Posts Tagged ‘Ayelet Waldman’

The Stanford book club that rocks the news

Friday, April 22nd, 2016
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Toby Wolff’s Another Look send-off last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Author Peter Stansky‘s “A Company of Authors,” the annual event where Stanford authors present their books, had its best day ever last Saturday. As I told Stanford Report“The author presentations were eloquent and excellent, without exception, and the audience questions ensured the discussion was spirited and intelligent.” And longtime Hoover fellow Paul Caringella even gave an impromptu pitch for my forthcoming René Girard biography. What’s not to like?

“I always find these occasions extremely exhilarating,” Peter said. “The heart of the university is the life of the mind and you could not have a better example of that than in the books that their authors presented here today.”

Well, you can read the whole thing here. Nearly everyone stayed through all the presentations, and the excited and audible buzz in the lobby afterwards told the story.

And I told a story, too, during my ten-minute solo for “The Wonderful World of Books at Stanford.” Peter introduced me as “the leading figure at Stanford in keeping us involved in so many exciting ways in the world of books.” So I took up the cause of the Another Look book club it has been my privilege to manage for four years. Here’s what I said:

I’m here to tell you the Another Look story. It’s a good story, and I’ve been proud to be part of it. I think you’ll like it because it’s a story about books finding their people.

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Founder Tobias Wolff. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Four years ago, the distinguished author Tobias Wolff – who was recently named a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts – approached me with an idea: he wanted to create a forum where members of the community would interact with Stanford writers, scholars, and literary figures in the world beyond, to talk about the books they love. He wanted the first book to be a beloved favorite, William Maxwells So Long See You Tomorrow. He asked me if I could make all this happen. Frankly, I have to say, I was doubtful. The term “book club” did not have good associations for me. But as we hashed it out, I realized my issues were two-fold: first, I figured most people, like me, didn’t have the hours and hours to read long books of other people’s choosing; and second, the books tended to be mainstream, middlebrow, middle-of-the-road “safe” choices.

Inspired by Maxwell’s novel, we decided that we would focus on short books – short enough for Bay Area professionals who are pressed for time, and who may spend their days going through legal briefs or medical documents. Also, we would focus on books that were forgotten, overlooked, or simply haven’t received the audience they merit. We would call it “Another Look.” It would be for people who wanted to be part of the world of books and literature – a world they may have lost touch with once they left university. They would be connoisseurs’ choices for books you must read – discussed and even championed by the people who love them.

Not delusional. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Nobless oblige. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

We had a full house the first night, and our audiences have been steadily climbing upward ever since. One highpoint: for Philip Roth‘s The Ghost Writer, we were joined by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. It was the only time to date we have had a living author. And although he had become something of a recluse, I decided to see if I could interview him. The subsequent Q&A was published on The Book Haven and republished in La Repubblica, Le Monde, and Die Welt. It made the international press, and the high-profile Another Look was featured in The Guardian.

Toby retired … or said he was going to retire … last year (he was recalled for another year, but that’s another story). When we announced that Another Look was going to close shop a year ago, we got record numbers of people attending our event for Albert Camus‘s The Stranger – a book, Toby claimed, that was more honored than read. One member in the audience, the acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, stepped forward that night to offer to assume the directorship of the program. We’ve developed subscribers’ list pushing up to 1,400. Our February’s event with Werner Herzog at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, discussing J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine, is now on youtube, in both highlights and full-length version. (The event was covered by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Caille Millner here.) The repercussions of that powerful book event will continue to unfold in the months to come.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker’s book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

It’s been enormously gratifying for me personally to be the point of contact with all of you in our book-loving Bay Area community – and sometimes around the nation and world, too. We have one aficionado driving in from Carmel – others write from far-flung places to tell me they’re reading along with us. And Toby has talked about this program, during his speaking engagements around the country. He’s proud of his brainchild, too.

