Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson stopped by yesterday to sign copies of An Army at Dawn. This book is intended to be the first installment of a trilogy that will describe the liberation of Europe in World War II. This first book is about the liberation of North Africa, and the next two will cover Italy and France. Naturally, I asked him how the books were coming along, and he told me that he had put them on hold while he was embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, and now he is writing a book about that experience. It will be exciting to see the many quality books that are being written by journalists and writers who spent time over there. We also discussed John Keegan, who seems to be the authority when it comes to popular histories of war. Atkinson professed to loving both The Mask of Command, which studies generals and commanders in wars from Ancient Greece to the present, and The Face of Battle, which gives similar treatment to the common soldier. Later on, while I was reading about those two Keegan books, I was pleased to discover that he has a new book that is a mere two weeks from hitting the shelves. It is enticingly titled, Intelligence in Warfare: From Nelson to Hitler.
Today, while I was driving, I caught a review of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle on Fresh Air. It was a very favorable review (in fact the book has been getting great reviews in most places). I would love to read the book and comment on it here, but I can’t forsee myself getting to it any time soon. And therefore, I won’t get to talk about it here. The stack of books is just too high. Yet I happen to have an advance copy of Triangle, and I hate to see it gather dust. So here is my idea: whoever among you would like to read this book and put together a little review or comment or whatever on it for this site, email me and I will send you the book. Then I was thinking, I am lucky enough to have access to advance copies of books from time to time, and wouldn’t it be great if I could pass them along to people so they can write a little something which I can then post on The Millions. It sounds like good fun to me. So… if you would like to review Triangle for The Millions email me and I will send you the book. (By the way Triangle is about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, an unconscionable tragedy that proved to be a watershed event in improving working conditions [and especially working conditions for women] in America.) As I get other new books, I will offer them up for review as well. Also, if you happen to have access to review copies of books, and would like to help stock my guest review program, well, that would be really sweet.
The plight of the literary magazine and the demise of the short story are often bemoaned here in the US, but compared to the state of things in Britain, America is paradise for short story writers and readers. So says a recent essay in the Guardian, which hopes that a newly announced short story prize – worth 15,000 pounds, the world’s richest – will ignite a passion for short fiction in that part of the world. According to Aida Edemariam, who penned the essay, in Britain, size matters: The British attitude to the short story – that it is somehow lesser, a practice space for the real thing, which is, of course, the novel; that you can perhaps start out writing a collection of stories, but you have somehow failed if you don’t graduate to a minimum of 200 pages – has always baffled me. I cannot comprehend the underlying assumption that a particular kind of stamina is somehow better, of more value. It’s like privileging the marathon, or the 1,500m, over the 100m.After citing several examples of the form, Edemariam goes on to write: “I know these are North American examples, but it is there where, as (Dave) Eggers points out in his introduction to The Best of McSweeney’s Volume I, there ‘are probably over a hundred high-quality literary journals,’ that the short story is truly alive; disdain for the form is a British phenomenon.”Who knew we had it so good?
I attended a book reading and signing by Pete Dexter on Thursday night. It was a very entertaining evening. Dexter is an old newspaper guy from Philadelphia and he had a ton of great stories. One was about a guy he knew who would always invite people to punch him in the stomach. By flexing his powerful stomach muscles he was able to stop the puncher’s fist cold. Not the most impressive trick, but good for a few laughs. Well, all was going fine until one day he invited the then unknown Sonny Liston to slug him in the gut and was promptly sent flying across the room. Dexter had several stories like this which kept people in stitches. He also read from the beginning of his latest book, Train, which is very good by the way. I had him sign a copy of his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout, and while I was standing there I asked him which of his books he thought I should read next. He recommended both Deadwood and Brotherly Love. I’ll have to look for those.
Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times describes the “Washington read.” A practice in which Washington insiders peruse the index of a current political best seller, Plan of Attack or Against All Enemies, for example, to see if they have been mentioned. It is sort of a test one’s own importance inside the beltway, and many, prematurely certain of their own historical significance, are crushed to find that they have been omitted from history’s first draft. Washington, however, does not have a monopoly on such practices. I lived in Washington D.C. for most of my life before moving to Los Angeles, and I have observed many times the similarities between the two cities’ chief industries. I don’t know if I coined this analogy, but I’ve always thought that politics is just Hollywood for ugly people. And so it makes sense that I discovered, over the last couple of years, that there is such thing as a “Hollywood read.” It usually goes something like this: an older guy stands at the front of the store flipping through the latest Hollywood tell-all. He is deeply tanned and his shirt is unbuttoned to reveal tufts of silver chest hair. He is wearing ridiculously oversized sunglasses and smells of cigar smoke. He leans over to me and points to the book and says, “I used to work with this guy,” and then he goes back to scanning the index to make sure his old buddy mentioned him. Samuel Fuller’s posthumously published A Third Face generated this reaction. And those in the music biz went straight to the index of Walter Yetnikoff’s Howling at the Moon. Last fall, a mention in Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind meant that you officially matter in today’s Hollywood. But to have been mentioned in Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture indicates a special sort of notoriety.
Perhaps all crystal balls are cloudy, at least where literary fiction is concerned. In 2006, as publishers seemed inclined to keep the heavy artillery under wraps until the lucrative holiday season, our January “Most Anticipated” round-up could not help but overlook Pynchon, Edward P. Jones, Richard Powers, or Claire Messud, as well as a number of eminently worthy books from independent publishers.That said, the “Most Anticipated” post can help register some of the early buzz that later gets drowned out by other books’ more formidable marketing campaigns. Readers who tend to keep their own private lists of titles to check out may have remembered to pick up Brief Encounters with Che Guevara in August, when the talk of the town (at least my town) was Special Topics in Calamity Physics. And so, in the spirit of getting the word out early, I offer an otherwise completely silly alert about a couple of books slated for publication in 2008.Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes, winner of last year’s Prix Goncourt, has sold over a quarter of a million copies in France. This novel presents the first-person confession of a homosexual SS officer. I first heard about it on NPR, where a number of francophone readers praised the power of the story and of Littell’s prose – remarkable, given that Littell is actually an American. And if these raves are accurate, readers have a lot to look forward to: in French, Les Bienveillantes (The Furies or The Kindly Ones) runs over 900 pages. HarperCollins has purchased the American rights, and is waiting for the translation to be finished, according to the December/January issue of Bookforum. I’m tempted to just buy the damn thing in en francais, but fear that it would take me all winter to read… and I’m already committed to Against the Day.Another huge novel discussed in Bookforum’s “The Insider” column is the Chilean author Roberto Bolano. FSG is bringing out a Bolano novel this year, but fans of monumentality might wish to wait for 2066, an 1100-pager about a series of slayings in Ciudad Juarez.Maybe it’s just the frisson of delayed gratification, or my big-book fetish, but these two – a cumulative 2,000 pages – are my Most Anticipated novels. Now let’s see if, a year and a half from now, when they actually hit the market, they will have been worth the wait.