Africa 39, a compilation of new African writing, and Franzen’s Kraus Project (Books acquired, 3.04.2015)

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Got these as desk copies (as opposed to review copies) a few weeks ago. I’ve been picking through Africa 39 more or less at random, in between stretches of Gravity’s Rainbow. Hit or miss so far, as these affairs so often are. Here’s Margaret Busby, one of the panelists who helped compile the book (from The Guardian):

Africa39 is not an exercise constrained by labels, fashion and preconceived rules about genres, nor by what constitutes African writing. Twenty countries are represented by work created in a variety of African and European languages – Kiswahili, Igbo and Lingala as well as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Understandably, with the continuing debate about the validity of the “African writer” category, there are those who feel uncomfortable about participating in this venture (indeed, some have chosen to opt out).

Speaking of Gravity’s Rainbow (sort of), it shows up in Jonathan Franzen’s “translation” of Karl Kraus’s essays. I shouldn’t put translation in those suspicious quotation marks; he does translate—but the book he really wants to write is a memoir in footnotes. Maybe you read the excerpt Harper’s published a few years ago?

Michael Hoffman’s long review at NYRB is good. From that piece:

In the same hands done differently, The Kraus Project could have made an entertainment, an intellectual comedy, a bildungsroman about a clever and ambitious young man on a Fulbright in Germany for a couple of years in the early 1980s. The loneliness of abroad would have come into it, separation from a difficult unbookish family in the Midwest and a bookish difficult fiancée at Columbia; the poststructuralist intellectual fashions of the time; a little local color to evoke the bizarrely wonderful extraterritorial and microideological West Berlin of the cold war; what it felt like to be an American in Germany at the time of the Cruises and Pershings and the SS-20s (what price Germany then, not Austria, as what Kraus called a laboratory for destroying the world?); the overbearing influence of the one novel our hero packed in his suitcase full of French theory—it was Gravity’s Rainbow—and the dual terror exerted on him by Pynchon on the one hand and Harold Bloom on the other.

Such a book would somehow have delivered us to the improbable but finally inescapable conclusion that our young American could find no more apt or fruitful literary father for himself than “the angry, apocalyptic, and arguably megalomaniacal Karl Kraus.” The old curmudgeon took care to express his nolo in advance thus: “Many share my views with me. But I don’t share them with them.” As it happened, he also disdained fiction: not an ideal adopted father.

This rich web of circumstance is all present here (Franzen seems to remember everything, or at least to have kept records of everything), but it is packed away in the garrulous and seedy autobiographical footnotes, often going over many pages. Probably the main life of the book is in these. But there is something earnest and faithful and inflexible in Franzen that won’t let him turn away and ironize his former self—“my feeling [is] that I’m still the same person I was at twenty-two.”

… The entire unstable ensemble has something of the rackety allure of the Bremen Town Musicians, or, if you prefer, a new supergroup: the assiduous, dependable Paul Reitter holding things together on bass, the restrained Daniel Kehlmann good for the occasional off-beat tambourine flick (“But Heine is still wonderful, too”), and Franzen riffing and wailing away on free-form lead and clamorous vocals. The Kraus Project really is one of a kind—a strange, space-bending, Cubist, not un-simpatico book.

Alice Munro Wins the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature

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Canadian writer Alice Munro has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Munro, 82, has written over a dozen short story collections in her career. Most of her stories–composed in a mode of psychological realism reminiscent of 19th-century modernism—focus on the lives of people in a small rural pocket of Canada. Munro’s stories appear with an almost-alarming ubiquity, popping up every year in the big anthologies and the best magazines (Jonathan Franzen’s 2004 claim that “outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership” strikes me as odd).

For an appreciative and comprehensive look at her work, take a look at this guide at The Millions. For a contrarian take on Munro, read Christian Lorentzen’s essay in The LRB.

Or, better yet, make your own informed opinion by reading some of her stories:

“Boys and Girls”

“Gravel”

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”

“Fiction”

I Didn’t Like Joshua Cody’s Memoir [sic]

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Joshua Cody’s memoir [sic] showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters a few weeks ago and despite my prejudices, I coasted through it over a few afternoons.

