The other day I found a fascinating blog devoted to words, linguistics, languages and other related topics called Languagehat. I have been meaning to mention it for a while, and today I have good reason to. I don’t often talk about reference books on The Millions even though I use them every day. Lucky for us, Languaghat keeps track of these sorts of things. Today, he posts links to interesting reviews of new editions of two popular reference books, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.
Airports and airplanes are a great place to go bookspotting. They are also a great place to confirm that the bestseller lists aren’t lying. In fact, it sort of made me realize that there should be two different categories of bestseller lists: one for people who buy less than fifteen books a year and one for people who buy more. The vast majority of people fall into that first category, and when you realize this, you realize why the publishing industry isn’t very different from other entertainment industries. If people have a certain finite number of movies that they will be able to see in a given year given constraints on time and money, I think they will be less likely to take a risk on an unproven independent instead of a known quantity like one of the Matrix movies (maybe this is why sequels do so well.) The same is true of video games and any other form of entertainment that can be consumed as a unit. Therefore it makes sense that authors like John Grisham and Stephen King and many bestselling authors of lesser talent have such a strong repeat business. Readers who don’t have the time or inclination to seek out risky books will therefore prefer to purchase books that they ALREADY know that they will enjoy. (This theory, by the way, also explains why political rant books do so well, no matter how absurd they seem to some people). So, I like to test this theory of book consumption when I travel, because airports and airplanes are the one place where people who do not have the time or inclination to read regularly read for lack of any better way to pass the time. Here’s what I spotted:Buffalo Niagara International Airport:Hide & Seek by James Patterson: “Maggie Bradford is one of the most beloved singer/songwriters anywhere. She’s also the devoted mother of two children. She seems to have it all. And so, how could she have murdered not just one, but two of her husbands? With unrelenting suspense, James Patterson answers that question.”The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank: “As it explores the life lessons of Jane, the contemporary American Everywoman–who combines the charm of Bridget Jones, the vulnerability of Ally McBeal, and the wit of Lorrie Moore–The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing offers wise, poignant, and laugh-out-loud insight.”Q Is for Quarry by Sue Grafton: “The #1 “New York Times” bestseller, based on an unsolved homicide that occurred in 1969, is now available in paperback. Revisiting the past can be a dangerous business, and what begins with the pursuit of Jane Doe’s real identity ends in a high-risk hunt for her killer.”A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: “With the compassionate realism of Dickens and a narrative sweep worthy of Balzac, this internationally acclaimed novel draws an unforgettable portrait of the cruelty and corruption, kindness and heroism of India. Set in 1975, A Fine Balance follows the destinies of four strangers who are forced to share a cramped apartment in an unnamed city by the sea.”Krakatoa by Simon Winchester: “From the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World comes an examination of the enduring and world-changing effects of the catastrophic eruption off the coast of Java of the world’s most dangerous volcano–Krakatoa.”Detroit Wayne County:The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: “In her most highly acclaimed book to date, Kingsolver presents a compelling exploration of religion, conscience, imperialist arrogance, and the many paths to redemption, telling the story of an American missionary and his family in the Congo in 1959.”The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle: “According to Tolle, accessing the deepest self, the true self, can be learned by freeing ourselves from the conflicting, unreasonable demands of the mind and living ‘present, fully and intensely, in the Now.'”Los Angeles InternationalThe Testament by John Grisham: “This ‘compulsory page-turner’ journeys deep into the halls of justice–and the rain forests of Brazil. An eccentric billionaire leaves his fortune to his illegitimate daughter, a Christian missionary in Brazil. Rachel stands to inherit $11 billion, but only if attorney Nate O’Reilly can find her.”Four Blind Mice by James Patterson: “Alex Cross is plunged into a case where military codes of honor conceal dark currents of revenge and ambition, and the men controlling the moves have the best weapons and training the world can offer.”Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling: “In the richest installment yet of J. K. Rowling’s seven-part story, Harry Potter confronts the unreliability of the very government of the magical world, and the impotence of the authorities at Hogwarts. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) Harry finds depth and strength in his friends, beyond what even he knew; boundless loyalty and unbearable sacrifice. Though thick runs the plot (as well as the spine), readers will race through these pages, and leave Hogwarts, like Harry, wishing only for the next train back.”So, there you have it, a small, but interesting cross-section of what the American casual reader is reading right now. Some is good and some is bad, but it’s nice to see so many people reading in one place.
