The Washington Post raves about David Sedaris’ latest book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Here’s an excerpt. At the local chain store I noticed, prominently displayed, David Foster Wallace’s new collection of short stories, Oblivion. Here’s an excerpt from that one. Also in the news, Oprah makes her summer selection, and in keeping with her recent predilection for dead authors, she chooses Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts.
Last month, when I started reading War and Peace again, this time with the intention of finishing it, I decided that I would do so methodically, opening the book at least once every day, and not closing it until I’d finished a chapter (which, in that novel, is relatively short — a handful of pages at most). I would read it on the train or I would read it before sleep. I would read it while standing in the kitchen making toast. This way, I thought, the book would become a habit as much as a pastime. It would become part of my routine. I would get through it little by little, even if my pace would be that of a tortoise.
There was the danger, of course, that I was approaching the book as a chore — measuring my progress too closely, not enjoying it as much as I ought to have been, or could have been. But I was amenable to that. I mean that if this is what it took (approaching the book as a chore) in order for me to finish it, then that is what I was prepared to do. For I had decided that if I did not read the book now, at this point in my life, then I would never. And for some reason this scared me.
One day, about two weeks ago, having finished the first 150 pages (my paperback version, a Signet Classic, contains 1,455) I walked into a bar to have a beer before going home. It was a Saturday afternoon, sunny, and I had gone to the park to read. But I hadn’t got much reading done. There were people everywhere, and I’d felt distracted, restless, bored. Maybe there was a reason for this feeling and maybe there wasn’t. I wouldn’t say it was the book’s fault.
In the bar was another man, older than me by about 20 years, and he said to me, when he saw the book (for I didn’t have a backpack or satchel to hide it in), “It’s too nice a day out to be reading.” And when I casually agreed with him, not wanting to start a conversation but not wanting to avoid one, he said, in an irritable voice, not looking at me but away from me, as if he didn’t expect an answer, or desire one, “Then why are you doing so?”
It would have been easy then for me to get in an argument. I wanted to, in fact, because I was irritable myself and because I was embarrassed now about the way I must have appeared. Fortunately, however, the bartender was there, and she said to the man, before I could reply, “Listen, you, just because you’re in a bad mood doesn’t mean you have the right to take it out on others.”
The man, surprisingly, apologized. “Sorry,” he said to me, in a chastened voice.
And because I felt as though my embarrassment now had lessened, and in fact had been ridiculous, I said to him, “It’s fine, it’s fine,” or something to that effect.
The bartender got me a beer, and when she placed it on the coaster in front of me, she said, having noticed the book herself, “War and Peace. Now that sounds like a book that covers everything.”
I smiled at this, but the man said, as if he’d been waiting to say something and now had the opportunity, “It doesn’t actually. It should’ve been called War and War. Even the parts about domestic life aren’t tranquil.”
We all considered this a moment in silence.
“How far along are you?” the man said.
I thought back to the chapter I’d just read, where Prince Andrei leaves his father’s estate to join the Russian army at the front, which at that point is in Austria. “There’s about to be a battle scene,” I said.
“I like battle scenes in movies,” the bartender said.
“I like them in movies, but in books they can be better,” said the man.
A trio of girls came in, and the bartender moved away to greet them.
“I’m sorry about what I said,” the man said to me again, this time in a confiding voice. “I’m having a bad day.”
“Why?” I asked him.
“No reason,” he said. “Or you could pick any reason, and that would be it. This city used to be different. I used to have a job I liked. I used to be happier.”
“Why?” I asked again, and immediately I regretted it. Not because I didn’t want to hear him, but because I was afraid that if I did hear him then I’d have to respond to what I’d heard. And I knew that in a conversation like this, at some point my responses would seem inadequate, or blasé. Not because I intended them to, but because conversations between strangers require an energy that other conversations do not. And I knew that I lacked that energy, or that I possessed it but couldn’t maintain it for long.
But for some reason, anyway, the man didn’t reply.
He got up and went to the restroom.
And when he returned he didn’t sit down again, but continued on out through the front door of the bar, and out onto the sidewalk, where he disappeared past the windows, on his way to wherever he was going.
When the bartender returned to get me another beer, she didn’t seem surprised that the man was gone. She had a pleasant, unworried look on her face. And when I said to her, “Where did that guy go?” hoping she’d shed light on who he was (for now I was curious, if not interested), she said, “Probably home. He’s been coming in here every day for years.”
And that was that.
I mean it was the end of my conversation with the bartender, though I did stick around and finish my beer.
As I walked home it was sunny, and I thought I’d sit on the stoop of my building and read another chapter of War and Peace. But when I got there I was tired, and I went inside and up to my apartment and fell asleep on my bed.
