Please Look After Mom

Outside the market you saw two people cutting apart a fish that was as big as a sedan. You asked if it was tuna, since it was so large, but the vendor said it was an ocean sunfish.  You were reminded of a character in a book whose title you couldn’t remember. She was from a seaside town, and she would go to the huge aquarium in the city every time she had a problem, to talk to the ocean sunfish swimming inside. She would complain that her mother took all her life savings and went off with a younger man to a different city, but then, at the end, would say, But I miss my mom; you’re the only one I can tell this to, sunfish! You wondered if that was the same fish.

Kyung-sook Shin

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin sold close to a million and a half copies in South Korea, and is set to be published in 18 countries around the world.  It’s the first of Shin’s books to be translated into English.  My full review for Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is here.


Whatever Spell

There’s a scene in Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives where an unhinged author starts to drive himself mad waiting for a particular writer’s review of his latest book. Given what he knows about the critic, he’s sure the review will be scathing, and will destroy his career.  Rather than wait to see what this critic comes up with, the author challenges him to a duel to the death.

To keep myself out of fatal sword-fights, I find it helpful to look at John Updike’s rules for book critics from time to time when I need a little bit of refocusing in the book reviewing department:

Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Daniel Mendelsohn takes a similar position:

Even Aristophanes — who was, we should remember, a comedian and not a critic — seems to have been made uneasy by the sadistic aspects of criticism. “I cannot judge anymore,” his Dionysos apologizes when the word-weighing is over.  “I must not lose the love of either one of them. / One of them’s a great poet. I like the other one.” The lines remind you that loving and liking are as much a part of criticism as are hating and hacking; and that the impulse underlying good criticism ought to be affection for literature rather than animus toward writers.

When the Killing’s Done

Knowing that Jay is a fan of novelist T. C. Boyle, on Friday one of his Daily Beast colleagues (who works in the books section) gave him an extra copy of Boyle’s latest novel.

When the Killing’s Done is officially is out tomorrow, and Boyle will be on The Takeaway to talk about some of the environmental questions it raises.  Over the weekend, I decided to give the book a read ahead of Boyle’s interview. I borrowed Jay’s copy and blogged about the book for The Takeaway:

Boyle gets around the difficulty of dramatizing environmental issues by dramatizing the environmentalists themselves. To drive home the tension between their positions, he draws out the similarities between Alma and her nemesis David. Alma and her biologist boyfriend Tim Sickafoose are vegetarians, and so are David and his girlfriend Anise Reed. They all live in the Santa Barbara area, they all drive white Priuses, and they all grapple with the quandaries of consumption while listening to the same hippie folksinger—and the similarities don’t end there. Like Alma, David’s girlfriend Anise has matrilineal ties to the islands: Her mother worked as a cook on an island sheep ranch in the 1970s.

Though their philosophies on what’s best for the natural world around them clash perfectly, Boyle makes it clear that both the Alma/Tim and David/Anise camps are equally motivated by a mix of childhood sympathies, inclinations of personality, and adult life politics. Our approach to moral questions about the environment, Boyle seems to suggest, is as complicated as the environment itself.

The full post is at The Takeaway’s blog.

One small thing I left out: I was more than a little bit annoyed at Boyle for making one of his character’s conversion to meatlessness come at the hands of a proselytizing Hindu.

Alma won’t touch the bacon– she hasn’t eaten meat since her conversion to vegetarianism in the seventh grade under the influence of her best friend, a girl from India whose parents were both doctors and who persisted in wearing a red caste mark on her forehead through the end of junior high …

Of course this is the only mention that this nameless character and her persistent “caste mark” get.  And of course, my annoyance comes from personal recognition of this particular bundle of stereotypes.  I stopped eating meat at age 10; my mom applied a small dab of kumkuma on my forehead every morning before school, after we said our prayers; my father is a physician.  But preach vegetarianism?  That kind of “girl from India” would know better.  So should Boyle.

The Scale of Maps

It is said, my friends, that a number located between seven and eight was lost with the writings of Diophantus, the algebraist.  Of course this is a legend, but I do not have to remind you of the theory that there can be no sign without a referent. It is tempting indeed.  Imagine, my friends: another number, an hour every day outside the flow of time, a month unaccounted for every year between July and August.

Belén Gopegui

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind if some secret hours, days, and months were quietly slipped into my life.  So much to do, so little time!

