November 30, 2011
Chatting today with Caroline Eick, former Bookslut managing editor:
Caroline: i am probably not the first person to tell you this
i am reading the marriage plot
and there is a character
who is really just mentioned in passing
her name is jenny crispin
Caroline: i don't know
that just seems
me: what the hell
is she evil?
she's just some chick who is at a party
me: huh. you are the first person to tell me this.
she's at a party
grinding on another chick
and getting high
me: AS IN LIFE, SO IN FICTION
Caroline: oh, for sure
i figured you already knew!
me: this just proves that my two friends who reviewed this book did not even read it.
When the truth seems to be out there, our best bet for surviving would appear to be not to let a pin drop while circling our wagons. They might be peaceable seekers after companionship in the universe, but they might not be, and far safer to overestimate ETs’ aggressive tendencies than risk inviting Wellsian Martians or Wyndham’s triffids to do their worst. We are star stuff, and if star stuff is anything like us, it would be wise to reason, we should be very wary indeed.
"And he divorced her, in the name of the German people."
In this video, Martina Keun-Geburtig talks a little about the life of her mother, the remarkable WWII-era writer Irmgard Keun.
Sometimes you just want to go to the goddamned grocery store, you don't want to get a message from God. Especially since the conduit for such messages are generally schizophrenics. But I am for whatever reason forever getting messages from God from people on the street, people in grocery stores, from preachers at storefront churches, and waiting at the subway.
I was coming from a massage when I got a big one, a man excitedly jabbering to me in very quick German:
I interrupted to ask him to slow down or switch to English, although really, I wasn’t listening so much as looking to see if I could get to the exit fast enough in case he pulled a knife. The man looked perfectly normal, able to dress himself and carrying a bag full of groceries and not, say, a bag full of moldy stuffed animals. But still, the situation was alarming. He picked up in English where he left off in German, repeating “You are she, you are she…unheimlich, you could be twins,” and something about Wagner. Then the train arrived and he jumped on with that final salvo, half message from God and half opening line to an awkwardly plotted fantasy quest, with a commoner unexpectedly finding herself heir to a throne.
“Find Madame Wagner, and you will find yourself.”
I did find Cosima Wagner, who I do indeed look like an awful lot, and reading about her was one of those icky experiences, where you see someone else displaying your darkest traits and you want to turn away but cannot. Cosima was kind of crazy. After reading her biography, and a couple books about her father Franz Liszt, I started to feel a defensive affinity for her. She's the subject of my latest Smart Set column.
November 29, 2011
Gertrude Stein had a routine of driving into the French countryside with her beloved partner to view cows. The American writer, poet and art collector needed to gaze upon one – the right kind of one, reportedly – in order to feel calm and happy. She would get out of the car, set up a camp stool, paper and pencil in hand, hoping for inspiration to write, while Alice Toklas took a switch to a cow to coax her into the author’s line of vision.
Norman Davies explains why the end of your world is not necessarily the end of the world, and talks about his new book Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations. (I have to admit, Vanished Kingdoms to me looks like 800 pages of pure pleasure.)
Green Girl is ambitious in a way few works of fiction are, and it’s certainly more ambitious than the kind of fiction Zambreno is taking on: the single-girl-seeking-not-sure-what-exactly novel that has been pigeonholed as “chick lit” at least since Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, which Green Girl draws from (its cosmopolitan London setting) and pitches against (its implied self-definition through romance).
Over at Kirkus, I catch up with Dubravka Ugresic and talk about her new collection of essays Karaoke Culture. In her introduction she defines this Karaoke Culture as a wild display of the ego, of the way our intense fandom and pop culture overload keeps us looking for a new, shinier, happier reality, located somewhere online or out there, vaguely. And this can be expressed either in cosplay and online avatars or in our tendency to tolerate totalitarian nationalism. The conversation encompasses Twilight, Putin, Bulgarian Idol, The Hague war criminals, and a Hemingway lookalike contest, and you can read it at the Kirkus site.
Popular culture and cultural populism work two ways. Popular culture is a carrier of “old truths,” myth-like structures, and in this respect it’s always retrograde. But it’s also highly topical, engaged and relevant, because it works as a mirror. It reflects the obsessions, fears, dilemmas and frustrations of many people, transforming them into a pleasure zone, into our contemporary myths, into screens for our projections. Today’s popular culture boasts tremendous power because its consumers are no longer passive: thanks to technology, s/he is an inter/active participant. Technology gives the consumer a strong sense of communality and the power to change things. Whether it’s just a psychological trap, whether one really can change things or not, that’s another question.
November 28, 2011
I was talking to a friend who was studying William James, and I asked him what made him decide to devote himself to this particular writer. "William James turned me into an optimist." It is a common effect of reading James's writing, and yet how many authors will you read in your lifetime who can thoroughly change your worldview? (For the record, that is why I read him constantly. He turned me into an optimist.)
So while I might recoil from efforts at turning certain books into a form of self-help (Jane Austen, anyone?) I'm open to Megan Mustain's new book, Overcoming Cynicism: William James and the Metaphysics of Engagement. It gets a positive review over here. But well reviewed or not, I look for any excuse I can to spend some time in his company.
