After some email discussion, it appears that the consensus is that Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is the lone book by a young writer from the past few years that will have the staying power to last generations. [Embarrassing author’s note: due to an unhealthy aversion to hype and a disproportionate dislike of Franzen because of his self-involved non-fiction, I have until now held out against reading this book. Now chastened, I will begin reading it by Monday] Meanwhile a couple of folks followed my lead to add some names to the slightly older than 50 category. Garth suggests Salman Rushdie (age 56), who is undoubtedly a highly skilled writer, but one who I think may be better remembered for his role as a pawn in the Ayatollah’s dalliance with contemporary literature, and less for any of the particular novels he has written. He does have an incredibly attractive wife though. Brian meanwhile suggested that the late W. G. Sebald (dead at age 57) is sure to be considered an indispensible, classic author one day. As is often the case, his already stellar reputation as a writer jumped up a notch as eulogizers strained to deliver Sebald the praise that he surely would have recieved, parcelled out over the remainder of his years, had he not died. As so often happens, Sebald’s untimely death may boost him towards immortality in the eyes of readers. His reputation aside, he is undoubtedly worth reading: both Austerlitz and The Emigrants are highly recommended.
In case you haven't been to your local drugstore and noticed that they removed all of the useful items to make way for Christmas decorations, the holidays are here. Here at The Millions headquarters we've got our turkey pan ready for a Thanksgiving feast. In fact, I see a lot of good food in my future... and of course the cruel flipside to all that eating is the horror of holiday shopping. There are articles coming out everywhere saying that this year's holiday season will be big, which must make retailers happy, but there probably won't be any rejoicing until they have the cash in hand. From my own limited observations, people already seem to be shopping for books this year, and with no clear "hot book gift" out there folks seem to be spreading the joy around, at least so far. So here's what I've spotted lately in the hands of eager book buyers:In fiction Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code continues to sell at an ever-increasing rate. This sort of thing happens every couple of years, and it is pretty interesting to watch a new super-seller burst onto the scene backed by savvy marketing and a steamroller of word of mouth. Brown has now assuredly joined the ranks of John Grisham, Tom Clancy and the rest, and true to form his once forgotten backlist (Angels & Demons, for example, originally released in 2000 to no acclaim) has now hit bestseller lists. Almost like hitting the lottery. People also continue to buy some of the more bookish titles out there. I've already mentioned DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little which continues to sell well on the strength of its Booker Prize win, and Train an LA noir novel by Pete Dexter (which I really dug) is doing quite well also. The big newcomer, to my eyes, is Tobias Wolff whose first novel Old School (no relation) has hit shelves. There was an excerpt of this in the New Yorker way back a few months ago which I enjoyed, and people who have read a lot of his other work (the memoir and short stories) seem excited to read this new book. What is astonishing to me, though, is how big a literary name Wolff has become without, until now, having written a novel (in a day and age when readers supposedly only care about novels). I suppose this is a testament to the quality of his PEN/Faulkner Award-winning memoir This Boy's Life and his various short story collections (Back in the World for example).Fiction is all well and good, but when people buy books as gifts, four times out of five they buy non-fiction. The reason: you don't have to have read the book to know what you're getting; Madeleine Albright's memoir is Madeleine Albright's memoir, but who knows what sordid scenes lurk in the middle of The World According to Garp. Of course one of the current big sellers, The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970-1980, is full of sordid middle parts, but I think the folks giving and receiving that one know what they're getting into. Meanwhile, in less sordid waters, the ranting Left continues to redouble its efforts against the ranting Right with Michael Moore's sure-fire bestseller Dude, Where's My Country?. Another big seller right now is a book that I can't wait to read, Living to Tell the Tale the first volume of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' memoirs. Once I get to it, I'm sure I'll talk about it a lot here. Artist David Hockney's new book Hockney's People is also selling well. It's a collection of his portraits, both of himself and of his various friends and lovers. I'm not a huge fan of Hockney, but I like his portraits; they tend to be warm and interesting.Paperbacks, meanwhile, are not big sellers during the holidays, which is why I don't have much to report on this front. The only serious paperback that has been selling really well of late is Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, which is probably piggy-backing the success of her recent memoir/family history Where I Was From. The other big selling paperbacks are destined for stocking stuffer status, which I'm sure is just what their authors hoped for. Try Russ Kick's 50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know for your paranoid relatives and Michael Flocker's The Metrosexual Guide to Style for the trendy, sexually ambiguous ones.Extravagant Gift Alert: Have you seen this!?!?! How can something so silly be so expensive and.... huge (it weighs 20 lbs.!). Now if that isn't nearly expensive or heavy enough, try this one... Still not enough? Try the "Champion's Edition". These heavyweights weigh in at 75lbs, by the way.
