About Tom Nissley

Tom Nissley knew he wasn't like the other kids when they assigned Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native" in 10th grade and he spent dreamy afternoons in Wessex with Clym Yeobright and Eustacia Vye (Eustacia Vye!) and then came back to school to find that everybody else thought it was "boring."

Posts by Tom

Debating the First Draft of W.: The Authors vs. Oliver Stone

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If you haven't run across it yet, for the past week Slate has been hosting a high-powered panel discussion bringing Oliver Stone together with three (and, finally, a fourth) of the best-known chroniclers of the Bush administration, to discuss his use of their work and others in his new movie W. Along with Jacob Weisberg, the former Slate editor whose book, The Bush Tragedy, provides much source material for the 41/43 father-son drama Stone portrays, they brought in Bob Woodward and Ron Suskind, who between them have written seven bestsellers on the administration, and today, on what appears to be the final day of the discussion, Hubris coauthor Michael Isikoff joined in with a specific anecdote from his book that Stone used for the movie.

There's a lot of discussion of Stone's dramatic license with the reported facts, with some pointed criticism (and Stone's defenses) of a few of the movie's more Stonian interpretive flights (which just about everyone who's seen W. has noted he has reined in considerably this time), and there's a lot of debate between the journalists about the exact timeline of when the war was decided upon. But what I like best is the shoptalk among these guys who have all been trying to write the first draft of history, without much help from the primary participants. Here's Suskind giving Woodward a backhanded compliment about his unique access:

Bob, clearly, has sat in what journalists generally consider "access heaven" in his unmatched colloquies with Bush. You have witnessed Bush jumping out of his chair to make a point, and many other moments from your interviews provide some signature scenes of this period. But, I wonder, Bob, if you think, looking back, that access to Bush has not been as valuable—hour for hour—as it has been with other presidents whom you've interviewed. I think it's fair to say that Bush and his team don't believe that truthful public disclosure and dialogue are among their central obligations. Other presidents have railed against the troublemakers in the press, but they felt, often reluctantly, that letting the American people know their mind—the good-enough reasons that drive action—was part of their job description. Frankly, I think the best book of your quartet is State of Denial—the one for which, I gather, you were not given access to Bush. But that's a rare occurrence. (The last president you wrote about who wouldn't grant an audience was Nixon, and, of course, you and Carl notched a few historic bell-ringers back then.)

And here's Isikoff arguing that all their discussion of various memos and anecdotes are somewhat beside the point in trying to figure out when the Decider decided (which he backs up with an anecdote from his own book):

We can debate endlessly what really motivated Bush in making the audacious decision to invade Iraq—the threat of WMD, the cooked-up evidence about connections between Saddam and al-Qaida, the need to be pre-emptive in the post-9/11 era, the desire to secure Mideast oil supplies. But I think the "tear it all down" line captures the essence of Bush's worldview. Why monkey around with diplomacy, U.N. inspections, and halfway measures? And the search for one key moment to pinpoint the "decision" time is probably illusory. Bush the Decider didn't actually decide in Cabinet or war-council meetings. His White House didn't thrash out option memos and debate them endlessly. He decided on what his gut told him, and his gut instincts were that he had had enough of trying to "box in" Saddam Hussein and that it was time to kick his ass and remove him through military force.

This all gives me an opportunity to point to a couple interviews I did for our Election 2008 store this fall with two of the participants above: Woodward and Suskind. They are both, like their recent books, The War Within and The Way of the World, focused mostly on events after those in Stone's movie. Woodward is concerned mostly with discussing a much later (and more successful) decision: Bush's choice to go forward with the "surge" in Iraq:

And with Suskind, we talked less about his administration reporting and more about what is the real focus of The Way of the World, the threat of nuclear proliferation and the importance of America's moral identity in controlling them:

I know not everybody (me included) prefers listening to reading, so I'll post transcripts of these separately in the next day or so as well. --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Sam Tanenhaus on The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike: "At 76, he still wrings more from a sentence than almost anyone else. His sorcery is startlingly fresh, page upon page.... The genius inheres in the precise observation, in the equally precise language, but above all in the illusion that the image has been received and processed in real time, when in truth Updike has slowed events to a dreamlike pace and given them a dream’s hyperreality, so that the distinction between the actual and the imagined feels erased."
  • Maslin on George, Being George, edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.: "If Mr. Plimpton had nothing but the Zeus-like powers this book ascribes to him (and don’t think Zeus isn’t mentioned), he might become on the page what he seems never to have been in life: a bore. The peril of the oral-history format is that old friends’ flattery will overwhelm objectivity and interest.... Fortunately, 'George, Being George' also taps enough sharp-eyed observers ... to outweigh its occasional fatuousness and repetition."
  • Kakutani on Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson: "In her ridiculous new novel, 'Lulu in Marrakech,' Ms. Johnson attempts to use the post-9/11 hunt for terrorists and the tensions between America and the Islamic world as a backdrop for a social comedy about a clueless young American woman named Lulu.... That this unobservant, naïve and unresourceful ditz is supposed to be a covert C.I.A.  operative, assigned to trace the flow of money from Islamic charities in Marrakech to terrorist groups, is patently absurd, as is the trajectory of the plot, which abruptly moves from the subjects of house parties and romantic triangles to those of rendition and torture. It’s as though a romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson or Drew Barrymore as a kind of Marrakech Barbie had suddenly morphed into a brutal thriller about C.I.A. black sites and enhanced interrogations." On Sunday, Erica Wagner agreed: "The reader feels simply glum, locked in a window­less world of preconceptions never shattered and lessons never learned."
  • David Hajdu on Hallelujah Junction by John Adams: "Although the sojourner scheme is a cliché among books by creative artists, politicians and pretty much everyone else, Adams plays it lightly. There is no more self-aggrandizement in this wry, smart and forthright memoir than there is in the venturesome but elegiac music of Adams’s maturity. Indeed, 'Hallelujah Junction' stands with books by Hector Berlioz and Louis Armstrong among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures."

Washington Post:

  • Elaine Showalter on Updike's Widows of Eastwick: "In lieu of understanding American malaise in terms of women's lives, Widows is padded with digressions and irrelevant details, lengthy travelogues and tedious lectures.... Mercifully, before he schleps them to Antarctica and Peru, Updike sends the widows back to Eastwick on an unlikely holiday rental of the old mansion that Van Horne left behind. But without Van Horne, the life force and comic center of Witches, the women's adventures seem pallid and pointless. At the novel's end, Sukie and Alexandra are hopefully contemplating another tour, but for readers the spell is broken."
  • Ron Charles on Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago: "Here Saramago catches us off guard once again, turning from the straight-faced absurdity of the novel's first section to a poignant romance. How can the most tender relationship that Saramago has ever written involve death as a nervous lover? This is a story that can't possibly work or affect us, but it does, deeply, sweetly. It's a novel to die for."

Los Angeles Times:

  • James Sallis on The Complete Ripley Novels by Patricia Highsmith: "The genius of the five novels Highsmith eventually wrote about this character lies in the manner in which she lodges us so firmly in Ripley's head that his perception of the world begins to seem almost right to us. We become so immured in his world that, like him, we are unable to see beyond it.... Ripley is truly a self-made man, bringing us to silent recognition of the selfsame treacherous longings coiled and waiting in our hearts."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Books of the States: Maine (4 electoral votes; Guest: Heidi Julavits)

Quarter_maine_mccloskey First of all, as you regular readers may have noticed, that weeklong States break hasn't prevented me from falling behind the state-a-day plan again. That's likely to be true for the next bit: I'm fairly deep underwater with everything else right now in my finite days (and find myself spending more and more time on each state, for good reasons), so for the next couple of weeks, while things are frantic, I'm going to be spacing out the posts a bit. But we have some excellent guests coming up, including today, so stay tuned.

Today we have Heidi Julavits, who in her short career has published almost as many novels (3) as her native state, Maine, has electoral votes (4): The Mineral Palace, The Effect of Living Backwards, and The Uses of Enchantment, none of which, however, are set in the Pine Tree State (again, a completely unknown and inadequate state nickname...). She's also one of the founders and editors of the lovely magazine, The Believer, which I still buy at the store rather than subscribe to because I don't want to lose the fun of buying it in person.

140007811301_mzzzzzzz_ Despite being born & bred in Maine, her State by State essay and her book list below are both full of the From Aways, the non-natives whose acceptance in their adopted state is apparently predicated on their capacity to amuse, and with whom she has come, despite her birth certificate, to identify. Here's a favorite section from her Maine piece:

I was born in Portland, Maine. I left the state when I was eighteen and returned at the age of thirty-three. My husband and I bought a house in a town three hours northeast of Portland. Thus I am a From Away in my home state.

The easy thing about being a From Away, however, is that your community has extremely low expectations for you. You're meant to screw up regularly at great cost to your homeowner's insurance, because such screwups are entertaining and an excellent way to warm the hearts of even the most indifferent natives. We proved highly entertaining. We showed up and promptly burst our pipes, ruining a room that had, based on the plaster and lathe we had to chunk into garbage bags, not been touched in nearly 200 years. In other words, we were the stupidest people in almost 200 hundred years to live in this house. We were welcomed throughout the land.

Here are her choices for the four books to represent Maine, along with a short introduction (I should mention that I was all set to put Stephen King on the Maine quarter until she went completely anticanonical and left him--along with Carolyn Chute, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Edna St. Vincent Millay--off the list. I'm more than happy to have a chance to engrave Robert McCloskey instead):

Few authors have succeeded in writing about Maine in a way that satisfies the native Mainer. I've been privy to many discussions where an out-of-Stater has attempted to capture the state on the page, and their efforts are mocked, derided, and ultimately dismissed by the natives. This is a harsh crowd. Immortalize them at your peril.

That said, Geoffrey Wolff wrote a fantastic nonfiction book about Maine called Edge of Maine; in it he cops to the folly of his undertaking (as a non-native who now lives full-time in Maine, he knows the dangerous territory upon which he treads), and does a pretty great job of claiming to know nothing while actually knowing quite a lot. It's some of the best writing about sailing on the coast I've encountered as well.

Another From Away who captured the loneliness, and the idiocy, of moving to Maine, is Elizabeth Etnier. Her book, On Gilbert Head, written in 1937 and sadly out of print, documents the travails she and her husband endure after moving to a remote point of land, and how they survive their first winter, and how their marriage starts to unravel. This is a genre unto itself--the out-of-print book written by the wife of the couple that's come to Maine to live a more pure existence, only to see their marriage go to hell.

The best books about Maine, however, tend to be children's books. Really there's no beating Robert McCloskey's One Morning In Maine. The rag-a-muffin children who are left to run along the grungy seashore unsupervised by their parents. The admonishment to swallow emotions. The irritating failure of outboard motors to catch. The prevailing bleak religion of Murphy's Law and the salvation found in ice cream and clam chowder. I used to identify with the kids and their desperation for food but now I identify with the parents--particularly the father when he has to row INTO the wind. Some day I hope to identify with the harbor seal.

Finally--Lost on a Mountain in Maine, as told to Joseph Egan by Donn Fendler, is a real-life adventure story (appropriate for ages 9-12, but adults like it too) about a boy who wanders away from his family and gets lost on Mount Katahdin for twelve days. He's bitten to hell by mosquitos and suffers terribly, but ultimately finds his way back to civilization by following telephone wires. For people who have vacationed in Maine during a bad weather spell, the book functions as a pretty cathartic metaphor for their own experience of miserable lostness.

--Tom

Tony Hillerman, 1925-2008

Hillerman_tony_3 As you've likely heard, Tony Hillerman, whose series featuring Navajo Tribal Police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee made him one of the most beloved of American mystery masters, known as much for the atmosphere of his New Mexico settings and the humanity of his characters as for his classic plots, died on Sunday of pulmonary failure at the age of 83. The New York Times has a lengthy obituary, by Marilyn Stasio, and Sarah Weinman is collecting other links to tributes and appreciations, including one that everyone is linking to, a moving story from Deanne Stillman, a student of his when he was beginning the series and who has gone on to write her own books about the West, including the recent Mustang. Here's an attempt at a complete list of his books:

Leaphorn/Chee series:

Other fiction:

Nonfiction:

Children's Books:

Anthologies:

About Hillerman:

--Tom

The Books of the States: Alabama (9 electoral votes)

Quarter_alabama_murray This one's fun. After Mississippi and Illinois, which were packed as full of icons as one of those foldout Vanity Fair covers, it's a pleasure to step over to Alabama, which has its share of big names (two from little Monroeville alone), but still has some room for a few wild cards too. Some room, but not enough room, because, as you'll see, I found it hard to limit myself to the nine in the headline. At some point we'll have to make those cuts, but for now, let's keep it loose. I've just discovered some of these books, and I'd love to get a chance for a closer look at them.

So, the Yellowhammer State (really? that's the nickname? I've never heard that before):

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: The one novel that everybody has read, right? Not me! So what do you think Miss Lee has been writing all these years since?
  • Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote: Before Capote turned to Kansas and New York for his subjects, he made a splash at 23 with this autobiographical novel. And just as Capote is said to be the model for Dill in Mockingbird, his childhood pal Nelle Lee was, we're told, the original for this novel's tomboyish Idabel.
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans: We think of it as an icon of the '30s, but it was too strange to be swallowed at the time and wasn't rediscovered until the '60s. And now its very familiarity (the photos at least) makes it hard to read, in an entirely different way.
  • At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 by Taylor Branch: Martin Luther King was born and raised in Georgia, but most of the central moments in his short career took place in Alabama. If his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was book length, it would be a natural here, but you can find it in the collection, A Testament of Hope, on our Georgia list. But which of Branch's great trilogy to choose? Parting the Waters covers the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but I've put it in Georgia too. Pillar of Fire includes the main Birmingham events, but At Canaan's Edge, the final volume, begins with a set piece on the bloody march in Selma that could be a book in itself.
  • The Omni-Americans by Albert Murray: Murray, who was born in Nokomis, Ala., and studied and taught at Tuskegee before joining the Air Force, is a favorite of mine: Ralph Ellison's best friend (whose reputation might yet eclipse his), and a funny, swinging (both rhythmic and pugnacious) critic. The hard part is which book to choose: the very local South to a Very Old Place, the legendary Stomping the Blues, or this against-the-grain, ahead-of-its-time critical classic.
  • Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington: Speaking of Tuskegee, here is the old man himself. Washington lost his historical battle with W.E.B. DuBois a long time ago, but this autobiography, a brilliant promotional vehicle like everything he did, remains a fascinating work, playing its own changes on the already familiar traditions of African American self-making.
  • The Story of My Life by Helen Keller: I should mention that Illinois and Alabama make two straight states whose real quarters actually do feature writers on our lists: Lincoln and Miss Keller--reason enough to include her beloved memoir here.
  • The Ants by Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler: Wilson split his youth between Washington, D.C., and the Alabama countryside before studying at the University of Alabama. You can read more about his development in Naturalist and in another collaboration with the German Hölldobler, Journey to the Ants, but this is his magnum opus: a lavish and definitive (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) guide to one of the Earth's central life forms.
  • Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet by Eugene Walter: Walter's remarkable life (from Mobile to Greenwich Village, Paris, and Rome: early contributor to The Paris Review, translator and actor for Fellini, and friend to, well, everyone), found its legacy in this idiosyncratic posthumous book built from his interviews with Katherine Clark (which, amazingly, is already out of print).
  • With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge: Acclaimed as one of the finest memoirs of war in the 20th century by some writers who know war, and the writing about war, as well as anyone: Paul Fussell, John Keegan, Victor Davis Hanson.
  • Maybe I'll Pitch Forever by Satchel Paige: Baseball's greatest pitcher was also one of its greatest storytellers and self-mythologizers. Some more lives of bigger-than-life Alabamans: Allan Barra's The Last Coach: A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant, Paul Hemphill's Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams, and Marshall Frady's Wallace.
  • Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse: This was the first I'd come across this 1996 graphic novel of growing up gay in the last years of segregation, which arrived just before I starting paying attention to the form, but was #86 on on The Comics Journal's Top 100 comics of the century list.

--Tom

The Books of the States: Illinois (21 electoral votes)

Quarter_illinois_bellow I was taking Illinois a little for granted when it started to appear on the horizon. Yeah, Bellow, Terkel, Mamet, etc.: I knew there would be plenty there. But when I sat down to make up the list, I almost filled my 21 delegates before I got started. And these aren't just books that happen to have been written in Illinois, or by folks who grew up there and then moved on: they are about Illinois (or, most often, about Chicago: people have been trying to figure that "somber city" out for as long as it's represented on-the-make modernity). No wonder the Land of Lincoln was the first state Sufjan Stevens chose, after his native Michigan, for his own quixotic state project (let's see him do one a day, though, not one every few years...). So, overwhelmed, I'm going straight-out canonical again, with hardly even an underdog to be found. You tell me what I've missed, or undervalued: I know it's a lot.

  • The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow: "I am an American, Chicago born--Chicago, that somber city--and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent." A great opening line is like Ruth's called shot: it's the ambition as much as the execution that pleases (although it only pleases because of the execution). Bellow, Montreal-born, takes on a city--and a whole country--and nails it.
  • Herzog by Saul Bellow: From on-the-make Augie to Moses Herzog, wondering what he's made of himself.
  • Native Son by Richard Wright: How fitting that Mississippi is followed by Illinois: Wright's move from Black Boy to Bigger Thomas (though the books were written in the opposite order) was made by millions (cf. St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton's Black Metropolis and Nicholas Lemann's The Promised Land).
  • Speeches and Writings, Volume 1: 1832-1858 by Abraham Lincoln: Much as it pains me to snub the second volume of this Library of America collection, and the great words of his presidency, the local choice has to be this one, which culminates in his seven debates with Stephen Douglas in his losing race for the Senate in 1858.
  • Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years by Carl Sandburg: A few hundred Lincoln biographies later, this unparalleled match of iconic writer and subject (what, you prefer Nathaniel Hawthorne on Franklin Pierce?), abridged here from the original six volumes, is still definitive, in style if not data.
  • Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago by Mike Royko: Another match of icons, with Sandburg's labors to put Lincoln on a pedestal equaled by Royko's to knock Daley off his.
  • Division Street: America by Studs Terkel: The great voice of the city has built his legend by collecting the voices of others. There's plenty of Chicago in his best-known book, Working, but this one, the first of his great oral histories, takes the city head-on at a time (1967) of bitter, well, division.
  • Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser: Boy, I love me some Naturalism. The relentless math of Carrie's rise and Hurstwood's decline are devastating, and strangely enjoyable. For a minor Naturalist favorite, mostly forgotten, also see Henry Blake Fuller's The Cliff-Dwellers, with its tour-de-force opening comparing the skyscrapered Chicago streets to great natural canyons.
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair: The stockyards stripped bare.
  • Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman: The most influential economist since World War II (and the leader of the Chicago School) was a spirited and immensely successful popularizer. The ranks of U of C scholars whose ideas we're still living within are remarkable: John Dewey, Leo Strauss, Enrico Fermi, William Julius Wilson, Allan Bloom, and, yes, ex-con law prof Barack Obama.
  • Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet: Which could be titled, "Capitalism and ___"? You fill in the blank: best answer gets a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. (And yes, the play's most famous line is actually only found in the movie.)
  • Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: I'll confess: one of the only times a review blurb of mine has been quoted on a book is, self-mockingly, on the paperback of Jimmy Corrigan: "'Weighed down by its ambition'--The Stranger". Which I stand by, even as Jimmy has become the Great Graphic Novel of the age. But despite that quote Ware has always been my peer hero, the guy born the same year as me who has the greatest capacity to humble me with his talent and commitment. He's the David Foster Wallace of comics: hilarious, surprisingly tender, overflowing with ability, and holding himself to standards none of the rest of us mortals can even imagine. (And of course, may the similarities end there.)
  • A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace: Speaking of whom, DFW always remained a Midwest boy abroad, and this first collection of essays (still my favorite of his books) includes his memorable pieces on the Illinois State Fair and his teen tennis career in the winds of Champaign-Urbana.
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers: I've never noticed that these two titles, by the two writers dealing most directly with the intersection of irony and earnestness, scanned so similarly until I put them together now...
  • Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers: I kept coming back to Powers in the hope that one of his big puzzle-novels would turn out to be the one that put all his potential together. It turned out to be this one, a brilliant tale (like all of his are) of art and science that folds back on his own autobiography in a deeply affecting way.
  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: I happen to know we'll be seeing this on our guest Texas list too, but I couldn't leave this deceptively spare modern classic of Latina Chicago out of Illinois.
  • Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow: I'm a fan of his more recent Reversible Errors too, but this is the blockbuster that, deservedly, put his Kindle County on the map.
  • The Complete Little Orphan Annie, Volume 1 by Harold Gray: This new reissue series of the Tribune's classic strip is just getting started, with its most pointedly political years still to come.
  • Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks: She real cool.
  • Chicago, City on the Make by Nelson Algren: A brawling, back-street companion to the elegance of E.B. White's Here Is New York. One could easily substitute here Algren's better-known Chicago novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.
  • The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon: One of our favorite novels of 2008 joins 1908 Chicago with post-civil war Bosnia.

More, more, more: Studs Lonigan, Sara Paretsky, The Time Traveler's Wife, Ann Landers, Eight Men Out, the freshly demonized Rules for Radicals, Devil in the White City, Stuart Dybek, Adam Langer, Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Jane Addams... --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: David Kamp on Explainers by Jules Feiffer: "The new anthology 'Explainers,' which ­gathers all of Feiffer’s Village Voice strips from 1956 to 1966, is a welcome reintroduction — or introduction, for the uninitiated — to a great cartoonist who boldly bent his medium to adult purposes long before it was commonplace to do so. As squat and dense as a loaf of spelt bread, this book reproduces the first decade of 'Feiffer' in its entirety, and therefore captures in minute detail the birth and development of a whole new approach to cartooning."
  • Kakutani on The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike: "The passage of time seems to have mellowed the witches and their creator as well, and 'The Widows of Eastwick,' while deeply flawed, is a less tendentious, more emotionally credible work than its predecessor. Mr. Updike is less interested here in scoring didactic points against feminism than he is in exploring the wages of time and age shared by men and women alike."
  • Jean Edward Smith on Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson: "James M. McPherson’s 'Tried by War' is a perfect primer, not just for Civil War buffs or fans of Abraham Lincoln, but for anyone who wishes to under­stand the evolution of the president’s role as commander in chief. Few histo­rians write as well as McPherson, and none evoke the sound of battle with greater clarity. There is scarcely anyone writing today who mines original ­sources more diligently. In 'Tried by War,' McPherson draws on almost 50 years of research to present a cogent and concise narrative of how Lincoln, working against enormous odds, saved the United States of America."

Washington Post:

  • Shashi Tharoor on Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh: "But the fine writing is in service of a larger cause, the reclaiming of a story appropriated for too long by its villains, those who, centuries ago, conquered foreign lands, subjugated and displaced their peoples, replaced their agriculture with cash crops that caused addiction and death, and enforced all this with the power of the gun masked by a rhetoric of civilization.... Ghosh, on behalf of history, is unforgiving, but his novel is also a delight. I can't wait to see what happens to these laborers and seamen, the defrocked raja and the transgendered mystic in the next volume."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Susan Salter Reynolds on The English Major by Jim Harrison: "I believe in Jim Harrison. His last novel, 'Returning to Earth,' was rare and beautiful, with all the wild human nature he reminds us to long for.... But he is too hard on women in this novel, too callous, too shallow, and it makes his very sentence structure choppy and lopsided.... 'The English Major' feels like a novel that has taken too much Viagra. Sure, 'art loves biology,' art needs biology. But need is not the same as love. Need has a different voice. Cliff finds some peace in the end, only by breaking free of his gruff narrator, getting a new dog, finishing his project and giving his penis a rest."
  • Sonja Bolle on ABC3D by Marion Bataille: "'ABC3D' takes my breath away, and seems to have the same effect on everyone who opens it.... The appeal is this: Alphabet books provide a form, like a sonnet. There is a clear structure. There must be an approach, like a musical theme; even if it's as simple as offering one word beginning with each letter, there are 26 variations to perform, all of which have to conform to the aesthetic established with the first letter. An author must get through the whole alphabet, accounting for every letter, even -- especially! -- that tricky X."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Books of the States: Mississippi (6 electoral votes)

Quarter_mississippi_faulkne Okay, we're back on the march. I'm not sure that anyone even noticed our absence (I think it was more like if Bob Barr, not John McCain, had suspended his campaign) but we're tanned, rested, and ready, and we're starting with one of the easiest--or hardest--states, depending on how you look at it. The idea of picking just six books to represent Mississippi is absurd: the state may usually finish near the bottom in education stats, but per capita I think the only ones that can match it for literary firepower are Massachusetts, New York, and neighboring Louisiana (having to limit Washington, D.C., to just three books will be a challenge too). As I mentioned in introducing Pete Melman's Louisiana list, with a state like this you either have to go straight canonical and stick with the icons, or mix it up with some surprises and leave some folks howling (justifiably!) at the ones you left off.

My inclination for these lists is toward the canonical, but I'll throw in a little curveball below (and my honorable mention list would do many other states proud as their first string):

  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner: All right, if you're going to do it, let's do it right: the Faulkneriest Faulkner, the doomful Southern past rising up in a swirl of consciousness and at least one thousand-word sentence. By the way, I ran across a piece on the web about fellow Mississippian Shelby Foote's 1936 review of Absalom, apparently one of the few at the time that recognized its greatness. I mention it because the review begins with one of the best sentences I've read in some time: "The characters of a William Faulkner novel seem to be struggling like monsters seen through a distorting glass, subsisting on some inward reserve of undefeat without air or food." Foote, I should mention, wrote it for a student journal while he was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of North Carolina. Geez.
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: Only six spots, and Bill gets two? Yes. And this weird charmer is a nice appetizer for the great meal of Absalom. I "hated" Faulkner as a youngish reader until this one held my hand and showed me along...
  • The Collected Stories by Eudora Welty: Forty-one tales to put up against anybody's.
  • Black Boy by Richard Wright: Ralph Ellison famously wrote about the hero of Native Son that Richard Wright "could imagine Bigger, but Bigger could not possibly imagine Richard Wright." But in Wright's memoir of self-education against all obstructions, you can see how a young man, hemmed in, could still imagine becoming Richard Wright.
  • Airships by Barry Hannah: The most-admired collection from Welty's successor as the Mississippian master of the short story.
  • Oil Notes by Rick Bass: It's hard to remember, now that Bass has settled so definitively into the Montana wilderness, that he first came on the scene with the stories of Mississippi and Texas in The Watch and this one-of-a-kind memoir of working as a petroleum geologist in Jackson. It's a young book, and, as you can tell from the copy I just pulled out of my shelf for the first time in years, I carried it around a lot with me when I was young. Here's a bit from close to the end:

They're not alike at all, really: writing and geology. There's a deceit in writing; you're trying to pull all the clever elements together and toss out the dull and round-edged ones. Basically, it's building a lie and then swinging the lie's massiveness into the path of the reader and hiding behind it. Curiously, however, in geology, when I pour a cup of coffee and sit down and begin to map, I'm not hiding behind anything; there's no pretense, no deceit, just an inquisitive hunger and innocence where I am neither superior nor inferior to the reader, but am the reader. There's truly an amount of trust. The earth lies there, still, and obeys certain rules. I have faith that I am not going to let myself believe something that is not true. It is perhaps the purest thing I've ever done.

And that personal pick at the end bumps out any number of deserved claimants, which I am embarrassed to be leaving off: Larry Brown, Margaret Walker, Willie Morris, Donna Tartt, Anne Moody, Frederick Barthelme (how I'd love to include Double Down, the bizarre Biloxi gambling memoir written with his brother Steve), Lewis Nordan, Ellen Gilchrist, the aforementioned Mr. Foote, and Last Train from Memphis, that first volume of Guralnick's Elvis bio that I may have to find a way to shoehorn into Tennessee after all. --Tom

National Book Award Nominees Announced

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Here are this year's National Book Award nominees, announced this morning by Scott Turow in Chicago. (I'm including our sales rank, as of about 11 am Pacific time this morning, for each book--I'm curious how those will change as a result of the nominations, so I'll check back in with updates over the next few weeks):

Fiction:

Nonfiction:

Poetry:

Young People's Literature:

As always, I find the field of good American fiction too wide to see many snubs--unlike last year, with Denis Johnson and Junot Diaz, no novel has really stepped forward as a major book this year so far. Probably the best reviewed American novel this year (Netherland), is by a Brit, as are many of my own fiction favorites (My Revolutions, Pravda, The Northern Clemency). I did think Home was very good, and it's good to see Hemon and great to see Rachel Kushner there for her debut (see my interview with her from July). The news on that list (for me at least) is The End, another first novel: I have to confess this is the first I've heard of it, but based on the reviews on our page for it, I want to track down a copy ASAP. There are only five customer reviews so far, but you can hear a chorus of jaws hitting the floor: one "WOW," one "wow," one "WHOA!", one "astonishing," and one "astonished."

On the other lists, we should have a Q&A with Annette Gordon-Reed soon on her book on the Hemings and Jefferson families (or, I should say, family). And on the Young People's list, a lot of people will just be discovering those picks: the last three books have not been released yet (they'll be available this month and next), which helps to explain the low (and in one case nonexistent) sales ranks. And a shout-out to our Lauren Nemroff, who pegged The Underneath as a future award winner on our Best of the Month page back in May.

The winners will be announced on November 19. --Tom

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2008 Booker Prize: The White Tiger

141656259101_mzzzzzzz_ Aravind Adiga just became the third debut novelist (and the first of the three not to include the word "God" in his or her title) to win the Man Booker Prize, for The White Tiger. (He's also the second winner to be younger than me at the time of the award, but who's counting...). The bookies (or, rather, the betting action their odds reflect) are right about the Booker about as often as they are about the Kentucky Derby, and once again the favorite (Sebastian Barry for The Secret Scripture) went home empty. Also among the disappointed was Philip Hensher for The Northern Clemency, which Knopf has moved up to a November pub date in the US, and which I am loving, but now at least when I champion it I won't just look like a Booker bandwagoneer.

The Booker judges said, "In the end, The White Tiger prevailed because the judges felt that it shocked and entertained in equal measure. The novel undertakes the extraordinarily difficult task of gaining and holding the reader's sympathy for a thoroughgoing villain. The book gains from dealing with pressing social issues and significant global developments with astonishing humour." If you're looking for some more graceful praise than that, the Literary Saloon has linked to more than a dozen reviews, mostly raves, although its own review only came out to a B-. The Economist called Adiga "the Charles Dickens of the call-centre generation" and his villainous hero, Balram Halwai, reminded the Independent on Sunday "of the endless talkers that populate the novels of the great Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal," but in the Washington Post, Tony D'Souza heard the echoes instead of "the pop and fluff of The Nanny Diaries irony." The book has also gathered 19 customer reviews on our site, almost all of them glowing, since it came out in the States in April. A new paperback edition, moved up in time for the announcement, was released today: a nice bet by the Free Press, although now they are going to have to update the little sticker that says "Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize." I used the cover image for the original hardcover above, though, because I think it's one of the loveliest of the year. --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Alan Furst on A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre: "Coincidentally, a few weeks after the cold war sat up in its coffin and smiled, John le Carré publishes one of the best novels he’s ever written. Maybe the best, it’s possible. What the hell got into him? Well, not quite 9/11, more its aftermath.... Something said earlier in this review might better be amended. The concept of 'best book' is difficult for the writer and reader; there are too many variables. Truer to say that this is le Carré’s strongest, most powerful novel, which has a great deal to do with its near perfect narrative pace and the pleasure of its prose, but even more to do with the emotions of its audience, what the reader brings to the book." Kakutani last week, not so much: "The moral chiaroscuro and nuanced ambiguities that distinguished his cold war novels give way, in these pages, to a blunter, more predictable story line that lurches, at times, into sentimentality and contrivance."
  • J.R. Moehringer on State by State, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey (did you think I could pass up quoting this one?): "Weiland and Wilsey assembled 50 of America’s finest writers and asked them to contribute essays on the same general theme: why my state is special — or not. The result is a funny, moving, rousing collection, greater than the sum of its excellent parts, a convention of literary super­delegates, each one boisterously nominating his or her piece of the Republic."
  • Elissa Schappell on When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson: "Conclusion: While Atkinson engages us with black humor and rich character development and while Reggie Chase is a delight, the absence of sustained suspense begins to fray our connection to the characters. Sensing perhaps that she’s lollygagging, Atkinson sprints for the last 75 pages, delivering a rushed, overly neat ending that, while cleanly tying up the big threads, leaves many questions about the characters and their futures unanswered. My powers of deduction suggest Atkinson’s 'When Will There Be Good News?' is, and this is just a theory, a setup for the next, and, I trust, more satisfying Jackson Brodie mystery. Of course I don’t have proof. That’s just a guess."

Washington Post:

  • Ron Charles on Serena by Ron Rash: "Serena, the Lady Macbeth of Ron Rash's stirring new novel, wouldn't fret about getting out the damned spot. She wouldn't even wash her hands; she'd just lick it off. I couldn't take my eyes off this villainess, and any character who does ends up dead.... It's too hypnotic to break away from. Innocent people are in peril, and calamity seems as unstoppable as the millions of board feet Pemberton's men send surging down the river. And the final chapter is as flawless and captivating as anything I've read this year, a perfectly creepy shock that will leave you hearing nothing but the wind between the stumps."
  • Donna Foote on Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough: "We don't know how this story will end. Time will tell if Geoffrey Canada has hit on what it will take to break the cycle of poverty in America. In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from the Harlem Children's Zone -- about the power of an idea, the role culture plays in student achievement, accountability, the indomitable human spirit. This book should be on every policymaker's reading list."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Richard Rayner on The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly: "Critics often compare Connelly with Raymond Chandler, a readily comprehensible bracketing -- Chandler was, and Connelly is, the signature Los Angeles crime writer of his era -- but one that, in a way, does neither of them great service.... Chandler had no great command of plot; Connelly is a master of it, teasing out the lines of 'The Brass Verdict' in a seemingly effortless way. Chandler was a romantic, Connelly is a realist who gains power through precision and restraint."
  • Susan Salter Reynolds on Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light: "It's a fair question: Do we really need another book on Bloomsbury? The answer is, resoundingly, yes. Especially 'Mrs. Woolf and the Servants.' Aside from the prurient and too-deep interests of fanatics like myself (a lifelong interest in details sordid and philosophical that rivals my daughter's fascination with 'Gossip Girl'), the fact remains: Without servants, there would have been no Bloomsbury."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Books of the States: Intermission

In our normally scheduled programming, this would be the day for Mississippi, but, like John McCain, I'm going to suspend my campaign for a short time. Not for the sake of the country, but for my sanity. This has been as much fun as I expected (even more so, with all the excellent guest lists coming in), but a little crazier to actually do every single day, so I'm calling a week-long intermission in our march of the states. We'll start again next Monday with Mississippi (all those great books and only six slots to fill?!?) and we have many more excellent guests lined up to share their native expertise in the days to follow, including Heidi Julavits, Kevin Brockmeier, Maud Newton, Cristina Henriquez, Charles Bock, Benjamin Kunkel, Anthony Doerr, and, naturally, the State by State editors themselves, taking on their home states of Minnesota (Matt Weiland) and California (Sean Wilsey--55 electoral votes!).

I reserve the right to call another intermission down the road, Nicholas Nickleby-style (though I will not be serving dinner), if it comes to that. But we will be done by Christmas!

And we'll stay plenty busy on Omnivoracious: it's a big awards week, among many other things, with the Booker winner announced on Tuesday and the National Book Award nominees revealed on Wednesday. And in the meantime, keep writing in books that we've missed in the states we've already done. These lists are all works in progress. Thanks. --Tom

Nobel Prize to Blogger!

Well, we haven't quite gotten to the point where Cory Doctorow or Geoff Manaugh gets the invite to Stockholm, but a sidebar to Paul Krugman's Nobel for Economics win today that I haven't seen mentioned is that this may be the first time the big prize has gone to a prominent blogger (who had a very short post--with a very long comments/congratulations thread--about the news this morning). And of course also a sharply opinionated columnist for the New York Times. Who's next: Frank Rich getting a belated Literature nod for his theater criticism, or the Peace Prize committee continuing their recent green turn by tapping Tom Friedman?

026261086801_mzzzzzzz_ With Krugman prominently in the fray for a solution to the current global meltdown (he's been advocating for a partial bank nationalization that the UK's Gordon Brown has just embraced and our own Hank Paulson appears to be moving toward), this award could not have been thrown more directly in the public mix of the moment. Krugman consciously made a move a while back toward public explanation and advocacy for his ideas while keeping up with his front-line academic work, and you can find his recent public manifestos in the bestsellers The Conscience of a Liberal and The Great Unraveling, but if you want to move further along the point-headed spectrum toward the work on trade and globalization that won him the prize, you could turn to two books of lectures for an academic audience (but still written, say the reviews, with his usual clarity), Geography and Trade and Development, Geography, and Economic Theory. And to go even further into the weeds, might I suggest Rethinking International Trade and Strategic Trade Policy and the New International Economics? And if you want to plunk down a few bills for some macroeconomics homeschooling, there is his standard textbook on the subject, International Economics: Theory and Policy. --Tom

P.S. I just have to point out the top graphic bar the Nobel site uses for their list of previous economics winners (see below) because the three gentlemen pictured (is the guy in the middle Milton Friedman?) look so adorably much like, well, economists. Although I must say most of the econ profs I had in college actually looked a lot more like the bearded Krugman....

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P.P.S. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has (of course) a much more authoritative look at Krugman's various books, if you're looking for the first, or the next, place to start reading.

The Books of the States: Indiana (11 electoral votes)

Quarter_indiana_kinsey When I say "Indiana books" do you say "Booth Tarkington!"? Well I do, which may not be the best advertisement for Indiana books, since when you say "Booth Tarkington" most people say "Who?" (And even if you say "The Magnificent Ambersons," most people, if they said anything, would say "Orson Welles!" Or, if they were me, "Anne Baxter!") But scratch the surface a little and you get a fascinating tour of 20th-century America, including two well-loved writers who brought World War II home (in very different ways) and two of the landmark sociological studies of the midcentury, in honor of one of which I've chosen today's quarter subject, perhaps the least likely to be approved by the United States Mint.

  • Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut: You won't get much argument from me that the book to pick from Indiana's best-known home-grown writer (who no doubt should be on the quarter above) is Slaughterhouse-Five, but Breakfast of Champions is the one of his major books that returns to the midwest: to Midland City, home of that unhinged Pontiac dealer, Dwayne Hoover.
  • The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington: If you take 100 people who have seen Citizen Kane, probably 10 of them have seen The Magnificent Ambersons (even though it's better! Really!). Of those 10, probably one (okay, one if you're lucky) has read Tarkington's original novel, and I'm not that one. But still--I'd like to.
  • Sexual Behavior in the American Male and Sexual Behavior in the American Female by Alfred Kinsey: I'll leave it to someone else to measure the percentage of the world we live in that can be accounted to Kinsey's taboo-obliterating studies, but as he passes from observer to observed, readers might substitute (or at least supplement) with James H. Jones's evenhandedly revelatory recent biography, Kinsey, or T.C. Boyle's Kinsey novel, The Inner Circle.
  • Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture by Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd: What was once "Modern" is now vital history about middle America (specifically, Muncie, Ind.) in the '20s. Meanwhile, can I suggest a new nickname that, I admit, carries none of the mystery or spirit of the current Hoosier one: Indiana, The Studied State?
  • Brave Men by Ernie Pyle: His front-line reporting of the lives of infantrymen--in this collection, those fighting in Europe in 1943 and 1944--made him the best-known World War II correspondent by the time of his death near Okinawa in 1945.
  • Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back by Thomas Geoghegan: One of my favorite books: a one-of-a-kind memoir--funny, romantic, stylish, self-mocking but dead serious--of a Chicago labor lawyer whose biggest case is fighting for steelworker pensions in nearby Gary, Indiana: "Some people think Chicago is a tough town, but compared with Indiana ... well, it's like Burlington, Vermont. And if there is trouble in Chicago, it's Indiana where they dump the body."
  • The Dillinger Days by John Toland: A fellow omnivore with a bit of a thing for the gangsters was first hooked by this fast-paced 1963 classic.
  • Raintree County by Ross Lockridge: What is it about Raintree County, Lockridge's only novel before he took his life at age 33, that makes nearly every person who reviews it type the words "Great American Novel" (see the review quotes and customer reviews on the Amazon page)? Is it the 1088 pages? This would seem a perfect candidate to be a New York Review Books rediscovered classic if Chicago Review Press hadn't stepped in with their own 2007 edition.
  • A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel: Kimmel's bestselling memoir of her small-town childhood is the only representative I have on the list from the new century, but please suggest your own ideas for the best people writing about Indiana today.
  • The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy: Funny just doesn't last: What mid-century humorist could still have four books in print? Cuppy does, thanks to David R. Godine, and though I'm tempted to include How to Attract the Wombat (if only for the beauty of his pointlessly dyspeptic chapter title, "Birds That Can't Even Fly"), I'll go with his most popular book, a cut-'em-down-to-size tour through history's most infamous personalities.
  • A Season on the Brink by John Feinstein: I'm not sure die-hard IU fans will approve, but if John Feinstein is the Bob Woodward (for better or worse) of sports journalism, this open-access account of a year with the shortest fuse in intercollegiate athletics, Bob Knight, was his All the President's Men.

--Tom

The Books of the States: Louisiana (9 electoral votes; Guest: Peter Charles Melman)

Quarter_louisiana_chopin Louisiana, with almost as much per capita power in book-writing (and book-inspiring) as music-making, is one of those midsize states where you could fill up their book delegation with strictly iconic material. And god knows if I was doing the choosing that's what we'd end up with: a list of books you all could nod and say you'd heard of and maybe even read. So my thanks to Peter Charles Melman, our guest nominator for the Pelican State (can't a state as lively as Louisiana do better than that for a nickname?), for finding the right balance between familiar but undeniable and lesser-known but necessary. Even if he did knock my dear, dear Moviegoer off the list at the last moment: that's ice cold, Pete.

158243414x01_mzzzzzzz_ Pete was born in New York and has recently moved back there as part of the Great Brooklyn Writer Migration of the 00s, but he spent his teens in Lafayette, LA, and returned there for grad school in writing. And he returned again in his first novel, Landsman, a boisterous story of a rogue's redemption during the Civil War, sparked by his learning (from one of our other guest nominators, Tony Horwitz, as it happens) of the many Jews who fought for the Confederacy. (You can read our Q&A on the book from last year.) Here's his guided tour of literary Louisiana:

  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin: Certainly literature has the power to move and delight, but I find that few novels actually deserve to be called "important." Chopin's novella, The Awakening, however, is as important a piece of fiction as you'll likely come across. Written in 1899, it details the emotional dislocation of Edna Pontellier, a woman so oppressed by the Creole Victorian culture into which she's married that she possesses neither the vocabulary to express her need for independence, nor the ability to truly understand it. Tragic, beautiful, and yep, important.
  • The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld by Herbert Asbury: Thank God for Herbert Asbury, the unapologetic yellow journalist from the 1930s who, a few years before publishing this masterpiece on the bawdiness and tawdriness of the Vieux Carré, wrote The Gangs of New York. Asbury never met a descriptive adjective he didn't like, and his obvious love for dirty sex, tainted booze, pistol-whippings, and municipal corruption makes for a rollicking good time. Everything you ever wanted to know about the history of New Orleans depravity, but were afraid to ask your parish priest.
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: While we're thanking God, let's show Him some appreciation for Walker Percy. Now, while his The Moviegoer came close to making my list — and I'm sure some will howl that it didn't — I do think it's critical to mention him. If for nothing else than for the wisdom he showed in humoring John Kennedy Toole's mother and actually reading, then publishing, the yellowed manuscript she planted on his desk at LSU. That manuscript was her dead son's sprawling novel, and would one day become, among other things, the most purchased used book at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan. A Confederacy of Dunces is everything you've heard it to be: masterfully, if maniacally, crafted, at times offensive, at times tender, poignant as hell, ferociously funny. And if you've ever eaten a Bourbon Street Lucky Dog at 3:00 a.m., and have lived to tell about it, you know full well that Ignatius J. Reilly's fetishism is well-justified.
  • Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus: Andre Dubus could write. Goddamn, could he write. It doesn't matter that he spent much of his adult life in Massachusetts, where he died too young at 62; he was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, grew up in my adopted-hometown of Lafayette, and a few of the stories in this marvelous collection are set there, so in my book, he's a Louisiana boy, through and through. True, many of Dubus's themes flirt with conventionalism — adultery, faith, guilt — but the subtlety and sophistication with which he engages them lets you know immediately you're reading a master. What's more, literature runs rich in his family veins: his cousin, James Lee Burke, author of the Edgar Award-winning Dave Robicheaux mystery series, certainly deserves mention, as does his son, Andre Dubus III, author of the National Book Award finalist, House of Sand and Fog.
  • Bloodline by Ernest J. Gaines: Since we're discussing short story collections, I've got to acknowledge Nobel Prize-nominee and my former thesis adviser at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Ernest J. Gaines. As laconic as a stump, yet warmly so, Mr. Gaines offers in Bloodline a glimpse into one African-American community's struggle to maintain dignity in a world that would have otherwise. Mr. Gaines's "The Sky is Gray," an abbreviated bildungsroman of sorts, perhaps best typifies his work: regional in its style, universal in its ambition. When reading his work, you can almost feel Gaines's hope that whatever integrity he possesses — and he possesses much, I assure you — will flow ungoverned from his fountain pen onto his yellow legal pad (his preferred method of writing).
  • The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon by Clara Solomon: I came across Elliott Ashkenazi's edited Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon while researching a project of my own, and was shocked to discover that the sixteen-year-old Sephardic Jewess, Clara Solomon, was as neurotic as any youth of today, if about four hundred times as eloquent. My God, the phrases this girl was capable of crafting; mind you, many of them are as purple as the languorous Louisiana dusk, heaving with cloudbursts over the all-too-parched earth, but often gorgeously so. That said, for an account of civilian life in New Orleans before and during the Civil War, especially if for some arcane reason you happen to be seeking to view it through a Jewish lens, there can't be a finer resource.
  • Alligator Sue by Sharon Arms Doucet and Anne Wilsdorf: Beyond the fact that a copy of this State Library of Louisiana Young Readers' Choice Award is inscribed to my one-year-old son, Charles Vilmos, by "[his] Louisiana friend, Sharon Arms Doucet," Alligator Sue delightfully calls into question just who we are and how we let others define us. De rigueur for young reading, perhaps, but any story with a heroine named Suzanne Marie Sabine Chicot Thibodeaux — Sue, for short — who gets raised by Mama Coco, a particularly forgiving alligator, is absolutely worth sharing. Just ask Charles Vilmos.
  • A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler: Although I can see how some might consider Bob Butler's voicey, 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection to be cultural poaching, the Vietnamese immigrant population he appropriates in Good Scent generally comes across as lovingly and sensitively embraced. These stories are tender and sincere, and "Fairy Tale," one of the best in the collection, tackles head-on the worn trope of White Man Saves Non-White Whore in a way that, despite the odds, works wonderfully. Aside from setting the stories in Louisiana, Butler taught at McNeese State University in Lake Charles from 1985 to 2000, over a decade after serving as an intelligence office in the Vietnam War.
  • All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren: Folks in Louisiana still like their politics, though without the same passion for the heretical that they used to. As a result, no discussion of Louisiana, either of its literature or of its politics, is complete without honoring Robert Penn Warren’s brilliant roman à clef, All the King's Men. Based on irreverent governor Huey P. Long's life, as seen through the guise of fictional Willie Stark, Penn Warren's novel is as much an investigation of the classical notion of hubris as it is mid-twentieth century Louisianan politics.  In short, it's not to be missed, even if the novel itself is anything but short. At 600 pages, Penn Warren, professor at LSU from 1933 to 1942, makes you earn it. Still, if you're not sure your attention span can handle a tome that thick, give a listen to ol' Willie: "Dirt's a funny thing, come to think of it, there ain't a thing but dirt on this green God's globe except what's under water, and that's dirt too. It's dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain't a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt." Ah yes, Southern literature.

Nobel Prize for Literature: Europe It Is!

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The Swedes put their money, all 10 million kroner of it, where their chairman's mouth was, awarding the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio of France. Le Clézio was a bit of an underdog (14/1 odds from the bookies, I believe), and pretty much a complete unknown in the "insular" U.S., but he is a big deal at home: in 1994, according to Time, he was voted the best writer in the French language (although he said he would have voted for Julien Gracq). The Nobel committee called him an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization," and Le Clézio himself, who has led a nomadic life in Africa, Central America, and elsewhere (including Albuquerque these days) after spending much of his childhood in Nigeria, has said

Western culture has become too monolithic. It places the greatest possible emphasis on its urban and technical side, thus preventing the development of other forms of expression — religiosity and feelings, for example. The entire unknowable part of the human being is obscured in the name of rationalism. It is my awareness of this that has pushed me toward other civilizations.

I'll defer to the Literary Saloon for much of the coverage--they are on their game today, having already pulled review quotes all the way back to the 60s for many of his books--but the best piece I've found on him so far is Lev Grossman's in Time. Also see coverage from the New York Times and USA Today, and the Nobelers own bio-bibliography.

It looks like only five of his many works are currently in print in English translations:

Leclezio_interrogators_200 We've put together a more complete list of his English translations and French originals on our site. There was an earlier wave of translations in the 60s and 70s, when Le Clézio first became famous, and we have used copies of many of those available (including a copy of his debut, The Interrogation (with its excellent, very French New Wavey cover), going at last check for $575). Hey, is that the author himself on the cover? Based on this equally glamorous Cartier-Bresson photo of the author and his wife (found here), I think it must be:

Cleziocartierbresson

But it looks like the books most frequently mentioned as his most important haven't made it into English yet. The Nobel committee cites Désert, which "contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert, contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants," as his "definitive breakthrough as a novelist." And according to USA Today, when the committee chair was asked to recommend a book to start reading Le Clézio with, "he suggested the autobiographical 2003 novel Revolutions," which has been translated into Swedish and German, but not yet into English. --Tom

P.S. This just gives me one more chance to post the greatest author award reaction of all time, Doris Lessing getting the Nobel news last year:

The Books of the States: Ohio (20 electoral votes)

Quarter_ohio_morrison I have to confess: I came pretty close to feeling that I had failed Ohio. This big battleground state is alloted 20 delegates, and I was scuffling a bit to get to that number. But somehow, remembering that Bill Waterson was from, of all places, Chagrin Falls, OH, made me feel a little better about my list, though it took me an extra day to get it on the blog and, as is my refrain, I am sure there are blind spots (or just plain old errors in judgment) that can be remedied with your help.

