Lit Gloss

Joe Queenan’s “Closing Time”

Writer Jaime O’Neill says Queenan’s memoir is self-serving and overwritten.

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Roger Clemens’ Downfall

On this, the eve of a fresh baseball season, fans of all 30 big-league franchises fill themselves to the brim with the hope that their squad will accomplish what the Phillies did in 2008. But fans of disgraced pitcher Roger Clemens find this to be anything but the season of their content. For the first time since the mid-1980s, Clemens is more likely to face federal perjury charges for allegedly deceiving Congress’ probe of steroids in America’s pastime than to come out of retirement and pitch a perfect game.

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Spring Books Roundup

This weekend Slate’s editor Jacob Weisberg wrote an ode to his new Kindle, saying its existence “marks a cultural revolution” and “tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.” Dude. Harsh.

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Beat the Reaper

Josh Bazell certainly knows a lot about medicine. That’s because the author of the thriller/mystery Beat the Reaper is a doctor. Inspired by noir writing past and present, he wrote his book during his internship, and on the subject of medicine and hospital politics, he’s very, very funny. As a noir, however, it’s less successful. The protagonist is Peter Brown, an intern at a large hospital who’s sleeping through Attending Rounds, dealing with patients who complain of vague “ass pain” and struggling to stay away from hot pharma reps who have samples and sex on offer. The story takes an abrupt turn when a patient recognizes Dr. Brown as “Bearclaw,” a former mob killer who’s working at the hospital under the Witness Protection Program. And that’s where things get strange: The book delves into an extremely implausible backstory about Brown’s childhood that reads a lot like Bruce Wayne’s—and things get more cartoonish from there. The problem isn’t that the book is implausible in large part; novels don’t have to be true to life, and noirs even less so. It’s that the precision of the medical detail and the credibility of Dr. Brown’s voice is such a contrast, the new development feels borderline incoherent. Bazell may have been inspired by James Ellroy, but there’s a singularity of tone he just can’t manage. I’d love to see him write a funny, reality-based novel—the stuff that’s in between the preposterous in Beat the Reaper.

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Lincoln This, Lincoln That

By any measure, a book about a blind child reared in slavery who becomes a piano prodigy and travels across the world should be interesting. And yet Deirdre O’Connell’s The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America’s Lost Musical Genius is deadly, even from the start. In her intro, she writes: “Back in London I set to work writing—what? A biography, novel, documentary? What was the right format to fit this mixed bag of tour dates, concert reviews, lawsuits and judgments; this social history of slavery, war, emancipation?” If she doesn’t know, who would? She chooses biography but only in the loosest sense of the term, vomiting out Tom’s story with little style, verve or persuasive historical context. It’s almost miraculously unexciting, given what O’Connell says she had to work with: “In my fat little hand I had an anarchic, hilarious, quirky, mythic, tragic picture of Blind Tom—the stuff of greatness.” Perhaps, but not in O’Connell’s (fat little) hands. One of the great archival photos in the book is of Dizzy Gillespie crouched by Blind Tom’s grave site, playing his trumpet in Tom’s honor. It’s a poignant moment and one that shows Tom’s influence on subsequent generations of black musicians. If only the words on the pages were half as powerful.

• Speaking of slavery (weren’t we?), Henry Louis Gates Jr.—director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research—has been extremely busy these days. He’s promoting a book he co-edited, Lincoln on Race and Slavery, as well as his new PBS series, Looking for Lincoln. It’s all Lincoln-this and Lincoln-that, as Gates explained when he appeared, deliciously, on The Colbert Report.

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A Cure for Night

Justin Peacock’s legal thriller A Cure for Night is getting great reviews. Entertainment Weekly called it “a razor-sharp debut” and gave it an A. Publishers Weekly called it a “deeply thought-provoking read.” The Washington Post said: “When the prizes are awarded for this year’s best first novel, A Cure for Night will be competing for the gold.”

Slate’s senior editor Michael Agger was pleased with Night as well. But Agger also made an important point other publications failed to note: “Some of these episodes are marred by painful E�?bonics.”

That’s an understatement. Every black character speaks exactly the same way—in “ghetto” English, with slangy overuse of grammatical signifiers to emphasize the obvious: These people live in the projects. They’re of the streets, yo. They’re too busy with “the chronic” to learn “proper” English—something Peacock surely got a surfeit of at Yale and Columbia.

The problem starts when we meet Lorenzo Tate. Jewish lawyer Myra Goldstein (seriously) is, along with our narrator Joel Deveraux, Tate’s public defender. When Lorenzo has his one moment of civility, Peacock writes: “I couldn’t believe my ears: an accused murderer from the projects had just called Myra ‘ma’am.’”

I wish I could say that naivete was an author’s conceit to make us see how green Joel is. But Peacock seems just as stupidly wide-eyed about his characters as Joel is. His rendition of black English is execrable, and implies that no one ever changes register to suit different circumstances.

Yolanda Miller, projects resident, is asked if she went to the deli. She answers, “True that.” Marcus Riley, projects resident, is asked if Lorenzo was with him the night of the murder. He answers, “Yeah, uh-huh, true that.” Terrell Gibbons, former projects residents, says: “I come up in Bed-Stuy; I seen some serious shit, know people who got capped, all that.” Wow! Terrell used a semicolon.

A large number of the characters in this book are African-American. The plot pivots around them. There is no story without them. If they read as caricatures—and offensive ones, at that—how can this book be successful?

I guess people don’t care about characters in the projects as much as they care about white lawyers. Art imitating life, indeed.

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31 Days

Looking back at January 2009, how are your resolutions coming along? Did you go to the gym? Call your mom? Eat local? Not yell “asshole” when you got cut off in traffic?

Did you remember to have fun?

For five years, a loose collective of West Philadelphians have urged people to have fun at least once a day for the first 31 days of the year, and document it. This Saturday, the fruits of the annual Fun-A-Day project will be on display at Studio34, a yoga studio on Baltimore Avenue.

About 60 participants are cramming evidence of a month’s worth of joy into the exhibition space for just one evening.

All the Fun-A-Day projects, whether they can be exhibited physically or not, are on the Fun-A-Day blog, including 31 Dreamers (describing one dream a day) and 31 Fractures (making contact with one lost friend a day).

Mike Servedio, one of the organizers, said having a daily creative challenge boosts morale during the typically depressing month of January. He’s considering a move to San Francisco, and has planned for his fun to be a series of swan songs. Servedio had a friend videotape him playing a song in 31 familiar spots around Philadelphia. The video will be played on loop at the show.

“When we started it, it wasn’t about exhibiting. It was about doing it,” says Servedio, who will stay in Philly a little longer due to the worsening economy. “It’s great we have a show—it’s always amazing—but it’s really about doing something you love to do every day.”

As Philadelphia ex-pats migrate to other parts of the country, Fun-A-Day follows them. Last year Pittsburgh got in on the act. A handful of Servedio’s friends successfully moved to San Francisco last year and have pulled together local artists and crafters for some Philly-style fun.

Jonathan Mann is a musician in Berkeley, Calif. He wrote a song every day, including such hits as “I’m Drunk Because The Economy Sucks,” “I Love Battlestar Gallactica” and “Little Pink Boombox.” He also created the Fun-A-Day anthem, entirely written and recorded while on a train from Connecticut to New York.

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Lit Gloss

Are you an outlier? It’d be nice to think so if you understand the title of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book as a term for people who are successful beyond the norm—freaks of nature and economy like B…

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Lit Gloss

Do we, as a society, still give a damn about the Suicide Girls? Since its founding in Portland, Ore., in 2001, Suicidegirls.com has grown exponentially, currently featuring 2,305,727 photos of women …

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Lit Gloss

In 1998 Ralph Cipriano, then on staff at The Philadelphia Inquirer, made journalistic history by being the first reporter ever to sue his editor for libel. That editor, Robert Rosenthal, had told The …

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