Kirkus just posted a longish interview by Jessa Crispin (founder/editor of Bookslut) with Dubravka Ugresic about her new collection, Karaoke Culture. (Which, not to give too much away, is one of the books on my “Best of 2011” list that Tom and I will be discussing on this week’s podcast.)
You should go there now and read the whole piece (after which, you’ll head over to your retailer of choice and buy a copy of the book), but for those of you still here, here’s a few choice excerpts:
What’s your relationship to pop culture? Detached observer? Or do you have the last season of The Good Wife on DVD?
Popular culture (or moreover, its products) doesn’t interest me so much. What interests me is cultural populism. In other words, I’m not interested in the saga of the Twilight books and movies, but in the mechanism of fascination these products instill in millions of young consumers.
The patterns of popular culture have permeated every sphere of our lives, our entire mental landscape: politics, relationships, the education system, language, our narratives, trends, fashions, art and literature. Popular culture has even penetrated scholarly enclaves. That’s why it’s impossible to talk about popular culture, because it’s a very particular cultural reservation; popular culture is more like the air we breathe, and that’s why participation in it is so hard to escape.
Much of the Karaoke Culture you write about contains this impulse to remove the viewer from reality as much as possible, or to dunk them as fully into a new world as possible. From the intense fandom sites that put you in the world of the object of your affection, whether that be a vampire book or a television show, to something like Second Life. Is it something about contemporary life that drives this, or are humans always looking for the exit ramp?
Popular culture and cultural populism work two ways. Popular culture is a carrier of “old truths,” myth-like structures, and in this respect it’s always retrograde. But it’s also highly topical, engaged and relevant, because it works as a mirror. It reflects the obsessions, fears, dilemmas and frustrations of many people, transforming them into a pleasure zone, into our contemporary myths, into screens for our projections. Today’s popular culture boasts tremendous power because its consumers are no longer passive: thanks to technology, s/he is an inter/active participant. Technology gives the consumer a strong sense of communality and the power to change things. Whether it’s just a psychological trap, whether one really can change things or not, that’s another question. [. . .]
You write at one point that the reason we don’t have children anymore, referring to the increased rates of violence amongst youths, is because we don’t have adults anymore. Certainly there is little difference in the culture we consume—every generation is listening to the same music, watching the same television shows, playing the same video games. Is there something stunting about a culture that tells us we can all pursue our dreams rather than deal with dreary obligations, and when pleasure is only a few clicks away?
We do live in infantile times, mothers increasingly look like their daughters, and they, mothers and daughters, both behave like little girls. Fathers compete with their sons. We all try to stay young until we die. Nobody wants to be lumped in the “old jerks” category anymore. That’s why the world, or the richest and “luckiest” part of it, resembles a kindergarten.
Popular culture, TV shows, movies, books, games, the Internet, media, technology—these are our favorite toys. Vladimir Putin miserably singing “Blueberry Hill,” accompanied by the best American musicians and applauded by the best American actors, is one of the most grotesque recent images of life in our kindergarten.
However, I write my essays not to preach and moralize, though that’s unavoidable, too, but to see what’s behind the curtain, how the mechanism works. One of my dearest books was, and still is, The Wizard of Oz. And my favorite literary hero is not Dorothy, or her three companions, but Toto, a little dog. He’s the one who pulls the curtain, not because he’s brave, but simply because he’s curious.
Today is a day of gushing posts . . . Up next: NPR’s year-end literary lists. I remember loving these last year, and am a big fan of the holiday lists they’ve posted so far. Even if I’m not planning on reading any of these books, the Indie Booksellers list is pretty cool, and Alan Cheuse has some intriguing recommendations as well.
But the best of the best of lists has to be Jessa Crispin’s write-up on the five best foreign fiction works of 2009.
Season of Ash by Jorge Volpi (translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam): For too long, the word nerd has been misused to describe the videogame-playing and Buffy-obsessed men and women of this world. That’s geek culture. For a proper definition, look no further than Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash, which, in its depth (it spans the years 1929 to 2000), breadth (it crisscrosses from Zaire to Berlin and Pittsburgh to Siberia) and bookish preoccupations (scientific advancements in genetic research, artificial life and biochemistry), is unapologetically nerdy. But it’s quality airplane reading, too.
There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers): Lately, much has been made about the absence in contemporary Russian literature of worthy heirs to the realist masters Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But the rise of the tightly constructed “weird” tales of Petrushevskaya, Victor Pelevin and Tatyana Tolstaya suggests a secure Soviet literary future.
