December 30, 2009
The old man laughed throatily. "I'm Marcus Kidder, long-term Bayhead resident, though it may turn out that the real Kidder is Joycie-Baby for churning out this quasi-feminist Lolita crap."
From the London Review of Books archive: Betsy Blair, who died this year, explains what you get when the FBI releases its file on you.
I was a blacklisted Hollywood fellow-traveller, a champagne socialist, a Pinko. Not that I wasn’t serious about my ideas and ideals. I was as serious as a 17-year-old arriving on the Coast, newly and ecstatically married to the about-to-be movie star Gene Kelly, could possibly have been. That is to say, I was easily and happily serious, feeling good about myself, rebellious and righteous and pure. I was also being spied on by the FBI.
December 29, 2009
AC Graying reviews Paul Murdin's Secrets of the Universe: How We Discovered the Cosmos at B&N Review.
Jeremiah Horrocks and his friend William Crabtree were ecstatic when they observed the transit of Venus on 24 November 1639. Horrocks had predicted the date of the transit by carefully applying Kepler's Rudolphine Tables of planetary motion, published twelve years before. The two amateur astronomers watched the black dot of Venus inch its way across the burning image of the sun projected onto a card in Crabtree's attic. Horrocks described his friend as standing 'rapt in contemplation' for a long time, unable to move, 'scarcely trusting his senses, through excess of joy.'
December 28, 2009
I am utterly charmed by Judith Jones's The Pleasures of Cooking for One, which is not only convincing me that I can make mussels for just myself, and that messy food is the best to cook when solo as no one is there to see you pick up the ox tail and start gnawing on the bone, but it's also helping me deal with the weird Berlin markets. One day here you can find kale. The next day, no kale in all of Prenzlauer Berg. It's nice to be eating more seasonally with less food flown in from South America, but some days you would kill someone for a bag of greens.
Also utterly charming: the fact that Judith Jones has a blog. She's writing about poetry and cookbooks and how the best thing you can do with leftover bread is to soak it in espresso and chocolate (holy hell). She name drops Simon Schama and Galway Kinnell, and I am now bookmarking.
Paula Marantz Cohen on what teaching The Merchant of Venice for thirty years to college students has taught her.
In short, for my students at the time, Shylock was unsavory, brutal, and ultimately inhumane. They could comprehend him up to a point, but they continued to insist that he was the villain, and that to say otherwise would be to twist Shakespeare’s intention. I knew they were not entirely wrong—but also that their response was, in part, a cover for prejudice. I came away from teaching the play with a sense of incompleteness and unease. In the best instances, my students seemed to feel the same way, which meant that they were potentially open to seeing the world differently, if not then, at some point in the future.
Following links around randomly, I went from this blog posting about Narrative Magazine ripping off its readers and writers (I have never read anything on there, as registration takes forever, and you can't read anything if you're not a registered user. Then, of course, they email you constantly and sell your email address to other people.) to a kind of awesome short story by Tao Lin in HTMLGiant's comments section about literary magazine entry fees ruining a marriage.
Jack Horner, who wrote How to Build a Dinosaur: The Science of Reverse Evolution and worked as a consultant on Jurassic Park, is now involved in a project to build a fucking dinosaur. Out of chickens. Didn't you watch the movie? It ends badly!
Dear everyone: stop trying to bring about the end of the world. Thanks.
Got the post-holiday suicides? It's because you're reading this blog. Or checking your work email despite being on holiday vacation. Or because you asked for a shiny, shiny watch for Christmas. These things don't make you happy, so say the psychologists. What you need is autonomy, competence, inter-relatedness, and critical thinking, which all require time away from Twitter. (Of course they don't really say how to get those things, for that you'll have to buy their books. Because they totally need a new watch.)
But if you need some inter-relatedness more than blogginess, you could come over. I made pie.
December 27, 2009
"Periods of great productivity in literature are preceded by a generation of intensely active translators. The closer history approaches our own era, the more the fusion of civilization takes place, not by flesh and blood, but on paper." - Cesare Pavese
December 24, 2009
NPR.org has slideshows from some photography books of the season: owls, walruses, and pre-rhinoplasty Courtney Love.
(Also: under the Polar Obsession slideshow, the story of a leopard seal that became concerned for the photographer and tried to feed him penguins. "She brought him approximately 30 penguins, beginning with live penguins, then weaker penguins to make it easier for him, dead penguins -- and even demonstrated how to eat one." Didn't anyone ever tell the photographer Anthony Bourdain's rule about food? If it's offered as an act of friendship you have to eat it, even if it's disgusting. Come on, Paul Nicklen.)
Leanda De Lisle, author of The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jean Grey: A Tudor Tragedy (that's two sub-titles for the price of one) writes about researching the myth and reality of Lady Jean Grey over at More Intelligent Life.
December 23, 2009
I don't know how I missed this a month ago, but Andrew Meier, he of Black Earth, has a piece in the New York Times Magazine about the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the trials of the oligarchs, and Putin's continued power over Russia. Consider it the epilogue to Jorge Volpi's totally dorky (in the best possible way) Season of Ash.
December 22, 2009
Police said three men who barged into a home Thursday night in the 900 block of West Fourth Street were after comic books and cash.
One of the suspects was allegedly armed with a handgun.
When the victims, three college-age females, said they didn't have any comic books, the suspects asked for marijuana.
Link via Journalista.
