Elif Batuman is now officially my favorite up-and-coming writer to watch in 2006, she's got a fantastic essay on Muay Thai champion Bunkerd Faphimai and the charms of kick-boxing in this week's New Yorker (not online). Put this in the next Best American Essays! It's great, informative and interesting and full of appealingly wry asides; it's very funny and likeable, do read it if you haven't already.
Batuman's great essay about Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (published in the third issue of n+1) is currently up at the n+1 website (not a permanent link, but it may be subsequently available on the sidebar). I read Moretti's book the other night and pretty much loved it, with some reservations--I'm going to contribute something slightly-more-essay-like-than-a-blog-entry to the Moretti discussion organized by Jonathan Goodwin at the Valve, and will link when it's there. (Which means I have to write it first. BTW that link includes PDFs of the articles that make up Moretti's book; I particularly recommend Trees, which seems to me the most interesting from a literary-critical as opposed to literary-historical point of view--some great stuff about free indirect discourse, about which more anon....)
I don't know what it is about kick-boxing but the idea of it exerts an irresistible appeal (Batuman starts spending all her free time at the gym, "drawn by the universal pleasure of kicking and punching one's fellow-man," and that phrase pretty much nails it). Actually I am determined that I really am going to learn how to do this stuff in 2006, it's my resolution--I have been on a for-me-extreme-though-for-the-athletically-inclined-fairly-moderate fitness regimen (in truth my neck and shoulders now seem sort of scarily muscley, not sure what I think about this) and when I move back to NY in May I am going to do something better than the probably lame (tell me otherwise if you know better) cardio kickboxing class at the Columbia gym. E-mail me/leave a note in the comments if you can recommend some good option conveniently accessible from Morningside Heights (i.e. either walking distance or near 1/9 train). Kickboxing seems the most appealing but I would be open to the possibility of some other kicking-and-punching-type martial art. I seem to know a lot of people who do yoga but I think I am peaceful enough in my daily life, I would like to take up something more argumentative and aggressive.
I do love the New Yorker, it must be the best value-for-money reading material in America; I almost always race through the whole issue as soon as I get it, though this has been disrupted by Cambridge mailing delays (and also I'm afraid I rarely read the fiction, though I make an exception for Haruki Murakami, George Saunders and a few others). There's a bunch of other especially good stuff in this issue, including a good piece by Steven Shapin about William Leith's food-addiction memoir and an incredibly depressing but gripping article by Eric Konigsberg about the death of a gifted child. The reporter remains tactfully non-judgmental except at one point when he's visiting with a gifted-child therapist and her husband in Colorado and the husband ("a psychic and a healer," as his wife describes him, plus the descendant of a grandfather who was a kabbalist rabbi and a father who used to heal sick babies with kosher salt) describes the fourteen-year-old boy who killed himself--and whose parents now think it may have been meant to be so that his organs could be donated to help others--as "an angel who came down to experience the physical realm for a short period of time":
I asked Hilton how he knew this. He paused, and for a moment I wondered if he was pulling my leg and trying to think up something even more outlandish to say next. 'I'm talking him right now,' he said. 'He's become a teacher. He says right now he's actually being taught how to help these people who experience suicides for much messier reasons. Before Brandenn was born, this was planned. And he did it the way he did so that others would have use for his body. Everything worked out in the end.'
Don't get me wrong, I am completely in favor of organ donation and there is no doubt that if someone you loves dies violently the thought of their organs having saved other people's lives is possibly the greatest consolation imaginable. But seriously....