December 31, 2010
Glory fucking hallelujah, 2010 is almost dead. (I think I can hear someone shooting it down the street, although that might just be fireworks.) But here's to leaving as many of the horrid things in the past as possible, and focusing on the exciting collaborations and future projects that are in the works.
For now, one of my favorites from 2010 was getting to write about Heinrich Böll for the reprint of Billiards at Half-Past Nine. The Wall Street Journal reviews the first half of the Essential Heinrich Böll series at Melville House, Billiards included.
So here's hoping for a year with more projects like that one, for books as good as the ones I read in 2010, and harmonious collaborations like those we'll soon be announcing. And here's hoping my neighbors don't blow off their hands with all the fireworks that'll be going off in a few hours. Take care, and see you on Monday.
December 30, 2010
An ode to one of my favorite books, Ferenc Karinthy's Metropole. And written by the wonderful G.-O. Châteaureynaud, whose book A Life on Paper is worth reading.
Like his father Fryges (1887-1938), Ferenc Karinthy (1921-1992) was a figure central to the literary life of his country. In 1970, his novel Metropole met straightaway with considerable success in Janos Kadar's Hungary. It can, in fact, be read as a subtle denunciation of the "disconcerting lie" that prevailed for so long there… And yet, the indecipherable tongue confronting Budai cannot be reduced to communist doublespeak. Without a doubt, herein lies Karinthy's masterstroke: the country in Metropole is no country, but the world, from the moment one sees it in a certain light, hears it in a certain way.
December 29, 2010
Poem for the Day:
"Among the Neutrals" by Rachel Wetzsteon, from Silver Roses
And I -- my head oppressed by horror -- said:
"Master, what is that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?"
And he said to me: "This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them--
even the wicked cannot glory in them."
- Dante, Inferno, 3.31-42
The ultimate shame:
not even allowed to burn
with other sinners!
How could we not know
we were drowning in huge tubs
of lukewarm water?
Tomorrow I choose
has mushroom-clouded into
forever I'm stung.
Even the poor souls
lower down in the sad wood
stood up for something.
It was a way of
being all things to all men.
But that means nothing.
Deep misery of
votes not cast, dark memory
of love undeclared.
kept us frozen. Do not let
this happen to you.
"maybe" followed another
until...all fell down.
Through our tears we see
ourselves back on solid ground
making up our minds.
December 28, 2010
That said, if you had told the 17 year old me that I would one day write an autobiography where I talk about washing “my malodorous vagina” in a German train station’s public restroom — that people of both sexes would come to hear me read aloud from that book and I would utter that phrase in front of them — I would have swooned in abject horror. I was weird for Indiana in the early 1980s, but it’s nothing compared to now.
December 27, 2010
It would probably be wise to be reading light, funny fiction to deal with the never ending snow and grey. And I tried. I have thrown over god knows how many novels by now, including Iris Owens's After Claude, which everyone seemed to love, but which I found oddly grating. I have given in and I am only reading the massively depressing. Like Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, which a friend lent to me. And a 1,200 page history of Berlin, a city that went through some shit. And the Heinrich Böll that Melville House sent me.
Billiards at Half Past Nine is released tomorrow, with my afterword included. So I'm reading the others in the series, right now The Safety Net, the book that convinced Dennis Johnson he needed to bring Böll's books back into print. (Read more in our conversation about Böll and the literature of aftermath in the December issue.)
(I will have you know I resisted doing the one thing I hate about writers' blogs -- whenever something of theirs gets into book form, and the books are finally physical objects, there is the obligatory picture of the box of their books on day of arrival and excited squealing. But really the only reason it didn't happen here is because I can never find my camera, and if I can, I can never find the connective cable, and I get distracted easily looking for either. But the book is out tomorrow, and granted it's only the afterword I wrote, but still. It exists on my shelves.)
Daniel Mendelsohn's New Yorker piece about the Vatican library is unfortunately not online for those of us who don't subscribe, but there is a slideshow of some of the manuscripts, papyrus, and codex in the collection. For those excited about the discovery of a "secret code" in the Mona Lisa's eyes, thinking you're going to discover hidden Jesus stuff, you'll probably be disappointed. But the Aenid illustration is awfully pretty.
December 23, 2010
Andrew O'Hagan declares the letters of Saul Bellow to be boring. That's all right -- he's still a great writer, just not a very good letter writer. But maybe worse than boring, they reveal the true character of Bellow, which was maybe better off being obscured by the fiction.
If the letters are a narrative, then the narrative is one in which the correspondent tells a long story of how he failed with himself. He tells it inadvertently, while battling with wives and hating reviewers, and, if nothing else, you are left more admiring of the novels, the art his talent allowed him to pluck from such lowly chaos. Nobody imagines a genius has to be a good guy, and his letters will always show how he rolled. And Bellow rolled badly. His friends will say, ‘if only you knew the man,’ but that is bad policy: we know a writer from his writing, and we might observe that Bellow, crooked as a husband, resentful as a father, sporadic as a friend, made better and more interesting news of his life in a single short story than he could in a whole lifetime of letters. We might feel encouraged by this fact, yet the letters, bizarrely praised by many who wish a great writer always to have been at his best, are testament to Bellow’s ferociously uncool obsession with the transit of his own needs. Here we have it, the ongoing blush of self-courting, the precisely invigilated examination of the ways in which the world accepted him.
