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Weekly Links: To What or Whom is the Artist Responsible?

(1) Stacia L. Brown's essay reflecting on the Oscar-winning success of Lupita Nyong'o, "When a (Comparatively) Carefree Blackgirl Wins An Oscar," will get you thinking.

 

 

 "While I don’t get the impression that Nyong’o, having spent the last two years of her life immersing herself in study and portrayal of the American slave experience, would hold the same perception of American blackness as Adichie initially did, it is safe to say she can still hold herself aloft from it. For her, blackness, in a context of white American oppression, is a role. It is not intrinsic to her identity. [...] I already know what Hollywood will try to make her. I know the gradations of blackness they will implore her to learn. But I do not know how she will resist. I do not know what she herself will teach. But she is entering the field with just enough privilege and confidence to inspire my hope that she will do just that: instruct rather than simply accept — and learn from black actresses (rather than white directors) how best to navigate this space."

 

(2) I'm too afraid to look at how many times I've gone on about Karl Ove Knausgaard in this space. But hey . . . as you can see in this recent piece in the Guardian ("Norway's Proust and a life laid painfully bare"), he gives good copy. Volume three of his absolutely stellar (& provocatively titled) memoir project, My Struggle, will be available in May. Plenty of time to catch up on volumes one and two

"The critical reading of the texts always resulted in parts being deleted. So that was what I did. My writing became more and more minimalist. In the end, I couldn't write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote. But then I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing. Fuck quality, fuck perfection, fuck minimalism. My world isn't minimalist; my world isn't perfect, so why on earth should my writing be?"

 

(3) Cory Doctorow has been blowing minds for years in his sci-fi novels. His recent essay for Locus Online, "Cold Equations and Moral Hazard," isn't fiction, but it is no less incendiary. Here he blows the lid off what he sees as the responsibilities of our storytellers, and what's at stake when they don't meet them. 

"The thing about lifeboat rules is that they are an awfully good deal for lifeboat captains.

"Even saints get exasperated with other humans from time to time. What a treat it would be if the rest of the world would just realize that what’s best for you is simply the best course of action, period. That’s the moral hazard in cold equations, the existential crisis of lifeboat rules. If being in a lifeboat gives you the power to make everyone else shut the hell up and listen (or else), then wouldn’t it be awfully convenient if our ship were to go down?

"Every time someone tells you that the environment is important, sure, but we can’t afford to take a bite out of the economy to mitigate global warming, ask yourself what’s out of the frame on this cold equation. Every time you hear that education is vital and taking care of the poor is our solemn duty, but we must all tighten in our belts while our lifeboat rocks in the middle of the precarious, crisis-torn economic seas, ask yourself whether the captain of our lifeboat had any role in the sinking of the ship."

 

Cry "Havoc!" & Let Loose the Tournament of Books

 

Are you a sports fan? Maybe an ambivalent observer? Whatever your position or persuasion -- whether you're a shooting guard whose shot rarely falls or a championship parade party-pooper -- if you're reading this chances are good you've imagined, in a feverish dream or daytime diversion, your favorite books lacing up, trash-talking, and competing against one another. I'm sensing some shaking heads. Bear with me, metaphors are wont to run wild -- they have their own March Madness.

That's right, fellow page-flippers, it's Tournament of Books time! [cue the dramatic music]

This is the tenth year of the Tournament, which means (if all the ancient oracles are to believed), the winner will enlarge in size such as to destroy a city the size of Oakland. I might've misunderstood the prophecy, though. (Short version for the uninitiated: sixteen of the past year's best and brightest novels are seeded and progress to a winner-take-all championship by way of quirky reviews written by some of the best and brightest reviewers.)

City-destroying destruction notwithstanding, you should definitely follow the tournament HERE.

Ongoing now is an epic play-in round, refereed by the great Geraldine Brooks:

 

 

You'll have to click the image to find out the victor! 

The opening round kicks off March 6. See below for what you can look forward to.

March 6 -- The Luminaries v. Hill William (Rachel Fershleiser)
March 7 -- A Tale for the Time Being v. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Mat Johnson)
March 10 -- The Good Lord Bird v. The Tuner of Silences (Sarah Schulman)
March 11 -- The Signature of All Things v. The Dinner (Roger D. Hodge)
March 12 -- The Lowland v. Eleanor & Park (Jami Attenberg)
March 13 -- The Son v. At Night We Walk in Circles (John McElwee)
March 14 -- The Goldfinch v. Long Division (Héctor Tobar)
March 17 -- [Pre-ToB Playoff Winner] v. The People in the Trees (John Green)

All of these titles are available for purchase online through DIESEL or in any of our four locations! We'll be reporting on the tournament all month.

