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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

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 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.

Good News

by Levi Asher on Monday, July 17, 2006 11:47 am

Blogger Jeff Bryant of Syntax of Things will now be speaking the Syntax of Kids. He just became a dad -- congrats Jeff and Elaine (and Marlena)!

Hugging the Page

by Levi Asher on Saturday, July 15, 2006 08:36 am

We're blogging on paper now


by Levi Asher on Wednesday, July 5, 2006 08:16 pm

I'm very proud to announce that LitKicks is joining the Litblog Co-op, a group of excellent website publishers who work together to recommend books, stage events and represent a unified "online voice" within the publishing community. I first heard of this group in a Village Voice article published in April 2005, and to be honest I've been hoping for an invitation ever since.

I like this group because they work hard to raise the visibility of the entire literary blogosphere. The publishing world is a mercurial place, and it's easy for small but worthy independent websites to get lost in this swirling corporate (and I do mean corporate) environment. Blogs may be a big fad on the covers of newsmagazines, but that doesn't mean we get the respect, access and visibility we believe we deserve. The Litblog Co-op is designed to change this, and I am very psyched to be a part of the ongoing adventure.

I'm still on vacation, but I'll be back soon -- and I hope Jamelah Earle will be filling in with her latest venture into the classics.

Reviewing the Review: June 25 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, June 25, 2006 09:39 pm

It's always good to see Luc Sante show up in the New York Times Book Review, and this week's cover article on Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield does not disappoint. As only the best reviewers do, Sante allows his subject to occupy every bit of space in his article, delivering a fascinating summary that leaves me hungry for more. I'd forgotten how interesting and contradictory this crazed Harvard professor was (on the positive side, Leary had a great wit; on the negative side, he became a willing government witness to save himself from a long jail sentence). All in all, this is a good rollicking read on a Sunday morning.

Talk about rollicking: John Updike contributes an endpaper ominously titled The End of Authorship, which can only mean we're talking about Google again. It's no secret that I revere John Updike, but I'll admit the great author has served up turkeys before (evidence, evidence), and this particular turkey is big enough for Thanksgiving. Updike, having read an article in the New York Times Magazine by Kevin Kelly about the future of books in the age of massively indexed search engines, thinks somebody's trying to make books go away.

Books are actually not going away, of course (evidence, evidence), and in fact there's no reason that printed literature can't co-exist happily and profitably with the internet. Books are incredibly appealing and practical things, and they're not going to go away as long as people continue to buy them. Updike sees a stark battle where there really isn't one, and he embarrasses himself with shrill sentences like this:

"In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscious word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another -- of, in short, accountability and intimacy."

Yawn. Yes, John, in fact a greedy entrepeneur already amassed a fortune by cutting texts up into indexed snippets and reselling them (without permission or payment) under his own insidious brand. His name was John Bartlett. Somehow, though, the world of literature has managed to survive the launch of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations in 1855. Literature will find a way to survive Google too.

Updike is usually quite well-informed, so it's surprising that he doesn't realize this debate already played itself out in Wired and the Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine during the late 1990's (books didn't end then either, and neither did Y2K cripple the world's communications). Search engines will find new ways to promote and cross-reference literature, and the internet industry and the book publishing industry will gradually work out how to make this fair and rewarding for all.

The most insulting part of John Updike's article, though, is here:

"Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile."

Upon reading this, I can only conclude that John Updike has never visited or Bookslut or Syntax of Things or Return of the Reluctant or Elegant Variation or Words Without Borders or the Literary Saloon or Metaxu Cafe or Rake's Progress or Ready Steady Book or (I daresay) this humble establishment or any of many worthy others, all of which present carefully edited original commentary and try hard to maintain high standards of quality. If Updike had visited any of these sites, I do not believe he would make generalizations like this. Yo, John ... we're book people here too.

The internet will survive John Updike's cannonade, and John Updike's reputation will certainly survive it too. Now, if you'd like to read some quotes that help explain why so many of us do think John Updike is the greatest, check out this wonderful Nerve interview, which easily makes up for the mess in the Times.

Well, I've certainly worked myself up talking about John Updike. There are a few other nobable pieces in this week's Book Review. Robert Alter approves of Steven B. Smith's Reading Leo Strauss, which takes a fresh look at the surprising legacy of this highly skeptical political critic, who has significantly influenced both liberals and conservatives in different ways. Jonathan Freedland also approves of Noam Chomsky's Failed States, which is more surprising since Chomsky's book presents a harsh critique of the USA's actual record (as opposed to its stated ideals) in foreign policy and governmental justice. Having finished Freedland's review, I think I'm going to have to check this book out (I'll let you know what I find).

Huffington Pummels Pearlstine at Slate Media Summit

by Levi Asher on Friday, June 23, 2006 08:20 am

Slate is celebrating its tenth birthday this month with a retrospective book, The Best of Slate. The online magazine also convened a debate last night at the New York Public Library between three contentious media stars with wildly different ideas about the future of online and traditional journalism.

Slate is an electronic publication designed for readers who are ambivalent about the internet. It's named after a physical writing surface, and its masthead has always been crowded with comforting names from print journalism (including its brave founder, Michael Kinsley, previously of the New Republic). Not surprisingly, the solid new book feels more appealing than the sometimes ad-strewn web presence. It's packed with one well-written piece after another, all of them blessedly short, from Paul Berman's The Cult of Che in 1997 to Josh Levin's quite funny Rappers and Bloggers in 2005, which argues that hiphop hustlers and online self-promoters share much in common:

For starters, both groups share a love of loose-fitting, pajama-style apparel. Still not satisfied? Bloggers and rappers are equally obsessed with social networking. Every rapper rolls with his entourage; every blogger rolls with his blog roll. Women can't win an audience in either profession without raunching it up like Lil' Kim or Wonkette.

However, the Slate-sponsored media summit last night in the Celeste Bartos room at the New York Public Library featured a woman blogger with the lordly confidence of a Jay-Z or a Dr. Dre, rather than the publicity hungry raunch of Lil' Kim. Arianna Huffington has recently rocked the political blog world with her immensely popular Huffington Post. Like Slate, the Huffington Post features well-known writers from offline media in an online format, but unlike Slate it adopts a straight-up bloggy style, proudly ignoring the grandiose traditions of old-world journalism. This has worked out well for the Huffington Post. Personally, I check this dynamic and unpredictable site several times a week, and I only go to Slate if somebody tells me to. I suspect many other readers have similar habits.

Slate had chosen Arianna Huffington to represent the brash world of blog-based journalism in last night's panel, and reached to the far extreme for her opposition, former Wall Street Journal and Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief Norman Pearlstine (Slate's Michael Kinsley and Jacob Weisberg staked moderate positions on this panel, and essayist Malcolm Gladwell played the designated wisecracker). The panel was clearly designed to turn into a yell-fest, and the only question was how much restraint each of the parties would display, and who would score the best shots.

Pearlstine opened with a dramatic thesis. Magazines would transform themselves and survive the onslaught of online journalism, the former magazine and newspaper magnate said, but newspapers probably would not. Are we facing a future without newspapers? This topic consumed the first half-hour of the debate, with Malcolm Gladwell drawing big applause for his suggestion that, if newspapers had been invented after the internet they would be seen as a fascinating technical trend (tactile, flexible texts that can be carried anywhere) and would generate massive hype and venture capital investment. Norm Pearlstine waited for the applause to die down before tamping out Gladwell's brief fire with a dull observation that the business model for this hypothetical new printed paper device would not be profitable enough to attract serious investment.

Arianna Huffington had the best take on the rather tired print-vs.-blog fracas. "This whole debate is incredibly old-fashioned and irrelevant," she said. "It's Ginger vs. Maryann. This is 2006, let's have a three-way." Huffington tried to undercut the idea that print and blog formats could not co-exist, instead portraying the journalistic spectrum from print to broadcast to online as a single ecosystem. She's undoubtedly right, and Malcolm Gladwell seemed to agree, pointing out that "bloggers would have nothing to write about" if the New York Times ceased to exist (I think he's exaggerating, though it would certainly free up my Sundays).

At this point Huffington had the crowd behind her and she began badgering Norm Pearlstine, who seemed quite willing to play the heavy. She had called for increased interaction between online and offline formats, but she could still have fun railing at old media. "Online is OCD, print is ADD" she said (this is clearly a rehearsed line, but it got big applause anyway). She also remarked that the print/broadcast old media failed to do enough to expose the flawed logic behind George Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, which prompted Norm Pearlstine to sonorously drone his one attempted joke of the evening ("I'm sorry the Huffington Post wasn't there to stop the Iraq war").

By the time the debate ended and many of us convened upstairs for a star-studded reception featuring trays of papaya and tandoori chicken on skewers, Huffington had emerged as the victor. Malcolm Gladwell still held the title for best haircut, and Norm Pearlstine seemed bored and eager to leave.

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.


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