Oh, Andrew O'Hagan. Your criticism makes me almost forgive you for writing a book from the perspective of Marilyn Monroe's dog. Almost.
It's been slow and quiet -- I've been holed up with Simon Schama's wonderful Landscape and Memory and a lemon tart -- but I think Jack Zipes's contribution to Five Books is worthy of breaking the silence for. Zipes is a fairy tale expert -- and this is a ridiculous thing to say, but as fairy tale experts go, he's not my favorite. That would probably have to be Marina Warner. But his list of five books that have shaped the way he understands fairy tales goes in some very interesting directions.
Adorno developed a thesis about how the monopoly of the culture in the United States was controlled by a few key players. He maintained that they basically sought to dumb down the people so that they do not understand complicated mediations in our lives...
Adorno also helped me to understand to what extent, say, Walt Disney’s fairy tales, which began in the 1930s, influenced society. I am not just talking about the fairy tales but also about the films, books and all the merchandise that went with them. Disney’s products are filled with stereotypical passive women and men as active, daring heroes. Disney’s films such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty dominated the field of children’s films in the United States and throughout most of the Western world. Adorno led me to see how they represented the worst aspects of the culture industry. And by applying his notion of the cultural history, I have been able to explore and analyse what a serious effect Disney stereotypes have had on our attitudes and dispositions regarding gender...
All my analyses of mass culture, not only of the Disney films but also other forms of popular culture, try to show that we must take mass culture seriously and must be very careful with regard to what type of art form we want to promote in our own world.
December 20, 2010
Like most of you, I'm guessing, I've always used books to settle arguments. What I do is pick up a book relevant to the discussion, and hit my opponent with it. Some of you might be shocked at this, but this is the basis upon which all debate and forensics teams in Texas operate. And remember, concealed handguns are actually mandatory in Texas now. You grow up real fast there.
Uh, anyway. You can also read the books, I guess, and become all smart and well-informed and humiliate your opponent with your awesome knowledge, and at NPR, I pick the five best nonfiction books of 2010 for doing just that. (They're also great gifts for the nerdy friends and relatives in your life. But whenever I recommend something, I just assume all of you take "nerdy" as read.)
This year saw the release of fascinating and informative books about America's first president and the history-making election of our most recent one. Other writers contributed beautifully written, interesting stories of the great migration of African-Americans in the 20th century, the recent global financial crisis and the war in Afghanistan. We can't guarantee these books will help you convince your cousin that every American election is not, in fact, rigged by the Federal Reserve and the Trilateral Commission — but you'll definitely sound smarter trying.
The December Internets are cold and bleak. Here are some odds and ends in case you need entertaining:
The Chronicle has a profile of essayist and critic Terry Castle. If you are really quite desperate for something to read on the Internet, Castle's archives at the London Review of Books are always worth trolling.
Paul Collins writes about the forgotten 1920s writer Barbara Newhall Follett, who published her first book as a young teen, only to walk out of her house one night and never be seen again.
And I have been moping about, wishing for a very good novel. Then I rejoiced when I started reading Corrigan by Caroline Blackwood. Very good indeed. Then I finished it the same day I started, and now I am back to the despair.
I whoops forgot to include the link to the wildly racist Paul Theroux Playboy article "China Dolls." Here it is. Sorry about that.
Since we're not going to get a Paul Thomas Anderson Scientology movie, at least not for a while, it might be worth reading The New Humanist's examination of the writing styles of L. Ron Hubbard, religious rubbish included, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Hubbard's death.
The author was a red-headed pulp sci-fi writer with a sideline in Westerns and fantasy who to the astonishment of his colleagues churned out about a million words a year at 70 words a minute. Clearly he hadn’t just been cooling his heels for the remaining 46 weeks of the year, but thinking up something spectacular. The new religion (or at least its core idea) was no flash in the pan; its author, writes sociologist Stephen Kent, “had been discussing and developing his ideas at least as far back as the previous summer”. Assuming he could think twice as fast as he could type, that’s roughly 18 million words of thinking before he went into print. No wonder the idea caught on.
It's only an abridged version of the print version (boo), though.
“To light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of men when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, ‘Let there be light.’”
December 17, 2010
Hey Michael: In my year of reading piece, I really should have given a special mention to Snowflakes and Schnapps, which brought the concept of Spiced Beer and Bread Soup into my life. There are just no bad words in that recipe. You know this to be true. (Come over, I'll make you some.)
So I wasn't planning to do a best books list this year. For one thing, I've been sick, and I also feared it might get in the way of my plans to burn this fucking awful year in effigy on New Year's Eve. (The San Antonio Fire Department might also get in the way of those plans, come to think of it.) Besides, Jessa's rundown of her year in reading was so smart, mine's bound to look dumb by comparison. It would be like 2006 all over again, where for our best books of the year, I picked Spleen of a Champion: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Rod "He Hate Me" Smart, and she picked Professor Elizabeth B. Dearborn's A History of the Slovenian Mural, 1718-1721: This Book Is Two Thousand Fucking Pages Long.
