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).

This book began as a magazine article, and maybe should have stayed that way. Whitehead was sent to Las Vegas by Grantland to play in the World Series of Poker, and The Noble Hustle describes his emotional state (troubled) and his confidence problems (severe) as he prepares for this showdown by playing at the Trop in Atlantic City, reading up on the classic poker texts, even obtaining an official poker coach. These preparatory sections of the book show off Whitehead's literary dexterity, and are occasionally dazzling. The further away from poker he gets, the better he writes, as when he soaks up the sensations of an Atlantic City bus ride that turns out to be less seedy than he expects:

The other passengers queued up for AC were exfoliated and fit, heading down for Memorial Day fun, not the disreputable lot of Port Authority legend. Their weekend bags gave no indication that they contained their owners' sole possessions. Where have all the molesters gone, the weenie waggles and chicken hawks? Whither the diddlers? The only shabby element I registered was the signage at the Greyhound and Peter Pan counters, still showcasing the dependable logos remembered from the bad trips of yore. Returning from a botched assignment or misguided attempt to reconnect with an old friend. Rumbling and put-putting to a scary relative's house in bleak winter as you peered into the gray mist through green, trapezoid windows. Greyhounds were raised in deplorable puppy mills and drugged up for the racetrack, I think I read somewhere, and Peter Pan used to enter kids' bedrooms and entice them, so perhaps there is a core aspect to the bus industry that defies rebranding.

Okay, so Colson Whitehead can write about buses. But, again, can he write about poker? Something goes wrong in this book whenever he tries, as when he presents an extended explanation of the familiar ranking of poker hands, constructed entirely of pop-culture metaphors:

Next comes two pair. You have one pair of thermal socks. Ready to throw down with Old Man Winter, "To Build A Fire"-style. Robotron over there has one pair of Miles Davis CDs and one pair of coupons for free Jazzercise lessons. He wins: two pair beats having one pair. Now let's say you also have a pair of 'Golden Girls' box sets so that you both have two pair. The highest value pair determines who wins. In this case, Miles Davis takes it for Robotron.

I really hope for the sake of Colson Whitehead's readers that nobody ever sits down at a real poker table with this as a guide, because this is not a helpful explanation of poker hand rankings. It may be funny, but it clears up absolutely nothing, and there is not a single human being anywhere in the world who can't already understand what "two pair" means and would benefit from the help of a metaphor involving Miles Davis, 'Golden Girls' and Jazzercise. Two pair is two pair. Two pair beats one pair. Higher two pair beats lower two pair. These concepts are innate. I taught my own kids how to play poker from a very young age, and I have seen for myself how easily a new brain can assimilate and immediately begin to employ notions like "one pair" and "two pair". Metaphors are simply not useful here.

Why would a very good writer like Colson Whitehead lose his firm sense of direction on a project like this? I have a theory, and it has to do with the familiar literary problem known as the anxiety of influence. Whitehead is a compulsively original writer -- this is much of the appeal of his books -- and I suspect that he can't face up to the horrible fact that in taking this assignment from Grantland he is totally copying the now legendary James McManus, who was also sent by a magazine to play in the World Series of Poker, and ended up playing extremely well and writing a wonderful book about the experience, Positively Fifth Street.

Whitehead acknowledges James McManus in this book, and is clearly aware of the problem that, even if he reaches the final table, he'll be following in McManus's footsteps. There may also be other literary reasons for the author's apparent ambivalence. Whitehead's entire anguished persona as a writer would be incongruous with winning the World Series of Poker. It would be like Charlie Brown kicking the football. If this happened, what would happen to his career as a dark and self-mocking author?

I believe this structural ambivalence doomed this entire project from the outset, because through all of Whitehead's frantic preparations and worries about the World Series of Poker in this book there is a strange lingering sense that the author is focused on everything but winning. He is clearly a writer first and a poker player second, and as a writer he knows that "literary amateur reaches final table" has already been done.

The fact that Whitehead is not dying to win as he narrates his key hands renders him a very poor poker writer. (I speak of "poker writer" as a distinct type because I am a very enthusiastic Hold 'Em player myself, and I read a lot about poker, and also write a lot about poker.) One example of a really good poker book is Gus Hansen's Every Hand Revealed, a fascinating stream of consciousness by a great player in a tournament. Gus Hansen does win in this book, and it's a gripping book to read precisely because he so badly wants to win.

The Noble Hustle proceeds as a panorama of human anxiety, a comic portrait of a person who isn't really in the right mood to play a poker tournament and who plays and quickly loses. The only time Whitehead really finds his poker-writing mojo is in the final sequence, when he crashes out of the World Series of Poker on the second day (a fairly lame showing, though at least he made it past the first day). One senses in these moments that, finally, the author is engaged and really trying hard to stay alive. Perhaps he is engaged here because, even though he still doesn't want to copy James McManus and make it to the final table, he also realizes that it would be embarrassing to leave the tournament too early, which is what he's about to do.

The best poker writing in The Noble Hustle takes place in these final pages, as Whitehead's blinds dwindle away and he carefully selects his fatal last chance. Apart from these few gripping poker scenes at the end, this is still a pretty good Colson Whitehead book. It's gritty and psychologically deft and propulsive, and Whitehead is always a clever and entertaining guy to be around. It's a good Colson Whitehead book, but it's just not a good poker book. I'm not going to end this article with a poker pun, so stop waiting for it.


This is a good Colson Whitehead book, but it's not a good poker book.

view /NobleHustle
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 06:48 pm
The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead
Levi Asher

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.

