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

Monday, September 22

décision difficile

I've got a tough decision coming up this evening, friends. The Stranger breaks down my options in their typically pithful fashion:

Bernard-Henri Lévy
7:30 pm
The fantastical French thinker is back with Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.

Chuck Klosterman
7:30 pm
The inexplicably popular essayist reads from his new novel, Downtown Owl.

So I'm sure you see the predicament I'm in. If I go see the frenchman, people will think I'm elitist and, worse still, leftist. If I attend the midwesterner's reading, sure, it will help create the illusion that I'm a populist and bereft of a single controversial opinion outside the realm of Saved by the Bell, but I might emerge dumber for it. My father was telling me about how he enjoyed hearing the frenchman on NPR yesterday morning. He sounded envious when I mentioned that I might go see him read this evening. But I think I've already got the Jewish europhile vote in the bag. The midwesterner broadens my reach into the halfhearted hipster crowd. Decisions, decisions.

It is important to note that the frenchman's reading will be taking place at the University Book Store, while the midwesterner will be at Elliott Bay Book Company. These locations are on opposite ends of the city, therefore I won't have the opportunity to utilize that beloved sitcom scenario where the protagonist attends two book readings at the same time to simultaneously curry favor with disparate literary crowds.

But seriously, I'm going to see the french dude and I am trés enthousiaste.

Friday, September 19

Cultural Amnesia

Yesterday, a cool, cloudy day that called an end to summer in Seattle, was as surreal a Thursday as I have had in some time.

I attended a staff meeting with 23,000 of my closest friends. It was hosted by Rainn Wilson, who began the proceedings by blasting giant plumes of fire from six stanchions on either of the crowd. It was a moment of forced exuberance for the meeting's attendants, exuberance that could not be sustained once the flames settled and the speakers' smoke-blowing began.

We were privy to the world premier of a new ad campaign—more than a year in the making, apparently. The moment Mr. Wilson donned a Seattle Mariners ballcap and jersey and began karaokeing and dancing to Young M.C.'s hiphop classic Bust a Move, a number of thoughts raced through my head, the most interesting of which was, "How the fuck did I get here?" As the procession of speakers continued, this feeling only grew more prominent. It was no doubt a feeling similar to what a certain senator from the Nutmeg State was confronted with a few moments into Rudolph Guilliani insane blatherings at the RNC.

Morally dissonant, perhaps, but all in all, the affair was not nearly as cultish as I had feared. I opted not to take home the complementary red scarf.

Anyway, books, books, books! I bought one at Elliott Bay on the way home from Safeco. It began as a bathroom stop (the ungodly lines for the gentlemen's restroom at the stadium made it abundantly clear how skewed the male-to-female ratio was at this gatherings) but I lingered for a while and eventually exited with Clive James' Cultural Amnesia. Until just moments ago it was lost on me that this title could be read as a diagnosis of those whose company I just left.

Kidding aside, this is a very special book, friends. James, an Australian author, poet, critic and television personality spends 800+ pages on scholarly riffing on fascinating figures from the 20th century. The essays are organized in alphabetical order by subject, from Stalin-era Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to Austrain writer Stefan Zweig, with the likes of Coco Chanel, Mao Zedong, Duke Ellington and Marcel Proust in between. To label book a collection of "biographical essays" does it a tremendous disservice, makes it sound too simple, too dull. The essays focus less on the lives and ideas of the individual than on the larger themes of the century. Each essay's subject provides James a launchpad for discussing, well, whatever he wants. For example, the essay on homeless, womanizing Austrian poet Richard Altenburg ruminates on theories of love and lust in the 20th century; the essay on Louis Armstrong becomes as much about white jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and the role race played in jazz music. Magnificent stuff and trick is really in the way that he succeeds in making all these essays so interconnected, these lives so interdependent.

I read from James' book as I waited to hear a reading by Paul Auster at Seattle Public Library. Paul Auster detective or Paul Auster the writer? There wasn't a Q&A session so I wasn't ablle to ask. He read from his new book, Man in the Dark. The man is great reader and he's got some gravitas to him. The book didn't seem terribly interesting, but both Auster and the fellow who introduced him admitted that they were not really capable of describing it. However, there were some passages that Auster read on the role of inanimate objects in film (specifically in the Grand Illusion, The Bicyle Thief, The World of Apu and Tokyo Story) that was some of the finest writing on film I've encountered. He description of the watch in Tokyo Story was so moving (and the way he read it so tener) that Ozu himself would have been moved. Seriously, I might buy the book just for those passages.

Monday, September 8

Oh Man

Hi Guys!
It's been a long, long time, hasn't it?
Well, now that I actually have access to the internet at fairly regular intervals, I figured I might re-enter this conversation.
Because here in Bulgaria, I have a LOT of time and I spend most of it reading and eating really good yogurt.
But anyway, being surrounded by Cyrillic and constantly hearing about the country's 'glory days' under Communism, I wanted to do something Russian. So I gave Tolstoy a go and read Anna Karenina. I'm assuming most people have, as I'm pretty behind the curve in terms of my eastern lit. But this book admittedly did not thrill me. In fact, the only real climax came from half-glancing at the last page and throwing it into the corner, 'finished,' three months after I started it. It's one of the few books I've EVER read in which I came away without liking a single character. And especially if Tolstoy represents himself with that Levin dude do I cringe at the thought of reading another Russian classic.
But I am open to suggestions! As I said, I have the hours to put away an entire library.
And mostly I just wanted to say hi to you guys. Miss you!

Tuesday, August 12

McSweeney's 25; Haiku review

"The Ape Man," Alexander MacBride

Exchanged at birth death
Polar leaders - one evil?
Steel away - tree rage

Tuesday, July 22

Reviewing the Reviewer Review

No, I'm not actually reviewing, just...sending you along. To this article from Salon on Mr. James Wood, a figure I really know nothing about, yet somehow recognize. When I read that name, somehow I already know what he is, osmosis having done its job and brain-burrowed that knowledge over time.

Well, the book sounds lovely, and I think I will have to seek it out, for it's something that I need. That's been my problem always in talking about writing. And not just talkin aloud - my internal dialogue stammers too. Maybe this manual of sorts could help me breathe deep and relax my shoulders; it feels so good to really let them fall. And read.

So a preface to my next fiction adventure, perhaps. Now, though, it's non-fiction's turn with my attention. Dreams from My Father has been a calm delight so far, about 61 pages in. I hope to proceed quickly and move on to the manifesto. Hopeful projections from this point portend that The Audacity of Hope will be thoughtfully devastating.

Saturday, March 8

Next time I'll buy it

"In the year 2021 a multinational fleet—experimenting with untested weapons technology—pitched through time, crash-landing in 1942. The world is thrown into chaos as Roosevelt, Hitler, Churchill, Tojo, and Stalin scramble to adapt to new, high-tech killing tools, and twenty-first-century ways of war."

That, my friends, is what I read just now in the grocery store checkout line when I picked up a copy of Final Impact, The Axis of Time Trilogy, Book 3. I didn't buy it, worried that perhaps I needed to first read books 1 and 2 to get the full impact(!), but I now regret it. One Amazon reviewer calls the book "Fair but unrealistic." To which I say, What could possibly be more realistic than a multinational fleet—experimenting with untested weapons technology—crash-landing in 1942?

Friday, March 7

Bros. K glass half...Russian

Ok, no it's fully Russian. Man oh man this book is Russian! I know this because I'm still reading it. No, I have not given up. This post is not really substantial, I just wanted to announce that it is March 6th and I am halfway done, and I feel pretty good about that. Thing is long.

Ok one thought: people were super dramatic before they had TV to watch.

Thursday, March 6

George W. Bush Presidential Library

More here.