The Armies by Evelio Rosero (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean): Winner of the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, The Armies is a realistic account of Colombia’s civil unrest told in a tense, stripped-down style. It avoids slipping into polemic by keeping at its emotional center an old man interested not in taking sides but just the safe return of his wife.
The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven (translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu): By deciding to mine one character’s psychology so thoroughly, Israeli novelist Gail Hareven risks not only believability but the chance that readers won’t stick around for 300 pages. Noa is a fine companion, however: intelligent, self-aware, charming and darkly witty. That risk earned Hareven Israel’s Sapir Prize and, one hopes, a growing presence in the English-language market.
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer): In its candor about the bitterness that can arise from family obligations and the responsibility of caretaking, The Twin is both touching and surprising. Bakker’s beautiful and uncluttered prose style is almost old-fashioned. A character’s remark about the farm — “It’s here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930” — could refer to the novel itself. Family drama, after all, is timeless.
Not only is this a killer list of books (including some of my personal favorites), but it’s a partial who’s who of top translation publishers with a heavy emphasis on the indie: New Directions, Archipelago, Open Letter, Melville House, and Penguin.
Well done Jessa!
But this is a novel by the cerebral French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, so nothing much happens at all. And it’s all the more thrilling because of it. There are long philosophical conversations about love and obsession and identity, and characters stare out at the sea for what seems like hours. A woman’s mussed hair says volumes about her inner turmoil, and there is no conclusion to speak of. It’s not a book to rush through. It’s a book to be savored while drinking cognac and smoking pretentious cigarettes. [. . .]
“One’s always more or less looking for something,” Duras writes in Gibraltar, “for something to arise in the world and come toward you.” Whether that’s a lost love or a reason not to go home again, Duras captures the longing that infects her ‘haracters — and all of us from time to time — with elegant prose and a story that will set you blissfully adrift.
Absolutely. And in addition to the review, NPR has an excerpt from the book as well.
Never in my life did I expect to see NPR do something like this:
National Public Radio has expanded the book coverage on its website, adding weekly book reviews, and has hired six new book reviewers—including a graphic novel reviewer—and added more features to an already existing lineup of author podcasts, critics’ lists and other book-focused content. Among the new slate of reviewers joining NPR.org are Jessa Crispin, founder of the literary blog Bookslut.com; John Freeman, book critic and a former president of the National Book Critics Circle; and Laurel Maury, freelance comics and graphic novel reviewer and a longtime contributor to PW Comics Week. (via PW)
Freeman, Jessa Crispin, Laurel Maury, and Lizzie Skurnick!! Sorry for the over-excitement, but holy shit—NPR actually went and hired three very smart, very discerning reviewers. I’m generally suspicious (and dismissive) of NPR’s just-to-the-left-of-center mediocrity, but in my opinion this is a huge coup that will add a lot to NPR’s website.
I know NPR is the sacred cow of liberal thinkers, but broadly speaking, its book coverage has always been pretty sub-par. I know people love Terry Gross (in my opinion, books are totally incidental to Fresh Air—what’s more important is the personality and backstory of the artist. Of course, Curtis White has put this in much more eloquent terms than I ever could), and Alan Cheuse tends to review odd, interesting books, but that’s about it. At least in my opinion.
This new initiative changes the game though. First off, assuming NPR doesn’t force these reviewers to write about the typical over-promoted drek (or force them to write in a NPRish style where every review begins, “yesterday, my daughter said something about Mexicans. Which got me thinking about racism in today’s world. So I picked up XXX’s book . . .” Sorry—it’s just so easy), the target audience age is going to drop by about a decade.
In terms of the greater cultural impact though, it’s very interesting that NPR is stepping up to fill in some of the void left by the decline in newspaper book coverage. Sort of a natural evolution though, since for a lot of people, Morning Edition has replaced the morning newspaper as the primary source for news. And with rumors constantly circulating about soon to be dismantled book review sections, its great to see someone step up and help fill in the developing void . . (A similar thing is going on with Bill Marx’s World Books page at PRI’s The World. PRI’s The World has OK books coverage on the actual show, but nothing even close to what Bill Marx is doing. There aren’t many places in general doing what Bill Marx is doing for international literature. Especially not on public radio.)
Of course, the RSS fee for the NPR books section is still a bit f’d up and finding these pages isn’t all that easy, but you know, it’ll get better, I’m sure.
In terms of links, here’s the general books page, here’s the Books We Like section, the Three Books feature, and the Book Tour section which currently features podcasts of readings at Politics & Prose, and supposedly will expand to readings at McNally Robinson in the near future.
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .