News

Parnassus

Par­nas­sus, Nashville’s new inde­pen­dent book­store, offi­cially opened yes­ter­day to much fan­fare. It’s not sur­pris­ing, given the incred­i­ble amount of advance pub­lic­ity locally and nation­ally: a front page story in The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly; in the Novem­ber issue of Gar­den & Gun; in Chapter16.org; the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor and NPR. This is due, par­tially, to the for­mi­da­ble star power of owner/novelist, Ann Patch­ett, who thumbed her nose at the Neil Van Uum’s of the world who would claim that the end of the inde­pen­dent book­store is nigh by step­ping up to fill the void after Davis Kidd’s clos­ing last year. The civic shock and mourn­ing that fol­lowed the loss of that store cou­pled with nearly a year with­out a place in the Athens of the South to buy a book is also part of the over­whelm­ing good­will accom­pa­ny­ing Parnassus’s arrival. But I think there’s some­thing else afoot, some­thing related to the Occupy Wall Street and loca­vore move­ments. Not directly, of course, but part of the zeit­geist as we wade through the Great Reces­sion and slowly arrive, it seems to me, at a real­iza­tion that we, the 99%, can have the world we want if we invest in it. I’ll call this The Great Reclamation.

Recla­ma­tion, by def­i­n­i­tion, is the tak­ing back of a waste­land for cul­ti­va­tion and all around us, it seems, the earth is scorched. Our country’s finances are a waste­land and so is our gov­ern­ment. The Super Com­mit­tee can’t seem to do its job, can’t arrive at a com­pro­mise, although you and I do it every day at home or at work. This com­mit­tee exists because Con­gress couldn’t do its job. The pun­ters punt to pun­ters, Democ­rats to Repub­li­cans and back, for over three decades, with a nifty assist from our friends on Wall St. And so here we are.

 

The earth’s on its way to being a waste­land. Con­sider, for instance, Antarc­tica and what it tells us about the state of the planet and how cli­mate change shad­ows the rise in car­bon emis­sions since the Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion or that last year was, once again, the hottest year on record. (But let’s say you don’t buy any of this sci­en­tific mumbo-jumbo, this high­fa­lutin hokum dreamed up by tree hug­gers and lib­er­als, by commie/progressive tax-and-spenders, even though you’ll take it as law when you, say, fly a plane or drive your car or take your Plavix or have triple-bypass surgery. My counter-argument is some­thing like French philoso­pher Blaise Pascal’s gam­bit. Remem­ber that from Intro Phi­los­o­phy? Bet­ter, he argued, to con­vert to Chris­tian­ity, even if you don’t believe, rather than risk spend­ing eter­nity in hell. Bet­ter to live sus­tain­ably, I say, to put your mus­cle behind a Green World, than wait for defin­i­tive proof of man­made causes of cli­mate change, since the pos­si­ble alter­na­tive is no world at all.)

In The Great Recla­ma­tion, you vote with your vote and your pock­et­book. Apply its logic to any­thing. Here’s an exam­ple: If you need a book, you call Par­nas­sus and order it by phone and pick it up the next time you’re in Green Hills because you believe it’s impor­tant that nation­ally rec­og­nized authors have a place to share their work in Nashville. Because when you book shop, you’d rather talk to an informed human being who lives and breathes lit­er­a­ture or mys­tery or non­fic­tion than be offered rec­om­men­da­tions based on sta­tis­ti­cal analy­ses of your buy­ing habits. Because, really, who the fuck needs a book RIGHT NOW any more than you need your whole library with you every­where you go. Because you chose the red pill instead of the blue pill. Because on a plane you can keep read­ing a tree book dur­ing take­off and land­ing and on the beach can drop it in the sand with­out major dam­age. Because you like page num­bers and not per­cents. Because con­trary to what some might say, the envi­ron­men­tal impact of e-readers is more dele­te­ri­ous than tree books. Because when you read the notes in the mar­gins of your book, the scrib­blings you penned a decade or two ago, you get a sense of the ways you’ve changed and grown and remain the same. Because serendip­ity is part of life’s magic and is more likely to occur when you go some­where with­out a clue as to what you’re look­ing for and it finds you and feels as if it were fated. Because time, in this over­sched­uled hyper-active world, is to be wasted and to do so is a recla­ma­tion thereof and a rebel­lion against thought­less, tyran­ni­cal efficiency.

Because.

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In Ladies and Gen­tle­men news, I appeared on the Bookra­geous pod­cast Episode 29. Our topic: short sto­ries. The con­ver­sa­tion was a hell of a lot of fun and fea­tures this month’s Gar­den & Gun pinup girl, Rich­mond, VA’s Rebecca Schin­sky, also known as The Book Lady. Mean­while, watch for my posts on the ATP finals. As I write this, Tsonga and Fed are warm­ing up for their match. E-readers I can take or leave but not my DVR.

 

Federer, Kirkus!, and The Agony of Beginning

I’ve been a shitty blogger—my last entry came right after the U.S. Open final—although I have an excuse (upcom­ing) but must first pat myself on the back for my pre­science. In my pre­vi­ous post, I’d said of the Rafa/Nole match that it was “a contest…”:

painful, at times, to watch, really excru­ci­at­ing to behold, because the phys­i­cal toll on both play­ers was evi­dent as the third set came to its thun­der­ous con­clu­sion, so that this seemed less a ten­nis court then a col­i­seum, a to-the-death affair, and when Rafa took the third there was an expres­sion of dis­be­lief on Nole’s face that hon­estly warmed this week­end hacker’s heart…My inner Mother Teresa wants to upbraid the USTA for destroy­ing the very play­ers who line its pock­ets. My inner sadist would’ve liked to watch either emerge from bed this morn­ing. I’m pic­tur­ing the open­ing scene of North Dal­las Forty with­out the Quaaludes and pot.

