by Campbell Geeslin
With all the hysterical headlines and TV chatter about the Super Bowl, how about a time out? The game has been around a long time.
Back in 1925, Robert Benchley wrote an essay entitled, “How to Watch Football.” This was before television. To smart guys like Benchley, Prohibition, which began in 1920, was a joke.
Benchley’s suggestion was: “Start drinking from the flask at, let us say, ten o’clock in the morning of the game. If necessary, or rather as soon as necessary, re-fill the flask. Be within calling-distance of a good, soft couch, with an easy pillow for the head. Don’t eat any lunch. Turn the heat on in the room and shut the windows.
“Then when it comes time. . .for the game, you will already have started with Old Grandpa Sandman, on the road to Never-Never Land . . . .You, my little man, will be safe and warm at home, [which] after all, is the place to be on the afternoon of the game.”
NEW WORD: “Bibliomemoir” was defined by Joyce Carol Oates at the beginning of her cover-page essay on The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Bibliomemoir, she wrote, is “a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography.”
Her fresh example was Rebecca Mead’s just published My Life in Middlemarch.
NOTE: The late Isaac Bashevis Singer won the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature. Forty-seven of his short stories make up the 610-page volume, The Collected Stories, published in 1982.
In an author’s note, Singer wrote: “Genuine literature informs while it entertains. It manages to be both clear and profound. It has the magical power of merging causality with purpose, doubt with faith, the passions of the flesh with the yearnings of the soul. It is unique and general, national and universal, realistic and mystical. While it tolerates commentary by others, it should never try to explain itself. . . .the zest for messages has made many writers forget that storytelling is the raison d’etre of artistic prose.”
TITLE: Stuart Woods, author of more than 40 novels, wrote a letter to The New York Times Book Review, inspired by a new book about alcoholic authors.
He said: “Matthew Broccoli, the biographer of Fitzgerald, Hemingway et al., had a better title than The Trip to Echo Spring. He once told me he was working on a book about literary alcoholism to be called Dead White Male Drunks.
EVIL COP: Italian writer Roberto Constantini is the author of a thriller, The Deliverance of Evil, due out February 11. The book is the first in a trilogy about a Roman commissario, Michele Balistreni.
Constantini told PW that “I purposely put some things in Balistreni’s character so that people will dislike him. . . .I actually believe that most people who are very good personally would not be able to find a murderer. In the end of The Deliverance of Evil, the investigator is not so different from the murderer.”
The author said he believes that “a little bit of violence is in everybody,”
CON ARTIST: James Magnuson is the director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and the author of eight novels. His ninth, just published, is Famous Writers I Have Known.
A New York Times review began: “Feeling like a fraud or a con artist can be a hazard of the writing profession; there’s a fine line, Balzac wrote, between the artist and the criminal. . . .The hero of Magnuson’s novel “skips town for Texas, holing up at a creative writing institute where’s he’s mistaken for a J.D. Salingeresque recluse.”
A lot of background detail must come from the author’s day job.
SOLD: Poet Billy Collins, 72, has sold his papers to the Ransom Center at the University of Texas. These include jottings on scraps. Collins told The New York Times, “I remember one occasion when the lines of a poem occurred to me while I was walking around the city with no pen and nothing to write on. So I ducked into a bank and started writing the poem . . . on the backs of deposit slips.”
CLUB PICK: TV’s Today Show named its third Book Club selection last week: Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky.
Horan was interviewed at her home on a Puget Sound island. Her earlier, bestselling novel was Frank, about Frank Lloyd Wright and his great love. Starry Sky is about Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Van de Grift. Horan said both books “take a journey with these couples.”
Horan stepped out of her sliding glass doors and told the TV audience that her interest was in “the choices people have made and the consequences that followed those choices.”
YEARNERS: Chang-Rae Lee’s new novel is On Such a Full Sea. In an interview in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, he said, “As a writer, I am drawn to characters who, for one reason or another, seem to find themselves desperately out of joint, alienated but not wanting to be, and ever yearning to understand the rules of the game.”
FAMOUS SATIRE: The narrator of Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale (1930) is a successful London novelist. At one point, this fictional writer declares, “The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes; he makes the best of us look like a piece of cheese.”
After almost 75 years, Cakes and Ale can still provoke a smile.
DEFINITION: Jay Cantor is the author of Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka. New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani began her review by defining the word “Kafkaesque.” She wrote: “It can be taken to mean anything from the vaguely surreal to the deeply anxiety-inducing, from the psychologically disorienting to the bureaucratically complex—anything that summons any sort of association with such classic Kafka works as The Trial, The Castle or The Metamorphosis.”
Kakutani found Cantor’s four stories about real people in Kafka’s life to be, well, Kafkaesque.
ON LANGUAGES: After years in Brooklyn, Jhumpa Lahiri now lives in Italy. Her latest novel is Unaccustomed Earth. The Guardian reported remarks she made at a book festival:
“I was looking [at an Italian paper’s] 10 best books, and they chose seven books written in English. This was astonishing to me. I can’t imagine The New York Times ever choosing seven books written in another language as the choices.”
Lahiri said she was distressed about the English language “because it has a certain power and a certain commercial currency now.” She said she believed “there is so much [foreign] literature that needs to be brought forward, and the danger now is that it’s getting even less support.”
ON BOUNDARIES: Among the choice lines quoted from Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books in the Sunday Times Book Review was her judgment that “An author who self-righteously proclaims that there is no real boundary between fact and fiction is not someone you should trust regarding either.”
LOTS OF WORDS: Work is underway on a third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but the end is not in sight. The second edition was published 25 years ago.
Peter Gulliver, an associate editor, told The New York Times, “We can hear everything that’s going on in the world of English for the last 500 years, and it’s deafening.”
Why do things move so slowly? Gulliver once spent nine months working on definitions for a single word—“run.” At the moment, run is the longest entry in the O.E.D. The editors have collected 619,000 words so far.
DON’T TELL: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart is not due out until May 13. But Random House decided that the best way to create a buzz for the book was “a dedicated Tumblr site that focuses on everything but the plot.”
PW said that the setting is a fictional island off Cape Cod where the teenage grandchildren of the owner spend their summers. Months before the release, the publisher is already begging readers to please not spoil the novel for others by revealing the ending. That surprise, they believe, is important to the book’s impact.
RETURNING: All 75 of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels are going to be published, many in new translations, some in English for the first time. “There will be eight releases this month,” The New York Times reported, “starting with Pietr the Latvian, the first Maigret novel.”
MOOD: Dark Wolf is the 25th novel in Christine Feehan's paranormal romance “Dark” series. It was an immediate bestseller. Like any prolific author, she is inspired by experience. “The only thing I avoid while writing a love scene is my children," she told an online interviewer some years ago. "Children and writing love scenes don’t mix; they get you out of the mood very, very fast.”