September 30, 2011
Things are a little slow over here as we are in new issue mode, and I can only take so much of that before I have to watch three restorative hours of Alan Cumming in a really nice suit or something. Also there's this video of a fish using tools, which I can't quite deal with because I am not prepared to be as afraid of fish as I am of crows. Evolution! Happening right before your very eyes.
We'll be back on Monday, with a new issue and hopefully higher brain functioning, after a week of changing ", to ," over and over again.
It was a four-storey townhouse, rammed to the rafters with texts, old and new, that I had very little interest in. The ground floor of the building was under siege from clone-like marching legions of paperbacks, the sale of which, presumably, uncle Arthur made a living from. The second floor showcased an array of local literature – birds, flora and frolicking frogs of Cumbria – antique maps and paintings of colossal prize-winning Belted Galloway cows. The third floor was a labyrinth of dark oak passageways and shelves containing cracked, embossed spines. There were even some locked glass cases with manuscripts inside. My brother, Patch and I were not allowed to go onto the fourth floor. Lord knows what was kept there. Possibly the whisky stash. Or the Gospel of Christ on his Bike.
The TLS reviews Stories and Essays of Mina Loy, although they rather make her sound heavy and ponderous. Like you're being pressed to death with clunky Clarice Lispector translations. But we're on the record about being Mina Loy fans over here.
"Don't talk to me of agreements, you son of a bitch." That's Achilles talking, in the new Stephen Mitchell translation of The Iliad. The Wall Street Journal seems a little outraged at his approach, but manages to talk to him anyway.
September 29, 2011
Related to that whole neutrinos maybe moving faster than the speed of light thing is this story of an astrobiologist who announced a completely new discovery here on Earth: a microbe that could survive on arsenic rather than phosphorus, which would make it a completely unique life form. Jupiter's moons kind of unique. Her story of the peer review process, of how other scientists treated her, and how the press responded says a lot about the contemporary scientific process. (via)
I was just having an argument about Jane Austen last night. I know, my anti-Jane Austen stance does not win me many admirers. My opponent failed to understand my resistance, too. I try to get her, I do, but I fail every time I pick her up. I find her a bore. Perhaps I am missing an essential piece of my humanity, as whatshisname who wrote that Jane Austen self-help book might say. Let's not get into it here.
But today the London Review of Books reminded me that Terry Castle's essay on Austen's letters and the relationship between Jane and her sister Cassandra existed. The letters are charming, making me like her just a bit more.
Clarice Lispector is getting a new translator. New Directions has decided to reissue four Lispector titles, one that has never before appeared in English. Hour of the Star comes with a translation by Benjamin Moser, who also wrote her recent biography.
September 28, 2011
I am still waiting for the digital revolution to do some good. I get absurdly annoyed when I go looking for ebooks that don't exist. You mean the collected essays of Isaiah Berlin are not available for a super cheap download? Then why did we bother inventing ebooks in the first place god damn it? etc. I have ridiculous demands, and I expect someone to anticipate them and satisfy them.
But Bloomsbury is at least bringing us one step closer, as today they released hundreds of ebooks of out of print back catalog books. Edith Sitwell and Ivy Compton-Burnett are well represented. They appear to be dumping the books, not doing anything to sort through them, but at least they are there.
A group of scholars has banded together to try to get historians to focus on something other than the 20th century. 75% of historians (they are not defining historians right this second) focus their scholarship on the 20th century, or the post-Industrial Revolution. Which makes sense, as there's a paper trail, something historians love. But maybe it's lazy, what with the tens of thousands of years that came before, that is being neglected and could use better scholarship. So that coalition has published Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present "that serves as a kind of manifesto for their cause." The New York Times has more.
A university graduate who stole £36,000 of manuscripts by famous figures including Sir Winston Churchill, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot has been jailed for 30 months.
September 27, 2011
Charlotte and Branwell Brontë: zinesters.
Today I started reading yet another biography of a James family member, this time one of Alice's many bios. How many times can I sit through recreations of the fire that took Henry James Sr's leg? So fucking many, apparently.
Charles Dickens is another one of these writers who we just can't get enough of. One of his biographers, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, tries to justify his decision to write another Charles Dickens life story, after everyone else in the world has already done so.
I don't know another cosmogony that is a tragedy - that kills off its entire cast of characters. This one moves from Darkness through Creation, War, and Destruction, to Darkness. Children are supposed to like cute bunnies and happy endings. Some of them like to hear about Darkness.
I accidentally read a streak of offbeat books about economics, you know, not Michael Lewis. More like Anna Porter's book about Eastern Europe's switch from communism to capitalism The Ghosts of Europe, then FS Michaels's The Monoculture, and then Ashley Mears's Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. Pricing Beauty is very smart about this new variation of the "aesthetic laborer," where you are expected to bring your entire person to your workplace. And then you bear the risk of the corporation's whimsy, you have no guarantees, and you have no security. And then, of course, if you fail, it is all your fault.
So I talked to Mears at Kirkus about how the new economy is screwing all of us and how fashion models are like freelance writers:
When looked at as a labor market, modeling shares many similarities with "bad jobs" in the new economy, namely lack of health or retirement benefits and lack of security. These kinds of jobs used to be dominant in the informal economy, think day laborers, but they are spilling over into sectors that used to offer secure and long-term employment, as in white-collar work and education.
