The Art of the Review II: Ron Charles

Parul Sehgal– PWxyz, March 25th, 2011

Clearly, we can’t get enough of Ron Charles. And can you blame us? Even before his alter ego, the zany Totally Hip Book Video Reviewer, peered up at us through strips of raw bacon, the longtime book critic has been charming, disarming, and educating us every week in the pages of the Washington Post.

The winner of the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award (hisacceptance speech ought to be required viewing), he’s beloved for his humility and playful prose, for his reviews that, in Scott McLemee’s words, “display a knack for characterizing the shape and style of a book. Charles writes about craft without turning his reviews into manifestos for a single school of it.”

We–the tragically unhip–catch up with Charles and chat about Peter Carey, pornographers, and the virtues of curbing your enthusiasm.

Where did the Totally Hip Video Book Reviewer come from?

I’ve always made short funny videos for my family, and I started toying with doing a new series featuring a character I called the Super Book Critic who imagined that he had superhuman powers (it mainly featured me getting books out of trees). The idea evolved, and my wife and I thought, why don’t we take the review in this week’s paper—it was Mona Simpson’s Hollywood—and film it in three or four minutes? We ran around the house, and I acted it out a bit. I put it up on YouTube and got something like 3000 hits in 24 hrs. The response was incredible. I’d expected to hear from my manager or someone on the 5th floor telling me, “Take this down. You’re embarrassing us!”—or worse. But instead I got a note saying that the Post video team wanted to produce and edit the videos. But that would have been a whole other job, and it would have to be very professional. Instead we’ve kept it as a very casual arrangement. Most weekends, my wife and I make a video and hand it in to my editors on Monday. The audience is not that large—

But we are fervent.

People are being very nice about it.

I especially enjoyed your review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Speaking of Franzen (what a segue!), with the Franzenfreude episode, increasing attention is finally being paid to how infrequently authors who are women and people of color are reviewed compared to their white, male counterparts. Is this something the Washington Post is trying to address?

Continue reading

Anne Carson: Evoking the Starry Lad

The Irish Times, March 19, 2011

On Thursday the Canadian poet Anne Carson speaks at the Poetry Now festival. She tells PARUL SEHGAL about her elegy in verse for her late sibling, Michael

‘So, Pinhead, d’you attain wisdom yet?”

In 1979 Anne Carson’s brother fled Canada to escape being arrested for dealing drugs. For 22 years he roamed India and Europe under false passports, writing home infrequently and calling only half a dozen times. He resurfaced in 2000, calling the poet at her office, using his pet name, Pinhead, for his brainy younger sister. He lived in Copenhagen now. He wanted to see her. He wanted her to meet his wife and his dog. They made a plan, and a week before she was due to visit she received another call from Denmark. Her brother was dead.

“His widow says he wanted to be cast in the sea, and so she did this,” she writes in her astonishing elegy to her brother, Nox. “There is no stone and as I say he had changed his name,” she writes. Nox, a grey, squat slab of a book – a book in a box, as self-enclosed as grief; a book so bulky it cannot be carried but must be visited – is his headstone. In the months after her brother’s death Carson gathered his fragments, his letters and photographs. She pasted them into a blank book and inscribed his name, in her own hand, over and over again on the title page: Michael, Michael, Michael .

“He was such a puzzle,” she says. “I think by writing, and I wanted a way to think about him.” We meet at a cafe near New York University, where she is a “distinguished poet-in-residence” and a visiting professor in the creative-writing programme, and strain to be heard over the hissing cappuccino machines.

As visiting professor, in the autumn term, Carson teaches a typically idiosyncratic course on collaboration with her friend Robert Currie, who helped to design Nox. (“We just give the students tasks, like burn something and make something out of the ash.”) On Thursday Carson will deliver the keynote address at dlr Poetry Now, Ireland’s largest poetry festival, in Dún Laoghaire. She’s planning to talk about “untranslatable things” and draw on Detroit’s Heidelberg Project – prime Carson source material. In one of the American Midwest’s most ravaged cities, a local artist named Tyree Guyton has spent 25 years beautifying two blocks, salvaging materials and pasting them to the outsides of derelict houses. He’s covered houses with dolls, bicycle wheels, car parts. The ghost town gleams.

Continue reading

The Art of the Review I: Laura Miller

by Parul Sehgal, PWxyz, Mar. 18, 2011

We’re happy to announce a new series on PWxyz–The Art of the Review. Every Friday, we’ll be interviewing our favorite reviewers, talking technique, and taking the pulse of criticism today: How do critics select books to review? Have they ever been wrong about a book? How much impact do reviews have anyway? How do critics in print media feel about their online counterparts and vice versa–are they in league or at odds? We’ll be talking to reviewers at established dailies, at up-and-coming review websites, and working all over the world–in New York, Dublin, and New Delhi.

