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…
This will probably be of little interest to anyone who is not a book industry professional, but I couldn’t help myself. I happened to notice the other day a mention of the impending adoption of the 13-digit ISBN. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and it’s the 10-digit number typically found on the back of your books near the barcode. Every new edition of every book has its own ISBN, making it a unique identifier that can be used when organizing books in a computer library system. By 2007 all new books will be assigned 13-digit ISBNs. This is being done so that books conform with other products, which are all identified by a 13-digit number (usually next to the barcode.) I’m sure there are good reasons for doing this. Standardizing these numbers will probably streamline the business and make books easier to integrate with other products in stores. But I felt compelled to bring this up because I suspect the change might be detrimental to independent bookstores for two reasons. First, anything that makes it easier for books to be sold at the Walmart, Target, and the other “big box” stores is bad for independent bookstores (and chain bookstores, for that matter). Secondly, due to the expense, many independent bookstores do not have great inventory systems. Typically they have some sort of makeshift system, or they use an antiquated inventory system with poor tech support and little or no adaptability (the latter was certainly the case at the bookstore where I worked). Books are organized in these systems by ISBN, and I doubt that they are designed to handle an ISBN longer than 10 digits. While the chain stores probably have more robust systems and staff dedicated to the upkeep of their inventory programs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of independent bookstores scrambling to adapt when the 13-digit ISBN comes along. Then again, this could be another Y2K situation, which I’m blowing out of proportion. We’ll see, I suppose. If you are really intrigued by this, you can learn all about it here.In other news, the New York Times has named one-time restaurant reviewer William Grimes its new book reviewer. He joins Janet Maslin and Madame Kakutani. It will be interesting to see how this changes the overall persona of the Times’ book coverage. I should also note here that an inordinate number of people come to this website by searching for “Michiko Kakutani.” She is the object of much fascination, I think.The Publisher’s Lunch email newsletter mentions an upcoming book by one of my favorite writers, the inventor of rotisserie baseball and current New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent. “Daniel Okrent’s new book will also form the basis of a Ken Burns documentary, an illustrated biography of Einstein.”
Philip Caputo’s new book Acts of Faith is being favorably compared to The Quiet American. Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has traveled extensively in Africa, and this new novel is set in Sudan. According to PW, Caputo “presents a sharply observed, sweeping portrait, capturing the incestuous world of the aid groups, Sudan’s multiethnic mix and the decayed milieu of Kenyan society.” Though the novel has a timely, flashy, “ripped from the headlines” sound to it, Kakutani called it “devastating” before comparing it to the work of Robert Stone, V.S. Naipaul and Joan Didion. Scott noted Kakutani’s “heady praise” a couple of weeks ago. And here’s an excerpt from the book (which weighs in at 688 pages, by the way. Whoa!)Charles Chadwick wrote recently about being a first time novelist at the age of 72 (scroll down): “A first novel of 300,000 words by a 72-year-old sounds like someone trying to be funny. Acceptance by Faber and then by Harper Collins in the US – the recognition that all along one had been some good at it – took a lot of getting used to. Still does.” The book, It’s All Right Now, which also weighs in at 688 pages, oddly enough (not exactly light Summer reading, these books), was panned by Nick Greenslade in The Guardian. Greenslade suggests that its publishers were more enamored by the idea of a 72-year-old debut novelist than by the book itself. I’m curious to see what US reviewers say because the book doesn’t sound all that bad to me.As I recall, Jonathan Coe’s 2002 novel, The Rotters’ Club, was well-received by my coworkers and customers at the bookstore. A sequel, The Closed Circle, comes out soon. Here’s a positive review from The Independent and an excerpt. These are good times for Coe. His recently released biography of British writer B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant has been shortlisted for the $56,000 Samuel Johnson Prize.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a really long time, you’ll recall that I was a big fan of Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ look at the inefficiencies of baseball as a business. What could have come off as dry, numbers-heavy, and “inside baseball,” if you’ll pardon the phrase, turned out to be a fascinating treatise that delved into psychology and economics and contained profiles a number of interesting people. With that in mind, I was excited to learn of a new book by Lewis coming out later this fall, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which, if Malcolm Gladwell is to be believed, will be just as good. Says Gladwell, It’s about a teenager from the poorest neighborhood in Memphis who gets adopted by a wealthy white family, and who also happens to be an extraordinarily gifted offensive lineman. Simultaneously Lewis tells the story of the emergence of the left tackle as one of the most important positions in modern day football. I thought Moneyball was fantastic. But this is even better, and it made me wonder if we aren’t enjoying a golden age of sportswriting right now.As has been previously discussed here, the world could use more good books about football, so I’m pleased to hear about this one.Update: Here’s an excerpt. Thanks Patrick.
