2. Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press has kicked off a promising new book-biz blog, Black Plastic Glasses, with a provocative argument: e-books must fail, because the pricing structure cannot support the production of books on the same scale as the current print-based model. However, Schnittman paints the current state of publishing as a near-disaster, rife with inflated advances and high return rates. He describes a brisk business in hardcover mass shipments that bring in cash flow even though the publishers eventually have to return the money for unsold inventory, which sounds like the same kind of pyramid-scheme con game as securitized subprime mortgages or credit default swaps. What's Schnitmann up to here? His article seems to be trying to bury the current book publishing model even as it pretends to praise it.
3. I enjoyed participating in (and telling you about) a Vol 1 music/storytelling event at Matchless Cafe in Brooklyn last year. The next installment takes place April 9 and features a six-word story (memoir) slam. Should be something to see!
4. The folks behind HBO's under-appreciated Def Poetry Jam are trying a new angle. Brave New Voices, a reality show about competing poetry slam teams from around the USA, debuts on April 5.
5. The Morning News' 2009 Tournament of Books, always a rousing encounter, ends with a surprise victory for Toni Morrison's A Mercy, narrowly beating out Tom Piazza's City of Refuge. I guess I'll have to read A Mercy now. I liked Beloved more than I expected to, and I expect I'll like this one too.
6. Get a personalized Penguin Classic paperback (like, say, this one). Neat.
7. John Updike's Pennsylvania.
8. Oxford University Press's list of obscure literary terms offers some nice surprises. I now know that I've experienced jouissance, that I dislike the use of adynaton, that I've been writing a feuilleton, and that hapax legomenon is the pre-Internet version of googlewhack. Good stuff.
9. Andrew Sullivan is absolutely right that the legal harassment of marijuana smokers, many of them honorable and hardworking citizens "in the closet", is an abomination that needs to end.
10. Barnes and Noble Review reviews Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug, also featuring Will Elder, Arnold Roth, Jack Davis and Al Jaffee.
I'm often unimpressed when a hot new writer gets big front-page treatment on the cover of the NYTBR and everywhere else (I still have bad memories of last year's "Joseph O'Neill is the new F. Scott Fitzgerald" craze). Today's up-and-comer is Wells Tower, the book is called Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (which sounds a bit Jonathan Safran Foer, but okay) and the reviewer is Edmund White, who does fairly convincing work. I'll spend some time giving this book a chance. White's closing paragraph is especially nice:
I once wondered why Surrealism never really caught on as a literary strategy in America. Wells Tower makes me think that nothing bizarre someone might dream up could ever be as strange as American life as we live it. The "beyond" that the Surrealists talked about so much, the au-dela, is America itself.
Here's a nifty surprise: graphic novelist Alison Bechdel has written (drawn?) a review of Jane Vandenburgh's autobiographical A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century as a comic strip. The Book Review is clearly embracing the comix-lit form with open arms (they began running a bestseller list for graphic books last week), and it's a very refreshing touch. Does the format actually serve the medium well? In Bechdel's capable hands, it does, though the cartoonist's pleasing work inadvertently upstages the book she's reviewing. Also, it's a bit shameless for the NYTBR to go on and on about the originality of this concept in an "Up Front" editor's note, when in fact this is a straight-up Ward Sutton bite. The Book Review gets points for trying this experiment, but they shouldn't act like they invented the idea.
Other good articles today include a memorable consideration of Anne Carson's casual/contemporary translation of a newly arranged Oresteia (a trilogy custom-assembled from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripidies) by Brad Leithauser, who contrasts Carson's colloquial work with Richard Lattimore's dignified classic 1953 translation and concludes that poet Robert Lowell struck the best balance of all.
More pleasures of the canon are found in Rich Cohen excellent evaluation of David Plotz's Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, a collection of blog posts originally published on Slate. And Charles McGrath fills us in Michael Holroyd's A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families (I've been interested in 19th Century celebrity/actor Henry Irving since reading about him in George Grossmith's hilarious Diary of a Nobody).
There are other articles that appear worthwhile today, but I have a very busy weekend planned and will have to skip a few. Consider it my 5% attention cut.
There's a popular misunderstanding that big bonuses were a symptom of the problem at companies like Lehman Brothers and Citibank and AIG. In fact these bonuses were not a symptom but a cause of the problem. How can a financier justify a seven-figure salary/bonus every year? Not with honest investment in honest business, not year after year -- that's not how honest business works. The system of hedge funds and risk management and credit default swaps grew to support the illusion that high finance could produce infinite wealth and infinite growth, and this system was not rotten at the edges but rotten to the core. A bank or insurance company that pays large numbers of employees millions of dollars a year will inevitably have to resort to deceptive or dishonest practices to maintain that excessive level of reward.