And look at Nole since: he made a fee­ble attempt to play Davis Cup, retir­ing with the same back injury suf­fered dur­ing his Bal­boa match with Rafa, one which in turn side­lined him for nearly eight weeks total. He man­aged, next, to win a cou­ple at the Paris Indoors only to with­draw because of a shoul­der injury, a sure sign of com­ing back too soon. Was he rope-a-doping to col­lect that mil­lion plus Mas­ters Series check? Wouldn’t you? But he cer­tainly com­peted against Troicki and didn’t have to. Has he been the same player since the Open? Was George Fore­man after The Rum­ble in the Jun­gle? Does the USTA give a shit? Do the play­ers really protest? No. Why? Greed all around, the same thing that hap­pens to short story writ­ers who make it big.

Fed­erer, mean­while, has been doing the late-career-Agassi thing, mop­ping up the com­ers, the twenty-somethings, mak­ing ten­nis prog­nos­ti­ca­tors look bad. Like Hop­kins or DeNiro, the dude still kicks some ass. He won Basel (again) although admit­tedly his com­pe­ti­tion was thin. Does he play top level tal­ent a non-appearance fee? Are USTA play­ers like, “Meh, Basel. Such an ugly and dirty ceety! I will skeep!” Next he thumps Gas­quet, Berdych, and Tsonga on his way to win the Paris Indoors–and those last two play­ers had been giv­ing him fits in 2011. (Though I will say of the final that Tsonga played very poorly in his 1–6, 6–7 (1) thump­ing and will also add that Fed­erer was sure, this time around, to keep his foot firmly planted on Ali Jr’s neck dur­ing the match, prov­ing an old dog can still learn.) What does the 2012 sea­son look like? I’ll reserve mak­ing that fore­cast till after the season-ending finals but stick by my lead­ing obser­va­tion in my pre­vi­ous post: men’s ten­nis still belongs to Fed­erer, Nadal, Djokovic, and some­times Murray.

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In Ladies and Gen­tle­men news, the story col­lec­tion was just named one of Kirkus Reviews Top Books of 2011 and if you want to hear a fun inter­view, check out my appear­ance on John Seigenthaler’s A Word on Words. I had the honor of appear­ing with nov­el­ist and short story mas­ter Jim Shep­ard at Nashville’s South­ern Fes­ti­val of Books (if you haven’t read his National Book Award-nominated Like You’d Under­stand, Any­way, get it and get a life). Even cooler, he and BookTalk’s Stephen Usery joined me at my house for beers after­ward. Other SFofB high­lights: meet­ing Justin Tor­res (We the Ani­mals) and Chad Har­bach (The Art of Field­ing). Harbach’s plenty nice but a bit stingy. I asked him for fifty grand to buy a pack of smokes. He said he was sorry. He only had ten thou­sand bucks in his wallet.

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As for my fail­ure to blog, I’ve been work­ing on a new novel, Play­world, doing research and draft­ing, the lat­ter mostly recon­nais­sance, which has pro­duced plenty of writ­ing that may never end up on the printed page, like this paragraph:

My aunt always seemed to be smil­ing, which pressed her high cheek­bones into her eyes and made her dim­ples car­toon­ishly dis­crete, so that her face reminded me of a Seuss char­ac­ter. She was short—not over­weight but stocky, not fat but wide around—and when she wore a tube dress, as she was now, the skirt hung like a lamp­shade over her legs and made her head appear smaller, an effect height­ened because her hair was bobbed, so that her body had the shape of cake stand’s glass dome. It was a rare thing to see her as dressed up as she was; I recalled a Christ­mas party or two and a wed­ding. Her default out­fit was always some shade of house­coat, and she stood leg­less, like a Wee­ble, behind her kitchen’s bar, for she was always cook­ing for her three chil­dren, a thing she did with great com­mand and lim­it­less patience, as my cousins rarely arrived at these meals together. To see her clothed thus engen­dered a deep and com­pli­cated feel­ing of sym­pa­thy toward her, because her for­mal­wear appeared dated, were the same, in fact, as the out­fits I iden­ti­fied in the framed pic­tures that hung on her walls taken at long-ago fam­ily gath­er­ings, or that I saw in doc­u­men­taries of the Robert Kennedy or Mar­tin Luther King assassinations—there was some­thing pearl-and-cat-eye-glasses about them. It made me root for her. Where was her Prince Charm­ing? (It wasn’t my fat Uncle Marco, whose ties were always loose at his neck.) Where was her fairy god­mother? And yet, I’d occa­sion­ally catch her rev­el­ing in her under­dog sta­tus, using it as cover, usu­ally when she joined my cousins and me at games, Monop­oly or Life but espe­cially Scrab­ble, the last at which she was demon­i­cally good, a wiz­ard at plink­ing a tile on the square we’d all thought boxed into use­less­ness, a play that acti­vated branches of words and was fol­lowed by some seri­ous math (which she’d already tab­u­lated and sub­se­quently cross­checked), a move she always pre­tended to acci­den­tally discover—“Look-ee here,” she’d say—as if it weren’t an ambush all along. She didn’t fool me and seemed to rec­og­nize this when we were alone, and I loved her ruses and excesses and was annoyed by them in turn; they reminded me of her sto­ries, which went on for­ever and gath­ered toward A Moral but made inspired detours, full of wicked asides, usu­ally about fam­ily mem­bers. (“Your Aunt Madge, you may have noticed, begins the evening dan­ger­ous as a snake and ends it quiv­er­ing like a jel­ly­fish.”) Here, how­ever, our roles were reversed. She was my charge, some­how, and I was sud­denly afraid in her pres­ence: not only of her good-spiritedness, which was bul­let­proof, but also the fact that she was imper­vi­ous to embar­rass­ment, which caused it to ric­o­chet, and so I fixed my gaze on her black dress shoes, wait­ing for the blow.

Does this con­sti­tute a com­ing attrac­tion? Who knows? Not me. And I’m writ­ing the god­damn thing.

More soon.

