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Category: essays

Steal this book: Roberto Bolano's essay

Robertobolano_ndThe author Roberto Bolaño has been having a renaissance since the publication his omnibus novel "2666" in 2008. While that book was released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, much of Bolaño's other work is in the hands of New Directions Publishing, which has a knack for publishing excellent avant-garde fiction and works in translation.

In May, New Directions will publish "Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches (1998–2003)" by  Bolaño. The latest issue of the New York Review of Books has a preview: an excerpt of one of those essays, about stealing books, is online now:

The books that I remember best are the ones I stole in Mexico City, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, and the ones I bought in Chile when I was twenty, during the first few months of the coup. In Mexico there was an incredible bookstore. It was called the Glass Bookstore and it was on the Alameda. Its walls, even the ceiling, were glass. Glass and iron beams. From the outside, it seemed an impossible place to steal from. And yet prudence was overcome by the temptation to try and after a while I made the attempt.

The first book to fall into my hands was a small volume by [the nineteenth century erotic poet] Pierre Louÿs, with pages as thin as Bible paper, I can’t remember now whether it was Aphrodite or Songs of Bilitis. I know that I was sixteen and that for a while Louÿs became my guide. Then I stole books by Max Beerbohm (The Happy Hypocrite), Champfleury, Samuel Pepys, the Goncourt brothers, Alphonse Daudet, and Rulfo and Areola, Mexican writers who at the time were still more or less practicing, and whom I might therefore meet some morning on Avenida Niño Perdido, a teeming street that my maps of Mexico City hide from me today, as if Niño Perdido could only have existed in my imagination, or as if the street, with its underground stores and street performers had really been lost, just as I got lost at the age of sixteen.

Not many contemporary authors in translation have had as much success as Bolaño. The Chilean novelist, who lived in Mexico and Spain, didn't get a chance to enjoy it: he died in 2003, not long before "2666" was published in Spanish.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Roberto Bolaño. Credit: New Directions Press

Lost Roberto Bolano story to appear in the Paris Review

Robertobolano_nd Roberto Bolaño, author of the 2008 novel "2666," is a successful writer -- the massive, 912-page book was a bestseller and won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction. He's remarkably successful, even, because he died in 2003.

His death hasn't slowed the productivity of the Chilean writer -- in fact, since the success of "2666," we've seen piles of Bolaño published in America. New Directions has been the publisher for much of his work, including "Monsieur Pain," a short novel;  "Antwerp," a kind of metafiction; and "The Insufferable Gaucho," a mix of short fiction and essays; in spring 2011, the publisher will deliver a collection of essays and speeches in "Between Parentheses."

But New Directions doesn't have a lock on Bolaño in translation -- in fact, his relationship is still going strong with his English-language editor on "2666," Lorin Stein. Stein left Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010 to become editor of the storied literary journal the Paris Review -- and the Paris Review will be running  Bolaño's "lost novel" as a serial in four issues, over the course of a year.

Titled "The Third Reich," the first installment will appear in the Paris Review's spring issue. Today, the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog has an excerpt, which begins:

“Poor man,” I heard Hanna say.

I asked to whom she was referring; I was told to take a closer look without being obvious about it. The rental guy was dark, with long hair and a muscular build, but the most noticeable thing about him by far was the burns -- I mean burns from a fire, not the sun -- that covered most of his face, neck, and chest, and which he displayed openly, dark and corrugated, like grilled meat or the crumpled metal of a downed plane.

In our pages, Ben Ehrenreich called "2666" "strange and marvelous and impossibly funny, bursting with melancholy and horror."  It's a mix American readers have shown a taste for -- and perhaps that taste will lead them to the upcoming serial in the Paris Review.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Roberto Bolaño. Credit: New Directions

David L. Ulin on Mahmoud Darwish

Darwish_2007 There’s no easy way to assess Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet and activist who died in 2008 at the age of 67. On the one side, Darwish is a voice of conscience, his aesthetic that of exile, of resistance, in which language becomes the only passage to a homeland that must be reimagined, reanimated, before it can be repossessed. On the other, he is derided as a friend of terrorists, a one-time member of the PLO whose writing is meant to function as a social, or political, accelerant.

Darwish’s 1973 prose meditation “Journal of an Ordinary Grief” (Archipelago: 178 pp., $16 paper) -- newly translated into English by Ibrahim Muhawi -- won’t reconcile these perspectives, but if this remarkable collection has anything to tell us, it’s that such duality may be entirely beside the point. Yes, Darwish is angry, a Palestinian who sees the state as his enemy, but he is also a man beset by loss and longing, looking for a place that he and his people can call their own.

