If you’ve ever seen Salman Rushdie and his wife Lakshmi in public, then you know, the pair of them turn heads. Salman looks like a caricature. He’s almost muppet-like, while Lakshmi is a model many years his junior and many inches taller. When they walk through a room, everybody sort of stops what they’re doing and stares. An article in the Times illuminates this seemingly mismatched relationship. (via AL daily)
For the last several months, the web site of the British Library has been hosting the online diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA). As many readers are likely aware, the Library was looted in the early days of the American invasion, and Eskander has spent much of his time since trying to rebuild his collections under perilous conditions.Reading through the diary it quickly becomes apparent that Eskander and his team are faced with far greater challenges than simply picking up the pieces of the wrecked library. Instead they face daily threats to their lives, and the laundry list of wound and killed friends and colleagues and many more near misses makes one wonder how the library staff can go on living in Baghdad. At the end of 2006, Eskander compiles a list (scroll down) of violent acts committed against INLA staff and their families and determines that 70 have been killed since the conflict began. The number has ticked higher in subsequent months.Last month, Eskander posted an entry (scroll down) about the day that al-Mutanabi Street, the home of Baghdad’s outdoor book market and just a short distance away from the INLA, was bombed. “This day will be always remembered, as the day when books were assassinated by the forces of darkness, hatred and fanaticism,” he says. “Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood.”As a whole, the diary is an incredible chronicle of lives lived under siege and put in terrible danger to keep Iraq’s cultural institutions from disappearing entirely.via The Eclectic Chapbook, which also remarks on a BBC program about Eskander and the INLA.
Some media pundits suggest that, as the new owner of the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch has set his sights on taking down the New York Times, or at least giving the paper a run for its money. So it was with no doubt some glee that the Times was able to report that the WSJ is a bit more thin skinned than Murdoch would have you believe.The Times yesterday reported on a parody of the WSJ, My Wall Street Journal, created by Tony Hendra and with contributions from Andy Borowitz, Richard Belzer and Terry Jones. Apparently, the WSJ wasn’t too keen on the tabloid format send-up and actually sent people around the city trying to snatch up copies before they landed in the hands of the general public. Or as the Times cheekily put it: “It seems someone at The Wall Street Journal really likes a biting new parody of the paper – likes it enough, in fact, to leave at least one newsstand with no copies remaining for anyone else to buy.”Media spat aside, it is also interesting to see an attempt at a one-off publication like this, particularly in the age of the internet. Fishbowl NY explained the business model:The goal is to break even and, ideally, make money on the printing. “The business model is pretty simple, Hendra says. “Sell a lot of them.” Manhattan Media will be “well into break even territory” if half of the 200,000 available on newsstands are sold (an additional 50,000 will be sold in bookstores). At $3.95 per paper, the company will gain almost $1 million in revenue – an amount Murdoch “loses on the New York Post before lunch,” Hendra jokes – if the print run sells out.They are even available at Amazon, sold as a “Single Issue Magazine.”
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
In my most recent “Year in Reading” post, I mentioned Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, a 1200-page novel it took me six weeks to consume and six months to digest. A somewhat longer, though still woefully inadequate, consideration appears today at The Los Angeles Times’ Jacket Copy blog, as part of “Postmodernism Month.” If you are like me one of those odd readers for whom the conjunction of the phrases “1200-page” and “Postmodernism” whets your appetite, pop on over to Jacket Copy and check it out.
It’s either a sign of the impending apocalypse or an easy out for all those aspiring writers trying get their first book written. A business called “Book by You” lets you… Enjoy the adventure of starring in your very own personalized novel! You co-author our books by providing the names, features and places to include in your personalized novel. These novels are full-length, 100 to 199-page books that look and feel just like a classic paperback novel.The fact that this business exists pains me on many levels. (via Sean)
Tao Lin, a young writer with a flair for cleverly drawing attention to his work, is in the news again. His latest scheme is to take investments from “the public” in his novel-in-progress in exchange for a portion of the royalties.The move appears to have been successful; shares are no longer available and Lin got written up in several mainstream publications, including a fairly lengthy piece in the Telegraph, and dozens of blogs. What nobody mentioned, however, is that this has been done before, some 40 years ago, by another outsized, New York personality.In the early years of his career, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn did the same thing, according to a John Lahr piece that originally ran in the New Yorker and is collected in his book of profiles, Show and Tell published in 2000. Shawn, son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, was a struggling writer going out of his way to achieve literary success without tapping into his father’s considerable influence. Lahr writes:Back then, Wally was forced to follow his own quirky, unconventional path. He told me he’d “sold stock in himself” – his way of rationalizing a twenty-five-hundred-dollar loan he took from a consortium of friends in the sixties, in order to go off and write his plays. (To this day, the investors receive a small yearly check).The juxtaposition of the two schemes presents an interesting notion. $2,500 40 years ago got you some small percentage of a budding artist’s career in perpetuity. $2,000 now only gets you 10% of the royalties for a novel. Inflation, I suppose.Finally, despite Shawn’s scheme (I believe) initially being revealed in a New Yorker piece and despite Shawn’s obvious ties to the magazine, The New Yorker, in its (admittedly very brief) mention of Lin’s plan on its own blog, did not catch the Shawn connection.Given the fractured state of publishing and the enthusiasm for trying new models, perhaps this shareholder form of patronage will take off, but it will have been Shawn, not Lin, who was the first innovator.