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Week’s Highlights: “An Ambiguous Purity”

PUBLISHED: August 24, 2009

Here are a couple of interesting stories via Bookslut. First, check out Swindle, “a daily aggregator of contemporary poetry.” Second, there is the disturbing, though sadly common, story of Ravi Shankar, a poet, Central Connecticut State University professor, and founding editor of literary journal Drunken Boat. Following a Drunken Boat release party in July in New York, Shankar was pulled over by police and arrested without being read his rights. The arresting officer commented at the time that it’s “always a good day when you can bag a sand nigger.” That’s one of many small indignities and abuses Shankar was subjected to, and it’s worth reading his piece about the experience in the Hartford Courant or listening to him speak on NPR.

David Gates’ rather brutal review of Justin Cartwright’s novel To Heaven By Water (in the Aug. 13 New York Times Book Review) features the first newspaper headline (“Sensimilia and Sensibility”) that led me to look up a word on Urban Dictionary. According to U.D., “sensimilla” is a type of seedless but potent marijuana (and is presumably the same as “sensimilia”), corroborated by Wikipedia.  These are the glories of user-generated content—and an unknown NYTBR editor’s odd…sensibility.

In Tablet, Jonathan Rosen interviews Sam Magavern about the great Primo Levi. Magavern is the author of Primo Levi’s Universe: A Writer’s Journey and has a deep, passionate understanding of Levi’s life, personality, and work as a scientist and writer. Regarding Levi’s view of the relationship between the scientific and imaginative realms, Magavern remarks:

From science he absorbed a respect for facts and a secular, “disenchanted” worldview. But most of his tales about science describe disasters, experiments gone awry, sometimes comically and sometimes tragically. From literature (and life) he gained a sharp sense of tragedy, human limits, and the dangers of hubris. He was deeply concerned about nuclear weapons and environmental problems, as well as attempts to re-engineer the human spirit. So I would say that he found science and poetry not only compatible, but also indispensable as complements to one another. In The Periodic Table, he has a beautiful passage comparing writing to distilling; both are ways to “obtain the essence,” to reach the “spirit” that inheres in matter, to find through multiple metamorphoses an ambiguous purity.

Like Magavern, I think it’s a shame that Levi’s If This Is a Manhas been published in the U.S. with the far less evocative title Survival in Auschwitz.

In the Los Angeles Times, Richard Rayner writes about Nathanael West and his novel The Day of the Locust. Rayner concludes that:

Los Angeles has been the subject of, and setting for, many fine novels, yet “The Day of the Locust” still feels like the single best-achieved, and most oracular, piece of fiction the city has inspired. West wanted to show the dump behind the dream, and he did it in spades; but he proved too that L.A. could be the seedbed of high art. Tod Hackett’s epic dream painting becomes a metaphor for what West actually did achieve.

Late summer and fall feature new books by many well-known writers—Russo, Roth, Lethem, Pynchon, Eggers, Moore, Powers, Ishiguro, Vollmann, Davis, et al. That also means that many of them will be competing for attention, perhaps in novel ways. Margaret Atwood has started with a sprint: there’s a bevy of articles and blog posts that offer some variation of Atwood’s Twittering! Blogging! Touring! With Actors! There’s nothing wrong with any of this, of course—the theater production sounds interesting—but it would be nice if most book promotion didn’t seem so forced, like a politician eating a hamburger and drinking a (domestic) beer to fit in with us normal folks.


Leonard Lopate conducts one of the country’s best cultural and news shows; it’s learned, inquisitive, and remarkably broad in scope. This summer, Lopate’s “Underappreciated” segment focuses on “authors that are little-known in America, authors that mysteriously fell out of fashion, and authors who never gained wide recognition in the first place.” (Previously, I linked to his segment about Yusuf Idris.) Listen to him talk with scholars about Andrei Bely, Paul von Heyse, The Man Without Qualities, and Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut.


I recently discovered the Authors@Google series, which includes talks by Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, Richard Price, Aimee Bender, Junot Diaz, Paul Auster, and Heidi Julavits. Below, check out Jonathan Lethem’s appearance on April 17, 2007, talking about his essay “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism” and his novel You Don’t Love Me Yet. Lethem’s new novel, Chronic City, comes out on October 13, and my fellow contributing online editor Matt Shaer will, I believe, be reviewing it for this magazine.

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