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.
As Banned Books Week closes, we naturally have news of more attempted book bannings. In Atlanta, a woman is leading a crusade to have the Harry Potter books removed from school libraries because they are “an ‘evil’ attempt to indoctrinate children in the Wicca religion.” And in Houston, in a particularly poorly conceived move, concerned parents are trying to ban Ray Bradbury’s anti-censorship tome Fahrenheit 451, after a student was offended by “the cussing in it and the burning of the Bible.” Although these efforts are distinguished by being ill-timed, they’re really no different from the book banning attempts that so frequently make the news. It seems like nearly every week there is a new book banning story to read as I look through the newspaper book pages.It has occurred to me, in reading all of these stories that these attempts to ban books almost never succeed, and that if any of these would be book banners read the paper they would know this. It follows then that a lack of curiosity, awareness, and probably education are all factors that breed book banners. The smaller one’s world is, the more likely he is to want to ban a book. In this way, the book banner is like the fundamentalist who desires to impose an irrational act on others in the name of blind faith. It is disconcerting to me how much noise these attempts sometimes make — the battles can rage on for weeks in local newspapers and at school board meetings. Still, it is heartening that books are so rarely banned, and that so many are often willing vocally to defend them.
Confirming some rumors that have been floating around the Internet, Amazon unveiled a new design for its product pages today. This may not be of interest to many, but I am fascinated by the way Amazon evolves, adding features and slowly reinventing itself over time. Most striking about the new pages is the huge photo of the book cover that now gets prominent placement. This seems like a good thing for shoppers. When you’re buying books over the Internet, it’s hard to assess the more tangible aspects of a book, so the big photo seems like a good move. At first glance the pages are much longer as well with editorial reviews and then customer reviews stretching well down the page. The sidebar(s) are gone too, giving the pages a more spare look. I guess the idea here is that Amazon is pushing for the impulse buy… maybe trying to make readers more likely to buy the book without reading the reviews below. Here is a look at one of the new pages. Any thoughts?Update: Whoa, they’ve added other features, too. Check this out. You can see the “the 100 most frequently used words in this book,” and see other stats like number of characters (444,858 in Gilead) and words (84,830), which amounts to 5,424 words per dollar… not a bad deal, I guess.Update 2: Now all this new stuff is gone. I wonder if the new features and look will come back or if Amazon was just performing some cruel experiment on us.
Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours was one of the biggest hits of the last ten years, so it’s fair to say that his follow-up Specimen Days is being anticipated by many readers. Like The Hours, Specimen Days is composed of three interrelated stories. The title of the novel is borrowed from Walt Whitman’s autobiography, and much as Virginia Woolf was the inspiration for The Hours, Whitman provides raw material for Specimen Days. The book gets a gushing review in the New York Observer: Specimen Days is “an extraordinary book, as ambitious as it is generous; and the depth of its kindness, or grace, is to convey that it is we ourselves, the multitude, who are extraordinary, or might be.”Another anticipated follow up is Dai Sijie’s Mr. Muo’s Traveling Couch, which comes on the heels of Sijie’s popular novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Traveling Couch (no relation to the Traveling Pants as far as I know) is about a French-trained psychoanalyst who returns to his native China where his sweetheart is a political prisoner. You can read an excerpt of the book here.Terry Gamble has new book out, Good Family, her second novel after her 2003 debut, Water Dancers. Good Family starts like this: “In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train.”Kaui Hart Hemmings is the author of a debut collection of stories, House of Thieves, that sounds very interesting. Hemmings is Hawaiian, and PW says “a dusty, dreamy Hawaii rife with sexual frustration, loneliness and adolescent heartbreak is the setting for the nine stories of Hemmings’s bold debut collection.” Her story “The Minor Wars” appeared in the 2004 Best Nonrequired Reading, and here you can read an excerpt of the title story which appeared in Zoetrope: All Story.
“I ran into a girl…She said I was a strange person and she told me why. She said, ‘You were born in a certain area where the ground is metallic.’” – Bob Dylan, Behind the Shades Revisited
Bob Dylan was born in Duluth but spent his formative years in Hibbing, a small, isolated northern Minnesota town whose claim to fame (according to the billboard that greets you as you come into town) is that it’s home to the world’s largest open-pit iron mine. It’s also my hometown, in an area so remote from Minneapolis that a friend from the city had never heard of it.
There are a number of towns in Minnesota’s Iron Range, which covers the upper fork of the state, but Hibbing is a particularly weird place given an accident of history; its inadvertent placement atop one of the richest veins of iron ore meant the mining company had to grant the townspeople major concessions to persuade them to move its location. Thus Hibbing is the only town with a high school listed in the National Register of Historic Places: the building cost four-million dollars (in 1923!), complete with marble floors in the bathrooms, a 1800-seat auditorium patterned after the Capitol Theatre in New York City, and a Broadway-level green room. Because Hibbing, which is near Canada, wasn’t the most hospitable place to live (in his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan described the winters as so cold and unending as to be hallucinogenic), the mining company also invested in education: the superintendent of the school system supposedly received the highest salary of any school district in the state, and K-12 instructors were paid unusually high salaries for the area. The Hibbing public schools were thus funded more like lavish private schools, so you end up with people like English teacher B.J. Rolfzen, who is often credited by Bob Dylan for instilling in him a love of language.
