January 31, 2012
The photography website Emphas.is is starting a new publishing venture, starting with Trading to Extinction, an investigation into the black market for endangered species. It's set up a bit like Kickstarter, which projects funded by special pre-sales -- a $100 donation gets you a copy of the book and an archival print. The New York Times blog Lens has a slideshow of images from Patrick Brown's book.
I don't know about you, but the London Review of Books Kindle subscription has changed my life (a tiny, tiny bit). After realizing that spending $75 on an international subscription to the magazine was a pretty foolish thing to be doing (especially since so much of their fiction coverage is abyssmal), I didn't renew my subscription after a year. But now! It's on my Kindle. For a reasonable price. It is good to have you back, even if I miss my ritual of reading London Review of Books on a Sunday morning, the paper issues spread out on my daybed, eating crackers and drinking tea. It's not the same, but who cares when it's $40 cheaper?
(I know this sounds like an advertisement. I was just happy.)
Over at Kirkus, I have a short review of The Green Sofa by Natascha Würzbach. (Another lady! I cannot be stopped!) It's her memoir about her childhood spent between World War I and World War II. Her mother was a modern dancer who entertained German troops on the front line, and her father was an intellectual dissident who was forbidden from working, and who was hiding his Jewish heritage. I know, it sounds grim, but the book is a charmer.
January 30, 2012
As the conversation about male bias in book criticism continues, I noticed my own peculiar statistics. I've been interviewing writers once a week or so over at Kirkus, and of the last 18 Q&As or features, 17 were women. (I just turned in another piece today: woman author.) Here I am, singlehandedly trying to even out the statistics for Kirkus Reviews. It's not really a political act, just a product of my mostly female reading habits. (That sounds like I'm reading the back of tampon boxes, doesn't it?)
But it seems the bias at NPR is far, far worse, as the Boston Phoenix does a little adding up of their literary coverage.
Does any of this really matter? (As in, aren't there bigger problems in the world?) Part of it goes back to the VIDA statistics, as in, who is being paid to write cultural coverage for these publications? Mostly men. In her review of Henry Miller and the Making of “Tropic of Cancer”, Jeanette Winterson reminds us of the result of any kind of homogeneity of voices in cultural criticism, whether that be gender or class or race or city or anything else for that matter.
George Orwell, writing in 1940 about Henry Miller, has very different preoccupations from Kate Millet writing about Miller in 1970. Orwell doesn’t notice that Miller-women are semihuman sex objects. In fact, his long essay “Inside the Whale” barely mentions women at all. Millet does notice that half the world has been billeted to the whorehouse, and wonders what this tells us about both Henry Miller and the psyche and sexuality of the American male.
Ezra Pound! We were just talking about that asshole. Of course, now in our course Bad People Who Wrote Great Books or whatever I called that damn thing we've moved on to Koestler, but everyone loves a good Ezra Pound anecdote.
Also, if you're totally fucking bored and want to feel bad about the 20th century, you can read all of Pound's pro-fascist, anti-Semitic rants that he broadcast over the radio. They are gloriously all online for free.
In just a few days, I'll be heading up to New York for an event with Shalom Auslander at McNally Jackson on February 2. I'll be interviewing him live on stage about his new novel Hope: A Tragedy, at 7pm. I'm not familiar with this Auslander fellow, but I hear he's up to great things. Will try to at least flip through Hope before Thursday night...
January 27, 2012
Over at the Smart Set, I write about Erin Siegal's Finding Fernanda, a tale of corruption in the international adoption industry, and the "new" revelations about the working conditions at the Chinese factories that build all of our electronics. (New as in, the reports have certainly been around for a while, but only now do people seem to suddenly care.)
It fascinated me that people were still dredging up the Salem girls from the past and diagnosing them. Amateur scholars, writers, producers, conspiracy theorists, descendents of Salem folk, and all the sophomore American History classes across America, including mine, once upon a time, have taken a crack at solving the riddle: What happened 320 years ago, and why?
Great piece about historians (amateur and those who write books) who believe they have solved great historical puzzles. Like why the Salem witch trials happened. Should be mandatory reading for everyone who has definitively diagnosed Mozart's cause of death, all 871 of you.
January 26, 2012
The National Book Critics Circle* Awards shortlists have been released, just a short time after the annoucement of the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year nominations for the most entertainingly vicious book review. Living legend Geoff Dyer shows up on both ballots. It's coincedences like that which serve to keep life worth living, isn't it?
*Specialist book blogger inside knowledge: It's just like the Magic Circle, only identical.
