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Category: criticism

The New Yorker reboots online books coverage

The New Yorker has renamed its book blog, rebranded its Twitter feed and focused its online books coverage
The New Yorker magazine, which has always provided top-notch literary content and coverage, relaunched its online books offerings Tuesday (or, for those of us who stumbled across the change, Monday night).

It's got a spiffy books landing page, and its active book blog, the Book Bench, has been renamed Page-Turner. The blog has a new pink-and-red logo, of a reader surrounded by books, that appears on its rebranded Twitter feed. Page-Turner editor Sasha Weiss explains what to expect of the blog:

We'll debate about books under-noticed or too much noticed, and celebrate writers we've returned to again and again. We'll look to works in translation and at the politics of literary scenes beyond the English-speaking world. We'll think about technology and the reading life. We'll recommend and we'll theorize. Daily essays will be the blog's mainstay, with books as an anchor for wide-ranging cultural comment.

The blog is staking out its elite territory by bringing some of the magazine's star contributors into the mix. The opening two days' sirocco of literary goodness included Salman Rushdie on censorship, Giles Harvey critiquing "Death of a Salesman," Ryan Bloom's corrective translation of the first sentence of Camus' "The Stranger," Nick Thompson on running, and Mary Norris from the magazine's copy desk on an obsolete medieval alphabetic character.

When the blog launched in 2008 as the Book Bench, it was named for the place where books up for grabs piled up in the magazine's hallway. There was a scrappiness to it, of ideas caught on the fly, and often wrangled by people whose names didn't appear on the contributor page. But the work of co-founder Macy Halford made the blog and Twitter feed essential parts of the ongoing online discussion of books and media. Halford's reach stretches beyond the world of books; she was named one of the New York Observer's 50 media power bachelorettes in 2011.

That's a strong tradition, one that I hope the newly branded blog continues.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Image: Screenshot of the New Yorker's Page-Turner book blog.

 

50 hours with the National Book Critics Circle in New York

This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

4 p.m. Wednesday: My plane lands. The National Book Critics Circle finalists reading begins at 6 p.m.; can I make it? Traffic on the way to the hotel says no. Then I get mixed up trying to find the subway, winds of the financial district pushing me off course. There's an upside: I have to get lost at least once each time I visit New York, and this time, I've gotten it out of the way. I'm late and catch only the second half of the reading, but the whole thing is now online -- and, as you can see, above.

9 p.m. or so Wednesday: I find some other members of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors and we head off to a nearby restaurant. There are writers and editors from Cleveland, Chicago, Florida, Oregon, and, of course, New York, at the table. We see each other about three times a year when we all meet in New York; we were last together in January, when we selected our finalists. I haven't eaten since I left Los Angeles and find the restaurant's food delicious; another of our party gets food poisoning.

11 p.m. Wednesday: Stop by another restaurant where some current and former board members and other writers and editors are having drinks. All these writers and editors in one place! It is very exciting. I am easily excited.

4 a.m. Thursday: Cannot figure out why my hotel room is a sweatbox, even though the thermostat is set at 65. I heard New York was having a mild winter, but this is ridiculous.

5:30 a.m. Thursday: Figure out that the thermostat is on Auto Heat, not Auto Cool. It is in fact around 87 degrees in my room. Turn to Auto Cool and get a couple hours of sleep, the churning ancient A/C unit giving me dreams of trains.

8:30 a.m. Thursday: There is a membership meeting of the National Book Critics Circle this morning, but I also have a deadline. I have to pass on the discussion of e-galleys and young adult literature to stay in my now temperature-corrected room and write. I make hotel room coffee for the first time in my life. It's not good, but it gives a decent illusion of coffeeness.

10:45 a.m. Thursday: Discover I forgot to bring the belt I need for my dress.

11:05 a.m. Thursday: Walk beltless to the discount clothing store Century 21 on my way to the subway. Find a belt, pay, and ask the nice lady to cut off the tags and belt up in the middle of the store, feeling a little like a homeless person, rather than the sophisticated literary critic I'm supposed to be. Find the subway stop easily -- it's across from where the World Trade Center used to be.

