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…
The roadside hedges were gone to rows of black and twisted brambles. Burnt matchstick limbs, frail and carcassed treetrunks. A gray pond lay near the low bomus of a sorghumfield, its yieldless surface oily and wan. Ruminant bones in a shallow rocky ditchrun, faint scattered nothing. In a sunlit patch of green, a mother robin fed its chicks, a fat worm at her beak. Oh wait, check that. Sorry. All was dead.
The boy stood in the road with the pistol while the man climbed an old set of limestone steps and walked down the porch of the farmhouse, peering in the windows. He pushed his way in through the kitchen door. Lucy, I’m home, he shrieked, the Cuban accent poor from disuse. Trash in the floor. Broken saucers, a heap of old magazines. He looked them over. Jen’s Revenge. Kendra’s Baby Bump. J.Lo’s Booty Wars. The shelves bare save for a chipped Garfield mug, two rough spots where its handle had been. I too hate Mondays, he whispered. He went down the hallway, regarding himself in a broken woodframed mirror. The eyes haunted and sunk. Weatherbeaten cheeks, a matted gritty beard. He looked like Viggo Mortensen.
In the parlor, a television set in the corner. Beneath it a Sega Genesis, Battletoads still inside. Arrayed Ikea furniture, brittle and sagging as always. He climbed the stairs and walked through the bedrooms. Everything covered with ash. In a child’s room, a Tickle Me Elmo on the dresser. He went to it, lodestar of plush, the crimson jape. The man squeezed the doll and a thin laughter filled the room. Remains of joy discaptured. He took out his pocketknife and stabbed at the toy until it was no more than scrap and fluff. Breathing hard, he watched as a plastic eyeball rolled slowly across the floor and settled against the moulding. Then he went to the other rooms.
He emerged into the gray with three good blankets and the J.Lo magazine and laid it all in the cart. The boy handed him the pistol.
Was it okay in there? the boy said.
Yes, it was okay.
Were you scared?
No, the man said. Theres little left to be afraid of.
They set out along the road again and the boy looked back at the shinglefallen house that receded into haze. There wasnt anything scary inside, Papa?
There was no basement dungeon thing?
No. There was no basement dungeon thing.
Okay. The boy was silent for a moment, then looked up at him. There were no people locked in an underground room? With a secret hatch? And they were eating each others feet and hands and things?
The man frowned at the boy. No. There was nothing of the sort. Where do you get such ideas?
The boy shrugged.
They trod on, and after a time the man smiled. There was a Tickle Me Elmo though.
The boy brightened. There was? May I have it, Papa? he said.
Oh. I’m sorry. He scanned the cart, feigning concern. I must have forgotten it.
The boy tried to hide his disappointment. Thats alright Papa, he said. My rusty beancan is better anyway.
Later in the day the boy turned to him. Can you tell me about apostrophes?
What do you want to know about them?
I dont know. Where did they all go?
I dont know, the man said, and it was truth. He didnt know where all the apostrophes had gone.
In the gray and cloven coldstunt they came upon a supermarket. A few old cars in the lot, the windswept bleary goam. The man pushed the cart towards the cartstation nearest the entrance, nesting it with the others, and went inside. The boy gripped his hand. They walked slowly up and down the aisles, hoping to find something that had been overlooked. A bottle of water. A can of soup. Craisins, even. In the dustfilled refrigerator case he came upon a warm stack of Lunchables. With his hand, he brushed one clean and looked it over. The ham, cheese, and crackers each sat in its individual station, looking suspiciously fresh. The man’s eyes narrowed as he inspected the pink roundlet of ham, the tiny orange cheddarblock.
Is it okay to eat, Papa?
I dont think so, he said, laying it back with the others. There’s something not right. We’d best not take the chance.
By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar, the work of colascavengers. He sat and ran his hand around inside the gutted machines and in the second one found a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Mountain Dew.
What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat.
Oh. What is it though?
He frowned as he looked at the garish can, its mad red typeface. I cant really say. High fructose cornsyrup. Yellow number five. A few other things. It’s good. Try it.
The man slid his thumbnail beneath the aluminum tab on the top of the cylinder, squeezing the ringside opposite with his forefinger. Leveraging at the rimple, he pushed upwards, springing the lidsheath below. There was a crisp popping noise as the ovoid sheath lowered into the canchamber, releasing the fizzing sugardrink. After flattening back the tab at the rimplejoint with his thumb, he handed it to the boy. It’s more complicated than it looks, he said.
The boy sniffed at the can, eyes batting at the fizz. It smells kind of funny.
He looked at his father uncertainly and then tilted the can and drank. An odd look crossed his face. It tastes like pee-pee.
Yes, a little bit. Sweet, sweet pee-pee.
You can have it, Papa.
I want you to drink it.
No, it’s your treat. Drink it.
The boy took another sip and they sat in silence, each in his own thoughts. The man recalled an old television show whose title now escaped him though he felt certain that two characters had been called Roz and Bull. Such happiness as he had never known. Madcap wheelings, a sundrous reverie. The judge’s sly magic. After a time, the gray light outside began to fade. We should go, the man said, lifting their knapsacks. Did you like your treat? The boy nodded and managed a weak smile. Yes, Papa. It was very good. Thank you. The man waited until the boy’s back was turned and bent to heft the can. It was still full.
