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…
Amazon has introduced a new feature that promises to be more useful than the Statistically Improbable Phrases feature that launched a few months ago. The “SIP” feature finds distinctive phrases inside books and then linked users to other books that contained those same distinctive phrases. For example, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World contains five instances of the distinctive phrase “deer poaching,” which Amazon tells us also appears in several other books, including Deer and Deer Hunting Book 2: Strategies and Tactics for the Advanced Hunter. Amusing, but not terribly useful. Amazon’s new feature, Capitalized Phrases” or “CAPs,” links books by proper names and places, so by clicking on “King Lear” from among the CAPs for Will in the World, you get a list of books that mention “King Lear.” This seems like a potentially very useful research tool – especially if Amazon decides not to limit the results to twenty or so books as they are currently doing. These “phrases” features by Amazon also represent a foray into the relatively new Internet phenomenon of tagging, which sites like del.icio.us use to categorize Web sites. Since the process is external – in the case of del.icio.us, the tags are applied by users – and has a human element to it, sites that employ tagging have the potential to be “smarter” than those that rely on old-fashioned search engines. It will be interesting to see if Amazon begins to allow user submitted tags in addition to its Search Inside a Book data to create a deep and highly intuitive way of organizing its massive inventory.
Short story collections undoubtedly reign supreme as the most optimal reading material for the beach. They don’t require the mental commitment that a full-length novel does, they allow for a sense of accomplishment every time you finish one in the collection, and, perhaps more importantly, they provide breaks at precisely the right moment when you need more alcohol. If you’re planning an upcoming vacation, consider taking along J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, David Updike’s Old Girlfriends, or Lady with the Little Dog & Other Stories by Anton Chekhov. It is no coincidence that all three have several beach-themed stories, which I take as proof of the validity of my argument.
It is in the latter collection that you will find “The Lady with the Little Dog,” a story so remarkable that fellow Russian heavyweight Vladimir Nabokov called it “one of the greatest stories ever written.” I shamelessly board this bandwagon and add merely that “The Lady with the Little Dog” is the most perfect short story for the summer (Nabokov does not appear to have evaluated art using this metric).
It is 1899. Summer is in full swing in Yalta, the glamorous resort town for the glamorous Russian aristocracy. The Black Sea and the sun converge and collectively shine so bright that they blind. Gurov, our main character, lazily stares beyond the horizon in search of something. Of what? He hardly knows himself. This is how “The Lady with the Little Dog” marvelously opens up, immediately creating a drunken feeling of infinite, if somewhat ominous, possibilities. Isn’t that what summer is all about?
Gurov is a terrible human being: a lying, cheating, misogynistic — but charming! — philander. He’s an Ocean’s Eleven-era George Clooney without a soul. When he hears of a pretty little thing, newly-arrived in Yalta, he considers, “If she is here alone without a husband or friends, it wouldn’t be amiss to make her acquaintance.”
I love this guy.
The pretty little thing, the titular lady with the dog, is Anna Sergeyevna, a young Cruel Intentions-era Reese Witherspoon to Gurov’s winning Clooney. She is recently married, but like all 19th-century literary Russian aristocrats, unhappily so. What happens next is predictable: two strangers at different points in their lives, an encounter in an exotic locale, an inevitable, tempestuous affair. If it sounds derivative, it’s because every star- crossed lovers’ tale you know from 20th-century film and literature is an imitation of Chekhov’s original.
But what Chekhov does in “The Lady with the Little Dog” is extraordinary. He makes you root for the terrible human being. In spite of your better judgement, you long for Gurov to charm the girl, to seduce her, and, perhaps, to break her heart. When Anna confides in Gurov her agonies and unfulfilled dreams, he observes that “there’s something pathetic about her, anyway,” and you laugh hysterically. You feel sorry for Anna, but you decide that if she’s stupid enough to fall for this charming fraud, then she deserves to be swindled. Or maybe you are a moral person, and you don’t feel that way at all.
In any case, you will be as seduced by “The Lady with the Little Dog” as Anna is enamored with the monstrous Gurov. In the characters’ forbidden love affair, Chekhov evokes the spirit of summer: oppressive but liberating, exhausting but exciting, stultifying but intoxicating. Gurov’s life is an eternal summer, and in the summer, every day is a “thirsty day” when one does “not know what to do with oneself.” In the summer, one is particularly susceptible to the wonderful things that surround. For me, it is snorkeling along a coral reef in the middle of the Caribbean Sea; for Gurov, it is sitting next to a beautiful young woman in the dawn of light, with dew on the grass.
I think Gurov wins.
I will not spoil the entire story, but precisely when you think you know how it will all come crashing down, Chekhov surprises. If you rooted for Gurov in the beginning, by the end you’re praying that he gets his happily ever after. But Chekhov has something special planned for Gurov and Anna and the reader. Abruptly, dizzying, the story ends, leaving one gasping for air, unprepared for the solemnity of autumn — much less for the emptiness of winter.
Chekhov makes you long for summer, with all of its intensity, with all of its oppressiveness. He makes you long for a time, in Yalta or elsewhere, when the sun and the sea meet before you, when life overflows with possibilities. As “The Lady with the Little Dog” comes to a close — perhaps disappointingly, perhaps perfectly — even those who dislike the summer months will be left aching, just a little, for a few more drowsily sweltering days.
A few months back there was some fuss about Penguin selling, for close to $8,000, the Complete Collection: More than 1000 of the Greatest Classics. Recently, used bookstore owner Jeff Sharman went through his inventory and found “a handful of forgotten Penguin Classics” – ones that didn’t make the cut. He raises an interesting point that not all classics stand the test of time.