Those prejudices:

1) It’s a memoir.

2) There’s a Jonathan Franzen blurb on the cover.

3) The title [sic] is an unbearably too-clever pun (and this from a guy who loves puns).

The first thing I noticed about [sic] were the pictures : paintings, maps, charts, sketches, lists, collages, other texts, and so on interspersed throughout the text. I like pictures in books.

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The way that Cody uses these illustrations at first reminded me of  W.G. Sebald, who employed pictures in novels like Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn in an oblique, documentary approach.

Cody is less oblique than Sebald, and perhaps flippant too. He doesn’t namecheck Sebald, at any rate, unlike David Byrne, who openly admitted to following Sebald’s path in his 2008 memoir Bicycle Diaries. (Cody does namecheck David Byrne though).

Then I edged my way into the plot, such as it is. I’ll lazily let publisher W.W. Norton summarize:

Joshua Cody, a brilliant young composer, was about to receive his PhD when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Facing a bone marrow transplant and full radiation, he charts his struggle: the fury, the tendency to self-destruction, and the ruthless grasping for life and sensation; the encounter with beautiful Ariel, who gives him cocaine and a blow job in a Manhattan restaurant following his first treatment; the detailed morphine fantasy complete with a bride called Valentina while, in reality, hospital staff are pinning him to his bed.

Moving effortlessly between references to Don Giovanni and the Rolling Stones, Ezra Pound and Buffalo Bill, and studded with pages from his own diaries and hospital notebooks, [sic] is a mesmerizing, hallucinatory glimpse into a young man’s battle against disease and a celebration of art, language, music, and life.

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As Norton’s summary suggests, Cody’s memoir is highly discursive and playful, loaded with references to art, music, and literature. Digressions on figures like David Foster Wallace, Orson Welles, or Alexander Theroux lard the book—indeed, they often seem to edge out the story Cody intends to tell, his cancer memoir. He seems reticent to fully engage his own feelings, instead layering reference upon reference. These references become insufferable at times—are we supposed to care that Cody met David Lynch and would like to be his friend, or that Cody briefly studied ancient Greek? Cody is so busy trying to impress the reader that he forgets to express meaning.

We see this reticence, this turning away from, here over two pages: Cody moves from a story about buying a facsimile copy of Pound’s original draft of The Waste Land to a lengthy footnote that manages to name drop James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Woody Allen, Anaïs Nin, and Henry Miller (in just two sentences!) and then into a facsimile reproduction of one of the stories his brother would write for him as a child:

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The big problem with Cody’s memoir is that it never feels particularly real. I enjoy discursive referential postmodernism as much as the next fella, but [sic] often fails to cohere around a central idea, let alone an emotion. When Cody describes dating a stripper/dominatrix, it feels like a party trick, an inflated anecdote—there’s no emotional core, no contemplative connection to his illness. Other sexual episodes read like a parody of Henry Miller.

As its title suggests, [sic] is a dodge, a bait-and-switch, an evasion. Cody is clearly very clever—but a dazzling display of cleverness can’t sustain a narrative.

Franzen’s Desert Island Reading List Includes Russian Grammar Books; Fails to Include Flowers in the Attic or Uncanny X-Men

“Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man” — Read an Excerpt from the New David Foster Wallace Biography by D.T. Max

 

The only thing Wallace knew for sure was that he desperately wanted to be a novelist again but some piece of him still felt too fragile to attempt an effort so key to his well-being. The problem, he felt, was not really the words on the page; he had lost confidence not in his ability to write so much as the need to have written. Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had struck up an epistolary friendship, offered to get together that April when he was in Boston. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he wrote to his friend explaining his behavior. “The bald fact is that I’m a little afraid of you right now,” he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so “irked by my stuff,” because Wallace was no longer “a worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat.”

He went on: “Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28, who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David F–kwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live … that I consider suicide a reasonable—if not at this point a desirable—option with respect to the whole wretched problem.”

