Wednesday, December 31, 2008


In the second edition of his Systema Naturae (published in 1740), Linneaus -- for the first time ever -- classified the human species as a species of mammals. He also ordered the human mammal by geography.

His official name for the American human is: homo americanus rufus cholericus rectus regitur consuetudine.

Reddish choleric man, walking tall, governed by habit.

For those of us occasionally watching Fox, or sporadically awake during the past 8 years: How Nostradamic of Mr. Linneaus!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


The program for the 2009 Jewish Book Week is up.

I am very excited I'll be able to attend. AB Yehoshua's The Continuing Silence of a Poet is a favorite of mine, and he closes the festival.

Too bad for me that I can only be there for the final Saturday and Sunday. I'm on at lunch time on Sunday. I fully expect to break my all-time low-attendance record, although that won't be easy. (I once had such low attendance at a Chicago event that even the organizer forgot to mention me in her blog story of the evening -- that must set the record: attendance was so low the organizer herself considered my presence superfluous.)

There is also rumor that I'll be doing a separate performance at the Flemish House in London on the Monday following -- not sure yet what it'll be and what language it'll be in. As long, I suppose, as my students don't find out that THAT is the reason we'll all be missing class. Literature: so frivolous!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Living in the heart of a big town means that when you go to the grocery store, you can observe a great many inter-national couples fussing over the veggies.

I cannot fail but notice that I always hear one of them speak American English with a Spanish, German, Italian, French, Romanian, Arabic, Swahili, or Chinese accent.

That is: Never do I hear Spanish, German, Italian, French, Romanian, Arabic, Swahili, or Chinese spoken with an American-English accent.

Which as an observation is so trite that it doesn't even bear mentioning.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Given that G*d is immutable, so are the Vatican's 19th-century viewpoints on gays and women. (Unless you're American, in which case those viewpoints are officially sooooo 21st-century.)

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict said on Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behavior was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.

"(The Church) should also protect man from the destruction of himself. A sort of ecology of man is needed," the pontiff said in a holiday address to the Curia, the Vatican's central administration.

"The tropical forests do deserve our protection. But man, as a creature, does not deserve any less."

The Catholic Church teaches that while homosexuality is not sinful, homosexual acts are. It opposes gay marriage and, in October, a leading Vatican official called homosexuality "a deviation, an irregularity, a wound."

The pope said humanity needed to "listen to the language of creation" to understand the intended roles of man and woman. He compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as "a destruction of God's work."

He also defended the Church's right to "speak of human nature as man and woman, and ask that this order of creation be respected."

In other words: the Pope sez: "Shut up, bitches!" Followed by a spirited: "Eternal truth dat, dawgs!"

(Did you also catch the: save man from himself? -- oh, ssssnap!)

Thursday, December 18, 2008


2008 will be known forever as the year the American Literary World (7 acres in Manhattan, populated by countless mules and asses) was Unjustly Attacked by Nobel Prize Committee Chairman Horace Engdahl for Being So-Called Insular. No sir, those countless mules and asses balked: We certainly are not!

Yes, 2008 will forever be remembered as the year American Literature Broke Free of its Presumed Insularity.

Case in point: the New York Times published its list of notable books for the year. 50 of those are works of fiction. Of those 50, no less than 3 are titles originally published in a language other than English! THREE! WHICH IS SIX PERCENT! Which, given that about 1.8% of fiction published in the US is Foreign Fiction, is MORE THAN THREE TIMES the amount Foreign Exports should have been allotted on statistical grounds alone! HURRAY FOR OUR OVERWHELMING NON-INSULARITY!

(The lucky authors, in case you wondered, are Ma Jian, Victor Pelevin, and Roberto Bolano.)

If my tally is correct, there are 1 Canadian, 2 Australians, 3 Brits, and 1 Irishperson among the 50. 50 - (1+2+3+1+the3foreignlanguagers) = 40. This then implies that the NYT reckons that NINETY-FOUR PERCENT of the year's notable books were originally written in ENGLISH, yet ONLY EIGHTY PERCENT of the year's notable books were written by AMERICANS!

If that doesn't prove our non-insularity, goodnessforcryingoutloud!

