I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)
As anyone with a Gmail account knows, to send or receive an e-mail through Google's electronic mail service is to have the impression that someone else is reading your mail. Mention the military in an e-mail - even disparagingly - and you will see, in the sidebar, beside the composition window, an ad for GoArmy.com. Mention Premier League football and you'll get links to a panoply of stores selling Newcastle and Arsenal jerseys. This feeling of being watched and plied with goods and services that someone or something thinks you are likely to desire is rather odd at first (perhaps even creepy in a post-Patriot Act era). But it abates. You become a jaded "old boy" and don't even notice the sidebar ads attempting to draw you in by 'reading' your missives. (Except, perhaps, for the odd time when, in writing to a student about plagiarism, the Google sidebar offers you a variety of online warehouses apparently chock-full of the same sort of stolen merchandise you are attempting to rail against.)At least until recently. A few weeks ago I began sending myself pieces of my dissertation as a means of backing them up. The sidebar's offerings were unremarkable for several weeks (so unremarkable that I do not remember them and so cannot share them with you so that you too might remark on their unremarkableness).But this past weekend, something changed. As before, I attached the chapter, a Word document named Chapter 2, and wrote "Charke" in the subject line. ("Charke" refers to Charlotte Charke, a notoriously outlandish eighteenth-century actress famous for cross-dressing on and off the stage, whose autobiography is the subject of my chapter.) I pressed send. And suddenly my sidebar was INNUNDATED WITH ALPACAS: "How to get free Alpacas," "Alpacas for fun & profit," "Are Alpacas profitable?," "Enjoy an alpaca lifestyle!"In that moment (a moment that has been repeated now several times - every time, in fact, that I send the Charke chapter to myself again), my whole concept of Gmail changed. I believe that Gmail is trying to tell me something about my future, and that future involves alpacas. What that future seems not to involve is recuperative literary analyses of neglected autobiographies by marginal eighteenth-century actresses.In that moment, I realized that the Gmail sidebar might be much more than we all thought it was. It might, in fact, be just the thing to fill those gaping holes in our post-modern psyches. Like the oracle at Delphi, haruspication, and all of the other delightful methods of divination devised by the Greeks, bibliomancy in the Renaissance and 18th century (aka "Bible dipping" for those of you familiar with Running With Scissors), seances in the 19th, and the Magic 8 Ball in the eighties and nineties, (not to mention tea leaves, crystal balls, Jim's hairball in Huckleberry Finn...), the Gmail sidebar might just be the medium - I mean the clairvoyant medium - of our age. And it's so much tidier than haruspication.I've got alpacas (free alpacas no less!), how bout you?
A few days ago, during my weekly visit to the comic book store, I stopped at the dense graphic-novel shelves, tyrannized by choice. Before me sat row upon row of the laughably misleading (The Essential Dazzler), the highly unnecessary (ElfQuest: Volume 14), and the already-read (Essex County). After a minute of unfocused browsing, I arrived at a chunk of Punishers. Thanks to a 2009 alt-weekly story, I’d recalled that The Punisher’s Six Hours To Kill was set in Philadelphia, where I live. I picked it up and flipped on through, remembering why I hadn’t read The Punisher since I was 13: it was really kind of dumb. Still, I’d come closer to buying the book than I reasonably should have—and the only reason for that was its setting. Eighteen years had passed since I’d given Frank Castle any thought—eighteen years in which he’d killed his way through Queens, Detroit, and Nome. Yet all it had taken to rekindle my interest was for him to hop in his van and roar down the Turnpike. Had I read Six Hours To Kill, I might’ve recognized a street, a park, or a building—and that would’ve drawn me in. Whether in comics, films, or novels, this verisimilitude is a gift—recognition that you actually exist. In 1995, Steve Lopez debuted with Third and Indiana, named after an intersection in Philly’s crumbling Badlands. The book was mediocre—its villain was a cartoon, its heroes whimpering saints—but its street details were compelling. “An old man with a white mustache and a newsboy hat cooked ribs and chicken on the sidewalk in a barbecue fashioned from a black metal drum.” “Kensington Avenue… sat in eternal darkness and gloom under the El, and the tracks were supported by an archway of rusted iron crablegs, a symbol of the city’s industrial death.” In Pete Dexter’s Brotherly Love, gangsters and union guys battle it out on similarly gritty streets: “Michael sees them too late, one on the sidewalk, one on the street. He takes the pistol out of his coat pocket, beginning to run, and shoots four times, blowing out the front window of a poultry store kitty-corner in the Italian Market.” I live two blocks from the Market, and