Monday, November 28th, 2011

Programming Note

The Second Pass is on hiatus at the moment. When and how it will return is up in the air, but I’ve started a very exciting new job as the web producer for the books section of the New York Times. So for now, all my time and books-related energy will be channeled over there. I imagine most or all of you visit the Times for books coverage, and I hope you’ll continue to check in there and see what I’ll be up to. My sincere hope is that this will be a brief hiatus, but when the site kicks back up its focus may have changed a bit. If that sounds vague, it’s because it’s still vague to me. When I know more, you’ll know more.

In the meantime, though this isn’t goodbye, I’d like to take the time to thank again all of the talented, dedicated contributors who have helped make the site a success — and the readers who have made visiting the site a habit. More soon…

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

“Pray, don’t think of me as a creature who might have been something else…”

At Kirkus, Jessa Crispin interviews Jean Strouse about her biography of Alice James — sister of William and Henry — which has been reissued by the great NYRB Classics. At one point, Crispin asks Strouse if she approached her subject with a hidden agenda, given that Alice James has been “a symbol of the lost woman of the pre-feminist age, the hysteric, the spinster, the woman oppressed by the patriarchal era.” Strouse replies:

I specifically did not want to make Alice into a symbol or symptom of female oppression, victimhood, hysteria, etc. At times, during the process of “living with” and writing about her, I grew frustrated by the radical limitations of her life — even though of course I knew all along how the story was going to turn out. I couldn’t help, in the day-to-day evolution of her story, wanting it somehow to come out better, for her to have been happier, to have found more real pleasures and satisfactions.

What kept me honest was the admonition she sent to William as she was dying: “Pray, don’t think of me as a creature who might have been something else, had neurotic science been born.”

By “neurotic” she meant the science of nervous disorders—and she was right: Freud published his Studies on Hysteria in 1895, three years after Alice died. She knew her family and posterity would want to imagine who she “might have been.” Yet her prescient plea — “don’t make excuses for me; take me for what I am” — expressed her fierce sense of integrity, her hard-won philosophical acceptance and brave acknowledgment of her failures. Who she was turned out to be much more interesting than who she might have been.

And at Dead Critics, Lisa Levy writes at length about Strouse’s book, placing it in the context of the entire James family biography-industrial complex, including Leon Edel’s five-volume life of Henry and F.O. Matthiessen’s portrait of the clan:

Strouse is explicit in her book about building on Edel’s work as well as Matthiessen’s, specifically using Edel’s ideas about the bond between Henry and his sister. She writes, “Alice and Henry shared throughout their lives a deeper intellectual and spiritual kinship than either felt with any other member of the family. Within the family group the second son and only daughter were more isolated than any of the others.” While eldest brother William looked to their father and the outside world for approval, and middle children Wilky and Bob clung to each other, “what bound Alice and Henry together was a different kind of exclusion, and a profound mutual understanding. Henry had withdrawn early from the competitive masculine fray to a safe inner world, taking the part of the docile, easy, ‘good’ James child.” Henry had unknowingly occupied the “girl’s place,” which he and Alice then had to share, somewhat uneasily.

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

“[I] played on the old-boy network like a harp.”

Philip Larkin wrote the following letter to his friend Norman Iles, who he had met when they were students together at Oxford, on Feb. 26, 1967:

Dear Norman,

Thank you for your two letters: I received them with pleasure & read them with delight, & put them neatly together on one side — answering the buggers is another matter, though. My busy lazy life seems to have no time for letter writing. I liked the first letter a lot. You seem to have got your life taped, & not red-taped either. Don’t know how you do it.

As regards the second one, & your request for help in getting published, well, nothing I can say will make any publisher accept work he doesn’t think worth it. A year or so ago a woman whose six novels I much admire had her seventh rejected by her publisher: I charged in like a mixture of Sir Bedivere & Lloyd George to try to persuade Faber’s to take the seventh — played on the old-boy network like a harp. Nothing happened. So there you are. I’d be happy to read the poems, & give what advice I can, but in the end you’ve got to please the publisher, unless you’ve got money in the firm or are screwing his wife or something.

In a way you are lucky — you like your poems, & write a lot of them: perhaps you should produce them yourself, like Blake. I’m sure if Blake had sent me The Book of Ahania I’d have told him very much what I told you. Anyway, shoot them along. Don’t tell anybody else to do so, though. I get an increasing amount of such correspondence & haven’t really time to deal with much of it. [. . .]

I hope to get some new hifi stuff soon. Bachelors are always very keen on hifi — care more about the reproduction of their records than the reproduction of their species, haw haw. Not that I’ve many classical records — I keep putting it off until the evening of my days. Was that the 6 o’clock pips I heard just now?

Kind regards

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

“It was just absolutely true.”

Jonathan Franzen recently suggested that David Foster Wallace made things up in some of his most famous nonfiction pieces, including “Shipping Out,” about his time on a luxury cruise. He didn’t specify what or how much was made up. Michelle Dean covers the story here. This has led, unsurprisingly, to people expressing strong opinions about Franzen online. It has also led to (more) discussions about truth-telling in nonfiction. Wallace was interviewed by Tom Scocca for the Boston Phoenix in 1998, and last year Scocca put the full transcript of their talk up at Slate (in five parts that start here). Some of it concerns the issues that confront an obsessively imaginative fiction writer who writes nonfiction. (Wallace told Scocca at some length that he considered himself a fiction writer above all else. This is not shocking, but I’ve argued — and I’m not alone — that nonfiction was his better form.)

Since there have been approximately 5,000 debates about nonfiction in the James Frey/JT Leroy/Everyone Else Era, and since I’m unlikely to conduct an effective one all by my lonesome at the moment, I just wanted to highlight a funny excerpt from Wallace’s conversation with Scocca, this about one of the subjects in “Shipping Out”:

Q: Also when you’re writing about real events, there are other people who are at the same events. Have you heard back from the people that you’re writing about? Trudy especially comes to mind—

DFW: [Groans]

Q: —who you described as looking like—

DFW: That, that was a very bad scene, because they were really nice to me on the cruise. And actually sent me a couple cards, and were looking forward to the thing coming out. And then it came out, and, you know, I never heard from them again. I feel — I’m worried that it hurt their feelings.

The. Thing. Is. Is, you know, saying that somebody looks like Jackie Gleason in drag, it might not be very nice, but if you just, if you could have seen her, it was true. It was just absolutely true. And so it’s one reason why I don’t do a lot of these, is there’s a real delicate balance between fucking somebody over and telling the truth to the reader. [. . .]

