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.
To the panoply of guilty pleasures this world has to offer, I humbly add the New York Post. I'm a Daily News man myself, but really, stuck inside a stalled subway car somewhere under the East River with nothing to read but those creepy Dr. Z acne treatment ads, who cares which paper turns up on an empty seat?When it comes to reading, tabloid journalism is the Twinky at the tip of the food pyramid, and page one is its creamy center. When confronted with the new book assembled by the staff of the NY Post, Headless Body In Topless Bar: The Best Headlines from America’s Favorite Newspaper, I couldn't help myself. Knowing that a bellyache would accompany such indulgence, I still stuffed my face.Of course, we are in the midst of a particularly salacious period of news in the City, which makes the book a timely read, er, leaf-through. Eliot Spitzer's nightmare is a headline writer's wet dream. Have a look at some recent Post fronts (March 11th's "HO NO!" is one of our favorites). All in keeping with the paper's motto, "All the news that's fit to bury beneath a mountain of hooker photos."Ah, but a good hooker story comes along but once in a while. Luckily the Post has mastered the touchstone of any good tabloid front page: the cringe-inducing pun. On the conviction of a cybersex impresario: "YOU'VE GOT JAIL!" On the closing of a Dunkin' Donuts for rodents: "UNDER MOUSE ARREST." On earth's encounter with a worrisome piece of interstellar matter: "KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE!" The CIA should consider reading these headlines to prisoners as a substitute for waterboarding.Yet, like a guy with a megaphone at an otherwise urbane cocktail party, the Post does command attention. Sometimes it even gets it just right. I like the front page from June 27, 2007: a photoshopped picture of Paris Hilton hoisted aloft on the hands of a throng in Times Square with the headline "V-D DAY! PARIS LIBERATED, BIMBOS REJOICE." Then, sometimes there's just no need to dress up a headline, such as on July 30 1985: "EATEN ALIVE! GIANT TIGERS KILL PRETTY ZOO KEEPER WHO 'LOVED ALL ANIMALS.'"A New York Magazine survey named April 15, 1983's "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR" the greatest NY Post headline of all time. As one Post editor puts it, "How do you tell a sensational story other than sensationally?" It's ironic though, that the title of this book is its climax. Sort of like the paper itself: the cover is generally the best part.
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Norman Mailer made an unorthodox appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, beamed in via video link from his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He's apparently not big on technology, however, calling the video-interview system more suited to a "young chimpanzee." The Herald's story on the event includes a number of other classic Mailer quips, including his noting that the many punches he's thrown in his lifetime were "always well considered."
Mayor Daley announced the latest "One Book, One City" selection for Chicago today. I don't know if anyone pays much attention to these recommendations now that the OBOC craze has faded a bit, but the book is worth reading. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark is a somewhat forgotten classic from 1940, a spare but stirring tale of morality in the lawless Old West. I recommend it highly whether you live in Chicago or not.
I first experienced ennui while solving a crossword puzzle -- no, not the actual feeling of listlessness or dissatisfaction; rather, that’s when I first encountered the word. My adventures in a new tongue had begun, a strange language called Crosswordese, which consists of words used often by crossword makers but rarely experienced in the real world. (By the way, in Crosswordese, a crossword maker is known as a cruciverbalist.) Do you speak Crosswordese? When you lose a button from a shirt and can’t find the sewing kit, do you ask your partner where the etui is kept? Might you sometimes mischievously refer to margarine as oleo? Have you ever stridden into a church just to point out what a great apse it has? I started a life of crossword-solving as a teenager, almost three decades before my first novel, Black Chalk, was published, and I give credit to the world of puzzles for helping foster my interest in language. But crosswords are about more than accumulating words: crosswords are about having fun with words; crosswords are, in fact, about loving words. Among my favorite crossword clues are the following (answers at the bottom of this piece in case you want to solve): HIJKLMNO? (5 letters) Site of unexpected change? (4 letters) Where there’s a Will? (12 letters) See, crosswords encourage you to play with language. And, as a novelist, I get to play in the sandbox of words every day. But more than just aiding in a love of language, more than just encouraging you to have fun with words, crosswords also stimulate skills such as lateral thinking, humor, and synonym use. You could say that crosswords are the ideal training tool for a novelist. But the ways in which puzzles have affected my life as a novelist go deeper than the mere enjoyment of solving crosswords. In my early 20s, having discovered that I absolutely loathed Law (the subject of my college degree and subsequent training, and the area in which my parents wished me to work), I needed to find a job. I had known for some time that I wanted to be a novelist, but at that tender age I think I felt too young to write fiction. (And I know I felt considerably too scared.) So instead of turning to novels right away, I got a job in another area I loved: puzzles. And for years, I edited and compiled all sorts of puzzles -- crosswords, logic problems, word searches, sudoku, riddles, spot the difference...How could all of this fail to leach into my fiction? If Black Chalk reads like a puzzle (and many reviewers have stated as much) then it is as much because of my work in that field as it is because I enjoy challenging myself -- I really do like tormenting myself with plot problems, it seems. As a writer you sit on your own in a small room for a very long time -- and one of the ways I like to keep myself entertained, it turns out, is by constantly pivoting and twisting my plots like the pieces of a Rubik’s Cube until I come across a pattern I find particularly pleasing. It feels to me that staring at the blank page is a lot like staring at a blank crossword grid. When I make up a crossword, I have, say, a theme and 10 or a dozen answers that I want to place in the grid. And when I set out to write a novel, I have a theme and 10 or a dozen plot points or developments that I want to place in the story. And so the challenge, in both cases, becomes one of getting everything to interlock, of making everything work together, a matter of filling in the gaps in the most pleasing way possible. Because, let’s face it, what better way is there than solving puzzles to stave off the feeling of…I’m stumbling for the right word here…It’s something like boredom…Dammit, I’m supposed to be good at synonyms…Ah, that’s it: ennui. ⅄∀M∀H⊥∀H ƎNN∀ ؛∀ℲOS ؛(¡O oʇ\ᄅ H) ᴚƎ⊥∀M :sɹǝʍsu∀ Image Credit: Flickr/Chip Griffin
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John Burdett's sequel to Bangkok 8, his mystery set in Thailand, has come out. It's called Bangkok Tattoo. Here's my review of Bangkok 8 (scroll down). Here's EW's review of Bangkok Tattoo. And here's an excerpt.I noticed that Penguin has put out a smart-looking new edition of John Keegan's essential history book, The Second World War. The new edition includes a new foreword by Keegan.It looks like T.C. Boyle will have a new collection of short stories out this fall called Tooth and Claw.
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