January 31, 2010
When will I learn not to take Dan Rhodes books out into public? At some point I will laugh out loud, possibly snort if I'm trying too hard to keep quiet, and people look at me. It is an interesting sociological experiment: which city responds better to a crazy laughing person on the public transportation, Chicago or Berlin? Although in both cities, people feel free to stare at you all the time, so even if you're not laughing out loud you're pretty sure you have something on your face, or your lipstick is smeared, or they are plotting your death right now.
So new Dan Rhodes! About a museum about suicide, only instead of helping people understand that life is worth living, it has become a magnet to the depressed and the curator has to get rid of body after body. It's reviewed at the Guardian.
January 29, 2010
Natasha Walter's Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism probably simply suffers from bad timing. In the time it took from the book to be written, edited, printed, and put on the market, the feminist dialogue kind of changed. I'm guessing that the recession has seen the decline of attendance in Strippercise classes (Martha Stewart notwithstanding) and Brazilian waxes are probably prioritized below health insurance premiums. And so a tirade against things like this being labeled as feminism now seems hopelessly outdated.
This Guernica interview with Sheryl WuDunn, one of the writers of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is where the conversation is right now: global rights, microlending, preventive care, maternal health and infant mortality, etc. (Human Rights Watch even recently smacked down Ireland for its chaotic abortion policy, accusing them of creating a "culture of shame.") For some reason, it's just hard to care about a woman who wants to give her boyfriend a lap dance after all that.
Dear Michael Schaub: If you get this book in the mail as a review book, I suggest using the haz mat safety guide I sent you for proper disposal.
Barbara J King is interviewed about her new book Being with Animals, why your cat chooses the arm you just hurt as the place she lies, and early man's response to animals on the Jeff Farias show. (Link to podcast archive here, it's the January 25th show.)
The Naked and the Read
Among the most dizzying elements of new love: the way it makes you feel like some new life is unfolding for you, the way reality as you knew it before gets fractured and expands, new doors, new paths, new world, all the rest. Everything dryland and familiar, the inhale before the plunge, and suddenly you’re horizontal, weightless in the water, scared and thrilled, some new human swimming in you.
Drenched, Marisa Matarazzo’s debut collection of lush, entwined short stories, due out in a couple weeks from Soft Skull Press, explores these moments, swims to the warm wet depths of them. “Stories of Love and Other Deliriums” is the subtitle and oh, how well she captures the deliriums. Her stories edge against fairy tale and fable -- the way Kelly Link and Aimee Bender (who blurbs the book) combine the familiar and fantastic -- but Matarazzo's concern is more explicitly erotic.
A man with quartz teeth that heat when he’s turned on burns his young lover’s lips. A couple who live in a bomb shelter infuse Jello-O with love power and sell the recipe to Target. A woman wears ash trays taped over her breasts. Babysitters instigate a sexual frenzy. Two teenagers raise themselves up the mast of a ship in a potent nautical romp. Matarazzo’s are sex myths, love legends, wacky at times, and fantastical, and more than anything, arresting and arousing, truly.
Matarazzo is at her best when describing the beginnings of love, the moments that brew before the main event, when the site of your crush, your beloved is still “like cellular pyromania.” It’s that singular pleasure-torture of anticipation and imagination, when the build-up outflames the actual thing itself. “Those flush and moiling moments of almost touching or just touching that seethe with a locomotive chug towards sex... were richly best.”
In “Hangdangling,” Whaler and Sailor, a teenage boy and girl respectively, work at the aquarium, where Whaler’s had his arm scarred by a senile shark, and the two have after-hours sex in “the darkest corner of the jellyfish exhibit” and keep their love a secret: “This is one of the best aspects of their young love lives. Secrets, particularly love secrets, sauce and fatten the love soup.” Later, the pair fix themselves to the mast of a sailboat, suspended “an inch of air between them”:
Why? Why do they do it this way? Because barely touching sucks from the whole sky and the whole earth the simmering sense of soon that swells in the body to make all of everything in life feel worthwhile. Because to capture and suspend those moments of barely touching is a marvelment of love.
That’s not to say there’s not still power in the eventual touch; it’s not all expectancy and nuance. In “Sunder,” the sexiest of the lot, a couple fuck, matter of fact, on the worktable: “He yanked my underwear down my thighs and directed himself into me, but just the tip. It was one of the moves he liked to do. I liked it too.” And Matarazzo can be funny. In that same story, the woman vows to kill the president of Target for corrupting the magic Jello-O they offered up, and you get a sentence like this: “In that moment, I understood: he wouldn’t help me assassinate the president of Target.”
These are weird worlds, absurd and wild. And perhaps, in the wrong mood, a scene like the one in “Fisty Pinions” in which Ashlyn Aschenbecher relays her phone-sex hotline routine, might strike as an author getting a little carried away.
I paddle hard, and you float like an ocean liner, like a motherfucking sex ship yacht titanic dream cruiser... and in the middle of the sea, your prick is huge like a fucking lighthouse... My pussy is rhapsodic... And when your giant cock cums, the explosion is so colossal that I am blown to a billion little hot fucked bits shot high in the sky. My cummed-over, demolished pieces rain down on the surface of the fucking ocean and become potent vivacious sex food for the fish. The fish gorge themselves on my ravaged chunks made bionic by your cum.
But getting carried away is sort of the point. And in the right mood, where it all caught me, less than half a year deep into a new romance, and in just the sort of state of mind Matarazzo writes about so well, you can laugh at lines like these, get a little blown away by all the imagination, and then, in the slightly less over-the-top parts, you can feel blood rise to your cheeks (and to other places, too). It’s been some time since reading something has made me quite so excited, since a writer has so well evoked “the wet and quenching things.”
January 28, 2010
More Romantic-era treasures in a junk shop: A letter from Robert Burns's widow, purchased for $75 (!) last year in New York, has just been donated to the National Library of Scotland. (The BBC has a nifty display that lets you read the letter.)
Alice Twemlow explains "the poetics of amateur product reviews": The reviews that go beyond the standard fare on Amazon are those that, like Dyer’s vignettes, evoke worlds in which absurd products, like a self-flushing cat toilet, make sense.
Carol Ann Duffy is organizing a literary Live Aid to raise money for Haiti: It didn't seem enough to do the usual thing and get my credit card out, and I wondered if we could do something bigger than that, and being a poet, a poetry reading was the only thing I could think of. As part of the PR for it, has nominated the Arctic Monkeys as the latest band whose lyrics are really poetry. She meant The Hold Steady, but it's hard to hold it against her.
This week the Guardian is reviewing the Romantic poets; most of the essays are interesting--in particular Margaret Drabble has a characteristic appreciation of Wordsworth: Wordsworth was perhaps the most sober of the great romantics, a water drinker, a walker of the hills, an exemplary family man who had put behind him (though he had not denied) a youthful indiscretion and an illegitimate daughter.
The terms you learn at poetry readings in Chicago.
