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The litter in littérateur. - Part 9
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Meat is the new bread

I recently started watching 30 Rock on Netflix. I know, I know, I’m very late to the game on this one, but I’m still enjoying the show quite a bit. I think this show and Friday Night Lights, which is surprisingly amazing, are the best TV shows currently available through the Watch Instantly feature on Netflix.

Madden ’92 Ambulance

Madden ’92 for Sega Genesis has to be one of my favorite games of all time. The best part, of course, comes when a player is injured and the ambulance comes on the field to retrieve them, running over all other players in its way.

Xbox Live upgrade and upgrading your hard drive

I just downloaded the new Xbox Live update, and it brings some significant updates. Most important for me are the ability to stream Netflix on demand movies through the Xbox 360 to a TV and the ability to copy games to the hard drive for faster loading times. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s a way to browse and add movies from Netflix on the console. You need to add movies to your watch instantly queue using your Netflix account on a computer.

As for playing games from the hard drive, a limiting factor is that my hard drive is only large enough to hold one game. Therefore, I’m looking into ways to upgrade. If you have a desktop PC that supports SATA hard drives, it looks to be a pretty easy job. Full instructions are available at PC World.

The iPhone is the new radar detector

The Times technology blog has a story about a couple new iPhone apps that help you beat police speed traps by having users report their locations. Of course, the success of such an application depends on network externalities, i.e. having enough people reporting speed traps to increase the number of users who. . . etc. Nonetheless, this seems like a very cool use for the phone for those of you who drive.

McCain’s leaker is a hoax

The McCain aide who leaked the line about Sarah Palin thinking Africa was a country is not a McCain aide and he’s not really anything that he claimed to be. I think this is awesome. The guys who created this character should definitely get some more work. Read the full story at NYTimes.com.

Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have

Jason Zengerie has a very good profile of Malcolm Gladwell in this week’s New York Magazine. Gladwell has been receiving a lot of press lately in advance of the publication of his new book, Outliers. Most of it is as fluffy as the critics who assail Gladwell. But Zengerie’s piece is actually well-written and pulls some excellent lines out of Gladwell. My favorite one is the following:

Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have. It doesn’t tell you what’s interesting or what’s important. There’s still more in the library than there is on Google.

Michael Lewis on the end of Wall Street

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I’m certain that Michael Lewis’s article in the current issue of Portfolio, The End of Wall Street’s Boom, is worth your while.

In the two decades since [I wrote Liar's Poker], I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. The outrageous bonuses, the slender returns to shareholders, the never-ending scandals, the bursting of the internet bubble, the crisis following the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management: Over and over again, the big Wall Street investment banks would be, in some narrow way, discredited. Yet they just kept on growing, along with the sums of money that they doled out to 26-year-olds to perform tasks of no obvious social utility. The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents’ world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?

Amazon’s best 100 books of 2008

Amazon has posted their picks for the 100 best books of 2008. The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher claims the top spot. Honestly, I wasn’t planning to read this novel, but now I am. I find that one of Amazon’s most useful features is that it helps me discover new books better than most physical bookstores. And that, to me, is the value of a bookstore—how good a job it does of introducing me to books I didn’t even know I wanted. Every store will promote 2666, but how many will compel me to buy The Northern Clemency?

iTunes and Netflix are like books

As Tuesday’s publication of 2666 nears, New York Magazine has a piece about the continued importance of big, Pynchonian books, comparing their flexibility to that of current digital media. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but still…

It bears remembering that a book, no matter how long and complicated, doesn’t require you to read it all in one go, nor does it force you to watch commercials. In this respect, other media are becoming more booklike, not the other way around. TiVo, Netflix, and iTunes enable you to consume what you want, when you want it, in or out of sequence. Take a break if you like — but only if you like. Watch a whole season of Lost in a weekend — or every morning on the subway. A longer, more intense experience — whether it’s a ten-show Mad Men block or a 100-song iPod playlist — at least gives you the option to stretch. And nothing does it better than a big, multifaceted novel. Take a year to read it, or one stormy weekend (well, several — we’re hoping for a long, cold winter).

Or just adapt your existing habits and read it every Sunday evening for an hour: Mad Men’s over and Entourage sucks, anyway.

Jonathan Lethem on Roberto Bolaño, or the best novel of the year?

