27 September 2012

75. Evelyn Waugh, SCOOP

There's something about expecting to laugh, and not finding anything funny to laugh at, that can make a person believe nothing will ever be funny ever again. The flavor of despair permeates the whole thing. I was so primed with SCOOP to love it, and maybe later on reflection I'll be able to appreciate what it was going for -- but not now.

Satirizing the excesses of the press? I love it. A case of mistaken identity gone global, as rural columnist William Boot is sent to a troubled African country instead of novelist John Boot? On board. International incidents that may not even have been taking place, distorted by reports on the ground? You bet! But this novel felt interminable, because these gags were so visible from a thousand miles away, that they just weren't funny -- and they went over the same points over and over again, without making them more pointed or entertaining.

Yet I hate to even write that because it feels like a personal failing. Hey, I have a sense of humor! I really do! I read DECLINE AND FALL, and I remember liking that (though it was for a class, and I may be confusing its rags-to-riches-to-rags plot with that of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"). I know the difference between satire and comedy. And I would never presume from a British author the same style of humor as, say, in Fox's Tuesday night comedy lineup. (Though if William Boot had crashed a wedding and run out with a bottle of champagne, I might have laughed a little more. Not prescribing. Just saying.) But I didn't find it entertaining at all, I slogged, and that was that.

Naturally, I was prepared to bid He-velyn* goodbye forever until I looked at the Modern Library list and realized I still have one more to get through (A HANDFUL OF DUST).

Ellen vs. ML: 58 read, 42 unread

Next up: Maybe THE GRAPES OF WRATH. 

*Have you heard this one? Evelyn Waugh (m.) married a woman who was also named Evelyn, and apocryphally their friends referred to them as He-velyn and She-velyn. Hyphens are mine there. 

26 September 2012

I was looking for a book, and then I found a book

When a woman collapsed at Strand Books last week, Morrissey was there.

25 September 2012

A mysterious death, a shadowy figure, a large missing sum of money: this Broadway "Rebecca" musical may be worth more dead than alive. (Related: can anyone recommend me a book about Broadway musicals that addresses where all the investor money goes? I know a lot more about Off-Broadway, which I know distorts my viewpoint onto how it can all cost that much.)

Top 5 characters in TELEGRAPH AVENUE

5. Mr. Nostalgia
4. Valletta Moore
3. Nat Jaffe
2. Gwen Shanks
1. Cochise Jones

24 September 2012

Name that book!

My friend got this tattoo last week. I was surprised by her choice but the execution is great.

20 September 2012

Arnold Schwarzenegger releases book trailer

This video has plunged me into existential despair. Who cares about anything? It's just no use.

19 September 2012

Rodents of unusual size? I don't believe they exist.

INFINITE JEST readers might appreciate this report on the rampaging feral hamsters of China.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail; 
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners, 
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me--- 
That ever with a frolic welcome took 
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed 
Free hearts, free foreheads---you and I are old; 
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil. 
Death closes all; but something ere the end, 
Some work of noble note, may yet be done, 
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods. 
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks; 
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep 
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends. 
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
Of all the western stars, until I die. 
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down; 
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles, 
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. 
Though much is taken, much abides; and though 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are--- 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. 

--Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from "Ulysses" 

18 September 2012

Wallaceblogging: What should we call my morning

"I'm still riding on this high from the DFW biography, so hey, why don't I break out this Slate podcast on INFINITE JEST?"

"Hi, I'm Katie Roiphe..."

(I'm exaggerating, she wasn't terrible, but she clearly wasn't a fan.)

17 September 2012

My Brooklyn Book Festival Rules of Engagement

The Brooklyn Book Festival, one of my literary high holidays, is this Sunday the 23rd. After picking over the list of events I have once again decided that the best plan of attack is to clone myself so I can attend all the panels, so if anyone knows where I can get that done cheaply, let me know!

Over the past 5 years of attendance I have developed some tips (or as we say in corporate America, "learnings") that have helped me really attack the day and still go home feeling rosy about the state of arts and letters. These rules could probably apply to any litfest in your backyard, and honestly if there is one in your actual backyard, you should go -- but you don't need me to tell you that.

