Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The New Yorker, April 2

Alright, I received my April 2 New Yorker issue in the mail three days ago and I decided enough was enough. I am drowning in New Yorkers. I’ve been trying so hard to get through the books I’m reading that I simply haven’t had time to finish a single New Yorker since the end of February. This week’s New Yorker, which arrived a full five days earlier than it usually does, was the last straw. I am proud to say that, four days later, I have finally finished a complete New Yorker.

I decided to do something a bit different this week. Instead of reading the magazine front to back, which is what I usually do, I decided to read the articles in order of interest. So, I started with John Updike’s review of Walter Isaacson’s Einstein. In his own Picked Up Pieces, a collection of assorted prose, Updike lays out his own rules for writing reviews. One of those rules was:

Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

It’s a good thing that Updike admits to breaking his own rules because plot summary is exactly what he did with this review of Isaacson’s biography. Albert Einstein is such an iconic figure that it’s unlikely that the new biography is fraught with suspense and “surpiseful narrative.” Only those who have read the book (I haven’t) would know whether Isaacson sheads new and shocking light on Einstein’s life and if Updike knows it, maybe he’s following his own advice and not telling us. But if it’s unknown whether Isaacson has anything new to say about Einstein’s life, it’s certainly clear that Updike doesn’t.

I don’t see how this article could classify as anything other than an elegant summary. Updike neither provides a new theory or way of looking at the man, nor does he provide any illuminating comments on the biography itself outside of calling it “thorough, comprehensive, [and] affectionate.” One wonders if, for all of its elegance, this article would have even been accepted by the New Yorker if it hadn’t come with John Updike’s byline.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Criticism of the Critics

I posted this on my other blog and I just simply had to post it here as well. WARNING: Angry rant ahead.

In the April issue of Harper's magazine, Cynthia Ozick quotes an essay titled "Defeating the Poem" written by Denis Donoghue, a literary scholar and a professor of thirty years. In his essay, Donoghue reports:

"Those students who think of themselves as writers and take classes in 'creative writing' to define themselves as poets or fiction writers evidently write more than they read, and regard reading as a gross expenditure of time and energy. They are not open to the idea that one learns to write by reading good writers."

Oh, ye Gods of literature, say it ain't so. Have we sunk so low that even writers don't want to read? Or as Oznick puts it, "So is that where the readers of the next generation are going: to the perdition of egotism and moralizing politicized self-righteousness?"

I always get a bit defensive when writers lament and cry out in letters, "The readers have all gone! Where have all the readers gone?" I wish to say, "Here I am. I'm right here. Don't I count?" I know, of course, that that's not what they mean. What they mean is that there simply aren't as many readers like myself out there as there used to be. But, doesn't it seem just a bit self-defeating to write articles about people who don't read because, obviously, anyone who reads the article is, by definition, a reader? So, it begs the question, who is the intended audience for these articles anyway? Fellow writers, literary critics, readers, or all three? No ones seems to disagree with the fact that readership is declining in America (and in Britain, apparently) so what is the point of all these articles really?

The fact that libraries are getting rid of their Shakespeare and their Dickens because young readers find them too boring and too difficult to read is outrageous, indeed. But what's being done about it? Outrage without action is annoying, boring, and frankly, pointless. Writers, however, seem content to do what writers do - write - and leave the action for someone else. In the past, that may have all been fine and dandy. But to those writers who want the readers of yesteryear back, I'd tell them the same thing I'd tell a child crying, "Mommy! Mommy! He stole my candy." Go get it back. Getting readers to return to reading doesn't require beating, cheating, or stealing (especially if, as Oznick writes, people are already "Googling obsessively (hours and hours)" and "blogging and emailing and text messaging" which all requires reading for "hours and hours").

No, what getting readers back requires is ingenuity and creativity, two things which writers have in sufficient supply. But, most importantly, what it requires is action. Action not through words but through deeds. Large scale reading programs and fairs, and English teachers skilled enough to educate and impart to their students a sense of their own passion for reading. I always tell people who tell me they don't like to read that they simply just haven't read the right book. Where are the programs to help people find their inner reader in the same way that writers are encouraged and taught to find their inner voice?

