Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as “books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written.” The list contains some obvious entries – we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time’s prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967’s The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade’s blockbuster bestsellers – Bridget Jones’s Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code – and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.
At first I couldn’t tell if Janet Maslin’s review of James Frey’s novel Bright and Shiny Morning was a joke or not. I guess she liked the book, but her homage to Frey’s style is so terrible, the start-stop prose so laughably bad, that I assumed she was making fun of the poor guy:He wrote a big book. He wrote about a city. Los Angeles. He made up a lot of characters, high low rich poor lucky not, every kind, the book threw them together. It was random but smart. Every now and then he would pause the story, switch to the present tense and throw in an urban fact.David L. Ulin at the Los Angeles Times had a different reaction to the novel, calling it, “one of the worst I’ve ever read.” Ouch.At the Vroman’s blog, Patrick has an exclusive interview with the author himself. Frey discusses, among other things, his future as a memoirist, the city of Los Angeles, and, of course, his new novel:Ultimately, though, I tried to write a book that was unlike anything that has preceded it, that is devoid of any real influence, and that’s singular in its composition and voice, but also immediately recognizable as my work. I have tried to do this with each of my books. I want to tell stories in new, fresh ways. I want my writing to reflect the age in which we live, which is fast, contains vast amounts of information, and uses new ways to present the information. I always read while I write, but for pleasure, not inspiration or influence.I wonder if this is really possible. Frank Conroy reportedly once said, “Voice is the amalgamation of books read,” and I tend to agree. But I suppose Mr. Frey lives by Ezra Pound’s famous dictum: “Make it new.” It’ll be interesting to see how readers react to Frey’s latest endeavor. Will they agree with Maslin or Ulin, or somewhere in between?
Millions contributor Garth pointed me to a funny little piece by Calvin Trillin in the New York Times in which the New Yorker writer is asked to test out the new Lexus “Advanced Parking Guidance System.” Perhaps you’ve heard of this; it supposedly enables the car to park itself. Trillin, as he indicates, believes that he has been asked to try this newfangled technology out because he was the author of Tepper Isn’t Going Out, “which is considered by most scholars to have been the first parking novel” and because in 1964 he was the founding co-editor of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, which, Trillin says, “I’ve seen referred to as a one-issue publication even though we prefer to say that the second issue hasn’t come out yet.” Indeed, Trillin views himself as something of a parking expert:If I were asked to name my talent – talent, that is, in the way the Miss America pageant uses the word talent, as in “Miss West Virginia will now do her talent” – I would say “parallel parking.” For the second issue of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, I’ve been preparing an article on how I came up with the term “slicing the bread” to describe maneuvering into a spot that leaves only the width of a bread slice between your bumpers and the bumpers of the cars ahead of and behind you. In a later issue, I intend to discuss “breaking the matzo” – getting into a spot so small that a matzo would crack if you tried to place it between the relevant bumpers. Just for the record, the last time I broke a matzo was May 1994, on Riverside Drive, between 83rd and 84th; unfortunately, there were no witnesses.Good stuff.
Its laudatory impulses notwithstanding, Louis Menand’s worthwhile essay in the current New Yorker on Mark McGurl’s The Program Era – an account of the rise of the creative writing program – doesn’t quite save the book from sounding depressing. For those with ambitions to write fiction, Menand offers a whirlwind tour of a sausage factory. Except that in this case you’re not the guy who likes to eat sausage, but the guy (or gal) who raises the hogs. Or maybe you are the hog itself. Reading Menand reading McGurl, you get the very same sense of a vast, tentacular, and mildly deterministic academic-industrial complex you might get in… well, a creative writing program. Which speaks to the characteristic thoroughness of Menand’s writing. And, presumably, of McGurl’s book.Largely absent from Menand’s account (and Mark Grief’s review in Bookforum), however, is the question of money. Even for those who agree emphatically with Menand that “there is no ‘craft of fiction’ as such,” the value of two or three years of subsidized writing time is hard to understate. Rilke had the Princess of Thurn and Taxis; we have AWP. And though the rise of the M.F.A. program may well exert a systemic pressure on the writer, it need not, as Menand is at pains to point out, vitiate the visionary. By far my favorite nugget in the Menand piece is his mention of two workshops filled with idiosyncratic talent:Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Wendell Berry taught by Wallace Stegner at StanfordJohn Irving, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, and John Casey taught by Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa.I’ve also heard tell of a workshop that includedJhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Peter Ho Davies, and Marshall Klimasewiski taught by our guest contributor (and National Book Award finalist) Joan Silber at Boston University.If any of you out there have taken, or know of, similarly stacked workshops, we’d be curious to hear about them, if only as a way of letting M.F.A. applicants cling to a little of the glamor McGurl and Menand have done the rest of us the great favor of dispelling. Somehow the prospect of participating in an aesthetic of “class-based self-consciousness” pales next to the thought of getting drunk with Richard Ford and ripping on Jay McInerney… and hasn’t that always been (along with the financial assistance, of course) the most compelling reason to apply to a writing program?
August 6th marked the 64th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and today marks the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. As part of its op-ed page this weekend, the Los Angeles Times offered several firsthand accounts of the bombings by survivors, taken from a documentary made by the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Center. You can find the complete, translated transcripts of these testimonies at this link.Here is an excerpt from the testimony of Akihiro Takahashi who was 14 at the time of the Hiroshima bombing:That was the moment when the blast came. And then the tremendous noise came and we were left in the dark. I couldn’t see anything at the moment of explosion just like in this picture. We had been blown by the blast. Of course, I couldn’t realize this until the darkness disappeared. I was actually blown about 10 m. My friends were all marked down on the ground by the blast just like this. Everything collapsed for as far as I could see. I felt the city of Hiroshima had disappeared all of a sudden. Then I looked at myself and found my clothes had turned into rags due to the heat. I was probably burned at the back of the head, on my back, on both arms and both legs. My skin was peeling and hanging like this. Automatically I began to walk heading west because that was the direction of my home. After a while, I noticed somebody calling my name. I looked around and found a friend of mine who lived in my town and was studying at the same school. His name was Yamamoto. He was badly burnt just like myself. We walked toward the river. And on the way we saw many victims. I saw a man whose skin was completely peeled off the upper half of his body and a woman whose eye balls were sticking out. Her whole baby was bleeding. A mother and her baby were lying with a skin completely peeled off. We desperately made a way crawling. And finally we reached the river bank. At the same moment, a fire broke out. We made a narrow escape from the fire. If we had been slower by even one second, we would have been killed by the fire.
As some of you know, I read the New Yorker, more or less methodically, every week, and as a result the magazine very much becomes a fixture in my schedule. The problem is, I’d gotten used to my copy showing up in the mail every Wednesday, but recently and unaccountably, my issue has been showing up on Fridays, throwing my reading schedule out of whack and making me feel like I’m a little behind the curve.So, having finally gotten a chance to delve into the most recent issue, I was quite amused by Alec Wilkinson’s Talk of the Town piece about lost books that are retrieved from the New York subway with help from the “Operations Specialist, Asset Recovery Rejected Material, Material Division.” The idea of lost books on public transit sort of added a new element to my recent hobby of spotting what books people are reading on Chicago’s El. I also recently discovered that this is a hobby that I share with some other people including the folks at the CTA Tattler (who were kind enough to link to me last week. The Tattler is a blog about what is “seen and heard on the Chicago Transit Authority” and is a must read for any Chicagoan.)Though outnumbered by iPods and tabloid newspapers, according to my unscientific research, books are the third most popular public transit accessory.