Hiatus Explained

New baby. New job. New city. ‘Nuff said. At least now the books are free, so we have that going for us, which is nice.

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Dan Neil: Pulitzer Prize-winning… Auto Critic?

Click to read articles by Dan Neil

One of the best things about living in LA has been my discovery of Dan Neil.  I doubt I would’ve ever read the LA Times if I hadn’t lived here and I would’ve probably never heard of him, if not for the fact that he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his weekly column, “Rumble Seat.”

Dan Neil’s articles are less about the cars he reviews than they are about his exuberant writing (for me, at least).  It’s witty; it’s fun, and refreshingly unselfconscious.   Don’t get me wrong.  His mastery and knowledge of cars is impeccable.  All of the vital information is there:  horsepower, handling, styling, specs, etc.  Yet each article has it’s own personality.    Dan Neil’s talent lies in his ability to translate the essence (or soul, if you will) of each automobile to his readers.

For example, here’s an excerpt from a recent review of the 2009 Cadillac CTS-V:

“For starters, there is a 6.2-liter Corvette-ish engine under the hood, supercharged to within a hairy inch of its life. This engine does not produce a mellow flutter, a deep sonorous rumble, a seismic stirring like that of some distant underground fault. No. This engine screams like it’s got its hand on the stove. It howls. It whines like the Season 1 DVD collection of “The View.” Good Lord, somebody stop throwing those crows in the wood-chipper.”

Do you get an idea of what this car is all about?  I thought so.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning auto critic in Los Angeles: it just makes sense doesn’t it?

Andrew Sullivan: Why I Blog

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Andrew Sullivan has written an inspiring piece in The Atlantic about the rising stature of the blogosphere and why blogging has ushered in a “golden age” of journalism.  One key concept that leads him to this conclusion:  immediate accountability.

“To blog is therefore to let go of your writing in a way, to hold it at arm’s length, open it to scrutiny, allow it to float in the ether for a while, and to let others, as Montaigne did, pivot you toward relative truth. A blogger will notice this almost immediately upon starting. Some e-mailers, unsurprisingly, know more about a subject than the blogger does. They will send links, stories, and facts, challenging the blogger’s view of the world, sometimes outright refuting it, but more frequently adding context and nuance and complexity to an idea. The role of a blogger is not to defend against this but to embrace it. He is similar in this way to the host of a dinner party. He can provoke discussion or take a position, even passionately, but he also must create an atmosphere in which others want to participate.”

The most visceral aspect of blogging is the fact that the distance between author and reader is virtually nil.  Scary, but at the same time, exhilarating.

2008 National Book Award Finalists

Click to read descriptions of each finalist.

The finalists for the 2008 National Book Award for Fiction have been announced. They are:

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (Riverhead)
Rachel Kushner, Telex from Cuba (Scribner)
Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country (Modern Library)
Marilynne Robinson, Home (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Salvatore Scibona, The End (Graywolf Press)

I’ve just started reading Home. It’s a companion novel to Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Gilead, which is one of the most beautiful, affecting novels I’ve ever read. Jack Boughton, a central figure in both novels, is a powerfully heartbreaking character. Robinson writes with such measured grace that the mastery of her prose does not sink in until long after you’ve finished reading it. I’ve found myself, on numerous occasions, thinking about a passage in Gilead, pulling the book from my bookshelf to re-read it, and marveling at its understated greatness.

The winner will be announced at the 59th National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner on November 19th in New York City. To read full descriptions of each finalist and the finalists for the Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature categories, check out the National Book Foundation website.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Buy it at Amazon.com

The 150-word Review: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line: a geometric ideal unattainable by human hands alone.  Try drawing the trajectory of your life, free hand, from Point A to Point B.  A straight line is impossible.  Even in the steadiest hand, it would contain a multitude of veers, tremors, and digressions.  Among these, and their accompanying corrections, lies the richness of life.

The Lamberts are anything but steady hands.  Enid, at once suffering and insufferable, struggles to maintain a sense of Midwestern propriety in an empty house with Alfred, distant and cold, as his mind slowly succumbs to Parkinson’s.  Their three children have escaped to the East Coast (and beyond) for the calamities of their adult lives.  In this brilliant novel, Jonathan Franzen sinks into the mistakes and corrections of each, proving with great authenticity, that the most interesting distance between two points is not a straight line.

You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of: advanced metallurgy, railroad engineering, Lithuanian politics, academic dilettantism, chemical dependency, haute cuisine, Midwestern propriety, luxury cruises, and Family Christmas.

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Funny thing Norm, Franzen publicly lamented the fact that The Corrections was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.

Malcolm Gladwell: Prodigies and Late Bloomers

Paul Cezanne - Self Portrait

Malcolm Gladwell’s new article in The New Yorker, “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?,” tackles the misconceptions of the late bloomer and how one differs from a prodigy. Using Cézanne and Picasso as examples of each, respectively, Gladwell explores the marked difference between them:

“On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all. Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith.”

In the article, Gladwell also studies the “overnight” literary successes of authors Ben Fountain and Jonathan Safran Foer. This article seems to tie-in with Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers: The Story of Success.” The Gladwell pastiche is well established: take a complex phenomenon and make it accessible by illustrating it with a series of bite-sized human-interest profiles. It’s a straightforward approach that works because of Gladwell’s fluid engaging style.

Eric Kraft: The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences, & Observations of Peter Leroy

Click to visit Eric Kraft's website.

I stumbled upon this short story by Eric Kraft on Guernica titled, “Postcards from the Museum of Olivia.” I was immediately struck by the way Kraft experiments with multiple layers of authorship.

This piece is presumably written by Kraft, describing a passage from the fictional journal of Peter Leroy, recounting a visit to the town of Olivia, who’s myth-like history is explained by a local woman he meets named Amanda.  Throughout the piece, Kraft meticulously shifts from author to author – Kraft the narrator, Peter Leroy the memoirist, and Amanda the town historian – blending history with myth and scrutinizing the authority of each narrative.  Here is an excerpt:

“According to Amanda, as quoted by Leroy, the little town had been shrinking for many years before the eponymous Olivia arrived. As Amanda’s friends and even some members of her family moved away, it became a lonely place, and Amanda herself began to think of leaving.

“We were on the verge of just disappearing,” Amanda explains, “but then one day Olivia drove into town. She was just passing through, like you, but she was enchanted by the prospect that she, a woman named Olivia, might live in a town named Olivia. Of course, at that time the town was named Gadsleyville, but nearly the whole damned place was for sale, so Olivia saw the opportunity and she seized it. She began buying up bits and pieces of us, and pretty soon she petitioned the town council to have the name changed to Olivia, so there she was and here we are.”

This story is part of a greater work of fiction, a series of interconnected novels and novellas, collectively titled, The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences, & Observations of Peter Leroy, which seems to be Eric Kraft’s magnum opus.  Kraft’s website describes the work thusly:

“Its parts are the memoirs and collected works of a fictional character, Peter Leroy, who tells an alternative version of his life story; explores the effect of imagination on perception, memory, hope, and fear; holds a fun-house mirror to scenes of life in the United States; ruminates upon the nature of the universe and the role of human consciousness within it; and prods and probes the painful world of time and place in search of the niches where hilarity hides.”

A somewhat pretentious description.  Yes.  But based on what I’ve read in this short story, it reminds me of a meta-fictional Charlie Kauffman screenplay or Nabokov’s, Pale Fire, enough to compel me to read more of his work.