The biologist and author of Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution Lynn Margulis has died. She was 73. John Horgan, blogging for Scientific American, has posted his profile of Margulis, originally printed in his book The End of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age. He explains what made her a unique figure:
Lynn Margulis was among the most creative challengers of mainstream Darwinian thinking of the late 20th century. She challenged what she called “ultra-Darwinian orthodoxy” with several ideas. The first, and most successful, is the concept of symbiosis. Darwin and his heirs had always emphasized the role that competition between individuals and species played in evolution. In the 1960′s, however, Margulis began arguing that symbiosis had been an equally important factor–and perhaps more important–in the evolution of life.
(Are we liking the giveaways? It seems like a slightly strange thing for us to do, but more books for everyone. And given that at the series I've been able to talk with some of my favorite writers, including Tulli, whose Moving Parts I wished had gotten more attention when it was released, it seemed natural to want to spread the books far and wide. I just turned in this week's Q&A, with a writer I've carried on an admiring acquaintance for years, and whose new book is tremendous. So I hope you're liking the series, too.)
November 23, 2011
American science fiction author Anne McCaffrey, who created the hugely popular Pern series of books about the symbiotic relationship between humans and dragons, died at home in Ireland on Monday, aged 85.
November 22, 2011
Speaking of conspiracy theories! It's always good when a sharp mind finds her way in the New York Times Book Review. Rebecca Goldstein, whose book Betraying Spinoza I can never say enough good things about, writes about Umberto Eco's new book, The Prague Cemetery. The novel is based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Goldstein divides out the fiction from the fact. Also, Eco is interviewed at Tablet.
Okay, first maybe watch this video with a tiny owl getting his head scratched.
Then you might feel up to reading this extensive interview with a conspiracy theorist. I don't know why I got so sucked into reading it. I'm on a bit of a history kick, reading Tony Judt's massive Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and Jennifer Homan's Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet, after finishing up two biographies of Franz Liszt. And what really happened in the world seems fascinating and magical and confusing enough without having to throw in sacred bloodlines and secret societies and so on. Nothing against secret societies! I love cryptic symbols and hooded robes as much as the next guy. But reading an extensive debunking of the idea that there was a cult of wise old men with white beards called the Druids is more interesting to me than believing there was a cult of wise old men with white beards called the Druids.
But when we get into conversations about why people feel the need to disbelieve in science, which seems to be a running theme of the Republican debates so far, it might help to see why people look at the absolute chaos of the 20th century and see a tidy reason for everything. So meet Susan Maureen Brandt. She writes a whole lot about royal bloodlines and secret societies and things about President Obama that I am not entirely sure I understand. She makes for an interesting study.
"I started to figure out why I'd never been attracted to reading about history. It was just this muddy mess of dishonesty and sly bravado that I'd never put up with in a person, so why put up with it in a writer? But I still had no idea why it was such a big deal to write books for the purpose of hiding something, and what they were hiding, and why they had this attitude of bragging and winking at the same time. It was perplexing. I couldn't believe what I was finding, by authors with credentials, and in books I'd always thought sat on a book shelf with authority."
American author Lenore Hart has rejected accusations of plagiarism on Facebook, after allegations she used material from a 55-year-old book by Cothburn O'Neal in writing her fictionalised life of Edgar Allan Poe's cousin and wife, The Raven's Bride.
Over at Kirkus, I talk to Magdalena Tulli, author of the fantastical In Red, about translating Polish literature, using magical imagery to tell a story of Central European history, and humanizing those who have been dehumanized by politics and violence.
Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings. Simply take a seat in a sleigh and, before being overcome by sleep, speed across a plain that's as empty as a blank sheet of paper, boundless as life itself. Sooner or later this someone — perhaps it is a traveling salesman with a valise full of samples — will see great mounds of snow stretching along streets to the four corners of the earth, toward empty, icy expanses. He'll see pillars made of icicles, their snowy caps lost in the dark of a wintry sky. He'll draw into his lungs air as sharp as a razor that cuts feeling away from breath. He'll come to appreciate the benefits of a climate forever unencumbered by restless springtime breezes, by the indolence of summer swelter, or the misty sorrows of autumn. He'll take a liking to frost, which conserves feelings and capital, protecting both from the corruption of decay.
November 21, 2011
So not only does Seagull publish crazily wonderful books, like Enzensberger's The Silences of Hammerstein and Ingeborg Bachmann's War Diary and the correspondence between Picasso and Stein, their books are beautifully designed with collages by Sunandini Banerjee. (I have two of her collages on my wall, actually.) (I spent the day writing about John Spurling's kind of delightful A Book of Liszts, a refreshing experiment in biography/personal essay. I picked it up originally because of the cover.)
Over here we have an interview with Banerjee, who talks about working for Seagull Books and her accidental artistic career. There's an online exhibition of her work at Seagull Books India website. And over here, we have my friend Katy Derbyshire, brilliant German translator, talking about how rare a publisher like Seagull Books actually is.
Courtesy of the HP Lovecraft podcast series, you can listen to J.P. Moore read "Winged Death" to you.
Leah Triplett has a wonderful essay on the collaboration between artist, photographer, war correspondent, fashion model Lee Miller and photographer Man Ray. It's a fascinating story.
