Wednesday, December 9, 2009

from Cat n' Mouse, Steven Millhauser

The cat understands that the mouse will always outwit him, but this tormenting knowledge serves only to inflame his desire to catch the mouse. He will never give up. His life, in relation to the mouse, is one long failure, a monotonous succession of unspeakable humiliations; his unhappiness is relieved only by moments of delusional hope, during which he believes, despite doubts supported by a lifetime of bitter experience, that at last he will succeed. Although he knows that he will never catch the mouse, who will forever escape into his mousehole a half inch ahead of the reaching claw, he also knows that only if he catches the mouse will his wretched life be justified. He will be transformed. Is it therefore his own life that he seeks, when he lies awake plotting against the mouse? Is it, when all is said and done, himself that he is chasing? The cat frowns and scratches his nose.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

One dozen 2009 favorites

The three presses for whom I work- Harvard University Press, The MIT Press, and Yale University Press- published just over one thousand titles between them in 2009. Prompted by Tom Bielenberg at Micawber’s Books in St Paul, who wanted to know where my “annual holiday synopsis” is, I thought it would be fun (and easy) to create my personal best list from this year’s offerings.

Fun yes, easy no. As I thought about the books we’ve published this year, I was struck by what was missing: no makebooks trying to replicate last year’s fads; no vampires; no cheesy ghostwritten memoirs by crackpot politicians. In short, nothing to be embarrassed about representing.

Though I came up with a dozen standouts that I really loved, our publishing program as a whole is a thing of wonder: intellectually stimulating scholarship, rigorous standards, incredibly patient editors (one recent title was signed in the mid-seventies!), all aimed at the twin, sometimes mutually exclusive goals of pushing the research boundaries in the sciences and humanities, while making the results accessible to a general, well-informed readership.

We live in a time when the concept of holding a complex idea in one’s head is considered elitist, so representing these wonderful books often feels more like mission than job. The satisfaction in selling the works of big thinkers, with the hope that every potential new reader casts a small blow against those who would bring back the Dark Ages, is something booksellers and publishers have been doggedly doing since the Enlightenment. I can’t imagine a more important way to spend a working life.

But I digress. The books. Herewith my dozen favorites of the year from our lists, in no particular order. These are not necessarily the lead books or the tradeiest books or the most widely reviewed. They are just my favorites. And the other 990 authors I represented this year shouldn’t feel dissed, I was proud to push all of them.

Unpacking My Library: Architects and their Books
asks what a person’s book collection says about the collector. The interviews with a dozen fascinating architects are great, but the real appeal of the book (helped along by the suave design) is that it’s so wonderfully snoopy. If you’re at a party in the home of a smart person, and you’re a wallflower like me, you may find yourself near the bookshelves, where there won’t be people. You scan the spines, studying them, head twisted painfully, while trying not to spill wine on the carpet. That’s the intimate, private experience afforded by this colorful little volume.

Continuing the eavesdropping theme, Talking with Sartre, edited and translated by John Gerassi, lets us in on some shockingly frank, never before published chit chat with the great man. Sartre’s godson and a family friend, Gerassi conducted hours of free-wheeling interviews between 1970 and 1974. There’s a lot of politics and history, but plenty of gossip and back-biting as well. One moment Sartre is on about DeGaulle (hated him) and the Algerian independence movement (for it), the next moment it’s on to mistresses and amphetamines (loved both).

With My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, Adina Hoffman changed the way I look at the world. What more can you ask from a book? Taha Muhammad Ali is a renowned Palestinian poet, too little known in the US but with rock star status in his homeland. Hoffman, an accomplished, fascinating writer and translator herself, has used Taha’s life as window into the Palestinian predicament, and the idea of living in exile in your own home. Powerful, beautifully written, more than one bookseller has compared it to Reading Lolita in Tehran.

In another great biography from the spring list, Steven Zipperstein’s Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion and the Furies of Writing uncovers the story of an all but forgotten Chicago writer, Isaac Rosenfeld. Saul Bellow’s best friend and gentle competitor, Rosenfeld died in the mid-fifties at 38. Beyond doing delayed justice to this great writer, Zipperstein really captures the wonderfully obsessive qualities of the writing life. Mesmerizing and contemplative, it reminded me of Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City.

A fantastic book about an artist I knew little about, Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh is a revelation. Hsieh is a practitioner of “durational work,” or “endurance art”- a genre that’s so new it doesn’t really have an agreed-upon name. His materials are time and his own body, and his practice consists of year-long physically demanding performance pieces, such as confining himself to a sealed cell and punching a time clock every hour on the hour (these obsessive documents go on for pages in the book). Or being tied by an eight-foot rope to Linda Montano, an artist who answered a classified ad, for one solid year. And so on. Scoffers have questioned whether this is art. That’s the point.

Hollis Frampton’s Circles of Confusion is one of the most highly sought after out of print titles (1983). Replacing and superseding that long unavailable collection, On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton is a seductive hodge-podge of essays, interviews, film-scores, and experimental pieces reminiscent of Borges and Beckett. An avant-garde filmmaker, photographer, and digital artist who died in 1984, Frampton was also a funny and inventive writer. Yvonne Rainer aptly called the book “Offbeat Ways to Think about Everything” I was initially drawn to him because he was an autodidact and a provocateur, but now I’m hooked on the work. Check out his (nostalgia) and other video clips on youtube.

Among the many other intellectual accomplishments of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was his notion that to know plants is to know the world. First published in 1790, his The Metamorphosis of Plants has influenced generations, and has never appeared in a more stunning edition. Photographer Gordon Miller re-shot plant specimens (mainly in the northwest) to match and illustrate Goethe’s numbered paragraphs. The book is a very desirable little physical object- paper over board, luscious color throughout. Even I, who know nothing from plants, was entranced.

Fascinating taxonomies like the Goethe are a signature MIT Press gift to the world, and here’s one of an entirely different sort: Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. Photographer Christopher Payne noticed how many massive, abandoned mental institutions are still standing in nearly every state. These behemoths, little cities really, are often in a kind of limbo- too architecturally idiosyncratic for reuse, and yet too historic for demolition. He worked tirelessly to get permissions to enter and photograph these buildings, and he ended up spending six years in thirty states doing so. The result is a beautiful, moving, sometimes jaw-dropping, collection of images. And, as Oliver Sacks says in the introduction, “a tribute to a sort of public architecture that no longer exists.”

