Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Salinger's Stories

In a piece written on the occasion of J. D. Salinger's ninetieth birthday, Charles McGrath makes this point:

“Nine Stories" ... made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone.

The description of Salinger's method is accurate enough, but was Salinger really the first to do this? Hemingway does something like this in a story like "Hills Like White Elephants," for example. On the other hand, Salinger is the classic New Yorker fiction writer (along with John Cheever and John Updike and Alice Adams), and McGrath's description of his new "architecture" matches what people mean when they talk about the stereotypical "New Yorker story." 

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Brave New World

In the NY Times, an article about the destruction wrought upon the publishing world by the ease of online used-book buying. Here's the upside:

For readers and collectors, these resellers, as they are called, offer a great service. Lost in the hand-wringing over the state of the book industry is the fact that this is a golden age for those in love with old-fashioned printed volumes: more books are available for less effort and less money than ever before.

There's no going back—as with the music and newspaper industries, the terms of book-buying have changed permanently. It'll be interesting to see how the production end of things evolves in the coming years. Last week on Fresh Air Lawrence Lessig had some interesting things to say about this. You can listen to the interview here. One of his most interesting points was that there are more people making money from their music now than there were before music became downloadable and the CD industry was decimated. The big names may lose out on a few million, but smaller acts can get their music out there more so than before. 

But what will that mean for books? 

In any case, the Times article is well done and worth a read. And hey, it's free.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Deep Impact

As images of the apocalypse go, the video above is not too shabby, but for my money it doesn't match the dread produced by this great T. Coraghessan Boyle story, which I think will become a classic (though the thing about the wife's nipples might keep it out of high school anthologies).

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On the Street

From the NY Times, a review of a new book about Sesame Street:

Meanwhile, the urban street scenes at the center of the show communicated the social values of a progressive culture. Here was TV at its most sublime, but also an entrancing product of a liberal age, something Mom was happy for us to watch.

I think I've always wanted to live in the city because my grandparents lived here when I was a kid. But it occurs to me now that the reason the city appealed to me as a kid was that it reminded me of Sesame Street. It seemed realer because it seemed like the urban world I saw on the show that I watched obsessively (I used to cry when it was over, so much so that my mom bought me a shelf full of Sesame Street books to tide me over till the next time it came on).

How would things have been different if I hadn't grown up before Barney came around?:

Once revolutionary, “Sesame Street” came to be seen as a dated reminder of urban decay, while the purple dinosaur Barney took children’s television out to the clean suburban schoolyard. “None of Barney’s friends lives in a garbage can, and none grunts hip-hop,” National Review cheered.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Fun Way to Waste Some Time

For literary dorks like me.

This one's pretty easy.

This one's pretty hard.

This one's just right.

Something to Think About

From the NY Times review of Rose George's The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

In Japan, where toilets are amazingly advanced — most of even the most basic have heated seats and built-in bidet systems for front and rear — the American idea of cleaning one’s backside with dry paper is seen as quaint at best and disgusting at worst. As Ms. George observes: “Using paper to cleanse the anus makes as much sense, hygienically, as rubbing your body with dry tissue and imagining it removes dirt.”

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Year in Reading

Over at the Millions, one of my favorite book blogs, they've been running a series called A Year in Reading, in which various writers post about what they've read this year. Since they haven't contacted me yet, I'll go ahead and assume they won't be doing so, and I'll do my post here at good ol' Corresponding Fractions.

I made a kind of New Year's resolution to read non-fiction this year, maybe as a counterbalance to my job teaching fiction, and I mostly followed through on it. Some highlights included a couple of books by my hero, sociologist Douglas Massey, Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System and Strangers in a Strange Land: Humans in an Urbanizing World. No one synthesizes like Massey, and these two books blew my mind with their insights about America and the evolution of human society. I also did a Jeffrey Toobin two-fer, reading his most recent book The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court and his decade-old The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson. Both of these books were totally engrossing. They read like John Grisham books yet actually teach you something about the world. It's no wonder Toobin was always the most insightful panelist on CNN during their election coverage.

