November 30, 2010
Christopher Hitchens searches for the great Washington novel, and finds it harder than you might have thought.
"I often think that the best way to liberate Iran is to just to drop Nintendo consoles from the air," Salman Rushdie says, "and Big Macs."
Any literary publicists out there looking for a challenge? South African novelist Annelie Botes might need your help.
The row began when Rapport, an Afrikaans paper, asked her to name people she does not like. Her reply: "Black people."
Typical liberal media, going after an author just because she said the most racist thing it is actually possible to say.
On the occasion of the retirement of Lewis Lapham's "Notebook" at Harper's, The Morning News talks to the writer and editor.
If you haven't read Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples' Organized Crime System, you really, really should. Roberto Saviano now has to live in hiding for writing that book, although according to this interview in the Financial Times, he is still quite actively interested in Italian politics. And he is now pissing people off with another medium: Italian television.
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In the first episode of Vieni Via Con Me, the famous comic Roberto Benigni tells a Mafia joke against the prime minister: mocking a Berlusconi hint that the rumours about his private life were an indication that the Mafia were plotting against him, Benigni asked if the Mafia were now using pretty young girls instead of guns and bombs, and imagined the premier returning home one night to find three girls in his bed, and shrieking: “The Mafia are after me!”.
November 29, 2010
Mike Jay wrote a tremendous book about nitrous oxide (I know! Who knew such a thing was possible?) called The Atmosphere of Heaven. Everyone did nitrous, it seems. William James used to do experiments to see if it would help his reading comprehension. (Not really.) Now he's back with High Society: The Central Role of Mind-Altering Drugs in History, Science, and Culture, and he has a compelling video about the introduction of opium into the west as a teaser for the book. (Via)
This entire Michael Kimmelman piece on the claim that Syria is the new Paris or whatever you want to call it, with its new flourishing art market, is really worth your time, but this particular part deals with the literary scene there, and the effect of censorship:
Under Mr. Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad, there were clear red lines of intolerance. Now those lines are no longer clear, increasing, not diminishing, the sense of uneasiness and tendency toward self-censorship. Rosa Yassin Hassan, a novelist, put it this way one recent morning: “Two people write about the same thing, and one is imprisoned today, the other not. That sends a message, I believe. It is done on purpose to increase fear and apprehension.”
As a result, the art coming out of Syria may be valuable, and it may be trendy, but it's not politically confrontational. Read the entire piece here.
To tell the truth, who hasn't wanted to own a human being just for himself? Which, it is true, wouldn't always be convenient; there are times when one doesn't want to have feelings.
Clarice Lispector story online, "The Smallest Woman in the World," translated by Elizabeth Bishop.
I always thought that the best reason to buy an e-reader might be the travel guidebook. It's hard not to feel like an idiot carrying the damn thing around wherever you're going, flipping madly between the maps and the index. Not to mention the fact that sometimes you go to Austria and find yourself hopping over to Hungary, and downloading a new guidebook is easier than hunting down an English language travel guide in an unfamiliar city.
But a writer for the Seattle PI says that at this point, e-readers like the Kindle are not great at mixed media, not great for browsing, and no one has yet figured out how to make a clickable index or user friendly digital maps. So for now, you'll be lugging around those Lonely Planet bricks with you wherever you go. (via)
November 24, 2010
Poetry off the Shelf offers two poems for Thanksgiving: Alfred Molina reads a poem by US Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin, and Eliza Foss reads a poem by Dara Wier.
Wier's poem got to me. It perfectly captures the feeling of a first holiday after the loss of a loved one; the silences where nobody's quite sure what to say; the weird, dull, phantom-limb pain. The empty chair at the table, like you're waiting for Elijah, waiting for someone you know isn't going to come home again. But life goes on. Right?
From all of us at Bookslut, thanks for reading, and have a happy Thanksgiving.
Preparing to move to a new house, Stuart Walton culls his personal library and finds it difficult to get rid of 2,000 books. (Difficult as in, nobody seems to want them.)
Jessa and I both went through epic book purges fairly recently, when she moved to Berlin and I moved to Portland. I can't speak for her, but for me, it was emotionally painful for about five seconds. Then I realized how much it was going to cost to ship everything across the country, and it became much, much easier. I think I was actually gleefully threatening the books at one point. ("See you in hell, copy of Silas Marner that I'm never going to read! SEE YOU IN HELL!")
At any rate, if you have hundreds of books you need to get rid of, I'm sure you can find a charity that will take them off your hands. Just don't send them to Jessa or me. Because we'll fucking cut you.
Extraordinary Renditions author Andrew Ervin looks at Hungarian literature in English translation, and recommends, among other books, Tibor Déry’s Love and Other Stories and Imre Kertész's Fatelessness. (Kertész's The Union Jack was the first book to be featured in Bookslut's The Nobel Reprise series, written by Pauls Toutonghi and Ben Greenman.)
We don't need "refudiate," because we already have "repudiate." You can't just change the "p" in a word to an "f" and then say you made a new word. It's that easy that I just came up with one. Here, I'll use it in a sentence: New Oxford American Dictionary, please stop rafing the English language.
"Lifelong enemies are, I think, as hard to make and as important to one’s well-being as lifelong friends." -- Jessica Mitford
November 23, 2010
The University of Texas Press will publish the first book of poetry by Tom Waits next year. (I'm going to unilaterally declare Tom Waits the author of the official Bookslut theme song; I'm sure Jessa won't object.)
"Nooo! It can't be! You've really beaten me, Mario?!! I gave those troops power, but now it's fading away! Argghh!"
Ahem. Author Jeff Ryan is auctioning off the dedication to his forthcoming book Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America:
Think of it as putting your name up in the high-score list of EVERY SINGLE MARIO GAME at the same time, even that jerk Derek from fifth grade. It’s better than jumping over a flagpole in World 3-3!
All of the proceeds from the auction go to Child's Play, one of my favorite charities, which donates video games, toys and books to children's hospitals across the world. (Child's Play was founded by webcomic legends Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, creators of Penny Arcade.)
Missed this: video of two wonderful women, Susie Orbach (Bodies) and Hadley Freeman (The Meaning of Sunglasses) talking about fashion, eating disorders, and the responsibility of magazines and artists over at the Guardian.
On the long list of protracted squabbles over dead authors' manuscripts and property (Kerouac, Kafka, Joyce, etc), please add Katherine Anne Porter. The Washington Post has a lively account of the battle between "several literary figures" who think they know best how to build Porter's posthumous legacy and the University of Maryland, which owns the archive. And who knew that the writer had such a lively existence as well:
Katherine Anne Porter, the late grande dame of American letters, was a virtuoso liar. In her notes and letters, she fibbed about her age and her husbands (there were really five.) Recipients of her letters sometimes discovered while reading her ramblings that they'd been having an affair with her.
Also, the picture of her reading her own book and smoking is priceless as well. The whole thing makes me want to read her stories.
November 22, 2010
Richard Nash -- former head of Soft Skull, founder of Cursor, and indie publishing hero -- talks to Jewcy. (There's nobody quite like Richard, but if you think of him as, say, the Calvin Johnson of literature, you'd be fairly close.)
One of the hassles with words like “culture” or “community” is that things can be kind of circular. “What’s the definition of the Red Lemonade community?” The definition of the Red Lemonade community is that stuff which the Red Lemonade community likes. That was the problem at Soft skull as well, there was certainly the punk/post punk thing but what did that mean exactly? It could mean doing those kind of books, but we didn’t always do those kinds of books. We did fucking Echo and the Bunnymen, Jesus. Good communities always have fuzzy edges, because it means they’re open and permeable and people should be able to come in and go out, otherwise they’re in prison.
I agreed to review the new biography of Patrick Duffy for NPR chiefly because I was curious about the actor's working relationship with Dallas costar Barbara Bel Geddes, which, I have heard, was fraught. Eventually I realized that Lion of Liberty was not, in fact, about Patrick Duffy at all. I'm a little embarrassed, but it turns out the book is pretty great anyway.
Historical biographies can turn into hagiographies or hatchet jobs fairly easily. But Unger, a journalist who has written books about James Monroe, John Hancock and others, does remarkable work untangling a difficult subject — [Patrick] Henry can be both inspiring and infuriating, and there's no doubt that he was sometimes a study in contradictions. (He opposed slavery, which he considered a "lamentable evil," but was himself a slave owner. He was conflicted enough to write, "I will not, I cannot justify [owning slaves]," but not conflicted enough to actually set anyone free.)
If you replace "backpacker" with "expat" in this quite good article on backpacker fiction by Rolf Potts and Kristin Van Tassel, it still works.
In a 2002 study of independent travel communities for the journal Ethnography and Social Anthropology, tourist scholar Christina Anderskov identifies independence, frugality, and acceptance of the locals as central tenets of backpacker culture. But as novels like The Beach illustrate, these values are largely a self-directed rhetoric within the insular confines of indie-travel social circles. As Anderskov acknowledges, backpackers seek each other out, and the travel communities themselves—not the host cultures—ultimately become the focus of travel. Instead of looking for nuances and complexities within the host culture, independent travelers frequently cling to signs of subcultural authenticity in each other.
I understand that I fall into this hideous category myself. (I know I am an expat because Wikipedia tells me I am. Also because I have pie duty for the expat Thanksgiving this week.)
Words in other languages are like icebergs: The basic meaning is visible above the surface, but we can only guess at the shape of the vast chambers of meaning below. And every language has particularly hard-to-translate terms, such as the Portuguese saudade, or “the feeling of missing someone or something that is gone,” or the Japanese ichigo-ichie, meaning “the practice of treasuring each moment and trying to make it perfect.” Linguists refer to the distance between these words and their rough translations as a lacuna, which comes from the Latin word for “pool” or “lake.” There's a space we need to swim across to reach the other side.
German word that comes across pretty easily in English, too: "Seelengevögelt," or "soul-fucked." I love German words.
November 19, 2010
Did you miss the NBA? And by that I mean the National Book Awards, not the NBA where someone looks at Greg Oden and every bone in his body instantly shatters. You can watch videos of the NBA ceremony here -- awesomely, it even comes with a "contains adult language" warning at the top. (I'm guessing this means someone told Tom Wolfe to "shut up already, Colonel fucking Sanders," but I can't be 100% sure.)