In this weekend’s New York Times Book Review Jonathan Lethem offers high praise for Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which comes out in the U.S. on Tuesday. Based on the review, it looks like 2666 will vie with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland for the title of the best book of 2008. Lethem writes: 

“2666” is as consummate a performance as any 900-page novel dare hope to be: Bolaño won the race to the finish line in writing what he plainly intended, in his self-interrogating way, as a master statement. Indeed, he produced not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world. “The Savage Detectives” looks positively hermetic beside it.

. . . .

A novel like “2666” is its own preserving machine, delivering itself into our hearts, sentence by questing, unassuming sentence; it also becomes a preserving machine for the lives its words fall upon like a forgiving rain, fictional characters and the secret selves hidden behind and enshrined within them: hapless academic critics and a hapless Mexican boxer, the unavenged bodies deposited in shallow graves. By writing across the grain of his doubts about what literature can do, how much it can discover or dare pronounce the names of our world’s disasters, Bolaño has proven it can do anything, and for an instant, at least, given a name to the unnamable.

Now throw your hats in the air.

Even the design of 2666 is getting coverage from New York Magazine. I opted, at least initially, for the for three-paperback boxed set. You?

Jeffrey Sachs on the financial crisis

In a recent post on the Financial Times site, Columbia University Jeffrey Sachs economist proposes some steps that the international community can take to limit the damage: 

First, the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan should extend swap lines to all main emerging markets, including Brazil, Hungary, Poland and Turkey, to prevent a drain of reserves.

Second, the International Monetary Fund should extend low-conditionality loans to all countries that request it, starting with Pakistan.

Third, the US and European central banks and bank regulators should work with their big banks to discourage them from abruptly withdrawing credit lines from overseas operations. Spain has a role to play with its banks in Latin America.

Fourth, China, Japan and South Korea should undertake a co-ordinated macroeconomic expansion. In China, this would mean raising spending on public housing and infrastructure. In Japan, this would mean a boost in infrastructure but also in loans to developing nations in Asia and Africa to finance projects built by Japanese and local companies. Development financing can be a powerful macroeonomic stabiliser. China, Japan and South Korea should work with other regional central banks to bolster expansionary policies backed by government-to-government loans.

Fifth, the Middle East, flush with cash, should fund investment projects in emerging markets and low-income countries. Moreover, it should keep up domestic spending despite a fall in oil prices. Indeed, the faster a global macroeconomic expansion is in place the sooner oil prices will recover.

Sixth, the US and Europe should expand export credits for low and middle-income developing countries, not only to meet their unfulfilled aid promises but also as a counter-cyclical stimulus. It would be a tragedy for big infrastructure companies to suffer when the developing world is crying out for infrastructure investment.

Finally, there is scope for expansionary fiscal policy in the US and Europe, despite large budget deficits. The US expansion should focus on infrastructure and transfers to cash-strapped state governments, not tax cuts. This package will not stop a recession in the US and parts of Europe, but could stop a recession in Asia and the developing countries. At the least it would put a floor on the global contraction that is rapidly gaining strength.

Lit crit and the financial crisis

This week’s issue of the New Yorker has a piece by John Lanchester about books related to the financial crisis. He is the only journalist, so far, to draw an analogy between developments in the financial markets and philosophy and cultural criticism. For that, I take my hat off. In the high point (for English majors) of his piece Lanchester writes:

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect. Anyone invited to attend a meeting of the G-8 financial ministers would be well advised not to draw their attention to this.

The result of our era of financial deconstruction has been a decades-long free-for-all of deregulation and (for the most part) bull markets, ending in partial nationalization.

The Republicans should steal Howard Dean’s playbook

Over at The Daily Beast, Ana Marie Cox conducts an interview with John McCain’s Chief Strategist, Steve Schmidt. His comments seem to suggest that the Republican party would be better off trying to run a national operation and not concede the coasts. 

The party in the Northeast is all but extinct; the party on the West Coast is all but extinct; the party has lost the mid south states—Virginia, North Carolina—and the party is in deep trouble in the Rocky Mountain West, and there has to be a message and a vision that is compelling to people in order for them to come back and to give consideration to the Republican Party again. 

This is exactly what Howard Dean did when he took over the Democratic Party, despite being met with considerable resistance. It’s nice to see that, perhaps, for once Democrats ahead of Republicans on strategy, though who knows if the GOP will begin contesting traditional Democratic strongholds.

