Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don’t make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many “best of” lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson’s first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain’s nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They’re both nearly perfect, and I don’t find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I’ll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don’t think I’ll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis’ very fine Old Devils as I’ve been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
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)
One of the nice things about working at a bookstore is that after constant exposure to thousands of books I tend to have a sizable stash of titles and authors that I know are worth reading stored in the back of my head. Lately, during my day-off wanderings around LA, I make sure to duck into any good will/Salvation Army type places I come across, in order to make good use of this extra information that I lug around involuntarily. Luckily, in my neighborhood there seems to be an inexhaustable supply of such stores. Almost all of these places have a ramshackle shelf of books against the back wall. The standard pricing is fifty cents for a paperback and an even dollar for a hardcover, so it’s worth it to wade through the broken appliances and dusty clothing racks in order to do a little treasure hunting. I invariably am able to walk away with a gem or two. A couple of weeks ago I came across hardcovers of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I swiftly decided to rescue them from an extremely seedy second hand store a few blocks from MacArthur Park, but before I left a third book caught my eye. A hardcover copy of Prize Stories of the Seventies from the O. Henry Awards was tucked away among some lesser books, so I grabbed that too. I was especially pleased to find this book for two reasons. First, in my opinion the O. Henry short story collections are the best out there, far superior to the Best American Short Story series, which, while always filled with excellent stories, never does anything to surprise you. Second, my contemporary liturature classes and creative writing workshops in college taught me that the ’70s were an especially fertile time for the short story. The editor of this collection, Willie Abrahams, rightly states that the collection of stories he has assembled “repudiate altogether the notion — widely held in the previous decade — of the story as an endagered or outmoded species.” This collection, in fact, represents the last time that the form was commercially viable, a time when there were many more publications devoted to the form, the heyday of Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, John Updike, and Tim O’Brien, all of whom are represented here. While it is always a joy to read stories by these luminaries, the beauty of the short story collection is that it will almost always yield a writer or two whom I have never encountered. This collection included several. Judith Rascoe’s story “Small Sounds and Tilting Shadows” is remarkable; it is the tale of an addled woman who insinuates herself into taking care of a mysterious man’s vacant apartment. As time passes the apartment becomes both her prison and her haven, and the presence of apartment’s missing owner looms ever larger. After just a handful of stories it’s hard not to see that many are inhabited by addled women “The Dead” by Joyce Carol Oates (a breathtakingly masterful story), “Last Courtesies” by Ella Leffland, and “My Father’s Jokes” by Patricia Zelver. These struggling women are neatly countervailed by stories about creaking, crumbling families: Updike’s “Separating” and “Alternatives” by Alice Adams, to name just two. The remaining stories, with a couple of notable exceptions, fall neatly into a third catagory, the experimental, post-modern story, betraying the mirthless, helpless rage of the author toward the frustrations that the decade presented. These were both dated and barely readable, but their themes were consistent with rest of the stories in the collection.In the movie “Dazed and Confused” set in 1976, the middle of this forsaken decade, Cynthia, the red headed dreamer who’s too smart for her backward Texas town says “The fifties were boring, the sixties rocked. The seventies, oh my God they obviously suck. Maybe the eighties will be radical.” As I recall, the eighties comment got a big laugh in the theatre, but, in terms of the general well-being of the populace, she wasn’t very far off. The seventies really did suck. Americans were disillusioned, over-medicated, and terrified of cities that had turned into war zones. This level of disgust is so palpable that it is both the surface and the subtext of nearly every story in the collection. The characters are irreconcilably distraught by the failures of the previous decade. A startling proportion of the characters are addicted to pills, and not a few commit suicide if they aren’t killed first, whether by neighbors or the Vietcong. It is a painful collection to read, and it is remarkable to see how bleak a picture of the decade is painted. At the same time, the pain produces beautiful emotional prose. Most of the stories, though imbued with sorrow, were a joy to read. And my favorite “A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow was perhaps the most sorrowful of all.Why Dontcha Take a Picture, It’ll Last LongerTwo very cool photography books came in today. One was called The Innocents, a collection by the photographer Taryn Simon. The book is a chronicle of former death row inmates who have been exonerated. The book combines faces with stories to powerful effect. The second photo book of note today is no less political, though it is far more colorful. Photographer Jamel Shabazz was responsible for one of the coolest books of the last few years, Back In The Days, a collection of street photgraphy from the early hip hop era, before the look was commodified, back when it was real. His new book The Last Sunday in June chronicles New York city’s yearly gay pride parade. Days brims with solemn authenticity while Last Sunday explodes with audacious color. Both are worth more than a look.
