Arts and Letters Daily recently linked an article from the National Journal that takes stock of an interesting development at the New York Times. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and a good amount of internal and external strife about wavering journalistic standards, the Times has appointed an ombudsman, a position more commonly found at campus newspapers than at the world’s most important dailies. This ombudsman happens to be an author and journalist, Daniel Okrent, whom I admire for his baseball book Nine Innings and who was recently named a Pulitzer finalist for his book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. His columns bring an impressive amount of transparency to a very powerful newsroom, and I suggest everyone read them before Okrent’s fellow employees stage a coup and kick him out. The most recent column can be found here.
Last night myself and my friend Edan were the facilitators for the first installment of a new book club at the book store where I work. It was the first time either of us had ever been in a book club, and I think we both had a good time. Last night we discussed The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. After a few minutes of polite discussion, it came out that half the people in attendance strongly disliked the book, which made for some excellent debate. As best as I could tell, the dislike for the book is a part of the backlash against the “virtuoso perfomances” of young writers of late, who, according to certain readers, are over-writing in order to produce a novel that is “big” and masterful. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen are two examples of this trend that came up during our discussion. I, on the other hand, am relatively lenient in my feelings about this book at least in part because I have always rather enjoyed the over-written modern novel, John Irving (see The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany) and T. C. Boyle (see The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, and Water Music) being among my favorite practitioners. The question now is: what do we read for next month?
Sometimes I think Mrs. Millions prefers to ignore my blogging obsession – I do get the occasional eye roll – but then she goes and surprises me. Ain’t she the greatest? So, yesterday, thanks to our car being in the shop, Mrs. Millions was stuck with a long bus ride from near downtown to our neighborhood on the north side. I was going about my business when this text message arrived on my cell phone: “Sighting. The ultimate book on how to draw robots.”Hilarious. But now, of course, it must go on the blog. Mrs. Millions tells me you couldn’t miss the guy because how often do you see an Ignatius J. Reilly type reading a robot art book on public transit. Well, probably more often than you’d guess. Of course being obsessive about these things, I had to quiz Mrs. Millions so we could determine exactly what the book was. Turns out it’s called You Can Draw Transforming Robots (You Can!). Those are the best kind of robots. I’m mostly working from home these days, which doesn’t afford me much opportunity to engage in my favorite Chicago hobby, public transit bookspotting, luckily, Mrs. Millions is picking up my slack. As usual.
Confirming some rumors that have been floating around the Internet, Amazon unveiled a new design for its product pages today. This may not be of interest to many, but I am fascinated by the way Amazon evolves, adding features and slowly reinventing itself over time. Most striking about the new pages is the huge photo of the book cover that now gets prominent placement. This seems like a good thing for shoppers. When you’re buying books over the Internet, it’s hard to assess the more tangible aspects of a book, so the big photo seems like a good move. At first glance the pages are much longer as well with editorial reviews and then customer reviews stretching well down the page. The sidebar(s) are gone too, giving the pages a more spare look. I guess the idea here is that Amazon is pushing for the impulse buy… maybe trying to make readers more likely to buy the book without reading the reviews below. Here is a look at one of the new pages. Any thoughts?Update: Whoa, they’ve added other features, too. Check this out. You can see the “the 100 most frequently used words in this book,” and see other stats like number of characters (444,858 in Gilead) and words (84,830), which amounts to 5,424 words per dollar… not a bad deal, I guess.Update 2: Now all this new stuff is gone. I wonder if the new features and look will come back or if Amazon was just performing some cruel experiment on us.
Not to make excuses, but when you’re helping plan a wedding, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for things like blogging. I’ll keep posting as often as I can, though. So without further ado, here are three interesting news items that caught my eye today. The first, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the suggestion that Harry Potter may not survive the series of books that bears his name. (LINK). At csmonitor.com, Amazon’s list of bestselling books among US Military Personnel (LINK). And, from the Guardian UK, John Updike tells the Brits that they don’t have to be jealous of American novelists any more because those Brits are pretty good after all (LINK).
Gogol’s The Overcoat and Flaubert’s A Simple Heart have in common narrators who are, at least initially, satisfied with what I think many would consider very meager lives. They are both poor, single, friendless, both workers whose work (a clerk who copies documents in a Russian government office, and a maid of all work in a French bourgeois household) does not seem particularly meaningful or interesting. And yet they are both content. Deeply content: “After working to his heart’s content, he would go to bed, smiling at the thought of the next day and wondering what God would send him to copy. So flowed on the peaceful life of a man who knew how to be content with his fate.” This is Gogol describing his hero, but the description easily applies to Flaubert’s Felicité.Teaching these stories this week, I was not surprised exactly, but bemused, by the various shades of contempt my students showed toward these characters’ lives – By and large, they found Akaky and Felicité sad, pathetic, depressing. These brightest of the bright seemed to view with horror the notion of being satisfied with so little, with such colorless, pleasureless lives. And who can blame them, when their own lives have already delivered so much more?Hobbes wrote, “For as to have no desire, is to be Dead.” And I can see that the sort of lean, desire-less lives that Flaubert and Gogol’s heroes live are a sort of death-in-life. But I also envy their contentment. Contentment – the state of having all you want – is so rare. The peacefulness of such a state seems incomprehensible to me and somewhat otherworldly. It also seems that the possession of such a state erases, for the possessor at least, what appears from the outside to be small and sad life. (“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” as Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)A final note on these questions, in the form of an anecdote: Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived by choice as a beggar and rejected all concepts of property, manners, and social and political organization, was visited one day by Alexander the Great. Diogenes was sunning himself on a hillside as Alexander approached and when Alexander asked if there was anything he could offer the philosopher, Diogenes replied: “Stand out of my sunlight.” According to Plutarch, Alexander then declared: “If I was not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”
On my way home from work on Thursday, I was driving down Sunset Blvd. In the mornings, groggy and unobservant, I will take any old route to work as I focus mostly on getting there on time and the cup of coffee I will consume once I arrive. In the afternoons I am antsy and Sunset Blvd. provides the distractions necessary to take my mind off the ridiculous amount of time that it takes me to get home. While Los Angeles traffic is generally a constant in my mind, the entertainment provided by the prostitutes (trans-sexual and otherwise), the idle rich, and the ambulant insane are the variables that keep me from glazing over entirely. So it came to be on Thursday afternoon that I was amused, but not the least bit shocked as I watched a time-worn scene unfold as I waited at a red light at the intersection of Sunset and Highland. In front of me an over-tan gentleman in a silver BMW convertible leaned aggresively towards the healthful blonde who was sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. I was listening to my Steely Dan Greatest Hits tape, and the AC was turned all the way up. The blonde’s uncomplicated smiles and nods were reflected in the Beamer guy’s wraparound sunglasses, and in some part of my brain I was repeating over and over again, “please don’t get in the car. Please don’t get in the car.” With a shrug and a smile she bounded over and jumped in, and the creepy guy recoiled back into his seat, launching into what I have no doubt was a volley of self-aggrandizing small talk. The light turned green, and we were driving. The anticlimax to this story is best heard now: he dropped her off about four miles down Sunset, at Western Ave unmolested, as far as I could tell. I know because I followed them, out of both morbid curiousity and my wierd protective nature that crops up from time to time. Plus, it was on my way home. In L.A. it seems, it is not hard to stumble upon these representative set pieces grown cliched with overuse, since everyone is an actor, professional or otherwise. In this one, which has multiple showings each day, set in the dusty, smoggy, sunny backdrop we have two characters: the not unattractive but entirely guileless leading lady who has only just arrived in the city via Greyhound in order to give chase to one dream or another meets the older, moneyed man whose false and condescending smile has from overuse etched wrinkles into his leathery face. He quickly becomes the chameleon and embodies the qualities of the dream she has been chasing. Only many years later will she realize that this dream could not have been pursued any other way. What seems like Hollywood magic when you gaze upon it from afar is really just the collective false solicitude of thousands of these men in wraparound sunglasses.When I pulled into my driveway in what is unaccountably considered a bad neighborhood, I looked skyward to see five helicopters overhead, hanging like spiders from silk. Since this constituted about four more helicopters than usual, it could mean only one thing: police chase in progress. I lack even basic cable, and this ensures that if there is a police chase going on in Los Angeles I will be watching it. If the chase happens to coincide fortuitously with one of the local news broadcasts, it will be shown on all of the channels, each from a different angle and with different commentary. I settled into channel four whose newscasters tried on their best shocked and dismayed act as they conducted off the cuff interviews with a police expert and a psychologist and tried their best to delve into the criminal mind who was giving chase (in this case it was a burly man in a florist van who had been approached by an undercover cop who seemed to think that the burly man had turned his florist van into a “motel on wheels” and all that that entails. The burly man then attempted to run over the undercover cop with his “motel on wheels,” and the chase was on). The fact that the chase was occurring in my neighborhood was an added bonus, and each time the florist van barrelled down a nearby street the noise of the sirens and the droaning helicopters mingled with the sirens and the droaning helicopters on TV. For a while I laid on my couch, unguiltily entertained by all this (I have lived here for three years; I’m way past that). Then, just in time for the end of the local news broadcast, the chase reached its frothy climax. The florist van veered onto the sidewalk at the MacArthur Park subway station and the burly man got out and started sprinting down Alvarado. You could see the point at which he lost his delusions of escape (they replayed this moment on TV several times as though it were a game ending touchdown). He slowed to shambling jog, shoulders slackened, waiting for the rush of officers who were closing fast. And then it came and in an instant he was at the bottom of pile of cops.LA is well-known for it’s cliches. After a while though, you begin to detect the vast complexity that underlies it all. Then, after another while, the complexity is all you can see. They key is to focus on the nuances and not the cliches themselves. The dominance of the Los Angeles cliches has given the city a reputation that is at odds with reality. One outcome of this is the perception of L.A. as a city lacking literature. This is, of course, a gross understatement. Over the past century, L.A. has produced a great number of writers. A new collection of criticism seeks to address misconceptions while discussing LA literature as it stands now. It’s called The Misread City. Here is an excerpt.JulavitsOn Saturday night I attended a reading at another bookstore by young author and Believer co-editor Heidi Julavits. She read a passage from her new novel The Effect of Living Backwards. The novel takes place on a plane that is being hijacked, and makes use of copious flashbacks and flash-forwards to fill out the story. The nine pages she read were clever and engaging. During the question and answer period, she told us that she had been aided in the writing of such a claustrophobic book by two books that took on that same challenge. In the The Verificationist by Donald Antrim the narrator is enveloped in the bear hug of a colleague for the duration of the novel. The Woman Who Escaped from Shame by Toby Olson is a many layered frame story that centers on a porn ring and miniature white ceramic horses. Julavits also offered the two writers she felt most influenced by in general, Philip Roth and Joy Williams. The next day Julavits came into my bookstore and we had a nice conversation about The Believer and its astounding level of popularity.