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.
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
I don’t know why I bother to cover the One Book, One Chicago program. I haven’t seen any evidence that the locals actually read the books that are selected two times a year. As far as I can tell, on the day of the announcement, the local paper writes it up, and then nobody talks about One Book, One Chicago until six months later when they pick a new book. (I am impressed that Mayor Daley presides at all of these unveilings; it seems like a duty he would have handed off to an underling by now.) I think maybe I’m interested in it because I’m curious to see what a government bureaucracy is able to come up with in such a circumstance. Rarely do we get a recommendation from our government so simple as “read this book,” and rarely is the government called upon to advise people on a subject so ephemeral as literature. Given all of this, I think they do reasonably well with their selections – some uninspired, others quite good. And while it would be great to see people spontaneously talking about the latest pick in the trains and on the sidewalks of Chicago, it would be quite odd if that actually happened.All of this brings me to todays pick, as always, unveiled by Mayor Daley: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great selection if you ask me.
Jonathan Safran Foer posted an excerpt from Extremely Loudand Incredibly Close at Gather.com (one of those social journalism sites), and readers left comments. A few days later he came back and answered some questions about the book. Writes Foer:My parents have a photograph of me on their refrigerator. I’m about six years old, asleep on the sofa, wearing a plaid blazer, a blue sequined bowtie, and rings on each of my ten fingers. Apparently, the look was indicative of my sense of fashion for about a year. That photograph was one of my major sources of inspiration for Oskar.Foer will also be doing a live “Ask the Author” session at Gather on June 23.I’d never heard of Gather.com before I got an email about this from someone there. The site’s a little too frenzied for me — I’m having trouble figuring out what it’s all about — but the Foer thing looks pretty cool.
Looking for a Ship by John McPhee pulled me straight out of the vertigo that was The Corrections. After I read the review on The Millions, read how journalists interviewed in The New New Journalism discussed McPhee, and found a cheap used copy on Amazon, Looking for a Ship made it to the top of my reading list. I started the book on my way down to a wedding in Virginia and finished it on the way back. Looking for a Ship struck me as a very nostalgic piece, with romantic characters, and a simple, fluid style. For all Maqroll fans out there, Looking for a Ship is a good insight to the way of the sea, as well as the tradition that is the U.S. Merchant Marines. John McPhee discusses the decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the shifty economics of commercial shipping, and the hazards and wonders of Latin American ports with a journalist’s matter-of-fact clarity and through the delicate eyes of an aging crew. The personal stories are heartwarming and interesting: sometimes they reflect on a sailor’s love for the sea, at other times on his contempt and wish to be land-bound; they scrape off all romantic ideas of working on a ship and demonstrate the hard tasks – 145 degree engine rooms, being the lookout from 4AM to 8AM, working 16 to 20 hour days, union laws restricting time of employment and the difficulty of finding a ship once allowed to work again, and pirates to state a few; and still it provides hope for the aspiring sailors with stories of finding the route using the constellations when the ship’s power fails – hence annulling the compass and the radar – or of one of the captains not trusting the tug boats, hence docking the ship himself at the risk of great cost and insurance liability if something were to go wrong. Looking for a Ship is one of the books I wished did not end.In the meantime, I also picked up the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl which includes stories from Kiss, Kiss, Over to You, Switch Bitch, Someone Like You, and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected. It was quite entertaining reading the discussions about Harry Potter and the possibility of J.K. Rowling writing adult stories on The Millions the other day. Though I am a Harry Potter fan and will make no excuses about it I have no ideas of how Rowling would do with adult novels, but Roald Dahl surely succeeded in both genres. I remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was quite young, but of course, the name of the author never struck with me. So, after reading a couple of stories at random from the Collected Stories, I read Dahl’s biography to my amazement and shock. I have yet to finish the collection, yet I already have my favorites: “The Visitor” and “Bitch” (the Uncle Oswald Stories, oh how I wish all 24 Volumes of Oswald were published), “Madame Rosette,” “Death of an Old Man,” “Vengeance is Mine Inc.,” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” I feel that my selections are bound to change as I read on, but for the time being I would strongly suggest keeping a copy by your bed and reading a story each night, starting with the above.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
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.
Australian author, Elliot Perlman scored a minor hit last year with his novel Seven Types of Ambiguity, and now Riverhead is capitalizing on that success by putting out a collection of Perlman’s stories, originally published in Australia in 2000, but yet to appear in the States. The book, called The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, contains nine stories. The title story of this collection was good enough to be included in the The Penguin Century of Australian Stories.In his second novel, In Lucia’s Eyes, Dutch author Arthur Japin, takes an episode out of Casanova and runs with it. The novel follows Lucia, Casanova’s first love, who leaves him after she is disfigured by small pox, and, after years as a secretary, housekeeper and veiled prostitute, encounters Casanova 16 years later in Amsterdam. Japin’s first novel, The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, received a lot of praise. This new book has a different translator, and some early reviews – PW calls the translation “sometimes stilted” – wonder if In Lucia’s Eyes is worse off for it. Knopf has an excerpt up.Michelle Lovric’s novel, The Remedy covers similar ground – a 17th century woman, the colorfully named Mimosina Dolcezza, traveling across Europe before encountering her true love. Dolcezza is enamored with Valentine Greatrakes, whose business is concocting the remedies that the book is named for. The Remedy was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, which had this to say about the book: “Funny, mischievous and thoroughly melodramatic, written by an author with a poetic way with verbs. And featuring a slew of original recipes so you can concoct eighteenth century remedies in the comfort of your own home.” An excerpt is available here.
I’ve acquired some books over the last month in various ways, and now I have added them to the reading queue, which at its current swollen proportions will take me over a year to get through. Here’s what I’ve added. As mentioned in this post, I snagged a copy of The Glory of Their Times, an oral history of the early years of baseball by Lawrence Ritter. I can’t believe that spring training is only a couple of weeks away. I also got some books from my mom, who is great about sending books my way. She passed along two books by Virginia Woolf (whose work I have never read), To the Lighthouse as well as a collection of her shorter fiction. She also got me the first play to be added to my young reading queue, Jumpers by Tom Stoppard. I rarely read any drama though I should probably read more. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read a play since college… another Stoppard play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Going in a completely different direction, I’ve added a graphic novel that my friend Chris, insisting that I would enjoy it, kindly lent to me: I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. I also secured a copy of Absolutely American, a book that David Lipsky wrote after spending four years following one cadet class through West Point. And finally I acquired a couple of advance copies of some books that’ll be out this spring. The first is You Remind Me of Me, a new novel by up and comer Dan Chaon. The other is Rick Atkinson’s book about being embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq. Check out the post where I broke the news on this book back in October. Atkinson won the Pulitzer last year for the first book in his “Liberation Trilogy,” An Army at Dawn (also on the reading queue!)Insider ReviewsEver since Amazon instituted the customer review feature there have been a fair amount of complaints from authors and publishers that one vengeful reader’s review can kill their sales. Other improprieties have also been alleged, like authors anonymously reviewing their own books glowingly while disparaging the books of rivals and enemies. A recent glitch at Amazon’s Canadian site lifted the veil of anonymity from the process. This New York Times article describes the fallout. The highlights: John Rechy giving glowing reviews to his own novel, The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens and Dave Eggers writing a positive review of his friend Heidi Julavits’ novel, The Effect of Living Backwards.