 

A Few Thoughts on Nadal/Djokovic XXIX

If the 2011 U.S. Open tells the seri­ous fan any­thing, it’s that men’s ten­nis is now a three-way con­ver­sa­tion between Djokovic, Nadal, and Fed­erer. In the semis, Fed’s slash­ing, quick­sil­ver offense, his amped-up serve, musketeer’s move­ment, and better-than-ever back­hand once again brought Novak to the brink, and the best arti­cle I’ve read about Roger’s sec­ond annual fail­ure to close him out comes from The New Yorker’s Nick Paum­garten. I’ve never been quite as wowed by Fed as Nick, or DFW—God rest his Kurt Cobain Soul—but he was, for a time, the sport’s Tiger Woods, a player who made win­ning seem ancil­lary to how he played (see DFW’s clas­sic piece on Fed), a fore­gone con­clu­sion given his genius which shifted the viewer’s focus not to whether or not he’d win but to how he’d do it, what magic he’d pro­duce, as if he were some ten­nis demiurge’s avatar, Odin’s Thor, etc. Inter­est­ingly, like Tiger, Fed never had a great rival till Nadal and Djokovic began to peak, and his “decline”—really, it should be described as the end of his dominance—has every­thing to do with their rise and less with his dimin­ish­ing speed, com­pet­i­tive­ness, what­ever. In fact, I don’t think he’s even dimin­ished. At risk of telegraph­ing the direc­tion of this post, he seemed more WITH Djokovic in his semi­fi­nal than Rafa ever did yesterday—first two lengths ahead, then neck and neck, to, well, a Hail-Mary fore­hand fol­lowed by a bril­liant blocked-back backhand—but that, as Chekhov says, is a song from another opera. In the bot­tom half of the draw, I don’t know what to say about Mur­ray except that he’s proved him­self a men­tal light­weight and his game, when com­pared to the big three, seems light­weight as well. He has the speed, touch, and power to bang with them all, but mid-match he just goes away or, against Rafa, never really brought it to start with. He seems in a per­pet­ual funk about the fact that beat­ing these guys isn’t easy, the Achilles’ heel of many supremely tal­ented ath­letes who never reach their poten­tial (see Vince Young). He’s always com­plain­ing to his camp or trot­ting out his usual bun­dle of tics: punch­ing his strings, grab­bing his knee cap, hit­ting his shoe. In the semi­fi­nal, his newest and most con­spic­u­ous addi­tion to this list was yank­ing at his short’s pocket, which kept spring­ing from his Addi­das like bunched box­ers from an unzipped fly, this cloth­ing mal­func­tion yet more evi­dence, he seemed to be indi­cat­ing to his mom, his hot girl­friend, his coach, of some grand con­spir­acy to pre­vent him from ever win­ning a major. To quote a favorite comic, There’s a lot of quit in that boy.

(BTW, I stand with Mary Car­illo about these pow-wows: I’m tired of the inces­sant ille­gal coach­ing con­sul­ta­tions Mur­ray, Djoker, and Nadal engage in. Not only should the USTA enforce the rule but Fed is by a mile the grownup of the bunch in this regard. The match is a test, he’s been quoted as say­ing. On court, your coach can’t help you. Amen, Your Excellency.)

Now to the final: Gen­er­ally speak­ing, it was a bru­tally aca­d­e­mic affair, a Serbian-run clinic, really, in A. The Power of Court Posi­tion­ing and B. A Study Guide to Beat­ing Nadal. All of Djoker’s finals with Nadal have been that this year, but the thrills this match sup­plied arose, in part, from Rafa’s deter­mi­na­tion to fight this los­ing bat­tle start to fin­ish, and I defy any ten­nis fan to find a match in recent mem­ory played at this pace, at such a blur—Weirding-Way ten­nis for you Dune geeks—with so many hay­mak­ers thrown you’d think Stal­lone had scripted it, with bog­gling gets that were also mir­a­cle replies to arrow-shot approaches unlike any­thing I’ve ever seen; a con­test that was painful, at times, to watch, really excru­ci­at­ing to behold, because the phys­i­cal toll on both play­ers was evi­dent as third set came to its thun­der­ous con­clu­sion, so that this seemed less a ten­nis court then a col­i­seum, a to-the-death affair, and when Rafa took the third’s tiebreak there was an expres­sion of dis­be­lief on Nole’s face that hon­estly warmed this week­end hacker’s heart. (Let’s call it a draw, dude. If we play for any longer, my wife’s going to kill me. Plus my back’s in bad shape.) My inner Mother Teresa wants to upbraid the USTA for destroy­ing the very play­ers who line its pock­ets. My inner sadist would’ve liked to watch either Nole or Rafa emerge from bed this morn­ing. I’m pic­tur­ing the open­ing scene of North Dal­las Forty with­out the Quaaludes and pot.

Regard­ing A. and B. above, they go together, of course, but what Djokovic takes advan­tage of with sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion is Nadal’s short ball, the self­same rally ball that is his bread and but­ter against mere mor­tals. Nole pushes Rafa back on the lefty-forehand to righty-backhand exchanges (Djoker’s two-hander being THE best shot in ten­nis right now) then steps in and goes up the line; and Rafa, who retrieves more of these than any human being should be able to, can­not, in spite of his daunt­ing speed, cover the open ter­ri­tory. Nole next goes up the line hard and flat, all his ten­ta­tive­ness ban­ished dur­ing Davis Cup last Novem­ber. Point. Game. Set. Match. And true, other play­ers (we’re at B. now) have occa­sion­ally blown Rafa off the court (Del Potro, Tsonga) but in these cases they were going for broke, play­ing out of their minds, you pick the cliché. Nole is fast enough, mea­sured enough, accu­rate enough, to make it rou­tine, some crazy com­bi­na­tion of antic­i­pa­tion and world-class speed that con­fer on him a hummingbird’s per­cep­tion, the points unfold­ing, to him at least, com­par­a­tively slowly. He’s just always there.

As for the match set by set, it went like this:

1st Set: The Wind. Rafa: “Why there this wind like this?” Nole, the Ego­less One in the Zone of Zones, tunes him.

2nd Set: The Ridicu­lous 6th Game. If Rafa goes up 3–0, he’s still fresh enough that it’s a momentum-swinger, and per­haps he starts let­ting it fly, but as hap­pened over the course of the whole match, Nole breaks back and Rafa’s ensu­ing break to 4–4, is basi­cally a Pyrric victory.

3rd Set:

Into the annals of sports his­tory we go.

4th Set:

Rafa, spent—it’s hard to believe I’m writ­ing this—simply goes away.

