I added several books to the reading queue today. In New York last weekend I found a half price paperback copy of Jon Lee Anderson’s Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World. As you may know, Anderson is a stellar war reporter for the New Yorker. His writing combines thrill and adventure and danger with an unmatched depth of knowledge on the conflicts he covers. Guerrillas collects his reporting on “the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and a group of young Palestinians fighting against Israel in the Gaza Strip.” A few weeks earlier, at Myopic Books, an unbelievably well-stocked used bookstore in Wicker Park, I picked up a couple of late 20th century classics, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow and Winter’s Tale (on Emre’s recommendation) by Mark Helprin. I was also lucky enough to receive in the mail from my publisher friends: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (I’m a big Ronson fan), Rick Moody’s upcoming novel The Diviners, and the Booker longlister The People’s Act of Love by James Meek, which I’m a quarter of the way through. Recently, I finished the five LBC nominees for the fall, and in the meantime, with the additions of the books listed above, the queue has ballooned to it’s largest size yet, 48 titles – so much to read, so little time.
In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
Last night Derek and I went to a party at a squat on Western in a no-man’s-land area of LA. Apparently, the kids who were squatting there are about to be kicked out, so this was one last bash. We went because the Sharp Ease were playing. Several other bands were playing as well, and throughout the show people were sporadically destroying the place, a set of abandoned apartments above a non-descript furniture store. The place was already very trashed from months of parties. The doors to many of the rooms had been ripped off the hinges and the graffiti-covered walls were pockmarked with holes and dents. The Sharp Ease played their usual, drunken, high-energy set, and the crowd got pretty rowdy. By the time they finished singing, people were tearing down the walls and launching things – cans of paint, small appliances, cinder blocks – through the windows and leaving a litter of glass and debris all over Western Ave. Derek and I, sensing that it would get worse before it got better, drunkenly headed back to our homes.
This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
A year and a half ago, when BEA was in New York, Max and I decided, against our better judgment, to attend a panel discussion on the fate of book reviewing. The headliner was the intellectual performance artist Christopher Hitchens. However, we both walked away more impressed by the grit, gravity, and grace of panelist John Leonard than we were by Hitch’s charming bloviations.I’d been reading Leonard’s “New Books” column in Harper’s for years, but I emerged from that panel with a more expansive sense of the man, and promptly dug into his essays of the 1970s and 1980s. Those were years when vernacular brio and moral seriousness were not mutually exclusive – when glibness wasn’t held in such high esteem. Like Pauline Kael, Leonard made criticism feel like a vital part of the American intellectual landscape.Moreover, Leonard was a fearless explorer (and often defender) of the new and the unconventional. To name but one example, his last essay for The New York Review of Books (on Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) was a model of sympathetic inquiry.Leonard’s death last week, at age 69, is thus both a substantial loss and a reminder that the life of the mind still matters. Leonard was a great critic. He was also something nobler: a great reader. He will be missed.
I noticed that in the past few days several people have come to this blog after searching Andrei Codrescu and hurricane. Codrescu, a Romanian poet, writer and NPR commentator, is a favorite of mine and when I realized that he makes his home in New Orleans, I became worried that he might be missing. I’m guessing that those searching for him on Google are worried, too. In an interview a little more than a year ago Codrescu, like so many others, dismissed the threat to New Orleans:Standaert: You live in New Orleans, which could be submerged in a matter of a few short hours if a ‘category five’ hurricane hits the city full bore. Does this frighten you? Sorry if I brought it to mind! I’ve heard other residents say with a devil may care wave of the hand that it would be appropriate if New Orleans was Pompeii-ed, Atlantis-ed, or otherwise Sodom and Gomorra-ed. Are these people nuts? Or does living in New Orleans breed a laissez faire attitude toward eminent apocalypse? Is it the decadent caramelized, sugar powdered, steaming apple beignets?Codrescu: So what’s living in San Francisco like? Or L.A.? Or New York? Or anywhere on the path of Comet from Hell? Be serious, Mike. This just ain’t a safe universe. People in New Orleans get great pleasure out of possible disaster just like Venetians do: they are in a hurry to make beauty because they are so close to the elemental (fury) gods. But anyone who decided to be boring because they live on a rock under the desert, is either crazy or hasn’t taken enough LSD. Or they may just be boring, which is incurable. There is nothing sicker than a bunker.I was relieved to hear that Codrescu is safe and in Baton Rouge. Yesterday he mourned on NPR. Like so many others he is both chastened by the wrath of Mother Nature and angry that his beloved city has been destroyed.