Reading With the President

The White House announced today that President Barack Obama is bringing a handful of novels with him during his weeklong vacation, including Richard Price‘s Lush Life, Kent Haruf‘s Plainsong, and George Pelecanos The Way Home. (He’s also bringing a couple of “serious” books.) All fine selections, and though I’d like to hear what he thinks of the books overall when he’s done with them, I’m also curious to learn what he thinks of this particular passage from Lush Life, in which Matty, a homicide detective, finds his plans to recanvass a neighborhood where a murder has occurred have been derailed thanks to a surprise visitor…

“Matty.” Yolonda holding up the phone. “Dargan from Berkowitz.”

Matty braced. Detective Dargan, Deputy Inspector Berkowitz’s Bad News Bear. “Hey, Jerry.”

“Yeah, hey, Matty, look, we just got word, the president’s coming into town tonight instead of tomorrow.”

“OK.” Matty waited for the other shoe.

“So, we’re going to need to postpone your recanvass.”

“What?” Matty tried to come off stunned. “Why?”

“The word from on high is to pull manpower from all units, including yours. No excusals.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? I spent the last two days lining everybody up for this. You couldn’t have told me earlier?”

“We just found out ourselves.”

“How the fuck can you not know the president’s coming in until the day?”

“Hey,” Dargan said calmly, “I have nothing to do with this. I’m just the messenger.”

Fucking Berkowitz.

“Is he in? Let me talk to him.”

“Not a good idea,” Dargan said mournfully.

“And you’re taking people from my squad? It’s a seventh-day homicide recanvass. You can’t take my people.”

“No excusals,” Dargan said. “Sorry.”

“This fucking sucks. Let me talk to him.”

“Not a good idea … And Matty? Truly … Let it be.”

As he slammed the phone down, Yolonda snapped off her cell. “They’re pulling me and Iacone,” she said. “You know something? I don’t think I’ve ever been inside the Waldorf.”

Scout Goes West

One Book, One Denver has announced that its latest pick for its citywide reading effort is Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird—which, like last year’s choice, Dashiell Hammett‘s The Thin Man, doesn’t have much to do with Denver, or Colorado, or even life west of the Mississippi River. Understandably, at least a couple of critics have spent much of the last month complaining about the reading program, ever since the list of titles for consideration (it was put up to a public vote) failed to include any books set in the state. The most notable omission was Kent Haruf‘s Plainsong; Westword editor Patricia Calhoun, an advocate for the book, also noticed that the 27 books under consideration were all part of the NEA’s Big Read program. True enough, last Friday it became clear that the city program has received $20,000 from the Big Read.

I don’t have any major issues with the Big Read concept, which seems particularly useful for communities that have little in the way of library dollars or public-arts and literacy programs. And funding is tight everywhere in cities these days, especially when it comes to the arts. But it’s a disappointing situation regardless, one that seems to negate the whole point of the enterprise—much of what these citywide reading programs have going for them is a sense of civic pride, and though the reading choices shouldn’t be boosterish, it should at least feel a little less like going back to high-school English class. (Chicago’s program at least had the good sense to select Sandra CisnerosThe House on Mango Street last spring.) Without any particular reason to feel invested in the program, it’s not much of a surprise that only 2,000 people answered the call to vote for a book the whole city can get behind.

Links: Closing the Book

Emory Elliott, a University of California Riverside professor praised as one of the leading scholars of American Literature, died Tuesday of a heart attack. The news release from the university details his many accomplishments, including his work editing the Columbia Literary History of the United States. “He was one of a handful of the top people in American literature,” a colleague tells the Riverside Press-Enterprise. Another colleague, Cathy Davidson, tells more.

I’m not a big fan of April Fool’s jokes (mainly because I fall for them too easily), but the alleged blockbuster by “Pete Tarslaw,” The Tornado Ashes Club was nicely done. The cover in particular is brilliantly conceived, taking every available tool to announce that the book is an important epic: the panoramic landscape, the earth tones, the unassuming fonts. All that’s missing is the superfluous words “A Novel” stamped on the front. More details at GalleyCat.

Susan Orlean recently asked whether book blurbs actually drive sales. All I know of Greg Schwipps‘ writing is an OK flash-fiction thing he did for Esquire, but I’m interested in his debut novel, What This River Keeps, on the strength of Kent Haruf‘s good-as-Steinbeck blurb alone. (Also, it matters to me if you’re a profligate blurber or not: Haruf blurbs rarely, so I pay more attention. Blurbs from Dave Eggers, Kurt Andersen, and Scott Turow are now pretty much meaningless.)

