Belle and Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson, better known (at least to this writer) as the Sultan of Twee, sits down with Rick Moody as part of the Swinging Modern Sounds feature over at The Rumpus. Among other things, Jackson says that he thinks the John Lennon album Sometime in New York City is a “total masterpiece” and says that at one point in his life he could recite the book Trainspotting.
New this week: Salman Rushdie's much talked about memoir Joseph Anton, T.C. Boyle's San Miguel, The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore, and Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting prequel Skagboys. Also new this week: Paul Elie's Reinventing Bach, Sylvie Simmons's biography I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, and n+1 vet Marco Roth's memoir The Scientists.
Traci writes in with this question: I'm working to establish a really great reading series in Indianapolis, and I'm wondering whether you have suggestions for readers who really own a stage. I'm looking for someone lively and personable (and, of course, someone who writes great prose). Have you seen anyone who really knocked your socks off? Emily St. John Mandel: Reading one's work aloud is a difficult art. Doing it well requires a certain stage presence, and a small degree of talent as a live entertainer: in other words, more or less the exact opposite of the skills you needed to actually sit down and write your book in the first place. Given that the skillsets involved in writing and reading aloud are so different, I’ve found that it’s a rare writer who can give a memorable reading. (By “memorable,” I mean “memorable in a good way.” I’ve been to some memorably bad ones.) More often than not we speak too quickly, or in a monotone, or way too dramatically when the material doesn’t call for it (“and then… she poured the coffee… into a cup.”) I go to a lot of readings. The ones I like best are assured, understated affairs, where the reading style doesn’t get in the way of the prose, and I think the best reader I’ve come across in this vein so far is John Wray. I went to a reading of Lowboy in a bookstore in Brooklyn a few months back; Wray’s full-back Sharpie tattoo of Michiko Kakutani (“MICHIKO 4-EVAH”) was certainly striking, but I was more taken by his reading style. He reads very calmly and quietly, fairly slowly, with a pause after every sentence. The effect is mesmerizing; the audience in the bookstore was perfectly still. Andrew Saikali: A great writer, a podium, bookmarked text on the stand, glass of water on the side. Microphone, lights, hushed audience. You'd think this would be the perfect recipe for a literary evening. Far too often it isn't. The best readings I've been to have all deviated, in some way, from this formula. Many authors are captivating on the page, but lack a magnetic personality. Without it, without that way to connect with the audience, the reading is doomed. That's not a slight on their work. But let's face it - a reading is performance. And some do it better than others. I saw Irvine Welsh a couple of years ago at the Harbourfront reading series here in Toronto. It was a packed house. Welsh has a big, loyal fan base and they all seemed to be there. It fueled him, and he gave back in kind. He read from his novel Crime and also did a Q&A. That's always a nice touch. An author's personality comes out when he goes off-script. Add a Scottish burr and a known and fascinating personal history - this was, after all, the man who wrote Trainspotting. His background chronicling young Scottish lives on the margin comes through his wit and his attitude, and that attitude seeps into a novel like Crime set in the United States, a world away from Scottish junkies. The legendary Ralph Steadman, illustrator and partner in crime with the late Hunter S. Thompson, was in town a few years ago with his book The Joke's Over, chronicling, in words and drawings, his friendship with the gonzo journalist. His presentation wasn't even a reading - it was a slideshow of his illustrations, with off-the cuff commentary and anecdotes. It was fascinating and hilarious - a slice of cultural history and outlaw tales. Top prize though, for me, goes to novelist, artist and designer Douglas Coupland. Having only read his novel Miss Wyoming, I saw him read back in 2005. jPod was the novel he read from, but I don't actually remember that part. I remember him talking to the audience, doing a Q&A like I'd never heard before, dripping with dry wit (yes, dry wit actually drips. I've seen it). Admittedly, Coupland was high on codeine at the time, but I've heard him interviewed since, and he's always extremely articulate and with just the right amount of sarcasm. Edan Lepucki: I'll admit, I prefer to read an author's book on my own than have it performed to me--that way, I can follow the story at my own pace, pick it up or put it down at my leisure, and let the prose suggest a voice to me, rather than have the author's own monotone, or murmur, or over-enunciation, flung at me. And yet, I attend readings all the time, as if I actually like them. The most memorable one I've attended, by Deborah Eisenberg in the spring of 2006 in