Plant Food for Thought

Nathalie Chicha responds to Russell Smith’s Globe and Mail article lamenting all the precise naming of plants in Canadian Literature. He thinks it’s “showing off.” Nathalie says:

The question is, why show off with that? “Showing off” is not a simple impulse, to which other things can be reduced; good analysis would realize how culturally mediated that term is, and ask why what’s being “shown off” has value. If naming plants is simply meant to show off knowledge, for example, wouldn’t such insecure precision show up elsewhere (in descriptions of architecture, food, clothing, etc.)?
Why not examine the intended effect, or the unexamined and inherited literary mode, of naming nature?

Web Fiction and A Couple of  Digressions

CAAF gives us the heads-up on this Slate article about, “a just-launched site for a faux indie record label” that “demonstrates that it is possible to weave a story out of hyperlinks.” The article posits this most obvious and excellent question:

Why hasn’t anyone figured out how to use the Web to tell a story? Hypertext, with its built-in cross-references and interactivity, was supposed to change how we read and write fiction. After that hype faded years ago, online narrative pretty much stagnated. It’s not that Web-based fiction doesn’t present opportunities for astounding creativity. For one, the kind of density you can pack into a Web site — layers upon layers of HTML pages, photos, sound and video clips, and downloadable files — can’t be matched on the printed page. And the do-it-yourself production tools just keep getting better.

I say it’s just a matter of time. We may have to wait for the generation of kids raised with the net to grow up, though. There’s still a silly, extremely short-sighted, and pervasive snobbery about web-publishing in this generation. I can’t stand reading interviews with editors of esoteric literary magazines, particularly magazines devoted to poetry and shorter fiction, complaining that they don’t have enough money to publish a few hundred copies of their print journals. The solution is obvious — put your stuff on the web. If it’s good, it’ll reach a much wider audience than you could ever afford to reach with paper. It’ll even reach people living in the wilds of Nova Scotia! But I digress.

Speaking of digressing, you must go over to Tingle Alley right now and read the (brilliant, not to mention incisive) CAAF’s reaction to DFW’s essay “Consider the Lobster” in the current issue of Gourmet. Do NOT miss the Chile’s Disclaimer.

Living Dolls

In this web-only Paris Review interview, Mexican writer Ignacio Padilla says:

In London I ran into a wonderful book by a young writer, Gaby Wood — the daughter of the critic James Wood. It’s called Living Dolls, and it has very good research on automata and a chapter dedicated to Edison’s project for a talking toy. From that I picked up the idea of a woman who was a paradox, working twelve hours a day recording something meant to be sweet, motherly, and cute. I found it hard to believe someone working like that could be sweet or cute. The story is part of a collection of short stories on this same subject — women, dolls, and robots.

According to this TLS article James Wood “began his career, as he has continued it, precociously. He was appointed as the Guardian’s ‘Chief Literary Critic’ in 1991, when he was only twenty-six.” I’m terrible with math, but wouldn’t that make him about six years old back in 1971 when Gaby Wood, author of Living Dolls, was born? I’ll say he was precocious.

Whether or not she is related to the esteemed critic, Gaby Wood’s book, which seems to have two different titles, sounds intriguing.

Checking the Legality of Checkpoint

The Christian Science Monitor wonders whether Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint: A Novel is illegal.

Note the careful language used by the publisher on the Amazon site:

Checkpoint is a work of fiction by acclaimed author Nicholson Baker, a novella that explores the peculiar angst many Americans are feeling right now about their country and their president. The book is set up as a conversation between two old high school buddies. One of them, in despair about the direction the country is going, is convinced he must kill the president; the other tries to talk him out of it.

Baker wrote Checkpoint in response to the powerless seething fury many Americans felt when President Bush decided to take the nation to war. “How do you react to something that you think is so hideously wrong?” asks Baker. “How do you keep it from driving you nuts? What do you do with your life while this wrong is being carried out? What are the thoughts — the secret thoughts, the unpublishable thoughts, so to speak — that go through your head?”

Some people have rational responses. Others do not. Baker’s book does not suggest violence is ever an appropriate response. But in order to understand the reasons why a violent act is always a mistake, one must first look at the contemplation of such an act.

The dialogue in Checkpoint is angry, funny, pointed and absurd. All of it has relevance to our world. And it is through the conversation in this novel that Baker hopes to raise important questions about how we react to violence — both individually and as a nation.

Maybe they should have called the book The Novel Checkpoint: A Novel, and By The Way, That Means It’s Fiction, Which Means, Of Course, That It Is Certainly Not True. The release date has been moved up to August 10.

“If the 9/11 report had been written as a novel, nobody would believe it.”

