Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

New York City

Reviewing the Review: May 18 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 18, 2008 10:07 pm


It would take more number-crunching than I'm willing to do on a Sunday to prove this, but I'm pretty sure the New York Times Book Review has been publishing more front-page rave reviews of breakout novels by unknown authors in the past couple of years than usual. I'm not talking about good reviews -- I'm talking about those rare moments where you can just see the blush in the amazed critic's cheek. I always appreciate these articles, since I know it takes some nerve (not to mention a modicum of joie de'vivre) for a critic to risk her or her reputation on the discovery of a new talent.

More often than not, new writers who win the coveted New York Times Book Review cover rave end up not working out for me (Michael Thomas, Mildred Armstrong Kalish, Charles Bock), though occasionally one does (Tom McCarthy). To some extent, the new writer is at the mercy of his or her discovering critic, who must have the talent and conviction to illuminate the book for potential readers. Fortunately for Joseph O'Neill, a newbie whose novel Netherland is on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review, Dwight Garner is a clever and passionate writer.

O'Neill's book seems representative of a fashionable type of novel today: the expansive multi-cultural urban collage, like Charles Bock's Beautiful Children or (regrettably) James Frey's Bright Shiny Morning. In this case the city is New York, and the game of cricket (which is widely played by immigrants in New York City) provides the glue between the wealthy and the striving, the moral and the craven who walk the streets of our rotten, lovable Gotham.

I must reserve judgement until I hold this book in my hands, but even though I like Garner's style and approach ("They're all 9/11 novels now"), his description of Netherland leaves me eager to read more Dwight Garner but not especially eager to read Joseph O'Neill. Another sweeping multi-ethnic urban canvas? I hope I'll love this book as much as Dwight Garner does, but even his description of a beguiling scene involving a father looking for his son on Google Earth leaves me skeptical, though I am glad to read of the scene. I do like O'Neill's use of cricket as a metaphor for, well, something, especially since I've enjoyed watching many cricket games in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. However, about O'Neill's idea (expressed by a character in Netherland) that the USA can be saved by the game of cricket, I'd like to remind him that cricket is already popular in America. We just use a cylindrical bat.

Lorraine Adams's review of The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine focuses on the author's use of a traditional framing device to tell the stories within this story. Her constant referral to Alameddine's framing device begins to seem like its own framing device, which is kind of annoying. This is another very favorable review, though as with Netherland above this novel seems a bit too gentle and driftingly beautiful for my tastes.

I'm more drawn to Etgar Keret's The Girl on the Fridge, which receives yet another big positive in today's very sunny Book Review. In this case, Joseph Weisberg's praise does make me feel excited to check out this writer, who I've been meaning to read. I'll also check out Caroline Adderson, author of an odd little title called Sitting Practice, reviewed here by Jincy Willett, about a well-meaning husband who paralyzes his wife in a freak car accident and then turns to Buddhism for salvation from his overbearing guilt.

Katha Pollitt fails to persuade me to give up my lifelong dislike of the lumpy poetry of Charles Simic, though not for any lack of trying (I'm a hard sell on this poet). I'm more sympathetic towards John Wilson's praise for Philip L. Fradkin's biography Wallace Stegner and the American West, though the article's obligatory Ken Kesey reference makes me wish some writer somewhere someday would mention Ken Kesey without mentioning LSD (the use of which was hardly the most interesting thing about Ken Kesey).

I read and enjoyed Ginia Bellefante's funny thoughts on Julie Klam's Please Excuse My Daughter, the story of a rich kid ("the idea of doing anything seems to fill her with the fear of missing out on television, or dinner, or naps"), though I will certainly never read this book. I was deeply pained to read all about a book called Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life In Hot Pursuit of the World's Most Coveted Handbag by Michael Tonello in a review by Christine Muhlke that I really should not have bothered to read in the first place. But I'm trying to stay away from the political articles this weekend -- they've been making me crazy, and that's why I'm reading about rich people and handbags today.





Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa at PEN World Voices

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 3, 2008 11:28 am


"You'll notice an empty chair has been placed next to the podium on stage. This is to symbolize those writers who could not be here today due to political oppression."

Thus intoned Leonard Lopate at New York City's uptown 92nd Street Y, introducing a major PEN World Voices event featuring Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa and Umberto Eco. Ironically, at just this moment I was caught in a chaotic crush in the back of the auditorium along with several other late arrivals and second-tier press-pass attendees who couldn't find a seat in the packed house. A particularly stern usher was hissing at us to leave, another was telling us to walk forward, and I was starting to wish I had the nerve to walk onstage and sit in the damn empty chair myself.

Yes, there was a big sellout crowd for the "Three Musketeers", and in fact it's encouraging to realize that New Yorkers will pack a room just to hear a postmodernist from Bombay and London, a postmodernist from Italy and a postmodernist from Peru read stories to us, and despite the clumsy start the Rushdie/Eco/Vargas Llosa reading delivered rare literary pleasures in a sophisticated, harmonious arrangement. It was a reading to remember.

