March 31, 2009
I erred yesterday, caught out by that fatal Donal/Donald switcheroo. While I have no doubt that Donald Macintyre, The Independent's Jerusalem correspondent and newly shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for journalism, would display some mean footwork in the rink, he's a different fellow from Donal MacIntyre, Dancing on Ice veteran. My apologies for the mix-up, and thanks to John for the tip.
George Szirtes, translator and poet, writing about translation on his blog:
I don't believe in the one 'right' translation. What you lose in transit from the original language to the receiving one may be made good, in its way, by what the receiving language offers. It's not like for like: it is echo for echo.
But my first German editor, one of the first men to read it, said that it's a "feel good" book.
Oh, you have to love the Germans. You can read the first couple chapters there, too.
Jacket Copy is slightly hysterical about the fact that someone is putting information about authors online... and they can't be removed from the site. Yes, hello, it's called the Internet, which has things like IMDB and Wikipedia and so on. If you don't like the author photo FiledByAuthor chose for you, put up your own website.
In other news, Scribd has been giving away copyrighted material for free, claiming ignorance of what their users are up to. They pissed off JK Rowling, and she takes this shit personally. Or lawyerly.
March 30, 2009
Bookslut's Indie Heartthrob Interview Series
A weekly interview series where someone involved in the small press (be it writer, editor, slush slave, etc.) is thrown into the spotlight, grilled over the state of the independents and sundry other items, and quickly made to return from whence they came after having graced us all with their presence.
This week:Pasha Malla
I picked up a copy of Pasha Malla's The Withdrawal Method, and I immediately thought of George Saunders' comedy tempered by a down-to-earth acceptance of reality, almost humility. Malla's stories explore the fantastic aspects of everyday life, from the meanderings of a lonely child and his favorite music teacher in the classroom to the 1980's definition of a latchkey child. And yet none of these become trite in the process. The last time I found myself this addicted to a book of short stories, I was on the verge of passing out from influenza on a G train with Elizabeth Crane's You Must Be This Happy to Enter. I didn't want my ride to the doctor's office to end simply because I wanted to read more about the town that lost its color. You have to love that feeling.
Malla also wrote a book of poetry (he uses quotes with the term) entitled All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts, and he has written quite often for the likes of Nerve and The Morning News. He's currently working on a novel due out by Anansi in 2010.
Let's start with the book's title. Why did you decide to call it The Withdrawal Method?
Ha, well, I've been asked this question a bunch and I have a pretty stock answer that's only really a half-truth… I guess my hope is that people will bring their own readings to the book, and I don't want to be prescriptive with my interpretations of what anything means. But, you know, it's not arbitrary, either. I definitely put a lot of thought into a title that would speak to the unifying themes and ideas of the stories, at least as I see them, and my feeling is that this one works on a number of levels. So, yeah, whatever people come up with is fine. And if that means folks just think the title's puerile and sort of lame, that's cool, too.
Your stories seem to maintain a fine balance between fantastical comedy and bittersweet reality. Where do you think you developed this voice? Do you think it crosses over into your poetry?
I guess I'm just trying to convey my own experience of the world. I don't think the voice is something I consciously developed, necessarily, but more a natural reflection of who I am as a person—or at least who I WAS in my mid-twenties, when I wrote the bulk of these stories. And that to me is what I like, somewhat narcissistically, about the book: it's a nice document for me of a certain time and place in my life, much more honest than photographs or a journal or anything where I'm explicitly explaining myself to anyone. I think the stuff I've written in the past that now feels particularly cringe-inducing is anything that purports to be
The "poetry book" (I call it more "jokes with line-breaks") was something I worked on concurrently with the stories. I wanted a project that was completely different, so I made rules for myself: I either had to be drunk, high (I don't really do drugs, so this one was less pertinent), fucked up on coffee or sleep deprived when I was working on it, just trying to access different parts of my brain. One thing I did, at the advice of my dad, was wake up at 4am and go straight to the computer, Some really weird shit came out then, I'll tell ya.
I'm likely done writing "poems" for a while. Although I read and enjoy a lot of poetry, it's not really a genre I know heaps about; with Grandfathers I was just trying out something different, trying to have some fun. And Jon Paul Fiorentino at Snare was nice enough to publish the results.
Sure, these are definitely writers I've read and liked. There's a lot to admire about all of them.
In "The Slough," you present a woman who wants to shed her skin (literally and metaphorically) and ends up with melanoma. In "The Film We Made About Dads" you present a film crew's document of several dads' lives from childhood to death. While different, these stories and many others in The Withdrawal Method carry a thematic and tonal link throughout the collection. When putting this book together, did you have a specific idea in mind of how you'd like the stories to link?
Not exactly. I mean, I think I was working through certain preoccupations over the five or six years that I was writing this book—although for most of that time it felt impossible and preposterous to think of it as a "book" at all; I was just more moving from one story to the next. I must have ended up with about 30 finished stories, which I cut down to a manuscript of 20 or so that went out to publishers, and that in turn was cut back to 11 once it went to edits with Lynn Henry at Anansi. It was only then that I started looking at what I had and realized that there was a something going on between the stories, although even that was sort of halfway there and needed rounding out. So I wrote two new ones and did a TON of revisions. While the stories in TWM vary in style and subject matter, there were definitely some central themes that emerged—or maybe not "emerged," exactly, but were already there and just needed some teasing out. My hope is that the result is a book that feels like a conversation, that each story is either circuitously or directly engaging with similar ideas, and that there's development over the course of the book from beginning to end.
You're working on a new novel to be released by Anansi next year. Can you tell me a little bit about it? How do you think your approach to writing the novel differs from that you took in The Withdrawal Method?
Ha, someone asked me this same question last night and I just sort of hummed and hawed and then gazed blankly off into space until they got uncomfortable enough to shift the conversation to something else. But, yeah. The novel's been on the go for about 3 years and has already been scrapped and restarted twice. I'm finally about 150 pages into something I think is actually worthwhile, but I'm taking a bit of a break before I head to the Yukon for the summer and three months of (hopefully) intense work on it. The main difference is that the stories, to me, were focused on what separates and divides us from one another, while the novel (so far!) is more invested in ideas of community and people coming together.
Lastly, what book(s) are you reading right now, and what are your thoughts on it(them)?
The book that's most recently blown my mind is Andrey Tarkovsky's Sculpting in Time, a book of essays outlining his own filmmaking practice and ideas about art. I found myself nodding like a total dork through the whole thing, I just started Javier Marias's Dark Back of Time—was sold from the first line, which articulated some stuff I've been thinking about a lot lately:
I believe I've still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once, as everyone does, not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that known time has done anything but tell and tell, or prepare and ponder a tale, or plot one.
I'm also reading a lot of stuff about basketball in preparation for this nonfiction book I've just started working on about Steve Nash: Black Planet, Breaks of the Game, 7 Seconds or Less, Elevating the Game, FreeDarko's fantastic Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. I like basketball a lot.
The Orwell Prize shortlists have been unfurled, including 2008's hot dicatator, Stalin, and a bloke in the final of Dancing on Ice.
Here are the shortlisted books:
Debatable. But we can agree that we need James Franco to sell books.
The centenary of Mark Twain's death is a little over a year away. Vanity Fair, using an unfortunate title and illustration, wraps up the incredible output by and about Twain we'll be seeing over the next twelve months: many previously unpublished stories and books about how relevant he still is.
There are a few phrenology charts in Christopher G. White's Unsettled Minds: Psychology and the American Search for Spiritual Assurance, 1830-1940. None, unfortunately, were detailed enough to tell me what the ridge on the back of my head means. But his study of phrenologists did give me a new phrase: the faculty of marvelousness.
It's actually a much more approachable book than the title would make you think, dealing with G Stanley Hall, the birth of psychology, and William James. You can read Chapter 1 here. Chapter 1 does not include the information about William James's frog spinning, but it's worth reading nonetheless.
That's it. I'm leaving the fucking country.
We did a little server migration, and when it looked like everything had worked on Friday afternoon, I jinxed myself. As soon as I said all is well, the entire back end of the site disappeared. But it's okay. I slaughtered a she-goat on the altar of Mercury, and he revealed to me that my Local Site Path was fucked.
But my post about my interview at the Jim Lehrer News Hour website about Mary Gaitskill disappeared. Our only casualty. So re-posting: Zoe Pollock asked me some very interesting questions about Gaitskill and her new short story collection Don't Cry. And since McNeil and Lehrer would be on every night in my home growing up, when I said the word "masturbation," it rather felt like saying it at my parents' dinner table.
March 26, 2009
The Naked and the Read
In Kyle Minor’s debut collection In the Devil’s Territory (which came out late last year; which I’ve written about elsewhere; which more than warrants continued discussion), sex weaves in and out of the stories, a powerful, destructive force, a location of massive self-deception and self-denial. The sexual situations Minor sets up are baleful, uncomfortable, sad. He explores the shadowy pockets of our hearts and heads, the places we avoid, because what we find there is weird, off, wrong, and sort of scary.
In the novella “A Day Meant To Do Less,” Jack, a reverend, has to give his bed-ridden mother -- incommunicative and soaked in her own piss -- a bath. A harrowing, uncomfortable act. “He did not want to undress her. It was the first time he had undressed her.” It’s a duty, an intimate one, and elicits an unexpected response from Jack.