When World War II erupted, Miller forced her way into a position as a correspondent for the British Vogue—the very magazine that ruthlessly objectified her in her youth now provided her a platform to decry tyranny against individuality. One of the very first female war correspondents, Miller was among the first people to enter Dachau after its liberation. Briefly thereafter, while exploring Eva Braun’s Munich apartment, Miller conceded to model for Life photographer Dave Scherman in his infamous picture of her scrubbing the dirt from the experience off herself in Hitler’s bathtub. Throughout the war, Miller photographed destruction and death with profound candor. Miller’s fear of being vulnerable permeates her wartime photojournalism; perhaps the best example is Miller’s 1945 photograph of a Nazi’s teenaged daughter, found soon after she committed suicide with her family. Reclined on an enormous leather couch, the girl’s arms are almost poised in a position of surrender, only her armband betraying any political affiliation. Miller photographed her with soft empathy for the girl’s forfeiture of her individuality and life.
This collaboration is the subject of a new show at the Massachusetts Peabody Essex Museum and a new book, Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism.
November 18, 2011
Yoani Sánchez, dissident Cuban blogger and author of Havana Real, writes about how life has changed under a sickly Fidel Castro for Foreign Policy. One unexpected bonus: fewer interruptions during favorite television shows for rantings and ravings of a dictator.
Fairy tales are having a big pop-culture fall, at least on TV, with the new shows "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time." This has prompted some TV critics to ask penetrating questions:
So what does the current fairy tale revival represent? That dramatists are out of original ideas? That audiences are too lazy to accept more complex ideas? Or that fairy-tale tropes and devices are durable and still relevant?
If the great Angela Carter were still around, she'd have something to say about how fairy tales remain relevant. So I'm glad to see there's finally going to be a biography of Carter. The book's scheduled to appear next year, 20 years after her death. Except it's not really going to be a biography but a "portrait" by a long-time friend. I'm taking a wait-and-see approach. In the meantime, please go read the stories in The Bloody Chamber if you haven't already.
A Card from Angela Carter (Bloomsbury, h/b, £10) has been written by Observer theatre critic Susannah Clapp, who was Carter's literary executor and a friend of many years standing. The book will be a portrait of Carter loosely structured around the occasional postcards she sent to Clapp over the years.
Bookslut contributors have been very busy elsewhere:
Our beloved YA columnist Colleen Mondor, who has been writing for us for over seven years now, has a new memoir out, and we are exceptionally proud. It's called The Map of My Dead Pilots. It's been getting good reviews, including a starred review at Booklist. You can read more about it here.
And Jesse Tangen-Mills has a piece at Guernica, about Mark Twain's false deaths and the poet Rubén Darío, who eulogized Twain thusly (when he finally did really die): “And there was hardly time today to speak of the gringo glory that has disappeared: Mark Twain.”
November 17, 2011
According to this report, Egypt's longest-running litmag may have to shut down:
The literary magazine Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism) is facing a serious financial crisis and may have to close after 27 years.
An important part of the Egyptian literary scene for decades and one of the most lasting contributions of the Tagammu (Unionist) Party, the monthly magazine was founded in 1984.
Managing editor Helmi Salim has said the November issue will not be issued, which will be the first time the magazine has not been published for 27 years, despite serious challenges and oppression during the Mubarak era.
(Also, oh!, he has wonderful Lego characters for Secret Society Members like the Freemason and the Reptilian Illuminati over at his blog.)
Generally, trying to make small talk about books or my job in Germany is a little hopeless. If I mention a German writer I read in translation, it's a super obvious choice. My surprised enthusiasm for Irmgard Keun is often met with "Yeah, so?" -- she's a big deal over here, never really fell off the reading lists. It's like saying, "Oh my god, have you heard of this chick Edith Wharton? She's amazing!" And when I try to talk about American writers, most of them that I read have not been translated into German, so they've never heard of them. Trying to find American common ground usually leads to David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, and I left the country to try to avoid having conversations about Jonathan Franzen, thank you very much.
But then, doing a little small talk in Munich, having already discussed capitalism and nonviolent protest, chatter switched to books, and he started telling me about a book he had recently finished and loved. "It's a travel book, a Dutch journalist went all over Europe ten years ago and..."
I got really excited. "Oh my god, Geert Mak!"
Me: "I loved that book!"
Him: "Me too!"
Me: "I couldn't stop reading it!"
Him: "Me too!"
Etc. In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century has the power to cross cultural divides. (Plus, it's just a really great book. One of those books that made me rethink what travel literature could do.)
An author we interviewed back in May, Lenore Hart, has been drawn into this massive plagiarism case. Many passages from her book The Raven's Bride match up to a book from a 1956 novel by Cothburn O'Neal called The Very Young Mrs. Poe. Coincidentally, she (Hart) had a lot of not so complimentary things to say about Mrs. Poe in our interview. Which I guess is as good a tactic as any. Anyway, I don't really need to say anything new about this, Jeremy Duns has the documentation here, as well as excerpts from Hart's denial and defense.
