I’m kicking around the idea that D.C. is the only major American city that isn’t the setting for an important novel. I’ve gotta be wrong about this, yes? But at the moment all I’m coming up with is Ward Just‘s Echo House as a novel that’s any kind of rival to, say, The Man With the Golden Arm or City of Night or The Bonfire of the Vanities. I’m hoping that tonight’s reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library featuring Dinaw Mengestu and Edward P. Jones will help me out a little. I liked The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears well enough, but it’s no classic, and no amount of strenuous effort can make All Aunt Hagar’s Children into a novel. Suggestions?
I haven’t heard a lot of noise about Denis Johnson‘s article about economic development in Kurdistan in the March issue of Portfolio. That surprised me a little, because Tree of Smoke was such a buzzy book and because the Denis-Johnson-is-in-Iraq! meme was pretty popular in the days before it was announced he’d won the National Book Award.
Whatever my reservations about Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s article is a tremendous read, a rangy, deeply researched piece about how northern Iraq is getting reshaped in terms of everything from oil to shopping to media to bowling. I have no idea what Nick Denton is all pissy about–just read it. There are tons of quotable bits, but I like this:
And the Kurds love Americans. Love, love. Investors swarm in from all over the globe, and foreigners are common in Erbil, but if you mention tentatively and apologetically that you’re American, a shopkeeper or café owner is likely to take you aside and grip your arm and address you with the passionate sincerity of a drunken uncle: “I speak not just for me but all of Kurdish people. Please bring your United States Army here forever. You are welcome, welcome. No, I will not accept your money today, please take these goods as my gift to America.”
Continuing our ad hoc Wharton Week here: studiously monochromatic Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt made a point of reading Edith Frome annually because “it expresses everything about how horrible New England is.” (via)
Jim Shepard‘s 2007 collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, has won the Story Prize.
Interested in reading a novel that’s stuffed with mouse-over ads because the authors have put every word up for sale? Your ship has just come in.
Hillary Jordan‘s Mudbound gets the big push in USA Today.
Charles Bock‘s Beautiful Children gets the big push from its publisher, Random House, which has made the novel free to download as a PDF until Friday at midnight. The Millions rings up publicist Jynne Martin for details. “If it’s good enough for Radiohead it’s good enough for us!” Martin exclaims. Hang on: It was good enough for Radiohead because the band has alternate revenue streams (back catalog, touring) and a fan base willing to kick in a few bucks out of sheer loyalty, two things a debut novelist has in short supply. Even so, this is probably a winner, thanks to the tight download window and the PDF format, which is clunky–you can’t carry it around with you unless you print out the pages (which is slow with PDFs). Anybody who’s seduced by the book online will likely drop money to own it.
A friend was recently enthusing to me about William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, and the discussion that ensued reminded me of a great bit buried at the end of the gag reel of the 2006 Will Ferrell vehicle, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Forward to 5:01 for an analysis of “The Bear” that’s probably jump-started a few college term papers:
In Lenox, Massachusetts, Edith Wharton‘s home (aka the Mount) isn’t having the same luck as Bukowski’s:
This major tourist destination needs to raise $3 million by March 24 or their bank will foreclose on it. That’s because they owe $4.3 million and failed to make last month’s $30,000 mortgage payment. They say rising costs are the culprit.
“These bills include things like maintaining the garden, maintaining the house and the insurance bills, all of which have grown since the restoration,” said Copeland.
You can make donations at the Web site for the house.
The house where Charles Bukowski lived between 1963 and 1972 has been designated a historic landmark by the Los Angeles City Council (via). Bukowski wrote Post Office there; it’s also the house where he began corresponding with poet Harold Norse, one of his early supporters. I wrote about their correspondence in 2000.
Ask Dog Lady, an advice column for dog owners, is asked to settle a question regarding Edith Wharton‘s attitude toward dogs:
I am an English major and, in my American Novel course, we have been reading Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” and “House of Mirth.” I also am a dog lover. When I bought a greeting card with a picture of a dog to send to a friend, I was glad to see it featured a quote from Wharton: “A heartbeat at my feet.” This quote also appears all over the Internet on various dog-devotional blogs.
The more I think of this, the more I wonder whether Wharton was really referring to the dog as a dominated creature of lowly position at her feet. Wharton wrote of the tyrannical forces of money and class. Look at poor Lily Bart, the anti-heroine in “House of Mirth” who basically killed herself because status and wealth eluded her. Bart became a heartbeat at various peoples’ feet. Does this oft-quoted line from Wharton slyly demean dogs?
Bret Anthony Johnston, head of the creative writing department at Harvard University, has a new book titled Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. Johnston solicited advice from Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Robbins, Ann Packer, and others (complete list) to assemble a collection of tips and tricks. As Johnston told Radio Iowa:
“They’ve asked the reader to do things such as, find an old postcard and make a story up from it,” Johnson explains, “they’ve asked to them to re-imagine a Greek myth in contemporary times. They’ve asked them to trot out their most shameful experience and render it on the page. There’s other things as well, imagine a scene involving a man carrying a ladder.” He says he was thrilled so many of America’s finest living writers signed on to take part in the collaboration.
New York Review Books has a habit of pulling me away from my regularly scheduled reading by putting out something that’s unfamiliar to me, well-written, and hits a lot of my pleasure points–last year Kenneth Fearing‘s The Big Clock, Elaine Dundy‘s The Dud Avocado, and The Stories of J. F. Powers all did a number on me. The Philadelphia
Enquirer Inquirer points to another promising title, Robert Montgomery Bird‘s 1836 novel about metempsychosis, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself. From Edward Pettit‘s review:
Poe wrote that the novel is “a farce of very pretty finesse.” True, but Bird’s humor is also sharp, even cynically driven. He leaves no social group (not even slaves) unscathed. Although I am suspicious of his characterization of the issues of slavery, it fits the broader purpose of his novel, which is to dissipate the delusions of a corrupt society. Sheppard Lee’s imposture of his fellow citizens mirrors the false pretenses of a nation. Bird’s richly nuanced novel wears the dramatic mask of comedy, but underneath lies the mask of tragedy.
(Side note: Christopher Looby, who wrote the introduction to the book, was my BA thesis advisor.)