Call me naive but I truly and honestly believe that there is a reader in everyone. Anyone will read if you place the right book in front of them. This is especially the case with children and younger students, which is where it should all begin, before they've convinced themselves that their time is better spent with television, the internet, and video games. But so often, we speak of these things as if it has to be either/or. Either you read or you watch television; either you play video games or you read. This simply isn't the case. I spend plenty of time surfing the internet - checking email, Googling, blogging (obviously) and all. I also take time out of my day to watch my favorite television shows. And yet somehow, miracle of miracles, I read. A lot.

This isn't - it shouldn't be - a battle of the internet versus reading. This should be a battle for reading, period. When adults who have trouble learning how to check their email and speak of not knowing a thing about computers as if they consider it a badge of honor, champion reading books they, in effect, make reading seem old, stale, and out of date, much in the same way that young people consider cassette tapes and records a thing of the past. But reading isn't something of the past. Even if we couldn't claim that books written years ago could tell universal truths transcendent of time, books are still a thing of the present simply by their virtue of being printed everyday. If books are thing of the present, so too then must be reading.

Internet, television, and video games aren't the problem. Inaction is the problem. There seems to be this idea that marketing reading and literature is sordid and beneath the pure act of reading, especially if one is going to read literature. But if you are above marketing the sacred past-time then you must also be above complaining about the declining readership. To get readers to come back to reading today requires the kind of work that wasn't required fifty years ago and, so what? If you want your place in the hearts and minds of the public and the larger culture, you must be willing to work for it. Some of us, like myself, don't require that kind of work but, as I've said before, obviously this isn't about me or other book lovers like me. This is about the poor people out there whose lives are sadly un-enriched by the mind-blowing, thought-provoking power of books.

If we, none of us, wish to see books relegated to the "deafening silence of irrelevance" then we must take our noses out of our books, our fingers from the keyboards, and demand reading's place in the heart and mind of our community and culture. The place is there; it hasn't gone anywhere. It's simply gotten smaller. If we want to make it larger we must take a break from our philosophizing and our agonizing over the declining numbers and do something, because time is getting short. If Donoghue is to be believed, then we are already fast approaching the day when even our writers won't read. When that happens, the time for arguing and debating will be over, because there won't be anyone to debate with.

To the Library and Beyond

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine remarked that, for someone who reads as much as I do, I don’t go to the library very often. I told him what I tell everyone who asks: I don’t go to libraries because they always want their books back. I’m possessive about my books, especially books I like, and I don’t like having to give them back. It’s selfish I know, but after having accumulated $30 dollar fines on a number of occasions, I’d decided that everyone would be better served – my pocketbook and honest library patrons alike – if I got my books from the bookstore where, for a set price, my books could languish on my shelves as long as I liked.

My pocketbook, however, has of late been rather bare so this past weekend I bit the bullet, promised to be a good library patron, and applied for a new library card. I’d forgotten how much going to the library is like being a kid in a candy store with license to get whatever and however much I liked. Oh, the bounty I escaped with:

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
Tokyo: Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta
Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz
Heat by Bill Buford
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
And a bunch of plays by Shakespeare that I haven’t read in a while or ever (King Lear, As You Like It, and the Henry VI plays to name a few).

Habitually, I read the first chapter of any new book I acquire. It satisfies my curiosity and allows me to finish books I’ve already committed to reading. So I spent a very pleasurable afternoon dipping my toe into a new book before flitting off to a another pool. Here’s a sampling of the first sentence from a few of the books:

“One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes.” –- Assassination Vacation

“Not so long ago, in one of those small, carefree lands that used to be so common but which now, alas, are hardly to be found, there was a prince whose name was Ibrahim.” -- Tokyo: Cancelled (Alright, this isn’t exactly the first sentence in the book. Tokyo: Cancelled is modeled after The Canterbury Tales. This is the first sentence in the first story “The Tailor.”)

“There was a woman who had seven sons and she was happy. Then she had a daughter.” -- from “Where We Come From” in Nice Big American Baby. I’m not going to give away the story but someone please tell me: is it even possible for a woman to carry a baby inside for her for four years and not – I don’t know – die?

"Years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines, a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture." -- Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marraige

“A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into; the other functions and faculties may be more godlike, but in point of time they come afterwards.” – Quoted by George Orwell, from The Road to Wigan Pier as preface to Heat

Friday, March 23, 2007

Will in the World, Final

If you’ve read my last post on Shakespeare (“Shakespeare Everywhere!”), you’d know I’ve found myself unexpectedly surrounded by the legendary playwright for the past month. He’s been popping up in the strangest places like a hidden element in a “Where’s a Waldo!” picture (“Where’s Will!”). Today, not only is he gracing the cover of my April 2007 Harper’s Magazine (“The Mirror of Life: How Shakespeare Conquered the World” by Jonathan Bate) but he’s also making a surprise appearance - ok, not so much a surprise considering the forum - in my April/May “Bookforum.” In its ‘Pub Dates’ section, “Bookforum” informs readers that Abrams Books is releasing Manga Shakespeare: Hamlet and Manga Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet in April. Manga Shakespeare...uh, no comment. Actually, I think it might be kind of cool but, alright, no further comment.

