Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post book critic, has named his best books of the year and – you’re not going to believe this (I can hardly believe it as I’m typing this) – he singles out John Grisham (The Broker) and Michael Connelly (The Closers and The Lincoln Lawyer) for praise. Those three books mentioned above are officially on his “best books” list. Connelly I can understand, but Grisham? That’s a huge surprise. I think it’s great. For a critic of Yardley’s stature, giving high praise to Grisham takes serious balls. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
We can, should, and will continue to argue about artistic quality, but we should do so while remembering that poetry can only live in the minds of living readers, and that its value comes out of their encounters with individual poems, which are, thank god, incredibly various (both the poems and the encounters.)
Today's Elliot Spitzer scandal sent me back to the New Yorker archives, to revisit Nick Paumgarten's excellent profile, from December 10. This time around, I was struck less by the "what you see is what you get" thesis of some Spitzer intimates, than by this proposition, from an unnamed source: "Spitzer lunges. He seems not to be a person of strategy. He slipped on a banana peel, or six, and once down has thrashed around." It remains to be seen if, amid the thrashing, his newfound talent for "extracting oneself from an intractable position" holds up.
Last week, The New Yorker ran a profile (subscription required) of Ian McEwan that was scarcely shorter than McEwan's most recent novel, On Chesil Beach. For all its expansiveness, however, the article failed to offer readers the supreme pleasure of McEwan's best fiction: a kind of psychological X-ray. And where writer Daniel Zalewski did manage to see inside McEwan the man, he seemed to discover there - perhaps unwittingly - a certain metaphysico-aesthetic complacency. For example, of John Banville's quite valid complaint about Saturday's "rosy" view of marriage (the wealthy and brilliant protagonist starts his day with wake-up sex), McEwan remarked, "The critic was revealing far more about himself and his wife's teeth-flossing habits than anything about the book."A measure of pride may be in order - Atonement sold 2 million copies! Still, self-satisfaction represents one of writing's occupational hazards, in both senses of the phrase. Doubt is for the novelist what faith is for the priest.Anyway, I'm pleased to report that my worries about McEwan were short-lived. His meditation on John Updike in the New York Review of Books shows us an empiricist still capable of wonderment. Better yet, unlike the New Yorker piece, the NYRB essay is free to all online. If time constraints force you to choose between reading Ian McEwan and reading about Ian McEwan... well, you know what to do.
Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass has revealed in an interview with a German newspaper that he was in the Waffen-SS in the twilight of World War II. The SS was the Nazi secret service and played a major role in the Holocaust. He has a new book coming out in Germany in September that is a memoir of his wartime years. From the Reuters story:The author, best known for his first novel The Tin Drum and an active supporter of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), said his wartime secret had been weighing on his mind and was one of the reasons he wrote a book of recollections which details his war service. The book is out in September."My silence through all these years is one of the reasons why I wrote this book," the paper quoted Grass as saying in a preview of its Saturday edition. "It had to come out finally."From later in the article: "'It was like that for many of my generation,' he added. 'We were doing army service and then suddenly, one year later, the draft order was on the table. And then I realized, probably not until I was in Dresden, that it was the Waffen-SS.'"
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer's long article in this week's New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government's failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer's book, The Assassin's Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel - a collaborator - and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad's U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. "Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer - nearly impossible to obtain," Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn't bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. "It's like taking the decision to commit suicide," he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan's position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer's article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.
Its laudatory impulses notwithstanding, Louis Menand's worthwhile essay in the current New Yorker on Mark McGurl's The Program Era - an account of the rise of the creative writing program - doesn't quite save the book from sounding depressing. For those with ambitions to write fiction, Menand offers a whirlwind tour of a sausage factory. Except that in this case you're not the guy who likes to eat sausage, but the guy (or gal) who raises the hogs. Or maybe you are the hog itself. Reading Menand reading McGurl, you get the very same sense of a vast, tentacular, and mildly deterministic academic-industrial complex you might get in... well, a creative writing program. Which speaks to the characteristic thoroughness of Menand's writing. And, presumably, of McGurl's book.Largely absent from Menand's account (and Mark Grief's review in Bookforum), however, is the question of money. Even for those who agree emphatically with Menand that "there is no 'craft of fiction' as such," the value of two or three years of subsidized writing time is hard to understate. Rilke had the Princess of Thurn and Taxis; we have AWP. And though the rise of the M.F.A. program may well exert a systemic pressure on the writer, it need not, as Menand is at pains to point out, vitiate the visionary. By far my favorite nugget in the Menand piece is his mention of two workshops filled with idiosyncratic talent:Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Wendell Berry taught by Wallace Stegner at StanfordJohn Irving, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, and John Casey taught by Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa.I've also heard tell of a workshop that includedJhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Peter Ho Davies, and Marshall Klimasewiski taught by our guest contributor (and National Book Award finalist) Joan Silber at Boston University.If any of you out there have taken, or know of, similarly stacked workshops, we'd be curious to hear about them, if only as a way of letting M.F.A. applicants cling to a little of the glamor McGurl and Menand have done the rest of us the great favor of dispelling. Somehow the prospect of participating in an aesthetic of "class-based self-consciousness" pales next to the thought of getting drunk with Richard Ford and ripping on Jay McInerney... and hasn't that always been (along with the financial assistance, of course) the most compelling reason to apply to a writing program?
● ● ●