One reason why I might have put in some not particularly kind stuff on the cruise is that I felt like I’d kind of learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to hurt anybody or, you know, talk about anybody having sex with a White House intern or something. But I was going to tell the truth. And I couldn’t just so worry about Trudy’s feelings that I couldn’t say the truth. Which is, you know, a terrific, really nice, and not unattractive lady who did happen to look just like Jackie Gleason in drag.

Q: Maybe if you’d emphasized that it was not in an unattractive way. Which is sort of a hard thing to picture.

DFW: Actually the first draft of that did have that, and the editor pointed out that not only did this waste words, but it looked like I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. That I was trying to tell an unkind truth but somehow give her a neck rub at the same time. So it got cut.

Q: But you actually did want to have your cake and eat it too. Not in a bad way.

DFW: I’m unabashed, I think, in wanting to have my cake and eat it too.

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

“The music delighted me like an expression of love.”

The letter below was written by Stendhal to his sister Pauline on Oct. 29, 1808:

The arts promise more than they perform. This idea — or, rather, this charming sentiment — has just been given to me by a German street-organ which played, as it passed through the street next to mine, a tune of which two passages are new to me — and, what is more, are charming, in my opinion. The tears almost came into my eyes.

The first time I ever took pleasure in music was at Novara, a few days before the battle of Marengo. I went to the theatre, where they were playing Il Matrimonio Segreto. The music delighted me like an expression of love. I think no woman I have had ever gave me so sweet a moment, or at so light a price, as the moment I owe to a newly heard musical phrase. This pleasure came to me without my in any way expecting it: it filled my whole soul. I have told you of a similar sensation that I once had at Frascati when Adele leant against me while we were watching fireworks: I think this was the happiest moment of my life. The pleasure must have been truly sublime, for I still remember it although the passion that caused it is entirely extinguished.

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

“Let’s none of us forget that evening, keep it intact.”

This week, the blog is featuring writers’ correspondence. The letter below was written by Eudora Welty to William Maxwell and his wife Emily in May 1963. It’s featured in What There Is to Say We Have Said:

Dearest Emmy and Bill,

The train ride here, down the hypotenuse to Texas, is utter peace. When you leave the city goes away immediately and it’s mountains, or valleys with beautifully ploughed fields and yellow barns till dark. There was the biggest thunderstorm I ever rode a train through, you could even hear the thunder through the roof & windows, but we were all enclosed and it was quite like added scenery, the wild heavens. After you leave St. Louis, you ride another good train, following the Mississippi from 4:30 till dark, as close to the water as the train used to go along the Riviera (it may still!). There’s no very frequent sign of human habitation at all, and it’s the way the river must’ve looked in the days of the Indians, or of Audubon anyway, so you imagine. Then that night, the whole world was lit up with fireflies. The train must have been going through wild country, hardly any electric lights, all darkness, and flashing, flashing from the ground to way up in dark trees, mile after mile. Then of course woke up eventually to oil wells — but not too many, because it’s fairly green and full of trees, hilly, in East Texas. Austin is green, with huge live oaks, and oleanders, magnolias, gardenias etc. in bloom. The wildflowers along the tracks were so thick — gaillardias, cosmos, phlox, thistle, calliopsis, & of course bluebonnets. There is a wild clematis called the leather flower — dark ruby red —

So far I’ve not really begun to work (it starts in 20 minutes & goes on till Wednesday), but have seen old friends, one a painter whose work I like a lot and who is doing still more beautiful things than he did before, Kelly Fearing. Desert rock, fishes, pools, children, saints, birds, snails, cat, poets all clear and jewel-like color and pure line. Well, I wish I could send you one. You would know how it restored me to see you and how happy I felt to be there. And that marvelous, marvelous dinner, a creation of a dinner. And Anna Gloria and Roger and Barbara and the Priest — let’s none of us forget that evening, keep it intact — And my love and thanks to you for making it happen —

Emmy, I still haven’t read [Oscar Lewis’] Five Families — Just like Anna Gloria & Roger trying to read the Gutenberg Bible & being distracted by the cries of “Throw out your dead!” I was distracted by the fireflies. But all the better. I have it to look forward to. Love to Kate and Brookie, love to you, from Eudora

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

“When a columnist begins to take himself too seriously he is in grave danger.”

Each day this week, the blog will feature two letters. The one below was written by Harold Ross, the founder and editor of The New Yorker, to Orson Welles on Jan. 31, 1945. A selection of Ross’ correspondence was published as Letters from the Editor: The New Yorker’s Harold Ross:

Dear Orson:

I was astonished at your column in yesterday’s Post, in which you say The New Yorker sneers at you. You were brimful of prunes when you wrote that. Our piece was straightforward and sympathetic, and there wasn’t a sneer in it, and it contained not one unfriendly or unkindly word. I read it carefully before it was published and I have just read it again. Several other people of sound judgment have read it, too, and they concur in my opinion.

Every once in a while such a thing as this comes up: someone misses the point of what we say about him and assumes that he is being spoofed. Almost invariably, this happens to people whose powers of discernment are blunted, either temporarily or permanently, by hypersensitivity or a sense of insecurity, or both. I don’t know which of these states afflicted you the day before yesterday, but one or the other did, and as an old acquaintance and admirer, and one who earnestly has your welfare at heart, I advise you to beware of columning if it is going to continue to throw you off balance to this extent. Columning is a deadly occupation, leading frequently and successively to overzealousness, super-seriousmindedness, monomania, hysteria, and sometimes madness. When a columnist begins to take himself too seriously he is in grave danger. Look around. Look at what happened to Broun, Pegler, Winchell, and several others. Look at the states they got themselves in. But it took them years, whereas you got the heebee-jeebees in eight or ten days. If this condition continues, or recurs frequently, I urge that you wage your attack upon fascism, in which I sincerely wish you well, with some other weapon than the syndicated column. . . .

Sincerely yours,

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

“The hell with the philosophy of the great of this world!”

Each day this week, the blog will feature two letters. The one below was written by Anton Chekhov to publishing magnate Alexei Suvorin, his close friend, on Sept. 8, 1891:

I have already moved to Moscow and am staying indoors. . . .

“The Lie,” the title you recommended for my long story, won’t do. It would be appropriate only in cases where the lie is a conscious one. An unconscious lie really isn’t a lie, but an error. Having money and eating meat Tolstoy calls a lie — which is going too far.

