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.
Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow “Year in Reading” contributor Meghan O’Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I’m thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate’s audio podcasts. Future interviews, we’re told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
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.
I know this is old news, but I thought I’d give my brief thoughts on the stories from the New Yorker debut fiction issue. I wasn’t bowled over any of the stories, but I was most impressed by Umwem Alpem’s “Ex-Mas Feast,” not so much for writerly virtuosity as for the glimpse of the exotic the story provides. Perhaps because so many short stories seem to be set in the suburbs, I am always drawn to stories set in faraway places. I was somewhat less impressed by Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia,” which I thought would have been a more successful story if it had been half as long. I did, however, enjoy how Russell injected a bit of the surreal into her story. I was also dutifully shocked upon discovering that she is only 23 years old, even though I should know that the New Yorker loves to find these fiction savants. Least interesting of all to me was Justin Tussing’s “The Laser Age,” which, at first glance, I thought was going to be a story of the twisted not to distant future, but instead was just another mismatched boy-meets-girl tale.
I’m in the early stages of War and Peace and last night read a battle scene in which the Russian troops are retreating from the advancing French army. The chapter follows Nicholas Rostov, as he and his company try to cross the Danube in time to destroy the bridge behind them. The scene is written with a sort of detached, tableau quality that reminded me a lot of the evacuation of Dunkirk section in Atonement. I went back to McEwan’s book to look for passages that compared directly with Tolstoy’s writing and found a couple:The crush of men.From War and PeaceThe soldiers, crowded together shoulder to shoulder, their bayonets interlocking, moved over the bridge in a dense mass. Looking down over the rails Prince Nesvitski saw the rapid, noisy little waves of the Enns, which rippling and eddying around the piles of the bridge chased each other along. Looking on the bridge he saw equally uniform living waves of soldiers, shoulder straps, covered shakos, knapsacks, bayonets, long muskets, and, under the shakos, faces with broad cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and listless tired expressions and feet that moved through the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge.From AtonementThe crowds were bunching up again. In front of the canal bridge was a junction and from the Dunkirk direction, on the road that ran along the canal, came a convoy of three-ton lorries which the military police were trying to direct into a field beyond where the horses were. But troops swarming across the road forced the convoy to a halt. The drivers leaned on their horns and shouted insults. The crowd pressed on. Men tired of waiting scrambled off the backs of the lorries. There was a shout of ‘Take cover!’Observing nature in the thick of the retreat.From AtonementAs they came out of the copse they heard bombers, so they went back in and smoked while they waited under the trees. From where they were they could not see the planes, but the view was fine. These were hardly hills that spread so expansively before them. They were ripples in the landscape, faint echoes of vast upheavals elsewhere. Each successive ridge was paler than the one before. He saw a receding wash of gray and blue fading in a haze towards the setting sun.From War and PeaceNicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun. How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone. And fairer still were the faraway blue mountains beyond the river, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, and the pine forests veiled in mists to their summits.
A while back, we diagnosed David Brooks‘ Bobo Shuffle; now it’s time to call The New York Times’ most pugnacious and prolific book reviewer on her patented move: The Kakutani Two-Step. It works roughly like this: belittle a novelist’s finest work to date – preferably by tossing around unsupported adjectives…say, “arbitrary,” “flimsy,” and “unfinished.” Then, five or six years later, when the novelist in question brings forth his next book, or the one after that, complain loudly about how lame it is compared to his previous masterwork, which, it is to be inferred, you adored. (Bonus points if you actually now call the previous book a “masterwork.” Double bonus points if you also work in the word “limn.”)
The Kakutani Two-Step depends on readers having short memories (or perhaps sagely avoiding Kakutani’s “Books of the Times” columns altogether) and so not noticing the cognitive dissonance. Only fans of the writers she caricatures (and, one imagines, the writers themselves) are likely to detect the sinister signature of the KTS. The latest victim is Jonathan Lethem, whose new Chronic City Kakutani calls “tedious [and] overstuffed”…and that’s just the first sentence of the review! “This fictional Manhattan,” she continues,
has none of the energy or keenly observed grittiness of the real-life Brooklyn that Mr. Lethem captured with such verve in his 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude.
But wait, wasn’t that “dazzling” novel “fundamentally flawed,” with
a series of unconvincing and weirdly forced passages that break the spell that Mr. Lethem has so assiduously created?
Not to mention a “contrived” and “melodramatic” ending?” And “many defects” in between? According to Kakutani, circa 2003, it was. Your takeaway from the Fortress of Solitude review: flawed, uneven, defective. Your takeaway from the Chronic City review: Michiko misses the “vividly . . . movingly” dazzling Fortress of Solitude.
To be sure, it’s possible to square the two Lethem reviews, if you’re enough of a Kakutani exegete to infer that her kneejerk distaste, in each case, is for Lethem’s forays into genre-bending. But all the casual reader will notice is the invidious comparison between the two books, the sudden vanishing of any her earlier reservations, like a magician’s cloth being whisked away to reveal a tiny, perfect turd.
I’m too tired right now to track down other instances of the KTS, but you don’t have to look hard to find them; you might start by Googling David Foster Wallace (and if you think of more, why not leave them in the comment thread?) To be sure, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. It may also be true that Michiko’s judgment works on the time-release principle of certain antacids…that hindsight makes the heart grow fonder. But, even in these lean days for newspapers, the Times presumably employs fact-checkers who could easily catch La Kakutani’s self-misrepresentation. One thing is clear: she can’t be bothered to check herself.