- 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.
Okay, here's the thing: I'm not usually this inattentive. As a matter of fact, I've often prided myself on being a focused, interested listener. So it was with astonishment that I found myself lost in a memory of my own, not five minutes after author Clare Morrall began to read. Don't blame her. She's a fine reader, and indeed, from the part of the reading that I paid attention to, a fine writer as well. But it's scarcely my fault either.She was introducing us to the principal characters of Natural Flights of the Human Mind whose lives would intersect along the Devon coast when suddenly, in the narrative, she drew our attention to a dinghy in the water. And then she mentioned the dinghy again. That's all it took - and I was gone. I was suddenly ten years old, on holiday with my mother and father in Virginia Beach. My mother and I had taken our inflatable dinghy out for the afternoon and we were a fair distance away from the shore when we realized that the current was getting stronger and no amount of frantic paddling would right the course. Small and rather lopsided, I wasn't the most accomplished oarsman. Then, adrift for what seemed like ages, we saw my father walking all the way out to our wayward craft, his head never once submerging, and then pulling it back to the shore, shaking his head while his human cargo was alternately sheepish and dumbfounded.So this is what played out in my head while Ms. Morrall progressed with her own dinghy-related narrative. If I were reading her story, I would simply have flipped back the requisite number of pages and resumed her tale beginning from where my attention was diverted. But I couldn't very well interrupt her public reading and ask her to repeat.I was jolted back into her world, or at least to the no-man's land of the auditorium, but I was hopelessly lost. I looked around and saw dozens of people, their eyes glued to the stage and their emotions being maneuvered this way and that - a chuckle, a gasp. I could've been one of them. I can chuckle and gasp with the best of them, but I simply couldn't re-connect with her tale. It had passed me by. My own memory-narrative, however, was right there, within reach, and I had been paying full attention to that, so once again, while the reading progressed in that strange world around me, I resumed my own narrative - thinking about how each summer from when we immigrated to Canada when I was two, up until my mid-teens, we'd pack up the car and begin exploring our new continent, first tentatively throughout Ontario and then gradually, over several summers, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and then down along the eastern seaboard from Maine to the Carolinas and points inland. Over several years we claimed dozens of cities and towns as our own.Even the most conscientious listener (and again, by that I mean me) must have an assortment of trigger words which will stop him dead in his tracks and spirit him away to some memory - a narrative itself, and one no less rich than one committed to the printed page. Tough competition for any author giving a reading. The worst thing would be for Ms. Morrall to take my negligence personally. Short of not using the word "dinghy" there's nothing she could really have done to prevent this. The trigger was just too strong; and the memory powerful enough to trample on even the best public reader. It's surprising, really, that with all the memories floating around in my head, each with its own set of trigger words, that I'm not spirited away more often.The funny thing is that with other art forms, this "spiriting away" would be acceptable, even encouraged. It's high praise when a painting or a piece of music transports you somewhere else. But the printed word, especially when recited, is a fickle mistress. It tempts you with it's suggestive powers, but then as soon as you succumb to the temptation, as soon as you're transported somewhere else, it leaves you behind, lost and adrift.