Among the things filling my recent accounted for hours: A review of The Scale of Maps by Belén Gopegui I wrote for the latest issue of Words Without Borders.  Enjoy!


It’s been a busy week back in New York and back at work.  Here’s a round up of this-and-that, including a few follow-ups on things I’ve blogged about before:

– An interesting New York Times story about rehabilitating Tolstoy caught my eye.  In her diaries, Sofia Tolstoy expresses a great deal of concern about how she’ll be judged by historians. But it never occurs to her that her husband could himself be remembered in a mixed light.

– A piece attempting a humorous take on yoga from NPR’s Sandip Roy irked me.  One commenter summed up the problem nicely: “A man who identifies as belonging to a particular ethnicity, paradoxically ignorant of a particular tradition of said ethnicity, is by virtue of said identity assigned to write an article communicating nothing so much as said ignorance.” Right.

– In this week’s New Yorker, a very enjoyable review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series puzzles over its popularity. “The jokes aren’t funny. The dialogue could not be worse. The phrasing and the vocabulary are consistently banal,” Joan Acocella writes.

– The ever-sharp Elif Batuman reflects on interpreting entrails and suggests prognostications help us find out who we are in this great little essay.

– Earlier this week, my former PW editor Marc Schultz wrote about a new edition of Huckleberry Finn that replaces “slave” for the n-word. The piece set off a cascade of debate on censoring Mark Twain (The Takeaway invited Morehouse’s David Wall Rice to weigh in; he made a strong case against the NewSouth edition).  But one thing that seems to have gotten lost in the discussion is that editor Alan Gribben’s decision to drop the n-word wasn’t part of any agenda — it grew out of countless conversations with readers and educators across Alabama who told him they were staying away from Huck Finn because of the n-word. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” Gribben told PW.  So why not make an alternative edition available?

– Ben Yagoda takes on The Elements of Clunk. Someone should publish a set of stylebooks on the essential conventions of writing for broadcast, print, the ‘net, email, G-chat, Facebook walls and text message.  And then make them into an iPhone app so I can put them all in my pocket.

– Over at The Awl, Heather Havrilesky beautifully sums up a modern malaise (which I, for one, suffer from): Personal Branding Disorders.  “Do you want to be a part of the next wave of rich personal self-promotion, or do you want your child to grow up not knowing what really good sushi tastes like?” she asks.  Okay, okay. I give up on the sushi.

Happy New Year!

photo by Jay: my morning coffee (back in California)

Books of 2010: A Round-up

Presenting the ten best books of 2010 that I’ve read:

The Big Short (Michael Lewis) This book was essential to my understanding of the financial meltdown. Michael Lewis approaches the topic of the housing crisis and short-selling with an insider’s grasp of financial products and derivatives and an outsider’s sense of the absurdity of Wall Street.  What results is a very clear explanation of what drove the economy’s collapse, peppered with colorful anecdotes. While I was reading this, I couldn’t stop recommending it to everyone I knew. I would loan it to you but I’ve given away both copies I had.

The Devil’s Star (Jo Nesbø) I violently hated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But this is Scandinavian crime fiction worth reading.

Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy (edited by Cathy Porter) Sofia was her husband’s secretary, proofreader, editor, housekeeper, agent, and nurse – the person who darned Leo’s socks as well as the person who proofread the first draft of War and Peace.  Spanning 57 years, these diaries chronicle the mundane (“Lev Nikolaevich [Leo] is better today; he has moved his bowels and is no longer in pain, and my soul is relieved of a terrible anxiety”) but also bear witness to her struggles. Sofia yearns for the pleasure of her own creative pursuits, often questions her fate, and sometimes contemplates suicide — but (luckily, for generations of Tolstoy’s readers) she never doubts her husband’s genius or wavers in her commitment to his legacy. By the end of the book, Sofia’s frayed nerves and endless crying scenes had nearly worn me out, but for most of it, I was entirely captivated by her world.  Her life raises difficult questions about feminism, marriage, and the price of greatness in the arts.

Dolly City (Orly Castel-Bloom) In the early pages of this book, I was really put off by Dolly’s perversity.   But as the plot kicked in, the book began to follow its own internal logic and I was completely gripped.  For a taste of Castel-Bloom’s brilliance, check out “My Fallow Years,” a short piece published online by Words Without Borders.

Fordlandia (Greg Grandin) Henry Ford was an odd guy. The story of Fordlandia, his never profitable but truly colossal rubber-growing outpost in the Brazilian Amazon typifies his oddness, as well as his supreme self-confidence and stubbornness. This book is a portrait of a spectacular (and forgotten) failure brimming with historical trivia.