All the great battles leading up to the sprint of 1864 were the preliminaries, kind of like the first and second round NBA and NHL playoffs that are running on television this week. By May of 1864, the preliminaries were over and the competing champions had emerged. Union General Grant was the leader of the western conference, having taken out Pemberton at Vicksburg. Confederate General Lee was the leader of the eastern conference, a superstar and already a legendary winner despite a bruising close call against Meade at Gettysburg. Now, the two great generals were pitted directly against each other. Both would bring everything to the field.

The Wilderness was fought in brush and forest, as Grant attempted to advance towards Richmond and Lee attempted to turn him back. Two days of fierce fighting left thousands of wounded soldiers burning to death after the woods caught fire. The balance of this first confrontation went to Lee, but Grant's most brilliant innovation was to refuse to shrink away in the shame of defeat. Instead, having distracted Lee with the taste of temporary victory, he simply ordered his Union army to gather its shattered resources and sneak past the burning battlefields to move closer to Richmond, thus anticipating a lyric that Civil War buff Bob Dylan would later write: he won the war after losing every battle.

The unhinged violence in the Wilderness would soon be overshadowed by an amazing 22-hour clash at the so-called Bloody Angle in Spotsylvania. This would be the longest unrelenting standoff at a single location in the entire Civil War. The 22-hour stalemate would finally collapse on the morning of May 13, and by this point the shape of Grant's final victory began to make itself clear. Lee would not be able to break or frighten or even discourage Grant, though he would never stop trying.

To take the NBA playoffs metaphor further: the Civil War would go on nearly another year after the stalemates at Wilderness and Spotsylvania, but the game really ended with the Overland Campaign. The final year would resemble the last 90 seconds on the clock in a basketball championship game in which the losing team knows it has no chance but keeps desperately fouling and calling timeouts so that the last 90 seconds lasts a half hour. Lee made it last a year.

This weekend I attended a 150th anniversary reenactment of the opening battle of the Wilderness, the meeting on Saunders Field, at Spotsylvania Court House. Here are some pictures I took. First, a cavalry gathering before the event begins:

Scenes from the battle:

I spotted Robert E. Lee, quiet and keeping to himself as always, at an observation post with a few Texans.

Since I'm obviously a Civil War buff, some people ask me if I ever wanted to be a Civil War reenactor myself. Well, I sometimes wish I had the free time, and I would certainly join a Brooklyn regiment if I could -- but I really don't have the time, and actually what I really would love to do is play banjo or guitar with a Civil War reenactor's band:

Indeed, period music is one of the things I enjoy most about Civil War reenactments. I also had a chance to visit the dulcimer tent this weekend:

All of this took place at a public field in Spotsylvania, not at the Wilderness battlefield itself. Being in a vast open field made it a bit hard to visualize the thick brush and forest of the actual Wilderness battlefield. Luckily, I also got a chance this weekend to tour some of the actual spots, which were a few miles away.

Here's a shot I took earlier in the day at Saunders Field during a smaller National Park Service history walk. This is the break in the forest overlooking a small swale and gully. This is where it really went down in the early afternoon of May 5, 1864, 150 years ago today.


Exactly 150 years today, the most grueling and relentless ten 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 a race to Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy. They stopped frequently along the way to try to kill each other.

view /Wilderness
Monday, May 5, 2014 10:45 am
Reenactment of Wilderness battle, 2014
Levi Asher

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.

The term describes a scientific psychological understanding as well as an ethical principle, as in this helpful explanation by African historian Michael Onyebuchi Eze:

A person is a person through other people strikes an affirmation of one's humanity through recognition of an 'other' in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the 'other' becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The 'I am' is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance

"Humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me". That says a hell of a lot. In fact, it says a hell of a lot that I have been struggling to say in previous Philosophy Weekend articles, particularly in blog posts like The Collective Self, The Ayn Rand Principle and the Two Senses of Self and Groupthink, Group Mind.

I have been at times nearly obsessed with this idea, and have had many fascinating comment-section debates with Litkicks readers about it -- particularly as I've introduced and emphasized the concept of the natural "group self" to combat the increasingly popular but sadly isolating ultra-individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand in my short book Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters).

Struggling to find the words to express the psychological idea that the human sense of self is intrinsically collectivist as well as the ethical idea that we can live happier and more peaceful lives once we let go of the mistaken and naive belief that the human soul is fully encapsulated in an isolated self, I have evoked a variety of wise thinkers from Buddha to Carl Jung. But I did not know that there was a Southern African tradition I could appeal to as well.

I have previously employed the word "group self" to describe the concept of a human soul that is intrinsically social and naturally inclined to be generous with all fellow human souls. I did not know that I could have used a better word that many of my readers may have been already familiar with. "Ubuntu". Simple as that.

I love learning new words. Sometimes, as when I ran into Jacques Derrida's term "differance" earlier this year, the discovery of a previously unknown word helped me to discover a new way to think. It's very cool when this happens.

But "ubuntu" strikes me differently. This seems to express an exact thing I have already been struggling to express, but without realizing that a word for it existed. I now wish I could reopen all my past debates about the "group self" (especially this mammoth debate from March 2012, which I still remember with a big smile) and replace all instances of the term "group self" with "ubuntu".

Maybe with this ammunition my vigorous opponents would finally realize they'd been bested in the debate. Okay, that'll never happen. But it's still a great word.

