I’ve been having a really good time following the race for the Democratic nomination. As is usually the case with me and politics, I’m far more interested as an observer than as a participant. The daily maneuvering makes for good reading. I’ve mostly been following the action at The Note, the daily column put together by ABC News’ political unit. It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at the process. All of this politicking has got me thinking about one of my all time favorite books. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 combines, in a way that only Thompson can, political reporting with author’s deteriorating ability to keep it all together. I enjoy this book the most out of all of Thompson’s books because it provides a terrific outsider’s look at the mealy insides of American politics. Thompson sharing the back of a limo with Nixon on a ride from Boston to Manchester is priceless. But it is also amazing because it comes at an odd moment in Thompson’s career, the point of transition from the clear-headed, idealistic recklessness of Hell’s Angels to the addled egotism of his later work. The book got me excited about politics, but I was frustrated that Thompson wasn’t able to keep writing at this level for the rest of his career. Still, it remains a fantastic book for anyone who is interested in history or politics, especially if you have taste for Thompson’s singular, stylistic flair.
Opening Day is almost upon us, and that means that this year's baseball books are already upon us. My friend Derek was once a Baltimore Orioles fan like myself, but then the Nationals swept into Washington, DC, and stole his heart away. I consider him a traitor, of course, but in his defense, I'm told that watching the Nats play at RFK has become one of the joys of summertime in the Nation's capitol. Being a big Nationals fan, Derek has been bugging me about one baseball book in particular. National Pastime is an account of the Nationals debut season by Washington Post baseball writer Bruce Svrluga (an excerpt is available). The season was exciting and worthy of a book not only because the Nationals were unexpectedly contenders last summer, but also because the team became a phenomenon in a city that had gone without baseball for decades. It's the sort of baseball story that baseball fans love (Even so, I'm still an O's fan.)Every once in a while, though, there's a baseball book that draws interest beyond diehard fans. A couple of years ago it was Michael Lewis' book Moneyball that turned baseball on its head. This year it's the book Game of Shadows by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, which presents, it seems to me, incontrovertible evidence that Barry Bonds' monster performance of the last few years was, in fact, steroid-fueled as so many had suspected. Ever since Sports Illustrated ran an excerpt of the book a few weeks back, this has been the number one story in baseball. It seems likely to stay the number one story for a while, too. ESPN The Magazine recently ran an excerpt of another Bonds book, Love Me, Hate Me by Jeff Pearlman. That book will be out in May.Perhaps as important as baseball (and Bonds' steroid troubles), though, is fantasy baseball. I'll be tearing it up this year in a league put together by fellow blogger, Jeff. My team is the Ravenswood Ravens, a reference to both my neighborhood and Edgar Allan Poe. The team's success will rely equally on my managerial prowess and on a breakout season by Wily Mo Pena. Fantasy baseball has clearly become a huge business in recent years and a summer long obsession for many sports fans. In Fantasyland, Wall Street Journal writer Sam Walker does what many of us fantasy baseball fans seem apt to do all summer, and that is chronicle the ups and downs of our fantasy team to anyone stuck listening to us. What sets Walker apart, though, is that he's a sportswriter, a job which affords him real life contact with the players on his fantasy team. I don't have access like that, so when I need fantasy tips I turn to the baseball geeks at Baseball Prospectus. Their annual Prospectus is indispensable, and this year also I managed to get my hands another new book of theirs, Baseball Between the Numbers, in which the BP folks use their formidable mastery of numbers to shatter more myths about the game.Update: Sam Walker is blogging this week at Powells.com.
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In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you'll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the "lit-blog.") And, as I'm still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers' review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke.It's often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson - at Rake's Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed's place - illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride - "B.R. Myers is Satan"; "Who's the Wanker?" - but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies - the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson's prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. "Prose of amazing power and stylishness," Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis' piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper's, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I'm embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson's wide margin of error. "Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper's pencil," I wrote, "I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson's] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson's sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as "bric-a-brac?" Can "someone standing in [...] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?" In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers' Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel's first - "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed." - is bad.Critiques of Myers' motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won't rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn't been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect "had," strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else...something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers - a myopic literalist - seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed" is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn't make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character's point of view can also be seen in the following passage... Alan's comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, "Yes. Yes!" Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we've been thrown, without comment, deep into a character's point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven't read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn't read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I've been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I'm troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers' remarks in print.
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There's a lot for readers to look forward to in the second-half of the year, and high up on the list is Zadie Smith's first novel in seven years, NW. Lydia covered the book in our big preview published last week, "NW follows a group of people from Caldwell–a fictional council estate in northwest London whose buildings are named for English philosophers–and documents the lives they build in adulthood. Smith (who since 2005 has become a mother, NYU professor, and Harper’s columnist) has variously called this a novel of class and a “very, very small book” (highly unlikely). Smith’s own deep roots to London, and this particular corner of London, were most recently aired in her stirring defense of London’s local libraries for the New York Review of Books blog." Smith sets the scene evocatively in the book's opening paragraph. The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
Sure, today Apple unvailed the "iPod phone" and the superslim iPod Nano, but the real news is that for the first time, via iTunes, the entire Harry Potter series will be available on digital audio (that's $249 for the whole set). This is more interesting to me for what it represents. As iPods and other high-capacity digital audio players have become ubiquitous and as digital audio delivery (via podcasts and/or services like audible.com) has become more user friendly, the stage has been set for a revolution in reading. Though digital audio books will never overtake paper ones, they will only grow in popularity and sometime soon we may see a mini-revolution in the way people consume literature.
Nicole Krauss is back with her first novel in seven years. Forest Dark "interweaves the stories of two disparate individuals -- an older lawyer and a young novelist -- whose transcendental search leads them to the same Israeli desert." The cover of Krauss's new offering sports cool blue waves (dunes?) and the now-ubiquitous yellow, centering a truly killer blurb from Philip Roth. Krauss was a National Book Award and Orange Prize finalist for Great House, and The History of Love won the Saroyan Prize for International Literature. Forest Dark will be published by HarperCollins on September 12.
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