1. Welcome to Literary Kicks's new look. This latest redesign (the previous version is above, just for old times sake) takes advantage of some cool Drupal capabilities -- real-time tracking of popular and highly commented articles, a custom-built taxonomy-based "Explore Related" box on every article page -- and also includes improvements I've been jonesing for like share boxes and a liquid layout (finally!) that takes advantage of the full browser page size. I also tweaked the design specs a bit (I'm using a custom variant of the Fervens theme), and created a new version of the Paul Verlaine logo (just for fun).
Website redesigns often trigger the "Wow Effect", named after the word people say when a favorite website suddenly changes. This is often followed by the depressing realization that it's the same old website with different colors and fonts. Personally, I like to avoid the whole "Wow Effect" ordeal by releasing changes gradually, and you may have noticed some of the changes leading up to this redesign going up in the past few weeks. I'm still far from done, and will also be experimenting with Semantic Web features as well as some custom database algorithms I've been dreaming up for the various "featured article" lists.
I'm also going to completely reinvent the Action Poetry pages, but that'll take another month. Please bear with me as this proceeds, and please email me or post a comment if the pages do not display correctly on your browser or device -- thanks.
2. J. D. Salinger. Hmm. By any rational calculation, I'd be very drawn to J. D. Salinger, a brainy New York Jew who emerged in the 1950s, became a superstar, became a Buddhist, and retreated from the world. I admire Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and most of the short stories, though I never understood the gigantic appeal of Catcher in the Rye. On the other hand, my two daughters both like the book very much, and Elizabeth even wrote about him for LitKicks when she was 15.
Still, his work never fully grabbed me. What I can't relate to about J. D. Salinger is that joylessness, that dread of life. I can't relate to that at all. His Buddhism is clearly very different from mine.
As far as classic writers from the 1950s and 1960s go, I'll take the ecstatic Jack Kerouac over the morbid J. D. Salinger any day. Still, I salute an American original who certainly, if nothing else, stuck to his principles. I'll pay some attention if unpublished manuscripts come out. Till then, the New Yorker has a nice tribute display of several of his short stories originally published in that magazine. The Onion, meanwhile, must have had this ready in advance.
3. Somebody went to an art museum and fell into a Picasso. And not one of those late period Picasso lithograph cartoons that you see all over the place -- this was a serious Picasso, from the "Rose Period" just before Cubism. I always wanted to go to an art museum and do something like that.
4. Words Without Borders, which also has a new look, is highlighting Georges Perec.
5. Bookslut's Michael Schaub on the new Patti Smith memoir, about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
7. Sure, I got some Beat Generation links. The movie Howl is coming out soon. This is a big deal and I wish the filmmakers would let me see a preview already. Then: Ginsberg's photographs, Gary Snyder communing with hardware, Jack Kerouac in Detroit, Ginger Eades's blog. Okay.
8. What the Los Angeles Lakers are reading. Nice to see 60s classics Edward Abbey and Eldridge Cleaver on this list!
10. Is somebody making money off of slush piles? Why shouldn't they?
11. Okay, I had something cool planned for today's redesign launch: an interview with Up In The Air novelist Walter Kirn. We talk about technology, careers, literature and how it feels to become a George Clooney movie. I decided to devote the day to Bananafish instead, so I'll be presenting this exciting interview (really) on Monday. Friday is hiphop day again.
1. Forest Hills. I don't know these people but I feel like I do.
There's a short story by Max Beerbohm, published in 1919, that sometimes comes up in philosophy classes. "Enoch Soames, a Memory of the Eighteen-Nineties" tells the story of Max Beerbohm, the author-as-character-within-the-novel, and his encounter with Enoch Soames, an unsuccessful writer and hanger-on in the London cafe scene in the 1890s. Enoch is frustrated that no one recognizes his genius, so he makes a deal with the devil to go forward in time and read about himself in the future where, he is sure, history will vindicate him.
In due course he and Max meet the devil himself in one of the cafes, and Enoch disappears, to pop up in 1997, where he searches the British Library to find out what we've thought of him. Some time later, he reappears back in the cafe, despondent. Before the devil spirits him away he explains to Max that he found only one reference to himself, in a work of fiction -- a short story by Max Beerbohm! And then he and the devil disappear. Max-the-character explains that he feels compelled to write this story about Enoch, as it will be the only way his friend will be known at all, despite the fact that it will be classified as fiction. He begs us to take it as biography.
The philosophical problem is, who and what is Enoch Soames? Within the framework of the story, are we to take him as fictional (as we do, and as the author-as-author does), or as "real," as both Enoch and the author-as-character insist that we should? The logical knots in this seemingly simple puzzle have yet to be fully untangled.
1. A Gulliver playground in Valencia, Spain.
2. Beat poet Andy Clausen on YouTube.
3. Amazingly, the Velvet Underground will be reuniting at the New York Public Library, though I'm not clear if this will be a talk, a musical performance or both. It's sad that late sweet-toned lead guitarist Sterling Morrison will be missing, but it's a nice surprise to see the reemergence of Doug Yule, who is widely disliked for replacing the great John Cale on bass after Reed kicked Cale out, but who helped them record their best album.
4. Jerome's Niece, a Buddhist poetry blog.
5. Onetime Heeb writer Jason Diamond offers a "Kaddish for Jewish Zines".
6. In the end, after a sluggish start, Electric Literature's much-discussed experiment with Twitter fiction turned up an excellent Rick Moody story about relationship anxiety, thwarted love and people who cling to their phones on dates. An excellent Rick Moody story, that is, but not necessarily an excellent Twitter story. Moody focused on the 140 character limit, but I think Twitter's most distinguishing feature is not its character count but its pacing and easy interpersonal immediacy (note: you can follow me on Twitter here). It became clear why Moody missed this when he revealed in an interview that he'd taken on this project because Electric Literature had asked him to, not because he had any actual interest in Twitter. There are many writers who do get Twitter -- say, Colson Whitehead, who is marvelous at it -- and I hope Electric Lit will turn to one of these writers for their next foray. Overall: great publicity, moving story, well done all around.
7. There will not be a Literary Kicks Best Books of 2009 list. Please excuse my grumpiness, but I mostly find these aggregate lists annoying and unremarkable. I do like to read personal lists of lifelong favorites by smart readers, but I don't care for annual lists or lists put together by groups.
8. Henry Rollins visits Bhopal, site of a chemical plant disaster 25 years ago.
9. For database techies, here's NoSQL. Elsewhere, here's just plain No.
10. I don't agree with this. I'm amazed at how good "The Office" manages to be, season after season. Sure, there are ups and downs, but this is one of those rare shows -- like "Twin Peaks", like "The Honeymooners" -- that represents television's ascent to the realm of literature. I will watch it until Jim and Pam drop dead.
1. A creepy publicity stunt involving flies carrying little paper advertisements at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Doesn't this make you feel bad for the flies?
2. San Francisco Beat/hippie poet Lenore Kandel has died at the age of 77. Here's an appreciation of her work by John Yates.
3. Carl Jung's awesome visual side.
4. A detailed financial biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (And why not? Money was certainly among his major themes).
5. East Village poetry legend and perennial Presidential candidate Sparrow and LitKicks poet Mickey Z. are creating a poetry anthology together and they say:
Calling all feminists, wizards, Queer theorists, ex-Black Panthers, Christians, Green activists, avant-gardists, Kabbalists, vegans, Hawaiian nationalists, kickboxers, Punks, Hip Hop evangelists, New New Leftists, pink-haired emo warriors, organic gardeners -- submit your work for "The Big Book of Revolutionary Poetry," edited by Sparrow and Mickey Z. Send up to 3 poems to: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Go for it, I say.
6. Guernica Magazing is turning 5! Jonathan Ames, Howard Zinn, Katie Halper, Mia Farrow and David Byrne will be joining the party this Wednesday, October 28. Wish I could make it (but I can't).
7. The eternal philosophical battle over the real-life ethics of German intellectual Martin Heidegger goes on. Personally, I don't agonize over Heidegger's Nazi past, because I never thought much of his work. You can find the same message -- the utter immediacy of existence -- in Nietzsche or Kierkegaard or Sartre, and with a lot more finesse and humor.
8. Building a brain inside a supercomputer. And here I am just trying to get Drupal to work.
9. I recently posted about Fall 2009 books I'm looking forward to; little did I know that Orhan Pamuk and Kurt Vonnegut books were coming out too ...
10. Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid is rocking the cash registers. My stepdaughter reads these books and I think they're hilarious.
11. I love this, from McSweeneys: YouTube Comment, of e. e. cummings?.
12. HTMLGiant on Glimmer Train: "Winning one of their ubiquitous contests is like winning $2 on a $2 scratch ticket or a free small soda during McDonald’s Monopoly promotion." They also admit that Glitter Train was once "a decent, if not rather traditional literary magazine". I used to read them, but I don't read print literary journals much at all anymore.
13. If you've been reading my memoir, some of these events will be familiar: A History of the Internet from 1969 to Today.
14. Speaking of bygone times, one-time high-rolling community website GeoCities is shutting down. Caryn is sad about this, and xkcd posted a tribute.