Sometimes you're assigned to review a book that feels a little bit like a curse. Not because you didn't like it, but because of the opposite. I loved Iain McGilchrist's The Master & His Emissary beyond words, and so writing about it for the Smart Set was intimidating. I basically had to ignore the last 200 pages, or I would have to double my word count, and I couldn't add, "Just read it, you guys" to the conclusion. I wrote something, and I'm feeling all weird about it, but I've had a glass of wine while I've been waiting for the duck to finish roasting, so I'll just post the damn thing. Over at the Smart Set, you can learn about brain asymmetry, cultural evolution, and why your right brain wants to wear something different than your left brain.
John Kinsella has an essay in Poetry Magazine about being an activist poet in Australia, hunting rights, nearly being shot by hunters, and what gets classified as vermin.
It turned out (we discovered this the next day), that there was a fox hunt being conducted in the area. Fascinating, how private land, which people around our way defend with such passion, should change into public land without boundaries when pursuing foxes—the great hunter-capitalist liminality!—and that reserve land, where shooting is illegal, should become part of the script. That’s part one of the shire-as-killing-zone.
I've been reading too many lists, I'm all of a sudden tempted to declare the John E. Bowlt's Moscow & St. Petersburg: 1900 to 1920 is the most beautiful book of the year. It is a stunner. The California Literary Review reviews the thing, although really if you just wanted to visit the page to look at the pretty pictures excerpted from the book, that would do you just as well.
Why is everyone so concerned about Ian McEwan? There was that forum in the Guardian, asking about the worst books of the decade, and it sort of turned into a McEwan-slamming-fest. Now there are columnists defending the author, absolutely baffled as to why anyone would not like his books. Sometimes, when everyone tells you how good an author is, and you don't like him, it's nice to finally meet a bunch of other people who also don't like him. I nearly hugged someone the other day because they said they couldn't finish that Junot Diaz book it was so bad. Thank God I am not the only one who feels that way. Unless McEwan is suicidal about the sudden lack of love, I think we can just assume that people were enthusiastic about no longer having to pretend to like the guy, and it's not a class issue or an issue about Islam.
Come on, people. The year is almost over. Just keep it together a little longer.
NPR reports from Bookstore Night in Buenos Aires. Streets are blocked off, couches and chairs line the sidewalk, and people are encouraged to browse, sit, and read. (God, I miss Buenos Aires.)
December 21, 2009
I love this American Scientist review of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd.
Let me explain a thing or two about humanists like me. There are legions of us who reach for our guns when we hear the word genome. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the history of eugenics, and we flinch whenever someone attempts an “evolutionary” explanation of Why Society Is the Way It Is; we suspect them, with good reason, of trying to justify some outrageous social injustice on the grounds that it’s only natural. Likewise, there are legions of us who clap our hands over our ears when we hear the term evolutionary psychology. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the follies of sociobiology, and we’ve suffered through lectures claiming that our species is hardwired for middle-aged guys dumping their wives for young secretaries and students (I sat through that lecture myself) or that men run the world because women have wide hips for childbearing, whereas men can rotate three-dimensional shapes in their heads (okay, that one is a mash-up of two different lectures).
It gets better from that, explaining seriously complicated stuff quite clearly, and it needs to be read in full.
Critic and writer Amit Chaudhuri on the Booker Prize:
The Man Booker International Prize is turning into an award that might compensate, in its seriously ‘literary’ intentions, for the self-regard of its older, more light-headed sibling, the annual Man Booker Prize for Fiction. I say this not only because I judged the former (along with Andrey Kurkov and Jane Smiley) in 2009. The Booker Prize for Fiction, as it ages, has been regressing into a crowd-pleasing sweetness, an eschewal of difficulty, an ingenuous love of fun, but without any of the ironical relish that Bob Dylan recorded in his lines: ‘Yes, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’
When you make a mistake in your work of nonfiction, the Internet is there to tell you you were wrong. Mark Kingwell wrote in his Glenn Gould biography that the pianist soaked his hands in ice water before performances. Turns out he scalded them with hot water. And thus were a thousand forum posts and Amazon.com reader reviews born.
By the way, if someone were to get violently bored and decide to make a CD that isolated the sounds of Glenn Gould's humming along to his piano playing and just recorded that, I would buy it. The humming ones, played on headphones, are some of my favorite parts.
December 20, 2009
"The many mysteries boil down to three. There is the kind that can be solved: who planted the bomb? Will the travellers reach their destination? What is Mother's childhood secret? There is the supernatural: dark metaphysical forces, never to be fully exposed, yet hinting of themselves in a way that suggests the author could reveal more if he chose, and might do, in his next book. And there are the insoluble mysteries: what lies beyond life, what beauty is for, why the innocent suffer and the guilty prosper, what goes on in the heads of other people, why life keeps fucking us over just when we're doing all right -- these are the mysteries the books dealing with them can't solve, and it is for this reason that the best of these books are the ones we keep rereading." -- James Meek
December 18, 2009
Petina Gappah's short story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, was the winner of the 2009 Guardian First Book Award. Over at her blog, she introduces her story Miss McConkey of Bridgewater Close and 80s baby-faced Zimbabwean rockstar David Scobie.
Costa Award nominees, why so boring this year? At first I thought I was just shunning you because of this year's lack of Diana Athill. I just don't have the same flaming desire to waltz with Colm Tóibín that I have with La Athill.
But it's not me, Costa, you purveyor of lousy lattes, it's you.
We are at the end of the year dregs, people. It's mostly lists from here on out until the new year. I apologize for being boring. Newish stuff is more likely to appear on Twitter, but I'll try to earn my keep here somehow.
The Comics Journal website, which has been mysteriously down for a week which meant no Journalista, is back up.