We’re kicking things off with an interview with Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, and cofounder of Salon.com for which she writes a regular column on books, beloved for its wit, directness, and deep engagement with (and omnivorous appetite for) books of all genres.

She talks to us about how book critics have let down the public, why she likes reading–but doesn’t trust–James Wood’s reviews, and why everyone should at least try to read Twilight.

You’re one of the reviewers I most enjoy following—not least because I can never predict what you’re going to cover next. You write about a novel, like Room, one week and Let the Swords Encircle Me (the world’s longest, most intricate account of Iranian politics) the next. And the week after that, you’re on to Yellow Dirt, an exposé on uranium mining in the American Southwest. How do you decide what to cover?

I cover books that I’m enthusiastic about. I look at books in the same category, sample a bunch, and pick what I like the best. My general rule is in a month of 4 weeks, I do one fiction book and 3 nonfiction books: one memoir or autobiography, one history, and something contemporary. There are a few things I’m not into—I’m not big on military history, and sports books put me to sleep—but I do have broad tastes. Any book that someone tells me about or sends me, be it self-published or whatever, I try to look at the first couple paragraphs at least.

Why do you review so much more nonfiction than fiction?

At Salon, we know exactly how many people read every single story. When it comes to reviews, people are interested in reading the reviews of nonfiction books. Maybe it’s because even if they never read the book, they’ll learn something from the review.

“Franzenfreude” and the recent reports from FAIR and Vida have drawn attention to how infrequently authors who are women and/or people of color are reviewed compared to their white, male counterparts. Is this disparity something you think about or try to address in your review coverage?

Continue reading

Native Son: A Profile of Ishmael Reed

By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, Mar 14, 2011

Norman Mailer walks into a bar.  Not just any bar, though: it’s the legendary White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, and where, in the 1960s, a young jazz journalist from Buffalo, N.Y., named Ishmael Reed, liked to lurk and stargaze.

“I was so green,” Reed remembers. “But I walked over. Told him he was the greatest writer since Chaucer. He invited me to join his party and bought me drinks all night. I love this town. I couldn’t have made it as an author without coming to New York. But if I hadn’t have left, I’d have perished from an overdose of affection. I was getting loved to death.”

That’s not hyperbole. For a writer whose sensibility has always tilted toward the surreal and experimental (Nathanael West was an early and important influence), whose political incorrectness has been so brazen, his public feuds with other writers (pre-eminently feminists) so frequent and bitter, and his critique of white America so relentless, it might seem astonishing that he’s been as lavishly feted by the very establishment and in the very mainstream he typically excoriates. His books have twice been nominated for the National Book Award, and he’s received a Los Angeles Book Prize, the Langston Hughes Medal, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1998 he received a MacArthur “genius” grant. He’s been consistently productive, with nine novels, six poetry collections, eight books of essays, one libretto, 13 anthologies, and six plays. He blogs. He recently retired after teaching at Berkeley for 35 years. He’s the founder of his own publishing imprint, his own jazz quintet, two online literary magazines, and a literary foundation that presents the annual American Book Award. Even the Reed home seems like a happy hive of continuous creativity: he and his wife of 40 years, the choreographer Carla Blank, co-edited the literary anthology, Pow Wow: American Short Fiction from Then to Now, and play in his quintet together, Reed on piano, Blank on violin. His imprint recently published his mother’s memoir. And every Saturday morning, he holds an informal writing workshop with his two daughters—both writers—at a local Starbucks.

But Reed, now 73, proudly insists on wearing the mantle of the outsider. “I view myself as a one-man communication center that provides a check on propaganda attacks on besieged groups and individuals who don’t have the means to fight back,” he says. For a new generation, he might be most familiar as the Herzog-like character frequenting the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Boston Globe, and the Wall Street Journalcondemning the bowdlerization of Huckleberry Finn, and protesting damaging portrayals of black men in the films Precious and The Color Purple and in the television series, The Wire. Reed says, “My work holds up the mirror to hypocrisy, which puts me in a tradition of American writing that reaches back to Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Continue reading

Go East, Young Man

Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, Dec. 6, 2010

It’s been a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in pursuit of his fortune travels West. So in 2008, when Anand Giridharadas, writer of the “Currents” column for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times online, observed in the Times that not only were India’s best and brightest increasingly likely to stay put, but the children of immigrants were being lured back to Chennai and Chandigarh—it caused a small splash (and an e-mail forwarding frenzy) among South Asians.

The article is now a book, India Calling (Times Books, Jan. 2011). It’s both part of a crop of books analyzing India’s economic boom—and utterly distinct. Giridharadas’s interest in modernization is about how it alters “the stories people tell themselves about themselves.”

