Internet Culture

1. Turner Classic Movies (the one cable channel movie I'd keep if I could keep only one) just ran an old chestnut from 1943, The Human Comedy, William Saroyan's story of a couple of sweet kids named Ulysses and Homer growing up in inland California's raisin country, starring Mickey Rooney. The movie is corny as hell but I loved every minute.

Here's an example of the corny: three soldiers on leave pick up two women on a rainy night, and at the end of the night the three guys are dancing in the street because they got kisses on the cheek. But even that turns out to be a great scene.

And there's plenty more. Mainly, the movie reminded me that a serious theme pervades Saroyan's poignant and lilting novel about a farm country childhood. Homer (the eager teenager played by Mickey Rooney) gets a job delivering telegrams. Sometimes they're singing telegrams, but sometimes they're Department of War death notices from the European or Pacific fronts. Frank Morgan (four years after Wizard of Oz) is a dispatch chief who's become a sad drunk because he can't stand typing these messages. Mickey Rooney is the rookie (with an older brother at the front) who has to knock on doors and deliver the news. This amounts to a big and sobering note that gives weight and feeling to this otherwise simply gorgeous and warm old movie.

I definitely recommend The Human Comedy as a new Christmas family movie, if maybe you're getting sick of watching the kid with glasses whine for the BB gun yet again. If you know what I mean.

Oh, and an older Carl Switzer ("Alfalfa") shows up as a neighborhood teenager in a funny scene stealing apples from a farmer.

2. This is probably a contrarian opinion, but I like Time Magazine's choice of "Us" (or, as they put it, "You") as the Person of the Year. I think Lev Grossman does a fine job with the explanatory essay. There's only one questionable moment in the piece, which is when Lev says "We blogged about our candidates losing." Dude, I don't know who you're voting for but my candidates won.

3. The Underrated Writers Project is back in effect! And this time I actually managed to contribute a couple of names.

4. David Lehman, an esteemed poetry critic and anthologist, is guest-blogging every day this week at the Oxford University Press Blog. Good stuff!

5. The 92nd Street Y on New York City's Upper East Side is hosting a 50th Anniversary celebration of Beat Generation literature on January 15, 2007. Guests will include Joyce Johnson, Laurie Anderson, Ann Charters, Bill Morgan and Hettie Jones. Should be an inspiring event.

6. Folks, I'm sort of winding down for Christmas vacation, which I hope to spend in relaxing surroundings (in other words, I'm flying the hell out of New York City). I've got some good stuff for the next couple of days (I think), and then I think we'll put up some poetry for a week. Hope you're all making good holiday season plans too, if you believe in holiday seasons.
view /HumanComedy
Wednesday, December 20, 2006 10:14 pm
Levi Asher
I was thinking earlier that it may seem a little late to put together a Christmas shopping guide, since Christmas is on Monday, and all, but then I realized that if there's anything this time of year is about, it's buying a box of pine-tree-shaped air fresheners in a truck stop on Christmas Eve. No? That's just me? Okay. Well, there are no air fresheners on this list, and I'm pretty sure you won't be able to find these things in truck stops on Christmas Eve (but maybe!), though there are several suggestions for literature- and writing-related gifts, which you could give to the literature lover in your life, or suggest that someone look into getting for you (no shame in asking). Here we go...

-- Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting it Right Go on and get it for youself. Think of it as your present to us. Zing!

-- Friday Happy Hour: Writers and Their Booze -- Writers and drinking go together like The Captain and Tenille. This handy book not only dishes on what famous writers' favorite drinks were, it includes recipes! So you can get your drunk on in a literary way. Hallelujah and pass the scotch.

-- A Thunderbirds Foldz Flat Pen? I bet you could fold it right up inside your journal and never be penless when you are struck with a flash of genius again!

-- And speaking of journals, we all know that if you're going to be a real writer, you need to spend a lot of time scribbling secretly in a Moleskine, and you are in luck, because there are a variety of them available on Amazon. Only the legendary notebook of Hemingway for you!

