New York’s NPR affiliate, WNYC, has posted downloadable audio of last weekend’s 75th Birthday celebration for Philip Roth. Featured speakers include Jonathan Lethem, Charles D’Ambrosio, and Hermione Lee. Alvin Pepler, unfortunately, had a prior engagement…
The current issue of New York Magazine offers a typically glib handicapping of this summer's debut novels and hot young fabulists, as well as surveys of overlooked books and of writers likely to stand the test of time. I'm least sympathetic to this American Idol style of journalism when it covers well-trod territory; New York's a speculative "future canon" offers few surprises (Gary Lutz and Helena Maria Viramontes among them). But the lengthy "underrated" list does offer readers an introduction to new writers... as do the excerpts from works in progress by "tomorrow's literary stars" (including my friend Maaza Mengiste.)It's refreshing to read fiction in New York; perhaps they should do this more often. Anyway, if the endless brouhaha surrounding the Times' attention-grabbing "Best Books of the Last 25 Years" failed to tire you out, click on over to New York and check out the offerings.
Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as "books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written." The list contains some obvious entries - we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time's prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967's The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade's blockbuster bestsellers - Bridget Jones's Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code - and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.
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For some weeks now, in a pretense to professorial hipness, I've been using the TV show Gossip Girl as a sort of all-purpose pop-cultural referent with my students. Whenever I'm at a loss to explain a concept, I say something like, "This would be like on Gossip Girl, if Blair Waldorf told Serena van der Woodsen..." The ugly truth, however, is that I've never seen the show.My students seem to take this in stride, and to find it both hilarious and tragic that I imagine it to be a cultural touchstone for their generation. In fact, they tell me, it is more of a cultural touchstone for mine. Other teachers apparently share my delusion that Gossip Girl is the central televisual event of the lives of undergraduates. Meanwhile, the undergraduates order Six Feet Under from Netflix.So where, one wonders, did the Gossip Girl meme gain traction? I can't answer for my colleagues, but Gossip Girl got my own attention through two roundabout connections with The New Yorker magazine. First, Janet Malcolm (of all people) penned an essay on the literary merits of the book series on which the show is based. Malcolm was critical of the TV adaptation, but noted, of the books, that adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness... I would like to go on telling Blair stories until they are gone.Then, Wallace Shawn - a great playwright and actor and the son of the late New Yorker editor William Shawn - landed a recurring role as Blair's mother's boyfriend. "The life of an actor can be very enviable," Shawn told the New York Times this week. "If the phone rings and somebody says, 'I see you as the leader of a group of aliens with enormous heads... I think that's fantastic."That its glancing acquaintance with these two writers was enough, in my mind, to establish Gossip Girl's centrality to the zeitgeist probably says more about The New Yorker's role as a taste-maker for the thirtysomething set than it does about the CW's role as a taste-maker for teens. Still, the primetime hours have not been quite the same for me since The O.C. went off the air. Janet Malcolm, literary to the end, would have me fill them with Gossip Girl books, but with Wallace Shawn joining the cast, I'm tempted to brave her disapproval and start watching the show.
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This story brought me back to my bookselling days.A consumer alert for the millions who have seen the Sex and the City movie: There is no such book as Love Letters of Great Men, which Carrie Bradshaw reads while in bed with Mr. Big.The closest text in the real world apparently is Love Letters of Great Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day, first released in the 1920s and reissued last year by Kessinger Publishing, which specializes in bringing back old works.Rarely a day went by at the bookstore without a strange request: books long out of print or requests for misremembered titles were common. I can imagine beleaguered booksellers across the country taking pains to untangle the confusion wrought by Carrie Bradshaw et al. Meanwhile, Sex and the City fans who have purchased Love Letters of Great Men and Women - the book has achieved an astonishing #123 sales rank at Amazon - are becoming acquainted with the likes of Victor Hugo, Goethe, and Alexander Pope, according to the bits of the book and table of contents available at Google Books. Sometimes it is a strange world we live in.(Via my mom, who made a good point when she directed me to this story: "sounds like an opportunity for a fast writer.")
Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post book critic, has named his best books of the year and - you're not going to believe this (I can hardly believe it as I'm typing this) - he singles out John Grisham (The Broker) and Michael Connelly (The Closers and The Lincoln Lawyer) for praise. Those three books mentioned above are officially on his "best books" list. Connelly I can understand, but Grisham? That's a huge surprise. I think it's great. For a critic of Yardley's stature, giving high praise to Grisham takes serious balls. Don't believe me? See for yourself.Update: Grisham and Connelly make the Washington Post's Critic's Choices but not the Editor's Choices.