A few other things: There’s been a lot of hyper­bole about Nole’s return of serve and, well, sorry folks, the Agassi com­par­isons aren’t appro­pri­ate yet. Go watch, say, the 1995 Aus­tralian Open final when Pete was drop­ping bombs and Andre was send­ing back unre­turn­ables once a game. Go check out some film of Con­nors on YouTube. Rafa’s serve was, for most of this match, a point-starter. Gone was last year’s com­mit­ment to pop, to hit­ting the 130s, to pitch­ing. Rafa, in this matchup, isn’t a con­fi­dent fel­low. His serv­ing per­cent­ages bore this out, he said as much in the post-match inter­views, and he was reg­u­larly bro­ken back after break­ing, THE momen­tum killer in sin­gles. Rafa’s con­fi­dence gap was also demon­strated in his fail­ure to go up the line on his fore­hand side and almost never on the back­hand. (Roddick’s des­per­ate will­ing­ness to do this almost won him Wimby a cou­ple of years back.) In my opin­ion, only at 5–6 down in the third did Rafa let it fly for an extended period, and it pro­duced scin­til­lat­ing, jaw-dropping exchanges, Thrilla-in-Manilla stuff.

But make no mis­take. No mat­ter who you’re root­ing for, this is a Golden Age of Inter­na­tional Ten­nis. We have gone from The Reign of Fed to the Bat­tles of Fed/Rafa to the Rise of Nole. Is Peter Jack­son direct­ing this movie? I haven’t been this excited since The Empire Strikes Back came out and there was no such thing as iTunes Trail­ers. What, I’m won­der­ing, is next?

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In Mr. Peanut news, I’ll be appear­ing with the great Jim Shep­pard Sun­day, Octo­ber 16, at The South­ern Fes­ti­val of Books in Nashville; in New York, on Octo­ber 19, at The Bet­ter Book Club—an event that cer­tainly promises to be dif­fer­ent. In Ladies and Gen­tle­men news, here’s an inter­view I did for The Story Prize blog.

 

Multitasking

At Nashville’s Sta­tion Inn last night, caught The Time Trav­el­ers, who were joined by the incom­pa­ra­ble Vince Gill. They called up a guest from the audi­ence, a gor­geous Swede named Miranda, the lead singer, she explained, of a country/western band back home and, in an accent so heavy the crowd feared for her upcom­ing per­for­mance, described her thrill at being on stage in Nashville with such lumi­nar­ies, and then belted a ren­di­tion of  “You’re Cheatin’ Heart” that was so blow-the-roof-off great that Gill mut­tered into the micro­phone, “Amy Grant, Amy Grant, Amy Grant.” Gill then treated the crowd to Pocket Full of Gold. Price­less.

I’m read­ing mul­ti­ple books right now, an occa­sional prac­tice and an approach not suited to my dis­po­si­tion (I’m the sin­gle task-oriented type); how­ever, I rec­om­mend all of them. First, Jane Smiley’s Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing at the Novel, an analysis/history/meditation on the form, is very stim­u­lat­ing, worth the cover price alone for the chap­ter, “The Psy­chol­ogy of the Novel,” along with her short cri­tiques of the 100 nov­els she read in one year. She’s a force­ful critic and her assess­ments of Lolita, Heart of Dark­ness, and The Great Gatsby, for instance, have made me recon­sider their mer­its as nov­els qua nov­els, though I’m struck, at times, by how inured she seems to these writ­ers’ styl­is­tic gifts, the ampli­tude of their lan­guage. Still, the eru­di­tion and crit­i­cal intel­li­gence on dis­play is for­mi­da­ble and I feel like an under­grad­u­ate all over again, woe­fully behind in canon­i­cal grasp (Remem­brance of Things Past, any­one? The Man With­out Qual­i­ties? War and Peace).  I’m also halfway through Dominic Sandbrook’s Mad as Hell: The Cri­sis of the 1970s and the Rise of Pop­ulist Right. The last non­fic­tion book I’d read was Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore and so Sand­brook suf­fers the com­par­i­son: the latter’s pow­ers of descrip­tion are remark­able, his nar­ra­tive sweep­ing, his sub­ject mes­mer­iz­ing. As a cat­a­logue of the times and a descrip­tion of the zeit­geist, how­ever, Mad is ter­rific. Finally, there’s Jef­frey Eugenides’ Mid­dle­sex, my first go with him (I’ve heard great things about his upcom­ing The Mar­riage Plot). I like the struc­ture and the nifty way his protagonist/narrator Cal is at once a first– and third-person nar­ra­tor, inter­po­lat­ing her­self dur­ing dif­fer­ent time sequences, at once omni­scient voice and character.

Mean­while, here’s a ter­rific inter­view about Ladies and Gen­tle­men from The Rum­pus as well as a review of the col­lec­tion in Chattanooga’s Times Free Press.

And another reminder: I’ll be speak­ing at Vanderbilt’s Uni­ver­sity Club at 6 p.m., August 25, giv­ing a reading/discussion about Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gen­tle­men at Hills­boro Village’s Fido, also at 6 p.m., an event done in con­junc­tion with Bookman/Bookwoman book­store on August 28. Finally, I’ll be appear­ing with nov­el­ists Blake But­ler and Jesse Ball (that’s him on the left) at the Decatur Book Fes­ti­val Labor Day week­end. Read his novel The Cur­few. An inter­est­ing bit of business.

 

Back in the Saddle

Back in Nashville after nearly a month in New York (where I took the time to insult Bill Ryan yet again) and, after sev­eral days of unpack­ing and unbury­ing myself from mail, plus host­ing my father, who made the drive with me, I’m happy to report I’ve offi­cially com­menced work on my next novel. Its work­ing title is Play­world and that’s about all there is to say now, though if you want to see a video that hints to its con­tent, yes, that’s me in 1979 on NBC’s Hot Hero Sand­wich. I spent a huge chunk of today research­ing char­ac­ters’ names and chipped only a few cubes off the ice­berg, but the novel has existed in my mind in some form for nearly a decade and I’m stoked to begin.

Mean­while, an alert regard­ing sev­eral upcom­ing appear­ances I’ll be mak­ing in the next sev­eral weeks. In Nashville, I’ll be speak­ing at Vanderbilt’s Uni­ver­sity Club at 6 p.m., August 25 (see the hyper­link for details); as well, I’ll be giv­ing a reading/discussion about Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gen­tle­men at Hills­boro Village’s Fido, also at 6 p.m., an event done in con­junc­tion with Bookman/Bookwoman book­store. Finally, I’ll be appear­ing with nov­el­ists Blake But­ler and Jesse Ball at the Decatur Book Fes­ti­val Labor Day week­end.

By the way, if you’re flu­ent in French, here’s a cool inter­view I did for the online pub­li­ca­tion Evene. Mr. Peanut will pub­lish in France this September.

Go Rafa.

Overnight to Many Distant Cities

Note: You can click on any image to enlarge.

A group of Chi­nese in brown jack­ets pre­ceded us through the halls of Ver­sailles. They were middle-aged men, weighty, obvi­ously impor­tant, per­haps thirty of them. At the entrance to each room a guard stopped us, held us back until the Chi­nese had fin­ished inspect­ing it. A fleet of black gov­ern­ment Cit­roens had brought them, they were very much at ease with Ver­sailles and with each other, it was clear that they were being rewarded for many years of good behavior.

Asked her opin­ion of Ver­sailles, my daugh­ter said she thought it was overdecorated.

Well, yes.

–Don­ald Barthelme, Overnight to Many Dis­tant Cities

Some­times it seems like we just go round and round.

Post­ing this at the end of my Ladies and Gen­tle­men tour, though it’s not really The End. I’ll be sign­ing books at East Hamp­ton Library’s Author’s Night, August 13, then appear­ing at the AJC Decatur Book Fes­ti­val with Blake But­ler and Jesse Ball on Labor Day week­end. I’ve hit ten cities in the last three weeks, and since I can’t nar­rate it all, I thought I’d do a blog post in pictures.

I kicked things off in Nashville at the Salon 615 series. I had 500 peo­ple show up and we ran out of books. No, wait, that was Ann Patchett’s read­ing the week before. I had 10,000 peo­ple show up and was inter­viewed on stage by the city’s great­est writer, Jim Rid­ley. U2, who was also in town, let us shift the venue to Vanderbilt’s foot­ball sta­dium. It’s truly incred­i­ble, the logis­tics that go into a nation­wide tour for a short story col­lec­tion, but as every­one knows, these days the only way authors can make money on their books is by performing.

Next stop, San Francisco’s leg­endary City Lights book­store. On the flight out, I changed planes in Salt Lake City (there really is a Salt Lake), with a notable descent over marsh­land so bar­ren and untouched it looked Juras­sic. From my win­dow, white birds vis­i­ble below, their wing spans so wide that even from five thou­sand feet I thought they might be pre­his­toric, these flocks fly­ing in arrow-headed squadrons that changed from ^’s to 7’s and back, their shad­ows dip­ping and ris­ing in what appeared a fren­zied effort to break free of the bod­ies cast­ing them like fish fight­ing below a boat’s fixed hull. Utah’s moun­tain­tops were still dusted with snow, a fact which would seem impos­si­ble given the weather the fol­low­ing week, but I get ahead of myself.

At City Lights, I read “In the Base­ment” in its entirety (only two peo­ple fell asleep) and then got drunk with friends at Tosca after­ward, the appear­ance at the for­mer a check-off on this writer’s bucket list. Ate oys­ters at the Ferry Building’s Hog Island. Had a soft shell crab BLT at Boule­vard. Spent a glo­ri­ous after­noon in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.  Gave a read­ing at Book Pas­sage. Heard a genius. A group of ele­men­tary school stu­dents were read­ing sto­ries about “the per­fect moment,” and this girl read about sit­ting with her fam­ily at din­ner, and it was so arrest­ing and vivid—it was broad­cast over the PA—everyone in the book­store stopped in their tracks, I swear. The moral: Go see authors read their work aloud. It’s cheaper than a movie. Plus you sup­port your local inde­pen­dent bookstore.

To Seat­tle, where I’d never been before, for a read­ing at Elliot Bay, another leg­endary site, its new loca­tion in a very gay grunge hip part of town. The weather, I’m told, was unusu­ally ter­rific, as was San Francisco’s, by the way, and when you visit either city under sunny, ultra­ma­rine skies, I defy you not to think you should be liv­ing there. Tooled around the waterfront’s sculp­ture gar­den, Puget Sound absurdly beau­ti­ful and hats off to God for the won­der of the Cas­cades. Love me some Calder, who can, like Calvino, sub­tract weight from giant struc­tures. Another piece allowed you to see the wind. Home for a lit­tle over twelve hours, then hopped into the car and drove to Memphis—this began my tour’s 2000-mile dri­ving leg—where I once again had the plea­sure of appear­ing on Stephen Usery’s Book Talk (last year it was for Mr. Peanut). This is a dude who is right up there with Terry Gross or Dick Cavett, so far as I’m con­cerned, and our talked ranged from Nazi pro­pa­ganda (Elsa, She-Wolf of the SS) to the Nadal/Djokovic rivalry to whether or not Brad Pitt’s accent in Tarantino’s Inglo­ri­ous Bas­terds is pure Knoxville or Ozarks. Also squeezed in a few plugs for Ladies and Gen­tle­men. Mr. Usery might stay a lit­tle more focused on my book if I were as cute and tal­ented as Amy Greene (the man loves him some Blood­root, and who can blame him?).  I don’t know if this ended up on the cut­ting room floor, but Usery’s col­lege nick­names were Chunk Style and Simian Steve the Prime Pri­mate, though I will call him P2 from here on out.

Read at the Book­sellers of Lau­rel­wood, the for­mer Davis Kidd, which I’m happy to report sur­vived Joseph Beth’s restruc­tur­ing, a verb only the Pen­ta­gon could invent. Still, there are scars. Three audi­ence mem­bers had just read Mr. Peanut in their book club and had ter­rific ques­tions and it’s nice to see fans with the paper­back in hand. Heat index was 116, by the way; I nearly died on my morn­ing run along The River­walk. This weather sys­tem fol­lowed me on my trav­els for the next two weeks. How do you like your global warm­ing now, Mr. Death?

