The emergence of the New York Review of Books publishing arm has been a treasure. They have managed, with this line of books, to package the feeling of falling suddenly in love with a book that you only even opened on a whim, perhaps being drawn in by an intriguing cover or title. They have hand selected the most deserving of the unknown and the out of print and returned them to bookshelves. Among the hundred or so titles that they have put out in their four or fve years is the book that I will keep mentioning until everyone on the planet has read it: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. Thanks to the Book Expo’s being in town this weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to Edwin Frank the editor of the New York Review of Books series. We discussed Maqroll at length, of course, trading theories as to whether or not the Gaviero will appear in print again, or whether it is up to us readers to track down his further adventures on our own. (Read the book; you’ll understand). We also talked about uncovering lost treasures in used bookstores, at good will, and at sidewalk book stalls. We also discussed several of the other titles in the series. When I asked him for the hidden gem among the hidden gems, he passed this title my way: To Each His Own, a Sicilian mystery by Leonardo Sciascia. He rated this one among the very best of the series, and since he’s the one who picks the books, I can’t help but trust him.
Gogol’s The Overcoat and Flaubert’s A Simple Heart have in common narrators who are, at least initially, satisfied with what I think many would consider very meager lives. They are both poor, single, friendless, both workers whose work (a clerk who copies documents in a Russian government office, and a maid of all work in a French bourgeois household) does not seem particularly meaningful or interesting. And yet they are both content. Deeply content: “After working to his heart’s content, he would go to bed, smiling at the thought of the next day and wondering what God would send him to copy. So flowed on the peaceful life of a man who knew how to be content with his fate.” This is Gogol describing his hero, but the description easily applies to Flaubert’s Felicité.Teaching these stories this week, I was not surprised exactly, but bemused, by the various shades of contempt my students showed toward these characters’ lives – By and large, they found Akaky and Felicité sad, pathetic, depressing. These brightest of the bright seemed to view with horror the notion of being satisfied with so little, with such colorless, pleasureless lives. And who can blame them, when their own lives have already delivered so much more?Hobbes wrote, “For as to have no desire, is to be Dead.” And I can see that the sort of lean, desire-less lives that Flaubert and Gogol’s heroes live are a sort of death-in-life. But I also envy their contentment. Contentment – the state of having all you want – is so rare. The peacefulness of such a state seems incomprehensible to me and somewhat otherworldly. It also seems that the possession of such a state erases, for the possessor at least, what appears from the outside to be small and sad life. (“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” as Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)A final note on these questions, in the form of an anecdote: Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived by choice as a beggar and rejected all concepts of property, manners, and social and political organization, was visited one day by Alexander the Great. Diogenes was sunning himself on a hillside as Alexander approached and when Alexander asked if there was anything he could offer the philosopher, Diogenes replied: “Stand out of my sunlight.” According to Plutarch, Alexander then declared: “If I was not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”
I’m hearing from reliable sources that Bunker 13 by Aniruddha Bahal is a wild thriller with an ending that is not to be believed. It takes place at the India / Pakistan border in the disputed region of Kahmir, so it also includes a good dose of the wider world for folks who are into that sort of thing. Also, Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, stopped in today and as he was signing his book, he mentioned that he will spend the next few months writing his sophomore effort in Italy. It is tentatively titled Absurdistan. Sounds interesting…. First took notice of Shteyngart in the New Yorker (he has contributed fiction and essays), and his book was very well recieved. He also has a great author photo, which I unfortunately can’t find on the web anywhere.
As the baseball season gets underway, it looks like this summer’s big off-the-field story will be steroid use. (More serious allegations are beginning to surface as the San Francisco Chronicle reports that federal investigators were told Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield all received performance enhancing drugs from a lab that is currently under investigation.) But last year’s story, the fallout from Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, still has legs. The March 1st issue of Sports Illustrated (on newsstands last week) contains a vociferous epilogue to Moneyball in which Lewis catalogs some of the more outrageous responses that his book received from baseball insiders. He takes to task particularly egregious offenders, like Joe Morgan, for continuing to dismiss the book out of hand. It’s a must read for anyone who was swept up in last summer’s Moneyball furor.
Fresh off of shilling the latest feel good tome from Mitch Albom in its thousands of locations, Starbucks has taken a more serious turn with its follow up selection. Soon to appear at the many Starbucks undoubtedly near you is a memoir by a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. According to the AP’s Hillel Italie, Starbucks sold nearly 100,000 copies of Albom’s book, meaning that this selection represents a huge windfall for both Beah and his publisher FSG.Interestingly, the book’s selection continues a mini-trend in the popularity of books about or based on the tragic lives of child soldiers in Africa, including Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and What is the What by Dave Eggers (reviewed recently by Garth). Starbucks is also, of course, part of the larger trend, several years old now, whereby entities outside of the book industry bestow bestseller status upon a book, and publishers and authors all wrangle to, in effect, win the lottery. At least in this case the lottery is being won by an unknown rather than an overexposed bestselling author like Albom. Meanwhile, the ultimate king-maker, Oprah, will later this month be making her first new book club selection in more than a year.