I should probably know better than to do this. But it turns out that making lists is really fun! I picked the 16 new books that I loved the most this year -- some that I've recommended before on the blog, and some that I'll be talking about more soon. So for whatever it's worth, my 16 favorite books of 2010, in alphabetical order by author:
You Lost Me There, Rosecrans Baldwin
Exley, Brock Clarke
Next, James Hynes
Richard Yates, Tao Lin
Everything Is Quiet, Kendra Grant Malone
Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
Master of Miniatures, Jim Shepard
Just Kids, Patti Smith
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
Look! Look! Feathers, Mike Young
O Fallen Angel, Kate Zambreno
(UPDATE: I am an idiot. The original version of this post left out Paul Murray. I blame the cold medicine [read: bourbon] I took last night on the advice of my doctor [read: the little elf who lives in my pantry and makes me drink bourbon].)
So let's just call 2010 a lesson in will. As in, a lesson in what you can bring into being with sheer will, and what you can't. My Smart Set editor asked me if I wanted to write something holiday-ish for my books column, and I had this horrible flash of me rereading A fucking Christmas Carol or something. (Currently selling for $6.66 on Amazon. FITTING.) But something about the solstice, that I could do. Because it feels like a tangible event, up here so far north.
My piece, about alchemy, ancient solstice rites, free will, Richard Holton's philosophical work Willing Wanting Waiting, and the weirder German foods available for purchase in your grocer's refrigerated aisle, is up now.
We are in the Wanting and Waiting section of Holton’s book, because we can’t will everything we want. We can’t will a loved one back from the dead, no matter what ancient spells we look up. We can’t will someone who doesn’t love us anymore to do so. We can’t will our bodies to create and hold life. Holton gives examples of the catastrophes we can find ourselves facing — a fallen tree blocking our exit, the possibility of a romantic affair that will probably lead to our ruin — that will require our intentions, our resolve, our will power. Even if it leads to the same result, maybe it’s better to the be the person who delusionally starts hacking at the tree with an axe, rather than the one who sees the futility of such action and sits on the tree to mope. We always root for the heroine to follow her heart and kiss the penniless suitor, knowing full well she’ll live a more comfortable life with the stiff widower who does not love her. We love the willful and the courageous, even when they’re charging towards their doom. It’s less fun, probably, to be the willful who suddenly realizes that god doesn’t always love the fool, that sometimes the fool steps off the edge of that cliff and is impaled on a tree branch below.
I am still trying very hard to pretend like Andrew O'Hagan's novel about Marilyn Monroe told from the perspective of her dog is really just an elaborate prank, but it doesn't help that people keep reviewing it. As if it were real. (Michiko's review in the voice of a dog was obviously just part of the prank being pulled on me -- no Pulitzer Prize winning critic would ever do such a tone deaf thing, surely.) But if you are going to review the book, maybe please, please exhibit restraint and not throw in any bad dog jokes. Like "O’Hagan has finally got her—and her little dog, too."
With Playboy's financial difficulties in the news, and people talking about how classy and literary it used to be, let's also remember the really horrible writing it celebrated. Like Paul Theroux's shockingly racist and sexist and Orientalist 1988 essay, "China Dolls." I mean, just the name! But it gets worse.
Every man’s fantasies are uniquely and strangely his own, but if there is a common denominator, it has something to do with the exoticism of the East -- the beds in the East are soft, and the women are smoother, nakeder, sweeter and more willing. It is perhaps a dream of naked pleasure inspired by the dusky and bare-titted imagery of countless South Sea specials of National Geographic. But more likely, it is the conventional wisdom that they do things differently in the Orient. Nothing is more tempting than the forbidden, and the Oriental woman seems like a mythical beast or a superior species of human designed to give pleasure.
And there is so, so much more to enjoy. Via.
December 16, 2010
Well, tis the season: David Webb is the author of the new book Thinking about Suicide: Contemplating and Comprehending the Urge to Die based on his PhD. He is arguing against the medicalized idea of suicide, and would like the psychiatric world to understand the difference between depression and sadness. (Amen.) He's interviewed at All in the Mind on Australian radio, talking about why the medical health industry scares him and his own two attempts.
(And etc., be well everyone. I get worried after I listen to things like this.)
Or you could watch Conan O'Brien make fun of some of the lesser DC Comic superheroes.
Michael Schaub is sick with the flu, and so you are mostly stuck with me this week, unfortunately. And with all the book related content online being an endless stream of top ten lists, none of them more interesting than any of the others, I get distracted by, say, this oddly compelling story about the escalators in the Moscow subway system.
A sign on each booth says, "Information is not provided." Do not talk to any of them.
I was having dinner with a novelist not too long ago, and she was telling me about her time in Moscow. The escalators in the subway figured heavily. They are endless, and they are packed with people. And everyone is scowling. So one morning she decides she's going to wink at the people who are ascending as she is descending, just to see what happens. Most people are shocked. Shocked! Women gasp, men glare at her. Except one man, handsome, around her age, who smiles brightly and begins to blow her kisses. They reach out to one another, declare their love and admiration, and then the pass and they never see each other again. As she smoked her cigarette, she told me this story, ending, "I always wonder if he was the love of my life."