Iowa City, had nothing to do with her. It wasn't that she wasn't a strong reader, she was, but that hail so raucous and terrifying stopped her a few minutes in. The more adventurous among us (not me) ran outside to witness an ominous and greenish cloud coming for our heretofore sturdy university town. A tornado! Before she'd begun reading, Eisenberg had announced that her story would take approximately 40 minutes to read aloud, start to finish. That struck me as too long, and so, when we were interrupted, I felt as if I'd willed the tornado into existence, to rescue me from all that sitting-still. However, after we waited in an interior hallway for over an hour, we were herded into a smaller lecture hall to finish the performance. Eisenberg chose a different story this time, and only read the opening pages. I am sure it was marvelous, but with the winds still howling outside, I was distracted. The only reading I've attended where I was truly riveted from start to finish was also in Iowa City when I was a graduate student. D.A. Powell read from his collection of poems Chronic with such a feisty and comic theatricality that for weeks afterward I found myself reenacting the event, as if I'd seen a dance performance and wanted to try out the steps for myself in my living room. I loved how playful Powell's poems were, and how this playfulness left you unprepared for their beauty, which made them all the more delicious. D.A. Powell's reading was followed, and matched in greatness, by Edward Carey's. Carey is a small English fellow with a flop of boyish blond hair, and his novel Observatory Mansions, is delightfully off-the-wall. He was a masterful reader--it felt like we were gathered around the campfire, or listening to a ye olden radio play, with Britain's preeminent actor flexing his talent just for the fun of it. That night felt like real theatre. Garth Risk Hallberg: As an undergraduate in Missouri, I learned as much from the surfeit of on-campus readings as I did from any class. One of the most memorable featured Ben Marcus performing parts of his novel-in-progress Notable American Women. I use the term "performing" advisedly; Marcus had concocted an elaborate conceptual framework in which he was not himself but (I think) a secret agent shadowing "the author Ben Marcus." Equally performative, in his own canny way, was David Foster Wallace, who delivered an hour-long reading from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men still talked about by those who attended. Wallace's prefatory remarks played up his ineptitutude at public speaking - "I seem to have misplaced my saliva," he said at one point - but what followed (B.I. #20; the one about the rape) was beyond ept. Indeed, in a twangy shambolic way I'm finding impossible to describe, it was riveting. Later, I got to hear the late Kenneth Koch - a hero of my semi-rural adolescence - read from New Addresses. Usually, I get impatient with explanations about a poem's composition, strategies, place in the author's oeuvre, etc., but Koch was a wonderful storyteller, and as the reading went on, poems and exposition began to bleed into each other: witty, philosophical, and humane. And in 1999, I saw William H. Gass, whose International Writers Center (IWC) had sponsored the above events, read a scarifying section of The Tunnel. (Readers can now hear the entire novel as an audiobook.) In larger cities where authors appear like summer fireflies - nightly, and en masse - it's easy to come to see readings as transactions: obligations (from one side of the ledger), or as promotional stunts (from the other). But those irruptions of literature into the flat gray Midwestern winters remind me - as Deborah Eisenberg and Péter Esterházy would later, in New York - that a great reading is a singular communal experience. Indeed, as a way into the minds of other human beings, declamation predates literature. Maybe this is why I get misty-eyed every time I hear that old wire recording of Walt Whitman reading "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" - even if the occasion is just a Levi's commercial. Sonya Chung: The other night, poet/performance artist/novelist Sapphire – author of the novel Push, on which the feature film Precious is based – did a public reading at the National Arts Club in New York to kick off the Poetry Society of America’s Centennial. The event was also the opening reception for an impressive and seemingly exhaustive exhibit of drawings, photographs, and oil portraits of distinguished poets (living and dead), and was preceded by a benefit reading featuring Galway Kinnell, Marie Ponsot, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Richard Howard. Sapphire opened with a poem by Etheridge Knight and went on to read her own work. Remind me to wear tight jeans and spike heels and to use my whole body and every register of voice I can muster the next time I do a reading. She sang, she incanted, she channeled and grooved. She read a poem about Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, another featuring Raskolnikov and Katerina, and the penultimate of the evening – a poem called “Survivor,” named for the reality show – that you’ll really just have