First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
This story has been all over the news lately: British novelist Carole Matthews accepts payment from Ford Motor Company in exchange for having her hip main character drive a Ford Fiesta. They were loving this story on NPR, too. There is a pretty obvious knee-jerk response to this sort of thing: that it sullies the world of books, that even our hallowed bookshelves are being invaded by corporate sales pitches. But before we get hysterical, let's take another look at this. The book in question, The Sweetest Taboo, bears the tagline: "Is nothing sacred?" and its cover is a giant shopping bag. So the main character trades in her VW for a Fiesta. So what. I'm sure she's still wearing Fendi, drinking Starbucks, and eating biscuits. Matthews might as well get paid for all this product placement. It's not as though this is Saul Bellow we're talking about here. We should just expect, as a culture, that the literary equivalent of Spiderman 2 will include this sort of merchandising and move on. Speaking of which... after I'm done writing this, I think I'm going to have a nice big bowl of Cheerios (the official breakfast cereal of The Millions), and I'll wash it down with a nice, cold Michelob Ultra (the official low carb beer of The Millions). Aaahhh refreshing.The Los YorkerAnd here's an interesting story for all the disgruntled Californians who are tired of New Yorkers looking down their noses at them: the Villiage Voice reports that more Californians read New Yorker magazine than New Yorkers. To me, it's not a question of which coast is more culturally significant, it's that the national media should recognize that Los Angeles in particular represents the future of this country. The small segment of this city that gets all the press, Hollywood, is not, by far, the most compelling thing about Los Angeles. LA is important because of the huge immigrant population and because legislation that starts in Sacramento inevitably filters across the country. It doesn't surprise me in the least to see how many Angelenos read the New Yorker. When I was told, soon after I began working at the book store, that Southern California is the country's largest book market, I was very surprised, but having been in the middle of it, I see that it is true. The entertainment industry takes the scrutiny off of other aspects of LA. While the media is focused on premieres and award shows, hundreds of book clubs and readings and other literary events abound unnoticed and unsullied by the press. It's a rather interesting phenomenon. As for the New Yorker, I have indeed noticed that they have been writing about California recently, but if I could suggest something to David Remnick it would be that he run more pieces in the vein of the one about the LA River a few weeks back and fewer pieces about Hollywood. Even better: someone should start a New Yorker-style magazine that's all about Los Angeles.
Advance readers copies, the paperbacks sent out early to book reviewers, often contain special notes from authors or editors that impart a little back story or extol the virtues of the book at hand, but I've never seen an author's note quite like the one that Pete Dexter penned for the advance readers copies of his forthcoming novel Spooner: As far as I know, sometime in November of last year, the book you have in your hands was three years late. There are many reasons it was three years late, probably the most conspicuous being that it was once 250 pages or so longer than the version you hold, and it takes maybe half a year to write an extra 250 pages, and at least twice that to subtract them back out. I realize this leaves another year and a half unaccounted for, and all I can say about that, readers, is get in line. Whole decades are missing from my life and I am pretty sure I wouldn't have it any other way.At any rate; it turns out that bringing a book home three years past deadline presents problems for the publisher. Publications have to be set (again), covers drawn, generous comments collected - god knows how many of my greatest admirers have died while I've been diddling around with this thing - and so you can understand, perhaps, that in the end someone had to put his/her foot down and say enough, and in the end somebody did. Be assured it wasn't me. I could have kept this up for another five years. Oh, and a title. They thought a title might be nice.All to say that what you have here, while not exactly a first draft, is further away from the finished product than most advanced readers' editions are, and when you come across sentences you particularly don't like, keep in mind that I probably didn't like them either. On the odd chance that the bad sentences are still there when the book comes out, then you should keep in mind that you're reading somebody who is still missing 18 months of the last 36, and has no idea about 2006 at all.This isn't the first time that Dexter has prefaced a book with an introduction that threatens to divide his readers into those who get his sense of humor and those who don't. The introduction to Paper Trails (this time in the actual published edition), which collects Dexter's columns and articles from his legendary newspaper career, lets us know that he had little interest in collecting his columns in the first place. He tells us that the 82 columns and articles we are about to read will lack dates and any indication as to where they first appeared because, basically, he and his editor Rob Fleder didn't want to dig them up. He also calls the venerable Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley a "worn-out old whore."What's interesting to me about Dexter is that, while his fiction is quite good, his wry, impolitic sense of humor doesn't always shine through in his noirish, almost hard-boiled novels. Instead, you need to read his (essential) Paper Trails or keep an eye out for things like the remarkable author's note quoted above.
