunning. Also, I had a little girl named Susanna that I was teaching in Uzbekistan. She was 13 or 14, a very sweet little girl. Obviously, there was no romantic attachment, but she had these big tears in her eyes when I told her I was leaving. I was haunted by leaving her behind.

 “There were two forces of desperation,” Bissell notes. “One is the desperation of people to escape bad conditions, and the other is the Westerner’s inability to deal with all these valid needs. These two experiences, the profound failure and the sense of what I would be getting into if I tried to help people, really stayed with me. What is helping someone? Missionaries are great until they actually start making converts.”

Dylan Foley is a book critic in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Porn-Star Picture Book: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on the Adult Film Atcors in XXX

(Published in the Newark Star-Ledger in September 2004)

XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (Bullfinch, $35)

With porn star Jenna Jameson’s memoir tearing up the bestseller lists and adult film actors packing the Howard Stern Show, the American porn industry has reached new heights in mainstream culture.

Now porn has achieved more legitimacy with its own high-end photography book, with famed portrait  photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ having just published “XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits.” Greenfield-Sanders, known for shooting Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Lou Reed and Madeline Albright, has photographed adult stars like Jameson, Nina Hartley and Peter North, both clothed and in full-frontal nudity. The poses range from heroic to proud, confrontational to tired. The photos are backed by controversial and witty essays by Gore Vidal, Salman Rushdie and performance artist Karen Finley, and other writers. Greenfield-Sanders’ “XXX” project explodes this month with a Chelsea gallery show of the photos,  an HBO documentary he directed called “Thinking XXX,” a CD of music from the film, and a DVD.

Greenfield-Sanders, 52, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley on the line between art and pornography.

Q. How did you get interested in shooting porn stars?

A. It all started with “Boogie Nights” in 1997. Porn stars struck me as a group that would be fascinating to photograph. I did nothing about it until 1999. A friend called and said, “I met a porn star. Can I bring him over?” I’d rather not say who he was. He didn’t end up in the book. He posed for me clothed, then said, “Okay, let’s do the nude one.” I was really taken aback. I said “Gee, sure, let us do the same pose.” In my mind I was thinking of the famous Goya paintings (of the same woman naked and clothed). The pictures were amazing. They were revealing on so many levels, because of the nudity and the way you looked at someone clothed, how the body posture changed and how comfortable he was nude.

Q. How did “XXX” turn into a book with essays?

A. I didn’t pick up the project again until (“Deep Throat” star) Linda Lovelace died in 2002. That spurred me on. I’d ask writer friends about it, and they’d say “I’ll write something for it!” John Malkovich, who is a friend of mine, said he’d write something. Then Gore Vidal came on board, which helped bring the level up to get other great people.

Q. Did you know much about porn when you started?

A. No. At the beginning, I knew who Nina Hartley was, and maybe Tera Patrick. That was about it, but one name leads to another. I was trying to balance it ethnically, as well as young and old stars, for that was more interesting. You could do a book with 100 blondes with big breasts. That would probably be a bigger seller. But that’s a different book.

Q. In your photos, Nina Hartley looks very proud, Reina Leone looks confrontational, and Peter North looks tired. What were you looking for?

A. I am always looking to make the person look how he or she sees him or herself. I hope I achieved this. You also try to get a sense of who the person is. When you meet a porn star, there is a certain proudness there. Reina Leone might have been posed the way she is because she was holding up her gigantic breasts. I’d shoot the clothed photo as they were when they came off the street, without make up. Jesse Jane literally looks like the girl next door. The nude shots were more glamorized.

You get the best picture by putting people at ease. For me, it was difficult at first, because they were naked and I wasn’t used to that. As a photographer, you have to get over it.  I had to learn the language like, “You look fabulous” and “Your breasts are great.”

Q. What is the difference between shooting Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and porn star Jenna Jameson?

It is very different. The people in this project are very comfortable with the camera. That is not the case with writers. It was harder to do Donna Tartt, Madeline Albright and Jack Welch.

Q. With nude photography, what is the line between art and pornography?

A. There is an old joke with two punchlines...What is the difference between art and pornography? Focus and lighting. I don’t really have an answer. What I do is art. These are portraits of clothed and nude people. So much about porn is objectifying the performers.
This book humanizes these people.

