Category Archives: weekend content

Weekend Content

Google & the Future of Books:

How can we navigate through the information landscape that is only
beginning to come into view? The question is more urgent than ever
following the recent settlement between Google and the authors and
publishers who were suing it for alleged breach of copyright. For the
last four years, Google has been digitizing millions of books,
including many covered by copyright, from the collections of major
research libraries, and making the texts searchable online. The authors
and publishers objected that digitizing constituted a violation of
their copyrights. After lengthy negotiations, the plaintiffs and Google
agreed on a settlement, which will have a profound effect on the way
books reach readers for the foreseeable future. What will that future

Schlepics: The Fiction of Angel Wagenstein:

The attempt to find new words for a new horror aptly summarizes the past
sixty years of Jewish fiction, and is the obverse of the stark,
unapproachable purity of Untitled by Anonymous, or of T.W.
Adorno, who declared in 1949 that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is
barbaric." Nearly every modern Jewish writer of merit has contested
Adorno’s judgment. And once poetry is fair game, is commerce ever far
behind? On a recent visit to the local multiplex–to see a popular
mainstream entertainment about the death of God, no less–I counted four
movie trailers about the Nazis. One was a vigilante movie, another a spy
thriller, the next a May-December romance, the last a sentimental
product for children.

The next Tom Friedman:

Gladwell is fond of quirky factors. The unexpectedness of his
explanations often disguises their banality or their error. In his new
book, he is particularly interested in examining the amount of time
that must be spent honing a skill or a craft, although his larger point
is that society frequently plays a role in providing people with the
opportunity to do so. "The idea that excellence at performing a complex
task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and
again in studies of expertise," Gladwell reports. (I hope those studies
did not cost too much.) After quoting a psychologist who said that
Mozart spent ten years composing before producing a masterpiece,
Gladwell goes a-quantifying: "And what’s ten years? Well, it’s roughly
how long it takes to put in ten thousand hours of hard practice. Ten
thousand hours is the magic number of greatness."



John Updike

The New Yorker: Remembering Updike

The New York Times: John Updike, Author, Dies at 76:

His settings ranged from the court of ”Hamlet” to postcolonial Africa, but his literary home was the American suburb, the great new territory of mid-century fiction.

El Pais: Fallece el novelista John Updike a los 76 años:

Updike, que residió en Beverly Farms, Massachusetts (EE UU), fue un autor tremendamente prolífico:
escribió más de 50 libros (unas 25 novelas) en una carrera que abarca
desde la postrimerías de la Segunda Guerra Mundial a la actualidad.
Compaginaba la escritura de ficción (novelas y cuentos) con la de
críticas y ensayos. Su producción novelística fue la que le situó en un
lugar destacado de la literatura estadounidense contemporánea, junto a
grandes firmas como Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo y Kurt
Vonnegut, entre otros.

The Guardian: John Updike, chronicler of American loves and losses, dies at 76:

In a writing career that began in the early 1950s at the New Yorker magazine, and kept on going like a literary powerhouse until the very end, Updike conjured up more than 50 books and explored virtually every form open to him. On top of a steady stream of essays, literary criticism and short stories, in addition to the more than 20 novels, beyond the poetry, there was a play Buchanan Dying and a memoir Self- Consciousness.

Wall Street Journal: John Updike, In His Own Words:

WSJ: What about William Gaddis, who some believe is the father of the modern novel, and Stephen King?

Mr. Updike: I’m not sure about William Gaddis’s
"The Recognitions," which doesn’t have enough joy in it. For a book to
last it should be joyful. Theodore Dreiser has a sense of joy. It’s
crushing but he loved the world. I’ve never read much Stephen King. I
admire his diligence, but it’s not my kind of reading.

The LAT: For better or worse, John Updike produced a nearly endless stream of work:

Updike is commonly regarded as the poet laureate of the suburbs, but that’s not really accurate. Yes, he evoked a certain middle-class domestic culture at the precise moment (the 1960s and 1970s) that it was exploding; without him, there’d be no Rick Moody, no Ethan Canin — to name just two.

But more than suburban life, Updike was really an explorer of consciousness, of the mental drama; this is why Wallace derided him as a solipsist. Even his most celebrated works, the Rabbit novels, are less about domestic life than they are sagas of one man — confused, guilt-ridden, tormented by his own not-fully-thought-out choices — struggling to make sense of himself. For Updike, it didn’t happen unless he’d thought it through, reflected on it. If that, at times, could keep us at a distance, it was the clearest expression of who he was.

