Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Internet Culture

What Are You Reading?

by Levi Asher on Monday, October 23, 2006 02:17 pm


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.





If Gogol Wrote Charlotte’s Web …

by Levi Asher on Friday, October 20, 2006 02:07 pm


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 Powells.com 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.





Definitely Connected

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, October 10, 2006 04:17 pm


1. PBS is launching a new blog, Remotely Connected, and I'm proud to be one of the contributing writers, along with Alice Bradley of FinSlippy, David Gutowski of LargeHearted Boy, Kyle MacDonald of One Red Paperclip and Merlin Mann of 43 Folders. An eclectic group indeed. Here's my first article for the site, about Eyes on the Prize.

2. We're all catching Nobel Prize fever (the literary award will be announced on Thursday). Will Orhan Pamuk take it? Why hasn't John Updike won a Nobel Prize yet, and how can anybody possibly imagine the prize going to Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth if Updike hasn't won one yet? Finally, why does nobody ever, ever, ever mention Kurt Vonnegut as a Nobel candidate? Well, there, I just mentioned Kurt Vonnegut, so somebody finally has.

It's literary prize season. Kiran Desai has just won the Man Booker Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle is going to present its short-list for the National Book Awards tomorrow morning.

3. HBO's Def Poetry has begun filming for its new season! I know this for a fact because the good folks who run the show were kind enough to invite me for a taping last night. The air conditioner broke, so the room was hot in more ways than one, but based on what I saw the sixth season will be one of the best. As you already know if you've hung around here for a while, I have a lot of respect for this show and I'm really trying to spread the word. Not sure when the new episodes will air, but I will certainly keep you informed.





Winners

by Levi Asher on Monday, October 2, 2006 10:51 pm


1. I like Michael Orthofer's breakdown of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature odds. Of course, the Great Enigma of Sweden always pulls out surprises, and I doubt that anyone would have given Harold Pinter better odds than 20-1 last year. Nobel Prize season starts right about now, but the Literature prize will be the last to be announced this year, so it'll probably be a couple more weeks before the Swedes speak. LitKicks says Orhan Pamuk deserves to take this puppy.

2. Big congrats to litblogger Jeff Bryant and his Stubby Clappers for winning the championship round in a hotly contested 2006 Yahoo Fantasy Baseball League. Numerous bloggers participated, and C. Max Magee of The Millions's Ravenswood Ravens came in second.

Elsewhere in the league, the unofficial award for most literary team name goes to the Ruppert Mundys, and some of the worse names included the Boston Knee Sox (and the Stubby Clappers). But, by far the worst part of the season -- and the message gets serious here -- was when a very talented baseball fan and blogger named Mike Simanoff killed himself in mid-season. I didn't know Mike at all, but his Chicago Windbags sure kicked my Ashpile Mets' ass, and I enjoyed looking at his eclectic blog, Little Toy Robot (it's still up, and there's also a memorial site here).

I heard third-hand that Mike suffered from longtime emotional difficulties, and that's all I know. A look at his blog shows a smart guy who could write, and who doesn't seem visibly more troubled than any of the rest of us sad fools. He was an expert fantasy baseball player, and even though he died six weeks before the end of the season his team ended the season in third place without him (mine landed eight places below, though I remain obliviously still alive).





Peace in Soho, Moans in Brooklyn

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, September 19, 2006 09:05 pm


1. I attended an outstanding group reading last night at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Soho. The theme was Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and the event was sponsored by a group called Seeds of Peace. The event began with a bang when Leora Skolkin-Smith read a surprising personal document, a passionate love letter an anonymous Muslim teenager in Beirut had written to her Jerusalemite Jewish mother in the 1930's. These readers were intent on breaking down the idea that Jews and Muslims cannot co-exist, and one touching, revealing story after another was offered by Diana Abu-Jaber, Edith Chavet, David Gates, Nathalie Handal, Bernice L. McFadden, Evelyn Shakir, Cathy Sultan and many others. Two moments stand out in my memory: first, a mild-mannered woman named Helen Englehardt told us of her husband's death in a terrorist hijacking, which resulted in a moving friendship with an angry Palestinian neighbor who found in her story a metaphor for his own crisis. Ms. Englehardt began embodying the voice and body language of this neighbor, captivating the audience with her improbable and persuasive tale.
And, Katharine Weber, author of the superb novel Triangle, held down the evening's anchor spot with a stunning rendition of the last pages of Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. Weber is a powerful reader, and the large crowd at the bookstore was ready to storm some barricades and find some walls to tear down by the time she slammed the Trumbo book shut. But this was Soho, so we had wine and cheese instead. This was an inspiring event, and a damn good idea.

