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Category: May 2009

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John Updike's power of literary nostalgia


Although the world lost John Updike in January, the publishing world is continuing to produce a steady output of new books by the great American scrivener. Alfred A. Knopf published "Endpoint: And Other Poems" last month and will publish a collection of his stories, "My Father's Tears: And Other Stories" next month.

But it's the little essay by him in "Burn This Book," edited by Toni Morrison and that we reviewed on Sunday, that deserves some attention here. Originally published in his collection "Picked-Up Pieces," the essay "Why Write?" is an anthem of sorts, and the following passage might be treated as an encouraging word for all you writers out there when you're in need of one:

Why write? As soon ask, why rivet? Because a number of personal accidents drifts us toward the occupation of riveter, which preexists, and, most importantly, the riveting gun exists, and we love it.

Think of a pencil. What a quiet, nimble, slender, and then stubby wonder-worker he is! At his touch, worlds leap into being; a tiger with no danger, a steamroller with no weight, a palace at no cost. All children are alive to the spell of pencil and crayons, of making something, as it were, from nothing; a few children never move out from under this spell, and try to become artists. I was once a rapturous child drawing at the dining-room table, under a stained-glass chandelier that sat like a hat on the swollen orb of my excitement.

Stumbling upon such lovely insights gives the illusion that Updike is still with us and still writing -- the experience feels similar to the way astronomers say light reaches us from a star that supernova'd years ago.

-- Nick Owchar

Photo credit: Davis Freeman

Alice Munro wins Man Booker International Prize


According to the official announcement, Alice Munro has won the International Man Booker Prize. "I am totally amazed and delighted," she said in a press release.

The judging committee, which included Southern California writer Jane Smiley, noted that Munro's reputation as a master of short fiction was deserved, but implies that the form was less meaningful than the quality of her work.

Alice Munro is mostly known as a short story writer and yet she brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels.  To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before.

Munro, who is 77, will be awarded a trophy and 60,000 pounds on June 25 in Dublin, Ireland.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: George Waldman for the Los Angeles Times

When can we read John Sayles' new book?


The manuscript clocks in at 1,000 pages and bears the sadly ironic title "Some Time in the Sun." It would be the fourth novel from John Sayles -- would be, that is, if it had a publisher. Josh Getlin reports:

"I've been done with it for six or seven months, and it's out to five or six publishers," he said quietly [to a New York audience who attended a recent reading]. "But we haven't had any bites yet."

John Sayles, Oscar-nominated creator of "Return of the Secaucus 7," "Lone Star," "Matewan" and other movies, is having trouble getting a book deal.

Those who are more familiar with Sayles' film work might be surprised to learn that he is also a National Book Award nominee, for his 1977 novel, "Union Dues." When that book was reissued in 2006, Sayles told NPR, "There is that tension always that I want to create between what's this beautiful thing in the background and what's being said in the foreground, and is there any match to it."

In "Some Time in the Sun," Sayles explores the 1898 war between the U.S. and Spain over the Philippines. In that conflict, Getlin writes, Sayles saw "an eerie precursor of U.S. military exploits in Vietnam." His article continues:

"Some Time in the Sun" -- like his films -- blends vivid human portraits with historical events and brilliantly captures individual voices. In addition to his raucous newsboys, it spotlights African American and white soldiers fighting in the Philippines, fast-buck artists who help create the motion picture industry, and features cameos by Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, William Randolph Hearst, Damon Runyon and other historical figures.

Until -- or unless -- the book finds a publisher, that's all we're likely to read of it.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Remembering on Memorial Day


As recently as the late 1950s, in a small town on Long lsland near New York City, young people in school learned certain poems: Joyce Kilmer’s “Prayer of a Soldier in France,” Alan Seeger’s “ I Have a Rendezvous With Death” and John MacRae’s “In Flanders Field.” Does anyone still remember the fallen this way in classrooms?

This spring, “Dispatches” by Michael Herr appeared in the Everyman Series from Alfred A. Knopf, 40 years after the publication of Herr’s memorable article on Khe Sanh in Esquire (it is also one of the most memorable parts of “Dispatches”). How many literary books are there about the Vietnam War? Some would say Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is at the top of that list, though for many people the experience of Vietnam probably derives mostly from movies, not books — “Apocalypse Now,” of course, or “Platoon,” or “Go Tell the Spartans.”