The other type of nonfiction I read quite a bit of was memoirs. The best, without a doubt, was Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Bechdel's panels are beautifully drawn and cunningly laid out, and I love the way she understands her experience through literature. Assisted by a librarian at the Kingshighway branch, I also read a number of other comics this year. Michel Rabagliati's trilogy about his alter-ego Paul—Paul Has a Summer Job, Paul Moves Out, and Paul Goes Fishing—was lovely, and Joe Sacco's Palestine gave a vivid perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that we don't hear much in the U.S.A.

I did end up reading a fair amount of fiction, too, including a major Cormac McCarthy jag—beginning with The Road, which had me bawling like a baby at the end, and then the Border Trilogy, which I'm still thinking about. In 2009, I'd like to read Blood Meridian, which a lot of people seem to consider his best work.

My reading year is coming to a close with a book that I don't think I'll finish before January 1, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, by J. Anthony Lukas. It's an overwhelming, brilliant piece of nonfiction that follows three Boston families from 1968-1978, through the tumultuous attempts to desgregate the public schools there. The Twymons are black and poor, the McGoffs white and working class, and the Divers yuppies, but so far the book has taken all kinds of fascinating detours from these families' stories, giving mini-histories of the Methodist church, public housing in Boston, the gentrification of the South End, struggles against authority in Charlestown, and much else, including genealogical histories of many of the main characters. Whereas Douglas Massey's books give one an aerial view of sociopolitical realities, Lukas drops you down into a teeming forest of detail. The book is around 650 pages long, with big pages crammed with type, but I really can't put it down.

Monday, December 22, 2008

New Yorker Fiction 2008

For the past six years, I've been reading the fiction in the New Yorker with a varying degree of faithfulness. Altogether I've read about 75% of the stories in these years. This year I only got to about 50%. 

When I read each story, I rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. Here are the criteria I've developed for evaluating fiction. Obviously these criteria are highly subjective, but I think that in my own way I weigh each of them as I think about how much I liked a particular story.

Ambition: Does the story attempt something moving, funny, innovative—and deeply so?

Execution: Are the sentences thrilling? Does the story compel me to keep going?

Seduction: Does the story draw me in, enrapture me, make me feel that I am in the world it has created?

Resolution: Does the ending hold up with the rest of the story? Does it cast an interesting and revealing light on what's come before?

Resonance: Does the story linger in my memory? Does it change the way I look at life? Does it gather meaning with time and re-reading?

Here are my favorite stories from 2008, with my ratings in parentheses.

Some Women, by Alice Munro—a teenage girl observes a household's tangled relationships (10)

The Bell Ringer, by John Burnside—a Scottish woman and her sister-in-law deal with unhappy marriages (9)

Deep-Holes, by Alice Munro—a nearly lost and later mostly lost son (9)

The Fat Man's Race, by Louise Erdrich—Grandma Ignatia's tall tale (9)

Leopard, by Wells Tower—home from school with a scary stepdad (9)

Ghosts, by Edwidge Danticat—a young man harrowingly tastes the life of gang members in a Haitian slum (9)

The Gangsters, by Colson Whitehead—bourgie black boys shoot BB guns on summer vacation (9)

Wakefield, by E. L. Doctorow—a modern-day version of Hawthorne's tale (8)

Free Radicals, by Alice Munro—a woman creates a fiction to save her life (8)

The Lie, by T. Coraghessan Boyle—a man lies to avoid work and gets caught in a series of deceptions (8)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Wolf

In this review of a new book called The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness, I came across the following passage, which reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing, the second volume in his Border Trilogy:

When Rowlands bought a wolf cub for $500, and lived with it for eleven years, he ended up writing: 'Much of what I learned, about how to live and how to conduct myself, I learned during those eleven years. Much of what I know about life and its meaning I learned from him. What it is to be human: I learned this from a wolf.' A part of Rowlands's life with Brenin was sheer delight: 'The wolf is art of the highest form and you cannot be in its presence without this lifting your spirits.' Beyond its beauty, though, the wolf taught the philosopher something about the meaning of happiness. Humans tend to think of their lives as progressing towards some kind of eventual fulfilment; when this is not forthcoming they seek satisfaction or distraction in anything that is new or different. This human search for happiness is 'regressive and futile', for each valuable moment slips away in the pursuit of others and they are all swallowed up by death. In contrast, living without the sense of time as a line pointing to an end-point, wolves find happiness in the repetition of fulfilling moments, each complete and self-contained. As a result, as Rowlands shows in a moving account of his last year with Brenin, they can flourish in the face of painful illness and encroaching death.

