In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
I recently bought a t-shirt. This is not exactly news, though my sartorial spending typically averages four or five dollars per year. What was notable, however, was that it featured the art from the Nintendo game “Contra”—two gun-blasting mercenaries shadowed by a drooling, looming alien. I later realized that I hadn’t bought such a shirt in years—and not just because it horrified my wife. My drawers were once full of such tees, but through the endless clothing cycle, they’ve ceded to whites and blues. I wonder where they’ve gone.
Remembering vanished shirts is a somewhat wistful thing. Each one means so much, yet each will disappear. In exchange for their service—absorbing our sweat, airing our interests, starting our conversations—the least we can do is offer them tribute. Below, then, are five of my most deserving.
House of Pain (1993-1995)
“House of Pain” represented the nexus of three unfortunate trends: an infatuation with House of Pain, a growing allowance, and a need to go to malls (which also yielded such nuggets as “Big Johnson Erection Company,” “Big Johnson Beer,” and untold swimsuit posters). Its purchase followed two that my mother confiscated: a Cypress Hill pot-leaf shirt and a Funkdoobiest tee, replete with smoking hooker. Yes, I know. My mother was a monster.
“House of Pain,” however, snuck past the censors, and I wore it with dubious pride. To make my tastes even clearer, I bought a House of Pain hat; thank God they didn’t make pants. Eventually, the faux-Heineken logo on its back tore from the fabric, and “House of Pain” was discarded. Farewell, old friend, farewell. I jump around for thee.
Miller Genuine Draft (1995-1998)
“Miller Genuine Draft” wasn’t a particular favorite, but it served a definite purpose: “Hey, look, everybody! I’m drinking!” Throughout the mid-nineties, I sported an array of such shirts, shilling for brands that I hadn’t actually drank: Rumple Minze, Red Stripe, Boone’s Farm, Dewar’s. The idea was that I was “cool,” although I’m fairly sure I wasn’t.
Today, when I see a teen skulking in a Bud Light tee, I think, “Okay, little guy—you’ve had yourself a beer. We get it.” It takes hindsight to see the desperation of such shirts—and that they’re equivalent to wearing a Tampax tee because you’ve finally got your period.
Uff Da! (1997-2002)
As I was told a handful of times over its dazzling five-year run, “Uff Da!” was a Norwegian term of excitement; the shirt may have been the product of a small Wisconsin brewery. Whatever its origin, I found it pleasingly elusive, cheerful but obscure. It never failed to gain mention, and even The Bard took note: I wore it to a 1998 Bob Dylan show, at which I sat in the first row behind the stage. Every so often, Dylan turned to acknowledge the fans at his back, and at one point—possibly during “Joey”—he turned and spotted “Uff Da!” As a Minnesota native, he was likely familiar with the phrase, and its 200-point font would’ve been large enough to see—even from the stage, through the glaring banks of light. There was a glint in his eye, and he gave me a nod, as if to say, “Yes, my son. ‘Uff Da!’ ‘Uff Da!’ ”
He might have been looking at someone else, though.
Matthew’s Bar Mitzvah Was a Big Hit! (1997)
I never knew Matthew, and I don’t know if his Bar Mitzvah was really a hit. And that was exactly the point. For half a decade, my fashion goal was to stockpile the most ironic, snort-inducing shirts I could find. I haunted musty Goodwill racks, ragged yard-sale piles, the drawers of sleeping roommates. The result was a parade of slugs, cheese, and terrible bands. One pictured Howie Mandel; another, Jimmy Carter.
I must have assumed that this conveyed an ornate intellect; as Louis Menand recently wrote in The New Yorker, “Part of the enjoyment people take in parody is the enjoyment of feeling intelligent. Not everyone gets the joke.” Thankfully, though, the joke got stale, and the phase eventually passed (possibly swept off by Graydon Carter’s “death of irony”). But remnants do remain. On hot days, I can still be seen in a kelly-green Detlef Schrempf jersey. Part of me thinks it’s funny.
Blue Shirt (2008-Present)
Like “Miller Genuine Draft,” I mention “Blue Shirt” for its wider personal meaning. After all the rap and beer and irony, I’ve come to value simplicity in my shirts. There’s enough static in the world, enough impotent distraction. Our tastes are not so riveting. This turn towards plainness is likely an effect of aging—an erosion of cultural interest and a shift of priorities. Whatever its cause, such shirts are my present, and will likely be my future. I can’t picture myself in a nursing home, dribbling egg down a novelty tee. Call it a benefit of growing older.
(Image: Ringflash Tshirt Blank Template, image from geishaboy500’s photostream)
Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours was one of the biggest hits of the last ten years, so it’s fair to say that his follow-up Specimen Days is being anticipated by many readers. Like The Hours, Specimen Days is composed of three interrelated stories. The title of the novel is borrowed from Walt Whitman’s autobiography, and much as Virginia Woolf was the inspiration for The Hours, Whitman provides raw material for Specimen Days. The book gets a gushing review in the New York Observer: Specimen Days is “an extraordinary book, as ambitious as it is generous; and the depth of its kindness, or grace, is to convey that it is we ourselves, the multitude, who are extraordinary, or might be.”Another anticipated follow up is Dai Sijie’s Mr. Muo’s Traveling Couch, which comes on the heels of Sijie’s popular novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Traveling Couch (no relation to the Traveling Pants as far as I know) is about a French-trained psychoanalyst who returns to his native China where his sweetheart is a political prisoner. You can read an excerpt of the book here.Terry Gamble has new book out, Good Family, her second novel after her 2003 debut, Water Dancers. Good Family starts like this: “In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train.”Kaui Hart Hemmings is the author of a debut collection of stories, House of Thieves, that sounds very interesting. Hemmings is Hawaiian, and PW says “a dusty, dreamy Hawaii rife with sexual frustration, loneliness and adolescent heartbreak is the setting for the nine stories of Hemmings’s bold debut collection.” Her story “The Minor Wars” appeared in the 2004 Best Nonrequired Reading, and here you can read an excerpt of the title story which appeared in Zoetrope: All Story.