He probably won't be waiting on line for an iPad, but nature poet Gary Snyder has written a charming poem about his Apple laptop: Because it is poky when cold,/ Because plastic is a sad, strong material that is charming to rodents
Yale University Press was criticized pretty strongly for its decision not to reprint the Muhammad cartoons in its book about the incident, Jytte Klausen's The Cartoons That Shook the World. The word "coward" was thrown around. Klausen is interviewed about the process of seeing her book to publication, and the gag order she was asked to sign. (via The Morning News)
My idea was not to engage the provocation of: "Do I now dare to print these bad pictures or not?" That would never be my purpose. My purpose was to get the whole page from the newspaper as it was reprinted that day. There have been many misunderstandings and often the online versions of the cartoons have incorrect translations of the captions. In the book, and it was written with this purpose, I ask the reader to put on different glasses and look at the images and analyse them from the vantage point of the different arguments that were made against and for the cartoons at the time. What would a Danish reader see? What did the cartoonist intend to show? Why would a secular Muslim say they were Islamaphobic? Why would a religious Muslim say they were blasphemous? These are all different readings of the meaning of the cartoons and I wanted my readers to look at how no illustrations, and no caricature, is read in the absence of context. And I do describe some of them actually as anti-Semitic in a classical European style.
Howard Zinn, an author, teacher and political activist whose book “A People’s History of the United States” became a million-selling leftist alternative to mainstream texts, died Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 87 and lived in Auburndale, Mass.
One day, Richard Powers will write a novel based on the neurological disorder that is afflicting Martin Amis, a rare form of aphasia: the intellectual writer, a little past his prime, yes, but whose mind is alert and all too aware that when he opens his mouth to say brilliant, thoughtful things, his words come out as brittle scandalmongering. Oh, to be a great man trapped in the body of a dick! The pain of never getting your true words across, no matter how you try. If it's any consolation, Mr. Amis, they will probably name this terrible disorder after you. One day there may even be a cure, and your reputation will be restored. Way, way after your death.
January 27, 2010
Jesus fucking Christ. I am trying to find things to read that will convince me life is worth living through another week of snow, but instead I'm finding a 30-minute interview with the author of The Last Train from Hiroshima: Survivors Look Back and a story about the (innocent) scientists that the FBI drove to suicide or alcoholism during the anthrax investigations.
Let's see if watching Dinosaur Ballet again will keep me away from the whiskey bottle.
The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding about Math author Steven Strogatz is interviewed at Seed. Bonus: math jokes.
How can you tell if a mathematician’s an extrovert? He looks at your shoes when he’s talking to you.
January 26, 2010
Christopher Reid's collection, A Scattering, is about his wife, their marriage, and her death, and it is a helluva book and I kind of don't know what the TS Eliot prize types were thinking but that's fine, the moment I start looking for justice in the field of literary awards is the moment I cut the cord to Mother Internet and go live in a cave.
Reid has just won the Award Formerly Known As Whitbread, the Costa. He beat 'bridesmaid' Colm Tóibín to the £30,000 prize, fair enough too as there is not money in the Costa empire enough to make Colm Tóibín happy.
Today is apparently the day I get goopy about Bookslut's contributors. Barbara J. King's new book Being with Animals: Why We Are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World is released today. Barbara has been writing for Bookslut for years and years, and she has become a dear friend. I wish her all the success in the world, and I'm very proud and happy that I get to read her essays every month. Congratulations.
Molly Haskell, author of Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited has a piece at the Wall Street Journal called "James Cameron's Plantation in the Sky" about the news that Avatar could replace GWtW as the most successful movie of all time and examining how they are similar. It opens with the question I have been wondering: "Do I have to see Avatar?" (I am considering seeing it dubbed into German. That way: pretty effects, and the whole "unobtainium" bullshit doesn't have to hurt my brain.)
"But Love and Art are blind to such petty differences, and with a toss of her golden mane, Lady Antonia swiftly dismisses them."
But: can we stop blaming wives for the downfall in writers' and artists' creativity please? What lazy bullshit is that?
Michael Schaub reviews Patti Smith's Just Kids over at NPR.org.
For those familiar with Smith's edgy brand of rock 'n' roll or Mapplethorpe's explicit, homoerotic photography, the sweet and naive couple in Just Kids might come as a shock. The two moved in together shortly after meeting, bonding over art, making small and sweet gifts for each other, promising never to be apart. Later, they would rent a room at the Chelsea Hotel, meeting some of their artistic heroes — the musicologist Harry Smith, Jefferson Airplane banshee Grace Slick, members of Andy Warhol's Factory. Smith writes about Mapplethorpe with such authentic sweetness and wistful tenderness it's impossible not to be drawn in by the young couple's adoration of each other. Even when they're faced with adversity — poverty, rejection, Mapplethorpe's decision to make extra money as a street hustler — the reader can't help but be taken in by the ardor of their love.
Smith was also on Fresh Air recently to talk about the book.
The London Review of Books is monstrously in debt, and it is primarily being funded now by its heiress editor. It's long been wondered what would happen to the review once the editor leaves, as there's no obvious choice as a replacement. Now it looks like a harder job to fill: must be a brilliant editor, also the heir to a fortune.
(Also, perhaps the best part of the story is that the LRB is called a "fortnightly" rather than biweekly publication. I am going to start using that word despite not being British, because I am a pretentious asshole.)
I am interviewed at Fringe about stuff. How did Bookslut get started, why is your hair doing that in your head shot, if you could make out with one dead writer, who would it be? Or, actually, only the first question. Mostly I talk about how awesome Michael Schaub is.
January 25, 2010
The Second Virtue
Introducing a new series on book design, by Catherine Gregg
this 1940 Pelican on Modern Architecture poking out of a box of books
left in the street. I enjoyed looking at it propped up on a shelf for
a long time before I actually read it – the fate of many an old
Pelican or Penguin with a good-looking cover. But quite the opposite
impulse lay behind the establishment of Penguin Books, which was to encourage more people to open the cover and read. Founded in 1935
on the principle of providing cheap but attractive reprints of fiction
and biography in paperback, Penguin Books aimed to make good quality
reading material accessible to a wider public. The introduction of the
Pelican series in 1937, dedicated to original writing in non-fiction,
marked a new departure for the fledgling paperback imprint. The
original covers, designed by Edward Young (an office junior), were
simple, clean and direct, divided into three horizontal sections, with
Eric Gill’s new (1927-28) sans serif typeface used for titles, and
colour-coded panels indicating subject matter. Young’s
confidently modern and instantly recognizable cover design revealed its full impact when it came
to marketing the new publisher, attracting stockists beyond
traditional booksellers, and inspiring new readers and book-buyers
with striking displays. Penguin Books proved adept at getting the
right balance between style and content, while maintaining the
principle of a low cover price. In tune with the needs of the day, the
Penguin philosophy echoed the progressive spirit of the modern
movement in architecture as Richards describes it. Addressing himself
to the interested ‘Man in the Street’, at whom all Pelicans were
aimed, and to whose needs all good architecture should attend,
Richards identifies modern architecture as a ‘social art’, like that
of paperback publishing, ‘related to the life of the people it serves,
not an academic exercise in applied ornament’ (the leather and gilt of hardback).
Ironically, while the Modernist architecture of the 1930s which still stands does so as a testament to the beauty of form and practical utility over fussy applied decoration, the democratic impulse of architecture as ‘social art’ has been lost as many buildings intended as affordable social housing are purloined, and their prices inflated, by the wealthy looking for ‘architect-designed’ status. To an extent this has happened at Maxwell Fry’s 1938 Kensal House, depicted on the cover of Richards’ book, where only a proportion of flats remain council tenanted. Similarly ironic, Penguin originals are often bought today simply as ornaments for the bookshelf, to be displayed as decoration rather than read. Reminding me recently of Pope’s baron in The Rape of the Lock, buying books by the yard as showpieces, I sold a load of original Penguins to a man who wanted to use them as stylish supports to hold up his bookshelves. And they are undeniably beautiful objects, complete in themselves, with the proportions of a Golden Section rectangle and perfect dimensions for the pocket. Early editions also carried adverts on the back and inside covers, an initiative for keeping down the cover price, now frame-worthy in isolation.