As the poems above may suggest, World War I seems to have left a deep impression, not to mention some powerful books about that conflict: “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque (still read in many middle schools across the country) and, now and again, Ernst Junger’s “Storm of Steel” (now in a very good translation by Michael Hoffman). “Storm” is probably the single best book ever written about the actual experience of an individual soldier in modern combat.

But for many around the world, is it Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” — with its description of a young man’s experiences of combat on the Italian front in World War I — that has had the most lasting literary impact? 

Continue reading »

Two sides of Mexico's best short fiction


The new anthology of short stories "Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction," edited by Álvaro Uribe, is out now from the Dalkey Archive Press. Nothing unites the writers "beyond the quality of their work," Uribe writes in his introduction. "I decided to reverse the usual chronological order so that the reading begins in the present day and ends in a vanishing point in which today's Mexican narrative merges with the rich tradition it inherited." The book begins with Vivian Abenshushan (born in 1972) and ends with Héctor Manjarrez (born in 1945).

At more than 500 pages, it's a big book for containing only 16 stories -- but that's because they are printed in both Spanish and English, side by side (Spanish on the left-hand pages, English on the right).

It's a lovely idea, encouraging a dual reading of the works, all of which appear in English for the first time in this collection. But will those who don't know Spanish really try to read it?

At first, I didn't. My Spanish-language training consists of a quarter-long seventh-grade class. I've picked up a little bit of Spanish from the signs I've seen and conversations I've heard as an Angeleno.  I can say please and thank you and hurl an insult or two, but I can't put a sentence together.

In Álavaro Enrigue's story "On the Death of the Author" -- a marvelously spiraling work of a professor trying to tell the story of the last Native American, alternating between sincerity and skepticism, I found a way into the Spanish version. The culprit was an American colloquialism:

As I imagined it, my ex-wife and I would drive from south to north as if navigating a hip dream; we would see huge things; we would linger in impossibly sinister places; we would talk with free spirits and radical types.

En ese viaje, tal como lo pensaba, mi ex mujer y yo manejaríamos de sur a norte como navegando el sueño de un hipster y veríamos cosas descomunales, nos detendríamos en lugares imposiblemente siniestros, y hablaríamos con espíritus libres y francamente irregulares.

Because the phrase "hip dream" sounded strange to me, the italicized "hipster" on the opposite page caught my eye. And it made me wonder -- isn't "hipster" a certain type of person, rather than the equivalent of the adjective "hip"? Does "the dream of a hipster" (which is how the Spanish phrase seems to read to me) mean something slightly different from "a hip dream"? I am absolutely unqualified as a translator -- I know almost no Spanish, and any familiarity I have with the culture of Mexico is filtered through Mexican-American-Angeleno culture -- but my curiosity was sparked.

The sentence above shows another difference beyond hipster/hip: The chain of semicolons in the English version is in the Spanish version a series of phrases connected by commas and the conjunction "and" ("y"). The rhythm has been changed by translator C.M. Mayo.

Clearly, Mayo knows what she is doing; she's fluent in Spanish. But these differences point up the fact that translation is also creative writing, not transliteration. This is obvious to people who think about works in translation, but it is a reminder to me that as much as I like this story in the version I can read, I'd really love to be able to consume it in its original form.

Which is perhaps one of the motivations behind setting the stories next to each other in their original and translated versions: to generate a thirst for the one you can't have.

Editor Uribe and contributor Cristina Rivera-Garza ("Nostalgia") will be at Skylight Books for a reading and discussion today at 5 p.m.; there will be, I hear, mini-burritos from the delicious L.A. restaurant Yuca's.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Daveness 98 via Flickr

Glen David Gold shows the inside of 'Sunnyside'

Fans of Glen David Gold's "Carter Beats the Devil" have been waiting since 2001 for his next novel. Little did they know that in 2007 he began blogging about the process of writing and editing "Sunnyside," a fiction starring Charlie Chaplin, out now. Our reviewer Richard Rayner writes:

"Sunnyside," for all its discussion of movies, and its often cinematic rendering of story, reminds us of the big way in which prose narrative differs. Film is a ruthless medium, allowing no longueurs, requiring acceleration through the story line and a strict adherence to tone. Fiction engages its audience one-on-one and relies less on control. As readers, we forgive problems in novels that, as viewers, we simply don't in films. "Sunnyside" feels, at times, like Dickensian streaky bacon, a bit of a baggy monster. But it has, too, those wonderful Dickensian qualities, namely, the capacity to startle, to thrill, to evoke laughter and, ultimately, to bring tears to the eyes. No reader who sticks for the ride is going to forget it.