Sentences: Updike the Critic:

As someone who writes for a living about books, I’ve always been astonished by Updike’s capacities as a critic. In conversation on this topic, young critics (those who take tea with the young poets mentioned above) have often questioned the sincerity of my appreciation of Updike’s literary essays. They always seem quick to say “Oh yeah, great stuff. Who could disagree with his appraisal of Fear of Flying as a ‘loveable, delicious novel….’” Martin Amis, a great admirer of Updike’s, mind, has an essay in this mode that takes the dismissive tone and at least makes an argument out of it. “Kind to stragglers and also-rans, to well-meaning duds and worthies, and correspondingly cautious in his praise of acknowledged stars and masters, Updike’s view of twentieth-century literature is a leveling one.” Yes and no. Certainly there are examples of Updike’s grading on a generous curve. But here’s the thing: if you sat down and wrote 5,000 pages of book reviews in your lifetime—well over a million words, for that’s the tally in Updike’s case—I’m pretty sure there’d be a conspicuous failing or two.

The Essential Updike:

Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990)

The Rabbit series, along with Couples, is widely held to be Updike’s best work and chronicles the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom from a directionless 26-year-old former basketball star to directionless car dealer to a grossly overweight blob, played out against a background of contemporary America and – naturally – a great deal of sex and disappointment. At times the books can feel as if they are trying too hard to be the Great American novel – there’s only so much name-checking of "important" events, such as Vietnam, the oil crisis, Aids etc most readers can take – and the writing is uneven (skip Rabbit Redux if you’re pushed), but Angstrom is one of the great characters in late-20th-century fiction and Updike fully deserved the Pulitzer prizes he won for Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. In 2001, he also wrote Rabbit Remembered, a novella about Rabbit’s daughter, but that really is only one for the truly dedicated.

Weekend Content

It would not by hard to kill a significant fraction of your weekend at The Book Cover Archive.

Boston Review, "Worldmaker: Remembering Thomas Ditsch":

Like all writers attempting to make a living in that genre, he knew very well what status it had in the great world of literature—a separate file drawer, Kurt Vonnegut remarked, that critics seem to mistake for the urinal. On the other hand, Disch held no real brief for the form as it came to him from the masters—quite the opposite. His 1998 dissection of SF, The Dreams  Our Stuff Is Made Of, was a general demolishment of the ancients and the moderns from Poe to Ursula Le Guin, and at the same time showed how the standard elements of older SF, the people-shaped robots and intergalactic spaceships, the telepathy and the alien visitations, had extended their reach throughout our culture—without having come any
     closer to actuality. His own writing continually expanded beyond the genre, not only into related forms such as horror and Gothic, but also into historical fiction, children’s books (the wonderful The Brave Little Toaster), and poetry, the genre in which he most desired to succeed His last books would have to be called philosophical romances, a genre to which many speculative writers are drawn after the duties of worldbuilding and character-creating have grown tiresome. The Word of God: Or, Holy Writ Rewritten; The Voyage of the Proteus: An Eyewitness Account of the End of the World—the titles suggest the contents.

Glenn Gould, playing Berg’s first opus

Gould on why Berg’s first opus was his best work

Weekend Content

A piece of short fiction from Tranquility author Attila Bartis is available in English at Hungarian Quarterly


Madrid’s Prado museum becomes the first one that you can tour with Google Earth.

An interview with one of Penguin Classics’ designers:

Please elaborate on your process of gathering typographical inspiration for the Boys Own Books series.

CBS: I spent a lot of time in the London Library printing and typography section. It’s a great place. It was there that I re-kindled my love of Nicolete Gray, one of the few female typographers in the history books that I was aware of when I was a student. I spent a lot of time putting together research of type from the periods when each book was published. It was like being a student again, but in a real working situation, which was excellent.
The idea was to have period-appropriate type on each title without restricting myself to books as inspiration. The Man Who Was Thursday, for example, takes its cue from Dada and Futurist typography, which fits both the early 20th-century setting and the anarchist subject matter, but wasn’t a feature of mainstream publishing design at the time.

The NEA’s Reading on the Rise

Kafka’s "porn stash": not really that big or pornographic

An anthology of radical children’s literature


The Satanic Verses at 20

How one book ignited a culture war:

Four days after Rushdie received his "unfunny Valentine", he issued an apology: "I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam." At first the apology was rejected then accepted in Iran, before Khomeini stated that even if Rushdie repented and "became the most pious man of all time" it was still incumbent on every Muslim to "employ everything he has got" to kill him. So much for the spirit of forgiveness.

Hushed into Silence:

The Satanic Verses was, Salman Rushdie said in an interview before publication, a novel about ‘migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death’. It was also a satire on Islam, ‘a serious attempt’, in his words, ‘to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person’. For some that was unacceptable, turning the novel into ‘an inferior piece of hate literature’ as the British Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar put it.

