Hardcovers are expensive! So, what about paperbacks. What are people buying and reading right now? Last year’s addition to the Mariner Books “Best American” series of the Dave Eggers edited The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002 was a big hit. It reprinted the best and the wierdest articles and stories culled from a wide array of publications from The Onion to Spin to The New Yorker. People are quite excited to see that another installment is out. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 is once again edited by Eggers and the book features a clever introduction by none other than Zadie Smith. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, an early Oscar favorite, is already pushing sales of the book that it’s based on, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. The book gets rave reviews from everyone who reads it (and I suspect the movie will be similarly received once it hits theaters.) Also, in fiction, two big award winners are selling like proverbial hotcakes now that they are out in paperback. Last year’s Booker Prize winner Life of Pi by Yann Martel shows no sign of slowing after months of steady sales. Almost every single person I know has read it by now. New in paperback is the book that was awarded last year’s Pulitzer, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, a sweeping family saga with a healthy dose of gender confusion. Finally, a book that I haven’t mentioned in at least a week, one of my all time favorites, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis, a future Nobel Prize Laureate if there ever was one. It’s been nearly a year since I read this book, and I still can’t stop talking about it. I would estimate that my endless chatter about this book has sold hundreds of copies by now, and if the people who bought it recommend it to their friends, as they surely must have, and those friends recommend it to their friends and so on, then before long we will have a worldwide Maqroll revolution on our hands, and the world will be a better place.
Recently, it has come to my attention that (1) not everyone is a librarian on Twitter or Tumblr, ergo (2) not everyone is intimately familiar with every action taken, decision made, and word spoken by Neil Gaiman, foremost living member of the National Dudes Who Wear Only Black Hall of Fame. In some respects, your ignorance is enviable -- it is possible to know too much about even this leader of men, this King of all Geeks. But in at least one respect, it is a crying shame, because it means too few of you have heard of Gaiman’s greatest idea: All Hallow’s Read, a Gaiman-invented yearly tradition where, throughout the week of Halloween, participants give their friends and loved ones scary books. As someone who models most attempts to spread her personal taste on the Marshall Plan, I am apt to seize any opportunity for book-gifting with fevered delight and am eager for this tradition to catch on. Though I am loathe to imply that King Neil created this holiday for personal gain, it’s impossible to deny that he has written some deliciously spine-tingling books for children. While Coraline's button-eyed Other Mother and The Graveyard Book's villainous Jack have been giving 10-year olds nightmares for years now, Gaiman’s attempts to traumatize younger readers have been tragically overlooked. So, for this column, I wanted to call attention to his picture book The Wolves in the Walls. In this funny-creepy story, Lucy hears clawing, gnawing, nibbling and squabbling in the walls of her creaky old house. Even though her mom, dad, and big brother insist that it’s something mundane -- mice or rats or bats -- Lucy knows in her tummy that it’s wolves, and her beloved pig-puppet agrees. And if the wolves come out of the wall, it is all over -- everyone knows that. But how is Lucy to keep everyone safe when no one else believes her? The dreamy illogic of Gaiman’s story is matched perfectly by Dave McKean’s nightmarish photo-collage paintings, all weird angles and blurry edges, creating a picture book that’s riveting, strange, and -- the end -- enchantingly goofy. For the I-Can-Read crowd, eager to get their scares independently, Alvin Schwartz’s classic In a Dark, Dark Room is tough to beat. Speak to any child born around its publication in 1984 and I guarantee that they’ll recall one of Schwartz’s hauntingly retold folktales. Despite their format-required economy of words, these stories and their brilliant details -- green ribbons that anchor severed heads, boys who hitch rides after being dead for a year, and dark, dark rooms in dark, dark houses in dark, dark woods -- make a lasting impression on the reader. Balanced nicely between challenging-but-not-impossible sentences and Dirk Zimmer’s R. Crumb-like, pencil drawn illustrations, this book will be a delightful change for beginning readers hungry for something a bit more startling than cats in hats. Often, once children start being able to read independently, parents and teachers stop taking time to read out loud to them -- but when perfect read-aloud books like Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm exist, why would any parent be so foolish? This hilarious and gore-filled adventure sets out to shake off decades of prim, Disney-proper fairy tale retellings and return Grimm’s stories to their bloody roots. Gidwitz takes his heroes from one well-known Grimm’s tale -- Hansel and Gretel -- sends them weaving through five lesser-known, deeply-gruesome stories to make one overarching adventure, rife with lopped off limbs, cannibals, and truly rotten parents -- just as the Brothers Grimm intended. Two things make this book such a perfect read-aloud: first, the woven-together stories give the book a structure that’s half continuous, half-episodic -- like a television season. Natural break points are built in, so that the story can be set aside and revisited without its narrative flow deteriorating. Second, Gidwitz peppers each chapter with hilarious direct addresses, ruminating on subjects as varied as the best way to get a girl to fall in love with you (NOT luring her onto a boat and kidnapping her, apparently) and the Devil’s scalp sensitivity. These asides provide a humorous counterbalance to the resurrected Grimmness, making for a tale that’s surprisingly light-hearted despite its protagonists getting decapitated (and reanimated) in the very first chapter. For independent readers who prefer that all their gory details be factual, Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer is an excellent choice. This skinny little book about one of America’s most fascinating historical moments is both meticulously researched and tremendously engaging. Schanzer uses historical details with savvy to give the story immediacy, allowing readers to feel the muck of flood-drenched roads or exclaim with horror at the true ingredients of a witch cake -- rye flour, ashes, and the urine of the witch’s victim. Similarly, rather than situating the reader outside the Puritans’ belief system to judge them and feel superior, she depicts their beliefs with anthropological accuracy. This empathetic depiction forces the reader to truly inhabit the Puritans’ terrible “Invisible World,” where demons could torment you and God’s will was cruel and unknowable. Illustrated by the author with woodcuts in black, white, and red, this book is sure to give your budding historian the creeps. Finally, no column on scary kids books would be complete without a mention of John Bellairs and his Edward Gorey-illustrated classic, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, my pick for advanced independent readers. Sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan after the death of both his parents, 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt is initially delighted to learn that both Jonathan and his uncle’s best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, are witches. But when, in an attempt to win back his only friend, Lewis uses his uncle’s magic books to summon a spirit, he unwittingly resurrects the wicked witch who formerly owned his uncle’s rickety mansion and discovers just how dangerous magic can be. First published in 1973, this book and its companions -- The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring -- are noteworthy for the way they ground the chills of a Gothic mystery in the everyday woes of being a fifth grader. Bellairs dedicates equal time to sinister spirits and chubby, un-athletic Lewis’s struggles to bond with his baseball-obsessed classmates. Rather than undercutting the tension, this commitment to emotional realism renders the book’s magical villainy more vivid by creating a stronger bond between Lewis and the reader. This set of five books is, of course, only a small sample of the many terrifying options that exist for younger readers. For further suggestions, you can visit the All Hallow’s Read website or -- of course -- talk to your local children’s librarian or bookseller. I bet you will find their ability to read your child’s mind positively spooky.
I've returned from my trip home with lots of booty. Many of these books have been added to my reading queue, which has swelled to encompass the entire length of the shelf on which it sits. Time to get reading. For Christmas I received a couple of military histories by the venerable brit, John Keegan, The First World War and Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. I'm excited about both of these. I know little of the details of World War I beyond that it was a gruelling and brutal trench war. I think I mostly know this from reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque when I was in high school. The second is interesting because the issue of intelligence seems to have recently become much more important to national defense than firepower and bombs. I also was gifted a copy of John McPhee's book-length panegyric to the American shad (The Founding Fish as it were), a topic that would shatter me with boredom were it not for McPhee's otherworldly ability to write engaging, entertaining prose about any topic under the sun. My mother continued her tradition (one that has proved rewarding over the years) of giving me a serendipitous art book. This year's selection was Juan Munoz. I know next to nothing about Munoz, but, as is often the case with these art books that my mother gives me, I'm sure I will suddenly notice his work everywhere and by the year's end he will have become one of my favorite artists. My birthday rolled around, too, as it so often does, a mere eleven days after Christmas, and some more books came my way. You could count the number of poetry books I have on my book shelves on one hand, but with the addition of C. K. Williams National Book Award Finalist, The Singing, which includes one of my favorite poems from recent years, "The Hearth," I now have one more. I also was presented with a copy of Scott McCloud's fascinating meta-comic about comics and why we can't help but love them, Understanding Comics. Hope everyone had a great holiday, as for me, I had a blast, but I'm happy to get back to the grind, so to speak. Expect more soon, I've got lots to write about at the moment.
Some bloggers mentioned Penguin UK's "goodbooking" campaign last spring when it was first announced, but now that it's been up and running for a while, I wanted to revisit it. Oh... my... God. Apparently it's not possible to get people interested in reading unless you provide them with a Maxim magazine-style melange of bold graphic design, a dumbed-down system for rating books, and busty models handing out cheques for a thousand pounds. Somehow the idea that an unsuspecting guy will be presented a large sum of money this month by a hired model for reading Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country? doesn't quite compute. Setting aside the models for a moment, have a look at the bizarre rating system that they have concocted to get people interested in reading their books. So, if I'm reading this right, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood delivers three doses of death, two of crime, and one each of fast cars, greed, and politics. But don't worry everybody, this isn't just a ridiculous marketing ploy, it has been scientifically proven that "women are attracted to men who read books." (P.S. it's ok if you're gay.)Oh, those crazy Brits... anyway, on to more serious matters. Earlier this week, several book bloggers (myself included) posted about books that could help people digest/deal with/move on from Tuesday's election. Now, an Ask Metafilter thread, inspired by book bloggers, asks, "Can books make a difference?"Speaking of important books, here's a batch of lists that cover some different takes on what makes up the canon of great literature.I suppose everyone has noticed the new look for The Millions. Pretty snazzy, eh?
In August, 2006, a few months after the first Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final, David Foster Wallace published "Roger Federer as Religious Experience," in the New York Times, a lengthy footnoted essay describing the sublimity of Roger Federer and the elements of top-flight tennis that can only be captured watching it live. The essay is not only the best piece of tennis writing I have ever read, but the best piece of sports writing, period. There are countless parts that merit reading out loud to whomever's nearby. One among them:At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television's slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we're not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what's lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting.Yesterday's Federer-Nadal final reminded me of the piece, and, as I have done every year around this time for the past three, had me emailing it out to all my friends, beseeching them to read it, because this time, it really is worth it. It has become a fixation of our manic media culture to instantly assess a just-completed event's place in history. And in the same way that it drives web traffic and sells newspapers to inflate the significance of a "gaffe" by a presidential candidate, rarely a week goes by without some game or another receiving the brand of "classic" status on ESPN. But every now and again the genuine article comes along, making it obvious that all the other hyperbole was just that. Yesterday's Wimbledon final was that kind of event. I imagine DFW was watching. I hope he writes about it.
I don't know why I bother to cover the One Book, One Chicago program. I haven't seen any evidence that the locals actually read the books that are selected two times a year. As far as I can tell, on the day of the announcement, the local paper writes it up, and then nobody talks about One Book, One Chicago until six months later when they pick a new book. (I am impressed that Mayor Daley presides at all of these unveilings; it seems like a duty he would have handed off to an underling by now.) I think maybe I'm interested in it because I'm curious to see what a government bureaucracy is able to come up with in such a circumstance. Rarely do we get a recommendation from our government so simple as "read this book," and rarely is the government called upon to advise people on a subject so ephemeral as literature. Given all of this, I think they do reasonably well with their selections - some uninspired, others quite good. And while it would be great to see people spontaneously talking about the latest pick in the trains and on the sidewalks of Chicago, it would be quite odd if that actually happened.All of this brings me to todays pick, as always, unveiled by Mayor Daley: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great selection if you ask me.