This dude needs a holiday hug. First she tries to respond anonymously to a negative review on Amazon, then she makes sad, sad, sad comments about how writers have no control over a lot of things in their books. Referenced: cover art (okay), sequencing (maybe), dialogue (what the...) and language (does she know what an author is?). Then she trashes the reviewer and accuses him/her of trying to sabotage her ability to make a living, then... well, actually, I'm not sure because I had to stop reading the 32 pages worth of comments before I started to cry. Someone -- everyone, it seems -- is having a bad 2009. Link from the divine Margaret Howie.
Who's buried in Lorca's grave? Um, not Lorca.
At 3:AM Magazine, Darran Anderson and Adelle Stripe talk about smoking and drinking and poetry: I sense from your poems that you are a drinker, a smoker, and a storyteller. There’s definite sense of pentameter and lyricism in your verse.
The London Times discovers poetry slams, just in time for the new decade.
Craig "The Rage" McLelland writes video game poetry in his book, 64 Bits of Pain: Never before have I been so aware at the frustrating limitations / of the English language / As when I recently finished violent video game 'Assassin's / Creed.'
December 17, 2009
Seed Magazine has a slideshow of beautiful images from The Life and Love of Trees by Lewis Blackwell. It comes with the kind of terrifying revelation that there is a group that is trying to figure out how to mingle your (dead) loved one's DNA with tree genomes. I would like to be a birch, thank you.
I'm quite in love with this: an alphabet of the human mind. C is for Consciousness:
In dreamless sleep, we are not conscious. Under anesthesia, we are not conscious. Walking down the street in a daze, we are barely conscious. Consciousness may involve what neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux postulates is a “global workspace”—a metaphorical space of thought, feeling, and attention. He thinks it’s created by the firing of batches of neurons originating in the brain stem whose extra-long axons fan up and down the brain and back and forth through both hemispheres, connecting reciprocally with neurons in the thalamus (sensory relay station) and in the cerebral cortex. These neurons are focusing attention, receiving sensory news and assessing it, repressing the irrelevant, reactivating long-term memory circuits, and, by comparing the new and the known, registering a felt sense of “satisfaction” or “truth,” which is brought home by a surge of the reward system (mainly dopamine).
Former Kirkus dude Jerome Kramer -- also formerly my editor, and still presently a person I'm always happy to see at publishing things -- talks about the end of Kirkus.
The intriguing question, though, is whether the industry still needs advance reviews the way it used to. Like it or not, they’re worth less every day in a world where everyone’s sister’s friend has a handle or a blog like Readermommy or Bookluvah (I tried to make up names that don’t exist, really I did, but it’s near impossible—sorry Readermommy and Bookluvah).
Oh fuck, there really is a Bookluvah. I need a new name, this has gotten out of hand.
December 16, 2009
I vote that from now on all book reviews should begin with the sentence "The nearest that I have ever come to practising Satanism was..." Not just this TLS review of Phil Baker's The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley. Also, all book covers should have goats and creepy babies. And I just give out this advice for free, people.
At some point, I will hopefully stop filtering every thought through all I learned in The Master and His Emissary. Halfway through this post by Colm Toibin about how doesn't understand allegory or metaphor, I was thinking that is because his right brain is subordinate to his left brain, and the left brain cannot process context and prefers abstraction!
December 15, 2009
The Naked and the Read
One of the reasons I’ve never fallen for the novels of manners, those quiet seething stories of human passions clawing out from beneath layers of politeness and decorum, is because of how instantaneously people seem to fall in love and how rapidly marriage is proposed. A man sees a woman at a ball or in a parlor; they share a dance or a conversation about the hostess; the man asks for the woman’s hand the next time he sees her with an inevitable reference to falling in love the instant he saw her. I can’t swallow it.
But then I go ahead and wonder if the way it is right now, the lengths of time sussing out, the importance placed on finding some magic balance between romantic love, partnership, palship, and independence edges towards the overthinking. It’s no new question, I know.
In W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, published in 1925, Kitty Fane, a vain, selfish, foolish thing, accepts a marriage proposal from a “grave and self-controlled” bacteriologist named Walter who “did not precisely bore her, he left her indifferent,” just so’s to be wed before her sister. It’s not a reason as good as any, but surely it’s a reason: a woman I used to work with talked of the pressure her family put on her after her little sister was married before her. She married the next man she got involved with after a four-month courtship. “It wouldn’t be a very good marriage for her but it was a marriage.” Such profound pressure to be wed. It still exists. And it’s so difficult to respect someone who’d marry for the sake of marrying. A weakness.
It’s a choice Kitty makes out of fear and resignation. (Was it the same for my former colleague?) Living in Hong Kong with Walter, she has an affair with a slick and odious faker, an empty, married man she thinks she loves. They’re caught, and Walter, in response, tells Kitty she can stay with her lover if he agrees to leave his wife and marry her within a week. And if he does not agree to that, Walter demands that she go with him to a distant province suffering from a massive cholera outbreak where he’s headed for research. It’s a death sentence, and Walter knows that Kitty’s lover will fail her.
