“Under a black cloud, the prison. And within the prison, a bright rebel. The walls were extremely high, and although this was not possible, they appeared to lean inward yet also to bulge outward, and they were topped with a luminous frosting of broken glass.” This, of course, is an excerpt from Marlon Brando’s posthumous (and swash-buckling) novel Fan-Tan. If you really want to get into it, the rest of the excerpt is here, mateys.
Laurel writes to tell us about a fiction contest that she’s involved with at Verb. Stories up to 5,000 words are eligible and the winner receives $1,000 and publication in an issue of Verb. The judge for the contest is Thisbe Nissen who wrote Osprey Island and once helped my friends find an apartment in Iowa City. Verb isn’t your typical literary magazine, by the way. Laurel says: “Verb is the first audioquarterly, which means that you’ll be recording your story for distribution through audible.com, and to subscribers on a CD! If you would prefer, an actor may record in your stead. Past contributors include Robert Olen Butler, Stuart Dybek, Peter Case, Julianna Baggott, Ha Jin, and many others.”
Exiled Kenyan Novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o was in San Francisco promoting his novel Wizard of the Crow and staying at the Hotel Vitale. According to a report in a Kenyan paper, the author was sitting in a common area of the hotel and was confronted by a hotel employee who said, “This place is for guests of the hotel. You must leave.”The worker would hear none of the professor’s explanation that he was a guest. He insisted that he must leave immediately.After it was established that indeed Ngugi was a distinguished guest of the hotel, the management apologised by offering some complimentary whisky.The incident is being talked about in other corners of the Web but has yet to be picked up by any US papers. The hotel is already trying to cover its tracks by saying that it was the action of an individual who “under review, as is the hotel’s diversity training program,” according to an email reprinted at this hotel review site (scroll down).At the blog Black Looks, where another email from hotel management has been reprinted (scroll down to the comments), demands are being made for a public apology in “to be placed in a Bay Area newspaper, no later than the end of this month.”It seems likely that this was indeed the isolated stupidity of one person at the hotel. The hotel itself, meanwhile, is now in serious backpedaling mode. It just goes to show that even in what is considered one of the more “enlightened” cities in the world, we haven’t made as much progress as we think.
I have always wrestled, pretty unsuccessfully I think, with reading and writing poetry, and am often reluctant to discuss it in too much detail, as a novice pilot might be reluctant to land his plane at night. Occasionally, though, poems have the ability to break through whatever barrier to poetry I have inside my head and deliver to me the poignant seed of beauty that supporters of the medium so often rave about. Sometime earlier this year the New Yorker started occasionally putting a poem on its back page instead of the usual “Sketchbook.” One of those back page poems (in the March 3rd issue) was an intensely moving anti-war poem by one of my favorie poets (if it could be said that I have favorite poets) C. K. Williams. It is called “The Hearth.” This one is definitely one of those “break through the barrier” poems for me, as is a very different sort of poem called “The Clerk’s Tale” by Spencer Reece, which appeared on the back page of the New Fiction Issue (June 16 & 23). I love the way this poem makes lyrical the banalities of suburban, modern life. According to the Author Notes for that issue Reece will “publish his first collection of poems next year.” I haven’t been able to find any info about this upcoming book, but I will post if I do find anything out. In other poetry news, FSG recently put out the brick-sized Collected Poems of Robert Lowell. This book has already recieved a ton of press including a major review in the New Yorker and the front page of the New York Times Book Review. The book itself is beautiful and the poems within are melancholy and transcendant; whether you are a longtime fan of Lowell or unaware of his work completely, as you flip from poem to poem you will find it difficult to pull yourself away.So, What Else is NewSometimes, even though there are mountains of unread books all around me, I find myself wishing that one of my favorite writers had a new book out. So instead of continuing to slog dutifully through my teetering piles, I decided to see what will soon be out that I can breathlessly begin to read the very day that I lay my eyes upon it: — David Foster Wallace fans will be happy to hear that an as yet untitled (and perhaps even unfinished) short story collection is slated to come out sometime in January or soon thereafter. — Jonathan Lethem’s remarkable story “View From a Headlock” in this week’s New Yorker turns out to be an excerpt from his new novel The Fortress of Solitude. Look for this one in September. — Vandela Vida, one half of the McSweeney’s super couple, has a new book coming out at the end of August called And Now You Can Go. Here’s an excerpt. — Jhumpa Lahiri has a new book coming out in September called The Namesake. This one was excerpted in the new fiction issue of the New York as a story called “Gogol.” — Apparently David Sedaris’ long-awaited new book will be titled Repeat After Me and will hit shelves a few months shy of a year from now. Anything else out there? let me know.
Over the past few years, I’ve read a good amount of twentieth century Russian history, and I’ve come to wonder, with dismay, why the Soviet regime – especially during Stalin’s reign – is not acknowledged as one of the great horrors in human history. One does not see memorials and museums to this tragedy in cities around the world, nor even in Russia. This view was reinforced in me by books like Anne Applebaum’s Gulag and Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread. Now Millions reader Brian has read another book about Stalin’s reign and sent in his thoughts:I just read Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore– One of the most intense and fascinating books I’ve ever read in my life. Wow. Focuses mostly on Stalin’s life after Lenin’s death and the lives of the Russian magnates that surrounded him. At about pg. 200 the Great Terror kicks in, leading into negotiations and subsequent war with Germany and… it is indescribable. Truly. We all know about Stalin, but I never really understood…- There is one scene in this book, the Russians had 17,000 Poles imprisoned. Stalin ordered 7,000 of them killed. Blohkin was the man to do it. At various times during the Terror he was denounced by Yezhov or Beria, but Stalin wouldn’t let him be killed as nobody could murder with such speed or efficiency. Moreover, like Stalin, it didn’t jangle Blohkin’s nerves; he didn’t turn to excessive drink, decadent sex, or lose him mind. (Although his mother, years later, recalled that he would come home, throw himself at her feet, and sob uncontrollably) – so, on the abovementioned night, Blohkin put on his rubber butcher’s apron, a cap, and took a German pistol (blame it on the Nazis if the crime was discovered) and personally shot 250 poles. He did this – 250 murders a night – for 28 nights. It is the single largest (known) mass murder by one individual in history.- Montefiore provides day by day descriptions of life in the Kremlin, the intrigues amongst Stalin’s ‘court’, the denunciations, confessions, and sexual liaisons amongst the men and women at the ‘top’ (one of Stalin’s favorite things, which he did over and over, was to order the murder of a top official’s wife and then force the official to hang around (and, possibly take orders from) her murderer); the meetings between Molotov and Hitler, Stalin and Ribbentrop, FDR, Churchill, etc. – he gives actual confessions, testimonies, and descriptions of Stalin’s right hand men being beaten so hard that their eyeballs pop out of their heads (for some reason this is mentioned frequently — what must be done to a man or woman’s head to have an eyeball pushed, not picked, out?) by their former best friends, and, at times, their sons or brothers. Seriously.The paperback came out last week. A must read.
The Paris Review has published some work by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died last year. The essay (not available online) covers more of Kapuscinski’s travels through Africa, a familiar subject to those who have read his books. What’s notable is that this issue also includes some of Kapuscinski’s photography, which nicely augments his writing – though those who have read Kapuscinski’s work know that he is more than able to conjure up images with his writing.It’s a good time for Kapuscinski fans because in addition to The Paris Review essay, a new book by Kapuscinski is on the way. I noted Travels with Herodetus at the end of my “most anticipated books of the year” post, but there were few details available at the time. Now we have a cover (as you can see), as well as the book’s description, which tells us that Kapuscinski has written about his years as a young reporter.From the master of literary reportage whose acclaimed books include Shah of Shahs, The Emperor, and The Shadow of the Sun, an intimate account of his first youthful forays beyond the Iron Curtain.Just out of university in 1955, Kapuscinski told his editor that he’d like to go abroad. Dreaming no farther than Czechoslovakia, the young reporter found himself sent to India. Wide-eyed and captivated, he would discover in those days his life’s work – to understand and describe the world in its remotest reaches, in all its multiplicity. From the rituals of sunrise at Persepolis to the incongruity of Louis Armstrong performing before a stone-faced crowd in Khartoum, Kapuscinski gives us the non-Western world as he first saw it, through still-virginal Western eyes.The companion on his travels: a volume of Herodotus, a gift from his first boss. Whether in China, Poland, Iran, or the Congo, it was the “father of history” – and, as Kapuscinski would realize, of globalism – who helped the young correspondent to make sense of events, to find the story where it did not obviously exist. It is this great forerunner’s spirit – both supremely worldly and innately Occidental – that would continue to whet Kapuscinski’s ravenous appetite for discovering the broader world and that has made him our own indispensable companion on any leg of that perpetual journey.Bonus Link: Google video has Kapuscinski’s appearance in 2000 on The Charlie Rose Show. (You may need to turn the volume all the way up to hear it.)
