Welcome to the Shelf Talker, a semi-regular tra-la-la through the the world of books, authors and readings. Send tips, recommendations and backhanded compliments. to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow us on twitter @book_tour.
Scary Smart Solnit:
Our friends at Bomb Magazine just gave us a sneaky peaky at their fall issue which features an interview with Rebecca Solnit, a wandering-academic-professional-smart-person who lives just up the road from TST HQ. Ms. Solnit has a new book out called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extrodinary Communities that Arise in Disaster which looks at several large urban areas (San Francisco, Halifax, Nova Scotia, New Orleans), the horrific events that brought them low (the 1906 earthquake, a 1917 industrial explosion, Hurricane Katrina) and how those communities rebuilt themselves into something different and something more.
We haven't heard but we're assuming the egg of this idea was Solnit's work on "Detroit Arcadia", an article she wrote for Harper's in 2007 where she took a walk around America's first deceased industrial metropolis and found it wasn't quite as deceased as we might think. "Detroit Arcadia" remains one of the finest pieces of cognitive journalism TST has ever read, and in an instant, made us Rebecca's Solnit's biggest fan.
And more than a bit intimidated. For you see, Rebecca Solnit is smart. Not like made-a-witty-remark-over-canapes kind of smart but scary, wide-ranging, we-have-nothing-to-add-here-and-will-now-slink-away-to-play-with-Silly-Putty kind of smart. The only other writer we've met in her league is fellow San Franciscan Jonathon Keats whom we mentioned in a previous column as the kind of smart that makes you feel dumb for say, metabolizing. Should they mate and produce offspring, we'd probably have dystopic update of The Sneetches on our hands, where the starbelly would be replaced by how well one can win NEA Grants while taking an afternoon nap.
None of which will stop us from dropping in on Ms. Solnit when she hits the road in September for a quick costal two-stop (Bay Area, New York City). To show our appreciation, We're thinking a case of Vernors Soda, as it is from Detroit. Or perhaps just a closed mouth, vigorous nodding and a lack of dumb questions.
Does the name Lorrie Moore mean anything to you? To us, she's only like the best short story writer ever. Someday when we meet our maker, we've instructed whoever's left to throw us into a hole with a jar of peanut butter, Purple Rain and a paperback of Ms. Moore's collection Self Help. Only then will we sleep content.
Sadly then that being a Lorrie Moore fan is a little like placing long bets on Axl Rose. She doesn't tour all that much, takes a goodly pause between books and never volunteers to go yap with Bill Moyers about what a dreadful mess the we're in. She's the Bill Withers of contemporary literature, a graceful genius who isn't that interested in feeding her audience's ravenous appetite for more. More Moore.
All changes this fall as Lorrie Moore has a new novel dropping called A Gate at the Stairs, which is about September 11 and a woman-coming-of-age and midwestern colleges and oh, it's Lorrie Moore for heaven's sake, it doesn't matter. We're still there even its about grades of sandpaper.
Gate opened with a front page review this past weekend in the New York Times where Jonathan Lerthem began with the phrase "I’m aware of one — one — reader who doesn’t care for Lorrie Moore, and even that one seems a little apologetic about it." Moore will uncharacteristically be supporting the books with nearly a dozen appearances on both coasts and Chicago, before, one assumes, disappearing until the invention of Hoover Cars. This is justification enough for us to see Ms. Moore when she visits, even though Gate requires exactly zero more support than its already getting.
We can't help ourselves. We just want to give Lorrie Moore and uncomfortable hug. And perhaps Vernors.
Corrupting the (Reading) Youth of America
TST leap from our office bean bag chair when a friend sent us The New York Times's latest installment of their Future of Reading Series which profiles Laurie McNeil, a Georgia middle school teacher. Ms. McNeil is part of a growing movement to corrupt the youth of America by (gasp!) allowing her students to chose their reading list for the school year instead of assigning it to them. The thinking goes: A student who has made a choice of what to read, even within an the academic context, will grow to see reading as an lifetime activity of pleasure instead of one resented, slogged through and abandoned the Monday after graduation.
We accept that some cultural calamity might befall the nation if its tenth graders didn't all read Wuthering Heights together but we love this idea still. And not just because commanding TST to read The Age of Innocence in 1988 under pain of detention forever equated great literature to a trip to the orthodontist. We love it because its flexible enough to both include the classics and empower the student, because it rewards creative instead of just reliable teaching and because it understands the world to which these students belong. Choice is a given not an earned privilege. Literary education can then be about how to make informed choices which see reading as a long journey with many points of interest, instead of a few to be noted and forgotten before entering adulthood.
Which is precisely what happened to us. Our interest in literary classics was little more than obligatory (about like an interest in proper foot hygiene) until a friend asked if we'd like to read one together every few months, followed by rich dessert and cigars. Choice, paired with hedonism and a beautiful way to convert "should" into "want"
F*** To All That
Would you like to read an oral biography of the F word? We practically leaped off our sofa with a "Would I!"even after our initial disappointment that the author was not referring to "fabulous" "filibuster" or "fudgesicle." Still we thank the New Yorker's Book Bench blog for alerting us to this anthology edited by one Jesse Sheidlower, with a forward by Louis Black. Mr. Black has never said "fudgesicle" in polite compnay so far as we know. The Book Bench has missed a platinium opportunity to assemble its parent publication's most dignified contributors and have them all pronounce "fuck" into a YouTube ready camera. TST would pay good coin to hear this stink bomb of the English language escape the lips of Roger Angell, William Trevor or anyone in bow tie and suspenders.
Recommended: "Slanted and Enchated"by Kaya Oakes
Slanted and Enchated: The Evolution of Indie Culture by Ms. Kaya Oakes is the first book with the word "indie" in its title TST didn't feel like was whispering "poser!" at him from behind its dust jacket. Ms. Oakes and we are around the same age and yet while she was most likely writing for zines and going to warehouse punk shows, TST was most likely buying white Miami Vice blazers and memorizing the dance steps from Breakin'. We would have gladly been "indie" had we known that was an option as "indie" has been lionized by innumerable rock journalists, radio shows and colossal music festivals. Indie is now default for "cool." But we are as last-to-hear-about-it then as we are now.
And yet Ms. Oakes doesn't mythologize the movement she chronicles. Nor does she make the mistake of thinking its existence depends on jeering at whatever it is not (Michael Azerrad has some explaining to do here). Her treatment of the evolution of "indie culture" and all the loadedness that term carries with it--from Beats to Diggers, from college radio to riotgrrls--is wise, expansive and a little wistful. It understands both history and its passage. And it carries no bitterness that "indie" is largely gone, not because it was defeated but because it triumphed. The tools of communication and creativity are now in the hands of the many instead of the few. The distinction between what is mainstream and what isn't hardly matters anymore because cultural choices beyond the mainstream are infinite.
It is nearly impossible to write about your own youth and the larger culture that enrobed it without sounding self-congratulatory. Yet Kaya Oakes has done that impossibler. She's written about "indie" in a way that the hopelessly square readers still feel included. Which, to our understanding, was the idea behind "indie" all along.