April 30, 2009
Poet Craig Arnold has gone missing in Japan, and they need your help to make sure the official search for him continues. More information here.
Occasionally a book will follow me around and demand to be read, despite me having no interest in the topic or occasionally not feeling smart enough to understand it. I couldn't get away from William James's Varieties of Religious Experience despite running away to another country and going by a different name.
A similar, on a much smaller scale, thing happened with Loren Graham's and Jean Michel Kantor's Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity. If I accidentally bumped against the bookcase in my office, Naming Infinity would topple off the shelf and onto my foot. I would go digging for one book and accidentally grab this one instead. And suddenly conversations would revolve around mathematics or infinity. I gave in. "Fine. I will read your fucking book, but I'm not going to like it." Within two or three pages I could not put the thing down. It's a book about math, and I could not stop reading it. I think I actually understood the thing, too.
The Naked and the Read
I’ve never bought a car or a dishwasher or a house. My first (maybe only?) grown-up purchase was buying a piece of art by a woman named Danica Phelps. I was 24 years old. It cost about $800, maybe a little more, a month’s salary at that point, at least. It’s called Making Love with Debi from a series called Integrating Sex into Everyday Life, and it’s a line drawing in pencil of two naked figures all entwined, two women, but you can’t necessarily tell in the loose twist of limbs and breasts and reaching hands. I like to look at it.
Someone asked me once if I thought it was pornographic. I said no, because it has a back-story. Phelps used to draw pictures of items she bought -- groceries, a coffee, a pack of pencils -- and documented how much she spent on each thing. Then she met a woman, fell in love, divorced her husband, started integrating sex into everyday life, and her drawings started to change.
The drawings in First Time, a collection of ten vignettes written by a woman named Sibylline and illustrated by ten different European artists, edge against the pornographic. They’re dirty -- graphic novellas, if you will, comic-book style, all black-and-white -- but insert themselves in the “erotica” slot because of the emotional components, the back-story. The encounters are all explicitly sexual, all depictions of various “first times,” but they’re also human. You see the awkward and tentative, the exultant, the hurt, humor, and confusion. Not just the tits and the dicks. The situations engage the emotions of the characters and the lookers, not just the libidos.
Though there’s that, too. The book opens with the most literal first time, a sweet story with a surprise ending in which a girl relays the tale of losing her virginity. In shadows and inky detail, Dominique Bertail illustrates “Sodomy,” about the first time a woman uses a strap-on to fuck her boyfriend. Virginie Augustin illustrates “1+1,” about two girls -- a bookish innocent named Lily and a tiny-breasted pixie named Aline -- who spend the night together, and the disappointment that follows. The drawings are playful, animated. And throughout the collection, an energy exists; the artists convey heat.
One of the sexiest stories, art-wise, is “2+1,” about a girl who answers a couple’s ad for a threesome. The story itself, the actual words of it, are a little cheesy (the couple lives on the seventh floor, there are references to seventh heaven, etc.), but the drawings -- lots of tongues and tangled bodies -- remind me of Aeon Flux. Big star-eyed girls looking dazzled and ecstatic.
With the exception of one piece, all the situations in First Time are positive, as in, they may be difficult or wrenching, but satisfying physically, with everyone making conscious choices. “Nobody,” though, stands out against the rest for its grimmer, more sinister take. A girl acts as doll for a dude who’s got the eyes of a psycho. “He’s damaged me quite a bit, too. By forcing me too much, he’s torn me in certain places.” It’s not sexy. It’s depressing and gave me the heebie-jeebies, particularly the drawing of the girl locked in a dark closet. Though there is one nugget of truth: the doll-girl thinks to herself, “You always fuck badly when you think only of yourself.”
“Fantasy,” illustrated by Jérôme d’Aviau, is breezy in comparison, and hotter, too. In preparation for acting out a fantasy, a cute girl with big boobs gets ready. In an inversion of the usual taking-off-the-clothes being the hot part, she shaves herself, puts on garters, puts on a skirt, and pulls a shirt over her head, and gets mightily distracted as she does. The faces are almost, almost “Family Circus”-esque. The nipple-biting and the backdoor sex on a restaurant table makes for slightly different content, however.
Dave McKean, famous for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman, including The Sandman covers, closes the collection with “X Rated.” The moodiest of the lot, it combines angular sketches with blurry stills from a pornographic film. A dreamy, somnambulant, three-a.m. atmosphere washes over it.
Though not without its clunkers and duds, First Time as a whole is a graphic romp about a variety of de-virginations. First times -- whether you’re buying your first washer-dryer or doing something decidedly sexier -- can be scary and memorable and thrilling to the max. This collection gets that across.
Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation reflects on immigrant experience explicitly in terms of a movement back and forth between two possible selves, associated with two distinct cultural and linguistic life-models. Embracing the model of the adopted country for Hoffman means following a forward and outward personal trajectory, albeit one flung over a "dizzying emptiness" (p. 138). Retaining the original sense of self intact is seen as implying an essentially backward and inward curve, as when the author writes: "[n]ostalgia... directs my vision inward."
I confess that the Continent "draws" me again. I don't know whether it be the essential identity of soul that expresses itself in English things, and makes them seem known by heart already and intellectually dead and unexciting, or whether it is the singular lack of visible sentiment in England, and absence of "charm," or the oppressive ponderosity and superfluity and prominence of the unnecessary, or what it is, but I'm blest if I ever wish to be in England again. Any continental country whatever stimulates and refreshes vastly more, in spite of so much strong picturesqueness here, and so beautiful a Nature. England is ungracious, unamiable and heavy; whilst the Continent is everywhere light and amiably quaint, even where it is ugly, as in many elements it is in Germany. To tell the truth, I long to steep myself in America again and let the broken rootlets make new adhesions to the native soil. A man coquetting with too many countries is as bad as a bigamist, and loses his soul altogether.
This NYT slideshow of old newspaper ads for books and authors is eye-opening, and not just because it turns out that "lady novelist" Edna O'Brien was a foxy babe. (Her In the Forest is fantastic.) Zadie Smith is not the first writer to have a promotional campaign built around her good looks. Also: publishers used to advertise books. Link from MobyLives.
I turn from the Harriet blog and the NEA to our three-year-old, who draws pictures, these days, whenever he’s not playing music: he can draw on paper, but he very much prefers to draw on our dry-erase board, and when he’s done drawing each picture he asks us to look, to appreciate, and then to wash it away, so that he can draw the next thing on his mind. He would be very upset if he had nobody to share those pictures with (if Mommy and Daddy refused to come and look). But as long as there’s someone to take a look, and then to erase his dry-erase board, he’s not going to care whether three, or three hundred, people can see each particular picture, nor does he care whether each of his pictures will last: the point is not to expand, nor to measure, and audience, but to draw and move on.
April 29, 2009
Tristam Hunt on the sexist, prostitute-frequenting, carousing, and feminist Friedrich Engels.
My friend Dennis Johnson has blogged about my move at Moby Lives. The caption of the photo made me giggle.
Weirdest thing about this so far: yesterday I walked into my bank, which really should exist in my small Kansas hometown as they always remember my name the second I come in and have been helpful beyond all measure, and they had clipped out the article in the Tribune and saved it for me. "We're so proud of you!" I will miss you, North Side Federal Savings.
April 28, 2009
I'll be spending the rest of the day chasing a three-year-old through a science museum -- you know, making sure he doesn't try to put uranium in his mouth. (I am an excellent aunt!) But later tonight we'll be having the latest installment of the reading series with Christian Moerk and James Kennedy. It's at the Hopleaf at 7:30. Come by and say hello.
Internet-Age Writing Syllabus and Course Overview, by Robert Lanham on McSweeneys.
Students must have completed at least two of the following.
ENG: 232WR—Advanced Tweeting: The Elements of Droll
LIT: 223—Early-21st-Century Literature: 140 Characters or Less
ENG: 102—Staring Blankly at Handheld Devices While Others Are Talking
ENG: 301—Advanced Blog and Book Skimming
ENG: 231WR—Facebook Wall Alliteration and Assonance
LIT: 202—The Literary Merits of Lolcats
LIT: 209—Internet-Age Surrealistic Narcissism and Self-Absorption
April 27, 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: Reverend Jen
Live Nude Elf, one of the latest offerings from Soft Skull Press, chronicles the tolls being a sex columnist for Nerve.com can have on the life of the writer. For two years, Reverend Jen wrote the "I Did it for Science" column at Nerve, where she approached sexuality with an analytic eye. But how does cold analysis via "sexperiments" affect the person behind the study?
