It’s that time of year. “Best books of 2003” lists have begun to appear. So let’s dive in: the editors over at Amazon have released their Best Books of 2003: Top 50 Editors’ Picks list. According to them, the best book of the year is James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces. I know a lot of people who read this book and really enjoyed it, but I personally am not a huge fan of addiction memoirs or messed-up-childhood memoirs. I think I find them to be too internal and personal, and I’m not usual that interested in getting up close and personal with someone I’ve never met. So, does it deserve to be named best book of the year? Maybe top 25, but not number 1. Some books that I actually did read and enjoyed that appear on this list: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which my friend Patrick anointed “book of the year” months ago, comes in at #4. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is #6, and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus is #9. Publisher’s Weekly has a very interesting interview with one of Amazon’s editors, who explains how this list was created, justifies the inclusion of certain titles, and comments on how relevant this list is to the prevailing tastes of the reading public. It’s a good read.
In John Hodgman’s charming 2005 miscellany The Areas of My Expertise, “Were You Aware Of It?” serves as a recurring title for astonishing “facts.” One of my favorite among these inclusions reveals that:Jack Ruby owed seventeen dachshunds, whom he referred to as “his children.” In an astonishing coincidence, all of his dogs were named either Lincoln, Kennedy, or Oswald, except one, which was named “Li’l Grassy Knoll.” Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy kept seventeen cats. She disliked the animals, but kept a pack of trained felines for the hunting of voles. This was an ancient European pastime akin to fox hunting, but replacing the dogs with cats, the fox with voles and/or shrews (moles and mice are disqualifiers), and the horses with single-speed bicycles. Her passion for the sport, which bordered on addiction, was considered a potential liability by some within the White House, who feared that many in mainstream America, who rarely eat vole, would perceive the sport as an aristocratic European fancy. Still, it was practiced on the sly, and as a result, most of Washington, D.C., is still voleless. Continuing in the great Hodgman-ian tradition of “Were You Aware Of It?”, I submit the astonishing (and, unlike Hodgeman’s, completely true) fact that the illustrious London Review of Books publishes personal ads. (I just began a subscription, so this is news to me.) And they are quite the literary genre: haiku-ishly, Sapphic fragment-ally tantalizing their in brevity, they recall that six word short story of Hemingway’s (“For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Used.”) and seem to offer kernels of novelish potential to those in the market for adventures in literary romance:M, 48, reaching the end of a marriage of convenience, clings to the belief that there still may be one beautiful woman left who values kindness above all else. Few demands other than intimacy in the beginning, in exchange a generous monthly allowance and the opportunity to travel.Sweet-natured F, 38, battling Dorothea Brooke tendencies. Seeks mildly eccentric unattached man with good heart.Don’t tell me about your current literary read, I’ll just sigh at the leaden predictability of it all, start twitching after you say “it stays with you” and grate my teeth like two whirling quern stones when you tell me you don’t want to see the film until you’ve finished the book. Instead why not tell me about America’s got talent and your favorite continental lager? Averring but occasionally surprising prof.Having just retired my ambition is to become the next Ernst Blofeld. I am looking for a lady to enjoy life with while I take over the world from my headquarters in South-East London.Update: Via commenter Imani, a collection of LRB personals was published in 2006: They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books
I once lived for furthering my collection of autographed books. Getting a book signed meant going to hear the author read, waiting in line with other fans, and then, finally, being presented with the chance to utter words of praise. Sometimes it meant getting teary-eyed with envy, worrying over whether I would ever write anything so poignant. This happened when Amy Tan walked by in purple velvet with her lap dog trailing behind her. During middle and high school, at the height of my obsession with autographs, I spent a lot of time writing letters, poems that exhibited the same longing for impossible love, and short stories that revealed I was fixated on the same themes of displacement and loneliness that I am now.
I heard Jamaica Kincaid read twice. The first time she read at the local university from her novel Lucy. I was in seventh grade and inexperienced in matters of love. She read a passage about sucking on a boy’s tongue and I was mesmerized. She stood before a large audience and I couldn’t help but see that she was someone important. The second time I went to hear her read, I got Lucy signed by her before she spoke. My father told her that I wanted to be a writer. She didn’t say anything, only proudly signed her name. Later, during the Q & A, she asked in perfectly enunciated words, “Where is that girl who wants to be a writer?” I shyly raised my hand. She went on to recommend Gertrude Stein to me. Following the reading, I began to imagine Jamaica Kincaid as my writing teacher. With her intimidating stature, I divined she would be just as intimidating of a teacher. I thought only she would be capable of whipping my writing into shape. I wanted her to treat my writing so harshly that my only option would be improvement.