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison: Burdened now with being the Great Novel of Our Time (and being assigned as required reading for a generation--just read some of our cranky customer reviews), but to my mind it's still worth all the praise it's gotten, if we could somehow chip away at the encrustation of honors and come back to it fresh again.
  • Sula by Toni Morrison: A slim but no less powerful companion.
  • Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant: A failed businessman, a great general, a mostly lousy president, and, at the end of it all, one of the finest American autobiographers.
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson: Another literary monument that can surprise you with its strangeness (that Wing Biddlebaum still haunts me).
  • The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson: Is there any piece of American art about whose sheer awesomeness there is such unanimous agreement?
  • My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber: Ohio is not only the birthplace of presidents, but of New Yorker writers. This short and charming memoir looks back on his formative years in Columbus: "Nobody from Columbus has ever made a first-rate wanderer in the Conradean tradition. Some of them have been fairly good at disappearing for a few days to turn up in a hotel in Louisville with a bad headache and no recollection of how they got there, but they always scurry back."
  • Family by Ian Frazier: My favorite New Yorker writer has always identified himself as a guy from Ohio while making a career out of writing about his adopted homes (the Great Plains, New York City, and soon Siberia). But in Family he excavated generations of his roots with his usual odd and sympathetic humor.
  • Saturday Night by Susan Orlean: Yet another New Yorker Ohioan. She has yet to write her Ohio book, but in this first collection she kept to more domestic locations, observing Saturday night rituals across the U.S.
  • The History of the Standard Oil Company by Ida Tarbell: This still-riveting expose of the tentacles of Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust, hq'd in Cleveland, could be paired with Titan, Ron Chernow's recent acclaimed John D. Rockefeller bio.
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass: Gass's stubbornly elegant essays and his long-labored-over would-be masterpiece, The Tunnel, have come to overshadow this early collection of formalist gems, of which the breathtaking novella, "The Pederson Kid," is enough to put him on any list you are making.
  • Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner: Before being given the keys to the Godfather franchise by the Puzo estate (with surprising success), Winegardner tackled the Great Cleveland Novel, earning comparisons to Franzen and Doctorow.
  • Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove: The former Poet Laureate's most celebrated collection is this "low-key epic" (to quote one of our customer reviewers) based on her grandparents' migration north to Akron.
  • American Splendor by Harvey Pekar: Pekar, who joined with a series of artists to open comics to the autobiographical everyday, has met every embrace from the mass culture with his usual sour skepticism and has kept his focus intensely local on his life in Cleveland.
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny: Obviously, like all the Ohioan SF/fantasy master's work, not set anywhere close to Ohio, but our reviewer called this 1967 Hugo winner Zelazny's "finest work, ... a huge, lumbering, magical story."
  • M.C. Higgins the Great by Virginia Hamilton: Our Emile Coulter said this story of environmental destruction, which swept the Newbery, the National Book Award, and the Horn Book Award for children's lit, "has a power that runs deeper than the coal seam snaking through M.C.'s mountain."
  • New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver: Oliver has long called New England home, but much of her poetry still calls on her suburban Cleveland childhood.
  • In the Blind by Eugene Marten: I found out about this stylishly terse tale of a life on the margins from customer Erin O'Brien's Best Cleveland Fiction Writers Listmania on our site.
  • Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock: This 2008 debut knocked out our own Jon Foro, who expressed his admiration in terms far more visceral than I could conjure: "Pollock pulls no punches--his prose is blunt and visceral, as well as stylish and skilled--and reading these mini grand guignols can be like crunching on a mouthful of your own broken teeth."
  • The Zane Grey Frontier Trilogy by Zane Grey: The pride of Zanesville, OH, and likely the bestselling Ohio writer of all time, looked further west for most of his subjects, but he based these early books on his own family history, when Ohio was itself the frontier.
  • The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank by Erma Bombeck: Perhaps Grey's sales runner up among Ohio authors, Bombeck parlayed weekly columns for her suburban paper into one of the most popular syndicated columns of the 60s and 70s and a series of bestselling collections. As a 70s kid I thought this title was hilarious even before I knew what a septic tank was.

--Tom

The Books of the States: Tennessee (11 electoral votes)

Quarter_tennessee_agee The problem--the only problem--with a wonderful guest post like John Jeremiah Sullivan's on Kentucky yesterday is that now I have to follow it. So I apologize in advance for my carpetbagging attempt to represent the state of Tennessee. That said, I found plenty of good books to include, so much so that I'm having trouble limiting my list to just 11 (in fact, I failed). But no doubt I've missed many others; please add your own. Here goes:

  • A Death in the Family by James Agee: The passionate variety of Agee's short career makes him prime for rediscovery again and again. Sainted for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (look for it when we get to Alabama), he can be reclaimed for his movie criticism, and recredited for his work on that great, weird film, The Night of the Hunter. A Death in the Family is his only novel and his most Tennessean book; unlike most of his other work, it was acclaimed when it first appeared, winning the Pulitzer. That was too late for Agee, though, who was already dead at the age of 45.
  • Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick: If limiting oneself to 11 books for Tennessee is hard, just think of the trouble in selecting a similar list of music. And what are the music books on Memphis and Nashville? Guralnick's classic on the rise and fall of Memphis's Stax Records is an obvious choice, although I was tempted to go instead with Careless Love, the second, Graceland-era half of his masterful Elvis biography (I'm saving the first volume for Mississippi, although space is going to be tough for that state).
  • I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by Twelve Southerners: The legendary group manifesto from the Agrarians, a movement that organized at Vanderbilt in the '20s and '30s. Some of its members, like Robert Penn Warren, later distanced themselves, and they were often dismissed as mere Old South nostalgists, but people will still be reading this collection in a hundred years, and not only because it encapsulated a movement and a moment so well.
  • The Children by David Halberstam: Halberstam cut his reporter's teeth covering the early Civil Rights movement for the Nashville Tennessean, and he returned to the story four decades later with this account of the young activists, led by James Lawson, who organized the Nashville sit-ins and went on to become some of the best-known civil rights leaders of the '60s.
  • Suttree by Cormac McCarthy: The culmination of what everyone calls McCarthy's Faulkner period, before he set out for the Western borderlands and immortality.
  • A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor: Taylor, a master of the short form, found late success (and a Pulitzer) with his second novel, whose story hinges, in great and knowing detail, on the social differences between Nashville and Memphis.
  • The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett: The best-known Tennessee writer of our day has set most of her novels elsewhere (e.g., South America). Although her second novel, Taft, does take place in Memphis, I'll choose her well-loved first one, set just over the border in Kentucky.
  • Poetry and the Age by Randall Jarrell: At Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, they regularly ask well-known critics to recommend the five books they would put in their own Critical Library. Again and again the critics have chosen Jarrell's 1953 collection, Poetry and the Age: so much so that former NBCC president John Freeman was moved to reassess that lost (but clearly not forgotten) classic.
  • Waylon: An Autobiography by Waylon Jennings: We've covered Memphis music, but what about Nashville? You could go with Nicholas Dawidoff's In the Country of Country (although he makes a point to search out country music beyond Nashville) or Charles K. Wolfe's A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry--or an even better book I don't know about---but I'm partial to this memoir by a Texan turned Nashville outlaw, which I came across on a vacation-home shelf a few years back and immediately put aside whatever I was reading so I could dive in.
  • On Lynching by Ida B. Wells-Barnett: This fearless crusader, who refused to move to the colored train car (and bit the conductor who tried to budge her!) 71 years before Rosa Parks, stirred up so much ire with her Memphis newspapering that she had to move to Chicago, where she published the famous anti-lynching pamplets collected here.
  • Shiloh by Shelby Foote: Foote wrote first about the war that would become his great subject in this fictional foot-soldiers' account of the pivotal west Tennessee battle.
  • Kinflicks by Lisa Alther: A bestselling novel of second-wave feminism that follows a young Tennessee woman to college in New England and back. It's fallen out of print, but Doris Lessing's comparison of its "salty" humor to Tom Jones makes me want to track down a copy.
  • Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson: Larson won a 1998 Pulitzer for this history that overturned the Inherit the Wind myths about the "monkey trial," recalling the small-town boosterism and bizarre theatrics of the events in Denton Dayton, TN.
  • And how can you have a Tennessee book list without its most famous son, Andrew Jackson? I'm not sure what the best book on Old Hickory is (Schlesinger's Age of Jackson? Robert Remini's three-volume biography?), but the timing is right to pencil in American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, upcoming from Newsweek editor and fellow Tennesseean Jon Meacham.

Well, there you have 14 already, and that's without mentioning that The Firm is set in Memphis... --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

Omm_100608

New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Garrison Keillor on Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes: "Julian Barnes, an atheist turned agnostic, has decided at the age of 62 to address his fear of death — why should an agnostic fear death who has no faith in an afterlife? How can you be frightened of Nothing? On this simple question Barnes has hung an elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter.... I don’t know how this book will do in our hopeful country, with the author’s bleak face on the cover, but I will say a prayer for retail success. It is a beautiful and funny book, still booming in my head."
  • Maslin on Serena by Ron Rash: "'Serena' is Ron Rash’s fourth novel. For those unfamiliar with the elegantly fine-tuned voice of this Appalachian poet and storyteller, a writer whose reputation has been largely regional despite an O. Henry Prize and other honors, it will prompt instant interest in his first, second and third."
  • Alex Kuczynski on A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce by Alec Baldwin: "As brilliant an actor as Baldwin can be, his comic acuity may be so keen partly because we associate him in real life with a darker, more dolorous personality. His new book, 'A Promise to Ourselves,' is a treatise on how the family law system in America is broken, and why it should be changed. It is a serious book, masquerading as a manifesto but eventually turning into a desperately sad memoir, layered beneath the polemic, about the failure of Baldwin’s marriage and his estrangement from his only child. It’s the curse of the comic not to be taken seriously when he or she wants to be serious."
  • James Traub on Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq: "'Tell Me How This Ends' is the first book about this new Iraq. It’s a first-rate piece of work, probing and conscientious, though reading a good-news book about one of America’s all-time bad-news stories can take some getting used to.... You cannot help being struck by the radical difference between Bush and his world, and Petraeus and his. The ­55-year-old general is a superachiever who took on all the toughest training assignments and came away with the ­medals, a perfectionist who demands as much from others as from himself and a deeply reflective figure — he has a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton — who continually adapts to the lessons of experience. Petraeus puts no special store by his gut intuitions; in Iraq, he surrounded himself with junior officers as analytical, and as driven, as he is. Robinson singles out as his greatest gift not leadership but 'intellectual rigor,' which compelled him 'to mount a sustained effort to understand the problem.'"

Washington Post:

  • Jonathan Yardley on A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre: "As one who has reviewed his work for more than three decades, always with admiration and at times with unfettered enthusiasm, I'd place A Most Wanted Man toward the lower end of the 21 novels he has now written. It is intelligent, of course, and immensely informative about espionage and the people who engage in it, but its prose occasionally is flabby (especially when the heroine is involved), the feelings its central characters have for each other are utterly unconvincing, and it ends on a note of clichéd, knee-jerk anti-Americanism that I find repellent. Now in his late 70s, le Carré perhaps has earned the right to phone a novel in, and phoned-in is what this one is."
  • Amy Wilentz on Michelle: A Biography by Liza Mundy: "It's an odd beast, neither tabloid nor tome, less a biography than a clip-job that incorporates interviews and profiles by many other journalists, along with interviews that Mundy did in Chicago.... Even though this is a quickie book meant to capitalize on the public's current interest in Michelle Obama, it also manages, quietly and implicitly, to discount the paranoid fulminations that she has often inspired, especially among right-wing commentators."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Laurel Maury on The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones: "[C]ritics and pundits were weighing in on a work that almost no one had seen. So what exactly is the book like? 'The Jewel of Medina' is a second-rate bodice ripper or, rather, a second-rate bodice ripper-style romance (it doesn't really have sex scenes). It's readable enough, but it suffers from large swaths of purple prose. Paragraphs read like ad copy for a Rudolph Valentino movie.... I suspect Jones wanted to write a feminist text, sort of Islam 101 for the post-'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' generation. I can't say whether, from a religious point of view, 'The Jewel of Medina' is worth the anguish it's caused, but as literature, it's a misstep-ridden, pleasant-enough mediocrity."
  • Thane Rosenbaum on What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire by Antonio Lobo Antunes: "Lobo Antunes has taken stream of consciousness to a new extreme. 'What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?' is a rushing river of interior reflection, piercing imagery and excruciating shame. The debt owed to Faulkner is apparent, with his cerebral self-awareness and utter disregard of narrative and grammatical convention. Yet, this is most assuredly not your grandmother's Faulkner -- Lobo Antunes is Faulkner on crack. 'What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?' is a novel of abundant ambition and astonishing grace, reaffirming the author's reputation as a master stylist with a uniquely original voice."

 

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Books of the States: Kentucky (8 electoral votes; Guest: John Jeremiah Sullivan)

Quarter_kentucky_merton_2 I'm already on record in this cross-country wander as being once narrowly diverted from a career of horseplaying and a subscriber to Harper's, so it's perhaps no surprise that I recall vividly "Horseman, Pass By," John Jeremiah Sullivan's lengthy 2002 piece from that magazine on his father, a sportswriter, and Kentucky horse racing. The article won a National Magazine Award and later grew into Blood Horses, a book about fathers and horses that one review called "As unconventionally lovely a book as you are likely to read for some time."

His State by State essay is also lovely and unconventional: steering clear of the travelogue or personal reminiscence for a profile of Constantine Rafinesque, an eccentric polymath genius (hmm, sounds like Guy Davenport--see below), born in the Ottoman Empire who became a botany professor at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., in the early 19th century before, according to legend cited by Wikipedia (and it doesn't get more authoritative than that!), leaving the university with a curse upon its halls, which were soon destroyed by fire. Here is a representative passage from that piece, concerning Native American earthen mounds:

There are a few places left in Kentucky, mostly on family farms, where you can see them as Rafinesque did, geometric land sculptures covered with grass, half in the field and half in the forest. Rafinesque declares it "high time that these monuments should all be accurately surveyed" and undertakes the work himself. But the book he produces, The American Nations, is worthless, an interminable pseudo-scholarly unfolding of his theories on the origin of New World societies, which he contends sprang from a voyage of Mediterranean
ür-colonizers, the Atalantes. On and on, lineages of chiefs, names, dates, for thousands of years, information that would change everything, had Rafinesque actually possessed it, had he not somehow himself been able to sit there and endure the sheer tedium of inventing it. And then, not content with fraud, he descends to forgery, cooking up an entire migration saga for the Lenape Indian tribe, one that corroborates to a striking extent his ideas about prehistory.

031242376401_mzzzzzzz_ Sullivan, who was an editor at Harper's and now contributes to GQ, was born, like Hunter S. Thompson, in Louisville, and is even more qualified to make this selection than I'd thought, as he was the lucky one to do the Paris Review interview (not online, unfortunately) with Davenport, the singular man he calls below "the magician of Lexington," a South Carolina native who accepted an appointment at the University of Kentucky in 1963 and became a reason all by himself to read Kentucky. But not the only reason: pound for pound, I'm not sure any other state will be able to match the eight books he's chosen below for interest, locality, and strange variety:

  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer: Packer: Okay, born in Chicago, but grew up in Louisville and was graduated high school there. Has been described as "Louisville's" in the Courier-Journal--we can claim her. I remember when "Brownies" came out in Harper's in 1999, the atmosphere of newly arrived talent. Her novel about buffalo soldiers leaving the south and going west is one of the things to look forward to in American fiction.
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton: When things shake out, Merton's may be one of the minds we'll have to try to understand if we want to say what happened to the West in the twentieth century. Born in France, he was a theologian who spoke from inside of doubt. Also a singular writer. This, his greatest book, is a retelling of the Purgatorio, in the form of his own memoirs, taking for its Paradise a Trappist monastery in the bourbon country of Central Kentucky, where Merton spent most of the last thirty years of his life. (John Haskell must be aware of this parallel, in his own American Purgatorio, when he has the narrator drift down to Lexington; if not it's another mystery of that amazing novel.) Merton's journals of the Gethsemani years are good reading, too. Some time ago when they were published I took a magazine assignment to spend a week there, at the abbey, in silence, doing nothing but read them, and then review them. It was a foolhardy thing to do. The level of concentration made possible by that existence I found almost unbearable. Also the journals themselves are very lonely. He writes of his strange and obscure affair, a monk's affair, with a nurse in Lexington, who took care of him after a surgery. They were exposed--the abbot was reading her letters. Merton turned from this to an even deeper solitude.
  • Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick: By far the saddest Lexington in literature is the one drowsily conjured in the early pages of this book. Hardwick died last year. She was a true stylist. Sleepless Nights is her purest exercise in style, told with the hypnotized-seeming confessionalism of the insomniac. It's impossible to forget this melancholy book.
  • Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices by Robert Penn Warren: Robert "Red" Warren. Born Guthrie, Kentucky, in 1905. Fugitive Poet, Southern Agrarian, New Critic, famous novelist, famously tormented about race, finally something beyond that. I admire most his formal innovations. The stuff in the middle of All the King's Men, for instance, the Cass Mastern section: Warren inserted a small, perfect, extremely complex historical novella into the middle of what's otherwise a fully functioning political thriller. It's like you're crossing the river, and the water in one little place in the channel flows the other way. But Brother to Dragons is the obvious pick here. It may be the most authentically Kentucky book since Filson's Discovery and Present Settlement. Essentially a story about what happened to America's ember of the Enlightenment when we tried to carry it west. (Very violent things.) It's a play, a novel, a poem, also a work of scholarship. One of those weird unplaceable American hybrid books, like something Paul Metcalf might have written, if Metcalf had been a romantically wounded Southerner and not Melville's great-grandson.
  • Lost Mountain by Erik Reece: A book about a controversial mining practice in use throughout the Appalachian coal country, known as mountain-topping. Instead of digging into the mountain, you blow off the top of it with explosives, then scoop out the coal, showering toxic debris into the rivers and streams. You turn the flattened peak into a golf course, or a "nature preserve" full of introduced plants. Reece sets out to answer a simple question: What would it be like to see a mountain older than the Himalayas die? He actually got the name of one, Lost Mountain, which had been targeted for this radical practice, and spent a year returning to the place, taking along one kind of expert or another--a botanist, a geologist--so that he would *know* this mountain when they detonated it. And then he does watch that happen. A powerful book. It gets into the complexities. Lots of Kentuckians in the counties where this takes place argue that the companies make jobs, and less dangerous ones, but Reece is persuasive in maintaining that no industry poisonous to its own workers' ecological communities can ever really be good for the local economy.
  • The Death of Picasso by Guy Davenport: Prof. Davenport, the magician of Lexington (also Erik Reece's teacher at the University of Kentucky, it seems perverse not to add). His death a few years ago left a void. He was one of the last flickerings of that American modernist luminescence, the generations of writers who felt you had to hold the tradition in your head as a unified thing before you could even begin to speak about it. The effort warped many of them. It helped Guy that he was a certified genius polymath. He came to be at ease in whatever floating chamber he shared with Basho and Wittgenstein and Hugo Grotius and a couple of Greeks. In there he somehow devised a private postmodernism. You were welcome to sit and prompt him at the house in Bell Court, if you wanted. I remember one strange thing: he always burned his trash in the fireplace. That's not done anymore so close to the center of town. I nominate The Death of Picasso from among his astounding collections of essays because it contains this Kentucky scene, in a piece about Lèvi-Strauss called "The Anthropology of Table Manners":

The best display of manners on the part of a restaurant I have witnessed was at the Imperial Ramada Inn in Lexington, Kentucky, into the Middle Lawrence Welk Baroque dining room of which I once went with the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (disguised as a businessman), the Trappist Thomas Merton (in mufti, dressed as a tobacco farmer with a tonsure), and an editor of Fortune who had wrecked his Hertz car coming from the airport and was covered in spattered blood from head to toe. Hollywood is used to such things (Linda Darnell having a milk shake with Frankenstein's monster between takes), and Rome and New York, but not Lexington, Kentucky. Our meal was served with no comment whatever from the waitresses, despite Merton's downing six martinis and the Fortune editor stanching his wounds with all the napkins.

  • That Distant Land: Collected Stories by Wendell Berry: Any list of Kentucky writers that didn't include Berry would be from space. He is Kentucky writers. Also a culture hero to many for his back-to-the-land politics. He's one of the only people who's tried to go into that old 1930s Agrarian ethos and strip out the junk, the racial ideology and the medieval nostalgia, etc., and see if there's still something workable there. I like him best for the quiet forward pressure and almost funereal polish of his prose. That's very northern Kentucky somehow. They don't interrupt each other there. This collection includes a story of his that I love, "The Solemn Boy," sort of a mood piece. The name of one of its characters, Tol Proudfoot, reminds me of a curious thing you learn in Guy Davenport's The Geography of the Imagination, in his essay about J.R.R. Tolkien, which is that Tolkien, who taught languages at Oxford, had a former student of his land at a small college in Kentucky, and Tolkien used to amuse and puzzle this person by asking him to send his old professor last year's phonebook, when the new ones came out, because he liked the old Anglo-Saxon names, Barefoot and Baggins and whatnot, and needed them for something he was writing.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other American Stories by Hunter S. Thompson: This is number eight, so also the moment when the obscenity of all I'm leaving out becomes hardest to ignore (everything that Chris Offutt has written, for starters, but especially No Heroes, his strange mountain memoir, a Kentucky homecoming story both experienced and told through the gauze of someone else's holocaust memories; and there's Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands; also John Robert Shaw, the eighteenth-century well-digger whose Narrative of Thirty Years is largely a recounting of the several times he accidentally exploded himself with dynamite at the bottom of a well and almost died--that book ends like no other I know, with two obituaries for its author, the first false, coming after a spectacular blast when the editors thought it impossible for Shaw to survive and went to press prematurely, the second real, when he finally did perish, in yet another explosion!). But the delegate from Kentucky must be Hunter S. Thompson, R.I.P. 2005. Funny that he and Guy Davenport died so close together in time. I don't know if they were ever in a room together, at some Kentucky Writers thing or whatever. It would have been uncomfortable. But they knew a lot of the same gods, as Guy would have said. This edition of Fear and Loathing includes Thompson's "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," in which he took the gonzo torch from Terry Southern. Whatever you think of where Thompson's writing went, that piece remains pure pleasure.

Nobel Week: It's Europe vs. the USA Already

039303923401_mzzzzzzz_ Okay, I'm starting to sound like a WWF announcer (are you ready ruuuuuuumble?) but it is funny that the same Nobel season in which the Swedish chair of the literature prize committee asserted that Americans were not up to European standards saw the first award of the week, for Medicine, go to the French researchers whose claim to discovering the AIDS virus was embroiled in dispute with an American researcher, Robert Gallo, who was not included in today's award. I make no claims to being able to adjudicate the science of the controversy (despite growing up in a National Institutes of Health family, where my dad and Gallo both worked), but it does seem that despite Gallo's "disappointment" at not joining his French colleagues, the controversy (which required at one point an agreement between President Reagan and Prime Minister Chirac) has cooled and the scientific consensus has settled that Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier do have the legitimate claim to first scientific dibs here. Even Anthony Fauci, a high-profile administrator at NIH, "agreed there's no doubt the French scientists first identified the virus. He said they, and zur Hausen [who shared the award for his work on cervical cancer], deserved the Nobel. Fauci said that if additional researchers could have been included, Gallo 'would have been an obvious choice to be added to that list.'"

046509815001_mzzzzzzz_ If you want to return to the bitter days of this '80s scientific controversy (carried on amid the general panic, anger, and shame surrounding the AIDS crisis), NBC's Robert Bazell has a short summary, and you can also visit our contentious customer review section for John Crewdson's Science Fictions: A Scientific Mystery, a Massive Cover-up and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo (whose take on Gallo is obvious from its subtitle). Gallo and Montagnier also wrote their own versions of the discovery and dispute: Gallo in Virus Hunting: AIDS, Cancer, and the Human Retrovirus: A Story of Scientific Discovery and Montagnier in Virus: The Co-Discoverer of HIV Tracks Its Rampage and Charts the Future. --Tom

The Books of the States: Vermont (3 electoral votes)

Quarter_vermont_jackson Vermont didn't fall into place as easily for me as Rhode Island did. Maybe because the state has always been full of people who decamped for the woods from NYC and elsewhere--I have to confess the list I ended up with is too. I like the three I came to choose, but I would love to hear what someone rooted there thinks we should be reading about the Green Mountain State.

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: Legend apparently has it (and apparently has it wrong) that Jackson wrote "The Lottery" on returning home one day in North Bennington, VT (where her husband taught at Bennington College), after being pelted with rocks by kids in the village. I was set to pick The Lottery and Other Stories, but was swayed by Jonathan Lethem, who always strikes me as just about the best reader in the United States of America, and who claims We Have Always Lived in the Castle, another expression of--to put it mildly--discomfort with village life, is her true masterpiece. And I'm sure The Haunting of Hill House or her Erma Bombeck-with-an-edge memoir, Life Among the Savages, would have their supporters too. (By the way, the Penguin Book Club at Amazon just finished discussing We Have Always as their summer book.)
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt: My friend and colleague Brad Parsons would have my head if I didn't include this favorite, another fictional version of Bennington, this time veiled as Hampden College. That's not far from "Camden College," the thin disguise that her fellow grad Bret Easton Ellis gave it in The Rules of Attraction, and there's also a Bennington section, full of Ellisian decadence, in Lethem's Fortress of Solitude.
  • Hoagland on Nature by Edward Hoagland: This is a personal pick: my favorite thing about my Harper's subscription has become the pleasure of seeing Hoagland's byline once a year or so and then getting up to my elbows in one of his long, meandering essays that take some announced subject as the occasion for endless and fruitful detours through wherever his sentences lead him, often to the yearly rhythms of his rural VT environs. I'm not sure the sense of a writer thinking is ever stronger.

These three-book states are tough. Among the others that could argue for a place here:

  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner's much-loved last novel, which centers around yearly summer-home reunions by a Vermont pond.
  • Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers: Rockwell, so identified with small-town America, was born and raised in New York City, but he spent much of the peak of his career living and drawing in Arlington, VT.
  • Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991 by Hayden Carruth: Of all the urban transplants to Vermont, no one seems to have taken to his new surroundings with quite the intensity as Carruth, who died just last week. He lived in Vermont only in the middle years of a long and hard life, but much of his best-known work is grounded in that time, and he has said that he transformed himself and found his voice there.
  • A Stranger in the Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher: Mosher is the contemporary novelist who has made the most concerted project of writing about the state, particularly the "Northern Kingdom" along the Canadian border.
  • My Garden by Jamaica Kincaid: the fabulous Kincaid has lived in Vermont for many years, but she, with this very local exception, has mainly written about her home island of Antigua and New York City.
  • Midwives by Chris Bohjalian: the bestselling novelists' weekly columns for his local VT paper are collected in Idyll Banter.
  • A Cool Million by Nathanael West: I'm about as big a N. West fan as they come, so I must note his over-the-top Horatio Alger satire, whose hero, Lemuel Pitkin, hails from humble circumstances in Ottsville, VT.
  • Vermont has become a bit of a comics hotbed: Alison Bechdel lives there now (she drew the Vermont essay for State by State), and the Center for Cartoon Studies, one of the first institutions of the new wave of indie comics, opened its doors in White River Junction a few years ago. But the best-known VT native in comics? Frank Miller, of all people. It's hard to make a case that Sin City or The Dark Knight Returns qualify as Vermont books.

--Tom

Nobel Update: Next European Winner Due Thursday

Well, in the middle of our biggest blog project yet, what was (by far) our most trafficked and commented-upon post in recent months? Our little squib passing along the instantly notorious quotes from the head of the Nobel literature committee that everyone else was passing along. So here's an update: the literature prize, always given on a Thursday in October, will be announced next week, on October 9. (The other Nobels are always given during a single October week, but the literature committee I guess reserves the right to bicker further and sometimes announces a week or two later.)

This despite one of Herr Engdahl's less-remarked-on quotes in that same article: "Engdahl suggested the announcement date could be a few weeks away, saying 'it could take some time' before the academy settles on a name." Clearly they settled pretty quickly. And maybe Engdahl was blowing a lot of smoke in general (lowering expectations, as they say in the debating game) and plans to go with an American anyway, after softening the blow to his fellow continentals by insulting the rest of the US first. The thought also crossed my mind at the time that he was trying to shift the bookies' line to get some inside money down on Roth or Oates, but clearly the bookies aren't buying: Ladbrokes in the UK have three Americans in their top six favorites (Oates and Roth at 5/1, DeLillo at 7/1), with Pynchon in shouting distance at 14/1. My heart's with Munro or Roth (or the Korean Ko Un), but I'd put my money on Amos Oz.

If you want to follow this tempest further, the Literary Saloon, your first stop for international lit-award news (and international lit news in general, if you're not one of those insular Americans) has a nice roundup. --Tom

The Books of the States: Rhode Island (4 electoral votes)

Quarter_rhodeisland_lovecra I've been looking forward to Rhode Island day, in part because, my Frederick Douglass dream aside, I'm not sure there's a writer quarter I'd enjoy seeing more than the one to the right. To begin with, there is Lovecraft's dour shovel of a mug, and then there is the pleasant thought of such a deeply odd fish (or, to use language he might prefer, a hideous, slimy creature from the black seas of infinity) appearing on government-issued currency. And he is a famous homebody, sticking close to Providence, Rhode Island, where he was born and where he returned for good after a failed attempt at marriage in Brooklyn.

I'm also pro-RI because I quickly came up with an interesting and tidy little list of four books, each remarkable in their own quite different ways. But, fearing another John Irving debacle, I didn't stop my researches there, and so it's a little harder to limit myself now to four, but here goes:

  • H.P. Lovecraft: Tales by H.P. Lovecraft: The authoritative Library of America edition. I challenge you to name a book with better Statistically Improbably Phrases than this one: "curvilinear hieroglyphs, greenish soapstones, tarry stickiness, twilight abysses, nameless scent, spiky image, shunned house, twilit grotto, elder things, membraneous wings, attic laboratory, hill noises, fishy odour, domed hills, buzzing voice, scientific zeal, frantic note, lurking fear, blasted heath, captive mind, slanting wall, frantic letter, grocery boy". My god--what's your favorite? They tell a skin-prickling story all by themselves (and I do fear for that "grocery boy"...).
  • A Key into the Language of America by Roger Williams: The founder of Rhode Island also wrote one of its great and strange books, this little 1643 guide to the language and culture of the Narragansett, remarkable in its time and ours for its openhanded approach to native culture. Am I wrong to say that this can hold its own with Moby-Dick and The Postman Always Rings Twice as one of the most brilliant opening paragraphs in American literature: "Observation. The Natives are of two sorts, (as the English are). Some more Rude and Clownish, who are not so apt to Salute, but upon Salutation resalute lovingly. Others, and the generall, are sober and grave, and yet chearfull in a meane, and as ready to begin a Salutation as to Resalute, which yet the English generally begin, out of desire to Civilize them."
  • The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: This early feminist story of a young wife and mother losing her mind is every bit as chilling as the creepiest Lovecraft tale.
  • Saints and Strangers by Angela Carter (it's out of print?!? geez...): Not her best-known book, but my favorite, and one of my favorites by anybody anywhere (speaking of opening paragraphs, I lived under the spell of the opening of "The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe" for about three years.) The best stories in the collection are her bloody British fabulist's response to American history (especially the masterful "Fall River Axe Murders"), although the connections to Rhode Island in particular are admittedly slim (she taught at Brown in the early '80s).

What a strange and fantastic group of four, but there are certainly other contenders. Staying at Brown, there are the great postmodernists who ruled there for decades, Robert Coover and John Hawkes, although neither of them wrote in particular about RI, as far as I know. And across town at RISD, there has been David Macaulay, the meticulous opener of worlds for kids. Updike set The Witches of Eastwick (and, presumably, the new Widows) in RI, Galway Kinnell and Spalding Gray were raised there, and a master of modern weird, Paul di Filippo, was born in Providence and lives there today. --Tom

The Books of the States: North Carolina (15 electoral votes; Guest: Randall Kenan)

Quarter_northcarolina_price Thanks to Brad for shouldering the biggest and most thankless task of trimming the countless fine books from the Empire State down to a tidy 31 (I'll have to lobby him further to find a place for Ben Katchor in the starting lineup). And thanks to Randall Kenan for today's labor of love: a wonderful tour of the Tar Heel State through 15 of its books and writers that I imagine Weiland and Wilsey would have accepted as a fine North Carolina essay for State by State if Kenan had chosen to submit it.

Instead, he wrote about hogs. Here's a rather mouth-watering passage from his State by State essay:

I am as partisan as they come and do not apologize to any man, woman, or child. The best barbecue in the world comes from North Carolina. And not just from anywhere in North Carolina: from the eastern part of the state.
    I make no apologies, therefore, in stating with great emphatic zeal and extreme prejudice that a hog should be cooked over a pit, over choice wood, for at least half a day, preferably twice that long. Whole. The tender meat should then be disarticulated from the bones, skin and all, which, in this case, will be a cakewalk as the flesh has been rendered into a state of tender, moist, near-gelatinous compliance, the smell of which should cause mild hallucinations. Next the cooked meat should be chopped--not pulled, plucked, sliced, or otherwise mishandled--chopped. Then it should be mixed with a vinegar-based solution of such clarity and spiciness as to augment but not detract from the suzerainty of slowly roasted hog flesh. The beast gave up its life for your delectation. That should be honored.

It's not all delicious: there is much talk in the piece of industrial hog poop and also hog sex. As he says, you should take the hog whole.

193363324701_mzzzzzzz_ Kenan was raised in Chinquapin, North Carolina (needless to say, in the eastern part of the state), and after years in New York and elsewhere, he has returned to teach in Chapel Hill at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. After his debut novel, A Visitation of Spirits, he made a splash (and first came to my awareness) with the very modern folk tales of Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. More recently he's written Walking on Water, a deeply personal survey of what it means to be black in America, and The Fire This Time, a post-Katrina update of James Baldwin's classic civil-rights-era book.

Here are his picks to represent North Carolina:

  • Collected Poems: 1951-1971 by A.R. Ammons: Two National Book Awards, a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize, a MacArthur "Genius" grant -- yeah, yeah, big deal. Who cares?  Before his death in 2001 all the people who knew their poetry and who could be intimidating and arch about the increasingly arcane -- alas –- world of poetry, would point to Archie Ammons as one of the great AMERICAN poets of the 20th Century. I'm astonished by how often he is left off the list of great Southern writers, as if one can't be both at the same time. Raised on a tobacco farm and educated at Wake Forest University (in biology) and for a time a teacher on the Outer Banks, he is quintessentially a Tar Heel. His work tends toward the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, and like the Walden Pond dude, Ammons returns often to the wild land of his childhood, to talking crows and tobacco barns and the white spires of Protestant religion, and more, so much more. Garbage (1993) is the magnum opus -- and a pure delight to read. But one would do well to treat one’s self to Collected Poems:1951-1971 or the briefer Selected Poems done for the Library of America.
  • Entering Ephesus by Daphne Athas: North Carolinians think of Chapel Hill the way Californians think of Berkley, or Wisconsians think of Madison -- they're not like the rest of us, but they are ours. Overwhelmed by massive land-grant universities, reputed hotbeds of liberalism and "alternative" lifestyles, state legislatures love to beat up on these villages when the budgets get tight, and sing their praises when the basketball team wins. If there is one book that tells it like it is about Chapel Hill, North Carolina, it is Daphne Athas's luminous 1971 novel, Entering Ephesus. Like Thomas Wolfe's Pulpit Hill, Athas's Ephesus is a stand-in for the tiny university town. But more, Athas –- who was transplanted to NC from Massachusetts in 1939 as a little girl -– casts her net wide and deals not only with the Ivory Tower and all the colorful social and intellectual in habitués, but also with the life of Niggertown, the local mill town where all the workers with true backbone lived. A pure joy to read.
  • Beast of the Southern Wild by Doris Betts. Not only a writer of prose fiction, but something of a firebrand and social and literary paragon, Betts has long been a favorite of North Carolingians. Her novels cover a great deal of territory, from the mills of the piedmont to the Donner Party and the Nevada desert to children suffering with chronic illness -- she contains multitudes. Her short stories also, very like her contemporary, Alice Munro, are worlds in miniature. 1973's Beasts of the Southern Wild remains one of her most read, and adapted (spawning an Academy Award-winning short film and an off-Broadway musical, "The Ugliest Pilgrim" into Violet, 1981, and Violet, 1998).

Continue reading "The Books of the States: North Carolina (15 electoral votes; Guest: Randall Kenan)" »

Nobel to US: Drop Dead

Looks like you can use those SAS frequent flyer miles for something else, Philip. All award nerds and bored literary columnists can thank Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the literature jury for the Nobel Prize, for stirring things up today with his comments that Americans aren't qualified for the big prize they haven't won since 1993:

Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States.... The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.

I had come to understand that no American (especially Roth) was getting the prize until Bush was out of office, but it looks like things may go deeper than that, and we in the provinces (where, admittedly, we could read a little more translated literature) will have to watch from the sidelines while Europe gives itself another one of those gold medals with the picture of the dynamite tycoon on it. David Remnick of the New Yorker gets the best response in the AP article: "And if he looked harder at the American scene that he dwells on, he would see the vitality in the generation of Roth, Updike, and DeLillo, as well as in many younger writers, some of them sons and daughters of immigrants writing in their adopted English. None of these poor souls, old or young, seem ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola." Speaking of insular, it's worth noting that of the eight books by Americans in our editors' top 10 last year, three are by first-generation immigrants and one by the son of immigrants.

Does his contempt extend to Canadians? I've been holding out for Alice Munro for some time now, but it's true that her work shows no influence of the work of Michel Houellebecq, so she may be ineligible. --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

Omm_092908

New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Jill Abramson on The War Within by Bob Woodward: "Woodward’s evolving consciousness furnishes the true drama of these books. There is damning material in all four volumes, but in the first two, Woodward was unable or unwilling to fully acknowledge this. As the war turned sour and Bush’s flaws overwhelmed his strengths, Woodward began to reassess both Bush and his own earlier views. He ends by providing readers not just the material to draw their own judgments but a harsh judgment of Bush himself. In so doing, he has stepped much closer to the role of ­biographer, not just ­stenographer."
  • Maslin on The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder: "Mr. Buffett made a smart choice when he chose Alice Schroeder as his Boswell. Yes, he found an appreciative biographer with whom he seems to have a warm rapport. But he also found a writer able to keep pace with the wild swerves in the Buffett story and the intricacies of Mr. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway business empire. Ms. Schroeder is as insightful about her subject’s precise anticipation of current financial crises as she is about his quirky personal story. And she is a clear explicator of fiscal issues. This sprawling, colorful biography will mesmerize anyone interested in who Mr. Buffett is or how he got that way."
  • Rachel Donadio on Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg: "Greenberg’s refusal — or inability — to think positively, or reductively, is one of his best qualities. What sets 'Hurry Down Sunshine' apart from the great horde of mediocre memoirs, with their sitcom emotions and too neatly resolved fights and reconciliations, is Greenberg’s frank pessimism, dark humor and fundamental incapacity to make sense of his daughter’s ordeal, let alone to derive an uplifting moral from it."

Washington Post:

  • Elizabeth Hand on The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman: "Allegra Goodman alludes to a number of children's classics in The Other Side of the Island, including Bridge to Terabithia , The Wizard of Oz and The Secret Garden. It's a risky ploy, inviting comparison to beloved books. But in Goodman's case, it pays off, as this gripping, beautifully written novel may one day join their ranks. A dystopian page-turner, The Other Side of the Island evokes other YA favorites -- in particular, Lois Lowry's The Giver-- books that use well-worn tropes of science fiction and coming-of-age tales to confront adult issues such as authoritarian governments and global warming."
  • Jonathan Yardley on American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-Making, and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum: "The crime and its aftermath make for a compelling story, but you'd scarcely know that from this dreadful book, a thoroughgoing dud from first page to last.... What he's written (and written badly...) is a piece of hack journalism that attempts to fabricate connections between three interesting men of the day but almost entirely fails to do so. My own hunch is that Blum thinks he's written a nonfiction variation on the themes played in E.L. Doctorow's celebrated novel Ragtime, but such magic as Doctorow managed to extract from the same point in American history is utterly absent in this contrived, plodding, self-infatuated 'tome.'"

Los Angeles Times:

  • Erin Aubry Kaplan on Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough: "Tough's book is about the magnitude of the task undertaken by one man and his staff of acolytes, but Tough is more interested in what that monumental task reveals about the rest of us. He lauds Canada's efforts to give poor black children the opportunity he deeply believes they deserve, but he also questions why society as a whole seems not to share Canada's view. One thing Tough puts in stark relief is the fact that the goal of equality in education has been replaced with exhortations for excellence, a nice way of saying that every community is on its own, including communities of poor black kids who need the most help and suffer the worst effects of isolation."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Books of the States: Virginia (13 electoral votes; Guest: Tony Horwitz)

Quarter_virginia_styron I've had a few inquiries about why I didn't include Edgar Allan Poe, so famously deceased in Baltimore, on my Maryland list. I had seen him already on the list for Virginia that Tony Horwitz, our guest nominator for today, had sent in, and I immediately began building fortifications for (yet another) cross-border skirmish, but further research convinced me to graciously cede his provenance to Richmond, the city of his upbringing. By the way, in the course of such researches I came to the website of the Poe Museum in Richmond, where they list, among other exhibits, a display of the various causes suggested over the years of Poe's mysterious death, including "1857 Beating," "1984 Alcohol Dehydrogenase," "1996 Rabies," and "1999 Carbon Monoxide Poisoning."

Which is entirely in keeping with Horwitz's mortuary of an essay on Virginia in State by State, which begins with an anecdote of a diorama night in his son's fourth-grade class in rural Va. that featured box after box--"a cardboard catacomb"--of death shrines to martyred Confederates, murdered Indians, famous suicides, and of course the doomed Poe himself. Horwitz writes:

When I told the teacher her students seemed morbidly inclined, she laughed and said, "At this age, kids don't care about the Declaration of Independence. All they want to know is, 'What was the body count?'" If that's so, they Virginia is a fourth-grader's paradise. Having lived in six states and toured the other four, I've never seen one so steeped in gore. Nor is there another that clings to its dark history so insistently. Hotel Colorado or Hotel Arizona I imagine as sunny, uncluttered places. Hotel Virginia, inescapably, is a charnel house.

080507603401_mzzzzzzz__2 This is a bit of a case of people-who-live-in-glass-coffins, as the history-obsessed Horwitz has picked at many of those old bones himself, in bestselling books of travel and history like Confederates in the Attic, Blue Latitudes, and, most recently, A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. And for his suggested list of Virginia books, he's chosen a list that's appropriately heavy on history, including some of the central texts of America's founding as well as more recent fictional revisions. Here are Tony Horwitz's 11 representative Virginia books:

  • The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, edited by Philip Barbour (is this the only edition, going for $1,500 on our site?): John Smith was an escape artist, a first-class egotist, and a colorful chronicler of the Jamestown settlement he helped found. His vivid dispatches about genocide against Indians and cannibalism by the English (one settler even killed and salted his pregnant wife) remind us why Pilgrim Plymouth is more celebrated by Americans than the Virginia colony that preceded it.
  • Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson: Though not as well-known as TJ's earlier work, the Declaration of Independence, this is a revealing portrait of Virginia in 1781, when the state's western boundary extended to the Mississippi and its legal punishments included "death by poison," gibbeting, pillory, and ducking for witchcraft.
  • The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary Moulton: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark became famous for their trek to the Pacific, but both were Virginians by birth and sensibility. Their journals are a thrilling window into the American frontier at the start of the 19th century.
  • The Portable Edgar Allan Poe: Though he was born in Boston and died in Baltimore, Poe spent much of his youth in Richmond and once declared, "I am a Virginian. At least I call myself one." Since Poe is best remembered for his poems and macabre short fiction, I've nominated one of the many anthologies of his work.
  • R.E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman (abridged edition): Freeman won a Pulitzer for his 1934 biography of the Southern general and icon. The son of a Confederate soldier, writing at a time when the Lost Cause was still cherished in Virginia, Freeman is overly worshipful of Lee. But he writes with a novelistic verve matched by few biographers since.
  • Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia's Ex-Slaves, edited by Charles Perdue, Thomas Barden and Robert Phillips: Who better to tell us what slavery was like than slaves themselves? During the Great Depression, interviewers working for the WPA and state writers' projects collected oral testimonies from elderly ex-slaves across the South. Those that survive from Virginia are collected in this wonderful volume, without adornment or changes to the vernacular speech as it was recorded over seventy years ago. This is a must-read for anyone who still clings to a moonlight-and-magnolia image of the Old South.
  • The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron: A Pulitzer-winner for fiction, and a book that ignited a firestorm in the '60s because it's by a white Virginian who imagines his way into the mind of America's most renowned slave rebel. Controversy aside, this is a classic of Southern writing--Styron at his ripe, earthy best.
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard: Yet another Pulitzer for this meditative account of a year rambling around Tinker Creek, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Lyrical, spiritual, and a masterpiece of nature writing by an author who can make muskrats riveting.
  • Growing Up, by Russell Baker: One of my favorite autobiographies, in part because Baker hails from an unsung corner of rural Virginia where I lived for many years. He gets the region and everything else just right, and writes with a modest wit that’s gone almost extinct in this era of overwrought, self-pitying memoirs. And yeah, Baker's book got a Pulitzer, too.
  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe: This book has nothing to do with Virginia, but Wolfe was raised and educated in the state and this is my favorite of his many works. It tells of the early days of the space race and America's first astronauts in prose so vivid that The Right Stuff reads better than most novels, including Wolfe's own. Worth reading just for the first 50 pages or so, a model of the "New Journalism" Wolfe pioneered.
  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones: A fifth and final Pulitzer winner and perhaps the best of the lot. Jones, an African-American novelist, recreates a part of antebellum Virginia where some blacks were slave-owners themselves. A downer, as befits its subject, but the best and most nuanced evocation I've read of slavery's toll.

Tony has left two open spots: what would you nominate for them? Matthew Sharpe's gleefully anachronistic novel, Jamestown? Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series? James Branch Cabell? Ellen Glasgow? Rita Mae Brown? Rita Dove? V.C. (the "V" is for Virginia!) Andrews's classic incest saga, Flowers in the Attic? --Tom

The Books of the States: New Hampshire (4 electoral votes)

Quarter_newhampshire_metali_2 Thought you'd see Robert Frost replace the Old Man of the Mountain to the right? Oh, by all rights you should, but I must be feeling punchy after making mostly canonical choices so far, so instead you get Grace Metalious, the "Pandora in Blue Jeans" who peeked behind the curtain of small town New England propriety in Peyton Place, and gave New Hampshire its biggest blockbuster until Dan Brown discovered the Renaissance.

Blockbusters aside, the flinty soil of New Hampshire appears to grow poets (or at least to attract transplants). Maybe it's having Frost as a model, but it would be easy to fill out the Granite State's four slots just with poets. I didn't:

  • Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays by Robert Frost: The impulse to go with one of his original collections, like North of Boston or, of course, New Hampshire, is overcome by the fact that only larger collections like this one from the Library of America are now in print.
  • Affliction by Russell Banks: The claustrophobia of family and winter. And then there's his Continental Drift, which should get half a spot in New Hampshire and half in Florida--I'm not sure there's another American book so clearly and consciously split between two states.
  • Peyton Place by Grace Metalious: "If I'm a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste."
  • Without by Donald Hall and Otherwise by Jane Kenyon: To represent NH's remarkable lineup of post-Frost poets (e.g., Charles Simic, Maxine Kumin), this pairing of Hall's poems about his wife Kenyon's death, and the collection of her work that the two of them put together in her last days.

More honorable mention: May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, Stephen Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster ("They say whenever the devil comes near Marshfield, even now, he gives it a wide berth. And he hasn't been seen in the state of New Hampshire from that day to this. I'm not talking about Massachusetts or Vermont."), and bestselling residents Dan Brown and Jodi Picoult. --Tom

P.S. Oh brother, how embarrassing: I completely left off John Irving, and it's hard to imagine a major novelist being more identified with a state than Irving is with New Hampshire. Where to begin? I've always liked Garp, but the passion among some folks in our offices for A Prayer for Owen Meany is something to behold. My apologies for the omission to wrestlers, trained bears, and abortionists everywhere.

The Books of the States: South Carolina (8 electoral votes; Guest: Jack Hitt)

Quarter_southcarolina_powelWe have our second guest contributor today, and our first from among the State by State writers. Jack Hitt was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina--he's the author of Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route into Spain (1994), but if you're like me, you know him best as a byline and masthead presence on some of the best things going in American culture: he was a contributor to the late, lamented Lingua Franca, and is currently a contributing editor at the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and This American Life. For the latter show, he won a Peabody for his reporting from Guantanamo Bay, and he created one of my favorite and best-remembered segments, "The Super," the infectiously hilarious and bizarre tale of his apartment super in New York City, some of whose strange and unbelievable stories turn out to be frighteningly true.

Here's the opening of from his State by State essay:

When South Carolinians proposed to separate from the United States in December 1860, a state legislator named James Louis Perigru vehemently opposed the idea. As the story goes--and it's a story every South Carolinian can tell you--Perigru rose to his feet and declared that he opposed secession because "South Carolina was too small to be a sovereign nation, and too large to be an insane asylum."