Gold whittled the first draft of more than 1000 pages to the final 576, posting notes on his blog along the way,  such as:  "Too much weather. Weather should be a character and not a placeholder. I think." Today, in a very funny post on the Vroman's Bookstore blog, he writes about his stealth-blogging, and manages to connect Dick Cavett and cats in sinks. 

I recall [Cavett] describing his work habits: He would start typing something, drop his white-out under the desk accidentally, find a magazine from 1963 and six hours later realize he’d been reading articles on snowshoes instead of working.

I thought this sounded grand, apparently, as it’s exactly how I work now, except for “magazines” substitute “Internet,” a word far more seductive and dangerous.  I was made for the tangent.  Would I rather work or look at 6,000 photographs of cats sitting in sinks?

Gold is guest blogging in advance of his Vroman's reading, which happens to be scheduled for 7 p.m.  Monday, a lousy day to be anywhere but at a barbecue. He's also going to be at Skylight on Tuesday and The Hammer on Wednesday, so if you want to see him, there's no need to go to Vroman's. Unless you find blog posts, Dick Cavett and cats in sinks convincing.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Charlie Chaplin in "The Circus," 1928

Does Tavern on the Green not want its own book?

Tavern on the Green, the Central Park restaurant and lounge, is the subject of the 310-plus page book "Tavern on the Green," which came out in January. At the time, its publisher, Workman Publishing, breathlessly touted the book as "a glorious celebration of the legendary eating spot in Manhattan's Central Park."

Nestled in Central Park, one of the most fabulous settings imaginable, Tavern on the Green has been dazzling generations of New Yorkers and visitors with its inventive, eclectic menu and playful decor. Some 700,000 guests dine every year at this one-of-a-kind restaurant, which has also played host to countless weddings and birthday parties, Broadway opening nights and glamorous afterparties, and many other memorable events.

This enchanting souvenir volume captures all of Tavern on the Green's rich history — from its origins in the 1870s as a shelter for the sheep that grazed in the nearby Sheep Meadow to its reincarnation as a restaurant in the 1930s and rebirth in the 1970s as the glistening jewel of the great restaurateur/showman Warner LeRoy.

Well, the shine is off the jewel; Wednesday the New York Post reported that Workman has sued Tavern on the Green for more than $200,000 for "allegedly going back on a deal to buy 10,000 copies of their own book, 'Tavern on the Green,' the suit claims."

But the book lawsuit is just one of the restaurant's challenges. Its 20-year contract for the property is up on Dec. 31 of this year, and this week at least two other restaurateurs joined the LeRoy family in submitting proposals -- and $50,000 checks -- to compete for an operating license for the next two decades.

If the LeRoy's tenure at Tavern on the Green does by chance come to an end in December, then maybe they'll have wanted those books after all -- they'll be collectors items.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo of Tavern on the Green by phenominam via Flickr

Book news: New fiction, fiction in competition and a fat cat wins


The new issue of Bookforum is out today with excerpts from six upcoming novels, including "Blame" by L.A. author Michelle Huneven.

Those six aren't in competition, but the 10 finalists in the running for the storySouth Million Writers Award are. The stories, which appeared in the literary journals Agni, ChiZine, Drunken Boat, Eyeshot, LitNImage, Menda City Review, Narrative Magazine, OSC's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Per Contra Fiction and Strange Horizons, are all available online. The idea is that anyone who reads the stories can vote on which should win. Voting has been underway since May 17 and continues until June 17.

Voting is also open for the 2009 Hugo Awards. To be eligible to vote, you must register to attend Anticipation, the 67th World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in August. In the "best novel" category, adult fiction, young adult fiction and children's fiction compete against one another: The contenders include Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book," Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother," "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross' "Saturn's Children" and "Zoe's Tale" by John Scalzi. Online voting closes July 3; by then you should have made your plans to get to the convention, which will be in Montreal.

