30 June 2011

David Foster Wallace: Nothing Shining?

Their discussion of David Foster Wallace seems to contradict most of what authors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly go on to establish in the remainder of their book ALL THINGS SHINING (continued from yesterday's post). Is it because DFW resists their definition of finding all things shining, or that his work is presented as incomplete, and thus the argument can't find an ending? Rather than try to reason myself into a position on this, I'm just going to write straight for the thicket and then acknowledge how I got there.

Dreyfus and Kelly make two points about DFW's work as a salve on the conscience of a person who has lately not been able to see the "all things shining," or fight through the secular modern world to find some sort of ethical base or guidance to act:

One, that THE PALE KING advocates a sort of sublime boredom through which to numb the conscious mind and through that attain a sort of haloriffic euphoria in the repetition and dullness of completing a necessary task. (But they didn't use haloriffic.) I already have my problems with this interpretation of THE PALE KING, as stated.

The other, that the same kind of studied monotony can be applied in stressful situations to achieve a deep caring, based on his Kenyon College graduation speech "This Is Water." What's not clearly differentiated is that these are startlingly different approaches to the same problem. The passages of THE PALE KING and INFINITE JEST emphasize the numbness specifically, the kind of emotional white-noise-making that takes place. (Don Gately is held up as a hero in this department... and that's all I'm going to say about that in case people who haven't finished INFINITE JEST have followed me thus far.) "This Is Water" is about acknowledging that unconsciousness in which we are all swimming, which emotionally feels like the opposite of numbness. Maybe it was just the passages used?

What piece am I missing here? And then I really start to lose them when they compare that numbness to Elizabeth Gilbert at the beginning of EAT, PRAY, LOVE and Gilbert's idea that a writer shouldn't have to be "personally and individually responsible for [her] work," which the authors deem "Renaissance" and I deem -- well, who else is going to be responsible for it, if not for you? I could have used another chapter on that just to virulently disagree with it. And the authors don't make the logical back-contrast from that statement (uncited... can't remember if it was from EAT, PRAY, LOVE or not) to the idea of whether James Incandenza was ultimately responsible for the effects of The Entertainment, or if it was out of his hands once he created it, which if not crucial to the plot of INFINITE JEST is not really handled in the book as far as I can remember. Certainly no one gets as far as blaming him for the tape because no one who knows what it does comes back from that brink. Which doesn't make him blameless. (I can't even conjecture where DFW would stand on that. I just bring it up as a logical point of return.)

Also, and not that I'm Maxwellina Perkins all of a sudden, but when most of ALL THINGS SHINING runs chronologically through Western literature it's a bizarre (and obviously deliberate) choice to put this chapter up front, when it would better fit after MOBY-DICK... but then it kind of destroys that chapter's transition into the glorification of communal experience at the end, which is fodder for a whole other post (or rant) and hence here I shall stop.

29 June 2011

I don't know what it is, but I'm for it

Sign up to be notified for the Reading Rainbow Flash Mob? Don't mind if I do!

(But you don't have to take my word for it.)

When all is clear and bright

Soon after I opened ALL THINGS SHINING I was scribbling notes to myself, and not all of those notes were complimentary. To the authors' contention that the absence of a rigid theological framework similar to the one medieval Europeans lived with was leading people today to feel that there was nothing of meaning left and nothing special, I countered with "Or maybe they're just depressed?" To their use of the term "the gods," as in, "the gods have departed us," I wanted to know: Whose gods? Which one or ones? And how would that discussion of "the gods" square with monotheists of today, who are probably already put off by the use of the plural?

But that's what I liked about this book: It kept losing me in thickets of philosophical inquiry and then reeling me back in, and part of my enjoyment derived from getting lost in those thickets.

The authors theorize that the meaning we no longer find by forming part of The Great Chain Of Being or participating actively in religion, we can find either directly in works of art (like books), through our interactions with them, or modeled in those works a potential way to live. Or as they themselves put it:
"The job of a work of art is to disclose a world, give meaning, and reveal truth. In this sense, works of art working can be thought of as sacred. They give meaning to people's lives and people guide their lives by them, so people treat them as divine. They venerate them like gods and make shrines devoted to them. That is what happened to the ODYSSEY, the ORESTEIA, and the DIVINE COMEDY." 
In each chapter they treat a few works and what they might say about various civilizations' approaches to "the sacred": how to find it and how they interacted with it. In ancient Greece, for example, they argue that the notion of a private emotional experience was outside most people's expectations for their lives and their religious practices (in contrast to the Protestant ideal of someone reading the Bible for himself and praying alone). So in a sense, the decisions made by characters in "Iphigenia in Aulis" or by Helen of Troy in the lead-up to the Trojan War have to be couched in an understanding of what those decisions set in larger motion, not the ethics of the individual in doing so.

(Also, this book really made me want to read THE DIVINE COMEDY, and I didn't know that that would happen.)

