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.
Skimming through the CS Monitor book section I came upon a capsule review describing Because She Can by Bridie Clark as the latest example of “assistant lit.” I assume that this trend hit the big time with the success of The Devil Wears Prada, and the subsequent movie version. But just as some see Jane Austen as a precursor to so-called “chick lit,” I wonder if “assistant lit” has some historical antecedents.One fairly obvious example that comes to mind is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps the ur-assitant lit, in which the sympathetic Bob Cratchit is put upon by his terrible boss Ebenezer Scrooge, who has become something of a model for penny-pinching bosses ever since. But in that case, the action focuses on the boss, and we don’t get much of Cratchit being forced to do Scrooge’s laundry.Another, much more recent example – which actually came out after Prada – might be Rick Moody’s ambitious novel The Diviners, which offers a bleak (and not altogether successful) take on the humiliating plight of the assistant, while also, more or less, attempting to chronicle the downfall of our vacuous, celebrity-obsessed civilization.Then again, it might just be that the book that many consider to be the father of the novel, Don Quixote, also happens to be the very first example of “assistant lit.” Sancho Panza fits the bill as he is endlessly put upon by a boss who manages to both domineering and moronic. For those who have been assistants, as I once was, Don Quixote and his maddening whims will likely call up memories of capricious bosses.But certainly there must be other examples of assistant lit that long predate the current trend, or like The Diviners turn it on its head. Can anyone think of some other good examples? Share in the comments.
Erik Larson has followed up his blockbuster book The Devil in the White City with Thunderstruck, another narrative history that ties together a pair of men one “good” and one “bad.” This time he focuses on “the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of wireless technology (Guglielmo Marconi) and the most notorious British murderer since Jack the Ripper (Hawley Crippen), who dispatched his overbearing wife in ways most foul,” according to a profile of Larson in the Seattle PI. In the PI profile Larson says that he didn’t want to do another history with a parallel structure, but in the end he couldn’t help himself.I found Devil to be an engaging read, but didn’t love it, writing: Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read.It sounds like Thunderstruck will be a book with similar strengths and weaknesses, but undoubtedly an engaging read.
Amar Bakshi was about five years behind me at my high school in Washington DC, but he has my dream job, traveling the world to author a blog for the Washington Post, taking on the charged topic, “How the World Sees America.” I started reading it because of the high school connection (Amar is a friend of my little brother’s), but I’ve become an avid reader of it over time as Amar follows in the footsteps of some of my favorite traveling journalists: Jon Lee Anderson, Paul Theroux, and, of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Unlike those masters of the form, Amar also carries a video camera with him to further chronicle his experiences. Since starting in May, he’s been to England and India, and now he’s back in the States hashing out plans to travel farther afield. It’s an interesting experiment from a young writer. Worth a read if you’re looking for another blog to follow.
Sloganeering rightly takes me to task for my sloppy framing of the NaNoWriMo debate – primarily the fact that I make no attempt to present the opposite point of view – and does it for me by pointing to Websnark’s pro-NaNoWriMo post from a year ago.Clearly some people find NaNoWriMo useful (or at least fun) or it wouldn’t still be around, but I question the idea that it’s good for aspiring writers. Websnark presents four reasons why NaNoWriMo is an instructive exercise. The first three touch on the idea that if you want to be a writer, you have to stop being lazy and/or afraid and you have to write every day. This is undoubtedly true, and at the very least NaNoWriMo shows people how hard this really is, though I have my doubts that very many people continue to write every day on December 1 and beyond, which is the point, right? Essentially, I’m not convinced that there’s an easy trick to learning how to write every day, or even that it can be taught at all.Websnark’s last reason for liking NaNoWriMo is that “There are worse reasons to form a community than creativity,” and that is about the best defense of NaNoWriMo that I can come up with as well. There certainly worse, less productive things one could do with one’s time, and NaNoWriMo makes a solitary, often grueling endeavor fun and social, if only for one month out of the year. But, then, if writing weren’t solitary and grueling, we’d all have novels out.
Tam Tam Books, my friend Tosh’s labor of love, released it’s fourth book this past week: Boris Vian’s Foam of the Daze. Vian is mostly unknown in the States but he is one of France’s modern masters. His novels are at once absurd and doleful. Foam of the Daze is his masterpiece.An AdmissionI’ve done something that I do every once in a while and that I feel a bit of guilt about. I’ve put a book down without finishing it. In this case, though, the book was actually very good, and what I read I enjoyed very much. Chris Hedges pulls no punches in War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. He ruthlessly whittles away the myth of war and violence until all that remains is the set of lies on which they are based. His arguments are almost too convincing, and after he lays it out, it is hard to make a case for a situation in which the use of force is warranted. I especially enjoyed the way he went about laying all of this out. Instead of proclaiming the virtues of peace, he very clearly described how war becomes a tool that those in power use, willingly or not, to maintain their power. And that’s it, that’s the whole book. And that’s pretty much why I quit about halfway through. He made is argument very convincingly and I found myself quite moved, but then he made his argument again and again. I’ve described here in the past the lingering anxiety that has accompanied opening the throttle, so to speak, when it comes to reading. And now sometimes when I feel that I have extracted the essential nugget of wisdom from a book, I am ready to cast the book aside so that I can get to that next nugget. And, sometimes, this nugget is given away freely before the end of the book. I have become a very thirsty reader.
Recently two people who wouldn’t seem to have much in common—my 26-year-old brother and my one-year-old son—have both had me thinking about wonder and fear, and how their experiences of those two things are similar to each other’s, and different from my own.
My brother Ryan is traveling right now, halfway through a backpacking trip that will last through to the early summer. Before he left, he took a Saturday morning bus down to Philadelphia to say goodbye. I waited for him on the front stoop of my apartment building, with my son James perched on my hip. We spotted him when he was still a block away and even at a distance I could tell Ryan was grinning; as the youngest sibling in our family, he had always been the one left behind, but now it was his turn to skip away.
Each morning I wake early to the sound of James crying down the hall. Like my brother abroad, the world is a strange place to him and he’s often scared. I bring him into the bed where he nurses with my wife; then it’s up for breakfast and the official start of the day. I’ve lately become an expert with our toaster; the bread always comes out just right. I eat my cereal while James munches on his diced banana, sometimes smearing the fruit across the table, sometimes putting it into his mouth.
Over the last few weeks James has learned to “cruise,” that is to walk side-shuffle by holding onto the edge of a couch or by pressing himself against a wall. It was while watching him try to bridge the short gap between our bureau and our bed that I first thought about how his days are like my brother’s. The previous evening Ryan had sent an email about a harrowing bus ride he’d just taken into the Himalayan foothills north of Delhi. He said that when he’d looked out his window, there was a sheer thousand foot drop where the road was supposed to have been. I imagine James, if he had the words, would describe his days in much the same way.
In the afternoon James and I take a long walk. When I first moved to Philadelphia four years ago, I was running a lot and I liked the idea of trying never to follow the same route twice. Now James and I trace the same path everyday: 20 blocks east to the river on Pine, 20 blocks back west on Spruce. I like being able to anticipate the topography of the sidewalk, to steer the stroller around the same loose patch of bricks that I avoided yesterday, and to know by the cloud cover whether the children at the nursery school we pass along the way will be playing indoors or out.
Even amid such routine, I still have moments of wanderlust. Every now and again a whiff of burning trash will awaken the physical memory of being alone in La Paz when I was twenty. Or something about the way a woman pokes her head out of a third floor window will remind me of what it felt like to watch the sun go down in Darjeeling. I feel myself drawn towards the airport in such moments, but not in a serious way. There’s James to take care of, and my wife who’d be surprised if I didn’t come home. But more than that, I know that the exhilaration I felt when I woke up in Delhi for the first time isn’t open to me anymore. This is something that I think James, who no longer pays attention to a blue plastic flower he couldn’t get enough of a month ago, understands too.