2. The supersonically satiric George Saunders has won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Once again, moans of "why not me" are now rising into the nighttime sky of Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill and Brooklyn Heights. (By the way, why the hell not me?).

The Macarthur Grant is an unusual prize in that one cannot apply for it. One is simply "chosen", which lends the award a certain aura of majestic inevitability. Our opinion on Saunders' apotheosis? Well, Genius is a big word, but Saunders is just original enough to make the cut. If I could award this prize to anybody, Nicholson Baker would be living large very soon.

3. Lev Grossman and Ed Champion are finally duking it out on the back page of this week's Time Magazine. I'm happy to say I know both men (though I haven't run into Lev for years) and it happens they're really just two swell guys.

4. Jeff has joined the one album club! Are you next?





When The Deal Goes Down

by Levi Asher on Friday, September 1, 2006 09:27 am


1. I've given the new Bob Dylan album a few listens, and I like it a lot. Modern Times plays like Love and Theft Part Two -- eclectic, rootsy high-shuffle beats, witty, aphoristic lyrics -- and since I loved the earlier album this is hardly a complaint. For a taste of these lyrics, check out these excerpts on a blog dedicated, interestingly enough, to theological scholarship and faith.

Novelist Jonathan Lethem interviews Bob Dylan in the latest Rolling Stone, but it's a mediocre and attenuated effort. Bob Dylan is a great bullshitter who can spin out long sequences of nonsense and make it all sound important; this is the game he's played in a long career of interviews. A good Dylan interviewer must anticipate this and aim to get past Dylan's basic bag of tricks, but Lethem's interview (erroneously billed as "an intimate conversation") simply solicits familiar stock answers from the old guy and goes no further than that. It's a disappointingly short piece, and I wish Lethem had reached harder and asked some more unusual questions.

2. Some live events coming up in the New York City area: Ted Pelton, author of Malcolm and Jack, will be reading at Night and Day in Brooklyn on September 7 at 7 pm. A large contingent of writers concerned about the wars in the Middle East, including Diana Abu-Jaber, Edith Chevat, Robb Forman Dew, Masha Hamilton, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Bernie McFadden, Jim Sheperd, Joan Silber, Leora Skolkin-Smith and Katharine Weber, will be gathering at McNally Robinson Booksellers at 50 Prince Street on September 18th on behalf of Seeds of Peace (info here). Finally, USA Poet Laureate Donald Hall will be performing Sept 19 at City University of New York.

3. Goodbye to The Beiderbecke Affair, a worthy and well-illustrated blog that's published its last post.





Reviewing the Review: August 13 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, August 13, 2006 12:01 pm


First-time novelist Marisha Pessl gets a rave review from Liesl Schillinger on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review, a refreshing start for a lively issue.

Liesl Schillinger is, in my opinion, the best writer among the Book Review's regular critics, but this article about Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics is uncharacteristically breathless and frenetic. I guess even a critic as skillful as Schillinger can get foxed trying to explain this many characters and levels of reality in fifteen paragraphs or less. It doesn't help that Schillinger weirdly manages to shout out to no less than, let's see: Meredith Willson's The Music Man, Vladimir Nabokov, The O. C., Alan Bennett, Louis B. Mayer, Cary Grant, Howard Hughes, Paper Moon, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Alfred Hitchcock, Blue Lagoon, Lauren Bacall, Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany's, From Here to Eternity, Raymond Chandler, Othello, The Woman in White and Deliverance.

At first I thought Liesl Schillinger had lost her mind, but in fact this hyper-pop-conscious meta-referentiality seems to reflect the sensibility of Pessl's book, in which each chapter is titled for a work of literature. I'm going to take Schillinger's recommendation and read this book, and I have a feeling I'll like it.

(Schillinger also sneaks a sweet sideswipe at the literary blog scene into her review, which I'll discuss at the end of this article).

