Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Internet Culture

Pooter Season

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 27, 2006 10:34 pm

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.

Blogs from Iran and Iraq

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 20, 2006 10:19 pm

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.

Taking Back Sunday: October 29 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, October 29, 2006 08:11 pm

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.

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 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.


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 ...


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