Why am I so keen on this program? Because it’s rocked my world. Those who know me as a literary journalist know that I’ve sunk my time into the world of Eastern European poets, particularly Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, and more recently, into the French theorist René Girard, a longtime Stanford faculty member, a dear friend, and the subject of my biography. Hence, there are huge holes in my knowledge of modern fiction, and particularly American fiction. Without too much investment of time, I’ve caught up with a lot of writers I’d somehow missed. No membership fees, no meetings with minutes, no commitments – just show up, please!

So please join us next month, on Tuesday, May 10, at the Bechtel Conference Center, when we discuss Joseph Conrads novella The Shadow-Line. The story will run in Stanford Report Monday and be on the Stanford news website – we have books in the lobby. Meanwhile, take some freshly minted bookmarks – and take a few for your friends who might be interested, too.

Orwell Watch #10: Literary criticism, or cut-and-paste?

Saturday, June 11th, 2011
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"Astonishing"

Joe Queenan, in his 2007 “Astonish Me,” describes his fixation with books that are called “astonishing.”  Hence, he’s got a lot of reading to do:

These are good times for the astonishable reading public. Among the masterpieces by Orhan Pamuk, who won last year’s Nobel Prize for literature, was The New Life, described by The Times Literary Supplement as ”an astonishing achievement.” Pamuk’s Nobel coincided with the premiere of a Court TV series based on James Ellroy‘s My Dark Places, a book that had been quite accurately described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as ”astonishing … original, daring, brilliant.” Not long before, Ayelet Waldman came out with Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, which, while apparently not astonishing in and of itself, did include a character that the novelist Andrew Sean Greer described as ”astonishing.” Then, Abigail Thomas published A Three Dog Life, singled out by Entertainment Weekly as ”astonishing,” and an ”extraordinary” love story — ”Grade: A.” Personally, I find the Grade A business redundant; if a book is astonishing, you’re obviously not going to give it a B.

Which brings us to Ward Six‘s “Literary Blurb Translation Guide,” a guide to literary grade inflation.  Here’s some of the site’s shortlist:

“brilliant” = smarty-pants
profound” = written by old person
“taut” = limited vocabulary

"Pellucid"

“finely wrought” = namby-pamby
clever” = thinks it’s being clever
“luminous prose” = too many goddam words
“a tour-de-force” = threw it across the room
“a triumph” = huge advance
“unflinching artistry” = lots of boobs and stabbing
“grabs you on page 1 and won’t let go” = stuck reading it on long flight
“achingly beautiful” = really long sentences
“a story for the ages” = ripoff of Tolstoy
“best of the year” = only thing I’ve gotten around to reading
“deeply imagined” = makes no sense
“incredible range and breadth” = all over the place

"Astonishing"

“radiant” = already been blurbed by people more famous than me
“rich language” = not enough paragraph breaks
“goes straight for the heart” = sappy
“trenchant satire” = poop jokes
“a small gem” = will sell five hundred copies, tops
“you’ll feel forever changed” = you will never get those hours of your life back
“searing…glorious…a fury of dazzling transcendence” = I’m just stringing random words together now

Ward Six readers offered more:

From Sung“astonishing” = cover is glossy instead of matte

From Violentbore“bildungsroman” = main character is younger than me

Michael Garberich said “My favorite has always been ‘uproarious’ – You might not laugh, but you know you’re supposed to at some point.”

From Aaron“Deeply felt” = astonishingly narcissistic.

Here’s Russell:

haunting = someone dies

pellucid = someone drowns

galloping = someone gets thrown from a horse

"Astonishing"

It keeps you honest.  I have to admit to an over-reliance on some of the clichés these folks have targeted. As George Orwell writes in “Politics and the English Language“:

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.

Orwell Watch:  Collect the whole set!

Orwell Watch #9: “I take full responsibility for…”

Orwell Watch #8:  “I know you’re disinterested in this, but…”

Orwell Watch #6:  “Like” and the culture of vagueness

Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner:  Madman, terrorist, or both?

Orwell Watch #3:  Please. No “gifting” this Christmas.

Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

Orwell Watch #1: Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)