Get there early enough to take in a morning event -- not just because they are often excellent, but also the authors are so grateful that they aren't speaking to an empty room. I'm going to break my own rule and highlight a few from this year's offerings: at 10AM you can hear Thomas Frank and Eric Alterman talk about the election (Brooklyn Historical Society Library), Andrew Blum and Jessica Grose talk about the Internet as/in literature (St. Francis College/ McArdle Hall), or hear Amy Sohn defend herself (or not) on her controversial novel MOTHERLAND (Borough Hall Courtroom). An embarrassment of riches! And as long as you're up, you should treat yourself and
Bring snacks and water, and reading material (of course). Last year for the first time some food trucks either got wise to the goings-on, or were invited, and that was great, but it never hurts to stock up on your own provisions -- especially if you want to eat something besides a processed carb. (I know, why would you?) Don't eat the reading material, though! Use it to ease the waiting in line or lulls between panels. 
Keep your eyes open for authors sneaking into other authors' panels. Writers: they're just like us! (They are fans.)

Take at least one chance on a panel without any authors you know. Of course there are a ton of people you'll want to see, but leave a little room to serendipity. This is an especially good tip in case you...
Leave a panel that is boring, which you absolutely should do if you can do so without upsetting whole rows of people and interrupting the action. I used to never leave panels because I am too ungainly to make a decent exit without falling all over myself and whacking someone in the head probably felt that it was disrespectful, but it's also disrespectful to take a seat and find that you just can't pay attention. That's the time to say "it's not you, it's me." On that note,
The vaguer the description of a panel, the less likely there will be an exciting discussion. I enjoy the kinds of events where authors just read, but the most electrifying festival events I've been to have inspired debate or out-and-out arguments. Panel "chemistry" is hard to judge beforehand, but it isn't usually about everybody getting along.
Bring or buy books to get signed -- but if you're buying, try to buy as late as possible so you don't have to carry too much around (learned it the hard way). Unpopularly, I don't like to buy books on the spot, because I really like to dwell over my purchases -- but I will make a list and take it to my local indie bookstore later.

16 September 2012

Just emerging out of the mists to say that if you like books about bygone New York, working women pre-1960 or love triangles, Amor Towles' RULES OF CIVILITY is the novel you want and it's $2.99 on Kindle today.

14 September 2012

THE AGE OF DESIRE: “If only we'd stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.”

I am always getting closer to the idea of reading an Edith Wharton biography, without actually doing it. Since Jennie Fields' novel of Wharton's later years, THE AGE OF DESIRE, actually contains excerpts from her letters and diaries, this is probably the closest I've gotten.

This Edith is already a successful author, the toast of the Paris salons, but personally lonely: Her husband Teddy's health issues don't seem to be getting any better, and meanwhile he hates France and would rather be sequestered at their Massachusetts farm. Edith's new novel (that will, spoiler, become THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY) is troubling her, and her assistant Anna -- Edith's old governess and the only one she trusts with each fresh page -- knows that, but doesn't know how to advise her. Then Edith meets a younger journalist named Morton who flatters her and begins spending time with him, over Anna's objections for how it might look and its implications to her work.

THE AGE OF DESIRE is told alternately from Edith and Anna's perspectives (assisted by their many, many real life letters to each other, brought to light in a 2009 auction) for the Upstairs/ Downstairs perspective on what a successful writer's life would look like back then. (I'm guessing rare is the author these days who has someone else type her or his pages up for them.) I also appreciated the cameos from Wharton's longtime friend Henry James (stop following me everywhere!) and her admiration for a much younger Parisian countess whose shocking behavior makes Edith question the properness of her life.

The historical details were fascinating, but the relationship that develops between Edith and Morton is marked by an abrupt tonal change to syrupy, romance-novel-style scenes in which Edith is classically tortured by his absence, has never felt like this before, and so on. Its sogginess made it hard to root for, and the heightening of the stakes seemed excessive -- it was hard to believe that anyone would stop Edith from pursuing her interest, even though she saw the relationship as rife with obstacles. (Interestingly, we know very little about Edith and Morton's actual relationship, but what we do know stems from her letters to him -- letters she begged him to burn but he never did. This is convenient for the novel as Edith is constantly trying to measure Morton's ardor without being able to discern how he really feels about her, and I thought that tension worked.)

I didn't think of it while I was reading, but the Wharton novel THE AGE OF DESIRE most closely speaks to isn't THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, whose publication precedes its events, nor THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY but my personal favorite THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. (And it's... right there in the title.Sometimes I am not very observant!) Newland Archer is the Edith in this book, regretting past decisions, but with just enough freedom that they could be undone -- but at great personal cost. "We men may say more, swear more, but indeed: our shows are more than will," and all that. I don't know if THE AGE OF DESIRE is essential to all Whartonia, but if you've read this far, you will probably enjoy it with a little glossing over the swoony stuff.

