(Note: yes, that's Samuel Jackson telling everybody to chill at the end of the clip.)
2. There'll be a yearlong Poe Festival in Baltimore. I have a feeling Caryn and I (plus some kids) will be checking it out.
3. Here's a really interesting piece on Charles M. Schulz's use of punctuation in Peanuts strips.
4. While we're talking comics, let's not forget Al Capp.
5. Or this guy.
6. Eric Rosenfeld of Wet Asphalt is launching a multi-post blog series to develop the idea that the legendary science-fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert really sucks. Sounds like the kind of crazy idea I usually come up with.
7. Beatrice.com presents Deb Olin Unferth and Diane Vadino at the Mercantile Library on November 12 in New York City.
8. Stubborn but lovable New York rabble-rouser Mickey Z. is performing at Bluestockings on the Lower East Side on November 15.
9. Ian McEwan on Barack Obama and Climate Change.
10. Andrew Leonard's wonderful piece on John Leonard begins like this:
Feeling like a guilty grave robber ransacking a pharaoh's tomb, I cleaned out my father's sock drawer on Sunday.
It ends with the father, son and a nurse happily watching Colin Powell endorse Barack Obama in a hospital room.
The National Review certainly got the worst of this exchange, and a quick look at their own rhetoric on Barack Obama proves that this magazine has ranged far from William F. Buckley's level of taste and respectability. Meanwhile, Christopher Buckley appears in this weekend's New York Times Book Review with a joint examination of two memoirs by reborn Catholics, Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith by Joe Eszterhas and Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by Anne Rice.
Buckley, often a blunt humorist, is at his most sophisticated and measured here. He even reaches for his father's cadences with cutters like (speaking of Eszterhaus) "The man is one bubble off plumb, and yet you can't help liking him." He calls Anne Rice's hometown Berkeley, California the "Vatican City of atheism", which is funny but probably false -- some of those hippie professors are pretty spiritual, and this generalization is the kind of thing Christopher Buckley needs to work harder to avoid. There are ups and downs here, but a well-chosen John Lennon quote closes the genial and informative piece, and I think every reader will feel glad to know that Christopher Buckley has a home at the NYTBR, even if not at the National Review.
Vintage beatnik-era cartoonist Jules Feiffer (subject of a recent LitKicks post) is a welcome surprise on the cover of this weekend's Book Review. Explainers is Gary Groth's new retrospective of Feiffer's early Village Voice cartoons, and David Kamp provides a useful if workmanlike summary of this wonderful artist's long career. I have a few minor and highly subjective quibbles: Kamp describes many recurring Feiffer characters but doesn't mention Feiffer's great dancer (posted here), and he doesn't mention the children's book that was my own first encounter with Feiffer's artwork: Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth.
Also, the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge, which Feiffer wrote, is hadly the "blowsy, date-stamped" failure claims it to be. Mike Nichols hasn't directed a blowsy or date-stamped movie in his life, and the casting of Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, Rita Moreno and Ann-Margret didn't hurt this picture either. I highly recommend this film, a caustic, Updikean look at modern sexual practices, and I don't know what Kamp could have found wrong with it. Small complaints aside, though, Kamp's piece is worthy of its subject, and I hope the new Jules Feiffer book is a success. I'm sure it will be an evergreen.
Jennifer Egan's enthusiastic review of Jim Harrison's The English Major is the best piece in today's Book Review. Egan opens with lavish praise for the author's career output -- Harrison's sentences "fuse on the page with a power and blunt beauty whose mechanics are difficult to trace even when you look closely" -- and then justifies the praise by painting such an appealing picture of the new novel that I want to begin reading it right away.
I like the way the title of Ottavio Cappelani's Sicilian Tragedee looks on the page, and David Leavitt provides a rapt explanation of this theatrical novel, which I also plan to check out. I haven't kept up with new Irvine Welsh novels in a while, but I'm glad to read Nathaniel Rich's summary of Welsh's new Crime.
