Make your head explode

by reading about how Josh Wolk's head exploded. Click only if you have about 7 minutes and need a laugh. (via Antoine Wilson's Wot-Wot)


Lunch with CEK

CEK has another piece in the New Yorker: "Lunch." The piece is online-only and nonfiction. Sweet!

Breaking News Flash--Exclusive!!

I certainly hate to bump the AK discussion below because it's a good one, but in breaking news... Bats have attacked Charlemagne! Check out this exclusive coverage! Be sure to click the video link!

Please resume discussions below.

Motion to de-canonize Anna Karenina

(That's Tolstoy on the dock, awaiting the verdict. I wanted to do this without spoilers, but I found I could not. If you haven't read it and plan to, stop reading!)

I finished this book a week or so ago. Took me a about a month. The only things I knew about it going in were the things you just know: 1. Anna Karenina has an affair and commits suicide, and 2. It is supposedly, along with War and Peace (which I have not read), one of the greatest novels -- if not the very greatest novel -- ever written.

A little pre-reading Wiki-ing revealed almost ridiculously fulsome praise from the pantheon.
Isaac Babel: "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy."
Gustav Flaubert: "What an artist and what a psychologist!"
Virginia Woolf: Tolstoy is "...the greatest of all novelists."
Jame Joyce: "He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical."
Anton Chekhov: "...Tolstoy achieves for everyone. What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature."
Thomas Mann: "Seldom did art work so much like nature."
Even Nabokov, that snarkily harsh critic, "...placed him above all other Russian fiction writers, even Gogol, and equalled him with Pushkin among Russian writers."
And indeed, the first hundred or so pages were stellar, a real pleasure to bathe in Tolstoy's natural, knife-through-butter style. I was all, Mr. Babel, you nailed it! Mr. Joyce, right on, bro! Mr. Mann, you were, like, so right! This is the way to write, throw out all adornment, make the writer invisible, make the reader see it like a movie, like a documentary without commentary.

Oh, but then... then...! When the plots settle in -- the dual structure of alternately following Anna and following her sister-in-law's husband, Levin -- seven hundred pages slowly plod by without a single surprise. My initial enthusiasm for the beautiful simplicity and naturalism dwindled as I learned, at length and in massive detail, just how Levin's farm was running, just how Princess So-and-So felt about Duke So-and-So. I was treated to I don't know how many aristocratic dinners, I don't know how many gossipy conversations, I don't know how many tearful scenes involving Anna and her husband, and then Anna and her lover, Vronsky. Whereas I once licked my lips when I picked it up, soon I simply cleared my throat and tried to open my eyes wide to pay attention, and eventually I was frowning at the book, and sighing, and impatiently measuring with my fingers the stubborn thickness of the unread part, and the farther I got, the less slack I was willing to give, and by the dreary end I was ready to throw that pathetic fallen woman under the train myself.

Could it be a translation thing? Tolstoy's contemporary, Dickens, is still wickedly funny and brilliant -- is that because I read his very words, with the exact sound and pacing he chose? Would I like AK were I able to read it in Russian? But that is probably not the problem, because I loved Madame Bovary, Crime and Punishment, One Hundred Years of Solitude, etc. etc. Was it the editing, or lack thereof? Certainly the ungainly, sprawling work needed an editor -- but so did Moby-Dick, yet truthfully I was not complaining as I read about the remarkable properties of whale oil because Melville made the darned stuff so interesting.

No, no, with Anna Karenina it was the writing, the novel itself that did not work for me. I'm not sure it even qualifies as successful fiction. Aren't all the pieces supposed to fit together? Aren't I supposed to have needed everything that was in my backpack when, at last, I gained the summit? Shouldn't the two main plots connect somehow, be complementary in theme or something? Sure, Anna is slowly being extricated from a difficult marriage, and Levin is slowly being drawn into one. But -- as my 9-year-old Irish cousin-by-marriage, Paul, said about Babe, after we had praised it -- "Yes, but what was the point of the film?"

What is the point of Anna Karenina? Marriage bad, marriage good, marriage ... hey, can't live with it, can't live without it! Agricultural reform good, agricultural reform bad, agricultural... [here the blogger yawns like a cat]. Peasants joyful and happy, peasants miserable and sad! Reform needed everywhere: in divorce, in society, in farming, in capitalism. All well and good. But does it support a story anymore? What does it say for a book that its plot would be rendered moot if a certain law had been passed? Anna couldn't get a divorce, therefore it's a tragedy? Shouldn't a novel -- let alone one of the greatest novels ever -- work for other reasons, too?

As for the sexy bits, there are none. Still, I can well imagine how brave it was for an aristocrat like Tolstoy to write about such scandalous subject matter back then. I can see how the taboo topic of adultery would have supplied plenty of excitement and energy back then. But I hate to say it: the world has moved on, and it seems to me, from the luxury of today's vantage point, that the book has outlived its usefulness and should be reclassified as propaganda, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book that also was heaped with praise and sales for years and years, but which has faded in terms of artistic worth as it becomes clearer and clearer that the characters were little dolls manipulated by Ms. Stowe for her own soapbox purposes -- which were worthy enough, heaven knows, but which were not artistic. Just because there is injustice doesn't mean shoving it into the vehicle of a novel and smacking the horse on the ass is good enough.

