Friday, December 29, 2006

What good are new features if you don't use them?

I did a quick swipe through my archives today and added labels to selected old posts as appropriate. I apologize if it plays havoc with your RSS reader as it seems to be doing with mine, but think of it as a selected "best of Wordwright."

It also means that I've been able to really highlight some of the things I've written about consistently over the past few years instead of just what I happen to have written about in the past few weeks that I've been able to take advantage of the new Blogger features.

So, enjoy! Check out some of my old posts. Some of them are actually worthwhile.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

It seems to me I've heard that somewhere before

Did I say that I don't like writing about ads. Apparently, I lied.

I was reading a rather entertaining piece over on Slate about the worst ads of the year, when I came across this:

Please, please deal with the blasphemous Audrey Hepburn-skinny pant-AC/DC horror that seems to haunt me whenever I turn on the TV. (And since I don't have cable, and live in Maine, that's only three channels with ads!) I feel like it's perfect for Halloween—a possessed, dancing zombie terror that was once our dear Funny Face—but terrible for an ad campaign. I wasn't partial to the Gap before, and I can solidly swear that I won't go in now. Not when their pants are used in such a necromantic fashion.
—Monique Bouchard

I, too, was disturbed to see emblem of style Audrey Hepburn being used, without her consent, as a pitchwoman for Gap—the emblem of stylelessness. I'm really sick of celebrities being dug up from their graves to sell us products. I was similarly upset when Gap used the image of deceased rapper Common in a Christmas commercial. (What's that you say? Common's still alive? Sorry, but after making that ad, he's dead to me.)

Me, I despised the Hepburn ad, and if I remember correctly, a certain artist friend and I were making fun of the Common ad the last time we visited a certain clothing store. Right before he bought a scarf. (Hey, it was a nice scarf.)

Peace, love, and Gap, yo.

Friday, December 22, 2006

2006: a meta-list

As promised, here's my quick survey of lists of the best fiction for 2006.

The Boston Globe
The Christian Science Monitor
The Guardian (UK)
The LA Times
The New York Times
The Washington Post

I've already highlighted the books that caught my eye in the NYT's list of notable books, but there are a handful of titles that turn up on several of these lists, and probably deserve a mention of their own. Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg is mentioned on six of the eight lists that I surveyed. The Road by Cormac McCarthy on five, and both Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land and Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children make four of the lists.

I have my own list of books of special interest ("honorable mention" is such an also-ran word): The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel made the NYT's list of best books of the year, and has been impossible to find since then. (It looks like the print run has sold out and we're waiting for a reprint. I know her publisher is kicking himself for the missed holiday sales.) The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian is a book I've heard murmurs about from time to time, and is of particular note as a book published by McSweeney's not written by Dave Eggers that has actually turned up on anyone's radar. Finally, I've already plugged Alison Bechdel's illustrated memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

So what are you waiting for? Go buy some books. Or better yet, go buy me some books. Other than The Lay of the Land, which I already own, any of the books I've mentioned would be a welcome sight under my tree on Christmas morning. Or, of course, in the mail anytime after.

(Ed note, 6:23 p.m. Actually, it turns out that the McSweeney's book that I kept hearing murmurs about was Icelander by Dustin Long, but there are some good blurbs up on The Children's Hospital on the McSweeney's site—Julie Orringer in particular carries weight with me—so I'll leave the link up.)

Merry Xmas to you, too

Well, things seem to have slowed down for the holidays. While the fall is the busy season for big book releases, at this point, if your book isn't out already, it's too late to pick up on those essential holiday sales. If I have time this afternoon, I'll try to do a survey of end of the year best-book lists, but even book news seems to slow down this time of year, as the only thing that any one is listening to is the ring of cash registers. Things will pick up again in the spring when awards season gets going again.

Still, there is an interesting piece in the NYT today on a feud brewing between Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer and her now un-authorized authorized biographer. I've never read Gordimer—other than some stories in the New Yorker—so I don't have anything to say about it, but I may have to scan the New York Review of Books to see if someone doesn't write up a longer examination. There seems to be a lot going on bewteen the two and in the broader context of South African politics and race relations. Read the Times piece. I couldn't possibly summarize the situation, and even the Times seems like it only scratches the surface.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the NYT Book Review, answers reader questions.

Of particular note to me is Tanenhaus's assumption in nearly all cases, that a prominent review in the Review leads to substantial sales. Of course, my own experience as a bookseller suggests that he's right. It seems to be a truth, whether the source be Oprah or the NYT Book Review, that people are looking to be told what to read. Of course, with the number of titles published in any given year quickly approaching six figures, it is any wonder that people are looking for someone to sort thrugh the pile for them?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Eavesdropping is not always a bad thing

There's an excellent conversation going on over at Snarkmarket about the nature of authorship, especially in the digital age. (Prompted by an article in Forbes, which ran a pretty good series in a recent issue.)

Tim from Short-Schrift brought the Forbes issue to my attention a while ago—there's some interesting stuff on copyrights and an entertaining piece on McSweeney's—and the piece on authorship was written by Ben Vershbow of Institute for the Future of the Book, whose if:book blog I recently de-linked from this page.

Why? And why am I not attempting to continue the discussion here? Because I am convinced that most of the potential for hypertext, interactive composition, and online presentation exists for informational and non-fiction texts. I think the way we get information has been revolutionized, and the next few years will lead us further away from printed, static newspapers and encyclopedias. This is all fabulous, but you may have noticed that I don't write about non-fiction.

It is still possible that there will be new methods of storytelling that take advantage of the new ways of creating and disseminating texts, but as the Snarkmarket discussion points out, reading is already a collaborative activity. I haven't seen much in the way of engaging hypertext fiction, but I've had some great discussions and seen some great performances of Shakespeare. Every new staging, every new reading, every new performance creates meaning. But having a central text gives us a common point of reference.

New news is great, but what Pound said about poetry remains true today.

More McEwan

Jack Shafer in Slate makes a better argument that Ian McEwan committed plagiarism in his 2001 novel Atonement than I've yet read that he didn't.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Keeping up with the Joneses

I've been able to bring Wordwright over to the new Blogger. Things might be a little dusty for the next few days as I try to bring online some of the features I was playing with on the shadow site (which I will no longer be updating).

Woot! Woot! Not like I don't have more important things to do.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Duty calls

Ian McEwan has been accused of plagiarism in his 2001 novel Atonement. Several prominent writers have come to his defense.

I suppose I should weigh in on it, because it's kind of the news in the book world right now, but I don't really care. McEwan has always acknowledged his use of the autobiography of the late romance novelist Lucilla Andrews as a source and inspiration, and, what's more, Andrews appears to have been well aware of Atonement, and appears to have not been concerned. (Andrews died of cancer in October, 2006.)

My one complaint is that a lot of the authors defending McEwan appear to be doing so in a purely reflexive manner. There is a difference between what McEwan did in writing Atonement and what our good friend Kaavya Viswanathan did when she wrote How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. However, no one seems to be interested in trying to describe what that difference is. Even the NYT, in what seemed to me to be a fairly token effort, somehow failed to satisfy.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Who needs a title, anyway?

Here's an interesting piece in the New York Times on a little-known piece of bookstore insider info. How does Oprah keep her new book club selections a secret, and yet make it available in the stores on the same day she announces it on her show? Booksellers have to order the title blind, not knowing what the book is until they open the shipping boxes. (In theory, those boxes stay sealed until the "laydown" or sale date, but sometimes, a few of us peek.)

Apparently, this trend was carried to an extreme with the recently canceled O.J. Simpson If I Did It book. The title was such a secret that bookstores had to order it without any foreknowledge of the title, subject or author. As noted in the NYT article, this has happened at least once before, with the forgettable tell-all by Princess Diana's former butler. "The what? By whom?" you say? Exactly.

It's all, of course, a result of the event-book, blockbuster mentality. If you don't have the new Oprah book on the day of the announcement, you're going to miss a large fraction of your sales, and moreso because the people you turn away will go somewhere else the next time Oprah announces a title. When a book makes a big splash in a news cycle, it'll usually fade and be forgotten within weeks if not days, so booksellers are willing to make a gamble on an unknown title based on the sales that the promised newscycle event will drive into the store.

Sure, it sucks, but any reading is good reading, right? Right?

Even I sometimes miss the obvious

I picked up the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly (because of an article on EPIC 2014, co-created by future MacArthur fellow Robin Sloan), and missed something entirely until it was pointed out to me. (Jump to the fourth paragraph.)

The Atlantic Monthly no longer publishes fiction.

Remember the 5th of December

(Note: several of the links in this post will lead you to sites that will ask you to enter your birthdate in order to verify that you are of legal drinking age.)

