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 could not stop. I became a Calvino junkie and read The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount, two separate stories collected in one volume as suggested by the titles, and a book along the same lines as The Baron in the Trees. The stories are about an exemplar non-existent knight that the king's army despises because he lacks human vice, and a generous and noble viscount who is split in half during battle, hence losing his good side and becoming evil. Both are great fairy tales with a grain of cynicism, a touch of distrust bred by 20th century politics (Calvino was also a linguist and deeply involved with leftist politics, which at times caused him discomfort), and the humanist wishes of an idealist.As with Kapuscinski, I had to take a break from Calvino, and picked up Arthur Nersesian's Chinese Takeout. I picked Chinese Takeout because the picture on the book cover was of 7B, a one time favorite dive of mine that was four blocks away form our East Village apartment. It was one of those books that I kept seeing and telling myself that I would get it the next time I saw it, just because of its cover. As luck would have it, I really enjoyed the story of Orloff, the book's protagonist. He walks through streets most familiar and beloved, sells books on West 4th street (in front of the NYU library and Stern School of Business), struggles to make it as a painter, lives in the back of his van, deals with junkies, and longs for the days when the lower east side was a cheap haven for artists. A romantic and nostalgic look at the areas currently being overridden by hipsters and $150 torn diesel jeans (my personal favorites). Or (short for Orloff) still exists in Manhattan, and walks those streets and probably does sleep in the back of his van or at the rent controlled apartment of his friend from time to time. Chinese Takeout is a good New York story that one should read on the beach during a vacation or in the subway.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3
Hubert Selby Jr., a controversial American writer, has died. He was best known for his unsparing look at Brooklyn's seamy underbelly, Last Exit to Brooklyn, a landmark book that was widely praised but also spawned obscenity trials. His career reached another apogee when his novel Requiem for a Dream, a chilling portrait of addiction, was turned into a movie by director Darren Aronofsky. Here's the obit from the Times.Also, check out the web only interview with Edward P. Jones at the New Yorker. He talks about Washington, DC, his life, and his upcoming collection of stories. An excerpt: "One of the things that I found out when I did go to college is that people had a very narrow idea of Washington. They thought it was basically the government and the Supreme Court and all of that, and they didn't know that there were people who had lived there for generations and generations and had really almost nothing to do with the government. That was certainly my mother's case. She came from the South and was a dishwasher in a French restaurant that just happened to be about a block or so from the White House. Around that time in college, I also came upon James Joyce's "Dubliners," and I admired what he had done for the people in Dublin--just everyday, good people. I took a creative-writing course, and I began to think, well, maybe one day I would like to do the same thing for the people of Washington that Joyce had done for the people in Dublin."
Last night the winners of this year's National Book Awards were announced:Fiction: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (I've got this book lying around somewhere, and I've been somewhat interested in reading it... and I'm still somewhat interested in reading it.)Non-Fiction: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire (I was hoping that Gulag by Anne Applebaum would win. Of course, in these situations, I always want the book that I've read to win. It's more fun that way.)Poetry: The Singing by C.K. Williams (This is exciting. C.K. Williams has been one of my favorite poets for a very long time. Here's an anti-war poem of his called "The Hearth.")Young People's Literature: The Canning Season by Polly Horvath (I'm no expert on kid's books, but I'm actually pretty familiar with Horvath. A few years back I worked at an agency that repped the film and TV rights for a huge catalog of books. Polly Horvath's books were among them, and they were favorites around the office.)Additional info: Past National Book Award WinnersDexter SpeaksI found this great mini-profile of author Pete Dexter yesterday. It helps illuminate the qualities of his character that I was unable to quite describe in a post a while back about seeing him read. He is a very old-fashioned hard-nosed guy, a newspaper man. He's got a great sense of humor too. They sort of gloss over it in the article, but I think it's pretty remarkable that he's driving himself around the country for this book tour. He clearly enjoys doing that sort of thing. I do, however, happen to disagree with the remarks he makes about Stephen King and the American reading public. King himself admits that he has written several clunkers along the way, but he has also written some astoundingly good books that, given a little perspective years from now, will be thought of as some of the best books of our era. I know it's a bold statement, but think about how good The Stand, It, and The Shining are (just to pick a few of the many good books he's written). Just because he sells as many or more books than Tom Clancy or John Grisham doesn't mean he writes at their level. I also disagree with this: "The winner of a National Book Award argued that the reason John Grisham and James Patterson novels are so popular 'has something to do with our lack of attention span.'" Dexter mentioned this at the reading I attended with unironic and grave concern. It's true that millions of people read books by those authors, but I don't think that it's due to a lack of attention span. My theory is that people read the same types of formulaic books over and over again because it is comfortable. The vast majority of the people out there lead busy, stressful lives and they read for fun and for an escape. They don't have time to browse endlessly at bookstores seeking out a hidden gem. They don't want to risk buying a book that is unknown to them and that might not serve their needs, when there is a shelf full of books that they know with certainty will give them what they need. A lot of these same people would gladly be more adventurous readers if their lives permitted it, they just don't have the time or the money to support it. This is why all those polemical right-wing and left-wing books do so well even though they bring no new discussions to the table. This is why Jerry Bruckheimer movies do so well. It is an unfortunate fact that our modern lives do not typically leave room for the adventurous consumption of creativity, and to say that people consume all this stuff that is "bad" because they are deficient in some way misses the point entirely. (I know I made essentially the same point in a post last week, but I've had this idea on my mind a lot lately).
In early 2002, the mogul for whom I worked began reimagining his prize property, The Atlantic Monthly. For a few weeks, I and other David Bradley employees at The Advisory Board Company received emails asking how The Atlantic might be improved. Would expanded political coverage make us more likely to subscribe? How about an expanded travel section? And: Could we recommend a witty British essayist to round out the list of contributors? (I'm pleased to say I botched this last question, and so can claim no credit for Christopher Hitchens.)Indeed, for a while, I wanted nothing to do with The Atlantic at all. Though the changes inaugurated that year improved the circulation numbers, they seemed to me to damage The Atlantic's brand. The palpable rightward lurch; the proliferation of infographics, polls, and lifestyle coverage for the country-club set; and especially the breathless editorial hooks - "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" "Was Rumsfeld Right?" "Is Feminism Bad for Women?" - had made this intellectual institution everything it once wasn't. While reading an article pegged to season five of The Wire, I could practically hear cut-and-paste mouseclicks turning good reporting into vacuous bloviating. (The Wire's chief offense? It's fiction!)It was around this point that I began to toy with an essay called, "Is The Atlantic Monthly the Death of Journalism?"The most telling weakness of The Atlantic circa 2005 - 2007, I would have argued, was the way that it had assimilated in print form a quality conventional wisdom assigns to online writing: i.e., an instinct to manufacture controversy, at the expense of common sense. This pseudo-blogginess was on vivid display in the magazine's letters section, wherein master sophists such as Caitlin Flanagan hectored any reader who dared to point out the tendentiousness of their logic.Even as the editorial standards of the print magazine slipped, however, a stealthy inversion was happening on the magazine's blogs, whose readership numbers soon eclipsed newsstand sales. Marc Ambinder sought some middle ground in our contentious political discourse. James Fallows and Clive Crook, freed from their editorial overlords, offered thoughtful feuilletons. And even as Ross Douthat and I got into a mini-contretemps about presidential fiction, I came to admire the high standards of logos and ethos he brought to that mire of pathos, the Internet.Now, with a new design and a new slogan, the print and online arms of The Atlantic have perhaps reached some happy accommodation. The current print issue reveals the virtues of editorial patience; Hannah Rosin's piece on transgender juveniles, in particular, is a model of probity. By far the most interesting aspect of the redesign, however, can be found on the web. The new version of www.theatlantic.com sports a svelte and user-friendly index of the magazine's blog offerings (a.k.a. "Voices"). Moreover, the central panel of the homepage features a rotating selection of current content, making no distinction between print and online provenance. It's a credit to The Atlantic's intrepid bloggers - and a nod to the possibilities of the blog as a medium - that readers won't miss the distinction.
A brand new blog called The Happy Booker has arrived on the litblog scene, and its proprietor Wendi is wasting no time jumping in to the fray. Also worth noting: I Read a Short Story Today in which Patrick reads and discusses a new short story (almost) every day. It's pretty entertaining so far, but he should add comment functionality so we can get some discussion going.
Over at More Intelligent Life, you'll find my reflections on the Joseph Mitchell centenary. Mitchell is, for my money, the greatest reporter-stylist of his era; the essay points to a few reasons why. In related news, The New York Times today reports on a blog version of the diaries of that other great reporter-stylist, George Orwell.