I will, however, say that I have finally completed the reason for my recent Shakespeare inundation, Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt. Will in the World is a massive achievement, not least of all because it is a compelling biography of a man whose known facts of life, according to John Mitchell, “can be written down on one side of a sheet of notepaper." Thus, the nearly four hundred page Will in the World is basically, in the words of Greenblatt himself, “an exercise in speculation,” but it is engrossing speculation nonetheless. Greenblatt uses the only true records left of Shakespeare’s inner life, his plays, to breathe life into not only the man but also the plays (although, conspicuously, Greenblatt fails to mention that authorship of many of the plays he uses to recreate Shakespeare’s life have been called into question by several Bard scholars).

Greenblatt is less concerned with literary conspiracy theories than he is with the life of the man on whom the book is based. He’s more concerned with showing readers how Shakespeare could have lived and developed as a playwright if only we, the audience, are willing to approach the history of Shakespeare in exactly the same way the playwright demanded of his sixteenth century audiences - with suspended belief and the power of our imagination. What we get in return is entertainment of the highest value and, if we are paying attention, an education on and illumination of all those dark, secret places.

I spent three months in a course on Shakespeare and never learned as much as I have in reading Greenblatt’s elegant biography. Granted, there are some glaring omissions of explanation (i.e. just how did an untraveled man with no university training manage to read untranslated Italian plays?), but those holes in his biography only serve to make the playwright more intriguing. Was he bisexual or wasn’t he? Did he hate his wife or didn’t he? Was he a recusant Catholic or wasn’t he? Perhaps we’ll never know and, in the end, none of it really matters because after it’s all said and done “what matters most are the works.” Shakespeare made poetry of the English language and, in his biography of the poet, so does Greenblatt.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Quote of the Day:

Books are the main source of our knowledge, our resevoir of faith, memory, wisdom, morality, poetry, philosophy, history, and science. Daniel Boorstin, former Librarian of Congress

Friday, March 16, 2007

Word of the Day:

blazon: the ecstatic inventory of a beloved's features.

Example: Stephen Greenblatt writes, "If a mare could write a love poem to a stallion...she might write this:

Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs, and passing strong;
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide.

(Shakespeare sonnet lines 295-98)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Shakespeare Everywhere!

When I was about thirteen years old I noticed a little something I like to call the “new car phenomenon.” Around that time, my mother had just purchased a used, sky blue Ford Escort. Happy as a car full of clowns, which is what we looked like with my me, mother and my four siblings packed into that little bitty car, we piled in and took the long route home. On the way, I noticed another sky blue Ford Escort driving in the opposite direction. Then I noticed another turning a corner, then I noticed another in a parking lot. Why, the streets were practically crawling with sky blue Ford Escorts! Where had all these cars come from?

Later I learned that, when you buy a new car, because your mind has trained itself to recognize that make and model as your car, your blinders have been removed and suddenly you recognize what you hadn’t before. Of course, you’d probably seen that car before but, because it’s your car now, it’s taken on a greater significance. It’s called the “new car phenomenon” and it’s a law of nature.

I say this all to say that since I’ve been reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World I’ve been seeing Shakespeare everywhere. There seems to be a higher number of Shakespearean plays in the theatre, flyers for Shakespeare-related events are being slipped into my mailbox, and friends are re-reading and discussing Shakespearean plays that they haven’t read in years. Shakespeare here, Shakespeare there, Shakespeare everywhere!

And then today, while riding the metro to work, I decided to take a break from Will in the World and pulled out Nick Hornby’s Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. Among several other books that Hornby discusses in his “March 2005” selection, he takes a special interest in Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, which is “a book about the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.” If that isn’t reason enough for Hornby’s special interest then the fact that Ms. Vowell was the voice of Violett in The Incredibles, or that Vowell and Hornby were once good friends, or that Hornby makes a walk-on appearance in Assassination Vacation as a “smoker from London called Nick” might be.

