The Best Years of Your Life

Part Two: Faculty Fumbles

Okay—maybe my melodramatic yearning for my college days in my last post was a little premature (it was August, after all…). But now that a chilly bite in the air greets me every morning and a jacket is more of a necessity than an accessory, there’s no excuse for me not to lament missing out on another year of collegiate delirium.

Last time I tackled the dark side of students’ social lives, but it should be noted that there are also plenty of great novels that skewer a group of people who behave badly before darkness falls: the faculty.

Now, I’m actually lucky enough to have really loved my professors in college. We had these fantastic, basically collaborative working relationships and, after those four years, we remain pretty close. From what I gather, though, the typical college faculty member is often a chilly, self-important cipher; an obstacle rather than an aide; at best, some kind of twisted frenemy. Hell, even I will admit to having one or two professors like that (you know who you are!).

Luckily, here are three books that shed some [farcical] light on the foibles of life on the faculty—each serving its own special brand of comeuppance:

 Lucky JimLucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Tactless, tacky, and tawdry, Jim Dixon is a Medieval history lecturer at an unnamed British university; it’s a position to which he is not particularly dedicated and at which he is not especially good. After making a rather bad first impression upon the rest of the history faculty, Jim tries to ensure his first year at the institution won’t be his last by sucking up to his superior: a nearly brilliant-but-senseless man called Professor Welch. The more enmeshed he becomes with Welch, though, the more problematic his life becomes. With Jim’s truly grating, suicidal sweetheart (another lecturer senior to him) pulling at him from one end and the beautiful Christine, Welch’s son’s fiancé, pulling at him from the other, it’s only a matter of time before he cracks. And that’s just what he does—while drunkenly delivering a lecture before the school. Jim’s speech on “Merrie England” quickly degenerates into a series of barbs about all of his pet peeves, most pointedly Welch himself. Needless to say, Jim’s career at the university isn’t long-lived after that. But it’s truly one of the most uproarious comedic climaxes in all of literature. And, somehow, Jim still manages to get the last laugh. 

PNINPnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Timofey Pnin, professor of Russian at the fictional Waindell College, is probably the kind of professor who would become a favorite of the student body. This isn’t because he’s particularly compelling or laid back or funny. Rather, it’s because this peculiar little Russian émigré is completely ineffectual and hopelessly tragic. Basically: a real pushover. In the protagonist’s defense, he is not an idiot, nor much of an intentional troublemaker. He simply cannot adapt to life in the United States after hurriedly leaving Europe after what he calls the ‘Hitler war’. Nevertheless, failure is imminent. The book (a collection of linked stories) opens with Pnin traveling to deliver a lecture at another institution. Quite naturally, however, he has boarded the wrong train. Hilarity ensues. Not all of Pnin’s turmoil is set in the classroom, though; a truly gruesome (and side-splitting) visit from his ex-wife lends some personal background to the character. Nevertheless, it’s his ongoing conflict with the rest of the language department that does him in, and Pnin is dismissed from Waindell, set free to bluster—ineffectually and tragically—into an uncertain horizon.

Straight ManStraight Man by Richard Russo

When a campus novel opens with its anti-hero hiding in the rafters above a meeting where the faculty just narrowly misses the needed number of votes to approve his dismissal, you know you’re in for a memorable campus satire. William “Hank” Henry Devereaux, Jr., interim chairman of the English department at a fictional Pennsylvania state university, is essentially a jackass and, In the face of looming budget cuts, faculty layoffs, and a possible prostate condition, he quickly begins to unravel. Among student-teacher flirtations and hilarious riffs on creative writing workshops, Hank becomes so unhinged that he publicly grabs a goose on campus (misidentifying it as a duck, naturally) and threatens to kill one a day until he receives the budget he’s requested for the following year. It’s when a goose really does turn up murdered, though, that Hank’s problems truly begin.

Jim, Pnin, and Hank almost certainly bring all this grief onto themselves, but it’s a little difficult not find a tiny soft spot in your heart for them. Still, while things don’t work out particularly well for any of them, readers will still be blissfully amused from cover to cover, riding a euphoric wave of schadenfreude. It’s the perfect way to release any pent-up aggression that still lingers for your college professors—or a nice reminder of how terrific they actually were.