To Dreyfus and Kelly's point about modeling ways to live, the authors write about MOBY DICK in a way I wish someone had made me read the first time I encountered it because I completely bought into their explanation of what happens at the end and how it synthesizes with Melville's opinion of his work. Essentially, their reading of the novel casts Ishmael in a sort of metaphysical battle between the transcendent religious experience he believes he's looking for, and the smaller, everyday joys of fellowship and work with his shipmates over which that casts a long shadow. (Paraphrased completely.) Rereading MOBY DICK a few years ago I was looking for an interpretation that made this much sense, but never found it. Until now!

Similarly to the beginning, ALL THINGS SHINING's conclusion lost me at the beginning in its notion of the true communal experience of our age, but it eventually found me again. I have more to say about the David Foster Wallace chapter but I'll save that for tomorrow's post. I racked up over a week in library late fees wrestling with this book, but it was worth it.

28 June 2011

The Tragedy Of All The Tigery Beasts Moonwalking To Shangri-La. And Butter

Amazon is the first to step up to the line (that I've seen anyway) and do a Best Books of 2011 So Far list. I spy two likely picks for my list and two more I would like to make the time for before I make said list, although it doesn't look likely.

I wish Amazon would tell us who these editors are who make these picks... or at least give us an idea of how many they are, or how they got that job. This must be how authors feel about their Publishers Weekly reviews.

Smart, Perceptive Person Writes Book I Will Probably Never Want To Read

The news broke yesterday that New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter got a book deal. Well, that's not surprising; they do that all the time, but this one is different in a few ways, and one of those ways is that I don't want to read it.

Stelter says: "Why do morning shows matter? Because they collectively set the nation's breakfast table every day."

...Yeah, maybe 20 years ago, and maybe they still do for your mom, ahem, for the generation of boomers and elderly Americans for whom turning on the television is a natural part of the morning routine. I'd conjecture that that is no longer a natural reflex for most people under 40. Personally, the screens I'm facing in the morning are Blackberry, laptop, iPod and work desktop, in that order. I'll watch a YouTube video, but I'll never turn on "Today," even if I have heard someone I like is going to be on it. Waiting for a particular spot takes too long (hello, generational stereotypes) and there's so much noise, so little significance. I'd rather lie in bed reading my friends' tweets from last night. (Too much? Oh well.)

I point this out because, but not only because, Mr Stelter has taken the step of asking on Twitter and Tumblr for feedback about what people want to read in his just-announced book. The book's microsite asks: "What have you always wondered about morning TV? Who would you like to read more about?" To be honest... nothing, and nobody.

I don't know Mr Stelter, but I don't begrudge him his prodigy rep, as he seems to come by it honestly. I hope to run into him at a party someday as we have something very personal in common that I would like to ask him about (off the record, of course). At the same time, as a regular reader of his work I think his energies could be better spent in about 18 different directions. If he wrote a book about "Jersey Shore," I would read that with relish. How the "Real Housewives" came to be despite not being real and distorting the word housewife into some kind of horror parody of itself... I would read that book. (Someone should write that book, actually. Free idea! For anyone who watches those shows already!) I just lack the dimension to find out the secret behind-the-scenes power of morning shows. I would say that nobody asked me, but, well, the author did, and that is my opinion.

...Watch, it will win 800 Pulitzers and I will be eating these words around 2013. Well, if we're all still blogging and we haven't switched to holograms!

27 June 2011

Do you want to see a bunch of famous authors in their bathing suits? Of course you do! (Linked mid-gallery for the most surprising one. Obviously, variously SFW depending on what your office is like.)

Spotted on the subway

Last night: A woman glaring at her seatmate for glancing over and trying to determine what she was reading on her iPad.

Too slow, iPads McGee! Also, this looks kind of good -- what's the big deal?

BONUS Spotted on the subway: Across the aisle, a Kristen Stewart lookalike with a huge paperback of GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL she seemed to barely be able to lift. Summer reading?

26 June 2011

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

-W.H. Auden, "Musée des Beaux Arts"

25 June 2011

This weekend's reading view

In the late afternoon, I waited for the thunderstorm that always seemed ready to break out - but never did.

Meanwhile, I plowed through 300 pages of Libba Bray's GOING BOVINE and 3 or 4 lime popsicles. Not like it was wasted anyway.

24 June 2011

Bill Murray reads "Brush Up Your Shakespeare"

If your blonde won't respond when you flatter 'er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer

This video alone justifies having a Bill Murray label on this blog, but earlier: Bill Murray reads Dickinson and Niedecker

Must-read for the summer

Keanu Reeves has written a poetry book called ODE TO HAPPINESS. Limited edition! Naturally, The Hollywood Reporter had to bring up Sad Keanu in reporting this news.

It looks like he's been busy! (Via Sadkeanu.tumblr.com.)

23 June 2011

"I didn't just want to PLAY Hamlet, I wanted to BE Hamlet."

From Stephen Colbert's commencement address at Northwestern. Yay!

Spotted on the subway

You are not honestly reading the index and ingredients conversions of this book. I know it looks like that, but you are torturing me. The pictures.

22 June 2011

Some reasons bookstores should not charge for readings (besides "I'm cheap")

The Times today had a piece about bookstores charging for in-store events, which I don't think is a trend so much as something one store in New York City just announced it was going to start doing, and everyone's hackles were raised.

