Back soon

That’s all from me this week. The intoxicating Emma Garman steps in tomorrow and the first Friday of every month.

The corporate overlords have bestowed two days off early next week for the holiday (despite the routine nonobservance of other national holidays like MLK Day). So I’ll be back on Wednesday — or, if I can’t control myself, sooner. Have a great weekend. rejection

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has performed a small miracle. She wrote a poem “so awful that that perennial scam, the International Library of Poetry contest,” turned it down. Here’s an excerpt:

I am Mrs. Miriam Abacha a Widow

I salute you in the name of the most high God.
I was the former first lady Federal Republic of Nigeria, married to
late General Sani Abacha the late Nigerian military Head of State.
I am presently in distress and under house arrest while
my son Mohammed is undergoing trial in Oputa Panel Lagos
and Abuja, this Panel was set up by the present civilian regime.

(Wocky Jivvy tracks others’ less successful attempts to write poems that garner rejection from the “International Library of Poetry.”)

Rehabilitating Verne

Patrick Nielsen Hayden, co-proprietor of Making Light and prominent editor of speculative fiction, admires Maximus Clarke’s defense of H. G. Wells “against the odious John Miller,” but says:

it’s a bit underinformed on the subject of Jules Verne, who, it turns out, was a lot darker, more literary, and more interestingly political than the bowdlerized English translations would have you believe.

For a quick overview of the contemporary state of Verne, you can do worse than to read “The Rehabilitation of Jules Verne in America: From Boy’s Author to Adult’s Author– 1960-2003.”

Thanks, Patrick. I’ve been meaning to brush up on Verne since I happened upon the argument that the current understanding of his work is based on poor translations, a formula-happy editor, and Hollywood’s butcherings.


  • The Library of Congress’ exhibition of “the woodcut in early printed books” ends July 9.
  • Give a book to a friend, for no particular reason, four times a year. (Actually, the project is called “buy a friend a book.” But if you’re strapped for cash, just pass a well-worn favorite novel along.)

The two Mississippis

Clay Risen, whose musings on reductionist attitudes toward the South I’ve quoted approvingly before, persuasively argues in The New Republic that two eras have come to an end in Mississippi with the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen (for killing three civil rights workers) and the death of Shelby Foote:

there has always been a powerful tension in Mississippi between civilization and backwardness, hatred and tolerance, intelligence and ignorance. Mississippi has long had some of the highest poverty and lowest literacy rates in the country. But it has also produced three of America’s greatest writers, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Walker Percy (Foote’s best friend since grade school). The nightly news of the 1950s and ’60s was filled with scenes of young white men setting upon black demonstrators with sickening glee. But the same generation contained Willie Morris, editor of Harper’s at 26 and a leading indigenous voice during the civil rights era. So while there was much abhorrent about Mississippi in the early- to mid-twentieth century, to say that was all Mississippi had to offer is to dabble in stereotypes. There were many lights within the darkness: cosmopolitan cities like Oxford, Jackson, and Greenville, and bustling colleges like Millsaps and Ole Miss. And there was a class of homegrown intellectuals–including Foote–who figured out how to resolve the paradox of being expansive minds within a restrictive culture.

Candy-coated critiques

A reader named Amy, having read my recent comments about The Believer magazine’s abolition of negative reviews, writes:

you might be amused by the comment in the most recent edition of the Powells’ Bookstore newsletter:

In the interest of good literary citizenship, we fully endorse the kinder, gentler book review policy promoted by the likes of the Believer. Thus, we respectfully wish to have the following phrases removed from any and all book reviews published within the past few weeks — “maudlin,””cringe-inducing,” “prematurely inflated,” “clunky,” “pretentious,” and “flimsy” — to be replaced instead with pieces of hard candy. We think that will make everyone much happier.

British Library prepares for digital books

The British Library predicts a sweeping switch from print to digital publishing by 2020.

Speaking at the launch of the Library’s national strategy Chief Executive Lynne Brindley said a study commissioned by the Library projects that by 2020 50 per cent of publications will be available in both print and digital, while a mere 10 per cent of new titles will be available in print alone.

