New York City
Mark Vonnegut's new edition of previously unpublished Kurt Vonnegut writings, Armageddon in Retrospect, is out today, and I caught Kurt's son at a reading/book signing at the Barnes and Noble in Tribeca, New York City a few hours ago tonight. Because I've read the book Mark Vonnegut had written himself in 1975, The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, I was as interested in hearing from him as I was in seeing this book of new material.
Eden Express described the turbulent mental landscape Kurt's son travelled during the hippie era, joining a commune, watching his father get famous, and ending up in a mental hospital. When Eden Express was published in 1975 it was billed as "a memoir of schizophrenia", but the current edition explains that the diagnosis of schizophrenia is more strictly defined today, and that Mark Vonnegut's illness would now be classified as manic-depressive (which is less severe).
He's now sixty-something, a medical doctor, with a bright and sincere speaking style that easily wins over the large Barnes and Noble crowd. He seems highly contented, proud of his family, and proud of his career as a medical doctor. He shares his father's thickly hooded eyes, though he is clean-shaven and his slicked-back hair bears no resemblance to Kurt's curly Aryan-fro.
The words he read tonight were heartfelt -- you can read them in the new book -- and there were a few moments when he suddenly maniacally laughed and we got a glimpse of the unhinged protaganist of Eden Express for a moment or two. And, certainly, a glimpse of the enigmatic son of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five as well.
I've said before that you may be able to judge a writer by his or her children. If so, then this modest literary son is yet another credit (as if more were needed) to the great career of Kurt Vonnegut.
(I'll be reviewing Armageddon in Retrospect soon for another publication. And, once again, I apologize for my continuing work as the worst cell-phone photographer in New York City.
2. Ahh, the world. I've been following the news from Tibet, where they just can't take the Big Lie anymore. And here in the USA, John McCain thinks he can run our foreign policy even though he doesn't know the basics of who's who in the Middle East. A slip-up? I don't think so. He said the same thing several times in recent weeks. Ignorance is bliss, yet again.
3. "Tree of Human Smoke". I just thought of that. There must be a good joke here somewhere, but I haven't come up with it yet.
I'd always imagined his good-humored style to have originated in his early years as a football commentator, following in the witty tradition of Howard Cosell and John Madden. But I was pleasantly surprised, upon attending an event at the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan and chatting with a curator named Ron Simon, to learn that Keith Olbermann cites early-television personalities Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding as his formative influences, and that Olbermann will be appearing at the Paley Center with Bob Elliot and his comedian son Chris Elliot to celebrate the Bob and Ray legacy on March 31.
This is bound to be something special, and I wouldn't miss it for the world. Ron Simon explains more, and offers a good video sample, on the Paley Center's blog. Literary content? Well, hmm, Chris Elliot is a writer. The Paley Center, formerly the Museum of Broadcasting, has great literary material in its media archives (at the event I mentioned above, we screened the classic Dick Cavett/Gore Vidal/Norman Mailer television dust-up). And whenever I think of Bob and Ray, I think of the first time I encountered them -- it was inside a book.
2. Other New York stuff I'm going to? I'm not sure but I'll try to catch Tom Wolfe at Barnes and Noble "Upstairs in the Square" Thursday night. And the Happy Ending show on March 26 features Tod Wodicka, Fiona Maazel and Samantha Hunt.
3. My verdict is finally in on Jennifer 8 Lee's cultural history of chinese food. Here's a typical sentence from this book:
General Tso's Chicken is probably the most popular chinese chef's special in America. What's there not to like? Succulent, crispy fried chicken is drenched in a tangy, spicy sauce and sauteed with garlic, ginger and chili peppers until it bursts with flavor.
This is utterly conventional writing. And the book's beginning sequence, which goes into way too much detail about a lottery won by a large number of people who'd taken the numbers from a fortune cookie, will similarly turn off anybody looking for in-depth coverage of this interesting topic. There are good ideas in this book, but the level of cuteness is fatal. Too bad.
