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)