I’m sitting in a Barcelona internet cafe in the completely empty non-smoking section… The smoking section is packed. It’s only noon though, so it seems like most of the city isn’t really awake yet. We are staying about four blocks from Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. It is under construction as it has been for decades, and it is a bizarre building to look upon. Over the next couple of days we will see some of Gaudi’s other work. Today: art museums and La Boqueria, Barcelona’s massive open air food market. I had hoped to get a lot of reading done on the plane, but the trip was so grueling that I didn’t accomplish much. I worked my way through the first issue of The Believer, McSweeney’s magazine about books and other fluff. Heidi Julavits’ article about the lost art of book reviewing is the high point, after that it’s mostly uneven to dull. But, hey, at least the folks on Valencia keep churning out new and interesting projects. Til next time…
I started flipping through Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book The Tipping Point the other day. In the book, Gladwell explores the idea that all popular trends essentially behave like epidemics, and a slight change in external factors can cause a trend, like an epidemic, to "tip" and then become ubiquitous. He describes how word of mouth is an important part of why this occurs, and also how some initial shift of circumstances begins the process. I quickly realized that I see this phenomenon occurring constantly at the bookstore. The recommend shelf phenomenon that I described a few days ago is an example of this. An intitial shift occurs when I read a book and enjoy it and then pull it from its spot tucked away on the shelf. Once I have displayed it prominently on the recommended shelf, the second part of the phenomenon takes over, word of mouth. Soon, a book that was sitting, forlorn, in a tucked away corner of the store, is selling briskly and you overhear people in the aisles talking about it. Earlier, I spoke about this recommended book phenomenon somwhat disdainfully, but when viewed this way, as a shifting of initial circumstances playing out over time, like Stephen Wolfram's cellular automata in A New Kind of Science, it is more a fascinating piece of science than indictive of society's lemming-like tendencies.Addenda Pt. 2My good and old friend Hot Face emailed me with some addenda and additions to yeasterdays post about upcoming books. The new David Foster Wallace collection is tentatively called Oblivion and will come out in March of 2004. Prior to that, in October, he has a new non-fiction book coming out, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. He also mentioned that Stuart Dybek has a new book coming out in November called I Sailed with Magellan. Dybek has long been highly regarded as a short story writer (here's one called Ant), but this new book is a novel.
The first of the three books I read between starting and finishing The Fortress of Solitude is The Underdog: How I Survived The World's Most Outlandish Competitions by Joshua Davis. Hilarious. I am not sure where to begin but Davis's interest in excelling in obscure or at times plain ridiculous fields of "sports" stems from two sources: the Ipski-Pipski stories his dad told him during his childhood (where Ipski-Pipski would overcome any and all difficulties in a very James Bondesque manner) and his mother's undying hope that her son be best at something (she was the 1962 Miss Nevada and a contender for Miss Universe, who barely missed first spot because of a bad hairdo). So, Davis decides to overcome his shortcomings that keep him from becoming a traditional achiever (such as a high school basketball star or college football player) and get rid of his unfulfilling job as a data-entry clerk by embarking on a quest to be really good at something. Davis not only faces the challenge of finding out what he can excel in but also of providing for his wife, who is about to enroll in gradate school and considers his actions very childish. It is, therefore, difficult to see where Davis is going when he chooses arm wrestling as the first sport to prove himself in. At 125 pounds and 5 foot 9 (and wearing glasses) Davis is not the usual imposing arm-wrestler you would imagine. But despite his physique, Davis manages to join the American Arm Wrestling Team and attend the world championships in Poland, ranking 19th worldwide due and placing 4th in the lightweight category worldwide. Quite a title for a first timer, but it sure helps that there were a mere 4 lightweight contenders. Encouraged by his mediocre success, Davis pursues bullfighting, sumo wrestling, backward running and a Sauna World Championship. Through each of his misadventures Davis meets people such as celebrity bullfighter Miguel Baez Litri, sumo wrestling Yokozuna (grand champion, a title granted to only two people) Musashimaru, world-class backward runner (and inventor) K. Veerabadran, and the Swedish sauna lover Markku Mustonen, who influence and encourage him to pursue his heart's desire. As Davis runs (at times backwards) from one outrageous feat to another, he also manages to pull his family together, please his wife and land a job at Wired as a staff reporter. The Underdog is an unusual and genuinely encouraging take on