- From Michael Chabon’s site, an update on his forthcoming novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and a preview of The Best American Short Stories 2005, which Chabon is editing. The inclusion of “at least four” genre stories, including ones by Dennis Lehane and Tom Bissell, will surely rankle literary purists.
- Letters to Frank Conroy from his students
- The AP’s books guy, Hillel Italie, profiles FSG and highlights their penchant for publishing award-winning books.
Gogol’s The Overcoat and Flaubert’s A Simple Heart have in common narrators who are, at least initially, satisfied with what I think many would consider very meager lives. They are both poor, single, friendless, both workers whose work (a clerk who copies documents in a Russian government office, and a maid of all work in a French bourgeois household) does not seem particularly meaningful or interesting. And yet they are both content. Deeply content: “After working to his heart’s content, he would go to bed, smiling at the thought of the next day and wondering what God would send him to copy. So flowed on the peaceful life of a man who knew how to be content with his fate.” This is Gogol describing his hero, but the description easily applies to Flaubert’s Felicité.Teaching these stories this week, I was not surprised exactly, but bemused, by the various shades of contempt my students showed toward these characters’ lives – By and large, they found Akaky and Felicité sad, pathetic, depressing. These brightest of the bright seemed to view with horror the notion of being satisfied with so little, with such colorless, pleasureless lives. And who can blame them, when their own lives have already delivered so much more?Hobbes wrote, “For as to have no desire, is to be Dead.” And I can see that the sort of lean, desire-less lives that Flaubert and Gogol’s heroes live are a sort of death-in-life. But I also envy their contentment. Contentment – the state of having all you want – is so rare. The peacefulness of such a state seems incomprehensible to me and somewhat otherworldly. It also seems that the possession of such a state erases, for the possessor at least, what appears from the outside to be small and sad life. (“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” as Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)A final note on these questions, in the form of an anecdote: Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived by choice as a beggar and rejected all concepts of property, manners, and social and political organization, was visited one day by Alexander the Great. Diogenes was sunning himself on a hillside as Alexander approached and when Alexander asked if there was anything he could offer the philosopher, Diogenes replied: “Stand out of my sunlight.” According to Plutarch, Alexander then declared: “If I was not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”
I did terribly at my GREs the first time around (thanks Harry Potter!) and decided to dwell into some more magic to remedy the self-imposed depression that my results caused me. I turned to Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, which I had been meaning to read since it was published in September 2004 – and, of course, mentioned on Max’s August 29, 2004, entry. Ayse, a good friend of mine who lives in Istanbul, was hooked on Messrs. Norell and Strange’s interesting stories last time I visited home and urged me, as a fellow Harry Potter fan, to pick it up immediately. I heeded her advice shortly. For all the speculation out there, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell has nothing to do with the Potter series, except for the main characters being magicians. The novel is set in the early 1800s against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars that are raging on the Continent. Magic has, at that point, been long dead and more of a scholarly interest for gentlemen, who have nothing to do with their endless days on the English countryside. This goes on until Mr. Norell calls upon them and proposes a bet. The agreement is that Mr. Norell will perform a bit of magic for the self proclaimed magicians in the Northern English town of Yorkshire, and if he succeeds they will disband their community and give up all studies of magic. Mr. Norell wins the bet and, as we see throughout the book, gets a step closer to accomplishing his goal of ridding England of all magicians but himself. Since his fellow magicians are mostly scholars and historians Mr. Norell succeeds fairly easily. The London Society, which hears of this eccentric magician’s feats, promptly invites him over for some entertainment. A series of events unfold, leaving the Society in awe and raise the curiosity of the struggling government, which is running out of ideas and resources to stop Napoleon. Soon, Mr. Norell is performing magical feats that win the British Navy some time, trick the French Navy and result in the British victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, making Mr. Norell an irreplaceable commodity to the government. In the meanwhile, another Northern gentleman, Jonathan Strange, arrives in London and is accepted by Mr. Norell as a pupil. Norell and Strange have an interesting relationship that is half mentor-apprentice and half rivalry. In the end Strange becomes just as capable and also enlists his services to assist in the British war efforts against Napoleon in Spain and in the Battle of Waterloo. A falling out between Norell and Strange, as well as some other historical turns suddenly diverts the story line and merges it with the longstanding prophecy of the Raven King, a magician king that once ruled Northern England. Clarke’s first novel is very gripping and greatly organized. There are a lot of footnotes that make the stories more colorful and provide entertaining details and “historical” magic facts. Clarke’s observations and portrayal of English society in the 19th century is very much like Oscar Wilde: witty, snobbish, entertaining and gravely self-conscious. The magic part of the book seems a lot more traditional and scholarly, involving legends, kings, fairies and interactions of the ordinary and magical worlds. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell was definitely one of my favorite reads this year and I would recommend it everyone who likes Oscar Wilde, fantasy, magic and (well yes) Harry Potter.Next I turned to Ahmet Umid’s Beyoglu Rapsodisi for a dose of Turkish reading, per my friend Mehmet’s recommendation. Mehmet suggested that the plot was only decent but that I would get a kick out of reading the story because it was set in Beyoglu, a lively neighborhood in Istanbul. Reading Beyoglu Rapsodisi, in that sense, was similar to reading Arthur Nersesian’s Chinese Takeout, which vividly outlines the East Village, West Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan, arouses feelings of familiarity and belonging, hence drawing you into the story (that is if you live in NYC or know it well) as a better, more careful and personally acquainted observer. As I followed the three friends that are at the center of Beyoglu Rapsodisi (a poor book dealer, a successful textiles/fashion storeowner and a wealthy eccentric) I found myself walking through streets that I love and cherish, going into bars and cafes that I have not been since my last visit, and tasting the drinks and foods they eat on my palate. The friendship of Selim, Kenan and Nihat is also a familiar one that starts in boarding school, grows through college, and always revolves around Beyoglu. Umid constructed a good mystery novel that is as much a portrayal of Beyoglu and individuals within as it is a thrilling read. It is, unfortunately, only available in Turkish. I would recommend it for light beach reading or at home lying on the couch (that’s what I did as I cannot afford to go to beaches these days).Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The boy wizard isn’t gay, but apparently his beloved professor is. J.K. Rowling “outed” Dumbledore at a Carnegie Hall reading, inspiring “gasps and applause” as well as wire stories. Over the years, Rowling hasn’t been particularly aggressive about being a self-promoter; she hasn’t had to as the Harry Potter books have made her rich and famous without her having to occupy too much of the spotlight. Still, this seems like an all too easy way to gin up a little controversy and keep Harry Potter in the headlines now that the series is over.Now I won’t deny that it makes plenty of sense for writers to flesh out the lives of their characters in their minds. Many writers take this a step further and put these fictional biographies on paper. And it’s quite probable that in writing Dumbledore over the years, Rowling decided that he was gay.As the creator of perhaps the most beloved set of characters in literary history, Rowling has a tremendous amount of power. This sort of power can be easily abused. Knowing they will get no more books from Rowling, fans will take each new tidbit about Harry and the gang like the starving might savor a crumb. Meanwhile, each of these out-of-thin-air details will be folded neatly into the growing pantheon of Potter companion literature.To me, though, there’s something terribly spare and arbitrary about these post-publication revelations. What are we as readers supposed to do with these out of context details? Can we ignore them? Should we?As a side note, have there been other examples of similar, post-publication, extra-textual revelations related to famous books? I tried to think of some, but came up empty.
The first of the three books I read between starting and finishing The Fortress of Solitude is The Underdog: How I Survived The World’s Most Outlandish Competitions by Joshua Davis. Hilarious. I am not sure where to begin but Davis’s interest in excelling in obscure or at times plain ridiculous fields of “sports” stems from two sources: the Ipski-Pipski stories his dad told him during his childhood (where Ipski-Pipski would overcome any and all difficulties in a very James Bondesque manner) and his mother’s undying hope that her son be best at something (she was the 1962 Miss Nevada and a contender for Miss Universe, who barely missed first spot because of a bad hairdo). So, Davis decides to overcome his shortcomings that keep him from becoming a traditional achiever (such as a high school basketball star or college football player) and get rid of his unfulfilling job as a data-entry clerk by embarking on a quest to be really good at something. Davis not only faces the challenge of finding out what he can excel in but also of providing for his wife, who is about to enroll in gradate school and considers his actions very childish. It is, therefore, difficult to see where Davis is going when he chooses arm wrestling as the first sport to prove himself in. At 125 pounds and 5 foot 9 (and wearing glasses) Davis is not the usual imposing arm-wrestler you would imagine. But despite his physique, Davis manages to join the American Arm Wrestling Team and attend the world championships in Poland, ranking 19th worldwide due and placing 4th in the lightweight category worldwide. Quite a title for a first timer, but it sure helps that there were a mere 4 lightweight contenders. Encouraged by his mediocre success, Davis pursues bullfighting, sumo wrestling, backward running and a Sauna World Championship. Through each of his misadventures Davis meets people such as celebrity bullfighter Miguel Baez Litri, sumo wrestling Yokozuna (grand champion, a title granted to only two people) Musashimaru, world-class backward runner (and inventor) K. Veerabadran, and the Swedish sauna lover Markku Mustonen, who influence and encourage him to pursue his heart’s desire. As Davis runs (at times backwards) from one outrageous feat to another, he also