I understand why bookstores do this, as some in the New York area already are by requiring the purchase of the book in question as a 'ticket' in. (WORD Bookstore and the late, lamented B&N Lincoln Square are the two that come to mind, which could not be more different... which must be why they didn't make it into the article.)

That said, here are a few reasons free events are good for bookstores:
  • They attract attention to new and unfamiliar authors. One author featured in the Times article, Eleanor Henderson, is a debut novelist whose book TEN THOUSAND SAINTS just came out. It's really good! I know, because I got a review copy and reviewed it (disclosure). But debut authors might want a full audience soaking up their prose more than they want four people who have each paid $10 (to the store, not the author, one imagines) to be in their presence. 
  • They might prompt shoppers to stay and make other purchases, even if they don't buy the author's book. I always like eavesdropping on readings I stumble into, and the longer I spend in a bookstore, the more likely I am to spend money there. (Insert economic theory backing this up here.) (Surely there is one?)
  • They offer a literary culture that is priceless, not priced. Okay, this is sort of like the "I'm cheap" defense, but here's my point: I have paid between $5 and $30 for various author events in and around New York. (Not counting readings at bars with the de facto charge of a drink, which no one will demand of you, but... it's the right thing to do.) I wouldn't go to as many readings as I do if they weren't free. And I don't always buy the book when I go. (The article posits that bookstores are trying to fend off competition from online bookstores, but it discounts that some might just get it from the library, or borrow it from a friend.) If it were mandatory to purchase the book, I would probably go to fewer readings to save money, and see fewer authors, and be less happy. During more straitened times in my New York existence, I was grateful for these readings because I could get out of the house and do something free that wasn't people-watching or window-shopping.
The counter-counter-argument is that the big box bookstores will be able to continue to offer these free readings, whereas independent bookstores need the additional source of revenue. That's a fair point (although not exactly true, as B&N has done this kind of event in the city before). I definitely think there's room for ticketed events in a bookstores schedule; I just don't think they should be a given.

Also, the article ends on the following quote from author Keith Gessen:
“I don’t think you should be able to walk into a Barnes & Noble and get to look at Joan Didion."
Maybe we ask Joan Didion how she feels like that, eh Keith? In the end, it's authors who decide whether they're going to do free or ticketed readings (with little to much interference from their publishers, depending). I wonder how you can say that and also appear at the FREE Brooklyn Book Festival in front of unticketed hayseeds like me. Also, what a disgusting snobbish thing to say.

Famous Invalids and Patients in Literature

(an incomplete list)
  • Bunbury, "The Importance Of Being Earnest"
  • Big Daddy, "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof"
  • Beth March, LITTLE WOMEN
  • Narrator, "The Yellow Wallpaper"

21 June 2011

Need something to listen to? An interview with Neil Gaiman is streaming right here right now (I think until 5PM). They're just talking about Amanda Palmer now so you didn't miss anything (eyeroll). Kurt Andersen, the interviewer just dropped the adjective "Pynchonian" (long o, like oh).

Also, I forgot Gaiman was British, because I am a total failure as a human being.

Edit 4:24PM So far, 1 Salman Rushdie fatwa joke, a cloud of "maybes" around the AMERICAN GODS sequel, and... Is Tolkien pronounced as "TolkEEN"? 

Man after my own heart

"Coffee was to Larsson what alcohol was to Charles Bukowski: a muse, a fuel, an intrinsic part of his authorial landscape."
-David Kamp in the New York Times on a new biography of THE GIRL WITH THE... author Stieg Larsson.

Patton Oswalt, in short form

I requested this book at the library after hearing Oswalt on fellow comedian Julie Klausner's podcast "How Was Your Week?" (His interview is episode 6, "Polar Bears on Moonbeams.") Klausner herself wrote a great memoir about men and New York City called I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR BAND, and over the course of two stressful weeks at work I listened to every episode of "How Was Your Week?" except the Joan Rivers one which I'm saving for a desperate occasion. 

Oswalt wasn't unknown to me before -- I even saw him open for Aimee Mann once -- and I'm not sure why I didn't catch up with ZOMBIE SPACESHIP WASTELAND when it came out earlier this year. I am pro-comedians writing books and I don't mind when, as with ZSW (yeah, that abbreviation just happened), memoiristic material is mixed up with other pieces of writing. The first time Oswalt's narrative was interrupted by a nondiegetic piece -- of punch-up notes on what sounds like a terrible comedy script (that we don't get to read) -- I was surprised, but enjoyed it. I wonder if he'd wanted to organize the collection differently, with genres separated, but was prevented because there wasn't enough of a through line. 

Biographically, there still isn't much of a through line, but the best pieces show Oswalt's comic consciousness developing out of a sort of suburban ooze. In "Ticket Booth," a summer job at a suburban multiplex causes Oswalt to both vow that he'll get out of the suburbs, and a sort of sickly nostalgia for the noxious combination of boredom and superiority he was breathing in those days. The saddest/ most terrific piece, "A History Of America from 1988 to 1996," recreates the paths of three different archetypal comedians Oswalt claims to have opened for in his time on the comedy circuit, which he describes both as soul-destroying and attractive in such a way that it displaces his old dream of being a famous author.

