1. The e-book scene (also known as the d-book scene, if you read Booksquare) is buzzing again with news of Amazon's new iPhone Kindle application, which allows readers to enjoy the considerable benefits of the Kindle store without buying a bulky and expensive dedicated device.
Does this mean I'm going to brag yet again that I was among the first to attempt to point Amazon in this exact direction, even though everybody thought I was crazy at the time? Yes, it certainly does. It also means that I can stop beefing with Amazon.com, a company I used to like until Jeff Bezos started trying to be Steve Jobs. Some will still beef with Amazon/Kindle over DRM, but there's no doubt Amazon is moving in the right direction by allowing Kindle books to run on non-Amazon devices.
Meanwhile, the dumb, dumb articles about how e-books are ruining everything just keep coming (this one via Frank, who shares my derision). What is wrong with these people? At least one minor miracle takes place within Sven Birkerts piece: he doesn't tell us he loves the way books smell.
2. Like Mark Sarvas, I used to mill around the Librarie de France bookstore in Rockefeller Center (though unlike Mark Sarvas, I don't read French). This small store was a nice worldly touch for midtown Manhattan and I'm very sorry to hear that it will be closing this
3. Was Ludwig Wittgenstein really the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century? I think he was, assuming that William James belongs to the 19th Century, and many others think so too.
4. Via Largehearted Boy, a long list of fictional computers.
5. How Jeff Kinney and his Wimpy Kid made it big.
6. Roxana Robinson, inspired by a mockingbird's call.
7. Literature as an alternative to traditional incarceration.
8. NPR on Carlo Collodi's original Pinocchio. And let's also pay good attention to Kanye's personal spin on Collodi's tale.
9. I do not have high hopes for a movie based on Beverly Cleary's Ramona The Pest, one of the books I loved most as a kid. What do you want to bet they'll screw up the big Halloween parade scene and leave out the Q's with the cat tails?
10. Jamelah gets framed.
11. Another Bret Easton Ellis movie is heading our way.
Diane Kurys has directed a film biography of rebellious French writer Francoise Sagan, titled simply Sagan. Perhaps inspired by the success of La Vie En Rose, a recent biopic of Edith Piaf, the new film stars Sylvie Testud (who played Piaf’s friend in La Vie en Rose), and follows the story of Francoise Sagan from the publication of her first book to her final days in Normandy.
Francoise Quoirez –- she took the nom de plume Sagan after the Princesse de Sagan, a character in Marcel Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu –- grew up in a moneyed family, first in Lyon, and then in Paris. An indifferent student, she was nonetheless fascinated by literature. Her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, was published when she was barely nineteen years old. Bonjour Tristesse caused an immediate scandal in France, but despite the outrage of the bourgeoisie it climbed to the top of the bestseller lists. Sagan became a fixture on the French literary scene, known for her reckless lifestyle: drinking, drugs, fast sports cars, and gambling, and for her advocacy of sexual freedom in contrast to the traditional mores of France.
This bookish comedy has been a recent literary sensation in France, and I imagine it will continue to find satisfied readers around the world. It's about Renee, an elderly concierge in an expensive Paris apartment who lives in a dowdy servant's nest, answering to insufferable rich people and carefully maintaining her secret: she is a brilliant self-taught intellectual, smarter than any of the educated people who surround her.
This fact comes out delightfully in an early sequence when she lets a clever remark about Karl Marx slip to an obnoxious young gentleman, then quickly takes it back because, she realizes, she must maintain her peasant aura in order to keep her job. It's a nifty concept for a book, though I began to enjoy the story less when different characters from the apartment building took turns in the spotlight. Another main character is the angst ridden teenager Paloma, who despises her rich parents and has vague ideas of committing an act of terrorism to shake up her chic neighborhood. I like Paloma the intellectual brat, but not as much as I like Renee the intellectual servant. Renee is a great character (I can imagine any number of great actresses in the role) whose slovenly philosophical glory reminds me a bit of the rat "Firmin" in the book Firmin by Sam Savage.
(Interestingly, I understand Firmin has also recently become a sensation in Europe. This was also a Lit-Blog Co-op selection. I don't know what this current explosion of interest in meta-literary tragicomedy means, but it must be a good sign.)
Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball
This sad story about a suicidal misfit is related entirely via a fictional archive of unsent letters, notes and clippings gathered by poor Jonathan Bender before he kills himself. The material is organized chronologically from 1966 to 1999, and through the fragmented (and suspect) narrative we discover that this character's father was brutal and incapable of love, and that his mother was weak and scatter-brained. We watch him grow into a semi-cool teenager who learns how to love women and find work (improbably, as a TV weatherman) but the letters prove the character to be frequently out of touch with reality, and hiding it all too well. His good fortune slips away by his early thirties, and the book ends abruptly when he ends his life.
I'm not sure if I'm satisfied by this story. At times Michael Kimball's approach seems to veer towards McSweeney-esque deadpan humor, and one of the back cover blurbs describes this book's ability to make you "laugh so hard". But there isn't much laughter here, and I am not sure whether or not I am supposed to think that the main character suffers from schizophrenia, or if he is supposed to have been destroyed by his father, or if he is simply meant to be a self-pitying asshole whose problems are his own fault. All three things seem only half true, because the character does not make as vivid an impression as I would like in a novel like this. I admire the experiment Michael Kimball attempts here, though.