I rarely come down on the side of the UK when it comes to book covers battling across the Atlantic. The American covers always look so much cleaner, more attractive, more relevant to the contents of the book. I mean, look at Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, a loving couple dancing, absorbing the feeble light in the middle of so much darkness. Yes, it's like a metaphor! But Penguin UK changed the title to Alone in Berlin -- completely missing the point of the book -- and put in some stock photo they probably found by searching for "Berlin" and "old-timey."
But let's face it, the cover of Deborah Mitford (oh sorry, that's Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford Cavendish Duchess of Devonshire)'s new memoir Wait for Me! is much better in the British version. She is holding chickens. In a very nice dress. It is totally dotty and I love it. Much more that the super glammed US cover. It's gorgeous, but when the author is on a promotional tour where she keeps talking about having tea with Hitler, dotty is maybe better than glamorous. Plus, chickens are always better than no chickens. As I always say.
December 15, 2010
At The New Republic, Hillary Kelly is unimpressed with Oprah Winfrey's selection of A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations -- "A Date with Dickens," they're calling it -- for the talk show host's book club.
She has asked millions of people to follow her into some of the more difficult prose to come out of the nineteenth century—prose she knows nothing about. Put simply, a TV host whose maxim is to “live your best life” is not an adequate guide through the complicated syntax of Dickens, not because she lacks the intelligence—she is quite clearly a woman of savvy—but because her readings of the texts are so one-dimensional.
Even more confusingly, Oprah’s comments about Dickens making for cozy reading in front of a winter fire misinterprets the large-scale social realism of his work. ... Indeed, both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are dark and disturbing, with elaborate ventures into the seedy underbelly of London and the bloody streets of Paris. How can we trust a literary guide who, ignorant of the terrain ahead, promises us it will be light and easy?
Look under your seats, everybody! It's a decaying wedding cake in a guillotine!
Rowan Somerville lists his "top 10 of good sex in fiction," including Lolita and, to the delight of 19-year-olds who just don't care about what society says is acceptable because they don't believe in rules, man, The Story of the Eye. (Nothing against Bataille. It's just his books are like clove cigarettes to me, you know? A younger man's game. A younger, even-more-fucked-up-than-I-was-at-that-age man's game.)
Rain Taxi is auctioning off signed and rare books for their holiday fundraiser.
PBS Need to Know asked me to write a little round up of my year of reading. The result is here. I didn't want to do a top ten list or anything quite that silly -- my reading this year was so based around topics that I didn't give the whole literary field even the slightest chance. I could maybe write a top five books I read about Vienna this year, or the top five books I read about members of the James family. Weirdly, no one has asked me for that.
But if pressed, I would say that the best books I read this year were Everdell's The First Moderns, Enzensberger's The Silences of Hammerstein, John E. Bowlt's Moscow & St. Petersburg, and Coco Chanel and Paul Morand's The Allure of Chanel. The biggest surprise was Edmund de Waal's really beautiful and touching The Hare with Amber Eyes -- it was part of my Vienna phase, and normally I don't care for multi-generational memoirs or accounts of wealth. But it was so beautifully written and so astute, it was really a stand out.
On the fiction side, I spent a lot of time with Heinrich Böll, specifically with Billiards at Half Past Nine in order to write the afterword. But other favorites were Segal's Lucinella, Benatar's Wish Her Safe at Home, Mavis Gallant short stories, and, of course, Dubravka Ugresic's Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. Not to mention the Daphne du Maurier and Henry James sprees I went on.
I have maybe had too much caffeine this morning, I meant to simply link to the piece, not basically rewrite it. But I am sincerely excited to see what may show up next year.
December 14, 2010
In her honor, a section from one of my favorite short stories, "The Witch," from The Lottery and Other Stories, about a young boy who encounters a man on the train:
"Do you love your sister?" the man asked. The little boy stared, and the man came around the side of the seat and sat down next to the little boy. "Listen," the man said, "shall I tell you about my little sister?"
The mother, who had looked up anxiously when the man sat down next to her little boy, went peacefully back to her book.
"Tell me about your sister," the little boy said. "Was she a witch?"
"Maybe," the man said.
The little boy laughed excitedly, and the man leaned back and puffed at his cigar. "Once upon a time," he began, "I had a little sister, just like yours." The little boy looked up at the man, nodding at every word. "My little sister," the man went on, "was so pretty and so nice that I loved her more than anything else in the world. So shall I tell you what I did?"
The little boy nodded more vehemently, and the mother lifted her eyes from her book and smiled, listening.
"I bought her a rocking-horse and a doll and a million lollipops," the man said, "and then I took her and I put my hands around her neck and I pinched her and I pinched her until she was dead."
The little boy gasped and the mother turned around, her smile fading. She opened her mouth, and then closed it again as the man went on, "And I took and I cut her head off and I took her head..."
"Did you cut her all in pieces?" the little boy asked breathlessly.
"I cut off her head and her hands and her feet and her hair and her nose," the man said, "and I hit her with a stick and I killed her."
What killed Mozart? Who the fuck cares. Lucien R Karhausen has identified 140 different diagnoses for what killed Mozart, from measles to staphylococcal, streptococcal, or meningococcal infection to a skull fracture to Wegener’s granulomatosis. We will never know. So what's more interesting is figuring out why people are so eager to diagnose when his cause of death could never be confirmed. That's what interests Karhausen, and his piece is worth the read.
