"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer." --Jane Hirshfield

Friday, March 30, 2007

Publishing and Pet Food: The Connection

Thanks for this post at Metaxucafe. By now we've all heard about the poisoned pet food, and that many high-end brands are manufactured in the same plant as the cheapest brands, using some of the same ingredients. Sure, there are a lot of problems with aiming for the bottom line -- which the mass-market approach to anything ensures. Whether you're squeezing the last dollar out of books or dog food, you wind up with a similar product when buyers are expecting something unique. Is there anything unique, or are we back to Baudrillard's simulation of freedom?

Consumer products being what they are, I don't doubt that what we're getting is stamped out, endlessly, identically, cars that differ mainly in the position of the cup-holder, movies with the same stories but different actors. But publishing, like the making of artisan cheeses and gourmet pet foods, should be, and is, I hope, run by individuals, each trying to push his or her unique vision past the gauntlet of corporate sales goals. Failing that, they start small presses. It may not be too much to expect that individuals push their visions, but it may be too much to expect them to succeed more than once in awhile.

What happened to the mission to edify? Can we get back to it? Now it's all about pandering -- will the arts that are "an acquired taste" -- non-mainstream writing, music, art, dance -- disappear in another generation? Or does that very question mark me as a dinosaur? Yet, where did the money come from, back in the day, for such edifying efforts -- was it, say, corporate sponsorship? And why is that declining? As the economy tightens and the rich and powerful look down at the struggling rest of us and raise gas prices yet again, do they fear, all reality to the contrary, that they will soon share our struggle to pay the bills? What is their problem?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Oprah Picks "The Road"

Cormac McCarthy's depressing, apocalyptic novel of father and son trudging through the hell that earth becomes. Which has already sold 138,000 copies, and is due out in paperback soon. What timing, eh? The one thing that strikes me funny in all this is his publicist, Paul Bogaards, saying, "He knew who she was when she called." Well, it's nice to hear that the talented author isn't living under a rock. My favorite of his is still The Crossing, especially the first third, the boy and the wolf. I can't say I loved The Road, but I'm glad Oprah picked it. Most of her picks are not to my taste. They're not out there enough for me, but this is. I noticed, in the cover shot on Amazon, that there is already an Oprah's Book Club emblem -- wonder when that decision was actually made, and how they managed to keep it quiet, unless publishers can stick those emblems on at a moment's notice? Photo provided by Knopf via ABC News.

Correction: You can get the paperback online, but my local bookstore will be getting it soon.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dog to the Rescue

From the BBC: Debbie Parkhurst of Maryland was choking on an apple, and her dog jumped on her chest to dislodge it. They will be making the rounds of talk shows. I wonder what the dog will have to say. The same page on the BBC has links to stories about a lifesaving rabbit, cat, and beagle (who dialed for help from a mobile phone).

I love stories like this. My dog has so far saved my life in more subtle ways, earlier getting me to go outside on a beautiful spring day, rather than pretzel up at my desk and drink chai.

The Everyday Struggle Between Capitalism and Grace: George Saunders

I'm reading CivilWarLand, loving it (Humane Raccoon Alternatives involves a tire iron), and people are sending links to interviews with the author, beginning with this one at Powells. Then there's one at the NY Times from last year. And for those who will not be dissuaded, AOL's 120 Questions.

It's the cynicism, the hollowness of work (cf. the racoons) and the fact that so few authors even write about it. As he says, much of literature is adultery during exotic vacations, but that's not what most of our lives are like. What do the baristas think? Who's writing about the cubicle slaves? What we all dread doing, until the alternative is even worse. Nobody dreams of growing up and going to work in a cubicle. Or being a "delivery fucking guy," as one twenty-something delivery guy, married, kids, once told me, shaking his head in wonder at how this fate had befallen him. Still, I wonder if we'd be happier as subsistence-level farmers, or hunter-gatherers. We'd be too tired to complain. It's like we're just comfortable enough to be miserable that we have to work at dull jobs.
I remember thinking when I worked for that corporation, "Oh man, the American corporation, it's soul sucking." But then to have two little kids and get inside that citadel was very nice. To have insurance and to know if you just showed up and were competent and decent your kids would make it.
Would we trade the dullness for the excitement and risk of fighting off saber-toothed cats? Not likely. I include myself here. I hate dull desk jobs, but a good cup of organic coffee makes up for a lot. *sigh* The quote above is from an interview at Identity Theory.

