Monday, June 13th, 2011

The Cherry & the Pit

A continuing series that highlights books recently acquired by publishing houses for future release. Each post features a book we’re looking forward to, and a book we’re . . . not.

The Cherry:

Robert Weintraub’s Top of the First, the story of 1946, when 500 WWII veterans came back to the Major Leagues (some after playing a little-known “World Series” in liberated France and occupied Germany) and ignited the modern age of baseball.

The Pit:

Jim Kraus’ The Dog Who Talked With God, in which a quirky old woman acquires a new dog as a pet, starts talking to it, and can’t help but notice when it talks back to her . . . and then the dog explains he occasionally has conversations with The Almighty.


Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

Behind the Scenes at Studio 8H

After recently reading the oral biography of Chris Farley, I turned to Live From New York, a bulky oral history of the show that made Farley famous. It reads about as quickly as a 600-page book can, full as it is of gossipy anecdotes.

The basic arc is as you would expect, from the drug-saturated, world-conquering early days (production assistant Neil Levy: “This pot was from Africa or something. You didn’t even have to smoke it; you just looked at the joint and you were unconscious.”) to the squeakier professional days of Tina Fey, et al. Part of the fun, of course, is the character assassination. Chevy Chase and Harry Shearer come off as the most universally disliked. (NBC bigwig Dick Ebersol on Shearer: “He’s just a nightmare-to-deal-with person.” And writer James Downey: “[Bill] Murray can be a real asshole, but the thing that keeps bringing me back to defend him is I’ve seen him be an asshole to people who could affect his career way more often than to people who couldn’t. Harry Shearer will shit on you to the precise degree that it’s cost-free; he’s a total ass-kisser with important people.”)

I fell in love with Jane Curtin while reading the book. During the insane early days, she would always shake her head at the partying and go home to her husband and dog. This seemed paradoxically hardcore.

The book is full of digressions about things I either didn’t expect to see or didn’t expect to care about, like the ways in which Billy Crystal was a great colleague, the differences between writing for SNL and Letterman, and why Larry David didn’t succeed during a stint as a staff writer.

There’s a ton about Lorne Michaels, who offered a lot of material himself, and who comes off as funny, committed, intentionally enigmatic, and either a dream or a nightmare to work for, depending on your temperament. He was surprisingly OK with Sinead O’Connor’s notorious tearing in half of the Pope’s picture, citing her bravery. (The story of how O’Connor duped the producers into the moment is also a good one.) After a discussion of Janeane Garofalo’s dissatisfaction while on the show, Michaels offers a brief quote that doesn’t even name her: “Some people, their whole lives, are just injustice collectors. They’re going to find new injustices every day. That’s what they do, and that’s what they are.”

If you’re between heady books, I recommend this one as a palate cleanser. The same authors have just published an even thicker oral history of ESPN, which I’m sure I’ll get to at some point. The sports network’s glory days are even more clearly behind it than SNL’s, but such things hardly seem to matter in this format — I found myself flipping the pages just as quickly in the Victoria Jackson era as in the Gilda Radner era. (Everyone loved Gilda, by the way.)

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

The Beat

An occasional roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

John Self reviews Lars Iyer’s Spurious, a short novel with debts to Beckett, Bernhard, and Kafka about two friends, Lars and W., and their absurd/profound talk: “The conversations are short but feel like excerpts from one never-ending exchange, like arcs cut from a circle. . . . what Lars and W. represent is an endless intellectual curiosity, on everything from messianism to Peter Andre (though the pop cultural references for me were the least funny part of the book). Such interest in things can only ever be bright-eyed and vigorous, and funny even when it’s horrible.” . . . John McWhorter offers a provocative take on a new book about the war against drugs and race in America. . . . In the first of a two-part review, Marcia Angell discusses three books and the “raging epidemic of mental illness [in America], at least as judged by the increase in the numbers treated for it.” . . . Barbara Ehrenreich considers several books about man’s place on the food chain. . . . Laura Miller praises William Deresiewicz’s “delightful and enlightening” new book about Jane Austen, but also critiques a view of reading: “Does reading great literature make you a better person? I’ve not seen much evidence for this common belief. Some of the best-read people I know are thoroughgoing jerks, and some of the kindest and noblest verge on the illiterate — which is admittedly an anecdotal argument, but then, when it comes to this topic, what isn’t?”


Monday, June 6th, 2011

A Selection

From Mating by Norman Rush:

The inspiriting effect my singing had on my animals was not an illusion, and it reminds me now of the period when I was feeling depressed at how commonplace my dreams were compared to Denoon’s. He claimed to dream infrequently, but when he did, his dreams were like something by Faberge or Kafka in their uniqueness. He would have noetic dreams, and when they were over he would be left in possession of some adage or percept that tells you something occult or fundamental about the world. One of these was the conviction he woke up with one morning that music was the remnant of a medium that had been employed in the depths of the past as a means of communication between men and animals — I assume man arrow animal and not ducks playing flutes to get their point across to man. Living with me made him more provisional about his dreams, especially after I compared one of his adages to a statement some famous surrealist was left with after dreaming, which he thought important enough to print up: Beat your mother while she’s still young. I would always make Denoon at least try to reduce his insights to a sentence or two. The fact is I laugh at dreams. They seem to me to be some kind of gorgeous garbage. I have revenge dreams, mainly, in which I tell significant figures from my past things like You have the brains of a drum. On I sang.

Is it absurd to be proud of your dreams, or not? Denoon was.


Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

One Story Names 10 Stories

The literary journal One Story was recently asked to name its 10 top short stories. On its blog, the top 10 were listed, along with a long list of 26 other contenders. Some of the comments expressed shock that Hemingway wasn’t included. I was more overwhelmed by the fact that One Story, which publishes one short story every three weeks, has more than 15 staffers.

And Hemingway-Schmemingway, the list also didn’t include William Trevor (pictured) — an even greater oversight, in my opinion. But as the folks at One Story admit, this task is “pretty impossible” and “always changing.” Off the top of my head, my list might include one story from their top 10 list (“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and another from its long list (“Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” by Robert Olen Butler).

Some locks for me would include “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” by William Trevor, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, “We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek, “Tapka” by David Bezmozgis, and “The Sandman” by Donald Barthelme. I remember loving “A Letter That Never Reached Russia” by Nabokov, but it’s been a long time. Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and Chekhov might make my list, too, but I would have to go back to figure out which story in each case. This exercise is making me wish (even more than usual) that many of my short-story anthologies weren’t in storage. Might be time to pay them a visit.

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

In Order of Demand

As Hollywood prepares its full-on assault of summer stupidity (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern), Bookforum cleverly devotes its summer issue to best sellers. Ruth Franklin offers an essay about the history of the beast, including its origins:

The term best seller has always been a misnomer. Fast seller would be more appropriate, since the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity. The first list of books “in order of demand” was created in 1895 by Harry Thurston Peck, editor of the trade magazine The Bookman. Publishers Weekly started its own list in 1912, but others were slow to follow: The New York Times did not create its best-seller list until 1942. Now, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today also compile national lists, and each of the major regional papers has its own — all generated in slightly different ways.

And like most things, the best-seller list used to be more interesting, less predictable:

A combination of factors brought about the homogenization of the best-seller list that began in the late ’70s and continues today. . . .

In the past, it was common for a novelist to have a few hits and then fade from view. [Warwick] Deeping, for instance, never made the list again after 1932, though he continued publishing through the ’50s. Now, by contrast, there began to emerge a core group of writers who could regularly sell a million copies in a year and then come right back the following year with a new best seller — a trend that continued through the ’90s and shows no signs of abating. . . . Danielle Steel — who published her first best seller, Changes, in 1983 — holds the current record with thirty-three. Stephen King, whose first hit was The Dead Zone in 1979, comes in second with thirty-two. John Grisham, who started with The Firm in 1991, is third with twenty-three. Rounding out the list are the prolific newcomer James Patterson (seventeen), Tom Clancy (thirteen), Patricia Cornwell and Sidney Sheldon (eleven each), and Michael Crichton and Robert Ludlum (ten each). Some of these writers are stronger than others — both Clancy and Crichton have at least produced readable books — but none approaches the stature even of a Wouk or a Uris. The middlebrow, represented now by writers like John Irving and Garrison Keillor, had become a minority. Meanwhile, the only new literary novelists who made the list in the ’80s and ’90s did so with the help of movie tie-ins (Umberto Eco) or assassination threats (Salman Rushdie). The “flood of fiction” that Peck lamented in 1902 had become a tsunami drowning out outlier voices.

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Death of Literacy/Civilization Watch

Reason #4,789 that it’s hard to feel too bad about whatever crisis publishers are currently facing can be found here.

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

The Impossibility of Absolute Truth

Later today, I’m going to post a belated review of Jessica Francis Kane’s The Report, a novel that’s both quiet and forceful. Kane has a new piece up at The Morning News that could be described the same way. She recounts a recent visit to London, and if you’re like me, her introduction will be more than enough to draw you into the rest of her discussion about history and its relationship with fiction:

The man walked with a limp and a cane and couldn’t stand quite straight. He made his way slowly, deliberately to the front row of the auditorium in the London Transport Museum, a custom-made fluorescent yellow vest over his dark blazer.

Printed on the vest were various facts and figures of the Bethnal Green Tube station disaster: 173 people killed on the stairs the night of March 3, 1943; death in all cases by asphyxiation, there were no bombs; largest civilian accident of WWII.

He’d come to hear me speak on the topic, the subject of my first novel. He sat down and looked up at me on the stage. To say his expression was skeptical would be an understatement. I am a relatively young American novelist. He is Alf Morris, one of the accident’s oldest survivors.

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

Ruth Franklin praises Paula Fox, and reviews a new collection, which “pairs an assortment of previously published short stories, some dating back to the 1960s, with a series of autobiographical lectures and essays that tell of the often-complicated adult life — divorce, children, friendships, family — that took place behind the scenes of her fiction.” . . . Belinda Lanks reviews Intern Nation, a look at the proliferation of unpaid internships, and what impact the trend has on the interns and all other workers. . . . Elizabeth Lowry reviews a new book about boredom — its history, its cultural representations, its occasional usefulness, and its closeness to existential despair. . . . Sally Satel reviews a new book by Richard J. McNally that attempts to mark the dividing line between mental health and illness: “Should we worry about the sanity of the author for assigning himself this thankless task? He might as well be asking where to draw the line between twilight and dusk. But rest assured: McNally’s wide-ranging and extremely readable book is quite sane, and vastly illuminating.” . . . Geeta Dayal says that Rob Young’s Electric Eden, a bulky book that “grapples with the unwieldy history of British folk music” makes up for shunning some of the bigger-name bands with breadth: “This book is wide-ranging enough to contend with Rudyard Kipling, faeries, G.I. Gurdjieff, Paradise Lost, Marshall McLuhan, Arthur Machen, and a member of the Incredible String Band named Licorice.” . . . Nicholas Lezard reviews Peter Nowak’s Sex, Bombs, and Burgers, about the way our appetites have led to unlikely innovations: “This is a breezy, accessible book. I would have preferred something a little more pretentious, with some continental intellectual flashiness thrown in. But then that is just me; and the connections Nowak makes may well form the basis for the kind of thing I’m hankering after.”


Thursday, May 19th, 2011

“The transience of our lives is one of the things that makes it valuable.”

Malcolm Jones at Book Beast talks to John Gray about his new book, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, which I’m writing about here soon (in relation to a couple of other books). Gray says, “I’m old enough to remember that when photocopiers came along we were told that they would destroy tyranny. I’m sure people said the same thing about radio or the telegraph, just as now they say the same thing about the Internet.” His book, which reads far more smoothly than its inelegant title, is, in part, an argument for being “friendlier to our mortality. The transience of our lives is one of the things that makes it valuable. We might, at least as individuals, actually shake the hold of some of these dreams of technological immortality. Although I don’t think the culture as a whole can be changed, because the culture as a whole is possessed by the idea that science can deliver us from our actual condition.” One more extended quote:

I’m not a believer, but I’m friendly to religion, partly because it goes with being human — it’s an odd kind of humanism which is hostile to something which is so quintessentially human as religion. I’m very opposed to investing science with the needs and requirements of religion. I’m equally opposed to the tendency within religion, which exists in things like creationism and intelligent design, to turn religion into a kind of pseudo-science. If you go back to St. Augustine or before, to the Jewish scholars who talk about these issues, they never regard the Genesis story as a theory. Augustine says explicitly that it should not be interpreted explicitly, that it’s a way of accessing truths which can’t really be formulated by the human mind in any rational way. It’s a way of accessing mysterious features which will remain mysterious. So it was always seen right up to the rise of modern science — as a myth, not a theory. What these creationists are doing is retreating, they’re accepting the view of religion promoted by scientific enemies of religion, and saying, no, we have got science and it’s better than your science. Complete error.

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

“Even if he was doing nothing, you wanted to watch him do nothing.”

I don’t stick to a strict reading schedule. I’m always buying books, so I always have a lot of books I haven’t read. I imagine this condition will last forever. The unread books are in a constant state of flux, some of them occasionally floating toward the top of the pile, which pile is more mental than physical. Sometimes I will learn about a book or become suddenly interested in one that skips to the front of the line, but few of those books have been as unlikely to do so as The Chris Farley Show, an oral biography of the comedian.

Last week, a friend at work sent me a very brief, silly clip from a Farley movie to expound on some joke we had just made. And in the way of YouTube, I then found myself watching an appearance Farley made on Letterman in 1995. Something about the interview piqued my interest. Or rather, several things: Farley’s agile double-cartwheel entrance; his earnest-fan handshake with the legendary host; his unsurprisingly over-the-top (and possibly intoxicated) but still riveting performance; his strangely child-like responses to certain moments; the way Letterman was genuinely cracking up, which is rare.

Farley died at 33, his popularity far outrunning his resume. There were a handful of good Saturday Night Live characters (like the motivational speaker Matt Foley, and Farley himself as a befuddled interviewer of the stars) and a few funny scenes in Tommy Boy. But in several of his roles, there was a sense that Farley was an actor who could convey a character and not crack up in the middle of whatever outrageous thing he was doing. I don’t think I would be interested in a straight biography of him, but the oral format was perfect. I read it in about a day.

The child-like thing was no act, as Farley had a fairly serious case of arrested development, being mothered from afar after he moved to New York from the Midwest and generally obsequious to all authority figures. He was also obsessive-compulsive. (Writer and performer Bob Odenkirk, who wrote the Matt Foley sketch: “I cannot express to you how much he licked everything. . . . He had to lick his shoelaces to tie them. He’d lick his finger and touch the stair, lick the finger, touch the stair, and do it all the way up the staircase. It was totally nuts.”)

He was also very generous, spending time with some of New York’s most forgotten people. The full extent of his charity work, through his church and other outlets, wasn’t known even by those close to him until after his death.

The middle of the book focuses on Farley’s magnetic stage presence. His friend Pat Finn says of watching him perform at Chicago’s Second City: “There was a scene where he played a waiter. The people eating dinner were the heart of the scene, but Chris came out and got a huge laugh with “Can I get you something to eat?” That was it. He went over to the other side of the stage to make the drinks and the sandwiches in the background, and every single head in the audience slowly turned to watch Chris. It was the oddest thing. Even if he was doing nothing, you wanted to watch him do nothing.” Fellow actor Michael McKean said, “It was nice to share the stage with that kind of manic energy. For one thing, you knew the focus was elsewhere. No one was watching me. I could have sat down and eaten a sandwich during some of the sketches we did together.”

But above everything else, Farley was an addict, and the book moves inexorably toward a series of grim remembrances that end more than once with, “And that was the last time I ever saw him alive.” As his friend Ted Dondanville puts it earlier in the book: “The first hour of drinking with Chris was fun. The second hour was the best hour of your life. The rest of the night was pure hell.” The book mostly reads as a cautionary tale about what you can — and can’t — do to help someone with their own demons. It’s far more harrowing than funny, which seems only right, since that could also be said of Farley’s life off-camera.

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

“If it had been a thick book, I would have discarded it.”

The Browser recently scored an interview with Woody Allen for its “Five Books” series. Of the five Allen discussed, the one that really caught my attention was a novel called Epitaph of a Small Winner, and I’m planning to order a copy:

Let’s turn to a comic novel written in 1880 by Brazil’s Machado de Assis. Tell us about it and how you came to love this work.

