Last night, caught in some sort of TV doldrums, Mrs. Millions and I ended up watching “The National Scrabble Championships” on ESPN2. Two pasty guys hunched over a table doesn’t typically qualify as a sport, but we figured we’d allow ESPN2 this digression from its usual content. Or maybe since the poker shows have been such a hit, they’re trying to introduce more “seated around a table” activities to their lineup. Regardless, since we’re known to whip out the Scrabble board, we watched. It was mildly entertaining. One of the commentators was Stefan Fatsis, sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal and author of Word Freak, a look into the odd world of competitive Scrabble. A couple of years ago I gave the book to Mrs. Millions, and let her know that I’d like to read it when she was done. She ripped through it, and started talking about “bingos” and “combos” and other strange things. She read the book so intently that the it literally fell apart – torn binding, pages scattered everywhere – totally unreadable. So, I’ve never read the book. And she’s beaten me at Scrabble ever since.
After Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut declared that his career as a novelist was over, but in recent years Seven Stories Press has collected the scattered writing he has done since his retirement into small books. A new, and perhaps more substantial, collection called A Man without a Country comes out in September. Seven Stories describes it thusly: “Based on short essays and speeches composed over the last five years and plentifully illustrated with artwork by the author throughout, A Man Without a Country gives us Vonnegut both speaking out with indignation and writing tenderly to his fellow Americans, sometimes joking, at other times hopeless, always searching.”Update: Vonnegut talks about the new book on NPR.Later: Vonnegut’s late in life success
Over at More Intelligent Life, you’ll find my reflections on the Joseph Mitchell centenary. Mitchell is, for my money, the greatest reporter-stylist of his era; the essay points to a few reasons why. In related news, The New York Times today reports on a blog version of the diaries of that other great reporter-stylist, George Orwell.
I went to the Dodgers home opener today; park the car in Echo Park and walk over the hill. It was a beautiful day and a good game. Extra innings, though we left after the 11th. Eventually the D-backs won, much to the dismay, I would imagine, of the sell-out crowd. In honor of this baseball occasion here is a little ode to Dodger Stadium that, I belive, will be appearing in Period Magazine whenever their next issue comes out:
Destination: Dodger StadiumMost locals call it Chavez Ravine because it sits in a hilltop hollow of the same name. It’s a pitchers’ park that’s known for its pitchers. Slugger Willy Stargell once likened hitting against Sandy Koufax to “trying to drink coffee with a fork,” and folks still talk about the Fernandomania that accompanied Fernando Valenzuela on the way to his Cy Young, Rookie of the Year coup in 1981. World championships have been won there, too. The Dodgers won the World Series twice in their first four years at Chavez Ravine, and they’ve won two more since then.
At Dodger Stadium, pitchers love the spacious outfield (385 in the power alleys), but the fans in the seats seem to dwell on far weightier matters. While the locally famous Dodger Dogs may not live up to the legendary status that has been bestowed upon them, they will more than satisfy anyone seeking a standard ballpark frank. Combined with a cold beer and six dollar seat, a Dodger Dog seems just about right. I haven’t found there to be a bad seat in the house, from the $6 cheapies in the upper deck to the $150 “Diamond Club” tickets that put you right behind the plate, rubbing elbows with Tinseltown luminaries. A seat somewhere in between these two extremes is where you�ll get your money’s worth (though the “local color” of the upper deck is an experience unto itself). According to the Dodgers’ website, Chavez Ravine is “one of the best maintained facilities in the country,” and I haven’t seen anything to make me worry about the veracity of that claim. Nor should anyone really worry about a rainout, since the chances of that happening have proven quite slim. In 40 years the Boys in Blue have been rained out only 17 times. So next time you’re in town check out a game; it’s not the only game in town, but it’s a game worth seeing.
I’ve noticed lately that a couple of Web sites have put together litblog roundups. At Notes from the (Legal) Underground, they take a break from lawyering most weeks for the “The Monday Morning Books Blogging Post“. Chekhov’s Mistress, meanwhile, has a “Headlines” page which aggregates the headlines from dozens of litblogs and lists them on one easy to find page. (This is similar to what I’ve done in my “Book News via RSS” section which aggregates feeds from newspaper book sections.) Finally, I recently discovered a new participant in the litblog roundup racket. At New West, Allen M. Jones has put together the first two of what I hope will be many litblog roundups. Roundups aside, in my capacity as a graduate journalism student, I recommend that anyone with an interest in citizen or community journalism poke around the New West site.
Call me Galadriel.
(Also Rosalind, Tyrion Lannister, Remus Lupin, and Fanny Price.)
Do you know me now?
The rash of character personality quizzes that recently popped up on my Facebook was delightful at first. Of course I wanted to know what Harry Potter or Shakespeare character I was. What ’90s rocker, what Downton lady, what David Bowie.
It was fun. I took them too. I am in favor any declaration of readerly passion.
But, as the quizzes multiplied, I started to get an awful, queasy feeling. I was troubled as I saw post after post that read: I am this person in this book. We are the same. This is me.
For a character to feel relatable, of course, is one of the great joys and strengths of fiction, and I myself travel with a posse of characters who have spoken to me as if from inside my own heart: Harriet Welch, Seymour Glass, Fleur Pillager, Joelle Van Dynne, Eugene Henderson, and Mick Kelly, to name a few.
But the most powerful reading experiences I’ve had all happened when I was seduced into the specific and alien lives of characters who are not like me at all. Characters who do things I would never do. Characters with whom I likely do not share common party styles or desired vacation destinations or favorite Beyoncé songs. I’ve gone along for the ride with Úrsula Iguarán’s matriarchal ferocity, Billy Pilgrim’s disorienting despair, Rat Kiley’s misdirected bravado, and Peter Jernigan’s magnificently self-destructive gin drinking. I have loved Lolita with Humbert Humbert and wondered how I felt about myself after. Raskolnikov made me kill an old woman with an axe. I screwed around as Yunior in ways that hurt me more than the girls in question. Jay McInerny told me that YOU, that I, was doing all manner of things I assure you I never had any intention of doing. Hell, Rajesh Parameswaran once showed me what is was like to be a TIGER who brutally mauled person after person in a confused expression of love.
Call it radical empathy, as Colum McCann does. Call it the moral necessity of metaphor, as Cynthia Ozick does. Call it containing multitudes, as Walt Whitman does. Call it anything you like — so long as you think it’s important. So long as you understand that gaining access to identities, consciousness, and experiences different than your own is one of the most powerful and humanizing things a piece of art, particularly a book, can do for you.
This is perhaps never so clear to me as when I am teaching.
When an older, continuing-ed student, so shy she typically blushes when she has to talk, says that she really liked the parts of Persepolis where Marjane was a confident loudmouth who spoke out against the post-war Iranian regime. When a Floridian frat guy says he likes “ghetto-nerd” Oscar Wao and understands how hard it is to not be the person everyone expects you to be. When the orthodox Jewish boy who hadn’t participated all semester was the only one who didn’t think “For Esmé With Love and Squalor” was about a pedophile and defended it to the class by saying: “They’re trying to save each others’ lives.” When the young African-American guy in the nursing school who was only in my class because it was required came to life during our unit on August: Osage County and demanded to read the part of Violet, the cruel Okie-mother. When a kid named Frankie performed the greatest Lear I’ve ever seen in the trailer under the West Side highway that was our classroom with an umbrella for a scepter because it was raining that day…these are the times that I remember why I write and why I teach.
You might point out that there are more important things than a proliferation of online personality quizzes happening in the world this week. There is upheaval in Ukraine. There are protests in Venezuela and Bosnia-Herzegovina. At home, there is Jan Brewer’s terrifying consideration of SB 1062. But I’ll go ahead and say that humans who engage in radical empathy with characters unlike themselves, who experience things beyond the scope of their lives, are more likely to know and care about these events too. Are more likely to do something about them.
So do not ask us which characters we are most like. Forget: “Who Are You?”
Ask us our favorites. Ask us who we love. (And in truth, and in the spirit of February, what says more about a person really, than who they love?)
Because when you list your favorite characters, when you tell us who it is you love, are these the characters and people who are the most like you? I hope not. If you find yourself encouraged to love only characters who are just like you, I want you to worry about that; it means your art isn’t doing its job.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
The latest catalog to cross my desk is from the Soft Skull Press, the daring Brooklyn-based publishing house that always manages to deliver books from well outside the mainstream. Their books strike a balance between rage and art, and I like looking through their catalog because I know there will almost nothing familiar in it; I will be introduced to new writers and artists.Coming in May is Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, a historical novel about Custer’s Last Stand as told by Captain Frederick Benteen who managed to survive the massacre. Benteen’s account is told from a distance of twenty years, and the catalog calls the book “an exploration of our dawning age of celebrity (the lionization of Custer, carefully tended to by Custer himself while alive), and what it is to be a soldier (in this era of Iraq memoirs.)”Soft Skull, which often publishes books in translation, is putting out three books originally published in French this time around. One of these, a graphic novel called Siberia by Nikolai Maslov, sounds particularly intense. In the mold of Marjane Satrapi, this is a memoir, and it tells of the brutality of Maslov’s life in the Soviet Union. According to Soft Skull, it’s the first ever Russian graphic novel published in the U.S. The book is already outAlso originally published in France are SuperHip JoliPunk by Camille de Toledo and Electric Flesh by Claro. SuperHip JoliPunk is a “manifesto, examining present day counterculture from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the present. He asks what it is, exactly, his generation is protesting against.” Harry Houdini is at the center of Electric Flesh, but its protagonist is Howard Hourdinary, who claims to be the bastard grandson of the great magician.Publishers, if you’d like to send me your catalog, please email me.