But while Penguin fiction titles can be read in newer formats, the original Pelicans, as a non-fiction series dealing with topics of the day, are products of their time in a way that restricts continuous reprints. For the same reason, Pelicans make amusing reads for the interested ‘Man in the Street’ today, in terms of both language and political sentiment. Richards describes his task in fantastic period idiom, as the ‘laying aside’ of certain ‘bogeys’ hampering the acceptance of Modernist architecture in the late 1930s, notions that it was the art of ‘Bolshies’ or ‘stuntmongers’, and concerns that its principles of social service were being undermined by commercial ‘vulgarisers’ of the movement. In 1940, the date of publication, post-war reconstruction was already on the mind, and proponents of Modernism viewed the principal methods of scientific investigation, coherent planning and design attuned to need, as the only way to rebuild a more equitable and healthy society. Illustrated with plans, diagrams, and photographs showing the ‘best’ examples of modern architecture at the time, the book functions as educational propaganda for the cause.
The pulpy paper on which Penguins and Pelicans were printed gives the photographs of these empty buildings a dramatic, ghostly quality, like old newspaper clippings. Along with low grade paper, the massive print runs and short turn around from typescript to bookshop meant little time for quality control, which perhaps accounts for the staples used to bind the pages in my copy of Modern Architecture, rather than the customary sewn and glued binding. Churned out in their millions, these essentially disposable objects are now fetishised in a way that seems at odds with the values they once embodied. Likewise, Modernist buildings are left either to decay or held up as fetishes, enshrined as monuments but impractical for contemporary usage. An apt example is Tecton’s 1934 Penguin Pool at London Zoo, where Edward Young made his initial sketches for the publishing logo. Now a listed building, the concrete pool with its sculptural double-helix ramps stands empty, no longer deemed suitable for the needs of its famous occupants. Divorced from their original contexts, and great to look at, the Penguin Pool and the Penguin book are fetishised as ends in themselves.
Specialising in 20th century architecture and interiors, Cat completed an MA in the History of Design at the Royal College of Art in 2009. She lives in London, where she runs a market stall selling 20th century design, and works as a copyeditor and freelance writer.
This bit on why publications need to start choosing poems to publish based on the quality of the work and not the reputation of the poet needs to be hung up in the cubicle of every poetry editor, like the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, the TLS, etc.
I get the feeling that these writers are accustomed to being published because of who they are--because they have come to be accepted as good poets--rather than because of the particular poems they have submitted for publication. Everybody knows this happens. Everybody's read a throwaway poem by a good poet in a journal. Fine. I write those too. But I don't want to publish those poems in Absent. I admit it's hard to turn down mediocre work by a poet you're excited to have a submission from at all, but you have to publish the poem, not the poet. Otherwise you end up being, I don't know, Ploughshares.
January 22, 2010
Anne Enright's essay in the LRB about Iris Robinson, the wife of the Unionist First Minister in Ulster who attempted suicide after it was revealed she had a 19-year-old lover that she lent six-figures to for his business idea, almost makes up for the awful essay they printed in the same issue about Stefan Zweig. Which I won't even link to, because I've been reading The World of Yesterday and liking it so very much.
There has been a resolution of sorts in the case of the smelly archive of Franz Kafka and Max Brod. (Two women were hoarding the archive in an apartment that was filled with feral cats, they occasionally sold off bits of it but never turned the items over to the bidders, refused to allow scholars access to any of it. Etc.) A court has ordered the women to open up the archive. And the Haaretz, which has been covering the hell out of this story -- if you have some time on your hands, you'd be well suited to go trolling through their archives on the court case -- has tracked down Franz Kafka's last living friend, a spry 106-year-old woman, who reminisces about the writer.
"Kafka was a slightly strange man," Sommer recalls. "He used to come to our house, sit and talk with my mother, mainly about his writing. He did not talk a lot, but rather loved quiet and nature. We frequently went on trips together. I remember that Kafka took us to a very nice place outside Prague. We sat on a bench and he told us stories. I remember the atmosphere and his unusual stories. He was an excellent writer, with a lovely style, the kind that you read effortlessly," she says, and then grows silent. "And now, hundreds of people all over the world research and write doctorates about him."
My review of Mavis Gallant's gorgeous The Cost of Living is at NPR.
There are women in the world with perfect exteriors — their hair done just so, their manicures never chipped, their voices soft and silky and never saying the wrong thing. These are not the women who populate Mavis Gallant's short stories. As she writes in the titular "The Cost of Living": "Think of draggled laces, sagging hems, ribbons undone." Gallant's heroines are the awkward, the hopeless, the immature, the ones on the outside of womanhood looking in.
January 21, 2010
Over at the Smart Set, I review (sorta) the Best European Fiction 2010 anthology. I got a little distracted by the fact that both the preface and introduction kind of apologize for bothering you. You know, "We're certain that because you're American you don't really care about translated literature," that whole thing.
It's a well worn angle by now: the fact that only three percent of literature published in the U.S. is work of translation, the fact that most of that work is being published by small independent presses and university presses. How else to explain how this anthology came to being in a place called Normal, Illinois from a small press named Dalkey Archive, its very name being an obscure Irish literature reference. Rather than from, say, Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, which produces almost identical anthologies of every other subject in the world: travel writing, sports writing, short stories, essays, whatever the hell that McSweeneys one is. Nonrequired Reading? Comic books, sure, they're all over that. But literature written in another language? God. We're not running a charity here.
January 20, 2010
Shaenon Garrity on Kavalier and Clay, and how every innovation in comics industry from the 20th century -- the creation of the graphic novel, Lichtenstein, collage, certain styles -- are echoed in the book, but they're all thought up by two little characters. The article is called "They also thought of Wolverine." (via Martyn)
It's fun. It’s just kind of like reading a novel about a Victorian inventor who comes up with the microchip, the integrated-circuit computer, the Internet, Google, and furry porn, yet is only considered on par with the guy who made those bikes with the one big wheel.
I always get the Edgar Awards (for crime) and the Hugos (for science fiction) mixed up, and I don't know why, when the Hugo has these wicked cool trophies and the Edgar has this. But that's how I stumbled over this clip from 1979 of the Hugo Awards, which looks like it was a considerably fun party ("Well, that's it folks, nothing else now but drinking and dancing and all that kind of stuff" - what I wouldn't give to twirl Vonda N. McIntyre around the floor).
Some of the main nominees under the cut:
The Missing by Tim Gautreaux
The Odds by Kathleen George
The Last Child by John Hart
Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston
Nemesis by Jo Nesbo
A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn
Best First Novel by an American Author:
The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano
Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley
The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf
A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff
Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James
Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King by Lisa Rogak
The Stephen King Illustrated Companion by Bev Vincent
The Story Prize, which does what is says on the tin, has announced the 2009 shortlist for their $20,000 award:
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
Drift by Victoria Patterson
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
The best bit in this article about Val McDermid winning the Diamond Dagger for Crime Fiction is this quote: "At that point I had killed 12 men, 12 women and one transsexual. You can't get more equal opportunities than that."
This year's TS Eliot prize went to the mud and rush of the Severn, as celebrated in The Water Table by Philip Gross. Simon Armitage said that Gross stood out for having produced "so obviously a book", the kind of comment that snarky bloggers could potentially mock if they didn't find Armitage and his commitment to rocking this hairstyle so terribly dreamy.
Ugh. The way this interview with Susan Clancy is set up, it looks like, for the first third, that Clancy's book The Trauma Myth is all about how being molested is really not that bad. They don't clarify in the introduction or until way into the interview that she means kids often don't know what's happening is wrong -- it's not traumatic, it's confusing. Because they're kids. She's going to get a lot of angry emails from people who don't bother to read past the jump.
Clancy is one of the good ones, a psychologist who called bullshit on the recovered memory nonsense that was going on, and gets a lot of death threats as a result. You'd think Salon would be a little smarter about framing the interview.
January 19, 2010
There is an exceptionally cynical streak running through evolutionists these days, it seems. I have read moaning about how things were so much better during the hunter-gatherer days more times than I care to count. Luckily, Jerry Fodor (What Darwin Got Wrong) does not fall into that category.
I don’t feel the slightest nostalgia for that sort of life. I loathe the very idea of hunting, and I’m not all that keen on gathering either. Nor can I believe that living like a hunter-gatherer would make me happier or better. In fact, it sounds to me like absolute hell. No opera. And no plumbing.
His -- very long, yes, it took me two days, and then there is the letter section underneath which is also quite good, but I'll have to finish tomorrow -- essay "Why Pigs Don't Have Wings" explains why domesticated animals generally have floppy ears and why, yes, there is no fossil record of a failed winged pig species.
Nobody, not even the most ravening of adaptationists, would seek to explain the absence of winged pigs by claiming that, though there used to be some, the wings proved to be a liability so nature selected against them. Nobody expects to find fossils of a species of winged pig that has now gone extinct. Rather, pigs lack wings because there’s no place on pigs to put them. To add wings to a pig, you’d also have to tinker with lots of other things. In fact, you’d have to rebuild the pig whole hog: less weight, appropriate musculature, an appropriate metabolism, an apparatus for navigating in three dimensions, a streamlined silhouette and god only knows what else; not to mention feathers. The moral is that if you want them to have wings, you will have to redesign pigs radically. But natural selection, since it is incremental and cumulative, can’t do that sort of thing. Evolution by natural selection is inherently a conservative process, and once you’re well along the evolutionary route to being a pig, your further options are considerably constrained; you can’t, for example, go back and retrofit feathers.
A history of female intelligentsia shows that women thinkers were often perceived as “witches” and publicly discredited as witches. When Mohammad was mocked in a Danish newspaper several years ago, a million of people stood up to defend His right not to be mocked. Hundreds of thousands of girls have been raped, sold to brothels and enslaved; hundred of thousands women burned, raped, molested—and nobody, except some activist groups, have stood up to defend their rights. When the Pope died, millions of ordinary people cried for the old man and even rushed to Rome to cry there. When Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, a few stood up to the Russian authorities demanding the murderers be brought to justice. In the meantime, another woman journalist was murdered. A dust is slowly covering those cases. These are the standards of the world we live in, and we can’t do anything about it.
You can, if you want, rent a Trabant to tour around Berlin. I can't imagine why you would do this, and I wonder if Americans getting into the whole communist nostalgia thing is why the theater near my house has a "FUCK OFF AMERIKA" banner. The Economist has a review of Jason Vuic's The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History. The Yugo seems downright respectable compared to the other cars named in the review, including the Soviet "Zaporozhets, a parody of a proper car notable for its gnat-sized and fire-prone engine."
More interesting than a poetry feud: Ted Genoways, of Virginia Quarterly Review, wrote an article about "The Death of Fiction." Yawn. Blech. When I first came across it, I wanted to say something bitchy about the horrible fiction that VQR publishes, but I was too bored. Generally if someone is complaining about the state of fiction, it's because they're being really boring and safe in their reading choices. But then Jennifer Howard mentioned on Twitter that there was an interesting conversation going on in the comments section, so I went against my New Years Resolution to stop reading fucking comments as they were making me suicidal. Matt Bell throws down by revealing Genoways's income and things get sticky from there.
There's the standard "Poetry is dead, no one reads it anymore." Then there's the "Poetry Magazine did not deserve that huge chunk of money that Ruth Lilly gave them." We've seen these articles, we're bored. But what if you were to combine the two? I'm being mean, but it's not a horrible essay. (Link via Mobylives.)
And when any human being, let alone poets, can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. In the past, public reception was the choke collar that largely kept mediocrity at bay, but when poets were able to create their own audience (themselves) all those checks and balances evaporated.
It’s my own opinion that Monroe’s attitude is toxic and anathema to great art and poisonous to art in general. It’s a shame and the results are indisputable. When poets left their audience, their audience left them.
January 18, 2010
If I blogged about such things, the last two months would have been about Adventures in German Bureaucracy. But finally all is well again, and I can stop having nightmares about being yelled at in German.
So here is to Brian Eno, who is profiled in the Guardian, and whose Oblique Strategies deck provided a card that I kept in my pocket while visiting the Foreigners Office today. And whose album Taking Tiger Mountain was played over and over while I tried to will myself to have insomnia to get away from the German yelling dreams. Basically the man kept me from lying down in the middle of the floor of the Landesamt für Bürger- und Ordnungsangelegenheiten office and crying. (Doesn't just the name of that make you want to cry? Jesus.)
The Guardian talks to Shlomo Sand, who wrote The Invention of the Jewish People, a book that is pissing a lot of people off. In it, he claims there was no exile from the Holy Land, and that the ethnic Jews of today have no genetic link to the previous occupiers of Israel. (Also that there was no enslavement in Egypt, and other things as well.)
Sand's detractors portray the book as an assault on Jewish identity and the legitimacy of Israel. But he sees it as the opposite: an attempt to rescue Jewish-Israeli identity from an intellectual abyss and redeem Israeli society with a healthy dose of secular rationalism. "I wrote the book for a double purpose. First, as an Israeli, to democratise the state; to make it a real republic. Second, I wrote the book against Jewish essentialism."
This, Sand explains, is the tendency in modern Judaism to make shared ethnicity the basis for faith. "That is dangerous and it nourishes antisemitism. I am trying to normalise the Jewish presence in history and contemporary life."
While some people are calling Sand a hatemonger and the equivalent of a Holocaust denier, others are giving him begrudging respect. Simon Schama wrote a pretty tough review of the book, but then named it as the book of the year, in one of those round ups that every newspaper printed. (Or, I think he did. It was printed in a different language, so it could be that he wrote "Ha ha, just kidding, this book is total bullshit" in his description.)
January 15, 2010
I came across a fascinating little thing once… I was reviewing a book called Poison,– a family memoir by Gail Bell – whose grandfather may or may not have been a poisoner – and in those days anything could be a poison if given in the wrong dose – and in this case its parsley juice – and in the first versions of the fairy story Rapunzel the witch’s brew is parsley – and the name of the little girl in French and Italian versions means ‘little parsley girl’. It suddenly struck me – and this is very much my argument about fairy tales – they are about women’s things that are being discussed in a kind of code. So Rapunzel becomes a story about a young woman who is pregnant who steals into the witch’s garden to get a parsley and the witch comes out – it’s a concealed story about the perils of an attempted abortion. When the witch comes out and catches the child , instead of having a very inexplicable psychological plot motif – why should the old woman want the child? – what you possibly have is a story about a failed abortion and then a situation where the child is given away because the mother can’t keep the child. It’s clearly not a story on the side of the mother – it deals out harsh penalties as consequences and so on – but it shows that even a story as seemingly unpolitical as Rapunzel does connect quite closely with the social and moral mores of the day.