I am reading a lot of commentary on the case that sparked this, The Assassin of Secrets. (No matter how many times I type that title, it never gets any less horrible.) I keep wanting some big scheme, some masterful experiment, some genius mechanism behind the text that is so extensively plagiarized it looks like a patchwork. I'm not the only one -- there are a lot of writers who keep trying to explain this as something more than it probably is, a dude who fucked up and then covered that up by fucking up so much more.
But however many of these cases are revealed -- and it's telling that both writers are, or were supposed to be, machines of productivity, spilling out book after book in quick succession for various series -- it'll be disappointing never to receive an explanation that will satisfy. "I fucked up," might be honest but it's so disappointing to hear.
November 16, 2011
Have you read The Orange Eats Creeps? You might want to consider it. Anyhoo, the publishers behind that book, and many other good books like it, have moved to Ohio, and so indie Two Dollar Radio is profiled in the Columbus Dispatch. They explain the name, which I have wondered about:
The name for the business came from a drunk at a bar where Obenauf was working who made the remark: “Don’t mind me; I make more noise than a $2 radio.”
Get ready for your DVD extras for this week's Kirkus Reviews Q&A with Susan Hertog, the author of Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson. They still have DVDs, right? They're not made obsolete by the new service that streams the movies live in your brain? I am so behind. Anyway, sometimes my conversations with the writers go a little long, and I want to cram everything in there, despite my editor's limited patience. Hertog and I were discussing the difference between male ambition and female ambition, whether it's possible for someone to "fail as a woman," and the literary legacies left behind these amazing writers. So yeah, of course it went a little long.
(Updated to add: we're giving away copies of Dangerous Ambition here.)
Here's what got cut from the interview that ran on Kirkus:
You say at one point that both West and Thompson failed at being women, and certainly their reputations as writers today seem to be clouded by the scandal and gossip of angry sons, abusive lovers and husbands. The husbands, Sinclair Lewis and HG Wells often get to maintain their literary reputation without such frippery. Do you think West and Thompson have been undervalued as writers? And what of their work do you think still holds up?
Thompson's literary legacy has faded, while West's literary achievements have endured. But Thompson knew she was a journalist, whose work, by definition, was not meant to endure. That's why she kept on marrying men whom she deemed creative geniuses -- three in all. Yet, I believe she sold herself short. She was a great journalist of relentless courage with a strong moral core, read and listened to by thousands of readers and radio listeners, with national and international reach. She was a staunch advocate of American intervention in WWII who truly influenced the course of the war.
West's writing, especially Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, has prevailed, not only because of her magnificent prose and capacity for human observation, but because she could assimilate and articulate biographical, historical, and cultural ideas and facts, and wrap them in a driving narrative that reads like a novel. I think they are both underrated, but not because they are women.
Thompson's letters to Sinclair Lewis explaining why she has to go out traveling again I found very stirring. (I write this from Slovenia.) Can you talk a bit about the role of travel in both women's lives and careers?
Thompson's letter to Lewis upon his leaving was a tour de force. The hallmark of her life, as a fundamentalist preacher's daughter, was to tell the truth as she saw it. While she told him that she always had and would love him, she told him that in the face of his incorrigible alcoholism and emotional abuse, her own survival depended on pursuing her career, and earning enough money to support herself and their son. Poignantly, Thompson made it clear that Lewis was a true genius, whose novels would endure, while she was a mere journalist whose writing was ephemeral. West's and Thompson's desire to travel was only partly due to the fulfillment of their ambitions. Travel was their means of self preservation. They understood that there were no solutions to their husbands' destructive impulses, they had to get away from home in order to save reputations, and preserve at least a veneer of respectability.
Robert Louis Stevenson, one of my favorite writers, didn't hide how much he borrowed from other writers for Treasure Island. As John Sunderland writes in the TLS,
Stevenson insists that, as originally conceived, the story was designed solely for his domestic audience. If so it would explain his cheerful plundering of so many other writers’ material in Treasure Island’s early chapters. “Plagiarism”, he candidly confides in “My First Book”, “was rarely carried farther.” The opening (Billy Bones’s arrival at the Admiral Benbow inn) was lifted, Stevenson confides, from Washington’s Irving’s Wolfert Webber. The juvenile hero (Jim Hawkins) is a conscious nod towards W. H. G. Kingston’s Peter the Whaler. The desert island – and its marooned inhabitant, Ben Gunn – is borrowed from “brave Ballantyne” and The Coral Island. The buried treasure and the map were taken (again) from Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveller. Silver’s parrot is taken from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The siege at the stockade on Treasure Island is, Stevenson acknowledges, a loan from Captain Marryat’s Masterman Ready. The grisly skeleton signpost, and coded instructions, to where the treasure is buried are taken from Poe’s “The Gold Bug”. Stevenson is engagingly frank about these borrowings.
But was Stevenson entirely frank about his "cheerful plunderings"? Sunderland explores a long-overlooked accusation, made after RLS's death, that the writer took a large part of his own pirate tale from yet another source, Charles E. Pearce's serial Billy Bo'swain.
