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.
This week at the LBC blog, we’ll be discussing my nominee for this round of books, All This Heavenly Glory by Elizabeth Crane. Ed has done a very entertaining podcast with Crane, and I can be heard at the beginning introducing the book (Ed decided to portray me as some sort of bionic man. I’m not sure I get the reference, but I like it!). Also up is a dialog about the book, featuring me and Kassia (of Booksquare). Tomorrow the dialog will continue with help from Sam (of Golden Rule Jones).
Following the lead of powerhouses Bookforum and The New York Review, the interdisciplinary magazine BOMB appears to be in the middle of a major project to make a lot of its content available free, online. This should be a boon to highbrow bibliophiles. For years, BOMB‘s author interviews have offered deep perspective on the state of the art, while its monthly publication schedule has indemnified it against the faddishness that characterizes so much cultural coverage. Visitors to the new version of www.bombsite.com can browse interviews with the likes of Peter Nadas and Roberto Bolano (archived from 2001)… as well as the current cover-story: a conversation with Kate Valk, my favorite actor in New York and “a national treasure.” Be sure also to peruse the BOMB’s excellent literary supplement, First Proof.
My favorite book critic, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, has put out his list of the year’s best books. He also takes the opportunity to make some comments about the National Book Awards controversy.My own view is that the literary judgment of the National Book Award panelists was clouded by their desire to Make a Statement (as, for that matter, was the judgment of their compatriots on the nonfiction panel), but it’s just my opinion and is worth no more than the paper it’s printed on, if that.He self-aware enough to note that books he has chosen are “by men, and mostly men of a certain age, which as it happens is an age pretty close to my own.” I’m not sure if the other litbloggers – who went to great lengths to defend the five NBA finalists – will jump on Yardley because he seems to say that the five women are not worthy, but my feeling is that he, at least, makes it clear that these choices are about opinions, and his opinion happens to differ from the opinions of the judges. Now, on to his book choices: An Unfinished Season by Ward Just, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (excerpt), Nothing Lost by John Gregory Dunne (excerpt), Roads of the Heart by Christopher Tilghman (excerpt), and Human Capital by Stephen Amidon (excerpt). Yardley also lists his non-fiction picks in the column.Also out: 100 Notable Books of the Year from the New York Times.
Recently two people who wouldn’t seem to have much in common—my 26-year-old brother and my one-year-old son—have both had me thinking about wonder and fear, and how their experiences of those two things are similar to each other’s, and different from my own.
My brother Ryan is traveling right now, halfway through a backpacking trip that will last through to the early summer. Before he left, he took a Saturday morning bus down to Philadelphia to say goodbye. I waited for him on the front stoop of my apartment building, with my son James perched on my hip. We spotted him when he was still a block away and even at a distance I could tell Ryan was grinning; as the youngest sibling in our family, he had always been the one left behind, but now it was his turn to skip away.
Each morning I wake early to the sound of James crying down the hall. Like my brother abroad, the world is a strange place to him and he’s often scared. I bring him into the bed where he nurses with my wife; then it’s up for breakfast and the official start of the day. I’ve lately become an expert with our toaster; the bread always comes out just right. I eat my cereal while James munches on his diced banana, sometimes smearing the fruit across the table, sometimes putting it into his mouth.
Over the last few weeks James has learned to “cruise,” that is to walk side-shuffle by holding onto the edge of a couch or by pressing himself against a wall. It was while watching him try to bridge the short gap between our bureau and our bed that I first thought about how his days are like my brother’s. The previous evening Ryan had sent an email about a harrowing bus ride he’d just taken into the Himalayan foothills north of Delhi. He said that when he’d looked out his window, there was a sheer thousand foot drop where the road was supposed to have been. I imagine James, if he had the words, would describe his days in much the same way.
In the afternoon James and I take a long walk. When I first moved to Philadelphia four years ago, I was running a lot and I liked the idea of trying never to follow the same route twice. Now James and I trace the same path everyday: 20 blocks east to the river on Pine, 20 blocks back west on Spruce. I like being able to anticipate the topography of the sidewalk, to steer the stroller around the same loose patch of bricks that I avoided yesterday, and to know by the cloud cover whether the children at the nursery school we pass along the way will be playing indoors or out.
