I attended a book reading and signing by Pete Dexter on Thursday night. It was a very entertaining evening. Dexter is an old newspaper guy from Philadelphia and he had a ton of great stories. One was about a guy he knew who would always invite people to punch him in the stomach. By flexing his powerful stomach muscles he was able to stop the puncher’s fist cold. Not the most impressive trick, but good for a few laughs. Well, all was going fine until one day he invited the then unknown Sonny Liston to slug him in the gut and was promptly sent flying across the room. Dexter had several stories like this which kept people in stitches. He also read from the beginning of his latest book, Train, which is very good by the way. I had him sign a copy of his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout, and while I was standing there I asked him which of his books he thought I should read next. He recommended both Deadwood and Brotherly Love. I’ll have to look for those.
Michael J. Arlen’s 1958 humor piece “Are we losing the novel race?” (which can be found in the New Yorker’s anthology of humor writing) starts out thusly: “As if things weren’t bad enough already, word has just reached me that the Russians have recently published a 1,600 page novel.” The amusing little piece, published at the height of Cold War hysteria, spoofs both the nation’s fear of an impending nuclear war and the literary world’s longtime obsession with heft. The Cold War is over now, but people are still fascinated by really big books.The latest really big book is a 1,360 page debut novel called Hunger’s Brides: A Novel of the Baroque by a Canadian named Paul Anderson. An article in the NY Times – which includes this quote from Anderson’s publisher: “I told him, ‘You can’t not go there.’ And that’s how it got longer.” – is dutifully descriptive on the subject of the book’s size: “It weighs 4 pounds, 9 ounces, equivalent to two and a half copies of The Da Vinci Code, and it is thicker than Verizon’s Manhattan telephone directory (either the white or yellow pages).” Luckily, the author seems to have a sense of humor about having published such a, shall we say, weighty book: his official Web site includes a slideshow of “safe reading positions”. And if you’re really curious, there are several excerpts up as well.
It’s as though the New York Times was using this blog to decide what to write articles about: check out this review of Joseph Roth’s newly released collection of essays, Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939.
The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani shows her extreme distaste for E. L. Doctorow’s new collection, Sweet Land Stories, as well as movies based on Doctorow’s books. (LINK) “Several of E. L. Doctorow’s novels – Ragtime, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel and Billy Bathgate – have been turned into plodding, overproduced movies. Here, in his latest collection of short fiction, “Sweet Land Stories,” he seems to be trying to turn old movie ideas into stories with equally little success at recycling,” Kakutani says. I personally enjoyed both of the stories from this collection that originally appeared in the New Yorker, “A House on the Plains” and “Jolene: A Life,” so I will probably get some more opinions on this one before I declare it a dud.A New LunchI noticed that Kevin over at LA Observed occasionally reports on publishing industry deals listed in something called “Publisher’s Lunch.” Intrigued, I used my book industry credentials to sign up for these weekly newsletters, and so now, from time to time, I will pass along to you publishing industry news that may be of interest to you. For example, Dave Eggers’ new collection of stories, entitled Visitants, will be published by McSweeney’s (of course) this fall, and J. Robert Lennon’s next book will be called Happyland and will be put out by Norton.
A while back, we diagnosed David Brooks‘ Bobo Shuffle; now it’s time to call The New York Times’ most pugnacious and prolific book reviewer on her patented move: The Kakutani Two-Step. It works roughly like this: belittle a novelist’s finest work to date – preferably by tossing around unsupported adjectives…say, “arbitrary,” “flimsy,” and “unfinished.” Then, five or six years later, when the novelist in question brings forth his next book, or the one after that, complain loudly about how lame it is compared to his previous masterwork, which, it is to be inferred, you adored. (Bonus points if you actually now call the previous book a “masterwork.” Double bonus points if you also work in the word “limn.”)
The Kakutani Two-Step depends on readers having short memories (or perhaps sagely avoiding Kakutani’s “Books of the Times” columns altogether) and so not noticing the cognitive dissonance. Only fans of the writers she caricatures (and, one imagines, the writers themselves) are likely to detect the sinister signature of the KTS. The latest victim is Jonathan Lethem, whose new Chronic City Kakutani calls “tedious [and] overstuffed”…and that’s just the first sentence of the review! “This fictional Manhattan,” she continues,
has none of the energy or keenly observed grittiness of the real-life Brooklyn that Mr. Lethem captured with such verve in his 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude.
But wait, wasn’t that “dazzling” novel “fundamentally flawed,” with
a series of unconvincing and weirdly forced passages that break the spell that Mr. Lethem has so assiduously created?
Not to mention a “contrived” and “melodramatic” ending?” And “many defects” in between? According to Kakutani, circa 2003, it was. Your takeaway from the Fortress of Solitude review: flawed, uneven, defective. Your takeaway from the Chronic City review: Michiko misses the “vividly . . . movingly” dazzling Fortress of Solitude.
To be sure, it’s possible to square the two Lethem reviews, if you’re enough of a Kakutani exegete to infer that her kneejerk distaste, in each case, is for Lethem’s forays into genre-bending. But all the casual reader will notice is the invidious comparison between the two books, the sudden vanishing of any her earlier reservations, like a magician’s cloth being whisked away to reveal a tiny, perfect turd.
I’m too tired right now to track down other instances of the KTS, but you don’t have to look hard to find them; you might start by Googling David Foster Wallace (and if you think of more, why not leave them in the comment thread?) To be sure, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. It may also be true that Michiko’s judgment works on the time-release principle of certain antacids…that hindsight makes the heart grow fonder. But, even in these lean days for newspapers, the Times presumably employs fact-checkers who could easily catch La Kakutani’s self-misrepresentation. One thing is clear: she can’t be bothered to check herself.