Batrachomyomachia, The Battle of Frogs and Mice

Books, Literature, Writers

Theodor Severin Kittelsen

Over the next few weeks, I will be tweeting Hugh G. Evelyn-White’s 1914 translation of Batrachomyomachia, of The Battle of Frogs and Mice, a comic epic sometimes attributed to Homer. If the idea of reading a fairly short text over a few weeks seems insanely stupid to you but you want to read this parody, read it here.

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Teju Cole’s Dictionary of Received Ideas

Books, Literature, Writers

Yesterday on Twitter, Teju Cole shared a series of definitions—some ironic, some hilarious funny, all perceptive.

The series of definitions immediately reminded me of Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic work The Devil’s Dictionary, but Cole later tweeted that he had Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (The Dictionary of Received Ideas) in mind as a model.

Cole reiterated Flaubert’s influence again when he published the tweets today at The New Yorker under the title “In Place of Thought“—a little sample:

AMERICAN. With the prefix “all,” a blonde.

CHILDREN. The only justification for policy. Always say “our children.” The childless have no interest in improving society.

HILARIOUS. Never simply say “funny.”

HIP HOP. Old-school hip hop, i.e., whatever was popular when you were nineteen, is great. Everything since then is intolerable.

HIPSTER. One who has an irrational hatred of hipsters.

INTERNET. A waste of time. Have a long online argument with anyone who disagrees.

JAZZ. America’s classical music. The last album was released in 1965.

LITERALLY. Swear you’d rather die than use “literally” as an intensifier.

POET. Always preceded by “published.” Function unknown.

Bonus—from Flaubert’s Dictionnaire:

BLACK – Always preceded by “pitch”.

CHILDREN – Affect a lyric tenderness towards  them, when people are about.

INTRODUCTION — Obscene word.

LITERATURE — Idle pastime.

METAPHORS — Always too many in poems. Always too many in anybody’s writing.

OPTIMIST — Synonym for imbecile.

POETRY — Entirely useless; out of date.

THINK (TO) — Painful. Things that compel us to think are generally neglected.

Read 45 Small Fates from Teju Cole

Books

If you follow Teju Cole on Twitter, you’ve likely already read many of his small fates, tweets he composed over two years drawn from Nigerian newspapers. The project follows the spirit of Félix Fénéon’s faits divers, three-line tragedies collected from the news.

Cole has written about the project in detail at his site, as have a number of other sites, but I can’t recall seeing the small fates put together in one place before The New Inquiry published 45 today under the title I don’t normally do this sort of thing. Cole’s small fates operate on a wonderfully strange axis of comedy and horror; they are brief but rich, ironic but intensely real.

Sample:

tc

Read the rest of I don’t normally do this sort of thing.

I also highly recommend Cole’s novel Open City.

theNewerYork, a Worthy Alternative to Your iPhone

Art, Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

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Like many (maybe most) Americans, my first impulse when I have to wait somewhere is to pull out my smart phone and dick around. I like to dick around on Twitter, which often leads me to stuff that I scan or gaze or graze through, with a kind of distracted, even half-hearted, attention. Because I’m also attending to something else—the waiting.

I had to wait, or be patient, or be a patient, or what have you several times last month, and each time I brought with me the newest or forthcomingest issue of theNewerYork—issue 3 (or III, depending on press materials). It fits neatly in my pocket and most of the pieces are a page at most—a perfect alternative to my iPhone, with none of the eye-deadening numbness that so often happens with long binges on a tiny screen.

theNewerYork describes itself as

a weird sort of literary mag. Our rule: no short stories, no poetry, no essays. We want to play around with literary form and narration, we want to screw with your mind! There will be personal letters, flash-fictions, glossaries, aphorisms, manuals, lists and other absurdities. We received over 600 submissions from all over the world. We’ve got flash fictions of sex and drugs, teenage romances, philosophical treatises, pretentious definitions, web forums, silly, sappy, scary stuff.

That’s a pretty apt description. To hijack and cannibalize my write-up of the last issue, theNewerYork’s “willingness to showcase experimentation in what goes on paper for people to look at and read is both a strength and a weakness.” This third issue sees an all-around increase in quality, from the production design, to the art, to the writing.

Highlights include Panayotis Pakos’s “Les Innumerables (A Binary Tale),” a Calvinoesque flash that imagines the dream-life of numbers, and Shane Jesse Christmass’s “My Delicate Response to a Child’s Writing Prompt Website” (quick sample: “If there were no television I’d beach my television set down within the dunes…”). Zach Davidson’s “Unstandardized Testing” claims (truthfully?) to present a set of scrambled questions from a trash bin; the testtaker is tasked with creating proper order (sample: “too lazy to do lazy something you are if you are still?”)

