As anyone who has worked as a bookseller before can attest, book stores seem to attract a disproportionate number of crazies, people with odd obsessions, questionable hygiene, and/or highly developed eccentricities. Some might decry the modern online book store because it does not allow for this unique slice of life, but, as it turns out, even Amazon has its own resident crazies. Check out the reviews by the Amazon.com JFK obsessive. For a quick taste, here’s his take on Seven Deadly Wonders, a thriller by Matthew Reilly.7 Deadly Wonders has America as the Bad Guys and England not even seriously in the race for the Capstone of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. When I read the plot outline I thought the old Gizar is plateauing. On a happier note I had a dream about 4 Year Old Caroline Kennedy describing a crayon drawing to President Jack Kennedy saying “I hope you like me Daddy” The next thing you know I’ll be tapped four the Skulls. Well I have always been a Kennedy family loyalist. Thanks to JFK and his clever and beautiful First Lady La Loi Exige. Following your Taft outline of going to Texas Florida Arizona and then back to Texas I am guessing that you are in Texas at a secure bunker Mister Shadow President. As your second in command I would like to join you with my Daughter Julia at that bunker as soon as possible Sir. Thanks to Amazon for allowing freedom of speech like the kind President George W Bush supports.(via)
Lots to report… first in Max’s writing news, the new issue of period magazine has been posted. It features the little piece I posted here earlier about Dodger Stadium. I like it, but it sure seems awfully short up there on the page. At any rate, it’s a pretty neat little online mag, eclectic and just for fun. Now, on to more pressing matters. I had a full and eventful last 3 days. On Friday, I saw The Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Henry Fonda Theater. It was the second time I’ve seen them, and I was more or less equally as disappointed as I was the first time I came to LA. I still enjoy the music, and I think the EP is great little chunk of rock and roll, but they don’t seem to have the heft to carry a show in venues as large as the theaters they’ve been playing in LA. In fact, in vast cavernous spaces like the Henry Fonda and the Palace (where they played their first LA gig) the rock energy sounds hollow. Plus, I’m not really into Karen O’s onstage antics…. I mean I love onstage antics as much as the next guy, but it seems like she’s just mugging for the camera.On Saturday, quite unexpectedly, I had a remarkable, unforgettable experience. While I was working the cash register Gabriel Garcia Marquez came into my bookstore. I was floored. He is absolutely one of my heroes, perhaps my favorite writer of all time (or as I have occasionally phrased it “the best writer of all time”). He wandered slowly around the store, taking his time, looking at various books. When he came up to the register, another, younger gentlemen joined him, and he translated for me as I talked to Marquez. It turns out that he speaks very little English. Mostly, I talked to him about Maqroll since Alvaro Mutis is one of his oldest friends, and since I love that book so much. Plus I felt a little strange about talking to him about his own books. He told me that there will be no more novellas about the Gaviero and his friends, but that Mutis continues to write poetry in which Maqroll plays a central role. He also signed some books for me, including the Spanish-language edition of his autobiography which he inscribed “Para Max, del amigo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez 2003”.How fucking cool is that! I also got some signed copies of his other books. They have quickly become some of my most prized possessions.Last night, Easter Sunday night, I went back to the Henry Fonda to see The Faint and Les Savy Fav. I had never really heard The Faint, but I’m really into Les Savy Fav, and I’ve been dying to see their legendary live show. They didn’t disappoint: lead singer Tim Harrington’s antics (remember: I love onstage antics as much as the next guy) had a charming easter motif to them, and he made good use of chocolate bunnies and jelly bean filled plastic eggs. For the last song, he brought a few dozen people on stage and everyone really rocked out. The Faint followed, and while I don’t really get their electro-goth sound, their video projection light show was impressive… plus the kids really seemed to dig it. Finally, if you haven’t checked it out already. Go to 3wk It’s the best internet radio in the world.
Millions contributor Ben penned a post in February about a documentary called Operation Homecoming about the National Endowment of the Arts’ (NEA) program of the same name which is designed to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put their experiences into words. (One participant in the program was Brian Turner whose book of poetry Here, Bullet was reviewed here a few months back.)As was noted in a comment on the original post, Operation Homecoming is also going to be covered as part of a PBS package called America at a Crossroads. That series is set to air beginning this weekend. The 11-part, six-night series covers “the war on terrorism, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan’ the experience of American troops serving abroad, the struggle for balance within the Muslim world, and global perspectives on America’s role overseas.” The Operation Homecoming installment airs Monday at 10pm (check your local listings, of course.)
I ran a piece in last week’s New York Observer reviewing William Goetzmann’s intellectual history, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism. A dry title, I know, and somewhat dry inside the cover, too. Goetzmann is near the end of a long academic career and the book felt a little like cleaning out the closet. Still, I found it an interesting read. There’s a novel synthesis running through all the facts and anecdotes, one that I think is particularly useful in our time:There were few things America’s charter citizens agreed on, but one was that the government should be agnostic about what makes the good life. That neutrality left the field open for utopian projects like Brook Farm and Modern Times, and makes room today for everything from mega-churches to television ads that hawk deodorant as a lifestyle. In fact, Beyond the Revolution argues, the entire frenzy of American enterprise from the founding to the present can be understood as an effort to invent, peddle, connive or discern, a model for how to choose and what to value in country where anything is possible.
Genevieve Tucker, the blogger behind Reeling and Writhing (formerly known as You Cried for Night) has penned an article for The Australian about book blogs that covers briefly the medium’s numerous squabbles and scuffles (have there really been that many? I blame Ed) in what amounts to a history of the nascent “litblogosphere.” A handy sidebar of prominent litblogs is included, though, sadly, The Millions has been left off. (Perhaps that will serve as fodder yet another litblog battle? Nah, I’m used to it.)