We think we know people so well, but then real honest to God information comes out about them in a court proceding (or a Smoking Gun investigation) and we find out how wierd they really are. This is doubly true for celebrities, though, it turns out, not always literary ones. Case in point, Dan Brown, who I never thought of as much of a public figure and who always seemed to me to be nothing more than the bland face behind the Da Vinci Code juggernaut, has his quirks, but not very exciting ones it seems. We're discovering this as a result of the plagiarism trial currently under way in England where he's been accused of lifting the premise for his book from Holy Blood, Holy Grail. On to the quirkiness: according to a story in the Guardian, "his witness statement reveals his working method, beginning at 4am, seven days a week, with an antique hour glass on his desk to remind him to take hourly exercise breaks." "push-ups, sit-ups and some quick stretches. I find this helps keep the blood - and ideas - flowing," adds a story in the Independent. Well, if that's all it takes... Also noted at the trial: Blythe, his wife, does the lion's share of his research; he moved on to writing after a failed career as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles; his parents hid his Christmas gifts and he had to decifer a treasure map to find them.(via the Publishers Lunch newsletter. The free one. It's all I can afford.)One more thing. I haven't been following this trial very closely, but I do know one thing: Holy Blood, Holy Grail has been an incredibly huge seller ever since Da Vinci Code came out. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
And now it is time to go. After more than three and a half years in LA, a city I knew nothing about, hated, grew to love, and still kind of hate, Ms. Millions and I are hitting the road. First there will be a wedding and then a new start in Chicago where I will attempt to be a student again. I fear that the culture shock I experienced upon arriving in Los Angeles will pale in comparison to the culture shock of leaving LA now that I have grown so accustomed to its inherent weirdness. Still, I managed to carve a niche for myself here and perhaps I can do that again somewhere new. Funny that I didn't figure it out at the very start, but this "niche," this sudden feeling of comfort in a bewildering place would have a lot to do with books.First, some history. I have always read a lot. Early on it was to combat my chronic insomnia, and I guess it just took. But there was a time here in Los Angeles during my first year that I would find myself without a book. This had never really happened to me before. Whereas I used to have a stack of books next to my bed ready for devouring, I had now resorted to fishing out old Entertainment Weeklies from under the coffee table. I was distracted, profoundly so. I was in a new place trying to be good at jobs I didn't care about, lacking ambition, and devoted to those twin goddesses of self-diversion, television and video games. But then things happened, too numerous and predictable to mention here, and I found myself unemployed again and ready to try something new. So I said the hell with it and walked into a little bookstore on the Sunset Strip. Moments after I got the job I remembered (how had I forgotten?) how much I love books. And soon my hunger for words became insatiable, like that of a beggar who suddenly has daily access to feast worthy of a king. Soon I felt guilty. I had to share.My friend Derek, always a step ahead, had begun blogging. I pronounced it to be silly and a huge waste of time and then promptly started my own blog. I realized after a month or so that it had to be about books and nothing else, since that's the only thing that really moved me at the time.And plus, I had so much material: a constant torrent of new releases and a cadre of coworkers and customers with whom I discussed books eight hours a day. (This was when I discovered, by the way, that LA is an obsessively literary place, and it doesn't care if anyone knows it, so it doesn't bother to tell anyone.) And then there were the authors, constant visitors it seemed, nearly all of them willing to chat with the folks who hock their wares. I felt I had to share: Julie Orringer, Jocelyn Bain Hogg (a photographer), Felicia Luna Lemus, George Plimpton, Nick Hornby, Rick Atkinson, Pete Dexter, DBC Pierre and Dan Rhodes, Michele Huneven, A. Scott Berg and Jeff Bridges, Ron Chernow, and of course, one of my heroes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Unbelievable.My last day at the bookstore was yesterday and my last day in LA is tomorrow. I never thought I would live here. I never, ever thought I would love it. It has raised the bar, in my mind, that other cities will have to live up to. But I figure: if I keep seeking out the little bit of LA that no doubt resides in other places, I'll get along just fine. Goodbye, Los Angeles.I'll be back in a week. Read a book while I'm gone!