To top this off: I've watched plenty of Boston Celtics games in the past few years, but I've also only now learned that "ubuntu" has recently morphed into a big Boston Celtics tradition, originally passed on to coach Doc Rivers by Stephanie Russell of Marquette University.

"1-2-3 Ubuntu!". I like the way that sounds.


"Ubuntu" is an important psychological principle and social philosophy as well as an important Linux distribution.

view /Ubuntu
Sunday, December 15, 2013 11:19 am
Ubuntu is an important social philosophy as well as an important Linux distribution.
Levi Asher

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).

I bet there was a lot more amazing fiction published in 2012, and I didn't even get to most of the must-read novels of the year (sorry Zadie, Hilary, Jess, Dave -- I'll get there!). For some reason, I became possessed in 2012 by weird impulses to consume military histories, memoirs, cultural studies, classic philosophy and economics texts, and unusual biographies. Looking back on the non-fiction titles I blogged about in 2012, I see a scattered, kaleidoscopic mix that I don't even understand myself: Fug by Ed Sanders, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson,Letter to Kurt by Eric Erlandson, Nothing and Everything by Ellen Pearlman, The Passage of Power by Robert Caro, Red Sorghum by Mo Yan.

I also hate to even admit how many rock star memoirs I read in 2012; this is a format I apparently simply cannot resist, and I'll be reading Rod Stewart's memoir shortly. Neil Young's book was the 2012 book I opened with the greatest anticipation, but surprisingly another rock star autobiography came from behind and impressed me more: My Cross to Bear by Gregg Allman. Stupidly, I never got around to blogging about this book, perhaps because I was in subconscious denial about the fact that it was ghostwritten co-authored by Alan Light, a music writer I've never liked (he wrote about the Beastie Boys all wrong). However, I have to admit that Alan Light coaxed a hell of an honest, warm, searing book out of Gregg Allman.

I was also very moved by (but never blogged about) Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury by Lesley Ann-Jones, a happy, affectionate book with a suddenly sad ending. I'm not sure what music biographies or autobiographies I'll read in 2013, but here are a few I wish would write memoirs: Roger Waters, Sinead O'Connor, Bob Weir, Lou Reed, Prince.

Another fascinating and vivid book I totally failed to blog about this year was Catherine the Great by Robert Massie. I am always a fool for Russian history, but until I read this book I had no idea how completely twisted and wonderfully histrionic the court of the Romanov royal family could be. The Empress Catherine emerges from her biography as a true and unlikely hero, and certainly a role model worthy of wider acclaim. The book's best discovery is its comic foil, Catherine's hilariously inept but arrogant husband, who briefly reigned (before he got murked) as Tsar Peter III. His combination of odd intelligence and infuriating emotional immaturity makes this book as psychologically fascinating as a Jonathan Franzen or John Updike novel. Perhaps I failed to write about this riveting history book on Litkicks because I just wasn't sure I could do it justice.

So: that was my year in reading. Beyond all this, 2012 felt to me like a hopeful year, but a year of scattered gifts. I will always remember this as the year that Barack Obama kicked Mitt Romney's sorry corporate-banker ass, and there are a few moments from this epic presidential contest that have already become cherished memories and will bring me smiles, I suspect, until my dying day. 2012 was an exciting election year, without a doubt.

2012 is the year that Brooklyn got a professional sports team, the Brooklyn Nets. For many old-time New Yorkers like me, this stirs up big feelings, because Brooklyn hasn't had a pro sports team since the Dodgers went to Los Angeles in 1957. I still can't believe it whenever I see the Brooklyn Nets logo -- it feels like something ghostly, apocalyptic (but in the good way). Anyway, I know many Brooklynites were against the stadium building project, but I'm kinda psyched to see a beautiful new stadium just south of the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush, in the core of downtown Brooklyn. Not a bad look at all.

2012 is the year I bought an iPad, and began to appreciate (after initially resisting the hype) the innovations this format brings. I've begun experimenting with the Apple iOS software development kit. I'm not sure what I have in mind (though I'd like to do something mobile with Action Poetry), but I've built a few little test applications in XCode, and I may be putting out some new things in 2013. I also enjoy fooling around with apps like Paper, which I used to scribble the Jackson Pollock knockoff at the top of the page. (By the way, I learned that imitating Jackson Pollock is not as easy as it looks; this was my fifth try.)

2012 will soon be history. As we all look forward to the next year, I'd like to thank all my Litkicks readers and commenters and poets and friends. I wish you all great scattered joy and good fortune in 2013.


Levi Asher's reading roundup for 2012.

view /Roundup2012
Tuesday, December 25, 2012 09:48 pm
Jackson Pollock knockoff by Levi Asher on an iPad
Levi Asher

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.

4. Celebrated British novelist Martin Amis doesn't seem to want anybody to know this, but back in the 1980s he wrote an illustrated book about video games.

5. After cartoonist Bill Griffith described his encounter with artist Marcel Duchamp in a Litkicks interview, we got linked up by two Duchamp websites. I'm impressed. I didn't even know there were two Duchamp websites.

6. Cormac McCarthy is even meaner to mules than Mitt Romney is to dogs.

7. Unique: A Life Unhappening is a ballet about Alzheimer's disease, created by Adam E. and Chelsea Stone.

8. Gorgeous: Malika Favre explores cover designs for the Kama Sutra.

9. Every once in a while some inspired person creates a new hyperfictional meta-interactive storytelling mechanism. And I never know what to do with it, except invite you to check it out if you want. Here's Plot Hinge: Serial Novels Shaped By The Real World.