Something good has come from this exercise, though. I mention in the blog post above that I first heard of this book while chatting with a Psychology Today writer on a train a year ago, and since posting that last week I heard from this writer, Jay Dixit, who recently wrote about his friend's book himself on the Psychology Today blog. Naturally Jay likes the book more than I do, but that's besides the point. I'm happy to learn that a Psychology Today blog exists (as my mother is a psychologist, I grew up reading Psychology Today magazine), and it's now in my RSS reader.
4. Some have asked me: when am I going to complain about dysfunctional book pricing and promote alternative publishing/packaging ideas again? Soon, soon. Till then, here's Evan Schnittman on a real-life success model, and here's an argument that books should cost more, not less.
5. The Filthy Habits Human Smoke roundtable continues, and you'll notice I managed to shoot my mouth off in every installment of this conversation so far. Meanwhile, the book has been harshly slammed by William Grimes in the New York Times and referred to as "bad", "delusive" and "stupid" by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun. Both adopt a condescending tone towards Baker, who they depict as a playful postmodernist out of his depth in the fields of war. William Grimes dismisses Baker's sense of history entirely, citing the Holocaust as the clearest reason World War II had to be fought.
Did the war "help anyone who needed help?" Mr. Baker asks in a plaintive afterword. The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles. Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.
This doesn't hold up, since Baker is clearly not trying to explain how millions of starving concentration camp prisoners might have been liberated, but rather how they might never have been put there in the first place. Grimes takes comfort in the idea that the Allies fought to liberate persecuted minorities, even though this cozy bedtime story has never corresponded with historical fact. USA and Great Britain never made it their policy to combat Hitler's openly racist domestic regime, instead standing by as Germany established and enforced horrifying racial laws several years before World War II began. Both nations refused frantic pleas to allow Hitler's victims refuge. Once World War II began, the Allies did not make liberation or protection of oppressed minorities any part of their strategic agenda, and in fact Allied starvation blockades designed to frustrate German citizens unfortunately claimed oppressed minorities as unintended victims. When an enemy government is already intent on oppressing its minorities, are long-term starvation blockades really the best way to fight this enemy? Think about it.
I don't usually quote myself, but I'd like to refer to a post I wrote a few months ago on a similar subject:
The hyperbole that surrounds America's glory in World War II was really made clear to me when I was recently arguing with a friend about why I should love the American military unquestioningly. "The American military saved your ass in World War II!" he said. "The Jews would have been slaughtered if it wasn’t for us!"
I had to remind him that actually the Jews were slaughtered.
6. How do you segue from that? You don't. Here's a Moby sighting. Okay, it's an orca, not a sperm whale. But it is an albino sea mammal, and that's rare enough.
7. Speaking of white whales ... Melville House is publishing a third Tao Lin book! Tthis time it's a poetry textbook, whatever exactly that might mean. We'll find out soon.
Till then, I can be a literary locavore. Here are four recently published books with lots of New York City flavor.
The Kept Man by Jami Attenberg
"A meditation on family, a window into glittering Williamsburg, and an unforgettable story" says Amanda Eyre Ward on the back cover of this fable about a neglected young wife (of a comatose famous artist) who breaks out of her shell. Williamsburg glitters? I don't know about that. But Jami Attenberg wrings a lot of charm out of the laundromats and stoops of northern Brooklyn in this leisurely-paced novel about trust, love and friendship in our jaded modern age. Attenberg's dishy voice reminds me of Fran Lebowitz at times (on an art dealer: "I guess she's entitled to her bat phone") and the cheerful tone keeps the book moving breezily along. But The Kept Man carries an undertone of ethical controversy -- especially when the narrator decides to end her comatose husband's life, against the will of his parents -- and it all eventually adds up to a message of self-affirmation that will please many readers.