“This is a seismic shift, and one that we — and our partners in the publishing and information industries — need 2020 vision to prepare for in order to maintain Britain’s competitiveness across all sectors, from business to the arts, from science to education and culture.”

I’ve said it before, but the British Library rocks the free world by providing, among other things, online images of Chaucer’s Canturbury Tales, as printed in the mid-1400′s, and “93 copies of the 21 plays by William Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642.”

Your responses are welcome.

Maximus Clarke defends H.G. Wells against “eleven paragraphs of bile”

Maximus Clarke, better known in these parts as Mr. Maud, writes to defend H.G. Wells from an attack that appeared in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal.

One of the signature traits of the far right is its compulsion to ferociously attack even long-dead figures whom it perceives as ideologically incorrect. Every reactionary crank has a favorite theory about how, when, and where civilization went off the rails — and which groups and individuals were responsible. In that spirit, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page last week ran a hit piece on — believe it or not — H.G. Wells.

Presumably as a preemptive strike against any possible sympathy generated by the new Spielberg/Cruise “War of the Worlds,” The National Review‘s John Miller spews eleven paragraphs of bile against the pioneering British author of speculative fiction. Wells, of course, was also a well-known democratic socialist — and that’s clearly his real crime, although Miller never breathes the S-word. Instead he tells us that Wells got bad grades in school, and that as a result, his writings were twisted by a “destructive urge.” (Whether this same laughable form of head-shrinkery applies to George W. Bush, a mediocre student whose own “destructive urge” led to the pulverization of a Middle Eastern country, Miller does not say.)

Miller compares Wells unfavorably to Jules Verne, who decades earlier had predicted scientific marvels like moon shots, submarines, and world-circling balloon trips. But Verne’s novels were light entertainment, offering gee-whiz technology with no social or political depth. This suits Miller just fine — so he deceptively suggests that Wells’ own speculations were “appallingly wrong.” In fact, Wells predicted television, atomic and biological warfare, and numerous other developments. And his imaginative forays into sociology, evolution, time travel, and other subjects far surpassed anything written by Verne (and indeed, much of the science fiction written since). Continue reading…

Coetzee on translating Borges

From J.M. Coetzee’s Stranger Shores essay on Jorge Luis Borges:

Jorge Luis Borges was born in 1899 into a prosperous middle-class family, in a Buenos Aires where Spanish — to say nothing of Italian — descent was not deemed a social asset. One of his grandmothers was from England; the family chose to stress their English affiliations and to bring up the children speaking English as well as Spanish. Borges remained a lifelong Anglophile. Curiously for a writer with an avant-garde reputation, his own reading seemed to stop around 1920. His taste in English-language fiction was for Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling, Wells; he often referred to himself as “un ser victoriano,” a Victorian….

Borges’ prose is controlled, precise, and economical to a degree uncommon in Spanish America. It avoids (as Borges notes with some pride) “Hispanicisms, Argentinisms, archaisms, and neologisms; [it uses] everyday words rather than shocking ones.” In his work up to and including The Aleph, the clear surface of his prose is ruffled now and again by unusual, even disturbing verbal collocations. In his late phase, such moments are rare.

Although any translator will be challenged to match the simultaneous concision and force of Borges’ Spanish, and to find renderings for his sometimes riddling metaphors, his language presents no irresolvable problems, except on those occasions when it is colored — deliberately, one is sure — by English verbal patterns. (Such patterns, as soon as they are reproduced in English translation, of course sink into invisibility.)

Continue reading…

Excuses and summer reading suggestions

Sorry for the slow updates. Like CAAF, I find it nearly impossible to balance nose-to-the-grindstone novel writing and paying work with the kind of blogging schedule I tend to keep around here. (And as our handshake deadline looms, my long-distance writing partner is expecting far more than the original 500 words/day from me.) From now through the start of August, posting will be intermittent.

Yesterday the good people at Open Source invited Dennis Johnson (of the venerable Moby Lives and Melville House Books), writer Steve Almond, the strikingly knowledgeable Margo Longwood, and me to talk about summer reading. (I swear, unless he wrote everything out beforehand, Almond is a masterful extemporaneous speaker. Listen to his quick, passionate monologue on reading to alleviate loneliness, and you’ll see what I mean.)

