Yesterday, on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, Salman Rushdie discussed the choices he made as guest-editor of Best American Short Stories 2008. A comparison with our recent post on the year’s New Yorker fiction reveals that several of his picks date to 2007. Still, Rushdie’s taste is excellent, and it’s always fun to hear him talk off-the-cuff.
Spotted on the Red and Purple lines of the El today and organized by Amazon ranking:Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt (4)Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (7)Wicked by Gregory Maguire (140)The Source by James Michener (9,873)Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt (15,939)Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia (21,324)Fabulous Small Jews by Joseph Epstein (37,316)Jungle of Cities and Other Plays by Bertolt Brecht (505,028)You’ve got the bestsellers Blink, Freakonomics and, to a lesser extent, Wicked on one end, and you’ve got Brecht on the other… probably a grad student, but I like to see those literary, engaging books (the Arendt, Garcia, Epstein) that occupy the broad middle reaches along the span between big media-backed bestsellers and academic obscurity (with no disrespect meant toward Brecht, he just happened to be there). As for the Michener, well, you never know what you’re going to see people reading on the El.
Anyone who read Jon Lee Anderson’s accounts in the New Yorker of the weeks leading up to and during the American invasion of Baghdad probably shares my interest in Anderson’s new book, The Fall Of Baghdad, which chronicles those events. I was recently told by someone from Penguin that this book is all new material, so if you liked the articles, this should be a real treat.In another news, a comment of mine over at Bookdwarf is inspiring some discussion about bloggers trying to make money off of blogs. I encourage you to weigh in if you have thoughts on this.
A literary storm has been brewing here in Canada in recent weeks over the publication of the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. (Maybe “literary storm” is pushing it – but there are at least three people weighing in on it). Here’s what seems to have happened: Novelist Jane Urquhart, who was asked to edit the anthology, has put more than a few noses out of joint not just over who was or wasn’t included, but over what she feels constitutes a “short story.”Now, any anthology is inevitably going to leave something out, displease some and enrage a few others, but Urquhart, who by her own admission isn’t an expert of short fiction, chose to include excerpts from memoirs, and, apparently, at least one chapter from a novel, all for the sake of pushing the boundaries of the definition of a “short story”. Which to my mind would be like taking Act 2 of a three-act play and putting it in the same context as distinctly one-act plays. The length isn’t the entire issue, in my mind. A sense of completeness is. A chapter or an excerpt from a novel may indeed have stand-alone properties, but by its very nature as part of a bigger thing, it is incomplete on its own. A finely-crafted short story, however, is complete. And a piece of a memoir? Despite recent memoir/fiction crossovers, a memoir is still a different animal than short story.Why Penguin, in its attempt to publish a definitive collection, didn’t place this editorial task in the hands of a short fiction connoisseur, or, better yet, a panel of connoisseurs who could at least bounce ideas off of each other, is a mystery to me. But, if nothing else, this little tempest has gotten Canadian readers engaged (a few of them fuming, and another leaping to Urquhart’s defense). And with the fairly high-profile press given to the backlash, the omitted authors are getting at least some attention. Shame it had to be on the heels of exclusion from a major anthology.
Not to make excuses, but when you’re helping plan a wedding, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for things like blogging. I’ll keep posting as often as I can, though. So without further ado, here are three interesting news items that caught my eye today. The first, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the suggestion that Harry Potter may not survive the series of books that bears his name. (LINK). At csmonitor.com, Amazon’s list of bestselling books among US Military Personnel (LINK). And, from the Guardian UK, John Updike tells the Brits that they don’t have to be jealous of American novelists any more because those Brits are pretty good after all (LINK).