God. I fucking love Marina Warner. (Thanks to 3am for sending me the link.)
Two things that make the world worth living in today: giant tubs of homemade pork schmaltz that cost less than 3 euro, bought at the Galeria and currently being used to self-induce a coronary event.
Also, the short story "The Sky Over Thingvellir" by Steinar Bragi in the Best European Fiction 2010 anthology. Michael Schaub was right in his review: it's a great collection, but it's frustrating to fall for an author and find out this story is the only thing translated into English. I would go learn Icelandic so I could read Bragi's other books, but I should probably start with German. (Although I already know "Schmaltz, bitte" so I should be okay.) From Bragi's "Artist Statement" in the back of the book, which is almost as good as his short story:
When it comes to Dickens, I weep with boredom over every single page he's written; with time I've even begun to weep just seeing his books on a shelf. For those who haven't read him, I would still suggest you do have a look, just so you can make up your own mind -- I'm not a fascist! But don't spend too much time on it; really, it's easy to make a quick survey: the first paragraph -- of any of his books -- is exactly like the rest of the book, and each of his books is exactly like the others. Nothing in Dickens will ever manage to surprise you. And if you want those characters, if you've really got a craving for those "Dickensian characters," just go to a wax museum. It's faster.
Paige Williams spent $2,000 of her own money to produce an article about Dolly Freed for the New York Times. Dolly Freed was the author of Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money, a classic work about living off the grid not in a hippy kind of way, but in a limited options kind of way. The book is being reissued, and Freed's story of going from dirt poor teenage cult author to NASA engineer is an interesting one. Williams's profile was killed, her expenses were not going to be reimbursed, and so she has published the piece herself and is asking for donations.
Columbia Journalism Review talks to Williams and wonders if this might be part of the future, what Williams is calling "Radiohead journalism."
After John Updike died in 2009, Robert Stone became America's foremost chronicler of imperfect men who make perfectly terrible decisions: His 1974 novel Dog Soldiers, for example, revolves around three Americans in Vietnam attempting to smuggle heroin into the United States. In his debut novel, A Hall of Mirrors, Stone follows a naive disc jockey who finds work at an ultra-right-wing radio station in 1960s New Orleans. His more recent Bay of Souls concerns a professor dealing with a midlife crisis in perhaps the worst possible way. Stone's themes have changed over the years, but his penchant for dark humor, characters embroiled in impossible situations and unhappy endings never have.
January 14, 2010
Yesterday, Jessa linked to one of William Blake's notebooks, hosted online by the British Library. In other Blake news this week, eight etchings he'd made were found tucked inside an international railway timetable from the 1970s. Moral: Always flip through the pages before re-selling your books!
At HTMLGIANT, Mike Young and Elisa Gabbert document 41 "moves in contemporary poetry." You'll recognize them all: Starting a line with the final clause from a previous line’s sentence and finishing it with a single short and often fragmentary sentence. Example: Jack Gilbert’s "Searching for Pittsburgh": The rusting mills sprawled gigantically / along three rivers. The authority of them.
"If they liked the game version of Dante's Inferno . . . maybe they'll like an incredibly dated translation that's widely available for free online."
To celebrate the centenary of Miguel Hernández's birth, a collection of his poems will be launched to the moon.
Thanks to the Poetry Foundation, you can take a tour of DC's poetic landmarks. Stephanie Kaye explains in this clip.
A heroic moment in poetry, brought to you by Darren Wershler. And another. And another. Is there *anything* you can't learn from silver-age superhero comics? (I've previously reviewed Wershler's The Iron Whim, a cultural history of the typewriter, and apostrophe, a procedural poem made with Bill Kennedy.
The New York Times Magazine ran an article by Ethan Watters about his new book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche about America's influence on the treatment and diagnosis (and maybe also the suffering of) mental illness around the world. It's all very interesting, exploring why if you are smacked down with schizophrenia, you have better luck recovering from it in a country where they think you are possessed by spirits than here in the US*. There's a discussion about the article at the Somatosphere that is worth reading alongside.
* Er, "there" in the US, I guess. Sometimes I forget I live in Europe now, it's an adjustment.
Giant author profiles that will make you feel bad for not reading their books:
"Why read George Eliot?" Paula Marantz Cohen will tell you.
Sylvia Townsend Warner should be more popular than she is, according to David Carroll Simon.
The Morgan Library has a series of videos of authors and such discussing Jane Austen. Fran Lebowitz talks about the common misunderstanding about Austen, Cornel West discusses her letters, Siri Hustvedt talks about... something, I don't know, these are loading very slowly.
I had been looking forward to the new Joshua Ferris. Then I got a copy. The fella and I pondered over the premise, and then the execution, and then started calling it the Restless Leg Syndrome novel and dramatically reading parts to one another. (It is not a good book. I am sorry to type those words.) And it's hard to ignore, especially since I keep getting copies of it in the mail. It has a trailer now, and it's going to be written about a lot, I bet. I'll be hiding from it in my snowed in apartment with my Marina Warner.
January 13, 2010
The best thing I saw the last time I was in New York was the Morgan Library's exhibition of William Blake's Book of Job. (And then their back room of new acquisitions, which was a magical random collection of ancient and contemporary, print and audio.) I do love a bonkers mystic. The British Library has put online a notebook of Blake's sketches and notes, and an audio introduction with a posh British accent: "He was regarded by many of his contemporaries as a lunatic." Poor dear Blake. (Link via @StanCarey.)
The Nation profiles Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, author of the (creepy, wonderful) short story collection There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby. (More of her stuff in English, please.)
"When I started writing properly I stopped trying to imitate and wrote just as simply as I could, without metaphor or simile, in the voice people use to tell their story to another person on the bus--urgently, hastily, making sure you come to the point before the bus stops and the other person has to get off," Petrushevskaya has recollected. "And then you know that the story will get passed on, and that's the beginning of folklore." Set against the extraordinary plots and happenings that characterize this collection, such urgency lends the tales a starkness that rivals the opacity of the magic that drives them. The stories feel elemental and colloquial, their complexity sustained by the simplicity of the telling.
Dubravka Ugresic's Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a fierce little book. The end of the book lulls you into this educational mode, pens and pencils ready to take notes on the mythology of Baba Yaga, and then she whacks you on the back of the head with a frying pan with her final two paragraphs. While I recover from the whole thing: I think I've linked to this Marina Warner review of the book before, but let's face it, everything Marina Warner writes is worth reading more than once.
Also, there's this older interview with Ugresic, from the era of Thank You for Not Reading, her collection of essays, that is still worthy of a giggle.
Young writers are over-pampered -- one of the easiest ways to become a bestseller writer today is simply to be young. In such an age-discriminative time, the writers who really need some gentleness and care are, in fact, the old ones!That said, the commitment to optimism in today's literary world can also be traced to Stalinism, which didn't permit what was called defeatism. If there had been camps for literary characters back then, Eeyore the melancholy donkey -- with whom I closely identify -- would have been among the first inmates. The contemporary literary marketplace is almost as repressive. It rewards only the artistically obedient, the adaptable, the diligent, the optimistic. Optimists, after all, are the only reliable consumers.