Celebrating a Life, Reading Diagrams, and Thinking About Charts

(1) We lost one of our great storytellers last week when Mavis Gallant passed away. If you've never read it, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of her superb Paris Stories. In the meantime, you can watch her here in conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri.

 

 

(2) I defy you not to get a twitchy purchasing-finger looking at this gorgeous collection of Reed-Kellogg diagrams of famous novels' first sentences designed by the folks at Pop Chart Labs

 

 

 

(3) The 2013 VIDA count was released last week to much deserved hullabaloo. If you're unfamiliar, the folks at VIDA are interested in holding editors and publications accountable for their (often quite shocking) disparities between male and female representation. As much as one might wish to hope good writing should somehow be genderless . . . well, let's just call that a pretty bloodless perspective, shall we, and leave it at that. 

 

 

Weekly Links: Novelty Knows No Bounds

 

 

1) New York-based poet Lucy Ives is contributing this month to the Poetry Foundation's bookmark-and-read-this-daily blog, Harriet. Each post thus far has been interesting, but especially so her most recent one on "Novelty."

"Were it not for my propensity to become inconsolably and sometimes hysterically dissatisfied by the definitions and descriptions—composed by individuals otherwise pretty much miraculously good at writing things—of the ways and reasons writing should get done, I would probably be living a full and productive life. As it stands, it’s possible that my life has been ruined by literature; more specifically, by something called poetry. It seems even more ludicrous that such a state of affairs has come to pass when one considers the afore-suggested fact that I have no idea what poetry is, much less, historically speaking, what it was."

 

2) NYRB Classics is releasing a new edition of William H. Gass's audacious philosophical ode to the color blue, On Being Blue. "What's so interesting about that?" you might be wondering. Michael Gorra's introduction sets the table wonderfully for Gass' verbal feast: (via NYRBlog)

"Gass has an ear like a Pantone chart, exquisitely alert to the semitones of sound and sense, fifty red words here and a hundred greenies over there. His blues themselves are enough to swallow you down. Consider the book’s first sentence, with its rattletrap inventory of some few of the things that particular color can be:

'Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit—dumps, mopes, Mondays—all that’s dismal—low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?)….'

"It continues for a full page."

 

3) Feasts fit for Hemingway! (via The Millions)

"[P]ractical lessons lurk even in the most quintessentially modern texts. Ernest Hemingway’s 'Big Two-Hearted River,' the last story in his 1925 collection In Our Time, is essentially an instruction guide for camping and fishing. In it, Hemingway’s stand-in character Nick Adams goes on a solo fishing trip, seeking release from the past. The 'hard work' of hiking to his campsite pleases him: 'He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs.' [. . .] I decided to test the theory by treating “Big Two-Hearted River” like an instruction manual: I would cook every “recipe” it contains.

 

4) Zora Neale Hurston on Zombies?

 

Links Aplenty: The Good and Bad of Doing Easy and Reading Elite

1) William S. Burroughs two weeks in a row! But, hey, what can I say, his influence endures. After posting last week's video, somebody sent a link to his wildly instructive, maybe downright wise, essay, "Doing Easy," and I knew I had to share.

"Remember every object has its place. If you dont [sic] find that place and put that thing there it will jump out at you and trip you or rap you painfully across the knuckles. It will nudge you and clutch at you and get in your way. Often such objects belong in the wastebasket but often its just that they are out of place. Learn to place an object firmly and quietly in its place and do not let your fingers move that object as they leave it there. When you put down a cup separate your fingers cleanly from the cup. Do not let them catch in the handle and if they do repeat the movement until fingers separate clean. If you dont [sic] catch that nervous finger that won’t let go of that handle you may twitch hot tea across the Duchess."

 

 

2) Over at the New Yorker, George Packer asks "Is Amazon good for books?" His answer (SPOILER ALERT, it's basically "Are you {bleeping} kidding, of course it's not!") is perhaps of less importance than his studied, patient reasoning. We very highly recommend you give this a look. 

 

 

 

 

3) More media people asking questions. This time it's Laura Miller at Salon wondering "Is the literary world elitist?

