I am almost done reading a very remarkable book. Actually, it’s not really a book, it’s seven novellas about one man, a mysterious character by the name of Maqroll the Gaviero. He is too complex to really describe, but I suppose I might try: he is an adventurer first and formost, preferably by sea, but he is not in it for the excitment. His travels are constant because it is his compulsion. He is a lover of the world and ships and beautiful women. He is an excellent judge of character, though he is often drawn into disregarding his own judgements. He encounters many fascinating characters, and we follow as well the Gaviero’s companions and trusted friends, Abdul Bashur (Dreamer of Ships) and Ilona Rubenstein (the Nymph of Trieste).The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is, dare I say it, on par with and even surpasses the work of Borges and Garcia Marquez. These novellas span the globe like no book ever has. Maqroll visits every continent and sniffs out schemes and companions in every port. This Maqroll, he is no vain adventurer, no hero. He is tortured by his restlessness. He is at the same time a most exceptional man, well-read and loyal, courteous and brave when bravery is required. And yet he is so fragile. I worry about Maqroll as he is blown about the globe by the whims of a strange fate. I am almost done with the 7th and final novella. I have almost reached the last of the 700 pages, but I am not ready to say good bye. This Maqroll, he can really get ahold of you. I have read some books, and though I am by no means an expert, I can say that this book will have to be a classic. It is just so good.
One of the nice things about working at a bookstore is that after constant exposure to thousands of books I tend to have a sizable stash of titles and authors that I know are worth reading stored in the back of my head. Lately, during my day-off wanderings around LA, I make sure to duck into any good will/Salvation Army type places I come across, in order to make good use of this extra information that I lug around involuntarily. Luckily, in my neighborhood there seems to be an inexhaustable supply of such stores. Almost all of these places have a ramshackle shelf of books against the back wall. The standard pricing is fifty cents for a paperback and an even dollar for a hardcover, so it’s worth it to wade through the broken appliances and dusty clothing racks in order to do a little treasure hunting. I invariably am able to walk away with a gem or two. A couple of weeks ago I came across hardcovers of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I swiftly decided to rescue them from an extremely seedy second hand store a few blocks from MacArthur Park, but before I left a third book caught my eye. A hardcover copy of Prize Stories of the Seventies from the O. Henry Awards was tucked away among some lesser books, so I grabbed that too. I was especially pleased to find this book for two reasons. First, in my opinion the O. Henry short story collections are the best out there, far superior to the Best American Short Story series, which, while always filled with excellent stories, never does anything to surprise you. Second, my contemporary liturature classes and creative writing workshops in college taught me that the ’70s were an especially fertile time for the short story. The editor of this collection, Willie Abrahams, rightly states that the collection of stories he has assembled “repudiate altogether the notion — widely held in the previous decade — of the story as an endagered or outmoded species.” This collection, in fact, represents the last time that the form was commercially viable, a time when there were many more publications devoted to the form, the heyday of Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, John Updike, and Tim O’Brien, all of whom are represented here. While it is always a joy to read stories by these luminaries, the beauty of the short story collection is that it will almost always yield a writer or two whom I have never encountered. This collection included several. Judith Rascoe’s story “Small Sounds and Tilting Shadows” is remarkable; it is the tale of an addled woman who insinuates herself into taking care of a mysterious man’s vacant apartment. As time passes the apartment becomes both her prison and her haven, and the presence of apartment’s missing owner looms ever larger. After just a handful of stories it’s hard not to see that many are inhabited by addled women “The Dead” by Joyce Carol Oates (a breathtakingly masterful story), “Last Courtesies” by Ella Leffland, and “My Father’s Jokes” by Patricia Zelver. These struggling women are neatly countervailed by stories about creaking, crumbling families: Updike’s “Separating” and “Alternatives” by Alice Adams, to name just two. The remaining stories, with a couple of notable exceptions, fall neatly into a third catagory, the experimental, post-modern story, betraying the mirthless, helpless rage of the author toward the frustrations that the decade presented. These were both dated and barely readable, but their themes were consistent with rest of the stories in the collection.In the movie “Dazed and Confused” set in 1976, the middle of this forsaken decade, Cynthia, the red headed dreamer who’s too smart for her backward Texas town says “The fifties were boring, the sixties rocked. The seventies, oh my God they obviously suck. Maybe the eighties will be radical.” As I recall, the eighties comment got a big laugh in the theatre, but, in terms of the general well-being of the populace, she wasn’t very far off. The seventies really did suck. Americans were disillusioned, over-medicated, and terrified of cities that had turned into war zones. This level of disgust is so palpable that it is both the surface and the subtext of nearly every story in the collection. The characters are irreconcilably distraught by the failures of the previous decade. A startling proportion of the characters are addicted to pills, and not a few commit suicide if they aren’t killed first, whether by neighbors or the Vietcong. It is a painful collection to read, and it is remarkable to see how bleak a picture of the decade is painted. At the same time, the pain produces beautiful emotional prose. Most of the stories, though imbued with sorrow, were a joy to read. And my favorite “A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow was perhaps the most sorrowful of all.Why Dontcha Take a Picture, It’ll Last LongerTwo very cool photography books came in today. One was called The Innocents, a collection by the photographer Taryn Simon. The book is a chronicle of former death row inmates who have been exonerated. The book combines faces with stories to powerful effect. The second photo book of note today is no less political, though it is far more colorful. Photographer Jamel Shabazz was responsible for one of the coolest books of the last few years, Back In The Days, a collection of street photgraphy from the early hip hop era, before the look was commodified, back when it was real. His new book The Last Sunday in June chronicles New York city’s yearly gay pride parade. Days brims with solemn authenticity while Last Sunday explodes with audacious color. Both are worth more than a look.
