- Most of you have probably read it, or at least heard about it: Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker posits that the cultural inter-borrowing that long underpinned the vibrancy of American music has fallen by the wayside in the current era of mopey indie rock (I mostly agree). The essay is good – though-provoking – but what has really rounded it out has been his series of responses, on his blog, to the various letters he received – 1, 2, 3, 4 – which have turned his effort into the sort of bull session that regularly happens among music fans.
- In a similar vein, in this case in the world a film, One-Way Street posits that we have a problem we never expected: “an American cinema that’s too good.” The argument is fairly convincing. But I can’t help but think that some arguments to the contrary might turn the post into a bull session as intriguing as the one Frere-Jones has curated at the New Yorker.
J.K. Rowling’s slow, inexorable slide out of retirement continues. As we noted a couple of months ago, “For someone who’s not writing any more books about Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling sure is doing a lot of dabbling.”Earlier this year, we wrote about one of Rowling’s post-retirement dabblings, the production of seven handmade copies of Beedle the Bard, a book of “wizarding fairy tales” referred to in the Harry Potter series. Amazon spent $4 million on a copy, and then used it to market a writing contest. Part of the prize, incidentally, was the opportunity “to spend a weekend with the rare and delightful book of fairy tales (security guards included, of course).”Now that prize doesn’t look quite so exclusive, as Bloomsbury and Scholastic have made an edition the book available for the masses for just $7.59 and arriving in early December, just in time for the holidays. Amazon is going one further, offering up to 100,000 pricier facsimile “collector’s editions,” with “a reproduction of J.K. Rowling’s handwritten introduction, metalwork and clasp, and replica gemstones,” as well as various other accouterments.All net proceeds go to a charity co-founded by Rowling.
The New York Times has a little piece about books that have been blurbed by recently discredited authors. Taking the cake is Nic Kelman’s Girls which was blurbed by both JT Leroy and James Frey.Just for fun, here are some more blurbs from each.Frey:”[This] should join Catch-22 and The Things They Carried as this generation’s defining literary expression of men at war.” for The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell by John Crawford (Note how he cites two works of fiction in blurbing a memoir.)”Charlie Huston is a bad-ass writer, Six Bad Things is a bad-ass book. I loved it, absolutely loved it, as I did his first book. Can’t wait for whatever else comes from him.” for Six Bad Things by Charlie Huston”Blue Blood is real, authentic, true. Beautiful and inspiring, terrifying and heartbreaking. It is a great book.” for Blue Blood by Edward Conlon”Perverse and somewhat depraved, Rod Liddle’s fiction is a sexy but not too beautiful montage of what happens when people succumb to their urges and fantasies without considering the consequences.” for Too Beautiful for You by Rod Liddle”I have read many translations of this ancient text but Mitchell’s is by far the best.” for Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen MitchellAnd finally there’s an “Amazon.com exclusive” where Frey reviews Jay McInerney’s new novel, The Good Life (review available here until Amazon realizes it and gets rid of it): “It’s also a deeply personal book, McInerney’s most personal since Bright Lights, and it feels to me like I’m reading about variations of McInerney’s own life. He, like Fitzgerald, is at his best when he’s putting his own experiences into the lives of his characters, and I’ve never felt more of McInerney, or felt more vulnerability, which to me is a sign of strength in a writer, Unfortunately, Fitzgerald’s life was unsustainable. He died drunk, penniless, alone, forgotten. McInernery could have followed his path, and it sometimes seemed like he would. Thankfully he didn’t. People wondered what kind of writer Fitzgerald might have been had he lived. McInerney, his closest succesor, is starting to show us.”And two more from Leroy:”Corgan steps to the plate at the first scent of menace, prepared, as one who is born into the language of battle. His hands might be balled tight, but his soul absorbs what his fists cannot truly deflect. Never just the spectator, Corgan transforms his world into the palpable, lyrical beauty of the heartbreak of one who cannot turn away, allowing us to get as close as we dare without blinking.” for Blinking with Fists: Poems by Billy Corgan”Really, really great…close-to-the-nerve honesty, severe suffering, intertwined with that leavening cynical humor.” for Important Things That Don’t Matter by David Amsden
In Russian, the term ostranyeniye means “the act of making strange.” In the early twentieth century, the idea was coined and used by Russian Formalists, authors and artists, who sought to make the familiar seem foreign — to make those who consumed their art question everyday words and forms.
Still Here, the third novel by Moscow-born Lara Vapnyar, bears very little resemblance to any of the experimental works by those Russian Formalists. But though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life.
Still Here is the story of four Russian immigrants in New York City. There’s Vadik, certain only of what he doesn’t want; Regina, a formerly famous translator who has married a wealthy American man; Vica, stuck in Staten Island with her son and husband but certain she’s “pure Manhattan”; and Sergey, Vica’s husband, a former prodigy who dreams of developing an app — “Virtual Grave” — that allows people to communicate with the dead by preserving and recycling what they said online in life. Virtual Grave is Sergey’s final chance to prove himself the brilliant man he was always expected to become. Given his difficulty holding down a job, it’s a last shot at providing for his family — and so a point of tension in his already troubled marriage with Vica. The characters’ respective stories unfold and intersect as they, as a group, try to come to terms with death in a way that enriches life.
