• Fiction: I’m obsessively checking The Boston Review site for the great James Hynes’ essay on the novels of the great Rupert Thomson. (Yes, this is a personal literary wet dream.) I have it on good authority that the piece will appear in the next issue, which, by my calculations, is March/April 2006. Meaning: it’ll be up tomorrow? Please?
  • Stage: Ireland announces its Beckett centenary events today. And Rachel Campbell-Johnston wonders what Beckett would have made of the celebration. “I doubt he would have turned up,” she says. “‘All I want to do is sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante,’ he once told a concerned friend.”

Vasily Grossman’s transformation

Keith Gessen tracks Vasily Grossman’s transformation from a writer who “understood the rules [of the Soviet regime and intended] to play by them” into one who wrote “as if he had found a truth machine and needed to put everything in the Soviet Union through it.”

Contrary to Gessen’s expectations, however, a new collection of Grossman’s war writings don’t exactly serve as “a novel of education, recording a growing consciousness of the brutality and the corruption of the Soviet regime.”

In fact, a bit disappointingly, the Grossman we meet at the beginning of the book is already skeptical and wary of the regime. He notes the propaganda in the papers. “The bedraggled enemy continues his cowardly advance,” goes the headline, as the Germans take town after town. Interrogations of occasional German prisoners (at this point it was mostly Red Army soldiers who were being taken prisoner, in the hundreds of thousands) are absurd and demoralizing, a pathetic kind of Soviet tourism.

A local Carnival

Nick Mamatas inteviews New Orleans writer Poppy Z. Brite about Mardi Gras.

You’ve been outspoken about the importance of Mardi Gras. Who is criticizing Carnival? I’ve not heard a lot of naysaying within the city (other than our famously backpedaling mayor, who said we should have Carnival, then denied he’d said it, then started spouting off about confectionery and God’s will). Most of the negativity has come from two groups: New Orleanians who haven’t been able to get home yet and are upset that the party is happening without them — for whom I do feel some sympathy, — and outsiders who have no idea what Carnival is about or what it means to us….

What’s stood out for you about Carnival this year? So far, this has been a very local Carnival. There’s a national perception that Carnival is a “Girls Gone Wild”-type celebration with coeds baring their breasts, but that really only happens in the upper French Quarter, and if you questioned those girls, you’d find that not a single one is from Louisiana — they’d never act like that at home, but like to make fools of themselves here.

On Fat Tuesday

New Orleans is still a mess — federal grants are running out, people scattered everywhere are homeless, contribute something if you can — but nothing keeps the city from celebrating Mardi Gras in style. Even the tittie cams are up. (NSFW as the day progresses.)

Also, just in time for Fat Tuesday, a Scottish distillery has announced that it’s reviving “a centuries-old recipe for whisky so strong that one 17th-century writer feared more than two spoonfuls could be lethal.” We’re talking a 184-proof beverage.

The way the day job’s been going, and after losing a flash drive with a week’s worth of writing on it, I’ll take three spoonfuls, please. (A.P. photo via SubIntSoc.)

Poe triple-shot

The Villager‘s Alex Schmidt investigates the Northern Dispensary, a vacant Greenwich Village building where Edgar Allan Poe was treated for a headcold in 1837.

DJ Hector Romero recalls a fittingly bizarre and morbid 1987 shooting in the Bronx’s Poe Park: “We were right by the Grand Concourse, the big avenue that runs through the Bronx, when someone shot into the middle of the crowd from the other side of the street, hitting this one guy directly in the middle of his mouth. The bullet went into his mouth and his tongue fell out. He didn’t die.” (Thanks, Max.)

Boing Boing points to some free Poe audio.

Rambling thoughts on the Beckett Centenary

Last Monday morning an old friend* from Miami called as I was walking out the door. “Sorry, gotta head out to work,” I told him.

“No!” he yelled. “No you don’t. That’s defeatist.”

“Yeah, well, surprise,” I said. “I done been defeated.”