Though I have many bones to pick with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, they offer the kind of big thinking we so desperately need in Commonwealth, which completes the trilogy begun with Empire and followed by Multitude. (This one’s way more readable than those two.) The title refers to one of their pet themes, that wealth is something we hold not individually but in common. Indeed, the endless debate over “private” vs. “public” should be replaced with a focus on the common, they argue. With the collapse of both the private market economic model and the soviet statist one, H&N are looking for a third way, and every few pages I feel as if they’ve maybe found it. Our political discourse has gotten so cramped and narrow that it’s refreshing to come across writing that blasts out of that suffocating box.

I really enjoyed David Leavitt’s last novel, The Indian Clerk, the mysterious true life story of an Indian mathematician. Though nonfiction, Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor have also unraveled a historic math mystery in Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity. The news here is that the major math finding of the 20th century- the nature of infinity- owes its discovery to a mystical religious sect called the Name Worshippers. Along the way we have a big dose of Russian history and paranoid stalinist repression, interpersonal and nationalist competition among scientists, and yet another example of the strange historical dance between science and religion. It’s incredibly well-written, with a sort of Beautiful Mind vibe.

The need to hold an audience’s attention, according to Brian Boyd in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, is the fundamental problem facing all story-tellers. He takes this insight and uses it to show the evolutionary origins of art and story-telling. (Story-telling was important because through it we learned to think beyond the here and now.) Stories were not just an amusement, but honed our minds, fostered cooperation, and were a survival advantage. This is one of those books that crosses so many fields and disciplines that booksellers were constantly challenged about where to shelve it. But in the spirit of consilience, this is the best kind of thinking and the best kind of problem. Did I mention that fantastic jacket illustration?

Finally, I almost hesitate to mention A New Literary History of America since I’ve been singing its praises since April. (Yes, the daily emails got annoying, sorry about that) To recap: NLHA is a monumental, decades in the making stab at uniting American history and American literature. America was made by writing! Two hundred short original essays by contemporary hipsters (Sarah Vowell, Camille Paglia, Walter Moseley) explore specific literary moments that changed America. This is not not not some thick boring doorstop of a canon-smashing reference book. It is fun, it is alive, and it can be read in small digestible pieces. If you are up on your Walter Benjamin, it may remind you of Arcades Project, the quintessential “memory theater.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

from Your Face Tomorrow v3, Javier Marias p 204

Nostalgia, or missing some place or person, regardless of whether for reasons of absence or abandonment or death, is a very strange and contradictory business. At first, you think you can’t live without someone or far from someone, the initial grief is so intense and so constant that you experience it as a kind of endless sinking or an interminably advancing spear, because each moment of privation counts and weighs, you feel it and it chokes you, and all you want is for the hours of the day to pass, knowing that their passing will lead to nothing new, only to more waiting for more waiting. Each morning you open your eyes- if you’ve had the benefit of sleep which, while it doesn’t allow you to forget everything, does at least numb and confuse- thinking the same thought that oppressed you just before you closed them, for example, “she’s not here and she won’t be coming back,” (whether that means coming back to you or coming back from death) and you prepare yourself not to trudge through the day, because you’re not even capable of looking that far ahead or of differentiating one day from another, but through the next five minutes and then the next, and so you’ll continue from five minutes to five minutes, if not from minute to minute, becoming entangled in them all and, at most, trying to distract yourself for just two or three minutes from your consciousness or from your ponderous paralysis. If that happens, it has nothing to do with your will, but with some form of blessed chance: a curious item on the television news, the time it takes to begin or complete a crossword, an irritating or solicitous phone call from someone you can’t stand, the bottle that falls to the floor and obliges you to gather up the fragments so that you don’t cut yourself when out of your laziness you wander about barefoot, or the dire TV series that nonetheless amuses you- or that you simply took to straightaway- and to which you surrender yourself with inexplicable relief until the final credits roll, wishing another episode would start immediately and allow you to keep clinging on to that stupid thread of continuity. These are the found routines that sustain us, what remains of life, the foolish and the innocuous, that neither enthuses nor demands participation or effort, the padding that we despise when everything is fine and we’re busy and have no time to miss anyone, not even the dead (in fact, we use those busy times to shrug them off, although this only works for a short while, because the dead insist on staying dead and always come back later on, the pin price pressing into our chest and the lead upon our souls.)

Time passes, and at some ill-defined point…we raise our head and once more look around us, and although we see nothing particularly promising or attractive, nothing that can replace the person we long for and have lost, we begin to find it hard to sustain that longing and wonder if it was really such a loss. We’re filled by a retrospective laziness regarding the time when we loved or were devoted or got over-excited or anxious, and feel incapable of ever giving so much attention to anyone again, of trying to please them, of watching over their sleep and concealing from them what can be concealed or what might hurt them, and one finds enormous relief in that deep-rooted absence of alertness. “I was abandoned,” we think, “by my lover, by my friend, by my dead, so what, they all left, and the result was the same, I just had to get on with my own life. They’ll regret it in the end, because it’s nice to know that one is loved and sad to know one’s been forgotten, and now I’m forgetting them. I did what I could, I held firm, and still they drifted away.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

from Two Solitudes, Hugh MacLennon

A windy day is always a bad time to start figuring things out, especially if a man has been too much alone.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

from The Tanners, Robert Walser

How strange: time marched right past all good intentions just as surely as past the bad qualities one hasn't yet overcome. There was something beautiful, accepting and forgiving in this passage of time. It swept past both the beggar and the president of the Republic, the strumpet and the lady of refinement. It made many things appear small and unimportant, for it alone represented the sublime and the grand. What could life's hustle and bustle signify, all those stirrings and strivings, compared to this loftiness that paid no heed to whether a person became a man or a simpleton, and found it a matter of indifference whether or not one desired what was right and good. (p 325)

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

"... in literature- perhaps as in life- one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself."

"...Don't make your own life your project in your own life: total waste of time."

Sens-plastique, Malcolm de Chazal

Literary senility is marked by verbal spoilage, words spilling over into other words, writers changing accepted meanings because they can't invent the right new words they need, writers living by fresh experience with old habits, overworking the idiom until it turns completely flabby like a mayonnaise whipped until it collapses.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Heartbreak Glue

One Sunday in May 1972 I drove Fred Blair, the aged chairman of the Wisconsin Communist Party, to Madison. He’d been invited to speak to a group of academic leftist researchers about Wisconsin party history. He was flattered by the invitation but contemptuous of their strictly past-tense interest. Communists were endlessly fascinating to the new left, who condescendingly thought of them as political dinosaurs who had a crack at seizing state power in the thirties but blew it. Fred was bemused.

