In other book news, I happened to catch a reading of a very interesting book on the radio last night. Here in DC we have C-SPAN radio, and they occasionally air the audio from their “Book TV” broadcasts (Yes, radio in DC is pretty bad, and that’s why I end up listening to C-SPAN radio). The book was The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche and his account of the sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea was riveting. Also in the book: modern day pirates in Indonesia and the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to secure 95,000 miles of American coastline.
I once lived for furthering my collection of autographed books. Getting a book signed meant going to hear the author read, waiting in line with other fans, and then, finally, being presented with the chance to utter words of praise. Sometimes it meant getting teary-eyed with envy, worrying over whether I would ever write anything so poignant. This happened when Amy Tan walked by in purple velvet with her lap dog trailing behind her. During middle and high school, at the height of my obsession with autographs, I spent a lot of time writing letters, poems that exhibited the same longing for impossible love, and short stories that revealed I was fixated on the same themes of displacement and loneliness that I am now.
I heard Jamaica Kincaid read twice. The first time she read at the local university from her novel Lucy. I was in seventh grade and inexperienced in matters of love. She read a passage about sucking on a boy’s tongue and I was mesmerized. She stood before a large audience and I couldn’t help but see that she was someone important. The second time I went to hear her read, I got Lucy signed by her before she spoke. My father told her that I wanted to be a writer. She didn’t say anything, only proudly signed her name. Later, during the Q & A, she asked in perfectly enunciated words, “Where is that girl who wants to be a writer?” I shyly raised my hand. She went on to recommend Gertrude Stein to me. Following the reading, I began to imagine Jamaica Kincaid as my writing teacher. With her intimidating stature, I divined she would be just as intimidating of a teacher. I thought only she would be capable of whipping my writing into shape. I wanted her to treat my writing so harshly that my only option would be improvement.
Yevgeniy Yevtushenko read in Russian at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Neither my father nor I spoke Russian, but my father decided to expose me to culture. What I remember is Yevtushenko’s ostentatious blue jacket and his sweeping gestures when he spoke. I later learned Russian, partly thanks to falling in love with his incomprehensible poetic voice, I read some of the poems from his collected works, wondering which he might have read that evening.
When Jennifer Egan came to the suburban Barnes and Nobel to read from her novel The Invisible Circus, my mother and I were the only audience members. Afterwards, I asked Egan one of those typical questions about her writing schedule. I came away with the interesting information that she worked part-time as a detective. Later, I composed a letter to her, which led to another obsession. I spent a grand portion of the day waiting for the mail. A letter was just another passage into the literary world. Not only was I waiting for personal letters, I was also waiting for acceptances from literary journals.
The postman arrived after I got home from school, so I would sit in the armchair near the window and wait for his footsteps. They would culminate in the metal clamor of the mailbox closing. When he had moved on to the next house, I would open the door and collect the mail.
I received one response from Jennifer Egan and an acceptance from a neighborhood newspaper, but most often I received letters from my pen pal who lived on the other side of the city. I met her at a poetry reading at a café called Brewed Awakenings. I played Irish tin whistle and read some poetry. She came up to me afterwards and gave me a copy of the literary journal called Zink in which she had been published. She was also a writer and yet she was incredibly accessible. She asked for my address, and pulled a blank piece of paper from the pouch around her neck for me to write on. I felt uncomfortable about giving a stranger my address, but I did it anyway. At that time of my life I said “yes” to everything.
To my surprise, a few days later I received a typed letter from her in a handmade envelope. I wrote back and she was quick to respond. It wasn’t long before I began to live my life in order to write it to her in a letter. The events that occurred during the day, occurred so that I could describe them. It was then that my writing probably took on its autobiographical quality.
As an adult, I haven’t had such a faithful pen pal, another writer with whom to commiserate. The advent of email and real responsibilities make it impossible to live just for handwritten letters, but most of all, it’s hard to find someone who can be a friend and somewhat of an idol at the same time.
Though I once attended readings regularly and took great comfort in spending Sunday night at the fiction series at the KGB Bar, some of the luster has been lost. Writers seem so accessible that an autographed book doesn’t bring me the same pleasure as it once did and writers seem just as much friends as idols. Now a writer myself, I realize that writing isn’t such a magical process. Still, there are moments when I can happily transport myself to those simpler times of books and letters, the time when I was open to every ounce of experience. Just recently I came away from a reading with a signed copy of Joshua Cohen’s Witz, heard Mary Gaitskill read at the crowded Franklin Park Reading Series, and went to hear Cory Doctorow, Rivka Galchen, and Gary Schteyngart talk about the bleak future while drinking dark and stormys. I also went to hear Jennifer Egan read at Greenlight Bookstore. This time it was to a packed house, inspiring me with the possibility that my writing can also grow in this way.
[Image credit: Weston Boyd]
The New Yorker opened the week in a lather of controversy surrounding the cover of its latest issue. The Barry Blitt illustration is a rather heavy-handed satire of the various smears that have circulated about Barack and Michelle Obama. Essentially, that he is a closet Muslim extremist and she a closet militant. Blitt’s unsubtle drawing portrays them in the garb of these personas.Speaking as a New Yorker fan, I can’t stand these political satire covers. Aside from them not being very funny or interesting to look at, they lower the New Yorker to the level of the fray. The key to the New Yorker’s success, however, has been its ability to place itself above all that.Yes, the New Yorker is quite obviously a left leaning publication, but its journalism strives for even-handedness and the entire enterprise is built on a reverence for the facts, as its legendary fact-checking operation attests. By “the fray” I do not just mean politics, I also mean the “here today, gone tomorrow” jokes and the offhanded irony that seem to permeate most of our culture. The New Yorker, meanwhile, has always been so (justifiably) secure in its status, that neither its contents nor even its ideological leanings require an advertisement on the cover, which historically has been given over instead to a piece of art that exists simply for its own sake.The political covers come across as jarring in this context. A couple of years ago another political cover caused a bit of controversy. The Bush/Cheney cover was a tired Brokeback Mountain rehash that got people riled up, and, as it turned out, it bumped a cover that was more topical and far more meaningful and in the spirit of the magazine.Apparently, I may have been in the minority in this view, as the Mark Ulriksen Brokeback cover, along with a political Blitt cover, won awards.It’s not even the political content of these covers that bugs me – there have occasionally been some good political covers – it’s their heavy-handed unfunniness that paints the magazine’s readers with a very broad brush. I don’t find the Obama cover to be offensive in the least, just easy and dumb.If you feel the same way I do (or even if you think I’ve lost it), dig into the archives and enjoy the hundreds of sublime and clever covers that have graced the New Yorker over the years.
An uncharacteristically thorough post at Gawker goes in depth on the make up of the current staff of the New Yorker, pointing out that the resurgent magazine under editor David Remnick is staffed by a disproportionate number of writers brought on during the tenure of reviled editor Tina Brown. Interesting stuff.
Today I heard from a reliable source some very interesting info about Eric Schlosser. Yes, the same Schlosser who I derided two days ago for phoning in the follow up to his huge best seller Fast Food Nation. First of all, it turns out that Schlosser is currently hard at work on another Fast Food Nation style expose. This time he’s tearing the lid off of America’s prisons. It seems like there is wealth of material here, and there must be plenty of improprieties and outrages that the American public needs to know about. I don’t forsee such a book being quite as successful as Fast Food Nation. Everyone has eaten more than their share of fast food, but not everyone has spent a lot of time in prison. Still, I’m sure it will prove to be a very good read. There is another tidbit of info on Schlosser, as well. Apparently he and the director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) have collaborated on a treatment for a film version of Fast Food Nation I suppose that the book does contain a number of compelling characters, and each of these characters has an interesting enough, if not completely fleshed out, story. But, it would definitely take a director as imaginative as Linklater to really pull it off.More MeloyMaile Meloy’s new book, Liars and Saints came out today. She has been widely lauded for her short stories, so it will be interesting to see how well her first novel is recieved.
Can you handle another Da Vinci Code story? It has just emerged that Justice Peter Smith, who presided over the Dan Brown plagiarism trial, embedded a secret code within his ruling that refers to both The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood, Holy Grail, whose authors sued Brown. In the first 13 and a half pages of the 71-page ruling, a handful of italicized, boldfaced letters are embedded, that when combined, spell out “Smithy Code.” But there’s more. A further jumble of italicized, boldfaced letters have yet to be deciphered. In her New York Times piece, Sarah Lyall describes a series of “brief and ultimately frustrating e-mail messages” in which she tried to pry the solution from Smith, to no avail. She also relates Smith’s dismay when, for the first couple of weeks after the ruling was released, no one noticed the secrets that lay within: It has been nearly three weeks since he handed down the ruling. Probably disappointingly for Justice Smith, nobody seemed to notice anything unusual about it when it was first released. But he alluded to the possibility that there was something more soon afterward as a throwaway line in an e-mail exchange with a reporter for The New York Times, saying, “Did you find the coded message in the judgment?”It’s silly, but I admire Justice Smith for his cleverness. After all, a blogger can’t exactly look down on someone for grasping at his 15 minutes of fame.Update: From the comments, a mysterious anonymous commenter has provided us with the code. It starts out “smithy code” and from there, the jumble of letters is “Jaeiextostgpsacgreamqwfkadpmqzv”.Anybody want to take a stab at it?Update 2: Judge Smith has released some clues.Holy Blood, Holy Grail refers to the Dossiers Secret and the hidden message. It is revealed by spotting that certain random letters appear to be different in form from the majority of the text.Applying that to the judgment reveals the following highlighted letters: SMITHYCODEJAEIEXTOSTGPSACGREAMQWFKADPMQZVZ (the first part reveals there is a message)There is no significance to the placing of the letters in the text.Da Vinci Code also uses codes. The most liked one is apparently a numerical one (p.255 The Fibonacci Sequence). In the book it is changed.The correct sequence up to 21 is: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21The code is created by letter substitution.The letter change is creating by applying the Fibonacci Sequence numbers above letter by letter.The relevant number shows where you start for each letter to substitute. Thus the first letter is identified by rewriting the alphabet stating at the first letter in the alphabet ie for the first letter A A. The second letter is also started at 1; the third at 3. When 21 is reached the code reverts back to 1 etc and repeats that until all the letters are substituted. A message ought then be revealed (there is a deliberate typo to create further confusion). The message reveals a significant but now overlooked event that occurred virtually 100 years to the day of the start of the trial.The preparation of the Code took about 40 minutes and its insertion another 40 minutes or so.I hate crosswords and do not do Sudoku as I do not have the patience.Update 3: The Smithy Code has been cracked.
