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.
A year and a half ago, when BEA was in New York, Max and I decided, against our better judgment, to attend a panel discussion on the fate of book reviewing. The headliner was the intellectual performance artist Christopher Hitchens. However, we both walked away more impressed by the grit, gravity, and grace of panelist John Leonard than we were by Hitch’s charming bloviations.I’d been reading Leonard’s “New Books” column in Harper’s for years, but I emerged from that panel with a more expansive sense of the man, and promptly dug into his essays of the 1970s and 1980s. Those were years when vernacular brio and moral seriousness were not mutually exclusive – when glibness wasn’t held in such high esteem. Like Pauline Kael, Leonard made criticism feel like a vital part of the American intellectual landscape.Moreover, Leonard was a fearless explorer (and often defender) of the new and the unconventional. To name but one example, his last essay for The New York Review of Books (on Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) was a model of sympathetic inquiry.Leonard’s death last week, at age 69, is thus both a substantial loss and a reminder that the life of the mind still matters. Leonard was a great critic. He was also something nobler: a great reader. He will be missed.
Bookseller Chick describes what is currently the bane of booksellers everywhere: those Bluetooth cell phone headsets.In the past, once this formerly erratic behavior was observed the bookseller could then take extra caution or at least have an answer to give other customers if they came up and complained about the person talking to themselves, but now we are left wondering. Are they on the phone? Are the talking with aliens on the rock formerly known as the planet Pluto?When I worked at the bookstore in Los Angeles a few years back, the Bluetooth thing was starting to take hold (they’re early adopters out there with all things cell phone), and all too often, thinking I was being summoned by a book buyer in need of assistance, I would find a patron chatting into his ear piece, as if insane. Worse yet, we would be subjected to half conversations of an all-too-often personal nature – discussions about cheating spouses, play-by-plays of recent therapist sessions, and the like. Makes me glad I don’t work retail any more.
On Tuesday I attended what will almost certainly be my last Dodgers game for a long time. It wasn’t one of the better games I’ve been to. Perhaps because they were playing the Mets, the stands were more crowded than usual. Halfway into a sloppy game the distractable Dodger fans devoted their energies to Thundersticks, shouting matches with transplanted New Yorkers, and the dreaded wave. Hideo Nomo didn’t have his stuff, and the Dodgers were plagued by timid, sloppy baserunning. There was a bit of history, though, as Mike Piazza hit his 351st home run, tying Hall-of-Famer Carlton Fisk for the most career home runs by a catcher. The ball was passed down through the bleachers and dropped over the wall to left fielder Dave Roberts who tossed it in to the ballboy. After the game Piazza said that he was happy to get the ball back and that he looks forward to getting his hands on the one that breaks the record. Over the last three years I’ve been to twenty or so ballgames. It became especially easy after I moved into my current house. At around six, I would hop in my car and drive north on Alvarado to Sunset. I’d park out front of Little Joy Jr. and stop in for a beer and meet whoever was joining me that evening. Then we’d walk back out into the sun and up the hill to Chavez Ravine, purchasing tickets on the way from the cadre of scrambling scalpers. Los Angeles, while better than some places, isn’t known as a great baseball town, and the Dodgers have certainly underperformed since I’ve been around, but I did have some moments at the Stadium that were truly sublime. If you go to enough games, you’re bound to. There was opening day 2003 when we paid 40 bucks to a scalper to sit way up in the top deck behind home plate. Fighter jets flew low over the field and the noise of the sellout crowd mingled with the leftover roar of the engines. Then an Army transport plane dipped low into view and a half a dozen paratroopers leaked out of the side of the plane. As they drifted down they emitted colored smoke, and the trails intertwined as the troopers landed on the ballfield. Then there was a rare damp day in May last year. The Dodgers were playing the Padres or the Brewers or somesuch lowly team. The scalpers were a forlorn lot, knowing that their profits would be slim. My purchase of a field level seat felt like charity. The Stadium was quieter that night and mostly empty, only the diehards had bothered to come out for this meaningless game. A collective calm settled over the whole place, folks in windbreakers with blankets on their lap mesmerized by the crack of the bat, the delicate arc of the ball, and pop as it hit the fielders glove in the misty twilight. Perhaps, the most memorable though, was May 5th, 2002. The Cubs were in town and my friend Matt, an artist who now lives in San Francisco, joined me in the cheap seats for a packed Sunday afternoon game. Cubs fans were liberally sprinkled among us and several fights erupted. Every inning or so another spectator would be escorted from the stadium owing to his disorderly conduct. Neither the game nor its outcome were memorable, the stadium was so full of life. Afterwards the PA announcer Mike Carlucci invited everyone onto the field for music and fireworks in celebration of Cinco de Mayo. As the stands emptied and people spilled across the outfield, the loudspeakers blared Mexican rolas interspersed with several American patriotic anthems. Matt and I spread out in center field, and up above, a fantastic fireworks show enveloped the heavens. An inebriated fellow Dodger fan stood behind us during the festivities and proudly belted out every word to every song, switching languages effortlessly. Even after the music had fallen quiet and the fireworks had faded from the sky, he wasn’t ready to leave, “Play some Puerto Rican music!” He screamed to no one in particular, “play some Puerto Rican music!”And to accompany my little ode to Dodgers baseball, I thought I should mention Roger Angell, whose writing about baseball is one of the reasons I love the game. Two of his classic collections have recently been released in spiffy new editions: Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion and The Summer Game.
