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…
News that Stuart Dybek, a great and overlooked short-story writer, had been awarded a MacArthur grant sent me back to the archives of the now-defunct Fabulous World of Hot Face for this review of 2003's I Sailed With Magellan. As you can see below, I recommend that Dybek neophytes may want to skip around in this collection, or start with The Coast of Chicago.I Sailed With MagellanLike the Joyce of Dubliners, Stuart Dybek writes with an exquisite sense of place and an amazing sensitivity to the dreams and dislocations one encounters in the borderland between childhood and adulthood. His last work of fiction, The Coast of Chicago, is one of my favorite books, and I approached I Sailed With Magellan with high expectations. If The Coast of Chicago, with its unified setting, its young-to-old chronology, and its careful patterning (alternating short stories with lyrical "short shorts"), seemed more like a latter-day Winesburg, Ohio than a mere collection of stories, I Sailed With Magellan feels more like a group of very good stories than the "Novel-in-Verse" its title page insists it is. Here, Dybek preserves the setting and tone of his earlier work, but organizes his stories loosely around a central character: Perry Katzek. Like Kerouac's Jack Duluoz, Perry seems pretty clearly to be a stand-in for his author, and the richness of lived experience fills to bursting the strongest stories here - "Song," "Undertow," "Blue Boy," and "Je Reviens." All four offer glimpses of Perry's childhood in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. Another excellent quartet of stories - "Lunch at the Loyola Arms," "Orchids," "We Didn't," and "Que Quieres" - show Perry in various stages of a deferred maturity, and although they seem slightly less finished... well, so does adulthood; I'll call it "evocative disarray" and chalk it up to authorial intent. Throughout, images and characters recur in the background. We see again and again morning glories and the spray of fire hydrants in summer and Perry's uncle Lefty. These devices may justify the inclusion of "Breasts," a novella largely unrelated to Dybek's attempt at bildungsroman, but here, Dybek indulges his weaknesses - stagy dialogue, purple eroticism, and scenes and characters seemingly lifted from TV.Even sans "Breasts," I Sailed With Magellan doesn't succeed as a novel. Broken into discrete chunks, Perry's journey seems stripped of causality. For example, his mother's madness - alluded to in several stories - can remain, in a story collection, undramatized. In a novel, however, such a powerful influence on the protagonist wouldn't remain merely implicit. Other experiences that seem to lie at the heart of Perry's (and perhaps Dybek's) character stay in the background, as well, and while Dybek gestures in a few stories toward focusing this book on the relationship between Perry and his Uncle Lefty, the uncle disappears for long stretches. It is always a pleasure to read Dybek, and some of his best work is here, but I Sailed With Magellan argues less for a reenvisioning of the novel's possibilities than the creation of some genre between collection and novel that might serve Dybek's intentions better than the "Novel in Stories" seems to.
Derek Dahlsad has never owned a bookstore and does not have "significant bookselling experience," but he has, nonetheless, put together some very compelling thoughts on how to make small bookstores more successful. In his article at The New Publisher's Journal, he lays out several ideas, some of which are very good ("3. Magazines are impulse buys; do not devote floorspace to a 'magazine area.'" and "7. Store hours can be from 2pm - 11pm."). It's a worthwhile read for anyone considering getting into the bookselling business or if you're just wondering what might keep all those little bookstores from going under.
Sure, today Apple unvailed the "iPod phone" and the superslim iPod Nano, but the real news is that for the first time, via iTunes, the entire Harry Potter series will be available on digital audio (that's $249 for the whole set). This is more interesting to me for what it represents. As iPods and other high-capacity digital audio players have become ubiquitous and as digital audio delivery (via podcasts and/or services like audible.com) has become more user friendly, the stage has been set for a revolution in reading. Though digital audio books will never overtake paper ones, they will only grow in popularity and sometime soon we may see a mini-revolution in the way people consume literature.