"Intellectual insecurity is, alas, a pervasive problem in the literary world. You can find it among fans of easy-to-read commercial fiction who insist (on very little evidence) that the higher-brow stuff is uniformly fraudulent and dull, and you can find it among those mandarin bibliophiles who dismiss whole genres (on equally thin evidence) out of hand. One of the favorite gambits of people secretly uncertain about their own taste is identifying some popular book of incontestably lower quality than their own favorites and then running all over the Internet posting extravagant takedowns of it and taunting its fans. Yeah, I’m not crazy about “Fifty Shades of Grey,” either, but I’m not going to invest that much energy in proclaiming this sentiment to the world. To do so suggests you’re less interested in championing good writing than you are in grabbing any chance to feel superior to somebody else."

(Slipping my take under Miller's, so do what you want with it, but how nice would it be if more people felt as indignant, morally or aesthetically, to the abuses of an elite with, you know, real power? Ahem . . . stepping away from soapbox before I slip off.)

Links in Search of a Unifying Theme

1) Happy 100th, William S. Burroughs. Well, as happy as you'd ever have wanted it to be anyway. When looking to celebrate Burroughs with a video clip, there are several prime ones to choose from. His Thanksgiving prayer, for example, is for those who are not so faint of heart. I was, however, especially keen to find this interview between him and literary comrade-in-arms, Kathy Acker (made all the more poignant for having been conducted months before both of their deaths).

 

(2) In her two novels, Telex From Cuba and (most recently) The Flameflowers, Rachel Kushner proved herself to be a prodigiously gifted writer. In a recent fascinating interview with The Quietus, she points to her influences:

"I'm pretty inspired by Bolaño, it's true. It was somehow though only the second time I read The Savage Detectives that I saw him tear a kind of hole in story-telling to tell more stories, and then more inside those, all the while, keeping this very steady tone. His technique is still a bit mysterious to me, but maybe I felt a more confirmed permission, if you will, to let other characters take over the narrative from the narrator. DeLillo has also been someone I greatly admire. But there are many others: Anne Carson, Joan Didion (her novels, not her essays), Denis Johnson, William Gaddis (dead, but possibly still "contemporary?"). I like Bret Easton Ellis, and I like Michel Houllebecq, but I don't think either's influence is explicitly detectable in my work."

 

(3) This is too heartbreaking to say much about. Just this: rest in more peace than you could find here, Philip Seymour Hoffman

 

 

Get Well, Kay!

 

We were saddened to learn recently about former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan's bike accident near her home in Fairfax, and all the more so by the extent of her injuries. While it sounds as though she is healing, we know all too well that the road to recovery requires its share of patience.

 Patience

Patience is
wider than one
once envisioned,
with ribbons
of rivers
and distant
ranges and
tasks undertaken
and finished
with modest
relish by
natives in their
native dress.
Who would
have guessed
it possible
that waiting
is sustainable --
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
time's fullness
the diamonds
of patience
couldn't be
distinguished
from the genuine
in brilliance
or hardness.

(from Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems)

Best (and patient!) wishes from all of us at Diesel as you mend.

Footnotes & End Notes

I know, I know . . . footnotes tend to be tedious and end notes annoying (all that flipping backing and forth!). Which is why we should celebrate the exceptions -- those not-so-few and exceedingly proud.

(1) Allen C. Shelton's bizarre book, Where the North Sea Touches Alabama, came out this fall with very little fanfare, but has over the winter knocked the socks off a few of our booksellers. A sociologist by trade, Shelton is a writer of Southern Gothic at heart. No summary would do justice to his baroque weaving of biography and cultural analysis. It simply must be experienced, likely in repeated readings. Those who are averse to end notes may at first squirm, his book nearly divided evenly between main text and notes, but the ping-ponging back and forth comes with its rewards. Here are two of my favorite examples from his copious notes, both about water:

43. A feral cat had wandered into the yard and the dogs had caught sight of the animal. One of the dogs was a hound called Smoky. He was a large blue tick. His bark was a low booming roar. There were at least two other dogs. Mom and I were outside. We saw the cat streaking across the grass with the dogs right behind it. How my mother was able to catch the cat is a miracle. She picked the animal up in her arms to save it from being torn apart. The cat bit her, leaving a deep cut on her forearm. She dropped it and the dogs were on it. In desperation, the cat jumped into the lake and tried to swim away. This lake had a hole in its deepest part through which all the water drained away every summer. The dogs jumped in and the cat was done for. They tore it to pieces. The barking stopped. The cat’s carcass half sank into the muddy water. My mother was treated for rabies. The shots were extremely painful. I have been terrified of these shots since I was a small child and read about Louis Pasteur in my child’s encyclopedia. My mother stepped in front of fate and she bore it.
———————————
70. [...] I’m not an especially religious man, though some would quibble with that. I’ve read the Bible. I used to be quite proficient in what Southern Baptists call sword drill. I could whip to any book and verse in the Bible called out. That was years ago. I still have several Bibles. I used to preach to the Pentecostals from a black lamb-leather New Jerusalem translation. It was a Catholic Bible and many were worried. At a church retreat in Panama City, Florida, I did a teaching from a translation of the New Testament by Richard Lattimore, the Greek scholar who translated the Iliad and the Odyssey. The cover had a close-up of a putrefying corpse’s face. The eyes were open. The cheeks were purple. He was looking for Jesus. The rawness of the translation caused confusion. As I read the familiar passage of Jesus walking on the sea’s surface, stripped of the King James English, hands went into the air grabbing for Jesus as if they, like Peter were sinking. Several began speaking in tongues. There was a liquidness to the sound that slowly covered their mouths as if they were now underwater.