I don't often finish a book in one sitting, but that was the case with Live Nude Elf. From the Rev.'s experience with balloon fetishists (aka "looners") to her creation of "The Face of God" in a sex tape through the use of an old RCA DP3 camera, I couldn't help but find myself absorbed by her storytelling.
I spoke with the Rev. (she really is ordained, you know—all you need is a dollar and an internet connection) this weekend, where we spoke about the impetus behind the book and her Anti-Slam in NYC, which is going 13 years old and strong. Also, if you're in the area on May 2, you might want to check out the book release party at Bowery Poetry Club. Just sayin'.
Why did you decide to write Live Nude Elf?
Jonathan Ames suggested I put my Nerve columns together to make a book. Upon doing this, I realized that in order for it all to make sense to readers who might not know why I wear elf ears or live in a Troll Museum, I had to tell some stories about my life. This was tricky because I don't even know why I wear elf ears or live in a Troll Museum. Also, writing is one of the only things I know how to do other than painting and overacting in low-budget cable access TV shows, so it makes sense for me to write books.
Your book features several "sexperiments" that went into your Nerve column. How did it feel to look back at them again? Did the process of revisiting them inform your writing?
When I stepped back and looked at the columns as a whole I realized that the real story wasn't necessarily the sexperiments, but the chaos that performing them wrought on my life. Revisiting old journal entries in order to write about the things that had never appeared in print before (like getting dumped and having a nervous breakdown) was tough. It's much easier to write about taking it in the ass than it is to write about falling in love. The process was therapeutic. I felt remarkably less bitter afterward and even less bitter when I found out it was going to be published.
Your book starts off with a sexperiment in nude housecleaning. I have to say, there have been a few times where I've contemplated doing this, only to be dissuaded by a fear of mouth breathers with sharp objects. Would you recommend this after you've tried it?
It would probably be best to go through an agency. What I did was pretty reckless. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Also, as far as sex work goes, nude house cleaning was much easier than stripping.
If there is one thing you've learned from the sexperiments, what would it be?
I wish I could say I learned one really important life-changing lesson from my experiences, but I didn't. I am sure I'll keep repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over until I'm too old to care about men. (And I doubt that day will ever arrive.) However, I did learn that G-Spot orgasms are worth the effort and that if you happen to have a spare ten hours and a partner, tantric sex is also worth the effort. So I guess effort is the key word here.
You've been running the Anti-Slam for roughly 12 years at this point. Why did you start it?
It’s now been going over 13 years. I quit doing it weekly when Mo Pitkin’s closed, but I currently host it every fourth Wednesday at Bowery Poetry Club. My BFF, Faceboy, and I started the Anti-Slam as a smart-assed alternative to poetry slams where writers are judged on a scale of one to ten. It chapped my ass how seriously the poetry slam scene took itself. My feeling is artists should strive to not be taken seriously. I wanted to do something my Dada predecessors would have been proud of so the Anti-Slam is pretty absurd. I even have three judges who shout out “ten” at the end of every set. I also welcome everything: poetry, interpretive dance, comedy, live sex acts, etc. so it never gets stale and people try new things.
Your book also mentions that you've been both moved and made queasy by some performances. What are some of your most memorable?
Without a doubt, the most moving Anti-Slam was held on September 12, 2001. You needed ID just to get below Houston Street, and amazingly many art stars managed to get past security just by saying, “I’m going to the Anti-Slam!” That night people struggled with sorrow, loss, anger and this overwhelming sense of unreality, but we realized we were all in it together, as a human race. One poet said, “Look at what a handful of destructive minds can do, now try to imagine what a handful of creative, beautiful minds can do." I'll never forget that. And there have been plenty of other emotional moments at the show—onstage weddings, performers showing up because they can't get into the psych ward, Reverend Jen Junior's 1st birthday—all kinds of stuff and way too much to chronicle here. As far as the gross stuff, use your imagination. There's nothing a performance artist can't do with produce.
And lastly, for identifiers' sake, do you prefer "Reverend Jen" or "Reverend Jen Miller"? I only ask because "Miller" is omitted from your byline.
Reverend Jen. My name is just gonna keep getting shorter till it’s simply “Rev” like “Cher” or “Jesus.” Maybe someday I'll become a symbol like Prince.
This week or next week (I forget) is the 7th anniversary of Bookslut.com. Ish. The blog started in February, but it wasn't really until May when I launched the magazine half that I took it very seriously. So now, in this vague anniversary-like span of time, seems like a good time to say that once again I am packing up my belongings and finding myself a new city. On July 1st, I'll be moving to Berlin.
I think that maybe I treat cities like relationships, and one day I just wake up and realize it's over. I'll tell myself that I'm crazy, that maybe I'm not trying hard enough, after all, people I love very much are here. But no, it's over, and I started looking around for somewhere to move.
As for how this will affect Bookslut: Caroline Eick, my very smart, trustworthy, and amazing assistant, will become the new managing editor. She'll be handling the review books, new reviewers, etc. She'll also continue the Chicago reading series. The blog will pretty much remain the same. I'll still be writing for NPR and possibly the Smart Set, although if I don't I'll need to find a new excuse to read giant books of gender theory and William James biographies. Starting around June 15, Michael Schaub and Jennifer Howard (along with the usuals like Nina, John, Margaret, and Jason) will step in as guest bloggers to save you from having to read blog posts about packing up books and the constant crying, although during that time I'll still be updating on Twitter. Probably. Again, unless all I do for a month is cry, which is possible.
I'll update again once we get closer to the date and let everyone know the changes of address for review books and for myself.
"So yes, they're short stories. But I've always said I don't want them published separately, I don't want them split up. I think that's a bit unreasonable of me because they would probably work alone, but I personally always thought of them as a single book. It's just a fictional book that happens to be divided into these five movements." He pauses for a moment to reconsider, and smiles apologetically. "I don't like these musical analogies, because it sounds wildly pretentious. Maybe it's better to say it's more like an album, and you don't sometimes want a track released as a single."
Love this David Lynch video: Ideas are like fish.
I'm interviewed at Thunk about W. Somerset Maugham's spinsters, Ewan McGregor dressed up like a priest, and yelling at a pro-lifer on a street corner in downtown Chicago on a Saturday morning. (Not my finest moment.)
There are certain writers that I like in theory, and yet can't get through a single one of their books. Hilary Mantel is one. I always love interviews with her, she seems so interesting, and occasionally I'll make it to the end of an essay of hers. When it comes to her books, however, after about 25 pages I'm looking around the room for something else to entertain me. But once again, I'm charmed by an interview with her, this time with the TLS. It almost makes me want to give her new one, Wolf Hall, a shot. (Link from Maud.)
When she read law at Sheffield University, one tutor was “a bored local solicitor who made it plain that he didn’t think women had any place in his classroom”. This was why the feminist movement was needed, she wrote, “so that some talentless prat in a nylon shirt couldn’t patronise you”. A skein of feminism runs through her writing. In a London Review of Books, à propos the Virgin Mary: “In the Catholic world in which I grew up,” she says, “men were ministers of grace and women mopped the church floor on a Friday night.”
April 24, 2009
There's a catty little story about Jeanette Winterson being left out of her former lover Pat Kavanagh's will. And this after writing The Passion for her. I get it. My "former lovers" will get nothing, either. But all I have to bequeath are some really good shoes and a box of Christopher Pike paperbacks.
Today has a theme! Writing matters*. So said Urrea, and so says Roger Boylan, in this article on Solzhenitsyn.
What brought a sense of mission to Solzhenitsyn’s life was primarily his conviction that writing matters. No writer has endured more in the service of his muse. Willingly, he would have given his life for his art, and nearly did, many times over. His art was his life, and vice versa.
* The Real Housewives diet book does not count.
Luis Alberto Urrea participates in NPR's "This I Believe."
I was in a small house in Cuernavaca with old healer women. We were eating green Jell-O. One of them told me this: "When you write, you light a bonfire in the spirit world. It is dark there. Lost souls wander alone. Your inner flame flares up. And the lost souls gather near your light and heat. And they see the next artist at work and go there. And they follow the fires until they find their ways home."
Fishing in Utopia is both a memoir of Brown's own life in Sweden – he lived there as a child, married a Swedish woman, worked in a timber mill and raised his own son in the country – and an exploration of the country's social and political system. Judges called it "charming and crystalline", and "in its light and easy way ... as profound as it is enchanting".