to see/hear her read in person sometime. She stood in that venerable Gramercy parlor with 100 years of poetry creation and community welling up behind her, those venerable poets of yore looking on from their immortalized frames on all four walls; and one couldn’t help but be reminded of another kick-off event: January 20, 2009. Sapphire’s performance – both elegant and no-nonsense – and its spark of contextual incongruousness, made the reading utterly memorable. Anne Yoder: The bookish should take a cue from our more extroverted playwriting brethren and remember that an audience needs to be entertained. Literary readings are performances, people. This fact is too often forgotten, and readings frequently resemble reversions to grade school story time, or are reminiscent of lay readings at church services, where the nervous race to finish and the serious, often zealous, overdose on sincerity and didacticism. In terms of material, light, funny, and sexy generally goes further than complicated, sentimental, or sorrowful. But what stands out more are the readers themselves. Readers with oversized egos, with larger-than-life personas, or even a dollop of theatricality, know that impudence, playfulness, and ego make for a good show, and often, a memorable reading. The most remarkable readers I’ve seen have hewed to this rule. At a New Yorker Festival reading, Martin Amis made heads spin when he claimed that when he was younger his idea of a good time was lighting a joint, swigging a bottle of wine, and spending an evening reading his own writing. T.C. Boyle was endearingly cocky and wore suitably matched hot-pink Converse high-tops when he read at the 92nd Street Y last fall. Memory recalls hot pink, though my mind may be playing up his already eccentric appearance (loud shirt, gaunt face, and thin though voluminous hair). When artist Tracey Emin read from her memoir during Performa 09, her racy tale of an oversexed drug-addled visit to New York became so debauched she refused to read the passage to its end. She stopped short and exclaimed, “Schoolchildren in England read this?!” Emin’s infamous shamelessness made her obvious discomfort and subsequent omission all the more enticing. Playwright Edward Albee takes the prize, though, for his dramatic command in an impromptu performance. Albee read at a PEN reading to protest silenced Chinese writers on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, and began by remarking that many countries continue to violate their citizens' rights and imprison them unlawfully, most notably the United States and the People’s Republic of China. At which point, a man wearing a red T-shirt and bandana started shouting, “Long live the People’s Republic of China,” and, “PEN is the CIA.” At first Albee tried to engage the man's remarks and said that China should be allowed to continue on with nothing but severe criticism, and then lost patience and ordered him to be quiet. The protester was swiftly escorted outside where he continued his protest. In an apt denouement, Albee remarked that he was happy he lived in a country where people are free to say such things and continued reading. Millions readers, let us know about your best experiences at a reading - who are the best you've seen?
Hello! I'm back, this time reporting from Chicago, IL. Without further ado, I'll move on to what I have been reading lately. The first book I picked up since my last post was Asne Seierstad's A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal. I was longing for some non-fiction and Seierstad's memoirs of her visit to Baghdad three years ago seemed like a good choice (I have been meaning to read it for the past two years). Seierstad is a Norwegian freelance journalist that covered the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan prior to her trip to Baghdad. She arrived in Baghdad roughly 80 days before the war started and began reporting. Seierstad organizes her book in three parts: Before, During, and After. In these simply, yet carefully, organized sections Seierstad conveys her observations of the Iraqi society under Saddam Hussein, during the initial stages of the war, and after the capture of Baghdad. Seierstad has a very personable voice that almost embeds the reader alongside her. She provides good eyes and ears in a society that, under Saddam, became introverted and isolated. One learns about the difficulties of finding out about the regime, the spy network, the reluctance of locals to talk with foreigners, and how Iraqis perceived the brewing US attack on their country.Throughout the whole affair Seierstad also shows the bureaucratic network in Iraq, explains how she had to bribe officials to remain in, and once to re-enter, the country, and draws a unique portrait of Uday, Saddam's most feared son. Seierstad also communicates to the reader the difficulties endured by average Iraqis, both under Saddam and in face of advancing US troops. Civilian casualties inflicted by "smart bombs," the lack of resources in hospitals, and the fear of the emerging power vacuum each represent a part of the untold story, particularly during the initial stages of the war. Seierstad also mentions (or maybe even predicts) the