13 September 2012

Reading on the Road: All I do is wine

Among other things that are out of my control, I am grateful for my ability to read in moving vehicles and almost never get sick. (Once or twice, tops.) Comes in handy this weekend as I am off to participate in a relay race between San Francisco and the Napa Valley I'm so excited for this as yet unseen area of the country to open up for me, although less so now that someone told me there are wolves out there.

I'm taking a random assortment of shelf paperbacks: John Jeremiah Sullivan's PULPHEAD, Rick Moody's THE ICE STORM and Stewart O'Nan's SONGS FOR THE MISSING. And TELEGRAPH AVENUE. Top priority.

12 September 2012

"Rebecca" musical delayed, because world cruel

Meet the craziest theater ad you're ever going to see, that actually aired on network television:


How do Margarets become Peggys anyway?

From Flavorwire's 20 Famous Authors' Adorable School Photos. Atwood did eventually graduate from the University of Toronto (mascot: the Varsity Blues) as well as picking up an MA at Radcliffe College south of the border. No word on whether the Reindeer Romp still exists.

11 September 2012

Try to praise the mutilated world

Remember June’s long days, and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. The nettles that methodically overgrow the abandoned homesteads of exiles. You must praise the mutilated world. You watched the stylish yachts and ships; one of them had a long trip ahead of it, while salty oblivion awaited others. You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere, you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully. You should praise the mutilated world. Remember the moments when we were together in a white room and the curtain fluttered. Return in thought to the concert where music flared. You gathered acorns in the park in autumn and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars. Praise the mutilated world and the gray feather a thrush lost, and the gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns. 
--Adam Zagajewski (appeared in the New Yorker, September 24, 2001)

Booker 2012 Shortlist

No one is surprised Mantel is on this list; maybe some of you are surprised Self is. But the only one I've read is NARCOPOLIS, which I liked and kind of fell below radar earlier this year. Who do you favor? (If it helps, last year's winner was THE SENSE OF AN ENDING.)

10 September 2012

"Dear Wikipedia, I am Philip Roth."

You don't have to be of my generation or a "digital native" to troll correctly. Philip Roth proves it in his (warning: HUMAN STAIN spoilers) open letter to Wikipedia.
"Criticism is the hardest to take when you know there’s truth to it.  Which is maybe why I cringe a little each time I hear that my work is bleak or depressing.  When I was writing THE GOD OF ANIMALS, my life was not exactly the stuff of fairy tales.  I was poor and lonely and living in a crappy apartment over a meth lab.  My love life was a Chernobyl-sized disaster, and I didn’t understand why life was so hard, so raw, so unfair.  I took my fears and questions and worries to the same place I always take them—the page.  I let my characters ask the questions I couldn’t give myself permission to ask, allowed them to explore the desires I was ashamed to admit I had, gave them the space to make the mistakes I was terrified of making myself.  Night after night, I took my heartache to that ranch, and night by night, it saved me." -- Aryn Kyle in her mostly funny essay, "'This Book Made Me Want to Die,' and Other Thoughts from Readers"

07 September 2012

Don't be shelf-ish

"I imagine each section, as its own book club where a title relates to the ones around it, clustering authors that would have a lot to discuss among themselves." 

--Friend of the blog Peter W. Knox on what your bookshelves do when you're not around. Knox describes to the Guardian about the impetus that led him to start Share Your Shelf, a Tumblr of picture of other people's bookshelves. 

Describing my home shelf philosophy would take too long for now, but since I'm at the office, here's my work shelf. I might be breaking protocol here because this shelf is probably the most decorative of any collection of books I now have.

I have read every book on this shelf except THE MCSWEENEY'S BOOK OF POLITICS & MUSICALS (which just came out), but apart from the two style manuals, I never refer to these books for my job. (I work in social media. Make your own print media joke here.) So this shelf is more an outcropping of my work personality -- although I would recommend the Della Femina book (FROM THOSE WONDERFUL FOLKS WHO GAVE YOU PEARL HARBOR, 3rd from right) and the collected works of Marshall McLuhan for anyone who works or interacts with online media. DIGITAL BARBARISM is a polemic about online content and copyright that I didn't wholly agree with, but it reminds me that my job a) didn't exist five years ago, and b) is still regarded with suspicion and outright rejection by some of the people I serve, so go easy, all right? 

(Also, please enjoy my collection of teas. It's super cold in here!) 

Summer Reading 2012 wrap-up

I finished 7 of the 10 books I assigned myself for summer reading this year, 4 of them in August, and 3 of those in the last week. (To be fair, I had started THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY much earlier; the last week was just when I got around to finishing it.) On the bright side, I am pretty good at making deadlines! But what should I have done to make it 10?

I should have picked one longer book, not 3. The three books I didn't even touch all weighed in over 600 pages. My original thinking was "I'll take each of these longer books on a trip with me," but in the moment I wanted to take a bunch of shorter books instead. I still really want to read the Caro biography and the Yates short stories; less sure about Katharine Graham (but I'm open to argument if you think I'm wrong to demote it).

I should think about ranking the books on the list. I got a lot more done once I put the remaining books in an order from "I need to read this right now!!!!11!!!!" to "Nice to knock off, but not as urgent." Cold-hearted, but maybe necessary.

I should have finished more earlier, to allow myself that sense of accomplishment. Everyone loves that.

06 September 2012

Judy Blume gets breast cancer and still makes an ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME MARGARET joke. Wishing for her speedy recovery and happy about the preservation of her sense of humor.

On The Internet nobody knows you're a Bushwanga

Finishing up the GROWN UP KIND OF PRETTY tour in Virginia, and last night a CRAPTON of hella-longtime-best-beloveds showed up, even though it was raining. It was so cool to meet people with WEIRD NAMES I KNEW. A pretty redhead said, “Sign it to Mit,” and I screeched, “Mit MOI????” And she was all, “Indeed.” It was like we were speaking a secret language.

This is why it is good to, on a blog community, not to call yourself Lisa, even if that is your name. It is better to be Michelle Who Is Shelley, or Leslie in Hiawatha, for examples.

This is why I have decided, when I blog stalk my next internetzian crush, to name myself in the comments, “Skunkpatch Bushwanga,” so that one day, when we do meet, I can say, “I am Skunkpatch,” and my crush can screech, “NOT SKUNKPATCH BUSHWANGA????” And I will modestly nod and blush and say, “The very same.”

--Joshilyn Jackson: book tour hero. I'll be right back giving my name as Skunkpatch Bushwanga at every Starbucks in the city.

05 September 2012

Wallaceblogging: Ghost story

Last night I went to see D.T. Max read from his new biography of David Foster Wallace, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY. Max is soft-spoken with floppy bangs and referred to Wallace often by his first name, describing writing the book as an "incredible blessing" of spending "3 years in his presence." He often began his sentences with "One thing you need to know about David..." Even when addressing questions about Wallace's addictions and death, he seemed happy to be talking about him. This was often touching but occasionally weird.

I haven't had a chance to crack the biography yet, so the two excerpts he read were new to me -- well, at least one of them was. A passage Max read about how Wallace started dating Karen Green (who he would later marry) offered an unforeseen view of his sentimental, eccentric side, without foreshadowing. The other passage Max read, about Wallace's stay in a halfway house outside of Boston during his mid-20s, was familiar to me in that most of his real-life experiences in there were chunked directly into INFINITE JEST -- so directly, in fact, that some details had to be changed in draft to make them less libelous. (Among the resemblances Max pointed out: a house supervisor/ addict named "Big Craig" believed to be the inspiration for Don Gately, who in interviews with Max said he was suspicious of Wallace because he thought he was looking for material. Accurate.)

The book grew from Rolling Stone story Max wrote (sadly no longer online) called "The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace," published about six weeks after his death. Max's 2009 New Yorker story "The Unfinished" about Wallace working on THE PALE KING. (Thanks to Peter W. Knox for the correction; I mixed up Max and fellow DFW-studier David Lipsky, who wrote the aforementioned Rolling Stone story. I regret the error a lot.) Max described one of the drivers to write the biography as the sense that the story left out the "part that was funny" about Wallace in its focus on his unhappier episodes, and that its structure and the way it was pegged to Wallace's suicide made that death feel inevitable. One challenge he said he faced in writing it was Wallace's tendency to write to his public, even in private letters and a diary he kept for his sponsor, and his connected exaggerations and inventions.

An example he gave, which Max described as a standout instance of truth distortion in Wallace's journalism, was describing John McCain's press liaisons shrinking away from him in "Up, Simba," about the senator's 2000 presidential bid; in fact, other reporters there noted that Wallace and the campaign had a good, joking working relationship. Surely a lot of biographers face this challenge, but maybe here it's magnified by Wallace's style, at play with the same forces that make fact-checking him difficult.

