September 26, 2010

Sunday Morning

"We still take pleasure in make-believe and in the telling of tales, even tall ones, if only because they tell us something true about ourselves, a truth that perhaps we can grasp through no other medium."

- Eric Ormsby, in today's WSJ review of Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?

I've always loved the Wall Street Journal's coverage of books (and the New York Times too, of course!), so when it first broke a few weeks ago that the WSJ would be launching a book section, I was very excited. When book sections of newspapers are folding all over the country - leaving the NYT Book Review as the only pull-out book section left - it is very surprising, and encouraging, to see a paper as powerful as the WSJ bucking the trend. Today's paper was the section's debut (as part of a larger Weekend section) and, so far, I really like the direction it is going in. It may not be as extensive as the NYTBR, but its variety of articles makes for good, wide-ranging coverage. There are shorter, straight book reviews alongside long book-inspired essays, like the one quoted above. Though a review of Josipovici's book, Ormsby's article becomes a longer look at Modernism and what it means in literature today. There is nothing like waking up on a Sunday morning to a late breakfast and coffee, with a long paper to read and, now, even more great book coverage.

August 19, 2010

Summer In The City

"I love New York on summer afternoons when everyone's away. There's something very sensuous about it - overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hands."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925
True. I love New York in August, despite the heat and gross smells. So many people are away - and yet no matter how many people are away, Midtown, as always, is so crowded you can barely push your way down the sidewalk. It is exactly what I love and hate most about New York.

I recently started a job at a big publishing company - a job I've been hoping for, and working towards, for so long that I never thought this day would come. So far, it has been wonderful (and busy); I am loving everything about it. The feeling that my dedication to finding a job in this industry has finally paid off - after all the times I doubted and cursed myself - is so great that I feel I'm going to burst with relief. Best immediate prize for getting this job: the Take shelves scattered around my office, which are exactly what they sound like -
shelves where you can just take any and all the books that you like. Hundreds of books. For the taking. It is magical.

Recently read (and soon to be written about, I swear): Rachel Shukert's
Everything Is Going To Be Great, Tana French's Faithful Place, Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants, Douglas Adam's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, plus the bunch of books I read over the past few months that I never got to. They're a-comin'.

Currently reading: Joshua Ferris's
Then We Came To The End. Phenomenal.

(Image via)

July 31, 2010

Happy Birthday, Harry!

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?

- Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

It seems almost pointless to talk about how much I love Harry Potter, because everyone loves Harry Potter, and all the books are indisputably amazing. But I do love Harry Potter. I couldn’t even count all the times I have read them; they are like my comfort food in book form. As do so many of my generation, I feel like I grew up with Harry (and thus always remember on July 31 that it is Harry’s birthday!). I remember reading the first two books in 7th grade, then anxiously awaiting every one since - had our family vacations abroad not always fallen on every new book's release day, I would have been at those midnight parties too. It was a very sad day when I finished Deathly Hallows for the first time (after waiting outside a Munich bookstore at 7 am on its release day); having to accept that I was an adult, and that this huge part of my adolescence was over with, was not easy. I now try to limit my rereading of the books (usually 5 through 7 now, its been a while since I read the first 4) to once a year. I can only handle the vicious cycle of the excitement of reading them followed by the depressing letdown of finishing them (and reentering real life) so often. Well, at least I have the final two movies to look forward to (so excited – this trailer gives me CHILLS).


July 28, 2010

DON'T PANIC

"I don't know."

"What?"

"I don't know what I'm looking for."


"Why not?"


"Because ... because ... I think it might be because if I knew I wouldn't be able to look for them."


"What, are you crazy?"


"It's a possibility I haven't ruled out yet,"


- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

July 27, 2010

ONE DAY by David Nicholls

I really love Twitter. I respect the way publishers have really taken to it, using it to create buzz about their books, actively engage with readers, and create an actual relatable persona behind a huge brand. I particularly love the contests and giveaways that are conducted through Twitter – especially when I win (if only it would happen more often). Through one of these Twitter giveaways, I won a copy of David Nicholls’ One Day, a book I had been excited to read for a long time. When my hip friend in London told me how much she loved the book a few months back, I went to a bookstore in search of it, only to discover its release date in the US hadn’t yet come. Apparently it was already a huge success in the UK – I believe I remember posters for it in Tube stations when I visited London; the book’s publisher (Hachette in the UK, Random House in the US) obviously had a lot of confidence in it and put a lot behind the book. Long story short, after hearing so many good things, loving Nicholls’ other book, and winning a free ARC, I was very excited to read it.