So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it’s good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn’t get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So…. where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like “he wondered what colour knickers she wore” and “I’m also very fond of this girl with a squint.” To be more precise, it wasn’t just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn’t fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent’s Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they’re just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante’s Ask the Dust. Nunez’s hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante’s Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I’d say it’s worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later….
It’s been over a decade since James Wood came on the scene to reclaim literary criticism as its own kind of literature, and though all his enthusiasts have a top-ten list of the Wood essays with which they most strenuously disagree, he comes by his reputation as “our best critic” honestly. Indeed, disagreeing with Wood can be an education in and of itself; if I had to choose one critic to pan my own work, it would be Wood. But what if I could choose a critic to praise it?For several years, Wyatt Mason of Harper’s has quietly been reinvigorating an even more recondite form than the critical essay: the literary encomium. As with Wood’s considered corrections, one can disagree with Mason’s glowing appraisals of Mary Gaitskill or Charles Chadwick (I wasn’t as enamored of It’s All Right Now as Mason was), while still being provoked to think – and feel – more deeply about literature.Congenially, Mason’s tastes are closer to mine than are Wood’s. (Witness his translation of Eric Chevillard’s wonderfully weird Palafox.) I’m particularly in his debt for introducing me to the fiction of Leonard Michaels, and at the end of the month, harpers.org will be offering the essay in question to non-subscribers. For the time being, one can check out a brief, but interesting enough, interview about Michaels.
My book-loving friends keep writing me great emails that I feel compelled to share with all of you. Here’s one from my friend John about the great books he’s been reading:Currently reading Libra by Don Delillo. I’ve heard from a few people that it’s a modern classic, and though I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, it is very good. Fictional retelling of the assassination of JFK. I think it might be overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s JFK, but I would say it’s an even more plausible a version of what happened. Just finished reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. Don’t know if you’ve read it, but you probably should. He was a freelance journalist in Vietnam (which is what the book is about) and was also the screenwriter for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Probably the most readable book about the Vietnam War; haven’t read that much though. I also saw The Sheltering Sky on your queue. Amazing book. That really got me into reading again. Very stark, but somehow it struck a chord. Something about wanting to be an ex-pat, but also seeing the hubris that we Americans have, especially in relation to foreign cultures. Some things never change. Probably my fave author of right now is T.C. Boyle. Love his stuff. His last novel, Drop City, is a great read. The thing about him is that his stories are highly readable. Great stories, great characters.A couple of quick comments: I’ve been wanting to read Dispatches for a very long time, and I think most of you know how I feel about T.C. Boyle. Also, everyone should check out John’s new band The Vanity Fair, they were sent here to rock. I also got a great email from longtime Millions contributor Brian that I’d like to share with all of you:Not a lot of time, but just wanted to drop an e-mail, let you know I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Fantastic. He went to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War but felt so strongly he joined the fight. He was in the trenches, fought, got shot in the throat, recovered, took part in street battles in Barcelona, was pursued by the police for being a member of the Marxist group P.O.U.M., fled to England and wrote the book. This passage is from just before he fled: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination. White sierras, goatherds, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemons, girls in black mantillas, the wines of Malaga and Alicante, cathedrals, cardinals, bull-fights, gypsies, serenades — in short, Spain. Of all Europe it was the country that had had most hold upon my imagination.”Great stuff guys. Thanks! If anyone else out there wants to contribute, just drop me an email. Remember, my Millions is your Millions. I have tons of stuff to write about, including the two books I finished last week, but I’m off to New York tomorrow for a few days, maybe a week, so it may have to wait until I get back.