Somewhere in anonymous middle America, in the bygone era of Andy Warhol and Richard Nixon, an idealistic and hardworking writer and editor strains to put out another issue of his groundbreaking literary journal, Soap. He supports himself as a landlord, but his impoverished tenants are often unable to pay him. His marriage has recently fallen apart, and his financial situation is quickly getting worse. The Cry of the Sloth, a bitter, hilarious and joyously sad novel by Sam Savage, consists of the letters this editor writes during the worst season of his life.
The epistolary form is as old as the novel itself, but the clever satirist Sam Savage makes it fresh by adding a spooky layer of unreality to this desperate letters this besieged editor writes. He contradicts himself, flatters himself, blatantly lies, invents identities, attempts (without much success) to manipulate anyone who falls into his orbit, and pleads nakedly for love. It's not clear which of these letters actually get sent, but it is clear that this poor narrator is losing his mind.
Savage sets up a great metaphor by alternating his hero's sarcastic pleas to tenants for rent payments with his similarly sarcastic rejection letters to poets and authors who submit their work to Soap. In his landlord letters, he is asking others for something, but they have nothing to give. In his editorial correspondence, others are asking him for something -- publication, literary fame -- and he cannot give this either. He clearly finds these needy writers pathetic, even as he is needy and pathetic himself. He has a hard time seeing them as individuals instead of a grasping mass, as he inadvertently reveals with responses like this:
Dear Mr. Poltavski,
In response to your request for submission guidelines, I enclose our standard statement. I wish more people would ask for guidelines before submitting inappropriate material that wastes my time as well as theirs. And thank you for including a stamped return envelope, which not enough of you do either.
Andrew Whitaker, Editor
As the rent situation worsens, he begins to lose his cool completely:
Dear Mrs. Lessep,
Thanks for letting us read, once again, "The Mistletoe's Little Shoes." After careful consideration, we have concluded that this work still does not meet our needs. I am sorry you were misled by the phrase "does not meet our needs at this time" into thinking that you should submit it again. In the publishing world, "at this time" really means "forever".
Editor at Soap
Things get steadily worse, and our hero's sanity begins to unwind. He attempts a half-hearted flirtation with a teenage poet who writes about horses. He fantasizes about putting on a glorious literary festival in his small city, and battles with the local arts council representatives who obstruct his plans. He writes lonely letters to his ex-wife and attempts to befriend Norman Mailer. It's all very funny, as his egotistical self-deceptions thicken into a fatal mess. We hear one side of the story, and can only imagine the reactions these letters get: it's like a Bob Newhart comedy routine as told by Dostoevsky.
Cry of the Sloth is Sam Savage's second novel, and it's similar to his first, Firmin, which was a Litblog Coop selection as well as a surprising sensation in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Firmin was not a breakthrough hit in the USA, though it should have been, and this may be because it was about a rodent. Mark Sarvas passed over the book during the Morning News 2007 Tournament of Books, and cited this as one major reason: "Savage gives it his best shot, and at times Firmin is an affecting presence. But in the final analysis, he’s a rat and his plight never feels real because rats don’t think, talk, or write books!"
This is a valid point, and the good news is that The Cry of the Sloth offers the same sensibility and tragic trajectory as Firmin but is about a human being (the animal named in the book's title is purely metaphorical). I was thrilled by Firmin but I think the new novel is even better. It also reminds me a bit of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, another comic novel about a desperate middle-aged literateur, and I think it's better than The Anthologist too. I love this book, I recommend it highly, and I hope it is eventually recognized as a classic satire of the literary life.
2. Herta Mueller writes about Romania during the painful years of the Nicolai Ceausecsu regime, and coincidentally I've been reading a impressive new novel about the same subject, Velvet Totalitarianism by Claudia Moscovici. You can find an excerpt from the introduction on the author's MySpace page.
1. I think it's pretty amazing that Google is putting deep newspaper archives online, including not only the Halifax Gazette (1753 issue, pictured above) but the complete Village Voice, dating back to the 1950s. You know the phrase "An embarrassment of riches"? This is, to me, an embarrassment of archives, because I want to read it all but I just don't know where I will find the time.
2. Words Without Borders presents Into The Wild: International Nature Writing. Nice.
3. Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club, on what it is about Dante.
4. Why Dante? Why Plato? Personally, I get much more out of Plato than Dante, but then I'm not Catholic. Nor Guelph.
5. Somebody's putting on a play about Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish (always a favorite poem of mine).
6. "Fingerblast" is a music video by Adira Amram, who is clearly channeling the "She-bop"-era 1980s.