I saw this post at Galleycat about the mysterious transvestite cult author J.T. Leroy (Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things). As the Galleycat post suggests, there has been much speculation over the years about whether or not Leroy is a real person or perhaps simply the pseudonym and persona of another author, and the evidence remains inconclusive. Having never read any of Leroy's books, I don't have much to say about Leroy as writer, but, as a bookstore clerk in Los Angeles, I did see him (or someone pretending to be him) in the flesh, so I may have something to add on the subject of whether or not he exists.I'm probably a little off on some of the specifics, but here's what I remember. On a weekday sometime during 2002 or 2003 (see, I told you I'm a little foggy here), the manager told us that she'd gotten a call from Leroy's representative and that he would be stopping by to sign some books. We bookstore clerks, aware of Leroy's reclusiveness, mysteriousness, and even the possibility that he didn't exist, awaited his arrival with much curiosity. Many speculated that it was a hoax and he wouldn't show. But then he did. He wore very baggy clothes including a much too large gray hooded sweatshirt. The hood was pulled low over his face, which was further obscured by a disheveled blonde wig. In photos, you almost never see Leroy's face, and even though we were in close proximity to him as he signed books, none of us got a very good look at him. Nor did he talk much, mumbling one word answers or giggling nervously in response to our questions. The strange thing was, even though my coworkers and I had all seen him in the flesh, after he was gone none of us were any more or less sure that he was actually real.
It's come to our attention that one of this season's ballyhooed debut novelists goes by the handle Andrew Foster Altschul. Now there are a number of reasons for using the middle name - maybe he's into trochaic hexameter; maybe he's from a Spanish-speaking country; maybe he wants to avoid being confused with that other Andrew Altschul (we can sympathize). But it also occurred to us that, given the cover design for Mr. Altschul's 600-page debut, Lady Lazarus, customers who forgot to bring their glasses to the bookstore may mistake the novel for some new release by David Foster Wallace. Which, marketing-wise, could turn out to be a happy accident. If all goes well, we'd like to see marketing departments rebrand some of their top-selling authors. Coming soon to a book jacket near you:Chuck Kloster Fosterman, Wallace Foster Davidson, Robert Froster, William Faulkster, Jonathan Safran Fo(st)er, E.M. Fo'ster, J.K.F. Rowling, Kaye Foster Gibbons (author of Ellen Gibbons Foster), Alfred, Lord Fostrington, The Marquis de Fosterford, Foster Coraghessan Boyle, Foster Madox Foster, Haldor Foster Laxness, and Fabriel Fostria Farquez?
● ● ●
No wonder Odysseus had so much trouble finding his way home. It turns out that there is some dispute as to the actual historical location of Ithaca, where Penelope waited for her hero husband to return. As noted in a recent article in The Economist, in The Odyssey, "Homer's Ithaca 'lies low,' but its modern namesake is hilly. And though Odysseus's island is 'farthest to sea towards dusk,' today's Ithaca is close to the mainland in the east." This disparity hasn't gone unnoticed by historians and geographers over the years, but now, for the first time, investigations may provide clues as to the true location of Homer's Ithaca, as geologists using a subterranean scan determine if Kefalonia, to the west of present-day Ithaca, was once actually two islands, the westernmost of which would fit Homer's description. Locals are taking sides as Odysseus' home brings with it a lucrative tourist trade.