Ida C. Craddock was an autodidact, "a love-steeped mystic, adrift and exposed, [and] the object of scientific scrutiny," possessing "unregulated intelligence" and "destructive impulse to impart knowledge without discrimination," and that makes her sound like a hell of a biography subject. She's mostly forgotten now, but Leigh Eric Schmidt would like to see her reputation restored. The new biography Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman sets about doing this. NPR has a review, as well as an excerpt.
December 13, 2010
He lived a simple life in a small cottage, where he taught himself falconry and looked after an unusual collection of pets. Tall, with a powerful beard, he must have been an eccentric character. One story relates how his cottage was visited by a Jehovah's Witness collecting for their church. 'I am Jehovah!' roared White. 'How much have we made?'"
I'm very much in love with the new Little Star Journal, because it feels like an independent literary magazine run by a grown-up, if that makes any sense. A worldly, wise literary veteran, rather than a slapdash productive of a collective of twentysomethings. That thing has its place, obviously. And the journal is not musty and stuffy, it's quite vibrant. But I am prematurely 80 years old, and twentysomethings make me tired, what with their haircuts and their t-shirts. I have schmaltz in my fridge, I go to bed at a reasonable hour, and I really like going to the symphony. I am old. So having the literary executor for Joseph Brodsky (I was once carrying around his collection of essays; Neal Pollack saw me and said, "Oh yes. That's what all the kids are reading these days." See? Old.) in the role of editor made me excited to see what the result would be. And the result is a beautiful piece of work.
You can buy copies of the first two issues from their website, as print or PDF. Also on their website, excerpts from correspondence between Russian absurdists like Daniil Kharms and Tamara Lipavskaya:
LEONID LIPAVSKY: It’s amazing that crocodiles hatch from eggs.
KHARMS: I personally hatched from caviar. This almost led to a grievous misunderstanding.
“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.
The London Review of Books has a really wonderful essay about when ambition outpaces talent, the destructive power of genius, Italy's slow decline after the Renaissance, and Caravaggio. It's thousands of words about old Italian art, I'm aware, but it's worth reading.
Why, you might wonder, did Rosa paint a philosopher diving into a volcano? Arguably, he could have seen something Faustian there, a seeker after knowledge issuing a dare to mortality – something to resonate while the memories of Giordano Bruno and Galileo still lingered. But Rosa’s own letters are not particularly free-thinking in their drift. (No more are they particularly devout.) As I see it, the image is chiefly one of fellow-feeling. The plunge is what the showman takes. There’s a brink and the audience – the great unknown – lies beyond it: get up there, throw in all you’ve got, court disaster if you must, but whatever you do, make something happen!
Podcast with Wendy Grossman, Simon Hoggart, and Christine Mohr about the origins of Skeptic Magazine, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary and the publication of Why Statues Weep: The Best of the Skeptic.
Julie Powell managed to cook/blog her way through all 524 recipes in Julia Child's cookbook in a year, learning valuable life lessons along the way. I hope to learn as much, if not more, by watching the film Julie & Julia every day for a year.
December 12, 2010
From my weekend reading:
I don't know how it is with others, but for me the charm of a woman increases if... she has spent five days on a scientific trip lying on a hard bench of the Tashkent train, knows her way around in Linnaean Latin, knows which side she is on in the dispute between the Lamarckians and the epigeneticists, and is not indifferent to the soybean, cotton, or chicory.
- Osip Mandelstam, Journey to Armenia
December 11, 2010
This is a very, very, very dark comedy about an ordinary Dutch couple during World War II who decide, somewhat ambivalently, to hide a Jew in their attic. It seems like the right thing to do, and hey, fuck the Nazis anyway.
His is the last entry on the Salon slideshow.
Raised by meek working-class parents, she despised petty groveling and had no talent for making shit up. She wanted to be a “real” intellectual moving with dizzying freedom between high and low points in the culture. And to a certain extent, she’d succeeded. Catt’s semi-name attracted a following among Asberger’s boys, girls who’d been hospitalized for mental illness, sex workers, Ivy alumnae on meth, and always, the cutters.
For your weekend reading, the great Chris Kraus (read I Love Dick, really) has an excerpt from her new novel Summer of Hate online.
December 10, 2010
Steven Heller talks to Nicole Hollander about her comic strip Sylvia being dropped from the Tribune papers and her collection The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama. (See Jenny McPhee's Bookslut Bombshell column about Sylvia here.)
Excerpt from the new book of Julia Child's letters:
Speaking of politics, Paul and I had a bitter disappointment 2 weeks ago. A friend of a friend, with whom (the F of F) we have been having a joking post-card correspondence for several years, finally arrived in France on a long-awaited holiday. He is a writer. I think P and I fell into our own semantic trap, and romanticized him. Writers are fine, sensitive beings, aware of the world, the inner tensions, alert, inquiring, and thoroughly superior beings. Well. He doesn't even read the newspaper. He is not at all worried about McCarthy, saying the average man is more interested in his own work and his family than in what McCarthy does. He is not interested in eating. He is absolutely unaware of architecture. We took him on a little tour of Aix en Provence, and he didn't even look at a doorway. So, it turns out he has been living in an entirely upper middle-brow world. Well. I have never been so slapped in the face by a wet fish.
