NY-based readers are invited to “Step Inside the Book” at a reading/party I’m doing this Friday with Alex Rose (The Musical Illusionist) and Alex Itin (Orson Whales). Alex will be working his narrative/surroundsound magic, Other Alex will be screening his multimedia books, and I’ll be showing art and reading fiction from A Field Guide to the North American Family. Drinks are on the house, I’m told, so if you’re free, stop by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space, at 125 Maiden Lane, between 7 and 9 p.m. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…
Two weeks ago, the presidential commission appointed by President Obama to investigate the causes of the Gulf Oil spill released its final report. Have you read it yet? Neither have I. How different from the days and weeks following the release of the 9/11 Report. Debates about how well this newest presidential report assigns or distributes blame for the disaster in the Gulf appeared briefly in the press, then disappeared. Have we already lost interest in this catastrophic oil spill, or is it possible that the report itself is to blame for our fading interest?
When a tragedy on this scale strikes, a familiar pattern follows. A time of confusing and conflicting news stories is followed by a call for an independent investigation, followed by an inquiry, and then, many months later, a report. A great deal of hope—for explanation, reform, redemption—is placed in this inquiry and report-writing process.
But what exactly is the role of a government report? It attempts to be the truth, but is not always complete. It presents a story, but not always the one the most people believe. Most fail to reassure because the public considers them either politically motivated or the product of bureaucratic compromise.
A review of presidential reports (the first dates back to the George Washington administration and its investigation of the Whiskey Rebellion) suggests that the right balance between a punitive, backward-looking function—“How did this happen? Who is to blame?”—and a forward-looking hope for prevention—“How can we make sure this never happens again?” is important but difficult to achieve. If a commission lays blame too heavily, the report is easily dismissed as a political maneuver. When the Roberts Commission blamed Adm. E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short for leaving Pearl Harbor vulnerable to air attack from Japan, the two were demoted. But many thought they were being scapegoated by President Roosevelt to cover up military mistakes, and Kimmel and Short were later exonerated.
On the other hand, if a report appears not to find enough blame, it is easy to disbelieve. The Warren Commission’s conclusion that the Kennedy assassination was the work of a lone gunman resulted in decades of conspiracy theories.
We live in a report-saturated age, the news often filled with the findings of the latest commission assembled to examine every tragedy, accident, or misdeed. In this national library of government documents, the 9/11 Report stands out, exceptional in its aim for and achievement of narrative excellence. With a novelistic opening chapter titled “We Have Some Planes” and a first sentence that doesn’t sound much like a government report—“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States”—it felt like a hybrid. This led some to worry about the role art can or should play in such a work. Writing in the Threepenny Review in the spring of 2005, Dan Chiasson asked, “What is the connection between style and policy, style and cultural memory—style and truth?” He wondered if the narrative panache of the 9/11 Report would foreclose further discussion. I think time and the release of other, lesser reports shows that we discussed the 9/11 Report more than any other.
The 9/11 Report’s emphasis on style was not completely without precedent, though the report it reminded me of is not well-known. When the UK investigated the largest civilian tragedy of WWII—a massive crush that occurred in an air raid shelter in East London in 1943—a lone magistrate was asked to investigate and in three weeks produced a report noted for its style and admired for its objectivity. The report stopped short of ascribing individual blame, yet like the 9/11 Report and now the report into the Gulf Oil spill, suggested the disaster could have and should have been avoided. The Bethnal Green report was suppressed until after the war, but when it was released, the writer was knighted and promoted to Chief Metropolitan magistrate.
Our report writers aren’t eligible for such rewards, but why not? Handling the question of blame deftly requires art. Concrete finger-pointing in all but the clearest of cases leads to the charge of scapegoating, political influence, and a morass of misdirected blame. To tell a complex story well requires the tools of art and literature. Perhaps the wisest, most powerful reports contain some version of an idea expressed in the preface of the 9/11 Report, a line I admired: “We want to note,” the Commission wrote, “what we have done, and not done.” A compelling admission of incomplete work or an acknowledgment that our perception of blame will change over time? It might just be the room our thoughts need when all the fact-finding in the world still doesn’t make sense of a tragedy.
So why don’t we reward our report writers in a literary fashion? I think someone should fund a prize for “best government report issued in the previous calendar year.” If we gave an annual report prize, perhaps we would receive more artful reports, and they would, in turn, be read by more than a handful of journalists. This September will see the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and as we begin to ponder what an appropriate commemoration will look like, I hope we won’t forget this legacy of the well-written 9/11 Report. It did not answer all our questions, but it got an enormous number of people reading and thinking. By contrast, the report into the Gulf Oil spill seems to be disappearing without a trace.
Future report writers, take note.
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.