Assassins of the Mind:

Not everybody agreed with me about the nature of this confrontation. President George H. W. Bush, asked for a comment, said that no American interest was involved. I doubt he would have said this if the chairman of Texaco had been hit by a fatwa, but even if Salman’s wife of the time (who had to go with him into hiding) had not been an American, it could be argued that the United States has an interest in opposing state-sponsored terrorism against novelists. Various intellectualoids, from John Berger on the left to Norman Podhoretz on the right, argued that Rushdie got what he deserved for insulting a great religion. (Like the Ayatollah Khomeini, they had not put themselves to the trouble of reading the novel, in which the only passage that can possibly be complained of occurs in the course of a nightmare suffered by a madman.) Some of this was a hasty bribe paid to the crude enforcer of fear: if Susan Sontag had not been the president of pen in 1989, there might have been many who joined Arthur Miller in his initial panicky refusal to sign a protest against the ayatollah’s invocation of Murder Incorporated.

El Pais:

En España también se experimentó el miedo provocado por los desafueros de la "identidad islámica ofendida". En Seix Barral -que había obtenido los derechos de Los versos satánicos pujando más alto que Alfaguara en la subasta abierta por su agente- estaban aterrorizados, empezando por mi admirado Gimferrer. Y, de hecho, el libro no fue publicado hasta mayo de 1991 y en una traducción (mejorable, dicho sea de paso) cuyo autor (de quien se afirmaba que había huido a América) se ocultaba bajo el seudónimo de "J. L. Miranda". Veinte años después de todo aquello, la libertad de expresión se encuentra en las democracias occidentales en peor situación que en los ochenta: los intolerantes están a la que salta y han logrado que los que no lo son elaboren una demasiado prolija lista de excepciones "políticamente correctas" a una norma conseguida con sangre y revoluciones "políticamente incorrectas".

Weekend Content

Steve Reich

(thanks to Alex Ross)

The Nation, BookExpo 2012, Los Angeles, wherein the future is, for once, not nearly so bad as the present, and the neo-cons prove to be publishing’s salvation:

If I Did It, by George W. Bush
Early in President Bush’s administration, when his reign seemed
catastrophic merely for humanity at large and not equally so when
measured by his own nominal aims, there commenced a lively debate among
progressives about whether Bush was as unreflective and intellectually
stunted as he appeared to be or if he was, in fact, a nefarious genius
pretending to dimness to deflect attention and confuse those who might
oppose his relentless arrogation of power. After eight years of his
extraordinary failures, this question would seem to have been answered;
but in this "hypothetical" memoir, it is reopened by Bush himself. The
culmination, according to inside sources, of intensive psychoanalysis
undertaken by the former president after leaving office as history’s
most unpopular president–and, perhaps not incidentally, after being
divorced by his wife, Laura–the book is Bush’s attempt to explain what
motivated eight years of apparently willful destruction of American
prestige, constitutional freedoms and human lives. The short answer is
that he has no more idea than the rest of us. Judged either as
journalism or as memoir, If I Did It
is uninformative and singularly unilluminating; but as a psychological
specimen, it achieves a kind of horrifying transcendence. Its publicity
materials liken it to David Carr’s 2008 investigative memoir The Night of the Gun and Italo Svevo’s pre-postmodern novel Confessions of Zeno; these comparisons are both apt, but what it most resembles is Eichmann in Jerusalem–if Eichmann in Jerusalem had been written by Eichmann.

David Ulin reviews the new Kafka translation:

Amerika has long held an anomalous place among Kafka’s writings; it’s a comic anti-picaresque in which a young European named Karl Rossmann immigrates to the United States and undergoes a series of adventures, not so much finding as losing his way in the world. In this new version, Harman offers an unfiltered take on the novel, which was left unfinished when Kafka abandoned work on it in 1914.

This is important because, like much of Kafka’s writing, Amerika was cleaned up for its posthumous 1927 publication by Max Brod, the author’s literary executor. It’s tough to fault Brod for wanting to present his friend’s efforts in the most polished possible state, but his interventions only contributed to our difficulty in seeing Kafka for who he is.

The Millions’ yearly Most Anticipated Books post:

I’ve already devoured Wells Tower’s debut collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.  Tower’s eclectic style is on full display here.  Some of these stories are masterful iterations in the New Yorker
style, while others experiment with voice and style. The collection
closes with the title story, his most well known, an ingenious tale of
vikings gone plundering. Normally a debut collection wouldn’t merit
much buzz, but readers have had their eye on Tower for years because of his impressive long-form journalism in Harper’s and elsewhere.  (Tower also appeared in our Year in Reading this year.)

Richard Nash asks you to help pick a cover.

Words Without Borders, Snatch, new translated fiction from Horacio Castellanos Moya.

Lowbrow correspondence at the New York Review:

To the Editors:

On Elizabeth Hardwick’s advice, "Never ever speak to them dear. They
always get it wrong," I did not cooperate with Patrick French’s book [The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul]; nor have I read it. There are a number of things wrong in Ian Buruma’s review of it [NYR, November 20, 2008].

Gillon Aitken was not dispatched to Buenos Aires checkbook in hand. (I wish he had been.) . . .

. . . Vidia says I didn’t mind the abuse. I certainly did mind.

Margaret Murray
Buenos Aires, Argentina

Weekend Content


Recreating a Disaster–William Blake at the Tate:

"Blotted and blurred and very badly drawn," sneered the Examiner – which, with its progressive politics, was in some ways the Guardian of its day. "The poor man fancies himself a great master, and has painted a few wretched pictures." The critic – the only reviewer of Blake’s 1809 exhibition – reserved, if possible, a more splenetic vocabulary for the catalogue, which Blake also wrote. "A farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain," the Examiner thundered.

History has been kinder to the poet, painter, printmaker and visionary than contemporary opinion. Now Tate Britain is to recreate that disastrous exhibition – exactly 200 years after it was staged in 1809 – and will bring together at least nine of the surviving 11 works from the 16 in the original show. It will also republish Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue, now regarded as a fascinating and significant commentary on the London art world of his day. The 1809 exhibition, held in Golden Square, Soho, proved a turning point in the artist’s career. Embittered by its appalling reception, he withdrew even more from the art world into solitary eccentricity.

CONTEXT, Towards an Infinitesimal Novel: An Interview with Jean-Philippe Toussaint:

JPT: Yes, you’re right, it’s a manifesto, a program. I don’t know how aware of this I was. But still, it took me over a month to write the first paragraph. I still know it by heart. “It was at about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.” It’s a very radical opening, and it really is having fun with the readers. Here I am, a thirty-year-old writer saying: “What I’m about to tell you is absolutely irrelevant.” In other words: “I’m about to make you feel foolish.” It’s a very impertinent opening. I’m responding very offhandedly to Kafka’s famous aphorism: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world,” with “In the fight between you and reality, be discouraging.” So yes, it’s a manifesto, but it isn’t a theoretical essay or piece; it’s there, in the book itself, in the opening paragraph of the book, as a theory in action. Underlying my novel is, although it isn’t expressed theoretically, an idea of literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the “not interesting,” the “not edifying,” on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books.

CONTEXT, Reading Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine:

But while most of Crawford’s contemporaries were staging their loveless, white-knuckle relationship fiction in a spume of alcohol, boxed up in fresh suburban sheet rock, Crawford put his unhappily married couple, the Unguentines, to sea, rendered them as solitary (if not so innocent) as Adam and Eve, and he cursed them to be so awkwardly fit for human behavior that every kind of congress had to be reinvented and mythologized anew. If The Mrs Unguentine is so large and equipped it seems more like an island, it is also a floating stage for human experimentation, beyond the strictures of society, and the novel itself is a playbook for rethinking just what two people are supposed to do together when most of the livable world is out of reach. And to make their dilemma special, so we could see the nosedive of the Unguentines’ failed love through a crystal lens that Crawford ground himself from his own blend, he canopied the bad marriage with a fantastical dome, a literary invention so beautiful it doesn’t hog the spotlight so much as become a kind of distorted monocle through which to see this experiment in isolation, gardening, and love go terribly, terribly wrong.

60 Great Books in 60 Days, and, of course, blogging it.

In case you missed it, my favorite reads of 2008. These are all fiction, but at Ready Steady Book’s year-end "symposium" I’ll be mentioning some of my favorite reads from the critical sphere.

Weekend Content

Cyril Power


More Intelligent Life:

Among the most famous was Cyril Power,
an extraordinarily creative printmaker, born in 1872, who soaked up
Flight’s enthusiasms and gave them new force. Power drew on many
influences–the German Expressionists (who invented linocutting before
the first world war), the Italian Futurists, the Vorticist prints and
paintings of Wyndham Lewis–and the enthusiasm for speed and movement
that marked the work of so many artists of the period, from Natalya
Goncharova to Marcel Duchamp.


Alex Ross’s Favorite Leonard Bernstein Recordings

More Bernstein Links from Ross

The New Yorker, The Legend of Lenny by Alex Ross:

More than the man, I remember the sound, and the feeling of power that the sound produced. For a long time, I wasn’t sure whether Bernstein had really accomplished something epochal or whether he had simply opened an epoch in my mind. The other day, while searching the Internet for information about that performance, I happened upon a broadcast recording of it, which someone in Japan had digitized. The sound quality was a little sketchy, and the playing rough at times (the orchestra was an ad-hoc group assembled from the National Symphony and the Boston Symphony), but the intensity remained. At the climax of the first movement, the brass unleash militant chords that turn fearsomely dissonant, while a scale grinds downward in the remainder of the orchestra. The sequence ends with a violently plunging octave figure. I remember Bernstein flinging down his arms to produce it. On the recording, you can hear the echo sail down the nave of the cathedral, like a hammer thrown with enormous force.