 

(2) Mary Jo Bang's new translation of Dante's Inferno has been justifiably praised since it was released. Hers is an exquisite modern rendering of the masterpiece, and will for many beckon a return visit to Hell. Easily missed, though, at the reader's loss, are Bang's Translator Notes.

 

 (3) This one is cheating a little. Okay, it's cheating a lot. Need we, after all, an excuse to listen to Patty Smith recite, with musical accompaniment, Allen Ginsberg's "Footnote to Howl"? I think not. (Oh, and as it is Allen Ginsberg and all ... NSFW!)

Recommendations Abound

1) Is there anything better than recommending a poet you recently discovered? I'm leaning toward a sound and loud, "No, there is not."

E.g., I encourage you all, far and wide, to find yourself a copy of Tom Hennen's exquisite Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems (Copper Canyon, 2013).  Haunted by the rural plains of his Midwestern Minnesota, with its chilling winters and unsentimental summers, Hennen's poetry veers a bit dark but is rarely cynically so. I'm especially fond of his poem "Pick a World." Those final lines of each stanza, oh my!

One world
Includes airplanes and power plants,
All the machinery that surrounds us,
The metallic odor that has entered words.

The other world waits
In the cold rain
That soaks the hours one by one
All through the night
When the woods come so close
You can hear them breathing like wet dogs.

 

 

 2) Rebecca Solnit and Robert Macfarlane are two of our favorite authors interested in, for lack of a better term, place -- where we are and want to be, what it looks like, and why it's always in the process of changing. When they speak up, we listen. 

E.g., their conversation with Orion Magazine about the evolving state of nature writing. Don't have time for the full conversation? Then definitely check out their respective lists of recommended books and essays

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3) Then there are recommendations we accept only a little begrudgingly.

E.g., those in Natasha Vargas-Cooper's piece, "Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels to High School Students." I confess, I find her logic here one-half maddening and the other half flat-out wrong. And yet . . . her list of recommended non-fiction fit for high school students is pretty fantastic. Don't let me jade you on the argument, though. Decide for yourself. We can argue about it in the store sometime. 

From the Internet's Many Worlds

1) From the world of the blogs . . .

Is there a better literary blog than the one put together by the Bay Area poet Tom Clark, Beyond the Pale? I'm not sure there is. Day in and day out, in his curated collection of photographs and excerpts, alongside his new poems and background notes set in the comments, something fresh and vital occurs. Very highly recommended you make this a regular stop. 

 

 

 

2) From the world of Twitter . . .

We've extolled the wonder of Teju Cole's Twitter feed before. Today, though, he managed to outdo himself. Over the course of 35 retweets he weaves together a story, complete with narrator and chorus, beginning and end. It is a thing to behold. It begins thus ... (oh, and remember, you have to read from the bottom up) ...

 

 

3) From the world of old media . . .

Michael Robbins waxes sonic about the joys of words made right -- you know the ones, that roll around the mouth and through the lips like Sam Beckett's pebbles -- in his gorgeous, rich contribution to the Chicago Tribune

"One can go too far. Many readers have felt that Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Swinburne and Stein do, although I am not among their number (or, rather, their going so far is precisely what I love about them). Samuel Johnson could not abide Shakespeare's fondness for 'quibbles,' or puns (a special case of sound's enhancement of referentiality): 'A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapors are to the traveler,' leading him astray. ... [Wallace] Stevens occasionally poked fun at his own tendency to sonic boisterousness — 'Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,' 'With his damned hoobla-hoobla-hoobla-how,' 'This trivial trope reveals a way of truth.'

"In the field of phonaesthetics, which exists, the phrase 'cellar door' is sometimes regarded as the most beautiful-sounding phrase in the English language, though no one can say by whom, exactly."
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