He chose to ignore this. He launched into a lengthy excerpt from A Confederacy of Dunces. Then he heralded the upcoming Beckett Centenary, urging me, a fellow Beckett fan, to get on it. And then he released me back into my defeatist existence my morning commute.

I await commemorative events like this centenary with excitement that tends to mutate, as the press coverage appears, into dread, then lamentation, and finally, resigned disgust.

I mean, this collection of Beckett reminiscences in the weekend’s Guardian isn’t bad — and, now that smoking’s verboten, I might just borrow the fingernail-cutting strategy to repel idle chatterers in bars — but when cheesy puns on “Waiting for Godot” start headlining insipid Beckett retrospectives in the coming weeks, how long will it be before we feel the need to stick our own heads in a toilet bowl and start flushing?

My friend Bill (whom you may have met before) is the greatest Beckett devotee I know. He and I have been bracing, in email, for the inevitable centenary let-down. And he’s far more thoughtful and articulate about his mixed feelings than I am:

As soon as I saw [the Guardian piece] I realized why I was ready to be angry in advance of any actual Beckett articles: this year we’re going to get forty gabillion words about a man whose works are dedicated to stripping language down to the bare bones. You rarely find full sentences in his plays; most of his characters speak in fragments, and most of those fragments are meant to reveal lives that are empty and characters who are trying to explain themselves and comfort themselves with words. So how can all these forthcoming articles not seem glib? But I did begin to read the article you sent, and right off the bat got this: “One thing that he said was, ‘You know, Francis, my days are filled with trivia.'” If they keep bringing me gems like that I can direct my bile elsewhere.

Bill’s been having his own private centenary party lately, watching all 19 of Beckett’s plays on DVD.

Somehow I managed to delete his email on the subject, but I remember it included the phrase “tick-tock rhythms of monotonous daily despair,” which is, without a doubt, the shortest and best description, ever, of what Beckett’s work conjures up.

* Rick is beloved in the Maud Household for his voice mail dispatches from South Florida. Past highlights include: a report on the Broward County Library’s (unintentionally?) alarming Martin Luther King, Jr., display, in which King’s portrait hung on the wall behind two open-mouthed sharks permanently dangling from the ceiling in attack mode; details on the time he drove up next to an 8-horse trailer that’d reduced traffic on the Palmetto Expressway to a crawl, and spotted a lone giraffe inside; and recent notes from a stop at “the most sacred 7-11 in Kendall.” (The one near Miller Square, of course.)

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

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 send details to lauren@maudnewton.com by the Thursday prior to publication, with the event’s date in the subject line.

This week, see also: Wales in New York (thanks to Michelle for her emailed tip!)

MONDAY, 2.27: Laila Lalami reads from her Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, along with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fansite!) and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. At The Graduate Center of the City University New York, Skylight Room 9100. Highly recommended — no, essential (if I weren’t here, I’d be there in a heartbeat). 6:00pm, FREE.

TUESDAY, 2.28: Simon Reynolds, music critic and author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, hosts a panel discussion of the era and its effects, with “James Chance (Contortions, James White & The Blacks), Steven Daly (Orange Juice), and Vivien Goldman (NME, Melody Maker)-with more guests TBA.” (That’s a relief… if it were still punk, it would obviously be TBD — and then, who knows?). At Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction. A must-do. 7:00pm, $8.

WEDNESDAY, 3.1: There’s one place to be on Wednesday evening (that is, if you buy a ticket, like, this minute): The Tibet House Annual Benefit Concert. And if that fails, there’s always happy hour at the Thirsty Scholar.

THURSDAY, 3.2: We luck out as Portland-based Ms. Moorish Girl reads again in New York this week, this time with ‘Little Bitches‘ author Jessica Treat. At The Women’s Center of Brooklyn College. Also highly recommended. 5:00pm, FREE.

FRIDAY, 3.3: The new and very well-curated series at “Paragraph, A Workspace for Writers” presents an evening of storytelling with “bohemian roughneck” David Gates (who, nonetheless, looks great in a tux) and Jonathan Ames. 8:00pm, FREE.