Jacket Magazine, H L Hix in conversation with Philip Metre, turning Bush’s and Bin Laden’s public utterances into poetry:

The process itself, in some ways, was simple. I just hired an assistant to download from all the public statements Bush made in his first term and convert the text into a Microsoft Word file. I printed this giant document — several thousand pages of tiny type — and simply read through it, a month’s worth at a time, highlighter in hand. Then I would cut the highlighted passages and paste them into a smaller document, so that I would have everything in one place. So the gathering part of it was very straightforward — just reading and reading, collecting what seemed relevant.

There were several surprises for me. One came out of my more or less arbitrary decision to write one poem per month of Bush’s speeches. I made the decision for practical reasons: a month seemed likely to give enough material to construct a poem, and yet seemed somehow manageable. What I noticed, though, in simply reading through everything that happened in a given month, was how typically some theme asserted itself. Education and energy, for example, are frequent themes prior to 9/11.

Another surprise to me was the difference between the Bush and bin Laden poems. The Bush poems began first. I set myself rules for them, and expected, when I then decided I needed the bin Laden poems, that I’d use the same procedures to make the bin Laden poems I was using to make the Bush poems. But I found I couldn’t. I took that as a revelation about both Bush’s rhetoric and bin Laden’s rhetoric, that one lends itself to a certain procedure, and the other does not. I don’t think it was primarily because I was working in the original language with Bush and in translation with bin Laden, or that I had access to more material from Bush. It seemed to me primarily due to Bush’s manner of speaking, which is very simple in its syntax and diction. It’s very paratactic: little short declarations with no integral relationship to one other. They can be rearranged very easily —

Weekend Content

The Quarterly Conversation: Issue 14

Some items you might have missed:

  • Carter Scholz, writing in the tradition of William Gaddis and Richard Powers:
    • Scholz’s familiarity with his material has led some readers to assume
      he is a disgruntled nuclear physicist. But his background is in science
      fiction, not science, with a record of published shorter works
      stretching back over 30 years (representative samples are collected in
      the 2003 collection The Amount to Carry). He has also collaborated with Glenn Harcourt on the novel Palimpsests (1984) and with Jonathan Lethem on the collection Kafka Americana (1999), a set of re-imaginings of Kafka’s life and works. . . . Scholz shares with Lethem a love of the more speculative genres, and of
      their antecedents (Borges, Calvino, and of course Kafka). With Richard
      he shares an enthusiasm for building his works around scientific
      ideas, and with the Don DeLillo of Ratner’s Star he holds in
      common an irrepressible impulse to satirize the scientists responsible
      for them. But he departs from his contemporaries in the way he melds
      his observations of the descendental world of scientific practice with
      a reverent sense of the scientific vocation.
      The result of such a melding is an alternately satirical and
      spiritual book. The harsh skepticism that Scholz the satirist brings to
      weapons science is not unlike the skepticism William Gaddis brings to
      business and law in his novels J R and A Frolic of His Own.
  • Tranquility, favorably compared to Andrzej Stasiuk’s novels:
    • There are certainly other writers who employ nonstop misery (Elfriede
      Jelinek comes to mind), but I think there’s a particular brand of
      humorless brutality to Bartis’s that sets it apart. For one thing, its
      ceaseless ferocity gives it a power, even a certain beauty. It’s not
      written to shock, or merely for the sake of writing in this manner.
  • And my review of essays from Michelle Cliff, carrying the torch of Jamaica Kincaid in things Caribbean, feminist, and postcolonial:
    • Though the essays lack the poem’s packed intensity, they do borrow from its logic; many of them strongly resemble collages, and in their heavy fragmentation meaning is established as a series of inter-referencing elements, not as a linear progression. This is most clearly felt in the piece “Cross-Country: A Documentary in Ten Jump-Cuts.” It begins with Cliff leaving the Tehachapi Loop, a 19th-century engineering marvel outside of Barstow, California, in which a stretch of track brings trains back to the exact point from which they started, only 80 feet higher so they can surmount a hill and continue on their journey. It is a fitting jumping-off point for an essay that rambles around the United States of America and then promptly ends where it began, albeit better for the journey.

