Friday, March 11th, 2011

Second Pass Gets the VIDA Treatment

Later today, I’ll be posting an interview about the recent VIDA statistics with someone who spent several years assigning reviews at one of the magazines in the study’s crosshairs. In the meantime, the statistics inspired me to look at the numbers for my own site. Of the 28 contributors listed on the home page, 13 are women. Of the 24 of those who have already written for the site (I’m working on the other four), the gender balance is an even 12-12. (There have been many contributors not listed on the home page. The reasons for this range from arbitrary to nonexistent.)

If you’re looking for balance in the actual reviews, the statistics don’t look great at first blush. There have been 89 Circulating reviews, 58 written by men and 31 by women. In the Backlist section, 24 of the 37 pieces have been written by men.

The misleading factor — particularly in Circulating — is me.

I think it’s only fair to remove me from the equation for this purpose, since I write more than my share of the reviews — partly because it’s my shop and partly because I like to keep things (relatively) updated when there are lulls in contributions from others. (At a one-man operation with no budget like this one, gender equality and a thousand other issues take a back seat to the simple attempt to avoid radio silence.) I wrote 22 of those Circulating reviews, so if you remove those from the tally, it’s 36-31 in favor of men. I wrote five Backlist pieces, so that score moves to 19-13.

Authors being reviewed is not so easy to gloss: Combining the two main review sections (and not counting the books in group features, like the one published this week), there have been 89 books written by men reviewed, compared to 39 written by women.

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

The Terrible Twos Start . . . Now

2yrsThe Second Pass turns two years old today. I want to thank everyone — as always — for visiting, reading, passing pieces along to friends, commenting, following the site on Twitter, and generally making things both fun and gratifying for me.

To help celebrate the anniversary, I asked some of my favorite women — contributors to and friends of the site — to recommend underappreciated books written by women. That feature was posted in the Backlist section today. It was inspired, in part, by the quickly famous statistics released by VIDA in February about the gender divide in literary culture. There will be more about that on the blog by week’s end.

In the meantime, thanks again for reading. If you’d like to support The Second Pass in other ways, buying things from Amazon by first clicking through links here means a small percentage of the purchase goes toward the site. Also, perhaps the anniversary is an appropriate time to alert some book-loving friends who might not know about the site.

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

pymAdam Mansbach reviews Mat Johnson’s Pym, a “relentlessly entertaining” novel that plays off a black professor’s obsession with Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel. Mansbach says Chris Jaynes, the professor, offers a “riff-heavy, insight-studded” voice that carries the book. “[T]he novel veers into territory so fantastical that character development seems very much beside the point.” . . . PZ Myers has fun laying into David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which combines the story of a fictional couple with helpings of neuroscience: “I’m sure there were delusions of a soaring synergy that would drive deep insights, but instead it’s a battle between two clashing fairy tales to see which one would bore us or infuriate us first.” . . . Evan Hughes reviews a book by two sociologists about the state of young Americans’ premarital sex lives. . . . Geoff Nicholson, who lives near the Hollywood sign — “often best seen from a distance, especially when you’re not looking for it” — reviews a brief book that celebrates the “essentially absurd” iconic landmark and debunks a few myths along the way. . . . Maureen Tkacik reviews Tiger, Tiger, Margaux Fragoso’s memoir of her 15-year relationship with a pedophile: “It is a meditation on love and need and alienation and attachment, and on the human capacity for adapting to subjugation against an innate biological drive for freedom and autonomy.” . . . Trevor Ross dives into the “48 hefty essays and 5,160 A-Z entries” that make up the massive Oxford Companion to the Book: “In all the OCB contains over a million words, and the editors say they could have used another million. I wish they had used fewer.” . . . Louis Menand reviews a biography of William Donovan, the “bold, charismatic, prescient, sometimes ridiculous, and potentially dangerous man” who directed the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.


Monday, March 7th, 2011

The Madness Arrives

The Tournament of Books officially begins tomorrow, when Sarah Manguso chooses between Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil. Today, John Warner and Kevin Guilfoile, whose running commentary throughout the tournament is a big part of the fun, offer a pre-game primer. So while you’re tailgating — perhaps cooking up some hot dogs on the sidewalk outside a bankrupt Borders store? — head over to see read their initial thoughts. Here’s Warner:

Taken collectively, these books feel like a snapshot of a corner turned, and, as you note, many of them are infused with what it’s been like to live through the last decade. So Much for That is even more timely, since it’s the Great American Healthcare Novel, and takes up issues of class divide and wealth. Room is ripped from the headlines. Bad Marie and Savages could be. Nox causes us to examine what we even mean by saying something is a “book” or a “novel.” Super Sad True Love Story and Freedom could comfortably switch titles. Even Kapitoil, though it’s set in 1999, takes on current hot topics of Wall Street and financial arbitrage.

Are we missing something by not having a historical powerhouse like Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (2009 champion) or Philip Roth’s Plot Against America (2005 runner-up)? Probably, but this list feels pretty right for right now.

Friday, March 4th, 2011

In the Ether

pietr-le-lettonLuc Sante (on John Gall’s blog) shares some of the earliest examples of photography on French novel covers. . . . Go here to find out who said this: “Fiction is so autoerotic! That’s why we all want to keep on doing it.” . . . The Reading Ape boldly lists The 100 Great American Novels, 1891-1991. (“I did my best to put my own reading taste to the side: there are many works here that I actively dislike, but the goal isn’t pleasure here but knowledge of the major voices, concerns, movements, innovations, and ideas of the era.”) . . . The Caustic Cover Critic shares a rather underwhelming cover for a Spanish edition of Crime and Punishment: “I’ve never scene a less dynamic representation of the act of murder.” . . . The Believer has announced the five finalists for its annual book award. . . . C.S. Lewis’ translation of the Aeneid, thought lost to a bonfire, has been discovered and appears scheduled for a May release in the U.S. . . . A quite belated link to a year-ender: Chris Flynn lists his 20 favorite short stories of 2010. (Via) . . . Ted Ross writes about being fired from Harper’s, the importance of having liquor in an editorial office, and having lunch with the young upstart who replaced him: “We ate noodles, traded ideas about his new responsibilities and split the check. This could have proven awkward, I imagine, except that I like and respect the guy and feel strongly that he’s worse off than me.”


Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

David Foster Wallace, Philosopher

dfwEven readers who appreciated the brainiest subtleties of David Foster Wallace’s work might find his college thesis about the philosophy of fatalism rough sledding. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Requirements for the accessibility obtaining between worlds can be strengthened or weakened to yield different modal systems and models. A reflexive and transitive relation R yields the modal system S4, a stipulation that R be reflexive, symmetric and transitive yields the different system S5, and so on. For a simple and intuitive representation of Kripke’s device, we can assume that every member of K (with K of course being nondenumerably infinite) is accessible from every other member.

Of course.

The thesis — “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality” — was recently published by Columbia University in a book called Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. The thesis itself takes up only a bit more than 70 pages of the book, which also features Taylor’s original essay and several academic responses to it, and a terrific 33-page introduction by James Ryerson, a friend of mine.

Ryerson’s intro was featured, at length, over at Slate. The excerpt starts like this:

When the future novelist David Foster Wallace was about 14 years old, he asked his father, the University of Illinois philosophy professor James D. Wallace, to explain to him what philosophy is, so that when people would ask him exactly what it was that his father did, he could give them an answer. James had the two of them read Plato’s Phaedo dialogue together, an experience that turned out to be pivotal in his understanding of his son. “I had never had an undergraduate student who caught on so quickly or who responded with such maturity and sophistication,” James recalls. “This was this first time I realized what a phenomenal mind David had.”

The experience seems to have made an impression on David as well. Not long after he arrived at Amherst College in the early 1980s, he developed a reputation among his professors as a rare philosophical talent, an exceptional student who combined raw analytical horsepower with an indefatigable work ethic. He was thought, by himself and by others, to be headed toward a career as a professor of philosophy. Even after he began writing fiction, a pursuit he undertook midway through college, philosophy remained the source of his academic identity. “I knew him as a philosopher with a fiction hobby,” Jay Garfield, a professor now at Smith College who worked with Wallace at the time, remembers. “I didn’t realize he was one of the great fiction writers of his generation with a philosophy hobby.”

Ryerson goes on to very sharply — but accessibly — describe the influence of Wittgenstein on Wallace’s work, and particularly on his first novel, The Broom of the System. In the essay, Ryerson also has a way with details that bring Wallace back to life — in a letter to someone with whom he consulted about his thesis, he referred to Descartes as “Monsieur D,” and to Kant as “the Big K.”

Even if Wallace’s thesis requires a specialized reader, parts of it convey the voice everyone misses, and the rest of the book makes it well worth owning for Wallace completists — of which, I’m sure, there are many.

Monday, February 28th, 2011

A Preview of The Pale King

This week’s issue of The New Yorker features an excerpt from The Pale King, the posthumous novel by David Foster Wallace that will be published in April. The excerpt starts like this:

Every whole person has ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals. This one particular boy’s goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.

His arms to the shoulders and most of his legs beneath the knee were child’s play. After these areas of his body, however, the difficulty increased with the abruptness of a coastal shelf. The boy came to understand that unimaginable challenges lay ahead of him. He was six.

Monday, February 28th, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

drownedMichael Dirda reaches early and often for the top-shelf bag of references in praising We, the Drowned, Carsten Jensen’s novel about a century in the life of a Danish port city. He compares it to One Hundred Years of Solitude, Buddenbrooks, and Blood Meridian, and its author to Hamlet and Kierkegaard. So, yeah, maybe this one deserves a shot. Dirda concludes that it “isn’t just a book about Danish sailors, it’s a novel about what one must call — and forgive the grandiose phrase — the sorrowful human condition.” . . . Malcolm Jones is spellbound by a new Library of America collection of primary sources from the Civil War: “As the testimony accumulates, a profound portrait of a nation in crisis emerges, conjuring the epic quality of the conflict and its consequences as almost nothing before it. It is both mesmerizing and deeply troubling, and it will forever deepen the way you see this central chapter in our history.” . . . Thomas Mallon reviews the letters of Bruce Chatwin: “Throughout the letters he mailed from Kabul and Kenya and Katmandu, one can find fast, sharp renderings of misadventures and mores: ‘I’m afraid that most traditional Russian hospitality is a deep-seated desire to see foreigners drunk.’ And yet, this great traveler was probably too much on the move to become one of the great letter-writers.” . . . Rupert Thomson reviews an “eccentric, candid,” “riotously funny,” “profoundly moving,” and “quintessentially — and unashamedly — English” book about two brothers that might or might not blend fiction with its facts. “Barrow has a wonderfully restrained or concealed tone — often tongue-in-cheek, but never arch. His use of anecdote is both masterly and thriftless; he takes episodes around which less skillful writers would have built entire chapters and delivers them in a few perfectly weighted sentences.” . . . Raymond Tallis reviews the latest in books about consciousness: “[T]hese two books have greater merits than many contenders in an overcrowded field, though they fail to give a coherent neurological account of even the most basic elements of consciousness.” . . . Adam Kirsch reviews a book about the different ways Jews and Christians approach and interpret the Bible, and the “disparity between Americans’ absolute faith in the Bible and their evident ignorance of it.” . . . The always incisive Jim Holt considers at length Nicholas Carr’s book about how the Internet may be reshaping our brains for the worse: “He fails to clinch his case that the computer is making us stupider. Can he convince us that it is making us less happy?”


Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

2010’s Oddest Book Titles

genghis-khanThe short list of finalists for the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of 2010 has been announced. For those of you unfamiliar with the UK-based prize, which has been around since 1978, past winners include timeless gems like Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality, Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, Developments in Dairy Cow Breeding: New Opportunities to Widen the Use of Straw, and The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories.

I can’t say any of this year’s finalists please me as much as my favorite of last year, Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots. Here are the six titles on the short list:

8th International Friction Stir Welding Symposium Proceedings
The Generosity of the Dead
The Italian’s One-night Love Child
Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way
Myth of the Social Volcano
What Color Is Your Dog?

You can vote here. Genghis Khan has what looks like an insurmountable lead (depending on how many people have voted already), but I think Welding Symposium is more in keeping with the award’s spirit.