Of the many misconceptions I had about what it would be like to grow older, two stand out above the rest. The first concerns freedom which I thought about in the same way I thought about candy: I couldn’t imagine how in both cases more was not always better. It would have been impossible to convince myself ten years ago that the small orbit of my current days would feel as satisfying as it does. This I think is the kind of knowledge that is hardest to communicate across generational lines, that in the future you won’t desire the same things you desire right now.
The second misconception is about fear. Watching James, and thinking about how we interact, it’s easy to see why as a child I assumed that the world would becomes less scary as I grew older. He is terrified of being left alone in his crib and I come take him out; a siren sounds outside, and he clings to my leg. His days are filled with at least equal parts wonder and fear, and from that perspective, it must seem as though I command the world.
But I don’t of course. Though my fears are less broadly distributed than they used to be, they are perhaps more deeply felt. I can go days and sometimes even whole weeks without feeling afraid of anything, but then in a moment at night I’ll understand that my wife and I are not promised to fall asleep beside each other forever, and that James, who cruises around the living room each morning, will have to learn the most important things in life on his own.
[Image credit: Abnel Gonzalez]
Last week, the internet buzzed about and puzzled over the newly unveiled cover of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, forthcoming in September. While Franzen is sure to grab many headlines in the months to come, we’re also intrigued by Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which also sports a cover with a blue and white color scheme. Along with the cover above, we have the book’s opening paragraphs below. Fates and Furies has so far been cryptically described as “an exhilarating novel about marriage, creativity, art, and perception,” and, as you’ll see, the book wastes no time, uh, introducing us to its protagonists.
Two people were coming up the beach. She was fair and sharp in a green bikini, though it was May in Maine and cold. He was tall, vivid; a light flickered in him that caught the eye and held it. Their names were Lotto and Mathilde.
For a minute they watched a tide pool full of spiny creatures that sent up curls of sand in vanishing. Then he took her face in his hands, kissed her pale lips. He could die right now of happiness. In a vision, he saw the sea rising up to suck them in, tonguing off their flesh and rolling their bones over its coral molars in the deep. If she were beside him, he thought, he would float out singing.
Well, he was young, twenty-two, and they had been married that morning in secret. Extravagance, under the circumstances, could be forgiven.
Her fingers down the back of his trunks seared his skin. She pushed him backward, walking him up a dune covered in beach-pea stalks, down again to where the wall of sand blocked the wind, where they felt warmer. Under the bikini top, her gooseflesh had taken on a lunar blue, and her nipples in the cold turned inward. On their knees, now, though the sand was rough and hurt. It didn’t matter. They were reduced to mouths and hands. He swept her legs to his hips, pressed her down, blanketed her with his heat until she stopped shivering, made a dune of his back. Her raw knees were raised to the sky.
He longed for something wordless and potent: what? To wear her. He imagined living in her warmth forever. People in his life had fallen away from him one by one like dominoes; every movement pinned her further so that she could not abandon him. He imagined a lifetime of screwing on the beach until they were one of those ancient pairs speed-walking in the morning, skin like lacquered walnut meat. Even old, he would waltz her into the dunes and have his way with her sexy frail bird bones, the plastic hips, and the bionic knee. Drone lifeguards looming up in the sky, flashing their lights, booming Fornicators! Fornicators! to roust them guiltily out. This, for eternity. He closed his eyes and wished. Her eyelashes on his cheek, her thighs on his waist, the first consummation of this terrifying thing they’d done.
Derek followed through with his longstanding plan to rabblerouse at this year’s New Hampshire primary. Check out his blog for dispatches. Joining him are three other esteemed bloggers: Cem, El, and Aeri. I’m hoping they regale us with their thoughts, as well. By the way, the best over book about rabblerousing whilst following presidential campaigns is Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail by good ol’ Hunter S. Thompson.