I’ve just finished reading Teju Cole’s novel Every Day is for the Thief, which was originally published in Nigeria in 2007 but has been republished by Random House in the wake of his second novel Open City’s tremendous success. Cole, born in the US and raised in Nigeria, writes in this short autobiographical work of returning on visits to Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. Over the course of the book, Cole’s flaneur-like wanderings touch upon: the state of jazz record and book shops, public transportation, internet scamming, reencountering a first love, power failures, malaria, crime and corruption, religion, and the attempt to read the cultural signs of a country he is both geographically and temporally separated from, but nonetheless closely identifies with. Interspersed throughout the novel are photographs taken by the author. I missed Cole’s visit to New Zealand a couple of years back, but read Open City around that time, which I’m keen to reread. Cole is an active presence on Twitter also and has been offering energetic, aphoristic dispatches on the World Cup lately. For more you can check out Cole’s website and a recent interview from the Guardian.
2014 marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of the great American writer James Baldwin (1924-1987), a major figure whose works spanned novels, essays, poems, and plays. He conveyed a sense of finely tuned rage at the ubiquitous racism in America in his essays (The Fire Next Time), wrote a memorable novel about the experiences of a gay expatriate in Paris (Giovanni’s Room), another about 1950s Greenwich Village hipsters (Another Country), and was a renowned public intellectual and spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. Reading his work for me I remember as a kind of rite of passage as his work particularly speaks to the anger, confusion, and questions of identity so characteristic of youth, but I believe his poetic resonance crosses time as well. He was a major influence on other writers, including Toni Morrison, and was a friend of such seemingly disparate figures as Miles Davis and Marlon Brando. Perhaps the fact that he lived most of his later years in France has diffused his legacy and status in America, but I was very pleased to read that several New York cultural institutions are celebrating his work with events throughout the course of the year. You can read an article covering this in The Brooklyn Rail, 7 life lessons from Baldwin’s Paris Review interview at BreakingBrown.com, and for a fascinating full-length documentary screened on US public television a number of years ago you can watch James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.
I've been reading between my hapless attempts to multitask LIttle Failure, the hilarious new memoir by novelist Gary Shteyngart. It's a bit (put very bluntly) as if Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory were remixed by a Generation Xer—and I hope that description tempts! Haven't gotten far enough and maybe not enough clear headed brain space to manage a "proper" book review, but I was amused by the author's Q and A on the New York Times' site in which he states: "I like stories where people suffer a lot. If there's no suffering, I kind of tune out." You can read the full (brief) "By the Book" gabfest here.
I definitely do have a thing for reclusive American writers: JD Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee. (In high school I was so nerdy that I sat in the local university library and looked up unpublished Salinger stories on microfilm. I won’t go into any further detail sorry.) So it might follow that Donna Tartt who just published her third novel within a span of 20+ years and is spoken of as publicity shy might be of interest to me. Well, I did read her massively hyped and massive in sheer-length latest entitled The Goldfinch over the Xmas holidays. I found myself feeling a bit guilty about devouring a book that I am being told by the media around that time to devour (for example I have enjoyed Jonathan Franzen’s essays tremendously but Freedom…!) And I’ve never been a great Dickens reader (poisoned at school) except watching BBC costume dramas—does that count? At any rate, back to Tartt (compared to Dickens by the doorstop creating horror machine Stephen King in the N Y Times) I really enjoyed the first half of the book, a mix between a paranoiac mystery crime story and a behind-the-scenes look at Antiques Roadshow. I guess I did like the fact that despite its utter preposterousness and over the top qualities, it engaged me with smooth prose and a few vivid characters, most significantly Boris, the Russian boyhood friend of the narrator, whose moral code is rather relativistic (to say the least) and focussed on moment-to-moment hedonism and the joyful experience of life. If nothing else would have pulled me along in the novel it is Boris’s wild, enviable spirit, which Tartt conjures obviously with great relish and more subtlety (at least earlier in the book) than many other aspects of the novel. I also read the UK review of The Goldfinch that’s been nominated for “hatchet job” of the year written by Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times. But the aforementioned Stephen King certainly knows his way around narratives that grip huge audiences so he’s quite aware of the tactical moves Tartt made to create what he calls “a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.” I’m still deciding my own verdict, despite having pressed the buttons of my worn (and now extra-worn) Kindle at a rapid click while avoiding wrapping my daughters’ Xmas doodads. But just ran across these video interviews with Tartt who looks a bit like a startled and overdressed Asperger-ish little bird who spouts platitudes in both. That is to say, interesting performances of the “writer in public.” I’m not certain that these clips would have encouraged me to pick up the book if I’d seen them earlier, but they serve as perverse little examples of how big media news “handles” fiction—the obviously clever Charlie Rose always sounds pretty awful in these encounters.
Jonathan Lethem's newest novel "Dissident Gardens" features some beautifully crafted prose on a range of unfashionable topics: American Communism, hippies, Quakers, and academia.
...Of course I was very interested in these topics.
Here is an instore appearance by Lethem in conversation with another terrific writer Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket).