Not too long ago, on a book finding expedition, I found a whole cache of old Granta magazines. Granta is very cool journal devoted to both short fiction and on the ground reporting of international conflicts and events. It attracts fantastic writers who tend to be relatively unknown to Americans, and so it tends to deliver angles on stories that you don’t see in the American press. Case in point: the other day I was, briefly, between books, and I picked up one of the old Grantas that I have lying around (this one was Autumn 1989). One of the stories I read was a first hand account of the Tiananmen Square massacre by a BBC journalist named John Simpson. I have always found first-hand accounts of these sorts of events to be the most fascinating type of news reporting. (The best I read this year were John Lee Anderson’s “Letters From Baghdad” in the New Yorker.) Simpson’s story on Tiananmen Square was both enthralling and terrifying, he captures a brutality that most of the Western world did not see. Immediately after I finished the article I wondered: is this piece in a book somewhere and has this guy written anything else like this? This answer to both questions is yes. Simpson’s World: Tales from a Veteran War Correspondent came out in August and it’s filled with close encounters with dictators and on the scene dispatches from all the major world conflicts from the last couple of decades.
Michael Chabon has announced a release date for his next novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, April 11, 2006. As some of you may recall, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union is set in a parallel world in which the Jewish homeland was set up in Alaska rather than Israel, something that president Franklin D. Roosevelt considered during World War II."Also recently posted: cryptic word of a film version of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (recently rereleased with a new cover.) Since Chabon is revealing only the initials of those invloved with the film, it's unclear what exactly is going on. Is it me, or is Chabon getting weirder and weirder? If anyone knows who he's talking about here, please let us know.Previously: What Chabon's been up toUpdate: Kyle in the comments was right, Chabon has updated his post about The Mysteries of Pittsburgh film: "to be written and directed by Rawson Thurber, writer/director of the commercially successful and highly amusing Dodgeball (2004)."Update 2: The Yiddish Policemen's Union has been postponed.Update 3: The Yiddish Policemen's Union will be out in May 2007. pre-order now.
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Jonathan Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion, was about a mysterious outbreak of earthquakes in Massachusetts. The novel’s heroine, seismologist Reneé Seitcheck, discovers that these earthquakes are the byproduct of industrial drilling. The responsible party is a petrochemical firm whose agents attempt to assassinate Seitcheck after she proves that the company’s practice of injecting toxic waste into the ground is the cause of the bizarre quakes. Something oddly similar might be happening in Oklahoma (which, like Massachusetts, is not your traditional hotbed of seismic activity). This past Saturday, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck the tiny town of Sparks in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. The quake was one of the largest ever recorded in the state’s history, and another example of the sharp increase in seismic activity Oklahoma has experienced in recent years. Up through 2009, Oklahoma had averaged about fifty earthquakes a year. The total number of quakes reported in 2010? 1,047. This swift and dramatic change in Oklahoma’s vulnerability to earthquakes has some people wondering if the practice of hydraulic fracturing -- or “fracking” -- might be the culprit. Fracking is the process of injecting highly-pressurized fluids into the earth to break up shale and rock and release otherwise inaccessible sources of natural gas. The waste fluid is then shot back underground at sites called “injection wells.” There are 181 active injection wells in Lincoln County Oklahoma. Energy companies deny that fracking causes earthquakes, and seismologist Austin Holland at the Oklahoma Geological Survey told the Associated Press there’s no reason -- at this point -- to blame these quakes on anything other than normal seismic activity. However, Mr. Holland has studied this question before, and his findings were quite a bit more troubling -- even if his way of putting them was transparently cautious. In a paper entitled “Examination of Possibly Induced Seismicity from Hydraulic Fracturing in the Eola Field, Garvin County, Oklahoma” (available here), Mr. Holland said: The strong spatial and temporal correlations to the hydraulic-fracturing in Picket Unit B Well 4-18 [located in Garvin County Oklahoma] certainly suggest that the earthquakes observed in the Eola Field [also in Garvin County Oklahoma] could have possibly been triggered by this activity. In that same paper, Mr. Holland admitted an important proximity in time between fracking and episodes of unusual seismicity, noted that the epicenters of the Garvin County earthquakes were within five kilometers of the injection wells, and that the earthquakes occurred at, or near, the associated injection depths. Mr. Holland’s conclusion, however, was basically, “Still -- we can’t say for sure that fracking causes earthquakes.” More troubling by far, though, is Mr. Holland’s weird epilogue, in which he agrees that studying the relationship between fracking and earthquakes might have one useful outcome: “It