Yes, writers will do that to you.
December 9, 2010
Some exciting news from one of my favorite indie presses, Graywolf in Minneapolis -- they'll be publishing a poetry collection by Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese poet and literary critic who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
Good news, irony fans! A Seattle high school temporarily removed Aldous Huxley's dystopian satire Brave New World from its curriculum because the "cultural insensitivity embedded in this book makes it an inappropriate choice as a central text in [the] 10th grade curriculum." The initial removal came after a complaint from an "outraged" parent of a Native American student upset at Huxley's characterization of American Indians as "savages." Here's the parent:
"We are not about book burning and we're not radicals," she says. "We're not trying to in any way censor that book, we're just saying it does not belong in high school. It is not appropriate for the curriculum."
Yeah. Except since the high school in question is a public school, and thus run by the government, censoring that book is exactly what you're trying to do. It's like me saying "I'm not trying to in any way rob you; I am just going to point this gun at you until you give me all your money."
PBS Need to Know has allowed me to further my obsession with the Ballets Russes with a Q&A with Mary Davis, the author of Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion. (Did I just buy Bakst prints? Yes I did.) We discuss the continuing influence of this band of composers, dancers, choreographers, fashion designers, musicians, countesses, and painters -- we also share a deep love for the aforementioned Leon Bakst. (Also good: John E. Bowlt's books about Russian art during that time.) Her book is gorgeous, and I had a good time chatting with her.
Margot Lurie on the long, unlikely affair between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren.
Beauvoir wrote voluminously about her relationship with Algren, both nonfiction (America Day by Day) and barely disguised fiction (The Mandarins, the novel which won her the Prix Goncourt, has a character based on Algren and is dedicated to his real-life inspiration). After five years, the Beauvoir-Algren relationship, mostly conducted through the mail, began to fray. He subjected her to his dark moods and his jealousies; she wrote a strange and possibly not unrelated defense of the Marquis de Sade. She had exploded on the international scene; his literary reputation seemed to be waning. By the time the third volume of her autobiography was published, with a full description of the affair, Algren’s feelings had soured and he was enraged. “She’s fantasizing a relationship in the manner of a middle-aged spinster,” he said. “Will she ever quit talking?”
I enjoy any excuse to talk to Dennis Johnson, publisher at Melville House, but the re-release of the Heinrich Böll novels under his reign was a particularly good reason to write down what was said. Our talk about German literature, publishing as advocacy, literature as aftermath, and male writers who are accidentally feminists was a pleasure to conduct.
Now Katy, my friend and Berlin colleague, may give Böll another go because of the correspondence. She finds Böll a dreadful bore, she confesses on her blog, Love German Books.
But of course literature isn't a nursery pudding. To some extent it certainly is a matter of taste - but then there are times when one has to stand back and say, "Well, Böll certainly knew how to layer his bread with his raisins, and he never left his books in the oven too long until they were all black on top." And if Jessa Crispin says his female characters are strong, I may have to have another wee taste in case I do actually like his writing after all.
Sofia Tolstoy's diaries created quite a stir about what life was like with the literary genius, as if it were news. It turns out that this 1891 profile of Leo Tolstoy from The Atlantic revealed the tension in Tolstoy's marriage, from her struggle to keep him from giving away his children's inheritance to the struggle that began the marriage:
He brought his beautiful bride of half his age to this tiny wing,—it chanced to be tiny in this case, and there she lived for seventeen years. The horrible loneliness of it, especially in winter, with not a neighbor for miles, unless one reckon the village at the park gate, which could not have furnished anything but human beings, and never a congenial companion for her! Needless to say that she never had on a low-bodied gown, never went to the theatre or a ball, in all her fair young life; and to the loneliness of the country must be added the absolute loneliness during the absences of the count, who had much reading to do in Moscow for the historical portions of his great war drama. When he got tired of his village school, of his experiments upon the infant peasant mind, of things in general, he could and did go away for rest. The countess did not. Decidedly, the Countess Sophia Tolstóy is one of those truly feminine heroines who are cast into shadow by a brilliant light close to them, but a heroine none the less in more ways than need be mentioned. Her self-denial and courage gave to the world War and Peace and Anna Karénin; and she declares that were it to do over again she would not hesitate a moment. The public owes the count’s wife a great debt of gratitude, and not of reproaches, for bravely opposing his fatal desire to live in every detail the life of a peasant laborer. Can any one blessed with the faintest particle of imagination fail to perceive how great a task it has been to withstand him thus for his own good; to rear nine healthy, handsome, well-bred children out of the much larger family which they have had; to bear the entire responsibility of the household and the business?
God. Read the whole thing.
December 8, 2010
Rock singer and insurance risk Pete Doherty (The Libertines, Babyshambles) will play poet and novelist Alfred de Musset (The Confessions of a Child of the Century) in an upcoming movie, also starring Charlotte Gainsbourg.
"We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute -- the foundation of the human condition -- and should be better."
