- The Rake is underwhelmed by a Lily Tuck reading, but nonetheless manages to put together a characteristically amusing recap of the event. Now that’s dedication.
- Ed visits used bookstore run by the cranky and paranoid and lives to tell the tale.
- CAAF on good vs. bad protagonists.
- McSweeney’s fans: I couldn’t help but notice that Amazon is shilling issue #14 for the low, low price of 6 bucks. Get ’em while they’re hot.
For the last several months, the web site of the British Library has been hosting the online diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA). As many readers are likely aware, the Library was looted in the early days of the American invasion, and Eskander has spent much of his time since trying to rebuild his collections under perilous conditions.Reading through the diary it quickly becomes apparent that Eskander and his team are faced with far greater challenges than simply picking up the pieces of the wrecked library. Instead they face daily threats to their lives, and the laundry list of wound and killed friends and colleagues and many more near misses makes one wonder how the library staff can go on living in Baghdad. At the end of 2006, Eskander compiles a list (scroll down) of violent acts committed against INLA staff and their families and determines that 70 have been killed since the conflict began. The number has ticked higher in subsequent months.Last month, Eskander posted an entry (scroll down) about the day that al-Mutanabi Street, the home of Baghdad’s outdoor book market and just a short distance away from the INLA, was bombed. “This day will be always remembered, as the day when books were assassinated by the forces of darkness, hatred and fanaticism,” he says. “Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood.”As a whole, the diary is an incredible chronicle of lives lived under siege and put in terrible danger to keep Iraq’s cultural institutions from disappearing entirely.via The Eclectic Chapbook, which also remarks on a BBC program about Eskander and the INLA.
For someone who’s not writing any more books about Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling sure is doing a lot of dabbling. She sold The Tales of Beedle the Bard a “book of five wizarding fairy tales, referenced in the last book of the Harry Potter series” to Amazon for close to $4 million in a charity auction. And now she’s sold an 800-word Potter prequel at another charity auction for $48,858 (that’s $59 a word, as USA Today notes).If two makes a trend, then I wonder, will Rowling spend her post-Potter career gamely agreeing produce bits of Potter ephemera for various auctions, thus filling out the Potter world in a seemingly unplanned way? Does it matter if the average Potter fan never gets to see them?Perhaps more importantly, will all this dabbling eventually convince Rowling to pick up the pen and write another Potter book? It certainly won’t quiet the speculation. Rowling professes to have no plans to write another full-length Potter, but if she does it certainly won’t be the first time a pop-culture phenomenon reappeared after a long hiatus. Indiana Jones and Star Wars come to mind and we all know how those turned out.
A few weeks back the Rake posted a first look at Cormac McCarthy’s forthcoming No Country for Old Men that he spotted on the forums of the “Official Website of the Cormac McCarthy Society.” Now from those same forums comes news that an excerpt of No Country will run in the Summer 2005 Virginia Quarterly Review.