Dubliners and James Joyce fans are celebrating Bloomsday in the town that Leopold Bloom wandered through on that epic day exactly 100 years ago. Revelers, among other things, ate “Gorgonzola sandwiches and sipped Burgundy wine in the sunshine in honour of the lunch enjoyed by the novel’s hero Leopold Bloom, midway through his momentous day.” The novel of course is Ulysses. and you can read more about this remarkable literary festival here.Ray Charles died last weekend. He made such soulful and happy music. Driving from New York to DC, we encountered several radio stations playing his music, some of them continuously, side after side of classic records. Now the tributes are over, and the radio stations are back to their regular rotations, so I was annoyed when I realized that I left my fantastic 5 cd set in storage in LA.Spencer Reece and his book The Clerk’s Tale got a sizeable write up on the front page of the Washington Post Sunday Style section. Not bad for poetry.BookspottingHow powerful is Oprah? I spotted Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina mixed in with a couple of romance novels in the rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike. Also spotted: On the Washington DC subway: The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom; and in the back seat of my little brother’s car: Our Posthuman Future by Francis FukuyamaFinally, check out the trilogy of Alice Munroe stories in the New Yorker fiction issue. It’s worth a look if only to read the stories that the New Yorker deemed worthy of such prominent placement. You’ll have to pick up the magazine to read all three. Only the first story is online.
In the comments to the last post, Erin left a note about “depraved” Amazon reviews for Family Circus books. With a little Googling, I was quick to discover that this was something of an internet legend, dating back to the late-nineties when pranksters started leaving all sorts of silly reviews for Bil Keane’s anthologies. There’s even mention of them in Wikipedia (as of this writing.) Sadly it appears that most of the reviews have been expunged, but I was able to find a few that were subtly wierd enough to elude the censors:For What Does This Say?: Yeats once wrote, “None other knows what pleasures man/At table or in bed.” Bil Keane, however, seems to have found in his latest ‘Family Circus’ opus a treasure-chest of pleasures for each and all of us. There are some who chafe at the seeming repetitive themes within Keane’s major works; I would respectfully submit that all great stories are about life and death, love and loss, fear and triumph. If not Keane, then so go Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Callimachus, too, for good measure. It is not originality that spawns thought and wonderment; it is the vessels of those themes (Billy, Grandma, Barfy, PJ) that inspire and enlighten. Keane, as carrier of these vessels, reminds us of a truth so eloquently immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Some books leave us free and some books make us free.” In ‘What Does This Say’, it is clear that the tome achieves the latter, with gusto and aplomb.For Smile! With The Family Circus: Though universally popular with critics, Smile! has never been commercially successful. It’s been in and out of print — mostly out — so this hardcover 30th anniversary edition is an especially welcome event to discerning FC readers. Along with his day job with United Features Syndicate to produce the more commercial Family Circus strips we know and love, Keane labored on Smile! on evenings and weekends from 1966 through 1972 in a cathartic period when he confided to friends that he had to complete Smile! before the effort killed him. Smile! is Keane’s FC adaptation of the legendary unreleased Beach Boys album of the same name. Keane met Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks at the Fillmore West in late 1966 and quickly the three became inseperable. The next six months were a happy, artistically productive time for the three, and it’s during this time that most of the widely-bootlegged Smile! demos were recorded. Unfortunately Parks and Wilson had a falling out in February 1967, after each discovered that Keane had been sleeping with the other, and the lovers’ betrayal ended the Beach Boys’ Smile! sessions. Wilson spent the next year in solitude, finally giving up on Smile! without giving a public explanation. Keane, having been spurned by both Wilson and Parks, returned to the comfort of the Family Circus to lick his wounds. Some critics have derided Keane as “the Beach Boys’ Yoko Ono” for his unfortunate role in the Smile! sessions. Nevertheless, Keane’s book remains the only fully-realized version of the work that the three men envisioned together in late 1966. Music historians trying to guess how the bootlegged Smile! demos would have been pieced together need look no further than this book.And for Kittycat’s Motor is Running: I weep for Jeffy. The language, however base and stomach cramp inducing, does the job of transporting the reader to the suburban hell that only Keane can imagine. The amount of ennui overflowing from this wasp-ish family of innocents staggers. If you cannot see their pain, you are blind. I am Jocasta, my eyes bleed for the family circus.