Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Goodbye, Girl

Luftslottet som sprängdes (Millenium, #3) Luftslottet som sprängdes by Stieg Larsson

My rating:
5 of 5 stars Oh, life is bleak and dull and meaningless, now that I have finished The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, and therefore the trilogy. There is the super-finality of the author being dead adding to the letdown, knowing that I will never again encounter Lisbeth and Mikael, and all their Swedish amigos. All the Erlanders, Ekstroms and Erikssons do get a bit hard to keep track of after a while, but it's a small price to pay to enjoy the expert plotting and suspense on the way to finding out if Lisbeth ever gets justice. After a book like this, I have to read non-fiction: I've picked My Lobotomy by Howard Dully. I'm not joking. View all my reviews >>

Monday, December 7, 2009

Kicking Knopf

Booksellers are importing The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest for resale, and I can't blame them. Luckily for me, my personal import service, i.e. hubby, is currently in London and should return Thursday with my copy. Can't wait!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Best of the best

It's nice to see that the NY Times 10 best books of 2009 list includes four women out of five for fiction, and two out five for non-fiction. On other prominent best of 2009 lists, there has been a notable lack of women, as for instance, on the Publisher's Weekly list: ten out of ten men. And then the National Book Awards: four white guys. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against white guys. Some of my best friends are white guys. But come on, seriously.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mysterious Ways

So I wandered into a nice bookshop I often pass by but only enter occasionally (The Mysterious Bookshop), and picked up a couple books (The Best American Mystery Stories of 2009, The Best American Crime Reporting, and The Zero by Jess Walter). A bearded gentleman who seemed to work there approached me to point out that crime reporting book was true crime. I said I knew, and couldn't wait to read it. He then said something about the books being "his," and when I appeared puzzled, he said he was Otto Penzler, pointing to the name on the books. Otto Penzler! Often have I seen the name; little did I know he was the mild-mannered owner of The Mysterious Bookshop.

We proceeded to have a chat about last year's Best American Mystery Stories, which is where I first read Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteredge. I also expressed my extreme eagerness to read the third Stieg Larsson book; apparently it won't be out until next spring in the US. However, there is an English translation available in the UK. As chance would have it, a certain husband is going to London next week--I must give him a special mission!

And then I came across Otto's name recently in the news. I'll look forward to seeing what he publishes in the future. Until then, I'll be stopping by 58 Warren St. for my mystery needs.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The House of Poets

Maybe the world is not ending after all, since there is a new Poets House downtown, a new Posman Books in Chelsea Market, and a new location for the Biography Bookshop, renamed Bookbook, at 266 Bleecker Street.

I'm eager to see the new Poets House, especially after reading the description of a card catalog repurposed as a poetry repository.  Bill Murray (yes, that Bill Murray) said at the grand opening that “Poets need a refuge — they need a hideout, a clubhouse.” I think people who like to read poetry need one, too. Or just like to read. Or just like to be surrounded by books.

But, um, not to be ungrateful or anything, is there a reason why it couldn't be named Poets' House, as in the house of poets, or the house belonging to poets? Is it just because so many people would misplace the apostrophe that it would be too taxing to correct incessantly? Or is it grammatically proper to call it Poets House, and I'm just being needlessly persnickety? Which is worse, Poet's House or Poets House?

Friday, October 2, 2009


The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium, #2) The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

My rating:
5 of 5 stars Extremely satisfying. I gave it the five-star treatment because of the higher suspense than in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and also out of sheer overjoyment on finding out that there will be a third book! I had read this one with the knowledge that Larsson has passed away hanging over my head, thinking how sad that as soon as I finish this book there will be no more Lisbeth and Mikael for me. Then in the author bio at the end, glory be! The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes)! It's almost worth learning Swedish. P.S. Swedish people drink a lot of coffee. I mean a lot. P.P.S. Great article re the Stieg Larsson phenomenon: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/... Even if the author does misspell "Mikael." OK, Larsson verges on pedantry on occasion, but never makes me want to throw up like Dan Brown does. View all my reviews >>

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Gadvooks! Just what the world needs. I guess this is the kind of crap described in the Brooklyn Rail article I cited a few weeks ago.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My rating:
4 of 5 stars Compulsively readable. I read this on my Kindle; can I just say, sometimes I can be a total idiot? The story involves a large family, so the author thoughtfully provided a family tree at the beginning, to keep all the Vangers straight. I adore books with family trees, maps, anything like that. So I'm reading along bemoaning the fact that there's no way to turn back to the family tree on a Kindle, blasting the Kindle for being so un-booklike, yadda yadda yadda. Then, almost at the end of the book, I had some vague stirring in what passes for my mind, checked, and sure enough there is a way to set a bookmark on your Kindle. So, OK, now I can bitch and moan that you have to press some buttons instead of physically flipping back in the book, and doesn't that suck to be so un-high-touch, but basically I'm an idiot.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Death Comes Calling

It was interesting to note that celebrities such as Dominick Dunne are interviewed for their obituaries in advance of their deaths:

“I realized the power writing has, and it has also helped me deal with my rage,” he said in an interview with The New York Times for this obituary in 2000. “It gave me a lifelong commitment not to be afraid to speak out about injustice.”

I wonder when the Times decides to interview people for their obituaries; is it when they reach a certain age? Is there a schedule that weights people's relative importance? How does the reporter ask for the interview?

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Sinking Feeling

Plenty to ponder here, especially the point that reading e-books is more environmentally friendly than paper books.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The End of Blogs

My day was considerably brightened when I discovered this, my new favorite blog. Please go check it out now, before going on to read the rest of my post. You'll understand eventually . . . maybe.




Isn't it simply sublime? Did you delight in the pure artistry?




Or did you think the guy was just an asshole?



Well, it is actually a joke; it is the blog of a fictional character. Pete Tarslaw ("I am, quite simply, a writer.") is the main character in How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely. I heard Hely on the radio the other day, and thought the book sounded very funny. Now that I've checked out his blog, I am sure the book is, quite simply, brilliant!

