I came across Narrative Magazine this weekend, which, if you register, offers a free online subscription. The magazine comes out twice a year and includes several short stories and novel excerpts as well as interviews, non-fiction, and classics. Under classics, the magazine has published work by Jean Stafford, Peter Taylor, and Ivan Turgenev. Recently they have also published a sizable chunk of the Rick Bass book I mentioned yesterday, The Diezmo. Once you’ve registered, go to the Archive page to see all the stuff they’ve got online.
Rock-and-roll memoirs are among the most persistently disappointing literary subgenre. Genius that relies on fleeting inspiration, gut feeling, and unthinking improvisation is ill suited to the slow, reflective process of writing. It takes an outsider to get inside.
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Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as "books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written." The list contains some obvious entries - we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time's prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967's The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade's blockbuster bestsellers - Bridget Jones's Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code - and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer's long article in this week's New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government's failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer's book, The Assassin's Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel - a collaborator - and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad's U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. "Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer - nearly impossible to obtain," Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn't bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. "It's like taking the decision to commit suicide," he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan's position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer's article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.
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This is why I love the New Yorker. Right when I'm about to go on vacation, they put out the debut fiction issue, perfect for the beach. In fact, I still vividly recall reading an excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated in a debut fiction issue while at the beach a few summers ago. This year's stories look interesting. There's "An Ex-Mas Feast" (read it here) by Uwem Alpan, "a Jesuit Priest from Nigeria." There's "The Laser Age" by Justin Tussing, an Iowa Writer's Workshop grad, whose first novel, The Best People in the World, comes out nest year. And there's "Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell (read it here.)I don't know why, but I always feel faint stirrings of jealousy when the debut fiction issue comes out. I'm not exactly an aspiring novelist, but I think it riles people up to see unknowns on such a big stage, the biggest in short fiction. I just have to remind myself that there are much more deserving things to decry in the literary world than the debut fiction issue. That way I can enjoy the stories with my emotions unclouded.Update: I read the stories and here's what I thought.
Alone (I'd be willing to bet) among the Millions staff, I am a reader of Vogue. Not, I often think, a sensible choice: Much of what one finds to read between the covers of the average monthly issue is utter tripe, I willingly admit - at least if you're not an heiress. The ideal reader of Vogue is a lady who lunches (preferably in New York and on two lettuce leaves washed down with fine white wine) and many of the magazine's readings reflect this demographic: For example, Sally Singer's dead-earnest account of how hard it was for her to get back in shape for a gala at the Met after having a baby, or Tomasin Day-Lewis' equally un-self-aware recounting of how scary it was when her son almost, sort-of got hurt while skiing. Depending on one's mood, these pieces can be hysterical, infuriating, or fascinating (as anthropological bits of evidence in support of Fitzgerald's assertion that "the rich are different from you and me"). But these are not what keep me a reader.No, I read Vogue for Jeffrey Steingarten - one of the finest food writers on the planet. The irony of finding The Man Who Ate Everything in the midst of pages and pages of photographs of 100 pound, six-foot-tall women is hardly one I am the first to note, but a man of Steingarten's superbly well-developed sense of humor, I imagine, relishes this irony anew every month. Steingarten's style of essay is a delightful mix of personal narrative and culinary reportage, and while he occasionally (not always) finds himself in rarified surroundings, he has the blessed sense not to pretend they're otherwise (as many of Vogue's contributors - to other, unintentionally comic ends - do). He is both dyed-in-the-wool food enthusiast, connoisseur, and self-deprecating comic hero, and his contribution to the November issue, "Temptation Island," is a fine example of his gifts, both comic and culinary. (Which is to say