-- Or maybe you're not so pretentious. is absolutely one of my favorite places on all of the internets to look for fabulous items, because I love supporting independent do-it-yourselfers, and it is a neverending well of creativity and ideas. Maybe you'd like to check out something from the handmade books & zines category? Or blank books, perhaps? I really like this journal with coptic stitch binding. I'm a big fan of coptic stitch binding, because it will make your book lay flat no matter what. Plus, it's pretty. Very important.

-- And then there's this: Smoking Monkey Notebook. I want it.

-- Outside of the blank book realm, Etsy also offers a variety of other book things, like fabulous handmade bookmarks (here's a beaded one and here's one that's stylish and fun). Or, if you aren't sure, you can't go wrong with a Cthulhu coloring book, right?

-- I don't really understand these, but they're made out of marble. And they resemble great literary figures. And they have hollow bellies you can use for stashing your stash: Great Authors Pot Belly Figures.

-- Do you like t-shirts, or are you one of those people who insist on going around shirtless all the time? Do you know anybody like that? I don't either. Anyway, shirts! The pen is mightier than the sword, the monkey is finally getting around to typing Shakespeare (though I guess to wear this you'd have to be okay with the fact that the first "to" is spelled wrong -- forgive him, he's a monkey!), or, you know, keep on Tolkein. Then there's a personal favorite shirt: writing well is the best revenge. Indeed.

-- I'm not really sure why anybody would want to wear a small audio version of The DaVinci Code on a lanyard around their neck, but just in case someone does, dreams do come true.

-- Audio recordings of classic short literary works? Yes, please.

-- Power Bars are boring, but Nietzsche's Will to Power Bars? Why not? Or maybe you worry about Shakespeare-breath. (Who doesn't?) Well, the After Shakespeare Mints ought to come in handy.

view /XmasGuide2006
Tuesday, December 19, 2006 09:47 am
Jamelah Earle
Editor's Note: I haven't joined in the "list of books I've read this year" meme, maybe because my reading habits are just too erratic, unbalanced and marred with incompletes for public view. But Kevin Kizer, an old friend of LitKicks who truly hails from the legendary town of Peoria, Illinois has sent an impressive list of the 44 books he's read this year. Here's Kevin.

I've been a writer all my life and feel that to be a good writer you have to be a good reader as well. So I've always been a reader, going back to my childhood and my weekly visits to the public library. Anyway, about a year ago I decided to keep track of what I was reading just to, well, keep track of what I was reading. And that's why we're all here today.

What follows is the list of books I've read this year, followed by a short review. Each review is one sentence long, although I've certainly manipulated the concept of a sentence a bit. Actually, there is one review that is longer than a sentence, but that will be self-explanatory.

And, yes, I do have a life. I just happen to not have too many responsibilities.

(R) denotes a book that I have read previously
(AR) denotes a book that I read annually
* * * * *

1) "Of Mice and Men", Steinbeck, 100pg.
Comment: A classic, must-read that, for some reason, I never had to read in school.

2) "The Sound and the Fury", Faulkner, 200pg.
Comment: One of the great works in 20th century English lit; right up there with Joyce in terms of experimentation.

3) "Great Short Works of Herman Melville", Herman Melville, 505pg.
Comment: Favorite by far was "Bartleby the Scrivener."

4) "Come On In", Bukowski, 279pg.
Comment: The only thing that bothers me more than this weak volume is how they shamelessly keep churning out anything that Bukowski ever touched; he knew some of his shit was shit, which is why it was never published when he was alive.

5) "Manhattan Transfer", John Dos Passos, 342pg.
Comment: An incredible panorama of New York in the early 20th century; when I think of that era I think of F. Scott, Hemingway, Parker and Dos Passos.

6) "Naked Lunch" (AR), Burroughs, 232pg.
Comment: There's nothing that can be said about this book other than it's a monument in 20th century literature that will totally freak you out.

7) "Literature: A Pocket Anthology", Penguin Academics/R.S. Gwynn ed.,
1378pg. (read 836pg: Short Stories and Poetry/skipped Drama)
Comment: I discovered a lot of great short stories and poems from writers I'd never heard of, as well as brushed up on some of the classics; expensive but a great book to have as a literary reference.

8) "Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72" (R), Thompson, 505pg.
Comment: This is the book that did if for Hunter, in my opinion, because he covered the campaign like no other reporter could and got insights no other reporter could get; just put it this way: it won him the respect of both George McGovern and Pat Buchanan.

9) "The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara" Ed. By Donald Allen, 514pg.
07/08/05-11/05 (270pg)
03/21/06-03/29/06 (244pg)
Comment: An incredible poetic talent with insane versatility who ran parallel with Ginsberg; recommended to me by Illinois poet laureate Kevin Stein.

10) "American Sphinx", Joseph Ellis, 307pg.
Comment: In-depth bio of Thomas Jefferson; interesting facts: when he founded the U.VA. he would not allow religion to be taught at the school and he resented that he had to take his oath on the Bible; Tom was the original American Rebel.

11) "White Noise", Don DeLillo, 326pg.
Comment: My first foray into this great contemporary writer and this was not a let down; great, weird story telling.

12) "Sailing Alone Around The Room", Billy Collins, 172pg.
Comment: Talented poet with a sense of humor.

13) "On The Road" (AR), Kerouac, 310pg.
Comment: The first novel to blow me away.

14) "Frontier Illinois", James E. Davis, 428pg.
Comment: For some reason I felt like reading about the history of Illinois; I discovered that our state, which has been synonymous with political corruption ("vote early, vote often"), has corruption at its core: we lied about our population in order to become a state.

15) "War and Peace in the Global Village" (R), McLuhan, 190pg.
Comment: This is the one book whose comment requires more than one sentence, and it's simply a quote from the book. Keep in mind this was written in the late '60s:
"All the non-industrial areas like China, India and Africa are speeding ahead by means of electric technology. This has profoundly disturbed the American image, for all these backward countries are tribal in the noblest sense of the term. That is, they have never had a nineteenth century; they have entered the twentieth century with their family kinship systems and closely integral patterns of association still intact...To be surrounded by rapidly developing countries whose patterns of culture are widely divergent from our own has certainly upset the American image, at least among the elders. Our confused efforts to reestablish goals, habits, attitudes, and the sense of security they bring have become the main order of business."

16) "Snow", Orhan Pamuk, 426pg.
Comment: Another first foray into a great contemporary writer; a driving story that also gives you an insight into the tensions between Western culture and the Middle East; Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Lit this year.

17) "Book of Sketches", Kerouac, 413pg.
Comment: Just as they annually cart out a new Bukowski book, this was the latest installment in the Kerouac series; at least with Kerouac it always seems to be something new; I'm more interested in Brinkley's upcoming bio work.

18) "Complete Stories", Dorothy Parker, 447pg.
Comment: After reading her in the aforementioned Lit Anthology I moved on her complete stories; right there with F. Scott in chronicling their era.

19) "Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis", Ian Kershaw, 841pg.
Comment: If you're wondering, I minored in history so I have an interest in this stuff; this is the third installment in my "Ruthless Dictators" reading list (finished Mao, Lenin and Hitler; Stalin, you're next).

20) "The Great Gatsby" (AR), F. Scott, 154pg.
Comment: Perfect.

21) "My Education", Burroughs, 193pg.
Comment: I can't believe I hadn't read this one, but it completed my reading of everything Burroughs, who kicks ass all the time.

22) "The Jazz Age" (R), F. Scott, 83pg.
Comment: A great little book with the famous short story, "The Crack Up".

23) "My Name Is Red", Pamuk, 413pg.
Comment: Another great book; kind of like "The DaVinci Code" except that this is well-written and doesn't suck; did I mention he won the Nobel Prize?

24) "Growth Beyond The Core", Zook, 192pg.
Comment: Okay, this was for business, but it was fascinating: all about how executives can manage sustained growth through core product/service expansion and adjacency moves related to the core.

25) "The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa" (R), Edit. Hass,
Comment: A refresher of an old favorite; probably the only poets whose lives and works I truly envy.

26) "Underworld", DeLillo, 827pg.
Comment: A great piece of 20th century lit from a master, etc, etc...but seriously I'm glad I got into DeLillo this year.

27) "Collected Poems", Dylan Thomas, 203pg.
Comment: Jesus, what a gre at poet; a bit arcane at times, but a master.

28) "Dylan Thomas: A New Life", Lycett, 383pg.
Comment: On sale, with membership discount, for a total cost of $3.82 at Barnes and Noble; Thomas was a true poet in that he drank till blind and repetitively made an ass of himself.

29) "Mao II", DeLillo, 241pg.
Comment: See previous DeLillo comments.

30) "The Town And The City" (AR), Kerouac, 499pg.
Comment: Kerouac's first novel, reminiscent of Wolfe, is a great big early 20th century work, introducing many of the characters that would be examined in greater detail in later novels.

31) "Nausea", Sartre, 178pg.
Comment: Reminds me of Hamsun but not Dostoevsky (a common comparison); excellent but a little too self-involved for my tastes.

32) "Mindfield" (R), Corso, 268pg.
Comment: I hadn't read ol' Gregory in awhile; truly an underrated poet.

33) "Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956" (R), 599pg.
Comment: Returning to an old favorite; Kerouac was a prodigious letter writer so you get a lot of insight into his life, as well as Burroughs, Cassady, Ginsberg, et al.

34) "Cosmopolis", DeLillo, 209pg.
Comment: No joking at all: I thought this book SUCKED to the point of it angering me; I didn't care about the rich, billionaire who goes on a rampage (nor the three hot women he had sex with along the way) and I was almost offended by the rap music angle (which to me seemed patronizing and a pathetic attempt to "ground" the character); seriously SUCKED but I'll give DeLillo a break.

35) "The Rum Diary" (R), Thompson, 204pg.
Comment: I can't believe he couldn't get this published back in the day; soon to be a major motion picture.

36) "The Red And The Black", Stendhal, 532pg.
Comment: Julian Sorel is one of the great characters in French lit; a good book but I think I would like it better if I could read it in French, which I can't.

37) "Paul Verlaine: Selected Poems", 199pg.
Comment: I love freaky 19th century French symbolists!

38) "William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems", 297pg.
Comment: Another underappreciated American poet who influenced and helped Ginsberg and Corso get published.

39) "Finnegan's Wake", Joyce, 628pg.
Comment: Often called the greatest work in English lit that no one has ever read; once I was able to empty my mind of all conceptions of what a "novel" was, I was able to really enjoy this book and the way his words sound when you string them together; the only book that I couldn't read and listen to music at the same time.

40) "The Sirens Of Titan", Vonnegut, 326pg.
Comment: How could I have waited so long to read Vonnegut? I figured I would start with his first novel and that was a good choice.

41) "The Book Of Martyrdom And Artifice, First Journals And Poems 1937-1952", Ginsberg, 515pg.
Comment: Ginsberg is truly a Great Bard and I've always looked at him as a great American, much like Walt Whitman; that said, after reading his early journals, I can understand why people would get sort of worn out on him; a bit long winded, but it's GINSBERG!!

42) "Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac" (R), Nicosia, 698pg.
Comment: The first bio I ever read on Kerouac (and there are many), I love going back through this one, while skipping over the rather sophomoric literary analyses; also underscores an important fact: Kerouac was kind of miserable prick the last few years of his life, but it's KEROUAC!

43) "Bruised Paradise" (R), Kevin Stein, 72pg.
Comment: The excellent poet laureate of Illinois whom I've had the pleasure of chatting with over the years, Kevin Stein impresses me over and over again; kind of a O'Hara/Ginsberg/Bukowski/Bob Marley with a unique Midwestern feel.

44) "Memoirs of an Aide-de-Camp of Napoleon, 1800-1812", General Count Philippe de S
view /KizerBooks2006
Monday, December 18, 2006 10:38 pm
Levi Asher
Leslie Harpold, a widely loved blogger and internet artist, died of bronchitis last week. Leslie was known for sites like, an early proto-blog, and her other past projects included and (I don't think she ever did anything with this domain name, but she was very proud to have owned it). In July of 1999 I invited Leslie to read at the Literary Kicks Summer Poetry Happening at the Bitter End in New York City, and I've just uploaded a video of her touching and funny performance, which you can view after the jump below.

She's reading a story called "Princess Winter Spring Summer Fall", which is about her mother, her birth father, her love of symmetry, her knowledge of skin coloring and her skill at strip poker. I had to butcher the original video a bit to get it through YouTube's ten minute time limit, but you can view the full text here.

I got to know Leslie better in 2002 when we spent a year together working on the relaunch of an ambitious fine arts site. Our office was on the sixth-floor of an old Chelsea building with an endlessly broken elevator, and Leslie hated those stairs. I wish I had gotten to know her better; she was the chief designer and I was the chief techie, and we were often too busy to talk about anything but work. Here are a few things I remember:

• I won't say she was always in a good mood, but I will say she was always in a friendly mood. She was a people person, a good listener and a good talker.

• She once showed me a bunch of pictures of where she grew up, somewhere in the Appalachian mountain country. I don't remember if she was offended by the term "hillbilly" or not, but Leslie definitely came from deep country roots.

• As a web designer, she had a fabulous client list, and I always had a feeling the clients she didn't talk about were more interesting than the ones she did. I remember her talking about hanging out with Tony Hawk and Steve Burns (the original Steve from "Blue's Clues", who I later met).

• One day she came in to work raving about the movie Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. I remember her practically commanding me to go out and see it immediately. I felt guilty that I didn't and still haven't, but she raved about it so much that every time I hear of the movie I think of her.

• She was a natural onstage (as you can tell by listening to the crowd reaction in the video above). She also joined me for a post-September-11-themed poetry reading at a deserted theater in the Lower East Side in March 2002; this show had a smaller audience but she was a pleasure to listen to.

If you knew Leslie, the video above may bring back nice memories. If you didn't, I think you might enjoy her short story, "Princess Winter Spring Summer Fall".
view /LeslieHarpold
Thursday, December 14, 2006 02:19 pm
Levi Asher
It's getting close to that time of year when those obnoxious "best of" lists start appearing. While I am nothing if not a sucker for a numbered list, I always hate these lists because they always manage to leave off the things I think belong there. As such, I don't want to go in that direction with today's post. Instead, I'd like to do something that I hope will be both more democratic and interesting. A long time ago, Levi wrote a two-parter about favorite poems (part one and part two), which first asked what everyone's favorite poem was, and concluded with a discussion of his favorite poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (which, by the way, is my favorite poem, too). This was one of my favorite LitKicks moments, so I thought I'd do something similar, though not entirely the same, because I like doing my own thing.

We write about books a lot here, because that's the point of the litblog, I suppose, but while we often focus on what's happening in the world of contemporary literature (or, if you're me, totally not contemporary literature), sometimes it's good to get all gushy and starry-eyed writing about that one book we love above all others. The one book that, when you think about books, is the best one you've ever read. I'm thinking of my favorite book right now (and I'll tell you what it is later, in a reply to this post, since I have other things to write about next week), and it's my favorite for the following reasons: the writing fascinates me, the construction of the pieces of story into the whole of the novel is incredible, and after I finished reading it the first time, I sat and reread the last sentence 10 more times because I didn't want it to be over yet and I was amazed at how perfectly it had all come together in that last, lovely line.