-Mario Vargas Llosa, address to the Swedish Academy, Dec. 7, 2010
Telegram: PLEASE SELL 10,000 WORTH OF STOCK. WE HAVE DECIDED TO LEAD A MAD AND EXTRAVAGANT LIFE.
Daybook on Hart Crane and publishers Harry and Caresse Crosby. Their dark, twisted story is told in Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby by Geoffrey Wolff. (God, how have I not read this yet?)
December 7, 2010
“…I mope/ as I do to further my own purposes.” The final poetry collection of the late Rachel Wetzsteon Silver Roses is reviewed at The New Republic. (I wrote an essay following Wetzsteon's suicide for B&N Review.)
There is a vicious little piece on Jonathan Franzen's appearance on Oprah at the New York Daily News.
Franzen embodies the left-leaning mirror image of the Angry White Male of the ’90s, the archetypal conservative middle-class Middle American whose fury, stoked by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, burned in the face of affirmative action and political correctness.
His Doppelganger, the Frustrated White Male, is more sophisticated but no more enlightened about this country’s rich multiplicity of opinions, cultures and predilections. His frustrations are different - corporations, Tea Partyers, NASCAR fans - but the basic content is the same: an anger at Americans’ essential stupidity, whether those Americans are Democrats (Newt Gingrich’s target) or book reviewers (Franzen’s).
Is it weird that it made me nostalgic for Dale Peck's reviews?
Speaking of lost, stolen, destroyed, degenerate art: Judith H. Dobrzynski has a short piece about Max Beckmann's "Self Portrait in Tuxedo" and an introduction to his life and work at the WSJ. He had 10 paintings in the degenerate art show during the Nazi reign, the one that is in the news again because they discovered sculptures from the show previously believed to have been destroyed. (Michael Kimmelman's piece on the exhibition of these sculptures is very good.)
The Beckmann piece is a bit unsatisfying, though, being so short. If interested in reading more, or at least some background stuff, I can recommend three books:
Lustmord by Maria Tatar, about the rise of sex crimes in Weimar Germany and how that disturbing imagery made its way into the work of the male painters at the time
Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, an examination of the superstars at the time, like Beckmann, Dix, Schad, Grosz
And because Glitter and Doom is so incredibly, depressingly negligent of any of the women Weimar era artists, We Weren't Modern Enough: Women Artists and the Limits of German Modernism reminds you that women really were doing incredible work in the Weimar years.
Paul Oliver tries out the Google ebookstore and finds it quite buggy. While trying to download the new Oprah approved Tale of Two Cities, Google only lets him download the second half of the book, and it comes with unexpected ephemera.
In this case it was an ex-library copy with the card at the back showing all the dates on which it had been checked out. As you can see from the image I captured (on the left), this book had a long but somewhat limited run in the Harvard University library. Donated by Ernest Lewis Gay, who graduated with the class of 1897.
December 6, 2010
This month in Bookslut, Jessa Crispin and Melville House publisher Dennis Loy Johnson discuss Heinrich Böll, and Elizabeth Bachner considers Roland Barthes, mourning, and aloneness. Barbara J. King shares four perfect passages, and Colleen Mondor recommends nonfiction for curious young readers. Ben Greenman looks at Selma Lagerlöf in Letter 6 of The Nobel Reprise. And we've got interviews with Stephen Dixon, Sarah Glidden, Jessica Francis Kane, Lan Samantha Chang, Reb Livingston, and Phil Cordelli.
We also have some incredible columns for you -- all your old favorites are back, and we're also excited to announce the return of Heather Clitheroe, who's bringing back her Scarlet Woman of Self-Help column for the first time in almost six years. This month also brings a new columnist: Christopher Merkel's first installment of his new Unamerican column, which will focus on literature in translation and writers from outside the United States, is stunning. And of course we have reviews, of the latest from Greil Marcus, Jessica Treadway, Laura Kipnis, Ian Morris, Amélie Nothomb, and more.
So enjoy! And remember, Bookslut is the perfect distraction from your next awkward holiday family meal. It's an instant conversation changer! Observe:
YOUR RACIST UNCLE: I realize this might be "politically incorrect," but my problem with these bla--
YOU: Hey, how about that Heinrich Böll, huh? Can you believe his books were out of print for so long?
[Long, very uncomfortable pause.]
YOUR GRANDMOTHER: You know, I never cared for any of you. [Takes long, deliberate swig of port.] Not even a little bit.
Let the lord drive this blade through my heart (pardon me, still have last night's opera running through my head) if I become the type of blogger who regularly posts inspirational quotations. But this one is so very nice:
If you dream of something worth doing and then simply go to work on it and don’t think anything of personalities, or emotional conflicts, or of money, or of family distractions; if you just think of, detail by detail, what you have to do next, it is a wonderful dream even if the end is a long way off, for there are about five thousand steps to be taken before we realize it; and start making the first ten, and stay making twenty after, it is amazing how quickly you get through those five thousand steps.”
The New Yorker has a preview of a wonderful looking little art book, “The Island of Rota."
