My good and old friend Garth, while describing what struck at his most recent visit to a book store, alerted me to an intriguing first novel by a 26 year old writer. According to the Washington Post, “Matthew McIntosh, young and despondent though he may be, is the real thing.” His book is called Well, and every review I’ve found so far is very positive and at times a touch awed. This is definitly in the “yes pile.” You can find an excerpt on the official page.
“I ran into a girl…She said I was a strange person and she told me why. She said, ‘You were born in a certain area where the ground is metallic.’” – Bob Dylan, Behind the Shades Revisited
Bob Dylan was born in Duluth but spent his formative years in Hibbing, a small, isolated northern Minnesota town whose claim to fame (according to the billboard that greets you as you come into town) is that it’s home to the world’s largest open-pit iron mine. It’s also my hometown, in an area so remote from Minneapolis that a friend from the city had never heard of it.
There are a number of towns in Minnesota’s Iron Range, which covers the upper fork of the state, but Hibbing is a particularly weird place given an accident of history; its inadvertent placement atop one of the richest veins of iron ore meant the mining company had to grant the townspeople major concessions to persuade them to move its location. Thus Hibbing is the only town with a high school listed in the National Register of Historic Places: the building cost four-million dollars (in 1923!), complete with marble floors in the bathrooms, a 1800-seat auditorium patterned after the Capitol Theatre in New York City, and a Broadway-level green room. Because Hibbing, which is near Canada, wasn’t the most hospitable place to live (in his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan described the winters as so cold and unending as to be hallucinogenic), the mining company also invested in education: the superintendent of the school system supposedly received the highest salary of any school district in the state, and K-12 instructors were paid unusually high salaries for the area. The Hibbing public schools were thus funded more like lavish private schools, so you end up with people like English teacher B.J. Rolfzen, who is often credited by Bob Dylan for instilling in him a love of language.
To give you an idea, this is where we had our pep rallies for homecoming, our auditorium. You can imagine yourself laughing a young Bob Dylan (then, Robert Zimmerman) off the stage at the talent show (yes, this happened).
But whether it was the richly funded schools or the iron ore in the water or some other strange vortex (Hibbing is also, weirdly, at the epicenter of climate change), the town boasts an unusual number of writers, some of them culture-changers like Dylan. (And this is not to mention that Greyhound Bus Lines, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, and Gus Hall — all Hibbing originals.)
The uncle of one of the kids I sat next to in Earth Sciences in junior high was Vincent Bugliosi, the Charlie Manson case prosecutor and the author of the best-seller about the case, Helter Skelter. Bethany McLean has the distinction of being the person who broke the Enron scandal; she wrote about first in Fortune magazine, and then in the best-selling Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which was made into a movie of the same name. Rick Novak, M.D., is the author of a medical thriller set in Hibbing that references the newest Nobel Laureate: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Frank Riley, author of various science fiction novels, won a Hugo Award for They’d Rather Be Right, which he co-wrote with Mark Clifton — apparently this was only the second time the Hugo was awarded to a novel.
Who will come out of Hibbing next?
A little more than 10 years ago a couple of Wall Street Journal reporters got together to write about the calamitous rise and fall of RJR Nabisco, an episode that would epitomize the back room shenanigans of a decade of junk bonds and hostile takeovers. They ended up with fantastic book called Barbarians at the Gate, which was later made into a decent HBO movie of the same title. The book is a thrilling account of cutthroat billion dollar deals, and gross misappropriation of funds, like when the CEO has the company plane pick up his dog to keep him company at a golf tournament. Now, after barely a pause it seems, there are again dozens of stories of greed to be told, starting of course with the biggest one of all, Enron. Once again two Wall Street Journal reporters have used their singular knowledge and access to tell the story of the bust that has come to define the boom that preceded it. Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller are the reporters who originally broke the story, and their book 24 Days, is as much about the collapse of Enron as it is about the investigative journalism that uncovered this massive fraud.On the way to work I caught the tail end of an interview with Richard Polsky. He was talking about how tremendously juvenile the world of high end modern art collectors, gallery owners, and artists can be. He was illustrating the point with a story about how a food fight erupted at a gallery, and an extremely expensive Ed Ruscha painting was marred by a grease stain from a thrown chicken wing. He describes this and the many other antics he encountered on his quest to purchase his first piece of modern art in his book I Bought Andy Warhol, which is, from everything I’ve heard, a tremendously funny jab at the inner circle of modern art.I read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware about two months ago, and it continues to infect my brain as few other books have. Reading the book felt like a view into the psyche of writer and artist and character, a comic more real than a dream yet somehow just slightly less real than life. I was delighted to see that Chronicle Books that will allow me to further delve into the world of Jimmy Corrigan. Acme Novelty Datebook is the collected sketches of Ware from when he was writing Jimmy Corrigan. There are many things packed onto the pages: sketches for Jimmy Corrigan, great little sight gags and five or six panel comics that lead into a pleasant oblivion, and a lot of stuff that seemingly comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere, but is fascinating to look at. The book is beautiful. I can’t wait to spend more time with it.Three Pt. 2 (Advice for Those Abroad)My buddy Cem is trying to figure out what to do next. He’s currently in northwestern Thailand near the border with Burma. Help me help him decide what to do. Here are his three options:1. Stay in town and teach English to Burmese Refugees. Commitment: 2 months2. Move to the border town of Mae Sot and work with 10 young guys who live in a shack in the woods and produce an anti government magazine that they circulate in the refugee camps, internationally, and in Burma. Also teach english to Shan and Wa and Karen exile youth part time. Commitment: 3 months3. Pack up and head into Burma itself for 3 weeks doing major research for a big article, also purchasegood to sell at home (laquerware, etc). Record everything in Arabic script. Work on article and get published via NY contacts. Leave for Cairo or the beach when I get back.(I’m leaning towards option three by the way)