Update: Matt Bai has a piece that will appear in next weekend’s New York Times Magazine on this very subject. A quick excerpt: 

And it was Dean who argued forcefully, as chairman, that Democrats in this new era could compete in the reddest of states and build a truly national party at a time when others in the party were belittling rural voters and agitating for a complete withdrawal from the South. Now the Republicans are the ones who find themselves reduced to regional influence, their shrinking Congressional delegations confined mostly to the South and West. (Remarkably, not a single New England Republican now remains in the House.) Dean didn’t create the conditions that made that reversal possible, but he always said that if you wanted to be in a position to take advantage of favorable circumstances, then you had to at least have basic party infrastructures in place. “Chance favors the prepared mind,” Dean told me, not for the first time. “You show up, you keep working and hopefully you catch a break.”

Briefly, Roger Angell on voting

Perhaps, lost among all the post-election analysis is Roger Angell’s beautiful post, Rite, over at NewYorker.com about his experience at the ballot box, which concludes:

A cloud of smugness enfolds me as I hit the street, exactly the kind of feeling that’s pretty well kept me out of churches. But why resist? I believe in this. It’s been said but I’ll say it: for a nanosecond I am important; infinitesimally I have done good. Feels great.


Shorty is TinyURL for your own domain

Many people use TinyURL to shorten long URLs for sending in emails or posting online. I recently discovered Shorty, which provides a tinyURL-like service on your own domain. So, you could have URLs like yourdomain.com/s/keyword redirect to any URL on the web. It’s fairly easy to set up and you can even track how many times each of your short URLs has been used. Instructions for setting up Shorty are available here.

Professors don’t influence students’ politics

The Times published a story this week about studies showing that the prevalence of liberal professors has little effect on students’ actual political views. What does matter? Friends and family. And what I found interesting about the article was that a line from a CUNY professor that brought the discussion back to something that actually matters: the marginalization of critical studies programs in the humanities.

K. C. Johnson, a historian at the City University of New York, characterizes the problem as pedagogical, not political. Entire fields of study, from traditional literary analysis to political and military history, are simply not widely taught anymore, Mr. Johnson contended: “Even students who want to learn don’t have the opportunity because there are no specialists on the faculty to take courses from.”

“The conservative critics are inventing a straw man that doesn’t exist and are missing the real problem that does,” he added.

The New Yorker digital edition in the wild still disappoints

After having posted previously that the New Yorker digital edition would be a letdown based on my experience at the New Yorker Festival, I had a chance to try out the digital version on its Monday launch this week. The nice thing about the reader is that it caches the page previews, which allows you to quickly flip through the magazine with little delay. However, reading and printing are another story. Reading requires zooming in on the pages, and the responsiveness leaves a lot to be desired. Printing is a huge pain because you need to select each page you want to print individually. I tried selecting the entire Talk of the Town section, and the resulting printout was not properly formatted to print one magazine page on one 8.5×11″ page. Additionally, some pages are missing when you select groups of pages. I tried to print the entirety of this week’s magazine, and was only successful with about half of it—and that came only after waiting for 10 minutes for the print dialogue box to appear once the pages, supposedly, rendered. It looks like I’ll be going back to my own method of reading the New Yorker digitally. When I get each issue in the mail on Monday, I remove the staples, cut the magazine down the center, and drop the pages in my scanner’s paper feed tray. It can take up to 10 minutes to scan the whole thing, but I get a nice PDF file that loads and zooms instantly, can be printed quickly, and doesn’t require an Internet connection for viewing on my computer.

Tiger Woods still won’t endorse Barack Obama (and it’s election day)

The Independent features some blurbs from prominent black artists and athletes about a possible Obama presidency. What I found especially striking is the contract between the quotes from Tiger Woods and Alonzo Mourning, which appear back-to-back in the article. Woods seems bent on not saying anything provocative and offers the vaguest, most uncontroversial praise of Obama. It’s a step away from Michael Jordan’s famous proclamation, “Republicans buy sneakers too,” which he has since reversed. Despite calls to do so, Woods did not endorse a candidate in the election. Mourning follows up with a critique of that very mentality that prevents athletes from holding public political views. Compare below: 

Tiger Woods, Golfer

I’ve seen him speak. He’s extremely articulate, very thoughtful, I’m just impressed at how well, basically all politicians really do, how well they think on their feet. Especially those debates. It’s pretty phenomenal to see them get their point across. But I just think that he’s really inspired a bunch of people in our country and we’ll see what happens down the road.

