Monday, April 28, 2008



Given the sheer size of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which this year drew about 400 authors and 140,000 visitors, I'll have to limit myself to a highlights reel. So let's begin at the beginning: the Friday night awards ceremony, which one longtime guest referred to as "sort of like the Oscars for nerds." It's true, there's an extra quotient of glamor to the proceedings at Royce Hall, and I don't see the NBCC juicing up each announcement with a brief burst of triumphal, Rocky-like music on the PA. By now the actual winners have been widely reported, so I won't trot through all nine categories. A few observations, though. Stanley Plumly, who won the poetry award for Old Heart, also delivered the best anecdote of early privation: during his poetic salad days in small-town Ohio, his miniscule checks from magazines were routinely diverted to the Stanley Plumbing Company. Simon Sebag Montefiore accepted his award for Young Stalin via an effusive video, in which he slapped academics on the wrist for their terrible prose and admitted using his mother as a litmus test for readability. The fiction winner, Andrew O'Hagan, noted a common error (at least in Scotland): mistaking Los Angeles for "a suburb of Glasgow." And let us not overlook Maxine Hong Kingston, who won the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement. At age 67, with a mane of white hair, she declared herself too young for such an honor, and went on to cite a favorite line from Thoreau: "I love a broad margin to my life." She seemed to admire the sentence both in its figurative sense--its suggestion that supposedly marginal matters may be more central than we care to admit--and in its literal one, since she's now writing a book-length poem with plenty of white space on every page.

In any case, the lights went up, and the massive crowd of nerds poured up the aisles, out into the lobby, and then through a narrow archway: a kind of physics experiment. Beyond that archway lay the reception area, with its rippling waterfall of chocolate fondue, its heaped-up pasta salads and sushi and SRO mob scene under the balmy Western skies. While I frantically forked up some farfalle in an open space by the door, I had a nice chat with Michael J. Neufeld, whose Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War was nominated for the biography award. But like many of the Easterners on hand, I had begun to fade. I climb aboard the shuttle back to the tall, round, traffic-beleaguered hotel--a former Holiday Inn hiding its shameful past behind a chic remodel. Yes, there are second acts in American life.

The first panel I attended on Saturday was, well, my own. Breaking the Mold was supposed to be a discussion of literature and the Internet, and since it included notorious Web hater Lee Siegel as well as technology fiends like myself and Shelley Jackson, some audience members girded themselves for a slapdown. In fact the conversation, moderated by David Kipen, remained civil throughout. Siegel did get in his digs at the coercive nature of the Web--surely no more coercive, I suggested, than the radio was in 1930--and its encouragement of duck-and-cover anonymity (yes, a tender topic). But he warmed to Jackson's remarks on hypertext and Tristram Shandy, to the point that Kipen wondered aloud whether this Peck's Bad Boy of cultural criticism had "mellowed." Well, let's not go overboard. After the panel, we were escorted outside to sign books. Not too many people had procured copies of Amazonia. However, a shy progression of 13-year-old girls approached my table and asked to have their pictures taken with me. Here, I thought, was a whole new demographic: these young ladies could go directly from some Hannah Montana Singing Doll to my own ironic ruminations on the Internet boom. As it turned out, they were all from the same school in Fontana, and were obliged to prove their attendance at the festival. Hence the photos with me--I was the equivalent of a rubber stamp on the back of their hands. The girls left. I hung around in the signing shed for a few more minutes, avoiding the sun and talking with Jackson (apparently she still wanted to be a rock star until sometime last week). Then, after a short stop at the authorial Green Room, we made our way through the tremendous, hearting crowds to hear Jane Smiley interview Gore Vidal.

I reviewed the most recent installment of Vidal's memoirs, Point to Point Navigation, and had noted a decline in what I can only call quality control. So I was a little nervous about attending this conversation: I didn't want to see one of my heroes stumble in public. I needn't have worried. Vidal, in a wheelchair, was at the top of his game, whether he was taking Exxon to task for its mendacious, nature-loving commercials ("I sit there and pound the floor with my stick") or putting George W. Bush through the wringer. His comic timing is better than ever--he works those pregnant pauses like a patrician Jack Benny. And as always, there's a sense that the dramatis personae of American history are Vidal's intimates, his playmates, his significant others. "I've been lying for a years about having read all of Aristotle," he mused at one point. "Now I see what I've been missing." For most writers, this would be an incidental mea culpa. But for Vidal, it's merely a means of contact with the most pragmatic of our founding fathers, as if they belonged to the same book club: "Now, Benjamin Franklin was also reading Aristotle at one point…." Egged on by Smiley, Vidal gave Thomas Jefferson high marks for his prose: "He was the poet of democracy--until Whitman, who wrote a bit better." He had less use for Ayn Rand: "Preaching greed? You don't do that to Americans. It was in our first Christmas stocking." Perhaps some of these zingers have been recycled from previous interviews, and as another friend (and Vidal zealot) later pointed out, he has "an entire herd of hobby horses tethered nearby." Still, I felt very fortunate to be in the same room with this phenomenal man, who saved some of his best lines for the Q-and-A. Did he have any final thoughts on the late William Buckley? Long pause. And then: "I hope it's not too hot."

Later on I dropped by Publishing: Where Do We Go From Here? Beneath a giant poster of the Periodic Table, four publishers--George Gibson, Johnny Temple, Susan Weinberg, and James Atlas--discussed the health of the business, which seems in need of some serious iron supplements. What's the bad news? "Publishers have not yet figured out how to use the Internet as a marketing tool, and as a way to build audiences," lamented Gibson. He also suggested that American readers had been "fighting a low-level depression" about reading itself since 9/11, and that our best hope for a literary SSRI would be the election of Barack Obama. For Temple, the problem was overabundance: "There's a glut of books being published, and that's clogging up things for everybody." But he also saw a silver lining in new technologies, which have lowered the barriers of entry for aspiring publishers, and urged his colleagues to make peace with the digital Visigoths. "We should not be afraid of the digitization of books," he said.

Weinberg, who spoke next, was absolutely on Temple's wavelength. She cited the "instant production" of a recent title by George Soros, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crash of 2008 and What It Means. The completed manuscript had shown up at PublicAffairs on March 24 of this year. By April 1, it was available in a host of e-book formats, and the print version goes on sale on May 12. Yet even as Weinberg embraced this Speedy Gonzales methodology, she minimized the gap between the old technologies and the new. Digital solutions, she argued, are ultimately "variations on those eternal verities that authors and publishers will always live by, no matter what the medium." In this context, her comments qualified as good cheer indeed. Still, James Atlas brought the dialogue back down to earth by reiterating the profoundly irrational underpinnings of the entire industry. Gibson had earlier struck a similar note, asserting that bankers and fiscal types (but presumably not mortgage brokers) "think that publishing is insane." Atlas upped the ante: "The idea that this is a business is just laughable," he said. Whenever he talks pecuniary nuts and bolts with his board members, many of whom work on Wall Street, continued Atlas, they "look at me funny."

Next door, at The Critics Voice, there was a similar whiff of Götterdämmerung in the air. Alex Ross, Richard Schickel, Albert Mobilio, and Nicholas Basbanes were hardly without hope for the critical enterprise. Yet Schickel, a wooly mammoth of popular criticism who has labored at Life, Time, and various other publications since 1965 (and who has also published more than 20 books), fired some curmudgeonly shafts at the defenseless blogosphere. Bloggers were ignorant and glib--and worst of all, they trafficked in opinion. At this point Mobilio did speak up on behalf of opinion. Wasn't it, well, useful? A similar tug of war took place when the conversation turned to the digital delivery of text. Basbanes, who is currently writing a history of paper, argued that books would be around for a long, long time. (Is this guy in bed with the pulp-and-paper lobby? I don't think so.) Mobilio countered that we were in the midst of a technological watershed, and that turning back the clock was no longer an option.

Ross remained on the sidelines to some extent, although he did cite Randall Jarrell's famous, deflationary line about the good old days: "The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks." But if we're wondering whether there are still zealous readers of criticism, that was put to rest during the Q-and-A, when one audience member griped at Ross for omitting Harry Partch from The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. "He's in there," the author doggedly insisted. For me that was a thrilling moment: a fan of just intonation wanting his just deserts (even if he happened to be wrong). Later, in the Green Room, I caught three of the panelists in a more casual mood. Here they are, folks, from left to right: Mobilio, Ross, Schickel. A formidable lineup, and surely proof that criticism is not dead--it's only playing possum.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008



According to this post on the Guardian blog, 73-year-old Dmitri Nabokov has finally decided to ignore his father's testamentary instructions and prepare the novelist's final, unfinished work, The Original of Laura, for publication. Apparently a visitation from the deceased was what tipped the scales for Dmitri:
From his winter home in Palm Beach, Dmitri justified his decision by saying, "I'm a loyal son and thought long and seriously about it, then my father appeared before me and said, with an ironic grin, 'You're stuck in a right old mess--just go ahead and publish!'"

He told the magazine that he had made up his mind to do so.

It was, Der Spiegel states, this "conversation" with his father that "persuaded him against assuming the role of literary arsonist."

We may assume that he will be widely thanked for his decision, even if the fragments of the novel--a collection of 50 index cards that has been languishing in a Swiss bank vault for three decades--are not of the standard of his other works.

But remarks like Dmitri's that The Original of Laura is in fact "the most concentrated distillation of [my father's] creativity" and Nabokov scholar Zoran Kuzmanovich's observation that what he had heard of The Original of Laura was "vintage Nabokov," are tantalizing enough to make one want to read it.
This dutiful son's most famous precursor would be Max Brod, who ignored Kafka's deathbed entreaties to burn his entire corpus of unpublished works. Similar (if not identical) issues were raised in 2006 with the publication of Elizabeth Bishop's Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox, which included drafts and discards. But Nabokov's novel, committed to the usual sequence of index cards, has attained Holy Grail status over the last few decades, and it should make for a fascinating read, even in its truncated form.

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Heroes and villains

Over at Propeller, I posted my interview with Errol Morris (which includes questions submitted by the community). The subject was Standard Operating Procedure, the director's new documentary about the Abu Ghraib scandal. The film is hypnotic and deeply disquieting. I'm not wild about Danny Elfman's score, whose amped-up melodrama seems ill-suited to Morris's cooler aesthetic. But this elegant meditation on crime and punishment--and on photography itself--has stuck with me since I saw it. Here's a salient bit from the conversation:
Morris: Everybody loves to imagine what these stories are. You see something really, really, really bad--and I would put Abu Ghraib in that category--and the natural human tendency is to imagine that these people are beyond the pale, they're not like you and me, they're in some deep sense subhuman. And on the flip side, there are the real heroes, who stood up and said, "I won't allow this to happen." Now, I'm not saying that there aren't people who are beyond the pale, and that there aren't real heroes. I just think that the story is far, far more complex.

For both the Left and Right, the bad apples are these odd constructions. Everybody has an investment in seeing them as bad. Part of what the movie is trying to do--and I think it's a risky thing to do--is to show people struggling with a kind of nightmare.

Propeller: The nightmare of Abu Ghraib itself?

Morris: Yes. I mean, the place was crazy. They put a prison in the middle of the Sunni Triangle! One of the standards of the Geneva Convention is that you do not put prisoners in a war zone, where they can be killed. You put them behind your own lines. Abu Ghraib, setting aside all its associations with Saddam's regime, was in a place that was just dangerous. There were two military intelligence officers who lost their lives that September during a mortar attack. Prisoners were killed, too. It was a dangerous place, ill-supplied, understaffed, with people pouring in from random sweeps. People coming into the place were unable to get out, due to endless bureaucratic rigmarole. For all intents and purposes, we were running a concentration camp in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. Congratulations!
Again, you can read the rest here. And for the visually inclined, here's a brief film clip of the director talking. Since he was leaning back in his chair, his shirt is crisply lit and his face is grainy, with a Francis Bacon-like swirling of reds and purples. (Fun fact: as a young man, Morris studied the cello with Nadia Boulanger, as did his frequent collaborator Philip Glass. Is she the mother of American minimalism? Aaron Copland studied with Boulanger as well, and I've always thought that his 1924 Symphony for Organ and Orchestra had a distinctly minimalist shimmer to it.) Anyway, here's Errol:

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Bley time

Last night I attended a performance by Carla Bley at Birdland. Although she has spent much of her career playing trios and duets, often with her longtime companion Steve Swallow, I still associate her with the plush sonics of Escalator Over The Hill or her arrangements for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. What we got instead was exquisite (but by no means bloodless) chamber jazz, which pitted the pianist against Swallow's bass and Andy Sheppard's tenor and soprano saxophone. No free blowing here: the pieces, which included both new compositions and some golden (more or less) oldies, were meticulously arranged. To kick things off, for example, the trio played a new suite called "The National Anthem." From time to time a phrase from "The Star Spangled Banner" would pop up, like an apparatchik on a reviewing stand, before vanishing back into the fray. Yet I wouldn't say that Bley was making any sort of snarky statement at the anthem's expense--her tinkering with harmony and cadence seemed entirely affectionate. And Swallow executed his funky double stops with audible gusto, bending at the waist and almost crouching as he made like one of the Famous Flames.

The program continued with such gems as "Awful Coffee," "Tropical Depression," and "Sidewinders in Paradise." At one point Bley mentioned that she had worked as a cigarette girl at the original Birdland--now an escort club, according to Swallow. In the light of these disclosures, was hard to figure out how good the good old days were supposed to be. In any case, the pianist's famous legs, so often on display in otherwise gender-neutral profiles and reviews, were under wraps. Bley wore a black suit, black socks, black shoes. Her touch on the keyboard is still wonderfully distinctive, as is her approach to arranging--she makes even a skeleton crew like this one sound like a miniature orchestra. And that ingenuity is hardly confined to her own pieces. It takes real gall to tamper with Monk, after all, but her version of "Misterioso," which closed the set, was a reverent deconstruction. There's no disguising those loping sixths, so Bley simply made herself at home in them. So did Sheppard, whose breathy tone didn't prevent him from channeling Charlie Rouse at the appropriate moments.

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