31 October 2009

Happy Halloween, and all that.  To New Yorkers, Happy Third Game of the World Series, and Happy Day Before the Marathon.

I realize that I’m often announcing here news about me me me, read this, I wrote it, etc.  But if you haven’t yet, check out my review of Sergei Dovlatov‘s Ours: A Russian Family Album over at The Millions.  I urge you to do so as a kind of celebration with me; I find book reviews very difficult to write, and I think I finally “hit it” with this one, meaning I think I was able to convey the essence of my love for it (in less than 2,000 words).  “Essence” is a difficult thing to convey, not to mention “love.”  With books, I find it nearly impossible.

And Dovlatov’s work really is something.



28 October 2009

shorthistorywomen_sm I’ve been sitting on, and soaking in, a bit of good news.  Kate Walbert, National Book Award finalist for Our Kind, and author most recently of A Short History of Women, has written a blurb for the dust jacket of Long for This World.

The blurb has on one hand become something of a mundane thing; blurbs go around in literary circles like so many back-scratches.  But the reverence and respect I have for Ms. Walbert’s work as a novelist — smart, original, deeply imagined — and also for the seriousness and focus with which she approaches the writing life, make this bit of fairy dust that she’s generously sprinkled my way (she is a busy teacher and novelist who knows me not at all) feel real.  Like good words for the long journey.

Here’s the blurb:

“An intricately structured and powerfully resonant portrait of lives lived at the crossroads of culture, and a family torn between the old world and the new, Long for This World marks a powerful debut from a young writer of great talent and promise.”

Click here for Kate Walbert on persevering as a writer (short video).

And click here for a terrific roundtable conversation with Charlie Rose, featuring all five of the (female) NBA finalists in 2004, including Walbert.

25 October 2009

Here it is — or at least one — that interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell I was on the lookout for, where she talks about the journey from indie publisher, to major publisher, and then back to small press with her National Book Award finalist American Salvage.

25 October 2009

Belated photos from last week’s reading at KGB.  Apologies that the other readers — Sara Goudarzi and Daniel Meltzer — don’t appear in these; the photographer was a little focused on yours truly. (Apparently, I talk with my hands a lot.)

I had the chance to try out a particular 20-minute section from Long for This World as an oral/aural piece, and it seemed to work pretty well.


w/Adam Sexton


w/ my girlz (and a boyfriend)


a stranger checking out the galley for Long for This World

23 October 2009

The “Omnivore” blog at Bookforum.com is not unlike the periodic Web “roundups” of many literary blogs, except that it seems to me more truly omnivorous, even as it is also more specific, i.e. topical.  Which I love.

Here is a fascinating roundup of essays, articles, explorations, and reviews on the topic of “What Women Want.”  I started with the piece about  why men catcall — because I’ve been disturbed by and angsty about this for some time now.  But that piece is just the appetizer here.  I can’t help but wonder, how do readers keep from getting bloated after gorging on all this content?  (And I’m already three posts behind at Omnivore.  Posts on economics and foreign policy already making my mouth water.)

This wondering not at all specific to Bookforum or Omnivore, of course.  Just another “analogians anonymous” shrug-with-cross-eyes.

21 October 2009

You gotta love a Cinderella story.  Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s American Salvage is the only National Book Award finalist this year from a small press; Wayne State Press did an initial print run of 1,500.  To me, that speaks of how weird and confusing is the publishing world right now.

And Campbell’s story is much more complicated, really, than Cinderella’s.  Her first story collection, Women and Other Animals (what a title!), was published by University of Massachusetts Press, then the paperback was released by Simon & Schuster.  Her second book, the novel Q Road, was published by Scribner (an imprint of S&S), and was named a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers book.  Her editor for Q Road was Sarah McGrath, a well-known editor, now at Penguin/Riverhead, who has worked with such authors as Khaled Hosseini, Chang-rae Lee, Kate Walbert, Meg Wolitzer, and Maile Maloy.

One wonders how American Salvage landed at Wayne State Press with a 1,500 print run.  I’m sure there’s an interview out there that I haven’t yet discovered that gets into this.  It’s unclear if she has an agent.  I’m looking forward to learning more about Campbell and reading her work; check our her Web site, which definitely gives a sense of her “I Gotta Be Me” personality.

18 October 2009

An interesting, extended comments-conversation going on at The Millions around my most recent post, “The Mommy Problem” — about the tensions between art and parenthood, parents and non-parents, male approach to these questions and female approach.  If you’re a writer or an artist or a parent or a male or a female (or some combination, I assume), join on in.

16 October 2009

For some time now, I’ve been trying to make the argument that Edith Wharton (and Henry James, and George Eliot, and Balzac — yes, Balzac, particularly Pere Goriot) are the best “guilty pleasures” you can find in literature. Page-turning sexual tension, female desire and psychology, male desire and psychology, family dysfunction, villains you love to hate and hate to love… it’s all there, and most importantly, one needn’t sacrifice good writing for the pleasure of escape or high emotional drama.

