Ignored and Overlooked Books in 2013

(A version of this post originally appeared at Our Man in Boston. This piece was copyedited — with all book titles and author spellings corrected — before being published on Reluctant Habits.)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Prolific literary journalist Robert Birnbaum, whose conversations have adorned The Morning News, Identity Theory, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, decided to combat year-end list fatigue by contacting several esteemed authors. He asked them to remark upon books they felt were ignored or overlooked. Some of the authors named titles published in 2013. Others expanded the possibilities to the entire history of published literature. What follows is the result of Birnbaum’s grand experiment, along with some sentiments from Birnbaum himself.]

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b13aAdult onset solipsism can be distinguished from the youth version of self-centeredness by the admission that, as Van Morrison croons in “The Meaning of Loneliness,” “it takes a lifetime just to know yourself.” Thus, one is beset with constant instances of self-doubt and self-interrogation. One coping mechanism or technique I have employed to gain a foothold on serenity and enlightenment is to regulate or gate-keep my intake of information, allowing my intuition to guide me. For example, I am prepared to make decisions on what to investigate further past a snappy headline or synopsis. As in my immediate disinterest for going any further in the text when I encountered this fatuous mandate at Arts and Letters Daily: “‘Undergraduates should be kept away from theory at all costs,’ says _____ __________. ‘They should read Kael, not Derrida…'” Immediately sensing its syllogistic unsoundness, I saw this bit of grandiloquence as the kind of Tourette’s outburst one might encounter at a faculty meeting or a party. Of course, one of the joys of engaging this form of short form journalism (web journalizing) is the opportunity to engage in such orotund pronouncements.

(Photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Some Ignored Titles (Photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Okay. For the longest time, I had an aversion to lists, viewing them as a lazy journalistic ploy to contribute to the ongoing dumbing down of everything (uh, I still think I am correct about that). On the other hand, I can see some creative usefulness in lists. Umberto Eco creates some that interesting. And then there is Paul Zimmer’s poem, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven,” where in his recording of it introduces it as a “list” and encourages people to make their own lists:

I sit with Joseph Conrad in Monet’s garden,
We are listening to Yeats chant his poems,
A breeze stirs through Thomas Hardy’s moustache,
John Skelton has gone to the house for beer,
Wanda Landowska lightly fingers a clavichord,
Along the spruce tree walk Roberto Clemente and
Thurman Munson whistle a baseball back and forth.
Mozart chats with Ellington in the roses.

Monet smokes and dabs his canvas in the sun,
Brueghel and Turner set easels behind the wisteria.
the band is warming up in the Big Studio:
Bean, Brute, Bird and Serge on saxes,
Kai, Bill Harris, Lawrence Brown, trombones,
Klook plays drums, Mingus bass, Bud the piano.
Later Madam Schumann-Heink will sing Schubert,
The monks of bendictine Abbey will chant.
There will be more poems from Emily Dickinson,
James Wright, John Clare, Walt Whitman.
Shakespeare rehearses players for King Lear.

At dusk Alice Toklas brings out platters
Of Sweetbreads à la Napolitaine, Salad Livonière,
And a tureen of Gaspacho of Malaga.
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.

So, here’s a list (of sorts) that I created. I considered offering reasons for my choices, but I decided to rely on your good opinion of me and your curiosity:

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Additionally, I asked some bookish acquaintances for their recommendations of overlooked books that come to mind. (These are pretty much reprinted as I received them.)

b13dElizabeth Cox, novelist, Night Talk (Random House):

One overlooked novel I would like to add to the list is The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone. My husband (Mike Curtis) edited that novel and it is a good story.

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David Rieff, author, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (Simon & Schuster):

Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution

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b13fRobert Stone, novelist, Death of the Black-Haired Girl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

Off the top of my head, I recall only one, and I’ve forgotten the author’s name. There was a novel about a man in Maine published some years ago, called Harbor Lights. It was reviewed “In Brief” at the New York Times Book Review. A short, excellent novel.

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b13gKatherine Powers, literary personage, author, Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life (FSG):

So, I don’t know about “tragically.” By “overlooked,” I would mean that most people haven’t heard of the following titles. They are all A+:

20,000 Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton
The Armstrong Trilogy by Roy Heath
In Hazard by Richard Hughes
The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin

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Richard Russo, award winning novelist, author of Elsewhere, (Knopf), screenwriter (The Ice Harvest):

But for my bookseller daughter Emily’s recommendation, I doubt I’d have come across A Marker to Measure Drift. You might want to check to see if it did better than I imagine, but my sense is that it slipped into oblivion, and the last scene in the novel is as brutal and breathtaking as anything I’ve read in a long time.