“If an ox begins to sicken,” Cato the Elder writes in his treatise on Roman farm management, “give him without delay a raw hen’s egg and make him swallow it whole. The next day make him drink from a wooden bowl a measure of wine in which has been scraped the head of an onion. Both the ox and his attendant should do these things fasting and standing upright.”
This passage has stuck with me, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, since the time I first read it, whenever that may have been. I’m less interested in the questionable medicine it prescribes than in the image of the ox and his attendant — who, on the farm described by Cato, was most likely a slave — together: the attendant going about his work, the ox patiently enduring his ministrations. The two at once familiar and yet gazing across an unfathomable distance of incomprehension as they stand facing one another, both unfed save the ox’s hen’s egg and measure of wine.
I’ve been thinking of the passage often lately, as my novel, That’s Not a Feeling, is, to my surprise, filled with animals. The novel is set on the rural campus of a boarding school, so it isn’t entirely unexpected that animals should appear. But a brief catalogue of non-human animals seen and discussed in its pages would include deer, bees, ducks, a turkey, cats, a caterpillar, a goat, a pig, some chickens, an owl, two wasps, a peahen, horses, bats, some birds that are not further identified, and a snake. This seems to me, if not quite excessive, then at least curious. It’s the kind of thing I try not to think much about while I’m writing, but now that the book is in its final form, I don’t really see what harm it can do.
In the eighth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the poet contrasts animals’ way of being in the world with that of people. “The creature gazes into openness,” he writes, in A. S. Kline’s translation, “… and when it moves, it moves / in eternity, as streams do.” Humans, however, are always looking inward, “our eyes are / as if they were reversed.” I’m sure that making this type of distinction is not what I was up to. First of all, I find it too romantic, too idealized. And the animals I’ve written about aren’t the free, sure beasts described by Rilke. They are often frightened, in the wrong place, or sick, like the ox in Cato.
In this way, they are mirrors of the human characters in the book, who are also often unsettled, ill at ease, or worse. And these characters’ confusion and anxiety is analogous to the opacity that, it seems to me, exists between people and animals. “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” Wittgenstein says. I take this to mean that a lion’s life, his experiences and concerns, are so foreign to us that even if he shared our language, we wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Just before making this point in the Philosophical Investigations, a point I think we can safely assume applies to all animals and not only to lions, Wittgenstein discusses the transparency, or lack thereof, between people. He says, “…one human being can be a complete enigma to another.” And, Freud might have added, a complete enigma to himself or herself as well.
This begins to feel more like what I may have been after, populating the margins of my book with unsteady animals. They stand (or crawl, or fly) as reminders that proximity doesn’t dispel mystery. Just as Cato’s ox and his attendant can live and work together without claiming to know one another completely, we can live among animals and among people without assuming that we comprehend them. This is less a philistine’s incuriosity about his surroundings than a degree of humility as regards the limits of our understanding. Just as psychoanalysis shows us how we are always telling the truth though we do not know the truth, and can be ourselves — can’t help being ourselves — though we remain strangers to ourselves. And yet we are never so resigned that we stop trying to find out more. I like the way animals in books, what John Berger called “animals of the mind,” can serve as emblems of this. From the meadows and the trees, they gaze out at the human characters, who cannot help but wonder what it is the animals see.
People are reading non-fiction, too. The big debut this week is Joan Didion’s new book Where I Was from. It’s part family history, part historical exploration of “where she was from,” the perplexing state of California, a fertile subject for analysis if ever there was one. People are already waving this book above their heads and extolling its virtues much in the same way as they did with her earlier book, Political Fictions. Another politically minded author garnering a wide readership is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, whose op-ed pieces from the last three years have been collected in a single volume entitled, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century. As the title indicates, his columns chronicle the collapse of the prosperity of the previous decade, and the former economist from Princeton feels that the current administration deserves much of the blame. If that’s too heavy, there are some less serious books that are or will soon be best sellers. Among them is a peculiar book that comes to us by way of England. Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott is an astoundingly clever and thorough little collection of trivia that manages to strike the perfect balance between being informative and being fun. For example, go to the official miscellanies website and get the official scoop on how palmistry works, and then feel free to troll around for other odd info at your leisure. Meanwhile, the more musically minded may have caught Martin Scorsese’s seven-part documentary about the blues which is currently airing on PBS. Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick helped compile the companion volume to the documentary entitled, Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, an attractive book that features new essays by David Halberstam, Hilton Als, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elmore Leonard, and others. And finally, all this talk of books about music reminds me of Chuck Klosterman. I may have mentioned a few weeks ago that I was reading Klosterman’s first book, Fargo Rock City, a terribly clever book that seeks to make a case for heavy metal in the annals of music history. The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip. Stayed tuned for the next installment… Paperbacks!
For someone who’s not writing any more books about Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling sure is doing a lot of dabbling. She sold The Tales of Beedle the Bard a “book of five wizarding fairy tales, referenced in the last book of the Harry Potter series” to Amazon for close to $4 million in a charity auction. And now she’s sold an 800-word Potter prequel at another charity auction for $48,858 (that’s $59 a word, as USA Today notes).If two makes a trend, then I wonder, will Rowling spend her post-Potter career gamely agreeing produce bits of Potter ephemera for various auctions, thus filling out the Potter world in a seemingly unplanned way? Does it matter if the average Potter fan never gets to see them?Perhaps more importantly, will all this dabbling eventually convince Rowling to pick up the pen and write another Potter book? It certainly won’t quiet the speculation. Rowling professes to have no plans to write another full-length Potter, but if she does it certainly won’t be the first time a pop-culture phenomenon reappeared after a long hiatus. Indiana Jones and Star Wars come to mind and we all know how those turned out.