David Ignatius recommends reading the 9/11 Report as a thriller:

Try to read the story as a narrative, a nonfiction thriller in which the characters move inexorably toward the cataclysm of that cloudless morning. The strength of the report is precisely in its narrative power; by telling all the little stories, it reveals the big story in a different way. We see the bland evil of the plotters, the Hamlet-like indecision of government officials, the bravery amid chaos of the firefighters.

I Feel Like Taking In A Narrative

The lovely Rose Gowen sent me this passage from Gary Indiana’s piece on Jean Echenoz in the current issue of Bookforum:

If it’s true that photography released painting from naturalism, Echenoz prompts the hardly new thought that film has, or ought to have, liberated the novel from it’s more plodding expository chores. While his technique mimics film’s sleight-of-hand by cutting across time lines, points of view, and locations, he also features ample doses of allegory, a strong resemblance to fables and fairy tales, and anthropomorphisms that could resonate only in a linguistic venue. He indicates, at every point, something beyond documentary reality and paints a world where coincidence and the dream state regularly trump logic and verisimilitude.

Rose says “…one so often hears people lament reading in the era of movies and television — the idea being that books compete with movies and tv — and I sort of wonder about this: does anyone really say, ‘oh, I feel like taking in a narrative, but in what form’?”

What’s With the Bird-Headed Dwarfs?

The Times has a whole page of Annie Dillard links. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of For the Time Being:

I have in my hands the standard manual of human birth defects. Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation, fourth edition, by Kenneth Lyons Jones, M.D., professor of pediatrics at UC-San Diego, 1988, is a volume to which, in conscience, I cannot recommend your prolonged attention. In vivid photographs, it depicts many variations in our human array.

This photograph shows, for example, the bird-headed dwarfs. They are a brother and sister; they sit side by side on a bed. The boy, a blond, is six years old, says the caption, and the girl, brown-haired, is three. Indeed their smooth bodies and clear faces make them look, at first and second glances, to be six and three years old. Both are naked. They have drawn their legs up to their chests. The camera looks down on them. The girl has a supercilious expression, and seems to be looking down her nose at the camera. Bright children often show this amused and haughty awareness: “And who might you be, Bub?”

The review of this book, written by Wendy Lesser, is interesting because it is a perfect example of a thoughtful review written by someone for whom the book does not seem intended. Lesser acknowledges this, and tries to address it, at the end of the piece:

As a Jewish atheist with little or no feel for nature, I am admittedly not the ideal reader of “For the Time Being.” (The Jewish part is important, for it means that Dillard’s frequent references to the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Isaac Luria lack, for me, the appeal of exoticism.) But I think this is Annie Dillard’s problem as much as mine. A book like this should not speak just to the converted. Unbeliever that I am, I can be made sympathetic to the ideas and concerns expressed here…

But her impatient dismissal of the book’s central question is evident in the review’s very first paragraph:

The obsessive idea is both simple and, to date, unresolvable: if an all-merciful, all-powerful God exists, how is it that evil also exists? The question is an old one, of course, and it is not clear what makes Dillard want to dredge it up just now.

While I disagree with almost every one of Lesser’s criticisms of the book (and I am, if anything, an agnostic) I admire the way she makes it plain that her response to the book is bound to be affected by her subjective experiences and inclinations. I have a little more difficulty wrapping my head around the notion that a book shouldn’t be written only for those it is written for but also for those it is not.

Does It Ork?

I’ve been rereading some of Annie Dillard’s stuff these past couple of weeks. Looking for some interesting Dillard links to share with you, I happened upon this passage in an old New York Times review of Living By Fiction:

Now there are readers and writers whose minds can handle critical theory and esthetic abstractions. All honor to them. Annie Dillard is one. There are others who read pragmatically and write intuitively and ask nothing more sophisticated of a piece than, “Does it ork?”

It’s a typo, for sure, but now I’ve got the perfect name for the Emily Dickinson shiver.

I liked this, too — an excerpt from Carolyn See’s Los Angeles Times review of the same book, found on its Amazon page:

“Everyone who timidly, bombastically, reverently, scholastically – even fraudulently — essays to ‘live the life of the mind’ should read this book.

I’m totally a fraudulent life-of-the-minder. This book is for me! Someone needs to make a list of the books suitable for the fraudulent life-of-the-minder. They shouldn’t be too long, though. Or perhaps, more accurately, too heavy, as we’ll be lugging them around way more than actually trying to read them.

