Wednesday, November 30, 2005

. . . Is my two front teeth

I promised thirty or so titles in my last post, so here's the other fifteen or so.

Five books that I've already read, but for some reason are not on my shelf.

Five books by or about Shakespeare that I really want

Five books in translation I really want

And of course, the one book I really want

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, of course, came out this year, but somehow didn't make the NYT Book Review's list, which should call its credibility into question all by itself. Sure it's really neither "fiction" nor "nonfiction," but what's the point of a list if it leaves out the best stuff?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

All I want for Xmas. . .

In thinking about Tim's comment on my last post, I realized that I was comparing the thirty or so fiction titles on NYT's 2005 Notable Books list with the thirty or so titles from recent Western literature that I really want to add to my bookshelf. In all fairness (and because I love making lists), I decided that I should share those titles with you, divided into neat subcategories.

The five Penguin Classics I really want

The five Library of America volumes I really want

  • Eugene O'Neill, Complete Plays 1913-1920
  • Eugene O'Neill, Complete Plays 1920-1931
  • William Faulkner, Novels 1930-1935 : As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, Pylon
  • William Faulkner, Novels 1936-1940 : Absalom, Absalom! / The Unvanquished / If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem / The Hamlet
  • William Faulkner, Novels 1942-1954 : Go Down, Moses / Intruder in the Dust / Requiem for a Nun / A Fable

The five new-ish novels I really want

(More to come.)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Those good old year-end reviews

The New York Times has posted its list of Notable fiction and general nonfiction for 2005.

Sadly, I yawned.

There were only four titles that I'm dead-set on reading and adding to my bookshelf, and one of them is the latest Harry Potter. (I mean, I dug it, but does it really belong on a list of the best literature for the year? On second thought, looking at the other titles on the list, maybe it does.)

What were the other three? The new Zadie Smith, of course. (I've never actually read her before, but she takes Howards End as her model, and I'm a huge E.M. Forster fan.) I've also heard good things about Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day was also quite good), and I feel somehow obligated to add Dave Eggers' collection of stories to my shelf. (I've read a number of the stories already in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and a few are very good. McSweeney's books are just damn fine pieces of bookbinding.)

Still, that's only four out of 39 fiction titles cited. (And I even tried to read the new Haruki Murakami. Blah.)

Am I missing something? Am I being too negative? If there's anything else worthy of mention, I'd love to hear about it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Most of the time, however, I am well behind the curve

Earlier in the week, I stopped by my local, lovely independent bookstore, which gives away out-of-date copies of the New York Times Book Review, and discovered the Oct. 30 issue, most of which I had avoided online, because it reviewed several books discussing the war in Iraq.

I missed a jewel. Book-length discussion of any topic tends to discourage the worst of the ideological polemic that has marked most public discussion of the current war in Iraq (Ed note: this is a rule of thumb. The author freely acknowledges a lack of universal application), and the reviews were each thoughtful, insightful, and excellent. As is all too rare, I came away feeling not reaffirmed in my previous views, but more informed, and more able to engage in further argument.

Normally I would offer some summary of the discussion, but in this case, it would be a waste, especially when this is a war whose discussion on all sides has been irresponsibly abridged.

If I can offer only one incentive, one taste to entice you to sample the full meal, it would be Dexter Filkins' review of Michael Goldfarb's book, Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace, which discusses the time Goldfarb spent in Iraq with his translator, Ahmad Shawkat, who was murdered in 2003. (My apologies for the extensive quote, and slight restructuring of Filkins' review. The full, original version is available here.)

One of the oddities of being a foreign correspondent is that the person you often end up learning the most from is someone who never makes it into your articles - your interpreter. This is a shame. In broken, war-ravaged places, the men and women who offer their translation services are frequently extraordinary people, who in more stable societies wouldn't bother with such work: they're deposed university professors, persecuted newspaper editors, surgeons whose clinics have been destroyed. Whatever cultural nuance creeps into reporting is often thanks to them.