10. Filmmaker Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) is directing an HBO biopic about Ernest Hemingway and his wife Martha Gellhorn, to premiere this May.

11. Two worthy musings from the mind of Bill Ectric: on Frankenstein, and three intrepid travelers.

12. Who remembers a novelist named James Kirkwood? As a kid in the 1970s, I used to see his books around, and ended up reading and enjoying his breezy, hip and casually gay novels P. S. Your Cat is Dead, There Must Be a Pony and Some Kind of Hero (which was made into a mostly heterosexual movie starring Richard Pryor and Margot Kidder). He also wrote the book for the musical A Chorus Line, and died of AIDS in 1989. I had completely forgotten about James Kirkwood, but he's the subject of a new biography, Ponies & Rainbows: The Life of James Kirkwood by Sean Egan.

13. How do you translate the ghostly geographical prose of W. G. Sebald into film? Grant Gee is giving it a try.

14. Tao Lin tells what happened when his entrepreneur father went to jail for stock-price manipulations.

15. Video artist Wyatt Hodgson speeds up the classic Godfrey Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi.

16. "Occupy Jean-Jacques Rousseau" at the New York Public Library.

17. Intrepid Blogger Determines Ice Cube's Good Day: January 20, 1992. I remember that being a pretty good day too.

18. Portlandia is my new favorite TV show. Is Portland Really Like Portlandia? Apparently it is.

19. David Dobbs explores the war-mind of General Sherman.

20. This is a book conference I participated in. I don't know why I'm in so many of these photos.

21. Remembering Hunter S. Thompson, the writer, not the caricature. Sounds like a good idea to me.

22. Mashups: Impossible architecture..

23. Here are the fifty most quoted lines of poetry in the English language, computed via Google counts.

24. The great indie publisher Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press and Evergreen Review, has died.

view /Ghosts2012
Monday, February 20, 2012 10:17 pm
Levi Asher

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.

3. And then ... there's David Foster Wallace, who many still consider a deeply important voice of our times, and whose death by suicide continues to resonate as literary myth. I try constantly to get on this bandwagon. I watched a new Decembrists music video based on Eschaton, an invented tennis variation described in the novel Infinite Jest. I read Maud Newton's New York Times piece, "Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace", which proposes that Wallace's evasive and self-doubting approach to argumentation and debate has taken root as an essential ingredient of blog/Internet culture. Following a tweet while watching Roger Federer in the U.S. Open, I tried to read Wallace's 2006 tennis piece "Roger Federer as Religious Experience" -- but this last piece was an epiphany for me. It must be one of the worst articles he ever wrote. I'm astonished by the byzantine, ponderous prose, the mawkish and unconvincing pose of childlike enthusiasm, the gratuitous tone of arrogance towards the reader. Terrible, terrible piece of writing. I suppose it's time for me to stop trying to appreciate Wallace, even though I hate to miss out on relating to a "deeply important voice of our times" whose sheer power of intellect, I constantly hear, was infinite and unimaginable. I still admire the way David Foster Wallace wore a bandanna.

4. Michael Hart, founder of the still and forever useful Project Gutenberg, has died.

5. The Egoist Okur is a very cool literary publication from Turkey that covers a wide variety of international writers and artists including Elif Shafak, Chuck Pahlaniuk, Orhan Pamuk, Sylvia Plath, Alpine Bugdayci, Maxim Gorky, Ray Bradbury, George Lucas, Amy Winehouse. Jane Austen, Franz Kafka and Mark Twain. I can only peruse this publication via Google auto-translate, but I like what I see.

6. Hugh Fox has died. Doug Holder wrote about him for Litkicks a few years ago.

7. Laura Albert sharply ponders the continued existence of Roman Polanski.

8. Innovative publisher Red Lemonade explains "why we're DRM-free (and it's not because we trust you...)".

9. Eleanor Lerman, who told us about her sidewinding writing career in a recent Litkicks piece, has written a new novel, Janet Planet, about the cult of a pop shaman who resembles Carlos Castaneda. (Does anyone remember Carlos Castaneda today? He was sort of the Daniel Pinchbeck of his time, though the fact that Carlos Castaneda is not widely remembered today may not bode well for Daniel Pinchbeck's future).

10. Jack-of-all-trades Sean Kanniff, who invented the short-lived "alphabet system" in the legendary first season of the reality show Survivor, has written an unusual book called Être the Cow, which deals with issues of social structure, employment and ecology via the imagined first-person voice of a cow. Here's Sean explaining it on a news show.

11. Ron Rosenbaum mines John O'Hara's 1935 novel BUtterfield 8 for contemporary relevance.

12. Tiny shards of literature from the siege of Leningrad (via the Saloon).

13. A new generation of Hemingway offspring.

14. Blogger and Dzanc publisher Dan Wickett confesses to loving rock memoirs. As do I.

15. In case you were wondering: Why does folk music collector Alan Lomax have a copyright interest in “Takeover” by Jay-Z?

view /FictionalGlances
Monday, September 12, 2011 09:18 pm
Levi Asher

(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.

But baseball seems to consistently engender the literary equivalent of a grand slam, a high hard one or, conversely, a mighty swing and a miss. Theories abound as to why baseball, more so than any other sport, lends itself so readily to literature. My own: Baseball crosses age, race, class, time and even gender lines. It’s a game every boy and girl at least tried to learn. It’s also played outdoors in the sunshine, and sometimes it’s played after the sun has faded from the sky (ask any parent trying to get a kid inside for dinner or bedtime on a midsummer eve). Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the paraphernalia and trappings of the game itself—bats, balls, bases, dirt infield, green outfield, bleachers—evokes something close to a national pastoral memory? That we were born knowing about Charlie Brown and his Peanuts gang’s hapless attempts to play the game?

