Strange currents in the hometown rag today.
When I saw a book called The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter on the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review I figured it was a new McSweeney's book or some photoblog tie-in. It turns out to be a serious 500-page study, not of white people per se but of the concept of "whiteness" as it has rippled through history. The author is an African-American professor (and also, it turns out, a good artist), which gives the title some edge. The author of this article is Linda Gordon, also a professor and, based on the "Up Front" sketch of her face, a white person. So Nell Painter is talking about Linda Gordon's people here, and Linda Gordon also seems to have a lot to say about white people. Sounds like an okay book, though unfortunately a photoblog tie-in would probably sell better.
Apparently the reputations of our acclaimed magazines have recently sunk to the depths of ignobility. William Vollmann, reviewing Ted Conover's The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today in the current New York Times Book Review, complains that Conover "occasionally seasons his prose with the flavor of a National Geographic article". A few pages later, Ben Ratliff whines that Tony Fletcher's All Hopped Up And Ready To Go: Music From the Streets of New York 1927-1977 "reads like a 400-page article for Mojo magazine". I didn't realize this anti-magazine backlash was in effect. But what are we going to do about the fact that many of the articles in today's publication read like reviews in the New York Times Book Review?
Vollmann's piece isn't the worst offender; Conover's anthropological study of the world's roads is a good assignment for the globally curious Vollmann, who engages with the book in a surprisingly (for Vollmann) calm and coherent manner. Ratliff, on the other hand, wastes his review of Fletcher's study of various music club scenes in New York objecting to the fact that the book treats rock and punk bands as if they were equal to Ratliff's own favorites:
Why spend so much energy describing the history of the Velvet Underground -- a band little known in its time but painfully over-analyzed since -- when you could be writing about the evolution of New York salsa?
Somebody wake Ratliff up if that book ever gets written. Then there are three fiction reviews in which the reviewers each pretend to halfway like the books they're reviewing in the first few paragraphs, then conclude that the books are failures. Jennifer Egan tries Eight Crazy Nights -- I mean Eight White Nights -- by Andre Aciman and finds that the author "deprives himself of a perspective from which to cast [the characters'] shallowness and self-important gravitas as features of youth in a particular culture at a particular time". I hope Aciman is more careful with that in the future. Caryn James gives The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn a spin but finds that the fictionalization "misses Dickinson's fireworks". Joshua Hammer suffers through The Room and the Chair by Lorraine Adams even though it leaves him "confused and disappointed, out in the cold". Jeez. I may have to pick up a copy of National Geographic or Mojo if I want something good to read.
One fiction author does survive today's quiet carnage. William Giraldi's appreciative review of Thomas Lynch's death-obsessed Apparition and Late Fictions provides the most vivid writing in today's Book Review. Back on the dull and predictable side, Brooklyn hipster/music journalist Toure contributes an endpaper essay about literary racial crossovers that seems really out of place in a nation whose president is Barack Obama. The opening is awful:
This may come as a shock to you, especially if you loook at whiteness as a boon and blackness as a burden, but I have never once wished to be white.
Nobody would except otherwise from Toure, he of the Buckwheat hairdo and the MTV hiphop interviews, since he's obviously found a niche for himself writing about being black. It's hard to believe that he's encountered much racism in the various Starbucks locations between Fort Greene and Flatbush anyway. The whole article is on thin ice, but the author really takes it too far when he refers to Jesus of Nazareth as "another black man who became white". Back off, Toure -- now you're talking about my people.
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. Okay, so I flip-flopped on the Kindle. I still dislike the high price, the DRM policy and the secrecy about sales numbers, but on the other hand Amazon appears to be showing conviction, focus and flexibility in the way they are evolving the product. Also, a few months ago I wrote that I've never seen anyone reading a Kindle on a train, but I have recently seen two people doing so. This says a lot. I remain mixed in my feelings about the product, but it's clear that the Kindle is here to stay, and this is probably a good thing.
Following the lead of several other literary bloggers, I've now made this website available for Kindle subscription. I don't own a Kindle myself, so I can't even check out how it works, but if any Kindle owners out there can check it out, please tell me what you see!
2. More technological developments: here's Slate on the semantically-charged new knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha, supposedly a challenger to Google: "If only it worked ..."
3. There are a lot of intense debates revolving around the triple satellites of e-books, blogs and Twitter, all of it possibly leading to same grand conflagration (or, more likely, not) during next weekend's Book Expo 2009 in New York City. Till we all meet there, Kassia Krozser is tracking various debates involving electronic publishing.
4. Allison Glock flaunts her silly prejudices in a Poetry Foundation article about blogs. Based on her piece, I'm betting she's never actually seen a blog.
Instead of fostering actual connection, blogs inevitably activate our baser human instincts—narcissism, vanity, schadenfreude. They offer the petty, cheap thrill of perceived superiority or released vitriol. How easy it is to tap tap tap your indignation and post, post, post into the universe, where it will velcro to the indignation of others, all fusing into a smug, sticky mess and not much else in the end. You know those dinners at chain restaurants, where they pile the plate with three kinds of pasta and five sauces and endless breadsticks and shrimp and steak and bacon bits all topped in fresh grated cheese? Blogs are like that: loads of crap that fill you up. With crap.
5. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is one of my favorite plays. It's now running in New Haven with an African-American cast, featuring Charles S. Dutton as Willy Loman.
6. Jamelah tells me: "Paste Magazine is a really really good publication and it would be sad if it went under".
7. The New York Public Library is facing deep budget cuts and asking for a show of support. Let's keep those lions well-fed.
8. A Michigan high school bans Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon.
9. Flannery O'Connor in Atlantic Monthly.
10. Arthur Conan Doyle and spiritualism. And here's what Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are doing with Sherlock Holmes.
11. A glance at a surprisingly healthy publishing industry in India.
12. I didn't realize Britian's legendary publishing firm Faber and Faber was only 80 years old.
13. John O'Hara's wonderful novel Appointment in Samarra gets some appreciation from Lydia Kiesling at The Millions.
14. Another form of Action Poetry: Yoko Ono is arranging Twitter haiku.
Toure reviews Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor on the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review, and most of the article has to do with racial identity. I'm a little disappointed in this tepid and tired subject. I read and liked Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt and I once had a nice chat with him at some Litblog Co-op or Soft Skull party, but it never even occurred to me to register what race he was. I'm not sure if it's Toure or Colson Whitehead, but somebody needs to get over being African-American here. (Meanwhile, I'm trying to get over being Jewish-American).
Ethnic obsessions aside, Toure does come up with one nice line about Whitehead's main character:
Benji lives in a world not unlike Charlie Brown’s, where adults are mostly offstage.
Bruce Handy reviews two books about the New York Mets, The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball, Pitching, and Life on the Mound by Ron Darling with Daniel Paisner and Straw: Finding My Way by Darryl Strawberry with John Strausbaugh. Handy claims to be a Mets fan, and his work looks good at first when he goes off on a rant about Alex Rodriguez's steroid abuse and the New York Mets's new stadium:
[Baseball] breaks your heart in crass, grubby, depressing ways. As when the star third baseman of your 10-year-old son's favorite team grudgingly confesses to having used steroids. Or when your own favorite team knocks down its stadium and puts up a pretty taxpayer-supported park named for a taxpayer-financed bank and with 15,000 fewer seats than the old pile, so that when you try to buy tickets to individual games for your family, the only seats available to the general public start at $270 a pop. True, you can find cheaper seats for resale on StubHub, but why, in depression or boom, does such a thing as a $270 baseball ticket even exist? Too often, the taste baseball leaves behind is less bittersweet than just plain bitter.
However, Handy blows the outing here on two inexplicable bad moves. First, it's a flat-out lie that all or even most tickets at CitiField cost $270. I just bought tickets for $23 each for a Friday night game in June against the Devil Rays. Anybody can go to NYMets.com or MLB.com and do the same.
The only way Handy's statement makes sense is if you define "seats" to mean "great seats". Which shows him to be a seating snob as well as an irresponsible journalist. Considering that the New York Mets organization is made up of human beings, isn't it seriously wrong for the New York Times to publish an insulting fact about the Mets' new stadium in a widely read publication when the insulting fact is patently false?
And shouldn't a fact-checker have caught this?
Anyway ... Handy should relax about where he sits, and just sneak up to the good seats after the sixth inning like I and my kids do.
Also finally, what the hell is a Met fan's son doing with a Yankee third-baseman as his hero? The fact that Handy wasn't dressing his kid in orange and blue and properly training him from day one (as I did with all of mine) proves what I suspected about Bruce Handy from the beginning: he is not a Mets fan.
Okay, enough about this, though Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt should check this case out. Back at the Book Review, I'll give John Pipkin's Woodsburner, a fictionalization of the life of Thoreau, a chance based on Brenda Wineapple's measured praise.
I've had enough of all William F. Buckley's damn relatives in the New York Times Book Review to last two lifetimes.
And Clive James's review of John Updike's final book of poetry Endpoint is beautifully done, though rather obviously a gift (I bet even in the future, John Updike will never be remembered for poetry).
I went to see a new production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. I like to go to the opera, but I can only afford to sit in the cheap seats in the second balcony, up in the very stratosphere of the opera house.
You can still experience the full pageantry of an opera in these seats. The acoustics in the Civic Opera House are so good that the sound quality is excellent as far away as row Z. The problem is it's difficult to see the singers. Most cheap-seaters bring opera glasses or binoculars and spend the whole time looking through these gizmos. I scoff at these people. To me, the singers, seen from the second balcony, look like an opera company in miniature. I imagine that I am watching an opera performed inside one of those glass globes that you see at Christmas, the ones that if you turn them over and shake them, cause a snow storm to fall on the village within. The tiny players, although small to the eye, have magnificent voices that carry all the way to my seat in the highest altitudes of the theatre.
My fantasy intact, I settled in. The orchestra started. The curtain went up on act 1, scene 1. I was transported to Catfish Row, the fictitious black community in Charleston, South Carolina, where the story takes place. Clara, the wife of Jake the fisherman, is singing a lullaby to her baby. The lullaby is the most famous song from the opera - “Summertime” - a song that has been recorded by everyone from Duke Ellington to Janis Joplin.
At 24 pages, this week's New York Times Book Review feels mighty thin. Doesn't anybody besides Bauman's Rare Books, AuthorHouse, Bose Audio and Penguin Young Readers Group have something to advertise? Can't somebody get Knopf or FSG or Simon and Schuster to take a phone call? It's three and a half weeks before Christmas, so I don't think we can blame the downturn on the season. Let's just say that, as much as I often criticize this frustrating but important publication, I really hope the New York Times Book Review will weather our current economic problems well in future months. This is a forum we cannot afford to lose.
Of course, that doesn't mean we should accept sub-standard writing. Here's how Caleb Crain begins his review of Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America by Ann Norton Greene:
Once upon a time, America derived most of its power from a natural, renewable resource that was roughly as efficient as an automobile engine but did not pollute the air with nitrogen dioxide or suspended particulate matter or carcinogenic hydrocarbons. This power source was versatile. Hooked up to the right devices, it could thresh wheat or saw wood. It was also highly portable -- in fact, it propelled itself -- and could move either along railroad tracks or independently of them. Each unit came with a useful, nonthreatening amount of programmable memory preinstalled, including software that prompted forgetful users once it had learned a routine, and each possessed a character so distinctive that most users gave theirs a name. As a bonus feature, the power source neighed.
If I live to be two hundred years old, I still won't need to see this tired, tired opening device used again in a book review. Since we already know from the book's title and the review's subtitle and illustration that we are reading about horses, this whole thing feels like a long joke with a well-known punchline.
There are better articles today: Noam Scheiber summarizes Robert J. Samuelson's The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath and Richard Holbrooke adds a personal touch to Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Virginia Heffernan is simply vicious to Sarah Vowell's chatty rumination on our Pilgrim heritage, The Wordy Shipmates, which she considers marred by "sarcasm, flat indie-girl affect and kitsch worship". I doubt this review will cost this book any sales -- in fact, it makes me curious to evaluate the book myself. But Virginia Heffernan does express her feelings amusingly well.
Today's best article is David Gates' clear and admiring cover piece on Toni Morrison's A Mercy. It was only two years ago that I finally read Beloved, and liked it very much. A Mercy also dives into America's primitive history and appears to be a short and bracing read. I guess I'll check it out too.
There are also competent considerations of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers by David Leonhardt, Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies by Gaiutra Bahadur and David Vann's gloomy Legend of a Suicide by Tom Bissell. This last review is illustrated, for some reason, by a photo of a crushed Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Maybe sardonic product placement is the Times' ad sales team's last chance.