Hello! I’m back, this time reporting from Chicago, IL. Without further ado, I’ll move on to what I have been reading lately. The first book I picked up since my last post was Asne Seierstad’s A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal. I was longing for some non-fiction and Seierstad’s memoirs of her visit to Baghdad three years ago seemed like a good choice (I have been meaning to read it for the past two years). Seierstad is a Norwegian freelance journalist that covered the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan prior to her trip to Baghdad. She arrived in Baghdad roughly 80 days before the war started and began reporting. Seierstad organizes her book in three parts: Before, During, and After. In these simply, yet carefully, organized sections Seierstad conveys her observations of the Iraqi society under Saddam Hussein, during the initial stages of the war, and after the capture of Baghdad. Seierstad has a very personable voice that almost embeds the reader alongside her. She provides good eyes and ears in a society that, under Saddam, became introverted and isolated. One learns about the difficulties of finding out about the regime, the spy network, the reluctance of locals to talk with foreigners, and how Iraqis perceived the brewing US attack on their country.Throughout the whole affair Seierstad also shows the bureaucratic network in Iraq, explains how she had to bribe officials to remain in, and once to re-enter, the country, and draws a unique portrait of Uday, Saddam’s most feared son. Seierstad also communicates to the reader the difficulties endured by average Iraqis, both under Saddam and in face of advancing US troops. Civilian casualties inflicted by “smart bombs,” the lack of resources in hospitals, and the fear of the emerging power vacuum each represent a part of the untold story, particularly during the initial stages of the war. Seierstad also mentions (or maybe even predicts) the emerging power struggle between Shiites and Sunnis as early as April 2003, a month after the war started. A Hundred and One Days is a very insightful and well written piece of work. Some of the stories are heart wrenching and leave one wondering how the great powers, and their leaders, could not foresee all the misery that would follow the war. If you are curious about the mood in Iraq, and mostly in Baghdad, at the onset of the war, I suggest that you get your hands on Seierstad’s brilliant memoirs. (See Andrew’s review of A Hundred and One Days)Next I turned to Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares, which had been sitting on my shelves for the past four years. My brilliant friend Mitch had bestowed the book upon me during our final year of college, telling me that it was the best written novel he ever read. Now, that’s a pretty strong statement but I have to agree with Mr. Maddox that Welsh’s narrative in Marabou Stork Nightmares is smart, innovative, and fluent.The protagonist Roy Strang is in a coma when the reader first meets him. The narrative moves between Strang’s perceptions of things happening around him (such as visits from parents, friends, nurses, doctors, and unrecognized people), to Strang’s fantasy world (set in South Africa, where he and Sandy Jamieson are trying to hunt the leader of the Marabou Storks, who are dominating and ruining the wildlife) and Strang’s autobiography. The three worlds intertwine as Welsh brings the reader to the current day, sheds light on the demise of Roy Strang, connects his fantasy world with the real, and presents a grand finale at the hospital where the protagonist is stranded. This quite awesome story is further enhanced by Welsh’s portrayal of Scots living in “schemes” (i.e. projects) outside Edinburgh and the personal anxieties he created for each character. Child abuse, gay tendencies, rape fantasies, a retarded sibling, a dysfunctional family, and hooligans all add new dimensions to the great story that Welsh devised. If you are a fan of Trainspotting and/or The Acid House, want a good laugh, and can stomach some disturbing moments, you should definitely pick up Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares.See Also: Part 2
Any John Keegan fans out there? Here’s a review of his latest book Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda from the New Zealand Herald. I’m looking forward to reading this one.The Brits have something called the WHSmith Book Award, which is basically a “people’s choice” award for books. If you are so inclined, you can vote now. Some interesting nominations include Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the adult fiction category, former professional wrestler/current professional novelist Mick Foley‘s Tietam Brown in the debut novel category, and LA Weekly contributor Geoff Dyer‘s book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It in the travel category. I wonder how something like this would go over in the States.