Additionally, as work in culture industries goes, access to clients is controlled by brokers—people like modeling agents, art dealers, literary agents—so models must also work to maintain beneficial personal relationships to secure work. This means that much of the time that models spend working is unpaid and unseen work—on their personal relationships, on castings, on low or no-paid editorial jobs, to accrue status that may, or may not, be redeemed in an improved portfolio.
September 26, 2011
Yet another reason why you should never leave your literary estate to a shut-in: After Chaim Grade's death, his widow blocked access to the archive, despite a great deal of interest in his unpublished work. And now that she has died, scholars are just now getting a glimpse of what's there. Jonathan Brent talks to Tablet for their podcast series, about what's in the archive, how Grade became an overlooked writer, and what's next.
Helen DeWitt was initially told that her debut novel The Last Samurai was the type of book you could only really get away with publishing six or seven books into your career. Too weird, too dense, too many sections in Old Norse. And so she decided to write five or six books in a row to be published in order to get The Last Samurai into the room. One of these books was Lightning Rods, which is finally being released this month.
DeWitt has not had a wonderfully easy relationship to the publishing industry, and she's been quite vocal about this in interviews and on her website. And while I can appreciate that, after being force-fed so many happy tales of six-figure advances and unconditional publishing support, one has to think that is perhaps also not doing her publishing luck any favors. But still. Fascinating. And she digs in further in this interview at Bookforum.
So then we have a decade of breakdowns, clinical depression, brushes with suicide. There was no mad rush for the second book because it was COMPLETELY UNLIKE the book everyone loved. My UK editor: This could destroy your reputation. Lois Wallace (DeLillo's agent): You might want to publish under another name.
I got the rights reverted in 2008, I think. In summer 2009 a reader introduced me to an agent, Bill Clegg. I wanted to talk about editors capable of dealing with a book like Samurai; Bill wanted to hit the ground running and sell Lightning Rods. Sent it to 17 publishers.
1-16: Funny, well written, too controversial to publish.
V.S. Naipaul went on that old man tirade about how women writers are a bunch of ninnies or whatever the fuck all of that was, but his main target seemed to be his editor Diana Athill, who has found late-in-life literary success with Somewhere Towards the End and other books. She laughed it off at the time, and she's laughing it off still. She has a new collection of letters coming out, and as always she's giving candid and entertaining interviews. As for the ultimate mark that Naipaul left on her life? Well, their working relationship came in handy when she had to move house.
"I left a few Naipauls behind that were signed and the bookseller who took them has sold them for a lot of money.” She laughs. “He’s done very well for me.”
Arthur Conan Doyle's first book, The Narrative of John Smith, is being reissued. It's described as "the reflections of a man confined to his room by gout." Doyle himself described it as a blessing that it had fallen out of print in his lifetime, and "My shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again - in print." (via)
September 23, 2011
Just in case devoting one feature and one review this month to getting all mushy about how much we love travel writer and historian Jan Morris wasn't enough... I thought I'd restate it as I link to her review of Charles King's Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams.
Maybe you heard about the (female) writer who publicly dumped her publisher the day of her launch party after they decided to slap some long legs and high heels on the cover and market it as chick lit? It was a thing. It caused the same old predictable controversy about whether Jennifer Weiner is just as talented a writer as Jonathan Franzen blah blah blah. It's hard to type about this, because I instinctively want to duck every time I write the words "chick lit," as angry chick lit writers have a tendency to respond to things.
But Bookslut contributor Alizah Salario recaps the controversy, as well as all of the other chick lit controversies of the past year (there have been a lot -- like I said, there are a few who like to respond to things).
When Kesey met Kerouac. It did not go so well.
In remembrance of some dead German writers*:
Uwe Schütte has written an appreciation of his former teacher, W. G. Sebald.
* I had the embarrassing experience of being asked by a German publisher who my favorite German writers were, and only being able to come up with dead ones. The only living German writer who came to mind was Charlotte Roche, and that seemed inappropriate to say out loud. Or at least like it might lead to a weird conversation. But Germany: you've got some good dead writers.
September 22, 2011
"I have no difficulty with the notion of the ghost. I do enjoy Gothic fiction or books about zombies if they are well written and I like vampires. I'm interested in the way vampires have been changing in the 21st century. Hideous creatures have become glamorous and I kind of crave a return to the real, more interesting thing. I live close to where Bram Stoker grew up and there is something about that I like - walking, a few times a week, by the house of the man who wrote Dracula."
William Gibson, who invented the Internet or something like that, is profiled at the Guardian.
With all this talk about Coco Chanel's Nazi past -- just how important was her German lover? did she betray her nation by carrying out what was essentially a peace offering? -- it's nice to see other designers getting their fair share of historical outrage. Hugo Boss, who actually provided the Nazis with their uniforms, has issued an apology for all of that after the release of a book documenting the company's sins.
I am so incredibly jealous of the New Yorkers who can attend this night of appreciation and discussion for Irmgard Keun, the Weimer-era German author of Artificial Silk Girl and After Midnight. Sure, panel discussion, whatever, but Maria Tatar will be there! I think she's amazing. If you go, tell her I love her.
Carroll’s juvenilia also include lots of drawings and graphic marginalia. The frontispiece of The Rectory Umbrella, for example, shows a bearded old man beaming as fairies fly under the shelter of his umbrella. They’re bearing cradle blessings labelled “Good Humour”, “Knowledge”, “Mirth” and “Cheerfulness”, among other boons. Above them, comical grimacing goblins are hurling rocks – these are “Woe”, “Spite”, “Gloom”, “Crossness”, “Ennui” and “Alloverishness” (presumably from the woeful cry, “It’s all over”.) Most tellingly of all, the umbrella that is shielding the good sprites has written between its spokes, “Jokes”, “Riddles”, “Poetry”, “Tales” and, in the centre, “Fun”. The young Charles Dodgson was interposing a determined brand of fun between himself and unhappiness.
September 21, 2011
Eric Ziegenhagen wrote an appreciation for James Schuyler's poems, and the way they are rooted in daily life. Poems like:
It’s no day for writing poems. Or for writing, period.
So I didn’t.
Write, that is. The bruises of my face have gone, just
a thin scab on
the chin where they put the stitches. I’m back on Antabuse:
what a drag. I
really love drinking, but once I’m sailing I can’t seem
to stop. So, pills
are once again the answer. . . .
Which reminds one of his novel What's for Dinner?, about a wife sent away to dry out. It is small of scale, but perfectly written.
How Can I dress up likepsychologist, William James?
I have a project that I have to present tomorrow on my psychologist, William James, and I do not know how I should dress up as him. for example the person with Ivan Pavlov can dress up as a dog because Pavlov loved dogs..
And speaking of the man, JC Hallman is writing a book about the correspondence between Henry and William. He's started a blog where he's posting some excerpts, and only a small percentage of it is abusive. They were notorious mutual underminers. Like, say, the following, from Wm to Henry:
"I found it good much beyond my expectations, story, characters & way of telling excellent in fact. And hardly a trace of that too diffuse explanation of the successive psychological steps wh. I remember attacking you for when you read it to me."
Translated from Dickish to English: It was not as bad as I remembered.
Is President Obama just like Don Draper? Sure, why not? They both smoke, after all. The New Republic tries to get its head around Suskind's Confidence Men by pairing the White House staff with their Mad Men equivalents.
September 20, 2011
The New York Times takes a look at artist Richard Prince's new series on racy literature. In case you're wondering what it might include...
...dusty boxes of pulp pornography, detective stories, light erotica, a Dutch magazine called Suck and “authentic novels of flagellation from the early 20th century.”
Oh, and something called ”Laisse Donc Mes Fesses Tranquilles” (“Leave My Butt in Peace”). The article may have pictures, but not of that particular gem.
Contemporary travel writers from Dalrymple to Iyer to Wheeler give their recommendations of their favorite books of travel writing: Chatwin, Jan Morris, Dervla Murphy, Graham Greene, Sybille Bedford, and others obvious and not get some love.
And over at the Guardian books podcast, some of these favorites are highlighted. They also discuss the closing of London's Travel Bookshop. (Although luckily for everyone New York's Idlewild still lives.)
Missed this: Someone has been hiding beautiful sculptures made out of books and paper in the Scottish libraries.
"Coco Chanel was not a nice person. I would like people to think about why they admire the people they admire and what that says about us and our needs," Simon said.
I was going through the publisher catalogs today, in my biweekly attempt to suss out which books would best fit with Bookslut for reviews. You do what you can to figure it out. I've stated before that I don't really see the point in offering yet another 700-word opinion on the new Jeffrey Eugenides. You can find that information elsewhere. I'm more interested in digging up things other people overlook. The trip trip through publishers' catalogs, then, is trying to figure out what isn't part of a pattern.
Still a hot trending topic in the catalogs: novels set in World War II, written by Americans. Sometimes Europeans write about it, too, it's true, but mostly it seems to be coming from Americans. And just: no. No, no, no.
Although Oleg Yuriev raises a good point: with World War II being so hot in publishing -- as hot as anything can be that is littered with cold corpses -- why are so few novels set during the siege of Leningrad? If you're going to write about World War II, there are a couple very set approaches you can take, and Leningrad just does not seem to be one of them. Perhaps because the horror was just too great? Or perhaps the Russians make unsympathetic victims, as they were on our side and we had to watch as they raped and pillaged their way through the liberation of Eastern Europe, and then totally decided to stay?
September 19, 2011
Disappointed to see Simon Schama's disappointment with Anna Funder's novel All That I Am. After her nonfiction debut Stasiland -- so incredibly good -- I had high hopes for her return to literature. And not that it's impossible for Simon Schama to be wrong about something. I'm sure that it has happened once or twice... Although if you know of an example, please don't tell me, I need to have a geeked out adoration of someone, and this has been a heavy year of disillusionment.
This is the sound of two men trying really hard to deal with the disappointment of the Obama administration. Frank Rich and Adam Moss discuss Suskind's Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, and it really makes me so very tired.
