Probably won’t be able to post for the next day or two since I’ll be in New York at the Kingsland Tavern celebrating the Realistic Records release of the Recoys album. Have I mentioned this? Should be a blast. But don’t worry, I’ll be back with many more books to talk about, and hopefully some added features for this little blog of mine. Bye for now.
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. And this: 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. And this: 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.”
● ● ●
I noticed that in the past few days several people have come to this blog after searching Andrei Codrescu and hurricane. Codrescu, a Romanian poet, writer and NPR commentator, is a favorite of mine and when I realized that he makes his home in New Orleans, I became worried that he might be missing. I'm guessing that those searching for him on Google are worried, too. In an interview a little more than a year ago Codrescu, like so many others, dismissed the threat to New Orleans:Standaert: You live in New Orleans, which could be submerged in a matter of a few short hours if a 'category five' hurricane hits the city full bore. Does this frighten you? Sorry if I brought it to mind! I've heard other residents say with a devil may care wave of the hand that it would be appropriate if New Orleans was Pompeii-ed, Atlantis-ed, or otherwise Sodom and Gomorra-ed. Are these people nuts? Or does living in New Orleans breed a laissez faire attitude toward eminent apocalypse? Is it the decadent caramelized, sugar powdered, steaming apple beignets?Codrescu: So what's living in San Francisco like? Or L.A.? Or New York? Or anywhere on the path of Comet from Hell? Be serious, Mike. This just ain't a safe universe. People in New Orleans get great pleasure out of possible disaster just like Venetians do: they are in a hurry to make beauty because they are so close to the elemental (fury) gods. But anyone who decided to be boring because they live on a rock under the desert, is either crazy or hasn't taken enough LSD. Or they may just be boring, which is incurable. There is nothing sicker than a bunker.I was relieved to hear that Codrescu is safe and in Baton Rouge. Yesterday he mourned on NPR. Like so many others he is both chastened by the wrath of Mother Nature and angry that his beloved city has been destroyed.
I was looking at today's installment of the Publishers Lunch newsletter (which I highly recommend for those interested in the book business, even if you only get the free version like I do), and something jumped out at me. News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings this week, including the regular update on HarperCollins, which is owned by Murdoch and company. Publishers Lunch got some additional color on the news from HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. It's not linkable because it's an email newsletter, but here's the quote:Segment by segment, Friedman says the general books group continued to grow sales and profits significantly in the US, as did the children's group. "There's one area where we are having a lot of problems--religious publishing is in a lot of trouble." Though religious books "have had a fantastic run for the entire 9 years I've been at this company," Friedman observed, "it is starting to see hard times. Right now we are seeing heavy returns--product that just didn't work, but more significantly, we're seeing a contraction in the CBA, which is what we went through with the ABA." Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Life still sells more "than almost any other book" on the religious list, but Friedman has "concerns about the whole religious sector."Emphasis mine. I was surprised to read this because, as Friedman indicates and as book industry-watchers know, religious books have been a huge seller in recent years, growing much faster than most other types of books.As I read this, though, it occurred to me that peoples' reading tastes, taken broadly, might be a good indicator of the philosophical mood of the country. It may be that HarperCollins' religious titles were duds this year, but it's also possible that the fervent hold of religion -- and when we talk about "religious books" we're talking primarily about born-again Christian themes -- on this country is loosening. I don't want to read to much into this, but is it possible that, among the broader public, conservative Christianity was a cultural fad, with its own attendant movies, music, and books, and that people who don't have too much invested in it will move onto the next thing that promises to help them with their lives? I'd be curious to see if there's any other evidence out there that lends itself to this idea.
I know this is the sort of thing that threatens to erode our moral fabric and turn us all into communists, but I thought you might like to know that much of J.D. Salinger's published work, including many hard-to-find uncollected stories, is available for free here. So hurry and take a look before this website is shut down by a blizzard of threatening letters from angry intellectual property lawyers. Also of note: I posted this link at Metafilter a few days back and it generated a rather lively discussion.
