Saturday, October 25

Führer's Bibliothek

The thought of reading Hitler's Private Library makes me queasy, but it does sound interesting:
Just how does a man who appreciates Don Quixote, "Hamlet" and Uncle Tom's Cabin grow so monstrous? Wide reading is traditionally supposed to humanize and enlarge our hearts, to encourage empathy and allowance for differences among people. But the example of Hitler, like that of the concentration camp commanders who listened to Mozart to drown out the cries of the innocent, continues to give one pause. Certainly, art and books matter, just as political principles and religious convictions matter, but living, breathing human beings matter most of all.

An interesting thing I read II

When I grow up a want to write for a holiday gift catalog:
Like a stone dropping into still water, your gift ripples out for years to come, ending poverty, hunger and despair for families ... villages ... perhaps one day even entire countries. That's why we think this is The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World.
-Heifer International, Special 2008 Holiday Edition

Eating this for the first time is like taking your first promenade in Paris, France, when all you've known is Paris, Texas.
-Macroon Irish Oatmeal, Page 32, Zingerman's 2008 holiday catalog

Your nephew's favorite story is "The Billy Goats Gruff." His favorite outing is a trip to the petting zoo to feed the kids. Now it's Christmas, and every family member is buying him stuffed toy goats ... goat books ... even a goat poster! Rather than add to the growing collection of goat memorabilia, why not give a gift in his honor.
-Heifer International, Special 2008 Holiday Edition

I keep imagining that if I went to heaven, I'd discover this to be the oil the angels put on their salads. Smooth and olive-y, with a lemoniness that tickles your nose like the bubbles of a fine champagne.
-Argumato Lemon Oil, Page 23, Zingerman's 2008 holiday catalog

Wednesday, October 22

Still talking about the Swede

The 2008 National Book Award shortlists were announced last week. A blogger from the Guardian takes the opportunity to point out that this year's finalists are anything but insular, as Horace Engdahl, secretary of the Swedish Academy suggested a few weeks back.
Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project is the story of a novelist who discovers parallels between himself – the accidental refugee of a Bosnian war – and the victim of a hate crime committed in 1908. Like the fiction of WG Sebald, the novel twists and meanders across Europe's landscape as its hero tries to imagine how this man escaped Europe's worst pogroms only to be murdered in Chicago.

Rachel Kushner's debut novel, Telex from Cuba, conjures a cast of gilded Americans living in pre-Castro Cuba, chronicling their affairs and political revelations as the country tips into full revolution. Peter Matthiessen's mammoth Shadow Country brings to life the mixture of African slaves, Indian hunters, European speculators and poor American farmers who violently exploited and "tamed" the Florida Everglades.

All of the finalists are in dialogue with world literature. Salvatore Scibona, who built a sad, beautiful story around one day in Ohio in 1953, is influenced by Halldor Laxness. Marilynne Robinson, who continues the story of Gilead in Home, has written extensively about the influence of John Calvin on her thinking and work. Hemon has said he works in dialogue with Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kis, Isaac Babel and William Shakespeare, among others.
What's most interesting to me about the Guardian post is this, "Outside of these National Book award finalists, the hottest writer of the moment isn't an American at all, but a dead Chilean, Roberto Bolano, whose 1,000-page masterpiece, 2666, is the fall's most anticipated literary title." I've read a couple of his books (The Last Evening on Earth and The Savage Detectives) in the past year and really enjoyed them. Little did I know we were still awaiting the translation of his "masterpiece."

