Monday, February 28, 2011

I've been on a roll lately

I. Levi, on a Westlake jag:

What must it have been like to be [Donald E.] Westlake's agent? You'd know you were going to get a manuscript to sell every nine months or so, and you'd know that it would never be less than a well-crafted piece of work . . . but that's about it. You'd hope, one assumes, for a Dortmunder novel or a Parker novel, but instead you might get, say, a Dortmunder novella, two novellas related to the film industry assembled into a single book, or a satire of the publishing industry. And those are just the ones I happened to read this week! —IBRL

II. Levi, on building a new drink for Chicago:

As research, I ordered a Manhattan. It’s smooth. So smooth. A broad Fifth Avenue of sophistication. It knows how to tie a bow tie. It tastes like all the best parts of bourbon and none of the parts that used to be so helpful in battlefield surgery. Did I mention its smoothness?

The Loop should not be like that. Here’s how The Loop should be. The first sip opens your eyes wide, so you look like one of those just-graduated-from-UW kids falling for the dude running the shell game on the “L.” The second sip makes you wonder whether your shoulders are broad enough that you can read Carl Sandburg’s three-volume biography of Lincoln. The third sip knows a guy who knows a guy who can get you seasonal work driving a snowplow at O’Hare. The fourth sip has you fishing in your wallet for a Big Jackson so you can get in on some of that shell game action. The fifth sip convinces you to take out papers to run for alderman. The sixth sip convinces you that it’s not even worth taking the trouble to go vote. No one has ever taken a seventh sip.

The Loop could come with a little blown-out umbrella.

IBRL, the annex

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gimme nonfiction

Their living and dining rooms are lined with books, all of them nonfiction, all of them read. Mr. Barrett cannot remember the last time he read a novel, and when asked if he felt he was missing something, he said, “Nyah.” —NYT


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The chills

All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week. But I think Dickens will prove stronger. —Nabokov, Lectures on Literature

(I happened to read the foregoing after a few days of being deeply immersed in the following:)

NewVillager, "LightHouse":

NewVillager - "LightHouse" from stereogum on Vimeo.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Los Angeles Times Book Award b/w "On Baseball"

I. The Los Angeles Times Book Award finalists have been announced! Fiction, biography, blah de blah...what you're really wondering is: Which artists are in the running for best graphic novel?! (Once again, I had the honor to judge, along with Douglas Wolk and Joel Rose.)

Here is the tantalizing list:

Graphic Novel
Adam Hines, "Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One" (Adhouse Books)
Dash Shaw, "Bodyworld" (Pantheon)
Karl Stevens, "The Lodger" (KSA Publishing)
C. Tyler, "You'll Never Know, Book Two: Collateral Damage" (Fantagraphics)
Jim Woodring, "Weathercraft" (Fantagraphics)

Who will win? You need to wait till April 29...


(I might post, later, some thoughts on other really strong titles...or maybe just the names...there was a lot of good stuff...)

II. Poets Jane Yeh and H.L. Hix are featured on the site Like Starlings, going mano a mano, poetry-style! Here is the first part of her new poem, "On Baseball":

My mechanics are almost entirely self-taught.
Hawking and strutting, I hit my spots.

Nobody talks to me, they are all afraid.

The nature of perfection is half fluke, half
Fiction, like the mighty appaloosa

That haunts the hometown lake. I'm from one of those states
That never got finished, that just sort of unravelled, like the sound

Speed makes as it blows right past you.

(Jane is a die-hard Yankees fan.)

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Career opportunities

“I think my whole life has been leading up to this,” said Eileen, a 31-year-old schoolteacher from Alexandria, Va. “I walked around my college campus as a crash test dummy telling people not to drink and drive; I’ve been the Chick-fil-A cow and my school’s panther mascot. As the cow, I got my tail pulled a lot but knew exactly how to deal with it. I’m so ready for this.”—"Nationals' Racing Presidents Tryout No Laughing Matter," NYT


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Disambiguations™ for February 20, 2011

I. "There are books up there that I can’t even remember whether I’ve read or not."
—Joshua Foer, "Secrets of a Mind Gamer," NYT Magazine