The titular chapter of ZSW posits that nerds and other non-popular adolescents gravitate toward and take the form of one of those three scifi tropes -- Zombie, Spaceship or Wasteland. This is the kind of theory about which people could argue for hours and there's a lot of truth to it, although not how I would have organized the teenage misfit world. (To begin with I would have retermed them zombie, astronaut and vigilante so they are all figures, not figure/object/world. Type A much?) Oswalt places himself and many other comedians in the Wasteland category in that they want to tear down what's horrible about the world, while leaving hope open that a better world can be built over the smoking ruins. An observational comedian, by this logic, would be a Zombie; one who posited a lot of what-ifs and hypotheticals, a Spaceship. (I'm probably Spaceship. Tell me what that says about me.) I wish Oswalt had done more with this theory, which could have provided the through line ZSW doesn't have; but I still enjoyed the break it provided from longer, denser reads.

20 June 2011

Literary Stereotypes For Selling Shit

From a building wrap near Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NY, June 2011. Also what?

19 June 2011

Dear Dad...

Open Road Media put together this sweet video of some of the adult children of the authors they publish, in case you ever wondered what it was like to grow up with William Styron or John Gardner.

There are a few more at their blog. Happy Father's Day, if there are any reading this! I got my dad some Kindle e-books, not only because they are the ultimate procrastinator's present, but that certainly didn't hurt.

18 June 2011

To do today (a pictorial)

Love it when those library requests come in right on time! I'm picking up Patton Oswalt's ZOMBIE SPACESHIP WASTELAND and hitting my go-to outdoor reading destination. Come by for ice cream around 4? Swell.

17 June 2011

Filmbook for Friday: "Moneyball" trailer

(If this doesn't render right, here's the direct link.)

First thoughts:
1. I humbly request every movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman in it include a title card reading "A Philip Seymour Hoffman Joint," just for maximum delight.
2. Brad Pitt seems to be going down that George Clooney path of picking roles above his actual acting ability... and I'm okay with that. (I say this without having seen "Tree of Life," although going to rectify that one soon. Also, I believe it was Filmspotting that first put forth that theory re. Clooney, although I can't remember when and which host.) He'll always be Chad to me.
3. This book is 2 years behind Michael Lewis' other adapted project, THE BLIND SIDE, but seems to be going for the same market? Jonah Hill looks very uncomfortable doing that. (But funny.)
4. Speaking of Hill, his role was originally to be played by Demetri Martin. What a spectrum of men those two encompass. Oh, and in case you didn't keep up with all the director changes, behind the camera here is not Steven Soderbergh but rather Bennett Miller ("Capote," another Philip Seymour Hoffman Joint).
5. When Pitt tells his kid not to read the Internet... o hai Sorkin!

Earlier: my review of MONEYBALL,

Spotted on the subway: What's my prize?

Woman reading DECISION POINTS! Woman reading DECISION POINTS! (This was on the downtown 6 tonight, in case any of you New Yorkers want to update your location-based stereotypes.)

16 June 2011

Guardian's 100 best nonfiction books: What do you have?

18, but I would do much better if I counted excerpts as well. (College! Where you read a lot of excerpts of things!) This list spans thousands of years, and there are some very strong choices on here (THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST, THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE, SLOUCHING TOWARD BETHLEHEM) and a few I've never heard of before. Hey, why haven't I read NEWS OF A KIDNAPPING yet?

For fun, contrast this list with the Modern Library 100 best nonfiction books (which I haven't even attempted to tackle yet, but all right, 11). Interestingly, the ML list has Churchill's World War II history on there, but the British newspaper didn't seem to think it worth inclusion. For even more fun, contrast that list with the "Reader's List" on the right side, displaying a voting process clearly dominated by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard fans.

Thanks to regular commenter Elizabeth for mailing this in.

Happy Bloomsday!

Next year in Dublin...
Photo of James Joyce statue: scottpartee.

15 June 2011


On a happier note: My former writing classmate Molly Birnbaum got a sweet writeup in the New York Times yesterday connected with her memoir SEASON TO TASTE. Congratulations!! And if you're in the Northeast, go see her on book tour (New Yorkers, she'll be at Greenlight next Wednesday at 7:30).

Nobody lives in her shoes

From now on, personal finance books are no longer allowed to illustrate the dangers of not saving money using the "Sex and the City" subplot of Carrie Bradshaw realizing she's spent enough on shoes for a down payment.

I could get into the nitty-gritty math on why this is an absurd example in the specific, but The Frenemy does that much better. My main objection is, this is a fictional character. It means just as much as saying "If you don't plan for your future, you could end up vulnerable to sketchy cash deals, like that couple in 'Indecent Proposal.'" Or advising against investing in real estate based on "Arrested Development." It's an example that is essentially meaningless, because there are plenty of real people whose financial mistakes can be cited and instructive. And it's fairly condescending to people who, by dint of even picking up a book about personal finance, are smarter than to be surprised that things cost money.