Fiction winner Jaimy Gordon (Lord of Misrule) talks to the BBC about her surprise win, and sounds charmingly unprepared. (NPR has audio of all of the fiction finalists reading from their nominated works.) Poetry winner Terrance Hayes reads from his winning collection Lighthead here, and is interviewed by PBS NewsHour here.
Kathryn Erskine, who won the young people's literature category for Mockingbird, was interviewed by Publisher's Weekly earlier this year. And as for nonfiction winner Patti Smith (Just Kids), pretty much every media outlet in the world has a story about it, so fuck it: here's her singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
[Granta editor John Freeman says,] "The feeling that sex isn't fully represented in literature proves to be a false one if you expand just beyond the actual act, to all the things that sex encompasses. But once you get down to writing the act, it's very hard to do it without sounding like bad erotica or embarrassing self-disclosure. I remember Adam Foulds saying at our event: 'You can almost see many male writers' brain chemistry change as they write certain scenes and their ability to judge what is good writing get away from them'."
Men making bad judgments about sex? This seems implausible.
After my review of Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table went up at PBS Need to Know, a friend who had tasted the recipes wrote to tell me I was being too harsh on the dessert. I didn't care for the texture, but here I have a dissenting opinion. Let it be known: my review is possibly too hard on the dessert.
There is also a recipe included in the review of the highlight of the meal, the warm, cheesy and delicious Gougères.
There have been many, many articles about the revived interest in Cleopatra, along with the multiple new biographies and film projects. The two better articles, though, are in the Smithsonian and The New Republic.
Grief activates other brain areas, but that from loss of a loved one reminds the subject of the beloved and activates the reward center associated with that loved one.
From Bernd Heinrich's The Nesting Season
It is probably not a super great idea, reading about other people's fulfilling and wonderful lives as you're stuck in the grieving process, but somehow James and Kay Salter's Life is Meals, a Book of Days about travel, food, history, and their wonderful lives became my comfort reading recently. I write about the book in my new Smart Set column:
In those first few days, the only times I was grounded and sure of my surroundings were those moments when I had food as an anchor. Without it, I flew around in my own head and often found myself in dark places. I would come to as friends pressed into my hands macaroons, peanut butter cookies, pretzels dipped in mustard. “Eat this.” Beers, glasses of wine, whiskey. Kale lentil soup alongside cheese and crackers. There was a hamburger with blue cheese, a black bean dip with margaritas. Friends plated pot roast and wrapped my fingers around utensils. A friend who knows me eerily well tells the cook: “Later, she will say it was the pot roast that saved her life.”
It was the pot roast that saved my life.
November 18, 2010
The New York Observer on writers "defecting" to the video game industry:
"You want to write a novel? Who's going to read it? A bunch of people in grad school? Fuck that," [concert promoter Todd "P"] Patrick said. "Everybody plays video games."
I hate to admit this, but I was pretty depressed about this until I realized that video games and literature aren't in zero-sum opposition to each other, and I was actually letting a concert promoter bro named "P" get to me. I feel better now.
“The intuitive mind,” [Einstein] reflected, “is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
What does “exile” mean in a globalized world? To feel you’re an exile, you have to have a country you belong to. I belong to a stream of thinking rather than a piece of land, to a current that runs everywhere. My country is all over the globe.
Electricity, radio, the telegraph, the X-ray, and now, radioactivity -- at the turn of the 20th century a series of invisible forces were radically transforming daily life. These advances were dazzling and disorienting: for some, they blurred the boundary between science and magic. If invisible light could pass through flesh and expose the human skeleton, was it so fantastical to believe in levitation, in telekinesis, in communication with the dead?
-- From Lauren Redniss's Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout
In this video, Mitch Horowitz talks about the links between the rise of Spiritualism and social movements like feminism. His new book Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation might have a slightly overblown subtitle, but given the video introduction, it seems worth checking out.
November 17, 2010
The Monsters of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, As Drawn By Children. (Via HTML Giant -- and be sure to check out Jimmy Chen's site index, which is one of the funniest things I've read in a long time.)
I am going to make Heinrich Böll hip again. I wrote the afterword to the Melville House edition of Billiards at Half Past Nine, and it will be released in December. And despite it being about (sigh) World War I and World War II and aftermath and participation and survival and denial and survivors guilt -- the day's blogging is skewing dark, I know. I have not seen the sun since Sunday, that probably has something to do with it. Here, baby sloths to cheer you up -- you should read it. We'll be talking more about Böll as the release date approaches.
I hoped having a small child narrator would make such a horrifying premise original, involving, but also more bearable: his innocence would at least partly shield the reader on their descent into the abyss.
Except well, when we're dealing with a case of a man who locked up his daughter, raped her for years, never let her out of the cell, and forced her to bear his children... I mean, what kind of shield is even possible for that particular abyss? The reviews that I've read of Room that are critical, including Bookslut's Margaret Howie, accuse the book of cutesiness. And again, given the topic, trying to paint the topic over with innocence just seems... odd. I wasn't aware that was her intention with the book until this interview, and I'm a bit disturbed the revelation.