Yesterday I was informed that Kurepin is hopelessly ill with cancer of the neck. Before he dies the cancer will have eaten up half his head and torment him with neuralgic pains. I was told his wife has written you.

Little by little death takes its toll. It knows its job. Try writing a play along these lines: an old chemist has concocted an elixir of immortality — a dose of fifteen drops and one lives eternally; but the chemist breaks the vial with the elixir out of fear that such carrion as he and his wife will continue to live forever. Tolstoy denies immortality to mankind, but good God, how much there is that’s personal in his denial! The day before yesterday I read his “Epilogue.”* Strike me dead, but this is stupider and stuffier than “Letters to a Governor’s Wife,”** which I despise. The hell with the philosophy of the great of this world! All eminent sages are as despotic as generals, as discourteous and lacking in delicacy as generals, because they know they are safe from punishment. Diogenes spat into peoples’ beards, sure that nothing would happen to him; Tolstoy abuses doctors as scoundrels and shows his ignorance in regard to weighty questions because he is another Diogenes, whom you can’t take to the police station or call down in the newspapers. And so, the hell with the philosophy of the great of this world! All of it, with all its beggarly epilogues and letters to governors’ ladies isn’t worth a single filly in his “Story of a Horse.” . . .

Keep well and don’t forget this miserable sinner. I miss you very much.

A. Chekhov

* The “Epilogue” to Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata.
** Gogol’s Letters to a Governor’s Wife.

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Back to the Mail

Almost two years ago, I dedicated a week on the blog to writers’ correspondence. That was to coincide with my review of Thomas Mallon’s book about letters through the centuries. You can find those blog posts, which featured letters from Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Kafka, among others, here. By the end of this week, I’m hoping to have a piece up on the Backlist about the correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. So, I thought I would share more letters. The first will immediately follow this post.

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Dead Critics Goes Live

Cultural critic and Second Pass contributor Lisa Levy has launched the site Dead Critics, which will be devoted to her writing about “dead critics, a few live critics, and the nature of critical inquiry.” And so far, the site lives up to that description in almost exact proportions. There are dead critics (a piece on Dwight Macdonald’s crankiness in the 1950s) and living ones (a review of Wayne Koestenbaum’s new treatise on humiliation), and plenty about the nature of criticism, as in this excerpt from a piece about Lester Bangs:

Bangs was an important tastemaker, championing the Velvet Underground, garage rock, the Stones, all blues-based, noisy rock. The gist of this school is “let me tell you why this music moves me;” implied is “and why it should move you too. Unless you have rocks in your head, in which case, I can’t help you.” This type of rock criticism is a blunt, not a fine, art: it cajoles, bullies, provokes, and personalizes the music. Every piece is a mini-memoir spurred by a song: either the writer is telling you about himself and, incidentally, he is telling you about the music, or vice versa.

The site launches alongside Levy’s piece in the new issue of The Believer — partially available online — about the critic and scholar Richard Poirier, who died in 2009. If you haven’t bookmarked Dead Critics already, please do so now.

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Where the Wildly Opinionated Are

Emma Brockes’ visit with famed children’s author Maurice Sendak for the Guardian is making the rounds, partly for the 83-year-old Sendak’s firm opinions about Salman Rushdie, Roald Dahl, e-books (”I hate them. It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book! A book is a book is a book.”), and Stephen King, among many other subjects. He also shares stories about his upbringing and his family:

The term “children’s illustrator” annoys him, since it seems to belittle his talent. “I have to accept my role. I will never kill myself like Vincent Van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can’t do that. I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie book person.” He and [his longtime partner] Eugene never considered bringing up children themselves, he says. He’s sure he would have messed it up. His brother felt the same way: after their childhood, they were too dysfunctional. “They led desperate lives,” he says of his parents. “They should have been crazy. And we — making fun of them. I remember when my brother was dying, he looked at me and his eyes were all teary. And he said, ‘Why were we so unkind to Mama?’ And I said, ‘Don’t do that. We were kids, we didn’t understand. We didn’t know she was crazy.’”

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Jumping Out of Himself

Tom Bissell writes a lovely profile of Jim Harrison for Outside. Worth reading in full. Until you get the chance, here’s a brief excerpt that occurs after Harrison mentions the death of David Foster Wallace, who was a friend of Bissell’s:

Harrison brought up Jonathan Franzen’s much discussed New Yorker piece about Wallace, in which Franzen revealed that he could never get Wallace interested in his passion of bird watching. “This is interesting,” Harrison said. “Of the 12 or 13 suicides I’ve known, none of them had any interest in nature. In other words, they had no interest in what Rimbaud called ‘the other.’ The otherness, say, of nature.” They could not make, Harrison said, “that jump out of themselves.”

We were silent for a while. “You know,” Harrison said finally, “he loved his dogs for that last year, but he should’ve been having dogs for 30 years. Every day of the year, the first thing I do after breakfast is take the dogs for a walk. They absolutely depend on it. But it’s also what’s best for me.”

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Thinking Outside the Book

At the New York Observer, I write about Paul La Farge’s new novel, Luminous Airplanes, which will be gradually expanded with additional text online to about three times the book’s length. I also spoke to La Farge about the project:

He avoids calling his own work hypertext, preferring the term “immersive text.” The word “hypertext” has already fallen largely out of circulation (La Farge first conceived of this project in 1999), and the use of the form for literary purposes has been spotty at best. “With the exception of Geoff Ryman’s excellent 253, [hypertext fiction is] mostly pretty tough going,” La Farge said. “I think the early enthusiasm for the technology might have given writers a feeling of needing to do less writing work, because the form would carry the work. Whereas my sense is that the opposite is true: you have to pay as much attention to the writing of a hypertext as you would to the writing of a novel, or more attention, really, because novels produce a kind of natural engrossment, whereas online you’re always struggling to hold the reader’s attention.”

