No wonder Odysseus had so much trouble finding his way home. It turns out that there is some dispute as to the actual historical location of Ithaca, where Penelope waited for her hero husband to return. As noted in a recent article in The Economist, in The Odyssey, “Homer’s Ithaca ‘lies low,’ but its modern namesake is hilly. And though Odysseus’s island is ‘farthest to sea towards dusk,’ today’s Ithaca is close to the mainland in the east.” This disparity hasn’t gone unnoticed by historians and geographers over the years, but now, for the first time, investigations may provide clues as to the true location of Homer’s Ithaca, as geologists using a subterranean scan determine if Kefalonia, to the west of present-day Ithaca, was once actually two islands, the westernmost of which would fit Homer’s description. Locals are taking sides as Odysseus’ home brings with it a lucrative tourist trade.
I stopped by the Vroman’s Bookstore blog today to answer some questions about teaching creative writing. On Tuesday, June 3rd, I begin teaching a 6-week beginning fiction class for their Vroman’s Ed program.Also, if you have a teenager, you might consider signing him or her up for my summer fiction writing class for high school students, which begins Tuesday, June 24th. If you are a teenager, and you’re reading this blog, well, you rock and I want you in my class!
I saw the artist Chris Burden speak at SCIArc last night. I know of his work from the art history classes I took in college. He is most well known for conceptual/performance pieces that even in our more jaded times are pretty shocking: He locked himself in a 2ft X 2ft X 3ft locker for five days; he sequestered himself for 22 days on a ledge built close to the ceiling in a New York gallery. Though the audience was told he was there, they were not able to see him from their vantage points. At his gallery in Venice Beach he pressed live electrical wires against his chest. He had hiself briefly crucified atop a Volkswagon Beetle. And, in a piece that has proved to be his most notorious, he had a friend shoot him, agressively confronting the artist/audience relationship.
At some point, however, he switched to architectural work, both on the scale of buildings and scale models. During his lecture he didn’t not explain this transformation. I suppose he wasn’t obligated to, but it would have been interesting. His later work is very introverted, and seems very weak compared to the early part of his career.
He did have a few things of interest to say though. most notably that “sculpture is different from two-dimensional work in that it forces the viewer to move,” and the revelation early in his career that if he brought a prexisting object into the gallery and acted upon it during the course of the piece, the audience would see his actions as the art and not the objects. This was his transition from sculpture to performance. L. and I discussed at length whether we should be disappointed in an artist who has turned away from his early, daring work, and who seems unable to talk about why. Though in the end it is hard to make such a judgement based upon a single lecture. Today, my coworker said that the wilder the public persona, the milder the private citizen, and surely there is an element of that at play here. Still, I cannot reconcile the idea that a man who once had himself shot before an audience (1.) can find little compelling to say about it and (2.) now creates work which is as bland as his early mastery was vital.
Here is a link to his interviews as well as some of his work.
I don’t know why I bother to cover the One Book, One Chicago program. I haven’t seen any evidence that the locals actually read the books that are selected two times a year. As far as I can tell, on the day of the announcement, the local paper writes it up, and then nobody talks about One Book, One Chicago until six months later when they pick a new book. (I am impressed that Mayor Daley presides at all of these unveilings; it seems like a duty he would have handed off to an underling by now.) I think maybe I’m interested in it because I’m curious to see what a government bureaucracy is able to come up with in such a circumstance. Rarely do we get a recommendation from our government so simple as “read this book,” and rarely is the government called upon to advise people on a subject so ephemeral as literature. Given all of this, I think they do reasonably well with their selections – some uninspired, others quite good. And while it would be great to see people spontaneously talking about the latest pick in the trains and on the sidewalks of Chicago, it would be quite odd if that actually happened.All of this brings me to todays pick, as always, unveiled by Mayor Daley: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great selection if you ask me.
