April 29, 2011
The central issue delineating sides in the memoir wars is honesty. Does that value matter in our post-post-modern age (or whatever you might call it)? Here I am supposed to cite a raft of familiar examples of the elusiveness of truth, the truthiness of truth, until all is sand slipping between our subjectively viewed fingers. But that’s a Möbius strip of an argument: It leads nowhere but back onto itself. Instead, I’ll say yes, honesty matters — that is my brief statement of principle — and then defer to the author.
Alan Heathcock, author of the amazing Volt, recommends three books to take to a fistfight. They're all great choices, but I'd take anything by Bret Easton Ellis. Then as my opponent prepared to hit me, I would read a passage aloud, and his face would melt like Major Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's an unusual strategy, I admit, but still. Advantage: Schaub.
This is getting weird. Harper Lee is still insisting that she did not participate in The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee, an upcoming biography by author Marja Mills about her and her sister, Alice. Mills and her publisher, The Penguin Press, claim that the sisters did participate, and have produced a letter affirming their cooperation from Alice Lee.
Who knows what's going on? All I know is that you're going to be reading a lot of weird stuff about how Jessa didn't participate in, or even know about, my forthcoming biography of her, The Jayhawk Next Door: Jessa Crispin's Journey from Illiterate Heroin Addict to Revered Literary Critic, and the Managing Editor Who Saved Her Life and Also Ghostwrote All of Her Best Articles, Michael Schaub: The Movie Rights to This Book Are Still Available. But I swear it's accurate. And the movie rights to this book are still available!
I have good news for authors suffering through the decline of the publishing industry: I have discovered a new revenue stream. Authors can, increasingly, make a tidy living by giving our opinion on the decline of the publishing industry.
A Jim Behrle Production
Click for the full comic!
April 28, 2011
You know who makes everything better after a month of dark, dark reading and writing 3,000 words about serial killers and rape?
This is how the former editor of Vogue's memoir, DV, begins:
I loathe nostalgia.
One night at diner in Santo Domingo at the Oscar de la Rentas', Swifty Lazar, the literary agent, turned to me and said, "The problem with you, dollface" -- that's what he always calls me -- "is that your whole world is nostalgic."
"Listen, Swifty," I said, "we all have our own ways of making a living, so shut up!"
Then I punched him in the nose. He was quite startled. He picked up a china plate and put it under his dinner jacket to protect his heart. So I took a punch at the china plate!
Nostalgia -- imagine! I don't believe in anything before penicillin.
Smart Set has my latest column, about the dead girls on television, movies, books, and video games. Also, coming of age in the era of Take Back the Night and the Juarez murders, Kathy Acker, serial killers who look like the guy next door, Maria Tatar's Lustmord, and watching The Killing.
In the meantime, they’re pulling real dead girls out of the brush on Long Island. These girls are not as photogenic; they’ve been lying out there for months, the detritus of a new serial killer. But that storyline is less entertaining than the girls’ fictional counterparts — no suspects, no frantic mother, no obsessed cop in charge of the investigation. No matter, I have a lot of alternatives to choose from. There are so many dead girls on my television and in my books. Even if we’re not counting Law & Order: Dead Hooker of the Week, which I can’t bear to watch, the body count rises through Stieg Larsson’s books to The Killing to Scream 4 to rewatching season two of The Wire before remembering it’s the “dead girls in the can” storyline. Even when I’m not expecting it, and specifically trying not to read about any more dead girls, the craggy retired police officer in Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, turns out to be obsessed with his dead sister, murdered at 17. He muses endlessly on her inherent teenage girl vulnerability, but, “Let’s face it, Jackson thought, every age was a dangerous age for a woman.” Once you become aware of dead girls’ being used as scenery or decoration, you see them everywhere — all of these young women’s bodies, laid out in expressions of terror and relief, one shoe off, with unfocused eyes and a pancake-makeup pallor.
Christine Stansell (whose American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century I love) writes about Leila Ahmed's A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America and the secular and religious practices of veiling.
Jess Row's short story "Dear Yale," available to read at Guernica, satirizes the Ivy League education and those endless pleas to donate money to the university. He also talks about his frustration with his alma mater in this interview, and their history of exclusivity, racism, and sexism.
April 27, 2011
Authors TC Boyle, Ben Katchor, and Grant Achatz participate in Atlantic's peek behind the creative process, offering looks at how ideas develop.
Dwight Garner reviews Janet Malcolm's latest, Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial. In it, he points to this astute profile of Malcolm by Robert Boynton, from 1992.
In her writing, Malcolm praises those who are courageous enough to stare into the abyss of man's twisted nature without flinching, and damns those who aren't. She is suspicious of facile explanations, doubtful of our ability to know ourselves and of our belief that we can easily (or perhaps ever) know each other. In a rare musical moment in her otherwise elegantly spare book Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, she writes, "'Only connect,' E.M. Forster proposed. ‘Only we can't,' the psychoanalyst knows." For Malcolm, Freud is not the glib sage who instructs journalists to study a subject's toilet-training for clues to his personality, but the moralist who cautions us that man's mind is an impenetrable thicket of neurosis and evasion that can never be completely cleared.
The Orwell Prize shortlist has been released, after a no doubt sassy afternoon debate on the relevancy of the royal family.
The nominees are:
Bookslut PSA: That Oliver Bullough book is bloody fantastic.
The 2011 Hugo nominations are out, which means you can ditch any "work" you were planning on doing and read through the short story/novella/novelette sections. In personal development news, I'm totally getting a cat and naming it Novelette, then ticking off all the boxes in the Spinster Cliché bingo card.
April 26, 2011
Jennifer Schuessler loves Jim Shepard's new short story collection, You Think That's Bad. (I did, too.) And over at The Japan Times, David Cozy praises Shepard's novella Master of Miniatures, which I also loved. Master of Miniatures is collected in You Think That's Bad, under the title "Gojira, King of the Monsters," but it's worth getting the beautiful stand-alone version if you're a Shepard fan -- which you will be after you've read any one of his books.
"It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman…. From the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me…. I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of everyone to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you."
April 25, 2011
Are we sick of talking about Jonathan Franzen yet? Every time he writes anything at all, the literary world explodes into arguments and blog posts and fiery comment sections, until I wonder how in the world he deals with it. (My guess, that blindfold/ear plugs set up.)
He wrote an essay about David Foster Wallace, and it was a controversial take on a beloved writer's suicide. I tried to ignore most of the online discussion about it, because most of it was a product of the distance between how a friend experiences a love one's suicide, and how a fan experiences an idol's suicide.
But Felix Salmon has written what, if you take out the nasty tone, is an interesting look at the setting of Franzen's essay. Franzen retreated to an island, and then called the place dull, depressing, and an ecological disaster... leaving out the fact that it had recently been hit with a devastating tsunami and the people were trying to get their lives back together. Context is everything!
It’s into the aftermath of this disaster that Franzen wanders, thinking in his Important Novelist way about how selfish David Foster Wallace turns out to have been. He reaches the island, and he sees the damage wrought — by blackberries. He sees the islanders trying to recover some semblance of their former lives, and sneers at the “sad travesty” of their ritual. He moans about how “nondescript” his food is and how “skeletal” the cattle are, while somehow failing to notice that the reason is that the islanders, recovering from a terrible natural disaster, have nothing left.
It's amazing to me that this appears to be true, and Franzen completely ignored the reality of his location. And yet I'm not sure anyone would notice if it weren't an essay by Franzen. Ah well.
Colson Whitehead: "The Internet is not to blame for your unfinished novel: you are."
At The Millions, Deena Drewis responds to chick-lit fans upset about Jennifer Egan's comments on some of the genre's best-known authors.
I don’t aim to scrutinize the content of the genre so much as the fact that the chick lit demographic has fully embraced the term. Ladies, it’s 2011. Who refers to women as “chicks” aside from Ed Hardy-wearing man-children? Uninspired as it may be, detractors calling the work “fluffy” can’t really be blamed—it’s built into the name, for god’s sake. ...
What kind of feminist movement condones a suppression of opinion on the basis that we should all be nice and stick together, because we’re girls? What Egan said wasn’t nice. It was honest.