Well, I just got it in the mail one day. Some stranger in Brazil sent it and wrote, “You’ll like this.” Because it’s a thin book, I read it. If it had been a thick book, I would have discarded it.

I was shocked by how charming and amusing it was. I couldn’t believe he lived as long ago as he did. You would’ve thought he wrote it yesterday. It’s so modern and so amusing. It’s a very, very original piece of work.

The memorable last line of the novel reads: “I had no progeny, I transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery.” You shrug off the notion that your work leaves an artistic legacy. Can you at least acknowledge a cultural one? What I have in mind is that more men today follow the model of romance established by Alvy Singer than those established by Romeo, Darcy, or Casanova.

When it comes to romance, when it comes to love, everyone is in the same boat. The issues that Euripides and Sophocles and Shakespeare and Chekhov and Strindberg struggled with are the same unsolvable problems that each generation deals with and finds its own way of complaining about. . . .

I may have different cosmetics, but in the end we’re all writing about the same thing. This is the reason why I’ve never done political films. Because the enduring problems of life are not political; they’re existential, they’re psychological, and there are no answers to them — certainly no satisfying answers.

Monday, May 9th, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

H. Allen Orr writes an incisive critique of Sam Harris’ latest book, a book subtitled “How Science Can Determine Human Values.” And Jackson Lears takes a long look at the same book, not in the mood for taking prisoners: “His books display a stunning ignorance of history, including the history of science. For a man supposedly committed to the rational defense of science, Harris is remarkably casual about putting a thumb on the scale in his arguments.” . . . Richard Posner considers the public-relations side of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a few other issues besides: “The justices are competent and experienced lawyers, but nowadays are apt to lack the worldly experience that might help them in deciding the most important and controversial cases — the ones with large political or social resonance — wisely.” . . . John Self makes a book I’ve never heard of, about a man I’ve never heard of who seems like a ghastly human being, sound completely worthwhile: “After making me want to read the books again (or buy the ones I didn’t have), the greatest effect of this biography was to render me amazed that such a louche, unreliable and frequently addled character could have produced such tight, witty writing.” . . . Ian Brown’s new memoir is about his severely disabled son Walker. Roger Rosenblatt says, “Walker brings a strange, sweet love to his family, not because he exhibits love himself, but rather because he elicits their capacity for it.” . . . Laura Miller reviews Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, a book that proceeds “with the excitable Ronson pinging wildly back and forth between finding psychopaths everywhere he looks (he’s particularly concerned that many political and business leaders might meet the criteria) and questioning the validity of psychiatric diagnosis itself.” . . . Nicholas Lezard reviews Helen Simpson’s new book of short stories: “Every five years she sends out a collection of her latest perceptions on the battle of the sexes, or the trials of parenthood. Twenty years after she started, life is getting no easier.”


Thursday, May 5th, 2011

A Selection

From Something Happened by Joseph Heller (for a funny anecdote about the book’s creation, see the post below this one). In this passage, the novel’s narrator, Bob Slocum, has just imagined an image of himself standing between his infant daughter and his elderly mother:

And there I am between them, sturdy, youthful, prospering, virile (fossilized and immobilized between them as though between bookends, without knowing how I got there, without knowing how I will ever get out), saddled already with the grinding responsibility of making them, and others, happy, when it has been all I can do from my beginning to hold my own head up straight enough to look existence squarely in the eye without making guileful wisecracks about it or sobbing out loud for help. Who put me here? How will I ever get out? Will I ever be somebody lucky? What decided to sort me into precisely this slot? (What the fuck makes anyone think I am in control, that I can be any different from what I am? I can’t even control my reveries. Virginia’s tit is as meaningful to me now as my mother’s whole life and death. Both of them are dead. The rest of us are on the way. I can almost hear my wife, or my second wife, if I ever have one, or somebody else, saying:

“Won’t you wheel Mr. Slocum out of the shade into the sunlight now? I think he looks a little cold.”

A vacuum cleaner that works well is more important to me than the atom bomb, and it makes not the slightest difference to anyone I know that the earth revolves around the sun instead of vice versa, or the moon around the earth, although the measured ebb and flow of the tides may be of some interest to mariners and clam diggers, but who cares about them? Green is more important to me than God. So, for that matter, is Kagle and the man who handles my dry cleaning, and a transistor radio that is playing too loud is a larger catastrophe to me than the next Mexican earthquake. “Someday” — it must have crossed my mother’s mind at least once, after my denial and rejection of her, since she was only human — “this will happen to you.” Although she was too generous to me ever to say so. But I know it must have crossed her mind.)


Thursday, May 5th, 2011

“There are bad lines in King Lear and it has survived.”

A 1994 interview with famed editor Robert Gottlieb in the Paris Review was passed around online this week. It breaks from the magazine’s normal format. Instead of featuring Gottlieb and an interviewer, It features him and extended comments by a chorus of writers with whom he’s worked, including Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, Cynthia Ozick, Robert Caro, and others. The whole thing is worth reading, but below are three of my favorite excerpts:


Joe Heller and I have always been on exactly the same wavelength editorially, and the most extraordinary proof of this came up when we were working on Something Happened. It’s a deeply disturbing book about a very conflicted man — a man who is consumed with anxiety and all kinds of serious moral problems — and his name was Bill Slocum. Well, we went through the whole book, and divided it up into chapters and all the rest of it, and at the end of the process I said, Joe, this is going to sound crazy to you but this guy is not a Bill. He said, Oh really, what do you think he is? I said, He’s a Bob. And Joe looked at me and said, He was a Bob, and I changed his name to Bill because I thought you would be offended if I made him a Bob. I said, Oh no, I don’t think he’s anything like me, it’s just that this character is a Bob. So we changed it back. It was absolutely amazing. How did it happen? I don’t know. I suppose our convoluted, neurotic, New York Jewish minds work the same way.

Robert Caro:

In all the hours of working on The Power Broker, Bob never said one nice thing to me — never a single complimentary word, either about the book as a whole or about a single portion of the book. That was also true of my second book, The Path to Power. But then he got soft. When we finished the last page of the last book we worked on, Means of Ascent, he held up the manuscript for a moment and said, slowly, as if he didn’t want to say it, Not bad. Those are the only two complimentary words he has ever said to me, to this day.


I have idiosyncrasies in punctuation, like everybody else. Because one of the formative writers of my life was Henry James, it’s all too easy for me to pepper a text with dashes. Many people don’t like dashes. With Le Carré, I’m always putting commas in, and he’s always taking them out, but we know that about each other. He’ll say, Look, if you absolutely need this one, have it. And I’ll say, Well, I would have liked it, but I guess I can live without it. We accommodate each other. When I was a young firebrand it never occurred to me that I might be wrong, or that I wasn’t going to have my way, or that it wasn’t my job to impose my views. I could get into twenty-minute shouting matches over semicolons, because every semicolon was a matter of life or death. As you grow older you realize that there are bad lines in King Lear and it has survived.

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Recent Reading: Unhappy Couples

Peter Stamm’s Seven Years, translated from the German, tells a familiar story in a startling way. The story is that a husband is vaguely dissatisfied with his marriage, and ends up cheating on his wife. But Alex, an architect, chooses (or doesn’t choose, but is inexplicably compelled toward) an exceedingly odd object of affection. His wife, Sonia, a fellow architect, is brilliant and beautiful. His occasional lover, Ivona, is . . . not those things.

Alex is both “excited and repulsed” by Ivona. We have to take his word about the excited part. Ivona is nearly mute, and when she does speak, it’s to awkwardly blurt out her obsessive love for him. The physical descriptions of her are thoroughly off-putting. God help me, but I kept picturing her as Kathy Geiss from 30 Rock.

Alex seems most drawn to Ivona because she is a void. Life with Sonia requires Alex to care about the usual signposts in life, his career, his children, his home and his cars, his retirement fund. As for Ivona: “She took me without expectations and without claims.” But this is not enough of an explanation. Many people might satisfy the condition of no expectations while providing a clearer sense of pleasure. Alex tells the story in installments to Antje, a friend staying with him, Sonia, and their daughter, Sophie. Complete with a twist, this framework of the book — the telling of it to Antje — causes it to unfold as an unnerving fairy tale, a stubbornly unrevealing philosophical investigation of the origins and purposes of desire.

Earlier this year, I read Light Years by James Salter, a very different book also about a couple coming apart at the seams. I’d been meaning to read Salter, and followed Light Years with A Sport and a Pastime.

