Tag Archives: National Book Award

The ‘Horses’ she rode in on

Patti Smith just won the National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids. That’s big news around here.  I’ve been listening to her records for decades, ever since Horses baffled, intrigued, and captivated me a few weeks after its release,  and her recent live recording of The Coral Sea was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever heard. Maybe Just Kids will get the kind of retrospective fact-checking and deflation that Bob Dylan’s Chronicles received, but it’s a terrific record of an artist making her way in the world, assembling the pieces of her identity, and deciding just what it is she’s really good at.

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The Professor and Pynchon

Today’s literary history nugget is a mini-documentary about the year Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow shared the National Book Award for fiction with A Crown of Feathers, a story collection by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Since the reclusive Pynchon was not going to speak, he was instead represented by . . .

. . . a comedian, Professor Irwin Corey, who delivered the acceptance speech  in his trademark free-associated rambling style.

Man, that clip takes me back. In the early Seventies, authors were still allowed to appear on popular television shows, Saturday Review was still in the throes of trying to be four separately themed weekly magazines instead of a single monthly, and bookstores had piles of the orange-jacketed Gravity’s Rainbow hardcover edition. The split award from the NBA committee reflected the controversy over whether Pynchon’s novel was a postmodern masterpiece or an unreadable mess. I lean toward the latter judgment: after several attempts to finish the book (I usually zone out by the scatophagy scene), I decided life was too short. When it comes to Pynchon, I prefer The Crying of Lot 49 and V.

Since then, Gravity’s Rainbow has come to rival Moby-Dick as the least-read and most-referenced novel in pop culture history. The Simpsons has name-checked the book so often that Pynchon has appeared on the show as himself, wearing a bag over his head to preserve his famous anonymity. Being famous for being anonymous — now there’s a postmodern concept for you.

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Friday finds

Mark Doty, newly minted winner of the National Book Award for poetry, reads his poem “Charlie Howard’s Descent” in the clip above. Read an interview here.

It is so fiendishly powerful that its scent causes elephants to flee in terror. And yet, I feel strangely compelled to try it sometime.

This review of Ken Tucker’s Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America doesn’t make me want to give Brian De Palma’s 1983 blood- and cocaine-crusted crime epic another look, though there’s no disputing Tucker’s point that the film has made a huge impact on hip-hop and gangsta wannabe culture. (Oliver Stone once said that when he was in Central America doing research for his 1986 film Salvador, he learned that Scarface was hugely popular among the death-squad members of El Salvador.) But if I do get the urge, I’ll just watch this YouTube clip, which boils the film down to its NSFW essentials.

A tribute to the late critic and cultural writer John Leonard. Here’s some of his advice for book reviewers.

Goggle is posting millions of images from the archives of Life magazine. Warning: Major time-suck potential.

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