Archive for December, 2010

In response to my post about the best books of 2010, I received a thoughtful message from George Kimball, co-editor of The Fighter Still Remains. Kimball pointed out to me that while there was a small amount of overlap between that volume and another anthology of boxing-related poems I mentioned, the collection he and John Schulian assembled had different aims (covering only American authors) and a smaller timeframe (covering only the Queensbury era). To compare such a work with one of another kind was, I concede, neither especially meaningful nor entirely fair.

I had been aware that proceeds from sales of The Fighter Still Remains went to a worthy cause (Haitian earthquake relief). I was heartened to learn that everyone involved – including Paul Simon, who wrote “The Boxer,” from which the book takes its name – eagerly signed off on the use of their material as part of that effort.

Kimball and Schulian also edited the forthcoming At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing. I wouldn’t be surprised if that turns out to be one of my top books of 2011.

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In order to write about them for The Oregonian, The American Interest and other publications, I read a fair number of brand new books in 2010. Nevertheless, I can’t make an honest top-ten list. Here are six that truly stood as exceptional:

  1. Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (Alfred A. Knopf)
  2. Kevin Canty’s Everything (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
  3. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (Scribner)
  4. Charles Goodrich’s Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden (Silverfish Review Press)
  5. Randy Robert’s Joe Louis: Hard Times Man (Yale University Press)
  6. Richard Williams’s The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music (W.W. Norton & Company)

The short list reflects my tendency to read roughly proportional amounts of fiction and nonfiction. I probably read more poetry in 2010 than in most years, and Goodrich’s small volume was my favorite of several contenders.

The year 2010 saw new books by authors I once thought of as reliably remarkable – Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, Milan Kundera – that I found disappointingly inferior to their earlier efforts. I could name several very good but not quite excellent books. Here’s one: George Kimball and John Schulian assembled a fine collection of boxing-related poems in The Fighter Still Remains. A few years earlier, however, Robert Hedin and Michael Waters edited Perfect in Their Art, an anthology containing much of the same material – and a great deal more.

This leads to the Achilles heel of year-end lists: the absence of the great older stuff. While I read many books published during 2010, I also read many from other years, which are automatically disqualified from “best of” contention but deserve mention all the same. I reread some classics, like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. (I also read several books about Mailer, but these weren’t so good.) I also finally got around to some wonderful books I should have read much sooner, such as Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. If I were to list the ten books I most enjoyed during 2010 regardless of publication date, the four named in this paragraph could be added to the six above.

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A tribute to Joe Louis in Detroit, Michigan

When I was in Detroit for a Fighters & Writers reading, someone asked me how I became interested in boxing. I’d just read portions of an essay about the often-overlooked positive aspects of the sport, but the person wanted a more personal explanation. I talked a bit about Joe Louis, who learned to box in the city where I grew up and who is commemorated with sculptures and a sporting arena there. I knew Louis’s name since childhood, and in some mysterious way that influenced writing I would do as an adult, I explained.

I made use of that unplanned reflection in “So Long, Joe,” an essay about the fighter that Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture published in its Magazine Americana.

In the piece, I don’t just express my own thoughts about Louis. I also survey some of the many books about him, such as biographies by Chris Mead, Barney Nagler and Randy Roberts, among others. (Roberts also authored a book about Jack Johnson that came in handy when I was preparing my talk about Johnson’s fight with Jim Jeffries in Reno.)

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There’s an energizing affinity among different arts.

Reading at the University of Colorado

That was the idea behind the event organized around the 2010 edition of Palimpsest. The issue includes poetry, scripts, short stories and essays as well as photographs of paintings and sculptures – even a musical score. Appropriately, then, the launch party at the University of Colorado at Boulder on December 4 included writers like me and poet Kevin Brown, but also visual artists such as Lauren Morrison, whose work adorns the cover, and keyboardist Aaron Glasenapp. The journal’s executive director, Travis Allen, performed a few songs himself at the end of the festivities.

I read a portion of my contribution, “Second-Generation Punks,” as well as a complimentary passage from Fighters & Writers.

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“The most electric of nations must naturally provide the boldest circuits of coincidence,” Norman Mailer proclaimed. My coincidences involving the writer my not amount to anything grand or revealing, but they might be worth mentioning all the same. Twice now Mailer-related work of mine which was written earlier appeared in print very soon after one of my subject’s death.

The title essay of Fighters & Writers was first published in an edition of The Mailer Review commemorating the novelist’s life soon after it ended. I discuss several writers, but Mailer does figure prominently in the piece. I’d started composing it years earlier and finally finished it soon before he died in 2007. In another essay in the collection, I mention a critic who made a derisive remark about Mailer in something that ran soon after the public memorial service held to honor the author of The Naked and the Dead, The Fight and The Executioner’s Song.

Which brings me to coincidence number two. The January/February 2011 issue of The American Interest contains my assessment of three Mailer-focused memoirs, including A Ticket to the Circus by Norris Church Mailer, who died on November 21, 2010. I wrote the not-very-kind review essay a few months before it actually ended up in the magazine.  

While my essays about Mailer and his wife simply happened to show up soon after their deaths, two instances of this put me in uncomfortably proximity to the narrator of J.G. Ballard’s story “Now: Zero” who believes his writing about people can spell their demise…

Flipping through a copy of TAI, I stumbled on minor coincidences of another kind. On one page I saw a reference to Edith Wharton; on another, a poem by Walt Whitman. As it happens, the fourth short film in the Poetry In Pictures Series is based on a Wharton poem; the second, on a Whitman poem. (I wrote the third.)

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If I were to compile a list of my favorite authors, Herman Melville and A.J. Liebling would both be on it.

Now, I know this is not the reason Mongrel Empire Press, the publisher of Fighters & Writers, selected the essay “Going Off Course with Melville & Liebling” to nominate for a Pushcart Prize, but it does make it especially apt, in my opinion at least.

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