First I put in a good word for Rupert Thomson’s classification-defying Divided Kingdom (discussed here and here). Later I praised Peter De Vries’ The Blood of the Lamb, recently reissued by the University of Chicago Press. When discussing the latter, I emphasized the hilarity of the opening, but didn’t have time to explain that the novel ultimately is a dark meditation on death and the loss of faith. I read the book partly because my friend Terry Teachout is a fan. I devoured it last week in two sittings and then emailed him to say:

It has its defects — not least of which are pacing issues in the middle — but it is a remarkable achievement.

He said:

Yes, it’s by no means perfect — he’s way too close to the material, it’s too raw and hurtful for him to control it — but it works anyway, doesn’t it?

He’s exactly right. When reading, you understand that the author has all but sliced his wrists to let personal sorrows run right from his veins onto the page. In this immediacy lies the book’s power, but also its sloppiness and unmitigated rage.

I’d hoped to suggest a few other books. Alas, the cadence of my speech is more plodding Texan (not the accent, folks, the cadence) than speedy New Yawker, and it took me too long to spit my thoughts out. So here are some other books I wanted to mention:

  • The Untelling, by Tayari Jones, reviewed and discussed elsewhere. (I should mention that Lauren Cerand, who handles weekly events postings for this site, is Jones’ publicist, and that she arranged for me to read with Jones, and pressed The Untelling into my hands. But I read with lots of authors, and people suggest plenty of books, and I don’t endorse any of them unless I think they’re good. I mean, on the strength of the New Yorker excerpt, I expected to like that Sean Wilsey book. I was sorely disappointed.) Here’s a post I wrote, when I first started reading Jones’ novel, comparing Jones’ and Jonathan Lethem’s treatment of gentrification.
  • The Task of this Translator, by Todd Hasak-Lowy. Eventually I’ll get around to finishing and posting my profile of this author, but for now I’ll punt you to my prior thoughts here, someone else’s endorsement here, and a Gainesville Sun profile. While I don’t admire all of the stories equally, the standouts are exemplary — as good as any American fiction I’ve read in the last few years. My favorite story in this debut collection depicts a journalist who, as part of an assignment, agrees to allow a dietary bodyguard to prevent him from overeating.
  • Paradise, by A.L. Kennedy. I gave this harrowing and frequently sidesplitting portrayal of a massively fucked-up alcoholic a positive review for Newsday. Several people have written to me since then to report that they read and liked it. In fact, Tito Perez emailed today to say that he had some quibbles with the book — maybe he’ll talk about them at his site — but ultimately reports “everything else was top shelf, if I may use a poor pun.”
  • The Miami Riot of 1980, by Bruce Porter and Marvin Dunn. Out of print, unfortunately. I bought this book as a historical source for my novel — it’s been 25 years since 1980, after all, and my memory of that time is rusty — and didn’t know what to expect. When it arrived last Friday, Mr. Maud and I read the first pages together on the subway, and I read the rest of it over the weekend. No doubt the book will prove far less interesting to folks who didn’t grow up in South Florida, but it predates even the Rodney King riots, and the recent unrest in Cincinnati, and provides a thoughtful assessment, frozen in time, of the way white Miamians’ blithe disdain for and mistreatment of the city’s black population, over decades, paved the way for a violent uprising.


I could go on. I’m rereading Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, and I marveled at Donna Tartt’s “The Ambush,” published in the Guardian last weekend. Next up, on a friend’s recommendation and the strength of the first few pages: Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. But I should compose these sorts of endorsements with more care than I am right now.

If you’d like to give or receive a personalized recommendation, contemporary or classic, please send a description of your tastes to recommendations at I’ll do my best to respond to all email, but please be patient. I’m several weeks behind.

