Amazon has introduced a new feature that promises to be more useful than the Statistically Improbable Phrases feature that launched a few months ago. The “SIP” feature finds distinctive phrases inside books and then linked users to other books that contained those same distinctive phrases. For example, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World contains five instances of the distinctive phrase “deer poaching,” which Amazon tells us also appears in several other books, including Deer and Deer Hunting Book 2: Strategies and Tactics for the Advanced Hunter. Amusing, but not terribly useful. Amazon’s new feature, Capitalized Phrases” or “CAPs,” links books by proper names and places, so by clicking on “King Lear” from among the CAPs for Will in the World, you get a list of books that mention “King Lear.” This seems like a potentially very useful research tool – especially if Amazon decides not to limit the results to twenty or so books as they are currently doing. These “phrases” features by Amazon also represent a foray into the relatively new Internet phenomenon of tagging, which sites like del.icio.us use to categorize Web sites. Since the process is external – in the case of del.icio.us, the tags are applied by users – and has a human element to it, sites that employ tagging have the potential to be “smarter” than those that rely on old-fashioned search engines. It will be interesting to see if Amazon begins to allow user submitted tags in addition to its Search Inside a Book data to create a deep and highly intuitive way of organizing its massive inventory.
Some things I've noticed today:This review of a new biography of one the founding fathers of fantasy and science fiction, H. P. Lovecraft. What's interesting about this bio is that it is done in the form of a graphic novel, a fitting medium in which to describe the life of a visionary. Lovecraft was almost a movie before it was adapted by Keith Giffen from a script by Hans Rodinoff and illustrated by Enrique Breccia.Great capsule reviews at the Christian Science Monitor of the nominees for National Book Critics Circle awards in the criticism category, "far and away the most intimidating [category]." The nominees are Gritos by Dagoberto Gilb, Songbook by Nick Hornby, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King, River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. The winners are announced on March 4th in New York.And a group reads all of Shakespeare in one day, which reminded me of this awesome big ticket item.
On my way home from work on Thursday, I was driving down Sunset Blvd. In the mornings, groggy and unobservant, I will take any old route to work as I focus mostly on getting there on time and the cup of coffee I will consume once I arrive. In the afternoons I am antsy and Sunset Blvd. provides the distractions necessary to take my mind off the ridiculous amount of time that it takes me to get home. While Los Angeles traffic is generally a constant in my mind, the entertainment provided by the prostitutes (trans-sexual and otherwise), the idle rich, and the ambulant insane are the variables that keep me from glazing over entirely. So it came to be on Thursday afternoon that I was amused, but not the least bit shocked as I watched a time-worn scene unfold as I waited at a red light at the intersection of Sunset and Highland. In front of me an over-tan gentleman in a silver BMW convertible leaned aggresively towards the healthful blonde who was sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. I was listening to my Steely Dan Greatest Hits tape, and the AC was turned all the way up. The blonde's uncomplicated smiles and nods were reflected in the Beamer guy's wraparound sunglasses, and in some part of my brain I was repeating over and over again, "please don't get in the car. Please don't get in the car." With a shrug and a smile she bounded over and jumped in, and the creepy guy recoiled back into his seat, launching into what I have no doubt was a volley of self-aggrandizing small talk. The light turned green, and we were driving. The anticlimax to this story is best heard now: he dropped her off about four miles down Sunset, at Western Ave unmolested, as far as I could tell. I know because I followed them, out of both morbid curiousity and my wierd protective nature that crops up from time to time. Plus, it was on my way home. In L.A. it seems, it is not hard to stumble upon these representative set pieces grown cliched with overuse, since everyone is an actor, professional or otherwise. In this one, which has multiple showings each day, set in the dusty, smoggy, sunny backdrop we have two characters: the not unattractive but entirely guileless leading lady who has only just arrived in the city via Greyhound in order to give chase to one dream or another meets the older, moneyed man whose false and condescending smile has from overuse etched wrinkles into his leathery face. He quickly becomes the chameleon and embodies the qualities of the dream she has been chasing. Only many years later will she realize that this dream could not have been pursued any other way. What seems like Hollywood magic when you gaze upon it from afar is really just the collective false solicitude of thousands of these men in wraparound sunglasses.When I pulled into my driveway in what is unaccountably considered a bad neighborhood, I looked skyward to see five helicopters overhead, hanging like spiders from silk. Since this constituted about four more helicopters than usual, it could mean only one thing: police chase in progress. I lack even basic cable, and this ensures that if there is a police chase going on in Los Angeles I will be watching it. If the chase happens to coincide fortuitously with one of the local news broadcasts, it will be shown on all of the channels, each from a different angle and with different commentary. I settled into channel four whose newscasters tried on their best shocked and dismayed act as they conducted off the cuff interviews with a police expert and a psychologist and tried their best to delve into the criminal mind who was giving chase (in this case it was a burly man in a florist van who had been approached by an undercover cop who seemed to think that the burly man had turned his florist van into a "motel on wheels" and all that that entails. The burly man then attempted to run over the undercover cop with his "motel on wheels," and the chase was on). The fact that the chase was occurring in my neighborhood was an added bonus, and each time the florist van barrelled down a nearby street the noise of the sirens and the droaning helicopters mingled with the sirens and the droaning helicopters on TV. For a while I laid on my couch, unguiltily entertained by all this (I have lived here for three years; I'm way past that). Then, just in time for the end of the local news broadcast, the chase reached its frothy climax. The florist van veered onto the sidewalk at the MacArthur Park subway station and the burly man got out and started sprinting down Alvarado. You could see the point at which he lost his delusions of escape (they replayed this moment on TV several times as though it were a game ending touchdown). He slowed to shambling jog, shoulders slackened, waiting for the rush of officers who were closing fast. And then it came and in an instant he was at the bottom of pile of cops.LA is well-known for it's cliches. After a while though, you begin to detect the vast complexity that underlies it all. Then, after another while, the complexity is all you can see. They key is to focus on the nuances and not the cliches themselves. The dominance of the Los Angeles cliches has given the city a reputation that is at odds with reality. One outcome of this is the perception of L.A. as a city lacking literature. This is, of course, a gross understatement. Over the past century, L.A. has produced a great number of writers. A new collection of criticism seeks to address misconceptions while discussing LA literature as it stands now. It's called The Misread City. Here is an excerpt.JulavitsOn Saturday night I attended a reading at another bookstore by young author and Believer co-editor Heidi Julavits. She read a passage from her new novel The Effect of Living Backwards. The novel takes place on a plane that is being hijacked, and makes use of copious flashbacks and flash-forwards to fill out the story. The nine pages she read were clever and engaging. During the question and answer period, she told us that she had been aided in the writing of such a claustrophobic book by two books that took on that same challenge. In the The Verificationist by Donald Antrim the narrator is enveloped in the bear hug of a colleague for the duration of the novel. The Woman Who Escaped from Shame by Toby Olson is a many layered frame story that centers on a porn ring and miniature white ceramic horses. Julavits also offered the two writers she felt most influenced by in general, Philip Roth and Joy Williams. The next day Julavits came into my bookstore and we had a nice conversation about The Believer and its astounding level of popularity.
Tam Tam Books, my friend Tosh's labor of love, released it's fourth book this past week: Boris Vian's Foam of the Daze. Vian is mostly unknown in the States but he is one of France's modern masters. His novels are at once absurd and doleful. Foam of the Daze is his masterpiece.An AdmissionI've done something that I do every once in a while and that I feel a bit of guilt about. I've put a book down without finishing it. In this case, though, the book was actually very good, and what I read I enjoyed very much. Chris Hedges pulls no punches in War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. He ruthlessly whittles away the myth of war and violence until all that remains is the set of lies on which they are based. His arguments are almost too convincing, and after he lays it out, it is hard to make a case for a situation in which the use of force is warranted. I especially enjoyed the way he went about laying all of this out. Instead of proclaiming the virtues of peace, he very clearly described how war becomes a tool that those in power use, willingly or not, to maintain their power. And that's it, that's the whole book. And that's pretty much why I quit about halfway through. He made is argument very convincingly and I found myself quite moved, but then he made his argument again and again. I've described here in the past the lingering anxiety that has accompanied opening the throttle, so to speak, when it comes to reading. And now sometimes when I feel that I have extracted the essential nugget of wisdom from a book, I am ready to cast the book aside so that I can get to that next nugget. And, sometimes, this nugget is given away freely before the end of the book. I have become a very thirsty reader.
Some of you may know that I'm a pretty big fan of comics, or to put it more broadly, stories told in a visual format. I'm not heavily into the superhero stuff, but I love newspaper comics and graphic novels as well as cartoons and animation of all kinds. So, naturally, I was pretty excited when I discovered Scott McCloud a couple of years back. McCloud is the author of two fascinating books, the first, Understanding Comics, is a study of visual storytelling. It is presented in a very clever comic format, and even if you never intend to create your own comic one day, it brings up a lot of interesting stuff about how we convey perceive narratives. A second book called Reinventing Comics addresses the many doors that have been opened to the medium by the advent of computers and the internet. Today I happened upon McCloud's website. I'm not sure why I never thought to look for it before, but I'm glad I found it. There's a blog, a daily improvisational comic, and tons of other comics by him and others. Check it out. It'll keep you busy for a while.
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago. In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it. In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind. Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it. More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce. His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico. “This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned. It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements. Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin. Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product. In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.” Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference. The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope. Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight. But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.” And no one laughed.
● ● ●
T.C. Boyle's new book, The Inner Circle is out and the reviews are starting to appear. Here's one from Newsday. There's also an excerpt available at Boyle's newly redesigned website.Michiko Kakutani likes the Gish Jen novel The Love Wife. Here's an excerpt so you can see what all the fuss is about.And to continue from my last post about Art Spiegelman, The Village Voice also published a review of his new book. Also mentioned in that review is New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger's new book, Up from Zero, about deciding the fate of Ground Zero. Here's an excerpt from the book.