Thanks to the shoddy service of my DSL provider, I haven’t been able to post new reports for you. This is sad because I have many great books to tell you all about. But now it is too late since I am off to Europe this afternoon and I have far too much to do before I leave. If the facilities are adequate and I have the time, I will try to update from Europe. If not, please check back in two weeks when I will pick up right where I left off. Bye bye everyone!
I recently got in the ring with Ed Champion of The Bat Segundo Show to talk about A Field Guide to the North American Family. A victory, a loss, or a draw? You be the judge. (Helpful Hint: It gets better as it goes on. Guinness is, indeed, good for you.)And, assuming you're still interested, you can see page spreads, and read an interview, in FILE Magazine. Thanks!
Picture this: A thin little girl—freckled, pigtails askew, barefoot—wearing a nightgown, holding a pistol in one hand and brandishing a sword with the other. No, it's not Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz's character in Kick Ass), nor an infant Lisbeth Salander. It's how you first meet Pippi Longstocking, on the title page of Astrid Lindgren's first Pippi Longstocking novel, illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman. Pippi is where Grrrl Power got its start, and if you're interested in the ancestral line of "grrls" like Lisbeth Salander, Hit Girl, The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen, or the slew of other gritty girls from the past year in film and fiction, Pippi Longstocking is grandmother of them all. In Lindgren's children's novels, first published in her native Sweden from 1945-48 and the US from 1950-57, and their Swedish film adaptations, starring the superb Inger Nilsson (1969-70), Pippi is a nine-year-old girl with superhuman strength, ingenuity, and self confidence, an endless supply of gold (from her pirate Papa), and a beautiful, shambly house named Villa Villekulla, where she lives by herself with her horse and Mr. Nilsson, a spider monkey (her mother is dead and her pirate father's at sea). Like her most notable descendent, Lisbeth Salander, of Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, Pippi is most easily recognized by her distinctive personal style: Pippi's hair is the color of a carrot, and usually done in two braids that stick out on either side of her head; she wears patch-worked dresses of her own devising, mismatched stockings, a giant hat, and men's boots twice the length of her feet. And her motto, which promises and delivers a happy ending in all of her adventures, is "I'll always come out on top." In both attitude and fashion sense, Pippi's nearest American relation is the spunky 1980's television character Punky Brewster (same wild pigtails, freckles, animal friends, outlandish clothes; a plucky can-do motto: "Punky Power!"). Lindgren's Pippi lives a child's wonderland life: no school, no rules, no bedtime, animals in the house, as many sweets as she can eat, victorious encounters with bullies, burglars, police, and pirates, homemade aeroplanes and air-balloon beds that actually fly. Pippi is invincible, irrepressible, fearless: What she sets out to do, she achieves. She's generous even in triumphing over the numerous bad men who think they can best her (her preferred method of dealing with the inevitably farcical villains who take her on is hanging them on walls or in trees). And she always wins: even when she—a puny-looking girl—is faced with a man-sized job, rescuing her father from a slew of pirates or wrestling the world's strongest man. If any of this triggers a twinge of familiarity, it may be because Stieg Larsson modeled Lisbeth Salander on Pippi Longstocking. According to Larsson's Swedish publisher, Eva Gedin, Larsson imagined Lisbeth as a grown-up, darker version of Pippi. Of course, there are tonal differences: Though Lindgren's Pippi never quite breaks the laws of physics, she's an impossible creature, a fantasy of empowerment: rich, self-confident, unnaturally strong, perpetually delighted, never compromising, never defeated. Larsson's plots may have their fantastic and implausible qualities--Salander is a fantasy of empowerment too, if a grittier one than Pippi--but Larsson's books do aspire to a certain realism and are particularly interested in the reality that the best and the strongest, the most strong-willed, don't win every battle (even if they win in the end). While Salander is locked in mental hospitals and children's homes against her will, turned over to a monstrous guardian whose abuses she cannot thwart, Pippi informs the police officers who've come to take her as a ward, "You'll have to get kids for your children's home somewhere else. I certainly don't intend to move there," and uses a lively game of tag to strand them on her roof. She then carries the officers out of the yard by their belts, giving them cookies as a no-hard-feelings parting gift. Pippi's endlessly obliging world certainly isn't Salander's; Pippi is a children's book heroine, after all. But Pippi and Salander do share a fundamental character trait: a deep sense of justice and courage in the pursuit of justice—very real, if increasingly rare, human qualities. In one of Pippi's first adventures, she stands up to five boys bullying a younger boy. She interrupts the bullies' taunting of the little boy and brings their taunts on herself. The bullies tease Pippi about her red hair and her clown shoes, but Pippi just smiles her friendliest smile and seems not to hear their taunts. This enrages the ringleader and he shoves her. So, Pippi calmly lifts the bully up and hangs him on a high tree branch, telling him, "I don't think you have a very nice way with the ladies." Pippi is, here and elsewhere, Lisbeth Light (or perhaps the other way round: Lisbeth is Pippi R or X). Both heroines are good at putting dangerous men in their places and both feel a deep sympathy for underdogs and innocents. Pippi's bully-hanging is the child's version of Lisbeth's often much more gruesome acts of justice: Lighting her father on fire in an attempt to protect her mother from him; Taking on the Harriet Vanger case, not for personal gain, but out of a deep hatred of violence against women, a desire to see justice served—and, like Pippi, Lisbeth serves her justice by herself. But with Lindgren's books—if you've got children to read to or if you can still muster a child's delighted sense of limitless possibility—there's a purer, simpler pleasure to be had in Pippi than in Lisbeth. This goes without saying, maybe: There are no atrocities in Pippi Longstocking, no dead and mutilated women, no chance of feeling like a sadistic voyeur or that the book's nominal feminism is actually a slick form of misogyny. But it's more than that: Pippi is a breathtaking vision of boundless, uninhibited possibility, and pretty funny while she's at it (so is the dubbing in the movies: Pippi's friend Annika has a NY/NJ accent that's to die for). Pippi's impossible, yes, a fantasy, but she might help you remember what it was like to believe in possibility, in unlikely powers and triumphs. She might also help you imagine a world yet to come of little girls who aren't Ophelias in need of reviving. "I can," says Pippi, when a circus ringleader asks for a volunteer who thinks he can beat a towering, hulking strongman in a wrestling contest. "Oh, no, you couldn't," Pippi's practical, goody-two-shoes friend Annika tells her, "he's the strongest man in the world." And Pippi cooly replies: "Man, yes, but I am the strongest girl in the world, remember that," and climbs into the ring. Guess who wins.