Yevgeniy Yevtushenko read in Russian at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Neither my father nor I spoke Russian, but my father decided to expose me to culture. What I remember is Yevtushenko’s ostentatious blue jacket and his sweeping gestures when he spoke. I later learned Russian, partly thanks to falling in love with his incomprehensible poetic voice, I read some of the poems from his collected works, wondering which he might have read that evening.
When Jennifer Egan came to the suburban Barnes and Nobel to read from her novel The Invisible Circus, my mother and I were the only audience members. Afterwards, I asked Egan one of those typical questions about her writing schedule. I came away with the interesting information that she worked part-time as a detective. Later, I composed a letter to her, which led to another obsession. I spent a grand portion of the day waiting for the mail. A letter was just another passage into the literary world. Not only was I waiting for personal letters, I was also waiting for acceptances from literary journals.
The postman arrived after I got home from school, so I would sit in the armchair near the window and wait for his footsteps. They would culminate in the metal clamor of the mailbox closing. When he had moved on to the next house, I would open the door and collect the mail.
I received one response from Jennifer Egan and an acceptance from a neighborhood newspaper, but most often I received letters from my pen pal who lived on the other side of the city. I met her at a poetry reading at a café called Brewed Awakenings. I played Irish tin whistle and read some poetry. She came up to me afterwards and gave me a copy of the literary journal called Zink in which she had been published. She was also a writer and yet she was incredibly accessible. She asked for my address, and pulled a blank piece of paper from the pouch around her neck for me to write on. I felt uncomfortable about giving a stranger my address, but I did it anyway. At that time of my life I said “yes” to everything.
To my surprise, a few days later I received a typed letter from her in a handmade envelope. I wrote back and she was quick to respond. It wasn’t long before I began to live my life in order to write it to her in a letter. The events that occurred during the day, occurred so that I could describe them. It was then that my writing probably took on its autobiographical quality.
As an adult, I haven’t had such a faithful pen pal, another writer with whom to commiserate. The advent of email and real responsibilities make it impossible to live just for handwritten letters, but most of all, it’s hard to find someone who can be a friend and somewhat of an idol at the same time.
Though I once attended readings regularly and took great comfort in spending Sunday night at the fiction series at the KGB Bar, some of the luster has been lost. Writers seem so accessible that an autographed book doesn’t bring me the same pleasure as it once did and writers seem just as much friends as idols. Now a writer myself, I realize that writing isn’t such a magical process. Still, there are moments when I can happily transport myself to those simpler times of books and letters, the time when I was open to every ounce of experience. Just recently I came away from a reading with a signed copy of Joshua Cohen’s Witz, heard Mary Gaitskill read at the crowded Franklin Park Reading Series, and went to hear Cory Doctorow, Rivka Galchen, and Gary Schteyngart talk about the bleak future while drinking dark and stormys. I also went to hear Jennifer Egan read at Greenlight Bookstore. This time it was to a packed house, inspiring me with the possibility that my writing can also grow in this way.
[Image credit: Weston Boyd]
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.
There’s been a lot of excitement today about former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum using Twitter to deliver an account of his time there. The “updates” contain quite a bit of fascinating behind-the-scenes detail on what being a staff writer entails.However, if, like me, you can’t be bothered to wade through this fascinating tale in the 140-word increments required by Twitter, a helpful commenter at Metafilter has stitched the fractured essay into a more readable format. Apparently, Baum will continue with his tale tomorrow, which, alas, will be done via Twitter. Hopefully somebody will piece that together as well.Baum’s most recent book is Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, nine linked profiles of people in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.Update: Baum has now posted the whole thing on his website.
Strolling around the bookstore the other day, a book with a startling cover and a wacky title caught my eye. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a humorous travelogue about one of South America’s more obscure countries, Paraguay. Pig is the first book by John Gimlett who has written articles for a number of travel magazines over the years. This excerpt is definitely worth a peek.
This must be some sign of the times: our friends at The New Yorker are currently offering the DVD-ROM set of “every page of every issue” at the fire sale price of $19.99 (and Amazon has it for as cheap as $16.72 as of this writing, though the sets for sale there may only be through 2005). It would seem that, during the time-intensive process of digitizing the New Yorker archive, technology outran itself. Shortly after the release of the boxed set, as we pointed out last year, “Every page of every issue” became available to subscribers at newyorker.com. That is to say, the DVD-ROM version is already obsolete. Still, there’s something amazing – even scandalous – about having the collected labor of White, Addams, Trow, Frazier et al. sitting in a svelte case on your desk. And heaven knows Condé Nast needs the revenue: The New Yorker was apparently its biggest ad-page loser last year, and we took note of a decidedly slimmer Winter Fiction Issue in September.