In other news from Canada, a fat cat has won the 2009 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Award. In "Chester's Back," by Mélanie Watt, Chester, a cartoon cat, uses a red pen to mark up the author's version of the book. The winners were chosen not by a flock of French deconstructionists but by Canadian third- and fourth-graders.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

UPDATE: This post originally included Alma Fullerton as the co-author of "Chester's Back." Fullerton is the author of "Libertad," which won in the Young Adult category. Watt is the sole author of "Chester's Back."

Photo: A sculpture of a young reader outside the Pleasanton, Calif., public library. Credit: John "K" via Flickr

Tom Waits for everyone


Musician Tom Waits, the subject of the new book "Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits," did not help author Barney Hoskyns with the biography. Instead, he and his wife sent e-mails to friends asking them to keep mum -- some of which appear in the book. But his lack of cooperation was only to be expected -- marriage, quitting drinking and seclusion have made Waits a very private public figure.

Waits "emerged in 1971 as a flophouse poet and beat-influenced boozer" Erick Himmeslbach writes in his review of the book.

When that conceptual well ran dry, he became a sonic junk man, a cockeyed carnival barker shilling opaque shards of sound.

For Waits, these costumes are both performance art and defense mechanisms... Being a dodgy enigma makes Waits both a fascinating subject and frustrating challenge.

Waits' early boozing years were in keeping with his public persona, but after he cleaned up and got married to Kathleen Brennan, things changed. Brennan "is a hero and a villain," Himmeslbach writes, "Hoskyns portrays her as a Svengali with a Yoko Ono-like grip on her husband.... And yet, if Brennan were a calculated string-puller in regard to her husband, it's difficult to argue with the results."

Their guarded privacy may have allowed Waits to maintain a personal life that's entirely different from the half-mad, often dark rumble-voiced character of his songs. Maybe someday there will be a biographer that gets to ask him about that directly. Until then, there is "Lowside of the Road." And the music.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Kim Kulish for the Los Angeles Times

Shakespeare: the immortal bard(s)?

William-shakespeare Were William Shakespeare's "Sonnets" the "Basement Tapes" of the Elizabethan age? The idea, suggests Clinton Heylin in "So Long As Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare's Sonnets" (Da Capo: 280 pp., $24), is not as farfetched as it sounds.

The first edition of the "Sonnets" -- which appeared 400 years ago today, on May 20, 1609 -- was put out by Thomas Thorpe, a fringe figure in Elizabethan London's literary culture, less a legitimate publisher than what Heylin calls a "booklegger." In that sense, the "Sonnets" may have been an early bootleg -- published without Shakespeare's knowledge or permission, much as "The Basement Tapes" were when they leaked out in the late 1960s and essentially started the rock 'n' roll bootleg industry.

As to why this is important, partly it's a matter of historical curiosity, because the provenance of the "Sonnets" has long been questioned, as has the identity of the "fair youth" to whom they were addressed. (Heylin believes the intended recipient was William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke.)

But more to the point, it has to do with the line between public and private art, between what writers (or singers) create for public consumption and what they create for themselves. In much the way Bob Dylan did with "The Basement Tapes," Haylin argues, Shakespeare used the sonnets to try new things, including writing in a nakedly autobiographical voice. Would he have been so daring if he had been writing for an audience? Would he have felt so free?

Heylin was on NPR's "All Things Considered" this morning, talking about his book. At the end of the segment, NPR asked listeners for their selections of works that might still stir people 400 years from now.

This is the sort of mind game for which I generally have no use, because it operates from a false premise: that the value of a work of art is in posterity. No, if "Sonnets" -- or "The Basement Tapes," for that matter -- have anything to tell us, it's that the power of art is its immediacy, its ability to speak to a particular moment or situation, and in so doing take on issues (love, longing, mortality) we all share.

But then, this afternoon, I came across the new book by Albert Goldbarth, a collection of poems called "To Be Read in 500 Years" (Graywolf: 186 pp., $16 paper), and I began to wonder if 400 years was not enough.

Of course, the premise of Goldbarth's collection (or one of them, anyway) is that the future is a place we can't imagine, which only makes the issue of posterity more elusive -- and the longevity of the "Sonnets" more profound.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library


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