Shawkat had been a lecturer in anatomy at the University of Mosul's medical school, and was clearly an exceptional man. . . . By the time Goldfarb engaged him, in March 2003, Shawkat had already endured several stints in Hussein's dungeons, suffering through beatings, electrical shocks and interrogations for crimes no greater than discussing an alternative future for his country or writing satirical, heavily allegorical stories about Hussein. . . . When Hussein was swept away, Shawkat came back to Mosul and turned his prodigious energies into helping build a democratic Iraq.

[A] great many of [Iraq's] people saw precisely the opportunity that presented itself on April 9, 2003, when the American Army chased Saddam Hussein and his confederates from their palaces on the Tigris. These Iraqis realized that they had to seize the moment, that it might not come again. And they knew, better than anyone, how difficult it would be to carry their broken and brutalized country with them. So they started newspapers, they organized political parties, they called meetings to start a national conversation. Some of them, surveying the psychological ruins that Hussein and his torturers had left behind, formed institutes to teach their countrymen to think for themselves.

And now, today, many of these Iraqis, if not most of them, are dead. They have been shot, tortured, burned, disfigured, thrown into ditches, disappeared. Thousands of them: editors, lawyers, pamphleteers, men and women. In a remarkable campaign of civic destruction, the Baathists and Islamists who make up the insurgency located the intellectual heart of the nascent Iraqi democracy and, with gruesome precision, cut it out. As much as any single factor, the death of Iraq's political class explains the difficulties of the country's rebirth. The good guys are dead.

The Americans who planned the invasion could hardly have hoped for a better ally on the ground than Ahmad Shawkat: he was educated, secular, articulate and absolutely fearless.

With American money, he started a weekly newspaper, ruefully named Bilattijah, "Without Direction," which he used to defend the democratic project and assail its enemies. Goldfarb does a fine job of recounting the heady days of Mosul's liberation, and the collapse of the American-backed efforts to create a liberal society before the onslaught of the insurgents. That failure has been documented elsewhere, but it is particularly stinging to witness through the eyes of someone like Shawkat, who tried so hard to construct a more humane Iraq.

Shawkat was one of the good guys, and now he's dead, shot in the back on a rubbish-filled rooftop. It is one of the more pressing questions of our day whether the democratic experiment in Iraq can survive without more people like him.

I'm a bit of a sap, but when I read that, I nearly cried.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The redeeming value (at least in theory) of an otherwise disappointing little press

William T. Vollmann won the National Book Award for his new collection of stories Wednesday night.

On the whole, I'm not a big William T. Vollmann fan. (I have neither read nor have I any plans to read any of his work.) Seeing his name in the Times, however, prompted me to think a little about his last major work, a treatise on violence and an attempt at a moral calculus entitled Rising Up and Rising Down.

The original version of Rising Up and Rising Down was a seven volume, 3000+ page set published by Dave Eggers' McSweeney's Books.

I've complained in the past about the fact that books published by McSweeney's are often not very good. Eggers himself often uses McSweeney's as something of a vanity press, exemplified nowhere better than his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, which in its original form was visually striking, but felt rushed to the press. There were major copyediting errors, and the book itself was heavily revised before the paperback was published by Random House's Vintage imprint.

Still, as a lover of books as objects, I'm pleased that a press like McSweeney's exists that is still willing to put something like a seven volume set in print. In practice, I have little doubt that the single volume paperback gives you the heart of Mr. Vollmann's argument, but it is exciting to see that a magnum opus can be given a deserving (and encompassing) presentation.

(11/21/05--BOOKFORUM asks me to reconsider my Vollmann apathy.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

Why so many remakes?

Last Thursday I disputed an attractive but wrong-headed assertion that inexpensive DVDs of great old films will promote more originality in the movie industry.

Adam Leipzig in the New York Times yesterday provides some insight as to why we are seeing more remakes as the DVD market expands, and not less.

The movie business [now] turns on DVD sales. Strong DVD sales are generally propelled by strong theatrical box office. And what propels theatrical box office?