Personally, my private prescription for our sick economy can be found in the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau. But it's hard to translate this into public policy, so on a more practical level what I want is strong permanent salary caps for executives who manage companies our government considers "too big to fail". If they're too big to fail, then they're too big to be entrusted to high-rollers with dollar signs in their eyes.
2. I've been spending a lot of time in Washington DC lately, and may have to miss PEN World Voices in New York City this year. If so, I'll be missing a really good lineup including Paul Auster, Lou Reed, Muriel Barbery, Mark Danielewski, Neil Gaiman, Paul Krugman, Michael Ondaatje, Parker Posey (?) (okay), Francine Prose, Laila Lalami, Esther Allen, Daniel Mendelsohn, Jonathan Ames, Roxana Robinson, Niall Ferguson, John Freeman, Richard Ford,Wesley (John Wesley Harding) Stace, Philip Gourevitch, Lynne Tillman, Bob Holman, A. M. Homes and a whole lot of international authors I've barely or never heard of but would probably benefit from hearing from. If you can go to this, I urge you to do so.
3. Speaking of Thoreau: "Henry David Thoreau is one of those authors that readers think they know, even if they don’t." I agree with that. I haven't yet seen Robert Sullivan's The Thoreau You Don't Know, but the basic idea as described on this website sounds good to me.
4. According to GalleyCat, Robert Crumb's next masterwork will be an illustrated Book of Genesis.
5. I'm the kind of guy whose idea of fun is to sit around talking about the meaning of postmodernism (which I feel I understand perfectly). But this article by Andrew Seal (via Scott Esposito, who liked it) is terribly written: At any rate, de Onís also theorized a bifurcation in the set of reactions to modernism: 'postmodernismo' was "a conservative reflux within modernism itself: one which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humour, whose most original feature was the newly authentic expression it afforded women" (4). Postmodernism was a fading light, however, to be succeeded quickly by 'ultramodernismo', its opposite, an intensification of "the radical impulses of modernism to a new pitch" (ibid.) Anderson returns frequently to this basic division. That ain't postmodern.
6. Bob Dylan's new album is apparently inspired by the fiction of Larry Brown, an author I've never read. I best get reading.
7.. Appreciating Edgar Keret.
8. I got your Wild Things right here.
At Conversations in the Book Trade, blogger Levi Asher is interviewed; he does less than well, I'd say. He claims that 'There is no decline in reading,' that electronic content 'will soon dominate the publishing field' and argues 'You can see a movie or download a record album for about ten bucks. That's the correct price point. New books come out with price tags between $24 and $30 and then they wonder why the whole industry is suffering. Somebody's out of touch with the consumer here . . .' He's been banging this expensive drum for a while. Put the first assertion and the last together, and try to make some sense of it in the context of every reputable study being done that shows a decline in reading in America; Levi is either fooling himself or trying to will the world into the image of his choosing. Aside from that, the average price of a CD in 2008 was $12.95 so Britney Spears' album was that price; the equivalent of Ms. Spears would be, say, a Grisham novel, and The Innocent Man (2007) has a list price of $7.99 in softcover. Newer and less popular albums cost more, as it is with books. Hardcovers are pricey, and for a smaller market, but books are not generally too expensive. And as long as used books are $3.00 or so, and the library is free, digital readers are still a ways off.
Not so quick there, Daniel. First, a Britney Spears CD costs $12.95 when it's new. A John Grisham novel costs between $24 and $30 when it's new and getting media attention, and then drops in price a full year later, after reviewers and award committees have forgotten the book exists. This self-defeating "buzz-kill" effect doesn't exist in music publishing or any other industry -- in fact, some music publishers wisely release CDs at reduced prices to increase their chances of building audience momentum. Movie tickets cost slightly more when a movie is brand new, but the difference is small relative to the total price. Sorry, Dan, but you're wrong on this one.
Also, there is no contradiction between my first point that reading remains widely popular and my second point that the mainstream/corporate publishing industry is suffering. "Reading" and "publishing industry product" are not the same thing. The literary publishing industry in the USA is clearly unable to find the right format and price point to appeal to consumers, and consumers are increasingly bypassing the mainstream/corporate publishing industry's preferred formats for this reason. Does that mean we're not reading? Hell no, hell no, hell no!
