I heard from folks in Iowa about the visit by Jim Shepard for his “audition” for the Director spot. Shepard’s sense of humor apparently sat well with students who appreciated the levity injected into the mock workshop that Shepard conducted. The mock workshop wasn’t all funny stuff, though, and students were impressed with the thoroughness that Shepard brought to the discussion of the stories that were critiqued. The reading also went over well. Sheppard read a little from his novel Project X and a little from his collection of stories Love and Hydrogen. The reading was entertaining but also brief – by all accounts a plus for MFA candidates who doubtless sit through more and longer readings than almost anyone. For his craft talk, Shepard discussed Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency.” I’m told that Shepard’s visit was the most well-received so far, but there are also rumors going around that Shepard has reservations about taking the job, which he touched upon in this article from the Des Moines Register. Next up: final candidate, Ben Marcus.
Recently two people who wouldn’t seem to have much in common—my 26-year-old brother and my one-year-old son—have both had me thinking about wonder and fear, and how their experiences of those two things are similar to each other’s, and different from my own.
My brother Ryan is traveling right now, halfway through a backpacking trip that will last through to the early summer. Before he left, he took a Saturday morning bus down to Philadelphia to say goodbye. I waited for him on the front stoop of my apartment building, with my son James perched on my hip. We spotted him when he was still a block away and even at a distance I could tell Ryan was grinning; as the youngest sibling in our family, he had always been the one left behind, but now it was his turn to skip away.
Each morning I wake early to the sound of James crying down the hall. Like my brother abroad, the world is a strange place to him and he’s often scared. I bring him into the bed where he nurses with my wife; then it’s up for breakfast and the official start of the day. I’ve lately become an expert with our toaster; the bread always comes out just right. I eat my cereal while James munches on his diced banana, sometimes smearing the fruit across the table, sometimes putting it into his mouth.
Over the last few weeks James has learned to “cruise,” that is to walk side-shuffle by holding onto the edge of a couch or by pressing himself against a wall. It was while watching him try to bridge the short gap between our bureau and our bed that I first thought about how his days are like my brother’s. The previous evening Ryan had sent an email about a harrowing bus ride he’d just taken into the Himalayan foothills north of Delhi. He said that when he’d looked out his window, there was a sheer thousand foot drop where the road was supposed to have been. I imagine James, if he had the words, would describe his days in much the same way.
In the afternoon James and I take a long walk. When I first moved to Philadelphia four years ago, I was running a lot and I liked the idea of trying never to follow the same route twice. Now James and I trace the same path everyday: 20 blocks east to the river on Pine, 20 blocks back west on Spruce. I like being able to anticipate the topography of the sidewalk, to steer the stroller around the same loose patch of bricks that I avoided yesterday, and to know by the cloud cover whether the children at the nursery school we pass along the way will be playing indoors or out.
Even amid such routine, I still have moments of wanderlust. Every now and again a whiff of burning trash will awaken the physical memory of being alone in La Paz when I was twenty. Or something about the way a woman pokes her head out of a third floor window will remind me of what it felt like to watch the sun go down in Darjeeling. I feel myself drawn towards the airport in such moments, but not in a serious way. There’s James to take care of, and my wife who’d be surprised if I didn’t come home. But more than that, I know that the exhilaration I felt when I woke up in Delhi for the first time isn’t open to me anymore. This is something that I think James, who no longer pays attention to a blue plastic flower he couldn’t get enough of a month ago, understands too.
Of the many misconceptions I had about what it would be like to grow older, two stand out above the rest. The first concerns freedom which I thought about in the same way I thought about candy: I couldn’t imagine how in both cases more was not always better. It would have been impossible to convince myself ten years ago that the small orbit of my current days would feel as satisfying as it does. This I think is the kind of knowledge that is hardest to communicate across generational lines, that in the future you won’t desire the same things you desire right now.
The second misconception is about fear. Watching James, and thinking about how we interact, it’s easy to see why as a child I assumed that the world would becomes less scary as I grew older. He is terrified of being left alone in his crib and I come take him out; a siren sounds outside, and he clings to my leg. His days are filled with at least equal parts wonder and fear, and from that perspective, it must seem as though I command the world.
But I don’t of course. Though my fears are less broadly distributed than they used to be, they are perhaps more deeply felt. I can go days and sometimes even whole weeks without feeling afraid of anything, but then in a moment at night I’ll understand that my wife and I are not promised to fall asleep beside each other forever, and that James, who cruises around the living room each morning, will have to learn the most important things in life on his own.
[Image credit: Abnel Gonzalez]
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.”
If I’m planning on seeing a movie, I don’t typically look at reviews of it beforehand. I prefer to go into the experience with an open mind. And even though newspaper movie reviewers don’t tend to “spoil” the key plot points, I’d just as well not know anything about the plot so that every twist and turn is unexpected. The same thing goes for book reviews. There have even been times when I’ve stopped reading a book review halfway in when I realized that I wanted to read the book being reviewed. Setting the review aside, I’ll revisit it once the book is complete.And so with early reviews of books I’d like to read trickling in, I’m setting them aside to pour over once I’ve read the books. At the top of my list is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I was able to get my hands on an early copy, and I’ll be eagerly jumping in as soon as I finish this week’s New Yorker. Bookforum, meanwhile, has already posted its review of the book. In the third paragraph, reviewer Benjamin Anastas writes “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is many things at once: a work of alternate history, a medium-boiled detective story, an exploration of the conundrum of Jewish identity, a meditation on the Zionist experiment, the apotheosis thus far of one writer’s influential sensibility.” I haven’t read further than that, though, as I don’t want anything to put a dent into my anticipation.Elsewhere, hungry readers have cracked into some other hotly anticipated novels. Bookdwarf has a look at Ian McEwan’s slim new tome On Chesil Beach. She initially calls it an “odd, intimate book,” but ultimately gives it her seal of approval, calling it “superb.”Anne Fernald landed a copy of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Falling Man and offers up her initial thoughts. The book is yet another entrant in the “9/11 novel” category, but Anne clearly didn’t find it hackneyed or overwrought. Instead she calls it “wonderful… excellent but not the very, very best of his work.” Later on she declares, “Oh, the marvel of watching DeLillo reveal the poisonous thoughts of an ordinary unhappy woman to us.”Finally, Haruki Murakami has a new book, After Dark, on its way. For those who seek them out, early looks at Murakami novels can nearly always be found since his books come out in Japan well in advance of the English translations. One need only find a bilingual reader to share his thoughts in English. An excerpt, however, is harder to come by, but that’s what was recently offered up at Condalmo, where Matthew Tiffany recently shared the book’s opening sentences.Previously: The above books are just a few of the most anticipated books of 2007.
Barnes & Noble is buying used books. They’re marketing it as a way to sell your old textbooks, but they’re buying other books too. They’ve set up a simple site that lets you check titles and find out if they’ll take them and how much they’ll pay. You then send your books to Barnes & Noble and they cover the shipping. As far as I can tell, the prices are fairly comparable to what you might get selling your books to your local used bookstore, maybe even a little better.