There's lots of good stuff in today's Book Review. Orhan Pamuk's translator Maureen Freely provides an informative endpaper on the status of Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, who is facing trial for writing about the Armenian genocide. Hillary Frey provides the good news that Bobbie Ann Mason has produced a new volume of interlinked stories, Nancy Culpepper. Claire Messum reviews A. B. Yehoshua's A Woman in Jerusalem, which I also believe I'll have to throw onto my must-read pile (as if there's room). Stacey D'Erasmo compares and contrasts Lori Lansens' The Girls and Shelley Jackson's Half Life, both of them novels about interconnected twins, and gives us sentences like this:

Shelly Jackson's "Half Life" is the textual equivalent of an installation, a multivocal, polymorphous, dialogic, dystopian satire wrapped around a murder mystery wrapped around a bildungsroman.

Two articles pleased me slightly less. Kathryn Harrison's review of The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma by Annie G. Rogers is a bit clinical. The book describes the latest findings involving silent children and other scenarios of victimization, which is an interesting topic, but Harrison's review is blandly written, and fails to mention the obvious music/film reference, Tommy by the Who (Liesl Schillinger would certainly have caught this).

But that's a minor crime, whereas Hugo Lindgren's review of Toby Young's The Sound of No Hand Clapping is an abomination. I wish Lindgren had reviewed the book instead of telling us that he goes to the same parties as Toby Young and prattling on as if he were writing a hazy Sunday-morning email to a few friends. After reading this review, I have absolutely no idea what Toby Young's book is.

* * * * *

Now, about Liesl Schillinger's small backhand towards the lovable litblog community -- here is what Schillinger wrote:

"When the news came out that a distractingly pretty actress, playwright and Barnard College graduate named Marisha Pessl, only 27, had sold her first book (which she also illustrated) - a 'Nabokovian' thriller about an intellectual widower and his precocious daughter - for a substantial sum, the pick-a-little, talk-a-little publishing blog brigade went into conniptions. 'She's the latest in a long, long line to suffer from "Hot Young Author Chick" Syndrome,'one blogger grumbled; another wrote in a headline, 'It's Not About Marisha Pessl's Looks and Money -- Is It?' and asked if the book would have been snapped up so quickly if Pessl hadn't had such a 'drool-worthy author photo.'

I wonder if Schillinger knows that 'Pick-a-little Talk-a-little', the song from Meredith Willson's brilliant 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man, is loaded with literary references. A group of women are gossiping about the local librarian, Marian Paroo (the heroine of the play), who has stocked their small town library with "dirty books". In one verse the women even intone the authors Marian is promoting: "Chaucer ... Rabelais ... Balzac". The last name is sung slowly and with great emphasis on both syllables (and if you don't think audiences got the dirty joke that emerges when you say this name slowly, you are underestimating the Broadway audiences of 1957).

So this song is a great choice for a literary putdown; however, I think Schillinger misses her target. As others have already remarked, dismissiveness towards the blogosphere only reflects a parochial attitude. It's also unseemly that Schillinger fails to name the two bloggers she quotes, Jessa Crispin and Sarah Weinman. I've been reading Jessa Crispin and Sarah Weinman about as long as I've been reading Liesl Schillinger, and as far as I can see all three uphold the same high standards in their work, so why would Schillinger speak of them so dismissively? Pick a little, talk a little, indeed ...





Old News, Courtesy of LitKicks

by Levi Asher on Friday, July 28, 2006 10:32 am


My rhythm's been a bit off lately, leaving me with a bunch of interesting links I want to present to the loyal readers of LitKicks despite the fact that most of these items are already old news on the blogosphere. Well, what can I say? I'm slow, but I'm not dead (yet).

1. Everybody's talking about the upcoming 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's On The Road and about the unedited version of the original scroll that will be published for the occasion. Personally, I'm not going to get too excited about this. Sure, it should be published as a historical artifact, but why would anybody other than a Kerouac super-fan/expert want to read this version instead of the one we know and love? I'm more impressed by Michael Hess's attempt to google-map the entire novel. Beyond this admirable endeavor, I am already tired (well in advance) of the hype that will descend in September 2007 when the book's 50th anniversary occurs. There are other great Beat books that could use some attention. I say share the love -- let's talk about Big Sur or Kaddish or Gasoline or Turtle Island for a change.

2. What's impressive about this Hemingway Lookalike Contest recently held in Key West isn't the concept but the results. I don't even like Hemingway very much, but I like these photos.