Next time: The Big Finish. . .


David Archer is a publicity assistant at Vintage Books & Anchor Books. He graduated from Bennington College in 2008 and hasn’t gotten over it yet.

Introducing: An Illustrated Interview

Coffee in Greenpoint with Hooman Majd

Hooman Majd says that he is “100% Iranian.” He was born in Tehran, he is the son of an Iranian diplomat, the grandson of an eminent Ayatollah, close friend and relative of former president Khatami, and the official translator for President Ahmedinejad. But Hooman finishes this sentence stating that his is also “100% American” since he attended boarding school in England and has been living in the United States since this Islamic Revolution. This paradoxical and unique perspective is the driving force of his book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (Vintage Books, August 2009).

While you play the audio from the interview and scroll down panel to panel, my hope is that you have a small sense of being there with us. As Iran stutters and shifts into the future I will look to Hooman’s perspective again. The next time we meet I hope he’s wearing something easier to draw than a seersucker blazer.

An Illustrated Interview by Isaac Littlejohn Eddy

Hooman Majd in conversation with Isaac Littlejohn Eddy, pt. 1

I refuse to call myself an expert in Iran because no one is an expert in Iran.
Hooman Majd in conversation with Isaac Littlejohn Eddy, pt. 2

President Khatami asked me right before the book came out... 'How do you think it's going to be received by the public?'
Hear the Hooman Majd in conversation with Isaac Littlejohn Eddy, pt. 3

Having had the experiences that I've had and being who I am, I'm taking advantage of it.
Hooman Majd in conversation with Isaac Littlejohn Eddy, pt. 4

I was on an NPR show in June, it must have been only a week or so after the election...
Hooman Majd in conversation with Isaac Littlejohn Eddy, pt. 5

I don't have the relationship with Islam that my mom has... but I'm not an athiest.
Hooman Majd in conversation with Isaac Littlejohn Eddy, pt. 6

I was sitting with the Iranian Ambassador at the UN a few weeks after the election...

Isaac Littlejohn EddyIsaac Littlejohn Eddy is a cartoonist and writer living in Brooklyn. He has a non-fiction series about his neighborhood called Fort Greene Illustrated published in the New York Times blog, the local. Isaac also performs as a Blue Man nightly at the Astor Place Theater. He can be reached at


What We Talk About When We Talk About Book Covers

We design most of our covers in-house at Vintage and Anchor. On occasion we like to get a fresh take on things and look to outside designers for help. I asked Peter Buchanan-Smith to take on the redesign of Raymond Carver’s backlist for the 25th anniversary of Vintage Contemporaries. He came up with the perfect idea: using the stunning and luminous, suburban night photography of Todd Hido for the covers. Peter conducted the following interview with Todd exclusively for the Sun and Anchor.

—John Gall

Click the images above to see Peter Buchanan-Smith and Todd Hido’s creations in full-size.

Peter Buchanan-Smith: Hi, Todd. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with me. When John Gall at Vintage asked if I would be interested in re-designing the Raymond Carver library I responded as if it was my call to arms—this was the moment I had been preparing for. Carver’s short stories have had a profound impact on me. I soon found your large body of work—the desolate landscapes, abandoned motel rooms, and the nocturnal detached homes—and there was absolutely no doubt that these images would be (had to be!) the new face of Raymond Carver. I have to admit that it was only after I had submitted the first round of designs that I learned that this tailor-made well of photographs was even more too good to be true: much of it was actually shot in Carver Country (the Pacific Northwest). With all of this in mind, I have 5 questions I am dying to ask you…

The most obvious: what impact has Raymond Carver’s work had on you?

Todd Hido: Firstly, I must say that when I first heard of the possibility of you wanting to use my photographs on the reissue of his books I thought “my god this might be one of the most important and significant things that my images are ever used for”—a dream really to contribute something to such an amazing author’s body of published work.

As for his impact on my work—when I read Carver I see pictures.

It makes me lust after going out to hunt for places to shoot.

I think for me the biggest influence he has had on my work is that when I discovered [his work], it put words, stories and characters in my mind that I had been searching for.  I instinctively knew these people from my past experiences—they totally resonated with me.