A dozen people were seated around a table in a meeting room at the Downtown Y. The format was open-ended question and answer. The session was taped. Initial questions were timid- where he grew up, how he became political, his many runs for public office. Then someone broke the ice with a question about whether the party’s support for the jailing of Trotskyites in the forties under the sedition laws in Minneapolis- which were later used to lock up CP leaders- was ill-considered. Fred would only concede that “mistakes were made,” and painted the Trotskyites as near fascists. Nobody was convinced.

More nuanced questions about Marxist principles and Leninist strategy came to predominate. There was a respectful atmosphere, eager students at the foot of some elder master. But Fred hated the “eminence grise” role, and ended the session by promoting an Angela Davis fund-raising car wash.

I thought the whole trip a waste of time, but he seemed energized. On the way back we stopped to buy a jug of rhine wine, which he loved to sip all day. A sign in the liquor store window said “Heartbreak Glue.”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


A self-important man is giving the six of us- newly hired second shift line workers at AO Smith- very detailed instructions. Dangerous-seeming machines and apparatuses whiz and percolate along a conveyor belt in a space the size of a couple football fields. Scowling, bored piece-workers are deployed strategically, it would seem, to somehow rein in these machines. They appear to be failing.

The man is using lots of gestures along with his verbal instructions because the deafening racket makes it impossible to hear a word he’s saying. We try to ask questions, but his sign language responses are only more confusing, and he's hard to see through our smeared plastic goggles. Not wanting to appear stupid on our first day, we are simultaneously trying to disguise our incomprehension, while hoping to glean some decipherable clue about what we are supposed to do next. He’s getting frustrated. He can’t really hear our screamed questions, and he screams back answers to questions we didn’t ask. We don’t hear these either.

At one point, his face light bulbs. He disappears for a moment, and returns with an "I am a genius" look and a handful of what he obviously thinks is the solution to a problem: earplugs. They look filthy and used, but we dutifully insert them into our ears. The machine roar is instantly reduced to a muffled hum. But his instructions are just as unintelligible as before, and we desperately try to read his lips, and each other’s, to figure out what’s going on.

Still, progress: as we work our way through the foundry, our small group dwindles as we are deposited, one by one, at the machine that will be ours for the night. Each is loud, greasy and massive, but there are a variety of shapes and apparent functions. Though the factory as a whole is manufacturing auto parts, no single piece of metal being processed by these machines seems to have any obvious relation to a car.

As the first few recruits are left at their stations, it becomes clear that not hearing a word the foreman said was not such a handicap after all. Within moments, our new co-workers on the piece work line wordlessly demonstrate the couple mindless, repetitive, back-breaking steps that will be our contribution to the finished automobile for the next eight hours. Minus twenty minutes for lunch, and two six minute breaks for the bathroom, which is a two minute walk from the line.

I am last. My machine is a very tall punch press, one of a long line of machines strewn along the line. Oddly shaped pieces of metal are moving slowly down the belt- though the lazy pace proves to be an illusion once I begin lifting them. My task is to pick up the object- eight crooked feet long, weighing about 30 pounds- and to insert it into the jaws of the behemoth. After pressing two large buttons, the only apparent controls, the giant mouth clamps shut and two new holes appear in the metal slab. (It used to take just one button but too many hands had been snapped off, so the union won this safety concession.) The final challenge is to replace the piece on the belt in a standing position, so that the next worker up the line can lift it with the least possible strain.

Nobody needs to know anything beyond how to work their particular piece- in fact, the less we know the better. Since we are paid by the piece, it seems obvious to us virgin industrial proletarians that the faster we work, the better for everyone. But within a couple hours, each of us is taken aside and given a short but firm seminar in the long term dangers of “speeding up the line.” This is the most important thing I learn in my AO Smith career.

At any rate, working too fast is not my problem. I never master the challenge of making those pieces stand up for the next guy. After six weeks of coming home after midnight, exhausted, ragged, like some escapee from Dante’s inferno, I quit. But I keep the steel-toed boots I’d been issued, a gift from AO Smith Corporation, and wear them to picket lines for the next ten years.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Year of Reading Boswell's Johnson pt 2

originally posted at BoswellandBooks

When we last left John Eklund, he was rather ecstatic that he was finally tackling "The Life of Samuel Johnson." I've continued to put it off to another day. I did recently contemplate Stanley Elkin's first novel, "Boswell," which is about a modern-day version of Johnson's biographer. I wasn't even ready for that. So hats off to Eklund:

Reading James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, part 2

My last post on this project, about 250 pages in, was somewhat giddy with the sense of accomplishment that comes with plunging into a fat book about which you are ambivalent and sticking with it. I also made a few observations that struck me about the way bookselling and publishing was done in Boswell’s time, the similarity between Johnson’s early pamphlets and contemporary blogs, and the strangely familiar obsession with ownership of intellectual property that comes across in the book.

Reporting in from page 560 (of 1235, though over 200 of that is back matter and apparatus), I have to say that the going has gotten a bit tougher. Boswell has been credited with producing the template for our modern idea of biography, but it seems to me more a model for a certain kind of biography: the kitchen sink school. Nothing is too small to go unremarked upon- except perhaps the women and children in these men’s lives who, at least through the first half of the book, remain ghosts. And for Boswell, the smallest biographical detail or anecdote about Johnson still seems to call for a footnote to draw the innocent reader into an even more baroque narrative labyrinth. I shudder to think what Boswell would have made of hypertext. His pages would be nothing but hot links.

But reading Boswell’s Johnson is still more joy than chore. I marvel at the extensive documentation. In my job as a book rep, I’m expected to pass along to my presses all the brilliant comments made by the booksellers during our appointments. I struggle to find a surreptitious method to record these so as to not interrupt our flow like some mad scribe. When I give up and decide to just do it later from memory, the flavor is lost. Boswell, on the other hand, would have made a superb rep. Either he has an encyclopedic memory for dialog (and remember, these 18th century people spoke in full sentences- no “I was like’s”), or he had a fantastic imagination. His sourcing is meticulous.

Another important documentary resource that helps make the book so alive is the trove of letters Boswell has assembled. These two men and their vast circle of brainy acquaintances seemed to do nothing but write to each other. In volume, they remind me sometimes of a sustained, urgent email correspondence, but they must have been vastly more time-consuming. And they are vastly more erudite than most of the messages I get and send. As much as a profound early example of the biography form, this is a great monument to the power of a letter collection to make satisfying reading.

The bond between the two men is fascinating. Boswell (Johnson calls him “Bozzy”) was thirty years younger than Johnson, and though there was a distinct sense of mentorship and power imbalance in the relationship, there was also plain love. It’s expressed in such an unaffected way (i.e. “I love you”) that it’s a little startling. It violates our modern expectation of appropriate affection between heterosexual men.