Of course, the blog also provides a nice addendum to my previous post about the Kindle and the future of books, etc. I love the tongue-in-cheek view of the writer who is born to write, practically against his will, holding on to the precious book like a drowning man in a flood. Or as Tarslaw puts it, "I INTEND TO BE THE PUNY INEXHAUSTIBLE VOICE CLINGING TO THE LAST WORTHLESS ROCK." Very Portrait of the Artist.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Come On Baby, Kindle My Fire

I found myself close to St. Marks Bookshop recently, and it occurred to me to go in to see if there was a copy of Jesus' Son. There was, and as luck would have it, it was shelved right next to several books by Ha Jin, one of my favorite authors. Hmm, never got around to reading War Trash--should I get that, too? And look, what's this, Beijing Coma by Ma Jian, right next to the Ha Jin books--didn't I already put that on my goodreads list? Taking the alphabetization of Jian-Jin-Johnson as a sign, I decided I really needed to buy all three. On the way out, I passed a sales table, and spotted a hefty tome entitled Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike--only $9.98! I assumed the title referred to the 20th century. Then finally trying to get out alive, a tractor beam from a book on Banksy--Wall and Piece--grabbed me; I'd looked at it before but had somehow been able to resist. The end result? I bought all of them, in a moment of extreme weakness of will, but also extreme enjoyment. Going in for one book, and coming out with that one plus a few others I know I will enjoy very much--the ultimate (albeit expensive) experience in book shopping.

It seems that every day now I come across an article somewhere, or hear someone talking, about how new technologies are ruining the good old ways of doing things--Kindle means no more books, iPod means no more CDs, the Internet means no more newspapers. Most of these articles sound the death knell of culture as we know it, although usually with some humorous slant. How will we be able to judge the cultural aptitude of our dinner hosts, if the books they've read are stored on their Kindles or Sony Readers instead of their bookshelves? How will we be able to make snap judgments about the intellectual attractiveness of people riding the subway with us, if they're reading Kindles or e-books on their iPhones? Even worse, how will young males satisfy their need to gain encyclopedic knowledge about a certain musical genre, if all the obscure recordings can be found with a few keystrokes, instead of strenuous searches through dusty record bins in farflung spots?

Other perspectives are much more gloomy, intoning all manner of cultural snobbery and hand-wringing. Others verge on violence, as Sherman Alexie seemed to advocate, until he changed his mind. Still others are sober, realistic and based on actual knowledge of culture and publishing, such as this article from the Brooklyn Rail, which suggests a golden age of publishing may be at hand as publishers recalibrate themselves to put out only REALLY GOOD BOOKS. Nicholson Baker just wrote the most brilliant of all that I've read in The New Yorker; it almost made me stop trying to write this blog entry, since he seemed to say it all, in a manner more entertaining, incisive and encyclopedic, all at once, than I could ever achieve. His ear for the absurd if very finely tuned. Judging from the volume of this coverage, and the number of blogs and websites both critical and authorial, there certainly seems to be no lack of interest in the fate of books among the media-savvy, if not the general public.

Why then are newspapers are closing down their stand-alone book review sections at such a brisk rate, and even laying off book critics (read a poignant goodbye from one here)? The death of a newspaper section (or a whole newspaper) is of course an occasion for sadness. I still read the New York Times in its print incarnation, and plan to continue doing so as long as it is published. But in order to provide links for my blog, I use the online version; any newspaper that does not provide easy online access will not survive, because of digital culture. It's pure Darwinism--adaptation is a necessary constant of life. Maybe the "paper" part of newspaper is doomed, which is bad enough, but the real tragedy is the content itself ceasing to exist. Unfortunately, this is the case more and more often for crossword puzzles. The Atlantic recently decided to stop publishing its Puzzler online, causing great bewailing among crossworders. If only they would use the words of one stalwart puzzler as advertisement, they might renew public interest: Dunn Miller, a woman, said of doing the Puzzler, “You get the pleasure of solving each clue, so there’s that ‘aha’ moment over and over — it’s like having multiple orgasms.” Kinda makes you want to pick up a pencil, doesn't it? I have to hope that if it is such a great puzzle (I'm nowhere near the level of the Puzzler puzzlers, so I've never tried it for myself), it will become available somewhere else online or in print. Maybe I (and everyone else in the blogosphere) am out of touch with the general public's feeling about books, newspapers, etc.; maybe we're fighting a losing battle, and printed matter really is dying.

So what else will we lose if everything becomes digital? As James Wolcott pointed out in Vanity Fair, record collections like Shrevie's in "Diner" will fit in your pocket, so there's no danger of your musically ignorant wife mis-filing a James Brown disc in the jazz section. “Male record collectors seek mastery over a body of music, almost always as a way of establishing a masculine identity,” Krin Gabbard argues in his psychosocial study “Hipsters and Nerds" (quoted by Wolcott). We all know guys like this; some of us know many guys like this. What will the poor fellows do now? Well, they've already started doing it. Just one example of how: Searching out not just the best cuts of their favorite music, but the best live performances and videos, and posting them on social networking sites in an irritatingly pedantic fashion. (Sorry, guys; you know who you are.) Same impulse, different medium. On the other hand, some things may be gained in the digital future: The Google books project may be saving some books from extinction (oh no, my link for this reference has expired! the perils of blogging!)

But is an e-book really a book? Will the Kindle and its ilk bring about the end of the wonderful things we all love, plunging us into a dark, bleak, Matrix-y universe, sort of like "iCarly"? Having received a Kindle as a gift, I can speak from a very high moral ground, since I did not actually go out and buy one for myself, and yet I had to use it to avoid insulting the very thoughtful person who bought it for me (my husband, and no, I did not ask him to get it for me!). One main advantage of using a Kindle is its portability; you can take more books on vacation than you could ever possibly read, without weighing down your suitcase. (Perhaps this is the true reason he got it for me.) You can also subscribe to newspapers and magazines on the Kindle, thus saving paper. But its green quotient is brought down by the fact that it needs electricity to charge up. Also, the specter of running out of power or having a malfunction at an inopportune moment has haunted me--and has actually occurred. Books are extremely modest in their use of electricity on the reader's end; but how many resources are used in making a book? In making a Kindle? I will have to leave the answering of these questions to more scientific minds than my own; I hope one undertakes to do so soon.

As far as the experience of reading on a Kindle, I have a few quibbles. It's hard to tell how close to the end you are, so both books I've read seemed to end abruptly. This would especially be a problem with non-linear novels such as Olive Kitteredge. Also, I tend to remember pages of a book visually, so that if I'm looking for a detail that I want to re-read, I usually look back about the right number of pages on the top lefthand corner, for example. With a Kindle, that's not really possible since every page is the same (i.e. not lefthand or righthand), and you can't really tell how far back you're going. So it's a sort of disembodied experience, compared to reading a book, bringing new meaning to the expression "getting lost" in a book. But maybe, just maybe, it could result in the reader (OK, me) paying more attention to the writing itself, and not relying on the physical cues provided by the book.

The Kindle has a lot of issues; it seems every day there is a new problem to be worked out. For instance, everyone who had bought e-books by Orwell woke up the other day to find that they had been disappeared down the memory hole. This caused some major problems for a student who took notes on the Kindle as he read 1984, so major in fact that he is suing Amazon. Also, you can't give a book that you've bought to someone else, resell it, or donate it, making it less green and less friendly. What's more, there are problems with the audio rights. That's right, audio--the Kindle has a text-to-speech function; I tried it out while driving once. An automated voice reads the book, with no intonations or natural pauses. I could never tell when a new chapter was starting. The pronunciation is hit-or-miss; in one of the many articles I've read about the Kindle, the writer mentioned a certain Norwegian flavor to some of the pronunciation. I found that very funny, because the book to which I listened on my Kindle (The Night Gardener by George Pelicanos) made ample use of the word "motherfucker," which the robotic voice pronounced as a sort of Scandinavian-sounding surname--muTHEERfokkEEER. Authors usually have rights to audio versions of their work, but do not get paid when someone uses the text-to-speech function to listen to one of their books. Many other publishing questions are still to be worked out; they may sound obscure, but I believe they are quite important to the authors, who would like to be paid fairly for their work, after all. I don't think that's too much to ask. There have been many occasions for feeling Kindlenfreude, a word floating around the indie bookstore world, meaning joy of hearing bad news about the Kindle (properly, it should be Kindleschadenfreude, but let's not get picky.)

The really scary question, though, is whether Amazon will start putting ads on the Kindle. Before all the purists start ranting, there is a chance there would be different versions of a book on sale, a cheap one with ads and a more expensive, ad-free version. Of course we're used to getting our books with no ads, but almost every other medium is powered by ads already. I would never want to see ads while I'm reading a book . . . unless it's something really cheap that I'm reading just for fun and I don't feel like paying a lot for it.

What does the increasing digitization of our culture mean for books, literature and writing? For one thing, there is now blog-style writing, encouraged by the use of links; e.g., "To find out more about this, click here and here." It is now possible to say something without spelling it out, leaving it up to the reader to follow the trail or not. A link is a little like an endnote, except it leads somewhere outside the discrete work one is reading. It can lead to surprising discoveries, some pleasant, some not. It makes for a different reading experience--sometimes fun, sometimes confusing and distracting. As with other literary devices, it can be used or abused according to the skill of the writer. However it is used, we are all getting used to reading with links, and writers are getting used to writing with links. Will they be able to go back to writing books in which links are not possible? What does that mean for the future of books?

I consider myself a book person above all else; yet I own a Kindle and here I am writing a blog. In another context, Karl Lagerfeld said, "When you start to criticize the times you live in, your time is over." (Thanks to Christine Vachon for tweeting this quotation.) New technology is what we make it; we are the ones who allow it to exist in the first place, so there is no point in protesting it; we cannot blame others for foisting it upon us. If you don't like it, don't use it; but you may find yourself left behind. Go ahead and try to find a job through the newspaper, but it would behoove you to get online as well. If you don't like iTunes, don't buy an iPod; but you better go out and buy some CDs, or vinyl for your turntable ha ha. If you don't like getting your news online, it's time to renew those newspaper subscriptions. If you don't like e-readers, don't buy one; but you better go out and buy some books at your local independent bookstore, and check some out of your local library while you're at it. Better yet, write a fabulously popular book, and refuse to let it be released in a Kindle edition! I know plenty of Luddites and late adopters--some are clinging to the past because they believe the things of the past are really better, and some are just stubborn. Some are purists, such as audiophiles who really feel analog recordings capture something about music that digital recordings can't; all it takes is enough money and enough obsessiveness, and they can continue in their pursuit of vinyl. I realize I sound rather pitiless, and classist, too, since it takes money to go against the flow. Yet I do believe that it benefits no one to be left too far behind. Gertrude Stein, when interviewed by cub reporter Walter Cronkite (!) in 1935, said, “A writer isn’t anything but contemporary. The trouble is that the people are living Twentieth Century and thinking Nineteenth Century”--a century is a century is a century.

A book is an object to which we can become emotionally attached; in fact, it seems to inspire emotional attachment. We hold it in our hands for a long time as we read it; we turn its pages one at a time, with care. It has a smell, a texture. The cover can be beautiful; the type style can vary, to resonate with the individual sensibility of each work. A vinyl record, with its tight, tight spiral, unique cover and liner notes, also inspires this love. We have to treat it with care as we place the needle on it. A CD, on the other hand, is much tougher, although not indestructible, and it's hard to imagine how this shiny disc can unleash music into our ears. A Kindle does not change shape, color or size when we go from reading one book to the next. The font stays the same; the background stays the same sickly gray. We don't turn pages on a Kindle; we press a button. Does the emotional attachment to books, records, etc., come from the fact that we have used these things longer, and so have had longer to build up the associations, the memories that come up when we pull out an old record, or see our favorite book on a new acquaintance’s shelf? Or are we just analog creatures, and the digital format grates on us as something essentially alien?