New York Echoes by Warren Adler
What is a "New York" character? What do we do, how do we look, what do we sound like? (Okay, you know what? Don't answer. I'm not sure I want to know).
Warren Adler wrote the bitter novel that became the bitter movie The War of the Roses, writes. He writes about "New York characters", whatever exactly that means, in New York Echoes. These short stories are finely crafted miniatures, but I found an underlying nastiness in the two stories I read that didn't work for me (though I think many readers may find this tone appealing). One story was about a woman who tried to be helpful to everybody in her apartment building until she finally realized it was getting her nowhere, and so she stopped. I wished the story had a happy ending. The other story I read was about the horrible ending of an apparently horrible marriage. I wished this story had a happy ending too. Not my kind of sour pickle, but you might like it.
Gentleman Jigger by Richard Bruce Nugent
"Jigga ... (What's my mutha$&*%#! name) ..."
I didn't know that "Jigga" originated with a old racial rhyme: "Looky, looky, Gentleman Jigger -- half white and half nigger". Harlem Renaissance author Richard Bruce Nugent grabbed this phrase in 1928 and spun it into a novel about a gay, artistic upper-class African-American caught up in a Bohemian crime scene in Jazz Age Greenwich Village and Harlem. This novel, newly published in an attractive paperback original edition by Da Capo Press, offers a fascinating glimpse at a past literary age.
Queens Noir edited by Robert Knightly
Now this is close to home. Finally, Akashic's localized crime-fiction series has come to my beloved borough. This book could use a little more southside flavor, but my own central Queens (Rego Park, Forest Hills, Corona, Richmond Hill) is well represented, and so are the New York Mets. I read three stories that take place in spots very familiar to me, and here's what I thought of each:
• Buckner's Error by Joseph Guglielmelli posits a creepy scenario involving an unlucky Red Sox fan on the 7 train to Shea Stadium. Guglielmelli tells a tight tale, and he gets extra points for knowing his 1986 trivia.
• Bottom of the Sixth by Alan Gordon takes place at the Little League baseball fields a couple of blocks from where I live. I love seeing my neighborhood immortalized in "noir", and I like Gordon's Sopranos-esque dialogue and quirky portraits of Hasidic Jews, cops and local lowlife. Gordon also knows his Queens, as is evident in a chase scene through the little-known Whitepot Junction abandoned train interchange.
• Hollywood Lanes by Megan Abbott takes place in the bowling alley up the street in Forest Hills, across from the new Dunkin' Donuts. But guess what? Hollywood Lanes closed a year ago. And it's just as well, because I don't fully get this story. There are a few semi-married people flirting with each other in a bowling alley, and somebody gets hit by a car, and I'm sorry but I read it twice and I can't figure out what exactly is going on. It's probably my fault (I've always been a dense mystery-reader). I never bowled more than 120 in Hollywood Lanes, either.
That's it for this time around -- the Literary Locavore will be back again soon!
A murky tag cloud ("Middle East", "Lebanon", "Iraq") dominates the cover. The featured book is Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East by Robin Wright, the reviewer is Patrick Cockburn, and the publication's title font is a dim gray, perhaps to indicate the presence of lots of gray area within. Robin Wright's book attempts a fresh look at a well-trod subject, avoiding the typical tight focus on Islamic extremism to feature profiles of individuals and organizations attempting to improve various aspects of Middle East society and politics. But, Cockburn tells us, "in general the stories Wright relates of brave reformers battling for human and civil rights show them as having had depressingly small influence." Yes, Wright's book appears to be a study of hope, and perhaps the New York Times Book Review is expressing its own sense of hope by placing Dreams and Shadows on its cover.
But in doing so they disregard the mindset of the vast majority of NYTBR readers, who have been fending off shovelfuls of Middle East analysis by "highly esteemed experts" for the past many years. Perhaps to the finely calibrated political minds on 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, either Wright's book or Cockburn's moderate review shines with some kind of brilliant light. Most readers, unfortunately, will see two more shovel loads from two more professional talking heads. Gray area, indeed.
