Archive for January, 2009

On the demise of the Washington Post Book World

booksthumbiconThe persistent rumors have now been confirmed: the NY Times reported today that the Washington Post Book World will soon cease to be a separate entity in print. Book World will continue its independent existence online, but otherwise Post book coverage will be folded into other sections. As the Times story notes, publishers tend to pony up very little money for ad space in newspapers, and so folks in the newspaper business have had an increasingly hard time justifying turning over all those column inches to book coverage, especially in the midst of a financial crisis.

As a fledgling book critic, I’m never happy to hear news of newspaper book sections suffering cuts. But the news hardly comes as a surprise, and it’s possible to take at least some consolation in the fact that no one at the Post lost their jobs this time. It’s also encouraging that the paper plans to continue covering books in a dedicated and coherent fashion online.

Many of the early commentators on this matter seem to share the point of view of National Book Critics Circle president Jane Ciabatti, who the Times quotes as lamenting the death of the print edition because “it carried an authority that has not yet its parallel, online or off.” I find this comment very telling. Ciabatti is right on about one thing: there isn’t yet any site on the web that can boast of the kind of concentrated audience and authority that stand-alone print sections like Book World have enjoyed in the past. But, as the fairly widely-read book blog Elegant Variation put it today, “The future of book reviewing will not be found in print dailies…it’s online.” Sooner or later, a book reviewing website will become sufficiently popular and widely-read to achieve a position of substantial influence among dedicated readers. It’s possible that the site will be the online incarnation of an old newspaper books section—but it strikes me as more likely that it will be a new and independent operation, something born on the web and better suited to exploiting the advantages of the online environment. A good model for this would be the indie rock website Pitchfork, which started out as an amateur project, and in less than a decade became the most influential single voice within the indie rock subculture. With old models of distribution rapidly decaying, the time is ripe for an ambitious editor to bring a book site of similar importance into being.

But it’s also important to note that, despite its influence, Pitchfork is far from the only game in town when it comes to shaping indie rock opinion. Pitchfork makes and breaks bands on a regular basis, but so do music bloggers, and there are now any number of other paths by which a band or musician can come to the attention of fans. And like it or not, serious book lovers, much like indie rock fans, now constitute nothing more than another subculture. When it comes to the fate of the Book World, I think it’s not really the demise of the print section itself that Ciabatti and many others are mourning; rather, it’s the death of a world in which mainstream publications like the Washington Post could serve the role of cultural gatekeeper for a broad audience of readers. But today’s audiences are fragmented and diverse, and most consumers of books, music, and the arts are not particularly interested in being treated as an indistinguishable part of an undistinguished mass. And why should they be, when there’s a whole world of diverse and fascinating critical voices already out there on the web for readers to turn to?


My review of Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing on PopMatters

My review of Stewart O’Nan’s fine new novel Songs for the Missing runs today on PopMatters. I wrote about O’Nan’s previous book, Last Night at the Lobster, here on the blog a little while back. On O’Nan’s website, you can browse his expansive recommended reading list or read a timeline of his life as a writer

New review on PopMatters

My review of Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain by Kirsten Menger-Anderson appears today on PopMatters. It’s a story collection with an intriguing and appealing premise, though unfortunately it fails to live up to its promise.


In a recent essay, NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani discusses President Barack Obama as a reader and writer. As a bookish type myself, I can’t help but be pleased with the ascension of a politician who reads widely and writes extremely well: personally, I’d much rather talk books over a beer with Barack than suffer through small talk about sports and brush-clearing with a faux-everyman like W. I feel better about where Obama’s coming from, knowing that he’s big into Emerson and that he considers The Golden Notebook one of his favorite books. He’s even up to speed on and sympathetic toward the ideas of food writer and activist Michael Pollan.

When watching last night’s Neighborhood Ball, I experienced a similar moment of recognition when Obama made a point of telling the non-VIP crowd that he and Michelle fully intend to be involved in making Washington D.C. a better place—and not just political Washington, but the city as a whole. He traced this desire to his background as a community organizer—and I thought, my god, our president is actually a man who not only sincerely cares about poor people and urban issues, but—just like my friends who work in legal aid and as union organizers—has consistently evidenced a genuine and passionate commitment to serving and empowering those people whose needs and desires are largely ignored by the political process. President Obama, reader and community organizer: this is a leader I can get behind.