Nazi Literature in the Americas

The Washington Post reviews the latest Roberto Bolaño book to be translated to English:
The book purports to be a biographical dictionary gathering 30 brief accounts of poets, novelists and editors (all fictional) who espouse fascist or extremely right-wing political views. While several meet violent ends, most are simply deluded sentimentalists and frustrated litterateurs. They come from all the Latin American countries, but at least a half-dozen are citizens of these United States, including the fanatical preacher Rory Long, the poet and football player Jim O'Bannon, the science fiction writer J.M.S. Hill and the founder of the Aryan Brotherhood, Thomas R. Murchison, alias The Texan.

Wednesday, March 5


I know Tony Millionaire from his Illustrations of The Believer, the McSweeney's lit mag beloved by the 'Loop. Apparently he writes full-on comics as well. Jesse Thorn (best known for his work on our comments boards) interviews this wealthy gent on his radio program, The Sound of Young America (syntax for radio programs...anyone?). I haven't listened yet, but I would wager it's an interesting interview. Tune your radio dial to "Internet."

Monday, March 3

Ah, Millhauser! There's someone I should read

The parody biography is my genre of choice. I picked up Edwin Mullhouse at the library several months ago but quickly put it back. I shall have to pick it up again .... and read it before I put it back. Here the Times reviews Millhauser's latest short story collection and closes with the following assessment of Mullhouse:
Millhauser began his unusual voyage in 1972 with the parody biography “Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954,” supposedly written by Mullhouse’s precocious contemporary Jeffrey Cartwright. All the themes Millhauser would work in later years can be found in that first book: the unstable self, the knife’s-edge difference between reality and dreams, the power of hysterical young people. The way Millhauser conveyed a suburban world where the quiet slippage of the self was a greater threat than violence hardly fit that era. His characters didn’t turn on or tune in. They lived under the indifferent Connecticut sky, moored to reality by their thoughts and their books. is here!

About this episode: We "travel" across the world with some of the country's best novelists. This episode features fiction that takes us to the Lower East Side of New York, a midwestern college campus, the bustling stock exchange of Shanghai, and the neon streets of Las Vegas.

50 states of literature

Two recent additions to the Spectator's 50 books for 50 states project.

Nancy Lord’s short stories, collected in The Man Who Swam With Beavers, despite spanning years, locations, and all sorts of protagonists (both human and animal), are connected by their basis in Eskimo folktales and their evocation, both figurative and literal, of the Alaskan wilderness.

Barbara Kingsolver, of
The Poisonwood Bible fame, wrote The Bean Trees about finding salvation in an ostensibly barren situation—appropriately, this low-key debut novel is set in Arizona.

Wednesday, February 27

Cormac was so fucking happy

I must admit, I shed a tear when I saw him giving that standing ovation. And I'm not even all up in his oeuvre like that. But there's something really beautiful about a reclusive dude showing up at the Oscars and mugging it up a bit. Bravo, Cormac.

Sunday, February 24

HarperCollins, where authenticty goes to die

Liars suck. But worse than liars are soulless, disingenuous, obfuscating dipshits. For more on soulless, disingenuous, obfuscating dipshits, please read the following paragraph:
Susan Katz, publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said she was not concerned about a possible backlash against corporate sponsorship in books aimed at such a young audience. “If you look at Web sites, general media or television, corporate sponsorship or some sort of advertising is totally embedded in the world that tweens live in,” Ms. Katz said. “It gives us another opportunity for authenticity.”

Ah, authenticity! That's a great buzzword for the decline of human civilization! If we're gonna go down, we might as well go down authentically, mouthes open, happy to accept the marketing medicine that the corporate powers are generous enough to spoon feed us. Yum!

NO! Marketing is by definition the very opposite of authentic. This is so sad. Please, give the kids a book and allow them to escape the treacherous world of corporate oligarchy for a moment. Do not actively try to completely engulf our youth in the trafficking of material opiates. We are living in a distopia, friends. Capitalism has won. Humans have lost. Honestly, we didn't even put up a fight. I blame Susan Katz

Full Times article here.

The Elementary Particles

The Elementary Particles is a tale of two French half brothers who have only a glancing relationship with one another. Bruno Clément is a sometimes schoolteacher and full-time sex addict, Michel Djerzinski is a hermitic molecular biologist who changes the course of human existence. Somewhat less successfully, The Elementary Particles is an indictment of human society, probing topics such as the decay of civilization, the decline of religion, and the rise of consumerism and materialism. The novel packs quite a punch but is ultimately frustrating and uneven. I reject much of what Houellebecq espouses but I can understand why many find him brilliant.

Michiko Kakutani did not enjoy this book. In fact, it sounds like she hated it, "As a piece of writing, The Elementary Particles feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read."

I can’t really disagree with that. Nor, however, can I disagree with Paul Gent's assessment in the Sunday Telegraph, "Again and again Houellebecq digs below our platitudes to expose the raw and uncomfortable feelings we are often afraid to admit to ourselves. His bitterness is that of the disappointed idealist. You may remain convinced that Houellebecq is wrong in his relentlessly bleak assessment of society and human nature. But the novel makes you re-examine your beliefs, which is the kind of bracing challenge that literature is for. This is a brave and rather magnificent book."

It is a repugnant read. Houellebecq's nihilism is unpleasant, his characters are miserable human beings, and the multitude of pornographic passages can be off-putting. But there's a boldness here that is to be admired to go along with pleasing rations of humor. Houellebecq is not someone I would like to have tea with but sharing 264 pages with him was more than tolerable. The epilogue, detailing the extreme step taken to save humanity from its downfall, is bleak yet oddly beautiful. So, too, is the rest of the novel.

Saturday, February 23

Pseudonym surprise

There's this fellow by the name of Robert McChesney. He's a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has authored a number of books on the political economy of media. I read a few of these books in college, including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. More recently McChesney edited a fascinating book called The Future of Media. He's also the founder of Free Press and a personal hero of mine.

There's this fellow that goes by the name of Elrod Enchilada who writes about the Boston Celtics for Real GM.

Turns out Mr. McChesney and Mr. Enchilada are the same damn person! Maybe I was supposed to know this already. I did not. Consider my mind blown.

Here are McChesney's articles for The Nation.

Here's a clip of McChesney discussing the press's failure to cover the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.

Here's part one of a five part video on hypercommercialism in Hollywood that features McChesney and my Comm 101 professor, Susan Douglas.

Tuesday, February 19

Pornography on the autobus

Picture a bus packed with white collar workers tapping away on their laptops, getting a head start on the workday. Then picture me, wedged betwixt two such laptop tappers, doing my best to conceal the pornographic text of Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles.

I knew the book had "caused an uproar in France" and I gleaned from the back cover that one of the characters was a "raucously promiscuous hedonist." Even so, I could not have been less prepared for the events that begin in a jacuzzi, continue with discussion of Krause's corpuscles, and conclude with talk of saggy labia. I'm enjoying the book, but gawd damn it makes for uncomfortable bus reading. The wandering eyes of strangers, they make me nervous. To say nothing of the potential for embarrassment when I rise to exit the bus...

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar

They have a blog!

Sunday, February 10


The King of Kong, a delightful little documentary about obsession and cliquishness in the cutthroat world of competitive gaming. I found it gripping and often hilarious when I watched it a couple weeks back but never once did I think it a paragon of objective documentary filmmaking. The Good vs. Evil, knock-down-drag-out drama that unfolds does wonders for the entertainment value, thus I was not complaining. But Billy Mitchell, the fellow who takes the form of evil in this picture, is.

Interesting dilemma, that. Walking the line between portraying those your documenting in the most accurate light and telling the most engaging tale. We are talking here about a cinematic tradition with a troubled lineage that includes the staged depictions of Inuit life in Nanook of the North, the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl, and, far more recently, the less than objective ouvre of Michael Moore. Ubergeek Billy Mitchell is hardly the first whose life has been manipulated on the big screen.

This question about the betrayal of reality in favor of telling the story one has their heart set on has got me thinking, fittingly enough, about the world of fiction. Specifically the untrustworthy narrator. Twain's young narrators Huck and Tom, The Sound and the Fury's mentally retarded Benjy and Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby come to mind. What others can we come up with?