11:40 a.m. Thursday: Arrive at the New School's Lang Center before the membership meeting concludes. Peter Miller from Liveright catches me up on some of the e-galley discussion I missed; Art Winslow, a former board member, looks shockingly well-rested. Is that what happens when you leave the board?

12:15 p.m. Thursday: At the National Book Critics Circle luncheon, I'm sitting next to critic Heller McAlpin. She's been writing a lot for the NPR website, and has recently recorded her first on-air review for "All Things Considered"; it's on "Watergate: A Novel."

1 p.m. Thursday: No time for dessert: The two dozen of us who are on the board head back to the Lang Center. I'm the only one who notices Parker Posey walking by with a yoga mat on her shoulder. No time to ask about that time she played a librarian; we're off to choose our 2011 award winners from the 30 finalists.

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On Sunday: Luis J. Rodriguez's memory bank, and Dwight Eisenhower too

Luis J. Rodriguez talks about the process of memoir in the Los Angeles Times Arts & Books section
Luis J. Rodriguez has a vast and interesting resume: former gang-banger, literary icon of Chicano letters and now, as Times staff writer Reed Johnson notes in his interview with him, "distinguished-looking 57-year-old grandfather with a silvery goatee and a companionable paunch." But that's not all he has: He has memories, and they are the stuff of two books -- cautionary tales to a new generation of youths. Though his books often name names, he heaps the toughest criticism on himself for the life he lived before he knew a better life. His latest memoir, "It Calls You Back," was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in the autobiography category. His story leads our coverage in Sunday's Arts & Books section.

At the other end of the spectrum is "Eisenhower In War and Peace," the massive biography of the key World War II general and two-term president by Jean Edward Smith. His book, writes reviewer Wendy Smith (no relation), is critical of Eisenhower as a war strategist but is also a "measured but fundamentally admiring account" of his long years of public service. In the end, our reviewer writes, "Eisenhower proved himself to be precisely the kind of leader America wanted and needed at the time."

Time is at the essence of Susan Carpenter's review of the hot new YA talent Lissa Price and her novel "Starters. Another foray into a dystopian world, this telling, by debut author Price, is about a genocide that kills everyone between the ages of 20 and 60, leaving only the very young and the very old. And the very old with means are able to rent the bodies of nubile teens and control them through a neurochip. You can imagine the consequences (or not). Carpenter calls this "dystopian sci-fi at its best."

"At its most challenging" may be the best words to describe the new novel by Hari Kunzru, "Gods Without Men," which our book critic David Ulin reviews this week. In this work involving several overlapping stories taking place across decades and centuries, the desert becomes a magnet for many hoping to piece together a fallen world. And the central dilemma of each is understanding what we can and cannot know.

More after the jump ...

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This Sunday: Van Vechten's Renaissance, Watergate, Szymborska and more

Carl-van-vechtenHe was a critic, a novelist, a photographer and he counted among his confidants some of the most accomplished black literary figures of his day including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and James Weldon Johnson. But Carl Van Vechten’s most notable role may have been the one he played as patron to the Harlem Renaissance. “Van Vechten,” writes Lynell George in her review of “Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance/A Portrait of Black & White” by Emily Bernard, “dedicated his life’s work to, as Hughes once put it, ‘all things Negro’ -- literature, theater, ragtime, jazz and blues -- nurturing art and alliances, but not without acrimony.” Bernard explores the question of whether his presence in this cultural movement was a gift or a curse: “[W]as he an insider or an intruder?” George’s review of this fascinating figure leads our Sunday book coverage.

Scott Martelle reviews Thomas Mallon’s new novel “Watergate,” (yes, that Watergate), and he frames the discussion by noting that to write history “the story needs only to be true” but to write a novel, “the story must be plausible -- an often more difficult thing to accomplish.” While many of us were alive and witnessed the broad outlines of the third-rate burglary that brought down a U.S. president, the novelist’s task here is to make it plausible. Does it work as fiction? 

The notion of truth and fiction are at the heart of David Ulin’s fascinating critic’s notebook on “The Lifespan of a Fact,” John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s book -- a discussion between writer and fact-checker  -- on the issue of invention in the world of literary nonfiction. Central to the discussion is an essay that D’Agata wrote about the suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, who jumped from the tower observation deck of Las Vegas’ Stratosphere hotel in 2002. The piece was commissioned by Harper’s, then rejected and picked up by the Believer after details in the piece could not be verified. And that’s the jumping-off point for the discussion.

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David Foster Wallace considered, at Pomona College Saturday

The work and legacy of David Foster Wallace will be the subject of a panel discussion with a critic, colleague and his biographer Saturday at Pomona College
The work and legacy of David Foster Wallace will be the subject of a panel discussion Saturday at Pomona College in Claremont. It's quite a lineup: biographer D.T. Max and critic Laura Miller have flown in to participate, and they'll be joined by writer Jonathan Lethem, who succeeded Wallace as Pomona's Roy E. Disney professor of creative writing and English.

Wallace, of course, wrote the novel "Infinite Jest," the footnote-heavy behemoth published in 1996 that has become a landmark work of contemporary fiction. He was a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow who also wrote nonfiction, with essays collected in the popular anthology "Consider the Lobster." Wallace was the first writer to be appointed as the Roy E. Disney professor at Pomona College, where he began teaching in 2002. He committed suicide in 2008 at age 46. In 2011, his novel "The Pale King" was published posthumously.

Max wrote about Wallace's struggle with depression and his literary legacy in a powerful New Yorker article; he's now writing a biography of Wallace for Viking Press. "The reason I wanted to go longer on him is that most writers live and die in a room writing, and Wallace definitely did that, but he also lived and died out on the street," Max said when the biography was announced. "He was in the world in a way that most writers are not. Because of his peculiar openness to the world and his peculiar kind of sensitivity, everything that happened in this country affected him and entered his fiction in a way that I don't think is true of other writers."

Lethem, another MacArthur "Genius" Fellow, carefully considered Wallace's legacy before coming to Pomona College. "It was very tender, because Wallace loomed so large here," he told me in 2011. "His footprint as a colleague, the extraordinary impression he left on the whole series of English majors who've now floated out into the world. ... The idea that I might be part of the moving-on seemed very like an honor."

Miller, who interviewed Wallace in 1996 after the publication of "Infinite Jest," later wrote, "I knew him as a reader knows a writer." Which is how most of us know him too.

The panel discussion of David Foster Wallace is open to the public; it is scheduled to take place in Pomona College's Edmunds Ballroom beginning at 5 p.m.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image credit: Pomona College

National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medals announced

Ritadovejohnashbery

The White House announced the recipients of the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medals today. Poet Rita Dove (above) is the leading literary figure among the seven who will receive the National Medal of Arts, joining actor Al Pacino, singer Mel Tillis, painter Will Barnet, sculptor Martin Puryear, pianist André Watts, and creative arts patron Emily Rauh Pulitzer.

Rita Dove served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993 to '95. Dove, born in 1952 in Ohio, received an MFA from the University of Iowa and published her first poetry collection in 1980. She won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for the collection "Thomas and Beulah." She teaches at the University of Virginia; her many accolades include a National Humanities Medal.

National Humanities Medals will be awarded to eight writers, including another poet, John Ashbery (pictured at the 2011 National Book Awards, where he was presented with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters). The other winners are Kwame Anthony Appiah, critic Andrew Delbanco, historian Robert Darnton, musical scholar Charles Rosen, historian Teofilo Ruiz, literary scholar Ramón Saldívar, and Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in economics. After the jump, brief descriptions of their work.

President Obama will present the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medals at a White House to the above individuals, as well as arts organizations, at a ceremony on Monday, Feb. 13, streaming live at 1:45pm eastern.

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National Book Critics Circle announces finalists for 2011 awards

The announcers at the NBCC Awards

The National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its 2011 book awards at a public ceremony on Saturday in New York City. Two Southern California writers are among those up for the awards, which will be presented on March 8 in Manhattan.