PB-S: What drew you to the Pacific Northwest / Carver Country in the first place?

TH: I have been to Yakima and that area of Central Washington many times to shoot. It was a place that reminded me of where I grew up in Ohio.

Rough around the edges. Worn out. Snowy, rolling hills surrounded by lots of rural farmland with a working class ethic. I also shoot near Sacramento often; he lived there as well.

PB-S: Tell us about the place where Carver and the landscape intersect in your mind. How did he come into your imagination as your traveled the Northwest? Could you feel him as your drove through those streets late at night?

TH: For me the imagined intersection happens when I am looking for stories that might illuminate or inspire my images.

I find many of my pictures of places to actually be about people—really about relationships.

Carver’s words fill in the void of me not really knowing much about the people who live where I photograph. {I never interact with the people—I just shoot} He gave me ideas about who the people were that I imagined living in the places and landscapes I photographed. Those ideas are always with me when I shoot.

Later a real intersection happened when I first used one of his poems, “The Phone Booth” at the end of Roaming, my book of landscapes. It was the perfect thing to help clarify what I was feeling. It is a very poignant poem about endings and not knowing where to go from there.

In another book of mine Between the Two, I used his poem “Energy.” This one was mostly portraits of women. His poem is about his daughter. She easily could have been one of the people in my book! My favorite line in that poem is:

Can take a cigarette down to the filter in 3 draws, just like her mother.

PB-S: Knowing that you have been on the trail of Raymond Carver for so long, did it ever cross your mind (even subconsciously) that the real reason you might actually be taking these pictures is to some day end up as Raymond Carver covers?

TH: Never in a thousand years would I have thought that my work would be so lucky to end up on his book covers—it might actually be fate!

PB-S: Throughout the course of this project I have looked at your photographs endlessly, weighing them up left right and center, trying to find the one that will strike that perfect note. Now that a few of these images have been selected, and have finally made it into print, do you see those images – the ones you have analyzed more than anyone – any differently now?

TH: They certainly have more gravity to me. I love the selections you have made so far. I feel it is a special union—dark, stark, based in reality, but hopeful. It opens the images up for me more.

Honestly, I can’t wait to line them all up in a row!

What I am very curious about is how the longtime fans and collectors of Carver will see them. I really look forward to the response.

Todd Hido has a show of his photographs opening on September 10th at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York City.*
*John Gall is the Art Director for Vintage and Anchor Books.*

Singing the Rejection Letter Blues

As an editor at Vintage I read hundreds of manuscripts each year. For those manuscripts I buy and publish, this is the beginning of a relationship with the author, often a relationship with a side of friendship—dinners and long email chains, private jokes and phone calls. For those manuscripts I reject, that’s typically the end of the story. I assume the agent shares my letter with the author, crosses me off a list, maybe makes a voodoo doll, and moves on.

But Mary Lowry just wasn’t ready to move on. Several years ago an agent sent me her novel about a female firefighter. I liked it a lot, but thought the structure was all wrong, so I wrote a friendly “pass.” Two years later, Mary was back. Her agent was gone, but Mary had rewritten the entire manuscript in the first person—my suggestion. It was good. Really good. But still not quite there. I gave her my reasons for passing again and she went away. For a while. Then one day I got a funny piece of mail from Mary. She sent me the lyrics to a country song she had written, titled “Jenny Jackson Won’t You Change Your Mind.” I laughed for about a week and pinned the lyrics to my door. Soon Mary and I were email buddies. We both run, we like similar music, we recommend books. When she comes to New York we get coffee and hang out. In the past year she’s had a few strokes of luck with her book. She has a new agent (one of the best in the business), she sold the film rights, and is now working on the screenplay.

Yesterday I got another piece of mail from Mary. It was a CD. I put it on and listened and soon I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. Mary went to the studio and recorded our song. Here it is: Jenny Jackson, Won’t You Change Your Mind?.mp3. The final lyrics read like this:

Jenny Jackson can’t be my editor
And that’s why I’m so blue

Mary, I may not be your editor, but I sure am lucky to be your friend.