Vapnyar is not the first to use something like Virtual Grave in art. A short story in Adam Johnson’s excellent collection Fortune Smiles centered around a very similar concept, as did an episode of the hit television show Black Mirror. What makes Vapnyar’s book unique is neither the idea of the app nor the use of four friends trying to make it in New York City (Vica is obviously the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch), but rather how these elements — a slightly forward-looking app and the perspective of four very different immigrants — are used together to “make strange” the modern world. There’s always someone having more fun on Facebook; always a better match out there on Tinder or OkCupid (in the book, the app is “Hello, Love!”); always someone wittier on Twitter. Except that, of course, there isn’t.
The book, like each of Vapnyar’s key players, is not without its faults. It’s a fresh take on an old theme, but it is nevertheless an old theme, and one that uses some old tropes—about New York City, about immigrants, about social media, etc. And there are points at which it feels more beach-read than smart satire. Of Regina, Vapnyar writes, “Being an introvert, she had trouble making friends.” It is the sort of sentence at which she herself might smirk elsewhere in the book.
Such shortcomings aside, Vapnyar ultimately offers a literary representation of the way we live now. She shows us America, the beautiful and absurd, managing to satirize it without ever losing sympathy for the people living in it, and certainly not for her four main characters. At one point, Regina, sure that today is the day she’ll start reading and writing again, puts off work to watch television; with the help of an app called “Eat’N’Watch,” which recommends the right food-show binge combination, she wastes hours and winds up disgusted with herself. In another moment, Vadik recalls the one-night-stand he had in New York City, who he left the next morning and who, he later realizes, he may have loved. The morning after, Vadik remembers that he had left his copy Hell Is Other People at the diner where he met the woman: “He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He would never be able to go back there. Vadik felt a surge of panic and regret, so bad that it made his heart ache.”
The book gives us plenty on which to reflect. Would we want an app like Virtual Grave? What would it mean to control our own online presence after we’re dead? If we aren’t exactly living in the book’s universe of constant app updates and addiction, how far removed are we? It makes strange the world we think we know. But even within that — in the bounds and bonds of satire and reflection and ostraneniye — it manages to remind us of the humanity that existed before there was an app for that. One that will remain, we can hope, once we’ve moved on.
For some reason, the CBC never made their interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski available online after it originally aired. Luckily, Millions contributor Andrew Saikali listened to the show live and sent me a quick recap:- It was a half-hour interview which actually was recorded by the CBC at his home in Warsaw.- he’s a very thoughtful, eloquent man- Much of it was devoted to growing up during the war, in Pinsk in the Poland/Belarus border area – I gather it sort of pingponged back and forth between the two jurisdictions throughout history- childhood poor – the war hit on what would have been his first day of school. – grew up with War being the norm. Peace, when it came, felt transitional, tentative- Pinsk was multi-ethnic then – Poles, Belarussians, Jews, Ukrainians maybe, and probably others that I forget. – Pre-war it was functional, the various ethnicities mixed and worked together in order to get by.- his parents were both teachers- hunger during the war caused him and others to ask the Russian soldiers for food, but all they could get were cigarettes.- often went barefoot (as children, during the war) – because shoes were in short supply – still sees people in their fancy shoes and flashes back to when he thought of them as “luxuries”- as a young reporter he was sent to both China and India (on two separate occasions) – and in each case the following happened: he was so overwhelmed by the culture, and got so immersed, that he felt as if he could spend the rest of his life reporting from there and writing about there – and so he asked to be transferred from there quickly – because as absorbed and fascinated as he was by it, he knew that first and foremost he was a man of the world and wanted so see and experience everything, everywhere – which, I think, shows remarkable self-awareness, especially in a young reporter, to know that one’s worldly-tendencies were in danger of being trumped by a specific-regional fascination – to know enough about your own strengths and weaknesses to leave, and follow your “true path” before getting (permanently) drawn in to something specific (no matter how great it may be)
If you’ve got a portrait of Pushkin on your back or the complete text of The Waste Land on your shins, aspiring anthologists Justin Taylor and Eva Talmadge want you! Here’s their call for images of literary tattoos:We are seeking high quality photographs of your literary tattoos for an upcoming book. Send us your ink! …All images must include the name (or pseudonym) of the tattoo bearer, city and state or country, and a transcription of the text itself, along with its source. For portraits or illustrations, please include the name of the author or book on which it’s based. We’d also like to read a few words about the tattoo’s meaning to you — why you chose it, when you first read that poem or book, or how its meaning has evolved over time. How much (or how little) you choose to say about your tattoo is up to you, but a paragraph or two should do the trick.Please send clear digital images of the highest print quality possible to [email protected].(via Jacket Copy)Bonus Link: The above image and pictures of many more literary tattoos are available at YuppiePunk.