Maugham on writers’ self-loathing and Proust’s attempted review heist

From W. Somerset Maugham’s foreward to his quasi-autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage:

This is a very long novel and I am ashamed to make it longer by writing a preface to it. An author is probably the last person who can write fitly of his own work. In this connexion an instructive story is told by Roger Martin du Gard, a distinguished French novelist, about Marcel Proust. Proust wanted a certain French periodical to publish an important article on his great novel and thinking that no one could write it better than he, sat down and wrote it himself. Then he asked a young friend of his, a man of letters, to put his name to it and take it to the editor. This the young man did, but after a few days the editor sent for him. ‘I must refuse your article,’ he told him. ‘Marcel Proust would never forgive me if I printed a criticism of his work that was so perfunctory and so unsympathetic.’ Though authors are touchy about their productions and inclined to resent unfavourable criticism they are seldom self-satisfied. They are conscious how far the work on which they have spent much time and trouble comes short of their conception, and when they consider it are much more vexed with their failure to express this in its completeness than pleased with the passages here and there that they can regard with complacency. Their aim is perfection and they are wretchedly aware that they have not attained it.

Micro remainders

  • Quick summary of Zoe Heller’s Alice Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child) takedown. (7th item.)
  • Graham Greene evokes oppressive heat.

Seasoned debut

Charles Chadwick’s 688-page It’s All Right Now is the 72-year-old writer’s sixth novel, but is “the first of his books to find its way to readers.” In a review for the current Harper’s (print only), Wyatt Mason makes a case for debut novels by older writers (“older,” in this case, begins at 38):

For wasn’t it worth the wait when Joseph Heller, at the ripe age of thirty-eight, came to fruition with Catch-22, or when Ralph Ellison, nearing forty, came of age with Invisible Man; or William Golding, at forty-three, turned up with Lord of the Flies; or Walker Percy, at forty-five, at last arrived with The Moviegoer? However unique, each of these novels shares a maturity of form and thought that products of the young, in most every case, can only feign. What sustained their makers through the dark years? From what place did these stalwarts draw such enduring resourcefulness? James Joyce, who suffered on the road to himself and to us, ventured an answer that tidily acknowledges the fear that every aging author, unpublished, must face down: ‘Youth has an end: the end is here. It will never be. What then? Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?”

(Thanks to Phil Campbell for the tip.)

Pen and ink

Stephen Spielberg’s special effects-driven adaptation of The War of the Worlds won’t capture the incongruity of the serene British countryside “and the swift death flying yonder” that characterize H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel.

But Joshua Glenn suggests an alternative:

This month, New York Review Books reissued the 1960 edition of “The War of the Worlds” with its fraught pen-and-ink drawings by [Edward] Gorey. These illustrations perfectly depict not only Wells’s half-sinister, half-ridiculous Martians, but also the destruction they leave in their wake: “a patch of silent common, smouldering in places, and with a few dark, dimly seen objects lying in contorted attitudes here and there”….

Kadare on writing under a totalitarian regime

Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, named recipient of the first Man International Booker prize earlier this month, accepted his award today. He told the press

that totalitarian regimes favor mediocre writers, and there usually are only a few writers of true literature in a totalitarian country.

“Each time we were able to publish anything, even just a page, we got a great moral satisfaction out of it. Each occasion was a great triumph,” he said.

“That’s what kept us going throughout this whole period. Otherwise we would have gone mad or we would have just given up.”

Kadare added that it’s “the fashion now in the former communist countries of the ex-Soviet Bloc for people to say ‘I could have been a writer but I wasn’t allowed,’” he said.

“The people entitled to speak about that period are the people who did something and not the people who kept silent and have retrospective nostalgia.”

Kadare also fared well in the popular vote. (Thanks, #1.)

The Smart Set: a weekly events listing by Lauren Cerand

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled by Lauren Cerand, that appears Mondays and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please submit details to, with the date of the event in the subject line.

MONDAY, 6.27: Two of New York’s most entertaining readers, Miss Corpus author and Pumpkin Pie Show ringleader Clay McLeod Chapman, and How To Kick People (see Wednesday) impresario Todd Levin, aka “Sovereign King of Wordsopolis,” take the stage as part of Smut at Galapagos. 8:00pm, no cover. Highly recommended. Also, the Apocalypse NOW series at Apocalypse Lounge (189 East 3rd Street btw. A & B) presents readings of poetry, fiction, and drama by Erin Stalcup, Mary Lou Buschi, Jason Brenner, and Rynn Williams. 7:00pm, no cover. Note: this is the second installment of a new series, and if you’re in the neighborhood, do consider stopping by to support it (and take advantage of the $2 Rheingolds from 7-8). Additionally, Lara Vapnyar and Pearl Abraham read as part of the Scribblers on the Roof series, wherein “Jewish writers read from their recent work.” 8:00pm, free [first spotted at]. Also highly recommended.