The Journalism prize winner was Patrick Cockburn, and the LRB handily have a good whack of his articles together here.
April 23, 2009
Harry Allen, the media assassin made famous by Public Enemy in the late 1980s, has a great radio show on WBAI in NY. Last week, he interviewed Adam Bradley about the latter's new book, Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, which considers rap music as a form, rather than as a symptom of cultural ills or progress. You can play the interview here. On his blog, Allen asks, From what does rhythm derive its power? When a rapper speaks confidently over a strong meter, what new sound is he, by fusion, building, different from either his voice or the track, alone? Is this singing? If not, why not? How is doing this different from the way people made music before hip-hop’s advent?
The people of Dundee in Scotland have rejected native son William McGonagall as their favorite poet, preferring instead Robert Burns.
Jim Powell is interviewed in the Chronicle about his new book, Substrate. In person, Powell, 57, is equally blunt, irascible. "The book is not about narcissism," he says in a room that holds a large bookcase of jazz and classical LPs, hundreds of Grateful Dead concert tapes and a dial-up computer. "(It's) not about depicting some simulacrum of my personal existence. I'm interested in the world, I'm interested in witness. Not in trying to create attractive appearances."
Mark Bauerlein, who argued in The Dumbest Generation (out in paper next month) teenagers have largely turned their back on complex cultural forms, notes that this is particularly true of poetry: when poets write poems about poetry and texts, teachers may find it intriguing, but kids who don’t plan to major in literature couldn’t care less. They can’t relate.
At Harriet, Travis Nichols has a roundup of the latest news in Twitter poetry.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the author of very interesting Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and there's a video of him introducing his theory of flow, why money doesn't make us happy, the etymology of "ecstasy," and a Carl Jung talk about flying saucers he once attended at the Ted site.
Mr. Boudin travels as if no one had traveled before him, stuffing his rucksack with the genre’s clichés. (“Airplane travel predisposes us to the superficial, compartmentalized knowledge of a country.”) Meaning well, he stumbles into condescending formulations.
After he spends time with an elderly woman in Ecuador, he puts the purple ink into his desktop printer and notes that “her eyes and head were full of wisdom acquired from a lifetime in the jungle.”
Sam Anderson, Kate Christensen, Adam Sternbergh, Ayelet Waldman, and myself are discussing Wetlands over at New York Magazine's website. The discussion so far: Is Wetlands the worst book ever written? Yes. Not much of a discussion really, but I am still optimistic that Sam will make an interesting comeback. I tried to spice things up by quoting W Somerset Maugham, because I am a pretentious asshole.
“We know of course that women are habitually constipated, but to represent them in fiction as being altogether devoid of a back passage seems to me really an excess of chivalry. I am surprised they care to see themselves thus limned.”
Private message to Maugham: You can limn me any which way you want, you saucy bitch.
First couple posts are up, the fun continues through the week.
April 22, 2009
When will I learn that the Atlantic is not the place to go expecting nuanced gender theory? Especially from Hanna Rosin. There's a piece on transgender children, and Rosin lazily repeats the story about the boy turned into a girl told in As Nature Made Him, despite the massive problems that have come to light about that book.
So, instead of reading the Rosin piece, because if I go into all of its problems I'll be here forever, why don't you pick up a copy of Fixing Sex or My Gender Workbook or Sexing the Body instead? They were all written by people who actually know what they're talking about.
Gallimard editor Jean Mattern discusses the future of European publishing at Hungarian Literature Online. Don't worry, it's not in Hungarian or French, it's in English.
Over margaritas last night, we were discussing that problematic Flannery O'Connor biography. I admitted I did not ever want to read a biography of W. Somerset Maugham, because then I might learn something that would make me want to take down his portrait from my wall. And I need him as my patron saint. Maugham actually wrote about this in his autobiography, The Summing Up.
We are shocked when we discover that great men were weak and petty, dishonest or selfish, sexually vicious, vain or intemperate; and many people think it disgraceful to disclose to the public its heroes' failings. There is not much to choose between men. They are all a hopscotch of greatness and littleness, of virtue and vice, of nobility and baseness. Some have more strength of character, or more opportunity, and so in one direction or another give their instincts freer play, but potentially they are the same. For my part I do not think I am any better or any worse than most people, but I know that if I set down every action in my life and every thought that has crossed my mind the world would consider me a monster of depravity.
I kind of like the idea of him being a monster of depravity. I'll leave it at that.
I generally find articles that try to figure out the evolutionary purpose of the female orgasm offensive and weird. Like, "Gee, it seems to have no purpose at all! You ladies sure lucked out." And then I stab the researcher to death. But this chapter on the female orgasm from David Barash and Judith Eve Lipton's How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories: Evolutionary Enigmas, available online, is less bad than the others. (They talk about Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's research, and I have yet to see Hrdy do anything wrong.)
How has it escaped my attention that the stuffy old Pulitzer Prize medal is a portrait of a shirtless dude in a skirt on a letterpress? Maybe I'm stretching here, but it's about as saucy as this year's awards get. Judging by this interview, Elizabeth Strout isn't going to become the Tracey Emin of American letters anytime soon:
Being an author is different from being a writer, and I was not necessarily prepared for some of the public duties required of an author. So the anxiety of that was distracting, yes. It did not change my work habits—I have always worked as steadily and deeply as possible, and this continues to be true.
Steady on, Liz, you hellcat.
Winners (or: Oprah novel, Dead prez, Dead prez, that guy's not dead yet?, Civil war, rinse, repeat):
Fiction - Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Poetry - The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
April 21, 2009
Willow: Mum and Dad are back together and have lost all their friends. Whoops, I've fallen through the ice and have died. I should have done this 500 pages ago.
Maud Newton has an interview with Marlon James, author of The Book of Night Women.
There’s a belief that sex is the hardest thing for a literary novelist but I disagree: love is. We’re so scared of descending into mush that I think we end up with a just-as-bad opposite, love stories devoid of any emotional quality. But love can work in so many ways without having to resort to that word.
April 20, 2009
The Wall Street Journal on the lost great works of Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Sophocles.
You know what you haven't heard in a while? The story about my father reading me Dune as a kid. Must find a new origin story. Larry Sawyer interviewed me at the Examiner.
I guess if there was one book, it was Frank Herbert's Dune, which my father read to me when I was 4. Vastly superior to that Dr. Suess nonsense we had been reading before that. This one had giant, killer sand worms and secret spice.
Billy the Bard will turn 445 on Thursday, and in honor of the occasion Mayor Daley has announced that Thursday will be "Talk Like Shakespeare Day," designed to encourage Chicagoans "to bring the spoken words of Shakespeare into their daily lives."
Excellent. Because being talked to on the streets of Chicago in the spring is not annoying enough as is. Women have been dressed up like the Michelin Man all winter, and come spring, men will crash their cars trying to talk to you if you show an ankle. Now they'll be doing it in iambic pentameter. Can't wait.
It's not that I am behind the times, it's that by not using Twitter I am morally and socially superior. Thanks, Bruce Sterling!
(Five minutes after reading this thing, I thought "Fuck it" and signed up. We'll see.)
Pinteresque, Dickensian, Shakespearean. Not many writers are so distinctive and influential that their name becomes an adjective in its own right. J. G. Ballard, who died yesterday morning after a long battle with cancer at the age of 78, was one of them.
“Ballardian” is defined in theCollins English Dictionary as: “adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”
April 17, 2009
It's sort of sad that everyone has kind of abandoned Margaret Sanger. Her writings are not really mentioned anymore, despite being quite good, and even the pro-choice community refers to her as a eugenicist. It's a little more complicated than that, and as someone who quite liked the books she wrote, it's frustrating to have it boiled down to that over and over. She said some questionable shit, yes. She kept company with bastards. But she was very clear on what controlling fertility could do for women, and it was not about racial purity.
In her book Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Futre of the World, Michelle Goldberg gives her a more sympathetic look than most writers. She also covers a hell of a lot of territory, from overpopulation to underpopulation, from pro-choice movements to female feticide in India. It's an interesting book, although Goldberg slips occasionally into bitter sarcasm, which is unfortunate. But it was good enough that I chose it for my latest Smart Set column.
April 16, 2009
The Naked and the Read
My younger brother has a stack of vintage Playboys from the ’60s and ’70s which he found bundled on the sidewalk on garbage day in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He lugged them home for many blocks and it was worth the effort. Writing by Nabokov, Cheever, Ray Bradbury, old Updike, Borges, James Baldwin, the list goes on. And the pics! Soft of core and truly sexy. Jigglier bodies. And an air of afternoon delight about the photographs, a carefreeness, something less self-conscious, more celebratory and less obscene. (And I understand it’s problematic to call pornography -- exploitive and objectifying no matter how you choose to view it -- celebratory. But there it is. That was more the mood.)
