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!