How Does it Feel To Be A Problem? (Moustafa Bayoumi) The last time a TSA agent asked to search my suitcase, he was confronted with the following: 50 packets of Quaker instant oatmeal (embedded in a weekends’ worth of outfits), 2 ceramic soup bowls, 2 grapefruit spoons, 1 ZipLock packet of fresh Pongal rice, 1 set of stinky gym clothes, 1 pair of heels, 1 bag of toiletries … and a hardback copy of How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? with big bright red Arabic letters on the cover.  Rather appropriately, reading this book on an airplane and on the subway cars  turned into a bit of an exercise in seeing how it feels to be an object of misplaced, inchoate suspicion — I always have a bag full of strange items when I return from a weekend in Poquoson, but never before has there been anything that might peg me as Muslim or Arab-American.  Though this book was published 2008, I’m including it on this list because it didn’t become topic of national debate until this fall.

I Curse the River of Time (Per Petterson) I’m starting to notice that this list is heavy on less-than-sunny material, but so be it.  This brooding book sees protagonist Arvid Jansen through the midst of a mid-life crisis (“There was a fissure in my life, a void, and that void only beer could fill”). He’s unpleasant company, but his self-loathing has the virtue of a searing clarity.

Negative Space (Robert Steiner) This book traces, in elegant, obsessive detail, the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage of 20 years over the course of one evening. As they sit on their French terrace overlooking a 300-year-old olive grove, drinking wine and smoking, the narrator’s wife begins to explain to him that she has been unfaithful.  The narrator feels flattened: “… I became the husband in a novelette devoid of martyrs or fevered Russians.  No booming voices, no Bach, nothing of an epic scale — instead small, brutish, unsympathetic.” Infidelity is an old theme, but the single-mindedness of the protagonist’s introspection is what makes this book fascinating — and what elevates the crude betrayal, jealousy and loss at the center of the story into something far more rarefied.

Tail of the Blue Bird (Nii Ayikwei Parkes) A lovely detective story set in rural Ghana, Tail of the Blue Bird draws heavily from folklore and — though it follows a number of modern whodunit conventions — isn’t afraid to leave some things shrouded in mystery. The book ends up being a gentle critique of story-telling in all its forms. As a tribal hunter tells the forensic pathologist, “On this earth, we have to choose the story we tell, because it affects us – it affects how we live.”

The Tiger (John Vaillant) I’m reading this now.  The book follows the trail of destruction left by one man-eating Siberian tiger in the farthest reaches of eastern Russia.  My favorite line so far: “As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it, ‘The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace.’ But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator.”


To be fair, more than half of these were assigned to me (what can I say? I’m lucky to have editors who have good taste). To round out the list, here are 5 more books/editions released this year which I’d like to read, but have not yet: Freedom (Jonathan Franzen), The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson), Prejudices (H. L. Mencken), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot), Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann).

How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

“Opposition to my book seems more symptomatic of our moment than produced by its contents,” Moustafa Bayoumi, writes in an October Chronicle for Higher Education article.  I just finished reading How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? and I agree. It’s not a “radical” book. It’s a multifaceted celebration of the contradictions of Arab-American youth, seeped with a love for New York City and respect for the country at large.  But the content of the book is not what set off the controversy surrounding it. The New York times reported:

The seeds were planted last winter, when professors in the [Brooklyn College] English Department, with Donna Wilson, the dean of undergraduate studies, chose this year’s ”common reader”: a book given to all freshmen and transfer students in an effort to provide a common experience at the outset of the school year. The books are generally memoirs set in New York City, by authors available to speak on campus.

In past years, the committee has selected Frank McCourt’s ”Angela’s Ashes” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s ”Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” This year it picked Dr. Bayoumi’s 2008 book, which profiles seven Arab-Americans in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

The young Arab-Americans profiled in the book have a range of aspirations and conflicts.  There’s the Iraq War veteran, the high school student who launches a legal battle with her school’s student council, the rebellious Iraqi teenager who runs away dozens of times before growing into a conservative, devout Muslim herself.  The book is interested in the roadblocks these young people hit on the way to adulthood — and the negotiations they make with their background in the process.  It’s a coming of age story particularly relevant in these times and in this city: The young men and women in the book are interested in school, friendships, dating, their families, and their careers, as well as politics, current events, and religion.  They’re figures most 20-somethings can relate to, making their clashes with contemporary culture all the more thought-provoking for a college-aged audience.

