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.
1. The Washington Post's Sunday literary supplement Book World is indeed being discontinued. I'll have something to say about this in my weekend write-up of the New York Times Book Review, aka "Last One Standing".
2. Dostoevskaya Station (not in St. Petersburg but in Moscow).
3. Can you read with music? When I was a kid, I always read with music on. Now I prefer not to.
4. A surprisingly good map of heavy metal band names.
5. Grace Paley: the Film
6. Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a Holocaust film.
7. Archie Andrews of Riverdale. You know who I'm talking about.
8. Mad Magazine is going quarterly. Hmm.
9. I'm going to be participating in a Israel/Gaza peace/aid event at McNally Jackson bookstore in New York City on Saturday, February 7. More on this soon ...
10. John "Jim" Krasinski's David Foster Wallace Brief Interviews with Hideous Men film debuted at Sundance! Very cool.
11. Richard Brautigan's great short novel In Watermelon Sugar is now a dance.
12. Does literary fiction suffer from dysfunctional pricing?
13. The mysterious etymology of Oh Snap.
14. The last is definitely not the least: Kurt Vonnegut Motivational Posters.
A fictional account of Lou Salome's acquaintances with Rainer Marie Rilke, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, inspired by the author's own real-life family connection with Lou Salome.
It's great to see these fascinating 19th Century thinkers mined for drama (and it's interesting that a similar story is told in Irvin Yalom's novel When Nietzsche Wept, which was also made into a film.)
A charming and surreal Lower East Side romp that begins when a bemused housewife finds a dead old lady's body on the laundry room floor, decides to put the body through a spin cycle to freshen it up before notifying the family and police, and then gets into all kinds of trouble with the government. Ms Madeson has also presented this rather unique story as a one-woman play.
Largo, author of a recent death compendium called Final Exits here examines and annotates the culture of transgression in similarly clinical detail. A broadly encyclopedic but eclectic and satisfyingly intellectual sweep, ranging from Boudicca to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Chris Farley to Franz Kafka to Tupac Shakur.
Wisely realizing that they have to spruce up their Thesaurus with value-add commentary to compete with online versions, Oxford American assembles an impressive and street-start cast of postmodern writers to contribute "Word Notes" and other inserts along with the regular indexed content. A successful effort, I think, and a nice parting gesture from David Foster Wallace.
Mahajan, a young debut novelist, turns in a comic tale about a man in New Delhi who suffers from an unsatisfiable compulsion to have more and more children (in a society that encourages small families) and finds himself pretending to be a pro-Hindu fanatic obsessed with rising Muslim birthrates in India to cover up the more personal and romantic motivations for his rampant fathering.
This is the only book on this list that I can't recommend. I try to read the Best American Short Stories (proudly published by Houghton Mifflin) every year, but I could barely sludge through most of the ruminative, chic, flat postmodernist displays that Salman Rushdie considers the very cream of the crop in 2008, and if there are a few more editions like this one (the last great Best American Short Stories selection was by Michael Chabon in 2005) I'm just going to drop the habit completely. These stories read as if Salman Rushdie chose 20 younger authors to exemplify all the worst habits of his own fiction: endless playfulness, diagrammatic conceptual plots, lack of emotion.
A chronicle of a fugitive family life in Mexico and America during the early hippie era. Bonnie Bremser travelled with her husband, Beat poet Ray Bremser, as he escaped an armed robbery charge. A stark true story in the Beat, all-too-Beat tradition, featuring an introduction by Ann Charters.
A fanciful and strange children's story about bugs, with a rich Victorian tone, beautifully illustrated by E. B. Harris.
Hello, boys and girls. It's the first week of December, and that, more than anything, is a signal for me to start thinking about holiday gift giving. Of course, I've been unemployed since the end of August so everyone on my list is getting handmade jewelry, lovingly crafted from macaroni and dental floss, but for those of you who still have jobs, I have compiled a list of gift ideas, all of which can be purchased online so you won't have to deal with going to any madhouse stores this time of year. Bonus: the gifts on this list are all for under $20 (except one, which is still under $30), perfect for those of you who are frugal, yet still on the lookout for something cool to get for the literary nerd on your list. Here we go:
-- Eco gift wrap! This is very cool and pretty and probably, if you're clever, reusable. Who wouldn't like to get a macaroni necklace wrapped up in paper from a French text book? It wouldn't even have to be a macaroni necklace! It could be anything (well, anything on the small side). Recycled gift wrap is a good idea, and this particular gift wrap has style.
-- Continuing with the handmade theme (because handmade stuff is cool), here's a mail art-inspired book. It'll be shipped without packaging, so you could have it sent directly to the person you're giving it to.
-- How about a bookmark made from a vintage typewriter key? Pretty neat.
-- Speaking of bookmarks, here's one inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright window design. If I had a bookmark like that maybe I would try harder not to lose my bookmarks all the time.
-- The words of everyone's favorite insanely quoteable literary figure (that's Oscar Wilde, by the way), adorn this money clip.
-- Do you know any Scrabble addicts? Would they appreciate being able to play on the go?
-- Or maybe they'd like a Scrabble shirt with the worst letters ever? Oh, the game-based hilarity.
-- And here's a book for the science-loving food geek in your life. Come on, everyone knows at least one of them, right?
-- Who isn't down with OED?
-- An invisible bookshelf might be handy for someone in need of storage.
-- I really like this clock. A lot.
In the midst of this mayhem, it's interesting to read in GalleyCat that a paperback trend is sweeping publishing. We've only been yelling for this sweep for years, but despite GalleyCat's optimism, there is evidence of an opposing trend: book prices are getting higher. Like malnourished children whose bellies grow, new hardcover prices are swelling -- $40, $45 -- even as retail spending drops. Affordable (paperback, small) book publishing is the right answer, yes -- but I am not as confident as GalleyCat is that publishers are moving towards this trend anywhere near as quickly as they should be.
2. The great folksinger Odetta has died. I've seen her in concert twice, once at a Gerde's Folk City reunion where she was stunning, and once at a strange Greenwich Village event called the Microtonal Festival which celebrated experimental musicians and vocalists who used tones between the twelve notes of the scale. It might surprise those who think of Odetta as a traditional folksinger to know that she was considered by experts in the field to have a rare way with microtones, and that she delivered the best performance of this night, belting out a few old spirituals and showing us all how much room there really was between a C and a C#. I don't know if that show was recorded, but here's Odetta singing "Rock Island Line" and here's her "Water Boy".
3. Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolano, will be appearing with Francisco Goldman at a very special Words Without Borders event Thursday night, December 4, at Idlewild Books in Manhattan.
4. Also at Idlewild, apparently a new hot spot: Ben Greenman celebrating Correspondences on Friday, December 5.
5. And then comes the big Literary Trivia Smackdown 2.0 this Sunday at 4 pm, and you better believe I'm studying up on my American Lit. Our opponents at PEN America have been announced: David Haglund, Meghan Kyle-Miller, Larry Siems and Lilly Sullivan. They sound smart, so please come to the Small Press Indie Book Fair and cheer your favorite lit bloggers on! For real.
6. New Nixon tapes! Choice bits:
"Never forget: The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy."
All your base are belong to us, Nixon.
It's a happy Christmas for Watergate buffs like me, what with the new tapes and the release of the film version of the play Frost/Nixon. Haven't had this much fun since Mark Felt turned up.
7. Christopher Hitchens points out that the widespread decision to use the city name "Mumbai" rather than "Bombay" actually carries an implicit political message, and possibly a fraudulent one. I was not aware of this, though I remember hearing similar things at a panel discussion regarding the recent attempt to replace "Burma" with "Myanmar". Since many of us are in the dark about this, it seems that major news organizations like the New York Times (Clark Hoyt, are you out there?) ought to address the significance of these name changes directly.
8. Dewey, a litblogger, dies.
9. Frank Wilson remembers the once-popular novel Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac's affectionate tribute to the fashionable Buddhism of the Beatnik era, on its fiftieth birthday. This is one of my favorite Kerouac novels.
10. Jay-Z gets typographical.
Here's a third way: what the fuck is up with a $45 price tag on a book about poets? Who does Farrar, Straus and Giroux think will buy this book? Have they not heard the news that we are in a terrible retail climate, that even Starbucks is in a crisis because customers are flocking for cheaper coffee to McDonalds? FSG can't possibly be oblivious to our economic problems, and so the outlines of the pricing conspiracy become clear: far from believing that general readers will spend $45 on this book, they have concluded that general readers won't even spend $27.50 (a more reasonable price) for it, and therefore they'll jack up the price to cash in on library sales, their only captive market. Nice scam, but as a taxpayer I object to severely budget-crunched public libraries falling for it.
