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.
Canada's national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O'Neill's novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, "collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal's red-light district."Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy).This year's contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page's pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje's wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year's contest.In 2003, Bombardier's pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson's first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada's rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen's second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler's Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it's tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don't shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians - past and present - wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that this year's and last year's championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.
In the Province of Saints, a first novel by the Irish writer - and Iowa Writers' Workshop grad - Thomas O'Malley is being compared to Angela's Ashes. The subject here is a down-on-its-luck family in an Ireland of the late 70s and early 80s that was still ravaged by sectarian violence. PW says "his sentences have a judicious clarity even as they twist into gnarled shapes; they carry O'Malley's characters though their incomprehension with poise and assurance." Here's one excerpt and another. The book comes out in late August.Xue Xinran was a radio show host in China before she moved to England. Her first book, The Good Women of China collected the stories she heard from women who called in to her radio show. Xinran's first novel, Sky Burial, is fictionalized from a story she heard in her more recent journalistic endeavors. It's about a couple split up by the conflict in Tibet in the 1950s. Scott recently pointed to this review in the SF Chronicle, and PW says, "Woven through with fascinating details of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, Xinran's story portrays a poignant, beautiful attempt at reconciliation." The book is out this week. Here's an excerpt.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to see an amazing exhibit at UCLA's Hammer Museum. I first read about Lee Bontecou in the New Yorker a month or so ago. The article described a young woman artist who had been poised to become a household name, but instead quietly excused herself from the art world for a secluded life in rural Pennsylvania. Now, more than 30 years later she has been coaxed out of hiding for a retrospective that includes the work that first brought her notoriety as well as everything she's done since then, while working out of the spotlight. I had never heard her name mentioned in art history classes nor had I seen any of her work in New York galleries, yet the article made her work sound undeniably compelling. Having now seen these remarkable wall hangings, constructions, mobiles, and drawings in person, I can say quite frankly that I was truly amazed by her work. It is very difficult to describe Bontecou's work since it only obliquely relates to the work of other artists of her generation. The intricately fashioned constructions and mobiles are somehow simultaneously emotional and technical, intricate and organic. I implore everyone to see this retrospective. It is a remarkable event. Here's the deal: 10/5/03 to 1/11/04 at the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; 2/14/04 to 5/30/04 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and 7/30/04 to 9/27/04 MoMA QNS, New York. Abrams has put out a lovely companion volume for the retrospective. Also in art, yesterday at the bookstore I noticed a good-looking new book by the whimsical architectural illustrator, Matteo Pericoli. In 2001 Pericoli put out a book called Manhattan Unfurled, a hard bound fold out drawing of the Manhattan skyline as viewed from the perimeter of the island. In a simple yet playful continuous line drawing, the whole of the city is captured from viewpoints across the Hudson and East Rivers. His new book Manhattan Within is another hard bound fold out drawing, but this time it takes an insider's view of the city. In the same style as before, he draws the skyline of the city as seen from within the confines of Central Park. Both books include journals full of Pericoli's musings and observations as he trekked inside and outside of the city trying to capture its spirit with pen and paper. Taken together, the two books are a refreshingly new take on an old and much used subject. Visit Matteo Pericoli's website to see his work.
Philip Caputo's new book Acts of Faith is being favorably compared to The Quiet American. Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has traveled extensively in Africa, and this new novel is set in Sudan. According to PW, Caputo "presents a sharply observed, sweeping portrait, capturing the incestuous world of the aid groups, Sudan's multiethnic mix and the decayed milieu of Kenyan society." Though the novel has a timely, flashy, "ripped from the headlines" sound to it, Kakutani called it "devastating" before comparing it to the work of Robert Stone, V.S. Naipaul and Joan Didion. Scott noted Kakutani's "heady praise" a couple of weeks ago. And here's an excerpt from the book (which weighs in at 688 pages, by the way. Whoa!)Charles Chadwick wrote recently about being a first time novelist at the age of 72 (scroll down): "A first novel of 300,000 words by a 72-year-old sounds like someone trying to be funny. Acceptance by Faber and then by Harper Collins in the US - the recognition that all along one had been some good at it - took a lot of getting used to. Still does." The book, It's All Right Now, which also weighs in at 688 pages, oddly enough (not exactly light Summer reading, these books), was panned by Nick Greenslade in The Guardian. Greenslade suggests that its publishers were more enamored by the idea of a 72-year-old debut novelist than by the book itself. I'm curious to see what US reviewers say because the book doesn't sound all that bad to me.As I recall, Jonathan Coe's 2002 novel, The Rotters' Club, was well-received by my coworkers and customers at the bookstore. A sequel, The Closed Circle, comes out soon. Here's a positive review from The Independent and an excerpt. These are good times for Coe. His recently released biography of British writer B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant has been shortlisted for the $56,000 Samuel Johnson Prize.
