From the book I’m reading right now: “The black serpent of stung vanity had sucked all night at his heart.”
Reuters reported today that The New York Sun is in financial trouble, and may be forced to close shop before the end of the month, unless it can find a backer. In some ways, this isn’t a surprising development. Global affairs, in the current, real-time sense of the term, require enormous resources to cover thoroughly, and economies of scale would seem to cut against a small-circulation newspaper. But the intellectual seriousness of the conservative-leaning Sun has helped it make inroads in an increasingly wide-open market: the book section.Under the editorship of the poet and critic Adam Kirsch (who has two books out this year), The Sun has become, for my money, the best newspaper book section in the country. Kirsch resembles James Wood in his donnish regard for literary tradition, but, more importantly, he shares with Wood an appreciation for the notion of writerly sensibility – and has been willing to assign books to writers whose well-honed sensibilities diverge from his own. Recent pleasures include Kirsch on canonical German Adalbert Stifter, Benjamin Lytal on contemporary master Marilynne Robinson, Otto Pinzler on the varieties of crime fiction, and Caleb Crain on the evolving English language. This breadth of interest and commitment to excellence (in reviewer and subject) are the key ingredients in the kind of book reviews worth reading. It would be sad, after such a promising start, to see The Sun go.[Correction: An attentive reader informs us that, although Adam Kirsch is “the book critic for The New York Sun“, and is, in some sense, the book section, he is not the section’s editor. That title, and presumably the role of assigning reviews, belongs to David Wallace-Wells.]
I’m going to digress from the book talk here, if I may. I’ve been blogging for a couple of years now, and I really enjoy it. I post when I feel like it, I write about books, and a handful of people visit every day. Discussions ensue; it’s all very fun. But when I see folks blogging in Iraq and other dangerous locales, I wonder if I would join the fray in a situation where blogging is more than a diversion or a hobby – where blogging is an act of courage or defiance.Lately, I’ve been following the situation in Nepal. The king has dissolved the government and basically shut down the press. I was curious to see if any blogs in Nepal are defying the press ban, and I found this one: a group blog called United We Blog! The most recent post from the blog’s administrator concludes with this warning, “Do Not Blog About Political Matters for the time being,” but a previous post puts it this way, “Because of my basic human rights, like right to express, speak and writing, are suspended and I am in no position to express my feeling or opinion regarding the royal takeover. Here in Nepal, press freedom is being curtailed and, according to the government, our website can’t report on political issues.”He also says this about the ban: “For the first time in my life, I knew the importance of this site, a place to express myself, ourself… A great forum to share ideas.”Part of me wants to write to these guys to let them know that their words, despite the censorship, are reaching us, but at the same time, I would not want to encourage them to put themselves in danger by communicating with us. I think, perhaps, the larger point I’m trying to make is that – thanks to blogs – we can now peer behind walls of censorship to see the people oppressed by it. If anyone else stumbles onto any more Nepalese blogs, please let us know.
T.C. Boyle’s new book, The Inner Circle is out and the reviews are starting to appear. Here’s one from Newsday. There’s also an excerpt available at Boyle’s newly redesigned website.Michiko Kakutani likes the Gish Jen novel The Love Wife. Here’s an excerpt so you can see what all the fuss is about.And to continue from my last post about Art Spiegelman, The Village Voice also published a review of his new book. Also mentioned in that review is New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s new book, Up from Zero, about deciding the fate of Ground Zero. Here’s an excerpt from the book.
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.
Using Amazon.com bestseller rankings as his data set, a physicist at UCLA, Didier Sornette, and his coauthors have just completed a study to investigate which phenomena lie behind the creation of best-selling books. While Sornette acknowledges that a big sales spike occurs after a book receives a prominent review or a mention on television, “the slower peaks tend to generate more sales over time.” He finds that word of mouth is — scientifically — the best way to sell books. Or, to put it another way, it appears as though the laws of physics decree that creative marketing will win out over the more aggressive variety. Here’s the abstract for the original study with all its scientific mumbo-jumbo.A Baseball Book MiracleAs Janet Maslin notes in her review of Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan couldn’t have picked a better year than this one to write a fan’s-eye-view book about their beloved Boston Red Sox. Maslin likes the book and I’m not surprised; passion for the subject matter often leads to inspired and entertaining writing.
