Remember a little more than a month ago when I implied that spring had arrived in Chicago despite the insistence of the natives that I was being laughably optimistic? Well, the natives were right, and I was wrong. Since then we’ve had our fair share of plunging overnight temperatures and frigid rainy mornings. But now I’m hoping I can safely say that spring is really here, and our first brutal Chicago winter is behind us. Since leaving Los Angeles, where weather is stubbornly perfect 95 percent of the time, I have enjoyed the seasons despite the difficulty getting acclimated to bad weather. In LA it’s green all the time, but here watching the leaves appear on the trees has been an enjoyable novelty. And yesterday, which may have been the best day of the year thus far, I decided to dust off my tree books, unused since I left the east coast for California five years ago. I was curious to see what kinds of trees line our street, and what’s living in our back yard. (I was partly inspired to do this by the Talk of the Town piece in this week’s New Yorker about the guy who’s running New York City’s “tree census.”) So, using my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees and Trees of North America, I discovered that we’ve got a Northern Catalpa and an American Elm in the front and some kind of Maple in the back yard. If the thunderstorms stop today, I might go back out and see what else is growing around here.
My dad’s family is from New Jersey, and they are proud of it. I lived there for a couple of years when I was younger. Folks from Jersey tend to have chips on their shoulders because New Jersey is the butt of a lot of jokes. They will strenuously claim that the state consists of more than just the Turnpike. They will describe the beaches and the countryside. Now they don’t have to bother with the arguments, they can just leave the Encyclopedia of New Jersey sitting out on the coffee table. With nearly 3,000 entries and lots of entertaining factual tidbits like “did you know that New Jersey was once divided into two parts — East Jersey and West Jersey?” perhaps this book will help Jersey join its rightful place among the states. Fittingly, the project was inspired by a classic case of New York envy. As this FOX News article recounts, Marc Mappen, head of the New Jersey Historical Commission, was perusing a popular encyclopedia of New York City and decided that New Jersey ought to have its own reference book. He worked with co-editor Maxine N. Lurie for ten years, and now the book has arrived. You can check out some sample entries hereMy sources are telling me that The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler is turning out to be something of a surprise hit. Two largely positive reviews from the New York Times, one in the daily and one in the Sunday Book Review, are helping. This sort of meta-fiction has proven quite successful in recent years; The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair are two examples. And believe it or not, a book that centers on a book club is seen as perfect for book clubs.
I know this is the sort of thing that threatens to erode our moral fabric and turn us all into communists, but I thought you might like to know that much of J.D. Salinger’s published work, including many hard-to-find uncollected stories, is available for free here. So hurry and take a look before this website is shut down by a blizzard of threatening letters from angry intellectual property lawyers. Also of note: I posted this link at Metafilter a few days back and it generated a rather lively discussion.
I heard from my friends in Iowa about the latest in the search for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop DirectorOn Feb. 24, Lan Samantha Chang was in Iowa for her “audition” for the Director position. During the mock-workshop portion of the presentation, Chang showed off her analytical skills rather than her personality, as previous finalist Richard Bausch had. There was a lot more in depth discussion about the stories that were critiqued, and Chang was adept at giving feedback and facilitating discussion. She talked about Frank Conroy, the current director, who is battling cancer right now, taking inspiration from his high standards for writing and teaching. She also quoted Marilynne Robinson, perhaps in homage to her own Iowa education, saying, “you have to have 3, if not 4, if not 5, reasons for putting something into a story.” Chang even discussed the aesthetics of words on a page. She talked about utilizing the power of the “white space” between sections, saying that the connection between two sections should, and can be poetic. She said at one point, “I’m a sucker for beauty.” If the workshop faltered at all it was in the discussion of a novel excerpt when Chang delved into more theoretical ideas that might be hard to put into practice. She read from her first collection of stories for the reading – again, perhaps giving a nod to her student days at the Workshop. It didn’t seem like anyone was blown away by her reading. Her work is quite sad and subtle, perhaps not the stuff of public performance. Chang’s craft talk was on novel structure – her first was recently published – which received mixed, but generally good reviews.Jim Shepard visited Iowa today, so hopefully we’ll get a report on him soonPreviously: Richard BauschUPDATE: Chang gets the job.
One of the interesting things about being the author of an obscure blog is seeing how much I influence world culture. A day doesn’t go by without my opinions being parroted on music video channels and being reprinted on the backs of cereal boxes. Why just the other day I happened to be watching opening round action of this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and I couldn’t help but hear CBS Sportscaster Dick Enberg describe as worthy of Don Quixote, a speech that Mike Gillespie, coach of the 16th seeded Florida A&M Rattlers, was giving to his team before sending them out on the floor to face basketball powerhouse Kentucky. I, of course, immediately assumed that Enberg made this comment because, as an avid reader of The Millions, he knew that I was reading the Edith Grossman translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and reading along at home, he felt comfortable throwing the literary reference into his broadcast. Or there is another explanation that, I will concede, is equally plausible. Don Quixote, like other literary first ballot hall of famers, Hamlet, Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield, is so ingrained in the public consciousness that such a reference will be understood by nearly all who hear it. Not bad for a 17th century Spanish epic. Enberg was using the name Don Quixote the way most folks do, to describe a foolhardy quest. And yet it would seem that Enberg was implying that there was something noble in all this, to use another often cited reference, something akin to David and Goliath. Before I ever cracked open the book, I had this impression as well, that there was something noble about this knight who wears a bowl on his head and tilts at windmills. I see it a bit differently now, even though, admittedly, I am only a quarter of the way through the book. Certainly in telling the story, Cervantes is turning the idea of chivalry on its head, and in doing so is nobly attempting to undo some of the harmful social mores of his time, but the character of Quixote isn’t particularly noble. In fact he is a rather sad specimen who is either totally mentally ill or utterly incapable of recognizing the consequences of his actions; probably he is a little of both. So far, he has inadvertently caused a servant boy to be beaten by his master, he has bludgeoned a number of innocent passersby, and he has allowed his faithful squire, the very likeable Sancho Panza, to be repeatedly thrown to the wolves. In fact, I am starting to see that it is perhaps a disservice to compare the coaches of underdog basketball teams and others who embark on impossible quests to Don Quixote, who, I should also mention, is turning out to be rather unhygenic. Better that these noble folks be compared to Cervantes, who, even 300 years later is still managing to take on the big shots. Like I said, though, I’m only a quarter of the way through. Once, I have finished, and once I have read the Harold Bloom essay that precedes the text, I may have different take on the whole thing, so stay tuned, America.
You recall a couple of weeks ago when I previewed The Morning News 2007 Tournament of Books. As it turns out, they’ve incorporated a contest for readers – an office pool – into this year’s Tournament and I’m involved. How to play along:Here’s how the contest works. In addition to this year’s brackets, below you’ll find a set of brackets filled out by each of our selected Office Pool Book Bloggers. Review them, then select the one you think is the most likely to win – the bloggers will be scored for each match they predict correctly, with scores updated each day of the Tournament. Email us at the address below with the name of the blogger you like in the email subject line, and your full contact information in the body of the email. (You can only enter once.) We’ll randomly select one reader for each blogger to “play for,” and the winning blogger’s reader will win every book in the tournament, courtesy of Powell’s Books. Note: The contest will close at 6 p.m. EST this Wednesday, March 7So, go there and pick The Millions’ bracket, there could be a whole bunch of books in it for you.