A boy reads “Jabberwocky” for the first time and is troubled. There are words in the poem he doesn’t know. Words that aren’t like other words he hasn’t known in poems or stories before. He goes to a dictionary or asks a parent and discovers, even more troubling, there are words in the poem that Lewis Carroll…just made up. Apparently, you can do that, just…make up new words for new things and maybe those words stick in the language like “chortle” and maybe they don’t like “manxome” but either way, it can be done. A boy reads “Jabberwocky” and learns something about words. A boy sees a Van Gogh self-portrait in a book and is troubled. The brushstrokes are viral and the colors are viral and though it looks like a face, it doesn’t look like any face he’s ever seen. But it’s in a book and if it’s in a book it must be OK. He realizes that paintings aren’t required to look like their subjects. Artists can paint things that are not visual. A boy looks at a Van Gogh self-portrait and learns something new about art.
White Girls by Hilton Als is not a pensive essay collection. It is not meditative and if it’s critical or scholarly, it’s critical and scholarly in ways critics and scholars rarely are. White Girls is full of ideas and themes, but they are not approached the way you expect ideas and themes to be approached. Hilton Als pit-fights the shit out of them. Ringed by prisoners who don’t know whether to stop cheering or keep cheering, and guards with their guns and sunglasses and smirks, Als beats those ideas like they were Cool Hand Luke. And beats them, and beats them, and beats them, because there is always more in Luke, in racism, in courage, in love, in cowardice, in hate, in hubris, in straight white American male privilege, in empathy, in music, in comedy, in commodity, in Luke both good and bad than you can ever beat out, but you’re a brave exhausted prison pit dog and eventually you hit your word limit and carry your limp but still swinging opponent away and you didn’t win the fight and Luke didn’t win the fight and the spectators didn’t win the fight either. Nobody wins. Except for the guards, who win every fight by being born people who don’t go to jail.
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld comes out today!
It’s the story of an extremely standoffish girl who flees the rough-and-tumble sheep stations of Australia for a craggy farm in Britain. Why she fled, and how she plans to survive in a world of livestock, sex work, and lifelong guilt, are the questions that burns this story down to the nub, like a candle. Evie Wyld is one of Granta‘s 20 best young writers, and All the Birds, Singing is one of the most gripping books of the year.
We asked the author one question.
How are you celebrating the US publication of All the Birds, Singing?
Evie Wyld: During the day, I’ll be working in my bookshop–I’ve been negligent with the dusting lately and I need to do a stock take, so I’ll be keeping the shutters down and having a spring clean. Exciting times.
I’ve just started mentoring a young woman and we’ll have our first meeting at lunchtime–somewhere in Soho. I’m a bit nervous about it, so it’ll be nice to get the first one out of the way. Afterwards if there’s time, I might go and buy myself some publishing-day boots.
In the evening I’ll be reading at an event called Faber Social with Ben Marcus, Jon McGregor and Sarah Hall. I’m on pretty late so will have to abstain from drinking until afterwards because I can’t read after a drink. But after I’ve finished I’ll be aggressively demanding someone feeds me and gives me drink.
Read the first chapter of All the Birds, Singing here.
Get the book here.
- Brian Hurley
Me: You’ve been writing for Salon for nearly 20 years. In that time, book reviews have largely migrated from print publications to join you on the web. How do you think reviews have changed as a result of their migration?
Laura Miller: I think the public’s idea of what reviews mean has changed a lot, and that only some reviewers have caught up to it. This has to do with the authority — usually institutional — invested in any particular review. You still hear people say “The New York Times loved this book,” when really it’s just one of the staff critics there who loved it and probably no one else who works there has even read it. Nevertheless, I think the informality of web publishing and the proliferation of amateur reviewers on sites like Amazon and Goodreads have made many more people than ever before aware that any given review is not the last word on a book. Reviews are seen more as points in an ongoing argument, which to me is a welcome change.
Read the full exchange and see all the winners here.