Big Numbers should have worked. It had a great writer, Alan Moore. It had a great artist, Bill Sinkiewicz. It had a great concept, based on an idea by Benoit Mandelbrot. (It was originally supposed to be called "The Mandelbrot Set," "until mathematician Mandelbrot will request that his name not be used.") So what happened? Eddie Campbell has talked about this project before, saying he wished he had been able to work on it instead of the ten years he spent on From Hell. The Mindless Ones pieces the story together of how a collaborative project -- no matter how good -- can just fall apart. (Via)
December 3, 2010
The late Barry Hannah's Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories is probably the best short story collection I've read this year (my review is coming soon in another publication). If you're even slightly interested in Southern literature, Hannah is an author you need to read (and follow him up with the great George Singleton).
This Sunday at midnight (Eastern Time, I'm assuming), over at HTML Giant, the writer Kyle Minor (In the Devil's Territory) will be reading Long, Last, Happy in its entirety in a webcast. The reading could conceivably take longer than 24 hours, and HTML Giant will be giving away copies of the book and some other Hannah-related items.
This is such a cool idea, we're going to steal it. Jessa and I will have a webcast where we start to read a book in its entirety, then five minutes into it get drunk and talk about Friday Night Lights for several hours. Then Ben Greenman's going to write a musical about it.
The way I rub my hands together
Demonstrates that I am evil
The dark, malignant overlord
Of all information retrieval
I want you here now
To watch as I humble
The earth's greatest nations
Let them all crumble!
From The American Scholar, how to master the faux arts. This piece on great art forgeries, including the man who sold fake Vermeers to the Nazis, sort of follows up on my reading on stolen, hidden, destroyed art, as well as makes me really want to watch the brilliant F for Fake again.
As quoted in Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge's The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, when the young Edith Wharton -- then Edith Jones -- and her suitor Henry Stevens ended their engagement, a notice about this ran in the Newport Daily News:
The only reason assigned for the breaking of the engagement hitherto existing between Henry Stevens and Miss Edith Jones is an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride. Miss Jones is an ambitious authoress, and it is said that, in the eyes of Mr. Stevens, ambition is a grievous fault.
(Via Colleen Mondor, in a piece from the upcoming December issue of Bookslut.)
December 2, 2010
Are new translations of classic books really necessary? As an American, I don't think any translation is really necessary. If the book's any good, the author would have damn well written it in English. Woooooooooooo! [FIRING GUNS INTO THE AIR, EATING BACON CHEESEBURGER PURCHASED WITH CREDIT CARD, MOCKING IMMIGRANTS, LISTENING TO LEE GREENWOOD]
I've been feeling neglectful of the blog and Twitter, mostly due to my workload (two long essays, the new issue, collaborating on a piece with Dennis Loy Johnson for the new issue, not to mention renewing my residency visa, having my taxes audited by Germans -- yikes, and trying to plan a work trip to London). My brain is mostly tied up in that audit one. It's "standard procedure" for self-employed immigrants, but it puts the fear of god/German authority in me.
But I have a column at the Smart Set about the fight over Klimt's Adele and two really beautiful (highly recommended books), Lost Lives, Lost Art and Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes. While I was reading those books, the degenerate art uncovered in Berlin was going on display, and those 271 Picassos showed up out of nowhere. It seemed like a nice little coincidence.
An author of a novel about the art world talks about -- wait for it -- art at the 92nd Street Y. People get pissed off and demand (and get) refunds.
After being dumped by Amazon, WikiLeaks quickly sent out a response via its Twitter site: "If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books."
I always loved reading about the two wayward brothers of the James family. I mean, in a family that produces genius like Henry, William and to some degree Alice, how do you also get two vaguely disappointing brothers who were shuttled off to the Midwest where no one could see them? Biographers love stories of troubled brothers, from Stanislaus Joyce (brother of James) to Branwell Brontë, Otto Mahler to Harry Maugham. (Also great fun: reading the books of the disappointing brothers, like Stanislaus's My Brother's Keeper.) Great piece about the prodigal brothers of geniuses. (via)
December 1, 2010
Some British readers of The Guardian aren't happy about the newspaper's use of Americanisms, like "dweeb," "schlep," "mojo," and "lickety split," none of which, as far as I can tell, have actually been used by Americans since the Eisenhower administration. (Sorry, UK readers: I mean the Robert Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon administration. Cheers, mates!)
In the UK, "headlines are now considered separate literary works, and thus subject to copyright, which means that clients of aggregation websites that charge for a service will have to pay for a license in order to use headlines, links and short extracts from online stories."
Persephone Books is just uniformly excellent. They have rescued two of my hands down favorite novels from out-of-print limbo: Little Boy Lost and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. When they sent a box along recently, I just pulled out the first one and started reading. It was a bit of a surprise -- it was certainly I've seen them reprint such a recent book, Beth Gutcheon's 1981 novel Still Missing. Even more surprising that I quickly recognized the real life case that the book was inspired by, the kidnapping of Etan Patz. I had read a nonfiction book about the kidnapping a year before -- dealing with German bureaucracy for the first time, I spent an ungodly amount of time in waiting rooms and needed something gripping and slightly trashy.
I was intrigued by the way the storylines mixed and changed, and how the ending was completely different from the Patz story. (Also very interesting was the light hand with which she made the mother a sort of feminist figure, with just small details and not a hefty back story.) I talked to Gutcheon about the reprint of her novel, about altering real life stories for fiction, and more at PBS Need to Know.