Furthermore, the canon can't keep expanding forever, can it? I mean, what do they teach in college fiction courses nowadays? You can only teach so many novels per semester. What is not being read by English majors today? Is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in yet, for example? To get fresh blood in there, old blood has to be drained out. I say it's time to apply the leeches to Anna Karenina. There's too much vibrant literature published from, let alone since, the mid-19th Century that is not being read, praised, or discussed.

You may disagree. But while we're at it, what else can be pitchforked out the door? We are now seven years into the 21st Century. Can we clean house yet -- or at least fantasize about it?


But if you're writing Christian romance, you are so set

Some additional reporting on the AP-Ipsos "readers" poll.

Moonbats read more books than wingnuts

The head of the American Association of Publishers says your book's target audience is more liberal than conservative.

But the following is just shameful for all Americans: "22 percent of liberals and moderates said they had not read a book within the past year, compared with 34 percent of conservatives."

(via Drudge)


In praise of Liefmans

My wife says I've got a touch of OCD. Fair enough. It's probably true. Case in point: Liefmans. Liefmans is simply the most delicious, addictive beer I've tasted since 1989, when it was my privilege and pleasure to regularly enjoy Younger's No. 3, in Canterbury, Jolly Olde.

Whereas Y3 was a dark, full, delicious, Scottish bitter -- sadly, it is no longer available, according to my research -- Liefmans is a sublime Belgian kriek (cherry) beer. Before you wrinkle your nose, as I did when our neighbor Marja offered me a taste of hers at t' Kantoor (I have never liked cherry beers), let me hasten to explain how Liefmans is different: First, as a hearty foundation, it enlists St. Louis, a robust, proper Belgian beer.

St. Louis is already more sour than sweet, and in the Liefmans brewing process, sour cherry pits -- the pits only, not the fleshy fruit -- are added to the fermenting mix. Aside from the delightful, fresh, tarty liquid result (Liefmans tastes like a 4-H-fair-prize-winning cherry pie made with half the sugar), it is also satisfying and stimulating to the mind to reflect that the humble seed, craggy and hard as a stone, contains within it not just the potential to develop into a tree that will produce the fruit, but, mysteriously, the taste essence of that fruit as well. Philosopher's Stone, cherry stone -- not just art, not just science, not just art and science ... Liefmans hearkens back to freaking alchemy.

From my first reluctant sip, I became a kind of acolyte of Liefmans, a shy, trembling supplicant. My ardor was amplified when I learned that, like the bloom on the rose, like the fleeting beauty of youth, Liefmans has an ethereal, tenuous existence: a cruelly limited quantity is brewed annually, to be served in August. When full, the three Liefmans casks in Erik the barkeeper's possession held approximately five hundred glasses. His reply to my inquiry regarding his supply's lifespan -- that it would last "four weeks, less if you drink it quickly" -- firmed up my resolve to study Liefmans very carefully and very thoroughly. Since then I've enjoyed at least one Liefmans almost every day. I stroll down the narrow brick and cobblestone streets upon completing work and writing (occasionally before completing them), take a seat at an outdoor table (weather permitting), and find my place in Anna Karenina.

Erik doesn't call it by its name anymore. Rather, he states an ever-decreasing number, an estimate of how many glasses are left in the casks ("Three hundred twenty-one" ... "Two hundred eighty-eight." This is thrilling. The tension inherent in my conflicting desires to both consume it and preserve it, an emotion hunters must feel about ducks and snipe -- to have my Liefmans and drink it, too -- is nearly as exhilarating as the experience of the drink itself. How long will it last now? Last reports are that the second cask is nearly gone. Once the final cask is pierced, the true countdown will begin. But then, do I drink more of it? Or less? What if I don't get the last glass? Or -- perhaps worse -- what if I do? I'll tell you what: it also comes in bottles.


Mr. Bell, paging Mr. Bell

Here is a nice little interview with retired legend Marvin Bell at the Bellingham Herald. I love when local papers do these.



...and the livin' is easy.

Last Saturday was the Amsterdam Gay Pride Parade, or as I heard most people call it, the "Gay Parade." These gentlemen were rather boisterous.

Now we understand why they're called floats.

Proudly flying the flag.

We always hit this place when in Amsterdam.

Here's our newest favorite local Haarlem cafe, 't Kantoor.

There is a cat who comes in 't Kantoor every afternoon for his dinner, picks a free stool, and waits patiently to be served.

He knows the rules: "Only two paws on the bar."

We also are served -- most often Liefmans, the tastiest beer I've had yet.

I am working on a whole post about Liefmans...

Yukking it up with our neighbor Louis.

And at the Haarlem Culinaire...

We sampled some tasty fare...

These are "bolletjes" -- "little balls."

Dutch Japanese-style beer -- why not?

Photos by traca de broon


News from the Homefront

From the ever-incisive Press-Citizen: Sam on her experiences at the helm of the Workshop. She offers an interesting observation about what "administration" means in the context of the Workshop.


Time is Money...

...and money is the root of all evil. Does that mean time is the root of all evil?

Actually, I think aphorisms are the root of all evil in our governance-by-bumper-sticker society.

At any rate, I'm in search of information. Does anybody have a sense of how much a senior writer at the New Yorker or the Atlantic or a similar publication is paid for a full-length nonfiction article? (I'm thinking of someone like a Susan Orlean or Larissa MacFarquhar.)

The memoir I've been waiting for

I can't imagine how interesting and entertaining this book will be -- if he ever finishes it. A hopeful sign:
"The range and type of stories was exactly what you would hope to hear," Pietsch says. "The memories and the emotions, people wonder if he remembers anything, but I wish my memory was that good."