In Auggie’s Smoke Shop

December 16th, 2009

The Guardian has published a gallery of twelve beautiful pictures, which accompany a new edition of Paul Auster’s famed “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story.” The story first appeared in the New York Times in 1990, and has been reprinted many times since. You can listen to Paul Auster read it on NPR. And of course the character of Auggie Wren appears in another Auster production, the film Smoke, which starred Harvey Keitel.

Illustration: ISOL/Faber and Faber

Quotable: Graham Greene

December 9th, 2009

According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center poll, 54% of Americans believe that the use of torture to gain information from suspected terrorists (note the adjective) is often or sometimes justified. This represents an increase since the last time the question was asked (49% in April and 44% in February.) Which reminds me of this passage from Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, where Captain Segura explains who can and can’t be tortured:

‘Did you torture him?’
Captain Segura laughed. ‘No. He doesn’t belong to the torturable class.’
‘I didn’t know there were class-distinctions in torture.’
‘Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.’
‘There’s torture and torture. When they broke up Dr Hasselbacher’s laboratory they were torturing … ?’
‘One can never tell what amateurs may do. The police had no concern in that. Dr Hasselbacher does not belong to the torturable class.’
‘Who does?’
‘The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal. You see, I was right to make that king, and now I shall huff you for the last time.’

I had not realized that so many Americans subscribed to Segura’s philosophy.

A Distant View of Four Minarets

December 8th, 2009

I wrote a short opinion piece for The Nation about the Swiss minaret ban. Here’s how it begins:

When I was five years old, my parents enrolled me in Sainte Marguerite-Marie, a French grade school in a suburb of Rabat, in Morocco. The school was run by a group of Franciscan nuns who had arrived in the country during the colonial period but had stayed behind after independence. My favorite teacher was Soeur Laurette, who nurtured my love of books, and my regular tormentor was Soeur Isabelle, who, whenever I made a mistake, pulled my ponytail so hard my neck would hurt for hours.

My father, like his father before him, had memorized the Koran by the time he started his own grade school education; but he did not see any danger or contradiction in having his child attend a French school. My mother, who did not cover her hair, did not seem to have any anxiety about my spending half my day with women dressed in austere tunics and long black veils. I suppose that my parents’ guiding principle was that they had to choose the best neighborhood school. The fact that it happened to be run by Catholics did not scare them–they understood that being in daily contact with another religion is not dangerous. It does not mean you will be converted. It does not mean that you will have to change. Religion is not passed through the air you breathe or the sidewalk you tread or the classroom you share.

You can read the rest of the article here.

(Photo: Minaret in Wangen bei Olten. Via: Reuters.)

Failures of the Left

December 7th, 2009

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine wrote to tell me how impressed he had been by a lecture on the challenges of social democracy that Tony Judt gave at New York University. Fortunately, the text of this talk is now available at the New York Review of Books. Here is a small excerpt

But my concern tonight is the following: Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?

Our shortcoming—forgive the academic jargon—is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things. To understand why this should be the case, some history is in order: as Keynes once observed, “A study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind.” For the purposes of mental emancipation this evening, I propose that we take a minute to study the history of a prejudice: the universal contemporary resort to “economism,” the invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs.

For the last thirty years, in much of the English-speaking world (though less so in continental Europe and elsewhere), when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste.

You can read the lecture in full here.

Bullshit By Any Other Name

December 4th, 2009

A propos of Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the always incisive Mr. Fish had this cartoon.

Cartoon Credit: Mr. Fish at Truthdig

The Road

December 3rd, 2009

I went to see the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a couple of days ago. I tried to trick myself into not expecting anything from the movie because I thought that would prevent me from being disappointed. There was anything wrong with director John Hillcoat’s work. And Viggo Mortensen delivers a fine performance (but then he nearly always does.) But I was still terribly disappointed. The problem, I think, is that there was no poetry to this movie and it simply doesn’t do justice to the novel.