Favorite Book Covers of 2008

The Literary Saloon has commentary on the Best Translated Book of 2008 longlist:

Among the striking things about the longlist are, of course the omissions; Chad listed a few honorable mentions yesterday, but more noticeable is the large geographic/linguistic blank areas — most notably Far East Asia. Not a single Chinese, Japanese, or Korean title — indeed, nothing from anywhere in Asia until we hit the Mediterranean ! (I lobbied for Beijing Coma by Ma Jian and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, but practically all these other titles appear to have had considerably stronger support — and, after all, I haven’t even managed to put reviews of either of those fat novels up.)

       Note also: only one Arabic title, and no Russian titles (the Serge is French). One African title.

       On a case-by-case basis much of this can be explained — practically nothing in translation came out of Africa (or sub-continental Asia), the Russian and Japanese selections were arguably relatively weak (though I thought Lala Pipo was worth considering), etc. etc., but it still is fairly striking, if not outright shocking. (Especially from among the Arabic and Chinese titles, I’m surprised more didn’t slip in.)

Tchaikovsky, Souvenir of a Beloved Place

Symphony 3

Piano Concerto (soloist Vladimir Horowitz)

The Threepenny Review, Interpreter of Lives by Javier Marias.

The Threepenny Review, Notes on Sontag by Phillip Lopate, an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Notes on Sontag:

My favorite book of Susan Sontag’s—not necessarily her best book but the one I like best—is Under the Sign of Saturn.
I like it partly because it is free of the aggressive, badgering tone
of her aesthetic polemics, and is instead a fairly unified suite of
sympathetic biographical portraits of male melancholics, her heroes of
the intellect (Paul Goodman, Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, Walter
Benjamin, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Elias Canetti), with the one gender
exception being Leni Riefenstahl in "Fascinating Fascism," which is not
at all sympathetic but brilliant in other ways. I don’t think it is
incorrect to say that Sontag was essentially male-identified; she wrote
much more sympathetically and readily about men than about women, which
landed her in trouble at times with feminist critics. Nor would I put
it past myself to have liked these biographical essays of luftmenschen so much, partly for the reason that as a male reader I identify more strongly with them.

The Nation, Trilling’s Sandbags: Lionel Trilling’s Critical Essays:

All this may seem puzzling to those for whom Trilling is little more
than a name, especially those who have grown up since his death, in
1975. It may be hard to understand why he was, a couple of generations
ago, one of academia’s most cherished culture heroes, one of the few
saints of modern literary criticism. It may be harder still to make the
case for why Trilling, in his antique, mannered way, might matter now.
But if so, there can be few better places to start than with a
reconsideration of his most celebrated book, The Liberal
(first published in 1950), reissued with a brief, deft
introduction by Louis Menand, thought by some to come as near as anyone
can to being Trilling’s successor today.

Weekend Content

LRB, Double Thought by Michael Wood, which weighs whether or not Kafka’s office work was a wellspring of his fiction:

Where did Kafka learn to think like this? A case could be made that he
found his training not in his intricate psyche or in his horrified
commitment to writing – ‘the service of the Devil’, he called it – but
in his day job at the Prague Institute for Workmen’s Accident
Insurance. Born in 1883, he trained as a lawyer, worked briefly for an
Italian insurance company in Prague, the Assicurazioni Generali, and
then in 1908 took a position with the institute, where he remained
until he resigned on grounds of ill-health in 1922. He died in 1924. We
may not believe, as we are told in the preface to The Office Writings,
a selection from his legal and clerical work, that ‘much of Kafka’s
greatness . . . is owed to his office job,’ but we can certainly agree
that anything we learn about his job will strengthen ‘our sense of the
conditions under which Kafka accomplished his nocturnal writing’ – the
writing he did, that is, when he got home from the office. The editors
of this volume are understandably eager to make literal, referential
connections between Kafka’s office work and his fiction, and their
texts of choice are ‘In the Penal Colony’, ‘The Great Wall of China’, Amerika and The Castle. But their real point, and the real interest of this book, is rather different, and hinges on the idea of the Kafkaesque.


This new 3-book set of The Arabian Nights from Penguin is utterly beautiful. (As far as I can tell, only available in the UK). See an interesting conversation with the designer here.

Stein and Joyce arguing over which one of them is greater:

I wanted to read more about the controversy occasioned by the Autobiography, so I went and got Janet Hobhouse’s short biography of Stein down from the shelf. The grievances were as follows: The Jolases were pissed because Stein had pronounced transition
dead (it hadn’t published any Stein lately); Braque was pissed because
Stein had denied his role at Picasso’s side in the creation of cubism,
and Matisse was pissed because Stein had compared his wife to a horse. Tzara was pissed because he was Tzara.

The pamphlet sounded to me like a kind of anti-matter version ofOur Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress,the latter symposium intended to promote a modernist work and the former, its evil twin, intended to torpedo one. Joyce himself had been behind the 1929 publication of Exagmination, and most of the contributions – by Eugene Jolas, Samuel Beckett, and others – had already appeared in the pages of transition. This got me wondering: could the real motivation behind the 1935 transition pamphlet have been an attack by the Joyce faction on the Stein circle?


And David Hockney and Robert Irwin, arguing via intermediary (The Believer, The Paralyzed Cyclops):

Indeed, for some twenty-five years now, whenever I have written about
one or the other of these two giants of contemporary art (arguably the
two most significant artists to come out of the late-twentieth-century
California art milieu), the other one has called effectively to tell
me, “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” The two have never met or conversed in
person (straddling that Southern California scene like Schoenberg and
Stravinsky before them, each seemingly oblivious to the other’s
existence though in fact deeply seized by the work); instead they have
been carrying on this quite vivid argument for over two decades, through me, as it were.

The 7 greatest stories in Esquire history,a s chosen by Esquire. (You can face-off Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer.)

A Philip K. Dick documentary.

Full set of 6 here.

Weekend Content

The Jewish Quarterly, "Irène Némirovsky and the Death of the Critic" by Tadzio Koelb. The rebirth of the author becomes the death of the critic:

The publishers of Suite Française take little credit for its market
success, but some details of the marketing campaign suggest this is
false modesty. It would be an understatement to suggest that Suite
Française enjoyed a much larger marketing budget than most foreign
work; it was, in fact, Chatto & Windus’s second largest budget for
that year; posters were displayed in the London tube, a series of major
trade promotions were pursued with large booksellers, including
Waterstone’s, Borders, Books Etc. and Amazon, and advertisements were
placed in all the catalogues to target independent booksellers. Much of
this expensive marketing focused on Némirovsky’s own fate; the press
release that accompanied review copies, for example, devotes around one
hundred words to the two novels, their content and themes, and over 340
words to what it calls ‘The story behind the book’.

Most journalists seemingly took their cue from this, and certainly
the great majority of reviews and other articles which appeared soon
after publication embraced the ‘lost book by a dead author’ angle: ‘The
novel in the suitcase’ (The Guardian); ‘History in a suitcase’ (The
Herald); ‘War epic trapped in a suitcase’ (Sunday Express); ‘Hidden
Treasure’ (Financial Times); ‘Lost and found’ (New Statesman); and so
on. Some used the darker aspects of the author’s life to raise the
stakes when looking for headlines: ‘Doomed to brilliance’, said The
Scotsman. A week later, the Daily Mail offered its review under the
title ‘She died in Auschwitz but her legend lives’. The Mail on Sunday
topped this with ‘Genius with a tragic ending’. The content of these
articles tended to match their headlines for focus. Six paragraphs out
of twelve are biographical in The Times; six out of ten in the
Financial Times; seven out of eleven in the Saturday Guardian. The
pattern, once established, became more pronounced as critics began to
respond to the other reviews. The Daily Mail, for example, uses only
eight of eighteen paragraphs to discuss the work itself; the rest is
biographical. . . .

An audio interview with Ha Jin. And news on Jin’s new book, from the University of Chicago.

A "reconstruction" of a recent interview between Tom Stoppard and David Remnick. Among other things discussed, the art of translation:

Well, number one, by the very nature of translation, and more acutely in the case of a great writer like Chekhov, there is no terminus to the event. The Cherry Orchard exists somewhere around the intersection of innumerable translations, but none of them can really account for the play, not can they ever hope to. And the second thing is, a translation that appears to have its optimum realization also has a built-in obsolescence. It may be perfect for its time, but in five years it will seem dated. What seems right for one now, always seems wrong a few years later. Plus there’s a third thing. I haven’t discussed this yet with Sam Mendes, but it also seems to me that directors like to have a new text to work with because the text is essentially unsettled. It is only when the play is performed and the script is published that the text becomes settled. And yes, of course, there are several translations of The Cherry Orchard by a number of writers which are quite good. Michael Frayn’s, for instance — which has the added value of being written by the only one of us who also reads Russian. . . .

NYRB, "Witnesses to a Mystery" by Claire Messud, a review/essay of Home by Marilynne Robinson:

While Gilead took the form of John Ames’s written musings for
his son to read after his death — and in so doing allowed Robinson and
her character the leeway for philosophical musings, apparently
incidental anecdotes, and digressions, while simultaneously liberating
both narrator and creator from the burdens of multiple character
development and scene-setting — Home assumes what seems to
this reader a greater challenge: to animate fully formed fictional
characters who operate in both the mundane and philosophical spheres,
and whose spiritual and psychological underpinnings truly are so
divergent as each to represent a "little civilization." When Jack
explains to his brother Teddy that "it’s hard to talk to people.
Religious people," because "sometimes it seems as though I’m in one
universe and you’re in another. All of you," he is, in fact, echoing
Ames’s reflection from the earlier novel, from a less lofty
perspective: Ames sees that each person is in his own universe; Jack
sees only that nobody around him is in his own personal universe, but
imagines them all together in another.