II. The hotel had all kinds of innovations and idiosyncrasies: Turkish baths, a squash court, boot and gun rooms, a bowling alley and billiard parlor. Thomas Edison installed the electricity and a stock ticker wired directly to Wall Street. The Italian workers, meanwhile, imparted their own old-world superstitions. The number of steps to the floors, for example, were varied — 33 to the second floor from the main registration area but only 31 steps in the south tower staircase. Why? To confuse ghosts." —Chris Colin, "In New Hampshire, Can Bretton Woods Get Gnarly?," NYT


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Why I Am a Genius

Over time, the series evolved from straight adventure stories like The Cave of Time, Your Code Name is Jonah, and Who Killed Harlow Thrombey? to more immersive books that took full advantage of the second-person narrator like You Are a Shark, You Are a Genius!, You Are a Monster and the downright existential, Who Are You?
—Grady Hendrix, "Choose Your Own Adventure," Slate


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

TV Tips™

One of my favorite novels of the last [???] years, William Boyd's Any Human Heart, has been adapted for Masterpiece Theater. I had no idea! Boyd did the screenplay!

I watched the first episode (of three) on the PBS website, and can't wait for the rest!

In the meantime—here's a handsome photo of the excellent cover...

...and a brief interview I did with the painter, Duncan Hannah, back in 2004.

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Something more than silence

Around his plant-strewn work cubicle, low whirring air sounds emanated from speakers in the floor, meant to mimic the whoosh of conventional heating and air-conditioning systems, neither of which his 222,000-square-foot office building has, or needs, even here at 5,300 feet elevation. The generic white noise of pretend ductwork is purely for background and workplace psychology— managers found that workers needed something more than silence.
—"Soaking Up the Sun to Squeeze, NYT


Disambiguation—Melanie Griffith edition

Stephen M. Clement III, who heads the all-boys Browning School on the East Side, said that “many of the early childhood programs are getting much more academic,” and as a result, “our curriculum has probably increased in its pace as well.”

“You meet the boys where they are,” he said.

But other schools hold fast to their slow approach. Melanie Griffith said her daughter Emma was reading chapter books at 4, but when she entered Calhoun, she was restricted to sing-alongs and teacher-led story time.

At times Ms. Griffith, a fitness instructor, said she and her husband wondered, “Are we doing her a disservice because she is so capable, by not putting her in a situation where they are challenging her more?” —NYT

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Minority report

I. Levi Stahl on "the minor T.E. Lawrence":

After the [translation of] Odyssey, Lawrence put in good order a compilation of poems he had liked over the years: Minorities, consisting, with his typical taste for paradox, of minor works by major poets, or major work by minor poets.

II. Another recent L.S. post ("William Dean Howells and the pleasures of the minor writer" ) quotes from Indian Summer:

"Oh, call us a passage from a modern novel," suggested Colville, "if you're in the romantic mood. One of Mr. James's."

"Don't you think we ought to be rather more of the great world for that? I hardly feel up to Mr. James. I should have said Howells. Only nothing happens in that case!"

(Fictional characters talking about their creators! Some other examples, aside from Don Quixote?)

(Ah...just remembered this other "Indian Summer"...)(Remember "MySpace"?!)

III. Levi's posts reminded me that I accumulated an unusual amount of notes for my Poetry Foundation article from last year, "Minor Poets, Major Works"—notes that I wound up not using. Why not post some of them here?

5. In Bookforum, Geoff Dyer considers Thomas Bernhard’s My Prizes: “[W]hat a great idea, to offer slivers of autobiography in the guise of self-deprecating moan-boasts about all the honor-insults heaped on one’s head! So much so that one wonders, while reading these outbursts, if it’s not the well-established forms of literary expression—big novels with vast roll calls of characters, enacting the big themes of life and fate, war and peace—but the minor ones, forms that are not even recognized as such, that offer the most challenging test of literary genius.” [BF Sept/Oct/Nov 2010]

Minor applies to form. (Caples mentions the novelist Edgar Saltus, who wrote a 40-pager entitled Oscar Wilde, An Idler’s Impressions—“a puffed-out account of a man he only met twice.”)[22]

6. Minor or major? B.R. Myers begins his scorched-earth Atlantic review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom like this: “One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads.”

9. In Hungary in the 10th century: “People saw bright spherical objects shining like stars, along with a bright torch, moving to and fro in the sky.”

9.[sic] This is a notebook, a minor form. But some of my favorite books are notebooks, diaries, correspondence, collections of columns and reviews. The Nabokov-Wilson Letters. The Weight of the World. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Literature that doesn’t realize it's literature.

12. Most writers live under no illusion of being major. Or is that just me? Even writers whose books invariably land on the bestseller list must know how few _______.

13. One of the appeals of the minor is that we are even reading it—that gives one hope for our own _______.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

The actual sequence

I. Sam Tanenhaus on Daniel Bell:

In this sense Bell was heir to the vanishing tradition of systematizers or master builders — Hegel and Marx, Durkheim and Weber, Freud and Nietzsche, Dewey and Veblen. All were required reading for the mid-20th-­century intellectual. But Bell seemed to regard them as rivals. He had digested even their most obscure writings and was not afraid to anatomize and correct them, fussily at times. His footnotes betray a hint of George Eliot’s pedant Casaubon: “Quotations have been transposed to compress and strengthen Schumpeter’s description. The actual sequence of quotations is: pp. 137, 147, 151, 147, 145, 154.” —NYT Book Review

II. This hair-raising story had a primo "Dizzies" moment:

The breakthrough occurred about 8:30 a.m., when two witnesses reported seeing Mr. Gelman on a southbound No. 1 train between 137th and 96th Streets in Manhattan. One called 911. The other, a woman, was reading a newspaper when a man, apparently Mr. Gelman, moved close.

Mr. Kelly related, “He knocks the paper out of her hand and says, ‘Do you believe what they’re writing about me?’ ” —NYT

III. I went to hear Nicholson Baker speak at Columbia last Thursday; among the many gems was this bit, on Dick Francis, which I then related to Jenny (the only Franciscan I know).

IV. At Desert Island in Brooklyn: a window display by Jing Wei:

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Korean psychedelic Saturday

(Via Will)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Now I remember...

...why I called the column "Astral Weeks"!


An archive of sorts is available at the L.A. Times site; there are numerous omissions, alas.

Some of my favorite columns concerned a Charles Fort biography; an 1881 New Zealand novel; a discursus on the Ouroboros; secret histories; structural vertigo in Catherynne M. Valente; Joe Haldeman; wow I wrote a lot of columns!; repetition (via Robert Silverberg and Osamu Tezuka); Christopher Miller's overlooked PKD takeoff, The Cardboard Universe; the forgotten pulp writer/physician Miles J. Breuer; Dash Shaw's Bodyworld; a DeLillo rarity; D&D stories; John Crowley (and again).

And then I wrote some things that could only loosely be called "columns": a cento; a J.G. Ballard abecedary; a two-part meditation on short stories; notes (and notes on notes). Editors David Ulin and Nick Owchar were always willing to go with these somewhat unorthodox formats—amazing!

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Addendum to the end of Astral Weeks

Maybe it was always that way. Maybe there was always a vast and strange alienation between an era and the great art which arises in it. Maybe works of art were always as solitary as they are today, and maybe fame was never anything but the distillation of all the misunderstandings that gather around a new name. There is no reason to believe that it was ever any different. For what distinguishes works of art from everything else is the fact that they are, as it were, of the future: things whose time has not yet come. The future they come from is far away; they belong to that final century with which the great circle of paths and developments will be completed; they are the perfected things, the contemporaries of the God that people have been constructing since the beginning and have not come anywhere near completing. If it nevertheless seems as though the great art objects of bygone eras stood in the middle of the surging current of their times, the explanation is that this final, wonderful future, the true home of works of art, was closer to remote times (of which we know so little) than it is to us. Back then, even tomorrow's dawn was part of the distant and unknown that lay behind every grave, and images of God were boundary stones marking the edge of a kingdom of deep fulfillments. Slowly this future distanced itself from us. Belief and superstition drove it away to greater and greater distances, love and doubt hurled it out past the stars into the heavens. And now we have reached a point when our lights let us see far; our instruments reach past tomorrow and the day after that; with our researches we extract the coming centuries out of the future and turn them into a sort of not yet begun present. Science has unrolled itself like a long, unforeseeable path, and difficult, painful developments, of both individuals and the masses, have filled in the coming millenniums with an unending task and duty.
And far, far behind all that lies the home of works of art, these strangely silent and patient things that stand around in all their otherness among the things we use every day, among all the busy people, the beasts of burden, the playing children.
—Rilke, in The Inner Sky (transl. Damion Searls)

