A while back I discussed the minor furor over proposed changes at the New York Times Book Review, including charges of dumbing down and sensationalism. Now the helm has been handed over to a new editor, Sam Tanenhaus, a widely published journalist and the author of a well received biography of Whitaker Chambers. It remains to be seen if the New York Times Book Review will change significantly. On another, much more visible front, the Jayson Blair affair has reemerged due to the release of the book in which he tells his side of the story, Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at the New York Times. It is hard to imagine that anyone will take seriously a book by someone whose claim to fame is his astounding lack of credibility. In fact, the venomous pans are already rolling in (Dallas Star Telegram, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe. Even the Brits get into the act.) My favorite, though, is this headline from the Christian Science Monitor: “Jayson Blair: ‘I lied.’ Reader: ‘No kidding.’” I’m rather happy to see the level of outrage that Blair’s book is generating. Meanwhile some are reporting that the Times stands to benefit if Blair’s book does well (LINK). I’m not sure if that story has legs, though.
I stepped into a book store in the old city of Barcelona. It was spacious and well lit with dark wood shelves and floors. Many langauges were well represented including a wide selection of English language books. It is very easy to take a shot at American bookstores when comparing them to bookstores overseas, and it's really remarkable to see the difference in person. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be an expat, estranged from my country, but sometimes yearning for contact. I think I would spend a lot of time in a bookstore like that and it would fill the void for me. With the jet lag and all that, I was having trouble diving into another book. I guess I needed a change of pace to reflect the change of scenery, so I fished into the bag of books I brought with me and came up with this beauty: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. I have always been drawn to certain of the visual story telling forms: typically not so much the action hero stuff, but certain "graphic novels" have caught my attention. I also like to flip through a collection of "newspaper funnies" from time to time, Calvin and Hobbes, for example, is always a delight. Rarely, however, have I encountered a book that transcends the genre like Jimmy Corrigan. This book has already received a chorus of praise and numerous awards. In a lot of cases, in fact, no one had ever considered that a graphic novel might be eligible to win certain of the awards, but this one was just too good to be ignored. I have been on a good stretch with books lately; I haven't been disappointed in while, but my next book is a bit riskier: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez... I'll let you know how it goes...I'm off to Ireland tomorrow, and there might not be internet there, but I will try my best; if not, we'll catch up when I get back to the states.
Jonathan Yardley is probably my favorite book critic. Since I'm from Washington DC, and he is the elder statesmen of book reviewing for the Washington Post, my affinity for Yardley probably is at least in part due to home town bias. But Yardley also manages to go beyond the simple grading of new books that so many crics engage in. He also delights in guiding his readers to the myriad great books that are out there yet somehow hidden from view, be they long forgotten or merely obscure. Having such a trusted guide to the literary world can prove invaluable. His assesment of the year 2002 in books alone is enough to provide a plentiful pile of great new books to work through. State of the Art is a truly enlightening assesment of the last 125 years of American literature, and a must read for anyone who thinks they've covered all the classics. Finally, his occasional series, Second Reading, "reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past." The latest installment is a look at The Autumn of the Patriarch, the most overlooked of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's. As a big fan of Marquez, this article is really a treat for me, especially since I have never gotten around to reading Patriarch. By the way, did I ever mention that I once met Marquez.More Leonard MichaelsFolks must have really dug the fantastic Leonard Michaels story in the New Yorker this week, because many of this week's visitors arrived here by searching for his name.
Derek Teslik is still in his 20s for 15 more days and lives in Washington, DC.A few weeks ago Max posted about the "rules of writing." About a week later, Garth revisited David Foster Wallace's essay "Up, Simba!" which was published in the 2005 essay collection Consider the Lobster. "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage," another Wallace essay from the same collection, reviews Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, or at least begins to, before veering into autobiography and the politics of grammar nerds. The crux of the essay, which DFW helpfully announces as such, is that Garner manages to transcend 40 years of infighting in the grammar world by being subtly persuasive rather than overly accepting or overbearingly authoritarian. I'll spare you the extrapolation of this crux onto today's political landscape; for that you can go here and draw your own parallels.I had encountered Garner's work previously without realizing it: Garner is the modern editor of Black's Law Dictionary, required buying, if not reading, for every incoming law student. I entered law school in 2004 after a mostly unsuccessful attempt to become the next Russell Simmons, and dutifully purchased Black's upon arrival. Over the ensuing years, I consulted the book when necessary but gave it little consideration until reading Wallace's essay. To be honest, I have given it little consideration since, but I have spent hours reading, for pleasure and for justification, Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage and his Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage.When I arrived for my first day of law firm work this last September, I was surprised to find the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage on my desk already, next to a few pencils and a legal citation manual. Garner believes that the best lawyers don't write in legalese but in exacting English. I held out hope that first day that the lawyers for whom I'd work would understand this, and for the most part they have. A few so fear splitting any verb phrases that they instead twist their sentences into awkward ambiguous messes. Garner describes this practice, and the refusal to ever split an infinitive, as superstition. I don't think I'll be able to pry these older lawyers out of their comfortable superstitions, but thanks to Garner I can take their "corrections" to my writing with quiet grace knowing that I'm right. Wallace nails in his essay the reasons why Garner's dictionaries are so entertaining and so effective. All I mean to do here is second the endorsement.
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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.
We think we know people so well, but then real honest to God information comes out about them in a court proceding (or a Smoking Gun investigation) and we find out how wierd they really are. This is doubly true for celebrities, though, it turns out, not always literary ones. Case in point, Dan Brown, who I never thought of as much of a public figure and who always seemed to me to be nothing more than the bland face behind the Da Vinci Code juggernaut, has his quirks, but not very exciting ones it seems. We're discovering this as a result of the plagiarism trial currently under way in England where he's been accused of lifting the premise for his book from Holy Blood, Holy Grail. On to the quirkiness: according to a story in the Guardian, "his witness statement reveals his working method, beginning at 4am, seven days a week, with an antique hour glass on his desk to remind him to take hourly exercise breaks." "push-ups, sit-ups and some quick stretches. I find this helps keep the blood - and ideas - flowing," adds a story in the Independent. Well, if that's all it takes... Also noted at the trial: Blythe, his wife, does the lion's share of his research; he moved on to writing after a failed career as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles; his parents hid his Christmas gifts and he had to decifer a treasure map to find them.(via the Publishers Lunch newsletter. The free one. It's all I can afford.)One more thing. I haven't been following this trial very closely, but I do know one thing: Holy Blood, Holy Grail has been an incredibly huge seller ever since Da Vinci Code came out. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
While CAAF and others have spent much of the new year discussing and praising Curtis Sittenfeld's novel Prep, I have followed along, blissfully unaware that I could, apparently, be a character in the book. Today, I read this article in the Washington Post, which clued me into Sittenfeld's tenure as an English teacher at St. Albans where I attended high school, and which she used as inspiration for the novel:"It was almost like cheating," she says of living at St. Albans. "I'd been writing this book about this kind of place and the kinds of people you might find there, and then there I was, sort of back in it, overhearing pieces of dialogue or something... If I got to a place where I needed to describe some food in the dining hall, well, I'd just go downstairs to the dining hall and have dinner."Although I wasn't a boarder there - most of us weren't - I can imagine that the school would be good material for this sort of book. There's lots of dark wood, stone edifices, and groves of old trees on the grounds the school shares with the National Cathedral. At the same time, the school, while something of an island, does sit in the city and is a part of the city in a way that the New England boarding schools are not, and this gives St. Albans a different feel. Sittenfeld started out as the Writer in Residence at St. Albans and continues to teach there part time. My alma mater, when mentioned in the Post tends to be labeled "exclusive," and while this is undoubtedly true I always thought it was pretty cool that we had a writer in residence program. The most notable writer in residence when I was there in the mid '90s was Matthew Klam. St. Albans alums of a certain age still fondly remember the day that Klam shocked the faculty and riled up the students - it's an all boy school, by the way - at our weekly assembly with his reading of the title story from his collection, Sam the Cat, a graphic tale about a drunk guy who falls for a girl who turns out not to be a girl. Considering that we were an auditorium full of sheltered and not very worldly young men, it sort of blew our minds.
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