Thomas Frank

At The Paris Review, recently hired editor Lorin Stein and poetry editor Robyn Creswell are rejecting some poems that their predecessors had accepted. Daniel Nester is reporting on the debacle, which he's dubbed "The Great Paris Review Poetry Purge of 2010," over at the blog We Who Are About to Die. (Meanwhile, Blake Butler pens a satirical list of Paris Review rejects, and the Poetry Foundation scratches its chin while pondering the matter.) For a glimpse of some authors Stein does like, check out his spirited appraisal of five books that should be in any reviewer's library.  

When your computer crashes, what do you do? Throw your hands up in frustration, gnash your teeth, cry? You could write a story instead, as Garrett Murray does, and turn the crash report into literary gold.

Red state cinema: Thomas Frank's 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas?, which details how "conservatives won the heart of America," has been adapted into a film (surely that state's citizens must be sick of the question by now). If you're in New York next week, you can watch Frank discuss the movie with co-director Joe Winston on July 28 and catch a screening on July 30.

Over at Publishers Weekly, Craig Morgan Teicher, the author of Cradle Book and formerly the man behind Galleycat's eBookNewser, has launched an excellent new blog, PWxyz, where he wittily covers all things bookish, including top-notch dispatches from the digital publishing frontier.


Anthony Doerr

This fall the Los Angeles Review of Books will launch an online only review headed by Tom Lutz, chair of the UC Riverside creative writing department. Two years in the making, the Review has signed up some tony contributing editors, including T. C. Boyle, Carolyn See, and Marisa Silver (among others), and Lutz vows it will be "the best-paying book review outlet around." Until he can launch a print edition, that is. The first issue promises Jane Smiley writing about Jessica Mitford and James Ellroy on Beethoven.

Amazon reports that ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time over the past three months—or as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos eloquently puts it, "The Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format." The numbers exclude the free "bestsellers" that have inflated earlier sales figures.

"Posthumous publication, with the editor inevitably performing the dead person's imagined identity and wishes, delicately balances between invention or hoax and channeling of the departed's spirit," writes Craig Saper in the introduction to a special section on "posthumography" in Rhizome, a journal that publishes "works written in the spirit of Deleuzian approaches." The issue includes an essay by the University of Florida's Richard Burt on Kierkegaard's writing desk, Goethe's files, and Derrida's paper machine. And while an out-of-print chapbook may seem to be the definition of a dead book, they can now ascend to a glorious Flash-based afterlife on the web: Ugly Duckling Presse has announced that it is making its out-of-print books available as free ebooks.

Tonight at Manhattan's McNally Jackson Books, Anthony Doerr will read from his new story collection Memory Wall. After writing a novel and a memoir, Doerr returns to the form that suits him best: short fiction. (His 2003 debut, The Shell Collector, is a story collection). In the Boston Globe, reviewer Steve Almond writes of Doerr's new book: "He refuses to traffic in the hysterical lyricism that infatuates so many modern writers, as they seek to compete with the frantic enticements of screen addiction. Instead, he places his powers of invention in the service of precision." 


Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens recently canceled the book tour for his new memoir, Hitch-22, in order to undergo a round of chemotherapy treatment for esophagus cancer. So what does the devout atheist think of people praying for him to get well? In a recent interview, Hitchens says, "I think that prayer and holy water, and things like that are all fine. They don’t do any good, but they don’t necessarily do any harm. It’s touching to be thought of in that way." 

Jimmy Carter: President, Nobel Peace Prize winner, peanut farmer, and . . . erotic poet

Amazon.com built its online business around easy access to a seemingly limitless supply of cheap books. So what's the Trouble With Amazon? In The Nation, Colin Robinson, co-publisher of OR Books (which doesn't sell its books on the online giant's site), details the bullying of publishers over prices, the disappearing "buy" buttons that make these publisher's books unavailable, and argues that ultimately Amazon's devaluing of books dilutes literary culture: "a healthy publishing industry would ensure that skilled authors are recompensed fairly for their work, that selection by trusted and well-resourced editors reduces endless variety to meaningful choice and that ideas and artistry are as important as algorithms and price points in deciding what is sold."

The rise of freelancers, a stretched book review staff at many publications, and the glut of books published each year has made it more difficult for editors to spot the hidden grudges and friendships that can cause a conflict of interest in a book review. 


Tonight at Brooklyn's BookCourt bookstore, David Mitchell reads from his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, reviewed in the latest issue of Bookforum by William Deresiewicz, who writes that after the pyrotechnics of Mitchell's first four novels, "The wunderkind—forty-one by now—is ripening, it seems, into a middle period of subtler effects and sustained emotions."

James Franco as poet Allen Ginsberg (Photo Credit: Sundance Film Festival 2010).

