Secret Agent

No mention of SPECTRE’s presence within slush piles or the ridiculous signing demands of Elder Statesmen (accompanied by their egos), but Secret Agent has launched over at Maud’s. And it’s good stuff. We just hope the Agent will squirt Norman Mailer in the eye with one of Q’s gadgets just before his appearance on Gilmore Girls.

Material Girls, Zola’s Game Theory, Tipping Points

Personally, We Hear Little Voices Encouraging Us to Become an Insurance Adjuster

It was missed yesterday, but Today in Literatue celebrated the work of William McGonagall, who was, without a doubt, the Bulwer-Lytton of poetry. Here’s McGonagall on the collapse of the Tay Railway Bridge:

…Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

If you’ve got a hankering for more, there’s McGonagall Online, which includes McGonagall recounting the first man who threw peas at him, as well as his complete autobiography, where he describes his inspiration: “I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself– ‘I know nothing about poetry.’ But still the voice kept ringing in my ears – ‘Write, write,’ until at last, being overcome with a desire to write poetry, I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a, poem.”

The Umpire Strikes Back

George Lucas on the Three Stooges films: “I am very concerned about our national heritage, and I am very concerned that the films that I watched when I was young and the films that I watched throughout my life are preserved, so that my children can see them.”

You and me both, George. And you won’t have my DVD money or my respect until you release the Star Wars films I remember. Let’s face the facts: Han Solo blew Greedo away without simultaneous fire or a second thought.

Exclusive Excerpt

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Return of the Reluctant has obtained an excerpt from Breaking Wind: The Quest for Architectural Hubris in an Age of Terror by noted architect Howard Roark.]

Ellsworth wanted to hurt me. But that was okay. His niece was fond of steely antiseptic sex when I wasn’t flexing my bold, industrial muscles at the drafting table. After a few cigarettes, I marveled over the proud rectilinear vision of a metropolis that others had the temerity to call dull and commercial. Even pro-business. What was wrong with that? What was wrong with money earned rightly over the blood of three thousand people? Art Spiegelman had done it. Why couldn’t I?

When I got the commission to build my distinct vision at Ground Zero, there were, of course, several people to squash, if not outright ignore. Little bugs who wouldn’t listen or appreciate my selfish virtues. Let the insects stay afraid. If they wouldn’t play ball over my grand plans, then they needed help. They were in the way. They watched that terrorist alert move from orange to yellow and they’d vote for the status quo so they wouldn’t shake so much. Which was fine, considering that most of the people who ran the country were socialists hoping to destroy free enterprise.

But I got them to look at and approve my plans because I was better than them. I had muscles, a full head of hair, and lots of sex between meetings. More importantly, I could outtalk them with long speeches about money. We’d build the best steel and use it for the new towers. And the trains that moved the steel all there would not only speed up well beyond government regulations, but even stop the whole of East Coast business itself.

And these fools always said I was delusional. Well, where are their contracts for the World Trade Center? Who is John Galt?

Vollman Ain’t Got Nothing On This

“Our goal was to give you a book with every recipe you want.” Apparently, that’s the purpose of The Gourmet Cookbook, which weighs six pounds and runs 1,040 pages but will only set you back a mere forty Washingtons. As the Times reports, the book’s authored by Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet. Perhaps this cookbook’s length was another reason Reichl commissioned the now infamous DFW article on the Maine Lobster Festival. Even so, we’re grateful that such a grandiose depository exists. If we calculate five recipes to a page, that runs to about 6,000 possibilities. Or enough new dishes and appetizers to last (one per day) for about 16.44 years.

As I Drank My Morning Coffee

Mailer’s Ghost

Carrie has the scoop on Norman Mailer and her mom: “Her courtroom work in Boston had put her in contact with a lot snakes and liars — there was one well-connected politician who repeatedly showed-up at her doorstep in the middle of the night, expecting to be taken in because of his last name (creepy she said, because he shouldn’t have even known where she lived) — and so Mailer, even in all his bluster and alcoholism, was a far more appealing species of male.”

