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.
The Rake put together a terrific column on lazy reviews, the prevalence of lists masquerading as criticism, and the army of meta-critics that has emerged online. I'm late in linking to it, but it's a very worthwhile read. A taste:Yes, Virginia, your pal the Rake has been willing witness to countless hours of VH1's laziest programming. He's not made of stone. The professional listmakers' core insanity lies in the way in which they hold up sub-B list comedians and other cultural freaks as insightful, worthy commentators. Certainly there are subjects upon which Ron Jeremy is an expert, but the Top 100 Scorchtastic Movie Kisses is not one of them, not least of all because the very object of his commentary is chimerical.There's more, too.
I'm apparently not the first person to wonder, in connection with last week's PEN World Voices Festival, What makes a good panel discussion? It may seem a parochial concern - the kind of thing best hashed out at... well, a panel discussion - but it has real-world implications. Discussions of books by people who write them can be exhilarating to witness, but there's also the potential for gnaw-your-own-leg-off tedium.Wednesday's celebration of 40 years of Anagrama, the illustrious, Barcelona-based independent publisher, highlighted some of these possibilities and pitfalls. The panelists themselves, including Anagrama founder Jorge Herralde and four of his authors, had personality to spare. According to Herralde, these authors occupied the "in-between spaces" of culture and language - always a good thing for conversation. And yet translation problems kept the evening from sustaining any real momentum.Francisco Goldman led off, attempting to capture the role of Anagrama in Hispanophone literary life. He likened it to "Knopf, FSG, Grove, and New Directions" rolled into one. With a novelist's eye for detail, he described the dustjackets of Anagrama's various series - "bright, marigold yellow" for translations; "mint green" for Spanish-language originals; gray for "grown-up books" like philosophy. Anagrama, he pointed out, was founded at the tail end of the Franco era, when publishing serious literature was itself an act of editorial daring. And yet even in a more genteel 21st Century Spain, the house keeps renewing itself, most recently by bringing to international attention the extraordinary "flowering of Latin American fiction" in the last decade.Goldman promised to tell us later about Anagrama's great parties and "How I got to get drunk with the heavy metal rock band Slayer." But, as the translator fumbled with Herralde's introduction of the next speaker, A.M. Homes, it seemed increasingly unlikely we would have time to hear from Goldman about Slayer, or about anything else. By the time the translator (an American, it seemed) described Homes's work as "misericordian" and (I swear) "vorocious," half of the audience was laughing in embarrassment, and the other half, including the elderly woman next to me, were yelling out the correct translations. Given the floor (finally) Homes spoke movingly about what it meant to a "horribly American" writer like herself to be published abroad. "It means my work has relevance," she said. Being translated was "an honor. . . and a gift." The panel had righted itself again.Next up was Siri Hustvedt, looking prosperous in a designer cardigan as her husband, Paul Auster watched from the front row. Herralde's introduction made it clear that Hustvedt is huge in Spain, with something like 20,000 copies of Sorrows of an American in print. For previous books, she shared a Spanish publisher with Don DeLillo, he said. (I figured that out, and I don't speak Spanish.) The translator's version? "She shared a car with Don DeLillo." At this point Hustvedt herself interjected - "No, no, no, no." Fortunately, after Hustvedt's fanciful disquisition on neurology and the imagination a new translator had arrived. The first young woman may merely have been pinch-hitting for the second, who I'm guessing got lost or had train problems. And so the two Spanish-speaking novelists on stage were the beneficiaries of fluid translation.The first to speak was Daniel Sada, who, according to Herralde, was on Roberto Bolaño's short-list of favorite writers, which fluctuated according to who he was friends with at any given time. The other candidates? Rodrigo Fresán, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Marías, and the man seated to Sada's right, Enrique Vila-Matas. Sada spoke about the 19th-Century tradition that shaped him, and its two great problems: managing character and managing time. He quoted Zola: "a novel with less than 25 characters is not worth reading." Sada's ambition as a young man was to write a 19th-Century novel that would also be a piece of poetry. "I understand now that this is an idiotic idea," he said. Still, his fiction is apparently difficult to translate because of his careful attention to the rhythms of his sentences. (All of this made me hungry to read his novel, Almost Never, which will be published in English next year by Graywolf.)The final panelist was Vila-Matas, whom I can only describe as looking like an Iberian Christopher Hitchens. Open-collared and looking pleasantly sauced at 7 p.m., he delivered a fluid series of anecdotes and aphorisms, most of them offering a rascally picture of his dealings with Herralde. My favorite had to do with bumping into Herralde in a discotheque while "in a euphoric state" and lying about having completed a novel. In the end, though, Vila-Matas turned earnest. "Without the trust [of Herralde and Anagrama] it's not clear I would still be a writer."The best part of any panel discussion is the discussion, but because so much time had been burned up by prepared remarks and language difficulties, there was hardly any time for these panelists to mix it up. (Note to future programmers: the next best thing to a good translation is not a bad translation, but no translation at all.) Still, this remarkable gathering of writers offered an effective introduction to Anagrama's work, and offered a testament to the power of independent presses and iconoclastic publishers.[Ed.'s note: Vila-Matas does look like an Iberian Hitch, but does not write like one. We apologize for any confusion.]