Tuesday, October 21

An interesting thing I read

Republicans in the state of Washington are doing everything they can to disaffiliate themselves from the Republican Party. A wise strategy at this point in our nation's history. You won't hear any affiliation mentioned on the candidates' television advertisements, nor will you see any their yard signs. Sadly, a similar approach extends to the actual ballot, where the state has allowed candidates to distance themselves from the past eight years with a party affiliation of their own choosing. I was thumbing through my State of Washington Voter's Pamphlet and found it littered with variations of the same theme: G.O.P Party, G O P Party, Grand Old Party. At least the last one isn't a Party Party. But there's one I found a cut above all the rest: "Cut Taxes G.O.P. Party." Ah, there's nothing like pandering on the actual ballot. When I run for office I fully intend to run as the nominee for the "Cut Death and Taxes... and Flood, Famine, Apocalypse, End of Days Party... Party of Good Party"

Saturday, October 18

Library Card

Quick personal update: I just got my LA County library card from the Los Angeles County Julian Dixon Library. Yay! Now, on to the city library up the street.

From Wikipedia:
Julian Carey Dixon (August 8, 1934 – December 8, 2000) was an American politician from the state of California.
Dixon was born in Washington D.C. and served in the United States Army from 1957 to 1960. He graduated from California State University, Los Angeles. He was elected to the California State Assembly as a Democrat in 1972, and served in that body for three terms. Dixon was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978. He chaired the rules committee at the 1984 Democratic National Convention and the ethics probe into Speaker Jim Wright. Dixon won re-election to the 107th United States Congress, but died of a heart attack in December 2000.
The busy 7th St/Metro Center transfer station for the Red, Purple, and Blue Lines in downtown Los Angeles is named after Dixon, with a plaque commemorating his role in obtaining the federal funding that enabled construction of the Metro Rail system. His alma mater, Southwestern University School of Law, in 2004 opened the Julian C. Dixon Courtroom and Advocacy Center in the famed Bullocks Wilshire building. The Culver City branch of the Los Angeles County Library is also named in his honor.
Dixon was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans

Tuesday, October 14

"Oh, I'm scared of the middle place..."

The story of a pioneer can humble a reader at the same time it allows him to swell with pride. Beset by difficulties beyond an average person's experience, as a pioneer often is - largely by definition, her story is usually one of reminding. The reminding of the reader to remember her smallness and to place in perspective the difficulties and experiences of his life.

For there were pioneers who made our petty troubles possible and whose sacrifices dwarf them. And it is the magic of the story of a heroic pioneer that can simultaneously inspire us, even in the face of our relative lack of achievement, because the raw humanity of our hero is so essentially shared by the reader that a kinship is undeniable. These are stories of power in the human experience, stories of characters who, mostly by accident, mostly unwillingly, become beacons of possibility, soaring towers of example.

Like John McCain.

No, I'm kidding. I'm talking about the other shape-shifter inhabiting my thoughts these recent weeks, the hero Calliope Stephanides of Jeffery Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex. And please forgive the first paragraph. What I mean to say is: Calliope had it real bad, it wasn't her fault, but she survived. And sometimes it seems that all one must do to be a pioneer, to be a hero, is to simply survive.

I just finished, with some tear-action fighting to assert itself in my eyes, this moving book set in 20th-century Detroit. I wrote briefly a couple weeks ago about the heartstring-tugging that was going on as I read about familiar places in Detroit and longed for home. That emotional element of the narrative was strong for me for a while, but in time it gave way to my attachment to the characters. Eugenides portrays his cast tenderly, with a keen balance in each character.

For each the balance comes in a different form. For the Stephanides family's emigres, a balance between tradition and assimilation, secrecy and rebirth. For the 1st generation, a balance of love and pragmatism, of risk and security. For the city of Detroit at the center of the story: a failed balance between white and black, ignorance and revolution.

And of course for Cal, whose entire identity rested on a shaky fulcrum, whose scale tipped not to the right or left, but fell completely forward. A pioneer at 14, and a hero by accident.

The story is sad and wonderful right to the end (with a car chase!), and I highly recommend it.

