Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations



by Levi Asher on Thursday, June 5, 2008 09:22 pm

1. It's an honor to review the first posthumous Kurt Vonnegut book (and, in a way, the final note in his career) at The Quarterly Conversation.

2. Another good piece in this issue: Richard Grayson on his experience publishing his own book. My own experiences with print-on-demand indie publishing have been about equally mixed. It's a hell of a way to try to make a living.

3. More in this vein: Richard Nash muses on the plight of modern publishing.

4. So does Chad Post.

5. And we all know what's the real future of publishing: it comes in a flavor called TCP-IP. I'm not in the habit of reading Vanity Fair magazine, but this is a good piece, an extensive oral history of the birth and nurturing of the public internet, featuring early players like Vint Cerf, Bob Metcalfe and Marc Andreessen, put together by Keenan Mayo and Peter Newcomb.

6. Congrats to Elizabeth Wurtzel for getting a law degree! Though I have to correct Gawker -- she's not a lawyer till she passes the bar. Ask JFK Jr (sorry).

7. Will Harry, Revised become a movie? Mark Sarvas says there's interest. Somebody's speed-dialing Matthew Broderick as we speak.

8. In exactly one month ... Caryn and I are getting married.


by Levi Asher on Friday, May 30, 2008 05:21 pm

Now that's teamwork. Google is indexing LitKicks again, after John Honeck and a few other experts pitched in with helpful advice. It turns out the reason I couldn't see the spam links is that they were programmed to appear only in response to page requests from Google or other major search engines. The secret was to look at a cached LitKicks page from another search engine, which clearly showed the spam. Thanks also to Google for quickly restoring the site once the problem was solved.

As to how the spam device got there in the first place, it turns out to have been embedded in the WordPress theme I'd used to create the latest version of the site. The theme is called "Royaline", and anybody else who uses this theme will probably eventually run into the same problem I had. I posted about this on a WordPress forum.

It's a discouraging fact that prescription drug spammers would so carelessly violate the trust of the open source community. But it's equally encouraging that I asked for help with this problem and so quickly got what I needed. Good work, people.


by Levi Asher on Wednesday, May 28, 2008 10:24 pm

1. A month ago some illegal prescription drug spammers managed to temporarily display their links on a Litkicks page, resulting in the entire site being temporarily banned from Google. I've been attempting to communicate with Google about this for a month now, but all they will do is "accept my reconsideration requests". I have not received a response from them yet.

I know Google is under no obligation to index, but the search engine has been happily sharing my content since the day it went online, and I wish the company treated its longtime sites with more respect. I don't mean to be all uppity about how great my website is, but the fact is Literary Kicks goes way back. Readers care about this content, and this content belongs on Google.

If anybody out there has any suggestions for how I can get this problem solved more quickly, please email me or post a comment. Thanks.

2. Unlike apparently everybody else, I don't give a damn about the new James Bond novel by Sebastian Faulk as John Banville as Benjamin Black as Ian Fleming. And I already have a Matchbox car.

3. I also don't give a damn about Borders' new Magic Shelf. Just put a good book on a shelf and I'll call that magic.

Backseat Driving: March 2008

by Levi Asher on Monday, March 31, 2008 02:08 am

1. Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, which has already been made into a good Paul Newman movie, is being performed onstage before a hometown crowd at Portland Center Stage in Oregon. I wish I could catch it, and if it travels to New York I certainly will catch it.

There's also word that director Gus Van Sant is making progress on his film version of the Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a classic non-fiction text that describes the mid-1960s cosmic collision between Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurty, the Grateful Dead and a big bus. I think this ought to be an outrageously good movie, but I hope Gus Van Sant will do a better job with it than he did with Tom Robbins' hippie-era classic novel Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. That movie had it's moments (Uma Thurman dancing with her thumbs), but the ultra-stylized visual treatment and wooden acting made it boring to watch. My two favorite Gus Van Sant films were two of his quietest and most naturalistic: the haunting Elephant and the bleak, blank Last Days. I think an overly stylized or stagy treatment (a la Cowgirls) would hurt Tom Wolfe's classic narrative, a narrative about a moment when truth was truly stranger than fiction. I think this film is in good hands, but I hope Van Sant will let the great story speak for itself.

