So, maybe you’re curious about what books people are reading right now. I’ll start with new fiction. There’s a lot of interesting new books out there right now. The book that everyone is talking about remains The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem has recently been interviewed in periodicals ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the Paris Review, and the book is the current pick for countless book clubs. Despite the hype, this book is a worthy read, and you’ll have something to talk about at cocktail parties. In the category of science fiction for those who don’t typically read science fiction comes Quicksilver, the first book in a new series by Neal Stephenson. The book has been out for a week and is already flying off the shelves, most likely to the very same folks who are always telling me how much they love Stephenson’s previous novels, especially Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. Meanwhile, Zoe Heller is nearing breakthrough status with her second novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, which is about a teacher who carries on an affair with her fifteen year old student. It sounds trashy, but from what I hear it turns out to be a nuanced and moving character study. It’s been short-listed for the Booker Prize and is beginning to sell accordingly. Also short-listed and selling incredibly well in England is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Following in the footsteps of fellow young Londoner Zadie Smith, Ali’s debut novel is another unsparing look at multi-cultural London. Finally, another debut, this one is a cleverly wrought time traveling romance by Audrey Niffenegger titled, appropriately, The Time Traveler’s Wife. So there you go. A few things to read this fall. Stayed tuned for the next installment: new non-fiction.
Book bannings at elementary school libraries are so commonplace as to barely be newsworthy it seems, but I did find the furor over gay penguins in North Carolina to be amusing. The fuss is over a book called And Tango Makes Three about a pair of male penguins at a zoo in (where else) New York City, who adopt a baby penguin.”My Two Dads” this is not, however, as some felt it promoted homosexuality. So much so, according to the AP story, that school officials jumped the gun and removed the book from shelves without putting it through the formal review process, which must be triggered by parents actually requesting that the book be removed. I can just imagine school officials checking their watches glumly, wondering when the parents will finally arrive with their pitchforks and torches. My favorite part of the story, though, is that the AP calls the tale of this penguin family a “controversial but true story,” as if it’s so outrageous (gay penguins!?) that some nefarious person must have made it up.
Biographer Charles Shields has already put this request out on many book blogs, but since he asked, I thought I’d share it here, as well:This past June, I published Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Now I’m beginning work on the first authorized biography – the first biography at all, actually – of Kurt Vonnegut. I’d like to hear from any of your readers about their experiences with Vonnegut, either personally or with his novels.Shields can be reached at [email protected] As a big Vonnegut fan, I’ll be looking forward to this one.Related: Some reactions to Shields’ book on Harper Lee.
Just as I (and several others) suspected! The New York Times piece on the best novels of the last 25 years was just a ploy to get mentioned on blogs. By way of proof, check out what I found in the traffic logs for The Millions today:Time/Date: Thu_Jun__1_13:09:16_2006_DSTVisitor IP: nytgate05.nytimes.comReferred by: www.technorati.com/search/www.nytimes.com/2006/05/21/books/fiction-25-years.htmlSeriously, I think it’s great that folks at the Times read blogs, and I’m glad they care that bloggers read the Times, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to just to get mentioned by us.(For those of you unfamiliar with traffic logs, the above basically means that someone at the Times arrived at The Millions after checking Technorati to see which blogs referenced its 25 best books story.)Update: Well, I figured out why the Times was wondering what I wrote about their list. They were putting together this page. So kudos to the Times for acknowledging that this list was the start of a conversation and not a decree and for being willing to host some of the resulting conversation on its site. I’d love to see more of this in the future.