My experience with pornography is limited. I’ve spent time with those Playboys, reviewed a collection of antique pornographic films made in the early 1900s (dirty!), and watched a few videos with pals in a fraternity house in college (always ending up feeling sad and empty and kind of grossed out by sex for a while afterwards). My brother had other magazines and videos around when we were growing up. One called “19 #37.” I recently asked my other little brother what the title was about (he was the inheritor of much of my other brother’s smut). Number 37 in a series called 19, he explained. “Because I guess it involves barely legal babes chugging cum.” And then there was his VHS tape of some hardcore romp with handwritten label disguising it: “Disney movie/Schindler’s List.”
Norman Mailer wrote the short story “The Man Who Studied Yoga” in 1952, a year before Playboy was born. The events take place on one of those dim, soul-demolishing Sundays in winter. Sam Slovoda, a wannabe novelist (“so long as he fails he is not obliged to measure himself”), former Communist, ex-bohemian, deep into his psychoanalysis, deep into the dissatisfaction of middle-age, is prevailed upon by a friend -- can we come over to use your projector to watch a pornographic film? Sam agrees (he’s not scene a dirty movie before), his wife ascents grudgingly, and the pair await the arrival of two other couples, the six of them to watch the film together.
And watch they do, though not before avoiding the watching with conversation. One guest tells a shaggy dog story regarding the man of the title. It’s interminable, and ends in a groaning non-punchline, foreplay that puts no one in the mood, “irritating and inconsequential.” Such could also be said of Sam’s life (and perhaps all of our lives, Mailer suggests). “What a dreary compromise is our life!” So the story ends.
After the failed and overlong story-joke, the couples start what they’d all come for. But, as the narrator observes, “one does not study pornography in a living room with a beer glass in one’s hand, and friends at the elbow. It is the most unsatisfactory of compromises; one can draw neither the benefits of solitary contemplation nor of social exchange.”
The film itself is silly at first, and then involves the defiling of a young virgin by a man and a woman. “Bodies curl upon the bed in postures so complicated, in combinations so advanced, that the audience leans forward.” Will the crowd assembled “cast off their clothes when the movie is done and perform the orgy which tickles at the heart of their desire?” Sam wonders. Of course not, he knows. They’ll joke and eat cold cuts.
Mailer compares the post-film feeling to “the same exasperated fright which one experiences in turning the shower tap and receiving cold water when the flesh has been prepared for heat.” It’s not just disappointing, (sex, life), it comes as a shock. This isn’t how it’s meant to feel! What’s happened?The story is sexy and not. A great tension exists, so much possibility. And then it’s dissolved. Playboy is closing in on 60 years-old, still Hefner-helmed, though now it follows the Maxim model: light on words, heavy on silicone, a shadow of its former stroke book status. Past middle-aged, another dreary compromise.
Today's post for my imaginary Twitter feed: "Reading 3 books re quantum physics. Related: blood coming from ears."
Franklin Rosemont, a surrealist poet and labor historian, maintained Chicago's long history of leftist activism through prolific writing and his stewardship of 123-year-old radical publishing house Charles H. Kerr.
Mr. Rosemont, 65, died Sunday, April 12, in the University of Illinois Medical Center, after possibly suffering a stroke or an aneurysm, said his wife, Penelope. He was a resident of Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood.
(Whenever I hear about the story of Fallada's novel, about the couple creating a postcard campaign of protest against the Nazis, I think about Claude Cahun, the artist who with her partner Marcel Moore protested the Nazis with fake newspapers and public art. Those two need a full biography, although Don't Kiss Me will work for now. But seriously, someone, get on it.)
If Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside were even a little bit longer, or if it were a slower read, it would be too angry and bitter to get through. It's the story of a man who was always able to read minds, only to discover he's losing the ability as he reaches middle age, and Michael Dirda liked it as much as I did.
It's insane that "Dying Inside" should be subtly dismissed as merely a genre classic. This is a superb novel about a common human sorrow, that great shock of middle age -- the recognition that we are all dying inside and that all of us must face the eventual disappearance of the person we have been.
April 15, 2009
Every day, I get an e-mail from someone asking me why I am not on Twitter. I would be the most boring Twitter person ever, people. I suppose I am happy to know people want to know what I'm doing, but my Twitter feed would basically be things like, "Walking all over town, looking for fresh sardines," or "Staying in to watch Lost again." Riveting! Although there are random Twitter feeds that I follow, like Gavin Friday, who sends updates like, "I am in excellent physical and emotional health." Love.
But I am mostly out of touch with the online world, which is how I just discovered that Grant Achatz is blogging at the Atlantic. And twittering. And he is quite good at both. (I did an interview with Grant Achatz a while back.) I will continue to resist all that other stuff, because I feel old, while my assistant does things like create a Facebook page for Bookslut (I would link to it, but I have only seen it once and decided that was enough) while I'm not paying attention.
I had been looking forward to The House of Wittgenstein, despite it being written by Alexander Waugh who I just cannot bring myself to like one bit. I tried to read his book Fathers and Sons, and found myself torn between liking the book and hating the author, wishing that Waugh would get out of the way of his own book, if that makes any sense, until I gave myself a headache and had to stop.
Then I read Adam Phillips's review in the London Review of Books, which killed any hope I had for the Wittgenstein book.
One of the reasons a book like Waugh’s should be useful is that Wittgenstein’s philosophy is so much about trying to understand what he has inherited: the languages, the conventions he was born into, and what he could and could not use them to do... By refusing to make such connections, and by being so disdainful of Wittgenstein’s reputation as a philosopher, Waugh leaves us always wondering what the point of his story is, unless it is the fact that the Wittgensteins were rich, famous and eccentric and sometimes badly behaved both to each other and to other people, and that the family’s rise and fall coincided with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and two world wars.
He is now backed up by Anthony Gottlieb at the New Yorker. He seemed so bored by the book that he barely even referenced it in the review. From what I read about the book in Phillips's review, it might have been the right choice.
Susie Orbach, wearing great shoes, showed up on the Colbert Report last night to talk about her book Bodies. (Read my review here, and Bookslut's interview with Orbach here. I think you can say we like her book over here.)
April 14, 2009
I've always found the Sylvia Plath worship creepy, and now the friends of her recently deceased son Nicholas do, too.
Tomorrow is tax day, as I'm sure you know, and I'm also sure you'll be drinking tonight if your taxes looked anything like mine. But you know what they say about those who drink alone, so best to come to the Bookslut Reading Series for Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, Kristy Bowen, and Kristy Odelius. Maybe we can get Cristin to read from her book Hot Teen Slut, that will cheer everyone up. 7:30 at the Hopleaf, details at the readings page.
So, as I thought, the Amazon thing was a mistake that caused an overreaction. I sent an e-mail over to Tom at Omnivoracious, Amazon's book blog, who is a very nice person, and he assured me the company did not turn into homophobic totalitarians overnight. I'm sure you can send the e-mail explaining the situation elsewhere, I'm bored with this.
April 13, 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: Catherine Bohne
Since last week's entry with Gabe Fowler of Desert Island, I've been visiting other independent bookstores around the city to see how they've been managing despite the economic crisis. This week I spoke to Catherine Bohne of Community Bookstore, located in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The store has been around for almost forty years, and it certainly lives up to its name. Since the store's inception, Community has been, in essence, watching vigilantly over the community. This is whether it acts as a bookstore, a community forum, an event space, or whatever else the staff can manage to turn it into. I've only been in the neighborhood for a short while, but already I'm drawing associations to famed bookstores of literature yore; be it Madwimmin Books or Shakespeare and Company. And were I feeling a bit down while scarfing a tub of coconut sorbet, I just might have to take them up on their new delivery service….
When did you become involved with Community Bookstore and why?
I started working as weekend sales help in 1995, ran the Cafe when it opened in 1996, took over as manager a year later (the same day the Barnes & Noble opened down the block) and took ownership in July 2001 (a month before 9/11). The Bookstore has been in continuous operation since 1971.
WHY did I start working in the bookstore? When I discovered the bookstore, in my early 20's, it was the sole (it seems to me now) haven from the terrors of trying to figure out how to live and be a grownup—life was hard and scary, expensive and confusing, and I seemed to find myself in one situation after another that I'd thought I wanted but didn't really suit me at all…the bookstore was simply the one place that felt calm and sane, peaceful and welcoming. I applied for the weekend job on a whim, got it, and just never left. Whenever other opportunities would come up I'd find that if I was honest, I'd really rather live in the world of the bookstore, and so although it sometimes seemed irresponsible (or at least quixotic) I just stayed and stayed—moving into positions of increasing authority seemed to happen naturally. And now I own it!
How would you say the recession is affecting Community?
Sales were down a little in January and February, maybe 8% or so, but nothing like other businesses are experiencing, and March picked up again. I suspect that a peculiar side effect of the rotten economy is that people are actually being more thoughtful about where they spend their money. In flush times, it may have been easier to assume everyone was doing well—now people may be a little more aware that they need to support the businesses they want to have around. Certainly our customers make a habit of asking how we're doing, and tell us they are committed to supporting us. We actually pay for most of our inventory in advance—we've done this for several years—so the credit crunch doesn't affect us, although we'll see what happens when we try to re-finance our debt this year!
Many businesses of late have had to change the way they do business as a means to make it through the current economy. What has Community been doing differently, if anything, since September/October?
We went through a real crisis two years ago, and so have been running a very tight ship for years—we're constantly looking for ways to trim expenses and monitor inventory very vigilantly. Having developed these habits years ago, they're standing us in good stead, these days. Otherwise, the really important thing to do seems to be concentrating on outreach to customers—I think communicating with people is crucial. Talking to people about the store involves them in it, draws them into the drama of it and makes them invested. I also spend a fair bit of my private time involved in community projects and shop local campaigns. People know the store spends a fair amount of time "caretaking" the neighborhood, and this increases the sense of our looking after each other, and the importance of the store to the neighborhood. It helps to make people loyal!
I saw a sign in your window recently saying that you now deliver books around the neighborhood. When did you start to do this and why?
We started delivering a year or two ago. We are always trying to think of sensible ways to make it easy for people to shop at our bookstore. The delivery idea was a simple one, but very effective, I think. We've delivered books to people who are stuck at home with a cold, and picked up orange juice for them along the way!
We try to think of things that we can do that other, bigger stores can't do. This often seems to amount to being personal. A large corporate store can't afford to treat their customers as friends—I can see that it would get out of hand—but we can. I recently connected one customer who's honeymooning in Portugal with a local restaurant owner who has spent time there and had useful insights. Here's the email that the customer wrote back to me and the restaurateur this morning:
First of all, thanks to both of you for making me feel like Park Slope is a really great place to live. This also happened the other day when we borrowed a folding chair from Catherine for our Seder (we'll return it this week, I promise!)
This attempt to figure out what would make it easier for people to make the choice to shop at Community is also why we put a fair amount of energy (and money) into building a professional website last year. Now people can order books from us in the middle of the night, if they need to.
Where do you see the shop in the next year? What obstacles will you need to overcome, and how do you hope to do it?
Obviously, the next year is going to be challenging for everyone. We have to refinance our debt, and that's almost certainly going to take some creativity. We're reaching out to the SBA which is launching several new programs as part of the stimulus package, and investigating microfinancing opportunities through local credit unions.
We're also working on expanding and improving our website. I think it's crucial to adapt, as the ways in which people both shop and access written material continue to evolve.
Based on a survey we did two years ago, we realized that even our most loyal customers probably only do about 20% of their shopping here—that's actually really encouraging, as it means that if we can get people to shift just 5% of their buying habits to us, we'll be doing terrifically! So the next year is going to be about reaching out to people—finding creative ways to let new people know we're here, and making it more and more tempting for people to shop here!
Finally, it seems to me that the role of the bookstore in the future will inevitably continue to change. As more and more information is available electronically, I think the role of the bricks and mortar bookstore will shift to being more of a wondertrove of beautiful objects, and that the importance of intelligent, helpful, entertaining(!) staff will increase. The "experience" aspect of shopping will come to the fore, so we've been working to fix up the store physically (we're just finishing renovating our back room, with a brand new kitchen where we'll give away tea and fine coffee). I believe that looking after employees is terribly important—we've just gotten health insurance for the first time in years (yay—Brooklyn Health Works!). We're also gradually moving into stocking more unusual, beautiful things—we really want to create a great chap book section, for example, to concentrate on selling things that you want to hold in your hands and look at, as well injest mentally. On the whole, I'm looking forward to this—sounds a lot more fun than selling, say, test prep books!
English PEN has said it is "startled by the extent" to which the UK’s libel laws are now preventing publishers and journalists from releasing contentious material.
Working alongside Index on Censorship, English PEN is building a dossier of cases from publishers, editors, bloggers, NGOs and lawyers to support its case for reform of the libel laws. The work is in response to a report last year by the UN Human Rights Committee.
There is not a whole lot of actual information about this Amazon de-ranking gay and lesbian literature, mostly just rumor and assumption. PW tries to sum it all up. I'm too tired this morning to get all ragey about it, but yes, of course, if it's true that it's a new official policy, it's disgusting. But as someone who once accidentally deleted large chunks of her website and had to work for a week to restore them, the "glitch" excuse seems almost plausible. But surely they should have employees more tech-savvy than me. Oh god, I need more tea this morning, don't I?
The celebrity magazine Voici declared him "the greatest seducer in the world". Another gushed: "With Hugh Laurie, you don't sleep, you laugh. With Hugh Laurie ... you are moved ... It's the year of Hugh Laurie or it's no one's year at all."
April 10, 2009
This year, for Poetry Month, why not give a children's poet a try? Gregory K has assembled thirty poets in thirty days, a project featuring an unpublished poem every day of April.
Ron Hogan explains the effect of the publishing industry's layoffs on poetry: [T]aking poetry away from editors would be like---oh like pulling all the water coolers out of the building.
John Shakespeare remembers Philip Larkin's first interview: At the head of his list of likes, he put "listening to jazz and drinking beer" followed by cricket, cycling, swimming and “finding out about writers”. He mentioned particularly Beatrix Potter.
Meanwhile, Russell Crowe also likes beer and poetry: I am celebrating my love for you with a pint of beer and a new tattoo. / Imagine there's no heaven. / I don't know if you're loving somebody. To be a poet and not know the trade, to be a lover and repel all women. (Via VowelMovers)
Ashbery reads his poems from the New York Review of Books.
Faber's 52 poems widget pushes poems to Facebook.
If you missed it last week, here's a link to my interview with Joshua Kryah.
April 09, 2009
I am going to take a cue from Kingsley Amis any time I am asked to do something I don't want to do: "I am afraid you are almost certain to be unable to afford me."
The Naked and the Read
In her memoir Necessary Sins, Lynn Darling, in sharp, swift prose, details her relationship with Lee A. Lescaze which began whilst they were both at work at the Washington Post, he a bigdeal foreign and Washington correspondent (also married with three kids), she writing features for Style, “a gorgeous, bitchy, brilliant feature section.” What starts with semi-innocent lunches leads to martinis in hotel bars, a full-blown affair, Lescaze leaving his wife, and eventually marrying Darling. The usual rigmarole, told with vim and charming wit, a little indulgent, sure, but a pleasure, particularly the retelling of her careening through her young adulthood.
The second half of the book, detailing the alternating dance-trudge through domestic ritual, stepmotherhood, and (not to spoil the fun), Lescaze’s cancer and death, pales in comparison with the first section about Darling’s debauched twenties -- drinking, flirting, professional anxieties, and sex. “I tumbled into bed with married men and single men, with serious men and gawky boys and friends that should’ve stayed that way.” She writes of her delayed arrival at adulthood and the struggle of reconciling the difference between the self she constructed -- “I wanted to be intimidating, powerful, desirable, and tragic” (holy crap, who doesn’t?) -- and the person she really was.
The descriptions of the Washington Post newsroom prove some of the richest in the book: “Around the corner, the metropolitan, foreign, and national editors had begun bellowing for copy, reporters were typing madly while hunched still further into their phones, and the enormous fluorescent newsroom was humming with a distinctly sexual heat and energy.”
It’s difficult to say what about a room full of people on deadline is sexual, but she’s right. I started working at a newspaper when I was 23 (not a major metropolitan daily, but an alternative newsweekly in Boston), and though at the time I was the lowly event listings person, a job that entailed typing band names and authors coming to town into a massive database all day, I sat in the well with all the writers. And man, I loved the energy. The jokes, the shouting, the furious typing. I listened to them on the phone, doing interviews, talking through stories with editors, yelling at each other about this or that bit of breaking news or gossip or joke. The crackle of brains hard at work on short time, the stress, the finishing, the release. You could feel it. Because here was a room full of people, mostly men, who were curious and hilarious and smart as hell and I was alternately terrified and in love with all of them.
