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.
Millions contributor Rodger Jacobs is continuing his efforts to get a street in Los Angeles named after F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now, he’s put together a short story competition to further commemorate the author. Here’s the release:The film production and web publishing company responsible for the petition drive to name the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Hayworth Avenue in honor of the late F. Scott Fitzgerald has announced a short fiction competition to further commemorate the author on the sixty-fifth anniversary of his passing. At the time of his demise on December 21, 1940, the celebrated author of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night was living at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue in the home of gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Rodger Jacobs, President of 8763 Wonderland Ltd., is requesting works of original fiction of no more than four hundred words on the subject of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last days in Hollywood. “The stories can deal with Scott directly or indirectly,” says Jacobs, “just as long as they somehow address F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood.” Entries will be judged on originality and overall style. Prizes will be announced “sometime in the near future.” The deadline for short fiction entries is August 1, 2005. Entries may be e-mailed to [email protected] There is no fee for entrants, though Pay Pal donations are suggested to help defray costs involved in mounting the continuing petition drive. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Memorial Petition can be viewed and electronically signed here.
A couple of weeks ago I started a new job doing internet marketing for Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA. At about the same time, the president of Vroman’s, Allison Hill, left for the Beijing Book Fair as part of a delegation of American and British booksellers. Considering it took place on the other side of the globe, the Beijing Book Fair has generated a fair amount of heat here in the US. Among the other American delegates, Karl Pohrt, from Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, MI, blogged about the fair for three percent, a blog about international literature from the University of Rochester. Yet another of the delegates, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company blogged about the experience for Publishers Weekly.Allison isn’t quite as bloggy as her compatriots, but she did sit down with me for a conversation about Beijing once she got back. Among the most interesting nuggets:One store we went to, the owner asked how we make do with a staff of only 120 or so people. His store employs 500 people. When I saw the store, I understood why. It was 355,000 square feet! I asked about the buying strategy, and they told me they buy every single book published in Chinese.For the complete interview, check out the Vroman’s blog.
Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh’s oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to “celebrate culture.”
I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I’d send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent.
But among my harshest critics was a writer friend, who in a scorching series of emails said mine was this obnoxious, privileged gaze, that in every description of Saudi lives, I mainly revealed that I wanted Saudis to grow up and be good democratic Westerners — which was an impossible goal, he said, because good democratic Westerners are monsters who started wars and were a menace to the whole world.
Years later, I lived in Beirut, where I was still writing stories. As part of an effort to do better this time, I began to read The Innocents Abroad, a record of traveling by Mark Twain.
As a traveler, I had always written earnestly about my observations. Twain, it seemed, was all too eager to write wryly about his own ignorance. There was probably a lot I could learn.
In 1867, a crew of Americans set sail for Europe, Asia, and the Holy Land. For the benefit of the reader and to fulfill his duties as a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, one of the passengers, Mark Twain, set to writing a book about what happened.
In the first pages, the reader encounters Twain’s unease with the basic notion of trying to be original in a travel book. “A little after noon on that distinguished Saturday I reached the ship and went on board. All was bustle and confusion. [I have seen that remark somewhere.]”
Then the ship sees its first island, and Twain isn’t too excited about the Azores. “All the opera glasses in the ship were called into requisition to settle disputes as to whether mossy spots on the uplands were groves of trees or groves of weeds, or whether the white villages down by the sea were really villages or only the clustering of tombstones or cemeteries.” Better to temper any real enthusiasm with a protective cloak of detachment and humor.
In Riyadh, I faced the same problem, but I tried to write with kindness and heart, explaining what I saw with detail and nuance. Twain? “Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them,” he writes of the Azores. It’s a sly trick — substituting his fellow shipmates for the reader. “These considerations move me to put in a paragraph of dry facts here,” he writes — but of course the paragraph isn’t dry.
Twain has protected himself and us by suggesting no normal person would know the Azores, then he protects himself further by saying any information about the strange place would be “dry.” Then he unloads: “The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy.” Twain writes simultaneously with contempt and fondness, and we’re left to puzzle out what he’s trying to do, and where in the mess we should stand.
What he’s doing, it seems, is deploying a constantly changing mix of both sincerity and irreverence, making his position on things hard to pin down. Take the way he grapples with the tired subject of a famous church. “We went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame,” he writes. “We had heard of it before. It surprises me sometimes to think how much we do know and how intelligent we are.”
Twain was making himself hard to take seriously, protecting himself from the question of whether writing like this made the world a better understood place. The whole situation was captured in the way he recounted the story of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th-century French lovers:
With infinite pains I have acquired a knowledge of that history, and I propose to narrate it here, partly for the honest information of the public and partly to show the public that they have been wasting a good deal of marketable sentiment very unnecessarily…Heloise was born seven hundred and sixty-six years ago. She may have had parents. There is no telling. She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of the cathedral is, but that is what he was.
I have come to admire that paragraph very much. In it, Twain is humorous and self-deprecating about the project of historical storytelling, but he is also contemptuous of stupid readers and of disinformation and false sentimentality, but then he acknowledges again that he himself doesn’t actually know much — for instance, what on earth is a canon? There’s a kind of crazy disregard for accountability, a carnival of intention and expectation. You sense a plan, but it’s hard to divine where, if at all, Twain is willing to draw a line. In a storm of riotous laughter, who could quiet the room and suggest to Twain that what he does has serious consequences?
But there’s no need to lecture; Twain’s well aware of his power. “In Marseille, they make half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillaise only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained from books of travel, just as they have acquired an uncertain notion of clean shirts, and the peculiarities of the gorilla, and other curious matters.” Books of travel change the world, Twain is ready to acknowledge. But all you’ll probably remember is that line about the clean shirt.
In the end, travel books — or personal essays — are doomed. Try to describe the gorilla and you fail. Words are never enough, and most will ultimately be forgotten. And if that gorilla is a man? Maybe better not to have begun at all.
The other day, the American-born Nigerian writer Teju Cole posted a line on Twitter: “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”
Cole was probably right. “I have camped with the Indians,” Twain writes. “I have been on the warpath with them, taken part in the chase with them…I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had a chance.”
Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.
Confirming some rumors that have been floating around the Internet, Amazon unveiled a new design for its product pages today. This may not be of interest to many, but I am fascinated by the way Amazon evolves, adding features and slowly reinventing itself over time. Most striking about the new pages is the huge photo of the book cover that now gets prominent placement. This seems like a good thing for shoppers. When you’re buying books over the Internet, it’s hard to assess the more tangible aspects of a book, so the big photo seems like a good move. At first glance the pages are much longer as well with editorial reviews and then customer reviews stretching well down the page. The sidebar(s) are gone too, giving the pages a more spare look. I guess the idea here is that Amazon is pushing for the impulse buy… maybe trying to make readers more likely to buy the book without reading the reviews below. Here is a look at one of the new pages. Any thoughts?Update: Whoa, they’ve added other features, too. Check this out. You can see the “the 100 most frequently used words in this book,” and see other stats like number of characters (444,858 in Gilead) and words (84,830), which amounts to 5,424 words per dollar… not a bad deal, I guess.Update 2: Now all this new stuff is gone. I wonder if the new features and look will come back or if Amazon was just performing some cruel experiment on us.
I met several Chicago natives while I was there last weekend, and as we discussed the city’s various merits and drawbacks, the subject of bookstores came up. The Chicago natives, being aspiring reporters, astutely asked me what I look for in a “good” bookstore, and why a chain store is unlikely to bear this mantle.When it comes to hanging out, it’s hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon. Stay as long as you want, they won’t tell you to leave until they’re closing down for the night. If you want to kill an afternoon, it’s hard to beat Barnes and Noble, likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don’t expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don’t plan for a literary discovery.And therein lies the problem with the chains, they are designed not to surprise you. Their displays will, as decreed from the home office, contain a calculated mix of bestsellers assembled from the major lists. The information that they disseminate is predetermined by prevailing tastes; they are not, themselves, tastemakers. And yet, if there is any more important generator of tastes, trends, and shared knowledge in the commercial world than the bookstore, then I don’t know about it. Nonetheless, there are very few bookstores that serve this purpose. And that, precisely, is what I am looking for.To my mind, a good bookstore will have on display the “important” books not just the bestselling books, though there will always be bestsellers among those important books. For example, The Da Vinci Code is important because it is a cultural phenomenon, but not simply because it sits at number one on the Times bestsellers. There are all sorts of reasons why a book can be important. The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood, from Presidential exposes to burgeoning local talent. At a good bookstore you can place your confidence in the people who run the place.At Barnes and Noble you can get any book you want if you can find it in the vast fluorescent retail gymnasium, but at a good indie, the kindly book clerk will take his favorite book off the shelf and hand it to you, as if a gift. Most cities of any size have at least one of these good bookstores, and thanks to some recommendations that I have already received, I’m confident that I’ll find what I’m looking for in Chicago.
I stepped into a book store in the old city of Barcelona. It was spacious and well lit with dark wood shelves and floors. Many langauges were well represented including a wide selection of English language books. It is very easy to take a shot at American bookstores when comparing them to bookstores overseas, and it’s really remarkable to see the difference in person. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be an expat, estranged from my country, but sometimes yearning for contact. I think I would spend a lot of time in a bookstore like that and it would fill the void for me. With the jet lag and all that, I was having trouble diving into another book. I guess I needed a change of pace to reflect the change of scenery, so I fished into the bag of books I brought with me and came up with this beauty: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. I have always been drawn to certain of the visual story telling forms: typically not so much the action hero stuff, but certain “graphic novels” have caught my attention. I also like to flip through a collection of “newspaper funnies” from time to time, Calvin and Hobbes, for example, is always a delight. Rarely, however, have I encountered a book that transcends the genre like Jimmy Corrigan. This book has already received a chorus of praise and numerous awards. In a lot of cases, in fact, no one had ever considered that a graphic novel might be eligible to win certain of the awards, but this one was just too good to be ignored. I have been on a good stretch with books lately; I haven’t been disappointed in while, but my next book is a bit riskier: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez… I’ll let you know how it goes…I’m off to Ireland tomorrow, and there might not be internet there, but I will try my best; if not, we’ll catch up when I get back to the states.
I have discovered these past few days that there are two types of people: those who like daylight saving time, and those who do not. The folks who like daylight saving are like me. They are optimists who look forward to a long summer of sun-drenched evenings, where you can spend the evening hours outside in the warm, lingering dusk. Those who don’t like daylight saving moan about losing a single hour on one weekend of a year of weekends. These people’s lives are mercilessly scheduled, and they apparently find no way to derive joy from the extra daylight, they instead cling to that lost hour as an example of the many ills that befall them. I don’t like those people.