1. Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1, 1919 -- ninety years ago today. Charles McGrath offers some new observations about the relationship between J. D. Salinger and his second most enduring character, Seymour Glass, and wonders what might motivate Salinger's ongoing and unyielding pursuit of solitude and silence. I have no answer, but I would compare Salinger on one hand to Beat poet Bob Kaufman (who was similarly obsessed with silence) and on another hand to Kurt Cobain, who like Salinger was dreadfully afraid of being phony.
Yeah, I got my hands on a real-life Amazon Kindle e-book reader for a few minutes. Did I "feel the power"? Hell no. The physical packaging reminds me of the Coleco Adam. I tried to read a story by P. G. Wodehouse and I felt like I was playing Pong.
The physical button interface is clumsy, but my main gripe with the Kindle has to do with market strategy: I believe Amazon should sell electronic books that play on a wide variety of popular devices, not a single overpriced dedicated device. When I first wrote on LitKicks that e-books won't succeed until we can read them on iPhones and Blackberries, several of you disagreed, but I think the success of a new iPhone reader called the Stanza is proving me right.
This leaves me, though, with a problem. I was originally going to get an iPhone but I didn't want to switch carriers or set my alarm clock to wait in line at the Apple Store, so I never got an iPhone. Instead, I'm rocking a Verizon LG Dare which is basically an iPhone wannabe, and I like the phone fine except it won't run Stanza. I hope the folks at Lexcycle are working on a few non-iPhone ports please ...
2. Check out Tina Brown's The Daily Beast, which features worthy contributors like Maud Newton and Rachel Maddow. At first glance the Beast appears to want to be an East coast version of Huffington Post, and since I like the Huff, I think that's just fine. The site will need to shake out a few tech things -- can we have author names in the RSS feed, please? -- but it appears to be off to a great start.
3. Andrew Gallix at the Guardian asks: whatever happened to the creative potential of digital literature? Good question. I have a bit to say about this, but it will wait for a post of its own.
4. While we're talking tech, I haven't had a chance to check Google's Book API out but I have a feeling this idea has long term potential.
5. Bat Segundo goes the distance in a feisty interview with the great film director Mike Leigh, whose latest character study is called Happy Go Lucky.
6. Bill Ectric interviews Ekaterina Sedia, author of the novel The Secret History of Moscow.
7. A linguistic study of Blog Speak (via Sully)
8. Tina Fey is writing a book! Will she reach the heights of other truly literary comedian-humorists like Groucho Marx, Robert Benchley, Woody Allen and Steve Martin? Well, she hasn't let us down yet.
9. Heaven-Sent Leaf is a new book of poetry by Katy Lederer, author of Poker Face. Poker and poetry have been a good combination since, at least, A. Alvarez.
10. A YouTube recording of a true castrato. Quite disturbing to listen to. Click through and you'll see what I mean.
11. I didn't get much of a response, folks, to my probing questions about Henry David Thoreau and the economy. Let's yak it up in the outfield, people! Really. I didn't think you were the types to get scared away by classic literature so easily (I know you can yak it up plenty when the topic is, say, Sarah Palin). So, the next round in our "Big Thinking" series will be about our public political dialogue, and our special guest writer will be Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tune in tomorrow evening when the fun begins.
So I'm at the Hilton Poker Room in Atlantic City last Monday evening, waiting for the late-night Hold'em tournament to start (because that's my idea of fun). And I've got my usual problem -- the 500 chip is a light gray blue, the 5000 chip is a light gray, and since I'm color blind they look exactly the same to me. A couple of other color blind players in the tournament have the same problem, but we're all used to it. There are a whole lot of colors in the rainbow, though, and I really wish the casinos would go to the trouble of picking colors that color blind people can tell apart.
The first hand is dealt -- nothing, I fold. On the second hand I call the blinds and flop a pair of deuces. Nothing to get excited about, but the bets are small and I stay in. On the turn the board pairs tens and a frat-boy across the table tosses in three brown chips, a bet of 300. But I have a moment of color-blind short-circuit brain freeze and put him on a bluff, confusing his strong bet of 300 with a weak bet of 30, and before I know it I have raised him to 600. As soon as he calls me I realize my mistake, and I'm not at all surprised when he turns up trip tens to my tens over deuces.
There's another blast from the past -- and again, too much past and not enough blast -- when Katherine Dieckmann reviews KinFolks: Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for my Melungeon Ancestors, Lisa Alther's non-fictional follow-up to her great Kin-Flicks (a 70's classic that I recently raved about). Dieckmann gripes about various flaws in the new work and fails to demonstrate a sense of why anybody might care about Lisa Alther in the first place. At best, this review serves as a notice to curious readers that the new book exists.
The issue gets better with a strong cover piece by Michael Kinsley on Christopher Hitchens' entry into the religion-bashing game, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Kinsley is a good choice to consider this book by his contemporary and peer, and I agree with Kinsley's decision to analyze Hitchens the way one would analyze a poker player, by pointing out his bluffs, tells and power plays. Kinsley considers Hitchens' entire career to be a masterful series of feints, which is not to say that Kinsley does not admire Hitchens for his slyness in attacking popular religion at just the point in his career when one would expect this contrary political thinker to declare himself a born-again Christian. As for the book itself, it appears to be a more substantial effort than the recent similar book by Richard Dawkins.
Christopher Hitchens hasn't much use for God, but the great Elizabethan poet John Donne saw it differently, and Thomas Mallon's approving summary of John Stubbs' new John Donne: The Reformed Soul is a brisk and informative read.
I'm underwhelmed by Terrence Rafferty's praise for Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which leaves me unstirred to read Chabon's book (which I've been contemplating but haven't yet managed to become captivated by) despite the critic's professed enthusiasm. I'm sure I'm being unfairly cynical here, but sometimes when I read a favorable review of a trendy book I suspect that the critic is just pretending to love it to avoid the hard work of debunking it. This is one of those times.
The usually impressive Liesl Schillinger comes up short with a review of Cathleen Schine's doggy-tale The New Yorkers, which Schillinger strains to depict as interesting. But "It's a dog thing: you wouldn't understand" is a tired gag, and when she compares this illustrated novel to a James Thurber/E. B. White satire and comes up with no better description of Thurber's drawing style than "intentionally sloppy yet resonant", I have to conclude that this is just an off-week for the critic.
I'm more pleased by Jess Row's intelligent analysis of Benjamin Markovits's Byron/Polidori fantasia Imposture, and I'm also satisfied by Jascha Hoffman's introduction to the apparently weird How I Became A Nun by Argentina's Cesar Aria.
There's a cameo appearance in today's Book Review by Walter Isaacson, who comes up with a good opening sentence in evaluating Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America:
The only sure thing that can be said about the past is that anyone who can remember Santayana's maxim is condemned to repeat it.
And, sadly, a piece by David Grossman in the New York Times Magazine about the death of his son in last year's Israeli-Lebanese war puts it all in perspective. This essay, adapted from the keynote speech Grossman delivered at the recent PEN World Voices festival, is one for the ages, and I hope it will be well-anthologized.
Screw that. I have a strong suspicion that this whole theme-issue craze is a ploy to place targeted ad sales campaigns in less literary future issues of the Book Review. We're not dumb over here, editors -- please stop messing with the formula, and please try to avoid being cute.
It's also a fact that nobody thinks of the Book Review as authoritative in the literature of transgression. I would expect to see Chuck Pahlaniuk's new Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey in a "Bad For You" issue, but what do I know? The book is nowhere to be found, and the only remotely transgressive work of fiction represented is Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, which unfortunately doesn't make out very well in Susannah Meadows very witty review. Meadows considers the book a failure with saving graces. I'm reading Jamestown right now and I'll be posting my own findings soon.
Sue Halpern also serves up a fine piece on octagenarian Lore Segal's Shakespeare's Kitchen. She describes a scene in which mysterious voices of screaming victims invade and scatter a slick academic conference on genocide. With this one example, I'm convinced; I'm going to be reading this book.
I've got some more praise, and then we'll get to the hate.
Eric Ormsby's summary of The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492 edited by Peter Cole is useful and informative and tells me quite a lot I didn't know about a remarkable and original form of Judeo-Arabic fusion poetry in 10th Century Spain. Camille Paglia's able encapsulation of Jon Savage's Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture makes the book sound much more substantial and wide-ranging than I'd guessed it would be.
Now, the problems. I have no idea why Susan Casey would have been assigned to review Bigger Deal: A Year on the New Poker Circuit by Anthony Holden, since she clearly knows and cares nothing about poker. She breathlessly praises the book's core sequence in which an amateur poker player and professional writer narrates his nervous entry into the World Series of Poker. That's fine except that this is the same exact story James McManus told in his very successful and critically acclaimed Positively Fifth Street, which Anthony Holden's book seems to call rather than raise.
But Casey misses that angle, and doesn't find a better one in exchange. She jabbers about everything she can think of: television cameras, the internet, nicotine patches, casino design, but she does not tell us about a single poker hand, which is the only thing anybody who wants to read about poker will want to read about. Finally, there's no reason to include poker in a "Bad For You" issue at all, since poker is not bad for you.
And neither is Nirvana. But where Susan Casey cared too little about her subject, Benjamin Kunkel cares all too much about his. In fact, I'm guessing he's been itching to write about Nirvana, and he finally got his chance here, but this comes at the expense of poor biographer Everett True, who gets dropped off at a bus stop halfway through this article and is never heard from again.
One wonders why Kunkel didn't just write a Nirvana piece for his sometimes excellent and sometimes arch N+1 magazine and write a book review here. One also wonders why he's so eager to write this piece, since his ideas about Nirvana are about as sharp as any you'll hear around any college cafeteria in America, and no sharper. He goes on about the heavy metal and pop roots of their music, and serves up this schlock:
Nirvana's genius, you might say, was to reveal the attitude of the outcast teenager toward the popular kids as identical with that of the mature artist toward the corporate world.
Actually I think that was Goethe's genius, in Sorrows of Young Werther. And since then there was Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud and James Dean and Jack Kerouac and Neil Young and Johnny Rotten and The Breakfast Club and ... must I go on?
Kunkel also starts the article by speaking of Nirvana as an artifact of a bygone time and telling us that he doesn't listen to them anymore. I'm guessing he doesn't have kids, or he would know that our younger generations have already claimed Saint Kurt as their own, and that Nirvana's music is anything but bygone. A few of my 12-year old daughter's friends can play "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on guitar (as for my daughter, she can play "Aneurysm").
The "Bad For You" issue ends with a humor piece on the pleasure of bad books by Joe Queenan which is serviceable at best. A few pages earlier, Dave Barry shows what a real humorist can do with a page in the Book Review, introducing us to a book about email etiquette called Send by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. Joe Queenan, go to school:
A few years back, when my son was in college, he had to mail a letter. I don't remember the specific reason, but I do remember having a conversation with him in which he complained bitterly about the amount of work involved -- finding a place where he could purchase a stamp, figuring out what kind of stamp he needed, actually writing the letter, locating an envelope, putting the letter into the envelope, having to physically leave his dormitory room to mail the envelope and so on. I grew exhausted just listening to him describe this series of arduous tasks, one coming right after another. I was glad, for my son's sake, that he never had to live in a world -- as I once did -- where the only way to change channels was to walk all the way to the TV set and manually turn a knob.
Barry's positive review amounts to an incestous softball from editor Sam Tanenhaus to his Times colleague David Shipley, but who cares? It's a funny piece, and the book doesn't sound too bad.
But no more theme issues, Mr. Tanenhaus, please. Or else you're going to face the wrath of literary New York, not to mention the dreaded basements of Terre Haute.
It was a lyric I loved when I was a teenager, from a song called "Gettin' In Tune", an off-track on the Who's album Who's Next:
I'm singing this note 'cause it fits in well with the cards I'm playing ...
I understood this as songwriter Pete Townshend's admission of his own guile as a creative artist. This admission is different from the common attitude of self-consciousness, often found in meta-fictional works, in which an author pins his or her self like a butterfly on the corkboard of their prose as an ironic alternative focus of narrative awareness. You can find that stuff everywhere (Auster, Eggers, Wallace), but lately I'm more interested in meta-fiction where the author's self is not passive but active, where the writer is openly plotting to attack us (the readers) as we read.
I'm talking about the endless poker match between reader and writer. This is the game we play as we read. What is the writer holding back, what is the writer bluffing, what is the writer about to lay down? And how far will the reader ride, and when will the reader fold (as I've folded many books) and how far can the writer go before the reader will catch a fatal bluff? It's in this spirit that I loved this lyric. "I'm singing this note 'cause it fits in well with the cards I'm playing". I assumed Townshend was talking about his techniques, his "power plays" as an author, which in his case seemed to include the following: emotional vulnerability (Tommy), humor (A Quick One), bluntness (My Generation), spirituality (Pure and Easy). It thrilled me to hear the artist refer to these "cards", to admit that his process of songwriting was not only an act of sincere expression but also an act of creative, manipulative guile.
She's reading a story called "Princess Winter Spring Summer Fall", which is about her mother, her birth father, her love of symmetry, her knowledge of skin coloring and her skill at strip poker. I had to butcher the original video a bit to get it through YouTube's ten minute time limit, but you can view the full text here.
I got to know Leslie better in 2002 when we spent a year together working on the relaunch of an ambitious fine arts site. Our office was on the sixth-floor of an old Chelsea building with an endlessly broken elevator, and Leslie hated those stairs. I wish I had gotten to know her better; she was the chief designer and I was the chief techie, and we were often too busy to talk about anything but work. Here are a few things I remember:
• I won't say she was always in a good mood, but I will say she was always in a friendly mood. She was a people person, a good listener and a good talker.
• She once showed me a bunch of pictures of where she grew up, somewhere in the Appalachian mountain country. I don't remember if she was offended by the term "hillbilly" or not, but Leslie definitely came from deep country roots.
• As a web designer, she had a fabulous client list, and I always had a feeling the clients she didn't talk about were more interesting than the ones she did. I remember her talking about hanging out with Tony Hawk and Steve Burns (the original Steve from "Blue's Clues", who I later met).
• One day she came in to work raving about the movie Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. I remember her practically commanding me to go out and see it immediately. I felt guilty that I didn't and still haven't, but she raved about it so much that every time I hear of the movie I think of her.
• She was a natural onstage (as you can tell by listening to the crowd reaction in the video above). She also joined me for a post-September-11-themed poetry reading at a deserted theater in the Lower East Side in March 2002; this show had a smaller audience but she was a pleasure to listen to.
If you knew Leslie, the video above may bring back nice memories. If you didn't, I think you might enjoy her short story, "Princess Winter Spring Summer Fall".
Say what? I can go to the corner deli in Rego Park, Queens and pick up candy from Austria, organic honey from the Ukraine, oranges from Israel, vanilla beans from Madagascar and tofu from Staten Island ... yet my friendly local Barnes and Noble can't serve me up a book that was published in England? Am I going to have to wait for Words Without Borders to get around to a "Literature from the U.K." issue? Ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous.
And no, I don't want to order it from Amazon. I want to do what I do with this book what I do with most other books -- sit down in a quiet corner of the fiction section and read a few pages before I decide if I want to buy it or not. Since I usually buy paperback books (I ain't rich), I guess this means I'll be getting my first shot at buying this book sometime around 2007.
2. Did I mention that I'm not rich? I'm a damn good Texas Hold'Em player, though, and I'm going to take advantage of a poker tournament for bloggers at PokerStars.com. I think their plan is to get publicity by tempting poker freaks like me to put up their link in exchange for free entry. It worked:
I have registered to play in the Online Poker Blogger Championship!
This event is powered by PokerStars.
Maybe I'll win, and if I do I'm going to get that Banville book shipped over from faraway England. Either way, I think I'll use the opportunity to remind you why I believe poker is a writer's game. (Note: thanks to Large Vibrating Egg for spreading the news about this tournament).
3. Since I'm feeling lucky, do you think I should enter the LitKicks anthology Action Poetry for the Blooker Prize? This is a new award for the best book published from online content. I am quite sure Action Poetry fits that description, so I'm planning to enter it, and if we don't win I'm going to be very mad.
4. Supposedly the Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded tomorrow. I'm not rooting for anybody in particular, but I would like to see the Chicago White Sox win the World Series.
Thanks to all of of you who responded to last week's post about how Literature's Final Table would play out. After careful study, I have prepared the following summary which I believe represents the most likely outcome. I was glad to see that many of you came to the same conclusions I did about these "characters", and I was also interested when some of you came to different conclusions. I stand by this account:
Herman Melville's Captain Ahab is not cut out for the game of poker. He's permanently on tilt, which makes him a fish (if you'll pardon the pun). Personal vendettas and revenge fantasies don't mesh well with no-limit poker games, and Ahab's poker defeat will be simple and quick. He'll probably ride his first two pair all the way up against anything, even against an obvious straight or flush or full house, just to prove how tough he is. He won't feel very tough as he's knocked off the table, the first player removed.