To give you an idea, this is where we had our pep rallies for homecoming, our auditorium. You can imagine yourself laughing a young Bob Dylan (then, Robert Zimmerman) off the stage at the talent show (yes, this happened).
But whether it was the richly funded schools or the iron ore in the water or some other strange vortex (Hibbing is also, weirdly, at the epicenter of climate change), the town boasts an unusual number of writers, some of them culture-changers like Dylan. (And this is not to mention that Greyhound Bus Lines, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, and Gus Hall — all Hibbing originals.)
The uncle of one of the kids I sat next to in Earth Sciences in junior high was Vincent Bugliosi, the Charlie Manson case prosecutor and the author of the best-seller about the case, Helter Skelter. Bethany McLean has the distinction of being the person who broke the Enron scandal; she wrote about first in Fortune magazine, and then in the best-selling Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which was made into a movie of the same name. Rick Novak, M.D., is the author of a medical thriller set in Hibbing that references the newest Nobel Laureate: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Frank Riley, author of various science fiction novels, won a Hugo Award for They’d Rather Be Right, which he co-wrote with Mark Clifton — apparently this was only the second time the Hugo was awarded to a novel.
Who will come out of Hibbing next?
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.
Ms. Millions and myself are expecting a number of house guests for Thanksgiving, so there probably won’t be much posting on the old blog for a few days. Luckily for you guys, though, I’ve brewed up a post chock-full of fascinating info for all of you. First off, Time Magazine columnist, Andrew Arnold put together a list of 25 best graphic novels of all time as part 2 of a series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the birth of the graphic novel, which, according to him (and many others), was the publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God: And Other Testament Stories. I haven’t read it but it’s supposed to be incredible. At any rate, Arnold has put together a great list that includes a couple of my favorite books of all time. Here are the ones from the list that I have read.From Hell by Alan Moore was lent to me, forced on me really, by a friend of mine who is really into comic books. I was skeptical, but this one turned out to be pretty riveting. The art, especially, is magnificent: noirish fields of black create an ominous mood that permeates the story.Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: This is one that really transcends the genre. When I read this, it made me wonder why people aren’t making graphic novels out of everything all the time. There are so many stories out there that can be made fascinating by the artists’ pen. Everyone should read this book.Maus Vols. 1 & 2 by Art Spiegelman: It’s hard to put into words how incredible these books are. If anyone requires proof that the graphic novel medium, when wielded expertly, can bring more to the table than the plain old written word, then these books provide it. Reading Maus is an emotional experience, and I think a lot of that emotion comes from reading a tragic story rendered in a format that seems so innocent. Everyone should read these two books, too.Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud: I’ve talked about this book before. There is something about comics, about the format of comics, that makes them enchanting and that makes them peculiarly well-suited for telling stories. I had always just accepted this as fact, but McCloud decided to find out why, and the result is a phenomenal book — itself a comic — that is both illuminating and entertaining. I should also thank Scott for pointing me in the direction of this list via his blog.More Mutis ManiaThis is good. This is really good. I open my email today to find this email from friend and fellow Alvaro Mutis & Maqroll the Gaviero obssesive, Brian:Man, oh, man, do I have some info for you! I was just casually glancing through a copy of Video Store magazine, when you wouldn’t believe what movie I came across…. “Ilona Arrives with the Rain.” Yep, apparently, it’s a Columbian film from 1996 that’s billed as “A dangerous romance full of international intrigue…. Based on the novel by award-winning Columbian author Alvaro Mutis.” Not sure if its really any good, but am still very curious to see it. A DVD is being released by Facets, and Amazon has a release date of December 16. Here’s the link: Ilona Arrives With the RainI’ll definitely be checking that one out.MoreMy friend Edan, who loves cookbooks, wants everyone to know that Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World is a great new book by globe-trotting husband and wife team Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. And since we’re talking about cooking, here’s a quote from the book I’m reading right now: “‘Restaurants make lousy hobbies. You have to be obsessed and driven and completely out of your mind to own one.”But you had–”Two, yes. But Alice,’ Pete said almost tenderly, ‘I’ve been totally nuts my entire fucking life.'”
If you haven’t been there already, it’s not too late to check out the LBC’s discussion of Firmin by Sam Savage, our Autumn Read This! selection. Also, don’t miss the post from author Savage. By the way, I highly recommend this tale of a literary rat. Firmin is among the few animal protagonists who is neither moralistic nor an allegory, he’s just a sentient rat living in a bookstore near Boston’s decrepit Scollay Square.Update: If you hurry, you can still get in on the Firmin giveaway going on at the LBC right now.