I'm not usually one to write about ads. (Talk about them, sure; recite them like the Simpsons or Holy Grail, no doubt; but I don't usually write about them.) Still, Dewar's has been running pleasantly cheeky ads in the New Yorker lately centered on "Dewarisms," pithy bits of wisdom apparently stated by a member of the Dewar family sometime in the mists of history. Today, they have a clever site, somewhat in the spirit and tone of the semi-animated "brilliant!" ads for Guinness, celebrating the repeal of prohibition. (We'll ignore that booze runners during prohibition were gangsters and Kennedys. We'll also ignore my own alleged booze-running history.)

Seems as good a thing as any to celebrate. So all my legal readers, raise a glass, Dewar's or not. To your health!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Infinite variability (with some humor and a Shakespeare reference)

Back Bay Books is publishing a new, inexpensive edition of David Foster Wallace's breakthrough novel Infinite Jest (which is, if I remember correctly, Andrew Hungerford's favorite novel). Actually, it's amazingly inexpensive—$10 compared to the original (and still available) $19.95 paperback. I haven't seen the new edition, but I eagerly anticipate it, not only because of the volume's pleasing heft, but I want to figure out what they did to justify slashing the price—normally, in these situations, we'd be looking at the difference between a quality paperback edition and a mass market edition (larger paperbacks vs. the smaller, newsprint romance-novel-sized versions), but the dimensions on the two versions of IJ are nearly identical.

Anyway, I'm not writing about the new edition of IJ so much for the price difference as to comment on Dave Eggers' lauditory new introduction. As (of all places) points out, Eggers also reviewed IJ in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996, and seemed a touch less enthusiastic at the time.

Is this a huge scandal? Not really. But it's another interesting tidbit on a wildly energetic writer and editor (Eggers) who has an odd tendency to stretch both fact and fiction in his writing. (Beth Eggers, Dave's sister, took issue with his portrayal of events in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Eggers' latest novel, What is the What, fictionalizes, although I'm not sure why, the story of an African refugee who is apparently a friend of the author's.)

Thursday, November 30, 2006

An update, sort of

Blogger is updating, and so am I. Sort of. From now on, I'm going to double post both to Wordwright, and a shadow site in the new Blogger beta at

As soon as Blogger lets me, I'll merge the sites, so that you can get all your up-to-date, techie-friendly Wordwright goodness in the same place.

Oh, and by the way, let me know if you like the red or blue better.

Because, really, 100 is a little much

The NYT Book Review culls their list of Notable Books down to the Ten Best of 2006.

I'm a bit surprised to see Ford on the 10 best. I've been reading mixed reviews of The Lay of the Land. (Although, since ford is an MSU alum, I do have the book on my shelf.) I'm excited to see Amy Hempel's stories. (I've kept myself, thus far, from from mentioning that Rick Moody wrote the introduction.) I've gazed lovingly at the hardcover, but have been waiting for the paperback. Maybe if I can still find a first edition on the shelf after the holidays, I'll go ahead and pick it up. Absurdistan is my Kafka on the Shore for this year. I've heard good things about it, and even dipped my toe into it, but it just doesn't sing to me.

Anyone feel like handicapping the Pulitzers? PoN, I'm looking at you.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A promised revisiting

I promised a few days ago that I would get back to the NYT Book Review's year-end list of Notable Books.

I'm actually more enthusiastic about this year's list than I was last year. I already have four of them on my shelf (thanks, Laura K. for the Edward P. Jones stories!), and there are at least six more that I'd like to pick up by the time they come out in paperback. (I feel compelled to mention that, like last year, I haven't even looked at the nonfiction portion of the list.)

A couple of old MSU alums have new books out: Richard Ford's third Frank Bascombe novel, The Lay of the Land, and Thomas McGuane's second collection of stories, Gallatin Canyon. Nell Freudenberger follows up her very good 2003 collection of stories Lucky Girls with her debut novel The Dissident. Thomas Pynchon, Colson Whitehead, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy all have new novels. Amy Hempel and Joyce Carol Oates both have career-spanning collected stories volumes.

Finally, The Keep by Jennifer Egan, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky, and The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits may not have interested me enough to merit $25 for a hardcover, but I may keep my eyes open for them at the library. (Glancing at the nonfiction list, I've read enough of Jonathan Franzen and Bill Buford's new books when sections appeared in the New Yorker that I may pick them up in paperback.)

Wow, that's compared to what, four books that I was interested in last year?

Oh, and while they may not have made the NYT Book Review's list, I would be remiss if I were to fail to mention Revelator's two titles to date: Michael Duncan's collection Line Jester & Other Stories, in which he combines strains of Sartre and Borges with a comtemporary fabulist ethic, and Andrew Hungerford's dreamy, searching one-act play Between the Water and the Air. Both are available for free download at Revelator, and are well worth a read.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Since when does Wordwright write about football?

Gene Wojciechowski whines about the BCS and a likely OSU/USC matchup on January 8.

Now let me start by saying that I'm not a big fan of the BCS, but not for the reasons that you usually hear. I don't think that an undisputed national champion in NCAA Dvision I football is possible, or necessary, every year. As a Big Ten fan, I miss the tradition of the Rose Bowl—the game that every Big Ten team used to play for every year, where the reward for winning the Big Ten was a matchup with the champion of the Pac 10. I hate this crazy system now where every five years the Rose Bowl is the National Championship game, and the crazy matchups when it's not.

That being said, I think a Michigan/Ohio State matchup for a national championship on January 8 would be a waste. Why? Because they've already played, and we already have a winner. I think the a good argument can be made that Michigan, even with the loss to OSU, is still the second best team in the nation, but I don't see why they should get a winner-take all rematch. If U of M and OSU were to play again, and Michigan were to win, then Michigan would take the National Championship over a team with an identical final 12-1 record. One win for Michigan, one win for OSU. That sounds like the essence of a shared national title to me. (If anything, it seems to me that Michigan should have to win twice to really earn the trophy, and that isn't the way football works.)

Michigan had their chance. Let USC take their turn.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Quick update

The NYT Book Review has posted its annual list of notable books. I'll comment on it a little later. I've got turkey to eat.

Monday, November 20, 2006

My new metric: the Mean Bond Rating

I apparently spend a great deal of my recreational browsing time at Entertainment Weekly's online site. (After all, it was a little more than a week ago that I found out how Batman votes thanks to Anyway, prompted by the new Bond movie, Casino Royale, ranked each of the previous Bond movies, from best to worst.

As I am wont to do, I decided to take the idea a step further. After all, if we have a numeric ranking of the Bond movies, it's not too hard to come up with a system to rank each of the actors who have played Bond—a Mean Bond Rating, or MBR. (I gave each Bond performance a declining number of points based on each movie's ranking—20 points for #1, 19 points for #2, etc.—added each actor's totals together and divided by the number of Bond movies that actor has made.) Calculating an MBR based on EW's ranking yields some surprising results: the actor with the highest MBR is George Lazenby, whose 16 edges out Sean Connery's 15.67. Pierce Brosnan comes in third with a 10.25, with Roger Moore close behind at 8. Timothy Dalton is the clear loser with an embarrassing 3.5.

Of course, Lazenby almost has to be treated as a bit of an outlier, since his rating is based on a single performance. Had Connery not returned to play Bond in the stinker Diamonds Are Forever, then his MBR would have been 16.8. It may seem unfair to penalize Connery, who by EW's count, made three of the best five Bond films, and five of the best ten (especially since he only made 6 Bond films, unless of course you count Never Say Never Again, which I don't and neither does EW), but Diamonds is really a stain on Connery's record as Bond (so, come to think of it, is NSNA).

On the other hand. I don't entirely agree with EW's rankings. They get a lot right—I think, on the whole, that we can agree that Connery's Bond corpus is better than any other actor's—but, as with any so subjective a ranking, there are some idiosyncrasies. Live and Let Die at number 3? From Russia With Love only number 8? I know everyone hates Timothy Dalton, but was The Living Daylights really worse than A View To a Kill? I decided that some re-ranking was in order.

