Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Colson Whitehead's Gloomy Game

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 06:48 pm

I was nothing but psyched when I heard that postmodern novelist Colson Whitehead was writing a book about poker. Sure sounded like a great idea to me.

Whitehead is a clever, acidic satirist with a gift for inventive situations and touching emotional connections. Can he write? Absolutely -- novels like The Intuitionist and Apex Hides the Hurt have proven this. But can he write about poker? His new book The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death has some big problems (and, no, I'm not going to refer to the book as a "bad beat" or a "dead hand" so please stop expecting the obvious puns).

Wilderness, 1864

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 5, 2014 10:45 am

Exactly 150 years today, the most grueling and relentless eight days of the Civil War in the United States of America began. These are the opening days of the Overland Campaign, in which two armies rampaged south through north-central Virginia in their final race towards Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy. They stopped frequently along the way to try to kill each other.

The Overland Campaign was recently featured in the TV series House of Cards. The crooked politician played by Kevin Spacey visits a newly dedicated (and fictional) battlefield park dedicated to the Overland Campaign, and meets a reenactor costumed as his own doomed Rebel ancestor. In real life, the park is known as the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield, and despite the House of Cards fabrication, it's not dedicated just to the Overland Campaign: there were so many fights in this region that Wilderness and Spotsylvania have to share space with Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where major battles were fought in 1862 and 1963.

Those were also critical and immense conflagrations, but Civil War experts know the Overland Campaign was the greatest match of them all, because it was in these battles -- Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor -- that General Ulysses S. Grant faced General Robert E. Lee directly for the first time. This was the big one, the championship between the two top teams. This was the Finals, and it was a hell of a fight.

Philosophy Weekend: Ubuntu, Ubuntu, Ubuntu

by Levi Asher on Sunday, December 15, 2013 11:19 am

Thanks to Nelson Mandela, I have a new favorite word. I'm serious about this; I like this word a lot.

I've known about "Ubuntu" for years, but I always thought it was a distribution of the Linux open source operating system. I've installed and used Ubuntu Linux often. But I've just now learned that the Ubuntu distro was created as a spinoff of Debian Linux in 2004 by a South African entrepreneur named Mark Shuttleworth who knew of "ubuntu" as a familiar term in the Ngugi Bantu and Swahili family of languages. The term denotes a communitarian social philosophy that is certainly relevant to the communitarian technology philosophy of open source. Amazingly, the Ubuntu Linux organization even persuaded Nelson Mandela to speak about the meaning of the word in a promotional video for the free and sharable operating system.

I ran into the word while reading about Nelson Mandela, but apparently the word is more commonly associated with Mandela's fellow activist Bishop Desmond Tutu, who has described it thus:

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

2012: My Scattered Year in Reading

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, December 25, 2012 09:48 pm

I'm too lazy to try to put together a coherent "best books of 2012" list on Literary Kicks, though I'm happy to point you to some other good lists. "A Year in Reading" at the Millions overflows with contributions from smart folks like Kate Zambreno, Scott Esposito, Alexander Chee and Ellen Ullman. Elsewhere, Michele Filgate gathers literary reveries over at the Salon What To Read Awards, and here are Ed Champion's faves and Largehearted Boy's monumental list of lists. Finally, plodding earnestly along behind its paywall, here's the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2012, which includes 5 novels and 5 works of non-fiction.

Me, I read more non-fiction -- philosophy, history, politics -- than fiction this year, and I can only think of a few novels that impressed me in 2012. Kino by Jurgen Fauth was a refreshing, tantalizing comedy about art cinema obsessions. The World Without You by Joshua Henkin brought a real family to life. Laurent Binet's HHhH seemed to be an acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about World War II, wrapped like a KFC Double Down inside another acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about itself. (I'm not sure if I just made that sound good, but I really liked the book).


by Levi Asher on Monday, February 20, 2012 10:17 pm

1. A favorite baseball player of mine died last week.

2. Here's a fun literary site that's been making the rounds: police sketches based on descriptions of fictional characters, by Brian Joseph Davis. I'm particularly impressed by his Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert, but I sense subconscious influence in the Daisy Buchanan: this sketch does not have the requisite bright ecstatic smile, and looks exactly like Mia Farrow in the movie.

3. Katy Perry says her song Firework was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I still don't like the song but this helps a little.

Fictional Glances

by Levi Asher on Monday, September 12, 2011 09:18 pm

1. Ann Beattie's new novel is Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, an exploration, in Beattie's signature glancing style, into the mind and voice of Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon's first lady. A few fragments have been published in the New Yorker. Mrs. Nixon is likely to be compared to Curtis Sittenfeld's similar projection a few years ago into the soul of Laura Bush.