Airports and airplanes are a great place to go bookspotting. They are also a great place to confirm that the bestseller lists aren’t lying. In fact, it sort of made me realize that there should be two different categories of bestseller lists: one for people who buy less than fifteen books a year and one for people who buy more. The vast majority of people fall into that first category, and when you realize this, you realize why the publishing industry isn’t very different from other entertainment industries. If people have a certain finite number of movies that they will be able to see in a given year given constraints on time and money, I think they will be less likely to take a risk on an unproven independent instead of a known quantity like one of the Matrix movies (maybe this is why sequels do so well.) The same is true of video games and any other form of entertainment that can be consumed as a unit. Therefore it makes sense that authors like John Grisham and Stephen King and many bestselling authors of lesser talent have such a strong repeat business. Readers who don’t have the time or inclination to seek out risky books will therefore prefer to purchase books that they ALREADY know that they will enjoy. (This theory, by the way, also explains why political rant books do so well, no matter how absurd they seem to some people). So, I like to test this theory of book consumption when I travel, because airports and airplanes are the one place where people who do not have the time or inclination to read regularly read for lack of any better way to pass the time. Here’s what I spotted:Buffalo Niagara International Airport:Hide & Seek by James Patterson: “Maggie Bradford is one of the most beloved singer/songwriters anywhere. She’s also the devoted mother of two children. She seems to have it all. And so, how could she have murdered not just one, but two of her husbands? With unrelenting suspense, James Patterson answers that question.”The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank: “As it explores the life lessons of Jane, the contemporary American Everywoman–who combines the charm of Bridget Jones, the vulnerability of Ally McBeal, and the wit of Lorrie Moore–The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing offers wise, poignant, and laugh-out-loud insight.”Q Is for Quarry by Sue Grafton: “The #1 “New York Times” bestseller, based on an unsolved homicide that occurred in 1969, is now available in paperback. Revisiting the past can be a dangerous business, and what begins with the pursuit of Jane Doe’s real identity ends in a high-risk hunt for her killer.”A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: “With the compassionate realism of Dickens and a narrative sweep worthy of Balzac, this internationally acclaimed novel draws an unforgettable portrait of the cruelty and corruption, kindness and heroism of India. Set in 1975, A Fine Balance follows the destinies of four strangers who are forced to share a cramped apartment in an unnamed city by the sea.”Krakatoa by Simon Winchester: “From the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World comes an examination of the enduring and world-changing effects of the catastrophic eruption off the coast of Java of the world’s most dangerous volcano–Krakatoa.”Detroit Wayne County:The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: “In her most highly acclaimed book to date, Kingsolver presents a compelling exploration of religion, conscience, imperialist arrogance, and the many paths to redemption, telling the story of an American missionary and his family in the Congo in 1959.”The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle: “According to Tolle, accessing the deepest self, the true self, can be learned by freeing ourselves from the conflicting, unreasonable demands of the mind and living ‘present, fully and intensely, in the Now.'”Los Angeles InternationalThe Testament by John Grisham: “This ‘compulsory page-turner’ journeys deep into the halls of justice–and the rain forests of Brazil. An eccentric billionaire leaves his fortune to his illegitimate daughter, a Christian missionary in Brazil. Rachel stands to inherit $11 billion, but only if attorney Nate O’Reilly can find her.”Four Blind Mice by James Patterson: “Alex Cross is plunged into a case where military codes of honor conceal dark currents of revenge and ambition, and the men controlling the moves have the best weapons and training the world can offer.”Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling: “In the richest installment yet of J. K. Rowling’s seven-part story, Harry Potter confronts the unreliability of the very government of the magical world, and the impotence of the authorities at Hogwarts. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) Harry finds depth and strength in his friends, beyond what even he knew; boundless loyalty and unbearable sacrifice. Though thick runs the plot (as well as the spine), readers will race through these pages, and leave Hogwarts, like Harry, wishing only for the next train back.”So, there you have it, a small, but interesting cross-section of what the American casual reader is reading right now. Some is good and some is bad, but it’s nice to see so many people reading in one place.