It seems like there’s a new magazine debuting every week. After Brigid Hughes was ousted at the Paris Review, she started her own litmag called A Public Space, the debut issue of which has just arrived. Contained within: work by Charles D’Ambrosio, Kelly Link, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Rick Moody, and others. Here’s the full TOC.
Michael Chabon’s official Web site doesn’t get much attention from the author. He’ll post longer items from time to time as well as the occasional cryptic note about the various projects he’s working on. Chabon has now, however, decided to pack it in with this Web site business:Lately I have been suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury that makes typing a chore and clicking an agony. As I have been spending less time online I have found that I’ve lost interest in the web as a whole, and in my site in particular. I’m tired of having to maintain www.michaelchabon.com, but I hate that it gets stale, and so quickly. Yet I don’t feel comfortable with or have any interest in getting somebody else to do it for me. So I’ve decided, not without regret, to take it down, a little at a time, starting with the posting of my monthly Details column.On the other hand, Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union will be arriving in May.
Most of you have probably read it, or at least heard about it: Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker posits that the cultural inter-borrowing that long underpinned the vibrancy of American music has fallen by the wayside in the current era of mopey indie rock (I mostly agree). The essay is good – though-provoking – but what has really rounded it out has been his series of responses, on his blog, to the various letters he received – 1, 2, 3, 4 – which have turned his effort into the sort of bull session that regularly happens among music fans.In a similar vein, in this case in the world a film, One-Way Street posits that we have a problem we never expected: “an American cinema that’s too good.” The argument is fairly convincing. But I can’t help but think that some arguments to the contrary might turn the post into a bull session as intriguing as the one Frere-Jones has curated at the New Yorker.
I noticed that in the past few days several people have come to this blog after searching Andrei Codrescu and hurricane. Codrescu, a Romanian poet, writer and NPR commentator, is a favorite of mine and when I realized that he makes his home in New Orleans, I became worried that he might be missing. I’m guessing that those searching for him on Google are worried, too. In an interview a little more than a year ago Codrescu, like so many others, dismissed the threat to New Orleans:Standaert: You live in New Orleans, which could be submerged in a matter of a few short hours if a ‘category five’ hurricane hits the city full bore. Does this frighten you? Sorry if I brought it to mind! I’ve heard other residents say with a devil may care wave of the hand that it would be appropriate if New Orleans was Pompeii-ed, Atlantis-ed, or otherwise Sodom and Gomorra-ed. Are these people nuts? Or does living in New Orleans breed a laissez faire attitude toward eminent apocalypse? Is it the decadent caramelized, sugar powdered, steaming apple beignets?Codrescu: So what’s living in San Francisco like? Or L.A.? Or New York? Or anywhere on the path of Comet from Hell? Be serious, Mike. This just ain’t a safe universe. People in New Orleans get great pleasure out of possible disaster just like Venetians do: they are in a hurry to make beauty because they are so close to the elemental (fury) gods. But anyone who decided to be boring because they live on a rock under the desert, is either crazy or hasn’t taken enough LSD. Or they may just be boring, which is incurable. There is nothing sicker than a bunker.I was relieved to hear that Codrescu is safe and in Baton Rouge. Yesterday he mourned on NPR. Like so many others he is both chastened by the wrath of Mother Nature and angry that his beloved city has been destroyed.
Flip to the back of a new book. What do you see? Blurbs. Line after line of praise, proclamations, and predictions. Tucked in a small corner square is an author’s photo, a passport-size acknowledgment of the face behind the book. Often those faces are hidden inside a jacket flap.
Bring back the book jacket photo.
Bring back those full-page portraits that pronounced I wrote a book, damn it.
For The Reivers, William Faulkner stands in front of a bookshelf full of Modern Library titles. He wears a tie and suspenders, with The Philosophy of Nietzsche and Cities of the Plain at his back. He doesn’t look at us, but at the book open in his hands.
Framed in gold and set against black, Louise Erdrich’s photo for Tales of Burning Love feels pronounced. The novel begins: “Holy Saturday in an oil boomtown with no insurance. Toothache.” You can hear Erdrich, confident yet controlled, spin that yarn for us.
I’m a little afraid for Richard Ford on the back of Rock Springs, his collection of stories. Ford stands in the middle of a snow-lined Montana dirt road, against a backdrop of mountains. He doesn’t seem too concerned, and the pose matches the prose, after all. The first line of the title story is “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.”
A novel is an accomplishment, something to be celebrated. Paradise by Toni Morrison got a fuller photo treatment than Beloved and Song of Solomon, and the author deserves it. Morrison’s countenance tells us: here is a story. Read it.
“Even a selected display of one’s early work,” John Cheever writes in the preface to The Stories of John Cheever, “will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” Cheever, wearing an open-necked shirt and sport jacket, smiles on the back. He looks pleasantly resigned.
John Steinbeck channels Vincent Price on the back of The Winter of Our Discontent. Appropriate for the novel’s ominous epigraph: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.”
Published in 1992, Susan Minot’s shot on the back of Folly is early ’90s cool: hair up, back, and messed, with an unbuttoned denim jacket. An interesting contrast with a work of historical fiction prefaced by an endlessly appropriate quote from Blaise Pascal: “Man is so necessarily foolish that not to be a fool is merely a varied freak of folly.”
Previously: Edan Lepucki on Marion Ettlinger