January 12, 2010
Beyond "Americans are culturally insular": why foreign authors have a hard time being translated into English.
The Naked and the Read
There’s a song by a band called the Felice Brothers that I’ve been listening to recently. “Hey, hey, move over,” runs the chorus, “don’t lead me on.” Slow and sad in a Dylany rasp. And I’ve pictured the woman being addressed as some curvy temptress, forbidden to the singer for some secret reason. I beg you, the voice implies, please. But I had it wrong. I’d misheard. There’s no woman here, no off-limits love. The actual lyrics are a graver thing by far. “Hey, hey, revolver, don’t lead me on.” The pleading in the voice takes on new weight. It put a coldness in my chest when I realized what the words really were. Because the plea is so desperate and so simple, and points to the way we fight against our darkest instincts and urges.
The characters in Breece D’J Pancake’s stories --- the twelve majestic stories that exist --- fight against those darkest parts. They struggle to be good and kind and they do their best to endure and they don’t always get it right and they don’t always win and sometimes the revolver, literal, figurative, goes right on ahead seducing the hell out of them. Pancake himself shot himself in the head in 1979 when he was twenty-six years old.
There’s a pressure to his stories, set in rural West Virginia, a mined quality: he had to travel deep to get these things, had to shine light into the shadows and excavate what he found there, like the father of one of his characters, “who sucked so much mine gas, they had to bury him closed-coffin because he was blue as jeans.”
The narrator of “A Room Forever” waits in a river town before working another month on tugboat, an Appalachian Ishmael, who’s gone beyond Melville’s “dark grey November in my soul,” to something lower and harder to escape. It’s New Year’s Eve, and the narrator debates going out: “Better to buy a pint and whiskey myself into an early sack... I down my coffee too soon, burn my mouth. Nothing ever goes the way it should.” He heads to the street and sees a girl there, a young thing, “fourteen, fifteen,” and she looks at him “like she knows exactly when I’m going to fall between two barges in a lurch.” She asks if he wants to buy her, and he takes her to his room, and he thinks “how she ought to be playing jacks or something.”
The interaction starts tender. “Her hand on my neck teases me into smiling about her, liking her. ‘Why don’t you quit trying to be a chippy? You ain’t got the stuff. You’re better than that,’” he tells her. His intentions, though perhaps not pure, don’t start all bad.
“The darkness is the best thing. There is no face, no talk, just warm skin, something close and kind, something to be lost in. But when I take her, I know what I’ve got --- a little girl’s body that won’t move from wear or pleasure, a kid playing whore, and I feel ugly with her, because of her. I force myself on her like the rest. I know I am hurting her, but she will never get any breaks. She whimpers and my body arches in spasms, then after, she curls in a ball away from me, and I touch her. She is numb.”
He offers her a place to live, kind again, and she refuses, flees with a twenty dollar bill. He finds her later in an alley having slit her own wrists. The narrator knows the truth: “Nobody here gets a break.”
In “Trilobites,” Colly’s father has died, his mom wants to sell the mouldering farm, and his high school sweetheart Ginny has left town and Colly behind. There’s a violence in this piece, an undercurrent of anger and menace. (There are also knock-out lines: “My father is a khaki cloud in the cane-brakes, and Ginny is no more to me than the bitter smell in the blackberry briers up on the ridge.”) Ginny returns on vacation and the two reunite, but it’s not the way Colly imagined or wanted. Instead it’s a stew of desire and low-grade fury, the combination that results from being stuck somewhere.
“I don’t wait. She isn’t making love, she’s getting laid. All right, I think, all right. Get laid. I pull her pants around her ankles, rut her. I think of Tinker’s sister. Ginny isn’t here. Tinker’s sister is under me... Her head is rolling in splinters of paint and glass.”
What’s so tough about these spare, muscled stories, what makes them so beautiful and sad, is that the people know that good is possible. They see it and they try for it. And maybe that’s a harder thing by far than simply giving up hope.
American Scientist has a story about scientific fraud that fooled both Science and Nature in their review of Eugenie Samuel Reich's Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World.
In Eurozine, there's an article about Danish literature, the line between fiction and reality, and how the Muhammad cartoon controversy has affected the publishing scene there.
January 11, 2010
The New Yorker has a round up of sorts of recent Arabic fiction (that has made it into English, of course).
I got a grumpy message on Twitter, saying I should have warned everyone when I was recommending The Master and His Emissary that the book was monstrously long. It's very long. And there's a section on Heidegger. (After being asked to write about Heidegger for the Smart Set, "Heidegger" has become code for everything that is difficult and makes me want to cry before I finally understand it.) It is still worth it, though. McGilchrist introduces the book at the Wall Street Journal.
Every time Moby Lives goes on a little break, I worry they will never come back. They have left me stranded too many times before. But yay, they have returned from the holidays!
My favorite story about the days of rationing in WWII-era Britain comes from Gina Mallet's wonderful Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World. Eggs were under strict control, and while you were allowed to raise hens to supplement, you had to hand over a certain percentage of the eggs to the State. Mallet's family chickens were difficult and would disappear on the property, laying their eggs god knows where. They could never find them. Until one day, their backyard flooded, and rotten eggs suddenly appeared everywhere, the same day the inspector came to claim their portion. The family gleefully handed over the disgusting bounty.
There is a sort of romantic tinge now to the rationing days. (Not from Mallet, the resentment of being forced to eat margarine for so long still lurks in her writing.) But now that we're in "economic crisis" and "thrifty" is the new black, we're meant to look back and learn. Except, as Jenny Turner puts it in this piece in the LRB about the thrift fad, the WWII era cookbooks are "less useful since pretty well all the recipes in it are completely disgusting." And it's harder to motivate everyone without the specter of Hitler looming, useful as blackmail for housewives and children.
‘Of course you like your slice of toast at breakfast. But toast is a dangerous “fuel thief”. You would hardly believe it but if one household gave up toast for a year there would be 2000 extra bullets for the war effort. Makes you think, doesn’t it?’ You’d have to be a right spiv to go on eating toast after that, even though the implied causality has to be nonsense. ‘Get together and combine against Hitler by making one grate serve two families. What hardship is this compared to Russian conditions?’ Well, what can you say? In the propaganda of the time, bullets and Stalingrad could and did belong to the same world, the same bossy Home Service register, as the armchair and the Sunday dinner. Our current predicament is, in the long run, more parlous, but one component of the problem is that people do not feel it, do not see, like Banquo’s ghost, the eventual outcome as they turn up their dials, chuck out their batteries, mislead their children.
January 10, 2010
“If you want to have a more interesting life, you will make some effort,” is how he put it. “It’s about the organization of one’s life. I am still shocked that so many people are not more creative, by which I mean more demanding of themselves.
“The main question we need to ask ourselves is: Do I try to be necessary to the evolution of language? Do I try to be original? And being original means using the tools necessary to be original, not just having the desire to be original.”
January 8, 2010
In one of those weird coincidences, right after I was reading about Koestler and the new biography, I was thinking about his death. He, feeble with Parkinson's, had a suicide pact with his wife, who did end up killing herself alongside him, despite being twenty years younger and in perfect health. I had a mean thought about "Well, that is who marries a man who admits that rape turns him on." Then, reading Love and Other Infectious Diseases, I came upon a passage where Haskell wonders if she could have survived her husband's death.
I thought a good deal about death, and what Andrew's would have meant to me. I had been fascinated by the double suicide of Arthur and Cynthia Koestler. He was seventy-one and had Parkinson's and leukemia, but she was a perfectly health fifty-five-year-old. Feminists had criticized her for throwing herself onto the pyre with her husband, as it were, for not having a sufficient sense of her own importance to remain alive. I found myself bridling, as usual, at judgment passed by a sane and reasonable person, an undepressed person, on an act so steeped in blind sorrow and rage as suicide. Morever, I'd always felt not only that the tug to suicide was understandable, but that rejecting it each day gave us what little sense of free will we might claim. More than this, though, I felt a terrible bond with Cynthia Koestler, unable to stand apart from a marriage that a friend had described to a reporter as "impossibly close." I had several friends who'd lost husbands and who, though bereaved and suffering, had nevertheless carried on, made something substantial out of their lives, but I didn't see myself as one of them. Why? I looked further into the story of Cynthia Koestler, and discovered an interesting fact: her own father had committed suicide when she was 10. Didn't the death and desolation exercise its subterranean pull? I felt sure that the blood in her veins carried the message of his, that her marriage and annexation to Koestler was a way of finding a surrogate god -- a god who wouldn't fail -- while fending off the morbid pull of the real father, the gravity of the grave that dogged her every footstep. By taking the father when he is young and in his glory, by preserving him in godlike unreality, death itself becomes darkly beautiful, desirable. Certainly no longer shocking, no longer an alien, but a guest at the dinner table, a familiar.
Seriously, why was I obsessed with this book when I was 16? I finished it last night and loved the whole thing, but I do still wonder what I got out of it the first time round.
If there are Portlanders interested in applying for the spring internship -- proofreading! review book wrestling! carrying Michael from room to room so that his delicate feet never have to touch the ground! -- you should e-mail Michael.
January 7, 2010
How do poets handle New Year's resolutions? My impulse is to say that if a poet breaks a New Year’s Resolution, she reflects on it, maybe writing a few lines of verse in private, and then realizes that it never should have been a New Year’s resolution in the first place.
In this month's issue, Elizabeth Hildreth has two great interviews: One with Amy King, who discusses "confounding logic-as-usual": To do so calls more attention to artifice; it makes one pause at the oddities they encounter and notice how things get put together: ideas, language, concepts, even “real” perceptions. If we can communally look at one thing that ends up meaning very different things to each of us separately, how does meaning bode for the world then? Or meaning-making?
And the other's with Daniel Nester, who explains why poetry makes him sick: When I think about all the effort I put into writing poems, being a poet, reading contemporary poetry, it just makes me sick. These days, if I read a poem now of a certain kind -- one that avoids feeling, a speaker, or making any connection with the reader, of which there are many -- I feel sick.
Not many books of poetry come recommended by the former head of the British army. John Jeffcock's does: He had been through the numbness / The nervous laughter at death / The internal isolation from reality / The self-imposed exile from his fellow man
Ferlinghetti from 1966: There are two men inside a poet," he goes on. "The lyric, love-and-ecstasy-seeking man, and running alongside him, the political lout who keeps trying to horn in. A poet would much rather follow his love, but this creep keeps busting in and you have to stop and give him a few cuffs, beat him up, lay him out, before you can go on.
Shalom Auslander is writing a novel about genocide. It's a comedy. He's started a column at Tablet -- like his column at Nextbook about the writing of Foreskin's Lament* -- and thank fucking god for that.
I’d been thinking about writing a book on genocide for some time, but the project really kicked off about a year-and-a-half ago, around the time my wife told me she was pregnant with our second child. Naturally, I thought about the Holocaust. It wasn’t a morbid thought, or at least it didn’t seem so to me. The thought was this: “At least our first son will have someone to go to the concentration camps with.”
* Which is, oh my god, $7 at Amazon. Not to be a shill or anything, but it's a really good book. I sound like I'm twelve right now, don't I?
Richard Florida's book The Rise of the Creative Class and urban planning theories are causing a ruckus in Hamburg. The city has been using Florida's idea of attracting the "creative class" -- artists, gays, entrepreneurs, fucking hipsters -- and in the process pissing pretty much everybody off. There's an organization called "Right to the City" fighting the gentrification. People are writing manifestos for godsake. Der Spiegel has the lowdown.
I was very naive. I thought I was doing a high giddy job of performing philosophy. Naturally this writing was very physical, and I was terribly shocked when it was widely perceived at face value, as a cheap confession. Because in the book I talked over and over again about operating at a Third Remove, using a Kierkegaardian sense of irony when dealing with the banal facts that comprise straight female life: the Crush, when will he call me?
Everything I know about the state of America's educational system I learned from Friday Night Lights. And Coach Taylor and Principal Taylor look like they've got things under control.
(It's better I use a TV show than my own high school experience. You know those completely dedicated teachers who take gifted students and nurture them into exceptional adults? Yeah, didn't have that. I had an English teacher who gossiped with the cheerleaders and science teachers whose primary jobs were as football or basketball coaches.)
The Atlantic tells me things are not so great outside of Dillon, Texas. But Teach for America is changing that, by actually figuring out what makes a good teacher and encouraging that behavior. Steven Farr, whose job it is to study what makes these teachers great, has a book coming out called Teaching as Leadership and he, Teach for America, and some of these teachers are profiled by Amanda Ripley.
January 6, 2010
The Best Translated Book Award from Three Percent and Open Letter Books has reached it's second year, releasing a longlist of 25 books from 24 different countries. If you need a headline, may I suggest "Go Bolano - And Beyond!" Not just for this story, it will work for just about anything.
Colm Tóibín, the Susan Lucci of moody Irish novelists, has finally won a big meaningless book award. The first round of Costas have been announced, which are then followed by a sort of Costa of Costa: One Book To Rule Them All award at the end of the month.
Tóibín's Brooklyn won Best Novel. Raphael Selbourne, who is profiled here in a piece that unintentionally, I hope, reads like something from The Onion, won for best first novel with Beauty. The best biography award (and Brooklyn's biggest rival) went to Graham Farmelo's The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom. Best poetry collection was A Scattering by Christopher Reid, , and the best children's book was awarded to Patrick Ness for the latest in his formidable Chaos Walking series, The Ask and the Answer.
So you're writing a biography, and the guy is a genius. Wrote a masterful book, and is underappreciated for a lot of the rest of his career, something you'd like to see changed. But there are a few weird personal life details you have to overcome in the biography. Like, say, how the guy had a slight rapey habit. How do you deal with that?
If you're Michael Scammell, author of Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, you justify it thusly: “the exercise of male strength to gain sexual satisfaction wasn’t exactly uncommon at that time”. That sentence hurts my head so much I can't stand it.
Turns out that Koestler tried to rape Bertrand Russell's wife, along with some other women, and once wrote his second wife, "Without an element of initial rape, there is no delight.” But you know, everyone was doing it.
