May 28, 2010
Question: Why was not a single table designed as such rather than being a non-table doing duty as a table?
Because people have gotten tired of ordinary tables.
Because the fifty non-tables converted to tables make good conversation pieces.
Because it is a chance to make use of valuable odds and ends which would otherwise gather dust in the attic.
Because the self in the twentieth century is a voracious nought which expands like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish and inform its own nothingness by ingesting new objects in the world but, like a vacuole, only succeeds in emptying them out. (CHECK ONE)
Right! Last reminder about tonight, and our reading with Lorraine Adams here in Berlin.
Friday 28th May
19:30 – 21:30
Metzer Straße 22
May 27, 2010
Miranda Carter discusses her engrossing biography George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I.
Today's reminder about Lorraine Adam's reading (tomorrow!) here in Berlin. Her latest book The Room and the Chair has racked up positive reviews from Bookforum, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and you can read an excerpt at the Wall Street Journal.
It's Eveline's voice — equal parts pretentious and poetic, bratty and poignant, wise and naive — that saves the book. It captures exactly the thought processes of an introspective teenage girl. Her worldview is sharp and dead-on. On seeing her absent father at graduation: "It depressed me somewhat to be faced with my DNA like that." On femininity: "Girls are truly game as soldiers, with the brave things they do to their bodies and the harsh conditions they are able to tolerate." On being a teenage girl: "When you're fourteen, pretty much everything puts you in a difficult predicament."
Third-wave feminist guidebook Manifesta has been re-released in a 10th anniversary edition, as if it deserved such distinction, as if it did something when it was originally released, rather than just pat Sassy subscribers on the head for being sooooo engaged. Boats, it did not rock. Minds, they did not change. Revolutions are not started with the suggestion that you should start a women's book club and maybe try lesbianism. Bookforum has a nice little take down.
In one corner, the sensibly dressed second-waver, defiantly overweight, highly suspicious of the fairy-princess aisle at Toys "R" Us. In another, the young third-waver in a miniskirt and heels, busy either painting her nails or knitting something, tattooed, carrying her keys in a Hello Kitty lunch box. "A feminist, not the fun kind," is how Andrea Dworkin chose to define herself. Feminism can be "relevant and fun and in the moment," counter Baumgardner and Richards, who, curiously, don't seem to be having much fun at all.
May 26, 2010
Sometimes you're having a psychic breakthrough. Other times you are simply secretly dying of a bizarre infection. Michael Greenberg, who had a column at the Times Literary Supplement for years, seems to have taken up with Bookforum. His first installment, "A Strange Fever," is up now.
Garrison Keillor is writing ridiculous things about the publishing industry at the New York Times, setting them at "glamorous" New York Book Expo parties. Ah, it brings back memories... specifically of losing the strength to get back to the Javits Center, and my friend E asking, "Would you rather just drink bourbon and watch some Miami Vice with me?" And yes, I would. (Link via Maud.)
This is your daily reminder about Lorraine Adams's reading on Friday!
I especially liked the boozy, loopy Mabel character in Adams's book The Room and the Chair, the woman who used to be a journalist but married a superstar journalist and now just dodders around. And I especially like this little rant she goes on when the subject of whether a woman named Martina might be hired for the managing editor position at the newspaper:
[Mabel:] "Is she good looking?"
[Stanley:] "I thought so. An unusual beauty..."
"Well, she wouldn't have been managing editor, then. At that level they only tolerate horsy women, matron mamas, bucket-face bags. Semi-fatties do well too. Face it: a brainy woman of any beauty is dead meat in the Room. It's the Jamesian effect."
Stanley was trying to get over the word "fatties." His eyes were unblinking. "Jamesian effect?" he finally got out.
"Anyone worthy of being a Victorian heroine is unworthy of success in any male pecking order. For one, their wives would flip. Here I am, staying home raising your kids, and you're promoting her! For two, they'd be too distracted and tempted to do the conforming to one another's ideas they expend so much energy doing. For three, they're all a little afraid of being risible, like Lev and -- who's that intern he married -- Meg. It's a category: husbands with intellectually embarrassing wives who are too pretty to be unobtrusive.
"No, the dirty little secret is these liberal men, these anti-sexual-harassment, pro-women's-rights lip-service providers, they all opt for wives as wallpaper. They're more in love with ambition than love. So poor Martina. Yeah. She never had a chance. What's that great, great, great Madonna line? 'Could you be a little less.' That's what girls come to know in our enlightened times. 'Could you be a little less.'"
I'm so happy to have had the chance to have a little chat with Hilary Hamann, author of Anthropology of an American Girl. Because not only did we get to talk about her thoughtful and beautiful book, we also got to talk about her years of running a micro-publisher, Vernacular Press, and she said some genius things. Like: "Ironically, as hard as money is to come by, it’s often easier to come by than faith, optimism and courage." That's the truest thing about running your own business I've ever heard.
Also, about friendships between teenage girls:
I started the description of the relationship between girls exactly at moment in which it’s most threatened — when the expert intimacy best friends have cultivated with each other gets transferred to boys. Nothing more tragic than that transfer of intimacy “resources” has to happen between women. Though obviously there are exceptions, it’s safe to say that the pattern is the rule. Friendships between girls don’t crash and burn, they tend to disintegrate.
May 25, 2010
I just found out that one of my favorite sci-fi writers is a raging homophobe. Should I prevent my son from reading the jerk’s books?
The game of guess-who is actually not that difficult. But our own Michael Schaub helps provide the guy with an answer.
All of my favorite dead men are coming out tonight. Melvyn Bragg and "guests" discuss William James's Varieties of Religious Experience at BBC4. For 45 minutes. I am in geeked out heaven. (Aided by the appearance today of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years on my doorstep. Now if I could figure out how to carry it around with me without causing nerve damage, I would be set.)
Selina Hastings's biography of Somerset Maugham is finally seeing a US release, probably delayed by the general consensus that Maugham is someone your grandmother really liked. But it is no secret that I think he is brilliant, and I'm making my way through his Collected Stories (multiple volumes) right now. (I also reviewed Hastings's biography for the Smart Set for the UK release last year. On Maud Newton's couch. Which is where I left the book. It's been too long, Maud.)
Hastings talks about the trouble about writing about Maugham, who was incredibly secretive and tried to destroy or restrict access to as much information about him as possible. Which reminds me: Dear Maud Newton: Please be sure to permanently delete the volumes of drunk emails I have sent you over the years. Much love, JC.
On the familial legacy of Vita Sackville-West:
Vita described her family as “a race too prodigal, too amorous, too weak, too indolent, and too melancholy”: in short, “a rotten lot, and nearly all stark-staring mad”.
Lorraine Adams (guest of the Berlin Bookslut Reading Series on Friday, just to remind you) has set her new novel The Room and the Chair in part in a Washington DC newspaper office. And while the book expresses faith in reporters, it is not, on the whole, yay yay about the future of newspapers and journalism. She was on the BBC yesterday, being attacked for her cynicism, but she holds her own nicely.
May 24, 2010
Through the open top of its shade, the lamp cast its beams upon a wall entirely corrugated by the backs of books, all bound. The opposite wall was yellow, a dirty yellow of the paper-backed volumes, read, re-read, and in tatters. A few "Translated from the English" -– price one franc twenty-five –- gave a scarlet note to the bottom shelf.
Half-way up, Musset, Voltaire, and the Gospels gleamed in their leaf-brown sheepskin. Littré, Larousse, and Becquerel displayed bulging backs like black tortoises, while d’Orbigny, pulled to pieces by the irreverent adoration of four children, scattered its pages blazoned with dahlias, parrots, pink-fringed jellyfish, and duck-billed platypi.
Camille Flammarion, in gold-starred blue, contained the yellow planets, the chalk-white frozen craters of the moon, and Saturn rolling within his orbit like an iridescent pearl.
Two solid earth-coloured partitions held together Élisée Reclus, Voltaire in marbled boards, Balzac in black, and Shakespeare in olive-green.
All these years, I have only had to shut my eyes to see once more those walls faced with books. In those days I could find them in the dark. I never took a lamp when I went at night to choose one, it was enough to feel my way, as though on the keyboard of a piano, along the shelves.
From My Mother’s House, 1922
Our super sexy reading series is finally getting off the ground in Berlin, debuting with Lorraine Adams, the fine author of Harbor and her latest The Room and the Chair. So come, drink, listen to Adams read and the Q&A I'll be conducting with her, buy a book and get it signed, and hang out with Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg finest. Details below:
Lorraine Adams is a novelist, critic and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Her new novel, her second, is The Room and the Chair, and it moves from Afghanistan to an American newspaper, from Iran to Washington DC. She populates the novel with the normally silent participants in America’s fight against terrorism — the cub reporter, the Iranian nuclear scientist, the women in the military, and the midlevel editors and military men who wield no real power and cannot stop the madness they see around them. Like her first book Harbor, which told the story of an Algerian refugee newly on America’s shores, Adams has a knack for illuminating the headlines of the day, bringing humanity and a sense of timelessness to the issues that plague us. She will be in conversation with Bookslut.com editor Jessa Crispin.
Friday 28th May
19:30 – 21:30
Metzer Straße 22
May 21, 2010
The NYRB Classics is apparently experiencing an overwhelming demand for JG Farrell's Troubles -- the book is going back for a large reprinting. Meanwhile, their blog is posting excerpts from Farrell's diaries and letters on the creation and inspiration for the work.
"Troubles went off to the printer a couple of weeks ago at long last—I was beginning to think it would never get there. I understand that they plan to publish it in September. However, to say that excitement is running high in the book world about its forthcoming appearance would be an exaggeration. Indeed, excitement seems to be running low here, and even lower in the US where, after months of study and a course of electric shock treatment the editor in chief of Harper and Row reached the conclusion that he didn't know whether he wanted it or not."
“I suppose it starts to happen first in the suburbs. … People starting to come apart." Ruth Franklin on the gothic domesticity of Shirley Jackson.
I am currently in the middle of Jillian Weise's The Colony and loving it. I love that Charles Darwin shows up, drinking mint juleps and telling the character to wear a red miniskirt. More on the book later, but for now, from the New York Times, Weise on becoming a cyborg.
When I met Grant Achatz, the chef at Alinea, that dude was vibrating with ambition and smarts. You could audibly hear his synapses firing. I wasn't sure if I envied it or was afraid of it -- probably both. I have a very foggy, misdirected ambition, like someone who has been buried in an avalanche and realizes they've been digging down instead of up for the past five minutes.
And then there is my desire to fall into an Alice James state. And so, at the Smart Set, brought on by Susan Wolf's Meaning In Life: And Why It Matters, Hans Magnus Enzensburg's The Silences of Hammerstein, and Becoming William James, and a bonus Brian Eno lyric rip-off, a new column about taking to your bed with the vapors:
There have been Sundays, in bed, in a hotel room, hungover or not, wherein my prospects for getting out of bed seem slim, what with the television right there, and the remote control so near my head. Despite hundreds of channels and the free HBO — generally just showing something directed by Ron Howard over and over and over again — I will stop on Joel Osteen or Rick Warren or some other reprehensible creature in a mega church of some sort. On those Sundays, it's hard to feel the repulsion I usually have for such views. It's the perfect hair and the shiny, shiny teeth. These men are always telling me that God has plans for me. "Oh, Joel Osteen," I say out loud to the television. "Tell me what those plans are."
May 20, 2010
Kay Ryan looks back at her tenure as the poet laureate: I feel like I’ve gotten better at it as time passed, but at first it felt very ridiculous to suddenly find oneself in the cloak of the laureateship. But gradually one becomes more accustomed to it.
John Basinger is back in the news again for memorizing Paradise Lost in its entirety. What's fun this time is the Courant reporter's bafflement: It's tempting to think that, having memorized 60,000 words of text, Basinger's brain would run out of room to retain much else. Seamon said memory doesn't work that way.
How would your poems fare under the poetry rubric? Wow.
Spencer Bailey believes that the place of poetry in American middlebrow discourse is secure: It can be argued that poetry is more vital today than ever before, because people are faced with the media’s never-ending news cycle. "The publication of poetry is essential in our time," says Schulman. "Particularly in our time with electronics, with the news reaching us so fast, and changing like a kaleidoscope every day. It gives us lasting values and imprints on our consciousness truths that simply do not appear in the day-by-day rush of events." Bailey and Schulman are probably right, since this argument about poetry vs. speed is now 212 years old. (Via HTMLGIANT.)
At PennSound: Alice Notley and Alicia Cohen, in a reading from May 1.
The Lost Booker was not won by Sawyer, Michelle Rodriguez, or any other of the people from that show I'm too dim to follow.
It was won, delightfully, by JG Farrell, for Troubles. James Gordon was not available for comment, having been dead since 1979 in dodgy Lost-worthy circumstances. The Guardian has an extract from the winning 1970 novel up.
I'm doing a series on travel writing for the PBS Need to Know website that will continue through the summer. First up, Sara Wheeler's Magnetic North, about her travels in the Arctic Circle, which was just nominated for a Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction writing. If I get to work in Travels with a Donkey, I'll be a happy lady.
I used to subscribe to Outside magazine. Not that I needed the tips on hiking boots or information on cutting edge mountain bike technology — what I really liked were the tales of either horrible death or I-survived-but-I-am-now-missing-a-few-toes. There was always someone getting trapped on the side of a mountain, or having to walk 50 miles out of the Amazon after their homemade lightweight aircraft crashed. I’m sure there are people who read these stories of bravery and adventure and thought, “I am totally hiking in Brazil for my next vacation,” but I always read the stories curled up on the couch, under a blanket, eating a stack of Saltine crackers, and thinking cozily to myself, “This is something I will never, ever have to deal with.”
May 19, 2010
As I'm pretty sure I'm slowly becoming as bonkers as Boswell (with his anxiety, his endless lists of how to be a man, his hypochondria) in my old age, let's mark the anniversary of his death with some dirty diary entries of his. (Via)
I find I have written nothing of my wives, save that they are fortunate to have been married to me, and nothing of my emotional life. That is because I don't have one. The only feeling I have is of being right, and that has been with me all my life.
A rainy day in Berlin has me trolling archives, finding things I may have missed seven years ago or whenever. Like, this profile of Brian Evenson, who was kicked out of the Mormon church after he published a book with stories that started with lines like, "Having sewn Jarry’s eyelids shut, Hébé found himself at a loss as to how to proceed." (He later wrote the creepy The Open Curtain, set in the Mormon church, giving away secrets that will surely send him to hell.)
Also, the archives of Outside are always great. I didn't realize they have the entirety of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (the article version, not the book version) available, not even behind a pay wall. Bless them. They also have a story that starts with the kicker:
At the bottom of the biggest underwater cave in the world, diving deeper than almost anyone had ever gone, Dave Shaw found the body of a young man who had disappeared ten years earlier. What happened after Shaw promised to go back is nearly unbelievable—unless you believe in ghosts.
Yes, I'll be getting to that as soon as I make another pot of tea.
Over the years the trade had produced occasional flashes of inspiration in which a writer—Daniel Defoe, Rebecca West, Joseph Mitchell, W. C. Heinz, John Hersey—took a turn at bringing to a true story the qualities of fiction. But those moments came, and always went, and did not much alter the journalistic landscape. That began to change in 1957, when Cornelius Ryan, staked by the least hip of all magazines, Reader’s Digest, began placing ads in newspapers and trade publications, searching for men and women who had been in Normandy that day. From those ads sprung a great journalistic enterprise that would culminate, two years later, with the publication of The Longest Day.
Best novel: The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi
Best Novella: The Women of Nell Gwynne’s - Kage Baker
Short Story: “Spar” Kij Johnson
Ray Bradbury Award: District 9 - Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Andre Norton Award: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making - Catherynne M. Valente
May 18, 2010
Longtime Bookslut favorite Daniel Nester: "I prank-called the Iowa MFA program to ask about writing lyric essays, and got put on hold. Take a listen."
May 17, 2010
The Second Virtue
I found this colourful kids encyclopaedia in a charity shop and before I do the dastardly and cut it up to sell the pictures, I thought I’d share a page. This is what it has to say on dogs:
Dogs can run fast
And they can swim.
They are slow swimmers.
Dogs can learn to do tricks.
They can sit up and beg.
They can balance on one leg
or do a dance.
They can climb ladders
And jump through hoops.