2. Last week I praised the new HBO series John Adams, and I still feel that way, though in this week's episode I really wasn't trying to see John Adams getting busy in a Braintree bedroom. I wasn't trying to see Paul Giamatti getting busy in a Braintree bedroom either.

3. Mike Palacek is another patriot.

4. Happy birthday The Millions!

5. Regarding another Penguin project, what does the technology add?

6. I love a writer who'll speak up for himself. Novelist James Morrow doesn't agree with New York Times Book Review critic Siddhartha Deb's comments about his the Philosopher's Apprentice, and invites you to sample the novel on his website. I urge you to do so.

Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

by Levi Asher on Monday, March 10, 2008 01:01 pm

Fiction and non-fiction writer Nicholson Baker, whose wide-ranging, exploratory intellect towers over most of his peers in both fields, has just written the most controversial book of his career, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Since Baker's career already includes industry-changing attacks on the destructive practices of library archivists, a novel about phone sex that figured in the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, a novel about a frustrated American who very badly wanted to assassinate President George W. Bush, an intentionally goofy study of John Updike that breaks every rule of serious literary criticism, and a charming debut novel about a man riding an escalator in his office building, this makes Human Smoke very controversial indeed.

Baker's thick book, a chronological log of historical snippets ending in 1941, attacks our cherished myths about World War II as a "good war", and presents much evidence that this war's most incredible horrors could have been avoided if America and Great Britain had not chosen to take advantage of Nazi Germany's foolish military strategy by turning Hitler's inevitable defeat into their own plan for economic and military domination of Western Europe and the Pacific Rim.

Human Smoke is not a fun book. It could not be further from the pleasures of The Mezzanine or the sweet Room Temparature. I hope the critical discussion that follows will be an intelligent one. So far, Commentary doesn't think much of the book, but Mark Kurlansky in the L. A. Times considers it important.

I was glad to have the opportunity to discuss Human Smoke in a roundtable organized by Ed Champion for his Filthy Habits blog. The first of five installments is now up, and you can read my first impressions as well as those of others here.

I hope the myth-shattering aspects of this book -- Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt come off very badly, for instance -- do not distract readers from Baker's more positive suggestion that the much-mocked philosophy of pacifism, as embodied by Mahatma Gandhi and many other hardworking activists of the pre-World-War-II era, may still offer the world hope for its future.

I agree with this message, and I am very impressed with Nicholson Baker's bravery in writing this unusual book.

* * * * *

A couple of other notes. The talented blogger Maud Newton's site has been unconscionably hacked by pharmaceutical spammers, and all her posts deleted. Fortunately, she was able to restore everything, but relying on a hosting service's backup tapes to preserve a site of this stature is too close for comfort. I'd like to urge all bloggers to practice self-reliance: create your own backup CDs or DVDs of your SQL databases, preferably using the simple "mysqldump" utility or any other form of SQL backup. A hosting service's backup facility is not usually guaranteed in a hosting contract's terms of service, and even if it were, the hosting service can only be held financially responsible for the cost of the service, not the (often much greater) value of the content. Bloggers: backup thyselves.

What with the inhuman horrors of World War II and the aggravating injustice of spammers deleting valuable content, I find some meaning in this very short movie, "Dimwit Daryl Meets Vexed Volcano", by my younger daughter Abby, who has just discovered that she can create her own animated GIFs. Like the vagaries of life itself, this animation loops forever.


by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 27, 2008 10:58 pm

1. Random House, trying something new, is giving away free PDF copies of Charles Bock's acclaimed novel Beautiful Children. Like every other blogger who has talked about this, I think Random House is doing a very good thing (The Millions blog even asked them to explain why they're doing it). Bud Parr says the future is here. This latest e-book experiment brings us closer than the Kindle does, at least.

Okay, but what about the book itself? Jeff Bryant loves it, but I'm standing here waiting for it to grab me, and I'm just not grabbed. My first impressions weren't good, not because the book has been over-hyped but because the "Dirty Vegas" setting feels to me like a cliche. I had the same problem, unfortunately, with another clearly worthy and well-written new novel, The Delivery Man by Joe McGinniss Jr. I guess you could say that James McManus' Positively Fifth Street filled me with enough "Dirty Vegas" to last a decade. Opening the new PDF, Bock's heavy, mannered narrative just doesn't pull me in:

They chatter and jibe, passing pitchers of soda, reaching for slices with favorite toppings. Chins shine with grease.

It's hard to say what makes us like or not like a book. I guess I don't enjoy reading about people who can't eat pizza without making a mess.

2. The vibrant Carolyn Kellogg will be covering literary Los Angeles at the L.A. Times' blog, Jacket Copy.

3. Okay, so sometimes I'm wrong. And when I'm wrong, I'll admit it. I said that literary commentators shouldn't underestimate the Quill awards, which celebrated the book business with a more populist/commercial sensibility than the National Book Awards. I still say the Quills could have grown into a success in a few years, and I liked the idea of a higher-profile and less "literary" books award, but founding sponsor Reed Business Information is being sold by parent company Reed Elsevier, and that's the end of the Quills. Now I feel stupid for watching that entire terrible telecast last year. Hey, I once went to a USFL game too.

4. Do critics damn Chinua Achebe with faint praise?

5. Garfield minus Garfield is your daily dose of Dada.

6. It's not getting as much attention as the Beautiful Children giveaway, but Random House is also moving beyond DRM for audiobooks. Good moves.

7. I wish I could go to this, but I'm already going to this.

8. I don't share much of a world view with Mr. "God And Man At Yale", but, what the hell, farewell to William F. Buckley.

9. I've got the new Nicholson Baker book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, and I'm very excited about this fact.

Dancing With Benny Lava

by Levi Asher on Monday, February 18, 2008 10:30 am

1. Filthy Habits, Ed Champion's new website, seems like the kind of place that'll allow a writer to stretch. Here's my first contribution there, an attempt at punditry titled The Politics of Boasting.

2. McSweeneys presents: Famous Authors Predict the Winner of Super Bowl XLII.

3. A useful in-depth conversation on the business of literary translation has been going on between Three Percent, Words Without Borders and The Center for Literary Translation.

4. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, this music video shows what happens when totally unqualified people have too much fun with translation. But the translators can't even be having as much fun here as these great dancers.

5. If they can make a movie about Larry Flynt, they can make a movie about William M. Gaines, the brave publisher of Mad Magazine. I'll go see it.

6. Here's a book that doesn't get talked about nearly enough these days: The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. When I was a philosophy student at college, one professor assigned this and two other Freud books (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious and the memorable Civilization and its Discontents) for a course on Philosophy of Mind. I found it ironic that I was reading primary texts from the founder of psychology that no psychology student in my school would be required to read. Sigmund Freud should be read more often. Like William James, he is a dynamic and agreeably brisk writer, his books filled with sharp and highly personal observations. Maybe I'll take a cue from Bookslut and try to discuss some of Freud's books here on LitKicks soon.

7. I'm not completely clear on what this online community project Open Library will do that makes it distinct from Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg. But hey, I've missed the boat before, so who knows? The involvement of folks like Brewster Kahle makes this literary-minded open source development worth watching.

8. More literary moments on YouTube, courtesy of Kenyon Review.

9. Do you understand?

10. Check out Unquiet Desparation, a community poetry outfit that periodically publishes its work in PDF format (download latest issue here). I'm not sure what long-term value the PDF format holds for online literature, but it's another way of getting the work out there, and the design possibilities speak for themselves.

11. I couldn't make it to the O'Reilly Tools of Change Conference last week in New York, but here are Kassia Krozser's parting thoughts.

12. I often wonder why we literary bloggers so rarely critique film adaptations of novels we like. Too easy a target? Maybe. This person's response to Atonement lays out (more clearly than I did) what the film subtly lost from Ian McEwan's novel even as it retained most of the details and major plot points. On the optimistic side, I've just enjoyed another recently released literary British film very, very much, and I'll be sharing my excitement about this film in these pages soon.

Ten Links

by Jamelah Earle on Friday, February 15, 2008 01:05 am

-- The first-ever recording of Allen Ginsberg's Howl discovered in Oregon.

-- Prizewinning author Zadie Smith attacks literary prizes. Yeah.

-- More Harry Potter in the future? Maybe.

-- A review of a Nabokov biography. Woot.

-- There's soon to be a new eBook publisher out there. It's currently in beta.

-- In related news, er, opinion, eBooks will never be our friends.

-- Shot through the heart and you're to blame, this Jeffrey Eugenides-edited short story collection gives love a bad name. (Look, if I ever get a chance to quote Bon Jovi, I'm taking it.)

-- When everyone's an author: creative writing classes are hip.

-- Reading culture on the rise in Cambodia.

-- Movies based on books are staying truer to source material. Students everywhere who watch the movie the night before class rejoice

Mysterious Strangers

by Levi Asher on Thursday, January 24, 2008 11:12 am

1. When a friend pointed me to The Mysterious Stranger, I could make no sense of what appeared to be an odd piece of animated YouTube weirdness involving Mark Twain and Satan in a "Davey and Goliath" version of "The Devil Went Down To Hannibal" ... until a trip to Wikipedia cleared things up. The Mysterious Stranger is based on a unfinished story Mark Twain worked on for twenty years, and the story catches Twain in an uncharacteristically stark, allegorical (and perhaps even Kafkaesque) mode. Now that I understand the background to this animated short film, I'm rather impressed by it.

2. I just attended the New York City reading debut of Mark Sarvas's upcoming novel Harry, Revised at Jami Attenberg's Boxcar Reading with Michael Dahlie, Lynn Lurie and Ceridwen Dovey. Harry, Revised is about a young widower embarking on an apparent search for self, and I cannot help imagining that there must be a lot of Mark Sarvas in the character of Harry, who (in the chapter Mark read last night) attempts to anchor his self-image by purchasing a French literary classic.

One special thing about Harry, Revised is that readers of Mark's Elegant Variation blog have been able to watch and enjoy its process of creation, and this is certainly a unique and effective way to build up anticipation for an upcoming book release. Harry, Revised hits the stores in April.

3. Earlier in the evening, before the Boxcar reading, Ed Champion and I formed an electronic mob to crash Against the Machine author Lee Siegel's conversation with John Freeman at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Soho (though we were well-behaved and unfortunately had to leave after only 20 minutes to get to the Boxcar in time). Lee Siegel's new book aims to be a rabble-rousing cry of protest against the looming evils of internet culture, though many of us who dwell happily online won't let Lee forget that he only began to develop this hatred of the internet after getting caught in a buffoonish attempt at dominating it.

Lee Siegel has had an acclaimed career as a pugnacious cultural critic (though the above-mentioned "sprezzatura" incident didn't help his reputation), but my encounters with his writing in the New York Times Book Review have revealed an ambitious but intellectually careless writer. He reinforced this impression last night with wild statements like "the internet is 80% porn". Siegel seems to lack the restraint and sense of balance that any cultural critic ought to have. He'll probably sell a lot of copies of Against the Machine -- blunt rhetoric does sell -- but I feel sorry for anyone who wastes their time reading it.

4. "A New Cultural Revolution" may not be the best title for this encouraging survey of the state of popular literature in China, since the actual phrase "Cultural Revolution" was used as a guise for Mao Zedong's brutal crackdown on personal, social and artistic freedom in the 1960s and 70s. But this is an important article, and I'd love to learn more about China's vast book industry.

5. I don't love being greeted with a plea for my email address, but I like everything else about, a public repository of government documents relevant to current political issues. The new exhibit "Iraq: The War Card" offers a simple and effective search engine documenting the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq.

6. Action Poets -- thanks for your patience with the new software, which is (obviously) still in beta. Coming soon: monthly archives, a better response system, other stuff. It's also a little slow, and I can fix that too (my MO as a software developer, as you may have noticed, has always been "launch first, fix later"). Hang in there, everybody ... and it's good to see old friends popping back in.

Did Steve Jobs Just Say This?

by Levi Asher on Thursday, January 17, 2008 12:26 pm

Consider my mind boggled. Here's a quote, published in the Bits Blog (Business, Information, Technology, Science) at the New York Times, referring to Amazon's Kindle e-book device:

"It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore," he said. "Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."

Wow. I am generally fond of Steve Jobs and his skinny laptops and ever-morphing iPods, but he is way off here. I am confused how Steve must spend his time and I guess he must live a sheltered life, because I see people around me reading all the time. All you have to do is sit on a subway or train and observe the numerous book-absorbed minds around you to know that Steve Jobs is wrong. Oh, there's also the fact that publishers rack up about 35 billion dollars in book sales each year, roughly as much as the music business or the film business.

I think Steve Jobs is a smart guy, but he sure missed this call.


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