Other reviews don't light the same fire, and many leave me cold. John Freeman's introduction to The Given Day by Dennis Lehane fails to raise the slightest tremor of interest. Alison Light has written a book called Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury and Claire Messud has sensitively reviewed it, but despite an eager start I find the article as painful as an eight-hour marathon of House and Garden Network reality shows to suffer through. I thought I wanted to know all about Virginia Woolf's household staff, but by the end of this piece I realize I don't.
This weekend's endpaper puts me in a bit of agony, because there are few current critics I dislike more than Lee Siegel, and not just for his sloppy books about internet culture but also because he writes with a baroque self-importance that just irks me. I can't quite put my finger on it -- earlier this year, at a New York Public Library panel discussion, I tried to question him from the audience and found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Woody Allen said it best: there are some people you just want to pinch.
So let's just say I had to struggle a bit to achieve an open mind as I began Lee Siegel's essay "Unsafe At Any Read", a humor piece about whether or not anguished modern literary classics by the likes of Dostoevsky and Saul Bellow can help your life. Siegel conjures up some good literary touchpoints including Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Don Quixote, Camus, Plato, Spinoza and Herzog, reveals that he was in an experimental "enriched" academic program as a small child (maybe this is the root of the personality problem), and unintentionally reveals that he remains clueless about the internet when he mentions meeting an old friend on Classmates.com (that was big in 2002, Siegel -- we use these things called Facebook and Twitter now).
All in all, once you add up the clumsy jokes, mawkish personal asides and lame generalizations (Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, as Siegel tells it, has no value beyond adolescence), this is mostly a lousy piece. I'm glad the New York Times Book Review is giving Christopher Buckley safe refuge. But maybe the National Review wants to take Lee Siegel off our hands.
1. Art Spiegelman's new comic autobiography Breakdowns is out and looks great. I don't have room for the fairly gigantic book in my apartment, so I'll have to read it at Barnes and Noble. You'll find me in the Graphic Novels aisle.
2. Dan Green went and called Fyodor Dostoevsky "a terrible writer" over at his Reading Experience blog, prompting James Wood and many others to respond. Good stuff all around, though it gets a bit unhinged as these discussions often do. Based on my scoresheet, James Wood (in defense of Dostoevsky's greatness) wins the argument by a wide margin. Admittedly not a hard argument to win.
3. Why Are Literary Readings So Excruciatingly Bad? Personally, I don't think they have to be. My recipe for a good reading: add some poetry, some music and a lot of spontaneity and everybody will have a good time.
4. First Dan Green calls Dostoevsky a "terrible writer" and now A. N. Wilson is dismissing Jean-Paul Sartre as a quaint relic? Frank Wilson takes a few punches too ("Good riddance") but I'm going to stand up for old Wall-Eyes. I do agree with both Wilson brothers (not really brothers, I don't think) that Sartre can be a horribly boring writer, and that his novel Nausea is pretentious. However, his play No Exit (source of the line "Hell is other people") stands the test of time and remains widely read. The diagrammatic comedy about Hell with cheap French furniture has also influenced many of our best playwrights, including Harold Pinter, David Mamet, Tom Stoppard and Peter Shaffer. Sartre's brisk and mercifully short autobiography The Words also remains a popular read.
It's also not true, as A. N. Wilson suggests, that Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy is not taken seriously. His Marxism was extreme and does not weather well today, but his psychology, his observations on relational ethics, phenomenology, consciousness and race and gender remain highly respected among almost all serious readers of philosophy. He retains his standing among the top Existentialist thinkers, alongside Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on many readers' lists.
5. We'll miss Paul Newman (and my favorite Paul Newman movie has got to be The Sting). I remember John Cassady telling me that Paul Newman was always his choice to play his father Neal in any On The Road movie.
6. Every once in a while, Gawker does something really good. Here's 20 Movies About the First Great Depression To Watch During the Sequel. This would actually make an amazing film festival and I wish Gawker would sponsor it. Points for including Ironweed.