And oh, dear. How sharp Maugham is. He paints so well how desperate and wicked we all are, how deep our passions run and how misguided we can be in dealing with them. Kitty’s affair reeks of childish sexual passion mistaken for love. Walter, though, confesses a true and deep love for her, despite knowing how shallow she was, and that she would never, never love him. He treats her with extraordinary politeness, “as though she were a fellow-guest in a country house.” But when they make love, “he was passionate then, fierce, oddly hysterical too, and sentimental”; Kitty mocks him for using baby talk. He’s got a ferocity. Kitty accuses him of wanting to kill her by bringing her to the cholera outbreak. It’s a quiet brutality when he admits that that had been his intent exactly. Is it wrongheaded not only to believe this sort of reaction, but to respect it? Whereas Kitty’s choice to marry him is selfish and weak (it’s such a horror thinking about succumbing to the pressure to marry), Walter’s reaction feels human and true and even strong.
The transformation Kitty experiences has nothing to do with learning to love Walter. She grows up over the course of the book, sort of, becomes a fuller human, sort of. And in a chilling undercurrent of the novel, she comes to understand, through enlightenment or existential crisis, surrounded by death in a foreign land, that it’s all pretty meaningless at the end of the day. “When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy.” Kitty adopts “a valiant unconcern for whatever was to come.” Does it count as indifference or clarity? Giving up or getting wise? In the words of a another slimy ex-pat that Kitty and Walter come to know: “Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whiskey and some in love. It is all the same Way and it leads nowhither.” Maugham crushes me.
Jennifer Howard -- who guest blogs here occasionally -- has three new flash fiction stories online at the Collagist.
December 14, 2009
Things in book news look bleak. It's all lists. I wish I had written a list, I could spread it out for the next month and not have to think about blogging. But this lecture by Carl Sandburg from 1956 is ten types of wonderful. Even if it were not funny and interesting and true, his voice is so wonderful you can drink a whiskey, wrap yourself around your computer speakers, and forget about the wind howling outside. I assume.
I have been wondering how Gourmet Today is showing up on so many Best of the Year lists. It's possible it's pity for the magazine being shut down, but as a cookbook it's random and rather incoherent. Gourmet has never really been a great place to learn how to cook -- it's more fantasy than anything else, and their utilitarian recipes are generally bland or failures. The cookbook, supposed to be a useful, this-is-how-we-cook-now collection that you could use for all of your meals, doesn't work. Everything feels like reworked leftovers.
Boing Boing has the story.
While the topic is music, Simon Reynolds's response to the end of the decade lists could easily be rearranged to be about books. The "culture-wide slide into entropy" is the same. And while most people writing on the topic would be tempted (lazy enough) to turn it into "And that is why our culture is dead. Damn kids." piece, he doesn't. (For that, someone should send him a cookie bouquet.) But he does have some interesting things to say about what effect this has on artists and the audience.
December 11, 2009
University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum talks to the New York Times about her upcoming book, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law.
What is it that makes people think that a same-sex couple living next door would defile or taint their own marriage when they don’t think that, let’s say, some flaky heterosexual living next door would taint their marriage? At some level, disgust is still operating.
With Rolling Stone going into the restaurant business, Slate imagines the possibilities for other magazine/restaurant hybrids. The "you get what you pay for" Huffington Post Food Place, the bring your own food Reason Restaurant, and Chez Cosmo:
Extra-spacious bathrooms leave patrons plenty of room for vomiting, sobbing uncontrollably at the emptiness of it all, and reapplying lipstick.
(Link via The Morning News.)
Once again, deeply unsatisfied by the reports of certain scientific experiments. In studies -- retold by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary -- conducted with people who have split brains (the bridge between the two hemispheres being severed, either through injury or surgery to treat appalling seizures), the left hand (right brain) would interfere with whatever the right hand (left brain) was doing. So, right hand would be folding laundry, and when it was finished, the left hand would upset the pile and create disarray. In one study, a woman reported that the left hand and right hand would consistently reach for different clothing when she was getting dressed in the morning, and the left hand would refuse to let go of the garment even after its choice was overridden.
Reading this, all I could think was, "What did the right brain want to wear? Why is this not included in the data? What is wrong with these people?" Also made me wonder if I could go get my corpus callosum temporarily paralyzed so I could find out what my right brain would rather be wearing today, because I'm pretty sure my left brain keeps choosing these damn black t-shirts and I'm bored.
It was rather wonderful reading two books about the history of monsters. Half of the monsters documented in David Gilmore's Monsters sounded like a kid coming up with an excuse why his left shoe is missing. It was a monster! With, uh, the head of a lion! And a snake's tail! And the right foot of a frog! And the spleen of a bat. Etc. Then there were the monsters you couldn't figure out how they were scary. A giant weasel? That kills trees with its powerful smell? Really, that's a thing?
I reviewed them for the Smart Set, and I managed to work in a reference of the bat/mole people from the movie The Descent, which is actually really scary. And really good. And when the fella emailed to say he was going cave exploring, I had a massive "Don't go in there! There are bat/mole people who will eat you!" reaction, two years after seeing the film.
December 10, 2009
In the wake of the Ruth Padel/Derek Walcott scandal, Oxford is revising its election procedures to allow eligible voters to do so online. I stand firmly with Stephen Moss: "I can't say that electronic voting especially appeals to me: a modernist fad. I would much prefer the Victorian system of having to stand on a podium and declare your preference, depending largely on who had supplied you with the greatest quantity of beer."
It can be hard to find your way, aesthetically speaking, in contemporary poetry. Fortunately, the Telegraph's writers are clear: they don't like "bleak" poems, whether by Al Gore on the environment or by Carol Ann Duffy on Christmas.
Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) interviews an Iraqi translator: I found the opportunity to talk with Waleed, a native of the country I served in, too fortuitous to resist. The idea of an Iraqi knowledgeable and passionate about American literature might seem strange to some: Waleed was definitely not your average citizen, true. For me, it was a reminder of the people we cross paths with in this life and often know little about. It also reminded me that even as I travel continents away from either my home in California or my service in the war in Iraq, my experience as a soldier follows me.