On (Not) Retiring

Rasputin’s extremely touching words have reached me. And perhaps I should clarify a few things:

1. When someone like TMFTML retires or posts infrequently to live life or preserve a perceived drop in quality, it is a very sad thing. But one thing that strikes me about our ready band of regulars is that when they stop blogging and they transpose their talents elsewhere, it sometimes doesn’t occur to them to tell their readership where they go. And that is even more tragic. They’re not entitled to, of course. But why isn’t there a print venue which preserves the best of their work, or leaves a permanent record to the universe that they existed? (The Internet is, after all, so ephemeral.) For all the gardyloo and tomfoolery here, I do take blogs seriously. They’ve opened up an incredible array of friends, thinkers, opportunities, and ideas, and united a motley group who express more passion on a daily basis than a jaded steeldog journalist does in a year. They’ve done the world of books, I believe, a great deal of good and probably turned more than a few people on to titles and authors that would have ordinarily fallen by the wayside (think of the Complete Review’s indefatigable coverage). And it delights me to see a continuous barrage of new litblogs pouring out of the woodworks as the beat goes on.

2. If I had to be pinned down, I don’t know how long this blog will last. It could be three weeks. It could be three years. Nor is there any guarantee that I’ll be prolific on any particular day. All of this depends upon existential factors that I won’t go into. The problem is that synapses constantly fire off in my brain, curiosity must be fulfilled, and it’s so easy to ramble in the little box.

3. Since Points (1) and (2) are in direct conflict of each other, why am I here? Well, because Point (1) is so appealing, even with limited time. And because, as my main squeeze constantly reminds me, more ambitious than realistic about things. (Yet I do them anyway and sleep like a prisoner in D Block.) If I weren’t here, I’d be somewhere else (and sometimes am) doing something similar.

4. No matter what happens, life is the grand pursuit.

5. When someone takes a break from a blog, it’s more of a severe interruption than a blog’s readership might contemplate. You’re banging out several hundred words a day in a format that’s as set as a review. Then all of a sudden, you feel as if you’re repeating yourself or it’s just not fun anymore. Or you’ve said all there is to say. Or you see yourself suffering. So you feed the impulse and then you stop, only realizing that it’s just as much a daily part of your routine as everything else. And then you return, sometimes in an overwhelming manner. Confusion sets in before the next troubling dip. And so it goes — like a starter pistol firing in slow motion. You can’t win. You’ve got other irons in the fire. But the sound of that pistol is so irresistable. The question is whether or not it’s good for you. Well, maybe. But then they also say that about a low-carb diet.

As I said, we’ll see how it goes. The refreshing thing is that no one is holding a gun or a deadline to my head. (At least not now.) But so long as the water’s fresh and my pecs hold up, I’m in for the swim.

That’s the last word (for now) on that.

Biblical Boiler Plate

Contrary to popular belief, the phrases “dearly beloved, we have come together…” and “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” can’t be found in the Bible. Wedding and death ceremonies have pilfered their terminology from The Book of Common Prayer (ASCII). There’s some other good stuff too. In fact, from a boiler plate approach, the Book of Common Prayer precedes the World War I form letter (the latter well documented in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory). Good to get used to this sort of stuff (and realize exactly where it comes from), in the event that Bush wins a second term. Although if anyone can help me with the origin of “Burn in hell, sinner,” I’d appreciate it.

More Geniuses to Add to the Reading List

The MacArthur Foundation has announced more geniuses. Among the literary types: poet C.D. Wright, Rueben Martinez (who has taught Spanish-speaking people to appreciate literature), The Known World author Edward Jones, and Sarajevo writer Aleksandar Hernon.

As most MacArthur junkies know, the genius grants involve $500,000 paid out over five years. This year, to allay concerns over assorted egos being snubbed, there were also several Not Quite Genius grants handed out, which included a $100 coupon for an anger management seminar to Stanley Crouch.

Bloomberg Denies Living to Average New Yorkers

This morning, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg hiked the MOMA price from $12 to $20, part of a larger plan that will transform Manhattan museums into the exclusive playground of the rich. “Those good-for-nothing bootlickers belong at the bottom,” said Bloomberg as a personal assistant shined the Mayor’s shoes with his tongue. “Why do they need art in their lives when they can watch HBO?”

At this point, the personal assistant stopped shining. “Um, excuse me, sir. I can’t even afford basic cable.”

“That’s not my problem!” Bloomberg roared. “Shine, boy! You weren’t born privileged. Deal with it!”

Bloomberg also unveiled additional plans to keep the underclass from dining at good restaurants, having more than two drinks on a Friday night, and using the subway during peak hours.