Happy Birthday Amazon

Amazon is 10 years old - but is anyone celebrating?
Publishers are feeding the gifting market as never before – apparently 800 titles were launched last week alone – and this cannot be good for readers or for writers. The pressure on editors and sales people to publish books that will crack into Amazon's top 10 is unbearable, which means that we'll be served up the same, predictable fare until we stop buying the stuff in protest. Our apparent love of the mundane, however, suggests that this isn't going to happen any time soon.
I will not stand for this elitism! No, I'm not joking. The notion that Amazon is somehow at fault for folks in the UK and America having less-than-adventurous literary tastes is preposterous. Are we to believe that before the advent of the Internet folks were lining up at the mom and pop bookstores across England to buy the latest from Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan and now they're all buying television celebrity cookbooks? Because that's what this would seem to imply:
Comparing the list from 1998 with any of those from the 2000s makes for sober reading. Ian McEwan and Tom Wolfe had the bestselling books that freshman year, alongside staples such as Delia Smith and Terry Pratchett. It seems a good-ish list, a varied bunch of titles that seem to aspire to be the best of their particular genre. As such it is an anomaly - almost every other year is a depressing mixture of cookbooks, humour titles and celebrity cash ins; titles that seem, at least to me, that they would much prefer to be DVDs.
I'd argue that we're not seeing changing tastes but rather a larger, more varied user base. Amazon hasn't changed us, we've changed Amazon. The Internet has exploded since 1998. Far more people have access and are making far more of their purchases online. Naturally this leads to more buying of the "depressing mixture" on Amazon, books that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Seems pretty basic to me. Blaming Amazon for that is foolish.

And anyone who is going to buy a book solely because it happens to be on some Amazon Top 10 list is a boob anyway and isn't likely to buy the kind of serious novels this Evers chap approves of. There are certainly good reasons to be critical of Amazon, but this is not one of them.

Terror & Espionage

Writers pen protests at UK terror bill
In an unprecedented outpouring of anger, 42 of the UK's most celebrated writers will each publish a short story, essay or poem tomorrow attacking the government's determination to proceed with legislation to hold terrorist suspects without charge for 42 days. The list of writers taking part reads like a literary 'Who's Who' of modern Britain. They include Philip Pullman, Julian Barnes, Monica Ali, Ian Rankin, Alain de Botton, Ali Smith and AL Kennedy...

What has until now largely been a political row is fast becoming a cause célèbre for Britain's literary establishment, who are flexing their intellectual muscles in a manner not seen since leading figures in the arts world regularly clashed with the Thatcher government in the Eighties.
The House of Lords, apparently swayed by the essay of Alain de Botton, quash the terror bill.

Report Says Acclaimed Czech Writer Informed on a Supposed Spy
In a revelation that could tarnish the legacy of one of the best-known Eastern European writers, a Czech research institute published a report on Monday indicating that the young Milan Kundera told the police about a supposed spy.

According to the state-backed Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, in 1950, long before he became famous for darkly comic novels like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Joke,” Mr. Kundera, who was then 21, told the local police about a guest in a student dormitory where he lived.
Kundera denies he reported a western spy in 1950
"I'm completely shocked by something I didn't expect, something I didn't know about as recently as yesterday, something that never happened. I didn't know that person at all," Kundera told the agency, adding he has no idea why police records quote him as the informer.

He was overrated anyway.

Sunday, October 12

Should libraries abandon rules of silence?

Apparently a British pol by the name of Andy Burnham thinks so. The Guardian's Andrew Brown excoriates the chap thusly:
His speech to the Public Library Authority conference in Blackpool yesterday was a typical modern politician's fusion of straightforward lying with management jargon: "In the internet age, shared experiences and a shared sense of place are more important than ever. Libraries are ideally placed to be that – a welcoming and stimulating place at the heart of the community where people can come together to learn," he said.

This manages both to misunderstand what libraries and learning are, but also what the internet is and does. The whole point about the net is that, like books, it gives people a shared space and a shared experience that is not physical. If I sit in an internet cafe – or even, God forbid, an office – and talk to someone on the net, I am far closer to the person to whom I am talking than to the noble workers on each side of me, who would never dream of emailing gossip in the middle of a working day. When I read a book, I am communing with the author, and perhaps with all the other readers, not with anyone else in the railway carriage.
The bottom line is this, "when studying needs outside stimulus, you take the book away from the library, a service they already offer."