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

A Long, Sad Story

Nearly a decade ago, James Gavin published Deep in a Dream, his biography of Chet Baker. Greil Marcus recently celebrated the fact that the book has finally arrived in paperback. Marcus says Gavin “seems to hold all of Baker’s music, piece by piece, song by song, phrase by phrase, every show, every recording, in his head, all at once,” and writes the musician’s life as “a long, long story of infinite shadings.” It’s also a sad, sad story:

Well before the end of his life, after he had lost most of his teeth in a drug-related beating in San Francisco, after he had turned into as charming, self-pitying, manipulative, professional a junkie as any in America or Europe, where for decades he made his living less as a musician than a legend, Baker wore the face of a lizard. In some photographs he barely looks human. But at the start he was, as so indelibly captured in William Claxton’s famous photographs, not merely beautiful, not merely a California golden boy — in the words of the television impresario and songwriter Steve Allen, someone who “started out as James Dean and ended up as Charles Manson.” He was gorgeous, he seemed touched by an odd light, and he did not, even then, look altogether human — but in a manner that was not repulsive but irresistibly alluring.

This also gives me a good excuse to share one of my favorite songs, which is Baker’s rendition of “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” Enjoy.

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

The Banished Police

Oct. 5 marks the centenary of the birth of Irish novelist Flann O’Brien — the most famous pen name of those used by Brian O’Nolan — who died of cancer at age 54. Keith Hopper recently wrote an appreciation of O’Brien and his work for the New Statesman:

O’Nolan completed his second novel, The Third Policeman, in 1940. In its opening pages, a nameless narrator confesses that he has murdered an old man to get the money to publish a book about an eccentric philosopher. As a consequence of his actions, the narrator is transported to a hellish parallel universe, populated by killers and madmen and patrolled by three sinister policemen. The book is at once an existential whodunnit, an absurdist work of science fiction, a post-colonial allegory, and a dark, Menippean satire. In its philosophical scope and comic vision, it is funnier than Joyce and bleaker than Beckett, and is now considered one of the first — and finest — examples of postmodernist literature. [Publishing house] Longman, however, rejected it: “We realize the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this novel he is more so.” Disheartened and embarrassed, O’Nolan pretended to have lost the manuscript, and The Third Policeman remained unpublished until 1967, a year after his death.

Monday, August 29th, 2011

The Beat

A most-often weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

After his prize-winning Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters’ follow-up is another book in which the author “[finds] himself unexpectedly intimate with an unusual person” — this time, his landlord, a shut-in former mathematics prodigy. Jenny Turner says that “much of this is delightful” but “[o]ther bits get whimsical and overegged.” . . . Close on the heels of Jane McGonigal’s similarly-utopian-sounding book about the great humanitarian benefits of video games, etc., Cathy Davidson has written a paean to the awesome powers of technology. Annie Murphy Paul takes a swing at it. . . . Adam Kirsch reviews Robert Stone’s newly reissued novel Damascus Gate, a spy novel set in Jerusalem that made a splash when it was published in 1998: “A fundamentalist is someone who is exactly what he says he is. And that makes fundamentalism a terrible subject for a spy novel, where the narrative suspense comes from the reader’s uncertainty about whether anyone is what he claims to be.” . . . Richard Kahlenberg reviews a new book critical of teachers unions, and wonders if its title, Special Interest — “a term historically applied to wealthy and powerful entities such as oil companies, tobacco interests, and gun manufacturers, whose narrow aims are often recognized as colliding with the more general public interest in such matters as clean water, good health, and public safety” — can be accurately applied to the nation’s educators. . . . Matt Weiland celebrates a new edition of Robert Coover’s 1960s novel about an obsessive who creates a fantasy baseball game: “The genius of the novel is in how Coover revels in the sun-bright vitality of the world Waugh has created, full of drink and lust and dirty limericks and doubles down the line — and yet brings Waugh face to face with its darkest truths.” . . . Andrew Gamble reviews a new book about the U.K.’s demonized working class, or chavs. . . . Richard Rayner’s “Paperback Writers” column, recently discontinued by the Los Angeles Times, re-emerges at the Los Angeles Review of Books, with a look at the shorter fiction of Rudyard Kipling.


Friday, August 26th, 2011

Now Don’t Tease Us, Jimmy

James Frey tells the Wall Street Journal: “I’m done writing books. The only books I’ve written are the ones with my names on them, and I’m never writing another book.”

I don’t believe that, but if it’s true, this is a great day for letters.

He was caught at the launch party for Booktrack, which is a new company that “adds soundtracks to e-books . . . matches ’synchronized music, sound effects, and ambient sound’ to text.” Insert your own line about everything getting worse here.

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Debt Discussion

I can’t make it because I’m heading upstate for an annual vacation, but tonight’s event at Melville House in Brooklyn looks compelling, and certainly timely: It’s a discussion about “the role of debt in the world economy” between Doug Henwood and David Graeber. Graeber’s new book is Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

(I will be posting around here while on vacation. I know it’s been quiet. I’m working on that, and hoping it changes more noticeably after Labor Day.)

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

A Songwriter’s Process

This is only tangentially books-related, but I don’t care, because I’m a big fan of Richard Buckner. In a two-part interview — here and here — he talks about writing songs (and fiction), as well as his listening habits, which are sometimes innovative:

I used to have two stereos, and I would pick minimalist music from the early 60s like John Cale. Pallet-cleansing, droning, atonal music, something without a lot of drama or aggression. I’d put that on one stereo, and on the other I’d put a writer reading their own work. It was amazing to hear how the music affected the perception of the words. And if I did it again, with the same writer and the same music, the timing wouldn’t be the same, and even slight variations would change the tone of what I was hearing from the writer and how the music would manipulate it. It was a really fun experiment. And it’s also a sign that I wasn’t leaving the house as much as I should.

If you don’t know Buckner’s songs, I highly recommend them. His debut, Bloomed, is still among my favorites, though it’s a bit misleading, as he soon began writing much more condensed, highly impressionistic songs. Its two follow-ups, Devotion + Doubt and Since, are both excellent, and he’s released several strong records since. I was also heartened by this part of the interview, when he talks about the impact of recent day jobs, including driving a forklift in a warehouse:

I was touring and working a lot alone. I love being alone, and I can stay in the house for days at a time, just working, without leaving. But I realized after doing that for a while that my social skills had diminished. I ended up doing a film score, and I really didn’t leave the house. I wasn’t doing as much writing, since it was mostly instrumental. And I noticed that my live shows were changing dramatically, from standing onstage talking and playing and having a much more vibrant experience to being completely shut down. It got to the point where I was doing entire sets all as one piece and barely saying a word to the audience. No breaks or interaction.

When it came time to work the day jobs again after a few years of not doing them, I don’t know what [co-workers] thought of me. They probably thought I was some freak who didn’t speak to anyone except to say yes or no. After a while I opened up, because I was forced to interact with people. Slowly the stage shows are opening up for me, largely because of the interaction with people on those jobs.

