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.
In today’s Public Editor column in the New York Times, Daniel Okrent takes the opportunity to mercilessly bash the Tony Awards as well as the Times’ lavish coverage of them. The only productions eligible for Tony’s are ones that take place “on” Broadway as opposed to “Off,” despite the fact that “the various Off or Off Off Broadway houses … launched all but one winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in the last decade (the exception originated in a nonprofit theater in Florida).” Meanwhile back at the Times, Okrent claims that there will soon be better coverage of theatre: “the Times is on the brink of a long-planned, apparently expensive and unquestionably overdue renovation of its cultural report, scheduled to premiere in the fall.”
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader’s comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24’s President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running – Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes – and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life – and particularly public opinion and national politics – a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe’s novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe’s lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel’s sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative – by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic – is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe’s work – not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass’ work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass’ narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe’s, but it is Stowe’s – the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama – that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass’ best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine – in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country’s readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain’s age and history of skin cancer). It’s all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.
In the name of science – and also, perhaps, in the name of giving the lie to such criticisms of Lady Critics as Norman Mailer’s (“The sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.”), I am about to embark on a little experiment, inspired in part by your spirited objections to my approach to literary taste: I am going to read a burly man author all the way through. The book I have chosen, at Max’s suggestion, is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.I hypothesize, as the readers of our last Millions Quiz already know, that I will be disappointed: that I will not be taken in by either style or substance. My slight (and, as some thought, insufficient) acquaintance with the virile titans of the last century of literature has led me to believe this. But – I am willing to concede – perhaps these are just fellows who give a lady a bad first impression (like the character of Al Swerengen on HBO’s Deadwood), fellows whom a girl might grow begrudgingly (or is it self-hatingly?) fond of upon better acquaintance?I shall see! And you shall see too, when I am done.
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If I’m planning on seeing a movie, I don’t typically look at reviews of it beforehand. I prefer to go into the experience with an open mind. And even though newspaper movie reviewers don’t tend to “spoil” the key plot points, I’d just as well not know anything about the plot so that every twist and turn is unexpected. The same thing goes for book reviews. There have even been times when I’ve stopped reading a book review halfway in when I realized that I wanted to read the book being reviewed. Setting the review aside, I’ll revisit it once the book is complete.And so with early reviews of books I’d like to read trickling in, I’m setting them aside to pour over once I’ve read the books. At the top of my list is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I was able to get my hands on an early copy, and I’ll be eagerly jumping in as soon as I finish this week’s New Yorker. Bookforum, meanwhile, has already posted its review of the book. In the third paragraph, reviewer Benjamin Anastas writes “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is many things at once: a work of alternate history, a medium-boiled detective story, an exploration of the conundrum of Jewish identity, a meditation on the Zionist experiment, the apotheosis thus far of one writer’s influential sensibility.” I haven’t read further than that, though, as I don’t want anything to put a dent into my anticipation.Elsewhere, hungry readers have cracked into some other hotly anticipated novels. Bookdwarf has a look at Ian McEwan’s slim new tome On Chesil Beach. She initially calls it an “odd, intimate book,” but ultimately gives it her seal of approval, calling it “superb.”Anne Fernald landed a copy of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Falling Man and offers up her initial thoughts. The book is yet another entrant in the “9/11 novel” category, but Anne clearly didn’t find it hackneyed or overwrought. Instead she calls it “wonderful… excellent but not the very, very best of his work.” Later on she declares, “Oh, the marvel of watching DeLillo reveal the poisonous thoughts of an ordinary unhappy woman to us.”Finally, Haruki Murakami has a new book, After Dark, on its way. For those who seek them out, early looks at Murakami novels can nearly always be found since his books come out in Japan well in advance of the English translations. One need only find a bilingual reader to share his thoughts in English. An excerpt, however, is harder to come by, but that’s what was recently offered up at Condalmo, where Matthew Tiffany recently shared the book’s opening sentences.Previously: The above books are just a few of the most anticipated books of 2007.