And there's more from the Guardian. Here's Charlotte Leslie:
The tragedy of all this is that the "chatter" that Burnham wants to bring into our libraries is already available in coffee shops and in many bookshops. There has been a proliferation of places which encourage web browsing and reading in a chatty environment; there is no need for libraries to replicate this. By all means, let libraries have a cafe attached where books can be taken off the shelves and read. But there is no reason for Burnham to deny people the space for quiet thought.

This is social discrimination. The well-off will still be able to access silence – for example in a room of their spacious detached house, or their country escape. My local libraries in Bristol are often peopled with GCSE students who can't find a quiet place at home to work. These are often students living in the smallest houses, from the least well-off backgrounds. Denying these children the space and silence to study and contemplate the past that the better-off may be able to find in a spare room of their house is nothing short of social discrimination at its worst. Silent libraries will become the preserve of top universities only. Burnham will be dragging us back to before the age of improvement, to a time when only the elite could afford silence.

Le Clezio, Portrait Of A Gentle Writer

NPR's Weekend Edition offers a brief look into the life and work of the largely unknown (in America) Nobel Laureate in Literature.

"Ecological and trans-global concerns." A nomad. Gentle and shy. Happy to hang in the background, "Le Clezio's world is one of loners, exiles and refuges." I dig it. Now if I could just find Le Procès-Verbal in English.

Baldwin, Ellison, Obama and You

James Baldwin & Barack Obama
Although Obama mentions in passing in Dreams from My Father that he had read Baldwin when he was a young community activist in Chicago, there is no hint in the book that he modeled his own story in any way on Baldwin's work. In both of their versions of who they became in America and how, there are considerable similarities and shared key moments not because Obama was using Baldwin as a template or an example, but because the same hurdles and similar circumstances and the same moments of truth actually occurred almost naturally for both of them.

Invisible Man: How Ralph Ellison explains Barack Obama
The black candidate is rendered invisible to his white audience, a fact that would appear to leave him with little choice but to use that blindness in a strategic way if he wishes to lead. It is one of the outstanding ironies of Obama's story that his political rise has been fueled by a tactical grasp of the same racial logic that condemned Ellison's invisible man to living in a basement by himself. The blank screen approach that Obama has embraced works well in a moment dominated by the collapse of Wall Street and the Iraq war, issues for which all possible solutions seem unpalatable; what voters want is to feel that things will change, without too much uncomfortable detail about what will actually happen.

Thursday, October 9

Le Clézio

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Never heard of him. He's kinda got that Bond villain look and name. Stabs Le Clézio with his fountain pen "I think he got the point."

I want to learn more about this character:
In spite of his international fame, Le Clézio chose to stay away from fashionable literary circles, saying in an article in 1965: "Not yet sure if writing is a good way of expression." He taught at a Buddhist University in Thailand in 1966-67, at the University of Mexico, and at the Boston University, University of Texas, Austin, and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Since 1973 Le Clézio has divided his life between France, the U.S. and Mauritius. He has also traveled in Nigeria and Japan and published translations of Mayan sacred texts.
Buddhist University? Sacred Mayan texts? This ain't your average Gaul. I was ready to pan the selection mostly because I find his name silly. Alas, he sounds like an interesting fellow: "His work reflects ecological concerns, rebellion against the intolerance of Western nationalist thought, and his fascination with Native Americans."

Tuesday, October 7

Three worth a read

Using Video Games as Bait to Hook Readers
Doubtful teachers and literacy experts question how effective it is to use an overwhelmingly visual medium to connect youngsters to the written word. They suggest that while a handful of players might be motivated to pick up a book, many more will skip the text and go straight to the game. Others suggest that video games detract from the experience of being wholly immersed in a book.
Agreed. Gaming is an alternative to reading; a diversion from it, not a gateway to it. There is no doubt that the skills gaming can teach, like critical thinking, media literacy, strategery, salty snackery and hermitishness, can be valuable in life, but reading is reading.