Sherman Alexie explains how losing his father is like being a Seattle Sonics fan: "In this poem, I also liken it to the every day death of the Sonics. I feel their loss constantly. And then, seeing that Oden is down for the season (and likely done as an everyday player for good), I first thought, "Well, I'm glad I don't have to feel the kind of pain that Blazers fans are feeling today. I don't have to feel the pain of every Sonics loss or injury anymore."
Harry Fagel is a Vegas police officer and poet (thanks, Jarret): "You need some release from the job and the painful things you deal with," he says. "But you also want to share some of the funny stuff. Because in all the pain and anguish, there’s the kindness of spirit, the goodness of people and the hilarity." (I'm pretty sure this is also a Friends plot, except with a fireman-poet instead of a cop.)
In the new issue of InDigest, Ian Jacoby (of Laarks) talks with poet/mystery writer Jon Loomis about poetry, music, and lots more: In the poetry world we all scrabble after the most incredibly meager rewards imaginable—it’s like crows pecking at road-kill. Fiction is a much bigger pie (or, you know, raccoon), so people are more relaxed, generally. (Also in the issue: Jennifer Knox on "Fat Cats, Skinny Rats.")
It's not just the UK with libel laws that are threatening publishers and journalists. Agnès Callamard writes about the libel laws around the world that are stifling speech.
I cannot stop reading bad interviews with Julie Powell, or reading take down reviews of Cleaving. I know this is mean-spirited. I'm trying to stop.
There is a new book of correspondence between Thomas Bernhard and his publisher here in Germany. I only know because my friend and I were hanging around a museum lobby, waiting for our third party to arrive, and he started doing a live translation for me. The section he was reading was Bernhard's publisher explaining to him why Samuel Beckett was a much more important writer than he was. (He listed out exactly how many copies each of Beckett's books had sold.)
Alas, my shitty German means I'll have to wait for a real translation. I'm doubting Daniel is up for reading it to me over the phone for all 500 pages. This 1986 interview with Bernhard suggests that he would be very disappointed in me:
Doesn't interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It's a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don't. If they have awful covers then they're just annoying. And you flip through and that's it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!
The whole thing is quite charming.
Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman Rushdie with a fake mustache.
His account -- Ross being the former owner of Cody's Bookstore, which was firebombed during the madness -- is perhaps the best thing I've read on the subject.
December 9, 2009
I have a new nephew. Solomon Crispin, born yesterday in Michigan. Everyone is healthy and safe.
Last month, over dinner, Jessa asked me to be the new managing editor of Bookslut. I told her I'd do it, but only if she agreed to donate a small percentage of our yearly $4.7-million-dollar profits to a charity for sad orphans with big eyes and underfed dogs. We both had a good laugh, then went back to our steaks and Scotch at Del Frisco's, before taking our private jets back to Berlin and Portland, respectively.
Anyway, welcome to the new issue of Bookslut! It is my first as managing editor, and Jessa's ninety-first as editor-in-chief, publisher and, bizarrely, sports editor. We've got features including interviews with Veda Hille, Kathleen Rooney, Amanda Curtin, Cathi Unsworth and more. We've got a brand new column called Bad Behavior, by Kati Nolfi, as well as the usual suspects. And our reviewers tackle books by Abigail Pogrebin, James Galvin, Momus, and others. It is like a literary Christmas tree, under which are stacked the most wonderful presents! Minus the unsettling Christian Rapture-themed novel from your weird fundamentalist aunt.
We hope you enjoy it, and thank you for reading. I am still trying to convince Jessa to change the logo to something more masculine now that I am here, maybe like a dinosaur eating a football in a fighter jet or something. (My brother Randy has his own idea for a new logo reflecting my new editorial position.) Happy holidays, stay warm, and if you see Jessa or me at Alain Ducasse, say hi! Just kidding. Don't say hi or make eye contact with us. We are super rich and we hate that.
The 366 Colors of Emily Dickinson, in honor of 1862, the year Emily Dickinson wrote 366 poems in 365 days.
(Easy target, but whatever.)
Various stories have been told about how I dismissed a librarian for stocking anti-American literature on evolution and how I tried to get my brother-in-law fired from his job as a state trooper. Well I don't have space in this 400-page book to go into this in any detail, but if I did I would say that anyone who messes with God or my family has to deal with this pitbull in lipstick!
Kay Hymowitz has written a bizarre article for City Journal, imagining some sort of weird tension between feminists and evolutionary scientists. (As if there weren't a bunch of ladies in that field.)
Feminists consider sexual identity a “social construct,” a human—or, to be more precise, a male—invention. Evolutionary scientists, on the other hand, believe that we have inborn physical and psychological traits that result from millennia of adaptations to our natural environment. Where feminists see society, evolutionists see nature.
Um. What? We do? Feminists believe in evolution. There have been women who have criticized the science and the conclusions drawn from imbalanced theories, but we do not as a whole believe that evolution is a patriarchal conspiracy. And actually, the rest of the article is pretty good. Just calm down about those hysterical feminists.