NPR is running my review of Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater. Slate is running the book's introduction by Daphne Merkin, which wow, has some super scary comments running underneath it. They made me nervous enough about reviewing a book that hinges around an abortion. Nothing says reasonable debate in the anonymous forum of an online comment section like "Abortion"!
Is it really news that the cosy and the concupiscent bed down together, and that, as in one of the stories, a post-coital performer rather fancies a nice cup of tea? The danger is that nice will smother naughty... “The Greening of Mrs Donaldson” suffers from a heavy dose of the adorables and gives off a damp laboriousness, as if the Marquis de Sade had fetched up in Huddersfield and written A Hundred and Twenty Nights of Bingo.
April 22, 2011
Cara Hoffman, whose chilling novel So Much Pretty I liked quite a bit, interviews legendary actor and indie-folk musician Will Oldham (Palace, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy). It's cool to hear that Oldham is reading Frans G. Bengtsson's The Long Ships, which is one of my favorite adventure novels. (Something I'm looking forward to, a lot: Drag City's new audiobook version of Rudolph Wurlitzer's Slow Fade, which is read by Oldham with D. V. DeVincentis. It sounds even cooler than Oldham's previous collaborations with Johnny Cash; and with Kanye West and Zach Galifianakis.)
Bookslut contributor Charlotte Freeman has written the finest response to Jonathan Franzen's New Yorker essay about David Foster Wallace that I have read. Her take on the aftermath of the suicide of someone you love is incredibly smart.
Andrew O'Hagan on taking the bus, how Harold Pinter orders his toast, the census, and the little box where you declare your religion:
In 2001, only 14.7 per cent of the population chose to describe themselves as having no religion. On the other hand, nearly 400,000 people in England and Wales – including an impressive 2.6 per cent of those who live in Brighton – replied that they were ‘Jedi’ or ‘Jedi Knight’, which is not a religion in the strictest sense. But you have to admire the instinct. Britain might have become an altogether gentler place if the Monster Raving Loony Party had enjoyed a landslide in the general election of 1979.
April 21, 2011
Steve Silberman interviews Peter Conners (author of White Hand Society) about Ginsberg & Leary's campaign to spread the good word about psychedelics: I think their legacy is an openness and acceptance of authentic spirituality in American life. You can go pretty much anywhere in America and start talking about meditation or Buddhism, or mind-body interactions, and there’s at least some vague grasp of what you’re talking about. It kills me that you have all these middle-aged housewives going around with their yoga mats now. It doesn’t crack me up like, “How phony it all is!” I think it’s wonderful.
It's surprising to find the Wall Street Journal, of all places, extolling the commingling of business and poetry: Stevens was a great poet and a great businessman—an acclaimed writer who was also the vice president of a national insurance company. For Stevens, these two lives were mutually enriching. He brought the discipline of the executive suite to his poetic craft, and his mentally engaging work as a poet made him a smarter manager.
Not sure I'm excited to go on the "Philip Larkin tour of Hull": Enthusiasts will be guided round the “fishy smelling/ pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum/ tattoo shops, consulates, grim head-scarved wives,” taking in sites significant to the poet.
Broken Social Scene's Andrew Whiteman talks about poetry: If Miami was a poet, it'd be John Ashbery, poet of glittering surfaces, and with a reputation of a seedy underbelly.
Victoria Beale tallies up how many female poets made it into a new anthology of poems for boys (and male poets into the girl's version): The four women considered boisterous enough for boys are Emily Dickinson, Emma Lazurus, Laura Richards and Julia Ward Howe, who snuck in with the warlike "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" alongside the good, solid, masculine fare of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling.
In soon-to-be-old news, the British Library has paid £32,000 for 40,000 e-mails from Wendy Cope: According to Cope, her email archive contains many emails which "are not interesting at all" as well as written requests for fees.
Stephen Colbert and Caroline Kennedy read each other poetry.
HBO has optioned Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, and might turn it into a television series. (Sorry, but there's only one HBO series in my book. Arli$$, America misses you, now more than ever.)
Egan was also interviewed at The Wall Street Journal, where she comes off as smart, charismatic, and graceful. True to form, though, chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner found a way to take offense, at this rather inspiring response from Egan:
There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models? I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.
In her defense, Weiner has always been classy about Egan. Writing about having to choose between Egan and Jonathan Franzen, she commented, "It’s like Sophie’s Choice, if Sophie hated both her kids." And on the FAQ section of Weiner's website, answering a question about her zodiac sign (seriously), she writes:
Somebody actually asked me this at a reading once, at the Powell’s in Portland, which was not the main Powell’s in Portland, because Jennifer Egan was reading the night I was in town and not only is she a critical big deal, she also used to be a model, so which one of us do you think was going to get shunted off to the satellite store?
So clearly, there's no other issues going on here, and it would be insane to suggest there are. Christ. Remember the Washington Post writer who took a self-imposed month-long hiatus from mentioning the former governor of Alaska? I might have to do that. Jennifer Weiner is my Sarah Palin.
Tao Lin may be the most “controversial” young novelist in America (I’m particularly fond of the noise people who don’t like Lin make when his name or work is brought up usually make, which goes something like “pfthfpth”).
I love that noise too, but like Alex, I'm a fan of Tao's, and the essay discussed in this piece is a great one.
Whenever Bookslut has its first reading in an Amsterdam "coffee shop," I want Elif Batuman (The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them) and Jonathan Franzen (A Visit from the Goon Squad. Just kidding! Freedom! '90) to be the featured authors. I mean, come on:
...So it's difficult to articulate what possessed me, at a later, boozier point in the dinner, to ask Franzen whether he had any weed. In part, I was curious whether he had any. And in part, despite severe fatigue and a mild constitutional dislike of weed, I felt somehow unable not to pursue momentary contact with a half-glimpsed parallel world in which the evening continued in this really different, really mellow way.
"Wheat?" Franzen's agent repeated, frowning. "Why would you need wheat?"
"Not wheat – weed."
She stared at me blankly.
"Weed," my agent repeated.
"There's some in my freezer," Franzen said. "But it's all the way uptown."
I know this is probably a stupid question, but I've never been to The Netherlands. What if you're in Amsterdam and you just want coffee? How do you know you're going into a place that sells actual coffee, and not, like, Sweet Purple Goddess #7? Which I don't think is a real name for a type of weed but probably should be?
You know, people prate about how important motherhood is, but they treat mothers like shit.
Laura Miller is arguing that Greg Mortenson's lies about the schools he's building, his casually racist claim that he was kidnapped by the Taliban, his swindling money from his own nonprofit, and grandiose claims of being the white knight of Afghanistan and Pakistan don't matter.
Oh, it's so wrong headed I can barely even think about it. Does it matter that he didn't stumble into the village weary from a failed mountain expedition? No. I mean, it's a stupid fairy tale, but not really. Does it matter that this guy has set himself up as the Great White Hope for these poor backwards mountain people, who are all five seconds away from becoming dangerous terrorists? Yes. Yes, absolutely. The inflation of his importance -- that he was being called for by warlords and tribal leaders, that he was kidnapped and almost killed before being so convincing of the worth of his life that he became the guest of honor at a hedonistic celebration -- absolutely matters. Even leaving the money out of it -- which we all have to admit is a huge fucking deal -- the guy is trading in stereotypes and making himself out to be the hero of the world. And the more he thinks himself as the hero, the less he seems to be doing anything other than chartering jets.
That doesn't negate the good that he's done. But Krakauer is right -- Mortenson is risking all of that good by lying and cheating and stealing. And his behavior since the accusations arose -- blaming his co-writers, blaming his lawyers, blaming institutionalized misogyny -- show that the guy is incapable of facing up to his misconduct. This is an ego-driven individual who can't even see how he's hurting the people who are trying to help him, and the people he set out to help. Maybe it is wrong to compare Mortenson to James Frey, but only because the damage Frey inflicted seems mild in comparison.
April 20, 2011
When I moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2009, it didn't take me long to learn that the city is home to more literary geniuses than is strictly fair. It's like we hoard them here. One of my favorites, though, is Beverly Cleary, whose books I loved as a boy. (I wasn't the most masculine kid. Shut up.) Cleary turned 95 recently, and is interviewed at The New York Times about her iconic Ramona books.
