Let’s welcome Ed Champion back from an exile brought on by the unlikely confluence of racist DJs and a careless Indian newspaper.
Sometimes I think Mrs. Millions prefers to ignore my blogging obsession – I do get the occasional eye roll – but then she goes and surprises me. Ain’t she the greatest? So, yesterday, thanks to our car being in the shop, Mrs. Millions was stuck with a long bus ride from near downtown to our neighborhood on the north side. I was going about my business when this text message arrived on my cell phone: “Sighting. The ultimate book on how to draw robots.”Hilarious. But now, of course, it must go on the blog. Mrs. Millions tells me you couldn’t miss the guy because how often do you see an Ignatius J. Reilly type reading a robot art book on public transit. Well, probably more often than you’d guess. Of course being obsessive about these things, I had to quiz Mrs. Millions so we could determine exactly what the book was. Turns out it’s called You Can Draw Transforming Robots (You Can!). Those are the best kind of robots. I’m mostly working from home these days, which doesn’t afford me much opportunity to engage in my favorite Chicago hobby, public transit bookspotting, luckily, Mrs. Millions is picking up my slack. As usual.
I’ve noticed lately that a couple of Web sites have put together litblog roundups. At Notes from the (Legal) Underground, they take a break from lawyering most weeks for the “The Monday Morning Books Blogging Post“. Chekhov’s Mistress, meanwhile, has a “Headlines” page which aggregates the headlines from dozens of litblogs and lists them on one easy to find page. (This is similar to what I’ve done in my “Book News via RSS” section which aggregates feeds from newspaper book sections.) Finally, I recently discovered a new participant in the litblog roundup racket. At New West, Allen M. Jones has put together the first two of what I hope will be many litblog roundups. Roundups aside, in my capacity as a graduate journalism student, I recommend that anyone with an interest in citizen or community journalism poke around the New West site.
Ms. Millions and I embarked upon a whirlwind trip to the East Coast this weekend for equal parts partying and wedding planning, and although Jet Blue’s inflight television distracted me from my reading, I managed to get some done, as did several other folks that I spotted in airports and on the planes. Lots of folks had their noses in the usual, low impact airport reading, but I also noticed quite a few people diverting themselves with some pretty literary fare. Off the top of my head I can remember spotting Family History by Dani Shapiro and Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds by America’s super intellectual, Harold Bloom, but there were others as well. It was good to see people getting some reading in on their way to their far flung destinations, which reminded me about an award I heard about last week that celebrates books that take place in far flung destinations. The Kiriyama Prize recognizes books “that will contribute to greater understanding of and among the peoples and nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asia” in two categories, fiction and non-fiction. Here’s their map of the Pacific Rim. The fiction finalists are Brick Lane by Monica Ali, My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa, and The Guru of Love by Samrat Upadhyay: five highly regarded books from last year. It’s interesting to see an award that groups books by subject matter and setting rather than the location, nationality, or gender of the author. Here are the non-fiction finalists.
