Cholodenko, Cholodenko…. Cholodenko. It really rolls off the tongue. I saw a movie directed by Ms. Cholodenko this evening. She didn’t direct it this evening, I saw it this evening, at the Vista in Los Feliz. I had enjoyed her previous movie, High Art. In Laurel Canyon she continues her riffs on sexual predators, sexual innocents, and the curiosity of all those folks thrown together at once. It was light and entertaining, but also pretty invigorating. Frances McDormand plays a “seen it all” record producer. Her life is fun and free of the usual drudgery, and those around her don’t know whether to fear or envy the life she leads while surrounded by rapscallion British rocker types. Like High Art, Laurel Canyon is a coming of age story, but without so much psychological trauma and none of the admonishments about the scary drugs.
In the New Yorker, Ian Frazier shares some stories about how the modern novel is threatening to bring down the American economy.Right now, it’s costing me forty-five dollars to fill up my 4Runner, which is about two novels. Tough decisions are going to have to be made. I’m used to having a newly released hardcover on the dash of my vehicle, another in the back seat for the kids. At home, we’ve got a novel in each bedroom, two in the family room, one in the laundry room for my wife when she’s down there, and a novella in the john. We go through a couple of dozen novels in a year without even noticing. I hate to say it, but this can’t go on.
It’s been a busy week, but I wanted to share a couple of things real quick. I enjoyed the Guardian story about the different psychologies of men and women based on what they read. I was not at all surprised by their conclusion that women are far more engaged in reading then men. I’d never thought about it before, but when I worked at the bookstore I was surprised to see that female customers were far more numerous than male. In fact, nearly all of our most dedicated and literary regulars were women. GalleyCat and Bookninja also commented.From Slate comes the story about how a word that is “a vulgarity for a condom” ended up being the answer for 43 Down in Monday’s New York Times crossword puzzle.
Though we try to pass over blog-bait, we can’t resist directing your attention to the print ad campaign for the paperback version of Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone. “From the acclaimed memoir by the author of The Corrections” runs the copy, above several blurbs:”Funny, masterfully composed” – Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly“[A] total lack of humor…perverse” – Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review“Luminous, essential reading” – Tim Adams, The Observer (London)”Odious…incredibly annoying” – Michiko Kakutani, The New York TimesThis is postmodern advertising at its best: honest, funny, provocative… and almost enough to reconsider our decision not to read the book.[Editor’s note: We wish we could find a version of this ad online, but Harper’s readers can find it on page 51 of the November issue]
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
Colleen (a regular contributor at Bookslut) sent me an email about a program she’s working on to help kids displaced by Hurricane Katrina. It sounds like a great plan; here are the details:I’m working with a group in Baton Rouge who are helping children sheltered with their families at Southern University. We have put together a couple of wish lists of books and games that the folks at Parkview Baptist Church will happily deliver to the SU kids and other area shelter kids. Feel free to buy off the lists, and send the links on to everyone you know and pass on my email to anyone who has any questions. We’ve had some success so far and several publishers, authors, illustrators and reviewers are all kicking in copies of books they are sending direct. If any of your readers would like to do that, I can provide the mailing address.
I added several books to the reading queue today. In New York last weekend I found a half price paperback copy of Jon Lee Anderson’s Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World. As you may know, Anderson is a stellar war reporter for the New Yorker. His writing combines thrill and adventure and danger with an unmatched depth of knowledge on the conflicts he covers. Guerrillas collects his reporting on “the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and a group of young Palestinians fighting against Israel in the Gaza Strip.” A few weeks earlier, at Myopic Books, an unbelievably well-stocked used bookstore in Wicker Park, I picked up a couple of late 20th century classics, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow and Winter’s Tale (on Emre’s recommendation) by Mark Helprin. I was also lucky enough to receive in the mail from my publisher friends: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (I’m a big Ronson fan), Rick Moody’s upcoming novel The Diviners, and the Booker longlister The People’s Act of Love by James Meek, which I’m a quarter of the way through. Recently, I finished the five LBC nominees for the fall, and in the meantime, with the additions of the books listed above, the queue has ballooned to it’s largest size yet, 48 titles – so much to read, so little time.
This week at the LBC blog, we’ll be discussing my nominee for this round of books, All This Heavenly Glory by Elizabeth Crane. Ed has done a very entertaining podcast with Crane, and I can be heard at the beginning introducing the book (Ed decided to portray me as some sort of bionic man. I’m not sure I get the reference, but I like it!). Also up is a dialog about the book, featuring me and Kassia (of Booksquare). Tomorrow the dialog will continue with help from Sam (of Golden Rule Jones).