“I wrote books to entertain,” [Cleary] told me. People often asked what she was trying to teach in her books. She would reply, “I’m not trying to teach anything!” This was the same attitude she had when she was first reading. “If I suspected the author was trying to show me how to be a better behaved girl, I shut the book,” she remembered.
Oh, man. Love.
I think I'm just going to have to start reading every book ever published by authors named "Alina." Two of my favorite books this year were written by people with that name -- Alina Simone's essay collection You Must Go and Win, and Alina Bronsky's novel The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (translated by Tim Mohr). They're both remarkably original books, hilarious but not frivolous, touching but not sentimental. (Bronsky is the author of Broken Glass Park; Simone is an indie-folk singer/songwriter whose music you must hear right now.) Stephen Heyman interviews Simone and Bronsky at T Magazine, where the Alinas discuss their Russian heritage, tragedy, and the appeal of immigrant stories.
Little Star Journal -- oh, how I sigh over its pages -- is having an enviable event on May 5 with Jamaica Kincaid and Mark Strand. New Yorkers would be foolish not to go. Details and RSVP information here.
Why is Simon Winchester so popular? Ask Kelsey Osgood, who was charmed by Winchester's Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories and reviewed it for Bookslut.
Winchester’s voice is benignly British, scholarly yet excitable, and one can imagine his personal aura as approximating David Attenborough’s or a more sanguine version of Seinfeld’s sartorially-inclined world traveler J. Peterman’s. It wasn’t Winchester the writer who was the object of my sinful envy, but rather Winchester the man-who-has-done-it-all, who not infrequently begins stories with sentences like, “It was on just a day like this that I chose to sail, across a lumpy and capricious sea, to the westernmost member of the [Faroe Islands], the island of Mykines.” Or perhaps, “So I decided there and then that one day I would travel to the Skeleton Coast -- a place so named because of all the skeletons, of both men and the vessels in which they had wrecked… from there I flew to Windhoek in Namibia, and finally in a two-engined Cessna flew up to a tiny tented camp in the middle of the northern desert, close to the Angolan frontier.” Or my personal favorite, as he is discussing a crucial moment in the Falklands War, “Most shocked Britons remember with vivid exactness just where they were and what they were doing when the sinking was announced in the manner of so many recent tragedies. I had good reason to remember especially well, too, because at the time I was locked up on espionage charges in a prison cell not too far away in the grim sub-Andean town of Ushuaia, in southern Tierra del Fuego.” As narrator (metaphorically, then, captain of that curragh braving the stormy waters), he inspired in me both trust and dis-. I could hear myself asking with a warily raised eyebrow, Is this guy for real?
Nathan Myhrvold, the compiler of the multi-volume, beautiful, never in a million years going to be able to afford it (although Amazon is selling it for $466 -- a steal!) cookbook Modernist Cuisine, talks to the Economist. I do wish they had let him prattle on about the connection between what's going on in the food world now and what went on with the modernist movement in art world last century. But whatever, we'll never get to see one up close, so might as well coo over the images we can find online whenever we can. (Speaking of which, you can check out their extensive website.)
Due to budget shortfalls -- and our contemporary society not really being sure what it is that philosophers do exactly -- the University of Nevada has completely shuttered its philosophy department.
I've been reading a lot of the material on the anniversary of Eichmann's trial. Almost all of the articles and interviews and books I've read have stated that Hannah Arendt's conclusions about Eichmann were dead wrong. And yet, nothing I read about the trial that corrected her vision of him as the banal little bureaucrat incapable of thinking about his crimes was as good, as thoughtful, as brilliant as Arendt's flawed work.
(Distinctly disappointed in Deborah Lipstadt's The Eichmann Trial. She could not stop writing about her libel trial with Holocaust denier David Irving, despite the fact that she's already written an entire book about that court case, and it wasn't as relevant to Eichmann as she apparently thought it was. And I guess I was more sympathetic to Arendt's position that most of what happened in the Eichmann trial was completely inappropriate for a court of law. Lipstadt coming microscopically close to calling Arendt a self-hating Jew also rubbed me the wrong way.)
Over at the Smart Set, I revisit Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and I argue that its strengths actually lie in the fact that it's a work that is constantly wrestling with itself, and getting some things wrong.
Arendt is obviously struggling with her own political beliefs as she sits there: a German Jew, she was formerly pro-Zionist but changed her mind after seeing Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens and neighbors and after listening to the rhetoric on which the nation was founded. As an aside, Arendt mentions a pamphlet published after the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court, a case in which two fathers kidnapped their children from other countries and brought them to Israel. The children were sent back to their mothers, “despite the fact that to send the children back to maternal custody and care would be committing them to waging an unequal struggle against the hostile elements in the Diaspora.” It was this kind of thinking, Arendt argued, that was perhaps understandably defensive given recent history, but also a dangerous foundation on which to build a nation. This disgruntled tone, as she is obviously still not sure what to make of the promise of Israel and her disappointment with the reality, pervades, and led many scholars and critics to accuse her of anti-Semitism — an accusation that is still tossed around today.
April 19, 2011
Reading Jon Krakauer's investigation (available for free at the Byliner) into Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea, I'm struck by how similar the story is to James Frey. Frey went through addiction and despair, but didn't believe his simple story was enough, so he had to exaggerate how depraved, how addicted, how rock-bottom he was. Mortenson has done some excellent work building schools, but instead of saying "we built 3 schools in a dangerous region" -- quite the accomplishment -- he turns it into "we built 11 schools, 20 schools." Neither one can simply look at what they've been through or what they've accomplished and feel satisfied. If people aren't looking at them thinking "Wow..." they don't know how to look at themselves.
Ah, memoir culture. It makes fabrication like this so simple. On the plus side, I guess, we get pleasure for seeing through the act, for deflating the inflated. But thank goodness for Krakauer, who has some righteous fury for being scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars in donations, and yet his deconstruction of Mortenson has no gleeful pleasure to it. Takes a fine man and a fine writer to accomplish that.
Most people say they oppose censorship, but they apply ‘free speech’ and ‘open access’ differently, with children vs. adults for example. Many books on the annual list, like mine, are geared toward teens. This opens a needed debate about youth rights and free expression. Our society is pretty inconsistent in how we treat young adults. Courts debate this everyday when they sentence juveniles to adult prisons or let schools limit students’ Internet access. So why not gather the controversies and raise the issue for public debate? More importantly, why not ask young adults themselves?
April 18, 2011
The 2011 Pulitzer Prizes have been announced:
Fiction: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Drama: Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
History: The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner
Biography: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Poetry: The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan
Nonfiction: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Right-wing homophobic crazeball Rick Santorum seems to have borrowed his presidential campaign slogan from a pro-union poem by gay poet Langston Hughes. God, I hope he chooses this as his official campaign song.
Janet Malcolm is to malice what Wordsworth was to daffodils.
Bookforum reviews Malcolm's latest, the really great Iphigenia in Forest Hills (read my review at NPR here). The book reads like an episode of Law & Order, one of the good ones with Jeremy Irons saying the word "sexual" as no man has ever said it before, but without any of the gross Dick Wolf after-effects.
In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life but yours too depends on it.
Michael Hardy investigates the dangerous risks the editors and journalists at the muckraking Sri Lankan newspaper The Sunday Leader face.
It's your 50th anniversary of Eichmann's trial update for the day!
Der Spiegel's third installment on investigating Germany's role in Israel's trial is now up, explaining why Germany didn't really want to try him in his home country and the deals going on behind the scene.
And historian Ulrich Herbert is interviewed at taz (Sign and Sight has the English translation) about our misconceptions of Eichmann and other Nazis, and the role of the rational anti-Semite in normalizing the hatred.
Book award judge in 'actually seems to have enjoyed the process' shocker. Operation Mincemeat author Ben Macintyre talks to the Guardian about selecting the 18 titles that make up the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction:
"These are not doorstop, porridge prose books. They are all tremendously well-written," said Macintyre, who is joined on the judging panel by Prospect editor-at-large David Goodhart, journalist and author Sam Leith, biographer Brenda Maddox and historian Amanda Vickery. "I would say this, being a non-fiction writer, but the whole definition of what non-fiction is has hugely expanded in the last 20 years. Biography has been particularly strong this year but there have been some very, very good books on the crash and where the global economy is going. One shouldn't think of the Samuel Johnson as being just a historically-minded prize: we've got some very contemporary books on there as well."