If Carl Jung had lived to see Google Search, he might have had a thing or two to say about how its auto suggest function is revealing the Internet's collective unconscious. For those who don’t know, auto suggest is a handy feature that helps you search when you don’t know what it is you're searching for. As you type, Google tries to read your mind, offering helpful suggestions based on the letters you have already entered. If, for example, you were to type “the mill” Google might guess you are searching for "the millions" (you were, weren’t you?) and helpfully add the term to a list that appears below the search bar. On the other hand, it might suggest “the million dollar man.” We do, after all, have the technology. Although it’s not entirely clear how Google generates suggestions, they are at least in part based on searches entered by other users. The more popular a search, the more likely it is to appear at the top of the list of suggestions. At first, this might seem like an innocuous feature, but on closer inspection, it turns out to be a powerful tool for peering into the murky depths of the collective unconscious. How murky, you ask? For a peek into the abyss, head over to autocompleteme (may be NSFW, if you can believe it....), where a team from among the legion of unsung Internet heroes has posted some of the bizarre treasures they have dredged up from Google’s auto suggest. A quick peek at autocompleteme can tell you a lot about the state of the English-speaking world circa 2009. We're stupid: “How come... a cupcake is not a mineral?”, paranoid “how to tell... your cat is planning to kill you?” and racist “I am... extremely afraid of Chinese people.” Its pages are full of bizarre, hilarious, and sometimes disturbing searches that are apparently so popular that Google assumes you, too, might find them useful. Of course, any number of the oddest results might just point to song lyrics, elaborate practical jokes, random hipster t-shirt slogans, and Simpsons quotes. That's all beside the point, though. Because what makes auto suggest most compelling is not the nonsense results or the unintentional comedy. It's what it says about the human condition. Every day hundreds of millions of supplicants come to Google, the new Oracle, in search of answers. From innocence ( “how to... kiss”) to despondence (“I w... ant to die.”), they share their fantasies and desires, their deepest fears and anxieties. And every day, Google suggest lets them know they are not alone.
Amazon shoppers: I recently discovered a couple of nifty ways to save a little money at Amazon. First, as this article explains, if an item is marked down within 30 days of your purchase, you can use a refund request form to ask that the difference be refunded. Since prices are constantly fluctuating at Amazon, this seems like a great way to get the best price on whatever you're buying. Second, users of Amazon's search engine A9 can get an extra 1.57% off of all their purchases. It's not a huge discount, but it can add up, especially on those big ticket items. Here's how to qualify.
A few weeks back, Reuters reported on a new website called Daily Lit, which blasts short clips of classic literature to subscribers' email addresses every day. Readers can take in Anna Karenina via Blackberry, in five-minute chunks disbursed over fourteen months. "Our audience includes people like us, who spend hours each day on e-mail but can't find the time to read a book," Albert Wenger, a founder of DailyLit, told the press.Now, far be it from me to denigrate any effort to make literature more accessible. I used to be a regular reader of the Samuel Pepys blog, and probably made more of a dent in the digital Diary than I would have in the hard copy. But Daily Lit seems to represent the unexamined costs of the information age's promises of convenience. Is yet another daily email really the solution to too much email? What does it mean to click from Paris of Troy to Paris Hilton. (OMG, Achilles is sooo hot.) Does one find time, or does one make it?Already 50,000 people have enrolled in Daily Lit, which currently offers 370 titles from the public domain, free of charge. Soon the site will expand to charge for daily excerpts of newer work. No doubt certain texts - Lydia Davis stories, poems by Basho - might lend themselves to the DailyLit treatment, providing a short liberation from the drudgeries of the day. But big novels aren't meant to be noshed on like an energy bar, wedged in between breakfast and dinner. At their best, they open up vistas of freedom beyond our daily habits and obligations. Opt for the bite-sized version if you like. But God forbid I come to look forward to Tolstoy with the same dread with which I approach my inbox.And so, book in hand, to bed.