The most affecting piece in the collection is Anton Nimblett’s “Show & Tell: An American Game,” an analysis posing as a chronology. I’ll share only the nineteenth century portion, and, at the risk of spoiling, let you know that the story ends with the line “Show birth certificate (again, again, again).”

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The list-form, along with (or combined with) the second-person POV seems a favorite for “experimental” fiction, which can occasionally be grating (but only when it doesn’t work)—but most of the pieces here work. And if they don’t, there’s something coming up that does.

Despite the disparate tones, approaches, and geographies of its contributors, theNewerYork coheres—the little magazine has a clear (if discursive vision). Good stuff. Check out their website for more. 

“Tao Lin” — Michael Kimball

Books, Literature, Writers

Tao Lin was born in Flagstaff, AZ. He had a very busy childhood that involved practicing the piano a lot. When he was 5, Tao remembers writing little books and selling them to his mother for 50¢. When Tao was small, his neighbor had a rabbit farm and sold them for money. Being near that changed Tao, and, because of it, he talks less shit about people publicly and makes fewer grand pronouncements.

Growing up, Tao played kickball and baseball and basketball in the neighborhood, but not at school. When he was 10, he was playing poker with his neighbor and bet his entire coin collection. The neighbor won and Tao picked up his coin collection and ran back to his house and locked the door. The neighbor knocked a lot and said things like this: “Just give me half. I won’t be angry.”

Tao kept practicing the piano until he no longer owned a piano that worked. Then, at New York University, he studied journalism, but he would have studied creative writing if there had been a program. His sophomore year, he broke up with his girlfriend and then decided to focus really hard on writing. After that, Tao wrote and published a few books. As Tao has noted in interviews, his writing expresses crippling loneliness, severe depression, and the arbitrary nature of the universe. Also, Tao enjoys repeatedly looking at Statcounter, Sales Rank Express, Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and Tumblr. When a number changes, he feels like something has happened. His job is to promote himself to ensure money will come to him 2-3 years from now, and then even after that.

Everything is just something Tao does. It can be either good or bad depending on the way he thinks about it. Once, Tao thought about peeing in an empty FYXX energy drink bottle and selling it on eBay. Another time, after he ran out of money, Tao sold 10% shares of his second novel to six different people for $2,000 per share. He will never get another real job for the rest of his life. Tomorrow, Tao would like to eat only raw vegan foods.

Update : Tao published some more books. He also married Megan Boyle and they later separated.

“Tao Lin” is part of Michael Kimball’s new book Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard), which is new from Mud Luscious Press. Interview and review forthcoming. This piece is republished with the kind permission of the author.

 

The Universe Within (Book Acquired, 12.15.2012)

Books, Writers

20121217-104445.jpgThe Universe Within is new from Pantheon early next year. Their blurb:

From one of our finest and most popular science writers, and the best-selling author of Your Inner Fish, comes the answer to a scientific mystery as big as the world itself: How are the events that formed our solar system billions of years ago embedded inside each of us?

In Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin delved into the amazing connections between human bodies—our hands, heads, and jaws—and the structures in fish and worms that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. In The Universe Within, with his trademark clarity and exuberance, Shubin takes an even more expansive approach to the question of why we look the way we do. Starting once again with fossils, he turns his gaze skyward, showing us how the entirety of the universe’s fourteen-billion-year history can be seen in our bodies. As he moves from our very molecular composition (a result of stellar events at the origin of our solar system) through the workings of our eyes, Shubin makes clear how the evolution of the cosmos has profoundly marked our own bodies.

PW‘s review:

University of Chicago paleontologist Shubin wrote about the fishy origins of humanity in 2009’s Your Inner Fish. In his new book, he goes farther back and further out, explaining how humans bear the markings of cosmic phenomena; as he puts it, “Written inside us is the birth of the stars.” Here, the author surveys everything from glints in “Greenlandic rocks” to the spreading signs of supernovae to reveal “deep ties to the forces that shaped our bodies.” He demonstrates how mammals owe their “high-energy lifestyle[s]” to oxygen released hundreds of millions of years ago as continents spread apart, and how color vision arose after continental drift cooled the planet, diversified flora, and resulted in biological competition that favored those organisms who could identify nutritious plants according to hue (“Every time you admire a richly colorful view, you can thank India for slamming into Asia”). Shubin is a leading proponent of the fusion of paleontology, developmental genetics, and genomics, and the result of his efforts is a volume of truly inspired science writing. Appropriately vast in scope, Shubin deftly balances breadth and depth in his search for a “sublimely beautiful truth.”