I’ve never been shy about my love for long form journalism – my love for the New Yorker is based on it – so I was intrigued to hear about a pair of books that collect some recent stand-out examples of the work from two other venerable magazines: New York and Harper’s. The former is represented in New York Stories and the latter in Submersion Journalism Both were reviewed a few weeks back in the LA Times. I was particularly intrigued by Submersion Journalism which includes work by Wells Tower, an excellent but not terribly well-known journalist who contributes to Harper’s, The Believer, Washington Post Magazine and others. We wrote about him a while back in an “Ask a Book Question” post. Unfortunately, a bunch of comments from readers listing several of Tower’s pieces were lost in the Great Comments Purge of 2006, but the post nonetheless provides some background.Tower is best known for the remarkable Harper’s piece “Bird-Dogging the Bush Vote,” for which he, as the LA Times puts it “embeds himself with some Bush boosters in Florida during the 2004 campaign in order to know thine enemy.” The article is, unfortunately, not available online for free, but it is included in Submersion Journalism. I’ve read it, and I think it rates up there with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail as a piece of tragicomic political journalism.Stepping back, it’s always exciting to see collections like these come out, if only for the fact that they highlight some of the best, most entertaining journalism ever written. I concur with reviewer Marc Weingarten in the LA Times who writes, “The Web is clearly where the media is headed. But long, well-informed literary journalism like the stories found in these books is still the province of print. If readers forsake this stuff, well, shame on all of us.”See Also: The New New Journalists
I’m pleased to report that Freebird Books & Goods, the terminal stop on our “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers,” has reopened its doors. With its packed wooden shelves, comfortable chairs, creaky floors, selection of fine teas, and breathtaking view of Manhattan, Freebird has been my favorite used bookstore since I first moved in around the corner three years ago. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm; guest-blogging at The Elegant Variation earlier this year, Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End, wrote of “a palpable feeling that you’re in a place where books, no matter how old, are alive and well.”Premature nostalgia afflicted me and many of my neighbors when we heard that owners Rachel London and Samantha Citrin were moving on to other endeavors. But it turns out that Freebird is in good hands. New owner Peter Miller is a bibliophile and all-around nice guy. He’s dedicated to building on the traditions of the store, while introducing new amenities to draw in new customers.One such innovation is the Freebird blog, where Mr. Miller’s been posting images of (and commentary on) the wonderful oddities he’s come across in his journey through the stacks. Lively events and a renewed liquor license (coming soon, I’m told), should further burnish the store’s reputation. As Mr. Ferris put it, “It’s the kind of place that reminds you why you read.” So if you’re in New York this holiday season, hop the F train to Bergen and make your way down to the waterfront…and be reminded!
As a proud TiVo owner, I get their email newsletter letting me know about new features and promotions. Rarely do my TV habits and reading habits occupy the same mental turf, but the latest newsletter included a TiVo tip for TV watchers with a bookish bent.TiVo Tip: Bookworms love TiVo, too! Here’s how one TiVo subscriber is using the smart TiVo service to think outside the (TiVo) box, too (oh, c’mon; that’s clever). “Many bad movies are based on good books,” Larry H. so aptly points out (Prince of Tides, anyone?). “So before I go to the library or bookstore, I do a keyword WishList search for ‘BASED ON.’ Usually about a dozen or so programs pop up. I’ll read the descriptions and see if anything looks interesting.”There you have it, use your TiVo to find good books to read.