Then again, many of us have become quite attached to our new-fangled gadgets. I for one would probably cry if I lost my iPhone. But it does retain an alien quality—made of strange metals, plastic, microtechnology that I cannot begin to fathom. A book—that I can grasp, literally and figuratively, although of course what is written in the book can still be beyond my intellectual grasp. It is made of recognizable, sometimes organic elements, and I can even picture in my mind how it was made—whether or not that process is realistically portrayed in my mind’s eye is beside the point. It is not mysterious, but comfortingly familiar. No matter how much time passes, not many of us will ever comprehend how an iPhone or Kindle actually works. That is part of its appeal—the wow factor one experiences when an entire book is downloaded within seconds via the “Whispernet,” or when something I enter on my iPhone is synced with my Macbook seemingly by magic. I am in awe, but not in love.

I suppose some would say they do love their electronic devices. I would venture that their love is more like a new infatuation with a mysterious lover than the warm affection given to, say, a grandmother. A grandmother who makes your favorite comfort food and knits you mittens. Maybe some day the new infatuation will mellow into a more familiar attachment, and we will realize that the old grandmother is just as necessary as the mystifying stranger. Of course, the Gutenberg bible seemed impossibly magical when it first appeared.

There will be a day when the Kindle is seen as a primitive ancestor of a technology that everyone accepts as part of daily life. Maybe it will look like one of the two mentioned here. I'm sure Amazon will make improvements according to users' complaints; I hope other devices continue to develop to compete against the Kindle, because I find Amazon's attempted monopolization of our world very troubling. There are already several applications that make it possible to read on an iPhone, iPod Touch or Blackberry (like Eucalyptus and Stanza). Nicholson Baker actually prefers to read on an iPhone, because it is not trying to be too much like a book; the Kindle, on the other hand, tries to be just like a book that just happens to be electronic. But real books will also continue to exist as long as people want them. The article in the Brooklyn Rail I mentioned earlier predicts an eventual bifurcation of publishing culture: One branch is the popular, interactive, fast-mass-produced stuff that you could hardly call books, and the other is the branch that values the reading experience only a book can give. According to Eric Obenauf , the author of this article, the fast-rising sales in e-books can be traced back to the fact that e-books are new, not to the imminent death of print: the e-book sector "is one of the only aspects of the industry where sales are actually increasing. Since large publishers affect the flow of the market by sheer mass, the media seem content to regurgitate this overly hyped sea-change in corporate mentality and declare the death of print. However, the reality of the situation is much less dramatic: there is space for print not only to exist in modern society, but to thrive, if undertaken on a realistic scale."

Maybe fewer crappy books will get published. Has anyone looked at the front fiction table at Barnes & Noble recently? It feels strange to me to be able to walk in there and not see a single book on the whole table that I would even consider reading. The Guernsey Potato Society? Mr. Darcy's Private Diary? Are you freaking kidding me? Something has got to give. There are many signs that the publishing world is already going through serious changes to accommodate the increase in digital sales, both at large houses and small, including start-ups. Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull Press, said in describing his new venture, Cursor, "We are going to have to find new ways to earn those [customers'] hours and dollars, and at the prices our readers—and writers—set." Obenauf put it this way: "The mission for book publishers and print media at large should be to create a product that is irreplaceable and indispensable." In other words, books have to continue to provide that “beautiful rich tactile experience,” as Dave Eggers called it, and not try to be like the Internet too much, because they will only fail at that. In the meantime, I will continue to try to support the book industry singlehandedly, much to my husband's chagrin. Not even the Kindle can stop me.

Would this mean that stores like Barnes & Noble would (gasp) cease to exist, unable to pay the rent on those big spaces with revenue from plain old good books? Wouldn't that be horrible? After all, as Steve Riggio recently asserted, "Barnes & Noble pioneered the concept of retail stores as community centers”--what a huge pile of BS. Can you believe the nerve of that guy? Now, I've bought my share of books at B&N, for myself and my kids (along with CDs, DVDs, magazines, gifts, games, tchotchkes, coffee, tea, snacks, chocolate bars, birthday cards, etc.). I also must admit that I think they have made an effort in the past few years to hire staff that actually know something about books. But if it had never existed, I would not feel that something were missing from the universe; I would if bookstores like St. Marks (or Kramerbooks in DC, the first I ever experienced) did not exist. To go into a space especially for books, where there is a mind behind the selection, where a book is given pride of place because someone who owns or works in the store deemed it worthy--not because a multinational conglomerate paid for the spot--and then to meet sales staff and other customers who share your obsessions--that is a bookstore as a "community center" and so much more. As for the Kindle, I will certainly use it, but it can never replace books for me.

The above quotation from Steve Riggio is from the press release in which he also announced that B&N would now provide free wi-fi access to its in-store customers; hypocritically, I'm using this service as I write this. Riggio went on to say, "By providing no-fee Wi-Fi access, we are not only meeting our customers' needs, but extending the sense of community that has always been in our stores. . . . This is a natural progression of our digital strategy to provide customers with more choices in how, when and where they want to read." When you go to a B&N store, you'll see little signs about the new wi-fi access, and at the bottom there is encouragement to download B&N's own free e-reader (which also exists as an iPhone app) and free e-books to get you started. So forget all that community crap--they're really just want to jump (belatedly) on the e-reader bandwagon and get you hooked. (Apple is also developing its own "Kindle-killer.") No matter how maddening the statements re community are, it all adds up to a salubrious reminder that whether it's a book retailer, a publisher or an e-reader maker, the main concern is making money. We as readers should watch how we spend our dollars in support of these various money-making ventures, because that's what will determine the future of books.

