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.
So, while I was at work yesterday, I finally picked up Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book has been in stores for a while, and yet people continue to talk about it in glowing terms, so I decided I ought to take a look. Considering that this is a book about baseball, I was surprised that people have continued to talk about it even though it’s been out for two months. Usually baseball books interest only the baseball fans who read them, and that’s that. Moneyball, however, appears to transcend the ghetto of sports literature. I manged to breeze through about a hundred pages yesterday, and I have to say, I can’t wait to get back to reading it. The interesting thing about this book is that in discussing the mini revolution that has occurred in the business of baseball, it touches upon a variety of disperate topics. This book is a must read for baseball fans, but it should also be read by anyone who is interested in economics and psychology, as well as by anyone who enjoys a good character-driven, non-fiction book. It’s good stuff.
Film and literature are two vastly different mediums of communication, an argument best captured in the sentiments a friend wrote to me recently:”I identify books with age and place. It’s a nasty habit as it carries with it a certain sentiment that is not in the book itself, rather the impressions of habitat where and when I was reading a particular book, not to mention my desires at the time.”I replied to my friend that he had defined and distilled the reading experience. It’s those precise differences in approach that make the reading experience so monumental. No two people can read a book the same way, particularly people with different life histories.But film is a visual medium. Movies give us iconic images that last a lifetime. Or so I believed until recently.In early 2004 I wrote a series of 28 blithely interconnected short stories for L.A. Stories. One of the tales, “Bill’s Bottle,” is a first-person narrative that provides a voyeuristic look at the tragic death of film icon William Holden from the point of view of the fatal bottle of vodka that contributed to his passing.Immediately after “Bill’s Bottle” appeared on the fiction page at the L.A. Stories website I received perplexed e-mails from my readers, all asking the same question: “Who the hell is William Holden?””I just looked up his movies on the Internet Movie Database,” one reader wrote, “and I have to say that I am not familiar with the man or his work.”Not familiar with the star who appeared in a bevy of classic motion pictures? Consider just a small handful of Holden’s iconic roles: The struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Major Shears in David Lean’s epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Max Schumacker in Paddy Chayefsky’s clairvoyant Network. Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked western The Wild Bunch.There was a time when Billy Wilder’s 1953 classic Stalag 17 – set in an Allied POW camp in World War II during one memorable Christmas, starring Holden as rough-hewn Sergeant Sefton – was a holiday perennial on television. Not anymore. This year I was compelled to rent the movie on video in order to add it to my plate of favorite Christmas movies.I purchased a previously viewed VHS of Stalag 17 at my local Blockbuster just a few days before Christmas. Pawing through the bin of discarded videotapes I discovered a virtual treasure trove of William Holden films being chased out the door for a mere $4.99 apiece: Picnic, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the original Sabrina. (A further irony is that every title mentioned possesses either a theatrical or literary pedigree but that’s another matter entirely.)William Holden was an alcoholic for much of his adult life. Biographer Bob Thomas points out in his book Golden Boy that the ruggedly handsome actor was embarrassed to make a living as an actor, believing the profession to be not only unmanly but downright humiliating. Holden began having a snort or two before scenes, a shyness killer that would eventually kill the man himself in a most gruesome and embarrassing manner.Holden was no Olivier but he was one of the greatest stars who ever graced the silver screen. In 1995 – fourteen years after his death – Empire Magazine selected Holden as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History. Securing Holden’s lofty place in the often-strange intersection between literature and film is this interesting factoid: J.D. Salinger got the name for protagonist Holden Caulfield in the classic book The Catcher in the Rye from the movie Dear Ruth, which starred William Holden and Joan Caulfield.Today, though, William Holden, sadly, is largely unknown. I moved “Bill’s Bottle” to my website earlier this year and reading the site meter for that page provides an excuse to ponder where our culture is going and has gone. “Bill’s Bottle” receives less than two page views per month. On the other hand, “Dead Porn Stars,” a trade magazine piece I wrote for X Biz World exploring those in cyberspace who are cashing in on late, great porn stars, receives over 1,000 page views per week.One thousand page views for dead porn stars per week. Two page views for Bill Holden.You do the math.
I listen to a lot of Public Radio, perhaps too much. And while I probably shouldn’t be scheduling my days around radio shows devoted to cooking or news quizzes, there are some Public Radio personalities that do deserve my devotion (and you probably yours too.) One of these is Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Glass was recently in the news for his vocal protests of FCC crackdowns. In this essay from the New York Times Magazine he takes up for Howard Stern and criticizes the absurdity at the center of the decency battle. And the Houston Chronicle explains that Glass isn’t just a public radio host, he’s also a sex symbol. Often considered one of the funniest voices on radio, David Sedaris is a frequent contributor to This American Life. His fans are already clamoring for his latest book due out this June. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, another of Sedaris’ collections of humorous, autobiographical essays, is previewed here in the Sydney Star Observer. And then there is Terry Gross, master interviewer and host of the long running show Fresh Air. A collection of Gross’ famous interviews will be coming out this fall, titled All I Did Was Ask. Here’s an interview with the queen of interviewers at the Detroit Free Press.
Recently perusing the course offerings for Temple University’s continuing education program here in Philadelphia, Season Evans uncovered what has to be one of the more unsavory market research strategies ever employed by the publishing companies. A course titled (and misspelled) “A Sneak Peak at Next Year’s Bestsellers,” is described as follows:Every fall publishers introduce and promote a new crop of novels, books they hope are future bestsellers. This unprecedented course is your chance to get a sneak preview of five forthcoming novels from major publishers. You will read special advance copies of the books and then, as a class, critique each book and predict what readers and critics will say when the books are actually published. Contributing publishers will include: W.W. Norton, Knopf, Random House and others to be determined.Though it’s not explicitly stated that the students’ output will be delivered to the publishers, it seems likely that the publishers would only participate if this were the case. As Season points out, this would mean that students will be paying the publishers to do market research for them under the guise of learning. The course is taught by Lynn Rosen, “a publishing consultant with twenty-plus years of experience in the book industry as an editor and literary agent,” though its not clear if the concept for this course came from her.Some questions I have: do other people out there agree that this sounds unsavory? I think it is, though I’m having trouble articulating exactly why (beyond the fact that students will be paying for this “privilege.”) Also, is anyone aware of this practice going on elsewhere? Is it commonplace, or is this Temple course an anomaly?
I did terribly at my GREs the first time around (thanks Harry Potter!) and decided to dwell into some more magic to remedy the self-imposed depression that my results caused me. I turned to Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, which I had been meaning to read since it was published in September 2004 – and, of course, mentioned on Max’s August 29, 2004, entry. Ayse, a good friend of mine who lives in Istanbul, was hooked on Messrs. Norell and Strange’s interesting stories last time I visited home and urged me, as a fellow Harry Potter fan, to pick it up immediately. I heeded her advice shortly. For all the speculation out there, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell has nothing to do with the Potter series, except for the main characters being magicians. The novel is set in the early 1800s against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars that are raging on the Continent. Magic has, at that point, been long dead and more of a scholarly interest for gentlemen, who have nothing to do with their endless days on the English countryside. This goes on until Mr. Norell calls upon them and proposes a bet. The agreement is that Mr. Norell will perform a bit of magic for the self proclaimed magicians in the Northern English town of Yorkshire, and if he succeeds they will disband their community and give up all studies of magic. Mr. Norell wins the bet and, as we see throughout the book, gets a step closer to accomplishing his goal of ridding England of all magicians but himself. Since his fellow magicians are mostly scholars and historians Mr. Norell succeeds fairly easily. The London Society, which hears of this eccentric magician’s feats, promptly invites him over for some entertainment. A series of events unfold, leaving the Society in awe and raise the curiosity of the struggling government, which is running out of ideas and resources to stop Napoleon. Soon, Mr. Norell is performing magical feats that win the British Navy some time, trick the French Navy and result in the British victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, making Mr. Norell an irreplaceable commodity to the government. In the meanwhile, another Northern gentleman, Jonathan Strange, arrives in London and is accepted by Mr. Norell as a pupil. Norell and Strange have an interesting relationship that is half mentor-apprentice and half rivalry. In the end Strange becomes just as capable and also enlists his services to assist in the British war efforts against Napoleon in Spain and in the Battle of Waterloo. A falling out between Norell and Strange, as well as some other historical turns suddenly diverts the story line and merges it with the longstanding prophecy of the Raven King, a magician king that once ruled Northern England. Clarke’s first novel is very gripping and greatly organized. There are a lot of footnotes that make the stories more colorful and provide entertaining details and “historical” magic facts. Clarke’s observations and portrayal of English society in the 19th century is very much like Oscar Wilde: witty, snobbish, entertaining and gravely self-conscious. The magic part of the book seems a lot more traditional and scholarly, involving legends, kings, fairies and interactions of the ordinary and magical worlds. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell was definitely one of my favorite reads this year and I would recommend it everyone who likes Oscar Wilde, fantasy, magic and (well yes) Harry Potter.Next I turned to Ahmet Umid’s Beyoglu Rapsodisi for a dose of Turkish reading, per my friend Mehmet’s recommendation. Mehmet suggested that the plot was only decent but that I would get a kick out of reading the story because it was set in Beyoglu, a lively neighborhood in Istanbul. Reading Beyoglu Rapsodisi, in that sense, was similar to reading Arthur Nersesian’s Chinese Takeout, which vividly outlines the East Village, West Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan, arouses feelings of familiarity and belonging, hence drawing you into the story (that is if you live in NYC or know it well) as a better, more careful and personally acquainted observer. As I followed the three friends that are at the center of Beyoglu Rapsodisi (a poor book dealer, a successful textiles/fashion storeowner and a wealthy eccentric) I found myself walking through streets that I love and cherish, going into bars and cafes that I have not been since my last visit, and tasting the drinks and foods they eat on my palate. The friendship of Selim, Kenan and Nihat is also a familiar one that starts in boarding school, grows through college, and always revolves around Beyoglu. Umid constructed a good mystery novel that is as much a portrayal of Beyoglu and individuals within as it is a thrilling read. It is, unfortunately, only available in Turkish. I would recommend it for light beach reading or at home lying on the couch (that’s what I did as I cannot afford to go to beaches these days).Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Last week, on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, George Saunders, Zadie Smith, and Vendela Vida used The Book of Other People as a jumping-off point for a refreshingly heterodox discussion of the craft of fiction.Audio is also available at www.wnyc.org.