Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

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Reviewing the Review: June 18 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, June 18, 2006 10:32 pm

This is your New York Times Book Review on ginkgo biloba, or something, today. The intellect factor is at an unusually high level, with a Robert Stone cover story on John Updike, a Harold Bloom essay contemplating the legacy of Rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and a brain-cell heavy endpaper by Lee Siegel on the legacy of eccentric literary critic Paul Zweig.

The honest truth is, after a weekend of Father's Day festivities, freeze tag, swimming pools and barbecues, I'm in no shape to take in all this high-octane intellectual stuff, and I may have to finish reading some of the minor articles in this weekend's issue tomorrow. Naturally I turned first to acclaimed novelist Robert Stone's review of Updike's Terrorist. Stone is roughly Updike's peer (they both came up in the Vietnam War era), though he's never been quite as renowned, and I think the Book Review chose this match-up well.

Stone waxes impressionistic about Terrorist, careening a bit wildly a way from his subject at times, but making up for it with poetic sentences like:

But the great informing image in the sky over Jersey, still so conjurable in memory as to serve as a totem, is the tower of smoke twisting skyward, replacing the elongated dominoes that had lorded like idols over the plain.

Hey, who's the writer in the spotlight here, Updike or Stone? Updike may well be wondering the same thing, since Stone maintains a respectful tone in much of this article, then gently tips his hand in the last paragraph that he doesn't think the book works very well. But he got to write a good article about it, so it wasn't a total loss.

I don't know what to say about Harold Bloom's excessive rumination on the heritage of a great 17th Century Dutch/Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spizona, who is the subject of a new Rebecca Goldstein book called Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Who Gave Us Modernity. I don't think many people are going to be able to follow Bloom's badly-connected arguments. I have a B.A. in Philosophy, and I was just barely hanging on in some spots. Take this incredible phrase:

Leo Strauss (never to be confused with our plague of his disciple's disciples) implicitly manifested a distaste for Spinoza ...

Who's confusing what with who's disciple's disciple (whatever that means)? And why is the name Leo Strauss being dropped (with no explanation or attribution) into an article about a book on Baruch Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein? Bloom has some interesting points to make about Spinoza's dual status as a religious philosopher and a mystical non-religious logician, but they are lost in the thoughtlessly impenetrable exposition. This article is not Harold Bloom's finest moment.

Jay Parini has harsh words for Laura Esquivel's Malinche, which he says is nowhere near as good as the author's popular Like Water for Chocolate. He balances this with a very positive review of another book about the same legendary native-Mexican historical figure, Night of Sorrows by Frances Sherwood. Parini makes a strong case for both of his opinions, and I hope we'll see more reviews by this author.

The Times gets self-reflective with a review by Harold Evans of Daniel Okrent's collected self-reflective columns about the New York Times, Public Editor #1. I'm not quite sure how this book will prove timeless, but I am very happy to see my former boss Daniel Okrent's literary reputation increasing. How often do you hear a guy describe a former boss as a great role model? I worked for him for about three years at Time Warner's, where he had been hired to correct the famously bad management of the original editorial team. He wasn't able to save the Pathfinder project, but he impressed me constantly with his unflappably sardonic approach to the then-raging dot-com craze.

Pathfinder was the laughing-stock of the internet business at the time Okrent was hired, because Time Warner had invested incredible amounts of money into a site that nobody liked, and because we represented the heavy, plodding corporate presence in the fast-growing internet content space. We looked bad in every newspaper or magazine article that mentioned our site. Then one day we ran a poll (on, one of our sites) for the most beautiful person in America, and Howard Stern crashed our servers by asking all his radio listeners to vote for Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf.

I remember reading about it in the New York Times the next morning, and when I saw that our new editor-in-chief was being interviewed I figued we were going to look mighty silly in public, yet again. But now Daniel Okrent was in charge, and when the New York Times asked him "What are you going to do about this?" he answered "We are going to stand by and look bemused."

And I thought to myself: this new guy might be worth watching..

Okrent began working for the New York Times as the public representative, or ombudsman, a few years after Pathfinder's final demise (he's since yielded the position to Byron Calame). Harold Evans gives his new book a very positive review. Having read most of the original columns that make up this book, I'm sure it's well deserved.