Alonzo Mourning, basketball player

I need to be part of this because this is part of the history of our nation and I do have a voice in the community – I have a presence and it’s beautiful to be able to use it on behalf of something I believe in. Some athletes worry something like this might affect their sponsorship deals, but I’m not afraid. Obama has given real leadership. I’m not ashamed to say I’m with him all the way.

Update: A good article over at MSNBC.com details some of the issues involved in getting athletes to be more politically engaged. A brief excerpt following by clicking on the “more” link below. What seems to me a serious issue is the political environment in which athletes live. Owners, leagues, agents, and marketers create strong disincentives to political engagement, and that to me seems clearly undemocratic. 

More

NYRB on the election

The previous issue of the New York Review of Books features a series of takes on the current election season from some of the Review’s frequent contributors. Joan Didion, of course, stole the show for me. She frames the current election in a contrarian light: 

. . . what seemed striking about the long and impassioned run-up to this election was not how different it had been—but precisely how similar it had been to previous such seasons.

We had kept talking about how different it was, but it wasn’t.

On a single mid-September morning these phrases would appear on the front page of The Washington Post : “stocks plummet,” “panic on Wall Street,” “as banks lost faith in one another,” “one of the most tumultuous days ever for financial markets,” “giant blue-chip financial institutions swept away,” “banks refusing to lend,” “Russia closing its stock market,” “panicked selling,” “free fall,” and “the greatest destruction of financial wealth that the world has ever seen.”

These were not entirely unpredictable developments.


Zadie Smith on Netherland vs. Remainder

Zadie Smith’s essay in the current New York Review of Books pits Netherland by Joseph O’Neill against Remainder by Tom McCarthy, using the books to represent opposing views on the state of the novel. She writes: 

All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.

These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

Smith lays bare the contrast between these novels in her account of how each uses cricket: 

In Netherland cricket symbolized the triumph of the symbol over brute fact (cricket as the deferred promise of the American Dream). In Remainder cricket is pure facticity, which keeps coming at you, carrying death, leaving its mark. Everything must leave a mark. Everything has a material reality. Everything happens in space. As you read it, Remainder makes you preternaturally aware of space, as Robbe-Grillet did in JealousyRemainder‘s obvious progenitor. Like the sportsmen whose processes it describes and admires, Remainder ”fill[s] time up with space,” by breaking physical movements, for example, into their component parts, slowing them down; or by examining the layers and textures of a wet, cambered road in Brixton as a series of physical events, rather than emotional symbols. It forces us to recognize space as a nonneutral thing—unlike Realism, which ignores the specificities of space. Realism’s obsession is convincing us that time has passed. It fills space with time.

As you may know, I think Netherland is the best novel of the past few years. As many have noted, it evokes my favorite novel, The Great Gatsby. But is that a bad thing? To execute a form so well that it stands alongside the best of the genre (of lyrical realist fiction)? I’m currently reading Remainder, and it’s equally well-executed, but, as Smith notes, a different type of novel. However, why should that matter? Both novels fall into the realm of realism with one focused on consciousness and one on physicality or factness. Why we must choose one or the other—why one is more valuable than the other just because it’s a less popular book from a newer tradition, I’m not sure. Change in the novel is incremental, not sudden. So, yes, it will take more novels like Remainder to push the form in a new direction. And yes, that is less likely to happen if people aren’t reading and valuing Remainder. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I don’t think the balance is shifting in McCarthy’s favor, but it’s not because of a lack of awareness. Several of the readers I know have read McCarthy’s book, and those who haven’t are familiar with it. The nouveau roman has been around for decades, its principles available to any author with the willingness to pursue them. (For manifestoes, see McCarthy’s International Necronautical Society page.) I don’t have access to Nielsen to compare the sales numbers of the two books Smith cites. What I can say as a reader is that they’re both highly well-written, entertaining, funny books that deserve to be read. Anyhow, it’ll be interesting to see what Smith does next with her own fiction, and I’ll be eagerly anticipating it as I have her previous work. I will post more on this subject soon, including my recent reading of James Wood’s How Fiction Works, which argues for a realism’s large umbrella.