Ian Hamilton writes about literary hoaxes, those perpetrated on the writer -- like those poetry contests that declare everyone winners as long as you fork over the cash -- and those perpetrated on the reader. For the latter, he writes about Doris Lessing, who assumed a pseudonym for two romancey type books and then declared her books and publishing experience proved dark truths about the industry. (Or, Hamilton counters, maybe your romancey novels were just kind of rubbish.)
For all that we use modeling to examine -- sexism, lookism, consumer culture, the princess culture of young girls -- one thing we don't much look at is how modeling explains the lives of freelance writers. More on this book soon, but Chloë Schama reviews Ashley Mears's Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, and explains the correlation:
You need to show ambition, clearly, while never exuding unbecoming eagerness. For the right kind of exposure, you may have to work for free—even go into debt. You need to be calculating with your acquaintances, but avoid close connections with possible competitors. Above all, you need to stay beholden to the unlikely dream of success and the rare moments of magic, building calluses and erecting blinders to the unpleasant and grueling realities.
And I know modeling is the devil or whatever, but that isn't stopping me from staying up late to read the reissue (bless whoever made this decision) Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. I also covet Tyra Banks's Modelland, despite the horrendous title (seriously -- it just looks bad on the page and sounds awful coming out of the mouth) and the report from a friend that it reads like it was written by a schizophrenic. And yeah, that cover with the eye that stares directly into your soul and gives it bipolar disorder. Why won't the publisher send me a copy? Don't they understand I will love it unconditionally? I mean, except for the cover art.
We carry within the texts that fall into our hands. There are philosophers who believe: the things that we find in books are those that we have brought to them.
Bora Cosic writes about reading, about reading books no one else reads, boring book, poems about lemon peels, books made of iron, books made of cardboard.
September 17, 2011
Stitchings' wealthy businessman, who can never seem to pay for his dinner because no one has enough cash to make change for his high-denomination bills, is killed by a bullet that circles the Earth for years until it finds its target in the great man's heart. There's another man who can't sleep, who exists somewhere between unconsciousness and full wakefulness, and he's in love with a girl whose heart has stopped. They would get on with her funeral, but she keeps walking around and complaining that no one will let her go dancing. Another woman, in love with the insomniac, accidentally marks the town's soldiers for death with a fraying red silk thread. These are things that should not happen, in a place populated with people who should not exist.
September 15, 2011
In the name of learning one new thing every day, today we will learn how Spanish moss got its Latin name. From Diana Wells's Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History:
Evergreen oaks include the holm, or holly oak ("holm being an old name for holly). The tree of southern plantations was Q. virginiana, which is often romantically draped with Spanish moss, or Tillandsia. This was charmingly named by Linnaeus after Elias Tillander who was so "harassed by Neptune" when crossing the gulf of Bothnia that he returned to his home in Sweden overland, avoiding crossing the sea but traveling two thousand miles, instead of two hundred, to do so. Draped over high branches, Spanish moss, Linnaeus decided, doesn't need water.
Stacy Schiff, most recently the biographer of Cleopatra (Bookslut's review of this book here), remembers her days working in publishing and her first experiences as a biographer, interviewing Saint-Exupéry's mistress. (via)
We spent a series of Wednesday afternoons together in Paris, the low point of my life as a biographer, as each session began with her insulting me, always from a flank I hadn’t reinforced. “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” she might ask. “Jewish,” I replied. “As I thought,” she sniffed.
The more irremediable the death of the book becomes, the more wild and flailing the resuscitation effort. The publishing industry is producing a greater number of books, and is doing so faster than ever before. The good old days when literary bestsellers appeared every few years, or maybe once a year, are irrevocably past. Today global bestsellers burn brightly on a monthly basis, and then fizzle as fast as New Year’s firecrackers. Overnight fame and hefty advances reserved for the few lucky puppies are no longer a secret, and neither are the annual earnings of the industry’s top producers. All this whets the appetites of the millions of hungry rookies. The examples of jackpot debutantes suggest that anyone can make it if they want to, one just needs a little bit between the ears, a good look, a little luck—and spectacular (and spectacularly speedy) canonization is guaranteed.
The dry wit of Dubravka Ugresic. Dry as in a martini-in-your-face kind of dry. But I love her. She answers the question, "Can a book save your life?" at Bookforum. The piece would have fit nicely in her collection Thank You for Not Reading.
Okay, I have two things that might make you topple over into suicidal ideation. Just to warn you in advance.
First, James Meek writes about the privatization of the NHS in the UK. He did a brilliant piece earlier this year about what happens when a nation tries to privatize its mail service (short answer: chaos, your package spends a year in some dude's kitchen), and that was bad enough. Especially now with the revelations about the American postal system. So you can only imagine the despair that will follow Meek's revelations about the health service.
Then there's this slideshow about the siege of Leningrad, taken from Anna Reid's book Leningrad: The Epic Siege of WWII. You might think, well, sure, that was sad, but such a long time ago. And it's not like we're going to die of starvation having already had to cannibalize our neighbor who dropped dead of the unbelievable cold. But things aren't looking awesome in the news, are they. And it's a slippery slope in your head, especially after a glass of wine, and after having read Meek's essays, and, I don't know, maybe twenty minutes of Rick Perry's face on your television...
Be strong! Read this life affirming story of a cat who traveled the country, running away from Colorado for the mean streets of New York City. Do it now, because you know it's going to be a fucking book in about four months, and that'll kill off your will to live again...
Arab writers' voices should be heard in Europe. They should be invited to address people and their work should be translated. They should not be invisible anymore.
Moroccan poet Ben Taher Jelloun talks to Der Spiegel about the state of post-revolutionary literature.
September 14, 2011
Reaktion Books has kindly offered Bookslut readers 20% off their copies of Linda Simon's Coco Chanel biography. Details here.
So it starts here:
Erica Jong’s classic novel about passion, sex, and the true self has something to teach contemporary writers who have lost their humanity
And it ends here:
But we’re nobodies, and not in Emily Dickinson’s gloriously reticent sense. We’re nobodies because a piece of software now remembers our friends’ birthdays for us, and because we see so many virtual, perfect pricks and tits and cunts that the real things, so beautifully imperfect, no longer thrill us so much. We’re nobodies because most of us sext before we ever get to know real intimacy, which means that we’ll never get to live life like Isadora Wing and make the sort of sweetly ruinous mistakes that helped her soar.
And one sort of thinks of the Laura Kipnis's statement that I linked to earlier, that here you are, trying to review a book -- simple, right? -- but all your crazy just spills out onto the page where everyone can see it. Because how it goes from talking about Fear of Flying to condemning all of humanity is just one of those writerly things, like you wanted to tell the knickerless Lindsay Lohan, oh please, dear, just cover yourself a bit more.
After Anna was made redundant, she ate less, exercised more, had a nip and tuck and bought a tight-fitting Prada dress. Within three months she had a new job at 10 times the salary, which conclusively proves my theory, which is mine, that women need to get their tits out more if they want a better job.
If you need to hear a former politician not completely bullshitting you during this election cycle, I would recommend reading the speeches of one Mr. Václav Havel, former leader of Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic. From a 2009 speech:
“On the one hand everything is getting better — a new generation of mobile phones is being released every week,” he said. “But in order to make use of them, you need to follow new instructions. So you end up reading instruction manuals instead of books and in your free time you watch TV where handsome tanned guys scream from advertisements about how happy they are to have new swimming trunks... The new consumer society is accomplished by a growing number of people who do not create anything of value.”
Over at the Smart Set, I write about F.S. Michaels's book Monoculture, Anna Porter's The Ghosts of Europe, the time when the intellectuals ran the government, and why the intelligentsia faded away after the fall of communism. Basically it's 1,600 words about economics! I was going to try to hide that from you, but might as well admit it up front. You should maybe read it anyway, though.
Have you ever thought to yourself, fuck, how am I going to explain the Situationist movement to my kids? Well, now the website for McKenzie Wark's The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International helpfully has a cartoon guide to totality (you know, for kids) for you. (Read Bookslut's review of this book here.) Warning: after they watch this they might ask what the word "prick" means.
Humiliation concludes with an enumerated compendium of Koestenbaum’s lifetime humiliations, from a disgustingly messy sneeze in fourth grade, up through more recent mortifications, like being told he has a flat ass. He’s excited by the creative dimensions of humiliation. Constructing such a list would be impossible for me, let alone publishing it. Confessionalism makes me nervous—I wrote an entire book about love without once employing the first-person pronoun. Would I be a better writer if I cherished my humiliations more? I don’t cherish them, though I do suspect that every accumulated wound and misery seeps out onto the page in some version or another, however circumspect you think you’re being. Writers, too, are compelled by forces they don’t understand to flash their underwear around in public (camouflaged to varying degrees by form or craft); critics play the sadistic teachers (camouflaged to varying degrees by discussions of form or craft).
Kipnis's own book on a parallel subject, How to Become a Scandal, was sadly underappreciated when it came out.
September 13, 2011
We get a lot of books. We also get catalogs filled with even more books. And despite having a lot of wonderful, smart reviewers, there are only so many books that we can cover in any given month without causing full collapse. So we're trying something new over here, covering, in some small way, the books we wish we could lavish with praise and attention but simply can't because there are only so many hours in the day.
Imagine another dimension. OK? Just imagine another dimension! C’mon, what are you waiting for? Imagine it!
Peter Birkenhead writes about trying to read popular science books and their less than helpful illustrations and metaphors explaining complex scientific concepts.
I have made fun of blurbs before, and probably called them useless. But then two blurbs made me pick up a book rather than pass it by. Both Marina Warner (Monuments and Maidens) and Rebecca Goldstein (Betraying Spinoza) blurbed Grace Dane Mazur's Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination, and even if she called in some favors to get them, they were strong enough to change my mind. And god I am glad I did.
I talk to Mazur over at Kirkus about descending to the underworld for stories, admiring Marina Warner, and how reading itself is a creative act.
When we read, we explore the world of the text. We are instructed by the author as to how to imagine this world, but even the most generous author can only propose the images to us. Our own imagination must then go to work. So author and reader are partners in a strange kind of construction, where the only tools are the author’s words and the reader’s wisdom. Each time we reread the same book this construction changes—we are different, older, wiser, even if only by a day or two—we see new facets of the narrative architecture emerge.
perched on an easel
within a patch of teasel.
The Moon Cow
whispered her reply
did it just for the rhyme.
Enjoying Christian Morgenstern's nonsense poetry. Thanks to Drew for telling me it exists.