The book comes broken into a series of impressionistic essays, many of which adapt the form of dialogues. It’s an ingenious strategy, weaving a push-and-pull, a sense of intractability, directly into the structure of the book itself. In one part of the extended title piece, an Israeli and a Palestinian agree to write a play together in alternating chapters. Here is the first: “In exile my father didn’t teach me despair or suicide, and he didn’t teach me to forgo my Jewish identity. He brought me up to believe I was born to be pursued. Yet, even so, he did teach me how to live.” And the second: “In exile my father didn’t teach me despair or suicide, and he didn’t teach me to forgo my Palestinian identity. He brought me up to believe I was born to be pursued. Yet, even so, he did teach me how to live.”

What Darwish is doing is setting up a commonality, a recognition that the struggle -- any struggle -- cannot help but be shared. He makes the point explicit later in the same essay, calling out the Arabs who “used to laugh in mockery” at “the Zionist dream” of David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizman for not being sufficiently committed to the pursuit of their identity. “[R]emember,” he scolds, “the writer who said to you, ‘This is the difference between you and me. I’m not simply a Jew: I have chosen to be one.”

The key word, of course, is “chosen,” which echoes the trope of the chosen people even as it undermines the notion of birthright, framing it, rather, as a matter of commitment and hard work. “Will you laugh again, as the Arabs laughed fifty years ago,” he concludes, “or will you hand down your dreams to the children born under the bayonets of the Occupation?”

For a lot of readers, the idea of Israel as occupier is irreconcilable. Darwish is adamant on the subject, harshly critical of Israeli policies and Israeli nationhood. At the same time, he is after something bigger, a more nuanced point of view.

His project is to merge substance and metaphor, to talk about political realities with the language of the poet. In “He Who Kills Fifty Arabs Loses One Piaster,” he frames the 1956 killing of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers in the village of Kufr Qasem through the filter of the fine assessed the colonel who gave the orders; the resulting image is far more effective than mere outrage, a powerful reminder, regardless of where you stand, of just how little a human life can be worth.

“[Y]ou leave the question hanging,” Darwish writes, “for poetry is your form of expression, and poetic language avoids facing murderous questions. Poetry has something to say, and it has nothing to say. Poetry speaks truth, but does not announce it.”

— David L. Ulin

Photo: Mahmoud Darwish reads at the Arab book fair in Beirut in 2007. Credit: Haitham Mussawi /AFP/Getty Images

Klosterman's essays, e-piece by e-piece

Klosterman_2006Chuck Klosterman's essays will be sold individually and packaged by theme as ebooks, his publisher Scribner announced. The works go on sale today.

Individual essays by Klosterman are priced at 99 cents each, just as individual songs once were on iTunes -- lately, I find all the songs I want cost $1.29, which might mean essays have room to rise. Anyway, the idea is to offer, at a tiny price, a single unit for multiple re-listenings -- or in this case, re-readings.

All of these essays have been available elsewhere -- many were first published in magazines and later appeared in Klosterman's collections "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs," "Eating the Dinosaur," "Chuck Klosterman IV" and "Fargo Rock City."

Can Klosterman, with his high name recognition and strong opinions, lure readers to purchase older material for a modest price? Will well-loved essays sell better than those that are less known?

The essay collections are already available as ebooks, but now Scribner has also parceled them out and repackaged them by theme. Typically, essay collections wind up being chronological, but these sets -- 10 to 14 essays for $7.99 -- are grouped by topic. There is "Chuck Klosterman on Sports," "Chuck Klosterman on Media and Culture," "Chuck Klosterman on Rock" and so on.

Whether or not this proves to be a fruitful experiment, it's interesting to see a big publisher trying new models in ebooks -- or rather, e-essays. They're one of the literary products that can be sold piecemeal. Will they find receptive buyers? And if they do, how will we know -- will Amazon.com or Apple launch an e-essay bestseller list?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Chuck Klosterman in 2006. Credit: Frank Franklin II / Associated Press

A new collection of James Baldwin's writings


"Writers are obliged, at some point, to realize that they are involved in a language that they must change," James Baldwin wrote. "And for a black writer in this country to be born into the English language is to realize that the assumptions on which the language operates are his enemy."

That's how Baldwin began an Op-Ed piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times -- "On Race, Language and the Black Writer" -- on April 29, 1979. It's among the previously uncollected pieces that make up the new Baldwin anthology, "The Cross of Redemption," edited by Randall Kenan. This Sunday, it's reviewed by Lynell George. She writes:

Not infrequently, James Baldwin found himself quite publicly fielding a deeply presuming question. Though versions varied over time, the rough paraphrase was this: "Was being born black, gay and poor a 'burden'?" Did he ever wonder, "Why me?"

A dynamic, trailblazing presence on erudite TV chat shows as well as a de facto talking head booked to parse the complex territory of the Negro Problem, Baldwin was always ready with the not-so-inscrutable smile, then the ice-water answer: "No. I thought I'd hit the jackpot."

It's typical Baldwin -- catching the questioner off-guard, turning the assumption on its head.

Baldwin, who died in 1987, can seem eerily prescient. "Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day -- thirty years if I'm lucky -- I can be President too. It never entered this boy's mind, I suppose -- it has not entered the country's mind yet -- that perhaps I wouldn't want to be.... what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro 'first' will become the first Negro president. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he will be president of?"

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: James Baldwin in 1985. Credit: Associated Press


The Library of America launches a blog

Margaretfuller The Library of America, the nonprofit publishing house dedicated to creating an in-print library of editions of America's greatest works, launched its first blog Friday. Called Reader's Almanac, it focuses on joining the current online discussions that touch on the works and authors in the publisher's catalog, such as William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.

And also Edgar Allen Poe. The blog posts part of a Poe essay about Margaret Fuller, a leading transcendentalist who held her own with Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1840, Fuller, a writer and editor, was the first woman allowed access to Harvard's library. Poe found her both attractive and, it seems, intimidating.

She is of the medium height; nothing remarkable about the figure; a profusion of lustrous light hair; eyes a bluish gray, full of fire; capacious forehead; the mouth when in repose indicates profound sensibility, capacity for affection, for love — when moved by a slight smile, it becomes even beautiful in the intensity of this expression; but the upper lip, as if impelled by the action of involuntary muscles, habitually uplifts itself, conveying the impression of a sneer.

Fuller became first female European correspondent for the New York Tribune, getting caught up -- politically and romantically -- in the revolution in Italy. She returned to America with Giovanni Ossoli and their infant son, but never made it home. The captain of their ship was felled by smallpox, and an inexperienced first mate crashed the ship in the middle of the night, just 100 yards from New York's Fire Island. Although most on the boat survived, Fuller and her family did not, and despite Thoreau's efforts to find them, their bodies were never recovered. It was a sad and sudden end for this prominent female intellectual, one that sounds almost like it belongs in a story by Edgar Allen Poe.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Margaret Fuller. Credit: International Portrait Gallery

Now you can listen to Woody Allen's 'Without Feathers' read by Woody

Woodyallen_cannes2010Today Audible offers up for sale a quartet of digital audio books by Woody Allen, all read by Woody Allen himself. Allen recorded the audio versions of all four books --  "Side Effects" (1971), "Without Feathers" (1975),  "Getting Even" (1980) and "Mere Anarchy" (2007) -- earlier this year. It's the first time the writer-director has lent his New York-accented voice to an audio version of his written work.

Some of these pieces are, as Allen himself might wryly joke, his earlier, funnier work. "Without Feathers" includes "The Whore of Mensa" and "No Kaddish for Weinstein," and "Side Effects" includes "The Kugelmass Episode."

Some of the short stories can be purchased individually, for $1.95 each; one -- "My Apology" from "Side Effects" -- is free. Each book is $12.95 each; all four can be purchased for $34.95.

Woody Allen's film work has moved, in recent years, into glossy dramas and sophisticated bedroom farces such as "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," which opens in September. These books, however, are more like his 1973 film "Sleeper" -- slightly bent and giddy with goofy humor.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Woody Allen with Josh Brolin, left, and Naomi Watts, right, two stars of "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," at Cannes in May. Credit: Lionel Cironneau / Associated Press

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Four centuries of writing into America


The Library of America anthology "Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing" is daunting, weighing in at 724 pages -- however much a hardcover wrapped around 724 pages weighs -- but too good to pass up.

Among the writers in its pages are contemporary luminaries Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Edwidge Danticat as well as immigrant Americans from long ago: John James Audubon, Charlie Chaplin and Isaac Bashevis Singer. It includes 85 immigrants from 45 other nations, and begins with a letter from Richard Frethorne to his mother and father from near Jamestown in Virginia in 1623. Editor Ilan Stavans writes:

As many of the writers in this anthology reveal, the dilemma of assimilation is never completely resolved. Each partial resolution is an invention, the result of a fresh confrontation with an environment whose coordinates and ground rules are always subtly shifting. In immigrant literature there is never simple acceptance but rather a constant questioning, a weighing of contradictory and compelling appeals, a never-ending examination of what really comprises a national identity.

One must not make too much of the notion of American exceptionalism -- the idea that the United States is unique in its historical character and destiny -- but it must be acknowledged that the way immigration has become part of American life and culture is not quite comparable to what has prevailed elsewhere.... While the history of immigration in the United States is bumpy at best, the emotion most often invoked about it is gratitude: not only have newcomers been thankful for the opportunity to remake themselves, but the native-born population has in the end extended respect to the outsiders who have become their fellow citizens.