Following the “March 2005” piece, Hornby includes an excerpt from Assassination Vacation of the scene in which he makes an appearance. Two pages into the excerpt, someone else also makes a walk-on appearance - that’s it, you guessed it – Shakespeare. It seems that Edwin Booth, brother to the Lincoln-assassinator John Wilkes Booth, was “only the greatest Shakespearean actor of the nineteenth century” and was apparently known as “the Hamlet of his day.”

Now, I knew enough of my American history to know that John Wilkes Booth had been an actor. But that the Booths, as Hornby says, were “a prestigious acting family, a sort of nineteenth-century Baldwin clan” and that they just happened to specialize in Shakespearean theatre, came completely out of left field for me. Not only that, but years later, after he had gotten over the shame of being related to the man who murdered one of the greatest presidents in American history, Edwin just happens to rescue a young man who had fallen onto the train tracks in Jersey City – a young man who turns out to be President Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln! Who says fact isn’t stranger than fiction?

Personally, I suspect Edwin pushed him off the platform when no one was looking and then jumped down to save him to redeem the family name. I mean really, what are the odds? But I won’t quibble with fate. Especially not when the lives of the Booths and the Lincolns seem to have been intimately connected in the stars while William Shakespeare himself is somewhere grinning the background.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

To Be a Critic or Not to Be...

(Sorry. I've been reading Greenblatt's biography on Shakespeare "Will in the World" and it's effecting my thinking)

Yesterday, Meg Rosoff posted an article on "The Guardian" weblog entitled Who'd be a Critic? In it, by way of questioning why anyone would want to be a critic, Rosoff seems to argue that not writing a negative review which might hurt the author's feelings is more important than writing an honest review.

Nowadays, I only review books I really like. It's cowardly, I know, but I figure it's not my job to make people unhappy.

To put it mildly, not everyone agreed with Ms. Rosoff. The folks at the Literary Saloon responded:

How can you possibly worry about whether or not you're hurting an author's feelings when reviewing their book ? Sure, it likely hurts them if you say nasty things about their baby, but the reviewer's only obligation is towards the reader.

And the first reply posted to Rosoff’s blog reads:

As a reviewer, you have one single duty: and that is to your readers. Sod the bloody author. If they have such a thin skin as can't cope with a bad review, then they really are in the wrong trade. Your job is to inform, or at least entertain, your readers. If you can't do that, then leave the reviewing to a professional. There's plenty of them about.

In my humble opinion I think Ms. Rosoff’s critics are right. A review, after all, isn’t about the author. It’s about the book. That’s the only thing a critic should consider when they compose their review, not that the author is “shy, unable quite to believe his luck, and really not a person whose feelings you'd want to hurt even if he hadn't (in my humble opinion) written a book worthy of selling like hot cakes.” The Literary Saloon points out that good people write bad books everyday, which is true. The fact that an author brakes for pigeons in the street and volunteers down at the local soup kitchen shouldn’t, and doesn’t, at the end of the day, have any bearing on his skills as a writer.

But Ms. Rosoff’s article raises a more important question than whether a critic should do what they’re paid to do: at what point does an author’s creative work become an entity of its own, separate from the author? At what point does the creative piece cease to belong to the author and become the possession of the larger community and culture? I would argue that as soon as a finished piece is printed and set out for sale, it is no longer simply the author’s book, it’s ours. As such, we have the right and the privilege to judge as we see fit. You, the author, are - sorry to say - a nonentity.

The Literary Saloon uses a common term often used to refer to an author’s novel: “a baby.” Like all parents reluctant to let their children go, authors are often possessive of their work. But novels, like children, after they have been given all the love and care that a parent can bestow, must stand alone and face judgment. Sometimes our children don’t perform as well as we’d hoped and no one wants to be told they’re a bad parent. But it would be less than unkind to lie or pretend otherwise. It would be a betrayal of literature, of culture, and in the end, of the author, for if you don’t know how bad you are, how can you improve? It’s elementary, really.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Letting Go on "The Guardian"

A copy of my post on "The Guardian" blog about books I've left and let go:

I struggled through and finally gave up on Jared Diamond's "Collapse." I loved "Gun, Germs, and Steel" but I found "Collapse" entirely too dry. It seems as if Diamond made absolutely no attempt to interest his readers in what, at least in theory, should have been a compelling subject. Also, sigh, I never finished "War and Peace." One day I will though. I loved Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre." It's on my top ten list, in fact. But I was absolutely unable to make it through "Villette." I absolutely hated "The World is Flat" by Thomas L. Freidman and left it unfinished with no regrets. Also never finished Nick Hornby's "How to Be Good." I love Hornby as a critic but I have my reservations about his novels. And finally "Love in the Time in Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Prose was great, subject (unrequited love for a woman who absolutely doesn't deserve it) wasn't.