And here are his inspired choices for the Palmetto State:

  • Edisto: A Novel [new edition apparently coming out in February] by Padgett Powell [the man on our quarter, with apologies to Believer illustrator Tony Millionaire]: This brilliant book's protagonist is South Carolina's Huck Finn, our Jim the Boy, our Holden Caulfield. The kid's name is Simons Manigault and Powell perfectly channels the voice of a barrier island pícaro, ranging across a rich Lowcountry landscape, encountering coastal eccentrics for a perfect read (especially amazing since Powell is a Floridian). It is the best novel featuring all things South Carolina; really, really funny; and when it first appeared, every honest SC writer ran into the nearest closet and let out a primal cry of envy.
  • South Carolina: A History by Walter Edgar. History is a contact sport in South Carolina, sort of our version of rugby, only with fewer moments of courtliness. History is usually discussed late at night, when sunny reality doesn't have much of a say, and typically includes bogus claims of ancestral participation in key events. And yet: all sides agree that there is a standard text, a solid history and a great read in Walter Edgar.
  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustava Vassa, the African by Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself. A friend gave me this book, an 18th century slave's biography and an early argument against the terrorism of slavery. Now there is a new theory that Equiano invented his whole story of African origin, and that he was actually a clever South Carolinian who knew how to market books by black authors, colonial-style (quite an achievement, if true). This argument also enrages people. As does any argument about racial history. Take Denmark Vesey (start with David Robertson's Denmark Vesey: The Buried Story of America's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It) and then dip into the debate between Edward Pearson and the revisionists. There are many more of these fights, involving Ben Tillman, the Stono Rebellion, and on up to the Orangeburg Massacre. Did I mention Ed Ball's Slaves in the Family? All of these books can cause lots of foaming at the mouth and broken noses. (See above entry about Walter Edgar.) To get a head start on the next round of fisticuffs, pre-order Katherine Charron's upcoming biography of Septima Clark, coming out next fall from UNC Press.
  • Mellowed by Time by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner. Not a written book but a collection of the old lady's pencil sketches. Charleston is now crowded with artists who pump out tediously maudlin watercolors of undulating marsh grass and stately church spires. Verner was there first, and I still love the beauty of her lines. Perhaps it's because she limned the town at a key moment: on the cusp between Charleston the place and Charleston the dream.
  • Porgy by Dubose Heyward. When I was researching a high school paper on South Carolina literary figures, my Aunt Minnie at the Charleston Library Society took me to the vault to see 19th century poet Henry Timrod's original manuscripts. His final poem had stuff on it. "Oh," said Minnie, "Timrod died of TB writing this very poem; that's part of his lung." The point is, I read Timrod and he was just awful. I thought maybe H.L. Mencken's charge about the "Sahara of the Bozart" was just, but no: The first writer to run his hands through all that makes South Carolina mesmerizing and transmute it into beauty and story was Dubose Heyward. That tradition has been carried on by Josephine Pinckney (Three O'Clock Dinner), Josephine Humphrey (Dreams of Sleep), Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina), and Pat Conroy (The Water Is Wide--still my favorite of all his great yarns).
  • The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. Oh, I know: How dare me? Not mention Charleston Receipts first? Look, I'd rather discuss the virtues of Denmark Vesey at the Carolina Yacht Club than get into a quarrel about this venerable Carolina tome. But the grand Junior League classic, written by everyone's dowager aunt (incuding mine), contains some tongue-paralyzingly bad recipes. What I love about the Lee Bros. is how they confected a book that works with all the great local ingredients (crab, grits, island tomatoes, civy bean, fish, shrimp, corn, etc.) and created dishes that are in fact fresh and new, yet manage to stay within the undefinable ethos of the Carolina culinary tradition. I did not grow up eating grits and oxtails, but you wouldn't know it if you ate at my house today.
  • Trembling of a Leaf by John Colleton (aka Robert Marks). Lame-o porn of the most pitiful soft-core variety by a guy who lived on Tradd Street. The paperback cover of this hideous book (title lifted wholesale from Somerset Maugham) shows a young buck looking down at a bosomy 1970-ish Carolina belle in a courtyard with her peignoir trashily left open (it's fiction). When I sent out an email to friends to kick me some titles, many of them just sent back a reminiscence of how Marks created, as one correspondent wrote, "a sort of southern-fried Plato's Retreat, attracting all kinds of libertine Charlestonians (hey, it was the 70's)." Marks forever captured the intimate likenesses of some Carolinians with his crotchless prose found between the (sweaty) covers of such titles as Two Nymphs Named Melissa, Between Cloris and Amy, Barefoot on Jill (that's right, on), The Delights of Anna, Enjoyment of Amy, Enticement of Cindy, and my fave: Up in Mamie's Diary. Locals are still parsing just what characters are based on actual local folk: join in the fun.
  • The Story of Sea Island Cotton by Richard Dwight Porcher and Sarah Fick. The genre of telling cultural history through a single crop ("Salt"; "Cod": "The Story of Corn") has several Carolina variants. Sea Island cotton--distinct from inland cotton--was grown in levied plots at the shore, flushed of salt ingeniously by diked fresh water creeks. Slave towns were built on remote sandbars, the remnants of which remain. But two consecutive hurricanes eventually rendered the plant extinct as well as one more southern culture, literally, gone with the wind. Also, new rice histories in South Carolina tell a similar tale. Start with The Seed from Madagascar by former SC Governor Duncan Clinch Heyward. It establishes the claim that rice came to SC by accident when a passing 17th century merchant paid for his goods with a bag of odd looking seed. That view is now challenged by new evidence establishing that highly skilled slaves possessed the agronomic experience needed to make rice the first Carolina economy: Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation by Judith Ann Carney.

--Tom

The Books of the States: Maryland (10 electoral votes)

Quarter_maryland_douglass Okay, here it is: the reason I started this whole escapade, my newly minted Frederick Douglass quarter. Looks pretty sharp, doesn't it?

I've already had a fair amount to say about Maryland writers, but one thing I discovered between then and now (actually in doing my Connecticut research), was that the original "Uncle Tom's Cabin," where Josiah Henson, from whose narrative of his escape from slavery Harriet Beecher Stowe took some of the inspiration for her novel, is still standing, about 25 blocks--and two shopping plazas--from the house where I grew up. How did no one tell me about that? Hmph.

Speaking of my Maryland, I'm still waiting to read the book that tells the story of my Maryland, the muggy, sprawling suburbs on the federal payroll. We've spawned a few novelists from around my generation (Michael Chabon, Andrew Sean Greer, Myla Goldberg, to begin with), but they haven't written much about where they grew up yet, as far as I know. I guess I should write that book but, well, I don't find it that interesting either! (It is true that, at least from what I've been able to tell from skimming, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants takes place at least in part in my old stomping grounds...).

But there are better stories to tell about Maryland, and here are 10 (or, rather, 11) of them:

  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass: If you think we just discovered memoirs in American publishing... Douglass's self-taught tale was of course a remarkable achievement, but 160 years later its evocative precision holds up on the page as far more than that.
  • A Mencken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken: I'm not inclined to choose catchall anthologies as representatives, and you could certainly go with his landmark, The American Language, instead, but for a working journalist like Mencken, this collection of daily vituperation, chosen by Mencken himself, seems appropriate. Also of note: Terry Teachout's recent Mencken bio, The Skeptic.
  • The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth: This monumental satire of the colonial Chesapeake is a reminder that postmodernist fiction, for all its game-playing, can still be intensely local.
  • Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon: The book that began it all--Homicide, The Corner, and the-greatest-show-in-the-history-of-television, The Wire--remains a master work in its own right, a record of Simon's year with Baltimore homicide as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. (And of course there is Simon's wife, Laura Lippman, who has staked out the fictional side of Baltimore crime with her Tess Monaghan series and acclaimed standalones like Every Secret Thing.)
  • Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay by William W. Warner: The classic account of the blue crab fishery, which my mom the science teacher really thought I should read when I was 13, but I stubbornly stuck to Sports Illustrated.
  • Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: This is my favorite of the Tylers I've read, and it's the one that really broke her out as a major writer, but Tyler fans, tell me which one you like best.
  • The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy: Originally published by the Naval Institute Press, this out-of-nowhere blockbuster made Clancy the idol of the legions of amateur national security aficionados (and plenty of local pros too).
  • The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson: For years a Fish and Wildlife Service bureaucrat, Carson first became a household name with this bestseller and National Book Award winner, a decade before Silent Spring.
  • Shock Value by John Waters: A memoir and tribute to bad taste and to Baltimore, "the hairdo capital of the world."
  • Cloud Nine by James M. Cain: This Annapolis native will no doubt be well represented on the California list, but after his heyday was over he moved back to Maryland and kept writing. My friend Josh, a hard-boiled fan, insists that his late Md. novel, Cloud Nine, is top-notch--I'm going to try to give it a read before we make these lists final.
  • Picking Winners: A Horseplayer's Guide by Andrew Beyer: But if Cloud Nine doesn't hold up, I'm prepared to step in with this item that I just couldn't leave off the list. I grew up reading Beyer in the Washington Post, and he's long been a handicapping legend, both for his innovative speed figures and for the style and pleasure of his writing. (He made horseplaying sound so appealing that I'm a little surprised I didn't turn out a track hound myself.) He may have written for the Post, but there aren't any horses running in D.C. proper, and many of his work days were spent at nearby Laurel and Pimlico.

--Tom

MacArthur Fellows 2008: Two Writers, and Many More Books

In the middle of book awards season (with the Booker, Nobel, and National Book Award all hitting in the next month or so), come the phone calls from the MacArthur Foundation, which lead to their recepients being called "geniuses" and cashing quarterly $25,000 checks for the next five years. They aren't book awards, but a few writers are always pulled into their golden net. This year two "writers" got the call:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the young Nigerian novelist who now lives in Maryland, author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus.
  • Alex Ross, New Yorker classical music critic and author of last year's big and acclaimed (by me among others) history of 20th-century art music, The Rest Is Noise. You can listen to our interview with him, and stop by his blog (which makes no mention of the award yet).

But that doesn't mean the other winners haven't written books (or had books written about them). Here's what I found from this year's 25:

And you can also listen to two of the winners:

--Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

Omm_092308

New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: David Gates on Indignation by Philip Roth: "'Everyman' and 'Exit Ghost' both have a mood of sorrowful resignation; this book goes about its grieving savagely. And of all Roth’s recent novels, it ventures farthest into the unknowable. In his unshowy way, with all his quotidian specificity and merciless skepticism, Roth is attempting to storm heaven — an endeavor all the more desperately daring because he seems dead certain it’s not there." On Tuesday, Kakutani was grouchier: "It’s a joke that Mr. Roth delivers with consummate poise and a couple of bravura touches, but a joke, in the end, that doesn’t amount to a full-fledged novel."
  • Maslin on The Given Day by Dennis Lehane: "No more thinking of Mr. Lehane as an author of detective novels that make good movies ('Gone, Baby, Gone') and tell devastatingly bleak Boston stories ('Mystic River'). He has written a majestic, fiery epic that moves him far beyond the confines of the crime genre. Shades of Doctorow and Dreiser surround Mr. Lehane’s choice of 1919 as the time for this expansive story. It is not simply the relatively unexplored eventfulness of that year that makes 'The Given Day' so far reaching; it’s the relentless fierce-terrible nature of the turmoil on parade."
  • A.O. Scott on Home by Marilynne Robinson: "She is somehow able to infuse what can sound like dowdy, common words — words like courtesy and kindness, shame and forgiveness, transgression and grace — with a startling measure of their old luster and gravity. Phrases many of us have heard and known since childhood come in her hands to have the depth of dark sayings, and her parable of a family’s partial restoration is also a story to trouble your sleep and afflict your conscience."
  • James J. Sheehan on Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Mark Mazower: "'Hitler’s Empire' is a useful antidote to the argument — most recently advanced in Nicholson Baker's 'Human Smoke' — that World War II was neither necessary nor just. While we should never underestimate or forget the appalling cost, Mazower’s eloquent and instructive book reminds us what the world would have been like if Hitler’s enemies had been unwilling or unable to pay the price of defeating him."

Washington Post:

  • Jonathan Yardley on Lehane's Given Day: "Lehane has done something brave and ambitious: He has written a historical novel that unquestionably is his grab for the brass ring, an effort to establish his credentials in literary as well as commercial terms.... Meticulously researched and rich in period detail, it pulls the reader so rapidly through its complex and interesting story that it's easy to lose sight of its shortcomings. But they are there, and they arise from the uneasy balance Lehane strikes (whether consciously or not) between the conventions of suspense fiction and his larger literary ambitions, as well as from his awkward attempt to connect a famous historical figure of the period to his fictional characters."
  • James Mann on Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency by Barton Gellman: "Until now, I assumed it would take decades, the eventual declassification of documents and considerably more historical perspective for an author (say, some future Robert Caro ) to uncover and describe Cheney's secretive role. But Barton Gellman's outstanding new book, Angler, could well turn out to be the most revealing account of Cheney's activities as vice president that ever gets written.... There will almost certainly be no vice president as powerful as Cheney for decades, and no account of what he has wrought that is as compelling as this book."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Sarah Weinman on Lehane's Given Day: "Despite its length and gargantuan scope of emotion and sociological ramifications, 'The Given Day' is a smooth read. In that respect, Lehane is as much like contemporaries George Pelecanos and Richard Price as he is like the bygone Boston-based John P. Marquand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who understood the masses could absorb complex thought by turning the pages. 'The Given Day' may not pack the devastating wallop of Marquand's masterwork 'Point of No Return,' but it should draw unintended strength from the latter's title. From here on in, Lehane should proceed as a novelist, without genre boundaries imposed on him."
  • Susan Salter Reynolds on Miss Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum: "'Ms. Hempel Chronicles' is a deeply affecting book because it reveals that human beings, because we are human, often feel many different emotions at once. We take on roles we are not always, strictly or bureaucratically speaking, qualified to perform. And yet, our vulnerability, our confusion often makes us infinitely more capable of empathizing with and relating to others."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Books of the States: Connecticut (7 electoral votes)

Quarter_connecticut_both

I'm trying to be disciplined and settle on just one state representative to engrave on my Photoshop state quarters, but for Connecticut I offer you two: the supreme Wallace Stevens seems the unavoidable pick for top Nutmegger, but one of my very favorite author photos is of Steven Millhauser, for the way it captures its subject's shy but insistent theatricality. He almost looks like a gawky teen made up to look like a grandfather for the high school play, or a sweetly odd uncle about to wow you with a magic trick--both of which are completely in keeping with the mood of a Millhauser story. I wanted to see how he would look on a quarter too, so today we have two.

Meanwhile, I have to make a confession: in idly making my first state assignments, I assumed the easiest pick for Connecticut would be John Cheever: the only trouble would be whether to just include his stories or add a novel or his journals too. Well, who knew that the men on those suburban trains were heading to Westchester County, not Greenwich? Oh, lots of people, I'm sure, but not me until now, for which I am deeply embarrassed. We'll have to leave the midcentury adman ennui to Richard Yates...

Here are my suggested seven--actually eight, since I can't bear to leave one of them off. In a pinch I guess it'd be Barnum, but let's see how things go:

  • The Collected Poems by Wallace Stevens: The dream of every commuter-rail creative: the insurance executive who flowered after 50 as the most gracefully brainy of American poets.
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates: Resurrected more than once in the past couple of decades, and now ready to be immortalized (or, more likely, overwhelmed) by the Reunion of Leo and Kate.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain: Twain's first book after Huck Finn was also his first about his adopted home state.
  • Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill: O'Neill's exhumation of his Connecticut childhood was so traumatic that he stipulated it not be performed until 25 years after his death. (His widow waited three.)
  • American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster: The most American of books drove its author into a debt that lasted to his death.
  • Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright by Steven Millhauser. Millhauser told his fellow Stratford, Conn., native Jim Shepard, "Everything I had to say about Stratford is in my first novel, though in a fractured, splintered, meticulously distorted way.... It’s the sense, given to me by growing up in that neighborhood, in that town, of what an American small-town street feels like and smells like, what kitchens and cellars and attics are like, what roadside weeds and telephone poles are like. There’s plenty I don’t know about American life, but those things are mine."
  • The Ice Storm by Rick Moody: Boy, our customer reviewers really like the movie better, but I love them both.
  • The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself by P.T. Barnum: Barnum's Museum might have been on Broadway in Manhattan, but the Yankee huckster was bred and mostly headquartered in Connecticut.

Also: Amy Bloom's stories, the original firebrand Jonathan Edwards, maybe Uncle Tom's Cabin, by longtime Connecticut resident Harriet Beecher Stowe, although that one could be claimed by any number of states. --Tom

The Books of the States: Georgia (15 electoral votes)

Quarter_georgia_oconnor As impressed as I was with New Jersey yesterday, I have to say that Georgia, with its identical 15 electoral slots to fill, holds up its end of the deal. Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers, plus one-of-a-kind cultural icons like Gone with the Wind, The Color Purple, and Deliverance, not to mention the preacher whose words might be better known to us than any other 20th-century writer? That's a pretty good start. (Am I the only one in whose mind O'Connor and McCullers are joined? It's not really that I confuse them, but between the early successes and the early illnesses, the first names that sound like last names, and the last names that scan almost the same.... I imagine they look alike, too, although they really don't at all.)

I burned up too much of my blogging time this afternoon digging into those David Foster Wallace videos, so I'll have to leave you my nominations shorn of much of the usual commentary, but here are 15 to reckon with.

  • The Collected Stories by Flannery O'Connor
  • Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers: Is this the right one of hers to choose? Just because Oprah said so, doesn't mean we have to.
  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Deliverance by James Dickey: No doubt Dickey fans would say I should go with his poetry instead, and I'm sure I could be convinced to, but still...
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (I resisted the urge to include Sherman's memoirs too...)
  • A Testament of Hope by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch: How do you best represent Georgia's greatest son? With his own writing, and also the first volume of Branch's great civil rights trilogy, which covers the whole map but does introduce you to the beginnings of the Atlanta preacher's son and Morehouse man, and his first fame next door in Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
  • Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith
  • A Childhood by Harry Crews
  • Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson
  • Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene
  • Those Bones Are Not My Child by Toni Cade Bambara: her friend Toni Morrison considered this posthumous novel about the Atlanta child murders Bambara's best.

There are plenty more candidates I can think of: Mark Pendergast's For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, Al Stump's revisionist biography of Ty Cobb, Kim Cooper's excellent 33 1/3 book on the Athens genius behind Neutral Milk Hotel, John Lewis's civil rights memoir, Joel Chandler's Uncle Remus collections, Olive Ann Burns, Anne Rivers Siddons, Ferrol Sams, Calder Willingham, Pearl Cleage...  Let us know what you'd like to see here. --Tom

Watching DFW: State Fair Twirlers and Cruise Ship Service

There have been many, many more comments and tributes about David Foster Wallace since our first responses last weekend. We could hardly catalogue them all, but a couple places you might want to stop by, if you want to read more, are the tribute pages put together by Edward Champion and McSweeney's (the latter is especially full of life, including a photo sequence of DFW swapping a trademark bandanna for a Lucky Charms t-shirt and an anecdote that ends with him digging through a dumpster for a spit cup: "Mind if I dip in your car?"), and the archive of his articles and stories Harper's has put up (including the famous state fair and cruise ship pieces, as well as two I remember vividly about windy teen tennis and uptight grammarians, of which he was one). But what I wanted to share with you until I got distracted by the above were videos. I ran across one today and it led me to another and I was glad and sad to watch them and wanted to share.

Here's Dave (one of the McSwy's notes, from a former student, reports that the whole "David Foster Wallace" thing was thrust upon him by agents/publishers to separate him from all the other Dave Wallaces) reading from the baton-twirler sequence in the Harper's state fair piece (listen for the "whorp-whorping" toward the end):

And in Italy, talking about postmodernists trying to tell old-fashioned stories:

You'll find a lot more related videos from that conference, with Franzen and Zadie Smith popping up in the background. Here he is reading from the state fair piece (including a different version of the twirlers) and the cruise ship piece (it's a long one):

And, finally, here is another video that keeps popping up as a related video for the rest of these, called Roger Federer as Religious Experience. No sign of DFW in it (oh, I see, there's a quote from him in the info section), but the connection is clear to anyone who's read him on tennis or Federer in particular. Watching it and thinking of DFW's awed, good-enough-to-know-what-greatness-means appreciation for a master like Federer, and then of one's own awe at Wallace, a rare Federer in his own craft, well, it's hard to keep watching...

--Tom

Talking to Philip Roth: Indignation and the Ethics of Spoilers

054705484x01_mzzzzzzz__2 I meant to post this yesterday, in honor of New Jersey Day, but, well, it got very late. But I recently had the opportunity to talk to Newark's (well, now Connecticut's) own Philip Roth about his new book, Indignation. The responses to this one are all over the map, like they seem to be for every new book he writes these days, but, having read a whole lot of Roth over the past year or so (in preparation for talking to him last year), I'm one of the ones who thinks the new one is superb (it's my Best of the Month pick for September). It may not be as ambitious as American Pastoral or The Counterlife, say, or quite as exquisite as The Ghost Writer or Goodbye, Columbus, but to say it's, oh, the seventh- or eighth-best Roth book is still saying a lot. It's a tight little comedy, but I've found it very haunting, both in the reading and in the remembering.

There's a revelation about 50 pages into the book that, when I talked to him, I planned to keep under wraps, just because I had enjoyed its sly unveiling so much and didn't want to deprive anyone else of the pleasure. But it's so central to the book that Roth spilled the beans anyway, after I had boxed him in with a clumsy question that made it all but unavoidable. How do you handle talking about a plot point like that? A number of the reviewers have met that question head on. Kakutani, rather spitefully to my mind, blew the twist in the very first line of her fairly negative review on Tuesday, while David Gates (is he not the best front-line critic writing these days?) in what will be the cover review in the Times on Sunday (you can get an early peek in the International Herald Tribune today), is far more graceful about it, revealing it himself but with the same sort of storyteller's skill and enjoyment that Roth himself uses. (Plus, I agree with him about the book.)

You can listen to our conversation below, in which we talk about how to time such a revelation, as well as related matters like the Chinese national anthem, the late editor (and his old friend) Ted Solotaroff, and whether Indignation is a "'50s, Bob Newhart Portnoy."


--Tom

P.S. I just noticed that my predecessor here (by many years now!), the wise James Marcus, had his own time with Roth recently and has a nice piece about it in the LA Times.

The Books of the States: New Jersey (15 electoral votes)

Quarter_newjersey_roth For a state that has always struggled to find its identity in the shadow of nearby cities--while being best known perhaps for the highway that gets you from of those cities to the other--New Jersey has produced a powerhouse lineup of writers and books that aren't just from Jersey, but are consciously about Jersey. There are a few mid-size states that might be able to compete with NJ's top 15, but, with the exception perhaps of Louisiana, I'm not sure that any of them will be as full of books that don't just happen to be from that state--they couldn't be from anywhere else. Here are my suggestions:

  • Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
  • American Pastoral by Philip Roth: You could easily fill out the whole list of 15 with books from Newark's favorite son, who has sent almost as many book-review copyeditors to their reference books to check the spelling of "Weequahic" as Faulkner did for "Yoknapatawpha." Cases could certainly be made for including Portnoy's Complaint, The Plot Against America, and Patrimony, among others, but these two make fitting bookends for his remarkably prolific career, and are also the most directly about the social landscape of New Jersey.
  • The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
  • A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton by John McPhee: Two local books from the New Yorker master who was born in Princeton, attended Princeton High and Princeton U., and taught for decades at, yes, Princeton.
  • Paterson by William Carlos Williams: American poetry doesn't get more local than this modernist classic from the good doctor.
  • The Sportswriter by Richard Ford: A Mississippi-raised writer who has written so well about Montana nailed the voice of the Eastern suburbs with Haddam's Frank Bascombe.
  • Clockers by Richard Price: A short drive down the turnpike from fictional Haddam is fictional Dempsy, where Price set this modern crime classic.
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: How far does the shadow of the Dominican dictator Trujillo extend? All the way to a lonely sci-fi geek trying to find some game in the Rutgers dorms.
  • One for the Money by Janet Evanovich: Evanovich found her voice from the very beginning with the tough but charming Trenton bail bondswoman Stephanie Plum.
  • Tell No One by Harlan Coben: Coben's first post-Bolitar thriller brought him back to his home state for what was one of his most popular books even before the hit French movie adaptation this summer.
  • The Figured Wheel by Robert Pinsky: Three decades of collected poems from the former Poet Laureate, although you might instead choose his more recent collection, Jersey Rain, for obvious reasons.
  • The Meadowlands by Robert Sullivan: Sullivan found the stubborn survival of nature in Jersey's toxic swamps; he didn't find Hoffa.
  • No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark by Ronald Porambo: Under threats to his life, Porambo reported the '67 Newark riots in what Nixonland author Rick Perlstein has called "a monument in investigative journalism."
  • Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer: The Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the decisive battles of Trenton and Princeton in the winter after the Declaration of Independence.
  • Racing in the Street: The Springsteen Reader, edited by June Skinner Sawyers: You didn't think we'd get out of here without the Boss, did you? Is there a great (or even really good) Springsteen book? And how about Mr. Frank Sinatra of Hoboken, NJ? Where's the great Sinatra book? A life like his certainly deserves the two-volume treatment that Guralnick gave Elvis--I'd be surprised if someone isn't under contract to write that right now.

That's a very solid lineup, but I'm sure I'm missing something. Please fill in the gaps, or blow my picks out of the water entirely. --Tom

The Books of the States: Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes; Guest: Stewart O'Nan)

067002032x240 We're pleased to move into the big battleground state of Pennsylvania today with a great deal of help. Our first guest Books of the States contributor is Pittsburgh native Stewart O'Nan. He has since moved on to Connecticut, where recent books of his like Last Night at the Lobster have been set (and where he has become enough of a New Englander to cowrite a book about the Red Sox with Mainer Stephen King). But he returned to his roots for us and put together a list of 14 local favorites to start our Pennsylvania list with. His new novel, Songs for the Missing (set in the Midwest), comes out on October 30.

  • The Homewood Trilogy (Damballah, Hiding Place, Sent for You Yesterday), John Edgar Wideman: Two novels and a story collection from an African American neighborhood in Pittsburgh that form the beginnings of a deep and searching family saga.
  • Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman: An intimate memoir recounting his brother's arrest and ongoing incarceration for a killing.  A portrait of a family, a city and a system.
  • Olinger Stories, John Updike: Nostalgic yet always piercing views of smalltown life in the Eastern part of the state.  Updike's love of detail delivers his world whole.
  • The Rabbit Books, John Updike: A trip through time, absorbing and disgorging every damn thing in American life, as everyman/schmuck Harry Angstrom lives and lusts and dies, and Shillington, PA, changes from an energetic small town into a plump, overstuffed suburb.
  • South Street, David Bradley: Long since gentrified, this formerly funky section of Philadelphia gives Bradley a chance to fictionally frame the cultural chasms of 1970s America.
  • Spellbound, David McKain: A memoir of growing up in Bradford, PA. Marvelously honest about the relationships of parents and children.
  • Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon: Set mostly in the Oakland and Squirrel Hill neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, a hilarious novel of academia and ambition.
  • Mickelsson's Ghosts, John Gardner: His last novel, a rambling philosophical mystery of a possibly mad professor lost in the Endless Mountains of the far northeast corner of the state.
  • The Johnstown Flood, David McCullough: A nonfiction account of privilege and tragedy from America's most popular popular historian.
  • Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger: Most folks would call this a novel of New York City, but the first 69 pages and the tone of Holden's voice come directly from Pencey, a fictionalized boarding school like so many in the eastern part of the state.
  • Eyesores, Eric Shade: A rollicking collection of stories set in Windfall, a depressed Western PA town like the author's home of Altoona.  Much drinking, driving and sad weirdness (or weird sadness).
  • The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara: Enough Gettysburg to last the average reader a lifetime.
  • About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, Roy Blount, Jr.:We Picksburghers love our Steelers. Roy Blount shows the rest of you just how much.
  • Our Kind, Kate Walbert: A smart, lyrical novel-in-stories about a tightly knit group of "women of a certain age" holding on in a far-flung, upscale suburb of Philadelphia.

What would you add (or argue with)? To go back a little ways, you'd have to include Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, as well as something about the Constitutional Convention (Catherine Drinker Bowen's classic Miracle at Philadelphia?), and I might suggest one of Charles Brockden Brown's weirdo early gothic novels, Arthur Mervyn. And then there's the plays in August Wilson's Century Cycle, John O'Hara (Appointment in Samarra), the noir master David Goodis (Down There, which became Shoot the Piano Player after the Truffaut adaptation), and Annie Dillard's American Childhood, about her early days in Pittsburgh. Send us more! --Tom

Quarter_pennsylvania_updike P.S. All due respect to former Gov. Tom Ridge, who made the pick, but the Pennsylvania quarter has to be one of the most nondescript grab bags in the series: the outline of the state, a keystone, and one of those ladies in drapery holding up something symbolic. Would you rather have that, or the impish face of the Bard of Shillington himself? I'd pay 50 cents at least for that quarter.

The Books of the States: Delaware (3 electoral votes)

Quarter_delaware_snodgrass We start our project small, but with a high degree of difficulty. Some of the upcoming states daunt me a little (California--55 books? Massachusetts--only 12?), but none more than the first one, Delaware, known best for being, well, first. What comes to mind when you think of when you think of Delaware writers, or Delaware books? Yes, I'm still waiting. I've asked a lot of people, and gotten the same (that is, no) answer. I asked Google, and it tells me about Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware series. I asked Craig Taylor, the Canadian Londoner who wrote the Delaware piece for State by State (and who edits Hamish Hamilton's new online magazine, Five Dials), and he came up nearly empty too, although he did mention a "salacious history of the DuPont family" and offered, "Do let me know if you decide to do a feature on how to tend chickens on the books blog. I know a few Delawareans who could help out with that."

There is one very Delawarean book that has spent some time in our Top 100 this summer, but one of my goals for this project is not to have Joe Biden's memoir end up on our Delaware list. But thanks to some research, some luck, and the help of an online librarian I found via the Delaware library system but who turned out to live in Indiana, we have some possibilities to start with:

  • W.D. Snodgrass (pictured above), Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems. Snodgrass won the Pulitzer in 1960 for his first collection, Heart's Needle, which was later credited for inaugurating the confessional school of poetry. He was born near Pittsburgh but taught at the University of Delaware from 1980 to 1994.
  • Robert Montgomery Bird, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself. Bird was born and raised in New Castle, and then moved to Pennsylvania and is remembered (that all happened in the early 19th century) as a novelist of dark satires and a playwright. All the recommendation I need on this one is that New York Review Books brought it back into print this January and says it's a precursor to Naked Lunch! But if you want more, Poe apparently called it "very clever" way back then.
  • Tom Douglas, I Love Crab Cakes!. Douglas is the best-known chef in Seattle, but he's a Delaware native and his specialty is that Eastern Shore favorite, the crab cake.
  • Marisa de los Santos, Love Walked In. De los Santos teaches at the University of Delaware too, and she wrote this bestseller (and future Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle) there, although it's set in nearby Philly.
  • Dudley Cammett Lunt, Taylors Gut: In the Delaware State. While wandering through a giant used book store recently with the Delaware problem on my mind, I found they actually had a single book in the Ds in their state section, this naturalist's account of a year at a local pond from 1968, which, miraculously, appears to be in print. A sample quote: "On a freshwater marsh such as Thousand Acre, a man must call softly and seductively and when he has the flight turned, he stops save for a low chuckle or two as the birds near the decoys. But not so on a salt marsh like the Woodland Beach flats. There the calls must be loud, sharp, harsh and incessant. If he even hesitates when they are coming in, they will veer off and be gone, leaving him out of breath and utterly frustrated."
  • Gerard Colby Zilg, Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain. Is this Taylor's "salacious history"? According to a customer review, Delaware's first family did their best to suppress this 1974 expose.

What do you think? I'm not so sure we've knocked Joe Biden out of the running yet (he certainly gets Delawarey points). Please help us discover some more. Tomorrow: Pennsylvania. --Tom
 

The Books of the States: 50 States, 538 Books

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Books, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Author.

So reads Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, or at least it does in the version I have around here somewhere. The Electoral College is, of course, the most absurd and distorting contraption of our sometimes-elegant democracy, and doubtless the red and blue cones in your eyes are going to wear out from all the electoral maps you'll see over the next couple of months (we don't escape blame for that here). But over the next couple months (the next 51 weekdays, to be exact), inspired by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey's new anthology, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (see our interview), we're going to use the clunky structure of the electoral college to build a map of our own, a reader's map of the United States that will, we hope, be either a complement or an antidote to the relentless election season, whichever you prefer.

I grew up in Maryland, and despite--or maybe because of--its lack of an identity, have always felt loyal to the Old Line State, even now that I live 3,000 miles away. (You can get an idea of how muddled an identity Maryland has from one of its other nicknames--we have plenty!--"America in Miniature." If you can't figure out the one thing you are, why not claim everything?) When the U.S. Mint introduced their state quarter series, I stupidly got my hopes up that instead of some abstract symbol they would put one of the great American writers on the Maryland quarter: Frederick Douglass. Honor one of the finest acts of self-creation in American history (and a book that in a few short pages brings the Maryland landscape, both country and city, alive, as well as its tragic history)? No such luck: they went with "the country's largest wooden dome built without nails" instead.

But think of the writers who can be collected within that strange, jagged border that carries the name, "Maryland." Some were born there and stayed (H.L. Mencken, John Barth, Nora Roberts, Tom Clancy, David Simon, Laura Lippman), some grew up there and left (Douglass, Michael Chabon, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Ann Beattie, Myla Goldberg), some arrived from elsewhere (Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Tyler, Rachel Carson, Madison Smartt Bell). And others may have written well about Maryland without ever having set foot there. (F. Scott Fitzgerald may not be known as a Maryland writer, but we got him too in the end: he's buried with Zelda in a little cemetery on Rockville Pike, not too far down the road from where I used to get dropped off on summer Mondays to play Putt-Putt all day.) Sounds like a pretty good lineup for a little nobody state, but I'm sure it could be matched by any number of others.

And that's what we aim to find out. Here's our plan: from now through November 25 (that's 51 weekdays), we'll put up a post a day, covering the states in the order they joined the union (just like the quarters), and finishing with the District of Columbia. Our goal is to choose as many books for each state as it has delegates in the Electoral College (e.g., 3 for Delaware, 17 for Michigan, and, uh, 55 for California), but that won't be where we start. We're going to need your help on this: we haven't read a country's worth of books ("Omnivoracious" means we're hungry to read everything, not that we have). So for each day we'll make our own nominations (and in many cases we'll bring in guest writers from those states--many of them contributors to State by State--to make their own recommendations), but then we'll open the floor to you and anyone else who wanders in through the Internet pipes. We'll leave each post up as a discussion area for the whole process, and then at some point soon after we've posted on all the states, we'll put together a final list of 538 books, our reader's map of the country.

What are our criteria? What makes a good "Maryland" book, for instance? Well, that's going to be self-defining--you can make a case any way you like. (We liked the way New York magazine defined their "New York canon" earlier this year: "The key was that the choices be unmistakably New Yorky." Potter Stewart would have been proud.) But an ideal book wouldn't just be written by someone from the state--it would tell you something about the state, so The Sot-Weed Factor or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or Homicide get big Maryland points, while Michael Chabon's books are more likely to end up on the Alaska, New York, or Pennsylvania lists. And how will we narrow down the choices at the end? Well, by fiat, if you must know, but we promise that we'll pay close attention to both the volume and the quality of the nominations, so please, speak up! Tell us of the big books we were idiots to forget, or the unknown books we'd love to read if only we knew of them. We're not just looking for fiction, either: history, kids' books, art books, anything you can make a case for. We're relying on your local expertise.

I've been told by a few people that this is a crazy escapade to be setting out on, and by many more (often the same people) that it sounds like a whole lot of fun. Hope you think so too. We'll start things off with Delaware later today (and it's a toughie, let me tell you), and go on from there, with our first guest contributor, Stewart O'Nan, giving us his Pennsylvania picks tomorrow. --Tom

P.S. This idea is too good for us to be the only ones to have thought of it. In my previous post, Kristen from Book Club Classics comments that she and Melanie Jones have tag-teamed on weekly state picks, and they are two-thirds of the way through. Here's their latest one (Dennis Lehane for Massachusetts), which includes a list of their previous ones at the bottom.

P.P.S. Just came across this, while state-obsessed: Want to match state stereotypes with what researchers have found? Gene Expression links to a paper by university researchers that rate the levels of "Neuroticism," "Extraversion," "Conscientiousness," "Agreeableness," and "Openness" in each state in handy maps. Pretty fascinating. (Washington state: agreeable, introverted, not neurotic? Sounds right...) (Via Sullivan)

50 Writers, 50 States: Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey on State by State

0061470902_240 When I first met Minnesota's own Matt Weiland at BookExpo a few years ago, he was living in London, as an editor for the great literary magazine Granta, and had gone native to the extent that he (and his friend Sean Wilsey) had edited a book on soccer, The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, for which they asked 32 writers to write essays on the 32 countries playing in the 2006 tournament. Not too long ago, Matt moved back to the States to work on another great literary magazine, The Paris Review, and started getting back in touch with his home. By his own report, he began

hitting the Americana hard: I read Moby-Dick and Huck Finn again, and I gorged on Preston Sturges films and Will Eisner comics and the aching Old Time music that is heavy on banjos and beards. I spent a long Sunday walking down Broadway and a weekend bicycling on the Jersey Shore and a week driving 3,000 miles though the Midwest. I ate a whole lot of pie.

That's from his preface to an even more ambitious geographical stunt he concocted with Wilsey, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait. They commissioned 50 writers for essays on the 50 states (and added an interview about that underrepresented district, Washington, D.C., with its best-known chronicler, Edward P. Jones). Inspired by the WPA guides of the '30s Federal Writers Project, Weiland and Wilsey asked writers from Louise Erdrich and Jonathan Franzen to Anthony Bourdain and Sarah Vowell to write about the states they knew best--or, in some cases, states they'd never set foot in before.

It's a great idea and, it turns out, a gorgeous and smart book, looking enough like an old social studies textbook that I was tempted to write my name and homeroom in the back, except that it would have marred the lovely endpapers by the cartoonist Seth. And their inspired project has inspired a number of other stunts: our I-5 and internet neighbors at Powell's have based their third "Out of the Book" movie on State by State, which, judging by the trailer available for viewing, looks adorable and funny. And today we're embarking on a folly of our own: a project to choose (with help from you and some guest contributors, including many of the writers in State by State) the best books from each state. (Much more on that later.) But first, I talked with Matt and Sean a few days ago about regional identities, how they put the book together, where to go to get beat up in Key West, and grade-school censorship in Minnesota. You can read the interview below, but if you'd like to get an immediate sense of the regional distinctions that still remain in our homogenizing society, take a listen to this short clip (in which we discuss, of all things, regional distinctions in our homogenizing society), and note Matt's clipped Minnesota notes, Sean's mellow California tones, and my own suburban Maryland mumble.

Amazon.com: What state--or states--are you calling from?

Sean: We're both in New York city.

Amazon.com: Okay, level with me: you asked 50 writers to write about 50 states, but they all live in Brooklyn, don't they?

Matt: Oh, that is a low blow.

Continue reading "50 Writers, 50 States: Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey on State by State" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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Note: with the Wall Street Journal putting more of their content online, I've added them to my weekly circuit.

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Robert Stone on The Forever War by Dexter Filkins: "Now, in the tradition of 'Dispatches,' with the publication of Dexter Filkins’s stunning book, 'The Forever War,' it seems the journals of the brave correspondents assigned to the Middle East will take their place as the pre-eminent record of America’s late-imperial adventures, the heart of these heartless exercises in disaster, maybe some consolation to those maimed and bereaved in them.... The contrast of his eloquence and humanity with the shameless snake-oil salesmanship employed by the American government to get the thing started serves us well."
  • Jennifer Szalai on City of Refuge by Tom Piazza: "If all of this sounds both well intentioned and schematic, that’s because it is. 'City of Refuge' seems to have been planned as a novel about the triumph of virtue in the face of disaster; not a novel concerned with what may or may not happen to virtue in the lives of particular characters, but a novel in which the characters are deployed to show that virtue will, in the end, prevail.... The haste with which so many lines seem to have been written, the plucking of sentimentality’s low-hanging fruit, suggests a novelist who assumes he can neglect literary possibilities in his pronouncement of what he takes to be a Greater Truth."
  • Maslin on Goldengrove by Francine Prose: "Her modest-sounding book turns out to be beautifully wrought.... 'Goldengrove' is one of Ms. Prose’s gentler books — far more so than the bitingly satirical 'A Changed Man.' But it’s not a sentimental one. It draws the reader into and then out of 'that hushed and watery border zone where we live alongside the dead,' and it does this with mostly effortless narrative verve. And it scorns the bathos of its genre, so it does not become an invitation to wallow in suffering. It prefers the comforts of strength, growth and forward motion."

Washington Post:

  • Ron Charles on Indignation by Philip Roth: "Copies of Indignation, Philip Roth's ferocious little tale, ought to be handed out on college campuses along with condoms and tetanus shots. This cathartic story might vent some of the volatile self-righteousness that can consume the lives of passionate young people (and, yes, old people too). It's not that it breaks any new ground; the author's favorite themes are all here ... but with Indignation, Roth presents his most concentrated parable of self-destructive fury."
  • Josiah Bunting III on The War Within by Bob Woodward: "Mainly, it is a study of what happens when men and women, charged with leading the country in wartime or with counseling those who lead, do not tell each other what they really think. White House advisers are faithless to their responsibilities if they withhold their conclusions and convictions from those they serve, or from their colleagues. It is a toxicity that, by Woodward's account, infected the whole grim process."
  • Fergus M. Bordewich on The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed: "Liberating the woman known to Jefferson's smirking enemies as 'dusky Sally' from the lumber room of scandal and legend, Gordon-Reed leads her into the daylight of a country where slaves and masters met on intimate terms. In so doing, Gordon-Reed also shines an uncompromisingly fresh but not unsympathetic light on the most elusive of the Founding Fathers."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Tim Rutten on Roth's Indignation: "One of the ways to recognize  truly great writers is that even their mistakes engage us. Philip Roth is our greatest living novelist, and his new book, 'Indignation,' is an irritating, puzzling and fascinating bundle of mistakes, miscalculations and self-indulgences." (For what it's worth, Rutten is wrong, and Charles above is right, about this one.)
  • Jim Ruland on Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford: "'Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine' -- the book's most inelegant passage is its title -- is a brave and audacious novel whose style, structure, story and language come together like strands of hemp spliced into an intricate knot.Is the premise fantastic? Absolutely. But the novel's emotional truth is as instructive as any fable. Marriage, Crawford seems to be saying, is more than a long sea voyage: It's like being press-ganged onto a sloop ruled by a bullying first mate and a treacherous captain.... His novel is to marriage what Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' is to parenting."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

David Foster Wallace: Two Stories, and the Fall of Videophony

Thanks, Brad. I realize that over the past dozen years since Infinite Jest came out, I've walked around with a tiny good feeling somewhere deep in my filing system (and more than a few times--including once I can remember distinctly just a few weeks ago--it's popped up into my consciousness and made me smile) that "David Foster Wallace is working on something big right now, and some day I'll get to read it." As unimaginably terrible (or worse: terribly imaginable) as the personal side of this story is, I'm also already mourning the words (many, many words, always tumbling on that edge between fussily exact and colloquially sloppy) that he won't write now and that we won't read.

(Less consciously, I think I also carried around the idea that at some point, if I stuck around in the book world long enough, I might get to play some tennis with DFW, I guess my generational equivalent of going marlin fishing with Hemingway. I figured he would be hilarious, maybe sort of a jerk but more likely gracious and sweet, and I'm sure he would have creamed me.)

I have a couple "David Foster Wallace stories" that I tell, both from before I got into the book business (or rather, got farther in than the usual business of being a reader). The first one I tell more often because it's a lot simpler and has two punch lines: I went to see him read at our local Elliott Bay Books on the Infinite Jest tour--it was medium-packed there, but I was front and center, although I hadn't read anything of his fiction yet and remember being vaguely annoyed that he had written something so long that no one would ever read. He read the video telephony section of the book (see below) and I can still say that I have never been in another room where complete strangers were laughing so hard together. The moment that I remember best (and that I'm glad to think of this evening) was when DFW himself, deservedly joyful at his own brilliance or just infected by the response of the rest of us, had to stop mid-sentence for a few seconds because he was laughing so hard. The rest of that story, though, is that after the reading, he said thanks and headed directly off the podium, where he was met halfway to the exit by the young man from the bookstore who had introduced him. As I remember it, the host mentioned that, per tradition, they had planned to open the floor to a Q&A, and there was an awkward moment--which felt much longer than a moment--when DFW didn't really say anything but made clear that he preferred not to. They remained standing, awkwardly, at that halfway point at the side of the audience and somehow, either invited or not, someone from the audience did speak up with a standard post-reading question like "Who are your influences?", to which Wallace muttered, "If that's what the questions are going to be like, then no," and continued his exit. To my mind, the second moment, quickly translated in my mind to "Wow, David Foster Wallace is a dick," was overwhelmed by the pleasure and camaraderie of the first, although I'm not sure everyone else there felt that way. 

Continue reading "David Foster Wallace: Two Stories, and the Fall of Videophony" »

Election 2008: A Map of America's Reading

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You may have already come across it on our site, but I wanted to call out a new Election 2008 page we launched today. The centerpiece is a snazzy, data-drenched map of the country (thanks Christel, John, Jana, and everyone else who knows things I don't and helped build it), with each state colored with varying shades of red or blue depending on the political book-buying habits of our customers there over the past 60 days (the map is updated every day). There's plenty to click around on there: for each state you can see the percentages of "red" and "blue" books purchased there and two "local favorites" (not the bestselling political books there, necessarily, but the ones that are selling relatively better there than in other places). And you can also go back in time to see how the map looked in previous two-month periods during this year and 2004. (The image above is how the map looked on September 9, 2008, but you'll have to go to the page itself to see it in action.)

I'll leave it up to you to interpret the map as you like (yep, it's pretty red right now), and to make your own discoveries. But I find clicking around to see the local favorites pretty fascinating (yes, Sarah is the favorite red book in Alaska and Joe Biden's memoir is the favorite blue one in Delaware--and, for that matter, "Fritz" Hollings apparently remains beloved in South Carolina). And going through the 2004 maps in order is rather stunning: it's blue, blue, blue (especially after Bill Clinton's My Life came out in June), but click on July-August and boy, everything suddenly turns to red (thanks, Swift Boaters). Things swing back a bit before the election, and then in November-December it's mostly blue again, as depressed Democrats turned to Tom Frank and George Lakoff to explain what happened (and keep it from happening again). We have no expectations that the maps reflect voting or will predict the election, but they do tell a story.

You can read an explanation of how the map works, and how we chose the red and blue books (as well as the long list of "purple" books that didn't fit either category), and there's plenty more to see on the page, including author interviews, which we'll be adding more of over the next two months, and meters comparing book sales for the presidential and vice presidential candidates. We know politics can make everybody crazy (I'm pretty sure the roller coasters of this endless election year are giving me an ulcer), but we thought this would be an entertaining and mildly enlightening way to give a new perspective on this serious ritual. Enjoy. --Tom

P.S. I'm sorry for not making this clearer: the image above is not the snazzy interactive map itself--you have to go to the Election 2008 page for that. I've linked the map now so that a click will send you there.

Booker Shortlist Announced: Big Names Gone

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Showing an inclination for big, fat sagas and a lack of interest in the biggest names and the bookies' favorites from their longlist, the Booker judges announced their shortlist of six this morning:

Not on the list: Salman Rushdie, Joseph O'Neill, for his acclaimed (in America, at least) Netherland, and Michelle de Kretser's touted Lost Dog. Such were the expectations that the chair of the judges could make a headline by saying something that one would think would be self-evident, that Rushdie's Enchantress of Florence was "not good enough" to make the list (sorry, Daphne!).

So what is on the list? Maybe not big names, but big books: Ghosh, Hensher, and Toltz each top 500 pages. There's been a lot of advance word on Sea of Poppies, and I've already expressed my interest in A Fraction of the Whole, but the one that appeals to me most is The Northern Clemency. There's only one customer review for it so far on our UK site (by Nina, from "England"), but it really made me want read the book (I think "Nina" and I like the same things):

I finished The Northern Clemency 4 weeks ago and have been letting it sink in. It is a wonderfully resonant novel, and the people and places still live within my head. It is, for want of a better word, a 'family saga', following the lives of two Sheffield families from the 1970s to today but it is also much more than that. It creates an entire world with a 'cast of dozens', with some marvellous cameo chapters devoted to secondary figures who make the world come alive. It is terribly emotionally involving; it made me weep twice, and this is _because_ of its sparse language that allows the reader to fill in the gaps. The book threw me in and tumbled me about, lulled me into complacency and then hurled something unexpected at me.

I loved the way we weave in and out of different people's consciousnesses, and i never quite knew where I was going to end up.

The prose in this novel is to die for. Some favourite images include the phrase ' She looked at him, sharpening a pencil in her head' and, 'He danced, moving from one foot to the other and making vague clay-shaping motions with his hands.' I hope this gives you a tiny idea of the wonderfully assured mastery of this author. I knew I was in good hands from page 1, and I wasn't let down.

I loved the build-up and the way people get mentioned on p.2 and then disappear from view until they unexpectedly reappear on p.64 in new, delightful combinations. I was entranced by the insight that suspense and surprise needn't come from the story itself but can come entirely from the plot, that is, from the way the story is presented. Unexpected revelations sneak up on you and give you delicious shivers of recognition.
I absolutely loved it. I only wish there were additional amazon stars to mete out because this deserves 7 of them. It is truly outstanding.

"Sharpening a pencil in her head"! That's enough to draw me in. There's also a well-timed interview with Hensher live on the Guardian book pages this week.

The winner's announced on October 14. --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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Big books out this week--and big disagreements about them--make for a long installment of Old Media Monday:

New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Caroline Elkins on The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper: "At its heart, 'The House at Sugar Beach' is a coming-of-age story told with unremitting honesty. With her pedigree and her freedom from internalized racism, Cooper is liberated to enjoy a social universe that is a fluid mix of all things American and African.... While Cooper’s memoir is mesmerizing in its portrayal of a Liberia rarely witnessed, its description of the psychological devastation — and coping mechanisms — brought on by profound loss is equally captivating."
  • Kakutani on The War Within by Bob Woodward: "This volume contains less compelling news than Mr. Woodward’s earlier Bush books and makes for considerably less gripping reading.... Much of 'The War Within' simply ratifies the picture that has already emerged from newspaper and magazine articles and dozens of books by journalists and former administration insiders. It’s a picture of an administration riven by internal conflicts..., an administration in which the advice of experts was frequently ignored or dismissed, traditional policy-making channels were routinely circumvented, policy often took a backseat to electoral politics, accountability was repeatedly evaded, and few advisers dared speak truth to power."
  • Kakutani's knives are busy this week. Here she is on Home by Marilynne Robinson: "Whereas Ms. Robinson used her remarkable descriptive powers and pointillist prose in 'Gilead' to give the reader a keen sense of that small, Midwestern town and to conjure up the history of John Ames’s uncommon family, she focuses in this novel on the unhappy emotional mathematics of Jack’s relationship with his father, a task unsuited to her strongest gifts as a writer.... This results in a static, even suffocating narrative in which very little is dramatized, and much is recalled secondhand."
  • Ron Carlson on Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx: "All but one of the stories in 'Fine Just the Way It Is' range from the 19th century to the modern day and offer a world in which the natural elements are murderous and folks aren’t much better.... From time to time, you glimpse an Eden in Proulx’s world, and when you see it, you’d better take a photograph, because it won’t last long."
  • S. Kirk Walsh on A Better Angel by Chris Adrian: "In 'A Better Angel' Chris Adrian creates his own lexicon of grief that moves from quiet moments of anguish to sharp fits of rage. The stories in this collection feature fatal car crashes, attempted suicides, incurable illnesses and the tragic events of 9/11. But don’t be deterred by the dismal subject matter. Mr. Adrian is a gifted, courageous writer ... and with this collection he continues to take far-reaching risks. Unspeakable grief and the innate will to survive create opposing forces in these stories, producing a universe bursting with humor and life."

Washington Post:

  • Joseph S. Nye Jr. on Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman: "Like it or not, we need Tom Friedman. The peripatetic columnist has made himself a major interpreter of the confusing world we inhabit. He travels to the farthest reaches, interviews everyone from peasants to chief executives and expresses big ideas in clear and memorable prose. While pettifogging academics (a select few of whom he favors) complain that his catchy phrases and anecdotes sometimes obscure deeper analysis, by and large Friedman gets the big issues right."
  • Ron Charles on Robinson's Home: "Even more than their stylistic beauty, what's miraculous about Gilead and Home is their explicit focus on spiritual affliction, discussed in the hard terms of Protestant theology. Robinson uses the words 'grace,' 'salvation' and 'prayer' frequently and without embarrassment and without drifting into the gassy lingo of ecumenical spirituality. Her characters cower in the shadow of perdition."
  • Michael Dirda on Anathem by Neal Stephenson: "Everyone has gone all out for Anathem. I fully expected to join the stampede. Alas, I can't even lope slowly alongside the herd. Oh, Anathem will certainly be admired for its intelligence, ambition, control and ingenuity. But loved? Enjoyed? The book reminds me of Harold Brodkey's The Runaway Soul from 17 years ago -- much anticipated, in places quite brilliant, but ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull. That's an awful thing to say about a novel as formidable as Anathem, but there's no getting around it."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Laura Miller on Stephenson's Anathem: "'Anathem' is massive ... with a steep initial learning curve, but worth the effort all the same. Fiction that expertly ranges from social satire to adventure yarn to lucid explications of concepts such as configuration space is rare indeed. If Indiana Jones turned quantum physicist and took over Jostein Gaarder's bestselling novel-cum-philosophy-primer 'Sophie's World,' well, that might come close."
  • Emily Barton on Robinson's Home: "Robinson has chosen to revisit certain scenes in her new novel, 'Home,' this time writing from the perspective of Glory Boughton, one of 'Gilead's' minor characters. Yet this co-quel has a beauty all its own.... The two volumes belong together because they complement each other in so many ways. They fit with and around each other perfectly, each complete on its own, yet enriching and enlivening the other. But both are books of such beauty and power that they ultimately beggar description. If I cannot do 'Home' justice in describing it, I can, at least, commend it to you with my whole heart."
  • Susan Salter Reynolds on An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken: "This is an intimate book -- McCracken does not spare us her anger, fear, frustration or despondency. It is also a wildly important book -- we do not live alongside the dead the way we ought to: We sweep them off to the margins as quickly as possible."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Sargent First Novel Nominees: More Library Love for Young Writers

Yesterday I quoted Janet Maslin comparing Hannah Tinti's new novel The Good Thief to the blockbuster Story of Edgar Sawtelle as two examples of "plain-spoken fiction full of traditional virtues," and today both books appear on the shortlist for the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction's third annual John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize (via GalleyCat):

It's a newish prize, but with a pretty good track record: last year's winner, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, went on of course to win the Pulitzer too, and the inaugural prize went to Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which ended up, among other things, on the New York Times's Best 10 Books of the year list. (And I'm sorry to be annoying with the name-dropping, but the coincidence is too odd not to mention: Diaz and Pessl are the only two novelists I've had lunch with at a particular restaurant near our offices. So if any superstitious 2008 nominee will be in Seattle and would like to improve their chances before the winner is announced in early December, I'm extending an open invitation to dine at Tulio at 5th Ave. and Spring St.)

And meanwhile, what's with the arms race among New York libraries and their young writer awards? The New York Public Library gives out their Young Literary Lions prize in the spring; the onus apparently is now on the Morgan Library and Schomburg Center to follow with well-funded awards for literary beginners. One almost suspects that the libraries, like operas and symphonies, have been told by their boards of directors to attract a new generation of patrons; therefore, prizes for their peers. You might think libraries would look instead to recognizing longer-lived value, and it's reassuring to see that the Merc's other two awards, both excellent ideas, do just that: the Maxwell E. Perkins Award, a lifetime achievement prize for "an editor, publisher, or agent who over the course of his or her career has discovered, nurtured and championed writers of fiction in the United States" (which recalls the recent discussion here of "legendary" editors), and the Clifton Fadiman Medal, for "a work of fiction, by a living American author, which deserves rediscovery and a wider readership" and which was published more than 10 years before. I think of this one as the New York Review Books award, since it resurrects exactly the same sort of lost classic that my favorite publishing series does, so it's fitting that the first Fadiman winner, in 2000, is currently published by NYRB (and was indeed written by one of the founders of the New York Review): Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights. I'll also note that the second winner, The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, is one of my own most beloved rediscoveries--I only came to it a few years ago, after reading Hazzard's The Great Fire, and it immediately became one of my all-time favorite books. --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Joyce Carol Oates on American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld: "Curtis Sittenfeld surely did not intend to create, in this mostly amiable, entertaining novel, anything so ambitious — or so presumptuous — as a political/cultural allegory in the 19th-century mode, yet 'American Wife' might be deconstructed as a parable of America in the years of the second Bush presidency: the 'American wife' is in fact the American people, or at least those millions of Americans who voted for a less-than-qualified president in two elections — the all-forgiving enabler for whom the bromide 'love' excuses all." On Friday, Kakutani liked the book until the politics took over: "In the final pages of 'American Wife'... it’s clear that Ms. Sittenfeld has stopped channeling the thoughts and feelings of a character she has so meticulously created and instead begun using that heroine as a sock puppet for her own views on the unhappy tenure of the Bush administration."
  • Maslin on The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti, a "darkly transporting debut novel": "Recently in 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,' and now in 'The Good Thief,' the reader can find plain-spoken fiction full of traditional virtues: strong plotting, pure lucidity, visceral momentum and a total absence of writerly mannerisms."
  • Dave Itzkoff on The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitin: "Music, Levitin argues, is not just something to help pass the time on road trips and a swell facilitator for meeting girls: it is, he writes, 'the soundtrack of civilization' — a force that shaped us as a species and prepared us for the higher-order task of sharing complex communications with one another.... [T]o the extent that 'The World in Six Songs' succeeds, it works much like a great piece of pop music, whose combined elements can induce feelings of enlightenment and euphoria, even when some of the words don’t hold up to closer scrutiny."
  • Mark Danner on The Way of the World by Ron Suskind: "In a crowded, highly talented field, Mr. Suskind bids fair to claim the crown as the most perceptive, incisive, dogged chronicler of the inner workings of the Bush administration.... At bottom, Mr. Suskind is intent on posing deeper questions: about transparency and the 'dying cult' of secrecy; about 'defining human progress together'; about the 'lack of imagination about what the nation might yet become.' These are hard, frustrating, complicated matters to which he offers only tentative answers, some of them vague, sentimental, even naïve. But he is brave enough to try to discover, through relentless reporting and a sustained and admirable act of sympathy, the right questions. In this age of scandal, we must be grateful to him for that."

Washington Post:

  • Ron Charles on Tinti's The Good Thief: "It may be too quaint to imagine there are still families reading aloud together at night (so many Web sites, so little time), but if you're out there, consider Hannah Tinti's charming first novel.... Ren's plight is creaky with sentimentality, but Tinti knows how to keep her balance as she steps through these hoary conventions of Victorian melodrama. By the time she finishes describing Ren's little collection of stolen objects and his muted despair, I wanted to sign the adoption papers myself."
  • Robert G. Kaiser on The Limits of Power by Andrew Bacevich: " This compact, meaty volume ought to be on the reading list of every candidate for national office -- House, Senate or the White House -- in November's elections. In an age of cant and baloney, Andrew Bacevich offers a bracing slap of reality.... Bacevich is argumentative, and his case is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but at the end of this book, a serious reader has a difficult choice: to embrace Bacevich's general view or to construct a genuinely persuasive alternative. For many years our leaders have failed to do either."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Stacey D'Erasmo on The Road Home by Rose Tremain: "She proves herself again magically capable of animating a character from the inside out, illuminating the heart of one modern exile with an extraordinary degree of love, imagination and insight. The pleasure, the wit and the joy in humanity that Tremain brings to every page do what literature, at its best, should do: connect us, as E.M. Forster famously exhorted. Particularly, connect us to the invisible, the lonely, the barely seen."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Ur-WASPs at Work: More on Rust Hills

Great_esquire_fiction For those of you who don't swim against the chronological current of the blog (or who don't read the comments section), I just wanted to point you to an anecdotal addendum that Gerald Howard sent in for my post last week on the passing of editors Ted Solotaroff and Rust Hills. I had quoted Howard's appreciation of Solotaroff; he adds his memory of watching Hills in action, along with another Viking Penguin editor, Cork Smith:

These two ur-WASP gentlemen were tossing around what might be the contents of the eventual anthology GREAT ESQUIRE FICTION, and it was sort of wonderful to watch them and then it was sort of excruciating, as there was a lot of fumbling around and opinions that never yielded any concrete result and pointless general woolgathering. I eventually absented myself, but the book of course lived up to its title.

He also reminds us of a further connection between the two men: Solotaroff's response to Hills's "Red Hot Center" (in his map of the American literary establishment) gave him the title for his essay collection, The Red Hot Vacuum.

What a pleasure to hear that direct reminiscence. If there are any other readers with memories of Hills or Solotaroff, I'd love to hear them. --Tom

P.S. Why are editors so often referred to as "legendary"? I used it a couple times in my post, and Howard used it too to describe Cork Smith (while acknowledging its diluted power by calling him "TRULY legendary"). I guess it's fairly obvious: editors do their work in the dark for the most part, and, like Negro League ballplayers or old whaling captains, their reputations are built by word of mouth. And so, in keeping with the exacting use of language that is their profession, "legendary" is a literal description (if an overused one): legendary editors are the ones we tell stories about. So please: more legends, about these or other editors!

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Max Rodenbeck on A Path Out of the Desert by Kenneth Pollack: "Pollack seems oddly unaware of history’s motivating forces. To assert that 'what triggers revolutions, civil wars and other internal unrest is psychological factors, particularly feelings of extreme despair,' is plain silly. The Boston Tea Party could not have been prevented by Prozac.... What is troubling about Pollack’s view, which is fairly representative of his fellow liberal interventionists, who are likely to be in power soon, is its lack of clarity.... No matter what good will America’s 'policy community' proclaims toward the Middle East, this mix of blinkered indulgence of Israel and disdain for the rest of the region, as well as a predilection for Wilsonian dreams over achievable goals, suggests we will remain in the wilderness for some time to come."
  • Miranda Seymour on White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple: "By restoring the colonel to what now seems his rightful position — as a courageous, principled radical who was Dickinson’s chosen reader, admirer and advocate — Wineapple throws what she describes as 'a small, considered beam' upon the work and life of these two 'seemingly incompatible friends,' the recluse and the activist. That 'beam,' when directed by a writer as thorough and intuitive as Wineapple, brightens not only the pale figures of the poet and the hitherto elusive colonel but the poems for which, upon occasion, Dickinson drew inspiration from Higginson’s more active life."
  • Robert Macfarlane on Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux: "Certain writers have a style that can be best likened to body odor: irresistible to some, obnoxious to many and apparently imperceptible to the writer himself. Theroux’s lack of self-awareness, his failure to observe the basic hygiene of modesty, is compelling in its way. How can anyone be this narcissistic, you wonder in disbelief, in appalled fascination.... After reading the auto-hagiography of the Turkmen leader Niyazov, Theroux summarizes it as 'pages and pages … most of it self-reverential.' He could be writing a press release for his own book."
  • Charles Taylor on The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson: "Handsomely reconstituted by New Directions from the scarce original editions, 'The Unfortunates' comes in a box of 27 unbound chapters.... Picking up the sheaves of 'The Unfortunates,' sometimes only a page, that familiar heft is replaced by the feel of the ephemeral, even fragile, and that translates, as we are reading, to the fragility of the experiences we are reading about: friendship, marriage, betrayal, parenthood, early death.... This book, with no belief in God, no hope of heaven, makes you feel the stuff of life as sacred, and our inability to hold on to it as damnation enough for anyone to be made to bear."

Washington Post:

  • Douglas Wolk on Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw: "The young cartoonist Dash Shaw comes down firmly on the symbolic end of the comics continuum. Shaw isn't much of a draftsman in the conventional sense, but he's got a gift for evoking what things feel like and mean, rather than what they look like.... All of Shaw's formal experimentation ... works in the service of the story's emotional impact: It's a sprawling mess, but a fascinating, affecting sprawling mess, whose raw invention and sentimental core justify each other."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Tim Rutten on Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: "What's really remarkable about "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" is how much it reveals about Theroux the writer.... One of the problems Theroux presents to the careful reader is the fact that he's a compelling writer who is essentially unlikable. In part, that's a consequence of his blimpish judgments on everyone upon whom his disapproval settles -- including the rich and the Chinese, as a people."
  • Jane Smiley on Man in the Dark by Paul Auster: " Brill, Brick, Frisk, darkness, metafiction, sinuous and elegant style. Yup, it's Paul Auster.... A narrative built of layers and layers of disorientation is not new for Auster -- this is, in fact, his specialty. It used to be that his young men were disoriented and that their disorientation afforded the reader a new way of seeing the world. Now it is his old men who are disoriented, but their way of seeing the world is more weary than fresh. Frankly, this book could be funnier. Or darker. Or meaner. Or something."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Losing Two Legends of a Lost Art: Ted Solotaroff and Rust Hills

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I'm often on the obit desk here at Omni central, and were I not on vacation last week I would have liked to note the passing, nearly in tandem, of two legends of the rather narrow field of magazine fiction editing, Ted Solotaroff (mostly at his own paperback-style journal, The New American Review) and Rust Hills (mostly at Esquire, back when it was the best magazine in the business, and then later when it wasn't). But happily, especially since my knowledge of their careers is mainly second- and third-hand, others have stepped in, including Thomas Beller in Slate, who speculates why both men still had a hunger to find and edit new work long after they had left their powerful positions:

Editing is really about deciding—you have to decide whether you like the overall voice and content of what you are reading, and if you do, you have to make certain decisions about the internal life of the piece. Editing can be at its most profound when it involves making a vague, almost aphoristic remark that might change a writer's entire focus, and it can be most profound when it entails wrestling with minutia, adding commas or subtracting them and, in this tiny way, changing the whole style and feel of a piece of writing. The malleability of a piece of writing as it is experienced by the reader in draft form makes reading more taxing than it would be on the printed page. But it also brings with it a bump of excitement. It lends a feeling of power and adventure to the reading experience. I assume that this feeling of power—and also, if you are discovering a writer, the vicarious sense of accomplishment and, finally, the bright moment of seeing beyond what is there on the page to what could be there—is what draws people to being fiction editors, especially fiction editors for magazines, which is one of the strangest and hardest-to-describe professions. There used to be so many of them! Where have they gone?

Beller also recommends the "bracing" charms of "Writing in the Cold," an essay of Solotaroff's describing all a young writer is up against (collected in A Few Good Voices in My Head, and also, as far as I can tell from the publisher's site, in the more recent--and still in print--collection, The Literary Community).

You can read what the embalmer of record, the New York Times, said about Solotaroff and Hills; Bruce Weber's Hills piece is notable both for its fantastically glamorous 1973 photo (my god, that hair!), copied above, and for this equally fantastic sentence: "With a brilliant smile and the early facial creases of happy dissipation, he was known for being cranky, curious, passive-aggressive and, most of all, persnickety." Weber quotes Ann Beattie as saying he was "great at titles," a talent he took to excess, in a 70s-time-capsule sort of way, in what Weber calls his "fussy-man trilogy" of essay collections, How to Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man, How to Retire at 41, or Dropping Out of the Rat Race Without Going Down the Drain, and How to Be Good, or the Somewhat Tricky Business of Attaining Moral Virtue in a Society That’s Not Just Corrupt But Corrupting, Without Being Completely Out-of-It. Hills's most notorious achievement was his stunt feature in Esquire in 1963 diagramming, unapologetically, "The Structure of the American Literary Establishment," grouping writers, agents, publishers, etc., around the "red-hot center" of American writing (which I think was The Paris Review). Has no enterprising and nostalgic young blogger dug out that old issue and scanned the map? I can't find it anywhere on the web...

Nar Also in Slate, fairly-legendary-himself editor Gerald Howard contributed an appreciation of Solotaroff's New American Review, which lasted from 1967 to 1977 as a one-of-a-kind literary phenomenon that it seems could only have existed (barely) at that cultural moment: a regular highbrow anthology, curated by a single visionary editor and published in mass market form, selling 100,000 copies in drugstores as well as bookstores. Howard's list of some of its remarkable contributors is too long to reproduce, but his assessment of the "best literary magazine ever" isn't: "Man, did it deliver."

As Beller notes, there were enough copies of the NAR bought that you'll still run across old issues in used bookstores all the time: a few have passed through my own hands over the years, although I can't find any on my shelves now (maybe because I ran across them so much I just figured I could dip my hand back down in the stream any time to pick out another). An assiduous user of our search mechanism could put together her own inexpensive collection, including the first issue, an inscribed copy of which Howard counts among his most valued possessions.

--Tom



Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Walter Kirn on How Fiction Works by James Wood: "The heroes of this great artistic labor tend to be semimonastic intro­verts who, like Wood’s beloved Henry James and Gustave Flaubert, toil with the doors shut and locked, in soundproof splendid isolation, attentive to the subtle frictions among nouns and adjectival phrases.... For the vicarish Wood, sequestered in his chamber, part of the fiction writer’s true vocation appears to be acoustic regulation — the engineering of a mental space in which literary whispers can be heard.... For someone who professes to understand the fine machinations of characterization, Wood seems oblivious to the eminently resistible prose style of his donnish, finicky persona."
  • Kakutani on The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank: "Less humorous and far more hectoring than '[What's the Matter with] Kansas,' this volume quickly devolves into a highly partisan, Manichaean-minded screed against conservatives and private-sector economics.... Mr. Frank comes across in these pages as a sort of parody of the liberal right-wingers love to hate — as someone in love with big government for the sake of big government and opposed to all manner of capitalism and entrepreneurial initiative." Meanwhile, on Sunday, Michael Lind notes "Frank’s portrait of the conservative movement ... sacrifices complexity to caricature," but says, "With rare exceptions like John Kenneth Galbraith, conservatives ... have been the best satirists. In Thomas Frank, the American left has found its own Juvenal."
  • Sophie Gee on The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson: "The lovers in 'The Gargoyle' have the intimacy of roommates who hook up when they get drunk, not a time-defying passion. Their thoughts, feelings, conversations and affections are so unformed, so hampered by sentiment and under­powered awkwardness that the courage, endurance and under­standing ascribed to them seem silly. Davidson’s lovers are dysfunctional and quirky, qualities that can look a bit like profundity from a distance, but they don’t have emotional or imaginative depth or range, which at the end of the day are the only things that can make a love story deep and wide-ranging."
  • Douglas Wolk on Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko: "The portrait that emerges here is of an artist whose principles have ossified into bitter perversity.... Ditko isn’t easy to love. As vivid as his work is, it’s never been pretty, and he’s never returned to his most famous creations for a victory lap or courted attention beyond acknowledgment of his work. The raw, nightmarish visions of his art are all he offers, and all he’s ever needed to offer."

Washington Post:

  • John A. Nagl on The Strongest Tribe by Bing West: "West has made 15 reporting trips to Iraq over the last six years and is almost as personally invested in the current conflict as he was in Vietnam; this book, his third on Iraq, is his attempt to ensure that the 'endgame' in Iraq turns out better than in his last war. It is increasingly possible to believe that it will."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Erica Schickel on Waiter Rant by "The Waiter": "'Waiter Rant' has all the fixings for fun.... He delivers a smorgasbord of objectionable personalities and high-stress situations, always serving from the left, rendering his stories impeccably but perhaps a little stiffly. Everybody gets their due: his temperamental, paranoid bosses; the noble, illegal busboys; the slacker co-waiters. But Dublanica's true bile is reserved for customers: the rude, the ridiculous, the entitled, the drunk, the horny, the stoned and, worst of all, the Foodies. 'The Food Network,' he writes, 'is, quite simply, the Death Star of American cooking.'"
  • Richard Eder on How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken by Daniel Mendelsohn: "Sharp as he can be in his judgments, he is equally sharp in identifying the virtues of what he doesn't like. He gives a spacious view of the countryside, whatever the particular road he hews through it. He takes his subjects seriously, but not himself. Like Snow White, you might say, he whistles while he works."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Alan Brinkley on The Dark Side by Jane Mayer: "In some respects, the Bush administration is simply following a familiar path by responding to real dangers with illegal and deplorable methods. But Jane Mayer’s extraordinary and invaluable book suggests that it would be difficult to find any precedent in American history for the scale, brutality and illegality of the torture and degradation inflicted on detainees over the last six years; and that it would be even harder to imagine a set of policies more likely to increase the dangers facing the United States and the world."
  • Thomas Mallon on Can You Ever Forgive Me: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel: "Israel displayed an excellent ear and fine false turn of phrase during the 15 or so months in the early 1990s when she sold hundreds of phony celebrity letters — and a lot of filched real ones — to about 30 different dealers. Now, all these years later, she’s written a slender, sordid and pretty damned fabulous book about her misadventures.... If I were a librarian, I wouldn’t let Lee Israel through the door, but I’d certainly make sure I had her latest book on the shelves. If I were an editor, I’d sign her up to write a biography of Louise Brooks — and not just to keep her out of trouble."
  • Nicholson Baker on Reading the OED by Ammon Shea: "The effect of this book on me was to make me like Ammon Shea and, briefly, to hate English. What a choking, God-awful mash it is! Surely French is better. Then I recovered and saw its greatness afresh. The O.E.D., Shea notes, is 'a catalog of the foibles of the human condition.' Shea has walked the wildwood of our gnarled, ancient speech and returned singing incomprehensible sounds in a language that turns out to be our own."
  • Kakutani on Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing: "Doris Lessing once declared that 'fiction makes a better job of the truth' than straightforward reminiscence, and while that might well be true of her celebrated and semi-autobiographical Martha Quest novels, it’s an observation that doesn’t apply at all to her latest book, 'Alfred & Emily,' an intriguing work that is half fiction, half memoir. The sketchy, insubstantial first half of the book imagines what her parents’ lives might have been like if World War I had never occurred. The potent and harrowing second half recounts the real life story of her parents, and the incalculable ways in which the war fractured their dreams and psyches and left them stranded in the bush in Africa, eking out a meager existence on a tiny farm in Rhodesia."

Washington Post:

  • Ron Charles on The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson: "In the opening pages of The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson's outrageous new novel, a pornographer high on cocaine runs his car off a mountain road. The vehicle bursts into flames and burns him to a crisp. Welcome to the pain-riddled world of an acerbic, 35-year-old man who loses everything in those fiery minutes: his career, his fortune, his skin -- all broiled away. This is a story for people who like their literary entertainment well done."
  • Joel Brouwer on White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple: "Brenda Wineapple ... brings a scholar's diligence and a novelist's imagination to her account of Dickinson and Higginson's relationship, crafting a tour de force that should delight specialists and casual readers alike. The book's individual strands of inquiry -- Higginson's life, Dickinson's poems, the letters that passed between them, and the historical, political and artistic contexts of the age -- are interesting in and of themselves, but when intertwined so as to inform and strengthen each other, they're fascinating."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Uh, I hate to kick a book section when it's down, but their new book pages are nearly unreadable in Firefox (at least on my machine).
  • Nick Owchar on A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans: "'A Good and Happy Child' is so well done that part of me wishes I had missed it: I like to sleep soundly at night. Now, I find myself checking the doors and windows more often than I used to and listening to make sure it's really the cat I'm hearing in the hall.... By tapping into our own fears, 'A Good and Happy Child' leaves us buzzing with dread long after we have put it down."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Booker Longlist Announced

The fall awards season kicked off today with the announcement of the longlist for the Booker Prize, 13 books long to be exact. As usual it's a mix of books that have already come out in the US, ones that are out in the UK but not the US, and ones that haven't come out anywhere yet:

A couple of big names (Rushdie, fresh off defending his Best of the Bookers crown, as well as former prize-hating Booker winner John Berger), but on a list this long, the immediate story is who was left off and in this case that includes big and biggish names like Peter Carey, Tim Winton, James Kelman, and Zoe Heller. There's been a very active discussion board on the Booker site, with a lot of debate about possible nominees--often by people who have actually read the books!--but when they tallied their longlist predictions, they didn't fare so well, getting only Rushdie, Barry, Hanif, and Adiga right. Among those they were particularly excited about that didn't make it were Winton's Breath, Alexis Wright's Carpentaria, Andrew Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia, and Damon Galgut's The Impostor.

What will move on to the shortlist (announced September 9)? Netherland is probably the best-reviewed book of the year so far in the US (where it is set), but I don't think it's been quite as rapturously received in the UK, while my sense is that Rushdie's book was better reviewed in the UK (at least by John Sutherland, who doesn't have to eat his copy yet) than here. We've made both Enchantress of Florence and A Case of Exploding Mangoes Best of the Month picks so far this year. And most of the talk about the longlist will likely center on Child 44, a highly promoted and well-reviewed debut that is an unabashed thriller (see Richard K. Morgan on Omni earlier this month on genre fiction and the Booker). The one I'm most intrigued by is Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole, which has gotten comparisons to Dickens, Irving, David Foster Wallace, Marisha Pessl, and last year's finalist Nicola Barker for being both enormous and hilarious. --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Charles McGrath on Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour: "Her odd and oddly affecting book, beautifully written, is in part a story of house-love that borders on madness. It’s also the story of her father, and not the least of its accomplishments is that it instantly catapults him into the front rank of impossible and eccentric English parents — right up there with the overbearing Thomas Butler, nightmarish father of Samuel; with Evelyn Waugh, who wrote that 'I despise all my seven children equally'; and even with Lord Redesdale, Nancy Mitford’s 'Farve,' who once kicked a young man off the family estate just because he carried a pocket comb."
  • Henry Alford on Collections of Nothing by William Davies King: "Part memoir and part disquisition on the psychological impulses behind the urge to accumulate, 'Collections of Nothing' is a wonderfully frank and engaging look at one man’s detritus-fueled pathology. King’s honesty and ambivalence about his pastime only increases his emotional connection to the reader. I wanted, by turns, to breast-feed and strangle him." [Ed: I love this book.]
  • Tom Vanderbilt on Spiral Jetta by Erin Hogan: "I was never quite sure what Hogan was looking for when she set out — self-fulfillment or some new insights into what art is, or what it is for — or indeed whether she found it. But I loved the ride. In 'Spiral Jetta,' an unashamedly honest, slyly uproarious, ever-probing book, art doesn’t magically have the power to change lives, but it can, perhaps no less powerfully, change ways of seeing."
  • Richard Eder on The Creator's Map by Emilio Calderon: "Like 'Da Vinci,' its mysteries are no more than mystifications. Unlike its exemplar, it is put together clumsily: an assemble-it-yourself kit enclosed with instructions in Korean.... A more skillful handling would frame it all as a running mystery; instead it becomes a creeping confusion. To succeed, a mystery smuggles its truth past the reader. Here, the smuggling is done so awkwardly as to spill out rattly chunks of hint, contradiction and clue while trying to get through."

Washington Post:

  • Greg Myre on A Path Out of the Desert by Kenneth Pollack: "Pollack is persuasive in his new book, but it helps to have a touch of amnesia. Those with a working memory may recall that six years ago, Pollack said there was too much hand-wringing about the potential pitfalls of invading Iraq. 'Those who argue that the United States would inevitably become the target of unhappy Iraqis generally also assume that the Iraqi population would be hostile to U.S. forces from the outset,' he wrote. 'However, the best evidence we have suggests that the Iraqi people would be pleased to be liberated.'"
  • Ron Charles on The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry: "Beneath all this hype is a moderately entertaining story of three generations in a setting rich with Wiccan wisdom and deadly misogyny.... If you're the kind of person who copies such sayings on index cards and sticks them on your refrigerator, you'll love these little ornaments, but if you're the kind of person who mocks those people, you may want to peer into the lace and see yourself reading a different novel."

Los Angeles Times:

  • As you may have heard, the LA Times, as part of yet another round of newsroom cost-cutting by the Tribune Company, is shutting down their Sunday book review section and folding the remaining book coverage into their Calendar section. This Sunday's was the last edition of the review, and books editor David Ulin had a short note about the change. The NBCC's Critical Mass has been covering the coverage (and the general trend that may cause this column to run out of links before long): they link, among other places, to the letter of protest from four former Times book editors and to Scott McLemee's lament about the short-sightedness of newspapers abandoning the print culture they are a part of. For my part, I'll just say that of the dailies I keep an eye on in preparing Old Media Monday, the LA Times has carried, along with the New York Sun, pound for pound the most interesting reviews of the most interesting books--often ones no one else is reviewing--and I hope Ulin and his team are able to keep up their solid work under reduced circumstances.
  • Kenneth Turan on The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: a "fiendishly comprehensive look at a civilization so unexpectedly multifaceted that it's best viewed as a Yiddish-speaking Atlantis, a lost world buried forever by the volcano of Nazi mass murder.... More than accessible, the 'YIVO Encyclopedia' is so compulsively browsable that you can disappear within its pages for hours without a trace, the equivalent of diving into the coolest, deepest of pools. These volumes should come with a warning label, cautioning the time-challenged that they are entering at their own risk."
  • Peter Terzian on What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami: "The flat, colloquial style that serves to heighten the magical qualities of Murakami's fiction makes this work of straightforward nonfiction sound pedestrian. Clichés abound: The heat of a city in summer is 'something else,' squirrels run around 'like crazy' and young Harvard students run 'like the wind.' For a book by such a gifted writer, 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' reads as though it could have been written by anyone."

 

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Murderer and the Schoolboy: The Two Sides of John Banville

080508153401_mzzzzzzz_ Talking about yourself in the third person is generally reserved for dictators, professional athletes, and movie stars, but in this morning's Washington Post, Irish author John Banville manages to refer himself as "John Banville" without making you feel like the cultural apocalypse is nigh. It's a necessity, in fact, because Banville, for publishing purposes, has become two people, the Booker Prize-winning literary novelist John Banville and the mystery writer Benjamin Black. It's a fascinating piece about why a writer might choose to write (openly) under two names: for one thing, it's refreshingly clear that Banville doesn't think of "John Banville" as his authentic, only self--or at least he doesn't think so any more. Instead, it's as much of a pen name, a put-on identity, as "Benjamin Black." And, to hear him tell it, Benjamin Black is having a lot more fun:

Banville takes three to five years to finish a book. Black can do it in that many months. That's because "what you get with John Banville is an extreme of concentration. What you get with Benjamin Black is, I hope, spontaneity." He's writing "very quickly, very fluently, and not thinking about it."...

"Benjamin Black is like a schoolboy who's been given an extra week's Christmas holiday," Banville says.

"This, of course, is worrying. To enjoy writing is deeply worrying. I must be doing something wrong."...

"I see now that it was a device to get John Banville to think differently," he explains. For too long he'd been writing first-person narratives about men in deep trouble who are all "intensely telling their own story."

By comparison, in his Wikipedia entry his first wife is quoted as saying that living with Banville, when writing as Banville, was like being with "a murderer who's just come back from a particularly bloody killing."

According to the Post profile, the two identities might be moving closer to being one, with the next Banville novel having learned a few things from Black, and the next Black sounding like it's heading into Banville territory. Such fraternizing with a pop genre, by the way, is a remarkable move for someone who accepted his Booker Prize in 2005 by lamenting how middlebrow the award had become in recent years and saying "It is nice to see a work of art win the Booker prize."

037572523701_mzzzzzzz_ If, like me, you still haven't read either B, the three Benjamin Black books (all published since the last Banville appeared--can you tell he's having fun?) are Christine Falls, The Silver Swan, and The Lemur (new this summer). He's been more prolific (over a much longer time) as Banville, whose best-known books are The Sea, which beat out one of the best shortlists in memory (Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, etc.) to win the Booker and become his first book to sell more than a few thousand copies, and The Book of Evidence, which many have called his masterpiece and which I've been told by The Greatest Banville Fan of Them All, The Elegant Variation's Mark Sarvas, is the place to begin. --Tom

Randy Pausch, 1960-2008

Pausch_randy_300 We learned, like everyone else, that Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor whose "Last Lecture" became one of the most popular videos on the net and then a bestselling book by the same name, died this morning in Virginia. That justifiably famous lecture lives in a number of places, including here--all of which will no doubt find their server capacities tested again this morning. If you're one of the six people who haven't watched it yet, fair warning: block out your schedule and grab a box of tissues--it's over an hour long and today his good-natured and irrepressible generosity in the face of his terminal diagnosis will be even more likely to set you to bawling.

Dr. Pausch was gracious enough to take the time to answer a few questions from us this spring when the book came out. Here's his last answer, about his unabashedly goofy hobby of winning gigantic stuffed animals at carnivals:

Amazon.com: And last, the most important question: What's the secret for knocking down those milk bottles on the midway?

Pausch: Two-part answer:
      1) long arms
      2) discretionary income / persistence

Actually, I was never good at the milk bottles. I'm more of a ring toss and softball-in-milk-can guy, myself. More seriously, though, most people try these games once, don't win immediately, and then give up. I've won *lots* of midway stuffed animals, but I don't ever recall winning one on the very first try. Nor did I expect to. That's why I think midway games are a great metaphor for life.

That response reminds me of one of the best known lines from the lecture, and the one that's stayed in my head: "The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!"

You can read the full Q&A on our page for the book, where you can also see a couple of short videos from him. But the best resource for all of his videos is the page put together by his friend and colleague Gabriel Robins: go there and you may not get anything done the rest of the day. (Although if you watch his Time Management lecture what you learn may bring you that hour back in multiples later on.) --Tom

(Let's Go Back to) Rockville: Which Cowman Is Andrew Sean Greer?

It's become kind of a joke around here that I can trace some convoluted friend-of-friend(-of-friend) relationship with just about anybody who walks in the door--I am, apparently, the Kevin Bacon of internet book retailing. I'm not sure if it's that I'm actually more connected to people (it's hard to believe it, since I actually don't get out of the house very much), or just that I'm always curious about finding out if I am. But the most fun of these connections (better even than figuring out with Khaled Hosseini that I went to high school with his wife) I knew about ahead of time: when The Confessions of Max Tivoli made Andrew Sean Greer a household name a few years ago (at least among households that read a lot), my mom mentioned that she was his science teacher back in junior high in Rockville, Md. So when he came by our offices to talk about his new book, The Story of a Marriage (which, by the way, was the most one of our author meetings has ever felt like a book club: no publishing gossip or book-tour tales--everybody wanted to talk passionately about, yes, the book itself), I sprung that connection on him and it was a pleasure to see him light up and say he remembered her well.

Well, a while later, after I had passed on his greetings to my mom, she sent me a photo that the school had unearthed of Andy starring in the 8th grade musical, in the plum role of Curly in Oklahoma!--complete with bright red chaps and mid-'80s aviator glasses. I immediately passed it on to Andy to check whether a) it was okay to post it on the blog, and b) it was actually him, because I knew he had an identical twin brother. Andy replied that it was, in fact, his brother Mike (he could tell by the glasses), but that they had both been in the show and he thought he could dig up one of himself. And indeed he did, so you can compare:

Greercurlys

If you want to make further comparisons, check the more up-to-date photos of Andy and Mike (who has the not-at-all-funny job of Director of Web Technology at The Onion). --Tom

Guest Bookshelf: Ginger Burton

The new bookshelf you may have noticed atop Omni is courtesy of reader Ginger Burton, who adds this note about her books and herself. (Share your own bookshelf photo by mailing a .jpg to omnivoracious.)

I like to consider myself an eccentric reader. There aren't many genres I consider to be uncharted territory. My books range from the terrifying words of Clive Barker, who keeps me checking beneath my bed on occasion, to the desperate prose of Carson McCullers. Without The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I wouldn't have the proper words to describe music's effect on me. My need for suspense is filled with Stephen King, Dan Brown, and James Patterson. I'm always anxiously awaiting their next book.

The Kite Runner
is a book that will always stay with me. The story is indescribable until you've experienced it. It's that good. I've probably recommended it more than any other book I've read.

Michael Chabon's Kavalier & Clay describes my love of comic books. A great way to see a comic book rise from an idea to actuality.

The other books on my shelf hold a special place in my heart and will remain there forever.

I'm currently studying at Purdue University with a focus on Communication. Most of my reading these days comes from the pages of a textbook followed by intense memorization. Although, when I can I like to burrow into a corner of the union lounge and lose myself inside a good book.

Thanks, Ginger. --Tom

Words That Last: Literary Tattoos

Contrariwise_2 The Daily Telegraph alerted us (although we can't remember how we got to the Telegraph article in the first place) to Contrariwise, a blog that collects photos of literary and other wordy tattoos (is it new, or am I just too stupid to figure out how to see the archives?). Vonnegut and the Little Prince appear to be especially popular, and I'm sure the wowser below is not the only Fight Club tattoo walking around out there. (Meanwhile, I can't pass up the opportunity to link yet again to one of my favorite photos ever taken with my camera, of a grand tattoo of one of America's finest writers.)

Fightclubtat I love words, but man, some of those giant paragraphs are overwhelming. I've never been much of a tattoo man (I don't even want to tie my identity to something long enough to put a bumper sticker on my car, much less write something forever on my body), but I must admit the Harriet the Spy is pretty sharp. Is there any bit of book that I would be willing to commit to putting on my skin for the rest of my life? My first thought was, "No way," but then I thought I could stick by "Up, and to Clayton!" pretty much for eternity. (First to spot the reference gets, well, my congratulations, triple if no Google was involved.) Or maybe Sam or Mr. Bikferd from Who Needs Donuts?.

Are there any words you'd be willing to wear? --Tom

P.S. Juliet, my colleague who passed this along to me, thought it had come from our friends at Slog, but then she couldn't find it there. But, weirdly, while I was writing my post, their books editor, Paul Constant, was writing his own post about lit tats, featuring a different blog (although some of the same photos). I feel that my mind is not my own...

Jerome Holtzman, 1926-2008

Holtzman_zimmer

It was mainly as an excuse to post the photograph above that I started to note the death this weekend of "the Dean" of Chicago sportswriters, Jerome Holtzman. I lived in Chicago in 1989, the year the photo appeared in the Chicago Tribune, and a roommate from that time reminded me today, when passing on the news, that we had it prominently displayed on our apartment wall (it may, in fact, have been our only decoration). Holtzman's on the right, of course, next to Don Zimmer, best known for his altercations, two decades apart, with Red Sox pitchers Bill Lee (who called him "the Gerbil") and Pedro Martinez, for managing the Cubs to a rare division title that year, and for the metal plate put in his head after an early beaning that almost killed him. The glories of the photograph are self-evident; I don't think anything has ever made me want to be a sportswriter more than its portrait of pot-bellied fellowship.

015630652201_mzzzzzzz_ But when reading around about Holtzman, I was reminded that his name was on the spine of one of my favorite books growing up. I had two paperbacks in my early teens that I read and read to the point that their covers fell off: The Book of Lists, and Fielder's Choice, an anthology of baseball fiction edited by Mr. Holtzman who, at the time, I didn't know from Adam. I haven't looked at that collection in decades, but it had a hell of a lineup, introducing me to Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Ring Lardner, James Thurber, Mordecai Richler, and Robert Coover, whose Universal Baseball Association, Inc., was one of the first things that hinted to me that at some point I might want to move on from made-up baseball leagues to more important things like, well, made-up stories. In fact, thinking of it now, that book (a gift from some wise relation) no doubt had as much influence as anything on my ending up doing what I do today. Whatever it is exactly that I do... --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

Omm_072108

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Kathryn Harrison on Real World by Natsuo Kirino: "As Dostoyevsky did in 'Crime and Punishment,' Kirino pushes her antihero to murder as a means of philosophical statement and communicates an authorial anxiety that contemporary social ills will destroy humanity. But while Dostoyevsky sets up a contest between Christian love and a pernicious nihilism that inspires barbarity, Kirino’s 'Real World' offers no possibility of god or redemption."
  • Maslin on The Condition by Jennifer Haigh: "As she demonstrated in 'Mrs. Kimble' and particularly in 'Baker Towers,' Ms. Haigh has a great gift for telling interwoven family stories and doing justice to all the different perspectives they present. She is subtle and intuitive about the whole McKotch household, which in 1976 is based in Concord, Mass. And when the family ruptures — because, even in an uncommonly good version of the tragic-family-secret book, it inevitably will — she does justice to each McKotch’s way of absorbing that change."
  • Howard Hampton on Heavy Metal Islam by Mark LeVine: "'Heavy Metal Islam' gets trapped by its good intentions whenever it attempts to shoehorn the headbangers’ intransigence into preconceived political slots. Metal music, however you parse it, is dystopian in the extreme: hyper-aggressively embracing the death instinct, regimented chaos, deliriously fetishized morbidity. Call it cathartic, sure, even a way of keeping sane in an insane world (as one performer here says, 'We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal'), but don’t confuse it with 'If I Had a Hammer.' Unless it’s a hammer of the nihilist gods aimed at your forehead — not to hammer out justice or a warning or 'the common struggle for democracy and economic equality,' but to crack your skull open, scrape out your pulverized brains and feed them to the wolverines."
  • Marilyn Stasio on The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale (hot on the heels of its Samuel Johnson Prize last week): "Summerscale accomplishes what modern genre authors hardly bother to do anymore, which is to use a murder investigation as a portal to a wider world. When put in historical context, every aspect of this case tells us something about mid-Victorian society, from prevailing attitudes about women ('prone to insanity'), children ('full of savage whims and impulses,' according to one 19th-century physician) and servants ('outsiders who might be spies or seducers') to the morality-based intellectual constructs that codified such views of human behavior."

Washington Post:

  • Martha Sherrill on The Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham: "Poised to inherit everything, Thong Pham instead lost it all, as Andrew X. Pham, his son, recounts in this gorgeously written book. But this is not ultimately a story of loss and upheaval, nor is it simply a retelling of Vietnam's war-torn history from a Vietnamese point of view. Many other books have ably covered that ground. The Eaves of Heaven is something entirely new: an effort to recapture the moments of beauty and transcendence that emerged from these events."
  • Maureen Freely on We Are Now Beginning Our Descent by James Meek: "I was able to look out over the same seas and islands that featured in Kellas's thoughts. I was so gripped by the story that I carried the book open in my hand through passport control and customs. I am full of admiration for Meek's precise and lyrical prose, for his mapping of the political landscapes through which his characters drift and for his evocation of the strange, torn geometries of the life in the global news stream. But what I most treasure in this novel is its generosity. We carry the flaws of the world inside us. But -- however difficult, desperate and demented its manifestations -- there is also love."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Gideon Lewis-Kraus on How Fiction Works by James Wood: "As the burden of the novelist is to give her readers reason to keep reading, the burden of the untethered critic (as opposed to the academic one, whose authority is institutionally granted) is to offer enough gratuitous pleasure and intelligence that he is taken seriously. Reading Wood, no matter the book under review, provides enormous pleasure; his prose is at once buoyant and momentous, his judgment swift with imperial grace."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Best Business Books Ever? (Non-fiction, non-how-to division)

006053635701_mzzzzzzz_ New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera, following up on his declaration that Bryan Burrough and John Helyar's Barbarians at the Gate was "one of the greatest business books ever written," posted an annotated list of his top 15 business books, after first narrowing the field to eliminate fiction (he's still looking for enough good ones) and management and advice books. So these are, I guess, the best nonfiction business narratives (still a pretty healthy subgenre), in no particular order (via Shelf Awareness):

What do you think? It's not a genre I know that well, but I am a big fan of The Smartest Guys in the Room (although a few of his commenters prefer Eichenwald's Enron book, Conspiracy of Fools). The commenters make many more suggestions. Among the most frequent: Den of Thieves, The Prize, Fooled by Randomness, The Soul of a New Machine, The Reckoning, and American Steel, along with Nocera's own A Piece of the Action.

014018687501_mzzzzzzz_ On the fiction side, Nocera says he was underwhelmed by some of the best-known business novels (I agree with one commenter: stick with Gaddis's JR, although it's true it might take a week of your life to do so), although he did like (as did I) Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressler. The commenters suggest Babbitt, Gatsby, some naturalist classics by Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, The Godfather, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (I second that one!), Joseph Heller's Something Happened, Atlas Shrugged (how could it have taken until the 63rd comment for that one?), the recent And Then We Came to the End, and a couple from the SF side, Space Merchants and Cryptonomicon. One of my favorites is Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, a great novel and portrait of an era. And I'm not sure anything gets at a certain sad variety of small business like Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl comics, Cheap Novelties, The Beauty Supply District, and Stories.

Any other favorites? --Tom

If This Was America They'd Call Them the Sammies

080271535401_mzzzzzzz_ The UK's Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, which is becoming one of my favorite prizes thanks to its eclectic and interesting choices, was awarded last night to Kate Summerscale for The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: Or, the Murder at Road Hill House. It slipped past my radar when it was published here (with a different subtitle, as The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective) in April by Walker & Co., but the judges' remarks make it sound fairly delicious:

The judges were unanimous: this is one of those great non-fiction books that uses the techniques of fiction to magnificent effect. On first reading, it is an absolute page-turner. Then, when you reread it, you realise how many levels it has, how much it tells you - about the founding of the police, the Victorian study of physiognomy, the inherent snobbery of the time that meant that the police wouldn't touch anyone from the upper classes, because they 'couldn't' have committed a crime.

PW loved it too ("a mesmerizing portrait") and there are some well-written 5-star customer reviews featured on our page too. The books on the shortlist it beat out were very strong--The Guardian's literary editor, Claire Armitstead, one of the judges, wrote about them all (without tipping her hand) just before the winner was announced. Here are the other contenders, which range all over the nonfiction map:

There's a lot of apples vs. oranges here, but that's the fun of it--I'd love to see a big US nonfiction prize that lumped history, biography, criticism, current events, etc., all together in one cage match like this. --Tom

Nickel, Sugar, and History: Q&A with Rachel Kushner

How far back does fiction have to go to become "historical"? When I think of historical fiction, I think of something set in the Napoleonic wars, or among the Victorians, or World War II at the latest. For some reason, anything taking place since World War II still feels part of an (ever-expanding) recent past, whose issues seem nearly those of the present. The '60s seem infinitely closer than the '30s. (Or does that just date me? For someone born in the '80s the gap probably yawns equally between them.)

141656103x01_mzzzzzzz_ Rachel Kushner's vivid new novel, Telex from Cuba, sits right on the edge of history. It's set in the '50s, in the last years of the Batista regime and the first moments of the Castro revolution, in a small society that feels very distant now in Cuba but perhaps less so when we look elsewhere in the world: the American sugar cane and nickel-mining colony, where the families of company executives manufacture a country-club existence while the guerrillas gather in the hills. It's her debut, and it's had a charmed first few weeks, with a cover rave in the New York Times Book Review, among its good reviews, and a stay already in our top 100. Rachel stopped by our offices today, in the middle of her book tour, and we talked about historical vs. political fiction, letters from famous writers real and forged, and the response the book has been getting so far (she's been pleasantly surprised that even though she's writing about a place that can drive out all rational discussion--anybody remember Elian Gonzalez?--so far she's heard from readers on both the left and the right that they think she got it right).

But before her visit we had already traded an email Q&A in the middle of what have been a busy and exciting few weeks:

Kushner_rachel_300 Amazon.com: You're writing about the end of one era for Cuba at what may be the end of another. Was that in your mind as you wrote?

Kushner: It wasn't so much, actually, but that might be because I wrote the bulk of the book before Fidel fell ill with diverticulitis, and before the American media's obsession with his (like all of ours) eventual death hit a pitch point. Even now, I find this sense of waiting and the media's focus on it to be an odd tautology: the "breaking" story is often that there's a breaking story, but then the story never comes. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Fidel Castro's policies, his segue out of public view has been pretty brilliant. He trumped the media's deathwatch by stepping down, which took away the promise in his death: nothing substantial has changed to date, except the perception that his move away from the role of lider would precipitate change. I do hear he has more time to read now. Someone apparently gave him a copy of Telex from Cuba. I'd like to think he's reading it now, in that tracksuit that replaced the military fatigues.

Amazon.com: The kernel of your story was your mother's childhood, similar to some of those you describe in the book, growing up in Cuba as the daughter of an American mining executive. Did you hear her stories about that time during your own childhood? What did you add to them when you started doing your own research?