I'm interested in the topic as I just read another novel (more on it later) that took a true crime story that ended with nothing but agonizing limbo and gave it a happy ending. And it felt wrong on a cellular level. Especially since I wasn't aware of the book's real life counterpoint when I started reading -- it was the very close similarities in the basic set up that had me thinking "Wait a minute, isn't that..." I don't know what it is, whether the writers just wanted to be nicer to their characters than life has been to the people, or whether they are not steely enough for dealing with the abyss, but it makes for a jarring reading experience.
Perhaps it's time to reread Nicholas Spice's excellent essay in the LRB on a writer who wants to shove the abyss down your goddamn throat, Elfriede Jelinek, and how her writing corresponds with the Fritzl case. The real one. Without the adorable narrator.
If you can listen to Lisa Germano's "A Psychopath," with the 911 call playing in the background of a woman whose house has just been broken into, without losing your shit, then I have found a poet for you. Vanessa Place is a defense attorney for sex offenders, and her performances of her poetry include readings from victims' transcripts. Her book is called The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and Law, and she talks to the Scotsman.
She is frequently asked: "How do you live with yourself?" Her usual answer is: "I don't." "Like everybody else you exist in many different ways in your life, I don't necessarily live with myself as a defence attorney all the time. But having said that, it would be irresponsible of me not to feel guilty. One of the challenges of being fully human is to accept all the parts, including the part where you refuse to live with the monster that you are, but you have no other choice."
Bookslut contributor Martyn Pedler wrote a movie. (He is really going to regret signing a contract that required him to legally change his name to "Bookslut contributor Martyn Pedler" -- it's going to get awkward explaining that while doing movie press.) It's called Exit and it looks gorgeous. View teaser and read synopsis and etc etc.
November 16, 2010
I'm a guest judge tonight at Pitchapalooza tonight at Powell's on Burnside. (I'll let my friend and co-judge Alison Hallett explain.) Pitchapalooza is apparently something like an "American Idol for books," so if tonight results in at least one From Justin to Kelly-quality movie, then our work will not have been in vain.
Forgive me for this. But from the most recent episode of The Simpsons:
LISA'S NEW TEACHER: Your short story about the lonely pony? Gripping!
LISA: Did you get that the pony was actually me?
LISA'S NEW TEACHER: It hit me the next day, and I read the whole thing again. I thought we'd start the semester by turning this into a novel!
LISA'S NEW TEACHER: Real published.
Congratulations to Middlebury College for winning the Quidditch World Cup. And congratulations to J. K. Rowling for however much money she's making off this. My alma mater, Texas A&M, was apparently eliminated by Emerson College. Enjoy it while you can, New England private school kids! The Aggies will dominate you in another fake sport. Like soccer.
NPR is running my review of The Witness House: Nazis and Holocaust Survivors Sharing a Villa During the Nuremberg Trials. That uh substantial subtitle kind of tells you what the deal is.
In the autumn of 1945, Hans Bernd Gisevius arrived in Nuremberg to testify against his former boss, the notorious Hermann Göring. Gisevius barely survived World War II — he worked as a double agent within German intelligence, feeding information to the Allies, and had to flee to Switzerland after participating in the failed July 20 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. But now he was back in Germany and arrived at the appointed housing for trial participants, his elegant suit disguising the hardships he had endured, only to discover he was under the same roof as his archenemy, the former head of the Gestapo Rudolf Diels. He poured himself a cognac, offered another to his hostess the Hungarian countess, and confided in her: "I'll murder him."
So I will say one favorable thing about the book. Holding it in my hands did not make my skin erupt in a horrible disfiguring disease. There. I'm done.
Language Log on Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write… and Why It Matters. (Via)
November 15, 2010
The IMPAC Dublin award longlist has been announced. There are 162 nominees, so if you wrote a book in English in the past year, you're probably on the damn thing. (Dan Brown is.)
Sharmila Sen on translated literature: "We might be forced to give up ideas to which we have faithfully clung for years. There is great beauty in such infidelity."
"Sages cannot comprehend that one Love; the tongue will tire, the ears of the listeners will become wearied; I must tell of lower frenzies, which befall human beings;
In the Arabic tongue they call the lover 'madman,' because by non-fruition he loses his wits."
You have to have a specific kind of temperament to read the comics of Renée French. You have to be the kind of person who would go to the Mütter Museum willingly, who keeps her eyes open for most of David Cronenberg’s films. Because behind that soft, milky artwork — all smudged pencils and dream imagery — lies something dark and not quite right.
Also: Renee French interview with USA Today, about migraines and writing, mostly.
November 13, 2010
From my weekend reading:
Dante was standing near the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge that crosses the Arno River in Florence. It was just before 1300... Dante saw Beatrice standing on the bridge. He was a young man, she even younger, and that vision contained the whole of eternity for him.
Dante did not speak to her. He saw her very little. And then Beatrice died, carried off by plague. Dante was stricken with the loss of his vision. She was the intermediary between his soul and Heaven itself.