Sri Lankan writer/bass player Shehan Karunatilaka has won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature with his debut novel Chinaman (which I understand does cricket = Sri Lanka like The Art of Fielding does baseball = America).
Much of this week's class was about narcissism. I mean, we were talking about Ezra Pound. But if you are a dude who wants to distill thousands of years of philosophy, art, and poetry into a book called Guide to Kulchur, you kind of have to think of yourself as the most brilliant man alive. Simply in order to do the work. If Pound was thinking, I am just a small wee little mouse, lord knows he wouldn't have thought himself up to the task.
Not that defaults you into being a bad person. James Joyce also seems to have been a massive narcissist, at least where his work lives. And yet from most accounts he was not a dick. Pound: yes. Yes he was.
Alice Gregory writes about Raymond Roussel, a French poet who was also a massive narcissist, but he never became as important or as read as Pound or Joyce. He did believe, though, that he would “enjoy greater glory than Victor Hugo or Napoleon.” His narcissism tipped, though, a little into the crazy realm, as he believed his pen emanated a blinding white light as he was writing.
p.s. Ezra Pound was famously locked up for 12 years in an institution, and I found the following bit from Alec Marsh's short biography of Pound amusing:
The younger psychiatrists who had contact with Pound once he was hospitalized did not find him insane, which is not to say that they failed to notice his eccentricities, or to report on his strange swings of mood, which to Pound were terrifying and real: 'velocity after stupour tremendous,' Pound wrote to Cornell, and in the same letter: 'enormous work to be done and no driving force and everyone's inexactitude very fatiguing.' What does come across clearly in the transcript of the sanity hearing is that Pound was suffering from what we now call a 'personality disorder,' and not a full-blown mental illness. The doctors agreed that Pound was in a paranoid state, but was not a paranoid schizophrenic. He was 'schizoid' (a contested term that covers a wide spectrum of disorders), somewhat detached from himself and the 'real world.' He held certain 'fixed ideas' bordering on the delusional and a notable 'grandiosity' that goes along with that; his translation of Confucius holds the key to world peace, for example; or, that he 'has no peer in the intellectual field,' which is why he cannot make himself understood. 'He was grandiose and hard to talk to,' said one. All commented on his 'distractability' -- the way he jumped from topic to topic, leaving his interlocutors baffled, 'out on a limb.' The diagnosis was in effect a clinical judgment on who he was, not the discovery of an illness that like any other might pass away in time. Pound was being asked to recover from being himself.
Didn't the New York Times have a piece recently about a woman who was very happy living on her own until she fell and hurt herself and she realized this is how she is going to die unless she gets married really fast? I read it somewhere, but it was awful, so I'm not going to look for the link. Well, it turns out that living alone is pretty good for you. Eric Klinenberg, who also wrote that great book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, has published Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. He's interviewed at the Smithsonian.
We need to make a distinction between living alone and being alone, or being isolated, or feeling lonely. These are all different things. In fact, people who live alone tend to spend more time socializing with friends and neighbors than people who are married. So one thing I learned is that living alone is not an entirely solitary experience. It’s generally a quite social one.
In other words, if you live alone and fall, someone will probably notice you've gone missing. Eventually.
Behaviorists: kind of motherfuckers. I mean whatever, if you actually read their work, Skinner and the rest, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in there. There just also happens to be a lot of: Hey, why not just put your baby in a box! He'll be fine. Shouldn't touch him too much anyway, you're just training him to be needy.
Anyway, there was also Watson, who thought that babies were blank slates, just little soft (screaming) marshmallows or what have you. He did that experiment on Little Albert, making him scared of fuzzy white things like lab rats and bunnies, because Watson was freaking him out with loud sounds. Now, according to a new paper, Little Albert was actually quite neurologically impaired, and as the article puts it, Watson was "terrifying a sick baby for no valid scientific reason." Like I said. Behaviorists: kind of motherfuckers.
If you haven't heard, a German publisher was going to publish Hitler's Mein Kampf again in Germany. It's been, shall we say, unavailable for a while. The debate, from what I've been reading, centered mostly around whether or not this publisher should be allowed to profit from republishing Hitler. Kind of gross.
But then yesterday it was announced that the publisher is going to delay the printing, mostly because he never did have permission from Bavaria, which owns the copyright. But from reading some of the American press, you'd think the debate centers around whether Mein Kampf will, I don't know, start the Holocaust up again? Like it's just been lying dormant? "ARE GERMANS READY FOR A REPUBLISHING OF MEIN KAMPF?" Good lord, I think it will be fine. (But yay, I'm glad the publishing has been halted, at least by this guy, as it was looking like the only motivation for republishing it was money and scandal.)
