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.
I spotted this essay by James Wood in the Guardian about endings that disappoint. I agree that there is hardly anything more disheartening than a novel that just peters out at the end. To me reading a book is like making an investment. You put in the time, and at the end you hope to walk away with some pleasure. A bad ending screws up the whole arrangement. I tried to think of some really good endings and off the top of my head I came up with a couple. In terms of paying off on an investment, one of my favorites is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The “a ha!” moment is almost too perfect but Irving has set it up so well that you can’t help but believe it. Another great ending that comes to mind is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. After such a long journey, one almost expects the book to run out of steam, but Steinbeck magnificently collects everything together at the end and sends you out of the book with real emotional force. When I read the last words of that book and put it down, I said to myself, “Wow, that was worth it.”
Earlier today it was announced that Lan Samantha Chang has been named the new director of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Here’s what my friend in Iowa had to say about the choice:So, yeah, Sam Chang. The gossip had her picked since last week. The students as a whole, are somewhat disappointed. Ben Marcus was definitely the favorite among everyone…for his exciting workshop and even more exciting craft talk, if not for his reading. We all knew he wouldn’t get it though. Too much craziness, perhaps? Sam’s workshop, as I reported, was great, and it’s my hope that her leadership and fundraising skills match her teaching abilities. Since she’s a workshop grad, I don’t think much will change around here, which is both good and bad. It would’ve been nice to get some new blood around here.Lots of related links can be found at Babies are Fireproof.
Matthew Kneale won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001 for his maritime historical novel English Passengers. Now Kneale has a collection of stories out that takes a more contemporary look at traveling. Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance is about the complexities of exploring today’s world. A review in The Scotsman says that Kneale’s “‘small crimes’ are usually ones of hypocrisy from Europeans traveling in developing countries – well-intentioned souls suddenly confronted with the unpleasant realities of life among the picturesque peasants.” Here’s an excerpt from the book and here’s a little essay by Kneale about some of his more harrowing moments on the road.As Hotel Rwanda helped raise the profile of genocide in Africa, a soon to be released British novel uses a similar, fictionalized tragedy as its backdrop. Andrew Miller’s The Optimists is the story of Clem Glass, a photojournalist who returns home from Africa unable to come to terms with what he has witnessed there. A review in The Times discusses the difficulties in embarking on such a novel: “The novelist has to mediate a political event more skillfully than a journalist and the tension between subject and mediator is what should be driving the story. In The Optimists there is more awkwardness than tension.” At the Meet the Author Web site (which is filled with video interviews with authors) Miller discusses what he was trying to accomplish with the novel. Update: a review in the Guardian.James Salter has a collection of short stories coming out in April called Last Night. Publishers Weekly says, “The reserved, elegiac nature of Salter’s prose and his mannered, well-bred characters lend the collection a distanced tone, but at their best these are stirring stories, worthy additions to a formidable body of work.” That formidable body of work, by the way, includes a previous collection of stories that won a PEN/Faulkner Award in 1989, Dusk and Other Stories. For another taste of Salter, here’s his recent reminiscence of food in France from the New York Times. And here’s a story from the new book.
Interesting article in the Chicago Tribune (reg. req.) that answers the question, “How did Roddy Doyle write a novel — well, half a novel — about Chicago from 3,700 miles away?” The novel in question is Oh, Play That Thing. Here’s part of the answer:Originally, when he prepared to write the novel, Doyle considered moving to Chicago for a year with his family, but that didn’t work out. (For one thing, his three children, ages 6 to 13, didn’t want to leave their friends.) So he relied on key Chicagoans and several shelf-loads of books for insights into the city. I’m always impressed when a novelist can present a place and time as though he or she had been there.
So, I’m done with journalism school. It was a quick fifteen months. I’m excited about the journalistic climate of these times; I’m very caught up in all the heady things being said about blogs and the new medium in general. It’s an exciting time to be in this business. But then again I suppose journalism has always been exciting. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of journalists, I realize that they are a backward-looking bunch – which isn’t to say that they are anachronisms, just that they are very conscious of their history. I don’t blame them. It’s a very rich history. One thing I learned in journalism school is how our newspapers are shrinking – and one day they may shrink into nothing, living only on the Internet. Newspapers used to be much bigger than today’s, but high newsprint costs and the changing tastes of readers have made newspaper companies skew smaller and smaller. At the turn of the last century, though, newspapers were quite big, and, as it turns out, at least one of them was very colorful.It’s an odd experience looking at pictures from the The World on Sunday (found here and here), a New York paper from more than one hundred years ago, because I think that we’re trained to think of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a black and white world. These colorful images have recently gotten some attention thanks to Nicholson Baker and his wife Margaret Brentano who rescued the papers from the refuse pile of the British Library and used them as raw material for a book that came out this fall: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898 – 1911). As Jack Shafer said in his column on Slate:But what made this vivid copy sing was its graphic and typographical presentation. Pulitzer’s people bulldozed the dreary, gray newspaper design template. The World ran headlines across a couple of columns, not just one, or completely across the page if it really wanted to provoke readers. Halftone photos, dramatic and comic illustrations, inset graphics, hand-lettered headlines, and buckets of color enlivened these artful pages.The Internet promises photos, audio, video and all kinds of interactivity. I love that, but I’m a little sad that newspaper like The World won’t be showing up on my doorstep any time soon.Earlier this month, Ron at Beatrice.com singled out this book as great gift idea, and I have to agree. This is the perfect gift for any fan of the news (and for future journalists, as well.)
A few months ago the New York Times had an article about a study that challenged the conventional wisdom that used books cannibalize new book sales (see my post about it here). Now the Book Industry Study Group has released a report that delivers some numbers on used books sales, which are famously difficult to collect. A post at the bookfinder.com journal breaks down the data, but one key point is that the majority of used book dollars go to textbooks; understandable considering what college students are expected to shell out. Another key point is this: “General used book sales account for 3% of the value of all general book sales.” That number seems awfully non-threatening to me, but as this AP story makes clear, the book industry is not worried about the total number, they are worried about the growth of general (non-textbook) online used book sales (25% between 2003 and 2004); they are worried about promotional copies getting sold on eBay or Amazon; And they are worried that the consumer book market will start to look like the market for textbooks, where prices spiral ever upward and (where applicable) new editions are released with alarming frequency in order to combat losses from used book sales. Is this the book industry’s fault for making books too expensive and not finding better ways to embrace the new economy or are Amazon and eBay destroying the book industry as we know it (and would that be a good thing?)
New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, whose global warming opus Field Notes from a Catastrophe has been much excerpted in the magazine of late, is blogging for the week at the Powells.com blog. From her first entry:When you write about global warming, you start to feel that a lot of what we all spend our time worrying (or blogging) about isn’t what we should be worrying (or blogging) about at all. (Which isn’t to say you stop worrying about it – or, I suppose, blogging.)By blogging, Kolbert is briefly joining another New Yorker staff writer who has taken up more permanent digs in the blogosphere.