As he takes of her clothes, he starts humming “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye. Yeeuch, you think, the horror. The cringey absurdity isn’t lost on him either: “at once he was aware of the, oh, three dozen ironies that wrapped themselves around his choice of song.” He keeps on humming though. And it’s not for no reason. As he looks into his mother’s eyes before he starts unbuttoning her dressing gown, the only act he can link to what he’s doing
was a certain kind of lovemaking... a lovemaking of the most intimate kind, a lovemaking that all but precludes knowledge of the body in favor of a different kind of lostness. A lovemaking punctuated only by the involuntary blinking that for brief but too-long moments breaks the illusion, the spell, of complete connection, two sets of eyes locking upon one another in near-inviolate attention while bodies perform their lesser task. The pleasure of that deepest kind of intimacy, sure, but the terror, too. The complete giving and undoing of self.
It’s the rarest sort of connection, a sort of lovemaking that requires complete presence. Self-annihilating, in the most powerful, and, as Minor says, terrifying way. I can think of only a small handful of times, half a dozen or less, that can be categorized this way. In a large chair in my parents house. In a bedroom on the North Shore of Massachusetts. I wouldn’t want it always to feel like that, to be undone in such a way, to connect like that each time. It should be rare. Minor’s passage reminds me of a fragment from Octavio Paz’s long poem “Sunstone”:
. . . two bodies, naked and entwined,
leap over time, they are invulnerable,
nothing can touch them, they return to the source,
there is no you, no I, no tomorrow,
no yesterday, no names, the truth of two
in a single body, a single soul,
oh total being . . .
In high school, I copied this part of the poem onto a small piece of paper and taped it to the wall behind my bedside table so my parents wouldn’t see it. Because your parents should be as removed from this sort of entwinement, this “deepest sort of intimacy” as possible. Which is not the case for Minor’s character.
But perhaps there’s something even larger at stake. I think Minor might be acknowledging an intimacy -- a physical intimacy between parents and children -- that most of us aren’t able to acknowledge. We cringe to think, and retreat from the thought, our noses wrinkled, needing a shower. With Jack making the link between bathing his mother and making love, you think, not now, not this, wrong, wrong. Oh total being, oh no. (And if you think Jack’s response is problematic or distressing, wait till you read his mother’s interpretation of the same event.) Our reaction is strong for a reason.
This is a great strength of Minor’s (and he has many) -- he doesn’t shy away from excavating the darkest realms, the most off-limits ideas, those thoughts that make their way across our brains that we never, never admit to having to anyone else, and are only barely able to admit to ourselves.
March 25, 2009
Bored with just sorting authors by nonfiction, fiction, sf, whatever with our reading series, we decided "Why don't we group by first names?" So tonight we have Dan (Barker) and Dan (Everett), and a Michael (Shilling). On April 14 we've got Kristy (Bowen), Kristy (Odelius), and Cristin (O'Keefe Aptowicz). Whether this will lead to confusing introductions, you'll just have to show up and see.
Simon Critchley made a big deal about what philosophers' deaths might tell you about their work in The Book of Dead Philosophers. Maybe it's because I'm young and no one in my family dies before the age of 85 (not a jogger or an egg white omelet eater among us), but I sort of missed the point. Wouldn't how they lived be a little more helpful? I guess one would suppose they lived sitting around in their pajamas, thinking. A C Grayling argues that the lives of philosophers are more exciting than we think, and he praises the recent biographies and studies of the greats.
Socrates perverted the youth of Athens and had to drink hemlock. Abelard suffered castration for his illicit romance with Heloise. Descartes was present both at the Battle of the White Mountain and the subsequent massacres of Bohemian Protestants and might have been a spy for the Jesuits. Locke had to flee into political exile. Bertrand Russell went to prison for opposition to the First World War, while his pupil and later nemesis Wittgenstein served in the Austrian army and wrote his Tractatus on the Eastern Front. Nietzsche and Althusser went mad; the latter strangled his wife, while the former's sister strangled his reputation. Sartre was a Communist, Heidegger a Nazi. Camus played football and died in a car crash. Not a few of them were preternaturally amorous.
The LA Times profiles the resurrection of Hans Fallada's (pen name of Rudolf Ditzen) career, with the first English translation of Every Man Dies Alone and reprints of Little Man, What Now? and The Drinker.
The popular German novelist Rudolf Ditzen, was pressed into service first by the Nazis, who wanted him to write an anti-Semitic tract, and then by the Russian occupiers. He was installed as mayor of Feldberg in the postwar years, but his constituents didn't much care for him; to dull the pain, he took up morphine and, later, sleeping pills. He died in 1947, at a decrepit Berlin hospital, by his own admission "nothing more than a weak man."
March 24, 2009
I hope I am not too old to take it up seriously, nor too stupid about machines to qualify as a commercial pilot. I do not feel like spending the rest of my life writing books that no one will read. It is not as though I wanted to write them.
March 23, 2009
Bookslut's Indie Heartthrob Interview Series
A weekly interview series where someone involved in the small press (be it writer, editor, slush slave, etc.) is thrown into the spotlight, grilled over the state of the independents and sundry other items, and quickly made to return from whence they came after having graced us all with their presence.
This week: Ru Freeman
Ru Freeman is a Sri Lanka-born writer currently residing in Bala Cynwyd, PA. As a journalist and blogger, Freeman has covered topics such as journalistic integrity and international and women's rights. Her upcoming novel, titled A Disobedient Girl, is about the crossing lives of two Sri Lankan women—Biso, a young mother who just fled a violent marriage, and Latha, a five year old servant to a girl her age. Freeman infuses the experiences and observations manifest in her journalism with the story of these two women, and she presents it in a way author Rishi Reddi describes as a "deceptively simple tale…that offers us nothing less than an indictment of a society's treatment of women and the oppressed."
I contacted Freeman over the weekend hoping to learn more about the upcoming novel as well as hear some afterthought on the now infamous Tavis Smiley interview with MIA. You can listen to the interview at PBS.org, and you can catch Freeman on her blog as well as a preview of A Disobedient Girl on her website.
Freeman also teaches Latin/ballroom and Middle Eastern dance. She's a self-proclaimed Toni Morrison devotee, and she has said that if she could keep Morrison's interest long enough to finish her novel, then she can call herself a real writer.
Tell me about A Disobedient Girl. Where did your story come from?
The story is about the underclass in Sri Lanka, my native country. As the only girl in my family, with two older brothers and a host of male cousins, I was much favored but not spared the burdens that fall to females in Sri Lankan homes: developing a great deal of emotional strength, a constant awareness of problems—those that are more intimate as well as those created by the external pressures of work, politics, etc.—and a corresponding requirement to fix them. That constant undercurrent of demands on me as a girl/woman was also compounded with some pretty turbulent events in Sri Lanka as well as in the personal realm, especially for my brothers and father. For me, the only relief both from those external pressures and the internal chaos came from the servants. I spent a lot of time with them and sought out their company and in some ways, identified with them as individuals who were, like me, constantly beleaguered by the needs of others.
That affinity with servants stayed with me as I traveled to the States to attend college. Many of my closest friendships have been with custodial staff, particularly older men and women. I tended to write about servants a lot, even as a child, so it was perfectly natural that when given a prompt, by Lynn Freed, to write about anything, even this far away from my home in Sri Lanka, I would choose to write about servants and, eventually, about other women and men whose lives are either expected to be mundane or are altogether invisible.
Where did the plotline come from?
I began writing the book about an older woman and she began in a very dark place, but in the second chapter I began to talk about a little girl. I just started to follow those two threads, seeing where they would go, and how they might intersect at some point. It was as much a discovery for me, the way these two stories might come together, as it was a relating. They are, really, two very distinct stories. One, the older woman, is narrated in the first person and takes place over the course of about seventy-two hours; and it is very closely observed. The other, the story of the little girl covers three decades and is told with a certain distance. It was hard, at times, to switch between those two because the one would plunge me into despair and the other, no matter how difficult the moment, lifted me up. Latha and Biso both feels she deserves something other than she, but they go about acquiring those things in different ways. Latha does it from within her predicament, Biso seeks it somewhere else, by running away.
What do you hope to achieve with your novel?
In the aftermath of the tsunami, I headed up a relief program for the state of Maine. It took me around the state, talking to people who often had absolutely nothing in common—they were conservative, progressive, faith-based, atheist, belonged to civic organizations or were loners, kids and adults in elder-care facilities, small business people, fishermen and so forth—and yet they were all deeply interested in hearing what I had to say about Sri Lanka, its politics, culture etc.. It made me very much aware of the yearning that many Americans have to learn about places that are vastly different from their own habitat. I think that desire is often buried by politics and religion and regionalism, but it is there whenever you engage with people one on one or in smaller groups. Growing up in Sri Lanka you learn a lot of history—other cultures, how they formed, the narrative arc of their impact on the world, these are all part of a standard curriculum. I think that is missing here and it is too bad. Books—international fiction in particular—have a significant role to play in bridging that gap, in translating a culture and making it accessible to people from another place.