The Swedes have no clue about American literature
As long as America could still be regarded as Europe's backwater—as long as a poet like T.S. Eliot had to leave America for England in order to become famous enough to win the Nobel—it was easy to give American literature the occasional pat on the head. But now that the situation is reversed, and it is Europe that looks culturally, economically, and politically dependent on the United States, European pride can be assuaged only by pretending that American literature doesn't exist. When Engdahl declares, "You can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world," there is a poignant echo of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard insisting that she is still big, it's the pictures that got smaller.
Amen. Suck on it Sweden. And there's more! "Unless and until Roth gets the Nobel Prize, there's no reason for Americans to pay attention to any insults from the Swedes." You hear that Björn Borg, no longer shall you deride my backhand. At least not until Roth gets his Nobel.

The Ambition of the Short Story
Modest in its pretensions, shyly proud of its petite virtues, a trifle anxious in relation to its brash rival, it contents itself with sitting back and letting the novel take on the big world. And yet, and yet. That modest pose — am I mistaken, or is it a little overdone? Those glancing-away looks — do they contain a touch of slyness? Can it be that the little short story dares to have ambitions of its own? If so, it will never admit them openly, because of a sharp instinct for self-protection, a long habit of secrecy bred by oppression. In a world ruled by swaggering novels, smallness has learned to make its way cautiously.
The ambition of the essay? Still at large. Zzzzzzzz. You're better than this, Millhauser.

Friday, October 3

Home again

Now is probably not the time for me to be reading Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides' wonderful-so-far heredity tracing coming of age with too many parts story. Because it's set in Detroit! (once the family in the story scoots overseas from more Greek(-ish?) parts of the world. I'm homesick, and this Middlesex business certainly makes it worse. I don't know if it's good or bad that I am heading back to Michigan this weekend, because the trip is painfully short.

But the familiar places (Woodward. I almost tear up just at the word!) are allowing me to imagine myself back home, and it feels good - in a painful, painful way. I think the story is heading towards some pain as well. Not that there has been a lack of hard times. War, genocide, incest, financial ruin. What's old is new again!

Wednesday, October 1

Why does God hate books?

Pullman defiant over US protests against Northern Lights
Pullman said that banning a book on religious grounds was "the worst reason of the lot".

"Religion grants its adherents malign, intoxicating and morally corrosive sensations. Destroying intellectual freedom is always evil, but only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good," he said.

Muhammad novel publisher undeterred by firebomb attack
The publisher whose home was targeted in a firebomb attack on Saturday will be going ahead with putting out a controversial novel about the child bride of Muhammad next month, despite this weekend's events.

London-based Gibson Square acquired journalist Sherry Jones's novel The Jewel of Medina earlier this month after Random House US dropped the novel following warnings that it could provoke terrorist actions from radical Muslims.

Book ban ends rare Arab-Israeli cultural exchange
For 15 years Israeli Saleh Abbasi has traded books between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, fostering a rare cultural link.

But in August Israeli authorities suddenly refused to renew his trading license because he was trading with "enemy" states Lebanon and Syria, frustrating both Abbasi's business and the Arab and Israeli readers he has helped interest in each other's literary traditions.

Tuesday, September 30


Nobel literature head: US too insular to compete
STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) - Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.

Counters the head of the U.S. National Book Foundation: "Put him in touch with me, and I'll send him a reading list."

As the Swedish Academy enters final deliberations for this year's award, permanent secretary Horace Engdahl said it's no coincidence that most winners are European.

"Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States," he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday.

He said the 16-member award jury has not selected this year's winner, and dropped no hints about who was on the short list. Americans Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates usually figure in speculation, but Engdahl wouldn't comment on any names.
In other news, Sarah Palin either doesn't read or is ashamed of what she reads. But in all seriousness Vast Variety of Sources has long been one of my favorite news weeklies. It's hard to pinpoint what I like about it so much but I really do enjoy how it's sources are so vast and varied!


In recent days I have read a couple of negative reviews of Philip Roth's new novel, Indignation. This disappointed me because I've been excited to read it. It's been described as a return to the Roth's old days, a move away from the geriatric set, back to the world of Portnoy, or something close to it (read: excessive masturbation). This is the kind of Roth I enjoy most. Perhaps it's not his best writing but it's his most fun. I wanted to see if the bulk of reviews had been equally cool towards Indignation as those I had read. I went to Metacritic, whereupon landing on the Books page I was met with the following notice: "Metacritic's regular coverage of Books has concluded with the final Harry Potter installment." That's exactly how I felt: "Books has concluded with the final Harry Potter installment." Over. Done. Nothing more to say on the subject.

Anyway, I visited to The Complete Review and it appears that the two reviews I read were, in fact, the most negative. As with other recent Roth efforts it seems this book is generating a wide spectrum of responses from the critics.

Here is a sampling from the Independent:
So the story rushes heedlessly and humourlessly on. Like a miner who puts up no pit props, there is always a danger of the story collapsing behind him, and it does. (...) The book is a tragedy, but not in the way Roth intended.

Of lists good and less good

Way back in January the Globe and Mail began publishing a list of the 50 greatest books. Their latest is the 38th entry and it's a good one:

The Social Contract (1762) is a masterpiece of one of the most fascinating of writers.

The thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was world-breaking and world-making. His effect on his own age was seismic, and the tremors have never subsided.

To proclaim him the intellectual founder of the modern left is actually to understate his accomplishments.

There was no other thinker in whom so many modern impulses converged, only to emerge transformed, still more modern, more radical, more dangerous and enticing.

For all his vast influence on the 19th century, much in his thought was so farsighted that it came to be appreciated only in the late 20th.

Another list of 50 that I've been keeping tabs on is the Columbia Spectator's 50 States of Literature. After a summer break they recently resumed, offering up their selection for Massachusetts, the Bay State, my home state. Whatever one can say about the selection of Mystic River, it must begin with "eff" and end with "that." A silly choice. No historical perspective. Freaking Alabama gets To Kill a Mockingbird, a certified American classic, and Massachusetts, the birthplace of America, gets genre fiction. What, is The Scarlett Letter too puritanical? Moby-Dick too boring? The Human Stain too brilliant? The Wapshot Chronicle too WASPy? Jerkoffs.

Saturday, September 27

Clash of the literary Titans


Two of the most self-promoting, outspoken, and hated, men in France will go head-to-head next month in a literary "clash of the Titans".

The re-make of Godzilla vs King Kong will pit Michel Houellebecq, dishevelled curmudgeon and best-selling novelist, against Bernard-Henri Levy, dandy philosopher and telegenic human rights activist.

Their joint book, Ennemis Publics, has been the subject of a masterful "advertease" campaign for the past three months. The publishers, Flammarion, let slip in June that they were printing 150,000 copies of a hush-hush, two-handed book. Even before the identity of the writers was known, bookshops placed orders for 100,000 copies, guaranteeing the tome best-selling status in France.

The book, it was rumoured, was to be a dialogue between Houellebecq and the First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy; or between Houellebecq and the former prime minister, Lionel Jospin; or – most improbably of all – between Houellebecq and his mother, who described him as a petit con (little prick) in a book earlier this year.

It has finally been revealed that the 336-page book, to be published on 8 October, will be an exchange of letters between Houellebecq, 52, and Levy, 60, in which they savage the reputations of French literary and political figures – and occasionally one another.

Friday, September 26

"She makes George W Bush sound like Cicero."

