Tonight at Housing Works Bookstore & Cafe, I’ll be competing in the sixth NYC Literary Death Match, sponsored by Opium Magazine. I’ll be reading a ten-minute story representing Canteen, three readers will do the same on behalf of three other publications, and then an illustrious panel of judges – including The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman – will evaluate us, “American Idol” style. Intrigued? Me, too. The $10 cover includes a free copy of Opium’s latest issue. Hope to see you there.
As we adjust to new economic realities, Michael Lewis is emerging as the financial meltdown's most important voice. His Portfolio piece "The End" told us how we got here but it also illuminated his own failure, in the 1980s, to get the point across with his book Liar's Poker. Meant to be a cautionary tale, it became instead an inspiration.But Lewis appears unwilling to let "The End" be his final, confessional comment on the matter. This weekend, as a new year and new administration are gearing up, Lewis has delivered another far more aggressive piece, this time in the New York Times (Part 1, Part 2). In it, he calls out, more strenuously than before, the fraud, incompetence, and willful ignorance behind the financial crisis and makes it clear that this fall's efforts to resolve it were flawed at best. He also makes several direct, clear-eyed proposals to set things back on the right course. One hopes Obama is watching. One also notices that Lewis, in these pieces, is no longer acting as a journalist or even a columnist. He has thrust himself into the center of this issue, as if looking to finish what he tried to accomplish more than 20 years ago.But Lewis has grown up too. Liar's Poker didn't wake up the world to Wall Street's ills because its tone was too glib and too incredulous. We were meant to marvel at the goings on at Solomon Brothers just as the young Lewis had. That tone is gone now, and Lewis has returned to the task with a fierce seriousness. Whether or not you agree with everything that Lewis is writing in these pieces, his tone, backed up by his more than 30 years of writing about Wall Street, will give even the most optimistic observers pause.Interestingly, Lewis' co-author for the two New York Times pieces is David Einhorn, a hedge fund manager who doesn't exactly have a pristine reputation. Einhorn heads up Greenlight Capital, which racked up average annualized returns of 25.5% from May 1996 through mid-2008, according to New York Times, though his funds, like many on Wall Street, have struggled since. He's also a serious poker player. In 2006, he placed 18th in the World Series of Poker's main event, winning more than $650 thousand that he donated to charity.Einhorn made headlines this year for his very vocal bearish stance on now defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers. Einhorn eventually went public with discrepancies that he and his analysts had found in Lehman's numbers. Believed to be short (i.e. placing bets that the stock would go down) Lehman and other financial names, Einhorn was excoriated in a war of words on Wall Street as regulators targeted short selling among financial stocks. Lewis and Einhorn make it clear where they stand on that issue, calling short sellers, "the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse."After much confusion as the crisis played out in 2008, it may be that we are seeing whistle-blowers like Lewis and Einhorn emerge from the mess to take control of the discussion. In time we will see if they have the ear anyone in power.
When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1950s and '60s, I had a buddy named Tim Johnstone who introduced me to the joys of drawing and, more broadly, to the pleasures of letting my imagination off the leash. The Johnstones were an odd family. For one thing, they owned a foreign sports car, a curvaceous XK-120 Jaguar from Great Britain, which was regarded as an act of unpatriotic heresy in the Big Three church of Detroit. Not content to have a prosaic pet, Tim mailed away for a baby ferret, which he proceeded to toilet-train. Tim's father was an engineer who traveled the world supervising the construction of factories he had designed. Whenever his enormous blueprints had served their purpose, Mr. Johnstone gave them to Tim, who spread them on the rec room floor, blank side up, and invited me to help him fill them with elaborate panoramas that sometimes took us weeks to complete. We always settled on a theme -- the Wild West, the Civil War, the deep sea, the Middle Ages, dinosaurs, outer space (this was those jittery years after Sputnik) -- and then we spent hundreds of hours sprawled on our stomachs, pencils moving non-stop, our imaginations carrying us backward or forward in time, deep beneath the sea or out into the cosmos. t was bliss. The itch to draw, born on the Johnstones' rec room floor half a century ago, has never left me. One reason I was barely an above-average student was that I spent most of my time in school drawing pictures of my teachers and classmates instead of taking notes. Over time my focus narrowed to drawing one thing: the human head, in all its infinite variety. As I pursued my life-long dream of becoming a writer, the focus narrowed further. I started drawing the heads of writers. Then the focus narrowed yet again. Since I'm convinced that people tend to be more interesting once they're dead, obituaries have always been my favorite part of the newspaper. So whenever a noteworthy writer died, I started drawing the picture that accompanied the obit, eventually adding drawings of noteworthy long-dead writers. Here, then, is a gallery of a few of those literary giants, along with brief explanations of what was going through my head as my pen (or, in a few cases, my pencil) was fashioning their heads. Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) -- Operating under the assumption that any writer who influenced Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck has got to be worth reading, I dove into Sherwood Anderson's most famous book, Winesburg, Ohio, some thirty years ago. It bored me silly, and I came away scratching my head over what the fuss was all about. I tried again a few years ago and found the book even more boring on a second reading. So when I set out to draw Anderson, I wanted to capture a sharpie who has just pulled a fast one and is laughing at us dupes out the side of his mouth. Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) -- Here are three simple sentences from Flannery O'Connor's essay, "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," that changed my life: "The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make it out of a lot. The writer's business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it." These words taught me the invaluable lesson that my youthful hunger for experience was beside the point if I wanted to become a writer. I was already a fan of Flannery's fiction, but her non-fiction made me realize she saw things the existence of which I had not even begun to imagine. So I wanted her eyes to look like they could see straight through anyone who pauses to look at this drawing. Robert Lowell (1917-1977) -- A brilliant poet, Robert Lowell was also a tortured man who tortured others, especially the ones he loved. When 852 pages worth of his letters were published in 2005, I drew his head from a photograph that accompanied the review in The New York Times. I tried to convey that this was a man whose spirit was being pushed earthward by a pulverizing weight, a man who was no stranger to the dark precincts of madness. Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)-- The only way Philip K. Dick could have written so many books -- and so many fine weird ones -- was with the help of chemistry. I imagine him slamming a typewriter all through the California night, jacked to the gills on speed, weed, booze, caffeine, maybe a hit of acid to take the edge off. Out poured a river of words that often had a manic, paranoid, bi-polar flavor. Or maybe the word I'm looking for is gnostic. Dick was a visionary chronicler of life's moral chiaroscuro, its black evils and moments of shining virtue, which made him an ideal subject for a black-and-white ink drawing that features a blinding source of light and its inevitable counterpart, dark, dark shadows. Irving "Swifty" Lazar (1907-1993) -- Though not a writer, Swifty Lazar was the agent of Hemingway, Faulkner, Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov and Tennessee Williams, along with half of the Hollywood galaxy. I've always thought of him as the colossus of the 15 percent crowd, gazing down at us mere mortals through ashtray glasses that magnified his big barracuda eyes. (He also had sharp little barracuda teeth.) Cross this man at your peril. William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) -- As radical -- and funny-- as his writing could be, I'm never able to think of William S. Burroughs without remembering that he shot his common-law wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell in 1951. Burroughs admitted that the (accidental?) killing haunted him for the remaining 46 years of his long and prolific life, and as a result I've always imagined him as a man split in two by the trauma, then put back together all wrong. Naomi Schor (1943-2001) -- Those lips! That hair! What's not to love about the literary critic Naomi Schor? But it was the contents of her obituary that clinched it for me: "Dr. Schor once said she had love affairs with intellectual 'ism's,' including fetishism, realism, idealism, universalism and feminism, her favorite." It gets better. She also "explored the notion of male lesbianism, suggesting ways that Flaubert and other male authors seemed to speak from a lesbian perspective." Wow -- Flaubert was a male lesbian! This revelation convinced me I needed to read more literary criticism, but fortunately I came to my senses and drew this picture instead. Shelby Foote (1916-2005) -- Shelby Foote's magisterial three-volume narrative history of the Civil War has been called America's Iliad, and I've got to believe that devoting your life to such a project exacts a price. I think of Foote more as a monument than a mere man, so when I drew him I tried to make him look like he was carved out of stone. And I wanted him to be doing what he did for so many years while composing his masterpiece -- staring into the blackest, bloodiest abyss this nation has, so far, managed to conjure. Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
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The other day I threw myself across the bed and began lamenting my writing career (or lack thereof). This is one of my hobbies--if not my favorite one, then at least the one at which I most excel. My husband (and fellow Millions contributor), Patrick, said, "Oh be quiet. You just want a two-book deal and Marion Ettlinger to take your author photo." The nerve! I might have thrown a pillow at his face, and went on with my self-loathing. You see, Patrick and I love to make fun of Ms. Ettlinger. She is probably the most famous photographer of authors, (she even has a book of them), and her images of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Joyce Carol Oates are burned in the cultural retina. Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we'd only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned. Perhaps it's that last quality--old fashioned--that rubs me the wrong way. Looking at these photos, I get the sense that the writers (even the young ones) are long gone, lost to an era when people gazed longingly out of train windows, mailed handwritten letters, or actually read books. I can't imagine any of these writers alive, moving their mouths, checking their email, eating dinner. Maybe that's the point: we want our authors to be Authors, unreachable and removed from the world of the reader. But as we head towards 2010, that's more and more implausible. Newsflash: writers live in the world. There are a few of Ettlinger's photos I like. The full-body shots are better than the close-ups. Take the one, for instance, of David Foster Wallace; his plaid jacket, his downward gaze, and the sky above, create a lovely, even haunting, composition. Or the one, of James Ellroy: he's gone whole hog with the photo's anachronistic qualities, and it's fun. Other full body shots, however, are a disaster. Hey, Melissa Bank, did you learn that pose in yoga? If I were to title this picture, I'd call it, "The Failed Seduction." We've all been there, Ladies, haven't we? Some of the close-ups, particularly of the women, are just weird. I hate when authors cup their own head with their hands. What, will it fall off? Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful. Most of the time, though, they look like they're starring in a pain killer ad. Ann Patchett and Amy Hempel's pictures are the worst examples of this, although, to be fair, this is an epidemic in many author photos, not just ones by Ettlinger. Browsing through these pictures got me thinking about other author photos. Many bad examples abound. There's the "I love my dog!" variety, a la Dean Koontz and J.A. Jance--somehow Ellroy doesn't fall into this category, perhaps because the dog in his photo looks hired, just another old-timey prop. There's also the Trench Coat Club, which is usually reserved for mystery writers, but we see it here, with Adam Haslett. And there's the "I'm just a harmless debut author" Club, wherein the writer strikes a more casual pose, and smiles like a well-intentioned, but potentially useless, babysitter. Aimee Phan is a good example of this, but she is just one of many. Lastly, there's the "My spouse took this picture the night before it was due" Club. I won't even bother with an example--just imagine your least-flattering Facebook picture, and you'll understand. Let me be clear: I am not damning these writers, or their work--far from it. It's simply the photos I protest. But getting one's picture taken for a book jacket must be a daunting task. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the reading public? You want to look serious, but not too serious! You want to look attractive, but not too attractive! You want to look young, but not...you catch my drift. It can't be easy. I remember an author-friend telling me he wanted to forgo the photo altogether. I said he couldn't, or else people would assume he was ghastly. And that's true. Only Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger can pull off real anonymity. I suppose that if Marion Ettlinger ever calls me, I'll do my hair, slap on some eyeshadow, and ready for my close-up. Perhaps Patrick is correct: it is my most embarrassing fantasy.
Today I heard from a reliable source some very interesting info about Eric Schlosser. Yes, the same Schlosser who I derided two days ago for phoning in the follow up to his huge best seller Fast Food Nation. First of all, it turns out that Schlosser is currently hard at work on another Fast Food Nation style expose. This time he's tearing the lid off of America's prisons. It seems like there is wealth of material here, and there must be plenty of improprieties and outrages that the American public needs to know about. I don't forsee such a book being quite as successful as Fast Food Nation. Everyone has eaten more than their share of fast food, but not everyone has spent a lot of time in prison. Still, I'm sure it will prove to be a very good read. There is another tidbit of info on Schlosser, as well. Apparently he and the director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) have collaborated on a treatment for a film version of Fast Food Nation I suppose that the book does contain a number of compelling characters, and each of these characters has an interesting enough, if not completely fleshed out, story. But, it would definitely take a director as imaginative as Linklater to really pull it off.More MeloyMaile Meloy's new book, Liars and Saints came out today. She has been widely lauded for her short stories, so it will be interesting to see how well her first novel is recieved.
I'm not really one for New Year's resolutions, but I wanted to echo and add to something I wrote about last year around this time. I've always been an avid reader. As long as I can remember, I've spent a portion of my day reading, but it was keeping this blog that really helped me grow as a reader. I've valued the discussion, the community and having a platform to share my thoughts. I think, though, the most valuable part of this experience for me has been using the blog as a reading journal. Keeping track of what I read and writing a few sentences about most of those books has changed the way I read. Before, I never kept track of what I read, but now I feel like I'm building a library of knowledge to mull over and share. Books live on in my memory a lot longer than they used to.So, if you happen to be in the market for a resolution this New Year's, feel free to borrow this one. It's simple: Keep track of every book you read this year. Write down the title and author, and, if you feel like it might be a worthwhile exercise for you, jot down a few thoughts about each book. It will enrich your reading experience.
The CS Monitor gives us some tidy capsule reviews of the finalists for the National Book Award in the fiction category. These should get us all up to speed. And also check out Dan Wickett's interview with the book bloggers, and not just because I'm one of the interviewees. There's some good stuff in there. Have a good weekend.