  1. Goldfinger—really, the perfect Bond movie
  2. From Russia With Love—my favorite Bonds are the ones where he's more of a spy than a superhero. In FRWL, Bond uses his seductive wiles to turn a double agent and obtain a code machine. Essential spycraft.
  3. The Living Daylights—seemingly alone, I love this film. It's a return to basics after the worst of the Moore years, and involves at least basic spycraft again. Also interesting for an almost un-Bond-like awareness of realpolitik in its use of the Afghan mujahedeen.
  4. GoldenEye—again, Bond seems to benefit from periodic fresh blood. Brosnan's first Bond is the one that really works. The "GoldenEye" is only just beyond technological possibility, and Sean Bean is excellent as 006.
  5. Thunderball—a bit over the top for me, but iconic. This is the Bond film that all the other films parody.
  6. Dr. No—Bond before he was Bond. (See my comment on real spycraft.) When Bond arrives in Jamaica, he shields his face with his hat to keep someone from taking his picture. That moment makes the movie for me. Too often in later Bonds, everyone seems to know exactly who he is. How can you be a secret agent if you're not a secret?
  7. You Only Live Twice—this one pushes it for me. The "I'm Japanese, really" makeup on Bond is, uhm, laughable.
  8. For Your Eyes Only—the best of the worst. We'll ignore Bibi Dahl and focus on the fact that Moore's Bond is chasing a code machine. (Read: real spycraft.)
  9. Moonraker—actually I kind of like this one. Bond in space is really silly, and oh! Jaws finds a girl! But Drax just works for me.
  10. On Her Majesty's Secret Service—you know, I hate Telly Savalas as Blofeld (actually, I hate most of the Blofelds—he's better when you can't see his face). Still Bond meets his match in Mrs. Peel. Much better than Patrick Macnee's turn in A View To a Kill.
  11. Die Another Day—better than your average Brosnan outing, but that isn't saying much. Rosamund Pike makes this film for me.
  12. Diamonds Are Forever—ugh. Just ugh. Connery's Bond starts to feel old. If only they hadn't tried to fix the problem by bringing in Roger Moore, who started out old and finished decrepit.
  13. The Spy Who Loved Me—I'm not actually going to comment on all the Moore Bonds. I have better things to do.
  14. The Man With the Golden Gun
  15. Live and Let Die—awful. Just awful. And racist to boot, not only in Mr. Big, but the hick southern cops.
  16. Tomorrow Never Dies—why not? We'd be better off if it did. And I usually like Jonathan Pryce.
  17. Octopussy
  18. Licence To Kill—one of the few Bond movies where Bond looks bad in a tux. And what's with the "come on groom, let's go bust a drug ring, your bride won't mind" scene? Benicio Del Toro can't save this film, and neither can Law & Order's most forgettable assistant DA.
  19. A View To a Kill—remember what I said about Connery being old in Diamonds? In this one, Roger Moore looks like he's on life support. And why would you have (an also very old) John Steed play Bond's sidekick if you're just going to kill him off?
  20. The World Is Not Enough—really, sometimes it is. What a waste. All around.

Thus, by my system, each actor's Bond ratings are as follows:

If you ask me, that seems just about right.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Awards season: part 2 and a schedule

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers has won the National Book Award.

In a measure of how far I've drifted from the bookstore world, I know absolutely nothing about this book (except, of course, who Richard Powers is, but that almost doesn't count). In all truth, I haven't really been excited about a National Book Award winner since The Corrections in 2001. (A complete list of winners is available here.)

The National Book Critics Circle will announce the finalists for its 2006 award in January, and the winner in March. The Pulitzer winner and finalists will be annouced simultaneously in April. The PEN/Faulkner award will be announced in May. (Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel in October.)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Checking in

What's today, the 10th? That should mean I'm at nearly 17,000 words? Alright, let's run a word count and the official total is. . . uhm. . . 745 words.

Still, that's better than I've done in the past several months, so we'll keep going with it. 50,000 words by the 30th? Not likely. A script and a story? That's still possible.

Anyway, to make up for my absence and inactivity, here are a couple of thoughts:

1. Gavin's theory of Borat.

No, I haven't actually seen the movie, but I've seen the Borat segments from the Ali G. Show and a lot of the in-character publicity interviews, which have been weird in and of themselves. The general theory of Borat is that Sacha Baron Cohen uses the character to dupe people into revealing their own prejudices, and we're invited to both laugh at their gullibility, and be disturbed at how easy it is to get people to assent to or express opinions that we generally pretend don't exist in our modern, enlightened society.

So what happens when someone is in on the joke? (Salon's Video Dog feature has a good archive of Borat press interviews here.) The general impression seems to have been that once everyone knows what's going on, that everything is all in good fun, and we get to laugh at Cohen's insistence on inhabiting a ridiculous character. I think this is too simplistic.

Cohen knows that he'll never be able to do the Borat character after this movie. Supposedly all the people now interviewing Borat are "in on the joke." Except they're not. They're laughing at an offensive Kazakh stereotype. So while Borat was a tool Cohen used to point out anti-semitism in people who weren't in on the joke, he's now pointing out a similar provincialism and racism in people who laugh at the extended "idiot foreigner" routine.

The only other option is that he doesn't realize or care that he's inhabiting stereotypes. And if that's the case, then there's no way to justify laughing at Borat at all. Because he's just a minstrel show.

I don't think the second possibility is all that likely, but I'm surprised that no one is talking about it. It feels to me kind of like Chappelle exiting Chappelle's Show because he started to wonder about who was watching and laughing at his show. It isn't supposed to be easy to laugh at Chappelle or Cohen. They aren't trying to make you feel good. The more time Andy Kaufman spent inhabiting a character, the more the joke was on his audience.

Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing Borat. But think before you start to sing along with "Throw the Jew Down the Well" on the soundtrack.

2. Hey, so Democrats can win elections after all.

Good on them. Still, it's worth checking out how your favorite superhero may have voted. (Via Entertainment Weekly, of all places.)

And that's 500 more words. That totally counts. :-)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Argh. Blah. Argh.

I was all set to write a post today apologizing for my absence as I went full-bore into National Novel Writing Month over the next several weeks. And what happens? My daughter gives me the worst cold I've had in a long time.

Not a great start to a 50,000 word month, but I haven't given up yet. I'll keep you up to date.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Curiouser and curiouser

The new hot trend in politics? Criticizing politicians based on the content of the fiction they've written.

We saw hints of this some time ago when Scooter Libby's novel The Apprentice became a news item right about the time of his indictiment. More recently, George Allen, a Virginia candidate for the U.S. Senate, has attacked his opponent, Jim Webb, for "demeaning women" and "dehumanizing women, men and even children" in Webb's bestselling Vietnam War novels. Webb has responded that Lynne Cheney has written some pretty dirty stuff as well.

Feel like some reading?

Lost Soldiers by Jim Webb
The Apprentice by Lewis (Scooter) Libby
Sisters by Lynne Cheney (Cheney has prevented her publisher from re-releasing Sisters before the 2006 elections, so if you can find a copy, you'll pay a premium for it. The complete text is, apparently, available here.)
And let's not forget Bill O'Reilly's classic, deeply weird novel Those Who Trespass

Update—10:25a.m. Slate has a handy-dandy "Match the porn with the politician" quiz!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

What a deeply bizarre story this is

Slate reports that George W. Bush is reading 100 books this year. (Scroll down to the Oct. 23 entry. Oh, and remember the story about Bush reading The Stranger over the summer?)

My favorite quote:
Don't get me wrong—every president should have an active mind, and reading can do much to help a president understand (or temporarily escape) the history he's shaping. But the past year provides conclusive proof that a well-read bad president is no better—and may be worse—than a bad president who uses that time to dedicate himself to governing badly.

I don't always do as much reading as I would like, but I am an active reader, and I'm doing well if I read 20 books in a year. (After a strong start, I've fallen off, and I'm only at 11 to date for 2006.)

In an interesting contrast, Bill Clinton was a notoriously avid reader. Me, I tend to view the reports a bit differently because my (possibly misinformed) understanding is that Clinton's work habits are very different than Bush's. (Clinton is reputed to be hyperactive, frequently going extraordinarily long stretches on little sleep. Bush takes regular monthlong vacations and frequent naps.) So I respect Clinton as an active reader, but criticize Bush for wasting time with books. Is this an illuminating difference, or a study in my own hypocrisy?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sometimes it's about quantity and not quality

As you may or may not know, November is National Novel Writing Month.

I've been writing about needing a jump start for a while. The stated goal of "NaNoWriMo" is to write a 175 page (50,000 word) novel by midnight on November 30. I owe a certain somebody a screenplay, and so I may make it my goal to write 50,000 words instead of a novel per se. ("50,000 words?" you may say. "That's a really long screenplay. True enough, but the goal is 50,000 words, not a 50,000 word screenplay. If I fit some prose in, all the better.)

So if 50,000 words is 175 pages, then we're assuming 285 words per page. Spread over 30 days, that's about 6 pages or 1667 words per day.

Anyone else on board? T-minus seven days and counting.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Who ever clicks on my links, anyway?

