Sherman Alexie‘s recent young-adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was recently pulled from the curriculum of Crook County High School in Prineville, Ore. Hank Moss, the father of a student at the school, registered a complaint about the novel after noticing a mention in it about masturbation. “I didn’t feel the book was appropriate for a required reading assignment for a 14-year-old,” he told the Bend Bulletin. “It had a lot of references that I didn’t feel comfortable with.”
Alexie, naturally, defends the book’s honor in the story:
“The world is an incredibly complicated place, and our literature must match that, especially literature for our kids,” Alexie said. “The book is incredibly positive about the world we live in, and people from vastly different politics and groups end up being friends. … If they read the book, it’s a celebration of the values of what they (parents who oppose the book) hold dear.”
And here I was thinking that Flight, which has all sorts of violent moments, could’ve qualified as a YA novel. I haven’t read Absolutely True Diary, though I suspect it’s not as awful as Mr. Moss makes it sound (“I don’t think a 50-year-old ought to read it,” he told the Oregonian.) Perhaps more troubling is how the reporting on the incident makes the Crook County school board look like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight; Moss registered his complaint with the district board, not with the school principal or the teacher who assigned the book. Moss’ end run didn’t keep the school board from acting hastily, and the principal, Jim Golden, appears to be the only person involved with his head screwed on right:
“I’ve been directed by the school board and the superintendent to pull the book, and I will comply with their directive,” Golden said. “But I respectfully disagree with what they are doing. It’s a slippery slope. … If you take one or two pages out of context, I mean ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is about two teenagers who are having a relationship. … It’s a dangerous precedent. … Part of what you are going to do is discuss ideas not proselytize kids. You want them to come to their own conclusion.”
The Rumpus, a new-ish blog created by industrious Bay Area novelist and essayist Stephen Elliott, has tapped Rick Moody to blog on a regular basis about…music. This is a little troubling, because to the best of my recollection Moody’s last piece of sustained music writing was a tedious, humid paean to Sleater-Kinney that somehow turned into the official bio for the band’s final album, The Woods. I mean, c’mon:
Now, before us, we have The Woods, which appears in the Sleater-Kinney catalogue as opus number seven, and like many things with sevens on it, it features an itch, a need to try new things.
Was it a parody of the written liner notes that appear on the backs of Z-grade jazz albums in the dollar bin? It was awfully hard to tell, if so. Moody’s first blog entry doesn’t seem quite so bad. But he is playing the same old, tired, “the album is dead” card that so many music bloggers do, and he suggests (threatens?) that his thoughts will have larger implications for the radio and publishing industries too:
The methodology is completely democratic and wide open, therefore, and the style is going to be my actual style, which is to say all tangled and slightly incoherent as written at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning (like this post) before I’ve even had a cup of tea. The lessons I’m imagining to find are lessons that are not confined to music making, but ones that might have implications for rear guard industries like book publishing or, at another extreme, radio (where I also occasionally ply my hand).
Because one gets a little weary reading about bankruptcies and more bankruptcies, it’s nice to see a little good news—the troubled Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn., recently received a $500,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation, which should help the nonprofit make its debt payments. The Greenwich Time finds a dignified way to celebrate the cash infusion while pointing out that it’s not nearly enough:
Cost overruns have resulted in the layoffs of more than 30 museum staff members over the last four years, leading to fears the house itself might have to go out of business. Officials say they “overbuilt and under-fundraised” when they put up the acclaimed visitors center, and now the 68,000 annual visitors could be turned away if the situation isn’t reversed.
The state would be expected to step in before the worst happened, but officials have made clear that all attractions will need to get used to less support from Hartford. There is no aspect of the state budget that won’t see some tightening, and the Mark Twain House would do well to look elsewhere.
So it falls to private citizens and businesses, themselves facing a difficult economy with the worst likely yet to come. It won’t be easy, but any help would go toward preserving the greatness of Connecticut. We owe it to the next generation.
Once again litblog the Millions has launched its annual Year in Reading series, in which a raft of writers and critics weigh in on their favorite books of the year, regardless of pub date. There are plenty of admirable participants—Joseph O’Neill, Elizabeth McCracken, Nam Le and many more. I gave special attention to Charles Bock‘s list, though, and not just because I admired his novel, Beautiful Children, or because any guy who gives a thumbs-up to Slash‘s autobiography is aces in my book. Bock also plugs a few worthy books that didn’t get nearly as much attention as they deserved (links are to my reviews): Vincent Lam‘s Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures, Leni Zumas‘ Farewell Navigator, and Susan Choi‘s A Person of Interest. Part of the fun of year-end lists is learning about something you hadn’t heard about, but it’s also nice to see your own interests validated by a writer you respect.
One quibble: If Bock wants to recommend State by State, a mediocre attempt at rebooting the WPA guides’ mission, that’s his call, but it couldn’t have hurt for him to note that he has a piece in it. (One of the better ones as it happens, on Nevada.)
British publisher Jonathan Cape is going to give Tess Gallagher what she’s been wishing for—the publication of a set of stories written by her late husband, Raymond Carver, untouched by Gordon Lish‘s heavy editorial hand. The Bookseller reports:
On the release of the original edition Carver dedicated the book to fellow writer and his future wife, Tess Gallagher, and promised he would one day republish his stories at full length. Carver did not fulfil this wish in his lifetime and died, aged only 50, in 1988. Gallagher said: “The publication of Beginners will enable readers to trace Carver’s true trajectory as a writer.”
The book will be published in England in October 2009. I can’t seem to find word on an American version, though presumably one is in the offing.
Michael Kinsley makes a case for Jay McInerney‘s Bright Lights, Big City, which seems odd.
Jonathan Yardley makes a case for Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men, which seems even more odd.
Meanwhile, the journal that Gessen edits, n+1, is getting into some kind of slapfight with Nextbook.
Novelist Stephen Elliott (who I wrote about way back when) is busily blogging at therumpus.net.
“Not one of [Richard] Yates‘ books ever sold more than 12,000 copies. The author suffered a lifetime in near-poverty writing skillfully honest fiction that many magazines deemed too harsh and cruel to publish. He collected one rejection slip after another, and tortured himself over such critiques as his ‘mean-spirited view of things,’ from the New Yorker, whose fiction editor Roger Angell finally told the writer to give up and stop submitting, because he’d never get in.”
“Seven False Starts About the Death of [David Foster] Wallace”
The closing of Newsweek‘s excellent profile of Barney Rosset mentions Maidstone (not “Maidenhead”), a film perhaps best-known for spawning an on-set fight between Rip Torn and writer-director Norman Mailer. Let’s go to the tape (the fun starts about 90 seconds in):
Miles Orvell, a professor of English and American studies at Temple University, has compiled a list of the top five greatest works of Great Depression-era American literature (that aren’t The Grapes of Wrath):
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), James Agee and Walker Evans
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West
Come Back to Sorrento (1932), Dawn Powell
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1935), Horace McCoy
Call It Sleep (1934), Henry Roth
Hard to argue with those, and it’s always nice to see Call It Sleep included. But I still have a hard time swallowing Orvell’s assertion that the Depression-era literature has been “largely dismissed from the cultural record.” He backs up that point by saying that a “current standard survey textbook of American literature devotes just three pages out of 1500 to Depression Era literature.” And true, the Norton Anthology of American Literature does seem a bit stingy (PDF) on that front—a couple of WPA guide excerpts couldn’t hurt. Yet all five of the works Orvell cites are still in print, and there are plenty more besides—just thinking about crime fiction alone, The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon both did a fine job covering “despair” and “corruption” (two of Orvell’s stated threads for Depression lit). Hell, William Faulkner’s greatest run as a writer occurred during the Depression.
This year’s edition of the Oxford American‘s music issue is a monster, with features on artists from the Residents to Arthur Lee to Jerry Lee Lewis and on and on. There’s plenty I need to get to, but I immediately gravitated to the piece on Neko Case by Jack Pendarvis (who wrote one of my favorite novels of the year). Pendarvis hung out with Case and her band for a few days, and though there wasn’t much drama, they did get to hang out at William Faulkner‘s home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Miss., where everybody got excited about Bill’s typewriter:
[Pedal steel guitarist Jon] Rauhouse ran over and started banging on the keys. Banging on them urgently! The hammers sounded like a machine gun. It was the one time I saw [Rowan Oak curator] Bill Griffith get ruffled. He made suffering gestures. He swallowed something. He stepped forward and in the nicest way imaginable, indeed with no discernable effort, sort of willed Rauhouse to stop.
“I should take your picture sitting at the typewriter,” said Neko. She meant me.
I sat down but couldn’t make myself touch the instrument. Everything about it seemed backwards: Neko Case taking my picture, me sitting there. I was having difficulty throwing myself into the experience. I felt like a rubber glove.
Gregory McNamee, writing at the Britannica Blog, notes that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac‘s novel The Dharma Bums. That factoid, combined with the news that the book shares an anniversary with with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, prompted me to see what other novels came out in 1958. Among the notables: Our Man in Havana, The Leopard, Dr. No, and Candy were all published that year. So was Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, not the writer’s finest hour but the book of his that I have the most affection for.
McNamee’s brief case for the worth of The Dharma Bums ends with a brief video taken from a marathon reading from the book in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Mass., in October—part of the town’s annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival.
The Quarterly Conversation has just published a thoughful review of Radiance, a 2002 novel by Carter Scholz set in a post-Cold War research lab. The book didn’t attract the attention it deserved at the time; its study of scientists squabbling over a how to transform nuclear weapons into “dual use” initiatives (and pretty much winding up with nuclear weapons anyway) has the kind of intelligence and grim humor that any fan of Pynchon or DeLillo would admire. So Sacha Arnold‘s thoughts on the book are appreciated—at least by me, and I’m sure by others too:
Scholz shares with [Jonathan] Lethem a love of the more speculative genres, and of their antecedents (Borges, Calvino, and of course Kafka). With Richard Powers he shares an enthusiasm for building his works around scientific ideas, and with the Don DeLillo of Ratner’s Star he holds in common an irrepressible impulse to satirize the scientists responsible for them. But he departs from his contemporaries in the way he melds his observations of the descendental world of scientific practice with a reverent sense of the scientific vocation.
The result of such a melding is an alternately satirical and spiritual book. The harsh skepticism that Scholz the satirist brings to weapons science is not unlike the skepticism William Gaddis brings to business and law in his novels J R and A Frolic of His Own. Both authors begin by assuming that corruption and fraud are the rule; they then set the better natures of their characters (when present) against the evils of the field being satirized.
I don’t believe Scholz has published anything since Radiance, which is unfortunate. You can read a goodly chunk of the novel via Google Books.