when I walk through with my wife, I’ll point towards Ninth and Catherine. “In Brotherly Love, there was a shootout right over there,” I’ll say. My hope, perhaps, is that she’ll find me somehow tougher—after all, I witnessed a goddamn shooting. Instead, she’ll ask, “Wait—this was in a book? So it didn’t actually… happen?” “No, not really,” I’ll mumble. But… I could’ve sworn… Such split thinking speaks, of course, to the vitality of narrative, to how it tricks us towards belief. But unlike camping with the Joads or mourning poor Piggy, reading about one’s hometown doesn’t transport so much as extend, enlarging our maps with each page. I’ve spent time in nearby Germantown thanks to David Goodis’ Black Friday: “He was very careful about it as he walked along Morton Street, watching the doors, the porch posts, the brick walls underneath the porch.” When Point Breeze makes the paper, I’ve been there through The Corrections: “Friable houses with bedsheet curtains. Expanses of fresh asphalt that seemed to seal the neighborhood’s fate more than promise renewal.” Until I wrote this piece, I hadn’t seen the thread that runs through my Philly reading: I focus on areas that I’d otherwise never enter; on things I’d rather not see. Like a Baltimorean watching The Wire, I experience the nearby underbelly without having to actually experience it. This might make me an earnest investigator or an entitled cultural sightseer; probably a mixture of both. But whatever my motive, I’m not nearly as interested in the places I already know. Were there a Philadelphia novel about a Bella Vista freelancer, I’d probably have to skip it. I spend enough time with myself. In a recent issue of Superman, The Man of Steel began a cross-country walk in West Philadelphia. As with The Punisher, his visit made the news—but this time, much of it harped on errors. For one, Superman trekked through “The South Side”—a term used in Chicago, but never Philadelphia. And at a diner, he ordered a “Philly cheese steak sandwich,” as natural-sounding as a Bulgarian weekender. Such details, while seemingly petty, are crucial to hometown readers. We might be too busy, or nervous, or lazy to go out and explore what surrounds us—but if you’re the author, by God, you’d better get it right. Because we’ll take your stories as journalism; they’ll shape our thoughts for years. We may or may not be tourists, but you are surely our guide. (Image: west philly, from lisacee's photostream)
We learned recently that Jonthan Franzen's long-awaited follow-up to The Corrections, a new novel called Freedom, will arrive at the end of August. Now we have a cover too. Franzen's name looms appropriately large on the cover (in a font that recalls Ed Ruscha [edit: or Wayne White]), as does what appears to be a variety of blue jay a Cerulean Warbler. All of this is set atop a lake scene at sunset, the evergreen trees in the background suggesting northern latitudes. As we noted in our 2010 book preview: "The excerpt from the novel that appeared last year [in The New Yorker] was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our 'Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel.'"
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Recently I got a very interesting email from a reader. Frank Kovarik writes and teaches English in St. Louis. For the last five years, he has also been keeping meticulous track of the fiction that appears in the New Yorker. Not just the titles and authors, but things like gender, country of origin, and frequency of appearance.Frank has generously offered to make his spreadsheet available to download in Excel format. If you're interested, you can get it here.Having this data allows us to dig deeper into the proclivities of New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and whoever else has a hand in what fiction appears in the magazine's hallowed pages.Gender: From the database we learn that, of the 257 stories in the New Yorker from 2003 through 2007, 96 or 37.4% were penned by women.Nationality: Americans account for a fairly substantial portion of the stories that appear in the New Yorker, 134 of them, or 52% (and this leaves off several writers who could be conceivably classified as both American and a native of another country). Coming in tied for second are the Brits and the Irish at 18 stories apiece.Frequency: Much of that Irish total comes from master of the short story form, William Trevor, who readers were most likely to find if they flipped through an issue these last five years. Trevor was there on nine occasions. Including, an issue that included three separate but linked stories, Canada's Alice Munro comes in second with eight stories. 12 other writers have appeared at least five times over the last five years, meaning that 14 writers have accounted for 32% of the fiction in the magazine during that period.9 stories:William Trevor8 stories:Alice Munro7 stories:Tessa HadleyHaruki Murakami6 stories:Thomas McGuane5 stories:T. Coraghessan BoyleRoddy DoyleLouise ErdrichLara VapnyarJohn UpdikeGeorge SaundersEdward P. JonesCharles D'AmbrosioAntonya NelsonIf anybody else draws interesting conclusions from the spreadsheet, we'd love to hear about them.