One Day is the story of Emma and Dexter, who first truly connect on July 15, 1988, the day of their graduation. The book consists of all the following July 15ths (incidentally, the day I received One Day in the mail and started reading it) for the next twenty years; snapshots of where they are in their lives and what their relationship to each other is at that moment. Emma, the idealistic working class girl, is the absolute opposite of the rich, entitled Dexter. But from that first July 15th, the enduring importance of their relationship – as best friends, lovers and/or everything in between – is clear. As they try to navigate their twenties and thirties through all kinds of failures and successes, they become more and more vital to each other’s existence. Dexter especially – selfish, self-destructive Dexter – is only worthwhile when he is with Emma. And yet, their timing is so often very off, and their successes so often directly mirror the other one’s failures. You get a sense each year of a continuing cycle in which Dexter’s happiness is correlated to Emma’s misery, and vice versa; like their lives are two lines weaving, with the two of them (and us) waiting to meet in the middle.

Like Starter for Ten, One Day is often laugh-out-loud funny, but also impossibly heartbreaking. The kind of book that you finish and you need to just sit with for a while and catch your breath (and sob, if you’re me). Also like Starter for Ten, I became so completely invested in the characters that my moods were contingent on the state of their lives. Like only the best fiction does, it is the kind of book that’s biggest effect is in what it makes you think about your own life. Apart from being purely relatable (like in Starter for Ten, I was amazed by Nicholls’ ability to write exactly how it feels to be in your early twenties), it makes you (aka made me) think about all kinds of past relationships, and how you never know how things can and will end up, or what direction your life will go in. At the risk of overstating how good a book it is (though I think I passed that point a while back), all I can say is that I loved loved loved One Day.

(Image via)

July 26, 2010

No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

I got a postcard of this Samuel Beckett lithograph at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It hangs above my bed in my room at home and I love it.


July 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Ernest Hemingway!

"All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened."


Thanks to Overlook Press’s Twitter feed, I learned this morning that today was Ernest Hemingway’s birthday. It kind of bizarrely put me in a better mood following a discouraging morning; I really love Hemingway. I think its partly because I’m Cuban (and he did love Cuba/ writing about and in Cuba), partly because I love Fitzgerald (and the friendship/ hatred between them), partly because I’m fascinated by Modernist literature and writers (American Modernism in particular), and partly because I just love (most of) his writing.


I’ve recently been rereading a bunch of his short stories in an old copy of The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories from my Dad’s bookshelf. The title story is really incredible in a uniquely Hemingway-way; as the narrator, a writer, quickly approaches death while on an African safari, he looks back on his life with anger and bitterness over what he has neglected to accomplish. As with so much of his writing, Hemingway himself is always only just beneath the surface of his fiction in this story.


It is another story of his, however, that I always find so powerful in its simplicity (like a lot of his writing). “A Day’s Wait” is only two pages long, but I remember first reading it years ago and it always sticking with me. Rather than listen to me summarize it, I say take the two extra minutes to read the story here. It is prime example of how Hemingway has a way of taking simple, mundane things (whether it is the thorn that ultimately kills the narrator of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” or the confusion over temperature measurements in “A Days Wait”) and turning them into meditations on life and death (but mostly death). I’m glad you were born today, Ernest! (And that you wrote so much before you killed yourself.)


(Image via)

July 20, 2010

NYU Summer Publishing Institute

NYU's Summer Publishing Institute – the six-week intensive course I just completed last week – was an incredible experience that has very quickly changed the way I read magazines and books. It began with three weeks of learning about magazine publishing followed by three weeks of book publishing, with the days (and sometimes weekends) filled with group projects and lectures and panels from some of the top people within the industry. (Bragging aside: my book group’s YA fantasy imprint, Figment Books, won second place! Booyakasha.)


