'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

Who was Barry Hannah writing for?

Barry Hananh. (Courtesy of Gardenandgun.com)

Barry Hananh. (Courtesy of Gardenandgun.com)

The conventional wisdom is that Barry Hannah, who died this week at the age of 67, is the kind of writer who had two kinds of readers. One: Those who just haven’t read him yet. Two: As the estimable Wells Tower wrote in a profile before Hannah’s death, those who get a “feverish, ecstatic look before they seize you by the lapels and start reeling off cherished passages of his work.”

Sheepishly, I think I fall into a third category. I admire the taut, spring-loaded fury in Hannah’s hearty, American stories. But even as I learned to agree with the idea that he’s among the most important fiction writers of the last decades, I always brushed up against his mechanics, and sensed in his disciplined prose a kind of wrestling match with the words that didn’t work for me. (I gravitate more toward another tortured, muscular southerner: Padgett Powell, who in my opinion wrote the best book of 2009.)

Consider the Towers profile. Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Books, Entertainment, Writing, , , ,

If you read only one Salinger tribute

White Mountains National Forest, New Hampshire...

New Hampshire: It's really not at all like the Lower East Side. (Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr)

At least for this week or so, J.D. Salinger is as brilliantly alive to a world of readers as he has been any day for decades. Among the many moving tributes, one by The New Yorker’s Lillian Ross stands above the rest. A friend of Salinger’s for five decades, Ross writes a tribute with feeling and intimacy. Several moments stand out.

He loved children:

After watching his son, Matthew, playing one day, he said, “If your child likes—loves—you, the very love he bears you tears your heart out about once a day or once every other day.” He said, “I started writing and making up characters in the first place because nothing or not much away from the typewriter was reaching my heart at all.”

Salinger was generous with writers he admired:

When he read a story of mine about kids skipping around a Maypole in Central Park, he wrote to me, “The first and last thing you’ve done is to redeem everything, not just make everything bearable.”

He found simple pleasures:

He told me that one day he went out and bought an iron, and had his housekeeper iron his shirts. “How it cheered me up,” he said.

Interesting how a man — whose work is alreadly immortal — gains, in death, a strange flare-up of deeply human presence among a world of many who may have long taken his body for granted. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Books, Death, Entertainment, Journalism, Media, Writing, , , ,

The books I've read

Best novel of the year: The Interrogative Mood

Best novel of the year:

I forget what I’ve read and that feels like letting friends die. Now that I consume words mostly via Kindle, it’s easier to keep track, but still, there is the odd physical object that crosses my eyeballs.

In 2010, the list will be exhaustive. For 2009, I’m remembering as best as I can.

Books are alphabetical by author and feature capsule reviews for each — as much for reader’s edification as for mine. (Memory aid and all that.)

2010

-Chang, Leslie T. – Factory Girls

-D’Agata, John – About a Mountain

de Bellaigue, Christopher – Rebel Lands

-Hessler, Peter – Country Driving (Hand-delivered wisdom from a rapidly changing modern China.)

-King, Stephen – Under the Dome (Addictively shrill novel goes down in one gulp, gives nightmares.)

-Stegner, Wallace – Discovery

-Taylor, Kate, ed. – Going Hungry (Chilling collection of true and enlightening eating disorder tales.)

-Tower, Wells – Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – (Short stories so engrosing, they should be novels.)

-Twain, Mark – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (What is America, on the page.)

2009

-el-Aswany, Alaa – The Yacoubian Building (Pitch-perfect novel renders the heartbreaking conundrum of modern Egypt.)

-Auster, Paul – Invisible (Not his best, but memorably gross and engrossing.)

-Bolano, Roberto – 2666 (A masterpiece, among the five best novels I’ve ever read.)

-Bowles, Paul – Sheltering Sky (A bitter and disturbing desert classic. Essential reading.)

-Greene, Graham – The Quiet American (The tragic problem of being a westerner in S.E. Asia. I reread this at least once a year.)

-al-Hamad, Turki – Shumaisi (So-so translation of a cloying novel still packs ethnographic punch.)

-King, Michael – The Penguin History of New Zealand (Painful/hopeful, apologetic/ambitious record of world’s strangest nation.)

-Lawrence, Linda – Bold Spirit (Bad book, interesting subject: 1896 woman walks from Wa to NY.)

