At the Freakonomics Blog, Steven Levitt explains how the publishing industry is putting out more bullshit than ever these days.
On Friday in a flurry of commerce, exchanging currency for goods, frenzied gift wrapping, and the filling out of shipping forms, I finished (almost) all of my Christmas shopping. I’m dying to tell you what I got everyone, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise for my family, members of which like to lurk here from time to time. So instead, I’ll tell you what I got myself for Christmas. Like most years, I couldn’t resist picking up a few things for myself. I don’t really shop very often, and I like to do it all at once. Plus, there are so many books out right now that I would really like to own, all but a couple of which I was unable to purchase due to lack of funds Still, I did get a few, and I can’t wait to read them. Here’s the rundown: I picked up a copy of the new Edith Grossman-translated edition of the Cervantes classic Don Quixote. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, and I have enjoyed Grossman’s translations of some of my favorite Latin Americans. Also, (along with the new John Updike story collection) it is one of the most good-looking books out right now. Grossman’s been busy this year because the other book that I have been looking forward to reading all year was also translated by her. It’s the first volume of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir, Living to Tell the Tale. Expect to hear more about those two books sooner rather than later. I also got a copy of The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapusciski, which I’ve already begun to read. Kapuscinski, whose bio notes that he has witnessed 27 coups and revolutions worldwide and has been sentenced to death four times, is a wonderful curiosity of a writer. He has spent many decades as the foreign correspondent for a Polish news agency, and his travels have brought him to every corner of the earth. Peppered throughout each of his books are his accounts of the terrifying situations one can get themselves into while covering a revolution in the Congo, for example. There are quite a few writers out there who make a career out of this sort of sport, but Kapuscinski alone writes with a compassion for his subjects and a gift for illuminating both the similarities and the differences that define humanity. His observations always feel fresh, and I think this because Kapuscinski spent his career with one foot behind the iron curtain and the other firmly planted in the so-called Third World. This peculiar combination must account for his singular voice. Finally, in anticipation of a possible trip to Ecuador next summer that is still just a twinkle in the collective eye of myself and Ms. Millions, I picked up the Lonely Planet guide to help out with some preliminary factfindingDo you want to give someone a book as a gift, but you don’t know which book to get? Ask a Book Question and maybe me and my colleagues can lend a hand…
In the meantime, I also started re-reading Catch-22, probably one of my all time favorites. I made plenty of references to Catch-22 in connection with William Boyd’s An Ice Cream War and probably some other novels I read over the course of the last two years. Nevertheless, re-reading Catch-22 was a feast precisely because of all the literary horizons this modest novel created. Never a bestseller, Catch-22 became a cult classic and sold millions despite staying under the radar. Its influence on other writers is, I believe, huge. Aside from Yossarian being my obvious favorite for fearing that everyone, from his own commanders to the German anti-aircraft gunners, are conspiring to kill him, I mostly enjoy Milo Minderbinder’s stories. Milo is a good-hearted capitalist who contracts the Germans for the Syndicate he has formed, and no one can oppose him in that – or in bombing his own squadron for a hefty sum paid by the Germans – because everyone has a share in the Syndicate, and “what is good for M & M Enterprises [i.e. the Syndicate] is good for you.” Simply brilliant. The tragic story of Major Major Major Major, who became a Major in the squadron strictly due to an IBM deficiency and whose name – Major Major Major – ruined his life at every turn, is a major influence in my father’s efforts to name me savci (prosecutor) in Turkish. As some of you might remember, my father hoped that with such a name I could avoid any and all run-ins with the law by declaring my name, which in that case would go “I am Prosecutor Peker!” Luckily, my mother rejected the idea, but in essence that is Major Major Major Major’s story. Aarfy with his calm pipe smoking in the plane while flak explodes all around them, Orr with his mastery in crashing planes, Appleby with the flies in his eyes, Nately with his psychotic lover whore, General Peckem with his hate for General Dreedle, Dreedle’s hate towards his son-in-law, his son-in-law’s affection towards Dreedle’s nurse, Colonel Cathcart with his insecurities, Colonel Korn with his tendency to manipulate Colonel Cathcart, Sheisskopf with his love of marches, and many more. There are too many insider jokes and brilliant moments in Catch-22 to write a decent review of the novel. I just believe, like I only do with The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that everyone should absolutely read this novel and cherish its wonderful moments of hilarity and sad reflections on humanity.By the time I finished Catch-22 I was already back in Turkey for the summer. I am now done with my paralegal job and await the beginning of school in the fall. Nevertheless, next I picked up Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey edited by Anastasia A. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen. I have been meaning to read this collection of essays by expatriate women in Turkey for a long time now. I remember coming to Turkey over a year ago and reading reviews of The Expat Harem in local papers and thinking that it could be very interesting. Right before coming back to Istanbul a month and a half ago I saw my Turkish roommate Uzay’s Minnesotan girlfriend Annastacia reading the book and assumed that she picked it out of my library. Wrong! She’d actually bought it and told me that she enjoyed it a lot. I’ve always viewed Annastacia as a potential candidate for the expat society of Turkey, so her reading the book egged me on and I picked it up. The collection is organized in nine parts, which are unique to Turkey and include various customs that foreign women find especially strange, unique, pleasant or repelling. I started reading the stories at random, there are twenty-nine of them, and realized that each one identifies a unique quality of life in Turkey. Seen through the eyes of an expat who chose to live in Turkey adds a different color to the customs and qualities that I already knew. To a Turkish person the stories are very revealing, flattering and intriguing. It is, after all, very refreshing to see commonalities in society through a different pair of eyes. I imagine that any foreign person reading The Expat Harem would find the stories equally revealing, informative and interesting. Each author employs a fresh style and tone, the stories are fluid and the collection is organized very neatly by Ashman and Gokmen, which creates an excellent journey through the quirky experiences of expats, all women in this case, in Turkey. If you are planning a visit to Turkey I urge you to pick up The Expat Harem to get a solid idea about the country’s culture. If not, I believe you would still enjoy the collection for its down to earth tone, accessibility and humane moments.See also: Part 1, 2
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.