One recurring unpleasantness I’m facing in the reading: Johnson was a jerk. Apparently he was known as a jerk far and wide. Boswell has assigned himself the task of redeeming Johnson’s nasty reputation, but this is not a whitewash. Some of the most entertaining bits are “he said/he said” arguments between the two. Boswell acknowledges Johnson’s frequently appalling behavior, his retrograde opinions, his slovenly personal life and habits. Yet somehow you come away sort of liking the man. He is what we might today call a right wing public intellectual. But he seems to relish taking contrary opinions for the sake of argument, and it’s sometimes hard to decipher what he actually believes. In this Johnson reminds me a little of H.L. Mencken, another right-wing blowhard who many of us love to read because he was so witty and argued so well.

So will I soldier on to the end? I’m in too deep to stop now. But I’m taking a break. There are just too many great fall books piling up and I can’t stand to look at them anymore without wading in. First up: Lorrie Moore’s new novel A Gate at the Stairs, the wait for which has been of Boswellian proportions.- John Eklund

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rose Alley

originally posted at The Front Table

Rose Alley by Jeremy M. Davies

This is one of those small quirky novels that suffer unjustly when reduced to a linear plot summary. But even with a book that’s up to so much besides storytelling, prospective readers do like to know the storyline, so here goes: a somewhat mad director decides to produce a film based on the life of John Wilmot, the ribald poet who was the second Earl of Rochester. Unfortunately for the film crew, but fortunately for the reader, they’ve chosen to do this in Paris, amidst the events of 1968. The book is essentially a compendium of character sketches, and introduces us, one by one, to everyone associated with the ill-fated project- each one of whom is more eccentric than the last.

Davies’ prose is funny, sexy, and relentlessly brainy, but not at all pretentiously so. He has a gift for spot-on, hit-and-run representation:

"Abelard’s baby-face, twisted to a point like stirred pudding. . .”

"…the smell of take-out slinking from the garbage bin."

"Wexler’s posture was Paleolithic: he looked like he’d been curled in a hot wind.”

The writing is simultaneously light and dense, if that’s possible; each paragraph feels as if it weighs more than the sum of its sentences. The narrative has a sort of clinical, distant, formal flavor. By contrast, this makes the deliciously imagined ingredients all the more comic.

The cast members and hangers-on, with their preposterous names and elaborate backgrounds, are uniformly hilarious. And Davies doesn’t stop with the key characters themselves- family members, friends, and spectators are conjured in exquisite detail. Here’s a typical description, of the parents of Myrna Krause, screenwriter:

Her mother Rose was a typist at an insurance company and her father Michael a retired factory worker (car parts). Neither were readers; both were second-generation German-American Methodists; both had been born with stutters that so disfigured their speech that they had as schoolchildren in the same parish learned to communicate with one another by whistling the choruses of popular tunes whose titles contained phrases practical to everyday life; e.g., “What’s New,” “Betcha Nickel,” “Open the Door, Richard,” “I Want the Waiter (With the Water),” “What’s the Matter with Me?,” “Keep Cool, Fool,” “Undecided,” “Oh, Lady be Good,” and, eventually, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me.”

Life was quiet until an anthropologist named Pantry and a piano-playing sociologist with a strong left hand moved in for thirteen months…They wrote a book that no one in town would read, cataloguing the vocabulary of over one thousand five hundred ideo-melodic phrases used in the Krause household.

“Cataloging” is a key word, because in many ways this is a book about classification. The film set, for instance, is not so much designed as cobbled together. The hapless set designer has no budget, and must resort to “collecting and foraging” props and costumes.

"Worse,’ he muses, ‘it was a period film— another layer of abstraction. He couldn’t get just any potato peeler: it had to be a Restoration potato peeler.’”

The book is filled with layers of abstraction, and weird taxonomies of every sort. A meal that takes seventy-two hours to prepare must be eaten in strict order- “food stratified like Aztec architecture.” A character sleeps with his sex partners sequentially, “in size order.”

In the brilliant, tour-de-force final chapter, the film notes of the director are uncovered. It turns out there are thirteen extant cuts of Rose Alley- some filmed, some manuscripts and notes, one just a catalog entry from UC Berkeley Film School.

"Things establish their own categories in time. They resonate, not in a gross natural array, but gratifying to a more discerning sense of order. I wave my hand over my collection, in my mind, and know what belongs with which. It is a basic assumption of scholarship that certain units of information vibrate in harmony.”

If you are overly obsessed with whether a fiction is “true,” this book will either please or annoy you. If you are put off by interruptions, digressions, literary blind alleys, and ambiguous meanings Rose Alley may ask an uncomfortably high level of reader surrender. But in a very clever way, Davies has made the connection between the improbable ways that stories arise out of both written and cinematic jumble sales, and you’re unlikely to read a more stimulating meditation on truth, literature and movies this year.

"What a strange, you’d have to say avant-garde sort of thing even the dullest film was, being in form- as we all know- a series of incoherent fragments, sorted through and soldered together with dreamy nonlogic, so that no gaze remains aimless, no gesture redundant: exactly the opposite of life.”

Reviewed by John Eklund

Rose Alley by Jeremy M. Davies
Counterpath Press, 2009
Paper, 192 pp., $15.95
ISBN: 9781933996134

Monday, August 24, 2009

Schwartz Bookshop memories

originally posted at Inside Flap Feb 2009

- I was a nerdy bookish fourteen year old and spent hours hanging around the downtown Schwartz Bookshop. One day an older guy cruised me as I looked at some remainders. It was spooky, unnerving, but memorable. I’d never registered the look of desire pointed at me before. Later, I managed that store!

- I was not a great manager. I was only in it for the books, I hated the business aspects. And my staff management philosophy boiled down to Please Love Me. I could never really settle disputes, even the most petty. I thought making a grumpy face would just make people fall into line. But I was mostly good at picking people. They were good booksellers and I liked most of them and loved some of them. Of course, there were some bad decisions. Once I needed a receiver urgently so I just hired the first guy who showed up. An older gentleman, he had a good story about being a veteran and seemed super responsible. But within a couple days it was clear he was an alcoholic, couldn’t open a box, and would disappear for hours. Later I found out that he had “borrowed” money from every bookseller, and booksellers didn’t generally have money to lend. I should have re-imbursed everybody, this was my fault.

- There was one customer who came in every single day and every single day asked the same two questions: 1) what time do you close? 2) is there a tax on magazines? Mainly it was sort of comical but one day I lost it and screamed at him “Six o’clock!!! We closed at six o’clock yesterday, we’re closing at six o’clock today, and we’ll be closing at six o’clock tomorrow!!!” It wasn’t fair, I was taking out frustrations about other customers on him. But I don’t think I hurt him too much, he was in the next day to find out what time we closed and whether there was a tax on magazines.