-Mantel, Hilary – Eight Months on Gazzah Street (In progress… more when I finish.)

-Matthiessen, Peter – Snow Leopard (A zen artifact read accidentally builds to a forceful climax.)

-Meyer, Philipp – American Rust (A lightning read feels amateurish upon reflection.)

-Munif, Abdulrahman – Cities of Salt, The Trench, Variations on Night and Day (Byzantine trilogy of novels is as spiraling as the story of modern Saudi Arabia it tells.)

-O’Neill, Joseph – Netherland (I’m surprising no one when I call this truly post-9-11 Britisher’s tale among the form’s best.)

-Pamuk, Orhan – Museum of Innocence (A mesmerizing saga of love in Istanbul that grows more wise in hindsight.)

-Powell, Padgett – The Interrogative Mood (A dormant PoMo lion returns with the year’s best novel.)

-Rich, Nathaniel – The Mayor’s Tongue (Well-bred wunderkind narrowly makes good of showy silliness.)

-Roberts, Russell – Down the Jersey Shore (Laughably fawning but studded with juicy facts.)

-Seabrook, W.B. – Adventures in Arabia (Almost too-good-to-be-true found novel in which NYC couple abandons W Village coffeehouse to trek Arabia. 1928.)

-Stewart, Rory – Places in Between (Despite annoying faux-modesty, walking book dazzles with rugged intelligence.)

-Theroux, Paul – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (Lazyish legend licks well-fed lips, content his notes better than your final draft.)

-Whitehead, Colson – Sag Harbor (A comic word magician at top of game tackles race in the ’80s East Hampton.)

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Filed under: Books, Entertainment, Riyadh, Writing, , ,

Santa, Glenn Beck, and David Brooks? They're all dicks

Original Bad Santa flipping the bird

Santa? He

An elite instructor of military cadets here in Riyadh forwarded me a question. Is Wikipedia a reasonable source for college students?

No, the teacher reasoned, but perhaps Dickipedia is.

Behold a selection of the website’s very important knowledge:

1. Santa Claus (also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, and Santa) is a historical, legendary and mythical figure and a dick.

2. Glenn Beck (born February 10, 1964) is a right-wing American talk show host and a dick.

3. David Brooks (b. August 11, 1961) is a columnist for The New York Times, a commentator on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and a dick.

Among other notable dicks are Tom Brady, Muqtada al-Sadr, and The Pilgrims.

More entertainment? Don’t miss Photos of TV, by Mike Sacks.

tv019_absolutely_disgusting

Maybe you’ve seen one or both, but they represent two ends of the internet spectrum: Cruel and hilarious versus subtle and moving. Both are valuable, I suppose. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Christmas, Entertainment, Photos, , , , , ,

David Rees is unstoppable

David Rees is unstoppable.

Rees: Still getting his war -- with what? -- on.

After 9/11, when we were all flailing and searching for direction, I drank too much. We all did. We hand-rolled cigarettes, listened obsessively to NPR, and got really familiar with all the -Stans.

In the midst of all the epic Sy Hersh stories and On Point broadcasts from Boston, there began circulating these insane cartoons. Illustrated only with clip art, the strips were searingly critical, explosively funny — digs at us, at you, and at them. No cow was sacred.

The name of the new phenomenon was as strange as the content was sophisticated: My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable. We were entranced. Then suddenly it was Get Your War On. We still sought it out, even trying to make contact with the writer. Then just as quick, the work was appearing on the editor’s letter page in Rolling Stone.

We moved on. But the writer kept working. I lost track.

Now — and for some time — he’s lived on True/Slant, where his fiery production continues. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: 9/11, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Entertainment, Journalism, Writing, , , , , , , , , ,

Could Sam Sifton really replace NYT boss Bill Keller?

I love The New York Times. I read it every day, and can’t imagine a world without its pages. (It took strong counsel from friends smarter than me not sink the little money I have into Times stock. And I considering having a small funeral for The City section when it passed.)

So it was with keen interest that I read a Big Money story last month suggesting that Sam Sifton, the new dining critic, would be an excellent candidate some day to run the greatest paper in the world.