SATURDAY, 3.4: At Scandinavia House: Frozen Land (Paha maa) — “Directed by Aku Louhimies (Finland. 2005)…
With intersecting stories a la Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, the main narrative follows Tuomas, a young computer hacker who wants to make something of his life and marry his girlfriend Elina, a young student activist. His best friend Niko leads a more hedonistic life in a world of drugs and alcohol. When Niko forges a 500 euro note, a chain reaction of fateful events is set in motion. Episodic and fast-paced, the film’s depiction of contemporary Finnish society is both realistic and dramatically satisfying.” 3:00pm, $8.

SUNDAY, 3.5: Smear on that “Fire Down Below” lipstick and slip on those ripped fishnets and I’ll see you at the Biennial, baby. This year’s theme? Day for Night.

A special pick for our readers in the South: Rob Walker sends word of “an actual Letters From New Orleans event, by way of the Savannah College of Art and Design.”

And an ongoing opportunity for authors in New York: The Writers Working Series at The Drama Book Shop.

R.I.P. Octavia Butler

<Tayari Jones, Scott Westerfeld, Cory Doctorow, and Jenny Davidson mourn the passing of Octavia Butler, the pioneering sci-fi writer who died at 58 last Friday.

Here’s Butler talking with Locus Magazine in 2000 about the “myths we live by.”

For instance, the myth of ‘away,’ as in ‘I’ll throw it away.’ Where’s that? There’s no such place. It’s going somewhere. Or the myth of ‘my little bit won’t hurt,’ or the obvious myths of ‘bigger is better’ and ‘more is better.’ We have all these myths, and we believe in them without even recognizing that they’re there. We just act on them — and that’s liable to be our downfall.

Stars back up Leroy fraud

This post was written by Friday guest blogger Annie Reid.

Your source for literary news, Page Six, reports that many of the celebrities who purported to be friends with JT Leroy were in on the hoax. Richard Johnson turns up an old Winona Ryder interview from Vanity Fair, in which Ryder claimed she met Leroy by accident, when she had tix to the opera, but no date. She spied a wispy street kid hanging around and decided, what the hell, take the him along:

“And he was crying throughout it. And I started crying for my own reasons, watching this beautiful kid so affected, someone his age grasping it. We went to this diner afterward and talked. I wanted to take care of him, have him move in, but he said he was heading back south. I fell in love with him. And I’ve been in love with him ever since.”

That’s just what La Boheme does to people. Go to Bugmenot for logins if you don’t want to register.

Thanks to Dana, my total new girl crush.

Biblical economics

This post was written by Friday guest blogger Annie Reid.

Harper’s posts excerpts of another version of American history from “America’s Providential History, by Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell, published by the Providence Foundation. The authors hold courses and seminars based on the book that were attended by more than 25,000 people in 2004.”

The loss of Christian character and responsibility led to the failure of many state banks in the early 1900s. In an effort to remedy this situation, power was granted to a Federal Reserve Board in 1913. But this unbiblical economic structure produced even greater problems. Within twenty years the stock market had crashed and America was in the midst of the Great Depression. With the propagation of socialism, people were ready for the “New Deal” of Franklin Roosevelt. Programs such as Social Security and other welfare agencies set up the State as provider rather than God.

Opting out of reading

This post was written by Friday guest blogger Annie Reid.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden reports that Arizona Senate’s Committee on Higher Education has voted to let university and community-college students opt out of required reading assignments they consider personally offensive or pornographic.

The legislation stems from complaints by Christina Trefzger, who attended community colleges and Arizona State University. She said some required reading assigned by instructors is morally unacceptable to some.

“A lot of students are being forced to choose between their personal or religious beliefs and the demands of education,” she told members of the Senate Committee on Higher Education on Wednesday.

One specific complaint was aimed at “The Ice Storm,” a novel dealing with adults and children experimenting with sex, drugs and suicide.

