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.