Friday, September 24, 2010


Many people have noticed that most book reviews are really boring. The same books by the same authors and I won’t contribute to the clutter by mentioning the same well known bad writers all getting reviewed during the same week--- the problem is even worse in Paris and London where there are only national newspapers and they are sitting on each other’s lap when it comes to book reviews--- but the problem is that book reviews sadly buy into the idea that they are just reporting the news, book news, in the form of reviews of the newly published. They are the prisoners of the accident of the day, much as the The New Yorker is prisoner to its weekly schedule and never do they explain that: well, this week we just have a lot of crap on hand so bear with us… and maybe next week will be a bit better.

So, I thought to show a schedule if I was a book editor of major newspaper: This week we are reviewing and as I start to realize that one of the advantages of internet versions of newspapers is that we don’t have to have a lead review, a cover story. 99% of the time the lead review is of a book that will be surely forgotten within the next couple of years… just as a sure recipe for being forgotten: win the Pulitzer prize for anything.

This week: (I’ll put a one or two line summary which of course is a disservice but I hope to come back to these books. All of these books are at the moment scattered across the table and floor of my cell here on the lower east side of Manhattan)

FOUR YEARS IN EUROPE WITH BUFFALO BILL by Charles Eldridge Griffin ((University of Nebraska Press) A contemporary description of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show in Europe before the European civil war better known at World War One.

JOINER by James Whitehead (Alfred A. Knopf) One of the few novels that can actually stand comparison to the best in Faulkner.

CANTI by Giacomo Leopardi. Translated from the Italian. Farrar Straus & Giroux. A series of hymns to the absolute hopelessness of the human condition.

THE HOUSE OF ULYSSES by Julian Rios. Translated from the Spanish (Dalkey Archive). A wandering through Ulysses by James Joyce by a writer who exists in the small world described by FINNEGANS WAKE, AN EVENING EDGED WITH GOLD and LIFE A USER’S MANUAL

ANGINA DAYS by Gunter Eich. Translated from the German. (Princeton University Press) An opening to one poem An Inventory: This is my cap,/mycoat,/my shaving kit/in the burlap bag.

IBSEN AND HITLER by Steven F. Sage (Carroll and Graf) A close reading of both men as writers so as to explain what the single most famous person in the Twentieth Century did.

RICHARD YATES by Tao Lin (Melville House) The only American writer who has actually been able to become a nihilist and this is another petal on the flower of his succcess

WHO CHOSE THE GOSPELS? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy by C.E. Hill. Oxford University Press. Since the trash by Dan Brown has replaced all actual Biblical study and history a reminder of just how stupid are those who have read his novels and think they have learned anything at all

THE MOMENT OF CARAVAGGIO by Michael Fried (Princeton University Press). A making clear, a trying to show… the near impossibility of finding words to describe a painterly gesture.

CORRESPONDANCE: Ingeborg Bachmann Paul Celan. Translated from the German (Seagull Books Dist U if Chicago Press). A model of editing of two of the very best writers in the German language always shadowed by their terrible deaths

TEXAS SCHOOL BOOK DEPOSITORY by Catherine Hankla (Louisiana State University Press. Prose poems which should be read as models of what all prose should be.

Yes and what about the following week?:

THE SIXTY-FIVE YEARS OF WASHINGTON by Juan Jose Saer. Translated from the Spanish (Open Letter) following upon Juan Carlos Onetti and not afraid to have been influenced for the better by Alain Robbe-Grillet

THE ARCHITECTURE OF PARADISE Survivals of Eden and Jerusalem by William Alexander McClung (University of California Press) What it looks like.

NOVEL 11, BOOK 18 by Dag Solstad. Translated from the Norwegian (Harvill Secker) Comes as close to Thomas Bernhard yet remaining his own man

ZONE by Mathias Enard. Translated from the French. (Open Letter). 500 page sentence that encompasses the whole of the late Twentieth Century’s horror as played out on the battlefields of the former Yugoslavia without forgetting the Middle East and even the Spanish Moroccan war of 1921… will send a good reader to find DRIFTING CITIES by STRATIS TSIRKAS (Alfred A. Knopf)

REVOLT AGAINST THE MODERN WORLD by Julius Evola. Translated from the Italian. (Inner Traditions International) A necessary provocation.

