-- Jim Holt's thoughtful positive review of Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, a graphic novel about the career of philosopher, activist and analytic mathematician Bertrand Russell. I haven't read this book yet but I'm very excited to do so. An original treatment of an original thinker; this, in my opinion, is the kind of thing books were invented for.
-- Suzann Cokal focusing tightly on the plot points of Audrey Niffenegger's neo-Gothic ghost story Her Fearful Symmetry, which apparently contains twins with misplaced hearts and tree roots that unearth gravestones. "Put on a plummy British accent to pronounce 'symmetry' and 'cemetery' and discover a pun in the title," Cokall helpfully instructs.
-- Arthur Krystal evoking Nabokov, Poe, Balzac and Steven Pinker in an essay about why writers are often so helpless at interpersonal conversation.
And, from elsewhere in the Times: Jim Carroll's last days by Alex Williams. It comes as a surprise to me that the elder Jim Carroll had a thick beard and struggled to get through each day. I last saw him perform in the summer of 1996 on a double poetry bill at Central Park Summerstage with Richard Hell. He looked exactly like the cover of his Catholic Boy, had a warm demeanor and certainly appeared to be the healthier half of the bill.
AFTERWORD: Farewell to the remarkable New York Times Magazine "On Language" columnist William Safire, dead at 79.
1. Catholic boy to the end ... from Cassie Carter's long-running fan site, here's Jim Carroll's funeral card.
2. Hemingway does Hemingway: actress Mariel Hemingway intends to create a movie based on her grandfather's gossipy classic A Movable Feast (via The Millions).
3. St. Francis College in Brooklyn is hosting a conference on Walt Whitman and the Beats and has issued an open call for papers.
4. I don't know what to expect from the new film version of J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. I hated John Malkovich's overacting in A Portrait of a Lady, and I'm concerned that he'll turn this book's blank narrator into a volcano of emotion, as is his way. Still, I am looking forward to seeing the film and I hope for the best. Here are some reactions via Literary Saloon.
5. I'm skeptical when everybody gets excited about a newly found lost work by a great author, especially when very few of these people have read any of the already-published works by said great author. Still, Carl Jung's "Red Book" has a hell of a back story. Jung is a LitKicks favorite and I recommend him highly, though I think newcomers are better off jumping in with The Undiscovered Self or Memories, Dreams, Reflections rather than this new apparent beast.
6. Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Eve Ensler and Art Spiegelman will appear at a PEN America event to read from recently released USA government memos about torture.
7, Aquinas (via Books Inq.).
8. If Charles Bukowski were Charles M. Schulz.
9. A new book provides a sideways glance at Moby Dick by including only the parts a different "easy version" of the book left out. Let's just hope nobody gets a brilliant idea for "Moby Dick and Zombies".
10. Maud Newton gathers expressions.
11. Jamelah Earle evaluates words.
12. A new Jason Reitman/George Clooney movie called Up In The Air is based on a novel by Walter Kirn, one of the better regular critics at the New York Times Book Review.
13. Interesting thoughts about how a book's intended level of sophistication may affect its chosen point of view.
14. Like Fire is a new literary blog created by Lisa Peet and other refugees from Readerville.
15. Two months ago I wrote a post titled "Not the Jack Kerouac Estate Battle Again". If you didn't catch it the first time, I wrote this because a new court ruling has upset a long-running dispute about the Kerouac archives, and I just knew we'd be getting into it again. Since then, many interested parties have responded to this article's comments thread, including several notable individuals connected to Jack Kerouac in one way or another.
As I've said before, I don't take this battle as seriously as many of the principals do. With Jack Kerouac long safe-in-heaven dead, the battle has narrowed to a catfight over the disposition of his relics, and I've never been particularly interested in any writer's relics. Some observers locate the blame for Jack's daughter Jan Kerouac's troubled life and early death on this mess, but I don't see a clear connection there. Anyway, the conversation in this comments thread are fascinating in their own way, and I wonder if someday somebody will write a book about the Jack Kerouac estate battle. If they do, the discussion in this thread may provide some raw material. It's not a book I'd want to write, though I probably wouldn't be able to resist reading it.
