My great friend Emre recently experienced some misfortunes, but he has been doing a lot of reading which is keeping his spirits high. Here is what he wrote me:Another thing aside form your wedding that helped lift my spirits after the debacle was William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with his writing, but that was the first I read by him and it blew me away. So, I was back at Barnes and Noble this week to pick up his Stars and Bars which sounds very promising as well. Nevertheless, back to An Ice-Cream War. It is the story of various characters in England, the British East Africa and German East Africa, starting in the summer of 1914 when talk of an Anglo-German war seemed ridiculous and ending with the surrender of the squareheads as the Britons in the novel call them kind of peoples. The satirical approach is akin to Catch 22, a terrible comparison, I am aware, as it is hard to beat Catch-22, but nevertheless unique in its tone and weaving of characters. Yossarian’s cowardly rationalization of the stupidity of war might be unparalleled, but Boyd’s snotty British approach makes you laugh out loud at the most obscene death. It’s not because of the circumstances, but because of the silliness that surrounds all the characters and the world involved in a war about which few had an idea why it started and dragged on for so long and did not realize for a while that it had ended. Man, I can’t rant about Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War enough. In the opinion of a sweet lady that runs Biography Books, two blocks down from us, Boyd is one of the most under-rated contemporary authors. I don’t know much about the ratings, but he sure is a phenomenal story-teller, and certainly is interested in historic events and contexts, which I dig. I’m currently recommending the book to everyone as a terrific summer read that you’ll blast through in under a week.Thanks Emre! Sounds pretty good. I’ll have to check it out.
I listen to a lot of Public Radio, perhaps too much. And while I probably shouldn’t be scheduling my days around radio shows devoted to cooking or news quizzes, there are some Public Radio personalities that do deserve my devotion (and you probably yours too.) One of these is Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Glass was recently in the news for his vocal protests of FCC crackdowns. In this essay from the New York Times Magazine he takes up for Howard Stern and criticizes the absurdity at the center of the decency battle. And the Houston Chronicle explains that Glass isn’t just a public radio host, he’s also a sex symbol. Often considered one of the funniest voices on radio, David Sedaris is a frequent contributor to This American Life. His fans are already clamoring for his latest book due out this June. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, another of Sedaris’ collections of humorous, autobiographical essays, is previewed here in the Sydney Star Observer. And then there is Terry Gross, master interviewer and host of the long running show Fresh Air. A collection of Gross’ famous interviews will be coming out this fall, titled All I Did Was Ask. Here’s an interview with the queen of interviewers at the Detroit Free Press.
Gogol’s The Overcoat and Flaubert’s A Simple Heart have in common narrators who are, at least initially, satisfied with what I think many would consider very meager lives. They are both poor, single, friendless, both workers whose work (a clerk who copies documents in a Russian government office, and a maid of all work in a French bourgeois household) does not seem particularly meaningful or interesting. And yet they are both content. Deeply content: “After working to his heart’s content, he would go to bed, smiling at the thought of the next day and wondering what God would send him to copy. So flowed on the peaceful life of a man who knew how to be content with his fate.” This is Gogol describing his hero, but the description easily applies to Flaubert’s Felicité.Teaching these stories this week, I was not surprised exactly, but bemused, by the various shades of contempt my students showed toward these characters’ lives – By and large, they found Akaky and Felicité sad, pathetic, depressing. These brightest of the bright seemed to view with horror the notion of being satisfied with so little, with such colorless, pleasureless lives. And who can blame them, when their own lives have already delivered so much more?Hobbes wrote, “For as to have no desire, is to be Dead.” And I can see that the sort of lean, desire-less lives that Flaubert and Gogol’s heroes live are a sort of death-in-life. But I also envy their contentment. Contentment – the state of having all you want – is so rare. The peacefulness of such a state seems incomprehensible to me and somewhat otherworldly. It also seems that the possession of such a state erases, for the possessor at least, what appears from the outside to be small and sad life. (“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” as Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)A final note on these questions, in the form of an anecdote: Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived by choice as a beggar and rejected all concepts of property, manners, and social and political organization, was visited one day by Alexander the Great. Diogenes was sunning himself on a hillside as Alexander approached and when Alexander asked if there was anything he could offer the philosopher, Diogenes replied: “Stand out of my sunlight.” According to Plutarch, Alexander then declared: “If I was not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”
T.C. Boyle’s new book, The Inner Circle is out and the reviews are starting to appear. Here’s one from Newsday. There’s also an excerpt available at Boyle’s newly redesigned website.Michiko Kakutani likes the Gish Jen novel The Love Wife. Here’s an excerpt so you can see what all the fuss is about.And to continue from my last post about Art Spiegelman, The Village Voice also published a review of his new book. Also mentioned in that review is New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s new book, Up from Zero, about deciding the fate of Ground Zero. Here’s an excerpt from the book.