Though I was fascinated by the magazine section (especially the lectures from the Editor-in Chief of Esquire, Art Director of Rolling Stone, and the EIC of New York Magazine, to name very few), it was, naturally, the book section I really loved. Our lectures and panels were filled with stars from the publishing world; John Sargent, Amy Einhorn, Jonathan Karp, Julie Grau, Jamie Raab, and scores of others were among those who took the time to come speak to us. Of course they all had fascinating things to say about their own roles within the industry, but what I was surprisingly excited by was their generosity in being there and speaking with us. They offered advice, were friendly, took the time to speak with us one on one, and were so encouraging to all of us trying to break into the industry. It seemed they were happy to see the (hopefully) next generation of the industry, and eager to help us on our way. This was something I was not expecting that renewed my sense of purpose in trying to find a job in publishing; it really is an industry of people who are passionate about what they do.


One of the panels at SPI was one I was able to write about on the NYU Publishing blog, titled Creative Alternatives to Corporate Life. Take a look at my blog post if you’re interested in reading about entrepreneurs within the industry, and how they approach book publishing in a different way – it was a fascinating panel with some really interesting people. I was very excited to see today that David Nudo, former publisher of Publishers Weekly and one of the panelists, tweeted a link to the blog post. (I am slowly making my way around the Internet!) Fun bonus: in the post below mine on the NYU blog, you can see a wonderfully unflattering photo of me speaking with Macmillan CEO John Sargent.


All in all, SPI is an incredible program that I was lucky to attend. I’ll soon be writing about some of the books I read thanks to it (one of the best perks: piles of magazines and books every day), and I’m sure it will continue to sneak into some of my entries to come. Now, lets hope it gets me a job, and soon.

July 18, 2010

Quote of the Day

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it and think how different its course would have been. Pause, you who read this, and think for a long moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on that memorable day.

- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861

I haven't read Great Expectations since I was a freshman in high school. I believe it is about time to read it again.

July 14, 2010

Bookshelf Porn

As I have said before, I cannot wait to have my own grown-up place to live in and decorate. Mostly so I can fill it with cool bookshelves filled with all my books. It is for this reason I have already wasted far too much time on the tumblr Bookshelf Porn. Porn, indeed. There are so many great pictures of great bookshelves, I can't stop looking. It makes me want to completely revamp my own book collection; ie., get actual bookshelves to hold my books that are currently stacked on radiators and tables around my room.

Which brings me to my organization of the bookshelves I do have. To an outsider, I'm sure my system of organization makes little sense. I divide mostly by country of origin, then within that category, alphabetically. I have separate sections, however, for sub-genres. Mythology/fantasy and history, for example, have their own places, irregardless of country of origin. Like I said, it probably makes little sense. But I know where to go to find what I need. And until I get some new shelves and an actual place to put them, my stacks of books by American writers will remain on the large table at the foot of my bed. Though, to be honest, all this organization only lasts as long as I continue to put the books back in their rightful spots (aka, not that long). How do you organize your books?


(Images from here and here, via Bookshelf Porn)

July 06, 2010

Shakespeare in the Park

One of the Summer in New York things I have always wanted to do, but have never been able to, is to see a performance of the Shakespeare in the Park series. Last year’s headliner was Anne Hathaway in Twelfth Night, a performance my friends and I unsuccessfully attempted to see. Our attempt was well-planned, too; we knew we would have to camp out early for the free tickets to the evening show, so we arrived at the Central Park ticket booth around 8am on a weekday. As we approached the shuttered booth and didn’t see anyone nearby, we laughed at ourselves for our excessive punctuality – oh, what fools we were. Upon further exploration we found the actual start of the line, which was littered with people in sleeping bags and tents. 10+ snaking Park blocks later, we found the end of the line and waited an hour or so, only to be turned away for lack of tickets. All was not lost that day last summer, however; my friends and I spent a lovely day exploring the Cloisters and getting pizza in Brooklyn (was that a year ago already?!).


Moral of the story: get there even earlier than 8am if you want to see a Shakespeare in the Park show. And, in New York, celebs + culture + free = impossible to get into. The tradition of Shakespeare in the Park is, of course, a double edged sword: the fact that the shows are free is great in that it opens the conversation (in theory) to anyone and everyone; in practice, however, only the most committed and die-hard fans/ people who have whole days to spend waiting in line can actually participate.