Thank you, and good day.

14 June 2011

Extra E for excellence?

Rock Star Games assembled a free e-book of short stories called L.A. NOIRE to go with the recently released video game of the same name. Lawrence Block, Joyce Carol Oates and Francine Prose came out to play, says Galleycat. This will be the first video-game adaptation I've ever read (if it is that, or just along similar themes).

(But still... noire?)

Conveniently, Robert Jordan could not be reached for comment

I already retweeted and screenshot this last night, but some of you non-Twitter users might enjoy this joke. I just need it to live here forever. (Via @RowanKaiser)

13 June 2011

Digging for something

From the New Yorker: In Jennifer Egan, the world gained a great novelist but lost an archaeologist.

Not-Adaptation Wins Tony Awards

No matter what it's called, the musical "The Book Of Mormon" is not in the least an adaptation of the religious book of the same name. (I was kind of hoping it would be so I wouldn't have to read the thing, out of curiosity.) Clearly Tony voters didn't care as they showered it with nine awards last night.

The real adaptation winner was children's writer Michael Morpurgo whose World War I novel WAR HORSE was adapted into this year's Best Play winner. Special shout-out to fellow graduate of my high school Mark Rylance for picking up his second award for Best Actor in a Play (for "Jerusalem," a play taking its name from a William Blake poem), and once again flummoxing the audience by quoting poet Louis Jenkins in his acceptance speech instead of making the customary thank-yous. 

12 June 2011

Read it again, for the first time.

The A.V. Club posted a call for the books people have most re-read as adults. My knee-jerk reaction was to start naming off the paperbacks I read over and over when I was young, before I noticed the phrase in the original question, "not counting books read in childhood" -- and honestly I don't know how books in my adulthood will ever catch up to those anyway.

I wish I had time to do more re-reading than I do. It's sort of like eating out: You eat at a restaurant, and it's really good -- the kind of place where you would like to be a regular and be friends with the waiters and everything, sort of a kitchen-away-from-home. But hey, look at that new cafe over there -- don't you want to know how it is? Maybe you'll like it better than your regular place! In the end, though, there are a limited amount of meals you can eat out a week even if you are a billionaire or Adam Richman of "Man vs. Food."

I find this metaphor appropriate because in writing reviews I sometimes think of not just reading the latest and greatest but, in a gut sense, of digesting them. (Definition 3, not 5.) I love getting through the stack of "What We're Reading This Summer" and being able to see the big picture; it's why I am generally obsessed with best-of-year lists, even the kind that come out in October and include books that aren't even out yet (ahem, PW). I have no regrets about this, but I have to balance some other stuff in order to keep current.

That said, here are a few books I find myself reading over and over again recently, maybe because I think they will make me wiser, but we'll see where that goes: 
  • Margaret Atwood, LADY ORACLE
  • Rona Jaffe, THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (although I haven't in at least a year; I guess it's that time again?)
A few twists on this question which I'm pocketing for future posts:
  1. Adult books you read and re-read when you weren't quite old enough 
  2. First books or book series you remember re-reading (beyond picture books) (again with the limitations)
  3. Books you were forced to re-read in school
  4. Books that fell apart on re-reading (a sad list)
Care to share your re-reads?

11 June 2011

Reading on the Road: Just Like In "Bridesmaids" Only Completely Different

Bachelorette parties: Special!

Books you started weeks or months ago and have been pushing around subject to deadline-oriented material ever since: Not special, but bound to entertain on the bus ride. (While I love the train and like to fly, Bolt Bus has not treated me wrong yet.)

I'm taking Vera Brittain's so far excellent memoir TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, which I bought and started back in October (?!?!?), and John O'Hara's novel A RAGE TO LIVE, which I think I started about a month ago. Maybe another book? Should I? ...Ah, the pre-trip waver, how well I know ye.

This isn't actually my edition of A RAGE TO LIVE -- mine's an ancient paperback I snagged off Bookmooch a long time ago, but I like the look of it.

So, what kinds of parties are you going to this weekend?

10 June 2011

INFINITE JEST fans may enjoy reading between the lines of this Times story about the Great Hamsters of Alsace. Everyone else will enjoy it because, c'mon, Great Hamsters Of Alsace.

Want to start a literary feud?

Since Norman Mailer is not with us, take the sage advice of Christopher Hitchens, described as "wingman" to the John le Carré/ Salman Rushdie feud I was not aware of but which I am delighted to discover.

09 June 2011

We've had our hair done

If this blog looks a little different on your phone, it's because I turned on mobile optimization so it should be easier to read. You know, if you're into that.


Spotted on the subway

Thirtysomething man, '90s haircut, burgundy polo shirt, brown Coach leather tote bag or satchel of some kind. But I didn't see the cover you see here because he was reading on the white Nook (black and white, not color).

I haven't had the chance to play with one of those yet, but from up close (my nose poking over my own book, which was Kate Christensen's THE ASTRAL) it looks a lot like a Kindle, but white and with the wheel or round click-button.

From what I've heard, people normally elect Nook over Kindle for the ability to take it into a brick-and-mortar store. I certainly don't mind spending time in Barnes & Noble, but I haven't had a problem thus far with my Kindle that I couldn't solve by Googling. (That's how I learned to take the battery plate off... and in fact that the Kindle had a battery plate in the first place.) Still, it strikes me that B&N could do more to capitalize on the bookstore-online relationship where the Nook is concerned, to make it a viable alternative.

08 June 2011

If only Franzen had seen this one

before it was too late! Source: Married to the Sea

The other thing I learned from "Midnight In Paris"

S/he who has read the 2-volume biography, has the last word. I think I've only read two of them in my life, but when Gil (Owen Wilson) claims to have read one of Rodin in order to shut up Michael Sheen's pedantic, mansplainy Paul, I felt a shock of vicarious vindication for him. So many Pauls are not so easily put off.

My collection of 2-volume biographies consists of Edward Mendelson's EARLY AUDEN and LATER AUDEN and Peter Guralnick's LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS (soon to be adapted?) and CARELESS LOVE, about Elvis Presley. Neither has allowed me to settle any scores, but I'm young still. If you'd like to fill the brag box with people you've actually read a 2-volume biography of (or more, if you're one of those waiting for Robert Caro to finish his LBJ opus), please feel free.

07 June 2011

The Man In The Mirror In The Gray Flannel Skirt

Since he was a teenager, Jon-Jon Goulian developed a penchant for wearing women's clothing, survived major surgery (medical and cosmetic), moved from surfers' paradise to New York City and made it through law school before deciding he would never become a lawyer and taking a series of odd jobs instead. As chronicled in his underwhelming memoir THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SKIRT, he thinks it could have gone a little better.

Self-awareness, for Goulian, arrives on the scene like a hero, just as one might despair it will never arrive. It fits his narrative together thus: For years, he has been navigating among various sources of self-consciousness, and subsequently producing some eccentricities to make himself able to face the world. Impending baldness can be disguised by a shaved head (this is the least eccentric in that everyone and his dad has seen it); bodybuilding forges a physique that makes people who shout slurs on the street reluctant to take their harassment any further. And an abrupt decision at the age of 17 not to care about school hides the disappointment in a low test score and the thread of being the least as well as youngest of three brothers, in a glossy coat of teenage nonchalance.

Don't worry, young Jonathan gets into Columbia anyway (nepotism), but what's missing from his account is any awareness that he's not alone on these islands of bodily insecurity and low self-esteem. There isn't a comparative grading to attest that Goulian had it worse, just no acknowledgment whatsoever. Instead, like a solipsistic Job, he lists and re-lists these trials in flat narration and the insistence that doesn't want sympathy. (Ironically, the most resonant is likely the least common, a hernia that manifests itself first as a testicular lump too shameful to be shown to anyone for years. Talk about teenage misery.)

Goulian's take on his life choices seems to be, at the end of the day, that he's resigned to living with his quirks, not overcoming them. He'd rather dwell on them than on the circumstances of his luck. While his family may be puzzled as to why Goulian enjoys wearing skirts and makeup but is still straight, it's a largely supportive concern. Despite not practicing law, he has carved out some kind of itinerant career (underdescribed for this reader, his stint at the New York Review of Books just some kind of circular anecdote about having a really good if slightly nutty boss), which in New York City is always something to note. The end of the book finds him in (spoiler) the family cabin in Vermont, feeling both isolated and relieved by his distance from civilization.

To rustle this book's pages is to hear the faint cackle of Quentin Crisp, whose own insecurities and heightened senses of danger (as chronicled in THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT, a much better book) failed to keep him from reveling in that of himself which could not be reduced. It would be impossible for everyone to live the Crisp way, but his insights had the time to mature; Goulian's have not, and as a result, his decades-old feelings are rendered in loving detail, while his present face is a blank.

Respect to Longfellow

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
He who warned and, uh, the arms,
And bells were rung out as alarms
To tell the British we were there,
And had our guns, and to beware.

He said to his friend, “Abe Lincoln, listen
I am riding out alone
On a super-secret mission.
You can’t get me by telephone
But if you don’t hear from me by ten
Send me a text and only when
I’m at the hotel I’ll hit you back.
This way the rebels can’t attack
And long will fly the Union Jack.”
 --first two verses of "Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Sarah Palin" by Ben Greenman, in the New Yorker. I usually find Greenman's homages tedious to annoying -- I know, you'd think this would be right in my wheelhouse and it has turned out the opposite! Like my "Glee" problem! -- but this is just perfect.

06 June 2011


I have had a lot of run-ins with odd language in the office setting. Some words that pass for words in Cubicle America are in fact not words, but abominations; some are merely amusing and not horrible. But nothing beats the meeting I had today when someone said, "I didn't want everyone to feel like, 'Oh no, the sink is shipping!'"

If any of you have artistic talent, I think a drawing of this would make a great Threadless design, and I would happily be its mascot.

Housing Works Steet Fair haulblog

Richard Russo, THE RISK POOL
Katherine Graham, PERSONAL HISTORY

And a $1 CD that my friend Wade Garrett found in the "Media" section (thank you!). Nice going, Sunday. Let's all contract some mild yet contagious disease so we can stay at home and read all day, okay?