January 25, 2012
Have you read Emma Garman's series at the Awl regarding the men and women who clog up the British tabloids? The footballers, the reality stars, the wives of footballers... Today she gives us a brilliant little lesson on attention span, reminding us that:
a missing white girl with pretty blonde hair; white girl imprisoned for grisly murder; [and] famous married man sexing women who aren’t his wife... enjoy a statistically equal claim on our attention, and on average will attract 1,250 times the coverage of an outbreak of war.
And that reminds me of all the reading I have not been doing this week. Like the scholarly book that has taken me two weeks to get through two chapters. But don't worry, I'm all caught up on episodes of Modern Family.
The trial of a television director on morality charges for airing a controversial animated film is a disturbing turn for the nascent Tunisian democracy, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 23, 2012, a Tunis court announced that Nabil Karoui, director of Nessma TV, will go on trial on April 19 for airing the French animated movie “Persepolis.” [Based on the Marjane Satrapi graphic novel of the same name.]
On October 7, 2011, the privately owned Nessma television station broadcast “Persepolis,” an animated feature film about a girl’s childhood in Iran. The broadcast led to protests in Tunis because it contained a scene depicting God, which some consider to be forbidden by Islam. On October 14, a crowd damaged Karoui’s home in Tunis with Molotov cocktails.
The abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea was big news in this country at the time I was writing The Lake. I believe that this incident has cast a shadow over this novel gently but surely. I wanted to write about the small happiness of people who suffer in silence.
Hungary is using shitty translations to confuse the EU about what's going on with its constitution.
During the one month that the constitution was open for public debate, the Hungarian government sent an English translation to the European Commission, as EU law requires it to do. But the English translation left out the controversial and inflammatory preamble. The preamble asserts that sovereignty rests in the Hungarian “nation” (that is, ethnic Hungarians and not Hungarian citizens of all ethnicities). It also includes potentially destabilizing references to Hungary’s “historic constitution” that implicitly laid claim to territories now belonging to neighboring states. In addition, the English version of the constitution presented to the EU was riddled with translation mistakes that changed the sense of the text.
January 24, 2012
I have to spend the rest of my day hanging out with and interviewing opera singers, so I guess my life in Philadelphia is not that different from my life in Berlin. Or, spending the day dealing with what Ezra Pound referred to as the "ginks walkin' about and doin' stage actin'" distracting from the real music. To get in the mood, there's an excellent piece by Michael Neve in an old London Review of Books, on Frank Johnson, Clive James, and Michael Frayn, which opens with a discussion of the appeal of opera.
Opera booms when the expense of it is most ruinous, and events seem most ‘operatic’ when they are huge, scary and very much for real. Opera as a cultural form lays bare the fact that there is money to sustain it while at the same time – the same Wagnerian time, one might say – it calls into question the base that sustains it.
Neal Pollack was a god when those of us in our generation who write needed a god. He was an organic god, real and smelly and not something you would bring home to meet the folks, so to speak.
Ah, this makes me happy. And think of Austin, Texas, where I first met Neal, watching him perform "I Wipe My Ass with Your Novel" at Club DeVille (followed by an encore of "Fuck and Run"). And I still think The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature is hysterical. Someone had to write spitfire satire of literary pomposity, and he did it very well.
January 23, 2012
The working title for Ayn Rand’s ____________ was Ego, but she switched it when she thought it gave too much of the theme away and was too blunt.
It does not really matter what goes in that blank, does it?
A scholar perusing the archives of the early 20th century Hebrew writer David Vogel's estate stumbled upon a bit of dusty magic: an entire novel, unpublished and previously undiscovered, just sitting there mislabeled. After hiding away for 70 years or so, the novel is being published in Israel. And the reason it was not published in his lifetime? It was perhaps a too autobiographical novel about a man and his married lover. Haaretz has the whole story.
Happy 10th anniversary (and 200th book), Melville House. Can't imagine the literary world without you.
First things first: Murder is wrong, OK? But let's say, hypothetically, that you're considering committing one anyway: how would you do it? Practically everyone wants to murder someone. That jerk that got the job you want. That guy who gets all his books reviewed while your books don’t even get published. That handsome, horrible dude everyone loves when only you know he is a complete fraud who must be exposed. Jonathan Franzen. Maybe you want to murder novelist Jonathan Franzen. Let’s say you do. You want to stand over Jonathan Franzen's wrecked body as it bubbles over with his own blood. You’re laughing and he’s just kind of lying there, gurgling. You beat him to death with an iPad and now there won’t be any more sprawling family angst novels from Mr. Handsome Fake Genius Man. Maybe that is who you want to murder. Maybe you would really enjoy wringing his skinny Brooklyn neck. His skinny, pretentious, overrated, Brooks Brothers neck. Hypothetically. Here are some things to think about while you're totally planning the fake murder you have no intention of actually doing and by reading this sentence you hereby absolve the writer of any complicity in the crimes you will in no way go out and commit here comes the period and Jim is absolved.