Six hundred fifty years later, during World War II, the Americans were chasing the German army up the Italian "boot." The Germans were blowing up everything of aid to the progression of the American army, including the bridges across the Arno River. But no one wanted to blow up the Ponte Vecchio, because Beatrice had stood on it and Dante had written about her. So the German army made radio contact with the Americans and, in plain language, said they would leave the Ponte Vecchio intact if the Americans would promise not to use it. The promise was held. The bridge was not blown up, and not one American soldier or piece of equipment went across it. We're such hard bitten people that we need hard bitten proof of things, and this is the most hard bitten fact I know to present to you. The bridge was spared, in a modern, ruthless war, because Beatrice had stood upon it.
-- Robert Johnson
"The Figure of Beatrice in Dante's Divine Comedy"
November 12, 2010
GARFIELD HATES AMERICA #boycottgarfield #boycottcomics #boycotteverything
Reading The Virginian helps me better appreciate honor and nature and life and testosterone, in the same way the Bible helps so many better appreciate God.
That's from Benjamin Percy's submission to NPR's "You Must Read This," talking about Owen Wister's classic. I am reading Percy's The Wilding. At first I was compelled to pick it up by the Berlin weather, all hard winds and sporadic rains at the moment. Dark and gloomy, with clouds changing color every ten minutes but never letting light through. Now the novel is comforting in a different way, as in, no matter how bad things get, at least I am not being stalked by a bear.
But it's nice to read something testosteroned out. Maybe it was all that Henry James, but I didn't notice how much I needed to curl up with something bloody and rugged until I was almost done.
(Although, in the end, there is something disappointingly tame about the book. There's a subplot, and I can't figure out what it adds. It's like someone told Percy the book needed a woman in it. Not every book needs a woman in it, especially if you don't know what to do with her. Ah well. It was a nice, manly interlude.)
In May 1857, Flaubert wrote to Michel Lévy, the Parisian publisher of Madame Bovary, that ‘an English translation which fully satisfies me is being made under my eyes. If one is going to appear in England, I want it to be this one and not any other one.’ Five years later, he was to call Juliet Herbert’s work ‘a masterpiece’. But by this time it – and she – were beginning to disappear from literary history. Though Flaubert had asked Lévy to fix Juliet up with an English publisher, and believed he had written to Richard Bentley & Sons about the matter, no such letter from Paris survives in the Bentley archives (perhaps because Lévy objected to the idea and declined to act on it). The manuscript was lost, and so – more or less – was Juliet Herbert, until her resurrection by Hermia Oliver in Flaubert and an English Governess (1980).
November 11, 2010
Happy Veterans Day, everyone.
Who's the better Western writer: Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy? (I'm going to sit this one out, because I love them both, and because I have four friends -- seriously, I just counted -- with children and/or pets named after Lonesome Dove characters. This is kind of normal when you're from Texas, though.)
Yesterday's literary controversy du jour involved someone figuring out that Amazon was selling a self-published book called The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover's Code of Conduct. The book is no longer on the site, reports the AP; opponents had quickly threatened a boycott of Amazon if the book wasn't pulled.
I'm not sure either side of this debate has a lot to be proud of. I can understand the people offended by the book advocating a boycott of Amazon, I guess, but I do think it's customary to give businesses at least three minutes to respond to something like this before busting out the ol' #boycottamazon hashtag on Twitter.
As for the other side, let's all just calm down and remember that this has nothing to do with the First Amendment, which applies to the government censoring expression, not business owners deciding which products to stock in their stores. Part of free speech is getting to choose what you don't want to say. And hey, some people are slightly uncomfortable providing information on how to rape children and get away with it. This seems reasonable to me. And shit, everyone knows how to commit unspeakable crimes and get away with it: direct some good movies, move to France, and wait for the awards to roll in. There's a precedent, n'est-ce pas?
"They served a purpose only in that things happened – because you are not only a writer, you're a human being, with responsibilities. And so I would never write non-fiction if these things didn't occur. Even that very first essay in 1951, I wrote in the New Yorker because I badly needed the money."
But another good way to remember Soft Skull is through some of the best books they published:
The Colony by Jillian Weise
Under My Roof by Nick Mamatas
Lonely Werewolf Girl by Mark Millar
God Save My Queen by Daniel Nester
Cool for You by Eileen Myles
The Final Girl by Daphne Gottlieb
Watching the Door: Drinking Up, Getting Down, and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast by Kevin Myers
Get Your War On by David Rees
So much of what I've read over the years was published by Soft Skull. (So here's to Richard Nash's continuing adventures, and the small presses that will pick up the pieces.)
In one of those "my version of fiction is better than you version of fiction" arguments, Charles Stross is saying steampunk is a stupid version of science fiction because the Victorian era was awful, as if we don't all know that. Jean Christophe Valtat wrote a Steampunk-ish book called Aurorarama that was a lot of fun, and he responds to Stross's attack in a thoughtful essay at his publisher Melville House's blog.
It is very naive to think that we are through with the 19th century: it is, in many respects, a nightmare we haven’t quite woken up from. Most of what we experience today - in urban life that is - has its origins in the 19th century. I always find it fascinating to think of a time where the things we are used to, and pretend to be adapted to, were felt for the first time: huge capitalist production and commodification, enormous cities and crowds, speed, networking, mass media, the rise of a visual culture, unprecedented destruction in warfare etc… And what makes it more interesting is that it all fell on dazzled, unprepared brains. The impact of this mode of life on the nervous system and the way that people tried to shield themselves from it (self-mechanization, neuroses, alcool, drugs etc…) were analyzed and debated instead of simply regarded as normal. It could be one of the ambitions to steampunk to go back to the source of the life we live and, by exploring those “first times,” try to make our times a bit clearer for ourselves.
November 10, 2010
The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas has acquired Spalding Gray's archive. If you've never been to the Ransom Center, it's honestly worth the trip to Austin just to see it. If these upcoming exhibitions don't make you salivate -- David Foster Wallace! Don DeLillo! Tennessee Williams! -- you might have to turn in your Bookslut badge and Bookslut sidearm. (Why did we issue those, anyway? So many Somerset Maugham books stolen at gunpoint. All Crispin's idea, by the way.)
Carolyn Kellogg looks at the books George W. Bush mentions by name in his new memoir Decision Points. (Christ, even the title doesn't make any fucking sense.) Bush claims he read fourteen biographies of Abraham Lincoln, which is actually kind of impressive if true. Maybe I had this guy wrong?
"Brave New World" (1932) by Aldous Huxley. Read aloud to Bush in the Oval Office by an aide as he was thinking about stem cell research.
OK, there we go. That's more like it.
(I'm a little late to the Hélène Cixous party, but I picked up Stigmata to read in Vienna, and it was a revelation.)
From the BBC archives, Elizabeth Bowen talks about the importance of strong characters in fiction. Oh my god, that voice. My favorite thing about Bowen's characters, though, is the way she sums them up in one or two sentences:
"He had the cloudy, at moments imperious look of someone conscious of fulfilling his destiny imperfectly." (The Death of the Heart)
"Everything ungirt, artless, ardent, urgent about Louie was to the fore: all over herself she gave the impression of twisted stockings." (The Heat of the Day)
"Cecilia did not like women to whom the diminutive could be applied." (To the North)
November 9, 2010
The New York Times:
Wait, some interactive books do include E? No wonder people seem so happy when they're reading them.
I've wanted to make new Bookslut t-shirts for years. Currently, my favorite idea is an image of Jessa doing the Guerrillero Heroico pose, since my "Co-Ed Naked Book Blogging" idea was rejected by the Bookslut editorial board as "too 1993."
At Jewcy, Ben Greenman and Elif Batuman discuss Russian literature, to awesome effect. Batuman is the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which I've heard is amazing; Greenman (Celebrity Chekhov, What He's Poised to Do) is best known as a Bookslut contributor, but is also an editor at "The New Yorker," which I have never heard of, but I assume is some kind of Northeastern lifestyle magazine.
A big newspaper’s literary supplement was run by these young, at that time unknown poets. Then it came time for Neruda to give a reading and they had sent a limousine for him. And he said, “Well why don’t you come with me?” and I said, “No, no you go ahead.” He said, “No, come with me.” So I went to the National Assembly building, right where the dictator’s henchman once met. It was a huge elegant chamber with velvet armchairs at least in the balconies. The fidelistas filled the hall, still in fatigues smoking cigars, in these velvet chairs. They had their feet on the furniture. The whole place was trembling with fantastic excitement, which you might call revolutionary euphoria. It was so alive with this euphoria it seemed like everything was possible. This is before people had a chance to have second thoughts about it. He read many poems and he got a standing ovation after every poem. I didn’t see him again.
Daybook has a piece on the obscenity trial for Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. Its first accuser claimed he "would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid" than the book. Even its defender, Virginia Woolf, was not an enthusiastic fan. "The dullness of the book is such that any indecency may lurk there—one simply can't keep one's eyes on the page."
November 8, 2010
I can't wait to read Jonathan Lethem's They Live, a brief study of the classic 1988 John Carpenter film of the same name. (You know the one: "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum.") Lethem has a slide show at Salon, looking at some of the movie's most iconic moments.
At The Nervous Breakdown, Gina Frangello (My Sister's Continent, Slut Lullabies) has one of the most moving essays of the year, about the death of her mother-in-law, and an author's obligation to stay true to herself.
Risk entails writing what scares you most—pushing beyond the perimeters of just telling a story via plot and pretty words, and instead reaching something deeper, more frightening and profound. Write until it hurts, and if you don’t bleed a little, it isn’t worth much.
Of course, as Ann Beattie once wrote, “Pain is relative.” For some writers, exploring social anxiety at a party or the threat of parental disapproval can feel like walking straight into a war zone.
Others have to push a little harder to get to the blood.
Portlanders, you can prove -- once again -- that we live in the best city in the world, and all it takes is a sleeping bag or two, or a few extra bucks. Please consider donating a clean, new sleeping bag or some cash to the Sleeping Bag Drive, organized by the good people at Laughing Horse Books, Microcosm Publishing, and Red and Black Café -- you can drop off your donation at any of those places. It's about to get freezing up here, and it is the Way of the True Bookslut to help out your homeless sisters and brothers.
