16 May 2006

Adam Gopnik Sez: Lost Generation Not Lost Enough

I was lucky enough to hear New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik speak last night through the Brown Friends of the Library. Gopnik talked about the American ideal of Paris in writing from Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson until... well, himself, in his book PARIS TO THE MOON about his 1995 to 2000 residence there.

Gopnik's point was that Americans see Paris as a type of idyll, in the same way they see New York, and have gone there either to be good bourgeois and study at the Sorbonne and rub shoulders with the literati, or to drink and smoke and have lots of sex and be good bohemians. (Right now in New York he does neither, although he acknowledges that most people he meets still think he lives in Paris because he lives in "the Paris of their minds.") Franklin and Jefferson were both in Paris on diplomatic missions, but Jefferson studied it like he studied his farms, while Franklin concluded "[the French] must have some way of changing the air here that we are not acquainted with."

His talk gave me a whole raft of new authors to read about the city, which I have been lucky enough to visit once. Nathaniel Parker Willis, who Gopnik said is largely forgotten today, wrote about "restaurant Paris"; Art Buchwald of the New York Herald Tribune chronicled the city in the 1940s. Henry James had an unrequited romance with the city, because he tried to live there and never really felt accepted. "No American has known Paris better" than Edith Wharton. But the Lost Generation, most often invoked in the same breath as Paris, lived a much more insulated life among fellow expats than earlier chroniclers of the city -- hence him saying they weren't lost enough. And having tackled THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS, I confess I did wonder where the French were and why Stein and Toklas moved in such a small circle. In any case, he really whetted my appetite to read more about the City of Light (besides my abortive attempt earlier this semester at HAUSSMANN, OR THE DISTINCTION). Suggestions?

In other news, it appears that Starbucks is going to start selling books soon. Oh, help us all.

13 May 2006

Sonnets from strangers, and a great way to keep mum.

In my sophomore year of college, I wrote that one of my life goals (per "As You Like It") was to find a boy willing to tie sonnets on trees for me. If I had known about these London sonnet walks, in which you are given directions from Shakespeare's Globe and random people come up to you and recite poetry, I might have given up on males in general! (But it's a good thing I didn't.)

Here's a funny interview with author/ blogginista Paperback Writer, one of my personal favorites.

11 May 2006

Extra: Karyn Bosnak, 20 TIMES A LADY

Whatever else you can say about Karyn Bosnak's 20 TIMES A LADY, you can't say it's totally autobiographical.

How do I know? Because I've read her memoir, SAVE KARYN. Bosnak's claim to fame is that she started a personal Website at SaveKaryn.com (which is still up, although mostly concerning her new book), to ask strangers for money to pay off a $20,000 credit-card debt and to highlight her own struggle to cut lifestyle corners. People criticized the book (and the author) for its seemingly fancy-free approach to money -- easy go, easy come, I guess -- but I enjoyed it because Bosnak looks at herself and says, "I'm not in debt because something tragic happened to me. I'm in debt because I was foolish." And that takes the huevos grandes.

Very little of that struggle shows up in Bosnak's first novel, of which I was lucky enough to get an advance copy. Her heroine, Delilah Darling, does have a pet mascot and a love for all things cute and luxurious, but Delilah's troubles in love -- not money -- take center stage. After she reads a New York Post article on sex and decides she may have been, well, a bit too free with her favors (as befits someone named Delilah, I guess!) she decides to sink her unemployment into a cross-country trip to find her hookups of yore -- because if she can rekindle the spark with one of them, she won't have to add another man to her "list." It's cheesy and silly, but like a good romantic comedy, you feel satisfied at the ending. Not that I'm giving any clues.

Sure, there are some autobiographical details in 20 TIMES A LADY; reading Bosnak's new blog I notice she has a Yorkie now, like the heroine, and a few memorable scenes take place in her old stomping ground of Chicago. But my major deal-breaker for chick lit is when the biographical similarities are so overwhelming that it feels like the author, well, didn't make anything up for herself! Jennifer Weiner is another author who knows how to use her experiences (like her love for Philadelphia) in a way that doesn't overwhelm the reader. I know most people wouldn't be bothered by this, but I felt pretty miffed when I discovered that John Irving had pretty much copy-pasted his entire life into THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. Bosnak is obviously a more talented writer than her Internet detractors give her credit for.

09 May 2006

Our libraries are furniture. They are decoration. They threaten the breathable air to paper ratio in our apartments and offices. Books spill over my shelves. They crowd my kitchen table. We are what we read...paper will continue to be used by academics for a long time to come purely on the basis of its utility as an information technology. But we are not passionate about paper because it is a good research tool. We are passionate about it because of the way that it smells and feels. Our love of paper springs from the way it insinuates itself into not only our career, but our souls. An academic defends the text universe. Lovely!

07 May 2006

Extra: Fernando Henrique Cardoso, THE ACCIDENTAL PRESIDENT OF BRAZIL

What I learned from reading the memoir of Brazil's second-to-last president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, now a Brown professor:
  • Scholar-presidents do a pretty good job (see also: Woodrow Wilson).
  • It's no accident that the Brazilian currency Cardoso instituted to solve the country's inflation crisis in the early '90s is named the real; the title (translated as "royal" or "real") was meant to reassure citizens that it would, unlike previous currencies, actually be worth something in the weeks and months after it was introduced. Diabolical!
  • As much as the 2003 election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Cardoso's successor) may have freaked the crap out of the West, "Lula" (a Union leader of working-class origins) used to be a lot more radical...
  • ...which is something I didn't pick up on at all when he took office on January 1st. I was in Rio de Janeiro at the time, and all the press coverage stressed how far-left he was, never mind that Cardoso himself was pretty center-left.
  • My dad's flippant comments about how "people would just disappear" when he lived in Brazil in 1972? Not so much kidding on that account. (Dad was an AFS student who checked the "Send me anywhere" box on his application and landed in Sao Paolo knowing no Portuguese. We visited his old neighborhood when we were there.)
  • Not even fame or democratic election can save you from having a terrible Wikipedia picture.