Action Poetry User’s Manual

by Levi Asher on Thursday, June 1, 2006 07:49 am

We'll be rolling out some software upgrades on this site in the next few weeks, starting with some changes in progress to the Action Poetry page. The page looks mostly the same, but it now automatically rolls over and creates an archive page at the beginning of each month, and the selection of featured poems in the middle right panel of every LitKicks page will now be updated continually instead of a few times a month. Today is the first of June, so the current Action Poetry page is now a blank slate (check last month's page to see what it will look like once it gets moving).

It's occurred to me that many people visit LitKicks regularly but never post on our poetry forum because they don't know what it's all about. Action Poetry is a free-form showcase for amateur or professional poets or writers. You can post an original piece, or you can write a response to another writer's poem. We try to maintain a zen atmosphere on this page -- each poem simply exists for the sake of existing, and may or may not get a response. There is no "official voice", and we never interrupt the flow to make announcements or provide structure of any kind. You may never know whether anybody liked your poem or not, and that's how Action Poetry works.

Any format, style or subject matter is okay, as long as you are sincerely trying to write well. We ask only a few things: check your spelling and formatting before you post, post only original work, and keep it short (this is not the place to upload your unpublished novel).

You can use Action Poetry as therapy, or you can use it to express secrets that won't fit on a postcard, or you can use it to show off your poetic skills. If you've never posted on Action Poetry before, all you have to do is create a LitKicks member name and you're all set.

Whoever you are, please consider writing us a poem soon.

Hungry Like The Wolf

by Levi Asher on Friday, May 19, 2006 02:58 pm

1. BookExpo America is the big story in the publishing community this week, and I'm really sorry I'm not there to attend the Litblog Co-op party or watch Ed Champion heckle Sam Tanenhaus. However, Jeff "Syntax" Bryant was visiting New York for the first time this week, and Jeff and I met up to have our very own little BookExpo, consisting of two guys, some good conversation, and lots of talk about baseball. So there. We even got somebody to take a picture so we can be cool like our friends down in Washington DC.

2. Jeff and I also wandered over to the YMCA on 63rd Street where Bob Rosenthal, Jason Shinder, Eliot Katz, Vivan Gornick and Kurt Brown staged a reading from Jason Shinder's Howl: The Poem That Changed America. Every reader was inspiring, but the bit I'll remember best is when Bob Rosenthal pointed out that the title of the poem Howl is often misunderstood to refer to a howl of pain, when actually a howl is used by dogs or wolves to communicate any number of sentiments. Rosenthal played a recording of actual wolf howls and asked us to note the fact that when one wolf howls others join in -- more than anything else, a wolf's howl is a call for community. All of which proves that, despite what anyone might think, it is still possible to come up with something new and interesting to say about Allen Ginsberg's much-discussed poem.

3. You may have heard that Beloved by Toni Morrison was named the best book of the last 25 years by a panel led by Sam Tanenhaus. My natural inclination when I heard this was to begin complaining, but then it occurred to me that I've never read Beloved (though I have read Morrison's Tar Baby), which renders any complaint of mine rather ill-informed. I am now about 50 pages into the book and it's better than I thought it would be (and better than Tar Baby too). I must be getting more open-minded as I grow older ... the old me would have complained first and read the book later. I still think the Times Top 25 list is a creaky mess, though.

4. Want to hear the wolves howl while you work on your own fiction or poetry? Here's a writing workshop in Idaho you might enjoy.

Reviewing the Review: May 14 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 14, 2006 09:17 am

Bookish readers of today's New York Times will turn first to the magazine, drawn in by Kevin Kelly's cover article about "What Will Happen To Books?" in the age of Google. Noting that there are currently thousands of hourly workers busily scanning books around the world to feed into various corporate and academic search engines (as well as a few robotic scanning monsters doing the same job at places like Stanford University), Kelly's article explains why book publishers are taking an automatic stand against this trend.

There's nothing new about this controversy, but Kelly offers some valuable historical perspective, pointing out that book publishers have been voraciously lobbying to strengthen copyright laws in the USA since 1976, amounting to a near land-grab:

As more intellectual property became owned by corporations rather than by individuals, these corporations successfully lobbied Congress to keep extending the once-brief protection enabled by copyright in order to prevent works from returning to the public domain. With constant nudging, Congress moved the expiration date from 14 years to 28 to 42 and then to 56.

Never before in human history have book publishers been able to throw so much legal weight behind their elongated copyrights, and Kelly presents the new search engine companies that are brazenly building the world's universal library as a corrective balance to this earlier sea change in publication law. I think it's a damn good argument, and I concur with Kelly on most points.