For fun, check out these videos pitting the Kindle against the book. Happy reading!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Another Summer Reading Fantasy

I was just going to post an entry about the "Reading Room" in Bryant Park, when I noticed The New York Times beat me to it! Damn them! What are they trying to do, report on what's going on or something? Anyway, it's very nice to see a section of the park set apart for readers--and there is reading material provided in case you forgot yours. There's nothing like reading in an shady spot outside on a summer day. Occasionally authors will appear to do readings; see the schedule at the parks department website.

Friday, July 10, 2009

What Classics NOT to Read

I like this salubrious counterweight to all the lists of books we are always being told we are supposed to read, should read, should love and cherish without question. It reminded me to try to think for myself, something I thought I learned how to do long ago, but still seem to have trouble doing.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Where was I?

Sometimes I listen to The New Yorker Fiction podcast (also available on iTunes, of course).  An author picks a story from the The New Yorker archives to read aloud, and then discuss with The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman.  Recently I listened to Tobias Wolff read a story by Denis Johnson called "Emergency," or, as I think of it, "A Knife in the Eye."  Why did no one ever tell me what a great writer Denis Johnson is?  How did I miss this?  The story was magical, wistful, sad, and most of all, hilarious.  It is from Jesus' Son, which I must read immediately.  Fuckhead, here I come.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How Refreshing

I admit I had never heard of Pasha Malla, but I loved his reaction to winning the Trillium prize for his short story collection The Withdrawal Method.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Summer Reading

Ahh, the sound of those two words together—what two words in the English language have a more idyllic set of associations?  And what more blissfully dreamy occupation can there be than making a summer reading list?  Janet Maslin in Friday’s New York Times suggested a summer reading list of women writers, of, well, let’s say women’s fiction.  Most of the titles are a bit too fluffy for my taste, but I have been known to read fluff now and again (and sometimes even to read crap), and could very well pick up one of them for a long plane trip one day.  The only one I would definitely put on my list is Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  I have not read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, her big hit, but I did read Dragon Bones and liked it.

I try to keep a general to-read list going on goodreads.com, but there are some titles that have been there for ages and are not what I would consider summer reading.  There are some books there that I will quite possibly never read unless I have to have my leg in traction for six weeks some day.  But there are others that I definitely want to read, but for some reason would not make a summer list.  What makes a book a good summer book?  A certain lightness is desirable, but not essential, and in fact there cannot be too much lightness in the list as a whole, or it will just get unbearable.   There is of course a fantasy element to making a summer list, because I know I will never read that exact list of books, because I will end up picking up something else on a whim.   But none of that matters when I start making the list; all that matters is the vision of sitting in the shade in an Adirondack chair while my children and dog take care of themselves, the garden weeds itself, my corporeal self does the housework, dozens of yoga classes, and runs twenty miles a week. 

(In no particular order)

2666 Robert Bolano

When Skateboards Will Be Free Said Sayrafiezadeh

Brooklyn Colm Toibin

Home Marilynne Robinson (Winner of the Orange prize)

Do Not Deny Me Jean Thompson (“the American Alice Munro”—Since I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by Munro, who just won the Man Booker International prize, I probably can't go wrong with Thompson.)

City of Refuge Tom Piazza

A Mercy Toni Morrison

The Thing Around Your Neck Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Once a Runner John L. Parker

Shanghai Girls Lisa See

Indignation Philip Roth

The Forgotten Garden Kate Morton

Prague Arthur Phillips

Don’t Cry Mary Gaitskill

Those last two authors I had the pleasure of hearing read the other night at a Behind the Book event at KGB.  I confess that even though I own books by both of them, I have never read anything by either; I will try to rectify that shortcoming as soon as possible.  I'll get started just as soon as I finish Absurdistan.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tell me all your thoughts on dog

Which heading do you like better: "Experts grapple with how we got to where we are" or "Why people keep doing things that don't work."  I like both--the first is from a taxi TV news feed ribbon; the second,  from Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin.  I'm glad to know the experts are busy grappling away; I just hope I hear about it when they come up with some answers.  I guess I have to keep riding in taxis to find out if they do.   Now, as far as why people keep doing things that don't work, I'm constantly wondering that myself, so luckily I know where to go to find some answers, and it doesn't require cabfare.  

I’ve been semi-obsessed with Temple Grandin for several years.  She is a high-functioning austistic woman who has overcome great difficulties to become a highly respected authority on animal husbandry.   She is the source and inspiration of the title of Oliver Sacks' book An Anthropologist on Mars; that is how she described her feeling of mystification in the face of the  social niceties and nuances of human behavior.  This alienation does not extend to the animal world for Grandin; in fact, her autism enables her to reach a deep empathy with animals.   In her first book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, she describes how she constructed a squeeze box for herself, inspired by squeeze devices used to hold cattle for branding or medical procedures, as a way to calm herself.   In Thinking in Pictures and this latest, Animals Make Us Human, she goes into greater detail in discussing the similarities between her thought process and that of animals.  It is a nonverbal, visual, sense-based process--making her ability to get a Ph.D. and to write books even more amazing.   On the other hand, it is this closeness to animals that has made her career possible.  

What happens when the autistic child grows up?  How can an autistic adult function in society, let alone become a leader in her field and an author?  Grandin herself examines this question at length in Thinking in Pictures.  Grandin's success was hard won, and certainly not the norm for autistic adults, as evidenced by this story of a young autistic man.   How could a child who seems completely cut off from the world, have grown up to write any kind of book at all?  Despite her autism, Grandin's books that I have read have all been fascinating and readable, albeit with a few verbal quirks here and there.  She works with co-authors, who somehow manage to preserve her idiosyncratic voice.  It would be interesting to know more about how they work together on a book, for instance, how much structure and organization the co-author provides. 