the American dream of being all you can be (or whatever you want to be) and it points out that doing ridiculous things might work after all.My second book during the Lethem intermission was Kurt Dosyasi (The Kurdish File) by Ugur Mumcu. Mumcu is a Turkish journalist murdered in 1993 (suspects still at large) whose works were very detailed and influential. I talked a lot about him during my journalism school applications, which made me want to read more of his work. Mumcu was murdered while working on Kurt Dosyasi, hence it is unfortunately cut short in its early investigative stages. The parts that were published, however, tell the parallel stories of (currently imprisoned head of PKK) Abdullah Ocalan's life as a student, as well as his involvement in the 1970s left-wing student movements, and the government policies regarding the Kurdish population in the Eastern and South-eastern parts of Turkey in the 1930s. The documents that Mumcu presents are interesting and shocking, such as reports by ministers and minutes of parliamentary hearings that talk about assimilating Kurds to Turkish society, dispersing Kurdish clans, and replacing internal populations for the Turkification of Eastern Turkey and the Kurds. Kurt Dosyasi also draws on the government's shortcomings in peacefully penetrating Kurdish societies and its failure to deal with the threats posed by armed militias that disrupted trade, prevented investments and threatened the newly founded republic with uprisings. Unfortunately, Mumcu was killed before tying all the pieces together and explaining the emergence of Ocalan as the leader of the Kurdish insurgency in 1984. I am sure that his work would have been invaluable in assessing the "Kurdish Issue" in Turkey and it is a shame that it is incomplete. Still, it is a great source of information and sheds some light on the wrong nationalistic policies of the 1930s that led to the creation of Kurdish discontent in Turkey. I would recommend it to all parties interested in the issue; the only drawback is that you have to know Turkish, as the book is not translated.My third and last intermission book was another one by Ugur Mumcu: Sakincali Piyade (The Problematic Private). This collection of short memoirs constitute a satirical take on life, as mostly experienced by Mumcu, in the period following the coup d'etat of March 12, 1971, in Turkey. This was the second time since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923 that the military dissolved the parliament, declared martial law and ran the country until new elections, which, in this instance, they took place two years later in October 1973 (the other 2 coup d'etats are May 27, 1960 and September 12, 1980 - there is also a military decree issued in February 28, 1997 that caused the government to resign). Mumcu was an Assistant Dean of the Ankara Law School at the time. His leftist politics were widely know and not hidden. In the two years that the military administered the country a lot of leftists were persecuted on extremely flimsy charges. Mumcu was one of them. His bitter experiences led to Sakincali Piyade, which points at the outrageous claims made against him, as well as other leftist scholars, thinkers and activists of his generation. His memoirs chronicle life in prison, court hearings and the army. Mumcu had to serve his mandatory military service in this period and at the hands of army officials that hoped to "correct" his "thinking" during the service. The courtroom antics that Mumcu lists are ridiculous in retrospect, but point directly to the gravity of the situation in the 1970s and the sad consequences of "enforcing" democracy through the military. I would recommend Sakincali Piyade to everyone who is looking to laugh and think deeply (and do those simultaneously) about the tragic-comic situations that plague Turkey to this day. Unfortunately, Sakincali Piyade is also not translated.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
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We're moving this summer. I'm already dreading the packing, loading, moving, unpacking part, but other than that, I'm pretty excited. In July we'll be departing for temporary digs in the Washington, DC area as we figure out our final destination. One thing's for sure, though, our short stint in the Midwest is coming to an end. I never quite fell for Chicago, not the way I did for LA, anyway, but I have come to see why this place has a particular hold on people. I think part of it is the way the city wears its history on its sleeve. The city also has a rich literary history that is still very much being added to.All of this brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to the Riverhead catalog, which is next in the stack that I got from Penguin not too long ago. A couple of books in there - paperbacks of hardcovers that are already out - are worth sharing, one of which is a worthy addition to Chicago's literature. Adam Langer's The Washington Story brings readers back to West Rogers Park, a thickly multicultural neighborhood not far from where I live. The book is named after Harold Washington, who was mayor of Chicago during the 1980s, when the book takes place. The Washington Story is the sequel to Crossing California, Langer's much praised debut (which is in the queue). The