May 29, 2009
RIP my laptop.
Also, we're looking for someone to write about book design and cover art. Those interested should write to Caroline.
If you're tired of the squalid Oxford Professor of Poetry election, you might enjoy the new poet laureate of Edmonton, Roland Pemberton/Cadence Weapon. (Via the New Directions poetry blog). The Globe and Mail has an interview with Pemberton, in which he explains how to handle those who don't think a rapper should be poet laureate: "Maybe I should have a poet battle. If people have beef, we'll see who has the illest prose," he said yesterday. "Who can do a poem about a flower better? I can make you feel like this flower is in your mouth, man. Delicate."
Carol Ann Duffy on the difference between writing poems for children and for adults: "You can paint with a broader brush stroke in children's poetry," she said. "I always think of adult poetry as being quite dangerous, like swimming in the sea, whereas poetry for children, although equally absorbing, is more like paddling."
The trailer for Chris Felver's documentary about Lawrence Ferlinghetti looks great.
May 28, 2009
The Naked and the Read
Rebecca Brown writes romance.
“And what’s a romance?” D.H. Lawrence asks in an essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Usually,” he answers, “a nice little tale where you have everything As You Like It, where rain never wets your jacket and gnats never bite your nose and it’s always daisy-time… Hawthorne obviously isn’t this kind of romanticist.”
And neither is Rebecca Brown.
Her outstanding, imaginative, wide-ranging collection of essays American Romances echoes, in some ways, D.H. Lawrence in his Studies in Classic American Literature (the driest name for a ranting, exuberant, and insightful piece of literary criticism). She explores identity (American, personal, sexual) through literary critique, autobiography, pop culture, film culture, religion, memory, fantasy.
“Oh, the sins of the fathers!” Brown’s opening essay, “Hawthorne,” begins. “Oh, the visitations upon the sons! The dream of America! The nightmare, the horror, the hope.” And you hear Lawrence in the exclamations. From his take on the Blithedale Romance: “Oh, the irony, the bitter, bitter irony of the name! Oh Nathaniel, you great man! Oh, America, you Pearl, you Pearl without a blemish!”
In Brown’s “Hawthorne” she links together Nathaniel (the Puritan, the allegorist) and Brian Wilson (the California dreamer, the beach boy, raised in an LA suburb called Hawthorne). “Go West, Young Man! Get out before the city you built upon the hill implodes and takes you with it! Go West, Young Boy! The future’s there! And beaches, too!” But the Puritan remains in the gold-rusher, the pioneer: “No matter how much you want to, you never unbecome the place you came from,” Brown writes. Lawrence might say the same about America: “Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying or breaking away… Not when they are escaping to some wild west.”
In “My Western,” Brown writes about her childhood, her troubled father, watching the movie Shane. “Does everybody always want to be somebody else?” she asks. She conflates her father and John Wayne, links them together through fact and film. “A classic western sunset. A stranger on a horse is passing through. We fall in love. With him and with the stories we imagine he could tell but does not... The stories we will tell of him will save us from our lies.”
The connections Brown draws are strange, and stretching, but she makes it all feel plausible, or, at very least, exciting to think about. That’s the nature of a romance anyway, the plausible-implausible. And her cadences sweep you along the sentences: “The locals are used to strangers here, especially at night,” she writes in “Invisible,” a reimagining of H.G. Wells’s invisible man, except this invisibility is ambiguously gendered, and invisible because of it. “Everybody stops and stares, the pints upraised in drinkers’ paws, the dart about to fly.” The ideas excite; they animate your brain, the connections and links and parallels Brown lays out. Here is someone who’s thinking. Here is someone who’s widely read and widely cultured but not in a snobbish way, never condescending, who’s exploring some stuff, and writing it all almost like it’s poetry, or conversation, a layer on the surface, and so much underneath.
“Americans refuse everything explicit and always put up a sort of double meaning,” Lawrence writes.
To wit, in “Priests,” one of the strongest essays in Brown’s collection, she writes of a childhood game where the tallest person was the priest, decided the rules, doled out Oreos (the body) and Hawaiian Punch (the blood), and the sort of initiation it entailed, the secrets and the signs. “The way you opened it, then what you did, would tell you and your fellows who you were.” And let me quote a passage at length, about the receiving of the wafer/Oreo/body of Christ, because it is the most erotic description of -- eating isn’t the right word, or perhaps it’s the only one -- that I have ever read.
If she slowly, slowly twists it nice and even, one hand beneath and turning clockwise, and the other hand above and turning counter, if she holds her hands both openly but firmly, if she takes her precious time, then cracks it open, opens them and waits. Then if she brings it to her face and looks, at it and then at you, then breathes in like the ocean or the sky, the whole outdoors, if she breathes in deep the it of it, then, with her tongue or with her teeth, begins to lick or scrape or press along the white, if she leaves tracks of tongue or tooth around, across or down, into the crème then to the chocolate, then she stops, then takes a moment, looks again, as if she’s looking at the dawning of the world, as if she’s looking at a miracle, then starts, as slow as before, the gradually unslowing ... if she removes the crème by slow firm tooth- or tongue-ful, then, finally, when the crème is gone, her mouth is sweet, and something’s moist and melting, warm, then slipping down her throat like oil, wine, some thing divine, and then hands you the other … The chocolate is supple, bending, nearly limp. If then she puts one in her mouth and one in yours, and sucks or tongues or presses, nibbles, bites, you know that she is one of us, parfait and pure and yours.
Phewf and sigh and holy crap. Beyond the pure erotics of it, Brown turns sin on its head, contextualizes her sexualized childhood game with a history of certain sects of Christianity, the torture and execution of homosexuals. “The stake-burning mega-trend was helped along by Thomas Aquinas’ declaration that homosexuality was one of the worst worst worst of the ‘sins against nature.’”
And Lawrence closes off his Hawthorne essay: “And even SIN becomes stale.”
And Brown asks: “Is this progress, when things change so much you forget they were ever different?”
Over at NPR they asked us Books We Like folks for summer reading lists. On mine: Binnie Kirshenbaum's The Scenic Route (which I cannot stop gushing about... sorry), Joanna Scott's Follow Me, J. Robert Lennon's Castle, Joan London's The Good Parents, and Gillian Flynn's Dark Places. On Kirshenbaum:
For years, Binnie Kirshenbaum has quietly been one of the funniest and smartest writers we have in the U.S. Hidden behind chick-lit marketing campaigns and soft-focus womanly cover art, her books (An Almost Perfect Moment and Hester Among the Ruins, among them) have razor sharp teeth and surprising depths.
May 27, 2009
Re-reading Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham as comfort reading. It's so deliciously bitchy. It opens with "I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, and it's important, the matter is more often important to him than to you" and gets more acidic from there.
Also a favorite: "I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters. His career might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature. I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent."
This is what I'm doing instead of attending BEA.
I have confessed my geeky love of Simon Schama before. It waned slightly when he referred to his "friend" Tina Brown (seen too many interviews with her) in this interview at B&N, but then he used the word "sempiternally" and there it was, back again. He's talking about his new book The American Future: A History, but of course, everything else in the world as well.
Gaspereau Press, which produces some beautiful books, has had to lay people off and shrink their business a bit. Their publisher Andrew Steeves argues this move was actually an act of optimism. He's interviewed at the National Post.
Aviad Kleinberg wrote in the introduction to his new book Seven Deadly Sins: A Very Partial List, "There is no impersonal writing on sin." Apparently that holds true even when reviewing books about sin, because my latest column at the Smart Set got a little personal. Ah well.