The coverage of this year's Orange Prize so far has a disappointing lack of hysterical op-ed pieces about it's latent misandry and the destruction of literature/general grimness. Someone, step up to the plate, please: I long for the deathless wit of jabs like 'lemon prize' and 'sexist con-trick' (that's Auberon Waugh and Tim Lott, respectively).
The winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize for 2010 is Bi Feiyu's Three Sisters. To give you some idea how long the processes of translation, publication, and bestowing of literary awards can take, here's an extract from the book that featured in the Guardian in 2008.
Jon Krakauer's appearance on 60 Minutes this weekend (you can watch the full segment online), to discuss the allegations of fraud against Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea now under attack for lying and using the nonprofit he set up to build schools in Afghanistan like "his own private ATM machine," was even-headed and reasonable. As 60 Minutes is not always known for nuance -- watch them crash one of Mortensen's book signing appearances until he has to run out the back door -- so Krakauer's final statements in the segment were a bit of a surprise.
Meanwhile, while Mortenson refused to talk to 60 Minutes on air, he has since issued a response, suggesting that sexism was at the base of these allegations.
"Afghanistan and Pakistan are complex places, torn by conflicting loyalties, and some who do not want our mission of educating girls to succeed."
Krakauer's message was that Mortenson has done good work, so it's baffling that he is choosing to destroy it all by refusing to admit he's lied and exaggerated in the past. But Mortenson's tactic of accusing his accusers of misogyny doesn't really show self-awareness on this front.
April 15, 2011
Daniel Swift looks at Pound, Bishop, and invitations to the asylum: Perhaps there is nothing more charismatic than a poet in a madhouse.
Patricia Smith reflects on Bell's Palsy: But now my stanzas come halting and lazed. I have to slow my speech and enunciate. I’m terrified that I will speak and not be understood, that the full meaning beneath those words will be lost within the newly-slurred mechanics of my deadened half.
Celyn Harding-Jones grapples with Mei Mei Berssenbrugge's poetry of "inheritance and illness": After the body is gone, or the mother has died, the pain and suffering of genetic disease still haunts the family through memory, cellular memory. This desire to change inheritance, “the emotion [of] the hopelessness and guilt of illness, of passing on illness and screaming” (AWP, 61) is acted upon through the poem.
Shane Koyczan's newest work draws on childhood memories of being bullied: But in the last little while I’ve actually been looking back on my childhood and finding what I’m starting to call my ice-cream moments, moments of joyfulness – and realizing that I did have a childhood. As much as I spent most of it dodging pitfalls, there were moments in between that were extremely lovely.
Kevin Stein discusses the surprising tenacity of poetry, as well as its born-digital varieties: Many page-bound poets will admit to seeking in their work a veil of this-is-happening-right-now, a freshness of syntax and a fluidity of idea that rushes one thing into another. This is the period style, if you will: our hankering for artistic flux that mirrors the flux of our lives.
Stephen Burt discusses the craft of reviewing poetry: Reviewing is like writing poetry in some ways (it’s an art) but it’s also like making chairs (see above) and it is in a third set of ways like voting: an individual contribution to a necessarily collective effort. (via Matthew Battles)
Daniel Nester does a public service, and makes Eliot's "The Borderline of Prose" essay accessible.
I've felt awkward with all of the talk of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, never really getting Wallace myself. I acknowledge the fact that this is just my personal taste -- there is nothing there for me to grab onto, and I expect my current obsession with Henry James is met with bafflement by quite a few who feel the same way about him. Sometimes it's just a matter of taste. But since Wallace's suicide, he seems to be up for sainthood, and the reviews aren't so much about The Pale King so much as they are about Wallace's genius, proving the miracles he's performed for his beatification.
Geoff Dyer has a wonderful piece at Prospect about his allergic allergy to David Foster Wallace's writing, and how odd being allergic to the writer everyone else loves passionately right this second can feel. (Geoff Dyer is definitely not a writer I'm allergic to. I can recommend his essays Otherwise Known as the Human Condition despite my almost constant disagreement with his opinions.)
It’s not that I dislike the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity. They just bug the crap out of me. As do the obsessive parenthesising, insistent italicising, footnote-generating footnotes and typographical gimmickry that reaches a kind of apotheosis of unreadability in “Host,” from Consider the Lobster. And it bugs me, of course, that his style is catching, highly infectious.
I was thinking about your question regarding what it is that I get out of Henry James in regards to Washington Square, which was the first book of my James binge. As you said in your Star-Crossed column, "Even readers who hate everything else by James tend to like Washington Square: in its restrained pathos and civilized humor, it’s as polished and pleasurable as “The Rich Boy” or A Room with a View." It's not an ambitious book, it's true. But I think it set the tone for me that I appreciate so much in James: I can trust him to be absolutely ruthless.
It would have been easy for James to turn Washington Square into something much more simple. Turn the penniless suitor into a full-on cad, the daughter into the ugly duckling who eventually swans out, and you have a much more crowd-pleasing story. Instead he kept the intensity on the father-daughter dynamic, which was incredibly genuine and disturbing for being so. Never have daddy issues been so wonderfully played out on the page before, in my opinion.
So, James is not ruthless in a "everyone dies" kind of way, with those string of books where when a woman's desire is awakened obviously the only route left to her is death. But I was thinking about what has always bugged me about Jane Austen, to the point where I can't read her books: everything is always solved by a wedding. Her wit and her severe eye serve her well when dealing with issues of class and money and sexual repression and death, but then it is like the book gives up at the end. It's the Happily Ever After version of fairy tales, rather than the un-cleaned up versions where some people die, some people walk out scarred, and it's really your mother at the other end of that knife, not some unrelated step-mother. It's as neat an ending as the "oh and then she throws herself under the train" -- and I can trust James not to do anything quite so crowd-pleasing as that.
For example, that ending to The Portrait of a Lady, which I've
already mentioned. That is a goddamn brutal ending. It's also completely honest. Everyone has that friend who is in a relationship they shouldn't be in -- and there comes a point where you beg that person to please for the love of god leave him. Which they never do! If they do, it has to be on their own terms, it's like dragging an alcoholic to rehab before they are ready. It won't take. But by writing it that way, it's almost like he's holding the audience in contempt. He knows you want her to marry someone else, to leave her husband, or to hang herself from a tree or something. Some resolution
so we can stop worrying about her. And he withholds it, and I love the strength of that position. It's very adult.
So, Kevin Frazier. Any final thoughts before we wrap this up on Mr.
James's birthday? And will you be celebrating in the traditional way
of sexual abstinence and cognac by the fireplace?
Sometimes I think the ruthless quality in James is the end of Victorian nice manners in literature -- which is ironic because outwardly he seems so polite and civilized. In Portrait, there's that famous passage where Madame Merle says she believes the soul can be destroyed, is as vulnerable to decay and rot as spoiled meat can be. In James, people prey on each other, and the violence is all psychic, but it's still violence -- people get hurt, and the damage is often fatal, always severe.
I'm celebrating his birthday by going to Norway with my wife for the weekend -- I'll remember him whenever the reindeer, who move in herds, come drifting across the road and force our rental car to a slow crawl. This is their right and privilege as Lappish reindeer, Santa's official helpers, and I know it's strange but I often think of James as a kind of Santa of words, bringing us all the presents of his prose whether we've been naughty or nice, or maybe especially when we've been naughty. I'm happy with the cognac, but not so sure about the abstinence. I like to think James had a wild and completely secret sex life (reindeer? elves? gingerbread men?) that we'll never know anything about -- even if it was only in his own imagination, where all the wildest things happen anyway, both for James and the rest of us.
April 14, 2011
Another reason to love Edna St. Vincent Millay: she liked gin. At Writers' Houses, Megan Mayhew Bergman visits Steepletop, the great poet's Austerlitz, New York, home.
Insanely popular fantasy author George R. R. Martin talks to the Guardian about the new HBO series based on his books, and his fans' increasingly scary impatience for his forthcoming novel, A Dance with Dragons.
