People are reading non-fiction, too. The big debut this week is Joan Didion’s new book Where I Was from. It’s part family history, part historical exploration of “where she was from,” the perplexing state of California, a fertile subject for analysis if ever there was one. People are already waving this book above their heads and extolling its virtues much in the same way as they did with her earlier book, Political Fictions. Another politically minded author garnering a wide readership is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, whose op-ed pieces from the last three years have been collected in a single volume entitled, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century. As the title indicates, his columns chronicle the collapse of the prosperity of the previous decade, and the former economist from Princeton feels that the current administration deserves much of the blame. If that’s too heavy, there are some less serious books that are or will soon be best sellers. Among them is a peculiar book that comes to us by way of England. Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott is an astoundingly clever and thorough little collection of trivia that manages to strike the perfect balance between being informative and being fun. For example, go to the official miscellanies website and get the official scoop on how palmistry works, and then feel free to troll around for other odd info at your leisure. Meanwhile, the more musically minded may have caught Martin Scorsese’s seven-part documentary about the blues which is currently airing on PBS. Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick helped compile the companion volume to the documentary entitled, Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, an attractive book that features new essays by David Halberstam, Hilton Als, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elmore Leonard, and others. And finally, all this talk of books about music reminds me of Chuck Klosterman. I may have mentioned a few weeks ago that I was reading Klosterman’s first book, Fargo Rock City, a terribly clever book that seeks to make a case for heavy metal in the annals of music history. The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip. Stayed tuned for the next installment… Paperbacks!
[Recent studies] suggest that children learn best when they are allowed to select their own books… [According to one researcher,] “I don’t think the majority of these kids ever read during the summer, but [being] given the opportunity to select their own books and discuss what they knew… was, in itself, motivating to them.” -The New York Times My Summer Book Report By Zach McCormick Mrs. Bianco’s class, Grade 4 The book I picked to read during my summer vacation was Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth. I picked Portnoy’s Complaint because it was right on my dad’s bookshelf and also because the cover was very yellow and the writing on the cover was very swirly. And I was also pretty curious about Portnoy and his complaint. What is he complaining about, I wondered? I like to complain sometimes, like when my mom forgets to put Fruit By the Foot in my lunchbox, or if she puts a plum in there instead of Fruit By the Foot. So I thought it would be neat to see what he’s complaining about. The first thing he complains about is his mom. I don’t think he likes her very much, because she does really bad things to him. She won’t even let him eat French fries or hamburgers! She says, “Don’t eat French fries with Melvin Weiner after school.” My mom doesn’t want me to eat French fries that much either, but Portnoy can’t EVER have them or he’ll get in trouble. Portnoy also complains about his dad, because he doesn’t know how to hold a baseball bat! Portnoy also talks a lot about his dad’s rectum, which is WEIRD. I never read a book that had the word “rectum” in it before, except maybe the dictionary. I know it’s in there because I looked it up when I was reading “Portnoy’s Complaint.” It means “tush.” Also, besides “rectum,” there are a LOT of bad words in Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth! Portnoy says the “f” word a LOT. I felt kind of bad when I was reading it, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to see those words, and my dad might catch me and then I wouldn’t be able to watch “Phineas and Ferb” for a whole week. That’s what happened when I used his drill, even though I was wearing goggles and I didn’t go ALL the way through the car door. He never caught me reading Portnoy’s Complaint, though. Portnoy also says “bullshit” and “nipple” and “bitches” and “whore” and “ass.” Also, he says “prick” and “tits” and “sex.” And also, “suck” and “crap” and “diarrhea.” (Sorry, Mrs. B!) There are a lot of words in Portnoy’s Complaint that I didn’t really get, like shtupp and schlong and shmutzig and punim. I don’t know what they mean, but they’re really fun to say! Shtupp shtupp shtupp shtupp schlong schlong schlong schlong! There’s a whole part in Portnoy’s Complaint called “WHACKING OFF” that I didn’t really get. Philip Roth, who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, keeps talking about penis, so maybe it’s about peeing? Which I like, especially after asparagus, so it smells like asparagus pee. But Portnoy doesn’t talk about asparagus pee at all. Maybe Portnoy isn’t talking about peeing? What’s a “vaselined upright”? I guess the main part of Portnoy’s Complaint is how he has all of these girlfriends, but he doesn’t really like them, and that’s sort of WEIRD. I don’t have a girlfriend really, but I think if I did, I would like her. DON’T TELL HER, Mrs. B, but I had a SUPER HUGE CRUSH on Danielle S. last year. She wasn’t my girlfriend because I never talked to her, but I really sort of liked her and never threw at her in dodgeball, except the one time when I hit her in the ear and she had to go home. But Portnoy even calls one of his girlfriends a monkey! Monkeys are cool, especially ones that wear clothes, but I don’t think I’d want a monkey for my girlfriend. She’d probably smell bad and have bugs on her, and also she’d try to eat my Fruit By the Foot. I wonder if you had a monkey girlfriend though, if you could play baseball with her. I saw a movie one time where a monkey was a pitcher on a baseball team. That was the best movie. If my monkey girlfriend could play baseball than maybe it would be okay if she was a monkey. Portnoy never did that with his monkey. They were always doing something else, I think. But Portnoy doesn’t like his monkey girlfriend, especially when he calls her a “crazy bitch.” (Sorry, Mrs. B!) He doesn’t like ANYTHING, to tell you the truth. He doesn’t like his parents, or his girlfriends, or even himself, really! He says he’s a barbarian, and a pig, and also “psychoneurotic,” which I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t really sound very great. We had an assembly last year where they did this play, and it was all about how you should like yourself. They sang “I’m unique and unrepeatable” a bunch of times, and it got stuck in my head for about a month! I don’t think Portnoy saw this play, which had puppets in it. I didn’t really like Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, even if it had a yellow cover and swirly letters. It was pretty hard to read, because I didn’t understand a lot of the words, and it made me feel kind of gross, like the time I ate all those Rice Krispies treats at the beach. There were a lot of curses, and Portnoy was angry all the time. He complained about EVERYTHING. I probably should’ve picked Diary of A Wimpy Kid for my summer reading book. P.S., Mrs. B—what does “Jewish guilt” mean?
Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow "Year in Reading" contributor Meghan O'Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I'm thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate's audio podcasts. Future interviews, we're told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
This must be some sign of the times: our friends at The New Yorker are currently offering the DVD-ROM set of "every page of every issue" at the fire sale price of $19.99 (and Amazon has it for as cheap as $16.72 as of this writing, though the sets for sale there may only be through 2005). It would seem that, during the time-intensive process of digitizing the New Yorker archive, technology outran itself. Shortly after the release of the boxed set, as we pointed out last year, "Every page of every issue" became available to subscribers at newyorker.com. That is to say, the DVD-ROM version is already obsolete. Still, there's something amazing - even scandalous - about having the collected labor of White, Addams, Trow, Frazier et al. sitting in a svelte case on your desk. And heaven knows Condé Nast needs the revenue: The New Yorker was apparently its biggest ad-page loser last year, and we took note of a decidedly slimmer Winter Fiction Issue in September.
When I picked up my first Kurt Vonnegut book, Slaughterhouse-Five, I noticed the greatest literary feat I missed out on by growing up in Turkey. My friend Annastacia left a copy at our house and her boyfriend/my roommate Uzay read the book in a day, his first Vonnegut as well. Uzay was so startled that he urged me to pick it up immediately. I did as suggested and was much surprised and pleased. I have yet to read more of Vonnegut's works but his stream of conscious style in Slaughterhouse-Five, the disjointed stories that flow together more like an epic poem, the simplistic wording that carries heavy thoughts and emotions, and the personal reflections mixed with fiction were most startling. It took me only a day to read Slaughterhouse-Five (I am usually a slow reader) and I felt that I should go back and reread it immediately to better grasp the stories contained therein. The combination of World War II stories that culminate in the bombing of Dresden, the life of a stereotypical suburban businessman in post-war America and his interactions with Tralfamodarian aliens are at times difficult to piece together. They do, nevertheless, connect on a certain, higher level, which I hope to better understand by reading more of Vonnegut's works, following the characters that reappear in his novels and get a better sense of his outlook on matters of life and death. And so it goes.Around the same time that my friend John gave me Crash, he also gave me Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude. It took me a long time to get into The Fortress of Solitude. I picked it up in mid-summer and read about fifty pages and stopped. Then I saw The Squid and The Whale, which I liked very much, and the Brooklyn feel of it made me return to Lethem's novel. I read another forty pages and stopped again. In the meanwhile, I was reading other books for fun or out of interest. Around Thanksgiving I picked up the novel again. I was preparing for my 2nd annual Chicago trip to visit Mr. and Mrs. Millions, brother Jozef and aunt Murvet, and I thought that a journey would be the best opportunity to turn to The Fortress of Solitude one last time. I am very glad I did, because now that I fully read Dylan Ebdus's story I am mesmerized by Lethem's style and the strong storyline that picks up after, for me at least, page 120 and accelerates until the reader hits the end. Dylan Ebdus is the sole white kid in a mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Dylan, the only child of a not so successful painter and an eccentric hippie mother, is a total stranger to the culture of the block and is constantly "yoked," i.e. bullied, humiliated and robbed, by his peers. One day Mingus Rude moves to the block with his once famous, now low profile, soul singer father Barrett Rude Jr. Mingus and Dylan become steady friends and slowly, sometimes painfully, Dylan embarks on a new path. While the first third of the novel is slow and establishes a strong setting, the second third flies by as the reader flips through the adventures of Mingus and Dylan in the '70s, sees them drop out of high school/go to college, smoke a lot of dope, become crack/coke heads, discover and dive into music, and form their own tag team. The language is rich with graffiti, music and popular culture in the '70s. At the third and final section of the novel the reader finds Dylan in Berkeley during the '90s. A lot has changed except for his fascination with music and adaptation of a white-boy immersed in African-American culture life style. It is easy to empathize with Dylan as he tells his story through music ranging from Brian Eno to Talking Heads, Devo, the Temptations, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. Dylan's struggles with his insecurities and search for identity are amazing portrayals with very strong supporting characters. There also is the parallel story of Aeroman and the ring, which I am still trying to decipher and digest. I am very glad to have read The Fortress of Solitude, it is, along with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, one of my favorite reads in 2005 and I definitely intend to read more of Lethem's writings in 2006.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
BMW got huge publicity and probably sold a few cars with their BMW Films campaign a few years back, in which the company commissioned several famous directors to create short films that featured various BMW models. Now BMW is trying again with BMW Audiobooks, "a unique series of specially-commissioned short stories showcasing the work of some of the finest contemporary writing talent." A new story will be available for download every two weeks. Now, this being BMW, I'm sure the product placement will be done in a classy way, but I can't help but think that this does little more than turn "some of the finest contemporary writing talent" into shills writing ad copy. And lest BMW think they are being innovative, it should be known that another car company was seen paying an author to get characters into its cars less than two years ago.
My dad's family is from New Jersey, and they are proud of it. I lived there for a couple of years when I was younger. Folks from Jersey tend to have chips on their shoulders because New Jersey is the butt of a lot of jokes. They will strenuously claim that the state consists of more than just the Turnpike. They will describe the beaches and the countryside. Now they don't have to bother with the arguments, they can just leave the Encyclopedia of New Jersey sitting out on the coffee table. With nearly 3,000 entries and lots of entertaining factual tidbits like "did you know that New Jersey was once divided into two parts -- East Jersey and West Jersey?" perhaps this book will help Jersey join its rightful place among the states. Fittingly, the project was inspired by a classic case of New York envy. As this FOX News article recounts, Marc Mappen, head of the New Jersey Historical Commission, was perusing a popular encyclopedia of New York City and decided that New Jersey ought to have its own reference book. He worked with co-editor Maxine N. Lurie for ten years, and now the book has arrived. You can check out some sample entries hereMy sources are telling me that The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler is turning out to be something of a surprise hit. Two largely positive reviews from the New York Times, one in the daily and one in the Sunday Book Review, are helping. This sort of meta-fiction has proven quite successful in recent years; The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair are two examples. And believe it or not, a book that centers on a book club is seen as perfect for book clubs.