Monthly Archives: April 2008

Not-so-bright young things

Apparently the only way to get attention for your “literary” novel (apart from offering sacrifices to the gods and hoping Oprah will bring you into her club) is to write what people take to be a roman a clef about literary novelists, and therefore get columnists and journalists speculating about which literary authors you’re writing about. In other words, you  make like Keith Gessen and write All the Sad Young Literary Men, and get the likes of Gawker wondering about the true identities of Keith, Mark and Sam. Hey, I subscribe to the NYRB and visit GalleyCat regularly, so I took a crack at the guessing game, but it turns out I’m still a piker at lit-gossip. And now Joyce Carol Oates and Scott McLemee point out that simply reading the book for its own literary sake would be a far better use of my time.

Join the colony

My pal Nick DiGiovanni, the world’s greatest unpublished writer, hopes to land himself a stay at the Yaddo artists colony in upstate New York. In fact, he asked me to write him a letter of recommendation — not because I have any juice with the Yaddo judges, but because I have a book out and I’ve read just about all his manuscripts, enabling me to comment on his steady, intriguing development as a writer long overdue for wide recognition.

I’d always been aware of Yaddo as a Big Deal, but only now do I appreciate just how Big a Deal it is. That’s because for a bit of relief from research reading I’ve been dipping into Beautiful Shadow, Andrew Wilson’s great biography of Patricia Highsmith, where I just learned that Highsmith spent the summer of 1948 at Yaddo, working on her first novel, Strangers on a Train. According to Wilson, Highsmith won her spot with the very helpful help of Truman Capote, who agreed to pull strings for her at Yaddo if she in turn allowed him to sublet her apartment on East 56th Street, where he would finish his story collection A Tree of Night.

Highsmith liked her liquor, as did many of her fellow artists that summer, and when work was done they would often hoof it to Saratoga Springs for cocktails. And what a crowd! Gawd, I love to think of Flannery O’Connor, probably working on Wise Blood, down the hall from Chester Himes, the father of Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, while just across the way, Patricia Highsmith worked on a mean little novel about two men who exchange murders.

Highsmith loved Yaddo so much that she willed to it the bulk of her estate, including future book royalties. So if you pick up a copy of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Price of Salt or Edith’s Diary, rest assured you are helping support future writers — including, I hope, a certain Nick DiGiovanni.

Drug-guarding alligator snapping turtles

I’ll bet the writers on The Wire wish they’d heard about this before the show ended its run. I could see Avon Barksdale opening a pet store with a bunch of these in the back.

Sunday Bookchat

My weekly rundown of interesting and current books, usually with a progressive and left-wing perspective.

The Spirit is willing

I don’t know how Frank Miller’s upcoming film adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit will turn out, but if nothing else it inspired the Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries to unearth and post these great samples of Preventive Maintenance Monthly, an Army publication Eisner illustrated from 1950 to 1972. (The magazine itself rolls on.)

The lady’s not for burning

To toast or not to toast?

Dmitri Nabokov has finally decided to let the literary world off the hook. For years he’s been of two minds about whether to obey his father’s instructions and consign the manuscript of his last novel, The Original of Laura, to the flames. At last the decision: He won’t burn the thing. Instead, we’ll finally get to read Vladimir Nabokov’s final work.     

‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’

Dylan Thomas reads his poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art.”

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Time and tide

Via Jeff Sypeck, I see that Jen A. Miller has published a guidebook called The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May. I’ll have to get a copy of that, though the title indicates that only about a third of our state’s glorious shoreline is covered.

Perhaps an alternate title could be Shoobie Country, since its coverage area is well within that area, roughly defined as south of the Barnegat Inlet, where “shoobie” is the preferred nickname for inlanders who have the temerity to want to come and swim in the ocean and walk on those beaches the local sandwingers believe God created for their use alone. (North of Barnegat, the default slur is “bennie,” the origin of which is as debatable as “shoobie.”) Jen has invited people to post their Shore memories at her book blog,

Burn on

My man Les Standiford, novelist and popular historian par excellence, has a new book coming out called Washington Burning: How a Frenchman’s Vision of Our Nation’s Capital Survived Congress, the Founding Fathers, and the Invading British Army.

Sound interesting? Let Les describe it for you:

While there have been a number of books dealing with the founding of Washington in the 1790’s, as well as a number detailing the dramatic story of its burning by the British during the War of 1812, I had not read any that connected the two threads in any substantial way when the idea began to form in my mind. Until the British thought enough of Washington D.C. to reduce its public buildings to rubble in 1814, the new capital was a source of great friction in our new nation–Northern interests found it too “Southern,” and Southerners found it not “Southern” enough. But that action by the British, meant to frighten an ill-prepared United States military into capitulation, had the opposite effect of what was intended. Americans were outraged, not intimidated–and when the British moved on from Washington to a true military target at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, they were soundly defeated and the tide of the war changed. Washington D.C. was transformed from a locus of division to a symbol of pride and unity, and in essence, it was the desire to avenge the destruction of our “national city” that led to the final break from Great Britain.

In one way, the city itself is the “main character” of this book, though the attempts of George Washington, and Pierre L’Enfant and others to see a new capital rise from a wilderness (despite the heated opposition of Thomas Jefferson, for one) form the human story that came to fascinate me. L’Enfant was a brilliant man, but an eccentric and difficult one as well, and he was utterly consumed with the correctness of his “Grand Plan.” In essence, he was a poet, and though W.H. Auden has suggested that “poetry makes nothing happen,” L’Enfant made Washington happen, and exactly as he sketched it out on a couple of taped-together scraps of paper more than 200 years ago.

Les also has a new blog called Grand Standiford Station. His previous narrative histories, Last Train to Paradise and Meet You in Hell, were part of my relief reading when I was in the midst of writing The Last Three Miles and wanted something diverting that would keep my head properly calibrated to the task at hand. This led me to contact him for blurbage, which he graciously provided. There’s always a spot for Les Stdnaiford on my blogroll, and if he ever comes by this way I’ll gladly stand him a drink or two or three or . . . well, let’s just say I’ll make it worth his while.

Battlestar WhatTheFrakWasThatica

So I just watched the concluding episode of the third season of Battlestar Galactica, and now I know what it was that had the fanboys ululating like dervishes in the desert. Read no further if you’re still working your way up to it.

You still here?

Okay, so now I know that even though the episode is called “Crossroads,” the pick-to-click theme song belongs not to Cream (or Robert Johnson) but Bob Dylan. Yep, that’s “All Along the Watchtower” all right, and depending on how the final season plays out, it could turn out to be either a brilliantly ballsy move or the kind of delusional low-rent inspiration we haven’t seen since Ed Wood keeled over. I’m not crazy about the rather cheesy version used on the soundtrack — what, the Sci-Fi Channel wouldn’t spring for Jimi’s cover, or His Bobness’ original? — but that is as nothing compared to the Gorgonzola gallery of characters muttering snatches of lyrics as they wander around looking dazed, confused or simply nauseous. I don’t often speak to appliances or inanimate objects, but when the line “There’s too much confusion” cropped up, I very clearly said to my television, “Please don’t do what I think you’re going to do.” Sure enough, “I can’t get no relief” happened just as I feared, with a toilet bowl and everything. I’ll never talk to my television again. It just doesn’t . . . friggin’ . . . listen.

So, what’s next? Are other tracks from John Wesley Harding equally useful for frying Cylon wiring? Are we going to see a pair of humanoid Cylons called Frankie Lee and Judas Priest? Why stop with this song? When the Cylons are defeated and sent packing, everybody can line up and sing the chorus to “Like a Rolling Stone” as the base ships flicker away.

Everything I’ve seen in Battlestar Galactica up to this point has been bold and brainy enough to keep me interested in how it finally plays out, but the producers better have one pretty goddamned awesome rabbit to pull out of their hat, or this show is going to go down as one of the grandest follies in television history.