I recently read, and was impressed by, Jacob Weisberg's ambitious and unabashedly psychological The Bush Tragedy, which posits a singular compulsion to compete with his father as George W. Bush's primary mental dysfunction. Alan Brinkley's review is respectful but fails to transmit any sense of excitement about the book. Jacob Heilbrunn seems to agree with the basic premise of Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon's Reagan's Disciple: George W. Bush's Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy, which is that Bush's attempts to paint himself as Reaganesque would be laughable if they weren't so tragic (I also certainly agree, and I recently wrote something similar myself). But, once again, the level and tone of political analysis here does not distinguish itself in any way from, say, the Times opinion pages, or the New York Times Magazine, or for that matter Time or Newsweek magazine, or every damn news show on every damn network. Political discussion is critical, but readers have a right to expect something special when we pick up the New York Times Book Review every Sunday, whereas we all too easily detect here the sound of professional pundits punching the clock.
On to fiction. Liesl Schillinger fetchingly summarizes The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter, which seems to combine the pleasures of a campus novel, a 1970s nostalgia romp and a Paul Auster-ish mangled-identity scenario. I'm intrigued enough to want to try the book, though Schillinger's review is not a rave like her recent cover piece on Charles Bock's Beautiful Children, a much-discussed novel I was hoping not to write about again here. But letter-writer Ian Mackenzie offers a funny and powerful indictment of that Schillinger article, worth quoting here:
Schillinger approvingly quotes a sentence of Bock's: "Electricity lit up Ponyboy's skeletal structure as if it were a pinball machine on a multi-ball extravaganza, and the mingling odors of brimstone and sulfur and sweat and burning skin filled Ponyboy’s nostrils." This describes, we are told, the administration of Ponyboy’s newest tattoo. It is easy to see why, in the current literary climate, this sentence attracts admiration: it loudly conflates the human body and the book’s setting, Las Vegas; it declares the obsolescence of the comma as it pounds out a list of nouns; its zeal for gaudy metaphor nearly splits it at the seams; and it turns up the biblical volume with the sinister "brimstone."
But the sentence suffers from several conspicuous flaws. For one, it lurks at the edge of tenability when it describes the electricity illuminating Ponyboy's "skeletal structure." It then attempts to shoehorn in the metaphor of a pinball machine, whose vividness further divorces the sentence's central idea from a credible reality, and then finally, in order, I imagine, to deploy four nouns rather than three, it falls irritatingly into redundancy: brimstone and sulfur, as a quick trip to the dictionary will confirm, are synonyms.
Mackenzie lands a good punch here, and I'm sorry I didn't catch that factoid about brimstone and sulfur myself when I reviewed that issue. At the same time, it needs to be said that Liesl Schillinger is one of the very sharpest of the Book Review's regular fiction critics, and that this mistake is entirely uncharacteristic of her track record here. I hope she goes on expressing her unbridled enthusiasm for the books she likes, because I enjoy reading these articles as much as anything that is ever published in these pages. As I said above, the NYTBR all too often fails to be as distinctive as it should be, but this is never the case when Schillinger's byline is on the page.
Other worthy articles this week include David Michaelis on the cartoonist biography Bill Maudlin: A Life Up Front by Todd DePastino, Christine Kenneally on The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan on Bananas: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman, David Leavitt on a new memoir by John Rechy and Michael Azerrad on Dan Kennedy's Rock On, an insider's look at the music business. I've occasionally been employed to build music websites for the types of corporations Kennedy describes here, and the following rings true to me:
When Kennedy presents an intriguing Web-commerce initiative at a high-level meeting, a pair of lazy functionaries buffalo their technologically illiterate boss with jargon-filled excuses about why it won't work. The proposal dies.
I think I was at that meeting.