And it was heady in those days, as it was heady for Darling at the post-Watergate Post, as it’s heady for any 23-year-old entering the world. My second week at the paper, the newsroom was alight: the decision had been made to feature the video of the beheading of Daniel Pearl on the website, a questionable choice even today, and extremely controversial in pre-YouTube 2002. News cameras came in; you could hear the editor on the phone being interviewed by the New York Times. Everyone had an opinion; we were all in the midst of it. It was surreal and sad and so, so exciting.
Which is sort of the way Darling describes her twenties. Her affair with Lescaze derails her career at the Post. And at 29 and 30 years old, she’s still lodged in the persona she’s constructed around herself: “a tatterdemalion creature composed of bits and pieces of old rock songs and half-remembered lyrics: hard-drinking, fast-driving, lawless, and irresponsible.” It’s hard thing to do, to shake the idea that “passion was perfect because it was unconnected to the real world, because it overwhelmed, at least for the moment, everything you were meant to be or were supposed to do, conferring the exuberant license of a snow day.” It’s especially hard if you’re a ambitious self-doubter and scared as hell about being an actual adult in the world.
According to her, it takes falling in love, getting married, having a child to shed these ideals. And it’s not entirely convincing that Darling does so all the way: “I didn’t know how to be married now that I was a mother, just as I didn’t know how to be a writer, or a woman for that matter.” Early on in the book, she refers to the Style section as “a study in the triumph of personality over character.” In Darling’s case, it’s not clear which wins out.
April 08, 2009
Terry Gross versus Russell Brand, supposedly about his book My Booky Wook, although not really.
Screw the Kindle, whose designers seem to ignore the influence comic books are having/going to have on book design. No color? Really? I want one of these.
Apple’s iPhone has free, handy apps, such as Stanza and eReader, to compete with expensive digital readers, but those palm-size screens don’t provide enough room for the visual experiences magazines will need to appeal to readers and advertisers—those full-page, color pictures, “charticles” and information graphics, not to mention leggy models splayed across two-page spreads.
“We’ve worked closely with our magazine partnerships, our newspaper partnerships, to make sure we’re building something that they would publish to,” Mr. Benzi said. “It doesn’t mean books aren’t important to us, because they are. But we are able to go to magazine and newspaper companies with a different type of reader for them.”
I am trying not to take Arthur I. Miller's Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung from my host Maud Newton's shelves to take home with me. How do I not have this book?
April 07, 2009
James Tiptree Jr.'s short story "The Women Men Don't See" is available online.
I never understood why so many writers use Marion Ettinger for their author photo, since they all end up looking like those 19th century corpse photos. All of em.
I have not listened to this, because I am scared, but I talked to Martha Woodruff about author photos for a wee NPR segment. I was a little punchy, so I believe I gave Neil Gaiman's hair sound effects. I rather hope they did not use me for the segment.
A coalition of media companies and journalism organizations applauds the passage of the “Free Flow of Information Act of 2009” (H.R. 985) yesterday in the House of Representatives. The “media shield” legislation would protect the public’s right to know by setting reasonable standards for when journalists can be compelled to disclose the identities of their confidential sources in federal court. Demonstrating the broad bipartisan support for the measure, the bill passed by a voice vote.
April 06, 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: Gabe Fowler
Gabe Fowler is the owner of Desert Island, a specialty comix shop located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Before Desert Island opened, the closest options to the area were in Manhattan and further south in Brooklyn. When I lived in the area, the mere thought of travel would stop me from perusing the local zine racks. The shop specializes in art prints, zines (on consignment of course), and international comix. Fowler also recently curated three issues of Showpaper, a local listing of free concerts opposite a full-sized newsprint featuring new artists each week (check out their web page to learn more—there really ought to be a Showpaper book someday…). In addition, Fowler's shop has brought together a sort of community of artists with his events and book release parties, not to forget the aforementioned zine rack and original art.
I got in touch with Fowler after thinking about how different independent businesses are handling an economic recession. After hearing another edition of "Uncommon Economic Indicators," I began to wonder how these institutions would adapt to stay alive. While this may merit further exploration, I figured the best place to start is among the local haunts. Ladies and gents, I bring you Gabe Fowler of Desert Island fame.
Why did you open Desert Island, and why did you pick Williamsburg as a location?
When I moved to New York from Chicago, I was looking for a place like Quimby's but didn't find it. Quimby's is a bookstore in Chicago that's a fearless mix of comics, art books, self-published work, and fringe-culture madness. I decided to focus on illustrated material, and the idea of hand-picking an entire store worth of books really appeals to me. I feel lucky to be able to curate and tweak the store on a daily basis. You can really get the brain working through the different combinations of titles. Why Williamsburg? I don't know. I already lived in the neighborhood, and it seemed right. There's tons of artists and designers around here.
How would you say the recession is hitting the store?
It's hard to tell since I've only been around for a year. I basically opened at the worst possible time, at the beginning of the so-called recession, so if I can survive now that's probably a good sign.
A lot of businesses are having to do some reformatting or find new ways to circumvent the economic situation. What is Desert Island doing differently since last fall?
Last fall I didn't exist as a business. If anything, I make sure I have huge-selling titles like Watchmen and Walking Dead in the house at all times. People tend to check out my store because I have tons of foreign and weird material, but they leave with a copy of Watchmen or whatever.
Economy aside, it looks like Desert Island has brought together a comix community that really had nowhere to congregate (at least in north Brooklyn) before the store opened. Was this part of your intention, or was it a bit of a surprise?
Hell yes. The store is all about serving the huge subculture of visual artists in Brooklyn and the 5 boroughs. I only wish I had a little more room for a more comfortable hang-out area. And that someone didn't steal my goddamn couch last month.
You recently curated several issues of Showpaper, a bi-weekly publication of free concert listings opposite a piece by a new artist. Your three choices were Matt Furie [a previous Indie Heartthrob], Marc Bell, and Shoboshobo. What made you pick these artists?
I really believe in Showpaper. It's a great project. And I appreciate the chance to give more visibility to some of my favorite artists through their publication.
Where do you see the shop in the next year? What obstacles will you have to overcome, and how to you hope to do it?
Hopefully the place will keep building steam and energy. So far so good. I'm trying to scrape together some funds to publish a free all-comics newspaper in the near future, which should be a blast. I've been working with lot of artists to produce screenprints of their work, and there's a few artists I really want to work with. Lots of
events coming up, lots of coffee to drink, lots of pennies to pinch. I just need to live cheaply and keep it real as more people discover the shop. It's so crazy it just might work.
As the Irish Times puts it, "no surprises" in the IMPAC contenders, unless you've taken faint at seeing such old-ass books on the shortlist:
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz
The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles - Roy Jacobsen
Animal’s People - Indra Sinha
Man Gone Down - Michael Thomas
The Indian Clerk - David Leavitt
Ravel - Jean Echenoz
The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid
The Archivist's Story - Travis Holland
Barack Obama couldn't make it (Nato), Stieg Larsson couldn't get there (dead), and Stephanie Meyer sent her regards on tape. But Jerry Springer showed up as part of the 'stream of celebrities' (really, BBC?) at the Galaxy Book Awards.
The categories are all utter bollocks ('The Good Read Award', 'Author of the Year'), but some decent, non-Meyer titles won things:
Galaxy, FYI, is a brand of shitty, too-sweet chocolate which tries to pass itself off as being a bit sophisticated and classy. Jerry Springer.
I was going to write a nice introduction to the April issue of Bookslut, complete with direct links, but here I am trying to put on my shoes and blog at the same time because I have a flight to New York to catch. So! I'll be vague and brief. Elizabeth Gumport is writing a new column about short stories, and her first entry is on the Cheever revival. Elizabeth Bachner has readers block, and JC Hallman writes about Emerson's definition of "creative writing." Sylvia Jiminez tells us that Classical poets were dirty bastards. There are interviews with Leanne Shapton, Susie Orbach, Jules Feiffer, among others. I'm sure you are all capable of going to the main page and finding all of this yourselves.
