One of the guests on Fresh Air today was former cop named Edward Conlon, a Harvard grad and fourth generation NYPD officer who used to pen an anonymous column in the New Yorker. Now he has a new book called Blue Blood in which he recounts his life as a beat cop. It looks to be a literary take on macabre subject matter. Speaking of which, Ian McEwan, most recently the author of Atonement, a book adored by both readers and critics, has revealed some details about his forthcoming book. According to this Reuters story, it appears as though McEwan will return to the more visceral subject matter of his earlier novels with a book that centers on the life of a brain surgeon. He will finish it “within months.” This new McEwan book will almost certainly be reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, where, after much skeptical anticipation, Sam Tanenhaus has been appointed as editor. As beatrice.com pointed out yesterday, some in the literary world are skipping the grace period and sticking with the skepticism, cf. David Kipen’s San Francisco Chronicle piece. This changing of the guard, you may remember, was a topic a few months back here at The Millions.
You may have heard about this. In October an 8 DVD set containing digital images of every page of the 4,109 issues of the New Yorker from February 1925 to February 2005 will hit stores (retailing for $100 – but cheaper at Amazon and other discounters). As a huge fan of the New Yorker, my eyeballs nearly popped out of my head when I first saw the NY Times story about this, but I’m trying to restrain myself. As some of you know, I’m extremely compulsive about the New Yorker, in fact it may be the only compulsion I have. I read he magazine cover to cover every week, and if my issue is late in arriving I’ve been known to panic. My fear is that once I got my hands on this set, I would be compelled to consume every word of it at the expense of school and work and everything else, possibly even eating and sleeping. I’m may have to put myself into forced hibernation starting in October in order to keep those DVDs from falling in to my hands. Also, normally I would find the subtitle of this collection – “Eighty Years of the Nation’s Greatest Magazine” – to be somewhat presumptuous, but I happen to agree with it.
I’ve recently become somewhat addicted to the (newly rechristened) Comics Curmudgeon. If you enjoy the sometimes funny, usually surreal world of the newspaper funny pages, then you will get a kick out of this blog.Also, some recently discovered (by me) bookish blogs of note: So Many Books, marginalia.org, Book World, Shooflypie, Pages Turned, and especially Light Reading.
Genevieve Tucker, the blogger behind Reeling and Writhing (formerly known as You Cried for Night) has penned an article for The Australian about book blogs that covers briefly the medium’s numerous squabbles and scuffles (have there really been that many? I blame Ed) in what amounts to a history of the nascent “litblogosphere.” A handy sidebar of prominent litblogs is included, though, sadly, The Millions has been left off. (Perhaps that will serve as fodder yet another litblog battle? Nah, I’m used to it.)
Not really a literary item, but I thought some folks might be interested in a Web site I found recently. Postcrossing is a postcard trading site. When you sign up, you get the address of a randomly selected Postcrossing member. You send them a postcard, and when they receive it and enter it into the system, you get put into the queue to receive a postcard from another member. So far I’ve sent a postcard to Portugal and received one from Finland. For those with an interest in faraway places and/or postcards, Postcrossing is an extremely low impact but rewarding hobby. I’ve always liked getting postcards, but it seems like a somewhat rare method of correspondence these days given the ease and immediacy of electronic methods. In my travels I’ve often picked up postcards, not necessarily to send, just to have as keepsakes. I’m something of a map person, so I’ve often been drawn to postcards with maps on them. I’ve got a small stack of them filed away somewhere right now, but I’ve had this idea that one day I might display them all on a wall of cork in collage form.
Perhaps all crystal balls are cloudy, at least where literary fiction is concerned. In 2006, as publishers seemed inclined to keep the heavy artillery under wraps until the lucrative holiday season, our January “Most Anticipated” round-up could not help but overlook Pynchon, Edward P. Jones, Richard Powers, or Claire Messud, as well as a number of eminently worthy books from independent publishers.That said, the “Most Anticipated” post can help register some of the early buzz that later gets drowned out by other books’ more formidable marketing campaigns. Readers who tend to keep their own private lists of titles to check out may have remembered to pick up Brief Encounters with Che Guevara in August, when the talk of the town (at least my town) was Special Topics in Calamity Physics. And so, in the spirit of getting the word out early, I offer an otherwise completely silly alert about a couple of books slated for publication in 2008.Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes, winner of last year’s Prix Goncourt, has sold over a quarter of a million copies in France. This novel presents the first-person confession of a homosexual SS officer. I first heard about it on NPR, where a number of francophone readers praised the power of the story and of Littell’s prose – remarkable, given that Littell is actually an American. And if these raves are accurate, readers have a lot to look forward to: in French, Les Bienveillantes (The Furies or The Kindly Ones) runs over 900 pages. HarperCollins has purchased the American rights, and is waiting for the translation to be finished, according to the December/January issue of Bookforum. I’m tempted to just buy the damn thing in en francais, but fear that it would take me all winter to read… and I’m already committed to Against the Day.Another huge novel discussed in Bookforum’s “The Insider” column is the Chilean author Roberto Bolano. FSG is bringing out a Bolano novel this year, but fans of monumentality might wish to wait for 2066, an 1100-pager about a series of slayings in Ciudad Juarez.Maybe it’s just the frisson of delayed gratification, or my big-book fetish, but these two – a cumulative 2,000 pages – are my Most Anticipated novels. Now let’s see if, a year and a half from now, when they actually hit the market, they will have been worth the wait.
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.”
Last week, my New Yorker didn’t show up. This has happened a handful of times in the close to ten years I’ve been reading the magazine. Typically, wherever I’ve lived, my issue has landed in my mailbox between Tuesday and Thursday. If I haven’t gotten my issue by Thursday, I tense up a bit and begin to plan, setting some time aside for a run to a bookstore or newsstand so that I don’t fall behind and so that my gnawing yen for the New Yorker is satisfied.But over the last decade, my New Yorker addiction has felt burdensome at times. I like to read – a lot – and yet with busy work schedules and other demands, I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like. And though my Reading Queue occupies several linear feet of shelving, I still find myself devoting about four days a week to the New Yorker (which I read all the way through, skipping only reviews of theater, dance, and music). Being the best magazine in the world, the New Yorker is guaranteed to provide me with at least one transcendent reading experience per month, often more than that, and very few clunkers. It is exceedingly rare that I quit reading an article halfway through. Still, though I love it so, I sometimes grow resentful of the time I must devote to the New Yorker and I sometimes fantasize about the day I’ll decide not to renew, though even formulating the reasons behind such a rash act is difficult.And so this week, when Thursday rolled around and my mailbox was still empty, I again felt that nervous pang and began to set aside some time for the ten-block walk to the Barnes & Noble. But then, I thought about it some more, and decided to miss this week’s New Yorker (though it may still arrive inexcusably late). So far, I feel pretty good, no withdrawal symptoms, and I think, if the day comes that I have to give up on the New Yorker entirely, I’ll survive, bonobos be damned.Update: That missing issue turned up after all.
Amazon is teaming with Penguin Classics to do a book club that will be hosted on a new blog at the site. The club will read books from the vast Penguin Classics catalog. Two cool things about this: 1. Penguin found the host of the book club, Kathryn Gursky, from a review she wrote of The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection — yes, she actually owns it — and 2. she picked a fairly obscure book, Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, rather than an obvious Oprah-style pick. (via)