So, instead of trying to compile one of those dreadful "Best of 2006" lists that everyone will disagree with anyway, I propose that we create our own list of The Best Books Ever. If you'd like to play along, and of course you should, you have to pick one book, your favorite book, without resorting to that pansy-ass "I love the following 25 books equally as if they were my own children." Pick the one book, the book you'd be perfectly happy to read forever if somehow it were the only book left on earth. You can do it, and I'm looking forward to knowing what you choose.

Okay, go.

view /BestBookEver
Wednesday, December 6, 2006 10:15 pm
Jamelah Earle
1. Apparently it's not duck season, and it's not rabbit season. It's blogger season. Well, I missed the jump on Rachel Cooke's condescending piece trashing bloggers as talentless "pooters" in the Guardian, and plenty of other people have already let Ms. Cooke know what they think of her calculations.

So I'll keep this short: I read professional book critics and I read literary bloggers. I'm quite sure that many literary bloggers can stand up to their "professional" peers on the basis of writing skill, knowledge, judgement and style. What bloggers lack in editorial oversight, we make up in humor. I find it strange that so many professional book critics are writing articles trashing bloggers as sub-literate or incompetent, since we are nothing of the sort. Myself, I've corrected the New York Times more often than they've corrected me.

2. Here's some more nonsense. Ian McEwan has always acknowledged that his superb novel Atonement, which depicts British medical emergency units in World War II, was based on background information found in a series of books by a nurse named Lucilla Andrews (whose popular books were sometimes sold as steamy paperbacks). Since McEwan clearly acknowledged this inspiration in the book itself, and since there is nothing wrong with fiction based on primary historical sources, this case does not resemble plagiarism in the slightest sense. Yet McEwan has to endure junk like this.

3. Now here's something good: somebody's finally writing a full-length and well-researched biography of Kurt Vonnegut. Charles Shields is looking for stories of encounters with the debonair satirist of Schenectady, and in fact I already sent him my story, which I'll tell you someday soon too.

4. Here's a great investigative piece by the Rake on Dave Eggers' early panning of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (which he is now writing forwards for). I agree that Eggers has every right to change his opinion over ten years, though it's strange he didn't mention this change of opinion in the new forward. Well, anyway, I guess I have no problem with the co-author of What is the What.

5. I've always loved what Penguin Books does with packaging, from the classics to this (via The Millions).

6. Here's where Will Self writes. Appropriately extreme. I'm not disappointed.
view /Pooter
Monday, November 27, 2006 10:34 pm
Levi Asher
I've been reading an anthology, We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs, edited by Nasrim Alavi and published by Soft Skull. This is a collection of excerpts from numerous Iranian bloggers, all of it translated from Farsi. Farsi blogs are a vast world, Alavi explains in an informative introduction. For reasons not entirely known, there are more blogs in this language than in Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese and Russian.

Alavi's book is a wide overview of a semi-underground society at various variances with their government and their religious traditions. Some of the excerpts show charming slices of everyday life:

z8unak: I came across a cockroach in the kitchen today (I don't want any of you out there thinking we have cockroaches in our house, because we don't -- it must have got in through a window or something), but out of the total kindness of my heart I ignored it and let it escape.

I'm glad Mum wasn't in the kitchen to see this as she would have said "What? Have you fallen in love again?!!" Mum thinks the only people on earth who don't kill cockroaches ... are those who have fallen in love!

Others take political positions, and support other bloggers in trouble with the law (note: if you click on this website link, the Farsi page plays an audio file, so turn down your speakers if you're at work):

ranginkamaan: We are painfully aware of the manifestations of this totalitarian system ... its absolute need to influence every aspect of the life of its individual subjects, and to produce people of uniform thoughts, while opposing free thought and democracy ...

Blogger Sina Motallebi was arrested and charged with jeopardizing national security! You have to pity a regime whose national security can be jeopardized by the writings of a blogger!

Don't we know it, don't we know it ...