‘The New Inquisition’

November 30th, 2009

I have a new essay in December 14th issue of The Nation magazine, which just went up online. It’s about the spate of books that claim that Europe is headed to its demise because of its rising Muslim population, with a particular focus on the most recent exemplar, Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West. Here is how it begins:

At a literary festival in New York City some years ago, I was introduced to a French writer who, almost immediately after we shook hands, asked me where I was from. When the answer was “Morocco,” he put down his drink and stared at me with anthropological curiosity. We spoke about literature, of course, and discovered a common love for the work of the South African writer J.M. Coetzee, but before long the conversation had turned to Moroccan writers, then to Moroccan writers in France, and then, as I expected it eventually would, to Moroccan immigrants in France–at which point the French writer declared, “If they were all like you, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

His tone suggested he was paying me some sort of compliment, though I found it odd that he would want the 1 million Moroccans in his country to be carbon copies of someone he had barely met and whose views on immigration–had he asked about them–he might not have found quite to his liking. It was only later, when I had returned to my hotel room, that it dawned on me that the profile of the unproblematic Moroccan immigrant he might have had in mind was based solely on conspicuous things. Some of these, like skin color, were purely accidental; others, like sartorial choices or dietary practices, were in my opinion inessential, but from his vantage point perhaps they suggested a smaller degree of “Muslimness.”

Was this man really suggesting that I was a more desirable immigrant because I did not look Muslim? We had started our conversation as two equals, two potential friends, two writers discussing literature, but we had ended it as judge and supplicant–the former telling the latter whether or not she would make a suitable immigrant. And why on earth did I not say something on the spot? Why did I not ask him what he meant? Instead, I had stared back at him with what I imagine was dumbfounded perplexity, and then changed the subject. Perhaps if I had confronted him I would have been able to remove the sting of the insult that had lain hidden inside the compliment.

You can read the essay, in full, here. The picture above is from an election poster by the Swiss People’s Party, which recently led a campaign to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland. In a referendum held yesterday, the Swiss people approved the proposed law. It is now set to become part of the Swiss constitution.

In Yosemite

November 25th, 2009

We’re spending the Thanksgiving holiday at Yosemite National Park. I hope everyone has a safe and happy weekend. See you back here on Monday.

Hobby: Sleep

November 24th, 2009

I’ve always been amused by the prevailing idea in our culture that writers are anti-social creatures, people who would rather spend time alone in a room than have to speak to other sentient beings. The writers I’ve met come in all types, of course, but very few have really fit this cliché. In fact, I’ve noticed that whenever they are thrown together at a conference, a festival, or some other literary event, writers don’t mind gathering, late into the night, to talk. I rarely ever take part in these late-night chats, simply because I can’t handle them. I sleep, on average, between nine and ten hours a night. I can function on eight hours, if I have to. But if I’m forced, by circumstance, to get by with seven hours, I’m nearly useless.

When I was in Indiana last week, for instance, all the invited writers and artists wanted to go have drinks. It was almost midnight. I excused myself because I could barely think, let alone talk. They insisted. Why, they asked, could I not come just for a bit? I said I had to go to bed. Which, of course, sounded like the lamest, most ridiculous excuse to their ears. They looked at me sideways. I imagine they thought I was being standoffish. But, really, I was just exhausted, and already counting how many hours of sleep I could get. And the morning after? I was the last one to get up.

Bookstore Browsing Blues

November 23rd, 2009

When I was an undergraduate at University Mohammed-V, I used to find all my English-language books at the aptly named English Bookshop in downtown Rabat. The store was so tiny that the aisles only fit one person at a time. The shelves were stacked high, and you had to get a ladder to reach the top one. The books were ordered in sometimes surprising, but ultimately perfectly sensible ways. I remember the hours and hours spent browsing the shelves, looking for something I could read in my new, halting language.

I went back there last summer, for a visit, and was amazed that nothing had changed. The owner was there, and we chatted for a while about the old days. I know it sounds terribly cliché, but I would never have thought that some day my books would be sold there. (And I couldn’t have thought that not just because the idea of being published was so remote, but because back then I wasn’t even writing fiction in English yet.) The physical experience of browsing through a store—finding new, used, and even out-of-print books side by side—is one that I miss, particularly now that so many independent bookstores have closed.