Granted, writers can overdo the pathos and sentimentality, as witnessed by some room-clearing excesses in Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary Baseball, any novel by W.P. Kinsella or any book about the “Curse of the Bambino” (put Curt Schilling’s bloody sock in it, Red Sox fans, will ya?). I myself once wrote an unpublishable poem entitled “In Remembrance of Saint Baseball”. Still, who can argue with the body of literature produced in homage to baseball?

If there was a Hall of Fame for baseball writing, two separate Cooperstowns could be filled, one for nonfiction and one for fiction. For every Ball Four-like chronicle of real events, there’s a novel like Bang the Drum Slowly or The Natural or The Great American Novel that contains such piercing truths that they seem more real than nonfiction. Another curious aspect of baseball literature is that the overwhelming majority of great works are about pitchers -- either seen through the eyes of pitchers or written by them. My theory again: pitchers orchestrate all the action on the field. When they aren’t pitching they’re sitting on their butts studying the hitters, umps, the outfield, fans -- in short, they are what Henry James called “those people on whom nothing is lost.”

In the annals of these special books written by pitchers, the nod goes to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, a funny, honest and touchingly human chronicle of his attempt to come back from an arm injury by learning a new pitch, the unpredictable knuckleball, which is also a perfect metaphor for his world view. A typical Bouton observation: “I’m afraid Mike’s problem is that he’s too intelligent and has had too much education. It’s like in the army. When a sergeant found out that a private had been to college, he immediately assumed he couldn’t be a good soldier. Right away it was ‘There’s your college boy for you,’ or ‘I wonder what our genius has to say about that?’ ... they don’t believe that my kind of guy can do the job, so when I am successful they’re surprised.” Ball Four starts in the minor leagues -- a comedown for the onetime Yankee star -- and ends with an expansion team, the Seattle Pilots. Bouton took a lot of heat from baseball’s establishment for this book. He even wrote a follow-up, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally. At the time, the owners were trying to break the back of the players’ union by bringing in a fat-cat Wall Street lawyer named Bowie Kuhn as commissioner. (Kuhn turned out to be a corporate criminal who, as his breed does, scuttled off to Florida to avoid any taxes). Check out Curt Flood’s The Way It is to see how well the owners’ plans worked out. Flood details the slave-trader mentality of a team owners like beer magnate Auggie Busch, the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals and Kuhn’s biggest champion.

Another pitcher’s book is Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season, which the veteran sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, then of the New York Daily News, called “the greatest baseball book ever written.” Brosnan was the Samuel Pepys of baseball and Bouton’s literary mentor. His two books -- the other was Pennant Race -- were bestselling chronicles of his life as a relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in good years and bad. For their time, Brosnan’s books were, like Bouton’s, painfully candid, which probably explains why they still seem fresh upon rereading today. Another reason for their timelessness is that Brosnan, when he played ball, was a mature man and a gifted prose stylist -- he later pursued a magazine journalism career -- rather than an overgrown boy. He saw through the silliness of the “Father Knows Best” mindset of the Ike Eisenhower era. Both Brosnan and Bouton saw that “fathers” like managers Johnny Keane and Joe Schultz, Commish Kuhn, Boss Busch, et. al., didn’t know diddly squat.

Finally, neither Brosnan’s nor Bouton’s books were ghostwritten or sanctioned by higher powers, which only added to their truthfulness. In fact, the overenthusiastic Bouton wrote 450,000 words -- 1,500 pages! -- for Ball Four, necessitating the energetic intercession of editor Leonard Schecter.

Besides pitchers, favorite utility players (books to browse at leisure) are Baseball Diamonds: Tales, Traces, Visions and Voodoo from a Native American Rite, edited by Kevin Kerrane and Richard Grossinger, and either of the two Fireside Books of Baseball. Kerrane and Grossinger go the furthest afield by gathering some truly esoteric works of literature, including baseball-themed poems by Beat-affiliated writers Tom Clark and Ron Loewinsohn. The Fireside books are more mainstream but the contents are wisely selected by editor Charles Einstein. All three of these books are thick with essays, reporting, short stories, novel excerpts, poetry, songs, cartoons, drawings, paintings and photographs. They cover the origins of the game, its unending human tragicomedy and even the racial divides that have plagued the national pastime. Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson traces the origins of the game’s patois, rewarding brief browsings with that perfect phrase by which you can justify your every failing -- e.g., “Honey, I didn’t fix the roof because I sustained a ‘Charley Horse’ while picking you some flowers” or “If you’re going to swing that lamp at me, just try for a Texas Leaguer, not the grand salami.” Conspicuously absent from my list is anything by Bill James and his Saber-tronics crowd. I appreciate what they do, but after a few minutes, reading analyses of baseball statistical data leaves me cold.

In addition to Bouton’s Ball Four and Brosnan’s The Long Season, here is my lineup. The order in each category is alphabetical and otherwise arbitrary.