hardcover has been out since last August and the paperback comes out in September.Also coming out in September is the hilarious The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman. Hodgeman is now a regular on the Daily Show, where he does a nerdy expert shtick that is pitch-perfect, and he also appears in the new Mac commercials. The book - a compendium of fake facts, essentially - is perhaps most famous for the 700 hobo names contained within. You can hear Hodgman read the hobo names to music, and you can look at illustrations people have done of some of the hobos. Hodgman also has a blog. He ends all posts with "That is all." The hardcover came out last October.Extras: From Penguin's New American Library imprint comes The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right. The book is by Robert Lanham creator/editor of freewilliamsburg.com, and author of the Hipster Handbook. This time, Lanham turns his "anthropological eye" on conservative evangelical culture. The book comes out in September and would go well - or not - with this forthcoming "Compete Idiot's" title. Finally, as if to prove that we're all just one silly idea away from a book deal, the International Talk Like A Pirate Day guys have a book (which is already out, but I guess the publisher wants to remind booksellers to stock up each year in preparation for the lucrative Talk Like A Pirate Day shopping season).
The Hag points us to this humorous but heartbreaking article about the declining fortunes of freelance journalists. Though I'm not at the moment trying to make it as a freelance journalist, I've always thought it something I might like to try. You know: the freedom, the romantic life of the roving freelancer, the potential for glory on glossy pages, all that. But, according to Ben Yagoda, things aren't as they once were. Even the quality of the rejection letters has declined substantially:A friend of mine, who never got published in The New Yorker, still treasures the bunch of hand-typed and personal rejection letters he got in the late '70s and early '80s from William Shawn. That's so 20th century. These days, you're lucky to get a form letter. The pocket veto - that is, the unreturned e-mail, letter, or phone call - has become an accepted way of turning down ideas and submissions, even from longtime contributors.
It's officially been summer for coming up on two weeks, which means that, in accordance with typical publishing and bookselling practices, near the front of the bookstore there will be stacks of books by new and unknown authors all vying to become this summer's "breakout hit." Last year the winner of the "breakout hit" lottery was won by Alice Sebold whose book, The Lovely Bones, was much purchased and enjoyed by the majority and vehemently despised by the minority of readers who are not willing to shut off the part of the brain that determines what is tasteful and what is not. What's funny about this way of selling books is that every bookstore that you walk into will try to make its customers think that their staff personally discovered these new authors and that the customers are among the lucky first few to enjoy these newcomers. In reality, the candidates for "breakout hit" are chosen months in advance by the publishing companies and aggressively marketed much in the same way that one would market a film. In a sense The Lovely Bones is not very different from The Hulk. In my opinion this year's winner has already been declared: Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is already the book that recreational readers ask for by name when looking for a summer reading distraction. This non-threateningly clever, historical thriller acheived success in a couple of ways. First, like all of the other "breakout hit" candidates it is engagingly written and also contains a "hook," in this case the idea is that embedded within da Vinci's famous artwork are hidden clues that can solve a present day murder mystery while at the same time unravelling some of humanity's great unsolved conundrums. Very Indiana Jones. Secondly, in the weeks leading up to the release of The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday reps blitzed bookstores to talk up the book, hand out advance copies, and put up teaser posters. Finally Doubleday's publicists were able to get the book mentioned in all the weekly newsmags and grocery store aisle gossip rags. Voila! Breakout hit... There are lots of books sitting on either side of The Da Vinci Code on the "breakout hit" display, all are almost as heavily marketed but some might be a bit more rewarding: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is narrated by a 15 year old autistic math savant who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes and tries to find out who murdered his neighbor's dog. Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy is an example of what a multi-generational saga can look like when written by a young writer. Bangkok 8 is a debut by John Burdett. This one is perfect for those who like thrillers in exotic locals. (In this case, a U.S. Marine is dead in Thailand. Great cover art, too). Finally, Benjamin Cavell's Rumble, Young Man, Rumble and Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians are two much lauded short story collections. Bye now...