7. Speaking of the 1980s, it's a fact that John Hughes was among the best comedy film directors of all time (though, let's be honest, he managed to be great exactly three times -- Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, Ferris -- and was otherwise way too willing to churn out profitable but repetitive junk). I remember reading him in National Lampoon magazine before he switched to film, and I hope National Lampoon will consider publishing a retrospective of his early work there. Or maybe Google will eventually index the Lampoon archives.
8. Speaking of the 1980s, here's Mike Watt at the Bowery Poetry Club, remembering the Minutemen.
9. Jay Diamond appreciates Jay-Z.
10. Bobby McFerrin does something a lot cooler than "Don't Worry, Be Happy".
12. David Updike writes about his father.
13. I'm confused why, if great singer Nick Cave has written a book, he's now singing it. Maybe he knows what he's doing, but I don't, because to me this kind of kills the novelty of Nick Cave creating a book instead of another record.
14. Richard Nash on the end of indie culture. "Which is OK, because it won. Open source, Twitter. Indie won. Etsy. The irresistible decline of major labels and network TV and corporate publishing. Indie won." Now what?
Two authors whose previous novels were celebrated by the now-defunct Litblog Co-op have outdone themselves with their next books. I've read galleys of both Katharine Weber's True Confections and Sam Savage's The Cry of the Sloth and I'm happy to report that readers have a lot to look forward to in both cases.
Katharine Weber's last novel Triangle was about an industrial fire, a subject so stark it made her comic sensibility hard to catch (though, certainly, it was there). Her new novel is about a screwed-up family that owns a small candy empire, and it's a slender tour de force. I will be writing more about this book soon, and till then here's a side-product of Weber's research: an article in Tablet (formerly Nextbook) about Jewish families in the candy business.
Sam Savage, meanwhile, wrote a novel called Firmin that didn't break through in his home country but became a bestseller in Italy. Firmin was about a literary rat who suffers in loneliness, and new soon-to-be-released The Cry of the Sloth is about a literary human who suffers in loneliness. I will be writing more about this delightful and surprising book too.
On a different front, meanwhile, news has just come down that the Queens rapper Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest) is writing a book about his life. I have very high hopes for this one. Q-Tip has been a brainy and sensitive lyricist from Description of a Fool to Stir It Up (he's also the only hip-hop artist I bother to continue to follow on twitter). I'm looking forward to reading his entire story, and I hope there's a lot about his friendship and collaboration with the equally talented Phife Dawg.
What else am I looking forward to? Sure, what the hell, I'm going to read the new Dan Brown novel The Lost Symbol when it comes out. Dan Brown is no Katharine Weber or Sam Savage ... but Da Vinci Code kept me going till the end, and I'm intrigued by the new book's Washington D.C. locale.
I like everything Jonathan Ames does, though I don't think he's ever equaled Wake Up Sir!, his perfect homage to P. G. Wodehouse. His new essay collection The Double Life is Twice as Good didn't win the approval of Carolyn Kellogg, but I bet his new HBO tv show Bored to Death will be more exciting.
Jag Bhalla's I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around The World looks like a fun read.
Sue William Silverman's Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir is reminding me to work on my own memoir, which will probably pick up again next week. I've enjoyed the break, but it's time to get back to work.
And if you aren't interested in any of these good books but just want to relish the joys of really bad (funny bad) books of the past, go to the Awful Library Books blog and have a feast.
1. For your Bloomsday enjoyment: comic strip artist Robert Berry is visualizing James Joyce's Ulysses. This project appears to be off to a great start.
2. More Bloomsday action: Dovegreyreader on a new book called Ulysses and Us by Declan Kibberd.
3. Farewell to poet Harold Norse.
4. It must be a good sign that somewhere inside the giant paradox that is the nation of Iran, they are loving the inventive and hilarious early writings of Woody Allen.
5. I did not know that novelist Roxana Robinson was a member of the Beecher family. But what's this about Lord Warburton being the man Isabel Archer should have married? I was rooting for Ralph Touchett.
6. The word technology is derived from the same root as textile.
7. We need a poetry reality show right here in the USA.
8. A digital Gutenberg would be nice to look at.
9. What could it possibly have been like to be married to Harold Pinter? Fortunately claims Antonia Fraser, it was not a Pinteresque experience.
10. "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?" (Or, I'd like to add, one man).
11. Eric Rosenfeld appreciates Thomas Pynchon's use of description.
12. Kafka Tribute in New York
13. Michelle Obama reads Zadie Smith, a better choice (in my opinion) than her husband's Joseph O'Neill. (Barack is also cited as reading What is the What?, a good choice though not exactly fiction).
14. The Who's Quadrophenia GS Scooter has been sold at an auction. (Though it's from the movie, not the record album photo shoot).
15. Via Bookninja, what the book you're reading really says about you.