Wednesday, October 29, 2008

David Hackett Fischer, Great Historian

David Hackett Fischer, a writer who can tell a story....He has written on Washington's Crossing of the Delaware (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize), on Paul Revere, on the cultural contexts of economic disasters (relevant), and on the cultural folkways that served to define American culture.

David Hackett Fischer visits the Writers Institute on October 30.

Here is a sampling of views on his newest work, "Champlain:"

"Champlain's Dream is a comprehensive, exhaustively researched, yet always lively biography. Besides narrating a life it also, as its title suggests, tells the story of Champlain's vision for North America, which, Fischer maintains, was one of tolerance and humanity and remains worthy of admiration today."-- Boston Globe

"To the 'father of New France' [David Hackett] Fischer applies his signature blend of social history and classic narrative."-- The Wall Street Journal

"A lucid portrait of a man given too little attention in standard American textbooks. Fischer's work should make it impossible to ignore Champlain's contributions henceforth."-- Kirkus Reviews (Starred)

"The definitive biography of Samuel de Champlain...Fischer once again displays a staggering and wide research...[an] epic story [and] outstanding work."-- Publishers Weekly (Starred)

"Narrating Champlain's activities in North America is where Fischer excels, both in his chronicle of events and his analysis of Champlain's leadership, political and commercial backing, and diplomacy with the native peoples. Fischer's comprehensive, incisive portrayal will enthrall the Age of Discovery audience."-- Booklist (Starred)

Product Description
In this sweeping, enthralling biography, acclaimed historian David Hackett Fischer brings to life the remarkable Samuel de Champlain -- soldier, spy, master mariner, explorer, cartographer, artist, and Father of New France.

Born on France's Atlantic coast, Champlain grew to manhood in a country riven by religious warfare. The historical record is unclear on whether Champlain was baptized Protestant or Catholic, but he fought in France's religious wars for the man who would become Henri IV, one of France's greatest kings, and like Henri, he was religiously tolerant in an age of murderous sectarianism. Champlain was also a brilliant navigator. He went to sea as a boy and over time acquired the skills that allowed him to make twenty-seven Atlantic crossings without losing a ship.

But we remember Champlain mainly as a great explorer. On foot and by ship and canoe, he traveled through what are now six Canadian provinces and five American states. Over more than thirty years he founded, colonized, and administered French settlements in North America. Sailing frequently between France and Canada, he maneuvered through court intrigue in Paris and negotiated among more than a dozen Indian nations in North America to establish New France. Champlain had early support from Henri IV and later Louis XIII, but the Queen Regent Marie de Medici and Cardinal Richelieu opposed his efforts. Despite much resistance and many defeats, Champlain, by his astonishing dedication and stamina, finally established France's New World colony. He tried constantly to maintain peace among Indian nations that were sometimes at war with one another, but when he had to, he took up arms and forcefully imposed a new balance of power, proving himself a formidable strategist and warrior.

Throughout his three decades in North America, Champlain remained committed to a remarkable vision, a Grand Design for France's colony. He encouraged intermarriage among the French colonists and the natives, and he insisted on tolerance for Protestants. He was a visionary leader, especially when compared to his English and Spanish contemporaries -- a man who dreamed of humanity and peace in a world of cruelty and violence.

This superb biography, the first in decades, is as dramatic and exciting as the life it portrays. Deeply researched, it is illustrated throughout with many contemporary images and maps, including several drawn by Champlain himself.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Films: Stekler, then Thomson and Bach

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Paul J. Stekler
October 22 (Wednesday)
Seminar — 4:15 p.m., Science Library 340
Discussion and film screening — 8:00 p.m., Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center

Paul J. Stekler, award-winning producer and director of American political documentaries, is co-producer most recently of the PBS “Frontline” special, The Choice 2008 (October 14, 2008), a film that explores the backgrounds and divergent political paths of Barack Obama and John McCain, in order to shed light on their electoral battle. Stekler received the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire (2000), which he produced and co-directed. Stekler also produced and co-directed Vote for Me: Politics in America (1996), winner of Emmy, Peabody, and DuPont-Columbia Journalism awards. More recently, he produced, directed, and wrote the PBS special, Last Man Standing: Politics, Texas Style (2004), about a 2002 contest for the Texas State Legislature. Stekler currently serves as director of the newly-founded Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas at Austin.
Cosponsored by UAlbany’s Documentary Studies Program

How He Makes You Argue!