"You don't want me to 'pull a Robert Jordan' on you," Martin blogged to the circling hordes of hungry readers, referring to a fantasy novelist who passed away before completing his magnum opus. "You don't want me doing anything except A Song of Ice and Fire. Ever. Well, maybe it's okay if I take a leak once in a while?"
From the LRB archives, James Meeks reviews Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition and Sexual Conflict by Tim Birkhead and tells us all about the sex lives of slutty, slutty animals.
Back in the 1960s, Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive arachnid, turned into Spiderman and acquired the ability to scuttle up the sides of tall buildings. Birkhead’s book could inspire a whole new breed of pornographic superheroes, replete with extraordinary powers and dark destinies attended by Freudian ironies. While Spiderman merely fought crime, Redback Spiderman attempts to inseminate his partner, Redback Spiderwoman, a creature a hundred times his size; if successful, he does a somersault into her mouth, and she eats him up.
April 13, 2011
This Friday, Bookslut is going to sponsor a giveaway on our Facebook page -- be sure to "like" us, not only because you'll be eligible to win a cool prize, but also because I am insecure and need constant validation. I'll give you a hint about the prize: it is written by a guy whose birthday is Friday, and who Jessa is in love with. And it's not Lord Archer.
Over at Full Stop, I am interviewed by my friend Alex Shephard about youth, literature, death, and the San Antonio Spurs. (It's true that Alex is a Knicks fan, but he's also an extremely kind, genuine, and intelligent guy who happens to be one of my favorite literary critics. The world needs more people like this young dude.)
You, bold American! and ye future two hundred millions of bold Americans, can surely never live, for instance, entirely satisfied and grow to your full stature, on what the importations hither of foreign bards, dead or alive, provide - nor on what is echoing here the letter and the spirit of the foreign bards. No, bold American! not even on what is provided, printed from Shakespeare or Milton - not even of the Hebrew canticles - certainly not of Pope, Byron, or Wordsworth - nor of any German or French singer, nor any foreigner at all.
Staying in an empty Swiss boarding school isn't totally like The Shining, but it kind of is. Hence the knife under my mattress. (Do knives protect against the spirits of young girls sent away from their families for an education in the mountains, only to be lost in an avalanche or bear attack or ritualistic adolescent girl nastiness? Just wondering.)
In the old days, it would seem like ideas were crammed in like people in an elevator. And my head was sometimes a very noisy place to be.
April 12, 2011
The American Library Association released its list of the year's most challenged books. The list is dominated by books for young readers; apparently, a lot of folks have been busy trying to ban The Hunger Games, Lush, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
I'm a die-hard postmodernist, but let's not be retarded here: If a narrative's power pulls directly from its facticity rather than its fabulism, then it better be a defensible version of reality. Defensible in the sense of this pretty much happened the way I've tried to capture it.
... If a novelist wants to write a non-fiction book and then makes stuff up "to get at the spirit of something," more power to 'em. Just don't call it non-fiction. ... That's got nothing to do with the grift that Steinbeck pulled and what his critical enablers are defending here.
It's a bizarre rant. Gillespie mocks novelist Jay Parini for using the word "hooray," an arbitrary burn undercut by the fact that Gillespie's rant has the word "grok" in the headline (Hey, 1962! We missed you! Would you like some Sanka?) and uses the word "retarded." (Dude. It's 2011. Even 10-year-old bullies know better than that these days.)
Look, you can spend as much time as you want trying to disprove every heartwarming anecdote in book about the nice old man and his dog, but is there really nothing better you could be doing with your time? People lie, all the time, for a variety of reasons. And if you really think that every memoir is 100% accurate, you're either pathologically naive, or you're approaching literature the way a police officer approaches a driver pulled over for speeding. Either way, you're missing the point, and it might be time to find a new hobby.
NPR on -- oh, God, it burns -- the rise of "Ayn Rand-o-mania":
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that captures a slice of the zeitgeist. Could Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 — due to be released on April 15 — be that kind of film?
Could it? That would require the political and social climate of America to be so cynical, selfish, and ethically bankrupt that -- OK, yeah, it could be that kind of film. (Nothing against Ayn Rand, of course. Without her, bitter nerds who like feeling superior to everyone despite the fact that their taste in prose is less advanced than most border collies would have no favorite author.)
Apartment Therapy interviews Coralie Bickford-Smith, the Penguin book cover designer responsible for the beautiful Hardcover Classics series and the new Great Food series. I don't know who I have to kill to get copies of these, but please let it be one of the heavy metal musicians who live behind me and practice every single day, without any apparent improvement. (It's affecting my mental health. Even my nightmares are in Drop D tuning now.)
NPR is running my review of Janet Malcolm's new book, Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, where a simple court case takes on mythical proportions.
April 11, 2011
After I read Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality, I could barely make it out my front door. I've certainly read about the parallel, multiverse theory before, but something about the way he explained it did my brain in. In an infinite reality, there are an infinite number of Jessa Crispins, an infinite number of them already dead, an infinite number of them still alive, maybe with purple hair or living in Cambodia or with children or settling Mars right about now. And all of those big drastic differences were based on tiny little decisions, like turning left instead of right. So how in the world was I going to decide between left or right at the next intersection, unable to foresee how all the other Jessa Crispins were handling it? I saw why all of those mathematicians in one of my favorite books, Naming Infinity, had to be institutionalized once they started thinking about all this too much. (To the infinite Jessa Crispins who didn't misplace that book in the move: no fair. I wish I had it on me.)
My latest essay for B&N Review -- ah, it's good to be back there -- is about a bad night, anti-history, looking for parallel worlds in Dezső Kosztolányi's Kornél Esti and Henry James's The Tragic Muse, and whether when faced with infinite choice it's better simply to believe in fate.
We all carry around what the poet Eavan Boland calls our "anti-history," "a place where some turn was taken that seemed to put the future in doubt." If that turn was traveling beside you, in human form, chatting you up, living your unrealized potentialities, disabusing you of the self-delusion that helps us live life without regret constantly bursting through our membranes, you'd stop returning his calls, too.
But then. "I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti." Of course that happens at that midlife marker, traditionally celebrated with infidelity, cars without tops on them, and the burning down of your metaphorical or literal house. After years of closing yourself off to the alternatives, to prevent yourself from ending up a neurotic mess with one shoe on and one shoe off, the allure of the other life unlived is overwhelming. That's an excellent time to check in with your shadow, and see the results of all of those times you zigged and he zagged.
Read the rest here.
In celebration of Henry James's birthday, Kevin Frazier devoted this month's Star-Crossed column exclusively to the Master. (That would sound dirty if the poor fella had not probably died a virgin.) Kevin and I will be exchanging letters about our devoted, besotted feelings for the novelist James, starting here and continuing through the week.
Yeah, I agree about the problem with literary biographies, and the Henry James biographies are no exception. When James wrote The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl, he didn’t design them for readers who would know all about his rivalry with his brother or his relationship with Hendrik Andersen. Part of what makes fiction so terrific as a form is that it depends so much on the reader’s unfamiliarity with the writer and the writer’s unfamiliarity with the reader. Fiction is the most intimate way two strangers have of speaking with each other, and usually beyond a minimum sense of the author’s (typically mythical or heavily stylized) background and persona, this mutual ignorance is essential to the intimacy’s power and depth. Once you start bringing in all the details of the writer’s life, and especially once you start mixing all those details with speculation about how the life influenced the work, you risk screwing up some of the things that make fiction so irreplaceable – the reasons it was conceived as fiction and not as straightforward memoir. The risk is greater with some novelists than with others, but any time you read a literary biography it shifts you away from the relationship with the fiction that presumably drew you to the writer in the first place.