It is also a gift to my country of birth. There are many Sri Lankan writers, particularly those who write in Sinhala (a language not spoken anywhere else in the world but on that very small island), whose stories aren’t heard outside the country or in English. With regard to Tamil authors, there is at least the possibility of people being able to read those stories in other Tamil-speaking countries. There are some Sri Lankan born writers like Michael Ondaatje, Shyam Selvadurai, Romesh Gunasekera and Michelle de Kretser, but they are all, like me, expatriates. That is not to say we have no authentic story to tell, but only to point out that the opportunity for having our stories published and distributed widely is correlated to our residency abroad. So I hope this book turns the attention of readers toward the country as a whole, and its writers in particular.
If I were to confess my most heartfelt wish it is that I can establish a fund or facilitate a process that enables writers from Sri Lanka to attend conferences like the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop (where I found my mentors as well as my agent), that would allow them to have a chance at accessing the industry in the way we are able to do. In this regard, I have great respect for places like Bread Loaf, (which awards the Michael and Marylee Fairbanks International Fellowship for African and Caribbean Writers), as well as Words Without Borders and PEN World Voices, both of which are active in helping international authors writing in their native tongues, to be heard worldwide.
In addition being a novelist, you're also a journalist. Where did you first start out?
I started out when I was seven or eight years old, by criticizing the President of Sri Lanka for timing an address to the nation during a comedy program that I happened to like watching on TV. I think I called him a joker. I come from a family of writers; the letter was published by a good friend of my father, who found it pretty hilarious. In any case, I think I took the business of seeing my name in a byline for granted since I saw my father’s and brother’s names in print all the time. My family’s way of existing in the world, through all those words, also made me less fearful about writing and committing myself to various opinions in black and white. Everybody wrote, so it wasn’t something that I ever considered to be difficult. And everybody was involved in political activism so that, too, was just the way things were. I studied political science as an undergraduate and in graduate school and continued to combine those two things, writing and politics, through my journalism. But I have never enjoyed being told to write something. When someone tells me to write something all the passion goes away and I find myself staring at pages and pages of useless meandering thoughts. I have been fortunate enough to be able to write what I want, most of the time. I try to find that “thing” that particular message I want to convey and if I can identify that, the rest of it is easy. I think that if a person feels very strongly about something and they write about it or speak about it, they will be heard. Fiction, though, that is harder to place because it is much more in the eye of the reader, less about what the writer wants to say and more about what the reader wants to hear.
You recently wrote a piece criticizing the MIA interview on the Tavis Smiley show. Can you elaborate on where you were coming from? At one point you say you cannot call it an interview. Is this more on Smiley's part, that of his subject, or both?
There were two things that infuriated me about that whole business. First, I firmly believe that if an artist asks that people buy their music, their books, whatever, that they owe their fans the truth. To use the status you gain through your creative work to hoodwink people who are putting their faith in you is just plain despicable. Arulpragasam is a woman with many talents, but no amount of talent gives you the right to lie to people. It is easy to do in America precisely because of what I mentioned before: people don’t know enough about other places, so they take you at your word. And that is aggravated by our complicated and tangled and often warped view of majority-minority relationships here, so much so that many Americans tend to automatically condemn any majority anywhere in the world.
But the real fault lies with the journalist, because it is he, in this case Tavis Smiley, who facilitates communication between his guest and his audience. There is no excuse, ever, for not doing your research when you are a journalist, and one with a national audience. Instead of enlightening people, he was thrusting them further into the dark. That’s a dangerous game to play in a country like this, a country which commands an arsenal of weapons, both traditional and non-traditional; I don’t just mean things that go bang, but clout within international organizations which can do tremendous damage to another country, particularly one as small as Sri Lanka. To Smiley, it was just a scoop to have a very pregnant rapper nominated for a Grammy and an Oscar on his show. Who she was, for whom she was speaking, questioning the veracity of what she was saying, these things did not matter to him. To see that on PBS was probably the rudest shock of all for me. You don’t expect stupidity and sensationalism from that station. I am so glad that Michael Getler, as Ombudsman, decided to conduct his own research and issue an apology on behalf of PBS. That is what distinguishes good journalism from the bad.
You've worked in humanitarian assistance and workers' rights in the past. Would you say this experience has an effect on your writing, specifically in fiction? If so, how?
I think working in these fields, or any field, really, that deals with helping the disadvantaged, makes a person more empathetic. It certainly made me realize that being poor or needing help, or needing my voice—to speak for them—does not take away the rich interiority of a person’s life. What they want to accomplish in their lives, or aspire to be, does not vanish just because I cannot, in this moment, see it, or because I choose to deny that it exists because it is convenient to do so. The present moment, the putting of the ketchup on my hot-dog, or the grateful acceptance of my bag of hand-me-downs, these are not the tale of an entire life. I think the work I have been fortunate to do, in the non-profit world, taught me to use those single interactions to imagine the story that stretches out on either side of a person, into the past and into the future. I don’t necessarily write about people affected by disaster, but I think I do focus on the stories of ordinary people. There are no super heroes and stars in the stories that I write. They are almost always about people stuck in the in-between where who they really are is invisible.
Alastair Harper on that overused blurb: "This book will change your life."
"Well, before I read Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I was just plain Steve. Afterwards I'm afraid I found myself to be Stevian, the Magician of the Night."
"My dear Tom, Delighted to get your letter. Do write again. This life is terrible and I dont understand how it can be endured," he writes in 1930 from his parents' home in Cooldrinagh (errors of punctuation, spelling and grammar have been allowed to stand uncorrected). "I would like to live in a perpetual September," he writes in September 1935. "One does one's best to prefer Spring, in vain." One recalls the story about his comment, made many years later, to a friend who was with him watching cricket on a sunny day and who had just said, perhaps forgetting to whom he was talking, that it was the kind of day that made you glad to be alive; "I wouldn't go as far as that" was the (apocryphal) reply.
Frances Wilson was on All Things Considered talking about her book The Ballad of Dorothy Wordworth: A Life. (Read Bookslut's review by Elizabeth Bachner here.) They're also running an excerpt from the book.
March 20, 2009
A few days before Valentine's Day I got a little overly optimistic about my social skills and found myself at a lunch with a group of women I do not know. The conversation mostly revolved around whether or not one girl's boyfriend was going to propose on the big day. The others were sure he would, despite the woman's protest that he was resisting moving in together. I sat on my hands and concentrated very hard on not jumping up, saying "Maybe he's just not that into you!", cackling madly and fleeing out the door.
But then they asked me for book recommendations for their book group. I asked what they had read recently and liked, and she said, "Twilight." My one ally at the table tells me I visibly sneered. I think I snapped something about Mormon celibacy and pathetic female roles, until mercifully my phone rang and I had an excuse to leave the table.
Maybe I'll print out this smart Jenny Turner essay on Twilight, and just hand out a copy when someone asks me what I think of the books. Because it keeps happening, and I have to keep apologizing to my friends for sneering at people they know.
Bella’s character, in accordance with the conventions of the most finely mashed romantic fiction, has no features at all, apart from a mild emo-ish dysthymia (‘I didn’t relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period’) and an accident-prone streak, causing her to need a lot of rescuing (clumsiness, ‘most characteristically tripping’, is according to Toufic often a sign that a person may be ‘crossing the threshold’ to the ‘altered realm’). As Helen Fielding did with Bridget Jones, Meyer has hitched a ride on the Mr Darcy plotline, but without bothering to give her heroine any of Elizabeth Bennet’s spirit – raising a reprise of the Bridget question, why would a man of any style or substance fall for a lummox like her?
There were certain books that Janet Frame felt were too personal to be published during her lifetime, so now we get her autobiographical novel Towards Another Summer. I always forget how funny Frame can be. From Summer:
She remembered her own American, pleasurably inhabiting her past; their impulsive loving over a period long enough for it to gather rainbow tints, reflections, absorbing sea and sky and almond blossom before it became the usual miraculous bubble-nothing, and she and he, surprised, spread their wet fingers, breathed on them, blew them dry, and there was not a sign anywhere that anyone might know; nothing; only the shadow, the preserved memory; already the acid in which it was embalmed was corroding it; she had hoped that wouldn't happen, but how could she have prevented it? How could she have made love to someone who at the moment of climax began to recite Gunga Din? Perhaps that was not so unfortunate -- he could have recited lines from If, "If you can keep your head when all about you... if you can walk with kings nor lose the common touch..."
The Janet Frame estate's blog has information on her posthumous career, including the reissuing of her entire back list.
NPR has the title story from David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives online. I picked the collection up after noticing a blurb from Brian Eno -- possibly the coolest blurb possible -- and it's got that smartypants Einstein's Dreams vibe to it.
(Speaking of Einstein's Dreams, please, Alan Lightman, come back to us. You were such a good writer, and then Ghost happened, which was oddly bitter, almost to the point of being mean spirited. I don't want to cringe when I see one of your books again.)
Martin Levin, who has occasionally been my boss as he is the books editor of the Globe and Mail, has been named one of the Templeton-Cambridge Fellows. (Hi, Martin!)
March 19, 2009
Adrienne Rich re-reads LeRoi Jones: For me, perhaps for others, the legacy of LeRoi Jones from this early book is to have made a poetry so personally exposed yet so wide–lensed, asking questions at the crossroads of experimentalism and political upheaval—questions about art, community, poverty, audience, skin, self. His torquing of language is organic to the work; he does not assume that either self–revelation or experiments in language can suffice.
