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In Sunday books: On Patti Smith, Tolstoy and life in the marginalia

Genaro-molina

What's in a book? Ideas and language, of course, and, remarkably, Lynell George has been able to trace her mother's life in the marginalia she left in many of her books. As George notes in her essay, "A Life in the Marginalia," that starts on the cover of this Sunday's Arts & Books section, to open her mother's books was "to reveal all manner of ephemera -- from transit passes to cards to notes in her mother's elegant English teacher cursive -- and all marking chapters in a rich, full life. And, in a way, a gentle guidance." Just as her mother's books and love of reading were a gift to her, George's memoir reminds us of the gift of books in enhancing the fabric of a home.  

Also Sunday,  David Ulin checks in on Patti Smith's "Woolgathering," a collection of prose poems that Ulin says speaks volumes about the broad diversity that makes up the life of Smith as a rocker, mother, poet, artist.

You can also listen here to an excerpt of Smith reading from her award-winning memoir "Just Kids," which has just been released as an audio book: Pattismithexcerpt

Daniel Handler, known more familiarly to some as Lemony Snicket, is back with his YA-debut "Why We Broke Up," which Susan Carpenter describes as "a brief but intense teen relationship gone wrong." Carpenter says that few of these "tragic trajectories have been written about as poignantly" as in this book, which is illustrated by Maira Kalman.

Then there's Tolstoy. Yes, the life of the count is detailed in Rosamund Bartlett's "Tolstoy: A Russian Life." Reviewer Martin Rubin notes that Tolstoy was "a loner, a quintessential outsider and a generally awful and quarrelsome individual." So how was he able to "understand and evoke the glittering social whirl and intricacies of fashionable salons" that made up much of his fiction?

Shari Roan reviews Mary Johnson's "An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service and an Authentic Life," a memoir that will "fascinate not only Catholics but anyone who has wondered about the human capacity to vow lifelong celibacy, poverty and charity" and gives us a fascinating portrait of Mother Teresa. Online at The Siren's Call, Nick Owchar talks to novelist Richard Zimler about his recent visit to Poland to discuss the novel "The Warsaw Anagrams" with Polish audiences.

And, of course, we have our Best-Sellers lists of what's hot at Southern California stores.

Again, thanks for reading (and for listening).

-- Jon Thurber, book editor 

Photo: One of several books that were part of writer Lynell George's mother's collection. George's mother imprinted the book with a hand and footprint of her daughter when she was a baby. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

 

What exactly is Marilynne Robinson saying about criticism?

Marilynnerobinson_2009Full Stop magazine has interviewed Marilynne Robinson about politics and ideas, creating its own version of an old question-and-answer format from the Partisan Review.

Robinson is, of course, the writer who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for her novel "Gilead," more than two decades after she first made a splash with her debut novel, "Housekeeping." Since then, Robinson has been more in the public eye, and making swifter appearances on shelves. For her next novel, "Home," she was awarded the 2009 Orange Prize.

In other words, Robinson, who has also published nonfiction and taught for years at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is familiar with critics and criticism. So, Full Stop decided to ask her about that:

Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? For the past decade we’ve seen a series of cuts to predominant literary magazines and literary supplements, and in response, criticism has moved online. Do you think this move to the non-professional realm has made literary criticism more or less of an isolated cult?

I don’t read criticism of my work, except in the first few days, just to see how it has landed, so to speak. As far as criticism in general is concerned, I am always struck by how little the influence of university training is taken into account, universal as it surely is among people who write criticism. For a long time the academy has been training people in a style of criticism that is marked by nothing so much as jargon, and by generalization that is pointedly inattentive to the character of any particular book. So there is a great breach between the persons of letters who would otherwise lead the public conversation about books and the vast majority of the reading public. No wonder they are so small a voice. It would no doubt enhance our awareness of the serious writing that does indeed go on if there were critics of the kind that used to introduce such writing to a serious readership.

I can't quite figure out what she's saying. First, she says that the academy trains critics to write using jargon, and to be inattentive to the characters within books. Is she referring to critical theory, maybe, or semiotics? I'm perplexed, I think, because as a book reviewer I see the criticism of the academy being separate from the criticism in traditional venues (such as newspapers) and new online venues (such as Full Stop magazine).

Robinson's solution to remote academic criticism is to look to "critics of the kind that used to introduce such writing to a serious readership." But this is confusing, because looking backward is idealizing a traditional critical culture with established professional critical venues, not the expanded online culture of the "non-professional realm."

I think I'm confused because she isn't really addressing the question about new media. Is she saying she  wants criticism to be less academic, but more like the old days? What do you think she means?

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Marilynne Robinson at the L.A. Times Festival of Books in 2009. Credit: John Fox

British author sues Amazon over user review

AttemptedmurderofgodChris McGrath has sued Amazon and a customer who wrote a negative review of the book he was selling on the company's British website. The book, "The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know," was published under the pen name "Scrooby." 

The reviews in question were by Vaughan Jones, who wrote critically of "The Attempted Murder of God" on the book's Amazon Web page in the fall of 2010. Jones also wrote an article for the website of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. The Telegraph reports that McGrath has filed a libel suitnaming Jones, Richard Dawkins, the Dawkins Foundation and Amazon.

The reviews in question were removed from the respective websites after news of the dispute.

Jones, 28 and a father of three, is said to be unable to afford legal representation. The Independent writes that the case has come to the attention of people urging reform of the libel laws in England.

Libel reform campaigners have expressed concern that the hearing is another example of how Britain’s defamation laws disproportionately favour claimants, closing down debate particularly among individuals and organisations who cannot afford costly legal battles. The Government is currently in the process of reforming Britain’s libel laws which have been described as some of the most restrictive in the western world.

John Kampfner, the Chief Executive of Index on Censorship, one of the founding partners of the Libel Reform Campaign, said: “That a family man from Nuneaton can face a potentially ruinous libel action for a book review on Amazon shows how archaic and expensive our libel law is. We’re pushing the government to commit to a bill in the next Queen’s speech so that these chilling laws are reformed to protect freedom of expression.”

In a hearing expected to conclude today, a British court will decide if the case will go forward.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Microsoft's Bill Gates turns to book reviewing

Bill Gates has put his talents to book reviewing
Billionaire Bill Gates, who remains chairman and chief software architect of his company, Microsoft, has put his talents to book reviewing. On Wednesday, he posted his review of "Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines" by Vaclac Smil (MIT University Press) on his personal website, Gates Notes:

As a history buff, I appreciate books that give you a sense of the people behind important inventions and the sweeping impact they have had on society. Often -– as in the case of the diesel engine and the gas turbine -– incremental advances obscure the profound impact of technology. In Prime Movers, Smil focuses in on a slice of 20th century technological innovation and shows the phenomenal impact it has had on international trade and travel.

To put the significance of the diesel engine and the gas turbine in perspective, Smil points out that until coal-powered steam engines came along a few hundred years ago, animals and human muscle were the “prime movers” of manufacturing, and wind and sails the prime movers of international travel and trade. The steam engine was an important underpinning of the industrial revolution. But its impact pales in comparison to the diesel engine and the gas turbine. ...

There are a lot of fascinating historical points and statistics in Smil’s book that make it an interesting read, but what most fascinated me was learning about the incredible impact these two innovations have had on so many aspects of our lives.

It turns out that Gates has been reviewing books on the site every few weeks since March. His recent reads include "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools" by Steven Brill, "Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding" by Charles Kenny, and "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" by Steven Johnson.

His first posted book review was back in February 2010, of Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's "SuperFreakonomics"; frankly, it wasn't much. "I had a chance to read a prepublication copy of SuperFreakonomics before it was officially released," it began. "I really liked Freakonomics and I think SuperFreakonomics is even better." If one of my freshman writing students had turned that in, it wouldn't have gotten a B-minus.

Since then, Gates has much improved as a book reviewer. He often uses a personal take, explaining why he's interested in this topic, and sometimes comes with a critical eye. He picked up Johnson's book "with a little bit of skepticism," he wrote. "Lots of books have been written about innovation -– what it is, the most innovative companies, how you measure it. The subject can seem a little faddish," he said, but he found Johnson's book to be a cut above.

Most of the books Gates writes about fall into the line with his philanthropic pursuits with the Gates Foundation: education, healthcare, technology and the underlying processes affecting those systems. It makes sense that he's reading about them -- but few billionaires take the time to write up their thoughts and share them as a book reviews.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Bill Gates, left, with Warren Buffett in 2007. Credit: Nati Harnik / Associated Press

Steven Brill brings 'Class Warfare' to school

School-lunch-apple 
As teachers across the nation are returning to their classrooms, Steven Brill is drawing a lot of attention -- and a lot of flak -- for the provocative portraits of educators and U.S. education in his new book "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools." You may have even heard  him on CNN, CSPAN, NPR and plenty of other media outlets in the last two weeks, talking about his book's prescription for alleviating the system's problems. 

The founder of CourtTV and The American Lawyer magazine (among other things), Brill asks why, in chronicling the efforts of administrators, educators and reformers across the nation, has the U.S. education system turned into an "obstacle to the American dream rather than the enabler"?

Among the answers his book offers is this: There are plenty of exceptional teachers, but plenty more who fall well below the mark and are protected by "the most lavishly funded and entrenched bureaucracies in America (fourteen thousand school districts) supported by an interest group -- the teachers' unions -- [with]...money and playbooks every bit as effective in thwarting public interest as Big Oil, the NRA or Big Tobacco."  

It's enough to make you nervous as you meet your child's teacher on the first day -- is my child getting one of the good ones? -- but Brill's approach is bound to make readers anxious for a different reason. The problem with any book that indicts an entire system, whether you're talking about education or human rights or cancer research, is that it's bound to overlook many bright spots and individual success stories that are out there.

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Britain's Telegraph ordered to pay $100,000 over book review

Sevendaysintheartworld

The Daily Telegraph’s parent company was ordered Tuesday to pay more than $100,000 in damages over a book review. The British newspaper lost a lawsuit for libel and malicious falsehood in the high court.

The book in question was Sarah Thornton's "Seven Days in the Art World." Thornton, a Canadian who moved to England more than two decades ago, has a PhD in sociology and writes regularly about contemporary art for the Economist. "Seven Days in the Art World," an L.A. Times bestseller, was billed as "an unconventional ethnography" of artists and the art business, and included a list of 250 people Thornton had interviewed to tell the broad-ranging story.

The Telegraph's reviewer, Lynn Barber, was one of those people. But in her review, she wrote that she had not been interviewed by Thornton.

"Thornton claims her book is based on hour-long interviews with more than 250 people. I would have taken this on trust, except that my eye flicked down the list of her 250 interviewees and practically fell out of its socket when it hit the name Lynn Barber. I gave her an interview? Surely I would have noticed?"

Apparently not. Thornton was able to prove that she had conducted a 30 minute phone interview with Barber two years before -- but it wasn't easy. "It's shocking that I would have to find lawyers to work for me for free -- and to wait ten months -- for a powerful national newspaper to correct factual errors that were seriously damaging to my reputation as a journalist and scholar," Thornton told the art blog artdesigncafe in 2009, after the Telegraph issued an apology.

In Tuesday's judgment, the judge wrote that Barber knew her claim of not being interviewed to be false. He also wrote, "The interview allegation does not relate merely to professional practice. It is an attack on Dr Thornton's honesty. I accept Dr Thornton's view that there could hardly be more serious an allegation to make against someone in her profession." Barber's review also accused Thornton of giving her interview subjects "copy approval," which the court ruled was libelous.

Barber, a longtime journalist and well-known interviewer, had served as a judge for the Turner Prize, one of the most prestigious in the art world. Lynn Barber's work may not be as well known in the U.S. as it is in Britain, but her story is. Her memoir "An Education" was made into the Oscar-nominated film starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard.

The Telegraph Media Group said it was "dismayed" by the judgment and plans to appeal.

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The Reading Life: Gordon Matta-Clark's "Conical Intersect"

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The Reading Life: Gordon Matta-Clark's 'Conical Intersect'

ConicalintersectWhat was he up to? That's the question at the center of any consideration of Gordon Matta-Clark, an architecture student-turned-installation artist who died of cancer in 1978, when he was just 35.

Matta-Clark doesn't have the name recognition of contemporaries such as Robert Smithson, whose work his superficially resembles, or Laurie Anderson, who was part of an "informal collective of downtown artists he brought together under the banner of anarchitecture," writes Bruce Jenkins in his monograph "Gordon Matta-Clark: Conical Intersect."

Nonetheless, Jenkins suggests, his influence is significant -- if not for the public, who remain mostly ignorant of his large-scale, space-specific installations, then for other artists who share his experimentalism and his belief in art as a social force.

For Matta-Clark, Jenkins argues, this pair of interlocking imperatives came together most vividly in "Conical Intersect," created for the ninth Biennale de Paris in 1975. The idea is simple, but with implications -- which could be said of all of Matta-Clark's work. A block from the Centre Georges Pompidou, then under construction, the artist cut into two 16th century townhouses that had been scheduled for demolition, creating a vast circular opening "contracting from the exterior towards the interior of a building (from four metres to two metres) in the manner of a spyglass."

The experimental aspects are obvious; the social, perhaps, not so much. But, notes Jenkins, part of the point was to comment on what the Pompidou project was doing to its neighborhood, while also offering a new way of looking at (and thinking about) two buildings that would be destroyed. As Matta-Clark noted in a 1977 interview:

The first thing one notices is that violence has been done. Then the violence turns into visual order and, hopefully, then to a sense of heightened awareness.... You see that light enters places it otherwise couldn't. Angles and depths can be perceived where they should have been hidden. Spaces are available to move through that were previously inaccessible.... My hope is that the dynamism of the action can be seen as an alternative vocabulary with which to question the static, inert building environment.

For his Paris project, Jenkins suggests, Matta-Clark was influenced by the son et lumiere tradition, with its sense of architecture as spectacle. But equally important was his desire to comment on "the street-drama of the construction and demolition," his sense of urban renewal as a source of flattening, of forgetting, in which the old (people, buildings, communities) are consistently uprooted or left behind. A native New Yorker, he has seen this in Manhattan in the 1950s and '60s, when Robert Moses sought to remake the city in his own image.

In the early 1970s, Matta-Clark began to express a counter-sensibility in his artwork, most notably "Pig Roast," in which he "roasted a whole pig in the derelict Lower East Side environs under the [Brooklyn Bridge] and served it up to the resident homeless population and his fellow artists," and "Fresh Air Cart," a public art collaboration in which oxygen was offered to "air-starved passersby."

There's a bit of the put-on to such projects, or perhaps more accurately of the spectacle -- again, son et lumiere. But what Matta-Clark was really exploring was the hidden intersection between the conceptual and the everyday. How does art shake us out of our complacency? How does it help us reframe the world? For Matta-Clark, the issue was never permanence -- "Conical Intersect" existed for only a few weeks before it was demolished -- but rather the challenge of teaching a new way to see.

-- David L. Ulin

An exercise in humiliation [Video]

In a series of helpful advice videos, author Wayne Koestenbaum addresses various humiliating situations: sending the wrong email to the entire office. Bumping into a co-worker coming out of a porn shop. Farting in yoga.

That's because he's the author of "Humiliation," a new book in Picador's BIG IDEAS/small books paperback series, which includes "Violence" by Slavov Žižek and "Time" by Eva Hoffman. "Humiliation," which officially hits shelves Aug. 2, has made its way to reviewers. And -- embarassing admission -- I haven't yet read it yet, but it is on my to-be-read shelf, because it seems really interesting. Koestenbaum, a poet, cultural critic and prodessor at NYU, looks at the idea of humiliation through history and art and a personal lens, too.

"Repeatedly, I watch clips of Liza Minelli on YouTube," Koestenbaum writes. "I want to see her humiliation. And I want to see her survive the grisly experience and turn it into glory."

