Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New Yorker Fiction 2009

This year I got to about 50 percent of the fiction in the New Yorker, same as last year. Here were my top ten favorites, in chronological order:

Al Roosten, by George Saunders—a classic Saunders tale of a morally mixed-up fellow

Wiggle Room, by David Foster Wallace—an excerpt from the forthcoming, posthumous Pale King (post)

She's the One, by Tessa Hadley—a young woman in the wake of her brother's suicide (post)

Vast Hell, by Guillermo Martinez—buried secrets in a small Argentinean town

The Slows, by Gail Hareven—a thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction

Good Neighbors, by Jonathan Franzen—the title is ironic (see also)

Idols, by Tim Gautreaux—a darkly humorous homage to Flannery O'Connor (post)

Rat Beach, by William Styron—a soldier awaits his day of reckoning

War Dances, by Sherman Alexie—a funny and beautiful story about a man and his father (post)

Victory Lap, by George Saunders—a surprisingly violent story told from multiple perspectives

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Year in Reading

It's December again, time for another look back at my year in reading.

In my own memory, this year in reading will go down as the year of Cormac McCarthy. Having read
The Road and the Border Trilogy last year, I made a resolution to tackle Blood Meridian, widely considered McCarthy’s greatest work. I was expecting something brutal and difficult but was surprised by the humor of the novel as well as the pace at which I found myself reading, borne along swiftly by the joys of McCarthy’s language. There was plenty of brutality, to be sure, but overall the book was such a great experience that I couldn’t stop reading McCarthy. I picked up Suttree, another masterpiece, McCarthy’s vast episodic wonder of invention and verbal music. From there I went on to more minor parts of his oeuvre: Child of God, No Country for Old Men, The Orchard Keeper, The Stonemason, and The Sunset Limited. In the midst of all this, it was a treat to come across Scott Esposito’s essay about McCarthy’s novels.

I also read a fair amount of nonfiction this year, much of it having to do with the African American experience (fortuitous, perhaps, since I’ve recently been tapped to teach a course next year called African American Voices). I read David Remnick’s great book on Muhammad Ali,
King of the World; Harper Barnes’s gripping account of the 1917 East St. Louis riot, Never Been a Time; and Douglas A. Blackmon’s eye-opening book Slavery By Another Name. Jeffrey Toobin’s A Vast Conspiracy was not about African Americans (unless you take seriously the claim that Bill Clinton was our first black president), but it was a gripping account of the sex scandal that nearly brought Clinton down. Rose George’s The Big Necessity was an interesting set of journalistic pieces about sanitation—what humans around the world do with human waste.

For my big summer book, I read
Anna Karenina and loved it. I’m going to try to read War and Peace this year, as well as The Brothers Karamazov—though preparing for the African American Voices class may put a damper on some of this Russian reading. This past year, though, I also read Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, by Chekhov, who had long been a major gap in my short story reading. Speaking of short stories, I read a couple recently published collections, both of which were excellent: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout; and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower. (The penultimate story in Tower’s book, incidentally, features a major allusion to Judge Holden in Blood Meridian.) I also read Ian Frazier’s Lamentations of the Father, a delightful collection of short humor pieces, one of which is among the funniest things I’ve ever read.

Some assorted novels: I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s
Never Let Me Go and am planning to teach it this coming semester in my Alienated Hero class. I read Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy, whom I’ve found to be a pleasant summer author in the past. It didn’t work out that way with this one, though. I finished up the year with two recent classics, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude—both epics, of sorts, both set largely in Brooklyn, both featuring comic books and superheroes, and both great reads, deserving of their reputations.

The Basic Novelistic Substance

An interesting passage from an article about E. M. Forster in The New Criterion:

A lifelong artist, Forster nevertheless valued life over art, and he came down firmly on H. G. Wells’s side in his famous debate with Henry James on the point and purpose of the novel. “What repelled him in James,” Kermode writes, “was the lack, as Forster saw it, of solidity and of character, and the preoccupation with what James took to be the art of fiction, with ‘pattern,’ what James would call ‘the doing’—a fanatical attachment to the treatment of the subject rather than to the material Forster regarded as the basic novelistic substance, the rendering of bourgeois life.” “He seems to me our only perfect novelist,” Forster drily remarked of James, “but alas, it isn’t a very enthralling type of perfection.” The particular problems James set himself—such as, with What Maisie Knew, telling a story entirely from one character’s very limited point of view—Forster dismissed as mere technical exercises; if a change in viewpoint enriches a narrative, then why not use it?