Monday, February 21st, 2011

In the Ether

95657307AL001_CORNELL_V_WISOK, this is getting serious. The Tournament of Books (for which I’m lucky enough to be a judge this year) tips off on March 7, and a poster of the brackets with first-round match-ups is now available. Begin your office pools now. . . . Salon recently named the winners of its first Good Sex Awards. As Laura Miller once wrote, “It doesn’t take much nerve to stand up in front of a boozy crowd and read sex passages from other people’s books in a mocking tone of voice while everybody sneers and groans. Doing the opposite, however, amounts to admitting that you’ve found something arousing, and thereby risking the British equivalent of the ninth circle of hell: embarrassment.” True enough. The four judges (Miller, Maud Newton, Walter Kirn, and Louis Bayard) discuss the process here, and you can find the first-place excerpt here. . . . At the Guardian, William Skidelsky profiles historian Niall Ferguson, who seems intent on ruffling the feathers of those who would read the Guardian: “Something that’s seldom appreciated about me is that I am in sympathy with a great deal of what Marx wrote, except that I’m on the side of the bourgeoisie.” . . . A month’s worth of literary facts from the Reading Ape. An example: “Leather ball beats leatherbound: the total revenue for the NFL was $8 billion in 2009. The total book market in 2009 was $5.1 billion.” . . . Carlene Bauer talks to Joyce Carol Oates about Oates’ new memoir, about the death of her husband, and situates Oates among this country’s female writers: “In the book’s unashamed display of feelings, sometimes so strong that they may not make sense to anyone else, in her insistence on the exclamation point, she reminds us that very few American women fiction writers have been acclaimed for making outsize emotions their terrain.” . . . D.G. Myers considers Nicole Krauss’ Great House and its vision of the Jew as “the symbol of man’s unhappiness, his estrangement from a world that (only recently) he has discovered is monstrous and bitter.” . . . A new site asks acclaimed designers to list the books they find “personally important, meaningful, and formative — books that have shaped their values, their worldview, and their ideas about design.” . . . Alexander Nazaryan says the bankruptcy of Borders is just a larger publishing bill coming due: “If there is hope for publishing, it is with modest presses and modest books, putting out titles for small but loyal audiences. But that’s not something that’s going to warm the heart of Penguin’s CEO.”


Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

A Case of Reader’s Block

dyerFSG’s Work in Progress site is featuring an excerpt from Geoff Dyer’s forthcoming book of essays and reviews. It concerns his diminished reading habits as he ages. A piece:

[M]y declining ability to read is itself the product of having read a fair bit. If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a proportionately smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up. The more thoroughly we have absorbed its lessons, the less frequently we need to refer to the user’s manual. After a certain point subjective inwardness becomes self-rather than textually generated. Of course there is more to learn, more to read, but whereas, when I was a teenager, each new book represented an almost overwhelming addition to what I knew and felt, each new book now adds a smaller increment to the sum of knowledge.

(Via The Millions)

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

bishopDwight Garner reviews three new volumes of work by Elizabeth Bishop, published to coincide with the centenary of her birth, including a volume of letters between her and her editors at The New Yorker: “It is repetitive, filled with dreary bookkeeping details and overly polite give-and-take. At the same time, there are those — and, full disclosure, I am among them — for whom this kind of shop talk from an adored poet and her serious editors is uncut catnip.” . . . Manjit Kumar reviews Philip Ball’s Unnatural, “a fascinating and impressive cultural history of anthropoeia — the centuries of myths and tales about the artificial creation of people. Ball explores what these fables reveal about contemporary views on life, humanity and technology as modern science has turned the fantasy of making people into reality.” . . . Damon Linker says a new book that explains religion through its ancestral origins is “an example of evolutionary psychology at its very worst: shifting abruptly between experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors; and reducing all human motivation to the desire to get laid; and presupposing what it seeks to prove.” . . . Arnold Hunt considers the history of the King James Bible. . . . Tom Shone reviews a “swift, smart, scrupulous” biography of Humphrey Bogart. . . . Diane Johnson assesses T.C. Boyle’s new novel about endangered species in California: “Though he’s been writing for a long time about America’s problems, Boyle usually does so more covertly, in a comic voice with comedy’s concealed agenda. Here, though, there’s the note of the preacher in despair that has surfaced sometimes in past novels.” . . . Matthew Hunte reviews Justin Taylor’s new novel, which concerns an anarchist commune that founds a new religion.


Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

The Birds and the Bees and the Books

Laura Miller writes about the recent resurgence of the debate about the representation of women in books and book reviews:

There’s really no hard data on how many books by male authors are read by women readers and vice versa, nor are we likely to ever see any. But try this: Ask six bookish friends — three men and three women — to list their favorite authors or favorite books, without explaining your motivation. Then see how many male authors the women list and whether the men list any female authors at all. . . .

Conventional wisdom among professionals in the children’s book business is that while girls will read books about either boys or girls, boys only want to read about boys. Could it be that this bias extends into adulthood, with the preference among boys for male characters evolving into the preference among men for male authors? Or it could be that many male readers simply doubt that women have anything interesting to say.

It’s true that a list of my favorite writers is male-dominated, but it’s also true that there are female writers I love, and I certainly don’t doubt women have anything interesting to say. In any case, how people say things is often as important to me as what they say, this being writing and all.

I have further thoughts about all this, but they need more examination and some research. Perhaps I’ll do some of the anecdotal investigating Miller recommends and report back.

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Reynolds Price, 1933-2011

PRICE, REYNOLDSReynolds Price died last week at 77. Of his many, many works, I’ve only read The Surface of Earth and The Source of Light, the first two books in a trilogy about the fictional Mayfield family. The New York Times obit said the trilogy “confounded critics.” I read them a long time ago — I remember them being highly stylized (and maybe maudlin), but also affecting.

At the news of his death, the Paris Review linked to the magazine’s 1991 interview with Price, conducted by Frederick Busch. It has several almost aphoristic winners, like: “The root problem is that cities are the least permanent things in our civilization. Any pebble on the outskirts of town stands a far better chance of lasting than New York City does.” And: “The chief harm in charging people for writing degrees is of course the lie you’re all but bound to tell — that each one’s a possible Conrad or Brontë — when most of them can’t even tell a good joke, much less the stories of this huge country.”

I was especially moved by this longer description of his relationship with his parents:

They were almost too lovable, which is something I’ve heard very few people say about their parents. I think both my brother and I, who were their only children to survive infancy, have all our lives been handicapped by the fact that we seldom meet human beings as loyal, affectionate, or continuously amusing as our parents were. They were both grand talkers, and my father also had a thoroughly first-class verbal and gestural wit. He was a great comedian — and I’m thinking of Charlie Chaplin when I say that — though he never had a moment’s training nor a moment’s professional opportunity to exhibit it. Among all his friends, he was absolutely everybody’s favorite person to see. By the time I was born in 1933, he was a very serious alcoholic — I don’t guess there are any unserious alcoholics — but he made a deal with God when I was born. My mother and I were both in danger during her labor — I was one of the last American bourgeois children born at home — and my father vowed to God that if mother and I survived he would stop drinking. We survived, and he did. It took him a couple of years, but he did.

Monday, January 24th, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

frank1Geoffrey O’Brien reviews James Kaplan’s biography of Frank Sinatra, which covers the first third of the Chairman’s life: “The book’s tone often approaches the melodramatic, but it is melodrama honestly come by. This was a life lived, at least in these less guarded early years, as if to leave just such a gaudy record behind.” . . . Karl Kirchwey says that Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s new book of poems, about her husband’s illness and death, is “perhaps the most powerful elegy written in English by any poet in recent memory.” . . . Nicholas Carr reviews Douglas Coupland’s “pithy” new biography of Marshall McLuhan, which takes its title from one of the all-time great movie scenes. “Neither his fans nor his foes saw him clearly. The central fact of McLuhan’s life, as Coupland makes clear, was his conversion, at the age of twenty-five, to Catholicism, and his subsequent devotion to the religion’s rituals and tenets.” . . . Sam Sacks reviews two novels about the Holocaust, one from 1968 and recently translated into English, the other “eerie, brilliant” and “a remarkable achievement.” . . . Jessica Treadway says Siobhan Fallon’s new collection of short stories provides “often poignant, sometimes crude, and consistently compelling insights derived from the time she spent in Fort Hood, Texas, during her husband’s two tours of duty in Iraq.” . . . Stefan Collini reviews a new collection of 94-year-old historian Eric Hobsbawm’s writings on Marxism. . . . David Ulin says that a year after J.D. Salinger’s death, much about his life (and his work) remains a mystery, and that a new biography is, perhaps inevitably, “more an extended letter from a fan.”


Monday, January 24th, 2011

Rules for Hatcheting

Since his death last week, I’ve been thinking about Wilfrid Sheed even more than usual, and through some good soul or other on Twitter, I found this piece he wrote for Commonweal in 1964 about the art of an effective hatchet job. He talks about the genre in general, and lays out six rules for battering a target without generating sympathy for him or her, or looking like a fool yourself. The first two:

1) Hatchet jobs should never run an inch longer than the victim merits. Three sentences are always better than twelve — the length being in itself a form of comment. The critic who goes on swinging after the tree is down draws attention to himself; he becomes overexposed. After all, perhaps he isn’t such a hot writer either. Once the reader’s own sadism has been slaked, the executioner is likely to make him a bit uneasy anyway: “Supposing that was me out there,” he thinks. Prodigious amounts of reader-flattery and I-thou are needed after that to keep him from turning on the critic with an underdog snarl of his own.

2) The complete opposite of Rule 1. It is a mistake to depend too much on short aphoristic dismissals unless your taste in them is absolutely infallible. Length gives at least an impression of lumbering documentation. A bad joke, a heavy-handed insult, give you nothing. The contradictoriness of these first two rules may serve as a warning. Hatcheting is not as easy as it looks.

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

Swinging Wildly Around

Friend to this site James Ryerson (more about another project of his soon) has an essay in the New York Times about philosophical novels, and whether philosophy and fiction usefully overlap: “Both disciplines seek to ask big questions, to locate and describe deeper truths, to shape some kind of order from the muddle of the world. But are they competitors — the imaginative intellect pitted against the logical mind — or teammates, tackling the same problems from different angles?”

“It says something about philosophy,” Ryerson writes, “that two of its greatest practitioners, Aristotle and Kant, were pretty terrible writers.” There are a lot of opinions and characters in a relatively short piece. The philosopher Jerry Fodor says that William James didn’t write well, which makes me wonder more about Fodor’s reading abilities. And then there’s philosophically trained William H. Gass talking about his novels: “I don’t pretend to be treating issues in any philosophical sense. I am happy to be aware of how complicated, and how far from handling certain things properly I am, when I am swinging so wildly around.”

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Rooster Combatants Unveiled

roosterEvery March, the online magazine The Morning News hosts the knock-down, drag-out Tournament of Books, wherein 16 works of fiction compete to be called the year’s best. Then, at the end, they play “One Shining Moment” over clips of Franzen getting pumped up before a match or Mantel on a breakaway dunk. I’m excited to be one of the judges for this year’s action. The rest of the judges were announced yesterday, along with the 16 books that will enter the steel cage.

Past winners of the Rooster (the winner theoretically receives a live rooster) are: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Accidental by Ali Smith, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, A Mercy by Toni Morrison, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

I would speculate as to what those winners say about this year’s likely favorites, but I should probably recuse myself from that this year. To fuel your own speculation, here are this year’s finalists:

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Nox by Anne Carson
Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky
Room by Emma Donoghue
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Bloodroot by Amy Greene
Next by James Hynes
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Model Home by Eric Puchner
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne
Savages by Don Winslow

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Wilfrid Sheed, 1930-2011

Wilfrid Sheed, one of my literary idols, has died at 80. From the New York Times obituary:

As an avid baseball fan whose boyhood fantasies of diamond glory were dashed at 14 by the onset of polio, Mr. Sheed often said that as a writer he could play any position — a utility man of letters. But novelist was clearly a preferred role.

His gently comic fiction focused on self-perceived variations of himself. His early novels concerned American and English schoolboys (A Middle Class Education in 1960), a writer of inspirational pieces for minor Catholic publications (The Hack, 1963), a bore who learns to live with what he is (Square’s Progress, 1965), the beaten-down denizens of a small liberal magazine (Office Politics, 1966) and a too-brilliant film and theater critic (Max Jamison, 1970).

