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Current Topic: Literature

A Story About Ourselves That May Not Be True
Topic: Literature 8:04 am EST, Jan 30, 2013

Jesse Hicks:

Wherever there's a system, an established order, someone will have an incentive to uphold it. And someone else will have equal incentive to break it.

Wayne Curtis:

When you see the gait cameras, try goose-stepping past. Leg up high, knee unbent, toes skyward. It's wholly unnatural and artificial, but should mask the way you really walk. No one will ever know it's you.

Tim Parks:

Nobody requires the existence of a standard and a general pressure to conform more than the person who wishes to assume a position outside it.

Sasha Weiss:

It's not the fiction of Beyonce's performance that angers us, but the fear that underneath the pomp and idealism our political leaders are con men, telling us a story about ourselves that may not be true.

John Givings:

Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.

Hollywood's Favorite Cowboy
Topic: Literature 9:31 pm EST, Nov 22, 2009

John Jurgensen:

Cormac McCarthy prefers hanging out with "smart people" outside his field, like professional poker players and the thinkers at the Santa Fe Institute.

Cormac McCarthy:

They're just really bright guys who do really difficult work solving difficult problems, who say, "It's really more important to be good than it is to be smart."

Paul Graham:

Don't just not be evil. Be good.

Richard Holbrooke:

Only with hindsight can one look back and see that the smartest course may not have been the right one.


I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about?


The absolute luxury of really reading ... the sheer inefficiency of it ... is, to me at least, the very definition of leisure.

Malcolm Gladwell:

It's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection.

Carolyn Johnson:

We are most human when we feel dull. Lolling around in a state of restlessness is one of life's greatest luxuries.


Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.

Stanley McChrystal:

One of the big take-aways from Iraq was that you have to not lose confidence in what you are doing. We were able to go to the edge of the abyss without losing hope.

Kevin Kelly:

Five years is what any project worth doing will take. From moment of inception to the last good-riddance, a book, a campaign, a new job, a start-up will take 5 years to play through. So, how many 5 years do you have left? This clarifies your choices. What will they be?

Matt Stone:

If anybody's telling me what I should do, then you've got to really convince me that it's worth doing.


Life is too short to spend 2300 hours a year working on someone else's idea of what the right problems are.

Sterling Hayden:

What does a man need -- really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet ... [ Read More (0.1k in body) ]

Hollywood's Favorite Cowboy

Moby-Dick in the Desert
Topic: Literature 7:02 am EDT, Jul 30, 2009

William T. Vollmann's new book is on sale today. From the jacket:

A majestic book that addresses current debates on immigration, agribusiness, and corporate exploitation, issues that will define America’s identity in the twenty-first century.

Here's Sam Anderson:

William T. Vollmann's Imperial is like Robert Caro's The Power Broker with the attitude of Mike Davis's City of Quartz, if Robert Caro had been raised in an abandoned grain silo by a band of feral raccoons, and if Mike Davis were the communications director of a heavily armed libertarian survivalist cult, and if the two of them had somehow managed to stitch John McPhee's cortex onto the brain of a Gila monster, which they then sent to the Mexican border to conduct ten years of immersive research, and also if they wrote the entire manuscript on dried banana leaves with a toucan beak dipped in hobo blood, and then the book was line-edited during a 36-hour peyote seance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, with 200 pages of endnotes faxed over by Henry David Thoreau's great-great-great-great grandson from a concrete bunker under a toxic pond behind a maquiladora, and if at the last minute Herman Melville threw up all over the manuscript, rendering it illegible, so it had to be re-created from memory by a community-theater actor doing his best impression of Jack Kerouac. With photographs by Dorothea Lange.

As the updated Amazon reviews make clear, this is a book that will sharply divide the critics as well as the reading public. Publishers Weekly calls it "exasperating, maddening, exhausting and inchorent", whereas Booklist gives it a starred review, calling the book "immense, poetically structured, provoking, and surprisingly intimate."

From the archive, John Lanchester:

If I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable.

Moby-Dick in the Desert

The Strain, by Guillermo Del Toro
Topic: Literature 8:01 am EDT, Jun 18, 2009

Amazon Best of the Month:

Who better to reinvent the vampire genre than Guillermo Del Toro, the genius behind Pan's Labyrinth, and Chuck Hogan, master of character-driven thrillers like Prince of Thieves? The first of a trilogy, The Strain is everything you want from a horror novel -- dark, bloody, and packed full of mayhem and mythology. But, be forewarned, these are not like any vampires you've met before -- they're not sexy or star-crossed or "vegetarians" -- they are hungry, they are connected, and they are multiplying. The vampire virus marches its way across New York, and all that stands between us and a grotesque end are a couple of scientists, an old man with a decades-old vendetta, and a young boy. This first installment moves fast and sets up the major players, counting down to the beginning of the end. Great summer reading.

About Pan's Labyrinth, Anthony Lane concluded:

It is, I suspect, a film to return to, like a country waiting to be explored: a maze of dead ends and new life.

Have you returned yet?

See also, by Mark Z. Danielewski:

Had The Blair Witch Project been a book instead of a film, and had it been written by, say, Nabokov at his most playful, revised by Stephen King at his most cerebral, and typeset by the futurist editors of Blast at their most avant-garde, the result might have been something like House of Leaves.

The Strain, by Guillermo Del Toro

Show or Tell
Topic: Literature 7:41 am EDT, Jun  3, 2009

Louis Menand:

We're all highly self-conscious ants, because that's what it means to be a modern person. Constant self-assessment and self-reflection are part of our program. Authenticity is a snark -- although someone will always go hunting for it.

I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other's work, seemed like a great place to be. I don't think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.

And if students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, care about the same things, they do learn from each other.

Jim Jarmusch:

Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.

Jean-Luc Godard:

It's not where you take things from -- it's where you take them to.

Richard Sennett:

It's certainly possible to get by in life without dedication. The craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged.

Matthew Crawford:

The well-founded pride of the tradesman is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.

Show or Tell

Whither Eucalyptus?
Topic: Literature 7:48 am EDT, May 22, 2009

Minor drama at the Apple Store:

If you’re wondering why Eucalyptus is not yet available, it’s currently in the state of being ‘rejected’ for distribution on the iPhone App Store. This is due to the fact that it’s possible, after explicitly searching for them, to find, download from the Internet, and then read texts that Apple deems ‘objectionable’. The example they have given me is a Victorian text-only translation of the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana. For the full background, a log of my communications with Apple is below.

Apple's explanations are about as credible as Maureen Dowd's.

Tell Apple what you think:

Can’t find something on the iTunes Store? We’re constantly improving our catalog of music, audiobooks and videos. Use the form below to let us know what you’re looking for.

From the archive, Teresa DiFalco:

Minor drama is the lifeblood of suburbs.

Update: The drama subsides, with Apple finally acting sensibly.

Whither Eucalyptus?

John Updike, a Lyrical Writer of the Ordinary, Is Dead at 76
Topic: Literature 7:51 pm EST, Jan 27, 2009


John Updike, the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to place him in the first rank of among American men of letters, died on Tuesday. He was 76 and lived in Beverly Farms, Mass.

“I like middles,” he said. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

From the archive, Teresa DiFalco:

Minor drama is the lifeblood of suburbs.

Carolyn Johnson:

Lolling around in a state of restlessness is one of life's greatest luxuries.

Here are a few mentions of Updike on MemeStreams:

John Updike reviews Free Life

DUE CONSIDERATIONS: Essays and Criticism. By John Updike, on the notable books list for 2007

Reviews of Updike's Terrorist in The Village Voice and LA Weekly

Check out his many contributions to the New York Review of Books, from 1973 up to October 2008.

John Updike, a Lyrical Writer of the Ordinary, Is Dead at 76

Recommended Reading for Our Times
Topic: Literature 7:10 am EDT, Sep  8, 2008

The credit crisis. The lurching stock market. The housing bust. The diving dollar. The Freddie and Fannie turmoil. How to make sense of it all?

Our advice: Go read a book.

I liked this recommendation:

'So Big' is a fascinating story that contrasts the aspirations and values of a mother -- who grew up in economic hardship -- with that of her son who, through his mother's hard work, was given a secure, happy childhood and a quality education.

"After struggling to give her son opportunities to pursue his dreams, Selina must watch as he sets them aside in the empty pursuit of wealth. While Selina builds a thriving vegetable farm and derives contentment through her 'beautiful cabbages' and other produce, her son finds only frustration and lack of fulfillment when he forgoes a career as an architect for the pursuit of money and a sumptuous lifestyle.

"The shift in values from mother to son can also be viewed as allegory for our own nation's continuing cultural shift. We have moved away from the values of thrift and financial security held by our Depression-era parents to that of overuse of credit to fund lifestyles we cannot afford, that have not always brought happiness, and -- in the case of the foreclosure crisis -- that have caused dislocation and despair."

Recommended Reading for Our Times

Raising the Dead
Topic: Literature 7:50 am EDT, May 26, 2008

In one chapter, set at a bordello hotel called Business Center Bukovina, Hemon constructs a delicate, beautifully rendered fable of ugliness, desolation and heartlessness: “The room smelled of my grandfather’s death — a malodorous concoction of urine, vermin and mental decomposition.” They pass a mangy dog as they enter. The window looks out on a huge garbage bin “brimming with glass bottles,” their sparkle providing a brief moment of pleasure: “I always like to see a full garbage container, because I relish the thought of emptying it, the complete unburdening implicit in it.” At the end of the chapter, Brik hears a drunken couple shouting, then laughter, a dog howling and the shattering of glass. “The man and woman had thrown the dog in the garbage container full of bottles and then must have watched it writhing, shredding and slicing itself, trying to escape.”

Raising the Dead

Literary Companion | The Atlantic Online | September 2007
Topic: Literature 9:43 pm EDT, Apr  1, 2008

Anyone who has ever tried to digest The Da Vinci Code, for example, or the Left Behind series, will know that bad writing, aimed at a subliterate audience, is actually much more difficult to read than anything by Borges or Kundera. But a certain populism, perhaps, inhibits critics from saying so.

Christopher Hitchens, on the collected works of Edmund Wilson recently published by the Library of America.

Literary Companion | The Atlantic Online | September 2007

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