Neither a dreary observation of all the ways in which our economic monoculture has thwarted our ability to live life fully and authentically nor a blindly optimistic sticking-it-to-the-man kumbaya, Michaels offers a smart and realistic guide to first recognizing the monoculture and the challenges of transcending its limitations, then considering ways in which we, as sentient and autonomous individuals, can move past its confines to live a more authentic life within a broader spectrum of human values.
September 12, 2011
As universities cut humanities departments because they're not cost-efficient enough, and the new emphasis in education is on the vocational, businesses like Great Courses are filling in the gaps. The demand is high for their lectures on history, literature, ethics, and, you know, all of those things now deemed worthless because it won't help you get a high paying job. Heather MacDonald gives us the history of the business, and the growing demand for their mail order courses. “They are hungry for this material.”
Missed this: Richard Powers on mixing fiction and fact, the prettification of Berlin, and trying to write fiction after dealing with German's hulking, immovable truth.
In an art world, the talent is one piece of the art-making process, but talent should not be privileged as the gravitational center. Creative goods such as music, art, or books do not mysteriously emerge from individual acts of artistic genius. They materialize from institutions, organizations, industrial field structures, and the everyday routines of people at work. A work of art is as much the product of a whole series of intermediaries and their shared norms, roles, meanings, and routines as it is the creation of an individual artist. In other words, mundane processes of production are important in shaping culture.
I've been reading Ashley Mears's Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, and half the time it seems to me she's writing about the publishing world. They are pretty similar, the lives of models and writers. There are a small handful of those who make it big, and eat up all of the attention and fame and money. There is a serious army of the aspiring and fledgling, who are underpaid and treated horribly simply because there are a thousand girls who would oh so gladly be underpaid and treated horribly, just for a little attention. Models and writers are both expected to be entrepreneurs, constantly working to improve their product (and more often than not, their personality, their image, their photos are part of the "whole package" one must present) without any support from their employers. And then there is the serious instability -- what makes you hot one season will make you passe in another, and your career is over before you have any idea that tastes had changed.
It's a fascinating read. The downside is that it makes me ache to watch Unzipped again (for, like, the 20th time, I love that movie), but I can't seem to find the fucking thing in Germany. I'll have to substitute by putting George Michael videos on repeat.
Nothing - nothing - inflames my heart like the literary prowess of the great nation of Canada. America's Northern pals (I believe they really enjoy being called that) have produced a substantial longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year.
The seventeen titles under the cut:
David Bezmozgis for The Free World
Clarke Blaise for The Meagre Tarmac
Lynn Coady for The Antagonist
Michael Christie for The Beggar's Garden
Patrick DeWitt for The Sisters Brothers
Reader's Choice: Myrna Dey for Extensions
Esi Edugyan for Half-Blood Blues
Marina Endicott for The Little Shadows
Zsuzsi Gartner for Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
Genni Gunn for Solitaria
Pauline Holdstock for Into the Heart of the Country
Wayne Johnston for A World Elsewhere
Dany Laferrière for The Return
Suzette Mayr for Monoceros
Michael Ondaatje for The Cat's Table
Guy Vanderhaeghe for A Good Man
Alexi Zentner for Touch
The Official Bookslut Booker Prize 2011 This Is Really Grinding My Tits Watch™ passes on this humdinger from Catherine Bennett at the Guardian:
If our book clubs were, as Rimington implies, routinely frustrated in their search for enjoyable material, by literary insiders who think nothing of tricking them into buying 560 pages of Wolf Hall, her saviour role would be easier to understand. As it is, the promotion of zippiness needs no support from a Booker prize which has, in any case, generally shown that readability vs literary merit is a mischievous dichotomy that condescends, funnily enough, to the very audience that Rimington aims to please. As one reader posted, on an Amazon discussion board: "Patronising cow."
September 09, 2011
Links that were blogged right next to each other at ArtsJournal, without irony:
Does Reading Fiction Make Us More Aggressive? (Article says yes.)
It's nice that you'll feel for the other person that you're beating the shit out of.
Jonah Goldberg would like you to know that Banned Book Week is just hype. It's liberals getting hysterical over nothing.
The people we love are sometimes douchebags. It's a thing. We deal with it, or we can't and we head out the door. Sometimes the writers we love are douchebags, although most of them seem able to keep it separated out from their work if they have any talent. But then you're Google searching them and you find out they were totally a Nazi during WWII and you have to decide whether you're going to fling their books out the window or not.
And I love Orson Scott Card, because I grew up heavily into SF and I have warm, geeky 14 year old memories of his Ender books. But Orson Scott Card is a douchebag, as every good geek with a conscience knows. (Question: is this kind of thing harder to reconcile with a living author, opposed to a dead author? I find that to be true for me. Maybe because there's still a chance for redemption and it's frustrating to watch them reject it, and also there's no possible explanation of "well, it was the times he lived in," whatever that might mean.) And in his new book Hamlet's Father he lays down his totally homophobic world view:
Old King Hamlet was an inadequate king because he was gay, an evil person because he was gay, and, ultimately, a demonic and ghostly father of lies who convinces young Hamlet to exact imaginary revenge on innocent people. The old king was actually murdered by Horatio, in revenge for molesting him as a young boy—along with Laertes, and Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, thereby turning all of them gay. We learn that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are now "as fusty and peculiar as an old married couple. I pity the woman who tries to wed her way into that house."