Best-Ever Baseball Books: Nonfiction

  • Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Billy Beane was a baseball player with great promise who never really lived up to the hype on the field. His competitive edge, however, exhibited itself when he became general manager of the Oakland Athletics and assembled competitive teams year after year after year by being smarter than anyone else in the game. For example, when no one else wanted Kevin Youklis, Beane saw his promise based entirely on the high number of pitches he saw in each at bat in the minor leagues, dubbing “Youk” the “Greek god of walks.” Beane’s iconoclasm and eccentricity comes through in this brilliant book, as do the humanity of players with unusual life stories, like the side-arming relief pitcher Chad Bradford who seemed incapable, like a machine, of throwing anything but strikes.
  • The Summer Game by Roger Angell: This is the first installment of Angell’s two-decade chronicle of the game. Angell was a fixture at The New Yorker (his stepfather was E.B. White) and a throwback to William Shawn’s school of elegiac prose. A typical line, randomly chosen: “But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero. But only a man -- only ourself.” Too much of this sort of elegy-spinning can turn to treacle, as it does in many of Angell’s later stories. As for the day in-day out coverage of the human side of the game, I always preferred the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell whose columns were compiled in two good books, How Life Imitates the World Series and Why Time Begins on Opening Day.
  • Babe: The Legend Comes to Life by Robert Creamer: A wonderfully written story of a legend and his times, and a completely new concept -- treating a sports figure as a cultural icon on the order of a writer or politician. The George Herman Ruth who emerges in this biography is a man who perfectly mirrors his times. America cut loose in the 1920s, the so-called Jazz Age, and the Babe’s prodigious appetites -- for food, drink, public adulation -- were ready-made for such frivolous feasting. He, like the nation, paid the tab in the next decade.
  • The Way It is by Curt Flood: Though today’s pro athletes owe this man a tithing, you wil never hear a peep from these venal creeps. The Flood who emerges from this book is an almost painfully sensitive person, an artist blessed and cursed with an athlete’s body. In addition to dissecting the business of the game, Flood offers some nice portraits of teammates like Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver.
  • Black Diamonds: Life in the Negro Leagues, by John Holway: The best book on a subject that still awaits its masterpiece; until that time, this will have to do, augmented by the chapters from Ken Burns’ and Geoffrey C. Ward’s widely remaindered companion volume to their PBS documentary. It can be argued that the Negro Leagues were single handedly responsible for keeping the Major Leagues on its toes. Maybe most white folks didn’t see how brilliant Josh Gibson was, but guys like Branch Rickey were paying attention.
  • Baseball My Way by Joe Morgan: The best instructional manual around, by the best second baseman the modern game has known, now a broadcaster in the booth who rubs many the wrong way but is smarter than anyone else around. There were more visible and comical players on the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati -- Pete Rose, Johnny Bench -- but Morgan’s quiet intensity was positively frightening to behold. Especially when he played my team, the Phillies. Curse you, Red Morgan.
  • Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent: A brilliant concept -- a book-length explication of a random game between the Orioles and Brewers -- that works brilliantly. Each chapter covers one inning in the life of this game, with brilliant digressions about such marginal but lovable players as Lenn Sakata, Rick Dempsey and Stormin’ Gorman Thomas.
  • Veeck as in Wreck by Bill Veeck: They don’t make team owners any more like Bill Veeck, a Renaissance man with the heart of a clown and the soul of a favorite eccentric uncle. Veeck was a master showman, an itinerant team owner (Browns, Indians, Cubs, White Sox) who believed that the fans came first and foremost and that baseball was not only a sport but an entertaining spectacle. He had a wooden leg, drank beer like water and hung out with the Bleacher Bums. His books were filled with inscrutable observations such as “If big league baseball was not that strong a wine, then victory was not that mad a music.”
  • Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof: This is the tale of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, an epic event that could have broken the back of professional sports. Eight Men Out doesn’t moralize, which is its strength. Rather, it shows how the greed of the underworld combined with the desperation of the underpaid can turn even a pastoral game played by boys into something not unlike Les Miserables.
  • The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn: This book explains why the Brooklyn Dodgers fans’ hearts are still broken. Like Ebbets Field, where their passion play once took place, it’s a monument to decency and unerring wisdom of the human heart. Born and raised on Brooklyn baseball, Kahn can’t help but make this story autobiographical, but he also writes the biography of a team (The Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges) and a time, the 1950s.
  • Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy. Sandy Koufax has always seemed like the ultimate Zen enigma of baseball. In his short career, he was all but flawless, as great a pitcher as has ever played the game. But then ... he retired and, despite a low-key attempt at being a TV commentator, essentially disappeared for decades. This weaves the tale of his greatest moments on the field with his less than happy childhood as a shy Jewish kid from a Brooklyn broken home.

