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…
India’s economy is growing at a tremendous clip with its expanding, highly educated workforce competing for jobs with Western economies. Pakistan, whose President-General is allied with the U.S., in many ways has become a crucial partner (and some say a liability) in America’s adventures and misadventures overseas since 9/11. Both countries have made the world nervous with nuclear posturing over the last decade or so. So it is natural that on the sixtieth anniversary of both countries’ creation via bloody partition, a number of books have recently been published chronicling this pivotal moment in recent history. I’ve listed five of these books on the birth of Pakistan below (Please use the comments to let us know about any I’ve missed.)Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann – New Yorker review; excerptIndia After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha – San Francisco Chronicle reviewThe Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future by Martha C. Nussbaum – NYRB review; excerpt (pdf)Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India by Stanley Wolpert – Times of India reviewThe Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan by Yasmin Khan – The Economist review; excerptThe Great Partition and Indian Summer seem to be getting the most press, with both being discussed in a recent Slate article.
Recently I got a very interesting email from a reader. Frank Kovarik writes and teaches English in St. Louis. For the last five years, he has also been keeping meticulous track of the fiction that appears in the New Yorker. Not just the titles and authors, but things like gender, country of origin, and frequency of appearance.Frank has generously offered to make his spreadsheet available to download in Excel format. If you’re interested, you can get it here.Having this data allows us to dig deeper into the proclivities of New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and whoever else has a hand in what fiction appears in the magazine’s hallowed pages.Gender: From the database we learn that, of the 257 stories in the New Yorker from 2003 through 2007, 96 or 37.4% were penned by women.Nationality: Americans account for a fairly substantial portion of the stories that appear in the New Yorker, 134 of them, or 52% (and this leaves off several writers who could be conceivably classified as both American and a native of another country). Coming in tied for second are the Brits and the Irish at 18 stories apiece.Frequency: Much of that Irish total comes from master of the short story form, William Trevor, who readers were most likely to find if they flipped through an issue these last five years. Trevor was there on nine occasions. Including, an issue that included three separate but linked stories, Canada’s Alice Munro comes in second with eight stories. 12 other writers have appeared at least five times over the last five years, meaning that 14 writers have accounted for 32% of the fiction in the magazine during that period.9 stories:William Trevor8 stories:Alice Munro7 stories:Tessa HadleyHaruki Murakami6 stories:Thomas McGuane5 stories:T. Coraghessan BoyleRoddy DoyleLouise ErdrichLara VapnyarJohn UpdikeGeorge SaundersEdward P. JonesCharles D’AmbrosioAntonya NelsonIf anybody else draws interesting conclusions from the spreadsheet, we’d love to hear about them.
I’ve been a bit under the weather lately, but I think I’m starting to get better. I’m well enough to post here anyway. Which is good, because I noticed a couple of books that I thought people might be interested in. Remember a few years ago when everyone was suddenly talking about “string theory?” This was because of a book by Brian Greene called The Elegant Universe, which somehow managed to solve a longstanding dilemma in the world of physics, that “general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right,” in a book readable enough to become a best seller. Greene proved to be one of those remarkable writers, of which there are very few, who have the ability to make a very boring and difficult topic interesting for everyone. And now he has a new book out: The Fabric of the Cosmos : Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, in which he continues to unwind scientific complexities with a combination of analogy and wit.My friend Edan pointed out another interesting, new book to me other day. Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution by the remarkably named, Alma Guillermoprieto. Edan and I both read an excerpt of this book in the New Yorker a while back. I enjoyed the way Guillermoprieto’s fierce Latin personality was tempered by her lyrical love of dance. This book seems perfect for anyone enamored by ballet and/or Cuba.A NoteFrom the book I just finished: “From his windows at MacGregor Road, he watched the President Polk leave the harbour. He knew nothing of President Polk, but assumed that the shipping company would have checked the record, beforehand, for anything scandalous. Then he did miss Audrey, with whom he could have spoken of such things.”
“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane (from Open Boat and Other Stories)This 1898 story, about the last survivors of a shipwreck as they fight for the safety of land on a soaked and cold dinghy, contains one of my favorite sentences in all of short fiction: “It was probably splendid, it was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.” That repetition of “probably” gets me every time.“Merry-Go-Sorry” by Carry Holladay (from Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Award)It’s a shame that Holladay hasn’t yet published a collection, for This tale of a town affected by the killing of three young boys, told in a fluid omniscient narration, is strange, ambitious, and beautiful. We venture into the minds of the accused killer, of the girl who writes him letters, of the cops investigating the murders, and so on and on, until a complicated world has emerged on the page.“Do Not Disturb” by A.M. Homes (from Things You Should Know)This story concerns a wimp of a husband and a bitch of a wife. She gets cancer, and she gets meaner. What now?“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link (from Magic for Beginners)In this wild story, a family moves from a cramped Manhattan apartment to a big haunted house outside the city. Objects start to feel “wrong” and must be discarded; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rabbits on the front lawn; the wife cannot stop painting the rooms; the daughter sleepwalks; the husband won’t return home from work. Just as the story begins to create a coherent universe, the narrative embraces something new and strange, and the reader must remake meaning once again. It’s a big, messy, playful collision of a story.Stay tuned for more recommended stories from The Millions later this week.
A Salon.com piece from last week is creating a buzz among publishing industry watchers. In it, an anonymous “midlist” author bemoans the consolidation of publishing companies and the ever shallower tastes of the reading public for contributing to the demise of authors who don’t write blockbusters. Almost taunting the reader, she drops clues throughout the article, tempting diligent gossips to discover her true identity. (Were she outed, I suspect she wouldn’t mind the publicity.) First, here is the article. (Use the day pass to view the article… you just have to watch an ad first). As soon as the article was published, the gossip erupted at, where else, gawker.com. Here the speculation begins, readers begin jumping into the fray, and, finally, Gawker, wanting to put the subject to rest, guesses: Amy Bloom. As they freely admit, though, Bloom is not a perfect fit, and I’m not convinced either. I’m on the case, though. Maybe I can figure it out. As far as whether or not I agree with her: I agree that publishing industry consolidation makes for a dull literary marketplace, but I refuse to believe that quality writing, no matter how uncommercial, is unsellable. The American people are not as dumb as some like to think, but I’ll tell you one thing, they don’t like whiners. Possibly more on this later.A PunditI always enjoy hearing from people who have been willing to publicly change their opinions on things. Somehow I find them more believable than the one note folks who populate the right and the left. This is why I like reading Christopher Hitchens. He is incredibly prolific, putting out what seems like a book a year and appearing almost daily in newspapers articulately presenting his singular points of view. As an example, check out his review in Canada’s Globe and Mail of the new book by Ian Baruma (another frequently-published commentator whose writing I enjoy).
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.