As Nielsen Hayden points out, “the Arizona state government is giving this much power to Christina Trefzger on nothing more than her assertion that some people were upset by having to read a novel about wealthy, bored Connecticut WASPs experimenting with sex and drugs back in 1973. ”

For me personally, it was the movie – not the book – that caused me to just completely forget any sense of my own morality and throw a couple of key parties. Ang Lee, you’ve got a lot of personal accounting to do over in this neck of the woods.

Remains of the day

  • The Guardian’s excellent World Literature Tour goes to Czechoslovakia, after stops in Poland and Finland, and there’re signs that they’ll actually be getting out of Europe soon.

  • Another angry sound-off on Google’s scheme to make copyrighted books searchable.

  • Jamaica Kincaid profiled in the Yale student newspaper.

  • Malcom Gladwell has a blog now (Via The Millions).

  • Kurt Vonnegut profiled in The Age (“I’m 83 years old, for Chrissake”).

  • Angry, protective mother goes hand-to-hand with polar bear and wins (Via Mr. Sun). Okay, I just threw that one in to see if you were awake.

    Happy weekend

    Sorry about the slow week, guys. I’ve been spending evenings holed up writing, and that much time alone with the page always lends the rest of my life an unreal, hollow quality.

    I don’t want to jinx my incremental progress by ruminating further, so I’ll just say I can’t get worked up about anything else right now — not a forthcoming novel from Dan Rhodes, not the speculation that Shakespeare might’ve died of eye-area lymphoma, not the difficulty of using a Chinese keyboard, and not the Bush administration’s unfair competition with The Onion.

    GMB stopped by a few minutes ago.

    “Yeah, I got nothing,” I said. I blinked at her like a stoned toad.

    “I see your nothing,” she said, “and raise you negative one.”

    We stood together in our less-than-nothingness, and then she returned to her desk.

    So I have nothing else this week. All hail Annie Reid, who steps in tomorrow.

    Thursday afternoon remainders

    • Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch is a departure from the author’s usual (self-described) frissony, lesbo-Victorian beat. Jenny Turner says the style “is that of a writer who has absorbed many, many novels of the 1930s and 1940s…. It has Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamund Lehmann in it, and Patrick Hamilton, and Denton Welch,” and promises “a bonus waiting for the reader who gets to the end and, as you have to really, immediately starts over.”
    • Podslam.org is “doing a month-long poetry slam for Black History Month. You can watch or download the slams, rate them, create your own blog on the site & start talking back.”

    Pessimistic liberalism

    I contributed an essay — “Such is the Human Race: A Pessimist’s Defense of Liberalism and Fact-Based Public Education” — to Ig Press’ Proud to Be Liberal anthology.

    Here’s an excerpt:

    Common sense suggests that even if 51% of the country supported a second Bush term, the majority of Americans would not favor scientifically inaccurate textbooks for their children — particularly not scientifically inaccurate textbooks purchased with their own tax dollars. Unfortunately, if recent polls are to be believed, common sense is not borne out in this case. A clear majority of poll respondents say they believe that “intelligent design” should be given equal weight with evolution in science textbooks.

    As Mark Twain said, “Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.” But miss the boat, according to the Bible, they did not. And if intelligent design makes it into our science books, how long before alternate versions of history must be offered as well? I can just see it now: Noah’s flood presented as civilization’s starting-point; Moses and the burning bush taught alongside Egyptian history; Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection given equal weight with what we know of Ancient Rome.

    I identify myself as a liberal (to the extent I identify myself as a member of any political group), not because I have some pie-in-the-sky belief in the fundamental goodness of humankind, but because I do not….

    Other contributors include David Rees, Eric Alterman, Laila Lalami, Tom Tomorrow, Neal Pollack, Jen Sorenson, and Matthew Yglesias.

    Satire is Moliere

    Dana declares a moratorium “on calling Gawker Media people as expert witnesses.”

    Every article is like a greased ourobouros in a fucking centrifuge. Enough. Also: Can we never, ever mention Gawker and the Algonquin Round Table in the same sentence — nay, paragraph — again? Really. Dorothy Parker would jump up from the grave and snatch you bald, Butterworth, if it weren’t folicularly impossible.