7. And while we're hanging around Gawker ... does the combination of this and this suggest a modest downsizing at the NY Times Book Review?
8. Maud Newton in Oxford with a dictionary.
9. Tomorrow evening will bring the newest installment of our October exercise in literary/political analysis, the Big Thinking series. Our special guest will be either David Hume or Count Leo Tolstoy -- we're not yet sure which one, and we hope they don't stand us up like John McCain did to David Letterman.
10. Phish is reuniting! The last time I saw them was in 2002, and they did seem creatively exhausted at the time. Hopefully the time apart has given these four highly inventive musicians new angles to explore.
Hmm ... Obama as President, Phish back on tour and, get this, Axl's really going to release the new album. Maybe 2009 won't be so bad.
2. What classic work of literature are you embarrassed to have never read? These writers admit their shame, so I think you should too. That is, if you're one to be ashamed for not having read certain books.
3. Blokes bribed with beer to read books. To fool them into thinking that reading is manly instead of girly and lame! Hahah! Tricked you! Ahem.
4. You know that Twilight series of books about vampires? And a teenager who has an affair with a vampire? Or something? I don't really either, except I know they exist, and I read a profile of the author a couple of months ago in Time. Well, the final book in the series is to be released at midnight Friday. (Though isn't that actually Saturday, Philly Inquirer?) The film is coming in December.
5. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen: The Coffee Table Book. Due to be on shelves on October 28, it's just in time for Halloween! I figured I should let you know.
6. Comics in the classroom. Really.
7. Sports and literature: they go together like The Captain and Tennille.
8. Do you like thinking about the canon, especially in when it comes to (relatively) new work that should belong there? Sure you do. I mean, who doesn't? Well, there's a piece on Blogcritics about the importance of Toni Morrison's Beloved.
9. And finally, who doesn't love uplifting stories of schools in need getting books? Heartless people, that's who. Don't be heartless.
1. We don't hear enough about cartoonist Jules Feiffer these days, so this interview is a nice refresher. (Via Slut).
2. Hamlet, who was also sick, sick, sick, will never go out of style. However, the Hamlet currently running at New York City's Shakespeare in the Park got a terrible New York Times review. My favorite recent Hamlet was right here.
3. Richard Hell, who is not sick, sick, sick but is often mistaken as such, has collaborated with Christopher Wool on a new poetry project called Perpenilsis. They'll be at the Strand in New York City on Wednesday, June 25.
4. Latter-day Beat writer Charles Plymell, who is also not sick, sick, sick, is interviewed at a blog titled Even for the Hipsters, Hustlers and Highjivers. Damn straight.
5. Check out the good people -- Samantha Hunt, Joyce Carol Oates, Tommy Chong, a tribute to Jason Shinder -- who'll be reading at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan.
6. The Loss of Hope and Love blog offers "daily cut-up poetry".
7. The irascible Roger Kimball on criticismism:
The first thing to notice about the vogue for “critical thinking” is that it tends to foster not criticism but what one wit called “criticismism”: the “ism” or ideology of being critical, which, like most isms, turns out to be a parody or betrayal of the very thing it claims to champion.
The above does appear, however, to be the best sentence in the article.
8. Frank Wilson asks: will bloggers care that the Associated Press is announcing strict rules about online quotation? I can answer that very quickly. No.
9. I agree with Chad Post about the "New Classics". It's gotta get better than this.
10. Sign and Sight has discovered a new explanation for Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot -- but you have to read French to understand the explanation (via Scott McLemee).
Sick, sick, sick.
1. Fiction writer Oakley Hall (inspiration, obviously, of the band Oakley Hall) has died. I did not know this author's work well, but once when I was a kid a long time ago I heard him read a wonderful short story called "What Walt Disney Knew" on the radio. I've been trying to find a copy of the story, or any proof that the story exists, ever since. The story begins (if I remember correctly) when a lone traveler picks up a stranger hitchhiker who tells him about an alien race of humanoids who once inhabited our planet. They were superior to us in most ways and life was like paradise, but through some ironic twist (which I can't remember) they died off, and very few people know the secret that they were once here. But Walt Disney knew. And he left us a clue about them: they had only four fingers.