According to Ron Hogan at GalleyCat, quoting a recent press release from the Association of American Publishers:
Adult hardcover sales were down 10.3 percent in December and down 13 percent for the year, but adult paperbacks saw a 12.5 percent increase in sales for the month and a 3.6 percent increase for the year. Adult mass market sales, though, are reported as down 3.0 percent for the year, and we can't help but wonder if that has anything to do with the 68.4 percent increase in electronic book sales in 2008 and certain genre reading tastes.
See what I'm saying, Daniel? Sorry, but I'm claiming myself as the victor in this argument. And there's plenty of good stuff happening on the affordable paperback books front -- see my recent post about Jason Epstein and the Espresso Book Machine.
2. A superb recent Words Without Borders panel discussion featuring Edith Grossman and Eduardo Lago on Don Quixote reminded me how much I'd enjoyed Edith Grossman's translation (it's not like I've read any other translation, but you know what I mean) of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love In the Time of Cholera. The film version of this great novel recently turned up on a cable channel and I sat through it. Awful, horrible, seriously not good.
3. A few favorite literary New York City personalities have been releasing good new stuff lately. The spooky and moody East Village presence known as Edgar Oliver, whose written and theatrical works I've enjoyed in the past, got a great review from Ben Brantley of the New York Times for his East 10th Street: Self-Portrait With Empty House. Poet Simon Pettet has a new book out, Hearth. And, here's the YouTube debut of New Jersey poet Eliot Katz reading his poem "Death and War".
4. Some cool new Poe graphics via Books Are People Too (yes they are).
5. Poet W. S. Merwin on Design Observer: Unchopping a Tree
6. I was admonished via email to pay more attention to independent bookstores and link to Indiebound.org. I'm not as obsessed with indie bookstores vs. chain bookstores as some other book-lovers are for two reasons: I'm allergic to cats, and Barnes and Noble/Borders restrooms can sometimes really come in handy. Still, I'm down with the cause.
7. This just sucks: the Times Square Virgin Records mega-store (which also had good restrooms, and a basement bookstore!) is closing down. Shea Stadium, now this.
8. Katharine Weber at Readerville: Dear J. D. Salinger.
9. Nigeness contemplates The Wine-Dark Sea.
10. John Updike, cartoonist fanboy.
11. Roald Dahl's Writing Hut.
12. Daniel Scott Buck's The Kissing Bug gets some 3:AM praise.
13. Barnes and Noble review gets visual with Ward Sutton.
14. Dan Green's literary blog The Reading Experience has launched the blog equivalent of a Greatest Hits album, TRE Prime.
15. I'm looking forward to Summertime, apparently the next J. M. Coetzee novel. When Coetzee writes about summertime, you can just bet the living will not be easy.
16. The Shirley Jackson Awards committee is holding a lottery. Though they picked the wrong month -- remember: "lottery in June, corn be heavy soon".
17. Via Q-Tip The Abstract, of all people, this Mars Volta performance on David Letterman is something special.
1. The Washington Post's Sunday literary supplement Book World is indeed being discontinued. I'll have something to say about this in my weekend write-up of the New York Times Book Review, aka "Last One Standing".
2. Dostoevskaya Station (not in St. Petersburg but in Moscow).
3. Can you read with music? When I was a kid, I always read with music on. Now I prefer not to.
4. A surprisingly good map of heavy metal band names.
5. Grace Paley: the Film
6. Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a Holocaust film.
7. Archie Andrews of Riverdale. You know who I'm talking about.
8. Mad Magazine is going quarterly. Hmm.
9. I'm going to be participating in a Israel/Gaza peace/aid event at McNally Jackson bookstore in New York City on Saturday, February 7. More on this soon ...
10. John "Jim" Krasinski's David Foster Wallace Brief Interviews with Hideous Men film debuted at Sundance! Very cool.
11. Richard Brautigan's great short novel In Watermelon Sugar is now a dance.
12. Does literary fiction suffer from dysfunctional pricing?
13. The mysterious etymology of Oh Snap.
14. The last is definitely not the least: Kurt Vonnegut Motivational Posters.
It took about two seconds for me to fall for De Eenzame Snelweg, a paperback chronicle of an American journey by two young Dutch Kerouac aficionados, writer Auke Hulst and artist Raoul Deleo. The book Hulst sent me has not been translated into English (the title apparently means The Lonely Highway), but it's enough to scan and enjoy the sensitive and funny continuous cartoon strip that runs across the entire text, following a journey from New York City to San Francisco by way of Nebraska and Denver and the other usual Keroauc stops from On The Road (though, unfortunately, Hulst and Deleo don't make it to New Orleans, an essential corner in On The Road). These tourists have fun with their Kerouac -- a "Bear Crossing" road sign inspires an artistic examination of God as Pooh Bear, and I bet Jack himself would have loved the jazzy drawing of the Lombard Street Shuffle ("the world's crookedest dance") in San Francisco, where they also visit the Beat Museum. The book smoothly captures and transmits the excitement Hulst and Deleo feel as they travel in Kerouac's path. And, as the photo of the artist's rig above shows, the artwork is a scroll.
