The Fiery Furnaces

This is a public service announcement.

Avoid the Fiery Furnaces live.

In the studio, the Fiery Furnaces are perhaps one of the more interesting White Stripes-style experimenters working today. But as a live band, they are about as tedious as a snare-bass backbeat that goes on without variation for six hours. Their drummer is an imbecile who seems to be under the mistaken impression that his six crappy fills, repeated ad nauseum, and his relentless pounding make him today’s answer to Keith Moon. The man beat so hard on his setup that his drum stands were constantly shifted out of shape, leaving him to constantly readjust them between songs. I suspected that he was either a last-minute replacement or a friend of a friend who happened to like drumming.

Singer Eleanor Friedberger, whose spastic stage presence resembled a speed freak who needed to be told bluntly that music was not a solid career choice, seems to be under the false impression that belting out all of her lyrics in a rapid and indecipherable clip makes for innovation. And Matthew Friedberger believes that turning his keyboard up as loud as possible, where notes are strained beyond recognition through a muddled sound mix, is the stuff that concerts are made of. This band is not tight. They are tone deaf and not in a good and carefully honed way a la Sonic Youth. Ms. Friedberger continuously sang in different keys than the band was playing. It made me sad, and it made me embarassed for them.

These people are not fun at all, nor do they appear to be having fun. In which case, why even bother to tour?

What’s worse is that the Fiery Furnaces have adopted an odd strategy that involves playing every one of their songs, if you can call an excerpt ranging from thirty seconds to two minutes a song, in a continuous and uninterrupted flow. This renders “I Lost My Dog,” for example, as a two-minute segment cast within an interminable garage band groove or “Bird Brain” as something played in the same tempo: too fast, too abbreviated, and sadly devoid of its original character.

I’ve heard garage bands sound better than these folks. Years ago, I recall seeing some terrible stoner band in Sacramento (name deliberately withheld) who insisted on playing long nine-minute songs — all in the same tempo, all with a tedious and rudimentary cast. I never thought for a moment that the Fiery Furnaces would top them as one of the worst concertgoing experiences of all time. And the sad thing was that I was very familiar with the Fiery Furances’ music.

Other goofball studio-reliant bands I’ve seen live (say: Of Montreal) at least understand that reproducing or transposing production-heavy songs live involves ingenuity and careful rehearsal. It’s a pity that the Fiery Furnaces would rather throw away an opportunity to stumble upon unexpected moments of innovation. It’s truly a disappointment, given the wild ideas and influences they’re willing to throw into their albums.

Oh well. At least Dios Malos was good.

Unapologetic Slacker

I’ve become such an effective slacker in the past week that, after some conversations with friends and family, I’ve decided to sequester myself from the Internet for the next three days. I apologize if I haven’t answered your email. But then I haven’t had the opportunity to slack like this for sometime. And I’m enjoying it immensely.

Will get to the next Tanenhaus Brownie Watch sometime on Monday evening. In the meantime, visit the fine folks on the left.

Meanwhile, here’s a guide for effective slackdom:

  1. Lie in bed as much as possible. If you can find a slacker companion, spend at least one day of your Period of Slack not moving from your bed — ideally building pillow forts.
  2. Naps are okay at any time of the day.
  3. Disregard personal drinking rules. You can have a margarita at 11 AM if you want to.
  4. If it’s sunny outside, do try and get outside with a book.
  5. It’s okay if the apartment goes to hell. You can clean it at the end of the Period of Slack. If your Period of Slack lasts longer than a week, then be sure to pick up your shit at weekly intervals.
  6. Be sure to inform friends that you’re going through a Period of Slack. They may be shocked by how relaxed and easy-going you’ve become.
  7. If losing track of the days bothers you, be sure to keep a calendar in easy display. But don’t concentrate on what day it is until near the end of your Period of Slack. You’ll need to acclimatize yourself back to regular life again.
  8. Contrary to what anti-slacker neoconservatives tell you, a vacation can be very exhausting. Pace yourself.
  9. An active slacker is better than a passive slacker. Active slackdom may require a bit more effort, but do try and get yourself accustomed to getting out of the house and checking out interesting expositions.
  10. You may be shocked by how your neighborhood looks during a weekday afternoon. It may very well be more populated than you expect. Prepare yourself for something of a sensation as you see your immediate surroundings with newfound eyes.

Morning Pileup

  • Frederick Forsyth has decided to run against Tony Blair. Well, if this is what it takes to get him to stop writing, count me in as one of his most febrile supporters.
  • Chang-rae Lee’s next novel will center around the Korean War. The story will involve “a refugee girl raised in America after the war, a solider and an aid worker during the war.” Lee also confessed that he made a mistake titling his last novel Aloft, pointing out that too many people were hoping for a gripping tale about real estate developers fighting over a flat.
  • Somehow it escaped our eyes, but “Harry Matthews” gets an appropriately mysterious writeup in the Gray Lady. But an interesting side note is that nobody should trust John Strausbaugh with an “off the record” comment.
  • We all know about Kathryn Chetkovich’s infamous Granta essay about J-Franz. But what I didn’t know is that Franzen’s ex-wife stopped writing and reading after the breakup. The lesson here is that if you hope to keep up your writing career, DON’T DATE J-FRANZ! This has been a public service announcement for the Society to Preserve Creativity.
  • Alice Hoffman was “deeply affected by The Twilight Zone.”
  • Fumio Niwa has passed on. He was 100. Also RIP David Hughes.
  • There’s a campaign in place to restore Ohio’s image by the Ohio Secretary of State. Unfortunately, what the campaign doesn’t tell you is that most of the writers and artists (including Toni Morrison, Michael Dirda, and Roger Zelazy) ended up moving away from Ohio.
  • Oliver Stone + James Ellroy? Say it ain’t so. What next? Paul Verhoeven and Donald E. Westlake?
  • The Cumberland County Library in North Carolina has catered to its constitutency. They’re paying $18,000 of their hard-earned money to offer 700 audio books. By my math, that’s $25.71 a pop, or considerably more than a wholesale or library-rate hardcover.

