I know this is old news, but I thought I’d give my brief thoughts on the stories from the New Yorker debut fiction issue. I wasn’t bowled over any of the stories, but I was most impressed by Umwem Alpem’s “Ex-Mas Feast,” not so much for writerly virtuosity as for the glimpse of the exotic the story provides. Perhaps because so many short stories seem to be set in the suburbs, I am always drawn to stories set in faraway places. I was somewhat less impressed by Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia,” which I thought would have been a more successful story if it had been half as long. I did, however, enjoy how Russell injected a bit of the surreal into her story. I was also dutifully shocked upon discovering that she is only 23 years old, even though I should know that the New Yorker loves to find these fiction savants. Least interesting of all to me was Justin Tussing’s “The Laser Age,” which, at first glance, I thought was going to be a story of the twisted not to distant future, but instead was just another mismatched boy-meets-girl tale.
The weather is nice, and we’ve got all the windows open in the apartment. We ran some errands earlier today – although the task of going to Whole Foods to buy cheese and olives deserves a term with better connotations than “errand.” Now I’m flipping through a stack of catalogs from Penguin while I listen to baseball on the radio. This is why I look forward to weekends.I think I’ll start with the Plume, Portfolio, Overlook, etc. catalog. These imprints do both paperback editions of books that have already come out in hardcover, and paperback originals, which are initially published as a paperback without a prior hardcover release.There’s a nifty little collection coming out in August as a paperback original. The Subway Chronicles “offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives on this most public of spaces,” New York’s legendary subway system. Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Francine Prose and Calvin Trillin are among 27 contributors whose essays look at New York’s subterranean city from every angle. The anthology’s editor, Jacquelin Cangro, runs thesubwaychronicles.com.I’ve heard sections of Dan Savage’s book The Commitment read on This American Life. Savage writes in the David Sedaris, David Rackoff, public radio funny man vein. Like those two Davids, Savage is gay and his sharp comic timing and casual mastery of the memoir style transcend any label. In The Commitment, Savage recasts the gay marriage “debate” as his own family drama, injecting some much-needed humor and personality into a controversy that is so often portrayed as faceless. The hardcover is already out and the Plume paperback comes out in October.Under the Portfolio imprint is the paperback of John Battelle’s book The Search. The book tells the story of how a goofy little search engine called Google grew into a $120 billion company that enjoys global ubiquity and is seemingly able to reinvent any industry it touches (publishing for example). Aside from my general fascination with Google, I’m also interested in this book because I read and enjoy Battelle’s blog. As the creator of FM Publishing and the “band manager” of Boing Boing, Battelle is someone to watch in the world of new media. The paperback edition comes out in September.Extras: Andy Riley’s morbidly hilarious The Book of Bunny Suicides and The Return of the Bunny Suicides are being collected in a box set called A Box of Bunny Suicides due in September. Haven’t seen the bunny suicides? Go here and click excerpt. Also, Plume is putting out great-looking new editions of Fences, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. (The snazzy new covers aren’t showing up at Amazon yet, but I’m assuming they’ll switch out the old ones soon.)
I wanted to follow up on my attempt to review Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day by sharing a few resources I found helpful. After reading the book, which took 23 days, I barnstormed through a lot of reviews, many of them silly. A couple I found insightful are available in complete versions online. Luc Sante’s “Inside the Time Machine” appeared in The New York Review of Books. Michael Wood’s “Humming Along” appeared in The London Review of Books. Each of these reviews, in its own way, reaffirms the valuable role the long-form book-review plays, and speaks to the ongoing relevance of publications like the NYRB, the LRB, The Believer, and Bookforum.Even more useful, for me, was a recent phenomenon: the wiki. Though I still tend to privilege the O.E.D. over AskJeeves, I can’t think of an instance where the Internet has proven more congenial to literary study than it has in the case of the Pynchon wiki. Where readers of Joyce and Nabokov had to wait years for annotations of Ulysses and Lolita to appear, AtD annotations have appeared online at roughly the speed it takes to read the book. Annotations contributed collectively, and subject to collective revisions, help correct for ideological bias and factual error.Though obsessive decoding of texts can sometimes obscure the richer pleasures of a difficult novel, the wiki, because it’s a more casual reading experience than a thick volume of annotations, seems to make frivolous annotation more transparently frivolous. At the same time, it makes it easy for a novel reader to pause, retrieve crucial information, and then return to the book. I can only hope wikis for books like The Recognitions, The Tunnel, and Infinite Jest are forthcoming.
If you spend much time reading the various book blogs, you probably came across this National Book Award blind item at Beatrice. I did and I couldn’t stop wondering who this slighted author was. Speculation abounded at Tingle Alley, and I was stumped, too. But after stumbling upon a clue in the comments of a post at Mad Max Perkins, I did some snooping around, and I can now reveal that the slighted author is Jim Shepard. His books, Project X and Love and Hydrogen, were not submitted for consideration for the NBA because, according to Beatrice.com, his publisher did not follow the proper procedures. Now, I’m not so sure that either of Shepard’s books would have made the cut. But you never know. And you also have to wonder if everyone would be making such a big fuss if one of our women from New York were a man from Massachusetts.
Dan Wickett is putting together the first (that I know of) blog-hosted short story contest. Dan will collect the entries and pass on the finalists to guest judge Charles D’Ambrosio. The winner will be published on Dan’s blog and in the Spring 2007 issue of Frostproof Review. What are you waiting for? Send something in.
I’m apparently not the first person to wonder, in connection with last week’s PEN World Voices Festival, What makes a good panel discussion? It may seem a parochial concern – the kind of thing best hashed out at… well, a panel discussion – but it has real-world implications. Discussions of books by people who write them can be exhilarating to witness, but there’s also the potential for gnaw-your-own-leg-off tedium.Wednesday’s celebration of 40 years of Anagrama, the illustrious, Barcelona-based independent publisher, highlighted some of these possibilities and pitfalls. The panelists themselves, including Anagrama founder Jorge Herralde and four of his authors, had personality to spare. According to Herralde, these authors occupied the “in-between spaces” of culture and language – always a good thing for conversation. And yet translation problems kept the evening from sustaining any real momentum.Francisco Goldman led off, attempting to capture the role of Anagrama in Hispanophone literary life. He likened it to “Knopf, FSG, Grove, and New Directions” rolled into one. With a novelist’s eye for detail, he described the dustjackets of Anagrama’s various series – “bright, marigold yellow” for translations; “mint green” for Spanish-language originals; gray for “grown-up books” like philosophy. Anagrama, he pointed out, was founded at the tail end of the Franco era, when publishing serious literature was itself an act of editorial daring. And yet even in a more genteel 21st Century Spain, the house keeps renewing itself, most recently by bringing to international attention the extraordinary “flowering of Latin American fiction” in the last decade.Goldman promised to tell us later about Anagrama’s great parties and “How I got to get drunk with the heavy metal rock band Slayer.” But, as the translator fumbled with Herralde’s introduction of the next speaker, A.M. Homes, it seemed increasingly unlikely we would have time to hear from Goldman about Slayer, or about anything else. By the time the translator (an American, it seemed) described Homes’s work as “misericordian” and (I swear) “vorocious,” half of the audience was laughing in embarrassment, and the other half, including the elderly woman next to me, were yelling out the correct translations. Given the floor (finally) Homes spoke movingly about what it meant to a “horribly American” writer like herself to be published abroad. “It means my work has relevance,” she said. Being translated was “an honor. . . and a gift.” The panel had righted itself again.Next up was Siri Hustvedt, looking prosperous in a designer cardigan as her husband, Paul Auster watched from the front row. Herralde’s introduction made it clear that Hustvedt is huge in Spain, with something like 20,000 copies of Sorrows of an American in print. For previous books, she shared a Spanish publisher with Don DeLillo, he said. (I figured that out, and I don’t speak Spanish.) The translator’s version? “She shared a car with Don DeLillo.” At this point Hustvedt herself interjected – “No, no, no, no.” Fortunately, after Hustvedt’s fanciful disquisition on neurology and the imagination a new translator had arrived. The first young woman may merely have been pinch-hitting for the second, who I’m guessing got lost or had train problems. And so the two Spanish-speaking novelists on stage were the beneficiaries of fluid translation.The first to speak was Daniel Sada, who, according to Herralde, was on Roberto Bolaño‘s short-list of