Several of the most powerful moments in Light Years are stark and aphoristic (“In the end she would forget him; that was how she would win.”), and more potent for appearing in the midst of Salter’s otherwise complex (but still elegant) prose.

Geoff Dyer called the book’s central couple, Nedra and Viri, “possibly the most irritatingly named characters in literature.” It’s not just the names. The central characters are pretentious and easily dissatisfied, and say things out loud like, “The only thing I’m afraid of are the words ‘ordinary life.’” Despite a lack of fellow feeling with the characters, I liked Light Years quite a bit, because Salter can flat-out write. Here he describes the feeling of a relationship just after it has been sundered: “A fatal space had opened, like that between a liner and the dock which is suddenly too wide to leap; everything is still present, visible, but it cannot be regained.”

Elsewhere, in a rich and hilarious early scene, a maniacally fastidious tailor ends up comparing a badly made shirt to “the story of a pretty girl who is single and one day she finds herself pregnant. It’s not the end of life, but it’s serious.”

After reading two books by Salter, I want to read more. I also feel that I understand why he’s beloved by a certain set of writers and editors but never reached quite the audience of some of the writers who sing his praises.

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

A Selection

From Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone:

Converse lay clinging to earth and life, his mouth full of sweet grass. Around him the screams, the bombs, the whistling splinters swelled their sickening volume until they blotted out sanity and light. It was then that he cried, although he had not realized it at the time.

In the course of being fragmentation-bombed by the South Vietnamese Air Force, Converse experienced several insights; he did not welcome them although they came as no surprise.

One insight was that the ordinary physical world through which one shuffled heedless and half-assed toward nonentity was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death. Existence was a trap; the testy patience of things as they are might be exhausted at any moment.

Another was that in the single moment when the breathing world had hurled itself screeching and murderous at his throat, he had recognized the absolute correctness of its move. In those seconds, it seemed absurd that he had ever been allowed to go his foolish way, pursuing notions and small joys. He was ashamed of the casual arrogance with which he had presumed to scurry about creation. From the bottom of his heart, he concurred in the moral necessity of his annihilation.

He had lain there — a funny little fucker — a little stingless quiver on the earth. That was all there was of him, all there ever had been.


Thursday, April 28th, 2011

In the Ether

Christopher Hitchens writes both movingly and caustically about Philip Larkin’s long-running relationship with Monica Jones: “[Larkin] once described the sexual act as a futile attempt to get ‘someone else to blow your own nose for you.’ These collected letters reflect his contribution to a distraught and barren four-decade relationship with Monica Jones, an evidently insufferable yet gifted woman who was a constant friend and intermittent partner (one can barely rise to saying mistress, let alone lover) until Larkin’s death in 1985.” . . . And Martin Amis writes an appreciation of his friend Hitchens that reads disconcertingly (if understandably) like an advance eulogy. . . . Christian Lorentzen cheekily considers Martin Amis’ impending move to Brooklyn, and the saturation of writers already there. (”They’re like bedbugs with bylines, and there’ll soon be a new bug in town, who might just be the biggest bug of all.”) . . . Here’s the type of contest that doesn’t come along every day: “Design the Polish edition of your favorite book.” . . . I haven’t even listened to this myself yet, but how could it not be worth sharing? Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy on the same panel about the connections between science and art. I only thought those two would ever join forces to announce the apocalypse on national television. . . . Robert Lane Greene writes about his role as his office’s unofficial language nerd: “When someone asks me, ‘Is such-and-such a verb?’ My answer is usually, ‘Well, a lot of people are using it as one, including in professionally edited writing, so yes.’ Still nervous, they might ask, ‘But is it in the dictionary?’ The answer is probably ‘not yet,’ but that doesn’t mean much.” . . . Ian McEwan talks to The Browser about the books that have “helped shape” his own.


Tuesday, April 26th, 2011


The opening line of Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter:

Three Indians were standing out in front of the post office that hot summer morning when the motorcycle blazed down Walnut Street and caused Mel Weatherwax to back his pickup truck over the cowboy who was loading sacks of lime.


Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

Craig Fehrman reviews Randall Fuller’s examination of the Civil War’s influence on American literature. Fehrman notes that the lack of lasting contemporary literature about the war — “In fact, the work most people think of is The Red Badge of Courage — a novel published 30 years after the war’s end by a writer who wasn’t even born until 1871.” — but says Fuller carefully makes the case for the war’s effect on the writing and mindset of Melville, Whitman, Emerson, and others. . . . I have no idea what I would think of it now, but I read Tim Sandlin’s Skipped Parts eons ago and got a big kick out of it. Mike Peed reviews Lydia, Sandlin’s fourth book following those same characters: “Sandlin doesn’t specialize in subtlety. In large part, he relates his story via megaphone, with loud plot turns and louder wisecracks. ‘Life is a Saturday-morning cartoon meant to entertain a God who tends to sleep late’ is a typical one-line digression. But although the novel masquerades as jeremiad, it’s ultimately uplifting, adroitly chronicling the ways we seek to transcend our fears.” . . . Laura Bennett reviews the ubiquitous Tina Fey’s memoir: “Neurosis makes Bossypants funny (and it is very funny), but it is fueled by reflexive self-deprecation instead of real reflection.” . . . Laird Hunt reviews a novel about a writer who commits suicide that can only be read in a “troubling light,” as the real-life author took his own life just days after finishing the book. . . . Michael S. Roth reviews a book — inflated from a widely discussed magazine article — by an anonymous adjunct professor who bemoans the state of today’s college students. . . . Adam Mars-Jones reviews David Lodge’s half-novel/half-biography of H.G. Wells: “The benefit of this hybrid form for the writer is that it frees up the texture of the book, avoiding the build-up of clogging documentation, and allows him to hurry over or emphasize themes at will. The benefit for the reader isn’t so clear.”


Friday, April 22nd, 2011

An Instant (Penguin) Classic?

Morrissey, former lead singer of The Smiths and now longtime solo act, is finishing up his autobiography:

The much-anticipated Mozography is almost three years in the making, and the singer hopes to publish the tome in 2012. “I’ve reached the re-drafting, trimming stage,” he said. But despite reams of material — 200,000 words, according to interviewer John Wilson — Morrissey has yet to find, or choose, a publisher. Last year, an editor at Faber said it would be “the fulfillment of my most pressing and persistent publishing dream” if Morrissey brought his “much-rumored memoir to the House of Eliot.” This week, the 51-year-old quipped that he wants to see the book immediately published as a Penguin Classic.

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

“(Do mountains count as books?)”

The Los Angeles Review of Books is a web-based literary enterprise that is scheduled to fully launch later this year. For now, the site — led editorially by Tom Lutz, as well as Evan Kindley, Julie Cline, and Matthew Specktor, among others — is up and operating as a “preview review.” The LARB calls itself “the first major, full-service book review to launch in the 21st century.” Full service? With a boast like that, they better be ready to fill it up with regular unleaded.

I wish them the best of luck. With their list of contributing editors (which is longer than some short stories), they should have a lot to offer. (The site currently features a considerable list of forthcoming articles.)

One of the first three pieces up on the site is Ben Ehrenreich’s “The Death of the Book,” a smart and playful essay about a concern that has existed as long as the book. Or longer. Here’s a piece:

For the record, my own loyalties are uncomplicated. I adore few humans more than I love books. I make no promises, but I do not expect to purchase a Kindle or a Nook or any of their offspring. I hope to keep bringing home bound paper books until my shelves snap from their weight, until there is no room in my apartment for a bed or a couch or another human being, until the floorboards collapse and my eyes blur to dim. But the book, bless it, is not a simple thing.

Nor, as we know it, is it particularly venerable. All of our words for book refer, at root, to forms no longer recognizable as such: biblos being the Greek word for the pith of the papyrus stalk (on which texts in the Greco-Roman world were inscribed); libri being Latin for the inner bark of a tree, just as the Old English bóc and Old Norse bók referred to the beech tree. Likewise “tome” is from a Greek word for a cutting (of papyrus) and “volume” is from the Latin for a rolled-up thing — a scroll, which is the form most texts took until they were replaced by folded parchment codices. Prior to the late 13th century, when paper was first brought to Europe from China, the great works of Western civilization were recorded on the skins of animals. The Inca wrote by knotting strings. The ancient Chinese scrawled calligraphy on cliffs. (Do mountains count as books?) The printed, paper book, as we know it, dates only to the mid-fifteenth century, but those early Gutenberg exemplars were hardly something you’d curl up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The book as an affordable object of mass production — as something directly kin to the books that line our shelves — was not born until the 19th century, just in time for the early announcements of its death.