Even amid such routine, I still have moments of wanderlust. Every now and again a whiff of burning trash will awaken the physical memory of being alone in La Paz when I was twenty. Or something about the way a woman pokes her head out of a third floor window will remind me of what it felt like to watch the sun go down in Darjeeling. I feel myself drawn towards the airport in such moments, but not in a serious way. There’s James to take care of, and my wife who’d be surprised if I didn’t come home. But more than that, I know that the exhilaration I felt when I woke up in Delhi for the first time isn’t open to me anymore. This is something that I think James, who no longer pays attention to a blue plastic flower he couldn’t get enough of a month ago, understands too.
Of the many misconceptions I had about what it would be like to grow older, two stand out above the rest. The first concerns freedom which I thought about in the same way I thought about candy: I couldn’t imagine how in both cases more was not always better. It would have been impossible to convince myself ten years ago that the small orbit of my current days would feel as satisfying as it does. This I think is the kind of knowledge that is hardest to communicate across generational lines, that in the future you won’t desire the same things you desire right now.
The second misconception is about fear. Watching James, and thinking about how we interact, it’s easy to see why as a child I assumed that the world would becomes less scary as I grew older. He is terrified of being left alone in his crib and I come take him out; a siren sounds outside, and he clings to my leg. His days are filled with at least equal parts wonder and fear, and from that perspective, it must seem as though I command the world.
But I don’t of course. Though my fears are less broadly distributed than they used to be, they are perhaps more deeply felt. I can go days and sometimes even whole weeks without feeling afraid of anything, but then in a moment at night I’ll understand that my wife and I are not promised to fall asleep beside each other forever, and that James, who cruises around the living room each morning, will have to learn the most important things in life on his own.
[Image credit: Abnel Gonzalez]
NY-based readers are invited to “Step Inside the Book” at a reading/party I’m doing this Friday with Alex Rose (The Musical Illusionist) and Alex Itin (Orson Whales). Alex will be working his narrative/surroundsound magic, Other Alex will be screening his multimedia books, and I’ll be showing art and reading fiction from A Field Guide to the North American Family. Drinks are on the house, I’m told, so if you’re free, stop by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space, at 125 Maiden Lane, between 7 and 9 p.m. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…
The WGA writers’ strike (should that all be capitalized? has it been trademarked yet?) has hit the economy of Los Angeles in a big way, hurting everybody from the top down. Some idiot actually predicted that the strike would be over by Christmas (D’oh!). Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and LA has really suffered. But will anyone actually benefit from the writers’ strike? It seems to me that Fox and the NFL might.With the Super Bowl looming this weekend, it would seem to me that Fox is in a position to demand record prices for its ad time, already the most expensive TV ad time of the year. Networks have been running reruns, game shows, and reality TV for the past three months, leaving TV advertisers with smaller and smaller audiences (or eyeballs, as they apparently say in the biz). The Super Bowl, already the launching pad for many national advertising campaigns, might be the only interesting programming on TV for some time, especially if the Academy Awards end up airing a watered-down version of its annual show (The Academy Awards are set to air on Sunday, February 24), as is planned unless the WGA and the studios reach an agreement by then. Couple this with the fact that there’s major national interest in the game, with the undefeated Patriots facing a team from the nation’s largest media market, the New York Giants. It has the makings of the proverbial perfect Super Bowl storm.On the subject of the writers’ strike, I recommend anyone interested in the history of screenwriting check out Marc Norman’s excellent book What Happens Next. His book provides terrific context for how the entertainment industry has dealt with previous technological changes (which, after all, is exactly what this strike is all about).
The title of this post is taken from a poem called “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg. The reference is to the men of the meat-packing industry, and the nickname came to represent the burly, blue-collar mentality of the place. At least, that’s what I’ve gathered so far. Mrs. Millions and I are more or less fully relocated in Chicago. We found an apartment and we’ll be moved in by the first of the month. The apartment is located in a neighborhood called Ravenswood. It sounds like something out of Edgar Allan Poe, no? We’ve been here about a week, and we’ve spent a lot of time driving around, looking for a place to live and getting to know the city. So far, it seems like a great place. Around every corner there seems to be a row of shops, cafes and restaurants, and driving by Wrigley when a game is on is remarkable. I can see that Chicago has its own very distinct identity, and being here makes me want to read some books that are about or set in the city. Some candidates: American Pharaoh by Adam Cohen, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Crossing California by Adam Langer, and The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek.
So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it’s good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn’t get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So…. where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like “he wondered what colour knickers she wore” and “I’m also very fond of this girl with a squint.” To be more precise, it wasn’t just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn’t fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent’s Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they’re just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante’s Ask the Dust. Nunez’s hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante’s Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I’d say it’s worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later….