Again, it's nothing new. Dude has been making speeches and writing editorials and saying reprehensible bullshit for years now. So, do the books stay on the shelf? Do you pass along the still excellent Ender's Game on to your nephew to read? I honestly have no idea.
September 08, 2011
Here is one of the several reviews of Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, and it's pretty representative. As in, the reviewer has picked a side on whether or not Chanel really did spy for the Nazis and whether her affair with a German officer makes her a horrible person. I can't help but feel it's a little more complicated than that, but I have perhaps spent too much time reading, thinking, and writing about this. (I still prefer Linda Simon's version of Chanel's life.)
But then here I am, taking sides myself. I still believe in nuance, and I still believe in critics doing their research on nonfiction topics. For more about the tricky Occupied Paris, sleeping with Germans, artistic geniuses who behave badly, Alan Riding's And the Show Went On is a good place to start.
“The Internet is the highway of humiliation,” Koestenbaum writes. “Its purpose is to humiliate time, to turn information (and the pursuit of information) into humiliation.” This seems overstated, but true. The thought of Google owning everyone’s search histories is deeply unsettling.
I haven't been humiliated by the Internet yet today, but the day is young.
September 07, 2011
It's Booker Prize shortlist time, and here at Bookslut we have the answers to all of your burning Booker Prize questions. Which nominated author described the award as "posh bingo"? This badass motherfucker right here. Why is it called the Man Booker, man? The sponsors are the Man Group, who manufacture the tools of the patriarchy, or "alternative investment management" as they call it. Which book has the best cover? This one (most of the really terrible covers were left behind on the longlist, better luck next time Jane Rogers). Who is already pissy about it? Philip Hensher, and we at the Bookslut Petty Literary Vendettas Dept. will be keeping a watch on anyone else who gives the list so much as a subtle side-eye.
The listed books:
Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending
Carol Birch - Jamrach’s Menagerie
Patrick deWitt - The Sisters Brothers
Esi Edugyan - Half Blood Blues
Stephen Kelman - Pigeon English
A.D. Miller - Snowdrops
For your reading pleasure: Can Xue's short story, "Red Leaves."
Anna Funder's award-winning and critical success and truly good and moving book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall is only now, inexplicably, seeing an American release. (It was published in the UK in 2004.)
Now the Australian writer has another book about Germany coming out, All That I Am, and luckily we won't have a 7-year lag to wait to read it. It's scheduled for an early 2012 release. She talks about why the fascination with German history at the Sydney Morning Herald.
I think of it also kind of painterly. Frida Kahlo is a great example. You could say that she's painting endless self-portraits, but she's not. None of those are her. They're fictionalized versions of herself, and she can put herself in a million different situations and transform her body and do things that are impossible in the physical world.
You can also read an excerpt from the novel at Kirkus.
I associate Elizabeth Bowen strongly with London -- mostly for The Heat of the Day, one of my favorite novels, and set during the Blitz -- but she was of course Irish and had strongly ambivalent feelings about Ireland. Patricia Craig discusses Bowen's Irish writings, mostly nonfiction, and her relationship to her homeland.
At first I thought I was reading an interesting little piece about GK Chesterton, who half-invented a game called Gype with HG Wells. They invented how it was supposed to be set up, but never how it was actually supposed to be played:
“It was we who invented the well-known and widespread national game of Gype. All sorts of variations and complications were invented in connection with Gype. There was Land Gype and Water Gype. I myself cut out and colored pieces of cardboard of mysterious and significant shapes, the instruments of Table Gype, a game for the little ones. It was even duly settled what disease threatened the over-assiduous player; he tended to suffer from Gype’s Ear. … Everything was in order and going forward, except the game itself, which has not yet been invented.”
And someone came up with the other half, and turned it into a game you can actually play. It turns out that "someone," though, is, well. The publishers of something called The Way of the Christian Samurai: Reflections for Servant-Warriors of Christ with its ultra phallic cover. (He is risen, indeed.) (I am going to hell.) The publisher's mission is to "arm Christians" in a holy war and GOD all I wanted to do was play a daffy GK Chesterton HG Wells game, not get sucked into a fucking crusade.
Can I shoplift it? Or will they still benefit somehow from my criminal act? I'm getting some construction paper and making my own Gype.
September 06, 2011
It is important to learn one new thing every day. For today:
The idea that Moses, and by extension all Jews, had horns comes from Exodus 34:30-31. Moses, who has just spent forty days and forty nights in god's presence, is described as having a fiery radiance about him: "and look, the skin of his face glowed." Here the word for "glow" is qaran, which occurs only at this point in the Hebrew Bible. The Greek and Latin translations substituted the word qeren, meaning "horns." See Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, page 512, footnote 9. - From Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination by Grace Dan Mazur
The 9/11 Commission Report is a bloated, condescending, piece-of shit doorstop. God willing, future historians will regard this fetid bilge-tank of doublespeak as symptomatic of the decline of one society, presaging the need, and rise, of another. For now, it is accepted “history,” a narrative that must be addressed on its own terms. Those terms are best defined in negative space, looking to what’s denied, rather than admitted. The Report is the civic equivalent of a mall-kiosk hidden-image poster.