A friend and I were discussing books that had been important to us when around the age of 16. We were embarrassed to admit a few of them. Many have not held up very well -- I was reading Kathy Acker at the time, sure, but the Jeanette Winterson and the Salman Rushdie don't hold my attention anymore. There are others I won't confess. The first book that had come into my head, though, was Molly Haskell's memoir Love and Other Infectious Diseases. I remember being rapturous about her story of her husband's mysterious neurological ailment that nearly killed him. After the conversation I walked past my bookshelf and was slightly amazed to see my old copy on my shelf -- I don't remember packing it as one of the few books that came with me to Berlin. But there it was.
Rereading it the past few days, I'm really surprised at it. I can't imagine was my 16-year-old self saw in it. Not that it doesn't hold up -- on the contrary, its passages on battling health insurance companies, digressions on the tug of war between being an independent feminist and a married woman, and passages on classic movies all make it a remarkable book. I just don't see why the 16-year old version of me was interested. Haskell was a movie critic and a magazine writer, and it shows in her writing style. (Also, this was published before memoir was such an established genre that they all pretty much follow the same template. It's a bit stumbling compared to the more slick contemporary memoirs, and it turns out that is refreshing.) I was obsessed with magazines at the time, I had subscriptions to Gourmet, Details (back when it was good), Esquire, huH, Raygun, god knows what else. I still remember a lot of those writers and get excited when I see they have books out. (God. Let's have a moment for magazines in the 90s.)
Whatever the reason I loved it so, it was a nice little surprise to find the book waiting for me. And discover 16-year-old me wasn't quite such an idiot. Except for the pink hair phase, what the fuck.
January 5, 2010
When I got Pauline Melville's Eating Air in the mail, it seemed a little too close to Eva Hoffman's Appassionata -- the female composer/ballerina drawn to the men of violence -- and I didn't think I wanted to read the same novel twice. This interview at the Guardian with Melville is making me think I jumped too quickly to my conclusion and I should give it a shot.
There have been critics that admonish Jorge Volpi for being a Latin American writer and yet rejecting the magical realist tradition, or writing novels set in countries other than his own. His novel Season of Ash was set in Russia, Germany, the United States, Israel... It doesn't match your assumptions when you hear "Mexican novel." He responds with this essay serialized at Three Percent:
Let us be radical: Latin American literature does not exist anymore. Lovely: hundreds or thousands of Latin American writers exist, or better said, hundred of thousands of Chilean, Honduran, Dominican, Venezuelan (et cetera) writers exist, but a unique literary body endowed with recognizable characteristics, no. We have just seen it: the Spanish language is not a shared characteristic. And, if truth be told, there is nothing to lament.
If you don’t have your own Hubble Space Telescope, this book is the next best thing.
In relation to the new issue:
Maira Kalman's final installment of her "And the Pursuit of Happiness" column at the New York Times is about George Washington. Elizabeth Bachner's essay for the January issue was about Kalman's first collection of these text and illustration pieces, The Principles of Uncertainty.
Also, there is going to be a lot written about Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage in the coming months, and I'll try to ignore as much of it as possible. I don't know why I always feel the need to defend her, but ever since I listened to that god awful Slate Book Club about Eat Pray Love, with Stephen Metcalf calls it "irredeemably corrupt" and "utterly sickmaking" and says he detests her, I have felt a little protective. And it's all started again, with this lazy review at the New Yorker. I'm glad that Eryn Loeb writes for Bookslut, as her take on Committed is refreshing and excellent. Read her column, "The Elizabeth Gilbert Experience."
January 4, 2010
Happy New Year, dear readers! We at Bookslut hope 2010 is great for all of you. I'm already having to make some changes, like remembering to write "2010" on my checks instead of "Please do not cash this; I do not have any money." As a New Year present from us to you, here is a new issue!
This month, you'll find interviews with authors Daniel Nester, Andrew Zornoza, and Amy King, along with essays by Bookslut writers Elizabeth Bachner, Barbara J. King, and Courtney Queeney. Perhaps columns are your thing? Huh? Huh? Then check out the latest from our team, including our brand new columnist, Jesse Tangen-Mills, our Latin Lit Lover. Welcome, Jesse! And finally, our reviewers give you the lowdown on the latest books by Maggie Nelson, Laura van den Berg, Dwight Garner, and more.
Basically, reading this issue is the best possible way to ring in 2010. It's guaranteed to bring you more luck than black-eyed peas! Happy New Year -- and I sincerely hope all of you had the chance to, in the words of my friend Austin Kleon, "stab 2009 in the heart to make sure it's dead."
For a second, I thought that maybe I agreed with something that Katie Roiphe had written, and I was going to have to rethink my entire life. But thank Christ, I finished reading the essay that everyone is talking about, realized it's just like everything else she writes: she states a few obvious things, a few not at all true things, then draws ridiculous conclusions from them. (Like, I don't know -- date rape is a myth, or feminists try to hide the fact that babies are awesome.) But she can write a wicked sentence on occasion, and make you think she's saying something astute with those true things. Then you think for a second and realize she's full of shit.
I was thinking about what to blog about it, if anything, then noticed that someone said what I was thinking. I can be lazy and just link to them.
I've been reading some slightly hysterical reviews of Iain McGilchrist's The Master & His Emissary, along the lines that McGilchrist wants us all to spend our time singing Kumbaya and braiding each other's hair. One used the word "emotionalist" as an insult. But the Guardian's review is interesting and fair, and the critic took the book seriously.
This is a very remarkable book. It is not (as some reviewers seem to think) just one more glorification of feeling at the expense of thought. Rather, it points out the complexity, the divided nature of thought itself and asks about its connection with the structure of the brain.
A new Nietzsche Encyclopaedia will attempt to sift through what were his real thoughts and words and what were distortions written by his sister.
I have been trying to figure out how to answer a question in an email interview: "What advice would you give to a beginning writer?" I don't know. Maybe try dentistry first. Certainly don't do what I did, that was stupid. Then I read an interview with Christian Wiman, who was asked the same question. His response:
Read deep into your own tradition and memorize poems from all eras. Read literatures other than your own. Read history, philosophy, theology, science. Travel the world, if you can. If you can’t, travel deeply into your own neighborhood, training yourself to see what other people miss. Find some way of supporting yourself that’s apart from your art. Hopefully, this will feed your imagination and bring new material into your work, but at the very least it will create a useful buffer zone between what you do and what you earn. Keep in mind that all this is coming from someone who edits a poetry magazine for a living, doesn’t like to travel and has forgotten three-quarters of what he’s read.
That's really good. I'm going to just cut and paste that, make me sound really smart. Shhh, don't tell him.
I went out in a Berlin snowstorm (by which I mean, it was snowing, and there was some wind. I am a wuss) to talk to PBS about the Decade in Literature! Considering that when I started the decade I was in Texas, reading Nelson Algren on my way to work as a temp, they probably should have asked someone who was paying better attention through the whole thing. Oh well!
Also, the Globe and Mail asked me (and other people, like George) to pick one outstanding book of the decade and write about it. I chose Kathryn Davis's The Thin Place. To me, it was an obvious choice. I can't think of any writer from the decade I have been more consistently wowed by.
Kathryn Davis does not create novels so much as she creates worlds. Whether she's recreating every square inch of Versailles or composing with only words make-believe operas that seem so real you can practically hear the music humming through your head, Davis's novels are deeply immersive experiences.
(If they had asked for two, and had they opened it to books written in other decades, but translated in this one, Metropole would have gotten a place.)
January 2, 2010
"Get over/'getting over': dark clouds don’t fade/but drift with ever deeper colors." Poet and poetry editor for the New Republic Rachel Wetzsteon has died.