- Brian Hurley
Barbara Ehrenreich’s memoir, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, came out recently, from the same publisher who brought us Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22. And like the Hitchens book, Ehrenreich’s seems destined to become a classic of the enlightened atheist canon. There’s a good Q&A with Ehrenreich over at Harper’s, but I want to share my favorite quote from the book with you here.
When someone wanders so far from the flock, people, in their collective vanity, tend to blame the flock. Anyone who wanders off must have been actively pushed away—by family dysfunction, social disappointment, sexual rejection, whatever. Or maybe it was the wanderer’s fault, and, like one of Conrad’s characters, she lost her way because she failed to cultivate the appropriate intraspecies bonds; she forgot about love. Either way, the idea is that what happens to people is all about people; no other factors merit consideration. Try telling a therapist or other member of the helping professions that you are menaced by hazy sunlight or that the sumac trees growing like weeds along the railroad tracks fill you with dread, and he or she will want to hear accounts of childhood abuse. This is the conceit of psychiatry and unfortunately of so many novels, even some of the best and most riveting ones: that except for the occasional disease or disaster, the only forces shaping our lives are other humans, and that outside of our web of human interactions there is nothing worth looking into.
- Brian Hurley
The itch started in my leg, and then I felt it somewhere on my back. I was reading an essay about Morgellons disease, a malady in which people feel they are being infested by—what?—a virus, a parasite, something on their skin?—and I began to itch.
For a moment I might have mistaken my itching for empathy for the individuals in the essay, who describe the torments they experience to Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams. But my itch was simply an unconscious sensation, something about me,not about them. How easy it was for me to direct my attention to myself and away from those I was reading about.
To further complicate my feelings, Morgellons disease is, well, “made up.” Jamison never says so, but at one point she does say:
This isn’t an essay about whether or not Morgellons disease is real. That’s probably obvious by now. It’s an essay about what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion.
I didn’t play many video games as a kid, but when I did, I gravitated toward games with a level editor. Say you’ve beaten all 50 levels of an army-building strategy game; you’ve conquered all the known lands. What next? The best games would provide you with software to build your own levels. Starting with a blank field of grass, you’d drag a forest onto the screen, click a few rivers into action, and maybe carve a rocky canyon down the middle. To me this was more fun than the game itself—to shape and explore a brand new world, a place without names or history.
Two new books offer similar thrills. Continue reading
Chad Harbach, the editor and introducer of MFA vs NYC, calls his book a “jointly written novel” whose “composite heroine is the fiction writer circa 2014.” What better way to empathize with the composite heroine of this jointly written novel than to read her adventures in the year in which she lives and breathes and, hopefully, still writes? So the first thing I felt upon cracking MFA vs NYC in Istanbul, 5,628 miles away from Iowa and 5,014 from NYC, circa 2014, was a sense of freshness and immediacy. I associate those feelings with social media rather than books, and TV shows like Girls rather than essay collections on creative writing. This sense of newness was surprising, given that Harbach’s essay, which gives the book its title and kickstarts its central discussion, was published in 2010.
Although some of its material is a few years old, this is no book for old men. Nor is it written by them, but for one notable exception. The pieces in the book are concerned with a fresh question that most young-to-middle-aged English-speaking writers of our era are presumably asking themselves a lot: How should a fiction-writing person be in the world of American fiction, which seems profoundly divided between a university-based creating writing workshops culture, and a New York-based publishing and freelancing-until-the-moment-of-success-arrives culture?
So maybe this week was not the best week to talk smack about fantasy novels being serialized online.
Yesterday, George R.R. Martin released a chapter of the next installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series (or the Game of Thrones books, if you’re not being a jerk about it). The next book, The Winds of Winter, is due out God-knows-when, but for now, stop working and read this chapter, titled “Mercy.” Heads up: You should probably be ready for any spoilers it might contain. This is your official warning.
Finally, it looks like winter is coming — in a good way. Hopefully it won’t take too long.
For now, we’re re-posting this important message:
- Michael Moats