Saunders, interestingly, is a Buddhist, which may explain looking closely at things like cubicle existence others prefer to overlook.

More links: Saunders interviewed by the amazing-herself Scarlett Thomas. Interview at Daytrotter.com. Pasadena Weekly -- where he talks about Buddhism, 9/11 and the Iraq War. The Texas Observer. Real Change News.

You can Google the rest.

Monday, March 26, 2007

I'd Rather Be Reading

The BBC News website graph indicates that the most popular story in most regions of the world is "Drug Overdose Killed Anna Nicole." One refreshing divergence: Australians, who are having the middle of the night as I write, prefer "Patch to Boost Female Sex Drive." But maybe only Australians who are online at 4 am.

Anyway, I'm off to read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Jane Austen Gets a Makeover

Because even the dead have to look good to sell books. At the Guardian. I'm not sure whether to despair at how ridiculous this is or to rejoice that at least I look better than dead Jane.

Book Stores of Park Slope

I just returned from a visit to my old neighborhood. I was happy to see that the Community Bookstore on 7th Avenue is still there. Inside, I learned that Natsuo Kirino has a new book out, Grotesque, good news for fans of Out. The Barnes & Noble farther down 7th apparently hasn't done them in, which is certainly more good news. The Community Bookstore was one of my favorite places back then, and it still has a well-used feel. The Barnes & Noble has a well-trodden feel -- there were no tables in its Starbucks cafe, so perhaps the majority of the traffic there is between the magazine stand and the cafe, located at opposite sides of the main floor. Literature is downstairs, and I don't know if that's meant as a comment.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Diabetic Nation

News on the nonvegetarian American diet: a prescription for diabetes, heart disease and global warming. Terence McNally, at Alternet.
"If you go back to the Great Depression or before -- and frankly for much of our sojourn on earth -- people couldn't afford to eat meat twice or three times a day. We ate beans and vegetables and fruits and things, much of it coming from our own gardens. Nowadays, for whatever reason, our culture has allowed us to have bacon and eggs for breakfast, baloney sandwiches for lunch, and fried chicken for dinner. And we are paying a terrible price."
"Americans now eat a million animals per hour -- mostly chickens. Americans now have this tremendous appetite for chicken, naively imagining chicken is somehow a health food, which it's clearly not. Chicken has chicken fat in it. The leanest beef that my Uncle Harold can raise is about 29 percent fat, as a percentage of calories. The leanest chicken, even without the skin, is about 23 percent fat. A bean is about 4 percent.

"We have 100 million belching cows on the North American continent. People talk about global warming. There's a lot you can do, but the first thing by all means is retire those cows."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Suicide of Col Ted Westhusing

"I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars. I am sullied -- no more. I didn't volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves."
Via Alternet.

View from the Yard Update: Snowman Beheaded

This is the view from the yard as of Saturday.
Two of the local snowmen:I'm sorry to report that the snowman with the evergreen mohawk was beheaded before I got a photo. Must have been his attitude.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Britain's Top Ten Unread Books

Includes Bill Clinton's My Life. Here is the Guardian's synopsis:
"Read mah lips. I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. OK, so she may have given me a blow-job, but that doesn't really count as sex when you're in the Oval office; and the reason I denied it was because the Evil forces of the Republican right were trying to destroy my presidency. I did so many good things for my country, like um, er ... well anyway I didn't invade Iraq ... and I fully deserve the $50,000 I get for an after-dinner speech now that I'm an international statesman. God bless America."
Read more here. And here. I give them credit: some of the books they can't finish, I can't even start.