Still, I think James has been incredibly lucky in his biographers in one very important way: so far, the major ones have avoided the impulse to use his life to trash his work, or vice versa. With the five-volume Leon Edel set, you can definitely quarrel with all the dated psychobabble that Edel inflicts on James. At the same time, you can also see that Edel’s pretensions to mind-reading are based on a respect for James’s writing that finally increases your own respect for it. The same is true for all the James biographies I’ve read, though in a crowded field I want to make a special recommendation for a terrific Richard Ellmann piece, “Henry James Among the Aesthetes.” It’s published in Ellmann’s final collection of essays, Long the Riverrun, and it’s a forceful reminder of just how great Ellmann’s James Joyce is. You also asked about my thoughts on the fiction that uses James as a character. My favorites are Colm Tóibín’s terrific novel The Master and the Joyce Carol Oates short story “The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916,” which shows James tending to young men who’ve been wounded in World War I.
Anyhow, this is my roundabout way of answering your question of what I think of James as a person. I think he’s a different person in each thing I’ve read about him, and I like some of the invented versions of him better than others. But finally he lives so much more vividly in his fiction than in his life that the biographical information tends to fade into the distance as soon as I start reading his work. (I’d say pretty much the opposite about, for instance, Byron, and then there are writers like Pushkin and Yeats where the work and the life are so interwoven in my mind that I can’t really separate them.)
So seems like we both feel that with James the work is what counts. Along those lines, do you have any special favorites in his writing? And what is it about them that you like so much?
April 10, 2011
In celebration of Henry James's birthday, Kevin Frazier devoted this month's Star-Crossed column exclusively to the Master. (That would sound dirty if the poor fella had not probably died a virgin.) Kevin and I will be exchanging letters about our devoted, besotted feelings for the novelist James, starting here and continuing through the week.
I’m not sure I would like James as a person, and so I try to avoid the biographical take on the man. That said, I am fascinated by the story of the James family. Not just William, who was an early favorite. And not just Alice, who captivates me even as I wish to throttle her. Henry James Jr. always seemed like the most boring of the clan. Even the two brothers no one ever hears about, because they died as war-wounded drunken failures, are more interesting to me, because they were so obviously the sacrificial lambs slaughtered on the altar of William's and Henry’s genius.
The way the family works as an organism I will never stop trying to figure out. But Henry Jr. always seemed like the biographical dud of the bunch. Kind of a snob, moving through European society, suffering from the horror of sexuality and physical ailments. There are some writers whose work I would prefer to stand alone. I once read a biography of W. Somerset Maugham and instantly regretted it. I didn’t need to know he was kind of a dick and came to a bad end. There are certainly writers whose lives interest me, and then there are writers who I think are diminished by giving their lives a narrative.
This sort of gets at my problem with literary biographies in general. So much time (in lesser biographies at least) is spent on trying to piece together how a book came to life. Which encounter sparked something, who is the real life counterpart for the fictional character, placing a made up town on a map. It seems like such a useless way to spend your time. I know writers who don’t even know where their novels come from, it has to be even less likely for a stranger to figure it out.
Henry James’s letters, on the other hand, are a treat to me, especially the exchange between him and his brother William. The passive aggressive bickering, the sweet support they give each other, and their bafflement at each other’s work... I love William’s comment after reading The Bostonians, where he suggests that it would be better if 4/5s of it were deleted. “One can easily imagine the story cut out and made into a bright, short, sparkling thing of a hundred pages, which would have been an absolute success.” What a dick!
So since you brought it up, I’m wondering what you make of not only his biographies, but the novelisations of his life. I’ve avoided all such books, but I think he’s such an odd figure to fictionalize. Sir Burton, sleeping with women and conquering nations and riding high, sure. Henry I mostly just see stirring sugar into his tea and running his hands along tapestry. What do you make of Henry as a person, rather than a writer?
April 8, 2011
Roll Call takes a look at fiction written by members of the US Congress, and it is as bad as you would expect. Consider ex-Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), whose Blood of Patriots reads like the work of a high school sophomore about to be sent to mandatory psychological counseling:
Oscar shattered the skull of Speaker Jim Purdy at the Republican leadership table and picked off Representative Barbara Laine next to him. Holding the monster pistol with both hands and moving it in a smooth sweep, he then quickly picked off the guards just inside each door of the gallery. He squeezed off each shot with dispatch, yet each was deliberate and well aimed. Not once did he break his lethal rhythm with a miss.
There's always more coming out, too. I know I'm looking forward to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Health Clinic for Low-Income Women with Cancer by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and The Tiger's Wife by Rep. David Wu (D-Oregon).
Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water might well turn out to be the best book of the year; it's unlike anything I've read before, and I haven't been able to forget it. (Read Bookslut's review here, and our interview with Yuknavitch here.) The Rumpus has a great interview with Yuknavitch as well, and it ends with an interesting question and answer about Dear Sugar, the magazine's extremely popular and beloved advice columnist:
Josh: O.K. Here goes. Are you Sugar? Some of us have been wondering. We’ve even read your older works, combed through the archives. So. Are you?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I am intimately involved with Sugar, is my answer.
There’s this cultural propensity towards lying to protect the younger generation. Your grandparents will lie to your mother about something bad that’s going on. Your mother, who has some details, but not all of them, will lie to you about it to protect you. This extends from a belief that the young should be spared of worry. It extends from everything from “There is no spinach to the house, although I was going to make spinach pie. I will go out and get it myself rather than tell you” to just about anything else – to grand, life-changing news of personal devastation or war. You just protect, somehow. I don’t think it works very well.
A novelist proposes to his girlfriend in the acknowledgements of his new book. Awwwwww.
"If it's possible to fall more in love with someone every day, then that's what I do," the Brisbane-based author wrote.
"To my favourite, to the reason I live my life, Leesa Wockner, who, if she reads this, I hope will agree to marry me, despite the number of commas in this sentence."
It's not completely without precedent. John Updike used the acknowledgements of Rabbit Is Rich to tell his wife he was leaving her for a 17-year-old. Bottle of Scotch. A 17-year-old bottle of Scotch.
“Meanwhile, this is now the eve. Let’s welcome the influx of strength and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with burning patience, we will enter splendid cities.”
From the New Republic's archive: James T. Farrell's 1956 piece on the problem of writers in countries or working in languages without a large enough audience to sustain them. What he has to say about the importance and scarcity of translation is, sadly, also applicable to today's market.
Conditions like these produce psychological confusion. For whom should the authors write? For their own people, or for a foreign market? Despite growing nationalism in Asia, numerous writers and intellectuals have not shed their sense of cultural inferiority towards the West. Just as at one time, American writers needed recognition in England or France in order to become more widely accepted in America, so do many of these writers need foreign recognition. And they hope to escape from other work so that they might give their full time to writing. Because of this their eyes are on the American market. They tend, thus, to become divided in feeling. The pulls of East and West are strongly registered in their minds: some are even torn by this problem, especially because of rising nationalism spirit.
Heaney on Milosz: It was a case of beauty holding a plea with rage, a kind of answer to Shakespeare's question about how such a thing might be done. . . . He was poised between lyricism and witness.
Maureen N. McClane interviews Timothy Donnelly about his recent book, Cloud Corporation: Anyway‚ being at Supercuts‚ I replayed‚ as I often used to when I’d get my hair cut‚ the first line of the Rimbaud poem usually translated as “Evening Prayer”: “I live sitting down‚ like an angel in the hands of a barber.”
To hear P. Scott Cunningham tell it, bringing poetry to Miami is exhausting: For instance, we've partnered with the The Miami Herald to create a fictional spokesperson named "Herald Bloom" who will be writing daily poems that recapitulate local news stories. "Herald" will also post condensed versions of these on Twitter @heraldbloom. We're also sponsoring a project with a local thrift store to sew "poetry labels"--created by the artist Augustina Woodgate--into random items of clothing; hiring ad space to fly short bits of verse behind airplanes up and down Miami Beach; holding a poetry contest in the prisons, etc.
Plymouth State University has received some new letters by Frost: In England, Frost befriended other literary greats, including William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound. In a May 7, 1913, letter, he described Yeats' manner as being "like that of a man in some dream he can't shake off," and called Pound "the dazzling youth who translates poetry from six languages."
Not sure NYU has the spirit of National Poetry Month quite right: NYU is showing a poetic flair that goes beyond its English department, using rhyming verse to respond to an unusual neighborhood attack on its expansion plan.