To Oxford, MS, one of the great small towns on the planet. Two lunches at Ajax (shrimp and oys­ter po’ boys) and that same gor­geous wait­ress every time I eat there. She took care of me while I watched the US women rally against France in the World Cup semi­fi­nal. Read at Off Square Books. Din­ner at City Gro­cery. Slept at own­ers Richard and Lisa Howorth’s house (that’s Richard, who asked that his iden­tity not be revealed, by the way). The pic­ture of naked guy, to the left, reminded me of The Judge, the Niet­zsche Over­man in Cor­mac McCarthy’s remark­able novel Blood Merid­ian. Put down your PDA and go read that book. Get a great one under your belt. Turn off Face­book, dis­able Twit­ter. What are you look­ing for? An aside: I’m between sev­eral books right now and they’re all good. Jane Smiley’s Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing at the Novel; Dominic Sandbrook’s Mad as Hell: The Cri­sis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Pop­ulist Right; Devra Davis’s Dis­con­nect, about cell phone radi­a­tion; and finally James Salter’s Dusk. Salter *sigh* I just re-read “Amer­i­can Express.” Dude’s on a per­ma­nent date with Alice Munro as the liv­ing breath­ing great­est short story writer. They’ll have eter­nal din­ners in heaven with Chekhov, Colette, and their cousin, Isaac Babel, AND TODD BURPO, of course. Here are sam­ples from Salter’s “Amer­i­can Express”:

She turned. She had pure fea­tures and her face was with­out expres­sion, as if a bird had turned to look, a bird which might sud­denly fly away.

Or:

He smiled. When he was drink­ing he was strangely calm. In Lugano in the park that time a bird had sat on his shoe.

Or:

Some­thing was miss­ing in him and women had always done any­thing to find out what it was. They always would. Per­haps it was sim­pler, Alan thought. Per­haps noth­ing was missing.

Any ques­tions?

Where was I? Ah. To Green­wood, MS, for a stop at Turn Row books. I include this pic­ture from last year’s appear­ance. That’s me with pecan and cot­ton farmer Will Long. When I read from Mr. Peanut in 2011—a selec­tion that ended with Dr. Shep­pard and Susan Hayes hav­ing hot sex in the former’s car, Long asked, “You still got that MG?” Price­less. I’m sorry to say he passed away last year. We cel­e­brate his brief time on this pollution-choked, debt-ridden, war-torn, gun-crazy (Oslo!) planet with a thank you from all authors who had the plea­sure of meet­ing him. Accord­ing to Jamie and Kelly Korne­gay, Turn Row’s own­ers, he was a reg­u­lar at author read­ings, mean­ing he under­stood life’s sim­pler joys. For the read­ing, gor­geous owner Kelly Korne­gay had made a con­coc­tion called Panty Drop­pers with fresh peaches. I haven’t read that drunk since my appear­ance at New York’s Barnes & Noble last year. Nobody dropped trousers or panties, I’m afraid. Still, they were delicious.

Due south to Jack­son, MS, home of Lemuria Book­store, another remark­able joint, then a 230-mile drive north­east to Birm­ing­ham, Alabama, for a sign­ing at Jake Reiss’s Alabama Book­smith, fol­lowed by a guest appear­ance at the Birm­ing­ham Lit­er­acy Council’s fundraiser, a great event for a great cause. Here’s a sam­ple from Jane Smiley’s Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing at the Novel:

The source of Kafka’s appeal, for exam­ple, is that cer­tain expe­ri­ences that oth­ers sense vaguely or por­tray in pass­ing, such as the expe­ri­ence of feel­ing a com­pul­sion to work at one’s given task (“The Bur­row”), or the expe­ri­ence of being mys­te­ri­ously sin­gled out and per­se­cuted by the imper­sonal state (The Trial), or the expe­ri­ence of sud­den, unwel­come trans­for­ma­tion (“The Meta­mor­pho­sis”) Kafka depicts purely and intensely, with­out adding inter­pre­ta­tion or con­text. The being of his pro­tag­o­nists is felt entirely through these imposed neces­si­ties, and thereby intensified.

True, there are lit­er­ary reflec­tions like this in Thor but why not go buy the book?

Speak­ing of books, I’ve done mul­ti­ple pieces in the run-up to Ladies and Gentlemen’s pub­li­ca­tion about What I’m Read­ing or Rec­om­mend­ing. Here’s one for Barnes & Noble, another for The Wall Street Jour­nal, yet another for the Daily Beast and, finally, a fun one for the panty-throwing Book Lady’s blog.

We con­tinue: A twelve-hour lay­over in Nashville fol­lowed by the 900-mile drive to Man­hat­tan. Broke this up into two days with a stop in Roanoke, the journey’s mid­point, to see my for­mer men­tor, Richard Dil­lard, who is still going strong and will be teach­ing Hitch­cock at Hollins Uni­ver­sity next semes­ter, a class that should be open to the pub­lic. Up early and on the road, the New York City sky­line in view by mid-afternoon. Man­hat­tan was a whirl­wind, mean­while. Did a radio appear­ance on WNYC with Leonard Lopate as well as an inter­view with the great Sam Tanen­haus for the New York Times Book Review’s pod­cast. Here’s the accom­pa­ny­ing review. Had the honor and plea­sure of read­ing at Brooklyn’s fan­tas­tic store, Book­court, as well as New York’s Strand (bucket list check). Book­court wins the air-conditioning com­pe­ti­tion. No one saw me sweat. Book­court is A TREASURE. Was asked about the win­ner of men’s sin­gles in U.S. Open. Begrudg­ingly picked Djokovic, with Fed­erer as my num­ber two. The weather didn’t break until Sun­day, but by then I’d already lost five pounds in water weight at East Hampton’s Bookhamp­ton. Note to self: Never fol­low Starr Jones.

More soon.