One of the earliest Backlist pieces for this site was one I wrote about Max Jamison and Essays in Disguise, a collection of Sheed’s inimitable reviews and essays. I also praised the latter book in a feature on the site’s one-year anniversary, in which contributors recommended their favorite out-of-print books.

If you haven’t read him, you should.

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

I Sit Down With the Casual Optimist

Dan Wagstaff runs The Casual Optimist, a blog abut books and book design that I’ve always enjoyed. He was nice enough to ask me several questions about The Second Pass, my favorite authors, and things I’m looking forward to in 2011, among other things. The interview is now up over at his site.

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

A Selection

From Light Years by James Salter:

He wanted one thing, the possibility of one thing: to be famous. He wanted to be central to the human family, what else is there to long for, to hope? Already he walked modestly along the streets, as if certain of what was coming. He had nothing. He had only the carefully laid out luggage of bourgeois life, his scalp beginning to show beneath the hair, his immaculate hands. And the knowledge; yes, he had knowledge. The Sagrada Familia was as familiar to him as a barn to a farmer, the “new towns” of France and England, cathedrals, voussoirs, cornices, quoins. He knew the life of Alberti, of Christopher Wren. He knew that Sullivan was the son of a dancing master, Breuer a doctor in Hungary. But knowledge does not protect one. Life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside. Passion, energy, lies: these are what life admires. Still, anything can be endured if all humanity is watching. The martyrs prove it. We live in the attention of others. We turn to it as flowers to the sun.


Monday, January 17th, 2011

Busy Holiday Behind the Scenes

I’m using the time this holiday (which happens to be my birthday, too) to make sure you will wake up Tuesday to a fresh site — a new entry on the Shelf, a new Circulating review, a new Backlist entry (I hope), and various things for the blog.

In the meantime, if you’re relatively new to the site and you’re on Twitter, you can follow me there. I post links to new things around here and write about a few other personal interests as well.

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Stendhal and the Ponies

stendhal2For the last three years, I’ve been lucky enough to spend New Year’s week at a house in Massachusetts with a group of eight to 10 friends, Big Chill-style (minus the funeral and most of the collective self-loathing). One highlight of each visit is a trip to the local library, which is always giving away books that time of year.

My two best finds this year were a book and a bookmark. First, the book, To the Happy Few, a selected collection of Stendhal’s letters. I haven’t had time to read many of them yet, but I’m looking forward to digging in. This is the start of a letter he wrote to his sister Pauline on April 10, 1800, when he was 17:

I cannot at all understand your silence, my dear Pauline. What can be the occupations that prevent you from writing to me? Dancing, I would suppose, were we not in Lent. But I’ll wager you one thing: you are thinking to yourself that you must carefully prepare your letter and make a rough draft of it. That’s the stupidest folly that can possess one, for, to have a good epistolary style, one must write exactly what one would say to the person if one saw him, only being careful not to write down repetitions to which, in conversation, a tone of voice or gesture might give some value.

aqueduct2I also picked up The Existential Imagination by Frederick R. Karl and Leo Hamalian. I was thinking about bringing it home for a couple reasons: first, because I’ve found a few other old mass-market paperbacks about existentialism in such places, and it’s a nice mini-collection to have; and secondly, because it was free. The deal was sealed when I noticed what a prior reader had used to mark their place: a beautiful ticket from a horse race at Aqueduct in 1963. As a fan of horse racing, this was hard to resist. I suppose I could have just lifted the ticket and left the book, but as a fan of books, that was unlikely.

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

In the Ether

kafka-coverEdmund White chooses his top 10 New York books. I love that he chooses Amis’ Money. Of another book on his list, he writes, “I can think of no other novel that is so agreeable and so devoid of incident.” . . . Levi Stahl has a smart consideration of opening lines in novels, and heretically (but convincingly) says Anna Karenina would have benefited from something different. . . . I recently linked to an appreciation of Barbara Comyns. Now, John Self reviews one of her books, an “eccentric, charming, ambiguous little gem.” . . . George Orwell had some experience with — and some choice words for — people who shop at used bookstores. (Something I happily do myself.) . . . Critic, author, editor, and master anthologizer John Gross died this week at 75. . . . Patrick Brown says the new book by the brains at basketball blog Free Darko is “a work of literature that happens to be about the NBA.” . . . A newly published edition of the Bible includes excerpts of C.S. Lewis’ work throughout. . . . On their new show Portlandia, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney fame) ask, “did you read that?”


Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

A Love Letter to Dwight

garnerTimothy Noah at Slate recently wrote a love letter to the reviews of the New York Times’ Dwight Garner. Noah says, “It’s harder than you might think to produce good writing about bad writing.” I’m not sure it’s harder than producing good writing about good writing, but in any case, Garner is good at every aspect of the game.

It was nice to see Noah’s appreciation, especially since I’ve been meaning to share a few paragraphs from Garner’s take on Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, which Noah calls “one of the funniest book reviews I’ve ever read.” It is perhaps an exhibit in the case that bad writing is easier to write about, given the plethora of material it provides and the heavy lifting the excerpts do in entertaining the reader. (Under a tight deadline, would you rather write 1,000 words praising Middlemarch or the same number mocking Going Rogue?) But there’s certainly skill involved in putting it all together and producing your own laughs. A taste:

Everything about Mr. Ferriss’ book declares: This is not your auntie’s self-help book. No muffled “I’m OK — You’re OK” tone here. The vibe is: I’m Superbad, bro, and I have dimples. You’re a mole person who, if you become an angel investor in my books, might someday touch the hem of my Speedo.

In his previous book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (his subtitles are awesome), which was on the hardcover advice best-seller list for more than 75 weeks, he delivered tips like (I’m exaggerating only slightly): hire an overseas virtual assistant for a few bucks an hour and use the extra time to ski in the Andes.

His new one, The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, made its debut at No. 1 on the hardcover advice list on Jan. 2. It’s among the craziest, most breathless things I’ve ever read, and I’ve read Klaus Kinski, Dan Brown and Snooki.