favorite writers, which fluctuated according to who he was friends with at any given time. The other candidates? Rodrigo Fresán, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Marías, and the man seated to Sada’s right, Enrique Vila-Matas. Sada spoke about the 19th-Century tradition that shaped him, and its two great problems: managing character and managing time. He quoted Zola: “a novel with less than 25 characters is not worth reading.” Sada’s ambition as a young man was to write a 19th-Century novel that would also be a piece of poetry. “I understand now that this is an idiotic idea,” he said. Still, his fiction is apparently difficult to translate because of his careful attention to the rhythms of his sentences. (All of this made me hungry to read his novel, Almost Never, which will be published in English next year by Graywolf.)The final panelist was Vila-Matas, whom I can only describe as looking like an Iberian Christopher Hitchens. Open-collared and looking pleasantly sauced at 7 p.m., he delivered a fluid series of anecdotes and aphorisms, most of them offering a rascally picture of his dealings with Herralde. My favorite had to do with bumping into Herralde in a discotheque while “in a euphoric state” and lying about having completed a novel. In the end, though, Vila-Matas turned earnest. “Without the trust [of Herralde and Anagrama] it’s not clear I would still be a writer.”The best part of any panel discussion is the discussion, but because so much time had been burned up by prepared remarks and language difficulties, there was hardly any time for these panelists to mix it up. (Note to future programmers: the next best thing to a good translation is not a bad translation, but no translation at all.) Still, this remarkable gathering of writers offered an effective introduction to Anagrama’s work, and offered a testament to the power of independent presses and iconoclastic publishers.[Ed.’s note: Vila-Matas does look like an Iberian Hitch, but does not write like one. We apologize for any confusion.]
As some of you may know, my very good friend Cem has been travelling through some remote parts of the world. The other day, in a very long email, he asked me whether or not I thought he should stay in northern Thailand or keep on moving toward the Middle East which is, ostensibly, his final destination… here is my advice (plus a little plug for the record label, which he had asked about): Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner, your email took me 4 days to read. Seriously though, what I wouldn’t give to be in your place with your dilemma… should I go to this frighteningly exotic place or this other one? My jealousy aside, I’m not sure I can make this decision for you, but I might be able to give you a little insight. First, you have to decide, irrespective of the girl or whatever gig you have set up in Thailand, whether this adventure is all about getting to the destination (i.e. Cairo and the Middle East) or allowing yourself to be follow the whims of the world and just be wherever you end up… like Maqroll. I think both are perfectly admirable plans, but you have to pick one or the other. Secondly, I don’t know how tuned in you are to world events right now given your isolation, but American soldiers are dying every couple of days in Iraq, and the situation seems, to me anyway, to still be very much up in the air, with a guerilla war still a possibility, however remote. I’m sure that Cairo and Istanbul and Amman are all plenty safe, but I guess you should figure out if you prefer to be in the Middle East soon (while there is still uncertainty) or later when things have calmed down. So there you have it… no easy answers just more dilemmas. I love what you’re doing, and if and when you get settled somewhere, I am coming to visit. In other news, the website for my record label is www.realisticrecords.net so tell all your indie friends to check it out. There are mp3s up and pictures of the recoys reunion show/record release party. You can also buy the album there (It’s called Recoys Rekoys) and it’s a vinyl only run of 1000. Since that is almost sold out though, we’ll probably get a cd together soon enough.Now if there are any world travellers out there who are aspiring to do the sort of thing that my friend Cem is doing, I suggest you pick up The World’s Most Dangerous Places by Robert Young Pelton. It’s a very informative and wildly entertain look at some of the more hazardous corners of the planet. As if to underline his fealty for sticky situations, Pelton himself was kidnapped by leftist rebels in Columbia earlier this year. He was later released.