Mark at TEV has posted the first installment of his interview with John Banville, whose book The Sea has recently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. This is the first of four installments that will appear weekly. Mark did a great job on this interview and I highly recommend it – it’s interviews like this, thoughtful and unpretentious, that show the true promise of book blogs.
Buzz Poole’s Madonna of the Toast documents the mysterious appearance of icons sacred and profane, in rock formations, housewares, and foodstuffs the world over. A potato chip shaped like Bob Hope? It’s here. Vladimir Lenin on a shower curtain? Likewise. And it wouldn’t very well be Madonna of the Toast without the titular grilled cheese, which – you guessed it – NEVER GOES BAD.Poole has launched a blog where observers of related paranormal phenomena can document their encounters. If you’ve recently run across a Charlotte Bronte-shaped underarm stain, or a puddle that looks like William Shatner, we can only suggest you head over to the blog and share your experience… Inquiring minds, after all, want to know.
In the Contra Costa Times, librarian Julie Winkelstein pens a thoughtful little column about the challenges of recommending books and receiving recommendations from others.I also realized that although I have come to accept that my recommendations aren’t always taken, I still find it difficult when I don’t like a suggested book. It makes me feel guilty, somehow, as if I didn’t try hard enough. And it is not easy for me to simply say it wasn’t right for me.As one who is thought of as a book expert – thanks to this blog and my former job as a bookseller – I’m often asked to provide recommendations, and it’s pretty rare that they hit the mark. After all, it can be hard to pin down someone’s taste in books.
There is a sort of raw bitterness gripping the country these days. People in the red states and the blue states are feeling fear and rancor, and it is directed at each other, not terrorists. From every radio, television, and newspaper, we are hearing that we live in a nation divided. It is true, the citizens of this country occupy a wide and diverse range of viewpoints on many subjects. And we each huddle around one party or the other, one candidate or the other, and the distance between the two camps can seem vast. A sampling of the headlines: “Bush vows to unite a divided nation” says the Chicago Tribune. “Very close vote shows U.S. still deeply divided” says the San Francisco Chronicle. “A deepening divide between red and blue” says the CS Monitor. There are hundreds more. So this might be a good time to look back at some other times when our nation has been divided, just for the sake of perspective. And, of course, there are some great books that can help us do this.The Civil War: A nation doesn’t get much more divided than this. Forget red map, blue map; this was grey map, blue map, brother against brother. For four years the nation was torn asunder. 560,000 dead. It becomes hard to declare that our nation is divided when you remember the Civil War. You can read about the period of time when the country was at its most divided in The Civil War, 3-Volume Box Set, an iconic history by Shelby Foote. Or if you prefer a one volume treatment, you can try James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, another fantastic book. These are, of course, just two selections among hundreds on the topic. Civil rights: These days we’ve got battling bumper stickers and arguments about torn up lawn signs. People are declaring that they will move to Canada, while others say good riddance, but it wasn’t long ago that this nation was divided over Civil Rights and desegregation. Brave souls fought against voter intimidation and school segregation and faced the seething anger of those who used firehoses, police dogs, and even murder to maintain the status quo. The pundits will tell you now that we are a nation deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided, but how divided can we be compared to our struggles against segregation and Jim Crow? There is much to read on the topic, but the articles contained in the Library of America’s collection Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 provide a glimpse of the Civil Rights movement as it was happening (don’t forget the second volume, 1963 to 1973, when you finish the first). Another (again, out of many) worth reading is Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer winner from 2002, Carry Me Home : Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (excerpt).McCarthyism and the Red Scare: Do you regret anything you did in college? Did you used to be a member of another political party? In the 1950s you could have been dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and made to explain yourself. Those labeled “Reds” faced blacklists and public derision. The nation for a time was divided between McCarthy’s supporters and those they sought to label as communists. People may accuse the recent campaigns of similar fearmongering, but our country is not so divided that House Committees are wrongfully accusing private citizens of treasonous acts. There are many books that cover the historical details, but I’ve always found Arthur Miller’s parable of McCarthyism, The Crucible to be much more powerful. One of my favorite films is also a parable of these troubled times. Elia Kazan’s On the WaterfrontSo there are just three examples of exactly how divided this country can get. I don’t think the red-staters and blue-staters will be getting together for a picnic any time soon, but things aren’t going to get as bad as these examples from American history. We live in times that are difficult and uncertain, but after witnessing the self-pity and rending of garments that have resulted from this campaign and the election that followed, I thought it best to try to put things in perspective. It made me feel better, how about you?Update: Some of my fellow bloggers are also turning to books to get them past their post-election malaise. Have a look at this excellent post at Conversational Reading. Bookninja, meanwhile, gives us a more foreboding reading list.
In the name of science – and also, perhaps, in the name of giving the lie to such criticisms of Lady Critics as Norman Mailer’s (“The sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.”), I am about to embark on a little experiment, inspired in part by your spirited objections to my approach to literary taste: I am going to read a burly man author all the way through. The book I have chosen, at Max’s suggestion, is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.I hypothesize, as the readers of our last Millions Quiz already know, that I will be disappointed: that I will not be taken in by either style or substance. My slight (and, as some thought, insufficient) acquaintance with the virile titans of the last century of literature has led me to believe this. But – I am willing to concede – perhaps these are just fellows who give a lady a bad first impression (like the character of Al Swerengen on HBO’s Deadwood), fellows whom a girl might grow begrudgingly (or is it self-hatingly?) fond of upon better acquaintance?I shall see! And you shall see too, when I am done.
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Jeff Bryant and Trevor Jackson are back again this year with their terrific Underrated Writers series. They’ve asked a number of bloggers to nominate writers they feel are not getting the recognition the deserve. From the introduction:The results, as with last year, are delightful, in the most literal sense of the word. We have writers from almost every continent, poets from the past, essayists who are concerned for the future, and novelists desperate to understand the now.I participated last year, but was unable to join in this year. However, two Millions contributors took part. Garth selected Vasily Aksyonov (I read Generations of Winter on Garth’s recommendation almost two years ago and was blown away by it). Garth also selected Patrick Chamoiseau and Jay Cantor.Andrew, meanwhile, nominated a pair of Candian writers, Trevor Cole and Kenneth J. Harvey, with his premise being that all too often writers from north of the border get short shrift down here.
It’s been hard to watch the news the last couple of days. I’ve been interning with chicagotribune.com this summer, so, since Monday, I’ve been pretty immersed in what’s been happening on the Gulf coast – as immersed as one can be, I suppose, with out being actually immersed. Judging from the light traffic this blog has gotten over the past few days, I’m guessing most folks have been spending their online time reading the news, as I have. Aside from the major news sources – CNN, etc. – here’s what I’ve been refreshing many times a day: the WWLTV blog, the Times Picayune Breaking News Weblog, The Irish Trojan’s blog, and The Interdictor. It’s amazing how much all the blogs out there have enriched the coverage of this catastrophe. It’s a great time to be a news consumer.But you may, like me, also need a diversion from the news. Luckily, my favorite New Yorker of the year has just arrived at my doorstep: The Food Issue. I can’t wait to start reading it. Other diversions:The Chicagoist is giving away three books to promote Picador USA’s 10th anniversary event at the Harold Washington Library in ChicagoI might have to try this: Library Thing is a Web site where you can catalog your library. You can tag the books by subject, and the system pulls in Library of Congress cataloging data. Free for the first 200 books and 10 dollars for a 20,000 book limit. (via H2O)Bookfinder.com, the ultimate Web site for tracking down hard to find books, has released their latest list “of the most sought after out of print titles in America.”
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”