Q.  How does “XXX” fit in your career path?

A. It is still all about portraiture. My first book “Art World” was about all the people I’d shot during 20 years in the New York art world. It was artists, critics and collectors. The next book was a monograph on celebrities, politicians, actors and writers. If you look at the work, who are the people I photograph? They are very accomplished, driven people, and many of them are celebrities. Porn stars fit right into that. They are the best at what they do, which is screwing on film.  And they are fascinating. I came to this with very cliched conceptions about who porn stars were. I came out of it with a very different understanding. Many of them are very smart and use porn in different ways to make something of themselves.

Friday, April 24, 2015


Denver Post

In the blink of an eye Two-second decisions explored

January 30, 2005

   Dylan Foley Special to The Post The trouble for New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell all started several years ago when he grew his hair out from a conservative short cut to a long Afro.

"I started getting speeding tickets, when I'd never got any before," said Gladwell, from a New York City coffee shop. "Then I got stopped by three undercover cops on a Manhattan street as a rape suspect. I was very surprised, but the cops were nice about it." Gladwell, who is of British and Jamaican descent, looked nothing like the man in the police sketch, who was 50 pounds heavier and 15 years younger. All they had in common was a big head of curly hair.

"His face was younger and meaner than mine," noted Gladwell. The police let Gladwell go after 20 minutes of questions on the street.
"As I thought about it, if you change the situation slightly, it could have been much more ominous," said the slender Gladwell. "They were in an unmarked police car. What if it was 1 in the morning and I had run?

"It made me realize that there is a lot of work going on in those first two seconds. For those cops, they spotted me and were forced to decide, 'Are we interested in that guy?' I knew there was something important there and spooky."

Gladwell has published "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," a thrilling exploration of what goes on behind split decisions, what the brain is processing when police fire their guns and the choices made in speed dating, to the devastating mistakes made in a $250 million U.S. military wargame. The two-second blink, argues Gladwell, can be a good thing in decision-making, used by doctors to diagnose heart attacks to save lives and for psychologists to determine if a marriage will survive.

"The blink is what pops into your head in the first two seconds," said Gladwell. "It is the unthinking, unbidden response. It is thinking, but rapid thinking."

At the New Yorker, the 41-year-old Gladwell has made a career of melding science, psychology and pop culture. He will interview neuroscientists, then apply the knowledge to the mechanics of baseball hitters. In his best seller "The Tipping Point," Gladwell explored the relationship between trends and consumer culture, and what makes something like Puma sneakers become a must-have item.

In the new book, Gladwell follows the work of John Gottman, a psychologist who videotaped newly married couples and by watching mere snippets of their interactions with the sound turned off, he could predict with 90 percent accuracy which marriages would survive 15 years and which wouldn't. Psychologists call this thin slicing, where small, telling details can predict an entire situation's outcome.

"Situations have signatures, people have signatures," said Gladwell. "It is an important idea and counterintuitive. How is it that a marriage can be diagnosed in 15 minutes? There is a kind of DNA to the interaction of two people. There are patterns to how people act, how situations unfold."

With diagnosing heart attacks, conventional medicine dictates that it is best to have all information possible. "People say to understand whether someone is having a heart attack, I need to gather every possible piece of information and somehow collate it. It's not true," said Gladwell. "All kinds of truth are packaged in ways that are instantly understandable."

The mind picks out what is important. "We clearly have a part of our brain that is very good at picking up these patterns and zeroing in on what really matters," he said. "When I give you the examples of Gottman looking at the marriage tapes or guys in the hospital understanding heart attacks, these are examples of what human beings do naturally - look at a pattern and jump to a conclusion. We base this conclusion on something that is real."

Gladwell also goes over disastrous snap judgments in the 20th century, such as the American embrace of Warren G. Harding as president. His handsome face, great hair and beautiful voice led to the worst and most corrupt presidency of the 20th century. Then there is the Getty Museum's purchase of a forged Greek statue in 1983 for millions of dollars. Curators from other museums with nothing to lose found the fake in that professional blink.

Gladwell goes over the infamous Amadou Diallo shooting, where four inexperienced New York City undercover cops fired 41 bullets to kill an unarmed street peddler in a seven-second encounter. But there is the more heartening example of a more experienced cop not shooting an armed teenager when he determined the boy was going to drop his gun.