"It Calls You Back," an intergenerational tale of life in and out of Los Angeles gangs by Luis Rodriguez, a follow-up to his classic memoir "Always Running," is among the finalists for autobiography. Jonathan Lethem, who holds the Roy E. Disney Chair in Creative Writing at Pomona College, is a finalist for his collection of critical essays, "The Ecstasy of Influence." Another finalist, the novel "Stone Arabia" by Dana Spiotta, is set in the San Fernando Valley.

Awards will be made in six categories: fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, poetry and criticism. For 37 years, the National Book Critics Circle has annually presented awards to books of excellence. Previous winners include Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, John Ashberry, Jennifer Egan, Alex Ross, Roberto Bolano, Susan Sontag, Martin Amis and Junot Diaz.

The 30 2011 NBCC finalists include many who have been previously recognized for their work: two Pulitzer Prize winners, one winner of the Booker Prize, two previously NBCC award winners, and one author who has received the National Humanities Medal. Yet the NBCC board also recognized two debuts: Teju Cole's novel, "Open City," and "Pulphead," a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

L.A. Times book critic David L. Ulin and staff writer Carolyn Kellogg sit on the 24-member board of the National Book Critics Circle.

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This Sunday: Pico Iyer's Greene agenda and more

Graham-greene

Pico Iyer and I share something in common and it isn’t writing chops. We share a fascination with Graham Greene.

GetAttachment-2.aspxYears ago, I collected as many of the nice Penguin paperback editions of Greene’s work that I could find.  I loved “The Quiet American,” "The End of the Affair" and “The Third Man” and many others. When I first traveled in Europe, I would stumble into English-language bookstores and my barometer on the quality of their selection was always based on their section of Greene's work. But I’m no expert on Greene and Iyer is -- as witnessed by his latest book “The Man Within My Head.” Our reviewer, Richard Rayner, is fascinated by both Greene and Iyer. In his lively review he notes that “The Man Within My Head” is “literary criticism disguised as autobiography, a book filled with insights, sadness, rumination and splashes of the dazzling travelogue that Iyer’s readers have come to expect.” Rayner’s piece is as much a meditation on Greene as it is on Iyer’s book and it leads our coverage this Sunday.

Book critic David Ulin found a gem in “The Fat Years,’ the first novel by Chinese writer Chan Koonchung to be translated into English. (Michael S. Duke does the honors.) The novel takes place in 2013 after the next great global economic meltdown and China is left standing as the pillar of economic and social stability. The catch here, however, is that between the economic meltdown and China’s emergence as the bastion of prosperity, it has lost a month. Ulin writes that the book “is a cunning caricature of modern China with its friction between communism and consumerism.”

Scott Martelle reviews “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty” by John M. Barry. Martelle writes that Williams “for those who don’t remember their colonial history, founded the European settlement that gave rise to Providence, R.I., in pursuit of the still-gestating idea that people should be able to worship God in individual freedom not as a dictum of government." It was, author Barry writes, “the first government in the world which broke church and state apart.” But Williams faced some long odds in selling his message of liberty and paid dearly for his concept. 

Long odds are also in evidence in Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel “The Odds,” which Carolyn Kellogg reviews. A marriage has hit the rocks, so the happy (not) couple head to Niagara Falls, where they spent their honeymoon, carrying with them a history of “insolvency, indecision and stupidity,” as well as a “desperate gambling plan” that, if successful, “will make everything right.”  Kellogg notes that “all of this could make for rather grim melodrama, but not in O’Nan’s hands.”

More after the jump ...

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Sunday: Pico Iyer's long sentences and Stephen Hawking's birthday

Stephenhawking_stage
Call it the value of complexity in a frantic time. That’s the thought that came to mind when I first read Pico Iyer’s engaging essay on why he’s made the conscious decision to write longer sentences. What Iyer, whose latest book, “The Man Within My Head,” was published this month, is saying to us (and for us) is that the world of instant communication is far too distracting and that there is gratification -- and a relief from the mundane -- in reading something complex and engaging. It is an interesting proposition by one of our favorite writers. His essay begins on the front page of Sunday’s Arts & Books section. (For more on this topic, I would recommend David Ulin's book "The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time," which was developed from Ulin's article in the Aug. 9, 2009, issue of The Times.)

Sunday is also Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday and, to mark the occasion, Sara Lippincott is reviewing Kitty Ferguson’s latest book on the eminent physicist: “Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind.” As Lippincott notes, 70 is a real milestone for the superstar of the cosmos who has lived almost 50 years with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease). Also, Carolyn Kellogg reviews “Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America, from the Kill Zones to the Courtroom,” the memoir of Connie Rice, the civil rights advocate and agitator who has made it her business to balance the scales of justice in Los Angeles.

On the fiction card, book critic David L. Ulin assesses playwright and television writer Alan Bennett’s latest work, a collection of  stories called “Smut.” And Susan Carpenter looks at “A Million Suns,” the second installment in the “Across the Universe” young adult fantasy trilogy by Beth Revis. Universe? Hawking? A birthday present?

And, of course, we have our weekly look at the bestsellers.

Thanks for reading.

-- Jon Thurber, book editor

Photo: Stephen Hawking at the 2010 World Science Festival opening night gala in New York. Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

 

On Christopher Hitchens: August Brown considers

Christopher Hitchens in 2004
Over years of reading Christopher Hitchens, the most essential thing I learned from his work is that cliches in writing inevitably hide weak thinking. That seems obvious -– cliches come easily because they don’t require much thought. But the many appreciations of his career after his death have seemed preoccupied with the cliches of his charisma -- the heavy drinking, his leftist-neocon oscillations, his orbits in England's and Washington’s social elites.

For me, his greatest influence was on the page. His style was defined by a refusal to resort to stock images and analysis -- or to accept them from others. It made him a pleasure to read and difficult for others to debate. Everything he said felt new, hard won and, usually, correct.

Even though my own criticism has largely focused on music, his lessons in being vigilant against cliche still stand. In art and rhetoric, style is a conscious choice meant to pursue certain goals, and if a piece of art (or a politician’s speech) is lazy in its style, it’s usually lazy or murky in its motivations.

Even the last thing Hitchens published was an essay in Vanity Fair about how the physical ravages of cancer put him on guard against rote reassurances, like the maxim that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

His style, utterly devoted to originality and evidence, underlined the seriousness of his intellectual and moral task. He routinely chastised others, and especially those in power, for not taking the same rhetorical care. Cliches distort our understanding of the lived world. For Hitchens’ political enemies that was often the point, and he spent his life calling them on it.

Hitchens swashbuckled with targets small (improper tea-making technique) and large (the idea of God), with figures both loved (Mother Teresa) and despised (Saddam Hussein). From his journalism detailing the potential war crimes of Henry Kissinger to his much-debated encouragement of the Iraq war to his admiration for Somali women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, Hitchens always sounded the bells when he perceived a literal danger to life and dignity. But the one thing his every foe shared was a reliance on a kind of rhetorical fog of war.

In his view, Mother Teresa was not a fraud simply because her hospitals were filthy and that she accepted funding from sympathy-currying dictators. She was a fraud because she shopped the idea that, in her words, “the suffering of the poor is something very beautiful.” As he argued in “The Missionary Position,” it’s a turn of phrase that, when unraveled, comes from a pernicious mix of Christianity’s self-regard and the rich West’s need to look away from the miserable, lived reality of third-world indigence. Her language of poverty’s nobility was slippery to the point of meaning its own opposite in practice. “The rich world has a poor conscience, and many people liked to alleviate their own unease by sending money to a woman who seemed like an activist for ‘the poorest of the poor,’” he wrote in Slate. “People do not like to admit that they have been gulled or conned, so a vested interest in the myth was permitted to arise, and a lazy media never bothered to ask any follow-up questions. Many volunteers who went to Calcutta came back abruptly disillusioned by the stern ideology and poverty-loving practice of the "Missionaries of Charity," but they had no audience for their story.”

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