Elisa Gabbert, the author of the splendid The French Exit (and the blog of the same name) reviews "natural" perfumes: Journeyman also contains oud, a note that has been done to death by niche lines in the past year or so, but usually in its synthetic form. It’s often interpreted as a medicinal, Band-Aids-esque smell, so it might be the oud that gives Journeyman its single-malt top note. However, the Oud Laos sample of agarwood absolute she sent me smells more like barbecued meat, and after taking a whiff of that, I clearly recognize its animalic signature in Journeyman, a sort of Slim Jim accord.
FInally, Anne Woe on the sound of the King James Bible: English, of course, was richer in those days, full of neesings and axletrees, habergeons and gazingstocks, if indeed a gazingstock has a plural. Modern skin has spots: the King James gives us botches, collops and blains, horridly and lumpily different. It gives us curious clutter, too, a whole storehouse of tools and knick-knacks whose use is now half-forgotten—nuff-dishes, besoms, latchets and gins, and fashions seemingly more suited to a souped-up motor than to the daughters of Jerusalem.
The sister of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya talks to Leonard Lopate about the new collection of Anna's work, Is Journalism Worth Dying For, and about the continued threats against Russian reporters.
April 7, 2011
Over at the Smart Set, in my series on backlist books, I write about the merry bomb-throwers of the British suffragist movement, and the book that chronicles the conditions these women were fighting against, A Woman's Place: An Oral History of Working Class Women 1890-1940 by Elizabeth Roberts. And in case you only picture the suffragist movement in your head as a bunch of sour women holding up signs while wearing sad, sad clothing, Geert Mak's list (in his wonderful book In Europe) of the acts of protest the women engaged in in just two weeks in 1913 will surprise you:
2 April: arson at a church in Hampstead Garden; 4 April: a house in Chorley Wood destroyed by fire, a bomb attack at Oxted station, an empty train destroyed by an explosion in Devonport, famous paintings damaged in Manchester; 8 April: an explosion in the grounds of Dudley Castle; a bomb found on the crowded Kingston train: 11 April: a cricket pavilion destroyed in Tunbridge Wells...
In celebration of Henry James's birthday, Kevin Frazier devoted this month's Star-Crossed column exclusively to the Master. (That would sound dirty if the poor fella had not probably died a virgin.) Kevin and I will be exchanging letters about our devoted, besotted feelings for the novelist James, starting here and continuing through the week.
Seems to me my experience with James has been a lot like yours. Hated him at first. Just hated him. It wasn't The Beast in the Jungle for me but Daisy fucking Miller. I had to read it in junior high, and then again when I was a freshman, and both times it left me thinking James was someone to avoid. I thought -- and think -- it's an oddly pale and callow story, a rough sketch for maybe half of F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing, without any of Fitzgerald's narrow but powerful vividness.
Then my senior year of high school I got a copy of The Bostonians at a used bookstore. I hated it when I started reading it, and kept right on hating it for maybe the first 80 pages. Then slowly things changed. I started thinking about Olive and Verena when I was away from the book, and there was something about both of them that stayed in my head and sort of itched there. It wasn't anything dramatic, just a steady shift from being bored to being interested. By the time I was finished with The Bostonians, I knew I'd never read anything like it. There was a lot to criticize: there's always a lot to criticize with James. But I liked the way the book resisted easy conclusions, making you think as hard about each page as James seems to have done.
I read The Portrait of a Lady next, and it was the first James novel I really loved. You asked if I feel love for James as well as admiration, and it's a good question. I'd say it's a mix. I don't feel the clean, clear adoration for him that I feel for, say, George Eliot. The instant I think about her I feel better about everything: she makes me happy in a pretty straightforward and uncomplicated way.
With James, some of his writing does that for me: Portrait, The Aspern Papers, The Spoils of Poynton. So there's some of what I'd call love for James in me, but I think I have this much bigger storm of contradictory feelings towards his work. And maybe part of what makes James especially appealing for adults is the realization that this storminess he inspires -- this way he has of not holding still so you can get a fix on his opinions or what he's trying to do -- is essential to the pleasure of reading him. I have the sense when reading most novels that there comes a point where the author settles for less than the fullest expression of what the story is after -- the novel pulls back from exactly the most difficult or problematic implications of the events and tries to protect itself against criticism. Often James just keeps on going at those points, keeps pushing right where it's hardest to push -- in, for instance, the discomfort we might feel reading about Hyacinth in The Princess Casamassima, or the puzzlement we might experience about the ambiguities of Adam Verver's actions in The Golden Bowl. Whenever James does something like this -- gives us a Hyacinth or an Adam -- he dissatisfies me, but still usually manages to gain something that makes the dissatisfaction worthwhile. And the more novels you read by other people, with their increasingly predictable mechanisms of characterization and revelation, the more you appreciate how rare this risky quality of James is.
Jessa, I notice neither of us has really said anything about James as a biographical figure. (I couldn't help thinking of his infamous back injury when you mentioned your own, for instance.) I avoided the topic in my column because I already felt I didn't have enough room to say all I wanted to say about his fiction. But I think it's amazing how James has become such a popular character in other people's fiction, much of it very good, and how he has given rise to this hefty biographical business that rivals the Bloomsbury industry. I also think James and his family have had more than their share of first-rate biographers, from Leon Edel onward. Is this a side of James that means anything to you, or do you prefer to take him without the biographical trimmings?
I'm scared of Arthur Rimbaud... This is a man, after all, who once argued that a poet must explore "[a]ll the forms of love, suffering, and madness. … He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences."
Illuminations is also the topic of Elizabeth Bachner's essay this month.
New York, 2011. A new edition of Illuminations comes out, with Rochester-born poet John Ashbery’s translations alongside Rimbaud’s incredible French. I can read the French, a little, because of my fever. Or maybe the French is, alarmingly, reading me? I have the eerie, thrilling sense that I am reading a manuscript that was fated to be lost or uncreated, like Walter Benjamin’s never-written book about hashish. Like the final volume of Marx’s Capital. Like most books by geniuses who are not male or not of the dominant class or race, poems or works of science or history by girls, or by slaves. Like all of the manuscripts that have been burned, accidentally or on purpose, by people who hated them or loved them. I am reading Rimbaud’s clump of papers more than 100 years after he died, but, as John Ashbery writes in his introduction, for Rimbaud “absolute modernity was… the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second.”
De Botton promised his series would be "a ground-breaking experiment", offering rigorous self-help books that hark back to the days when – in the hands of Epicurus and Seneca – such tomes were highly valued, rather than the much-ridiculed genre of today. "We need self-help books more than ever before," he said. "In the age of moral and practical confusions, the self-help book is crying out to be redesigned and rehabilitated."
As long as none of the books ask me to write a letter to myself or write uplifting words on my mirror or create a vision board, I'm willing to keep an open mind.
As the heirs of Malcolm X continue to fight over the estate, preventing works from being published, they're now also expressing extreme disapproval with the upcoming Manning Marable biography. Which they have not read.
(Writers! Rethink your literary executors in your will. From Dorothy Parker to James Joyce to everyone who left their works to children who can't bear to think of their parents as imperfect, these decisions matter.)
April 6, 2011
Atlantis Books is a tiny, independent, English language bookshop on the island of Santorini in Greece. They are owned and operated by a band of lovably scruffy idealists and staffed by a rotation of volunteers who come to work and live in the shop. If you drop in on your walk through the cliffside village of Oia, you may be treated to some homemade tzatziki, a glass of wine, and Raymond Carver recommendations.
I lived there for 6 weeks in 2008, during which I read two volumes of Proust (3 & 4), learned six Greek words, and went swimming in the Aegean with a yellow dog. Everyone should be lucky enough to spend an afternoon or summer there, but the double whammy of Greek economic collapse and the rise of e-books have put the bookstore in dire straits.
If you'd like to visit Atlantis - a paradise of sun, pleasure, and paperback fiction - or if you'd simply like to aid in the longevity of a truly good place, consider donating to their store-saving campaign. All donations are welcome, sizable ones will get you beautiful things. (If you can spot my name in the spiral in the video you get 500 points.)
In celebration of Henry James's birthday, Kevin Frazier devoted this month's Star-Crossed column exclusively to the Master. (That would sound dirty if the poor fella had not probably died a virgin.) Kevin and I will be exchanging letters about our devoted, besotted feelings for the novelist James, starting today and continuing through the week.