"‘¿Y dónde está Bolaño?’ preguntaban los chicos," at HemanoCerdo. If you don’t read Spanish, here’s a quick translation of the content: "Why does Bolano make you North Americans act so silly?"

And for an answer (somewhat), my essay at HermanoCerdo, "The Dream of Our Youth":

I am convinced that romance alone does not account for
his burgeoning reputation over here. Let us return to Bolaño’s phrase,
“a dangerous calling.” In Bolaño, art, whether great, obscure, bad, or
evil, is always linked to the void, to danger, to terror. Thus Ulises
and Arturo in The Savage Detectives driving off into the Sonora Desert in search of a poet who might or might not have existed. Thus Father Lacroix from By Night in Chile
hollowly justifying the Chilean terror with “That’s how literature is
made.” Thus the avant-garde aerial poet Carlos Wieder, that modest
depiction of pure evil.

The idea of the great personal risk one runs in pursuit
of great knowledge is, of course, deeply embedded in the Western
literary tradition, and I think Bolaño expands upon it in ways that are
new, interesting, and particularly relevant to a contemporary American

Garth Risk Hallberg at More Intelligent Life: Is 2666 a Masterpiece?

Review at The Complete Review, an enthusiastic A+

Last Rites: Robert Bolaño’s 2666, at The Village Voice

The Part about What Doesn’t Fit in a Review, at Ivebeenreadinglately

A Few Great Things About Bolano’s 2666 That Won’t Make the Reviews, at Sound of the City, a Village Voice blog

The oddly titled "Five Most Unskippable Passages in 2666," as judged by New York Magazine

Though I don’t know why, Time Magazine’s Best Book of 2008, which begins with the improbable sentence "There could be nobody better suited to describe the hilarious, improbable triumph of Robert Bolaño than Bolaño himself, which is a shame because he’s dead."

Weekend Content


Joan Miro: “I want to assassinate painting. I intend to destroy, destroy everything that exists in painting. I have utter contempt for painting.

NYRB: Two Paths for the Novel, wherein Zadie Smith argues persuasively against the exact kind of novel she’s been trending toward.

From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder,
by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The
two novels are antipodal—indeed one is the strong refusal of the other.
The violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland
is, in part, a function of our ailing literary culture. All novels
attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that
down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we
cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as
surely as a Graham Greene.

These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

Boston Review, The End of Sexual Identity:

In regard to sexual identity, fiction writers today not only display
some sort of civic obligation to “imagine” the other, but also reveal a
profound curiosity, a hunger, to try on the other’s tropes, to exchange
them, to press ourselves against them and be transformed. We want to
know how other people do it—make narrative, that is. We want to do it
the way they do and see what happens. Chain bookstores might prefer to
herd shoppers into categories under fluorescent lights, but writers and
readers have a way of wandering around in the dusk, curious,
appetitive, mutable. From that wandering, new forms and new ways of
seeing emerge. We look through the eyes of the other not via identity—this is what it’s like to be you—but via a way of making narrative—this is what it’s like to tell a story, to frame the world, the way you do—and suddenly we are able to apprehend the world anew.
     What follows is a very rough map of this new terrain.


Martin Ramirez, in the Economist:"MARTIN RAMIREZ spent most of his adult life in mental hospitals. He
taught himself to paint, using whatever he could lay his hands on:
food, pencils, crayons, shoe polish, even his own saliva coloured by
chewing up newspaper illustrations. To make the huge pieces of paper he
liked to work on, he used newspaper, grocery bags and thin
medical-examination sheets, glued together with a paste of spit and
mashed potatoes. For decades he has been considered an oddball artist,
America’s answer to Richard Dadd."

Words Without Borders, Three Myths of Immigrant Writing by Sasa Stanišić:

Myth 1: Immigrant literature is a philological category of its own, and thus comprises a fruitful anomaly in relation to national literatures.

To speak of a single “immigrant literature” is simply wrong, because it is wrongly simple. The nature of migration and the level of foreign writers’ integration vary too much to be collected in one category, not to mention the authors’ unique biographical backgrounds and differing cultural, religious, or social habits. Even these outward literary characteristics point to the great diversity of experiences, possible subjects, and intellectual influences which in many cases become a part of the text or even make up the text as a whole. The goal of objective judgment should be to overcome the fixation on an author’s biography and move to a thematically-oriented view of the work.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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