I’ve seen a few of those “completely shut down” concerts. They were interesting — he would loop guitar parts so that songs bled into each other, and purposely sing and play in a way that disjointed the songs’ original melodies — but I’ve been wishing he would come back around and play a slightly more accessible show. Now he’s got my hopes up.

(via largehearted boy)

Monday, August 15th, 2011

The Month of the Novella

Frances Evangelista, who blogs at Nonsuch Book, is devoting August to reading (and blogging about) all 42 entries in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. A little less than midway through the month, she’s a bit behind pace, having completed 15 of the books. But it still seems possible she will complete the goal, which would be impressive. Melville House joined in the fun by challenging other readers to join Evangelista and compete for prizes throughout the month. The interested are urged to join at nine levels, including Curious (one novella), Passionate (nine novellas), and Fanatical (27 novellas).

Between other reading plans and additional scheduling conflicts, I’m only safely in on the Curious level. Last week, I read Lucinella by Lore Segal. It was originally published in 1976, and is actually part of Melville House’s “contemporary” Art of the Novella series. Whether this qualifies to satisfy my Curious requirement, I don’t know. Life can be confusing.

Lucinella is very funny. It opens at Yaddo, the artists’ colony, where the eponymous narrator describes her fellow guests, “five poets, four men, one woman, and an obese dog called Winifred.” (An early instance of Segal’s sense of humor: “Because Winifred is a real dog I have changed his sex to protect his privacy.”) The book follows the group at Yaddo, and then to New York City, as they fret about reviews, fight over poetic strategies, and fall into various cocktail parties and beds. It is, in short, a satire of the writing life.

It’s full of pithy descriptions (“She’s forty, five foot by four by four, and a genuine Russian.”), well-orchestrated group scenes, and modest, sometimes faintly dated experimentation. It builds to a conclusion that I found quite moving. And it contains the exchange below, which is now one of my all-time favorites. Lucinella has been haranguing her boyfriend William for his habits, which keep her from ever keeping the house in order (”William, how come you do everything wrong all the time?”). We pick it up from there:

“William? How come you never nag me?”

“What about?” asks William.

“Whatever you can’t stand about me.”

William is thinking. “When you keep nagging I sometimes want to murder you, but I can stand it.”

“Why don’t you tell me to straighten out my towel on the rack?”

“Because I don’t care if it’s scrumpled.”

“But, William, a scrumpled towel cannot dry!”

“Lucinella, sweetheart, love! A dry towel does not move my imagination!”

“Nag me. Go on,” I say.

William looks harried. “You’re a slob,” he says.

“No, I mean something true about me. Go on.”

“You are a true slob,” William says.

“A slob, William! I! Who can neither eat nor write nor love so long as my house is not in perfect order, how am I a slob?”

“Your towel is scrumpled in the bathroom. Lucinella, I don’t care—”

“Ah, but,” I say, “that’s different, don’t you see, that’s only because I haven’t got around yet to straightening it out. Nag me some more.”

“The kitchen,” says William, “is in such a shambles we have to eat out.”

“Only till I find the right Contact paper,” I explain, “which they no longer manufacture. Go on.”

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Golding at 100

September marks the centenary of William Golding’s birth. I’ve only read Lord of the Flies, and so long ago that it only survives in my memory as a punchline for chaotic situations. (And I wouldn’t even have to have read it to know that.) Golding’s British publisher has reissued Flies, which was his first novel, and The Inheritors, his second. John Self takes a look at the less famous novel, which is told from the perspective of a group of Neanderthals:

Evolution is the invisible character in the book, driving everything. The challenges facing the Neanderthals — finding food, returning home, getting across the river when the log they normally use goes missing — are amplified because they are not alone. Encroaching on their territory is a group of “new people,” Homo sapiens we presume. . . . There is great pathos here, as the mother of all dramatic ironies is upon us: the hopelessness of the Neanderthals’ struggles for survival in the face of the Homo sapiens, with their better tools, better communication and better planning; their habit of playing, a consequence of “leisure [and] incessant wakefulness.” Occasionally, one of the Neanderthals will strain toward an understanding of how to develop skills they don’t have — to gather more food than they need; to hold water in a shell — but it slips agonizingly away. In a sense, to review The Inheritors as a “normal” book does it a disservice. Its strength is in how it renders a world without thought as we understand it, and becomes a complete and convincing world.

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

The Spatial Challenge of Time Travel

I got an e-mail from Amazon today alerting me to the site’s favorite books of August, which led me to the page for Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a novel about an immersive online game in the near future that sucks in the poverty-stricken protagonist and millions of others. That’s all I know at this point, but wanted to share this bit from an Amazon interview with Cline:

Q: Speaking of DeLoreans: biggest plot hole in the Back to The Future films?

A: The Back to The Future trilogy is perfect and contains no plot holes! Except for the plot hole inherent in nearly all time travel films: The planet Earth is moving through space at an immense speed at all times. So if you travel back in time, you are traveling to a time when the Earth was in a different location, and you and your time machine would appear somewhere out in deep space. For a time machine to be useful, it also needs to be able to teleport you to wherever the Earth was/is at your destination time.

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

The Beat

A most-often weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

Woody Haut says that “Richard Hallas’ You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up remains one of the most evocative and subversive novels of its time,” a book that reads “like James Cain filtered through Thomas Pynchon.” . . . Philip French writes about a film editor’s “revealing, funny, devastatingly frank account” of his career. . . . Donna Rifkind reviews Lee Siegel’s new book about how to be serious in the “Age of Silly.” (“His book would be a charmingly old-fashioned effort, if it were charming. But Are You Serious? is a brief work that feels much longer, an unlovely book that’s hard to love.” . . . James Gleick on four new books about Google that assess the online giant’s “power and intentions.” . . . David L. Ulin reviews a collection of stories by the late Gina Berriault, who Ulin says “has much in common” with Chekhov and Isaac Babel.


Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Bye Bye Borders

Like several other people I know, I was oddly moved by the mass e-mail I received the other day from Borders CEO Mike Edwards offering a “fond farewell” to customers.

My first job after college was at a Borders. (I was what experts would call “bad at job-searching.”) I spent three or four months there, working among a few industrious people who seemed intent on moving up in the retail world and a few wry, aging aspiring screenwriters intent on slouching against the counter and telling jokes. The co-worker I was closest to was a very tall, funny lesbian who once made me an Ani DiFranco mix tape. Those were heady days.

The store was on Royal Lane and Preston Road, just north of St. Mark’s, a prestigious private school for boys where Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s had graduated and Owen Wilson had been expelled for bad behavior. The Wilsons actually lived just a bit further down on Royal, I believe, and Owen was browsing in the store one day. He asked me where the art books were. I told him how much I loved Bottle Rocket (which I did, and do). Armageddon had recently opened, and I sensed he was already being recognized far more often for that — he seemed genuinely pleased that I had cited the earlier, not-terrible movie.

One day, Don Henley came into the store and ordered — true to form — various books about environmental issues as gifts for friends. I sat there looking up titles and entering his friends’ addresses for a good half hour or so. He seemed humorless if not fully unapproachable, like most of his solo work.

A local singer named Meredith Miller played in the cafe there one night, and included in her set a cover of one of my all-time favorite songs, Tom Waits’ “San Diego Serenade.” I fell in love a little.

My discount and my living at home at the time combined to ensure that most of the money I made at Borders stayed at Borders. I remember bringing my dad to the holiday-season employee sale and the two of us filling a large basket with books. At the time, the store had terrific stock — the best of any store in the area, as far as I could tell. Over the years, that store and other Borders locations — including one in Saratoga Springs, New York, which I always visited on my annual trip up there — gradually grew less interesting to me, prominently displaying more predictable books and carrying fewer and fewer CDs. Still, I’m not against chains on principle (far from it), and Borders was a good one once upon a time. I’ll miss it.

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

The Tao of Whatever

From all I’ve heard and read, I can’t say I’m eager to further explore what Tao Lin offers, but this report by Daniel B. Roberts for the Morning News is an interesting take on Lin and his largely ignored “web fiction factory Muumuu House”:

In addition to Tao Lin, the Muumuu gang unofficially includes Brandon Scott Gorrell, Zachary German, Noah Cicero, Megan Boyle, and 20 other contributors. They are Lin’s literary army. Save for an early Nylon spread, the mainstream media’s lack of interest in Muumuu outside of Lin has in a sense functioned like a self-fulfilling prophecy, as though, since their work often reads like blogs and Twitter feeds, it should only be discussed in blogs and Twitter feeds. Perhaps that’s fair, since most of what’s on the Muumuu site is eerily similar. If you cover up an author’s name, you won’t know who wrote what.

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Not Kidding About Twitter

Adam Wilson at The Faster Times interviews Garth Risk Hallberg, a staff writer for The Millions and the author of the “illustrated fiction” A Field Guide to the North American Family. They talk about social media, Philip Roth, the real America, and partake in a brief but entertaining discussion of Friday Night Lights, during which Hallberg calls Lyla Garrity “horrible.” (I assume he means the character and not the performance, though I would disagree about either being horrible.)

I particularly enjoyed this moment:

Wilson: But is there a fear that, “Oh this book would have reached a wider audience if I had promoted it on Twitter.”

Hallberg: Are you kidding?

Wilson: No.

Monday, July 25th, 2011

The Beat

A most-often weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

In my first review for the New York Times, I look at Daniel Orozco’s short story collection Orientation, which gathers stories that have appeared in literary journals over the years. Highly polished, they examine the lives of office dwellers who face banal indignities on the clock and pointed crises off it. . . . The week’s most entertaining review comes from Daniel Akst, who looks at the current state of small-town newspapers (print and digital) as shown in a book written by Judy Muller. There’s more than one anecdote worth reading aloud to the person sitting next to you, so go read it. . . . Etelka Lehoczky praises Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, a thriller told from the perspective of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease: “From agonizing, slow-motion-car-crash moments to the ironic frissons of a good horror movie, [LaPlante] hits every bell.” . . . Adam Goodheart reviews David S. Reynolds’ new book about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “a kind of biography of the novel itself, tracing an arc that spans two whole centuries, from [Harriet Beecher] Stowe’s birth in 1811 to the present. In a sense, it is also a history of American culture from the era of Transcendentalism to that of television miniseries.” . . . Richard J. Evans, the author of an acclaimed trilogy about Nazi Germany, reviews a new book about William Shirer, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He praises the account of Shirer’s work, saying it “has much of interest to say about the life of a foreign correspondent in the war-torn Europe of the 1930s and early 1940s,” but says the book is also riddled with historical errors.

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

In the Ether

David Gee shares a few rejected book cover designs, without their titles or any other text. . . . Rick Poynor writes about how much originality is even possible in book design, and lands on a line that could apply to so many things: “The notion of continual reinvention as a worthwhile or attainable goal is particularly misplaced here…” . . . The Millions shares the opening lines of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, his new 928-page novel due in October. . . . John Self writes about authors with a gap between their best work and their best-known work (he prefers Joseph Heller’s Something Happened to Catch-22, etc.), and kicks off a spirited string of comments with further suggestions. . . . A list of 10 unconventional bookstores, most of which I feel the need to visit immediately. . . . The inspiring story of one man’s quest to publish a book with the permission of both Nick Hornby and Bruce Springsteen. (via Pete Lit) . . . An editor’s exchange with Stuart Dybek about what to name a Chicago housing project in one of Dybek’s stories. . . . Nicole Rudick talks to Paul Hornschemeier about his new graphic novel, Life with Mr. Dangerous. (“My mother reared me to be an eighty-year-old, gay man from England, so I think I had some identity issues.”) . . . Elizabeth Gumport, who has written some good book reviews herself, argues that perhaps book reviews shouldn’t exist.


Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Holden, 60 Years On

Last weekend marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, and to commemorate the event, the Fiction Advocate published “The Real Holden Caulfield,” an extended essay by Michael Moats. The whole thing is available for $1.99 at the Fiction Advocate, and the Awl and the Rumpus have both published portions of it. From reading the excerpts, the project seems smart, lively, and personal. Here are the first three paragraphs:

It’s the story of a young boy wandering the streets of his home city. He can’t go to school and he can’t go home. In the course of a few days, he runs across a series of unsavory characters, people who seem honest but are not. He feels pursued at every turn by an overactive conscience. The boy gets wet, catches a chill; he drinks and swears and makes an ass of himself. He can’t seem to connect with anyone he can trust. He meets a girl, who is finally able to give him the thing he is searching for, something that makes him — or at least makes him feel, in a world so phony — like a real boy.

This is, roughly, the story of Pinocchio.