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b13hRon Rash, novelist, The Cove (ECCO):

With by Donald Harington. Harington is America’s Chaucer.

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b13iEdwidge Danticat, novelist, Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf), humanitarian:

I’d say many of Percival Everett‘s novels including Erasure. Everett is as a brilliant at creating narratives as he is at bending genres. He has one of the least classifiable careers, but one of the most brilliant, in American letters. Everett’s 2001 masterpiece, Erasure — a parody of the African-American urban novel — offers a lyrical critique of a publishing establishment which continues to pigeonhole writers, particular African-American writers. Everett is also a respected poet and painter. His previous honors include: The PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and the Dos Passos Prize.

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b13jJoseph O’Connor, overlooked Irish novelist, Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker):

Tragically overlooked novels? Well, all of mine, for a start. But do you mean tragically overlooked novels from 2013 or in general? In my view, Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe is one of the great novels of the late 20th Century. It’s a story of thwarted love set in 1883 in rural County Fermanagh, on the border of Ulster and what is now as the Republic of Ireland. The events of a single day in the life of Elizabeth Winters provide the plot, which is so utterly gripping that you can’t stop reading. But McCabe smuggles in all sorts of darkness and depth. This is a truly brilliant book about racism, gender politics, and political rage, but the subtle (and supple) language weaves you into the story with such fierce and clever grace that you never feel you’re attending a lecture. It’s got touches of Coetzee and Faulkner, but it’s a mesmerizing smolder all on its own. If you’ve ever doubted the novel’s power to express realities that politics can’t reach, you need to read this magnificent thing.

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b13kStuart Dybek, author, Northwestern University mentor, Paper Lantern: Love Stories (FSG, forthcoming):

I don’t know how “overlooked” Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is, but I saw it on no lists whatsoever when the millennium nonsense was going on and I don’t think there’s been a change since.

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David Thomson, cultural encyclopedia, author Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson):

Troubles by J.G Farrell. If you don’t think it’s overlooked, then try The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

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b13lDarin Strauss, author, Half a Life: A Memoir (McSweeney’s), NYU mentor:

I don’t know what counts as forgotten anymore. The Fixer, which is tough and beautiful and unsentimental in its treatment of something awful? Perhaps Memento Mori, which I just read and which taught me about the consoling half-thoughts and cruelties, the passing cruelties of stupid people. (In other words, most dumbasses will act dumb and assy and never feel bad about it, will come up with reasons, in fact, to feel good about the immoral way they act.) Or maybe The Statement by Brian Moore, which is a perfect thriller, a smart philosophical treatment of evil and racism, a fun read, and about an afternoon’s read?

All of the above?

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b13mBrian Doyle, novelist, Mink River (University of Oregon Press), editor of Portland:

Hmmm. Maybe The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary. Best novel I ever read, period, but not one that many people have on their shelves. Also made into a terrific movie, which is a rare case of a glorious novel being made into a glorious movie. The few others I know: Little Big Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, A River Runs Through It, Lord of the Rings, The Year of Living Dangerously, maybe The English Patient, maybe Master and Commander.

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b13nDaniel Olivas, novelist, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press):

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

I interviewed him for the first print. Enjoy the list-making edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books regarding this novel. It’s quite beautiful, but did not receive the kind of coverage it should have.

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Michael A. Orthofer, editor, éminence grise, editor of The Complete Review:

Way too much gets way too overlooked, but I guess I’d suggest: Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (which seems to have gotten almost no review — and little reader-attention). Runner-up: Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, which got a bit more attention but nowhere what it deserves (it’s a best-of-year contender) —- perhaps overshadowed by Herman Koch’s somewhat similar (and considerably inferior) The Dinner. Still: that’s just the tip of the overlooked iceberg.

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Ben Fountain, award-winning author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco):

Several come to mind:

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. I don’t know if it could be called “tragically overlooked,” given that it was made into a blockbuster movie in the late ’60s, but nobody talks about it much these days. I think it’s one of the Great American Novels. Top ten for sure, maybe top five.

We Agreed to Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood. A lovely, short novel that came out about seven to eight years ago. It won the AWP award, and Scott subsequently got a Whiting Award on the strength of it. It’s just about perfect. His forthcoming novel from Knopf is even better.

