Yet another use for books (other than reading them): pile them up and use them as a bar.
"The gizmo, the golden, deceptive, brass-filled gizmo, was gone at last.” So reads the final sentence of Jim Thompson’s con-man sleaze-romp The Golden Gizmo, which I finished last week. Though it ran under 200 pages, the story was crammed with double-crosses, faked deaths, and a massive talking dog. There were shady gold dealers and exiled Nazis, a femme fatale and a hag of a wife. I’d been mildly confused throughout, but the ending tied things up efficiently enough. I had questions, but not many complaints. After rereading the final line, I admired the cover image: a grainy photo of hundreds being shuffled. I flipped to the last page and inspected books “Also Available From Jim Thompson.” And with that, I had squeezed all that I could from The Golden Gizmo. I returned it to its narrow gap on the shelf, scanning the books that I hadn’t yet read. But I didn’t pick a new one, not just yet. In recent months, that moment of lingering, of browsing my own library, has become one of my favorite aspects of reading. In the past, I’d immediately swap the book I’d just read for a new one, a literary chain-smoker. But now I take my time—luxuriating in possibility, enjoying expectation, and pondering what’s next with a real, idle pleasure. And after finishing the Thompson book, my options seemed endless. I’ve lately been in stockpile mode, picking up The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, Lush Life, and A Prayer For the City. A friend had given me Lonesome Dove, The Bronx is Burning, and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. There was The Punch, about Kermit Washington’s near-fatal swing at Rudy Tomjanovich during a 1977 NBA game. And of course, the dozens of titles—by T.C. Boyle and Frank Herbert, Pete Dexter and Chris Elliot—that I’ve owned for years and have never quite gotten to. From all of these, I happily chose nothing. Instead, I let my mind drift around the books’ edges, nourished by thoughts of what they would bring: Plimpton’s erudite humor, Price’s ordered chaos, Bissinger’s knowing outrage. I could conjure T.C. Boyle’s dexterity and Pete Dexter’s toughness. Though I denied myself the satisfaction of engagement, I also avoided disappointment: did I really need to read a 1,000-page western—or, for that matter, anything by Chris Elliot? I don’t even really like westerns, and Get a Life was axed when I was still in Reebok Pumps. Better, perhaps, to let those remain abstract and idealized. In this nebulous state, anticipation is also fed by jacket design. The Punch looks especially awesome: the cover is spare, with bright orange type over a blown-out picture of the titular incident. It’s violent, discomfiting, hard to ignore. The book looks so good that, to be honest, I don’t want to spoil things by actually reading it—getting bogged down, as I suspect I will, in the minutiae of Carter-era neurology and Kermit’s deep regret. Nonetheless, The Punch calls to me. Knowing the sex won’t be as good as you’ve dreamed is no reason to keep your pants on. Post-Gizmo, I spent five days like this—weighing my options, considering my desires. I caught up on my comic books and magazines, cleared out unread newspapers. And then, with private fanfare, I walked upstairs for a book. I’d recently bought And Here’s the Kicker, a collection of comedy interviews—but after glancing through it, I found I wasn’t in the mood. Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla was enticing, but something—maybe its candy-colored fight-night cover—pushed me past. The Punch, too, would have to wait. In the end, I picked Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. It looked breezy and smart, and had come highly recommended. I took it down, laid in bed, and began to read. It was wry and nostalgic, serious and absurd. I’d made the right choice. It even contained a line I found relevant to my dilatory new habit: “Most of us go about our duties of commerce and leisure in a state of perpetual longing.” I thought about that. My postponement of reading was a way to embellish that longing, to make it even more deliciously perpetual. After thirty years, I’d found one more way to wring enjoyment from books—even as they sat on the shelf.
Do you remember your last English teacher? Did he use colored chalk to diagram William Faulkner’s periodic sentences? Did she stand in the back of the room and read a poem from Denise Levertov, most of the words pushing past your ears, but a few, like “Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another / in most lives?” remaining like a refrain? Or was he forgettable, distributing misspelled study guides for The Merchant of Venice before playing a tired cassette recording? Think about your last year in a high school English classroom. The uneven rows. The loud radiator. The re-used posters, corners double-taped. You were 17, 18. Your mind and your heart were elsewhere. That tension between distraction and focus is healthy. If we do not wish that we were somewhere else, doing something else, the collective, focused breath on a single line of a poem would not be so sweet. Back then, you were full of cynicism and hope. What a mixture: your wounds and joys felt so sharp. I tell my seniors that I will likely be their last English teacher. They are enrolled in AP Literature and Composition, a difficult course that builds toward a three-hour exam. When I began teaching the course a decade ago, my classes were nearly half the size. Most students were hoping to major in English or philosophy. Now, out of two class sections of 55 students, it is a surprise to have three future English majors. I am lucky that they are no less talented and driven. They are ready to work. I realize that my situation is unique. My students often attend the most competitive colleges in the country. In order to do so, their high school schedules are strained. They are expected to perform highly in several intellectual disciplines a day, with only six minutes to move between classrooms within an enormous outdoor campus, and 40 minutes to be teenagers at lunch. Still, they are very fortunate. They have the support of the community and district. They are good kids. Curious kids, who stay with me when we examine the difference between mimetic and textual voice in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, or parse Wallace Stevens’s “A Comment on Meaning in Poetry.” I tell them that I am their last English teacher because many of these students will place out of composition or literature in college. They will spend the next four to eight years busy studying, and will go on to successful careers in medicine, law, and business. No one else will ever read them a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. You may think this is melodramatic talk. I admit that teachers were born to perform. We are actors without stages. In a recent interview, poet Paul Muldoon said that most students struggle with poetry because of how it is taught in high school: "What's usually happening is that the instructor, the teacher, is at pains to show what an extraordinary instructor or teacher he or she is, and the message I think that far too many of us get in high school is that poetry may only be read if you’ve got that instructor or teacher to show you what it’s really about.” I have heard this lament before, and it is not only about poetry. High school English teachers are responsible for flattening literature. We kill books. These constant, unfounded digs are what cause teachers to be defensive. Teaching in an American public school is an idealistic act. Politicians will have you believe we are an insufferable bunch, our chests full of blind union pride, tenure our ticket to stasis. English teachers, less than perhaps only editors, live their days surrounded with the hopes, fears, eccentricities, and failures of generations of writers. Those words, classic and contemporary, seep into our souls. Why teach Beloved if you do not close your eyes and feel 124 shaking; if you do not feel your own heart shaking? That sensitivity bleeds out of the classroom. In the latest round of testing frenzy, English teachers are unique targets. We teach the essential skill of communication -- the ability to turn students’ feelings into spoken and written words -- yet English is considered a light discipline compared to the rigor of sciences. I am not sure what an English teacher is supposed to be now. (I say that out of one side of my mouth; I strive to exceed the expectations of my district and state curriculum.) I mean in terms of my identity as an English teacher. I used to be considered a mentor. During my first few years as a teacher, I kept the prayer of St. Francis in my pocket: “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” I was only years removed from almost entering a seminary to become a priest. You never lose that call; it simply takes another shape. My shape was a room with 28 desks and a chalkboard. I teach every class like it is my last. It could be. When I started teaching, I thought my purpose was to create a legion of English majors. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. I am uninterested in studies that assess the cognitive worth of reading poetry for future engineers. I don’t teach engineers. I teach people. My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls. I want my students to see that words are sacraments, in the same way that Andre Dubus said each sandwich he made for his daughters was a sacrament: “physical, nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love.” It is possible to be cold-hearted and teach, but why do so? Students experience enough private pain some days to fill a lifetime. Literature can be the salve for a weary heart. I do not mean directly; I do not think literature is a form of therapy. I mean that books enable students to experience an extraordinary range of emotions in 180 days. Most literature we read will pass from their memory. Some works will stick. One poem might change them. It is a beautiful possibility that such an epiphany can occur in as mundane a place as a classroom. That same hope keeps me from burning out in a profession that is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. But I keep that frustration from my students. After all, it is for them that I am here. I believe in them, and I believe in words; I better believe in both, because I might be somebody’s last English teacher. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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We at The Millions have been anticipating Roberto Bolaño's magnum opus, 2666, for months now. While I'm not convinced that a book review is capable of capturing the beauty and profound oddity of this novel, my best effort is currently featured at More Intelligent Life.Bonus link (from the archives): "Why Bolaño Matters"
Book hoarder that I am, I tend to buy most things second-hand, occasionally remaindered, almost always paperback, ideally pocketbook. But never hot-off-the-shelf hardcover. Okay, occasionally. When Bob Dylan's Chronicles came out a couple of years ago, I bought it after work on the first day and actually refused to return home without a newly-minted copy in my backpack. (It's an obsession. I'm handling it.)The portability of paperbacks and the affordability of second-hand makes for an appealing combination. But the odd time that I do dig into my wallet for something new, especially a new hardcover, I'm astounded by the cost. This might sound a bit trite. The high cost of newly published books is hardly news. But I look at the price on the jacket and I see a massive difference between the US dollar cost and the Canadian dollar cost. This difference bears no resemblance to the 2007 economy.Less than five years ago, the Canadian dollar was sitting at around 65 cents US. In recent years, it's been inching its way up and now sits at around 95 cents US. So you'd think that a new hardcover sold here in Canada would be only slightly more expensive than the same book in a US store. How then do bookshops and the publishing industry justify the 30 per cent premium that Canadians are often paying?A recent article from the Globe and Mail examines this phenomenon and explores the actions that Canadian booksellers are taking to bring book prices more in line with economic reality. And, in the process, corral more wayward book-buyers like myself, into their stores.With any luck, this matter will be resolved by the time Dylan's Chronicles Volume Two comes out.