Point being: I do not want this to happen again this summer. The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice (starring Al Pacino!) are onstage until the end of July, so I only have a few weeks left to right the wrongs of summers past. In the WSJ this past weekend, a review appeared entitled “Knocking Shakespeare Out of the Park.” If I (and millions of other New Yorkers) hadn’t already been interested in the performance, this review certainly would have wooed me. The reviewer writes, “Not only is this the best Merchant of Venice I've ever reviewed, but it's one of the finest Shakespeare productions I've ever seen, period.” Wow.


Stay tuned to find out if I actually get to see Pacino as Shylock.

July 05, 2010

Happy Birthday, America!


I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be

blithe and strong.

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves

off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the

deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter

singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the

morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at

work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day – at night the party of young

fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

- Walt Whitman, 1860

Though I’m a day late (lateness is a bit of a trademark with me, as you can probably tell), what better way to celebrate the 4th of July than with Walt Whitman? I always whip out my Norton anthology of Whitman works on the Fourth – I think it goes nicely with beer, barbecue, and fireworks. And the recitation of the Declaration of Independence, which my family usually does, pre-hotdogs. Happy Birthday America!

This post hopefully marks my return to semi-regular blogging. May, June and the start of July have been jam-packed with wedding planning, campaign hullabaloo, job-applying madness, and an intensive summer course (more on that one later), so my just-for-fun ventures have sadly fallen by the wayside. But because I have a sneaking suspicion the book publishing job market will continue to be brutal and I will soon have way too much time on my hands, I can soon return to regular reading and writing (silver lining, folks). Good thing too; I have a quickly growing pile of ARCs and free books from the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, as well as growing piles of just-read and to-be-read books. So many good things.


(Image via The Walt Whitman Archive)

May 02, 2010

In Conversation: Roddy Doyle & Colum McCann

Today was another of those perfect New York days. It was the final day of the PEN World Voices Festival, which hosted a conversation between Roddy Doyle and Colum McCann at the French Institute Alliance Francaise. I bought tickets months ago – this was not something I was going to risk missing. And, as expected, they were both brilliant. After picnicking in Central Park, my friend (a fellow lover of all things Irish) and I sat starry-eyed in the audience, trying to soak up everything they said. A lot of ground was covered; the conversation flowed from what it means to be a contemporary Irish writer, to The Quiet Man, to Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, to Japanese translations, to Don DeLillo, to talking dogs, to Wife Swap. I only wish I took detailed notes.

Because McCann and Doyle are friends (reinforcing my belief that all the best contemporary Irish writers are part of a close-knit circle), the event truly was a conversation. Though it was really all about Roddy Doyle, with McCann asking him the questions, the dialogue that emerged from these questions meant that we learnt much about both writers. McCann mentioned that the first time he came across Doyle years ago, he was trying to sell copies of The Commitments outside of a Northside Dublin concert venue. And I was amazed to learn that The Commitments was first self-published. In this age, where the number of writers that are self-publishing books is skyrocketing and the stigma attached to them is decreasing, that is encouraging for writers to hear – the truly great stuff can be recognized, even if its not through the regular publishing avenues.

Doyle also talked a bit about the business of writing, from what it means to go on tour to how long it takes to write a work to what his favorite medium is (fyi, out of the many forms he writes in – short stories, novels, children’s books, plays, Young Adult books, and screenplays – it is the novel that is most important to him). As I often hear from authors, Doyle approaches his characters like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, seeing the figure inside that needs to be released; rather than creating them, he is giving them their voice on the page. He spoke of how he was interested to see how Henry Smart had aged when he began writing his most recent book (The Dead Republic is the third in his trilogy of Henry Smart books, preceded by A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). I was also amazed/ impressed to learn that he never reacts physically emotionally when writing his books (other than his sense of relief upon finishing a book) – I can’t imagine reading, let alone writing The Commitments without lots of laughter.

Following the discussion, both writers came out for a chat and book signing. I approached Roddy Doyle like a giddy 12-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert, mumbling something about loving his work and studying at UCD thanks in part to him, for which he graciously thanked me and signed (personalized!) my tattered copy of The Barrytown Trilogy. Colum McCann was no disappointment either; he was so friendly and personable, signing my copy of Let the Great World Spin (which I will write about soon – amazing book) with my name and a ‘Slainte.’ I will be sleeping with both these signed books very close to me for a long time.

