Beating the crowds to Max Jamison

Wilifred Sheed’s Max Jamison is as hilarious as Terry Teachout says it is in “Neither Does He Spin.” The penultimate sentence of Teachout’s column says, “Though it’s out of print (surprise, surprise), you can easily procure a used copy.” Except it’s not anymore:

So, naturally, I did the only thing I could think of and listed my paperback copy for $299, since I bought it a year and change ago. Half the price of the $599 copy! I doubt it will sell, but although I like the novel, I don’t like $300 like it.

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong — Terry Teachout

I meant to write a long review of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, but enough very competent sources have that I have little I contribute beyond generic praise. I know virtually nothing about Armstrong and read few biographies; therefore I’m little able to comment on how Pops deals with the genre. But those who presumably know more than I do are impressed: The Atlantic speaks here, for example, and you can read more here, here, or here, at The Second Pass.

Teachout argues that Armstrong was more complex than his jovial public persona demonstrated. To me, the more interesting part of Pops is its subtler meditation on the relationship of the artist to society—in Armstrong’s case, race was an abiding the issue—and the virtuosity of the writing of both subject and object. Two samples will have to suffice: one of my favorite lines Teachout wrote comes early, on page 23, when he says of Louisiana, “Rarely does [the Northerner] linger long enough to pierce the veneer of local color with which the natives shield themselves from the tourist trade.” I suspect that applies to many places, and it echoes Samuel Johnson’s apt, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” That could apply any vibrant, culturally ambitious, and expanding city, just I might Teachout’s comment reveals more about place than many stories of travel.

As for Armstrong, he saw through much that not all do, judging from shows like Entourage or the laments of other celebrities:

I can’t go no place they don’t roll up the drum, you have to stand up and take a bow, get up on the stage. And sitting in an audience, I’m signing programs for hours all through the show. And you got to sign them to be in good faith. And afterwards all those hangers-on get you crowded in at the table—and you know you’re going to pay the check.

It’s that last bit—”and you know you’re going to pay the check”—that resonates most, the little indignant detail that is nonetheless part of what Armstrong implies one has to do to succeed in the music and show business. Other businesses have their little indignities, and it’s one of Teachout’s considerable strengths that he never leaves the grounding of his subject yet offers many roads from his subject to the wider world. I point to just one, but there are many other available if you’re willing to walk through 400 short pages in Louis Armstrong’s shoes.

Life: Critics and artists edition

Stolen from Terry Teachout:

“A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence. A man, whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked.”

Samuel Johnson (quoted in James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides)

Fifteen books in fifteen minutes

Via Terry Teachout and CAAF: “The rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

My list:

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon
Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox
Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty and Out of Sight (I count them as one book—so what?)
John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor
Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem
Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum
Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy
Robertson Davies’ The Cornish Trilogy
Alain de Botton’s On Love
Richard Russo’s Straight Man

(I purposefully didn’t read either Terry’s list or CAAF’s before writing mine. If I had to add a 16th, I’d probably take How to Think Like a Computer Scientist, which definitely doesn’t fit with the list above.)

April Links: EBooks, Zombies, Writing, and more

* Terry Teachout’s prescience regarding e-books deserves to be noted and commended, despite my reservations.

* Speaking of ebooks, Randall Monroe describes how to read a Kindle while in bed. Personally, I prefer to just hold my forearms up with a book in front of me.

* It’s hard for me not to like this description, from Amazon’s review page, of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem.

* Although I disagree with the conclusions in Life On Venus: Europe’s Last Man, I find it fascinating:

Precisely because novels are not, and should not be, political documents, they offer a less guarded, more intuitive report on the inner life of a society. And when novelists from different European countries, writing in different languages and very different styles, all seem to corroborate one another’s intuitions, it is at least fair to wonder whether a real cultural shift is under way.

Kirsch cites three major novelists—Ian McEwan, who is one of my favorites, W.G. Sebold, and Michel Houellebecq—as major examples of modern European-ness, and then looks at a book by each:

Three more different writers could hardly be invented. Which makes it all the more suggestive, I think, that their portraits of the spiritual state of contemporary Europe are so powerfully complementary. They show us a Europe that is cosmopolitan, affluent, and tolerant, enjoying all the material blessings that human beings have always struggled for, and that the Europeans of seventy years ago would have thought unattainable. Yet these three books are also haunted by intimations of belatedness and decline, by the fear that Europe has too much history behind it to thrive. They suggest currents of rage and despair coursing beneath the calm surface of society, occasionally erupting into violence. And they worry about what will happen when a Europe, gorged on historical good fortune, must defend itself against an envious and resentful world.

