31 August 2009

Monday-afternoon optimism

"What’s the point of being a writer or an artist anyway? Herman Melville wrote MOBY DICK, and he was so poor and forgotten by the time he died, that in his obituary they called him Henry Melville. You know, like why bother they’re gonna forget our names anyway."
--Joel (Martin Starr) in "Adventureland." Note: This fact is all over the Internet but I couldn't actually verify it, though I did discover Melville is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx along with Nellie Bly, Joseph Pulitzer and Damon Runyon.

Infinite August: In which you will now address me as The Darkness (1)

I'm recording my experience reading INFINITE JEST along with the Infinite Summer project. There are no spoilers for the book in this post.

I spent most of this month not reading INFINITE JEST. It's not the book's fault: I had a lot of other reading to get through for various and sundry, and that has been my passage through the book, all chutes and laddery. I had a decent lead from taking the book on vacation and I didn't think about it much, just caught up posts from Infinite Summer and occasionally admired my bookmark-stuffed copy.

Then I hit the landmark I should have seen coming: I reached a passage that took me from "Well, I'm having a really good time, even if I don't get the hype" to "...wow, that resonated with me on a level I didn't expect." It was part of a long conversation, almost a tossed-off explanation of something, over the page-600 mark(2); I was reading it on Commerce Street in the West Village, standing in line for a Fringe show, and I looked up from the page and the world looked different.

I don't even think I could explain to you what that felt like, in which case, why am I writing a whole entry about it? Well, this is why: I can remember the first time I read some books that would become my favorites. Mostly, I can remember how I felt when I finished. But I can't think of another book in recent memory where a particular passage clanked like a bolt being turned in a lock. It was like someone had highlighted the entire section and, for good measure, written in the margins Hey Ellen!!! Straighten up, this is for you! All along this book was poking around for the chink in my intellectual armor, and when its aim was true the blow knocked me backward.

Even with all this messy metaphor and sorry simile, I don't know if INFINITE JEST will become one of my favorite books. I still have just under 300 pages to go, and even then, there will at some point have to be a re-reading. What I know is that after I hit that "wow" point, I didn't want to put the book down any more. I began to invent excuses to take it along as a back-up book on outings that did not require one; I lugged it to all sorts of inappropriate places; I got a little Linus-and-the-blanket about it, frankly. I still can't focus on it exclusively (3) but I'm going to try and carve out some longer blocks for reading it, because I just have to.

That said, I haven't completely lost perspective. I still understand how people could get massively frustrated with this book and quit before hitting that "wow" moment. It's all well and good if you reach the "wow" marker on page 248 (4) but there's no guarantee you ever will. What matters as I move into the last month of my Infinite Summer is that DFW served an ace, and I got to watch.

Obligatory DFW/IJ footnotes:
(1) No one in my civilian life would take this request seriously.
(2) To throw a bone to those who have finished the book, it is completely unrelated to the Big Event that happens between p.600 and p.700, whose narration I found quite confusing. I don't doubt that it was intentional, but I had to read it over twice to be sure that what had just happened, had just happened.
(3) If you're new here, I talked about crowding the book in at length in this post.
(4) Happened to someone I know, and even that is a fair piece in. For those who have read, it's the phone call between Hal and Orin when Orin asks for help on his interview with Steeply.

30 August 2009

"You have a hierarchy of values; pleasure is at the bottom of the ladder, and you speak with a little thrill of self-satisfaction, of duty, charity, and truthfulness. You think pleasure is only of the senses; the wretched slaves who manufactured your morality despised a satisfaction which they had small means of enjoying. You would not be so frightened if I had spoken of happiness instead of pleasure: it sounds less shocking, and your mind wanders from the sty of Epicurus to his garden. But I will speak of pleasure, for I see that men aim at that, and I do not know that they aim at happiness. It is pleasure that lurks in the practice of every one of your virtues.

"Man performs actions because they are good for him, and when they are good for other people as well they are thought virtuous: if he finds pleasure in giving alms he is charitable; if he finds pleasure in helping others he is benevolent; if he finds pleasure in working for society he is public-spirited; but it is for your private pleasure that you give twopence to a beggar as much as it is for my private pleasure that I drink another whiskey and soda. I, less of a humbug than you, neither applaud myself for my pleasure nor demand your admiration."

"But have you never known people do things they didn't want to instead of things they did?"

"No. You put your question foolishly. What you mean is that people accept an immediate pain rather than an immediate pleasure. The objection is as foolish as your manner of putting it. It is clear that men accept an immediate pain rather than an immediate pleasure, but only because they expect a greater pleasure in the future. Often the pleasure is illusory, but their error in calculation is no refutation of the rule. You are puzzled because you cannot get over the idea that pleasures are only of the senses; but, child, a man who dies for his country dies because he likes it as surely as a man eats pickled cabbage because he likes it. It is a law of creation. If it were possible for men to prefer pain to pleasure the human race would have long since become extinct."
--OF HUMAN BONDAGE. Since Dailylit makes it far too easy to quote at length, every Sunday is going to be Dubs Sunday until further notice. (And I just upgraded myself to Maugham's friend, a measure of which I'm sure he would strongly disapprove.)

To be fair, this oh so contemplative passage from the Paris art school section ends thusly:
"You are cryptic," said Philip.
"I am drunk," answered Cronshaw.

29 August 2009

At one point I had to scroll back up to the header to make sure I wasn't reading The Onion.

Quick review of the New York Times essay this weekend on Accelerated Reader, a software that grades books so students can earn points for their out-of-class reading and score great literature: The horror.

Far More Reasoned Post-Sleep Post-Coffee Second Opinion: I'm still waiting for the West Coast Bureau to weigh in, but I can see how pedagogically, this could be a useful tool. It acknowledges that not all books are created equal and that the student who tackles JANE EYRE should get more credit than the student tackling I LIKE IT LIKE THAT: A GOSSIP GIRL NOVEL. But as the article points out, the criteria it uses are murky -- and probably not adaptable to an individual class' needs. Say for example you (as a hypothetical teacher) wanted your students to specifically read older books, so you could weight books before 1900 differently than contemporary literature. (Arbitrary criterion, but you see what I mean.) If you didn't want your students to be able to count the Harry Potter series for major points, you could "tell" the system to get stingy on those.

All that said, when I had classes that required free reading, the progress was usually measured either by books read or by pages read, and neither of those are necessarily any better ways to measure -- and I still measure my years in the former, if not the latter. In some classes, my English teachers would solve this problem by offering us a choice among 2 or 3 books for outside reading, and that's not necessarily a better system either. And in a longer view, assigning outside reading is very much a preoccupation for schools or school districts in which the majority of students have solid reading skills to begin with; a student body that lacks those skills might just get disheartened at how little its education is "worth," if it even got the chance to use a program like this.

Also, since this is the theme of the summer, I wish the author had input INFINITE JEST to see if it unlocked a secret scene like at the end of video games. (NERD.)

28 August 2009

Sad day: "Reading Rainbow" goes off the air

After 26 years, PBS viewers will no longer be able to tune in to LeVar Burton reading them a story. New episodes haven't been produced since 2006, but the contract with PBS officially expires today and will not be renewed. At fault, according to this NPR piece, is a lack of funding driven by the Bush Administration's placing priority on programming that emphasized basic skills:
"'Reading Rainbow' taught kids why to read," [station manager John] Grant says. "You know, the love of reading — [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read."
In other words, what Wormbook Enterprises tries to do every day. Take my word for it: The Youth Of Today are worse off.

This clip of Run DMC's appearance on the show (ca. 1986) is jumpy and staticky, but must have been my first ever exposure to rap:

Fall 2009 Book Adaptation Calendar

Because hope springs eternal in the human breast. These release dates are correct as of today but always changing.

9/18: "The Informant," based on the Kurt Eichenwald nonfiction book of the same name about an corporate informer who tried to take down Archer Daniels Midland. Why you should care: It's Soderbergh! And fat Matt Damon.

10/16: "Where the Wild Things Are," based on the Maurice Sendak children's book. Why you should care: Adapted by Dave Eggers!

10/16 also: "The Road," based on the Cormac McCarthy novel and starring Viggo Mortensen. Why you should care: It was supposed to come out last year! Either it's been fixed in the meantime or, direly, it hasn't.

11/13: "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," based on the Roald Dahl children's book with George Clooney voicing the fox. Why you should care: In this house we take all the Wes Anderson we can get. At least the late-night screenings should be empty.

11/20: "The Blind Side," based on the Michael Lewis nonfiction book. Why you should care: Amid all the non-news about the forthcoming MONEYBALL adaptation, this one kind of snuck past us -- which is not to say it will be great, but it could be good.

12/11: "The Lovely Bones," based on the Alice Sebold novel about a dead girl. Why you should care: It's Peter Jackson's first movie since the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy; further trivia, the lead is Saoirse Ronan, who you would know as young Briony in "Atonement."

12/25: "Sherlock Holmes," based (loosely?) on the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Why you should care: Love for Robert Downey Jr. might overcome what looks like a ridiculous sub-"Prestige"; family needs something to rally around come Christmas.

Ineligible but still of note: Winsome coming-of-age tale "An Education" (10/9) is Nick Hornby's second produced screenplay; Pedro Almodóvar's "Broken Embraces" (11/20) follows a blind writer re-examining his life.

27 August 2009

Beat the Director

Check out this cute silent-film homage the Collingswood (N.J.) Public Library made to promote an upcoming fundraiser for its teen section.

All it needs is a library bookshelf tipping over onto the completely unhurt good-sport Brett Bonfield. (Via Book a Week with Jen.)

The best American novels of the Noughties are...

Here's an interesting list (via Bookslut) of the five best novels by American writers published in this decade. I've read four of this blogger's picks (not the Ozick); one almost made my list, one I really liked, one is not the author's best and one I strongly disagree with.

I was just going to throw this in as a link and leave it, because this is hard, but I sallied forth. Observations on the process:
  • When it comes to publication dates, my memory is not good.
  • Armed with those dates, it appears some of my favorite writers have not published their best books (I.M.H.O.) yet in this decade.
  • The limitation on American authors (which I didn't see the first time I made this list) is actually a godsend, but -- and this is absolutely true -- I was noodling on this post last night, as one does, and then I had a dream that Jonathan Franzen was telling me he was actually Canadian. And I was all, "J.Franz. In this dream world where we know each other for some reason, you forgot to tell me about that? Whatever happened to St. Louis?" I think we were crossing the border at Niagara Falls when this came up (I have never been there).
  • Now that you've all stopped reading in boredom and/or disgust, the list!
Jonathan Franzen, THE CORRECTIONS (2000)
Ann Patchett, BEL CANTO (2002)

26 August 2009

Not shocked to see that the The Streets is not a Dan Brown fan. To be fair though, I have to go the other way on this, since I finished the book (and wrote a few words about it) but couldn't make it more than 15 minutes into "How to Lose A Guy...".

Come to think of it, ANGELS AND DEMONS did one other thing for me: It allowed me to recognize Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Theresa" when it has come up, multiple times, in INFINITE JEST. It's the secret Dan Brown-DFW connection! Cue exploding Internet.

Harper Perennial's newest Olive Editions, out November 3

Wry in-joke about the totemic images of chick lit and the struggle to escape those trailing associations, or lazypants joke inappropriate for the first female author in a series carrying a certain amount of hipster prestige? You decide!

Check out the others (with which I really have no argument) below:

Cute, and definitely aligns with the subject matter.

A terrific in-joke if you've read it, and still rather striking if you haven't.

Images via HarperCollinscatalog.com

Choose What You Read NY: Stampede set for Sept. 1

Forget what the Post says; real New Yorkers are the people who take full advantage of anything free because they recognize it's a perk of living here. (And oh, what a perk.) The organizers behind Choose What You Read NY clearly knew this when they set up a free book giveaway next Tuesday, September 1st, at three locations in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn.

It makes the name slightly misleading, but the free books are coming from those of us who are trying to duck such opportunities, via three Manhattan donation boxes (including one at KGB). None of them are exactly around the corner, but I think I can be a good sport and make a contribution.

