Pete Dexter has been in the news around here lately, and keeping that ball rolling, I’ve contributed a piece to The Rumpus series “The Last Book I Loved” about Dexter’s collection of columns, Paper Trails. Technically, it’s not the last book I’ve loved (more recently there’s been Waiting for the Barbarians, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Shadow Country, A Mercy, and a few others), so let’s just call it “One of the Last Books I Loved.”
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.
Every few months, a peculiar compulsion comes over me. After dinner, instead of reading a book or lazing on the stoop, I’ll walk upstairs, sit down, and fit small blocks together, again and again and again. When I’m in the grips of this dependence, my wife knows exactly where I’ll be from 7:30 to 8:15 or so: in front of the TV, eyes glazed, drool at my mouth. Tetris fever has struck. Over the years, we’ve amassed a solid collection of Nintendo games, including Tecmo Super Bowl, Mega Man 2, and all three Super Marios. There is Baseball, Baseball Stars, and Bases Loaded 2. But when I’m feeling eight-bit, I almost always go with Tetris; with few exceptions, it stays in the console, safe as a joey. Like Pac-Man or Punch-Out!!, its pacing and graphics are as effective today as they were in the Reagan years, as good as they need to be. When I pop in, say, Tennis or Ice Hockey, I’m depressingly aware of the gap between them and their modern successors—grunting apes to today’s Gattaca humanoids. But Tetris is different. As with chess, efforts to update it have seemed superfluous, faintly sacrilegious. It’s one of the few entertainments that arrived fully formed, little improvement necessary. For me, this is evidenced by the ease and consistency with which it melts my brain. Once things get cooking, twenty or thirty rows in, I find myself on the fourteenth level—or is it fifteenth?—of consciousness. It’s a murky shade of purple there, with a tinge of lunar dust. Drifting through the door from The Twilight Zone intro, I find “Bitches Brew” the national anthem, Jim Woodring the national storyteller. In this place, everything undulates—yet stays, like, perfectly still, man. Outside of recreational drugs and a Ghibli film, few other things bring on such a strange and fluid state. And like ping-pong or fucking, the game demands a deep focus that must be both maintained and ignored; once you realize what you’re doing, you’re done. Floating through Tetris’ cranial hyperspace forces a natural introspection. Often, sort of insanely, I’ll dwell upon what my playing method can tell me about myself. My technique isn’t to plow through rows or shatter a score; I play Tetris for the tetris: the four-row clear that comes with the vertically-nestled “I” block. Self-denial is necessary for the maneuver, as all must be laid aside for the blessed piece’s arrival. Meanwhile, the pile mounts dangerously. When the block finally appears, this mild daring and asceticism are handsomely repaid: there’s a flash of light, a scream of sound, and the pile’s heavy fall. This approach correlates with who I am when the Nintendo is off: I’ve taught myself to stop drinking, but I reward my piousness by getting whacked on special occasions. I withhold myself from others until I’m comfortable, then gleefully let it rip. Most importantly, as a freelancer, my life has become a constant wait for the “I” block. That wait is often unbearable, but when it finally comes—via an editor’s e-mail or telephone call—there’s a flash of light and a scream of sound. I feel great for a time, smug with accomplishment. And then, inevitably, other bricks appear and I must hurry to place them, setting things up for the next big clear. My wife doesn’t live her life this way, and, tellingly, she doesn’t play Tetris in the same way I do. She takes each block at a time, concentrating on the present, never stalling for the tetris. Watching her careful style drives me nuts, but I understand it: she’s a pragmatist, preferring steadiness to risk, no matter how visceral the reward. Unlike me, she doesn’t need constant validation to get by, can cope with a regular job. Her way appeals to me—it’s calmer, less given to peaks and valleys. But I don’t think I’m capable of arranging my blocks any other way. It might seem absurd for an old Nintendo game to bring on such navel-gazing, but, hey, there it is. And that’s why Tetris, unlike others in its genre—Klax or Arkanoid or Dr. Mario—is consistently at or near the top of greatest-game lists. Because while its premise seems dull, its simple complexity allows us to project ourselves fully upon it. In a 2007 interview with Gamespot, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov said, “Emotion comes from [the player,] and [the designer] can’t control that. As soon as I design drama for you, I take away your freedom.” That’s what Tetris brings: interior freedom through steadily-vanishing rows, a vehicle for thoughts that might not otherwise surface. We supply the drama. Pretty good for a game that was made in the age of Excitebike. [Image credit: Aldo Gonzalez]
● ● ●
Twitter had its big moment last week, but unlike so many other technology start-ups in the seeming parade of millionaire-makers over the last two decades (with the obvious exception of Amazon.com), Twitter has developed a special following in the literary community, from high-brow to low. Perhaps that's not surprising. Writers revel in words, and Twitter, nearly alone among hot technology start-ups, is mostly about words, crafting them to meet the medium's peculiar restraints and sending them out into the world to be engaged with or ignored. Twitter is like some atomized version of the writer's process. With Twitter, ideas go out piecemeal, the whole process taking a millionth the amount of time it would if you were to glom all those ideas together into one big whole and turn it into something as unlikely-seeming by comparison as a book. This speed, then, may be deeply satisfying -- even addictive -- as writers bypass so much of the toil of getting a book out of their brains and off to readers (New York's Kathryn Schulz elaborated smartly on this idea last week.) There is no uniform stance on Twitter in the literary community, of course. Some, like Teju Cole and Colson Whitehead, find it vital; many others -- led by a certain one-time Time coverboy from the Midwest, do not. Some writers have more prosaic feelings about Twitter. Novelist Peter Orner wrote, "Some are talented at it; others, less so." Zadie Smith is not on Twitter. Nor are Jeffrey Eugenides (though his vest once was), Michael Chabon (not really, though his writer wife Ayelet Waldman is), George Saunders, or David Mitchell. Jennifer Egan is, but just a little bit. Nonetheless, Twitter appears to be here to stay, for a while anyway. And it will remain a pastime for writers looking for book news, inspiration, distraction, literary puns, and every other thing they might want. But it wasn't always that way. In the not too distant past, the literary lights of Twitter pecked out their first 140 characters and waited to see what Twitter would bring. Curious, I dug back into the Twitter archive to see how these writers took their first steps into Twitter. What follows are the very first tweets of some of Twitter's well-known practitioners from the literary world. Finishing the website entries for my fall novel The Year of the Flood. — Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) July 8, 2009 How does a petty trader come by N30 million worth of cars? Police hope Israel Ubatuegwu, of Ajah, has a good explanation. — Teju Cole (@tejucole) June 7, 2011 @R_Nash proud to be a part of ennui 2.0 — colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) March 15, 2009 Preparing for Book Expo America in the office in Dumbo. The last time we've to schlap boxes ourselves. Next year we pay the Teamsters... — Richard Nash (@R_Nash) May 30, 2007 Last night at the Norman Mailer Award Ceremony in NYC, Oliver Stone said beautifully: "A serious writer is a rebel." — Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 5, 2012 trying to figure out if someone does a decent MP3 workout, which will magically transform my iphone and my body at the same time. — Ayelet Waldman (@ayeletw) January 27, 2009 @JaneGreen I talked to Rufus just this morning...ok, I interviewed him for T+L — Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) April 24, 2009 Slaughtered by Sam A. and Jefffery Y. at post-diner breakfast ping-pong. Licking wounds. — Dwight Garner (@DwightGarner) February 13, 2009 Here's a video of my speech at the NBCC in NYC last week: http://tinyurl.com/dfe8rt — Ron Charles (@RonCharles) March 17, 2009 Testing... — Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) April 24, 2007 reading — Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) December 23, 2007 doesn't want to be an editor. oops, too late. — Emma Straub (@emmastraub) December 3, 2008 I just opened my present from Dave McKean, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. Heavy as a stone and beautiful. "See?" he said. "I do read your blog." — Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) December 26, 2008 @ShitHomemaker - this is my first tweet and it's your fault. — Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) September 15, 2011 Fine, then. I'll twitter. — John Green (@realjohngreen) December 11, 2008 No matter what I do there are always 5 emails in my inbox that I am avoiding. — Doug Coupland (@DougCoupland) April 1, 2009 I've reached the limit on how many Facebook friends I can add. So here is a new page. — Amy Tan (@AmyTan) August 12, 2010 http://www.thewriterscoffeeshop.com/publishinghouse/books/detail/23 — E L James (@E_L_James) April 12, 2011 First Tweet ever, prompted by Jeff Howe's essay in Sunday's NYTBR. Velly interesting. Helloooooo? — Erik Larson (@exlarson) May 22, 2012 Does anyone know who @BretEastonEllis is? — Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) April 10, 2009 @erlson You just got me to join Twitter. — William Gibson (@GreatDismal) April 1, 2009 coveting Susan Lewis' hair. — Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) April 3, 2009 @chuckpalahniuk This is Dennis, webmaster at ChuckPalahniuk.net. Please contact me via my site email address. Thanks! — Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) January 28, 2009 Becoming far more wired than I probably really need to be. — Joe Hill (@joe_hill) January 4, 2009 hi, i'm gary shteyngart, a furry 39-year-old immigrant man trapped in a young dachshund's body. LOVE ME!!!