This, however, could also describe a great deal of science fiction since the 1970s, or any number of major American writers, who often take it upon themselves to demystify the American dream—and here I’m thinking of Philip Roth’s later novels, much of much of Melville, and so on.

(Once again, I found this somewhere on the web and forgot to write down the original linker. Sorry!)

* William Zinsser on On Writing Well, a book I often recommend to those interested in, well, writing well:

I would write from my own convictions—take ’em or leave ’em—and I would illustrate my points with passages by writers I admired. I would treat the English language spaciously, as a gift waiting for anyone to unwrap, not as a narrow universe of grammar and syntax. Above all, I would try to enjoy the trip and to convey that enjoyment to my readers.

(Hap tip to somewhere, but I forgot where. Sorry!)

On Writing Well is, along with James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s How to Read Like a Writer, an important discovery in my own writing life. T.C. Boyle said you can’t teach writing, and maybe he’s right, but you can learn the principles that’ll make it easier to learn through experience and teaching yourself.

* Men, women, and reading:

A study of reading habits showed almost half of women are ‘page turners’ who finish a book soon after starting it compared to only 26 per cent of men.

The survey 2,000 adults also found those who take a long time to read books and only managed one or two a year were twice as likely to be male than female.

(For a really fun time, now debate whether this is cultural or biological.)

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* Although I’ve praised Amazon’s prices elsewhere, those prices come at, um, a price:

Is Amazon.co.uk targeting Britain’s indie publishers with an offer they have little choice but to accept? That’s what the trade group the Independent Publisher’s Guild is saying after a Friday meeting with Amazon in which the American internet retail giant refused to negotiate a new demand for greater discounts from the indies.

* Rouss Douthat on The Tough-On-Crime Trap.

* Regarding Literacy and Suicide, from Alan Jacobs:

Dr Andrej Maruai, a Slovene psychiatrist involved in organizing the conference, presented a paper called “Suicide in Europe: Genetics, Literacy and Poverty” which convincingly shows the links between the social factors of literacy and poverty, and suicidal behavior. . . .

According to Maruai’s theory, the higher any given country’s literacy rate and the lower that country’s GNP, the more likely the country is to have a high suicide rate. The theory can be convincingly applied to the countries with the highest suicide rates in Europe, namely the three Baltic states, Hungary and Slovenia, where literacy is at almost 100 percent and where the GNP and standard of living have been adversely affected by the transition process.

* I love this quote, provided courtesy of Daring Fireball: “My muse for the session was this quote from Walt Disney: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” To me, that’s it. That’s the thing.”

* Alexander McCall Smith writes “Lost in Fiction” for the WSJ, saying that

This, and many other similar experiences, has made me think about the whole issue of the novelist’s freedom — and responsibility. The conclusion that I am increasingly drawn to is that the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and-blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent.

I don’t buy the moral act comment, or at least not in all cases (see additional comments here). As for Smith, he wrote “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” books, of which I read, or, rather, tried to read the first two, and I quit because they were tremendously boring and kitschy. I wonder if his political views on fiction are part of the reason; later in the same article, Smith writes, “It is one of the jobs of fiction to report on the sorrows and tragedies of this world. This must be done, though, from a morally acceptable standpoint.” That line could require an entire essay to refute, but I would say rather than part of what a novel does is a) explore what is and b) explore what “morally acceptable” means, rather than reinforcing what is already considered by most of society as morally acceptable. And a novel doesn’t have to accomplish a) and b) at once, and it could accomplish neither and still be an excellent novel. I would argue that Lolita is such a novel.

* Megan McArdle asks, Whither GM? Notice this:

As GM moves through its forecast period, its cash needs associated with legacy liabilities grow, reaching approximately $6 billion per year in 2013 and 2014. To meet this cash outflow, GM needs to sell 900,000 additional cars per year, creating a difficult burden that leaves it fighting to maximize volume rather than return on investment.

This seems, if not impossible, then at least very close to it. Someone is going to write The Reckoning for this time period.

* Check this out: “The School Edition:”

One way to see the difference between schoolbooks and real books like Moby Dick is to examine different procedures which separate librarians, the custodians of real books, from schoolteachers, the custodians of schoolbooks. To begin with, libraries are usually comfortable, clean, and quiet. They are orderly places where you can actually read instead of just pretending to read.

[…]

Real books conform to the private curriculum of each author, not to the invisible curriculum of a corporate bureaucracy. Real books transport us to an inner realm of solitude and unmonitored mental reflection in a way schoolbooks and computer programs can’t. If they were not devoid of such capacity, they would jeopardize school routines devised to control behavior. Real books conform to the private curriculum of particular authors, not to the demands of bureaucracy.

* On The Radical Honesty Movement:

Once again, I felt the thrill of inappropriate candor. And I felt something else, too. The paradoxical joy of being free from choice. I had no choice but to tell the truth. I didn’t have to rack my brain figuring out how to hedge it, spin it, massage it.

“Just being honest,” I shrug. Nice touch, I decide; helps take the edge off. She’s got a thick skin. She’ll be okay. And I’ll tell you this: I’ll never get a damn gift certificate from her again.

* Alain de Botton: Brilliant or poseur? I tend towards “brilliant” with a dash of “neither.” But I think he speaks to modernity better than many other writers, and you can expect a post on his novel On Love shortly.

(Hat tip Mark Sarvas.)

* Although I haven’t actually read any of the novels mentioned in this paragraph, I’ve read about all of them prior to reading further about them in Slate’s thoughtful “Readin’ Dirty: Wetlands is the ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ of novels.

Looking in the most obscure corner of the Grove/Atlantic library, you might notice that the publishing house has imported such hits as 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, an “erotic coming-of-age novel” crafted by a Sicilian authoress of jailbait age; The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a French art critic’s Foucauldian analysis of having many trains pulled upon her; and Baise-Moi, a revenge thriller that is somewhat an odd duck in this subgenre as it boasts an actual plot. While studies have shown that every boat on the sea will be floated by something, even Helen’s grill tools, these books don’t rate as erotica; seldom does anything like an Anaïs Nin fever shiver through them, except perhaps Catherine M., which is kind of hot. On the whole, these books do not intend to arouse but to titillate, and, in this respect, Wetlands is the epitome of the form.

* The battle against barbarism continues, per “Video of girl’s flogging as Taliban hand out justice: Mobile phone movie shows that militant influence is spreading deeper into Pakistan” from The Guardian. The horrific video attached is difficult to watch.

* That battle isn’t just far away, either, since the Phoenix police raid[ed the] home of [a] blogger whose writing is highly critical of them. Apparently no one can find out any specifics regarding the alleged reason the police raided Miller’s house, as this Arizona Republic article shows.

Links for May 12

  • Simon Lipskar, a literary agent whose assistant sent perhaps the nicest and most encouraging rejection letter I’ve ever received, recently gave an excellent interview, in which he most notably said, “Writers should write the books they love. That way, no matter what the market says, their time wasn’t wasted.” I agree, but it would also be nice if the market were interested. The theme of love and market is one you’ll hear more about shortly.

“The New Confessions” is my favorite of Mr. Boyd’s many fine novels, but I recommend all of them. His most recent, “Restless,” a historical spy story published last year, is intelligent and thrilling; its heroine is an old woman. “Any Human Heart,” perhaps Mr. Boyd’s most critically acclaimed novel, is also a fictional autobiography of an English adventurer not so different from John James Todd.

I’ve often wondered why Mr. Boyd hasn’t become a British literary star in America, the way Nick Hornby, Martin Amis and John Mortimer have. He’s as good a writer as any of them. Maybe there’s no rational explanation for why some great writers don’t win the commercial sweepstakes. Maybe it’s just luck.

As if that weren’t enough, she also says:

In my last column I asked for recommendations of chewy modern novels. One reader mentioned “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers, which I agree is one of those rare books with a plot that races and a thoughtfulness that slows you down. Two other modern novels I found equally provocative were “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell and “Seven Types of Ambiguity” by Elliot Perlman. I have a friend who recently reread “Cloud Atlas.” She said it was even better the second time.

Hmmm, among that, Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night, and rereading some Saul Bellow, I’m not sure where I’m going to find time in the next few weeks.

  • The Watch That Ends the Night?” you ask. Terry Teachout says:

At any rate I finally got around to reading The Watch That Ends the Night last week, and I was knocked flat by it, so much so that I had to ration the number of pages I allowed myself each day so that I wouldn’t be distracted from my deadlines. I intend at some point in the next couple of weeks to discuss it in the weekly book column that I write for Commentary’s Web site, so I won’t jump the gun here. Suffice it for the moment to say that I feel inclined to rank it alongside Peter de Vries’ The Blood of the Lamb, an equally ill-remembered novel of similar vintage and subject matter (both books have at their center a woman who is suffering from a fatal illness and are narrated by a man who loves her).

  • Razim questions why modern literature doesn’t appeal to him so much as the past and comes up with a lot of answers that sound, to my ears, vaguely sexist. A more probable answer is this: modern literature—meaning anything published after World War II—is still being sorted out as to what’s worth reading and what’s not, and the cacophony of popular literature has probably drowned out some of the avant garde that will one day be acknowledged as great.

In addition, I think tastes have also shifted and become more dispersed, meaning that multiple kinds of canons are being created, rather than the more singular, dominant kind of past. Finally, I’m not sure the demand shift Razim argues is enough to explain the changes in literature; even if women read most fiction, an absolute number of men read it sufficiently to create their own market. This goes back to the dispersion argument.

(Hat tip Tyler Cowen).

More on the long-predicted demise of reading

* Steve Jobs thinks reading is dead; Timothy Egan disagrees. If it’s dying, would it just hurry up?

* In the same vein: a paean to the departed past where civilization dwells. The Wonderful Past, redux.

* Philippa Gregory watches a novel with no literary merit anyway and still gets the Hollywood treatment. Compare to Philip Pullman, whose books have literary merit.

* Terry Teachout quoting T.S. Eliot. Compare and contrast to Richard Russo in Straight Man: “Virtually everybody in the English department has a half-written novel squirreled away in a desk drawer. I know this to be a fact because before they all started filing grievances against me, I was asked to read them. Sad little vessels all. Scuffy the Tugboat, lost and scared on the open sea. All elegantly written, all with the same artistic goal—to evidence a superior disposition.”

The New York Philharmonic consorts with the enemy

As long as I’ve hit music once, I might as well again: Terry Teachout wrote an excellent column on The New York Philharmonic’s decision to play in Pyongyang, North Korea:

For three days earlier, Zarin Mehta and Paul Guenther, the president and chairman of the Philharmonic, had shared a platform with Pak Gil Yon, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, and announced that America’s oldest orchestra would be playing in Pyongyang next February. It horrified me — no other word is strong enough — to see them sitting next to a smirking representative of Kim Jong Il, the dictator of a brutally totalitarian state in whose Soviet-style prison camps 150,000 political prisoners are currently doing slave labor.

This column is particularly salient because I’m going to post about The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy shortly, and if Hitler has a modern heir he is Kim Jong Il. Camp 22 in North Korea is a modern descendent of Hitler’s “work” camps.


EDIT: The promised post is here.

The Dud Avocado

The Dud Avocado is a sustaining delight, although some plot twists almost threw me off the imaginative train. Now, after the novel’s last page, they seem fitting, which I suppose is the mark of a good twist: you don’t like it or you find it implausible, but it comes to feel so organic that conceiving of the novel without the twist becomes impossible. Then again, even were the surprises unacceptable, I would still like The Dud Avocado for its language and, at times, innocent snark; one of my favorite lines I will repeat in conversation, modified to suit the circumstances: “We treat each other like a couple of minor United Nations officials, Bax and I. Very protocol, very wary.” With lines like that, what’s a little oddity in the plot?

There were a few other signs of stretching: one character underwent an almost spontaneously change, or so I thought, though in retrospect the transition was foreshadowed if I had cared enough to see—there’s a little bit of the mystery genre in every novel—and now I can see its importance for Sally’s development: she learned she can’t fully trust others, though this sets up an ending that can be interpreted several ways I will not reveal here, as it contributes to an ending as fitting and sparkling as the rest of the novel. Throughout it, you get some philosophy bound with humor—”I gave up wondering if anyone was ever going to understand me at all. If I was ever going to understand myself even.”—and bound with seeing Sally struggle, but not too hard, and not so much that you think she’s going to find herself six feet under. It would be no easier imagining disaster in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Holly Golightly is Sally’s most obvious literary kin, although I suspect The Dud Avocado is the better book (I say “suspect” because it’s been too long since I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but remember it being considerably shallower than The Dud Avocado).

For one thing, Sally is more interesting and self-aware than most heroes, even as she tries at times to be cynical and tough and succeeds no better than she would trying to be the Queen of England. But she is not silly in a disreputable or trivial fashion. The book’s tone might make some readers think it trivial, but The Dud Avocado has much to say about how to grow up (with a sense that the world won’t end and you should feel free to explore) and how to love (with abandon, but not so much as to lost perspective or drown yourself in someone else). Life, Sally realizes, is hard, but not so hard that you should become hard in response, lest you lose what makes it worthwhile, and Sally says, “now the whole thing seemed really more comic than tragic. I found I was almost enjoying myself.”

I feel the same way about reading and many things besides.

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