Much of religious doctrine is about protecting you from your darkest impulses. Nowhere is that more evident than with the sin of lust. In the past, theologians have even praised premature ejaculation, because giving pleasure to your woman leads to no good whatsoever. Kleinberg quotes 13th century rabbi Isaac ben Yedaa’iah, in praise of deadened sensation he says comes from circumcision. It’s not good to have sexual satisfaction because, “The sexual activity emaciates him of his bodily fat and afflicts his flesh, and he corrupts his brain entirely in women’s affairs, an evil corruption, and his mind is thus demolished. Between her legs he sank, he fell. And he cannot see the light of the King’s presence, for the eyes of his mind have been shut, and he can no longer see the light.” It’s not too far of a leap from the 13th century to the Catholic church’s decree that sex should only be procreative and then to modern evangelicals swinging “God Hates Fags” posters. Religion would still like you to feel bad about your private parts, and interfere with what you do with them.
May 26, 2009
Bookslut is in need of an intern, to report to Caroline Eick. Please be a spot-on proofreader, and e-mail with letter of interest to C.
But art has always been a home for those parts of the self not codified by the desires of others, or corralled by political expediency. Calvino was a passionate believer in art as a force that could unite the disparate parts of the self - and thereby work to heal society. He thought that the civilised business of living together in peace and co-operation depended on endless creativity, not increasing control. He was on the side of imagination, not pamphleteering. For him, literature as a force going forward, postwar, would be a literature that could encompass everything - science, history, politics, fantasy, but would be in thrall to none of these.
Number 56 Queen Anne Street, just off Oxford Circus, is today a set of Grade II listed, high-end business offices for rent. But in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, this elegant Georgian building housed, among other tenants, the Royal Asiatic Society, as well as my own London ‘station’ on the underground railway for escaping GI deserters. We were breaking the law, under the US Uniform Code of Military Justice and Nato’s Visiting Forces Act; theoretically, in a time of war, we could be shot.
As always, Dennis Loy Johnson is covering the Derek Walcott controversy way better than anyone else. The latest development: Ruth Padel has resigned from the post as the Oxford professor of poetry, due to angry letters, calls for her resignation, etc. Unbelievable fucking nonsense.
Updated to add, you should read the comments on this thread.
A culture that can’t even distinguish “sex” from the adjective “sexual” that modifies, in this case, the noun “harassment” isn’t anywhere near being ready even to debate the vexed question of whether this should debarr Walcott from what is essentially a guest lectureship, not a pedagogic role.
I was told I should remind people where to find me on Twitter. Hence this post.
May 25, 2009
Ruth Padel has resigned as Oxford Professor of Poetry, as new questions have surfaced over her involvement in the campaign against Derek Walcott: The first female Oxford Professor of Poetry resigned today following her involvement in an alleged smear campaign against a former rival.
Ruth Padel, a great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, insisted she had "acted in good faith" and had done "nothing intentional" to lead her rival Derek Walcott to withdraw from the election.
May 24, 2009
Robert McCrum is smoking some ill crack.
Another, more modest, way to categorise the British novel is to see it as either a "history course novel" (a fiction by a writer who has studied history at university and who sees the drama of human affairs in the context of past and present) or an "English course novel" (a novel written by someone who read Eng lit at college).
Welsh author and singer-songwriter Fflur Dafydd has won the Oxfam Hay Prize for emerging writers. Her thriller, Twenty Thousand Saints, is set on Bardsey Island and grew out of her six week residence there.
May 22, 2009
The Naked and the Read
Mr. Swayze, the photo teacher, had white hair and worked as a photojournalist in Vietnam during the war. He carried a picture of his wife, an art teacher at the same school, while he was away there, and carried it with him after. He showed us the photo, it got passed around the class -- a black-and-white image of Mrs. Swayze, maybe even in a bikini -- and we exclaimed, whoa, whoa, because the Swayzes were older, mid-fifties maybe, at that point, and this was a glimpse into their young lives and young love. Which can be startling for high school kids, who haven’t necessarily realized that adults possess lives before their own entrance into them.
At some point during my junior year, Mr. Swayze lent me a copy of Pam Houston’s short story collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness. “You’ll like this,” he said, as photo class wound down one afternoon. “It’s a loan.” I took it, thanked him, flattered that he’d thought of me, knew me well enough to know what sort of stories I might like.
The book had been inscribed, and not to me. From Mr. Swayze to his son. “Ace,” it read, “Thanx for being such a good host to the old man. Hope this makes you a little nostalgic for your American west... love, Dad.”
Had he changed his mind about giving it? Forgotten? Given it and gotten it back?
And then, tucked into the back of the paperback was a note, written in the neat handwriting of someone used to writing in a different alphabet. “Dear Mr. Swayze, Four months later, here is your book, and I am truly sorry that we were so negligent. I must have read it five times through during February + March, which were longer here and more relentless by far than December + January, and Bulgakov would have been more relevant but Pam Houston was very, very comforting. I was so glad to meet you after much advance publicity from Beth, and we don’t get many visitors, as you can imagine. If you are back in town, or your students come over, please give me a call + I will give whatever guidance I can. Thank you again for the book + good luck.” The note is signed “Ellen,” and she leaves two phone numbers “Moscow work” and “Moscow home.”
The book had been around.
And so have the women in Houston’s stories. Not in a fallen woman sort of a way, not really. Her women are tough and independent and wise (or at least wise enough to know that the choices they’re making aren’t the winningest ones). They fall for the wrong men, long for more, find satisfaction for themselves.
I’ll feel like Oprah for saying it, but you’ll see yourself in her stories, or want to. (At seventeen, I wanted to. And now, do, for better and worse.)
“My mother says I thrive on chaos,” she writes in the story “Selway,” “and I guess that’s true, because as hard a year as I’ve had with Jack I stayed with it, and I won’t even admit by how much the bad days outnumbered the good... The one thing we had going for us, though, was the sex... I’ve always been afraid to stop and think too hard about what great sex in bad times might mean. But it must have something to do with timing, that moment making love when you’re at once absolutely powerful and absolutely helpless, a balance we could never find when we were out of bed.”
I loved the stories in high school. They’re sexual, sexy, in a non-graphic way. Physical stories -- women being physical with men, wrapped in moose hides, in tents, with the landscape, the white water and the mountains. And they’re about figuring it out as you go along.
“I thought about being twenty-one,” Houston writes, “and hiking in mountains not too far from these with a boy who almost drowned and then proposed to me... I said yes even though I knew it would never happen because I was too young and free and full of my freedom... by the time you get to be thirty, freedom has circled back on itself to mean something totally different from what it did at twenty-one.”
I’ve revisited her stories again and again over the years (my favorite, called “Cataract,” about a white-water rafting trip, and men’s egos and the depth of women’s friendships and desires, appears in the 1999 O. Henry Awards anthology). And they prove, like Ellen said in her note from Moscow, “very, very comforting.”I’ve had Mr. Swayze’s book for nearly now twelve years. Would that I were a better person, I’d return it to him, perhaps with a note tucked inside that included my apologies for holding onto it so long, and line or two about the strength of Pam Houston’s storytelling, her earthy-wise and understated style, her mastery of describing relationships between men and women and women and women and humans and the western part of the United States. And I would thank him, too, for lending me the collection, so long ago.
Shakespeare's sonnets turned 400 this week, and were already played out in 1609, explains Boyd Tonkin: Far from appearing as a titillating inside-track report on the private passions of a bigwig from the London stage, the Sonnets would have looked old-hat. No one even bothered to reprint them until 1640. Imagine some middle-aged monster of stadium rock going to his manager today with the idea of a perky Britpop concept album, mid-1990s style. Underwhelming, to say the least.
