In what must be a first, a literary author is being praised for her fashion sense. Zadie Smith has been named one of Britain’s top 10 “fashion icons” by Harpers & Queen magazine. Here’s a look at Smith in some of those stylish duds.
First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, "a loner who reads the mail before delivering it." Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon's paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I've thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter's latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter's latest is thoughtful, reflective and "quietly triumphant." Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
● ● ●
I have a Bloglines account. Since you're reading this blog, you probably know what I'm talking about, but in case you don't, I'll explain. Bloglines takes all the blogs and websites you read everyday and bundles them together in one place, so you can check them without getting repetitive stress disorder from your web browser. Bloglines is like the newspaper of stuff I care about. There is no real estate section in my paper, no classifieds, only sports, food, the occasional political rant, and then an extensive cultural section that includes the blog you're reading now, and more than a few others that cover film, music and celebrity gossip (the lifeblood of the modern news media).For the last couple of months, my "newspaper" has included a metro section, and that section has been dominated by the Homicide Report, written by Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy. The Homicide Report is a straightforward, factual account of every homicide in Los Angeles County. It runs five days a week. Most of the homicides only a get a line or two, a simple description of the facts, under a stark and pointed headline ("Man shot working on a car"; "Teacher Found Killed"), but more importantly, whenever possible, the identity of the victim is revealed. For most homicides, this is a few lines more recognition than they would get in the Los Angeles Times or in any newspaper, for that matter. As Leovy says, "The media often covers homicide as a statistic story, marking up-and-down jags in the rates." In an interview with the blog LA Observed (another of my daily reads) she explains some of her motivation for starting the blog:"At the very least, seeing all the homicides arrayed in a list like this will give readers a much more real view of who is dying, and how often. And for me, it means no longer having to confront weeping mothers who say their sons' deaths were never covered by the press."It seems fitting that LA would lead the way with a blog about murder (Note: other cities have followed suit; just this week the Houston Chronicle launched its own homicide blog (via bloghouston.net)). After all, this is the city of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler, of Michael Connelly and Joseph Wambaugh, of Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. Crime is woven into the fabric of the city and its culture in a way that doesn't seem to be the case in the other American cities (except maybe Baltimore). While the classic noirists and the masters of the procedural used crime in the city to tell stories of the evil that lurked within it, the Homicide Report seems determined to tell of the innocence, as well. It remains to be seen what effect the blog will have on crime rates, if any, but it already raises my awareness on a daily basis.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Nobel Laureate with a decent claim to the mantle of "greatest living writer," has a new book out this week called Memories of My Melancholy Whores. It's been out in the Spanish-speaking world for a year, so most folks have heard what this slim volume is about: according to the Times Online: "a respected journalist, breaking the rules of a lifetime to fall madly, anarchically, transgressively in love with a 14-year-old girl on the eve of his 90th birthday." The review goes on to say, "There is not in this slender book one stale sentence, redundant word or unfinished thought." But Tania Mejer in the Boston Herald writes, "To call Gabriel Garcia Marquez's latest effort disturbing is an understatement," and later, "every time I reflect on the story, I can't help but think how unsettling it is." In fact, the reviews across the board seem torn over this book - is it yet another transcendent example of Marquez's writing or is it creepy? Luckily the Complete Review is keeping score and gives this one a B+. See Also: The Marquez scoop and an early look. Update: Here's the glowing review in the Chicago Tribune that Pete mentioned in the comments. Amazing the disparate reactions to this book.23-year-old Uzodinma Iweala started his debut novel, Beasts of No Nation in high school after reading an article about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. The novel is told in the pidgin voice of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. Iweala, who is American-born but has Nigerian roots, is already receiving plaudits from some big names. In an interview with MoorishGirl, Salman Rushdie named it "book he most enjoyed reading recently," and Ali Smith in a review at the Guardian described the book as "a novel so scorched by loss and anger that it's hard to hold and so gripping in its sheer hopeless lifeforce that it's hard to put down."
● ● ●
I switched gears with Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which describes the author's travels through the South upon his return to the United States. Miller was very disgruntled when he returned to New York from Paris. He thought the outlook of the community was narrow, the morals corrupt, and the industrial greed an instrument of spiritual death. Hence, he embarked on a drive that took him down south and west to California, a trip during which he marvels at how the rural, farming South kept its soul and culture and did not succumb to the machines and skyscrapers of the North. It is an interesting account, a praise for the warm, hospitable South, and a big outburst at, and a rejection of, what the North offers. An Air Conditioned Nightmare is entertaining and deep, filled with interesting characters and encounters along the way, and depressing with regards to the industrial monster of a picture Miller paints regarding the United States.At this time, I felt the urge for a break and picked up J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories. The genius of Salinger is probably unparalleled and Nine Stories is a good testimony to it. The bizarre stories and intricate web of characters leaves the reader dazzled at the end of the 6 hours in which you fly through the pages. Nine Stories is a great collection that you can keep in your bathroom, on your coffee table or on the bedside table, and pick at any random moment for instant joy. Nine Stories put me in such a good mood that I decided to give Italo Calvino, whose Invisible Cities I read under undesirable circumstances and did not enjoy much, a second try. The novel was The Baron in the Trees. The book is one of Calvino's earlier novels and is heavily influenced by his studies of Italian folk literature. The rebellion of the heir baron to his family's strict rules places him on top of a tree, which he refuses to leave. From these circumstances a character is born who is at first considered a lunatic and then a hero, who fights fires and supports Napoleon's troops, lectures the town on citizenship, falls in love with a duchess, and meets other people who are exiled to tree tops by the Spanish church. A marvelous story, with great wit and imagination, and all the characteristics of love, chivalry, betrayal, family ties, dilemmas and unreal circumstances found in the favorite tales of childhood. A very happy book indeed.
Last week, online used book retailer Alibris announced a new program called Alibris Basic targeting "small and moderate booksellers," i.e. non-professionals. The program appears to differ from Alibris' main offering in terms of pricing:You can list up to 1,000 items for sale, and you only pay $1 plus a small commission for each one that you sell. If you don't sell anything, you don't pay anything except the annual subscription charge of $19.99.This compares to the flat monthly fee (plus commissions) that larger scale booksellers are required to pay. For folks who have a lot of collectible books, the Alibris program is probably worth checking out, as the site specializes in this sort of inventory. As much as Alibris would like people to list all of their books for sale, however, there are better options for readers who are looking to unload their old non-collectible books.Amazon lets you very easily list your books for sale in just a couple of steps through their "Sell Your Stuff" page. Amazon charges 99 cents plus a 15% commission on the books you sell. The main upside of going with Amazon, as I see it, is that it probably has the widest reach of all the bookselling programs out there.Still, creating and managing listings for dozens of different books can be time consuming, and one must also deal with shipping off books that get sold to various individual buyers. If this sounds like a pain, then Barnes & Noble's book buying program might be a better bet. You need only enter the book's ISBN to get started. B&N will tell you if it's buying that title and how much it'll pay. After you've entered your books into the system, you print out an invoice and shipping label that allows you to send the books off to B&N for free. A few weeks later you get a check in the mail. I've tried B&N's program, and I found it remarkably simple. You may not be getting the best price for your books, but it's a lot easier than the other options. The main drawback I found is that B&N is somewhat limited in the books it is willing to buy. Textbooks are the best bet, and it's a good way to try to unload any older ones you might have lying around.Beyond the above programs, there's always eBay, which in the realm of non-collectible books is more trouble than it's worth (though I have had luck putting up a few dozen books at once, charging $1 a piece to start, and cross-promoting across all my other listings as a "$1 book sale.") And then there's the local used book shop. Buying policies at these stores vary greatly, but some pay well - and often much better if you're willing to get paid in store credit. Of course, these "trade in" policies are how many of us ended up with such big collections of books in the first place.Feel free to share any basement bookselling tips in the comments.
