A few months back there was some fuss about Penguin selling, for close to $8,000, the Complete Collection: More than 1000 of the Greatest Classics. Recently, used bookstore owner Jeff Sharman went through his inventory and found “a handful of forgotten Penguin Classics” – ones that didn’t make the cut. He raises an interesting point that not all classics stand the test of time.
In the New Yorker, Ian Frazier shares some stories about how the modern novel is threatening to bring down the American economy.Right now, it's costing me forty-five dollars to fill up my 4Runner, which is about two novels. Tough decisions are going to have to be made. I'm used to having a newly released hardcover on the dash of my vehicle, another in the back seat for the kids. At home, we've got a novel in each bedroom, two in the family room, one in the laundry room for my wife when she's down there, and a novella in the john. We go through a couple of dozen novels in a year without even noticing. I hate to say it, but this can't go on.
In August, 2006, a few months after the first Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final, David Foster Wallace published "Roger Federer as Religious Experience," in the New York Times, a lengthy footnoted essay describing the sublimity of Roger Federer and the elements of top-flight tennis that can only be captured watching it live. The essay is not only the best piece of tennis writing I have ever read, but the best piece of sports writing, period. There are countless parts that merit reading out loud to whomever's nearby. One among them:At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television's slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we're not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what's lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting.Yesterday's Federer-Nadal final reminded me of the piece, and, as I have done every year around this time for the past three, had me emailing it out to all my friends, beseeching them to read it, because this time, it really is worth it. It has become a fixation of our manic media culture to instantly assess a just-completed event's place in history. And in the same way that it drives web traffic and sells newspapers to inflate the significance of a "gaffe" by a presidential candidate, rarely a week goes by without some game or another receiving the brand of "classic" status on ESPN. But every now and again the genuine article comes along, making it obvious that all the other hyperbole was just that. Yesterday's Wimbledon final was that kind of event. I imagine DFW was watching. I hope he writes about it.
We're already looking ahead to a number of exciting titles coming this fall, and near the top of that list is Michael Chabon's new novel Telegraph Avenue. Much is now emerging about this new novel, set for release in September, but we've heard that it grew out of an abortive TV project of the same name, which was said to detail the lives of families of different races living in Oakland and Berkeley, something that is evident in the book's opening paragraphs: A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike. Dark August morning, deep in the Flatlands. Hiss of tires. Granular unraveling of skateboard wheels against asphalt. Summer-time Berkeley giving off her old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat. The black boy raised up, let go of the handlebars. The white boy uncoupled the cars of their little train. Crossing his arms, the black boy gripped his T-shirt at the hem and scissored it over his head. He lingered inside the shirt, in no kind of hurry, as they rolled toward the next pool of ebbing streetlight. In a moment, maybe, the black boy would tug the T-shirt the rest of the way off and fly it like a banner from his back pocket. The white boy would kick, push, and reach out, feeling for the spark of bare brown skin against his palm. But for now the kid on the skateboard just coasted along behind the blind daredevil, drafting. Keep an eye out for our big second-half preview in less than a month, which will include more on Telegraph Avenue and dozens of other books coming this fall and beyond.
If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.” No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence -- but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass. First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow -- as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God. “The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories -- like Joyce’s -- that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him. “Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home. Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess. Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid -- the on the way to their home. Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See -- see -- what did I tell you -- snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow. They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45. They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen. Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.” “The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated -- and, instead of Joyce -- tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.
Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow "Year in Reading" contributor Meghan O'Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I'm thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate's audio podcasts. Future interviews, we're told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
On January 19th, while many of us held our collective breath over the results of one national contest, the American Society of Magazine Editors released their list of finalists for the 2017 National Magazine Awards for Print and Digital Media. Curiously absent from the announcement were nominees in fiction, which ASME chose not to promote for the first time in nearly 50 years. The announcement made no mention of the category’s sudden disappearance. For Michael Ray, editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, the distinction was particularly significant. Writing last Thursday via email, he said the award “breached the ostensibly isolated atmosphere of literature and recognized the fiction writer among a broader peer group of writers and before a more diverse and populous audience of potential new readers.” Anthony Marra, whose 2016 NMA winning story, “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” Ray edited, expressed his disappointment in ASME’s omission. “Writing, editing, and publishing short stories in literary magazines is a labor of love for all involved,” he said. “They aren't clickbait. They don’t make much noise or much money. And yet the best of them long outlast the paper on which they were first printed.” While ASME has retained the category of “General Excellence in Literature, Science, and Politics,” such broad scope leaves little room for individual recognition, instead favoring the total yearly production of a magazine over excellence in a single piece. This year, Poetry is the only literary magazine nominated in that category. Last September, Women’s Wear Daily released an email circulated to editors around the magazine industry from ASME Chief Executive Sid Holt. In what amounts to the closest document to a public announcement, the message cites declining fiction entries and, most surprisingly, concern that “few ASME members say they are competent to judge the category.” ASME’s website describes its members as “senior editors, art directors, and photography editors employed by qualified publications.” Susan Russ, senior vice president of communications at ASME, said that with the diminished numbers of submissions, fiction entries had “less than a fifth the number of entries [than] comparable categories.” While the decision to “suspend” the category, she said, “was not a judgment on the value of fiction or [ASME’s] ability to judge entries,” it is unclear -- outside of an attendant fall in submissions fees, perhaps -- how the small pool affected the organization. The arts face an almost certainly precarious future. As a genre, short fiction has long struggled with recognition, and is too often minimized as a stepping-stone to more serious literary enterprises. According to Russ, “ASME is considering alternative ways of honoring fiction,” leaving open the possibility of a new award outside the existent NMA format. But such a move could further isolate fiction from the rest of print culture. It’s entirely possible, however, that fiction may be back for next year’s contest. Losing touch with the power of writing is not something we can now afford to risk. And National Magazine Award or not, over the coming years, we’ll be needing all the good stories we can get. Image Credit: Flickr/Phil Roeder/Ken Hawkins.
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Next, I turned to my second William Boyd novel Stars and Bars. This modern day comedy is the story of Henderson Dores, an English specialist on Impressionism who moves from London to New York in an effort to switch from academia to the lucrative business of art auctioning and to re-establish his relationship with an ex-girlfriend, who recently divorced her husband and has a teenager daughter. In Stars and Bars, Boyd exploits the differences between the English and American cultures to relate the South through the shocked eyes of Henderson. The protagonist faces a lot of challenges and his efforts to conform his lifestyle to certain English ideas do not necessarily pay-off in the good ol' U.S. of A. Henderson defines unlucky in his exploits and his misfortunes make for a grand laugh. Need I mention that Stars and Bars is also an amazing page turner?I wanted to go on reading Boyd, but decided to take a rather unfortunate break and read Vladimir Nabokov's Look at the Harlequins!. This is the first novel I read by Nabokov, and I realized what a bad choice it was halfway into it, but finished it nevertheless. Look at the Harlequins is an autobiographical piece and has a ton of references to other works by Nabokov, none of which I understood. So, if youre not well versed in Nabokov, do not look at the harlequins.To cheer up after my terrible defeat to Nabokov, I picked up Joseph Hellers Catch As Catch Can, a collection of his pre and post Catch-22 short stories, some published in magazines, others not. I really enjoyed the collection and left the book with my dad when I was visiting Turkey over the summer (he lobbied for 6 tireless years for me to read Catch-22, the day he bought me the book and saw me start reading it must have been one of his happier days. Actually he was so inspired by Major Major Major Major, that he wanted to name me judge in Turkish, thinking that it would prevent future jeopardy when I began drunk driving. E.g. when the cop pulls me over I tell him I am "Judge Peker," and he would be intimidated into letting me go.) Regardless, Catch As Catch Can reveals an interesting and rather dark side of Heller before he wrote Catch-22. His subjects are all very interesting people. Among them are: old men, poor working class Brooklyners, junkies, and seamen, all in the wonderful city of New York. Catch As Catch Can also includes some stories that tell of Yossarian and Milo in their later days, which are written in the same manner and tone of Catch-22 and maintain the same level of hilarity. As in Milo sells non-existent fighter jet to the U.S. Air force to fight communists. Yes, it is great. My dad approved of the follow up Yossarian and Milo stories too.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
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