Oh, Jim Behrle.
January 22, 2012
The 2012 shortlist for the International Arabic Fiction Prize has been released. It's the fifth year for the award, which is worth $50,000 and an English translation and publication to the winning author.
The nominated books are:
The Unemployed by Nasser Iraq
Toy of Fire by Bashir Mufti
The Vagrant by Jabbour Douaihy
The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber
The Women of al-Basatin by Habib Selmi
Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere
January 20, 2012
In preparation for Edith Wharton's 150th birthday on Tuesday (read our Star-Crossed column about her and Julian Barnes in this month's issue), the New York Times writes about a fad she wrote about, American heiresses going to Europe to marry titled men. Of course, they tie it into Downton Abbey because everything now has to be tied into Downton Abbey. (If you need a break from all that, you can read Simon Schama's entertaining screed about the show and its "cultural necrophilia.")
Congress may take books, musical compositions and other works out of the public domain, where they can be freely used and adapted, and grant them copyright status again, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
In a 6-2 ruling, the court said that, just because material enters the public domain, it is not “territory that works may never exit.”
Like all copyright shenanigans, this will probably be traced back to Disney somehow.
Drew Nellins, who interviewed Shalom Auslander for Bookslut way back when, accuses Riverhead of "Intellectual Bullying" when it comes to Shalom's new book, Hope: A Tragedy. The book has been a little omni-present, with two glowing New York Times reviews (one perfect review by Steve Stern -- author of The Frozen Rabbi -- one uh kind of weird Janet Maslin review). He's writing funny things for the New York Times Magazine and the Paris Review, he's got those book trailers. Every book critic in the land is lining up to compare Shalom Auslander to Philip Roth. (God -- I really do not get this comparison, but whatever. Is this like when every female singer songwriter gets compared either to Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush, just because it's vaginas all around? Does every funny Jew get compared to Philip Roth?) All of it would be annoying if I didn't think the book was legitimately brilliant.
But the reason for Nellins's complaint is not simply the overexposure, it's the alarming press packet that accompanies the book. (My review copy must have been shipped out before the publicity team developed OCD, because all I got was a one page "hey, this is a book, you can read it" thing.) God knows most of the things publishing publicity departments do bewilder me, like continuing to send me multiple copies of the same book after I've published a review. Or the time an ex of mine published a book and the publisher overnighted a glossy photo of his head along with his book, and when I opened the box the photo fell out, sort of menacingly falling towards me, and I screamed like a rat had just jumped at my face. But on this case, I guess I am just glad they are trying.
I am wondering if Nellins is suggesting that the reason the book is getting such good reviews is because of the Power of the Publicity Folder Thingy. Either way, this seems like less of a problem than when people were going around saying Joshua Ferris is the new Samuel Beckett, because yuck.
January 19, 2012
People are reading Aron Ralston's Between a Rock and a Hard Place -- you know, his memoir about being pinned by a rock until he had to cut off his own arm to save his own life -- or watching the movie adaptation 127 Hours and thinking, huh, I totally want to go hiking in that ridiculously dangerous place. Let's get going!
“I saw that movie about the guy that got his arm cut off, and I started reading about slot canyons,” Richards says. “That movie really got me excited.”
My only thought when I read that book, and I did read part of it, because I love that survival nonsense, was to think, well, at least I know this will never happen to me. Because I am lazy and fearful. Maybe I am approaching life all wrong...
The despots challenged in the Arab Spring channelled their stolen wealth through the City. Oligarchs from around the world flocked to Britain because it offered them the rule of law, protection from assassins, luxury shops, art galleries, Georgian town houses, country estates and public schools that could train their sons in the gentlemanly style.
If journalists tried to do what they should do and investigate them, Britain also gave the oligarchs a further privilege: the power to enforce a censorship that the naive supposed had vanished with the repressions of the old establishment. Among the many attractions London offered the oligarchs was a legal profession that served them as attentively as the shop assistants in Harrods food hall.
Watch closely, because here’s where we pivot from personal anecdote to microtrend thinkpiece lede.
Daniel Nester engages in some literary tourism, in a thinkpiece kind of way.