Really? This certainly hadn’t occurred to me when I first read that Sifton would be replacing the departing food writer Frank Bruni. But the article, in Slate.com’s The Big Money, makes an interesting case:

What makes Sifton the man who ought to be considered a future editor of the Times is his ability to attack and explore popular subjects with intellectual rigor. Combine that with an ability to attract readers to stories with compelling headlines, art, and ledes, and you have all the tools necessary for leading the Times into the future on the web. Because out there on the flat, infinite plane of the Web, all stories have an equal opportunity to become the story of the day. The challenge for the Times is not to promote the soft news over the hard but to be able show, when relevant, that what happens in the kitchen (or on the playground or on television) can be just as important as what goes on in Afghanistan.

via Eating His Way to the Top | The Big Money.

So it was with no less interest that I began to read Sifton’s first pieces. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Business, Entertainment, Food, Journalism, Media, New York Times, , , , ,

Does sarcasm belong on the editorial page?

Dave Eggers at the 2007 Brooklyn Book Festival.

Dave Eggers cares about you and me and everyone else too. (Image via Wikipedia)

Many years ago, in a hot, crowded classroom in St. Petersburg, Russia, I had the chance to ask Dave Eggers a question. I was young, perilously close to being kinda nuts, and relatively fresh off the boat from a spell as a cub journalist in Cambodia.

As a result, I was more strident than I was informed. And The New Yorker had (finally, I thought, knowing nothing) run a story about Cambodia. But it was a feature about a chef! It was light and inconsequential and had nothing to say about genocide, the legless, land grabs, and corrupt generals — all stuff I was pretty passionate about and suspected that anyone who was not passionate thereabout must be corrected.

So with a chance to make an important correction, my blood boiled with excitement and urgency.

Standing up, clearing my throat, I said this: “Why can’t you do anything serious? Is being funny enough for you? You’re this voice of a generation and it’s all jokes — why not take up the good work of The New Yorker but do it even better?”

Eggers looked at me like I was an asshole. And I was, believe me.

This is what he said in response: “You know The New Yorker is a humor magazine, right?”

I didn’t — and I guess I’m still in denial.

So it was with a similar set of queasily held assumptions and principles that I read Colson Whitehead’s op-ed in The New York Times this morning. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Death, Entertainment, Journalism, Media, New York Times, The New Yorker, Writing, , , , , , ,

Padgett Powell maybe wrote the best book of 2009

interrogative mood

The Interrogative Mood is Padgett Powell's stunning new novel.

I’m not finished yet — just over 25 percent complete, according to my Kindle — but I’m quite confident Padgett Powell’s new novel is the best book of the year. Written entirely in the form of questions, The Interrogative Mood seems to be the perfect delivery method for Padgett’s stylistic precision, moral power, absurdist muscularity, and barreling ennui. Whereas previous books of his had sparkled with a kind of mathematical intelligence when it came to structure and pacing, there had always been for me the sense that the great tiger of an author lurked between the paragraphs, his great paws ready to do the real harm of storytelling previously confined or at least somewhat limited by the boundaries of a typical novel.

That’s over! Padgett is unleashed! I’ll reserve further judgment until I finish, but I wanted to share this absolute gem:

If you had enough money to live on, could you see retiring to a small village in France and never being heard of or from again, and not speaking French when there, mostly because you can’t but also because you have nothing to say and you’d have no one to say it to if you had something to say, and mostly just sleeping in your quaint medieval stone cottage? Could you make do with a little exercise once in a while and a piece of Beaufort of very high quality? And maybe a look-in on the pigs? What if the cartoonist R. Crumb were your neighbor? Would you sleep better, or worse, or the same knowing R. Crumb was your neighbor in the next quaint stone medieval cottage in the South of France. Would life go on, or would you have to move to another village, or would you have to abandon the idea of retiring to France altogether realizing R. Crumb had done it and he was the tip of an iceberg going back through hundreds of persecuted sensitive American martyrs, from the Josephine Bakers and James Baldwins and Paul Robesons to the precious Fitzgeralds all the way up to the profane California cartoonists — wouldn’t you just be so yanked out of the frame that you’d feel it would be better to move not to gentle France but to, say, Burma where like Jeffrey Dahmer in prison you could be killed almost instantly when you set foot there? Wouldn’t it be better to have a Muslim in Burma put a cobra in your suitcase on day two than go through the long pleasant sunset desuetude of retiring silently in France? Would it, in fact, not be better were you to assassinate ten or so pleasant silent American retirees on your way out of sunny France en route to your rude and immediate fatal neurologic toxic death in Burma? Would there not be cause for wild cheer among a certain kind of depression-suffering person who reads the headline “Suspected Slayer of Cartoonist R. Crumb Victim of Cobra in Burma”? Would it be the worst thing said of you that your last act was expended on behalf of the depressed? Do you want something said of you, or nothing said of you, when you go?

