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.
I dropped my buddy Cem off at the airport today. I’m a little jealous because he is embarking on a world tour that is sure to be remarkable. He is starting out with a brief stop in Australia, followed by extended stays in Thailand and Vietnam. After this, he intends to live in Cairo for a few months with jaunts to Turkey and possibly some other Middle Eastern locations… maybe even Baghdad if the cards fall a certain way. He has assured me that he will be keeping track of his wanderings via his brand new blog, complete with a title inspired by Maqroll which I gave him to read. It’s the ultimate book for any traveller.
I was rather astounded by this article in The Guardian today about publishers taking retailers on lavish trips to promote their latest books: to Pompeii for Robert Harris’ Pompeii, to New York for Hillary Clinton’s Living History, and to Madrid for David Beckham’s Beckham aka My Side. Before I get into how unsavory this practice is, can I first say that if such thing are going on, why was I never invited on an overseas publicity junket to promote a bestselling book? In fact, I must admit that before today I had never heard of this practice in the publishing world. In the film industry, pushover movie reviewers are routinely wined and dined in exchange for positive press, but I never noticed the general manager of my store jetting off on an all expenses paid trip to Pompeii. Of course, it’s possible that such perks are reserved for the folks who make the decisions at the big chains. A happy regional VP translates to prominent displays in 300 stores and a frontlist order of 30,000 copies. Then again, perhaps this is more of a British phenomenon than an American one. The odd thing, to me, is why bother spending all that money on a book that is already going to have prominent placement due to public interest. This is what those midlist authors are bemoaning when they say there’s not enough publicity money to go around.Back to VirginiaI was born in Albemarle County, I returned their for four years of college at the University of Virginia, and I’ll be heading back there again this summer for my wedding. But it’s more than all the history that I have there that makes it a special place for me. It’s beautiful country, peaceful, serene, and full of history. And for those who share my feelings on Albemarle County, there is now a lovely coffee table book about the place called Albemarle: A Story of Landscape and American Identity. Here are some sample pages.
The next novel I picked up was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. I was, as some of you might recall, very impressed by Middlesex and wondered about The Virgin Suicides. Most of my friends who have only seen the movie despised it, and those who read it suggested that the book was a success and that I should never bother with the movie, which is precisely what I did. The Virgin Suicides has a very complex storyline, narrated in contrasting simplicity by a man years after a quiet suburb of Detroit was shaken up by the suicides of the Lisbon girls. Eugenides is very successful in capturing the mental state of teenagers, as well as their struggles in growing up and establishing an identity. The lack of a male influence among the Lisbons – a family of seven with five daughters – the dominant, repressive and over-protective nature of Mrs. Lisbon, and the disengaged, mostly submissive stance of Mr. Lisbon form the nexus of complexities that eventually infect the Lisbon family and drive the daughters to suicide. The sexual escapades of Lux – the youngest of four sisters following thirteen year old Cecilia’s suicide – and the enigmatic Trip Fontaine’s obsession with her expand the plot and provide a window into the social environment of 1970s suburbia. The Virgin Suicides presents a good glimpse of Eugenides’ immaculate prose by the delightful narrative of a grown up from the stand point of a ’70s teenager obsessed with inward girls and the mysteries that surrounded them. I would strongly suggest The Virgin Suicides as an intro to Euginedes.Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is my fourth book of 2005. The time-bridging adventures of Peter Lake, a fantastic protagonist raised by the Baymen out on the Jersey shore and thrown into the life of New York at age twelve in the late 1800s, Pearly Soames, a gold-obsessed thief and the nightmare of all gangs in New York (think Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York), Beverly Penn, daughter of media magnate Isaac Penn who suffers from consumption, and the bridge builder Jackson Meade, who aims to build the rainbow bridge that will bring the Golden Age all reflect on the essence of the human spirit, which is warmest in the bitter colds of Winter. The narrative moves from the late 1800s to the early 1900s in a chronological fashion until a crucial showdown between Peter and Pearly, whom the former had wronged by ambushing the gang – the notorious Short Tails – during an attack on the Baymen. Next, you find yourself in the 1990s (and keep in mind that this novel was written in 1983), in a futuristic world not so different than the one we live in today, but one that has lost all sense of romanticism and sincerity. Still, there are those affiliated with the Lake of the Coheeries (a mystical upstate town, unbeknownst to common eyes – a pseudo Neverland more along the lines of The Shire) who have assimilated into modern culture yet maintain a hidden greatness inherent in their heritage of understanding and love. As characters cross paths in search of the Golden Age, and few know what to look for, back comes Peter Lake, Pearly, and Jackson Meade. When these characters of a century ago find themselves in New York, in the 1990s, they are befuddled to say the least. But shortly, everyone comes to realize that the unsettled accounts of the past were but the beginning of a reckoning scheduled for a hundred years later. As events unfold, New York suffers from a terrible fire and one gets the feeling that things are headed for the worst. Helprin’s fantastic story is touching and surreal, the beauties he draws upon are essential elements that most of us are prone to forget or overlook. Winter’s Tale is also a great ode to New York, one of the central and most beautiful characters – yes a character indeed – in the novel. The early image and infinite ideal of New York is best described in another character, Hardesty Marratta’s proclamation: “For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.” If you are not a staunch realist and love a long build up, you will be delighted at the interplay of history, characters, New York, and romantic idealism that leads to a fantastic resolution.
A while back I discussed the minor furor over proposed changes at the New York Times Book Review, including charges of dumbing down and sensationalism. Now the helm has been handed over to a new editor, Sam Tanenhaus, a widely published journalist and the author of a well received biography of Whitaker Chambers. It remains to be seen if the New York Times Book Review will change significantly. On another, much more visible front, the Jayson Blair affair has reemerged due to the release of the book in which he tells his side of the story, Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at the New York Times. It is hard to imagine that anyone will take seriously a book by someone whose claim to fame is his astounding lack of credibility. In fact, the venomous pans are already rolling in (Dallas Star Telegram, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe. Even the Brits get into the act.) My favorite, though, is this headline from the Christian Science Monitor: “Jayson Blair: ‘I lied.’ Reader: ‘No kidding.’” I’m rather happy to see the level of outrage that Blair’s book is generating. Meanwhile some are reporting that the Times stands to benefit if Blair’s book does well (LINK). I’m not sure if that story has legs, though.
Philip Caputo’s new book Acts of Faith is being favorably compared to The Quiet American. Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has traveled extensively in Africa, and this new novel is set in Sudan. According to PW, Caputo “presents a sharply observed, sweeping portrait, capturing the incestuous world of the aid groups, Sudan’s multiethnic mix and the decayed milieu of Kenyan society.” Though the novel has a timely, flashy, “ripped from the headlines” sound to it, Kakutani called it “devastating” before comparing it to the work of Robert Stone, V.S. Naipaul and Joan Didion. Scott noted Kakutani’s “heady praise” a couple of weeks ago. And here’s an excerpt from the book (which weighs in at 688 pages, by the way. Whoa!)Charles Chadwick wrote recently about being a first time novelist at the age of 72 (scroll down): “A first novel of 300,000 words by a 72-year-old sounds like someone trying to be funny. Acceptance by Faber and then by Harper Collins in the US – the recognition that all along one had been some good at it – took a lot of getting used to. Still does.” The book, It’s All Right Now, which also weighs in at 688 pages, oddly enough (not exactly light Summer reading, these books), was panned by Nick Greenslade in The Guardian. Greenslade suggests that its publishers were more enamored by the idea of a 72-year-old debut novelist than by the book itself. I’m curious to see what US reviewers say because the book doesn’t sound all that bad to me.As I recall, Jonathan Coe’s 2002 novel, The Rotters’ Club, was well-received by my coworkers and customers at the bookstore. A sequel, The Closed Circle, comes out soon. Here’s a positive review from The Independent and an excerpt. These are good times for Coe. His recently released biography of British writer B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant has been shortlisted for the $56,000 Samuel Johnson Prize.
I got the latest catalog from Soho Press in the mail recently. Soho is an independent press in New York that puts out a few books of literary fiction a year. They’ve also got a crime imprint. A flip through the catalog drives home Soho Crime’s reputation for detective stories set in exotic locales. This time around there’s New York’s Chinatown, Bethlehem, and Paris, as well as paperback editions for recently released hardcovers set in Seoul, Florence, Granada, and Paris again.Also on the way is a mystery set during World War II called Billy Boyle by James R. Benn. Billy Boyle is a Boston cop who gets unexpectedly thrown into the war and ends up investigating the death of an official of the Norwegian government in exile. It’s the first in a three book series about Boyle. The catalog also has word of the paperback edition of The White Earth, Andrew McGahern’s multigenerational tale set in Australia that I read and discussed in January.If you are a publisher and would like to send me your catalog, please email me.