I would, however, like to point out that gas was $1.15/gallon when Clinton was in office. He cared about people who work for a living, unlike the greedy, cynical elitist we have now. (Would somebody give him a blow job so we can impeach him?)
I didn't finish the book, either. God Bless America.

Reading Update

How to Be Good: I have to like a book where the main character finds her salvation in reading.

"...the opportunity to retreat further and further from the world until I have found some space, some air that isn't stale, that hasn't been breathed by my family a thousand times already... And when I've finished it [book she's reading] I will start another one, and that might be even bigger, and then another, and I will be able to keep extending my house until it becomes a mansion, full of rooms where they can't find me."
Funny, that was my childhood philosophy toward my parents.

The End of Mr. Y: I don't have to, but I love books in which weird sci fi elements predominate, including half-dead autistic miscreants working for the CIA, and disembodied lovers turning into archetypes. It was described to me as a time-travel book, but it's not, it's a mind-travel book. Also covering quantum physics, homeopathy, adultery, laboratory mice, kinky sex, the creation of gods, the memory of water, etc.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The View from the Yard, and, How to Be Good

Here's the view (looking down).

Nick Hornby's How to Be Good is on the turntable, er, page flipper. I thought it would be a fun read, as it is the story of a passive-aggressive man's conversion to utter goodness -- and there are so many utterly good, spiritual seekers in this area, that well, I thought I'd get a few laughs. And I'm not disappointed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Jonathan Lethem

Just finished reading Forever, said the Duck, from Lethem's collection Wall of the Sky, Wall of the Eye. (I like the cover at the Powells link better than the cover on the one I got at Barnes & Noble.) The story concerns online avatars of former lovers of a couple who invite them to a cyberspace party for one last hurrah. It's complicated by the bizarre rules of cyberspace, and the fact that the avatars date from the time of their affair with the man or woman, and in the case of affairs with both, it depends on who invited them, and they carry a ticket identifying who did. So there are things that are in the future of certain avatars, that others already know. Nothing really comes of that, plotwise. In fact, nothing comes of anything, plotwise. Many of the avatars morph into cartoon characters. Then they all have sex. I like this story.

My favorite of Lethem's books is still the first one I read, Amnesia Moon, where reality was as changeable as weather, but I have yet to read Motherless Brooklyn, Men and Cartoons, his latest, and a few others. I read Girl in Landscape and Fortress of Solitude, which latter, while good, was too much of a boy book for me.

By now, everyone probably knows that Lethem, recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, is giving away film rights to his new book.

He mentions Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, as well as Open Source theory and Free Culture. Anyway, I recommend The Gift for its discussions of Art, Commerce and Indian Giving. (Long reviled, "Indian Giving" is the understanding that everything is to be shared.)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Anti-Zen? Jean Baudrillard is Dead: What Does it Mean?

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, perhaps best known here for his quote, "Welcome to the desert of the real," used in The Matrix, is dead. From the BBC:
He argued that spectacle is crucial in creating our view of events - things do not happen if they are not seen.

He gained notoriety for his 1991 book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place and again a decade later for describing the 9/11 attacks as a "dark fantasy".

Perhaps they didn't happen for him. For anyone who survived the Gulf War or 9/11 attacks, or did not survive them, they of course did happen. This kind of self-referential silliness -- which is arguably the way that many people do in fact experience the world (and that is his point, I think)-- is the opposite of Zen.

On the one hand:
“All of our values are simulated,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car? It’s a simulation of freedom.”
“The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers” was published just a year after 9/11. In it, he argued that Islamic fundamentalists tried to create their own reality; the resulting media spectacle would give the impression that the West was constantly under threat of terrorist attack.

The current American invasion of Iraq is an effort to “put the rest of the world into simulation, so all the world becomes total artifice and then we are all-powerful,” he told The Times. “It’s a game.”