AND WHY NOT? here is another week’s books:

LIFE ON SANDPAPER by Yoram Kaniuk. Translated from the Hebrew. (Dalkey Archive). Life in Greenwich Village when that place was not home to Marc Jacob and the editor of Vanity Fair.

ANOTHER FREEDOM by Svetlana Boym (Harvard University Press) Any book that tries to understand the best literary critic to come out of 20th century Russia Viktor Shklovsky is essential reading.

THE BOX by Gunter Grass. Translated from the German. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Grass tries to imagine what his kids think of him.

THE WITNESS HOUSE by Christine Kohl. Translated from the German. (Other Press) An odd book of witnesses for both the defense and prosecution waiting to testify at the Nuremberg Trials.

ZEN AND JAPANESE CULTURE by Daisetz T. Suzuki (Princeton University Press). While it might echo too much a relic of the so-called 60s how to account for why Japan is still a pleasurable thought and actual destination.

SOLO by Rana Dasgupta (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) A one hundred year old Bulgarian man describes his world.

NIGHT SOUL AND OTHER STORIES by Joseph McElroy (Dalkey Archive). Short stories as complex as his great WOMEN AND MEN

THE SIGHT OF DEATH by T.J. Clark. (Yale University Press) A looking at Poussin.

I’d have a feature about books that have not been made into books: THE WORKER by Ernst Junger which only exists in an un-authorized translation. A visionary description of where we have actually ended up though the book was written in 1932 by the only Twentieth Century German writer who can be compared to Goethe

Yesterday I went to a lunch sponsored by William Morror at at the Rubin Museum of Art (of course I wondered what crime Rubin was doing penance for by opening such a museum), which was wonderfully luxurious and the food was very good. I was well prepared for this experience as I had just been watching the English TV series, The Gravy Train, written by Malcolm Bradbury which was about how the European Community actually worked to enrich its employees. The central character is a guy named Dortmund who had been known as the UNESCO official who brought Nietzsche to Zaire and in the episodes I had been watching he came up with a scheme to export plums to Bulgaria… So I guess I was well prepared to hear about a book by a guy, the son of a second string Irish poet, who had been giving out money to the various gangs in the former Yugoslavia so they would postpone killing each other while he was giving out the money. He has now moved on to raising money for an orphanage in Nepal, a cause he cares a lot about and has of course written a book about this: LITTLE PRINCES… but no real taking care of kids: he is a fund raiser, a job creator for himself…

Here is the writer in his own words.

I’m Conor, my name is spelled with one “n”, because my father is from Ireland and that’s how they do it there.
Let’s see…what else…….what………else……..
I am originally from Poughkeepsie, New York, which is the same place that Snookie is from. (I imagine that by the time I post this updated About Me section - it is August 2010 - nobody will remember who Snookie was. Ahhh, Snookie…)
I went to college at the University of Virginia, graduated in 1996 jobless and panicky, and made a rather quick and rash decision to move to Prague, in the Czech Republic. I liked it (beer and fried cheese - what’s not to like?) so I stayed about six and a half years, working for a public policy think tank called the EastWest Institute, focused mostly in Balkan security (back when that meant something.) I moved to Brussels for another year and a half or so in 2002 doing the same work. I liked it but I didn’t speak Flemish and in my neighborhood it meant that it was hard to order the right kind of sandwich so I ate some weird stuff for lunch that year.
In 2004, I took off for France alone for about six weeks to volunteer and trek, then did that solo trip around the world. I volunteered in a children’s home in Nepal for trafficked children, and loved it so much that I returned a year later, and then a few months later, when I started an organization called Next Generation Nepal.
At the end of 2006, in Kathmandu, I met the most wonderful woman in the world, Liz, from California. By coincidence, she also happened to be the most beautiful woman in the world. I immediately informed her that she would be hearing from me on an hourly basis, despite the fact that we lived 9000 miles apart.
Liz found I am a man of my word. After six months of talking non-stop (love that Skype) and emailing equally non-stopfully, I came back to the US and asked her to marry me. She said yes (woo hoo!). A little more long distance relationshipping, and in October 2007 I moved back to the US to be with Liz in Washington DC. We were married in New York City on March 1st of 2008, and it is the best thing of all time.
The next best thing is that our son Finn was born in February 2009. We’re huge fans.
In 2008 I went to business school at NYU Stern, which was totally cool and pretty hard but mostly cool. I graduated in May of 2010. In August we moved to Connecticut.
I also wrote a book, it’s called Little Princes, about my time in Nepal, published by HarperCollins, due out January, 2011. Can you buy a copy of that? Great, thanks.
Lastly: the kids in Nepal really need a lot of support. If you think you might like to support them, I would really be grateful. Please visit our website at