That works for John Waters, the filmmaker who was called the Pope of Trash by William Burroughs. Waters writes that "Humiliation" is "the funniest, smartest, most heartbreaking yet powerful book I've read in a long time."

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

 

The Reading Life: Ellen Willis' vinyl deeps

Ellenwillis_1980s This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I've long considered Ellen Willis something of a hero. I hope I live longer than she did (Willis died in 2006, at 64), but otherwise, it's an exemplary life. She was the first pop music critic of the New Yorker, writing 56 pieces for the magazine between 1968 and 1975 that trace her relationship with "music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated ... [and] challenged me to do the same."

In the mid-1970s, she began to focus less on music and more on feminism and her own stunning brand of liberation politics, becoming an editor and writer at the Village Voice and later founding the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU. Her writing is rigorous, unrelenting, in your face: not in the sense of mindless provocation, but because she was so smart. "Students and colleagues fondly describe her as shy," recalled Robert Christgau in a 2007 tribute, "but she wasn’t shy -- she was thinking, and ignoring you."

Willis understood that criticism -- at least as practiced in a publication such as the New Yorker -- was equal parts service journalism and cultural commentary, requiring her to connect to the commercial demands of her readers (Should I buy this record? Should I pay attention to this band?) while also transcending them. Her music writing is remarkable for never losing sight of this duality, which is, of course, the duality at the heart of pop.

"What cultural revolutionaries do not seem to grasp," she wrote in "The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning," a September 1969 report on Woodstock, "is that, far from being a grass-roots art form that has been taken over by businessmen, rock itself comes from the commercial exploitation of blues. It is bourgeois at its core, a mass-produced commodity, dependent on advanced technology and therefore on the money controlled by those in power."

Four decades later, we take it for granted, this idea of rock's commodification, but Willis is after something deeper: to call out, even celebrate, rock's contradictions, its inherent blend of commercialization and ecstasy. "You think it's funny," Joe Strummer sang in 1977, "turning rebellion into money." And yet, for Willis, there’s nothing funny about it, since what Strummer's getting at is rock 'n' roll's most fundamental tension: the quixotic desire to make revolution (cultural or otherwise) one product at a time.

"The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning" is one of 59 pieces in "Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music," all but 12 from the New Yorker. Edited by Willis' daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz, it is, in the words of current New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones, "like finding a missing Beatles album" -- a result of both its engagement with its moment and the acuity of Willis' eye.

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A. Whitney Ellsworth, founding publisher of the New York Review of Books, has died

Newyorkreviewofbooks

A. Whitney Ellsworth, who was one of the group of New York literati that founded the New York Review of Books, died Saturday. He was 75 and had suffered from pancreatic cancer.

The New York Times reports:

As publisher of The New York Review of Books, Mr. Ellsworth expanded the journal’s presence abroad by publishing a British edition, distributed by a London cabdriver with whom he struck up an acquaintance. In 1979, taking advantage of a strike that halted publication of The Times Literary Supplement, he helped create The London Review of Books, published for its first six months as an insert in The New York Review of Books.

In the early 1970s, prompted by an assistant who had worked for the British Information Service in Athens, he became interested in the plight of political dissidents imprisoned by the junta in Greece. His efforts to raise money on their behalf led to his involvement with Amnesty International USA, where he served a term as chairman from 1976 to 1978 and was treasurer for several years.

When he joined its board in 1972, the organization had an annual budget of $45,000. Meetings, Mr. Ellsworth found to his dismay, were often taken up with discussions on whether to buy a secondhand typewriter.

He set up a direct-mail fund-raising operation that yielded impressive results. In 1981, the year Mr. Ellsworth stepped down as treasurer, the organization’s East Coast division, in New York, had annual revenues of $4.5 million and was contributing $1 million a year to the international budget in London.

Ellsworth left the New York Review of Books in 1986 and went on to run a small newspaper chain in New York and Connecticut, where he lived.

The New York Review of Books was launched during a New York publishing strike in 1963. It swiftly became a signifcant source of intellectual discourse, which it remains, with a worldwide circulation of 135,000. Robert Silvers, a founding co-editor, remains at its helm after more than 45 years.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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