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.
The holidays are nearly upon us, and longtime Millions reader Laurie wrote in to share a number of ways to give back with books this year.Room to Read works in developing countries with low literacy rates to create kids books in local languages using local writers and artists.A Peace Corps rep asks for books in Honduras.Laurie also adds: “Our local B&N is conducting a book drive to put new books into the hands of local kids who would otherwise not have any to call their own. B&N will only accept books bought in the store, though (or, one clerk told me, ‘possibly books that look new if you can show a receipt for them’). I understand the need to provide a poor kid something new, not a ‘hand-me-down,’ but this approach is so self-serving it detracts from the charitable aspect. Then again, it puts more new books in the hands of kids who have none in their homes, so maybe turning charity into a for-profit business tactic isn’t totally evil? Or maybe donating to a nonprofit like First Book is a better choice.”Here are more links to nonprofit book charities:Directory of Book Donation ProgramsBring Me a BookEthiopia Reads
I’m not a gamer, in any conventional sense. I like Brickbreaker, that insanely addictive game that seems to come standard on the Blackberry, and I can lose myself for twenty minutes or so in Tetris, especially if I’m on an airplane, but that’s about the extent of it. There are games that I’ve sometimes been tempted to play because I’ve heard that their worlds are beautiful, but I’ve resisted on the grounds that the absolute last thing I need is an absorbing beautiful thing to lose time in.
Given all this, I was surprised by how thoroughly I fell for Molleindustria’s Every Day The Same Dream when I encountered it a month or so ago. It’s a strange, somewhat harrowing little game that you play in your web browser, beautiful in the bleakest possible way. The world of the game is grey, constrained, populated by ghosts. The set-up is simple: your avatar gets up every morning and goes to work. Except that it isn’t quite every morning; after one or two rounds, you realize that your avatar’s caught in a repeating dream. And the thing is, chances are you’ve been here before: if you’ve ever felt trapped in a job that you hated, if you know what it’s like to get up every morning and set out into a pale workday that far too closely resembles yesterday and the day before and the day before that, then you may find this world suffused with a chilly familiarity. I did.
The game begins with your avatar standing next to his bed. The graphics are simple: he’s a white undifferentiated silhouette of a man. You walk him to the wardrobe and he puts on a suit. He walks past his wife, who’s perpetually cooking breakfast; she tells him that he’s running late. He walks down the corridor, descends in the elevator, gets in his car, drives to work, is yelled at by his silhouette boss, and walks down an endless line of cubicles populated by silhouette men who look exactly like him, until he finds a cubicle that’s empty. When he sits down in the empty cubicle the game begins again; he’s standing in his boxers by his bed.
The point of the game seems to be to break this numbing routine. Options and variations begin to reveal themselves: you can decline to put on your suit and then get fired for showing up at work in your underwear. Instead of getting in your car you can walk in the opposite direction to a desolate intersection, where just once in the game you’ll encounter a robed and hooded homeless man. “I can take you to a quiet place,” he tells you, and then he takes you to a graveyard where you linger for just a moment before you wake up standing by the bed again. You can get out of your car on the freeway, walk into a field and pet a cow. You can catch an orange leaf as it falls from a monochrome tree outside your office. You can walk past the endless row of cubicles onto a rooftop, and throw yourself over the edge.
Several commentators on various online forums devoted to gaming describe it as “a creepy little game.” I can’t really disagree, but it’s also beautiful.
The game was created two months ago by Molleindustria, which describes itself as “an Italian team of artists, designers and programmers that aims at starting a serious discussion about social and political implications of videogames.” Molleindustria was founded by Paolo Pedercini, born “somewhere in northern Italy” in 1981. He describes Every Day The Same Dream as “a slightly existential riff on the theme of alienation and refusal of labor.”
One can spend hours trying to decipher the meaning of the game (and people have, endlessly, in the afore-mentioned gaming forums.) But meaning aside, and even aside from the sad beauty of the game’s gray world, I was thinking about it the other day and I realized part of its appeal: it reminds me, in its very existence, of what the Internet used to be.
I came online in the mid-90s. People were pouring online in those days, but not everyone was there yet; I was far enough over on the leading edge of the curve that my classmates at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre thought I was exotic for having a computer and an email address, but far enough behind that astonishing things had already been done. The artistic potential of the Web had become apparent over the previous several years, and some of the websites I encountered were absolutely beautiful. I began teaching myself HTML code in my bedroom at night.