Just out is The Bones, the debut novel of playwright and screenwriter Seth Greenland. The title of the novel refers to washed-up shock comic Frank Bones who tries to resurrect his career by calling on a now-successful sitcom writer acquaintance of his from years ago. The reviews are starting to come in on this one, and the sound pretty good. The Bones is described as “savagely funny” in the San Francisco Chronicle, which goes on to say that “Greenland elegantly avoids the usual Hollywood novel trap — he doesn’t dumb down or patronize his characters, and he provides them with pitch-perfect dialogue, the clipped, faux-avuncular patois of the tribe.” Greenland also merits a profile by David Ulin in the LA Times. And to top it off Greenland has a guest column up at TEV today. Check it out.Amy Hempel has a new collection of short stories out called The Dog of the Marriage, which was well-reviewed in the LA Times. To whit: “Short on dramatic incident, the stories risk running out of steam. Mostly they don’t, propelled by Hempel’s wit, language and love of fur. Moving through the collection, the reader grows increasingly intimate with Hempel’s sensibility. The women she speaks through feel mortality penetrating aliveness at all times, but rather than being shocked, they find that inevitable and funny.” “Beach Town” one of the shorter stories in the collection can be found here.The number one Booksense pick for April is Joshilyn Jackson’s debut novel, Gods in Alabama. Jackson has a truly endearing blog called Faster Than Kudzu in which she publicly works through her first-time-author anxiety and excitement. (aside: I have to say that I love the recent trend of authors doing these sorts of blogs. It really does make me more likely to want to read their books.) Gods in Alabama is the story of Arlene Fleet, who has fled Possett, Alabama, and made a deal with God to stay on the straight and narrow so long as He makes sure “the body is never found.” As I look around the Web, the buzz on this book is nearly deafening, and there seem to be expectations of this one being a big seller.A.L. Kennedy’s fifth novel, Paradise is getting some unabashedly good reviews. Publishers Weekly says “jaw-droppingly good,” and I love this take on Kennedy from Richard Wallace in the Seattle Times: “In my household, when you review a book by A.L. Kennedy, you better keep a close watch on the merchandise. For when the time comes for double-checking the quotes you’ve chosen to include in your review, you can’t find the book. That’s how readable she is.” The review goes on to describe the book as “a stunning depiction of alcoholism, as funny as it is sad, as ironic as it is romantic.” If you must make up your own mind, an ample excerpt is available here.
Millions contributor Kevin has an incisive review of Jon Meacham’s popular new biography American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House in the New York Observer:It’s during the White House years that Mr. Meacham’s story takes hold. We see Andrew Jackson making the hard trip east from Tennessee to Washington where the political permanent class waits in judgment, wary of Jackson’s frontier background and fearful of the source of his power. Jackson’s landslide victory in 1828 marked the first time that a president was elevated entirely on the strength of popular support, and the Founders’ low regard for the common intelligence still percolated through Washington.
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.
After my brief service was completed I spent a week in Istanbul and returned to New York. In the meanwhile I picked up a collection of Yasar Kemal’s short stories, Sari Sicak, Teneke ve Diger Hikayeler (Yellow Heat, Tin Can and Other Stories) from my parents’ library. I was in between cities and about to quit my job, hence a collection proved perfect for the time. Kemal has a very distinct style that reflects an Anatolian tone and includes long depictions of nature and rural life and lengthy character analyses. The collection included some of his most famous pieces such as “Sari Sicak” (“Yellow Heat”) and “Teneke” (“Tin Can”), which, as do most of the other stories, reflect on the difficulties of rural life in the southern towns and regions surrounding Adana, a city now known for its cotton farmers and back then for its rice plantations. The backwards methods of planting rice resulted in swamps and an increase in the number of mosquitoes, and therefore malaria. Kemal reflects on the ill approach of the government towards the rural population and the generous benefits it granted to landlords, who, without the slightest regard to the peasants, flooded villages, planted rice, created swamps and did not even wince at the death of hundreds of men, women and children due to malaria. Reading Kemal’s stories, the reader easily identifies with the daily troubles of the villagers that believe in a just government and seek help, all to their dismay. Depictions of corrupt and impossible situations reach a new zenith in Kemal’s stories, and, hold true even today – despite the changes in setting. Books by Yasar Kemal.Upon arriving in New York, I received four great books as birthday presents. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange from Sylvia and Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky and The Best American Magazine Writing 2005 compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and published by The Columbia University Press from Selin and Siddhesh. I immediately started reading The Best American Magazine Writing 2005. I am currently reading stories at random and so far I read four out of the seventeen pieces in the collection: Seymour M. Hersch’s “Torture at Abu Ghraib“, Ned Zeman’s “The Man Who Loved Grizzlies”, Andrew Corsello’s “The Wronged Man” and Samantha Power’s Dying in Darfur. I am not sure if I agree one hundred percent with Nicholas Lemann’s assertion that this specific collection comprises the best pieces of writing to come out of the U.S. in 2005, but nevertheless the stories are incredibly well written, insightful and fresh. I enjoyed the ones I read thus far and hope that the rest will be just as good.See also: Part 1, 3