James Campbell bravely mocks Stephen King's famous comments about literature and genre in his unenthusiastic review of Duma Key, which Campbell doesn't find effective as either literature or genre. Adam LeBor's short piece on Yalo by Elias Khoury and Madison Smartt Bell's longer piece on the Underground Railroad fictionalization Song Yet Sung by James McBride land with little effect. Colson Whitehead provides a refreshing endpaper on the incredible hype about literary Brooklyn. This is an article that badly needed to be written.
I get asked a lot, "What's it like to write in Brooklyn?" ... What do they expect me to say? "Instead of ink, I write in mustard from Nathan's Famous, a Brooklyn institution since 1916."
Perhaps this article signals that the Brooklyn craze is finally peaking. Though Whitehead's author credit declares that his next novel will be called Sag Harbor, which makes me wonder if the novelist has just replaced one hip place for writers with another even hipper (and more expensive) choice. Colson, Colson, what's it like to write in the Hamptons?!
2. I'll be dropping by the Bowery Poetry Club for a quick poetry happy hour tonight at 6:30. The last time I read there, a bongo player was promised but never arrived, but tonight I am assured there will be bongos. Please come by if you can!
3. Via Quick Study, here's some alleged filmed footage of a late-in-life Friedrich Nietzsche staring into space from a hospital bed. There is some question as to whether or not this moving image is fake, but it does not appear fake to me. Nietzsche certainly does project a powerful presence in this film fragment, and that's a hell of a mustache.
4. Via Bill Ectric, Mystery Island presents an interview with Linda Lee Bukowski!
5. This brief Onion news item is strangely good, and reminds me of J. D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish".
All Over by Roy Kesey
The first Roy Kesey short story I ever read was "Wait", which is included in the new collection All Over, the virgin publication of Dzanc Books. "Wait" begins quietly in an airline terminal where a flight is delayed. Slowly, like a frog being boiled in heating water, things get slightly worse, then more worse, and then they go completely unhinged. Kesey's expert handling of this amoral fable won him the admiration of Stephen King, who chose it for the 2007 Best American Short Stories (which is where I first read it, though you can find it in All Over as well).
Kesey has a great and odd sense of humor, but can he write a straight story, minus all the crazy world-goes-on-tilt stuff? In fact, the first story in All Over is "Invunche y voladora", a sobering realistic drama involving a honeymooning couple desperately trying to run away from their private problems by exploring the Chilean forests. The common denominator that ties "Invunche y voladora" to "Wait" to Kesey's other stories may be a smart sense of pyschology and an interest in edgy situations. Kesey is so edgy, in fact, that when I met him last month at one of Amanda Stern's Happy Ending readings I asked him if he had taken his name from Ken Kesey, the boisterous explorer of the Pacific Northwest. He hadn't, Roy told me, but I say there's a family resemblance, and the spirit serves Roy Kesey well. All Over is one of the better books published in 2007.
Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
This is a fetching murder mystery with an appealing veneer of New York City 70s-80s punk attitude. I know the world whereof Elizabeth Hand speaks, and she describes it well. What I like best about Hand's book is the spiky and street-smart narrative voice, which still hints at innocence when the weary narrator (who tells us she can't be a meth addict because she's too lazy to work that hard) is compelled to leave Seinfeld-Town for the ghostly coast of Maine, where a reclusive Soho photographer is hiding a dark room full of secrets.
Elizabeth Hand's book is a fun ride with a likable narrator, even though the stock mystery plotting cost me some momentum. Still, a captivating voice is the one thing a novel lives or dies by, and on that account, Generation Loss lives.
The Swing Voter of Staten Island by Arthur Nersesian
Arthur Nersesian, acclaimed author of the Bukowski-esque The Fuck-Up, here takes us into an absurdist parody of New York City, which turns out to be an actual government reproduction of New York City (the real one was evacuated after a nuclear disaster) in the middle of the Nevada desert. The narrator wakes up and has to figure out where he is and what's going on, which is extra difficult because he has been brainwashed to murder somebody and has a voice transmitting in his head.