may also be possible to identify what criteria may affect the likelihood of anthropogenically induced earthquakes and provide oil and gas operators the ability to minimize any adverse effects[.]” Perhaps I got lost in Mr. Holland’s grammar, but aren’t the earthquakes the adverse effects we’re talking about here? If a scientist has shown that fracking causes earthquakes, hasn’t he or she already demonstrated the adverse effects of fracking -- namely, that it causes earthquakes? What minimization could he be talking about? Can you stop an earthquake once you’ve started it? Can it be hampered? Can it be softened? Or are we to understand that oil companies will pay to reinforce homes and repair damaged properties, foot medical costs, and make right any wrongful deaths? Because they obviously aren’t going to stop fracking -- even if they believe it causes earthquakes. We know this to be true, because at least one energy company wholeheartedly agrees that fracking causes earthquakes -- and they’ve decided to keep doing it anyway. Cuadrilla Resources, a British company, has admitted it’s “highly probable” their fracking operation caused a series of small tremors in Lancashire, England (read the press release here). Cuadrilla hopes to get right back to fracking, though, after implementation of an “early detection system” that will serve to minimize the seismic impact of their operations. I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would discover that my actions had caused an earthquake. But I think if I did, my next move would probably be to stop doing whatever it was I was doing -- not to figure out a way to live with the earthquakes. Because if energy companies actually believe that fracking causes earthquakes -- and if they continue to frack -- where does it end? If a company learned that fracking was responsible for international terrorism, would they stop? If they learned that fracking caused blindness in little orphan baby girls, would they care? If the sudden and contemporaneous deaths of all first-born male children within a hundred-mile radius of the Lincoln County injection sites was conclusively linked to fracking, would the drilling companies even slow down? And if not, would anyone in power stand up to stop them? In Strong Motion, Franzen uses the language of earthquakes to describe forceful love. “Strong motion” is, in fact, a geological term for the powerful turbulence that occurs near the epicenter of a quake. It’s a good metaphor, with deep roots. Love is a force of biological authority, after all, and we humans are just bits of dust and dirt and stone that have managed over millions of years to stand up, to think, to mate and bear children, and to find ways to protect what we love. I live in Oklahoma, with my wife and two sons. Monday night we felt another earthquake. I was lying on our bed, holding my youngest boy -- he’ll turn two years old next month -- when the shaking began.
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Still in the throes of controversy surrounding James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, Oprah has selected Elie Wiesel's memoir Night as the next selection for her book club. While this selection was no doubt in the works long before the Frey controversy, the juxtaposition is still remarkable. Frey's confessional, sensationalized addiction memoir, the credibility of which seems to crumble further with every passing day, looks awfully silly next to the beloved memoir of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor whose character is unassailable as far as I know. In the New York Times, Wiesel says he hasn't read Frey's book (big surprise), but then goes on to make some comments that seem to me to be directed at Frey's fast and loose treatment of the truth (emphasis mine):He acknowledged that some people and institutions, including on occasion The New York Times, have referred to Night as a novel, "mainly because of its literary style.""But it is not a novel at all," he said. "I know the difference," he added, noting that Night is the first of his 47 books, several of which are novels. "I make a distinction between what I lived through and what I imagined others to have lived through."As it is a memoir, he said, "my experiences in the book - A to Z - must be true." He continued: "All the people I describe were with me there. I object angrily if someone mentions it as a novel."Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Amazon is changing the classification of Night from fiction to memoir. As of this writing, Night is number one on Amazon, bumping Pieces to number two.
I spotted this essay by James Wood in the Guardian about endings that disappoint. I agree that there is hardly anything more disheartening than a novel that just peters out at the end. To me reading a book is like making an investment. You put in the time, and at the end you hope to walk away with some pleasure. A bad ending screws up the whole arrangement. I tried to think of some really good endings and off the top of my head I came up with a couple. In terms of paying off on an investment, one of my favorites is John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. The "a ha!" moment is almost too perfect but Irving has set it up so well that you can't help but believe it. Another great ending that comes to mind is John Steinbeck's East of Eden. After such a long journey, one almost expects the book to run out of steam, but Steinbeck magnificently collects everything together at the end and sends you out of the book with real emotional force. When I read the last words of that book and put it down, I said to myself, "Wow, that was worth it."