Friday, April 15th, 2011

The Opposite of Federer

Speaking of Geoff Dyer, he has a brief essay up at Prospect Magazine about his “literary allergy” to David Foster Wallace. On the one hand, I’m a Wallace fan. On the other, there are plenty of sacred literary cows to whom I’m immune, and I would hate for criticism of beloved writers to disappear. Moving away from hands altogether, it’s also true that though I’m a fan, there are things about Wallace’s work — perhaps especially his fiction — that bother me. Dyer writes, “I react against the variously contrived sloppinesses of all those ’sort ofs’ and ‘kind ofs’ in tandem with, sometimes followed by, the magisterial flamboyant (’Existentiovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding’).” I agree about the contrived sloppiness, for various reasons, but mostly because of the “contrived” part. And this is more a matter of taste than anything else (there must be some people who prefer Rafael Nadal’s human twitches and strains to Roger Federer’s robotic efficiency), but Dyer offers a smart metaphor for Wallace’s style, given Wallace’s writing about tennis, and about Federer in particular:

Federer’s style is about maximum economy and grace of action. Between games he just sits there. Barely even sweats. DFW, by contrast, is forever picking his shorts out of his arse like Nadal, bouncing the balls as many times as Djokovic, tugging his cap forwards and backwards like Roddick, or twitching like Lleyton Hewitt. He is the least Federer-like writer imaginable.

Friday, April 15th, 2011

The (Non)Anxiety of (American) Influence

geoffdyerIn what is my best decision of 2011 so far, I’m on a Geoff Dyer kick. Having meant to read him for a pretty long time, I recently finished Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. Last night I bought the new collection of his essays and reviews, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which I dipped into briefly, and Out of Sheer Rage, his book about not writing a book about D. H. Lawrence, the work that probably did the most to cement his reputation as both a brilliant, hilarious writer and an impossible-to-categorize follower of whims and neuroses. I’m 50 pages in and loving it.

Dyer was recently interviewed at The Rumpus, where this exchange, among others, took place:

Rumpus: British writers often come across as biased against their American counterparts, as though they still think of us as their dumb younger brothers to be laughed at and maybe sometimes condescendingly patted on the head. You, though, seem to have a great interest in and respect for American literature. What is it about American literature that attracts you and why?

Dyer: I actually disagree completely with the premise of this question. I think many British readers and writers have found American writing to be way more inspiring than British literature. I think it’s to do with the voice, that lovely demotic richness of American English. And there seems a greater freedom in U.S. fiction to just go with the voice, to roll with it. People tend not to do that in Britain so much unless it’s a very obviously ― and often history-driven ― kind of ventriloquism. The great exception of course is Martin Amis, which is why we are so in thrall to him. But, you know, it’s not just American writing; I love America and, in so far as one can generalize, Americans.

I sent that excerpt to a friend, and she wrote back about the U.S. and the UK, “Each of us wants what the other has!”

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

“Oh, wow. What happened to yesterday?”

I embedded this video last summer, but I see no reason not to embed it again. In fact, you’re lucky I don’t repost it every day. I’ve just put on the Backlist a review of Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball by poet Donald Hall. Ellis was a pitcher in the 1970s who once threw a no-hitter while still feeling some effects of an LSD trip. After he retired from baseball, he spent quite a bit of time counseling about the dangers of drugs, and he died in 2008 after suffering from cirrhosis due to alcoholism. Not long before he died, he gave an interview, part of which was brilliantly animated by James Blagden and turned into the video below. Enjoy:

Monday, April 11th, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

kornelJessa Crispin writes a piece both charming and levelheaded about Brian Greene, alternative universes, Henry James, and Kornél Esti, a novel by Dezsö Kosztolányi: “If one has to choose between believing in infinite choice and fate, fate seems like the sanest option. Apologies to Brian Greene and all of the scientists throughout time.” . . . John Stokes reviews two volumes of the collected letters of Ellen Terry, an English stage actress who lived from 1847 to 1928. I know next to nothing about Terry, but want to know more after reading Stokes’ essay, which is also sharp about letter-writing in general. . . . Anita Desai on a new biography of Gandhi: “Even in his lifetime the legend of Mahatma Gandhi had grown to such proportions that the man himself can be said to have disappeared as if into a dust storm. Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography sets out to find him.” . . . David L. Ulin says Jim Shepard deserves more readers, and that his new collection of stories “balances an understanding of history with a recognition that we may be living at the end of history, at a place where narrative can go only so far.” . . . Bruce Weber reviews a book that debunks myths about baseball’s origins that have already been debunked but also paints a vivid picture of the game’s earliest days.


Friday, April 8th, 2011

A Selection

From My Life as a Fan by Wilfrid Sheed:

That winter, I turned twelve, which means I was just about fully developed as a fan. We mature early as a breed, somewhere between lyric poets, who I understood from my reading to be elderly gentlemen of eighteen or so, and chess players, who apparently hit their stride around four. Recently I chanced to reread an article on Ted Williams written by young Cleveland Armory in 1942, and was shocked to find myself reacting to it in exactly the same way as I had then, without any adult ironies or overtones or voices murmuring “Can’t you see the writer is really saying this?” or “It’s obvious that Williams was just a case of [name your favorite neurosis]”: it was as if I had put the piece down the day before and face value was still quite good enough for me.

So what had gone wrong? Had I failed to grow up at all since then, or was I grown up already in that one respect? The answer in the case of Williams may simply be that in 1942 it was just a case of one twelve-year-old reading about another and life wasn’t going to teach me a hell of a lot more about being twelve than I already knew. And this may be true of other superstars too whose inner resources have been entirely diverted into physical expression, like streams rushing into a great river. (“Did Fred Astaire ever say anything interesting?” says a friend. “Only every time he danced,” say I.)

Friday, April 8th, 2011

The Best Baseball Books

waddell2I was hoping to have a baseball-related Backlist piece up today, but it will have to wait for Monday. In the meantime, I came across David L. Ulin’s list of his nine best baseball books. It’s a good list, and one that Ulin admits couldn’t possibly be comprehensive. It includes The Natural, Roger Angell, Jimmy Breslin, and Ring Lardner, among others. It also includes a book I hadn’t heard of, The Celebrant by Eric Rolfe Greenberg:

Greenberg’s only novel is a historical pastiche about a young Jewish immigrant in turn-of-the-20th-century New York and his devotion to Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson, a dedication that borders on the religious, framing fanhood as an act of faith.

Mathewson plays a role in a highly entertaining book I read a couple of years ago, Crazy ‘08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History by Cait Murphy, which didn’t make Ulin’s list. It includes this memorable paragraph (which I’ve shared before on the blog) about pitcher Rube Waddell (pictured above):

In 1903, Waddell had a good season; once he finally bothered to show up in June, he won twenty-one games and led the league in strikeouts (with 302). It was a busy year in other ways, too: he also starred on vaudeville; led a marching band through Jacksonville; got engaged, married, and separated; rescued a log from drowning (he thought it was a woman); accidentally shot a friend; and was bitten by a lion. . . . Among his more respectable hobbies were chasing fires (he adored fire engines) and wrestling alligators; he once taught geese to skip rope. Hughie Jennings, manager of the Tigers, used to try to distract him from the sidelines by waving children’s toys.

The only book Ulin doesn’t include that I can’t imagine leaving off a list of the best baseball books is The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

“It’s both embarrassing and hilarious to remember it now.”

sempreAt The Paris Review, Thessaly La Force interviews Sigrid Nunez about her short new book, which covers her relationship with Susan Sontag and Sontag’s son, David Rieff. Nunez dated Rieff, and lived with him and Sontag, in the late 1970s.

You talk about how your writing changed after you had this experience with Susan. I was really taken by those passages where you describe her giving you changes and advice on your fiction and you don’t accept it.

I hadn’t published anything yet. I was trying to write, but nothing was really working out. And the whole time I was living with Susan and David, I wasn’t able to write. But because she kept pushing me, I did finally show her a story I’d written. She was generous in her comments and she encouraged me to think I was someone who could become a writer. But for the most part, whenever she tried to criticize my work, I didn’t take it well.