 

In Which Bret Easton Ellis Finally Comes to Understand Women

Books, Writers

Bret Easton Ellis took to Twitter last night to share some more of his profound insights.

Here, he sets the stage for us and delivers a powerful thesis (all in under 140 characters!):

And of course, some supporting details (including a bit of biology):

Mr. Ellis even replies to one of his followers! (I like the touch of self loathing):

A rousing conclusion statement:

And a fitting epilogue:

Bravo!

Why I’m Not Particularly Interested in Reading a DFW Biography

Books, Literature, Writers

(Think about it — the personal lives of most people who spend 14 hours a day sitting there alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill rides to hear about.)

–David Foster Wallace on literary biography in general and Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life in particular; from “Borges on the Couch,” a 2004 NYT piece republished this month in the David Foster Wallace collection Both Flesh and Not.

I Try to Riff on Both Flesh and Not, DFW’s New Essay Collection, Which I Haven’t Read, as I Drink Red Wine to Numb the Election Coverage (Book Acquired, 11.06.2012)

Books, Literature, Writers

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1. Today, I picked up Both Flesh and Not, a collection of David Foster Wallace essays and short pieces. I specifically ordered this book from my local bookstore (I didn’t get a review copy), and I bought it in hardback (I generally dislike hardbacks).

2. I should be reading it now—I’d like to be reading it—but I’m flicking between the five or six channels I have, usually stopping on PBS, and then scanning Twitter and other online media, because, hey, it’s Election Day in America.

3. I’ve already read several of the pieces in Both Flesh. You might have too. Here’s the table of contents:

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4. But a lot of it I haven’t read. I’m eager to dig into the piece on David Markson, and the piece on Brat Pack writers, “Fictional Futures,” which was later repurposed in “E Unibus Pluram.”

5. I spent most of the afternoon riffling through it, trying not to think about the election results that would be coming in the next few years. I played outside with my kids, building a strange hut out of giant elephant leaves and then a small nest out of pine straw. I photographed the planes that daily fly over our neighborhood, slow, heavy supply planes that drift in lazy routine arcs from the nearby naval base, not loud as jets, but bulky. Elephant mothers, pregnant.

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6. I remembered that Wallace killed himself in an election year, in September. I remember how I felt.

7. (Please don’t think this riff is really about anything. I’m distracted. I’ve imbibed some wine. Some Xanax might be involved).

8. Speaking of posts in 2008—

I went back just now, and riffled through the site’s archives from November of 2008. (Back when I’d post like three, maybe four times a week. Once a day at most).

A lot of vitriol there. A lot of vitriol for Palin, and a lot of vitriol for the emerging sentiment that would galvanize in what would become the Tea Party movement.

I wrote about the Election Night too. About Jesse Jackson’s tears. I even wrote about finding some respite from cynicism in Obama’s election. (Don’t worry, I’m as cynical as ever. Moreso—

9. —but

I remember watching the inauguration in 2009. I was still teaching high school. I had third period planning and I watched the whole shebang in an empty lab on the school’s third floor with my friend Derek, a black Muslim who taught history in the classroom next to mine. It was cold up there and empty. I remember he asked me if the election poem was good and I asked him what he thought (I thought it was good). I remember we cried a little in spite of ourselves and clutched at each other. The world seemed so much more possible. I’m clutching to this memory now, which is deep and rich and I hope to keep forever. It presents through pinot and Xanax).

10. Is this a bait and switch? I apologize. Look, I love you reader. Really, I do. I do.

11. So, another detail from the Wallace collection:

The selections are intercut with definitions from his vocabulary list for The American Heritage Dictionary. Like so:

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12. What was I doing here? I don’t know. Let me just wrap it up. I should be writing about DFW and the book but I can’t. Distracted. I’ll schedule the post. Let it stand. Let it roll at 11:11am tomorrow? (To clarify–it’s 9:55pm on 11/06/2012).

Okay, I’ll do that. Finish the rest in the comments? Sure. And some more, of course, about the book.

Late to Love: Bret Easton Ellis

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

In high school I bought American Psycho from Barnes & Noble and read it in a few weeks. I knew it was full of awful, horrible stuff that I would never be able to forget but I did it anyways. I was fascinated, revolted; I laughed out loud. I became that one guy that burst everyone’s bubble by telling them that the movie sucked or at least totally missed the point of the book (whatever point there might have been) and that it also left out every one of the funniest scenes, and, oh that the ending was total bullshit. People would ask me if I “liked” the book and I would evasively respond: “I don’t know if it’s a book one can actually like…” or “I don’t know if like is the right word…”—and just generally avoid making any kind of decision about the book, or its author, that prince of darkness Bret Easton Ellis.