From D.T. Max’s forthcoming David Foster Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost StoryRead the rest of the excerpt.

 

The World Without You (Book Acquired, 4.19.2012)

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The World Without You is forthcoming this summer from Joshua Henkin (Pantheon). Write up from Publisher’s Weekly:

Like a more bittersweet version of Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You or a less chilly variation on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Henkin (Matrimony) tenderly explores family dynamics in this novel about the ties that bind, and even lacerate. One year after the death of their kidnapped journalist son, Leo, in Iraq, David and Marilyn Frankel, non-practicing Jews, call their entire mishpocha to their summer home in the Berkshires to attend his memorial service: Clarissa and her husband, Nathaniel, who, after years of putting off parenthood, are having a difficult time getting pregnant; Lily, a D.C. lawyer who shows up without Malcolm, her restaurateur boyfriend of 10 years; Noelle, an Orthodox Jew who arrives from Jerusalem with her husband, Amram, and their four children; and Thisbe, Leo’s widow, a grad student who flies in from Berkeley with their three-year-old son, Calder. Over the course of the Fourth of July holiday, David and Marilyn will make a stunning announcement; Thisbe will reveal a secret; a game of Celebrity will cause Amram to drive off into the night; Leo will be remembered; and someone will pee on the carpet. The author has created an empathetic cast of characters that the reader will love spending time with, even as they behave like fools and hurt one another. An intelligently written novel that works as a summer read and for any other time of the year.

A Riff on the Kindle Fire

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1. I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas this year, and have been using it for about a month now. I’m not sure how to go about “reviewing” this product, so I’m going to riff a bit.

2. Let’s get the whole Amazon-as-Evil-Empire thing out of the way up front: Yes, Amazon’s business practices are unsavory; yes, attempting to decimate the publishing industry as it currently exists is Not Good; yes, their practices threaten brick-and-mortar stores (the kind that actually pay local and state taxes!); yes their practices work to undermine key figures in the publishing industry—y’know, people like editors.

3. Picking up on that last clause: self-publishing (and the self-publishing “revolution” that e-readers like the Kindle Fire entail) may seem fine and dandy cotton candy, but there’s a reason that editors (and publishers and publicists, etc.) exist. These people make books better. These people make books. (And no, by the way, I’m not interested in reading your self-published ebook, so quit sending me email blasts).

4. Seems like I’m riffing out a lot of context, so let’s keep going: Perhaps you read whinypants Jonathan Franzen decrying the impending moral failures/societal breakdown that will result from ebooks replacing print editions. Franzen’s position is, of course, reactionary and conservative, and deeply rooted in the fear that the perfect Platonic permanence of books will be subverted or decimated.

5. Franzen’s reaction is rooted in part against a (common, teleological, utopian) misconception about the longevity and stability of digital content. Simply put, many people are operating under a dramatic misunderstanding of just how unstable digital content is. Where will all these books be stored, and in what format? Who will be responsible for archiving these materials?

6. A simple thought experiment, germane to item 5 above: Think back on all the obsolete media that you have used in your lifetime. I am in my thirties; my list would include cassette tapes, VHS tapes, laser disks, floppy disks, minidiscs, CDRs . . . (I don’t include vinyl records in this list. I still own hundreds of them and play them regularly).

7. To recontextualize: Printed books are a far more stable format than ebooks.

8. To wit: Ursula LeGuin in her essay “Staying Awake” from a 2008 issue of Harper’s:

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you are fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

9. Points 2-8 seem like so much hemming and hawing, so much reticence to discuss what I seemed to promise at the outset: Some sense of what reading on the Kindle Fire is like.

10. Some things I like very much about reading on the Kindle Fire:

It creates its own light for night reading.

It’s easy to highlight and annotate passages (and then open up a new screen to look at just those highlights and annotations, isolated from the text proper).

It’s lightweight and ergonomic and, when I read with it over my head, my wrists don’t constrict and go tingly.

It holds a lot of books.