Oh, I'm sorry, you wanted some bookish news or commentary? Because all I've got for you right now is how to give yourself a Lisa Frank inspired manicure. Just try to pretend that doesn't thrill you twenty times more than any information on "Ezra Pound was a fascist, isn't that tragic" or whatever it is we usually talk about here.
January 18, 2012
Over at this week's Kind Reader, I answer a question about a woman's inability to make friends with other women. My solution: Margaret Lawrence's School of Femininity. It's out of print (boo) but available used for around a nickle. It's a nickle well spent to get Lawrence's essays about women writers. She uses the word "harlot" a lot.
I know we are all collectively tired of poets being asked if poetry still matters, but here's another one, pretty much saying the same thing that every other poet has said. This time it's Jonathan Galassi, so at least he says it elegantly. (As opposed to those inelegant, half-articulate poets?) (Maybe I should do this self-questioning off-site, no?)
But what remains, above all, are her many books. At a time when East and West, bristling with weapons, faced off in rigid ideological confrontation, she wrote books that crossed and overcame this divide, books that have lasted: the great, allegorical novels, the personal account of illness and pain.
Günter Grass's eulogy for Christa Wolf has been translated into English.
After all the hoo-ha over sponsorship, this year's T.S. Eliot prize has been won by Scottish poet John Burnside for his collection Black Cat Bone. Here's a vid of the shortlisted poets doing a bit of reading.
January 17, 2012
Czech Radio has a wonderful (English language) piece on Edwin Muir, the Scottish poet who first translated Kafka into English and his memories of Prague. It touches on his friendship with Karel Čapek (whose amazing War with the Newts is finally coming back into print), meeting up with Graham Greene after World War II, and teaching English literature at the university as the communists started to clamp down.
I do like it when real people who up in the fiction I'm reading. Particularly if they have a tendency to tear off their clothing, have mysterious conversations with God and are later turned into saints by the Church. In Melissa Pritchard's The Odditorium, I learned about Saint Dymphna, whose pagan king father wanted to marry her and when she said no he cut off her head. Later her tomb was associated with healings of mental illness, and so she became the patron saint of schizophrenics, incest survivors, and the possessed. Oh, and princesses. (I am considering making a pilgrimage.)
Saint Dymphna shows up in Melissa Pritchard's stories, as does Annie Oakley, Ripley, and assorted other freaks and holy fools. The collection has an immense amount of charm. I talked to Pritchard as part of our Q&A series at Kirkus, about mixing the real and the fantastical, the limitations of history, and why she longs to write about Madame Blavatsky.
She influenced metaphysicians, scientists, artists and writers, including Yeats, Tennyson, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Jack London, L. Frank Baum and others. But after plowing through Sylvia Cranston's massive biography, my ambition was defeated—Blavatsky's life was sprawling, extraordinary, almost beyond credibility—I felt like a kitchen ant aspiring to attain Mt. Everest.
William Shakespeare's The Tempest is among a list of banned books in the state of Arizona by a resolution aimed at curbing resentment, government overthrow and ethnic distinction and separation in any district or charter school's curriculum. (via)
January 16, 2012
Ezra Pound's daughter is again in the press defending her father against the association of him with the fascists. Now, her father was a fascist, but now a neo-fascist group is using his name while running around being racist fuckers. But her defense of her father -- that he wasn't really a fascist, that it was just sort of trendy, as was the anti-semitism that her father also followed -- rather diminishes his intellect, doesn't it? That he was so weak minded he followed any fashionable belief system of the time.
Now, I know it's a bit too much to expect our intellectuals to completely transcend their space and time and look beyond the current political situation and see where it all may lead to -- this being the very point of the class I'm teaching -- but it's a disappointing excuse. But when you're Pound's daughter, who did not treat her especially well and is as reviled as he is revered, what else can you do? Probably the only two choices at that point are to think your father is a saint or your father is the devil. She wants to save his reputation, and that's fine, but maybe news stories should stop asking the daughter of the man for perspective?
This is what happens when you have a giant pool of user-created content, but do not police the territory, nor let the users self-police. You get a wild tangle of plagiarism and crazy knock-offs. Amazon's self-publishing program has created chaos, particularly in those less literary areas like genre and erotica. And even if you're only charging 99 cents for the book of vampire erotica you just wrote, you kind of at least want your name (or your pen name) associated with the thing.
Fast Company takes a look at the blind spots in Amazon's untamed regions, and so far Amazon has not shown the initiative even to care, as long as it continues to make them money.
January 13, 2012
And besides, when you stop to think about it, at least a hundred people must want you dead in the course of an average day, the ones in line behind you at the ticket window at the Metro, the ones who look up at your apartment when they haven't got one themselves, the ones who wish you'd finish pissing and give them a chance, your children, and a lot more. It happens all the time, and you get used to it.