Unfortunately, I was like a lot of my own students, who don’t really want criticism, just encouragement. It’s both embarrassing and hilarious to remember it now. You don’t sit there at 25, unpublished, inexperienced, and respond to Susan Sontag’s editorial suggestions like a little snot, rejecting every one of them. But it had a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t admire Susan’s own fiction. I’d read her first two novels and some of her stories, and I didn’t admire them the way I admired the essays. So when she tried to talk to me about language and style, I didn’t really trust what she said. Anyway, she was offended, of course, and she didn’t forget either. Years later, she’d ask me to send her my work and when I did she refused to say anything about it.

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Privileged Communications

Maria Bustillos published a long must-read at The Awl yesterday. It’s about the David Foster Wallace archives at the University of Texas, and what they say about his relationship to self-help and to his mother. Read the whole thing. Here’s a taste:

Wallace committed suicide in 2008. There has been a natural reluctance to broach questions surrounding the tragedy with his family and friends, just as there was reluctance to ask him directly about his personal history when he was alive. But there are indications—particularly in the markings of his books—of Wallace’s own ideas about the sources of his depression, some of which seem as though they ought to be the privileged communications of a priest or a psychiatrist. But these things are in a public archive and are therefore going to be discussed and so I will tell you about them.

One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Sullivan on The Pale King

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is on its way to me in the mail, and I hope to review it here before too long. (Famous words, I know.) In the meantime, an acquaintance and one of my favorite writers, John Jeremiah Sullivan, has written about Wallace and his posthumous novel over at GQ. A piece:

It’s easy to make the book sound heavy, but it’s often very funny, and not politely funny, either. We meet the excruciatingly upbeat Leonard Stecyk, his “smile so wide it almost looked like it hurt,” a version of whom each of us knows or to some extent is. As a child he was such a do-gooder, everyone who met him instantly loathed him. [. . .]

Unhappily, it’s with this aspect of the book — the back-and-forth between recent past (at the IRS center) and deeper past (the characters’ formative years) — that we come to know what the publisher means about “unfinished.” The patterning isn’t right. It’s hardly even present. Wallace was struggling to compose the themes of these lives in a symphonic way, but he didn’t get there or, it has to be said, anywhere near.

And yet even in its broken state, The Pale King contains what’s sure to be some of the finest fiction of the year. It’s intimidating to have to describe the excellence of some of these set pieces . . .

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Barnburner Final Ends in 9-8 Vote

They say in a democracy, any one vote could make the difference. In a democracy the size of ours, this is almost inherently not true. But in a group of 17 people, it’s going to be true quite often. This year’s Tournament of Books came down to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. The winner carried the day by a vote of 9-8. Whether my decision was one of the nine that could claim to be the difference-maker, you’ll have to head over there to see. But here is my decision, at the 75-word length that was requested:

Egan’s refracted structure seems only half-necessary, and I’m not sure that in 2011 it’s as innovative as it’s gotten credit for. The last, dystopian-ish chapter bothered me. Still, she writes some fine sentences, and I even bought the PowerPoint chapter, which shocked me. As for Franzen, I’m in the “honestly befuddled” camp. It would take me 4,000 words to fairly explain why. I can’t imagine revisiting a single paragraph in Freedom. My vote: Goon.

All the talk of Franzen in the tournament has inspired me to get back to work on those 4,000 (or more) words. I hope to have my extended thoughts about Freedom — and what could the world possibly need more at this point than those thoughts? — up on the site sometime by the end of April.

I was really happy to take part in this year’s ToB over at The Morning News. Many thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin and Andrew Womack, the site’s proprietors, for asking me. The ToB is always a good time, and I think there are two elements that make it even more than that: Pitting books against each other is a good idea. Yes, of course the decisions are arbitrary. And yes, sometimes, as in my first-round matchup of Next vs. Nox, the books are so different that the competition angle seems even sillier. But having to judge books against one another often makes for more dynamic reviewing than the more straightforward book-report tone adopted by many current-day reviews.

The second element that makes the ToB so great is the running commentary by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, who opine on each judge’s decision (and the tournament’s general progress) as soon as each round goes up. They’re the event’s esteemed Statler and Waldorf, or, as one commenter on the final round has already put it, “the bass line that makes the song work.”

Monday, March 28th, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

unferthMadison Smartt Bell reviews Deb Olin Unferth’s memoir about dropping out of college in 1987 and chasing revolution in Central America: “At the heart of Revolution is Unferth’s slightly eccentric take on the venerable confusion of the political and the personal. Deb’s wires keep getting crossed between two expectations: revolution will be permanent, leading to utopia, and love will be permanent, leading to paradise.” . . . Julian Barnes on Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, and whether grief is a state or a process. . . . Michael Levenson reviews Deborah Lutz’s Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism: “Signs abound that the author has been moved by the scenes of Victorian desire, by the way a culture of respectability was also a universe of pleasure, a theater of tease and compulsion. But somewhere along the line a decision was made to frame the erotic transgression for a trade readership. That’s where the book lost the lure of desire and acquired the reek of a publishing opportunity.” . . . Rachel Hurn relates to a collection of pieces by the very funny Mike Sacks: “Despite the fact that half of the characters in these pieces are irrational schmucks who do things like write rejection letters to Anne Frank, or who put together a list of warnings regarding their brothers’ upcoming bachelor party, or who send fan mail to Salman Rushdie, when you get past the ‘fictional fantasies,’ the people in these essays remind me much of myself.” . . . A new book about clouds aims to be a field guide like those used by bird-watchers, and looks to be, at the very least, beautifully illustrated. . . . Jake Whitney reviews a new book about the financial crisis: “The Monster is among a wave of books and films that attempt to shed light on the subprime crisis and the 2008 crash, but it is remarkably comprehensive on its own — a sweeping, detailed, and forceful account of the events, the people, and the policies that led to our current economic woes.” . . . David Oshinsky reviews two baseball books: Jimmy Breslin’s brief new book about legendary Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey and a “faithful if overstuffed” biography of the great Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella.


Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Nox v. Next: Asymmetrical Warfare

nextI’m thrilled to be a judge in this year’s Tournament of Books, an annual treat for readers. The quarterfinal round I judged pitted James Hynes’ Next, a novel I had been meaning to read, against Anne Carson’s Nox, a highly stylized, fragmentary account of her relationship with her brother, who died suddenly in 2000. Here’s a piece of my decision:

[Next] is imperfect but powerful. It’s built to linger. This is partly due to its audacious final section. It’s hard to discuss Next in a meaningful way without giving away its ending. I won’t spoil it here, though it’s hardly a Crying Game-level shock when the novel pulls down its drawers. Having read some coy reviews at the time of Next’s publication, I had a pretty good idea of the surprise’s general nature. Still, the way Hynes orchestrates his final 50 pages, switching between a firecracker climax and the increasingly profound reminiscences of his protagonist, is impressive.

It was a pretty easy call for me, and the full explanation can be found here. I have further thoughts about why I enjoy the tournament so much, but I’ll save those for a post around the time of the final round — for which I’ll be part of a full panel of judges crowning the champ.

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

In the Ether

Sammy Hagar’s got a memoir out and, um, like many chronicles of rock n’ roll, it seems to come with an inherent warning about staying off the hard stuff: “I just knew that there were two intelligent creatures, sitting up in a craft in the Lytle Creek forest area about twelve miles away in the foothills above Fontana. And they were connected to me, tapped into my mind through some kind of mysterious wireless connection.” . . . The Caustic Cover Critic discovers James Joyce books designed with a disco-era feel, and also points to some lovely work by a designer named Jenny Grigg. . . . I picked up Sigrid Nunez’s new memoir about Susan Sontag in a store the other day, and it didn’t take long to find some colorful and unflattering quotes flying from Sontag. If I were more interested in her, I might read the whole short book. The Times has an excerpt. . . . Michael Bourne considers a Hunter S. Thompson classic 40 years on: “The first thing that strikes you when you read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 2011, beyond the rotary phones and the 29-cent burgers, is what a sad story it is.” . . . Levi Stahl compares J. G. Ballard to Conrad: “Ballard’s scientists, marooned on far-flung outposts throughout the galaxy, are merely Conrad’s company agents and traders thrown into the future.” He also asks for sci-fi suggestions, something I can’t really help with. . . . The Reading Ape offers “10 Observations on Male Sexual Violence in the Contemporary Novel,” and asks for additional thoughts on the subject. . . . And lastly, Dan Kois had an essay in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about novels that writers have abandoned. I’ve been meaning to link to it. Here’s a piece:

Chang-rae Lee said he had spent two years on Agnew Belittlehead, a “bombastic, unfunny, oddly New Agey version of a David Foster Wallace toss-off,” before dropping it and writing Native Speaker instead. Junot Díaz wrote “a whole lot” of Dark America, a science-fiction novel about mutants, before abandoning it 10 years ago because, he said, “it was hopelessly stupid and convoluted.” Jennifer Egan remembered writing, at 22, a “monstrous” 600-page novel, Inland Souls. “I would send this book to people,” she said, “and they would become unreachable. And that includes my mother.”