TUESDAY, 6.28: Marie Sabatino hosts Readings on the Lower East Side, featuring Frank Damico and Denis Woychuk, in the LES Gallery at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center. 9:00pm, $5 (one free drink included with admission). And, Opium Magazine presents the fourth installment of its reading series at Happy Ending, featuring Oliver Conant, Wayne Gladstone, Christopher Hickman, and Todd Zuniga (but sadly, no Lobster Girl). 8:00pm, no cover.

WEDNESDAY, 6.29: As part of the PAGE series at the National Arts Club, anthology editor Marc Parent and contributor Benjamin Cheever read from The Secret Society of Demolition Writers. 7:00pm, free (the good news: this event features an open bar; the bad news: you’ll have to wear a blazer over that tube top). Also, How To Kick People presents an evening entitled “Stay Gold, Ponyboy,” with Jonathan Corbettt, Amanda Melson, Tom Shillue and musical guest Walter Salas-Humar. 8:00pm, $7. And, the reading series at the Kettle of Fish (the hands-down-favorite-bar of an old friend of mine, and so recommended just on that fact alone) presents Television Without Pity co-editor-in-chief Sarah D. Bunting (who will read from her fiction, although she could probably get away with Gilmore Girls episode summaries), forthcoming novelist Matt de la Pena, and Shifting Through Neutral author Bridgett M. Davis. The Kettle of Fish is located at 59 Christopher Street. 7:00pm, no cover [Thanks to Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea blog for the tip].

THURSDAY, 6.30: Gabrielle Zevin, author of Margarettown, a nuanced and beguiling debut novel that I recently enjoyed, reads at Barnes & Noble, Astor Place. 7:00pm, free. And, Karen Heuler hosts “Bad Date Stories,” tales of “impossible connections and unredeeming sex,” with Jennifer Dziura, Armistead Johnson, Martin Cohen, and Jennifer Sears. At Cornelia Street Cafe. 6:00pm, $6 (one house drink is included with admission).

FRIDAY, 7.1: Week Six of Rooftop Films’ Summer Series 2005 brings an evening of music by The Couriers and a full program of Dark Toons. 8:30pm, $8. Highly recommended.

SATURDAY, 7.2: Summer officially arrives with WarmUp at P.S. 1, featuring “a stunningly futuristic architectural installation” and “a unique multi-sensory experience for music fans, artists, and families alike.” Saturday’s musical guests: “DJ Harvey, who’s known for his signature mix of eclectic disco, New York City acid jazz ensemble Groove Collective adds to the spontaneous vibe, and Simon James of the LA’s Projections also DJs.” 3:00-9:00pm, $8.

SUNDAY, 7.3: Check out the recently-released-on-DVD documentary, In The Realms of the Unreal, filmmaker Jessica Yu’s excellent investigation into the life of reclusive self-taught artist Henry Darger, whose life’s work included a twelve-volume, more than 15,000 page illustrated novel exploring an alternate universe inhabited by child-enslaving warmongers and seven fiercely lovely princesses known as the Vivan Girls. Darger’s Untitled (Portrait of Colonel Jack Francis Evans) is currently on view as part of the Self and Subject exhibition of portraiture at the American Folk Art Museum. The museum’s Sunday hours are 10:30am -5:30pm, admission $9.

U.S. high court narrowly recognizes the separation of church and state

“A sharply divided Supreme Court on Monday upheld the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commandments on government land, but drew the line on displays inside courthouses, saying they violated the doctrine of separation of church and state.” (The full text of the decision is available here.)

Oh, to be a fly on the wall in Pat Robertson’s or Jerry Falwell’s law school today….

Related: Remainders, role of the Good Book edition.