manages to pull his family together, please his wife and land a job at Wired as a staff reporter. The Underdog is an unusual and genuinely encouraging take on the American dream of being all you can be (or whatever you want to be) and it points out that doing ridiculous things might work after all.My second book during the Lethem intermission was Kurt Dosyasi (The Kurdish File) by Ugur Mumcu. Mumcu is a Turkish journalist murdered in 1993 (suspects still at large) whose works were very detailed and influential. I talked a lot about him during my journalism school applications, which made me want to read more of his work. Mumcu was murdered while working on Kurt Dosyasi, hence it is unfortunately cut short in its early investigative stages. The parts that were published, however, tell the parallel stories of (currently imprisoned head of PKK) Abdullah Ocalan’s life as a student, as well as his involvement in the 1970s left-wing student movements, and the government policies regarding the Kurdish population in the Eastern and South-eastern parts of Turkey in the 1930s. The documents that Mumcu presents are interesting and shocking, such as reports by ministers and minutes of parliamentary hearings that talk about assimilating Kurds to Turkish society, dispersing Kurdish clans, and replacing internal populations for the Turkification of Eastern Turkey and the Kurds. Kurt Dosyasi also draws on the government’s shortcomings in peacefully penetrating Kurdish societies and its failure to deal with the threats posed by armed militias that disrupted trade, prevented investments and threatened the newly founded republic with uprisings. Unfortunately, Mumcu was killed before tying all the pieces together and explaining the emergence of Ocalan as the leader of the Kurdish insurgency in 1984. I am sure that his work would have been invaluable in assessing the “Kurdish Issue” in Turkey and it is a shame that it is incomplete. Still, it is a great source of information and sheds some light on the wrong nationalistic policies of the 1930s that led to the creation of Kurdish discontent in Turkey. I would recommend it to all parties interested in the issue; the only drawback is that you have to know Turkish, as the book is not translated.My third and last intermission book was another one by Ugur Mumcu: Sakincali Piyade (The Problematic Private). This collection of short memoirs constitute a satirical take on life, as mostly experienced by Mumcu, in the period following the coup d’etat of March 12, 1971, in Turkey. This was the second time since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923 that the military dissolved the parliament, declared martial law and ran the country until new elections, which, in this instance, they took place two years later in October 1973 (the other 2 coup d’etats are May 27, 1960 and September 12, 1980 – there is also a military decree issued in February 28, 1997 that caused the government to resign). Mumcu was an Assistant Dean of the Ankara Law School at the time. His leftist politics were widely know and not hidden. In the two years that the military administered the country a lot of leftists were persecuted on extremely flimsy charges. Mumcu was one of them. His bitter experiences led to Sakincali Piyade, which points at the outrageous claims made against him, as well as other leftist scholars, thinkers and activists of his generation. His memoirs chronicle life in prison, court hearings and the army. Mumcu had to serve his mandatory military service in this period and at the hands of army officials that hoped to “correct” his “thinking” during the service. The courtroom antics that Mumcu lists are ridiculous in retrospect, but point directly to the gravity of the situation in the 1970s and the sad consequences of “enforcing” democracy through the military. I would recommend Sakincali Piyade to everyone who is looking to laugh and think deeply (and do those simultaneously) about the tragic-comic situations that plague Turkey to this day. Unfortunately, Sakincali Piyade is also not translated.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Pat Conroy recently unleashed a verbal beating on a West Virginia school district that, prodded by complaints from parents, suspended the teaching of two of his novels. English teachers, in particular, will smile when they read this. It begins:I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.Keep reading.
Perhaps you’ve heard the recent news that Random House is suing to recover a $300,000 advance from P. Diddy for an autobiography he failed to deliver back in 1999. In the Guardian, Blake Morrison argues that Random House’s litigousness represents a departure from gentlmanly publishing practices of the past. It is most certainly the only article that I’ve ever come across that manages to find what P. Diddy and Marcel Proust have in common.Of course, P Diddy is not a poet starving in a garret. In fact, thanks to his business interests, which range from ownership of Bad Boy Entertainment to the Sean John clothing line, he could probably afford to buy every garret in Manhattan – and still have something left over. Moreover, Random House could put that £160,000 to good uses – to encourage a first-time novelist, for instance.Still, a worrying precedent is being set here. What will the world of literature come to if every late-delivering author is held to account? Authors have been slow to deliver ever since Moses came down from Mount Sinai with his tablets of stone (40 days and nights late, according to his editor). In the 19th century, those who failed to produce their promised magnum opus ranged from Coleridge and de Quincey (both of whom suffered an opium habit) to Casaubon in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, with his grandiose plans to write a scholarly Key to All Mythologies.In the 20th century, it was Proust who set the appropriate tortoise pace.Link