There is no known evidence that Salinger drew from the old Tuscan story when creating Holden Caulfield. It’s only coincidence that the cover of Il Giovane Holden, the Italian translation of The Catcher in the Rye, shows a rough sketch of Holden with arms and legs skewed, his body crumpled like a discarded marionette. Holden, who might have just as easily cried, “Oh, I’m sick and tired of always being a puppet!”

Friday, July 15th, 2011

It’s Spicetime. Get Ready to Shudderate.

In August, Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes arrives. Set at a sex-themed resort, New York Magazine has already said it “may be the raunchiest novel ever published by a major American house.” For now (via Maud Newton’s Twitter page), here’s a list of words that appeared on the book’s 14-page style guide. Actually, the full sample is here. These are just some of the more family-friendly examples (I think).

murfle; murflement

Friday, July 15th, 2011

A Selection

From Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes:

The first time I went to church with my family — for a cousin’s wedding — I watched in amazement as Dad dropped to his knees in the pew, then covered his forehead and eyes with one hand. Where did that come from, I asked myself, before making some half-heartedly imitative gesture of piety, attended by furtive squinting through the fingers. It was one of those moments when your parents surprise you — not because you’ve learnt something new about them, but because you’ve discovered a further area of ignorance. Was my father merely being polite? Did he think that if he simply plonked himself down he would be taken for a Shelleyan atheist? I have no idea.

Friday, July 15th, 2011

The Beat

A most-often weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

Any review titled “Bullshit Heaven” has to have something going for it. Jed Perl has a lot of smart fun shaking his head at a new collection of essays by academics about Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light: “The entire subject of Thomas Kinkade is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. I am not always sure whether the authors gathered together in [this] collection are being grimly sincere or shamelessly ironic. I wonder if they themselves are in some doubt about this.” . . . Peter D. Kramer reviews Adventures in the Orgasmatron (got your attention?), about the “fascinating, unfairly overlooked” Wilhelm Reich, who wrote “a book that forever changed the way psychotherapy is done,” and went on to “crazily, confusingly … elaborate a dream of a society saved by sex.” . . . Kenneth Sherman praises the recently republished One Foot in America, a 1950 novel by Yuri Suhl that Sherman says “covers much of the same territory as [Henry] Roth’s masterpiece, but whereas Call It Sleep is dark and brooding, Suhl’s book is a fast-paced, entertaining picaresque.” The book “tells the story of Sol (Shloime) Kenner, a good-natured and strong-willed immigrant who relishes his passage from ‘greenhorn’ to fully fledged American in the mid-1920s.” . . . Only available online to New Yorker subscribers, Joanna Kavenna’s consideration of John Banville and his mystery-writing alter ego Benjamin Black is well worth your time. . . . Henry D. Fetter reviews a book about baseball’s struggles to float during the Depression, “in which Ronald Coase and his eponymous economics theorem share the page with Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio, and balance sheets outweigh box scores as basic source material.”

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

The Influence of Feel-Bad Dystopias

The July issue of Harper’s features an excerpt from Zone One, Colson Whitehead’s soon-to-be-published entry in the thriving post-apocalyptic genre. The magazine also asked Whitehead six questions on its website. Here’s one of them, particularly appropriate as a lead-in to something else that will appear here sometime in the next week or so:

On your website, you’ve posted a list of apocalypse-themed films that affected you as a kid. Does one in particular stand out as influencing the book?

When I was a youngster, comic books and novels such as Lucifer’s Hammer and The Stand provided models of the apocalypse, but movies were my true primer — the glorious feel-bad dystopian flicks of the 1960s and 1970s. The inexplicable monsters of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were my template for this book, as they are for everything we currently categorize as a zombie text. (Happy to discuss aspects of the novel I Am Legend with advanced students!) I was in fifth or sixth grade when the local New York PBS affiliate broadcast the original Romero movie for Halloween, and as someone who rarely encountered the Strong Black Protagonist in movies — outside of blaxploitation flicks — the movie was a revelation. Night of the Living Dead is the story of a black man on the run from the mob of white people who want to destroy him, literally devour him — in other words, it’s a crucial subplot of the America narrative.

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Tonight: A Conversation About Pseudonyms

Just a friendly reminder that you can join me and author Carmela Ciuraru tonight at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn for a discussion of Carmela’s book Nom de Plume and literary pseudonyms throughout history. Perhaps you will learn which author almost used the pseudonym Michael Angelo Titmarsh. Or which author had so many pseudonyms that they began critiquing the work of the others. You could probably learn the answers to that and more from Google, but will Google give you free wine, offer prizes and surround you with a lovely neighborhood bookstore? No, it will not. (I’m sure Google is working feverishly on wine-with-searching, but for now: No, it will not.) Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

In the True Crime Stacks

After completing a brief stretch of true-crime reading last year, I tried to find lists of other recommendations. A lot of books in the genre get suggested over and over again. But Peter Manso has a list of 10, a few of which were unfamiliar to me and sound intriguing, including Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson. (“Now nearly forty years old, this account of a Houston society marriage gone bad remains compellingly readable, a Thackeray-like novel-of-manners set among oil money and the new rich.”) But perhaps most Backlist-friendly is one writer I’ve never heard of, whose Amazon page is littered with “No Image Available”:

Rather than pick an individual title, I broadly nominate the books of the late Hank Messick, ex-Louisville Courier-Journal reporter who helped to set the standard for unflinching investigative reporting on crooks, gamblers, thieves, and mobsters. Of Messick’s 19 books, I’d recommend The Silent Syndicate (1967) that traced the rise of the so-called Purple Gang in Cleveland during Prohibition; Razzle-Dazzle (1995), his probe of Newport, Ky., gambling, and his bio, Lansky (1971), that depicted the eponymous mobster as a financial genius.

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

An Englishman’s (Singular, Addictive) View of the Great American Game

Today is a good day for baseball geeks like me, as it marks the publication of Craig Robinson’s Flip Flop Fly Ball, an oversize, lavishly illustrated book based on Robinson’s blog of infographics. The combination of his precisely created charts and the offbeat things they chart reflects a brain firmly, winningly divided between the game’s childlike, imaginative pull and the over-thought technocracy of its sabermetrics era.