The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer. A novel of Texas politics, published 1961 or ’62.

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Robert McCrum, author, Globish: How English Became the World’s Language (W.W. Norton):

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe.

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b13oAllan Gurganus, novella-ist, Local Souls:

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards: This is the single novel by a bureaucrat who spent his life on the Isle of Guernsey. G.B. Edwards imagined a trilogy of such works but he died in a mainland boarding house with this manuscript under his bed. The landlady got it published in 1981. The work is erotic, tumultuous and heroic as a Beethoven symphony. We get the twisted history of incestuous island families. We get the German occupation of the island during World War II. Love stories are offset by men battling the ocean and its creatures. This novel, a rare instance of folk art in narrative, deserves a larger readership, a secure place in our literature.

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b13pGary Fisketjon, veteran editor at Knopf:

Indeed, I could fill a volume in that category with many new additions every fucking year. But given that we’re in 2013, I’d say that Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances has been overlooked most tragically. That’s one reason my only lingering resolution -– to quit smoking -– always fails to get any real traction.

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Billy Giraldi, novelist, Busy Monsters (WW Norton), critic, essayist, long-form journalist editor, Agni:

Indeed. Caleb Williams by William Godwin and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Neglected masterworks of suspense, both of them. Divinely written.

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b13q
Hari Kunzru, novelist, Gods without Men (Knopf):

I’ll nominate Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie fans have seen the movie, but the book is beautiful and poised. As if Richard Yates wrote speculative fiction.

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b13rJoseph Epstein, short fiction writer, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (HMH):

1. Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard.
2. Sándor Márai’s Embers.

I’m not sure if these are tragically overlooked or merely insufficiently well-known, but both are swell novels.

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b13sSven Birkerts, Literary Man for All Seasons, editor, Agni, memoirist, writing program administrator (Bennington):

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch
The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz
The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson

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b13tTom Piazza, novelist, City of Refuge (Ecco), screenwriter (Treme), musical connoisseur:

I’d have to vote for Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, in the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation. Mann is underread in general these days, but Buddenbrooks was a masterpiece. People tend to think it’s just a 19th century family saga, but it’s really a book that combines 19th century techniques and sonorities with startlingly modern technical strategies that get missed because they work wholly in the service of the narrative. It’s almost like a Mahler symphony — one foot in the 19th century and one stepping off the cliff into the unspooling chaos of the 20th. Very important to get the old Lowe-Porter translation. Random House made the mistake of letting somebody “update” the translation and they ruined it, sort of the way Pevear and Volokhonsky ruin the Russians.

Among contemporary books, Lives of the Monster Dogs should have made Kirsten Bakis a big literary star.

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Susan Bergholz, nonpareil and sage literary agent (Eduardo Galeano, et al):

Here you go. Can’t do just one! Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford, simply the best book about marriage ever written in the US by a living treasure. The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage: dead now, extraordinary work. An Imaginary Life by David Malouf: a pitch-perfect novel, except for the Afterword. The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers, our most brilliant and amazing male novelist; makes Franzen and company sound as though they are writing soap operas. Prepare for his novel out in January, Orfeo: stunning!

I forgot one very important novel: Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
And another one: In the Palm of Darkness by Mayra Montero
And: Their Dogs Came with Them by Helena Maria Viramontes.
Okay. I’ll stop now!

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b13u
Blake Bailey, literary biographer, Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf):

The Lost Weekend, of course. And Anthony Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men.

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The Bat Segundo Show #60: Robert Birnbaum

segundo60.jpg

Author: Robert Birnbaum

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Detached but amused by the pair-up.

Subjects Discussed: The value of conducting interviews at a cemetery, Ed Champion’s arrest, the current state of the literary world, literary feuds, Richard Ford and Colson Whitehead, Stanley Crouch, Nicholson Baker, Leon Wieseltier, Anthony Burgess, US vs. UK journalism, Cynthia Ozick, the literary blogosphere, Birnbaum’s participation at the Oscar blog, West Coast vs. East Coast weather, reading and page limits, the “importance” of the New York Times Book Review, Gilbert Sorrentino, Sam Tanenhaus, Thomas McGuane‘s Nothing But Blue Skies book tour cancellation, Laura Miller, an attempt to stop the interview by a Mt. Auburn employee, examining a Mt. Auburn Cemetery leaflet of rules, John Updike, Joan Didion, comparisons with the publishing and the music industry, the NYTBR contemporary fiction coverage, list-making, classic vs. contemporary literature, Paul Collins, small presses vs. large presses, the onslaught of galleys, BEA, Birnbaum as editor, party pictures, celebrity culture, visionary magazines, Henry Luce, artistry vs. Photoshop, California fruit labels, the advertising world, who Birnbaum will talk with, Nicole Richie, authors having emotional breakdowns, the current state of literary journalism, and staying humble.