But when the English Department announced it had picked How Does it Feel to Be a Problem as its common reader, Bruce Kesler, an alumnus living in California (writing in a blog post entitled “I Just Disinherited My Alma Mater”) blasted the book as an attempt to inculcate political views in Brooklyn College’s entering class.   “I just updated my will and trust,” he wrote, “and, with heavy heart, cut out what was a significant bequest to my alma mater, Brooklyn College.” The post went viral, sparking widespread opposition to Bayoumi’s book and prompting plenty of other objectors.

“My first reaction was one of disbelief,” Bayoumi writes. “Wow, I thought, is my writing really that powerful? But on closer inspection, it became clear to me that my detractors hadn’t actually read the book.” Reading the book weeks and months after the crisis’s peak, I see why Brooklyn College picked it in the first place. Spirited and opinionated, it’s written in colorful accessible language.  It’s an easy read, but not a light one.  This is a book that wants (and deserves) to be talked about.  So I’m glad to see Bayoumi hasn’t dropped the topic yet because, as  The Daily News reports, neither have New Yorkers:

Last Thursday, a [book club] discussion of Moustafa Bayoumi’s “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America,” quickly turned personal.

Kerry Sahadi, 38, a blond married to a Christian of Lebanese decent, explained how she and her husband were both pulled over for speeding while following each other. Her husband was ticketed. She wasn’t.

Brooklyn-born Thikra Esa, 25, wearing traditional Muslim dress, admitted to anger over having to miss her prom and pass on an internship in Manhattan because of her parents’ strictness.

Bay Ridge mom Omayma Khayat, 31, opened up about her decision during college to cover her hair and her less-religiously strict mother’s embarrassment over it.

Muslims in the heavily Arab-American area are often reluctant to branch out of their tight-knit community, fearful of being rejected amid images of them as terrorists, said Linda Sarsour, 30, the Arab-American Association’s co-founder and a book club member.

“This is an opportunity for people to have a regular conversation,” Sarsour said. “If this can happen in Bay Ridge and be successful, it can happen anywhere.”

The Persistence of Procrastination

I have often asked myself whether those days on which we are forced to be indolent are not just the ones we pass in profoundest activity? Whether all our doing, when it comes later, is not only the last reverberation of a great movement which takes place in us on those days of inaction …

-Rainer Maria Rilke

One of my favorite notions about procrastination is the idea of incubation — the belief that quietly putting off a task when you just don’t feel like doing it is just a way of ensuring that when you do get around to it, it turns out great.  It’s a pleasant wives’ tale about inspiration and productivity that for the most part, I manage to dismiss in favor of lists, deadlines, and something like “sensible” time-management.  But the tricky part about this construction of procrastination  — and the reason I still cling to it — is that where creative tasks are concerned, I find it’s often true.  There is such a thing as productive delay, and it lends itself to thoughtfulness.  More often than not, setting aside an idea, a question, an argument, or theme for a while lets the mind do a bit of digestion and unconscious problem solving on its own — and results in better work.

Salvador Dali's Persistence of MemoryThe problem with this outlook is that as the stakes get higher, the impulse to allow for more and more “creative downtime” grows.  It’s procrastination at it’s most thrilling, debauched and clinical.  The Takeaway explored the topic morning in a segment on procrastination featuring Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White, co-editors of  The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination.  What intrigued me about the book is its apparent endorsement of the “great movement” philosophy of procrastination I hold dear.  As the New Yorker review of the book puts it:

You may have thought, the last time you blew off work on a presentation to watch “How I Met Your Mother,” that you were just slacking. But from another angle you were actually engaging in a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time. Indeed, one essay, by the economist George Ainslie, a central figure in the study of procrastination, argues that dragging our heels is “as fundamental as the shape of time and could well be called the basic impulse.”

Basic impulse, indeed! Co-editor White takes a different view. He suggests that the key to understanding and controlling the desire to procrastinate is treating it like any other struggle of willpower: make rules, exercise some discipline, keep the larger objective in mind.  Stay the course; resist the urge to reach for the short-term payoff.  But where’s the magic in that?  I’m inclined to keep looking to the literary giants, who have a great tradition of procrastination, for definitive instruction on how to postpone the task at hand.  E. B. White couldn’t have gotten it wrong, could he?

Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer — he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive for him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink.

image: Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory