After more than a month of intense reading I’ve finally finished Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As some of you may remember from a post a while back, this was my first serious excursion into the golden era of 19th century Russian fiction. After seeking the advice of several trusted fellow readers (aside: see how well it works! Make sure to Ask a Book Question if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. We’re here to help!) We collectively decided that C & P was the best place to start. I reacted to the book in a couple of different ways. My first reaction, from almost the very beginning, was that the book felt like a Dickens novel to me. I saw similarities in both the gothic overwrought characters and the lurking shady characters who alternately seemed for or against young Raskolnikov. The friendship between Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, in particular, reminded me of the friendship between Pip and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Other similarities, I think, are structural. Both books were written serially, and as with Dickens, I looked forward to the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter which would ensure that readers would look forward to the next installment. When I read a book like this, it always occurs to me that it’s too bad books aren’t written that way any more. It seems like it would be a really fun way to read a book. (Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure that Stephen King has experimented with this in recent years). My other reaction was how psychological and modern the book seemed. I never read this or any other Russian novels in school (not sure how that happened) so I had neither expectations nor preconceptions when I began. The book was, in its own verbose way, a very profound discussion of morality and power. More specifically, I was interested in the relationship between the power of murder and the power of wealth and social class. These themes were buried beneath layers of prose. The book seemed to be divided almost equally between action and Raskolnikov’s internal monologue. It was very readable, but occasionally overwhelming. A final observation: the book is filled with events and real people drawn from real life in 1860s St. Petersburg. In the present day, as an established classic, it gives the book a historical context, but I couldn’t help but think about how it must have appeared at the time of its publication. In this day and age, writers are often derided for relying too much on current events and pop culture. Critics claim the these books will lose their cultural significance as they become quickly dated. Yet, in C&P, Dostoyevsky’s practice of referring to specific scandals and amusements that were the hot topics of conversation at the time serves to cement the book very specifically in a time and place and it manages to make the story feel real and complete. I should also mention that I really enjoyed the particular edition that I read. A multitude of informative notes augment the text, and the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky felt inventive and engaging. But now I am done, and I am looking forward to a change of pace. I’ve already embarked upon Jamesland by LA author Michele Huneven. The book club that I help run is reading it, and Huneven herself is planning to make an appearance at the end of our meeting so that she can answer our questions. Should be lots of fun.
Just as I (and several others) suspected! The New York Times piece on the best novels of the last 25 years was just a ploy to get mentioned on blogs. By way of proof, check out what I found in the traffic logs for The Millions today:Time/Date: Thu_Jun__1_13:09:16_2006_DSTVisitor IP: nytgate05.nytimes.comReferred by: www.technorati.com/search/www.nytimes.com/2006/05/21/books/fiction-25-years.htmlSeriously, I think it's great that folks at the Times read blogs, and I'm glad they care that bloggers read the Times, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to just to get mentioned by us.(For those of you unfamiliar with traffic logs, the above basically means that someone at the Times arrived at The Millions after checking Technorati to see which blogs referenced its 25 best books story.)Update: Well, I figured out why the Times was wondering what I wrote about their list. They were putting together this page. So kudos to the Times for acknowledging that this list was the start of a conversation and not a decree and for being willing to host some of the resulting conversation on its site. I'd love to see more of this in the future.
Last week, my New Yorker didn't show up. This has happened a handful of times in the close to ten years I've been reading the magazine. Typically, wherever I've lived, my issue has landed in my mailbox between Tuesday and Thursday. If I haven't gotten my issue by Thursday, I tense up a bit and begin to plan, setting some time aside for a run to a bookstore or newsstand so that I don't fall behind and so that my gnawing yen for the New Yorker is satisfied.But over the last decade, my New Yorker addiction has felt burdensome at times. I like to read - a lot - and yet with busy work schedules and other demands, I don't have as much time to read as I'd like. And though my Reading Queue occupies several linear feet of shelving, I still find myself devoting about four days a week to the New Yorker (which I read all the way through, skipping only reviews of theater, dance, and music). Being the best magazine in the world, the New Yorker is guaranteed to provide me with at least one transcendent reading experience per month, often more than that, and very few clunkers. It is exceedingly rare that I quit reading an article halfway through. Still, though I love it so, I sometimes grow resentful of the time I must devote to the New Yorker and I sometimes fantasize about the day I'll decide not to renew, though even formulating the reasons behind such a rash act is difficult.And so this week, when Thursday rolled around and my mailbox was still empty, I again felt that nervous pang and began to set aside some time for the ten-block walk to the Barnes & Noble. But then, I thought about it some more, and decided to miss this week's New Yorker (though it may still arrive inexcusably late). So far, I feel pretty good, no withdrawal symptoms, and I think, if the day comes that I have to give up on the New Yorker entirely, I'll survive, bonobos be damned.Update: That missing issue turned up after all.
