This must be some sign of the times: our friends at The New Yorker are currently offering the DVD-ROM set of “every page of every issue” at the fire sale price of $19.99 (and Amazon has it for as cheap as $16.72 as of this writing, though the sets for sale there may only be through 2005). It would seem that, during the time-intensive process of digitizing the New Yorker archive, technology outran itself. Shortly after the release of the boxed set, as we pointed out last year, “Every page of every issue” became available to subscribers at newyorker.com. That is to say, the DVD-ROM version is already obsolete. Still, there’s something amazing – even scandalous – about having the collected labor of White, Addams, Trow, Frazier et al. sitting in a svelte case on your desk. And heaven knows Condé Nast needs the revenue: The New Yorker was apparently its biggest ad-page loser last year, and we took note of a decidedly slimmer Winter Fiction Issue in September.
Just out is The Bones, the debut novel of playwright and screenwriter Seth Greenland. The title of the novel refers to washed-up shock comic Frank Bones who tries to resurrect his career by calling on a now-successful sitcom writer acquaintance of his from years ago. The reviews are starting to come in on this one, and the sound pretty good. The Bones is described as “savagely funny” in the San Francisco Chronicle, which goes on to say that “Greenland elegantly avoids the usual Hollywood novel trap — he doesn’t dumb down or patronize his characters, and he provides them with pitch-perfect dialogue, the clipped, faux-avuncular patois of the tribe.” Greenland also merits a profile by David Ulin in the LA Times. And to top it off Greenland has a guest column up at TEV today. Check it out.Amy Hempel has a new collection of short stories out called The Dog of the Marriage, which was well-reviewed in the LA Times. To whit: “Short on dramatic incident, the stories risk running out of steam. Mostly they don’t, propelled by Hempel’s wit, language and love of fur. Moving through the collection, the reader grows increasingly intimate with Hempel’s sensibility. The women she speaks through feel mortality penetrating aliveness at all times, but rather than being shocked, they find that inevitable and funny.” “Beach Town” one of the shorter stories in the collection can be found here.The number one Booksense pick for April is Joshilyn Jackson’s debut novel, Gods in Alabama. Jackson has a truly endearing blog called Faster Than Kudzu in which she publicly works through her first-time-author anxiety and excitement. (aside: I have to say that I love the recent trend of authors doing these sorts of blogs. It really does make me more likely to want to read their books.) Gods in Alabama is the story of Arlene Fleet, who has fled Possett, Alabama, and made a deal with God to stay on the straight and narrow so long as He makes sure “the body is never found.” As I look around the Web, the buzz on this book is nearly deafening, and there seem to be expectations of this one being a big seller.A.L. Kennedy’s fifth novel, Paradise is getting some unabashedly good reviews. Publishers Weekly says “jaw-droppingly good,” and I love this take on Kennedy from Richard Wallace in the Seattle Times: “In my household, when you review a book by A.L. Kennedy, you better keep a close watch on the merchandise. For when the time comes for double-checking the quotes you’ve chosen to include in your review, you can’t find the book. That’s how readable she is.” The review goes on to describe the book as “a stunning depiction of alcoholism, as funny as it is sad, as ironic as it is romantic.” If you must make up your own mind, an ample excerpt is available here.
For some reason, the CBC never made their interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski available online after it originally aired. Luckily, Millions contributor Andrew Saikali listened to the show live and sent me a quick recap:- It was a half-hour interview which actually was recorded by the CBC at his home in Warsaw.- he’s a very thoughtful, eloquent man- Much of it was devoted to growing up during the war, in Pinsk in the Poland/Belarus border area – I gather it sort of pingponged back and forth between the two jurisdictions throughout history- childhood poor – the war hit on what would have been his first day of school. – grew up with War being the norm. Peace, when it came, felt transitional, tentative- Pinsk was multi-ethnic then – Poles, Belarussians, Jews, Ukrainians maybe, and probably others that I forget. – Pre-war it was functional, the various ethnicities mixed and worked together in order to get by.- his parents were both teachers- hunger during the war caused him and others to ask the Russian soldiers for food, but all they could get were cigarettes.- often went barefoot (as children, during the war) – because shoes were in short supply – still sees people in their fancy shoes and flashes back to when he thought of them as “luxuries”- as a young reporter he was sent to both China and India (on two separate occasions) – and in each case the following happened: he was so overwhelmed by the culture, and got so immersed, that he felt as if he could spend the rest of his life reporting from there and writing about there – and so he asked to be transferred from there quickly – because as absorbed and fascinated as he was by it, he knew that first and foremost he was a man of the world and wanted so see and experience everything, everywhere – which, I think, shows remarkable self-awareness, especially in a young reporter, to know that one’s worldly-tendencies were in danger of being trumped by a specific-regional fascination – to know enough about your own strengths and weaknesses to leave, and follow your “true path” before getting (permanently) drawn in to something specific (no matter how great it may be)
Though I’m a little late in getting around to it, I wanted note Scott’s recent essay on literary nonfiction at Conversational Reading. Inspired by the recent discussion of Ryszard Kapuscinski following his death, Scott highlights three notable practitioners of the form: Lawrence Weschler, Jonathan Raban, and Geoff Dyer. I am a huge fan of literary non-fiction (or long-form journalism), so I enjoyed Scott’s in depth look at these three writers.Those who are interested in this form and who are looking to fill out a “to be read” pile with some literary non-fiction should take a look at couple of fairly comprehensive booklists that have been posted here in the past. The first is a list inspired by Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism a collection of interviews of some of the top names in literary non-fiction. Ours is a companion reading list of the books by the writers featured in Boynton’s book. We also have a reading list from a class at NYU taught by Lawrence Weschler. Millions contributor Garth took the class a couple of years ago and jotted down titles and names that the class delved into or just touched upon. It’s a terrific resource.
Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)
Pitting a novel entitled Am I a Redundant Human Being? against Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love may initially seem like an imbalanced match. Eat, Pray, Love is more than double its length, a best-seller turned blockbuster movie, an inspirational book devoted to the pursuit of sensuality, spirituality, personal independence, and love. Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being? is a conspicuous underdog, a slight volume in translation written by the Austrian actress turned novelist Mela Hartwig who befriended Virginia Woolf in Woolf’s final years. Gilbert’s book is a travel memoir that recounts a year-long pilgrimage in search of personal enlightenment that Gilbert the writer planned to chronicle well before booking her flights, while Hartwig’s is a bildungsroman, centered on the ineffectual Aloisia Schmidt who aspires to significance as she bemoans the dullness of the existence she was born into. The titles alone reveal the divergent natures of the two books, and demand that you answer, as a reader, are you drawn to pleasance or neurotic self-doubt?
The Library of Congress classifies Am I a Redundant Human Being? primarily as a book about “self-realization in women,” which is the topic of Gilbert’s book, too: the process of growing into the person you dream of becoming (or, in Schmidt’s case, of failing to do so). Gilbert’s path to self-actualization is fairly clear-cut: first stop Italy, where she learns Italian and binges on pasta and pizza merely because she wants to, next an ashram in India in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and a final stop in Bali for balance, where inevitably, it’s no secret, she falls in love. As Gilbert states towards the end of her journey: “I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself.” However inspiring or cloying or annoying you find Gilbert’s self-satisfaction by book’s end, this becoming one’s ideal is exactly what Hartwig’s Aloisia Schmidt yearns to do, so desperately in fact that she’s willing to destroy her life in this pursuit.
Aloisia Schmidt is wonderfully insufferable. She recounts the sad events of her insignificant life in tireless detail. She is neither beautiful nor ugly, intelligent nor stupid, good student nor bad: the sum of her life is one large zero, or at least that’s what she would lead you, dear reader, to believe. However, Schmidt has penetrating insight into her own inadequacies and shortcomings, as well as the strength to willfully unravel her unexceptional life, as her first boyfriend, Emil K., accuses: “it’s hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself… You’re acting as if you’ve been singled out. As if it’s your destiny to feel this way.” She rejects suitors with good intentions in favor of caustic affairs, erodes the faith of others, especially lovers, with her own self-doubt, and alienates anyone who believes in her – true to Groucho Marx’s adage, she wouldn’t care to join any club that would have her as a member.
Gilbert, on the other hand, identifies as being “social and bubbly and smiling all the time,” and makes friends wherever she goes. Her tone conveys personal warmth. She speaks plainly, offering intimate details and asides as if confiding in a good friend. In India, Gilbert admits her lifelong desire “to be the quiet girl,” but then counters this quickly with: “Probably precisely because I’m not.” She is the well-intentioned socialite, and never, however much she halfheartedly wishes, the despondent wallflower. However, Gilbert’s glibness and sometimes pussyfooting make one wonder about her depth. We need not forget that Gilbert is on a professional mission. Following her divorce and failed love affair, the self-proclaimed “administrator of my own rescue” had the wherewithal to pitch her book, pack her bags, and journey solo around the world for a year, under the pretense of finding herself.
Gilbert is closer in nature to one of Schmidt’s prep school classmates who are better dressed, better prepared, just more advantaged in general, something that Schmidt later identifies as “two-faced arrogance that comes with money and social position – things I completely lacked, and still lack.” When she has moved on to office life, Schmidt becomes “conscious of my pathetic tendency to be impressed by anyone the least bit self-assured.” Lacking confidence distinguishes Schmidt from the women she both envies and admires, and this distinguishes her from Gilbert, too.
Schmidt later befriends an actress (uncannily) named Elizabeth, who she wants so much to be that she imitates her, and this emulation becomes Schmidt’s one inspired role. After Elizabeth’s suicide, Schmidt attempts to inhabit her character, wanting “to make her fate my own, to experience it as a dream and desire.” Aloisia Schmidt is like Eve Harrington, the cunning understudy in All About Eve, though it’s not Elizabeth’s fame and prominence she covets, it’s her entire existence. Where Gilbert grows into her ideal self in the end, Schmidt’s ideal self is someone else entirely.
Of the two books, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is the one Aloisia Schmidt would prefer to read. Of her reading habits, Schmidt says, “I read in order to forget myself, to slip from one life into another, to identify myself with my newest heroine… When I read, I lived on credit; I literally borrowed from the author what I myself so painfully lacked – namely, fantasies. I dreamed, you could say, at the author’s expense. But wasn’t it his job to dream for me?” Gilbert speaks to fantasies, specifically the twenty-first century American variety of jet-set enlightenment by way of paradisiacal settings, and reassurance that broken hearts mend to love again. The fantasy is so persuasive that her book has singlehandedly augmented spiritual tourism in Bali.
Eat, Pray, Love owes no small part of its success to the fantasy it sells to multitudes of readers who, à la Aloisia Schmidt, question the significance of their lives, who find, if not hope, then escape from their thwarted aspirations and dreams. Schmidt would prefer to lead Elizabeth Gilbert’s life, and honestly, if I had to chose between their lives, I would, too. But as a reader, I find that Schmidt’s hand in her own downfall and her relentless refusal to settle for redundancy make her a more interesting if also more complicated character.
Bonus Link: Zen and the Art of Image Maintenance