If publishers aren't publishing books for people to buy, then why should the New York Times review these books? And why, I wonder, should I keep paying attention to the New York Times Book Review if they aren't reviewing books designed for people to buy?
Yeah, I really do wonder. Anyway, David Orr provides a tolerable review of the Hughes letters, focusing (of course) on the above-mentioned "It", that "It" being Hughes's marriage to Sylvia Plath. This biography-heavy NYTBR includes a condescending Sarah Boxer article on Jackie Wullschlager's Chagall ($40), which includes the surprising remark that Wullschlager "doesn't seem to like Chagall much". Boxer doesn't either. I understand her problems with the Russian-Jewish artist's late-career "blur of commissions, exhibitions, murals and stained-glass windows". Then again, Chagall's peer Pablo Picasso became just as banal -- no, worse -- in his celebrity years, and the New York Times Book Review put his late-career biography on the front cover. Whichever way the wind blows ...
I can't get caught up in Graydon Carter's excitement over Nelson W. Aldrich Jr.'s George Being George. Unlike Carter and much of the NYTBR's senior staff, I never got invited to one of George Plimpton's parties, so I feel left out. James Campbell's summary of A Great Idea at the Time, Alex Beam's study of Mortimer Adler's "Great Books" program, is worth reading, as is Ethan Bronner's consideration of A. B. Yehoshua's novel Friendly Fire: A Duet. Joe Queenan's endpaper essay on book reviews that over-praise shows this humorist's style to be improving.
The most enjoyable article in this weekend's Book Review is Jack Shafer on Roy Blount Jr.'s Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory. We don't see a lot of books with semi-colons in their subtitles these days, and based on Shafer's appreciative highlights I very much want to read this one. We explore why rhyming nonsense words so often start with the letter 'h' ("hillbilly", "hippy-dippy", "hanky-panky", "hurdy-gurdy") and why terms of disapproval employ the letter 't' ("tut-tut", "tacky", "tatty", "twit"). I think many readers will find this stuff as appealing as I do, and the fact that the book is priced to sell at $25 indicates that the publisher actually has hopes for it (think: Eats, Shoots and Leaves) that aren't captured by the phrase "take the money and run". A book designed to be bought and enjoyed -- how refreshing!
1. When I was 14 and a freshman in high school, we did a production of The Music Man. Before auditions I watched the movie and decided I wanted the part of Eulalie McKecknie Shinn, the mayor's wife, mainly because there's a musical number, "Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little" in which the ladies of the town go off on indecent literature, and there's the famous refrain, "Chaucer! Rabelais! BaaaaalZAC!" and the one who got to bellow "BaaaaalZAC!" was the mayor's wife. Plus she got to wear great hats. I didn't get that part, and was instead stuck being Ethel Toffelmier, and therefore only got to exclaim "Rabelais!" yet over the years I have managed to recover from the disappointment. I'm not really sure why I'm telling you all of this, except to say that back then I didn't know who any of those writers were, but now I do. And here's a really interesting article about the man behind the name I never got to bellow onstage: Honore de Balzac.
2. Steve Martin's memoir, Born Standing Up has recently been released in paperback. He gives a short reading and talks to NPR about the book and his work here.
3. On the 30th anniversary of his classic The Stand, Stephen King talks with Salon about the book, and about politics and religion.
7. Richard Powers has his entire genome sequenced. It's a fascinating article. I know this because I read all 21 pages.
8. This article has been around for a few weeks: Emily Dickinson's Secret Lover! Does it speak to the age-old conundrum of just not wanting to know too much about writers' lives?
9. The Bunny Suicides riles parents.
10. English, my beloved English. I liked this article already, and then I read the last paragraph about The Wire (which I am slowly catching up with on DVD) and then I had a crush on it. Is it possible to have a crush on an article? Let's say yes. (I really dig The Wire; it is so insanely well-written that it hurts.) Of course, the article is not about The Wire, it's about English. But like the article's writer, I think English and The Wire dovetail most wonderfully. I'll stop being a TV geek now.
Ludwig Wittgenstein's most famous words were published in Philosophical Investigations two years after his death in 1951. The Austrian/Jewish/British philosopher talks of "language games", and then to explain the term "language game" he subjects the word "games" itself to linguistic analysis. This humble section of two numbered aphorisms turns out to be the best thing he ever wrote. Just as the one thing everybody knows about Marcel Proust is that he wrote about a madeleine, the one thing everybody knows about Ludwig Wittgenstein is that he wrote about the word "games".
Here are the two numbered items, odd punctuation intact:
66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? -- Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' " -- but look and see whether there is anything common to all. -- For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! --
Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.
Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear.
When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. -- Are they all 'amusing'? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.
Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! sometimes similarities of detail.
And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.
And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.
67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way.-And I shall say: 'games' form a family.
And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a "number"? Well, perhaps because it has a-direct-relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.
But if someone wished to say: "There is something common to all these constructions -- namely the disjunction of all their common properties" -- I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: "Something runs through the whole thread -- namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres".
So, says Wittgenstein, it's a mistake to think that every word we use must have a clear or universal meaning. A word can be useful, and can be widely understood, even if its meaning can never be pinned down. This idea of meaning as a "family resemblance" presents something like a philosophical equivalent to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. We believe our thoughts are grounded in a firm foundation of meaning, but in fact the meanings of our most basic concepts turn out to be as ephemeral as quantum particles.
Once you begin to think of words and concepts as existing without definite meanings, you notice how often arguments revolve around these words. For instance, in the most recent John McCain/Barack Obama Presidential debate, we heard this question:
"Is Russia under Putin an evil empire?"
America loves a firm chin and a decisive answer to questions like this, and both candidates tried to deliver just that. A Wittgenstenian, however, cannot help but pause at the utter elasticity of the word "evil". This happens again when John McCain puts forth this statement:
"America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world."
At moments like this, we see how words can calcify and imprison us. John McCain, who was once an eager participant in the brutal air bombing of thousands of innocent Vietnamese civilians, must have repeated these words to himself for so many decades that he's ceased to think about what they mean.
But of course politicians on both sides use words in sticky ways. Much of last week's raucous Joe Biden/Sarah Palin Vice-Presidential debate revolved around the question of which party or which candidate "supported" raising "taxes". A lot of time was wasted on this problem, and afterwards I watched a cable news report that attempted to figure out whether Biden or Palin lied more (it turned out they both lied a whole lot). What was the reason for this mess? Simple: nobody knows exactly what "taxes" means" and nobody knows exactly what "support" means. If Wittgenstein had been moderating this debate, we could have avoided wasting a lot of time.
At the most recent John McCain/Barack Obama debate, Tom Brokaw asked if health care was "a right, a responsibility or a privilege" for Americans. What followed was a surprisingly good discussion, because it was clear here that the focus was on the words, the language. When we think hard about the words we use, we can often manage to communicate and agree with each other.
But it's those big concepts, those words like "evil" and "good" (and "taxes"), that we get stuck on. These are words that come with a lot of wiggle room, and yet we treat them with dead seriousness. If everybody in America would just read a few paragraphs of analytic philosophy every once in a while, maybe we would start having smarter debates and electing more honest politicians.
I think we could all use a little more Wittgenstenian clarity when we talk about politics, and government, about the economy, about war. What do you think -- do our words help or harm our public dialogue?
Slavoj Zizek, a furry and fiery "rockstar philosopher" from Slovenia who calls himself a Communist and rages at the hypocrisy of wealthy American liberals, appeared in a raucous debate at the New York Public Library last night. Zizek's opposite partner was French activist and intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, who typically argues for idealistic solutions and pragmatic steps towards a more peaceful world.
Bernard-Henri Levy can usually command a stage by himself (he made a strong impression on me earlier this year in a presentation about Darfur with Mia Farrow). But Slavoj Zizek was the bigger draw for last night's crowd, and Zizek's loud, passionate arguments frequently threw Levy into the role of straight man. Bounding with energy, sputtering, shouting and pointing fingers in a way that is not often seen at polite literary panel discussions, Zizek kept the conversation so riveting and fast-moving that moderator Paul Holdengraber could not bear to break in to attend to questions from the crowd.
2. I wrote a few days ago that "language was George Carlin's playpen", and the quotes I've heard and videos I've watched since then have reinforced this idea for me. Here's a line from the characteristically good New York Times obituary:
“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth"
That's William S. Burroughs territory right there.
3. Young transgressive author Tony O'Neill met guitarist Slash and comedy director John Landis at Book Expo LA. That's even better than a tote bag full of foam animals, pens, buttons and frisbees.
4. Congratulations to blogger Lizzie Skurnick on a book deal! And if From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is involved, all the better.
5. Via Elegant, Prufrock meets Portishead.