Two authors whose previous novels were celebrated by the now-defunct Litblog Co-op have outdone themselves with their next books. I've read galleys of both Katharine Weber's True Confections and Sam Savage's The Cry of the Sloth and I'm happy to report that readers have a lot to look forward to in both cases.
Katharine Weber's last novel Triangle was about an industrial fire, a subject so stark it made her comic sensibility hard to catch (though, certainly, it was there). Her new novel is about a screwed-up family that owns a small candy empire, and it's a slender tour de force. I will be writing more about this book soon, and till then here's a side-product of Weber's research: an article in Tablet (formerly Nextbook) about Jewish families in the candy business.
Sam Savage, meanwhile, wrote a novel called Firmin that didn't break through in his home country but became a bestseller in Italy. Firmin was about a literary rat who suffers in loneliness, and new soon-to-be-released The Cry of the Sloth is about a literary human who suffers in loneliness. I will be writing more about this delightful and surprising book too.
On a different front, meanwhile, news has just come down that the Queens rapper Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest) is writing a book about his life. I have very high hopes for this one. Q-Tip has been a brainy and sensitive lyricist from Description of a Fool to Stir It Up (he's also the only hip-hop artist I bother to continue to follow on twitter). I'm looking forward to reading his entire story, and I hope there's a lot about his friendship and collaboration with the equally talented Phife Dawg.
What else am I looking forward to? Sure, what the hell, I'm going to read the new Dan Brown novel The Lost Symbol when it comes out. Dan Brown is no Katharine Weber or Sam Savage ... but Da Vinci Code kept me going till the end, and I'm intrigued by the new book's Washington D.C. locale.
I like everything Jonathan Ames does, though I don't think he's ever equaled Wake Up Sir!, his perfect homage to P. G. Wodehouse. His new essay collection The Double Life is Twice as Good didn't win the approval of Carolyn Kellogg, but I bet his new HBO tv show Bored to Death will be more exciting.
Jag Bhalla's I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around The World looks like a fun read.
Sue William Silverman's Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir is reminding me to work on my own memoir, which will probably pick up again next week. I've enjoyed the break, but it's time to get back to work.
And if you aren't interested in any of these good books but just want to relish the joys of really bad (funny bad) books of the past, go to the Awful Library Books blog and have a feast.
I enjoyed the response to Monday's article about the words "modernism" and "postmodernism" as they are used in the separate fields of architecture and literature. Serendipitously, a tangentially related article has now drifted my way, an illustrated piece by Joseph Clarke about modern architecture in religion and business.
We hear a lot about postmodernism these days, but it's important to realize that postmodernism is just one of many tips of the iceberg known as modernism. Modernism, the trunk from which many branches spring, was a primal and broad movement born, roughly, as part of the pre-Revolutionary French enlightenment in the 18th Century. It developed gradually along with Romanticism and Impressionism and Symbolism during the 19th Century, then reached an artistic peak in the early 20th Century in the age of Joyce and Beckett and Picasso and Kandinsky and Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Modernism is, of course, still alive today, and still stands as a challenge to traditional society in many forms. Postmodernism is just one small candy-coated facet of the whole thing, and it doesn't really make sense to talk a lot about postmodernism unless we talk about modernism first.
1. How delightful to learn that James Joyce may have invented the word 'blog' during a typical conversational ramble in Finnegans Wake! Here it is in context:
Now from Gunner Shotland to Guinness Scenography. Come to the ballay at the Tailors' Hall. We mean to be mellay on the Mailers' Mall. And leap, rink and make follay till the Gaelers' Gall. Awake ! Come, a wake ! Every old skin in the leather world, infect the whole stock company of the old house of the Leaking Barrel, was thomistically drunk, two by two, lairking o' tootlers with tombours a'beggars, the blog and turfs and the brandywine bankrompers, trou Normend fashion, I have been told down to the bank lean clorks? Some nasty blunt clubs were being operated after the tradition of a wellesleyan bottle riot act and a few plates were being shied about and tumblers bearing traces of fresh porter rolling around, independent of that, for the ehren of Fyn's Insul, and then followed that wapping breakfast at the Heaven and Covenant, with Rodey O'echolowing how his breadcost on the voters would be a comeback for e'er a one, like the depredations of Scandalknivery, in and on usedtowobble sloops off cloasts, eh? Would that be a talltale too? This was the grandsire Orther. This was his innwhite horse. Sip?
