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.
I used part of my day off to sit around my house and listlessly attempt to get things done. I used the other, smaller, part of my day off to run some errands, and when I spotted a goodwill store in Glendale, I just had to run in and check out their book selection. I’m really glad I did.Find #1: A hardcover edition of J. F. Powers’ cult classic Wheat That Springeth Green. As you can see from the link, New York Review of Books Press has recently reissued this one, and it has been a favorite among my coworkers.Find #2: A hardcover edition of a book called Shah of Shahs by one of my all time favorite writers, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski has spent the last 50 years writing for the Polish equivalent of the Associated Press. During this time he has been on the scene for nearly every international conflict from front page news to the one paragraph comment buried in the International section. He wrote under the auspices of a state run news agency controlled by a Communist country and yet he spent nearly all of this time abroad, witnessing the wider world as few Communist citizens were able to. His writing betrays this interesting perspective in that he takes nothing for granted and never resorts to cliche to describe cultures that are utterly foreign. In this way, his journalism bears little resemblence to his Western counterparts, and instead he is just a man describing other men, exploring the universal nature of conflict, and occasionally pining for the cold winters of his homeland. Shah of Shahs is about the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah as told by Kapuscinski who was, of course, in Tehran at the time. I already own this in paperback, but I couldn’t help buying the hardcover.Find #3: The two books about Russia that I read recently made frequent mention of two interesting points. First, that for a long time the West had no idea what sort of horrors went on in Stalin’s Russia, and for a long time after many downplayed these horrors. Second, that there was a large officially sanctioned community of writers, known as the “Writers’ Union,” that spewed out official literature, hailed as a great achievement but often little more than thinly disguised propaganda. At the store today I found a book called Short Stories of Russia Today, edited by Yvonne Kapp and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1959. This corresponds with the height of Khrushchev’s “thaw,” three years after he had denouced Stalin in his “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the General Assembly, which must somehow account for how this collection came to be. There is also inherent in this book the sort of thinly disguised awe and fear that Americans felt towards Russia at the time. The dust jacket copy can be read almost as a warning that there is no endeavor that Russians can not apply their might towards. Here’s one little snippet “Like Sputnik, this collection shows that there is more going on in Russia than is revealed by the facade of Communist propaganda.” Whatever the point of this collection, it certainly is a relic of a different time.Finds #4 & 5: When I go bookfinding, I like to pick up books that I’ve never heard of. This can be tricky because most books that end up where I’m scavenging are pretty bad. Usually I solve this problem by getting short story anthologies or literary journals when I see them. There’s usually a hidden gem or two contained within. Today, I snagged O. Henry Awards Prize Stories of 1992 featuring stories by Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ann Packer among many others. I also came across an interesting-looking old hardcover (Knopf, 1969) of a book called The Coming of Rain by Richard Marius. I’d never heard of him, but after getting home and doing a little research I discovered that he’s fairly well-known Southern writer and that this book is the first of a series of four novels that, between the four of them, take place over the course of the last century in the South.
Stendhal was apparently a noted womanizer and in that light, The Red and the Black, reads a little like a projection of his greatest fantasies. There is in the first place the iconoclastic Julien Sorel, who triumphs over a coterie of boring, conventional nobles for the love (and virginity) of the fair Mathilde de la Mole. It’s not a leap to imagine Stendhal dreaming of the same for himself.In the book, Stendhal also introduces an incredible stratagem for wooing women. It emerges when Julien seeks love advice from the Prince Korasoff of Russia under desperate circumstances. Julien is in love with the imperious Mathilde, who lets him climb up the gardener’s ladder to her room on two occasions but then has all sorts of moral/class remorse the next day and eviscerates him with vicious rebukes which are sadly only referenced and not spelled out (a major deficiency of the book).The Prince entrusts to Julien a set of 54 love letters that previously aided a Russian general in the conquest of an English maiden and which, if deployed correctly, are like a romantic weapon of lore, so powerful that none can resist it. Julien’s instructions are to send the letters at prescribed intervals. The plan is described as such:”‘Here I am transcribing the fifteenth of these abominable dissertations; the first fourteen have been faithfully delivered to Marechale. And yet she treats me exactly as though I were not writing her. What can be the end of all this? Can my constancy bore her as much as it bores me?'”Like everyone of inferior intelligence whom chance brings into touch with the operations of a great general, Julien understood nothing of the attack launched by the young Russian upon the heart of the fair English maid [reference to the previous use of the letters]. The first forty letters were intended only to make her pardon his boldness in writing. It was necessary to make this gentle person, who perhaps was vastly bored, form the habit of receiving letters that were perhaps a trifle less insipid than her everyday life.”So that’s the ruse, to send love letters and to make them so innocuous and boring at first that they will not elicit a rejection, but will at the same time habituate the intended to the correspondence. Slowly, the temperature is turned up; the epistolary fire builds, and by the 54th letter, love and desire floweth over.I’ve been out of the dating world for awhile now, so I’m prepared to accept that this is not the unstoppably brilliant strategy I think it is. But I do think it is pretty brilliant, and I suspect it would even work today. I’ve encouraged one of my most eligible bachelor friends to try it with all the single women he knows, even in passing. It obviously all depends on the quality of the letters, but out of a sample of 20 recipients, I’d expect there to be at least five who would be intrigued at the very least.Much of The Red and the Black is based on real events; I wonder if such a packet of letters was rumored to exist in Stendhal’s time or if it might be unearthed today. Even if found, it would surely require some updating. In fact, it would be a fun exercise to try and write a pre-fabricated sequence of love letters for today’s dating world.
This month the book club that I help run read and discussed Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. We had our usual raucous and meandering discussion for the first hour, but for the second hour we had a real treat: a visit from Huneven herself. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of authors, and I’ve also become well-versed in the sort of dynamic that occurs at a typical book reading and signing between author and reader. This was different and refreshing. She sat down with the 12 or 15 of us who were there and let us poke and prod her book and very much participated in the action. It almost reminded me of the various creative writing workshops that I took in college, except our writer was not a beshawled or behatted fellow student recounting the fictionalized tale of their high school relationships, this is a writer who is published by a highly reputable publishing house, the author of a book recently dubbed notable by the New York Times. Nonetheless, she graciously allowed us our comments and criticisms and had quite a bit to share about the book and herself. First: for those who read the book and wondered why, after Alice’s first dream-like experience with the deer in her house, when she was trying to figure out if it had been real or not, she didn’t look in her washing machine to see if the towels she used to clean up after it were there in the morning, that scene was in the original manuscript. She and her editor went back and forth trying to decide if she should leave it in or not, and then, months later, when the book came out, she had forgotten that they had removed the scene and was surprised to see it gone. Other tidbits: Huneven found that writing the character Pete came most easily, and the rest were a struggle. Jonathan Gold, author of the best LA restaurant guide there is, Counter Intelligence, was a big fan of the Helen character. Huneven is on page nine of her next book, which will include a character who is a scrapbooker. As a writer, it was heartening to meet a fellow writer who, though she is published and successful, still sees her work as a challenge and even a struggle, a fact that some writers might not admit in that situation. And, by the way, the book is a great read, and I encourage anyone out there who is looking for a good novel to pick it up.An Intriguing List or TwoMy good and old friend Hot Face has taken a cue from the New York Times and… People Magazine to compile his list of most intriguing books of the year. Since he asks for additions, I put forward Bangkok 8 by John Burdett and Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson, but he’s pretty much got everything else I could think of there already. Meanwhile, my buddy Andy emailed me a link to this, a new take on the year end book list.
A small but satisfyingly eclectic batch of blurbs from the pen of Zadie Smith. Prior to today, I don’t think I’d ever seen the phrase “the mutt’s nuts” printed on the back of a book.On Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi – “This is an excellent comic book, that deserves a place with Joe Sacco and even Art Spiegelman. In her bold black and white panels, Satrapi eloquently reasserts the moral bankruptcy of all political dogma and religious conformity; how it bullies, how it murders, and how it may always be ridiculed by individual rebellions of the spirit and the intellect”On Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives by Simon Goldhill – “It’s great, and great fun… a sparkling, erudite and amusing remedy for our collective historical amnesia”On Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford – “Arthur Bradford’s stories are quite simply the mutt’s nuts: One of the funniest, smartest, tallest writers working in America today.”On The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman “Ms. Fusselman’s book, brief as it is, affected me deeply. Not only that, the talent displayed therein was somewhat unnerving.”On Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer – “The kind of brilliance for narrative that should make her peers envious and her readers very, very grateful.”See Also: The Collected Blurbs of Jonathan Safran Foer, The Collected Blurbs of David Mitchell
The Internet was the big bogeyman, the great scapegoat of 2010. In September, I wrote about how social networking was perverting my friendships. In October Millions contributor Emily wrote about how it had eroded her attention span. And at a certain point, it seemed like every time my wife and I had friends over the conversation turned to the ways the Web was ruining all of our lives: how it was destroying our productivity, sapping our sex drives, devouring our precious time on earth.