Strange Harbors edited by John Biguenet and Sidney Wade
This is a beautiful, artistically packaged volume of selected international short prose pieces and poems, published with original language text and English translation facing each other on every page. Edith Grossman is a featured translator in this issue, and notable contributions by Emmanuel Moses, Ewa Lipska, Ricardas Gavelis and Murathan Mungan. It's a treat to look at the original languages in their distinctive typefaces while experiencing each work: Romanian, Lithuanian, Catalan, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Bengali, French, Turkish, Spanish, Arabic, Polish, Latvian, Tagalog. This anthology veers towards enigmatic short works, making the book easy to browse and enjoy.
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.
So let’s say you wanted to read something by the 2008 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio. You might go to Amazon, where you’d find that, aside from four books published by noncommercial presses -- including only two of his novels, Wandering Star, published by Curbstone Press in 2004, and Onitsha, published by Bison Books in 1997, along with The Round, and Other Cold, Hard Facts, a collection of stories published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2003 -- there’s almost nothing available in the US.
Well, let's not forget Words Without Borders!
Slavoj Zizek, a furry and fiery "rockstar philosopher" from Slovenia who calls himself a Communist and rages at the hypocrisy of wealthy American liberals, appeared in a raucous debate at the New York Public Library last night. Zizek's opposite partner was French activist and intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, who typically argues for idealistic solutions and pragmatic steps towards a more peaceful world.
Bernard-Henri Levy can usually command a stage by himself (he made a strong impression on me earlier this year in a presentation about Darfur with Mia Farrow). But Slavoj Zizek was the bigger draw for last night's crowd, and Zizek's loud, passionate arguments frequently threw Levy into the role of straight man. Bounding with energy, sputtering, shouting and pointing fingers in a way that is not often seen at polite literary panel discussions, Zizek kept the conversation so riveting and fast-moving that moderator Paul Holdengraber could not bear to break in to attend to questions from the crowd.
Our Paris correspondent tells us of what shook France, and perhaps all of Europe, forty years ago this month. -- Levi Asher
It’s spring of 1968. France has emerged from post World War II reconstruction with an economy that is strong and growing. Consumer goods are plentiful, and France’s gross domestic product has surpassed that of Britain for the first time in 200 years. Charles De Gaulle is president. France is a major world power. All is right with the world. Or is it?
The late 1960s also coincided with the coming of age of a population explosion, those children born between 1945 and 1965, after the Second World War. This new generation of young people was coming up against a French society that had not changed, despite economic growth, for hundreds of years. French society was authoritarian. The public morality was conservative. Religion, patriotism and respect for authority were the values of the adult generation in France in 1968.
French film maker Philippe Ramos has recently released a film titled Capitaine Achab (Captain Ahab). It's the story of Herman Melville's obsessed sea captain, from the time he was a young boy until his last, fatal meeting with Moby Dick. The film won the FIPRESCI prize at the 60th annual Locarno (Switzerland) film festival. FIPRESCI is the Federation Internationale de la Presse Cinematographique or International Federation of Film Critics.
Ramos' idea is interesting: imagine -- and fill in the gaps of -- Ahab’s life, which was sketched but not drawn in detail by Melville in Moby Dick. Ramos presents Ahab’s story in a series of vignettes. In presenting the tale in this fashion, the film maker deviates from the style of Melville's classic novel, which is packed with details on everything from whaling techniques to a psychological study of the interplay between Pip the cabin boy and Ahab. Instead, Ramos gives us five miniatures of Ahab's life, almost like five Vermeer oils, visually arresting and providing just enough detail to get a sense of Ahab's development.
Readers of Literary Kicks are familiar with the picture of French poet Paul Verlaine that decorates every page. The poet appears to be in a stupor. In front of him is a flagon of green liquid: absinthe. The very name implies decadence and depravity. We imagine artists and writers of the Belle Epoque in Paris, sitting in cafés, drinking absinthe, and perhaps having hallucinatory visions. We think of Van Gogh, a notorious absinthe drinker: did he cut off his ear while in the throes of the drink? Numerous famous paintings depict absinthe drinkers, often in sordid surroundings, such as "The Absinthe Drinker" by Edouard Manet. Adding even more to its sinister reputation is the fact that absinthe was once outlawed in France, most of Europe, and the United States.
A lot has been written about absinthe and its effects, but perhaps one of the most compelling descriptions is from Ernest Hemingway, also a noted absintheur . In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s protagonist Robert Jordan carries a leather-covered flask filled with absinthe. At a crucial point in the early part of the novel, he dips into his dwindling supply: "It was a milky yellow now with the water, and he hoped the gypsy would not take more than a swallow. There was very little of it left and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, … of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing, liquid alchemy."
I made a trip to the Maison de la Poesie in Paris on a recent evening to see a staging of Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poem Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). The performance room was in the basement, down a steep flight of stairs. It was like a catacomb, with bare stone walls and a stone floor: a fitting place to stage this work. The set was simple: a large metal cross, a table laid as if for Communion, with a loaf of bread, a glass of wine, and two candles. A blood red carpet covered the floor. The director/actor, Nazim Boudjenah, sat to the side, eyes closed, dressed in white.