On today's menu:
1. At Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers blog, Alex Gilvarry (who's certainly a great new writer you should discover) and I have a conversation about Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, the politics of war literature, and what it's like to date a fashion model (Alex, not me). We talk about a whole bunch of other stuff, too. Check it out, and then go pick up a copy of Alex's debut novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. Here's how he describes that book's genesis:
In writing From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, a satire about one man's journey from young immigrant, to celebrated fashion designer, to suspected terrorist imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay, I discovered a type of book that I felt we were missing. By 2006, I suppose I was a serious reader of contemporary fiction, and not a lot of what was coming out reflected the fears and climate of what made up my twenties. That is, post-9/11 New York, two wars, and the circumvention of certain human rights. During these formative years I became obsessed with the stories of men locked up without due process, afraid that it could happen to any one of us, and the language being used to designate and dehumanize them—"enemy combatant," "detainee." Where I saw tragedy I also saw the absurd. And the topic I found pressing. So the novel became a combination of everything I had loved about humor and literature, with the addition of trying to stick it to the man. The only way I knew how to do that was satire.
2. Have you applied to be a World Book Night giver yet? No? Well, what are you waiting for? It's a spiritually rewarding experience. I mean, what could be better than giving out free books to random strangers? It's like punking them with literature. Seriously fun. Want more convincing? Read this blog post by Chris Cander from last year's WBN (Chris and I both handed out the same book, Leif Enger's Peace Like a River). I'd love to quote Chris' entire essay, but I'll just give you the most moving portion of her account of distributing the book at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless, throwaway and runaway teens:
In the adjacent lunchroom, two dozen or so teenagers—many of them scarred, tattooed, broken-looking—talked and ate in small groups. Rose announced me and my intentions, and the kids looked at me somewhat suspiciously. As I told them why I loved this incredible story of a young boy’s journey across the frozen Badlands of the Dakotas in search of his fugitive older brother, it occurred to me that I might not be able to give away any books at all.Wow, right? Okay, I'll give you a minute while you head on over to the WBN site to register. But hurry because you only have until Jan. 25 to do so.
Then one tall, thin boy raised his track-marked arm and said, “I’d like a copy.”
“You would?” I said, relieved. “What’s your name?”
“Donny. I never had my own book before.”
“Me too. Can I have one?”
“And me.” They came one by one, and I pressed a brand-new copy into each of their hands. To a one, they thanked me with such sincerity I didn’t think I could bear it.
“Yes, please. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did,” I said, and this went on until I had only one copy left.
Then a heavy-set boy came up and said, “Can I have that last one?”
“Yes, of course.”
“My name is Voltaire,” he said. “Like the philosopher. Did you write this book?”
“I wish I had.”
“Can I show you my poem? I don’t know anybody I can show it to.” He unfolded a typewritten page from his back pocket. “My mom taught me a lot of vocabulary,” he said, “before she kicked me out.”
He bent down to my ear so that he could whisper it aloud, even though I could read along with him. It was filled with spelling mistakes and grammar errors and despair and pain and beauty and also hope, because he’s still alive. “This was going to be my suicide note. But I decided to make it into a poem instead.”
3. In honor of next week's Presidential inauguration, the Virginia Quarterly Review blog shares a page from Robert Frost's poem for John F. Kennedy's 1961 ceremony, "The Gift Outright" (which we see was originally titled "We Gave Ourselves Outright" before Frost crossed it out). This year's poet is Richard Blanco who, according to TIME magazine, is "not your father's Cuban exile."
4. Big, long applause for the three finalists of this year's Story Prize: Dan Chaon, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Junot Diaz. "We read 98 short story collections from 65 different publishers or imprints in 2012," said Larry Dark, the prize's director. "Quite a few would have made excellent finalists."
5. Write like you're dying. That's the advice Jeffrey Eugenides gave the recipients of the 2012 Whiting Awards, reprinted for us at The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog. Here's more from what Eugenides told the young writers (advice which was itself cribbed from something Nadine Gordimer once told Christopher Hitchens):
Gordimer’s advice about writing posthumously may be the best way to help your writing in the here-and-now. It may inoculate you against the intellectual and artistic viruses that, as you’re exposed to the literary world, will be eager to colonize your system. All of the constraints Hitchens mentions have one thing in common: they all represent a deformation of the self. To follow literary fashion, to write for money, to censor your true feelings and thoughts or adopt ideas because they’re popular requires a writer to suppress the very promptings that got him or her writing in the first place. When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember? You were fifteen and standing beside a river in wintertime. Ice floes drifted slowly downstream. Your nose was running. Your wool hat smelled like a wet dog. Your dog, panting by your side, smelled like your hat. It was hard to distinguish. As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention. You, the designated witness, special little teen-age omniscient you, wearing tennis shoes out in the snow, against your mother’s orders. Just then the sun came out from behind the clouds, revealing that every twig on every tree was encased in ice. The entire world a crystal chandelier that might shatter if you made a sound, so you didn’t. Even your dog knew to keep quiet. And the beauty of the world at that moment, the majestic advance of ice in the river, so like the progress of the thoughts inside your head, overwhelmed you, filling you with one desire and one desire only, which was to go home immediately and write about it.