The outline of the two plots is indisputably similar. A young hero, a map, treasure buried on a tropical desert island: these elements overlap. So too do details: the young heroes’ hiding in casks (although Stevenson later claimed the idea came from his father); the similarity in nomenclature – Billy Bo’swain and Billy Bones, Ben Bowline and (on the first page) Admiral Benbow; the enigmatic map. No one reading the scene in which Pearce’s Billy eavesdrops on the mutineers laying their plans will not think of Stevenson’s Jim doing the same.
November 15, 2011
I give and I give....Out just in time for the holidays, a book for the pathological altruist on your gift list. Over at the Independent, one of the book's co-editors, Barbara Oakley, asks if we're killing people with kindness.
I found out the news about Occupy Wall Street from that annoying news slideshow on the Munich subway train today. Today I had read in Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945:
If the democracies were to recover, the "condition of the people" question must be addressed. In the words of Thomas Carlyle, a hundred years earlier, "If something be not done, something will do itself one day, and in a fashion that will please nobody."
Buy a book online, save a threatened indie somewhere: It's the 15th of the month, which means it's Save the Bookstore Day. Today's cause is the RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., which has to raise some money to find a new space and stay in business. At Beyond the Margins, writer Nicole Bernier explains the idea behind #SaveTheBookstore:
I’ve been thinking about ways Twitter and Facebook could be harnessed to help troubled stores. What if people could be urged to buy one book a month from a bookstore identified as being in imminent trouble? We don’t want to pirate from purchases that would be made at folks’ own local indies. But well, don’t the people who read this blog probably buy more than one book a month, and books as gifts? What if on the 15th of the month, we bought a book from that store, long-distance, and urged others to do it, too?
Many links this morning to a Tumblr called Cats Hate Reading. Looks more to me like Cats Love Lying on Books.
Formerly known as the Chicago Underground Library, Read/Write rejects the selectivity of traditional libraries and collects “anything from university press to handmade artists’ books to zines made by 13-year-olds,” Ms. Taylor said. “We want to give people a much broader sense of who’s out there.”
A divinely acid Emma Garman explains bestselling author Jordan to Americans.
Unlike some celebrity authors, though, Katie makes no bones about her lack of participation in the writing process, cheerfully pointing out that she doesn’t have time “to sit down and type” and reminding people “I’ve never lied about the fact that I don’t physically write my books”—as though literary production were merely low-skilled manual labor, like seamstressing or sticking plastic doll parts together, that she’s outsourcing. And on being told that the only woman author who outsells her in Britain is JK Rowling, Katie chillingly predicted how that would change once she too had a movie franchise.
November 14, 2011
This Guardian/Observer interview with Gloria Steinem spends way too much time talking about her looks, past and present.
At 77, she remains tiny of waist and big of hair--and, yes, the nails are as smooth and as shiny as a credit card--but what strikes you most, at least at first, is how preoccupied she seems. She is so busy.
If you can wade through a lot of fluff, including details on what the interviewer was given to drink while visiting Steinem's flat in New York, there are a few nuggets about feminism, writing, marriage, tap dancing, and what Steinem thinks of President Obama.
We are not living in political times. This is not a time where you can make a speech to 10,000 people out in the street as you could in the Sixties. Everything that’s happening in Washington, the horrors that have occurred, they wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t at one, in some terrible subterranean way, with the times. Obama is always being compared with FDR and the Great Depression, but when Roosevelt opened his mouth and suggested this reform and that reform, the whole country was behind him and people cheered in the streets. Obama—who is indeed a frighteningly disappointing president—nevertheless is made weaker by the fact that he doesn’t have the country behind him. We need to know how many Emma Goldmans there are today whose voices are being drowned out rather than being followed.
In the new issue of Bookslut, Jenny McPhee takes a look at the charming life of Rosamond Bernier. Her memoir, Some of My Lives, is a decadent treat, half envy-bait and half swoony exaltation. She was one of those people who met everyone, was always at the right place at the right time, and always wearing the most perfect thing. And someone was always there to document it.
Over at the FSG Work in Progress blog, they have pictures from Bernier's extensive archive. Appearances by Hockney, Picasso, Avendon, and Andy Warhol and a tiny dog.
Barbara Grier, a founder of what once was the world's largest publishing house of literature about gays and lesbians, [Naiad Press] has died. She was 78.
November 11, 2011
I packed very badly for my trip. Starting with Irmgard Keun's Child of All Nations, which is probably best enjoyed from the comforts of bed, as it is about a poor family with a ne'er do well father as they move from country to country, trying not to get thrown out of hotels or starve to death. Not so great read on trains, when you're not entirely sure where you're going to be staying once you arrive.
Susan Hertog's Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson, a biography of two relentlessly international women who documented Europe's inter-war period. But it was swiftly finished.
That left Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night for the next train, but it was nowhere near weird enough for the strange feeling of staring out over the Alps. This morning I went to find a way to replenish my stock of English language books in Slovenia, and was happy to find ETA Hoffmann to balance out the weirdness and displacement, and Tony Judt to help me get my bearings. There is something charmingly serendipitous about the English books you find in strange countries. The selection is always small, but that makes finding a clever match to your mood seem not like a small bit of luck but something like fate.
I mean, you heard about this of course, right? The story of the German publisher owned by the Roman Catholic Church that has a backlist of titles going back ten years of pornography, Satanism, magic and the occult.