The search for the person who will fill what is perhaps academia's most prestigious creative writing job, director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is in its final stages. Four finalists have been announced, Richard Bausch, Lan Samantha Chang, Ben Marcus and Jim Shepard. Each will have an audition of sorts, which includes a reading, a mock workshop, and a talk on craft. Some friends in Iowa have been filling me in on this last part of the selection process, which got underway with Bausch's visit to campus on February 10.I'm told that the process, itself, is somewhat odd, since it's more of a performance than a way to discern teaching ability. During the mock-workshop, Bausch zipped through three stories in and hour and a half, faster than the typical workshop pace, and he digressed from the stories at hand to tell some stories of his own. He quoted some of his favorite works and seemed genuinely passionate about books and the writing life. He said he teaches patience, not writing, and said there are two rules to fiction: you have to use words and you have to be interesting. Though his commentary was somewhat liberal, Bausch's critiques of the stories at hand were traditional, with specific recommendations about tone and pacing. For the public reading later in the evening, Bausch read a recently completed, as yet unpublished story, and during his "talk about craft," he talked about memory and dispensed his 10 Commandments of writing, which included - to paraphrase - doing the work is the only thing that matters. Not if it's good or bad, but that it gets done, everyday.Stay tuned for the next dispatch in a couple of weeks.
John Burdett's sequel to Bangkok 8, his mystery set in Thailand, has come out. It's called Bangkok Tattoo. Here's my review of Bangkok 8 (scroll down). Here's EW's review of Bangkok Tattoo. And here's an excerpt.I noticed that Penguin has put out a smart-looking new edition of John Keegan's essential history book, The Second World War. The new edition includes a new foreword by Keegan.It looks like T.C. Boyle will have a new collection of short stories out this fall called Tooth and Claw.
As some of you may know, my very good friend Cem has been travelling through some remote parts of the world. The other day, in a very long email, he asked me whether or not I thought he should stay in northern Thailand or keep on moving toward the Middle East which is, ostensibly, his final destination... here is my advice (plus a little plug for the record label, which he had asked about): Sorry I haven't gotten back to you sooner, your email took me 4 days to read. Seriously though, what I wouldn't give to be in your place with your dilemma... should I go to this frighteningly exotic place or this other one? My jealousy aside, I'm not sure I can make this decision for you, but I might be able to give you a little insight. First, you have to decide, irrespective of the girl or whatever gig you have set up in Thailand, whether this adventure is all about getting to the destination (i.e. Cairo and the Middle East) or allowing yourself to be follow the whims of the world and just be wherever you end up... like Maqroll. I think both are perfectly admirable plans, but you have to pick one or the other. Secondly, I don't know how tuned in you are to world events right now given your isolation, but American soldiers are dying every couple of days in Iraq, and the situation seems, to me anyway, to still be very much up in the air, with a guerilla war still a possibility, however remote. I'm sure that Cairo and Istanbul and Amman are all plenty safe, but I guess you should figure out if you prefer to be in the Middle East soon (while there is still uncertainty) or later when things have calmed down. So there you have it... no easy answers just more dilemmas. I love what you're doing, and if and when you get settled somewhere, I am coming to visit. In other news, the website for my record label is www.realisticrecords.net so tell all your indie friends to check it out. There are mp3s up and pictures of the recoys reunion show/record release party. You can also buy the album there (It's called Recoys Rekoys) and it's a vinyl only run of 1000. Since that is almost sold out though, we'll probably get a cd together soon enough.Now if there are any world travellers out there who are aspiring to do the sort of thing that my friend Cem is doing, I suggest you pick up The World's Most Dangerous Places by Robert Young Pelton. It's a very informative and wildly entertain look at some of the more hazardous corners of the planet. As if to underline his fealty for sticky situations, Pelton himself was kidnapped by leftist rebels in Columbia earlier this year. He was later released.
I have a short article in the latest issue of Poets & Writers.The piece grew out of a post here on the blog a while back about LibraryThing, the Web-based book cataloging community. For the record, I haven't yet put all of my books into LibraryThing, though I probably will at some point. I've been putting it off because I know that once I get started I won't be able to stop and, well, I just don't have the free time at the moment.