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Megatext me

My final Astral Weeks column is now up at the Los Angeles Times site. It's a review of The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, which I highly recommend. A taste:

There are gems from giants. Encountering "Fondly Fahrenheit" (1954), Alfred Bester's robots-and-murder meditation, for the first time, I reread a stretch of it over and over, thinking that surely a printing error had been made. By collapsing the first-person voice — aggressively mingling two "I" points of view — Bester flouts the rules of narrative to show a meltdown of authority between a master and his android. It's a joy to find Philip K. Dick's 1966 "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," the basis for the Arnold Schwarzenegger film "Total Recall," in all its brisk, blunt glory: I love both the carpet-pulling, memory-versus-implant plot and the doofus-y futuristic touches like the robot taxicab driver who says "Yes, sir or madam," the fashionably topless receptionist and a drug called "narkidrine."

My first column appeared in April 2007, so it's been nearly four years. Thanks to my editors and readers!

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Uniques, Toolmasters, Ubermenschen

I. Carl Wilson's close reading of a new Destroyer song.

II. Grognardia on Superhero 2044:

Character creation uses a point-buy system that was unusual for its time. 140 points are used to purchase attributes (there are seven), as modified by the character's "type." Superhero 2044 presents three types of characters: uniques ("possessing powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men" -- think Superman), toolmasters (think Iron Man), and ubermenschen (think Tarzan). Up to 50 points may be allocated toward a character's super powers and related abilities. However, there are no rules or descriptions of super powers. This was done consciously by Donald Saxman "for copyright reasons," which is bizarre from both a legal and a game design perspective. Instead, it's left to each player, in cooperation with the referee, to model a character's super powers so that they work with the game's various systems, particularly combat.
III. I enjoyed my appearance on a panel at Fordham the other night (thanks to Helene Stapinski), where I met Arthur Phillips, Mary Elizabeth Williams, and Jim Dwyer. (I also met two students from Buffalo!) Jim read one of his columns, about Marie Ponsot—a great piece, with this nugget on writing every day:

“I used to have babies all over the place, and the people I was teaching, and I could find 10 minutes every day,” Ms. Ponsot said. “You’ve always got 10 minutes.”

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Monday, February 07, 2011


Novelist Roderigo Fresan on Charles Portis:

A LA HORA SEÑALADA “Como Cormac McCarty; pero divertido”, sintetizó Ed Park en la revista The Believer. Y la definición es ocurrente, maliciosa pero, a la vez, apropiada. Porque True Grit funciona como la contracara complementaria e inseparable de Meridiano de sangre, ese otro western bíblico donde la sangre corre y no deja de correr. Y hay signos y señales que la reciente atención sobre Portis –vía una de las películas de vaqueros que más recaudó en toda la historia y el film de más éxito en toda la filmografía de los Coen– tal vez signifique que algo nuevo se viene acercando desde el Oeste o del Este. Antes de todo esto, la editorial Overlook reeditó su obra completa con éxito y fuegos artificiales por parte de crítica y nuevos seguidores y Portis comenzó a publicar artículos autobiográficos en revistas así como un relato de fantasmas titulado “I Don’t Talk Service No More” en The Atlantic. Quién sabe. Portis ya avisó que irá al cine pero no dirá nada a la salida. Hace poco, alguien lo alcanzó por las calles de Little Rock, lo invitó unas cervezas, Portis accedió advirtiendo antes que no estaba concediendo una entrevista y que nada de lo que dijera podía ser citado entre comillas y, finalmente, dejó un billete de cinco dólares. Leí la crónica del encuentro hace poco, en The New York Times y –como suele ocurrir cuando se lee a Portis– me quedé con ganas de más, de saber más y de que Portis dijera algo como “Tengo nuevo libro. Estoy corrigiéndolo”. Pero no. Y aquel que se lo cruzó y lo interceptó, un tal Carlo Rotella (nombre muy pero muy portisiano) cerró todo evocando aquella perfecta línea con la que abre un capítulo de Gringos: “Te pasas la vida dejando cosas para después hasta que un buen día te levantas de la cama y te dices ‘Hoy voy a cambiarle el aceite a mi camión’”.



