I Like Dave Eggers So Much and Want to Know Him Better

Mae retrieved the certificate from her bag, and Jon’s eyes lit up. “You brought it!” He clapped quickly, silently, and revealed a mouth of tiny teeth. “No one remembers the first time. You’re my new favorite.”

“That’s very understandable. To spend time with your parents, believe me, I think that is very, very cool. I just want to emphasize the community aspect of this job. We see this workplace as a community, and every person who works here is part of that community. To that end, I wonder if you’d be willing to stay a few extra minutes, to talk to Josiah and Denise. I think you remember them from your orientation? They’d love to just extend the conversation we’re having and go a bit deeper. Does that sound good?”

CM Capture 2

The dialogue–it’s too perfect! It’s what makes Dave Eggers’ new novel so powerful. It depicts a world perhaps just a few steps away from Schteyngart’s dystopian Super Sad True Love Story, one drowning in technological communication. I laughed constantly while reading this excerpt, and occasionally slapped my forehead, muttering to myself, “Too true.” I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book, soon. Plus, the cover art is really lovely.


Indian Summer Reading

MidnightsChildrenI started on the plane from New York to Delhi (via Dubai) with the story of India’s birth, as told by Salman Rushdie through the eyes of one Kashmiri Saleem Sinai, who has psychic powers due to being born exactly at midnight on the eve of India’s independence (and its partition). The dense and elaborate prose was a perfect reflection of India as I encountered Delhi’s chaotic streets, the packed train, the throngs of pilgrims traversing Rishikesh–colorful woven fabrics resembled the litany of elegant words and plush dialogue, and the narrator of Midnight’s Children was like a cultural historian, explaining to me the intricacies of each character I encountered: Shiva and Parvati, sadhus and beggars, Sikhs and Muslims, the Indian Middle Class.

Upon finishing the behemoth, I dwelled in the essence of contemporary Rishikesh, which was founded on the legacy of Swami Sivananda, a doctor who discovered Hatha yoga in this city on the Ganges and made it massively popular in the West, by reading B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Life. Though I am not a practitioner of Iyengar yoga, he is exemplary as an author and as a proponent of the “householder” tradition of Hatha yoga, which allows a person to be at once fully committed to the dedicated lifestyle of a yogi and its ethical practices while also living a modern life, earning a living, and being a family member. Light on Life is organized according to the five koshas, the “sheaths” of existence: annamaya kosha (the outer/material/bodily layer), pranamaya kosha (breath and subtle body/chakras), manomaya kosha (the mind), vijnanamaya kosha (wisdom, intuitive intelligence), and anandamaya kosha (bliss, samadhi, the eternal Self). Using this form, Iyengar unfurls a beautiful and sophisticated treatise on approaching life through the lens of Hatha yoga, ethically and through asana practice, and through Patanjali’s ultimate trilogy of tapas (dedication), svadiyaya (self-study), and isvara pranidhana (dedication to the God within oneself). I read this while at the Anand Prakash ashram, a wonderful place that offers serious yoga classes and sattvic (energetically-balanced) food to people from around the world (and sometimes even Indians who are curious about “this yoga thing”!). 

But perhaps I had saturated myself just a bit too much with the wisdom and well-being associated with yoga, because I could not help but ignore all the spiritual books at the shop in Rishikesh and instead purchase Nabokov’s Lolita. Was it a bit incongruous, in a culturally-conservative country such as India with an ancient tradition of restraining or even dissolving all desires, to be delving into this artistic commentary on lust, perversion, seduction, and illicit fantasies? Maybe so, but oh the joys of such jaw-dropping prose, sentences so lofty as to make you forget entirely what country or culture you’re in and only think of the world of scuzzy American motels and 1950s society, bursting at the seams with its own hidden sins. In Pondicherry, after a short flight to the South and a bus ride from Chennai, I nursed an upset tummy and luxuriated in Nabokov’s prose and his protagonist’s strange obsessions while staring out at the Indian Ocean in between the stunning pages.

From there, my reading only strayed further from the golden path of spirituality. Not only that, but I added about a brick’s weight to my luggage by purchasing a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Why, you ask, would I do such a ridiculous thing? Well, I was actually reaching for Salman Rushdie’s recently-published memoir (equally as weighty, anyway), when the Jobs book caught my eye. How funny, I thought, that I’m traveling through India worshipping its antiquity while its urban centers are plunging ahead into a technological future. Maybe I thought that the Jobs book was actually a story about more than American culture–it was a story about where the entire world was headed. And when I flipped the book open, I discovered that Apple’s founder had, in his early twenties, wandered through India for seven months, barefoot, meditating and subsisting on very little food and pondering the nature of the mind. At one point he declares to the biographer that meditation is hard, but with practice the mind does eventually settle down. So, that settled it–I purchased the book and tore through it in about one week, and by the end I not only wanted to purchase an iPhone, but I also felt somewhat comforted by the fact that Jobs had been such a nonconformist and so dogmatic about his spiritual beliefs, even while starting up the company that became Apple. Could it be that, in a deep sense, the values and practices of Indian and Buddhist culture are actually an integral part of the one company that is arguably the backbone of American and perhaps Western culture today? Is the iPhone just another addition to a long history of American intellectuals and innovators borrowing inspiration from Eastern cultures–an example that, as the globalization adage goes, we are more interconnected than we even know?

