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I am obsessed with books about people who, for unclear reasons, ruin their own lives. In Freudian terms, it’s Thanatos, the death drive. The classic example is that fear you feel on a rooftop or near the edge of a cliff, a fear not so much that you’ll fall but that you’ll throw yourself over, into the void. My own version of this fear: When I pull out my phone to take a photo of the vista from a bridge or a precipice, I’m afraid I’ll drop the phone and automatically go after it.

But this isn’t the death drive, not directly; it’s irrational fear of some latent suicidal tendency that may not exist. The characters I’m thinking of don’t throw themselves off literal cliffs. It’s slower, and stranger, like sleepwalking into the sea.

More… “The Self-Destruct Button”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.
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My first idea was to compile a brief and brisk user’s guide to recent rock memoirs, a sort of Consumer Reports of the best and the worst, perhaps grading them with an A minus or a C plus, the way Robert Christgau used to do with his surveys of pop records in the once-influential Village Voice. So I started with Keith Richards’s Life, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, and John Fogerty’s Fortunate Son before realizing that this whimsical vacation in reading was likely to turn into an unfinishable slog. Even as I read Keith’s (A), Bob’s (A plus), and John’s (C minus) revelatory or not-so-revelatory accounts of the rock ’n’ roll life, more kept issuing from the presses. Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), Viv Albertine (the Slits), Donald Fagan (Steely Dan), Steve Katz (Blood, Sweat and Tears), Greg Allman (the Allman Brothers Band), Peter Hook (New Order), Bernard Summer (New Order), Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys), Mike Love (the Beach Boys), Nile Rodgers (Chic), Richard Hell (Television, the Voidoids), Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses), and the drummer from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band (Woody Woodmansey): all have had their say, and that’s not even to mention continuing contributions to the genre by such heavy hitters as Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Chrissie Hynde, Peter Townshend, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, and Morrissey. Where would I ever find the time to read all of these musicians’ books if I was ever going to read anything else? Or listen to their records? Or vacuum my living room? And then I read Petal Pusher by Laurie Lindeen and decided: the others can wait. More… “It’s the Drummer That Matters”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
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I met with Valerie Graves before her interview with Paula Marantz Cohen on The Drexel Interview. She exuded a calm and poised excitement about having so many people discussing her new book. Her memoir, Pressure Makes Diamonds: Becoming the Woman I Pretended to Be, takes a new approach to the average rags-to-riches story — mostly because Graves doesn’t come from rags at all. She starts off in a middle-class, loving family that supported her intelligence and her journey to becoming the woman she is now. Her story isn’t just about gaining success, but about how to reach back and create spaces for other women of color in advertising. Our interview was conducted in two parts, both before and after her interview with Dean Cohen. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

More… “Pressure Makes Perfect”

Byshera Williams is a Pre-Junior English Major at Drexel University and the current Assistant Editor for The Smart Set.
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How Fast Can You Run is the first novel from poet Harriet Levin Millan. Though a novel, it is based on a real person, Michael Majok Kuch. Kuch became a child refugee, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, when his village was destroyed during the country’s civil war. But How Fast Can You Run is more than a survival story; it also preserves memories of Kuch’s early village life continuing onto his experiences getting his education in the United States. We spoke to Millan and Kuch about their collaboration on the book at Millan’s office at Drexel University where she teaches. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “How Fast Can You Write”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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There have been Sundays, in bed, in a hotel room, hungover or not, wherein my prospects for getting out of bed seem slim, what with the television right there, and the remote control so near my head. Despite hundreds of channels and the free HBO — generally just showing something directed by Ron Howard over and over and over again — I will stop on Joel Osteen or Rick Warren or some other reprehensible creature in a mega church of some sort. On those Sundays, it’s hard to feel the repulsion I usually have for such views. It’s the perfect hair and the shiny, shiny teeth. These men are always telling me that God has plans for me. “Oh, Joel Osteen,” I say out loud to the television. “Tell me what those plans are.”

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters by… More…

Poor Saint Augustine. For years now people have drawn the source of the memoir back to his Confessions. As if because of that book, Augustine’s hands now bear the ink stains of James Frey, tales of addiction, incest and mental illness, the word “momoir,” and a dozen Holocaust survivor fakers. Just like Jane Austen, who occasionally bears the blame for the candy-coated chick lit aisle of your local bookstore, Augustine deserves a better legacy.

Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda. 304 pages. Riverhead. $25.95.

Even Ben Yagoda accuses Augustine of the crime of inventing the memoir in his new book Memoir: A History. It’s a long road from Confessions — written around 400 A.D. — to the memoir’s current dominance in the publishing scene, although the template hasn’t changed much in all of those centuries: I have done some… More…

Edith Grossman is one of the finest literary translators working today. She has translated some of the greats of the Spanish language — from Marquez to Llosa, Fuentes to Dorfman. Her translation of Don Quixote was masterful and is widely accepted as the new standard text. She is the perfect complement to these writers, translating not only the language but also the emotion and experience of the original work. Indeed, the essays in the final half of her new book, Why Translation Matters — “Translating Cervantes” and “Translating Poetry” — are interesting and careful; they make a significant contribution to the philosophy and the practice of translation. That’s why the first half of the book is such a shame

Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman. 160 pages. Yale University Press. $24.

The first two pieces in this collection of… More…

Six weeks after Kari and I sat together in the surgi­cal clinic, I drove to Hyde Park to meet him at his grand­mother’s house. The house sat on a narrow two-way street not far off American Legion Highway, which lies just off Blue Hill Avenue, the main road that cuts through Roxbury, Dorchester, and finally Mattapan before coursing out of the city into the suburb of Milton. The house sat midway down a long row of attached two-story houses, a noticeable contrast from the cen­tury-old triple-deckers that lined Blue Hill Avenue standing di­rectly opposite these more modern and modest homes.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men by John A. Rich, M.D., M.P.H. 232 pages. The Johns Hopkins University Press. $24.95.

Kari met me at the door and motioned me to come… More…

It’s been more than 30 years since Jean-François Lyotard closed the historical door on Modernism. It was 1979, to be exact, when Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Rumors of the death of Modernism had been swirling for years. But death comes in stages, especially when the mortally wounded is a “movement” or an “age.” Lyotard’s book managed to tie all those rumors together and then package the result as “Postmodernism,” the new next thing.

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. 240 pages. Knopf. $24.95.

Lyotard focused on the idea of narratives. Past periods, Modernism in particular, had been fond of what he called “meta-narratives,” all-inclusive narrative frameworks that explained everything, more or less. Think, for instance, of Marxism and the way that class struggle drives every other part of the story. Look at the… More…

It is impossible to write about such a book as Best European Fiction 2010 without also writing about America’s disinterest in such a book. Neither Zadie Smith nor Aleksandar Hemon could do it — and they’re the author of the introduction and the editor of the anthology. It’s a well worn angle by now: the fact that only three percent of literature published in the U.S. is work of translation, the fact that most of that work is being published by small independent presses and university presses. How else to explain how this anthology came to being in Champaign, Illinois from a small press named Dalkey Archive, its very name being an obscure Irish literature reference. Rather than from, say, Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, which produces almost identical anthologies of every other subject in the world: travel writing, sports writing, short stories, essays, whatever the hell that McSweeneys one is. Nonrequired Reading?… More…