The Guardian looks at the trend of books by secular skeptics, who take various angles as they pick apart religion. Leading the charge is Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion has become a bestseller if the #3 ranking on Amazon is to be believed. The other books mentioned in the Guardian sport impressive Amazon rankings as well. Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris is ranked #10. Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is ranked #227. But Dawkins is undoubtedly the headliner of this trend. For a taste of what he’s all about, the curious can read his recent essay at the Huffington Post.The coverage of the Dawkins book has been varied. Publishers Weekly’s review expresses alarm at Dawkins’ notion that “religion generally is ‘nonsense.'”The New York Times (setting aside Levi’s complaint) finds Dawkins to be compelling, but over the top in his rhetoric:The book fairly crackles with brio. Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie. There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy. Dawkins fans accustomed to his elegant prose might be surprised to come across such vulgarisms as “sucking up to God” and “Nur Nurny Nur Nur” (here the author, in a dubious polemical ploy, is imagining his theological adversary as a snotty playground brat).At the Philly Inquirer, Frank Wilson writes that Dawkins’ characterization of God and religion “amounts to caricature.”Dawkins’ rhetorical excesses aside, what interests me more is the larger trend, which, I hope, is representative of a recognition of how much violence in the world, now as ever, is committed in the name of religion. Beyond that, I’m wondering if people have grown weary so much being couched in religious terms these days, the battles over gay marriage, stem cells, and abortion, a president who is doing God’s work. It seems to me that a backlash may be building among people who don’t want religion’s reach to extend quite so far beyond the church, temple and mosque. It also interests me to see how book sales can be an indicator of the broader cultural trends in our country.See Also: HarperCollins Chief Says Religious Books Selling Poorly
Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been on my reading list for a long time. Upon Max Magee’s suggestion I picked up the recent translation by Edith Grossman sometime in January 2004. It took me a good 11 months to work up the appetite, desire and guts to indulge in this phenomenal piece of writing. Described by many as the beginning of modern novel, Don Quixote relates a crazed Alonso Quixano’s sallies from his native La Mancha to various provinces of Spain. Beyond the usual adventures of the windmills, freeing of the slaves, and fair Dulcinea – all of which are a part of every child’s introduction to fairy tales and literature – lies the second part of the novel. Cervantes published two Don Quixote novels, and whereas the first one colors our imaginations as children, the Part II – published ten years after Part I, in 1615 – brings forth Cervantes as a witty author who employs Don Quixote’s insanity to illustrate the genius of his loyal servant Sanco Panza; the trivial entertainments of the Duke and the Duchess, whose cunning knowledge of the first novel, which is referred to numerous times in Part II, provide for the creative and chivalric plots that the nobles employ to ridicule Don Quixote; and a grand finale of sobriety that settles for once and all the history of Don Quixote. Cervantes ends the illustrious misadventures of Don Quixote to prevent new issues of fake Don Quixote novels from appearing. Cervantes’ answer to authors who attempted to profit on the first Don Quixote’s success, one Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda in particular, is derisive and rash – bordering on self flattery through his diatribe on other authors. Don Quixote opened a new window in my mind with its accessible language – thanks mostly to Grossman’s spectacular translation – and cunning use of word plays, romantic approach to the bygone days of knight errantry, mockery of social dogmas, integration of tangent plots – oh yes, you read at least 3 unrelated short stories in the novel – and eternally modern style. The novel’s mix of fantasy and reflections on society definitely place it in the pile of books the are must re-reads, albeit not in the short term – it will certainly take me a while to put aside another chunk of time for the second serving.I was distracted at times from reading Don Quixote by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings. Matt Clare, a close friend and literary fiend, was kind enough to present me with this magnificent work that captures a unique time period in British society. Clare’s inscription on the cover reads “no Baron [on the Trees, by Italo Calvino, which I had presented to him earlier] to be sure, [but] the Lord may still have something to teach us.” Indeed, Lord Henry Wotton quickly became a new idol of mine, decadent and lost, with no particular interest in anything that the London high society of the 1880s held dear, nor any high aspirations that provided for the chatter at tea parties. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of The Picture of Dorian Gray presents vain struggles and trivial issues in an intentionally serious tone, which mocks the core of British culture at the time. There is much to be said about the twists and turns of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which keep the reader on his toes and makes the story an amazing, insightful and philosophical page turner. What follows in the 4 plays and final ballad also collected under the same volume (Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Ernest, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol) is not as intense as the opener, but nevertheless very entertaining and universal. Oscar Wilde’s only drawback is the limited nature of his subjects, but he does a phenomenal job in conveying the stuck up nature of the crowd that he once was a part of.Related: Max’s thoughts on Don Quixote
I’ve been submitting my fiction to magazines big and small for six years, since I was a senior in college. It took two years to receive my first acceptance, and another two years to receive my second. Since then, my record has improved: I had a story published last year, and two more are forthcoming. Still, the rejections come. My first year at Iowa, I took a seminar with Cole Swensen called Poetics of the Book. Our first assignment was to make a book out of unconventional materials. One student wrote a poem on gingersnap cookies; another student silkscreened words onto panes of glass. I took my big pile of rejection slips and sewed them together with some ugly brown thread. The stitching was poor (I can’t even replace a button), and because I hadn’t done much planning, the book unfolded in many different directions and was difficult to puzzle back together. Still, my work was impressive (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!), and also pathetic (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!). At the very least, it was proof of my tenacity. I’ll admit, the process was therapeutic. Those slips, some small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, now had an artistic function, and if my stories weren’t going to be bound, at least something could be. I continued to sew new rejections to the collection, and it didn’t take long for the thing to grow unwieldy. Finally, I put it aside. Now I’ve got a drawer stuffed with new rejections. What should I do with them? Sometimes I imagine having a dress made out of the slips, a shift maybe, or some slinky thing with an open back, to wear on a future book tour. Or I consider building a mobile to hang above my desk – as a threat, perhaps? I’ve heard that Amy Tan wallpapered her home’s bathroom with past rejections, and in his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the spike on which he impaled his rejections. And there’s always this idea. But why I am keeping the damn things anyway? On author M.J. Rose’s blog, Dr. Susan O’Doherty explains: It is the childish, hypersensitive, irrational aspects of our psyche that connect us with the deep, primal themes and images that drive our most powerful writing. That primitive self is woven into the manuscripts we have the highest hopes for–and that self experiences every rejection as a blood wound, no matter what we know intellectually. I suspect that it’s this self that doesn’t want to let the slips go.Dr. Sue suggests a ritual of letting this pain go, perhaps by lighting a fire and burning each rejection, bidding goodbye or a fuck you to each one. I found Dr. Sue’s advice via Literary Rejections on Display, a blog devoted to the anger, pain and frustration that follows every “Good luck with placing your work elsewhere” from an agent or editor. This blog is itself an answer to what to do with your rejections: throw them away, but first, complain about them on the internet! The posts, penned anonymously, are sometimes funny, but the bitterness and wrath sadden me, especially when they’re aimed at small literary journals. Stop blaming them, and start subscribing. As much as I fret about my rejection slips, and get pissed off when I get a new one, or wonder when such-and-such magazine will get back to me, I try my hardest not to encourage the fixation. Too much attention on publication means less attention on the work itself: to the sentences, the images, the characters. Whenever I get frustrated by a rejection, I remember something my teacher Lan Samantha Chang once told me. “Publishing a story won’t change your life,” she said, “but revising it until it’s the best it can be, will.” Let’s all remember that the next time the mail comes.
A little more than 10 years ago a couple of Wall Street Journal reporters got together to write about the calamitous rise and fall of RJR Nabisco, an episode that would epitomize the back room shenanigans of a decade of junk bonds and hostile takeovers. They ended up with fantastic book called Barbarians at the Gate, which was later made into a decent HBO movie of the same title. The book is a thrilling account of cutthroat billion dollar deals, and gross misappropriation of funds, like when the CEO has the company plane pick up his dog to keep him company at a golf tournament. Now, after barely a pause it seems, there are again dozens of stories of greed to be told, starting of course with the biggest one of all, Enron. Once again two Wall Street Journal reporters have used their singular knowledge and access to tell the story of the bust that has come to define the boom that preceded it. Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller are the reporters who originally broke the story, and their book 24 Days, is as much about the collapse of Enron as it is about the investigative journalism that uncovered this massive fraud.On the way to work I caught the tail end of an interview with Richard Polsky. He was talking about how tremendously juvenile the world of high end modern art collectors, gallery owners, and artists can be. He was illustrating the point with a story about how a food fight erupted at a gallery, and an extremely expensive Ed Ruscha painting was marred by a grease stain from a thrown chicken wing. He describes this and the many other antics he encountered on his quest to purchase his first piece of modern art in his book I Bought Andy Warhol, which is, from everything I’ve heard, a tremendously funny jab at the inner circle of modern art.I read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware about two months ago, and it continues to infect my brain as few other books have. Reading the book felt like a view into the psyche of writer and artist and character, a comic more real than a dream yet somehow just slightly less real than life. I was delighted to see that Chronicle Books that will allow me to further delve into the world of Jimmy Corrigan. Acme Novelty Datebook is the collected sketches of Ware from when he was writing Jimmy Corrigan. There are many things packed onto the pages: sketches for Jimmy Corrigan, great little sight gags and five or six panel comics that lead into a pleasant oblivion, and a lot of stuff that seemingly comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere, but is fascinating to look at. The book is beautiful. I can’t wait to spend more time with it.Three Pt. 2 (Advice for Those Abroad)My buddy Cem is trying to figure out what to do next. He’s currently in northwestern Thailand near the border with Burma. Help me help him decide what to do. Here are his three options:1. Stay in town and teach English to Burmese Refugees. Commitment: 2 months2. Move to the border town of Mae Sot and work with 10 young guys who live in a shack in the woods and produce an anti government magazine that they circulate in the refugee camps, internationally, and in Burma. Also teach english to Shan and Wa and Karen exile youth part time. Commitment: 3 months3. Pack up and head into Burma itself for 3 weeks doing major research for a big article, also purchasegood to sell at home (laquerware, etc). Record everything in Arabic script. Work on article and get published via NY contacts. Leave for Cairo or the beach when I get back.(I’m leaning towards option three by the way)