Today’s Elliot Spitzer scandal sent me back to the New Yorker archives, to revisit Nick Paumgarten’s excellent profile, from December 10. This time around, I was struck less by the “what you see is what you get” thesis of some Spitzer intimates, than by this proposition, from an unnamed source: “Spitzer lunges. He seems not to be a person of strategy. He slipped on a banana peel, or six, and once down has thrashed around.” It remains to be seen if, amid the thrashing, his newfound talent for “extracting oneself from an intractable position” holds up.
A new issue of the excellent online literary review, The Quarterly Conversation has been posted. There are plenty of goodies on offer, but perhaps the most intriguing is a piece by François Monti about Zone, a French novel by Mathias Énard that has certain literary corners of Europe buzzing. It’s got quite a hook:Zone, as has been much noted, is a 517-page sentence, and its rhythm is one that draws readers inevitably toward the end, much faster than you would have thought. It’s difficult to stop for a breather, to try and reflect on what’s being read. Somehow, form and content stymie a consideration of the meaning of the narration and the way it works. I thought I liked it perhaps more than I really did.The book will be published in English by Open Letter in summer 2010.
In the Washington Post, Meghan O’Rourke reviews one of the more talked about literary biographies in recent memory, Mockingbird by Charles Shields. In fact, I’m surprised that it took so long for the first serious biography of Harper Lee to emerge, since she is a figure that has long inspired curiosity among readers. One of the big questions the biography tries to answer is why she has never written another novel. The Post characterizes Shields’ conclusion thusly: Shields makes a convincing case that Lee, a standoffish, stubborn woman invested in precision, became too “overwhelmed” by the success of her first novel to finish any of her subsequent efforts… For Lee, he observes, writing was always about capturing the everyday nuances of Southern small-town life she knew so well — and, in her own way, loved; when she became famous, her relationship to that world was permanently altered.That certainly rings true to me.The biography has also prompted critics to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird, as Thomas Mallon did in the New Yorker back in May. He took the opportunity to present a somewhat contrarian view of Mockingbird, essentially calling the widely read novel over-rated.In the New York Times Garrison Keillor used his review to celebrate Lee and to pardon her sin of not giving us more books to read.Ahead of her is a deluge of success, a potful of money and some sort of vindication in the eyes of Monroeville. Truman will disintegrate and die at 59 and she will persist. The lady looks around at a room full of books, closes the door, and drives off with her sister to an early supper at Dave’s Catfish Cabin, a plate of fish and hush puppies and a glass of tea. Everybody at Dave’s knows who she is and nobody asks her made-up questions about writing or fame or how she explains the long run her novel has enjoyed. She is apparently in good humor and enjoying her food and not planning to go on Oprah or Charlie Rose. And so there, dear reader, you will just have to leave her.Though she has been labelled a one-hit wonder, Shields’ biography, and the discussion it has prompted, prove that she has inspired much more fascination than that label would imply.
This morning’s David Brooks column has reinvigorated my long-running discomfort with pop-intellectuals. “We’re entering an era of epic legislation,” his column begins. “There are at least five large problems that will compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years.” The bold assertion is a classic move of the pop-intellectual, who I think of as one who puts forth an idea as a new idea while lacking expertise in the field in which that idea would carry weight. The blending of disciplines is also a tell-tale pop-intellecual trait, and in the opening of his column, Brooks presents as a historian, a sociologist, and a political scientist, even though he is in fact none of the above.One thing I always think about when I read pop-intellectuals like Brooks or Malcolm Gladwell (if Brooks is prince of the practice, Gladwell is king), is the shift over the last couple centuries or so from lay intellectualism to professional intellectualism (I’m not an intellectual historian and I don’t know exactly where to date it – in my mind the the change took place concurrently with the the rise of method, around about the time of Darwin). Two hundred years ago it was good enough to be a well-educated citizen with a ruminative soul and you could write with authority about anything – philosophy, history, the natural world. Now to be taken seriously on any of those topics, to be seen as adding to our store of knowledge, you have to have a PhD and work in a university. In part, the change is due to the overall increase in knowledge – it required less learning to be an expert in mathematics a hundred years ago than it does now – but more than that, the change reflects the modern insight that learning shaped by disciplines simply produces better knowledge.Journalists like Brooks and Gladwell can still add value by bringing academic discoveries to the public, but books like Bobos in Paradise and Blink make me cringe for the lack of rigor with which they synthesize anecdotes to produce new ideas. The problem is not so much the content, benign as it usually is, but the methods. Brooks’ column, for example, actually promotes a tendency opposite of the one he intends. It makes people less effectively thoughtful, not more.