I was looking at the list of “Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions in the English language,” which was linked to in our recent Curiosities installment (and which is culled from a new book, A Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare), and a thought occurred to me. The Millions has been around for nearly six years. Over our exactly 1,800 posts (not including this one), just how annoying have we been?Hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, I performed some searches. Here’s what I found:At the end of the day – We’ve used this clunker just three times, including way back in 2004 when it crept into a post called “Books of the Boom“. In my defense, I was referring to an actual day, and not the hypothetical one that is the target of those Oxford wordsmiths’ ire.Fairly unique – I’d never thought about it, but that is a fairly silly phrase. Thankfully, we’ve never used it at The Millions.I personally – Another redundancy, and this time I am guilty. I’ve used it twice, though not since 2004 when it crept into this roundup. I blame Kakutani.At this moment in time – That one hurts my ears, and indeed it has thankfully never made it into print at The Millions.With all due respect – A classic, used but once in 1,800 posts. The guilty party is Garth who was clearly struck briefly mad by a slight against his beloved Bolaño.Absolutely – This one, in that it is not a phrase, strikes me as a bit unfair, pernicious as this adverb may be. We’ve used it 41 times over the years, and I feel absolutely no guilt about that.It’s a nightmare – No nightmares here.Shouldn’t of – That’s just bad grammar, and we’ve never used it. Phrases like that keep us up at night.24/7 – We’ve used this one twice. Contributor emeritus Patrick gets a pass because he used it as part of this phrase: “24/7 mingle mode.” I can think of no better way to describe BEA in LA.It’s not rocket science – we’ve never used this one, but “rocket science” was used in one of my all-time favorite Millions posts, Andrew’s “Distinguished in a David Niven Mustache.”
Did you ever wonder: “What is the longest English word?” “Are there any English words containing the same letter three times in a row?” “Are there any words that rhyme with orange?” “How many words are there in the English language?” “What is the longest one-syllable English word?” The answers to these questions and more can be found at the Oxford Dictionary FAQ.
If you hear kids throwing the word “book” around a lot more than you’re used to, don’t assume that a new literary craze is sweeping the land. According to some cultural observers, “book” is becoming a substitute for “cool” thanks to the pervasive influence of text messaging.As some of you are no doubt aware, when the “T9” predictive text function is activated your cell phone will try to guess the word you’re typing as you key it in on those frustrating number keypads. As it turns out, when you try to type in “cool” – that is, 2-6-6-5 – phones will, by default, suggest “book,” and, according to some, the kids are running with it, and “book” has become another word for “cool.” So, all you teachers out there, your work is officially done. Books are now cool, literally. (via Zorn)
One of the guests on Fresh Air today was former cop named Edward Conlon, a Harvard grad and fourth generation NYPD officer who used to pen an anonymous column in the New Yorker. Now he has a new book called Blue Blood in which he recounts his life as a beat cop. It looks to be a literary take on macabre subject matter. Speaking of which, Ian McEwan, most recently the author of Atonement, a book adored by both readers and critics, has revealed some details about his forthcoming book. According to this Reuters story, it appears as though McEwan will return to the more visceral subject matter of his earlier novels with a book that centers on the life of a brain surgeon. He will finish it “within months.” This new McEwan book will almost certainly be reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, where, after much skeptical anticipation, Sam Tanenhaus has been appointed as editor. As beatrice.com pointed out yesterday, some in the literary world are skipping the grace period and sticking with the skepticism, cf. David Kipen’s San Francisco Chronicle piece. This changing of the guard, you may remember, was a topic a few months back here at The Millions.