Monday, January 10th, 2011

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

lomazRichard Williams admires a biography of the great music archivist Alan Lomax: “The result is an extensive portrait of a brilliant and difficult man who, astonishing as it may now seem, spent most of his career battling the indifference of those in a position to help him preserve the irreplaceable.” . . . Gordon S. Wood writes about Jill Lepore’s most recent book, and about the differing values of symbols and scholarship when it comes to history: “The Tea Partiers are certainly not scholars, but their emotional instincts about the Revolution they are trying to remember on behalf of their cause may be more accurate than Lepore is willing to grant. Popular memory is not history, and that important distinction seems to be the source of the problem with Lepore’s book.” . . . Second Pass contributor Alexander Nazaryan reviews Molotov’s Magic Lantern, Rachel Polonsky’s book about literature and history in Russia: “It is, at heart, a book about books — and, more specifically, about the Russian books that Polonsky so obviously loves and knows so much about, and the fecund Russian soil that the authors of those books mostly loved but sometimes loathed, and, lastly, the blood that has been spilled on that earth by men for whom the power of ideas triumphed over the impermanent domain of flesh.” . . . Adam Kirsch reviews a book about novels based on a series of lectures delivered by Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk in 2009: “the power of Pamuk’s short book lies less in his theorizing about the novel than in his professions of faith in it.” . . . Gary Rosen reviews James Miller’s Examined Lives, an “earnest, wistful collection of biographical sketches of a dozen pre-eminent ‘lovers of wisdom,’ from Socrates to Nietzsche.” . . . Scott McLemee reviews historian Eric Foner’s “straightforward and painstaking” new book about Abraham Lincoln and slavery.


Friday, January 7th, 2011

What Was Hot the Week I Dropped

burrThis search engine is advertised as a way to discover the New York Times bestsellers the week you were born.

The week I was born (a January week in the mid-’70s), the five top-selling novels were Burr, Gore Vidal’s fictional treatment of the life of Aaron Burr, which had a profound effect on the views of at least one American politician; The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene; Come Nineveh, Come Tyre by Allen Drury, a right-wing fantasy about a liberal president caving to the Soviets, a copy of which is probably somewhere in Glenn Beck’s library; Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills, part of a series of novels about the King Arthur legend; and Theophilus North, a fictionalized memoir by Thornton Wilder.

The top two nonfiction books the week I was born are both classics in their fields: Alistair Cooke’s America and The Joy of Sex.

Of course, you can enter any date, so feel free to be less narcissistic and use it for broader research.

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Catching Up With the Best of 1961

Jim Hanas has a New Year’s resolution this site can get behind: For a project he’s calling “NBA Minus 50,” he’s going to read (and write about) all 12 fiction nominees for the 1961 National Book Award. The group includes some very familiar titles — To Kill a Mockingbird, Rabbit, Run, and The Violent Bear It Away — but also some obscure titles, like Ceremony in Lone Tree by Wright Morris, Mildred Walker’s The Body of a Young Man, and that year’s winner, The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter.

A couple of years ago, on the National Book Awards site, Harold Augenbraum wrote of Richter’s novel:

The book begins with a nod to realism. A man returns to the vicinity of his hometown, which is now under water from its flooding to create a hydroelectric dam (Richter, says the New York Times, “lamented progress”). Though the town is submerged, the graves have been moved to higher ground (hint, hint). The man, John Donner (John Donne? The Donner Party? You tell me.) walks through the cemetery, and when he gets to the other side, he hitches a ride with a man in a wagon, past where the water should be, into the town itself. We quickly realize that we have been thrown backwards in time. Donner is an old man who revisits his childhood. Weird. Intriguing. Thought-provoking. If Proust had written Brigadoon, it would be The Waters of Kronos.

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

In the Ether

grete-lanierJames Morrison (aka Caustic Cover Critic) has begun designing and publishing an eclectic mix of books whose copyrights have expired. The one that stood out to me was Eugene Batchelder’s A Romance of the Sea-Serpent, “an 1850 book-length Monty Python-style doggerel poem about a socially aspirant sea serpent.” Morrison quotes David S. Reynolds’ description of the book from an essay about Moby-Dick: “The largest monster in antebellum literature was the kraken depicted in [Batchelder's book], a bizarre narrative poem about a sea serpent that terrorizes the coast of Massachusetts, destroys a huge ship in mid-ocean, repasts on human remains gruesomely with sharks and whales, attends a Harvard commencement (where he has been asked to speak), [and] shocks partygoers by appearing at a Newport ball.” Sign me up. . . . I read Richard Ben Cramer’s massive and entertaining What It Takes, about the 1988 presidential election, a couple of years ago. Ben Smith at Politico writes about the doorstop’s initial chilly reception and eventual fan base, “a case study in how a book enters the canon.” (Via) . . . John Gall shares some work by his talented design students. . . . For the new year, Scott Pack has started a new blog, where he will write about one short story per day. . . . David L. Ulin champions one of my favorite books when I was a kid, The Cricket in Times Square. . . . Tin House has redesigned its home page, its blog, and its everything else.


Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

A Big Preview of 2011 Books

palekingThe Millions has an extensive preview of 2011 books, focused mostly on fiction. There’s plenty to read, though it doesn’t jump out at me as a banner year on paper. There are highly anticipated first novels coming from New Yorker favorites Karen Russell and Tea Obreht. Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle, E.L. Doctorow, and Jim Shepard are publishing story collections.

The only giant on the horizon is David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, due in April. Such projects give me — and many others — pause, but like any Wallace fan, I’m more than curious.

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Sentences That Threaten Not to Stop

Ed Park, author of the novel Personal Days and an editor at The Believer, recently wrote for the New York Times about gargantuan sentences. Several authors throughout history have attempted to write an entire novel as one sentence. Perhaps the most recent is Mathias Énard, whose novel Zone was recently translated to English. The book is longer than 500 pages. Park points out the technicalities that keep it from qualifying as one long sentence, but it’s close.

Park writes of the endless-sentence endeavor:

Not many writers have had the nerve to go this route: you’re locked in, committed to a rhythm and a certain claustrophobia. But might the format also be liberating? Joan Didion told The Paris Review in 1978: “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” Sticking to just one sentence, ironically, might keep your options perpetually open.

