I caught a few minutes of Fresh Air on NPR while I was out running a quick errand today. Terri Gross was interviewing David Denby, the New Yorker film critic who has a new book out. The book is called American Sucker and it is a memoir of the boom years. In 2000 Denby and his wife split, and he decided that he wanted to keep the Upper West Side apartment that had been their home for many years. In order to do this, Denby hatched a plan to buy out his wife’s share of the apartment. Lacking the funds to make the apartment his and cast adrift by the collapse of his marriage, Denby threw himself wholeheartedly into the mania of the stock market boom with the hopes that he, like so many others seemed to be doing, could hit it big. It would be the solution to all of his problems. A sort of addiction to his quest set in and American Sucker was the result. Today, Terri Gross, in her way, was trying to get him to relate his experience to some classic gambling films, Denby being a film critic and all. Denby, however, begged off and mentioned two interesting books that he feels are most analogous to the way he felt during his ordeal. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and a somewhat forgotten Victorian classic by Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, to Denby’s mind, best portray a sense of monetary desperation in the midst of a boom. I’m hoping that over the next few years there will be more books that look at the boom of the late nineties through a literary lens. It was a strange and fascinating time. Denby’s colleague at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has penned a less personal book about business and money called The Wisdom of Crowds which is slated to come out at the end of May. A quick look reveals that Surowiecki has put together a readable tome meant to illustrate a principle that many economists hold dear: the idea that decisions can be made, problems can be solved, and the future can be predicted by the market. Imagine the Nasdaq but replace companies with possible outcomes. At the end of the day the outcome that is trading at the highest level is probably the correct answer to whatever problem was trying to be solved. Using markets you can, as Surowiecki terms it, unlock the “wisdom of crowds.” Last summer there was much public outcry when it was announced that one of our government agencies was considering setting a market that was meant to predict future terrorist attacks. The idea of people profiting off of this sort of speculation was abhorrent to many people and the plans were shelved, but, in The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki will likely argue that the plan would have worked.
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
Very clever of The Morning News to do this whole bracket competition with their Tournament of Books, because here I am writing about it again. I can’t help myself, especially with the palpable frisson of being tied for first. In all seriousness, though, I’ve greatly enjoyed both the write ups by the various judges and the attendant banter by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner. Today’s installment, pitting Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day against Pride of Baghdad, a graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon was, as judged by Anthony Doerr, particularly entertaining. The whole exercise has served as reminder, especially in light of recent controversies, that engaging with books in this fun and perhaps silly way can be just as worthwhile as “serious” criticism, especially if one counts among his goals getting more people to read more good books.Regardless of the merits of TMN’s endeavors, though, I am in it to win this thing, and I remain tied with the formidable Condalmo. I fear, however, that I may be peaking early in this contest. The “zombie round” may yet give me new life, but as it stands now, my two finalists, Apex Hides the Hurt and The Echo Maker, are out of the competition.
I’ve been a little out of loop lately, but today I picked up a copy the Chicago Reader, having noticed that it was their “Spring Books Special.” Among the many reviews and briefs is an entertaining article called “So This is the Blog Revolution” by Laura Demanski AKA OGIC. It’s a short history of the litblog phenomenon and an attempt to gauge its importance (unfortunately the article is not available online). As both a reviewer and blogger, Demanski understands that part of the draw of such blogs is to watch as non-professionals turn book criticism into a conversation and review the reviewers. The tendency of litblogs to critique mainstream book coverage directly (eg. the Brownie watch, The LATBR Thumbnail, etc.) has no doubt raised their visibility. What better way to get noticed by journalists and reviewers than to repeat their names incessantly? Everyone gets a thrill out of Googling themselves. In terms of elbowing its way into mainstream book coverage, it may be that the LBC will represent the pinnacle of the litblog movement.I love my fellow litblogs dearly, and I have enjoyed watching the community grow. But I also think that one can keep a blog about books that does not exist to be the David to the New York Times’ Goliath, and, no, I’m not going to deliver The Believer’s anti-snark manifesto here. There is a certain joy that is derived from reading a good book and discussing that book with a fellow reader. Having a blog has allowed me to direct this inward act outward. My blog is essentially a reading journal, and my reading journal exists to interact with other readers (and with their reading journals, if they have them). Although many of my fellow members in the LBC have garnered a certain amount of fame by holding mainstream book coverage to a high standard, I am relieved that the LBC seems to arise from a different sort of urge. I look at the LBC as twenty readers getting together to recommend to you a book that they hope you’ll enjoy.(Mark your calendars, LBC selection #1 is just 6 days away).