The book's back cover includes a gorgeous map of this bizarro New York City, which has everything wrong: Flatbush Avenue intersects Sutphin Boulevard, there are sandstorms in Bensonhurst, Nazi swastikas decorate parts of Manhattan, and all five boroughs are torn between two warring political parties out of a bad Martin Scorsese movie (yes, a bad Martin Scorsese movie, don't argue with me). I have to admit that I ultimately despaired of making much sense of who was doing what to who in this very hectic story, which includes more weird inside jokes (a folksinger named Fillip Ocks? people actually care what happens in Queens? WHAAT?) than I can keep track of. But the visuals, the Francis-Bacon-esque streetscapes, are enough on their own to make this worth checking out. Ultimately I got lost inside this strange city, but you might find your way. If you like Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown or Brian Francis Slattery's Spaceman Blues (or Will Smith's I Am Legend) you may love The Swing Voter of Staten Island.
Symphony of the Dead by Abbas Maroufi
"A thin plume of smoke floated beneath the barrel arches and domed vaults of the nut-sellers' souk and forced its way out through the front gate. At the other end of the souk, a number of porters burnt wood in a brazier. A blanket covered their hands and occasionally, whenever they dared bring them out, they cracked watermelon seeds. Behind them, in a place looking somewhat like a crypt, three men were roasting the seeds in cauldrons. A mixture of smoke and steam rose into the air."
I'm drawn into Symphony of the Dead, a family saga by an Iranian exile living in Berlin, by the author's warm way with his characters as he slowly sets up the confrontations that will drive this story. I'm only beginning it now, but I'm also definitely intrigued by the epigram that opens the book, a quotation from the story of Cain and Abel that looks like it comes from the Bible, but it comes from the Koran. You may want to check out this book too.
2. The Litblog Co-op, after quietly missing a beat this fall, is back! We've picked a very good novel this time around: The Farther Shore by debut novelist Matthew Eck. Dan Wickett provides a good introduction on the LBC site to this harsh, slim novel about a small group of American soldiers lost in an East African battle zone. I'll be running an interview with Matthew Eck here on LitKicks next week, and pointing to other LBC sites that will also feature the book.
3. Matthew Eck's novel paints a descent into a heart of darkness in East Africa, near a beach, and I wouldn't be surprised to find that Eck was inspired by Joseph Conrad, who painted a descent into a heart of darkness in West/Central Africa, near a river. This is Joseph Conrad's 150th birthday, noted at The Guardian (via Conversational Reading) and The Independent (via Saloon).
4. Charles Bukowski a Nazi? Nobody who understands this charming writer's friendly and welcoming attitude towards literature and life will take such nonsense seriously.
5. But please do take this nonsense seriously, from Seattle's The Stranger: "The Levels of Greatness a Fiction Writer Can Achieve in America" by the irrepressible Tao Lin. Finally the glass ceiling is revealed.
6. Had a very nice time at the Small Press Book Fair in midtown Manhattan yesterday. I enjoyed a trivia challenge featuring New York Review of Books kicking the slightly sorry butts of A Public Space, who really only shined when the questions involved Edgar Allan Poe. Tim Brown was a deft and witty MC, and as Ed describes a few of us litbloggers in attendance confronted him afterwards with our desire to compete for the title. Elsewhere in the show, I enjoyed running into travel author Darrin Duford and meeting the mastermind behind Disruptive Publishing, a seriously underground publisher of odd and highly censorable books including the remains of the legendary Olympia Press catalog.
UPDATE: Eric Rosenfield from Wet Asphalt sends another report from the trivia challenge, including a great action shot of me and Ed Champion whispering the correct answer to a question that floored the A Public Space group as Sarah Weinman knowingly smiles. If you are curious, the correct answer to the question was "Becket". No, not Beckett: Becket. The question, naturally, was "who got killed in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral".