The New Guy With A Dream

Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance will be reissued at the end of August. If they want a bestseller, they should release an audio version with Obama doing the reading. I had Emily Dickinson shivers during the whole second half of his speech — and I’m a Canadian. That’s not the usual Canadian reaction to a rousing patriotic speech, particularly to an American one. The shivers didn’t lessen my schoolmarmish tendencies any, though. I kept trying to give the evil eye — right through the television screen — to all the people in the audience moving around, chatting, and waving at each other while Obama spoke.

There are already two first editions of the book for sale on Amazon, priced at $279.99 and $480.00.

Via Publishers Lunch.

Back Monday, probably

I’m traveling to Nashville this weekend to visit my grandparents and my aunt, uncle and cousins.

Long-time readers may recall that my grandparents used to live in Mississippi. Due to Grandma’s failing health and Grandpa’s memory loss, they’ve relocated to an assisted living facility near my aunt’s house.

Since then Grandpa has taken to driving aimlessly around the city, calling my dad by his cousin’s name, and waking at midday and thinking it’s morning. The doctors suspect Alzheimer’s.

Is it terrible to hope he won’t remember that my father and I are estranged?

The alternative is to have the same conversation about it, over and over again — like in Groundhog Day, except I shoot myself at the end.

But Nashville’s a great town, and my aunt and her family are the only sane people with whom I share genes. (While my sister and I can fake it sometimes, we’ve both got more than our fair share of crazy.)

Swink's first online issueOn Monday night (assuming the Groundhog Day scenario doesn’t unfold) I read at 7 p.m., at the bi-monthly Swink reading at Pianos, with Andrew Foster Altschul and Anthony Tognazzini. I’m told the reading will start on time.

The fabulous Stephany Aulenback takes over tomorrow and every Friday.

Have a good weekend.

Los Angeles coffee shop culture revealed

Kevin may not get as much writing done in L.A. coffee shops as he did in their Brooklyn counterparts, but he does get to see “thin, young, blonde, spikey-haired” girls with doe eyes try to sell nude self-portraits to visibly aroused patrons:

“I think they’re fantastic,” another man, a middle-aged would-be screen writer I’d seen there frequently, chimed in. “I especially like this one here . . . ,” he motioned the young artist over to a large portrait of herself stepping shyly out of a bath tub with water running down her small breasts and stomach.

“Thanks! It’s me! I like to paint myself in everyday situations. It’s for sale if you want to buy it.”

“Maybe later,” he said and she looked like she actually believed him. Then, placing his hand on her shoulder, he walked her down to another painting, this one of the nude artist staring into the eyes of another naked young woman, a brunette, both with sparkles spirling out of their eyes. “Is she your . . . uh . . . girlfriend?”

Karoo by Steve Tesich

Please note that this book reaction was written by Shauna McKenna (editor of Moonshinestill).

I recently heard that the word “interesting” no longer means anything. I would venture the same about the word “important.” But there it is, still in our lexicon, and I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to reach back to a time when important things still made you sit up and pay attention, and tell you that Karoo, by Steve Tesich, is one hell of an important book.

Set in the early ’90’s, when Communism was crumbling and good thinking people were wondering what good thoughts to think, the novel is at once perfectly grounded in its history and timeless. Saul Karoo, the titular protagonist, is a sick man, depraved and deluded, and uproariously funny. He couldn’t do right if he tried, and for the most part, doesn’t, until a singular opportunity presents itself.

As a premiere Hollywood script doctor, he salvages and mangles screenplays by turn, depending on your notion of quality. He extends the same kind of devious control to his personal life, savoring any number of itemized neuroses: his failure to get drunk no matter how much he drinks, his overwhelming fear of privacy, his inability to remain subjective, his collusion with his ex-wife in drawing out the end of his failed marriage. In viewing a film he has secretly sworn to refuse working on, he makes a peculiar discovery, which prompts him to take extravagant action. The momentum of his one reach for redemption rockets along while, in the background, Tesich dawdles over the farce of Saul’s life and his relationships in brilliant, comprehensive detail.

But then something happens. Something perhaps unavoidable, given the sheer velocity of the story, but nonetheless disconcerting. The plot overwhelms the book. All the energy and glorious tension are cauterized not only by events in the story, but by colossal changes in the narration. An excuse for the bumpiness of the final section may be that it’s pointedly alienating, drawing attention to the inherent untruthfulness of fiction, but that’s a difficult pill to swallow. We have a thousand and one discursively jarring texts at our disposal; there’s only one Saul Karoo. The book’s conclusion is abruptly moralistic, a steep departure from earlier, wickedly nihilistic sections.