You maybe wanted to avoid all look backs at 9/11. Too bad, for this one you'll have to make an exception.
And speaking of Chapati Mystery, Manan Ahmed, the man behind CM, has a new book out of selections and essays from said blog. It's called Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, and it gets loved up by Jacob Silverman over at the National.
Linda Simon has managed to write books about two of my obsessions, Coco Chanel and William James. It wasn't much of a surprise that of the (many, many) books released or about to be released about Coco Chanel, Simon's was the most reasonable about the (many, many) scandalous parts of Chanel's life. Over at Kirkus, I talk to Simon about her new Chanel book, why we're still fascinated with her sex life, and what connects Chanel to James.
As a biographer, I’m interested in subjects who defied expectations about their lives. Coming from her background, Chanel should have been a shop girl, a chanteuse in some local club or the wife of a tradesman. Instead, she invented a life that others dreamed about, and, through force of will and, of course, her own talents, transformed herself into a legend. James, too, could have sunk into a life of depression and neurasthenia. But he, too, was hungry for recognition and the kind of respect afforded the great thinkers of his time.
I see them connected by the force of their desire. But as subjects, also, I’m interested in how their culture gravitated to them, how they met some needs for those who adored them and allowed them to shine. Whatever the strength of their will, we would not remember them if others did not respond with such enormous adulation.
Updated to add: We're giving away copies of Linda Simon's Coco Chanel here.
Did you enjoy that? I mean the months of time you got to spend without 600 page novels -- sorry, Fall Blockbusters of Literary Magnitude! -- dropping on your head. From here on out, you're not going to be able to avoid all those pages, filled with such important matters, that will only actually matter for about two weeks before next one is deemed so much more important.
Excuse me, I have a Booker Shortlist shrieking at me in my inbox.
Where were we? Oh yes. Despite the attack of the very big books, we are still carrying on over here at Bookslut, and we have a new issue for you for your September. I would call it Super Sized for the Fall Books Season but then I would have to hate myself forever.
Zelda Fitzgerald and Jan Morris both make two appearances in this issue: Zelda in Elizabeth Bachner's take on Scandalous Women as well as making a curtsy cameo in Star-Crossed, and Morris's Hav is reviewed and her career as a historian and travel writer is overviewed. Kathleen Reeves takes on the former Great Jones Street of Don DeLillo and of current Manhattan Au Bon Painization. Our own Mairead Case writes about girl crushes, women who sing like doors, Karen Dalton and dead idols in a wonderful essay. And we have interviews with Matt Fraction, Jessica Hagedorn, and more.
In reviews and columns, we have Lightsey Darst who is sick of being a diligent reader, Jaya Chatterjee listening to the talk of Mistresses, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore discussing the not-coming-out gay novel, and Mystic Myna finds comfort in the essays of Borges. And Jesus, even more.
September 05, 2011
The splendidly named Vodafone Crossword Book Awards (if a Crossword is a type of phone, I really want one. Does it do the anagrams for you?) have been announced. The awards celebrate excellence in Indian writing, and this year two novels jointly won the fiction category, Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph and Jimmy The Terrorist by Omair Ahmad. The non-fiction award was presented to VS Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human.
The Guardian First Book Award, which boasts a pretty impressive track record, has nominated ten debut titles for the 2011 longlist. Six novels, one book of poetry, and three works of non-fiction make up the contenders for the £10,000 prize.
Full list beneath the cut:
The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock
The Possessedby Elif Batuman
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed
The Submission by Amy Waldman
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
Chavs by Owen Jones
September 01, 2011
Over at the Smart Set, I write about being a female creator, facing up against a very male canon. Overlooked and underappreciated women artists like Mina Loy, Leonor Fini, Lee Krasner, and Ana Mendieta abound.
There is outright sexism in the arts, and then there is that hidden, sneaky, unconscious sexism that squirms when you try to pin it in place. When Lee Krasner was in art school in 1929, the outright sexism was easiest to identify and also protest against. Under the heading of obvious sexism was the National Academy of Design’s rule that women were not allowed to paint fish. Fish were kept in the basement, where they would rot more slowly in the cooler temperatures and not stink up the studios, and women were not allowed in the basement. When Krasner unveiled her still life with fish, the administration suspended her for “painting figures without permission.” Who has ever really needed to paint a fish before they were told they were not allowed?
And speaking of Mina Loy, I talk to Modernist scholar Sara Crangle at Kirkus about her place outside the canon and why she's best known as the overlooked Modernist. And if you're interested in the (beautiful, wonderful, really surprising) Stories and Essays of Mina Loy, we're giving away copies here.
When I was seventy-eight I discovered that my wife had been betraying me with another man for fifty-four years, so I went to St. Margaret's Bridge and took a lovely header into the river, thereby winning the diving championship of the Metropolitan Athletic Club. Subsequently, I established a record in underwater swimming, for I stayed under water for two and a half days, whereas my nearest rival, Kankovsky, could only bear it for two minutes and nineteen and a half seconds.
50 Watts has a lovely short, short story by Frigyes Karinthy. Read the whole thing over there.