that if you find yourself in a hair salon or a doctor's office and see the issue with Jennifer Connolly in a dark blue dress on the cover, do yourself a favor and turn to page 379).Since I cannot offer a link to the text of this article, I offer instead a few liberal quotes from Vogue as a Steingarten-ian aperitif. This month's article is an account of his trip to a resort in the Maldives with his wife, a trip he approaches with trepidation, fearing both resort group activities and (more grave) that there will be nothing good to eat. Reminiscing about resort group activities past, he writes:I particularly remember a nightmarish diving excursion off the coast of Maui into the spectacular crater of an extinct volcano called Molokini, led by a guy who believed he was Don Ho, and his partner, who answered to the name of Snorkel Bill and had an unbreakably amiable demeanor, at least until an unexpected storm arose and we all tried to climb back on board up a ladder that gyrated so violently that some of us were thrown back into Molokini and one was knocked out, while a half-dozen sharks circled beneath the boat - but that's a story for another time.And of his wife's spa treatments:By this time my wife was carefully plotting her visits to the spa. The first of these, an Ayurvedic treatment for her long-standing sinus condition, took place the next morning, before breakfast. The Ayurvedic practitioner had her lie on a wooden massage table, which he then tilted to lower her head as he squirted a mixture of 62 herbs into her nose. Before long, the liquid had flowed down into her mouth. The doctor was surprised when this caused my wife to throw up, but, she recalls, he got out of the way in time; once this emergency had passed, and for the following month, my wife's sinus condition was cured! She was meant to return for two more meetings with the 62 herbs but quietly let the opportunity slip by.And, finally, a morsel about Maldivian food:Our first Maldivian dish was a clear tuna soup called Garudiya that, I had been told, every Maldivian family eats every day of the year; pieces of yellowfin tuna are boiled with vegetables and red and black pepper, and the result is pungent and deeply flavored. There were five other dishes, including a stir-fry of squash with mustard seeds and sweet ketchup; a redfish curry; a bright yellow sweet potato curry; a salad of the sweetest lettuces with fresh coconut, chili, and onion. It would have taken us a month or two to exhaust this place, in all of its novelty and variety, but far less time to exhaust our bank account.These morsels do not quite do Steingarten justice. Excerpts never do, I suppose, but I promise delight to those who seek out the full text.And, for those averse to Vogue reading, Steingarten can also be consumed in book form: The Man Who Ate Everything, and It Must've Been Something I Ate. (But you do thereby deny yourself the strange sensation of disjunction caused by reading about a spring roll binge on a page flanked by images of the waifiest of waifs.)
If con artists were smarter, they'd let people forget previous deeds first. Little more than two years after the James Frey debacle, the literature world is once again awash in breaking news stories of fabricated memoirs.The New York Times reported Monday that Misha Defonseca's Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years is complete bogus. This must be cardinal sin considering that, according to the AP, Defonseca is not even Jewish - real name: Monique De Wael. So, never mind that the "memoir" was translated to 18 languages and made into a feature film, exploiting people's shock and disgust for a handsome profit. The defense? "The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality," says Defonseca.Today, the NYT reports that Margaret Seltzer's gang memoir, published under the name Margaret B. Jones Love and Consequences – where the author purports to be a half-Native American, half-white girl dealing drugs for the Bloods in Los Angeles - is also, ahem, a fake.Add to it the revelations about self-knighted chef Robert Irvine of the Food Network – author of Mission: Cook! - who beefed up his resume to include fictional positions as White House Chef and personal friend of Prince Charles (who picks Charles as a mate anyway?) and you might think non-fiction these days is only as real as Frank Abagnale's Harvard Law degree (Remember Catch Me If You Can?).What is most shocking in Seltzer and Irvine's cases is the lack of fact-checking. If it were not for Seltzer's sister - who alerted the publisher, Riverhead Books, after reading a profile of Seltzer in the NYT – Love and Consequences could have enjoyed some success. Look at Irvine, he even had a TV show.Finding out if the Queen knighted someone should be fairly simple. Finding out the heritage of a person, where they attended school, how many siblings they have and so forth is extremely easy. One would think that after Frey, publishers would take a closer look to the facts in memoirs and make sure that readers don't end up paging through imaginary non-fiction.On the plus side, Seltzer must be quite a writer and actress - after all, she managed to keep up the guise of truth for three years while working on her, err, novel.