- I miss the rhythms of those days. Phones ringing like crazy in the morning, the lunch crowd, the quieter afternoons. I miss the regulars. John Norquist, the nerdy bookish mayor! Many others. Some customers knew every bookseller by name and made the rounds greeting them in a ritualized way. Others would come in day after day, week after week, and we’d never exchange a word with them. But a bookseller could mention she’d seen “pop culture guy” on the #15 and we’d all instantly know who she meant.

- Book reps from the publishers would parade through the store on their way to meetings with buyers. It was sort of an upstairs downstairs situation. Some would march right by all the booksellers on the way to these more important things. But others would go out of their way to talk to the staff, invite them out for pizza, find out what they’re reading. As a rep, I’ve tried to model myself on these schmoozers but it hasn’t always worked too well. Social networking of any kind feels unnatural to me.

- Bookselling: it always seemed like the one honorable profession. Maybe the last place in retail where authenticity could be profitable. Maybe that’s not the case any more.

- Most of our books were delivered by Leroy, the UPS man. He was the sweetest, nicest, most consistently upbeat person with a really hard job I’ve ever known. When I get stuck in some road ragey jam, even now, so many years later, I think to myself, “Be Leroy.”

- We had a nerve-wracking, stone-age, 1.0 version computer system that broke down or fucked up constantly. Fixes were always quite elaborate and required late night stays and many floppy disks. Occasionally the genius behind this system would fly out from San Francisco and crawl under the front desk and would take our computer apart. He was sexy, looked a little like Richard Gere, and wore shades while he worked. He made me nervous.

- Once, we had an author signing for a book about local beers and microbrews. The publisher supplied cases of ale. For some reason, not a single person showed up. So the staff got drunk.

- Once, Deeelite was in town at the Riverside and Lady Kier came in to peruse the magazine section. This caused a stir, but not as big a stir as the time Lara Flynn Boyle was spotted in the poetry section.

- Once, some anti-abortionists from Wichita converged on the clinic down the street. For days it was under siege, and for days a bunch of booksellers got up at 4am to join the defenders, who were trying to keep a pathway to the clinic open amid the scary mobs. David Schwartz didn’t allow political expressions in the store - “express yourself with the books you sell,” he’d always say - but half the staff would be bleary-eyed and out of it for the rest of the day. I remember standing in front of that clinic, screaming over and over until we became the words, as if by the force of our collective will we could make it true: THIS CLINIC IS OPEN. THIS CLINIC IS OPEN. THIS CLINIC IS OPEN.
In my dreams there’s a wicked mad defiant crowd like that in front of every great Schwartz-style store in America, screaming THIS BOOKSHOP IS OPEN.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Reading (finally) Boswell's Life of Johnson (part one)

originally posted at Boswell and Books

There are a handful of classics that I've circled for years, intending to read but never quite getting around to them. You probably have a few of your own. For me, one of the most compelling in this genre has been Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. I couldn't even say how many times I've picked it up, considered reading it- I've even bought it a couple times, only to give it away or sell it unread. But still, it calls to me. It was one of David Schwartz's favorite books- hence the bookshop logo, which has now passed down to Daniel Goldin at Boswell Books. "Who is that guy?", people would sometimes ask when I worked at the bookshop, though, thankfully, not as often as you might expect, because I didn't have a very good answer. "Oh, that's James Boswell, who wrote the first modern biography- of the great Samuel Johnson." My boyfriend even dressed up as Boswell (don't tell the Milwaukee Rep we pillaged their prop department for his costume) for the grand opening of the Iron Block store downtown. He knew even less about Boswell than I, but did an excellent impression.

So now that my neighborhood bookstore is called Boswell Books, and now that I'm selling a book on the fall Harvard University press list in honor of the Samuel Johnson tercentenary (sorry, shameless plug: Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson, September 09, $35), the time has come to get serious about Boswell's Johnson. I'm spending a week at our cabin on the Mississippi River with lots of reading time, so I've decided to dedicate myself to Jim and Sam (though of course I brought a shopping bag full of alternative books in case I don't make it. I have looked at it longingly from time to time.)

Have you seen the size of the book? It's one of those great massive Penguin Classics, 1245 pages. It was published in 1791, and at first glance seems impenetrable. Smallish typeface, oddly archaic stylistic flourishes, many long poetic digressions, tons of footnotes (more on that later), and appendix upon appendix. This is not a book for the literary faint of heart. But I've made the plunge, and though a mere 185 pages in, I can file a brief report from the front. (And these notes must be taken as tentative until I actually finish. Daniel chides me for so often raving about a book, demanding that he drop everything and read it when I'm on page 25, only to turn against it by page 200.)

So here are my first three impressions:

1) The structure begins to evolve from your enemy to your friend as the book unfolds. The notes in the back are actually helpful- there's a glossary I discovered (100 pages in, I should have seen it earlier but I was afraid to go back there) which explains each and every personage who is mentioned. There are hundreds, impossible to keep track of them all. And the footnotes, though elaborate and long, can either be ignored, or, once you start paying attention, read with pleasure as well. They remind me very much in places of David Foster Wallace's digressions in Infinite Jest. Boswell can't leave a single thread unpursued. Did I mention that this is a very funny book?

2) Gee whiz facts: booksellers used to be publishers! Much of the work that Johnson published in the mid 18th century was a result of cutting deals directly with booksellers, who paid him a flat advance and then printed and sold the books. If his costs outran his advance, as they often did, too bad. Also no agents. Johnson had a series of publications, issued once or twice a week with names like "The Rambler" and "The Idler," that were shockingly akin to present-day blogs. A reader would subscribe to them, they were published several times a week, and he'd receive them by mail, which was delivered several times a day. The "postings" (that's what they seem like) were about everything and nothing, whatever popped into Johnson's very smart head that day. They were raw and unedited, and he bragged about not even reading them after setting them down. Like most bloggers, he had to push himself to keep feeding the beast. "This year I hope to learn diligence," he noted once in a diary, and another time "I bid farewell to Sloth!." Second that!

3) There's an amazingly contemporary-sounding debate about copyright and intellectual property ethics. (in one of those dense footnotes, good thing I started scanning them). It's 1759, and Johnson is incensed that he's noticed some of his writing from The Rambler in other, unauthorized publications, for which, of course, he isn't compensated. He's outraged, and warns that "those who have been busy with their sickles in the fields of their neighbors are henceforward to take notice, that the time of impunity is at an end." Sounds familiar.