Back in the U.S. after reporting for the Herald Tribune and the Times from Mumbai from 2005–2009, Giridharadas is pursuing a doctorate in political philosophy at Harvard, but still he’s taking four months a year to travel and report on everything from eating turtle in Chengdu to Obama’s recent visit to India. We met—auspiciously—on the Hindu festival of Diwali, which celebrates an end of exile and a return to homeland.
Continue reading

Harlem Revisited: PW Talks with Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, Dec 06, 2010

In Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, Texas transplant and journalist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts tracks the storied neighborhood in history, literature, and daily life.

What was it like living in a place and writing about it at the same time?

It was a real conundrum. I’d always imagine that I was running back and forth between two worlds—the library and the street—and I knew I had to bring those two experiences into the same frame. And there was a stage when I just had to shut it all out, and Harlem just had to be where I lived. These are all the questions of the book. How do the stories we’re told in everyday life measure up with the stories that get written into history books? How are these stories transmitted?

You write about Harlem both as a literal and metaphorical place. Why did you choose this approach?
Continue reading

Idea Book

In his mind-opening new book, Where Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explores the seeds of innovation.
By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly Sep 27, 2010

E-books have found themselves a passionate and articulate champion in Steven Johnson, the bestselling author of Everything Bad Is Good for YouThe Ghost Map, and The Invention of Air.

As he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, books’ migration to the digital realm is “not a simple matter of trading ink for pixels”—e-books are going to radically change the “core attributes that we have associated with book reading for more than 500 years.” Reading won’t necessarily be immersive and solitary—it might be dizzyingly social and rapidly interrupted. We might read books as we do articles on the Web, in fits and starts, now rapt, now distracted, now moving on to something else entirely.

Johnson’s approach is as distinctive in its unsentimentality as in its copiousness—books, he reminds us, are but one vessel for ideas and information, and have been too long the hermetically sealed bystanders of the infosphere’s merry hyperlinked connectedness. The e-book revolution will allow us to harness this “vast trove of knowledge” on an unprecedented scale, and with each word searchable, there is peerless potential for creating new forms of scholarship and “new forms of discovery.”
Continue reading

Here Comes Clay Shirky

One of the digital age’s great thinkers talks to PW about his new book, Cognitive Surplus, web “values,” and the changing world of publishing.

By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, 6/21/2010

Fall the talk of disruptive technology in the publishing and media worlds, it isn’t easy to be an optimist these days. But it’s hard not to notice that Clay Shirky, one of the digital age’s most original, engaged thinkers, is remarkably sanguine about the prospects of new media—especially for a man so immersed in discussing its problems.

In 2008 Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, was one of the first to predict the power of social media, lauding the power and potential of a collaborative digital space, from crowdsourcing to the kind of sharing now popularized by Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. This month, he’s back with a new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin Press), an equally prescient book that extols the possibilities of the Internet age and outlines the social obligations that come with it, beyond tweeting, or posting pithy status updates.

“How we put our collective talents to work is a social issue,” Shirky writes, “not solely a personal one.”

Continue reading

The Best of All Possible Worlds: PW Talks with J.C. Hallman

by Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, 6/21/2010

Hallman investigates modern day utopians in their natural habitats—communes, $30 billion megacities, bed and breakfasts in Italy, ships perpetually circling the world—in In Utopia (click here for the PW review).

The deeper I got into the book, the more I saw utopian efforts everywhere. What do you you see in the mainstream?

The U.S. itself is arguably an achieved utopia. Many of the rights in our founding documents—freedom of speech, power-sharing government, right to firearms—are easy to find in earlier literature that was counted as utopian when it was produced. The mood of the 20th century was largely dystopian, thanks to the world wars and the Cold War, but a utopian mood is emerging. President Obama is fond of referring to the “American experiment” and the “more perfect union” the Constitution tasks us to achieve. You have to have a pretty tin ear not to hear the utopian echo of “more perfect.”
Continue reading

Elif Batuman & The Possessed

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 754 : Mar 11–17, 2010

You’re extremely critical of modern fiction—and particularly of the American short story. Are there contemporary fiction writers you do enjoy?
Yes, absolutely! My favorite living writer is Haruki Murakami, which I can’t fully explain, but there it is—I even read and enjoyed the book about his running diary! I also really like Kazuo Ishiguro and Jonathan Franzen. In the past year I read and enjoyed Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives.

My issues with the American short story are really more about a certain institutional pedagogic aesthetic than about individual writers or works. Living Americans whose short stories I have read and enjoyed include Keith Gessen, Damion Searls, Aleksandar Hemon, Donald Antrim, James Salter and Joyce Carol Oates. Also some Canadians, like Alice Munro and David Bezmozgis.

Continue reading