Saturday, February 9

Pleasure bursts

Finally picked up a copy of Bookforum. What a swell publication. I've read their online offerings for some time but it was nice to have a hard copy in my paws. I was inspired to procure an issue after the recent widespread blogosphere upset concerning Bookforum's announced changes. Having now read a volume myself I agree that a move towards current events would be unfortunate. Anyway, as a Bartheleme fan I particularly enjoyed "The Beastly Beatitudes of Donald B."

The most instructive and valuable entry in the McSweeney’s comes from, yes, George Saunders, the outlaw nephew, who suspensefully analyzes the story “The School”—“How’s he going to take this Marx Brothers–quality romp and convert it at the last minute into a Postmodernist Masterpiece?”—and hits on Barthelme’s key stratagem: “Mr. Lesser Writer, in other words, realizing with joy that he has a pattern to work with, sits down to do some Thinking. Barthelme proceeds in a more spontaneous, vaudevillian manner. He knows that the pattern is just an excuse for the real work of the story, which is to give the reader a series of pleasure-bursts.”

Bang! Exactly! Spastic rhapsodies of silver staccato! Pleasure bursts are what it’s about in Barthelme, cherry bombs flung into a crowd of elegant pretenses to fend off unconditional surrender to the fetal curl of melancholy.

Pooh and Toad are friends

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride* was my favorite amusement at the Magic Kingdom prior to its closure and replacement by The Many Adventures of Mr. Pooh. Reviewing the tapes I can only shake my head at the softening of today's youth. Nevertheless, if anyone was to fill the shoes of Mr. Toad I am glad it could be Mr. Pooh. Of the hardbound books of my youth The Wind and the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh are surely the most worn. Did you know that A.A. Milne wrote Toad of Toad Hall, the stage adaptation of The Wind and the Willows. So you see, Mr. Toad and Mr. Pooh are practically related! At any rate, I bring this up because I was reminded of the ride when reading this piece on the "private torments" of Wind and the Willows author Kenneth Grahame in the Telegraph. Of Grahame's son we learn:

There has been speculation that the mercurial, manic and appallingly behaved Toad was a veiled portrait of Alastair himself. Certainly the boy was already exhibiting signs of peculiar behaviour.

One of his favourite games involved him lying down in the road in front of approaching cars and forcing them to stop. Stranger still, he had taken to calling himself Robinson, the name of the man who had shot at his father. (Several of the Toad letters are addressed to 'Darling Robinson'.) But it seems just as likely that Toad's exuberance was Grahame's own; he just didn't have an outlet for it anywhere else.

*The is obviously Disneyland, where, I am happy to inform you, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride remains intact.

Friday, February 8

L O S T: 'Confirmed Dead'

Hot off the presses, J. Wood on Powell's Blog:

Sawyer revives Charlie's 'Colonel Kurtz' quip about Locke, raising up the ghosts of previous discussions about Apocalypse Now, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and questions of post-colonialism, framing stories and point of view. Point of view may prove to be important; the opening scenes of "Confirmed Dead" give us multiple p.o.v.'s, starting with the underwater roving cameras surveying the crash, then Faraday's p.o.v. jumping onto the island, then Locke's p.o.v. staring up at the rain. We're moving quite a bit from a personal p.o.v. to a third-person p.o.v. If nothing else, it suggests that we the audience are now being brought a little deeper into the narrative by putting us inside the heads of characters a little more seamlessly, and not just inside their stories.

Media literacy

From the Guardian book blog, chatter regarding the inevitable takeover of the storytelling realm by video games. And the interesting assessment that we need "more real writers getting involved in making video games, not fewer." Also, thank you, Alastair Harper, for reminding me about Day of the Tentacle. What a freaking sweet game that was! And yet I had forgotten all about it. Anyway, Guardian blog:

When the popular novel was as new an idea as video games, the great and good were certain, as they were with early cinema, that no sophistication could come from this prose business, especially the sort of filth Samuel Richardson scribbled about.

They were proven wrong, as doubters will be about video games. As happened with comic books becoming graphic novels in the 80s, each year there are more developers willing to take risks with storylines, develop more complex moral situations and generally raise the bar so high that it's becoming plain ignorant for anyone interested in stories to ignore them.

Thursday, February 7

Oliver Sacks on Bookworm


Uberous prose

TLS reviews James Wood's How Fiction Works:

Wood is particularly good at analysing fictional register. He quotes from Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater:

"Lately, when Sabbath suckled at Drenka’s uberous breasts – uberous, the root word of exuberant, which is itself ex plus uberare, to be fruitful, to overflow like Juno lying prone in Tintoretto’s painting where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit – suckled with an unrelenting frenzy that caused Drenka to roll her head ecstatically back and to groan . . . “I feel it deep down in my cunt,” he was pierced by the sharpest of longings for his late little mother."

“What an amazingly blasphemous little mélange that is”, he writes.

"This sentence is really dirty, and partly because it conforms to the well-known definition of dirt – matter out of place, which is itself a definition of the mixing of high and low dictions . . . since the comedy of the subject-matter of the sentence involves moving from one register to another – from a lover’s breast to a mother’s – it is fitting that the style of the sentence mimics this scandalous shift . . . . Sabbath’s Theater is a passionate, intensely funny, repellent and very moving portrait of the scandal of male sexuality, which is repeatedly linked in the book to vitality itself. To be able to have an erection in the morning . . . to be able to persist in scandalising bourgeois morality . . . as the ageing Mickey does . . . is to be alive. And this sentence is utterly alive, and is alive by virtue of the way it scandalises proper norms."

Wednesday, February 6

Read this

The slippery slope of brain dope

Serious question, if we find out that Thomas Edison was brain-doping should we put an asterisks next to all his patents? The Toronto Star discusses how Barry Bonds' spirit is alive and well among intellectuals:

In the end, scientists and ethicists say it will be up to individuals to decide whether or not they will use cognitive-enhancing drugs. Several draw comparisons between taking brain-boosting meds and opting for cosmetic surgery; both essentially are about self-esteem.

Jeff Blackmer, director of ethics for the Canadian Medical Association, says cognitive enhancement is part of the overall trend to seek medical solutions for individual traits: Overweight people want a slimming pill; men with receding hairlines want a cure for baldness; students eager for higher marks will want a memory drug.

Self-esteem, sure, but brain-boosting and augmenting looks are also about getting ahead in the world: Landing the best job, finding the most desirable mate, making the most money, etc. Self-esteem, but also it is about the chase. In short, The Pursuit of the All-Time Home Run Record: Private Life Edition. It's often reported that Bonds began taking performance-enhancing drugs only after witnessing McGwire and Sosa go bonkers on the stuff. It seems likely that Bonds started down his slippery slope out of vanity. Essentially it was about self-esteem.

"the realm of some higher bullshit"

Ian McEwan chats with The Australian:

With a wince that suggests he was mystified as well as disgusted by what has been going on in academe, McEwan says the discussion and teaching of literature has taken a perverse, pseudo-scientific turn.

"Theory has taken hold of people's minds. So a language that is fairly repellent to the lay reader often makes it rather dull, and they are in the grip of other people's theories.

"I remember for a long stretch of time people would come to interview me, especially French, German, Italian journalists who were themselves quite academic, and they would say, 'What is your theory of the body?"' he recalls.

"And the fact that I have been asked that bit 10 times, you know that this is the latest thing. Before that they would say, 'Well, let's talk about the male gaze."'

At this point the gently spoken author's tone moves from puzzlement to full-on exasperation.

"That is when you know you are in the realm of some higher bullshit.

"And then suddenly, as if God had snapped his fingers, no one is asking you about the male gaze, no one is asking you about your theory of the body, because it's something else. And that is the danger of these theories. They have a shelf life of five years.

"I think this whole style of treating literature started in the mid-1980s and it swept right through, but now I think - I hope - it is dying."

Tuesday, February 5

"a kind of intellectual scrap heap"

The New Republic has some tough love for Lost:

Like cramming fistfuls of metaphysical crayons back into their tiny box, the Island on "Lost" can barely contain all the colorful epistemologies in its midst. It is a big stew of Philosophy 101's greatest hits: from Sartrean hell-is-other-people existentialism to Rousseauian empathy ("pitié"), Hobbesian brutality to Hume's rationalism, from the cold calculus of Millsian utilitarianism and Darwinist survival-of-the-fittest to the reassurance of Aquinas's God. You could drive yourself crazy thinking about characters with names like Hugo, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and Burke, or wondering why so many seem to be bystanders in the backgrounds of one another's lives-or, in one case, actually secretly related to each another. It's like the Monty Python sketch, "International Philosophy," in which Greek and German philosophers battle it out on the soccer field (Socrates's winning goal is contested by Hegel as not being an "a priori reality"). Back on "Lost" Philosophy Island, the implications are just as absurd: After all, if everything is imbued with meaning, then how meaningful is any one thing?

One can't disagree with any of that. And yet one of the qualities I find most endearing about the show is how oftentimes these references are delivered with a wink. As I've said before, I think most of the literary allusions are red herrings. But that's all part of the fun. It's like a scavenger hunt within the show. That the show is consistently exciting while taking the form of a collage of ideas philosophical, literary, religious and pop cultural is a testament to the skillful writing. By the way, we haven't discussed the season premiere yet, have we?

We are not alone

We Americans fret about our deteriorating education system and worry about our younger generation falling behind the rest of the world. Well apparently the Brits haven't been hitting the books so hard either. Oh how I long for the day America's youth can grow up with the comforting beliefs that George W. Bush is a mythical figure and that Homer Simpson was a real person.

Monday, February 4

Ah Brady! Ah humanity!

As philosopher-poet Emmitt Smith aptly put it, "The strength of the Patriots team got debacled.”

Indeed. A perfect season debacled to a pulp. Following the game Randy Moss spoke of licking wounds and returning next season for another go at it. How does one lick their wounds following a loss like this? Tom Brady engages in coitus with a super model. Junior Seau goes surfing. Logan Mankins prepares for a major deforestation project on his face. Bobby Knight resigns. Ben watches a couple episodes from season 3 of Deadwood, reads "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and listens to One Be Lo's The R.E.B.I.R.T.H.

Each helped me escape in their own way. They enabled me to get from the final gun, to a restless night's sleep, to work this morning, with as little thought given to the calamitous on-field events as possible. Inopportunely, my working life consists of closely monitoring a sports website. Thus, the multimedia fortress of solitude that I had so carefully constructed was rudely dismantled by a onslaught of low-grade explanations and trifling declarations concerning last evenings football contest.

And after consuming all of the tripe I come away thinking, What more really needed to be said than, "The strength of the Patriots team got debacled?”

Sunday, February 3

On regressive avant-garde*

The Sunday Times asks, Is Dave Eggers now the most influential man in literary circles?

So, what is it that makes Eggers’s empire so influential? The most obvious driving force behind its dramatic rise is the charismatic and indefatigable founder himself, who is not only a beloved author and literary style guru, but has also proved to be a crafty entrepreneur, busily creating a very modern publishing empire. His book-publishing wing features works by Nick Hornby, Lemony Snicket and Robert Coover, a key figure in the American experimental-fiction movement. There is also McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a frequently visited website that offers a wide range of satirical content – some of its better entries include Some Relatively Recent College Grads Discuss Their Maids and the wonderfully satirical Jenna Bush’s Book-Tour Diary of Hope. In 2003, McSweeney’s launched The Believer magazine, a monthly that includes a variety of cultural essays, interviews and profiles, though its main distinction is its long book reviews, which share a decidedly positive tenor. “We will focus on writers and books we like,” the magazine’s mission statement claims. “We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.” Its editor, the talented novelist Heidi Julavits, wrote that the magazine was launched to combat “wit for wit’s sake – or, hostility for hostility’s sake”, and saw as its particular target the “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt” that she famously dubbed “snark”. More recently, McSweeney’s launched Wholphin, a quarterly DVD magazine “lovingly encoded with unique and ponderable films designed to make you feel the way we felt when we learnt that dolphins and whales sometimes, you know, do it”. (Which, evidently, they actually do.)