Best-Ever Baseball Books: Fiction

  • Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings by Bill Brashler: Though fiction, this novel accurately depicts life on the Negro League barnstorming circuit during the bleakest days of segregated baseball. The book is dedicated to Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell, three of the best players in history, who also appear in the story. John Badham actually made a pretty decent movie out of this, starring James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor, in 1976. It’s probably the most truthful portrait of a barnstorming team in the days of segregated baseball.
  • The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover: A proto-Rotisserie League set in Dante’s Inferno, Coover’s book is disturbing in all the right ways. Henry Waugh is a paunchy Everyman whose real life is falling asunder, so each night he retreats into a fantasy baseball game he’d originally invented to kill some time. As he begins to invest his emotions upon every outcome, the game takes over his life like a psychological kudzu and, well, you can guess the rest.
  • Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris: The story of a smart pitcher and his dumb, ill-fated catcher, this novel will draw tears from even the hardest-hearted Yankees fans. Any of Harris’s baseball novels are worth reading -- The Southpaw, Ticket for a Steamstitch -- but this one will make you cry. The closing pages of Bang the Drum Slowly rank right up there with The Great Gatsby in my personal literary ballpark. "From here on in, I rag nobody.” It’s one of the few great baseball books made into a good movie, starring Robert DeNiro and Michael Moriarty.
  • A False Spring by Pat Jordan: A minor league pitcher confronts the weighty issues of existence and gets the hell beat out of him by Elrod Hendricks in the bargain. Jordan bases this remarkable novel on his own experience as a promising pitcher in the Braves organization. The title refers to the collapse of that promise, as the cruel arm of fate tosses him some unhittable curveballs, all of this beneath the impossibly huge skies of McCook, Nebraska.
  • The Great American Novel by Philip Roth: Roth goes all Portnoy on the National Pastime in this often hilarious but ultimately terribly sad cautionary tale. He follows a motley and hapless team called the (yes) Ruppert Mundys during their barnstorming days of World War II when all the able bodied men were “over there.” I don’t often read, or quote, dust jacket copy, but this pretty much sums it up: “The Great American Novel might best be described as a mock epic saga, a counter-myth, which among other things, laughingly lays into the self-congratulatory legends of manliness, brotherhood and community upon which generations of Americans have been raised.” Even the title of the novel is a mockery ... inside an enigma ... inside a conundrum, etc.
  • You Know Me, Al: A Busher’s Letters by Ring Lardner, Jr.: Until the Black Sox scandal, Lardner was baseball’s biggest, most perceptive fan. These fictional letters, first serialized in Chicago newspapers in the second decade of the 20th century have his patented ear and eye, among the greatest in literature. Written in the form of letters from rookie pitcher Jack Keefe to his pal Al back in Indiana, this novel is his finest. Keefe was an American original, noted critic Jonathan Yardley -- who wrote a superb biography of Lardner -- whose “expression of the vernacular ... had a lasting effect on the way American writers describe American talk.” Lardner published an entertaining sequel to this book called Alibi Ike.
  • The Natural by Bernard Malamud: Even though Malamud was swinging for the metaphysical fences with this novel -- attempting, as he did in all of his fiction, to pit good against evil -- he got enough of the idiom and the action right to have come damn close to the perfect morality play. A bat called Wonderboy carved from a tree cloven by a thunderbolt?
  • Pride of the Bimbos by John Sayles: This is a minor classic about growing up painfully shy, with baseball not just a solace but a sort of inviolable sanctuary. The inner language and curious rituals of the game have rarely been captured this well (“Humbabe!" "Little help!" "Choke!" "No stick!" And so on). Sayles had the potential to be a great writer but instead became a merely good film director. Choke!
  • The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop: Inspiration for Broadway’s Damn Yankees, this old yarn hits all the right diehard fan buttons. Joe Hardy arrives out for nowhere, two years after Malamud’s Roy Hobbs did the same thing in The Natural. Only Wallop’s book has a happy ending. That is, Joe Hardy -- er, Boyd -- is reunited with his long-suffering wife, but more importantly, the damn Yankees lose the pennant to the pitiful Washington Senators.

If you think I’m snubbing W.P. Kinsella’s overwrought, overrated novels, you’re right. In closing, it should be noted that two of baseball’s most original characters have never been adequately captured on the page: Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel. While Berra, longtime Yankees catcher and guru, has equipped the language with enough brilliant malapropisms to carry it through to the end of the next century (“You can see a lot just by looking”), Stengel was not without his classic moments. A typical moment occurred one day when writer Ed Rumill visited the great Yankees/Mets manager and his wife. The Stengels’ dog took an instant liking to Rumill and wouldn’t leave him alone during the meal.

“Your dog seems to have fallen in love with me,” Rumill told his hosts, to which Casey matter of factly responded, “Oh, it’s not that. It’s just you’re eating out of her dish.” Just for your information that is from Robert Creamer’s Stengel: His Life and Times, which isn’t as good as his Babe Ruth book. Berra himself has published a couple of slight but entertaining memoirs. His The Yogi Book, subtitled “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said,” has just been reissued.


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

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010 09:14 am
Ball Four by Jim Bouton
Alan Bisbort

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".

I'm sure Amis is a great dinner companion, but this really pushes the limits. Here's my take: if Martin were not the son of the celebrated Kingsley Amis, he'd be considered a minor novelist at best. Fizzy smart linguistic fireworks and all.

Fortunately, the Book Review gets better once you put the cover piece aside. I already thought Dan Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition sounded like a corker, and David Oshinsky seals the case, explaining how concerns about immigration, women's suffrage and German militarism contributed to the debate about legal alcohol in America. Definitely a history book I want to read. And while I'm not likely to ever read a biography of an Atlanta Brave, I can't deny enjoying Sam Tanenhaus's civil-rights-minded summary of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant.

Today's fiction coverage is mixed. I've never read and have nothing against A. L. Kennedy, but I hope her story collection What Becomes is not as riddled with cliches as Robin Romm's breathless review. There's this:

When his wife returns, horrified to find him like this, she hurls a pot of thyme at his head. He tries to reassure her. She responds: "It's not all right. It won't be fine." They've lost a daughter, we learn, a loss from which they'll never recover.

I've read this story before and so have you. The author's name was Raymond Carver. Robin Romm goes on:

Kennedy can go from darkness to humor in a heartbeat. Her characters, with their dry wit and sense of irony, are the sort of people you'd want to sit next to at a bad work luncheon. They don't cotton to easy sentiment. They don't suffer fools. Peter, in the story "Edinburgh," recoils at the New Age pamphlets in his vegetable shop. "I haven't got an inner child; I'd have known it by now if I did. Likewise with the spirit animals -- I am not playing host to some interior bloody zoo."