I’ve got an affinity for diagrams. I find the books of Edward Tufte fascinating, and my interest in such things extends even to the “infographics” contained in most newspapers. I like the idea of distilling something complex down to a visual representation.And what is more complex than Finnegans Wake, which was the subject of a dense and mysterious-looking diagram from the book Vision in Motion by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Richard Kostelanetz highlights the diagram in an essay about Moholy-Nagy, about whom he writes “Need it be said that no other modern artist wrote as well about literature?”Kostelanetz goes on to write “What Moholy established in Vision in Motion was a model of writing about all the arts as a single entity, to be called art, whose branches (literature, painting, etc.) were merely false conveniences conducive to specialization and isolation.” (via)This multi-discipline approach would seem to be of particular use in our multimedia world. It’s brings to mind another creative attempt to parse a complex work of literature via non-traditional means: the Pynchon wiki.
The concept of self-improvement through reading has always struck me as hopelessly vexed. I was surprised and delighted, then, to discover in Megan Hustad’s How to Be Useful an erudite, pragmatic, funny, and endearingly humble “Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work.” It was the kind of book I wish someone had given me when I was fresh out of college.Back then, in the giddy afterglow of the Clinton years, my enormous sense of entitlement hid behind a contorted ideological posture. Sure, I would benefit financially from global capitalism, but I would maintain my purity by doing a really mediocre job. (Take that, Milton Friedman!) What’s refreshing about How to Be Useful is that it presents an ethical, rather than a moral, argument for working hard. Hustad doesn’t attempt to say that you should work for The Man; rather, she argues that if you have to, you might as well do it well.Surprisingly, the secret to success, according to Hustad’s meta-analysis of a century of business advice, is making yourself indiscriminately useful to those around you. At some point, she argues, people will want to return the favor. And in the meantime, while you may not have addressed global economic inequality, you will have made the world around you a little more pleasant for your coworkers and for yourself.This week, we’ve invited Ms. Hustad to give us some “Usefulness Training” based on our own first-job hijinks. Every day, one of our contributors will post an anecdote about his or her misguided work ethic. Hustad will rate us on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being Mildly Useless, and 5 being Irremediably Useless. She’ll also try to tease out the misguided assumptions we held upon entering the workforce, and to explain how we might have conducted ourselves more helpfully. These links will become active as the posts are published:Welcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: AndrewFinally, we invite our readers to contribute their own first-job stories (ideally 100 words or less) in the comments box. At the end of the week, perhaps we’ll ask Ms. Hustad to respond to one of them.
I’d noticed that over the last few months, John McPhee’s articles in the New Yorker have been somewhat thematically linked, and it occurred to me that his next book would probably be about that theme, transportation. Based on the contributor’s notes from last weeks issue, it appears as though this is indeed the case: “This piece” – about coal trains – “is part of a series about freight transportation that will be published as a book, Uncommon Carriers, in May.” None of those articles are available online, but off-hand I recall ones about river barges, UPS’s gargantuan shipping operation and riding along in a tanker truck. In an interview at the New Yorker site, McPhee talks a little bit more about the book, which he says grew out of his work on Looking for a Ship – which Emre and I both read recently. He also discusses the enormity of his twenty year undertaking, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about American geology, Annals of the Former World.
“Under a black cloud, the prison. And within the prison, a bright rebel. The walls were extremely high, and although this was not possible, they appeared to lean inward yet also to bulge outward, and they were topped with a luminous frosting of broken glass.” This, of course, is an excerpt from Marlon Brando’s posthumous (and swash-buckling) novel Fan-Tan. If you really want to get into it, the rest of the excerpt is here, mateys.Previously: Ask a Book Question: The 29th in a Series (I Coulda Been a Contendah)
How do I occupy myself during the hours upon hours that I must spend in my car each week? My boredom with the music offered on commercial radio stations and (sadly) LA’s current array of noncommercial radio stations has led me more and more to listen to the various talk radio outlets, both public and commercial. The fact that my car doesn’t have a cd player exacerbates this situation, and the selection of tapes scattered around my car, under seats and wedged in pockets, is a sad bunch, indeed. And too often, in fact there are several blocks of time during the day when this occurs, there is nothing the least bit compelling on the talk outlets. In this situation I am resigned to listening to either music I don’t like or talk I’m not interested in, which is why listening to the audio version of James McManus‘s Positively Fifth Street last year was such a revelation. Having a good book to switch over to when radio went bad was a lifesaver. And you must understand, driving in Los Angeles is a life and death situation, and often your sanity is the first thing to go. Many people I know here have complicated arrangements which keep them entertained. Some have industrial-sized binders of cds that they rotate in and out of their cars, always fearing that a criminal might wipe out their entire music collection by breaking just a single pane of glass. Others resign themselves to staying on top of every trend in car and/or portable audio and month after month discmen give way to mp3 players followed by cd/mp3 players followed by iPods and the inevitable satellite radio, the current savior of all who must spend hours in transit. I fit in to neither category, and books on tape and cd are both costly and bulky, so I am always searching for my own solution to the mobile entertainment dilemma… Here, maybe, is a solution: an interesting article a while back in the New York Times about the digital revolution in audiobooks caught my eye. It’s already in the pay-to-read archives at nytimes.com , but I found a mirror of it here. Of course, in order to take advantage of this I would have to purchase some sort of digital audio device (an iPod would be pretty sweet), but the fact that I could use it to listen to books as well as music makes the idea much more appealing. Digital audiobooks are much more convenient and much cheaper than their cd and tape counterparts, and with the proliferation of portable digital audio devices, I suspect that this will be big trend in books this year.