Reading Journey to the End of the Night.
Shalom Auslander is almost always angry.
Well. It's a good line anyway, I guess.
The New York Daily News takes Shalom Auslander on a tour of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan and gets him to talk, angrily, about his new novel Hope: A Tragedy, a novel about a modern day man who finds an elderly Anne Frank living in his attic. This is what we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank: "I am so tired of this Holocaust shit."
(Read an excerpt from Hope here.)
We are giving away copies of Erin Siegal's Finding Fernanda over here.
January 12, 2012
Choire Sicha puts a little pin prick in the idea of the golden age of publishing, in his review of Grove editor Richard Seaver's The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the '50s, New York in the '60s: A Memoir of Publishing's Golden Age.
So what are we to make of Richard Seaver? This charming, handsome, adventurous fellow, a man of great empathy and wisdom, of broad and fantastic taste, an actual hero of literature, was also quite clearly, and from his own telling, the very face of institutional sexism in publishing. He was the gatekeeper who kept avant-garde publishing male. He is the one who read manuscripts and bought books by man after man. He is the model for all the men who fulfill this role today: men's men, who just don't relate to women, or their books, or their crazy concerns.
Also: If you are having the kind of day where you want to wrap yourself up in a blanket and have someone read Daphne du Maurier books to you, fear not. David Bickley is here to help, and to read you the sinister Jamaica Inn while you try to drown yourself in your cup of tea.
Something you can do in Berlin is go on a tour of the city's Cold War era nuclear bunkers. These tours are mostly run by artists and perpetual students, doctoral candidates and post-docs. They know a bit too much about German history. They are pacifists and organizers of protests. They will trap you in a tiny room, turn off the lights, and mimic the sound of a nuclear bomb exploding over your head. They will tell you that if nuclear war threatens again, the best thing to do will be to get a bottle of wine, have some sex, and "watch the light show." Dying is a better option than surviving. And yet for some reason, I recommend this tour to friends that visit.
Lisi Raskin has an essay and series of photographs about visiting Tito's nuclear bunker in Bosnia, which you can now tour. As a tourist.
(And if you're not politically disheartened yet, maybe take a look at >this picture? It'll do the job.)
God may be dead, but Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists is a sign that the tradition from Voltaire to Arnold lives on.
That sounds like a compliment, doesn't it? The publisher could even use that for a blurb. And yet Terry Eagleton very neatly takes apart the new de Botton book -- not so much a hatchet job as a slicing through at the joints job. There are a lot of books like de Botton's on the market right now, spiritual guides to atheism and so on. Like all you have to do is take away the God stuff from the church and everything else stays intact.
Still would make a very good blurb, though.
January 11, 2012
The world is stupider now than it was in 1914. The human no longer bestirs himself when humanity is hurt and killed. In 1914, all parties tried to come up with human reasons and pretexts to explain the bestiality.
Whereas today people just offer bestial defenses for bestiality that are even more foul than the bestialities themselves.
And nothing stirs in the whole world. I mean, in the world of writing people, aside from the eccentric Gide, who, recently converted to Communism, has held a meeting for snobs and international Communists, without the least success; aside from the Jews of England and America, but they are just disturbed by anti-Semitism, which is a little spoke in the great wheel of bestiality.
One of the most surprising parts of the research to me was the general lack of knowledge that a lot of adoptive parents had about the child they were adopting, about the process in general and about the country they were adopting from. Many took what their adoption agencies told them at face value and signed expansive contracts that prohibited them from contacting anyone in their adopted child's country of origin during the process.
I was taken aback by some of the descriptions on orphan-listing websites like Precious.org and Rainbowkids.com. Picking a child could be fairly compared to online shopping—choose whatever age, race, gender and medical conditions you want.
If Katie Roiphe and Caitlin Flanagan get into a protracted fight, how are we to know who to root for? Or perhaps we can hope for mutual destruction. Flanagan has a new book coming out, so she knows she has to create some attention somehow, and so she opens with an insult to Roiphe in a larger negative look at Joan Didion. And in regular Flanagan-fashion, somehow, despite not really disagreeing with her, I can't take her side.
The shortlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize, generally the most interesting one in the Man Booker stable, has been released. The judges added two more titles to the standard five as a recognition of the quality of entrants. The Millions has a good run-down on the nominated books, and the surprise lack of Murakami.