Derek followed through with his longstanding plan to rabblerouse at this year’s New Hampshire primary. Check out his blog for dispatches. Joining him are three other esteemed bloggers: Cem, El, and Aeri. I’m hoping they regale us with their thoughts, as well. By the way, the best over book about rabblerousing whilst following presidential campaigns is Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail by good ol’ Hunter S. Thompson.
Books aren’t too long, they’re too big. They don’t fit in your pocket or purse. You have to cram them into backpacks or shove them under your arm. And I’m not even talking about hardcovers (I can’t afford those); I’m talking about these big paperbacks. Sure, some of them look pretty but wouldn’t it be great to have a paperback stowed in my jacket pocket, ready for an idle moment? If you’ve ever been to a used book store, you’ve seen that they used to make books like this, small and pocket-sized. These books weren’t limited to the mysteries, romances, and mega-bestsellers that garner “mass-media” releases these days. On my bookshelves I have editions of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, for example. They aren’t the editions you’ll find by clicking the links I’ve provided, instead they fit very nearly in the palm of my hand. I’ve always been enamored by those little books, the Dells, the Bantams, the Penguins and the rest, but I’ve been thinking about these little books a lot more of late because I spend a lot of time on public transportation these days. And, frankly, it’s a pain to maneuver a big book around on a crowded bus or train. It’s no fun trying to extricate my book from my bag only to cram it back in hastily when I arrive at my destination. I can tell my fellow travelers experience the same difficulties, too. I would make a plea for publishers to bring back the pocket-sized books that I love, but I know that probably won’t happen. I’m told that publishing company consolidation in the 1980s and an ever-growing concern for the bottom line have made that impossible. But if you want to relive the glory days of the paperback, take a look at these very cool sites: The Paperback Revolution (a stunning presentation of the glory days of the paperback book) and Edward Gorey’s legendary covers for Anchor books (read the article and then click the link at the bottom to see the covers).
Dave Eggers, as you may have heard, was tapped to write a new introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The piece glows with praise for the gigantic novel, as one might expect (since such intros are, in many cases, packaging to sell the novel.) However, as The Rake has discovered, this isn’t the only time that Eggers has written about Infinite Jest. He was, in a 1996 review, very disparaging of the book. Perhaps Eggers has changed his mind about Infinite Jest, or perhaps the offer to write the intro was simply too tempting to turn down. As ever, I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, but this smacks of opportunism.
As any student of the history of the English language – or of Walter Scott – knows, our having, as English speakers, different words for food on the hoof and food on the table is no idle fact. Consider the opening scene of Ivanhoe, in which the swineherd Gurth and Wamba the jester debate this very point:Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.”Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.””And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?””Pork,” answered the swine-herd.”I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?””It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”After the Norman Invasion in 1066, Norman French became the language of power in Britain, spoken by the king and court and any who wanted favor from them. The conquered residents of Britain, speakers of the Germanic Old English, were those who raised, tended, and hunted animals: Thus, cow (kuh), calf (kalb), swine (schweine), deer (deor), sheep (schaf), and hen (huhn) for living animals, while the wealthy Norman conquerors tended to be those who enjoyed the animals at table: Thus, beef (boeuf), pork (porc), mutton (mouton), and poultry (poulet).The English words have always seemed to me more sturdy – as well as more coarse. Like chewing a mouthful of rocks or biting into the branch of a sapling – too fibrous to chew, sour with sap. The French words seem like tiny exhalations of essence – bouef, mouton – the soul of the thing rather than sinews and bones.I think brains can take the character of their mother tongues. I am quite sure my brain is Anglo-Saxon – all sap and fibers and rocks and bones.