*this is a joke

Thursday, January 31

The battle of the literary endorsements

Salon's Laura Miller on the presidential endorsements of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison:

The two writers do match their chosen candidates, then. Angelou, with a well-known and colorful life story featuring odds overcome and the triumph of the human spirit, has been embraced as an icon of middlebrow empowerment. With her, you know exactly what you're getting because you've gotten it so many times before, and yet you can congratulate yourself for (mildly) bucking the system. Electing Clinton would make history, but it also promises to bring a familiar presence back to the White House.

Morrison, as the only living Nobel laureate in literature in a fundamentally unbookish nation, is a homegrown exotic, the embodiment of the American notion that if you can't quite understand it, it must be literature. She is an overwhelming presence, handsome and stately, with a magnificent voice. Like Obama, with his Harvard degree and pristine, international sleekness, she seems too good and too smart for us, the sort of American appreciated by foreigners with obscurely discriminating standards. The electorate famously prefers guys they can imagine dropping by for a barbecue over intimidating intellectuals, but that insecurity has been biting us in the ass for the past eight years.

Of film, television & music

The Big Green Bookshop

Opening a dream bookshop:

Simon Key and Tim West took redundancy last August when the branch of Waterstone's they worked at closed in Wood Green, north London, leaving the local community without a local bookshop. Angered and depressed. they decided to open their own shop and depression soon turned to elation when more than 700 people joined them in protest at the closure. Buoyed by this local outpouring of emotion they quickly found a suitable 700ft premises, just off the high street close to where Waterstone's had traded. They hope to fill it with approximately 8-9,000 titles.

These gents have a blog and it looks awfully familiar. An Atlantic Ocean separates us but through our matching blog templates we have formed an unshakable bond. What a beautiful place, this Internet.

Wednesday, January 30

Two from the Times

The Times reports on an interesting new online literary show:

“Titlepage” will combine elements of “Apostrophes,” a popular French literary program; “The Charlie Rose Show” on public television; and “Dinner for Five,” in which a group of actors discussed their craft, on the Independent Film Channel.

The Times comments on Steve Jobs' dismissal of Kindle on the basis that "people don't read anymore:"

A survey conducted in August 2007 by Ipsos Public Affairs for The Associated Press found that 27 percent of Americans had not read a book in the previous year. Not as bad as Mr. Jobs’s figure, but dismaying to be sure. Happily, however, the same share — 27 percent — read 15 or more books.

In fact, when we exclude Americans who had not read a single book in that year, the average number of books read was 20, raised by the 8 percent who read 51 books or more. In other words, a sizable minority does not read, but the overall distribution is balanced somewhat by those who read a lot.

Tuesday, January 29

Herman, Edgar & Me

In eighth grade I sucked at life. Even more than I do now. In English class the delightful* Lady Finnegan's teachings went in one ear and out the other. Honestly, I still don't really, truly know what an adverb is. I mean that sincerely.

Interestingly, of all the classics we read that year the only story that I remember engaging with on any real intellectual level was Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. I read it several times. Thinking back to adolescent me, that attraction makes a lot of sense. But Hart Crane, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, much like the adverb lesson, went in one ear and out the other. I was not ready for them. So, in what is far from my first attempt to bridge the chasm in my knowledge of early American literature, I picked up Melville's Complete Shorter Fiction and Poe's Complete Stories and Poems at the library. I will read them both incompletely.

Incidentally, today is the 163rd anniversary of the first publication of "The Raven" in the New York Evening Mirror. Happy Birthday, Raven! What? What's that you say? You say, "Nevermore." Oh you incorrigible Raven!

"The Raven" performed by the incomparable Vincent Price
Spectator review of a new Poe biography
Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia
I knew about the Baltimore Ravens...
...but I had no idea about the mascots.