I first read Jack Kerouac's Wake Up when it was serialized in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle over ten years ago. This is an earnest, almost artless biography of Siddhartha Guatama, the sheltered prince who left his comfortable palace and became the Buddha 2500 years ago. Buddhism clearly brought out Kerouac's most reverent instincts, as the prose appears to have been carefully written and bears few marks of his signature "spontaneous" style. It's clear that Jack Kerouac felt a strong personal connection to the story of the once-spoiled wandering prince who struggled so hard to understand the meaning of desire in human existence. Wake Up, unpublished during Kerouac's life, has finally been released in book form, and seems to be more valuable than many other recent releases of unpublished Kerouac work. The book may surprise or enlighten readers who are not familiar with the spiritual aspect of Kerouac's literary mission.
The sympathetic and peace-loving Buddhist religion was always essential to the Beat Generation mindset, and it was a strong influence in the life of the magnetic and eclectic New York City semi-Beat, semi-Warholian poet John Giorno. Subdoing Demons In America: Selected Poems 1962-2007 is one of the more appealing poetry books I've seen in a while. Giorno's very approachable and casual verses remind me of the best of the short poems that often show up here on LitKicks Action Poetry. Urbane, experimental and user-friendly, they are often grounded in day-to-day experience. One poem simply contains the lyrics to the chorus of the Rolling Stones song "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" (a Buddhist plea, of course) and others seem to transcribe subway signs or the directions on a tube of suntan lotion. Unlike much of what passes for poetry these days, these sensitive, crafty verses will never leave you mystified or bored.
Three new and worthwhile Beat Generation books! 2009 is shaping up well. I'm also looking forward to catching a rare East Coast appearance by poet Gary Snyder at the New York Public Library this Saturday, January 31 at 3 pm. Gary Snyder's career is celebrated in another new book, the Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, which I haven't yet had a chance to read.
I've been reading about various literary film adaptations lately -- Revolutionary Road, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Spirit, even a possible new Great Gatsby directed by Baz Luhrmann. This onslaught caused me to flash back to a vintage Mad Magazine comic (originally published before I was born, but available in countless reprints such as these). Here are the great Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis riffing on what happens when a book becomes a movie. First, we see the opening segment from their hypothetical novel:
And here's how the corresponding movie made from the novel starts:
Dash blast the gosh darned blankety heck! It's well known that the Kurtzman-era Mad comics of the 50s were among the high points of 20th Century civilization. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't get much better than Book! Movie! by Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis from Mad #13, July 1954.
Still, I am not interested in writing about the "gift book" marketplace here on LitKicks, and I am concerned that book publishers seem to be hedging their bets lately by raising prices and trying to profit by margin rather than volume. I'd rather they try the gutsier move of lowering prices and allowing readers to buy more books. So, I decided to skip reviewing last week's New York Times Book Review, but I did not mean to minimize the achievements of those authors and publishers who produced the expensive books in this issue, nor of the critics who reviewed these books.
There's another reason I had to skimp on my Review Review last week, and why I'm going to skimp again this week: I've been extra busy lately, and sometimes I just can't devote enough attention to a NYTBR to deliver a proper review. I'm also cooking up an exciting new project for 2009 here on LitKicks (more soon), so I'm just going to have to deliver a short summary again this week, even though today's worthy issue holds much literary interest, without a travel or gardening book in sight.
The best piece is innovative novelist Tom McCarthy's debut NYTBR appearance with a review of Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. McCarthy likes the book, and some of his observations recall the strange thrills contained within his own Remainder, especially this passage:
For [Henri] Bergson, comedy entailed a tendency toward the mechanical. People, gestures and events become like automata -- compressed, sprung, interlocked and endlessly repeating. Not for nothing does the action in "Camera" take place among automobiles: contraptions whose very name encodes self-generated motion without end. The hero’s repeated trysts with the driving-school secretary (the book’s only -- and magnificently derisory -- nod in the direction of plot) play out amid a mechanized landscape whose kinetic and linguistic rules must be learned and negotiated: gear-shifting, reverse-parking, street signage and game moves, on and off the board.