But in 2011, I say enough with all this bellyaching! The Internet is just a thing that sits on my desk, if it sits anywhere at all. If I close the lid of my laptop, it can’t get me. If I walk outside it, can’t follow me. Blaming the Internet for the novel I didn’t write is a little like blaming a plush sofa for the marathon I didn’t run. Sure, the couch gave me a comfy place to hide while I was busy not being the man I want to be, but it’s hardly the cause of my problems. Replace the couch with a straw mat and suddenly I’ll run 26 miles? I doubt it. Scuttle the Internet and suddenly I’ll be the writer I’ve always dreamed of being? Hardly.
So, my resolution for 2011 is to stop blaming the Internet for all the ways my days go awry. There are two reasons, abstracted from recent experiences, that make me think this is achievable.
The first is that the Internet is not actually that addictive. I know we talk about email and Facebook and the latest headlines on ESPN like they’re allurements on par with strippers and cigarettes, but really? I spent the week around Christmas at my in-laws’ house which is kind of in the woods and where you can’t pick up a wi-fi signal unless you stand with your computer above your head while balanced on the top railing of the porch on a perfectly clear day. So I didn’t use the Internet much during that time, and if what followed counts as Internet withdrawal, then the Internet is pretty weak sauce indeed. A few times I fantasized about my inbox filling up with unread emails and on Christmas Day I wished I could have checked the Celtics score. But there were no cold sweats, no shakes or shimmies, no aching in my groin. What this made me realize is that the Internet does not have a strong magnetic pull of its own. It’s more like water, ingenious at filling negative space, at seeping into cracks. So in 2011, I’m going to stop fretting over the Internet and instead think about it the way I think about my bathtub: caulk and forget it.
The second experience took place a few days ago. It was in the morning and I was about to sit down to work and I told myself, “Today I’m not going to waste time on the Internet.” I’ve given myself that same pep talk on thousands of mornings but it resounded differently this time: Suddenly it seemed like such a plainly impoverished ambition. “That’s it,” I thought to myself, “That’s all you hope to get out of the day, to not refresh the nytimes.com over and over?” What I realized then is that the opposite of the Internet is not concentration. That morning I was indeed successful at staying off the Web, but so what? I fiddled with my pen, adjusted my socks, stared out the window, filled and refilled my water bottle, went to the bathroom. It turns out there are a lot of ways to fritter away time that don’t involve a computer screen.
What I’m after—what I think most of us are after—is sustained, focused engagement in a meaningful task. If only the Internet were the only thing standing between me and that. So, resolved for 2011, no more complaining about the Internet’s role in my life! If failures do happen to accrue this year, I’ll place the blame instead where it belongs: on my parents.
(Image: 2/365 from fenris117’s photostream)
Tao Lin, a young writer with a flair for cleverly drawing attention to his work, is in the news again. His latest scheme is to take investments from “the public” in his novel-in-progress in exchange for a portion of the royalties.The move appears to have been successful; shares are no longer available and Lin got written up in several mainstream publications, including a fairly lengthy piece in the Telegraph, and dozens of blogs. What nobody mentioned, however, is that this has been done before, some 40 years ago, by another outsized, New York personality.In the early years of his career, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn did the same thing, according to a John Lahr piece that originally ran in the New Yorker and is collected in his book of profiles, Show and Tell published in 2000. Shawn, son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, was a struggling writer going out of his way to achieve literary success without tapping into his father’s considerable influence. Lahr writes:Back then, Wally was forced to follow his own quirky, unconventional path. He told me he’d “sold stock in himself” – his way of rationalizing a twenty-five-hundred-dollar loan he took from a consortium of friends in the sixties, in order to go off and write his plays. (To this day, the investors receive a small yearly check).The juxtaposition of the two schemes presents an interesting notion. $2,500 40 years ago got you some small percentage of a budding artist’s career in perpetuity. $2,000 now only gets you 10% of the royalties for a novel. Inflation, I suppose.Finally, despite Shawn’s scheme (I believe) initially being revealed in a New Yorker piece and despite Shawn’s obvious ties to the magazine, The New Yorker, in its (admittedly very brief) mention of Lin’s plan on its own blog, did not catch the Shawn connection.Given the fractured state of publishing and the enthusiasm for trying new models, perhaps this shareholder form of patronage will take off, but it will have been Shawn, not Lin, who was the first innovator.