Why is it that so many people are turned off by the classics? Is it because would-be readers are afraid they won’t “get it?” Or does reading a well-known tome on the subway or in a cafe exude an air of pretentiousness, when it’s more likely that the reader just never followed through on that English lit assignment?In talking about his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Michael Dirda, said he not only hopes to make the classics appear less daunting and more accessible to the general public, but he also wants to “encourage people to read more widely.”Dirda, a columnist for The Washington Post’s Book World, said his goal is to get people to “read beyond the recognized classics and read beyond the contemporary.” He made his remarks Tuesday during a lecture, co-sponsored by the English-Speaking Union, at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C.Classics for Pleasure consists of about 90 essays, written by Dirda, that describe the importance of lesser-known authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Abolqasem Ferdowsi as well as literary giants like Henry James and Christopher Marlowe.Each essay, ranging from two to five pages, serves as a primer on the era and author, with excerpts from famous works. They also offer some much-needed perspective, even for the seasoned reader, and are grouped together with topical headings such as Realms of Adventure, The Dark Side and Love’s Mysteries.But why should these classics, or any others for that matter, deserve a kind of sacred reverence?”Truly distinctive voices, once heard, ought never to be forgotten,” Dirda writes. “More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions.”From Dirda’s point of view, some of those failings and confusions are commonplace on the Web, perpetrated by those who dabble in his trade. He said that while “blogs and the online bookish universe are a wonderful thing… there are no oversights for the most part,” meaning no editorial review like the kind he gets from The Washington Post.He went on to say that some online book critics have a tendency to make a name for themselves by writing “vulgar, rude, outrageous” reviews, and such pieces should not be the standard for literary criticism.While that eventuality seems unlikely, Dirda’s nonetheless uses the book to re-establish his high bar for criticism while drawing in readers to “discover” the classics of yesteryear. One is certainly easier to achieve than the other.See Also: Classifying Classics; Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader; Literature and History
Michael Chabon’s official Web site doesn’t get much attention from the author. He’ll post longer items from time to time as well as the occasional cryptic note about the various projects he’s working on. Chabon has now, however, decided to pack it in with this Web site business:Lately I have been suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury that makes typing a chore and clicking an agony. As I have been spending less time online I have found that I’ve lost interest in the web as a whole, and in my site in particular. I’m tired of having to maintain www.michaelchabon.com, but I hate that it gets stale, and so quickly. Yet I don’t feel comfortable with or have any interest in getting somebody else to do it for me. So I’ve decided, not without regret, to take it down, a little at a time, starting with the posting of my monthly Details column.On the other hand, Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union will be arriving in May.
At The Morning News, Robert Birnbaum interviews Jonathan Safran Foer. In his email announcing the interview, Birnbaum tries to elevate the current level of discourse surrounding Foer, who seems to have a target painted on his back these days: First, a word about what you will not read here – no reference to Steve Almond’s kvetchy and disingenuous hand wringing about Jon Foer’s new novel (at MobyLives.com)or the exponentially vile and bombastic heaving by Harry Siegal about the same at the loathsome and vile NYC weekly that produces journalistic marvels such as “50 Loathsome New Yorkers” and includes novelists on that hit list.The interview is long, and once again portrays Foer as thoughtful and unwilling to respond to criticism or praise, preferring to concentrate on just the reader and the writer:Foer: Really good books are books that have two authors, the reader and the writer. Or maybe the idea of an author is actually just a combination of two people, the reader and the writer? So when writing you use the word “tree.” Four letters. Very, very short word. Fits a couple millimeters on a page. But in the reader’s mind it becomes a kind of idealized version of a tree, and that tree is different for each person who reads the book and because of that a book is customized for each person in a way a song never could be and as a painting never could be.
Last week I posted about the Gather.com contest to get into Amazon Shorts, and yesterday I got a note about another opportunity for writers that sounds interesting. This one is from the very cool online literary magazine Narrative:For any of you who may have overlooked the Editors’ Note in our most recent issue, we’re writing to let you know that we are looking for short short stories. In conjunction with Robert Shapard and James Thomas, who edit the popular anthologies Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction, we’re planning a feature in Narrative to coincide with the publication of New Sudden Fiction, which will be forthcoming from Norton in January 2007. Our feature will present a collection of short short stories by both well-known and newer writers, and we’re inviting submissions of stories that run between seven hundred and fifty and two thousand words, or no less than three and no more than five pages in manuscript length.Concurrently, Narrative is also seeking book-length manuscripts for serialization in the magazine. The details are available on their Submission Guidelines page (You’ll need to register before you can see this page).There’s also a catch – isn’t there always? – Narrative charges a reading fee: $5 for the short shorts and $30 for book-length works. Not being particularly well-versed in the world of literary magazines, I don’t know how prevalent such fees are (feel free to enlighten me on this one), but for what it’s worth, my understanding is that Narrative uses such fees to pay contributors, fund a prize, and make the magazine free for all.
I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah’s Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah’s name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah’s new focus on classic literature was having on America’s reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah’s club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight “book of the year” titles for the Harry Potter Series.)