Former poet laureate Billy Collins dislikes the havoc that is wreaked on poems when they are converted to ebooks: "The critical difference between prose and poetry is that prose is kind of like water and will become the shape of any vessel you pour it into to. Poetry is like a piece of sculpture and can easily break."

Allen Ginsberg wasn't shy about promoting "Howl" as “an all-purpose cultural barometer,” as John Palatella observed in Bookforum in 2006, the fiftieth anniversary of the book's publication. In 1967, when asked if his poems would survive, Ginsberg told a packed Berkeley lecture hall that they "may be valuable as like big important historical documents," saying, "there are some pretty things in them." Well, pretty things doth Hollywood love: Witness heartthrob James Franco don glasses to channel the scruffy poet in the trailer for the forthcoming bio-pic Howl.

George Szpiro, author of Numbers Rule, a new book about the nettlesome laws that determine how Congressional seats are apportioned, has a strikingly simple solution: send fractional congresspeople to the Capitol.  

Luxury publishers such as Kraken Opus and Taschen are releasing lavish editions with goodies like moon rocks, a signed Jeff Koons photograph of Muhammad Ali, or even the blood of cricket star Sachin Tendulkar, which was mixed into the signature page of a forthcoming $75,000 limited edition biography.


Ryu Murakami

The website I Write Like will analyze your prose and tell you if it resembles H. P. Lovecraft, Vladimir Nabokov, Dan Brown, or one of the other forty famous writers in its database. Margaret Atwood gave it a try and found she didn't write like herself; rather, the database pegged her as Stephen King. We can only imagine Nabokov's incredulity at being told by a computer that someone else writes like him, or worse, that he wrote like anyone else (especially Stephen King).

Ryu Murakami's new novel, A Singing Whale, is the first by a well-known author to go straight to the iPad.

On the Critical Flame blog, Daniel E. Pritchard writes that Internet book reviews can shrug off the old formula used in print publicationsConsidering a new anthology of Open Letters Monthly's online reviews (now in book form), Pritchard writes that the best ones "[eschew] the well-trodden path—the hook, the book, the author and themes, the pithy conclusion—the superior essays [in the collection] lead readers wherever interest and curiosity dictate."

Today is the day for One Day by David Nicholls, the surprise bestseller that takes place on twenty consecutive July 15ths, perhaps a day best spent reading Nicholls’s tome in one of New York's last silent places.


Jon Thurber

Jon Thurber has been named the new Book Review editor at the Los Angeles Times. Thurber (no relations to James) is a thirty-eight year veteran of the paper, and will take charge of all aspects of book coverage, including the online book section, the Jacket Copy blog, and the print book reviews and features. He has filled many roles during his time at the paper and is perhaps best known for his recent tenure as obit editor, which lasted for 11 years and produced many hundreds of articles under Thurber's own byline. Here's hoping he isn't called on to pen one more . . . about the death of the print book review.

In a newly published Mark Twain essay, "Concerning the Interview," Twain takes the satiric stance that he was no fan of being interviewed (though we're pretty sure he actually loved it, being a born raconteur and all). Twain compares the interviewer to a cyclone, and quips "interviewers are courteous and gentle-mannered, even when they come to destroy." So what would he make of today's earnest, fan-boy/girl interviews thriving on blogs like Bookslut, which recently posted engaging chats with fiction writer Justin Taylor and 2010's Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rae Armantrout, among others? 

Mary Karr, who recently complained in the New York Times about the "humiliating" book trailer video she made for her new memoir, Lit, is meanwhile embracing the medium with "Poetry Fix" on YouTube, where she uploads videos of herself and friends reading poetry twice a week. 

At the Paris Review blog's, Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, begins a five-part account of seeing the twelve-hour staging of Dostoyevsky's Demons last weekend on Governor's Island in New York. As the play begins, Batuman writes, director Peter Stein assures the audience that "he wants us to 'feel well,' so there are lots of breaks and two meals and 'quite nice toilets.' I think it’s an exaggeration to say that the toilets are quite nice." 


Harvey Pekar

Splendid Americans: Harvey Pekar and Tuli Kupferberg—a pair of radical nonconformists whose literary output was perhaps a mere by-product of their grander refusal to fit in—both passed away yesterday. Pekar's death at the age of 70 put us in mind of his most famous public exit—his last appearance on the David Letterman show in 1988, when he ranted at an exasperated Letterman, ending his tenure as a late-80s regular on the show. Pekar also made an appearance in the pages of Bookforum in 2003. Reviewing Peter Kuper's graphic adaptation of Kafka's tale of self-recrimination, "Metamorphosis," he wrote that the book was "no match for the original yet offers the eye pleasures galore." Kupferberg was a poet and performer who began as a Beat, played in the legendary proto-punk band The Fugs, and became an all-star bohemian and prolific YouTube denizen before he died at the age of 86.