In most cases, nearly half of a movie's total audience turns out in the first week of release, which means there has been very little or no word of mouth motivating most of the audience. In other words, many people go to a movie without any real information about it - without even reading a review. Or, put most cynically: Most of the time, there is no relationship between how good a film is, and how many people turn out to see it.

So what makes people go to a movie? Generally, it is awareness - or now, in Hollywood parlance, "pre-awareness." Since studios cannot spend enough on advertising to buy awareness (there is so much advertising noise in the marketplace these days), there is a tendency to make movies with familiar titles, characters and stories: "The Dukes of Hazzard," "Spider-Man," "War of the Worlds," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." In the past decade, most box-office revenue has come from pre-aware titles, which includes sequels ("X-Men 3," set for a May 2006 release) and remakes ("King Kong," Dec. 14).

In short, the theatrical release of a film now is little more than a commercial for the DVD release, which will follow in four months or less. Leipzig points out that Wal-Mart's inventory tracking systems will have decided whether a DVD is a success or a dud by the time that LA executives are in the office on the morning of a new release date. (Wal-Mart alone, after all, accounts for more than a third of all DVD sales.)

Even all this does not eliminate the possibility of a renaissance of quality filmmaking. It simply means that it is naive to think that DVDs by their existence alone will push us in that direction. Sadly, for the moment, the opposite seems to be true.

Every once in a while, I get to be ahead of the curve

Kathryn Gursky of Los Alamos, N.M., with her restocked library. Photograph by Rick Scibelli Jr. for The New York Times.

For those of you who are curious to find out more about the enigmatic owner of the complete Penguin Classics collection whose photo of her library, posted on, I borrowed and posted here, The New York Times published a short profile of her today.

Interesting tidbits? While the Times names her as Kathryn Gursky, and states that she has "acknowledged her ownership in a review of the collection on Amazon's Web site," the customer name as listed on is "Kate Bolton." (of course, there are a million reasons why the names might not match, and many other particulars line up: New Mexico residence, the appearance of the bookshelf in both the Times and pictures, and the description of the arrival and unpacking process of the collection on both Amazon and in the Times article.)

Also interesting is that Penguin acknowledges that the set as sold is not, in fact, complete. There are, apparently, a little more than 200 titles which are either awaiting redesign and reprinting, or are simply not in sufficient stock at the publisher to allow inclusion in the set.

So one more reason for me to hold off on my order.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The revolution will not be televised

I have found it interesting that so often by the time someone gets around to declaring that a revolution is underway the fundamental shift that they are trying to describe is already well in the past.

Case in point, Norman Lebrecht writes for La Scena Musicale about how DVD is making film an individually accessible and archival medium much as the LP and CD did for music, and in a way so fundamental that we hardly even think about it anymore, the printed and bound book did for literature. (Short-Schrift has already weighed in with his thoughts on the matter, and you should probably head over and read his post, and then come back and finish reading this one.)

Lebrecht is certainly right that DVD has made the history of film available for individual viewing in a way that can only be compared to the printed book--able to be stored easily and permanently, and accessible in a way that lends itself to both the viewing of the whole and quick reference of indexed segments. Now films can be studied like poems, examined for meter and subtle metaphor. Lebrecht is the first person I've read who has pointed out that not only has the ease of manufacture and sale meant that vast catalogs of film history have been made available to a broad commercial audience, but that the nature of the disc itself has made the film itself easier to examine. There will, I believe, come a time when people have as difficult a time imagining that moving images were once only viewable in large communal theatres, just as we find it difficult to comprehend that Homer once could only be recited, and not read.

At the same time, however, I think that Lebrecht fails to grasp the nature of his revolution.

[DVD] will, for instance, make it that much harder for Hollywood to remake its own milestones when half the world has the originals to hand for instant comparison. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), with its dream cast of Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh was unlikely to be bettered by Jonathan Demme's 2004 reshoot with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep. But if anyone had foreseen that the original DVD would be around in the public hands, Demme's studio would never have raised the finance, let alone the enthusiasm, for an otiose update. . . .

But it is in public hands that DVD will make an impact, and one that is beyond present calculation. Television will be the first to suffer. Why zap through 139 brain-rot channels when you have just bought Some Like it Hot at Woolworths and can play it without adverts, programme trails and other network interpolations. Beside frenetic TV directors who change camera angles 20 times a minute, the long, cool takes of Billy Wilder, Fellini and John Ford make a sweeter ending to the working day. TV will have to change its ways.

I find little evidence for Lebrecht's first assertion. DVDs were available when Demme's Manchurian Candidate was in production, and don't seem to have acted as much of a deterrent. Likewise this summer's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory by Tim Burton, this fall's Pride & Prejudice starring Keira Knightly, or Peter Jackson's upcoming King Kong. Indeed, the list of recent and upcoming remakes seems to be getting longer rather than shorter.

Sadly, Lebrecht's second assertion is equally questionable. In fact, the quick, jump cuts of television programming and advertising seem to have had far more influence on film than vice-versa. While Rob Marshall's Chicago was heralded, at least in some circles, as demonstrating the continued marketability of the large-scale movie musical, the finished product had far more in common with MTV than Singin' In the Rain. Especially as more films are produced with small-screen home viewing in mind, we will see more tight framing and quick cutting, instead of the long grand shots that filled the auditorium screens.

Lebrecht is right that television will find itself changed. People will be less tolerant of set, scheduled programming times and being forced to sit through blocks of advertising that interrupt programming. This is already taking place, but it will not be DVD but other methods of delivering content-on-demand such as TiVo and improved streaming video technology which will continue to drive current trends.

Lebrecht's revolution is already taking place. In fact, it started eighty years ago when radio, and later television, took entertainment off the public stages and into family living rooms. It started with cinema multiplexes and three national networks offering multiple choices through one TV set, and has exploded into today's digital cable and satellite television. DVD may put the great films onto more shelves, and we are the richer for it, but it will not keep them from becoming antiques.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Because, really, we need to lower the level of intellectual debate in this country

So this morning, I was trying to ease into my day, when I come across Jerry Falwell, Bill Nye (yes, the science guy) and, uhm, some comedian, I don't know her name, arguing creation and evolution on CBS's The Early Show. (The headline graphic was "the Chicken or the Egg?" I can only imagine that the piece was prompted by arguments over teaching Intelligent Design in the classroom, but I don't really know for sure.)

What's worse is that this apparently isn't the first time CBS has paired these two up on air.

If you ask me, I think that the sight of those two arguing with each other is proof enough that when it comes to human beings that the words "intelligent" and "design" have no place in any discussion of our origins.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Ain't fake politics fun?

As I'm sure everyone knows (the commercials were pretty ubiquitous), the West Wing live debate between Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda (oops, I mean Santos and Vinick) aired last night. (Click here for Entertainment Weekly's live blog of the episode.)

True to form, post episode "discussion" seems to want to focus on who "won" the debate. If anyone has a strong opinion one way or another, I'd love to hear it, but on some level I'm more interested in viewing the exercise from the left-ish warm-and-fuzzy liberal wish fulfillment lenses that seem so fitting when the show is at its best.

More than many other shows, The West Wing seems to treat itself as an exercise in politics as they should be. (This is especially illustrative in contrast to Gena Davis' Commander in Chief, which is even more an exercise in wish fulfillment, but seems to have used that premise as a license to entirely disregard plausibility. For example, there's no way that any first lady would continue to reside in the White House after the death of her husband.) The entire debate episode launched itself from that premise when the two candidates, who never much liked the idea of a two-minute-at-a-time debate, even though their staff appeared to insist on it, spontaneously agreed to go no-holds-barred.

While the episode wouldn't have been much good without such an event, it also served, not entirely intentionally, I think, as an illustration of why it could never, ever happen. Hillary Clinton's opponent for the Senate effectively lost the election when he stepped out from behind his podium and addressed her directly during their debate. Without the comfort zone of the West Wing's script, such tactics tend make both the viewing and immediate audience very uncomfortable. Violating the other person's space looks very aggressive, in an already confrontational atmosphere.

Even beyond the wandering, insults, yelling, and loss of control of the audience, the whole undertaking seemed a bit stilted. Alda is the more experienced stage actor (and I would argue the better actor as a whole), and he seemed much more comfortable and delivered, I thought, a much more nuanced performance than Smits. Smits, however, had the script on his side. While, as a whole, the writers seems to put good words in the characters' mouths, and seemed to want each character to explain a popular political philosophy as best they could, I think it came across, in the end, that they sided with Santos. His position contained more of a concrete vision, and more proposals to achieve that vision. Vinick, at the end, had little more to promise than less government and a tax cut.

Personally, I agree that the liberal agenda is better for the country than the conservative agenda. (At least in terms of what passes for "liberal" and conservative in the contemporary popular political argument.) At the same time, it seems cheap, and sadly dishonest to reduce the conservative platform to "less taxes, less government," particularly in contrast to a vigorous, concrete liberal platform.

Would that it weren't true, but there is far more than that to the conservative argument and appeal, and far less, at the moment, to the liberal.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Slight addendum

Above center, Scott Jones for The New York Times; other book jackets from “Chip Kidd, Book One: Work: 1986-2006,” published by Rizzoli, courtesy of the New York Times

Let me modify one of my ambitions. Not only do I want to have a book published, I want to have a book published and for its cover to be designed by Chip Kidd.

Mr. Kidd has a new book out collecting his cover designs, a novel of his own (I haven't read it), and the New York Times writes about his too-cool apartment.

I mean, the dude loves Batman. What more do I have to say?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What comes next?

I. Grad school

  • Nah
  • No graduate creative writing program at MSU
  • MSU graduate literature program is theory-heavy
  • I hate critical theory
  • I could only attend part-time
  • Most graduate programs are not part-time friendly
  • Working at a university, I could get a full tuition waiver/reimbursement
  • So it seems silly to do nothing

II. Writing

  • Yes!
  • Uhm. . . how?
  • Scripts

    1. Screen for Mattison

      • "Songbird" expansion/adaptation
      • "Meeks" (tells-the-future comedy)

    2. Stage for Hungerford

      • I love Tennessee Williams
      • Read, read, read

        1. Chekov
        2. Odetts
        3. Ibsen
        4. Pinter
        5. Others, I'm sure

  • Stories

    1. I've had that photographer idea kicking around for a while
    2. Retail semi-comedies? (write what you know)
    3. Sentences first, then paragraphs

III. Reading

  • More classics
  • I'm sick of bad contemporary novels
  • Find a way to find the good contemporary stuff now that I don't get free copies of the book reviews
  • See list of playwrights cited above, add "Miss Julie," "The Lion in Winter," "A Man For All Seasons"

IV. New baby

  • January 19
  • 'Nuff said

V. Conclusions

  • Give up on sleep
  • But I like sleep
  • Sissy
  • That's just mean
  • Well, why don't you curl up in bed then?
  • Maybe I will
  • That's too bad, because that's a really nice list you put together
  • It is, isn't it?
  • It would be a shame to see it not come to anything
  • But I like sleep
  • Sissy

(Apologies to Timothy Carmody and his "Outline For an Essay on Bulworth.")

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Photograph by Kate Bolton, courtesy of

I'm sure most of you have heard that is selling a set of the complete Penguin Classics collection. (A steal at $7,989.50, and free shipping!)

In case you were curious (I know I was), Amazon customer Kate Bolton sent in a picture of what the set will look like after it takes over a wall of your library.

You'll notice the occasional green spine, as well as the two volumes standing out just above and to the right of the easy chair (Robert Fagles' translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey), and the row of books on the second to last shelf on the far right with the white tops (the Pelican Shakespeare). Penguin is in the middle of redesigning its entire line of classics, and, as you can tell, they're not quite done yet.

I, for one, will certainly miss the old puke-green Penguin Twentieth Century classics, but it seems to me that if I were to spend eight thousand dollars on a showpiece complete collection, I'd like them to be a bit more visually unified.

Perhaps by the time I can afford it, they'll have completed the redesign.