Finally, of late, at the Western-aimed cafe called The Dreaming Tree where I often sip tea and eat salad when I am tired of having dosa and curd rice at roadside restaurants or ashrams in Tiruvannamalai, I rummaged through the communal basket for new material and came up with For Whom the Bell Tolls. Reading Hemingway’s account of the guerrilla perspective in the Spanish Civil War while lounging among American and European ex-pats who have stayed in India to live a low-cost spiritual lifestyle, I cannot help but reflect upon how lucky the current generations are to have the opportunity and the ability–due to money and the Internet, which allows people to work remotely and stay in touch with loved ones anywhere–to enjoy such a safe, comfortable, peaceful existence. Now our wars are, for the most part and sadly, fought by the underprivileged of society, while those who can afford to ignore them usually do. And I myself am so lucky to be able to enjoy this time in India, learning about yoga (in its many varieties) and the cultures here, reading and meditating and taking walks around the sacred mountain Arunachala. Or perhaps these words of Hemingway say all of this and more, so nicely:

“But in the meantime all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow, over and over again (I hope), he thought and so you had better take what time there is and be very thankful for it . . . So if your life trades its seventy years for seventy hours I have that value now and I am lucky enough to know it. And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it.”

My essay: “Consider the Tweet”

twitter birdIt seemed that, in the literary world, 2012 was the “year of the tweet.” Check out my essay on the Guernica Daily for some thoughts on what that means for writers:

“It is understandable that a writer of literature might despair over technology’s ascent in the culture. Who knows how many of the hours spent by the average person on Twitter or Gawker might have been given to a nourishing novel? Nevertheless, there are writers who have, rather than disdain technology, welcomed it into their creative repertoire and written it into their imagined worlds.”

Wondering what to give this Xmas? BOOKS!

CT  CT prj-0902-book-month001.jpgI don’t celebrate Christmas, but for those of you who do, here are some recommendations for gifts to please the bookworms in your lives. Keep print alive!

1) Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s biography of the late writer David Foster Wallace. A thorough and well-written account of the life of one of the writers who most shook up contemporary literature. Even if you haven’t read much of DFW’s work, you’ll be able to engage with his story of becoming a fiction writer while battling severe depression. This book takes the reader into multiple worlds: the literary, the Midwestern, the academic, the mentally-ill, all the while remaining sensitive while dealing with delicate subjects and going deeply into DFW’s personal world and relationships.

2) The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño, is a whirlwind tale that spans decades, but always retains the feeling of an older man looking back upon his lifelong love affair with poetry and literature, and reflecting on what it all meant and the characters he encountered along the way. The English translation is a brilliant work that beautifully renders the original Spanish poetics and dialogue. The genius of the novel is that everything is a mystery–the multiple protagonists and narrators, and the labyrinthine story supplemented by tangential stories about Latin America during the era of dictatorships and repression–but never does this maze confound the reader, because the prose grabs you and pulls you into every sentence, every narrator’s voice, every scene.

3) NW, by Zadie Smith, which I have yet to read, but judging from the excerpt in the New Yorker as well as Smith’s other most lauded novels, White Teeth and On Beauty, this book is exemplary of Smith’s ability to depict multiculturalism and its discontents through the most lovable and hilarious characters. I can’t wait to get my hands on it . . .

4) Joseph Anton, a Memoir, by Salman Rushdie, an account written in the third person of Rushdie’s plunge into hiding after a fatwa was issued for him following the publication of The Satanic Verses. The excerpt in the New Yorker was riveting. Can you imagine going from a relatively normal life as a novelist, to living for years under a false identity?

5) This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz, a collection of short stories written in the second person, giving the effect of making the reader feel like a disgruntled, horny, Dominican man with masculinity issues. Diaz is loved as a novelist but he has proven a master of the short story form; every story is completely amazing.

6) What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander; worth it just for the title story, though the rest of the stories in this collection are just as good. Englander writes Jewish-themed fiction with a contemporary edge. Really, the title story is one of the best things I’ve read in the last year.

Too Much Noise? asks Construction panel at BookCourt . . .

Gather ye round and discuss! 

Last Thursday, Construction magazine convened four writers and lots of literary folks at Brooklyn’s BookCourt to chat about the Internet and its effects on criticism and journalism. 

Good times were had by all. My reflection is up on the Construction site.

It’s nice to sit in a bookstore and talk about the Internet with live people, instead of blogging or reading a Facebook feed or looking at Twitter. As useful as social media may be, ideas are best exchanged in-person.

As I wrote: “But it was perhaps panelist Jacob Silverman’s article ‘Against Enthusiasm‘ that had convened the roundtable. The article, published in Slate Read more