"The experienced cop was prepared for his split decision," said Gladwell. "He wasn't pushed into a kind of temporary autism of surging heart rate and stress hormones."

To help break out of the temporary autism, Gladwell cites police-training programs. "In the police example, you train people properly, and you teach them how to manage their behavior.

"You take away the partner from the patrol car. You take away the partner, and a police officer is forced to slow down the situation, to be the peacemaker and to call for backup. You don't have a partner egging you on."

In "Blink," Gladwell tackles the issue of decision making with almost a missionary zeal. "A lot of this book is making the obvious point, but a point that we have forgotten," said Gladwell. "It is a defense of this idea of judgment, something we gain with experience. We are infatuated with youth, with young, energetic people who have fancy systems behind them. We have been too dismissive of this undefinable thing called judgment.

"I want people to understand how powerful and fragile this gift we have is," said Gladwell. "I want to raise the level of awareness of this decision-making muscle in our brain that somehow gets forgotten. If I do that, I will be happy."

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little Brown, 288 pages, $26

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Katherine Boo on her Amazing Mumbai Book "Behind the Beautiful Forevers"

(Published in the Newark Star-Ledger in April 2012)

In 2007, the New Yorker writer Katherine Boo started three years of visits to the Annawadi slum in Mumbai, India, interviewing residents in the small shantytown behind the city’s gleaming airport and near several luxury hotels. Boo’s resulting book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”(Random House, $27, 288pp.), is a breathtaking work of great reportage, full of lush images and nuanced characters.

Boo focuses on Abdul, a teenage garbage broker who supports his family of 10, and introduces readers to Kalu, who braves the barbed wire of the Mumbai airport to raid the recycling bins. Boo also explores the changes to Asha, a woman from the impoverished countryside who becomes a small-time political activist immersed in bribery and fraud.

The community of 3,000 is rocked by the suicide of the one-legged Fatima, who Abdul is falsely accused of murdering. Abdul’s trip through the Kafkaesque Indian court system allows Boo to examine how individual initiative can easily be crushed by cruelty, corruption and indifference.

Boo, 47, splits her time between Mumbai and Washington, D.C.  She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from Portland, Oregon.

Q. How did you wind up finding the Annawadi slum?

A. As a point of principle, I don’t use fixers. I found Annawadi on my own in November 2007. I went with a man who was monitoring a micro-lending scheme in Annawadi. Asha was there.

Q. The center of the book becomes Abdul, who is falsely accused of murder. How did you bond with him?

A. For months, I just watched him work, sorting garbage. His father would be coughing in the hut, and his brothers and sisters would be running around. He started telling me his views on the value of life.

Q. The book opens with a mesmerizing image of a terrified Abdul hiding from the police in his rat-infested garbage storage area. How did you create the vignette?

A. I was with Abdul before Fatima set herself on fire. I had videotapes of where the garbage was stored. I reported from Abdul’s perspective, from that of a small Nepalese boy (a witness) and I had police documents. I reported from Fatima’s hut, as well as the hospital.

Q. Asha goes from being a no-show schoolteacher to becoming a semi-ruthless powerbroker in the slum. How did she evolve for you?

A. Asha comes from a region in India that is the shorthand for hardship and poverty. Her husband is a drunk and she’s got three children. He always seemed to be passed out. She could have gotten a job in a factory, but she’s smart as hell. The local corrupt politician was able to notice her intelligence and uses it. I am not trying to sentimentalize her, but over the course of the book, I hope the readers will understand the choices she’s made.

Q. Despite the poverty and fist-to-mouth existences of most of the people in Annawadi, you present a balanced portrait. The street children have witty commentaries on the wealthy people in the nearby hotels and women dress their best for festivals. Why was this so important?

A. That’s part of the problem with how poverty is written about. We think that people will only care about the poor if they are sitting around, sad-faced and miserable. I wrote about this moment when there was a break in the rain and the kids took a busted inner-tube and started playing ring toss with the flagpole. It was mayhem and joy.

Q. Did you ever feel the need to intervene when you witnessed violence?

A. There were certain incidents when I did intervene. I am not physically strong, but I’d use my video camera and start yelling. There was an incident where men were evicting a widow, pulling her out by her hair and throwing her possessions in the sewage lake. I created a distraction.