Through all that, it’s still rich reading. It’s still worthy reading. And, let me say it once more, it’s important reading, which is a rare and valuable thing. I don’t think I’ve read fiction so funny since Pastoralia. According to Thomas Beller in Post Road Issue 3, the book received little publicity after its initial 1998 release because it was published posthumously.

Whatever the reason our capricious market shrugged it to the margins, Beller’s doing a great service for lovers of literature by rescuing it in paperback form, along with a new introduction by E.L. Doctorow. Tesich’s Saul Karoo should be seen. He should be pitied. And, as a nod to his love of public conversation, he should be heard.

Details: Karoo, by Steve Tesich, Open City Books, 362 pp., $14.

Bloggers: less useful than Aunt Jessie, possibly equals of Star Trek convention-goers

CBS columnist John C. Dvorak characterizes bloggers’ coverage of the Democratic National Convention as “an undecipherable mess” — also, “laughable,” “self-congratulatory,” “vapid” and “ludicrous.”

“Aunt Jessie gossiping with friends in the Nebraska delegation should be doing the blog. That way there is a long shot chance that something interesting will come out of it,” he says.

Yet as Athenae at Atrios notes, Dvorak does allow that:

like the legions of Star Trek fans who pour over every episode frame-by-frame to find flaws, bloggers will, in fact, become the watchdog of the media, combing news reports, and keeping everyone honest.

“Well, John, for starters, it’s ‘pore over’ not ‘pour over,'” Athenae says. “Now where did I put my Spock ears?” (Thanks to Geheimbundler for the link.)

Robert Birnbaum interviews Zoe Heller

The Morning News has made my day by posting Mr. Robert Birnbaum’s interview with Zoe Heller. (Robert told me last Wednesday that it was coming, and I’ve been hitting reload on the site every three minutes all week, just in case the editors decided to break with tradition and post two features in one day.)

Heller wrote one of my favorite books of last year, What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal. She talks here about her poorly-received first novel (What Was She Thinking? was the second):

ZH: . . . My first book got shat upon from a great height in England, which, to me because it was my home country, my people, was very devastating. It also came out there first. It was my first experience being published and I was very heavily pregnant at the time and rather tired and emotional.

RB: Nobody had to show you the reviews.

ZH: No, no they couldn’t have stopped me. I don’t buy all that bullshit, people say, “I don’t read my reviews. Somebody tells me vaguely what they are like.” How incurious can you be? Don’t be ridiculous! So no, I read them several times over. And they were big because I was reasonably well known as a columnist and a journalist. So I got a lot of attention for a little, slim, first-time novel. It was all, [raises her voice] “Heller fails to find her fictional voice.”

RB: [Laughs]

ZH: “Heller is crap.”

RB: Oh no.

ZH: It was really, very punishing. And quite ad feminem or whatever you would call it and so personal.

RB: Anyone you knew?

ZH: Oh, yeah, there were people–like I had written a not very nice review of Emma Tennant’s book the week before. And she specially asked to review my book. That was very bad form. Anyway so there was a lot of that. So sure, I am grateful when I get nice things. “Hilarious,” I agree with you that it’s probably not hilarious. Although I have to say I do like the idea of making people laugh or cry with books. The kind of fantasy of sitting on the subway and watching someone pick up your book and having some sort of physical, palpable reaction is very strong in me.


  • Under a new Amazon policy designed “to curb excesses of back-stabbing in the competitive world of publishing,” anonymous reviewers will have to post their credit card information before rating books.

DFW on lobster

David Foster Wallace reportedly contributed a column called “Consider the Lobster” to the current issue of Gourmet magazine. The Rake quotes this part: “More than 80,000 people attended the Maine Lobster Festival last year. But what was being celebrated is open to debate.”

I prefer Wallace’s nonfiction to his fiction and will probably pick up the magazine in the airport tomorrow even though I’ve never tried lobster. (My mom is throat-closing allergic. She gets boils all over her body if she eats it, and they take months to heal. I always think — oh, I’ll just try it sometime when it doesn’t matter if I’m covered with boils for a month. Strangely, that time has yet to arrive.)

King of the alt-weeklies continues to drive away talent

The Village Voice “is a big mangy dog — and it’s shedding season!” After a year of microscopic book reviews and five-sentence author interviews, the increasingly irrelevant alt-weekly has booted or driven away Low Culture‘s Matt Haber and media critic Cynthia Cotts.

If management cuts Michaelangelo Matos and Ed Park, I won’t even bother to fish the rag out of those free dustbin thingies.

Update: Matos writes to say, “Thanks! But I must say, I’ve never been on staff at the Voice — I’ve only ever freelanced for them. Seattle Weekly, where I’m stationed, is a Voice-owned paper, though, if that counts.” He edits the music section there.