In Animals Make Us Human, after an overview of animal neuroscience, Grandin takes the reader through how various species manifest their emotions in their behaviors.   The neuroscience breaks down into certain core or "blue-ribbon" emotions, such as seeking, fear, panic and rage.  It sounds strange for seeking to be called a feeling, but it makes perfect sense when you see, for example, any normal dog turned loose in a new place.  The first thing it will do is explore the surroundings thoroughly (as long as it feels safe); if it doesn't, then something must be is wrong with it.   It's the same with people, whether they're in a meadow or garden, at an open house, or in a new art gallery.   The feeling of wanting to explore and find out what is around you, either by moving through space, investigating intellectually or creatively--if you don't feel it, you are either physically or mentally ill, or too used to living in a bleak environment.  Therefore, an animal with high seeking needs that is kept in a small, unenriched enclosure all its life will naturally develop stereotypies--those disturbing behaviors such as swimming back and forth all day long in exactly the same pattern, like Gus the polar bear used to do at the Central Park Zoo.   

If animals make us human, they surely also make us humans who are unable to blog frequently.  Having gotten a puppy six weeks ago, my life has been once again overtaken by an extreme concern with the bodily processes of another being.  Luckily, this being will (I hope and assume) be potty-trained faster than my children were.  Her name is Oreo, and she is, of course, the most adorable creature that has ever existed.   In addition to being extremely cute, she is also quite intelligent; I am able to appreciate her intelligence much more after reading this book.  For instance, I learned that it is normal for puppies to have overly aggressive tendencies when very young, as a survival instinct that nevertheless does not phase the puppies' parents.  In this way, a puppy is like a toddler who might bite or kick another child, and live to grow up to be a solid citizen.   As the puppy grows up, it should learn how to be submissive in order to adapt to living with other dogs and keep the peace.  

Dogs who do not learn submissive behaviors as they mature display neoteny--the retention of juvenile features in an adult animal; I'm tempted to draw a parallel between these animals and our entire popular culture, which encourages grown-ups to read Harry Potter books and go to movies about superheroes and vampires.  Interestingly, large-breed dogs (the more "wolf-like," as Grandin calls them) usually learn submission easily and naturally.  It is the smaller breeds, especially toy breeds, that have difficulty, and therefore tend to be comically yappy and aggressive throughout their lives.  There is even something called Small Dog Syndrome, exemplified in the small, bossy dog that thinks it is the pack leader of its humans.

Oreo is a cockalier, i.e. a mix of Cavalier King Charles and Cocker Spaniel.   Being a combination of a toy breed and a medium-sized sporting/gundog breed sometimes noted for high-strung tendencies, it was possible that she could have had trouble with submission.  We are extremely lucky that she is very submissive with other dogs and not at all yappy.  In fact, she rarely barks and then only in play.  She engages in appropriate play with other puppies, such as tussling, chasing, mouthing, maybe occasionally nipping.  She tries to show dominance only toward her toys (or things she deems to be toys, but are actually valuable household objects) or once in a while a very small dog or one of her human “brothers.”  She sits when she sees other dogs, and waits for them to approach or show interest.  Larger puppies and adult dogs are sometimes overly aggressive towards her in the dog run, no matter how many times she rolls over and shows her belly to them; I assume those dogs did not get the memo about what submission means and need to keep asserting their dominance over and over again.  I think some of this behavior is due to the unnatural way dogs live in our society.   Grandin reminisces about how her childhood dog was able to run around outside with other neighborhood dogs and just be a dog.  Especially in cities, today dogs are forced to stay in a juvenile state in some ways: Always leashed, except in small, sterile dog runs, where owners hover over them.   The trade-off is a long, comfortable life.

After discussing the emotional needs of dogs, Grandin goes into what she means by animals making us human, with respect to dogs.  Both species have benefited by the domestication of dogs by humans: humans through the aid of dogs in hunting and protection, and dogs through the extra care and shelter given by the humans.  Thus the first people to successfully domesticate dogs (well, wolves to begin with) were more likely to survive than people who did not have such success.  The wolves, although they gradually lost their identity as such, gained longevity and reproductive advantages for themselves and their progeny.  Biologically, caring for animals can increase the production in humans of oxytocin (not to be confused wtih oxycontin), the hormone familiar to mothers who have breastfed a baby--it causes milk to "let down."  Oxytocin increases feelings of calm, relaxation, even confidence.  In fact, there is a book on the effects of oxytocin in humans as a result of the human-animal bond.  So evolutionarily and biologically, having animals around has beneficial repercussions for humans, as well as animals, except that the animals lose their wildness.

After dogs, Grandin goes through several other species--cats, horses, cows, pigs, poultry--and also discusses wildlife and zoos, all with the question in mind of what do animals need to have a good life.  Sounds a little boring, even for a dyed-in-the-wool animal lover, and in truth it gets a little repetitive, but since her expertise is in the field of livestock husbandry, the moral crux of the book starts to become clear in the section on cattle.  In a section with the heading “Why People Keep Doing Things that Don’t Work,” Grandin writes, “Another obstacle [to changing bad habits, i.e. mistreatment of cattle] is that to be a good stockperson you have to recognize that an animal is a conscious being that has feeling, and some people don’t want to think of animals that way.”  Simple, right?  Even people who originally listen to her, because she is working within their system instead of attacking it from without like PETA, and try to adopt her methods, eventually go back to their old ways.  She goes on to write that “One of the biggest frustrations in my career has been that I’d do an installation at a plant and train the workers and get the handling real super-good, then I’d come back a year later and find they’d reverted to using the electric prod and screaming at the cattle.” 