Thursday, September 9, 2010



A Murderous Encounter
A Novella by Ya. A.
St. Petersburg, 1836
This little book has appeared, consequently somewhere in this wide world there must be a reader for it.
---Nikolai Gogol

(Now, that is a model review.)


As the so-called literary world is swept with interest in a recent book by the sociologist Jonathan Franzen, some have remarked that it’s sad that saps in COSTCO or BJ’s who buying their literature will be very disappointed by something called FREEDOM which seems on closer inspection to be inferior to the great work of Vance Packard whose what-can-you- call- them?: novels, sociological novels are the benchmark for such “examinations of the American condition.” You remember them with fondness: The Status Seekers, The Hidden Persuaders, The Waste Makers, The Naked Society, The Sexual Wilderness, The People Shapers… though his life could be summed up by an early title: How to Pick a Mate. These books were met with the same controversy and profound concern for the state of the American family etc etc.


A great thanks to the Library of America for reissuing H. L. Mencken’s PREJUDICES In two delicious volumes.

If you have a child off in that swamp called American higher education this is the perfect gift. But is a mixed blessing in the sense that while Mencken is wholy exhilarating and nearly every page has something to quote and savor , even dipping into it will make the child possibly intemperate, and even unwilling to suffer the idiocy which is the much of what they will have to endure while prisoners of these institutions in particular when taking introductory courses in the liberal arts. Never have we---or I’ll speak for myself--- been in need of his clarity of writing and of his awareness of the nonsense that passes for politics in the US. Just the idea that a man once had the freedom to publish a book called Prejudices is cause enough to wonder at how far we have fallen in our sophistication.

At random:

“This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me.”


“Democracy is that system of government under which the people, having 35,717,342 native-born adult whites to choose from, including thousands, who are handsome and many who are wise pick out a Coolidge to be head of the state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies.”
(If anyone thinks the current holder of that office is any bit better than Coolidge then the delusional grandeur of the American mind is greater than can be imagined…)


“What ails the world mainly, at least in the political sense, is that its governments are too strong. It has been a recurrent pest since the dawn of civilization… The men who constitute the government always try to make it appear, of course, that they carry on their activities in a patriotic and altruistic way—in brief, they are full of public spirit. But that pretension deceives no one, not even Homo boobiens. The average man, whatever his errors otherwise, at least sees clearly that the government is something outside of him and outside the generality of his fellow men--- that i t is a separate independent and often hostile power, only partly under his control, and capable on occasion of doing him great harm.”
(On occasion would have to be changed today to: Often doing him great harm)



To die for an idea: it is unquestionably noble. But how much nobler it would be if man died for ideas that they were true. Searching history, I can find no such case. All the great martyrs of the books died for sheer nonsense—often for trivial matters of doctrine and ceremonial, too absurd to be state in plain terms. But what of the countless thousands who have perished in the wars, fighting magnificently for their country? Well, show me one who knew precisely what the war he died in was about and could put into a simple and plausible proposition.

(Has this changed: WW2, The Korean War, The Vietnam War, The Iraq War. The Afghanistan War and all the other delightful actions of the US: the attacks on Serbia, Panama, Grenada, Lebanon… the current gearing up for war in Africa)


Farrar Straus & Giroux of course is the publisher of the sociology of Jonathan Franzen and I have to wish them tons of luck and bushels and bushels of dollars to fall into their offices as it allows them to publish real books.