A literary storm has been brewing here in Canada in recent weeks over the publication of the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. (Maybe “literary storm” is pushing it – but there are at least three people weighing in on it). Here’s what seems to have happened: Novelist Jane Urquhart, who was asked to edit the anthology, has put more than a few noses out of joint not just over who was or wasn’t included, but over what she feels constitutes a “short story.”Now, any anthology is inevitably going to leave something out, displease some and enrage a few others, but Urquhart, who by her own admission isn’t an expert of short fiction, chose to include excerpts from memoirs, and, apparently, at least one chapter from a novel, all for the sake of pushing the boundaries of the definition of a “short story”. Which to my mind would be like taking Act 2 of a three-act play and putting it in the same context as distinctly one-act plays. The length isn’t the entire issue, in my mind. A sense of completeness is. A chapter or an excerpt from a novel may indeed have stand-alone properties, but by its very nature as part of a bigger thing, it is incomplete on its own. A finely-crafted short story, however, is complete. And a piece of a memoir? Despite recent memoir/fiction crossovers, a memoir is still a different animal than short story.Why Penguin, in its attempt to publish a definitive collection, didn’t place this editorial task in the hands of a short fiction connoisseur, or, better yet, a panel of connoisseurs who could at least bounce ideas off of each other, is a mystery to me. But, if nothing else, this little tempest has gotten Canadian readers engaged (a few of them fuming, and another leaping to Urquhart’s defense). And with the fairly high-profile press given to the backlash, the omitted authors are getting at least some attention. Shame it had to be on the heels of exclusion from a major anthology.
In noting our new Nobel Laureate on Thursday, I also mentioned that “dating back to my bookstore days, out of all the major literary awards – the National Book Award, the Booker, and the Pulitzer – only the Nobel reliably drove significant interest. On the day the prize was announced, customers on the phone and in person would descend on the store, occasionally leading to problems when a relative unknown with little in print, like Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek, won the award.”Now, granted, this is purely anecdotal, but based on that experience and my haunting of various other bookstores over the years, I’d guess that generally speaking, the awards that generate chatter in the book pages are more important for burnishing writers’ reputations than for inciting genuine interest among the general reading public.It’s very different in the UK, of course, where the Booker Prize is a national event that lands on page one of the country’s newspapers. Even the gamblers get swept up in the action. In my experience, we Americans get swept up too, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up when American writers are excluded from the action. To give some specific examples. Winning the Booker undoubtedly helped The Life of Pi become a big seller in the US, but it was a slow building crescendo of word of mouth that made the book a mega hit. Vernon God Little, on the other hand, not so much. Still, if the Booker were to make American books eligible, a plan that has been proposed and scuttled in the past, I could see it becoming nearly as popular in the US as it is in the UKHere in the States, we have a pair of literary awards that are generally regarded as the most prestigious: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The National Book Award could be the US equivalent of the Booker, but it doesn’t market itself as well. The name is too… on the nose, and the judges have at times shown an odd predilection for the obscure.The Pulitzer, meanwhile, has plenty of name recognition, but it treats its “Letters” awards as little more than afterthought to its centerpiece journalism prizes. Bringing the book award to the forefront and creating a shortlist, as I have suggested, might be enough to create some Booker-esque excitement here in the States.And so, that leaves the Nobel, which in my experience, actually sells books. I think there are a few reasons for this. With its broad slate of awards and century old pedigree, it’s got serious name recognition. At the same time, it doesn’t push aside its literature award to put the spotlight on the other categories. Finally, it recognizes a body of work rather than a single volume, perhaps subconsciously appealing to people in that it presents readers with a reading list ready to be explored.In the end, these awards, even the Booker and the Nobel, are more fun to talk about than to get book recommendations from. I prefer to hear from my trusted fellow readers than any panels of judges.Some other favorite awards: The Lettre Ulysses, the IMPAC, the MacArthur Genius grants
There’s an article in the New York Times today about a Princeton undergrad who used statistical analysis to illuminate the biases of New Yorker fiction editors. Katherine L. Milkman read 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001, and “one main conclusion was that male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.” The 9/11 Commission will release its findings to the public in book form. It’s available for preorder at Amazon. And now hitting shelves, the paperback edition of Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer-winning novel, The Known World. I highly recommend this book.
Following the lead of powerhouses Bookforum and The New York Review, the interdisciplinary magazine BOMB appears to be in the middle of a major project to make a lot of its content available free, online. This should be a boon to highbrow bibliophiles. For years, BOMB‘s author interviews have offered deep perspective on the state of the art, while its monthly publication schedule has indemnified it against the faddishness that characterizes so much cultural coverage. Visitors to the new version of www.bombsite.com can browse interviews with the likes of Peter Nadas and Roberto Bolano (archived from 2001)… as well as the current cover-story: a conversation with Kate Valk, my favorite actor in New York and “a national treasure.” Be sure also to peruse the BOMB’s excellent literary supplement, First Proof.