On the whole, reviewers have generally regarded British-born movie critic David Thomson’s new book, “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films, as a pleasurable provocation, a rare opportunity to fight with— and just as often agree with— one of the wittiest minds in film criticism.

Here’s John Walsh in the London Independent (October 3, 2008):
“David Thomson is the world's leading sage about film. Dulwich-educated and now living in San Francisco, he's a polymath rather than a critic. His works include biographies of Orson Welles and David O Selznick, major considerations of Warren Beatty and (Thomson's dream girl) Nicole Kidman, and the brilliant Suspects, in which he imagined the off-screen lives of characters from Hollywood's golden age. His New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a masterpiece of analysis, detail and strikingly personal judgements. His The Whole Equation was nothing less than a history of Hollywood.”
“About the only thing he hasn’t given us is his opinion of the actual movies. Until now. Have You Seen...? is half a million words long, over 1,000 pages, and deals with 1,000 films. Just as Thomas Macaulay was supposedly the last man to have read every worthwhile book published, Thomson may be the last critic to have seen every worthwhile movie from the Lumière brothers' L'Arrosseur Arrossé (1895) onwards.”
“It soon becomes clear that this isn't Thomson's selection of favourites. He's often scathing about acknowledged masterpieces: on Visconti's Death in Venice, ‘you can measure the shift from one man intent on making a masterpiece to something like a monstrous parody... by the Monty Python boys.’ Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is ‘a thinking man's epic (without the thought)’ and Peter O'Toole's performance ‘insufferably swish, without ever really examining homosexuality.’…”
“How he makes you argue! I may have given the impression of disliking this book. On the contrary: it's hardly been out of my hands for two weeks, and it's a constant source of fascination and pleasure to see what Thomson says about Rear Window or Don't Look Now. It's like having the most film-literate pal you can imagine sitting beside you in a multiplex, showing off his knowledge, provoking you to agreement or (more likely) fury.”
Full review:

Note: David Thomson will share the stage with fellow film critic Steven Bach following a screening of Jean Renoir’s 40-minute film, A DAY IN THE COUNTRY [PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE] at 7:30 PM, Friday, October 24th in Page Hall on the University at Albany’s downtown campus.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Major Jackson and Dexter Filkins coming up

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Long Road to Chaos

Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War (2008), and renowned for his coverage of the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, now turns his interest toward the incipient chaos in Pakistan. This is from the New York Times, Sunday, September 28.

“It was more than a decade ago that Pakistan’s leaders began nurturing the Taliban and their brethren to help advance the country’s regional interests. Now they are finding that their home-schooled militants have grown too strong to control. No longer content to just cross into Afghanistan to kill American soldiers, the militants have begun to challenge the government itself. “The Pakistanis are truly concerned about their whole country unraveling,” said a Western military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive.”

“That is a horrifying prospect, especially for Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, its first since 1999. The country has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons. The tribal areas, which harbor thousands of Taliban militants, are also believed to contain Al Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.”

“It’s all the greater a paradox, then, that the Taliban militias now threatening the stability of Pakistan owe their survival — and much of their present strength — to a succession of Pakistani governments that continues to the present day.”

Read the full article at

Note: Journalist Dexter Filkins will visit the Writers Institute on Thursday, October 16, 2008. He will hold an informal workshop at 4:15 PM in the Assembly Hall, Campus Center, on the University at Albany’s uptown campus, 1400 Washington Ave. In the evening, at 8 PM, he will read from his work in the Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, on the uptown campus.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Paradise of Kale

For those of us reaping backyard harvests in October, here is a poem by Major Jackson, whose evocation of a beleaguered backyard Eden in North Philadelphia was selected for the Washington Post’s “Poet’s Choice” column in April 2006:

Urban Renewal


The backyard garden wall is mossy green
and flakes a craggy mound of chips. Nearby
my grandfather kneels between a row of beans
and stabs his shears into earth. I squint an eye,--
a comma grows at his feet. The stucco's
an atlas, meshed-wire continents with leaders
who augured hate, hence ruins, which further sow
discontent. We are weeding, marking borders,
a million taproots stacked in shock. Forty years
from a three-story, he has watched the neighborhood,--
postwar marble steps, a scrubbed frontier
of Pontiacs lining the curb, fade to a hood.
Pasture of wind-driven litter swirls among greasy
bags of takeouts. Panicles of nightblasts
cap the air, a corner lot of broken TVs empties
and spills from a suitcase of hurt. Life amassed,
meaningless as a trampled box of Cornflakes.
When a beggar cupped for change outside
a check-cashing place then snatched his wallet,
he cleaned a .22 revolver & launched this plot. Tidal
layers of cement harden men born gentle as the root
crops tended south, the city its own bitter shrine.
We crouch by watering cans. He pulls a paradise of kale
and shakes root-dirt that snaps like a shadow lost in time.
Tomato vines coil by a plot of herbs. Far from the maddening
caravan of fistfights, jacked-rides, drunkards,
my pen takes aim from the thumbnail of his yard.

Note: Poet Major Jackson will visit the Writers Institute on Wednesday, October 15, 2008. He will hold an informal workshop at 4:15 PM in the Standish Room, 3rd Floor, Science Library, on the University at Albany’s uptown campus, 1400 Washington Ave. In the evening, at 7:30 PM [NOTE EARLY START TIME CHANGE] he will read from his work in the same location.

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Friday, October 3, 2008

F.D. Reeve Blue Cats and Jazz Poetics; Astrid Gibral and Geckos

“I’ll Be Damned!”

In August 2007, long-time TV weather anchor (most recently of the CBS Saturday Early Show, 1999-2006), MFA grad and published poet Ira Joe Fisher interviewed F. D. Reeve for the New York Quarterly (Issue 63). The interview may be found at Fisher gets some of the basic questions over with early:

NYQ: When you write, is it paper and pen or computer and keyboard?

It’s everything. It’s everything. Years ago, it was just pen and ink. But now I can put it on the computer and I can actually correct it. You get so that the computer becomes invisible. But I still have to work from a hard copy.

NYQ: Is there a special where or when?

No. Riding along on these big highways [in rural Vermont] is a very good time [for writing]. You have pen in hand. You just watch the road and you think of your line and you get it. Sometimes you can get four, five, six or eight lines. And there is going to be a stop. There is going to be a red light, something to stop. There is no bad time to write. You get some good ideas in the middle of night, you should have put a pen and paper near you. You can’t write on the pillow. [If you don’t write it down] it’s gone, all gone. Like a charming dream.

NYQ: Do you remember your first poem?

No. How would you do that? It’s good we forget so much, so many mistakes, so many tries. The challenge is always to see more, know more, broaden your range, extend your themes. I began to get serious in college. My first nationally published piece was in college.

NYQ: Is the reader’s (or listener’s) sigh at the end of reading a piece, the poet’s applause?

I don’t know what I think. That’s a neat question. What’s wrong with a smile? Or just, “Holy Jesus!” Or, “I’ll be damned!” Or, “Hey! I never thought of that.” Or …whatever. It’s surprise. It’s pleasure. It’s excitement. It’s that you can go back and look at it, again. It’s being ready to look at the next thing.

Note: Poet F. D. Reeve will visit the Writers Institute on Tuesday, October 7, 2008. He will hold an informal workshop at 4:15 PM in Science Library 340, on the University at Albany’s uptown campus, 1400 Washington Ave. In the evening, at 7:30 PM [NOTE EARLY START TIME CHANGE] together with The Three Blue Cats jazz band, Reeve will present a musical setting of poems from his new collection, The Blue Cat Walks the Earth (2008) in Page Hall on the downtown campus, 135 Western Ave.

Sister to the Gecko

Brazilian poet and environmentalist Astrid Cabral was a featured poet this summer on the not-for-profit website Poetry Daily ( The site republished some translations of her poetry by Alexis Levitin in the Summer 2008 issue of The Cincinnati Review. The poems also appear in her new bilingual collection Cage (2008), about the animals of her childhood home city, Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.


Blessed be the morning
of childhood when
I found myself
sister to the gecko
On the wall of the room
utterly at ease
just like me
on the edge of the planet.

Note: Poet and environmentalist Astrid Cabral and translator Alexis Levitin will visit the Writers Institute on Wednesday, October 8, 2008. They will hold an informal workshop at 4:15 PM in the Standish Room of the Science Library, on the University at Albany’s uptown campus, 1400 Washington

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