If Shakespeare-as-monster-of-stadium-rock isn't bad enough, Clinton Heylin (in his new book, So Long As Men Can Breathe) apparently sees him as Dylan: "In both [Dylan and Shakespeare's] cases, they were killing time and at the same time dealing with huge personal issues in a private way, which they never conceived of coming out publicly," Heylin says.
For only $25,000, you, too, can own a share of an organic farm associated with Robert Frost's family.
It's stories like these that make you feel good about poetry blogging: Nearly three quarters (72 per cent) [of Britons] admit they are too baffled and daunted by the language to even try reading it, while 41 per cent cannot name a single living poet.
The Scottish Poetry Library has a new site up devoted to Edwin Morgan, with poems, book covers, and guides to reading.
My Dickens students this spring would've enjoyed Dickens Fruit Corners, I think.
May 21, 2009
I miss the days when Phil Ponce would giggle when saying "Bookslut." All good things and all that. The video of the Chicago Tonight interview with myself and Caroline Eick is now available online.
Cheri is a novel about metamorphoses, about illusion and reality, about desire and its possible outcomes. “At the age of 49,” her creator tells us, “Leonie Vallon, called Lea de Lonval, was nearing the end of a successful career as a richly kept courtesan.”
I keep wanting to quote segments from Binnie Kirshenbaum's The Scenic Route, but then two pages later I find another great moment. Her book is astounding. And it's hard to describe without it sounding like a very special Women's Fiction kind of book, which I guess is why they went with a Richard Ford blurb. Richard Ford does not read any of that girly bullshit, so you know it's good. So I won't bother right now, I'll wait until I have to finish up the review I'm writing. But it is very, very good.
The consensus seems to be that the reason The Jewel of Medina is not being published in the UK is because the book is awful. "From my camel's hump I could feel the leaf-kissed air moving like a cool, moist cloth across my brow as I inhaled the fresh clean scents of petal and blade and springs gilding the morning." Etc. The author would rather believe that she is some sort of Salman Rushdie-type, being censored because the publishers are just too scared of potential religious fundamentalist backlash. Publishing her book would be an act of courage, a way to stand up to intolerance.
British publishers, however, would like her to know they're not scared, thank you very much. They just have standards. "I've read the reviews and it sounds absolutely awful – beyond being offensive. If it were good we would actively consider publishing it, but an anachronistic bodice ripper – why would we be interested?" said Jon Wood, Orion publishing director.
May 20, 2009
I have a taller, shorter-haired version of me sleeping on my couch right now (hi, sis!) so I am worthless today with blogging. So why don't you read Sam Anderson's article about distraction in New York Magazine, and follow it up with the New Yorker's feature on neuroenhancing drugs?
Also, Caroline Eick and I will be on WTTW's Chicago Tonight at 7pm-ish, talking about The Future of Bookslut. I think that means I have to decide what the future of Bookslut is, before Phil Ponce asks. But it's probably my last appearance on that show, so I might decide to sit on Phil's lap for the duration of the interview. (Probably not -- I wouldn't want to embarrass Caroline.) Set your Tivo.
May 19, 2009
Tonight is the last installment of the reading series before I depart for Berlin. Rachel DeWoskin, Gillian Flynn, Jeremy M. Davies and Mary Miller are reading at the Hopleaf at 7:30. Come have a beer and say goodbye.
Isn’t it high time we started thinking about all the crap good writers make? Wouldn’t it benefit us to understand the creators of these works and, as part of that understanding, pay homage to their moments of fatigue and inattention? After all, whereas perfect works, isolated by their completeness, hardly offer a hook on which to hang a critical thought, failed works offer insight into the intricate mechanisms of creation by which we might come to recognize the improbable alchemy that gives rise to great literature.
Gawker, after months of deliberation I am sure, has selected Lauren Conrad's novel (so hard not to be quotes around that) L.A. Candy for their next book club. As Bookslut's managing editor points out, "LC will sell more books than you."
While the Guardian wonders why in the world we need another novel about a child prodigy, I'm wondering why all the pretty, gorgeously designed books have to be so poorly written. It's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, and it's dull. Really interestingly designed, but I stopped reading the text and just looked at it after about 15 pages. Maybe those awful Griffin and Sabine books started all of this, or maybe the interesting look of the book distracted the editor from the text. The only exception I can think of right now is House of Leaves, which despite people calling it overrated, I think still really works as a book.
Ah well. The Spivet book is being compared to Jonathan Safran Foer, which is maybe all you should need to know.
Perhaps one of the most powerful conspiracies of the 20th century has been the canard that writing a book is difficult. It isn't. You just have to download loads of stuff from the internet, give it your own spin and claim the credit. So let me be the 2,973,171st person to tell you that JFK was not killed by the Mafia and Marilyn Monroe was not murdered by Martin Luther King. Even today it still amazes me that the whole world – well Mohamed al Fayed and the Daily Express – believes Princess Diana was murdered by Prince Philip. She wasn't. She was killed by a fan of Elton John, who wanted to hear a new version of Candle in the Wind.
The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction is now longlistable. There's a lot of science and fewer biographies among this year's nineteen titles, taken from an extensive pool of submissions.
A record number of entries – 166 – were submitted for the prize; Sands promised that she had "bloody well read them all, and I'm never going to read a book again".
Christos Tsiolkas (his Dead Europe will put you off The Grand Tour for life) has won the Commonwealth Prize for his Melbourne-based novel The Slap. Note that the above link also features a video of a man who has had his arm bitten off by a shark, which really is giving you the maximum bang for your literary award news buck.
Winner of the Best First Novel was Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes. The author also got more than he expected when arriving in New Zealand and getting detained by draconian customs officers, who gave him the Commonwealth "poke brown people with sticks" welcome, a tradition still treasured by the Colonies.
May 18, 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: Christine Onorati and Stephanie Anderson
Continuing from where we left off with our series on indie bookshops in a recession, I've decided to try something new this week by splitting the heartthrob title. Christine Onorati owns Word, the go-to bookshop in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, NY. Stephanie Anderson manages the store. Having started a few months ago to cover for Christine after she had a baby, Stephanie takes care of the shop's day-to-day affairs.
When I lived in Greenpoint, Word was my default bookstore. They're known for having a wonderful selection, and they're the only institution to offer a reading series in the neighborhood. They've also got a basketball league for book-lovers, which is proving to become more and more popular as word spreads. If you're in the neighborhood tomorrow or next week, you may want to check out their reading series, featuring Joanna Smith Rakoff and Ben Greenman, respectively.
Word opened about two years ago, and I understand Christine ran a bookstore in Long Island previously. Why did you decide to open Word, and why in Greenpoint?
Christine Onorati: I had a small new and used bookstore on Long Island for six years prior to moving here. My husband and I moved to Greenpoint in 2006 and I knew I'd move the store here eventually, but it took us some time to find the right space. We thought about setting up shop in Williamsburg and looked extensively for spaces there, but nothing felt right. I knew I wanted the new store to be a community hub, and I really wanted to find something with a dedicated space to hold events. Once we decided to look on Franklin Street in Greenpoint, ours was the first space we saw and we rented it the next day. We opened in March of 2007. Greenpoint is the perfect community to support an independent bookstore like ours: the residents support the small businesses and went out of their way to welcome us.
We're at least six months into a rather harsh recession. How has it been affecting Word?
Stephanie Anderson: From my perspective behind the counter, we haven't been too affected. A couple regular customers have mentioned that they are budgeting more carefully now, but are still including books in their budgeting. So far this month has been surprisingly good, I think.