This passage seems to shed some light on what McCarthy is up to in The Crossing. The first section of the novel concerns Billy Parham's dealings with a she-wolf: trapping her after a laborious period of trial and error; leading her into Mexico; trying, and failing, to rescue the wolf from some Mexicans who take it and pit it against other animals; trading his Winchester rifle for the wolf's body, which he takes out to the countryside and cradles in a moment whose mysticism echoes Rowlands' respect for the wolf as a creature:

He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.

This is on page 127. Up till this point, the novel, though already strange, seems to have been "progressing toward some kind of eventual fulfillment"—we think, as we read, that the whole novel is somehow going to be about Billy and this wolf, or about the repercussions of his experiences with the wolf. But no: for the rest of the novel, 300 pages, McCarthy demolishes our expectations of a linear, focused plot (the kind of plot we find in Volumes One and Three of the Border Trilogy). Instead, Billy wanders a dreamlike Mexican landscape, encounters a vatic hermit in an abandoned church, returns to his home only to find his parents slaughtered and the life he knew gone forever, encounters a mysterious theatrical troupe in a small town, tries to join the army but gets rejected because of a heart problem, loses touch with his brother, who becomes a sort of Mexican folk hero, and, ultimately, crosses the border back to America with, seemingly, not much to show for his journey. His "sense of time as a line pointing to an end-point" has been completely shattered, and so has ours. Perhaps the thing to do is to learn to live as a wolf lives, "in the repetition of fulfilling moments, each complete and self-contained." Perhaps the overarching theme of the Border Trilogy itself is the tragedy of humanity's insistently trying to impose order, logic, design, and meaning on an existence that resists such impositions, humanity's quest for happiness in an absurd world.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hertzberg on Gladwell

Hendrik Hertzberg responds to that Malcolm Gladwell piece that contradicted his post. (See my post from last week.)

Don't worry: they're still buds.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


In the Post-Dispatch today, Fatemeh Keshavarz, chair of the Dept. of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Wash. U., writes perceptively about the implications of the shoes thrown (see above) at President Bush on Sunday:

Please do not get me wrong. Insulting heads of state is not all right, particularly when they are your guests. The point is not to justify such inappropriate and discourteous moves; it is to understand them, rather than dismiss them.

Over at the First Things blog, they've got other ideas:

The best part of the George Bush Shoe Incident is definitely the President’s priceless one-liner: “I saw into his sole.”

That’s about as funny as puns get. If sense of humor is a good rough guide to intelligence, then either Bush is really pretty smart or has a pretty smart aide.

Yeah, Bush deserves the Nobel Prize for that one.

I love, too, the phony caveat "or has a pretty smart aide." You see, even if W.'s not smart, he knows how to surround himself with smart people!

Ross, Bernstein, Wolfe

Not being a classical music buff, I wasn't super interested in Alex Ross's piece on Leonard Bernstein a while ago in the New Yorker, but I was glad to have read this part:

One night in 1970, Felicia Bernstein hosted a fund-raiser on behalf of twenty-one associates of the Black Panther Party who had been indicted for conspiring to bomb buildings and kill police. Her husband arrived late from a rehearsal of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” and, perhaps charged up by that tale of oppression and liberation, he inserted himself into the discussion, voicing sympathy for the Black Panthers’ egalitarian aims but quizzing Donald Cox, the Panther field marshal, about the group’s propensity for violence. Two journalists were present: Charlotte Curtis, of the Times, and Tom Wolfe, of New York. “If business won’t give us full employment, we must take the means of production and put them in the hands of the people,” Cox said at one point. According to Curtis, Bernstein replied, “I dig absolutely.” In Wolfe’s account, Bernstein said, “How? I dig it! But how?” Bernstein later tried to explain that Cox had ended his statement with a “You dig?” and that he was simply answering in kind. Whatever the particulars, the reports conjured up an unsympathetic picture: America’s Great Conductor trying to talk jive with extremists. After Curtis’s article ran, the Times’ editorial page accused Bernstein of “elegant slumming” and stated that he had “mocked the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Protesters appeared outside the Bernstein apartment building. Waves of hostile mail landed on the couple and also on their guests.
Wolfe’s piece, which ran under the famous title “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” was a tour de force of dispassionate hostility, characterizing Bernstein as a “more than competent composer” and then mocking him as “the Great Interrupter, the Village Explainer, the champion of Mental Jotto, the Free Analyst, Mr. Let’s Find Out.” Wolfe reduced Bernstein’s passion for African-American music to a caricature of racial tourism, pushing the idea that his subject was obsessively fixated on the figure of a “Negro by the piano” (perhaps a case of projection on the part of the author). Felicia Bernstein was derided for the “million-dollar-chatchka look” of the apartment. She avoided reading the article, but she could hardly avoid hearing about it, and the episode had a devastating effect on her. At a panel discussion with members of the family at Carnegie Hall, Jamie Bernstein, one of the couple’s three children, recalled, “There was this sense that our mother never recovered from the heartbreak and shame of this incident. No one was all the way to happy again.”
When the F.B.I.’s files were opened, years later, radical chic turned out to be more than a case of a musician making an ass of himself. Many of those angry letters had been generated by operatives in J. Edgar Hoover’s counter-intelligence program; one memo notes that the correspondence was scripted to highlight the Black Panthers’ “anti-Semetic posture and pro-Arab position”; the misspelling points up the hypocrisy of the enterprise. Richard Nixon, too, followed the case, marking Bernstein as the personification of “the complete decadence of the American ‘upper class’ intellectual elite.” (This was written in the margins of Daniel Moynihan’s memo encouraging a “benign neglect” of African-American issues.) If, as William F. Buckley, Jr., said, Bernstein was parroting the lingo of fanatics, Wolfe was, in his own way, a mouthpiece, his fashionably tart prose advancing the new art of wedge-issue politics. In retrospect, the entire episode reeks of hysteria, and Bernstein was by no means the most hysterical person in the room.

I thought of this passage when I read this account, from the New Yorker's Book Bench blog, of a recent event featuring Wolfe. Somebody asked him what he thought of the Internet and blogs, and this was his response:

At one point television had altered the sensory balance of the young—it literally changed their moral circuitry. This was turning them tribal. Tribal people don’t trust something you’ve written out and handed to them. They assume it’s a trick: why else would you have gone through all this trouble? Tribal people only believe in rumors; they only believe what someone’s told them. At the same time, they don’t believe anything somebody’s told them.

Well, there you have the blogosphere. It’s a tribal institution, and some of them are, in a way, marvellous to read. You’ll be reading along and the writer will say, “Tim Harris who was born in…I forget where he was born, I think it was the Midwest.” This is not very reassuring, but if you’re tribal, you’re not thinking about reassuring.

“You’re not going to be starting your own blog then?” the young man pressed.

“If I do,” Wolfe said, “You can trust it from here to eternity.”

Wolfe presents himself, perhaps impishly, as a paragon of trustworthiness, but Ross suggests that the "dispassionate hostility" of his journalism in fact served the ideological interests of J. Edgar Hoover and his ilk. 

Journalistic objectivity, it seems to me, is mostly an illusion. I don't think we've become more "tribal" with the advent of the Internet or TV. People have always been suspicious of what they read and hear, have always believed what they want to believe, and have always trusted some sources more than others. Often with good reason. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Good News about Sex and Marriage (or Not)

From the Chronicle of Higher Education's review of the first volume of her journals, Susan Sontag's grim view of marriage:

It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies. Quarrels eventually become pointless, unless one is always prepared to act on them — that is, to end the marriage. So, after the first year, one stops 'making up' after quarrels — one just relapses into angry silence, which passes into ordinary silence, and then one resumes again.


Everything Is Free

From James Surowiecki's Financial Page:

People don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reckoning with Bolaño

These days everyone seems to be going ga-ga over Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003), even more so since the publication of 2666. I've never really understood what all the fuss was about, but then again I've only read a few of his stories that have appeared in The New Yorker (two this year, two last year, and one in 2005). 

His brief, single-paragraph story "Meeting with Enrique Lihn" in the Winter Fiction issue struck me as more interesting, though. Maybe that's because I was prepared to understand it by Jonathan Lethem's review of 2666, which offers a kind of overview of Bolaño's career and themes. In fact, looking back at Lethem's piece, I find that this passage encapsulates what seems to be going on in the story:

In a burst of invention now legendary in contemporary Spanish-language literature, and rapidly becoming so internationally, Bolaño in the last decade of his life, writing with the urgency of poverty and his failing health, constructed a remarkable body of stories and novels out of precisely such doubts: that literature, which he revered the way a penitent loves (and yet rails against) an elusive God, could meaningfully articulate the low truths he knew as rebel, exile, addict; that life, in all its gruesome splendor, could ever locate the literature it so desperately craves in order to feel itself known. Is a lifetime spent loving poems in a fallen world only a poor joke? Bolaño sprints into the teeth of his conundrum, violating one of the foremost writing-school injunctions, against writer-as-protagonist (in fact, Bolaño seems to make sport of violating nearly all of the foremost writing-school rules, against dream sequences, against mirrors as symbols, against barely disguised nods to his acquaintances, and so on). Again and again he peoples his singular fictions with novelists and poets, both aspiring and famous, both accomplished and hopeless, both politically oblivious and committedly extremist, whether right or left. By a marvelous sleight of hand writers are omnipresent in Bolaño’s world, striding the stage as romantic heroes and feared as imperious villains, even aesthetic assassins — yet they’re also persistently marginal, slipping between the cracks of time and geography, forever reclusive, vanished, erased. Bolaño’s urgency infuses literature with life’s whole freight: the ache of a writing-workshop aspirant may embody sexual longing, or dreams of political freedom from oppression, even the utopian fantasy of the eradication of violence, while a master-novelist’s doubts in his works’ chances in the game of posterity can stand for all human remorse at the burdens of personal life, or at knowledge of the burdens of history.

Take a look at the story and see what you think. Oh, and unless you know more about Chilean literary history than I do, you might want to check out this and this at Wikipedia first.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wisdom from Wislawa Szymborska

From her Nobel Prize lecture:

There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gladwell on Education

Last week I quoted and linked to a Hendrik Hertzberg post that argued that America ought to commit to reducing class sizes in its public schools. This week in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell calls into question the cost-effectiveness of cutting class sizes, proposing that a better way of improving our schools is to get better teachers in classrooms:

You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Hertzberg, it seems to me, would argue that identifying teachers "in the eighty-fifth percentile" is not as easy as it sounds. The other problem that occurs to me is this: Can we put an eighty-fifth percentile teacher in every classroom? Or would that be possible only in Lake Woebegon, where every child is above average?

Eventually, Gladwell comes to this proposition for how we might radically change the way we hire and retain teachers:

Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher.

My wife pointed out that she'd hate to have our kids be in the classroom of one of the three candidates who don't make it.

As usual, Gladwell's writing is thought-provoking but a bit facile. In the end, he seems to be promoting another version of the "run it like a business" mindset. Ed Deutschlander, mentioned in the quotation above, hires people who want to be financial advisors, and he's mightily pleased with himself and his process. He asks: 

What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?

But his corporate model is not very appropriate for education. Financial advisors tend to be people who are interested in making a lot of money. Teachers tend not to be, and thank God for that. Only a fraction of Americans employ the services of financial advisors. Everyone has many teachers. 

I don't have the answers, and I do like the notion of paying close attention to the work that teachers are doing to reward and encourage the skilled ones and help improve or cull out the bad ones, but it seems to me that Gladwell's piece is mostly misdirected. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Depredations of Capitalism

An interesting point from Larissa MacFarquhar's New Yorker profile of Naomi Klein:

Why does Klein place such emphasis on [Milton] Friedman? Perhaps because she wants to draw a parallel between capitalism and Communism, to make their two histories look as similar as possible, and for that she needs not the messy, pragmatic, ad-hoc capitalism of corporations but the purist, utopian capitalism of the Chicago School. Violent autocrats of the free-market persuasion, though there have been many, have not soiled Friedman’s name in the way that Stalin soiled Marx; somehow, the misdeeds of a Pinochet or a Suharto or a Yeltsin are attributed to these men as individuals—to their lust for power, their greed, their drinking. But Klein holds capitalism guilty of all their sins. Friedman’s followers must no longer get away with shaking their heads when their advisees start killing people, she believes. They should feel themselves dupes, fellow-travellers, accessories: they should acknowledge their willed ignorance and complicity, as her grandparents and the Communists of their generation were forced to do.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Real American Hero

Obama Action Figures at the Village Voice.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Making Classes Smaller

A nice post on education from Hendrik Hertzberg:

I’m not against merit pay or charter schools or accountability. Let a hundred flowers bloom. But the tools of national policy are imprecise. Making classes smaller is a totally clear goal, a totally measurable goal, and, conceptually, a totally achievable goal. The same cannot be said of fuzzier concepts like merit and accountability.

Of course, the problem with the class-size approach is that, as Brooks suggests, it costs money. You have to build more classrooms and hire more teachers. Still, at a time of crumbling infrastructure, rising unemployment, and universal demands for more public spending, what’s wrong with that?

Vanishing St. Louis

From Stefene Russell over at St. Louis Magazine's arts blogI learned about this fascinating blog about St. Louis architecture, where I subsequently learned about this fascinating book, created by a former student of mine. 

A Troubling Thought

From the New York Times review of Peter Galbraith's Unintended Consequences: How the War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies:

The “pretense that the surge is a success and that therefore the United States is winning the Iraq War,” Mr. Galbraith contends, “is the opening salvo in a coming blame game as to who lost Iraq.” He suggests that the surge has enabled President Bush to “run out the clock on his term in office so as to avoid having to admit defeat” and that running out the clock serves the interests of the Republican Party, setting up a G.O.P. story line for 2009: “When George W. Bush left office, America was winning the Iraq War. His successor — abetted by the Democratic Congress and the faithless American people — squandered the victory and is responsible for the consequences.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Must See TV

I'd love to see Elvis Costello's new music-centered TV show, but who gets the Sundance Channel?

Jim Fusilli at the Wall Street Journal gives Elvis this rather backhanded compliment: 

... as the season progresses Mr. Costello, who is as glib as his lyrics suggest, emerges as a keen interviewer ...

I can think of many adjectives one might use to describe Elvis Costello or his lyrics, but glib wouldn't be one of them.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Book Cover Designs of 2008

The best.


Since his suicide in September, there has been a lot of good stuff on the web about David Foster Wallace. This piece from The New Statesman may not be the best, but it's definitely worth reading, and it shows the most evidence that the writer has actually made his way through Infinite Jestwhich might not be a prerequisite for appreciating DFW (I think short stories like "Good People" and "The Depressed Person" and "My Appearance" and (especially) "Good Old Neon," along with a smattering of the essays, would do the trick) but is important for reflecting on this writer's life and development.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Cinematic Pairing

These two movies would be interesting to discuss together. The first is an apocalyptic vision, with a score by Philip Glass, of life out of balance, a planet despoiled by a destructive, ant-like humanity. The second, a piece of computer animation marketed as a family film, begins with essentially the same premise. Humanity has ruined the planet, leaving only robots behind to compact the trash. There may be some small glimmer of hope, if only from the eponymous robot who yearns for connection with others and (maybe) teaches humanity to rediscover the joys of human contact.

I say maybe because I don't know how it ends. We turned it off with about half an hour to go because our middle daughter kept saying, "Is it almost over?" 

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Basement Bookshelves

I love basement bookshelves. They tend to contain books that people have but don't particularly care about. For that reason, they are usually unpretentious and eclectic.