Nine Inch Nails Live

So the big question Nine Inch Nails acolytes might be asking themselves is whether a cleaned up, happier, and oddly meatier Trent Reznor still puts out a good live show after five years off the concert circuit. The answer is a bona-fide yes.

On Wednesday night, I caught Nine Inch Nails at the Warfield. While the familiar stage elements were there (every member of the band resembles Trent Reznor; the live band goes out of its way to “adapt” each computer-generated song into a live set piece using real instruments, unlike certain bald Vegan assclowns who think that running up and down like a hamster with a sequenced beat is a live performance) and despite my reservations about the mixed new album, With Teeth, Reznor not only seemed to be having fun, but he actually cracked several smiles and threw several bottles of water into the crowd — at one point confessing how much fun it was to “break shit.”

Yet despite this jollier presence, Reznor demonstrated yet again that he’s one of pop music’s first-class growlers. Reznor performed for nearly 100 minutes straight without interruption and with terse commentary to the crowd. If anything, the angst in “Terrible Lie,” “Starfuckers, Inc.” and “Hurt” felt more nuanced and pointed, the mark of a man channeling the remnants of his anger into a high-octane purge. I got the sense that live shows function for Reznor in much the same way that a daily five-mile jog does for others.

My view of Reznor was occluded by a 6’5″ thirtysomething guy continually shouting “Come on, Trent!” while failing to shake his body in time. But no matter. From what I saw, Reznor exuded raw physicality. He wrestled his mike stand as if it were a mad demon that he was determined to conquer. Midway through a song, he would head upstage to a black expanse, only to return with raw and redoubled ferality. It helped immensely that his bassist and guitarist flopped onto the dais like fish at a steady rate of one flop per 2.5 songs. That’s dedication.

Perhaps the strangest element of the show was the audience. Because Nine Inch Nail’s followers had aged with Reznor, there wasn’t really a mosh pit to speak of — just a handful of guys who tried to stir things up, only to feel the steady advance of creaking knees just before stopping and trying again. It was the kind of demographic that a money man would kill for. Nine Inch Nails attracted a steady mix of people, 18-40. Casual listeners and bodiced goths alike sung and jumped along. And Reznor, to his great credit, didn’t unload too many of the standards. At least not until the very end.

But the oddest element was the marijuana use. Wafts of blue smoke trickled through the crowd, and I’m pretty sure that the second-hand smoke was what caused me to daze into the lights and the DF50 diffusion midway through the show. At one point, I’m certain I saw God. More importantly, it was curious to me how anyone could find Reznor’s music mellow. I’d expect people to 420 at a Phish or Primus show. Or even a Korn show. But Nine Inch Nails? I suppose with enough familiarity with the music, anything’s fair game.

In Defense of “Interiors”

I’ve put off seeing Woody Allen’s Interiors for years, largely because I had the misfortune of sitting through September and Shadows and Fog almost immediately after their respective release dates. My hesitation has always echoed the line leveled by the film’s critics: that Woody Allen’s dramas are essentially Bergman-lite, that they deal with WASPish characters, and that they are about as icy as a weekend spent in a meat locker.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see that my notions were dispelled when finally seeing the film. Interiors is actually more inspired by Chekhov than Bergman and is more realist than the film’s detractors give it credit for. Somehow, Allen succeeded in keeping the whiny quotient of his characters’ neuroses to a minimum. There is a tattered sadness to nearly every character, with the seams showing through in small moments (one character’s unexpected resort to cocaine use, the meticulous way that Geraldine Page gaff-tapes the windows before her suicide attempt, and the savagery beneath failed novelist Richard Jordan’s frustrations). Allen was wise enough to put his characters’ troubles into perspective by profiling the family, giving the audience an idea about where his characters received their misconceived sense of entitlement, whether it’s through E.G. Marshall’s desperate hookup with Maureen Stapleton (who sizzles in a red dress) and a harrowing revelation at a dinner table that is as tactless as it is selfish. In fact, if you look carefully at the nuanced behavior, the film transcends its classist overtones. It might even be viewed as a devastating assault on affluence, elitism, and the myth of self-entitlement.

There are, predictably enough, three sisters. The oldest played by Diane Keaton is a poet of some note. She’s married to Jordan. And during one sequence before a party, we get a real sense of the shared defeatist attitude they have in common. There’s Flyn (Kristin Griffith), an actress near the end of a career riding on good looks, reduced to playing in dreadful movies filmed in the Rocky Mountains rather than Acapulco. Finally, there’s Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), who floats from one job to another and hasn’t figured out a game plan for what she wants. I particularly liked how Allen used Joey’s look to play with Hurt’s strengths at playing such a bitter character. Hurt’s small face hides behind enormous glasses, with perfectly curved hair detracting from precious physiognomic real estate space. It spells out Joey’s inability to reveal anything about herself — not even to her Marxist filmmaking boyfriend (Sam Waterson, who is remarkably impassive about his work). There’s one shot where Hurt is drinking a glass of wine and the glass nearly drowns out her features. It’s a telling statement on where Joey’s heading in life, particularly since she’s pregnant and the film doesn’t reveal whether she aborts her child or not.