I only wish the New York Times Magazine hadn't chosen to hype the article with sensationalistic language on the cover ("Publisher, be very, very afraid" ... "A manifesto by Kevin Kelly"). Every article that supports Google does not have to be called a manifesto. Nothing in Kelly's well-reasoned article should make book publishers very afraid, but apparently the New York Times Magazine subsists on high drama and must present every debate in the starkest terms.

On to the Book Review, where Adam Begley makes a strong case for me to rush out and buy George Saunders' appealing new book of stories, In Persuasion Nation. But poetry critic Langdon Hammer's review of Franz Wright's God's Silence is disappointingly misdirected. It's a safe bet that most readers of the Book Review are not highly familiar with Wright's work, and an introductory approach would best serve the audience. Instead, Hammer busies himself by challenging Wright's notions of morality and religion, leaving the vast majority of us poor souls who have not yet read God's Silence out in the cold.

Roy Blount Jr. is supposed to be a good writer, right? Somebody explain to me how the hell to parse a sentence like this, in his review of Richard Lingeman's Double Lives:

Clemens' friend William Dean Howells, to be sure, was also a friend of Edith Wharton's friend Henry James (who didn't care for Clemens nor Clemens for him), but Howells spurned the overtures of H. L. Mencken's friend Theodore Dreiser, whose bodacious improprieties in life and art Howells deplored (as did Mencken, eventually).

Thanks for clearing that up, Blount. I think Stamford's book-digesting robot might even crash on that line.

But today's issue redeems itself with an informative endpaper by John H. Summers about late sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose The Power Elite was published fifty years ago and feels quite relevant today:

At the pinnacle of the government, the military and the corporations, a small group of men made the decisions that reverberated "into each and every cranny" of American life.

They did that fifty years ago too? Of course, the Power Elite was then known as the "military-industrial complex", whereas now we simply refer to it as "Dick Cheney".

Finally, let's move on to the Times' already-infamous list of the 25 best American books of the past 25 years which the newspaper has, for some unknown reason, decided to compile. This is too easy a target and I don't even want to take aim. I'll just refer to Mark Sarvas's excellent riposte, which points out that any selection process that produces a list this uninspired must be asking the wrong people. I also want to say that I'm becoming increasingly sick of the canonization of Philip Roth, who is undoubtedly a great writer but who did not write six of the twenty-five best books of the last twenty-five years. He just didn't, and you know this too. I may have more to say about this later.

Flash Mob Visits The Strand

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 8, 2006 05:56 pm

Some people think the Strand on Broadway and 12th Street in New York City is the best used book store in the world. Some other people hate it. And then there's the occasional flash mob that converges to create a spontaneous Cell Phone Symphony by planting 60 highly synchronized phones in bag check (read about it, then check the video). Amusing and pointless, like so much that is good in life. Thanks to Judih for the tip.

Because Everyone Loves Math

by Caryn Thurman on Wednesday, April 19, 2006 08:05 pm

In the beginning it was 5-7-5, then U2, then Sudoku ... now a whole different numerical sequence is sweeping the globe: the Fibonacci sequence, that is. After a call for poems based on everyone's favorite mathematical progression, Gregory Pincus' GottaBook Blog soon became "Fib" central, attracting hundreds of Fib writers from all walks of life. The phenomenon even caught the all-seeing eye of the New York Times. The combination of this quirky form and the wildfire buzz of online attention has resulted in upwards of a thousand Fibs written this month ... and counting. I hate to say that this seems to be much more successful and addicting than my brief run with writing verse based on the Side-Angle-Side postulate.

Poetry a Go Go

by Caryn Thurman on Sunday, April 16, 2006 08:28 pm

A few recent poetry newsbites...

-- The San Francisco Chronicle has a nice review of Book of Sketches by Kerouac.

-- The Loft Literary Center of Minneapolis has announced that it will cease publication of its print magazine, Speakeasy. The last issue is due out this summer. The center plans to expand its online presence as a way to continue its excellent standard of promoting and recognizing great poetry and prose.

-- British novelist and poet Muriel Spark died on Friday in Florence, Italy. Spark is best-known as the creator of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Her tightly crafted work is often noted as being bizarre or dark -- she remarked, "I'm often very deadpan, but there's a moral statement too, and what it's saying is that there's a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They're not important in the long run."