Jamil Ahmad - The Wandering Falcon
Jahnavi Barua - Rebirth
Rahul Bhattacharya - The Sly Company of People Who Care
Amitav Ghosh -River of Smoke
Kyung-Sook Shin - Please Look After Mom
Yan Lianke - Dream of Ding Village
Banana Yoshimoto - The Lake
January 9, 2012
I don't know if you've heard, but, at least in the EU, James Joyce's estate has fallen into the public domain. That means Stephen Joyce, the cantankerous old soul, no longer has control over film rights, performances of Ulysses on Bloomsday, Kate Bush using quotations in her songs, whatever. It's been decades of Stephen Joyce strong-arming scholars, critics, and fans, destroying correspondence and pissing everyone off he could think of.
The Independent has a story on the destructive power of the literary heir. Tomorrow I'll be discussing the burning of Byron's memoir in my class, another one of those moments in literary history you can't quite believe happened. (Doris Langley Moore's excellent The Late Lord Byron discusses this incident in depth. Just in case you're not enrolled.)
Friend and Bookslut contributor Jennifer Howard has a story called "Mercury Rising" in the new anthology Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by by Washington Area Women. Yes, it's true -- Howard isn't simply one of the smartest commentators on publishing, she also writes smart fiction as well. We're always lucky to have her.
Writing to her on the day of Orlando’s inception, Woolf asks: “Suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita… there’s a kind of shimmer of reality which sometimes attaches itself to my people, as the lustre on an oyster shell… shall you mind? Say yes or no.
Your excellence as a subject arises largely from your noble birth (but what’s 400 years of nobility, all the same?) and the opportunity this gives for florid descriptive passages in great abundance. Also, I admit I should like to untwine and twist again some very odd, incongruous strands in you… and also it sprung upon me how I could revolutionise biography in a night: and so if agreeable to you I would like to toss this up into the air and see what happens.”
David Hajdu has a lovely bit of satire about the idea that we can turn classic works of literature into self-help.
January 6, 2012
Two science fiction discussions for you to listen to today:
At the Guardian, Alastair Reynolds, Lauren Beukes, Michael Moorcock and Jeff Noon talk about the state of the genre.
And at the BBC, Sarah Hall (reading her short stories The Beautiful Indifference right now) presents a program about gender and science fiction, and why so many writers play around with the idea of an all-female society that have figured out how to survive without men. (This one is better than the Guardian podcast, if you have to choose just one.)
I have a lot of sympathy for Ernest Hemingway, so he will not show up in my Bad People/Great Books class I'm teaching for Drexel. (I should really be working on my first lecture.) But James Campbell has a great piece on the fiction and fictions of Ernest Hemingway, and how he really seemed to believe the strange lies he told about himself. It would be great fodder for my lecture on male writers who hate women -- “It is more than a year since he actually hit me”, Mary told her husband’s publisher, Charles Scribner, in 1950. An entry in her journal for October 1951 says: “E. followed me to my bathroom and spit in my face”. The information that follows is almost as startling: “Next day he gave me $200”. -- but honestly, there are already so many candidates, I don't need to add any others.
Yesterday I was reading a news story about more mistranslations of the story of the birth of Christ. Turns out he was probably not born in a manger -- that came out of a misreading of the original text. So add that to the list of other screw ups, like the virgin birth (not originally specified), the historical inaccuracy of King Herod's role, the astronomical impossibility of following a star, the changed birth date, etc.
These really aren't new revelations, the story has been debunked for years. And yet we like the story, so we keep the story. We know the tree comes from the pagan celebrations that Christianity usurped, but we like the tree so we keep the tree.
Over at The Smart Set, I write about medieval art, miraculous healings, the magical qualities of the body parts of dead saints, the Virgin Mary, Caroline Walker Bynum's Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe and Eugene Hynes's Knock: The Virgin's Apparition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland.
But for many, the representation of Christ was essentially Christ himself. Images could bestow miracles. They did not only gesture to the divine, there was something divine about them in and of themselves, despite their human origions. Like the human son of God, they transcended their earthly matter. If you kissed this image of Jesus’s wound, a startlingly vaginal looking spot on the page, you could save yourself from seven years in purgatory.
If a representation of a god can do that, imagine the power of an actual body. Jesus’s body could have no relics, as it is argued that every cell that had been discarded from his body — skin, hair, the blood bled on the cross — had been swept up to heaven during the ascension. But the saints are another story. And with the emphasis on the miraculous, the visionary, and the visual in the medieval church, soon every cathedral needed a reliquary or a monstrance with the fingernails, the bones, the skin, the hair, or the blood of a saint. Relics could, after all, perform miracles and healings; they still hummed in the frequency of the divine.