If you are like me, you are probably getting tired of politics. Politicians, political news, television ads from concerned citizens for this or that, conventions finally almost past, and debates still to come, I’m tired of all of it. Thank god someone decided that it was ok for people to make up big, long stories (or collect little, short ones) and for other people to read those stories. A diversion, if you like. So, what will divert us this month? T. C. Boyle, who has over the years become a bigger and bigger name in American fiction, has a new novel coming out called The Inner Circle. Set in 1940, the book is about a young man who works as an assistant for the sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey (a real historical figure), and quickly becomes embroiled in the sort of bizarreness one might expect from a novel by T. C. Boyle. I hope to read that one soon. If you’re the type of person who likes to know about the next big thing, have a look at Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel. You’ll be hearing about this book a lot for the next few months, so you might as well read it. Touted as, what else, Harry Potter for grown ups, this debut novel by Susanna Clarke is set to release simultaneously in the US, Britain, and Germany with a first run of 250,000 copies (astronomical for a debut by an unknown writer). Part of the buzz stems from the subject matter; it’s about magic, magicians, and mysticism, and with the success of Potter and Da Vinci Code these topics seem like a sure bet. But, according to many accounts, the book is not just timely, it’s a great read. Those looking to avoid the buzz may want to try another debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Esi Edugyan. Tyne is an African immigrant who has raised his family in Canada. Circumstances and yearning for a better life lead him to relocate to Aster, a small town with a utopic history. He finds there a different set of struggles. For readers in the mood for something a little lighter and with a quicker pulse try The Little White Car a speedy little novel from Britain that sounds as energetic as Run, Lola, Run. The book was supposedly written by a new French talent, a young woman named Danuta de Rhodes, but skeptical British critics were quick to announce that de Rhodes is merely the alter ego of Dan Rhodes, known trickster and acclaimed author of Timoleon Vieta Come Home. Finally, those with a hankering for short stories might consider When The Nines Roll Over And Other Stories by David Benioff who previously wrote the novel The 25th Hour (which later was made into a movie by Spike Lee), and also The Secret Goldfish by David Means. Sounds a lot better than politics to me.The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle — Boyle’s blogJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke — previewThe Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Edi Edugyan — excerptThe Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes — the scoop, reviewWhen The Nines Roll Over And Other Stories by David Benioff — excerptThe Secret Goldfish by David Means — excerpt, review
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.”
The current issue of McSweeney’s includes a short story by Michael Cera, whose contributor’s bio informs us that he was “born in Brampton, Ontario and now lives in Los Angeles,” and, inevitably, that “This is his first published story.” Yes, this becomingly modest debut author is that Michael Cera, co-star of Arrested Development and Superbad and avatar of skinny-geek chic (for which at least one Millions contributor owes him a debt of gratitude). For those keeping score at home, this makes Cera at least the fourth movie star in the last two years to turn his talents to the only marginally less glamorous and remunerative field of short fiction. (Others include Miranda July, James Franco, and Sharon Stone.)The forthcoming 106th issue of Granta suggests that even the World’s Most Serious Literary Magazine is not immune to the trend. Through our vast network of informants, we’ve obtained page proofs, and the “Contributors’ Notes” include one or two names you may recognize, behind their veneer of careful self-effacement:M. Louise Ciccone is a media professional who divides time between the New York Kabbalah Center and the Miami Kabbalah Center. This is her first published story.Washington-based R.I. Emmanuel spends weekends in Chicago with his wife and beloved children. He promised to shove Granta‘s head so far up Granta‘s f*&^ing a^% we’d be able to see our &^%[email protected] if we didn’t get his first published story published.Julius Erving, a retired physician, lives in the metro Philadelphia area. This is his first published story.Phillipa Longstocking is one of world literature’s most beloved characters. For more information, you may contact the Wylie Agency.P.R. Nelson is a Minneapolis-based composer and erotic acoustician. His work has appeared widely, under a variety of names. His 4thcoming memoir, All of My Purple Life will B published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this fall.Joaquin Phoenix, an obscure itinerant musician, scribbled this, his first published story, on the back of a New Jersey Turnpike exit ticket.Julia Roberts is Julia Roberts.Borat Sagdiyev is making the literature sexy sexy for much enjoyment of Kazakh people. His story “My Goat, She is Not Breathing” (translated here by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and was selected for Best Central Asian Short Stories 2007.Schmary Schmate and Schmashley Schmolsen, whose first published story this is, are sometime undergraduates in NYU’s make-your-own major program. They are majoring in Undeclared, and also this is their first published story, because what, do you think they have time to be writing stories all the time, or something?The late Dave Thomas (1932-2002) was the founder of Wendy’s and creator of the internationally acclaimed Chicken Cordon Bleu. This is his final published story. The Chicken Cordon Bleu is back for a limited time.All your base are belong to Carnie Wilson.