But Bret Easton Ellis intrigued me. Later, when the film Rules of Attraction came out I saw it in the theater by myself and purchased the DVD. It was a much better film than AP, and that was satisfying to me in some way. I didn’t read the book, nor was I moved to seek out Less Than Zero, although at some point I found Glamorama at a used store and bought it for the heck of it, but I don’t think I ever even tried to read it. I was interested in BEE but only from afar. He had definitely scarred me with AP. It was a singular experience at the time and (to this day has maybe been matched only by Jerzy Kosinski with my combined readings of Steps and The Painted Bird). I wasn’t really looking to be haunted in that way any time soon.

I can still remember where I was when I heard about Lunar Park. I read about it at The New York Times, on the family computer at a friend’s parents’ house in Rutland Vermont. I saw that Ellis had a new book, skimmed the article, and saw mention of “meta” elements, the use of a character named “Bret Ellis” who was decidedly not intended to be the actual author of the book, but rather a sort of parallel dimension version of BEE who had settled down in the suburbs and had kids. This was all interesting to me and I made the mental note, “Read Lunar Park.” That was in August 2005.

Fast forward to May 2010. In the five years since Lunar Park came out everything about my life has changed. I am living in Los Angeles pursuing a career in screenwriting. I have been married for a year and I have an apartment and two cats. And it is in this apartment that I come across a VICE interview with the man himself, on the eve of the publication of his new novel Imperial Bedrooms. I find myself reading the interview and it dawns on me that I have never read or heard this man speak, I’ve barely seen photographs of him, and that basically everything I think I know about him has been pure conjecture derived from conversations over the years.

My idea of Bret Ellis as this detached, cynical, deviant creature is immediately thrown out the window by seeing pictures of him wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sitting at a desk. In some of the photos green palm trees can be seen behind him and it becomes clear very quickly in the interview that he now lives in Los Angeles as well. I end up reading the entire article and thinking that Ellis is just a guy like anyone else, not especially pretentious or malevolent, as he had been accused of being by people I had spoken with at times. And what’s more he made reference to “the Stephen King part” of Lunar Park.

My mind exploded.

What Stephen King part? I remembered and reinstated my mental note: “Read Lunar Park.”

And a few weeks later, as though on cue a beautiful hardback first edition copy of LP appeared at the used book stand at my neighborhood farmer’s market. I bought it on a Saturday morning and opened as I was cooking lunch, expecting to get a taste and maybe read a page or two while the food cooked. I ended up sitting on the couch for the entire day reading. That night I couldn’t wait for my wife to fall asleep so I could sit up late and maybe finish, and I started to do just that until I became so frightened by the story that I literally had to put it away until it was light outside. I had a little trouble sleeping that night but ultimately it was okay, and the next day I finished the book. Immediately I was on the phone telling friends to read it. I made several of my local friends borrow my copy and one-by-one everyone came back to me with the same positive report, and regardless of their previous experience or lack-there-of with Ellis’s writing, everyone who read it adored it.

My admiration extended past just the book or my experience reading it. It reconciled the past and my memories and suddenly I found myself saying “I like Bret Easton Ellis” or even going so far as to thinking of myself as a fan of his. I slowly started keeping up with his online presence, (going so far as even joining Twitter just to follow him) and I find the experience genuinely rewarding. Don’t get me wrong: he’s obviously a weird guy sometimes (anyone who could write the habitrail scene in AP would have to be I guess) and I don’t always agree with his randomly asserted opinions about books and movies (I disagree in particular with him about music: our tastes are just simply different). But overall, I think he has a valid and useful perspective on culture and entertainment. Perhaps some of the detractors still see him as the austere, decadent, nihilistic provocateur that I feared and resented in high school, but I have an impossible time jiving that notion with the man who tweeted recently that he had been talked into getting really stoned and going to see The Lorax.

And I guess this all ties in with his recent series of tweets that he is considering a pseudosequel to American Psycho. Suddenly, this proposition seemed so appealing. It’s been twelve years since I read AP, and in that time I don’t think I’ve ever opened it again, and now suddenly I find myself wanting more, hoping that Ellis decides to go through with it.

So yesterday in excited anticipation I went down to the farmer’s market and this time the used book guy had two beautiful paperback copies of Rules of Attraction and Less Than Zero. I bought them both. Even if Ellis does convince himself to write the Los Angeles Patrick Bateman story, it will be years before it will be published and in my hands, so I guess I need to relax and catch up on everything I missed out on so far.