"When the un-teleprompted Palin talks, I can’t help but think of that dig from E. M. Forster’s Howards End—the character Helen talking (page 22 of the Penguin edition): 'I felt for a moment that the whole Wilcox family was a fraud, just a wall of newspapers and motor-cars and golf-clubs, and that if it fell I should find nothing behind it but panic and emptiness.'"
- Slog

"We are in danger of going from a nation where the first lady is a former librarian to one where the vice president is a character in Fahrenheit 451. Clearly, this is what they mean by change you can believe in."
- Jacket Copy

"As I listened to Sarah Palin in her recent interview with Katie Couric, an image kept coming to my mind of the fictional character Chauncey Gardener... (a gardener in life,whose real name appropriately is "Chance") had never been outside the urban estate where he had gardened all his life. When as an adult he is forced to leave, he discovers a world very different than his own, and through a series of misfortunes he meets the the world of elite political insiders who are charmed by his simplicity. A man of few words (and thoughts) he responds through both simple life statements (compare: the Palin statement that Alaska is next to Russia) as well as the parroting back of details posed in his questioners' queries (compare the Couric interview)."
- Daily Kos

"Lady Macbeth is Macbeth’s Sarah Palin; a pit bull in lipstick if you will. Acting for all intents and purposes as his second in the plot to kill Duncan and usurp the Scottish crown, she is often more than willing to abandon the moral high ground in any given situation for the sake of power and ambition."
- All the Presidents' Books

Thursday, September 25

No leo los diarios

I was reading A.O. Scott's essay on David Foster Wallace from last Sunday's Times and was struck by the first paragraph:
Reviewing a biography of Jorge Luis Borges in The New York Times Book Review a few years back, David Foster Wallace attacked the standard biographical procedure of mining the lives of writers for clues to their work, and vice versa. Borges’s stories, he insisted, “so completely transcend their motive cause that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant.”
An interesting assessment. After all, in Borges we're talking about a man who was probably denied the Nobel Prize in Literature due to his political beliefs. Indeed, one could argue that Borges' writing was so fantastical because of his stubborn avoidance of the real world. This is a man who enthusiastically endorsed General Pinochet and remained largely ignorant of the horrors of his regime.

I recently read Clive James' essay on Borges in Cultural Amnesia, in which he writes:
Borges did fear the bitterness of reality, and he did take refuge in an invented world... In Borges the near past scarcely exists: in that respect his historical sense, like his Buenos Aires, is without contemporaneity. His political landscape is a depopulated marble ghost-town remembered from childhood, spooky hieratic like the cemetary in Recoleta. Before he went blind he would still walk the streets, but usually only at night, to minimize the chance of actually meeting anyone. In his stories, the moments of passion, fear pity and terror belong to the long-vanished world of knife fighters. Death squads and torture are not in the inventory. The timescale ends not long after he was born.
I think I had more to say when I began this post but I've run out of steam. I just saw more of the Palin/Couric interview and I am in such a state of astonishment that my inability to string together a coherent thought is downright Palinian. Anyway, none of this has anything to do with the man we began with, David Foster Wallace. It you would like to read about that him, read this. It's written by Book-Loop's own Bryan Joiner, a fellow who once read Infinite Jest in one sitting, or maybe it only seemed that way.

BHL's Town Hall summit

One makes a joke about “that beloved sitcom scenario where the protagonist attends two book readings at the same time” on opposite ends of the city, and then he unexpectedly enters a scenario very much like that only a few hours later.

I got off the bus several stops prior to where I normally disembark on my way home from work. I hoofed it about a mile and a half to the University District, snacking on a honey crisp apple and enjoying the sites along the way. I need to spend more time in the U-District, there is much inspiration, in many shapes and sizes, can be found in those environs.

I arrived at the University Book Store about 80 minutes prior to the scheduled start time of Bernard-Henri Levy’s book reading. I’d never been to a reading at this bookstore and my plan was to scout out the book reading area, browse through the merchandise for a spell, and then myself a seat while there was still a seat to be had.

I was surprised to find only a couple dozen chairs sequestered in a corner on the second floor. It was a setup that suggested a gathering far too small for a man of Levy’s fame. It was also odd that those who were assembled in the corner were noticeably greasier, lumpier and less particular about their garments than your average leftist—a couple of baggy black tees with animal prints in the bunch. Stranger still, the table of voluminous fantasy novels penned by an unknown writer. I didn’t know much about this Frenchman I was there to hear speak, but I was pretty certain he hadn’t penned any fantasy novels under a pseudonym.