I remember the books my family had down in the basement—in a closet in the basement, actually. I found a copy of Roots down there when I was in seventh grade. It was yellowed and battered, and it didn't have a back cover. I read the whole thing and loved it. There was a copy of Gone With the Wind, which I started but didn't get very far in. There was a whole series of John Jakes books, which I looked at but didn't even try to read. There was a copy of James Clavell's Shogun and Leon Uris's Trinity. I think these were all popular books that my mom read in the seventies, before she had kids. There was even a Norton critical edition of Moby-Dick from my dad's college years. 

In my wife's old basement, there was also a shelf of books that I loved to look through every time I was down there. Some were clearly from her parents' youthful reading days, some from her sister, some her own. One time, between the ceremony and reception of a wedding, we went back to her house and I pulled out a copy of Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus from that shelf. It was a pink mass-market paperback with a glossy cover, and I read "Defender of the Faith," a great short story in it.

Ever since our basement renovation was finished, we've had a basement shelf of our own (pictured above), which gives me pleasure every time I look at it.

Morrison Speaks

My enthusiasm for Toni Morrison has faded somewhat, perhaps unfairly, but I found this interview she did with Sam Tanenhaus of the NY Times worth watching. It seems as if she'd be pretty disgusted with Z. Dwight Billingsly as well. 

The David Gates review of her new novel is an enjoyable piece of writing, too.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


It's interesting to read something that I completely disagree with. I've always found Z. Dwight Billingsly to be kind of an ass, but I think he really outdoes himself in this column.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Food art by Carl Warner.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Interpretations of The Giving Tree

I've read this book countless times to my daughters and have discussed it with my wife and friends, but I haven't put nearly as much thought into it as the folks here have.

W's Nostrils

From Ann Wroe at The Economist:

It is not just that they were large, and lent his face a certain simian charm. They were also uncontrollable. When the rest of the presidential body was encased in a sober suit, and the rest of the presidential face had assumed an expression appropriate to taking the oath of office, or rescuing banks, or declaring to terrorists that they could run but they couldn’t hide, the nostrils would suddenly flare and smirk, as if Mr Bush was about to burst out with something outrageous or obscene, or flash a high-five, or hail his deputy chief of staff as “Turd blossom”.

...they failed to detect the poisonous atmosphere that swirled around him abroad. Granted, the most revolting protesters were kept away. But even so the nostrils, proudly set even when the eyes blinked and the mouth pursed and wavered, maintained an extraordinary belief in the wisdom of the president and the rightness of his cause. One day the rest of the world would wake up and be grateful. One day the Bush administration would come up smelling like a rose.

Packer on Naipaul and Sontag

A fascinating post from George Packer. The type that makes you want to go out and pick up the books he's talking about.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Teaching Idea from Thomas Friedman

From Ian Parker's profile of Friedman in the Nov. 10 issue of the New Yorker:

"Come empty, you leave empty," Friedman said to me one evening. "Come with a point of view, and you could come back with something original."

There seems to be a teaching idea here: have students come to class with something every day: an idea, a quotation from the reading, a response, no matter how brief; and they're more likely to be engaged in the class, and maybe even to come away from it with something new.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Darkness Visible

This week's New Yorker seems like a kind of bookend to the famous September 24, 2001 issue. I read that one feverishly, full of dread. I've been reading this one full of more pleasant emotions: relief, deep satisfaction, and hope.
My favorite passage, the conclusion of David Grann's article on how Obama won:

He told Axelrod, "I am not a great candidate now, but I am going to figure out how to be a great candidate." One of Obama's greatest achievements as a politician is that he somehow managed to emerge intact, after navigating two years of a modern and occasionally absurd Presidential race, while also becoming a great candidate. On Election Night, as he once against invoked the words of Lincoln, he seemed to be saying that he was going to figure out how to be a great President.

And George Packer invokes jazz in the conclusion of his piece on the beginning of a new era in American politics:

The great American improvisation called democracy still bends along the curve of history. It has not yet finished astounding the world.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why I Started This Blog

This [blog] is my Savings Bank. I grow richer because I have somewhere to deposit my earnings; and fractions are worth more to me because corresponding fractions are waiting here that shall be made integers by their addition.
—Emerson, Journal (1834)