I spotted this essay by James Wood in the Guardian about endings that disappoint. I agree that there is hardly anything more disheartening than a novel that just peters out at the end. To me reading a book is like making an investment. You put in the time, and at the end you hope to walk away with some pleasure. A bad ending screws up the whole arrangement. I tried to think of some really good endings and off the top of my head I came up with a couple. In terms of paying off on an investment, one of my favorites is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The “a ha!” moment is almost too perfect but Irving has set it up so well that you can’t help but believe it. Another great ending that comes to mind is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. After such a long journey, one almost expects the book to run out of steam, but Steinbeck magnificently collects everything together at the end and sends you out of the book with real emotional force. When I read the last words of that book and put it down, I said to myself, “Wow, that was worth it.”
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to see an amazing exhibit at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. I first read about Lee Bontecou in the New Yorker a month or so ago. The article described a young woman artist who had been poised to become a household name, but instead quietly excused herself from the art world for a secluded life in rural Pennsylvania. Now, more than 30 years later she has been coaxed out of hiding for a retrospective that includes the work that first brought her notoriety as well as everything she’s done since then, while working out of the spotlight. I had never heard her name mentioned in art history classes nor had I seen any of her work in New York galleries, yet the article made her work sound undeniably compelling. Having now seen these remarkable wall hangings, constructions, mobiles, and drawings in person, I can say quite frankly that I was truly amazed by her work. It is very difficult to describe Bontecou’s work since it only obliquely relates to the work of other artists of her generation. The intricately fashioned constructions and mobiles are somehow simultaneously emotional and technical, intricate and organic. I implore everyone to see this retrospective. It is a remarkable event. Here’s the deal: 10/5/03 to 1/11/04 at the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; 2/14/04 to 5/30/04 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and 7/30/04 to 9/27/04 MoMA QNS, New York. Abrams has put out a lovely companion volume for the retrospective. Also in art, yesterday at the bookstore I noticed a good-looking new book by the whimsical architectural illustrator, Matteo Pericoli. In 2001 Pericoli put out a book called Manhattan Unfurled, a hard bound fold out drawing of the Manhattan skyline as viewed from the perimeter of the island. In a simple yet playful continuous line drawing, the whole of the city is captured from viewpoints across the Hudson and East Rivers. His new book Manhattan Within is another hard bound fold out drawing, but this time it takes an insider’s view of the city. In the same style as before, he draws the skyline of the city as seen from within the confines of Central Park. Both books include journals full of Pericoli’s musings and observations as he trekked inside and outside of the city trying to capture its spirit with pen and paper. Taken together, the two books are a refreshingly new take on an old and much used subject. Visit Matteo Pericoli’s website to see his work.
If you need to get your Murakami fix, but can’t stomach the idea of picking up After Dark, here’s your solution.Written in 1980, Pinball, 1973 was Murakmai’s second novel. It was published by Kodansha and has been out of print for several years, although it’s available at Amazon for a whopping $225.The book is part of the “Trilogy of the Rat” (actually four books), which begins with Murakami’s first book, Hear the Wind Sing and includes A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance (probably my favorite of his books). Apparently, Murakami refuses to allow either Hear the Wind Sing or Pinball, 1973 to be published outside of Japan, which is ironic, considering both of them are, in my opinion, far superior to either Sputnik Sweetheart or After Dark. This translation, linked below, along with Hear the Wind Sing, was done by Alfred Birnbaum for Japanese readers trying to learn English.The story is classic Murakami, before that became a bad thing. A rootless man who loves Dostoevsky spends his days looking for a hard to find part for a classic pinball machine. Mysterious twins move into his apartment. There’s a well and a cat. While it’s no masterpiece, it’s a good read for Murakami fans and those looking for a place to get started with his oeuvre.Here’s a link to a PDF of Birnbaum’s translation of Murakami’s Pinball, 1973.Bonus link: Some fan-translated short stories I stumbled on while researching this.Update 9/17: The link to the PDF has been fixed.Update 3/8/09: The link to the PDF has been fixed again!
In yesterday’s post I mentioned that Elaine Pagels’ books were getting a boost from The Da Vinci Code and The Passion. Now, David Remnick gets her reaction to Mel Gibson’s film (negative) in the New Yorker. Hurry and read it before it disappears.A Remarkable BookOne of the best books I own has just come out in paperback. Thomas Pakenham is a British historian and lover of trees. A couple of years ago he collected his photographs of and stories about remarkable trees and titled it, appropriately, Remarkable Trees of the World (which is actually a companion volume to his first tree book, Meetings with Remarkable Trees). Click here to see some remarkable trees.