Speaking of Steinbeck, the students in the opera program at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music Houston Grand Opera have impeccable timing, staging an opera of The Grapes of Wrath. (On a related note, commenters are doing a nice job schooling me in all the musical works based on literary fiction.)

Barack Obama is now a famously crummy gifter, and a good idea for what the president should have passed along to the Queen comes from, of all places, Breitbart: “Imagine how cool Obama would have looked had he handed the Queen a first edition by Paul Dunbar or W.E.B. Dubois. If he wanted to stay high-tech he could have loaded a Kindle with the works of Maya Angelou and James Baldwin.” But true to form, the usual intellectual disease vectors populate the comments.

Roundup: Spell It Out

Motoko Rich‘s fine story about the differences in reading habits between generations comes with a great Web-only sidebar pointing to supporting documents, surveys, studies, tests, and more. Among the fun stuff is the site for UDL Editions, an effort by a nonprofit to produce Web-only versions of classics that are interactive. Their online books have clickable words that point to an illustrated glossary unique to the book; see, for instance, the UDL version of Jack London‘s The Call of the Wild. The “Stop and Think!” prompts aren’t particularly noxious or preachy, and they can be scaled by reading level; I would’ve been thrilled to have access to something like this growing up.

Sharon Olds made a vow to Satan when she was in her early 20s and now she’s a famous poet.

George Pelecanos: “I can honestly say you’ll never read a straight mystery from me again.”

Kent Haruf‘s papers have been acquired (PDF) by Southern California’s Huntington Library. In relation to the news, he talks to the Pasadena Star-News about his slow, often frustrating climb as a writer:

You have to have a lot of patience and a lot of belief in yourself. I was 40 before I published anything and I had been writing hard for about 15 years before then. I had gone to the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa and studied writing formally, but it took me a long time before I had gotten good enough to have written something that people would want to buy. I taught graduate students in MFA programs and they were talented people. What happens to most people is that it’s too difficult to make a go of it and most people quit. Then they find out that the things that they do is perhaps not as satisfying, but maybe a little more easier.

So, in my estimation, you have to stay with it despite everything. You have to find some way to believe in yourself in some profound way that’s unshakable. I see it as a small flame that I have to attend to everyday. If I don’t do that, it’s in danger of going out.

Roundup: Great Plains Drifter

  • Laurie Muchnick, writing at Bloomberg News, has a guide to some recent Brooklyn lit.
  • Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff nicely ties–coils, even–together the multiple authors who’ve obsessed over Nikola Tesla.
  • Kent Haruf (Plainsong) and photographer Peter Brown discuss their book about the Great Plains, West of Last Chance, at the Rocky Mountain News. (The Photo-Eye Web site has some sample images, which call to mind Richard Misrach‘s dusty western landscapes, though Brown’s photos of people are compelling as well.)
  • If you’re in Mississippi next weekend, the Oxford Conference for the Book has an interesting lineup of readings. The conference theme is the work of Zora Neale Hurston, though the schedule looks to be wide-ranging–the Jack PendarvisSusan Choi reading in particular looks like fun.
  • Michael Cunningham isn’t interested in what Michiko Kakutani has to say: “I don’t read that shit. Any of it. The good reviews or the bad,” he told an audience at Boston’s Northeastern University. “The bad ones feel like they’re true and the good ones feel like you just fooled that one reviewer.” (Kakutani said that Cunningham’s 2005 novella collection, Specimen Days, “reads like a clunky and precious literary exercise….nothing but gratuitous and pretentious blather.”)

“Plainsong” on Stage

The stage adaptation of Kent Haruf‘s Plainsong had its world premiere in Denver last week. From the Denver Post’s review:

“Plainsong” is satisfyingly executed in nearly every conceivable way, culminating in a three-hankie third act — for being harrowing, then heartbreaking and finally for being just some kind of wonderful. It’s infused with old-fashioned heart but stays remarkably free of treacle and never shies from the underlying realities of small-town ignorance, hatred and violence.

At three hours, it’s long, but other than perhaps consolidating its two intermissions into one, there isn’t much to lose in a narrative that, admittedly, takes some getting used to. Eric Schmiedl’s fluid adaptation is remarkably faithful to the book — some might even say too faithful. With its ever-rotating narrators, the presentation seems at first more a staged reading of the book than a performed play. You wonder if we’re being cheated of action.

But it’s soon apparent that smart, meticulous decisions have been made about how best to convey every piece of this story so as to be true to a colorful swath of characters and interrelated stories, while keeping things manageable for the audience. Like a river, it flows when it needs to flow, and like a breeze, it breathes when it needs to breathe. Vicki Smith’s deceptively sparse and ever-shifting set plays an integral part in maintaining the staging’s remarkable flow, with pieces constantly shifting, sliding, rising and lowering.