Andrew Bird reimagines a song from World War I

guitarthumbiconThe typical rock cover tune takes the form of faithful homage: a loving tribute to a favorite songwriter or an important influence. At best, this kind of cover opens a window into an artist’s formative aesthetics, and draws a through line between a contemporary and his or her predecessors; at worst, it’s plodding, dull, and unimaginative, too caught up in being respectful to be interesting. Then there’s the novelty cover, in which a band takes an ironic crack at an uncool or highly unexpected source: a punk version of a Barry Manilow tune, or a bluegrass take on the Ramones. This kind of cover rarely rises above the level of a wisecrack: it’s kind of funny in passing, but also predictable and usually entirely forgettable.

A better approach to the cover tune is to avoid the dual traps of over-easy irony and over-earnest tribute by aiming instead at reinterpretation. One of the best reinterpretive covers I’ve heard recently is Andrew Bird’s version of the 1918 pop hit “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm,” which he released, slightly retitled as “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm,” on his 2008 EP Soldier On. The original version, with lyrics by Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young, and music by Walter Donaldson, was recorded by a number of popular performers in the years immediately following World War I. You can hear a version recorded by Harry Fay in 1918 here, via You can read the lyrics on the same site, and also at Time Portal To Old St. Louis, which puts the song’s publication date at 1919 rather than 1918.

In the song, a couple argue with one another about whether their sons will return home to the farm now that World War I has come to an end. When the wife expresses her happiness at the thought of her boys coming home, her husband, Reuben, replies, “How ’ya gonna keep ’em, down on the farm / After they’ve seen Pa-ree?” He suggests that “They’ll never want to see a rake or plow,” and (amusingly and absurdly) asks her, “And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?” The wife’s reply is that you can take the boy from the farm, but you can’t take the farm from the boy: “Once a farmer, always a jay /And farmers always stick to the hay.”

Fay’s 1919 version of the tune bounces along amiably, treating the lyric (which is sometimes quite silly) as a lighthearted joke. His performance is all humor and showmanship, without a trace of either sentimentality or seriousness. Bird, on the other hand, decides to take the lyrics fully in earnest, and transforms the song into a slow and mournful folk ballad. Though he follows the original lyric closely, he reworks the melody dramatically, and both his vocal performance and arrangement come off as utterly sincere. As a result, the humorous novelty pop hit becomes something much sweeter, sadder, and richer. Bird’s vocal poignantly captures the sadness of a parent who recognizes that her grown-up children won’t be coming home again, and her fear for their well-being and safety now that they’re beyond her protection (“How ya gonna keep ’em away from harm,” Bird sings in the chorus, with both nervousness and world-wise resignation). At the same time, you can hear a parent’s pride and joy in her sons’ independence, and the understanding that it’s time to let go.

Released in 2008, Bird’s version also taps into the ninety years of American history that has elapsed since “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm” was originally published. In Bird’s hands, the song also becomes a lament for the slow death of American rural culture. We now know that the husband in the song is absolutely right: over the course of the 20th century, almost every farmer’s son and daughter did indeed leave the farm, and resettled in the cities and the suburbs. Part of what’s great about Bird’s rendition is that it doesn’t display much nostalgia: his vocal delivery treats the lure of the city seriously, and admits both the pleasures of modern life and the sadness of the increasingly few people who’ve stayed behind and remained a part of rural culture. Bird (who lives in both Chicago and rural Illinois) doesn’t judge the parents for staying or the children for leaving; instead, he goes after the idea of what it feels like as the world changes around you, becoming a different place (for better or worse) than the one you’ve loved.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s inauguration story

booksthumbiconSlate is serializing a new novella by Curtis Sittenfeld on the theme of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The novella, titled “All Along, This Was What Was Supposed To Happen,” tells the story of a Philadelphia woman and her aunt traveling to Washington for the inauguration. The first part ran yesterday; the second, today, with three more forthcoming.

