Did you ever wonder: “What is the longest English word?” “Are there any English words containing the same letter three times in a row?” “Are there any words that rhyme with orange?” “How many words are there in the English language?” “What is the longest one-syllable English word?” The answers to these questions and more can be found at the Oxford Dictionary FAQ.
When Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude came out, there was much discussion of how the novel paralelled Lethem's own upbringing in pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Now we're getting the real Lethem story for those who want to compare and contrast. It arrives in the form of a book of essays, The Disappointment Artist, which comes out in two weeks. An excerpt, which depicts a young Lethem immersed in obsessions with books, movies and music while trying to come to turns with his mother's death appeared in last week's New Yorker (but it's not available online). I'm beginning to wonder if this exercise in autobiography (with the New Yorker as the stage) has become a rite of initiation for American novelists who have made the big time. Most prominent among them is Jonathan Franzen, who has had a number of meandering autobiographical essays in the magazine over the last few years. I wonder what drives the phenomenon. Do people really want to know about their lives or are these novelists just good at telling a story?
Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times describes the "Washington read." A practice in which Washington insiders peruse the index of a current political best seller, Plan of Attack or Against All Enemies, for example, to see if they have been mentioned. It is sort of a test one's own importance inside the beltway, and many, prematurely certain of their own historical significance, are crushed to find that they have been omitted from history's first draft. Washington, however, does not have a monopoly on such practices. I lived in Washington D.C. for most of my life before moving to Los Angeles, and I have observed many times the similarities between the two cities' chief industries. I don't know if I coined this analogy, but I've always thought that politics is just Hollywood for ugly people. And so it makes sense that I discovered, over the last couple of years, that there is such thing as a "Hollywood read." It usually goes something like this: an older guy stands at the front of the store flipping through the latest Hollywood tell-all. He is deeply tanned and his shirt is unbuttoned to reveal tufts of silver chest hair. He is wearing ridiculously oversized sunglasses and smells of cigar smoke. He leans over to me and points to the book and says, "I used to work with this guy," and then he goes back to scanning the index to make sure his old buddy mentioned him. Samuel Fuller's posthumously published A Third Face generated this reaction. And those in the music biz went straight to the index of Walter Yetnikoff's Howling at the Moon. Last fall, a mention in Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind meant that you officially matter in today's Hollywood. But to have been mentioned in Robert Evans' The Kid Stays in the Picture indicates a special sort of notoriety.
Very interesting article from the NY Times today about Amazon and used books. Many assume that Amazon's ample selection of used books represents a grave threat to authors and publishers, but some economists who looked into the issue found evidence that just the opposite is true. The key point: "When used books are substituted for new ones, the seller faces competition from the secondhand market, reducing the price it can set for new books. But there's another effect: the presence of a market for used books makes consumers more willing to buy new books, because they can easily dispose of them later." Read the whole article here.
If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.” No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence -- but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass. First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow -- as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God. “The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories -- like Joyce’s -- that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him. “Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home. Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess. Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid -- the on the way to their home. Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See -- see -- what did I tell you -- snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow. They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45. They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen. Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.” “The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated -- and, instead of Joyce -- tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.
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Another installment of Ask the Librarians has arrived at emdashes, and it provides another fascinating look at the New Yorker.In this issue you can learn how the magazine got writers in its early years; who has had the most short stories published in the magazine all time and in a single year; all about the now defunct horse racing column; and most interesting of all, a history of the magazine's editorial "Comment" column and how it took on a political tone over the years.
I did not realize that William Boyd would have the same effect that Italo Calvino had on me until I read An Ice-Cream War. When I told the old lady who runs the neighborhood bookstore that lately I had been into Calvino and Henry Miller, and that I really enjoyed Middlesex, she immediately recommended William Boyd, commenting that he is the most underrated contemporary author. Trusting her, I got a copy of An Ice Cream War and began reading. Shortly, I discovered that the novel is an amazing page turner, thanks, mostly, to the cynical British humour with which Boyd approaches the miseries and absurdity of World War I. Over the course of An Ice Cream War, which starts in the neighboring German and British east Africa colonies, the reader travels through Africa, being chased by and also chasing the barbarians (as the British ever so affectionately call the Germans), sees the unfortunate travels of an enthusiastic, newlywed soldier - from his honeymoon in France, back to England, to India, and to Africa - laughs out loud at the most absurd instances of violence, and gets dragged into a very, very cheesy, but still sympathetic love story between an unexpected couple. The reflections on the wartime life in England, the descriptions of three dysfunctional families, and the mockery of the grave consequences of a four year war that no one thought would last past three months are exquisite. Actually, dare I say and yes, here it goes, An Ice Cream War strongly parallels and at times even surpasses the ever great Catch 22 in reflecting cowardice, bravery - for all the wrong reasons, think Milo - and the amazing web of characters who are all interconnected. Read this novel and you too, as I did, will move into the Boyd sphere.Feeling the grips of addiction, I returned to my prime drug, Calvino, for the last novel I read by him in 2004. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is the story of two readers as they attempt to read Calvino's latest novel and realize that there was a problem with the print, which cut off after the first chapter of the novel. Upon returning the book to the bookstore, both readers discover that they had in fact been reading another author's novel and decide to stick with it since they really enjoy it, but the same problem occurs. Thanks to the persisting issue, the two readers meet each other and start their quest to reach the end of this bizarre occurrence. Calvino's prose, which I would categorize as his second phase - splitting from traditional folk tales and becoming more fantasy oriented - cleverly weaves the developing affections between the two readers and the beginnings of novels by different authors. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is an ode to books and the pleasure book junkies such as myself derive from them.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5