- Garth writes: “Europeana, by Patrik Ourednik, is one of the weirdest, funniest, most disturbing, and most wonderful books I’ve read in the last year. It’s also, as a vacation bonus (depending on how one looks at it) a shorty: a two-hour read. I heartily recommend it to your readership. Description is difficult, but an interview with Ourednik is up on the Dalkey Archive website. These guys do amazing work finding and translating literature from around the world.”
- And Millions contributor Andrew Saikali pointed out that Edward P. Jones was just awarded the $150,000 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel The Known World. Add that to his $500,000 MacArthur Grant from 2004 and Jones is doing pretty well for himself. I just hope he takes some time off from all of this award collecting to write another novel!
I think I may have mentioned the USA Today bestseller list before. It's fun because it ranks the top 150 books, not just the top 20 like most lists, and I also like it because it doesn't separate books by category, so you can see how those self-help books stack up against those mystery novels. I also think it's interesting to see which classic novels make appearances on the list. For example, this week - barring classics making the list due to movie tie-ins - we've got Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird at 93. I also recently noticed that you can use the search box at the top of the list to search its entire ten year history. For example, I now know that Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which happens to be next to me on the shelf) was on the list for six weeks in late 2003, peaking at 108. Interesting.
No wonder Odysseus had so much trouble finding his way home. It turns out that there is some dispute as to the actual historical location of Ithaca, where Penelope waited for her hero husband to return. As noted in a recent article in The Economist, in The Odyssey, "Homer's Ithaca 'lies low,' but its modern namesake is hilly. And though Odysseus's island is 'farthest to sea towards dusk,' today's Ithaca is close to the mainland in the east." This disparity hasn't gone unnoticed by historians and geographers over the years, but now, for the first time, investigations may provide clues as to the true location of Homer's Ithaca, as geologists using a subterranean scan determine if Kefalonia, to the west of present-day Ithaca, was once actually two islands, the westernmost of which would fit Homer's description. Locals are taking sides as Odysseus' home brings with it a lucrative tourist trade.
One of the nice things about working at a bookstore is that after constant exposure to thousands of books I tend to have a sizable stash of titles and authors that I know are worth reading stored in the back of my head. Lately, during my day-off wanderings around LA, I make sure to duck into any good will/Salvation Army type places I come across, in order to make good use of this extra information that I lug around involuntarily. Luckily, in my neighborhood there seems to be an inexhaustable supply of such stores. Almost all of these places have a ramshackle shelf of books against the back wall. The standard pricing is fifty cents for a paperback and an even dollar for a hardcover, so it's worth it to wade through the broken appliances and dusty clothing racks in order to do a little treasure hunting. I invariably am able to walk away with a gem or two. A couple of weeks ago I came across hardcovers of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I swiftly decided to rescue them from an extremely seedy second hand store a few blocks from MacArthur Park, but before I left a third book caught my eye. A hardcover copy of Prize Stories of the Seventies from the O. Henry Awards was tucked away among some lesser books, so I grabbed that too. I was especially pleased to find this book for two reasons. First, in my opinion the O. Henry short story collections are the best out there, far superior to the Best American Short Story series, which, while always filled with excellent stories, never does anything to surprise you. Second, my contemporary liturature classes and creative writing workshops in college taught me that the '70s were an especially fertile time for the short story. The editor of this collection, Willie Abrahams, rightly states that the collection of stories he has assembled "repudiate altogether the notion -- widely held in the previous decade -- of the story as an endagered or outmoded species." This collection, in fact, represents the last time that the form was commercially viable, a time when there were many more publications devoted to the form, the heyday of Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, John Updike, and Tim O'Brien, all of whom are represented here. While it is always a joy to read stories by these luminaries, the beauty of the short story collection is that it will almost always yield a writer or two whom I have never encountered. This collection included several. Judith Rascoe's story "Small Sounds and Tilting Shadows" is remarkable; it is the tale of an addled woman who insinuates herself into taking care of a mysterious man's vacant apartment. As time passes the apartment becomes both her prison and her haven, and the presence of apartment's missing owner looms ever larger. After just a handful of stories it's hard not to see that many are inhabited by addled women "The Dead" by Joyce Carol Oates (a breathtakingly masterful story), "Last Courtesies" by Ella Leffland, and "My Father's Jokes" by Patricia Zelver. These struggling women are neatly countervailed by stories about creaking, crumbling families: Updike's "Separating" and "Alternatives" by Alice Adams, to name just two. The remaining stories, with a couple of notable exceptions, fall neatly into a third catagory, the experimental, post-modern story, betraying the mirthless, helpless rage of the author toward the frustrations that the decade presented. These were both dated and barely readable, but their themes were consistent with rest of the stories in the collection.In the movie "Dazed and Confused" set in 1976, the middle of this forsaken decade, Cynthia, the red headed dreamer who's too smart for her backward Texas town says "The fifties were boring, the sixties rocked. The seventies, oh my God they obviously suck. Maybe the eighties will be radical." As I recall, the eighties comment got a big laugh in the theatre, but, in terms of the general well-being of the populace, she wasn't very far off. The seventies really did suck. Americans were disillusioned, over-medicated, and terrified of cities that had turned into war zones. This level of disgust is so palpable that it is both the surface and the subtext of nearly every story in the collection. The characters are irreconcilably distraught by the failures of the previous decade. A startling proportion of the characters are addicted to pills, and not a few commit suicide if they aren't killed first, whether by neighbors or the Vietcong. It is a painful collection to read, and it is remarkable to see how bleak a picture of the decade is painted. At the same time, the pain produces beautiful emotional prose. Most of the stories, though imbued with sorrow, were a joy to read. And my favorite "A Silver Dish" by Saul Bellow was perhaps the most sorrowful of all.Why Dontcha Take a Picture, It'll Last LongerTwo very cool photography books came in today. One was called The Innocents, a collection by the photographer Taryn Simon. The book is a chronicle of former death row inmates who have been exonerated. The book combines faces with stories to powerful effect. The second photo book of note today is no less political, though it is far more colorful. Photographer Jamel Shabazz was responsible for one of the coolest books of the last few years, Back In The Days, a collection of street photgraphy from the early hip hop era, before the look was commodified, back when it was real. His new book The Last Sunday in June chronicles New York city's yearly gay pride parade. Days brims with solemn authenticity while Last Sunday explodes with audacious color. Both are worth more than a look.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you'll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the "lit-blog.") And, as I'm still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers' review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke.It's often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson - at Rake's Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed's place - illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride - "B.R. Myers is Satan"; "Who's the Wanker?" - but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies - the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson's prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. "Prose of amazing power and stylishness," Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis' piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper's, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I'm embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson's wide margin of error. "Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper's pencil," I wrote, "I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson's] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson's sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as "bric-a-brac?" Can "someone standing in [...] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?" In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers' Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel's first - "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed." - is bad.Critiques of Myers' motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won't rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn't been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect "had," strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else...something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers - a myopic literalist - seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed" is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn't make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character's point of view can also be seen in the following passage... Alan's comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, "Yes. Yes!" Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we've been thrown, without comment, deep into a character's point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven't read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn't read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I've been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I'm troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers' remarks in print.
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So, What's new this week? Studs Turkel might be the originator of the "oral history" genre that seems to be reaching market saturation of late. After a while, it just seems like a lazy way to write a history book, even if it is the undeniably rockin' history of punk. Turkel strays from these glorified interviewers in a couple of ways. First, he is adept at picking broad but compelling subjects and at finding the common and divergent threads that run through these subjects. His huge seller from 1972, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, is an incredibly readable chronicle of the most common of American experiences. Second, as I have already implied, Turkel is able to paint history in the words of everyday people, not famous folks who practically make a living giving interviews, sketch comedy actors, for example. His new book, Hope Dies Last is the study of his most esoteric subject yet, America's collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it. Once again, he solicits the views of people from different generations and walks of life. Speaking of different walks of life, lots of folks out there seem to be excited by the general who is ready trade in his stars for a chance to become the President. Those curious to know more about Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark can see him showing off his military chops in his new book Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire.Those in a fictional frame of mind should look out for David Guterson's long-awaited followup to Snow Falling on Cedars, a book called Our Lady of the Forest. To paraphrase what Guterson was saying this afternoon on a local public radio show, Our Lady of the Forest is about the occurrence of a mystical, Catholic phenomenon in a destitute Pacific Northwest logging town and the effect it has on four characters. 16-year-old runaway, Anne Holmes, believes that she is having visions of the Virgin Mary. This produces in the young town priest, Father Don Collins, a crisis of conscience. For sometime drifter and mushroom-picker, Carolyn Greer, the apparitions mean money and opportunity, and for guilt-ridden former logger Tom Cross, they signal a chance for redemption. It was especially interesting to hear Guterson talk about how he tried to infuse the book with both the beauty of the rainforests of the Northwest and the squalor of the once-prospering logging towns nearby. Also new in fiction: Shipwreck, another spare and haunting novel by Louis Begley, the author of About Schmidt. Also just out is Train, a must-read LA noir novel by Pete Dexter. I read it and loved it. Here is my review. In paperback people are buying Koba the Dread, Martin Amis' powerful indictment of Stalin and his Western sympathizers, The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene's almost-creepy investigation of the ways in which people manipulate one another, and Songbook, Nick Hornby's paean to his own considered and considerable music collection.AwardwinningThis year's Booker Prize has been awarded to Australian author D.B.C. Pierre for his debut novel, Vernon God Little.