Spotted today under the arm of a student at a New York college: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I’ve written here about the speed of this author’s induction into the pantheon. Nonetheless, it was remarkable – to me, anyway – to learn from this student that TSD had popped up on an English class syllabus. For the record, the student reports that he likes the book so far. (Me, too, kid. Raciest required reading this side of The Kama Sutra. Comparative religion rules!) His other classmates? Not so much. I guess in our world – unlike Bolaño’s – youth is sometimes wasted on the young.
Remember Karen Russell whose story “Haunting Olivia” appeared in the 2005 Debut Fiction issue of the New Yorker when she was 23? Her first collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is now out. NPR has another of her stories on its Web site, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.”
The hot memoir on shelves right now is that of former crack dealer and current big-time chef Jeff Henderson, whose book Cooked tells the story of how learning to cook in a prison kitchen changed his life. I heard Henderson on the radio a week or two ago and was definitely intrigued by his story which provides an inside look at dealing drugs, prison, and the kitchens of top-tier restaurants. A recent post at the Freakonomics blog shares a couple of brief excerpts which only made me more curious about the book. There’s also a pdf excerpt at Henderson’s Web site, and an interview with Henderson at Gothamist.
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader’s comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24’s President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running – Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes – and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life – and particularly public opinion and national politics – a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe’s novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe’s lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel’s sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative – by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic – is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe’s work – not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass’ work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass’ narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe’s, but it is Stowe’s – the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama – that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass’ best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine – in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country’s readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain’s age and history of skin cancer). It’s all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.
Louis Menand is one of my favorite regular contributors to the New Yorker, so I was excited to discover a Web site devoted to “the foremost modern scholar of American studies.” The Essential Menand includes commentary by three contributors as well as a handy collection of links to dozens of Menand essays in the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Slate.
I’m apparently not the first person to wonder, in connection with last week’s PEN World Voices Festival, What makes a good panel discussion? It may seem a parochial concern – the kind of thing best hashed out at… well, a panel discussion – but it has real-world implications. Discussions of books by people who write them can be exhilarating to witness, but there’s also the potential for gnaw-your-own-leg-off tedium.Wednesday’s celebration of 40 years of Anagrama, the illustrious, Barcelona-based independent publisher, highlighted some of these possibilities and pitfalls. The panelists themselves, including Anagrama founder Jorge Herralde and four of his authors, had personality to spare. According to Herralde, these authors occupied the “in-between spaces” of culture and language – always a good thing for conversation. And yet translation problems kept the evening from sustaining any real momentum.Francisco Goldman led off, attempting to capture the role of Anagrama in Hispanophone literary life. He likened it to “Knopf, FSG, Grove, and New Directions” rolled into one. With a novelist’s eye for detail, he described the dustjackets of Anagrama’s various series – “bright, marigold yellow” for translations; “mint green” for Spanish-language originals; gray for “grown-up books” like philosophy. Anagrama, he pointed out, was founded at the tail end of the Franco era, when publishing serious literature was itself an act of editorial daring. And yet even in a more genteel 21st Century Spain, the house keeps renewing itself, most recently by bringing to international attention the extraordinary “flowering of Latin American fiction” in the last decade.Goldman promised to tell us later about Anagrama’s great parties and “How I got to get drunk with the heavy metal rock band Slayer.” But, as the translator fumbled with Herralde’s introduction of the next speaker, A.M. Homes, it seemed increasingly unlikely we would have time to hear from Goldman about Slayer, or about anything else. By the time the translator (an American, it seemed) described Homes’s work as “misericordian” and (I swear) “vorocious,” half of the audience was laughing in embarrassment, and the other half, including the elderly woman next to me, were yelling out the correct translations. Given the floor (finally) Homes spoke movingly about what it meant to a “horribly American” writer like herself to be published abroad. “It means my work has relevance,” she said. Being translated was “an honor. . . and a gift.” The panel had righted itself again.Next up was Siri Hustvedt, looking