The article reminded me of one of my favorite long sentences. At just 129 words, it’s a miniscule thing compared to those Park focused on, but I like an excuse to share it (again). It’s from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and comes when Chuck Yeager and other pilots are at a bar in the desert, celebrating his breaking of the sound barrier:

So Pancho served Yeager a big steak dinner and said they were a buncha miserable peckerwoods all the same, and the desert cooled off and the wind came up and the screen doors banged and they drank some more and bawled some songs over the cackling dry piano and the stars and the moon came out and Pancho screamed oaths no one had ever heard before and Yeager and Ridley roared and the old weatherbeaten bar boomed and the autographed pictures of a hundred dead pilots shook and clattered on the frame wires and the faces of the living fell apart in the reflections, and by and by they all left and stumbled and staggered and yelped and bayed for glory before the arthritic silhouettes of the Joshua trees.

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

The Mysterious Lives and Works of Two Barbaras

bfollettOver the holidays, I found two fascinating pieces about women who wrote in the first half of the 20th century. The more haunting one — written by Paul Collins for Lapham’s Quarterly — is about Barbara Newhall Follett (at left), who started writing her first novel at the age of eight, sometimes putting down 4,000 words a day:

While her notes to her playmates and family overflowed with warmth, she was absolute in guarding her time to write. Neighboring children who didn’t understand were brusquely dismissed.

“You don’t understand why I have my work to do — because, at this particular time, you have none at all,” she snapped in a letter to a complaining playmate.

As 1923 passed into another year and yet another, she wrote and rewrote her tale of a girl who ventures into the woods and vanishes into nature. Friends, when needed, could always be imagined. “I pretend,” she once explained, “that Beethoven, the two Strausses, Wagner, and the rest of the composers are still living, and they go skating with me.”

The finished novel, The House Without Windows, was published in 1927, when Follett was 13, to much praise. The rest of Follett’s story is too good, strange, and heartbreaking to miss. Collins says, “Her writings, out of print for many decades, only exist today in six archival boxes at Columbia University’s library. Taken together, they are the saddest reading in all of American literature.”

And over at The Awl, Emily Gould champions the work of Barbara Comyns, “born in 1909 in a big house on the Avon, fourth of the six children of a drunk father and an indifferent mother.” Filled with “bizarre and otherworldly detail,” Comyns’ stories, according to Gould, are riveting:

Comyns’ voice has childlike qualities; she looks at everything in the world as though seeing it for the first time. In later books, though, her narrators’ naivety is deployed in order to provoke horror; the gap between what the reader knows and the narrator doesn’t serves to make the reader fascinated and fearful. Often the reader is horrified and amused simultaneously.

Unlike Follett’s work, several of Comyns’ books are easily available, including the greatly titled Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead and The Vet’s Daughter, which NYRB Classics reissued a few years ago.

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

A Tour of Some Year-End Reading Posts

stonerRather than round up a few of the more traditional lists of the year’s best and worst, I thought I would point you to some bloggers who wrote more broadly about their year in reading. Below are some links. Two books that I’ve seen appearing again and again on lists are The Canal by Lee Rourke, a debut novel about a London man who embraces boredom, and Stoner, the 1965 novel by John Williams (what are the odds??) that seems to develop a stronger and stronger cult every year. I need to finally read it. OK, on to the links:

John Self offers a “blogger’s dozen,” 13 of his favorite reads from 2010, only a few of them published this year. One of them is a book he previously got me interested in, which includes the line: “A man who wishes to transfer his experience to the page might as well try to throw a typewriter at the moon.” . . . William Rycroft’s list includes a slim debut novel published by an 84-year-old in 1980, “a perfectly distilled portrait of marriage that had it been written by a new writer today would surely be being hailed as a masterpiece and nominated for awards all over the place.” It also includes a novel about which he says, “I’ll eat my hat if you can find a more enjoyable novel that combines cannibalism, starvation, self-immolation and public conveniences.” . . . Dan Wagstaff at the Casual Optimist lists a wide-ranging set of fiction, comics, and nonfiction, including two books about the Internet and what it does to us, two “embedded” political books, and Patti Smith’s award-winning memoir. . . . Anthony at Time’s Flow Stemmed enjoyed his immersion in the personal writings of Virginia Woolf: “Reading (and rereading) more deeply into a writer’s output, over a few months, is proving more satisfying than my recently acquired habit of flitting from author to author.” . . . Steve Donoghue, the managing editor of Open Letters Monthly who, from what I can gather, reads literally thousands of books a year, lists his best and worst of what was published in 2010, and also expounds on them with no shortage of strong opinion: best fiction, best nonfiction, worst fiction, worst nonfiction. . . . Barnes & Noble lists some of the year’s best uncategorizable books, including novels in woodcuts, illuminated art from the 15th century, and an atlas of San Francisco.

Friday, December 24th, 2010

2011 Reading Resolutions

Last year around this time, just for fun, I listed five books that I hoped to read in 2010. I ended up reading only one of them — The Bell by Iris Murdoch, which I loved. The other four remain on my to-read list, but I won’t repeat them on my 2011 list, which is below. If you have any New Year reading resolutions of your own, however modest or ambitious, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

Ada, or Ardor by Nabokov
The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck
The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Brian Moore
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

The Year-End Pits

For the site’s regular feature The Cherry & the Pit, I look for cherries, I really do. For various reasons I won’t bore you with (besides the obvious one), they’re not always easy to find. Pits, on the other hand… So this last installment of the feature for 2010 is just three pits. Enjoy:

Teresa Frohock’s debut Miserere: An Autumn Tale, in which an exiled exorcist who, having once abandoned his lover in Hell in exchange for saving his twin sister’s soul, must now save that lover from a demonic possession before his sister leads the Fallen Angel’s hordes out of Hell and into the parallel dimension of Woerld, Heaven’s frontline of defense between Earth and Hell.

Jeremy Wagner’s The Armageddon Chord, in which an ancient and evil song written in hieroglyphics is discovered; once transcribed and performed, the song will bring the Apocalypse upon the Earth and a gifted guitarist finds himself caught between the forces of good and evil.

Rexanne Becnel’s The Thief’s Only Child, the story of a woman whose toddler has been killed in a car accident and later adopts the child of her daughter’s killer, first out of vengeful motives but then comes to love the child.