“The web is still artistically driven by unaffiliated labors of love,” the website designer Paul Frost wrote, sometime during that period.
I’m sometimes nostalgic for what the web was back then. I don’t claim that it was better. It was just different. There were high barriers for entry, and it wasn’t nearly as useful: aspects of the web that I take for granted today (buying groceries online, booking plane tickets, etc.) weren’t really there yet. But at the same time it was a stranger, wilder, in some ways more beautiful place.
Every Day The Same Dream reminds me of that lost web. It’s nothing if not an unaffiliated labor of love.
In the Times (UK), a look at the forthcoming Rough Guide to Cult Fiction begs the question: what is cult fiction? “The editors note in an introduction that Toby Litt once said that in their purest form, cult books ought to have been out of print for ten years,” Erica Wagner writes. She also notes that in order for there to be “cult fiction,” the fans of such fiction must be cult-like in their devotion. The Rough Guide apparently contains some odd inclusions as well as omissions, but the concept made me think of my experience with cult fiction. Based on working at a book store, I would say that, among contemporary authors, Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Coupland, and, to a certain extent T.C. Boyle had cultish fans. During my reading life, I’ve only gotten really cultish about one author, Richard Brautigan, of whose poetry and fiction I was enamored as a teenager. Brautigan, I would imagine, fits the “cult fiction” label pretty well. Curious if anyone else uses this label, I found an interesting list of books that a library in Indiana has labeled “cult fiction.”
So who are the lucky people who own the The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection, which costs nearly $8,000, weighs 700 pounds and is available exclusively through Amazon.com? Well, a New York Times article estimates that there’s only about two dozen people who have purchased the mammoth set. According to the article, one of them is Kate Bolton an avid reader who lost her entire library when her house burned down in a forest fire. I’d love to own that collection, but I’d need a separate apartment just to house it.
It started with Nick Adams.
I discovered Nick while reading through the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway a while back, and it is his voice, more than any others in the Hemingway corpus, that sticks with me years later. Nick Adams is in many ways Hemingway’s alter ego. Like Hemingway, Nick grew up in a rural part of the Midwest that still felt like (that still was, perhaps) Indian territory. Like Hemingway, Nick had a doctor for a father. Like Hemingway, Nick’s father commits suicide when Nick is a boy – this is the subject, by the way, of one of Hemingway’s most arresting Nick Adams stories, “Fathers and Sons”. As Nick grows up, and the stories progress and begin to slightly contradict one another (these are distinct stories, after all, and were never meant to be a coherent novel) his life grows murkier.
The Nick Adams stories, though published as a complete volume in 1972 – years after Hemingway killed himself in a manner similar to his own father – were never meant, I think, to be read in one sitting. The Nick Adams stories were written over a period of decades – during, not coincidentally, Hemingway’s most productive and most fruitful period – and they are each one of them distinct, many of them gems. They can be read together, that is certain. But part of the beauty of these stories is how well they stand on their own, each one highlighting a facet of Nick’s character, a specific moment in time. A day, as it were, in the life.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasure to piece these stories together, to chronologize them and evaluate them – and the character of Nick Adams – fully. But the real pleasure of these stories, for me, is in realizing that while they do not exist in solitude, they can and do stand alone as complete works of art.
Nick Adams hooked me on the episodic short story. By which I mean, as it should by now be obvious, the tale of an individual told over several loosely related episodes. Finishing a story – a good, well-written story – about a character both well developed and personally intriguing, and knowing that another story about that very same character is out there somewhere, has become, for me, one of the best feelings in the world.
One of the finest modern practitioners of the episodic short story was the late Leonard Michaels. Though Michaels is most well known for his 1981 novella of male angst, The Men’s Club, in my opinion his greatest achievement came near the end of his life, when he started chronicling the fictional life of a mathematician named Nachman. Nachman, a professor at Berkeley (where Michaels himself taught) is a lonely, trusting man who understands the most complex equations but cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of human interaction.
Michaels, along with his character Nachman, pulls you in from the very first sentence of the very first story, and never lets go. Here is that first sentence, of the eponymously titled story, “Nachman”: “In 1982, Raphael Nachman, visiting lecturer in mathematics at the university in Cracow, declined the tour of Auschwitz, where his grandparents had died, and asked instead to visit the ghetto where they had lived.”
There may be a better first sentence to a short story in existence, but I don’t know what it is.