This week is turning out to be a mini-family reunion for me. My parents and two of my brothers are in town as are some aunts and uncles and cousins. Yesterday evening at a family barbecue near Venice Beach I fell into a conversation with my aunt and uncle about the reading habits of my young cousin, Tim, who is 10. He's a very precocious reader and has finished off nearly all of the highly recommended children's series that are out there right now: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and Brian Jacques' Redwall Series (I recommended Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy since he hasn't gotten to that yet.) The thing is, there's a limited amount of high quality young adult fiction out there, so what do you do if your kid has read it all? Since I started working at the bookstore I have occasionally been posed this question by parents. It's actually a crucial moment in the life of a young a reader, the point where they could very easily lose some interest reading because they have read all the kids' books and aren't allowed to read adult books. What folks sometimes forget is that there are quite a few books that, though they are shelved in the adult fiction section, are perfect books to help segue strong, young readers into the wider world that lies beyond the young adult section. Some people call these books classics, but they are perfect for challenging kids and keeping them interested in reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, to name just a few. I would also recommend that these children read the books in their original forms, not the abridged versions. I remember reading abridged versions of various classics when I was younger, and I think lots of other folks do as well, but looking back it just doesn't seem necessary. In fact, as an eleven or twelve year old, I learned a lot of complex things about the world around me from the books I read, and these important details, the harsh language in Huck Finn, for example, seem to be just the things that are excised in order to create the kid friendly versions. We challenge kids in many aspects of their lives, why not challenge them to explore the big questions that arise from reading the classics. I hope that the children's book industry continues to move in this direction, and a lot of the intelligent and challenging kids' books that are out there indicate that it will. On the other hand, my friend Edan pointed out to me the other day the upcoming release of a "Student Edition" of Yann Martel's international bestseller Life of Pi, from which, one can assume, the editors have removed anything that might distress, and therefore challenge, a young reader. Here's hoping that this doesn't kick off a new trend.
I'm hearing from reliable sources that Bunker 13 by Aniruddha Bahal is a wild thriller with an ending that is not to be believed. It takes place at the India / Pakistan border in the disputed region of Kahmir, so it also includes a good dose of the wider world for folks who are into that sort of thing. Also, Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, stopped in today and as he was signing his book, he mentioned that he will spend the next few months writing his sophomore effort in Italy. It is tentatively titled Absurdistan. Sounds interesting.... First took notice of Shteyngart in the New Yorker (he has contributed fiction and essays), and his book was very well recieved. He also has a great author photo, which I unfortunately can't find on the web anywhere.
but I hope you don't mind if I post about a couple of things that pertain to, well, me. The first is a fantastic and fantastic looking publication called Two Letters, which contains some very worthwhile writing and art, and for which I was the literary editor. I worked on this when I lived in Los Angeles. The selection process for the art and writing ended just before I moved to Chicago, so I wasn't involved in the production of the book. I had no idea what it would look like until it showed up at my doorstep a couple of weeks ago. It looks terrific - great art and a very distinctive layout. All the writing is illustrated with subtle but expressive line drawings. I am also very happy with the writers I helped select (two of them, Cem and Alexa happen to be bloggers). If you want to pick up a copy visit the website, or, if you are in LA, please consider attending the release party at the venerable Book Soup in West Hollywood. It's on Wednesday, January 26th at 7pm. It will be fun, and I would attend if I could.In other news about me: You may have noticed from my bio on the right that I'm currently a graduate student in the Medill school of Journalism at Northwestern, and today I reached a milestone that I felt I should share (because what else is a blog for, if not for moments like this.) Today, I got my very first byline in a daily newspaper, the Daily Herald. It's a 100,000+ circulation paper that serves the suburbs of Chicago. The story isn't about books. Since I'm studying business writing this quarter, it's a business story. You'll be happy to hear that I was able, if only just barely, to keep myself from nudging the news stand guy and saying, "I'm in this," when I bought the paper today.