All of these life struggles could have easily been transposed to another income bracket. But the cruel thing about Interiors is that money will always bail these characters out, forcing them to fall into the same cycles of unhappiness again and again. There will be plenty of money for therapy, for lean times when the poetry isn’t paying, and for Joey to waste time as she finds yet another job she’s not satisfied with. One might view Interiors as a stern rebuke for a life both unappreciated and without any sense of self-sufficiency. Yet it’s a tribute to Allen’s gifts as a filmmaker that these themes are so masterfully kept underneath the action.

Gordon Willis’ photography is coordinated to profile the environment over the characters. Two sisters walk along the beach in a tracking shot, but their actions are obstructed by a fence which meshes out their conversation. The apartments and houses we see are ironically palatial. They look so clean and so constantly refurnished that it’s a wonder how anyone can live in them, much less feel comfortable in them. It’s a credit to Mel Bourne’s production design prowess that these airy confines feel so sterile. These are Pottery Barn nightmares well before Pottery Barn. That matriarch Geraldine Page is an interior designer is almost a sick joke for how willfully hindered these characters are.

Watching Interiors reminded me of what a great filmmaker Woody Allen once was. It took considerable chutzpah for Allen to followup his greatest commercial success, Annie Hall, with a film that dared to penetrate the duplicities of passivity and excess. Interiors may very well be one of his most underrated films, much as those who follow Bob Rafelson often overlook The King of Marvin Gardens when considering his ouevre.

Afternoon Headlines

  • The illustrious Mark Sarvas has served up spectacular coverage of the L.A. Times Book Festival. He even makes a noble attempt to understand Steve Almond. We also wish Mr. Sarvas the best wishes on his new reign as a teacher.
  • A new novel penned by the late Park Tae-won has been found. The new book’s called Flag of Motherland and is the first novel Park wrote before crossing the border during the Korean War.
  • Arianna Huffington has launched a group blog. Alarmingly, Michael Medved is involved.
  • Why publicist Shawn Le thought we’d be interested in this thing is a mystery. But we can’t resist exposing yet another reason why James Patterson should be avoided at all costs. We thought at first that it was an obscene joke, but Patterson has devised a blog for his new book, Maximum Ride. This dreadful tie-in can be accessed through James Patterson’s official site. The novel involves genetically engineered killing machines hunting creatures who are 98% human, 2% bird. A sample entry reads: “It?s finally starting to look like spring and the flying is great! It?s still a little chilly but there?s no better skyline to glide over then New York! Angel, Gassy, nudge and even Fang is in a good mood! We all want to fly, unfortunately all the regular people are looking up and enjoying the sun – not good for 6 winged kids trying to keep a low profile.”
  • Steve Stern doesn’t get any respect, and he’s been turning out literary fiction for 25 years.
  • Apparently, the twelve men who have walked the moon are “an unusually dull lot.”
  • Ever since she appeared in The Incredibles, Sarah Vowell now has to contend with little girls coming up to her at book signings. At least she hasn’t been showered with spare security blankets.
  • The casting of Harry Potter’s girlfriend has unleashed a good deal of racism on the Internet.
  • Two public libraries in the UK reopened with new buildings. Guess what? The number of book loans went up.

We’re the Dumbest Folks in Our Neighborhood and It’s All Because We Missed Last Week’s “Lost”

Steven Johnson says that television makes you smarter:

During its 44 minutes — a real-time hour, minus 16 minutes for commercials — the episode connects the lives of 21 distinct characters, each with a clearly defined ”story arc,” as the Hollywood jargon has it: a defined personality with motivations and obstacles and specific relationships with other characters. Nine primary narrative threads wind their way through those 44 minutes, each drawing extensively upon events and information revealed in earlier episodes. Draw a map of all those intersecting plots and personalities, and you get structure that — where formal complexity is concerned — more closely resembles ”Middlemarch” than a hit TV drama of years past like ”Bonanza.”

The important distinction is that Mary Anne Evans didn’t have anyone as obnoxious as Kiefer Sutherland in mind when penning her tale. Nor did she throw in absurd subplots involving explosions, torture and the obligatory Kiefer scowl. If Jack Bauer is a “personality,” then Best of the Best 2 is last century’s answer to Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond.

A Message for Oprah

Dear Oprah:

Some writers have kneeled down in front of you and asked you to kiss their rings. They have implored you to revive the Oprah Book Club that many book lovers grew to tolerate in much the same way that a seven year old contends with lima beans. That is to say with obscene crying, childish temper tantrums, and an order from flatmates to go to their rooms without supper. Clearly, a woman of your intelligence can understand that this is not how grown adults should react to books.

A cursory examination of the signatures reveals that nearly all of these writers are midlisters hoping for a big break.

That’s certainly their right. The publishing industry is often a ruthless and backbreaking milieu. And many of these talented writers should be granted ample compensation and greater sales for the work they put out.

But with nearly every selection you picked, your book club championed safe middlebrow titles that avoided the realities of life and were largely devoid of literary experimentation. They soothed rather than provoked. They spoon-fed readers instead of challenging them. While that might go down well over coffee and pastries in a New Hampshire suburban home, if people are going to throw down their hard-earned money for a book they’ll never read, certainly their money should be siphoned off to people like David Markson, Kazuo Ishiguro, William T. Vollman, Stephen Dixon, Jeanette Winterson, A.L. Kennedy or Gilbert Sorrentino.

So I beg you, if you have any sense of decency at all, not to revive your book club.