Keith Richards has been getting some harsh criticism for a passage in Life in which he mocks Mick Jagger's allegedly small penis. (And I'm sure it's ruining Mick's life, too. I mean, the guy's penis could be negative-four inches, neon green in color, and covered with tattoos of Holly Hobbie, and he'd still get anyone he wants because he's Mick fucking Jagger.)
It's a shame, because the book is kind of amazing in its own right -- it's the most fun rock memoir I've read since David Lee Roth's Crazy from the Heat (fuck you, I'm not joking). I review Keef's autobiography at NPR, and a week after finishing the review, I still can't get "Start Me Up" out of my head. (It could be worse. It could be a Paul McCartney song. Just kidding, Beatles fans! Not really, though.)
Morgan Meis has a great review of the 1,088 page coffee table book The Classical Tradition. It looks like the kind of thing that will make you infinitely smarter and more likely to name drop Plutarch properly at a dinner party (and make your hair shinier, your clothing less stretched out of shape), but it should have a warning sign: for the already shiny-haired, classically trained only.
Everyone, it occurs to me, will want to rush out and pick up a copy of this cheeky and learned tome. The problem, of course, is that only a semi-cloistered anachronism like me would think such a thing.
November 5, 2010
NPR is running my review of Erika Lopez's new memoir/manifesto The Girl Must Die. And oooh! It got a "warning: offensive language" notice, because of the excerpt that runs alongside it. The 15-year-old version of me who hid Nine Inch Nails albums under her mattress so her ridiculously strict parents wouldn't see the Explicit Lyrics sticker is secretly thrilled.
The Girl Must Die is heavily illustrated with Lopez's artwork, mixing graffiti, tattoo and comic-book styles with wild abandon. Her writing is a similar amalgam of breathless tirade, stream of consciousness, aphorism and traditional autobiographical narrative. The result is a call to arms. "Do whatever it takes to finally grow up and have a full slice of pie, because we need you and all that you know."
In case you need some vacation ideas, a former Gulag has opened up as a cultural venue. Also, in Bulgaria, Michael Kimmelman (he of The Accidental Masterpiece) visits a Soviet era museum of humor and satire.
Ms. Tsankova, who, it was impossible not to notice, rarely smiles, had spread out boxes of chocolates and cookies in her office, the way Communist officials used to do for guests. “During the first years there were many anti-NATO cartoons, but there also were strict rules about being fair,” she said. “We were never even told not to tell Zhivkov jokes.”
Perhaps for comic effect, she then paused.
“Not that anybody ever did.”
Andrew Motion has a nice piece at More Intelligent Life about the British Library’s Ritblat Gallery, readers' fascination with the writing process, and the allure of viewing original manuscripts.
November 4, 2010
Something else to add to that giant beside stack: the new translation of Doctor Zhivago. Joshua Cohen makes the case for it being something more subtle, less cheesy than what English readers may have previously believed.
I am in the beginning stages of a Henry James moment. Maybe it is the increasingly dark days of Berlin (I began to worry and fret and dread the long Berlin nights all the way back at the solstice. Had a nice solstice dinner and then thought, "Oh fuck, it's all downhill from here."), which make me want to stay in bed with a large stack of books at my side. Maybe it is the rediscovery of Washington Square, which I love so dearly. Even though reading it is a little like having your heart cut out of your chest.
(Six or seven years ago I hated Henry James. Then came an incident where I hurt my back so much I couldn't move. I dosed myself with Vicodin, and read Turn of the Screw out loud to myself -- otherwise I couldn't follow it, what with the opiates -- and loved it. Despite needing to constantly pause my reading to count my feet, I was forever thinking I had grown an extra one.)
James defends his attempt to "show what an 'exciting' inward life may do for the person leading it even while it remains perfectly normal. …[The passage] is a representation simply of her motionlessly SEEING, and an attempt withal to make the mere still lucidity of her act as 'interesting' as the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate."
Novelist Salley Vickers talks about mythology over at the Guardian. (Video)
After hours and hours of horrible airplane movies, I was sick enough of the romantic comedy template to offer a reading list that explodes the cliches. Included: Washington Square, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (which I previously reviewed at NPR, and you can read an excerpt there), a story from Shirley Jackson's absolutely essential The Lottery and Other Stories and more. A little acid to cut through all of that sugar.
November 3, 2010
Islands of Privacy turned out to be pretty disappointing (the premise of the examination of how people adapt and cope with the quickly eroding privacy boundaries in contemporary society sounded really great -- too bad so much time was spent determining whether people thought of the contents of their wallets, each and every item, as "public" or "private" and "why" and so little on, say, how people adapt and cope with the quickly eroding privacy boundaries in contemporary society). But it's the subject of my column at The Smart Set this week.
And just to prove how psychotic I am about my need for privacy, I had originally included in the piece a list of various parts of my life I feel the need to keep completely private from, say, this blog -- just the areas, not the facts about my life itself -- but then I asked my editor to please take the list out. Just admitting those things felt like a step too far. (I am the psychopath who won't join the grocery store discount clubs because I don't like the idea of someone tracking my eating habits. Yeah.) So people who have their lives for perusal online never cease to fascinate me.
These are things I know about people I have never met:
I know a former writer for Jezebel accidentally left a tampon in for several days, and I know what the discharge looked like when she finally got it out.
I know what a memoirist and blogger ate today, and also what her cat looks like sitting up, lying down, chasing a bug, and hiding under the bed.
I know the sexual proclivities and preferences of a work colleague’s wife, because her husband announced them at a cocktail party. I was not at the party, but a friend called me mid-way through to relay the information.
“Every morning [there is] the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street.” Sleepless Nights, so the narrator explains, is about “tickets, migrations, worries, property, debts, changes of name and changes back once more,” a journey that ranges “from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe.”
On the sublime short stories and Sleepless Nights of Elizabeth Hardwick.
Good for cold, rainy, dark days in Berlin: an hour long documentary about Aleister Crowley. (If you haven't read Maugham's book about Crowley The Magician... well, actually, you can probably skip it. It's not very good. It's campy and funny, though.) (Dear god, did Crowley just use the word "Crowley-anity"? No wonder they called him evil.)
November 2, 2010
Today, America, you have a choice. You can choose to read exit polls all day, and watch the returns all night, as the Tea Party takes over our country, changing our national anthem to that awful Lee Greenwood song, and installing that ersatz Wiccan who hates masturbation as Senate majority leader. Or! You can read the new issue of Bookslut, which is right here, and which is markedly less depressing.
In this issue, we've got interviews with Jay Kirk, Audrey Niffenegger, Ben Greenman, Keith Lee Morris, Matt Hart, Kira Henehan, and Frances Lefkowitz. In essays, Elizabeth Bachner wonders why she's been reading young adult literature. Barbara J. King considers a book about brains...delicious brains. (Sorry, still riding that Halloween candy/horror movie high.) And Richard Wirick revisits the great James Baldwin.
The regulars at Bookslut Cocktail Lounge (now with video poker and Golden Tee!) are back at the bar, of course. Pauls Toutonghi, one of our Nobel Reprise guys, has a beautiful reflection on William Faulkner, winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize, and our Latin Lit Lover takes on the newest Nobel winner, Mario Vargas Llosa. You also won't want to miss the latest from our folks at The Bombshell, White Chick with a Hindi Ph.D., Comicbookslut, Cookbookslut, and Bookslut in Training.
We've also got reviews of the latest from Rebecca Traister, Marcy Dermansky, Joyce Carol Oates, Danielle Evans, Tristan Garcia, and more. Thanks for reading, as always! And Americans, please vote today, whether you're a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Tea Party weirdo, or just a genuinely concerned, fair-minded, dispassionate independent. For you, o democracy! For you, for you I am making these cynical jokes!
The writer Rebecca West saw, on evenings in June, pale-faced people sitting in Regent's Park. Some of them, she wrote, walked over to the roses in great earnestness and inhaled the fragrance, as though to say: "This is what roses are like, that is how they smell. We must remember that, down in the darkness."
Still impressed with the mixture of history, reporting, literary reference, and analysis in Geert Mak's (massive) In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century. I'm still somewhere in the '40s.
“In general, people see and discuss what does not work and what is wrong,” Kalman writes. “That has been true for all time. So, without seeming too naïve, I wanted to write about what is sane about our system. What is likable. For example, the system of checks and balances. The debating. The ability to change a law. The sense of humor. The can-do spirit.”
November 1, 2010
In time, perhaps, your country will think about its colonial crimes. No country has the right to point only at the Germans. Everybody has to empty their own latrine.
Ballet is a hot book topic these days, while ballet itself is kind of a mess, out-dated and boring. (Says the person who loves ballet unconditionally.) But while I was reading this piece on the output of books about ballet, its mention of the Nureyev biography reminded me of the most memorable part of that book: Nureyev explaining that sex with women was like fucking wet lettuce. And now I am sharing that horrible mental image with you, because I should not be the only one suffering.
(It has stayed with me for three years since reading it. You'll never get it out of your brain. You are welcome.)
Last week I was staying at my friend Maud Newton's place in New York, and she gestured to a giant boulder of a novel she had just finished reviewing, Adam Levin's The Instructions. "I really liked it. But you would hate it." I picked up volume one of the galley (did I mention it is enormous?), flipped to a page randomly and recoiled after reading a paragraph. "Yeah, I hate this already."
The style was so overblown, so -- or at least I was reading it as -- self-important, I wouldn't have given it another shot. But Maud saw something in it that she really connected with, and I respect her enough to believe the book has value. It's just not a value I will probably be able to see, so I'm leaving the book where it was.
It's funny that Maud knows my taste so well, as I am hopeless at recommending her books. While we share a similar mid-century bloodline -- Maugham, Greene, Kingsley Amis -- after that it doesn't meet up as much as you would think. (On the bright side, it means we often profit from each other's discards.) But often in conversation one of us will be ecstatic about a book, and the other politely says, "Yeah, I didn't read that one." And Maud is certainly not the only friend I have this problem with. Often Michael Schaub and I may as well be speaking other languages entirely when we get going on books we love.
But Maud liked The Instructions. Her take on it at B&N Review is bright and interesting, even for someone who will not be reading the book.