Here are some more books coming our wayBack when I worked at the bookstore, Elizabeth Crane's When the Messenger is Hot was one of the books my coworkers liked to evangelize about. Read "The Daves" and you'll see why. Crane has a new collection of stories coming out in a couple of weeks called All This Heavenly Glory. Here's one of the stories from the new collection, an amusing take on the personal ad which becomes much more impressive when you realize that the whole long piece is one sentence (unless you think using semi-colons is cheating). Three other reasons to like Elizabeth Crane: She lives in Chicago, the city I currently call home. She was interviewed in Tap: Chicago's Bar Journal. She has a charming, unassuming blog called - for reasons I cannot discern - standby_bert.You may recognize the name Achmat Dangor because his novel of apartheid and its aftermath, Bitter Fruit, was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 2004. Although the South African novelist missed out on any Booker boost his novel might have received here in the States, the book, which hits shelves soon, will likely garner some prominent reviews. In the meantime, here's an interesting piece by Dangor about South African literature from the Guardian, and here's a brief excerpt from Bitter Fruit.Alicia Erian's debut collection of stories from 2001, The Brutal Language of Love was described as "seductive, erotic, smart and tartly humorous" by Publishers Weekly. Now Erian is returning with her first novel, Towelhead, a contemporary coming-of-age story about a half-Lebanese girl who moves to Texas to live with her strict father. The novel's title comes from the epithet she hears from other residents of her less than enlightened suburb near Houston. A long - and very compelling - excerpt of the book is available here. And for a different taste of Erian's writing, try this story from 2000 in the Barcelona Review.In 2002's Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, Marc Estrin conjured up a second life for Kafka's transmogrified protagonist. In his new novel, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Estrin wonders: what's in a name? Saddled with an unfortunate surname, Arnold is at the mercy of preconceived notions and receives the attention of many unsavory characters. A brief excerpt is available here. Estrin also has a blog that is in its infancy.Look for more upcoming books in this space over the next few days.
Recently I got a very interesting email from a reader. Frank Kovarik writes and teaches English in St. Louis. For the last five years, he has also been keeping meticulous track of the fiction that appears in the New Yorker. Not just the titles and authors, but things like gender, country of origin, and frequency of appearance.Frank has generously offered to make his spreadsheet available to download in Excel format. If you're interested, you can get it here.Having this data allows us to dig deeper into the proclivities of New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and whoever else has a hand in what fiction appears in the magazine's hallowed pages.Gender: From the database we learn that, of the 257 stories in the New Yorker from 2003 through 2007, 96 or 37.4% were penned by women.Nationality: Americans account for a fairly substantial portion of the stories that appear in the New Yorker, 134 of them, or 52% (and this leaves off several writers who could be conceivably classified as both American and a native of another country). Coming in tied for second are the Brits and the Irish at 18 stories apiece.Frequency: Much of that Irish total comes from master of the short story form, William Trevor, who readers were most likely to find if they flipped through an issue these last five years. Trevor was there on nine occasions. Including, an issue that included three separate but linked stories, Canada's Alice Munro comes in second with eight stories. 12 other writers have appeared at least five times over the last five years, meaning that 14 writers have accounted for 32% of the fiction in the magazine during that period.9 stories:William Trevor8 stories:Alice Munro7 stories:Tessa HadleyHaruki Murakami6 stories:Thomas McGuane5 stories:T. Coraghessan BoyleRoddy DoyleLouise ErdrichLara VapnyarJohn UpdikeGeorge SaundersEdward P. JonesCharles D'AmbrosioAntonya NelsonIf anybody else draws interesting conclusions from the spreadsheet, we'd love to hear about them.
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.
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Two British papers have put out their "best books" lists for the year. The Guardian asked some literary luminaries to pick their favorites, while The Independent compiled a mega-review that amounts to the story of 2004 in books. If you like year-end "best of" lists about any and all things, check out Fimoculous, who is collecting them.Bookspotting: spotted on the el: Best New American Voices 2005. Everyone says the short story is dead, so it's nice to see people reading a collection while they're out and about.