Advance readers copies, the paperbacks sent out early to book reviewers, often contain special notes from authors or editors that impart a little back story or extol the virtues of the book at hand, but I’ve never seen an author’s note quite like the one that Pete Dexter penned for the advance readers copies of his forthcoming novel Spooner: As far as I know, sometime in November of last year, the book you have in your hands was three years late. There are many reasons it was three years late, probably the most conspicuous being that it was once 250 pages or so longer than the version you hold, and it takes maybe half a year to write an extra 250 pages, and at least twice that to subtract them back out. I realize this leaves another year and a half unaccounted for, and all I can say about that, readers, is get in line. Whole decades are missing from my life and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have it any other way.At any rate; it turns out that bringing a book home three years past deadline presents problems for the publisher. Publications have to be set (again), covers drawn, generous comments collected – god knows how many of my greatest admirers have died while I’ve been diddling around with this thing – and so you can understand, perhaps, that in the end someone had to put his/her foot down and say enough, and in the end somebody did. Be assured it wasn’t me. I could have kept this up for another five years. Oh, and a title. They thought a title might be nice.All to say that what you have here, while not exactly a first draft, is further away from the finished product than most advanced readers’ editions are, and when you come across sentences you particularly don’t like, keep in mind that I probably didn’t like them either. On the odd chance that the bad sentences are still there when the book comes out, then you should keep in mind that you’re reading somebody who is still missing 18 months of the last 36, and has no idea about 2006 at all.This isn’t the first time that Dexter has prefaced a book with an introduction that threatens to divide his readers into those who get his sense of humor and those who don’t. The introduction to Paper Trails (this time in the actual published edition), which collects Dexter’s columns and articles from his legendary newspaper career, lets us know that he had little interest in collecting his columns in the first place. He tells us that the 82 columns and articles we are about to read will lack dates and any indication as to where they first appeared because, basically, he and his editor Rob Fleder didn’t want to dig them up. He also calls the venerable Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley a “worn-out old whore.”What’s interesting to me about Dexter is that, while his fiction is quite good, his wry, impolitic sense of humor doesn’t always shine through in his noirish, almost hard-boiled novels. Instead, you need to read his (essential) Paper Trails or keep an eye out for things like the remarkable author’s note quoted above.
I got back from New York yesterday. The Recoys show was unforgettable. Look for pictures here and here. Everybody packed into the sweaty back room of the Kingsland Tavern, and the Recoys became, for the last time, an underappreciated and raucous band from Boston. This time plenty of people knew better. In the years since the Recoys split, I’ve heard several people say that they are far better than many of the big name bands that they presaged. I agree with them, and so do a lot of folks, it seems. It looks like the record (Recoys Rekoys) is pretty much sold out, so hopefully we’ll be able to get a cd out soon. I was definitely digging New York this time around. I haven’t been in a while (about nine months I think). I rode the subway a bunch. At one point I noticed a girl reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel and I thought to myself… wouldn’t it be great if I could sit and read on the way to and from work each day, or on the way anywhere really, and I could check out what my fellow citizens are reading as we lumber along in our rolling athenaeum. Instead I gas and break my way around like everyone else in L A, and I have less time to read and everyone here has less time to read (assuming they would want to read anyway). It’s a shame. On the other hand, the radio here is really good.Watch out Harry Potter gonna kick yo assIsn’t it annoying when a writer is writing about some really popular nugget of pop culture and he opens his snarky article with “Unless you’ve been living in a cave (are a yak-herder in Khazakstan… have been trapped under a large pile of potatoes, etc. etc.) you’ve heard of Harry Potter (The Matrix… The Lord of the Rings, etc. etc.). Yes… ha ha ha, we all know about this very popular thing, oh snarky commentator, now get on with your witty dressing down of popular culture. Well, for the weekend anyway, I made like that yak-herder and forgot all about Harry Potter for a couple of days. I forgot he ever existed and then I stumbled sleepily and