New Darwish Translation

November 17th, 2009

A few weeks ago, when I heard that Farrar, Straus and Giroux was publishing a new volume of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, I was thrilled. But I was also a little disappointed that such recognition would come after his passing. (Darwish has been published in the United States before, of course, though never by a major commercial press.) The book is called If I Were Another, and it is translated by Fady Joudah.

“If I Were Another” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) presents long poems from the latter part of Mr. Darwish’s career—the only part that the poet, persistently self-critical, regarded as “mature.” These “lyric epics,” drawn from four collections, weave together many settings and voices. An elegy for the author’s father is followed by a polyvocal poem spoken by birds; a series on Andalusia, by the monologue of a Native American.

You can read more on the book at Speakeasy, the WSJ‘s book blog. Joudah previously translated the lovely volume The Butterfly’s Burden, published by Copper Canyon Press.

On The Road

November 16th, 2009

I am in Indiana today, giving a talk at Notre Dame University. I don’t know if there are any readers of the blog in the area, but here are the details in case any of you are interested.

My trip over here was pleasantly uneventful, until the very end. A soldier who was returning home from Iraq was on the plane to South Bend. When we arrived, her little boy, no more than five or six, ran to greet her and wouldn’t let go. Everyone was staring. There wasn’t a dry eye in sight. I was happy to see her reunited with her family, but angered once again that she and so many others are fighting in this immoral, unjust war, which has brought only misery to the people of Iraq and the United States.

Quotable: Toni Morrison

November 13th, 2009

From Toni Morrison’s second novel, Sula:

Still, it was lovely up in the Bottom. After the town grew and the farm land turned into a village and the village into a town and the streets of Medalion were hot and dusty with progress, those heavy trees that sheltered the shacks up in the Bottom were wonderful to see. And the hunters who went there sometimes wondered in private if maybe the white farmer was right after all. Maybe it was the bottom of heaven.

The black people would have disagreed, but they had no time to think about it. They were mightily preoccupied with earthly things–and each other, wondering even as early as 1920 what Shadrack was all about, what that little girl Sula who grew into a woman in their town was all about and what they themselves were all about, tucked up there in the Bottom.

Quotable: Tim O’Brien

November 11th, 2009

From the title story in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of fight pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf. She often quoted lines of poetry; she never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. The letters weighed ten ounces. They were signed “Love, Martha,” but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. At dusk, he would carefully return the letters to his rucksack. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.

Caricatures and Representations

November 10th, 2009

Last month, the scholar Jytte Klausen published a book on the controversy surrounding the Jyllands-Posten caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. But, despite its title, The Cartoons That Shook The World didn’t include any images. Yale University Press, Klausen’s publisher, decided to censor the cartoons out of fear that they could lead to trouble here in the United States. Of course, that only led to more controversy. (For the record, I happen to think Yale should have included the images, because they are crucial for any full understanding of the situation. To exclude them makes a thorough discussion impossible.)

In the New Republic, Oleg Grabar examines the larger question of representations of the Prophet Muhammad. He takes the reader on a little history tour through Islamic art. For instance, he discusses various representations of the Prophet Muhammad in printed form, particularly in depictions of Isra’ and Mi’raj (the mythical Night Journey, as in the image above). Although I am not entirely comfortable with claims he makes about “the Muslim world,” it is hard to take any issue with his conclusion:

To the extent that the argument against the so-called cartoons has centered on the legal propriety or impropriety of representing the Prophet Muhammad, it has been a pointless argument. Of course it is possible to question the Danish caricatures on grounds of taste, or social or political intent; but the lack of taste is not a legal category, and mischievous or even evil intent is difficult to discern in the absence of clearly stated moral and philosophical principles. The only certain lesson to draw from the sad story of the Danish cartoons is the almost universal prevalence of ignorance and incompetence–and that everyone, from writers and pundits to the leaders of mobs, should learn more before making a judgment or starting a riot.

You can read the essay in full here.

Advice to a Young Writer

November 9th, 2009

The Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah (whose debut story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, came out a few months ago) has some excellent advice for young writers on her blog. She writes:

A lot more people just want to know how they can be “real” , and that word keeps coming up, how they can be “real” writers. It is to these aspiring writers that I now reveal the secret to writing success.