Australian author, Elliot Perlman scored a minor hit last year with his novel Seven Types of Ambiguity, and now Riverhead is capitalizing on that success by putting out a collection of Perlman's stories, originally published in Australia in 2000, but yet to appear in the States. The book, called The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, contains nine stories. The title story of this collection was good enough to be included in the The Penguin Century of Australian Stories.In his second novel, In Lucia's Eyes, Dutch author Arthur Japin, takes an episode out of Casanova and runs with it. The novel follows Lucia, Casanova's first love, who leaves him after she is disfigured by small pox, and, after years as a secretary, housekeeper and veiled prostitute, encounters Casanova 16 years later in Amsterdam. Japin's first novel, The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, received a lot of praise. This new book has a different translator, and some early reviews - PW calls the translation "sometimes stilted" - wonder if In Lucia's Eyes is worse off for it. Knopf has an excerpt up.Michelle Lovric's novel, The Remedy covers similar ground - a 17th century woman, the colorfully named Mimosina Dolcezza, traveling across Europe before encountering her true love. Dolcezza is enamored with Valentine Greatrakes, whose business is concocting the remedies that the book is named for. The Remedy was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, which had this to say about the book: "Funny, mischievous and thoroughly melodramatic, written by an author with a poetic way with verbs. And featuring a slew of original recipes so you can concoct eighteenth century remedies in the comfort of your own home." An excerpt is available here.
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I know this is old news, but I thought I'd give my brief thoughts on the stories from the New Yorker debut fiction issue. I wasn't bowled over any of the stories, but I was most impressed by Umwem Alpem's "Ex-Mas Feast," not so much for writerly virtuosity as for the glimpse of the exotic the story provides. Perhaps because so many short stories seem to be set in the suburbs, I am always drawn to stories set in faraway places. I was somewhat less impressed by Karen Russell's "Haunting Olivia," which I thought would have been a more successful story if it had been half as long. I did, however, enjoy how Russell injected a bit of the surreal into her story. I was also dutifully shocked upon discovering that she is only 23 years old, even though I should know that the New Yorker loves to find these fiction savants. Least interesting of all to me was Justin Tussing's "The Laser Age," which, at first glance, I thought was going to be a story of the twisted not to distant future, but instead was just another mismatched boy-meets-girl tale.
Counterpoint is rereleasing a collection of Donald Barthelme tidbits (it's subtitled "Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays"), The Teachings of Don B.. The collection is perhaps most notable in that it contains an introduction by Thomas Pynchon. I'm fairly certain it's the same essay by Pynchon that's found here. It begins:Though to all appearances a gathering of odds and ends, what this volume in fact offers us is the full spectrum of vintage Barthelmismo -- fictions thoughtfully concocted and comfortably beyond the reach of time, reactions less exempt from deadlines and rent payments to news of past moments that nonetheless remain our own, not to mention literary send-ups, intriguing recipes, magisterially extended metaphors, television programming that never was, strangely illuminated dreams, elegant ranting, debonair raving, and more, much more.Now that's a blurb.
I only took the train one way today - Mrs. Millions was kind enough to pick me up this afternoon - but I still spotted at least three people reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in various stages of completion while riding the El this morning including one young man who was vigorously finishing the final pages. I wasn't surprised to see Harry Potter on the train this morning, nor will I be surprised to see it a lot in the coming weeks considering the astonishing sales numbers the book generated this weekend. According to Scholastic Books, Potter sold 6.9 million copies over the weekend - that's 250,000 copies an hour, more copies than 99.9% of books will sell in a lifetime. Barnes and Noble reported selling about 105 copies a second. You can get all the numbers here. Here's my favorite stat, though. From the Guardian: "Retailers said that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had sold more copies in a day than The Da Vinci Code sold in one year."All of this reminded me of my days selling Harry Potter books when I worked at a bookstore. As I recall, the day Part 5 came out, we sold more copies of that book than all the other books we sold that day combined, and this was at an independent bookstore on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, not exactly the kind of place that caters to kids. People can banter back and forth about whether or not Harry Potter books are any good - or whether or not adults should read them - but I know that they were good for our bookstore. For an independent, a big seller like Harry Potter can subsidize that less profitable business of trying to supply good literature to a dwindling group of interested readers.
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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.
In August, Emre mentioned In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot by Graham Roumieu, a very funny book - written in Bigfoot's own voice and filled with illustrations that somehow straddle grotesque and amusing. Now Roumieu has brought Bigfoot back for another book, Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir, so Bigfoot fans can get their long-awaited Bigfoot books. These are certainly my most favorite Sasquatch-themed books. For more, visit Roumieu's Web site.