While working on an essay, I found myself needing to use a word that meant “related to the study of proper names.” I knew exactly the word I wanted, because I’d just come across the same usage while re-reading David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In the essay on tennis player Michael Joyce, Wallace has this really cool throw-away paragraph about how the Association of Tennis Professionals’ weekly world rankings “constitute a nomological orgy that makes for truly first-rate bathroom reading.” He goes on to celebrate such names as Mahesh Bhupathi, Jonathan Venison, Cyris Suk (!), Leander Paes, Udo Riglewski, and Martin Zumpft -- and that’s just like a fifth of them. It truly is good reading. Except it isn’t “nomological.” That was the word I went looking for, but I found this definition of it instead: “relating to or denoting certain principles, such as laws of nature, that are neither logically necessary nor theoretically explicable, but are simply taken as true.” For instance, the idea that two parallel lines will run forever and never touch is nomological, at least within Euclidean geometry. But that really doesn’t sound like what Wallace was trying to say. It’s pretty clear he meant to say “the rankings constitute an [adjective related to the study of proper names] orgy.” A quick search indicated that the word Wallace was probably looking for was “onomastic,” which means “of or relating to the study of the history and origin of proper names.” Where Wallace probably went wrong was in confusing the Greek nomos, meaning “law,” with onoma, meaning “name.” Consider that a variation of onoma was onuma; the switch from omicron to upsilon -- the latter of which tends to enter English as a Y -- helps form the root “-nym,” as in “synonym,” “antonym,” and “homonym.” So the clause should read, “and the rankings constitute an onomastic orgy that makes for truly first-rate bathroom reading.” I guess we should all take comfort in the fact that a titan like Wallace could make a mistake like this. On the other hand, it’s a testament to the late master’s genius that any of us even care.
● ● ●
No wonder Odysseus had so much trouble finding his way home. It turns out that there is some dispute as to the actual historical location of Ithaca, where Penelope waited for her hero husband to return. As noted in a recent article in The Economist, in The Odyssey, "Homer's Ithaca 'lies low,' but its modern namesake is hilly. And though Odysseus's island is 'farthest to sea towards dusk,' today's Ithaca is close to the mainland in the east." This disparity hasn't gone unnoticed by historians and geographers over the years, but now, for the first time, investigations may provide clues as to the true location of Homer's Ithaca, as geologists using a subterranean scan determine if Kefalonia, to the west of present-day Ithaca, was once actually two islands, the westernmost of which would fit Homer's description. Locals are taking sides as Odysseus' home brings with it a lucrative tourist trade.
When I was in high school, I was quite enthralled by Edgar Allan Poe. I'd been familiar with his most famous stories from a young age (I remember being particularly haunted by "The Cask of Amontillado"), but in high school I had the opportunity, poked and prodded by teachers, to delve deeper into some of the lesser known (or perhaps just less famous) stories, as well as his essays. The assigned reading begat extracurricular reading, as it sometimes did for me, and in looking for more Poe, I came across the one novel he ever wrote, an appropriately peculiar book, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It turned out to be a bizarre maritime tale rich with allegory and supernatural elements, not to mention cannibalism and geographic oddities (with particular attention paid to the mysterious Antarctica).It's one of those books that stuck with me even though I don't remember all that much about it, but I hadn't thought about it for a while until Mrs. Millions asked me the other day if I'd ever heard of it. As it turns out, this is the book that Paul Theroux reads to Jorge Luis Borges in The Old Patagonian Express (as Mrs. Millions mentioned in writing about the book this week.)This juxtaposition led me to read up on the book at Wikipedia and elsewhere. I came away with a few nuggets: for example, I discovered that Jules Verne - in a fan fiction sort of turn - wrote a sequel to Pym called An Antarctic Mystery. Pym also inspired writers like H.P. Lovecraft, who drew from it in his book At the Mountains of Madness, Yann Martel, for his Booker-winning Life of Pi, and Rudy Rucker for The Hollow Earth. It also turns out that Borges once called Pym "Poe's greatest work." I think my copy is still tucked away at my parents house somewhere, so I'll have to dig it up at some point. In the meantime, the full text of the book is available online.
Here are some book reviews and book related stories that have caught my eye in recent days. In the New York Times Charles McGrath reviews a forward-thinking anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. The review is tepid, but McGrath takes the opportunity to give us an interesting little summary of the state of the American short story. Also from the Times, Michiko Kakutani delivers a review of Arthur Phillips latest, The Egyptologist. She makes the book sound pretty exciting, but in the end quibbles that it is not sufficiently weighty. Despite her reservations, The Egyptologist seems worth a look. I would imagine that it's great airplane reading.