Monday, March 21st, 2011

Recent Reading: The Financial Crisis

bigshortI feel like the blog is finally getting its 2011 legs. Or I hope so. This is supposed to be the biggest year in the site’s two-year history. (That’s what I read in Bloomberg Businessweek, anyway.) Time to pick up the pace.

One thing I mean to do this year is write occasional updates of what I’ve been reading but don’t have the time (or inclination) to fully review. I’ve recently finished a few novels, but they were preceded by two books about the financial crisis.

I can’t believe I waited until it was in paperback to read The Big Short by Michael Lewis. I’ve been a big fan of Lewis’ ever since I read Trail Fever (now called Losers), his chronicle of marginal figures in the 1996 presidential race. In The Big Short, he follows a few key players who fully foresaw the subprime mortgage crisis. He allows you to understand real-life complexities while crafting a narrative that is much neater and more satisfying than real life could possibly be, the way he’s done several times before. I’m not sure anyone is better at what they do than Michael Lewis is at what he does.

I’ve heard some readers were put off by the book’s characters because they were betting against the market. I find this a bit bizarre, since betting against the market — especially on this scale — comes with its own considerable risks (“For the pleasure of shorting 100 million dollars’ worth of New Century’s shares, Steve Eisman forked out $32 million a year.”), and it wouldn’t have been as lucrative a bet if any number of entities — bankers, the SEC, and most egregiously, ratings agencies — were just a bit skeptical.

Eisman, the most outspokenly skeptical of Lewis’ bunch, is a great character:

Once, [Eisman] got himself invited to a meeting with the CEO of Bank of America, Ken Lewis. “I was sitting there listening to him. I had an epiphany. I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God, he’s dumb!’ A lightbulb went off. The guy running one of the biggest banks in the world is dumb!”

Lewis made finance so accessible — and the story is so incredible — that I felt an urge to continue on the subject, and picked up John Lanchester’s I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. Lanchester (the author of The Debt to Pleasure, a novel I read a long time ago and enjoyed) isn’t trying a magic trick on quite Lewis’ level. He’s content to offer a broader take on the banking basics — “piggy banks” (or traditional banks) vs. “casinos” (investment banks), etc. — and some of the most troubling trends of the past quarter century, including the disastrous sundering of the connection between borrowers and lenders. The book really picks up about a third of the way through, when Lanchester begins a sustained argument. He writes, “The credit crunch was based on a climate (the post-Cold War victory party of free-market capitalism), a problem (the subprime mortgages), a mistake (the mathematical models of risk), and a failure (that of the regulators).”

Like Lewis, he’s often funny and incisive at the same time: “The fact that noneconomists see the general assumption of rationality as self-evidently ridiculous has no effect on economists.”

Both books benefit from a tone that suggests the authors weren’t simply saving up ammunition for the day capitalism faltered, to claim it had expired. You don’t get the feeling that Lewis or Lanchester is walking around in a Che Guevara T-shirt, which gives even more weight to their assessment of the market’s insanity and continuing dangers, the way it’s come unmoored from its most basic principles and doesn’t seem much interested in (or capable of) returning to them.

Monday, March 21st, 2011

“To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness.”

fiascoI recently received a copy of Imre Kertesz’s novel Fiasco.

Born in 1929, Kertesz was imprisoned at Auschwitz at age 14, and later was a prisoner at Buchenwald. He has called Fiasco, which recounts a prisoner’s return home to another nightmare, “fiction founded on reality.” That would seem to be the case with two of his previous books that are companions to this one, Fatelessness and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, which I’d like to read.

Through his publisher, Melville House, I recently found this interview with Kertesz, conducted soon after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002. Here are two excerpts of the brief interview:

Q:You’ve said you feel lucky to have been at Auschwitz. Please excuse me for finding that shocking.

A: I experienced my most radical moments of happiness in the concentration camp. You cannot imagine what it’s like to be allowed to lie in the camp’s hospital, or to have a 10-minute break from indescribable labor. To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all.


Q: You’re the first Hungarian to win a Nobel literature prize. How is it to be getting a hero’s welcome?

A: It’s very strange for me because I’m certainly no hero. I’ve always looked on my writing as a very private matter. For decades I had no audience and lived on the fringes of society.

Q: You’ve said that it’s easier to write literature in a dictatorship than in a democracy.

A: That was too sweeping a statement, but there’s a truth to it. Because I didn’t write what the communist government wanted to see, I was cut off and alone with my work. I never thought my book would ever be published, and so I had the freedom to write as radically as I wanted, to go as deep inside as I wanted. In a democracy you have to find a market niche, make sure a novel is “interesting” and “spectacular.” That may be the toughest censorship of all.

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011


The opening line of Group Portrait with Lady by Heinrich Böll:

The female protagonist in the first section is a woman of forty-eight, German: she is five foot six inches tall, weighs 133 pounds (in indoor clothing), i.e., only twelve to fourteen ounces below standard weight; her eyes are iridescent dark blue and black, her slightly graying hair, very thick and blond, hangs loosely to her shoulders, sheathing her head like a helmet.

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

szreterSimon Callow reviews Sex Before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963: “I can scarcely recall reading a book which gives a richer, more comprehensive — and, ultimately, more deeply moving — account of the human experience, or at least those parts of it that are central for so many of us.” . . . Dwight Garner says the prose in Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future is “dull” and “charmless,” but that some of its visions have “the ability to surprise and enthrall and frighten as well”: “We’ll have X-ray vision and space elevators and live at least twice as long and be able to move things, perhaps even martinis, with our minds.” . . . Isaac Chotiner reviews a very brief book about taking offense: “Collini’s deft dismantling of various forms of cultural relativism — conveyed in clear and concise prose — are sure to be debated and discussed by anyone who engages with his important essay.” . . . Sam Sacks reviews Moondogs by Alexander Yates, a “plucky” debut novel “which is nearly as engaging in its misfires as in its bull’s-eyes.” He also weighs in on Jonathan Coe’s latest, which I plan to review around here. . . . Adam Kirsch reviews James Carroll’s Jerusalem, Jerusalem: “The reader of this book will learn only the basic outlines of Jerusalem’s history, and still less about its geography, culture, architecture, or even its representation in art and literature. At moments, one begins to wonder if Carroll put the city’s name in the title twice to make up for the fact that it is so elusive in the book itself. What Carroll is really doing, in the best tradition of the Jerusalem-fevered, is using the city as a metaphor — in this case, a metaphor for the human tendency to involve religion with violence.” . . . Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews a new book about “glorious British eccentrics.”


Friday, March 11th, 2011

Jennifer Szalai on the VIDA Debate

Ever since the organization VIDA released statistics in early February showing a stark gender imbalance in the world of literary reviews, there has been a sustained conversation online about what the numbers mean and how they might be changed. Writers and editors who have chimed in include Meghan O’Rourke, Katha Pollitt, and Ruth Franklin, among many others. At Bookslut, Jessa Crispin and Michael Schaub had an extended dialogue about the issue, and Drew Johnson, as many have, wondered about his role as a reader. The subtitle of Pollitt’s piece was: “If you really want more women writers, get more women editors.” I happen to know a former reviews editor at one of the magazines targeted in the VIDA study, and she got in touch to add her voice to the discussion. Jennifer Szalai edited the book reviews section of Harper’s from 2003 to 2010. Jen and I have been close friends since we served as Harper’s interns together in the fall of 2000. Our correspondence took place over e-mail:

img_17211Let’s get your background down first. How long were you the book reviews editor at Harper’s? And during that time, what was the general nature of the job (without addressing the gender balance in these questions yet) – how many people did you solicit vs. how many people pitched you? How much of what you assigned for review was nonfiction vs. fiction?