While your intentions were certainly noble, let’s face the facts. You gave idiot novelists like Wally Lamb careers. You gave exposure to the likes of Jonathan Franzen. While I don’t hate Franzen’s novels as strenuously as some, it is now impossible for any eager reader to open up an issue of the New Yorker without stumbling upon one of Franzen’s whiny male menopause essays. Likewise, Barbara Kingsolver might never have been allowed to put out a book of essays laden with generalizations, had not The Poisonwood Bible been named an OBC book choice. In fact, it might just be possible that you’ve turned more novelists into essayists because of your book club. Which seems a contrary notion to the purpose of promoting fiction.

Without your imprimatur, I think it’s safe to say that White Oleander wouldn’t have been turned into a silly movie. And Toni Morrison, Oprah? Morrison won a Nobel in 1993. She didn’t need your help. Where were you for Octavia Butler? Or Sheneska Jackson? Or Ann Petry? Or Dorothy West, who was the last surviving Harlem Renaissance writer?

While I realize that you have a lovable and tightly controlled image to promulgate to your viewers, has it ever occurred to you to shake things up by suggesting a book that might challenge them? I think we can both agree that not even you, Oprah, would go that far.

So please stick with these cute little classics (Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, et al.) that anyone even remotely familiar with literature has read already. If Americans want to have their books, their life choices and their day-to-day life programmed by you and that smug Dr. Phil guy, then clearly they need you to help them grope along the hard passageway of life.

Besides, dull Oprah-style books like The Kite Runner and The Red Tent seem to be selling like hotcakes and being selected for book clubs regardless of your input. Is it possible, Oprah, that your services are no longer requried?

Very truly yours,

Edward Champion

[UPDATE: More responses from Alex Good, Scott Esposito, Frances Dinkelspiel, Bud Parr, M.J. Rose, and Wendi Kaufman.]

We’d Hate IKEA Too, But We Have an Uncontrollable Urge to Build Things That Remind Us of Tinker-Toys. Damn Swedes Exploiting Our Childhood Memories!

Charles endures IKEA:

The website, the catalogue, and the floor model were all carefully labelled “King.” They most definitely did NOT say “King if you MacGyver two together with some sort of ghetto-ass connector.” I’m literally turning red as I give the Socialist bastard the all-American one-finger salute, walking back to the checkstand, muttering under my breath that I will never, ever buy another Ericsson product again, on principle.

Tanenhaus Watch: April 24, 2005

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WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week’s NYTBR reflect today’s literary and publishing climate? Or will editor Sam Tanenhaus demonstrate yet again that the NYTBR is irrelevant to today’s needs? If the former, a tasty brownie will be sent to Mr. Tanenhaus’ office. If the latter, the brownie will be denied.

I didn’t receive so much as a thank you from Mr. Tanenhaus for the Fat Witch shipment I sent him last week. That’s okay. I’m sure he’s a busy guy.

Even so, if this week’s NYTBR is any indication of things to come, it’s unlikely that Tanenhaus will be getting brownies again anytime soon. This week, it’s business as usual. Tanenhaus has perhaps outdone himself in the irrelevancy department by including this unpardonable two-page review of the Jane Fonda memoir. Whatever your thoughts on Jane Fonda, it’s safe to say that she’s no Vanessa Redgrave or Peter Ustinov. Nor does she need any further press from the considerable largesse eked out by Random House. Why the NYTBR would see fit to depart from the momentum it built up with last week’s brownie victory is a mystery.

I think I’ve been a little too easy on Sam. To rectify any miscalculations, in addition to the three trusty tests, I’ve introduced the BROWNIE BITCHSLAP FACTOR. From now on, should Tanenhaus include content that doesn’t befit the Sunday books section of a major newspaper, he will have additional points deducted against him.

So without further ado, the gloves come off:

BROWNIE BITCHSLAP FACTOR: Jane Fonda? Wasting Maureen Dowd’s time? What were you thinking, Sam? SLAP! (Minus .6 points.)

BROWNIE BITCHSLAP FACTOR: What the hell do Sex in the City-style self-help books have to do with literature? SLAP! (Minus .8 points. Introduction of David Orr column = +.8 bitchslap handicap. End result: 0)

Onto the tests:

THE COLUMN-INCH TEST:

Fiction Reviews: 1 2-page comics overview (half comics, half nonfiction, 1 page calculated), 1 page “On Poetry,” 1 1-1/2 page review, 1 half-page Crime roundup, 1 one-page Fiction Chronicle. (Total books: 11. Total pages: 5.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 2-page review, 1 2-page comics overview (half comics, half nonfiction, 1 page calculated), 1 page and a half review, 3 one-page reviews, 4 half-page reviews. (Total books: 11. Total pages. 9.5.)

Out of this week’s 13.5 pages of review coverage, a mere 37% has been devoted to fiction. While the introdution of David Orr’s poetry column (set to appear “every four to six weeks”) represents a long-term commitment that is better than nothing, and while some graphic novel coverage is better than nothing (of which more anon), “better than nothing” is hardly satisfactory. These are throwaway gestures which demonstrate Tanenhaus’s almost total disinterest in current literature.

That a Jane Fonda memoir would get six times the column inches of a new Donald E. Westlake novel illustrates that either Tanenhaus hasn’t learned that Barbarella is a crapppy movie that most people outgrow before 25 or that, popular writers such as Alexander McCall Smith aside, genre ghettoization is all part of the program.

In fact, if you haven’t been keeping score, it looks like Tanenhaus will never pass the column-inch test (which requires a 48% minimum to fiction and poetry). The last six weeks show that, far from featuring “all the news that’s fit to print,” Sam has shown again and again that even compressed fiction reviews get fewer column inches than the latest political snoozefest:

March 20, 2005: 44%
March 27, 2005: 41%
April 3, 2005: 32%
April 10, 2005: 34.7%
April 17, 2005: 44.4%
April 24, 2005: 37%

So the question now is whether the reader lowers the bar or that the reader demands greater accountability. From where I’m sitting, the choice is obvious.