Rebecca Mead on the New Yorker Out Loud podcast is making this argument, too, better than I have.  To anyone who loves Cecily von Ziegesar‘s Gossip Girl series, she recommends giving The House of Mirth –“the real thing” (von Ziegesar is apparently influenced by Wharton) — a try.  Here, here.

15 October 2009

This “Shouts & Murmurs” from the New Yorker made my day. (Thanks, James.)

14 October 2009

Both The Second Pass and The Rumpus are disappointed/perplexed by the Huffington Post‘s new books section, a partnership (of sorts) with the New York Review of Books.

The Second Pass finds HuffPo editor Amy Hertz‘s open letter to the publishing industry, where she disparages the traditional review as a “conversation ender,” “dispiriting,” and a little surprising, given the partnership with NYRB.  The Rumpus wonders where the literature section is.

Clicking over to browse the site, I found a number of interesting topics and headlines that I might well spend a little time this week reading — posts about independent bookstores, new technology and small presses, a review (yes, a review) of Philip Roth‘s new book.  Oddly, as The Second Pass describes, across the top of each article are tabs you can click in “response” to the article; your choices are: amazing, inspiring, funny, scary, hot, crazy, important, weird. I’m not sure yet if you can click more than one, but that would be sort of fun, I think–like, you know, that refrigerator poetry thing.  (This review of Philip Roth’s book is crazy important.)

This piece by Gerald Sindell -- a complaint about the NY Times‘s repeat coverage of what he calls “pet” books (at first I thought he meant literally — books about pets) — ruffled me a little, not because the subject isn’t perfectly valid and important (maybe even crazy important), but because of its sloppiness.  The title of the piece is, “Why Michiko? Why?”  I clicked on it at first because it promised to be an article about why Michiko Kakutani–why she has so much power, or why she is the coveted reviewer.  But in fact, there is a crucial comma missing, which changes the meaning.  It should be, “Why, Michiko?  Why?” (i.e. why are you giving disproportionate coverage to certain books?). Sindell also refers to the “NY Time’s proclivity” (are we talking about the newspaper, or the weekly magazine?) and “Mike Blumberg” (is this an accepted shorthand for Michael Bloomberg?  If so, I stand corrected).

I know the bloggers at HuffPo aren’t paid, and I feel their pain.  Blog posts are usually written quickly, and it’s painful how little time we have to make them right.  So, no particular offense meant to Mr. Sindell; but it’s hard not to feel uneasy about the ways in which speed and volume of material are displacing attention to words–which, last I checked, is still the basis of all good writing.

11 October 2009

A good radio host is hard to find.  Brian Lehrer of WNYC is one of the gifted: not only smart and well-informed, but balances that firm yet empathetic quality that makes for a call-in host that doesn’t make you cringe, that can manage the most awkward or tense situations, that can move the conversation along without diminishing anyone’s perspective, no matter how “out there.”

I remember one episode about overprotective parenting, with guest Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, who’d drawn heated criticism for letting her nine year-old son find his own way home on the subway (and writing about it). The tenor of the conversation was generally light and wry, until a call came in from a man whose sister had been abducted when they were children and never found.  The tension was almost unbearable, but BL handled it with his characteristic gentle directness.  You almost wanted to call in and extend to him an invitation to all your family holiday dinners.

But I want to recommend to you another NPR radio host, Michel Martin.  In New York, her program Tell Me More airs on the AM channel 820 (you have to forego Soundcheck on the FM channel to catch it, and I hereby suggest you do).  It’s one of the only (the only?) NPR programs hosted by a woman of color (she is African American), and the perspective on the day’s news is generally given from alternative vantage points, with the majority of guests and commentators being people of color as well.  Martin I think holds together the mainstream and the alternative in an admirable, more-difficult-than-it-looks balance.

I particularly enjoy “The Barber Shop,” where a diverse group of male journalists, black and Latino, gab about the day’s events, with Martin as elegant and assertive-when-necessary moderator.  The other day, in a conversation about the swine flu, it was actually a pleasure to hear MM lose it a little–a rare occurrence–as she waxed passionate about all the media focus on swine flu, when, as she put it, “kids are dying every day in the inner cities.”

Check out Tell Me More — stream, podcast, etc.

8 October 2009

Talking with a fellow The Millions contributor today about the conflict between blog-writing and fiction-writing — i.e. the competition for both time and head space — it occurred to me just how wonderful and admirable is Maud Newton‘s recent garnering of the Narrative Magazine Annual Fiction Prize.

The ability to seek out, ingest, and aggregate volumes of literary/cultural news and book criticism; to read and read and read, both for pleasure and in order to write short essays and reviews of her own on a regular basis; and to continue to write her own fiction… this is huber-literary-capacity indeed.

In my book, Ms. Newton bowls in same league as another huber-literary-pilgrim, Ken Chen — who somewhat single-handedly runs an extremely active nonprofit organization, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and who is the recipient of this year’s Yale Younger Poets‘ prize.

Bravo, bravo, bravo.


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