I just want to say up front that I used to hate Henry James. Even at that irrational level where you momentarily truly believe that this writer is being this obtuse and this difficult just to ruin your day. I hated Henry James, I hated that stupid The Beast in the Jungle, and I hated every teacher and professor who forced me to write 500 words on the symbolism in that foul little novella.
But then: I’m not even sure how things changed. One day I threw out my back. I took half a vicodin and in my ooh, isn’t everything wonderful, hey look at my feet! phase of opiate consumption I picked up The Turn of the Screw, retreated to bed, and read the book out loud to myself. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t find the language frustrating, and even in my blissed out mood I was terrorized by that story of ghosts and madness and obsession.
That was a few years ago, and I didn't really feel the need to revisit that part of my bookshelves. Then, recently, I went on a binge. From Washington Square to Portrait of a Lady to The Tragic Muse. I eventually had to force myself to read other books. Like, for instance, the ones I am actually paid to review. But now I am packing my bags for a mountaintop retreat, and Wings of the Dove was the first book in my suitcase.
I do wonder if it was just age that did it. Had I read Portrait of a Lady at 21, I’m not sure I would have been able to take the ending. (Or even gotten there.) I probably would have thrown the book against the wall, not yet understanding that some relationships are like that. In those days I wanted brash heroines only -- I was dining almost exclusively on the Sister Spit writers and Kathy Acker, and I did not have time for subtlety. Or maybe it was my bed-ridden state. The first stage of falling in love with Henry facilitated by a bad back, the second time out of grief. When life slowed down to the pace of a Henry James novel, I found my way in. What I previously mistook for bloat was actually an intricate structure, and what I thought was pompous bullshit was perhaps the most psychologically deft character building I’ve ever read in my life.
Kevin, your column this month -- which normally picks two or three writers -- focused exclusively on Henry James. There is a great admiration for James behind your writing, I can tell. I’m wondering, is there love, too? Love being a different sort of attachment. And if so, when did it happen -- what was your introduction to the man?
April 5, 2011
The top ten YA books about young people making bad decisions. This isn't exactly the reason I have that Google News alert set up for "teens behaving badly," but whatever. It's still kind of interesting.
The Morning News Tournament of Books has selected a winner -- in a close decision, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad beat out Jonathan Franzen's Freedom! '90. The comments by the judges are pretty entertaining, with Jennifer Weiner bringing the crazy and hateful, and Michele Filgate (a Bookslut contributor) bringing the charming and smart.
"Don't trust anyone you meet online. You could regret it." (Via Lady Liberty, creator of the new, and already addictive, Write Place, Write Time.)
Many of my co-workers, however, are in their early twenties, single as can be, and they often get asked out on dates by customers, and vice versa. The encounters often start with a question about Haruki Murakami or Roberto Bolano or Don DeLillo, which tells you something about both the literary taste of Brooklyn's youth and the writers most likely to be name-dropped by people who don't read very many books but who want to see you without your clothes on.
I don't think the problems facing literature are within literature. I think that they tend to be circumstantial—the disappearance in some universities and colleges of a kind of introductory course to literary classics or to the epic or the poem or the novel that it was once assumed everyone took some version of. The minute you're exposed to things like that they begin to associate themselves with the other things that you might do for a living or for fun, whether it's economics or law. I have lots of students that come back to me later in life or send me notes and say "I am just now beginning to realize how important these literary texts are to me."
So I think it's a matter of exposure. I think it's a matter of accessibility. I think that literature does invite conversations but you have to meet it somewhere along the line.
Umm, happy anniversary of the Eichmann trial, everyone!
Der Spiegel has a two part series on how Eichmann was able to live freely in Argentina for so long.
And if you have access to the New Yorker's archives, you can read Hannah Arendt's original articles, which became the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
The always charming Edmund de Waal has a piece at the Telegraph about his family's connection to Proust -- a character in In Search of Lost Time is based on a relative -- and exploring their past to write his memoir Hare with the Amber Eyes.
April 4, 2011
John Le Carré has asked for the International Man Booker Prize judges to remove his name from the award nominations, probably forgetting that this is the version of the Booker prize no one pays any attention to, anyway.
Bookslut favourite Shaun Tan has won the Astrid Lingren Prize for children's literature, a month after winning an Academy Award for his short film The Lost Thing (based on his book of the same name). Shaun Tan is bascially the guy James Franco wishes he was.
Hey, check it out! It's a new issue of Bookslut! My original plan for this issue was to make it an April Fool's edition, where every link on the homepage redirected to hardcore pornography. But Jessa was all like, "Blah blah blah reputation blah blah contractual obligation to advertisers blah blah unprofessional and offensive on every possible level blah blah," so I guess you'll have to settle for our usual mix of columns, features, and reviews from some of the smartest literary critics in the world.
And that's OK, because this is a huge issue filled with fascinating pieces. In features this month, we have an original essay from Elizabeth Bachner, and a beautiful photographic essay on the NYC Chapbook Fair by Jon Cotner. We also have interviews with Blake Butler, Alan Heathcock, Lidia Yuknavitch, Allegra Goodman, Kevin Brockmeier, Benjamin Hale, Peter Mountford, Camilla Gibb, Michael Parker, and Justin Marks and Paige Taggart. Our team of columnists is back this issue, discussing everything from Henry James to suicide to the healing power of sentences.
Enjoy, and as always, thanks for reading!
It was 2002, and the city had been irreparably Giulianified. Everything was gorgeous, and I hated it. The parks were gorgeous, the streets were gorgeous, even Times Square was fast on its way to becoming gorgeous. And there was nothing anyone could do about it. Perhaps, I thought, I could go back in time. To a worser time. To a time before Rudy. So I moved to Alphabet City, hopeful that the burned-out, derelict neighborhood I remembered from years earlier had retained some of its non-splendor.
April 1, 2011
Jonathan Coe has a fascinating essay on film adaptations of novels, and why they almost always suck. Or as he puts it, much more eloquently, "Any two-hour feature film which attempts to render, in cinematic terms, the full complexity of a serious novel-length work of fiction is almost certainly doomed."
I kind of treasure that thirty-second period between learning that one of my favorite books is going to be adapted into a movie, and realizing what a horrible piece of shit it's probably going to be ("A movie based on The Human Stain? Sweet! The only way they could screw this up is by casting Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman as...what's that you say? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO"). I haven't even seen the film adaptation of Rabbit, Run; I love the book, but the movie's supposed to be legendarily bad. (James Caan, who somehow got cast as Rabbit Angstrom, said "The film wasn't released, it escaped.")
There are some good ones, though -- I'll stand behind the cinematic versions of Wonder Boys, The Ice Storm, and The Virgin Suicides, just to name some fairly recent ones. And I'm psyched for the upcoming film version of the Bookslut blog, starring Amanda Seyfried as Jessa and Robert Pattinson as me. (April Fools! I will actually be played by a pre-weight loss Seth Rogen.)
Claude Peck interviews Ashbery on translating Rimbaud (viz. this new edition of Illuminations): There’s also an early lyric where he says, “On summer evenings I’ll walk through the fields with the grass pecking at my wrists”; since I grew up in the country, and did that myself in the summer, that was one of the first ones I liked especially, because of both the strangeness and the familiarity of it.
This interview with Caroline Kennedy about She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems is less successful.
At the start of Season 3 of The Wire, the high-rise projects at Franklin Terrace are destroyed, as Bodie and Poot argue about whether they'll mourn the buildings. The Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago were demolished this week, and Project Cabrini-Green has captured its residents' reactions in video and in verse.
If Ron Silliman follows through on the changes to his blog foreshadowed here, it will be a remarkable milestone indeed. It has been such an indispensable resource for so long!
Christian Bok and others discuss developments in spoken word performances.
Greg Delanty discusses his new edition of Old English poems, The Word Exchange: "It's essentially Anglo-Saxon poetry lifted to a new place by the particular character of poets who are doing it," Delanty said. "What's so great about this - all Anglo-Saxon poetry has been translated by scholars and academic people. It has generally been very accurate but not always great poetry. They couldn't get that kind of energy into it."
Gary Snyder reminisces about climbing Mount Hood.