James Kelman is interviewed at the Times on the occasion of his nomination for the Man Booker International award. The last time he won a Booker (the other one, for How Late It Was, How Late, which, by the way, the article informs us has 4,000 instances of the word "fuck" -- he should get an award just for that) it didn't turn out so well. Bookstores refused to sell his work, he was accused of being an embarrassment to Scotland... Let's hope he wins this one and just gets cash money.
“Anything that doesn’t affect the status quo is always praised warmly in Scotland. Writers of detective fiction are lauded. If the Nobel prize originated in Scotland, they would probably be vying for it!”
From the moment Noa met Alek, she was stripped of her dignity. He signaled from across the room, beckoning her with two fingers, as one would a dog, and she heeled. Almost 30 years later, she is admitting to all of the humiliating details, from her decision as a teen to keep his child because she thought he'd then have to stay, to her ongoing mad dashes to Moscow whenever he called. Noa — a Jerusalem-based novelist who writes "feminist fairy tales" starring the powerful, independent, crime-fighting Nira Woolf — is now telling her story of Alek "because only in this way can I exorcise the demon."
Employees at the University of New Mexico Press learned yesterday that three of their colleagues would be let go at the end of April and that nine more positions — in order fulfillment and customer service — might soon be outsourced. That kind of news is all too common these days. More unusual is what happened next: This afternoon, the employees issued their own press release, alleging that the press’s director, Luther Wilson, was partly to blame for the situation.
I am trying hard to be nice about this video interview with Mary Gaitskill, up on Slate. Gaitskill herself is interesting, talking about her new collection Don't Cry, but let's just say the whole thing really fits in well with the Slate vibe.
April 02, 2009
An interview with Joshua Kryah
Joshua Kryah is the author of Glean, a moving, rigorous meditation on doubt, faith, and language. In 2007, I described Glean as a highly-charged and "paradoxically sustained effort at punctuating the self" in order to allow something else, possibly God, room to speak. Kryah's current project is Closen, a verse drama based on the romantic poet John Clare. You can hear Kryah read from both works at the U of Iowa and at From the Fishouse.
Joshua Kryah answered some questions via e-mail this week.
I hate to open with a question that's not about your poems directly, but: Literally the first thing one notices about Glean is Ulrike Termeer’s cover, which I gather was done expressly for your book. How did that come to pass?
Ulrike Termeer is related to one of the editors at Nightboat Books, my publisher. When I discovered the original artwork for the cover wasn’t going to work (a drawing by Cy Twombly), Nightboat suggested I consider Ulrike. She had a series, "Proust und die Maler," that reworked paintings by iconic artists like Ingres and Vermeer. I had been thinking about Caravaggio's The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, so her work seemed a natural fit. And it was. Her alteration of Caravaggio paralleled my own reworking of certain Christian principles throughout Glean. I'm incredibly happy with it. (more after the jump)
"My Easter" encapsulates a key idea in your poems: that wounds (particularly, here, Christ's wounds, but that needn't always be true) need to persist *as* wounds—there's no expectation of a healed body. ("Only, that grief, this elegy, is remarkable for its insistence.") Is it right to say that, in Glean, faith and prayer are organized as acts of deferral or perpetual anticipation?
In my experience, faith has always seemed like an act of deferral. It's like anticipating something I'll never possess. To borrow a phrase from Martin Buber, "Spirit is not in the I but between the I and Thou." The poems in Glean operate within a similar ambiguity; they’re suspended between doubt and belief. In order to achieve some sort of peace, the two have to meet somewhere. And that's what the poems are trying to achieve: some kind of union. As I write in "Numen," "and belief now an unrest, growing / singly in search of a pair."
For me, the body, Christ's body in particular, is the place where the divine seems most possible. It's there, among the body's frailty, its disfigurement and wounding, that my desire for spirituality finds its most expressive limitations. When Christ says, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me," I understand this as the abandonment of the body for the spirit. The juncture between the two only occurs once, at the moment of dying. This is why "My Easter" ends, "Give me this— / one more day, one more day. // That I might have it, / your just once embrace." It’s a yearning for spiritual embrace while still body.
The wounds that occur throughout the poems in Glean resemble such an embrace. They're examples of rupture, of a gradual perforation into spirit. Or at least that's how I see them. They mimic familiar religious maiming-—stigmata, martyrdom.
Can you talk about the vocabulary of these poems? The diction’s slightly hard to pin down: Sometimes it’s quite philosophico-theological, other times it’s the canonical English of the King James Version, but other times its almost obsessive in its pursuit of the natural/bodily world.
One thing I set out to do in Glean was to make my language more palpable. Not through metaphor or narrative (although these play a part), but through the material elements of language itself. A good example of this would be the neologisms that appear throughout the collection. Neologisms create a more corporeal language, one that the reader, like Thomas, can touch for proof of its existence. Just as I consider faith to be predicated on trust, language must convince us of its ability to express, as much as possible, what we know or how we feel. Like Thomas, I have a hard time believing in language. How can it possibly represent the spiritual experience? That's why neologisms are so compelling. They create meaning and presence simultaneously. When two words come together to form a third, new word, like "breathbloom," the very possibility of faith—-in the mutability of language, the transfiguration of the body-—arises.
Neologisms are also a means to make older terminology sound more contemporary. Or in my work, to make contemporary poetic discourse sound more archaic, tethered to a explicit history or etymology that relates specifically to nature or the body, as with "scabfold," "moldhouse," and "wormwhorl." All of these combinations have a medieval resonance, one that conjures up the limits and constraints of the body.
I also use quotes from various religious sources—-the Old and New Testaments, Bede, Simone Weil. These are supposed to provide textual footholds for a reader. Some substantiate certain sentiments while others don't. It's a matter of dialogue. So the diction throughout Glean is mutable, always shifting through various layers of religious rumination, including my own.
One of the things that struck me about Glean is that, while your lines are quite fractured or effaced, you do like to write *sequences* of poems. What is appealing to you about a sequence of poems? How do you decide that, "this material is a sequence of poems, not one longer poem"?
I prefer brevity. As a result, I'm interested in the work of poets like Reverdy, Celan, Oppen, Neidecker. Their poetry tends to be more reticent than effusive. The long poem isn't a mode toward which I usually gravitate; I'm more comfortable with the lyric.
And yet, while writing Glean, I felt the subject of faith demanded longer poems. The sequence became a way to do this. It allowed me to push certain poems beyond what they initially revealed themselves to be. Instead of settling for pithy poetic statements, I wanted to make the poems say and do more. I began to use the sequence as a mode of delay and amplification, as units of phrasing that generated variations of feeling and awareness. In some instances, it carried forth a narrative, while in others it projected a succession of affects. Either way, it gave the poems an obsessive quality. They are obsessed=—with language and the question of faith.
So much of American mass culture (including political culture) seems to be governed either by a surfeit of religiosity or a kind of crass amorality-—I always get a little jolt of surprise to see an American writer articulate the via negativa—-"I cannot say with certainty / that I saw nothing." Is that perspective difficult to articulate? Is it especially difficult to articulate in Las Vegas?
There's a real risk in expressing one's faith these days, particularly in poetry. By doing so, one risks punitive association with specific religious people, or institutions, or ideologies. These associations overwhelm any individual encounter with faith. They align you, and your work, with beliefs you don't necessarily hold or support.
How does one declare one's own faith, then? With courage. Not the type of courage that favors one belief over another, but the courage to express one's beliefs unmolested by popular sentiment or correctness. To articulate a belief while not apologizing for it. Glean was my opportunity to do this. I felt compelled to address my own spiritual struggle, because faith for me is a struggle. And that struggle, in order to be genuine, has to be explored both privately and publicly.
Glean's debt to poets such as Paul Celan is evident, but I think I was even more struck by the presence of Hopkins and Hardy (Eliot almost goes without saying). I wonder if you could comment on what you value in the English tradition?
If, by "English tradition," you mean English poets, I value their attention to language. Especially in the work of of Donne, Hopkins, and Hardy. I share their affinity for language. It's the same English I use, but one imbued with a deeper sense of history and etymology.
Hopkins, for instance, forces language, under immense pressure, to yield a number of possible routes for a reader to follow—the "naked thew and sinew of the English language" as he calls it. Geoffrey Hill, like Hopkins, constrains the language in such a way as to make it labyrinthine and tangled. Both poets are, as Heraclitus would say, "estranged from that which [they] are most familiar"—God and language, language and God. So their poetry conflates the two, endeavoring through one in order to reach the other. The poems in Glean operate similarly.
My debt to Celan is huge.
I’d like to end with a 3-part question about your work-in-progress, Closen, about the Romantic poet John Clare. (I love one of his lines from "I am"—"I am the self-consumer of my woes.") First, what drew you to Clare?