05 June 2011

La la la, Unbookening can't hear you, Unbookening's at the Housing Works Street Fair

(Or will be after brunch. It's till 6PM in SoHo! Beer and ice cream for sale! Not afraid to be servicey!)

Received 1 book as a gift
Checked out 7 from the library
Got 5 to review
Bought 2
15 in 

Gave 1 away
Donated 4
Returned 6 to the library
Deleted 7 books off Kindle
18 out

This month's quandaries in book owning (not to be confused with book OWNAGE)
1. Do I have to count the book propping up my air conditioner as one that I own, because technically I still own it? (What? I didn't have any 2x4s lying around the house.)
2. I just deleted some files off my Kindle -- some stuff for free, and one book I bought (O: A PRESIDENTIAL NOVEL; I paid for it, but you shouldn't). Do these count the same as shedding volumes? Are they less urgent since I wasn't running out of room? Am I desperately searching for a Three-Fifths Compromise joke here? (Maybe, probably, and yes-but-there-is-none.) Edit: I went back and added those books just as I would normal books. Mission Accomplished!

04 June 2011

V.S. Naipaul is a sexist toolbag

The Nobel Prize winner has been jamming his foot in his mouth like it was a delicious cake this week, telling the Guardian that he can tell within a few paragraphs whether something has been written by a woman, and that no female writer is as good as he is. According to Naipaul, women are inferior writers because they are "sentimental" and don't play the "master of the house" role in life, and that comes across in their work.

He also, in a spectacular piece of bridge-burning, specifically attacked his former editor Diana Athill for writing bad memoirs full of "feminine tosh." (I can't quite enjoy this Briticism due to context, but hopefully someday I will.) Sure, he singled out Jane Austen too, but she can't hear it! Athill says the critique was based on a falling-out they had over one of his novels she didn't like and that "I think one should just ignore it."

Ugh. Hint: whenever you say you can "just tell" something, you might as well be singing, "I Made A Sweeping Generalization (And I Liked It)." I believe Diana Abu-Jaber speaks for many when she writes in an NPR commentary headed, "From one writer to another, shut up." Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon takes the more bemused tack, "How banal life would be without the feud-picking, egomaniacal literary blowhard."

What's chilling about his brashness, besides his apparent taken right to say whatever he wants without backlash, is contemplating how many writers of his generation could share his views, but just have the good sense not to broadcast them. (I'm not going to name names because I don't know, and would rather not speculate anyway.) Let's not pretend he's the only sexist person out there. One tends to drift into the mindset, as with other forms of bigotry, that it might be best just to wait for the bigots to pass of natural causes and stop putting their thumbs on the scale of international opinion.

Plus, it's a double-edged sword for women who write. I belong to a site on which I write and comment under a gender-neutral handle, and I've been mistaken for a male writer 3 or 4 times. I have always found this funny, as well as sociologically interesting -- absent the cues of photos or pronouns, how do people decide? -- but it gives me via Naipaul cause to wonder: Were they saying "You write like a dude" as a descriptor, or as a compliment? Should I not have been so amused to be divorced from my gender-nominatively-female name and appearance? (I assume the same would hold true for a male writer wishing to tackle a topics he fears would pigeonhole him as a writer "for women" -- whatever that means in that context.)

To test Naipaul's claim (and okay, probably to drive more clicks to the controversy created by reporting on the thing!), the Guardian set up a "Naipaul quiz" on which you can test yourself according to the "gender" of various texts. I scored a 70 percent, which is better than Roger Ebert, but I think it was only because I recognized a few of the passages. I would never claim to have this ability, but it's not because I am a dainty flower afraid of picking fights. It's because it's ridiculous.

03 June 2011

Just The Tipping Point

Happy Friday! Apparently in Nicholson Baker's new novel, there is a male character who refers to his junk as his "Malcolm Gladwell."

The New York Observer ferreted this one out although curiously they couldn't get Gladwell to comment on this piece of trivia.

Being in possession of this knowledge I will now go blush myself to death.

For all the Chad Harbach fans out there

Somehow this blog has become a search draw for information related to n+1 cofounder and debut author Chad Harbach. Since the first reviews of his novel THE ART OF FIELDING are trickling out, here's the sum of my knowledge about this writer and his anticipated debut this fall.

Harbach grew up in Wisconsin, like me, and went to Harvard (undergrad) and UVa (MFA). THE ART OF FIELDING is a novel about college baseball players that got blurbed by Jonathan Franzen and chosen for a panel at Book Expo America, the big annual publishing trade show, that is known for launching the biggest fiction books of the fall. This panel last year launched Emma Donoghue's ROOM and Siddhartha Mukherjee's THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES (plus another book I liked not at all that is currently doing a great thing in propping up my air conditioner). I like baseball books and college fiction, so I'm looking forward to this. There's a fair amount of baggage that comes with the n+1 label, but not as much as in previous years when it was a plucky upstart.