emerging power struggle between Shiites and Sunnis as early as April 2003, a month after the war started. A Hundred and One Days is a very insightful and well written piece of work. Some of the stories are heart wrenching and leave one wondering how the great powers, and their leaders, could not foresee all the misery that would follow the war. If you are curious about the mood in Iraq, and mostly in Baghdad, at the onset of the war, I suggest that you get your hands on Seierstad's brilliant memoirs. (See Andrew's review of A Hundred and One Days)Next I turned to Irvine Welsh's Marabou Stork Nightmares, which had been sitting on my shelves for the past four years. My brilliant friend Mitch had bestowed the book upon me during our final year of college, telling me that it was the best written novel he ever read. Now, that's a pretty strong statement but I have to agree with Mr. Maddox that Welsh's narrative in Marabou Stork Nightmares is smart, innovative, and fluent.The protagonist Roy Strang is in a coma when the reader first meets him. The narrative moves between Strang's perceptions of things happening around him (such as visits from parents, friends, nurses, doctors, and unrecognized people), to Strang's fantasy world (set in South Africa, where he and Sandy Jamieson are trying to hunt the leader of the Marabou Storks, who are dominating and ruining the wildlife) and Strang's autobiography. The three worlds intertwine as Welsh brings the reader to the current day, sheds light on the demise of Roy Strang, connects his fantasy world with the real, and presents a grand finale at the hospital where the protagonist is stranded. This quite awesome story is further enhanced by Welsh's portrayal of Scots living in "schemes" (i.e. projects) outside Edinburgh and the personal anxieties he created for each character. Child abuse, gay tendencies, rape fantasies, a retarded sibling, a dysfunctional family, and hooligans all add new dimensions to the great story that Welsh devised. If you are a fan of Trainspotting and/or The Acid House, want a good laugh, and can stomach some disturbing moments, you should definitely pick up Welsh's Marabou Stork Nightmares.See Also: Part 2
Some good new fiction paperbacks have come out in the past days and weeks. Today's new arrival is Porno by Irvine Welsh. This one apparently resurrects the characters from Trainspotting and chronicles their foray into the world of adult films. I read Trainspotting while I was staying with my friend Derek and his folks at their house in Maine. I loved the book; I was thrilled when I found myself thinking in the thick Scottish accent of the book: bairn for baby, bird for girl, etc. It was the summer after my senior year in high school. I was of an age and at a moment for which Trainspotting was perfect, plus there is something special about a book read while vacationing, when huge chuncks are read at a time, and nothing that happens in between these reading sessions is weighty enough to detract from a full immersion in the story at hand. I became sufficiently attached to Renton, Sick Boy, and the rest that had Porno been around, I probably would have begun reading it the moment I set down its predecessor. Instead, with the intervening pause approaching ten years, I never mustered the interest to read Porno. Maybe if I ever read Trainspotting again, I will read Porno as well. Also out recently in paper: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Since Murakami's stories appear frequently in the New Yorker, and since I read the New Yorker each week, by the time this earthquake-centered collection came out I had already read many of the stories. Once some time has passed, a decade perhaps, I will buy this book and read all the stories again. I feel confident that Murakami will remain in print. One day I would also like to reread his book Norwegian Wood. It is a favorite book of mine, in large part bacause it reminded me of that great feeling you get when you find one that's really good. Life of Pi by Yann Martel, I suspect, may be able to deliver that same feeling. This one, since it came out, has had an ever-growing swell of support, cresting with it's being awarded the Booker Prize. My grandmother, whose taste in books I trust considerably, found this book to be remarkable. Out of all the books I'm mentioning today, I'll most likely read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer soonest. I read an excerpt of the book many months ago in a "New Fiction" issue of the New Yorker. I was both surprised by and somewhat skeptical of its more daring stylistic flourishes. There is no denying that this is a good book though, unless I'm foolish enough to go against the recommendations of several of my trusted fellow readers.A Small but Important Poker AddendaIn my mention of Positively Fifth Street, I forget to mention a related book that, at the very least, I would like to have on the record so that I remember to read it one day. The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez is another account of the World Series of Poker and is, from what I hear, a must read for all poker fans. Plus, Chronicle Books is the publisher, which is why it looks so cool.