The TLS revisits the rumor that Keats was killed by a bad review. From Charles Cowden Clarke's letter to the Morning Chronicle following Keats's death:
It is truly painful to see the yearnings of an eager and trusting mind thus held up to the fiend-like laugh of a brutal mob, upon the pikes and bayonets of literary mercenaries. If it will be any gratification to Mr. Gifford to know how much he contributed to the discomfort of a generous mind, I can so far satisfy it by informing him, that Keats has lain awake through the whole night talking with sensative-bitterness of the unfair treatment he had experienced; and with becoming scorn of the information which was afterwards suggested to him; “That as it was considered he had been rather roughly handled, his future productions should be reviewed with less harshness.” So much for the integrity and impartiality of criticism!
The "hymen," up there with "panties" on my list of least favorite words, has blessedly been renamed.
There is a poetry shoving match going on at Jezebel of all the damn places. One of the writers, who writes a long prelude about how she can't like poetry because of college "I don't get it, blah blah blah," then tells us she went to a poetry reading. One of the readers, Ariana Reines, read a poem responding to pornography. There was some laughter. A woman in the audience complained about the laughter, and now there is a big to-do about it, with Eileen Myles even responding in the comments, using the phrase "gross dominating laughter."
I have a hard time at poetry readings sometimes after Jim Behrle wrote a post about people who HMM at the ends of poetry lines. Like, attention everyone, I GOT THIS REFERENCE. Now everytime someone HMMs at a poetry reading, I have to fight back giggles.
December 8, 2009
Antti Hyry's novel Uuni has won Finland's biggest literary prize, the, er, Finlandia Prize. The Literary Saloon is sceptical of the book's appeal to a wider audience, quoting a news report that the "unhurried 400-page novel follows the construction of a brick oven".
Read Herta Müller's Nobel prize speech here (via Maud Newton on the twitter. I'm on the twitter, too, future archivists - don't miss my exiting updates on topics like 'bitching about work' and 'bitching about work').
Right then, Herta:
Love disguised itself as a question. That was the only way it could be spoken: matter-of-factly, in the tone of a command, or the deft maneuvers used for work. The brusqueness of the voice even emphasized the tenderness.
No, really, quit fannying around on social networking sites for ten minutes and bloody read it.
I went through something similar trying to write a short story, except replace 'second attempt' with 'lying on the bedroom floor wondering if I could get high smoking carpet fibre' [No]. Judge Margaret Drabble writes about being part of this year's competition and skull-eating diseases.
There is an 88-year-old Nazi (alleged!) on trial in Germany, escorted into the courtroom with his doctors at his side. It's weird to watch. Sometimes he falls asleep in the courtroom. Adam Kirsch has a thoughtful article in the Tablet about Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff's Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice and why putting men nearing 90 on trial for things that happened 60 years ago is kinda complicated.
A memoir about marriage and infidelity, and using food and travel to find a way back to yourself... Except it's not Eat Pray Love, it's Julie Powell's new book Cleaving, which I think means EPL is officially a new memoir template.
I'm feeling much better about Christmas this year than I usually do. I think it's to do with the booze teepee. (A few blocks away is my neighborhood's Christmas market. They have these teepee-like warming stations, with wood burning ovens in the center. One of them has a bar in the back, where you can drink mugs of apple cider with Calvados. I've already asked to have my mail rerouted there. (Jessa Crispin c/o Booze Teepee, Berlin)
So here: a mini Friends O' Bookslut Christmas round up, to be added to later, I'm sure.
- Small Beer Press is having a holiday sale, with some of the proceeds benefiting the Franciscan Children's Hospital. As if it wasn't already so ridiculously easy to love Small Beer, they are the future US publishers of Alasdair Gray. You can't get it yet, but plenty to love from their current list.
- TLS is having a special for Bookslut readers, 4 issues free. They do not come with home delivery by Sir Peter Stothard himself, which is a pity. But the last issue I read had cannibalism and Arctic exploration in it, which almost makes up for it.
- New literary t-shirt company Kafkacotton also has a special for Bookslut readers: Use the code COTTONSLUT with your checkout by December 25th and get 10% off.
- Also, Honeybee has Christmas packages of her candy available on her website. I taste-tested those peanut chocolate nougats, so I feel invested. (Also the almond coconut nougat, which makes me forget I don't like sugar.)
And I would just like to apologize to everyone in advance who might get Calvados-influenced presents bought at the Christmas market. I hope everyone likes scarves knitted by hippies!
December 7, 2009
If the New Atheists have got you down, Stephen Prothero (author of the interesting American Jesus) tells us there's a growing number of kinder, gentler (femaler) atheists who are less likely to tell you that you're an idiot, and less likely to refer to John Calvin as "a sadist and torturer and killer." (That was Christopher Hitchens, in maybe one of his more lucid moments. Calvin was all of those things.)
Don't read the comments! Does that ever need to be said, though? I am probably the only one who never learns that the freak show entertainment does not outweigh the ohmygodwhereishumanitygoing sorrow.
NPR has another thousand top 5 of the year lists this winter, and they're running my list of top five works of translated fiction in their mix. My list:
Season of Ash by Jorge Volpi
The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
The Armies by Evelio Rosero
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker
December 4, 2009
Ruth Padel gives her first interview since resigning as the professor of poetry at Oxford University following the Derek Walcott controversy. (Catch up here if you don't know what I'm talking about.) She talks about poetry, and Darwin, and her vulnerabilities and yes, yes, get to the good stuff.
Is there anything she regrets? "I think I should talk less." She laughs. How about the emails? "Do we need to talk about this really?, because it'll just be picked up by other papers."
I can't believe this is still sitting in my bookmarks, unlinkedto. (Yes, that's a word.) Mary Gaitskill imagines the inner life of Ashley Dupré, reaching out to Eliot Spitzer's wife. And it's brilliantly fucked up.
December 3, 2009
Auden said "poetry makes nothing happen," a perspective John Kinsella gives a radically environmental gloss--poetry can make nothing happen instead of something: Same with language usage: I mix the old and the new to engage with a debate about protection, preservation, conservation, and respect of the "natural" world. I am aware of the problems these words carry in terms of implying complicity, because I am a poet rather than a speech writer. For me, because of this, poems can stop bulldozers. Not because they just say "stop bulldozer," but because the intricacies of language challenge, distract, and entangle the bulldozer. I am using a semantics not of analogy, but of opposition. My words are intended to halt the damage—to see what shouldn’t be seen, to declare and challenge it.
Also on non-work: Andrew Gallix interviews Hendrik Wittkopf and Lee Rourke for 3:AM Magazine: We are both quite obsessed with stripping down our work, peeling off layers in the process of editing (in my case) and painting. Doing the work that makes art look like it has taken no work to produce. As Bram van Velde so precisely pointed out: "You have to let non-working do its work."
Corporations, at least in the UK, seem to believe that poetry makes sales happen, argues Leo Hickman: Jim Bolton, the creative director at Leo Burnett, the ad agency that produced the McDonald's advert, says that many viewers probably don't even think they're hearing poetry. "The McDonald's Favourite ad is not a tricky poem. But there is a certain cheekiness of McDonald's using poetry. It is not something people might expect." (via the 'Ninja.)
At The Rumpus, Susie Deford interviews Eileen Myles: Waste is good, important. Especially in art. It's not the perfectly placed and chosen object that rules. It’s a pile of things and one might catch your eye but its always in context. We need too much. As long as we have hands and bodies.
Seamus Heaney explains why Ted Hughes belongs in Poets' Corner: for him to be at the centre in a king's burial place would be entirely fitting. The language he used had a direct link back to Saxon times," [Heaney] said. While poet laureate, Hughes did not "see himself being involved with the Windsors, it was a link that went right back to the first poet laureate, John Skelton, in Tudor times."
Philip "This Be the Verse" Larkin turns out to be a dutiful son (at least when writing to Mom and Dad): The correspondence has been given to Hull University on permanent loan from Larkin's estate by a relative. . . . It demonstrates that he wrote to his 'Mop and Pop' two or three times a week while a student at Oxford, sharing both the important and the trivial. (via Moby Lives)
KCRW's Bookworm interviews Tao Lin about Shoplifting from American Apparel and "the difference between apathy and indifference."
Finally, James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.
This is extremely self-congratulatory on my part, but what the fuck ever. (I am keeping to my essential self.) Last night was the second-to-last Bookslut Reading Series in Chicago, and Charles Blackstone prepared a few notes to read at the beginning and end of the evening. He sent them to me, and I'm reprinting them here. (It's hard not to get a little weepy about losing a connection to Chicago with the end of the series, but you know. Onward.) So, from Mr. Charles Blackstone:
Welcome to the Bookslut Reading Series. Tonight I’m pleased to present to you a very special show—three of my favorite Chicago writers: Gina Frangello, Charles Blackstone, and Audrey Niffenegger. Tonight’s reading is also the penultimate installment of the series. When I first read about Bookslut.com in 2003, I was intrigued. Long before the influx of blogs and the Internet choked with self-proclaimed experts and tastemakers, the motives of whom were often specious at best, Jessa Crispin began writing scathingly, irreverently, but always honestly, about books. She wasn’t afraid to have opinions, and she wasn’t afraid when her opinions came into conflict with other more complacent figures. Her reviewers, as she amassed them, took their cues accordingly. I still feel honored to have received one of my earliest and most insightful, incisive, and generous reviews from Jessa, back when my first novel was still nothing more than a British indie-press obscurity. She called my quirky character’s exploits “a compelling balancing act to watch.” The same, no doubt, can be said of Bookslut’s meteoric rise to prominence. Month by month, Jessa parlayed her platform from a nascent novelty—in a time, might I add, when putting content on the web was a hell of a lot harder than typing into a little Blogspot window—to the serious, legitimate, nationally and internationally respected publication that we regard Bookslut today. Around the time my novel was rereleased in the US, Jessa was getting ready to launch the Bookslut Reading Series. “Another reading series?” Chicagoans asked. In keeping with her essential self, Jessa said, “Yes, and fuck you if you have problem with it.” Little did she know (or maybe very well did she know) that her venue, thanks to the blockbuster talent her brand’s cache could pull in, would come to outshine and outlast the competition. I was lucky enough to have read in the second-ever lineup, and it feels especially bittersweet, and also quite perfectly symmetrical (fearfully symmetrical?), to be a part of the second-to-last as well. It was a shock to lose Jessa to Berlin over the summer, and it is even more devastating to know that the series we thought we’d get to keep to celebrate and commemorate the effect Jessa and Bookslut had on Chicago is soon to be, quoth the raven, nevermore. But, on a brighter note, we have tonight—who sang that, Kenny Rogers?—and one more night to go, which means plenty of time to cry in our beers and vodkas and listen to some astonishing prose. With that, I’d like to introduce our first reader...
I’d like to thank our readers tonight, Charles Blackstone, Gina Frangello, and Audrey Niffenegger, the Hopleaf Bar for generously donating this space tonight (not to mention for the last four and a half years), Barbara’s Bookstore for selling our books tonight—and please, please, support your local authors and buy a few tonight? I’m sure we wouldn’t mind hanging around to sign them for you—and, of course, to Jessa Crispin, whose done more for us and for Chicago words than she probably ever meant to, likely asleep in her Berlin flat, or, if I know Jessa, sitting by her computer waiting for my email to let her know that tonight was a resounding success. I hope you’ll join me in two weeks, on December 16, when Daniel Nester will take the Bookslut stage, along with two other readers, one of whom may or may not be me. Thanks for coming and please remember not to get your books spayed or neutered. Good night.