Continue reading "Nickel, Sugar, and History: Q&A with Rachel Kushner" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • 037420011401_mzzzzzzz__2 Sunday Book Review cover: Liesl Schillinger on Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen: "It’s unusual — in fact (why be coy?), it’s extremely rare — to come across a first novel by a woman writer that concerns itself with such quirky, philosophical, didactic explorations; a novel in which the heart and the brain vie for the role of protagonist, and the brain wins. While the voice and mood of the novel are masculine, clinical and objective (Leo registers Rema’s distress with detachment, recording it but not feeling it), the book’s descriptions of colors, smells, clothing and bodies show feminine perception."
  • Craig Seligman on The Size of the World by Joan Silber: "Few of her sentences call out to be quoted or even remembered, really. Her first two stories ... frankly seem a little bit pallid. But something in them keeps you reading; you may feel lulled but not bored. And as you continue, you perceive what a serious misjudgment 'pallid' is. Slowly, almost while your attention is somewhere else, the intensity level rises. And rises. Notes sounded softly in the early stories deepen and resonate, until Silber’s quiet music has turned symphonic."
  • 081185924x01_mzzzzzzz_ Becca Zerkin on Wave by Suzy Lee: "I am in love with a nameless little girl made of charcoal dust. She is the sparingly drawn heroine of 'Wave,' Suzy Lee’s wordless picture book about a day at the beach, and she bursts from the page with vitality."
  • Kakutani on Out of Mao's Shadow by Philip P. Pan: "It is Mr. Pan’s achievement in 'Out of Mao’s Shadow' that he makes the dark side of China’s glittering economic growth palpably real to the reader by showing the fallout of these changes on the lives of individual citizens, just as he shows the potent effect that a few brave individuals — speaking up on behalf of civil liberties, freedom of the press and government accountability — can have on the party’s conduct of day-to-day business.... He interviewed artists, workers, peasants, journalists and entrepreneurs, and his portraits of these people possess both the immediacy of first-rate reportage and the emotional depth of field of a novel."
  • David Margolick on Rome 1960 by David Maraniss: "It was, his subtitle tells us, an event 'that changed the world.' He never really proves his case. A gold medalist of a writer ... he has put together a silver medal of a study of a bronze medal of a topic."

Washington Post:

  • 038552639301_mzzzzzzz_ Andrew J. Bacevich on The Dark Side by Jane Mayer: "With the appearance of this very fine book, Hillary Clinton can claim a belated vindication of sorts: A right-wing conspiracy does indeed exist, although she misapprehended its scope and nature. The conspiracy is not vast and does not consist of Clinton-haters. It is small, secretive and made up chiefly of lawyers contemptuous of the Constitution and the rule of law."
  • Randall Balmer on The Family by Jeff Sharlet: "In the film version of 'All the President's Men,; Deep Throat castigates Bob Woodward for his uncorroborated accusations against H.R. Haldeman. 'You've done worse than let Haldeman slip away,' Deep Throat says. 'You've got people feeling sorry for him. I didn't think that was possible. . . . If you shoot too high and miss, everybody feels more secure.' The same might be said about Jeff Sharlet's book about a loose coalition of religiously conservative individuals and organizations that operates in and around the councils of power in Washington."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Jesse Cohen on The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics by Leonard Susskind: "'The Black Hole War' is a gregarious narrative of intellectual brinkmanship.... Like the best teachers, Susskind makes it fun to learn. With a deft use of analogy and a flair for language, he tames the most ferocious concepts. In his hands, a D-brane in anti de Sitter space seems like the most natural thing in the world. He has also come up with the best visual metaphor for the multidimensionality of string theory that I've yet come across, one that alone is worth the price of the book."
  • Tim Rutten on Mayer's The Dark Side: "If you intend to vote in November and read only one book between now and then, this should be it."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

A Bestseller All Over Again

068816112x01_mzzzzzzz_ Wondering why a novel first published in 1986 jumped from nowhere into our top 10 today (it's currently at #4)? Three letters (which for our customers are often right behind those magic five letters--starting with "O'--for recommending books): N-P-R. Thriller and comics writer Brad Meltzer contributed a very convincing "You Must Read This" entry to All Things Considered yesterday about Ken Grimwood's Replay, a book with a Groundhog Day premise (written before the movie) about what you would learn if you had to live your life over (and over) again. I confess I had never heard of it, but, as Meltzer found out himself it has a strong following out there (and a couple hundred five-star reviews on our site):

So how much do I love this book? When I was 22 years old, I was working and playing puzzles at Games magazine.  I had no money, a $359 apartment and $10,000 in college debt. And the first thing I did with all the cash I didn't have? I tracked down Ken Grimwood and tried to buy the movie rights for this book. I didn't just love Replay, I believed in it, I dreamed of it. I wanted this book — this book that only I had found.

And that's when his agent told me the film rights were snatched up years ago. Nice try, big shot.

Years later, when the Internet became the Internet, I found myself searching for Ken Grimwood again and learned that he died in 2003. I also discovered that I wasn't only believer; at the time, there were fan sites dedicated to Replay. Hundreds of people — like the fellow replayers we never realize are out there — were all dreaming my same dream.

Here's one of the fan sites, kengrimwoodlibrary.com, where I learned he wrote under other names as well, although the only book identified as his is Two Plus Two, under the name Alan Cochrane. --Tom

The Winner and Still Champeen...

081297653301_mzzzzzzz_ In what turned out to be not so much a new award as a confirmation of an old one, the second Best of the Booker prize (given on the 40th anniversary of the award) went to the winner of the first one (given on the 25th anniversary): Salman Rushdie, for Midnight's Children. The voting was opened up to online civilians, 37% of whom went for the reigning champ. The Bookerites have yet to announce the voting totals for the runners up, which to me would be the only interesting news of the whole thing, but as a reminder, here were the other nominees, chosen by the Booker judges from previous Booker winners:

Needless to say, per Richard Morgan's genre comments yesterday, Geoff Ryman's Air was not among the choices. By the way, Mr. Rushdie made his way to our cluttered halls a short time ago, and we hope to have our interview with him for you available shortly. --Tom

Thomas M. Disch, 1940-2008

Disch_thomas_young The major papers haven't taken notice yet [update: the Times did later in the day, as did Entertainment Weekly], but the web world has been noting over the past day that Thomas M. Disch, critic, poet, and major science fiction writer, died on Friday, apparently by his own hand. You can read  appreciations (with extensive comments in many cases) from Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Ellen Datlow, Scott Edelman, and GalleyCat. Our own Jeff VanderMeer, before going into hibernation for a bit to focus on writing his next novel, wrote this on his own blog:

This is really sad, sad news about a very talented individual–an icon of the New Wave.

…and having thought about it some more and being both sad about this and somewhat appalled at the coverage in certain quarters dwelling on Disch’s cantankerous nature, a few additional observations.

Yes, he could be a pain in the ass. Yes, he was paranoid at times. So what? Who among us hasn’t been either of those things at various times in our lives? But he always spoke his mind, he was a true original, and I never read a novel by him that I didn’t think was deeply felt and fiercely intelligent. That includes his last, from Tachyon, out this month, which is at times by its nature self-indulgent, but has his trademark qualities: incisive wit, absurdist dark humor, stark intellectual curiosity. These are qualities you find in too few modern novels.

Disch had lost his partner of three decades, was having trouble with his apartment, and I guess it was just ultimately too much for him. Look, being a writer isn’t as tough as some jobs, but it can be lonely, it can be the equivalent of working without a safety net, and it has the ability to take a lot out of a person. On top of the blows life can deal to you.

I’m very sad at this moment, in part on a personal level and in part knowing how many of my close friends were friends of his and thus are mourning his loss right now. I never spoke to Disch–I just read his books, read his blog, and admired him for the very quality a few others didn’t like: he was himself. Sometimes I think we want writers to be sanitized, polite, get-with-the-program clones of each other in terms of their personalities. There was never any danger of that with Disch.

I didn’t actually know him in a personal sense, as I’ve said, but I already miss him very much. And I hope wherever he is now he’s at peace.

We also asked his longtime friend Michael Moorcock for a remembrance:

Continue reading "Thomas M. Disch, 1940-2008" »

Falling in Love with Nothing at First Sight

022643700001_mzzzzzzz__2 Oh boy, oh boy, there's nothing like opening the mail, finding a book you requested for a reason you've forgotten already, and, on the basis of a few opening paragraphs, knowing you're going to fall in love. I can't remember what drove me to ask for a copy of William Davies King's upcoming Collections of Nothing, advertised as a "part memoir, part reflection on the mania of acquisition" by a man who has been driven to accumulate a "monumental mass of miscellany, from cereal boxes to boulders to broken folding chairs," but here's how it begins:

On a hot summer day in 1998, I pulled up at the house I still owned with the woman who was soon to become my ex-wife to find that she had delivered every item connected with me to the garage. My surprise was not that she had divvied up our goods, though I would rather have done the work myself, but the spectacle of what an immense and unattractive volume of me there was, much of it retained only because I collect, as a collector collects, compulsively. And then some.

There I was, forty-three, wearing shorts and an old T-shirt already heavy with sweat, in the dusty glare of desert suburbia, Ryder truck still hissing and ticking at my back as the great panel door swung open with a shriek. The door shuddered, and I shuddered too. There were the usual black plastic bags of shoes and canted piles of shirts on hangers, portable radios and razors and power tools, but also the singular multiplicity of diverse collections of nothing, a junkstore dumpstore's highlights, stuff of no clear value to anyone but someone like me.

I am a collector, something a lot of people can understand. My being a collector of nothing will require explanation. I am on the small side. A neighbor told my parents I was the only child he'd ever seen who could walk upright under a table. Eventually I grew to a normal height, but I sometimes think of myself as an overgrown runt. My weight has always hovered just above normal, which is typical, I think, among people who grew up fighting for a larger portion. I have two younger brothers who could easily be cheated, though I chose not to, and an older sister who always wanted it all and could not be cheated because she was disadvantaged, disabled, disastrous, and later insane. Because of her, I tend to measure my fair and healthy share, then sneak a bit more. My eating disorder is in my collecting. I eat nothing, in excess.

I've read accounts of people who one day give away everything, purging themselves of material association. They report feeling liberated, disburdened, and alive for the first time. The moment of my divorce might have been a good moment for me to cleanse myself that way. I did not like what I saw under the bare bulb in that shadowy garage. There, mixed in with my necessaries, shone forth what had doomed me to a life of collecting--that super-superfluity of sub-substance. During twenty years of living with my wife, decades of relentless acquisition, I had found ways of weaving my collections into the lattice of our life. Now, brought out from concealment, arranged in heaps, not carelessly but also not artfully, these things looked like signs of hoarding, which is a diagnosis, not a hobby.

So I transported the cumbersummation of me into the Ryder and into my new, unmarried life, in the hope that I might locate myself somewhere in the midst of it.

What can you tell of a book from the first page and a half? Sometimes a lot, sometimes not, but in this case I'll be stunned (and crushed) if someone who shows this clear-eyed (even cold-eyed) style, with such concentrated power, doesn't end up sustaining it for the 161 pages that remain. Right now I've just begun another piece of candy I've been hoarding for a while (Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, a book I missed when it came out in February that's turning out to be as delicious as I'd hoped), but it's going to be hard not to keep going into Collections of Nothing. --Tom

I Think They'd Rather Have the Euro Title Than the Nobel

In honor of the exit from Euro 2008 of this tournament's heartbreak kids, Turkey, whose last four games were all decided or tied with a goal in the final minute (unfortunately, today's was from Germany's Philip Lahm), we link to a recent interview in Der Spiegel with Turkish Nobel laureate (and longtime soccer fan) Orhan Pamuk (via the Literary Saloon). Some of his comments about how football in Turkey is a "machine to produce nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarian thinking" (he makes the good point that "it isn't victories but defeats that promote nationalism," which is true not only on the soccer pitch!) have apparently gotten him in further trouble with his compatriots, but here are a couple of my favorite sections:

SPIEGEL: Why Fenerbahçe? [his favorite club team in Istanbul]
Pamuk: It's like religion. There is no "why." I can still recite the entire lineup of the 1959 Fenerbahçe team like a poem. Of course, it has something to do with identifying with my father. We always sat in the main stands next to the VIPs, who looked like capitalists from a Bertolt Brecht play. Throughout the match they smoked cigars, a sign of great wealth at the time, and because a breeze from the Bosporus was constantly blowing into the stadium, the smoke made my eyes tear up. During the match, they would insult the players the way a business owner insults his dim-witted workers. I thought it was terrible.

SPIEGEL: Albert Camus once said this about his days as a goalkeeper: " All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football."
Pamuk: Oh, come on. That may have been true in Algeria in the 1930s, but today it's naïve. Morality is probably the last thing one can learn from football today.

--Tom

If Sebald Lived to the Era of the Author Website

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For a few remarkable years between his first translation into English in 1996 (with The Emigrants) and his untimely death in 2001 soon after publication of his last novel, Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald blew through the literary world with an influence that, in these days of a thousand blooming niches, has become almost unheard of. It seemed like every writer was reading him then, and that, once you had discovered his singular brand of memoir, history, fiction, and melancholy, it would be hard to write the same again. So has there been a post-Sebald movement? I've hardly had the time to step back and think about that, but I just was alerted to two new Flashtastic websites for novels that seem like they could not have happened without Sebald's example.

159448988201_mzzzzzzz_ One of Sebald's trademarks was the fuzzy black-and-white photographs he would place unexplained into his text, leaving you to wonder whether they were actual photos of the events and people he described (and, therefore, whether those events and people were themselves real). Aleksandar Hemon's recent novel, The Lazarus Project, opens each of its short sections with such a photograph, some apparently with an archival relation to the story, some less so, and none of them directly explained. (Hemon has said that it was a 1908 mug shot of the real Lazarus Auerbach that made him want to write the novel, and that he wrote each chapter with the accompanying photograph in mind.)

Now Hemon and Velibor Bozovic, who took the contemporary photographs in the book, have collaborated on a lovely site in which the photographs take center stage, leading visitors through a maze of images, each accompanied by a short text from the book. The two dozen or so photos from the book are all there, along with over a hundred more. You can click on whichever one you want, or follow the zig-zaggy path laid out by the site by clicking on the link in each caption. I recommend the latter: there's something about following the mysterious switchbacks through the grid that fits the melancholy mood of the whole piece.

141656103x01_mzzzzzzz__2 And for her new novel, Telex from Cuba, coming out next week (which I just finished and liked a lot--more on that later), Rachel Kushner has lovingly mapped out a smaller collection of photos, again of unclear direct connection with her story--which does include historical figures like Castro and Hemingway among its invented ones--and again accompanied by cryptic but evocative short passages from her book. The images are not included in the book, but she told me that, like Hemon, they were in her mind throughout the writing. Having seen them after reading the book, I can say that they perfectly match the novel's mood of a lost time and place (Cuba under Batista and the beginnings of Castro's long reign), a time held at arm's length but examined with great affection.

Both sites also have sad and subtle soundtracks playing along with the images, which I find myself leaving on in the background as I move onto other things, and which set the sort of melancholy mood that makes everything bittersweetly delicious. --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Richard Holbrooke on One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War: "Any new entry in the crowded field of books on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis must pass an immediate test: Is it just another recapitulation, or does it increase our net understanding of this seminal cold war event? By focusing on the activities of the American, Soviet and Cuban militaries during those tense October days, Michael Dobbs’s 'One Minute to Midnight' passes this test with flying colors. The result is a book with sobering new information about the world’s only superpower nuclear confrontation — as well as contemporary relevance."
  • Kakutani on America America by Ethan Canin: "There are some wonderful, deeply affecting moments here, detailing the relationship between the narrator, Corey Sifter, and his family, but they are unfortunately submerged in a bloated, maladroit narrative that relies on clumsily withheld secrets for suspense and that encumbers the story of Corey’s coming-of-age with ponderous and unconvincing meditations on matters like noblesse oblige, the responsibilities of privilege and working-class resentment of the rich."
  • Emily Mitchell on Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso: "Manguso was already a writer when she became ill, and her obsession with words, their capacities and limitations, permeates her book.... As much as anything, this book is a search for adequate descriptions of things heretofore unnamed and unknown. Manguso concludes her account with questions — and an exhortation to the reader to pay attention. Through her own attentiveness, Manguso has produced a remarkable, cleareyed account that turns horror into something humane and beautiful."
  • Leah Hager Cohen on Cost by Roxana Robinson: "Robinson has been perennially and somewhat reductively tagged a chronicler of WASP life. This designation, while factually accurate — as is the observation that her stories regularly address parenting and marital issues — doesn’t do her justice. These subjects — WASP life, domestic life — are often used as code for 'small,' in the sense of both trivial and mean, and Robinson’s fiction is neither. In writing about characters whose lives are constrained, she makes them loom large."

Washington Post:

  • Jonathan Yardley on The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst: "Furst is that rarity, a writer of popular fiction who is also a serious novelist. This is the third of his novels that I've reviewed, and the steady growth of his achievement almost can be measured with calipers. At times his prose can get a little strained, as he reaches a little far for effects, but it's now much more controlled than it was a dozen years ago in The World at Night. Like a handful of other writers who have turned espionage fiction into something approximating art -- John le Carré, of course, and Charles McCarry -- Furst combines the craft of entertainment with the exploration of important themes, and in no way does the entertainment diminish the themes."
  • James G. Hershberg on Dobbs's One Minute to Midnight: "As the pages fill with memorable characters in extraordinary circumstances and exotic settings, and as the drama steadily builds, One Minute to Midnight evokes novelists like Alan Furst, John le Carré or Graham Greene -- a reminder that footnote-laden history need not take a backseat to fictional thrillers. Dobbs's vivid narrative brings the crisis alive not only in the rarefied inner sancta of politicians, bureaucrats and revolutionaries in Washington, Moscow and Havana but also among the grunts in the superpowers' vast, unwieldy military machines, from the tropical Caribbean to the frigid Arctic."
  • Ron Charles on More Than It Hurts You by Darin Strauss: "If you don't belong to a book club, Darin Strauss's bitter and brilliant new novel is reason enough to start one. You can always disband afterward, and in any case your discussion of More Than It Hurts You may be so heated that you'll never talk to those people again."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Martin Rubin on The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick: "When it comes to forgery and its ability to fascinate, the bigger the better, and the greater the audacity the more compelling. In the story of a two-bit Dutch painter, Han Van Meegeren, who had the nerve to take on that most rarefied of his artistic compatriots, Johannes Vermeer, author Edward Dolnick has hit the mother lode. And as if this tale of unparalleled chutzpah were not good enough, it takes place amid the tumult of the Nazi occupation of Holland and the competitive plunder of its -- and much of Europe's -- art treasures by Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering. Dolnick more than does it justice, drawing on his knowledge of a wide range of subjects, including scientific process, politics and the gullibility and herd-instinct of the art market."
  • Geoff Boucher on Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell: "For students of comics history, there are few names that strike the ear and the imagination quite like Ditko's. In a field defined by brilliant oddballs, embittered journeymen, penniless geniuses and colorful hacks, Ditko is the strident hermit king.... Ditko's life, like that of R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar, has enough obsessive oddity and outsider struggle to be a tale told wide. But Bell goes the opposite direction, getting as narrow as the lines Ditko used to restrain the action in the old Marvel and Charlton comics."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

George Carlin, 1937-2008

After surviving two heart surgeries, a heart attack, and addictions to cocaine, Vicodin, and red wine, and outliving many of his peers in counterculture comedy, George Carlin died yesterday at the age of 71. As hard as he might have lived, he worked constantly from the '50s into the current millennium (for which he showed little affection), in a career in which he reinvented himself midway through, embracing his counterculture identity after years of more buttoned-down success on TV and in Las Vegas, and thereby reinvented standup. (That career brought him to some odd places along the way: what other parents of young children have put a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD in and done a double take when they realize who that recognizable narrator's voice is?)

His signature routine, which he lovingly reworked for years (and through frequent arrests) was "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" (you can find it on 1972's platinum album Class Clown, or watch a 1978 update), a radio broadcast of which brought his work to the attention the Supreme Court, which in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978) affirmed the government's right to say "earmuffs" to New York radio listeners. I think a quote from Justice Stevens' 5-4 opinion is a fitting tribute:

A satiric humorist named George Carlin recorded a 12-minute monologue entitled "Filthy Words" before a live audience in a California theater. He began by referring to his thoughts about "the words you couldn't say on the public, ah, airwaves, um, the ones you definitely wouldn't say, ever." He proceeded to list those words and repeat them over and over again in a variety of colloquialisms. The transcript of the recording, which is appended to this opinion, indicates frequent laughter from the audience.

Our DVD colleagues over at Armchair Commentary have already noted his passing, which is fitting since he's best known for his standup performances and movie cameos (I particularly appreciated the professional relish with which he delivered his version of the dirty old joke in The Aristocrats). But we wanted to pay our respects as well because, along with becoming a bestselling author late in his career with Brain Droppings, Napalm and Silly Putty, and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? (all collected in the omnibus Three Times Carlin), there were few comics more in love with language, and its absurdities, than Carlin. Watch him have his way with one of his pet subjects, the euphemisms of "soft language," or take a look at this recent bit, not just because it's a typically unsentimental riff on death, but because one of the main stage props behind him is a giant dictionary:

One more place to look for Carlin: Richard Zoglin's new account of Carlin's generation of comics, Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America. As one customer reviewer writes,

Ever noticed that there isn't a single book on George Carlin? Well, now there's a gloriously well written chapter detailing Carlin's rise to popularity and influence. That's reason enough for any Carlin fan to buy this book. However, that's only a tiny appetizer of the feast for any fan of funny.

--Tom

Colbert Report Report: Junot Brings the Nerd

The days of Mailer and Vidal holding court with Carson (or at least Cavett) are long gone, but once in a while a novelist still breaks into the white-hot media center of the universe, i.e., The Colbert Report. Here's our beloved Junot Diaz on Colbert last night:

Best exchange:

JD: Cane fields are scary. Any time you drive by them, they're like triffids. They clack in the wind. I guess as a kid I was terrified of them.

SC: You're the very first guest to ever make a triffids reference.

JD: I don't know if that's the saddest thing I ever heard.

SC: We might have to check the building for structural damage. You geeked out on me so hard.

--Tom

A Mind in the Hive: Luc Sante's Living Library

Is it just me, or has the microgenre of library profiles been burgeoning? Bookforum has made it a regular feature, and of course we're all over the bookshelf thing here. And I'm a little late to it (ok, by blog standards, a lot), but a little while ago the WSJ indulged in some book-dork porn with a piece on paring his vast collection by Luc Sante. Sante's one of my heroes, a true Omnivore's omnivore who writes brilliantly on whatever he turns to (vintage NYC street life, his Belgian parents, and endless freelance pieces). And after hearing him talk about his books, well, I like him even more: he's both sensible and obsessive, less interested in building a collection of fetish objects and showpieces than making a room where the sparks can fly. I'm tempted to quote the whole piece, but here are a few sections that get at my own sense of why I want to live surrounded by books better than I ever have myself: a good library is not a hermitage--it's a hive:

There's nothing inert about these shelves, no men's-club-library or college-chapel somnolence here -- it's a hive of activity, abuzz with rhythms and images and ideas. As for time: I shelve literature chronologically. It's the way I think, a landscape of hills and ridges and switchbacks marked off by dates, like a cartoon by Saul Steinberg, here rendered almost literal, so that I can see as well as feel the 19th century turning into the 20th, the prewar cascading into the postwar, the spines gradually becoming brighter as the present day approaches....

Optically scanning the shelves wakes up dormant nodes in my memory. Seeing that the "Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant" is fortuitously shelved directly above "The Ego and Its Own" by Max Stirner might get something going in my subconscious (or it might not). If while writing I try to form a picture of the shape of a decade or the spirit of a country, I can get its lineaments by glancing at my shelves. If I need to emerge from a particular mental rut I can just randomly reach out and pull something down and start reading. Within minutes the ensnaring spell has been snapped and I've entered some other mind....

I would very much miss books as material objects were they to disappear. The tactility of books assists my memory, for one thing. I can't remember the quote I'm searching for, or maybe even the title of the work that contains it, but I can remember that the book is green, that the margins are unusually wide, and that the quote lies two-thirds of the way down a right-hand page. If books all appear as nearly identical digital readouts, my memory will be impoverished. And packaging is of huge importance, too -- the books I read because I liked their covers usually did not disappoint. In the world of books, all is contingency and serendipity. Books are much more than container vessels for ideas. They are very nearly living things, or at least are more than the sum of their parts.

I plan to print out a copy and give to my dear wife as exhibit 421 in our ongoing and good-natured living space negotiations....  --Tom

Sante__library P.S. And how cool is it to have your library photographed by Walter Iooss Jr? As someone whose library as a kid consisted almost entirely of Peanuts collections and file cabinets full of Sports Illustrateds, what would it be like to have the guy who shot this and this and, yes, this, come over to my house to shoot my books? My only regret is that the image is too small for me to make a giant link farm out of Sante's collection.


Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Lisa Margonelli on Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It by Elizabeth Royte: "Where others are bold, 'Bottlemania' is subversive, and after you read it you will sip warily from your water bottle (whether purchased or tap, plastic or not), as freaked out by your own role in today’s insidious water wars as by Royte’s recommended ecologically responsible drink: 'Toilet to tap.'"
  • Maslin on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski: "[T]he most enchanting debut novel of the summer. Written over a decade by the heretofore unknown David Wroblewski and arriving as a bolt from the blue, this is a great, big, mesmerizing read, audaciously envisioned as classic Americana. Absent the few dates and pop-cultural references that place the book somewhere in the post-Eisenhower 20th century, its unmannered style, emotional heft and sweeping ambition would keep it timeless."
  • Laura Miller on Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of Children's Literature by Leonard S. Marcus: "Marcus, a charming and nimble writer, makes a valiant effort to keep things interesting, but the editorial shake-ups and new printing technologies will be of interest primarily to historians and people in the industry. It’s the editor’s lot, alas, to subsist on reflected glory. The most interesting thing about even the most esteemed individuals that Marcus covers are the authors they discovered and the books they published, and there’s not quite enough about either in 'Minders of Make-Believe.' The effect is a little like hanging around at a perfectly nice party while there’s a terrific one going on just down the hall."
  • Lauren Mechling on Moving Day: Allie Finkel's Rules for Girls, Book One by Meg Cabot: "Cabot’s books are quick-paced romps that take one night to read and, apparently, not much longer to write. In addition to regularly updating her blog with detailed posts, she has said in interviews that she writes five to 10 pages a day, turning out roughly a book a month. More unbelievable, though, is that the work holds up. While legions of Meg Cabot imitators get waylaid by brand-name this and 'Oh my God' that, Cabot’s voice remains fresh. She favors the spill-the-beans-as-you-go style common to teenage fiction, but her material has a spirited fizz that’s lacking in many so-called young adult comedies."

Washington Post:

  • Michael Dirda on The Delighted States by Adam Thirlwell: "Normally, I would eagerly applaud a young writer's enterprising attempt to recreate the critical essay, to spin out a set of variations on a theme in the history of fiction. But to bring off the loosey-goosey manner of a book like The Delighted States requires more than a few appealing literary anecdotes: It needs considerable authorial charm, and this Thirlwell lacks. Instead, he proffers many thoughtful, if hardly soul-stirring, analyses of passages from classic authors and a slew of sloganizing generalizations, such as this gnomic description of Kafka's writing: 'It is adagio, and massive, and very short.' Well, Adam Thirlwell's The Delighted States is flashy, and pompous, and very long. Nobody likes a showoff."
  • Margot Livesay on Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian: "There are many moments of loss and violence -- some heartbreaking -- but the reader quickly moves on. This swift pace and the resulting eschewal of sentimentality are part of the pleasure of Skeletons at the Feast, but I wish we could have paused a little longer at one or two of these moments.... But Bohjalian's sense of character and place, his skillful plotting and his clear grasp of this confusing period of history make for a deeply satisfying novel, one that asks readers to consider, and reconsider, how they would rise to the challenge of terrible deprivation and agonizing moral choices."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Chris Abani on Slumberland by Paul Beatty: "'Slumberland' is laugh-out-loud funny in many places, and its wit and satire can be burning, regardless of where they are pointed: blackness or whiteness.... At its core, 'Slumberland's' sadness is that of a black man cast loose in a universe of whiteness, carrying the pure sorrow of never being seen, and an even deeper sorrow of not being able to see himself. Perhaps this is the point of the glib tone -- that one can never truly get to the heart of a difficult question by using tropes and ideas that, while ringing of personal truth, are riddled with cultural sentimentality."
  • Donna Seaman on How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic: "Richly translated by Anthea Bell, Stanisic's story is loaded on each page with galvanizing details, desperately making an inventory of an imperiled world. He maintains a delirious, jump-cut pace as words flash dark-to-light-to-dark, and sentences coil and snap, conjuring a macabre carnival atmosphere."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Tim Russert and Father's Day

We're not the first to note the untimely passing of NBC's Tim Russert on Friday. The airwaves and the internet have been full of tributes from colleagues and former interview antagonists to Washington's top political journalist (and the bestselling author of Big Russ and Me and Wisdom of Our Fathers). My favorite personal tribute: his longtime friend Joe Klein's on Time's Swampland ("He was loving this election, as much as any we'd covered. I just can't believe he won't be around to find out how it ends."). My favorite line: Ezra Klein: "Presumably, he's up somewhere beyond the cloudline, hectoring God about His inconsistencies. 'But Lord, in Exodus 6:12, you clearly said...'" Most fitting tribute: Time's collection of his Top 10 Gotcha Moments.

140135965501_mzzzzzzz_ As many have noted, it was especially poignant that he died two days before Father's Day, since few public figures have paid more heartfelt tribute to their fathers than Russert for his Big Russ, who worked two jobs, collecting garbage by day and driving a newspaper truck by night, for most of his working life, and who worked equally hard to pass on to his children a sturdy set of values. And by all accounts Tim did his best to live up to that example in his relationship with his own son Luke. Russert's two books, which have been on the top of our bestseller list since soon after the news broke, are both about fathers, and with the day in mind, I thought it would be appropriate to post a short passage from Big Russ and Me here:

Although we loved our fathers, there was a distance between us and a recognition that they inhabited a very different universe than we did. It was not just that they were usually working, although that was part of it. It was that our fathers and mothers were adults, and we were kids, during a time when grown-ups and children lived in separate worlds and were exposed to very different things. (A small example: in the 1950s we never saw a bad word in print or heard an off-color remark on the radio or on television.) Nobody I knew ever called grown-ups, even close family friends, by their first names, and the grown-ups never suggested that we should. To this day, when I go back to Buffalo and I run into one of our old neighbors, I still address them as "Mr. Griffin" or "Mrs. Geary."

Shaking hands with adults was very important, at least for boys, and it was something I practiced with Dad until it became second nature. Dad insisted on a firm handshake, and he worked with me until I developed one. "When you meet somebody," he would say, "you want to make them feel that you're proud and happy to know them. So don't put a wet fish in their hand. Give that hand a good shake, snap your wrist, and look them in the eye. People are people, and if they like you, they'll give you the benefit of the doubt. Treat them the way you'd like to be treated."

... These things were so ingrained in me that I passed them along to my son, Luke, almost without thinking. When he was four or five, I heard myself echoing Dad's words as we practiced what to do when he met an adult for the first time -- or the twentieth. I'd say, "Come here, buddy, and let's shake hands," and I undoubtedly used the phrase "wet fish" as part of the lesson....

When Luke was a junior in high school and we went to visit a few colleges, one of the deans took me aside and said, "That is one impressive young man you have there." I was happy to hear this, of course, and I silently hoped he would elaborate, which he did. "Your boy shook my hand," the dean continued. "He looked me in the eye and engaged me in conversation." That's all it took! And from the way the dean said it, I could tell this wasn't something he saw every day. I was proud of Luke, but even more, I was grateful to Dad.

Today is Father's Day, but it's also Sunday, the day that Russert made his own in his 17 years of hosting Meet the Press (my favorite detail from his career: NBC News made Russert their Washington bureau chief and named him host of Meet the Press before he had any on-air television experience). This morning's program will be an hourlong tribute to Russert, hosted by Tom Brokaw. Tune in with your dad. --Tom

BookExpo On-the-Floor Interview: Nami Mun on Miles from Nowhere

Two of the most attention-drawing panels at BookExpo are the Buzz Panel, in which a half-dozen editors talk up an upcoming book or two of theirs they are most excited about, and the Emerging Voices panel, where a handful of about-to-arrive authors read from and talk about their new work. I'm not sure how people get to be on those panels, but it's telling that one book represented on both this year, first by its Riverhead editor, Megan Lynch, and then by its author, Nami Mun, was Miles from Nowhere, a debut novel about a young Korean American runaway in New York City in the 80s. I had heard the (very good) buzz on it too, and had a chance to read an early copy of the book and talk to Nami herself after her panel.

Her book is indeed wonderful--it was described to me as very dark, and it certainly is that at moments, but she writes with a delicate, humane attention throughout that makes even the darkest moments bearable and gives even her most terrible characters empathetic depth. And our talk (and then getting to visit with Nami some more later) turned out to be a real highlight of my time in LA. I always like to be one of the first to talk to an author, before they've hit the media roundrobin and heard all my questions 100 times before. But it's especially exciting to talk to someone who hasn't yet had a chance to talk about her work in public before, after spending so long--eight years, in her case--working on it without any certainty it would see the light of day (much less get anointed with buzz). We talked about, among other things, Hemingway's iceberg, selling cheap jewelry to the cooks in a Chinese restaurant, figuring out how to make a young and unreflective narrator grow into someone who can look back on and make some sense of her life, and the book that made her think she could tell the stories she wanted, Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn.

This might be the first you've heard about Miles from Nowhere, but I'm sure it won't be the last, although you may have to wait a bit: it won't be out until January (well, December 26, to be exact):

Continue reading "BookExpo On-the-Floor Interview: Nami Mun on Miles from Nowhere" »

Reader of the Year: The Nicotine Umbrella

Nicotineumbrella I snapped this on my way back from lunch the other day and had to pass it along. The photo speaks for itself, but I just want to express my admiration for this intrepid reader. I always have great affection for people who can carve out a place in the big machine for their idiosyncrasies, and this lady has it FIGURED OUT. She likes to read, she likes to smoke, she lives in Seattle (where it's 50 degrees and rainy in June), she works in some hulking office building downtown: what's the solution? You see it before you. (I should note, since it's not quite clear, that she's actually standing in the street, in a quiet little spot between parked cars that puts her out of foot traffic, far away from the smokers-area ennui, and even deeper in her own little umbrella world. Brilliant.)

My only regret is that my uncharacteristic gumption in taking her photo did not extend to finding out what she's actually reading. Any guesses? Anybody have photos that can top this for reader dedication? (I like Maud's recent subway reading snapshot.) --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Robert Pinsky on While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family by Kathryn Harrison: "Like Jody Gilley’s example of the Bosporus — a strait connecting two separate masses — her brother’s vision, of the desolate rescued by the mute, suggests the unspeakable isolation of ruptured lives, and the reparative need to speak of that isolation, as Kathryn Harrison does here. Her telling brings moral clarity to the dark fate of a family: the daylight gaze of narrative itself as a form of empathy."
  • Kakutani on When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris: "With many of these tales, the reader has the sense that Mr. Sedaris is scraping the bottom of the barrel for material, writing for the sake of producing another book, vamping for time instead of looking within or trying something new.... The essays about Mr. Sedaris’s own life tend to leave the reader thinking he’s simply got too much spare time on his hands. He talks about doing crossword puzzles, making scarecrows out of record album covers to scare away birds banging into his windows, and finding ways to trap live flies so he can feed them to the spiders in his country house in France."
  • Maslin on Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives by Jim Sheeler: "Major Beck’s utter dedication to his job is one thing that gives 'Final Salute' its strong backbone. This is not a maudlin book, despite the endless opportunities Mr. Sheeler had to make it one. Instead it adopts Major Beck’s quiet decency in his conduct and his empathy for people in dire circumstances. 'Maybe that’s what hurts me the most,' he says: 'that because I’m standing in front of them, they’re feeling as bad as they’re ever going to feel.'"
  • Bryan Burrough on The Legend of Colton T. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller: "As a nonfiction writer, I get all twitchy whenever a novelist, or in this case someone who writes as well as a novelist, ventures into the world of hard-won facts. Because whew boy, can Alexandra Fuller write. In 'The Legend of Colton T. Bryant,' a slender volume that tells the story of a Wyoming kid who died in an oil-field accident, Fuller strings together sentences that are as beautiful as anything you’ll read in contemporary fiction. It’s not a stretch to call them poetry. But the more I read of this book and the more I marveled at Fuller’s evocative descriptions of sunrises and mountain lakes and boisterous rodeos, the more one question kept nagging at me: can this really be called nonfiction?"
  • David Gates on The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie: "I’m probably not Rushdie’s target audience: in literature, at least, I find the marvelous tedious, and the tedious — as rendered by a Beckett or a Raymond Carver or even a Kafka — marvelous. But if I can upset myself over the plight of a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning as a bug, why did this ingenious and ambitious novel — no less than a defense of the human imagination — leave me unmoved?"

Washington Post:

  • Ron Charles on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski: "Sit. Stay. Read. The dog days of summer are nigh, and here is a big-hearted novel you can fall into, get lost in and finally emerge from reluctantly, a little surprised that the real world went on spinning while you were absorbed.... The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is an enormous but effortless read, trimmed down to the elements of a captivating story about a mute boy and his dogs. That sets off alarm bells, I know: Handicapped kids and pets can make a toxic mix of sentimentality., But Wroblewski writes with such grace and energy that Edgar Sawtelle never succumbs to that danger."
  • Lily Burana on Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk: "To the last page, Snuff is a moralistic work, but not in the way of tedious, partisan bickering about the dangers of porn. Snuff is, instead, a meditation on immortality, ambition, the lure of risk, the need for stability and, ultimately, on leaving a legacy. The question isn't why Palahniuk would take on such an off-putting subject, but rather, what took him so long. Chuck and porn. Porn and Chuck -- the two go together like fists and brass knuckles, moth and flame: a fatalistic coupling that happens to be, also, a perfect match."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Jane Smiley on What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn: "'What Was Lost' is a delight to read -- poignant, suspenseful, funny and smart. Whoops! Here we go again -- plot, characters, style, wit, themes, social commentary rising from the grave and engaging actual readers! It would be best for you if I said as little as possible about the plot. This is a novel that should have no jacket copy, no advance notices. It should come into your hands unheralded, because if you simply open to the first page and begin reading, you'll proceed in a state of innocent pleasure."
  • David L. Ulin on Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles: "'Dear American Airlines' is a gimmick novel, which we approach with a certain suspension of disbelief. Even the most despairing passenger, after all, would never write a 180-page complaint to customer service, nor would he reveal in it everything about himself: the refund request as public confessional. Yet the concept works beautifully."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

BookExpo On-the-Floor Interview: Tom Vanderbilt on Traffic

030726478501_mzzzzzzz_ With hundreds of authors making appearances at BookExpo last week, I managed to waylay an interesting few for on-the-floor interviews (listen for the tell-tale Antiques Roadshow buzz in the background), and I'll be posting them over the next week. One I especially wanted to talk to was Tom Vanderbilt, about his upcoming book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) (endless-subtitle trend noted here): as soon as I saw the galley for Traffic I (metaphorically) slapped my forehead and said, "Why hasn't anybody done that book before?" These days we spend almost as much time driving as we do eating (in fact, we do a lot of our eating while driving); Amazon has an entire category for food books, but I can't remember the last time I saw a book on all the time we spend stuck in our cars. (Here's one sign of what's missing: if you search our site under "traffic," the number two book that comes up--after Vanderbilt's--is a $103 textbook from 2004.) But it's a topic of universal interest: what more reliable subject to talk to strangers about is there? Traffic is like the weather, except that nobody has a strategy for dealing with the weather. Everybody has a strategy for beating the traffic.

Traffic has plenty of advice for those shortcut schemers (and Vanderbilt may well convince you to become, as he has, a dreaded "Late Merger"), but more than that it's the sort of wide-ranging contrarian compendium that makes a familiar subject new. I'm loathe to use a marketing tagline like "the Freakonomics of traffic!" but, well, this probably won't be the last time I do: Traffic fits right in with the Leavitt-Gladwell-Surowiecki-Ariely-etc. school of smart and popular recent books that use the latest in economic and sociological and psychological (and in this case civil engineering) research to make us rethink a topic we live with every day. And Vanderbilt comes to it with an excellent pedigree: along with being a busy freelance writer and the author of Survival City and The Sneaker Book, he is one of the original Baffler crowd, who put out the best indie intellectual journal of the pre-McSweeney's/N+1 era, and who now appear to have taken over the world. (I always thought Vanderbilt's robber-baron name was the most appropriate for their muckracking sensibility.)

With BookExpo being in LA this year, the "epicenter," as he put it, of traffic (and traffic talk), we of course began our discussion there, and soon had fully geeked out on such topics as the "commuter shed," "risk homeostasis," and "15% higher throughput through the bottleneck," as well as getting to the deepest motivations for human behavior and the explanation for how they get all those Oscars limos to arrive at the red carpet at the right time. Listen along and look for Traffic, out on July 29:

 

 

--Tom

P.S. I just learned that Tom has set up a blog for his book (and is busy posting there) at Howtodrive.com. And speaking of Freakonomics, he just did an excellent Q&A on their blog as well.

BookExpo 2008: The Celebs and, Yes, the Books

We're all back from BookExpo America, the year's big book convention in Los Angeles this past weekend, and trying to dig ourselves out from under. The nets are full of how-was-the-show post mortems (or, judging by the dour mood of some of the reports, pre-mortems); selected keywords include "geriatric," "fearful," "modest," "subdued," and "Ernest Borgnine." I have been saying it was "great," but I'm more of a small-picture guy, and I met a lot of good people and found out about good new books--I'm always amazed and heartened to see a giant warehouse full of book weirdos like me and to see a season's worth of new writing that just might be great.

You spend much of your time there telling everyone else you meet how your show is going, which often boils down to which celebrity authors you have seen on the weirdly democratic convention floor or at the more hierarchical dinners and parties (where the celeb/civilian lines are still not policed they way they are in daily life), so here's my partial list of sightings: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Slash, Salman Rushdie, John Hodgman, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Jeremy, Rick Pitino, Lewis Black, Anne Rice, Gloria Allred, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, plus the two big talking-with-dogs debut novelists, Garth Stein and David Wroblewski, standing next to each other. Most in character: George Hamilton, gliding through the convention looking like a South American oligarch-in-exile; Kevin Nealon, there to promote his new book on fatherhood while beleagueredly trying to stuff a diaper bag in the back of his baby's stroller; and James Patterson, who sat across the cafeteria from me with three colleagues and, no doubt, in the time it took me to consume my miserable tuna sub, "authored" his next bestselling manuscript.

No invite for me to the instantly legendary Prince party (where the pint-sized megalomaniac of funk went onstage in his backyard at 2 am), but I did have a good time at the HarperCollins affair on the New York set on the 20th Century Fox lot (no, not that New York set). There I met one of my favorite new author acquaintances, James Lecesne (he recently made his YA debut), who was reminded of the bad years when he had moved from New York to LA for a development deal at Fox that went nowhere. At his lowest points he'd leave his office and head for those fake NY streets, which at least felt a little like home.

But what about the books? As much as it feels like every book ever printed makes it's way through my tiny cubicle, there is always plenty to discover on the Expo floor. Here are a few promising items I came across for the first time:

061856989801_sctzzzzzzz_ Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough (September): a very promising pairing of author and subject. Tough keeps showing up in the right places (Harper's and This American Life, plus the wonderful but short-lived mid-early-Internet experiment he helmed called Open Letters), and his first book is about a man social services folks like my wife talk about in nearly godlike terms. The obvious comparison would be Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer, but I'm sure the stories are too good and too different for the comparisons to go too far beyond that.

Continue reading "BookExpo 2008: The Celebs and, Yes, the Books" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Richard Russo on Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles: "The big question that underlies the entire narrative — Who’s at fault here? — couldn’t be more timely, given contemporary America’s fondness for the blame game. The novel begins in moral certitude and virtuous outrage. Though he admits to being little more than a 'vanishing taillight' in his daughter’s life, he still blames American Airlines for his inability to keep the one promise that means so much to him.... The novel also wants us to consider the telling fact that Bennie’s true journey could begin only after he stopped moving. Is it possible he actually owes American Airlines a debt of gratitude?"
  • Kakutani on The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie: "Salman Rushdie’s new novel, 'The Enchantress of Florence,' reads less like a novel by the author of such magical works as 'Midnight’s Children' and 'The Moor’s Last Sigh' than a weary, predictable parody of something by John Barth.... Such talk about sorcery and mysterious doubles isn’t delivered here with the sort of dazzling sleight of hand that have made Mr. Rushdie’s most powerful work, like the most powerful work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so mesmerizing and so phantasmagorical. Rather it’s lacquered onto a plywood story with a heavy paintbrush that leaves lots of streaks and spots and results in a work that feels jerry-built, meretricious — and yes, quite devoid of magic."
  • John Hodgman on comics, including the reprints in Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus (Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4): "His stories were linear — even primitive. But there is something powerful and melancholy and personal that weeps in Orion’s epic, city-smashing rages. At other times, though, the pages cannot seem to keep up with Kirby’s astonishing imagination. Concepts, characters, subplots and themes are wildly thrown into the mix like drunken punches and then abandoned, never to be seen again: A whole city 'hewn from the giant trees of a great forest'! Space giants lashed to asteroids! Werewolves and vampires living on a miniature planet in a scientist’s basement (a planet with horns on it)!"
  • Maslin on Nothing to Lose by Lee Child: "Where does this brilliantly calculating author go from here? Reacher’s minimalist character is perfect. His moods don’t waver. His baggage stays light. His biography needs no amplifying. His adventures follow a familiar, satisfying arc. None of this is broken, so it doesn’t need fixing. So how does Mr. Child stick to these books’ basic blueprint while still making each year’s model so satisfyingly new? His solution in 'Nothing to Lose' is this: keep the format inviolate but raise the ante tremendously."

Washington Post:

  • John N. Maclean on Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11 by Patrick Creed and Rick Newman: "Combing public records and conducting 150 interviews, Creed and Newman have done a monumental reporting job. Firefight tells the tale moment by moment through the accounts of dozens of participants and eye-witnesses. The book needed an editor with a sharper blue pencil -- it's too long, and the writing can be monotonous. Not unlike the heroes whose stories they tell, however, Creed and Newman faced a daunting challenge, rose to the occasion and rescued a piece of history from the ashes."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Charles Solomon on The Other by David Guterson: "Inevitably, those comparisons will take the form of 'It's no "Snow Falling on Cedars."' Indeed, 'The Other' is a flat-footed morass of trivia that suggests a bad rewrite of 'Into the Wild'.... In an unsuccessful attempt to disguise the sheer improbability of the story and the underdeveloped characters who wander through it, Guterson buries the reader in meaningless facts.... Apparently this welter of names and details is supposed to take the place of credible character development, but the net result is every bit as entertaining as reading a street guide or a mail-order catalog."
  • Amy Wilentz on Rushdie's Enchantress of Florence: "Rushdie has done a lot of research for 'Enchantress.' Unfortunately, the story gets lost amid its own underpinnings. The reader is asked to do the work the writer usually does: to put the complicated, sporadic, diffuse and often irritating mass of information together and make of it a comprehensible whole. Yet the book is not postmodern, deconstructed or radical -- it's not challenging in a good way. There's an awful lot in its few pages (few for Rushdie, that is). Indeed, there is far too much, and 'Enchantress' reads as if it's unedited and unfinished. It's more Rushdie's working notebook for a novel than it is a premeditated work of finished fiction."
  • Dinah Lenney on Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double Dating with My Dad by Bob Morris: "Would you look at this book jacket? What was HarperCollins thinking? An old guy, with a comb-over and a gut, sitting on a chaise at the beach -- legs spread wide in his too-tight Burberry swim trunks -- skin like leather, gold chains at his neck and wrists, his mouth full of sandwich, this is supposed to be funny? Because, what, the real story isn't funny enough? Does the publisher want to pretend Bob Morris hasn't written a beautiful book?"

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Guest Bookshelf: Heather Hayman

Our new bookshelf banner atop Omnivoracious is courtesy of reader Heather Hayman, who has these words of introduction:

When you are married to a writer, you find yourself reading ... a lot! My house is littered with books. I'm a fairly happy, easy-going person and yet I'm drawn to some pretty dark subject matter. Lately, I've been trying to alternate the dark with the light, such as following up Jodi's Picoult's Nineteen Minutes with Jen Lancaster's Bitter Is the New Black. I travel quite a bit too and have discovered that airplane boarding passes make excellent bookmarks (as you can see in the photo: Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner). Times are changing though and this year we added a Kindle to our family. We are love, love, loving it! Guess I won't have to buy more bookshelves after all.

Thanks, Heather! Send your own bookshelf photos in to omnivoracious at amazon.com. --Tom
 

Omni's Little-Screen Debut: BTP on CBS

I couldn't let today pass without noting the Amazon Books editorial team's network TV debut (at least since the early boom days--who knows what happened then. Ron? James?): this morning our own Brad Parsons stood up in midtown with Julie Chen in what looked like gale-force winds to talk about summer reading for the CBS Early Show. If there's anybody outside our own cube-land who enjoys this as much as we do, you can watch the full segment here. Bravo, Brad! --Tom

Btponcbs_2

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

Omm_052608

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Liesl Schillinger on Black Flies by Shannon Burke: "Although 'Black Flies' is a novel, it contains more reflections of lived experience than some memoirs (particularly recent memoirs). Reading this arresting, confrontational book is like reading 'Dispatches,' Michael Herr's indelible account of his years as a reporter in Vietnam. Like Herr, who endured the ordeals of warfare at first hand but at a journalistic remove, Burke was both a participant in and an observer of the scenes he records, distanced from the men he worked with by his capacity to isolate and analyze his memories and by the fact that he had not been compelled to join the fray but had chosen to do so."
  • Cathleen Schine on The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon: "Aleksandar Hemon has taken the formal structure of humor, the grammar of comedy, the rhythms and beats of a joke, and used them to reveal despair. His new novel, 'The Lazarus Project,' is a remarkable, and remarkably entertaining, chronicle of loss and hopelessness and cruelty propelled by an eloquent, irritable existential unease. It is, against all odds, full of humor and full of jokes. It is, at the same time, inexpressibly sad."
  • Stephen Burt on Sleeping It Off in Rapid City by August Kleinzahler: "Many poets try to sound tough, or masculine, or self-conscious about manhood, and fail miserably: what qualities let Kleinzahler succeed? His eye, and his ear — he is, first and last, a craftsman, a maker of lines — but also his range of tones, and his self-restraint: he never says more than he should, rarely repeats himself and keeps his focus not on the man who speaks the poems (and whose personality comes across anyway) but on what that man sees and on what he can hear."