Britney Spears . . . closer to Shakespeare and Joyce than you'd think: One of the catchiest recent iterations of this trope comes from the Irish band the Script, which released its "If You See Kay" on MySpace several years ago. In a recent interview, the band acknowledged its debt to James Joyce-—whom they helpfully identify as "a literary god in Ireland"—-noting that he used the "If you see kay" gag in Ulysses.
Heidi Benson interviews Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in advance of his 90th birthday on Tuesday: Oldies such as myself talk about the good old days with nostalgia since that was when they were young and beautiful (and full of testosterone).
Seamus Heaney has won a £40,000 award, the David Cohen Prize for Literature, for
being a zombie "the self-renewing force of his writing."
Rita Dove discusses Sonata Mulattica, her new book inspired by George Polgreen Bridgetower, Beethoven's original choice to play the so-called Kreutzer Sonata: Bridgetower was a Mulatto violin virtuoso. His musical talent was so impressive that Beethoven originally wrote the piece for him, not Kreutzer, Dove said. Why, then, did Beethoven rededicate the sonata to Kreutzer, a violinist who refused to play it? Also, why did history subsequently forget George Polgreen Bridgetower?
Dove, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, said she aims to recover Bridgetower’s lost significance in her latest book of poetry. "Sonata Mulattica" dramatizes in lyric verse the life of the violinist and the different factors that led him to historical obscurity rather than fame.
This is an interesting story from the Daily Comet, in Lafourche Parish, LA, about the re-burial during the Civil War of Young Irelander poet Richard Dalton Williams: heir reaction was included by the New Hampshire Adjutant-General in a report published in 1866: "While (in Thibodaux) Companies C and K raised one hundred and twenty-five dollars, for the purchase of a monument to the memory of the Irish poet and patriot, Richard Dalton Williams, prominent in the rebellion of 1848 ... buried at Thibodaux with no stone to mark his grave."
The manuscript to Elvis Presley's "Ode to a Robin" is going up for sale. It almost makes me like the King.
Although in very different ways, this post by Mark Doty and this clip from Billy Crudup both teach the same lesson: There are crazy people on the street, and confronting them is risky, whether you are a prizewinning poet or a superhero with a giant blue penis.
For the first and last time in my life, I want to buy Jane Smiley a drink.
The criminal in The End, an avid reader, is driven to his crimes by his sometime inability to focus on what he’s trying to read.
To the Cellphone Users On Public Transport, Everywhere: You have been warned.
The Orange Prize longlist is here, and that means the countdown starts for our 2009 Token Orange Prize Indignation Farrago: which literary notable will sputter with outrage? Who will represent the celebrity demographic? Will Tim "pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers" Lott step it up again?
The Naked and the Read
“This might border on more than you want to know…” So my friends and I preface the details and disclosures that edge against the graphic, the gross, the bizarre, the very, very personal. It serves as warning: what you’re about to hear may involve bodily functions, awkward positions, all manner of taboo thoughts or acts. It also serves as unspoken question: are you ready? Do you want to hear? Is this normal? Have you felt/thought/done this, too?
“Bring it,” or some variation thereof, typically follows. I’ve got two friends in particular with whom nothing is off limits, and it has always been a great pleasure, comfort, and source of gargantuan laughs to discuss, in open and no uncertain terms, all matters sexual. Not long ago, one frank discussion involved the techniques and terrors involved in tonguing another’s netherest regions.
And I suppose I might’ve taken this aspect of my friendships for granted to a certain extent, understood it as a given that you disclose all sorts of indiscretions with a good pal or two.
For editor Paula Derrow, the lack of sex-talk in her life -- the topics that went unspoken, the awkward conversations that ended before they started -- motivated her to put together an anthology of essays about sex written by women. Behind the Bedroom Door, with the regrettable subtitle Getting It, Giving It, Loving It, Missing It is a collection of pieces “about the sexual feelings and experiences women are afraid to talk about,” according to Derrow’s introduction. Her rallying cry: “Let the conversation begin.”
Well-intentioned. And I’d argue there’s always room for honest, articulate writing about sex.
But the “conversation” ends up feeling like one long lament, with an emphasis, from the subtitle, on “missing it,” or not even liking it much in the first place. Some sample lines: “There’s not much to like. I mean, really: What is the big deal?” (from Lauren Slater’s “Overcome”) and “I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes, maybe, it’s better to do without sex altogether” (from Julie Powell’s “Lost in Space”).
And then there are imponderables like “Most erotic fantasies are about one-night stands” from Susan Cheever’s “In Praise of One-Night Stands.” Is that a fact? Are a majority of sexual fantasies truly about one-night stands? I ask in earnest; I’m sure there’s research. (And, from the same essay: “I discovered that a one-night stand is the erotic manifestation of carpe diem -- only we are seizing the night instead of the day.” Gah.)
And despite the variety of topics discussed -- a woman’s reluctant use of a strap-on to fuck her sort-of boyfriend, an anorexic seeing sex as another way to burn calories, the excitement of being slapped, the idea of doing things for the sake of the story you can tell afterwards, a horrific infection that almost derailed a woman’s marriage -- the essays all feel like they could’ve been written by the same person. A similarity in voice and tone carries the whole way through. I credit this to the fact that many of the authors are editors and contributors at magazines like Self and Glamour and Elle. The essays are light, readable. But you can’t help but imagine the cover splash on the magazine at the supermarket check-out line. “One woman’s secret: I love it when he slaps my face”; “Doing It with a younger man”; “Sex can be fun... and funny!” etc, etc.
There’s also little geographic variation among the writers: twenty of the twenty-six live in New York or California. There’s a generational disconnect as well: the authors, with some exceptions, are in their late-thirties and forties. These women don’t feel like the women I know. (Nor do most of them portray a future I prefer to imagine for myself.)
All this said, there are a few highlights. Ali Liebegott’s “In the Beginning” discusses the transition from the swooney first stages of love to the later phases of routine and “domestic dreck.” If all the pieces were as smart and funny as hers, the collection would’ve been a stand-out. Martha Southgate’s piece on the uncertainties that never disappear, on her struggles with commitment and fidelity, and the challenge of choosing not always to be driven by “the engine of my desire” is the strongest of the lot.
Based on this collection, it turns out that what women are afraid to talk about are the grimmer, bleaker, more depressing aspects of their sex lives. And perhaps, in that respect, it’s a success. It’s one thing to titter about exploits, another thing entirely to admit our disappointments and our failures.
“Behind the Bedroom Door” makes me look forward to the forthcoming (July ’09) Love Is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Break-ups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts with essays by Junot Díaz and Lynda Barry and Maud Newton and Gary Shteyngart, among others. And it also leaves me wondering: does anyone have any recommendations on collections of sex essays that are intelligent and honest? About experiences both positive and negative?
March 18, 2009
I've been reading about the Joseph Fritzl trial this morning, which I don't recommend if you want to retain any hope for humanity. But here, to cheer up anyone following the trial, is Neil Gaiman and Stephen Colbert geeking out.
Maureen Freely writes about translating Orhan Pamuk's books into English at the Washington Post.
March 17, 2009
More than 9,000 books are missing from the British Library, including Renaissance treatises on theology and alchemy, a medieval text on astronomy, first editions of 19th- and 20th-century novels, and a luxury edition of Mein Kampf produced in 1939 to celebrate Hitler's 50th birthday.
The library believes almost all have not been stolen but rather mislaid among its 650km of shelves and 150m items – although some have not been seen in well over half a century.
Maybe they should move locations! I'm finding all sorts of fascinating things as I pack up my belongings.
Maybe you're thinking you have better things to do this morning than watch nearly two hour lecture on neurobiology, but it's a lecture by Richard Sapolsky (A Primate's Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone) talking to his Stanford class about the neurobiology of primate sexuality. You're going to want to watch it.
March 16, 2009
Bookslut's Indie Heartthrob Interview Series
A weekly interview series where someone involved in the small press (be it writer, editor, slush slave, etc.) is thrown into the spotlight, grilled over the state of the independents and sundry other items, and quickly made to return from whence they came after having graced us all with their presence.
This week: Richard Nash
Last week Richard Nash stepped down after eight years as Publisher (or Editorial Director, depending on how you like to lump it together) at Soft Skull Press. Over the years, Nash helped bring little-known authors like Lydia Millet and David Ohle into public view, and he's been doing a hell of a job. Now that he's been out on his own for less than a week, I decided to check in and see what he's up to in these post-Soft Skull days. Richard delves a little further into his plans for connecting authors and publishers to the reader during our fresh little publishing armageddon.
You've been at Soft Skull for quite a while now. What made you decide it was time to move on?
It's becoming clearer that now is the time to stand up and be counted, to walk the walk of restructuring how writers and readers connect. Not just blog the blog. We're not going to witness the wholesale collapse that we're seeing in music and print media because the backlist is a much bigger and steadier dimension of our industry (Faulkner brings in a lot more revenue than Benny Goodman, or the 1934 New York Times) but the final result won't be any the less radical for the publishers. I don't think I could have made any greater a statement about how imperative it is that we move forward than by quitting my job in this economy. Nor could it be any greater an expression of faith that there is a role for the connector of the writer and reader.