For someone who described herself a feeling like an anthropologist on Mars when observing human behavior, what does it mean to title a book “Animals Make Us Human”?  To her, what does “human” mean?  She struggles with this question of why people keep doing things that don’t work precisely because she is at that slight remove—she is practical above all else, and it just doesn’t make sense to her, and nor should it, that once shown the right way, people would not stick to it.  Why do something so obviously wrong and impractical as go back to the bad, old ways of doing things?  That is what makes us human—that we do not always do what makes sense.  What enables Grandin to feel such great empathy with animals—whatever that quality is, it is inseparable from her autism—makes her eminently sensible, thereby making it difficult for her to understand others who are not so sensible.  After expressing her frustration with this human imperfection, Grandin gathers her forces and applies what she knows about animals to people.  She delineates the personality traits that are desirable in stockpeople, and describes how to manage the emotions of the people handling livestock through auditing and incentives.  Humans are animals, too, after all.

So the title of the book is on the one hand a concession to animal lovers, just like the picture of the gorgeous golden retriever on the cover.  On the other hand, it expresses a hope.  If we get to know animals better through studying them and caring for them, they will indeed make us better people.  Unfortunately, we are human to begin with, which makes us very slow to improve.  One episode of Animal Rescue, or a viewing of a PETA video surreptitiously made at a chicken farm, should be enough proof that there are plenty of humans who have not been improved by contact with animals.  In fact, some of us seem to seek out animals in order to inflict cruelty on defenseless beings.  It would be nice if some day we can help animals as much as they help us (and feed us).   We just have to cultivate the same kind of empathy that Grandin naturally feels, and they will pay us back in kind.  Besides everything else they already do for us, animals also work as therapists (or human whisperers).  One of my favorite examples is the Read with Mudge program in the New York Public Library system: Kids who are having trouble with reading get to read aloud to a dog, who of course listens with no judgment.  The children get practice reading with no pressure; I hope at least the dogs enjoy the  stories.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Authors! Live!

Colm Toibin is at 192 Books tonight at 7 PM; Mary Gaitskill is there same time next Thursday.  Now, how to get another get out of jail card; it might not be possible after last night's girls' night out.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Even ACOAs get the blues

Tom Robbins has apparently written a children's book called B Is for Beer.  Hilarious, right?  I have not read the book, so my immediate reaction is based solely on what I have read about it.  The main character is a kindergartner, who actually drinks a beer in the story.  And that reaction is, this is pure insanity.  As the child of an alcoholic, the title B Is for Beer does not make me laugh or smile.  My associations are of the more stomach-churning variety.  Having read and loved Tom Robbins in my time (it would be interesting to go back and read him now, 20-odd years down the road), I am sad that he would come up with such an ill-conceived, such an ill concept.  I know I might be coming off like a shrill temperance freak, but this is not an area where I can pretend to be cool.  Now if it had been W Is for Wine, my reaction would not be as visceral, but I would still wonder--why?  Why did this have to be a children's book?  I don't think I'll be recommending it for my kids' school book fair.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Enter Roth

Exit Ghost Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'd give it more than five stars if I could. I love Roth, and this book is a distillation of all his classic themes. God, I love Roth. Nathan Zuckerman at 71, returning to New York City after self-exile of 11 years, trying to seduce a 20-something woman, while vowing to do evertyhing in his power to prevent E.I. Lonoff's biography from being written, while meeting with Lonoff's erstwhile young mistress now an old woman close to death, at the time of the Kerry/Bush election. It just has it all. I can't do it justice, and I can't really review it; it seems so beside the point. I can only recommend it very highly.

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Duplicitous Preservation

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper by Nicholson Baker

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
It took me a ridiculously long time to finish this book, for reasons into which I shall not go, but that is no reflection on the book itself. It is about the decimation of our libraries by fiendish proponents of microfilm. Untold treasures of periodicals and books have been lost due to the persuasion of librarians by "preservationists" that the paper would soon crumble into dust. One test that would be done to prove the incipient crumbliness of a page was called the "Double Fold" test.
Nicholson Baker has a field day with this one, as the root meaning of "duplicity" is "double fold." The test involves folding down a corner of a page, and then folding it all the way back, and repeating until the corner falls off. Not surprisingly, it doesn't take that many folds; that's why your mother/teacher/librarian always told you not to dogear your books. Baker makes up his own test, which is basically turning the pages of a book exactly as you would do if you were reading. Again not surprisingly, all the books tested in this way hold up strikingly well, even very old ones. So how can it be that so many librarians allowed bound periodicals and books to be "disbounded" in order to be photographed for microfilm, and then thrown in the trash? Especially when the microfilm was very often of very poor quality? The answer is not clear, but through no fault of Baker's. It's just one of those stupid outcomes of bureaucracy and false economy. Having actually done research on microfilm, I know from experience that it is a heinous technology, and a major cause of headaches among students. Luckily, digital technology has made it largely obsolete; however, that does nothing to bring back all the pages that have been lost. At the end of his book, Baker describes heroically trying to save many volumes of old, bound newspapers by buying them from the British Library; if only more people had cared before him about the preserving the actual objects than just the content of written works.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Pure Poetry

April is National Poetry Month, so it's time to get ready.  Tonight at McNally Jackson Books, there is a reading with a bunch of great poets: Robert Pinsky, Sharon Olds, Philip Schultz, Mark Strand, C.K. Williams.  It's called Essential Pleasures, which is also the name of a new anthology that Robert Pinsky put together, with a focus on poetry as language to be spoken aloud.  Wish I could go, but I'll be lucky if I'm still standing after an afternoon of carting kids around, following a morning of puppy care.

Somehow last week, though, I did make it to an evening event: A panel up at Columbia of authors/academics discussing crime fiction with great gusto.  The participants were Charles Ardai, Leonard Cassuto, Jenny Davidson and George Stade, mediated by Jean Howard, chair of the English Department.  The Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was also on hand to make some opening remarks; his name escapes me but George Stade calls him Hank.  Even though he is a mathematician, he is well versed in the crime genre, especially the French  --le polar (policier + noir).  I felt almost like I was back in school again--and I mean that in a good way.  One of the first topics was the transgressive, liberating experience of reading crime fiction; a paradoxical way to see murder done safely, with of course perspective on how the genre has changed over time in terms of protagonists, structure, etc.  There was also some discussion of why crime fiction should be considered serious literature, which is to me a moot question, and certainly was to everyone there.  