Washington Post:

  • Michael Dirda on The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie: "Set during the 16th century, The Enchantress of Florence is altogether ramshackle as a novel -- oddly structured, blithely mixing history and legend and distinctly minor compared to such masterworks as The Moor's Last Sigh and Midnight's Children-- and it is really not a novel at all. It is a romance, and only a dry-hearted critic would dwell on the flaws in so delightful an homage to Renaissance magic and wonder."
  • John Pomfret on China's Great Train by Abrahm Lustgarten: "Lustgarten translates the palpable excitement of being a builder in a nation where builders rule. He also accomplishes something more valuable: He provides insight into the seat-of-the-pants nature of many of China's massive schemes. Reading China's Great Train, we recognize China's engineers, and by extension its leadership, for what they are: some of the world's biggest risk-takers. Geeks with guts."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Laurel Maury on Netherland by Joseph O'Neill: "It's an incredible novel that doesn't work. Author and critic Joseph O'Neill can't write a bad sentence and is incapable of thought that isn't elegant, eloquent and wise. But a perceptive eye isn't enough -- some sort of viscera are necessary, and though O'Neill tells us certain things are important, he never really makes us feel it. Even a story about detachment needs attachment to work."
  • Samantha Dunn on Personal Days by Ed Park: "Park portrays Thoreau's quote about the masses leading 'lives of quiet desperation' as urban satire for the dot-com generation. It's a satire at times so droll, so trenchant in its observations of corporate 'culture' and human weakness, so pitch-perfect in dialogue, you can't help but feel for the author.... [C]hances are, Park ... drew from personal experience of really lousy jobs to create this bitter, pathetic world that makes you snort your Starbucks when laughing at unexpected moments."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Friday Afternoon Videos: This Is the World We Live In

Jeff's taking a few days' breather, and, as it happens, I happen to have two book videos I want to share Friday, that is, today (and I'm not going to wait until the night to do it). Now that every author is supposed to make a video to promote their book, we get questions all the time about what makes a good author video. Well, look no further. Yesterday, I posted a clip from John Green on the page for his YA novel, Paper Towns, which comes out in the fall, which was homemade-hilarious enough that I wanted to post it here too:

Only after posting it did I find out how he got so comfortable with the camera: he does these things, like, every day with his equally bright (well, you can debate which one's your favorite) brother Hank, and posts them on their supersite, Nerdfighters.com. For example, watch a recent bit about Paper Towns' two covers. John's also the author, by the way, of An Abundance of Katherines and Looking for Alaska.

But that's only the second-best video I found yesterday. While I was in John Green-land (and you can spend a lot of time there very quickly, to put words in Yogi Berra's mouth), I came across this gem on his blog, which is not only beautiful in its own right but sums up many of the mysteries of my profession and describes, with knowing and rueful precision, exactly what I am doing right now, instead of, say reading or writing a book:

Who is Dennis Cass? Until now I didn't know, but it looks like he's the author of Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain. Something tells me, after this gets around (somebody else already forwarded it to me today), more people will know that. Or else he'll just drop the writing thing altogether and take Samberg's gig on the late night show. --Tom

Democratic Presidential Frontrunner Book Club (cont.)

Yesterday, when Barack Obama was spotted on the tarmac with his finger holding his place in The Post-American World, I assumed we wouldn't see much of a sales spike, since the book was already at #7 in our Top 100. Well, some folks did see that photo: Zakara passed stalwarts Barbara Walters and Stephenie Meyer to hit #4 today. But already the senator has moved on to more reading recommendations. In response to an audience question in Florida today about possible running mates, here was his response:

I can tell you this. My goal is to have the best possible government. And that means me winning. So, I'm very practical in my thinking. I'm a practical guy. One of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln. Awhile back, there was a wonderful book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin called 'Team of Rivals,' in which she talked about how Lincoln basically pulled all the people he'd been running against into his Cabinet. Because whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was, 'How can we get the country through this time of crisis?' I think that has to be the approach one takes to the vice president and the Cabinet.

I'll be checking Movers & Shakers tomorrow to see if O is becoming the new Oprah. --Tom

Doris_and_abe P.S. Anytime I mention Team of Rivals, I have to point to my personal favorite customer-submitted product photo on Amazon (and not only because it's the only one of them I've taken): our dear former colleague Ben Reese (only after much egging on) showing off his fabulous Lincoln ink to Doris Kearns Goodwin herself. Now that the bar has been raised, there's one way for Obama to prove that Abe is really one of his heroes: show the tattoo!

Airplane (Tarmac) Reading: Barack Obama

Barack_fareed

Can you use a photograph as a book blurb? If so, Fareed Zakaria might want to find a way to get this photo (by Doug Mills of the New York Times, via Shelf Awareness) on the cover of the paperback (or, the way it's selling, on the next hardcover edition) of The Post-American World. I love the way you can tell how far Obama's gotten in the book by where his finger is holding his place (which, as all bookworms know, is also body-language code for "Okay, I'll talk to you, but what I really want to do is get back to reading this book, which I will start doing as soon as you leave me alone."). (Also note what appears to be a flag pin!) I'd ask whether this shot will have the same effect on sales of Post-American World that photos of Posh Spice reading (or at least holding) Skinny Bitch did for that one, but Post-American has already spent most of this month in our Top 10 (currently #7, as one of the few books in the 10 not written by Stephenie Meyer).

Meanwhile, let's summarize: here we have the current frontrunner (barely) to be the 44th president of the United States (the son of a Kenyan man and an American woman, named Barack Obama), reading the top-selling current events book of the season (by an immigrant from Mumbai named Fareed Zakaria) called The Post-American World. Some evidence that we may not be living in Nixonland anymore... --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

Omm_051908

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Dwight Garner on Netherland by Joseph O'Neill: "Here’s what 'Netherland' surely is: the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell. On a micro level, it’s about a couple and their young son living in Lower Manhattan when the planes hit, and about the event’s rippling emotional aftermath in their lives. On a macro level, it’s about nearly everything: family, politics, identity. I devoured it in three thirsty gulps, gulps that satisfied a craving I didn’t know I had." And Kakutani agrees: "like Fitzgerald’s masterpiece [yes, Gatsby], Joseph O’Neill’s stunning new novel, 'Netherland,' provides a resonant meditation on the American Dream."
  • Lorraine Adams on The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine: "If any work of fiction might be powerful enough to transcend the mountain of polemic, historical inquiry, policy analysis and reportage that stands between the Western reader and the Arab soul, it’s this wonder of a book — a book not about a jihadi but a hakawati (Arabic for storyteller)."
  • Kakutani on Apples and Oranges by Marie Brenner: "Ms. Brenner uses the prism of her love and grief for her brother — and her bewilderment too — to create a haunting portrait of him and their family. She has written a book that captures the nervous, emotionally strangled relationship she shared with him for the better part of their lives, a book that explores the difficult algebra of familial love and the possibility of its renewal in the face of impending loss."
  • Douglas Brinkley on The Age of Reagan by Sean Wilentz: "The mistake many pundits and scholars have made, he asserts, is tattooing a convenient label on Reagan’s forehead, like 'conservative,' 'hawkish' or 'pro-business.' One understands the man better, Wilentz says, by exploring the power of optimism and nostalgia."

Washington Post:

  • Ted Widmer on Counselor by Ted Sorenson: "It is as much about Sorensen as Kennedy, more personal than anything he has written before. It is full of new information about both men, and in a world saturated with Kennedy stories both over-familiar and apocryphal, that's saying something.... The armies of speechwriters that will descend on Washington in the administration-to-come will devour this book, the finest work on their craft ever written."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Veronique de Turenne on So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger: "Enger's managed an elusive feat. This book is different enough from 'Peace Like a River' to dispel all thoughts of beginner's luck. Yet it's similar enough in theme and tone -- a gently heightened Western realism -- that he's laid claim to a musical, sometimes magical and deeply satisfying kind of storytelling."
  • Jim Newton on Nixonland by Rick Perlstein: "Perlstein is after something other than biography here. And wisely so. The world almost certainly has enough Nixon biographies.... Instead, he tells the story of Nixon's America, a country of division and resentment, jealousy and anger, one where politics is brutal and psychological, where victors make the vanquished suffer. Perlstein ... aims here at nothing less than weaving a tapestry of social upheaval. His success is dazzling."
  • Jesse Cohen on Hospital by Julie Salamon: "This unnecessary book will add little to the public's understanding of how hospitals are run, nor will it render any nuanced insights into the richly multiethnic community in which Maimonides sits.... Well after the more than 250,000 patients that Maimonides will care for this year are treated, 'Hospital' will leave its dedicated and hardworking corps of doctors and staff with the kinds of wounds that do not easily heal."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Dundy and Hall: The NYRB Loses Two, While Keeping Their Work Alive

It seems like every other week I write a parenthetical here about how much I love the brilliantly curated New York Review Books reprint series, which has yet to steer me even close to wrong. So I wanted to note the passing this month of two NYRB authors, both of whose cult-favorite books have been on my bought-but-not-read pile (aka, my house) for some time:

Elaine Dundy, 1921-2008
159017232901_mzzzzzzz_ Terry Teachout, on About Last Night, spent much of the past couple of weeks waiting around for the New York Times to get around to noticing the passing of Dundy, who died at the age of 86 on May 1. Finally they did on May 10, but before that the LA Times and the Guardian had written appreciations, as did Teachout himself. He also wrote the introduction to Dundy's novel, The Dud Avocado, when NYRB brought it back last year and made a bit of a hit out of it almost a half-century after it had become a surprise international bestseller, as a charming, semifictional account of her madcap life as a young American in Paris. As all the obits point out, her life was at least as dramatic as her fiction: she married the legendary critic Kenneth Tynan and, as the LA Times puts it, "in between the beatings and arguments was a charmed life amid the literati and Hollywood and theatrical elite, including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier, Gore Vidal and Orson Welles." She wrote two other novels as well as a "frothy" late memoir, Life Itself! (will the NYRB bring this back next?), and turned to biography, including, somewhat improbably, Elvis and Gladys, an account of the King's relationship with his mother that the Boston Globe apparently called "nothing less than the best Elvis book yet," even though Dundy claimed to have been ignorant of Presley and his music until after he died.

Oakley Hall, 1920-2008
159017161601_mzzzzzzz_ Hall wrote over a dozen novels, but became perhaps better known as a writing teacher and a presiding figure in the world of Western letters. As a director of the Cal-Irvine writing program for two decades he mentored, among others, Michael Chabon and Richard Ford, and he cofounded the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley writers' conference; he also wrote two writing guides, How Fiction Works and The Art and Craft of Novel Writing. Fine. But if someone was writing my obituary (or at least my Wikipedia entry) and they included only this single sentence, that would be more than enough: "In Thomas Pynchon's introduction to Richard Fariña's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, Pynchon stated that he and Fariña started a "micro-cult" around Warlock." Here's the full Pynchon quote, thanks to Search Inside:

Also in '59 we simultaneously picked up on what I still think is among the finest of American novels, Warlock, by Oakley Hall. We set about getting others to read it too, and for a while had a micro-cult going. Soon a number of us were talking in Warlock dialogue, a kind of thoughtful, stylized, Victorian-Wild West diction.

Uh, what more could you ask for than that? --Tom

Serious About the Casual: Talking with Ian Frazier

0374217238_160 I could go on about Ian Frazier. Do you know who he is? Do you know him for Great Plains, his travel book from twenty-plus years ago, which first appeared in vast excerpts in the New Yorker where it blew out the doors with the most bravura opening in the magazine's history of bravura openings ("AWAY to the Great Plains of America, to that immense Western short-grass prairie now mostly plowed under!...") and then didn't let up for 200 more pages? Or do you know him for On the Rez, his more recent bestseller about the Pine Ridge Reservation and actual--gulp--heroism? Or maybe for a fantastic New Yorker article you remember from some time ago on Canal Street or fishing or--most likely--plastic bags getting stuck in trees? Or--only if you're a geek like me--for an immortal sentence he wrote in 1974 for an unsigned Talk of the Town bit on Joey Heatherton: "She is a pert engine of destruction." Or perhaps for a piece he had in The Atlantic a few years back whose very long title you can't remember but some of whose lines have stuck in your head ever since, maybe because you had it up on your fridge for a lot of that time?

037428162901_mzzzzzzz_ That last is the reason we're here today: it's called "Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father," and it's the title piece (sort of) for his new collection of humorous (how that word chills) essays, Lamentations of the Father. We've been Frazier fans in my family for a long time (my sister, I will confess for her, once actually looked up where he lived in Missoula when she was passing through that town and parked across the street from his house and then was sort of embarrassed and creeped out at herself when he actually pulled up in his truck and parked and went inside the house), but "Lamentations," with its steel-hulled comedy that is never ever ever not hilarious, made him a household god of the stature of Charles Darwin or Juan Dixon. My parents and sister were visiting a few weeks ago when I got to interview Mr. Frazier, and the night before we took turns reading aloud yet again from the text. Everyone has their favorite punch line--mine is "And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass"--but happily The Atlantic has just put their last dozen years online for free, so you can read it all yourself.

I'll pause right now while you do that.

Pretty good, huh? Lamentations of the Father has three dozen of his funny pieces, the best of which--"Tomorrow's Bird," "Researchers Say," "Chinese Arithmetic"--can play in the big leagues with the title essay. Here's a bit from my (second) favorite, "The American Persuasion":

Subtle, flirtatious, and amusing (as well as honest and upright), George Washington led the colonists' war against the British with all the wiles at his command. Contemporaries marveled at the flexibility of his methods when pursuing a much desired goal. It was perhaps a lucky accident of history that his cause was aided by patriots nearly as nuanced as he: in Boston were Paul Revere and John Hancock and the Adamses, noted voluptuaries and lovers of pleasure, easily distinguished in a crowd by the rich, ambergris-based New England bath oils in which they drenched themselves.

(You also find out the name of Benjamin Franklin's favorite scent: "Quaker Moonlight.") Despite the fact that talking about comedy is a recipe for disaster, I leapt at the chance to interview Frazier, and you can hear the results below. Please shut your ears or hum while I go all Terry Gross in the introduction--before long we get to these more interesting subjects:

  • The history and philosophy of the New Yorker "casual"
  • Growing up as a writer in the Shawn era, and the relationship between passive-aggressiveness and magazine greatness
  • Why Russia is the funniest country
  • Siberia, the Great Plains of Russia (and the subject of his long-awaited next book, Travels in Siberia, out--we hope--next year)

--Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover (as detailed at length earlier today on Omni): George Will on Nixonland by Rick Perlstein: "In Perlstein’s mental universe, Nixon is a bit like God — not, Lord knows, because of Nixon’s perfect goodness and infinite mercy, but because Nixon is the explanation for everything.... 'How did Nixonland end?' Perlstein asks in the book’s last line. 'It has not ended yet.' But almost every page of Perlstein’s book illustrates the sharp contrast rather than a continuity with America today. It almost seems as though Perlstein, who was born in 1969, is reluctant to let go of the excitement he has experienced secondhand through the archives he has ransacked to such riveting effect."
  • Maslin on Bright Shiny Morning by one of our other guests this week, James Frey: "The million little pieces guy was called James Frey. He got a second act. He got another chance. Look what he did with it. He stepped up to the plate and hit one out of the park. No more lying, no more melodrama, still run-on sentences still funny punctuation but so what. He became a furiously good storyteller this time."
  • Kakutani on The Boat by Nam Le: "The other tales in this book ... circumnavigate the globe, demonstrating Mr. Le’s astonishing ability to channel the experiences of a multitude of characters, from a young child living in Hiroshima during World War II to a 14-year-old hit man in the barrios of Medellín to a high school jock in an Australian beach town. Mr. Le not only writes with an authority and poise rare even among longtime authors, but he also demonstrates an intuitive, gut-level ability to convey the psychological conflicts people experience when they find their own hopes and ambitions slamming up against familial expectations or the brute facts of history."
  • Jennifer Senior on Blood Matters by Masha Gessen: "'Blood Matters' is valuable reading to almost anyone facing a huge health decision, not only for the literary commiseration it offers, but also for the inspired example of medical sleuthing on one’s own behalf that it provides. Gessen keeps an inflammatory topic at room temperature, writing elegantly and without self-pity. The book is very funny in places. (My favorite sentence, for reasons I can’t quite describe: 'DNA-testing equipment tends to fall into two categories: things that look like printers and things that look like toasters.') It’s also very lucid, even when the science gets complex. It’s a liberating book. Strange as it sounds, it would make a great Mother’s Day present."

Washington Post:

  • Carolyn See on The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer: "Considering that Andrew Sean Greer is the author of the wildly imaginative 'Confessions of Max Tivoli' ... it will come as no surprise that the new novel is built on several narrative surprises that cannot (or should not) be revealed. So this will be a hard review to write.... This is a plot that deepens as surprises explode unexpectedly and terrifyingly. 'The Story of a Marriage' is more than worth the reader's attention. It's thoughtful, complex and exquisitely written."

Los Angeles Times:

  • David L. Ulin on Frey's Bright Shiny Morning: "'Bright Shiny Morning' is a terrible book. One of the worst I've ever read. But you have to give James Frey credit for one thing: He's got chutzpah.... Whatever else his failings as a writer, Frey was once able to move his readers; how else do we explain the success of 'A Million Little Pieces'? It's just one of the ironies of this new book that his fictionalized memoir is a better novel than 'Bright Shiny Morning' could ever hope to be."
  • Minna Proctor on Exiles by Ron Hansen: "In 'Exiles,' the dramatic inevitable belongs to the five drowned German nuns to whose memory the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins dedicated perhaps his most important work, 'The Wreck of the Deutschland,' a poem that was neither understood during his lifetime nor terribly well-liked.... From the magnificent words of Hopkins to the terrifying drama aboard the Deutschland, the promises of "Exiles" are superlative. The execution is tentative. If only Ron Hansen had plunged more deeply into those dark waters. If only a novel about fate, faith and poetry could give us more."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Are We Still in Nixonland?: Author One-on-One: Rick Perlstein and John Dean

Perlstein_dean_300_2 We live in interesting times, for better or worse, but I must confess I find the times from the early 60s to the early 70s at least as interesting as ours. Everything seemed at stake, and everything was in flux. Mass movements changed things from the ground up, and flawed but fascinating figures at the top made courageous and tragic decisions (often in the same moment) whose effects we're still living with. But you don't need me to tell you about those years--we've been hearing about them (and hearing about them) ever since.

074324302101_mzzzzzzz_ Which might make a new history of the era seem superfluous, even to a mild obsessive like me. But when the fat advance copy of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland hit my desk, I could tell it would be something special. For one thing, Perlstein had an excellent reputation from his first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, which was acclaimed on both sides of the aisle for showing how the Goldwater presidential run in 1964, commonly considered an unmitigated disaster, actually laid the groundwork for the conservative movement that has dominated American politics for most of the past three decades. (By the way, Before the Storm is unaccountably out of print right now--a new edition is due out next spring, but for now you'll have to spend over $100 for a used copy on our site.) I was looking forward to seeing that perspective turned on the more familiar terrain of the Nixon years. And then there's the style of Nixonland: from a few random glances you could tell that it's written with a verve and glee that you don't expect from political history. And the book itself lived up to those early signs: dense with research that puts familiar events on the same plane with forgotten ones and full of a spirit that reminds you of one of his theses, that politics is always an emotional and visceral game, never more so than in times of massive and disorienting change. I made it my Best of the Month pick and even steamrolled my less-obsessed colleagues into making it our May Spotlight selection.

140397741001_mzzzzzzz_ I wanted to bring Perlstein into dialogue on Omni, and I thought a perfect match for him would be former Nixon aide John Dean: in part because he lived at the center of many of the books' events (although the book ends with the '72 election, before Dean was on television sets across the country as the star of the Watergate hearings), but even more so because he's been a student of conservatism as well, and has held to his own identity as a "Goldwater conservative" even as, by his own reckoning, the shifting of the political spectrum has put someone like him much farther to the left than he'd ever have imagined. His newest book, following recent bestsellers like Worse than Watergate and Conservatives Without Conscience (not to mention his original bestseller and one of my all-time favorite political books, the memoir Blind Ambition), is Pure Goldwater, a collection, edited with Barry Goldwater Jr., of the late senator's journal entries and correspondence, which I hope will help lead the discussion toward Perlstein's first book and the Goldwater brand of conservatism as well.

Dean and Perlstein will be taking turns blogging here over the next couple of weeks. Dean begins things with a post this afternoon, which is a direct response to George Will's cover piece on Nixonland yesterday in the New York Times Book Review. May the rest of the discussion continue to be so lively! --Tom

The Most Bookery Booker: Down to Six

The Booker Prize potentates (in the persons in this go-round of judges Victoria Glendenning, Mariella Frostrup, and John Mullan) have chosen six finalists for the Best of the Booker prize (out of the 41 Booker winners eligible):

Notable snubs? Life of Pi? The English Patient? Possession? (Those are at least among the most popular winners in the US.) At this point, the selection of the winner is up to "you": that is, you can vote for the winner on the Man Booker website, although at this hour I can't see how to do it. Not that I could really do so myself in good conscience: it reveals me as either poorly read or Anglophobic* (or both!) that I've read exactly none of the well-known nominees. But nevertheless I'll root (and even vote) for The Siege of Krishnapur for the sole reason that it's published in the States by New York Review Books, whose exquisite taste has never ever steered me wrong.

And meanwhile, the required gripes. Yes, I enjoy book awards with some shamelessness, and I don't even mind the idea of a Best of the Booker. But what's embarrassing about this one is the prizegivers' lack of patience. Because they did this once before, for the Booker's 25th anniversary (the winner: Midnight's Children). So is it their 50th anniversary now? No, it's just the 40th. They just couldn't wait, could they? Ten years is a long time when you're itchy for PR in the downtime between fall prize seasons. But at this rate of accelerated impatience they'll want to do this again for the 45th anniversary, and before long they'll be running an updated contest every year: "Will Rushdie hold the title for one more year?" Even I might stop posting on the subject at that point. --Tom

*--I notice in retrospect that only two of the six are actually English by birth and upbringing--and some people even consider Farrell Irish--so maybe I should rephrase this to Commonwealthphobic.

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

Omm_050508

New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover (Chinese fiction issue): Jonathan Spence on Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan: "Although one can say that the political dramas narrated by Mo Yan are historically faithful to the currently known record, 'Life and Death' remains a wildly visionary and creative novel, constantly mocking and rearranging itself and jolting the reader with its own internal commentary.... From the start, the reader must be willing to share with Mo Yan the novel’s central conceit: that the five main narrators are not humans but animals, albeit ones who speak with sharply modulated human voices.... Such a brief summary may make the book sound too cute when it is, in fact, harsh and gritty, raunchy and funny."
  • Pankaj Mishra on Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong: "The author’s preoccupation with his Chinese audience may not be the only source of frustration for foreign readers of Howard Goldblatt’s generally fluent translation. Jiang Rong seems to have barely attempted to transmute his experiences and epiphanies into fiction; his book reads like an extended polemic about the superiority of nomadic people and the dangers of a triumphant but brutishly ignorant modernity."
  • David Margolick on 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris: "The history of the 1948 war desperately needs to be told, since it’s so barely understood or remembered and since so many of the issues that plague us today had their roots in that struggle.... No one is better suited to the task than Benny Morris, the Israeli historian who, in previous works, has cast an original and skeptical eye on his country’s founding myths. Whatever controversy he has stirred in the past, Morris relates the story of his new book soberly and somberly, evenhandedly and exhaustively. Definitely exhaustively, for '1948' can feel like 1948: that is, hard slogging. Some books can be both very important and very hard to read."
  • Maslin on Audition by Barbara Walters: "If any single thing keeps 'Audition' from achieving the stature of Katharine Graham's 'Personal History,' the book that set the high-water mark for memoirs of the politically and socially well-connected, it is the excess decorousness built into Ms. Walters’s conversation. That is not to say that she lacks sharp elbows or that she is shy about remembering grievances or settling scores.... A little more barbed frankness would have gone rather far in a book that uses 'rather' as its favorite modifier."
  • Maslin on A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs: "When Augusten Burroughs wrote 'Running With Scissors,' he regaled readers with hilarious tales of the domestic craziness he endured while growing up. Now in another family memoir Mr. Burroughs makes a crazy move of his own. 'A Wolf at the Table' is a portrait of the author’s apparently maniacal and Augusten-hating father. Determinedly unfunny, awkwardly histrionic and sometimes anything but credible, it repudiates everything that put Mr. Burroughs on the map."

Washington Post:

  • Michael Dirda on Trauma by Patrick McGrath: "Beautifully crafted and paced, Trauma can be viewed as either a superb psychological thriller or as a masterly evocation of modern alienation and despair -- assuming, of course, there is any difference.... McGrath eschews splatter or gruesomeness, instead relating Charlie Weir's story in clear, quick-flowing prose, as if Dick Francis had rewritten Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. Trauma is, in short, a terrific literary entertainment, one that will keep you on edge, worried and guessing for 200 pages."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Tim Rutten on Counselor by Ted Sorensen: "'Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History' is not only a fascinating memoir but also this election year's most important political book. Despite the subtitle's characteristic modesty, part of what makes "Counselor" so important is that its author was at the very center of so much that was important in American history and politics during the second half of the 20th century.... Sorensen's willingness to draw lessons concerning the current political situation from his experience is one of the several things that make "Counselor" such remarkably pleasurable and instructive reading." 

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Guest Blogging: James Frey

Frey_james_250 As you may have noticed, our May guest blogging has already begun, with an author who has been out of the limelight for a while but is back with a big novel this month, James Frey. Or, as he may feel his nickname is by now, "Yes, That James Frey" (not to be confused, old Cubs and Earl Weaver fans, with this James Frey). You don't need me to fill you in on the backstory, or to supply you with an opinion on it, since you most likely have one already. But I should note that, despite all the hoo-ha, A Million Little Pieces still sells at a very healthy clip on our site, and still gets enthusiastic new customer reviews (for instance, JazzDroid's "poo poo on the naysayers") from readers who came to the book after it had started being packaged with a giant grain of salt. (Also of note: we picked it as our top book of the year back in those quiet, pre-Oprah days of 2003.)

006157313201_mzzzzzzz_ And now, to cut through all the noise, we have James himself, sitting in for a month here. With our previous guests we've gone with a once-a-week posting schedule, but James wanted to stop by more frequently (as he has already), so we can look forward to regular updates from what will no doubt be a crazy month. He's spent these past few years working on his new novel, Bright Shiny Morning, which our own Daphne Durham has called a "swift and sprawling portrait of Los Angeles." It comes out May 13, and, as James mentioned in his first post, he's doing a somewhat untraditional book tour--although  from what he's told us about some of the plans, his description of "other writers reading with me, projected images, music, lights, live bands" may be a bit of an understatement. We're looking forward to seeing what happens, and we're glad James is able to join us this month. --Tom

P.S. To see more portraits of Los Angeles, take a look at James's annotated list of his top 12 books about LA, from classics like Chandler and Nathanael West to Bruce Wagner and "the first, and maybe only, truly great surfing novel," Tapping the Source.

P.P.S. Stay tuned for what's shaping up to be a busy and exciting month for authors on Omni, with guest appearances, starting next week, from multimedia triple-threat Miranda July and graphic design superstar Stefan Sagmeister as well as our second Author One-on-One, a discussion between Nixonland author Rick Perlstein and a former inner-circle resident of Nixonland (and current bestselling author) John Dean.

Guest Bookshelf: Mae Sander

Our new bookshelf banner atop Omnivoracious is courtesy of reader Mae Sander, who has these words of introduction:

In front of the books on this shelf is evidence of one of my reading interests: Shakespeare, represented by a bobble-head and a couple of small figures. The books behind Shakespeare reflect my interest in food history, Jewish history, and all varieties of ethnic cooking. You can guess from this selection that I enjoy a variety of approaches to writing about food. I like collections of authentic recipes such as Roden's Book of Jewish Food or Collin's The New Orleans Cookbook. I'm fond of portraits of families and their food, such as Koerner's A Taste of the Past or Rossant's Apricots on the Nile. And I appreciate scholarship like Jacob's Six Thousand Years of Bread or Gitlitz's A Drizzle of Honey -- a reconstruction of recipes of the secret Jews based on their testimony to the Inquisition. I write about my thoughts on food history, food books, and cooking on my blog, maefood.blogspot.com.

Thanks, Mae! Send your own bookshelf photos in to omnivoracious at amazon.com. --Tom

 

"When You're Born Into It": Margaret B. Jones's Unearthed Video

Pardon me for piling on but, well, I find it riveting to watch somebody just flat-out lie. Harry Allen at Media Assassin (yes, that "media assassin / Harry Allen") has obtained what appears to be a promo video shot with Margaret B. Jones--er, Peggy Seltzer's faux South Central memoir, Love and Consequences. Have at it (and read Allen's blow-by-blow critique):

159448977701_mzzzzzzz_

(Via GalleyCat. Meanwhile, Ron at GalleyCat has been running an excellent series of posts about the endless trend toward using photos of women facing away from the camera on the covers of women's fiction, but, surprisingly, this now-notorious cover has not come up. Even if "Jones"'s story had been true I wouldn't have expected the cover photo to actually be of Jones and her adoptive "Big Mom," but does it strike anyone else as odd to be using stock photos on the cover of a memoir?) --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Leon Wieseltier on The Second Plane by Martin "Chucklehead" Amis: "Amis seems to regard his little curses as almost military contributions to the struggle. He has a hot, heroic view of himself. He writes as if he, with his wrinkled copies of Bernard Lewis and Philip Larkin, is what stands between us and the restoration of the caliphate.... Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer.... You get the feeling, reading these pages, that for his side Amis will say almost anything, because being noticed is as important to him as being right. The complication is that there is considerable justice on Amis’s side.... I have never before assented to so many of the principles of a book and found it so awful." [Sorry for all the ellipses, but I had to squeeze in some of the best lines in this classic of vitriol.]
  • Kakutani on The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich: "Writing in prose that combines the magical sleight of hand of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the earthy, American rhythms of Faulkner, Ms. Erdrich traces the connections between these characters and their many friends and relatives with sympathy, humor and the unsentimental ardor of a writer who sees that the tragedy and comedy in her people’s lives are ineluctably commingled.... With 'The Plague of Doves,' she has written what is arguably her most ambitious — and in many ways, her most deeply affecting — work yet."
  • Tom LeClair on Shadow Country by Peter Mathiessen: "By reducing his Watson materials to one volume, Matthiessen has sacrificed qualities that gave those novels their powerful reinforcing illusions of authenticity and artlessness. Book I still has that Ten Thousand Islands quality, but 'Shadow Country' as a whole is like the Tamiami Trail that crosses the Everglades. It offers a quicker and easier passage through the swamp, but fewer shades and shadows."
  • Katie Roiphe on Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer: "One might wonder why this book, filled with mundane accounts of business deals, wills and birth records, is so riveting. It may be that one senses the passion in the archives, in the artifacts of daily life that Greer meticulously uncovers.... The details — so rare, so tangible — have the bareness of poetry. The world of Elizabethan England is so completely lost to us that these hard facts glow a little in the darkness."

Washington Post:

  • David Leavitt on The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon: "Whether describing turn-of-the-century Chicago, with its mean tenements and decrepit outhouses, or the 'onionesque armpits' of a Moldovan pimp or an 'unreal McDonald's' in Moldova, 'shiny and sovereign and structurally optimistic,' Hemon is as much a writer of the senses as of the intellect.... [B]eauty and violence, in Hemon's universe, are far from mutually exclusive. Indeed, he seems determined not to let his readers (particularly his American readers) escape the experience of war as a personal affront and a personal transformation."
  • Ron Charles on Erdrich's Plague of Doves: "What marks these stories ... is what has always set Erdrich apart and made her work seem miraculous: the jostling of pathos and comedy, tragedy and slapstick in a peculiar dance. As horrific as the crimes at the heart of this novel are, other sections remind us that Erdrich is a great comic writer.... 'I am sentenced to keep watch over this small patch of earth,' says one character, who could just as well be speaking for Erdrich herself, 'to judge its miseries and tell its stories. That's who I am.' Sit down and listen carefully."

Los Angeles Times:

  • One more rave, by Brigitte Frase, for The Plague of Doves: "She gets better and better. If her first book, 'Love Medicine,' was a concerto, then ever since 'The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse,' she has been composing symphonies filled with a complex wisdom about the strands of darkness and light that make up a human life.... Erdrich moves seamlessly from grief to sexual ecstasy, from comedy ... to tragedy, from richly layered observations of nature and human nature to magical realism. She is less storyteller than medium. One has the sense that voices and events pour into her and reemerge with crackling intensity, as keening music trembling between sorrow and joy." 

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

Omm_042108

New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Terrence Rafferty on The Journey Home by Dermot Bolger [a 1990 novel only now brought out by the University of Texas Press]: "This is a mournful book, but not a glum one, really: the writer’s love of his agonized characters and his unsettled homeland is unmistakable, and redemptive. There is, as the young know and the old are prone to forget, a weird exhilaration about going all the way, even if where you find yourself is a little scary.... Wherever the 'real' Ireland is or was or will be, there are great chunks of it, with the smell and texture of Irish earth, in Dermot Bolger’s rich, conflicted, ferociously vital book. This is a novel full of rage and full of melancholy and full, to overflowing, of home truths."
  • Janet Maslin on Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--and the Journey of a Generation: "'Girls Like Us' turns out to be unexpectedly captivating. And it defies expectations, to the point where Ms. Weller’s grand ambitions wind up fulfilled.... Never mind that her book has a tendency to gush and fawn. She has still put it together in revelatory ways, underscoring the generation-wide impact of her subjects’ songs and stories.... 'Girls Like Us' is a strong amalgam of nostalgia, feminist history, astute insight, beautiful music and irresistible gossip about the common factors in the three women’s lives."
  • Marilyn Stasio on The SIlver Swan by Benjamin Black: "Make no mistake, Black is a grand writer with a seductive style, and the dark, repressive world he makes of postwar Dublin ... goes a long way to explain why everyone in this morally claustrophobic world is so sex-mad. But the conventions of crime fiction provide structural security for any exploratory attack on the subject of evil (or sin, as Black’s characters are more apt to define it), and failing to take full advantage of that freedom is like traveling all the way to Ireland and neglecting to visit either a church or a pub."

Washington Post:

  • Ted Genoways on Posthumous Keats by Stanley Plumly: "If the mark of true genius is the effortless creation of something wholly new that, once seen, becomes self-evident -- as Plumly regards Keats's odes -- then it's apt that Plumly himself should have to mint a new genre to reckon with the young poet.... What contemporary critic would dare make such sweeping assertions or venture so deeply into the mind of his subject? What poet would engage in such exhaustive research or craft such an exacting portrait? Plumly shows us how bloodless and cold criticism has become in the last half-century by demonstrating how passionately engaged he is -- with the life he is writing, the poems he is explicating, the era he is recreating. The effect, at times, is like watching a resurrection -- not only of Keats, but of the cadaverous genre of literary criticism."
  • Daniel Byman on Terror and Consent by Philip Bobbitt: "Despite his establishment pedigree, he is a thoroughgoing contrarian. Defying the nearly universal criticism among academics of the term 'war on terror,' Bobbitt embraces it, making a strong case -- better than the Bush administration has -- that the challenge can best be thought of as a series of wars.... My advice is that readers should approach Terror and Consent with a mixture of caution and open-mindedness. Not all of Bobbitt's pronouncements may be convincing. But his book constantly prods us to reexamine our preconceptions about terrorism, which is by itself some preparation for what may lie ahead."
  • Peter Behrens on Fall of Frost by Brian Hall: "Hall's themes, like Frost's, are major: love, death, the anarchy of living, the tragedy implicit in creating children and poems. This is a book about a man confronting the world and struggling to make sense, through his work, of what he cannot otherwise grasp. Like Frost's poetry, Hall's novel is pungent, deceptively simple and magnificently sad."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Jay Parini on Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin: "Anyone who comes to 'Lavinia' seeking a conventional realistic fiction will feel disappointed. This is a poem in the form of a novel, an elegant echo chamber for a canonical work, a reading of an epic poem, and a rewriting of that poem.... She addresses the primitive world, summons a vision and declares it pure. She has heard voices and channeled them in the language of Lavinia herself. And this voice has something wonderful and strange to tell us."

New York Sun:

  • Benjamin Lytal on The White King by Gyorgy Dragoman: "A memoir of communist oppression, it is also an of-the-moment contribution to world literature, representing the childlike combination of wonder and irony currently in vogue across the globe.... There is always the risk that what should seem horrible will only become precious, a species of fairy tale awkwardly bearing the badge of politics. But unlike most such authors, Mr. Dragomán captures a childhood that feels less like a fairy tale than like a real childhood — perhaps because he actually lived it."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

This Is Why I Wish I Lived in New York (Although I Don't, Really)

Denis Johnson, who couldn't be at the ceremony last fall to accept his National Book Award (his wife Cindy did in his stead) for Tree of Smoke because he was reporting in Iraq, gave in recompense a reading from a work in progress at Manhattan's New School. Paper Cuts reports that he was, among other things, handsome and funny:

“This is from my work in progress,” he said. “It’s a short novel. Pretty literary stuff. But you’re sophisticated New Yorkers. You can handle it.”

The scene he read was about a gambler in debt to his bookie, the two of them driving around in a Cadillac with a big gun in the glove compartment. The sentences were not trippy or jazzy or mystical or visionary. They were not sprawling. Johnson read a couple of pages, then mugged a double take at his manuscript. “What the —? Where’s the literary? I thought I put something literary in my suitcase, but this is just cheap pulp fiction.” He grinned at us. Really, he explained, this was from a novel that will be serialized in Playboy, about a man down on his luck who meets a damsel in distress. He read on, turning the pages, pausing occasionally to drink from a water bottle or to laugh at one of his lines.

--Tom

Fake Covers for Fake Books by a Fake Writer. Yes!

Eakins_three

Somebody knows exactly where my buttons are, and is pushing them. As much as I love Paris Review interviews and fake writers, I may have an even softer spot for fake writers, their fake books, and their fake book covers, and Nathaniel Rich's promotional site for his new novel, The Mayor's Tongue, having indulged the first, has now granted me the latter, with a full (and growing) gallery of covers of the various fictitious editions of the fictious writer Constance Eakins's fictitous books, contributed by some sharp designers and illustrators. And it's not just the idea of it, but the covers themselves, often period pieces that are not only spot-on but gorgeous in their own right. I love, for instance, Zach Dodson's vintage Penguin pb of Humboldt in the Amazon. But I really adore Joanna Neborsky's often Brit-feeling covers, of which it was hard to choose just two lovelies to feature above. I think Flowers, Flowers, Eat All the Flowers is my favorite, but I had to include Songs for Agata too because I am certain I bought a copy of that one for $5 in Philadelphia in 1988. It must be on my shelves somewhere...

But my real favorite is Ben Gibson's full-jacket treatment of The Uncles Ten (below), which I must confess I am fairly desperate to read (I imagine it in the Flann O'Brien vein...).

Eakins_uncles

159448990401_mzzzzzzz_ Want to show off your Photoshop chops and contribute your own? Drop it in the Eakins Covers Group Pool on Flickr, which has grown already since I first saw the page. And speaking of cover design, check out the Book Design Review's recent rave for the non-fictitious cover of the non-fictitious novel at the center of all this.

And now at some point I should actually get on to actually reading The Mayor's Tongue instead of hanging out the website all evening... --Tom

Predictable Irrationality or Hidden Rationality?: Our First Author One-on-One

140006642501_mzzzzzzz_ 006135323x01_mzzzzzzz_ Now that we've started bringing authors onto Omni, we thought the next step would be to open the floor to two authors to talk directly to each other, without our getting in the way. (But feel free to get in the way yourself in the Comments section.) How often, for instance, would you like to see a book review, instead of serving as the final word, start a back and forth between the author and the reviewer (played out somewhere less infantile than the Letters to the Editor sandbox)? Or see debut authors trade notes about what it's like to have your first book published? We're hardly the first people to think of this sort of thing (Slate has done it well for years, although not as often as they used to), but it's new to us, so we're excited.

And we're excited about our first pairing, which was so glaringly obvious and potentially fascinating that it forced us into action. One of the liveliest and most popular new subgenres in publishing (along with Vampire Romance and Brett Favre Tributes) is Popular Economics, bustling with witty contrarian analyses of the ways the dismal science can illuminate our everyday lives, all coming in the wake of the blockbuster Freaknomics. But not all Pop Econ books are alike. In fact, on the surface, it looks like the two most popular new books in the genre this year, Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational and Tim Harford's The Logic of Life, have a pretty basic disagreement. Ariely, says his book jacket, "refutes the common assumption that we behave in fundamentally rational ways," while Harford's book jacket replies, "Under the surface of everyday insanity, life is logical after all." So, underneath it all, are we irrational or rational? (Or is one man's irrationality another's rationality?)

Timdan

That's a fine disagreement to begin with, but from reading both books, you can tell the sides would not remain so simply divided (despite the doctored fight photo above that Ariely sent in when we proposed the idea--Ariely's in the red trunks and Harford's in the green, white and red). In part, this is a piece of a larger debate between traditional rationalist economics (Harford is an economics columnist for the Financial Times and Slate and the author of the bestselling Undercover Economist) and the newer field of behavioral economics (Ariely is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT), but more than that, it will be, I hope, a conversation between two smart and funny guys with a rare talent for connecting complex ideas to our daily lives.

The conversation actually began in February, when Harford wrote a largely positive review of Predictably Irrational in the FT. Here's a quote:

I could scarcely imagine a better introduction to “behavioural economics”, a discipline of growing influence that sits on the boundary between economics and psychology. But opinions differ among economists as to whether behavioural economics seriously challenges the long-held basic assumption of economics that we make rational choices, or whether it merely illuminates some fascinating but relatively minor human foibles.

Ariely continues things here on Omni with his first post today. Harford will follow later in the week, and for the next few weeks we'll keep roughly to a Monday/Thursday schedule. Please add your own comments to the discussion in the meantime, and thanks for joining us. --Tom

P.S. You'll notice Dan Ariely's photo a couple places on our page: our interview with him is also featured in the current episode of our Amazon Wire podcast (you can play the podcast in the right column of the blog while it's the current episode, or find it in the archives).

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers


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New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Niall Ferguson on Terror and Consent by Philip Bobbitt: "'Terror and Consent' is in many ways a manifesto for a new Atlanticism, not just a reassertion but a reinvention of the dominant role of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It will be read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End. But 'Terror and Consent' is much more than that readership might suggest. This is quite simply the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 — indeed, since the end of the cold war." [I have to add here that I started this giant book with great interest a little while back and found it borderline incomprehensible. I'd like to think that Ferguson's rave might lead me back to the book now, but, let's be honest, it's far more likely to substitute for it.]
  • William Grimes on McMafia by Misha Glenny: "Mr. Glenny sets a fast pace as he races from one criminal hot spot to another, riding with marijuana traffickers in British Columbia, walking into pachinko parlors in Tokyo, visiting brothels in Tel Aviv and scoping out the sex clubs in Dubai. For sheer enterprise he is hard to beat, but anything like a clear picture of global crime eludes him." [This one, by contrast, which provides a nice, depressing complement to Bobbitt's book, I thought was excellent. The chaotic feeling Grimes describes I found a plus.]
  • Erica Wagner on The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe: "'The Rain Before It Falls' is a peculiar book, to put it kindly; it is itself a failure, in more brutal terms. It’s peculiar because it’s hard to understand why Coe, an accomplished novelist, did (it seems) everything in his power to distance his readers from the characters and situations he wishes to portray."
  • Charles Taylor on The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Graff: "In the end, all of Groff’s parodies and pastiches cannot disguise that she’s written a very simple tale of homecoming and reconciliation. Her talent appears to be simpler and more openly emotional than she acknowledges. Though she throws in ending after ending, Groff also ties things together quite nicely; if what had preceded these multiple endings had been less showy, you could even say satisfyingly."

Washington Post:

  • Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore on Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula Giddings: "Giddings set out to write a definitive biography and has succeeded spectacularly. Ida gradually brings us to see the world through Wells's eyes; as she shops for a new seersucker suit that we know she can't afford or feels betrayed when fellow activists try to leave her off the list of founders of the NAACP,  we come to love this brave and wise woman. Read it and weep. Then give it to the last person who told you that ideals are a waste of time."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Jack Lynch on Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer: "Germaine Greer works to fill the 'wife-shaped void in the biography of William Shakespeare.' The result is learned, rousing, lively -- and often downright infuriating. Greer is no scholarly dilettante. She wrote her Cambridge doctoral dissertation on Shakespeare, and she knows her way around an archive.... She also writes engagingly; the book will be an exciting read even for nonspecialists.... The real problem with 'Shakespeare's Wife' is that it says more about fantasies than about the real world -- both the fantasies of the old-fashioned misogynists and of the modern feminist."
  • Richard Eder on All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen: "His achingly comic command of the hopes, vanities, foibles and quandaries of his peers has produced something better than fashionably maneuvered satire. It is irony (of a rare cosmopolitan sort) that this Russian-born writer brings to the New York scene, a pond that takes itself to be the ocean. He evokes the world's culture along with our own."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Omni Newsletter Outage

Just a logistics note: as some of you may have noticed, our daily newsletter has been offline for a short while. Our apologies: we're revamping the behind-the-scenes machinery a little bit and will have it available again soon. (And we'll give a shout when we do.)

Thanks for your patience, but in the meantime we're still blogging away right here. Stay tuned, as this week we're launching our first author discussion, between Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) and Tim Harford (The Logic of Life). --Tom

Mail from the Gods

006147308101_mzzzzzzz_ After a couple of days of being too busy to open it, my mail (as it does more often than I'd care to admit) has piled up to the point I can barely escape my cubicle, but some sixth sense told me I should open a small package from HarperCollins at the top of the pile, and ... jackpot: the latest reissue of Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, which, as I have often confessed to friends and colleagues who looked at me like I had just owned up to not knowing Catcher in the Rye, I have never read. Glorious! And so to kick off your weekend, here's a short selection of the index entries from the timeless tale of rock'n'roll decadence:

  • American tour (First, 1968-1969), blizzard incident, 70-71
  • American tour (Ninth, 1973), death threats, 201, 203
  • American tour (Ninth, 1973), hotel destruction, 201
  • American tour (Tenth, 1975), calamities of, 232-33, 235, 237, 244
  • American tour (Tenth, 1975), Squeaky Fromme incident, 248-49
  • Beck, Jeff, erratic temperament of, 23-24
  • Bonham, John, French hotel destruction, 184
  • Bonham, John, Monte Carlo gun incident, 274-75
  • Bonham, John, stripping onstage, 90
  • Clark, Dick, 29
  • Crowley, Aleister, life of, 107-9
  • "Dazed and Confused," twenty-minute version, 146
  • Devil, See Satan
  • Grant, Peter, assault charges, Oakland, 286, 290
  • Grant, Peter, Canadian assault charges, 144
  • Groupies, Page's feelings about, 78
  • Jones, John Paul, pact with Satan and, 95, 308
  • Magic, Bonham death rumors, 305
  • Marx, Groucho, 223
  • Page, Jimmy, black magic and, 95
  • Page, Jimmy, fuzzbox and, 17
  • Plant, Robert, duality of, 187, 269
  • Plant, Robert, sheep farm of, 155-56, 203, 276
  • Satan, satanic messages on records, 9, 310-11
  • Seattle, Washington, Shark Episode, 78-80
  • Yardbirds, Oxford May Ball fiasco, 24-25

--Tom

New York's New Yorkiest

New York magazine, which consistently concocts the smartest stunt features in bookland, does it again for their 40th anniversary issue, with their New York Canon, a list of the New Yorkiest movies, buildings, art, etc. created from 1968 to the present, including 26 books chosen, according to Sam Anderson's introduction, "along two mystical axes: one of all-around literary merit, and the other of 'New Yorkitude'—the degree to which a book allows itself to obsess over the city. Robert Caro's The Power Broker just about maxes out both axes." What's smart about the list is not so much the stunt as the books themselves, a rich and idiosyncratic selection that gets things right time and again (picking Philip Roth's Zuckerman Unbound, for instance: far from his best novel, but certainly his New Yorkiest, and being comfortable enough to choose Bright Lights, Big City without too much apology, as well as introducing me to books I've never heard of like Keith Mano's Take Five and Anne Winters's The Displaced of Capital). Rather than quibble with what's there, I'm driven to think of favorites of my own. Here's a short and informal addendum. I'd love to hear about your own NYC favorites in the comments.

  • Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay, with Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor (1991). All right, one complaint: this does seem like a real omission: the first of Katchor's Knipl books, which more than anything (even more than Richard Price's new Lush Life, which is on the list) evoke for me the layers of humanity and history that collect on the lower reaches of Manhattan.
  • When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth by Fernanda Eberstadt (1997). I came across this one a couple of years ago and kind of feel like Eberstadt's only champion. There are some angry customer reviews for this (which, like Cheap Novelties, is out of print), but when I read it I felt like I had stepped into an expansive, surprising (and very New Yorky) world: beautiful, dense, and intense, with the shifts of mood and fortune of a great old-fashioned novel. It's the one of her books that gets the balance just right.
  • How I Became Hettie Jones by Hettie Jones (1990). A vivid but levelheaded memoir of Beat-era downtown bohemia (Jones was the (white) wife of LeRoi Jones before he, in turn, became Amiri Baraka).
  • Gone to New York by Ian Frazier (2005). There's no one I'd rather walk around New York with (well, except maybe Frazier's New Yorker colleague Calvin Trillin), and these essays from the magazine, including his lengthy classic on Canal Street and that one in which he gets obsessed with all the plastic bags stuck in trees, are both fully lived and deeply observed.
  • A Fairy Tale of New York by J.P. Donleavy (1973). I've never read anything else of Donleavy's, not even the sainted Ginger Man--in part because I'm told he tends to tell the same story again and again, in part because the one I have read is so satisfyingly full I don't feel like I need anything else. One of the strangest and most joyously funny books I know.
  • My Pilgrim's Progress by George W.S. Trow (1999). I love Trow's brilliant little hand grenade, Within the Context of No Context, as much as anyone, but while that one mostly lives in its abstract aphorisms, this much-delayed follow-up, full of the weird and angry wit of the first book, is grounded in his intense relationship with the city he had by then abandoned.
  • The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud (2006) and The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (2003). I'm not unearthing any secret gems here, but New York's list doesn't include any novels between Kavalier and Clay (2000) and Lush Life (2008), and these are two of my favorites from that time.