A rocky translation via Google:

At the appointed time "as Cormac McCarthy, but fun," summed Ed Park in The Believer. And the definition is witty, mischievous, but at the same time appropriate. For True Grit serves as the complementary and inseparable counterpart of Blood Meridian that other western Bible where blood flows and continues to run. And there are signs and signals that the recent attention to Portis, via one of the cowboy movies that grossed more in history and the most successful film in the entire filmography of the Coen-may mean that something new has been approached from the West or East. Before this, the editorial Overlook reissued their complete work successfully and fireworks by critics and new fans and Portis autobiographical began publishing articles in magazines and a ghost story titled "I Do not Talk Service No More" in The Atlantic. Who knows. Portis already said it will go to the movies but did not say anything to the output. Recently, someone will hit the streets of Little Rock, invited a few beers, Portis agreed earlier warning that it was giving an interview and that anything he said could be cited in quotes and finally left a five dollar bill . I read the chronicle of the meeting recently in The New York Times and, as often happens when reading a Portis-I kept wanting more, to know more and that Portis would say something like "I have new book. I'm correcting it. " But no. And anyone who crossed him and intercepted him, a certain Carlo Rotella (very, very portisiano name) closed all evoke that perfect line that opens a chapter of Gringos: "You spend your life and then leaving things until one fine day you get out of bed and you say 'I'm going to change the oil in my truck'. "

Come on.

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"Living & Writing New York" — 2/8 reading!

I'll be reading and participating in a panel tomorrow (Tuesday 2/8) at 7:30 p.m. at Fordham (the Lincoln Center campus, in Manhattan). The topic is "Living & Writing New York." I'm not sure what I'll read!

The other writers are Arthur Phillips, Mary Elizabeth Williams, and Jim Dwyer.

Rather complex directions here. It's in the 12th floor lounge at 113 W. 60th St.

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

This just in—

New Believer is out! T Cooper—I can't describe it, but it's good! Alan Levinovitz on the perils of translating Lewis Carroll into Chinese! (A must-read.) Chris Bachelder ponders humor...Deb Olin Unferth interviewing Gary Lawrence Weschler, the Nick Hornby/Jack Pendarvis/Greil Marcus trifecta of columnly goodness, an interview with H.P. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, and more!


Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Disambiguations™ for February 3, 2011

I. At the Rumpus, Rachel Khong has a wonderful piece on one of my favorite books—Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary. I like this: "The novel is about sadness, obsession, and giant sea turtles, but mostly it’s about how to be okay." What a book!

II. Hua Hsu on cassettes (in Artforum)—I laughed out loud reading about the gradations:

Even in the 1980s, when the cassette tape represented the apex of consumer technology, its advances—the workmanlike auto-reverse button; various gradations of Dolby; “IEC Type II High (CrO2) Position,” whatever that means—seemed puny, stopgaps to tide us over until we could engineer more elegant solutions.
III. A.O. Scott in the NYT on the documentary Into Eternity, about a subterranean waste storage site in progress called Onkalo ("hiding place"):

Who or what will even be around when the danger of the spent fuel stashed at Onkalo finally lapses? Intelligent robots? Highly evolved molds and fungi? Some kind of alien life form for which plutonium is a source of nutrition? As one of Mr. Madsen’s interview subjects notes, most science fiction looks ahead only a hundred years or so, and thus is not terribly helpful.

The mindbending profundity is broken only by the necessary clarification that director Michael Madsen is "a Danish Conceptual artist, not the American tough-guy actor."

IV. Felt like I had a list of interesting vocab/word-usage-y things, but all I can remember is this bit, from an NYT piece on car-pooling (via Jenny):

People car-pool here with strangers in a practice called “slugging” — the term comes from fake bus tokens, because bus drivers sometimes mistake car-poolers, who often wait near bus stops, for bus riders. Each waiting spot has its own destination, like the Pentagon or L’Enfant Plaza, and drivers call them out as they drive up.
V. Some upcoming appearances—next Tuesday (2/8) at 7:30 I'll be reading and panelling (new word?) at Fordham (113 W. 60th St.) with Arthur Phillips, Mary Elizabeth Williams, and Jim Dwyer. The topic: "Living and Writing New York." In April I'll be reading some nonfiction—but what??—with Deb Olin Unferth, whose memoir Revolution is just out. (More details on both these events here.) Looking forward and slightly backward, there's something in March and another thing in May that I might be doing.

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