Making fun of new age hippies for their soft sentiments: this is fresh and groundbreaking in the year 2010? Actually, I've heard predictable humor like this at plenty of bad work luncheons, and it's what makes the luncheons bad.

But Jeannie Vanasco does better with an unusual novel I plan to try soon, Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden, and Liesl Schillinger provides further salvation with a long, substantial piece on Agaat by Marlene von Niekerk (a book we talked about here).

Books like "Agaat" ... are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them. It's a monument to what the narrator calls "the compulsion to tell," expressing truths that are too heartfelt, revelatory and damaging for proud people to speak aloud -- or even to admit to themselves in private.

A lot of books are lavished with praise in this Book Review. But here's where a literary critic's talent and conviction come into play. They must make us believe the praise is sincere.

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

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.

If I try to encode this instinctual dread and boredom that I feel into words, all that emerges is a familiar bleating cry: who cares? Roger Boylan reviews an experimental posthumous novel by Gilbert Sorrentino called The Abyss of Human Illusion, apparently "his final take on life's absurdity" that is thematically "a logical progression" from his two earlier books. Maria Russo, meanwhile, reviews the story collection Something is Out There by Richard Bausch, who attends to "the predicaments of the American male with insight and flair". Stepping aside from that obvious trainwreck of a topic, Marisa Silver tells us that Eric Puchner's novel Model Home "cannily trades on the very characteristics that have come to define a recognizable California 'experience' in order to blast them apart, revealing the uncertainty and terror beneath the glossy postcard vision we cling to and dismiss".

There they are, three fiction writers hard at work expressing whatever it is they want to express, and three reviewers weakly playing along as if they were deeply moved by the results. I have not often felt empowered to simply ask "who cares?" in this weekly blog column before -- okay, I've said it before, but I know it's not an impressive rejoinder, and I've never before felt proud to say it. Maybe that's one reason I feel excited by Shields' book. Reality Hunger inspires me to admit that my only interest in these three books is in the nuggets of truth each may contain. I'm not interested in these writers' aesthetic sensibilities, or in their abilities to spin wonderful sentences or capture charming dialogue. I know that Sorrentino and Bausch and Puchner are skilled in the art of writing, but I should not have to apologize for the fact that I as a reader have a much greater hunger for truth than for art. These three fiction writers owe me nothing and, honestly, promise me little. Who cares?

I plan to write something more coherent and complete about the new David Shields book soon, though, and meanwhile I can find some nuggets of truth in today's Book Review. A cover piece by Pete Hamill on James S. Hirsch's Willie Mays delivers a strong if not surprising line drive into the lush green outfield of baseball nostalgia. Jason Goodwin diagrams the reality games travel writer Paul Theroux plays in A Dead Hand, his first foray into metafiction. Charles Bock convincingly presents some of his own controversial thoughts about "truthiness" when he appreciates John D'Agata's About A Mountain, a book about the attempt to bury nuclear waste inside the Yucca mountain range in Nevada, but objects to a single hamhanded maneuver that spoils the book:

At the heart of a crucial section, D’Agata writes, “There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.” But the accompanying endnote reads: “I should clarify here that I am conflating the date of the Yucca debate and the suicide that occurred at the Stratosphere Hotel. In reality, these two events were separated by three days.”

Charles Bock doesn't like this and I don't like it either. As for Cathleen Schine's purplish essay about her early reading experiences, maybe my brain is improperly calibrated this morning but I can't even make sense of this piece. The essay seems to be about her obsession with medieval writing and her early ignorance of classic 19th and 20th century literature. But then she reveals that her key literary obsession as a child was Dostoevsky, who was not medieval and pretty much embodied the essence of classic 19th century literature. So how does this article make sense? I just don't get it.

Finally, my dissatisfaction with NYTBR rock critics continues. Evening's Empire by Bill Flanagan sounds fairly fetching, but reviewer Ben Sisario doesn't tell us whether or not the title comes from a Bob Dylan song (just as Charles Bock doesn't tell us whether the title About A Mountain is supposed to be a play on a Nirvana song) and delivers tired snarky lines like "as long as a Yes concept album", which only motivates me to point out that a Yes concept album will tend to be about 42 minutes long, the same as any other classic rock album, since that's the technical limit of vinyl in the LP format.

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

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.

3. And, when I think of Vancouver, I think of Ralph Alphonso, latter-day beatnik, singer and publisher of the RALPH zine, who once told me of a thriving arts scene in that Pacific coast town. Still haven't found my way out there myself.

4. Stephen Mitchelmore on a book I haven't seen yet but very much want to read, Reality Hunger by David Shields.

5. Bill Ectric's Tamper in 3 AM.

6. Was Rene Descartes murdered? It's possible.

7. ReadWriteWeb's proposal for a comprehensive approach to meta-data in online book coverage is worth thinking about. I definitely plan to do some semantic web stuff here on LitKicks, if I can ever find the time.

9. Hunter S. Thompson gets some tech support.

9. I'm not surprised the Barack Obama administration seems to be on the right track in terms of electronic publishing formats. As I've pointed out before, this White House really has its act together in terms of technology.

10. Am I the only one who thinks it's funny that there's a writer named David Goodwillie? I guess I am.

view /OlympicThoughts
Wednesday, February 17, 2010 09:19 am
Levi Asher