There’s a lot for readers to look forward to in the second-half of the year, and high up on the list is Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years, NW. Lydia covered the book in our big preview published last week, “NW follows a group of people from Caldwell–a fictional council estate in northwest London whose buildings are named for English philosophers–and documents the lives they build in adulthood. Smith (who since 2005 has become a mother, NYU professor, and Harper’s columnist) has variously called this a novel of class and a “very, very small book” (highly unlikely). Smith’s own deep roots to London, and this particular corner of London, were most recently aired in her stirring defense of London’s local libraries for the New York Review of Books blog.” Smith sets the scene evocatively in the book’s opening paragraph. The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
When I picked up my first Kurt Vonnegut book, Slaughterhouse-Five, I noticed the greatest literary feat I missed out on by growing up in Turkey. My friend Annastacia left a copy at our house and her boyfriend/my roommate Uzay read the book in a day, his first Vonnegut as well. Uzay was so startled that he urged me to pick it up immediately. I did as suggested and was much surprised and pleased. I have yet to read more of Vonnegut’s works but his stream of conscious style in Slaughterhouse-Five, the disjointed stories that flow together more like an epic poem, the simplistic wording that carries heavy thoughts and emotions, and the personal reflections mixed with fiction were most startling. It took me only a day to read Slaughterhouse-Five (I am usually a slow reader) and I felt that I should go back and reread it immediately to better grasp the stories contained therein. The combination of World War II stories that culminate in the bombing of Dresden, the life of a stereotypical suburban businessman in post-war America and his interactions with Tralfamodarian aliens are at times difficult to piece together. They do, nevertheless, connect on a certain, higher level, which I hope to better understand by reading more of Vonnegut’s works, following the characters that reappear in his novels and get a better sense of his outlook on matters of life and death. And so it goes.Around the same time that my friend John gave me Crash, he also gave me Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. It took me a long time to get into The Fortress of Solitude. I picked it up in mid-summer and read about fifty pages and stopped. Then I saw The Squid and The Whale, which I liked very much, and the Brooklyn feel of it made me return to Lethem’s novel. I read another forty pages and stopped again. In the meanwhile, I was reading other books for fun or out of interest. Around Thanksgiving I picked up the novel again. I was preparing for my 2nd annual Chicago trip to visit Mr. and Mrs. Millions, brother Jozef and aunt Murvet, and I thought that a journey would be the best opportunity to turn to The Fortress of Solitude one last time. I am very glad I did, because now that I fully read Dylan Ebdus’s story I am mesmerized by Lethem’s style and the strong storyline that picks up after, for me at least, page 120 and accelerates until the reader hits the end. Dylan Ebdus is the sole white kid in a mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Dylan, the only child of a not so successful painter and an eccentric hippie mother, is a total stranger to the culture of the block and is constantly “yoked,” i.e. bullied, humiliated and robbed, by his peers. One day Mingus Rude moves to the block with his once famous, now low profile, soul singer father Barrett Rude Jr. Mingus and Dylan become steady friends and slowly, sometimes painfully, Dylan embarks on a new path. While the first third of the novel is slow and establishes a strong setting, the second third flies by as the reader flips through the adventures of Mingus and Dylan in the ’70s, sees them drop out of high school/go to college, smoke a lot of dope, become crack/coke heads, discover and dive into music, and form their own tag team. The language is rich with graffiti, music and popular culture in the ’70s. At the third and final section of the novel the reader finds Dylan in Berkeley during the ’90s. A lot has changed except for his fascination with music and adaptation of a white-boy immersed in African-American culture life style. It is easy to empathize with Dylan as he tells his story through music ranging from Brian Eno to Talking Heads, Devo, the Temptations, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. Dylan’s struggles with his insecurities and search for identity are amazing portrayals with very strong supporting characters. There also is the parallel story of Aeroman and the ring, which I am still trying to decipher and digest. I am very glad to have read The Fortress of Solitude, it is, along with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, one of my favorite reads in 2005 and I definitely intend to read more of Lethem’s writings in 2006.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5