Those of you out there who have your own websites have probably noticed how the sorts of things that send people your way from the search engines is very unpredictable. In July I wrote about a fantastic poem called "The Clerks Tale" by Spencer Reece which appeared in the New Yorker new fiction issue this past summer. So many people have come here looking for it that I thought it worth mentioning again, and also because it really is a terrific poem. Here is my original post. Here is the poem, and as an extra treat, here is a link to Reece reading the poem.
It started with Nick Adams. I discovered Nick while reading through the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway a while back, and it is his voice, more than any others in the Hemingway corpus, that sticks with me years later. Nick Adams is in many ways Hemingway’s alter ego. Like Hemingway, Nick grew up in a rural part of the Midwest that still felt like (that still was, perhaps) Indian territory. Like Hemingway, Nick had a doctor for a father. Like Hemingway, Nick’s father commits suicide when Nick is a boy – this is the subject, by the way, of one of Hemingway’s most arresting Nick Adams stories, “Fathers and Sons”. As Nick grows up, and the stories progress and begin to slightly contradict one another (these are distinct stories, after all, and were never meant to be a coherent novel) his life grows murkier. The Nick Adams stories, though published as a complete volume in 1972 – years after Hemingway killed himself in a manner similar to his own father – were never meant, I think, to be read in one sitting. The Nick Adams stories were written over a period of decades – during, not coincidentally, Hemingway’s most productive and most fruitful period – and they are each one of them distinct, many of them gems. They can be read together, that is certain. But part of the beauty of these stories is how well they stand on their own, each one highlighting a facet of Nick’s character, a specific moment in time. A day, as it were, in the life. Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasure to piece these stories together, to chronologize them and evaluate them – and the character of Nick Adams – fully. But the real pleasure of these stories, for me, is in realizing that while they do not exist in solitude, they can and do stand alone as complete works of art. Nick Adams hooked me on the episodic short story. By which I mean, as it should by now be obvious, the tale of an individual told over several loosely related episodes. Finishing a story – a good, well-written story – about a character both well developed and personally intriguing, and knowing that another story about that very same character is out there somewhere, has become, for me, one of the best feelings in the world. One of the finest modern practitioners of the episodic short story was the late Leonard Michaels. Though Michaels is most well known for his 1981 novella of male angst, The Men’s Club, in my opinion his greatest achievement came near the end of his life, when he started chronicling the fictional life of a mathematician named Nachman. Nachman, a professor at Berkeley (where Michaels himself taught) is a lonely, trusting man who understands the most complex equations but cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of human interaction. Michaels, along with his character Nachman, pulls you in from the very first sentence of the very first story, and never lets go. Here is that first sentence, of the eponymously titled story, “Nachman”: “In 1982, Raphael Nachman, visiting lecturer in mathematics at the university in Cracow, declined the tour of Auschwitz, where his grandparents had died, and asked instead to visit the ghetto where they had lived.” There may be a better first sentence to a short story in existence, but I don’t know what it is. The Nachman stories, like those of Nick Adams, stand well (stand very well indeed) on their own. Pieced together, though, they really are something of a masterpiece. The seven Nachman stories Michaels completed before his untimely death can be found at the end of Leonard Michael’s Collected Stories. They are well worth the price of the book. In my opinion, the most promising episodic short story sequence currently being published is being written by Nathaniel Bellows. Bellows is the author of On This Day – a beautiful, painfully moving novel of a pair of siblings who lose both parents in the same year – as well as a magnificent poetry collection, Why Speak. While I am a great fan of all of Bellows’ writing, it is his Nan stories that really blew me away. Bellows has a strong New England sensibility. With his vivid evocations of cold Maine winters and lonely, ice-strewn landscape, the poet he most consistently reminds me of (in content if not in form) is Robert Frost. Wisps of Emersonian self-reliance – as well as, perhaps, tacit acknowledgments of self-reliance’s limits – also carry through his work. In his Nan stories, Bellows takes that lonely New England self-reliance and brings it to New York in the character of Nan, a magnificently drawn Columbia University undergrad who comes from a sheltered, broken (in ways that I won’t ruin for you here) lower-middle class Maine family. Nan, like Bellows, comes from upstate New England. Also like Bellows, Nan comes to Columbia to study literature and to become a writer (Bellows received his MFA from Columbia). Nan, like Michaels’ Nachman, has a fundamentally good although somewhat naïve personality. In these stories, she faces a world, often complex and underhanded, that she does not (at first, at least) really understand. The beautiful imagery of the stories, as well as the slow-paced, heart-piercing development of Nan’s character, make these stories not simply delights but, I would argue, necessary reading. The three Nan stories that have so far been published – here is a link to the first one, published in the excellent literary magazine Post Road – are uniformly fantastic. According to Bellows’ website, there are at least four more Nan stories awaiting publication. I am sure I am not the only one who eagerly awaits piecing the rest of the puzzle of Nan’s life together.
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