Every so often in a reader’s life, he stumbles upon two books that complement each other like red meat and red wine. Such a happy accident befell me last month, when I happened to read Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker hard on the heels of Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God.The Frank book, an evisceration of the free-market discourse and management culture of the 90s, was a fine read on its own: funny, incisive, and angry. And yet, in its argumentation, it at first struck me as inferior to Frank’s more recent What’s the Matter With Kansas? Like Lewis Lapham, who published excerpts from both books in Harper’s, Frank has a tendency to preach to the choir. This often doesn’t bother me; I sit right in the middle of that choir. When Frank demonstrates the tension between a free market and economic democracy, I say “Amen.” When he decries the commodification of the counterculture, I shout “Hallelujah.”When Frank gets down to naming names, however, I get uneasy. One Market Under God does not hesitate to lay the sorry state of the world at the feet of specific, individual evildoers, and I, raised to try to see the best in people, prefer to blame systemic ills. And so I’m not sure if Frank’s depiction of scheming, iniquitous fat cats is a workable belief or a bit of populist wishful thinking.Or I wasn’t sure, until I picked up Liar’s Poker. Here Michael Lewis, himself a former stockbroker, takes us inside Salomon Brothers, the investment bank where he worked in the rip-roaring 80s. Lewis establishes his centrist credentials early and often, and generally eschews editorializing. It is especially appalling, then, (if weirdly engrossing) to discover that Salomon Brothers is full of…scheming, iniquitous fat cats!Liar’s Poker is like a nonfiction version of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (IMDb). The visionary salesmen and traders of Solomon Brothers screw the little guy at every turn, and we get to see every dirty detail. They rip off investors, lie to the public, devalue successful companies, inflate worthless ones, lay off employees, throw phones at underlings, grope secretaries, consume conspicuously, and generally turn themselves into caricatures of the worst kind of capitalist exploitation. The free-market they promote is, in fact, far from free.In an ideal marketplace, knowledge is symmetrical. The vulgar version: buyer and seller are in possession of the same set of facts, and prices reach equilibrium according to the law of supply and demand. This is why there are laws against rolling back odometers, and against making false claims in advertisements. But investment banks, as Lewis portrays them, rely on the market’s inefficiency at distributing information – its tendency to allow those most heavily invested in a market to control the flow of knowledge within and about that market – to buy below fair-market value, and to sell well above it.Of course, we are assured, such excesses have since been curbed by regulation. (This is part of the 90s market populism analyzed in One Market Under God, wherein Wall Street is brought to heel by Main Street.) Insider trading laws are now stringent, we are told; firewalls have arisen between the trading floors where commodities are sold and the equity departments where they are underwritten. But Wall Street is still raking it in, while Main Street drifts and eddies on stagnant wages.Perhaps the current investment bank bonanza is merely the financial industry’s reward for its own newfound virtuousness. Still, the next time you hear an I-banker lamenting the regulatory climate, or claiming that Sarbanes-Oxley is driving all the moneymen to London, ask him what kind of bonus he got last year, and whether he’s still living in New York. Then tell him you’ve got a bridge you’re looking to sell…See also: Max’s review of Liar’s Poker