Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thursday News In Review

I took two weeks off from my Thursday News in Review feature. The first, as you know, is because my parents were in town and the second I have absolutely no memory why we didn't have a News in Review. Maybe there was no news that week. There may not have been except for the possibly notable op-ed piece where Germaine Greer reveals that, while we've never met, Greer and I think one another are fools. I'm okay with that.

Opera News:

Readers hopefully know by now that at present the West Coast is ruling the Classical Music world in America. The Los Angeles Opera announced workshop performances of a new opera by Laura Karpman with libretto by M.G. Lord and Shannon Halwes. The work is called "The 110 Project" (Laurie will be delighted by this further presentable evidence that people from Southern California do indeed refer to their freeways as "The 5" or "The 22" instead of Chico's "Ya take 99 down to 5 and...") The piece follows a few characters through 70 years of LA history.
I have mixed feelings about modern opera (and, as it happens, mixed feelings about LA.) In some ways the form is more vibrant and diverse than it's even been. Unfortunately along with the greats, it gives rise to some really regrettable opera. I would almost advise a moratorium on operas based on films, but there have been a few really wonderful works based on film (I really liked the Dead Man Walking opera.)
I like the sound of this one and am excited to hear more about it.
Also in mind blowing opera news, apparently Placido Domingo is now singing as a baritone!

News I'd Rather Not Be Giving More Ink To News:

The BBC's shouting head of Robin Lustig told me this morning that Sarah Palin is on a book tour, in case I'd just finished a stint of cave dwelling. As of my writing this she is in Michigan.
Look, I won't waste any more of your time going over how people are actually talking about this book ghost written for the Republican Party's greatest train wreck in my lifetime for no other reason than the television is telling them to talk about it. You probably have all had experiences similar to my own of walking into a major chain store and finding not only that there's a huge display just inside the door for her "book" but also that the display has been ravaged to the point of almost being empty. And I'm not even talking about bookstores. Laurie and I saw this yesterday when we went to buy kitty litter. Were the book cheaper, as it's surely doomed to be clearance rack fodder, I may have considered buying it for that purpose.
You also probably don't need anyone to point to the flaws and falsehoods in the text as the internet is glutted with that information. Or that it's largely a whine-fest. You probably don't need for me to tell you that it's awful. No, I haven't read it and I will not. I don't have a problem saying that anyway because just like 2012 or the Zemeckis Christmas Carol, there are some things in this culture that you can smell the crap on from miles away.
But if you're not going to take my word for it or if you've some improbable person in your life who might want a copy of this as a gift, I do want to say this. Regardless of what happens, no one will ever want this book five years from now. It is a bad book investment. She may be a news story now but, much like Pauley Shore or Borat, people are going to get sick of the act really quick and swing in the opposite direction. Also, if the Republican Party is at long last so out of touch with consensus reality that they actually do run her as a presidential candidate in 2012, it will guarantee another 4 years of a Democrat. As soon as the ballots are cool, the book will be ground up to make school lunch food go further. Take it from a bookseller who has had a book about Hubert Humphrey on a shelf for 6 years, it may be a hot topic in this particular split second, but you do not want to throw money at this book.

Stuffy, Starchy Book Award News:

At first glance, I was kind of delighted to find that the National Book Award went to Colum McCann (who also wins the "best first name for a journalist" award) for his book about Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who walked between the Twin Towers without permission in 1974. The book is called "Let the Great World Spin." The NJ Star-Ledger article where I read this wrote,

"Considered to be one of literature's most prestigious honors, it certainly will catapult the Irish author (who lives in New York) to instant prominence.

McCann refers to the book an act of hope written in part as a response to the attacks on 9-11. Accepting the prize, the author praised the generosity of American fiction and its audience. He dedicated the win to a fellow Irish-American writer Frank McCourt."

Which sounded absolutely delightful to me. But then the article ended with "In addition, legendary author Gore Vidal picked up an award for Lifetime achievement." And then I stopped taking it seriously.

Social Literacy News:

I'm not usually in the habit of writing in depth about advertising campaigns. Nevertheless, Penguin Books came up with a new advertising strategy which reeks of someone in Marketing having read Harold Bloom. I'll let their copy speak for itself:

"Penguin Classics has compiled a list of the top ten essential Penguin Classics every person should read. Each of these ten great works—ranging from poetry to plays to novels and non-fiction—has lasted and enlightened audiences throughout the ages, and they all still have something relevant to say to readers. Look over the list, and explore this website to learn more about each of the ten books.

Watch The Ten Essential Penguin Classics, a twenty-minute video program highlighting each of the ten books listed above.

Why read classic works of literature? There are a myriad of reasons, just one of which is to catch the numerous references that appear in movies, television, politics, and throughout pop culture. In the above video, you can see a trailer for a short film we produced showing what happens to a hapless young suitor who hasn't read our Essential Classics."

The list is as follows:

Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

The Odyssey by Homer

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

And they've put together a video series which will probably only ever be seen by geeks like me which features a really awkward, apparently improvised "at a party scene" featuring what seems to be an avid Will Farrell fan in the local college acting troupe who everyone in his classes thinks is a riot. Interspersed seem to be brief interviews with people found around the Penguin offices on each of the books.

Aside from the dorkiness of the video series, I think it's a fine idea. I could see an astute young person following the list and having a wonderful time. I don't even find myself disagreeing too much with the list although I probably would have replaced Walden with Leaves of Grass or something by Dickens. I can already hear Laurie's objection to 20% of the list comprising ancient Greeks, but I don't personally share her distaste for the ancient Greeks. You'll have to ask her about that. Also I've not read Jane Eyre but, as a testimony to the concept, this morning I find myself thinking more seriously about reading Jane Eyre than I probably ever have.

In fact, I can imagine this working very well. If a non-reader or nominal-reader followed Penguin's advice at the very least they would get a basic, crash literacy exposure. I have a hard time imagining one reading all ten of these books, brushing their hands and saying "well, that's done. Now I never have to read another classic." I would rather imagine it would ignite a lifelong thirst for great literature in anyone. For that, I applaud Penguin.

The only two problems I can see are 1) the authority of Penguin. Why exactly are they the ones who get the establish the Western Canon? Again, not that I have a problem with what they've done. Anyway and 2) again, I think the people who actually hear about this campaign are probably likely to already be readers of classics. I'm not sure Penguin really has the ear of the type of person they feature in their short video series. However, these are not really objections and I salute Penguin in their effort. I would be tempted to make my own 10 books every human should read, but I will not... No, actually, upon reflection, I think I may be pompous enough to actually do that. Stay tuned.


  1. A friend asked me to clarify and I thought I should probably mention that I have nothing against Walden. I think it's a wonderful book. But personally I would put it within the top 50, not the top 10.

  2. I should probably also define my terms on the difference between a shouting head (Robin Lustig) and a screaming head (Bill O'Reilly and that sort.) A screaming head is one who does just that, yells, is mean spirited and generally behaves in front of a camera that would send them to Behavioral Health in real life.
    Robin Lustig simply seems to report as though he is inordinately concerned about his hearing impaired listeners being able to hear him.