2. I don't know what to do with Nicholson Baker's new metaphysical sex romp, House of Holes, which apparently shows off the great author's infamous "randy side" yet again. I absolutely love Nicholson Baker's work, except when he writes about love or sex. I wasn't too impressed by Room Temperature or Vox, and quit The Fermata after a few pages. House of Holes appears to take Baker's obsessions with bodily humor to a new level, and I could find nothing to like in the first few pages. Does this mean I'm a prude? I don't think so; I'm simply turned off by the obsessive anality, by the intense delight Baker seems to take in the awkwardness and repulsiveness of physical intimacy. This is a concept of sexuality that I just don't relate to at all. Baker reminds me of a guy I once worked with who became a father for the first time. Whenever anybody in the office asked about the baby, this guy only wanted to talk about the experience of doing diapers. He began obsessively using the word "poopy" around the office. "How's the baby?" someone would ask. "Poopy!" he would exclaim. It finally dawned on me that this guy had been wishing his entire life for a situation in which he was allowed to say the word "poopy" in mixed company, and becoming a father had finally placed him in this situation. Well, that's fine for him, but his concept of fatherhood could not have been further from my own. Likewise, Nicholson Baker's concept of sexuality could not be further from my own. I still consider Baker one of the most wonderful writers of our time, without a doubt (start with The Mezzanine, if you haven't started yet). I don't even mind that he writes books like House of Holes every few years. But it's sad to think that he might lose some potential readers who pick up House of Holes or The Fermata, put it down, and never discover how good Nicholson Baker can be.

Baseball: The Great American Literary Sport

by Alan Bisbort on Tuesday, June 15, 2010 09:14 am

(Yeah, we know that everybody's talking about the Football World Cup and the Celtics/Lakers NBA Finals right now. Well, here at Litkicks we've never cared what anybody else was talking about, and baseball remains the greatest American literary sport. Here's an extensive roundup of the classic legacy by Alan Bisbort, author of Beatniks: A Guide To An American Subculture, who last played the game competitively when he was 14. Enjoy! -- Levi)

Baseball is the cruelest sport. How else to explain its tug upon the heartstrings and psyches of so many good writers?

Other sports, of course, have attracted their own forest-leveling share of books and even a few classics. Football, for example, spawned Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz (which, for some reason, is better upon rereading), Run to Daylight by Coach Vince Lombardi, I Am Third by Gale Sayers and Paper Lion by George Plimpton. Basketball has A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee (about a young Bill Bradley) and more recently To Hate Like This Is to be Happy Forever by Will Blythe, about the rivalry between Duke and UNC men’s college basketball teams. Boxing has its own cottage writing industry, of course; Norman Mailer and A.J. Liebling being the heavyweight chroniclers of the “sweet science” (I never understood that nickname), while Nick Tosches’ Sonny Liston biography and Thom Jones’ collections of short stories, Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine and A Pugilist at Rest, at least deserving of a title shot. Soccer, known as football everywhere else, has spawned Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford (though this wasn’t so much about the sport as it was about the “hooligans” whose sociopathic off-field behavior recalls Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. David Foster Wallace writes about tennis in Infinite Jest, and some consider Andre Agassi's intense autobiography Open to be a future classic. Fishing has hauled in some whoppers, too -- Trout Fishing In America, A River Runs Through it, The Old Man and the Sea, Far Tortuga -- but this is only if you count fishing as a sport.

Reviewing the Review: May 23 2010

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 22, 2010 10:49 pm

As the newspaper business shrinks, the hazard of insularity increases. Three weeks ago the New York Times Book Review put Christopher Buckley's rave review of the roman a clef The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman of the International Herald Tribune on the cover, ignoring the fact that 99% of the NYTBR's readers have no need for a winking tell-all about newspaper office shenanigans. The "Up Front" column in today's Book Review features Lloyd Grove of the New York Daily News sharing gossip about Rupert Murdoch, subject of War at the Wall Street Journal by Sarah Ellison. One wonders if this type of thing might be better handled by internal email.

But a broader insularity emerges when Graydon Carter (yawn) reviews The Pregnant Widow (yawn) by Martin Amis (yawn) on this week's front cover (yawn). Sex jokes and alcohol jokes abound. Replace the name "Martin Amis" with "Christopher Hitchens" and you've got a ready-made review of Hitch-22, which will surely be lauded as a major work on the cover of the New York Times Book Review very soon (yawn). Here goes the shoveling:

Amis is one of the true original voices to come along in the last 40 years. The fizzy, smart linguistic fireworks, with their signature italicisms, riffs on the language and stunningly clever, off-center metaphors are certainly evident in "The Pregnant Widow".

Reviewing the Review: February 28 2010

by Levi Asher on Sunday, February 28, 2010 10:48 am

I've spent this weekend reading David Shields' exciting Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a book that urges us to reject the notion that fiction is artistically or philosophically superior to nonfiction. This impressive book is empowering me to accept and embrace for the first time the dread and boredom I have always felt when I pick up a new issue of the New York Times Book Review and see a bunch of articles about novels and short story collections I've never heard of and have no clear use for.

Olympic Thoughts

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 17, 2010 09:19 am

1. In honor of the Knack's lead singer Doug Fieger, who passed away on Valentines Day, here's Sherman Alexie's tribute to "My Sharona". It was a pretty good song, and the best use of an octave in a riff since Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze".

2. I'm enjoying watching the Vancouver Winter Olympics on TV, but I often sense something basically unwholesome about the amount of buildup and tension that underlies this approach to competition. How is it good for an athlete to train for four years to lead up to a performance that lasts, in many cases, less than a minute? This leads to an emphasis on perfection, a dreadful and unnatural fear of error. This doesn't strike me as a mentally and emotionally healthy approach to sport, and I hate to see the look of shame that follows an excellent achievement marred by a single mistake. Personally, I prefer a more organic, holistic attitude towards competition. Maybe that's why baseball is still my favorite spectator sport. With 162 games a year and three hours per game, we get to know and appreciate the whole athlete, mistakes and quirks and all. Perfection, in my opinion, is rarely worth pursuing. That's what I think.


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