I'm sure that most of you don't need my "links" menu to find Salon, Slate, The New York Times, or MySpace, so I've pared the list down a bit. Arts & Letters Daily gets to stay, because it really is an outstanding and fairly unique site, but otherwise I'm just going to highlight blogs that I read. (Which are mostly people I know, but the people I know are bright people, so I'd wager that you'd find something interesting at most of these sites if you don't read them already.)

So how about it, loyal readers: am I missing anyone?

It's a good time for comics

Salon has an excerpt from Marjane Satrapi's new graphic novel, Chicken with Plums. If you haven't already read Satrapi's two-volume memoir of her childhood in Iran during the revolution, Persepolis, then it's worth checking out. If you have read Persepolis, then you probably own all of Satrapi's other work.

Comics have been hot in the past few years. Manga is the fastest-growing segment of the retail book market (tell me you haven't noticed the shiny, new, swiftly-expanding section in your local bookstore), and nonfiction graphic novelists like Satrapi, Joe Sacco, and Alison Bechdel have been receiving particular attention. (Fun Home by Bechdel and Safe Area Gorazde by Sacco would be good places to start. I am, of course, assuming that you've read Maus by Art Speigelman. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Harvey Pekar. If you're looking for a more general introduction, one of these two books would be a good choice. Or on the fiction side, you can't go wrong with Adrian Tomine. Or Chris Ware.)

This actually prompts a question: "graphic novel" doesn't really make sense to refer to nonfiction. Do we need a new term of art?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

While I'm at it. . .

The New York Times discusses Sony's new e-book technology, the Sony Reader. (In case you're interested, if:book has also been discussing the Sony reader here and here.)

My take, in 52 words or less? Why put so much effort into rebuilding something that works so well? Books are an amazing technology. It may just be that I'm too much of a Jason Epstein fan, but if I were a wagering man, I'd bet that print-on-demand technology will figure more into the future of books than e-readers.

Even my good friend, technophile, Snarkmarketeer, and future MacArthur fellow Robin Sloan admits that he prints articles off the web rather than try to read them onscreen. You'll have to take my word for it.

And so prize season begins

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk is this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is a funny thing. For an American reading public that often reads only American writers (I mean, really, even how many Canadian writers do you have on your bookshelf?), the Nobel Prize can often be an internationalist tonic. At the same time, my own reaction often waivers between enthusiasm and confusion when each year's award is announced. Pamuk, and last year's winner, Harold Pinter, are internationally renowned heavyweights. The 2004 winner, Elfriede Jelinek, was a bit more controversial. (I would argue, without having actually ever read her, that Jelinek's writing goes a touch beyond being "thematically unified" and borders on "pathological.")

Anyway, you can check out the complete list of winners yourself. Tell me how many Nobel laureates find a valued place on your bookshelf, and how many names you read with a resounding "huh?"

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

All of you get the New Yorker, right?

Joyce Carol Oates' story, "Landfill," gets a mention in today's Chronicle of Higher Education news page. The story, which revolves around a student's death at a frat party at a fictionalized version of Michigan State University, has prompted condemnations by officials and faculty at the College of New Jersey, where a missing student's body was discovered in a landfill in a manner similar to Oates' protagonist.

Oates told a New Jersey newspaper that her protagonist, Hector Campos Jr., is not intended to be a fictionalized verson of the New Jersey College student, John A. Fiocco Jr., and that her story is meant to be "a symbolic commentary on the dark side of the college experience."

In a much smaller way, I'm aggravated, as an MSU employee and alum, that Oates chose to set "Landfill" at "Michigan State University," even an obviously fictionalized one. Oates goes to great pains to demonstrate that her "MSU" is not the real university. Oates moves the campus from East Lansing to Grand Rapids, and invents a fictional fraternity and dormitory—"Brest Hall." Still, Oates' fictionalizations mirror reality—MSU is expanding its College of Human Medicine to include a facility in Grand Rapids—and stink of laziness. How hard would it have been to make up a name for her fictional school?

Oates claims to have not followed the John Fiocco Jr. case after having read an intial story in the New York Times, and that the level of similarity between her story and the real case was largely unintentional. This may well be true. Still, Oates has, in essence, taken a sensational story from a newspaper, barely rewritten it, and thrown in the name of a reputed party school to lend authenticity. This is not a great offense, but Oates is a very good writer, and I expect more from her.

Monday, October 09, 2006

I was wrong. Whoo-hoo!

Some of you may remember that I made a prediction about the Tigers' season back in July. For a few days, it looked like I was going to be right. The Tigers gave up first place in the AL Central by losing the last game of the season, including a three-game collapse at home to the worst team in baseball. (The standings say something slightly different, but I stand behind my assessment. Kansas City sucked like no one else this year.) Then the Tigers lost the first game of the division series to the Yankees 8-4. A six-game losing streak said that an exit in the first round of the playoffs was inevitable.

Then the team we've been watching all year came back. A game won the right way in New York was followed by two blowouts in Detroit. Meanwhile, Minnesota was swept by Oakland, and suddenly giving the Twins the AL Central and taking the Wild Card seems like the smartest thing the Tigers ever did.

Of course, sports are funny that way. (And, hey, aren't I supposed to be writing about books on this blog?)

Bring on Oakland. If the Tigers win the pennant, I'm going to go buy me a hat.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Because I need to get some money out of this somehow

I'm starting a pool: "Who's most likely to get a MacArthur Fellowship?" ( has some suggestions on how to best play the odds.)

Official rules:

  • Entry fee is $50
  • In order to enter this pool, I have to know you. I'm willing to be open-minded on this point, but if this is the first contact we've ever had, don't bother.
  • I do not need to know your nominee, but you have to know your nominee. Again, I'm willing to be open-minded, but if you've never had a conversation with your nominee, don't bother.
  • All money will be collected and distributed upon the awarding of a MacArthur Grant to a nominee in the pool. Don't send me money now, or if you do, don't expect to ever see it again. I will disavow the receipt of any money collected before the closing of the pool.
  • Nominations should be made by posting a comment to this blog entry.
  • I reserve the right to amend these rules as necessary (addendums will be dated and posted on this page), and I serve as final arbiter of all disputes.

My pick? Robin Sloan.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Ambition: it comes and goes

I've spent a great deal of time over the past several years trying to convince talented people to write. I've had some success at it, and turned that goal into a couple of interesting projects--first The Offbeat and now Revelator.

Still, I've had to admit to myself my efforts have been both self-interested and self-defeating. Part of my goal in encouraging the people around me to write has been to try and create a context for my own work. I've always been fascinated by Lost Generation writers of the 1920s and Beat writers of the 1950s. I love the idea of a common project with overlapping goals and assumptions. I love artistic movements.

At the same time, trying to get other people to write has been a form of creative procrastination. If I have a hand in someone else's work, then it mitigates my responsibility to create my own. There is a great deal of the editor and the archivist in me, but I like to think that's not all I am.

I've found myself on the other side of the equation in the past couple of years. A friend of mine has been trying to draw a script out of me. We've been talking for quite a while, and it's time to put some concentrated work into it again. I need to revisit some of my short story ideas and rediscover if there's anything there.

There are few things more terrifying than the blank page, but there's only one way to get over that fear: confront it again, and again, and again.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Two quick things

First, I finally have a good RSS feed reader, thanks to Snarkmarket. (I swear, Google is taking over my life. "Don't be evil" my ass.) But anyway, now that I have a reader, so should you. And you should add Wordwright to your subscriptions. (

Second, the Tigers came through for me on the last day of the season by losing to the worst team in baseball and proving me right. (Jump to the last paragraph.) Now I'm going to hope that I'm wrong and cheer for my team against the Yankees. The Tigers always seemed to find a way to beat the Yankees when they were a lousy team, now let's see if they can do it while they're a playoff team.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

An excellent primer on a complex topic

One of my favorite issues in current debate is copyright law. I often, however, have a hard time conveying my own sense of urgency to people new to the debate.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, however, has an article in Columbia Journalism Review (courtesy of ALDaily) that serves as an excellent introduction. I'll quote the following paragraph in the hope that it will get you to read the whole article, if not make copyright law reform your own cause celebre.

Recent changes to copyright in North America, Europe, and Australia threaten to chill creativity at the ground level — among noncorporate, individual, and communal artists. As a result, the risk and price of reusing elements of copyrighted culture are higher than ever before. If you wanted to make a scholarly documentary film about the history of country music, for example, you might end up with one that slights the contribution of Hank Williams and Elvis Presley because their estates would deny you permission to use the archival material. Other archives and estates would charge you prohibitive fees. We are losing much of the history of the twentieth century because the copyright industries are more litigious than ever.

And it all goes back to Mickey Mouse.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Le Bureau

I have a confession to make. I don't watch The Office. I mean, not regularly, either in its American or British incarnations. This has begun to change, as I caught at least part of the second season of the American version in reruns over the summer, and my old roommate, Kevin, is devoted to the original British version. I have been trying to convince him of the charms of American version, particularly the dynamic between wistful non-couple Pam and Jim, which is think is every bit as good as Dawn and Tim in the original, and that, in his own American way, Steve Carell's Michael Scott does indeed contain some of the soft-hearted vulnerability that made Ricky Gervais's David Brent such a great character, in spite of his self-involved cluelessness.

I discovered yesterday, courtesy of Slate, that there are also French and German remakes of The Office: Le Bureau and Stromberg. Liesl Schillinger offers some pretty good insights into why three different cultures have felt the need to reinterpret Mr. Gervais's masterpiece, and maybe if I can talk Kevin into giving it a read, maybe we can sit down with the new season of the American version, and see if it deserves a chance.

(By the way, in entirely unrelated news, this is my 125th Wordwright post! Help me celebrate by visiting my new project Revelator and downloading our first chapbook, Line Jester and Other Stories by Michael Duncan. Hey, it's my 125th post, and I'll plug if I want to.)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

This is exactly the sort of thing you love to see right after buying a house

Word on the street is that the boom in the housing market may be over.

Now, one should keep in mind that, moreso than many other markets, the housing market is essentially local. If housing prices explode in Las Vegas, it doesn't mean that I'll turn a neat profit on my house in Detroit. Likewise, if there's a glut of houses on the market in Florida, it doesn't necessarily mean that I'll take a bath on my house in D.C.

Of course, I'm also a young consumer. I think I'd like to be in a position to think about buying a larger house in five years or so, and, with luck, I may be able to do that even if I have to take a small loss on the sale of my house. I'm certainly not in a position where I'm planning to use my house as an asset for retirement, or where I've refinanced past my ability to repay or resell.

Still, the prospect of a drop in housing prices isn't as exciting as it was six months ago, when I was still a renter. My house is a nice little house, but I don't think that my girls would relish sharing a 9' x 10' bedroom during their teens. (It would be a nice primer on the realities of dorm living, however.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Clash of the Titans, round II?

Michiko Kakutani doesn't like Jonathan Franzen's new memoir.

I've read various parts of it printed from time to time in the New Yorker, printed as everything from fiction to an essay on "Peanuts." I remember enjoying it, but then, I'm a bit surprised to see it all packaged together as a memoir.

Oh, and Alan Moore's dirty graphic novel is finally being relased.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Best. PSA. Ever.

I first saw this on CBC in 2000, and my wife found it online yesterday.

Her research impulse may or may not have had anything to do with having just received "Fraggle Rock-Season 1" as a gift. :-)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Out with a bang

If you're as bummed as I am that Sleater-Kinney is soon to be no more, go download their August 3rd concert in D.C. from NPR.

(The sound could be better, but who can argue with free?) Set list is as follows:

"One Beat"
"Not what You Want"
"#1 Must Have"
"Steep Air"
"Burn Don't Freeze"
"End of You"
"What's Mine Is Yours"
"Modern Girl"
"Let's Call It Love"
"Little Babies"
"Iron Clad"
"Get Up"
"Buy Her Candy"
"Turn It On"
"Dance Song 97"
"Words & Guitar"
"Dig Me Out"

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Word is that we have a title for the "Batman Begins" sequel: "The Dark Knight."

Rumor has it that they're trying to get Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Penguin, which could be fun, although I hate the Penguin, and they've cast the Joker, but you'll never guess who.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Sometimes, there are really problems with the media

Way back in November, you may have heard the story about the 15-year-old girl who died of an allergic reaction after kissing her boyfriend, who had eaten a peanut butter sandwich nine hours earlier. An article about nut allergies on Slate got me thinking about the case again, and the fact that while I had heard some reports that the peanut allergy hadn't actually caused the girl's death, I couldn't recall ever reading anything concrete about the actual cause of death.

In fact, the top two returns to a Google search of the girl's name (Christina Desforges) are two articles that still cite the peanut butter kiss as the cause of death. The third link, however, is the actual coroner's report, which lists the cause of death as a severe asthma attack, and NOT an allergic reaction. (You can view the report here.)

As Emily Bazelon discusses in her article on Slate, there are real cases of severe allergies, and reactions to minute exposures, sometimes even to airborne particles. As a parent, I have sympathy for the nightmare of losing your child to something that neither you nor they could do anything about. At the same time, in dealing with public heath issues, hysteria and misinformation are often the greatest enemies. We'll be best able to deal with severe food allergies, as Bazelon states, if we really know what we're dealing with instead of dealing by default with the worst possible scenario.

I think that the Desforges case is likely to become something of an urban legend, especially since it contains just the right amount of possible sexual transgression to justify the "punishment" of death. ("Did you hear about the girl who DIED after kissing her boyfriend?") It would have been great to see some sort of follow-up to the original "peanut kiss of death" stories on a sufficient scale to correct the record.

But then, publishing corrections has always been a problem in the mass media, and far more so in the broadcast media world. We often hear about bias being the biggest problem with modern media, but I've never given that argument much credit. I think we suffer far more from sensationalism and sound bites.

(Editor's note: There is an aspect of mea culpa in this post. Back in November I participated in some of the hysteria when Snarkmarket originally brought the case to my attention. Consider this my attempt to print a correction of sufficient scale to try and correct the record.)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Better news

I have a house!

And to celebrate, here's a link to one of my favorite episodes from the New Batman Adventures: Over the Edge. (Note: It seems Warner Brothers finally got wise, and YouTube has pulled the episode. 12/07/06)

I get a house, Batman loses his. The universe stays in balance. (Of course, my new house is no Wayne Manor, but then, since Wayne Manor doesn't actually exist, that means that my house is actually way bigger than Bruce Wayne's.)

Monday, July 17, 2006

It's been a tough week in Lansing. . .

I'm trying to buy a house and we're running into issues getting the deal closed. I apologize if I seem to have disappeared, but I should be back soon (unless, of course, I'm homeless).

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

It's been a tough week in Detroit

Which is probably why I'm happy that I'm in Lansing. . .

But anyway, it has been a tough week or so in Detroit sports. Steve Yzerman is retiring. Ben Wallace signed with the Bulls. The Tigers scraped out a couple of wins in a tough series with the worst team in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and have lost two straight to the AL-West-leading Oakland Athletics.

While Yzerman is a big loss, I'm not that much of a hockey fan, and the Captain has been thinking about retirement for the past couple of years at least. Wallace is a bit more of a surprise, and while I'm concerned, I still can't quite think of it as the worst thing in the world. Wallace is irreplaceable in defense, but is questionable at best on offense, and he spent a good part of the second half of last season clashing with Flip Wilson, the Pistons' head coach. At the same time, however, Wallace was a big part of team chemistry, and it remains to be seen what the Pistons' starting five will look like on the floor next year, even with Rip, 'Sheed, Chauncey, and Tayshaun coming back.

I've taken a great deal of pleasure from watching the Tigers this year, but like all other Detroit teams, them seem to give an attentive fan a great deal to worry about, even when they possess the best record in Major League Baseball. This year, the Tigers seem to insist on losing to the good teams--Boston, New York, Chicago, and apparently Oakland. In all truth, I'd bee happy this year with a .500 season, but it would be a shame if the Tigers weren't able to follow-up this first half without at least a wild card bid. Were it just the Oakland series, I wouldn't be so worried, but to play poorly against the Pirates and then lose to Oakland doesn't bode well.

It may be well to keep in mind that the playoffs are really a bonus at this point. As poorly as the Tigers have played the past few years, it's really good to just see them win.

My prediction, just before the All-Star break: we make the playoffs as the wild card and lose first round. (I think we'll keep playing well, but the Tigers just haven't shown the ability to beat the really good teams yet.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Apropos of nothing. . .

Yesterday, for no reason at all, I suddenly remembered this.

(I'm just happy that I remembered the name so I could look it up on Wikipedia and confirm that it actually existed.)

Oh, and apparently Batman is a lapsed Catholic/Episcopalian. Just thought you'd like to know.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

I can totally do this

I don't know how I can do this, but I can. I saw the video, tried it, couldn't do it, and then all of a sudden I could. (You may have to watch a short commercial before viewing the video in the link. If you're not big on commercials, head over to Snarkmarket. Their link is where I saw it in the first place.)

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Be like Spock: chill-ax

If, when your friends ask you whether you've seen this, you say no, it won't be my fault.

More RCR notes

Not long ago, I posted a chronology of the publishing history of Red Cedar Review, Michigan State University's (undergraduate-run) official literary magazine. I've since (almost) completed an index, and have some notes of interest to add to the chronology.

Notable writers
Steve Almond—vol. 33
Margaret Atwood—vol. 7:1
Tom Bissell—vol. 31:2
Robert Bly—translation of Tomas Transtromer vol. 8:2/3
Jim Cash—vol. 3:1
René Char—vol. 6:4
Jim Daniels—vol. 11:2
Stuart Dybek—vol. 7:2, reprint vol. 38
Carolyn Forché—vol. 9:3
Dan Gerber—vols. 8:2/3, 11:2, 38
Gary Gildner—vols. 6:1, 6:3
Gwendolen Gross—vol. 33
Jim Harrison—vol. 8:2/3, reprint vol. 35:2
Catherine Ryan Hyde—vol. 34:1
Mark Jacobs—vol. 32:1
Lyn Lifshin—vol. 7:1, 15:1, 16:1/2, 17:1/2, 19:1, 25:1, 26, 27, 29:1, 30:1, 30:2, 36:1, 37:1, 39
Judith Minty—vols. 9:3, 38
Pablo Neruda—vol. 7:1
William Stafford—vol. 11:1
Robert Vander Molen—vols. 5:1, 6:2, 6:4
Diane Wakoski—vols. 10:2/3, 11:2, 28:1, 31:1, 33, 38

Charles Baxter—vol. 34:1
Philip Caputo—vol. 33
Katie Davis—vol. 39
Stephen Dunn—vol. 37:1
Allen Ginsberg—vol. 17:1/2
Diane Glancy—vol 38
Jim Harrison—vol. 35:2
Robert Kroetsch—vol. 17:1/2
Elmore Leonard—vol. 36:1
Elinor Lipman—vol. 32:1
Eli Mandel—vol. 17:1/2
A. J. M. Smith—vols. 7:2/3, 14:1
Diane Wakoski—vol. 35:1

Numbering anomalies/errors
  • Vol. 7:1 is printed as “vol. 6:1.” My numbering is based on publication date.
  • Vol. 7:2 is printed as “vol. 7:1.” My numbering is based on publication date and the numbering of the July 1971 issue as “7:3/4,” which seems to count May 1969 as 7:1 and July 1970 as 7:2.
  • In spring 1988 numbering jumps from vol. 19:2 to vol. 25:1.
  • Vol. 26:1 numbering based on publication date and numbering of subsequent volumes. The volume itself contains no printed volume number.
  • Vol. 27:1 numbering based on likely publication date and numbering of subsequent volumes. The volume itself contains no printed volume number or date.
  • Vol. 37:1 is printed as “vol. 37:2.”

    Other notes
  • Walter Lockwood’s essay in vol. 25:1 lists him as RCR’s editor in 1963 and 1964. Volumes 1, 2, and 3 contain no printed staff information.
  • Vol. 7:1 contains sections on Nigerian poets and Black poets.
  • Vol. 8:1—East Lansing poets
  • Vol. 9:1 consists of ten posters in a manila envelope.
  • Billboard issue likely appeared in 1974 following vol. 9:1
  • Vol. 9:3—Women write
  • “The Post Card Mysteries is a special publication of Red Cedar Review and represents Volume 10, Issue #1 of that magazine. It was edited by James Kalmbach, designed by Dennis Pace, and illustrated by Gene Stotts. The book is part of our continuing experimentation with new forms for the small press magazine that has led us in the past to place an issue on a billboard over Grand River Avenue in East Lansing, and a small homage to Al Drake whose energy sustained RCR through many issues and changes in personnel until his resignation as advisor two years ago. Beginning with Volume 10 Issue 2/3 we will return to our regular magazine format.”
  • Vol. 10:1 is the first perfect-bound issue.
  • The 25th anniversary issue, Vol. 25:1, is fold-and-staple binding and echoes the design used in vols. 1, 2, and 3. Vol. 25:1 contains notes on RCR history by Albert Drake, Jim Cash, Peter Nye, Etta Abrahams, Maury Crane, and Walter Lockwood.
  • Vol. 38 is the first issue published by the MSU Press.
  • Friday, May 26, 2006

    Everybody shares notes

    Within a week, both Slate and the Village Voice post articles bemoaning troubled times for independent booksellers.

    Actually, neither really spends much time "bemoaning." Tyler Cowan on Slate pretty much seems to say that independent bookstores have an inflated sense of their own importance (which is probably true), and that they often make economically irrational decisions. (One indie bookstore owner is quoted saying that he doesn't discount books not because he can't but "as a way of reflecting. . . their worth as cultural artifacts.") In the Village Voice, Paul Collins points out that small bookstores have been "dying" at least since department stores added book sections at the end of the 19th century, but that in recent years the chains have done a good job of integrating the innovations of other retail outlets, large and small, into a near optimal mass book browsing experience, and that various idiosyncrasies of the bookselling business—returnability, and tax incentives that lead publishers to remainder books now rather than keep and sell them at full price later—give the megabookstores additional advantages over smaller sellers.

    Even my own beloved local "indie" bookstore, Schuler Books, is really just a privately owned mini-chain, down to the fact that they use a computerized inventory system leased from one of the big two mega-chain booksellers.

    I wish I could say that was more the wave of the future--locally owned bookstores that make use of the advantages of the large bookstores while maintaining their own personality--but I fear that Schuler is a bit of an anomaly. The mega-chain doesn't lease their inventory system anymore, and the other mega-chain seems to look forward to the day when they only sell books from their own in-house publisher.

    Monday, May 22, 2006

    It was a very good 25 years. . .

    Slate weighs in on the NYT Book Review's list of the best works of fiction of the past 25 years: "Beloved, really?" and "The neglected short novels." (titles mine)

    I've been a bit interested to read that Beloved was the presumptive favorite from the beginning. A. O. Scott, in his essay describing the process of creating this list, cites judes who provided "explanations of why [they] were not voting for Beloved, the expected winner." Stephen Metcalf, one of the judges, echoes in his article on Slate the assertion that "from the moment the solicitously hand-typed letter from the Times Book Review arrived in the mail, Beloved was the presumptive winner."

    I'm a bit surprised that it felt like such a foregone conclusion. Sure, Morrison is the most recent American Nobel winner, and Beloved is generally considered her masterpiece. (We won't consider the mediocre Oprah film version--Morrison can't be held responsible for that.) All the same, is Morrison really so far and away above Roth? Scott seems to think that the lack of a difinitive Roth omnibus cost him in the survey, since votes for his work were split between so many of his titles.

    In all fairness, I've never read Roth, and Beloved is pretty damn good. My favorite works tend to be from the first half of the 20th Century anyway. Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and Forster.

    Tuesday, May 16, 2006

    I'm not proud of it. . .

    . . . but it must be done.

    I'm officially changing the link on my blog from Friendster to MySpace. Yes, yes, I hate MySpace and its lousy, ugly design, and the way it encourages users to make their pages even uglier and more unreadable, and the "thanks for the add" banners, and its pedophillic tendencies. . .

    But all my friends are there. (Except for you, Robin and Brandon! Get with the times!)

    So I'm all MySpace now. Not that I ever update my page.

    Monday, May 15, 2006

    A good week for books in the NYT

    The New York Times Sunday magazine ran an interesting article this week on the issues of digitizing texts and the rather grand idea of creating a new electronic equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. Perhaps even more interesting is that while the article's author, Kevin Kelly, cites Wikipedia as one of the great examples of the potential of broad, hyperlinked digital text, Wikipedia's article on the Library of Alexandria is a great example of some its problems. (See the talk page for specifics.)

    Writing has always been a political action, even when it isn't. It is ridiculous to argue that an individual can lack a point of view. Any article on any subject in any given Encyclopaedia Britannica may contain errors and misrepresentations, intentionally or not. This is the eternal danger of the historical record and any sort of scholarship in the humanities. However, the open-source nature of Wikipedia has nurtured a new phenomenon, which I will call the electronic filibuster. Now anyone with a strong enough objection to a particular piece of information can immediately edit or remove it, and while Wikipedia maintains an archive of previous versions of an article, trying to recover information from that archive can be as challenging as digging through any uncataloged pile of dusty books, and in this particular case, the article on the Library of Alexandria has evolved into nothing more than a description of the disputes over the library's destruction. While one would hope that the discussion of an article would shape the finished piece, this discussion seems to have led to the exclusion of all other information on the library.

    I have a great deal of sensitivity to slander, libel, and malicious misrepresentation, but would we be better off if the Protocols of the Elders of Zion had never been published? As evil as that book may be, would preventing its publication have eliminated anti-semitism?

    Personally, I don't believe in burning books, or in running magnets over hard drives.

    (Oh yeah, there's also a piece on the "Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years". Apparently it's Beloved by Toni Morrison, although I'd love to hear other opinions.)

    Wednesday, May 03, 2006

    Quick updates

    Gawker now puts the tally of authors possibly plagarized by Kaavya Viswanathan at five: Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, Salman Rushdie, Meg Cabot (author of the Princess Diaries), and Tanuja Desai Hidier, whose book Born Confused also concerns an Indian-American protagonist living in New Jersey. Little, Brown has also announced that Viswanathan's book will not be reissued (at this point, to this observer, it doesn't seem like there's enough of the book left to revise into a reissuable form), and that it is canceling the second book of Viswanathan's two-book contract. (Thanks, Len.) Interestingly enough, the NY Times is reporting that Viswanathan's contract with Little, Brown was signed by Alloy, Viswanathan's book packager, and not Viswanathan herself.

    In other, unrelated news, I feel a bit better about my own self-professed semi-ignorance of Caitlin Flanagan. An ad for Flanagan's new book To Hell with All That appearing in both this week's New York Times Book Review and New Yorker leads with "Who the hell is Caitlin Flanagan and why is everybody talking about her?"

    Who indeed.

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    You knew it wasn't the last word

    Yet more plagarism allegations for Kaavya Viswanathan, this time that passages clustered in the last third of her book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, strongly resemble sections of Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella. (Yes, that's right, the accusation is that Viswanathan has stolen work from another writer in addition to Megan McCafferty.)

    Friday, April 28, 2006

    The last word?

    Little, Brown has announced that it is withdrawing Kaavya Vishwanathan's novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, after the author apologized for substantial "borrowing" from two novels by Megan McCafferty.

    Thursday, April 27, 2006

    More unoriginal news

    Two pieces in the New York Times today shedding more light on our young plagarist friend: a summary of a follow-up interview with Viswanathan, and some information on "book packagers"--groups, especially active in young-adult publishing, who come up with concepts, find writers to produce the content, and market the already copyedited final product, cover art and all, to publishers. (Alloy Entertainment, a book packager responsible for the Gossip Girl series, and holder of three of the top ten spots on this Sunday's NYT children's best-seller list, worked with Viswanathan on How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, and is a co-holder of the copyright.)

    Update, 3:58p.m. More on Viswanathan at Slate. Be sure to check out the link at the end to Gawker's excellent coverage.

    Wednesday, April 26, 2006

    Good free music

    I know I've already posted today, but Salon just brought to my attention Kathleen Edward's web site which offers free downloads of five songs from each of her two albums. I've been a big Kathleen Edwards fan since Failer came out in 2003 (dear god, I haven't even bought a CD in a year, I can't imagine how I took a chance on a CD from an artist I hadn't even heard of), and I know I've passed on a few songs on some mix CDs I've sent out, but here's a chance to get a bit more of a feel for her songs. Go listen. I don't even care if you don't like them. Go listen. For me.

    There are no literary prodigies

    There's been a lot of talk of plagiarism in the news lately. Dan brown just survived a rather spurious lawsuit charging that he stole major elements for The Da Vinci Code from the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (interestingly enough, in order to maintain their argument, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail argued that their book was not historical scholarship. After all, one can't copyright facts). The University of Georgia revoked the Flannery O'Connor Short Fiction Prize awarded to Brad Vice after accusations that he stole sections of the story “Tuscaloosa Knights” from Carl Carmer’s book Stars Fell on Alabama. (More here and here.)

    Blogger Ben Domenech resigned from the Washington Post Online nearly as soon as he was hired after accusations of a history of plagiarism that started with stealing movie reviews from for his college newspaper, and continued into his professional work with the National Review. Ohio University is investigating dozens of cases of possible plagarism involving current and former graduate students in the engineering program.

    Finally, Harvard sophopmore Kaavya Viswanathan has been accused of plagarizing two novels by Megan McCafferty in her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. Viswanathan has apologized, saying that she had read McCafferty's books and "wasn't aware of how much [she] may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." Viswanathan's publisher was less than enthusiastic about her apology.

    Do you think they'll ask her to return her $500,000 advance?

    Thursday, April 20, 2006

    I almost feel like Snarkmarket. . .

    I don't normally link to Entertainment Weekly interviews, but in this case, I'm compelled.

    What was Geraldine Brooks doing when she found out that her novel March won a Pulitzer? In her own words: "I was actually taking a day off and was home with my son, who was off school. We were sitting around painting Warhammer figures together"

    How geeky-cool-warm-and-fuzzy is that?

    Tuesday, April 18, 2006

    When it rains, it pours

    Trying to report new information on books and literature can be an uphill battle. Sure, we had it good with the JT Leroy/James Frey debacles (which gave me something to talk about for most of January), but the books world is often slow and of interest only at specific times to people of specific interests.

    It's been a pretty good week, though. The Pulitzers were announced on Monday. March, by Geraldine Brooks won for fiction (beating The March by E. L. Doctorow), and Late Wife, by Claudia Emerson won for poetry. No prize was given for drama.

    Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with an old friend about who the really important poets and dramatists of the past few centuries are. To me, at least, the unspoken undertone was that the very fact that we needed to have the conversation at all underlined the relative irrelevance of the fields. (Perhaps more so for drama than poetry) How many people attend plays regularly? How many people that you know would say that their life was changed by a play? (You're excluded from that question, Mr. Hungerford, since you work in theater.)

    I was able, without much hesitation, to rattle off a list of the four most important American playwrights: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Clifford Odets (with August Wilson a likely and worthy fifth). Who else really matters? Edward Albee? (One great full-length, one great one-act, and a lot of others that don't quite measure up.) Tony Kushner? (Come on.) What would it take for a contemporary play to break through into the cultural consciousness? (An HBO movie, like Wit or Angels in America? A feature film with an entirely different cast like Proof? And if this is the case, are they really plays anymore?)

    Anyway, while Tim wasn't entirely with me on Odets, I can at least cite a positive review of a revival of Awake and Sing! in today's New York Times and a short profile by John Lahr in the New Yorker to mark Odets' centennial. (It's also Samuel Beckett's centennial, and Harold Pinter won last year's Nobel for literature, so it has at least been a good year for, uhm, old plays.)

    Wednesday, April 12, 2006

    Physician, heal. . .

    There's a fascinating review on Salon of Caitlin Flanagan's new book, To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. I had never heard of Flanagan before, although as a New Yorker subscriber, I've almost certainly read her, but Salon's reviewer, Joan Walsh takes Flanagan to task for claiming to be a stay-at-home mother and praising the virtues of such a life for everyone involved, while simultaneously pursuing a full-time career as a writer for Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker. (Which meant, by the way, that Flanagan employed a nanny until the children entered preschool, and still has a housekeeper.)

    The lesson I walk away with is one that I've seen before: it's extremely dangerous to posit yourself as the embodiment of the virtues of any sort of choice or lifestyle. The world is too complex, and we all have too many faults. It's one thing to say "this lifestyle is good because it tends to promote x and y and z," but something else entirely to say "look at my life, which proves it."

    (The NYT Book Review ran a much friendlier review of Flanagan's book.)

    Wednesday, March 29, 2006

    That's what I get for trying to talk about politics

    Yeah, that whole "let's replace government entitlement programs with cash" thing? There's a big conversation on it going on over at Snarkmarket.

    Sure, sure, Matt gives you twenty times the background I do, and they talk about politics and social policy far more often than I do, and they have a far more substantial readership than I do. . .

    Oh, hell. No more politics for me. Books and lit mags may be a small corner of the world, but it's mine, dammit.

    Tuesday, March 28, 2006

    Holy crap

    Do my eyes decieve me, or is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal actually calling for a mass redistribution of wealth to replace our current welfare system? (Thanks to A&L Daily)

    Sure, there would need to be some serious discussion of what drastically reduced social safety net should remain, but isn't something like this what we lefties have been looking for in our deepest, most socialistic dreams?

    I'm still in a bit of shock. Someone point out the problems with this idea and bring me back to reality. I dare you.

    Friday, March 24, 2006

    The Responsible Reader: a long overdue and woefully unworthy follow-up

    I'm always on the lookout for interesting and inspiring small literary magazines, and a new one has just caught my eye, thanks to Slate: The Virginia Quarterly Review.

    (Click here for VQR's website.)

    Wednesday, March 22, 2006

    Only a bibliophile may care, but. . .

    The New York Times has a interesting piece today about the increasing presence of the paperback original in the world of literary fiction.

    I have mixed feelings on the trend. I'm in favor of anything that helps good writing find its audience, but I have to admit that there are few things as appealing as a well-made hardcover. (Hell, I even hate those "deluxe paperbacks" whose covers are made in an imitation of a hardcover dustjacket. It seems like a waste of paper, and even more annoying, I've found that they're more prone than most regular paperback covers to curling as they age or when exposed to humidity.)

    Monday, March 20, 2006

    Cartoons and noise

    One of my favorite recent cartoons is Samurai Jack, an action-based cartoon put together by the guy who created Dexter's Laboratory and the recent Star Wars "Clone Wars" cartoons. One of the striking features of Samurai Jack, especially in the 90-minute premiere feature, is the long streches of entirely dialog-free action. Jack experimented freely with both various stylized drawing styles and the use of sound and musical soundtrack.

    This stands in strking contrast to the recent popular celebrity-voice-driven animated features like Shrek, Madagascar, and plenty of others where the philosophy seems to be that the closer the animated face and personality is to the voice behind it, the better. (This is perhaps exemplified nowhere better than in Shark Tale, where a great deal of effort was made not only to infuse the performance of the voice actor into the characters' gestures and expressions, but to make the fish characters resemble the voice actors as much as possible.)

    What prompted this line of thought? Why, an article in the New York Times, of course.

    Wednesday, March 15, 2006

    River reveries

    Well, uhm, I haven't really had any serious thoughts lately. I have gotten a lot of reading done, strangely enough. I'm at seven books for the year so far, which already beats all of 2005.

    I've also been digging through the archives of Red Cedar Review, the undergraduate-run literary magazine of Michigan State University's English department. I've discovered a handful of surprising things, possibly none so surprising as the fact that I was able to construct what I believe to be a near-complete chronology of the magazine's publication. (If anyone has a copy of volumes 1, 2, or 3 that they'd be willing to part with, please, please, please let me know.) For those of you who are interested, that chronology (with a couple of notes) is as follows:

    Vol. 1:1—Spring 1963, Walter Lockwood, ed.
    Vol. 2:1—Spring 1964, James Cash, ed.
    Vol. 3:1—Spring 1965, Fred Piet, ed.
    Vol. 4:1—Spring 1966, Peggy Case, ed.
    Vol. 5:1—January 1967, Peggy Case, ed.
    Vol. 5:2—April 1967, Peggy Case, ed.
    Vol. 6:1—January 1968, Peggy Case, ed.
    Vol. 6:2—May 1968, Craig Sterry, ed.
    Vol. 6:3—September 1968, Peggy Case, ed.
    Vol. 6:4—December 1968, Peggy Case, ed.
    Vol. 7:1—May 1969, Peggy Case and James Tipton, eds.
    Vol. 7:2—July 1970, Richard Jansma and Howard Shapiro, eds.
    Vol. 7:3/4—July 1971, Alan VerPlanck, ed.
    Vol. 8:1—April 1972, Alan VerPlanck, ed.
    Vol. 8:2/3—Fall/winter 1973, Dennis Pace, ed.
    Vol. 9:1—Spring 1974, Dennis Pace, ed.
    Vol. 9:2—March 1975, Neal Villhauer, ed.
    Vol. 9:3—May 1975, Patricia Polach, ed.
    Vol. 10:1—1976, The Postcard Mysteries by Albert Drake
    Vol. 10:2/3—1976
    Vol. 11:1—January 1977, Michael Tanimura, ed.
    Vol. 11:2—May 1977, Randall K. Roorda, ed.
    Vol. 12:1—1978, Love at the Egyptian Theater, Poems by Barbara Drake.
    Vol. 12:2—June 1978, Sam Mills, ed.
    Vol. 13:1—Spring 1979
    Vol. 13:2—(1980?)
    Vol. 14:1—Spring 1981
    Vol. 14:2—1982
    Vol. 15:1—1982
    Vol. 15:2—1983
    Vol. 16:1/2—Spring 1984
    Vol. 17:1/2—Spring 1985, Kathy Crown, ed.
    Vol 18:1—Spring 1986
    Vol. 18:2—Winter 1986, Anne Marie Carey, ed.
    Vol. 19:1—Summer 1987, Anne Marie Carey, ed.
    Vol. 19:2—Winter 1988, Carol Bracewall, ed.
    Vol. 25:1—Spring 1988, Carol Bracewall, ed.
    Vol. 26:1—Spring 1989
    Vol. 27:1—(1990?) Frank Rossman, ed.
    Vol. 28:1—Fall 1991, David Bivins, ed.
    Vol. 29:1—1992 – 1993, Jackie Justice, ed.
    Vol. 29:2—1993, Jackie Justice, ed.
    Vol. 30:1—1993, Zachary Chartkoff and Laura L. Klynstra, eds.
    Vol. 30:2—May 1994, Laura Klynstra and Erin McCarty, eds.
    Vol. 31:1—March 1995, Tom Bissell and Laura L. Klynstra, eds.
    Vol. 32:1—1996, Tom Bissell and Laura Klynstra, eds.
    Vol. 33:1—1997, Tom Bissell and Laura Klynstra, eds.
    Vol. 34:1—Winter/spring 1998, Carrie Preston and David Sheridan, eds.
    Vol. 34:2—Fall/winter 1998, Ari Kohen and Carrie Preston, eds.
    Vol. 35:1—Summer/fall 1999, Ari Kohen and Carrie Preston, eds.
    Vol. 35:2—Winter/spring 2000, Carrie Preston, ed.
    Vol. 36:1—Winter 2001, Doug Dowland, ed.
    Vol. 37:1—Winter 2002, Meg Sparling, ed.
    Vol. 38—2003, Meg Sparling, ed. MSU Press
    Vol. 39—2004, Laura Tisdel, ed. MSU Press
    Vol. 40—2005, Jennifer Popa, Teal Amthor-Shaffer, Jon Spielburg, eds. MSU Press


    1. Vol. 7:1 is printed as "vol. 6:1." My numbering is based on publication date.
    2. Pablo Neruda and Margaret Atwood published in vol. 7:1.
    3. Vol. 7:2 is printed as "vol. 7:1." My numbering is based on publication date and the numbering of the July 1971 issue as "7:3/4," which seems to count May 1969 as 7:1 and July 1970 as 7:2.
    4. Stuart Dybek published in vol. 7:2. Biographical note reads: "STUART DYBEK is unknown to us."
    5. Jim Harrison published in vol. 8:2/3.
    6. Vol. 9:1 consists of ten posters in a manila envelope.
    7. Billboard issue likely appeared in 1974 following vol. 9:1
    8. "The Post Card Mysteries is a special publication of Red Cedar Review and represents Volume 10, Issue #1 of that magazine. It was edited by James Kalmbach, designed by Dennis Pace, and illustrated by Gene Stotts. The book is part of our continuing experimentation with new forms for the small press magazine that has led us in the past to place an issue on a billboard over Grand River Avenue in East Lansing, and a small homage to Al Drake whose energy sustained RCR through many issues and changes in personnel until his resignation as advisor two years ago. Beginning with Volume 10 Issue 2/3 we will return to our regular magazine format."
    9. Vol. 10:2/3 is the first perfect-bound issue.
    10. Jim Daniels published in vol. 11:2.
    11. Vol. 12:1 introduction by Diane Wakoski.
    12. Allen Ginsberg interview in vol. 17:1/2.
    13. In spring 1988 numbering jumps from vol. 19:2 to vol 25:1 to mark 25th anniversary. Vol. 25:1 is fold-and-staple binding, and contains notes on RCR history by Albert Drake, Jim Cash, Peter Nye, Etta Abrahams, Maury Crane, and Walter Lockwood.
    14. Vol. 26:1 numbering based on date and numbering of subsequent volumes. The volume itself contains no printed volume number.
    15. Vol. 27:1 numbering based on likely date and numbering of subsequent volumes. The volume itself contains no printed volume number or date.
    16. Steve Almond published in vol. 33.
    17. Vol. 37:1 is printed as "vol. 37:2."

    Wednesday, March 08, 2006

    Don't know much

    I'm sure I don't need to be the one to tell you that there's a lot of heavy shit going down in the world right now. I don't know what to do about Iran's nuclear program, or Sunni/Shi'ite violence in Iraq, or Muslim/Hindu violence in India, or South Dakota outlawing abortion in a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

    But I do know what makes Taco Bell's Crunchwrap Supreme so good. It's the nacho cheese, baby. Aw yeah.