I first went to see Bo Diddley at a great New York nightclub called Limelight, a converted gothic church between the West Village and Chelsea, on July 26, 1987. This was a big comeback show for Bo Diddley, who had recently made his face familiar on MTV playing the pool player with the box-shaped guitar in George Thorogood's video for "Bad to the Bone". Curious about the swaggering guy in the Thorogood video, and vaguely aware of his music, I went and bought a Bo Diddley album and found a treasure chest of primal, hard-driving, joyful, funny three-minute blues-rock songs I could listen to over and over. I jumped at the chance to see him in concert, and managed to squeeze into the fifth row of the packed nightclub to gaze up at his thick hands laying that pulsing tremolo over those Bo Diddley chords on that beautiful box-shaped guitar. Bo Diddley was pretty old in 1987, but he wasn't too old to snarl his lyrics, or to enjoy himself. It was 75 minutes of the Bo Diddley beat, leavened by the Bo Diddley sense of humor. I don't know which I enjoyed more, the beat or the humor.
The Bo Diddley beat is such a good beat (and by the way, of course he didn't invent the beat, he just figured out how to do it on an electric guitar) that listeners may mistake this for his only credit and neglect what a good writer Bo Diddley was. Like his friend and partner-in-crime Chuck Berry, Ellis "Bo Diddley" McDaniels lived to tell stories and create characters. His songs are what made him famous, even more than his beat. His words were as simple as his guitar playing, and just as strong. Many blues fans don't even know that Bo Diddley wrote this song, which became a blues staple and a Muddy Waters classic:
Now when I was a little boy,
At the age of five,
I had somethin' in my pocket,
Keep a lot of folks alive.
Now I'm a man,
You know baby,
We can have a lot of fun.
I'm a man,
I spell M-A-N ... man
Bo Diddley's greasy hambone style was always rooted in humor. Influenced by earlier raunchy vaudeville acts like Butterbeans and Susie, Diddley often worked comedy routines into songs, most successfully with his maracas player Jerome Green as comic foil. He had a couple of hit singles with Say Man and Say Man, Back Again:
Bo: Say man
Jerome: Yeah, what's that?
Bo: Speaking of your old lady, I seen that new girl you got.
Jerome: Yeah, ain't she nice?
Bo: Yeah, she's got everything a man could want.
Jerome: Sure has!
Bo: Hair on her chest, a mustache, everything a man could want ...
Sometimes Jerome is straight man, and other times Bo gets stuck with the role:
Jerome: Say, look here
Bo: What's that
Jerome: I can do what you're doing
Bo: Then how come you not doing anything?
Jerome: I got you doing it
The humor frequently reflects the tradition of aggressive boasting that also characterizes today's gangsta rap:
500%, mo' man
A livin' dream
Bo Diddley, baby
Mo' man than you ever seen
Strong and handsome
And a teasin' tan
Bo Diddley, baby
A nat'ral born man
I'm drivin' a '48 Cadillac
With Thunderbird wings
Tellin' you baby, that's a runnin' thing
I got wings that'll open
And get her in the air
I think I can take it away from here
Other times his leery, suspicious barbs recall Groucho Marx, as when he sends up the children's song "Mockingbird":
Bo Diddley buy his babe a diamond ring
If the diamond ring don't shine
He gonna take it to a private eye ...
Bo Diddley died yesterday at his home in Archer, Florida. Some obituaries I've read call him an ornery man, referring to his bitterness over the greater fame of several of his early-rock pioneer peers. I don't know if he was ornery or not, but he seemed quite happy with life at the Limelight concert on July 26, 1987. The concert was such a big success that immediately afterwards a second Bo Diddley concert was announced, this time to be recorded for a live album featuring Rolling Stone lead guitarist Ron Wood and an impressive lineup of musicians. I got tickets for the show at the Ritz on November 25, 1987, but found it disappointing compared to Limelight four months earlier. I blame the overly professional band. Like Chuck Berry in concert, Bo Diddley just needs a spirited and sloppy trio to thrash in the background, and can be easily overpowered by slick backup musicians. There was also no need for Ron Wood to join Bo Diddley on guitar, as everybody in the audience knew: when Bo Diddley's on stage, you don't need another guitar.
The live album was released but quickly forgotten, because it wasn't a great show. But I remember a moment towards the end that you won't catch on the album. Diddley, perhaps sensing that the band wasn't hitting it hard enough, started shouting at them. "Come on!" Then he started pogoing. Up and down. The whole bulk of him. "Come on, man!" he shouted at Ron Wood, who presumably had never seen such behavior from Keith Richards.
Ornery? The guy was 58 years old and at least 250 pounds, and he was pogoing onstage at the Ritz. That's not any kind of ornery I know.
I walk 47 miles of barbed wire,
Got a cobra-snake for a necktie,
I got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made from rattlesnake hide,
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of a human skull,
Now come on take a walk with me, Arlene,
And tell me, who do you love?
Who do you love?
Tombstone hand and a graveyard mind
Just 22 and I don't mind dying.
Who do you love?
The New York Times has put up some very good articles about Bo Diddley, and here's a note posted at NewCritics.
"A Father's Law" is not simply an unfinished novel; it is an unfinished novel in abject need of revision. Its flaws are so many and so foregrounded that they all but dare the reader to work through them and engage the ideas with which Wright was grappling. Without having first read his thunderous classics, one might plausably dismiss this author as a tendentious, technically naive amateur and disdain the works that made him indispensable in American letters.
This early-draft expedience saturates the manuscript and bleaches it of plausibility.
And, as if we haven't already heard the news:
Far more obvious is that Wright's draft could use, and doubtless would have received, a good deal of work. To present it to the public at this embryonic stage violates his writerly privacy and does him a disservice.
Richard Wright will be just fine. First of all, there is no evidence that an excellent author's responsibility for an inferior work has ever harmed that author's reputation. If this were the case, our literary canon would be empty. More crucially, Powers fails to deliver the in-depth review this book deserves, instead fixating on the mistakes that are a necessary consequence of the fact that this is a published first draft. Julia Wright, the author's daughter and literary executor, has made the decision to publish this book exactly as is, a choice that may be controversial but is certainly reasonable, and in my opinion the best of all possible choices. Should she have hired a ghostwriter to polish it up? Should the manuscript lie fallow in some University library? No, and no -- so what is Ron Powers so upset about? Because he's still going on about this, up until the very end of the article:
Yet it's hard not to believe Wright would have spotted and corrected the most troublesome flaws of "A Father's Law." Indeed , the book sometimes reads almost as notes for a later, more carefully written draft.
Ron, get over it! Harper Perennial is not trying to over-hype this book as a hot bestseller, and in fact their decision to publish it as an affordable ($14.95) paperback is commendable. The text deserves a review on its own terms, and it doesn't get one here. With today's poor showing, Ron Powers elevates his standing as one of the least credible of the Book Review's regular critics. He may win the trophy from Lee Siegel if he keeps this up.
Happily, today's Book Review gets much better. Steven Millhauser's Dangerous Laughter is on the cover, decorated with a stylishly blurry and Village-Voice-esque photo of the author. Reviewer D. T. Max does this beguiling American magical realist credit with a perceptive and skillful summary of the book's contents. I appreciate that Max tries to communicate the unique strangeness of each individual story here, and I like it when he puts us at ease with this:
These are fables, not allegories, and their hermetic quality discourages us from wandering outside the text. It is for this reason that Millhauser seems less a descendant of Jorge Luis Borges, to whom he is sometimes compared, than of, say, Shirley Jackson or even "The Twilight Zone".
I do know that reading Millhauser, like reading Borges, is rewarding but hard work. I've read several of his stories and one really good novel, a satire on literary biography called Edwin Mullhouse, which Max refers to in this review. I can't promise I'll go out and read Dangerous Laughter right this minute (for some reason, I have lately been favoring novels over story collections) but I think I will pick up my old copy of Edwin Mullhouse and give it a second spin.
Maud Newton's prose sails trippingly in her review of another story collection I wish I'll read but probably won't, Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy:
A writer, Eudora Welty insisted, must know her characters' "hearts and minds before they ever set visible foot on stage. You must know all, then not tell it all, or not tell too much at once: simply the right thing at the right moment." When fiction doles out its revelations in this way -- when it allows just the right sequences of glimpses through a parted curtain -- we misleadingly call it "realistic". Actual existence is rarely well choreographed.
... the measured precision of her storytelling gives the writing a muted quality, as though it has been benumbed by the characters' despair. Their pain unfolds before us like an aquarium show: silent, slow-moving, seen through glass.
Not many literary critics try to write like this. I wish more would try.
This is a fine NYTBR, featuring Stacy D'Erasmo on Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas, Caryn James on The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri and an impassioned August Kleinzahler on Robert Creeley's new volume of selected poems.