What kinds of reactions have you gotten? Either from the media or from your peers?
Well 50% gratifying, and 50% curious. A combination of "nice job," and of "so, what's next." Actually…I think "what's next" probably outweighs "nice job," cause now is a time to be looking forward, not looking back.
Your website describes you as "consulting for authors and publishers on how to reach readers." What does this mean, and how do you plan to see it through?
Well, in the short run, all I can do is make myself available to folks with problems who think I can make them more money than I'll cost them. In the short run, people have marketing and publicity problems, and I brainstorm with them to figure out the best solutions, and they execute (because paying me to do a mailing is a waste of everyone's time…). In the long run, that activity will need to be institutionalized, I'll need to publish, not just help others publish, so as to stay sharp and undefended. So I'm also working on figuring out a new infrastructure that would allow not just me but a whole bunch of visionary intermediaries to effectively connect writers with the readers they deserve and vice versa.
Who is taking over Soft Skull now?
I don't know, actually; they're interviewing, I gather.
If you could pick one title/author you enjoyed working with most over the years, which would it be?
Soft Skull! Seriously, it's just not how I was. What I discovered, back in 2005, I'd say, midway through my time at Soft Skull, is that I published in order to find out why I published. And that that was the true joy, helping bring some elements of the world into contact in a certain effective configuration and then experiencing the new knowledge, new energies that that unleashed. Sounds kinda new age, I know. But it's also culture. It's the making of culture. Publishing isn't editing, printing and selling books—it's making culture. That's what I learned from being Publisher at Soft Skull, I learned it from the writers and the readers.
The National Book Critic's Circle Awards have been announced, missing last year's endearingly batty liveblog feature - which is a pity, because Ron Charles brought it:
Play on, playa. He won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, some Chilean bloke won the novel slot, and the 'V.S. Naipaul is a rat bastard' book won for best biography. The official NBCC site would have you believe that the unprecedented double awards for poetry was the hot action of the night, but really, it was all about Charles.
The full list of winners:
Fiction: Roberto Bolaño - 2666
Biography: Patrick French - The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul
Autobiography: Ariel Sabar - My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq
Nonfiction: Dexter Filkins - The Forever War
Criticism: Seth Lerer - Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter
August Kleinzahler - Sleeping It Off in Rapid City
Juan Felipe Herrera - Half the World in Light
I've been reading Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie. The title is hokey, but it's worth getting past that. (Ugh, that cover art. Bowen's writing was never as toothless as that.) None of Ritchie's letters to Bowen survive, so her letters are laid side by side with his diary entries about her. And while her letters have no doubts, they're all "my dearest dear" and "you hold my life," he writes in his diary in an attempt to convince himself he is not in love with her. She is married, which is obviously complicated, and he writes repeatedly that it is her books he loves, not her, or it is friendship and not love. So he congratulates himself when he falls out of love with EB, then an entry later he is over the moon about her once again. It's an accidental juxtaposition -- the book is only formatted that way because after Bowen died Ritchie burned the letters he sent her -- but it's all the more interesting for it.
Molly Haskell, whom I have loved since Love and Other Infectious Diseases, revisits Gone with the Wind for her book Frankly, My Dear. She's interviewed on NPR, and I'm happy to learn she has a fantastic voice.
The New York Times has an archive of audio material, readings and interviews with writers. Mostly contemporary stuff like Monica Ali and Jonathan Safran Foer, but there are a few gems, like readings by Joseph Heller and Vladimir Nabokov.
I've never really been that interested in the biographies of authors I admire. I'm always afraid to find out they were assholes, and that would somehow make me like their books less. I think I've had this conversation before with my friend Maud Newton, who seems to read a lot of them. (A lot = more than one.) She reviewed the Blake Bailey bio of John Cheever at the B&N Review. I could read that one, I never felt strongly about Cheever one way or the other.
It's been a good couple months for me and novels. First, the weeping over Little Boy Lost, now Gail Hareven's The Confessions of Noa Weber. Both are rather unpleasant reads, now that I think about it. Lost, with the crying, Confessions with the bringing up memories of less than dignified romantic moments... Hm.
But Confessions was the first novel I've read that integrated a proclaimed feminist (the narrator, a novelist, is considered to be a public feminist figure) into its plot without getting preachy or painful. She's actually able to do something really interesting with it. Hareven is interviewed at Forward.
I see myself as a feminist, present myself as a feminist, teach feminism. But I think we have to limit ourselves to social behavior. As I said, Noa’s external social personality stands for the strongest demands — she is the best kind of feminist one can imagine — but her inner secret life is totally different. I was wondering how much this would irritate my readers, and also how I would respond to it. While writing, I had the temptation to “save” her, to find a feminist remedy to her painful feelings. I’m thankful to myself for not supplying her with such a remedy. Letting her solve or deal with those problems in her own way was a learning experience for me. In many ways, Noa has a very good life. I understood when I finished writing that Noa doesn’t need to be saved.
March 13, 2009
But one of the reasons, I suspect, the book is so good is that it isn't filled with scientific triumphalism or the kind of smug rationalism that may have been Potter's shtick before his breakdown. Its last three, beautiful but frightening, sentences are: "We want to believe that things last for ever, whether it is love, life, God, or the laws of nature. But death, as Freud continually reminds us, is what certainty looks like. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to live in uncertainty for as long as we can bear it."
Sandra Cisneros's book The House on Mango Street has been selected for Chicago's One City One Book or whatever the fuck program. She, however, retorts: "If I'm an artist, it's despite Chicago, not because of it."
Kathryn Joyce has written a book about the Christian "Quiverfull" movement called, oddly enough, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchal Movement. They believe women are baby-making machines, who should bear and raise as many children as humanly possible. The book scares the shit out of me, like maybe I should keep emergency contraception stashed under my mattress in case a Christian climbs through my window to impregnate me. (But then I live alone and after reading Raven was afraid of Jim Jones coming through my window to put me in a chemical coma. Maybe get a rational person's opinion on the book.) Joyce is interviewed at BuzzFlash.
They advocate a very extreme version of wifely submission to male headship -- the idea that wives are submissive in everything to their husbands, and before that, to their fathers. The women are never out from under the covering of the men, and this is very important, because getting women back to the submissive state is the first step towards a Christian revival.
That's the most extreme type. You have people who don't allow women to speak in church, who believe that women need to submit an hour-by-hour schedule of what they're going to do with their day to their husbands.
March 12, 2009
In case you were worried that the new Dylan Thomas movie might require knowing some Thomas poems, you can relax, according to Keira Knightley: I mean, people who are interested in Thomas' poetry will be excited to see the film, and we do hear some snatches of it, here and there. But that's not really a prerequisite, is it? No, it is not. Not at all. Hopefully it will be a fascination if you do love Thomas' work, but no. A lot of this film focuses on female friendship, around difficulties within love and friendship, you know. So, I think hopefully people that have no idea who Dylan Thomas is will still enjoy the film.
I'm not sure about this comparison used to describe a poetry contest in Rashid, Iraq: Dhafer Al Makuter, an Iraqi translator who has worked with Dunlop since last August, said the importance of poetry to Iraqis can't be overstated. "It's like McDonald's to Americans. Poetry is for when you pray or go to the circus. Everything in Iraq is done with poetry. Today we bought some tractors for Iraqi farmers. A poet was hired to read poetry to the guests at the ceremony for almost an hour. Poetry in Iraq is people's life."
Australian truck driver poetry: As manager of a distribution company, Delaney says his driving days are now over, but in his bed at night his mind returns to the road: "Traversing over mountains, changing through those gears / Listening to that diesel engine, humming in my ears." The Dust Poems exhibition opens at the former Olympic site, now a sports and exhibition centre, in Sydney on March 20.
Poems about hockey star Terry Sawchuck: The book may appear on the surface to be a 'book of poems', but those attending this event will understand why Maggs was inspired by one of the most intense, moody, and contradictory characters in the history of hockey. The book has been described as, "compact, conversational poems which follow the tragic trajectory of the life and work of the dark, driven genius," that Sawchuk was.
Rebecca Loudon discusses her recent book, Cadaver Dogs. (I reviewed her previous book, Radish King a couple of years ago.) From the interview: In Cadaver Dogs, the idea of god comes through as the animal in us, the protector, the giver of unconditional love, as well as the beast with teeth, horns and a long jagged tail. (Via Reb Livingston.)
The French Embassy's New York office is sponsoring a 4-day Oulipo celebration from April 1-4. In addition to a variety of workshops and roundtables, there will be an event for the forthcoming translation of Jacques Roubaud's book, The Loop.
I'm a wee bit late on this, but Wave Poetry has a fun tool, Erasures, which lets you carve poems out of a variety of source texts. You can then print, e-mail, or save the results to their website.
Still, surveying this history, it seems that before the 1970s there was nothing more conducive to a woman's literary success than the failure of the men in her life. More often than not, what prompted these writers to sit down at their desks and send out their manuscripts to magazines and book publishers was the bankruptcy, desertion, idleness or death of her husband or father. When the touted sanctuary of the nuclear family let them down, and they needed the money to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, their talents were finally loosed. Women like Stowe apparently supported hordes of relatives with her pen. Yet despite this manifest evidence that the traditional, conventional gender roles really don't fit all, only a few American literary women (rich women like Edith Wharton, lesbians like Willa Cather and the odd wild card femme fatale like Edna St. Vincent Millay or Katherine Anne Porter), ever felt entirely at ease in their profession.