More to come.....

Victor's vs Mad Planet

I go to Victor’s- I call it “Victims”- and the Mad Planet, and all the black bars. I love black people.

People don’t seem so hung up on the existence of God anymore. They’re existential but it’s not about “does God exist”, it’s more about experiencing urban life.

I don’t change clothes when I change bars. Yeah, when I walk into Victor’s the red power ties say “oh, east side,” but it’s all a matter of conversation. These Victor’s people seem moronic to me, but maybe it’s just my prejudice.

I dress contemporary- too contemporary for them. They’re living in Saturday Night Fever. They’re just looking for sex. At Mad Planet they’re looking for bondage. There’s a bondage fashion show tonight. First prize is free body piercing. It’s a meeting of the subculture. You could be in an underground bar in Berlin or Copenhagen. But there’s probably a bar like Victor’s in Berlin too.

There’s no mysticism whatsoever at Victor’s. These people make money legitimately but at the Mad Planet it’s strictly illegitimate. That Victor’s is like a dinosaur- we got limos, we got roses, we got champagne, we got cocaine.

I’m both. My priority is acquiring. I want a good house but I don’t give a damn about a car. I want to accumulate wealth. I’m Victor’s AND Mad Planet.

I feel more like an insider at Mad Planet. I know the lady who owns it.

I go to Boobie’s on Garfield. For $4.50 you get half a barbecued duck with greens. I feel like the inner city is part of Milwaukee. There’s a cultural life. There’s a bar with a stage where they put on plays. What’s it called? I forgot. Over by A.L. Smith. A. O. Smith? There’s a lot going on.

You don’t see many white people at Tap One or Boobie’s. They’re glad to see me. The Q & F Diner on Martin Luther King right before Keefe has the best dessert anywhere. Sweet potato pie for 95 cents. I buy a whole one. Banana pudding for a dollar. And fish!

I like people. Everywhere I go I talk to everybody. They say Walt Whitman was like that. He was so avant garde.

Overheard @ Webster’s café
Transcribed 12-7-91

Five Ways to New Haven (with ghosts)


I caught a 4:45am bus to the Milwaukee airport for my flight to LaGuardia. It was packed with sad, tired, first-shift workers heading to Allen-Bradley. In 1970 my friend Rhonda and I often distributed communist newspapers at the gates of this plant. Comrades working inside told us how happy the workers were to get them, despite the glum blankness with which they were usually accepted. Once, a can of green paint was poured on us from the third floor. Rhonda, enraged, said it was “management, obviously.” Eventually, she moved to Maryland and, so I’ve heard, became a fourth-grade teacher.

Harold & Peter

On the plane I recalled my first flight- to a communist youth camp in Pennsylvania. I was sixteen and had run away. We studied Marxism, sang corny folk songs, and played non-competitive sports. I was shy and said almost nothing, so the idea that I might be a police agent arose. One guy- Harold, from Philadelphia, actually confronted me. “Are you an agent?” he demanded during breakfast. But another guy- Peter, from Boston, said “Leave him alone.” They were all red diaper babies and super-confident. I longed to be one too. Harold and Peter, where are you?

Murray & Esther

In the cab to Grand Central (I am important now, with an expense account), I’m flooded with memories of New York party meetings- like the 1972 convention at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn. I stayed with a quiet, older couple in the Bronx. They reminded me of an alternate universe version of my parents. Each night, after an endless subway ride, they quizzed me about what Gus Hall or Henry Winston had to say. They were honored to have a distinguished delegate for a guest. My Allerton Avenue hosts- ghosts! The St George Hotel- a ghost!


The Metro North station names strike primal sitcom chords: New Rochelle- the Petries! Westport- the Ricardos! I remember a 1973 train ride from Berlin to Moscow, and giant Soviet women passing through each car, fussing and tucking and serving hot tea. Rolf, an East German boy I secretly loved, sat beside me, asking so many questions that I later wondered whether he was recruiting me for the Stasi. As he dozed, his head came to rest on my shoulder, and I stayed alert with the electric knowledge of this all the way to Minsk. Rolf- wo bist du denn?


I disembark at New Haven and walk toward Yale. Dizzy with memory, I’m conscious of arriving at a time as much as at a place. I have a sweet job with a prestigious university press, and now I am mature. But I harbor red ghosts. Maybe I am a red ghost. Sometimes they seem more real than real. As I cross the Green and head up Temple street, I’m haunted by lyrics from Kings of Convenience :

Everyday there’s a boy in the mirror
Asking me what are you doing here?
Finding all my previous motives
Growing increasingly unclear.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Walt Whitman, Specimen Days

It will illustrate one phase of humanity anyhow; how few of life's days and hours (and they not by relative value or proportion, but by chance) are ever noted. Probably another point too, how we give long preparations for some object, planning and delving and fashioning, and then, when the actual hour for doing arrives, find ourselves still quite unprepared, and tumble the thing together, letting hurry and crudeness tell the story better than fine work.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


How do you forget someone when his footprints are all over your life?

The opposite of love turns out to be indifference, not hate.

A decade ago, nothing in the world happened until we had a chance to talk about it. Now, we say hello and catch up if we happen to see each other on the street.

A friendship based on occasional, chance encounters after so many years of exchanging so many words. No! I will match his casual desertion with my own more powerful indifference.

It’s surprisingly easy to avoid someone in the city. But my first attempts at this strategy (“do friends require strategies?” I can hear him asking incredulously) collapsed the last time I ran into him. The gaping blankness between us seemed too unnatural, too hard to sustain. So we reverted to the familiar: the reconciliation coffee, the fast-paced, slightly panicky conversation about everything and nothing, the sensation that I’m unreasonable, the parting without a plan, the “see ya.”

Reality itself depended on the sharing of trivial quotidian episodes- a strange item in the Times, gossip about an acquaintance, a lovely boy on the street. To not exchange these things, it’s more than loss. They don’t fully exist until conjured to interestingness by our speaking about them. The raw experience contains within itself the prospect of the upcoming telling. Event and anticipation are one, and now event alone is chronically vacant, unfinished.

Eventually, the friend years will seem like a dream, over-written by the new, indifferent passer-by years. Eventually, every day without a message will stop seeming like a distinct, stand-alone sadness, and weeks and months and years will zip file into a single loss. Eventually, I will stop stumbling upon postcards falling unexpectedly from old books, with messages like:

Minneapolis, August 28, 1997
Have you read J. Updike short story The City? I haven’t either but I think it feels like today.