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11. Some things I like about the Kindle Fire that I would think I wouldn’t like about the Kindle Fire, were I to read such a list from another person:

I can determine how far I have read into a book as a percentage.

I can stop and browse the internet in the middle of reading.

I can look up words or even wikis as I go by simply hovering a finger over a word or phrase.

12. My daughter loves the thing. Loves loves loves it. She is probably the primary user. She is four and a half. I think the interactive books she adores are marvelous.

13. Some things I don’t like about the Kindle Fire:

No book smell.

One texture for all books: This is probably the biggest problem I can see with the Kindle Fire.

It requires a battery charge, so there’s a built in level of accessibility; a sense that one must needs “prepare” ahead of time to read, perhaps (unlike our old friend the print book, which only requires a light source).

No bath time reading.

I can’t read it around my daughter, because she will attempt to take it, or, at minimum, curl up in my lap.

It is not possible to have like three or four books open at once.

Can’t read .cbr files. Why? Why?

I had to buy a USB micro B cable to connect the Kindle to the computer that I use to store digital content. Why not include this cable, Amazon? (It’s almost as if the company wants consumers to be solely reliant on Amazon’s services as a content provider . . .)

14. I’ve found it nearly impossible to read an electronic book on the Kindle that I started as a print book. For example, I’m about half-way through Teju Cole’s novel Open City; the kind publicist who sent it to me also sent me an electronic version of the text. I began the print copy in earnest, but the other night, after reading a bit of Hawthorne on the Kindle, I found myself wanting to sink back into Cole’s Sebaldian orbit. When I found my place in the text though, I felt alienated, bleak even, as if I were not reading the definitive version of Cole’s book but instead its cheap ghost. There is no intellectual or objective justification for this feeling. Call it a vibe or a habit.

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15. Books that I enjoy reading on the Kindle Fire:

David Markson’s The Last Novel, which perhaps begs to be read on such a device.

Anything by Nietzsche, but his aphoristic works especially.

A .pdf version of Luigi Serafini’s rare and expensive book The Codex Seraphinianus (one of many verboten tomes on my Kindle, but remember the name of this site if you please . . .)

Anything by Whitman, especially letters and other non-essentials that I would not normally pursue.

Ditto Hawthorne.

Ditto Dickinson.

Ditto Melville.

Oh, and beyond the overlooked and underfamous works of certain American Renaissance faves: Moby-Dick too, which seems looser, freer, more aphoristic on the Kindle. (Why?)

Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which seems simultaneously dated and futuristic. Like William Gibson with a strong streak of Pynchonian sillies.

And Gibson: Rereading Burning Chrome. Had forgotten how good some of these shorts are.

Houellebecq’s Whatever: its brevity, its succinctness gels with my nascent Kindle habits, or perhaps instructs my Kindle habits, or more likely creates my Kindle habits.

16. To return to a point in #13 above: The Kindle Fire necessarily imposes a uniform texture on every book that one reads on it; this would be true of any e-reader. Sure, you can change the background (white, black, or a sepia color, which is what I prefer), fonts, sizes, spacing, etc. — but there is no sense of physicality, of individual identity, of, dare I say it, specialness, to the texts. I am aware that these are terribly subjective and overtly Romantic terms, but hell, I like physical books. I like their covers and their smells and their discolorations. I like leaving bookmarks in every book that I finish or abandon—I almost always find a new bookmark for every book that I read (the autobookmark on the Kindle is useful, but how can it compare with a photograph of my son or drawing by my daughter or a postcard from a stranger or a scrap of poetry from a discontinued textbook or an old grocery list of my wife’s from years before we were married?).

17. I titled this post “A Riff on the Kindle Fire,” but that’s a bit ambiguous I suppose: I did not compose the post on the Kindle Fire, which I find awkward re: blogging/wordprocessing. I used a laptop (with some help from an iPhone). Maybe the preposition “about” would be more suitable.

18. By way of closing, after four weeks with the thing:

It’s light.

It’s convenient for night reading, but you probably shouldn’t take it in the bath.

No book smell.