We are Iran: The Persian Blogs is a book worthy of your attention. It may represent a trend, too. From slightly elsewhere on the political spectrum, here's another narrated anthology of blog selections, The Blog of War by Matthew Currier Burden, published by Simon and Schuster. This is an attractively assembled collection of blog posts from our current Iraqi troops, many of whom turn out to be deft writers. This book's tone is very gung-ho and a bit too romantic about the military for my tastes (chapters are titled "Healers", "Fallen", etc.). But the pieces read well, and the raw anecdotes and the diversity of personality and opinion makes The Blog of War a valuable document of our time.

Bloggers ... what are we going to do with us all? Sure, we're sub-literate, but we can turn out a good book every once in a while. Here are two worth checking out.

view /IranIraqBlogs
Monday, November 20, 2006 10:19 pm
Levi Asher
The New York Times Book Review, supposedly a part of the Sunday New York Times, is delivered to my doorstep every Saturday morning. Advance copies begin to circulate several days earlier, though, and the online version is also usually available by the Thursday or Friday before the publication date on the cover of each issue. Still, I think it is an essential feature of the Book Review that it is a *weekend* publication, and that's why I always post my review of the review sometime between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The Book Review is meant to feel like the weekend. It's designed for expanding minds freed temporarily from cubicles and commuter trains. You're supposed to sink into this publication like a warm bath, and I find the Book Review incompatible with the entire day of Friday, or with any weekday. I would no sooner read the New York Times Book Review on a Friday (even though I know it is available) than I would stand up and stretch during the sixth inning of a baseball game, or order a Carvel ice cream sundae and eat the hot fudge first. It's just wouldn't feel right.

But some of my blogging colleagues apparently see things differently, and I felt my sheltered world spinning off its axis this Friday afternoon when Ron Hogan and Ed Champion both finished chewing up and spitting out this weekend's Book Review this past Friday. Despite my general affection for Ron and Ed, I find this disturbing.

I understand that Hogan and Champion were writing as journalists, reacting to the discovery of an alleged small impropreity on the part of NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus, who placed a big colorful ad for Jonathan Franzen's Discomfort Zone right next to a series of letters praising Franzen and his book (surely evoking the appearance of favored treatment, though it's not actually likely that anybody's running a kickback scheme out of Tanenhaus's office). I guess I don't disagree with their decisions to post these stories; a good news story can't wait.

But I am not a journalist, I am an aesthete, and therefore I promise you that I will continue to review the Book Review only on Sunday evenings, or occasionally on a Sunday morning or Saturday afternoon or even Saturday morning if the mood so strikes me. This is the way it oughta be, and this is the way it will always be here at the Kicks.

Well, I worked myself up into such a tizzy over this that I have exhausted myself without even beginning to review this week's articles. The cover piece is film critic's A. O. Scott's thoughtful and well-written review of Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land. I am grateful to Scott because I had some idea that I might want to read this book (despite finding Ford's The Sportswriter disappointing and bland), and now that I've read Scott's review I am certain that I don't want to try. The funny thing is that Scott's review is not a bad one, but it points to the ascetic weightiness that always hovers like a gray cloud over Ford's dull, dull prose. One book crossed off my checklist.

Then there's Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons, which gets a mostly bad (but admirably fair) review by Adam Goodheart, and which I am trying to read because I loved his first book. But I found the book's first few pages so horrendously overbaked that I haven't gotten any further yet, and for this reason it thrilled me to read Adam Goodheart's comment that the book's first sentences are "so awful that they beg to be read aloud". I don't take pleasure in the idea that I will not end up liking Thirteen Moons -- I really am committed to Charles Frazier and I am going to give this book everything I've got (later). I also can't agree with Goodheart that Charles Frazier is better at tone than characterization. That's Cormac McCarthy -- I think Cold Mountain had great characters. I absolutely agree with Goodheart, though, that these opening lines are just painfully shrill and unenticing:

There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nightland, where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to travel.

