One more thing, I almost forgot. Oprah’s Book Club reappeared today with the odd selection of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. As always, there is a special new “Oprah” edition of the book. I think the cover for this one is by far her most self-aggrandizing yet, especially when you consider that this is a classic of American literature. Oprah’s cultish Book Club has, from the start, been offputting to real readers, and, despite the hiatus, it’s clear that little has changed. Maybe Oprah is trying to take the moral highground here by picking a book by a dead writer for whom winning the Oprah lottery could mean nothing (Steinbeck won’t be rocketing from obscurity to fame like some of Oprah’s previous annointed ones). Another plus: Steinbeck can’t pull a “Franzen” and complain about being selected. Furthermore by calling Steinbeck’s masterpiece “The book that brought back Oprah’s Book Club,” she can freely imply some kind of intellectual parity between the book and the Club. The phrasing of the blurb, as well as it’s huge font and placement on the cover, is just shocking, as though East of Eden. is some blockbuster of Oprah’s creation and not the staple of American fiction that most folks read in high school. It seems that Oprah is quite smug in her assumption that not only has the American public never read this great book, but we’d never even heard of it until Oprah was kind enough to bring it to our attention. Wonders never cease… Coming next week, another healthy dose of Harry Potter Mania. Open Wide.
C.S. Forester’s fictional naval hero, Horatio Hornblower (of the Hornblower series of adventure novels), has one of the more memorably silly names in literary history. So, British researchers were quite surprised when they found a real life Hornblower in centuries old census records. Other silly names uncovered: Boadicea Basher, Philadelphia Bunnyface, Faithful Cock, and many more.
I was chided by my buddy Brian for devoting most of my previous post to the “mean book review” and not going into the dumbing down of the book review. To elaborate, along with ratcheting up the level of controversy, the New York Times Book Review is going to shift its focus away from more esoteric and literary fiction. In its place expect to see more non-fiction and more popular fiction reviewed. Also, the reviews themselves may become more bite-sized: “why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do?” Now, I happen to think that the New York Times Book Review isn’t a terribly engaging read in its current incarnation. Typically, I pick it up to see which new books are being mentioned and read reviews of any books that I might have already read or that I am particularly interested in for some reason. All the reviews are essentially the same length and I find that they usually don’t keep me engaged if I’m not already interested in the book that’s being reviewed. I agree that there’s a problem, but I don’t think that the solution is capsule reviews full rancorous banter. Once you start down that road it’s only a matter of time before you start issuing Entertainment Weekly-style report card grades so that we can skip the reviews entirely. I would suggest that they devote at least a few of their pages for longer format reviews where, sure, the book is being reviewed, but it’s really just a jumping off point for a broader discussion of the topic at hand. The New Yorker and the Atlantic do this and they are among the most consistently readable and interesting reviews that I come across. John Updike’s review in the New Yorker of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is an example of this. Believe it or not, the review wasn’t altogether positive, but Updike managed to convey, nonetheless, the essence of the book, and I was able to tell from the first few paragraphs of his review that I wanted to read the book. Another New Yorker book review moment: I can’t even remember the name of the book that Louis Menand reviewed when I realized that I was far more enamored by the writing and breadth of knowledge of the reviewer than by the book being reviewed (which I can’t remember anymore anyway). Menand’s book The Metaphysical Club came out soon after and proved to be even more engaging than that first review that had turned me on to his writing. Those are good “book review experiences,” and if the New York Times Book Review could manage to provide one or two of those a week, they might find the positive change that they were looking for.An update at Poynter Online has Times executive editor Bill Keller saying, “We’re not turning the Book Review into Mad magazine.” And here’s the article that got me started on all this in the first place.
Anyone who read Jon Lee Anderson’s accounts in the New Yorker of the weeks leading up to and during the American invasion of Baghdad probably shares my interest in Anderson’s new book, The Fall Of Baghdad, which chronicles those events. I was recently told by someone from Penguin that this book is all new material, so if you liked the articles, this should be a real treat.In another news, a comment of mine over at Bookdwarf is inspiring some discussion about bloggers trying to make money off of blogs. I encourage you to weigh in if you have thoughts on this.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut— and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
Some quick observations: Bob Woodward’s new book Plan of Attack is selling as fast as I have seen any book fly off the shelf in my two years at the book store: faster than Hillary and approaching Harry Potter levels. One time Millions contributor Kaye Gibbons has a new novel out called Divining Women. Early reviews are mostly good. On the other hand, the review that New York Times’ “Madame” Michiko Kakutani gave Alice Walker’s new book, Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, is just about the most brutal I have ever seen in that paper. View the carnage hereIn Millions news, I’m heading to New York tonight. I’m in a wedding this weekend and there are other East Coast errands to run, so I probably won’t be blogging much, if at all. I will, however, be checking the comments here as well as my email. I don’t know how special this makes me, but I have been asked to be a trial user for Google’s mega-hyped webmail service, GMail, so if you are curious about how well it works, feel free to drop me a line.