No jobs for Jonah

Whoa! Wired magazine took Jonah Lehrer back after allegations of plagiarism caused him to lose his position at the New Yorker; now he will lose his place at Wired as well primarily based on an investigation into his blog for them.

Here's the independent fact checker's report. Granted, I think that chart makes it look worse than it is; if the posts weren't fact-checked at all the first time around, I would find it normal for a checker to have one question per article. (They're sticklers; it's what they do, and when I fact-checked as part of a previous job I delighted in finding things that even the top editors were like "This is a little too granular, we don't need to worry about it." I'm saying that it's rare a fact-checker will look over a piece and find nothing that s/he wouldn't correct.)

04 September 2012

NYC: New Yorker Festival to include David Foster Wallace panel

There are a ton of fiction- and non-fiction related events as well, but we're leading with:

Rereading David Foster Wallace
Ad infinitum.
With Mark CostelloMary KarrDana Spiotta, and Deborah Treisman.
Moderated by D. T. Max.
October 6, 4 P.M. Acura at SIR Stage37 • 508 West 37th Street ($30)

Mary Karr's inclusion is a confusing one to me. I'm sure she has insight into the man that the others don't, but I just hope after I die they don't invite my exes to comment on my literary legacy. (Hey literary executor, are you reading this?) 

Here are the Friday night "Fiction Night" panels: 


With Martin AmisJohn Lanchester, and Zadie Smith.
Moderated by Deborah Treisman.
7 P.M. Directors Guild Theatre • 110 West 57th Street ($30)

Utopia / Dystopia
With Margaret AtwoodJennifer Egan, and George Saunders.
Moderated by Daniel Zalewski.
7 P.M. Gramercy Theatre • 127 East 23rd Street ($30)

With Aleksandar HemonHisham MatarColum McCann, and Orhan Pamuk.
Moderated by Willing Davidson.
7 P.M. MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre 1 • 333 West 23rd Street ($30)

With Chris AdrianNathan Englander, and Marilynne Robinson.
Moderated by Cressida Leyshon.
7 P.M. MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre 2 • 333 West 23rd Street ($30)

Love and Marriage
With Julian BarnesJunot Díaz, and Lorrie Moore.
Moderated by Leo Carey.
9:30 P.M. Directors Guild Theatre • 110 West 57th Street ($30)

The Old Country
With Jonathan Safran FoerTéa Obreht, and Gary Shteyngart.
Moderated by Adam Gopnik.
9:30 P.M. MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre 1 • 333 West 23rd Street ($30)

With Louise ErdrichJoyce Carol Oates, and Paul Theroux.
Moderated by Peter Canby.
9:30 P.M. MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre 2 • 333 West 23rd Street ($30)

And here are some other assorted panels featuring writers:

Presidential Biographers
How they governed.
With Ron ChernowAnnette Gordon-ReedDavid Maraniss, and Edmund Morris.
Moderated by David Remnick.
October 6, 10 A.M. Directors Guild Theatre • 110 West 57th Street ($30)

Giving Voice
The have-nots.
With Abhijit BanerjeeKatherine BooGeoffrey Canada, and Jose Antonio Vargas.
Moderated by George Packer.
October 6, 10 A.M. MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre 2 • 333 West 23rd Street ($30)

Alison Bechdel talks with Judith Thurman
Drawn from life.
October 6, 4 P.M. MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre 2 • 333 West 23rd Street ($30)

Malcolm Gladwell / Birmingham: Fifty Years Later
October 6, 10 A.M. MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre 1 • 333 West 23rd Street ($30)

Back to the Old Hotel
Mark Singer will host a tribute to the seminal New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, featuring a conversation with Ian Frazier and Nora Mitchell Sanborn and a reading by Bob Balaban.
Local oysters and champagne will be served.
October 7, 11 A.M. South Street Seaport Museum • 12 Fulton Street ($100)

Salman Rushdie talks with David Remnick
Under cover.
October 7, 4 P.M. MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre 1 • 333 West 23rd Street ($30)

And this movie sneak preview might be of interest: 

"Cloud Atlas"
The U.S. première of the epic drama, followed by a conversation between Aleksandar Hemonand the film's writer-directors, Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski.
October 6, 7 P.M. MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre 1 • 333 West 23rd Street ($50)

The theater director who gave us David Foster Wallace onstage is going after Franzen next with an adaptation of his essay "House for Sale."

03 September 2012

Cover gone wrong (or...right?)

Quick, what's the first thing you see when you see this?