But that was the end of the night. Let's start at the beginning, since I was there for the whole thing and can comment on the more esoteric details that you won't read about it in the New York Times or USA Today (whose hardworking reporter Bob Minzesheimer hung out at the blogger table, along with twittering Sarah, videocamera-wielding Jason Boog and a few other livebloggers linked below. Apparently I was the only blogger to come up with the bright idea of not posting about the event until the following morning, thus allowing me to relax and enjoy the ceremony.)
First, let's mention the arboreal stage design, which was quite good (and which I tried to feature in the above photo). Now, I know the stage design couldn't actually be a tipoff that Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke would win (since the judges don't make a final decision until the day of the awards). But the "broken tree" motif certainly suggested some synchronicity, and there it was.
Before the ceremony, everybody got to mingle at a power-packed cocktail hour. Christopher Hitchens held court at the bar, Toni Morrison basked in the love, Joan Didion sought more isolated ground, Jonathan Franzen worked the crowd smoothly until Ed Champion took the opportunity to question the self-esteemed novelist as to "why won't you be my Facebook friend?". If I were Franzen I would have simply said "I can friend or not friend whoever the fuck I like, blog boy!" but Franzen didn't find this easy way out and instead mumbled some dissemblage into Ed's microphone which you can hear via Ed's long list of liveblog posts and spontaneous podcasts linked above. I helped Ed interview Fran Lebowitz, not missing the opportunity to ask her whether or not there would be political fireworks on stage as there had been at a finalists reading the night before. I got a chance to tell Ken Kalfus how much I liked his last novel, said hi to several friends, then went upstairs to the press balcony to extract some decent fresh mozzarella from a few moribund sandwiches and wax existential over at Bookblog (where you can also find some attempted photos).
The first segment of the National Book Awards show was dull, since it featured a paean to the genius of Joan Didion by Michael Cunningham, who may or may not know how to write (The Hours didn't persuade me) but has absolutely no idea how to speak in front of an audience. His stiff, upper-class elocution suggested every bad stereotype that everybody who isn't actually part of the literary establishment imagines about the literary establishment. The fact that he was layering on gummy praise for Joan Didion, a writer I consider overrated, didn't make me like him any better. I agree with him that Joan Didion's prose feels as cold as dry ice; what I don't understand is why I'm supposed to admire that. Chilly has never been my favorite temperature.
There was a long pause for dinner, to the annoyance of those of us in the press balcony who were fed sandwiches and pasta from a buffet. I faked a cigarette break with Mary Delli Santi and thus got a chance to meet Walter Kirn, who is one of only two regular critics for the New York Times Book Review who regularly gets high scores from me.
Back upstairs, Sherman Alexie won for his young adult novel, Robert Haas's Time and Materials won for poetry, which I can't disapprove of though I was rooting for David Kirby's underdog House on Boulevard Street. Tim Wiener's Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA won for non-fiction, and he seemed like the best choice of the five to me, though I don't think the five nominees were a very good sample of the best non-fiction of the past year.
It was a dizzying evening, and I felt privileged to be there. Even a smart-ass blogger like me has to be impressed by the literary, editorial, journalistic and business talent assembled at the Marriot Marquis on this fine Wednesday night.
I am pleased to find a review of Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal on the cover of the latest New York Times Book Review, but I quickly find myself repelled by reviewer Paul Theroux's mushy, overcooked treatment. Theroux certainly can write better than this, and he knows the subject matter well, so I can only guess that this review assignment caught him uninspired. He calls Jeal's book "magnificent" and tells us that this biography "has many echoes for our own time" (as a book about a 19th Century African explorer certainly should), but that's as far as Theroux goes in terms of social relevance, and most of the review features limp psychoanalytic summaries like this:
In Livingstone, the fatherless Stanley found a powerful (and idealized) father figure, whose stated mission to explore Africa could be his own. Importantly (and this is one of the many modern dimensions of Jeal's book) he found a continent where he could transform himself. Africa gave a man who had experimented with multiple identities a name, a face, a notoriety, a mission, problems to solve, and it confirmed his greatness as an explorer.