3. I enjoyed Scott Esposito's detailed analysis of his own literary ideals and opinions. It's an honest piece that helps to point out the odd mix of subjectivity and objectivity we all wrestle with when we try to explain to others what we like, what we don't like, and why.

4. The best new litblog of 2006? I have to hand it to Critical Mass, which hit the ground running several months ago and has been keeping it fresh, lively and controversial ever since. Nice job, folks!

5. Raymond Carver's first wife has written a book about the late great short story writer. Jonathan Yardley used this as an opportunity to say a whole bunch of dumb and irrelevant things about Raymond Carver, and Rake's Progress has happily moved in with a neat rebuttal. The Rake is correct, Jonathan Yardley is out of line, and Raymond Carver is still dead.

5. As mentioned here last week, Caryn Thurman and Jamelah Earle will be staying up for 24 hours to blog for their selected charities from 9 a.m. Saturday to 9 a.m. Sunday. Jamelah will be blogathoning from her home in Michigan, whereas Caryn has travelled up to New York City so she can run the show from my humble apartment in Queens. Please consider sponsoring Caryn and/or Jamelah's noble efforts, or at least stop by either of their sites tomorrow and post some comments to help keep these highly dedicated women awake.





Channeling the Rage

by Levi Asher on Friday, July 21, 2006 03:35 pm


I've never wanted LitKicks to be anything but a literary website, but sometimes I need to write about things that have nothing to do with fiction or poetry. That's why I've decided, after much contemplation, to take the plunge and start my second blog.

I've always had a passion for history and political theory, and I'm sure I've read more history books than novels in my life. I've long wanted to do some writing in this area, and with the stark global events that have dominated our world in the past few years I've sometimes felt frustrated at not being able to write about the issues on my mind (I've also made a few attempts at merging my two passions, like October Earth, a literary/political symposium we conducted during the final month of the Bush/Kerry election season in 2004, and the old LitKicks Poetry and Politics board).

But literature and politics are distinct, and that's the way it should be. I love the way LitKicks is developing, and I don't want to risk losing what is good about this site by introducing controversial topics that don't belong. The decision to branch off a separate channel will let me keep LitKicks focused on its own area. I'm looking forward to a lot of upcoming events: participating in the next round of Litblog Co-op selections, getting creative with the Action Poetry format (I've got some ideas, let's see if I can actually make them happen), maybe doing some live events in New York later this year.

But I'm also psyched to have a new place where I can let loose, and I do mean loose. Maybe this will even help temper my tone here on LitKicks, because I occasionally read my back pages here and wonder if I haven't been taking out my anger about various global events on a few poor writers and critics. The truth is, Jonathan Lethem and David Orr are really not what's wrong with the world today.

What is wrong with the world today? You'll have to read my new blog to find out.

But you can't look just yet, because I'd like to let it percolate another few days before I show it to you. It's live, but there's not much there yet. This Sunday will be the 12th birthday of LitKicks, and maybe that'll be a good opportunity to sneak a link in. I better get busy!






Blogathon Madness

by Levi Asher on Thursday, July 20, 2006 02:23 pm


Apparently there's a Blogathon heading our way, and while LitKicks is not going to participate directly (because this blogger prefers to sleep) we are going to host the 24 hour blogging of our very own Caryn Thurman, who was the winner of the 2005 Blogathon Best Webcam Award, and who will be joining the madness again this year to raise money for ProLiteracy.org.

Now, when I say LitKicks is going to host Caryn, you probably think we're going to host her blog. But Caryn's blog is already doing fine on its own server, so what we're going to do is host Caryn herself in my cozy apartment in Rego Park, New York (Caryn happens to be the love of my life, if you haven't guessed already). She'll be setting up her webcam right near the spot where I will be happily sleeping as she drives herself into a state of restless delirium attempting to blog for 24 hours straight.

Caryn can tell you herself why ProLiteracy.org is important and why it'd be a great thing if you supported her selected charity with a donation of any size. Other friends of LitKicks are also joining the Blogathon, including Jamelah Earle who will be blogging on behalf of Breast Cancer Research and Ed Champion, who says he might join the Blogathon (well, then, we might be donating).

Please drop by any of these sites and be a sponsor for a good cause. And don't forget to visit any of these sites on July 29-30 to share in the fun.





Pages

Subscribe to Internet Culture