An excerpt from the book’s introduction in which Robinson recites some of the questions that fuel his work gives a good sense of just how bizarre, playful, and addictive the book is:

“What distance is covered by base runners in a season? How big is the Green Monster compared to the Statue of Liberty? Which player has played for the most organizations? How many teams have their home dugout on the first-base side? How many Native Americans live in Cleveland? . . . Who was the last player called Wright to play in right field? (It was George Wright for the Expos in 1986. And, incidentally, no player called Short has ever played shortstop.) Which team’s players travel the greatest distance from rookie ball to single-A, double-A, triple-A, and then the majors? Has any player ever played in all the towns Steve Miller mentions in “Rock’n Me”? What was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 when Nolan Ryan made his debut and when he played his last game?* Which town in the contiguous United States is the farthest from a major league team?

Many of the charts and graphs in the book are new, but a few are available for viewing on the blog, like how far off Earth’s surface A-Rod’s annual salary would reach if it were a stack of pennies. This is hardly the strangest thought that has passed through Robinson’s brain. How about breaking down bobblehead giveaways? Or compiling the directional orientation of batters at each big-league stadium? But along with these more comic offerings are more straightforward historical interests, like a time line of all the teams that have played in the American or National leagues, or a map showing all the times a team has relocated.

The oddest thing about Robinson might be that he is an Englishman who didn’t really discover baseball until his mid-thirties. But when you read a few of the essays sprinkled throughout the book — about how he came to the sport and fell in love with “the evil team,” the Yankees; about a road trip to stadiums around the country; about his irrational affection for the Colorado Rockies — it’s hard to imagine he didn’t grow up somewhere in America, kicking around a Little League field and dreaming of distant minor league ballparks.

*”You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes and “Dreamlover” by Mariah Carey, respectively.

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

What Would You Do With 350,000 Books?

I don’t know how many books I own. Many of them are in storage. Whenever I move apartments, they temporarily feel like a sizable burden. But there can’t be many more than a thousand of them. So I can’t imagine 350,000.

That’s the number a woman in Saskatchewan is dealing with after an unwelcome inheritance. The books belonged to a recently deceased collector whose wife was set to burn them to get rid of them. (”There was a first edition copy of Black Beauty on the top pile and the bottom was all charred off [from being burned] but the top was just immaculate,” the new owner said. But she’s starting to sympathize:

We are kind of at a standstill. I work at two jobs. My husband is a full-time student. We have three kids and no time. And no money. And so we’re at the point now where were looking at having to burn some of the books ourselves.

(Via Bookslut)

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

The Beat

A most-often weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

Rahul Jacob reviews two new books about the rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, judging one full of “crimes against the English language” and the other “a thing of rare beauty,” like the rivalry itself. . . . Mark Mazower on a book about kids torn from their families during World War II: “Children — what was happening to them as a result of the war, and what to do with them after it — turn out to have been at the epicenter of what [Zahra] terms a ‘psychological Marshall Plan.’ Through the arguments about children we come to learn much about postwar Europe’s state of mind.” . . . Donna Rifkind reviews a novel about a suburban Californian driven to extreme economic solutions in the summer of 1974. (“Drug lords, it turns out, are rather scary chaps.”) . . . F.X. Feeney reviews Christopher Sorrentino and Jonathan Lethem’s “lively and heretical” contributions to a new series of short, analytical books about oddball movies: “the salient reward of reading these Deep Focus books” is being driven “not just to the repertory theater or the Netflix queue but to books and criticism, to conversation.” . . . Michiko Kakutani says that Adam Ross’ new collection of short stories “point up both [his] extraordinary gifts as a writer and the limitations of his willfully bleak view of human nature.” . . . Sam Thompson reviews the latest from sci-fi crossover star China Miéville: “[L]ike H.G. Wells in The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau, Miéville takes an impossible proposition and works through its implications with rigor.”


Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

An Author By Any Other Name…

On Monday, July 11, I’ll have the distinct pleasure of appearing at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood for the store’s Blogger/Author Pairings series. I’ll be speaking with Carmela Ciuraru, whose book, Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, hits shelves today. Its title gives you the gist, but you have to dive in to get a sense of its intelligence and spark. A series of biographical essays about 16 writers, including George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, George Orwell, and Sylvia Plath, the book is a great conversation starter, so I’m really looking forward to the 11th. Please join us if you can. (Full details here.)

In the meantime, Salon recently published an abridged version of the book’s introduction. Here’s a taste:

A new work by Stephen King, whose books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, is a reassuring promise of success to his publisher. It’s also critic-proof. Yet in the late 1970s, feeling hemmed in by his phenomenally prolific output, King introduced the pen name Richard Bachman. As he later said, it was easy to add someone to his interior staff:

The name Richard Bachman actually came from when they called me and said we’re ready to go to press with this novel, what name shall we put on it? And I hadn’t really thought about that. Well, I had, but the original name — Gus Pillsbury — had gotten out on the grapevine and I really didn’t like it that much anyway, so they said they needed it right away and there was a novel by Richard Stark on my desk, so I used the name Richard, and that’s kind of funny because Richard Stark is in itself a pen name for Donald Westlake, and what was playing on the record player was “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” by Bachman Turner Overdrive, so I put the two of them together and came up with Richard Bachman.

King’s practical measure to avoid saturating the market (and avoid openly competing with himself for sales) was a success. But in 1985, a bookstore clerk in Washington, D.C., did some detective work and exposed King’s secret. The author subsequently issued a press release announcing Bachman’s death from “cancer of the pseudonym.” King dedicated his 1989 novel The Dark Half (about a pen name that assumes a sinister life of its own) to “the late Richard Bachman.”

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Taking a Date to Godard

A.S. Hamrah reviews Charles Drazin’s French Cinema, “less a history of filmmaking in France than an investigation of the American response to it as seen through British eyes.” He starts with a personal anecdote:

The American reaction against French cinema can be pretty extreme, and I bet every cinephile has experienced it. Once I took a date to a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s splintery 1964 movie Une femme mariée. Hectoring questions began as soon as we left the theater. “Why would you take me to that?” my date demanded to know. “Why? What possible reason?” “You didn’t like the movie?” I asked in a lighthearted, nonchalant way. “I did not!” she replied, tomahawking her palm, and no amount of post-screening discussion with wine (not French) could make up for whatever it was Godard and I had inflicted on her. The only worse movie date I ever had was in college when I took a girl to see Eraserhead. She cried.

I like French movies, but I’ve always been much more of a Truffaut fan than a Godard fan. That statement probably pisses off both snooty cinephiles who don’t agree with the preference and American populists who sneer at even having a preference.

Read Hamrah’s entire review here.