A book publishing journal, Buchreport (Book Report) revealed in mid-October that the company was offering an array of erotic prose, including titles like Call Me Slut!, Boarding School for Sluts (Schlampeninternat) or A Lawyer's Whore (the titles were translated from German by The Christian Post and might not correspond with potential English editions). The covers of these books could easily be described as lewd, as they feature scantily clad women and provocative graphics.
The story was breaking as I was leaving Berlin, so I am behind on the fake outrage. But how much fun must it have been for all the newspapers to come up with their own English translations of the titles. Google Translate must have been shooting off sparks that week.
In honor of Veterans Day/Remembrance Day, Mark Chasar over at the Poetry & Popular Culture blog takes a look at the cultural history of John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" ("In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row..."):
We here at the P&PC Home Office like to call it the four hundred million dollar poem—and not just because its first stanza appears on the back of the Canadian $10 bank note, a fact that, all by itself, may very well make "In Flanders Fields" the most reprinted and most widely circulated poem, like, ever.
No, we call John McCRae's World War I-era verse the four hundred million dollar poem because, shortly after it appeared in the December 8, 1915 issue of Punch magazine, the Canadian government made it the central piece of its p.r. campaign advertising the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds....According to Canadian Veterans Affairs, the campaign was designed to raise $150,000,000 but ended up netting—wait for it—over $400,000,000.
Chasar goes on to discuss the story of the poem's origin, how it's been paired with different artists' illustrations, Paul Fussell's dissection of its literary merits, and the fact that there's even a museum in Ypres, Belgium, devoted to it.
I don't care what Paul Fussell thinks of "In Flanders Fields." Those larks still bravely singing get me every time.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly.
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
"It takes a special kind of person to demand a new gender-free singular pronoun and end up on 'bitches'."
T-Rex is trying to find a new gender-free singular pronoun. The story starts here, you'll want to follow it through.
November 10, 2011
So when they say this "book cover of the future" interacts with the reader, what they mean is "makes swirly water patterns when you drag your cursor over it."
The James family tree had one magnificent branch. First there was William, a philosopher who in the late 19th century created psychology as a new field of study. Next came his brother Henry, who became one of America's greatest novelists and created such classic works as Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove and The Portrait of a Lady. Then there was Alice. The mopey, sickly, completely forgettable Alice.
I know from my own experience how dangerous that thoughtless contempt is, that easy dismissal of the rest of the world, the majority of mankind, as unenlightened, unredeemed. He will learn painfully, as I have, that sublimities -- which I do indeed believe to be the true realities -- are hard to keep hold of amid the dark, smoky seeming realities of this world.
November 9, 2011
"The territory, alas, turned out to be all too familiar": The Guardian has an admirably thorough rundown of the Q.R. Markham/Assassins of Secrets plagiarism scandal. Now maybe someone will write an original novel that explains why a writer would try to perpetrate such a massive fraud in the first place. Meanwhile, a novelist who blurbed Markham's book is understandably not too happy about the turn events have taken:
The whole affair leaves me feeling embarrassed, puzzled, and more than a little angry. Why?
Because I blurbed the fucking thing.
I blurbed it because I was given an early peek at the manuscript, and I liked it very much. I thought it fused modern Bourne-esque spy action with a classic, old-school feel. Only, I had no idea how "old school" the novel truly was.
Eighteen weeks of five interviews a day would get me through my friend list, I calculated. Friends from high school and college and grad school. Friends of friends. Editors. Siblings and a couple of cousins, my in-laws. Random admirers and hangers-on. The resulting book would reflect our conversations about how much Facebook had enhanced our friendships and our lives in general, or maybe it hadn’t, and we’d talk about that, too. And we’d exchange info, and say goodbye, and then linger, and wave, and wave, until we couldn’t see each other any more—one of those departures where you look away out of exhaustion with the moment, then when you look up find they’ve gone, vanished, as if they hadn’t been there at all.
At the end of the book, I would actually unplug from Facebook, and I would write about that, too, and the heartwarming account of the ties that bind us would inspire you to hold your Facebook friends close, so close, because the time we pass in this mortal coil is so fleeting; we are truly encountering only the passing of the person, not the person in themselves.
Someone is probably proposing this book right now.
I'm a bit out of sorts and so only just now got around to reading Maud Newton's review of Joan Didion's Blue Nights. She performs a thoughtful and respectful (but non-devotional, thank goodness) reading of Didion's latest.
Didion dwelt in Where I Was From on her female forbears' tendencies "toward slight and major derangements" and "apparently eccentric pronouncements," traits she'd once seen as biologically endemic. Blue Nights, by contrast, fixates on nurture, on the terrible possibility that a mother's neuroses might be contagious.
I found myself getting angry at Teofilo F. Ruiz while reading his book The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Not his book: Ruiz, personally. When you're reading a nonfiction text, something non-memoirish, you kind of have the expectation that the author isn't going to rub himself all over you. That he won't constantly be revealing his particular psychotic personality traits throughout -- you expect him to maintain a little distance. Because if he doesn't, and you're supposed to be reviewing the book, you find yourself reviewing the author instead.