The Awl sifts through the history of the term "slush pile," and the findings are slushy—it’s a phrase "loaded with numerous shady insinuations."

A look at Granta magazine, from its days as a Cambridge University student publication, through its relaunch as a paperback sized lit magazine in 1979, to its latest issue. Also, a chat with artistic director Michael Salu about designing the new issue's cover, on the theme "Going Back." It's a fitting topic for a magazine that is currently digitizing its archives; for those worried that something will be lost in the transition, Granta's Ted Hodgkinson writes, "Pixels do not sully a finely sculpted phrase, they simply illuminate it. The gift of digitization, in fact, is that for the first time ever it is possible to view the entire sweep of Granta’s history in a few clicks."

Zizou nostalgia: With no World Cup left to watch, Paris blogger Lauren Elkin remembers the 2006 World Cup, when French soccer star Zinedine Zidane headbutted an opponent, inspiring Jean-Pierre Toussaint's story "The Melancholy of Zidane." 


Denis Johnson

Writer Mary Karr says making a book trailer, often a required part of an author's publicity tour of duty, “is, in a word, humiliating.” We've been underwhelmed by most of the quick, awkward videos (John Wray's funny recent trailer for his novel Lowboy, featuring Zach Galifianakis, being an exception) we’ve seen, until now: Behold, the trailer for Gary Shteyngart's forthcoming novel Super Sad True Love Story.

"You are not supposed to point out that Nazi inspirations have visibly taken root among present-day Islamists," writes Paul Berman, as he takes on critics of his polemic The Flight of the Intellectuals.

Novelist Denis Johnson's papers have been acquired by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Johnson, a part-time resident of the city, will have his working materials enshrined in the archives that recently acquired David Foster Wallace’s papers, adding to the Center's extraordinarily rich collection. Meanwhile, New Republic editor Ruth Franklin questions the value of author archives, writing: "What’s missing is the alchemy that takes an assortment of random objects and transforms them into a work of art. And that process leaves no trace."


As the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird's publication is celebrated this weekend, Harper Lee once again has found the spotlight. Meanwhile, her classic novel about the Jim Crow South has sold over thirty million copies, and continues to be patronized. Last year, Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article ("The Courthouse Ring") and more recently, Allen Barra’s Wall Street Journal piece ("What 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Isn't"), criticized the book for what is perceived as its mild-mannered liberalism. We’ve asked Nicolaus Mills, author of The Crowd in American Literature and Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America, and a professor of literature and American studies at Sarah Lawrence College, to answer the book’s critics:

Q. How do you respond to Allen Barra’s claim that Mockingbird isn’t great literature, because it lacks "ambiguity,” presents “a sugar-coated myth of Alabama’s past,” and offers readers a dated “bloodless liberal humanism”?

A. Barra ignores the tension between what Scout Finch, the narrator of Mockingbird, sees as a nine-year-old and what the text of Mockingbird reveals. Atticus, her beloved father, is a complex and ambiguous figure. A devoted parent, he is often distant from his children. He fights racism but deals civilly with his racist neighbors. He believes in the law, but at the end of Mockingbird he circumvents it to help his reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, avoid a devastating trial. As for Mockingbird sugarcoating Alabama’s racial history and offering the reader a bloodless liberalism, I would point to the fact that at the center of Mockingbird is a trial in which a black defendant is unjustly convicted of rape and a liberal white lawyer defies a lynch mob.

Q. Flannery O’Connor famously called Mockingbird a “children’s book.” Is it fair to say that Mockingbird is most suited these days to adolescents? 

A. O’Connor’s charge echoes the kind of criticism that has been used against The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. What she ignores is that tragedy is at the heart of Mockingbird. Tom Robinson goes to prison and, believing Atticus will be unable to free him on appeal, dies trying to escape. Compare Lee’s ending to the conclusion of Huckleberry Finn, in which Jim is set free by Miss Watson in her will because she is ashamed of once having thought about selling him down the river.

Q. Malcolm Gladwell suggests that Atticus is “a good Jim Crow liberal,” who encourages the jurors at Tom Robinson’s trial to “swap one of their prejudices for another.”

A. Gladwell doesn’t bother looking closely at the text of Mockingbird when he offers his harshest criticisms. Atticus does say that Mayella Ewell, the supposed rape victim of Tom Robinson, was the sexual aggressor. But Atticus never condemns her for her sexuality. On the contrary, he blames Southern prejudice for putting her in a position in which she feels she must lie: “She has committed no crime, she has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society.” 

Q. What, if anything, do you make of Harper Lee’s silence all these years?

A. It strikes me as the silence of a modest woman, who doesn’t like the limelight and feels no need for self-promotion. It is too bad more writers can’t live by the same set of values.

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