As the baseball season gets underway, it looks like this summer’s big off-the-field story will be steroid use. (More serious allegations are beginning to surface as the San Francisco Chronicle reports that federal investigators were told Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield all received performance enhancing drugs from a lab that is currently under investigation.) But last year’s story, the fallout from Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, still has legs. The March 1st issue of Sports Illustrated (on newsstands last week) contains a vociferous epilogue to Moneyball in which Lewis catalogs some of the more outrageous responses that his book received from baseball insiders. He takes to task particularly egregious offenders, like Joe Morgan, for continuing to dismiss the book out of hand. It’s a must read for anyone who was swept up in last summer’s Moneyball furor.
There is a paperback on my bookshelf that doesn’t exist, but it managed to change my life anyway. I found this book among other homely paperbacks on the ninety-nine cent cart at the Montague Book Mill, a used bookstore in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. True to its slogan -- “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” -- nothing stocked is guaranteed to be there again, making this book a quintessential one-of-a-kind find. What arrested me first was its size: a little smaller than one of the classic mid-forties Penguin editions, narrow and flexible, ideal for slipping into a purse or pocket. What caught me next was its barefaced plainness. The jacket was entirely white, the cover crinkled from its stint as a coaster. Its title was an italicized Times New Roman second-cousin. It appeared to be a self-published book; inside, the author had written a note in an unassuming small-caps scrawl, wishing a friend the best of luck with his own career. Although I have searched the title and the author more than once, the novel remains nonexistent. Unlike I’d first imagined, this author had no website or author’s platform. Search engines brought up many potential origins of the title (it has a fantasy flair) but an exact match remained elusive. All signs point to the author not having “made it” as we expect authors to ascend in this century’s frenetic flux of multimedia attention. In effect, here lies the only copy; rest in peace. This novel has been on my bookshelf ever since, surrounded by the greats: Dante Alighieri and Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner. But this book has a special status compared to its neighbors, albeit an infamous one. It is my bad-mood effigy; I turn to this book for an adrenaline shot of self-indulgence whenever I’m in the throes of apathy, bad writing, and rejections. Simply put, the writing of this book is bad. In fact, it’s often laughably bad, an unremarkable and derivative species of the speculative genre. In my more magnanimous moments (or so I delude myself), I think self-righteously, This author -- the nerve! The self-published pretension! As my literary voodoo doll, I believed I could turn to this novel as a concrete specimen of the written word that was -- undeniably -- inferior to my own work. But books do not defer meekly to the morals we have assigned them. A bad book, so-called, has just as much to teach us as a good book. It is often a far better teacher than any work that is uniformly artful, where excellence disguises the nuts and bolts of craft. A bad book also teaches us something a better book cannot: humility. Not the humility of resignation -- that of admitting that we will never be very good at what we do, no matter how earnestly we try. Such humility can easily morph into the indulgent self-flagellation that either demands the commiseration of friends or brings our vocation to a standstill, where thereafter we are those people who petulantly claim we “could have been somebody.” Rather, it’s the humility of acknowledging that time and effort lead to changes in our abilities as writers. Instead of ascribing a moralistic verdict of good or bad, less or more, we humbly acknowledge that nothing more could be asked of us than what our creations can attest to at the time. The great works of literature are all relatively alike in their excellence. Their perfection is consummate, constantly out of reach. We become comfortable saying, amused and defeated, “I’m no Shakespeare,” as if that is that. But every bad specimen of writing is lit up by the harsh fluorescent lighting of reality. Each pockmark, scar, and slip-up is visible; we have our favorites to trot out in conversation like ghouls in chains. Moreover, what makes for a bad book is a constantly shifting parameter. Is a book bad if it is merely written poorly? Is a book bad if it’s successful with the masses? (Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, being one of those “bad” novels that is known -- if not read -- by everyone.) But my own unique bad book quickly transformed from a voodoo doll to a mirror. This person’s writing is cheap and unmarketable, I start to think -- and before I finish the thought: So was your writing a year ago. A week ago. Yesterday. Bad books remind us of our failings and that such failings are always closer to us than we imagine. As writers, we have to be our own best advocate; we have to invest in the underdog. And by the same token, we must be our first critic, our arch nemesis. Anne Lamott posits in Bird by Bird that radio station KFKD ("K-Fucked") is playing in our heads each time we write, with “the endless stream of self-aggrandizement” blasting in the speaker of our right ear, while “out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.” We can tune these out but not turn them off. Similarly, Orson Scott Card contends in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, “Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: 1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. 2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.” The bad book on my shelf reminds me that I will contend with both ideologies at any given moment, and at any given moment they are true. We are destined to be continuously judged and ranked on a scale of lesser to better in our work. In reality, art is a highly competitive realm with no real rules. By turns, we will be winning in the arena, and we will be losing. And KFKD is always playing in the background, whichever speaker is blaring louder at this moment. And thus the most marvelous lesson of the nonexistent book on my shelf: that of artlessness. We do not write good books or bad books. We are all teachers, capable of leaving a lesson behind.