Brownie Point: DENIED!

THE HARD-ON TEST:

This test concerns the ratio of male to female writers writing for the NYTBR.

Two women review fiction. And, in fact, the longest review goes to Janet Malcolm, who reviews Alexander McCall Smith’s latest from a gender and biblical perspective. But Malcolm’s comparison to Twain based off of five formally placed words is dubious at best and she never quite follows through on her thesis. I’ve encountered the sentence “I do not think so” used in a humorous literary context 300 times in the past two years — perhaps fifty times alone in Susanna Clarke’s overrated book Jonathan Strange & Mrs. Norrell. But Twain’s irony involved something craftier than a tonal rejoinder (think Huckleberry Finn deciding to save Jim).

As any liberal arts major knows, irony itself involves the disparity between what is said and what is meant. And the excerpt Malcolm quotes two people who are clueless about Freud. But that’s not necessarily ironic. It’s endearing and colloquial, and it offers a particular perspective to the reader. But methinks Malcolm’s overstating the case here. Besides, as any good patriot knows, irony died sometime after September 11.

And was it really necessary to announce not one, but two articles that confirmed Smith’s subtext of AIDs in Botswana? Article clippings might get you a gold star from a junior high school history teacher (perhaps even a hug and a “way to go” in the remarks section of a report card). But in the journalism world, there’s a little thing called an established fact (i.e., something that anyone can find out in thirty seconds) that allows an editor to cut down a rambling review for more pressing matters – like, say, more fiction coverage.

Beyond this and Marilyn Stasio’s mystery column, there’s the aforementioned Jane Fonda review by Maureen Dowd and three other women covering nonfiction coverage (among eleven reviews). Women get disregarded once again. Not a surprise.

Brownie Point: DENIED!

THE QUIRKY PAIR-UP TEST:

Eugenia Zukerman’s take on a Stradivari memoir is the kind of unexpected arts book coverage that’s rare these days in the NYTBR Beyond this, most of the coverage has been delegated to Gray Lady staffers.

Wake me up when the revolution starts.

Brownie Point: DENIED!

CONTENT CONCERNS:

Hey, John Hodgman, get a clue about comics. For the record:

  • There’s a whole litany of independent comics out there that don’t involve superheroes. Get schooled.
  • Not a single person I know of has ever been fearful of a Chris Ware panel. Ware is a fantastic artist, but his work is hardly that “of a strange alien visitor to our world.” It’s sui generis. Perhaps it might seem alien to someone unfamiliar with comics.
  • If Peter Bagge is “new” to you, then I’m almost positive you’ve never set foot in a comics store.
  • What kind of comics columnist confesses that he’s completely ignorant about the medium he’s writing about? (See mention of Michael Allred’s The Golden Plates for specific sentence.)

If Tanenhaus is smart, he will sack John Hodgman on the spot. If it can be believed, Hodgman comes across more ignorant than Chip McGrath did last year. If Tanenhaus is going to offer comics coverage, then he needs someone actually acquainted on the subject. At least Chip McGrath was smart enough to hire Nick Hornby.

Yes, kids, you too can become a successful self-publisher. All you have to do is shoot your lover’s wife, get national press for your story, and then you’ll stand a remote chance of yokels looking for some titilation who might just remember your name buying your memoir! Since when did the NYTBR become an overflow depository for silly Writer’s Digest articles that encourage amateurs to waste their precious savings on delusions?

This week’s Times staffer golden watch review? James Atlas.

CONCLUSIONS:

This is a first. Tanenhaus earned a negative score this week. Presumably, this means that he’ll return some of the brownies back to us. But we’d prefer if he actually clued in and amped up the coverage.

Brownie Points Denied: 3
Brownie Points Earned: 0
Brownie Bitchslap Factor: -.6 points
TOTAL BROWNIE POINTS REQUIRED FOR BROWNIE DELIVERY: 2
TOTAL BROWNIE POINTS EARNED: -.6 points

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Josh Rouse Must Be Stopped

“It’s exactly the same,” he says with perfect confidence. “Why would we change anything?” — Rolling Stone

Mellow soulless pop has a new name to add to its limitless ledger. If my predictions are correct, within eighteen months, Josh Rouse will smear every Pottery Barn bedroom with his treacly ballads (too many of which reference a television blaring in the background) and have every tone-deaf yuppie tapping their toes to Rouse’s distinctive vacuity. Bad enough that there’s barely any edge to this guy. Try seeing this guy live.

On the basis of critical praise, a handful of low-key tracks, a reported “influence by the Cure and the Smiths,” and accidentally getting Rouse mixed up with somebody else, I scored nonrefundable tickets for the MSS and me. This was all part of a strange plan that involved seeing five live shows in two weeks.

But as I listened to Rouse’s catalog to prep myself for the concert, I realized that I had made a colossal mistake.

Consider Rouse’s latest album, Nashville. The lyrics and title of “Winter in the Hamptons” might mean something if you have expendable income. But its ba-ba-bas and its throwaway arpeggios make it an endurance test for anyone who enjoys being tousled around a tad. “Middle School Frown” is poetic only if you consider repetitive assaults on the counterculture and banal memories of 1983 the mark of a genius.