That Forster thought War and Peace the world’s greatest novel, and that James thought it a mess, should come as no surprise. The technical self-consciousness that overtook the novel during Forster’s lifetime, the sense in which novels came to be “about” themselves as much as their subjects, did not much interest him, and he could be quite dismissive of contemporaries like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. (“He was in his seventies when the nouveau roman appeared on the scene,” Kermode says, “so his age would probably have cancelled any obligation to look into it, not that he was likely to have felt one.”) He deplored the modernist preoccupation with formalistic concerns over actual subject matter: “So marriage,” he complained, “love, friendship, family feuds, social nuances, lawsuits about property, illegitimate children, failures on the stock exchange—all the products of liberalism, in fact, all essentially the subject matter of Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen, Arnold Bennett—don’t serve the modern novelist so well. He doesn’t even find death very useful.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

An Homage to the Darkness

From Gerald Early's review, in the current issue of Belles Lettres, of a new book about Sugar Ray Robinson:

Professional boxers, like all high-performance athletes, are, indeed, rare people. In fact, even among athletes, boxers exhibit a rare mentality: theirs is the only sport where the object is to try to so severely hurt your opponent that he cannot or will not continue the contest. Better still if the boxer can knock out his opponent, render him unconscious, give him a temporary brain trauma.... It takes a rare mentality to want to to do that to someone else and a rare mentality to endure the possibility of experiencing it oneself. It goes without saying that boxing is a violent sport. That is a trite observation. Boxing is something more profound than that. It is a shockingly persistent will to violence, an homage to the darkness that drives us as human beings, done up as a cultural ritual.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

St. Louis and the Cult of Destruction

Over at Dotage, Matt Mourning has a fiery manifesto about St. Louis and historic preservation. I like this passage in particular, in which Mourning, who's moving to Baltimore soon, contrasts that city's intact (if largely abandoned) urban landscape to the carved-up built environment of St. Louis:

The depression took me upon seeing whole blocks of these rows boarded, vacant. No cars, no trees, no pedestrians lining the streets. Just walls of row houses sitting vacant. I could “hear” the eerie silence even behind the computer screen, hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I got to thinking: how has Baltimore not torn out more of these rows and created park space or built new housing or just left them fallow, waiting for a time when investment would bring something new? Do whole abandoned blocks not cause issues with surrounding occupied blocks? Do they not pull the image of the city down? This, mind you, was my gut reaction, even as an avowed preservationist. Of course, I was happy to see them remain—thus the hope that later kicked in—but even I was wondering how they could have been spared the wrecking ball.

Then I remembered that I’m a St. Louisan; an automatic member of the cult of destruction.

My leaders have, time and time again, supported the removal of a sturdy built environment and its replacement with something much less, something much worse. Often the replacement is meant to serve the purpose of moving or storing automobiles. This is the city’s greatest power because it is the simplest task at its disposal. Vacant buildings and lots provide convenient opportunities for combining narrow urban lots to form parking lots and garages. A 1920s-era bond issue already widened most roads to an extent likely even then excessive; certainly this was so by the time the region’s vast interstate network was introduced. So a declined city that wants to better move automobiles through itself need only maintain its roads and ensure every new development has ample parking.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


In the St. Louis American, a couple writers reflect on the significance of Whitey Herzog's Hall of Fame-worthy managerial career, including his development of African American players.

Mike Claiborne:

One thing Herzog may not be recognized for in St. Louis but that should not be forgotten is the night in 1989 when he started nine players of color, with names like Smith, Coleman, McGee, Pendleton, Ford, Hill, Booker and Durham (and Pena). It is a far cry from what you see now, when some teams have a hard time finding African Americans to make the roster let alone stock their farm team. For Whitey it was about giving his team the best chance to win. Granted, some of these men were players who would come off the bench, but when the injury bug would bite Herzog had no reservations. He was the one manager in St. Louis who could pull it off and there would be no backlash, because Whitey was golden for all the right reasons.

Earl Austin, Jr.:

It was also a wonderful time for African-American fans who had a chance to cheer on the exploits of great black stars such as Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton, George Hendrick, and Lonnie Smith and so many others during the Herzog era in St. Louis.

I can still remember the days when fans would call the talk shows on KMOX radio complaining that the Cardinals had too many black players on the field, but that mattered little to Whitey, who flooded the field with great African-American stars throughout his tenure in St. Louis.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Misadventures at QT

Last night, my wife was at the QT on Big Bend, just off Highway 44. She heard the workers there talking about how a dead body had been found in the restroom of the QT at Gravois and Nebraska (where we often stop for sodas after picking up Gus's pretzels, incidentally).

Sure enough, in today's Post is a brief story about the incident. It suggests, as did the QT workers last night, that the death was a drug overdose. The QT workers last night had also heard that a child was found (alive) in the restroom as well, but that isn't mentioned in the article.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


From today's Post-Dispatch:

St. Louis commuters abandoned their side-street detours and secret shortcuts, returning to Highway 40 on Monday in numbers rivaling those before the lengthy rebuilding.

Missouri Department of Transportation officials said they expected displaced motorists to return gradually after the stretch between Interstate 170 and Kingshighway reopened early Monday. They just didn't think the cars would return so soon.

"The thing that probably surprised me was that people came back as quick as they did," said Ed Hassinger, MoDOT's district engineer in St. Louis. "We were thinking probably over the next few days people would start moving back. But it looks like ... they all came back today."

This report reminds me of John Seabrook's 2001 New Yorker article about traffic, which notes that highway construction doesn't necessarily reduce traffic, and can actually have the reverse effect:

No major new highways have been built around New York since the nineteen-seventies, partly because there's no room left, and partly because many people believe that building highways makes congestion worse, because drivers who had previously used mass transit to avoid the traffic begin using the new roads. Even if no new drivers take to the new roads, scientists have shown that increased road capacity alone can increase congestion, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as "Braess's paradox," after a German mathematician named Dietrich Braess. In the twenty-three American cities that added the most new roads per person during the nineteen-nineties, traffic congestion rose by more than seventy per cent.

Monday, December 7, 2009

An Early Version of Facebook

From an interesting review of a new selection of Sofia Tolstoy's journals:

For Leo Tolstoy and his extended household, diaries were an early version of Facebook. Everyone had his or her own page, and most people were fanatical recorders of their own feelings. The great man himself kept voluminous diaries, making entries almost to the day of his death. His doctor, his secretary, his disciples, his children, and – most of all – his wife also kept journals.

I like the way this passage suggests a kind of continuity between the logorrheic journalling of people in the past and the writing that people now do online. The passage suggests that our current era is something other than simply debased and illiterate.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Comic Books and Fascism

From The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, an interesting passage in which a comic book artist reflects on the implications of his work:

Joe Kavalier was not the only early creator of comic books to perceive the mirror-image fascism inherent in his anti-fascist superman—Will Eisner, another Jew cartoonist, quite deliberately dressed his Allied-hero Blackhawks in uniforms modeled on the elegant death's-head garb of the Waffen SS. But Joe was perhaps the first to feel the shame of glorifying, in the name of democracy and freedom, the vengeful brutality of a very strong man. For months he had been assuring himself, and listening to Sammy's assurances, that they were hastening, by their make-believe hammering at Haxoff or Hynkel or Hassler or Hitler, the intervention of the United States into the war in Europe. Now it occurred to Joe to wonder if all they had been doing, all along, was indulging their own worst impulses and assuring the creation of another generation of men who revered only strength and domination.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Adventures at QT (3)

I was filling up our sodas today at QT. Standing next to me, a guy with an empty cup in his hand scanned the ice dispensers, half of which were hung with blue signs.

"Out of order. Out of order," he read.

"I guess your only option today is cubed ice," I said with a grin.

He shook his head. "She's gonna be pissed," he muttered, filling his cup to the top with ice.

As he walked away toward the register, he called back, "I hate a pregnant woman with crushed ice, don't you?"

A Sort of Talismanic Quality

Cormac McCarthy's old typewriter, on which he composed all of his novels, recently sold for $245,500 at auction. The rare-book dealer who handled the auction had this to say.

When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.

I like this comment, although it's actually kind of ridiculous if you think about it: the idea that fiction composed on a computer would necessarily be any more innovative or unusual than fiction composed on a typewriter—or by hand, for that matter. It's actually not at all as if Mount Rushmore were carved with a Swiss Army knife. All those sentences still had to be formed by McCarthy's mind, regardless of how they were transmitted to the page; the invention, composition, arrangement, and revision evident in works like
Blood Meridian and Suttree would no less stunning if the manuscripts had been produced on computer, and no more so if they'd been written with a No. 2 pencil.

***UPDATE*** Over at the Book Bench, Thessaly La Force writes about the same comment, taking issue with the aspersions it seems to cast on the typewriter itself.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Cultural Artifact

I came across this old Letterman clip via Facebook today. It seems to me a rather striking artifact from a bygone age.

What I mean is, the whole conceit of the interview is based around humor that is no longer really acceptable on a show like this. The first gag, for example, is about Murphy and Cavett being gay lovers. From there, the humor quickly shifts to jokes about the idea of a white guy being friends with a black guy.

Deadpan, Cavett says he and Murphy met on the street when both were collecting Coke bottles to return for the nickel deposit. They hit it off, he says, because their backgrounds were so similar. The joke seems to be that Cavett is the ultimate white guy (indeed, Murphy laughs about how blindingly white Cavett's skin is) and thus an unlikely buddy for Murphy.

There are jokes about "Negro talk" and dreadlocks, all seemingly made safe, I guess, by everyone's assurance that Dick Cavett is a sophisticated liberal, quite above any risk of being racist. Eddie Murphy gamely plays along, getting in his own digs at Cavett along the way, though he pointedly doesn't laugh at certain remarks.

Near the end of the interview, Cavett pulls out of his sock a tube of "Darkie Toothpaste," which he says he bought in Bangkok. Murphy takes over at this point, mocking the blatant racism of the toothpaste and suggesting that its sellers should be punched in the face.

I suppose Cavett would say that he brought the toothpaste on the show in order to mock it, too. But the whole logic of the segment strikes me as antiquated and backwards. It's like, "We've got a black man on the show, so we have to make jokes about his blackness and his differentness." And the differences between Cavett and Murphy are cast in familiar, stereotypical ways. Ultimately, the piece emphasizes the gulf between whites and blacks in America.

It's debatable whether that gulf has closed at all in the quarter century or so since this clip aired. But it does seem to me that our culture no longer jokes about race in quite this way.