Echoes for our time? Exactly, because Paul Theroux makes this book sound like a James Frey memoir. We hear nothing at all in this review about the actual confrontation between Euro-American and Central African culture that Stanley spearheaded (no pun intended). But we hear that "Nobody knew who [Stanley] was, and he didn't want anyone to know" and that he was "shy" and "diffident when pursuing a woman". I can just imagine Barbara Walters doing the follow-up interview:
"Tell me ... what scares Henry Morton Stanley?"
In contrast, let's look at Pico Iyer's similarly speculative review of Orhan Pamuk's new Other Colors: Essays and a Story. Like Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer doesn't hesitate to guess about his subject's mental state. But Iyer's subject is a coy, metaphysical novelist, not a bold African explorer, and Iyer's multi-layered psychological treatment seems not only appropriate but essential for a consideration of Pamuk's work. I like this review very much, and I agree with points like this:
His books are, really, celebrations of multiplicity ("My Name is Red" is told in the voice of 19 narrators) which makes them celebrations of unfinishedness; the mysteries they set up are always more delicious than any attempt to solve them.
What "Other Colors" makes most clear is how seriously committed to playfulness Orhan Pamuk is.
I'm excited to read this book. Getting back to the main point, please note that one of the two reviews discussed above is an ugly mess, while the other is a good brisk read. The difference is in the critic's ability to find a voice and approach for the review that corresponds to or harmonizes with the voice and approach of the book being reviewed. A soft, kittenish critical voice is just right for Orhan Pamuk, but completely wrong for explorer Henry Morton Stanley. These two examples show this as well as any two ever will.
Like last Sunday's issue, today's Book Review is packed with good stuff and I fear I can't do it all justice. Liesl Schillinger writes elegantly about Anne Enright's The Gathering (though, based on her description, this review is as close to the book as I'll ever get). A. O. Scott increases my eagerness to read Junot Diaz's The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, especially now that I've learned the "Oscar Wao" of the title refers to Oscar Wilde. Jeremy McCarter's brief review of Alan Bennett's royal fantasia The Uncommon Reader makes me eager to read this book as well.
I was slightly bored with Leah Hager Cohen's review of Ann Patchett's Run when it started off like a worshipful puff piece, and then I almost got whiplash when Cohen started pointing out what she doesn't like about the book, which turns out to be a lot. Finally, I'm not completely down with Stephanie Zacharek's extended "pants" metaphor in reviewing Irvine Welsh's new If You Liked School, You'll Love Work, but when she's not talking about pants she does a fine job of expressing the excitement a new Irvine Welsh book always seems to bring.
The endpaper space is well-used to reprint Stephen King's provocative introduction to the newly-released Best American Short Stories of 2007, in which he speaks of the indignity of our current literary scene as represented by wan stacks of literary magazines invariably tucked into the bottom shelves of bookstore racks. He points out that:
What's not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and the New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there.
Stephen King speaks the truth.
Okay, yeah, the Mets choked, Palahniuk-style, but you're crazy if you think that makes me like them any less. The enjoyment they gave me and Caryn and the kids at Shea Stadium this year is all the reason I need. Jose Reyes remains my favorite player for his optimistic spirit, although I do feel compelled to point out that the nickname "Mr. September" would not be a good choice for him. But I seriously hope he will hold his head high, because he had a great season and made New York happy this summer. The same goes for other lovable goats Oliver Perez, Tom Glavine, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Dave Wright, Luis Castillo, Willie Randolph, all of whom will be taking some heat from the critics and amateur humorists in the next few days.
I see some Phillies fans are poking their heads out of the dirt. I wish them well in the playoffs. Though I won't be reading the sports sections, so it makes no difference to me.