As I retell this story now, I wonder how much of it I have made up. I wonder if it was even Oakley Hall who wrote it, because I've never found it in one of his books. If anybody knows where I can find this story, please let me know. And if anybody knows what Walt Disney knew, let us know too.
Good timing department: Jonathan Zeitlin of the Mezzanine Owls happens to mention Oakley Hall in a recent Book Notes at largeheartedboy.
2. Forget what Walt Disney knew. What did Walt Dizzy know? If that rings a bell, you probably know that classic-era Mad cartoonist Will Elder, also known as Bill Elder, has died. I can't say enough about Elder's brilliant work with Harvey Kurtzman, which can be found in books like The Mad Reader. Elder was responsible for "Starchie", "Mickey Rodent", "Sherlock Shomes" and so very much more. "Little Annie Fanny" was a disappointing sequel, but the Mad Magazine work will live forever. The New York Times obituary is particularly good on the influence of Elder's signature "margin work". There's some good video at Tom Richmond's Mad Blog.
3. Deconstructed album cover art (via Gawker).
4. Leora Skolkin-Smith on Leon Wieseltier and A. B. Yehoshua.
5. Bat Segundo interviews Cynthia Ozick.
2. The culture wars: comic style.
3. Laura and Jenna Bush held a discussion of the children's book they collaborated on, Read All About It!
4. I remember being thoroughly engrossed with and creeped out by Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca when I read it in high school, then having the same reaction to Hitchcock's film version when I saw it a few years later, so the story behind how du Maurier wrote the book is an interesting one.
5. New York whittles down the Observer's Brooklyn Literary 100 to 1. (Well, also 50, 25, 10 and 5.)
6. We Are Ready is a campaign by international authors to have China release imprisoned authors, and will present the Chinese government with a petition on May 1.
7. Tell me what you want, what you really really want: Chick Lit!
8. The headline: Young writers embrace the thought process. What a relief that old authors aren't the only ones who think.
-- And then it's time for the Farrar, Straus & Giroux poetry blog, The Best Words in their Best Order.
-- Continuing on the poetry theme, here is part 1 of an interview with Canadian poet David Solway on what makes a poem great.
-- Walt Whitman revered as prophet.
-- The Bible, reviewed.
-- Interested in a free eBook copy of The Pisstown Chaos, perhaps?
-- Sexism in the New York Times Book Review. (Via Feministing)
-- In light of Patrick French's new biography on VS Naipaul, which documents the writer's racism, cruelty and mood swings (among other things) Paul Theroux says he was too kind in his own biography, Sir Vidia's Shadow.
-- Here's a review of John Burrow's A History of Histories.
-- Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia love.
-- Gillian Tindall reviews Glued Together By Their Lies, a biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Carole Seymour Jones.
-- Gerard deGroot's The Sixties Unplugged reviewed on Salon.com.
2. McSweeneys presents: Famous Authors Predict the Winner of Super Bowl XLII.
3. A useful in-depth conversation on the business of literary translation has been going on between Three Percent, Words Without Borders and The Center for Literary Translation.
4. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, this music video shows what happens when totally unqualified people have too much fun with translation. But the translators can't even be having as much fun here as these great dancers.
5. If they can make a movie about Larry Flynt, they can make a movie about William M. Gaines, the brave publisher of Mad Magazine. I'll go see it.
6. Here's a book that doesn't get talked about nearly enough these days: The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. When I was a philosophy student at college, one professor assigned this and two other Freud books (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious and the memorable Civilization and its Discontents) for a course on Philosophy of Mind. I found it ironic that I was reading primary texts from the founder of psychology that no psychology student in my school would be required to read. Sigmund Freud should be read more often. Like William James, he is a dynamic and agreeably brisk writer, his books filled with sharp and highly personal observations. Maybe I'll take a cue from Bookslut and try to discuss some of Freud's books here on LitKicks soon.
7. I'm not completely clear on what this online community project Open Library will do that makes it distinct from Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg. But hey, I've missed the boat before, so who knows? The involvement of folks like Brewster Kahle makes this literary-minded open source development worth watching.
8. More literary moments on YouTube, courtesy of Kenyon Review.
9. Do you understand?
10. Check out Unquiet Desparation, a community poetry outfit that periodically publishes its work in PDF format (download latest issue here). I'm not sure what long-term value the PDF format holds for online literature, but it's another way of getting the work out there, and the design possibilities speak for themselves.
11. I couldn't make it to the O'Reilly Tools of Change Conference last week in New York, but here are Kassia Krozser's parting thoughts.
12. I often wonder why we literary bloggers so rarely critique film adaptations of novels we like. Too easy a target? Maybe. This person's response to Atonement lays out (more clearly than I did) what the film subtly lost from Ian McEwan's novel even as it retained most of the details and major plot points. On the optimistic side, I've just enjoyed another recently released literary British film very, very much, and I'll be sharing my excitement about this film in these pages soon.
Harrison also leans very heavily on Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary as the key to The Bad Girl, but her understanding of Madame Bovary doesn't match mine. So we're off to a bad start with today's Book Review, and it is with some trepidation that I begin Charles McGrath's review of Schulz and Peanuts, David Michaelis's biography of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. I am very much a member of the Charles M. Schulz cult, and I would hate to see this biography butchered by a wordslinger insufficiently appreciative of the Round-Headed Ones. Fortunately, Charles McGrath has a fine understanding of "Peanuts", and he hits the right note with observations like this:
He transformed the newspaper cartoon strip, busy and cluttered by the time he turned up in the late '40s, by flooding it with white space, and by reducing his childish characters to near abstraction ...
[Chris] Ware's Jimmy Corrigan is in many ways Charlie Brown grown, while still an adolescent, to a premature old age. And [Robert] Crumb offers a window onto what Schulz might have been like if only he had let the anger out.
(On a related note: I don't want to sound like a broken record, but am I the only one concerned that a book like this -- a biography of a comic strip artist, after all, not the latest Harry Potter -- should be priced at $34.95? The march towards luxury-tier pricing for general interest books sure is marching full-speed ahead, though I sometimes feel I'm the only one complaining.)
Joel Brouwer does a fine job of illuminating poet Alice Notley's strange and appealing In The Pines, though I do find it inexplicable when somebody reviews a book titled after a song -- in this case a Leadbelly classic later recorded by Nirvana as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" -- and doesn't mention the significance of the title in the review. It gives the reader the distinct impression that the critic is not aware of the significance.
Hanna Rosin is kind -- perhaps too kind -- to "stunt journalist" A. J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. I can't tell if Marcel Theroux is being too kind to The Gum Thief, which is apparently a new book by Douglas Coupland. But I do like the Cezanne-esque sketch by Brian Rea that accompanies this review (a Seth cartoon accompanying the Charles M. Schulz review is another nice graphic touch in this weekend's issue).
An enjoyable endpaper by Richard Peaver on Tolstoy's War and Peace and two topical reviews complete this weekend's generally above-average publication. Michael Kinsley digs into Alan Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World with relish, and John Leonard unleashes his forcible talents on behalf of Susan Faludi's bitter The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America:
Feminism, like a trampoline, has made possible this splendid provocation of a book, levitating to keep company with Hunter Thompson's fear and loathing, Leslie Fielder's love and death and Edmund Wilson's patriotic gore.
Fiction readers will also want to tune in to the Arts & Leisure section in today's Times for a worthwhile article by Motoko Rich about suburban novelist Tom Perrotta and his new virginity-themed book The Abstinence Teacher.