And now it is time to go. After more than three and a half years in LA, a city I knew nothing about, hated, grew to love, and still kind of hate, Ms. Millions and I are hitting the road. First there will be a wedding and then a new start in Chicago where I will attempt to be a student again. I fear that the culture shock I experienced upon arriving in Los Angeles will pale in comparison to the culture shock of leaving LA now that I have grown so accustomed to its inherent weirdness. Still, I managed to carve a niche for myself here and perhaps I can do that again somewhere new. Funny that I didn't figure it out at the very start, but this "niche," this sudden feeling of comfort in a bewildering place would have a lot to do with books.First, some history. I have always read a lot. Early on it was to combat my chronic insomnia, and I guess it just took. But there was a time here in Los Angeles during my first year that I would find myself without a book. This had never really happened to me before. Whereas I used to have a stack of books next to my bed ready for devouring, I had now resorted to fishing out old Entertainment Weeklies from under the coffee table. I was distracted, profoundly so. I was in a new place trying to be good at jobs I didn't care about, lacking ambition, and devoted to those twin goddesses of self-diversion, television and video games. But then things happened, too numerous and predictable to mention here, and I found myself unemployed again and ready to try something new. So I said the hell with it and walked into a little bookstore on the Sunset Strip. Moments after I got the job I remembered (how had I forgotten?) how much I love books. And soon my hunger for words became insatiable, like that of a beggar who suddenly has daily access to feast worthy of a king. Soon I felt guilty. I had to share.My friend Derek, always a step ahead, had begun blogging. I pronounced it to be silly and a huge waste of time and then promptly started my own blog. I realized after a month or so that it had to be about books and nothing else, since that's the only thing that really moved me at the time.And plus, I had so much material: a constant torrent of new releases and a cadre of coworkers and customers with whom I discussed books eight hours a day. (This was when I discovered, by the way, that LA is an obsessively literary place, and it doesn't care if anyone knows it, so it doesn't bother to tell anyone.) And then there were the authors, constant visitors it seemed, nearly all of them willing to chat with the folks who hock their wares. I felt I had to share: Julie Orringer, Jocelyn Bain Hogg (a photographer), Felicia Luna Lemus, George Plimpton, Nick Hornby, Rick Atkinson, Pete Dexter, DBC Pierre and Dan Rhodes, Michele Huneven, A. Scott Berg and Jeff Bridges, Ron Chernow, and of course, one of my heroes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Unbelievable.My last day at the bookstore was yesterday and my last day in LA is tomorrow. I never thought I would live here. I never, ever thought I would love it. It has raised the bar, in my mind, that other cities will have to live up to. But I figure: if I keep seeking out the little bit of LA that no doubt resides in other places, I'll get along just fine. Goodbye, Los Angeles.I'll be back in a week. Read a book while I'm gone!