    Butterworth owes the best parts of his [blogging-is-dead-because-it-can’t-all-be-monetized] story to Choire Sicha: “‘The word blogosphere has no meaning,'” he said from across a folding table vast enough to support the battle of Waterloo in miniature (the apartment owes much to eBay, the Ikea of bohemia).”

    Out of curiosity, where is the auto-da-fe of Bohemia?

    He’s right, though. Sicha, not Butterworth. And then there’s this:

    “‘Satire,’ said Choire Sicha, ‘is the most useless cultural effluvia one could possibly produce out of the cultural situation in America right now.'” It’s a bit depressive a pronouncement, no? I say this as someone who enjoys satire. But satire is Moliere. Satire is not mocking the death of an 87-year-old woman who gets run down by a bus.

    Sicha doesn’t imply that Gawker is a purveyor of the detestable satire. But I will. Does anybody remember laughter? Does anybody remember Gawker when it was more than just tepid captions underneath party photos that only 125 people care about?

    See also rape hilarity.

    Wednesday afternoon remainders

    • Andrew Delbanco discusses his new Herman Melville biography with Robert Birnbaum. “Pierre is a book which is almost impossible to understand if you don’t at least open the possibility that Melville is trying to find a vocabulary for talking about what people nowadays would call transgressive sexuality,” he says.
    • Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter, Amitav Ghosh, Paul Auster, Russell Banks and other writers around the world “plan to mark March 20, the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, as the ‘day of political lies.'” (Via Bookslut.)
    • Betty Friedan: honored with a second-class postage stamp.
    • South African writer Antjie Krog stands accused of plagiarizing Ted Hughes.
    • As Google and other web-baxed companies enable the electronic distribution of content, what role is left for the public library?
    • Mainstream publishing houses “are starting to look at free content on-line as a way of convincing readers to pay for the product.” (Via Bookninja.)
    • Jessa Crispin likes self-published comics.

    In the beginning, again, with Alter (and Twain)

    In the current London Review of Books, James Wood reviews Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses, and says the new translation “greatly refreshes, sometimes productively estranges, words that may now be too familiar to those who grew up with the King James Bible.” (Via TEV.) I can’t wait to read it.

    I’ve mentioned this before, but in elementary school I could recite long passages from the King James. I was expected to remember them — in history and science — months after being tested in Bible class.

    With the exception of John 3:16 (in which the New Testament God sends His “only begotten son” to give the sinners on earth “everlasting life”), no verses received more emphasis at my Christian school than the ones in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. Genesis opens with a simple declarative sentence that lies at the very center of the Intelligent Design debate: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

    Many of my atheistic friends wouldn’t touch the Bible with a mile-long, pitchforked javelin, but I return to it from time to time, mostly for the language and the stories, but also because I believe denouncing Christianity without bothering to understand it dampens meaningful debate.

    I worship Mark Twain’s satire precisely because he doesn’t just stand outside faith hurling contemptuous epithets. He knows his Bible, and he engages with it.

    In Letters from the Earth, he unmasks God as a capricious tyrant so bent on tormenting His human playthings that He identifies even death as unwarranted leniency (in that it allows humans to escape “all further persecution in the blessed refuge of the grave”) and contrives to “pursue the dead beyond the tomb” by inventing Hell. And in his version of the Great Flood story, Twain parses out the logistics of carrying two of every living creature aboard an ark for months. Noah’s poor son, in Twain’s telling, is absolutely riddled with parasites. (Well, they had to be stored somewhere, didn’t they, while the rest of the earth drowned?)

    H.L. Mencken praised Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger as a powerful rejection of Christianity “based upon a wholesale reductio ad absurbum. The thing is not mere mocking; it is not even irreverent; but the force of it is stupendous.”

    (My friend G’s preacher father would agree. G’s dad grew up in the Church of Christ in Texas and devoted his young life to Jesus, becoming a missionary, traveling the globe to evangelize. While questioning his faith, he read Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger and wound up turning his back on the church for two decades.)