Mayor Daley announced the latest “One Book, One City” selection for Chicago today. I don’t know if anyone pays much attention to these recommendations now that the OBOC craze has faded a bit, but the book is worth reading. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark is a somewhat forgotten classic from 1940, a spare but stirring tale of morality in the lawless Old West. I recommend it highly whether you live in Chicago or not.
A while back, we diagnosed David Brooks‘ Bobo Shuffle; now it’s time to call The New York Times’ most pugnacious and prolific book reviewer on her patented move: The Kakutani Two-Step. It works roughly like this: belittle a novelist’s finest work to date – preferably by tossing around unsupported adjectives…say, “arbitrary,” “flimsy,” and “unfinished.” Then, five or six years later, when the novelist in question brings forth his next book, or the one after that, complain loudly about how lame it is compared to his previous masterwork, which, it is to be inferred, you adored. (Bonus points if you actually now call the previous book a “masterwork.” Double bonus points if you also work in the word “limn.”)
The Kakutani Two-Step depends on readers having short memories (or perhaps sagely avoiding Kakutani’s “Books of the Times” columns altogether) and so not noticing the cognitive dissonance. Only fans of the writers she caricatures (and, one imagines, the writers themselves) are likely to detect the sinister signature of the KTS. The latest victim is Jonathan Lethem, whose new Chronic City Kakutani calls “tedious [and] overstuffed”…and that’s just the first sentence of the review! “This fictional Manhattan,” she continues,
has none of the energy or keenly observed grittiness of the real-life Brooklyn that Mr. Lethem captured with such verve in his 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude.
But wait, wasn’t that “dazzling” novel “fundamentally flawed,” with
a series of unconvincing and weirdly forced passages that break the spell that Mr. Lethem has so assiduously created?
Not to mention a “contrived” and “melodramatic” ending?” And “many defects” in between? According to Kakutani, circa 2003, it was. Your takeaway from the Fortress of Solitude review: flawed, uneven, defective. Your takeaway from the Chronic City review: Michiko misses the “vividly . . . movingly” dazzling Fortress of Solitude.
To be sure, it’s possible to square the two Lethem reviews, if you’re enough of a Kakutani exegete to infer that her kneejerk distaste, in each case, is for Lethem’s forays into genre-bending. But all the casual reader will notice is the invidious comparison between the two books, the sudden vanishing of any her earlier reservations, like a magician’s cloth being whisked away to reveal a tiny, perfect turd.
I’m too tired right now to track down other instances of the KTS, but you don’t have to look hard to find them; you might start by Googling David Foster Wallace (and if you think of more, why not leave them in the comment thread?) To be sure, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. It may also be true that Michiko’s judgment works on the time-release principle of certain antacids…that hindsight makes the heart grow fonder. But, even in these lean days for newspapers, the Times presumably employs fact-checkers who could easily catch La Kakutani’s self-misrepresentation. One thing is clear: she can’t be bothered to check herself.
Ed hones in on a favorite excuse that wannabe writers use to explain why they don’t have an agent or aren’t getting published:The point of all this is that if you’re a writer clinging to the stubborn notion that someone is out there to “steal” your work, and if you are letting this get in the way of writing, submitting, or pitching, then I ask you for the good of humanity to step out of the way.Like Ed, I have encountered a number of writers (and a couple of musicians) who insist that they would be published and even famous were it not for concerns that the moment they let anyone see or hear their work it would be snapped up by a greedy opportunist. As Ed rightfully illuminates, this is almost always a stock excuse to cover up a lack of motivation, confidence, or even the fact that their work doesn’t yet exist.