Let’s say that you’re on the couch tearing through a great weekend book, you know, one of those novels you completely devour in two days or less, and you come upon a cute little piece of paper hiding between pages 216 and 217. It’s not colorful, fairly unassuming, and not much larger than a Polaroid picture. The top of the page reads “Erratum.” This Latin word sounds important, fancy even, but it’s really just a sneaky way of saying “We screwed up.” And not just “We screwed up,” but “We had multiple people, whose full-time paid job is to find these errors, look through this book with a fine-toothed comb, and we still let a few things get past us.” I agree, “Erratum” sounds much, much better. I hadn’t really thought about them in years. Why would I? They’re just not the kind of things you see every day. I read all the time, far more than average, yet I find four-leaf clovers more frequently than these elusive declarations. It wasn’t even a book that got me thinking about these. I was reading a recent issue of Interview magazine (which unlike the rare “Erratum” has far too many inserts) in which Miranda July was asked 20 questions by 20 different people. Among these inquiring minds were It-Lit icons including Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Dave Eggers and Lorrie Moore to name a few. To be completely honest, most of the questions were a little too cute or ironic for my taste. I won’t say who ridiculously asked, “If you were told that you had to live inside a work of art, which would you choose?” And it wasn’t even an author that asked the most interesting question, it was harp-playing, pixie-voiced songstress Joanna Newsom. I’m paraphrasing, but her question was basically this; name one thing you don’t care about but most people do, and name one thing you do care about that most people disregard. July’s answer to part one? Alcohol. Part two? Errata. Wait a second. What? Do you mean those little lists of corrections found in books? That is exactly what she meant, and she collects them. I can’t quite explain why, but this caught me off guard. I guess I was expecting her to say something more along the lines of Rivers Cuomo bootlegs. She could have said she collected stuffed albino chinchillas and I would have been less surprised. Unlike most things you might collect, say unopened action figures or LPs, you can’t just go into the local resale shop or flea market to look for them. Over the past 25 years, July said she has only been able to find a dozen or so. A dozen? That is certainly not a bountiful harvest by any means. But it certainly is patient. And I love that. It might even be a little bit lazy. To build his or her collection, the collector of this niche item has to do nothing more than sit around and read. Didn’t find one? Well, maybe next time. No big deal. It was still a pretty good book, right? If I had to put my finger on the one thing I like most about Erratum sheets, it would have to be this; it is a tangible piece of evidence that proves that famous Alexander Pope quote to be true, to err really is human. And thank goodness for that. In this world, that is increasingly becoming mistake free, it’s nice to see an honest up-front admission of human error. Not that I want people to screw up, I don’t. But when you can clear up every blemish with Photoshop, spell check every misspelling, and delete and re-post a drunken status update, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear three little words… I. Screwed. Up. But if you want to sound fancy, you can say Erratum. [Image source: Emran Kassim]
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It's been over a decade since James Wood came on the scene to reclaim literary criticism as its own kind of literature, and though all his enthusiasts have a top-ten list of the Wood essays with which they most strenuously disagree, he comes by his reputation as "our best critic" honestly. Indeed, disagreeing with Wood can be an education in and of itself; if I had to choose one critic to pan my own work, it would be Wood. But what if I could choose a critic to praise it?For several years, Wyatt Mason of Harper's has quietly been reinvigorating an even more recondite form than the critical essay: the literary encomium. As with Wood's considered corrections, one can disagree with Mason's glowing appraisals of Mary Gaitskill or Charles Chadwick (I wasn't as enamored of It's All Right Now as Mason was), while still being provoked to think - and feel - more deeply about literature.Congenially, Mason's tastes are closer to mine than are Wood's. (Witness his translation of Eric Chevillard's wonderfully weird Palafox.) I'm particularly in his debt for introducing me to the fiction of Leonard Michaels, and at the end of the month, harpers.org will be offering the essay in question to non-subscribers. For the time being, one can check out a brief, but interesting enough, interview about Michaels.
Here at The Millions we've praised Woody Allen's writing over the years - Andrew discussed Without Feathers in 2005 and I did the same a year later. For fans like us, it's been a good month.While Allen's movies have been coming along unabated for decades, there's been less on offer for fans of Allen's writing. But this month, for the first time in 25 years, Allen has a new humor collection out. Mere Anarchy collects many of Allen's recent New Yorker pieces as well as some new material. Supplementing that slim volume is The Insanity Defense, which puts Allen's three earlier collections under one cover - Without Feathers is joined by Getting Even and Side Effects. Both new books are must haves for Allen fans.