The USA, for your information, has about 5% of the world's population.

And about 80% of the world's cojones, apparently.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


So, yeah, I dig the Mountain Goats (which are/is a one-man band, John Darnielle).

Turns out the Goats halfway dig me. Or 66.67% percent dig me.
I'm reading Omega Minor by Paul Verhaeghen, which is about two-thirds really good and one-third kinda not so great, which is interesting to me, actually. I tend to go for stuff with fatal flaws.
I love it when I stumble across things like these, unexpectedly. From folks I've never met, but do admire. The book has caused so few and little waves and sold so poorly that I'm even astonished someone has actually read it.

And now I spend a lonely evening wondering what those fatal flaws are. (Of course I do.) This brings to mind Boyd Tonkin who somewhere mentioned that OM was about 80% brilliant. Would love to see Boyd and John sit on the carpet in my living room, empty bottles of Menage a Trois littering the couch, Venn-diagraming my novel, showing me what works and what doesn't. Except I'd be too drunk because way too intimidated to remember what, and never learn. Hey, Scott, join that club, why don't you?

Related note: The JC has their Literary Year up, and reiterates David Herman's complaint about the sex in OM:

The sex is graphic, sometimes pornographic, and the sex scenes involving SS brothels and Nazi officers are of dubious taste.
(BTW, there is of course only one scene in a single SS brothel at one juncture in the book; there is also no Nazi officer schtupping going on that I remember -- unless Flemish members of the Langemarck division count, which in a non-technical matter they might (if you want to be dictionarial, Nazi refers to members of the NSDAP). Or maybe I do indeed misremember -- that book is one long dark slog of the soul, I tell ya. I'd rather forget I ever had anything to do with it.) The real question for Herman, on this lonely evening of mine, is: Should those sex scenes have been done, you know, tastefully? Would that have been, you know, better? Plus, using the word exploit (it's in there! DH uses the word exploit!) feels hardly fitting for a highly literary 250,000 word novel that about 3,000 people or so have actually read. Darn, tasteful sex by/from/with Nazi officers would have, you know, lifted it up or sum'thin'. Would've improved sales! Might have made the NYT! (I am always surprsied, even though I shouldn't, at how especially sex scenes are always reinterpreted in ways that don't fit my own reading/memory of them. In my poor addled mind, those few rather cartoonish scenes of monkey-butt sex mostly reflected deep contempt for the piggishness of the typical prick-endowed individual. But what do I know? Realism in sex scenes only, apparently. And good taste.) Which makes me anxious to hear from Herman on the subject of 2666, where, again, some national socialists do the nasty.

But first, dammit, I'm dying to know what Girl Talk think of my novel.


Sometimes the political side of my blog is written for me.

On Dec 11, the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Carl Levin and a little unknown dovish senator from Arizona, John McCain, published their report on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. Take some time and read it.

I will cite below from the executive summary.

But first let me ask you this: If all major parties in some faraway country would have come together to conclude that their President and Secretary of Defense, who started a war for no known reason, repeatedly and knowingly and by executive order violated the Geneva Convention, opening the door (in fact, it seems, the floodgates) to detainee abuse-until-death-follows and to random acts of torture -- shouldn't the USA, beacon of democracy and warden of all that is Good condemn the leaders of said nation? With vigor, even?

Oh right, no, oops, wait a minute, that faraway country, that IS the USA, that is... us.

Find shovel.

Apply head to sand.

I have still to see or hear something on the major news media about this story*.

Again, this is OUR president, governing in OUR name, happily abandoning the Geneva Convention.

Because he can.

And because -- face it -- he will get away with it.

Because the media are -- face it -- much more interested in floppy footwear right now.

A hundred thousand (or so) Iraqis dead because of this man's lie, and the assclown still wonders why he deserves the boot.

Deep cleansing breath, y'all.

Here it is, from the summary:

Conclusion 1 of the Committee’s report states:

“On February 7, 2002, President George W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Following the President’s determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.”

Conclusion 13 states:

“Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there. Secretary Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 approval of Mr. Haynes’s recommendation that most of the techniques contained in GTMO’s October 11, 2002 request be authorized, influenced and contributed to the use of abusive techniques, including military working dogs, forced nudity, and stress positions, in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

And the Committee’s 19th and final conclusion states:

“The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely."

*Please tell me I'm wrong.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


In an essay in the forthcoming issue of the Jewish Quarterly, I argue the completely unoriginal position that fiction is magic -- that (some of) it (perchance) (might) transform(s) or even shock(s) the world into truth.

I just finished reading a novel that does just that: Nadeem Aslam's exquisite The Wasted Vigil. It's a book set in Afghanistan and in the present day (martyr bombings, warlords, CIA), but with the lingering Soviet occupation and the thug of Cold War as part of its internal memory. And it's all set in one village, and mainly in one house. Which has books nailed to the ceiling and frescoes covered in mud. Once Mr. Aslam gets his impulse to insert preciously poetic metaphors under control (around page 85 or so) the novel becomes hallucinogenicly good. As in: another one of those rare clear and clever meditations on the imperiousness of Evil, and how we are all perpetrators while we are all thinking we are g*d-(or govt-)sent agents of Good. In the course of the novel Good and Evil lose their capitals and humanity loses, and thereby gains, its humanity. Not a feel-good book, but definitely a feel-true book.

I say wow.

This book will of course be completely ignored States-side, because written by a Pakistani Brit about some funky-smelling business we USA-types are actually engaged in, and because the American literary world (7 acres in Midtown Manhattan) is too busy discussing, amongst itself, some recent allegations of insularity, like the prolonged SNL skit they have finally become.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Yesterday was the day Henry Molaison died.
He was 82, but he thought he was 27.
If you asked him what color his hair was, he would have never guessed it was grey.
Yet he was never surprised seeing himself in the mirror as an old man.
He knew, and yet he didn't know.

In 1953, Henry Molaison underwent brain surgery.
His mediotemporal lobes were removed, on both sides.
Those were the sources of his epileptic attacks.
When Henry woke up, his epilepsy was gone.
So was his memory.

Psychology students all over the world knew him by his initials -- HM.
Now we all know his name.
He was Henry Molaison.
And he was not.
HM was Henry Molaison's frame -- an increasingly older man, forever boyish, polite and courteous, with a gentle gleam in his eye and a keen sense of humor.

Henry lived in a world that was only 7 seconds long -- he saw 5 seconds in the past, foresaw 2 in the future.
The surgeon's knife had severed the connection between his working memory -- the mind's RAM -- and his long-term memory -- the mind's ROM.
Nothing new entered his permanent memory.
And so Henry knew no longer who he was; he only knew who he had been.
So 27 he stayed.

There you have it.
This is why you need ROM memory: to be who you are.

I heard it told that Henry's 7 seconds were not always happy.
Sometimes he had this vague sense of dread, he mentioned to his friends.
As if he had done something wrong.
After all, if you can't remember what you just did, why shouldn't you assume that you perhaps did something wrong?
Like a child waking from a dream, Henry said: not knowing what is real.
What am I doing here? The awakened child asks.
What am I doing here?
Henry Molaison went for the deep questions.
You better be deep if you only have 2 more seconds to live, every moment of your life.
Make those seconds worthwhile, make them last.

I heard it told that there was one joke Henry really liked.
He laughed out loud every time he heard it.
Even if you had just told him that selfsame joke an hour ago.
As if he heard it for the first time.
Which was technically correct: He heard it for the first time.
That joke was so good, it cracked him up every time.

I wish I knew that joke.
I wish I could now tell it to the night.
To poor lonesome Henry, floating somewhere among the stars.
Jokes help, you know, with that vague sense of dread.

It is said that every night Allah destroys the world; he recreates it before dawn.
Every day is new.
Such was HM's life.
Every day he met the world anew.
Unaware that on that very day a fantastically excellent joke was waiting for him.
A fantastically excellent joke -- waiting just for him.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Detroit bail-out, mister Paulson sir? But what about those poor upper middle class folks stuck with the wrong husband, stuck with the worng kids, stuck in the wrong neighborhood where only an S-series Benz and bling from Tiffany's will do? No money for cars, mister Paulson sir, please give it to us: What America needs is an autobio buy-out.