25 August 2009

Here's an author whose books I bet you own: Kaplan Inc. founder Stanley Kaplan died Sunday at the ripe old age of 90, having sold his homegrown test-prep company (begun after he failed to get into medical school) to the Washington Post. Even if you still have nightmares about #2 pencils, his story is fascinating; he figures prominently in Jerome Karabel's THE CHOSEN, a great book about American higher education, prejudice and the redefinition of "character" in a meritocracy.

That's somewhat cricket

Via Alison Willmore of IFC: Sam Mendes has signed on to direct the big-screen adaptation of Joseph O'Neill's NETHERLAND with a script by Christopher Hampton ("Atonement"). First thought: I hope he shoots it here in New York! I'll get out my dress whites.

Mendes has two other adaptations in the pipeline which may be of interest, George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH and the Garth Ennis/ Steve Dillon comic PREACHER.

Previously: I went to an O'Neill reading; I read NETHERLAND and tried to decide whether it was overrated.

24 August 2009

What President Obama is reading on vacation

"In all, the books on his list total around 2,300 pages — meaning the president would have to read close to 300 pages each day of his week-long vacation to polish off the list." Now that's how you relax! Full list, from CNN:
  • George Pelecanos, THE WAY HOME
  • Thomas Friedman, HOT, FLAT, AND CROWDED
  • Richard Price, LUSH LIFE
  • Kent Haruf, PLAINSONG
  • David McCullough, JOHN ADAMS
Let's all picture ourselves with a stack of books on Martha's Vineyard instead of participating in the New York subway's involuntary Bikram. Thanks to DRA for sending me this.

Post-Its, home of the Inglourious Bookwerms

Times Book Review: "David lies, manipulates his friends and even resorts to vicious blogging — an Iago for the digital age." That's blogger Mark Sarvas on Nick Laird's novel GLOVER'S MISTAKE, which piqued my interest even before that.

Associated Press: Last week marked the 35th anniversary of the Kanawha County textbook riots, in which a dispute about new books for public schools turned into burned down elementary schools, a mining strike and a near-martyred UPS employee. Seriously, this really happened. It's a good thing we've all learned how to have civil debate since then, right?

GalleyCat: EAT, PRAY, LOVE begins with the dissolution of Elizabeth Gilbert's marriage. Now her ex-husband Michael Cooper is publishing a book called DISPLACED about his side of the divorce, coming out next year when Gilbert's memoir about her second marriage hits shelves. Make it stop! Besides, the parody has beaten you both.

LitKicks: Normally the concept of a William S. Burroughs-themed party would make my blood run cold, but this one's for a good cause: Chicagoans can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of NAKED LUNCH on Friday and help raise money for a forthcoming Burroughs documentary at the same time.

Skankblogging Update! Last week Google was forced to turn over the identity of an anonymous blogger who called a Manhattan woman a "skank." Well, that woman is now suing Google for giving her up. She tells the Daily News, "Before her suit, there were probably two hits on my Web site: One from me looking at it, and one from her looking at it," which may be true but is still the Internet equivalent of "Well, you were the one playing the cymbals!"

Thanks to the Pseudonymous Blog Personality Formerly Known As Camus for this week's title.

23 August 2009

The happy journey to Columbus Circle and the Lower East Side

I know, I know, celebrities using Twitter is a plague on this modern world -- until it's a celebrity you love. And I love Margaret Atwood, who signed up for Twitter last month and pointed out, "You can tell [it] really is me, because I made a typo -- should be 'impersonating,' 'imperonating' is pretending to be Evita." Yay, puns! Now, she's been merrily tweeting her vacation in New York, including losing her hat in Central Park and getting coffee at 88 Orchard. Yesterday, she had dinner at B Bar on the Bowery and her husband got carded.

Atwood has had a sideline in technological savvy; a few years ago she helped invent an electronic pen that would allow her to "sign" books in other parts of the world. I wrote her a letter once (told you I loved her) and her response was very sweet.

22 August 2009

We're more of the love, blood and rhetoric school.

Today is the midpoint of the New York International Fringe Festival, downtown arts showcase extraordinaire which I have covered for the past three years. Every year I fully expect to be surprised and delighted, if not by every show, at least by a few, and it's already happening amongst the 9 I've seen so far. (If you're reading this after 2pm, make that 10 shows. If you're reading this after 6pm, 11 shows... etc.) To give you an idea of its breadth, my first Fringe included both a solo production of "Hamlet" and a dystopian musical in which Wal-Mart took over the world.

Despite all the extra writing, the Fringe creates reading opportunities what with all the going to and from venues and the waiting; last year I read eight books in those two weeks without making any other change in my routine. (Sounds like an infomercial: Without diet or exercise!) But mostly this year I have been digging back into INFINITE JEST after I had to put the book down for a few weeks. Think I'll see any other Infinite Summerers about in the next week? C'mon, Village, don't disappoint me.

21 August 2009

Dennis Lehane news you can't use

According to Deadline Hollywood Daily, the Scorsese-directed adaptation of SHUTTER ISLAND has been pushed back from October to February, or in industry terms from "Oscar! Oscar!" to "Meh, I'll just stay home and Netflix." "Shutter Island" was originally supposed to open on October 2 opposite the Coen Brothers' latest, "A Serious Man." (It's also the first night of Sukkot, which may or may not be relevant to the latter seems like an odd time to open a movie with a Jewish protagonist and what seem from the teaser to be explicitly Jewish themes -- or does that make it the perfect time?)

Fortuities and disjunctions

Alphabetical is lame, by color is impractical: The Guardian takes on the brave question of how to organize your bookshelf, with a sprinkle of British in-joking and casual sexism.

I'm not planning to resign from public office any time soon, the dogcatcher van is just too handy to give up, but I was recently thinking about reorganizing my library. I have gone haphazard, and now I want to come back. There's some organization between the shelves, but it's not very rigid. I shelved my unread books by color for a while (vaguely, I didn't Munsell Hue it or anything), but that has fallen apart except for the blues.

I'm thinking about going along museum lines: My favorites (the permanent collection) get pride of place, review books (traveling exhibition) have a shelf to themselves, borrowed and gift books (selections from a special donor) are similarly separated and general to-be-reads (the stuff in the back rooms in crates? broken metaphors?) take up the remaining shelves. At least then I'll feel like I'm making more unbookening progress than I am.

20 August 2009

What you shouldn't be reading

How do libraries deal with material its patrons find offensive? In the wake of the West Bend censorship campaign (ongoing though upstaged in outrage by He Who Shall Not Be Named), CityRoom explains how the Brooklyn Public Library handled a recent complaint against a Tintin book. But we can't let this pass without comment:

At a library run by [former Connecticut Library Association president Alice] Knapp, she said there was a complaint from a member of her own staff about Alan Moore’s LOST GIRLS, for sexual explicitness. Ms. Knapp considered reclassifying the novel as an “823,” a call number that would effectively hide the book inside the vast literature department where erotica was parked, or leaving it where it was, grouped in plain sight with other “graphic novels.”

She chose to tough it out.

Why? “It was in constant circulation,” she said. “The reviews for it were outstanding, and then we decided we bought it to be used, going back to the idea that books should be used. That’s why we’re buying them.”
First, I wonder if there was a City Room debate over whether to print the "hidden" call number on the blog. Hey, it's cool, if they're on the Internet, they're not going to the library anyway. Second, I haven't read LOST GIRLS (if you're also unfamiliar, Neil Gaiman's review should get you briefed) but would have assumed most libraries wouldn't have bought it in the first place, so as not to face that decision. I couldn't find it in the NYPL catalog when I looked today.

Third, I would be interested in a similar piece on cases of offense-related defacement, as I once thought I might have seen (but probably didn't). And finally, do the libraries count written requests for removal that are composed entirely of obscenities? I don't know if that was my letter they got about Ann Coulter.

19 August 2009

Anonybullies: They're everywhere?

Is calling someone a "skank" cyberbullying? A Manhattan judge says it is, and has ordered Google to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who called a local woman a skank (among other things) on a Blogspot blog like this one.

It's funny what happens to a word once it has been delineated as "not okay." I now have the irresistible desire to start calling out skanks left, right and center, even though it's not a word I use regularly. (This is why I kick ass at Taboo until I start actually looking at the card.) But there are many compelling reasons why a blogger would want to write anonymously, not all of which have to do with discrediting other people.

According to PC World, the plaintiff claimed in court that the blog was affecting her ability to get work -- and since she was a model, allegations about her age could I guess be considered as a professional attack. (Every article about this case mentions her profession, which teeters on the stiletto heel of relevance if you ask me.) But if you follow that line long enough, an author could claim a negative review on a blog was affecting her or his livelihood. I don't typically write posts that say "Author Ainslie Copper is a hack, her mother dressed her funny and her books should be burned," but if I say "Get Ainslie Copper's books out of the library, don't waste your money on buying them," that is adversely affecting her business.

Anyway, I find this troubling in a way I can't articulate, but it seems impossible to enforce, particularly since it appears in this case the commenters were also participating. (And you people are always going on about literary skankeration, good lord.)

Writing Heathrow's biography

Alain de Bottom is a brave, brave man: He's spending this week at London's Heathrow Airport to write a 25,000-word book about it which will be passed out free to passengers later this year. Smells like a publicity stunt, but he agreed to go somewhere most people never want to even when a vacation awaits, so hats off.

I want to know if he's actually sitting behind a desk like the one in the picture -- and if so, how many times a day he's getting interrupted by lost travelers. It's death by a thousand "What do you mean you don't work here?"s.

18 August 2009

Summer Reading #4: Mark Harris, PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION

Entertainment Weekly writer Mark Harris posits in PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION that the 1968 Best Picture race was emblematic of the war of ideals that was going on in Hollywood at the time, between auteurs working on location forging new forms and the grinding gears of big-budget lot-shot features. There is a valid debate that that war is still going on, but mostly, I agree! Of course, if you are the type who is interested in this book already, you probably agree with him too.

Harris follows the five pictures -- "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" and "Doctor Doolittle" -- roughly from conception to Oscar night, starting with Robert Benton and David Newman, who were best friends working at Esquire when they started writing the "Bonnie and Clyde" screenplay. They're great characters, but the first 150 pages otherwise are pretty thick with meetings; I believe Hollywood is like that but Harris could have fast-forwarded a little, because when the book gets really good is in the trivia-dense stories of casting, making and promoting these very different films. The one I'm most looking forward to re-watching after reading Harris' take on it is "The Graduate" and it's probably worth mentioning, the book spoils all of them to some extent ("In the Heat of the Night" least, but still substantially), but you should have seen four of them anyway.

Which brings me to the one I hadn't seen, and in some ways the most fun to read about: Conceived as an heir to the big-budget musical successes of "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music," "Doctor Doolittle" is set up as an emblem of the movie industry's waste and talent vacuum, but even so it was plagued with problems from the beginning. Rex Harrison was a giant asshole (albeit a funny one), locals attacked the set with rocks while they were filming in St. Lucia, and directly quoting page 200, "the rhinocerous got pneumonia." I think the next time something in my life goes massively, expensively wrong, I will throw up my hands and say "Looks like the rhinocerous got pneumonia."

Readers who like movies will probably bring some information about the movies besides "Doolittle," from film classes or otherwise, because they are acknowledged to be great -- it's not a spoiler to point out that all of them made it onto the AFI's top 100 movies list. But no one learns anything about "Doctor Doolittle" because it sucked so much, yet probably went through the least labor pain in getting studio support because it was going to make boatloads of money for the Zanucks at Fox. Details of the publicity campaign could inspire a cold shiver, so similar are they to the tricks employed today on our big-budget blockbusters.

PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION starts slowly but it's worth it, even if you already know that year's Best Picture winner. (I couldn't remember, so I didn't look it up. Suspense!) Despite the early muddiness, it's quite readable -- never falls into the EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS trap of mentioning so many movies per paragraph that one comes away exhausted with a long list, but allows you to walk away with an entertaining take on '60s cinema and some great anecdotes.

Bonus feature:
It was both delightful and scary to discover "Doctor Doolittle" is currently available in Netflix's Watch Instantly catalog. Would it be "Southland Tales" bad, so bad it needs to be watched all the way through, or "Gigli" bad, incapable of being watched in longer than 10-minute segments? I made it through about 30 minutes before I was so bored I turned it off. It's not terrible -- it reminded me of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" in parts, a childhood favorite despite the creepiest villain this side of Darth Vader -- and I laughed at the song about how Doolittle feels the need to be a vegetarian. But even doing household chores at the same time, I found it unbearably slow. (In other words, it was "The Majestic" bad.) I would say read the book, don't watch this movie.
"However they characterized the relationship, they were an unlikely pair. Leibovitz wasn’t apologetic about the fact that she barely read, while Sontag housed 15,000 books in her apartment."

--from Andrew Goldman's feature on Annie Liebovitz in New York, in which we also learn that Liebowitz favors Ordning & Reda notebooks and is mentioned just twice in Sontag's son's memoir SWIMMING IN A SEA OF DEATH.

17 August 2009

Correction: Half Filmbook: "Julie & Julia" (2009)

In last week's review of "Julie & Julia," I wrote of the film's pertaining (or not) to the "chick flick" genre, "A fictional film would probably counterweight the countdown on Julie's blog with her biological clock." This weekend I was challenged on this statement with the contention that something similar was already in Powell's memoir. It's been a while since I read the book, so I took a peek when I was at Three Lives over the weekend and -- sure enough, first chapter, first page, Powell is at the obstetrician's being told she should hurry up and have children and feeling dangerously ambivalent about it.

Wormbook regrets the error.

Warning: your mileage may vary if you are not Jon Hamm

Dear Jon Hamm,

Okay, okay, enough. We already loved you for all the usual reasons, but then you had to give an interview to Oprah.com on "books that meant the most to you" and name WONDER BOYS. We love WONDER BOYS. (Not bad on the others either!)

But all the swooning is starting to interfere with our work, so could you quick do something that will tarnish your sterling image? We've thought of some options (in no particular order):
  • Appear in an ad for Microsoft's new search engine Bing
  • Leave your longtime girlfriend for some 19-year-old hot mess on "The Real World"... or Megan Fox
  • Make a splashy public donation to an anti-gay-marriage association because Don Draper is such a great spokesperson for "opposite marriage"
  • Get caught by TMZ kicking a puppy
  • Retract the above article and announce that your real favorite book is Neil Strauss' THE GAME 'cause, like, it totally works on chicks
Can't take a book into a cold shower,
The Management

(Via Uptown Literati.)

16 August 2009

"The book I want is a vortex. When I lower my eyes to it, I’m sucked deep into a place more plausible than the one that surrounds me. When I look up, I want the actual life around me to look strange and original, like a brand new page in a pop-up world."

--Normally he puts me to sleep, but Verlyn Klinkenborg hits it out of the park with his Times op-ed today. What's your last big read going to be?

15 August 2009

Five Books About New York Real Estate (And Precariousness Of Same)

Inspired by reading THE TENANTS. I've only lived in three places here, and one was a dorm, but these books feed my curiosity into how other people live. (According to the New York Post, I can't even call myself a real New Yorker because I don't spend the holidays here. And how am I supposed to convince my family to up sticks, exactly? Exclusionary jerks.)

Your first apartment: I'm constantly lending out playwright and YA author Adam Rapp's first adult novel THE YEAR OF ENDLESS SORROWS, which I read in my first year of Actually Living Here. While it's set in the early '90s, its tale of a new arrival in New York -- dirty neighbors, confusing bosses and bad dates included -- is sharp and fresh. (Also, I saw him at BEA this year but couldn't place him till he'd walked off.)

Haves and have-nots: The narrator of Jeff Hobbs' THE TOURISTS, on the verge of losing his dingy studio, reconnects with old college friends whose fabulous apartments, markers of their financial success, hide the fact that they're emotionally dead. A couple's move to Midtown brings up some interesting questions about the way your neighborhood defines you, or who you want to be, and whether that correlation has any merit. This whole list could be subtitled the Life Is Not Fair list, but at least no one here lives on the high moral ground.

To buy or not to buy: I reviewed Mary Elizabeth Williams' GIMME SHELTER, about her search to own in a city rapidly pricing its residents out, earlier this year. What holds true in this market doesn't necessarily extended to the rest of the country, and its depiction of the process of buying here is frightening. Perhaps one ought not to read it if one has current plans to, as Regular Commenter Elizabeth put it, become a member of the landed gentry.

To 'burb or not to 'burb: Even if it weren't set in my neighborhood I think Cheryl Mendelson's keenly observant trilogy of New York novels would have piqued my interest; that's just a bonus. MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS spies on the middle-class Braithwaites feeling the pinch in their old place and debating whether to leave the city they love. (The other two books are ANYTHING FOR JANE, about a high-school prodigy, and LOVE, WORK, CHILDREN, which is my favorite.)

Keep dreaming! It took me forever to finish Michael Gross' 740 PARK, the history of a grande dame Upper East Side apartment building complete with Rockefellers and titles; it's so larded down with names and chronologies that you can't really read it straight through. Inasmuch as it reflects how the creme de la creme still live here, though, there's none better. If you can, it's worth going to see the building in person while or after you read, with perhaps a stopover at Bernie Madoff's old place in the same neighborhood.

14 August 2009

You had eyes for your book but I only had eyes for you

Books recently mentioned in New York City missed connections:
Too broad to work: "You were hating on TWILIGHT." Scoffworthy: "I was the one reading 'Vanity Fair' on my Kindle." Favorite listing that could also be a short story: Girl with cello on 86th West.
“If I’m not working on Harry Potter, then my greatest relaxation is to sit with a book. That’s how I escape stress — in literature. I always have several books on the go at any one moment, so it’s no good you asking ‘What’s on the bedside table at the moment, Emma?’ because often I can’t even see the table! I think that all that reading is just about the only similarity I have with Hermione, if you ask me.”

--Emma Watson, actress after our own heart (and if the tabloids speak right, soon-to-be student at a Certain University we love)

13 August 2009

The book you don't take home to Mother

Bestselling authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner went there for their new book:

The correct spelling of the title when not in all caps is "SuperFreakonomics." It's a SuperFreak! SuperFreak! (Look, I have it in my head, you might as well too.) It hits stores October 20.

The duo's international publishers went in kind of a NETHERLAND-meets-Klosterman-at-Scribner direction for the cover art, which only seems to emphasize the Rick James connection:

US cover: Freakonomics NYT blog; international cover, Penguin.com.au

12 August 2009

If I had to hide in a secret annex, I'd be swearing too.

This has to be fake, right? But since it's in Variety -- Disney just greenlit a new adaptation of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, to be written and directed by David F. Mamet. The tasteless jokes just write themselves.

Half Filmbook: "Julie & Julia" (2009)

In postwar Paris, a young diplomat's wife (Meryl Streep) gets restless and decides to start doing something with herself, so she won't be like all the other wives -- and the something she finds is cooking school. Meanwhile, in contemporary New York, a secretary (Amy Adams) frustrated by her day job turns to blogging about her attempt to make it through MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING.

The reason this isn't a true Filmbook entry is that I have read the latter book, JULIE AND JULIA: MY YEAR OF COOKING DANGEROUSLY, but not Julia Child's MY LIFE IN FRANCE, which this movie also adapts. But now I really want to, because Child's is the story that could have stood on its own, although the cross-cutting is entertaining and allows director Nora Ephron to find parallels between the two women's lives.

The main problem of adapting Powell's book is capturing the sense of her blogging without having her character sit at the computer for the whole movie. There's a little of that, including one very funny scene where Powell is checking on her comments, but mostly the entries are delivered voiceover by Adams, who as we all know makes the cartoon birds sing, so it worked for me In that this is (to my recollection) the first movie prominently featuring a blog, it will be interesting to see if that becomes the accepted precedent.

A lot of critics have faulted Powell's story as being not as interesting as Child's, and clearly the former could not have existed without the latter. From an adaptation standpoint, I can't speak to this, because all of the biographical material covered in the Julia Child section was completely new to me -- yet I didn't find Powell's modern search for meaning distracting or annoying. Instead, I wanted to root for her. (Well, it is a feel-good blogging story, after all.) What struck me as the greatest imbalance in the stories is that Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep and Amy Adams is not; see also, "Doubt."

I found this movie quite cheering. It had more than a little of that inevitabilty which ruins straight biopics, but deep down it's a movie about two women finding what they really want to do in life. It got a little cheesy at the end, but overall I enjoyed myself more than I expected. Besides, I felt a civic duty to counterprogram the eventual weekend box office winner: "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Another Franchise And I Really Don't Give A Shit."

However -- there is always a however -- allow me to get on my soapbox for a second: This was always going to be marketed as a chick flick since it's coming from Ephron, director of "When Harry Met Sally" (spare me) and "You've Got Mail" (spare me again). But it is not a chick flick in the men-shopping-babies way. The men -- Stanley Tucci as Paul Child and Chris Messina as Eric Powell -- are active participants in their wives' lives. The shopping in the movie takes place at French markets, Dean & DeLuca and, as mentioned yesterday, the Strand. And it's refreshing to see a movie where marriage is so central but children aren't, particularly on the contemporary end. A fictional film would probably counterweight the countdown on Julie's blog with her biological clock, but instead she and her husband are, dare we say it, happy just the two of them. [[See correction 8/17]]

It's not a game-changing movie, but I have to think that if this were a male writer and a male chef it would be released slightly closer to the end of the year, with a slightly more serious trailer. That said, the reviews have been largely positive for a reason.

Filmbook verdict: See it if you want a little uplifting summer fun, and to cast a vote with your dollar for female-toplined movies in general. You don't have to have read JULIE AND JULIA first.

11 August 2009

Post-Its: Representing at least three of the seven deadly sins

Entertainment Weekly's Shelf Life: EW recently started a books blog and at first I was underwhelmed, but I appreciate that after the authors posted a trailer for Thomas Pynchon's new book INHERENT VICE, they did some research and found the narrator is Pynchon himself. (He sounds like a cross between Allen Ginsberg and The Dude.)

S.F. Chronicle's City Brights: I want to read all 100 books on the Modern Library list; John Gilkey wanted to steal first editions of all 100, according to the new true-crime thriller THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH. Yup, that's too much all right.

GalleyCat: Julia Roberts was spotted filming a scene yesterday at Brooklyn's BookCourt bookstore for the forthcoming adaptation of EAT, PRAY, LOVE. (Still haven't been there; what is wrong with me?) Between that and the Strand dollar-cart cameo in "Julie & Julia" -- about which more tomorrow, but I believe that scene was also shot on location -- the gesture is appreciated.

Slate's DoubleX: The death of chick lit has been wildly overreported, but usually not from an author working in the genre. Sarah Bilston's first book came out before the credit crisis; in editing her second, she questions what yesterday's blithe heroines need to do to still be relatable for readers.

Infinite Summer corner! Huffington Post: Mike Miley finished INFINITE JEST ahead of schedule (well done, sir). Now he shares what it's like to have finished and be "free to play the field and flirt with all those other books on the shelf that had been giving me the eye."

Get thee to a naggery!

Hey, so you know how I've been running bits and pieces about the AV Club's book club, Wrapped Up in Books, on which I am a panelist? I have good news and great news. The good news is that I will be posting about it less often on here, because -- and this is the great news -- Wrapped Up in Books now has its own Facebook group. Join now for regular reminders from me on book chats and upcoming picks, including the two-week book warning enabling you to never again miss a discussion.

Even if you haven't participated in Wrapped Up in Books before or aren't sure you have the time, we'd love to have you. Besides, the next book we pick could be your favorite, and you wouldn't want to miss our praise for it, would you? Please come over and invite all your friends. And hey, if you want to send me a message, feel free to do so. Except for whoever came to this blog yesterday from the DOJ -- for your purposes, I'm in Montenegro, forever.