Enough puns for you there? I assume that "blog" is a play on "bog" (and in fact the word "blog" has always seemed to carry an appealing sort of Joycean phlegmatic physicality). Pictured above: an Irish peat bog.
1. For your Bloomsday enjoyment: comic strip artist Robert Berry is visualizing James Joyce's Ulysses. This project appears to be off to a great start.
2. More Bloomsday action: Dovegreyreader on a new book called Ulysses and Us by Declan Kibberd.
3. Farewell to poet Harold Norse.
4. It must be a good sign that somewhere inside the giant paradox that is the nation of Iran, they are loving the inventive and hilarious early writings of Woody Allen.
5. I did not know that novelist Roxana Robinson was a member of the Beecher family. But what's this about Lord Warburton being the man Isabel Archer should have married? I was rooting for Ralph Touchett.
6. The word technology is derived from the same root as textile.
7. We need a poetry reality show right here in the USA.
8. A digital Gutenberg would be nice to look at.
9. What could it possibly have been like to be married to Harold Pinter? Fortunately claims Antonia Fraser, it was not a Pinteresque experience.
10. "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?" (Or, I'd like to add, one man).
11. Eric Rosenfeld appreciates Thomas Pynchon's use of description.
12. Kafka Tribute in New York
13. Michelle Obama reads Zadie Smith, a better choice (in my opinion) than her husband's Joseph O'Neill. (Barack is also cited as reading What is the What?, a good choice though not exactly fiction).
14. The Who's Quadrophenia GS Scooter has been sold at an auction. (Though it's from the movie, not the record album photo shoot).
15. Via Bookninja, what the book you're reading really says about you.
First up, we have David Brooks on Simon Schama's The American Future: A History. Brooks spends several paragraphs on how he has a thing for Brilliant Books. These Brilliant Books are about America and are "written by a big thinker who comes to capture the American spirit while armed only with his own brilliance." It’s like this:
He usually comes during an election year so he can observe the spectacle of the campaign and peer into the nation’s exposed soul. He visits the stations of officially prescribed American exotica. He will enjoy a moment of soulful rapture at a black church. He will venture out to an evangelical megachurch (and combine condescension with self-congratulation by bravely announcing to the world that these people are more human than you'd think). He will swing by and be brilliant in rambunctious Texas. He’ll be brilliant in the farm belt, brilliant in Las Vegas, reverential in Selma and profound in Malibu.
Along the way, his writing will outstrip his reportage. And as his inability to come up with anything new to say about this country builds, his prose will grow more complex, emotive, gothic, desperate, overheated and nebulous until finally, about two-thirds of the way through, there will be a prose-poem of pure meaninglessness as his brilliance finally breaks loose from the tethers of observation and oozes across the page in a great, gopping goo of pure pretension.
Pretentious verbal jizz. Right on. Here's what I wonder -- for the final third of a Brilliant Book, do you cuddle brilliantly in the brilliant afterglow of brilliance? Because that would be, you know, brilliant.
Anyway, Brooks spends the first paragraphs of the review writing about these Brilliant Books and overusing the word "brilliant" until it almost ceases to make sense. Brooks writes that Schama, who "comes from the realm of enlightened High Thinking that exists where The New York Review of Books reaches out and air-kisses The London Review of Books," (which makes him sound oh so very relevant), is apparently rather good, once he's writing about history instead of the present, although he's somewhat simplistic in his comparisons and judgments. Even so, Brooks is able to forgive Schama and in the end, still calls him an outstanding historian. While I get the fact that Brooks is poking Brilliant Books with a stick, I have to say that now, not only am I not interested in the book in question (which, as it happens, is not a Brilliant Book, so hooray for that), I also hate the word "brilliant." Thanks, Dave.
Laura Miller writes about Walter Kirn's Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. It's a straightforward review of Kirn's memoir of bullshitting his way through his education, and it's safe to say that this review is also 100% free of literary ejaculate, which I thought would go without saying, but after David Brooks, all bets are off. I'm not entirely convinced about the book, however, because I'm pretty sure that making up meaningless yet impressive-sounding crap about books you haven't actually read is one of the hallmarks of higher education, at least that of a literary bent. (It's what students DO.) But I suppose this is interesting, too -- the fact that even if you aren't really learning the things your professors tell you to learn, you are learning how to game the system. And then there's this:
"Her skin, he marveled, looked like it might have been 'harvested, through some blasphemous new process, from the wrists of infants.'"
I admit that I spent a moment contemplating whether having skin that looks like a baby-flesh-quilt is a compliment or not.
Moving on, I find that I don't really have much to say about Liesl Schillinger's review of Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz and The Amos Oz Reader, edited by Nitza Ben-Dov, but I did enjoy Chris Hedges writing about The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders, partly, I suppose, because I'm a photography nerd, but also because the accompanying illustration that is part graphic novel, part photography, looks cool.
Jess Row's review of Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault is exceedingly name-droppy. In seven paragraphs, we get mentions of the following writers, often in name only, but sometimes also a name-title combination: Marcel Proust, Danilo Kis, Charles Baxter, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Bowles, John Berger, Nadeem Aslam, Don DeLillo, Kahlil Gibran, and oh yeah, Anne Michaels herself. (I sure hope I didn't skip any.) While making a comparison or two is fine (and the only author Row really compares Michaels to is Ondaatje), the effect here is something along the lines of "Hey guys! I was staring at my bookshelves while I was writing this! Can you tell?!?" Even so, while I am not entirely certain I agree with Row that the sentence "Perhaps we painted on our own skin, with ochre and charcoal, long before we painted on stone," is one that stops time, it is a lovely line. Maybe I'm interested in this book, but I'm not exactly sure.
And David Orr kicks off his review of Frederick Seidel's POEMS 1959-2009 with "Many poets have been acquainted with the night," yet he somehow does not end the sentence with "much like insomniacs, hookers and The Phantom of the Opera." Alas. (Orr instead winds up his sentence with "some have been intimate with it; and a handful have been so haunted and intoxicated by the darker side of existence that it can be hard to pick them out from the murk that surrounds them.") Oh, poets. The thing about this review is that no matter how much Orr seems to want to make me want to read Seidel's collection, he keeps quoting Seidel's poems and I just want to read something else. I'm going to chalk that up to being a matter of personal preference and move on.
What else? Well, Sophie Gee reviews The Last Secret by Mary McGarry Morris, which is about a woman whose husband confesses to an affair. This immediately made me think of Lifetime movies and it didn't get better when I read the rest of the review, despite the fact that Gee never makes this comparison.
Roy Blount, Jr. reviews two books on language -- Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman, and In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent. O'Conner and Kellerman refer to themselves in the first person, meaning that they are, collectively, "I," which they explain by stating, "Two people wrote this book, but it’s been our experience that two people can’t talk at the same time -- at least not on the page. So we’ve chosen to write ‘Origins of the Specious’ in one voice and from Pat’s point of view." I think this is all sorts of ridiculous, and Blount seems to as well: "'I was a philosophy major in college,' write Pat and Stewart (if I may be so bold), 'so I have no excuse if I mess this up.' Well, she/they does/do." He then goes on to explain how they screw up a golden opportunity to discuss the common misuse of the phrase "begs the question." On a personal note, using "begs the question" to ask a question used to drive me crazy, until I decided to give up because baby, that battle is lost.
Anyway, there are other things in this New York Times Book Review that I certainly could've written about, but I'm sure you'd agree that I've been going on too long already, so I'm going to stop. Here's the thing, though. I feel now that I've reached the end of this review that I should be passing some sort of judgment. Well, here's the truth: this is probably the first time I've ever read this whole thing before. Oh sure, I subscribe to its feed and skim the headlines over the weekend, occasionally clicking through to skim (or maybe even read) a whole article, but usually headline skimming is enough for me. If you could see how many unread items I have in my feed reader at any time, I'm sure you'd understand. But I decided when Levi asked me to guest review the Review this weekend that I would read it through, and then judge whether or not I would want to read it regularly or continue with my habit of cursory skimming. And, you know, it's not like it was a painful experience. I didn't actively hate anything I read, or anything, which I think is probably positive, yet I wasn't really excited about anything I read, either, and I certainly didn't feel like running to the bookstore right away, which is something that reading good book reviews usually makes me want to do. So, I guess all of that is to say I suppose I'll keep up my weekend headline skimming, because I just wasn't convinced that I need to do more than that.
1. Japanese search parties have found the remains of poet and volcano enthusiast Craig Arnold, who had been running a blog called The Volcano Pilgrim. Jacket Copy's piece on Craig's death is the best of many I've read.
Nobody needs to wonder why a poet would love volcanoes; the metaphorical appeal is obvious. The word "volcano" is itself literary, evoking the Roman god Vulcan (the Greek god Hephaestus). Then there's Malcolm Lowry, and Susan Sontag, and let's not forget that the San Francisco beatniks hung out in a North Beach bar called Vesuvio.
Some might disagree with me, but I don't think it's exactly tragic when a poet who passionately loves volcanoes dies exploring a volcano. It's tragic if a poet who loves volcanoes dies of cancer, or catches a stray bullet during a liquor store robbery, or kills himself in a moment of desperate depression. For a poet to die in courageous pursuit of his greatest dream and fascination does not seem tragic in the same way.
(The homemade volcano photo above was found here).
2. Las Vegas Sun maps the Seven Deadly Sins to the states and counties of USA.
3. Keith Gessen gets himself into trouble reporting on an election in Russia.
4. "While the publishing industry chases the new, the young, the instantly commercial, readers are often looking for something else -- for a kind of enduring quality." Agreed. Reissed jazz-age classics from Bloomsbury.
5. Wyatt Mason invokes Emerson.
6. Bill Gates's father is writing a book called Showing Up For Life.
7. 25 Microchips that shook the world.
8. To embarrass is to block, to em-bar.
9. How George Orwell was feeling (hint: not good) while he wrote 1984.
10. Literature and classic rock (I used to try to maintain a list something like this, but haven't kept it up to date).
11. Why does everything Bret Easton Ellis writes get turned into a movie?
12. Anne Waldman on why chapbooks matter.
13. Carly Kocurek, a smart young writer from Texas who used to contribute to LitKicks as "violet9ish", is one of the authors represented in Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket by Elizabeth Englehardt.
14. I get interviewed by Mike Palecek at New American Dream. I like it that Mike asks questions like "Are UFO's real?" instead of the usual stuff about e-books and blogs.
2. Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press has kicked off a promising new book-biz blog, Black Plastic Glasses, with a provocative argument: e-books must fail, because the pricing structure cannot support the production of books on the same scale as the current print-based model. However, Schnittman paints the current state of publishing as a near-disaster, rife with inflated advances and high return rates. He describes a brisk business in hardcover mass shipments that bring in cash flow even though the publishers eventually have to return the money for unsold inventory, which sounds like the same kind of pyramid-scheme con game as securitized subprime mortgages or credit default swaps. What's Schnitmann up to here? His article seems to be trying to bury the current book publishing model even as it pretends to praise it.
3. I enjoyed participating in (and telling you about) a Vol 1 music/storytelling event at Matchless Cafe in Brooklyn last year. The next installment takes place April 9 and features a six-word story (memoir) slam. Should be something to see!
4. The folks behind HBO's under-appreciated Def Poetry Jam are trying a new angle. Brave New Voices, a reality show about competing poetry slam teams from around the USA, debuts on April 5.
5. The Morning News' 2009 Tournament of Books, always a rousing encounter, ends with a surprise victory for Toni Morrison's A Mercy, narrowly beating out Tom Piazza's City of Refuge. I guess I'll have to read A Mercy now. I liked Beloved more than I expected to, and I expect I'll like this one too.