(Is it wrong that I am refusing to read Lowboy because I find the idea of "mental illness as metaphor" offensive and tired? I saw a review of the book that referred to the "poetics of schizophrenia" and I wanted to punch the reviewer in the face. The book might be fantastic and insightful and blah blah blah, but the discussion around it makes me want to run the other way.)
The letters between Henry and William James are hilarious and weirdly affectionate and wonderful. The Second Pass offers one:
I mean (in response to what you write me of your having read the Golden B[owl]) to try to produce some uncanny form of thing, in fiction, that will gratify you, as Brother — but let me say, dear William, that I shall greatly be humiliated if you do like it, and thereby lump it, in your affection, with things, of the current age, that I have heard you express admiration for and that I would sooner descend to a dishonoured grave than have written. Still I will write you your book, on that two-and-two-make-four system on which all the awful truck that surrounds us is produced, and then descend to my dishonoured grave — taking up the art of the slate pencil instead of, longer, the art of the brush (vide my lecture on Balzac).
One of the things that drove me to write the book is that we don’t really do that good of a job at taking this extremely powerful thrilling and threatening force and making it part of how we live. Jacob can’t do it. He’s too terrified, too full of shame.
The Naked and the Read
(Editor's Note: Nina MacLaughlin will be writing about literary sex scenes every Wednesday. Yes, this is premiering on a Thursday. Had an interview yesterday and I forgot to post this. Onward!)
I was nineteen and had just broken up with my first real boyfriend (read: the first person I’d had sex with). He was three years older, broad-shouldered, kind, wore Carharts and polypro, and spent as much time as he could outside. His dad collected coins and guns, and when we visited his ranch in Idaho, he took me to a field where we shot tennis balls off orange cones with rifles and handguns and semi-automatics. It was a good first romance, a healthy introduction to love. And when we ended -- long distance got hard; he in Montana getting his masters, me a sophomore in Philadelphia -- I cried and cried.
I’d been home on Christmas break when we broke up, and spent the stretch of days with my family sullen and sad. The day before heading back to college, I helped my mom stow decorations back in the attic. She appeared from behind a stack of boxes with a book in her hand. “This’ll take your mind off things,” she said, passing me the paperback.
She handed over a copy of Endless Love by Scott Spencer. Front cover: white with large purple text. Innocuous, nothing shocking. Back cover: cheesy supermarket-style romance novel image -- nymphet in gauzy dress, handsome swain behind her. And I almost dismissed it right then. I’m an English major! I read Djuna Barnes and Herman Melville! I don’t read romance novels, god.
I took the book. I started reading it back in my dorm room. And man oh man. If you’ve read it, you know. If you haven’t, understand that it’s the type of book that if your roommate -- or boyfriend or girlfriend or dog -- walks in while you’re reading it, you will feel as though you’ve just been caught with someone’s hand down your pants. It is mesmerizing, graphic, completely engrossing. Reading that book, in the raw and lonely post-break-up aftermath, ranks as one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life.
Simply: it’s a love story. Two kids. First love. Lots of sex. Ferocious, relentless sex. And it’s not hearts-and-flowers love. It’s I’m-going-to-burn-your-family’s-house-down love. It’s I’m-going-to-have-inappropriate-relations-with-your-mom-to-get-closer-to-you love. It’s a story about obsession and losing yourself with another person and the ultimate impossibility of that sort of world-destroying passion. And at age 19, it blew my fucking mind.
And yes, it did take my mind off things (I never thanked my mom for it; way too scandalized). It also exposed me to the possibility of a relationship on a whole different level than the one I’d just experienced. Minus the arson and the bouts in the loony bin, this sounded like the sort of love I wanted. Transcending time and space! Two bodies united as one! Unfightable! Tempestuous! Endless!!!! My first real relationship was solid and sweet, sure, but the fires that these two felt? The gaping lust? The number-one super-deluxe ultimate attraction? Not even close. Unlike David Axelrod in Endless Love, I knew that that first boyfriend wasn’t the love of my life. There’s a sadness in that, of course, but a comfort, too.
Over the years, I’ve lent the book to pals, joked to people how my mom gave me an outrageously graphic sex book to help heal my wounded heart. And then last year, close to a decade after my first encounter with Endless Love, Scott Spencer released a new novel about sex tourism called Willing (an awful, empty, soul-less book). Thinking I might review it, I decided to revisit Endless Love.
Turned out the most memorable reading experience hadn’t lodged itself in my memory as firmly as I’d thought. Sex scene after sex scene is how I imagined it. Lovemaking the whole way through. Nope, not at all. A couple minor episodes occur in the first 30 pages. And then not again until the closing quarter (at which point, in fairness, occurs a monumental, 60+ page sexual explosion). Instead, most of the book involves David trying to re-insert himself into his love Jade’s life and the horror and pain that occurs in trying to do so. This wasn’t the portrait of passion I remembered. This wasn’t the height of love. This was a desperate, self-obsessed kid in love with an idea.
An odd thing, to have an experience which so clearly demonstrates some evidence of “growing up.” Ah ha, weird dumb 19-year-old self. You didn’t have a clue. (Spencer’s sex bits, though, those still serve as yardstick.)
There are long philosophical conversations about love and obsession and identity, and characters stare out at the sea for what seems like hours. A woman's mussed hair says volumes about her inner turmoil, and there is no conclusion to speak of. It's not a book to rush through. It's a book to be savored while drinking cognac and smoking pretentious cigarettes.
March 11, 2009
A A Gill on the debate over the Poet Laureate position.
Now we’re talking about a new poet laureate, perhaps getting rid of the post altogether, making it a quango, a teaching job for encouraging lyricism among the depraved and deprived. And that would be a terrible waste, to discard this post through a cool, cultural reticence, a liberal embarrassment.
Joan Roughgarden's The Genial Gene, which refutes the idea of sexual selection being the engine behind natural selection and Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, gets an excellent review in the American Scholar. (Plus Roughgarden's book totally wins the book cover challenge: Dawkins's boring DNA strand versus adorable kissing puffins? I vote for her theory. [This is why I do not have a degree in science.])
Dave McKean is interviewed at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
In Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry’s Quest to Manipulate Height, there's a story of a girl who was put on hormones to bring her into puberty, because it was feared she would be too tall to be suitable for marriage. So they crash her through puberty, which forces her to start getting pelvic exams at the age of 13, so they can make sure nothing is going wrong, and what do you know, that makes her weird as an adult about sex and nudity and doctors. One woman who also had the treatment as a kid now has panic attacks just from being in the neighborhood where she saw her doctor. (Sort of like stories from Fixing Sex of girls being surgically altered to have "normal looking" genitalia, which then makes them never want to get naked. Ever.)
I may before have rolled my eyes at Susie Orbach's language of "a war on women's and girls' bodies" in her book Bodies, but not so much after those stories. (Although she did sort of make me feel bad about having a few body issues myself, as if by not loving my flaws I was being a bad feminist. But you go to ballet class in pink tights and stare at yourself in the mirror for an hour and a half at a time, see how great you feel about your legs after that.) I review Normal and Bodies in my latest Smart Set column:
Meanwhile, it’s not just height we can now control. When you can manipulate every part of your body, it’s difficult not to see it as a work in progress. Why try loving your thighs when you can just have the fat sucked out or work them off in spin class? It creates a chaotic relationship between you and your self, a mindset of “I’ll love my body when it deserves being loved.”
Emily Perkins's Novel About My Wife is the winner of the 5th Annual Believer Book Award. The Afterword celebrates by taking Perkins to a bar, but not even buying her a drink. Why so stingy to an award winner?
March 10, 2009
Do you feel that your literary award events lack that certain cage fighting je ne sais quoi? Be sure to check out the Tournament of Books over at the Morning News.
In other Apples With Oranges news items, Barry O. has been shortlisted along with Stephanie Meyer, Dawn French and - hey there! JG Ballard in the British Book Awards. Relax, anglophiles, it's completely meaningless.
When I asked her why she quit, she said she was syndicated in only four papers anyway. A decade ago, she was in 70 alternative weeklies. Meanwhile, the Reader was paying $80 a week, the same as in 1979, and other papers were paying $25 a week—in other words, she was getting $155 a week for the strip that made her reputation, landed her on Letterman, got her a deal with HarperCollins, launched a brilliantly stubborn career, and became an inspiration to a generation of cartoonists with memoirs in their heads. She did not seem phased, though. In moments like this, Barry strikes a casual voice. She says, "It felt like an ax to the forehead." Then, after a moment, "It's cool."
I wanted this Washington Post story about college kids' reading habits (pretty much the same as 13-year-old girls') to be a "Get Off My Lawn" piece, but it's Ron Charles, so it's a little better than that.
It's rather a shame that Stacy Horn's new book Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory is not as interesting as the blog about the research process she's got going on. The book itself has very long dry episodes, then suddenly there's a poltergeist story that is completey fascinating, then back to skimming.
(It's also too bad it's not as well written as Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, which covers very similar territory, just fifty years or so before the action in Horn's book takes place. But Blum is such an engaging, talented writer that her telling of faculty meetings has tension and wit.)