 

A Few Thoughts on Nadal – Djokovic XXVIII

You either grew up dig­ging on DC Comics or Mar­vel (I’m a Mar­vel guy); your after school TV show was either The Brady Bunch or The Par­tridge Fam­ily (Mar­cia, Mar­cia, Mar­cia); sick at home you watched The Price is Right or Let’s Make a Deal (Bob Barker and his harem). Risk or Strat­ego? Nike or Reebok? Atari or Intel­livi­sion? The Gap or Banana Repub­lic? Pref­er­ences are des­tiny and I’m a Nadal fan, which, I’ve noticed, con­nects me to a whole geneal­ogy of play­ers for whom I’ve rooted, and over my past three decades of ten­nis fan­dom I’ve been in the Nadal-Agassi-McEnroe camp, hating—or at least root­ing against—their neme­ses (Federer/Sampras/Borg) and feel­ing, along with my heroes, the agony of their defeats. I wept, for instance, after McEnroe’s 1981 loss to Borg at Wim­ble­don and have also never recov­ered from his two-sets-to-love col­lapse against Lendl at the 1984 French, what with the career slam so nearly in hand. In terms of sheer qual­ity, there may be no greater ten­nis match played than the 2001 Agassi-Sampras U.S. Open quar­ter­fi­nal, which Agassi lost 7–6, 6–7, 6–7, 6–7 and forced me to leave my then boss’s house imme­di­ately after­ward, lest I say rude things to his Pistol-Pete-loving wife. Despite Nadal’s dom­i­nance over the past 24 months and his and Federer’s tag team defense of tennis’s sum­mit for the past six years, oft for­got­ten is the fol­low­ing: Rafa suf­fered two bru­tal losses to The King at Wim­ble­don in the run-up to The Great­est Match Ever Played[1]; in 2008 Tsonga blew him off Melbourne’s cen­ter court in straights; and he was befud­dled and dinged into a non-entity at the US Open up until his 2010 breakthrough.

This is a long way of say­ing that Sunday’s Wim­ble­don final was dif­fi­cult for me.

Am I a Nole hater? Absolutely not. He seems like a gas to hang out with, has an up-the-line back­hand and inside-out fore­hand to die for, he moves like Quick­sil­ver (Mar­vel!) slid­ing into a split—on grass, no less—almost as well Kim Clis­ters. But the truth is that he’s no more been a part of the con­ver­sa­tion between Nadal and Fed­erer than Mur­ray has. He was semi­fi­nal fod­der for one of them, given to the RETs (I found his retire­ment against Rod­dick at the Aussie Open a cou­ple of years ago despi­ca­ble). Put bluntly, he didn’t seem to believe; or, worse, his on-court petu­lance and amazed, white-hot glares to his every-sperm-is-sacred-sized camp when­ever things went south on the court made him seem like a believer igno­rant of the gap between his arro­gance and his results. And although last year’s US Open ended with a com­pelling final against Nadal, he never really threat­ened in that match, in spite of play­ing at what seemed like the edge of his abil­i­ties and I, for one, would have bet any amount of money that he’d start 2011 in a state of despair, join­ing what­ever secret, Born-in-the-Wrong-Era sup­port group Rod­dick, Soder­ling, Fer­rer, and Mur­ray attend in the base­ment of an unknown Monte Carlo hotel. “Hello, my name is Novak Djokovic and I’m not as good as they are either.”

What hap­pened on Sun­day? It’s a con­tin­u­a­tion, really, of what’s been hap­pen­ing all year in the Nole/Nadal con­tests and proves, once again, that in ten­nis, the matchup is des­tiny. True Nadal has been sus­cep­ti­ble in the past to being blown off the court, but in the last18 months he’s been able to absorb the power of Del Potro, Soder­ling, and Berdych et al, upping his return game and find­ing his way into ral­lies which he’s been unmatched at dic­tat­ing once they start. Only Nole defends as well or bet­ter than Nadal. Still, no one hits a ball like the Spaniard; and his con­sis­tency, his safe arc over the net cou­pled with a rally ball that must feel, for his oppo­nents, like a boul­der off the strings, almost always pro­duces a piece of junk eight strokes or more into an exchange, and from that moment for­ward Nadal wins the land-acquisition game that is ten­nis so quickly you can see the shot-pattern form­ing two strokes ahead and call the win­ner a solid sec­ond before he thun­der­ously thwacks it to the open court. This is ten­nis as the com­bi­na­tion punch, some­thing another men­tally stal­wart lefty named Jimmy Con­nors used to dom­i­nate the game two gen­er­a­tions ago.

Nadal, how­ever, can no longer do these things against Djokovic.

As I said above, only Nadal defends as well as Nole and Rafa, it’s worth men­tion­ing, doesn’t hit as flat as most power play­ers. If Nadal man­ages to open up the court against Djokovic, Nole retrieves the strike and send the ball back with inter­est, cre­at­ing, for Rafa, a shot-tolerance effect that Fed­erer suf­fered against him, one which for this fan makes me believe in Karma and causes Rafa a nano-second hes­i­ta­tion mid-point, blow­ing his rhythm and often leav­ing him vis­i­bly befud­dled. Put sim­ply, Rafa’s grown accus­tomed to the point being over at cer­tain ingrained moments, and when it ain’t, Nadal ain’t ready, and the advan­tage is sud­denly Nole’s, one which the lat­ter com­pounds with either his bru­tal fore­hand or the best back­hand in the game right now. He’s per­haps the most offen­sive coun­ter­puncher in the ten­nis ever, at once back­board and power player, defender extra­or­di­naire and death dealer with his serve at cru­cial moments, a momen­tum killer at every stage of the game. This is Nole’s apoth­e­o­sis we’re wit­ness­ing: He is The Impen­e­tra­ble One. He can redi­rect Rafa’s rally ball, par­tic­u­larly his fore­hand, up the line and with point-ending or unforced-error induc­ing pace; he can hurt Rafa off the ser­vice return; he can out­run him and, now that he’s gluten free, per­haps even out­last him phys­i­cally (at Miami he actu­ally had Rafa gassed). This is a long way of say­ing that Rafa can’t hurt him as con­sis­tently as he can other play­ers and because the Spaniard relies on per­cent­age shots (the cross­court fore­hand and back­hand) he finds him­self at once rushed and uncer­tain when he should be least rushed and entirely pro­gram­matic. It’s a shock­ing thing to behold the most men­tally tena­cious player on the planet crack before a fan’s eyes. On Sun­day Rafa reg­u­larly looked resigned. Shaken. Shrunken. Near tears. Dur­ing the awards cer­e­mony, Uncle Tony looked like a man who knew his work was sud­denly cut out for him, and it is.