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/RgLBxjYO — Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) December 1, 2011 I'm going to do it right this time. — Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) May 21, 2009 today felt like the unabomber but i wasn't plotting anything or planning anything or trying to bomb anything and i was wearing 4-inch heels — Kate Zambreno (@daughteroffury) June 29, 2012 Wessex Man http://tinyurl.com/yw93xb — New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) March 18, 2007 News: Netherland wins PEN/Faulkner award: It was overlooked for the Booker prize and the prestigious US Nat.. http://bit.ly/AufPL — Guardian Books (@GuardianBooks) February 26, 2009 Podcasting: http://tinyurl.com/6hc9z4 — NY Review of Books (@nybooks) July 2, 2008 Check out our feature on the best audiobooks coming this spring. — Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) January 31, 2009 Mario Bros. meets Macbeth: What do a pixelated plumber and a murderous king have in common? Nintendo DS -- in En.. http://tinyurl.com/5gr5m4 — L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) December 10, 2008 Hello, world! Official Library of Congress Twitter feed here. So nice to see 215 followers before so much as a single tweet! — Library of Congress (@librarycongress) January 27, 2009 Welcome to the new GalleyCat Twitter feed, regularly collecting tweets from Senior Editor Ron Hogan, Editor Jason Boog, and Jeff Rivera. — GalleyCat (@GalleyCat) August 26, 2009 Welcome to @nprbooks! We'll use to to share our book coverage and hopefully talk about some good books, too. / @acarvin — NPR Books (@nprbooks) January 8, 2010 We noticed lots of sites use Twitter for feedback. We created this account as a placeholder, but please visit our Feedback Group anytime! — goodreads (@goodreads) August 19, 2008 56 years after William Styron warned us about chasing the zeitgeist, The Paris Review is now on twitter. From issue 1: http://bit.ly/BCnnE — The Paris Review (@parisreview) September 4, 2009 Culling together work for Electric Literature no.2, planning events for October, spinning splendidly through another day at the office. — Electric Literature (@ElectricLit) August 31, 2009 Rick Moody on running out of luck: http://tinyurl.com/ckno8d — The Rumpus (@The_Rumpus) January 29, 2009 What will be named top book of the decade? http://bit.ly/AMgq8 What's your pick? — The Millions (@The_Millions) September 21, 2009 What's the best part of B.G.'s "Bling Bling" video? Pre-tattoo'd Wayne, zooming red VW Beetles, or the crew's outdoor fine china picnic? — Nick Moran (@nemoran3) February 2, 2011
● ● ●
The Loggernaut Reading Series has a truly exceptional interview up with Daniel Alarcon author of the acclaimed collection, War by Candlelight. He touches on many topics: the Iowa Writers Workshop, Peruvian literature, falling out of love with the New York Yankees. There's also this bit about being on book tour:I like readings. I like meeting people, and generally it works this way: folks that don't like your book or don't like you as a person stay at home. The folks who are likely to enjoy it are the ones who show up. So of course it's very gratifying to have ten or fifteen or however many people buy your book and tell you they think you're very smart, write well, smell good, etc. Still, I can't say that I really enjoy traveling, though these days I seem to do a lot of it. When I started the tour I'd been traveling already for three months in Latin America, didn't really have a place to live in the US, and still had books and clothes scattered in the apartments of various friends, my parents' place in Oakland, my sister's house, and elsewhere. I felt incredibly un-tethered to anything, which is exactly the wrong time to be spending nights in hotels, airports, and shopping malls: the trifecta of sad American non-destinations. They bring out the very bleakest in people who are prone to be depressed from time to time.The best readings were in places I've lived before - New York, Iowa City, the Bay Area, Birmingham - where friends showed up and brought their friends, or where peruanos showed up just to say they were proud of me and whatnot. Chicago was also excellent, lots of fun. In Boulder I started my reading with two people in the audience. I introduced myself to both of them and shook their hands. The reading was fine, I think they both enjoyed it, and actually a few more people showed up by the time the story had ended. They asked me to read another story and I did. Then afterwards some dude wanted me to sign a galley, an advance reader copy, the one that says very clearly "not for sale, uncorrected proof" on the cover. He told me with an innocent smile that he'd bought it used on Amazon. I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? I think he expected me to congratulate him on having found such a bargain. But he was so earnest and excited to meet me that he even had his two daughters pose for a picture with me. Maybe he'll buy my next book. Or not. I don't even know why I was mad; it's not like I don't buy used books.
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.