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.
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I haven't mentioned any art or photography books on The Millions in a while, but the other day a book caught my eye that I thought was worth mentioning. New York Underground: The Anatomy Of A City by Julia Solis is a collection of photographs taken in the myriad of passageways and tunnels that make up New York's unnamed subterranean sister city. You can have a look at some of the pictures here. If you're still interested after looking at those, snoop around Dark Passages, where you'll find lots more photos of New York's creepy, forgotten places.
It has, once again, been a long time since I wrote to The Millions. My hiatus this time around was due to constant travels and lack of time to read. I managed, nevertheless, to read Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment as intended and began David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I do not dare comment on Crime and Punishment, since it is merely my introduction to Russian literature and so many people and scholars have already done a much better job than I can ever hope to do. Let it suffice that I really enjoyed every word in Crime and Punishment and look forward to continuing my Russian Lit. education through both Dostoevsky - Brothers Karamazov, I think, will be next - and Tolstoy - I have War and Peace in mind, please tell me your suggestions - before I move onto others such as Pushkin and Chekhov - whose The Cherry Orchard and some other plays I have read. Next I picked up Infinite Jest with the naive hope that I could make serious headway into it in one month. I enjoyed the 150 pages that I managed to read in my month-long quest to devour Wallace's little monster. It was, I have to admit, very confusing and I constantly found myself in anticipation of stories that begun and were, in the mere 150 pages I read, not continued. The reason I stopped was not because of my growing frustration with the novel - as happened to a couple of my friends - but because I reported to the army to serve my mandatory military service. Infinite Jest is not quite the light read that I could manage in the barracks after a full day of marching and obeying orders barked at me, therefore I put it on hold. Thus far I have not managed to return to it.[See Also: Max's thoughts on Crime and Punishment]While in the army I picked up Turkey's bestseller Su Ciglin Turkler (Those Crazy Turks) by Turgut Ozakman. Ozakman studied both national and private archives related to the Turkish Independence War for over sixty years. About fifteen years ago the premise of his book and most of his research was complete and the novel in progress was turned into a movie script for a four-part TV series. I remember watching the series at a very young age and being very impressed by it. My father had read the newly published Su Ciglin Turkler during my parents' visit to New York in January and left the novel for me to read. I took the novel to the army, where only pre-approved books are allowed into the barracks and subversive writers are banned, and began reading it there. Ozakman's narrative is very simple and fluent. The story sticks to historic facts to the point of making Su Ciglin Turkler more of a history book than a novel. The author avoided writing a history book by narrating the individual lives and adventures of historic characters in fiction. The combination creates a very strong storyline that reflects the historic moments in Turkey's three year long struggle to freedom following World War I and touches a nerve in the reader by relating the greatly humane stories of unheard heroes and heroines. Su Ciglin Turkler makes its readers laugh and cry out loud at certain points, infuses a healthy dose of nationality that makes the reader long for the determination and unity exhibited in the birth of the Turkish Republic - as well as wonder why such stamina and selfless goodwill is missing from the scene today - and provides a great glimpse of the nation's foundations. Unfortunately, as with most Turkish novels I read, with the exception of Orhan Pamuk's novels, Su Ciglin Turkler is only available in Turkish. If you know the language or the novel is ever translated, I strongly recommend it. That was my army novel, and I admit the setting proved perfect.See also: Part 2, 3
To the panoply of guilty pleasures this world has to offer, I humbly add the New York Post. I'm a Daily News man myself, but really, stuck inside a stalled subway car somewhere under the East River with nothing to read but those creepy Dr. Z acne treatment ads, who cares which paper turns up on an empty seat?When it comes to reading, tabloid journalism is the Twinky at the tip of the food pyramid, and page one is its creamy center. When confronted with the new book assembled by the staff of the NY Post, Headless Body In Topless Bar: The Best Headlines from America’s Favorite Newspaper, I couldn't help myself. Knowing that a bellyache would accompany such indulgence, I still stuffed my face.Of course, we are in the midst of a particularly salacious period of news in the City, which makes the book a timely read, er, leaf-through. Eliot Spitzer's nightmare is a headline writer's wet dream. Have a look at some recent Post fronts (March 11th's "HO NO!" is one of our favorites). All in keeping with the paper's motto, "All the news that's fit to bury beneath a mountain of hooker photos."Ah, but a good hooker story comes along but once in a while. Luckily the Post has mastered the touchstone of any good tabloid front page: the cringe-inducing pun. On the conviction of a cybersex impresario: "YOU'VE GOT JAIL!" On the closing of a Dunkin' Donuts for rodents: "UNDER MOUSE ARREST." On earth's encounter with a worrisome piece of interstellar matter: "KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE!" The CIA should consider reading these headlines to prisoners as a substitute for waterboarding.Yet, like a guy with a megaphone at an otherwise urbane cocktail party, the Post does command attention. Sometimes it even gets it just right. I like the front page from June 27, 2007: a photoshopped picture of Paris Hilton hoisted aloft on the hands of a throng in Times Square with the headline "V-D DAY! PARIS LIBERATED, BIMBOS REJOICE." Then, sometimes there's just no need to dress up a headline, such as on July 30 1985: "EATEN ALIVE! GIANT TIGERS KILL PRETTY ZOO KEEPER WHO 'LOVED ALL ANIMALS.'"A New York Magazine survey named April 15, 1983's "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR" the greatest NY Post headline of all time. As one Post editor puts it, "How do you tell a sensational story other than sensationally?" It's ironic though, that the title of this book is its climax. Sort of like the paper itself: the cover is generally the best part.
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1. A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on? 2. My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail. I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book. Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor. 3. I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler? These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus. Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces. But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best? 4. Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description. Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel. 5. It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom? The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery. In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on. (Image: fading contrail from dnorman's photostream)
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Davy Rothbart has taken the Powell's blog by storm. He's putting together the next FOUND magazine book (a sequel to the first one), and he's taken to posting late at night, occasionally whilst drunk. He's discussed "found" stuff, Scrabble and writing to inmates as well as a number of other topics.
I got a real kick out of this story about Edward P. Jones doing a reading at a Volvo dealership near Washington, DC.The reading at the car dealership may have been one of the stranger marriages of highbrow art and the mass market. Even Jones said afterward that when he got the invitation, he figured that he'd be appearing at a school or in a conference room. "I've never been in a car dealership before, not having a car," he mused. "But I used to pass by here on the bus." Classic. And, by the way, is this the sort of thing we all talk about when we wish that literary fiction got more exposure? I think maybe it is.