Still in the throes of controversy surrounding James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, Oprah has selected Elie Wiesel's memoir Night as the next selection for her book club. While this selection was no doubt in the works long before the Frey controversy, the juxtaposition is still remarkable. Frey's confessional, sensationalized addiction memoir, the credibility of which seems to crumble further with every passing day, looks awfully silly next to the beloved memoir of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor whose character is unassailable as far as I know. In the New York Times, Wiesel says he hasn't read Frey's book (big surprise), but then goes on to make some comments that seem to me to be directed at Frey's fast and loose treatment of the truth (emphasis mine):He acknowledged that some people and institutions, including on occasion The New York Times, have referred to Night as a novel, "mainly because of its literary style.""But it is not a novel at all," he said. "I know the difference," he added, noting that Night is the first of his 47 books, several of which are novels. "I make a distinction between what I lived through and what I imagined others to have lived through."As it is a memoir, he said, "my experiences in the book - A to Z - must be true." He continued: "All the people I describe were with me there. I object angrily if someone mentions it as a novel."Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Amazon is changing the classification of Night from fiction to memoir. As of this writing, Night is number one on Amazon, bumping Pieces to number two.
Several years ago, before I even thought of moving to Los Angeles, my mother, on a whim, bought an Ed Ruscha book for me. I grew up in an art friendly house with frequent trips to galleries and museums, and in college I took a modern art history class and spent a day going to art galleries whenever I went to New York, yet I had barely ever heard of Ruscha. Nonetheless, I found his paintings intriguing. They have always seemed like disembodied signs coming from some void. Then I moved to Los Angeles and saw how this town is like a graveyard for signs and billboards and advertising and words. In certain neighborhoods, there are decaying signs everywhere you look. Some are still in use; others sit forlornly atop buildings advertising some long lost place. I think there is enough room in Los Angeles to not have to go the trouble of taking these signs down and replacing them. In this vast and flat landscape you can just put up a new sign and leave the old one up for decoration. Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) celebrates and pays homage to this living graveyard of a city, and from what I understand, his reputation has blossomed of late as he has shed the limiting mantle of West Coast Artist. A new book, the first ever monograph of his work, has come out recently. It is a beautiful book and it represents an elevation of the stature of this deserving artist. Here are 13 pages of art by Ed Ruscha.I love reading about the behind the scenes machinations of politics and government. There are so many events of global significance that are swayed or even caused by the actions and words of the two or three most powerful men in the world at any time. The idea that most of our recent Presidents have taped their behind-closed-doors conversations is almost too good to be true for anyone interested in the inner workings of American power politics, and a collection of these tapes has come out. The White House Tapes: Eavesdropping on the President is a nine CD and book set that includes the taped conversations of every president from FDR to Reagan (excluding Carter). It chronicles some of he country's worst moments (Nixon's "Smoking Gun" tapes) and some of our best (Truman hashing out the Marshall Plan). The ninth CD is a companion documentary produced by American Radio Works. There are many amazing and readable books about history out there, but it's not every day that you come across such compelling and significant source material.
In August, 2006, a few months after the first Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final, David Foster Wallace published "Roger Federer as Religious Experience," in the New York Times, a lengthy footnoted essay describing the sublimity of Roger Federer and the elements of top-flight tennis that can only be captured watching it live. The essay is not only the best piece of tennis writing I have ever read, but the best piece of sports writing, period. There are countless parts that merit reading out loud to whomever's nearby. One among them:At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television's slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we're not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what's lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting.Yesterday's Federer-Nadal final reminded me of the piece, and, as I have done every year around this time for the past three, had me emailing it out to all my friends, beseeching them to read it, because this time, it really is worth it. It has become a fixation of our manic media culture to instantly assess a just-completed event's place in history. And in the same way that it drives web traffic and sells newspapers to inflate the significance of a "gaffe" by a presidential candidate, rarely a week goes by without some game or another receiving the brand of "classic" status on ESPN. But every now and again the genuine article comes along, making it obvious that all the other hyperbole was just that. Yesterday's Wimbledon final was that kind of event. I imagine DFW was watching. I hope he writes about it.