It is of passing interest to me when a site like Gawker gets bookish. So they did on Saturday in a typically hard -to-peg post about Ben Kunkel’s piece in this weekend’s NY Times Book Review in which the “it-novelist” discussed the new Nirvana biography, Nirvana: The Biography, by Everett True. I often have no idea what is being said on Gawker. Are their writers simply sarcastic, or are they being cleverly sarcastic about their use of sarcasm?My best guess is that the gawkers generally dug the review. To the extent that this assessment is accurate, I concur. The new Nirvana book sounds a little lackluster. How many biographies of Nirvana can we as a culture absorb? I myself have read two, Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are, and Christopher Sandford’s Kurt Cobain. What I have taken away from these books, and what Kunkel articulates in his review, is that Nirvana is a tough nut to crack: “What does ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ sound like when you’re in your 30s, as Kurt Cobain, dead at 27, of course will never be?” It sounds to me like the epitome of artistic-commercial conflict, but I’m only 29. To wit, Nirvana, the ferocious guitar-pulverizing punk band, sounded best on an unplugged album. Not surprisingly Ben Kunkel, who cut his literary teeth chewing on twenty-something angst, sounds pretty good discussing the band.
Just out is The Bones, the debut novel of playwright and screenwriter Seth Greenland. The title of the novel refers to washed-up shock comic Frank Bones who tries to resurrect his career by calling on a now-successful sitcom writer acquaintance of his from years ago. The reviews are starting to come in on this one, and the sound pretty good. The Bones is described as “savagely funny” in the San Francisco Chronicle, which goes on to say that “Greenland elegantly avoids the usual Hollywood novel trap — he doesn’t dumb down or patronize his characters, and he provides them with pitch-perfect dialogue, the clipped, faux-avuncular patois of the tribe.” Greenland also merits a profile by David Ulin in the LA Times. And to top it off Greenland has a guest column up at TEV today. Check it out.Amy Hempel has a new collection of short stories out called The Dog of the Marriage, which was well-reviewed in the LA Times. To whit: “Short on dramatic incident, the stories risk running out of steam. Mostly they don’t, propelled by Hempel’s wit, language and love of fur. Moving through the collection, the reader grows increasingly intimate with Hempel’s sensibility. The women she speaks through feel mortality penetrating aliveness at all times, but rather than being shocked, they find that inevitable and funny.” “Beach Town” one of the shorter stories in the collection can be found here.The number one Booksense pick for April is Joshilyn Jackson’s debut novel, Gods in Alabama. Jackson has a truly endearing blog called Faster Than Kudzu in which she publicly works through her first-time-author anxiety and excitement. (aside: I have to say that I love the recent trend of authors doing these sorts of blogs. It really does make me more likely to want to read their books.) Gods in Alabama is the story of Arlene Fleet, who has fled Possett, Alabama, and made a deal with God to stay on the straight and narrow so long as He makes sure “the body is never found.” As I look around the Web, the buzz on this book is nearly deafening, and there seem to be expectations of this one being a big seller.A.L. Kennedy’s fifth novel, Paradise is getting some unabashedly good reviews. Publishers Weekly says “jaw-droppingly good,” and I love this take on Kennedy from Richard Wallace in the Seattle Times: “In my household, when you review a book by A.L. Kennedy, you better keep a close watch on the merchandise. For when the time comes for double-checking the quotes you’ve chosen to include in your review, you can’t find the book. That’s how readable she is.” The review goes on to describe the book as “a stunning depiction of alcoholism, as funny as it is sad, as ironic as it is romantic.” If you must make up your own mind, an ample excerpt is available here.
You recall a couple of weeks ago when I previewed The Morning News 2007 Tournament of Books. As it turns out, they’ve incorporated a contest for readers – an office pool – into this year’s Tournament and I’m involved. How to play along:Here’s how the contest works. In addition to this year’s brackets, below you’ll find a set of brackets filled out by each of our selected Office Pool Book Bloggers. Review them, then select the one you think is the most likely to win – the bloggers will be scored for each match they predict correctly, with scores updated each day of the Tournament. Email us at the address below with the name of the blogger you like in the email subject line, and your full contact information in the body of the email. (You can only enter once.) We’ll randomly select one reader for each blogger to “play for,” and the winning blogger’s reader will win every book in the tournament, courtesy of Powell’s Books. Note: The contest will close at 6 p.m. EST this Wednesday, March 7So, go there and pick The Millions’ bracket, there could be a whole bunch of books in it for you.
There’s a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the “staff recommendations” shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn’t long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended — The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two — climbed the store’s bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.
The search for the person who will fill what is perhaps academia’s most prestigious creative writing job, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is in its final stages. Four finalists have been announced, Richard Bausch, Lan Samantha Chang, Ben Marcus and Jim Shepard. Each will have an audition of sorts, which includes a reading, a mock workshop, and a talk on craft. Some friends in Iowa have been filling me in on this last part of the selection process, which got underway with Bausch’s visit to campus on February 10.I’m told that the process, itself, is somewhat odd, since it’s more of a performance than a way to discern teaching ability. During the mock-workshop, Bausch zipped through three stories in and hour and a half, faster than the typical workshop pace, and he digressed from the stories at hand to tell some stories of his own. He quoted some of his favorite works and seemed genuinely passionate about books and the writing life. He said he teaches patience, not writing, and said there are two rules to fiction: you have to use words and you have to be interesting. Though his commentary was somewhat liberal, Bausch’s critiques of the stories at hand were traditional, with specific recommendations about tone and pacing. For the public reading later in the evening, Bausch read a recently completed, as yet unpublished story, and during his “talk about craft,” he talked about memory and dispensed his 10 Commandments of writing, which included – to paraphrase – doing the work is the only thing that matters. Not if it’s good or bad, but that it gets done, everyday.Stay tuned for the next dispatch in a couple of weeks.