Chatter's blog

"When all the others were away at Mass" -- RIP, Seamus Heaney

We lost one of our great poetic voices this week when Seamus Heaney died following a short illness. Described by the poet Robert Lowell as the "most important Irish poet since Yeats," Heaney's profoundly deep and human reflections on life and memory spoke to -- and will continue speaking to -- untold numbers.

In honor and memory of Heaney, here are a few examples of him reading some of our favorites.

1) Sonnet 3, from Clearances (1986)



2) "Scaffolding," from Death of a Naturalist (1966)


I'm also quite fond of his lyrical reading of that most musical of his poems, "Deor," posted at Poets Out Loud.

Authors in the News: William Vollmann

William T. Vollmann, author of the recently re-released (and utterly fabulous!) An Afghanistan Picture Show, was interviewed on NPR last week. It is not to be missed. He discusses in particular his recent Harper’s article [subscription needed], in which he details what he learned when he gained access to his FBI file: e.g., that he was on different occasions suspected of being the Unabomber and/or anthrax mailer, and deemed to have in his possession a flamethrower. Needless to say, the interview is a doozy.

Three Good Things: Media Phenoms


1) Oh, this is all sorts of fabulous: "In 1969 Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York. He called for the city’s secession from the State of New York to become the 51st state; a ban on private cars in Manhattan; free public bicycles; devolution of powers over policing, education, housing and welfare to neighbourhood authorities; a casino on Coney Island or Roosevelt Island to generate tax revenue; and something called ‘Sweet Sundays’, one day each month on which all mechanical transportation, including lifts, would be banned. His fliers were apocalyptic: NEW YORK GETS AN IMAGINATION – OR IT DIES! His slogan was 'No More Bullshit.'" (For more, see the London Review of Books . . . )


2) Resistance is futile in the face of the newest phenomenon taking the internet by storm. For who can can deny the power of the BookShelfie?


3) Same story with this video of poet Neil Hilborn performing his poem "OCD." No matter your personal feelings about slam poetry, with four million views and counting Hilborn's description of falling in love and obsessive-compulsive disorder has rightfully captured our imagination and attention.



RIP, Elmore Leonard

Like a good many of you, we at Diesel were supremely saddened to hear the news of Elmore Leonard's death this week. Leonard is a quintessential American treasure whose work will, we are certain, continue to be read and adored.

One of the masters of taut, economical storytelling, Leonard was also a master at crafting the perfect opening line. Alex Belth and his friends at The Stacks blog have a wonderful compilation of some of his greatest.

A few of my favorites from their list: 

"The war began the first Saturday in June 1931, when Mr. Baylor sent a boy up to Son Martin's place to tell him they were coming to raid his still."—The Moonshine War (1969)
"This morning they were here for the melons: about sixty of them waiting patiently by the two stake trucks and the old blue-painted school bus."—Mr. Majestyk (1974)
"The gentleman from Harper's Weekly, who didn't know mesquite beans from goat shit, looked up from his reference collection of back issues and said, 'I've got it!'"—Gunsights (1979)
"Every time they got a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something."—Bandits (1987)
"Chris Mankowski's last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb."—Freaky Deaky (1988)
"Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk right up to the fence without getting shot."—Out of Sight (1996)

Diesel Presents - Jorge Luis Borges

August 24th, 1899 - June 14th, 1986 Diesel Presents Jorge Luis Borges

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” said poet, short story author, and translator Jorge Luis Borges, who’d been writing from the age
of six. And in 1955, he was appointed Director of the National Library of Argentina, despite the fact that, by that time he was completely blind. In a poem, he put it best:

No one should read self-pity or reproach
Into this statement of the majesty
Of God; who with such splendid irony,
Granted me books and night at one touch

Borges considered his blindness an asset, saying, “When I think of what I've lost, I ask, 'Who know themselves better than the blind?' – for every thought becomes a tool.” He was, however, unable to continue writing in the traditional sense of committing ink to paper, and thus dove more into the realm of poetry, able to compose these shorter pieces entirely in his head while still embracing the wideranging themes of his earlier works: memory, reality, labyrinths, mirrors, gardens, animals, scholars, fictitious works, imaginary places, kings, bandits, knife-fights, assassins... Such is the breadth of Borges’ interests and so dizzying are the scope of his ideas that in the space of a few paragraphs, stanzas, and sentences, he packed more twists and turns than could most authors in an entire book. Crucial to this talent was a profound realization he hit upon while attending school in Geneva, Switzerland: inventing the idea of a book is just as effective as writing it; many of his stories deal with the effects of and reactions to fictitious works. 

Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he surely deserved as perhaps “the most important figure in Spanish-language literature since Cervantes.” However, in his final years, he at last realized a childhood dream: he was able to stroke the fur of a living, breathing tiger.

At the age of 86, he died of liver cancer.

"Something for the Touts, the Nuns, the Grocery Clerks & You"

Yeah, I know Charles Bukowski could be... well, some say, distasteful, and others say, creepy. Funny enough, I don't think he would've disputed either description! Also beyond dispute is that his 1974 poem “Something for the Touts, the Nuns, the Grocery Clerks & You" is bitterly brilliant. Hearing him read it aloud today seems appropriate.

Happy birthday, Buk.


Some Thoughts on Translated Literature

"As a writer I can be bad, but I can't be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word-nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock." (-- David Mitchell)
This interview with acclaimed novelist David Mitchell (discussing his and his wife's forthcoming translation of Naoki Higashida's The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism) clearly spells out much of what makes translated literature endlessly appealing. It's not simply that the settings of such works are different, or because they give us glimpses of cultures not our own -- though these are valuable and often very helpful. It's more that translations are stark reminders that reading forever dances on the divide between hubris and humility. If, as some version of the cliché goes, those who read the most usually are the ones most aware of how little they've actually read, those who read the most translations are all the more sensitive to the fact that what they've read is not actually what was written. For some readers, this creates a distance too far between author and reader. For others, though, certainly for me, it highlights in a real, tangible way the division that's always there anyway. Once this important divide has been established as a feature rather than a bug, something exciting -- and sometimes a little scary -- happens: we find ourselves involved in what we're reading in ways that an assumed intimacy rarely ever allowed.

Don't believe me? Check out these two extraordinary links below that expand on the challenges posed by translation:

1) Over at Archipelago Book's blog, Eric has written a great post reflecting on the multiplicity inherent to translation -- using as an example the poetry of C. P. Cavafy -- and reminds us, as Mitchell does in his interview, that with translations it's rarely simply a matter of right vs. wrong. What's important is that the translation is good, and that the measure of that is rarely so cut and dry. 

2) Johannes Göransson is doing a bit of guest-blogging over at Poetry magazine, and boy oh boy is he leaving his mark. In his recent post on "the diabolical music of translation" (gosh, I wish I'd written that!) he writes, "The lesson of this part of the story: Translation may not be possible, but it can be impossible in the sense of creating alternative spaces. Impossible spaces. Spaces that are not supposed to exist. You can translate paintings, Swedish poems, weird letters into poetry in order to create a lineage outside of the official lineages. Translation can make a space for you when the Poetry world has told you [sic] don’t belong. Translation is 'diabolical.'" Oh . . . but you must read the whole thing


-- Brad J. 

(Image via Stiff Little Fingers Paul)


"I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave"


As if you needed another reason to support California Bookstore Day, huh?

Three Good Things: Tuesday Link Trifecta

1) With her most recent novel, The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner showed herself to be one of the sharpest-tongued writers of her generation. With this insightful essay on the work of Clarice Lispector (another favorite of ours), she's shown herself to have exquisite taste, too.

"Lispector dispenses with, or rather swerves around, narrative altogether, and gives her main subject—being—to us straight, in the form of aphorisms linked together and floating against a background of only white paper. By some sleight of hand she manages to create a sense of forward motion without offering any kind of character development. She writes about thinking, what it’s like to think, and this task is circular, because thought, while not language, is bounded by words, its only tools for expression." (For more see Bookforum . . .)

2) "Four designers discuss their work on recent book covers: first concepts that didn’t make the final cut, and then the cover as published." (For a brilliant slideshow of, and commentary on, recent book covers and those that nearly were see the New York Times . . .)

3) I could listen all day to the late W. G. Sebald reading from his magnificent, but unfortunately final, novel Austerlitz (with a delightful appearance near the end by Susan Sontag). 



An Open Letter to President Obama

Earlier this week the American Booksellers Association and Hut Landon, Executive Director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, wrote President Obama stirring open letters we thought you'd like to see. They were in response to the President's visit to an warehouse and on the heels of Amazon's most recent episode of loss-leader predatory pricing. Both letters are clear and to the point, highlighting not simply what independent bookstores are up against but also how we stand out as an alternative to business as usual.

Here's Hut's:

Dear President Obama,

I'm writing you on behalf of the members of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association to express our dismay at your decision to deliver an address on jobs at an Amazon warehouse.

Amazon is a company that for more than decade fought tooth-and-nail to protect a business model based on sales tax avoidance, in the process fueling other online companies to copy to its actions and costing states cumulatively billions of dollars.

Worse yet, in our state, Amazon's CEO purposely misled the media and public officials by stating that his company shouldn't have to pay sales tax in California because Amazon didn't have a presence here and therefore wasn't using services that sales tax covers. The fact is, of course, sales tax is collected by retailers on behalf of purchasers who are liable for it - Amazon wasn't being asked to pay sales tax, only to do what other retailers are required to do legally in the states.

Amazon now has largely abandoned its sales tax avoidance strategy because it believes it needs to compete on delivery time. So warehouses have been opening across the country, including in Tennessee. Amazon has created jobs, to be sure, but they are often part-time (making those nasty health benefits a non-factor) and barely minimum wage. The company has made news with their warehouses, but it hasn't always been about job creation. In Pennsylvania, employees were forced to work in extreme summer heat without any air conditioning, and you have no doubt been following Amazon's labor troubles in Germany.

On top of all this, your Justice Department handed Amazon a monopoly on e-books with it's recent ruling, assuring that independent bookstores will be unable to compete with e-books being sold as a loss leader to attract new Amazon customers. Ironically, while consumers will see lower prices, they will also see many fewer e-books published in the future. When Amazon decides not to lose money on the products, it will force e-book publishers to offer better terms. Given the already low margins, the response will be to simply not publish nearly as many titles. You'll be able to buy the newest book by Dan Brown, just not anything by the next Dan Brown.

Your appearance at the Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga sends a clear signal to small independent businesses that our value as job creators and community linchpins is not as important as an arrogant chain behemoth's contributions to states' monetary shortfalls and creation of thousands more minimum wage, benefit-poor jobs.

We will continue to do what we do best as locally owned businesses - offer knowledge and service to our customers, create and support community growth and activity, make every effort to provide employees with fair wages and conducive working conditions. And some of us will continue to grow and employ new workers, as small business has always done, even with the Amazons of the world being excused for past transgressions and rewarded for predatory business practices.

We are disappointed that you feel Amazon deserves your attention and endorsement (even if implied). We hope you will carefully consider the message you are sending with such an appearance and perhaps re-think that message in the future.

Respectfully but with regret,

Hut Landon
Executive Director
Northern California Independent Booksellers Association

Situations like this highlight all the more reason we at Diesel are excited about the plans for a California Bookstore Day, where we can celebrate and support the stores across the state that try to stem the tide and buck the trend. We hope you are too.