What can Rafa do to meet this chal­lenge? As Vanderbilt’s ten­nis coach (and ter­rific NYTimes ten­nis blog writer), Geoff Mac­don­ald pointed out after the final, he can go up the line on his back­hand, which he did occa­sion­ally with his fore­hand, though both shots require high lev­els of con­fi­dence and risk-tolerance to which Rafa is utterly unac­cus­tomed. He can also come to net more. In my hum­ble opin­ion, the only weak­ness in Nole’s game is his net play, and if I were Rafa, I’d drag him for­ward at cru­cial moments. I’d also take his legs away from him, as young Aussie Tomic did, giv­ing him off-speed junk to fret his rhythm, tak­ing the ball up the mid­dle to nul­lify angles (he’s no Agassi from the mid­dle of the court) and going behind him more. But no mat­ter what Rafa and Tony do, this fact is inescapable: To beat the Djoker, it’s Rafa who’s going to have to change.

*

In Mr. Peanut news, here’s a look at the gor­geous French cover, the Lite-Brite skull against a white back­ground. Mean­while, in Ladies and Gen­tle­men news, a ter­rific review here from The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle. I’ll be appear­ing at City Lights and Book Pas­sage this week, as well as Elliott Bay in Seat­tle. If you’re around, drop by. Pix to come. 


[1] I’d put the afore­men­tioned Agassi/Sampras match along­side The Great­est Match Ever Played as well as the 1981 McEnroe/Borg final at Wim­ble­don and finally the unbe­liev­able Nadal/Verdasco semi-final at the 2009 Aus­tralian Open.

 

In Stores Now!

Ladies and Gen­tle­men pub­lished today, a very excit­ing event indeed, though my kids greeted it like any other aver­age Tues­day. Mean­while, to inau­gu­rate the event, we’ve made some changes to the web site. Hope you dig them. Cur­rently I’m gear­ing up for my book tour, which begins next week at Nashville’s Down­town Library and takes me to the west coast for the first time. Check the list of sites and do come out if I’m in your city. Bring a cam­era and we’ll take many embar­rass­ing mug shots. There’s noth­ing I enjoy more than meet­ing and talk­ing with read­ers, and over the next few weeks, I’ll be reg­u­larly blog­ging about my expe­ri­ences. I also hope you caught my turn on The Book Lady’s Bare Neces­si­ties series as well as my book rec­om­men­da­tions in The Daily Beast’s Book Beast. Here, as well, is Ladies and Gen­tle­men dis­cussed on Ann Kingman’s Books on the Night­stand pod­cast. Finally, some inside dope: I’ll be appear­ing on CBS’s Early Show this Fri­day. Check your local listings. 

 

Midnight in Paris

A short post writ­ten from the City of Light. Doing sev­eral days’ worth of inter­views in the run-up to French pub­lisher 10/18’s Sep­tem­ber release of Mr. Peanut. (By the way, the paint­ing at left is by Amer­i­can H. Craig Hanna, whose work I saw today at a gallery on Rue du Bona­parte. It’s sim­ply aston­ish­ing.) Mean­while, this has already been an incred­i­ble week for my upcom­ing story col­lec­tion, Ladies and Gen­tle­men: a smash­ing review by Steven Almond in The Boston Globe, a ter­rific piece in The South­ern Lit­er­ary Review, and finally, Michiko Kakutani’s write-up in yesterday’s New York Times.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

I can’t say for cer­tain whether or not this is my new book.  Maybe some­one hacked my com­puter. I sure as heck wouldn’t post some­thing like this on Twit­ter. Any­way, Ladies and Gen­tle­men, my upcom­ing story col­lec­tion, hits stores June 28. In tan­dem, this web­site will change a bit, so watch for that redesign. Mean­while, here’s advance word from AM/NY as well as The Savvy Reader; an inter­view with Mar­garet Renkl in Chap­ter 16, which includes an excerpt from “Mid­dle­man.” Five Chap­ters pub­lished “The Sui­cide Room,” so have a look.  There are seven sto­ries in the col­lec­tion: Futures,  The Rest of It, The Sui­cide Room, In the Base­ment,  When in Rome,  Mid­dle­man,and Ladies and Gen­tle­men. Cor­rectly match the images to the story and I’ll sign your copy.

My book tour kicks off July 5 in Nashville at the Down­town Library. Here’s the full list of dates, though they’re sub­ject to changes and addi­tions. Hope to see you there.

Tues­day, July 5 6:15 p.m. –  “Salon at 6:15 Author Series” Nashville Pub­lic Library, 615 Church St., Nashville, TN, 37219

Wednes­day, July 6 7:00 p.m.–   City Lights, 261 Colum­bus Avenue, San Fran­cisco, CA 94133

Thurs­day, July 7 7:00 p.m. –   Book Pas­sage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA 94925

Fri­day, July 8 7:00 p.m. –   Elliott Bay, 1521 10th Avenue, Seat­tle, WA 98122

Mon­day, July 11 6:00 p.m. –    Davis Kidd, 387 Perkins Ext, Mem­phis, TN 38117

Tues­day, July 12 5:00 p.m. —    Square Books, 129 Cour­t­house Square, Oxford, MS 38655

Wednes­day, July 13 5: 30 p.m. – Turn­row Books, 304 Howard St. Green­wood MS 38930

Thurs­day, July 14 5:00 p.m. –     Lemuria Book­store, 202 Ban­ner Hall, 4465 I-55 North, Jack­son, MS 39206

Fri­day, July 15 5:00 p.m. –   Alabama Book­smith, 2626 19th Pl, Birm­ing­ham, AL 35209

Tues­day, July 19 7:00 p.m. –   Book­court, 163 Court St., Brook­lyn, New York 11201

Thurs­day, July 21 7:00 p.m. –   The Strand, 828 Broad­way New York, NY 10003

Sat­ur­day, July 23 5:00 p.m. – Bookhamp­ton, 41 Main Street, East Hamp­ton, NY 11937–2701

Sat­ur­day, August 13 5:00 p.m. –  East Hamp­ton Library’s 7th annual Author’s Night. East Hamp­ton, NY

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Appear­ances

Adam has no cur­rently sched­uled appearances.