Rouse has no stage presence to speak of. He performs his songs exactly as they sound on his albums, which is a piss-poor reason to see anybody live. During one moment, he tried to get the audience to bray along with him, but only succeeded in drawing up a whispery and uninvolved response. And these were fans of his music, no less. In fact, Rouse is so rigid and formulaic that he’s even outlined the stage plot on his site. Presumably to aid some real estate broker in the Marina talking about her concertgoing experience the next morning, so she’ll have something to refer to just before she heads off to the cafe and orders an overpriced cafe au lait.

Rouse’s music was so soporific that I was grateful to be awakened by the sound of a motorcycle outside. Thank goodness the Fiery Furnaces are coming into town next week. After experiencing this dull singer live, I almost want to get into a bloody brawl just to remind myself that life is more than whining about some girl you didn’t have the guts to ask out.

Doctor Who — “The Aliens of London”

Aliens invade London, there’s a military presence around the United Kingdom, but there’s no UNIT commander (where’s the Brigadier?). Downing Street is easily infiltrated by aliens despite stern security measure after 9/11? This isn’t Doctor Who. This is bad science fiction. If I wanted another crude monster flick, I’d watch a Jack Arnold movie.

The Concertgoing Experience After 30

When you’re thirty, the wiggle room for live shows narrows — even if you’ve devoted enough to hit the gym and keep a svelte figure. If you’re like me, sometimes when attending a show, you end up discovering that you’re the oldest guy on the floor. Case in point: When Tom and I went to go catch Less Than Jake a few years ago, the age disparity was so great that we felt that we needed to join the AARP. I won’t mention our humiliating efforts in the mosh pit, the subsequent huffing and puffing and unexpected aches, and the “We’re too old!”/”We’re outta shape!” sentiments which followed. Mabuse’s Special Squeeze (hereinafter “MSS”) reports that she once joined a mosh pit and the pit of young ‘uns actually moved three feet away from her!

Never has the silent pressure to get a Botox injection at the ripe young age of thirty been so rigidly enforced then at a live show. The stares of youth are perversely fascinating. They seem to think that we old ‘uns are somehow encroaching upon their turf. When in fact, it’s likelier that we old ‘uns have been following the career trajectory of a band since these young whipper-snappers were in diapers.

Despite all this, I haven’t completely given up live music. At least not yet. Because beyond the bands in question, concerts offer fantastic venues for people watching. You get your 35/17s (a bald man of 35 trying desperately to pad out his manhood by going out with someone who is not yet of drinking age, probably because he can’t find a woman within his age bracket to go see the show with and standing in the will-call line alone to collect two tickets is too humiliating). You have the couples who are often perplexed: the late twentysomething who has brought along a heavy coat and a bag, while her date is both too clueless or cocky to point her to the coat check or make her feel comfortable. And it amazes me to see what a 19 year old kid whips up from the images he conjures from the 1980s. And believe me, they’re the wrong images altogether. Last night, while catching Dogs Die In Hot Cars, the MSS and I were amazed to see that neon socks and big hair had made such a comeback. These kids were probably spermatoza when this nonsense came around the first time.

Then there are the iconoclasts: people who watch these shows alone and prefer nothing in the way of human involvement. Say hello or buy them a drink and they’ll give you a scowl. In my experience, the more mellow the band, the more extreme the iconoclast’s reaction.

But the folks I really dig are the fiftysomethings who rock out with the music regardless of the chronological chasm. I once saw a couple in their sixties dancing to Super Diamond on the second floor of the Great American Music Hall and it seemed to me a fantastic way to spend one’s autumn years.

SF Sightings — Wlliam T. Vollmann

It was the end of another sunny day in the Haight — the perfect weather to get acclimatized for a journey into the dark and depressing world of William T. Vollmann. He was reading at the Booksmith. I met up early with Tito and Scott for a little bit of collective preparation.

Vollmann.jpgScott and I weren’t too sure that our sake martinis would cut the mustard with a man of Vollmann’s temperament. Were our beverages masculine and intellectual enough? More importantly, were they violent enough? Why not Molotovs?

It was Tito who was the smart one, settling upon a beer. Not that Vollmann was kicking it there with us, but we had taken a good long look at the publicity photo in our collectively memory and formed a few theories about the guy.

Was Vollmann the 21st century answer to Hemingway? Would he speak calmly? Would he do anything insane? Would he fire his starting pistol or start howling like a mad wolf at the moon?

As it turned out, he didn’t do any of these things.

By the time we got to the Booksmith, it was nearly SRO. There was a crowd of about 40 sitting in the chairs: a lot of twentysomethings with a few punks and bespectacled intellectual types — one bald and with a ponytail. A few minutes into the reading, folks were standing near the stacks. At the stroke of seven, there was a sudden hush that lasted about thirty seconds before the din of conversation resumed. One thing about Vollmann’s fan base: they were punctilious in their temperament. Vollmann, it should be noted, is a staple at the Booksmith. In fact, he’s on record as the author with the most appearances.

In my mad rush to get there on time, I had forgotten to bring paper. To my considerable astonishment, Scott offered to rip a few pages from his Moleskine notebook. “Are you sure?” I asked. Scott ensured me that he was sitting on a huge stack of them. My ethical qualms aside, the rip served as an appropriately menacing prelude to the man himself.

Vollmann was dressed in a slighly off-white shirt, a vest with rectilinear elements of red and black, and grey trousers. His spiky bangs looked as if they had been self-cut. And while this may be stating the obvious, Vollmann wasn’t much of a smiler.

Vollmann did this swishy head swirl just after being introduced. I wondered if it was the recent stroke or just a warmup exercise that Vollmann might have picked up while researching his lengthy work on violence — perhaps some Visigoth calisthenic exercise to be performed just before a continental invasion. He then announced that Europe Central, the book he was there to promote, was “a real downer.”