As per family tradition the youngest generation gave out their gifts today, on Christmas Eve. Since I work at a book store, it’s hard not to give everyone books. So, once again, that’s what they got. My grandmother is a prodigious reader, and I owe much of my literary affinity to her. She instilled in me her depression-era view of books as the perfect escape into other worlds, and she divides the world into two categories: readers and non-readers, and she quite simply does not understand the latter group. I decided it would be fitting to introduce her to the latest Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee. She was aware of him but had not read any of his books, so I gave her what is by most accounts his greatest book: Waiting for the Barbarians. My mother is an art teacher with a vast library of art books that I enjoy adding volumes to. One of her favorite museums is the Hirshhorn Gallery, which is located on the mall in downtown Washington, DC, and when I was doing my shopping, I found a really good-looking book about the museum and its solid modern collection called Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: 150 Works of Art. My father, a big fan of presidential politics, received The White House Tapes, a nine cd set of illuminating recordings of our presidents over the last fifty years. It also includes commentary and a radio documentary that ties the whole thing together. I gave my 24-year-old sister a novel called Dirt Music by an Australian writer named Tim Winton. I read it when it first came out and really liked it, and I know my sister loves well-crafted plot-driven novels, so it seemed like a good fit. I gave my 21-year-old brother Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s irreverent and enlightening memoir of the First Gulf War, which I guess is now that war’s official title. (aside: it’s interesting that wars first must receive temporary names, and then years or decades later when history has fully played itself out, a war receives its “official” name for the history books, and yet when a war is going on, there is no suggestion that it will one day be viewed in a larger historical context, perhaps spanning decades.) I gave my 20-year-old sister, who has lately become very interested in the latest and hottest contemporary fiction, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which has fast become an “essential” member of this genre. My 20 and 16-year-old brothers both received Schott’s Original Miscellany. At first, they seemed perplexed by the stark little white tome, but before long they were unable to pull themselves away from such tidbits as “The Deaths of Some Burmese Kings” and “Some Shakespearean Insults.” I was pleased to receive some excellent items as well, including John Keegan’s The First World War, and the unbelievable new Looney Tunes – The Golden Collection, from which I have already derived much enjoyment. I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday.Brief Programming NoteYou have probably noticed the modest redesign of the site. This was done mostly because I was bored, but I sincerely hope you will let me know if it is taking away from your enjoyment of The Millions. You have probably also noticed the Amazon category links to the left. This is so you can cut through the noise of Amazon’s main page and get to a book you might be looking for more quickly. I have also added the Reading Queue so that everyone will have a good idea of what is on my plate should you feel like reading along at home.
To celebrate the release of Issue 5 of the Los Angeles Review, published by Red Hen Press, I will be reading tomorrow (Tuesday) night at Skylight Books, along with fellow contributors Eloise Klein Healy, Stephanie Eve Halpern, Jamey Hecht, and Timothy Green. If you’re in the L.A. area, come on by!
Three months ago, after HarperCollins parent News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings, I noted comments from HarperCollins’ CEO Jane Friedman regarding sales of religious books. “Religious publishing is in a lot of trouble” was the pull quote. More recently, I pointed to the latest hot publishing trend, books about atheism, signalling something of a backlash against the religiosity that has pervaded our culture in recent years.News Corp reported its fiscal first quarter numbers this week, and once again the Publishers Lunch newsletter went back to Friedman to get her thoughts on HarperCollins’ performance (no link since it’s only available by email). This time her language seemed even stronger on this topic:As she noted last quarter, Friedman observes, “I’ve got big softness in Zondervan [HarperCollins’ Christian imprint] — and that is something we’re going to have to be watching all year… It’s not getting better.” She reports that spiritual books are “going steadily upward,” like the books published by Harper San Francisco, but “there’s a softness in the bible business” and “this is the most disturbing news, since that’s our staple.”With the Republicans so recently trounced in the elections, one has to wonder if the cultural enthusiasm for the type of Christianity that yields these sorts of books is waning (and indeed if earlier sales softness was a predictor of what would happen with the elections.)
This month the book club that I help run read and discussed Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. We had our usual raucous and meandering discussion for the first hour, but for the second hour we had a real treat: a visit from Huneven herself. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of authors, and I’ve also become well-versed in the sort of dynamic that occurs at a typical book reading and signing between author and reader. This was different and refreshing. She sat down with the 12 or 15 of us who were there and let us poke and prod her book and very much participated in the action. It almost reminded me of the various creative writing workshops that I took in college, except our writer was not a beshawled or behatted fellow student recounting the fictionalized tale of their high school relationships, this is a writer who is published by a highly reputable publishing house, the author of a book recently dubbed notable by the New York Times. Nonetheless, she graciously allowed us our comments and criticisms and had quite a bit to share about the book and herself. First: for those who read the book and wondered why, after Alice’s first dream-like experience with the deer in her house, when she was trying to figure out if it had been real or not, she didn’t look in her washing machine to see if the towels she used to clean up after it were there in the morning, that scene was in the original manuscript. She and her editor went back and forth trying to decide if she should leave it in or not, and then, months later, when the book came out, she had forgotten that they had removed the scene and was surprised to see it gone. Other tidbits: Huneven found that writing the character Pete came most easily, and the rest were a struggle. Jonathan Gold, author of the best LA restaurant guide there is, Counter Intelligence, was a big fan of the Helen character. Huneven is on page nine of her next book, which will include a character who is a scrapbooker. As a writer, it was heartening to meet a fellow writer who, though she is published and successful, still sees her work as a challenge and even a struggle, a fact that some writers might not admit in that situation. And, by the way, the book is a great read, and I encourage anyone out there who is looking for a good novel to pick it up.An Intriguing List or TwoMy good and old friend Hot Face has taken a cue from the New York Times and… People Magazine to compile his list of most intriguing books of the year. Since he asks for additions, I put forward Bangkok 8 by John Burdett and Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson, but he’s pretty much got everything else I could think of there already. Meanwhile, my buddy Andy emailed me a link to this, a new take on the year end book list.