On the other, well, he did think Disneyland was paradise.

Perhaps the best obit, at the Guardian.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Views from Woodstock

1. Who said, "I could shit a better president"? Answer.

2. Which is real?

Answer: They are both real. The first one is a project of the Woodstock Guild. If I find the artist's name, I'll post it. There are a couple of these signs around, one references a woman who died because she couldn't pay for her prescription meds.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Grumpy Old Bookman on Britain's Favorites

Grumpy Auld has no time for Britain's favorites:
Lies, damned lies, and favourite books
Most UK newspapers last week carried reports of an alleged list of 'the nation's favourite books'.
What can one possibly say? Well, for a start, I suppose there are some people around who are so young, so badly educated, and so lacking in intelligence that they will actually believe that an 'opinion poll' which uses the data provided, online, by 2,000 self-selected people, is somehow truly representative of what the British nation thinks.

Nah, I just thought it was fun. Perhaps better to say the favorite books of people who care about literature? Which is not necessarily to disdain popular or "commercial" fiction. (Yet, many of us do.)

Anyway, I doubt Jane Austen would get much of a mention on this side of the pond (I could be wrong -- see Sherman Alexie's favorites, below.) I did like Emma (from which my favorite line remains, "It was a highly prized letter.") but haven't read Pride and Prejudice.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Milan Kundera, Emma Bovary and the Banning of Poetry from Iran

Josh, at Mark Sarvas' blog, The Elegant Variation, asking how to approach Kundera's work. I do my best to help out. I think that just as he applies his considerable study and understanding of fiction to the writing of books about fiction, so he also uses them to write books of fiction, with the result that reading one of his books is like having the author standing beside you explaining the book at the same time, only, somehow, that has been included in the book. As a reader, I enjoy this approach, but I suppose it isn't for everyone. There are times when he pulls you away from the story to give his opinions. I wouldn't want all my reading to be like that, but I do love his work.

At John Baker's blog: Poetry from Iran banned. Perhaps the most galling part of this is that it's one of the things we most condemn in other countries, the suppression of literature. It's as if we've become the enemy. On a related note, I'm reading the excellent book by Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr Y, and the two bad guys are Americans. I admit it hurts me that we've become the world's bad guys. Thanks again, Dubya.

And also at John's blog: Emma, c'est moi. Perhaps Flaubert meant he could understand her, through some small similarities of character, those we suppress, for example. I feel like that about the characters in one of my (unpublished) novels. They're all me to a certain extent -- the me who became a corporate VP, the me who rejected society and lived in the woods, etc. A friend of mine insisted that one of my characters was actually her, which is how I realized that no, they're all me.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Milan Kundera au Jardin des Tuileries

Sometime ago, I was in Paris, and I saw Milan Kundera in the Tuileries, feeding the birds. His eyes were mesmeric, and the sparrows sat on his fingertips, eating seeds from his palm. I did not recognize him until I returned home, and checked the photo on the back of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. How fitting that the man to write that title communed with the beings most attuned to lightness. If I ever meet him, I will dredge up this line of French, "Je vous ai vu au Jardin des Tuileries, il y a dix/quinze/vingt ans." If I have the nerve, I will add, "avec des oiseaux." At the time, he gave me a small nod of acknowledgment, not to disturb his small friends. I smiled, and went on my way. Probably to the Eiffel Tower.

Meanwhile, I read this. From the Guardian.

And this, in the NY Times, where Russell Banks points out that "he’s not inclusive enough. He does not discuss a single female novelist, even in passing. It’s as if no Western woman has ever tried writing a serious novel in 400 years. And, in his appreciation of non-European novelists like Fuentes, García Márquez and Chamoiseau, he colonizes them, as if culturally they gazed longingly toward their European mother- and fatherlands instead of their homelands. But then, he’s not writing literary criticism; he’s writing the secret history of the novels of Milan Kundera and teaching us how to read them."