Write.

That’s it.

Just write.

A writer is a person who writes.

Talent is overrated. Luck is overrated. The right agent is overrated. It helps to have all three, but they are all worthless without that thing in your hand, the manuscript, the thing in your hand that may become a book for which trees will die and that will be published and primped and pampered and put on bookshelves and paid for by people.

And this is what is underrated: the sitting down and grinding it out part. Because that is what writing is. You, at your computer or with your notebook, writing, and writing, revising and writing, and revising again.

This resonated with me because earlier this week, a student asked me for some career advice. I wasn’t sure what exactly she meant, and when I inquired it turned out she was very anxious because she felt that she should “put herself out there” and “try to get published.” She said that I was the only professor she had who never discussed publication or career in class. So she was curious. I told her that I didn’t discuss publication because I felt that the class should be spent on writing. I asked her how many stories she had written. The answer was: not very many. And so my advice to her was to write. I think I will also tell her to read what Gappah wrote.

Quotable: Philip Roth

November 6th, 2009

When I went to see Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, the other day, it got me thinking about how curly hair is written about in novels. The first example that came to me was Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. In the novel, Coleman Silk describes Iris Gittelman, the woman he’s going to marry, mostly in terms of her hair:

Her head of hair was something, a labyrinthine, billowing wreath of spirals and ringlets, fuzzy as twine and large enough for use as a Christmas ornamentation. All the disquiet of her childhood seemed to have passed into the convolutions of her sinuous thicket of hair. Her irreversible hair. You could polish pots with it and no more alter its construction than if it were harvested from the inky depths of the sea, some kind of wiry, reef-building organism, a dense living onyx hybrid of coral and shrubs, perhaps possessing medicinal properties.

Iris’s hair is significant, of course. Its curative property, so to speak, is that it allows Coleman, who has been passing for white, to have a convenient explanation for any kinkiness in his children’s hair.

Dinarzad’s Children

November 4th, 2009

I’m thrilled to let you all know that I have a short story in Dinarzad’s Children, an anthology of Arab American writing edited by Pauline Kaldas and Khaled Mattawa. The story is called “How I Became My Mother’s Daughter,” and almost everyone who has read it has mistaken it for an essay. It isn’t; it’s fiction. But this is what I get for writing in the first-person point of view.

At any rate, I hope you’ll look for this anthology in your neighborhood bookstore or library because it’s got some great writing by Rabih Alameddine, Rawi Hage, Laila Halaby, Alia Yunis, Diana Abu Jaber, Susan Muaddi Darraj, Yussef El Guindi, and the lovely and amazing Randa Jarrar, among many others.

Report From The Trenches

November 3rd, 2009

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, a writer, and we found ourselves doing that thing that writers often do: sharing horror stories about the book world. Here is one (among many) I told her. Several years ago, at a summer writers’ conference, I met a magazine editor who happened to be from the same city I lived in at the time. The editor said she was looking for slush pile readers, and I naively expressed some interest in helping out, on a volunteer basis. She sized me up, then asked, “How old are you?”

I didn’t quite understand why she asked me my age, but I answered, almost mechanically, “Thirty five.”

“Oh,” said the magazine editor. “Well, if you would like to volunteer your time, we really need help with office work.”

In a swift second, I had been reclassified from a potential reader of undiscovered gems to the person who stuffs rejection notices in envelopes. Needless to say, I never submitted any work to her. Eventually, I published a bunch of stories, then a book, and then another book. The kicker? A few years later, the editor, too, published a book. Then her publicist emailed me to ask me whether I could review it.

On Blogging

November 2nd, 2009

This month marks the eighth anniversary of my blog. The site has gone from an anonymous, sporadically updated, somewhat personal diary to an eponymous record of my literary, cultural, and political interests. But lately you may have noticed, dear reader, that I remain silent for several days on end and that my posts have become shorter. I think the reason for this is that I’ve changed my writing routine quite drastically. I used to write in the afternoon, after I’d read the day’s news, answered my emails, attended to any deadlines, and updated my blog. I figured I had to get all of the distractions out of the way so I could focus on my writing. Sometime last year, however, I realized that I could never ever catch up with email and that, in fact, the more prompt I was at answering email, the more of it I received. So I’ve been writing first thing in the morning, which means that everything else is pushed back to later in the day. Especially now that I’ve started work on my new novel. Still, I love having a place in which I can post commentary on things that interest me so this blog is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Cairo in A Public Space

October 29th, 2009

As some of you may know, A Public Space, the magazine founded in 2005 by Brigid Hughes, occasionally publishes ‘Focus Portfolios,’ which introduce the reader to the literature of a particular country. Issue 9, edited by the scholar Brian Edwards, is about Cairo. You can read Edwards’ introduction, Cairo 2010: After Kefaya, online. Contributors to the special issue include Mansoura Ez Eldin, Ahmed Alaidy, Magdy El Shafee, Muhammad Aladdin, Mohamed Al-Fakhrany, Ibrahim El Batout, Omar Taher and Khalid Kassab.

The picture above was taken at the British Museum, which is, sadly, as close as I ever came to seeing Cairo antiquities.

Reading in San Diego

October 27th, 2009

I will be reading from my novel Secret Son in San Diego this week. Here are the details:

October 28, 2009
4:30 PM
Reading from Secret Son
Department of Literature
University of California San Diego
San Diego, California

I hope to see you there!

Life in the Real West Egg

October 22nd, 2009

The American Scholar has a rather interesting piece about Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s constant struggles with money. I am not entirely convinced by the mathematical conversions of Fitzgerald’s income into today’s dollars, but the article provides some good insight into how the novelist and short-story writer handled in real life something that constantly occupied him in his fiction:

In “How to Live on $36,000 a Year,” Fitzgerald wrote that in 1920, three months after marrying Zelda, he ran out of money. “This particular crisis passed” when he discovered the next morning that publishers sometimes advance royalties. As he put it, “So the only lesson I learned from it was that my money usually turns up somewhere in time of need, and that at the worst you can always borrow—a lesson that would make Benjamin Franklin turn over in his grave.”

You can read the full article here.

Photo of Robert Redford in the film adaptation of The Great Gatsby: Forbes.

‘The San Francisco Americans Pretend Does Not Exist’

October 21st, 2009

jamesbaldwin.jpg

Who says Twitter is useless? Although I find the ceaseless posting somewhat overwhelming, I have also come across some really interesting material there. Yesterday, for instance, I discovered (via Maud Newton’s feed) this incredible 1963 footage of James Baldwin visiting San Francisco. Because the sound quality is not perfect, the film has been subtitled (with a few typos). You can watch the clip here, on the website of San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive.

Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird

October 19th, 2009

In The Locust and the Bird, the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh tells her mother’s life story, in her mother’s voice. Kamila, Hanan’s mother, is born to a destitute family in southern Lebanon in the late 1920s. They move to Beirut to live with an older half-sister, Manifa, though they are expected to earn their keep by selling wares door-to-door. In Beirut, Kamila discovers the world of music, fashion, and Egyptian movies. She also meets the love of her life, a cultivated man named Mohammed. When Manifa dies unexpectedly, the illiterate Kamila is married off, at the age of thirteen, to Manifa’s widower. They have two children (one of whom is the novelist) before Kamila manages to be reunited with Mohammed, whom she marries and to whom she bears several children.

Translated by Roger Allen, The Locust and the Bird is in some ways a tragic story, but it’s also an inspiring story, in which a woman manages to survive by her wits alone. Kamila is constantly trying to figure out ways to outsmart the men in her family. This is because, she tells us, “most of my friends were scared of every man in their family — even distant relatives — and this included the rich and the grand, like my glamorous cousin Mira.” Although Kamila’s struggles are occasionally rendered with minimal empathy and psychological depth, the story is engrossing. Reading this book, one comes to understand why Al-Shaykh has written so many novels with feisty heroines fighting back against male domination.

Photo credit: Al Ahram.