CO: Luckily, we are still growing with each passing month. New customers are constantly discovering us, and our regular customers try to support us as much as they can. Our events help spread the word, and our twitter account and facebook page also help us grow the bookstore community. I think our customers do budget for books, even if times are tight, and if they are not able to spend on books for themselves, they will try to buy their gifts here or their stationery. I think possibly the neighborhoods that had tons of expendable cash are hurting more than more modest neighborhoods like ours.
Has Word been operating any differently since last fall? Many businesses have had to do things a little differently and introduce new business models since the recession hit as a means to keep things afloat in the current economy.
SA: The one thing I know for sure we're doing differently is buying our replenishment stock directly from the publisher when possible instead of getting it all from the wholesaler--better discount leads to better margins.
CO: We've dramatically cut back on our ordering of new hardcovers, since even the holidays showed people buying paperbacks instead of pricey hardcovers and coffee table books. So we've reduced those sections and focused on popular paperback backlist and new books in paperback. I've also been very conscious of ordering reasonably priced cards and notebooks, since people are looking to spend less on those items.
May 1st was Buy Indie Day. What kind of response did you see for the event?
SA: Way better than I had thought it would be! As it was sort of a grassroots Internet thing, I wasn't sure how it would go. But I ended up having a really busy day, mostly with purchases from people who follow me and/or WORD on Twitter. Many customers in the store hadn't known it was Buy Indie Day, but liked the thought of it once I told them, made some new friends that way. Got to send out lots of fun packages. Would love to do it again next year with more lead-up.
A basketball league for book-lovers (with such amazing team names such as A Tree Dunks in Brooklyn) recently started in the area. How is Word involved in this?
SA: Well, it's our league. Started as a joke between me and another employee, but I really liked the idea of a book-loving basketball league. Christine was kind enough to let me put it out there and see what happened. And what happened was, via Twitter and blogs, over 100 people expressed interest! So now we have 8 teams. We're in pre-season right now to get everyone warmed up, and after BEA we'll start keeping track of wins and losses so we can have finals at the end of summer. We've had six games so far and everyone seems to be having a great time, most of the teams are also organizing their own practices. I'm the referee, which is a lot of fun.
Would you say that after two years Word now has a major role in the North Brooklyn community? What kind of position do you see that as?
SA: I think Christine could say better than I, but I will say that people have told me that they were very excited when an English-language bookstore came to town (Greenpoint is very Polish and has multiple Polish-language bookstores).
CO: I'd like to think that we're becoming a well-known literary attraction in North Brooklyn, but I know there is still a lot of work to do to spread the word about the store, especially throughout Williamsburg and neighborhing communities. Our events are establishing us as a community hub where interesting things are always happening, and I think that's where we'll continue to improve and grow.
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?
SA: My two main goals for the next year are: First, to get e-commerce up and running so that people all over the world can shop with us. I'd love to set up an e-commerce site that replicates, in some way, the experience of being in the store, because I bet there are lots of people who'd love to shop at WORD but can't because they live in another state or something. Second, I'd like to find a way for us to become more involved in schools and with teachers in various ways (summer reading programs, book fairs, fundraising, etc).
I guess in general I do feel like indies are behind with being a place that people think they can buy books online, and I think it hurts us. I'd love to see us all do better as a community, and it seems like a lot of people feel the same way, so I have high hopes for the next year in that regard.
CO: I hope to see the bookstore community continue to expand, and hopefully become somewhat profitable! Someone told me years ago that no one opens a bookstore to become a millionaire, but I'd like to think that with continued support and growth, we'll be able to sustain ourselves and become a neighborhood institution in Greenpoint like other successful indies have done in their communities, like Book Court in Cobble Hill or Book Revue in Long Island. I think if we continue on the path we've started, offering excellent customer service, a great selection, and being the go-to place for literary events in North Brooklyn, we will be OK. At least I hope so. ;-)
Media frenzy over the launch of Amazon's magazine-sized Kindle e-book reader last week overlooked the fact that, like its predecessors and competitors, it remains resolutely monochrome. Not for long, though. A full-colour version of electronic paper, which forms the display of these devices, is to be demonstrated later this month.
I will start saving up my money now.
There's an oral versus written fight over the history of the fairy tale in scholarly circles. Jennifer Howard covers it for the Chronicle of Higher Ed.
Dennis Johnson has been covering the Derek Walcott "smear campaign" -- blech -- very well, and with the election of Ruth Padel to the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University he sums the controversy up for us.
Let’s recap, shall we? In England, they regard a chair in poetry as a very powerful position. They actually hold an election for that chair — candidates vie for it, people vote. Yes, an academic position is subject to a popular vote. And a man with a long and documented history of sexual harassment is seen as subject of a smear campagn if anyone brings up that history. And oh yes, if anyone does bring it up, it’s no doubt the woman running against him.
May 15, 2009
When New Zealand writer Janet Frame died in 2004, she left behind almost 20 volumes of fiction, poetry, short stories and memoir, along with a giant hole in the literary community. It turns out she also left behind a few works she felt were too personal to publish during her lifetime.
Simon Armitage on Ted Hughes, environmentalist: . On a local level, Hughes was even more determined, becoming something of an expert on the subject of sewage, and giving evidence at a hearing for a water treatment plant in Bideford. (More here.)
Possibly the most objective way to rank poets: By beard weight.
More poets on Twitter: Last week, Mashable.com listed 100 writers who are active on Twitter. Guess who they totally left out? Yep, poets.
Christian Bök, Nada Gordon, Kenneth Goldsmith, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad, Kim Rosenfield, Garry Sullivan, and Darren Wershler-Henry discuss conceptual writing and flarf at the Whitney.
And, via Bök on Twitter, some excellent videos of "Explodity: An Evening of Transrational Sound Poetry" at the Getty.
The Globe and Mail has a long obituary for Robin Blaser, who died last week: "What Blaser did was to enlarge the world by showing us things both marvellous and horrific that we never would have thought to pay attention to without his finger pointing at them."
Robert Christagau has a great review of the new live album by The Hold Steady: So what you hear on A Positive Rage isn't just a superb repertoire nailed by a band on the tour of its life. It's a haranguer lifted by his fans and committed to delivering them, temporarily, from the sad times they have together. There is so much joy in what he does.
Finally, the Vowel Movers provide a dossier of literary BFFs.
May 14, 2009
We are moving today into the second phase of Guys Lit Wire, where we put our money where our mouth is and physically act on getting books into the hands of boys that otherwise have none. Today we start the first two week Guys Lit Wire Book Fair for Boys to help the teens incarcerated in the LA County Juvenile Justice System. They have no books - at all - and they need them; they need them desperately.
The Naked and the Read
In February of 2007, the Village Voice ran a cover story about the sex life of a disabled man named Larry who nicknamed his lovers after various foods (“Peanut Butter because was sweet at first and stuck with him, but later, when she left, she also left a bad taste in his mouth,” “Matzo Ball Soup because she was Jewish, clumpy, and a tad salty.”) The piece was told without a direct quotation. Instead, the author used simplistic sentences (“She caught sight of his penis and asked if it was small because of his disability. He was embarrassed and angry”), which were meant, I have to assume, to echo the simple way Larry spoke.
Mara Altman, the writer, got broiled for it. Truly scorched. The response was vicious and loud and mean. It became a running joke at the newspaper where I worked. We’d laugh at writers’ meetings, “Has anyone investigated the underground world of the sex lives of dyslexics?” “I’ve noticed a lot of folks in wheelchairs along Peterborough Street. Maybe there’s a scoop there?” Poor Mara. But also, if we’re being honest, it was a horrifying piece of journalism.
And then we find out that she’s written a book. About orgasms. About how she, at age 26, hadn’t had one. Oh, boy. Poor Mara. I was ready to be rendered similarly eye-wide and off-put by the navel-gazing sex-obsessed oversharer.
And so I was. Thanks for Coming: One Woman’s Quest for an Orgasm has a simple premise. Altman, neurotic, ambitious, locked in her own head, the offspring of a sexually open set of parents, can’t come. One hurdle: she won’t touch “the complicated lump of squish you find between the female’s legs.” And so she goes seeking the advice, wisdom, teachings, and techniques of an international cast of experts, sex workers, neuroscientists, JDate candidates, vaginal plastic surgeons, sacred whores, Orgasm People, etc., all to help figure out what’s wrong with her, to help her figure out how to come. She’s single-minded and determined about her quest, as though reaching orgasm is another notch to scratch in her professional bed-post.
From the start, a naïveté pervades. It’s not endearing, and it’s not just about sex. “Ever followed a group of retarded people around?” she writes. “I’m kind of envious of them; they’re perpetually in seventh grade. They can be lewd, crass, publicly scratch their crotches -- letting out their inner animals -- with no consequences.” In the words of The Office’s Michael Scott: “You don’t call retarded people retards, that’s just bad taste. You call your friends retards when they are acting retarded.”
She writes of working for an English-language daily in India, and the cultural differences. “Arranged marriages were still commonplace... I found it so odd, and so sad. What about love?... All these people here, a whole country of them, were missing out, I felt.” Generalizations of this sort, reductive comments and observations, pop up throughout the book. And coupled with her conversational tone, though breezy and easy to read, made me feel like the book was being written by an eighteen-year-old. “Every time I saw him,” she writes of a thirty-year-old Muslim named Rafiq, “my eyes went dry (I’ll let you guess where the moisture went). I never expected to be attracted to someone like him.”
But as I read on, about her visit to Betty Dodson (the “fairy godmother of orgasm”), her time in Peru, looking herself in the mirror, I found that I was rolling my eyes less. Mara was winning me over. To my surprise, I found that I was actually rooting for her. I wanted her to succeed, wanted her to reach her goal. You can do it!, I thought. Just relax! Don’t overthink it! That’s what a lot of people told her. That, and get a vibrator.
The mid-section of the book plays out like a classic quest -- the characters speak like magicians, gurus, magical figures, imparting nuggets of wisdom from various points of view. “People overvalue orgasm,” one woman at a sex conference tells her. “They go looking for an orgasm instead of pleasure. Look for pleasure first; that will lead you where you want to go.”And though I cringed, often, and shook my head, and did find it simplistic and self-centered, I ended up feeling like I was on Mara’s team. My hope is that she’s able to grow up and get her head out of her own cunt.
My review of Christopher Potter's You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe is up at NPR, along with the usual excerpt from the book. I was reading that at the same time as Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung and Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity, which is the reason I am going to use for why Nabokov was too much for me last night. I couldn't retain a thing, and I think it's because I used up all of my processing power on that one month of reading. I'll be reading nice books about weddings published by Persephone until my strength returns.
May 13, 2009
I probably chose the topic of this week's Smart Set column -- treating depression without the use of antidepressants and the rather stunning failure rate of SSRIs -- because I was hoping the books would help put an end to the crying about the move. I started cringing when I got to the meditation recommendation in Unstuck: Your Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression, because I cannot meditate for longer than two minutes. But happily he told me that there is a form of meditation that includes "fast, deep breathing; shaking, dancing, and whirling." I was glad to hear that my pajama-clad, early morning disco dancing regimen was actually a form of meditation. Not that it's helped to solve the crying, but I think I'm just going to have to admit there is nothing to be done about that. From the column:
Unstuck opens with the declaration that “Depression is not a disease.” It’s a controversial stand to take after years of being told the opposite. The arguments for and against calling depression a disease are similar to that of calling addiction a disease. Opponents think the label robs the addict or the depressive of their power – and absolve them of any bad choices that led to their downfall. Of course the pharmaceutical industry would love for everyone to accept depression as a disease – every disease needs a medical cure. But psychiatrists, patients, and their families have also fought for this relabeling in order to reduce some of the stigma involved in mental illness. After all, you don’t blame a kid for his leukemia, do you?
I wrote that book of poems and then nothing happened at all. I was happy to have written it, and I wanted people to read it, but it didn’t help me to get a job or anything; nothing came of it. The novel, on the other hand, was this huge sort of fanfare. And it’s funny because the novels have the same sort of material, the same sort of ideas as the poems, and I almost could have chosen which one to do; poetry is what I was starting with.
For all of the madcap plotting of Jim Morrow's books (The Philosopher's Apprentice features an "army of born-again Christian reanimated 30-year-old aborted fetuses who set out to destroy the citadel of the novel’s super-feminist heroine with shotguns, howitzers and big oil donated gas trucks"), I always end up feeling like his books are empty. Maybe it's the atheist writing about what a jerk God is thing. Whatever it is that leaves me cold, this interview, wherein he discusses his nonbelief and compares critical prejudice against science fiction to racism, is not helping me find a way to his books.
In my view the bias against science fiction exhibited by so many mainstream critics and authors doesn’t map vaguely onto racial bigotry — it maps precisely onto racial bigotry. The literati have prejudged the entire enterprise. They know in their gut that SF is worthless, all Buck Rogers and ray guns and Star Wars, so they needn’t bother to learn anything about it. Sure, the literati will acknowledge the occasional exception like Ray Bradbury — a real credit to his race, that man — but this “some of my best friends write genre fiction” malarkey only reinforces the prejudice.
Make sure your system is cleared of any hallucinogens before reading the following: The Art of Penguin Science Fiction (which answers the age old question, "How would you visually represent a book called Monkey Planet?") and artwork from a 1970s textbook called Biology Today.
May 12, 2009
The Longest Journey, of course, also has a limping hero (an inherited rather than accidental disability, but similarly seen as a possible obstacle to marriage); eight years later, Somerset Maugham’s Philip Carey, in Of Human Bondage, would also stagger through life with a club foot. A limp is not the most recherché of symbolic attributes, but it is striking that all three of these gay novelists should award it to their protagonists within so short a space of time.
I think really what you’re talking about is romances and books that aren’t romances—“romances” in the definition of Northrop Frye: those entertainments that go back to ancient times. The Odyssey is a romance. Books about quests, and mysteries to be solved, and journeys undertaken to solve mysteries, lovers who are divided and reunited in the end, treasures that are found and lost again—all that kind of material as well as talking animals and ghosts and ancient evils and trips to the underworld to learn wisdom and come back again—all that romance material, it persists in literature to a greater and lesser extent. I mean, it can be found in realistic novels too—disguised and displaced in various ways.
There was a book I was trying so hard to like, because it came highly recommended by someone I respect very much, but it was driving me batty. It was a memoir, and I found myself hating the author for no good reason. I forced myself to give up on it before I became so frustrated I decided to tell the recommender exactly what I thought of his favorite book of the year, and picked up Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside to suit my bitter mood. My review of Dying Inside is at NPR.org, along with an excerpt from the book.
Bookslut needs to restock some columnists: if you're interested in covering cookbooks, poetry, science fiction, or comic books (or have another idea you're interested in) please e-mail Caroline with a letter of interest and writing samples.
Derek Walcott is one of three candidates for the Oxford professor of poetry position, and someone has been sending documented reports of Wolcott's sexual harassment of a female student to those making the decision.
The pages from The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner recount the details of a sexual harassment claim made by a Harvard student against Walcott. The student alleged that while discussing her work with Walcott after class, he asked her to "imagine me making love to you. What would I do? ... Would you make love with me if I asked you?" After rejecting his approaches, she was then given a C grade in his class.
Harvard reprimanded Walcott after reviewing the case, and required him to write an apology to the student; he said that his teaching style was "deliberately personal and intense", and that he had "sensed no reluctance [in the student] to pursue the topic of sexual relationships".
May 10, 2009
"It's this small story that kind of took us for a ride in a weird, weird way. It was not any sort of ambitious project to conquer the comics world at all."
Best Emerging Talent went to Kate Beaton's History Comics, and something called the Pigskin Peters Award was won by Ojingogo, by Matthew Forsythe.
The Orange Prize shortlist has been knocking about long enough to stir the crazy ("If fiction by women came into vogue, was this a cause or an effect of Orange?"), and there's a breathless profile of prize founder Kate Mosse up here. Warning: the above article contains some deadly alliteration.
That shortlist in full:
May 8, 2009
A Benedictine monk from Minnesota is scouring libraries in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Georgia for rare, ancient Christian manuscripts that are threatened by wars and black-market looters; so far, more than 16,500 of his finds have been digitized.
Among the discoveries are lost gospels, an older version of Medea (minus the children killing), and Greek poetry fragments. (Link from Maud.)
Writers are from Mars, translators are from... Tralfamadore. Paul Verhaeghen, who wrote Omega Minor in Flemish and then translated it into English himself, explains the difference between writing and translating.
The answer here, I think, is that writers and translators have different loyalties. Translation is, after all, a business of rigid motion, with an allegiance to accuracy; writers are wedded to – and I apologize to use this word in polite company – the truth.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow's Two Cultures lecture, about the chasm between the literary and the scientific communities. Seed Magazine asks E. O. Wilson, Janna Levin, Steven Pinker and others whether we've made any progress since then.
May 7, 2009
Robin Blaser, whose The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser appeared last September, has died. Charles Bernstein has reprinted his afterword to The Holy Forest as a tribute: Blaser’s work constitutes a fundamental part of the fabric of the North American poetry and poetics of “interrogation,” to use his term. Compared to his most immediate contemporaries, Blaser has pursued a different, distinctly refractory, willfully diffuse, course that has led him to be circumspect about publication. As a result, it was almost 40 years from his first poems to the time when The Holy Forest began to emerge as one of the key poetic works of the present. . . . Blaser’s work seems to me more a part of the future of poetry than the past.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick has just finished teaching a course on the fiction of her late colleague, David Foster Wallace, and her ambivalence about wrapping the course up has led her to post the tribute for Wallace she wrote for Pomona College. It's a bit unexcerptable, but definitely worth your time, even at this remove.
Erik Morse's interview with Jim Jarmusch reveals the director's affinity for OuLiPo, plus lots of other goodies: The French poets, OuLiPo, like Raymond Queneau and those guys had this idea of creating poems through a similar structure as the cut-up procedure. Queneau had this beautiful book called One Hundred Million Poems and they come as little strips in a book that you could arrange and ultimately create millions of poems out of. But those things were really important in the structure of the film because I had a 25 page prose story to start with but I did not want a traditional script. So we just took it from there and started building, allowing things that we found along the way or juxtapositions to enter the film. (Via Austin Kleon)
If ever you wanted to know why William Carlos Williams took the plums, he explains it in this sound clip.
Nick Owchar distinguishes between Geoffrey Hill the poet and the the private man: The scowl on the cover of his Selected Poems is the mask he uses in order to produce his poetry. Read me, it seems to say, but otherwise keep your distance.
Character A: You remember that Thing*? I remember that Thing.
Character B: I remember that Thing also.
Character A: Our shared rememberance of that Thing constitutes a lasting and real human connection!
(Link from The Awl.)
The Naked and the Read
At the back of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, Kevin Wilson’s collection of exceptional and peculiar short stories, the publisher offers an “About the Author” segment, which includes a Q&A, a “Stories behind the Stories” section, and a short little essay called “Meet Kevin Wilson,” in which Wilson writes about why he started writing. (It has to do with making out.)
I’m ambivalent about these sorts of add-ons, primarily because it makes it harder for the work to stand on its own. If a writer comes off as an arrogant jerk-off in a little why-I-write essay, it’s difficult -- at least it is for me -- not to then have that impression skittering around my brain as I’m reading. So instead of me sitting there thinking “hm, wow, this story is challenging yet human, I’m impressed and engaged” (I don’t actually ever think in sentences like that), I picture the author, smug and self-satisfied with his laptop and latte, rolling a cigarette, growing some flimsy insult of a mustache, and I think “fuck this shit, all this guy is doing is trying to call attention to the size of his mind.” “Meet the Author” sections preclude the ability to have a pure reading experience -- it can’t just be you and the “text” anymore.
Wilson, to be clear, comes nowhere near to giving the impression that he’s an arrogant jerk-off with adolescent facial hair. Indeed, he comes off humble and sincere and charming. “I wish that there were more artistic and noble reasons that I put pen to paper,” he writes, “but the truth of the matter is that I wanted people to kiss me and I had the unfounded notion that, if I wrote a good enough story, people would be compelled to make out with me.”
I read this disclosure before I read anything else in the collection. And so yeah, did it impact the way I read the stories? Sure. After each one, a small voice in my head asked, “Would you make out with him because of this story? Would this one make you want to kiss him?” Usually the answer was yes. Wilson puts together good sentences. He puts together good stories. His writing reminds me a little of Chris Adrian’s, in its earnestness and searchingness and strangeness, and for Wilson’s ability to make the strangeness -- a professional grandparent replacement service, an inheritance decided by origami, spontaneous combustion, noise factories -- seem not so strange at all, as though watching a man shoot himself in the face as an act in a variety show is something that just might well exist somewhere. Probably in the South.
Attraction and sexuality flicker in and out of the stories. In “Mortal Kombat,” two teenage boys, “academic athletes... very unpopular,” find themselves in a confusing push-pull. Typical horseplay leads to something more: “Wynn slams his elbow on the floor and the pain shoots all the way from his arm to the base of his head. He grabs Scott, yells, ‘Fucker,’ and then they are lying on the floor, tangled up. They are grinning, shoving each other, and trying to stand. Then they are kissing, clicking teeth in the force and quickness of their decision.”
It’s such an apt description, how all-of-a-sudden it is, like being in a car crash -- you’re driving along, singing to the radio, passing trees and mailboxes and telephone poles, and then without knowing what happened, you’re by the side of the road, upside down, wheels spinning above you. Everything fine and familiar, then everything upside down.
Wilson’s characters are ones that “do no fit correctly into the spaces available to them.” It’s true of the teenagers, and true of his grown-ups, too. In “The Museum of Whatnot,” a reclusive 31-year-old curator of other people’s detritus (chicken bones, toe nail clippings, a collection of Cracker Jack prizes, 400 spoons) gets curious about an older doctor who comes into the museum every week. There’s an intimacy in all their interactions.
People’s jobs get special attention in these stories, a rare thing, and the professions that Wilson creates are wacky ones. One man is in the business of worst case scenarios (“I can only tell them how it might happen, not how to prevent it”). A woman without a family of her own works as a replacement grandmother (“You can be happy with your life and yet still see the point of one lived differently”). Someone looks for the letter Q at the Scrabble factory; another works at a noise factory (“We put sound in things”).
“Go, Fight, Win,” about a 16 year-old girl who builds model cars, hates being a cheerleader, and ends up falling for her strange, fire-entranced 12-year-old neighbor boy, is the high point of the collection. Just as you don’t often see much about characters’ jobs in fiction, you also tend not to see characters who are shy. Wilson nails a shy person’s dread of interaction (not to mention a teenage girl’s insecurity, curiosity, and wisdom). Though extremely shy, Penny is not passive. Sparks dance around her. And for this story, I would most assuredly kiss Kevin Wilson, and maybe even go to second base.
I have always been, at heart, a country boy. It is only as I get older, and as I can measure the changes in the natural world, that I realize how invaluable it is to understand the seasons, the trees, the vines, the bees and animals. I don’t know if others feel that longing, that sense of how transitory the landscape is, how delicate…I can’t begin to imagine how others perceive the world.
Paule Marshall is profiled at the New York Times on the event of the 50th anniversary of her book Brown Girl, Brownstones. (Read Bookslut's review of Marshall's memoir Triangular Road in the new issue.)
May 6, 2009
Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown is reviewed at the New Yorker. (Link from Maud.)
One hesitates to seek a moral in the glittering life of a bad girl, and Helen Gurley Brown, thank goodness, is incorrigible. That is the dissonance in Scanlon’s redemptive approach: the colorless prose that keeps its ankles decorously crossed on the dais; the savant discussions of second-wave and third-wave and “lipstick” feminism; and the vision of Brown as a transitional species of New Woman. No, she was a classic poor girl on the make, lusty and driven, who, with her husband’s help, found a clever formula that wasn’t unique, except perhaps in its crude honesty, for marketing her own worldly wisdom. And now she is a great old tough cookie, whose survival one applauds. Most of all, Scanlon’s portrait reminds one it has never been easy to be both a woman and a person—that femininity (like masculinity) is, to some extent, a performance. What has changed since Brown wrote “Sex and the Single Girl” is that women have more roles to play, on a greater stage. She helped—but only modestly—to expand the repertoire.
In the course of this Fresh Air episode, Terry Gross refers to Ayelet Waldman's "impressive sexual resume." Knowing that is already enough to make me want to shove an ice pick into my frontal lobe without having to actually listen to the interview. If you have the strength, you can listen to the whole thing (she's promoting a book called Bad Mother) online, and read an excerpt.
It's funny that no matter how clear I am about the move (I am just relocating, I'm not married or dying, I will continue to be involved with Bookslut), it's being warped somewhere along the way. Like the weird rumor that I secretly got married. My friend mentioned this rumor to her mother, who responded, "She does not need a man! How dare they!" I am going to hire her to do my PR.
So despite saying in the interview with 848 at WBEZ that I will still remain editor-in-chief of Bookslut, in the introduction and on the website, it says that I am leaving altogether. You can listen to it online.
May 5, 2009
I was waiting until an interview about Bookslut's anniversary was posted before introducing the new issue, but it looks like it won't be until later today. By then I hope to be back in bed, reading Heidegger. (Because, really, why not?) But indeed, this is the 7th anniversary issue of Bookslut.com.
Mark Doten talks to one of my favorites Binnie Kirshenbaum about her new novel The Scenic Route, whether Bach is a literary composer, and getting stuck in the women's literature ghetto. (Some of her cover art looks like it could be the backdrop to a douche commercial, which is unfair.) Sean P Carroll talks to Chloe Aridjis about post-Wall Berlin, and Collette LaBouff Atkinson talks to poet Allison Benis White about her muse Degas. Elizabeth Bachner reads Lev Raphael's My Germany and wonders when art, literature, and music started to be something that was supposed to be healing for the writer and consumer. Barbara J. King looks at sociometric technology that will help clueless men who don't know how to listen get laid on dates. (I think I'm reducing her article a bit.)
Elizabeth Gumport reviews Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, while also reviewing the reviews of his collection. "His stories, many of which feature men who inflict or endure violence, have been lauded as things that must be endured themselves. He hits us with despair, these reviewers say, and we can take the punch. Tower’s fiction has become a test of one’s manhood: those who appreciate it are “real men;” everyone else is a wuss." Eryn Loeb wonders whether Victor Malecek really believes watching pornography is the equivalent of hiring a prostitute. We also have reviews of new books by Walter Kirn, Arthur I. Miller, Joey Comeau, Ben Greenman, and more.
I am in love with Eva Hoffman's Appassionata, which I'm guessing was originally called Illuminations in the UK. Unless she wrote two novels about a concert pianist who has an affair with a Chechnyan activist. Anything is possible, Ms. Pessl wrote two books about investigations into apparent suicides. Hoffman talks to the Independent about Illuminations which is also probably Appassionata. (The US gets the superior title, and superior cover art -- the UK cover is awful.)
Did Hoffman herself see the charisma and sexual appeal of men of violence? It was something she "understood with more immediacy when I was younger", she replies discreetly. "I can... imagine the appeal of the very fiery, the very intense, the very dedicated personality who burns with a gem-like flame – though, in his case, a very dark one. But I couldn't have written this book if I didn't have a certain perspective on it and on her."
Marilyn French died recently. She was best known for her novel The Women's Room, although she also wrote the four volume series From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women in the World. Hilary Mantel tackles all four volumes in an essay at the New York Review of Books. Mantel manages both to be respectful to the project and to remain wary of French's more caustic moments. (The most famous line in her novel Women's Room is, after all, "All men are rapists, and that's all they are.")
The home, French observes, is seen as women's natural territory, but is also "the primary site of female prosecution," the place where she is most unsafe. Sometimes the only power a woman has is to kill herself. In east African traditional societies women committed "cooking pot suicide," poisoning themselves and taking their children with them. Sometimes a woman is more powerful dead than alive. In the China of the Han dynasty, if an unhappy wife killed herself wearing her red bridal dress, she would haunt the husband's family and they would have to move house.
May 4, 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: Jane Vandenburgh
I first came across Jane Vandenburgh's A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century after stumbling on the graphic review by Alison Bechdel (Fun Home, Dykes to Watch Out For) in the New York Times. While I'm not a huge fan of the Times' book section, I am a huge fan of Bechdel's work. For fear of waxing poetic on the reviewer rather than the reviewee, I'll cut myself short and just link everyone to said review.
Awesome-review-garnering-power aside, Pocket History spends its first half chronicling Vandenburgh's fantastic childhood circumstances: her father's suicide (he was actively bisexual in the 1950's, so his father often had to bribe authorities at the LA Vice Squad to keep his name out of the papers), her mother's advancing insanity, and eventually life under a conservative aunt who eventually found solace in the Evangelical Church. And yet she doesn't revel, as so many memoirists with terrible childhoods tend to do, or feel the need to do. Vandenburgh's account sounds exactly as described—it's an account. The book's second half shifts into the more immediate, self-reflective nature of the memoir as it explores Vandenburgh's adolescence through adulthood: pornography, bizarre sexual fantasies, two marriages (the latter and more lasting being to her editor Jack Shoemaker of Counterpoint)—all tied together in a series of essays.
I was in contact with Jane over the weekend via email, where we discussed the natures of fiction and memoir, the process behind Pocket History, and how it felt to be the catalyst for (I'll say it again) an awesome graphic book review.
You've touched on certain themes presented here in some of your previous novels (such as with the mother in Failure to Zigzag). Why did you decide to write a memoir this time around? How did approaching these experiences differ for you when writing the memoir as opposed to a novel?
Several of the stories that became chapters in Pocket History were originally published as fiction. I, in fact, always work not only very personally, but right at that foggy edge of the borderland where these distinctions fade. I have to get way into any story, as you do in fiction, have to write my way into the room where the story is taking place. It’s like I’m an investigative journalist whose main beat is the landscape of her own memory.
My impulse as a writer is toward realism. I am a truth teller by impulse, unlike, say, James Frey, who’s an obvious Fabricator. While I care almost obsessively about getting at the truth, his impulse is pure Tall Tale. There’s nothing really wrong with A Million Little Pieces except that it’s so patently false, offering all kinds of internal that this stuff could never have realistically happened.
But by realism, I always mean that I come at the truth abstractedly, in the way Lucien Freud paints.
A note on technique appears at the beginning of your book, where you state: "I have employed some of the techniques of fiction in order to tell the story that exists most vividly in my recollections." Which techniques are you referring to, and how were they employed in the storytelling process?
Lucien Freud works from life models who might not, frankly, have the most beautiful naked bodies you and I have even seen, but they’re so clearly and spectacularly seen by him that they’re luminous on the canvass.
I tell any story by using fiction’s ability to sort details toward revealing the scene’s essential truth, bringing brightness forward, letting shadow fall away. I like to work in scene in the first person, in the present tense to render the story with immediacy, so it feels like narrative time is rushing by.
I don’t invent dialogue so much as I find—in memory—something characteristic that someone’s said, how my aunt told my uncle: Oh, you talk a good fight, for instance. Then I’ll imaginatively investigate what that enigmatic little nugget of language meant, about which I had no idea as I overheard it, and only later discovered that it commented on their entire faltering relationship.
Someone at a reading recently asked me, "But how can you remember all this?" My answer? "How can you forget?"
Looking back, it feels as if A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century is actually two different yet entirely related books. Did you approach the book with this outcome in mind?
I came at it just as I’ve approached every other narrative project, with the conviction that a story’s unity is intrinsic, that any piece of a story might lead off digressively but will eventually wander right back to that one story’s own simple arc. The arc of this story? what happened to me in the wake of my father’s death and how this effected my other attempts at love.
We as writers or readers need to find ourselves in the presence of the story where it’s happening, but we can enter that narrative place by different doors. We can enter a building by walking through the metal detectors, then taking the elevator to the eighth floor, but we can also get to the eighth floor by ninja-ing up the side and climbing in a window.
It’s like using different Operating Systems, PC versus Mac.
So the two parts of the book are maybe constructed from disparate impulses: the first and PC part was written over years in these almost tight-lipped stories that presented in this organized, linear, very clipped and left-brained way. They wanted to simply chronicle the events of a childhood already so gaudy and spectacular that the writing all but begged to be plain.
The second half is maybe more Mac-like, by which I mean it was written quickly and that its logic is intuitive. The writing took place in this sheer exhilaration of storytelling that tries to mimic the speed of spoken language. But believe me I work very hard at getting it to sound like it’s been just tossed off, that it’s just this whatever just occurred to me, and people have been tricked.
The first half has been maybe more easily comprehended and has been almost universally praised, but it’s my book’s second half and its more innovative storytelling that I’m more proud of. I’m also willing to accept that mine is a minority opinion.
A recent edition of the NY Times Book Review featured a graphic review of your book by Alison Bechdel. What was your reaction to the review? [I ask because it's a graphic review, which I think is a great idea in itself.]
Alison Bechdel’s is probably my favorite review of anything of mine ever, not only because the choice of her was completely inspired, but because she first so totally GOT my book, then wrote and drew something so eloquent. (I love Fun Home, which I think is completely brilliant and hard edged, funny and deep and joyous, also liberating and above all TRUE the way James Frey cannot be TRUE).
So it surprised me that all these well-meaning people wrote or called after the review run who seemed to want to, well, commiserate with me? who were, you might say, affronted on my behalf that Pocket History, this OMG! pretty serious book of maybe literature! had been reviewed by someone who works in—and here they’d pause, as if about to say something pretty shocking—a graphic medium.
Giving me the sense that they maybe hadn’t even looked at the pictures very carefully.
God, would I ever do a graphic novel if only I could draw! that she covered so much ground in so few words! I love that spare witty intelligence! And Alison and I have since emailed back and forth, she’s said she was afraid I’d hate it, also that she was sorry that she never said how fucking hilarious I am. And yes, I too regret not having been praised in The New York Times for how fucking hilarious my book is by Alison Bechdel, author of Dykes to Watch Out For, who is totally fucking hilarious herself.
I heard your next books will be called "The Architecture of the Novel" and "The Etiquette of Suicide." Can you elaborate on these projects?
Picking up the pace! two books in quick succession!
Architecture is a craft book that derives from my thinking of how we succeed or fail in structuring our longer narratives either fictively or as memoir. Comes from a class I teach as a year-long workshop through the writers’ community called Fishtrap—it’s like a low-residency MFA, but cheaper. Due January 2010.
The Etiquette of Suicide is a personal investigation of the suicide of a certain poet—not exactly a friend of mine, more someone I knew in passing—and how this particularly horrific death was dealt with by me and by others around her. Suicide is unlike other deaths in that it contains this socially explosive piece, whose shocks ripple outward. Its survivors are like those standing near a bomb blast: we’re forever changed by it.
The book tells about the winter after the poet died when I left the city to go live in the country to write, all by myself in a huge, cold white house with little company except for one sick dog. When people asked what I was working on I’d say, in my fake bright way: The Etiquette of Suicide, which I finally began to hear as a fairly assaultive thing to say, in that these people had no idea what to do with this information. Was it a “cry for help?”
And I wasn’t, in truth, writing much of anything. Instead I was reading everything I could on suicide and pretty much losing my mind.
Suicide is a social act that effects us all and often in odd and unpredictable ways. It has a genetic and even generational component, in that it runs in families, also has this contagious piece that lets it move through a class of people or a social scene. These are some of the aspects I investigate in this memoiristic, non-fiction-ish book, to pub late 2010.
And, yes, I’m feeling better now, thanks for asking!
This week's Smart Set column is brought to you by Maud Newton, whose book I stole to write it. I was going to get my own copy of Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung, but while I was reading it in her home, it got mixed up with the rest of my books and thrown in my suitcase during Last Minute Packing. (She sort of gave me permission to take it, so "stole" is maybe the wrong word.)
Either way, Cosmic Number made friends with Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity, as both have stories about math or science problems driving people to suicide. (Add that to the list of ways I will not die: math.)
May 1, 2009
Latest on Craig Arnold, although no real news yet.
Wolverine is ridiculous. Also, Canadian.
Wolverine has been, at various times, a Canadian cowboy, a ninja, a private eye, a secret agent, a bootlegger, a mercenary, a bodyguard, a caveman, a victim of the Holocaust, a Vietnam vet, a World War II vet, a corrupt cop, and a lumberjack. Also, he was raised by wolves; he was raised by native Canadians; he is the reincarnation of a warrior from a race of humanoid dog people; he was at Hiroshima when the bomb fell, and all his girlfriends died (11 to date). Oh, and he's saddled with five children. (One died in utero, one is an evil clone.)
Maud Newton solicited some quotations from me for her quiz on writers talking about writing. The quiz was originally used at an event with her and Kate Christensen, but she has it up on the blog for those who missed it. One of mine:
Which poet and Nobel Laureate said: “On the bookshelf your place will be occupied, not by you, but by your book. And as long as they insist on making a distinction between art and life, it is better if they find your book good and your life foul than the other way around. Chances are, of course, that they won’t care for either.”