There’s more.

Earlier: Padgett Powell has a desire to break your heart; or, there are a few times in your life when you meet someone truly great. Even better when that greatness makes you want it, not fear it.

Filed under: Books, Entertainment, Florida, Writing, , , , ,

Amazing: I actually don't miss NYT food guru Frank Bruni

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

When the New York Times announced it was anointing a new food critic, I was nervous. For a lot of reasons, I’d looked around and felt like the good days were over. I’m old and getting older, the Internet sucks, journalism is dying, and the Yankees could barely win a game.

Then things started changing. I have a secret reason to feel young again, I started writing for the Web in a way that pleases me, journalism stopped dying for a minute, and the Bronx boys are booming.

So then what about the neo-Bruni? I’ve already written about how the new critic, Sam Sifton, is maybe being groomed for very big things. I was happy with his first pieces — really happy.

Would it stand up? Yes, very much so. His two reviews this week — one of a lobster joint in Red Hook and the other of a Cantonese palace in Queens — are both lively, surprising, at once intimate and authoritative. Not only do I envy his style, but I trust him and also want to be his friend.

Enjoy:

Time was in New York City that eating Chinese food meant eating Cantonese food, however bastardized: light stir-fries, lots of ginger and scallion, black-bean sauce, crisp chicken, steamed fish. This was true all over the United States. After all, China’s first immigrants to America were from Canton — Guangzhou these days — and on their backs were Chinatowns built. These men — and they were men at first, almost entirely — cooked what they remembered from home. They cooked as best they could without wives and sisters and mothers, and then they adapted the result to the tastes of those who suddenly wanted not just to taste what they smelled cooking in their work camps and crowded urban neighborhoods, but to buy it and often.Thus were Chinese restaurants in America born. That sweet and sour pork you ordered in a mall in Scranton came out of Canton in some way; so too the chow mein you ate in a school cafeteria, the dim sum you had one hung-over morning in a city not your own.

And remember: It’s never over until you give up.

Bonus question: Does food criticism actually matter? I think so — discuss.

via Restaurants – At Imperial Palace, Crab is the Calling Card – Review – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Business, Entertainment, Media, New York Times, Writing, , , , ,

As 'Times' constricts, a look at its sickly sweet heart

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

A regular feature in the Monday edition of the Times, the Metropolitan Diary is a typically quiet collection of Dear Diary submissions from readers with a unique New York experience to share. Often drawn from overheard conversation, tender accounts of stolen moments, or funny encounters, the feature sounds pretty treacly. And it can be. But for whatever reason, I absolutely love it.

Take this entry, from this Monday’s paper.

Dear Diary:

When you work at a luxury hotel, as I did, employees must make sure the guests get exactly what they request. This can be especially frustrating when a guest is asking for something completely irrational.

In this instance, a couple of years ago, it was a businessman on a fiery tirade about reducing the noise that garbage trucks make in the morning. I stood at my doorman station with a hotel security guard and watched the man berate our co-worker at the front desk until the guest finally picked up his briefcase and stomped in our direction.

He passed me and stopped directly in front of Julio, the security guard. “Call me a cab,” the businessman ordered.

This was not Julio’s job, but not wanting to ignore the guest’s request, Julio looked him straight in the eyes and calmly replied, “You’re a cab.”

Julio turned around and walked away as I wandered into the street, waving for the nearest cab and grinning from ear to ear.

Maybe it’s because I’m homesick, or because I’m excited to see evidence that New Yorkers can be impressible, humble beasts, but I can’t look away. This is an appreciation made more poignant given that later this fall, my favorite newspaper will be letting go up to 100 — or eight percent — of its newsroom staff.

If it’s not already part of your routine, head to Metro section each Monday and enjoy. Who knows how long it’ll be an option?

PS: There’s some question as to how rigorously, if at all, the Diary is fact-checked. This seems important, but I read anyway.

via Serious Money in New York, but Chump Change in Greenwich – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Entertainment, Homesick, Journalism, Media, New York City, New York Times, , , ,