If you're unfamiliar with the Costa, it's the award that sets up different genres against each other in a poetry vs. biography vs. YA quality-off. It makes for strange shortlist bedfellows and kicks off the 2012 literature award season.
The winners, including Carol Ann Duffy and Andrew Miller, beneath the cut.
Costa Novel Award: Pure by Andrew Miller
Costa Poetry Award: The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy
Costa First Novel Award: Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson
Costa Biography Award: Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis
Costa Children's Book Award: Blood Red Road by Moira Young
January 5, 2012
I wanted to welcome our two newest columnists.
Lightsey Darst has been writing for Bookslut for a little while now, and I have nudged her into contributing a reader diary-type column she's calling Thousandfurs. (We debated back and forth whether the incest in the original story meant that we shouldn't use the title. We decided incest is not a deal-breaker.) In her first entry, she connects Elizabeth Hardwick's (perfect; essential -- I recently wrote about the book myself) Sleepless Nights with Vladimir Nabokov's lessons on iridescence and Lectures on Literature.
We also welcome Leah Triplett, a new contributor, who will be writing about art and art criticism. For her first Sear column, she revisits David Hickey's The Invisible Dragon and comments on the return of the culture wars. The target for each battle in the Culture Wars somehow ended up being David Wojnarowicz, one of my favorites. Triplett writes about Wojnarowicz and Mapplethorpe and their shared fights against AIDS and the conservatives.
We're thrilled to add these new columnists to our roster.
I just finished reading Finding Fernanda, an investigation into corruption and murder in the world of international adoption. (By the way, next time I'm moving and already under a lot of stress, please remind me to read a book about a unicorn, okay? What the fuck.)
More on the book soon, as I'm interviewing the author Erin Siegal this week, but until then, the New Yorker has a photo slideshow of the women and children involved in the story. Siegal was originally a photographer, and essentially became a journalist in the process of writing this story. She did a tremendous job.
Paul Murray (Skippy Dies gives a great interview. He discusses Ireland pre- and post-bust, midnight mass, Christmas window displays, alcohol, and much more, over at the Paris Review. It's impossible to pick a favorite section.
There’s this shop called Brown Thomas, which is the oldest department store in Dublin and it’s very swanky and expensive. Historically, when it used to be called Switzer’s, they had these famous windows with Santa Claus and mice making ballet shoes and so forth, and it was all mechanized, and the kids would go into Dublin and look at the windows. That was something your parents would bring you to do. Then, when the boom came, they stopped having child-oriented windows and started having these really nasty Helmut Lang soft-cyber-porn-type windows with a bunch of emaciated blue mannequins wearing just a giant watch and staring bleakly out of the windows. Everything was about excess and consumption.
Poet and journalist Eliza Griswold reports from Lampedusa, where 37,000 refugees have descended upon an island with a normal population of 5,000.
We talk about survivor’s guilt, but not about observer’s guilt. For journalists this is particularly acute, as we are paid to watch suffering and paid more during war. For poets, it’s even worse. It’s Adorno for the twenty-first century.
January 4, 2012
Havel: In everyone there is some longing for humanity's rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudolife.
When Shalom Auslander was 6, his mother told him everyone hated him because he was a Jew.
I was sure she was wrong. I was sure they just hated her, which I could very well understand.
I'll be interviewing Shalom Auslander about his new book Hope: A Tragedy on stage at McNally Jackson on February 2. I mean, I think. It is not on their website, but I have faith someone will tell me if I'm supposed to be there on the 2nd or not.
If you want good advice, maybe you are better off listening to this guy? I mean, I thought I was doing all right with the B&N column, but then I realized that tighter sweaters really will make 2012 a better year than 2011.
But somehow I'll find the inner resources to continue my column at B&N nonetheless. This week, I talk to a girl who wants to stab her friends in the chest rather than toast their good book contract fortune with champagne. I prescribe, probably unsurprisingly, a little Wm. James. (If you're out there, girl, may I add a P.S. and also say, Wear a tighter sweater?)
And if you'd like to participate, with advice needing real or fake or totally "I have a friend who...", you can send your anonymous or not letters here.
January 3, 2012
While I adjust to my new (temporary) digs in Philadelphia, perhaps I could interest you in a few new things? Like our new issue? It is fully of wintry reads and books to drag into the bathtub.
And if that doesn't give you enough new ideas for how to spend the inevitable bookstore gift certificates you get from relatives who don't understand you, our managing editor rounded up a few authors and asked them to name the best book they read in 2011 was, regardless of its actual release date. You can find their answers here.
I apologize for the slow return, but things happen. We'll chat again soon.