Saturday, March 7, 2009

Cleveland rocks...and swirls and spits.

The new Food & Wine arrived today and I've already finished reading it (instead, you know, of working on the review I have due. *sigh* What. ever. {insert eye roll here} (1)

Lettie Teague does a wine tour of Cleveland which delights me to no end.

First of all...I love Cleveland. I love Cleveland with all the enthusiasm of a teenage girl who falls for a guy with bad grades, worse hygiene and a future that depends on the garage band he and his friends are talking about starting. Some day. When they get that van.

Second, I love the idea of a wine tour of Cleveland. It's clever and unexpected and...and here's where I tempt the fates (2)...it actually makes me wonder if the book idea that's been floating in the back of my head might have some legs (3).

It's also nice to be seeing an original idea that doesn't necessitate my thinking any more about The Kindly Ones (4).

1. When I was in high school, my junior year English teacher called my parents in for a teacher conference where she told them, "He rolls his eyes at me." My father's response? "He rolls his eyes at us too. We're glad not to be singled out."
2. They say that the book you talk about is the one you never write. Well, I'm not really talking about it. And I'm hoping the fates are all busy convincing people to open roller discos. Oh. Wait. Those are Muses. Damn.
3. The book idea does not involve Cleveland. Yet.
4. But I probably will.

Are you still going on about that?

Yeah. I'm afraid that I am.

I'm still thinking about the uproar that has sprung up around The Kindly Ones because the protagonist is an SS Officer who not only--from what I have read--feels no remorse about the attrocities being committed by himself and his fellow officers but fully believes in the Nazi cause.

This is not your Von Trappe family friend kind of Nazi (1).

But isn't that part of what literature is supposed to do? Show us ideas and viewpoints that we might never experience off the page? I'm reminded of the revulsion some felt when Bret Easton Ellis introduced the world to the slick, sexy, impeccably groomed, label-minded Patrick Bateman.

If you've not read the book...Bateman is a serial killer. Who wears really nice suits.

He's a horrible individual and Ellis invites us in to take up residence in his head and experience every act of depravity he commits.

But was American Psycho literature or was it a gimmick (2)?

For my part I look no further than the movie version of American Psycho that starred Christian Bale as Bateman. As is frequently the case, the movie was simply not as good as the book. It just didn't translate. While Bale was certainly the visual personification of the narcissistic Bateman Ellis invented, the horror of the book was reduced to nothing more than gore.

That, to me, is the power of the pen. That's what made it literature. The attrocities Bateman committed were not what made the character intriguing. If that was the case the movie would have held up. But it didn't.

Which raises my next question.

Is it not so much that The Kindly Ones' protagonist is utterly distasteful because of who he is and what he does but the where and when he is doing it. Is the reaction because the attrocities actually took place? Is it because the author is not putting us in the mind of a serial killer in a created time and place but, as is the case with this book, putting us in a nightmare that exists not just in the fiction section...but in history books?

1. By which I mean that we don't actually see any of the horror going on during The Sound of Music. I'm not saying that the members of the Von Trappe family were Nazis and I know that the boyfriend who was supposed to be a "good" Nazi ends up literally blowing the whistle on them. So we're clear.
2. A gimmick like making this book about a Yuppie serial killer into a musical. Which they did.

Friday, March 6, 2009

ew. oh? oooooooooooh.

Since yesterday I've been thinking about the idea of original voices. Sara Nelson's suspicions about The Kindly Ones (1) made me think of Chuck Palahniuk.

I really like Palahniuk's writing and have even read his nonfiction essay collection Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories (2).

But the reality?

You can always count on Palahniuk to give you a moment (3) of full-blown disgust (4). He's the master of the anti-heroic protagonist. A man whose talents allow him to render the most distasteful of scenes with a graphic and fearless precision you can't help but admire.

That said, admiring the man's skill as a writer doesn't mean that I'm enthusiastically signing off on the lives and values of his characters. The worlds he creates are filled with basically awful human beings committing basically awful acts against other basically awful human beings.

But he still creates entire worlds.

1. Which she stopped reading out of disgust and which I am a bit obsessed with without having read it at all.
2. Which included a trip to a testicle festival. Who knew?

3. Or a few dozen.
4. You can tell who has and who hasn't read Palahniuk's novel Haunted by simply saying, "Pool scene." If someone has read it they will immediately double over and do a little jump up and down hopping thing. Like I just did when I typed "pool scene."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Um...well...that's one way to go with it...

Jonathan Littell has written a book. A big book. A nearly 1,000 page doorstop of a book about the Holocaust.

Not surprising really. A lot happened during the Holocaust. If James Michener can spend a few dozen pages watching lava cool in Hawaii (1) it's easy to imagine how a Holocaust novel can grow into an epic so sprawling it could give a librarian cause for a workman's comp claim.

But here's the thing that's causing a slightly weightier issue for Mr. Littell. That would be the protagonist of The Kindly Ones.

To quote Sarah Nelson's piece on the book published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, he is "an eloquent but heavily unsympathetic SS officer..." Littell's main character, it seems, believes in the atrocities being committed.

If you're going to make your debut as a novelist that's certainly one way to make sure you're not doing readings that only your mom and great aunt Betty attend.

Nelson, an author and former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, largely writes the book off as a gimmick as good as any of those developed by the singing strippers in Gypsy. (She also says she gave up reading in disgust.) It's another symptom of an ailing industry that is trying to survive by jumping one shark after another. As Nelson notes, the newest big book get is reportedly Britney Spears.

Britney. Spears.

But the Britney note in this piece makes me wonder. Is this book a gimmick because an author has attempted to up end the holocaust book we have come to expect (and while I cannot share or dispute Nelson's disgust I will say I am perhaps more revolted by the fake Holocaust novel plague) or is it because we've come to expect nothing but gimmicks?

Should The Kindly Ones be shelved alongside books by Joe the Plumber (2) and Condeleeza Rice and former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (3) or is it something that seems like another big publicity stunt because it's actually the kind of book we've stopped expecting.

A new and original piece of literature (4).

1. The mass market paperback of Michener's Hawaii comes in at 1056 pages. The 15th edition of the hardcover is just a bit over 900 pages...another reason why hardcover rules.
2. Total side note...when Joe appeared at a local Borders to do a "reading" of the book he "wrote" five people attended. One of those at the reading used the word "hegemony" when asking Joe a question. That, my friends, is the definition of optimism.
3. Oh come on. You had to know it was coming. He deserved the chance to tell his side of the story. Besides, it's f***ing gold.
4. We'll just let that hang there till, you know, I actually read the book. I'll get back to you.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

15 Minutes

One of my books is missing.

This would not be a big deal but I can't remember the name and, even if I could, it couldn't be replaced.

See, the reason that I loved this book is for a quote placed on the front cover that called the author one of the most important voices of his generation.

And below that quote? The remainder bin price sticker pricing the book at just more than $4.00.

The most important voice of a generation can be yours for less than the cost of a Venti skim chai at Starbucks.

I bought the book for the sole purpose of having the cover blown up into a poster but the moral and ethical principals of several copy shop employees prevented that from happening.

And now it is gone. Lost. Yet another insult to the most important voice of a generation.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What's in a name?

It's somehow unsurprising that William Shakespeare is the one to come up with this one.

"So, this Romeo & Juliet. What's it about?"

WS: "Uh...Romeo & Juliet."

"Oh. I see. And this play King Lear?"

WS: "King Lear."

"So I'm guessing Hamlet is about...?"

WS: " Um. *sigh.* Yeah."

I mean, even Taming of the Shrew kind of tips you off as to how things are going to end up before it starts.

But if it wasn't for a great title I probably wouldn't have stopped to check out Edwin Wintle's Breakfast with Tiffany and I probably wouldn't have officially added it to the soon-to-be-ridiculously-out-of-control list of a books I plan to read.

The book chronicles Edwin's life when his teenage niece comes to live with with her favorite gay uncle in New York city. I've admittedly not read the book yet but I'm thinking it's not an Auntie Mame kind of thing (1).

1. Until someone buys the rights to it for a musical.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Snow day.

Today I took a snow day and worked from home. Surprising to some is the fact that I actually spent the day working. Suprising to me is the fact that I took a snow day (1).

When the vast portion of your day is spent at a desk in front of a computer responding to e-mails and sorting proposals and occassionally being confronted by having to talk to actual human beings on the phone, the telecommute should not be so bone jarring (2).

My day should be exactly the same as every other day except I have access to better tea, have full control of the temperature (3) and have a much better view (4). But for whatever reason it was not.

My need for a job change has set a clock ticking out there in the world and I find myself feeling it more and more everyday. Sometimes with a case of the blues. Sometimes a case of the blahs. Mostly just listening intently for the other shoe to drop.

As goofy as it sounds, it's times like these when I find myself turning more and more to books. Not so much like, "In times of trouble I find great comfort in the works of Shakespeare..." but more, "In times of trouble I find myself using books like bound Magic 8 Balls (5)." I read hoping that some piece of wisdom or advice will jump out at me like a fortune cookie fortune.

Today a random page open brought me to this: "It was on the last day of 2001 that I discovered I knew a man who knew John Wayne Gacy (or maybe it was on the first day of 2002, depending on how you quantify time) (6)."

I'm choosing to translate this as meaning: You never know who you're going to meet next (7).

1. I am a native New Englander who has spent much of the last 10 years railing against this city's reaction to inclement weather. There was a time when I would have waded through the 1o blocks of snow between our front door and the subway. Today, not so much. You win Storm Center. See you in hell.
2. When debating whether or not to stay home my boss pointed to my 3.5 zillion sick days as an indication that I really should lighten up a bit.
3. As much as a house built in the early 1920s allows.
4. The windows of my work office look into the office building next door. It's like having sea monkeys...who do people's taxes and are really into PowerPoint.
5. And yes. I do sometimes consult my actual Magic 8 Ball for advice.
6. From Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs* by Chuck Klosterman
7. And, clowns are scary.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

In the funniest places.

This morning in the car I was ambushed by an interview with Kohle Yohannan, author of Valentina: American Couture and The Cult of Celebrity.

Valentina was one of those "It" girls of the early 20th century who, as the author puts it, was "[exotically] beautiful, menacingly talented, and hypnotically elegant in her every gesture." Yohannan also found that "Valentina lied about nearly everything."

This would have made writing about her life somewhat daunting.

Yohannan got to the point of abandoning the book altogether until...wait for it...he bought a castle.

Wait for it again.

The castle was in Yonkers. As in Yonkers, NY.

One more time for the people in the back. Yohannan contemplated abandoning the book altogether until he bought a castle in Yonkers, NY. The castle had belonged to Michel and Vera Fokine, contemporaries of Valentina and key members of the creative force that was the Ballet Russes (1).

While going through some trunks in the attic (2) the author found a theater program with a photograph of a young Valentina on stage with the Ballets Russes.

There's no way I can say what happened next better than Yohannan does in his post on NPR's Sunday Soapbox blog: "Defiantly peering out at me, in my very own home, was Valentina as a young performer, her name and image on the page, in the most profound, almost ghostly appeal that seemed to speak to me from the yellowing newsprint, "Don't give up on me...Tell my story..."

So he wrote the book.

Here's hoping that there are a lot more ghostly Valentina's out there.

1. When I was in art school I took a humanities class that looked at the Ballet Russes and its impact on our creative culture. Part of the class's final exam involved listening to short musical passages and identifying the composer and the performance in which it was used. I am miserable at this kind of thing.
To get through the listening portion of the test I created a system where I linked pieces of music from the Ballet to styles of music I knew and knew I would recognize. "Sounds like Christmas music." "Sounds like a political ad." "Sounds like something that would be used in a movie soundtrack."
I did very well.
2. While I have no doubt that this is what occured I am always fascinated where I hear about people discovering trunks and memorabilia in the houses they buy. I liken it to home design shows where they pull up ugly wall-to-wall carpeting and discover wide-plank oak floors that just need a quick sand and a coat of varnish.