Philip Lamantia’s Last Interview

by Andrew Lundwall on Friday, April 7, 2006 10:48 pm

"Note: In July 2001, I was asked to interview Philip Lamantia for a local Bay Area magazine. It was meant to be a puff piece for a general audience, but Philip took it quite seriously as an opportunity to discuss his spiritual life and its relation to surrealism and poetry. He felt his views on Catholicism in particular had been misrepresented by a few unscrupulous journalists and wanted to set the record straight. But interviewing Philip was difficult. He spoke not in paragraphs but in volumes, with labrythine digressions which sometimes never returned to the ostensible subject at hand. We quickly had to abandon the ordinary Q&A approach in favor of his writing and phoning in various remarks, from which I reversed-engineered questions. While I assembled these discrete units into a plausibly conventional journalistic profile, he continued to refine his statements and, occasionally, change his mind, for he constantly interrogated his own beliefs. Paragraphs appeared and disappeared. As both deadline and word-count loomed, I managed to pull together a version that had his approval if not his entire confidence that I'd made him understood. The point, in any case, was moot, for the publisher deemed the discussion too esoteric for his target audience and promptly killed the piece. Not long afterward, in October, Lamantia fell into a lengthy depression from which he never fully recovered before his death on March 7, 2005 at age 77. To my knowledge, this is the last interview in which he participated." -- Garrett Caples

Action Poetry Still Lives!

by Levi Asher on Monday, April 3, 2006 11:07 am

Well, our beloved Action Poetry book didn't win the Blooker Prize. A book called Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest took the award in our category, and we're good sports so we'll just say "congrats" and smirk like Martin Scorsese does every three years at the Oscars.

This would be a good day, though, to call some attention to the current incarnation of our Action Poetry page, which remains the creative shining light of this website. Please check out the strong work that keeps rolling up on this page every day, and, of course, please consider uploading a poem or short prose piece yourself if the mood strikes.

The Action Poetry writing board was first launched in 2001 at the suggestion of a LitKicks member (the name came about, naturally, because I'd just seen the Ed Harris movie Pollock at this time).

We create a new version of the Action Poetry board every month; the current page is only three days old and already rockin'. Here are some prior pages for your enjoyment. Some of the writers who were published in the 2004 book are still posting new poems here; others may appear in future books that we may produce (who knows?).

Thanks to the amazing eternal LitKicks Action Poets for making us proud!

Brothers in Underpants

by Caryn Thurman on Thursday, March 16, 2006 05:44 pm

No, they're not the Baldwins ... they're not even and . I'm talking about Mopekey and Humkin, the two underwear clad, cereal-loving brothers who make up the central imaginary characters of Lincoln-Mercury's new viral marketing campaign of "webisodes" known as "The Neverything".

Say what?

Have I lost my mind, you ask? Possibly, but before I cross over into the hyperreality of absurdist fiction and car commercials, perhaps you'd like to come along?

Quite simply, "" is a tightly crafted, well-produced mini-film series (and associated interactive website, of course) with the ultimate goal of getting people to talk about the sheer bizarre-kooky-Napoleon Dynamitesque approach ... and Lincoln-Mercury products. But it's not just the oddball factor that makes this so appealing (and it is appealing). There are dark elements, humor and real intelligence driving the concept behind the story.

"The Neverything" revolves mostly around two brothers living on a ship in the middle of a field. They have no outside contact with anyone but the milkman who brings their "sustenance". They survive on cereal (which looks an awful lot like Kix) and run around in their underwear all day. Sounds a lot like college, I know. The trick is -- they don't actually exist -- they're fictional characters created by a struggling novelist named Marian Walker (who is also, for our purposes, fictional). While we learn about the strange world of Humkin and Mopekey out in their field of nothing, we also find out that Marian has started to blur the lines of what is real life and what is happening in her developing novel. Which makes sense as she intentionally creates one of the characters to have an awareness that she's writing about him ... Are you starting to catch the /Calvino-style drift here?

As if that weren't enough to pull you in and make your head spin at the same time, there's a movie and corresponding site that focuses on the perspective of the author, called , brought to you by Lincoln (while "The Neverything" is specifically attributed to Mercury.)

What does all this mean? What does it have to do with selling a car and furthermore what does it have to do with literature? I'll leave it to you to come up with your own answers, but the whole phenomenon has already started to generate some buzz, mainly by ad industry types and perplexed onlookers. I'm not sure what more to say ... and perhaps I've said too much already; however the convoluted, intriguing, highly addictive storyline and motivation behind it may just possibly be the most clever bit of writing and creativity I've seen in a long while.

And I'm not even in the market for a new car.


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