Play

Roundup

  • This may very well be a first. Dan Wickett has launched an Emerging Writers Network Short Fiction Contest, in which he’ll be reading all of the short stories and passing 20 finalists on to Charles D’Ambrosio. Talk about using the Internet for an innovative purpose. The prize is $500. And the rules seem more ethical than most literary fiction contests I’ve seen.
  • Robert Birnbaum talks with Alberto Manguel. Borges fans should check it out.
  • The Octavia Butler Memorial Scholarship has been announced. (Thanks, Tayari)
  • Wordstock, which has no relation to a flighty yellow bird or flighty hippies, is happening on April 21-23, 2006 in Portland. Word on the street is that Chuck Barris may challenge Dave Eggers to a fistfight, with Ira Glass as referee.
  • And speaking of literary festivals, Frances digs up this Leah Garchik item: “Books by the Bay, the 10-year-old Yerba Buena Gardens book festival sponsored by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, is kaput. The association’s Hut Landon said the festival, featuring author talks, panel discussions and displays by various vendors and publishers, had cost $20,000, and organizers felt it didn’t get enough attention to warrant the expense.” Frances opines that if Debi Echlin were still around, the NCIBA would have figured out a way to make up the shortfall. I’m inclined to agree. Last year’s Books by the Bay (interested parties can find my report here) happened to take place on a beautiful and sunny day, but I don’t recall seeing flyers or posters, much less heavy promotion, in indie bookstores to get people there. If there was any lack of attendance, I blame the NCIBA for failing to get the word out. It’s almost as if the organizers wanted Books by the Bay to die. I think enough individual donors or even a few more sponsors could have picked up the slack. I’ll be very sorry to see Books by the Bay go, but hopefully Litquake will be able to pick up the slack.
  • Over at Mark’s, a number of the smart and lovely women contributing to the forthcoming anthology, The May Queen, are guest blogging. A substantial chunk of the contributors are going to be at A Clean, Well-Lighted Place on April 3. I’m almost finished with the book and I’ll express my thoughts (less rushed this time) in a future 75 Books post.
  • Laird Hunt on “Nonrealist Fiction.”
  • The Morning News Tournament of Books continues, although Kate Schlegel is out of her mind to say no to Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.
  • The Rake faces a dynastic contretemps just before his 30th birthday.
  • A.S. Byatt: “I shall never write an autobiography. The fairy stories are the closest I shall ever come to writing about true events in my life.”
  • More patriarchal bullshit: “the indispensible literary spouse.”
  • “The Dreamlife of Rupert Thomson.” (via Maud, who I understand has a Thomson interview of her own coming soon)
  • Gideon Lewis-Kraus on Black Swan Green: “Most recent bildungsromans stock tinseled epiphanies and fresh-baked-bread redemptions. Though they’re ostensibly about the character coming of age, the bad examples tend to be about coming-of-age itself. But Mitchell has refused the scaffolding on which he might hang a climax. By allowing Jason the stumbling progress of a novel in stories, Mitchell has given him an actual youth, not one smoothly engineered in retrospect.”

Roundup/Update

  • Podbop: Enter your city and listen to MP3 snippets of bands touring in your town this week. (via Irregardless)
  • C. Max Magee, having now shifted to a more RSS-friendly home, offers a thoughtful take on the future of the book and gets a surprise response from George Saunders.
  • Robert “Prolfiic Is My Temperament, Prolific Is My Interviewing” Birnbaum talks with Andrew Delbanco.
  • Well, I guess Jessa Crispin hates such “desperate” works as James Joyce’s Ulysses, e.e. cummings’ No Thanks, Lord Byron’s early poems, Willa Cather’s One of Ours, Waltman’s Leaves of Grass, Thoreau’s Walden, Virginia Woolf’s early novels, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (which was initially self-published).
  • Haven’t forgotten about the Black Swan Green discussion with Megan. It’s coming. The ball’s in my court. But there are many things currently going on. Hopefully, we’ll get up the copious correspondence next week.
  • I have a little under ten books to log for the 75 Book Challenge, including my long and long-delayed thoughts on Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Again, spare moments, hopefully soon.
  • Segundo: Three podcasts to finalize, some very special authors (including one HUGE surprise!) coming in the upcoming weeks, including Jonathan Ames, who also got a chance to talk with Pinky’s Paperhaus when rolling through Los Angeles.
  • Nor have I forgotten about the Naughty Reading Photo Contest. I apologize to all the entrants for the delay.
  • Do you have any more coffee?