This book emerged out of wanting to understand the enemy. It’s composed of 37 tales, many of them involving dichotomies, predominantly comparing the Soviet Union with Germany.

Vollmann read two stories. The first one, “Zoya,” dealt with the infamous Soviet propaganda figure and was inspired by the film loops of concentration camp that Vollmann observed as a boy. The second one contrasted the life of a Nazi with the common idea of assigning blame to others during the Nuremberg trial. Vollmann read these stories very precisely, adopting a monotone timbre that resembled the voice of Stan Lee to some extent.

Vollmann answered some questions about politics. He said that we weren’t Nazis yet, but pointed out how Stalingrad had been demoralizing for the Germans and that the sense of safety under Nazi Germany was very similar to the one currently in place within today’s government. He suggested that Arab Americans would be locked away without a second thought if there were more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

A young writer asked Vollmann how often he writes. He says that he writes every day, ideally from his first cup of coffee until when he goes to bed. When he gets stuck on something, he generally works on something else. He asked the writer in return how often she wrote. She said three hours a week. He said, “That’s good.”

Vollmann’s currently working on a nonfiction project interviewing poor people. He’s specfiically interested in how other people respond to why they’re poor. Asked about the type of books he’s read for research, Vollmann noted that he had read a lot of books on Hitler and Stalin. He also felt that there should be a major history on the Iran-Iraq War and that, in many ways, it was as significant as World War II.

I asked him a question about how others edit his voluminous work and whether Rising Up and Rising Down had any effect on him getting published. He said that when he was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, he was the flavor of the minute. Now, he’s the flavor of last century. He expressed great gratitude to McSweeney’s for publishing him. Interestingly enough, Ecco, who was one of the many publishers who rejected his full-length work, offered him quite a bit of money for the abridged version.

Vollmann clearly wanted to split, presumably to get home and start writing again. After about 45 minutes, with his constant query “Are there any more questions?” he set himself up at the signing table and was watching the clock to skedaddle out of there.

Did Vollmann live up to our expectations? The consensus seemed no. His answers were terse and he didn’t really like to elaborate on anything. But with such a remarkable array of work to read through, the books stand well on their own.

[UPDATE: Rashomon's in action. Scott insists that Vollmann wore jeans. But my photograph of Vollmann came out blurry. Perhaps Tito will be the one with the answer. Tito, thankfully, captured the musical angle.]

[RELATED: For additional perspective, don't miss the Rake's evening with Vollmann back in December or Ron Hogan's interview with Vollman from 2000.]

Items

  • Anne Rice has put up several homes for sale. If this is a sign that Rice is hard up for cash, I sure as hell hope that she doesn’t end up tripling her output.
  • Apparently, there are substantial dangers in recommending books. Geotectonic plates have been known to shift. Tsunamis have spontaneously erupted in Middle America shortly after someone recommended The Kite Runner for the 892nd time in one day. Remember, kids, don’t recommend books while driving.
  • One more reason to love Alice Munro: she’s behind some eco-friendly publishing. That’s great, but I have to ask. Wouldn’t she have better results if she stopped writing stories altogether?
  • A Vietnam vet spit tobacco juice at Jane Fonda during a book signing, calling it a “debt of honor.” I’d have something to say about how little courage can be gauged when spitting in the face of a 68 year old woman, but I’m a little too creeped out that there are guys out there who use tobacco juice as currency.
  • Book sales are out of control for the new pope. Publishers have been quietly urging the Holy See to elect a “second-string pope” so that they can double their sales.
  • This week is Robert Penn Warren’s 100th birthday.
  • The LBC gets more momentum from the Book Babes? Huh?
  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has been named the new Pulitzer Chair.
  • And a hearty congratulations to Mr. and Mrs. Hogan!

McSweeney’s Newsletter Followup

We’ve just heard from an anonymous reader concerning “The Pearl Report,” the email newsletter that was apparently written by Paul Maliszewski. Again, if anyone has any additional leads on what content was featured within “The Pearl Report,” then we will certainly post them.

The reader writes:

Forgive the nom de plume but I’m avoiding the Wrath of Dave. In late 2001 I (and apparently a number of people whose names were culled from the McSweeney’s e list) began receiving, about two or three times a month, emails with the subject heading “The Pearl Report,” signed Allan Pearl. (This is the name of Eugene Levy’s character in “Waiting For Guffman” but I don’t know if that was the reference intended by “Pearl.”) The epistles purported to relate various gossipy tidbits, mostly about Tom Beller and the three Jonathans – Ames, Franzen, Lethem. (Though I think Chabon and maybe even Eggers figured in a few items.)

To give you an example – one item, as memory serves, alleged that J Lethem, tiring of the effort involved in signing a ltd edition in the late ’90s, rounded up a young, unknown friend of his named Colson Whitehead to forge his signature on the books, and that these forgeries could be identified by Whitehead’s having written a microscopic “CW” in the corner of each leaf in which he wrote Lethem’s name. (The joke may not be obvious to Dave but I can see it – such a book, thanks to its Whitehead connection, would be worth more than the usual ltd Lethem. But I suppose Lethem would have been unhappy about the allegation – since he’s the former rare-books specialist at Moe’s in Berkeley, this would indeed be rather a slur.) But more often the items were of the Tom-was-seen-with-Parker-the-other-night kind, rather harmless.

After several months of such hijinks, circa the spring of 2002, a young lady came up to Ames at a reading in darkest Brooklyn, informed him that she was “Pearl’s” ex-girlfriend, and spilled the beans. Ames told Dave. At which point Dave did the stuff that makes him so eminently qualified to replace the ‘zinger-man at the Holy Office, now that the dude’s moved on up.