Sometimes this level of revelation can be accidental, while also enhancing the text. I think of Sir James Frazer's statements in support of colonialism and his rantings about how stupid the entirety of mankind is as somehow being an interesting addition to his classic work of anthropology The Golden Bough. But with Ruiz, perhaps because he's obviously not as great of a writer or historian as Frazer -- even if Frazer did apparently either make some stuff up or believe other people who did -- these burstings-through ruined the book. Over at the Smart Set, I write about why the act of nonfiction is a tricky one -- even the topics you choose to pursue reveal so much about you as a person -- and why some writers need to strive for a more removed stance.
Nonfiction is a tricky game. It would not be so if we were purely rational creatures, if we were able to keep all of our foul, weird, wriggly bits wrapped up at all times. All too often the scholar believes he is just offering an objective vision of the world, his own self comfortably absent from the text. But then the reader turns a corner, and the writer’s neuroses are laid out for all to see, the writer himself often remaining unaware he’s been stripped so bare.
November 8, 2011
It tells the tale of a gang of cats who seize a ship full of haddock on the high seas.
The daring feline adventurers seize a trawler crammed with the fish by posing as ghosts and manage to allay their owners' suspicions, with the classic feline phrase "Me? How?"
"Cats marauding as ghost pirates to steal fishy bounty from lily-livered humans? What more do you want from a funny book.... The book had the judges in fits of giggles," said Michael Rosen, chair of the judging panel.
I can't tell if it's available stateside yet, though.
Rejuvenated typewriters! Where have these been all my life?
A while back, there was a GQ article about real life superheroes -- dudes dressing up in superhero costume to patrol the streets of their neighborhoods. One of the primary men in the article was Phoenix Jones.
As a consequence of his after hours life as a superhero (even superheroes have day jobs), Phoenix Jones has been let go from his job with the State, working with autistic children. Comic Book Movie checks in with him, to see what happened.
Over at Kirkus, I talk to Kelly Link about one of her influences, Joan Aiken. Link and Gavin Grant have republished two of Aiken's works, The Complete Armitage Family Stories and The Monkey's Wedding.
“She does ruthless things in a light-hearted way. Terrible things may happen to the characters in her stories, but there are also moments of marvelous invention, pockets of delight.”
Kylee Stoor also reviewed The Monkey's Wedding for the latest issue of Bookslut.
Mystery novelist and librarian extraordinaire Barbara Fister marks the 25th anniversary of Sisters in Crime, which was founded to try to even the playing field for female writers working in mystery and thriller genres.
Has the battle been won? Not yet. Fister writes,
A membership survey conducted last January found that the strongest motivation for members to join was to be part of a community devoted to the mystery genre, but they also wanted to support the organization’s mission of promoting equality. Though most members believe progress has been made, a large majority felt full equality had not yet been achieved. One member urged the organization to “woman up!” Another wrote, “Do not give up your role in championing women in writing in the mystery genre. Clearly it is still needed.”
November 7, 2011
We are giving away copies of Debbie Nathan's Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case way over here.
The Guardian's been doing a world-literature tour, asking readers to name "the best authors and books from a series of countries, creating an atlas of literature." They've just posted the results for Colombia. Next up: Argentina. (Yes, they already know about Borges.)
Another week, another looky-here e-reading gizmo.
Hey you guys! Without Guy Fawkes and his 1605 Gunpowder Plot, we wouldn't go around saying "you guys." Allan Metcalf explains:
Hearing of the plot foiled, on November 5 Londoners started bonfires to celebrate. And Parliament, happy to have escaped, declared November 5 an annual day of thanksgiving. As the years went on, it became the custom to make effigies of Guy Fawkes and others (particularly the Pope) and burn them in November 5 bonfires. The effigies were called guys....
And then, around the middle of the past century, people began adding guys to make you guys. Until then, guy referred just to men and boys, but the combination you guys acted as a plural second-person pronoun and could be applied to humans of any gender.
Take the hundreds of teenagers across Portugal who in 2006 developed mysterious rashes, respiratory problems, and dizziness, some so severely that schools were forced to close. When officials found no causative pathogen, the outbreak came to be known as the “Strawberries with Sugar virus.” Unwittingly, it appeared, the teens had taken on symptoms exhibited by characters on a popular TV soap opera, Morangos com Açúcar.
November 3, 2011
breakfasts of beer and chops or chocolate and cherry brandy which the whores ate after a night at the Upper Harbor.
Melville House has a short little thing about the food in Heinrich Böll's Billiards at Half Past Nine. A book I wrote the afterword for, way back when. They pair the proper beer and schnapps for the book, going with a Stegmaier Porter (bold choice, sir) and apple schnapps. I'll test this out. The book is set mostly in Köln, Germany, where I am going for the first time today, for a very important Bookslut meeting*.
* The meeting is really just finding out that Charles Blackstone, Bookslut's illustrious managing editor, is randomly going to be there, so I thought I'd take the train down and we could drink together in person, rather than in our usual over-the-Internet kind of way.
Postings from me will be light, but Jennifer Howard is going to show up to keep everyone company. Sláinte! (That is the wrong country, isn't it? I can't keep it all straight.)