Perhaps you've seen it on the news. A historic and potentially catastrophic storm, Hurricane Katrina, is about 24 hours from plowing into New Orleans. If there ever was a "big one," this is it. Sustained winds are at 175 mph, and some experts think it may maintain this strength all the way to landfall. Despite the fact that New Orleans lies below sea level and needs levies and pumps to keep out the water, Mayor C. Ray Nagin has only just now ordered a mandatory evacuation. Many experts think it's already too late. If you want to keep an eye on this storm here are some links. Blogs: Dr. Jeff Masters, Steve Gregory, Eye of the Storm, Brendan Loy, Fresh Bilge. Links to TV coverage on the web at Lost Remote. The National Hurricane Center. I may add more to this post as I find more links.
I took Stendhal's The Red and the Black along on a recent trip to Paris. It's only now though that I'm back in Philadelphia that young Julien Sorel has finally arrived in La Ville-Lumiere.It took me awhile to get into the book. I began it hoping for the same pleasures I recently found in Middlemarch, but it quickly became apparently that it's for different reasons that Stendhal's classic is still read today. It lacks, or does not even attempt, Eliot's perspicaciously drawn characters and lyrical insights. Sorel, though by turns beguiling and irritating, is drawn more as a cipher than a real person. Instead, The Red and the Black is a determinedly political novel, engaged in direct and often obscure conversation with the 19th-century French society to which it was submitted.Nevertheless, halfway through, The Red and the Black has me gripped. It is exhilarating to read a novel so urgently engaged with the culture and society of which it's a part. The Red and the Black feels like an act of revolution, and it is not hard to imagine the discomfiture it must have caused among the King's court and clergy. At the same time, it is just this potency that gives The Red and the Black the quality of an artifact. It is nearly impossible to imagine a novel having anything approaching Stendhal's intended effect on contemporary society, French or American. All polemical notes have already been sounded and absorbed and we're too inured to blush much anymore.
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The current issue of McSweeney's includes a short story by Michael Cera, whose contributor's bio informs us that he was "born in Brampton, Ontario and now lives in Los Angeles," and, inevitably, that "This is his first published story." Yes, this becomingly modest debut author is that Michael Cera, co-star of Arrested Development and Superbad and avatar of skinny-geek chic (for which at least one Millions contributor owes him a debt of gratitude). For those keeping score at home, this makes Cera at least the fourth movie star in the last two years to turn his talents to the only marginally less glamorous and remunerative field of short fiction. (Others include Miranda July, James Franco, and Sharon Stone.)The forthcoming 106th issue of Granta suggests that even the World's Most Serious Literary Magazine is not immune to the trend. Through our vast network of informants, we've obtained page proofs, and the "Contributors' Notes" include one or two names you may recognize, behind their veneer of careful self-effacement:M. Louise Ciccone is a media professional who divides time between the New York Kabbalah Center and the Miami Kabbalah Center. This is her first published story.Washington-based R.I. Emmanuel spends weekends in Chicago with his wife and beloved children. He promised to shove Granta's head so far up Granta's f*&^ing a^% we'd be able to see our &^%[email protected] if we didn't get his first published story published.Julius Erving, a retired physician, lives in the metro Philadelphia area. This is his first published story.Phillipa Longstocking is one of world literature's most beloved characters. For more information, you may contact the Wylie Agency.P.R. Nelson is a Minneapolis-based composer and erotic acoustician. His work has appeared widely, under a variety of names. His 4thcoming memoir, All of My Purple Life will B published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this fall.Joaquin Phoenix, an obscure itinerant musician, scribbled this, his first published story, on the back of a New Jersey Turnpike exit ticket.Julia Roberts is Julia Roberts.Borat Sagdiyev is making the literature sexy sexy for much enjoyment of Kazakh people. His story "My Goat, She is Not Breathing" (translated here by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and was selected for Best Central Asian Short Stories 2007.Schmary Schmate and Schmashley Schmolsen, whose first published story this is, are sometime undergraduates in NYU's make-your-own major program. They are majoring in Undeclared, and also this is their first published story, because what, do you think they have time to be writing stories all the time, or something?The late Dave Thomas (1932-2002) was the founder of Wendy's and creator of the internationally acclaimed Chicken Cordon Bleu. This is his final published story. The Chicken Cordon Bleu is back for a limited time.All your base are belong to Carnie Wilson.
Ms. Millions and myself are expecting a number of house guests for Thanksgiving, so there probably won't be much posting on the old blog for a few days. Luckily for you guys, though, I've brewed up a post chock-full of fascinating info for all of you. First off, Time Magazine columnist, Andrew Arnold put together a list of 25 best graphic novels of all time as part 2 of a series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the birth of the graphic novel, which, according to him (and many others), was the publication of Will Eisner's A Contract With God: And Other Testament Stories. I haven't read it but it's supposed to be incredible. At any rate, Arnold has put together a great list that includes a couple of my favorite books of all time. Here are the ones from the list that I have read.From Hell by Alan Moore was lent to me, forced on me really, by a friend of mine who is really into comic books. I was skeptical, but this one turned out to be pretty riveting. The art, especially, is magnificent: noirish fields of black create an ominous mood that permeates the story.Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: This is one that really transcends the genre. When I read this, it made me wonder why people aren't making graphic novels out of everything all the time. There are so many stories out there that can be made fascinating by the artists' pen. Everyone should read this book.Maus Vols. 1 & 2 by Art Spiegelman: It's hard to put into words how incredible these books are. If anyone requires proof that the graphic novel medium, when wielded expertly, can bring more to the table than the plain old written word, then these books provide it. Reading Maus is an emotional experience, and I think a lot of that emotion comes from reading a tragic story rendered in a format that seems so innocent. Everyone should read these two books, too.Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud: I've talked about this book before. There is something about comics, about the format of comics, that makes them enchanting and that makes them peculiarly well-suited for telling stories. I had always just accepted this as fact, but McCloud decided to find out why, and the result is a phenomenal book -- itself a comic -- that is both illuminating and entertaining. I should also thank Scott for pointing me in the direction of this list via his blog.More Mutis ManiaThis is good. This is really good. I open my email today to find this email from friend and fellow Alvaro Mutis & Maqroll the Gaviero obssesive, Brian:Man, oh, man, do I have some info for you! I was just casually glancing through a copy of Video Store magazine, when you wouldn't believe what movie I came across.... "Ilona Arrives with the Rain." Yep, apparently, it's a Columbian film from 1996 that's billed as "A dangerous romance full of international intrigue.... Based on the novel by award-winning Columbian author Alvaro Mutis." Not sure if its really any good, but am still very curious to see it. A DVD is being released by Facets, and Amazon has a release date of December 16. Here's the link: Ilona Arrives With the RainI'll definitely be checking that one out.MoreMy friend Edan, who loves cookbooks, wants everyone to know that Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World is a great new book by globe-trotting husband and wife team Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. And since we're talking about cooking, here's a quote from the book I'm reading right now: "'Restaurants make lousy hobbies. You have to be obsessed and driven and completely out of your mind to own one.''But you had--''Two, yes. But Alice,' Pete said almost tenderly, 'I've been totally nuts my entire fucking life.'"