My attraction to Clare has been gradual, as has my acquaintance with his life and work. As a poet, Clare was always lingering somewhere on the margins of the nineteenth-century. He figured into the familiar taxonomy of poetic historicism—-a late-Romantic, peasant poet whose work was significant for its naïve regionalism. He was an anomaly, a sideshow to the pantheon of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron and Shelley. A rustic hick.
It was the distortion of Clare that first got me interested in learning more about him. Like so many others, I was captivated by the ostensible plainness of his life, the assumed unambiguous-ness of his verse, and the much made-of madness in his later years. Once I actually began to read Clare, however, I found things to be more complicated.
Don't get me wrong—I was still interested in the essential elements of what we understand Clare to be: his provincialism, his plain verse, his love of nature, his lunacy. But I wanted to understand these elements beyond any simple biographic or genetic summation. One way to do this was to begin writing through Clare. What I found was a susceptibility to the very thing I was attempting to do away with, the continual compartmentalization of Clare into familiar categories.
So I went with them, these categories. And I found that Clare was prone to these extrapolations himself. In fact, he often wrote about them, grappling with what he referred to as his own "sad non-identity." As Ashbery has pointed out, Clare is "above all an instrument of telling." Not just of nature, or his surroundings, but of the bewildering life he led as a poet. I want to understand the fiction of Clare's self in Clare's own terms, as well as my own.
The idea of a verse drama, particularly one organized around call-and-response, seems so different from Glean-—was that the appeal?
Initially it was an organizational method that I imposed on the work in order to write it. I had been considering a project about Clare for some time, maybe seven or eight years, during which I accumulated a bunch of notes and lines. I realized that I needed to do more than just sketch out the project and start writing the poems. So it was necessary to devise a structure that allowed a certain amount of freedom, but also provided a way of documenting the project's progress and development. The call-and-response structure seemed to work best. And it grew from there. What surprised me was how well the format lent itself to verse drama, but also allowed for an estrangement between the voices speaking. Although constantly calling out to one another-—conversing, arguing, gossiping-—the voices are intended to remain parochial, essentially cut off from one another, isolated within their own behavior and conduct of "call" and "response."
Finally, has the experience of writing such a play differed significantly from writing the poems, and what ways?
Yes. But the poems in Glean prepared me for Closen. What I mentioned earlier with regard to the sequence has come to bear significantly in the Clare project. The attempt to prolong a sentiment or a story through a number of discrete poems was something I began in Glean, with poems like "He Calls Me Lambent, Lucent" and "Come Hither." But these poems were limited to themselves, only running a few pages. With the Clare poems, the challenge has been to move beyond individual poems into a sustained meditation, a book-length meditation.
Writing through character has also been difficult. Clare is a character in this book. So is Mary Joyce, his childhood sweetheart. So is his home, Helpston. I must be responsible to the various voices and perspectives (imaginatively as well as historically) each character represents. This has been the biggest challenge so far: learning how to write in character and how to move beyond that character. I don't want to write a verse biography.
The Naked and the Read
Mary Gaitskill has been recommended to me for years. Fans of hers have urged me to check out, in particular, Veronica and Bad Behavior (her National Book Award-nominated novel and her debut collection of short stories, respectively) with an unusual level of ardency -- less “this is pretty good, you might like it” and more “oh my god she’s amazing you have to read her I love her so much you’ll love her so much.” Perhaps because she struck me as someone who people tended to fawn over, I avoided her. Or, not so much avoided her, but never quite got around to taking everyone’s advice. (And of course, not everyone fawns; Jessa gives articulate and well-reasoned answers about her relationship with Gaitskill’s work in a Q&A you can listen to here.)
Don’t Cry, Gaitskill’s latest collection of stories, her first in a decade, was passed along to me by a vocal non-fan. “Everyone thinks she’s so raw and so honest,” my friend said. “Titling the book Don’t Cry is like begging the reader, don’t cry at how depressingly annoying my prose is.”
With that rousing endorsement, this collection became my introduction to Gaitskill, and “Mirror Ball,” an odd piece about a one-night stand in which the boy steals part of the girl’s soul, the first story I read. It’s a surreal piece, and it lacks the necessary humanity to ground the reader to the people or the situation. Much has been made of the detachment of her work, and though here it echoes the detachment (physical, psychological) of an experience like a one-night stand, it’s so distanced as to feel non-human. Theoretical. The detachment can be understood on an intellectual level, but I’m not feeling this story or this situation in my guts when I’m reading. I’m not feeling the “raw matter of the pit” that remains after the fact.
And, I was finding, I was having a difficult time getting into her language on a sentence-to-sentence level. A passage I underlined in exasperation and repulsion from “Mirror Ball”: “Where her soul had once held space, there was now a ragged hole, dark and deep as the put of the earth. At the bottom of it ran boiling rivers of Male and Female bearing every ingredient for every man and woman, every animal and plant.”
In her excellent review of Don’t Cry on Slate, Claire Dederer cites the same passage and acknowledges that it “could be called humorless and pretentious; it could also be called brave and even majestic.” I’m not convinced; I don’t see the majesty there. I see writing that is overwrought, detached, and vague.
More representative sentences: From “The Little Boy”: “The walls of the corridor were made of glowing translucent oblongs electronically lit with color that, oblong by oblong, ignited in a forward-rolling pattern.” It’d be a decent description if you didn’t find yourself choking on the word “oblong.” And from “Folk Song,” about, in part, a woman who fucks 1,000 men: “This place is her ovaries and her eggs, bejeweled with moisture, the course, tough flowers sprouting in her abdomen, the royal, fleshy padding of her cunt.”
I was not won over.
Until I read the title story. Slate’s Dederer refers to it as a “small masterpiece,” and she’s right. The story follows Janice, a recently widowed writing teacher who accompanies her friend to Ethiopia on a mission to adopt a baby. Here is the humanity that I feared Gaitskill lacked. She chews the big themes: love and death and suffering and hope. And does so in a way that does grip your heart, not in a sentimental way, but in a way that is raw, yes, and honest, too.
The Flannery O'Connor biography, which publishes racist letters by O'Connor that had previously been hidden from public sight, is creating some uncomfortable moments with her fans. First Maud's review at NPR.org, and now she links to a blog entry by Marlon James, who wrestles with the "love the art, hate the artist" mantra.
The problem with this of course is that if you start exhuming the dead and brilliant for their grievous character flaws, you’re going to find yourself neck deep in a lot of bones.
April 01, 2009
I remember learning about John Calvin at some point in school, although all we were told was that he believed in predestination. As in, you are probably going to Hell and there is nothing you can do about it. But you should not go on a killing spree, because it's possible that you're going to Heaven instead. (But then if you're already predestined to go to Heaven, would a killing spree change that? It couldn't, right? Might as well get out your killing list.) The lesson left out his reign in Geneva, which he turned into a theocratic police state. From my new column at the Smart Set:
Church attendance was mandatory, and repeated tardiness could result in exile or execution. Laughing, playing cards, dancing, and singing were all outlawed. Women burned at the stake. Not even Calvin’s friends and family were spared — his daughter-in-law and stepson were both executed for adultery, and he ordered the execution of former friend and scientist Michael Servetus.
Calvinism was huge in the States for a while, and around the turn of the 19th century, men like G. Stanley Hall, Horace Mann, Edwin Starbuck, and William James wanted something better and were influential in changing the face of American Christianity. So says Christopher G. White in Unsettled Minds, which is the focus of my column.
Pandora very much doubts that the Queen harbours many an anti-establishment tendency – though the prospect is, rather delightfully, raised by news of her gift to the Mexican President: a copy of the classic dystopian novel, 1984.
I prefer to think of mayonnaise as a magical concoction, in order to explain why I fail at it so frequently. I don't even try anymore -- one of the perks of having a pastry chef on call. I point her to the bowl of egg yolk, I turn around while she recites an incantation (I'm assuming) and ten seconds later we have mayonnaise. Hervé This makes it look so easy in this promotional video Columbia University Press made for his book Building a Meal. But then he is French, and so already imbued with magical mayonnaise-making abilities. It's in their DNA, look it up. The video is so charming, though, I want his book to be a TV show, with This's lab coat flapping behind him, his hair askew, that accent, examining mayonnaise under a microscope.
Maud Newton read Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor and found out some uncomfortable things about one of her favorite writers. (NPR is also running an excerpt from the book alongside Maud's review.)