Reader’s Corner: American Science Fiction in the ’60s

If you’re looking for a good book or eight to spend your shelter-in-place weeks with, the Library of America is a good place to start.

My review of their big and gutsy boxed set American Science Fiction of the 1960s — including everything from groundbreaking Samuel R. Delany space opera to proto-feminist work from Joanna Russ and even Flowers for Algernon — is available in the spring 2020 print edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books:

The driving impulse behind this anthology is not, nor should it be seen as, a greatest hits compilation. Rather, editor Gary K. Wolfe appears to be approaching it in the same sidelong manner that he used for his previous anthology of nine “classic” science fiction works from the 1950s: He is mixing in the familiar with the lesser-known, using many of the latter to stand in for whole swaths of the genre. This professorial survey-course approach necessitates plowing through some lesser material—which one might have skipped in their original paperback binding—but provides fascinating glimpses of whole styles of writing little seen now…

Quote of the Day: Reading as Resistance

At the American Booksellers Association’s 15th annual Winter Institute gathering, held this year in Baltimore, author Rebecca Solnit spoke about how reading and publishing can be acts of quiet resistance in an age of distractedness and “glib false certainties.” Per Shelf Awareness:

“At its best it’s a liberation project,” said Solnit of writing and bookselling.

Reader’s Corner: Going Back to Updike

Rabbit Redux

In the London Review of Books, Patricia Lockwood does that thing some of us dread: Going back to the author we once loved—and everyone else told us to love—years later to see how they stand up. Reconsidering someone like John Updike, so of-the-moment in postwar American letters, she assumes will be a fraught matter:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are…

The piece that follows is not a hatchet job. Though yes, blood is fulsomely spilled. Lockwood looks at Updike with new eyes and finds much (so much) to be grimaced at, to the point of wondering, Did anyone actually read this?

There are also some grace notes: “When he is in flight you are glad to be alive.”

But also: “When he comes down wrong – which is often – you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea.”

Writer’s Desk: Make Mistakes, Don’t Be Afraid

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

The author Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic, the forthcoming Spying on the South) has ranged all over the world before settling back in America (sort of) to write books. Because most writers are rightly in awe of foreign correspondents (yes, it is a romantic occupation), it’s generally worth listening to what they have to say about the craft.

Here’s some notes from his interview in Writer’s Digest:

I think you’re much more likely to find the interesting stories if you take risks and do stories other people aren’t doing. In that way, you have to trust your own instincts, not follow the advice that everyone else is giving you, your parents, your editor, who encourage you to stay on the straight and narrow. And that’s a lot more fun…

You quickly discover as a writer that the worst experiences make for the best copy. I wouldn’t know how to write about a beautiful place. I couldn’t write a story on Hawaii. I sort of try to write about bleak places and frightening events. I find that’s more compelling to write about than, say, a nice vacation in France…

I tend to notice the absurd contradictions in my reporting. Like when I’m in a biker bar and some guy’s threatening to beat me up and I notice they’re watching male figure skaters on TV. Life is tragic and funny at the same time and I think that to tell a story in just one note or the other is too monotone. I don’t like one-note books…

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Collected Schizophrenias’

My review of Esme Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias ran in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

When giving a talk or at a doctor’s appointment, Esmé Weijun Wang often shoehorns “I went to Yale” into the conversation. This isn’t bragging. It’s protection. Ivy League status, she writes, “is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I’m not worthless”…

Department of Lists: 2018 Edition

(image by KangZeLiu)

Since it’s the end of the year, and there’s only so much champagne one can drink while watching Andy Cohen/Anderson Cooper and hoping that 2019 will show 2018 how things should have gone, it’s time to look back at some of the best that the year that was had to offer.

To that end, I contributed some pieces to a few different publications who make a point of cataloging this sort of thing:

Now you’ll have something to do this January besides catch up on new TV shows and ignore your dieting pledges.

Reader’s Corner: LeVar Burton Has No Time for Trump, Kanye

LeVar Burton has a podcast, too

LeVar Burton, who taught–and continues to teach–generations of kids and adults about the importance of literacy through Reading Rainbow and now LeVar Burton Reads, had something to tell Vice about certain celebrities who proudly proclaim their ignorance of books:

I got something to say about those people like Donald Trump and Kanye West who self profess themselves as non-readers … I ain’t got time for anyone like that anymore. I ain’t got time for the Kaynes or the Trumps who don’t read … Go somewhere else with that nonsense and take that bullshit someplace else. For as long as people like that will continue to publicly profess this idea to a generation of people, I’ll be standing here for literature until my very last breath. I repeat, until my last very dying breath. I’ll stand for it always in the living world. That’s where I’m at right now as far as those two and anyone like them.

Reader’s Corner: Kanye’s Writing a Book. On Philosophy

Here’s another book Kanye kind of wrote.

Kanye West says he’s writing a book of philosophy called Break the Simulation. Because that’s where we’re at right now. (Any bets it will claim reality is just a Matrix-like computer simulation?)

Per Entertainment Weekly:

I’ve got this philosophy — or let’s say it’s just a concept because sometimes philosophy sounds too heavy-handed … It takes you out of the now and transports you into the past or transports you into the future … It can be used to document, but a lot of times it overtakes [people]. People dwell too much in the memories. People always wanna hear the history of something, which is important, but I think it [sic] there’s too much of an importance put on history.

Lot to unpack here, starting with the concept that “there’s too much of an importance put on history,” but we can let the reality of all human endeavors serve as a definitive rejection of that idea.

There’s also the issue that even though his mother was a university English professor, Kanye has called himself “a proud non-reader of books.”

Still, we should welcome Kanye to the authors’club. Even if he never reads his own book.

Reader’s Corner: Bookstores Versus Nazis

Berlin “Night of Shame” book-burning memorial, with empty bookshelves

In 2016, neo-Nazis marched through a Berlin neighborhood near the Tucholsky Bookstore. Then they marched again. The bookstore started organizing. From the New York Times:

By last summer, when a third march through this neighborhood was announced, the group was ready: They had teamed up with “Berlin Against Nazis,” a city-funded organization that targets racism and anti-Semitism. A friend of Mr. Braunsdorf’s designed colorful posters and fliers and together they set up three protest stations along the marchers’ route. Between 200 and 300 neighbors showed up with soup spoons, banging on pots and pans, to protest the march.

According to Johanna Hahn, director of the German Association of Booksellers in Berlin and Brandenburg, bookstores by definition are at the forefront of such resistance:

The book industry has always reacted with great sensitivity to the political climate,” she said, “and bookstores are always a place where social change occurs … In every book there’s a new perspective, so bookstores automatically fall on the side of openness and diversity.”

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)

Reader’s Corner: National Book Critics Circle Awards

The fine group of folks known as the National Book Critics Circle—who graciously suffer my inclusion among their ranks—have just announced their 2017 winners. Minnesota press Graywolf snagged awards in two categories, an impressive feat. See here:

Poetry — Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (Graywolf)

Criticism — Carina Chocano, You Play The Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks, & Other Mixed Messages (HMH/Mariner)

Autobiography — Xiaolu Guo, Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China (Grove)

Biography — Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan Books)

Nonfiction — Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Simon & Schuster)

Fiction — Joan Silber, Improvement (Counterpoint)

The John Leonard Prize — Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf)

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing — Charles Finch

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award — John McPhee

Writer’s Desk: Solitary but Productive

Philip Roth spent about a half of a century writing. In the process, he produced one of the greatest and weirdest bodies of work in American letters. How did he do it? Sitting down and plugging away, for one:

The day-by-day repertoire of oscillating dualities that any talent withstands — and tremendous solitude, too. And the silence: 50 years in a room silent as the bottom of a pool, eking out, when all went well, my minimum daily allowance of usable prose…

Set yourself a goal and get to it. Every great book starts with the first word, it’s true. But there’s a lot of words that have to follow. A daily allowance of usable prose is a good place to start.

Writer’s Desk: First, Make Yourself Happy

Let’s face it: Sitting at a desk and putting words on paper or a screen and then (hopefully) printing them out in a big block of pages that will (again, hopefully) not immediately end up in the remainder stacks, can be drudgery. So find some joy in it.

Per Michael Holroyd:

The only happiness one gets from writing is doing a good day’s work, of suddenly discovering something on the page which works. You pick up the page, you shake it, it’s there, it doesn’t come to bits, and you didn’t know it at the beginning of the day and now you know it. Now that’s a real happiness, and unless there is some element of that, well why on earth is one writing? Because otherwise moving a pen across the page is not all that enjoyable…

Reader’s Corner: ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’

When Ta-Nehisi Coates published his third book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays on black American history and current affairs late last year, the country was still just getting used to its new presidential reality. Or not.

My review is at RainTaxi Review of Books:

Until recently, when the true desolation of the early Trump era has started metastasizing in even the most ardent optimist’s heart, America had a script to use after a catastrophe. Whether a mass shooting, natural disaster, or police atrocity, each event was termed an opportunity for a “national dialogue” on guns, race, class, climate change, or what have you. Those conversations never happened because there was always another catastrophe, and in any case, the culture had mostly lost interest in the public intellectuals needed to push forward such a conversation. That changed, however, in 2014, when The Atlantic published one of the most talked-about pieces of writing in recent memory, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” Suddenly, the country was having a conversation. And it wasn’t an easy one…

Writer’s Desk: (Don’t Just) Write What You Know

Nathan Englander (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) casts a little cold water on limiting your writing to what you’ve experienced personally:

I think the most famous piece of writing advice that there is is “write what you know,” and I think it’s—honestly, I think it’s the best piece of advice there is, but I think it’s the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is. It’s so simple and so obvious. It used to terrify me, this idea of “write what you know.” I was dreaming, I was in suburbia, in my house, dreaming of being of a writer, and I thought, what am I going to do with “write what you know”? What I know from childhood is I was on the couch, watching TV. So I should simply rewrite a whole series of sitcoms for you. I should write a book called What’s Happening? and then I should write a book called Little House on the Prairie is on at 5 o’clock. . .

Reader’s Corner: Surround Yourself With Books

Umberto Eco (1932–2016) was famous for having one of the world’s great libraries. It contained about 30,000 volumes and knocked the socks off pretty much everybody who saw it. (There’s a video here of the Foucault’s Pendulum author wandering through it.)

Did he read all those books? Of course not. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, that’s a good thing. Here’s Taleb quoted by Maria Popova:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.

Keep collecting those books, as long as space and money allow. You’ll get to them. Eventually.