And then it dawned on me. The Stranger had lied to me. There was to be no Frenchman at the University Bookstore on Monday night. Instead, some second-rate fantasy fabulist was there to entertain his begreased minions. As I scrambled to find the bookstore’s calendar of events my expression no doubt resembled that of a toddler who had dropped his ice cream cone on the ground. Locating the calendar, I saw that in less than an hour Lévy would be speaking at Town Hall, a downtown community culture center a bus ride plus eight blocks away.

I dashed out to catch a bus downtown. Once downtown I did my best Olympic race walk impersonation. Once at Town Hall I discovered that there was a $5 fee to hear the Frenchman speak. I had but $3 in my pocket and this was a cash only transaction. Back outside now. Roaming the streets for an ATM. ATM located. Money procured. Ticker bought. Seat found. Back center. Lights down. Frenchman enters.

A public intellectual of great tabloid fame in France (think Paris Hilton plus intellect and a pair or testicles) Lévy has a reputation as a dilettante, a dandy and an egoist. I saw little Monday night that dissuaded me from taking this opinion myself. He was dressed in his customary designer suit with white dress shirt unbuttoned and, yes, he fixed his hair on at least two occasions.

Throughout his dialogue Lévy he struck me more as a critic of philosophy than a philosopher. To call him a philosopher would be like calling Roger Ebert a filmmaker. There was not a tremendous amount of philosophical substance to his words. He was congenial and animated and to spend ninety minutes in a room with him was to know that you were in the presence of a luminary—pseudo-intellectual other otherwise.

Lévy’s most salient talking points were on the European left’s misguided anti-Americanism, the mistreatment of women in Muslim nations, the increase of anti-semitism in Europe, the inauspicious rise of nationalism and tribalism, the regrettable lack of international aid for Darfur and the left’s fixation on the plight of the Palestinians and total ignorance about numerous other cases of victimhood. He believes strongly that the most important aims for the left must be internationalism (and the dismissal of national boundaries) and to always be on the side of the oppressed everywhere and adamantly in support of human rights.

The largest reaction from the crowd came during a story about Nicolas Sarkozy giving him a call to ask for his endorsement. “In France the politicians actually ask writers for an endorsement,” he said. “This is an advantage we have over you. I don’t think we’re likely to see Sarah Palin call Philip Roth to ask for his endorsement.” Chicken soul for the soul of liberal elites, it was. I laughed.

But there’s more to this Sarkozy chat. According to Wikipedia:
Levy told The Australian that the [his new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism] grew out of a phone call he received from Nicolas Sarkozy on January 23, 2007 asking for his support in the Presidential campaign. Levy responded that, "no matter how much I like and respect you, the Left is my family." to which Sarkozy replied, "These people who've spent 30 years telling you to go (expletive) yourself? Do you really believe what you're saying, that these people are your family?"

The phone call set Levy thinking, and he concluded that his abiding commitment to the left is rooted in his "adherence to the freedom and dignity of the individual, anti-fascism, anti-colonialism and 'the anti-totalitarianism that is the legacy of May '68 '."
Lévy rose to fame in 1977 with his book Barbarism with a Human Face, in which he argued that Marxism was inherently corrupt. On Monday he read from his new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism and argued passionately and sometimes persuasively that in the aftermath of the fall of communism the left has lost its way entirely and now posses a threat to liberal values everywhere.

In the middle of a presidential campaign where the enemy is so clearly the right, it was refreshing to take a step back and scrutinize the left on an international scale. I get the impression that Lévy is a polarizing figure, but I left fairly neutral about the man and his views. I agreed with some ideas, disagreed with others. I was thoroughly entertained but a little put off by his foppishness. I’m in no hurry to buy any of his books, but I’d gladly listen to him speak next time he rolls through town.

Further reading
A Letter to the American Left
Benard-Henri Lévy on Charlie Rose over a year ago
The Lies of Bernard-Henri Lévy
Mediocracy in America