Eventually, I will not rush to the library to find that story.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Google translate: ouch ouch ouch

Recently I came across an old musical favorite from 1989, a time when I was obsessed with French pop. It was Maurane's rendition of "Pas gai la pagaille" (sorry that's just a clip, the rest of the song is great.) Then yesterday I found a completely charming and amazing rendition of it by what looks like five thousand French teenagers. This led me to the lyrics, which I'd mostly memorized despite my shaky French (it's a sort of imaginary romp by a boy named Jeremy through Parc Monceau in Paris). Out of curiosity, I ran the lyrics past Google Translate, and here are the hilarious results, French first:

French lyrics

Pas gaie la pagaille

Y a des crocrodiles
Devant nous qui défilent
Des hommes à chapeaux
A fusils, à couteaux,
Parc Monceau

Jérémie se cache,
Dans le camp des Apaches
Pas peur des pas beaux,
Lui très grand, très costaud
Parc Monceau

Jérémie a tout vu, tout entendu,
Et les mémés à toutous lui crient dessus
Aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe
Ce n'est pas gai, la pagaille
Yeah, yeah, la pagaille y a qu'ça d'vrai
Aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe
Jouer la vie vaille que vaille

Quand les dromadaires
Cherchent les hélicoptères
Menant le troupeau,
Jérémie de Ronceveaux
Parc Monceau

Oublie son cartable
Dans le bac à sable
File incognito
Vers la tour du chateau
Parc Monceau

Jérémie a tout vu, tout entendu,
Et les mémés à toutous ne l'ont pas cru
Aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe
Ce n'est pas gai, la pagaille
Yeah, yeah, la pagaille y a qu'ça d'vrai
Aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe
Jouer la vie vaille que vaille

Jérémie a tout vu, tout entendu,
Et les mémés à toutous ne l'ont pas cru
Aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe
Ce n'est pas gai, la pagaille ...tu parles...
Yeah, yeah, la pagaille y a qu'ça d'vrai
Aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe, aïe
Jouer la vie vaille que vaille

English translation as rendered by Google translate:

Translation: French » English

No gay mess

Y has crocrodiles
Parade in front of him
Men hat
A gun, knife,
At Park Monceau
Jeremiah hides
In the camp of the Apaches
No fear of not beautiful,
He very large, very strong
At Park Monceau

Jeremiah saw everything, heard everything
And the same to him shout above toutous

Ouch ouch ouch
Oh, it's not gay, a mess!
Yeah yeah yeah yeah
Ouch ouch ouch
Is life worth play that works!

When camels
Helicopter hunt
Leading the flock
Jeremiah Roncevaux
At Park Monceau
Forget his satchel
In the sandbox
File incognito
Go to the castle tower
At Park Monceau

Jeremiah saw everything, heard everything
And the same in toutous did not believe

(au Refrain)

Jeremiah saw everything, heard everything
And the same to him shout above toutous

(au Refrain, ad lib)

That Mad Ache, Francoise Sagan

That Mad Ache by Francoise Sagan; trans. by Douglas Hofstadter.

Published with Translator, Trader: An Essay on the Pleasantly Pervasive Paradoxes of Translation by Douglas Hofstadter.

Amidst all the gloom and doom afflicting the publishing industry these days, it’s easy to overlook the more hopeful trends. Here’s one: after enduring years and years of a “literature in translation” imbalance that rivals any trade imbalance, there are signs of renewed domestic interest in what the rest of the world is writing about. The steps are tentative, but unmistakable. The great independent literary presses that have single-handedly carried the torch for translation (including New Directions, Dalkey Archive, the New York Review of Books Classics, David Godine) have recently been joined by some exciting newcomers who are opening the world to American readers. These include the fantastic Archipelago Books series, Yale University Press’ Margellos World Republic of Letters books, and the irrepressible Chad Post’s excellent Open Letter Books out of the University of Rochester. Whether this perfect literature in translation storm is a function of the re-alignment of the political zeitgeist, or just a coincidence, it’s a gift to American book-lovers who have long been deprived of access to some of the best writing being done on the planet.

One of the more unusual translations I’ve come across for awhile is Douglas Hofstadter’s witty, elegant rendition of Francoise Sagan’s sixties novel La Chamade. Sagan, who died a few years ago, was best known for Bonjour Tristesse in the fifties, and went on to become a sort of spokes-novelist for a particular brand of French upper middle-class ennui. There’s a suggestion of John Cheever. Her style and story (as channeled by Hofstadter of course) seems a little like Jules and Jim only written and directed by Anita Brookner. (That’s a good thing!)

Set mainly in Paris in the mid-sixties, Sagan gets inside a complicated three-way relationship involving Lucile, a self-involved, immature, somewhat bratty twenty-something; Charles, her fifty-year old sugar daddy; and Antoine, a passionate thirty-year old hottie to whom Lucile is (surprise!) irresistibly drawn. Against the backdrop of the affair(s), a juicy cast of high-class posers and back-biters form a kind of Greek chorus, though they never really steal the stage from Lucile. There are passages of great beauty and great fun, though Sagan is mainly interested in exploring profound philosophical questions as they are played out in human relationships.

This would be an excellent book even if the story simply ended there, but it does not. Most translators these days are lucky to be acknowledged on the title page, and in a brief biographical blurb. (Not that long ago even this small courtesy was sometimes withheld, perhaps based on the idea that the word “translated” would kill sales.) But Basic Books has done something very clever with this translation by giving Hofstadter 100 pages for an extended essay about what it was like to transform La Chamade into That Mad Ache. (How he handled the translation of that title itself is a key to his overall sensibility.) It’s one of those strokes of publishing genius that immediately makes the reader think “why hasn’t someone thought of that before?”

Perhaps they have. But in truth, it helps to have a translator with the stature and imagination of Hofstadter. The author of the classic Gödel Escher Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid and many other books, this is not his first stab at exploring the paradoxes of translation. One of the most charming books of all time is his amazing investigation of a small jewel of a poem by the sixteenth-century French poet, Clement Marot. In Le Ton Beau de Marot, he demonstrated that there is no such thing as a simple, straight-forward translation, and I guarantee that you will never take a translation for granted after reading that book, or this one.

For the Sagan project, over which Hofstadter obsessed for many years, he lays out the many knotty issues that need to be addressed by anyone hoping to translate accurately. Scratch that, there is no “accurately!” There are seemingly mundane decisions about how to treat very localized words, or how to solve the “vous/tu” problem when English can only offer an egalitarian “you.” (His elegant solution is “You/you”). And there are bigger philosophical thickets involving transculturation that at times make it seem as if translation is really about something much bigger than itself.

I recently watched the first season of the sixties series Mission Impossible on DVD, and it struck me that whenever the team was in another country, they all spoke a heavily accented English. Why? We’re watching it in English, and we are suspending the knowledge that everyone we see would actually be speaking Slovenian. This is the type of paradox Hofstadter addresses.

As he was well into this project, Hofstadter came across the one prior English translation of the book, done in the sixties by Robert Westhoff. He forces himself not to look until he’s finished with his own translation (hard to believe, but I do believe him), and then he goes on to share with us the often utterly different choices the two translators made for the same passages. It’s sometimes like reading two different books. That is to say, three different books!

He’s incredibly whimsical, personal and playful. My only complaint is that I was left with one nagging curiosity: what was it about La Chamade that spoke to him so profoundly in the first place?

This is a wonderful marriage of great author, great translator, and great editorial vision―a much more compatible three-way than Lucile, Charles, and Antoine. To see these classic literary ingredients transformed into something so totally new and fresh makes me hopeful for books. It’s a breathtaking amount of entertainment and erudition packed into a $14.95 paperback.

Reviewed by John Eklund

That Mad Ache by Francoise Sagan; trans. by Douglas Hofstadter.
Basic Books, 2009
Paper, 320 pp., $14.95
ISBN-10: 0465010989

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Drifting from metaphor to point of view, 1977

While closet cleaning I came across the cover sheet from a paper I'd written for a communications class at UW in 1977. The professor's comments were intact but the paper itself was missing:

This is an extremely thought-provoking paper. It offers an idea of considerable consequence. Let me sketch my reactions

1. the argument seems tight to page and becomes clear at the paragraph “nice.”
2. Thereafter the argument becomes either faulty, unclear, or itself a metaphor.
3. The argument must carry the character of metaphor, i.e. a tenon and vehicle (two parts) which are not commonly linked (expectations violated) but have sufficient commonality at some level so that the info associated with one (either/both) illuminates aspects of the other.
4. It seems to me that your arguments drifts from metaphor (characterized as above) to perspective or point of view. But, a metaphor involves the juxtapposition of perspectives, not merely the existence of a non-unique perspective.
5. Some metaphors are inappropriate (linguistically)- do we not carry this constraint to behavioral metaphors, e.g. the first man to treat poison ivy as a salad green probably found it an inappropriate choice.
6. I would recommend Koestler’s The Act of Creation since it discusses creativity, humor, and just about everything else in terms of the juxtaposition of perspectives. Grade: A

Grade and comments-midterm paper
John Eklund
“Human Behavior as Metaphor”
Comm Arts 472- Prof Joe Cappella

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

an April morning in Manhattan


During breakfast at the Leo House, my favorite place to stay in New York, one of the nuns in charge approached me and said “I don’t know why they won’t just leave him alone.” I agreed, although I had no idea who or what she might have been talking about. It was the kind of thing people over sixty will say to you on buses in Milwaukee. Rather than commencing at the beginning or end of the narrative, these conversational overtures plunge straight into the center. It’s as if we’ve been having a discussion and I’ve had a brief bout of amnesia. The odd thing is, it works for them- or at least, it works often enough to keep it thriving as a form of public discourse. Older Milwaukee people seem to have a huge reservoir of shared assumptions, and the confidence to assume them with strangers in public spaces. I heard one old woman launch a conversation with another by asking “What are you gonna do?” The stranger just sighed and replied “Nothing you can do.” Both seemed satisfied that information had been exchanged. The eaves-dropper is left to wonder whether they were talking about nothing, or everything. Writers and artists struggle constantly with the creative challenge of making the particular universal, but this skill was mastered long ago by the busybodies of Milwaukee. As the Sister moved on to greet another breakfast diner with another non-sequitur, I remembered that the Leo House is a project of the Sisters of Saint Agnes. They are from Wisconsin.


I took the C Train up to 125th Street, hoping to see the Kalup Linzy video installation at the Studio Museum in Harlem. As I climbed the stairs out of the subway station, the man ahead of me suddenly lobbed a huge gob of spit at the wall. I was momentarily startled. He noticed this, and asked me what the fuck I was doing walking so close behind somebody. This startled me more than the spit, and I said I was sorry. I figured that he was a little embarrassed, and that this was a loss-of-face situation, and it would be better to just let him save his. But then, for good measure, he asked whether I was sick in my fucking head. There didn’t seem to be a good way to respond, so I walked briskly to my destination a few blocks ahead. When I got there, I was told sorry, the museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I said that I’d checked the website and it explicitly said they were open Mondays. The woman at the counter smiled a gorgeous smile, shrugged, and said “Well, you need at least four hours to see them anyway.” This made sense to me at the time, but as I thought about it later I was baffled.


I decided to walk down to Book Culture near Columbia. It was a rainy morning, and there were only a few customers in the store. I spent an hour looking over my pet subject areas, one of which is old lefty memoirs. On a shelf in a sub-section of a sub-section, I came across a spined copy of a thin paperback called Red Family, about the thirties communist organizer Junius Scales. After reading a few pages, I decided to order it from my local bookshop when I got home, and returned it to the shelf. Almost immediately, I heard a man approach the information desk and ask for this book by name. “Your website says you have a copy but I don’t know where to find it,” he added. The bookseller looked it up, hunted it down, and within a couple minutes he had purchased the book I’d just had in my hand. If you haven’t worked in a bookstore, you may not realize how bizarre this is. When a celebrity plugs her book on Oprah, or, since this is Book Culture, when Hugo Chavez gives the President a book exposing US imperialist atrocities in Latin America, it wouldn’t be surprising to have many requests for a single title in a single day. But Red Family is the sort of book that might sell a couple copies in an entire year. How strange! For a moment I suspected that this man had been watching me, and was staging some sort of Paul Auster-like mind game. And then I wondered, in a non-sequitur sort of way, whether he was in league with the thug on the subway and the nun at Leo House.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

James Purdy, r.i.p.

A fine obituary by William Grimes in the March 14 New York Times.

"Reputations are made here, as in Russia, on political respectability, or by commercial acceptability," he once said. "The worse the author, the more he is known."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bruce Jenkins, intro to "On the Camera Arts & Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton" (MIT Press April 2009)

Frampton may strike contemporary readers as being a bit like the protagonist of the Dali and Bunuel film Un Chien Andalou: a figure whose quest is freighted with cultural baggage from the past, symbolized in his arduous attempts to drag a pair of grand pianos, laden with dead donkeys, and two bound Catholic priests, across the parlor that separates him from his object of desire.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A cheery New Year's thought from Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto, quoted by Marshall Berman in Adventures in Marxism

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society... Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, and all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man at last is forced to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.