Quotable: J.M. Coetzee

October 16th, 2009

Coetzee.jpg

When I was in London last summer, I had dinner with the novelist Hisham Matar, who, knowing of my obsession with Coetzee, had brought a copy of Summertime for me. (Though released in the UK in August, the book won’t be out in the U.S. until December.) I started reading the book that same night. Like Boyhood and Youth, Summertime is a novel-cum-memoir. This time, Coetzee appears to us, thanks to the work of an English biographer, as a man in his mid-thirties, who is living with his father, working on a novel, and struggling to find a position as a university professor.

Here is a passage from the first chapter, which I found interesting because of what it says (or, more accurately, what it says to me) about the young Coetzee:

The house across the street has new owners, a couple of more or less his own age with young children and a BMW. He pays no attention to them until one day there is a knock at the door. “Hello, I’m David Truscott, your new neighbor. I’ve locked myself out. Could I use your telephone?” And then, as an afterthought: “Don’t I know you?”

Recognition dawns. They do indeed know each other. In 1952 David Truscott and he were in the same class, Standard Six, at St. Joseph’s College. He and David Truscott might have progressed side by side through the rest of high school but for the fact that David failed Standard Six and had to be kept behind. It was not hard to see why he failed: in Standard Six came algebra, and about algebra David could not grasp the first thing, the first thing being that x, y, and z were there to liberate one from the tedium of arithmetic. In Latin too, David never quite got the hang of things—of the subjunctive, for example. Even at so early an age it seemed to him clear that David would be better off out of school, away from Latin and algebra, in the real world, counting banknotes in a bank or selling shoes.

But despite being regularly flogged for not grasping things—floggings that he accepted philosophically, though now and again his glasses would cloud with tears—David Truscott persisted in his schooling, pushed no doubt from behind by his parents. Somehow or other he struggled through Standard Six and then Standard Seven and so on to Standard Ten; and now here he is, twenty years later, neat and bright and prosperous and, it emerges, so preoccupied with matters of business that when he set off for the office in the morning he forgot his house key and—since his wife has taken the children to a party—can’t get into the family home.

“And what is your line of business?” he inquires of David, more than curious.

“Marketing. I’m with the Woolworths Group. How about you?”

“Oh, I’m in between. I used to teach at a university in the United States, now I’m looking for a position here.”

“Well, we must get together. You must come over for a drink, exchange notes. Do you have children?”

“I am a child. I mean, I live with my father. My father is getting on in years. He needs looking after. But come in. The telephone is over there.”

So David Truscott, who did not understand x and y, is a flourishing marketer or marketeer, while he, who had no trouble understanding x and y and much else besides, is an unemployed intellectual. What does that suggest about the workings of the world? What it seems most obviously to suggest is that the path that leads through Latin and algebra is not the path to material success. But it may suggest much more: that understanding things is a waste of time; that if you want to succeed in the world and have a happy family and a nice home and a BMW you should not try to understand things but just add up the numbers or press the buttons or do whatever else it is that marketers are so richly rewarded for doing.

You can read the complete first chapter of Summertime at the New York Review of Books.

Nader Fantasy: Buffett as Hero

October 13th, 2009

When I heard that Ralph Nader had written a book called Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us, I thought, based on its title, that it had to be some sort of satire. But, according to the publicity materials posted by Nader’s publisher, Seven Stories Press, the book is about a group of fabulously wealthy individuals who decide that it is time to make good on the promise of “liberty and justice for all.” Led by the billionaire Warren Buffet, they start working for the common good: workers’ unions, clean elections, human rights, and so on. So Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us is really a fantasy, but its sheer length (780 pages!) causes NPR’s Alan Cheuse to call it “an unconscionable attack on America’s trees.”

Perhaps anticipating the confusion, Nader has said that this book is not a novel. It is “a fictional vision that could become a new reality.” Me, I’m just curious how he plans on getting those super-rich to read his book.

Dutch Translation of Secret Son

October 12th, 2009

The Dutch translation of my novel, Secret Son, is being published this week in Amsterdam, under the title De Geheime Zoon. Since this blog has a fair number of Dutch readers, I thought I’d mention this. Go out and get it! I won’t be traveling to the Netherlands this time, but I hope that readers who read the book will report back with their thoughts.


  • Twitter

  • Category Archives

  • Monthly Archives