Umberto Eco read a passage from Foucault's Pendulum in original Italian as the words scrolled on a screen behind him. While this may have made some attendees feel they were at the New York State Opera and others wish they had worn their contacts, I personally found it easy enough to follow and enjoy the text's cosmic psychological wanderings as Eco's gravelly voice rumbled in sympathy. I tried to follow along and transliterate (not that I know Italian, of course, but I can always try) and then gave up when it became clear that the text scrolling had lost track of the live reading. No matter, I loved hearing the piece.

Salman Rushdie was next, reading a passage (in English) about an Indian commoner in audience with the Mughal emperor Akbar from the new novel The Enchantress of Florence, just released in the UK and scheduled for release in the USA soon. I could not get a good sense of Rushdie's overall intention with this novel, though descriptions of the book suggest a scope similar to Orhan Pamuk's great My Name Is Red. Rushdie didn't "wow me" like he did last year, though I am intrigued by this new novel's historical setting.

Mario Vargas Llosa read from his latest novel The Bad Girl, again in the original language, though this time the text scrolled in perfect time with the author's reading, and the audience responded with much enthusiasm. The three eminences then gathered for a loose and lively chat about why they liked to call themselves the "Three Musketeers" (Rushdie even mulled over "The Three Tenors", which I had suggested in a blog post on Thursday, and I was also starting to think up other alternatives including "The Traveling Wilburys" and "Velvet Revolver"). With Alexandre Dumas pere now in play, Rushdie, Eco and Vargas Llosa now began batting The Count of Monte Cristo back and forth, debating whether or not such "bad writing" as this can also be great writing. All three seemed to agree that bad writing could be great writing and that this often happens (it's not hard to guess that all three authors were thinking of their own excesses here, as well as those of Dumas pere).

The panel was great fun to listen to because the writers were loose and rambunctious, eagerly speaking over each other at times, fully devoid of the stiff politeness that too often mars these gatherings. An after-event hangout with several bloggers and book critics and one photographer (Mary Reagan's photos of Eco, Rushdie and Vargas LLosa should be up soon) suitably capped the evening.

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Earlier on Friday, I enjoyed a lunchtime reading with Peter Carey, Halfdan Freihow, Janet Malcolm and Francesc Seres, hosted by Rachel Donadio, and I'm looking forward to a conversation between Ian McEwan and Steven Pinker later today. I won't blog about that, though; there's a New York Times Book Review that needs attending to, and I'm on the case.

Congrats again to the energetic and hardworking folks who put together PEN World Voices, a literary festival worthy of the name.





A Glimpse of Burma

by Levi Asher on Thursday, May 1, 2008 05:30 pm


A lunchtime PEN World Voices panel with global journalist Ian Buruma, Burmese author Thant Myint-U and Words Without Borders editor Dedi Felman today offered a look at the modern history and current politics of Burma, the Southeast Asian nation that all three panelists agreed was little understood around the world. I arrived at this panel discussion knowing almost nothing of this nation's culture and society (and not for lack of interest), so I believe they're right.

I didn't know, for instance, that Burma has been suffering in a state of civil war since 1948 (the longest civil war in the world today), and I didn't know the nation's army is one of the 10 largest in the world (Wikipedia here lists them as 12th, but the difference is negligible while the fact remains quite surprising). Dedi Felman, moderating the panel, placed Burma's endless crisis in context with the more widely known Darfur crisis by pointing out that there are more child soldiers in Burma today than in Sudan.

One of the very few things I knew about Burma before arriving today is that a Burmese statesman named U Thant had been a well-liked Secretary-General of the United Nations during the dynamic years from 1961 to 1971, and I was pleased to discover that Thant Myint-U, author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma is his grandson. I'd like to read Thant's book, and as he spoke today I noted his sincere concern for a troubled nation caught since the 19th Century in the net of worldwide power struggles (between Britain and India during the colonial era, between Japan and the Allies in World War II, between China and Western democracy today) and gripped by internal power-hungry ideologies.

Thant advocates a careful approach to Western intervention (as he wrote in a London Review of Books article last year), though Ian Buruma warned that, in his observation, the USA war in Iraq has significantly harmed our ability to be accepted as credible do-gooders around the world.

This event left me hungry for more, and this is the same hunger (and satisfaction) that many New Yorkers and visitors attending this exciting five-day gathering must be feeling as we float from one international meeting to another. This was my second event so far, and while I can't tell if this is a trend or just a coincidence, I have noticed that both today's Burma session and Wednesday's Darfur session presented stark political discussion with a minimum of purely "literary" sensibility. There was a symbolic empty chair at today's panel, as there had been at the Darfur event, and both times it was explained that this empty chair represented authors around the world who could not be present due to oppression in their home countries. I'm starting to wonder if these empty chairs should be filled by poets or fiction writers, just so we don't forget to keep the "literature" in PEN World Voices.

But I think there will be plenty of literary sensibility at the Three Musketeers event with Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa and Umberto Eco (Michael Orthofer calls it "The Three Tenors", which is much funnier) tomorrow night. On with the festival!





Mia Farrow and Bernard-Henri Levy Urge Hope, Action, Olympic Boycott for Darfur

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, April 30, 2008 12:57 am


At one of the kickoff events for New York City's PEN World Voices festival,actress Mia Farrow, critic Bernard-Henri Levy and novelist Dinaw Mengestu met tonight at the Alliance Francais to discuss the ongoing genocidal situation in Darfur, which has gotten no better after five years of worldwide apathy. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in squalid, barren refugee camps after their villages were bombed and destroyed by the Sudanese government (the conflict -- no big surprise -- originated in ethnic battles over Sudan's oil wealth).

Brushing aside the literary nature of the event's setting, both Farrow and Levy spoke plainly and forcefully about the need for immediate action to change this situation. Levy spoke first, pointing out that he has seen several genocides in his life, and always called for action (to little effect), but that he has never before seen people wiped out so facelessly, erased from existence, "without even a number". Levy is a powerful speaker with a classic French accent, bringing the best out of words like "passive" and "invisible".

Farrow's presentation was much more pointed and polished than Levy's, and she hammered the point home with one heartbreaking photo after another. We saw an aerial shot of a peaceful Darfur village, with winding fences, farm animals, huts and gardens. Then we saw the same village after it was destroyed by aerial bombardment -- the Sudan Air Force bombing its own citizens. Farrow urged a variety of prescriptions: economic pressure, diplomatic pressure and, most importantly, pressure on China (Sudan's primary trading partner) to force change in Sudan. China, Mia Farrow explained, has vast influence with the Sudanese government, and if China urged a peaceful settlement with the displaced people of Darfur, the situation could significantly improve and, as Farrow put it, the healing could begin. Throughout the talk, both Farrow and Levy urged hopeful, positive-minded approaches to peacemaking in this obviously difficult conflict.

They also urged the United States and French governments to threaten a boycott of China's Olympic ceremonies over this issue, and urged both countries as well to intervene forcefully in the situation immediately. More information about how anyone can participate in the actions to help Darfur can be found at Mia Farrow's website.

PEN World Voices is where global politics meets the artistic mind, but Tuesday night's kickoff event was all politics, and not much art. That seemed to be exactly the message Mia Farrow and Bernard-Henri Levy were trying to send, and the crowd's appreciative applause showed that the message was received.





Mark Vonnegut in Tribeca

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, April 2, 2008 02:26 am


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.






World

by Levi Asher on Thursday, March 20, 2008 07:35 pm


1. PEN World Voices, easily the best ongoing literary festival in New York City, will take place from April 29 to May 4 this year. Writers I'm particularly interested in seeing include, alphabetically: Andre Aciman, Charles Baxter, Andy Borowitz, Ian Baruma, Peter Carey, Stacey D'Erasmo, Umberto Eco, Jennifer Egan, Deborah Eisenberg, Asli Erdogan, Peter Esterhazy, Jeffrey Eugenides, John Giorno, Arnon Grunberg, John Wesley Harding, Alexsandar Hemon, A. M. Homes, Uzodinma Iweala, Elias Khoury, Bernard Henri-Levy, Janet Malcolm, Colum McCann, Ian McEwan, Catherine Millet, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Dale Peck, Steven Pinker, Annie Proulx, Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa and Eliot Weinberger. Well, these are my choices among the writers I've heard of, but the real benefit of an international event like this is that I'll discover writers I've never heard of.

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.





Bob and Ray! (And Chris, and Keith Olbermann)

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, March 12, 2008 04:52 pm


1. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC is my favorite TV news reporter, not just because he was among the first newscasters to bravely speak the bitter truth about the incredible ineptitude of our current national leadership, but also because he always delivers his strong words with such a likable smile.

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.





The Literary Locavore: Fiction from New York City

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, March 5, 2008 02:23 am


I'd like to be a locavore. Seriously, I would. But I'd have to find a Taco Bell that gets all its ingredients from farms in New York City.

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.

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That's it for this time around -- the Literary Locavore will be back again soon!





Reviewing the Review: March 2 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, March 2, 2008 12:58 pm


Once again, the New York Times Book Review features writing about topical politics on the cover, and once again the critical sensibility is not distinctive or literary enough for this platform.

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?!





Lit Lit

by Levi Asher on Thursday, February 21, 2008 01:21 pm


1. Mark Sarvas and his readers have proposed a whole bunch of new types of "lit" (shtick lit, hick lit, quick lit). I'd like to turn the tables and suggest one that's clearly in the air today: "Lit lit". These are books about characters obsessed with literature (see Possession by A. S. Byatt). Note that both Mark Sarvas's upcoming Harry, Revised and Keith Gessen's upcoming All the Sad Young Literary Men feature images of books on their covers (a Penguin Classic for Sarvas, a Moleskine for Gessen).

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".





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