Given the endless recent discussion of newspapers’ demise—a five percent circulation drop since March was just announced—comparatively little mind has been paid to the death of the comic strip. This may be because the comics have been rotting away for years, as useless as classifieds. With a few exceptions, characters are stale, situations dull, and jokes hopelessly flaccid. Once the playground of McCay, Gross, and Kelly, the funny pages aren’t much fun, or all that interesting. If this form of humor leaves us, conventional wisdom says, it’s been plodding towards the exit for years. And anything that kills The Lockhorns might not be so bad. Though I love the comics deeply, I’ve come to accept their fate. Or, rather, I did—until I began to follow the work of cartoonist Richard Thompson. If one strip might serve as an argument against the decline, it’s his terrific Cul de Sac—recently collected in Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garland of Classics. The comic is vibrant, warm, and beautifully drawn; unlike its staggering peers, it’s outrageously alive. Cul de Sac is proof that the medium has juice, even as it dwindles. This unintended subtext adds a layer of poignancy: this wonderful creation was born at a terrible time. In 2007, Cul de Sac spread to the dailies from the Washington Post Magazine. I’m not sure how I found it—my city’s paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, reserves its space for Hägar the Horrible and Rex Morgan, M.D.—but I’ve come to read it each day on the Web. The story is simple enough: a group of children plays games, attends preschool, and finds adults confusing. Their parents are baffled and thwarted; a teenager stews in his room. There’s an eccentric teacher and a pompous guinea pig. And that is pretty much it. Yet like the great kids’ titles—Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, even Little Orphan Annie—Cul de Sac draws strength from realism, facing its characters’ fears. In one early strip, the four-year-old Alice Otterloop spends Thanksgiving at her grandmother’s house. When a friend inquires about it, she describes a gravy spill which led her “to take a bath in Grandma’s scary bathtub. I still smell like her crabapple-lye shampoo.” Her friend’s response as the two walk away: “My grandma smells like the bingo hall.” It is sad and bewildering and true. And as with Peanuts, such dialogue seems funnier in retrospect—we glean the cuter parts and toss away the rest. It’s only upon reading these strips that we recall their characters’ troubles—and those of our younger selves. This underpinning adds heft, and makes sweeter episodes—Snoopy cavorting with Woodstock; Calvin and Hobbes sipping cocoa; Alice talking to bees—feel earned, not saccharine. In a more recent Cul de Sac, Alice sits in bed, grumpy as all hell: “Ooh, I can feel it. I’m going to have a major tantrum today. I can feel the pressure building.” Her mother bursts in, oblivious, telling her to come for breakfast—waffles with whipped cream and strawberries! In a lesser comic—Hi and Lois or Blondie—the kicker is obvious: “Maybe today won’t be so rotten after all!” Instead, we get this: Alice, teeth clenched, seething, “Oh, it’s going to be a bad day…” A friend of mine dismisses Cul de Sac’s humor as deriving from “kids saying grown-up things.” I don’t know that he’s wrong. But when a writer presents his characters in all of their dimensions, such concerns seem secondary. In a 2008 interview with The Comics Reporter, Thompson said, “I didn’t want the strip to be about the zany antics of those little dickens, Alice and Petey. I wanted it to be about the kinda gently surreal parts of childhood, where the kids don’t know what’s going on or how things work, and maybe the adults don’t either. The mom and dad are good parents but not great parents.” Being able to “get it right” this way is rare, regardless of genre or form. That alone makes Cul de Sac worthy. We can only hope that, as there once was for Watterson, Schulz, and the rest, there will be a medium to support Thompson’s gift long into the future.
A row (as they say over there) has erupted over the filming of a movie based on Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane, spurring protests and threats of a book burning. The anger has arisen from the portrayal of Bangladeshis in the book. So far a number of notable authors have come out in support of Ali, including Salman Rushdie, Hari Kunzru and Lisa Appignanesi, as discussed in the Guardian. Now a few weeks old, the dispute is sparking secondary disputes amongst the British literati, who are taking sides. The Independent goes into detail about how "Rushdie has launched an outspoken attack on fellow literary heavyweight Germaine Greer."
● ● ●