I loved reading long before I started working at a book store, but until I started working there I was only familiar with a relatively small universe of writers whose oeuvres I would methodically work through. Back then I didn’t always have a huge “to read” list, and so I would roam used bookstores looking for something that piqued my interest. At some point I started spending a lot of time in the anthology aisles of these book stores. For an undirected reader looking for a fiction fix, you can’t really beat the anthology. A good one will provide dozens of pleasurable experiences and introduce you to new writers or reacquaint you with writers you’ve forgotten. Perhaps the best thing about them is that you can put an anthology down after a few stories and then pick it up whenever you’re in the mood for a story. If you have a few anthologies around, you always have a short story close at hand. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, if the bulging anthology section at my bookstore was any indication, the anthology is not a dying breed. Here’s a sampling of anthologies to get you started:
Sorry about the infrequency of updates. I saw the Walkmen play two nights this weekend. The new songs are great. The new album will be called Bows and Arrows and it’ll be out some time next February.If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I am a fan of food writing (Jeffrey Steingarten, Calvin Trillin, and Jonathan Gold are my favorites), and all too often I find myself allured by a brand new restaurant that I can’t possibly afford. Food writing, more than any other type of journalism, tends to dwell upon the personality of the writer, and so as I devote untold hours to living vicariously, I get to know my food writers pretty well. For quite awhile now I have enjoyed weekly imaginary meals with LA Weekly food writer Michelle Huneven. She’s eloquent and friendly and thorough; not as adventurous as her predecessor Jonathan Gold, but sometimes a peaceful and upscale imaginary lunch is exactly what I’m in the mood for. So, naturally, the other day when I saw that she had a new novel out, I was intrigued. It’s called Jamesland, and it was put out by Knopf (a good sign). Then I noticed that the LA Weekly published an excerpt, which I promptly read. It was surprisingly good, compelling enough to make me want to read the book. You can find the excerpt here.You may have heard of “the original club kid,” James St. James. He arrived in New York City towards the end of the Warhol heyday, and with his cadre of maniacs, built a new “scene” from the ground up. It was Studio 54 for the next generation: drugs, sex and a taste for the macabre and bizarre. Fast forward a few years: a murder has shattered the fantasy they created for themselves, and James is spiraling into drug addiction. At this point he decided to write a book: it is half memoir, half true crime account of the “clubland murder.” It came out a few years ago under the title, Disco Bloodbath. Then this year it was made into a (profoundly forgettable) movie called Party Monster. Though the movie is bad, the book is not, and now it has finally been released as a paperback (and retitled Party Monster: A Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland). It’s hard to find a book more fun than this one.A new issue of my favorite magazine came out. The latest installment of Colors is devoted to slums. In classic Colors fashion, their eye is unblinking, yet they do not dwell upon misery or pass judgment, instead they focus on how these hand made cities are an example of human ingenuity and a will to survive and live a life of dignity. Where there is beauty and humor to be found in these places, Colors finds it. These people are everyone, the magazine seems to say.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.
JK Rowling nearly had “to stow her top secret notes for book seven” of the Harry Potter series when flying from New York to England recently due to restrictions on carry on items. “They let me take it on thankfully, bound up in elastic bands,” she told fans on her Web site and attested that she would have sailed back if she had not been able to take the pages with her in the plane. The Guardian has all the details. It would be easy to poke fun at Rowling’s dilemma, but I’d rather push them to let books back on planes (flights between the U.S. and Britain still face baggage restrictions due to the recently foiled terror plots). I can’t imagine flying without a book or two. That’s when I get my best reading done.