still a little bit drunkenly into JFK where they had a towering heap of yet another J. K. Rowling juggernaut Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You’ll notice on the Amazon page that it says “in stock June 25.” That’s because Amazon shipped a million copies on the first day! In fact, it turns out that the full 8.5 million copy first run was pretty much sold out before it ever hit the shelves due to the preorders alone. Through some serious finagling (like the buyer buying a few hundred copies from Costco on Saturday) my book store has managed to keep this 870 page behemoth of a book in stock so far. And since midnight on Friday we’ve gone from general book store to Harry Potter store. In the past 3 days we’ve probably sold more of this book than all other titles combined. This is all the more shocking when you consider that my store, due to location and clientele, has a meager childrens’ section and typically very few children ever come in. I just hope Rowling has enough room for the dump trucks full of money she’s making. As for the book itself, I doubt I’ll be reading it any time soon, but here’s what Michiko Kakutani had to say on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold no less.A Tasty BookI have a soft spot for food writers. Maybe it’s because I enjoy a good meal, perhaps too much, but I think it’s because I’ve found food writers to be charming in their obsession with food related minutiae. No one is more charming than Calvin Trillin whose “register of frustration and deprivation” leads him to travel the world seeking those foods that he can’t live without. the result of this is Feeding a Yen I can’t put this book down. He’s like an adventurous and kindly uncle. It’s a treat.
This month the book club that I help run read and discussed Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. We had our usual raucous and meandering discussion for the first hour, but for the second hour we had a real treat: a visit from Huneven herself. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of authors, and I’ve also become well-versed in the sort of dynamic that occurs at a typical book reading and signing between author and reader. This was different and refreshing. She sat down with the 12 or 15 of us who were there and let us poke and prod her book and very much participated in the action. It almost reminded me of the various creative writing workshops that I took in college, except our writer was not a beshawled or behatted fellow student recounting the fictionalized tale of their high school relationships, this is a writer who is published by a highly reputable publishing house, the author of a book recently dubbed notable by the New York Times. Nonetheless, she graciously allowed us our comments and criticisms and had quite a bit to share about the book and herself. First: for those who read the book and wondered why, after Alice’s first dream-like experience with the deer in her house, when she was trying to figure out if it had been real or not, she didn’t look in her washing machine to see if the towels she used to clean up after it were there in the morning, that scene was in the original manuscript. She and her editor went back and forth trying to decide if she should leave it in or not, and then, months later, when the book came out, she had forgotten that they had removed the scene and was surprised to see it gone. Other tidbits: Huneven found that writing the character Pete came most easily, and the rest were a struggle. Jonathan Gold, author of the best LA restaurant guide there is, Counter Intelligence, was a big fan of the Helen character. Huneven is on page nine of her next book, which will include a character who is a scrapbooker. As a writer, it was heartening to meet a fellow writer who, though she is published and successful, still sees her work as a challenge and even a struggle, a fact that some writers might not admit in that situation. And, by the way, the book is a great read, and I encourage anyone out there who is looking for a good novel to pick it up.An Intriguing List or TwoMy good and old friend Hot Face has taken a cue from the New York Times and… People Magazine to compile his list of most intriguing books of the year. Since he asks for additions, I put forward Bangkok 8 by John Burdett and Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson, but he’s pretty much got everything else I could think of there already. Meanwhile, my buddy Andy emailed me a link to this, a new take on the year end book list.
“Under a black cloud, the prison. And within the prison, a bright rebel. The walls were extremely high, and although this was not possible, they appeared to lean inward yet also to bulge outward, and they were topped with a luminous frosting of broken glass.” This, of course, is an excerpt from Marlon Brando’s posthumous (and swash-buckling) novel Fan-Tan. If you really want to get into it, the rest of the excerpt is here, mateys.Previously: Ask a Book Question: The 29th in a Series (I Coulda Been a Contendah)