November 2, 2011
Vladislav Davidzon's story about reading Isaac Babel in modern day Odessa made me miss Odessa. (“The Godly city, the star of our exile, that reluctant wellspring of all our troubles!”) Even if the only things I learned there was that vodka with honey drizzled in it is delicious and how to hitch rides without being raped/murdered. (Old cars! Only get into old cars without power locks.) His story will make you miss Odessa, too, even if you have not been.
The world had changed suddenly, but I hadn’t. I think part of me knew that it passes, and then it moves on. All you have to do is hold on through the wave, so that you don’t get washed away. It does pass. It was very peculiar. You’re turned into some kind of object, and writers are determinedly subjects. Recently people have been starting to say that it’s all about sales, that the companies behind it are very proud of the sales of the books, and nobody’s talking about the books. There’s quite big PR machine behind it, and we know how PR machines are. The writer is a kind of incidental figure in the middle of this global PR exercise. Presumably writers dream of having such a thing happen but actually what we dream of is the fantasy of suddenly breaking free from your critics, which is not actually what happens. You’re freed from a certain amount of financial tension, but if you weighed money too much in the balance you’d never become a writer in the first place. When you get into it, it’s for whatever kind of reward is there. Though I am very interested in what money does to people, because I’ve had money and I haven’t. The years from 1993 to 2007 were pretty thin. I’m interested in how stressful it is not to have money, but also how, if you do have money, you cannot imagine what it is not to have it.
There was a mystery lying in wait in Michael Holroyd's A Book of Secrets, a book I enjoyed very much. One of the women profiled in the book about discarded fiancees and daughters was never married, but evidence seemed to suggest she had a son. The son simply vanishes from the written record, and Holroyd admits defeat in the book after trying to discover more.
But then, months after publication, a woman claiming to be the mystery man's daughter wrote to Holroyd. He fills in the rest of the story at the Guardian.
“I wanted to know what it was like to be not a famous person—and a girl—in this family, how social history questions about femininity in the late nineteenth century came into Alice’s story, all about the nervous disorders that she was struggling with, and how science was thinking about those physical/psychological problems.”
Dead Critics takes a look at the Alice James biography by Jean Strouse, and a lecture she gave about the experience of writing about poor Alice. (I interviewed Strouse here, wrote about her biography here.)
November 1, 2011
Of course I felt like Dora the Detective or Debbie the Investigative Journalist. But there was another, even headier, part of the research experience. Learning about the lives of each of the three women was like watching episodes of Mad Men that were better than Mad Men. Dr. Wilbur, Shirley Mason and Flora Schreiber were ur-Peggys. Each in her own way was brilliant, ambitious, damaged by the sexism of her time—and ruthless. Each was fractured. And beyond information about these three, the archival material was full of 1970s-era letters from other divided women, Sybil readers who were just beginning to experience the headiness and equality of women's liberation, but who felt pulled apart by the weight of tradition. This divided zeitgeist, I think, is what made us so eager for Sybil.
A.L. Snijders's tiny animal short stories -- the stories being the tiny things, although some of the animals are, too -- translated by Lydia Davis, are running in the new issue of Asymptote.
Also in this issue, Dubravka Ugrešić's "The Spirit of the Kakanian Province," an excerpt from her essay collection Karaoke Culture. I am partial to this one, as I'm journeying into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a few days...
I am no expert on the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, I hardly even rank as an amateur, but I have a sense that the monarchy stamped a watermark on the souls of its subjects, an internal landscape, the coordinates of periphery and center. The center became aware of itself thanks to the periphery, the periphery grew to know itself thanks to the center. One went from the provinces to Vienna for the opera, to Budapest to buy the latest hats. After all wasn't it a child of the periphery, a postman's son from Sarajevo, who shot Kakania in the head, and afterwards things in Europe were never the same?
Nnedi Okorafor's novel Who Fears Death? (we loved this book, our review is here) has won the World Fantasy Award. It was a strong night for women all around, with other awards going to Elizabeth Hand and Joyce Carol Oates, and now all the ladies will have this staring them down from various corners of their apartment. Which should not dissuade anyone from writing quality fantasy, not at all.
I had stashed a photograph in a book. That is all the specificity my memory contained. Now I desperately needed the photograph, and I remember thinking, as I placed the photograph inside the cover of a book, "I will definitely remember which book this is in." I didn't. But as I picked one book of the shelf after another, I realized I had also forgotten that I actually still owned David Wojnarowicz's graphic novel Seven Miles a Second. Somewhere I lost Close to the Knives, which was okay, as I basically have it memorized by now, but I had kept the tiny comic. I was 16 when I read that comic, my first introduction to his work. I think I must have found him via Kathy Acker somehow. It started a "Oh my god, I have to read everything he's done" phase which kind of hasn't ended. I see his name, my heart leaps.
(I found the photograph. Hidden in Brecht's journals. I'm sure that made sense at the time.)
I apologize if you wrote regarding becoming a contributor to Bookslut for poetry reviews and features and never heard back -- after my computer died the German government decided to confiscate and hold the replacement computer I ordered and that made for a fun couple of weeks.
I'm still interested in hearing pitches, and interested in hearing pitches for literary essays and features. Email me if you're interested or if you have an idea.