Dogs are very intelligent.
They bark and wag their tails
to make us understand.
It seems sometimes that dogs can almost talk,
They are such good
friends to man.
I think it’s my new favourite poem.
Smart Set deadline today, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger's The Silences of Hammerstein unexpectedly snuck its way in. While this Guardian profile says he's one of the most high profile author voices in Germany despite never producing a classic German novel, I quite like his strange nonfiction blends of essay, history, biography, imaginary conversations, news clippings, etc. And he responds:
"An interesting German novel is much rarer than an interesting English-language novel," he says. "Unlike the Russians, the French and the English, we don't have a very great novel tradition. We've had a number of interesting writers in the 20th century – Musil, Roth, Kafka, Sebald – but they are all one-offs. Our mainstream novels are like German cars. There is a certain core competence and diligence, but you couldn't say that they are particularly exciting or surprising or interesting."
When my friend was writing a blog entry for the Wall Street Journal about Joss Whedon, our conversations got on the subject of Dollhouse, which is pretty easy for us to do. His final version:
“Firefly” also introduced the odd thematic obsession around prostitution and rescue that took over and imploded in the near-future science fiction show “Dollhouse,” about a brainwashing technology that gives rise to high-tech brothels, and (much more entertainingly) Armageddon. There was something confused and unprocessed there - I felt I was watching an artist working with material he wasn’t yet in control of.
I think I eventually just said, "I don't think men should get to write from the perspective of female prostitutes. Unless they take a class or something." Turns out Joss Whedon maybe did take a class! According to the "Internet." It just didn't help.
Now I have a book that came into my apartment over the weekend that I can't stop messing with, even though it hurts my brain. It's a revenge novel. About a dude. Whose girl is raped. And he has to go on a killing spree. Of course he does. The author should also maybe take a class, taught by Virginie Despentes. Or just read her book King Kong Theory. In her movie Baise Moi, a woman who has just been raped tells her (abusive) boyfriend, and he starts raging about how he will find and kill those motherfuckers, etc. She shoots him in the head. From the book:
People keep telling you: it's serious, it's a crime, if a man who loves you finds out, it will drive him crazy with pain and rage (rape is also a private conversation, in which a man declares to other men, I will fuck your women whenever I please).
and on the idea of the revenge rampage:
You never see news items about girls -- alone or in gangs -- biting off the dicks of men who attack them, or trailing their attackers to kill them or beat them lifeless. This only happens, for the moment, in films directed by men. Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, Ferrara's Ms. 45, Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave, for instance. All three films open with more or less horrible rape scenes (rather more than less, in fact), and go on to depict in a second part the ultraviolent revenges inflicted on their attackers by the women. When men create female characters, it is rarely an attempt to understand what the characters are experiencing and feeling as women. It tends instead to be a way of depicting male sensibility in a female body. So in these three films, you see how men, if they were women, would react to rape. A bloodbath of merciless violence. Their message is clear, "Why don't you defend yourselves more fiercely?"
There's a section about prostitution, too. Just in case Joss Whedon feels the need to re-explore the subject.
In the good news category: Pamela Ribon has a new book out, Going in Circles. (I read her first book hidden in my lap at work. Yes, I am totally typing right now, don't mind me. Also, from that era: my interview with her on Bookslut.) She's at Largehearted Boy with his Book Notes series, talking about break-up music.
Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel has won The International Prize for Foreign Fiction 2010. Claudel's translator John Cullen will share in the £10,000 prize. Judge Boyd Tonkin interviewed Claudel for the Independent:
For 11 satisfying years, he worked as a teacher in prisons. "All the people who came to my lessons were volunteers," he says. "For a teacher, these were the ideal conditions!"
May 14, 2010
Stories about two mismatched people who hate each other at first but eventually become friends got old about 500 cop buddy movies ago, but Carey's novel is smart, charming and original enough to transcend that formula.