Birnbaum Watch

Okay, an effort at moving forward. It won’t be easy.

For now, check out Birnbaum’s interview with James Lasdun. Lasdun’s latest book is Seven Lies, which somehow made its way into my hands at BEA. I don’t really remember how this happened, but, for the most part, I dug the book, even if it seemed to borrow just a tad too much of its feel from John O’Hara and Christopher Isherwood for my tastes.

Needlessly Snarky (Due Possibly to Being Subjected to Fourteen Listens of “The 12 Days of Xmas” Over the Past 72 Hours) Roundup

Burn Balm

Robert Birnbaum insists that he has “chewed the fat” with Ron Rash. This strikes me as a potentially dangerous activity, particularly if you are watching your carbs. If I were of a more carnivorous mindset (it is, after all, the morning), I would fully expect Mr. Birnbaum to “chew the thin” at some point — ideally, sacrificing a few anorexic chickens into the barbeque.

But no matter. This is a silly question of semantics. The important thing here is that Birnbaum has talked with yet another writer, squeezing more Southern writers into the talk than chicken into jambalaya.

Birnbaum Alert

Robert Birnbaum, who, contrary to current rumors, is not interviewing book warehouse workers, talks with Frederick Busch. And since proper beer nomenclature is of pressing importance these days, I should point out that Mr. Busch has no relation to any novelist named Anheuser.

In any event, these two cats talk about everything from poetry to nameless dogs to Stephen King to the four greatest Hollywood novels. Joe Bob says check it out.

The Long Colloquy

We’ve ribbed James Howard Kunstler before for his extraordinary cynicism. Nevertheless, having read The Long Emergency and remaining quite concerned about the issues expressed therein, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point you over to Birnbaum’s latest interview with Mr. Kunstler himself. Rather interestingly, The Long Emergency did not receive a single review in any major newspaper. Bobby B made efforts to contact several book review editors and none chose to respond.

The “We Were Too Sluggish From Tuesday Night’s Festivities” Roundup

  • Robert “Two Sheds” Birnbaum is at it again. This time, he talks with Camille Paglia. The real question here is whether Camille was ever confused for a pirate incarnation of Princess Leia.
  • The Tireless Dan Wickett is now talking with publicists as part of his latest panel series. We suspect that Mr. Wickett will be interviewing some of the people in the warehouse before the year is up.
  • We could honestly care less about the Quills Awards, largely because Nick Hornby and Sue Monk Kidd should not be encouraged any further. But if you care, the nonsense can be found here.
  • A new symposium will compare Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics with Walt Whitman and Samuel Beckett.
  • Apparently, The Almond: The Sexual Awakening of a Muslim Woman is, according to the Daily Star, “no more original than that of the film 9 1/2 Weeks, without the soundtrack to keep it going.”
  • Yo, Book Babes, it’s Epileptic, not Epilepsy.
  • A sketch of Ted Hughes drawn by Sylvia Plath is up for auction this fall.

Take That, Birnbaum!

Today’s Word of the Day is “jejune.”

jejune \juh-JOON\, adjective:
1. Lacking in nutritive value.
2. Displaying or suggesting a lack of maturity; childish.
3. Lacking interest or significance; dull; meager; dry.

Were I to make this public now, it would be dismissed as the raving of a mind at the end of its tether, unable to distinguish fiction from reality, real life from the jejune fantasies of its youth.
–Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance

By the inflection of his voice, the expression of his face, and the motion of his body, he signals that he is aware of all the ways he may be thought silly or jejune, and that he might even think so himself.
–Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things

A while ago, Michael Kinsley wrote that Jewish Americans envied Israelis for living out history in a way that made the comfort and security of life in New York or Los Angeles seem jejune.
–Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “The Big Kibbutz,” New York Times, March 2, 1997

Jejune derives from Latin jejunus, “fasting, hence hungry, hence scanty, meager, weak.”