It started with Nick Adams. I discovered Nick while reading through the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway a while back, and it is his voice, more than any others in the Hemingway corpus, that sticks with me years later. Nick Adams is in many ways Hemingway’s alter ego. Like Hemingway, Nick grew up in a rural part of the Midwest that still felt like (that still was, perhaps) Indian territory. Like Hemingway, Nick had a doctor for a father. Like Hemingway, Nick’s father commits suicide when Nick is a boy – this is the subject, by the way, of one of Hemingway’s most arresting Nick Adams stories, “Fathers and Sons”. As Nick grows up, and the stories progress and begin to slightly contradict one another (these are distinct stories, after all, and were never meant to be a coherent novel) his life grows murkier. The Nick Adams stories, though published as a complete volume in 1972 – years after Hemingway killed himself in a manner similar to his own father – were never meant, I think, to be read in one sitting. The Nick Adams stories were written over a period of decades – during, not coincidentally, Hemingway’s most productive and most fruitful period – and they are each one of them distinct, many of them gems. They can be read together, that is certain. But part of the beauty of these stories is how well they stand on their own, each one highlighting a facet of Nick’s character, a specific moment in time. A day, as it were, in the life. Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasure to piece these stories together, to chronologize them and evaluate them – and the character of Nick Adams – fully. But the real pleasure of these stories, for me, is in realizing that while they do not exist in solitude, they can and do stand alone as complete works of art. Nick Adams hooked me on the episodic short story. By which I mean, as it should by now be obvious, the tale of an individual told over several loosely related episodes. Finishing a story – a good, well-written story – about a character both well developed and personally intriguing, and knowing that another story about that very same character is out there somewhere, has become, for me, one of the best feelings in the world. One of the finest modern practitioners of the episodic short story was the late Leonard Michaels. Though Michaels is most well known for his 1981 novella of male angst, The Men’s Club, in my opinion his greatest achievement came near the end of his life, when he started chronicling the fictional life of a mathematician named Nachman. Nachman, a professor at Berkeley (where Michaels himself taught) is a lonely, trusting man who understands the most complex equations but cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of human interaction. Michaels, along with his character Nachman, pulls you in from the very first sentence of the very first story, and never lets go. Here is that first sentence, of the eponymously titled story, “Nachman”: “In 1982, Raphael Nachman, visiting lecturer in mathematics at the university in Cracow, declined the tour of Auschwitz, where his grandparents had died, and asked instead to visit the ghetto where they had lived.” There may be a better first sentence to a short story in existence, but I don’t know what it is. The Nachman stories, like those of Nick Adams, stand well (stand very well indeed) on their own. Pieced together, though, they really are something of a masterpiece. The seven Nachman stories Michaels completed before his untimely death can be found at the end of Leonard Michael’s Collected Stories. They are well worth the price of the book. In my opinion, the most promising episodic short story sequence currently being published is being written by Nathaniel Bellows. Bellows is the author of On This Day – a beautiful, painfully moving novel of a pair of siblings who lose both parents in the same year – as well as a magnificent poetry collection, Why Speak. While I am a great fan of all of Bellows’ writing, it is his Nan stories that really blew me away. Bellows has a strong New England sensibility. With his vivid evocations of cold Maine winters and lonely, ice-strewn landscape, the poet he most consistently reminds me of (in content if not in form) is Robert Frost. Wisps of Emersonian self-reliance – as well as, perhaps, tacit acknowledgments of self-reliance’s limits – also carry through his work. In his Nan stories, Bellows takes that lonely New England self-reliance and brings it to New York in the character of Nan, a magnificently drawn Columbia University undergrad who comes from a sheltered, broken (in ways that I won’t ruin for you here) lower-middle class Maine family. Nan, like Bellows, comes from upstate New England. Also like Bellows, Nan comes to Columbia to study literature and to become a writer (Bellows received his MFA from Columbia). Nan, like Michaels’ Nachman, has a fundamentally good although somewhat naïve personality. In these stories, she faces a world, often complex and underhanded, that she does not (at first, at least) really understand. The beautiful imagery of the stories, as well as the slow-paced, heart-piercing development of Nan’s character, make these stories not simply delights but, I would argue, necessary reading. The three Nan stories that have so far been published – here is a link to the first one, published in the excellent literary magazine Post Road – are uniformly fantastic. According to Bellows’ website, there are at least four more Nan stories awaiting publication. I am sure I am not the only one who eagerly awaits piecing the rest of the puzzle of Nan’s life together.
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My book-loving friends keep writing me great emails that I feel compelled to share with all of you. Here's one from my friend John about the great books he's been reading:Currently reading Libra by Don Delillo. I've heard from a few people that it's a modern classic, and though I don't know if I necessarily agree with that, it is very good. Fictional retelling of the assassination of JFK. I think it might be overshadowed by Oliver Stone's JFK, but I would say it's an even more plausible a version of what happened. Just finished reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. Don't know if you've read it, but you probably should. He was a freelance journalist in Vietnam (which is what the book is about) and was also the screenwriter for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Probably the most readable book about the Vietnam War; haven't read that much though. I also saw The Sheltering Sky on your queue. Amazing book. That really got me into reading again. Very stark, but somehow it struck a chord. Something about wanting to be an ex-pat, but also seeing the hubris that we Americans have, especially in relation to foreign cultures. Some things never change. Probably my fave author of right now is T.C. Boyle. Love his stuff. His last novel, Drop City, is a great read. The thing about him is that his stories are highly readable. Great stories, great characters.A couple of quick comments: I've been wanting to read Dispatches for a very long time, and I think most of you know how I feel about T.C. Boyle. Also, everyone should check out John's new band The Vanity Fair, they were sent here to rock. I also got a great email from longtime Millions contributor Brian that I'd like to share with all of you:Not a lot of time, but just wanted to drop an e-mail, let you know I read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Fantastic. He went to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War but felt so strongly he joined the fight. He was in the trenches, fought, got shot in the throat, recovered, took part in street battles in Barcelona, was pursued by the police for being a member of the Marxist group P.O.U.M., fled to England and wrote the book. This passage is from just before he fled: "I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone's imagination. White sierras, goatherds, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemons, girls in black mantillas, the wines of Malaga and Alicante, cathedrals, cardinals, bull-fights, gypsies, serenades -- in short, Spain. Of all Europe it was the country that had had most hold upon my imagination."Great stuff guys. Thanks! If anyone else out there wants to contribute, just drop me an email. Remember, my Millions is your Millions. I have tons of stuff to write about, including the two books I finished last week, but I'm off to New York tomorrow for a few days, maybe a week, so it may have to wait until I get back.