That's all I can think of so far but I'm sure there's more. My only defense is that I've finished plenty more than I've given up on and it always leaves me feeling a little defeated when I just have to move on, which I think is a good thing.

And here's the response I got from Carefree:

Blimey, LitChild [that's me], I loved Collapse by Jared Diamond, and I'm usually a strictly fiction reader, but I've always been fascinated by the myths of Easter Island and the Viking sagas, so I devoured this - and subsequently leant to a friend about a year ago and desperate to get it back so I can read it again one day!

On an off-topic note, I think EVERYONE should read Collapse to try and get some historical perspective on what we're doing to the planet. And then act on it - it was an inspirational read for me.

Blimey?! Ha, ha! Oh, you gotta love those Brits. But come on, surely, despite its noble purpose, I wasn't the only one who couldn't wade through Collapse.

Oh, You Lazy Reader, You

Alright, I admit it. I haven’t been reading as much as I should be, or even as much as I’d like to. I’ve just been so darn tired lately. As soon as I get off work, all I want to do sleep. Even on the weekends when I have absolutely no commitment to be anywhere else other than in my apartment all I want is sleep. This past Saturday I did manage to clean and wash clothes and stay awake long enough to see “300" (it’s what you’d expect if you don’t expect too much) but Sunday passed in a narcoleptic haze. I couldn’t stay awake even when I tried, and I did try.

Of course, now I’m beginning to feel the symptoms of reading withdrawal plus I’m getting incredibly behind. It’s also taking me an incredibly long time to finish anything, even for me. Even I know I’ve been working on the same four books for entirely too long. So I’ve promised myself to put some pep back into my biblioaddict step. So, my friends, inspired by The Guardian’s list of unfinished books (, I’ve decided that there are a few books on my own reading list that I just need to let go of. The two that will be biting the dust this week are David Eggars’ You Shall Know Our Velocity and Michael Chabon’s McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.

You Shall Know Our Velocity wasn’t a bad book but I found it entirely too depressing. If I want to feel that depressed, I’ll throw myself off a cliff. As for Chabon’s Mammoth Treasury, well let’s just say, I didn’t find the tales very thrilling at all. The concept, like that of Collapse, was great but the execution was underwhelming. I won’t toss it into my Bookmooch pile yet but it’s going on the waiting list.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Mailbox Goodies

I've just returned home to find a pleasant surprise in the mail - a complete catalog of the classical literature published by New York Review of Books. In the interest of full-disclosure, technically this catalogue doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the previous tenant - D. Williams, wherever you are - but since it was so nicely lodged in what is now my mailbox I saw no need to give it back. I mean really, could I be so cruel as to banish it to some gray, nondesript postal warehouse of unclaimed mail? Not even I. Not even I. Besides, does flipping through a catologue qualify as stealing someone else's mail? It's not like I a took a knife to an envelope or held it over a kettle of hot steam. If flipping the pages of a catologue or a magazine is stealing, then I think my mailman and I should have a chat. Maybe I could bribe him. I am hard up for cash right now...

But I was talking about my catologue, not defending myself to the likes of you. Now, I don't claim to be familiar with every book that rolls off the presses these days [who could be?] but I do pride myself in being at least remotely familiar with the classics, even if I haven't read half of them - you know, Dickens, Orwell, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolff, and the the like. But, ahem, I'm pretty chagrined to say I've never heard of the classics in this catalogue. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, The Diary of a Rapist by Evan S. Connell, The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton...who the heck are they? I've never heard of them or their books a day in my life! Is there an alternative list of classics circulating about or am I just being completely oblivious? Come now NYRB, why not just call it what it is - a bunch of previously out-of-print books that deserve a second chance at canonization?

Some of the titles do sound interesting enough, like The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis:

Norman Moonbloom's brother, a slumlord, hires him to collect rent in the buildings he owns in Manhattan. Making his rounds, Moonbloom confronts a wild assortment of brilliantly described urban characters, among them a gay jazz musician with a sideline as a gigolo, a Holocaust survivor, and a brilliant young writer modeled on James Baldwin. He finds he is drawn, in spite of his best judgment, into a desperate attempt to improve their lives.