But reading Unbelievable and its fantastic poltergeist stories made me wonder why if there are houses where bottles are flying around, hitting you in the head, why the video evidence in Paranormal State is always so lame. Nothing ever happens there! Does that stop me from religiously watching the exploits of Ryan, Chip, Sergei, etc? No. There is more paranormal activity going on in my apartment, though, than that show's entire run.
The University of Virginia has acquired a letter from Poe to his publishers, apologizing for his drinking.
"Will you be so kind enough to put the best possible interpretation upon my behaviour while in N-York?," Poe asks New York publishers J. and Henry G. Langley. "You must have conceived a queer idea of me — but the simple truth is that Wallace would insist upon the juleps, and I knew not what I was either doing or saying."
Two new novels by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño have reportedly been found in Spain among papers he left behind after his death. The previously unseen manuscripts were entitled Diorama and The Troubles of the Real Police Officer, reported La Vanguardia.
The newspaper said the documents also included what is believed to be a sixth section of Bolaño's epic five-part novel 2666.
March 09, 2009
One is the story of a childhood lost to the Holocaust, the other of a husband lost to suicide. Neither are subjects Reiss spoke about much before writing them down and capturing events in remarkable detail. It was her American husband Jim who convinced her that she had to write the story of being hidden with her sister in a tiny upstairs room of a farmhouse by a childless gentile family who risked their lives for them. As she tells it, she was in hiding for two years, seven months and part of one more day.
When I was reading Susie Orbach's Bodies, I was really struck by how old fashioned it was. She's a feminist theorist, and she used the word "patriarchy" a lot. These days, if you use the word "patriarchy," it generally shuts down the conversation. The other person just assumes you're hysterical. (Also: "Goddess.") I've read so much feminist theory that occasionally if I am having a glass of wine while revisioning a Smart Set column, the word sneaks in there. I wrote "monotheistic patriarchy" in one, then realized what I had done in the morning, and asked to be able to take it out.
This is probably never a problem for Deborah Solomon. I doubt she's even read any feminist theory. She interviews Orbach at the New York Times.
Solomon: How much do you weigh?
March 06, 2009
Forward has an excerpt from Gail Hareven's -- brilliant, exhausting, more of an act of exorcism, really, than a book -- The Confessions of Noa Weber. (They also have a creepy, creepy banner ad with a child crying with her nose painted red, like a clown. Quickly scroll down or she will haunt your nightmares.)
How many volumes of new poetry published in the last calendar year will still be jarring us in five years? In one? Shouldn’t the negative review, if we’re honest and adult about it, be the norm? And if so, shouldn’t we retire the adjective “negative” in favor of something far more accurate, if a little awkward, like “necessarily skeptical,” as in, “Man, William Logan sure has gone necessarily skeptical on that poet?”
(Updated to say: Man. Do not read the comments to this.)
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of the fantastic books Mother Nature and Mothers and Others, explains her theory that human cooperation has its evolutionary roots in our unique parenting instincts, and not our instincts for war.
“I’m not comfortable accepting this idea that the origins of hypersociality can be found in warfare, or that in-group amity arose in the interest of out-group enmity,” she said in a telephone interview. Sure, humans have been notably violent and militaristic for the last 12,000 or so years, she said, when hunter-gatherers started settling down and defending territories, and populations started getting seriously dense. But before then? There weren’t enough people around to wage wars. By the latest estimates, the average population size during the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution that preceded the Neolithic Age may have been around 2,000 breeding adults. “What would humans have been fighting over?” Dr. Hrdy said. “They were too busy trying to keep themselves and their children alive.”
Call it low expectations for my home, but I was surprised Kansas libraries were stocking The Lesbian Kama Sutra in the first place. Outside of Lawrence, I mean. Now if they'd only leave it on their shelves...
The library's board of trustees voted 5-3 Thursday evening in favor of restricting minors' access to "Sex for Busy People," "The Lesbian Kama Sutra," "The Joy of Sex" and "The Joy of Gay Sex" because they deemed the material "harmful to minors."
March 05, 2009
Honor Moore recalls the poetry of the women's movement: The poetry section was introduced by my “Polemic #1“—”This is the poem to say ’Write poems, women’ because I want to / read them“—and offered a double interview in which Robin Morgan and Adrienne Rich suggested that poetry, in Rich’s words, “as much as journals and letters and diaries, has been an almost natural women’s form.” Rich also made the point that it was no accident that women novelists flourished in the nineteenth century—they disguised their real selves in fictional narratives—but now, because women could write openly as themselves, a new women’s poetry was possible. Noting the group readings, Morgan credited the explosion of women’s poetry to the new feminist tribe, linking it to the bardic tradition.
Stephanie Strickland has a terrific piece at the Poetry Foundation about electronic poetry (which she would certainly be the expert on): The time of the privileged instant, providing for the time of multiple outcomes, the time for putting things back together, creating new forms of continuity—all of these are aesthetic issues with a poetic history in the play of metamorphoses that return in e-poetry.
Christopher Horton has started a new website, The Sampler, that will focus on London-based poets.
At 3AM Gaby Bila-Günther has written a very enthusiastic piece about the Berlin English-language spoken-word scene: The captain and founder of Berlin’s spoken word and slam scene is Wolfgang Hogekamp. He began by initiating spoken word and poetry slam shows back in the early ‘90s. Inside the infamous grunge and rock and roll bar of fame, located on a side street of the former old West Berlin, Ex & Pop, Wolfgang who worked as a barman there, began popular spoken word and readings events, discovering and showcasing Berlin’s and Germany’s best young authors and performers.
Timothy Green, the editor of Rattle diagnoses the fetishism of publication: A whole subset of writers today have fetishized publication — they’ve ascribed value to an object where no such value inherently exists. As with a sexual fetish, they receive gratification from the artificial object as a replacement for the gratification that normally comes directly from the sex. By pursuing publication, they become writers by proxy. That’s why it doesn’t matter how obscure a publication credit is — it doesn’t matter if no one ever reads the magazine, as long as you can list it on your resume.
Poems of bait and tackle: Fisher poets gather in Astoria, OR: Camp converged with oceangoing cred. Old salts dazzled California transplants. Even a bad day of fishing, it seems, can produce a decent rhyme. Or not. (The multimedia feature is pretty cool.)
Mike Chasar reads the poetry of Ex-Lax.
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden still memorizes poems.: Wooden has had a lifelong love of poetry and has been reading, writing and reciting poetry for more than 80 years. He writes poems down many times and recites poems before he goes to sleep, said Castel, who noted that repetition is a good memory strategy. Wooden also spaces them apart over time, another effective strategy.
If you missed the AWP conference, here are some videos of various readings.
Little known fact: Darwin's original theory of evolution had man evolving from turtles. Really, look it up.
Linda Grant, who wrote the underwhelming Clothes On Their Backs, telling the story of a family through the clothes they wore, has returned with a nonfiction book about the role of clothing in women's lives, The Thoughtful Dresser. Except the Telegraph thinks Grant should have cut out the word "women's" and replaced it with "Grant's."
The impression of being infected with someone else’s neurosis is exacerbated by Grant’s fondness for the coercive “we” – she is always writing sentences like, “When we set out to buy new clothes we are taking along not only an interest in fashion, but also an internal hell of insecurity or self-loathing.” Really? I long to scream. Speak for yourself, ducky. But obviously I am not a thoughtful dresser because I don’t put in the hours of agonising.
Grant obviously has not read Hadley Freeman, or she would know the agonizing is worthless.
I liked the fake memoirs a lot more when they were of the "raised by wolves during the Holocaust" variety. They're getting much more mundane.
For those of us who only know Pinocchio from the Disney cartoon, it seems we're missing out. John Powers writes about the new translation of Collodi's story, recently brought out by NYRB. As with every other Disney product, the original is much darker.
Yet for all these familiar things, Collodi's book is, from the beginning, a very different — and much wilder — experience. Gepetto isn't a kindly old man — he's hot-tempered and grindingly poor. There is a talking cricket, but it's not named Jiminy, doesn't wear a top hat, and gets squished by Pinocchio 12 pages in when it tries to give him advice.
Sarah Nelson at the Wall Street Journal writes about the "controversy" over Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. It's the story of an "unsympathetic" SS Officer, and apparently there is not a universal consensus on whether it's any good or not. (Nelson's own disgust with the book is obvious, and she compares Littell to Britney Spears. Charming.) It is nice, I think, not to have a competition between critics to pen the most effusive accolade, like with 2666. Suddenly a very good book, but not even the best book by this writer, becomes THE GREATEST BOOK IN THE HISTORY OF WRITTEN LANGUAGE. Either way, I'm probably not going to read it, but at least the critical world has gotten a little lively.
March 03, 2009
Hey ladies, lock up your vaginas, because Neil "The Game" Strauss—last seen telling you how to pull much vagina—is back, with a new book!
The divine Lynda Barry is interviewed in the Comics Journal, and they have a (much too short) excerpt available online.
Chicagoans have been crying out in despair since our governor left us. Where will we get our daily dose of crazy now? God has heard our prayers, and now Blago is writing a book, to be published by the same publisher, as Moby Lives points out, that is responsible for a book by "the German man who admitted killing and eating an acquaintance."