The New Yorker has unveiled a new version of its Web site, and while I applaud its clean look, the addition of much more content accessible from the front page, and RSS feeds, there is one major problem: links to much of the site's content from the years the magazine has been online are, as of this writing, broken. This means the many, many links to New Yorker articles and stories in The Millions archives no longer work, rendering posts like my roundup of the magazine's fiction in 2005 much less useful. On the other hand, perhaps they used the redesign as an opportunity to clear out the archives so that more folks would buy the Complete New Yorker.See also: Kottke takes a more in depth look at the redesign.
Whither the book? A question we at The Millions struggle with on a semi-regular basis, and one that has inspired the National Library of Spain to commission a project entitled "The Last Book." Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer has been entrusted with the task, and he in turn is calling for the writers (and readers) of the world to contribute.The book, which will be displayed in the library's entry hall, is projected to serve as both a paean to the golden age of reading, and a reminder of what it is we stand to lose every time we choose the TV over a book. The book itself (if the installation ends up being one...) will incorporate visual and written elements from contributors famous, infamous and unknown and serve as "a stimulus for a possible reactivation of culture in case of disappearance by negligence, catastrophe or conflagration." Presumably, the book will also come in useful in the event of subjugation by damn, dirty apes.Although I am far from convinced that books (or human civilization) are in danger of extinction, I intend to contribute something just in case. If we're taking a mulligan on human civilization, after all, I can think of a few things I'd like changed. Contributions to the book are being accepted through October 15.
The New Yorker opened the week in a lather of controversy surrounding the cover of its latest issue. The Barry Blitt illustration is a rather heavy-handed satire of the various smears that have circulated about Barack and Michelle Obama. Essentially, that he is a closet Muslim extremist and she a closet militant. Blitt's unsubtle drawing portrays them in the garb of these personas.Speaking as a New Yorker fan, I can't stand these political satire covers. Aside from them not being very funny or interesting to look at, they lower the New Yorker to the level of the fray. The key to the New Yorker's success, however, has been its ability to place itself above all that.Yes, the New Yorker is quite obviously a left leaning publication, but its journalism strives for even-handedness and the entire enterprise is built on a reverence for the facts, as its legendary fact-checking operation attests. By "the fray" I do not just mean politics, I also mean the "here today, gone tomorrow" jokes and the offhanded irony that seem to permeate most of our culture. The New Yorker, meanwhile, has always been so (justifiably) secure in its status, that neither its contents nor even its ideological leanings require an advertisement on the cover, which historically has been given over instead to a piece of art that exists simply for its own sake.The political covers come across as jarring in this context. A couple of years ago another political cover caused a bit of controversy. The Bush/Cheney cover was a tired Brokeback Mountain rehash that got people riled up, and, as it turned out, it bumped a cover that was more topical and far more meaningful and in the spirit of the magazine.Apparently, I may have been in the minority in this view, as the Mark Ulriksen Brokeback cover, along with a political Blitt cover, won awards.It's not even the political content of these covers that bugs me - there have occasionally been some good political covers - it's their heavy-handed unfunniness that paints the magazine's readers with a very broad brush. I don't find the Obama cover to be offensive in the least, just easy and dumb.If you feel the same way I do (or even if you think I've lost it), dig into the archives and enjoy the hundreds of sublime and clever covers that have graced the New Yorker over the years.
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