prosperous in a designer cardigan as her husband, Paul Auster watched from the front row. Herralde’s introduction made it clear that Hustvedt is huge in Spain, with something like 20,000 copies of Sorrows of an American in print. For previous books, she shared a Spanish publisher with Don DeLillo, he said. (I figured that out, and I don’t speak Spanish.) The translator’s version? “She shared a car with Don DeLillo.” At this point Hustvedt herself interjected – “No, no, no, no.” Fortunately, after Hustvedt’s fanciful disquisition on neurology and the imagination a new translator had arrived. The first young woman may merely have been pinch-hitting for the second, who I’m guessing got lost or had train problems. And so the two Spanish-speaking novelists on stage were the beneficiaries of fluid translation.The first to speak was Daniel Sada, who, according to Herralde, was on Roberto Bolaño‘s short-list of favorite writers, which fluctuated according to who he was friends with at any given time. The other candidates? Rodrigo Fresán, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Marías, and the man seated to Sada’s right, Enrique Vila-Matas. Sada spoke about the 19th-Century tradition that shaped him, and its two great problems: managing character and managing time. He quoted Zola: “a novel with less than 25 characters is not worth reading.” Sada’s ambition as a young man was to write a 19th-Century novel that would also be a piece of poetry. “I understand now that this is an idiotic idea,” he said. Still, his fiction is apparently difficult to translate because of his careful attention to the rhythms of his sentences. (All of this made me hungry to read his novel, Almost Never, which will be published in English next year by Graywolf.)The final panelist was Vila-Matas, whom I can only describe as looking like an Iberian Christopher Hitchens. Open-collared and looking pleasantly sauced at 7 p.m., he delivered a fluid series of anecdotes and aphorisms, most of them offering a rascally picture of his dealings with Herralde. My favorite had to do with bumping into Herralde in a discotheque while “in a euphoric state” and lying about having completed a novel. In the end, though, Vila-Matas turned earnest. “Without the trust [of Herralde and Anagrama] it’s not clear I would still be a writer.”The best part of any panel discussion is the discussion, but because so much time had been burned up by prepared remarks and language difficulties, there was hardly any time for these panelists to mix it up. (Note to future programmers: the next best thing to a good translation is not a bad translation, but no translation at all.) Still, this remarkable gathering of writers offered an effective introduction to Anagrama’s work, and offered a testament to the power of independent presses and iconoclastic publishers.[Ed.’s note: Vila-Matas does look like an Iberian Hitch, but does not write like one. We apologize for any confusion.]
In John Hodgman’s charming 2005 miscellany The Areas of My Expertise, “Were You Aware Of It?” serves as a recurring title for astonishing “facts.” One of my favorite among these inclusions reveals that:Jack Ruby owed seventeen dachshunds, whom he referred to as “his children.” In an astonishing coincidence, all of his dogs were named either Lincoln, Kennedy, or Oswald, except one, which was named “Li’l Grassy Knoll.” Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy kept seventeen cats. She disliked the animals, but kept a pack of trained felines for the hunting of voles. This was an ancient European pastime akin to fox hunting, but replacing the dogs with cats, the fox with voles and/or shrews (moles and mice are disqualifiers), and the horses with single-speed bicycles. Her passion for the sport, which bordered on addiction, was considered a potential liability by some within the White House, who feared that many in mainstream America, who rarely eat vole, would perceive the sport as an aristocratic European fancy. Still, it was practiced on the sly, and as a result, most of Washington, D.C., is still voleless. Continuing in the great Hodgman-ian tradition of “Were You Aware Of It?”, I submit the astonishing (and, unlike Hodgeman’s, completely true) fact that the illustrious London Review of Books publishes personal ads. (I just began a subscription, so this is news to me.) And they are quite the literary genre: haiku-ishly, Sapphic fragment-ally tantalizing their in brevity, they recall that six word short story of Hemingway’s (“For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Used.”) and seem to offer kernels of novelish potential to those in the market for adventures in literary romance:M, 48, reaching the end of a marriage of convenience, clings to the belief that there still may be one beautiful woman left who values kindness above all else. Few demands other than intimacy in the beginning, in exchange a generous monthly allowance and the opportunity to travel.Sweet-natured F, 38, battling Dorothea Brooke tendencies. Seeks mildly eccentric unattached man with good heart.Don’t tell me about your current literary read, I’ll just sigh at the leaden predictability of it all, start twitching after you say “it stays with you” and grate my teeth like two whirling quern stones when you tell me you don’t want to see the film until you’ve finished the book. Instead why not tell me about America’s got talent and your favorite continental lager? Averring but occasionally surprising prof.Having just retired my ambition is to become the next Ernst Blofeld. I am looking for a lady to enjoy life with while I take over the world from my headquarters in South-East London.Update: Via commenter Imani, a collection of LRB personals was published in 2006: They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books