I edited the Reviews section at Harper’s for about seven years. The reviews we ran were a mix of pieces that started out as unsolicited pitches from writers and pieces by writers I solicited, some of whom were already in the Harper’s stable and others whom I sought out on my own. I would get pitched a lot, and from the considerable number of very brief, two-sentence pitches I received (“Would you like a review of X? I’d like to write about it.”), I had the feeling that many writers who had never written for the magazine felt that a review was somehow easier to write (and assign!) than the essays that ran elsewhere in the magazine. And I would have to tell these writers that our reviews, because of their length (3,500-4,000 words), had to be thought of as essays, which meant that the writer had to come up with an angle or an approach that would give me a sense of their argument, what they thought might be at stake. (Even among the writers I solicited, I would usually ask them to specify an angle or certain questions that they intended to explore before we’d agree on the assignment.)

This meant that assigning reviews of fiction was always harder than assigning reviews of nonfiction. With a nonfiction book, one has a pretty good sense of what the book is about, and often it’s mostly a matter of finding a critic who happens to have an expertise (or an intense interest) in the subject, as well as an original approach. With a work of fiction, whose ostensible “subject” makes up only part of the reading experience, I usually wanted to read an essay that revealed what happened when a particular critic encountered a particular book. This requires a lot of trust in the writer, simply because I could never be sure what I was going to get.

Jonathan Chait of The New Republic wrote: “Confidence in one’s opinions and a willingness to engage in intellectual combat are disproportionately (though not, of course, exclusively) male traits.” Katha Pollitt, after considering notions similar to the one expressed by Chait, wrote at Slate: “There is probably a bit of truth in all these points: Women do often doubt their knowledge and abilities, and their diffidence probably explains why the pool of writers sending in pitches and proposals and unsolicited manuscripts is, at most magazines, disproportionately male.” What percentage of pitches you received, roughly, were from men? And were there any general tonal differences in their approaches from the approaches of prospective women writers?

A vast majority of the pitches I received were from men. In fact, during seven years in that position, I could probably count on two hands the number of women who pitched me — I’d guess that the ratio was something like nine or 10 to one. I also noticed that if I turned down a pitch from a man, he would likely send me another pitch the following week. Whereas women rarely pitched me again after getting a rejection.

Tonally, no, I didn’t notice much of a difference between the men and women. This is not to discount Chait’s point, since the women who did send pitches might be a self-selected group — a distressingly small self-selected group — but all the prospective writers would sound pretty confident in their opinions.

The statistics approach the issue from two angles: reviews written by gender, and the books being reviewed by gender. How separate or entangled are those issues to you? What do you consider unique elements of each?

I suspect the issues are connected in some way, though I’m not sure whether it’s as straightforward as claiming that the dearth of reviewed books by women derives directly from the dearth of reviews written by women. In fact, Ruth Franklin at The New Republic concluded that “the magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year.” She then wonders whether the numbers have anything to do with how “we define ‘best’ and ‘most important’ in a field as subjective as literature, which, after all, is deeply of influenced by the cultural norms in any given age.” She raises the possibility that the dismal proportion of books published by women has to do with unconscious biases, but then she doesn’t go so far to provide a confirmation one way or the other — an approach that, to my mind, is less evasive than it is honest. With a work as complicated as a book, whose creation and reception is dependent on so many factors, I’d find it hard to believe anyone who claimed they could pinpoint exactly why so few women were published. We should also keep in mind that Ruth’s sample excluded those “books that were unlikely to be reviewed — self-help, cooking, art” — which also happen to be books that are often written by women.

This connects to the question of which books are considered “important” enough to review. I do think there are a whole host of cultural norms that come into play — among them the bizarre obsession with “the Great American Novel,” as well as a condescension toward certain subjects like motherhood and a young woman’s coming of age — but then it’s hard to see how this contributes to the gender imbalance among reviewers (though I can see how it might very well derive from it).

I also wonder whether the economics of reviewing has anything to do with the VIDA numbers. Women often take on the responsibility of childcare in a family, especially if they’re the freelancer with what’s assumed to be the more flexible schedule, and a review requires a lot of time to oneself, for payment that would barely pay the sitter, if that. I recall one particular writer I wanted to have contribute to Harper’s who took almost a year before she finally agreed to an assignment, because she had young children to care for at home. Merely anecdotal, I know, but when I was reading all of these posts about the VIDA study, I was surprised that none of those I read even brought up the economics of it.

Did you ever feel the other editors at the magazine wouldn’t be amenable to increasing the number of female contributors? Or were otherwise comfortable with the balance of writers skewing heavily male?

The editors at Harper’s always wanted to have more female contributors. But as an editor, you’re juggling so many considerations at once that the gender of a writer will be one concern among many. Besides which, when assigning longer pieces and paying a relatively decent rate in this publishing climate, as many of the magazines cited in the VIDA study do, it’s harder to take chances on a writer starting out, because you’ll want to see clips — and if more men than women are getting published, then the pool of experienced writers will skew male. It’s a vicious circle. I thought the numbers might be better for women at smaller literary magazines, which are well-positioned to take chances on unpublished writers, especially because little (or no) money is at stake. And the numbers are better, though — with the sole exception of the poets being reviewed by Poetry — they still skew male.

One commenter on a VIDA post wrote: “Also, could it be that more men than women read these magazines?” I saw one page online that suggested Harper’s subscribers run 62%-38% male. The same site said the New York Review of Books was 71-29, male. Do those Harper’s numbers sound right to you? And does this — or should this — have anything to do with the final analysis of the VIDA statistics? If a magazine whose readership was 65-35 female had that percentage of female writers, would it be a story?

The Harper’s numbers sound plausible to me, though I can’t vouch for their accuracy. You bring up a good point about whether this would be an issue if a magazine with a 65% female readership published two female writers for every one male, and you see that all the time — in women’s fashion magazines, for instance. You also see the numbers skewed toward male writers in men’s fashion magazines, and the VIDA study doesn’t have anything to say about those. But it makes sense that VIDA would focus on the higher-profile literary magazines, because those magazines are where the cultural conversation takes place. Of course, this then gets into the question of why fashion is not considered as exalted as the other arts, but not having ever worked in fashion, I’m not sure I’m the person to go down that rabbit hole.

Is there a solution to this problem? Do you consider it a problem? Is 50-50 a worthwhile — or procedurally realistic — goal?

I go back to Ruth Franklin’s TNR post, in which she wonders whether the numbers have anything to do with how our cultural norms define what kind of literature is deemed important (not to mention which issues are deemed important), because I see the problem — and I do see it as a problem — starting there. I don’t believe the solution is as simple as having more female editors (which is what Katha Pollitt suggests) or having an affirmative-action-style approach to assigning pieces (another one of Pollitt’s suggestions). I’d like to put forth a solution, but I’ll admit that I’m still at the question stage, trying to get my mind around the bigger forces at work. I was also given a lot of encouragement and mentorship during my education and career, mostly from men, since most of my professors and most of the people senior to me were men. So I can’t say that I’ve felt shut out.

All that said, I recognize that my experience isn’t borne out in the VIDA numbers. Also, I think the real challenges for women come not so much when they’re starting out and they’re in similar life situations (20s, single) with similar backgrounds (good schools, good grades) to their male peers; after all, girls today are often brought up with extraordinarily high expectations from their parents, and many of those girls are considered just as successful as the boys (if not more so) while they’re in school. When they start actually living in the world, though, and they’re no longer in such an insular environment, they might be surprised to see some palpable tendencies in the culture at large to condescend toward women’s creative work — the chicks might be “hard-working” and “very smart,” but, with certain exceptions, it’s the dudes who are the real geniuses. And when these women find themselves having interests and experiences that are specific to women, they might be surprised to see how such interests and experiences are devalued, and must struggle to get accorded some serious respect. I don’t want to get into the whole “Franzenfreude” mess, because I don’t believe that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are trying to write the kind of literary fiction in which every sentence is considered and worried over, but I do think it’s important for both women and men to be aware of these larger questions, to render them explicit, without the denunciations and defensiveness that characterize too many of our conversations about gender.