What can you expect when the NY Times also features this lineup of the Best American Fiction of the past 25 years -- the winner, center and four runners-up.

At Least You Know They Read

My local Barnes & Noble is turning out to have a singles scene. In addition to two late teen girls having an evening out together, and some couples having Starbucks coffee, there were a couple of single guys apparently in search of female companionship. We discussed, briefly, tonight's lunar eclipse, which seemed like a crescent moon with a dark orange disk when I left the house around 7, but was down to a black nibble in the one-two o'clock area of the full moon by 8.

About the teen girls: they reminded me of a favorite line from Sula: "We was girls together." Sitting there with my friend, both of us with histories of broken relationships and friendships that ran aground, & seeing the two teenagers, well, it was kind of nice, I thought, to look back. It also reminded me of dragging a friend to one of the revival theaters in NYC to see Grand Illusion, then discussing it afterward, along with boys, makeup, homework and whatever else.

About meeting people there: At least you know they read, as opposed to meeting them in bars, where all you know is that they drink.

Tonight's list of purchases: Hocus Pocus, The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye, The Sorrows of Young Werther (couldn't resist at $5.95) and Women of the World Acoustic.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Top Ten: BBC and Sherman Alexie

In a stunning rout, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has been voted the number one book in Great Britain. Here are the results from the BBC poll:

1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (20%)
2. Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien (17%)
3. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (14%)
4. Harry Potter books, JK Rowling (12%)
5. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (9.5%)
6. The Bible (9%)
7. Wuthering Heights , Emily Bronte (8.5%)
8. Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell (6%)
8. His Dark Materials , Philip Pullman (6%)
10. Great Expectations , Charles Dickens (5.5%)

Picking one's Top Ten seems to be a fad these days, as J. Peder Zane has just published a book that consists of writers' top ten lists. Here, courtesy of Zane and the Seattle Times is Sherman Alexie's top ten:

1. "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison
2. "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg
3. The poems of Emily Dickenson
4. "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien
5. "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes
6. "Ceremony" by Leslie Marmon Silko
7. "She Had Some Horses" by Joy Harjo
8. "The Branch Will Not Break" by James Wright
9. "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck
10. "Beloved" by Toni Morrison

Alexie, who will have made the top ten lists of many a reader, has a new novel, Flight,due out in April. Alexie's tour dates are posted on hiswebsite indicating he'll be on the east coast only briefly: June 4 in NYC, June 5 in Phila.

Flight involves the spirit of a boy existing in different bodies, much like another book I read and liked, Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell. I can remember quite a few years ago, when coming upon a book with this kind of subject would have made me drool. Now, it seems there are quite a few books whose subjects play with our understanding of life, death, time and identity. Perhaps all those authors were drooling over the same books, and took it as inspiration to write them. Hm.

Currently, I'm reading The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas, and it promises to be a kindred-spirited romp.

Award-Winning Author Uses Pseudonym: Why?

What is the point of using a pseudonym if he's just going to announce that it's his anyway? Janet Maslin in the NY Times Book Review:

The swirling, elegant noir “Christine Falls” is the first book by Benjamin Black. Under ordinary circumstances, he might be admired for the cool precision and contemplative allure of his impressive debut. But this is no tyro: Mr. Black is the Irish author John Banville, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for “The Sea” and a man much admired for the hauteur and inventiveness of his fiction. His use of a pen name for “Christine Falls” reflects the way he has spoken about this genre novel in terms of craftsmanship rather than art.

His use of his own name in conjunction with his pen name reflects, what? A desire not to lose any sales? A desire to have two names? It's not as if he waited to see what the book's reception would be like before announcing it was his, as Doris Lessing did with The Diaries of Jane Somers. She was surprised at the time to find that only one reviewer noted a similarity in style between "Somers" and Lessing.

I know there are other authors who do this: Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Anne Rice/A.N. Roquelaure, Joyce Carol Oates/Rosamond Smith, et al. The question is, why?