I am disappointed in David Hajdu's vain review of Nathaniel Mackey's jazz novel Bass Cathedral, mainly because I like Mackey's experimental poetry and I also generally like David Hajdu's non-fiction about alternative/pop culture. But this pretentious article reads like a private conversation between two annoying jazz enthusiasts, especially when Hadju breathlessly whispers:
The satisfaction "Bass Cathedral" provides is that of the moment. It feels, sentence to sentence and page to page, like a work in the act of being created. It is not simply writing about jazz, but writing as jazz.
Way excessive, especially since Jack Kerouac, Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman were jazz writers decades ago, and also because Hadju's description of the book (which "expresses ecstasy with little interest in inducing it") unwittingly makes it sound as dreary as a long, slow recording of Miles Davis on a bad night.
Finally, I must register a complaint about the increasing frequency of familiar and overused phrases at the Book Review (this has always been a problem, but is getting worse). Three examples:
1. Writing about Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution by Jerome Charyn, Stacy Schiff writes "the boudoir is the last refuge of a soundrel". Tired.
2. Ben Marcus, reviewing My Unwritten Books by George Steiner: "When Steiner courts controversy, his word choices often splash egg on his face." First of all, the "splash" doesn't even make sense, since liquid egg is not usually found near anybody's face (we usually cook eggs before we eat them). More importantly, again, it's a very tired phrase.
3. David Hajdu, in above review: "There is a cliche about music writing, sometimes attributed to Thelonius Monk, among others: 'writing about music is like dancing about architecture'". Yes, it is a cliche. So why are you using it?
1. Native Son by Richard Wright
Native Son was the first bestseller written by an African American author, and tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an unconventional (and, at least from my perspective, a somewhat unlikeable) protagonist. Bigger, a product of oppressive racism and poverty in 1930s Chicago, kills two women, but despite the fact that he has to pay for his crimes, he experiences a kind of redemption. The genius of Native Son is that it is narrated in a limited third person from Bigger's point of view, forcing readers to confront the world though his eyes, which are eyes from which many readers might not want to see. It's not the easiest novel to sit down and fall in love with, but absolutely a worthwhile one.
2. Passing by Nella Larsen
The last of Nella Larsen's two novels, Passing is the story of Irene and Clare, two light-skinned black women who were childhood friends. While Irene lives in Harlem and is married to a black doctor, Clare passes as white and marries a racist white man who refers to her as "Nig" because he thinks her skin has gotten darker. It has a great ending that is wonderfully ambiguous. The book is short (I am a definite fan of short books), but it packs a lot into under 200 pages. It's so amazingly written and it makes me wish that Larsen wrote more.
3. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X with Alex Haley
What to say? I've read this book twice, and I've written a lot about it in the past (not here on LitKicks, however) and I definitely wanted to mention it on this list, but yeah, what to say? The Autobiography of Malcolm X. American history from the perspective of one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. There you go.
4. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by LeRoi Jones
Despite what anybody thinks about Amiri Baraka these days, a few years after the post-9/11/Poet Laureate of New Jersey flap, he has written some wonderful poetry over the course of his career, and I've read a lot of it. This collection was written during his so-called "Beat Period" when he was hanging with and publishing writing by fellow Beat writers. This collection isn't about racial issues -- he was quoted during this period as saying, "I'm fully conscious all the time that I am an American Negro, because it's part of my life. But I know also that if I want to say, 'I see a bus full of people,' I don't have to say, 'I am a Negro seeing a bus full of people,'" (this view changed for him quite a lot later on) -- but it's hard for me not to prefer it over some of his later work. Even though I can appreciate political literature and its importance, it's sometimes pretty hard not to make it, well, preachy, and Baraka's later poetry really skates along the edge of that. But the title piece of Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note is easily one of my favorite poems. It's lovely.
5. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
I read The Bluest Eye when I was a junior in high school and it was at that point the most incredible thing I had ever read in my entire life. Though I haven't read it since (it's one of the things I mean to do, but then, there are so many books I haven't even read once that it makes it hard for me to go back and read other things multiple times) and I sometimes wonder if it would still punch me in the gut like it did back then, the fact that I still think about it (and often) makes me believe it probably would, and that it deserves a place on this list of five. I've read quite a few Toni Morrison books since The Bluest Eye, and from the opening (which tells you everything you're going to read, even though you don't yet know that's what it's telling you) to the heartbreaking ending, it's an incredible book, about a girl named Pecola Breedlove who believes being beautiful will help her be something special in the world, and that she would be beautiful if only she had blue eyes.