I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would discover that my actions had caused an earthquake. But I think if I did, my next move would probably be to stop doing whatever it was I was doing -- not to figure out a way to live with the earthquakes. Because if energy companies actually believe that fracking causes earthquakes -- and if they continue to frack -- where does it end? If a company learned that fracking was responsible for international terrorism, would they stop? If they learned that fracking caused blindness in little orphan baby girls, would they care?
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I went back home to Istanbul for my cousin's wedding (yes, a lot of weddings indeed, fun nevertheless, and may all of them be happy) and there picked up Tuna Kiremitci's third novel Yolda Uc Kisi (Three People on the Road). I had briefly mentioned Tuna Kiremitci's first two novels in my Year in Reading for 2004. I had found both very pop but at the same time sincere and interesting. Yolda Uc Kisi has an interesting storyline, but it does not explore feelings, ideas, conflicts, and desires as strongly as its predecessors. The author's involvement as the narrator was also too cheap and easy at times, helping Kiremitci to skim over facts that could well make the novel more interesting. I understand that he is a poet and would rather take the short cut, but Yolda Uc Kisi was a disappointing read with certain highlights and no identifiable resolution. I would recommend Orhan Pamuk's Sessiz Ev (also reviewed last year) for those interested in the divide between the understanding of revolutionaries and consumers, as well as young and old, and the political life in Turkey before the military coup of 1980, it goes much deeper than Yolda Uc Kisi, and actually presents a full story.Funny book given as present by my friend Roland at the Virginia wedding: In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot by Graham Roumieu. Absolutely hilarious, from the myth to pop culture, everything that Bigfoot presents in his broken English puts a smile on your face or makes you laugh out loud. You will read the whole book in 5 minutes and then rush over to your friends to read what you thought was the funniest, realizing soon thereafter that you have read the whole thing to them, too. Go to a bookstore, pick it up, and see if it makes you smile. [Ed. Note: I'm also a big fan of the Bigfoot book. Go here to get a taste of Roumieu's art.]Next I turned to Danyel Smith's Bliss, which hit the shelves on July 12 to great acclaim. Smith takes the reader through the booming world of hip hop in the late '80s and the '90s, through the experiences, ambitions, and personal conflicts of Eva Glenn, a successful executive at Roadshow Records. Although fairly well concentrated on her career and personal freedom, Eva actually has little time to focus on her real problems as she juggles Sunny, her successful, multi-platinum artist; Ron Lil' John, her rival record executive and part-time lover; Dart, Sunny's manic-depressive brother and manager; and all other rivals in the cut-throat recording industry. Bliss is very pop and fun to read: Eva's constant musings over songs - relating developments in her life through verses from artists like the Temptations and Tupac - her constant inner dialogue, which explains the real motivations behind her actions, and stories of making mixed tapes from radio broadcasts make for a novel that captivates the reader. Bliss is very similar to Syrup by Maxx Barry in both style and context. I had enjoyed Syrup a lot when I read it and think that it covers personal vice and dynamics of a cut-throat industry - marketing in this instance - stronger than Bliss does. Nevertheless, it was really entertaining to read about the recording industry especially when the story is of success, competition, music. If you are headed to the beach before the summer is over, or have a sweet life like Eva Glenn and will be traveling to an exotic island, take Bliss with you and marvel at how, maybe one day, your life can be like that too.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3
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In the Times (UK), a look at the forthcoming Rough Guide to Cult Fiction begs the question: what is cult fiction? "The editors note in an introduction that Toby Litt once said that in their purest form, cult books ought to have been out of print for ten years," Erica Wagner writes. She also notes that in order for there to be "cult fiction," the fans of such fiction must be cult-like in their devotion. The Rough Guide apparently contains some odd inclusions as well as omissions, but the concept made me think of my experience with cult fiction. Based on working at a book store, I would say that, among contemporary authors, Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Coupland, and, to a certain extent T.C. Boyle had cultish fans. During my reading life, I've only gotten really cultish about one author, Richard Brautigan, of whose poetry and fiction I was enamored as a teenager. Brautigan, I would imagine, fits the "cult fiction" label pretty well. Curious if anyone else uses this label, I found an interesting list of books that a library in Indiana has labeled "cult fiction."
I'm heading to Chicago this afternoon to scope the place out. This summer, after Miss Millions and I get hitched, we're moving to Chicago where I'll be attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. Chicago will be a big change for us... the weather alone is a little daunting, but I'm excited about getting to know a new city, and I will do my best to keep The Millions going while I'm in school. In fact, one of the things that keeps the Millions going is the great book stores in LA where I can keep track of the latest books and even meet authors from time to time. I happened upon Golden Rule Jones, which will keep me informed of readings and other literary events, but I need to find a good book store that can be my home base in Chicago, preferably somewhere on the North side of the city, since that's where we'll be living. So, I probably won't be blogging for the next few days, but I will be checking back here. I'm hoping that those of you with knowledge of Chicago will leave some bookstore recommendations in the comments area so that I can check them out. Thanks guys!