I recently bought a t-shirt. This is not exactly news, though my sartorial spending typically averages four or five dollars per year. What was notable, however, was that it featured the art from the Nintendo game “Contra”—two gun-blasting mercenaries shadowed by a drooling, looming alien. I later realized that I hadn’t bought such a shirt in years—and not just because it horrified my wife. My drawers were once full of such tees, but through the endless clothing cycle, they’ve ceded to whites and blues. I wonder where they’ve gone.
Remembering vanished shirts is a somewhat wistful thing. Each one means so much, yet each will disappear. In exchange for their service—absorbing our sweat, airing our interests, starting our conversations—the least we can do is offer them tribute. Below, then, are five of my most deserving.
House of Pain (1993-1995)
“House of Pain” represented the nexus of three unfortunate trends: an infatuation with House of Pain, a growing allowance, and a need to go to malls (which also yielded such nuggets as “Big Johnson Erection Company,” “Big Johnson Beer,” and untold swimsuit posters). Its purchase followed two that my mother confiscated: a Cypress Hill pot-leaf shirt and a Funkdoobiest tee, replete with smoking hooker. Yes, I know. My mother was a monster.
“House of Pain,” however, snuck past the censors, and I wore it with dubious pride. To make my tastes even clearer, I bought a House of Pain hat; thank God they didn’t make pants. Eventually, the faux-Heineken logo on its back tore from the fabric, and “House of Pain” was discarded. Farewell, old friend, farewell. I jump around for thee.
Miller Genuine Draft (1995-1998)
“Miller Genuine Draft” wasn’t a particular favorite, but it served a definite purpose: “Hey, look, everybody! I’m drinking!” Throughout the mid-nineties, I sported an array of such shirts, shilling for brands that I hadn’t actually drank: Rumple Minze, Red Stripe, Boone’s Farm, Dewar’s. The idea was that I was “cool,” although I’m fairly sure I wasn’t.
Today, when I see a teen skulking in a Bud Light tee, I think, “Okay, little guy—you’ve had yourself a beer. We get it.” It takes hindsight to see the desperation of such shirts—and that they’re equivalent to wearing a Tampax tee because you’ve finally got your period.
Uff Da! (1997-2002)
As I was told a handful of times over its dazzling five-year run, “Uff Da!” was a Norwegian term of excitement; the shirt may have been the product of a small Wisconsin brewery. Whatever its origin, I found it pleasingly elusive, cheerful but obscure. It never failed to gain mention, and even The Bard took note: I wore it to a 1998 Bob Dylan show, at which I sat in the first row behind the stage. Every so often, Dylan turned to acknowledge the fans at his back, and at one point—possibly during “Joey”—he turned and spotted “Uff Da!” As a Minnesota native, he was likely familiar with the phrase, and its 200-point font would’ve been large enough to see—even from the stage, through the glaring banks of light. There was a glint in his eye, and he gave me a nod, as if to say, “Yes, my son. ‘Uff Da!’ ‘Uff Da!’ ”
He might have been looking at someone else, though.
Matthew’s Bar Mitzvah Was a Big Hit! (1997)
I never knew Matthew, and I don’t know if his Bar Mitzvah was really a hit. And that was exactly the point. For half a decade, my fashion goal was to stockpile the most ironic, snort-inducing shirts I could find. I haunted musty Goodwill racks, ragged yard-sale piles, the drawers of sleeping roommates. The result was a parade of slugs, cheese, and terrible bands. One pictured Howie Mandel; another, Jimmy Carter.
I must have assumed that this conveyed an ornate intellect; as Louis Menand recently wrote in The New Yorker, “Part of the enjoyment people take in parody is the enjoyment of feeling intelligent. Not everyone gets the joke.” Thankfully, though, the joke got stale, and the phase eventually passed (possibly swept off by Graydon Carter’s “death of irony”). But remnants do remain. On hot days, I can still be seen in a kelly-green Detlef Schrempf jersey. Part of me thinks it’s funny.
Blue Shirt (2008-Present)
Like “Miller Genuine Draft,” I mention “Blue Shirt” for its wider personal meaning. After all the rap and beer and irony, I’ve come to value simplicity in my shirts. There’s enough static in the world, enough impotent distraction. Our tastes are not so riveting. This turn towards plainness is likely an effect of aging—an erosion of cultural interest and a shift of priorities. Whatever its cause, such shirts are my present, and will likely be my future. I can’t picture myself in a nursing home, dribbling egg down a novelty tee. Call it a benefit of growing older.
(Image: Ringflash Tshirt Blank Template, image from geishaboy500’s photostream)