10 August 2009

He was taken aback by the change in her. She told him in a voice thrilling with emotion immediately after breakfast that she loved him; and when a little later they went into the drawing-room for his singing lesson and she sat down on the music-stool she put up her face in the middle of a scale and said:


When he bent down she flung her arms round his neck. It was slightly uncomfortable, for she held him in such a position that he felt rather choked.

"Ah, je t'aime. Je t'aime. Je t'aime," she cried, with her extravagantly French accent.

Philip wished she would speak English.

"I say, I don't know if it's struck you that the gardener's quite likely to pass the window any minute."

"Ah, je m'en fiche du jardinier. Je m'en refiche, et je m'en contrefiche."

Philip thought it was very like a French novel, and he did not know why it slightly irritated him.

-- W. Somerset Maugham, OF HUMAN BONDAGE

09 August 2009

Fidgeters, unite!

Last month I wrote about blogger Brittney Gilbert's comparing her experience reading INFINITE JEST to meditation, and admitted that my time with the book was not like that. Ms. Gilbert, you have a compadre! L.A. Times books editor David Ulin laments in "The lost art of reading" that disappearing into a book just isn't as easy as it used to be. The difference, of course, is that Gilbert's job forces her to read blogs all day, whereas Ulin I assume can delegate that work to someone else.

Blogger Ed Champion (through whom I found this essay) retorts that Ulin is confusing meditating with reading unthinkingly and glorifying the latter, writing that the editor "may as well have written an open letter of resignation — not just from his editorial position, but from the rustling possibilities of books."

Frankly, I'm starting to feel a little defensive of my reading habits. I may suck at meditating, but that hasn't set me back in books! I can read just as well as you can! But Mr. Ulin, if you can only do your job in some holy temple devoted to the rite of reading, then you need to make that possible. You work for a major newspaper; surely you can mock up a Do Not Disturb sign in no time. If that seems like too much work, just get joyfully, messily into it again.

08 August 2009

The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily; that is what fiction means.

A new-old entrant in the debate over what your library says about you: Thomas Wright's BUILT OF BOOKS, about Oscar Wilde's reading habits and as reviewed in the New York Times this week, looks awesome.

07 August 2009

Newspapers avenge themselves on J.D. Salinger

He turned down their phone interviews; now, he'll pay! Four newspaper companies have filed amicus briefs for John David California, pseudonymous author of the CATCHER IN THE RYE sequel which was banned here in the U.S. last month. They cited the First Amendment, but it's funnier to imagine that they have it in for Salinger after all that silence, isn't it?

She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge

It is not entirely out of laziness that I'm just going to throw up some more literary songs and call it a Friday. I recently finished Nick Hornby's 31 SONGS (borrowed of blogmigo Wade Garrett), so music and writing about it is on the brain. Then I went to a great concert last night and stayed up too late re-reading MICROSERFS, so! Priorities.

Today's category is: songs that, lyrically, are like short stories. It's not that I don't have a place in my heart for "Something in the way she moves" and "What do you do when you get lonely?" and "Don't you forget about me" (John Hughes, you guys!) but these are a little more private; they hold their pleasures closer to the vest. Here are three I thought of right away, although not necessarily the best of the subgenre. Tell me what your favorites are! Consider this the "Common People"* memorial list:

Jens Lekman, "A Postcard To Nina"
An epistolary fantasia, this charming little ditty about a harmless deception gone just a bit off. Oh, God! What have I done? I came to Berlin to have some fun! (Video is a static image.)

Fountains of Wayne, "Red Dragon Tattoo"
Several songs by this band were put under consideration for those times when you fall in love with, say, a DMV employee or a biker's girlfriend. One things in particular stuck out about the story this one tells: The boundless hope contained in that octave drop on the bridge. You can hear the unrequited love. (Also, it's not a good video, but I saw them at the Paradise in Boston twice, and it was awesome.)

Peter Sarstedt, "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)"
I'm not cool enough to have discovered this on my own, I admit, I found it through Wes Anderson's most recent movie "The Darjeeling Limited." That said, the speaker's bitter recounting of his addressee's new life is leavened -- or is it? -- by the name-dropping of what he can't (or won't) enjoy.

* Workshop notes for J. Cocker: What supermarket was it? Were they menthol or non-menthol cigarettes? Even if you don't write what the job is, you should know in your own head so you can describe the haircut.

06 August 2009

I don't even have a good shiksa joke for this

So the other night I was watching a documentary called "Heart of Stone" about Newark's Weequahic High School, and they played a clip from a Philip Roth-themed bus tour of Newark. This really happened, and Roth was on it, but apparently it was just a one-off thing (scroll down).

My favorite Roth, THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, is set in Weequahic. Well, I could still go.

Moonwalking on his grave

According to my inbox, it is now okay to start hawking books about the sordid details of Michael Jackson's life! I quote an e-mail marketing newsletter from a major publisher I got yesterday, entitled "From Cult Insanity to the Magic & Madness of M. Jackson's Life":
We were saddened to learn of the passing of Michael Jackson earlier this summer, and we knew that no one could cut through all of the tabloid rumors better than New York Times bestselling biographer, [redacted so as not to give free publicity], who worked through the night to bring you the whole story, with updated material from the star's last years...
He worked through a whole night on it? What commitment. That's part of the first paragraph. The second may start out even funnier, though:
Yet Michael Jackson is only one of the fascinating people whose lives we bring to the forefront this summer.
...because even if he was the King of Pop, he has to share an online marketing newsletter with the rest of the frontlist. E-mail blasts are so expensive these days.

05 August 2009

"There was a point about half way through the book when, reading on my way somewhere on the A train, I almost started crying. Which is not rare or weird for me, but I almost started crying this time because I realized that, eventually, the book would be over."

-Jaime of Surplus on the new A.S. Byatt, THE CHILDREN'S BOOK. Hasn't happened to me -- yet.

Permanent ink

Do you have a literary tattoo? Author Justin Taylor is compiling a book of them and yours could be famous. Someone alert this hipster!


04 August 2009

Free Book Alert: Colum McCann's LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN

Oprah strikes again! You have to create an Oprah.com account to download Colum McCann's latest, and it's only available until tomorrow, but it is free. I haven't caught up with this one yet but I gather it's set in New York in the '70s around Philippe Petit's World Trade Center walk (just like "Man on Wire").

Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee's new-old indie bookstore

While I was back in my ancestral home last week I thought I'd check out one of the new bookstores on the block. Boswell Book Company was one of two stores born out of much-missed local chain Harry W. Schwartz earlier this year, both of which took over the old Schwartz locations. For Boswell, that meant keeping its prime corner storefront on Downer Avenue on Milwaukee's artsy East Side, home of UWM, Lake Park and two Landmark Theatres. I went to see Zadie Smith read here right after WHITE TEETH came out and during the Q&A she told me I had asked a "terrible question." I can't remember what the question was.

I don't know how many of you will pass through Milwaukee but I highly recommend a stop if you do. Consider this my online postcard to you: Looking at books in Wisconsin! Wish you were here.

Boswell's interior hasn't changed that much since its former incarnation. Aside from the mismatched shelves there are a lot of odd pieces of furniture used for displays, particularly old library-style card catalogs. From checking out the owner's blog (whom I think I actually met when I was there taking these) it seems he has been selling a lot of copies of LITTLE BEE, foreground, this summer.

The biggest change to the space has been the conversion of this back room, formerly devoted to secondhand books, into a children's section. (The store still sells some used stock, it's just distributed throughout.) I had a college alumni interview back in that right corner where the green plastic chairs are.

IndieBound's Indie Next picks get pride of place.

Hey, remember when we talked about that Newsweek list-of-lists? This table picks up on another of the magazine's recent book features, Fifty Books For Our Times, for suggestions. To the right of the typewriter you can see Philip Roth getting Munroed.

OH MY GOD STOP FOLLOWING ME. Ahem. (In fiction.)

Spent a lot of time looking at this shelf. Why do birds suddenly appear...

Our tour concludes with a chair perfect for curling up in with your back against one arm and your legs dangling off the other to read for hours, undignified yet comfy.

For more information about Boswell Book Company, visit them at 2559 N. Downer Ave. or online at Boswell.Indiebound.com.

03 August 2009

Stephenie Meyer to become comic-book character

News that makes you go huh: Bluewater Comics is producing a comic biography of TWILIGHT author Stephenie Meyer, in which the 35-year-old Mormon will do battle against the forces of coffee and Harry Potter. Meyer is the only author included in the Female Force series, which gave the same treatment to Oprah, Sarah Palin and Princess Diana.

Who is this aimed at? Fans of the Twilight series would rather pretend that sparkly vampire Edward is real, and therefore could conceivably fall in love with their mortal selves. Regular comic buyers of my acquaintance, even if they're not still reeling after the Comic-Con '09 invasion, will not be compelled. And let's face it, President Obama being featured in an Amazing Spider-Man bonus story is still cooler.

If this works I will have drastically underestimated the Twilight-branded shit people will buy. (I see a fun Craigslist game!)

July Unbookening nearly chucked it all in on the 3rd, to be honest

Bought 9 books
Got 5 to review
Checked out 12 from the library
Borrowed 1
27 in

Gave away 3 books
Lent 1
Donated 20
Left 2 on airplanes
Returned 1 I borrowed
Returned 13 to library
40 out

I feel strangely ambivalent about this result, and let's just leave it at that.

02 August 2009

Post-Its: Better than direct mail from John Grisham

I received a charity letter "from" John Grisham on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center in the mail while I was gone. Putting "Author" as part of your return address is a great way to get me to open your unsolicited mail; thank goodness spammers haven't caught on. (J.M. Coetzee wants to help me with the ladies? Sweet.)

  • Because a lot of people are winding up here looking for it, my Frank McCourt note from a few weeks ago has been updated with public memorial information, as current as I could find. Not afraid to be servicey!

  • My copy of LOLITA which I admitted to re-purchasing several months ago has still not turned up. I think it either has been lent out for a long time or got mixed in with another family member's books. I may even have been the forgetful lender; that's where my copy of THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY was all this time, on the nightstand of the West Coast bureau (who has since finished it). Meanwhile, another book has pulled a disappearing act when I most wanted it, which is why you're not currently getting "Incomprehensible Notes From My Adolescent Copy of LEAVES OF GRASS."

  • This Times article on how serendipity is becoming extinct has so many techspletives in it it's practically unreadable. But I'm posting it because "serendipity" is one of my favorite words, and I see no reason that we have to let the concept or the term go. Now get off my lawn.

  • "If Nora Ephron had been born buxom, what else besides that article might she not have written?" I'm just catching up to Ariel Levy's profile of Nora Ephron in the New Yorker from a few weeks ago, whose second paragraph can only be described as an equal-opportunity offender for the ladies, but if you can make it past that there are some nifty tidbits about her life as a writer. Related: Tina Fey's forthcoming book (!!!) was described at deal time as being "in the style of Nora Ephron."

  • INFINITE JEST corner: What the hell do you say when people unfamiliar with the book ask what it's about? This has happened to me several times and my latest answer was the best, but I feel as if I owe people more than a shrug and a smile. (Let us not speak of the back-cover copy, which is atrocious.) My latest answer incorporated the current situations of the various Incandenzas and, since I passed Interdependence Day a while back, a smidge of the alternate-reality politics going on behind them. The last thing I want to do is deter anyone from reading it, which a vague answer or an "It's extremely complicated" might.

  • Finally, shamelessly, self-promotionally: The AV Club's latest Wrapped Up in Books round begins Aug. 17 on John Crowley's LITTLE, BIG. That's two weeks from now. It is possible that you have not started the book yet, and I am not judging you, promise. But now would be a good time to start it!

01 August 2009

He who ought to be made to do Pukers during the Interdependence Day feast while wearing his celebratory hat

I don't yet feel equipped to compete with the wildly hyperbolic blurbs on the first few pages of my copy of INFINITE JEST, but how's this? I can think of very few books which I would rather have when stranded at an airport for an indeterminate length of time because some (alleged) asshole decided to throw a bomb scare at my destination.

Photo of JEST on a plane: Alex S. via Infinite Summer Flickr pool