Amazon has locked down a rare piece of Harry Potter ephemera far a tidy sum.We’re incredibly excited to announce that Amazon has purchased J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard at an auction held by Sotheby’s in London. The book of five wizarding fairy tales, referenced in the last book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is one of only seven handmade copies in existence. The purchase price was £1,950,000 [$3.93 million], and Ms. Rowling is donating the proceeds to The Children’s Voice campaign, a charity she co-founded to help improve the lives of institutionalized children across Europe.The Tales of Beedle the Bard is extensively illustrated and handwritten by the bard herself–all 157 pages of it. It’s bound in brown Moroccan leather and embellished with five hand-chased hallmarked sterling silver ornaments and mounted moonstones.Since this is a particularly difficult volume to get one’s hands on, and since there are likely many curious Potter fans out there, Amazon has offered up a special review of the book, along with images from its pages. (Thanks, Laurie)Update: Yes, it turns out this happened in December. So: old news, but new to me, and perhaps to you too.
I myself prefer only to read books that have been described as “unputdownable,” but Joe Queenan has his own preferred adjective which appears to be serving him well:Several years ago, overwhelmed by the flood of material unleashed annually by the publishing industry, I decided to establish a screening program by purchasing only books that at least one reviewer had described as “astonishing.”Previously, I had limited my purchases to merchandise deemed “luminous” or “incandescent,” but this meant I ended up with an awful lot of novels about bees, Provence or Vermeer.
They eat babies in Guangzhou. This appalling side note appeared in this week’s issue of Newsweek International in an article about problems with Chinese food safety. The article profiles Chinese journalist Zhou Qing who was nominated as a finalist for the Lettre Ulysses Award for his work covering food safety issues. According to Zhou, Chinese captains of industry blithely pickle vegetables with agricultural strength insecticides to keep flies away and sprinkle preserved fish with “sulphur salt,” an industrial additive deadly in amounts as small as three grams.None of this is very surprising, after a recent shipment of poisoned Chinese toothpaste and cough syrup caused a spate of deaths in Central and South America. What is surprising, however, is the inspiration for Zhou’s book: an unusual dish he claims was served to him in a Guangdong restaurant. From the Newsweek article:[The soup was] placenta soup… The placentas come from the aborted fetuses of migrant women workers who are unmarried or out of line with the government’s one-child policy. During dinner, Zhou peeked into the back kitchen and saw the cooks scooping out fetuses.While this tidbit doesn’t seem to have earned even a blink from the jaded staff at Newsweek, I practically spit my morning coffee across the monitor.Could this really be the one child policy in action? Or is it a hoax perpetuated by an overzealous reporter? Poisoning cough syrup is one thing, but eating babies? Although stories of women eating their own placentas abound, the issues raised by the potential commodification of the placenta are profoundly troubling. China’s moral compass must be spinning like a dervish.A cynicism well honed on long exposure to fabulist reportage on Asia, immediately took me to Snopes.com, the vaunted debunker of rumors and urban legend. The Snopes team decries a similar story as nothing more than racist claptrap. But a quick trip to Google uncovers a wealth of articles, including one from Bloomberg in the International Herald Tribune (which introduces a new wrinkle… the placentas are imported from Japan) and one from the Daiyuan Times… in Chinese. Who to believe?The blood libel has been around for at least as long as the Jews, and probably well before. There are few crimes more transgressive and titillating than cannibalism, and people with an axe to grind are often quick to call their enemies out as baby eaters. A quick background check on the Daiyuan Times, for example, shows that it is owned by the Falun Gong, a Chinese religious organization that has experienced ruthless oppression at the hands of the Chinese government. If you can’t trust the food from China, how can you trust the journalism?Not that the United States is much better. Even putting aside purebred fictionalists like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, we’re still left with a herd of reporters so eager for a good story, they’re unwilling to get to the bottom of it. With old hands like Judith Miller selling entire wars based completely on rumor and innuendo, it’s hard to find fault with an ambitious tyro for practicing his chops on a bowl of fetus soup.So do they eat babies in China? Newsweek, at least, is sticking with Zhou’s account. His book, What Kind of God?, is currently only available in Chinese, but the general hysteria building up around Chinese exports seems to be making room for a bestseller. Eat your heart out Upton Sinclair.See Also: The Lettre Ulysses goes on hiatus