After this all went down, I did some Googling for a while to see what turned up online, but there never was a thing. Such was life in the dim, dark days before litblogs. As to where the Pearl Reports could be found now – maybe the deepest, darkest recesses of the cast-aside laptops of the Jonathans could yield some answers.

It Ain’t Exactly Mailer-Vidal, But We’ll Bite.

Jonathan Safran Foer, in a post that is likely fake unless Mr. Foer would like to corroborate it, has responded to Steve Almond’s takedown:

Me and you should hang out, really. With my ironic-ironic-ironic-ironic pretentiousness and profound postmodern invulnerability and your high-school / freshman-year-in-college ironic, I’m-not-pretentiousness-because-I-am-aware-that-I-might-be-pretentious-and-also-because-when-I-feel-that-I’m-being-pretentious-I-go-ahead-and-say-that-I’m-being-pretentious (and I use a lot of cliches in my language, just like on TV and in Hollywood movies) we can be really profound and postmodern and probably we can achieve true art really quickly, in like two minutes, and then after we can eat hot dogs. We can eat nuts from those profoundly sorrowful Nuts 4 Nuts people.

(Thanks, Chelsea!)

Interviews A Go-Go

As Maud has noted, the 1970s archive of the Paris Review DNA of Literature Archive is up. While Maud’s dancing over Didion, I’m sinking my teeth into the conversations with Anthony Burgess, who talks about Joyce at length, and Stanley Elkin, who notes that he had “a year of study in bed,” reading continuously for a year and staying in bed, only getting up to teach his classes.

And speaking of interviews, Birnbaum is back, this time talking with Jonathan Safran Foer.

Virtual Sweatshop

While it’s very nice to see coverage of the book world online, the Village Voice does raise an interesting point about Kevin Smokler‘s Virtual Book Tour.

Smokler charges $1,500 for a one-day tour, allowing an author to make the rounds on several other blogs. (A three-day intensive will set you back about $3,000.) Smokler pockets the money from the publisher, and doesn’t distribute any of it among the blogs who essentially turn themselves into uncritical advertisers of an author. Instead, he offers a free copy of the book for each participating site, something that any legitimate litblog can obtain for free from a publisher (and from the publisher’s end, a comp book actually costs much less as a publicity item than the supplemental income that lands in Smokler’s lap).

“Paying them would open up an ethical hornet’s nest,” says Smokler, “since there’s no way we can expect bloggers to be impartial if we’re paying them.” (Emphasis added.)

I have to question the ethics of this. If you sublet an apartment to someone, you expect the tenant to pay. If you sell magazine space to an advertiser, you expect the advertiser to pay for the column inches. So if Smokler wants to turn blogs into a PR machine, why then should the bloggers who let their spaces not be entitled to collect?

Beyond the troubling notion that those who participate in the Virtual Book Tour are no different from the people who walk around the beach in a Nike T-shirt, because they are apparently precluded from commenting on the weaknesses of a particular book (partiality or impartiality, I’ve yet to see anything critical on the various VBTs), there’s the seedy notion that Smokler is running a small-time sweatshop. Surely, the bloggers who put in the time to read the book and who style content to a particular author are entitled to earn money for their labor. An advertisement is an advertisement is an advertisement, even if it’s for a book that happens to enjoyable.

That’s why I’m proud to be part of the Litblog Co-Op. You see, if certain members don’t enjoy a book, they won’t be nearly as hindered from voicing their thoughts and opinions. The LBC exists for the love, not the money.

And, no, you couldn’t pay this site any amount of money to shift our content to an advertiser. The coverage here remains independent and unsullied. And that includes not littering our posts with Amazon links and actually attributing the original bloggers who cover a story. Anything less than this strikes me as downright parasitical.

[UPDATE: Scott and Bud have more thoughts on how "parasitical" the litblogosphere can be. And I should point out that not a single contributor to Bookslut (including me) has received a cash payment for their work. Not that I mind, but if that isn't being parasitical, I don't know what is.]

[UPDATE 2: Jessa has emailed me to tell me that Bookslut does pay for features.]

Add “Humorless” to E—–‘ CV

As Beatrice has pointed out, there’s more to the Michael Chabon hoax (profiled in the current issue of Bookforum) then meets the eye. It seems that He Who Shall Not Be Named fired Paul Maliszewski from McSweeeney’s for sending out a fabricated email containing lies about various writers. E—– claims that it wasn’t funny. I’ve tried Googling around for the particular email, but I’ve had no luck. Later today, I’m going to pick up the latest issue of Bookforum to see if I can get more answers from the complete Maliszewski article. But if any of the “hundreds of people around New York” (perhaps regular Reluctant readers?) have the email in question, I’d certainly be curious if the newsletter was a funny Kaufmanesque exercise that went over E—–‘ oversensitive head or a genuine atrocity.

[UPDATE: I've emailed Maliszewski and if he has any thoughts on this article, I'll post them with his consent. I should point out that NYT reporter Alex Mindlin tried getting in touch with Maliszewski by email and phone, but couldn't get through. So presumably Maliszewski is either deliberately remaining silent or has sequestered himself from humanity. Whatever the case, these pages remain open to him.]

[UPDATE 2: Maliszewski says he has no specific comment on the Eggers comments and directs all curious individuals to his Bookforum article. He writes that it's "a serious investigation and a fair piece of journalism and is based on my extensive interviews with Chabon, two people at Nextbook, and several members of the audience. It would have been nice to let all that work do the talking, but that doesn't seem to be possible." Maliszewski has talked with Dennis Loy Johnson about the Chabon scam and, as soon Dennis has his column finished, I'll link to it.]