This issue also offers Louisa Thomas on Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed, Lorraine Adams on Sherry Jones's The Jewel of Medina, Douglas Wolk on Art Spiegelman's Breakdowns, Jonathan Ames The Alcoholic and David Heatley My Brain is Hanging Upside Down and Steve Coates on Martial's Epigrams, a selection of "bawdy poems" from 1st Century Rome translated and introduced by Garry Wills. Dive in yourself and enjoy, and I'll be back in full force next weekend.
1. I recently visited a gallery in downtown New York to see Malcolm McNeill's Ah Pook Is Here, a vast, never-published collaboration with William S. Burroughs. McNeill was a young graphic artist coming up in swinging 1960s London when a magazine called Cyclops asked him to illustrate a comic strip for a Burroughs text called The Unspeakable Mr. Hart. McNeill and Burroughs had never met when this piece was published, but Burroughs sought out the artist who'd captured his uncanny likeness in the work, suggesting they collaborate on an ambitious project called Ah Pook Is Here.
Apparently based on the legend of Ah Puch, the Mayan God of Death, Ah Pook is Here is as inscrutable as any Burroughs text, and features many signature Burroughs tropes -- mob scenes, strange societies, contrasting urban and jungle environments, omnisexual beings. It's a fascinating and attractive work, and I enjoyed chatting with the artist at the show. I asked him what it all meant, and he replied that he found the meaning of the work within his long and happy friendship with the late Burroughs (whose visage seems to appear in various places within the collection's many pieces). Malcolm McNeill, who stresses that he does his work in physical media rather than Photoshop, bristled when I asked which comic artists had inspired him. "I don't see this as comic art," he said, instead citing Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon as key influences. See for yourself at the Saloman Arts Gallery in downtown Manhattan till December 14.
2. Belgian artist Guy Peellaert of Rock Dreams and Diamond Dogs fame has died.
3. Slavoj Zizek says "Use Your Illusions" in the London Review of Books:
"The reason Obama's victory generated such enthusiasm is not only that, against all odds, it really happened: it demonstrated the possibility of such a thing happening. The same goes for all great historical ruptures -- think of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although we all knew about the rotten inefficiency of the Communist regimes, we didn't really believe that they would disintegrate -- like Kissinger, we were all victims of cynical pragmatism. Obama's victory was clearly predictable for at least two weeks before the election, but it was still experienced as a surprise."
4. Whose illusion? It's hilarious that authorities in China are protesting the new Guns 'n' Roses album Chinese Democracy, seeing the title as a call for Western-style democracy in their nation. Who ever looks to Axl Rose for insights into global politics? In case anybody's wondering, the title appears to be a self-mocking comparison to Chairman Mao's totalitarean leadership style (Mao used to claim, against all evidence, that China was a democracy). Axl Rose has kicked every other member of Guns 'n' Roses out, and apparently "Chinese democracy" is the only kind of democracy anyone should expect within Guns 'n' Roses now that Chairman Axl is in charge. As for the long-awaited record itself, I think it's pretty good, though I need to give it a few more listens before I reach a conclusive decision.
5. 50 Cent's The Money and the Power is probably the meanest reality show competition ever. Instead of "The tribe has spoken" or "You're fired", 50's (bleeped) exit line is "Get the fuck outta here". You know I'm a fool for good reality TV shows, and so far this is one of the good ones.
6. Carolyn Kellogg admires Johnny Rotten's excellent autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, recently reissued by Picador.
7. I didn't know there was a poetry series, "Poems and Pints", at historic Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan's financial district. We already missed Paul Muldoon and Mark Strand, but there's still time to catch Dana Goodyear, Katy Lederer, Sharon Olds and many others.
8. Bob Holman and Papa Susso on the Griot Trail in West Africa.
9. The complete Allan Sherman boxed set.
10. A dead Shakespearean makes his stage debut ... as Yorick.
Legendary underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson was found lying unconscious on a San Francisco street, possibly the victim of a hit-and-run or a mugging. He is in serious condition (but improving) at San Francisco General Hospital, but will not be able to pay his medical bills. Jeff Weinberg of Water Row Books (which has supported his work for decades) sends this note:
"I have started to ask my customers to help S. Clay Wilson by donating whatever small amount they can to help him out this holiday season. As a self-employed artist, he's screwed. Every little bit can help. All gifts will be designated on a card I'll send Wilson with every angel's name and address.
Please make check out to 'S. Clay Wilson' and mail it to Water Row Books, PO Box 438 Sudbury MA 01776"
(More from Comics Reporter)