*Jenny Jackson is a Senior Editor at Vintage Books, and to her knowledge this is the first song that’s been written about her.*
–full lyrics and song after the jump– Continue reading

The Overflowing Beach Bag — Part 2: Get Shorty!

As promised, senior editor Lexy Bloom’s short, quick, steamy summer reads to whip through in one afternoon— just in time for this final week of summer.

Publishers and editors often like to groan that novellas are tricky to publish – falling somewhere in between a short story and a novel, no one seems to know what to do with them. All publishing wisdom (or lack thereof) aside, the novella is – in my opinion – an often overlooked art form.

Boccacio’s Decameron is composed of them. Faulker wrote one; so did Nathanael West, Edith Wharton, Philip Roth, and Jane Smiley, to name just a very few. A novella isn’t quite a short story gone on for too long – think of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café or James Joyce’s The Dead, two gorgeous and perfect examples of the form. But the arc of a novella has to be leaner than that of a novel – there’s no room for fat or excess, just everything perfectly in its place.

Some argue that The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby are novellas – I beg to differ, as those books seem too complex and layered to make the cut. Richard Ford, in his introduction to the excellent 1997 collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story, writes at length on the literary history of novellas and novelletes, or what he chooses, in the end, to call “long stories.” Ford writes:

“What I liked about novellas had, of course, always been occasioned by reading them. They were satisfyingly long but not too long; they were full; they seemed artful about staying out of definition’s focus and were likely to be surprising about something important. But my appreciation took on greater complexity the moment I set out to write one of my own.”

Ford writes that in practice – in his non-scientific study – a novella usually contains between 15,000 and 50,000 words. To translate that into trade paperback terms, that means around 150 pages or less.

Here’s a short list of my favorite short books. Take them to the beach; read them on the subway/bus/train/plane en route to your Labor Day weekend destination; or just devour one during a nice afternoon on the couch.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan: Sex! Love! Heartbreak! A steamy summer love story set in the south of France, this book was controversial upon its original publication in 1954 for its young narrator and its explicit nature. Read today it’s not quite so extreme, but remains fantastically enjoyable. Pick up the beautiful new edition that Harper Perennial published in 2008.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett: Alan Bennett, author of The History Boys, among many others, wrote this hilarious novel about the Queen of England. Here she takes up reading as a pastime – to the chagrin of her family and staff, who fear it is taking her away from her royal duties. A laugh-out-loud book for real book-lovers.

Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice: When I first read this novella in Granta almost ten years ago, I was blown away. This first book by Australian writer Ben Rice is set in the outback amongst opal mines. The setting is stunning and the characters even better – Pobby and Dingan, the imaginary friends of one Kellyanne Williamson.

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky: Discovered posthumously, Fire in the Blood was pieced together by Nemirovsky’s biographers, who found its pages amongst her papers and notebooks. A gorgeous story of manners, adultery, family secrets and the French countryside, this short beautiful book has all the pointed detail and attention to class and society that readers loved in her international bestseller Suite Française.

The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott: An early selection in the amazing NYRB classics series – with an introduction by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours – this book takes place over the course of one afternoon. “It begins, this great American novel, with the voice of recollection; that is the voice of uncertainty,” wrote Susan Sontag, in the New Yorker. “It belongs, in my view, among the treasures of twentieth-century American literature, however untypical are its sleek, subtle vocabulary, the density of its attention to character, its fastidious pessimism, and the clipped worldliness of its point of view.”

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore: Maybe it’s a stretch to call this incredibly meaty short work a novella. (I think I’m breaking my own rules.) Moore’s work takes up the friendship between two teenage girls in upstate New York. Whatever you call it, it’s a masterpiece and since it clocks in at 147 pages. . . I recommend it with pleasure! (Then read Moore’s long-awaited new novel, out in September, called A Gate at the Stairs.)

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: After the success of Atonement and Saturday, two rich, multi-layered novels, McEwan came back with this short, perfect book about the fraught wedding night of a British couple in the late 1950s. Seamlessly moving back and forth between their two perspectives, this novella is a stunning example of the form.

*Lexy Bloom is a senior editor at Vintage/Anchor and a paperback junkie. At age ten, she packed a trunk filled entirely with books and brought it to summer camp. Family and friends have never let her forget this.*