Thing you get to learn today, courtesy of Iain McGilchrist's absolutely fascinating The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World:
Since efforts of will focus attention and deliberately narrow its range, it may be that cessation of the effort to 'produce something' -- relaxation, in other words -- favours creativity because it permits broadening of attention, and, with the expansion of the attentional field, engagement of the right hemisphere. (From what has been said it can be seen that relatively more remote or tenuous associations of thought are made more easily by permitting the broad scope of right-hemisphere attention, which may also explain the 'tip of the tongue' phenomenon: the harder we try, the more we recruit narrow left-hemisphere attention, and the less we can remember the word. Once we stop trying, the word comes to us unbidden.)
Reprinted totally without permission, sorry about that.
While reading Andrew Sullivan's update on that law in Uganda that would make having gay sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol punishable by death (yes, I'm confused, too), this sentence hurt my brain:
"Scott Lively is the author of a book claiming that Nazism itself was a homosexual plot."
The book is called Pink Swastika, and despite it looking like it's out of print, there are used copies available online. Oh, man, I love Wikipedia sometimes, like when it has bits like this: "...supposed links between homosexuals and the Nazi Party, though professional historians have dismissed the book's claims." Did they dismiss them with hysterical laughter, or was there fire involved? Wikipedia is silent on this, but I am dying to know.
“My eldest cat, ‘Nigger-Man,’ was seven years old and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts...” Oh, Uncle Howard. Racism and an unnecessary hyphen.
December 2, 2009
Always a happy dork-fest: Seed Magazine's picks for best science books of the month.
Remember that story about the Russian who was poisoned in England with polonium-210? And despite it being a horrible, horrible thing, the story itself was full of poisoned sugar cubes and radioactive trails and could have also had umbrellas with poisoned tips and phone calls that go something like, "The elephant has left the chicken" or whatever. A John Le Carre novel come back to life. The news reports couldn't have been more interesting.
Christmas lasts for eight days, so the provident cook needs to have a set menu ready for 40 meals. Here I have listed a typical daily example. Breakfast: roast collar of bacon. Mid-morning snack: potted venison terrine. Lunch: roast bronze turkey. Tea: Souffled Arbroath smokie creams. Dinner: fillet of beef in pastry. If you're lucky, however, several members of your family may die of a heart attack long before the eight days are up, meaning you can cook less thereafter. Another money-saving tip from Auntie Delia!
My editor at the Smart Set asked me to write about Heidegger. I told him that was the dumbest fucking idea he had ever had, me writing about Heidegger, but he insisted. And frankly I'm glad he did. My piece on the debate over Heidegger's Nazi past, life in Berlin, and experimentation with aftermath is up at the Smart Set.
Now we are in the documentation phase. There are memorials all over the city, and every time a new one goes up, another group decides they need one as well. The Holocaust memorial is too Jew-focused, so the Gypsies need their own. This year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there are archival photographs in the Wall's path, including one of an East German soldier peeping over the Wall with binoculars, which has given me nightmares. To get to the Martin-Gropius-Bau art museum from my apartment, you have to walk past either the section of the Berlin Wall that they put back up, or Topographie des Terrors. Topographie des Terrors is a seemingly never-ending display of photographs from the SS archive, blown up to six feet and displayed outdoors. There is a photograph of men tied to a wall with a German soldier nearby holding a gun; a caption informs us that all of these people were executed soon after the photo was taken. It's hard to argue that it would be better for these things to stay hidden, but sometimes you just want to go look at pretty pictures in the museum. Occasionally, this documentation phase begins to feel like a sadistic version Berlin leering at you. "I've done some bad, bad things. Wanna see?"
December 1, 2009
Is it disturbing, Pattinson was asked, when fans identify him with his character? Only sometimes, he replied, when they cut themselves and ask him if he’d like to drink their blood.
The thought of cutting never crossed my mind when I wrote about Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight books in the LRB in March. I was too busy thinking about the anti-sex angle, and the anorexia and the Mormonism, and the disdain for anything to do with real live human bodies – vampires don’t eat, don’t breathe and never get a day older, like supermodels and celebrities, like corpses tidied up at the embalmers, which when you think about the mythological background is exactly what they are.
Now, when we think about what cooking is, again, it's all about repetition. We've done it all before. So passion is great. But determination is really the key that drives everything, because you have to be determined every morning -- every day when you come to work -- to do a better job than you did the day before. We think about that, not only in French Laundry, or in Bouchon, or in Ad Hoc, but in every facet of our lives: how can we do better than we did the day before?
The Washington Post has started an associates program with Amazon with their online book reviews. Meaning, they get a small percentage of sales if a reader buys the book Washington Post is reviewing. For some reason, this freaks people out, even, sadly, Moby Lives. Most online publications do this, but whenever a new one signs up, there is someone yelling:
"Will it become financially beneficial for the Post to run positive reviews?"
Bookslut is signed up for the exact same associates program, and never have we thought, "Hm, the 20 cents* or so we get from a person buying a copy of Eating Animals is really making me see the wisdom of Jonathan Safran Foer's words!" Call me an optimist, but I'm guessing the promise of cash will not corrupt the Washington Post.
* We do appreciate those twenty cents, though.