So, at the end of a wonderful day, here is a short excerpt from The Commitments, which I reread frequently because it is just so much fun (and it can literally be read in under 2 hours, so if you haven’t read it and have 2 hours to spare, DO IT). And, of course, a musical bit from the film adaptation, the screenplay of which was also written by Doyle and is no less amazing.

"Where are yis from? (He answered the question himself.) Dublin. (He asked another one.) – Wha’ part of Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are. (Then a practical question.) – Who buys the most records? The workin’ class. Are yis with me? (Not really.) – Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from. – Say it once, say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud."
- The Commitments, 1987



April 30, 2010

THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN by Claire Messud

Lately, I’ve been exploring my overwhelming love for New York through the books I’ve been reading. First up – Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children – a great contemporary New York novel, set in the months leading up to September 11 and immediately after. With a bit of satire and a whole lot of insight, the novel follows three friends, and the many people in their lives, as they approach their thirties with little to show for themselves. With this many characters and such big themes and events, the book may sound overarching. It certainly is ambitious, and is a work that, in other hands, could have easily failed miserably. But Messud writes it so well, never making it overtly satiric or sentimental. She manages to create completely recognizable characters (right up to how infuriating people can be) and situations, while still making grand statements about American privilege, entitlement, and how New York/ the country was at that particular moment.

Danielle, Marina, and Julius are the three near-thirty friends – graduates of Brown University – trying to make their way in New York. They all fancy themselves as some sort of intellectual artist; excluding Danielle (the most sensible of the three and the only one who kind of works), they are writers who don’t actually write and consider themselves above the plebian duty of holding down a ‘job’ in an ‘office.’ As we see how they see their lives – their disappointments over what went wrong, what the world owes them, why they are basically failures – we also see how other people in their lives see them and themselves. There is Murray Thwaite, Marina’s renowned journalist/ talking head father, whose shadow covers everyone else in the book. There’s Ludovic Seeley, the Australian journalist/ entrepreneur who comes to New York to (successfully, though not necessarily as he intended) turn everything on its head. Then there is Bootie, Murray’s young and unfamiliar nephew who comes to New York to follow in his esteemed uncle’s footsteps, only to quickly become disillusioned and throw a wrench into the machine.

The New York of most of the novel is its own world, and one which Messud gently but deftly satirizes and exposes. As such a successful and well-known personality, Murray Thwaite and his family (complete with Marina, even as she approaches 30) live in a ritzy penthouse on the Upper West Side; it is here, and through this family, that most of the characters’ lives intersect. Murray is the typical liberal intellectual superstar: a man of the 60’s whose hypocritical head has been blown up by fame, considers himself above even his own affirmations, and who won’t lift a finger to clean their home (that, naturally, is left to his working wife – the only truly admirable character in the book and, incidentally, the only one whose thoughts we never hear). The entitlement that accompanies this life defines Marina and (despite their downtown, non-ritzy addresses), spills over onto Danielle and Julius. When Ludovic, as someone who is sort of diametrically opposed to all that Murray stands for, enters the picture and Bootie, Emerson-devotee that he is, begins to see through Murray, things get interesting (and uncomfortable). Not until towards the end of the book does September 11 hit; because no dates are used throughout the book and no hint of what was to come was ever apparent, in reading it I was, as the characters were and as it was in reality, blindsided by that day.

More than the intertwining stories of all the characters, or the satirizing of New York high society, or the reflections on the lost generation of entitled but disillusioned young people, The Emperor’s Children is about a specific and unique moment in time, right before everything changed. Covering that day in books or movies or anything is a very delicate business – how can it be represented successfully in any kind of artistic or fictional medium without reducing it or risking people’s personal experience with it? Honestly, if I had known before I began the book (and started loving it) that it would reach September 11, I don’t know that I would have read it (so I guess, if anyone is reading this and was considering reading the book, you can now make an informed decision). But I am glad I did; Messud handles it so well, perfectly illustrating the complete shift everything took right after. With that, and with her amazingly perceptive insights on her characters and the archetypes they represent, Messud wrote an incredibly compelling novel, one in which I (interestingly), became more invested in as the characters became less and less likable. Plus, for all their pretension and hypocrisy, who wouldn’t want to be a part of the Thwaite’s New York?

April 28, 2010

New York

"I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline. Particularly when one can't see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need?"

- Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, 1943

(Image via)

April 21, 2010

FIELD WORK by Seamus Heaney

Earlier today, if the forces of the working world (a term I use loosely in my situation) hadn't conspired against me, I should have been at a reading by one of my favorite living poets, Seamus Heaney. He spoke at Hunter College, as part of their MFA program's Distinguished Writers Series, and I was invited to the free (!) event by way of my awesome boss (can't wait to hear about it tomorrow!). Though in the end I didn't get to see him, I did get to spend my commute reading from my newly purchased (and, alas, unsigned) copy of his collection of poems, Field Work.
Also, I didn't feel too horribly - I have seen him speak once before. This was at University College Dublin, when one morning a friend informed me that he would be speaking in her class that afternoon. Naturally, we dropped everything and went, and he was wonderful. In fact, I distinctly remember his reading of a poem from Field Work, "A Drink of Water." It is a beautiful, simple poem that he spoke of fondly, as a representation of his time in a sort of seclusion in the mountains of Wicklow (during which all of Field Work was written). Heaney really is an amazing poet (Nobel Prize-winning!) and I hope I get to see him again someday soon. Here is a short poem from Field Work, that seems somehow fitting in the Springtime:

Song

A rowan like a lipsticked girl
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

-Seamus Heaney, 1979


On another note, I promise (mostly just to myself) that this space will soon be filled with more book discussions. I have a quickly-growing pile of books that have been read and are waiting to be written about, amongst them The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Emperor's Children, and Let the Great World Spin. Sometimes it is tough to get the motivation to write when I'd rather be reading my really good book - a problem (albeit a good one) that I seem to be encountering often these days.

(Cover via)

April 05, 2010

Cheers to National Poetry Month

It seems April is National Poetry Month and, as the New York Times book blog Paper Cuts points out, what better way to celebrate than the way most great poets would - by drinking? I love the Book Bench's assemblage of literary-inspired drinks (I especially want to try the somewhat surprising Winnie the Pooh-inspired Honeysuckle Rouge). And the American Academy of Poets has a few drink recipes inspired by specific poems, as well as a list of New York bars participating this month in this literary drink-fest (many of which I hope to visit before the month is out). Personally, my favorite thing to do when I feel like channeling favorite writers through alcohol in New York (aside from visiting Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern) is to have a gin and tonic (I'm not brave enough for Highballs) at a swanky bar uptown while pretending I'm in a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Of course, this doesn't happen nearly as often as I'd like (read: hardly ever), but it makes me happy to pretend.

April 04, 2010

POINT OMEGA by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is probably one of our most important contemporary authors – certainly one of America’s best writers writing today. That said, his books are not always easy to get through, or enjoyable. I haven’t tackled some of his most intimidating works, like Underworld or Libra, but I loved White Noise. His last two books – the recently released Point Omega and, before that, Falling Man – I found to be a bit disappointing. Even now, writing about Point Omega a week after I finished it, I’m having a difficult time recalling its details and my immediate reaction to it. Unlike with White Noise, the characters and ideas behind Point Omega left me as soon as I closed the book. Though, this isn’t to say it is a bad book – I don’t think DeLillo is capable of that. It was still a worthwhile read.

Point Omega follows Richard Elster, an aging academic just coming off a stint working in the government as a sort of war strategist; a “defense intellectual,” kept around to intellectually justify and explain war. Following this, he has retreated to the desert as an escape from the busyness of reality and his thoughts. He is joined in his desert isolation by a young filmmaker interested in making a sort of avant-garde documentary about the man, and whose eyes we see Elster through. As their days meld together and they silently watch the colorful desert sunsets, we learn their philosophies of self, time, and death, and who they feel they are when stripped of all reality in this strange isolation. This is mostly what the book is – what they think and feel when there is nothing else to think about, and all focus has turned inward. When Elster’s daughter arrives, their routine shifts and they attempt to adjust their lives of the mind to include her, until something strange happens and they have to figure out how to adapt to this new reality that they cannot escape. (Vague, I know, but so was the book.)

DeLillo has a wonderful way with places. When it comes to descriptions, he has no use for flowery language (which, when misused, can undermine its very point). In portraying the isolation of the desert and the glory of the sunsets, he avoids overt descriptions while still capturing the power the place holds over his characters and conveying the sunset’s beauty. Similarly, the first and last scene of the book are all about setting, though a very different one. In a story that is seemingly incongruous with the rest of the book but ultimately comes together, these scenes take place in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in an exhibit entitled “24 Hour Psycho.” In a number of articles I read about the book when it first came out, DeLillo cited this installation exhibit – one that actually took place, in the summer of 2006 – as the main inspiration for writing the book. In writing about it, he makes the exhibit (a screening of Psycho, slowed down so that it plays once over 24 hours) somehow transcendent; a breaking down of the film and, consequentially, real life. It made me wish I had seen the exhibit when it was on display.

Clearly, I didn’t actively dislike DeLillo’s Point Omega. He is a fantastic writer who makes powerful stuff out of no plot. And yet, though there were parts and aspects I admired, the book didn’t stay with me. For all its life philosophies, none of the ideas struck me. Perhaps I’m still holding DeLillo up to his own White Noise standard, but I continue to return his recent books to the library let down. Maybe its time for me to visit his older, more daunting works – Underworld, here I come?

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March 30, 2010

MOTHERS AND SONS by Colm Toibin (St. Patrick's Day Part 5)

My apologies for not continuing my St. Patrick’s week as intended; March has been a busy month. But we still have one day left of it, so here is my final bit of March Irishness: a book I finished (fittingly) on Saint Patrick’s Day itself, Mothers and Sons.

Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons is a collection of short stories centered around the infinite kinds of relationships that exist between mothers and sons. In his stories, these relationships range from an art thief trying to both provide for and escape his loose-lipped mother, to a widow trying to make a new life for her children, to a son seeking to escape his mother’s recent death through vice, to a son who seeks to understand his estranged mother through music (and beyond). All Toibin’s stories are delicately crafted, and in some way heartbreaking (and all, save for one, take place in Toibin’s Ireland). Even more so than many writers of short fiction that I have encountered, Toibin leaves his reader unsatisfied. So many of the stories finish at the cusp of something, whether it be action or decision or any kind of resolution. While I often find this frustrating (particularly because I get so quickly invested in Toibin’s characters), it largely makes the stories more powerful; what kind of concrete resolution could these characters find in their lives, anyway?

One of Toibin’s stories that struck me most was “A Priest in the Family,” the title of which is a reference to the old Irish phrase laying out what defined success. In it, a mother tries to cope with the shame of her son, a formerly well-respected priest and the holiest of her children, having been accused of and confessed to the child abuse that continues to plague the Catholic Church. The story doesn’t meditate on the actual horror of the event or its effect on the priest or the victim, but on the repercussions on the priest’s family and mother. It is his mother, his sisters, his nieces and nephews, who have to live with the shame of knowing what their neighbors think when they pass their homes, or how their picture of this formerly wholesome family has skewed. More and more this is a reality for many families; it is easy to forget that it is not only the victim whose life is changed.

So, though short, Toibin’s stories are some heavy and affecting stuff. He is a wonderful writer; I first appreciated him as the editor of my first Irish Literature anthology, then moved onto some of his fiction (I highly recommend The Blackwater Lightship – also, interestingly, about the relationship between a mother and son). He was recently awarded the Costa Award (formerly called the Whitbread Award) for his novel Brooklyn, which I hope to read soon. A great writer.

And so there goes March, and with it all St. Patrick’s celebrations. Worry not – there will still be plenty of Irishness in the future, irrespective of holiday or month.

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March 18, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Part 4: W.B. Yeats

It is very hard for me to choose one Yeats poem to include, so I'll probably put up a few more in the coming days (by my count, the end of St. Patrick's week is this Sunday when our town's parade happens). Of the many Yeats poems I often come back to, this is probably the foremost. Back for one of the many Irish Lit classes I took in college, I wrote a paper on Yeats and his interest in mysticism and the occult, and focused largely on this poem. For such a short poem, he packs much in. It was first published in 1921 (a turbulent time for Ireland), and is all at once a comment on the current state of society (both in Ireland and the larger world), a warning of things to come, a reference to an ancient past, and an invocation of mystical elements. Every word in it counts; the language of it builds and ebbs and creates a beautiful rhythm that reinforces these many levels of the poem. It is such an important poem, and so beautiful.

"The Second Coming"

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
-William Butler Yeats, 1921
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