Stade did a recap of his discussion of Mickey Spillane that I remembered from his course on popular fiction lo these many years ago.  After giving many examples of the laughable hamfistedness of I, the Jury, he asked the question why this book was so popular in the late 1940s.   The beginning of his answer to this question was, "The news is not good."  Indeed Spillane was arguably the most popular American novelist of the 20th century.   An audience member suggested the in the post-WWII era, Mike Hammer embodied a fascistic impulse that the masses unconsciously needed to discharge after having fought against fascism itself in the war.  Hmm, transgression isn't always so great, is it?

I gathered many names of crime authors I must check out, especially the late Donald Westlake, who also wrote under the name Richard Stark, and one of whose books was recently published by the University of Chicago Press.  Jenny Davidson and Charles Ardai are both authors I plan to read; Ardai is also the publisher of the Hard Case Crime books--a great, retro-looking bunch of reissues and new noir titles.  Leonard Cassuto wrote a book called Hard-Boiled Sentimentality that I picked up.  I also have added to my blog list Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, to try to keep up to date with crime fiction.  Too many books, not enough time--that leads to my next topic: libraries!  Coming soon.

Monday, March 23, 2009


RIP Nicholas Hughes, son of Sylvia Path and Ted Hughes.  He hanged himself.  When Plath gassed herself, she first stuffed towels around the kitchen door to keep the gas from leaking into her children's rooms.  He was one of those children.  He committed suicide 40 years to the day after Hughes' mistress (after Plath died) killed herself and their child.  

Monday, March 16, 2009

Many Minds

I should definitely look up the review mentioned in this blog post on About Last Night about Elfreide Jelinek; I tried reading The Piano Teacher after it was made into a movie starring Isabelle Huppert, but I could not make it through.  I just could not stand it.  Maybe the review will change my mind.

Interesting experiences with words in the last few days--first Laurie Anderson performing in the Third Mind Live series at the Guggenheim, and then kirtan with Krishna Das at Kripalu.  The Third Mind Live series is supposed to illuminate The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia exhibit.  The connection for LA, supposedly, was her experiences with Asian musicians, and their different ways of thinking of time, both in music and in life.  However, as far as the experience of her concert, it seemed to be a convenient way to select a variety of stories from throughout her career.  Looking back, I suppose time played a role in all the stories, but sometimes the connection was tenuous.  It really didn't matter, though, because her stories were often funny, and made fascinating by the multimedia presentation, including music, voice play, and visual effects.  I don't know what the first and second minds are, but if LA's mind is an example of a third mind, I want one like it.

OK, now I get it: The first mind is western/European/American, the second mind is eastern/Asian, and the third mind is realized when western artists adapted Asian art forms and ideas.  So I guess a westerner like myself experiencing kirtan would be an example of the third mind struggling to become.  After the first chant with Krishna Das the other night (Seetaram), he stopped and said something along the lines of, "Wow, nice chant.  Wouldn't it be nice to know what the words meant?"  He's obviously very aware of the difficulty the educated, liberal, urban American would have in kirtan, because we are hyper-conscious of what words mean.  What do the words in kirtan mean?  Well, some do have specific meanings, and others are supposed to be names for different aspects of God, so probably out there in the world somewhere is a source that would purport to tell you what it all means.

But frankly, I don't care to find out what they mean; the whole point of the experience is to sing in response to the leader, and let the physical vibrations take effect.  As KD described it, after singing the chants together with a large group, hearing the music, and moving to it, people tend to get happy.  When you get happy, he said, "Your life is ruined."  What he meant was, you will have nothing left to strive for, no trying to be happy left, no unhappiness left to try to shrug off.  Just happiness.  That's insane, right?  That couldn't possibly, logically, rationally work.  And that's the point.

At the close of the concert, KD said: "As we say in India, [beat] take it easy."  Would that be an example of the fourth mind?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Good Reads, I hope

Here's what I just added to my Goodreads to-read list: Steer Toward Rock by Fae Myenne Ng, Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno (finalist for the Story Prize), and The Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernieres.  What is Goodreads, you ask?  Well, I'll tell you.  It's a website that functions a little like Facebook, in that you have friends who can see what you post, but the posts center on what books you are all reading, what you thought of books you've finished reading, and most importantly, what you want to read.  Judge me not on what I've read, but on what I plan to read--my motto.  It's a way to keep track of your reading, and also a way to see what your friends are reading, get recommendations, etc.  It's a funny little world, Goodreads--sometimes lists pop up that are just absurd, like the list of best books of all time.  Guess what was number one--The Book of Mormon , of course.   Hmm . . . I mean, it was good and all, but .  . . weren't the characters a little flat?  To Goodreads' credit, though, they have come up with interesting bits of participatory webbiness, like a contest to write a short story solely through status updates.  That kind of got me thinking.  More on that and everything else later--in the meantime, if you would like to be my Goodreads friend, please let me know; I'd love to know what you are reading.  If you are on Facebook, you can add Goodreads as an application; if you're one of the last three people left on the planet who are not on Facebook, you can join Goodreads independently at goodreads.com.  


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New York, NY, United States
Overeducated mom, addled by constant interruptions due to demands of family and dog, trying to read books and write coherent sentences about them. Luckily, yoga keeps me centered. Sharing my love of yoga through teaching helps make sense of it all. I have a yoga blog at susiemarplesyoga.com. Since 2015, it has been my pleasure to serve as a reader for Epiphany, a literary journal publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art; on Twitter as @epiphanymag. http://profile.to/susiemarples http://pinterest.com/susiem66


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