On Wednesday, the Aloud Series at the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles hosted writers Antonya Nelson and Marisa Silver in conversation with Bernadette Murphy. The topic was “The Domestic Drama: Novel Form or Formula?” and, after short readings by Nelson and Silver, the conversation began. Why are we, as American writers, so preoccupied with familial dysfunction?Antonya Nelson called our fascination with stories about family a quintessentially American preoccupation. Family, she said, “is where a lot of our personal battles are lodged,” but that those battles, no matter how small and personal, are also political. Marisa Silver agreed. Silver also argued that stories about family provide a “dramatic rubric”; that is, narratives of family are imbued with desire, conflict, and even, say, an enemy. Later on in the talk, Bernadette Murphy mentioned a lecture at Antioch University given by Dorothy Allison, where Allison argued that all good literature has home at its center. Nelson agreed, saying that family is our most powerful institution, and that the home is the most powerful setting for it. She discussed her most recent novel, Living to Tell, in which her main character, after paying his dues to society (in prison), must return to his family to pay an entirely different penance – and perhaps a more meaningful one. (This discussion of home reminded me of Alice Munro, who has described her short fiction – and I’m paraphrasing my former teacher and friend Dan Chaon – as a house with many rooms one can wander in and out of, and not in any particular order. I’ve always loved that.)Although the conversation was enjoyable, the three writers also bandied about the usual platitudes about how reading allows us to see the world better, that it expands our capacity for empathy, and helps us to understand our own lives. I agree, but we’ve heard such slogans before. Instead, since all three guests were women, I hoped they might discuss the role of the female writer in depicting the home and family. Not that male writers haven’t taken up these topics – they certainly have – but, I wondered, are our perspectives on “the domestic” gendered ones? I’m reminded of a Virginia Woolf quote from A Room of One’s Own, wherein she says, “…the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so.” (Really, Virginia, naturally?) Traditionally, women writers have gone indoors, so to speak, to tell their stories, and to explore what matters to them. What about now? How are women writers redefining (or maintaining) notions of family, home, motherhood, and so on? (I know, I know: I should have raised my hand during the q&a.)Other highlights of the night included Silver’s discussion of the mythologies our families create for us, those roles we are given to play and/or reject. I also liked her description of writing as a “limbo between waking and dreaming.” Antonya Nelson’s reading impressed me deeply; I love her work. She read from the first pages of “Nothing Right,” the title story in her new collection. Check out this passage:He was her second son, and he’d never been the one she understood best. Recently, she’d found herself disgusted by him: She didn’t want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils with her own boy. His brother, who’d passed through adolescence sobbing instead of shouting, had not prepared her for Leo. The pure ugliness of a more traditonal male’s tranformation to manhood – the inflamed skin and foul odor, the black scowl, the malice in every move – might eventually convince a parent to dispair, to say to that child, “You are dead to me.” Because it would be easier–more decorous, acceptable – to mourn the loss than to keep waging a hopeless battle.Nelson also told an amazing story about a baby-thieving nurse, and described her impulse to write as the desire to “investigate a situation,” and to get at “what the police blotter can only allude to.” She said, near the end of the talk, that, for her, writing is “a way of getting to the bottom of mystery.”The discussion meandered naturally, from references to Marilynne Robinson to Peter Taylor to the world famous Octomom. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Wednesday evening…
Here are some more books coming our wayBack when I worked at the bookstore, Elizabeth Crane’s When the Messenger is Hot was one of the books my coworkers liked to evangelize about. Read “The Daves” and you’ll see why. Crane has a new collection of stories coming out in a couple of weeks called All This Heavenly Glory. Here’s one of the stories from the new collection, an amusing take on the personal ad which becomes much more impressive when you realize that the whole long piece is one sentence (unless you think using semi-colons is cheating). Three other reasons to like Elizabeth Crane: She lives in Chicago, the city I currently call home. She was interviewed in Tap: Chicago’s Bar Journal. She has a charming, unassuming blog called – for reasons I cannot discern – standby_bert.You may recognize the name Achmat Dangor because his novel of apartheid and its aftermath, Bitter Fruit, was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 2004. Although the South African novelist missed out on any Booker boost his novel might have received here in the States, the book, which hits shelves soon, will likely garner some prominent reviews. In the meantime, here’s an interesting piece by Dangor about South African literature from the Guardian, and here’s a brief excerpt from Bitter Fruit.Alicia Erian’s debut collection of stories from 2001, The Brutal Language of Love was described as “seductive, erotic, smart and tartly humorous” by Publishers Weekly. Now Erian is returning with her first novel, Towelhead, a contemporary coming-of-age story about a half-Lebanese girl who moves to Texas to live with her strict father. The novel’s title comes from the epithet she hears from other residents of her less than enlightened suburb near Houston. A long – and very compelling – excerpt of the book is available here. And for a different taste of Erian’s writing, try this story from 2000 in the Barcelona Review.In 2002’s Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, Marc Estrin conjured up a second life for Kafka’s transmogrified protagonist. In his new novel, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Estrin wonders: what’s in a name? Saddled with an unfortunate surname, Arnold is at the mercy of preconceived notions and receives the attention of many unsavory characters. A brief excerpt is available here. Estrin also has a blog that is in its infancy.Look for more upcoming books in this space over the next few days.