While not from this season I have been reading with profound gratitude the Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti, the one poet other than Eugenio Montale that I read with real pleasure from Italy… I learn from Ungaretti. I am inspired by him:

In veins already almost empty tombs
The still galloping longing,
In my bones that are frozen, stone,
In the soul the choked regret,
Untamable iniquity: dissolve them;
From remorse, endless howl,
Terrible seclusion
In the unspeakable dark,
Redeem me and rouse your merciful
Lashes from your long sleep
May your sudden pinkish trace
Mother mind, ascend again,
And return to amaze me;
Come back to life, unhoped for,
Measure inconceivable, peace
Make it so I, in the balanced landscape,
May mouth again the sounds of artless speech.
(translated by Andrew Frisardi)


But what had reminded me, again, of Ungaretti was reading also from FSG, THE BARS OF ATLANTIS by the German poet Durs Grunbein. It is a book of essays that is surely the best book of prose written by a poet in many years. He has that ability to quote, that ability to make fresh and it was in an essay on Pompeii that he quoted from Ungaretti, “Life is nothing but a process of decay decorating itself with illusions.”

In that essay on Pompeii, “Volcano and Poem” a tiny hint as to why I read slowly, ever so slowly THE BARS OF ATLANTIS, “Each individual had been sealed up in lava and debris by the volcano, and now they all were returned to the present, the portraits of the gods and the pornographic doodles, the frieze of the mysteries and the latest slogans, the board game and the papyrus scroll and that fragment from the book of one Philodemus of Gadara On Poems--- the ape of Classical poetics.”

“…and now they all were returned to the present” This is genius.


Another book to be made possible by the Franzen booty.

In November CANTI by Giacomo LEOPARDI,translated by Jonathan Galassi. That Italian poet who comes between Dante and Montale and Ungaretti… Leopardi that poet who sang through James Thomson BV once upon a time…never exhausted.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


You hear it all the time: someone should write a book about it, someone should make a movie about it.

Well, Emmanuel Carrere author of the THE ADVERSARY, CLASS TRIP, THE MUSTACHE, GOTHIC ROMANCE has just done both of those things with MY LIFE AS A RUSSIAN NOVEL. A title every writer would kill to have thought up.

Having read a brief news item about the repatriation of aged mentally broken Hungarian who had lived in a small Russian city since being swept up in the aftermath of World War Two Carrere to thinking of what it must have been like for this guy to have lived in a provincial Russian city all those years as a stranger, never learning Russian. The thinking called up his own long dormant Russian (his mother is the leading authority on Russia and a member of the French Academy)… and the family unspoken about secret: her father having been a Georgian refugee in France after World War One became a translator for the Germans during the occupation and was disappeared by the Resistance at the end of the Second World War...

Carrere writes easily about all of this and with his own obsessive problems of the heart--- he reprints an incredibly erotic story he published in a summer supplement of Le Monde the best newspaper in France in an attempt to keep a woman he was desperately in love with--- a story so explicit it is unpublishable in the LATIMES (and I would hesitate to quote some passages on this blog)--- and then there are the multiple journeys to Russia.. the meetings with the ordinary people of Kotelnitch, a precise and not so much caring as a simple honest description of ordinary life and the girl who speaks and sings in French, the wife of the KGB boss of the town.. a vicious unexplained murder, the abyss that this opens at the center of the book is frigidly disturbing and one which will never leave your imagination or memory.

The scrupulosity of Carrere is remarkable in its self-questioning, his fear of exploiting the people he meets... and far more than just a book about the making of a movie the book is wonderfully independent of the movie as is the movie independent of the book. Both exist true to their own forms.

Sadly, the movie is only available in French but the trailer captures the deep and profound sadness that is at the center of Carrere's book...a sadness of a great Russian novel --- Turgenev in particular comes to mind... or the DEAD SOULS of Gogol and you can even write to Carrere--- I hope after you have read MY LIFE AS A RUSSIAN NOVEL as he supplies in his text a email address: (I checked and it works)

SAVE MONEY. SAVE YOUR TIME. Don’t rush out like a lemming and buy Franzen’s FREEDOM. If you are tempted, RESIST and if you must you can read any old book by Vance Packard, THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS, THE STATUS SEEKERS… Packard was writing popular sociology studies of the so-called American people. Don’t be a sucker for the old packaged up as interesting and controversial sociology. You have read this book in any “deep think” piece in PARADE, the Sunday newspaper supplement. And it has as much lasting ”value.” It is the perfect grist for the addled reading groups. Big ideas. Big ideas. Who needs them.