6. Get a personalized Penguin Classic paperback (like, say, this one). Neat.
7. John Updike's Pennsylvania.
8. Oxford University Press's list of obscure literary terms offers some nice surprises. I now know that I've experienced jouissance, that I dislike the use of adynaton, that I've been writing a feuilleton, and that hapax legomenon is the pre-Internet version of googlewhack. Good stuff.
9. Andrew Sullivan is absolutely right that the legal harassment of marijuana smokers, many of them honorable and hardworking citizens "in the closet", is an abomination that needs to end.
10. Barnes and Noble Review reviews Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug, also featuring Will Elder, Arnold Roth, Jack Davis and Al Jaffee.
Because Bailey’s “Cheever” is so wise and serious, so human an account, it may be churlish to wish that he had managed to use a bit less material to stand for the events and sensations of a life shaped by its repetitive duration. After all, the hamster’s situation is striking not because it spins the exercise once or twice.
I'm not sure if it will surprise any readers, though, that John Cheever turned out to be a mean bastard. Doesn't that seem to often be the way? In this spirit, I hope the next mean bastard from last century's "Country Club Suburban" era to receive a blast of new attention will be John O'Hara, whose cutting stories hold up so well today, and about whom so little is currently said.
Dean Bakopoulos raves convincingly about Patrick Somerville's The Cradle in today's Book Review. A couple of paragraphs in, I not only feel engaged with Bakopoulos's article but also with Somerville's family drama. The book is now on my list.
I'm very interested in Mike Rapport's history book 1848: Year of Revolution, reviewed today by Gary J. Bass. I've done a bunch of reading on the European upheavals of 1848, certainly a crucial missing link between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. I've even wondered if our popular American tendency to celebrate the spirit of the French Revolution while denigrating the spirit of the Russian Revolution has caused our historians to subconsciously bury the evidence of 1848, since we don't like to view these revolutions as belonging to the same historical spectrum when in fact they clearly do. Given the fact that I've already studied this subject in detail, I can't read Gary Bass's review of Mike Rapport's book without preconceptions, and maybe that's why I'm disappointed to find Bass searching for parallels here -- he comes up with the American Revolution of 1776, modern China, the fall of the Soviet Union but not (tellingly) its birth -- and not coming up with anything worth saving. An underwhelming review, but I am glad this book has been published, and I urge any general reader shopping for a new history book to help break our publishing industry's addiction to Iwo Jima and Gettysburg by buying books that, like this one, manage to cover unfamiliar territory.
Back to our favorite wars, Helen Humphrey's World War II novel Coventry takes place in a British city being bombed to oblivion, but Adam Haslett wishes the novel were more elemental and less elegaic.
That's a familiar feeling. The most confusing review here is Ammon Shea on John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the Untold History of English. Shea doesn't say so directly but he clearly dislikes the book (the fact that he presents a couple of other "more comprehensive" books about the English language in his closing paragraph makes this perfectly clear). Yet he fails to help us understand what's in the book, and also fails to explain his beef with McWhorter in a way readers can understand -- it sounds like a lot of linguist inside baseball, capped by the revelation that McWhorter begins sentences with "Yeah" and "But check this out". If that's the sum total of Shea's case against McWhorter's book, McWhorter wins.
I should enjoy Lee Siegel's endpaper essay on George Steiner, since it is a brainy piece that name-drops Nietzsche and Arthur Koestler. Siegel adopts a plaintive, searching tone here:
To put it bluntly: Was it a pleasure or a punishment to read Steiner? Did he present art and ideas as the entertaining urgencies that they are, or did culture become for him -- as it does for certain people -- simply an extension of ego, a one-man kingdom, the keys to which he flaunted and jingled under the reader’s nose while he solemnly pranced back and forth, reciting names of the distinguished dead as though they were aliases for himself?
But I feel the smug presence of Siegel's own problematic personality too strongly for me to able to enjoy this piece. I don't know if it's a pleasure or a punishment to read George Steiner, but I definitely feel that the New York Times Book Review has been punishing us with Lee Siegel for too long, and I really don't know what we ever did to deserve it.