Why "in spite of his best judgment" though? Because the "urban" characters are irredeamable or because Moonbloom realizes he is in no position to improve someone else's life? I've always thought that to improve someone else's life for the them was rather presumptuous. But before I presume too much, I should probably save my questions until after I've read the book.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The New Yorker, Anniversary Issue

At the risk of repeating myself, I love the New Yorker. Lately, however, my favorite magazine’s recent and obvious democratic political slant has been disturbing me in ways that are getting harder and harder to ignore. One of the things that initially pleased me when I began reading the magazine in 2002 was its seemingly bipartisan political stance. I liked that, while there were incredibly informative articles on politics and the current state of affairs in Washington, the magazine writers seemed content to merely provide the facts while letting you draw your own conclusions. Yet, since the New Yorker’s endorsement of the Gore campaign in the 2004 presidential election, it seems as if the New Yorker’s bipartisanship is a thing of the past and that, no matter how much of a Democrat I am, saddens me.

In The Financial Page’s “Troubled Waters Over Oil” (Feb. 16 & 26 Anniversary Issue), James Surowiecki, after arguing that threatening war with Iran makes oil prices rise through an effect called “risk premiums” which in turn only strengthens Iran and its president, writes, “Talking tough may look like a good way of demonstrating U.S. resolve, but when tough talk makes our opponent richer and stronger we may accomplish more by saying less.” It’s an interesting point, probably even a valid point, but does it have to be such an obvious refutation of the Bush administration’s Iran foreign policy? Mayhap my memory is faulty, but I recall a time when The Financial Page followed the money instead of the politics.

Immediately following The Financial Page is the article on “24,” “Whatever It Takes” by Jane Mayer. The obvious disapproving liberal slant of this article was palpable. In fact, Mayer made almost no attempt to hide or subvert her own opinion. Disclaimer: I’m an avid fan of “24,” and despite what Mayer would have you believe about anyone who watches the television show, I don’t advocate, support, or believe in torture. In the perfect fantasy world in which “24” exists, torture – and there is a lot of it – is always practiced on the “bad guy” and it always garners some key information which allows Jack Bauer to save the world at the last minute. In that perfect world, Bauer is a patriot and torture is never wrong. Yet, I’m perfectly capable of separating fact from fiction; I’m perfectly capable of recognizing that this isn’t a perfect world and that torture is never right because it often causes more harm than good and that it isn’t always practiced only on the “bad guys,” but on the innocent ones as well.

Unfortunately, it seems as if everyone isn’t as smart as I am, at least according to Mayer they aren’t, and the creators of “24” are rabid conservatives with dangerous ties to the White House. Mayer goes to considerable length to quote military opponents of the show and its tactics (“The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about ‘24’,” says Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point) and conservative fanatics who support it (“They [the public] love Jack Bauer…In my mind, that’s as close to a referendum that it’s O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we’re going to get,” says Laura Ingraham, a talk-show radio host). However, at no point does Mayer even make an attempt to speak to Democrats who are also fans of the show, such as Bill Clinton and Barbra Streisand. What ever happened to balance?

What did ever happen to balance in New Yorker? I miss the magazine that assumed I was intelligent enough to draw my own conclusions. I miss the magazine that wasn’t so blatantly liberal as to offend a Democrat like me. I miss the magazine that already knew I don’t read to reinforce my assumptions; I read to broaden them.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Coincidental Circumstances

Life is so often filled with the strangest coincidences that for a skeptic like me, who believes that there is no such thing as a grand plan for any of us, the unexpected intersections that occur out of the infinite possibilities of life are endlessly amazing. For reasons which I fail to remember at the moment (and probably never will), about a month ago, I decided I wanted a collection of essays written by David Foster Wallace and added both A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster to my wish list on

Then a few days ago, while on a business trip to Baltimore (that sounds so sophisticated, doesn’t it – “business trip”, ha, ha) I went into the most beautiful Barnes & Noble bookstore I’ve ever seen. Initially, I went in to just look around but, since I can’t go into a bookstore without leaving with something in my hand, I decided that it would be a good time to get a few things from my wish list. After an hour or so of browsing (for such a large bookstore, its selection was fairly poor), I finally went in search of David Foster Wallace. With a little assistance from a Barnes & Noble saleswoman, I found the last copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing on the shelf, its edges wrinkled and looking rather pitiful.

In any case, as I often do, at the last minute I decided I just didn’t feel like spending $13.95 on Mr. Wallace. Instead, I bought a romance novel I don’t care to name, The Best American Science Writing 2006, and Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention to my posts, and I’m wise enough to know that no one actually does, but if you have, you’d know that it was only a few weeks ago that I admitted to not being able to get though Mr. Rakoff’s previous book Fraud. In fact, I said some very disparaging things about him. I believe I may have called him something in the way of “an un-funny, less-talented David Sedaris rip-off.” But, if you remember that, you’ll also remember I said that, after having read Mr. Rakoff’s selection in TBA Nonrequired Reading, the excellent “Love It or Leave It”, I’d decided that perhaps Mr. Rakoff deserved a second chance. Since I was unaware that Mr. Rakoff had already come out with a new selection of essays, when I saw Don’t Get Too Comfortable on the shelf, I snatched it up and clutched it to my chest all the way to the check-out line.

That still, however, left me David Foster Wallace-less. But, wait! Unbeknownst to me, a coincidence was right around the corner. That coincidence happened today when, after an attack of cabin fever, I went on a wandering stroll around my neighborhood, vaguely in search of some food and some trouble to get into. Unfortunately, my radar for trouble always seems to lead me into bookstores, which I guess, if you’re my wallet, could actually be considered trouble. In any case, my feet inexplicably led me to Idle Time Books, a cute little used bookshop that, unfortunately, opened up a few years ago. I say unfortunately, because the last thing I need is a used bookstore within walking distance from my home.

As usual, I was drawn in by the sale books they always set outside on nice days like today. Browsing the .50 cent box of throw-away books found me a wonderfully ratty edition of five Euripides plays, three of which I don’t already have in my collection. And since I had to go in to purchase the book, well, I figured I might as well browse and see what else there was to see, right? Right.

So, I looked around, picked-up and put back down Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (I’m not really into Munro but I love the title of that book), found nothing in the travel literature section, picked up and put back down P.D. James’ The Lighthouse (eh, maybe another day), and then finally, I looked to my right, glancing over at a few books displayed at the top of a shelf and what do I see? Oh, come on, I’m sure you can guess – that’s right, David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing!

It appeared as if the book gods were smiling down on me with favor this day. Three days ago, I’d balked at paying $13.95 for a novel I wanted and now, here it was, in a used bookstore, as crisp and as clean as the day it rolled off the press, and half the price! Sure, I got a few odd glances when I let out of squeal of delight and danced a little jig right there in the store but I didn’t care (truthfully, no one else did either. I’m sure they all assumed I was a part of the odd Halloween grocery cart relay race that was taking place outside. I have no idea what it was or why it was happening, so don’t ask).

Naturally, I purchased the book ($7.50 - beat that Barnes & Noble! Ha, ha.) along with my Euripides, of course, and grinned all the way home. These days are the days when I love being alive. The clouds part, the sun shines, you leave in search of adventure, and return home with some good books, and an extra seven dollars in your pocket. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get any better than that, I don’t care what anyone says.

Captain Alatriste, Final

By Arturo Perez-Reverte
pgs. 71-End

If a series’ first novel is meant to both satisfy and inspire curiosity within its readers, then Captain Alatriste fulfills its duty well. While I was satisfied with the novel’s conclusion, Mr. Perez-Reverte leaves just enough loose ends hanging so that my next order of business, as soon as I get the money to do it, is to buy Purity of Blood.

After finishing the book late last night, I lay back with the lights off and fell asleep in awe of Perez-Reverte’s artistry. This wasn’t due to any admiration on my behalf of his writing, though it deserves that too since the beauty of Perez-Reverte’s sentences lies in the simplicity of his words and the unadorned way he has of shaping a story. No, my admiration lay in the question that had nagged me since I turned the last page: How is that, in Captain Alatriste everything is resolved and yet…nothing is resolved?

I risk giving away too much of the story here, so I shall tread carefully. Captain Alatriste, who finds himself in a bit of trouble after saving the life of a very important person – a person whom he was hired to kill – gains more than a few enemies, who try to kill him several times. At the novel’s conclusion, Captain Alatriste manages to escape torture and death by the a very thin hair, but his adversaries remain at large and still strongly desire to put a few “sword-tailored buttonholes in his body.” At the novel’s conclusion, the only things Captain Alatriste has for defense is a small letter of protection and his Toledo steel.

But Captain Alatriste is about so much more than shady characters and sharp swords. It’s about seventeenth-century Spain. Spain makes so many descriptive appearances in the story that she becomes more of a character, rather than simply a setting. Coffers filled to over-flowing with gold from the New World, Spain is decadent, Spain is dying, Spain is “in the midst of all that corruption and madness, moving against the course of history, like a beautiful, terrifying animal that still slashed and clawed yet at the heart was eaten by a malignant tumor.”

Indeed, Captain Alatriste seems to be not only an action-adventure but also a tribute to the golden age of Spain when she was at the height of her beauty and power. It’s clear that the author loves his country as much as his narrator. In the hands of Arturo Perez-Reverte, seventeenth century Spain seems as real today as it did four hundred years ago. And, though she may be filled with characters willing to “put hand to sword, or to knife another being, merely to get into a theater performance”, Perez-Reverte's Spain is a country I plan to revisit as soon as I get some cash in my pocket and manage to carry my butt to the nearest bookstore.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Only a Duke Will Do

by Sabrina Jeffries
pgs. 1-End

Romance, the bastard child of literature, never gets the respect it deserves. It’s purely pleasure reading, and, of course, we should never read for pleasure. We should educate ourselves and expand our minds as we examine our lives or lives of others. And while there is nothing wrong with reading for any of those reasons - I read for those reasons myself - there should also be nothing wrong with reading simply to feel good about being alive, and few things are more life-affirming than love. It’s true that romance novels rarely have a greater philosophical point, unless it is the universal point that love can overcome any problem and that happily ever-after endings are possible, but whenever I need to escape a circumstance that threatens to plunge me into a sea of depression, a wonderfully-written romance novel never fails to lift me out.

Which brings me to my next point: there is a such thing as a well-written romance novel. Sure, the romance market is flooded with mediocre or even less-than mediocre writing, but then so is the market for any writing genre, even the prestigious “literature and fiction” fiction. So, why then do those who call themselves “serious” readers sneer at anything that comes in glossy paperback with lovers thrown across the cover? Because it looks like trash and often it is but, just as often, if you’re adventurous enough to look beyond the cheesy covers, you’ll find some surprisingly readable writing.

Sabrina Jeffries is one of those writers. The covers of her books are horrendously cheesy, although they have gotten better since she’s grown more popular, but her writing is wonderfully well-done, her characters exquisitely crafted. She, like any great writer of any genre, creates characters to whom you feel intimately connected; characters whom you shall wish to revisit time and time again. While Only a Duke Will Do (a misleading title since the Duke’s status has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot) is not her best novel - To Pleasure a Prince and Pirate Lord tie for first place in my book - it is, nevertheless, a breeze of a read sufficient enough to lighten any dark wintry day.

On the other hand, though Simon and Louisa come vividly alive on the page, I found their story the least satisfying of all of her books. There are perhaps several reasons for this, one of them being that my expectations were unreasonably high after having waited for their story since reading To Pleasure a Prince. I reject that theory, however, in favor of the theory that the “trouble” with their relationship - Louisa’s inability to trust Simon, Simon’s consuming ambition, and his fear of love (a common theme in Jeffries books) - despite Jeffries’ effort, hardly seems like trouble at all.

After having been banished to India for six years by the king at the behest of Louisa, Simon returns to England and his ill-feelings are suddenly forgotten in the face of Louisa’s beauty (it sounds cheesy, I know but hey, it is a romance novel after all). Louisa, of course, puts up a rather perfunctory resistance, and that’s exactly how it feels, perfunctory, especially since two paragraphs later she’s getting married to the man and happily at that. Indeed, Louisa’s easy capitulation in every argument they had was the most bothersome. For someone who had supposedly learned from her mistake of trusting Simon six years ago, she is certainly easy to get around.

But I nitpick. My annoyance with Louisa’s easiness, in no way, or at least, in a very little way, affected my enjoyment of Only a Duke Will Do. A quick tour of Sabrina Jeffries’ website will find you these words, “I believe reading should always be a good time, with lots of wit and sensuality and laughs and even the occasional sigh or tear.” Thus far, all of Ms. Jeffries books have accomplished this feat, which is why I look forward to reading the upcoming release of Beware a Scot’s Revenge. In the meantime, I think I’ll work on my own novel, which shall be titled, Beware of Judging a Book By Its Cheesy Cover.