When I'm reading, occasionally the thought will start to form that I want to sit in the same room as the writer. It doesn't happen very often, honestly. And when it does, it generally is someone who died in 1924. But it happened when I started to read Christian Wiman's essays, and it turns out that the fella lives in Chicago. And did not die in 1924. So we had a little chat about poets' appalling behavior, Metropole, and some God stuff, and the result is in the new issue of Bookslut.
Barbara J. King writes about how having a difficult, or a wonderful, editor can make the difference in your writing before they even get ahold of it. I asked her to add a paragraph about how utterly fantastic I am, but weirdly she refused. Elizabeth Bachner writes about the performance of femininity in a wonderful essay called "7.9/9.2: Reading about Femme." Sarah Burke sifts through the packrat tendencies of William Davies King, Paul Morton talks to historian David Greenberg, and Sean Carroll talks to Fakers author Paul Maliszewski.
We also have reviews of new work by Hans Fallada, Michael Shilling (who will also be appearing at our reading series on the 25th), Chris Cleave, Mark Yakich, Paul Guest, and more. In columns, Dale Smith remembers poet Lorenzo Thomas, and Eryn Loeb wonders if there is anything more hideous than a memoir about therapy sessions.
That should keep you busy all through March.
March 02, 2009
Bookslut's Indie Heartthrob Interview Series
This week: Olivier Barrot
This past weekend NYU hosted the Festival of New French Writing, where writers from the US and France met to publicly discuss their writing, their influences, and their viewpoints. After being indecisive over whether or not I should do something on a Friday night, I finally decided to attend a discussion between Chris Ware and Marjane Satrapi moderated by Françoise Mouly. I'm glad I did, because Chris Ware's hilarious self-deprecation coupled with Satrapi's anecdotes and gushing admiration for her counterpart were just what I needed. Following screenings from Persepolis and This American Life the conversation got underway. Photos of the event © Beowulf Sheehan. If you look long enough you can find photos of my brother and I gushing embarrassingly while having our books signed.
The next morning I got in touch with Olivier Barrot, one of the festival's curators and moderators, and we discussed the philosophy behind the festival, how it came about, and the logic behind each author pairing. Barrot is also a writer himself, host of a monthly literary program called French Literature in the Making, and host of the daily literary television program Un livre un jour on France 3 and TV5. I'm still amazed by the idea of a popular daily literary TV show. We should be on this already.
What is the goal of the festival?
To try and let people know what's going on in the French scene. To make it even clearer, we thought about discussions between an American writer on one side and a French writer on the other. We picked French writers that are being translated into English so as to let our American counterparts be able to get into their books—not all of them speak French. Most of those French writers speak English, which explains why the conversations go without translation. We wanted to express the fact that French literature still exists—I mean it's meaningful and relevant and obviously worth getting in touch with from an American point of view. It's not that easy to build it up, but eventually we did it.
How do you define the term "New French Writing"? What does it mean to you?
"New" is I would say the "contemporary," the actual French scene in terms of literature. To sum it out we picked up that term "new." Tom Bishop had been in charge of the American part, and I did the French one—I picked up the writers. I thought of writers expressing themselves in different ways and fields. Some of them are playwrights. Maybe not poets, but there are novelists and essay writers, fiction and nonfiction. Some of them are really youngish, and others are middle-aged. We thought of something that would express a variety of expressions in different styles.
How did you become involved in the festival? Is this the first in an annual series?
Yes, I've started here at a program [French Literature in the Making] at NYU's Maison Française which is sort of a monthly event we started some two and a half years ago in which we applied a conversation between a French writer and myself and which is devoted to his actual work. That is, it's not some sort of journalistic interview; it's far more than that. It's an in-depth investigation of style, inspiration, and future. That's why it takes place at La Maison Française. I want it to be a real kind of reflection, a meditation, a discussion about what literature is made of in terms of craftsmanship—actually working on it, how they go through this immense difficulty to write down a book. I think it's really meaningful. We started that together with Tom and the idea that we could probably make it something more ambitious like this festival.
What did you need to consider while pairing the authors? What specifically factored into the decision to pair for example Marie N'Diaye with Francine du Plessix Gray, Marjane Satrapi with Chris Ware, and Chantal Thomas with Edmund White?
It happens that those two, Chantal and Edmund, are good friends. They've known each other for a long, long time. They asked for a discussion without a moderator, so we said why not? It's a pretty good idea. As far as pairing is concerned, we tried to mix up people that are maybe not exactly working on the same type of novel or writing but that could exchange ideas about how they actually do the activity. For instance, we had a talk between Siri Hustvedt and a French writer named Jean-Philippe Toussaint, who it turns out is very different. Though we had the feeling that, provided you ask the proper questions, they could exchange and let people know what their inspiration was like. It was very rewarding, literally speaking. We picked up the people that could be adequate to the other and would have something in common and let people know about the things they could actually share. So far it's been working quite well.
Who are some of the writers you wish you could have included this year?
Jay McInerny, as far as the American scene is concerned. We're sorry he couldn't make it. We had a dream about Philip Roth, but it really was something of a dream. Paul Auster, whom we love in France. He's very popular, probably even more than in the US. But we have Siri Hustvedt, who happens to be his wife. Their work is, in a way, in the same literary family, but it is not to be compared. Maybe Jonathan Littell, but we actually could not get in touch with him. On the other hand, I think the American selection made by Tom Bishop is fully relevant and quite good. I hope it's the same on the French side. We could dream of one, two, or three, but it's not over, everything's still going on, and I'll still go on with my meetings and discussions at NYU. It's just something that I started, and it has to go on and develop.
Strangely, we had discussions when people came to us and said they're out based in San Francisco, and why don't we do the same there? Some others said we should think of a tour of French writers across the US. Maybe one day. It's just a matter of starting something, provided it's getting popular and starting to attract attention from the media. Our theaters are full, which is probably a good sign, so let's go on and think it over.
I understand you have a television program in France in which the rough title translation is "A Book a Day." I've never heard of something like this—there's just no equivalent on this side of the Atlantic.
There is none anywhere. You won't believe it, but I started this eighteen years ago. I did more than 4,000 shows. It's a very short TV program dealing with books. It's a three-minute show on a very popular TV network in France, Channel 3, which is a state-owned network. I'm in conversation with a writer every day, including Saturday. It's aired twice a day on the whole francophone world through TV5, which is available everywhere in every single country. You can get [the program] on the Internet as well. It's very popular because it's very short, but I think it's very full as well. The idea is to let people know about, or at least get familiar with, one single book a day through one, two, or three clues, not more than that: what it's all about, the style, and what the author had in mind when he started the book. It's very condensed, but I think it's very useful as well. It's sort of an actual guide of what's been written in our country where so many books appear. Larger audiences need help to navigate the book shop or library. I'm trying to help them move themselves around and pick up the right books. I'm not doing so bad so far.
Who doesn't love a Canadian? What wonderful things they are. Here are some particularly fine specimens giving away a prize/prix for unpublished works: the CBC Literary Awards/ Prix littéraires Radio-Canada.
The prizes are split between short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction, which is mirrors my personal reading pile at the moment (if you categorize Cake Wrecks as creative nonfiction). Somehow, they have been turned into podcasts, and you can download them from the 4th of March over here. Splendid.
A while back I was left in charge of my nephew, who was being fussy. I was exhausted, and tried singing the song that was echoing in my head to the boy: "I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years." It wasn't until I hit the first verse that I realized I was singing "Venus in Furs" to a three-month-old. I was too tired to think of anything else, so I just sang the whole song. My sister does not know I taught her son about sado-masochism while babysitting, but she's gone to Virginia, without Internet access, so she'll never know.
Anyway, that's the song in my head right now, after a marathon editing session of the March issue. (My own fault. On Saturday I decided getting drunk at lunch with aforementioned sister was a better idea than working on the new issue.) I am taking to my bed like a fragile Victorian lady now, and I'll introduce you to the new issue tomorrow.
I spent part of the weekend with Babylon, which has essays on the myths, the excavations, and the references in literature and art, and part being distracted by dirty comics. And while there's a nice write-up of the Babylon book in "The Art Newspaper," a name I find weirdly hilarious*, they are mum about the dirty comics.
* It's a little like naming your white cat Snowball, no?
The first novel Jack Kerouac ever wrote, when he was a merchant mariner in 1942, will be published in its entirety for the first time.
The Sea is My Brother was described by the Beat Generation icon as "man's simple revolt from society as it is, with the inequalities, frustration, and self-inflicted agonies."
If it's taken this long to publish Kerouac's first book, you know it has to be good.
With the sad, sad news that Maxim Magazine is not in the most robust financial health, it is time to revisit Andrew O'Hagan's essay on lad magazines, "Disgrace Under Pressure."
Britain’s news-stands are heaving with magazines devoted to the rough magic of being a bloke. On first sight you think they are what my friends used to call scud mags; the girls who adorn the covers – legs wide, breasts atumble, nipples fit for pegging a couple of wet dufflecoats on – tend to be among the nearly famous, a tribe of models admired by laddish editors for their friendly shagability and the hunger in their eyes. The market for male ‘general interest’ magazines has grown massively in the UK, as if young men suddenly needed to be celebrated and serviced in a new way, as if there were a new demand among them for reassurance about the wonders of male normalcy.