What do you think?  I'm sure I'll think of a half dozen more as soon as I post this, but I know there are great ones out there I've never even heard of. --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

Omm_040708

New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Liesl Schillinger on Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: "Lahiri handles her characters without leaving any fingerprints. She allows them to grow as if unguided, as if she were accompanying them rather than training them through the espalier of her narration. Reading her stories is like watching time-lapse nature videos of different plants, each with its own inherent growth cycle, breaking through the soil, spreading into bloom or collapsing back to earth." And on Friday, Kakutani said, "A Chekhovian sense of loss blows through these new stories: a reminder of Ms. Lahiri’s appreciation of the wages of time and mortality and her understanding too of the missed connections that plague her husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and friends."
  • Kakutani on The Second Plane--"these chuckleheaded essays"--by Martin Amis: "This pretentious, formalistic argument underscores Mr. Amis’s efforts to deal with a vast historic tragedy with preening, self-consciously literary musings.... 'The Second Plane' is such a weak, risible and often objectionable volume that the reader finishes it convinced that Mr. Amis should stick to writing fiction and literary criticism, as he’s thoroughly discredited himself with these essays as any sort of political or social commentator."
  • Liz Phair (yes, that Liz) on Black Postcards by Dean Wareham: See Brad's post from earlier today.
  • Joshua Henkin on Last Last Chance by Fiona Maazel: "Maazel’s book has enough event — and enough eccentricity — to torpedo your average novel. But 'Last Last Chance' isn’t your average novel, thanks in no small part to Maazel’s funny, lacerating prose. The book fits squarely in the tradition of novels about the wealthy and dissolute, but ultimately it’s less John Cheever than Denis Johnson — the Denis Johnson of 'Jesus’ Son,' with its drug-addled narrators."

Washington Post:

  • Michael Dirda on The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel: "Surely, though, the man is your typical melancholy, dry-as-dust bibliophile? Nope. Not only does Manguel own wonderful books housed in an eat-your-heart-out library in an idyllic part of France, he seems, well, content. According to The Library at Night, he lives with someone he loves, writes during the morning, potters among his books throughout the day and evening, and, come nightfall, sips wine in the garden with visiting friends from around the world. Sigh."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Ron Carlson on Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen: "In 'Shadow Country,' Matthiessen revisits his three novels about the career of Watson ('Killing Mister Watson,' 'Lost Man's River' and 'Bone by Bone') and fits them together so that they unfold, layer by layer, mystery by mystery, episode by episode, gathering, gathering, nodding back and forth, in a tangle not unlike the living imbroglio in which the tale is set, the impenetrable jungle wetland of the Florida lowlands. I'll just say right here that the book took my sleeve and like the ancient mariner would not let go."

 

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

2008 Pulitzers Announced

Pulitzers2008

There's no doubt a lot of back-slapping going on the Washington Post newsroom this afternoon (and, as someone who grew up on the Post, it's always a pleasure to read a headline like this in the New York Times: "Washington Post Wins 6 Pulitzer Prizes"), but in bookland, here are the winners of the 2008 Pulitzers (two finalists in each category are announced at the same time as the winners):

Also, breaking with their recent tradition of honoring deceased jazz geniuses, the board gave Bob Dylan a Special Citation for his "lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." And when I went to see if Mark Feeney, who won the Criticism prize for his writing on film and art for the Boston Globe, had published any books, I found this, which, for someone like me who has pretty much memorized All the President's Men, looks like candy: Nixon at the Movies: A Book About Belief.

Meanwhile, my remark last week that the Pulitzer had in recent years been pretty consistently picking the consensus choice for best novel of the year was certainly confirmed, as their choice of Oscar Wao follows the National Book Critics Circle award and his recent victory in the 2008 Tournament of Books, as well as wide-ranging critical love (and high praise in these parts too). The big surprise on the list above is Eden's Outcasts, which flew under the radar (or least my radar) since its release last August, although our six customer reviewers were unanimous in their praise. Glad to see it will be finding more readers. And for a nice side note on fiction finalist Lore Segal (also author of the fabulous Tell Me a Mitzi) see the last question in our interview with her former student Matthew Sharpe, who dedicated Jamestown to her. Our list of previous Pulitzer winners is here. --Tom

P.S. I didn't think this through until after posting, but what exactly makes The Years of Extermination a General Nonfiction book and What God Hath Wrought a History book? Doesn't the presence of a date range in your subtitle pretty much guarantee you belong in History?

221 days to 2666

I've bowed to no one in my advance hype for Roberto Bolano's masterpiece-in-waiting, 2666, but the Literary Saloon beat me to the story in my own backyard by noticing that the book has appeared on our site with a release date of November 11 (I've checked with Farrar Straus and that is indeed the right date). And he further discovered that there will be two parallel editions: a single-volume, 912-page hardcover, and a three-volume paperback boxed set. What can I say: I'll probably get both, even if the publisher doesn't send them to me. And I bet I'll read the paperbacks. But why stop at 3 volumes? I adored the six-paperback galley set of Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games that Harper sent out last winter:

Sacredgamescover

The Saloon also linked to some of the continuing chatter about The Savage Detectives, including an essay from translator (and coffee drinker) Natasha Wimmer and a roundtable discussion at Bookninja. --Tom

IMPAC Impact?

The shortlist for the--[deep breath]--2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award was announced yesterday. In typical IMPAC fashion (they begin their process by announcing a reallylonglist of 137 nominees), the shortlist is pretty long at eight books:

As I've mentioned before, the IMPAC is one of the more idiosyncratic awards around notable for, along with its infinite longlist, a) its giant (100,000-euro) prize, which, with current exchange rates, dwarfs any US prize; b) its lengthy nomination process, which results in a shortlist of often fairly old books--many of this year's, you may notice, were published in the US in 2006, and one, Dreams of Speaking, has apparently even had time to go out of print here; and c) its interesting and authentically international choices. Last year, for instance, the prize helped put Per Petterson's late-breaking hit Out Stealing Horses on the map.

And speaking of awards, don't forget that the last big 2007 book prizes, the Pulitzers, are announced on Monday. They are pretty much the opposite of the IMPAC, since they don't announce the nominees beforehand (they just quietly list, in the tiniest type possible, two finalists along with the winner). As the last award of the season, the Pulitzers have lately come to seem like they anoint the consensus book-of-the-year pick (The Road, Gilead, The Known World, and Middlesex in recent years), and this year they can play tiebreaker between Denis Johnson's NBA-winning Tree of Smoke and Junot Diaz's NBCC-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. --Tom

Guest Bookshelf: Shannon Roudebush

A few words from Shannon Roudebush, the Omnivoracious reader whose bookshelf photo tops Omni this week (see the full photo with links and share your own by mailing a .jpg to omnivoracious at amazon.com):

My husband and I live in IN with our two little girls, ages 7 and 5 1/2. We own and operate a family erosion control business. When I'm not busy with family or work, I love to read. I'm in a reading group on Shelfari and we're all attempting to read 100 books in 2008. My shelf shows some of the books in my to-be-read pile for the challenge. As of the end of March, I've read 34 books, so I'm keeping pace pretty well. Hopefully, by the end of the year, I will have met the challenge. The best book I've read so far this year, in my opinion, is definitely The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.

--Tom

Pop-Up Minimalism

Has the Rinehart/Sabuda-led pop-up-book moment peaked? It's been one of the most fun trends to watch in bookmaking (the legal kind) the past few years, and perhaps it's a sign of maturity that, along with the increasingly baroque constructions from the masters, some artists are stepping back toward simple elegance. Via Paper Cuts, you can see (read?) the complete three-dimensional text of Marion Bataille's ABC3D, which despite a release date still half a year away has already made an appearance in our Top 100 (at least according to Paper Cuts: it's at the still-respectable #1,257 as I write). The pleasure and the playfulness of the demonstration speak for itself:

--Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Steven Brill on The Appeal by John Grisham: "There’s lots of other intrigue worthy of a Grisham novel — missing witnesses, destroyed evidence, insider stock trading. It’s a shame, though, that Grisham’s grace in constructing a sophisticated story is so poorly matched by his writing.... Still, Grisham keeps his story moving. And he not only moves to a surprising ending but makes a real point about how judicial elections undermine the integrity of any justice system."
  • Kakutani on The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll: "It is a book that possesses the novelistic energy of a rags-to-riches family epic, following its sprawling cast of characters as they travel from Mecca and Medina to Las Vegas and Disney World, and yet, at the same time, it is a book that, in tracing the connections between the public and the private, the political and the personal, stands as a substantive bookend to Mr. Coll’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2004 book, 'Ghost Wars.'"
  • David Orr on Elegy by Mary Jo Bang: "This is a tightly focused, completely forthright collection written almost entirely in the bleakest key imaginable. The poems aren’t all great, some of them aren’t even good, but collectively they are overwhelming — which is both a compliment to Bang’s talent and to the toughness of mind that allowed her to attempt this difficult project in the first place."
  • Evan Thomas on Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings: Hastings "is equally adept at analyzing the broad sweep of strategy and creating thrilling set pieces that put the reader in the cockpit of a fighter plane or the conning tower of a submarine. But he is best on the human cost of war.... Americans were shocked by the Japanese massacre of civilians in Manila. After a month of constant bombardment, the United States Army left much of the city in rubble."

Washington Post:

  • Thomas de Waal on One Soldier's War by Arkady Babchenko: "The memoir, by turns horrific, sad and funny, fills a big gap by providing us with the first-person experiences of an articulate Russian soldier. As one tale of savagery follows another, however, the story becomes increasingly frustrating to the reader who knows the Russian political context. The end of one war, a two-year interlude and the start of a second war are barely registered as the narrative becomes war-without-end, totally enclosed within a soldier's helmet and a company of men."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Nathaniel Rich on Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton: "Some linguistic scholars sit at home and analyze field data, others convene demographically vetted test groups, but Derek Bickerton will have none of that cautious bunk. In 'Bastard Tongues,' his 'favorite modus operandi was simply to drive around until I saw a bar I liked the look of.' Drunks, he explains, 'are the world's most underrated language teaching resource.'"

New York Sun:

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Art of Fake Fiction

Eakins_interview

I am, as I think I have noted in this space before, a geek for the Paris Review interviews. In my college library I procrastinated my way through all of those old Writers at Work collections when I should have been studying up on the Yugoslav economy or some such immediate assignment, and I still keep an eye on the newsstands to see which authors have been brought into the Art of Fiction canon in the latest issue (this issue, by the way, it's Kenzaburo Oe). So when I got an advance copy of Nathaniel Rich's upcoming debut novel, The Mayor's Tongue, with an unexplained photocopy of an interview (The Art of Fiction XXI) with the writer Constance Eakins folded inside, well, I felt that someone had found my alley and parked right there. It's a fun pastiche, down to the spine-shading to make it look like the Xeroxes I've made of my favorite exchanges over the years, and you can see it for yourself on the still-building site for the book .

159448990401_mzzzzzzz__2 Who is Eakins? It appears on first glance that he's not one of the main characters of The Mayor's Tongue, but rather a main character for one of the main characters (who idolizes him). In the interview, he comes across as some sort of a combination of Chuck Norris, Gore Vidal, and Thomas Pynchon:

Interviewer:
Did you write this morning?

Eakins:
I did. I wrote twenty-three pages. That's what it's come to. I used to write ten thousand words a day and sometimes even more, in my golden years. But now it's just a paltry seven thousand or so. Things move so slowly sometimes I feel that I am living in reverse. This is the trouble with being in one's thirties, and past one's prime.

Interviewer:
Do you write by longhand?

Eakins:
Yes, but I often go back to typewriter when my arm can't keep up with the jet engine that is my image-narrative-thought-machine.

Interviewer:
What do you mean by "image-narrative-thought-machine"?

Eakins:
Brain.


And the book itself? I haven't gone past the first page, but Rich's well-placed use there of the phrase "excessively affricative" does give me hope that it will live up to the promising blurbs from Gary Shteyngart ("Here is a young writer who is not afraid to give literature a kick in the pants") and Stephen King ("a novel brimming with brio"), and makes me, even more than the fake interview, want to keep reading. --Tom

P.S. I just noticed that Nathaniel Rich also happens to be a senior editor at the Paris Review, which explains how he got the layout just right...

5 Young Lions and 20 Oranges

The New York Public Library (and Young Patron Ethan Hawke) announced the shortlist for this year's Young Lions Award ($10,000 to "a promising author under the age of 35"). (Speaking of youth, I'm thinking of creating a new literary award for which any writer younger than me--and suddenly, there are many--will be eligible, to be known as the Logan's Run Prize.) Last year's winner was Olga Grushin for The Dream Life of Sukhanov, and this year's contenders are

By the way, I haven't read The Last Summer of the World (ok, I'll confess: I haven't read any of the five, but the Mengestu is a big favorite around here), but the raves for it from PW and Booklist on our page made me think I'd really like it, and then I noticed in the Customer Reviews this short note from Steve Kettmann:

I wrote the Publishers Weekly review reprinted above, and want to add a follow-up: Few novels I've read in recent years have stayed with me as much as the Last Summer of the World. I find myself often wanting to recommend it to people, so I'll do that here as well. A beautifully written, deeply imagined book that is a pleasure to read.

Now I want to read it even more...

And meanwhile, to continue with awards I'm not eligible for, I'm a little late in catching up with the Orange Prize longlist, which was revealed last week, but a reader requested the links and I'm happy to provide. (The Orange Prize, to refresh your memory, is given to a novel written in English by a woman and published in the UK between the previous April and the current March. This year's gender objections lodged by Tim Lott and A.S. Byatt.) Here's the full longlist (not all are available in the US yet, so I've marked those links that go to our UK site):

The shortlist is announced April 15, the winner on June 15. --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Colm Toibin on Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker: "Slowly, as you read, because of the variety in the tone and the shocking or tragic nature of the quotation, and because of how well chosen they are, 'Human Smoke' becomes riveting and fascinating. It is as though a brilliant film editor, with an urgent argument to make, began to work with gripping newsreels.... He has produced an eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified."
  • Kakutani on The Finder by Colin Harrison: "In 'The Finder,' as in earlier thrillers..., Mr. Harrison combines a Balzacian eye for social detail and a poet’s sense of mood with a sleazily sensationalistic plot — this time, so gory at one point and often so far-fetched that it seems more like a story line borrowed from a straight-to-video production than a high-budget feature film. The result is a grisly page turner of a novel that lacquers its cheap thrills with an upscale literary veneer, even as it leaves the reader with some memorably visceral snapshots of a nervous, profligate New York City, barreling headlong into the new millennium."
  • Maslin on Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult: "Not even the most cultish Picoult fans are likely to think Ms. Picoult broke a sweat while preparing 'Change of Heart.' Despite her grim diligence and earnestly religion-based story line, she seems to have written her latest tear-jerker on authorial autopilot. When writers become this popular..., they can coast in ways not possible for the up-and-coming. The opportunity to be long-winded yet perfunctory, paradoxically daring yet formulaic, is available to only proven hit makers at the top of the heap."

Washington Post:

  • David Chanoff on The Translator by Daoud Hari: "The Translator, by Daoud Hari, a native Darfurian, may be the biggest small book of this year, or any year. In roughly 200 pages of simple, lucid prose, it lays open the Darfur genocide more intimately and powerfully than do a dozen books by journalists or academic experts. Hari and his co-writers achieve this in a voice that is restrained, generous, gentle and -- astonishingly -- humorous."
  • Pico Iyer on Dog Man by Martha Sherrill: "Martha Sherrill [is] one of the most open and responsive writers around, whose special gift is for entering other lives so deeply that we feel their longings, their confinements as our own. ... In her new book, Sherrill tells the spellbindingly beautiful and affecting story of Morie and Kitako Sawataishi as they have gone through their days, raising Akita dogs, for more than 60 years in the dark and unforgiving 'snow country' of northern Japan."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The One-day-ness of History: Questions for Nicholson Baker

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Nicholson Baker is one of those writers I'll always pay attention to: in a modest way he seemingly reinvents writing for each new assignment, never content to use an old form to say what he wants. His first books created a new fiction subgenre--I'm not sure if it's ever been given a name, but let's call it the micronovel--in which he expands a tiny, ordinary moment, an office worker ascending an escalator in The Mezzanine, a father feeding his baby girl in Room Temperature, into a vastly curious commentary on an entire life. My favorite of his books, U and I, about his semi-obsession with John Updike, is a brilliantly honest and idiosyncratic examination of literary ambition and, more broadly, what it's like to be a fan of someone you don't know. Recently, he detoured for a few years into a new and intense career as a professional archivist--recounted in the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Double Fold--when he discovered how many rare copies of newspapers were being destroyed as libraries shifted to microfilm. And he also wrote my all-time favorite book review, a gloriously scatalogical celebration of the first volume of the (lamentably still uncompleted!) Historical Dictionary of American Slang (unavailable on the New York Review of Books site, but available, in the August 11, 1994, issue in your local library, one hopes).

141656784401_mzzzzzzz_ So when I saw that his newest book, Human Smoke, was a history of World War II, I perked up for yet another reinvention, of both himself and of history-writing. And I wasn't disappointed, for it's not like any other book I've read. Rather than telling the complete narrative history of the runup to the war, or even, as you might expect from his earlier books, of his own investigation of that history, he tells his story in very short, matter-of-fact anecdotes. His own presence, front and center in his other books, is muted here, but still you feel its strong effect, for he has selected his anecdotes to construct an argument of sorts: that pacifists who resisted the war were, as he puts it in a short author's note, "right," and the war-loving Churchill was "wrong." As you can tell from recent Old Media Mondays, the reaction to the book has been very mixed: either "one of the most important books you will ever read" or "not just a stupid book, but a scary one." My own reaction, as I say below, was in between. To say we shouldn't have fought World War II, or at least not the way we did, is a counterfactual of such strength that I'll need more than a selection of anecdotes, without further argument, to convince me. But it's a story worth reading. Nonviolence is a potent but exacting ideal that's hard to sustain in the face of human cruelty--one indication being that Martin Luther King's former right-hand man Clarence Jones is about to publish a book, What Would Martin Say?, arguing, of all things, that King would have supported the Iraq War--but is always worth testing yourself against.

There are few recent books that left me more eager to ask questions of its author, so I was very pleased that Nicholson Baker was able to take the time to reply. And for those looking for (much) further discussion of the book, I second his recommendation of the extensive roundtable discussion of the book at Edrants.

Amazon.com: This is obviously a big departure for you, in both style and subject.  How did the project come about, and how did it find this form?

Baker: I was writing a different book, on a smaller historical subject, when I stopped and asked: Do I understand World War Two?  And of course I didn't.  Also I'd been reading newspapers from the thirties and forties, and I knew that there were startling things in them.

In earlier books, I've looked closely at moments to see why they matter, and I've tried to rescue things, people, ideas from overfamiliarity.  So in a way a book like this--which moves a loupe over some incidents along the way to a much-chronicled war--was a natural topic. 

But yes, the style is a departure: it's very simple here out of respect for the hellishness of the story that I'm trying to assemble, piece by piece. 

Continue reading "The One-day-ness of History: Questions for Nicholson Baker" »

Anthony Minghella, 1954-2008

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We were sorry and very surprised to hear that Anthony Minghella, the director and screenwriter behind The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain, died today following cancer surgery at the age of 54. We'll leave it to our Movies colleagues to say more about him, but I did want to mention a favorite book of mine that's full of his spirit. It's one of those oddball books that fits no obvious category and likely missed a lot of attention: disguised as a technical guide but one of the most interesting books on filmmaking (a favorite subject) I've read recently. A few years ago, New Riders, a publisher mostly of computer manuals, released Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple's Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema (an unwieldy subtitle but total catnip to me). Murch is the legendary editor of such movies as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now (and The English Patient), and he's also perhaps the most fascinating writer on the inside of moviemaking (see In the Blink of an Eye and The Conversations, his book with Michael Ondaatje). He didn't write Behind the Seen (Charles Koppelman did) but you see the very modern process of digital moviemaking (in which tech support from Apple can be important as the key grip and the best boy) through his eyes. Full of interest in its own right (although it was a bit of an anticlimax for me to watch Cold Mountain after reading so much about its production and find I didn't think the final result was very good), but of note today for the side portrait it paints of Minghella (standing behind Murch in the photo above), who replaced Francis Ford Coppola as Murch's most frequent collaborator, and who comes off, as he does in every other account, as a complete prince of a guy: imaginative, open-minded, tireless, and wonderful company. --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Walter Kirn on Lush Life by Richard Price: "Raymond Chandler is peeping out from Price’s skull, as well he should be, given such gloomy doings, but ... one detects Saul Bellow’s vision, too. Price is a builder, a drafter of vast blueprints, and though the Masonic keystone of his novel is a box-shaped N.Y.P.D. office, he stacks whole slabs of city on top of it and excavates colossal spaces beneath it. He doesn’t just present a slice of life, he piles life high and deep. Time too. The past is rendered mostly as an absence, though, as a set of caverns, a hive of catacombs. Some of his characters’ ancestors are down there, but the main way we know this is through the hollowness of the new neighborhood built over their crypts."
  • William Grimes on Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker: "Muddled and often infuriating, 'Human Smoke' sounds its single, solemn note incessantly, like a mallet striking a kettle drum over and over. War is bad. Churchill was bad. Roosevelt was bad. Hitler was bad too, but maybe, in the end, no worse than Roosevelt and Churchill.... In dedicating it to the memory of American and British pacifists, Mr. Baker writes, 'They failed, but they were right.' Millions of ghosts say otherwise."
  • David Rieff on Marching Toward Hell by Michael Scheuer: "While Scheuer fancies his ruthlessness to be Machiavellian realism, his arguments ... are pure militarist utopianism. 'Marching Toward Hell' is an enormously crude, reductionist account of the challenges posed by the jihadists, and as such, difficult to take seriously.... He flatters himself that he is a modern-day Patrick Henry. He’s mistaken." And on Friday Kakutani called it a "scathing, wildly uneven and often intemperate work."
  • Gregory Cowles on Smash! Crash! by Jon Scieszka: "Parents probably won’t love this series the way they love 'The Stinky Cheese Man,' but that’s only because as Scieszka reaches out to younger readers, he’s stopped trying so hard to please the grown-ups. I might miss his tap-dancing — in the end, I’m a grown-up too — but Scieszka knows his audience. The same children who chant 'Can we fix it?' as they watch 'Bob the Builder,' after all, turn around and yell 'Can we break it?' as they attack their block towers. For them, Trucktown should be a smash."

Washington Post:

  • Ron Charles on The Blue Star by Tony Earley: "The novel builds slowly to these more serious themes -- probably too slowly. Although Jim the Boy walked the line between banality and profundity with exquisite sensitivity, here the balance is not so well executed. Many of these chapters are warm and graceful but not sufficiently essential, and the writing isn't note-perfect enough to sustain the lack of import.... Fortunately, as the novel nears its conclusion, these merely nostalgic scenes begin to acquire real emotional depth."
  • Fiasco author Tom Ricks digs into the archives to review Piers Mackesy's 1964 classic The War for America: 1775-1883 for its modern parallels: "Nor did British leaders understand the intensity and vitality of the rebel cause. 'I may safely assert that the insurgents are very few, in comparison with the whole of the people,' Gen. Sir William Howe wrote in 1775.... He calls it a 'strategic history,' which he describes as the no-man's-land between a diplomatic history of a war and a narrative history of its battles. It is the single best such work that I ever have encountered."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Paul Wilner on Jackalope Dreams by Mary Clearman Blew: "Reciting plot points doesn't begin to do justice to this remarkable work. Sentences seethe with urgent, unhurried energy, and the description of the land the author so clearly loves is in service of the story, not showing off. You come to care deeply about these people, caught between an uncapturable past and an uncertain future. 'Jackalope Dreams' is a small masterpiece; it deserves the attention it makes a point of not seeking."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

How Not to Write x 27

I'm a bit late in coming to it (via the Virginia Quarterly Review blog), but the editors of the Willesden Herald, having reaped a balance of fame and scorn for deciding, via the person of their final judge Zadie Smith, not to award their short story prize this year because none of the 850 entrants were good enough, have responded with a list of 27 reasons why your story might have been eliminated. Their tough-love approach may win them no more affection, but the results are interesting reading and would no doubt make a worthwhile checklist for anyone (myself included) lost down the wormhole of their own unread art. They got a little punchy towards the end, where you'll find some of my favorite entries:

23. Faux jollity. Particularly faux jollity centred around pubs, and particularly around pubs in Ireland. Industrially extruded quantities of guff about distant histories in small town life. Standing jokes that should have been left where they toppled. Weird spastic prose as if the task of writing the story had been given by a writer with a good idea to the former class dunce, now barman. I think humour only ever exists in something that sets out to be serious. Anything that sets out to be humorous is doomed.

24. Ankles. Particularly ankles in Asia. But I don't want to be overly negative and turn critique into a despicable blood sport, because there have been many charming, fascinating and amusing entries from the sub-continent as well as from Africa and other (to me) strange places. As a matter of fact, I’m not at all sure that Ankles in Asia, though it sounds worryingly now like a rare disease, is not in fact a virtue. Let a thousand professors dream of butterfly kisses with a thousand feisty young neighbour girls. And please do try us again with wonderful tales of African village life and politics.

27. Pastiche. There can be cases where the whole story is a cliché, if you see what I mean, which is usually to say that it is derivative in the extreme. If it's not a simple case of writing to a formula, this is more seriously a lack of a genuine "voice". What I usually say about pastiche is that I'm very impressed by people who can emulate other writers to a tee, because I find it difficult enough just to write like myself. Here's a little story: When I was a kid I used to sing myself to sleep at night. One Sunday I went to see The Jolson Story (I think I saw parts 1 and 2) at the Casino cinema in Finglas and memorised some of the songs. That night I began to sing them in bed, and trying to sound like Al Jolson. Lying back in the dark, after a while I asked my Grandad, who slept on the other side of the room, if he liked my new voice. I'll always remember his answer because it said so much. He said, "I prefer your own voice."

See also their extensive summary of the judging process and Zadie Smith's original announcement of the non-winner (all of which I find very appealing). --Tom

A Long Bookish Weekend in B.C.

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I spent a few days last week on my own in Vancouver. And on my own means: with an anvil's weight of books in my bag at all times. I read some new books, some old, and some in between, and bought some weird old treats:

  • New: James Wood's How Fiction Works doesn't come out until July, but it's already #4 on our Popular Pre-Orders list in Nonfiction. That's not surprising when the Last Living Literary Critic comes out with his primer on the craft of storytelling. I'm sure I'll devote a whole blog post or two to it down the road, but the short version is: free indirect style is at the heart of great fiction. I got a little hung up when I completely disagreed with him about a bit of Updike he analyzed, but there are brilliant stretches, especially when he pulls apart the ways masters like Muriel Spark and Henry James play with omniscience and character. Good stuff!
  • New: I followed some early buzz and took along David Benioff's City of Thieves (due out in May). Benioff's best known for The 25th Hour, his debut thriller of a New York man's last day before prison, which he adapted for Spike Lee's movie. On the surface, the new one is a big departure: it's about Leningrad during the Nazi siege in World War II. But like his debut he uses (to good advantage) a tight time frame (in this case three days instead of one), and also like the first one, it seems a natural for the screen. I read it at the same time as How Fiction Works, which made me more aware than I would have been that Benioff doesn't take advantage of the subtler narrative styles that Wood celebrates (in other words, the writing itself is not very interesting), but it's a tight and involving story, with the added complication of (apparently) being based on the tale that Benioff's grandfather told of his own incredible survival of the war.
  • New: I was both interested and skeptical going into Keith Gessen's debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men (out next month). On one hand, Gessen's a super-smart essayist and translator and one of the founders of, as Gawker "semi-ironically" puts it, "the most important literary magazine of our time," N+1, as well as being incorrigibly hip enough to make a cameo in the mumblecore classic Mutual Appreciation. On the other hand, well, all of the above, plus the book (like his N+1 colleague Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision) is about brainy, youthful ennui, with its no-doubt-ironic-but-still title that seemed unbearably navel-gazey. Well, self- (or milieu-) involved it turned out to be, but also sharp and funny and often fabulously written. I dug it in spite of myself, even though I found it horribly depressing to see characters referring to themselves (with only minimal authorial irony) as old at age 29, which strikes me now as basically infancy.
  • Old: My friend and colleague Mike Smith recommended The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (who's having a bit of a revival) as one of his new all-time favorites, and since the last time he turned me on to one of the New York Review Books' reprints it turned out to be nearly the best book I've ever read (Richard Hughes's High Wind in Jamaica), I had to try this one too. The jury stayed out for me for the first 100 pages or so, but, boy, as soon as the horrid Vicki Kugelmann appeared on the scene, things got delicious. Managed to be both brutally satirical and surprisingly humane. Thanks, Mike!

Continue reading "A Long Bookish Weekend in B.C." »

Who Are Writers Writing Checks To?

The Huffington Post's FundRace2008 widget is, like much of the Internet, both creepy and fascinating. Plug in a name, a neighborhood, an occupation, or an employer, and you can see all the individual federal political donations (names and addresses included) that cross the $200 threshold. You can (I'm just speculating here!) spend a lot of time digging around to see who among your neighbors, your friends, or your pretend friends (also known as celebrities) have given to which candidates, and Nick Antosca (author of Fires) has done the legwork of finding where some novelists' allegiances lie. Any surprises? Not really: lots of Obama fans, as well as a few heavy hitters for Clinton. A few highlights:

Obama donors:

  • Michael Chabon (Mr. Ayelet Waldman): $4,600 (the max allowed)
  • Ayelet Waldman (Ms. Michael Chabon): $4,652 (?)
  • Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket): $2,300
  • Terry McMillan: $2,300
  • Dave Eggers: $2,300
  • David Milch (Deadwood auteur): $2,300
  • Geraldine Brooks: $2,300
  • Judy Blume: $2,300 (also see Richardson below)
  • Jonathan Safran Foer (Mr. Nicole Krauss): $1,108
  • Nicole Krauss (Ms. Jonathan Safran Foer): $1,000
  • Marilynne Robinson: $1,000
  • John Grisham: $1,000 (see also Clinton below)
  • Jonathan Franzen: $500
  • Claire Messud: $300

Clinton:

  • Deepak Chopra: $4,600
  • Anne Rice: $4,600
  • John Grisham: $4,600
  • Walter Mosley: $4,600
  • Amy Tan: $4,600
  • Susan Orlean: $2,300
  • Marisha Pessl: $450

Dodd:

  • David Mamet: $4,600
  • Tabitha King: $2,000

Edwards:

  • Jane Smiley: $500

Richardson:

  • Judy Blume: $2,300

Giuliani:

  • Jay McInerney: $2,300
  • Nelson DeMille: $1,200

Romney:

  • Dean Koontz: $4,600

Thompson:

  • Dean Koontz: $2,300

Huckabee:

  • Tim LaHaye: $2,300

Nobody listed as contributing to the putative GOP nominee, John McCain. I'd think Cormac McCarthy would be a natural McCain man, but I'm not surprised to see him staying off the grid for this. Let me know if you find anybody else. (Link via Maud Newton.) --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Scott Turow on The Blue Star by Tony Earley: "Earley described 'Jim the Boy' as 'a children’s book for adults,' and 'The Blue Star' has a similar feel. It’s such a deceptively simple strategy — to take the unembellished storytelling style of children’s literature and to bend it to adult themes — that many novelists will feel like smacking themselves on the side of the head for not having thought of it themselves. But it is no easy feat, especially to stay inside the hazard lines of sentimentality.... Yet I galloped through the novel and relished every page." Maslin liked it too on Thursday, saying, "Though Mr. Earley’s style remains endearingly airborne, 'The Blue Star' is in substance heavier than its predecessor."
  • And Maslin today on The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu: "'The Ten-Cent Plague' is the third book by David Hajdu to take a subject suitable for fans’ hagiography and turn it into something of much wider interest.... [T]his book tells an amazing story, with thrills and chills more extreme than the workings of a comic book’s imagination."
  • William Grimes on Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence" by Robert Bryce: "Ethanol? A scam. Wind power? Sheer fantasy. Solar power? Think again.... With all the gusto of a hunter clubbing baby seals, Mr. Bryce goes after one cherished green belief after another, but he is an equal-opportunity smiter. Having kicked the props from under every green technology in sight, he goes after the political right."
  • Tom Bissell on Willing by Scott Spencer: "No novel narrated by a man willing to embark on a sex tour, even reluctantly, should contain the following sentence: 'In fact, I had never been in such an ambiguous, confusing situation in my life.' As a sentence it is banal; as an in-context psychological bulletin, it is risible.... 'Willing' amounts to a Scott Spencer blooper reel, and in it the language moves along with the undignified haste of a purse-snatcher in flight." [I must confess that I agree about this one.]

Washington Post:

Los Angeles Times:

 

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times
:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Patrick Cockburn on Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East by Robin Wright: "She is particularly good on the moribund nature of the regimes that now hold power and know they are too unpopular to allow any open expression of popular will (though some innovations, like satellite television and the Internet, have prized open their control of information). Both the Algerian election in 1992 and the Palestinian poll in 2006 showed that the West will not accept an election won by its enemies. But since the invasion of Iraq it is difficult to imagine a fair poll having any other result."
  • Kakutani on Lush Life by Richard Price: "No one writes better dialogue than Richard Price--not Elmore Leonard, not David Mamet, not even David Chase. Not only does Mr. Price have perfect pitch for the lingo, the rhythms and the inflections of how people talk, but he also knows how to use a line or two or even a single phrase to conjure a character’s history and emotional vibe.... Mr. Price puts his myriad gifts together to create his most powerful and galvanic work yet, a novel that showcases his sympathy and his street cred and all his skills as a novelist and screenwriter: his gritty-lyrical prose, his cinematic sense of pacing, his uncanny knowledge of the nooks and crannies of his characters’ hearts."
  • David Leavitt on About My Life and the Kept Woman by John Rechy: "In a sense, though, literary ineptitude is as much a part of Rechy’s persona as the oiled chest and the jeans unbuttoned at the top.... The irony is that Rechy appears to have been complicit in this erasure of his own literary identity. On the one hand, he wants to be admired as a writer. On the other, he wants to be desired as a 'tough man' — heterosexual, swaggering and functionally illiterate."
  • And meanwhile, Margaret B. Jones's memoir of an LA gangland childhood that got a Kakutani rave last week? Totally made up by a private school grad from Sherman Oaks, who was turned in by her sister! (Kakutani's telling-in-retrospect quote: "...enabling her to write with a novelist’s eye for the psychological detail.") Go back a few days and read the NYT's wide-eyed profile (hey, no stones thrown here--I'm as gullible as they come) and look at the slide show of the author (who had to know she'd be found out) with her daughter, which makes me sad, sad, sad.

Washington Post:

  • Ron Charles on Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana by Anne Rice: "As a Christian, I appreciate the reverence and piety that Anne Rice brings to her second novel about the life of Jesus, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. But as a reader, I kept wishing some gay vampires would swoop in to liven things up.... In the closing pages of the book, Jesus tells his disciples, 'I will go on, from surprise to surprise,' but in fact, this highlights the most fundamental problem of the novel: It's virtually surprise-free."
  • Louis Bayard on Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson: "Wilson's idea of melancholia is thoroughly Romantic and more than a little romantic. He's the kind of guy who likes to wander through solitary landscapes, thinking sad and beautiful thoughts. Unfortunately, once he's refracted his thoughts through the prism of his prose, they sound pretty goofy: 'What is existence if not an enduring polarity, an endless dance of limping dogs and lilting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms?'"
  • Michael Dobbs on The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation by Philip Shenon: "While Shenon has interviewed many commissioners and staffers, his sourcing falls short of the standard set by the 9/11 commission. His book includes 14 pages of often vague notes, compared to 114 pages in the 9/11 report. It can be difficult to tell who is drawing the key conclusions in Shenon's book: a named source, an anonymous source or the author.... [F]our years later, the 9/11 report stands up pretty well -- despite Shenon's dogged revisionism."

 

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Most of the Month, from West to East

We've posted our editors' picks for March on our Best of the Month page, and I'm sure I'll have some things to say about my picks soon (my Significant Seven pick was Richard Price's Lush Life--he's talking to everybody these days, including Dan Menaker on the debut episode of his hour-long book-talk Web show at Titlepage.tv and a three-part interview with Mark Athitakis on Critical Mass (they're up to part two)--and I contributed two to our Seven on the Side list: Dean Wareham's indie-rock memoir, Black Postcards, and Nicholson Baker's not-quite-convincing-but-interesting-nonetheless pacificist history of the runup to WWII, Human Smoke).

But one thing we've just added to the page this month that I think is pretty fun is a regional leaderboard for our bestselling books of the month (scroll down on the Best of the Month page to see it). We have two lists, one including all books and one limited to books published this month, and for each we list the top 10 in the whole country and the top 10 in each of four regions: West, Midwest, South, and East. (By the way: where would you put Texas? I went with the South, but they really should have their own region...) I wasn't sure what we'd see, but in the early March returns a few interesting things pop out: Stephenie Meyer is much more popular in the West and the South. Jodi Picoult and Valerie Bertinelli are popular in the East; Jonah Goldberg is not. Richard Price and Tori Spelling are doing well on the coasts; James Patterson's latest Maximum Ride and Mary Kay Andrews's new cooking mystery are big in the South. And African American bishop E. Bernard Jordan's The Laws of Thinking, not in the top 10 in any other region, is #2 in the South.

That's only based on a limited data set so far, though, since March just started, so I went back and filled in the data for February too, which you can see on our Best of February page. What jumps out there? Well, FairTax: The Truth, by radio host Neal Boortz, is a regional blockbuster: #2 among all books in the South but not in the top 10 for any other region. Among February releases it does make the top 10s in the Midwest and the West (barely), but in the East it wasn't even close: #122! On the other hand, Greg Mortenson's paperback hit about building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Three Cups of Tea, and Susan Jacoby's modern jeremiad, The Age of American Unreason, both did much better in the West than anywhere else. Baseball fans (or at least Baseball Prospectus statheads) appear to be grouped, as you might expect, in the East and Midwest, and, even less surprisingly, the only part of the country where the Sports Illustrated New York Giants Super Bowl Commemorative Edition made the top 10 was, yes, the East (it didn't even make the top 500 in the West or the Midwest).

And do Barack Obama's sales tell us anything about his centers of support (or at least interest)? Well, in February he was strongest in the East (#6) and the West (#9). But so far in March he's actually doing best (#7) in the South. Maybe it's those Texans, wanting to study up quick before tomorrow's primary...

I'll be updating these lists once a week, and I'll keep an eye out for more telling details. --Tom

P.S. Well, scratch that theory: I checked and I actually put Texas in the West...

William F. Buckley Jr.: 1925-2008

Buckley_time William F. Buckley, as you have likely heard by now, died today at his home in Connecticut. Given the conservative ascendancy in the United States over the last few decades, it must be argued that Buckley was one of the most influential Americans of the postwar era. Many people today are tracing a direct and simple genealogy of that ascendancy, following the line backward from Reagan's election in 1980 to the influential Goldwater campaign of 1964 to Buckley's early writings and his founding in 1955 of the National Review, ever since the leading voice of the movement (though many argue it has abandoned his legacy in recent years). And Buckley didn't just found the movement but was present throughout, as theorist, patron, and very public figurehead. He actively shepherded countless careers and influenced far more through his example, his magazine, and his debate show, The Firing Line, where he presided for over 30 years with a kind of baroque gentility, taking on all comers with his erudite murmurs and charmingly reptilian tics.

Buckley always felt a little before my time--I'm not sure if I've ever seen The Firing Line except on YouTube or when trying to find Zoom on PBS. (Perhaps the highest praise I received from my late grandmother was when she said my writing reminded her of Buckley's--"Your grandfather always admired him so much"--though I didn't take it as such a compliment at the time.) I think of him as a right-wing doppelganger of George Plimpton: the same bizarre patrician drawl, the same openness to experience and sense of adventure and pleasure in combat. He happily waded into the counterculture debates of the late 60s--like the recently departed Norman Mailer, he ran a failed campaign for mayor of New York, and also like Mailer he nearly came to blows with Gore Vidal (but then who hasn't?). And like Goldwater, he showed at times a willingness to change his views (or a refusal to adjust them when his movement moved elsewhere), repudiating his former support for segregation in the mid-60s (about time!) and sharply criticizing our current administration for various betrayals of conservatism.

The Web is full of assessments and appreciations today, beginning with the tributes collected at the National Review. The Times has a lengthy obituary and an ongoing Q&A with Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, who is writing a biography of Buckley (he has "quite a ways to go") and who relates this anecdote:

Continue reading "William F. Buckley Jr.: 1925-2008" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

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New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: D.T. Max on Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser: "In his postmodern world, meanings are never unpacked. These are fables, not allegories, and their hermetic quality discourages us from wandering outside the text. It is for this reason that Millhauser seems less a descendant of Jorge Luis Borges, to whom he is sometimes compared, than of, say, Shirley Jackson or even 'The Twilight Zone.' These stories are offered for your consideration, nothing more."
  • Polly Morrice on Beautiful Boy by David Sheff and Tweak by Nic Sheff: "'Beautiful Boy' is an addiction memoir once removed, depicting the collateral damage that a drug-abusing child inflicts, yet it underscores how the heartbreaking circle game of addiction can fetter a writer’s sense of what to include and, more important, when to stop.... While his father’s decision to lay open much of his life stems from a desire to help other families of addicts, Nic’s urge to tell all seems to derive in part from the lessons and language of rehab — his goal is to be 'authentic.' But Nic also admires chroniclers of wild descents — Rimbaud, Charles Bukowski — and the 25-year-old writer’s infatuation with them shows." On Thursday, Maslin wrote, "On the long, crowded shelf of addiction memoirs 'Beautiful Boy' is more notable for sturdiness and sense than for new insight." And tomorrow, Chip McGrath profiles both Sheffs.
  • Stacey D'Erasmo on Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano: "Cross-referenced, complete with bibliography and a biographical list of secondary figures, 'Nazi Literature' is composed of a series of sketches, the compressed life stories of writers in North and South America who never existed, but all too easily could have. Goose-stepping caricatures à la 'The Producers' they are not; instead, they are frighteningly subtle, poignant and plausible."
  • Alex Beam on The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead: "There is plenty not to like about this book, but here is what I did like: It is almost impossible to define. It is not exactly a memoir. A heart-tugging panegyric to father-son togetherness? Far from it.... It is sui generis, and that’s high praise these days."
  • Kakutani on Love and Consequences by Margaret P. Jones: "Ms. Jones’s portraits of her family and friends are so sympathetic and unsentimental, so raw and tender and tough-minded that it’s clear to the reader that whatever detachment she learned as a child did not impair her capacity for caring. Instead it heightened her powers of observation, enabling her to write with a novelist’s eye for the psychological detail and an anthropologist’s eye for social rituals and routines."

Washington Post:

  • Charles Matthews on Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris: "The conventional way of writing about five movies would be to devote a section of the book to each. But Harris does something more difficult and far more illuminating: He weaves together the stories of how each movie was conceived, crafted, released, critiqued and received.... Harris has created what seems likely to be one of the classics of popular film history, useful to dedicated students of film and cultural historians, and also to trivia buffs."
  • Stephen Budiansky on The Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust: "If nothing else, this finely written book is a powerful corrective to all the romantic claptrap that still envelops a war that took as many American lives, 620,000, as all other wars from the Revolution to Korea combined."

Los Angeles Times:

New York Sun:

  • Eric Ormsby on Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: A Novel in Five Stories by Gregor von Rezzori: "Though 'Memoirs of an Anti-Semite' provides a caustic analysis of a deep moral malady, rendered all the more ominous by being set against the horrors of the Nazi rise to power, the novel is much more than this. A tremendous exuberance underlies its irony. Von Rezzori drew a long-forgotten world out of oblivion without the slightest note of sentimentality. It was as though he could rescue that world in its astonishing fullness only by exposing its deepest flaws."

Globe & Mail:

  • Lynda Grace Philippsen on The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan: "The magic of Swan's fiction is in her ability to reveal and conceal at the same time. Her characters and her readers are simultaneously enmeshed in a fiction real as illusionary life. The pleasure for the reader is in the smudged distinctions between reality, memory, dream, illusion and image - the sense of being played by a fine mind and enjoying it."

The Guardian:

  • Adam Mars-Jones on Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi (out in the U.S. in August): "If Hanif Kureishi's new novel has a fault, it is that its secondary characters are often so full of life that they upstage the principals and this is a fault for which most writers would cheerfully kill.... Something To Tell You is a return to the territory of his first and still best-loved novel, The Buddha of Suburbia."

The New Yorker:

  • James Wood on His Illegal Self by Peter Carey and My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru: "Carey’s often beautiful novel, one of his best recent works, has the bruising tang of all his fiction, in which crooked colloquialism (frequently Australian vernacular), and poetic formality combine. The result is brilliantly vital: the world bulges out of the sentences.... 'My Revolutions' is dense and accumulative where 'His Illegal Self' is fleeting and photographic.... 'My Revolutions' is a strange, involving book, powerful in its utterly unembarrassed relation to the mundane."

--Tom

Guest Bookshelf: Jessa Crispin

GalleyCat's Ron Hogan's six-word memoir in Not Quite What I Was Planning is "Internet famous, for what that's worth," which could apply even more so ("Internet famouser"?) to Jessa Crispin, whose Bookslut blog and web mag was the flagship of the early independent book sites from its beginnings way back in 2002 and remains as busy and feisty as ever today. She and her many contributors (including our own Jeff VanderMeer) have always read as readers, not industry insiders or literary arbiters, with a taste for books high and low and in between. We certainly blog in her wake (you might even say that "Omnivoracious" is a fancy--and more polite--translation of "Bookslut"), and we think it's lovely that she's sent us a bookshelf photo to headline Omnivoracious this week. Here's what she has to say about it:

The books in the picture are from the nonfiction books I have hidden away in my bedroom. I used to have serious hoarding tendencies, and I would keep every single book I read. Now, if it's on my shelf it's either because I haven't read it yet (I have to admit I have not read about half of the books on that shelf) or because I think I might need it for later reference, because I think I'll reread it at some point, or because I have sentimental attachment to it. The book on that shelf I am the most attached to is the copy of The Golden Bough. It was given to me by my sister when I was 15, and I carried it with me everywhere. It took me six months to read, but I was smitten.

--Tom

Watching The Wire with the Thugs (and Reading with My Eyes Closed)

159420150101_mzzzzzzz_ I wrote last month about Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day, one of my Best of the Month picks, and I was neither the first nor the last to describe it as a real-life, Chicago version of The Wire. This week I checked into the Freakonomics blog on the New York Times site for the first time in a while and saw that Venkatesh, who first came to popular notice when his work on the (lousy) economics of crack dealing was featured in that megaseller, has been guest-blogging about watching the fifth and final season with some self-described "real thugs" of his acquaintance.

Which is all just wonderful (and apparently they love the show), except that we are currently in obsessive catchup mode with The Wire at my home. We've Netflixed our way into the middle of season three, and now with season five live on the Home Box Office I've had to avert my eyes at any discussion of what's going on--and, as you'll notice if you're averting your eyes, there's a lot of that discussion these days. Even seeing a proper name pop out of a headline will tip you off that a character has survived a few more seasons, and just from the fragments of sentences I've let slip past my guard I've already spoiled major plot developments, which I now have to spend the next many months not revealing to my wife as we work our way through the episodes. So all I can say as I point you toward Venkatesh's Wire blogging is that it is there; I won't allow myself to find out anything more. And don't tell me! --Tom

Our First Guest Blogger: The Omnivore Himself

We have been talking for a while about bringing authors (and other book people) on Omnivoracious for guest appearances, and we had the perfect person in mind to begin with. Not only is Michael Pollan the author of some of our favorite and our customers' favorite books. (His last two books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, each made our top 5 editors' favorites of the year, in 2006 and 2001, and Omnivore was our #6 customer favorite too in '06.) And not only is he one of the most personable and articulate authors we've had the pleasure of meeting. (One of my favorite interviewing moments was when I recorded a conversation with him after he had just given a talk to a large and enthusiastic group of fans here. He had done a brilliant riff on corn in the talk, and before the interview I said my one request was that he somehow weave that riff into the interview. A clumsy request, but like a true pro, when he saw an opening in the conversation he stepped right into it and, Obama-like, hit every note once again.) And not only does he have one of our favorite books of the new year, In Defense of Food, the "omnivore's solution" follow-up that was our Best of the Month spotlight pick in January.

The real clincher in having him as our first guest blogger was that he is, of course, the original omnivore, and one of the inspirations for the naming of this blog. We hope that we can approach the kind of wide-ranging curious appetite here that he shows in all his books, and for that reason and all the others, we're thrilled to have Michael Pollan sitting in on Omnivoracious this month. He'll be posting once a week for the next few weeks, and would love to hear your questions about his books and your own ideas about eating and our food culture. Omnivores, please join in. --Tom

P.S. Here's a photo from his visit to our offices in 2006. We ran out of books for him to sign, so the unlucky (or lucky) last person in line instead received his prop for the talk, an ear of the demon corn, signed with the message, "Stephanie--Vote with your [stomach?] + don't eat this. Michael Pollan."

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More Memoir: Terry Goodman

Six words from our favorite in-house guest blogger, books buyer Terry Goodman:

I AM big -- books got small.

--Tom

Guest Bookshelf: Joel Bass

Moving into the bookshelf slot at the top of Omni this week is Joel Bass, a reader from Denver whose virtual home is at Crunchy Gods. You can read more about his recent favorite reading on his own Bookshelf, but here's his introduction to the books he chose for us (which, I have to say, is my favorite collection yet--even better than the one I put up: Angela Carter, Chris Ware, Libra, Cloud Atlas? Right on.):

Though we have strictly alphabetized bookshelves elsewhere, this is sort of a glamor shelf, sitting right in the living room. My wife, poet Kathryn T. S. Bass, and I include a wide range of things, which I sometimes find myself arranging by color as I talk on the phone. It's not only for visitors to admire, though; I get a thrill just looking at this mix of old treasures and unwrapped presents.

A lot of the non-fiction centers around origins and evolution; the evolution of the English language, the co-evolution of our favorite plants with our own species, the evolution of buildings as they are changed by their inhabitants, and Dawkins' masterful tour of the tree of life. The Mind's I taught me to question what it means to be conscious, Michael Pollan helped me appreciate and question my food choices, and Hungry Hollow helped me put myself into the place of a raccoon, a microbe, and a tree. I have yet to read Infinite Jest, White Teeth, and Middlesex, but can't wait. Cloud Atlas and Libra remain two of my favorite novels -- just mind-blowingly good, both of them -- and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan is graphic perfection from a bittersweet soul.

--Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review (no cover review for "Politics" issue): Will Blythe on My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru: "Kunzru, born in 1969, gives an amazingly convincing account of a period he never witnessed. And by treating the millenarian aspirations of his characters with respect, he rejects the popular view of such revolutionaries as delusional adolescents, playing at revolt. He reveals the yearning behind the dreadful agitprop, the abiding message inside the Molotov cocktail bottle. In doing so, Kunzru redeems a ’60s sort of daring in the same way Tom Stoppard does in his recent play, 'Rock ’n’ Roll.'"
  • Orlando Patterson on The Race Card by Richard Thompson Ford: "With a daring disregard for ideological propriety, Ford vivisects every sacred cow in 'post-racist' America. Inevitably he overreaches, and he is occasionally quite wrong; but the end result is a vigorous and long-overdue shake-up of the nation’s stale discourse on race."
  • Liesl Schillinger on His Illegal Self by Peter Carey: "This idea, this truth — that a child in distress is hard-wired to seek protection from a woman, any woman, whatever her failings, her confusions, her ideology — is the heartbeat that races through Peter Carey’s enthralling new novel, 'His Illegal Self,' a book as psychologically taut as a Patricia Highsmith thriller and as starkly beautiful as Mulisch’s modern classic [The Assault]." Au contraire, said Kakutani last Tuesday: "a herky-jerky affair that lurches between the compelling and the lackadaisical, the intriguing and the preposterous."
  • And on Thursday Maslin disagreed with Schillinger's rave from last Sunday for Charles Bock's Beautiful Children: "Beyond knowing that his characters are en route to trouble, Mr. Bock has few clear destinations in mind for any of them. This book’s structure is so slack that it seems like a string of overlapping individual sketches, some much better than others."

Washington Post:

  • James Mann on Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World by Samantha Power: "Her book is an ambitious effort, a long, meandering narrative that in the end succeeds brilliantly but is so slow-paced, especially in its early pages, as to leave the reader wishing Vieira de Mello would grow up, move on or find some epiphany amid the serial catastrophes."
  • Ron Charles on Carey's His Illegal Self: "If you're a Peter Carey fan -- and you should be -- watch what you read about his compulsive new novel. Even the dust jacket risks spoiling the effect of this alternately gripping and disorienting story. The usual problem for reviewers is trying not to give away the end, but here the danger lies in giving away the beginning: His Illegal Self is front-loaded with shocks and twists that gradually fade into a contemplative tale of disrupted lives."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Tim Rutten on Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West by Benazir Bhutto: "The book is -- like the woman -- alternately fascinating, frustrating and opaque in a dodgy sort of way.... She argues that a substantial part of the work to be done to avoid such a [clash of civilizations] must occur in the Islamic world, where a case needs to be made forcefully for more tolerant strains of Islam that are friendly to modernism and civil society. It says something about the state of affairs in the Islamic world that this is a daring, even singular, position for a political leader to take."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

3 x 6: My Memoirs

Now that Leah, our amateur memoirist gone legit, has started things off, the door is open for us truly obscure amateurs to jump in with our own belated contributions to Not Quite What I Was Planning. Is it cheating to write three memoirs when you are supposed to limit yourself to six words? Does that become an 18-word memoir? I don't think so--I think of them as three different versions of one life. So here's mine:

Jokey (and cribbed from my best man's toast at my wedding):

Always somewhere nearby, reading a book.

Self-hating:

Too comfortable to do anything important.

Optimistic (and my favorite):

Bloomed late, but got it right.

More to come from here. In the meantime, feel free to add your own in the comments (and submit them to the original archive at SMITH while you're at it--they're planning to do second book). --Tom

Self Promotion, Accomplished with Brief Interview

[Ed. note: Not Quite What I Was Planning, the book of "six-word memoirs" that we included in our Seven on the Side editors' picks this month, includes a contribution from our own Leah Weathersby, an editor on our Movies & TV team. We asked Leah to write a post on the book, and she contributed a Q&A with one of the editors of the book. You can read her six-word memoir at the bottom, and some of us plan to post our own, unpublished contributions this week as well.]

006137405901_mzzzzzzz_ Oh the heady thrill of having a book hovering around Amazon's top 100 list. Of course like the other writers, I only have six words in Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous and Obscure Writers, but I was still excited to help promote this book, not to mention learn more about the project. I e-mailed Not Quite's co-author, Rachel Fershleiser of SMITH, a few questions (six, coincidentally!) to get the skinny:

Amazon: How did the idea for the six-word memoir contest (that later turned into a book) come about? Can you put it into six words?

Rachel: Hemingway opened door, memoirists rushed in.

[Ed. note: Hemingway penned the very short story "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn."]

Amazon: You do have some pretty famous contributors in this book--did they enter the contest just like everyone else, or did you have your people call their people?

Rachel: The memoirs came in a variety of ways. There were definitely recognizable names that trickled in the old-fashioned route. When we went into the backend blogging tool of the six-word project and saw someone named "Dhandler" had submitted "What? Lemony Snicket? Lemony Snicket? What?”, we were freaking out (and later confirmed it was in fact Mr. Handler/Snicket). But, yes, we also solicited memoirs from writers and artists we admire. Combining amateur and professional writing is one of SMITH’s biggest goals. Most gratifying, a lot of the famous writers went above and beyond what was asked. Joyce Carol Oates sent us "found" six-word memoirs from Emily Dickinson. George Saunders (whose "Started small, grew, peaked, shrunk, vanished." is one of our favorites) sent several memoirs and the postscript "Just noticed I wrote one above. And also wrote one just now. Oh God oh God, am trapped." Mario Batali, in true Molto Mario style, sent in seven, with an email time-stamped at around 2:45a.m., all wonderful. We thought his first idea, "Brought it to a boil, often," nailed the essence of his soul as well, or better, than a 60,000-word biography could.

Amazon: I would have expected most people to try and be funny with their entries, but it seems like you got a lot of sad memoirs as well.

Rachel: The saddest moment had to be when Ronald S. Zalewski, author of "Was father, boys died, still sad," sent us a photo of two tiny headstones. We also got a photo of a beautiful bride from her young widower ("Wife died young; on the mend."--Sumit Paul-Choudhury), and less dramatic tragedies--a lot of people are just very lonely. But there's also joy, love, gratitude, relief, optimism, and every other emotion. We like to think that, although the proportion of sad memoirs undoubtedly surprised us, the overarching theme is about learning, growing, and moving on.

Amazon: Re: the original contest, what was the winning entry?

Rachel: The original memoir was "Barrister, barista, what's the diff, Mom?" by Abigail Moorhouse. We have lots of favorites--there are hundreds of them in the book, we know nearly all of them by heart, and are grateful for each one--but Abigail Moorhouse's six words seemed to have it all. It's funny, worded perfectly, and speaks to some universal stuff: ambition, disappointment, expectations, familial angst. A life a little different than you planned, and maybe you're okay with the way it's all turning out.

Amazon: What’s next for SMITH in the realm of story-telling contests?

Rachel: Right now, we're pretty six-word obsessed. We're running another six-word memoir contest, and partnering with other great online communities to solicit six words on "the green life" (with TreeHugger), photos captions (FOUND), personal projects (ReadyMade), love stories (True Hookup Confessions), and others. You can also always submit to other SMITH projects: The PopuLIST, where we solicit 100-word stories inspired by current events, Brushes with Fame and My Ex, which are just what they sound like. And we publish memoirs-in-progress--recently a first-time writer we featured landed a book deal. We can tell you from experience, there's no greater feeling than that.

SMITH Mag is is also taking its storytelling obsession offline in ways that could not be more different than books. To name one kind of wild, exciting example, we're partnering with Rick's Picks to tell pregnancy stories on pickle jars!

Amazon: Having thought about six-word stories a lot for over a year now, do you find yourself communicating in six-word sentences more?

Rachel: Six words really is showing up everywhere--on T-shirts, in bathroom graffiti. We used to need to count on our fingers; now we know it by sight. We recently got a party RSVP written all in six-word sentences--the writer swears it was subconscious. But that's what's so exciting about this project--it gets people going. 832 people, most of whom have never been published anywhere before, have shared the most intimate details of their lives with perfect strangers. It's a manifestation of everything SMITH Mag believes about storytelling should be: populist, accessible, fun, profound, and addictive.

My six-word memoir was "lucky in love, unlucky in metabolism." You can send SMITH your own memoir here. --Leah

Here are editors Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser with six-word memoir contributor Summer Grimes (left), whose memoir provided the title for the book:

Summerlarryrach

Plotting in the Internet Age

030739610x01_mzzzzzzz_ I've idly worried from time to time that some of the plot features that were so deliciously crucial to the classic novel (strangers coming to town, people who couldn't be reached because they weren't near a phone, letters that arrived too late to be of help) were now obsolete in the age of instant access and complete information. So many of the obstacles that could drive (or delay) the meeting of hero and heroine or detective and quarry have now been removed. How would novelists respond? Obviously the new technology presents its own potential plots, and I was interested to open up a new novel that arrived in the mail today and find that a familiar feature of our own internet retail operation can play a central role in a very modern mystery. I'll quote the short prologue to Obedience, a debut thriller by Will Lavender, in full:

Run an Internet search using the name Deanna Ward
    You will get over 275 hits. Click on the first one. This is an article by a man named Nicholas Bourdoix.
    Read this article. You will learn that eighteen-year-old Deanna Ward went missing from Cale, Indiana, on August 1, 1986. Police thought they had found Deanna four days later, on August 5, but they had not; this was a girl who simply looked like Deanna. The Deanna Ward case remains unsolved.
    Run another search: "Nicholas Bourdoix."
    You will get over 6,500 hits. Mr. Bourdoix graduated from Winchester University in DeLane, Indiana. He worked for fourteen years at the Cale [Indiana] Star before moving to the New York Times in 1995.
    Run an Amazon search for Mr. Bourdoix. His latest book is a memoir about his career as a crime journalist. It is called The Beaten Trail: My Life Covering Horrors and Hoaxes. There are exactly twelve pages given to his years in Indiana.
    There is a customer review of this book toward the bottom of the page. You will know it because it is the only review given. The reviewer awards the book one star and suggests, in rather harsh language, that readers not buy Mr. Bourdoix's "lying crap."
    The reviewer's name is Deanna Ward.

Hooked? Having seen so many of these angry reviews by people with personal knowledge of the books' subjects ("Joe Smith is my brother-in-law and I can assure you that he is nothing like the portrayal of him in Doctor of Death."), I am. Obedience doesn't come out until February 19, which explains why it doesn't have any customer reviews itself yet. --Tom

Best of the Month 2

030726804701_mzzzzzzz_ The second edition of our Best of the Month feature is up on the site, with our editors picks for our favovite books of February. I'll talk about my pick below, but I should also mention that my first pick, before my colleague Jon Foro grabbed dibs on it, was David Shields's The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, which we made our spotlight pick of the month. I've read a lot of Shields's writing before (he lives in Seattle, like we do), and he always tries to strike a balance between his rather remarkable (even for a writer!) self-obsession and the larger world. Sometimes it works for me (Remote) and sometimes it doesn't (Black Planet), but I think in this one he's hit the right mix, with a topic (our inevitable biological decay) that not only balances his self-fascination, but undermines it. Or rather, both undercuts it, by showing the great and implacable forces that determine all our lives, and gives it some grandeur, by making his struggle (and his father's, and all of ours) against that relentless decline both sad and courageous.

081121705101_mzzzzzzz_ But meanwhile, my actual choice turned out to be Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas. I've blogged about Bolano ad nauseum here over the past year (e.g. here and here), but here's what I had to say on our Best of the Month discussion board:

Despite the infinite silence that met my post about my pick last month, I'll wade in with another about this month's choice, Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas. I had a couple of reservations about picking Bolano this time. For one thing, I made his previous book, The Savage Detectives, my May pick last year and I fully expect, given all I've heard about it, to choose his next one, 2666, whenever it is released (later this year, I hope). And for another, this isn't a book I would push into the hands of everyone--it really is a weird little book, and I think you'd have to have a taste for books that don't move in a straight line (or even in any line at all) and also have a real love for reading about writers and writing (even terrible and sometimes evil writing). And Nazi Literature doesn't have the irrepressible charm of the first section of The Savage Detectives that gives you the momentum to keep reading through the meandering middle section (which I also loved, I should say). But all that said, while I was reading this one I realized I couldn't not recommend it. I'm always tempted to describe Bolano's style as non-narrative, but in fact it's just the opposite. He might not tell one single story from beginning to end, but what's most amazing about his books is that he has an infinite capacity to tell story after story after story. Each tiny (and sometimes not so tiny) made-up biography in Nazi Literature expands into a strange, wonderfully detailed, and often moving story of a single life lived with varying amounts of imagination, courage, cruelty, and illusion. And the more of these stories he tells, the more all his books come to look like one giant interconnected story (and the one story I most want to read these days).

If you've never read Bolano before, I'd still start with The Savage Detectives, but if you've already read and loved that one, keep going with this one.

006137405901_mzzzzzzz_ 006135323x01_mzzzzzzz_ I also picked two books for our Seven on the Side, about which more later: we'll be posting elsewhere on Omni about Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous and Obscure Writers, and in a couple of weeks we'll have my interview with Predictably Irrational author Dan Ariely in our Wire podcast. --Tom

P.S. Just after I posted this, a friend sent a link to a Slate article about a Texas inmate who was not allowed to receive The Savage Detectives in the mail because a passage "is detrimental to offenders' rehabilitation, because it would encourage homosexual or deviant criminal sexual behavior." Thanks to our Search Inside feature, you can read that section yourself, on page 39 (search on "39" to find it), which, I should make clear, does involve what the citation describes as "group sex in a public bar." For those of you for whom this is your first exposure to Bolano, I wouldn't describe it as fully characteristic of his work, except for the last sentence on the page: "'But keep telling the story, what happened next?' said Maria."

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

This week scholars will note a new entry into the rather rigid weekly lineup below: the New York Sun, suggested by Omni reader Andy Linder, who argues, with some justification, that the Sun's reviews are better than those in the Times. You be the judge. And if you have other suggestion for dailies with a reliably good book section, I'm open to shaking things up further...

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Liesl Schillinger on Beautiful Children by Charles Bock: "He brings together the intersecting lives and innermost thoughts of parents and adolescents, strippers and pornographers, runaways and addicts, gamblers and comic-book illustrators, setting them against the neon-lit, heat-parched backdrop of Nevada, where 'high walls and gated communities' join together in the night, 'shimmering as if they were the surface of a translucent ocean,' and the colored towers of the Vegas Strip resemble a 'distant row of glowing toys.' What should be said of the results of his labors? One word: bravo."
  • Evan Thomas on The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Commission: "The popular image of the C.I.A. as dashing and all-knowing is for the movies only. After much dickering with the White House, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, the mild-mannered patrician who succeeded Mr. Kissinger as commission chairman, is allowed to read pre-9/11 copies of the President’s Daily Brief, the C.I.A.’s digest of its most important secrets. 'He found himself terrified by what he was reading, really terrified,' Mr. Shenon writes. 'There was almost nothing in them.' Of the briefings, Mr. Kean said, 'They were garbage,' adding, 'There really was nothing there — nothing, nothing.'"
  • Katie Roiphe on Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir by David Rieff: "In fact, Sontag’s confrontation with her own ordinariness is the most intriguing element of Rieff’s story. For a woman who had always believed in her own exceptionality, who had defined herself by her will to be different, to rise above, the terrifying democracy of illness is one of its most painful aspects. Throughout her final illness, she tells Rieff, 'This time, for the first time in my life, I don’t feel special.' In the most profound and affecting passages of the book, Rieff questions whether, on some level, his mother thought that she was too special to die."
  • Maslin on Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock: "Both farmer and doctor gazed out the office window. They spied livestock. And they experienced a shared brainstorm. Supposedly at his patient’s urging, Brinkley agreed to try to restore the man’s virility via an unorthodox transplant operation. The farmer wound up with two extra testicles courtesy of one luckless goat. For Dr. Brinkley, whose story is told with uproarious brio in Pope Brock’s heavenly 'Charlatan,' this 1917 epiphany was the beginning of a mercenary miracle."

Washington Post:

  • Michael Mann on Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg: "The only thing these links prove is that fascism contained elements that were in the mainstream of 20th-century politics. Following Goldberg's logic, I could rewrite this book and berate American liberals not for being closet fascists but for being closet conservatives or closet Christian Democrats. But that would puzzle Americans, not shock them. Shock, it seems, sells books."
  • Patrick Anderson on L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker: "Parker is hardly unknown. This is his 15th novel, and he's one of three writers ... to have twice won the Edgar Award for best crime novel of the year. Still, he's never achieved quite the recognition he deserves and this could be his breakthrough. All his skills are on display here: vivid writing, strong characters, clockwork plotting, agonizing suspense and, finally, an ending that manages to be just right. 'L.A. Outlaws' is popular entertainment at its most delicious."

Los Angeles Times:

New York Sun:

  • Adam Kirsch on God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis: "But to take one brief moment out of a millennia-long story, and use it to represent the essences of Christianity and Islam, is completely ahistorical. The relative merits of the two cultures in the 10th century tell us nothing about them in the 21st. Indeed, to the extent that Mr. Lewis means to imply that, because Islam was a force for enlightenment under Abd al-Rahman and is still a force for tolerance under Ayatollah Khamenei, he is positively misleading. Civilizations do not have essences, either good or bad; what they have instead are histories."
  • Mike Peed on The Devil's Footprints by John Burnside: "'The Devil's Footprints' marks his fifth novel, and it is stunning: majestically written, with a piercing intelligence and a razor-sharp sense of the human predicament. Michael finds little, if any, insight into his life's troubles. But the harrowing psychological investigation he embarks upon is told seemingly without effort, through words that intoxicate, scenes that enrapture, and ideas that ensnare. Mr. Burnside has said that he hoped to explore notions of evil, grief, and love. He succeeds; 'The Devil's Footprints' is a remarkable marriage of thought to form."

Globe & Mail:

  • David M. Schribman on Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again by David Frum: "This is a book of sweeping insights and specific proposals. The insights are stunning, the proposals are of less interest to a Canadian audience. But at the heart of Frum's book is the concept, sensed by everyone but expressed by no one, that the conservatism that Americans came to know under Barry Goldwater, whose vision failed, and Ronald Reagan, whose vision prevailed, is stale, exhausted and irrelevant. That is a very big idea, and especially compelling when it is articulated by George W. Bush's speechwriter and not by Hillary Rodham Clinton's."

The Guardian:

  • M. John Harrison on A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Lavin: "In the end, [Gödel and Turing] both had such difficulty managing the world because they couldn't stop asking the same question: is the world what it seems to be? Whether it is or not, we all need to act as if it is. Gödel and Turing found that almost impossible. Turing was too naive. Gödel was too paranoid. They were both outsiders, social lightning conductors, defenceless from the start. Levin convinces us of this in a prose sometimes poetic and surprising, always visceral, dense and interesting but which, at times, collapses in on itself."

The New Yorker:

  • John Updike on The Complete Novels by Flann O'Brien: "Policemen—courteous, overweight, and menacing—and bicycles figure prominently among the figments of 'The Third Policeman.' Perhaps the most erotic passage in O’Brien’s fiction concerns a bicycle that nuzzles up to our hero in a moment of need." [Ed. note: there may not be a funnier/scarier book than The Third Policeman; the bicycles and policemen are not the half of it.]

--Tom

Liar's Diary Blog Day

045228915701_mzzzzzzz_ In the space of just a few days, we've heard from many directions about a remarkable online organizing effort known as Liar's Diary Blog Day. Patry Francis is a debut author whose thriller, The Liar's Diary (apologies--I had this as "Liar's Day" yesterday), releases today in paperback. But after years of writing towards the day that every writer dreams about, she got hit by a ton of bricks. I'll let one of the organizers of LDBD, Susan Henderson at LitPark, explain:

What if you worked for years as a waitress and then went home at the end of the day to your husband and four kids, and in those rare minutes of free time, you dared to dream that one day you might write a book? This is the story of my friend, Patry - a story that leaves out years of false starts, revisions, and rejection slips. It's a story that writers know intimately, though the details are different. Every one of us is well acquainted with the struggle of getting a story on paper, of honing it and believing in it enough to send it out, only to receive rejection, or worse, silence for our efforts.

Imagine, after many years, you beat the odds. You finish that book. You find that agent who sells your manuscript. Your dream is about to become a reality. But just as your book is due to be released, you discover you have an aggressive form of cancer.

Since Patry has to focus on getting well and not getting out to introduce people to her book, a remarkable network of authors and other friends has formed to spread the word. Over 300 writers, including Khaled Hosseini, Jennifer Weiner, Neil Gaiman, and many more, have blogged yesterday and today about Patry Francis and The Liar's Diary, which Booklist has called "a disturbing portrait of a hollow family done in by secrets and lies," and we're happy to join them. See more details at organizer Laura Benedict's blog, and see a complete list of participating bloggers at LitPark. Here's Patry's own blog, Simply Wait, and here's a video trailer for the book created by another friend:

--Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Geoffrey C. Ward on This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust: "'The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking,' [Gilpin writes]. Her account of how that work was done, much of it gleaned from the letters of those who found themselves forced to do it, is too richly detailed and covers too much ground to be summarized easily. She overlooks nothing — from the unsettling enthusiasm some men showed for killing to the near-universal struggle for an answer to the question posed by the Confederate poet Sidney Lanier: 'How does God have the heart to allow it?'"
  • Ken Kalfus on All Shall Be Well; All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well by Tod Wodicka: "Although Wodicka turns up a provocative thought here and there, this musing, typical of Burt’s grief-laden vaporousness, serves also to illustrate the artless, wordy and underarticulated writing that makes 'All Shall Be Well' such a Black Death of a chore to read. Wodicka has chosen a narrative voice too depressive and portentous to manifest his ingenuity." On Thursday, though, Maslin called ASBWASBWAMTSBW "this tender, oddball book, one that performs a deft balancing act as it hides love, yearning and regret behind the mouthful of medieval incantation in its title."
  • Kakutani on The Reserve by Russell Banks: "The plot of 'The Reserve,' which takes place in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1936, moves not with the swift, sharklike momentum of his best fiction but in a hokey, herky-jerky fashion that never lets the reader forget that Mr. Banks is standing there behind the proscenium, pulling the characters’ strings. Even the language he uses is weirdly secondhand: a bizarre mélange of Hemingwayesque action prose and romance-novel clichés that manages to feel faux macho and sickly sweet at the same time."
  • Maslin on The Appeal by John Grisham: "Building a remarkable degree of suspense into the all too familiar ploys described here, Mr. Grisham delivers his savviest book in years. His extended vacation from hard-hitting fiction is over.... It barely matters that the characters in 'The Appeal' are essentially stick figures. What works for Mr. Grisham is his patient, lawyerly, inexorable way of dramatizing urgent moral issues."

Washington Post:

  • Mindy Aloff on The Mitfords: Letters Between Six SIsters, edited by Charlotte Mosley: "The Mitfords could have been an operatic group biography on an epic scale: Instead, thanks to its editor's taste and discretion, it is chamber music with symphonic longings. Ironically, as the sororal voices drop away owing to irreparable feuds or lost letters or death, the surviving sisters become more serious and open. Tragedy and aging lead them to wisdom, or something very like it."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Sven Birkerts on Banks's The Reserve: "Banks works with a vast palette and a sure stylistic command. 'The Reserve' gratifies page by page. But when the pages are gathered together, held in retrospect, there is the sense of an echo still awaited, some deeper gratification promised in the meditative pose of the mysterious, beautiful woman on the first page."
  • Richard Schickel on An Ordinary Spy by Joseph Weisberg: "At a certain point, the reader begins to wonder whether 'An Ordinary Spy' might possibly be an extraordinary act of disinformation. Might its author still be a CIA employee, charged with portraying the agency in a benign light -- not exactly bumbling, but incapable of, say, water-boarding or extraordinary rendition? To hear Weisberg tell it, an American secret agent's chief concern seems to be defending his retirement package."

Globe & Mail:

  • Catherine Bush on How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet: "It's hard, in fact, to convey how invigorating Millet's fiction is, how intelligent and thematically rich, how processes of thought are themselves made urgent and lively through the specificity of her observations and sentences that offer startlement, small and large. This isn't fiction that tells us how to live. Instead, it dramatizes the power of attentiveness to an expanded, if terribly flawed and potentially dying, world, attentiveness being a kind of tenderness, which is a kind of love."

The Guardian:

  • Christopher Taylor on The Second Plane by Martin Amis: "'If September 11 had to happen,' he says in the introduction to The Second Plane, 'then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime.' His fans might not feel the same way. To some extent, the heavily self-parodic aspects of the enterprise - at one point he reports on treating Tony Blair to a disquisition on the Shia, whom he compared to 'nut-rissole artists' - make the crazy-uncle outbursts less alarming."

The New Yorker:

  • Joan Acocella on God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis: "The Muslims came to Europe, he writes, as 'the forward wave of civilization that was, by comparison with that of its enemies, an organic marvel of coordinated kingdoms, cultures, and technologies in service of a politico-cultural agenda incomparably superior' to that of the primitive people they encountered there. They did Europe a favor by invading. This is not a new idea, but Lewis takes it further: he clearly regrets that the Arabs did not go on to conquer the rest of Europe. The halting of their advance was instrumental, he writes, in creating 'an economically retarded, balkanized, and fratricidal Europe that . . . made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war.' It was 'one of the most significant losses in world history and certainly the most consequential since the fall of the Roman Empire.' This is a bold hypothesis."

--Tom

Secret Knowledge the Whole World Knows: Questions for David Goldblatt

As I've burnt out (somewhat) on what was my full-blown youthful sports nutdom, trying to put a little distance between myself and the 24-7 coverage of the endless American sports calendar, international soccer has seemed to me like a breath of fresh air, a secret transmission that, until cable and the internet brought the Premiership and Serie A into immediate electronic reach, you could only access via 2 am viewings at English pubs and imported magazines. The irony, of course, is that for the rest of the world soccer, or rather football, _is_ the ever-hyped, multi-zillion-dollar story, and these secret heroes who would only surface on our screens every four years at World Cup time, the Ballacks and Henrys and Kluiverts and Batistutas, were household names to billions. But even now, with Beckham playing (or least being paid) in L.A. and the Fox Soccer Channel piped into my very own home, reading about soccer still feels like samizdat, like underground knowledge.

159448296901_mzzzzzzz_ Which is why I immediately grabbed David Goldblatt's The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, and carved out enough time to read it, 992 pages and all. What I was hoping for was the vast backstory that I, steeped in no soccer culture beyond seeing Pele and the New York Cosmos play the Washington "Dips" in 1975 and playing years of youth soccer like every other suburban kid, had never gotten. But I got that and much more from The Ball Is Round, which is a global history as much as a soccer history, giving as much attention to the politics and culture surrounding the game as to the matches on the pitch (without ignoring those either), and teaching me, I'm embarrassed to admit, more about South American politics in the 20th century than I've ever picked up from any other source. With its style, its vastly informed ambition, and its balance between the political and the poetic, it's every bit the equivalent of Alex Ross's recent brainiac survey of 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise. And like The Rest Is Noise, it sent me to the 'net for examples of the artists that its pages evoked so well (for example, Brazil's tragic star from the 50s, Garrincha, or this half-field shot from Pele I couldn't believe until I had seen it for myself--at 0:24, but try not to watch the next 8 minutes too, especially the glorious last goal, at 6:50). I asked David Goldblatt, its well-traveled author, a few questions about his book (which was, of course, subtitled A Global History of Football in its original UK version):

Goldblatt_david_300 Amazon.com: There's a sentence in the middle of The Ball Is Round that to me sums up a great deal of the culture of football. After noting that Pelé had scored nearly a goal a game in over 1,300 professional matches--the sort of stat that would be on every page in a history of one of the major American sports but that is very rare in this one--you write, "This of course tells us nothing about all the goals he made." What stories do football fans tell about their sport and their stars?

Goldblatt: Well, in America not only would you be banging on about Pele's goal to game ratio but you would have been collecting statistics in a rational organized manner about his assists--a concept that had only entered soccer statistics in the last few years. The state of Brazilian football statistics during Pelé's career would not pass muster in Cooperstown in can tell you. Bill James would have a nervous breakdown with hopeless state of the data base. Soccer fans tell a lot the same stories that Americans tell themselves, sagas, epics, heroic tasks, near misses, dramatic comebacks, tales of curious individualists and unshakeable teams, but they are told in a the idioms, genres, vocabulary, and head space of hundreds of different cultures.

Amazon.com: I have to ask the inevitable question: why hasn't football--rather, soccer--ever taken hold in the United States (despite generations now who grow up playing it)? (And does the rest of the world care if it ever does?) I was fascinated by your comment in the American foreword that you recovered from finishing the book by ignoring soccer for half a year and only watching American sports. What did you notice?

Goldblatt: Contrary to the received wisdom I would say that soccer has taken hold in the US, if we look at participation figures amongst women and the young, and while MLS isn't about to challenge the premiership or Serie A for money or glamour it looks like it is now established on a firm footing. If the game can just tap into the rising Latino communities of America it could be pushing hockey for fourth sport.

That said it would still be just number 4. Baseball, football, and basketball have now had over a century's head start on soccer and between them created a wider sports culture--of expectations, tastes, and pleasures--that I think sometimes finds soccer incomprehensible ( what's with the draws?) or distasteful (all that diving). Soccer had its chance in the USA in the 1920s and 30s when East Coast professional leagues were drawing big crowds but a combination of bureaucratic infighting, the Wall Street crash, and the lingering ethnic associations of the game killed it for two generations.

Continue reading "Secret Knowledge the Whole World Knows: Questions for David Goldblatt" »

A Costa, but not a killer

030726683401_mzzzzzzz_ The Costa Book Awards, one of the second-rank British book awards (behind the Booker but still pretty big), announced their Book of the Year Tuesday: A.L. Kennedy's novel Day, about an RAF tailgunner reliving the war as a movie extra five years later, which just came out in the U.S. this month. Just a refresher for those scoring at home: the Costas (known until 2006 as the Whitbreads, when they were taken over by the coffeeshop chain, Costa Coffee--I'm not even sure what a Whitbread was or is) are given in five categories (First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry, and Children's Book), and then, among these five, one is chosen a few weeks later as the Book of the Year. Here's this year's winners (and our list of winners for the past five years):

Which gives us an opportunity to link further on A.L. Kennedy (who ranks very high on my embarrassing/enticing list of people I've never read who I really, really want to), specifically to Maud Newton's delicious post today about the email she got from ALK about how everyone who meets her seems to expect she'll be "homicidal," after Newton blogged about how "terrified" she had been to meet her. She quotes Kennedy's note at length, and I am sorely tempted to do the same because there really is hardly a stretch of more than three words in it that doesn't make me laugh. But here's how it begins:

Every time I meet strangers, it tends to go…

Them: Oh my God, you’re you.

Me: Yes. I am. I think.

Them: And you haven’t killed me with an axe.

Me: I don’t have an axe.

Them: I brought one with me just in case. So you wouldn’t get annoyed and kill me with a chair leg which would take longer and therefore be more painful.

Read on--you'll have an idea of why Kennedy these days is identified as "author and stand-up comic." --Tom

Guest Bookshelf: John Lawton

Up top on Omni this week is a very focused bookshelf from John Lawton, currently of northern New Jersey but Detroit born-and-bred. For many years, John was our sales rep from Penguin and though we were miserable to see him move to other, grander duties at the home office last year, we're glad he still stops by Omnivoracious to say hello. One of the pleasures of working with John (and I'm sure one of the pleasures for him of working for Penguin) is his great enthusiasm for one of his top authors, William Gibson (a favorite of mine too). Among his many accomplishments: he helped get the father of cyberspace online (wouldn't you love to be able to say that?), by setting up williamgibsonbooks.com, where Mr. Gibson still blogs with some regularity. Here's John's note on the books above:

There are two spinal eyes on my shelf, staring out at me.  They are the eyes of Rei Toei, the virtual star of IDORU.  All of William Gibson's novels intrigue me, but like most completists, I feel the need to select a "lesser" work as a favorite.  So - the three versions of that one, all present.  Fan boy, employee at his publisher, and the webmaster of www.williamgibsonbooks.com.  Lucky me.  Those other books showing up here? Some I like (Drown).  Some are signed by the author (Plan B).  Some I have absolutely no explanation for at all (Retribution).

--Tom

Hari Kunzru's Bookshelf: Researching the Revolution

Kunzru_bookshelf_2

I wrote last week about My Revolutions, Hari Kunzru's new novel, which is my January pick for our Significant Seven. And when poking around to learn more about him and the book, I came across his bare-bones home page, which features a larger version of the lovely bookshelf photo above, filled with what must have been his research materials for My Revolutions. I'm always fascinated by the process of research in writing fiction (how much to do it, when to stop and let imagination take over, etc.), but I nearly always despise those lengthy acknowledgments that often appear these days at the end (or worse, the beginning) of novels, explaining all the research materials used and thanking all those involved. It breaks the spell of the tale. My Revolutions does include such a note at the end, but it's written with some style and manages to still leave a great deal of mystery, so I didn't mind it. But even better is to see this jumbled shelf, raw and unexplained, as a hint of the sourcework that went into the story: the mystery of creation is for me not only retained, but deepened. And so in the spirit of the Omnivoracious annotated bookshelf, a partial listing of the books I can find in the photo (a treasure trove of Leftist theory and Sixties history) appears after the jump. --Tom

Continue reading "Hari Kunzru's Bookshelf: Researching the Revolution" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • William Logan on A Treatise of Civil Power by Geoffrey Hill: "It’s dangerous for a poet to believe that gloom is the precondition for seriousness. If poetry for Hill is a 'mode of moral life' ('charred prayers / spiralling godwards on intense thermals'), the evidence here lies more in design than example — the morals are in lieu of, not on behalf. Poetry provides a moral life the way that standing on a pillar in the desert provides salvation — fine if you have a pillar, and a desert, and a terrific sense of balance; and if not, not."
  • Ann Hodgman on The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories by Max Apple: "One of the pleasures of this book is that Apple makes you feel he knows everything about everything — or at least everything you know nothing about: shot-putting, running a liquor store or a car-salvage operation, Chinese gymnastics, what it’s like to try to sell 600,000 plastic laser swords. Nothing about the Upper East Side! Nothing about rich suburbs or the entertainment industry! Thank you, Mr. Apple!"
  • Maslin on Duma Key by Stephen King: "Given this combination of author and setting, it’s inevitable that something terribly undead will show up before the book is over. But Mr. King’s use of horror is not what it used to be. It may still be the impetus for his stories, but it is no longer the foremost reason they’re interesting. Sure, he can still use supernatural effects to scare the wits out of you. But lately he also shows off other interests. In the wake of the 1999 roadside accident that permanently altered his consciousness, he has turned the evanescence of health and sanity into his books’ most disturbing source of fear."
  • Maslin on Against the Machine by Lee Siegel: "Though Mr. Siegel is hardly the first observer to deem this a sinister side of Internet culture, he turns out to be an impressively tough, cogent and furious one. His diatribe would bring to mind the prescient haranguing style of Pauline Kael, even if Mr. Siegel, who does not treat his own reputation lightly, were not trumpeting the phrase 'Pauline Kael of the Internet' himself."

Washington Post:

  • John Burdett on Beautiful Children by Charles Bock: "Las Vegas is the expression, in glitter and concrete, of America's brittle and mutating id. This is not the argument of Charles Bock's exceptional Beautiful Children, so much as the starting point from which he explores the survival strategies -- usually doomed -- of the citizen-mutants themselves. He proves an expert guide, being a native of the city with an encyclopedic knowledge of every perverted nook and narcissistic cranny. His ability to share a deep understanding of America's million or so lost street kids and their tormented parents gives the book a whiff of greatness."
  • Mr. Jeff VanderMeer on Laura Warholic by Alexander Theroux: "It soon becomes clear that Theroux is using his amazing powers of grotesquery and caricature to make almost everyone look morally, ethically and intellectually ugly. As a result, the reader's delight at Theroux's descriptive powers quickly changes to disgust at the unrelenting brutishness of these characters, and that disgust, finally, is transformed into boredom as the barrage of details and constant repetitions begin to seem not only gratuitous but insulting to the reader."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Donna Seaman on The Jewish Messiah by Arnon Grunberg: "Grunberg has as much talent as chutzpah and, beneath the absurdist vamping, a longing for justice, integrity and hope. With more books in line to be translated into English and more in the works, Grunberg, nearly past the bad-boy phase, will remain a caustic, goading and vital literary force if, as seems likely, he moves beyond puerile shock tactics and creates books of deeper resonance and more profound empathy."

Globe & Mail:

The Guardian:

  • Ursula K. LeGuin on People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks: "Full of action but with no leavening of humour, no psychological revelations, no vivid language to focus description, the chapters grind on. Most unhappily for a historical novel, there is little sensitivity to the local colour of thought and emotion, that openness to human difference which brings the past alive."

The New Yorker:

  • Jill Lepore on The Way to Wealth by Benjamin Franklin: "This year marks the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of 'The Way to Wealth,' among the most famous pieces of American writing ever, and one of the most willfully misunderstood. A lay sermon about how industry begets riches (No Gains, without Pains), 'The Way to Wealth' has been taken for Benjamin Franklin’s—and even America’s—creed, and there’s a line or two of truth in that, but not a whole page. 'The Way to Wealth' is also a parody, stitched and bound between the covers of a sham."

--Tom

New on Amazon Wire: Madeleine Albright

Wire_logo Albright_madeleine In this week's episode of Amazon Wire, I got the chance to talk to Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Bill Clinton and bestselling author ever since (Madam Secretary, her memoir, and The Mighty and the Almighty both did very well). Her new book is called Memo to the President Elect, and it is just that: a book of advice to the incoming president, whoever he or she is and whatever party he or she is from, about the subject Albright knows best: foreign policy. The first half of the book is full of practical recommendations for how to construct an administration and how to lead, and the second tours the hot spots around the globe, with advice on how to proceed (among the most important of which is, you can't do everything).

Sound dry? It's not--Albright is a graceful and funny writer, both diplomatic and direct, and she covers a lot of ground quickly and clearly. I imagine the "night notes" she sent to the president (her confidential memos) were a pleasure to receive. And our conversation was one of the most enjoyable I've had for Wire. We spoke in part about the place America currently has in the world and what the next president can do about it, the importance of speaking to even your worst enemies, and, since we talked in December just after the revised National Intelligence Estimate about Iran was made public, about the difficulty of judging intelligence. And although in our talk (as in her book) she didn't discuss specific candidates, when I asked her about the big campaign question of experience, she made a strong case for the importance of having built personal relationships across the world already (and, implicitly, a case for the candidate she's supporting elsewhere, Hillary Clinton). You can listen to the Wire podcast on the page for her book, and find more podcasts in our archives. --Tom

Bobby Fischer, 1943-2008

Fischer_young_old_2 With the passing yesterday of Bobby Fischer, often recognized as the world's greatest chess player and one of its all-time eccentric, paranoid geniuses, I'd point you to the book I know best on the subject, Bobby Fischer Goes to War, by the team of David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Edmonds and Eidinow have carved out a wonderful niche for themselves of writing brainy and fun histories (Wittgenstein's Poker, Rousseau's Dog) that use a bizarre episode to open a window on an intellectual and cultural world (see the Grownup School list they selected for us on The Enlightenment), and for their second book they chose one of the weirdest and most compelling events in the 20th century, when the equally intricate game theories of the Cold War and international chess intersected in Reykjavik, Iceland, for the 1972 world championship chess match between Fischer and the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky. The drama and sheer nuttiness of that showdown can hardly be underestimated, and Edmonds and Eidinow do a sharp job of balancing the global public story with mundane and idiosyncratic personal details, especially those of life around a brilliant and demanding lunatic. My main memories of the book, in fact, are less of Fischer himself--as memorable as his talents and his behavior were--than of those around him, particularly the gentlemanly Spassky and the patient and forgiving Icelanders who befriended Fischer (and who were perhaps the reason he returned there to live before his death). --Tom

How To Write a Novel in Two Months (While Still Blogging)

It's sure a roundabout way to read about one of your fellow bloggers (although we do live in opposite corners of the country), but via BoingBoing and GalleyCat today I found our own Jeff VanderMeer's lessons-learned from his latest writing project, a commissioned Predator novel (not his usual gig), filed under How to Write a Novel in Two Months. (I should note that he thinks it turned out pretty well). Among my favorite pieces of his eminently practical advice (some learned on the fly, some the fruit of the years of novel-writing that led up to this full-on sprint):

Make sure you support your efforts with sound process decisions. Most of the time, I wrote new scenes in the mornings, revised existing scenes in the afternoons, and spent my evenings on line-edits and rewrites of individual paragraphs here and there. By structuring my time this way, I made better progress than if I’d just focused on doing new scenes all day until the novel was done. Because by the time I’d finished writing the new scenes, most everything up to that point had already then been through a second or even third revision.

Base at least some of your main characters on people you know and really like, BUT make sure they are not people you have spent a lot of time with. I know it sounds paradoxical, but it turned out to be a very effective way for me to generate depth of character, almost like having some of the work done for me, but not all of it. Let me explain. In the novel, there is a character named Horia Ursu, the same name as one of my Romanian editors. Horia is a dear, dear friend who I correspond with via email and who Ann and I have met twice. We have spent perhaps a total of seven days together. I feel very close to him, I admire him greatly, but I don’t know him in the way I know Eric Schaller, for example, who illustrated City of Saints & Madmen. I’ve known Eric for more than a decade and we’ve spent a lot more time together. I could never use “Eric Schaller” as a name to animate a character quickly because I know too many details about his life. With Horia, there is a space there, a lack of knowledge in certain ways, that allowed me to create a very entertaining character in the novel by riffing off of what I did know and then filling in and making up details.

Meanwhile, if you do a little research on Omni you'll see that Jeff hardly disappeared from these pages during the last two months--I'm not sure how he managed to squeeze us in, but glad he did... --Tom

Best of the Month

We've introduced, somewhat quietly, a newish feature on the Amazon books pages called Best of the Month. It's an expanded version of the Significant Seven, the monthly editors' picks we started last spring, with more of our favorites highlighted (in the Seven on the Side), former editors' picks now out in paperback, leaderboards for the bestsellers of the month so far, and a very quiet (so far) discussion board (maybe I should say something about Ron Paul there and get things rolling...). We're planning to add a lot more features to the page in coming months: more of our editors' recommendations, but also ways to feature the busiest and most helpful customer reviews and discussions alongside our own. If you have anything you'd like to see on that page, please let us know, either in the discussion board on the page, or right here. We'd like it to become a one-stop shop where you can quickly get a look at the best books being released right now, and the best customer discussion going on on the site now too.

052594932101_mzzzzzzz_ My pick for the Significant Seven this month was Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions.  I'll crib from my comments on the discussion board to say a little about why:

It wasn't the kind of book that I had in mind for months ahead of time (unlike, say, Richard Price's Lush Life, which has been a contender for next month for me since way back in the fall), but I put it in my vacation pile on a whim and it ended up being the one I got caught up in with great pleasure. That made curious my I hadn't heard more about it, since it had been out in the UK for months and Kunzru's first book, The Impressionist, made a giant splash over there. No awards shortlists, not much buzz for this one. And it's not a flashy book, unlike his others (apparently--this is the first of his I've read). But I just found it incredibly well made--nearly every scene and character given their individual, idiosyncratic due. It seems a very grownup book to me--Kunzru is willing to step back and do some old-fashioned realist storytelling and follow character and circumstance where they lead, even in the middle of a flashy tale-of-a-generation plot. It's the kind of story (60s radical reckons with past) that's been told a hundred times recently, but it seemed fresh and authentic to me.

It's not out yet in the US, but if anyone has seen an advance version or read it when it came out in the UK--or has read any of his other work--I'd love to hear what you think. I looked up the UK reviews for it: some thought it was too familiar a story, some felt like I did. David Mattin's rave in The Independent came the closest to my own thinking.

159420150101_mzzzzzzz_ 159448296901_mzzzzzzz_ Meanwhile, I also nominated two books for Seven on the Side: Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for the Day and David Goldblatt's The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer. Venkatesh is the sociologist profiled in one of the best-known chapters in Freakonomics (about the economics of crack dealing)--as a grad student at the University of Chicago, he began spending time at the Robert Taylor Homes, one of Chicago's giant housing projects that have since been leveled, much of it by the side of "JT," the local-leader of a crack-dealing gang called the Black Kings. He's written more academic books about his research into the urban underground economy (like last year's Off the Books), but this is a very non-academic memoir of his seven years of research, and all the political and personal complications it caused. It's in many ways a Chicago version of the Baltimore stories in The Wire, except that Venkatesh comes across as wide-eyed and almost willfully naive compared to David Simon's proud cynicism. (It's as if Det. Pryzbylewski went into academia.)

The Ball Is Round, meanwhile, is a gigantic and fascinating history of a subject that deserves (but has never gotten) such a thing. I expect to be posting a Q&A with the author here before too long, so I'll save further commentary until then.

January was a good month for books, but I think February is looking even better. I'm taking home an armload of candidates for the next Best of the Month tonight: we'll see... --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Jeffrey Rosen on Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis: "In the 21st century, the heroic First Amendment tradition may seem like a noble vision from a distant era, in which heroes and villains were easier to identify. But that doesn’t diminish the inspiring achievements of First Amendment heroism. Conservative as well as liberal judges now agree that even speech we hate must be protected, and that is one of the glories of the American constitutional tradition. Anthony Lewis is right to celebrate it."
  • Sylvia Brownrigg on Darkmans by Nicola Barker: "But to suggest that this dazzling, complex novel has anything quite as conventional as a plot would be misleading. There are plenty of mysteries — Who hung a bell on Beede’s cat? How did Beede come to be almost £40,000 in debt? Why was Kane’s car dented by a dead bird, frozen solid? — but Barker enjoys the journey of her storytelling too much to worry about when she’ll arrive at her destination. So great are her humor, wit and erudition that she’s able to charm us into sharing her tolerance of uncertainty and confusion."
  • Charles Taylor on Sway by Zachary Lazar: "Lazar has taken territory, the 60s, where the individual blades of grass have long been trampled into the mud by legions of literary, sociological and critical boots, and found something new. What he evokes is unlikely to please either those who condemn the decade as a body blow to decency and authority, or those who celebrate it as a trippy carnival of raised consciousness and experimentation. Lazar’s is a book that has no time for preconceived ideas, that tells the reader exactly the things likely to disturb any cozy notions. He’s a bad-news bear and thus the most valuable kind of cultural commentator."
  • Judith Warner on The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller: "I somehow feel that if I were a right-on woman, I would identify deeply with Miller’s hurting, bleeding, lactating heroines and greet her sensuous descriptions of fruit and soft rain with a great sigh of satisfaction. But I’m not and I don’t. For me, the world of her lushly invoked senses seems intensely claustrophobic, as precious and cloying as a purple-painted, patchouli-scented room."

Washington Post:

Los Angeles Times:

  • Jesse Cohen on Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin: "Those head bones were to evolve in all sorts of interesting ways. Some of the jawbones of fish and reptiles became, in humans, the bones within our ears that allow us to process sound across a range of frequencies. This repurposing has its downside, however. Nerves that extend from facial muscles to our brain take complicated paths -- paths that reflect primitive skeletal placement. ...  'We can dress up a fish only so much without paying a price,' Shubin writes. We choke, succumb to hiccups, develop hemorrhoids and hernias and fall prey to heart disease all because our bodies are spruced-up versions of primitive models, and the kludges and patches that have developed over millions of years of evolution, like all kludges and patches, inevitably break down."

Globe & Mail:

  • Gale Zoe Garnett on The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley: "Reading the letters of the Mitford sisters is like living inside a vibrantly written, erudite and witty Masterpiece Theater series about six extraordinary (or, to use a Mitfordian word, extraorder) Englishwomen.... If all their epistolary exchanges had been included, we would have had more than four million words. And I would have spent much of the rest of my life reading them, because, with this enormous book, I have entered Mitfordland and connected to its people."

Times Literary Supplement:

  • Jonathan Keates on A Quiet Adjustment by Benjamin Markovits (not yet available in the US): "Throughout Benjamin Markovits’s consummately successful realization of the most controversial protagonist in the Byronic drama, apart from its hero, he never loosens his control of stylistic resources or relaxes his often chilling scrutiny of the motives and aspirations governing the Regency caste to which both Byrons belonged. A Quiet Adjustment achieves authenticity through the refinement of its emotional discourse rather than set-dressing period details. Such artistry allows us to read it as both a resonantly modern novel and as a fiction whose truth has been stifled for almost 200 years."

The New Yorker:

--Tom

Start Putting on the Stickers: Caldecotts, Newberys, etc.

076361578101_mzzzzzzz_ 043981378601_mzzzzzzz_ The Golden Globes and the National Book Critics Circle nominees weren't the only award news this weekend: the American Library Association also announced the big ones in kids' books: the Newbery and Caldecott medals, which carry a guarantee of immortality not even the major grownup awards can offer. It's remarkable how aware my 8-year-old is of what those shiny stickers mean. And he'll be happy to hear that one of his favorite books last year, The Invention of Hugo Cabret ("The longest book I've ever read!" he'll tell you), is going to get a gold seal of its own. Here are the Medalists (the winners) and the Honor Books (the runners-up) for the Caldecott and Newbery as well as the winners of the other ALA awards:

Newbery (for "most outstanding contribution to children's literature"):

Caldecott ("the most distinguished American picture book for children")

Michael L. Printz Award for Teen Literature:

Coretta Scott King Awards ("recognizing African American authors and illustrators of outstanding books for children and young adults"):

Mildred L. Batchelder Award ("outstanding children's book translated from a foreign language")

Pura Belpre Awards ("to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children"):

Theodore Seuss Geisel Award ("the most distinguished American book for beginning readers")

Odyssey Award ("the best audiobook produced for children or young adults"--the first time it's been awarded):

  • Jazz by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher Myers, produced by Arnie Cardillo

Sibert Medal ("the most distinguised informational book for children"):

And always one of best ideas for a prize list: the Alex Awards ("the 10 best adult books that appeal to teen audiences"):

See previous winners of many of the ALA awards on our Award Winners page. --Tom