Sittenfeld had a big hit a few years ago with her first novel, Prep, and her new book, American Wife, a thinly fictionalized novel about Laura Bush, has been getting a lot of attention. I’m eager to read it, and in the meantime I’m enjoying the novella on Slate. I like Sittenfeld’s boldness and ambition, and I admire her ability to use straightforward, casually elegant prose in order to bring characters to life on the page.

The bear plays the saxophone (or, a bear who wants to be Bird)

The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor

The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor

Your eyes are not deceiving you: on the book cover above, that really is a bear playing the saxophone. Rather improbably, Rafi Zabor’s first novel The Bear Comes Home received the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award—and I say improbably not because it’s a bad book (actually, it’s terrific), and not even because of its oddball premise (involving a bear living in New York and trying to make it in the jazz world), but rather because so many of the novel’s passages portray the process of jazz improvisation at great length and in great detail. The book’s central storyline traces the Bear’s creative development as a band leader and alto saxophone improviser, and readers without a solid background knowledge of jazz will probably have a hard time following exactly what’s going on during Zabor’s extended descriptions of Bear’s solos. Zabor frequently uses the characteristic styles of significant jazz players as points of reference for Bear’s playing, and sometimes even includes transcriptions of melodies and chord progressions. But, as the friend who lent me a copy of the book pointed out, The Bear Comes Home is at its core not only a novel about jazz, but also about the creative process. As the Bear wrestles with his influences, practices his technique, negotiates thorny aesthetic questions, and attempts to find his voice, he’s struggling with the same problems that all artists must work through.

Another broader theme of The Bear Comes Home is the idea of artist as an outsider—as someone who is drawn to the human world, but by nature always remains on its fringes, uncomfortable with mainstream society and the ways in which most people live their lives. And the book is also a love story—albeit one involving lots of bear-on-woman sex. Though the abundance of interspecies action is without doubt the strangest aspect of Zabor’s altogether very odd novel, it’s also a vehicle for exploring some very conventional themes, such as communication problems between men and women and male struggles with emotional maturity. In fact, the plotline involving the Bear’s love life eventually becomes a little tedious—it takes him a terribly long time to figure out how to negotiate an adult romantic relationship. (Admittedly, he’s at something of a disadvantage, being a bear and all, but as the novel went on, I did grow increasingly impatient with his consistent inability to act like an adult.) Be warned: there are a number of very sexually explicit passages in the novel involving the Bear’s intimate relations with his human lover. But for the most part they’re written with a geeky technicality that helps reduce the queasiness factor; Zabor often seems preoccupied with exactly how interspecies sex might work, much in the same way he’s fascinated by what a bear would need to do physically in order to be able to play the saxophone. Also, Zabor’s very insistent throughout on not treating their relationship as a freakshow. You never forget that the Bear is a Bear, but Zabor all the same is only moderately interested in novelty and titillation. Aside from the obvious, there’s nothing Zabor’s portrayal of the Bear’s love life that wouldn’t seem at home in a mainstream romantic comedy.

For those of you out there who (like me) do love jazz, The Bear Comes Home is a real treat. Numerous real jazz players (ranging from Charlie Haden to Roscoe Mitchell) make cameos, and there’s even a scene in which members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago dress up as hospital personnel in order to rescue the Bear from captivity. (There’s also a scene in which the Bear joins the Art Ensemble onstage, and no one really pays much attention, assuming he’s in costume just like they are.) In-jokes abound, including some very funny passages about the rise of Wynton Marsalis and the marginalization of the avant-garde. And though the jazz-related humor is rich, Zabor’s serious treatment of improvisation, aesthetics, and creative development in jazz is far richer. In his lengthy accounts of the Bear’s solos, Zabor fully captures the fear, joy, and wonder of artistic creation, and in the process offers an intelligent and coherent portrait of the artistic growth and aesthetic personality of a jazz saxophonist. Zabor writes about the Bear’s playing with both the passion of an artist and the keen intellectual eye of a superb critic, and as a result The Bear Comes Home contains some of the finest and most insightful writing about jazz I’ve ever encountered.

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

January 2009
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