Readers, I am leaving soon for the Nightland as well. I enjoyed several other pieces in this week's generally worthy issue, including Michael Wood's perceptive consideration of Lee Siegel's Falling Upwards, Liesl Schillinger's review of Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn and Gregory Cowles's review of Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr. Y (a philosophical mystery pastiche that sounds like Jacques Derrida by way of Lemony Snicket).

Two minor complaints. First, I'm glad Tanenhaus called on digerati Steven Johnson to write an endpaper, but the resulting article, which marvels at the fact that bloggers and online writers have the power to alter public debate quickly via Google, is written in a "Google for Dummies" voice that might be appropriate for little old ladies from Schenectady who've never seen YouTube, but is a little too "gee-whiz" for the NYTBR.

And, N. Scoot Momaday's review of Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder: an Epic of the American West is a thoroughly annoying piece. Momaday wastes our time rhapsodizing about the myth of the American West, which he clearly finds more interesting than either the reality of the American West or the book he is supposed to be reviewing. There's a lot of stuff like this:

In 1868 the Navajos returned to their homeland. When they drew within sight of their sacred Blue Bead Mountain, they wept.

They all wept? And what does this have to do with Hampton Sides's book? It's ironic that the Book Review chides Charles Frazier for being corny on page 14 and then allows a full page of the same hoary stuff on page 21.
view /NYTBR20061030
Sunday, October 29, 2006 08:11 pm
Levi Asher
It's been a long time since we've asked this question: What are you reading?

And, whatever it is, how are you enjoying it so far? We'd really like to know.
view /WAYR200610
Monday, October 23, 2006 02:17 pm
Levi Asher
1. You've probably already heard that the Litblog Co-Op has picked Sam Savage's Firmin as its Autumn 2006 READ THIS! selection. That was five days ago, so imagine my surprise when I wandered into my neighborhood Barnes and Noble's (in Forest Hills, Queens) and discovered this comic novel about a literary rat nowhere on the featured stacks, nowhere on the shelves ... simply nowhere at all.

Now, there is strong anecdotal evidence that Litblog Co-Op recommendations drive book sales (though I've never seen hard numbers to back this up). But I wish -- both as a member of the LBC and as a person who cares about literary fiction -- that this effect were more immediate. The LBC works hard to produce these quarterly recommendations, and in the case of Firmin I think we've uncovered a real buried treasure. Why do I say "buried"? Well, the LBC doesn't recommend books with big publicity budgets or sturdy fan bases. I know that Firmin is good enough to become a breakout hit, but this won't happen unless interested readers make the effort to follow up on the LBC recommendation, order a copy, ask bookstores about it, pass the word around. This book is not a runaway success ... YET. But it deserves to be, and if you read I feel very confident that you'll agree.

I could talk more about the book itself here, but earlier this week I wrote up a quick summary for the Blog, and I hate to repeat myself. Let's just say that if Nikolai Gogol wrote Charlotte's Web, the result might be something like Firmin. This book is smart, it's sad and it's funny. And if all this talking-up doesn't get you curious, I don't know what will.

Buy this book. And, hey, it's October and you're eventually going to start Christmas shopping. Think about Firmin as a stocking stuffer. You'll make your family and friends happy, and you'll make the LBC look good too. Do it for the rat.

2. Unlike Sam Savage, Richard Powers doesn't actually need the publicity. But he's getting it anyway, because Echo Maker really is that good. The final installment of the Echo Maker roundtable, featuring a thoughtful response by Mr. Powers himself, is now up.

3. Nice write-up on Tolstoy's War and Peace today at Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading. My only (minor) disagreement is that I'm not sure War and Peace is quite the Goliath it's portrayed as here (Scott says it's widely hailed as the greatest novel of all time, but I think this is more often said of Ulysses or Moby Dick or Don Quixote). Still, I love to see contemporary bloggers digging up the classics instead of shredding numbly through the hot new releases of the day, as we all tend to do way often.
view /GogolsWeb
Friday, October 20, 2006 02:07 pm
Levi Asher