He also scored one of the most condescending news headlines ever when Bloomberg covered his book deal as, "Unemployed Harvard Man Auctions Baseball Novel for $650,000." It's hard to know which implication is worse, that there is something distasteful about being unemployed after having gone to Harvard (the recession happened to them too!) or that the book was some kind of rainy-day-shed project he developed in the absence of a job -- when in fact, as the profile notes, he'd been working on it for ten years. (My own headline: "Chad Harbach will be buying a lot of drinks this weekend..." though really, people should have been toasting him. Which I likely would, if given the opportunity.)

Look for THE ART OF FIELDING from Little, Brown in stores September 7.

02 June 2011

New York Times discovers ghostwriters

So cute, like they just grew up! I think someone's about to get in trouble for this, though:

"[Nicole] Richie [former reality-TV show star, child of famous person Lionel Richie] promoted her second novel, PRICELESS in an interview last year with USA Today, describing her writing routine: write early in the morning, before the rest of her family wakes up. 'I write all my own stories,' she said.

But Ms. Richie’s publisher, Judith Curr of Atria Books, indicated otherwise, saying that a ghostwriter did most of the writing of Ms. Richie’s book. (Ms. Richie did not respond to a request for comment.)"
Burned by your own publisher!

Also, and just because it's the only one of these books I have read personally: Whoever ghostwrote L.A. CANDY should (have) be(en) fired. For about two chapters it looked as if it would be kind of subversive and present a kind of nested meta-commentary, but alas -- it was so boring, and not just in a "YA book not normally to my taste" way. It was just dull. I don't feel ashamed about starting this book, but I should not have bothered to finish. Ohhh, now the healing can begin.

Cultural Learnings Of Spanish World For Make Benefit Glorious Degree-Granting Institutions

Oddly enough, my previously expressed desire to get back to reading in Spanish was triggered by a book I read recently in English by a Spanish-language writer, Marcelo Figueras' KAMCHATKA. This book reminded me of a dozen others I had been assigned over the years in Spanish classes, but in a pleasant, nostalgic way, which I'm not sure the author was going for... but I'll get to that.

My Spanish literature education fell along a couple of different lines, but I was assigned a lot of what might be called historical-problem works -- those that that use the backdrop of a recent event to inflame or inform a domestic drama. In KAMCHATKA's case, it's Argentina's 1976 military coup, leading to tens of thousands of people on the other political side being "disappeared" (that's tortured if they're lucky), and while the eleven-year-old narrator of the novel doesn't know exactly why he's been pulled out of school to stay at someone else's vacation home, he's fairly sure it's not because his parents want to surprise him. Particularly when his parents tell him to choose another name by which he'll be known on their extended-non-vacation. And when he chooses Harry, in honor of Harry Houdini, a biography of whom has been left in the vacation home.

To alleviate the boredom from being taken out of school and told not to leave the grounds or call their friends, "Harry" and his younger brother "Simon" (who chose his name in honor of "The Saint") drop into hours of games of their own devising, from trying to train the toads that fall into the pool to walk out to determining the limits of Superman’s powers, while their parents leave them in the care of an impossibly cool 18-year-old whose own lack of context -- who is he, why is he there? -- is a mystery.

Because “Harry” writes from adulthood, the fate of the family in KAMCHATKA is all but spelled out in its earlier chapters, with the stay in the countryside just a way station toward the inevitable. In the moment, the villa figures as both a protected space and an arena made dangerous by uncertainty; most of the time, for Harry, it’s the former, a locale where he can ‘train’ for future feats of heroism. Yet he doesn’t dream of rescuing his family from their uncertain fate, only of returning to the status quo. Like his namesake, he only wants to go back to being free.

There are pedagogical reasons to include novels like this, because they pack a double punch of language development and cultural knowledge. That I didn't catch onto that part as I was inching up the institutional ladder at first is assured. But it took me back to the (now obvious) realization that learning another language isn't just a matter of translating word for word, or even sentence by sentence; you have to strive for the words behind the words, the way Argentineans use "disappeared" to talk about dissidents of that time, not because they aren't sure where the people are.

01 June 2011

What I Learned About Famous Authors From Watching "Midnight In Paris" (dir. Woody Allen, 2011)

  • It's okay to call T.S. Eliot "Tom" if that's how he introduces himself.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald is a nice dude but his hair is questionable. And his wife is 12, if not in real age than in behavior and stature.
  • Alice B. Toklas doesn't talk and is practically invisible.
  • Ernest Hemingway would not be that much fun to hang out with, in part because he has to work his man-credentials into every conversation. Also, he hates you. He'll still get a drink with you, but he hates you.
  • That Djuna Barnes, man, she can dance.
  • It's fun to hang out, but in the end Gertrude Stein is the only one who will actively help you get your shit together.

Filmbook-to-be: Trailer for U.S. "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" enters the world

Sony is busy yanking all of these off YouTube, so not sure this is going to work, but here's a bootleg version of the redband and the greenband is below:

It looks a lot like the Swedish adaptation at first pass (read my review here) but not all of its Fincherisms might translate to a sneak trailer. In any case: Christmas! A bloody, leave-Grandma-at-home Christmas to you too.