“We’ll also stop them from eating ice cream,” Bloomberg smiled. “I think I can speak for everyone when I suggest that only the richest 1% are entitled to their Hagen-Daz.”

Across the coast, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is said to be contemplating similar moves.

In A Parallel Universe, Papa Ended Up Writing Lurid Grisham-Like Thrillers Involving Colons, Well-Hung Cows and Virile Walter Mitty Types

Sun-Times: “Hemingway scholar J. Gerald Kennedy, who has a copy, guffawed out loud as he paraphrased the story over the phone. The main character kills the bull with his bare hands. But the hapless hero loses part of his entrails — his duodenum ends up in the sand.

‘”‘It’s pretty typical of the kind of after-hours parody Hemingway was writing in Paris in the mid-20s,” said Kennedy, a professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La. ‘It’s not great literature. He’s still a year away from writing The Sun Also Rises.'”

There Are Articles, and There Are Articles

Sarah’s first column at the Sun is out. Check it out, pref. with BugMeNot.

And this piece pretty much makes a case against any future feature-length article about blogging. Since when did Wonkette get a definite article? Next thing you know, they’ll be calling our asses The Our Girl from Chicago, The TMFTML, or The The Old Hag, or The Dr. Mabuse. Come on, you silly people. If you’re a newspaper with a fact checking department that employs more people per issue than the United States did during the entirety of the Rwandan massacre, at least you can get the fucken* terminology right. Right?

As for Tanenhaus, we’re biding our time, folks.

* That goes for you too, DBC Pierre!

Around the Sphere

We’re stuck at home on a beautiful day waiting for the damn gas man to show up so we can cook again. There are also deadlines. Such is life. But here’s a brief look at what’s happening in the literary world:

And we promise to alert readers sometime in the next 24 hours whether or not Mr. Tanenhaus has earned his brownie this week or not. We apologize profusely for remaining incognito on this extremely pressing development. But we shall do our best to post all the statistics that are fit to print. Unfortunately, this also means resetting the Brownie Batting Average for consistency’s sake. We’re sure you folks understand.

We’re Wondering Ourselves When Gallo Will End Up Pumping Gas (As Opposed to His Fragile Ego)

Liz Penn serves up The Brown Bunny review to end all Brown Bunny reviews: “But during the course of this trip, you come to realize that, in fact, you yourself hate this boyfriend, because he is a dreadful person; his fragile neediness is soon exposed as tyrannical passive-aggression, and his exaggerated preoccupation with women poorly masks a withering contempt. In fact, this boyfriend ignores you completely; it is as if he is traveling alone. Why did you agree to get in the car with him? He promised the trip would be short – 93 minutes, he said – but a few minutes in, it already feels like days. Trapped, you pass the time looking out the passenger side window, but the views he thinks are arty Kerouackian landscapes just seem random and poorly framed.”

(And, by the way, D/L, don’t let the bastards grind you down.)

Memo from Professor Stuyvesant

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the Superfriends have remained silent, to foster variegated opinions and commentaries on this blog, I have enlisted Professor Timothy Stuyvesant (rumored to be in the running for emeritus status) to offer excerpts from his lectures here on a semi-regular basis. The Professor specializes in English usage and made at least forty-five students weep the last year. (Approximately. The number hasn’t been confirmed.) He has yet to be featured on Rate My Professors for fear of immediate reprisal. But several experts have concluded that Stuyvesant’s work remains as baffling as anybody else’s.]

Excerpt From “The Spoken Astonishment” (first delivered in English 467: The Ethics of Punctuation on April 5, 1992):

prof.jpg“Oh boy!”

You’ve probably said or heard this at least some point in your life. But not in my classroom! Here, I would rather have you declare astonishment to a piece of fecal matter than have you degrade the human race with two simple words.

Degrade? Yes! Degrade. This is a very serious matter! When you are having a bad day or trying to come to terms with an unsettling situation, why is it a boy that comes from your lips? Are you craving a Bob’s Big Boy hamburger? I think not! And if you are, come by my office later. I might let you in on a few good burger joints. Are you frightened by the prospect of a girl materializing in front of your eyes to alleviate you?

Don’t get any ideas. This concerns her too.

Who is this boy you speak of anyway? Why does it have to be a he? Did this boy ask you to mention him? Did you even ask this boy if you could talk about him? How could you be so rude?

Let me tell you where I am going with this. It is the unfortunate tendency of the sexist machinations of the Western world to confine astonishment to a masculine gender status.

It must stop! Either we must come to terms with the boy, perhaps subduing his anonymity by referring to him by first name. (Perhaps “Oh Phil” or “Oh Glen” is the answer here.) Or we must find a nongender noun that will offend no one. We need a term of astonishment that will lead us into the 21st century. Something that nobody will anticipate. Something that makes everyone feel good and is more concerned with meaning rather than ambiguity.

We lost the ERA fight and the foolish masses keep electing Republicans to the White House. But this will not stand.

Tastes Great, Less Filling?

Mark’s posted a fantastic comparison between Cloud Atlas and The Great Fire, daring to put his literary sensibilities on the edge while chronicling how his literary tastes have changed as he’s grown older. While I haven’t yet read The Great Fire, I can offer the perspective of a crazed reader who’s just turned thirty (who, by the maxims of another time, can still, just barely, remain trusted). Recently, I read Idoru and Pattern Recognition. It was the first time I had read William Gibson in about ten years. When I first encountered Gibson (through Neuromancer and Count Zero, I was just out of high school and impressionable to wild-eyed language housed within what a plot indistinguishable from a conventional pulp novel. At nineteen, I could relate to characters who had given the totality of their lives to cyberspace and technology (although Doestoevsky made an infinitely deeper impression upon me). Today, at thirty, while I admire Gibson’s language and consider Pattern Recognition to be the best of the Gibson books that I’ve read, I’ve found the comparative identifying experience to be lacking.

There are several reasons for this. Where are these characters’ families? Where are their grand existential destinies? After thirty, how can one find pleasure in a universe where technology comes first (where life becomes a playground devoted to seeking out correllating swaths of footage on the Net and traveling desperately around the world to find the people behind them)? As a quasi-geek, I can relate. But I am not a total geek. There is a line in my personal universe where humanity must thrive, where experience simply cannot be suffocated for the whole. And sometimes the so-called “mammoth” novel, whether it’s The Recognitions, Cloud Atlas, or even Box Office Poison or The Crimson Petal and the White, offer the expanse necessary, whether implied or explicit, to get at the abstract or very real goods that govern the human race.

I still think Mark’s dismissal of Cloud Atlas‘ characters fails to get at David Mitchell’s purpose, which is to profile a bold trajectory for how humanity is influenced by its own tales and actions. That’s not necessarily the ideal form for characters to thrive. Particularly with five interweaving tales, something’s bound to buckle under the impact. But if Cloud Atlas can be judged as a functional novel, beyond the glorious puzzles, it’s absolutely beautiful. And yet, as I read Adam Thirlwell’s Politics, I find myself more annoyed by the book’s stylistic pyrotechnics (the narrator’s Kunderaesque asides) even while I simultaneously enjoy them. One could make the case that Thirlwell’s characters are just as caricaturish as Mitchell’s. And yet Mitchell’s characters feel alive because of the richness of the world that they are immersed in. (And on that score, I have a feeling that Mark would hate the detailed worlds of the incomparable Frederic Prokosch.)

First off, an open note to Mark. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with having conservative literary tastes. On some basic level, judging and loving literature is about what an author does within a framework. Nor is there anything necessarily wrong with leaving a certain passion for the abstract at the gate of one’s own choosing. However, it remains my belief that one should strive for pith and subtext once one has crossed that gate. And I think Mark’s firm passion for Banville and what he describes as a desire to linger, makes his tastes more practically liberal than staunchly conservative. No lesser novelist than Richard Powers has, with his latest offerings, tried to scale down the information overload and pursue a fundamental humanity. And the exciting thing is watching David Mitchell on the cusp of doing the same.

And a happy birthday too to Mr. Sarvas.

Twin Farms — Sinclair’s Steel Trap?

Twin Farms, the working farm where Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson (inspiration for the Hepburn film Woman of the Year) once resided, is alive and well — today, well populated by tourists. But it’s worth noting that Lewis’ worst books came after 1928, the year he moved to Twin Farms. So either Twin Farms is a bona-fide source of depleting inspiration, or a beatific menagerie guaranteed to trap and sap talent. Whatever the case, Lewis might be glad to know that talent is the only thing being fleeced. Tourists have been paying as much as $2,600 a night.

Excerpt from Anne Rice’s Diary: Anne Rice Defends Her Day

Dear Diary:

Seldom do I consider subject-verb agreement when telling you what I’ve done. In fact, the entire development of my career (which should pay for a few more Botox treatments) has been fueled by my ability to write as lazily as possible. These fans amuse me. They actually expect me to write more of these goddam vampire stories? Well, if they’re prepared to part with their cash, then I’ll just have to extend the pergola at the back of the house.

There is something compelling about Amazon’s willingness to accept my reviews. You and I now, Diary, that I tossed that puppy off almost as quickly as my last book. Worthy of Lestat, I suppose. But those fanboys have to learn one way or the other. I consider my rant an ethical warning, a panegyric for the unlived life. Those little bastards are obviously smarter than I suspected. I guess I may actually have to revise a paragraph or two — that is, assuming they’ll lay out thirty bucks a piece. (Oh, they will!)

Worse comes to worse, I can blame it all on the diabetes. There’s always something or someone to blame. That’s what being a privileged and popular author is all about.

I’m justifiably proud of being taken so seriously. They like me! They really really like me! But for how long?

Of course, Diary, you and I both know who has the sexiest ass. No magic mirror needed. It’s in the bag.

Loving myself more every day,


Et Tu Sarvas?

The Book Babes’ latest column not only acts as if none of last year’s comparisons between comatose newspaper coverage and the galvanizing eclat of literary blogs ever happened, but suggests that the Book Babes and the illustrious Mr. Sarvas are now in cahoots. While we’re certainly pleased to see the Book Babes begin to understand the influence of blogs (and Mr. Sarvas’ careful ruse), we remain perplexed over the Poynter Institute’s continued encouragement of the Book Babes’ naivete.

“From a blogger’s perspective, old media feel too old-fashioned, too corporate, too confined by non-literary objectives and philosophies to meet the needs of today’s reader.” — There’s an assumption here that “today’s reader” (and, for that matter, the feverish lit blogger) is either (a) some unemployed slacker shut-in who only emerges from his home at the thwack of an Amazon package hitting his door or (b) some rapturous latte-swigging casual reader who bases her reading decisions exclusively on review coverage. What the Book Babes continue to misunderstand is that newspapers fail to capture word-of-mouth, or the free-spirited conversation found on lit blogs — itself an extension of passionate bookstore patter. It’s not a matter of being “old-fashioned.” It’s a matter of being connected with the prime pulse that drives today’s readers, of generating excitement, and getting people reading and talking about books.

It’s not about things like the Virtual Book Tour, which, while interesting in nature (particularly through George Kelly’s interview with Danyel Smith), is nothing less than an accelerated marketing gimmick modified for the information age. It’s not about selling books or walking on eggshells. It’s about reading books, assessing them constructively, finding out what literature means today, and simply giving a damn. If that means tipping over a few sacred cows (whether Sam Tanenhaus, Leon Wieseltier, Dale Peck, Dave Eggers, or the antiseptic domesticities of Margo & Ellen) in the process, then it’s the inevitable price of caring enough to express the very best (ideally, sans Hallmark card).

“It’s way premature to say that literary blogs have supplanted the established media.” No, Ellen, to respond in your valley girl vernacular: Way. Literary blogs offer the bustling crop that the current establishment would turn into fallow over a five-martini lunch. The fact is that, outside of appealing to the suburban mom who would spend her spare time worshipping the mediocrity of Anita Diamat, established media conduits take no chances and are more concerned with catering to plummeting attention spans than fostering literacy or letting people in on the secret that books are pretty kickass. It was established media in the form of The Telegraph that declared David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas “unreadable,” while the online arenas thrived, discussing and citing the book a mere month after its American publication. How you like them apples?

It would be refreshing to see the Book Babes, instead of aping established media, take a few chances themselves. Perhaps it might set an example for the bloated bovine nuzzling in the neglected pasture.

[UPDATE: Mark has responded to the Book Babes’ questions at Ober Dicta, his other blog.]

[FURTHER UPDATE: Galleycat weighs in, with an accurate description for those new to the BB controversy: “In 1962, two girls with very different personalities met at summer camp and bonded over Nancy Drew and simultaneous first periods. Since then, they’ve been fiercely loyal penpals, publishing their exchanges about books at Poynter Online, and saving their more personal exchanges for an epistolary Bridges of Madison County-type debut.”]