There are many writers included who lived in America but we don't think of as American -- Thomas Mann, author of "Death in Venice," who left Germany after Hitler's rise to power, taught at Princeton and then lived  in Pacific Palisades until the early 1950s. There are pieces by Vladimir Nabokov, Frank McCourt, Christopher Isherwood, Laura Fermi, Czeslaw Milosz and W. H. Auden too.

There are stories, excerpts from novels, essays and poetry in this collection, published in 2009. While the earlier names are less familiar, the volume includes work by Jamaica Kincaid, Chang-Rae Lee, Luc Sante, Edward Said, Gary Shteyngart and Aleksander Hemon. It is quite a mix -- just like the country that these authors are writing about.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A map of North America by Robert Sayer, circa 1750. Credit: ephemera assemblyman via Flickr

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John Waters steps onto the L.A. Times bestseller list


John Waters was called "The Pope of Trash" by no less than William S. Burroughs. His outrageous cult films -- "MondoTrasho," "Pink Flamingos," "Female Trouble," "Polyester" -- led, improbably, to increasing mainstream success. No less than Johnny Depp sang and danced for Waters in "Cry-Baby." That movie followed "Hairspray," which starred heavyweight transvestite Divine as Edna Turnblad, mother of Ricki Lake's Tracy, the shy overweight girl who becomes a model for Hefty Hideaway and fights to integrate the local teen dance show. If you'd told John Waters fans then, in 1988, that in 15 years the Broadway adaptation would win eight Tony awards -- including best musical -- they wouldn't have been able to believe you. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. 

Speaking of nonfiction, that's where John Waters is this week -- his new book, "Role Models," enters the L.A. Times bestseller list at No. 11. "Role Models" is a book of essays on writers, musicians, public figures and others who Waters admires. Some are the type anyone might see as a hero -- Tennessee Williams, Johnny Mathis -- and others belong more uniquely in Waters' pantheon, including Leslie Van Houghton and Esther Martin, owner of the scariest bar in Baltimore.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: John Waters, center, with Traci Lords, left, and Mink Stole (the three worked together on "Serial Mom") in 1997 at the re-release party for Waters' film "Pink Flamingos." Credit: Con Keyes / Los Angeles Times

See the complete bestseller list for June 20, 2010, after the jump.

Continue reading »

Wallace Stegner's widow, Mary, dies at 99 [Updated]

Mary StegnerWallace Stegner


Mary Stegner, the widow of writer Wallace Stegner, died on Saturday. She was 99. The couple was married for almost 60 years, from 1934 until 1993, when Wallace Stegner died after being injured in a car crash.

Closely associated with the American west, Wallace Stegner won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for "Angle of Repose" and the 1977 National Book Award for "The Spectator Bird." Stegner founded the Stanford University creative writing program, which included students Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry, and ran it for more than two decades. His legacy there continues with the prestigious Stegner Fellowship.

Mary Stuart Page met Wallace Stegner at the University of Iowa, where he was a graduate student and she was an undergraduate working in the school library. Wallace Stegner's teaching took them to Salt Lake City, Utah; Madison, Wis., and Harvard in Massachusetts before they got to California in 1945. Mary was along for the ride. "She quite deliberately decided that his gifts and talents were so great, the best role she would play was to be his helpmate," their son Stuart Page Stegner told the Salt Lake Tribune. "She wouldn't win any points in the modern women's movement for that, but that's what she did, and did deliberately."

Stegner explained how Mary enabled his work -- and reeled in his worst impulses -- in the book "Stealing Glances: Three Interviews with Wallace Stegner" by James R. Hepworth"

She has had no role in my life except to keep me sane, fed, housed, amused, and protected from unwanted telephone calls. Also to restrain me fairly frequently from making a horse's ass of myself in public, to force me to attend to books and ideas from which she knows I will learn something; also to mend my wounds when I am misused by the world, to implant ideas in my head and stir the soil around them, to keep me from falling into a comfortable torpor, to agitate my sleeping hours with problems that I would not otherwise attend to; also to remind me constantly (not by precept but by example) how fortunate I have been to live for fifty-three years with a woman that bright, alert, charming, and supportive.

We'll never know what his work might have been like without his wife Mary, but it sounds like he thought there would have been less of it, and it would not have been as good. And his work was significant: Wallace Stegner received the L.A. Times Kirsch Award for his distinguished body of work writing about the West in 1980.

[For the Record, added at 12:01 p.m. May 24: An earlier version of this post referred to Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer winner as "Angel of Repose." This version has been corrected, with thanks to the readers who pointed out the error.]

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Wallace Stegner in 1996. Credit: James Pease / For the Los Angeles Times

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