May 13, 2010
At the Poetry Foundation, Harriet is sporting a new multimedia feature, "Open Door," devoted to "performance, scholarship, and engagement outside the usual boundaries of slams, workshops, and book publications." Up now: Matthew Simmons's look at Seattle's Interrupture: when asked to describe what exactly Interrupture is, Mason says simply, "We’re a word band." Mason first suggested the idea of a game-based word performance to Comiskey and others. "We get together. We practice. We have rotating members," Mason continues, "People come in, learn the different games." There's video, for the dubious. I love the "Open Door" concept. Some will inevitably argue that it just re-installs the very division between insider and public poetry that it claims to move beyond, but it's great to read thoughtful pieces about performance, location, and poetry. You know? (Also, since there's a puppy mentioned in the article, I get show off my kid's new puppy, Athena.)
Amy King answers "ten questions on poets and technology": If every poet were to record just one book of poems that they loved for the rest of us to listen to, and not just their own poems, how excellent would that be? And if those recordings could be streamed on the iPod or through a phone application? Who wouldn’t be checking out what book of poems Ashbery read for us? Ana Bozicevic loves X’s book so much that she spent two hours reading it for us! Jeni Olin read X! Can’t wait to listen!
Speaking of technology and poetry: If you were a poet and online in those days, everything changed on April 1, 2004, when an anonymously run website called Foetry.com launched, its tagline "Exposing fraudulent contests. Tracking the sycophants. Naming names." Daniel Nester interviews Alan Cordle about Foetry.com.
Helena Fitzgerald on rock: mourning is the essential action of rock music. It’s a genre defined less by particular chord progressions or musical requirements than by sadness. Rock and roll is happy music about sad things. That's really smart. For an excellent example of "happy music about sad things," I have a suggestion.
Gibby Haynes, of The Butthole Surfers, chats with Joe Wenderoth, of Letters to Wendy, No Real Light, etc. (Via Harriet.) It's hard to excerpt, but here's Wenderoth: The only other fish that rivals the Piranha, in my view, is that fish they just found evidence of—the one that developed legs to walk from puddle to puddle, way back when. That struggle—not the struggle to cross the no-fish-land of between-the-puddles, but the struggle TO GROW THE BODY that would for the first time make the attempt possible—that struggle reminds me of my own struggle to get from morning to night. (Back in the day, Wenderoth explained how he met Haynes.)
David B. Hart is taking a beating. His article "Believe It or Not" kind of starts as a review of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists but quickly becomes a throw down against New Atheism. It is funny and vital and true, and I think these things because I agree with him, but there are a lot of people who do not. Like, so far, approximately 446 of them. And they are all yelling at one another. But this goes against my never actually achieved resolution to stop for the love of god reading comments sections, so maybe just read the essay.
I am not—honestly, I am not—simply being dismissive here. The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds
of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.
It is just a very good piece of writing.
This review of Anthony Sattin's A Winter on the Nile: Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert and the Temptations of Egypt just made me desperate to read the book. (Link via.)
There are two travellers, an English woman and a French man, both in their late twenties. They are eloquently self-aware and profoundly unhappy. They are hoping to find a new purpose to their lives. They arrive in Egypt in November 1849, within days of each other. They stay in adjacent hotels. They travel along the same river, and they visit the same places at the same season of the year. They confide their secrets to their journals. They write vivid letters home. For two days they are to be found on the upper and the lower decks of the same steamship, plodding along the lower Nile from Alexandria to Cairo.
These two young travellers, so nicely oblivious of each other, are Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert. Within seven years of their journey along the Nile both will be famous, she as the saviour of the wounded soldiers of the Crimean War, he as the author of Madame Bovary. His novel will be the classic description of the subjection of women. Her mission to the Crimea will foreshadow their emancipation. At this point in their lives, though, their primary creative energies are paralysed. Egypt may transform them.
I love yesterday, I deplore today, and I am hopeful of tomorrow because it can't be so bad as today.
I am tired of "new writing" and of "powerful new novelists." I am tired of today's new people; I am tired of their lives, of their tastes, their reading, their language, their singing, their sedatives and their psychiatrists, their houses, their furniture, and their faces.
What am I most tired of? Today's arid poets.
What do I most loathe? Today's rancid sex books.
All this being so, I have written about what I most love. And I love more things than I loathe.
- The ever charming Margaret Anderson, from her memoir The Strange Necessity, about her life running the literary magazine The Little Review. I was thinking about her as the New Yorker gets ready to run a list of 20 Hot! Young! Writers!, and given the fiction they run these days, from a very predictable pool of the same fucking authors week after week*, my response to the whole thing would be similar to Anderson's.
So when the New Yorker list comes out, remember there is still Alejandro Zambra. And Joanna Kavenna. And Lorraine Adams. And Dubravka Ugresic. And Shalom Auslander. And other brilliant people who will not be on that list.
And when I am of her age, I hope I am able to take such a fucking hot passport photo that I use it on the cover of my goddamn book. Holy hell.
* Fine writers, all. But other writers exist.
May 12, 2010
The Naked and the Read
A sensuality exists, I’ve just now come to know, in reading a book from the library. That others, strangers, who knows who, have fingered the same pages, rested the spine in their palm, laid hands on cover front and back -- there’s something intimate about that shared touch. And not just the invisible fingerprints, there’s more lasting evidence of other people’s presence: a booger wiped and dried, a moth or a mosquito slammed dead between the pages. And the smell, of course. Vinegar and dust and elementary school.
The physical human presence hasn’t kept me away from the library. But I have not been one to borrow books. Because: what happens if I love it? What if I don’t want to give it back? I tend not to borrow books from people for the same reason -- or give them ample warning that if I love it, or like it a lot, or like it at all, chances are I’ll want to keep it. And, childishly, I have a difficult time lending my books, too, fearing others will thieve like me. I put a copy of a collection of Conrad stories -- a treasured book for where and when I read it -- in the mail to Nigeria this past fall with a love note to my beau who was working there for thirty days and was looking for dark adventure stories. It felt like some small step: a new generosity, a minor letting go. It’s just a book after all, and I liked the idea of it being in his hands so far away. That it didn’t make it there -- lost somewhere between here and Calabar -- was no surprise. An empty slot remains on the shelf it used to live.
The impulse to own books, to buy them new, have them be just yours, it’s an onanistic urge, self-pleasing, party of one. To borrow a book others have read, the conversation gets expanded. Is it overstating to say it’s more an orgy? Probably. But I think there’s something to be said for knowing that others hands have held what you now hold, that the same sentences have been read by someone else, in bed, perhaps, or on a train. Some connection is achieved, to the readers both before and after you, one that can’t quite be felt when a book’s bought new and held only by your hands.
There’s a simple and astonishing moment in a short Chekhov story called “The Student,” in which the student relays the story of Peter betraying Jesus to an old widow, comparing her gardens to the gardens he imagines Peter and Jesus spoke. The widow weeps to hear it. The student is struck by that, and “joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a moment to catch his breath. The past, he thought, is connected with the present in an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other. And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain: he touched one end, and the other moved.”
Again, it’s overstating it to say that I felt that level of epiphany reading a book from the library last week -- but it was something like it. Instead of being hoardy and private about books and reading, some new sense of communion resulted.
And beyond the upped sense of shared experience, a library book offers chance to editorialize that a book owned by only you does not. (In my own books, no one else will ever see my “holy crap!s” or “fuck this shit” or all the squiggly underlines when I like something a lot.) But there on page 173 of The Brotherhood of the Grape, a short novel by John Fante about a tyrannical Italian-American father and his middle-aged writer son that I borrowed from the shiny, bright, newly renovated Cambridge Public Library, there, towards the bottom of the page, a word eclipsed by thick black marker:
“‘God help you, baby,’ Virgil smirked.
‘You [eclipsed] bank clerk!’ she raged. You’re not fit to clean Mario’s shoes!’”
If you hold it to the light, you see “fucking” behind the marker scrawl.
Elsewhere, a whole phrase gets crossed out:
“‘You want some action?’
She reached for my fly and I backed away.
‘Any way you [eclipsed…]’
It’s difficult to see, but easy enough to guess. “Any way you want it. I suck, too.”Or “I fuck, too.”
Perhaps, if I were a more frequent borrower of books, this sort of censorship would annoy -- that someone would take it upon themselves to hoist their own principles on swears and sex on future readers. A sort of moral vandalism. But this time, those marker-blackened words served in showing me that other humans had held this book and had been moved enough to speak to readers down the line. For me, it made an argument for borrowing, for using and giving back, for a private act becoming something shared.