Amar Bakshi was about five years behind me at my high school in Washington DC, but he has my dream job, traveling the world to author a blog for the Washington Post, taking on the charged topic, “How the World Sees America.” I started reading it because of the high school connection (Amar is a friend of my little brother’s), but I’ve become an avid reader of it over time as Amar follows in the footsteps of some of my favorite traveling journalists: Jon Lee Anderson, Paul Theroux, and, of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Unlike those masters of the form, Amar also carries a video camera with him to further chronicle his experiences. Since starting in May, he’s been to England and India, and now he’s back in the States hashing out plans to travel farther afield. It’s an interesting experiment from a young writer. Worth a read if you’re looking for another blog to follow.
Following the lead of powerhouses Bookforum and The New York Review, the interdisciplinary magazine BOMB appears to be in the middle of a major project to make a lot of its content available free, online. This should be a boon to highbrow bibliophiles. For years, BOMB's author interviews have offered deep perspective on the state of the art, while its monthly publication schedule has indemnified it against the faddishness that characterizes so much cultural coverage. Visitors to the new version of www.bombsite.com can browse interviews with the likes of Peter Nadas and Roberto Bolano (archived from 2001)... as well as the current cover-story: a conversation with Kate Valk, my favorite actor in New York and "a national treasure." Be sure also to peruse the BOMB's excellent literary supplement, First Proof.
...is what I will again be forced to do this year, my darling, barring some eleventh-hour issuing of press credentials or a sudden reduction in ticket prices.For a while now, you - the greatest magazine in the history of American magazines - have tantalized me annually with your Festival's smorgasbord of literary talent. And yet, as much as the word-hungry reader in me would love to see, e.g., Lorrie Moore in conversation with Jeffrey Eugenides, the starving artist in me rebels.To be frank, your $25 cover charges cheapen you, New Yorker. After all, in this city which not to look upon would be like death, any given night already offers the discerning gentleman a bevy of comely talent reading for no charge. A nd then, several times per year, events like the PEN World Voices festival present stimulating citywide literary programming for free or at a nominal price.Indeed, with the notable exception of events like your dance party or your gastronomic tour with Calvin Trillin, your Festival strikes this correspondent as a way of charging the public for a publicity junket. And, at current ticket prices, the Festival highlights your worst feature, dearest: your habit of reaffirming the upper class's satisfaction with its own refined sensibility and unimpeachable taste. I mean, who else can afford to get in the door?New Yorker, don't you know you're at your best when you're challenging the status quo from your perch within it? Wouldn't it be subversive to take Conde Nast's money and put on these readings for free, so that any old philistine could attend? I love you, New Yorker, more than you'll probably ever know, but I can't support your Festival. I can't afford to. Why would I buy your cow when I can enjoy your milk for the low, low price of $52 per year?
In one of my favorite sequences of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, you see an editor splicing film offset with shots from the footage being cut. Normally, when we watch films, we take a series of unrelated shots and project causality between the images. Vertov, along with other montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, wanted to interrupt this process, forcing us to come to an overarching picture out of conflict and collisions. Simple narrative just couldn’t be revolutionary. In The Revolutionaries Try Again, debut novelist Mauro Javier Cardenas writes renegade political fiction that would have made Vertov proud. Stream-of-consciousness and meta-fiction meet radio plays, phone conversations, and spliced up pop-lyrics. The tone varies as often as technique: pages and pages of interior monologue with no punctuation, enough em-dashes to look like line divides, sections entirely in Spanish, references to ABBA and The Exorcist alongside Pablo Neruda and Julio Cortázar. You’re never directly informed about what counts as revolution and who in particular is trying to achieve it. Instead, The Revolutionaries Try Again dissects a decade of Ecuadorian austerity and idealism through often jarring and always stunning literary montage. Cardenas’s novel centers on three alumni of a Jesuit school in Guayaquil: a writer, a bureaucrat, and a playwright. Antonio left Ecuador over a decade ago for Stanford and is writing a memoir about a crying baby Jesus. His best friend Leopoldo, left behind in Guayaquil, takes a job with the pro-austerity government. As the novel begins, Leo has just persuaded Antonio to return to the city, and together they're supposed to help a friend run for office, which never really happens. Meanwhile, we get oblique connections to their poor classmate, Rolando, who with his girlfriend Eva attempts to rouse people to action by staging a series of radio plays. But all of this feels like an aside, and whatever revolution we thought would be staged isn't. No political campaign, no people taking to the streets. But The Revolutionaries Try Again is just as much an attempt to sort out why telling feels so futile: as a writer, as an undocumented migrant, as a person. Rolando never tells Eva that his sister was almost raped while working as a fifteen-year-old maid. Eva never tells Rolando about how her brother was abducted during her youth. Instead they have imaginary dialogues with the siblings they love but don’t speak to, replaying conversations that can’t, and won’t, happen. Nor are they alone. Leopoldo and Antonio are extremely close friends, but don’t have an easy emotional intimacy. Antonio dreams up, time and time again, what it will be like to see Leopoldo for the first time in over a decade, thinking about what he might like to say but won’t. What’s the point, the suggestion is, of recounting things when things can't be adequately characterized by words? To search for the source of his impulse to return to Ecuador by revisiting the night the baby christ cried was pointless, Antonio thinks, just as it’s pointless for him to teach English to immigrant women at El Centro Legal for one measly hour a week, photocopying pages from an ESL book at the last minute and hoping they would smile at him in gratitude, knowing he was fooling himself into believing he was being useful— if all the NGOS and nonprofits of the world ceased their activities, Antonio had asked a British art critic during their first date, would anyone notice? Many things in the book are described as pointless: Antonio’s baby Jesus story and his tutoring, but also Rolando’s radio plays, Jesuits serving the poor (and, for that matter, the very existence of the lord above), and the unrealized political campaign that brings Antonio back to Guayaquil. But what Cardenas does so adeptly in his debut novel is highlight conditions against which feelings of pointlessness emerge in the first place. Economic, political and social violence are senseless, and render us unable to tell neat linear narratives about injustice and protest. We're left with montage, one that resists neat stories about revolutionaries taking on their oppressors, left with weeping statues of baby Jesus, rape, false accusations, and economic sanctions. Amidst violence, one worries that words too will be twisted and appropriated to serve other ends. But silence is too easy, as Alma reminds Antonio: “I did say you’re an imbecile of course everything’s pointless we’re all going to die doesn’t matter we’re still here/ I’m still here.” That injustice may be here for a long time, is all the more reason that Cardenas's book should too.
Penguin, well-known for classics with sophisticated packaging, has decided to cede creative control to its readers with a new slate of books that feature "naked front covers... printed on art-quality paper." Penguin announced the initiative on its blog and they have already posted some reader-designed covers in a gallery on its site. So far, the books are only available from the UK, and the titles that come with blank covers are:Meditations by Marcus AureliusCrime and Punishment by Fyodor DostoyevskyMagic Tales by Jacob GrimmThe Waves by Virginia WoolfThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar WildeEmma by Jane Austen
Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don't make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many "best of" lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson's first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain's nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They're both nearly perfect, and I don't find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I'll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don't think I'll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis' very fine Old Devils as I've been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
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