That last one really intrigues me as a unique example of taking a genre too far. Holding a grudge against your daughter’s killer? Sure. Common enough. Adopting a child for revenge? You lost me.

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

The Procrastinator’s Guide to Literary Gift-Giving

bookgiftsIf you’ve reached this point and still need holiday gifts (or if you’re looking to redeem an Amazon gift certificate someone gave you), below are some belated ideas for the readers in your life. Some of them are related to things that happened on The Second Pass this year, some are not.

If you click through to Amazon from any of the links below, whatever you end up buying there will benefit The Second Pass in some small way. Since I don’t have pledge drives (yet), this is a great way for you to support what goes on around here if you enjoy it. And if you’re a high roller who happens to be reading, and you’d like to order that someone special The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection for a cool $13,000 — well, $13,413.30, but who’s counting? — I, for one, will not stand in your way. Now, on to a few more realistic options:

The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4 would always be a great gift, but perhaps especially now that all of the venerable journal’s interviews are available online. What better way to express love for physical books than to buy them anyway?

For New Yorkers or fans of reading about New York, just a few suggestions from the countless possibilities: The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York is a series of incisive essays about Melville, Whitman, “the early literature of New York’s moneyed class,” the Villages (Greenwich and East), and “writing Brooklyn,” among other subjects. Up in the Old Hotel is a collection of the great Joseph Mitchell’s tales (some surely taller than others) of the city and its characters from the 1930s to the early 1960s. The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction by Max Page is an illustrated look at just what the subtitle promises, from attacks by giant babies to great-flood scenes from 1951 and beyond. Or the less apocalyptic Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies by James Sanders, which tracks the history of the city on film.

Speaking of movies, the 2011 edition of the Time Out Film Guide is available. For my money, it’s the best of the doorstop movie guides. I’m tempted to buy it every year, which would be wasteful; so I tend to buy it every other year, which is just pretty wasteful.

If you enjoyed William James Week, which happened here over the summer, and you’re looking for a primer, there’s a Library of America collection that features a few of his best-known works: The Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, and more. I’m also, as I’ve said more than once before, a big fan of Robert D. Richardson’s biography of James.

Or perhaps, going back to 2009, you liked the week highlighting the correspondence of authors. The Habit of Being, a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, is a good place to start. I think they’re the best things she wrote. The letters of E. B. White are terrific. And though out of print, it’s worth tracking down a used copy of the letters of Raymond Chandler edited by Frank MacShane, maybe especially for writers or aspiring writers. Chandler is often hilariously dyspeptic about his own work, the publishing industry, and the work of other authors.

For the sports geek in your life, especially if that geek grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, there’s Cardboard Gods, Josh Wilker’s memoir, told through a close reading of his baseball card collection. It includes great full-color reproductions of all the cards. (Some of the most fun I had this year was discussing the book with my friend Jon Fasman.)

If you know a fan of short stories, they should already own the work of William Trevor. If they don’t, consider the first volume of his collected stories or the (recently published) second volume. Those are both hefty volumes. For a slimmer collection of stories that still packs a punch, there’s my favorite book of 2009, Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. (My review of that one is here.)

I wasn’t crazy about a lot that was published in 2010, but I’m a fan of The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall (which I reviewed here). This is for the Richard Russo or John Irving fan in your life, not the Thomas Bernhard or Michel Houellebecq junkie. (Though I like Bernhard and Udall, so I guess I should shut up.) Udall’s first novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, is also a treat.

Like I said, these are just a few belated thoughts. I believe Amazon is offering free two-day shipping until early Wednesday night, so get cracking. And this is not a holiday post to close out the year around here. More to come this week, and maybe even a pop-in or two next week…

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Dickens Out Loud for the Holidays

The Book Bench’s Elizabeth Minkel recently took in a reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at Housing Works Bookstore in New York. Readers who teamed up for the task included Francine Prose, Jonathan Ames, 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit, Patrick McGrath, and Mary Gaitskill, who said of Dickens: “I think people who think he’s corny just can’t read.”

Monday, December 20th, 2010


The opening sentence of Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill:

I entered the strange world of Justine Shade via a message on the bulletin board in a laundromat filled with bitterness and the hot breath of dryers.


Saturday, December 18th, 2010

Expanding From an Audience of 25

Whatever somewhat mixed feelings I have about the book (review to appear soon), I’m happy that Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule has gotten the attention it has as a result of winning the National Book Award. It’s nice to know that horse racing can still command attention on the page. In the New York Times profile of her earlier this week, Gordon says she comes from “a long line of horseplayers.” Me, too. Well, a line, anyway, at least as far back as my paternal grandfather.

The piece goes on to say that “when she decided to enroll in a writing program, she picked Brown over Iowa because it was near Lincoln Downs, a Rhode Island track.” As if that sound reasoning isn’t cause enough to admire her, she also has a sense of humor, as when she describes her first novel, Shamp of the City-Solo, published in 1974 by the small publisher that also published Lord of Misrule: “It’s an underground classic. That means about 25 people have read it. But those 25 really, really like it.”

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

The Beat

A weekly roundup of noteworthy reviews from other sources.

modernismHere’s a very smart review of a new book by Gabriel Josipovici, in which Robert Boyers addresses why “modernism cannot be effectually revived on the basis of a face-off with a largely imaginary and misconceived opposition.” On a minor note, he also makes me think that maybe it isn’t too late for me to write about David Shields’ Reality Hunger. . . . Bruce Barcott says that Simon Winchester’s history of the Atlantic Ocean is strong early, when it “traces humanity’s small steps seaward, whizzes along with insight, clarity and drama.” But by the end, he’s less enchanted: “Winchester has pulled together a remarkable assemblage of material, but much of it is presented with little rhyme or reason.” . . . Sam McPheeters reviews a new book about the appearance of punk rockers in movies from 1976 to 1999: “The end-product is less of a primer than an encyclopedia, with lavishly illustrated capsule reviews bracketed with a dizzying array of interviews with punks and filmmakers.” . . . Laura Miller reviews The Master Switch>, “a substantial and well-written account of the five major communications industries that have shaped the world as we know it: telephony, radio, movies, television and the Internet,” and considers whether the Internet could fall prey to the monopolistic forces that overtook those other media. . . . Julian Baggini reviews four books about genius and its nature.