The Nachman stories, like those of Nick Adams, stand well (stand very well indeed) on their own. Pieced together, though, they really are something of a masterpiece. The seven Nachman stories Michaels completed before his untimely death can be found at the end of Leonard Michael’s Collected Stories. They are well worth the price of the book.
In my opinion, the most promising episodic short story sequence currently being published is being written by Nathaniel Bellows. Bellows is the author of On This Day – a beautiful, painfully moving novel of a pair of siblings who lose both parents in the same year – as well as a magnificent poetry collection, Why Speak. While I am a great fan of all of Bellows’ writing, it is his Nan stories that really blew me away.
Bellows has a strong New England sensibility. With his vivid evocations of cold Maine winters and lonely, ice-strewn landscape, the poet he most consistently reminds me of (in content if not in form) is Robert Frost. Wisps of Emersonian self-reliance – as well as, perhaps, tacit acknowledgments of self-reliance’s limits – also carry through his work. In his Nan stories, Bellows takes that lonely New England self-reliance and brings it to New York in the character of Nan, a magnificently drawn Columbia University undergrad who comes from a sheltered, broken (in ways that I won’t ruin for you here) lower-middle class Maine family.
Nan, like Bellows, comes from upstate New England. Also like Bellows, Nan comes to Columbia to study literature and to become a writer (Bellows received his MFA from Columbia). Nan, like Michaels’ Nachman, has a fundamentally good although somewhat naïve personality. In these stories, she faces a world, often complex and underhanded, that she does not (at first, at least) really understand. The beautiful imagery of the stories, as well as the slow-paced, heart-piercing development of Nan’s character, make these stories not simply delights but, I would argue, necessary reading.
The three Nan stories that have so far been published – here is a link to the first one, published in the excellent literary magazine Post Road – are uniformly fantastic. According to Bellows’ website, there are at least four more Nan stories awaiting publication. I am sure I am not the only one who eagerly awaits piecing the rest of the puzzle of Nan’s life together.
News has emerged from Poland that renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski may have at one time been a collaborator with the secret police there. Apparently he is the latest of several prominent figures in Poland whose past ties to the Communist regime have been revealed.I’ve often wondered, when reading Kapuscinski’s books, how he was able to travel so far and wide and write with what seemed to be freedom. This collaboration would have likely made his journalistic wanderings more palatable to the government. As Reuters notes, between 1967 and 1972, when Kapuscinski apparently cooperated with the secret police, “it was almost impossible to leave the country without signing a document to co-operate with the regime.” Written after the fall of communism, Kapuscinski’s book Imperium would seem to betray his true feelings. The book is a poignant indictment of Communist atrocities that begins with a recollection of Soviet troops overrunning his town when he was seven, though it does not speak much of the Polish government during the Communist era.It seems clear that this was likely an impossible choice for Kapuscinski, either cooperate and write or resist and remain silent (or worse). Reuters quotes a friend and fellow reporter who says, “But Kapuscinski had to… If he didn’t agree, he wouldn’t have written his books. There would be no Kapuscinski.” It seems, as well, that Kapuscinski wasn’t a significant collaborator. Newsweek in Poland, which broke the news, quotes Kapuscinski’s file as saying, “During his co-operation, he has demonstrated a lot of willingness but he has not supplied any significant documents.” The revelations, meanwhile, come amid a wave of similar “purges” by Poland’s current leaders, who some have suggested are pursuing the issue with excessive zeal as a political ploy.Ultimately, the episode illuminates the terrible choices that many were forced to make behind the Iron Curtain, while also challenging our desire to identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys” under a regime where resistance of any kind was met with severe punishment. Given that Kapuscinski used his freedom, though it came at a price, to shed light on cruel governments in Iran and Ethiopia and on suffering and conflicts in many other parts of the world, it would seem that, based on what we know now, Kapuscinski achieved a karmic balance of sorts.See also: The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski and The Fabulist: Ryszard Kapuscinski
Some things I’ve noticed today:This review of a new biography of one the founding fathers of fantasy and science fiction, H. P. Lovecraft. What’s interesting about this bio is that it is done in the form of a graphic novel, a fitting medium in which to describe the life of a visionary. Lovecraft was almost a movie before it was adapted by Keith Giffen from a script by Hans Rodinoff and illustrated by Enrique Breccia.Great capsule reviews at the Christian Science Monitor of the nominees for National Book Critics Circle awards in the criticism category, “far and away the most intimidating [category].” The nominees are Gritos by Dagoberto Gilb, Songbook by Nick Hornby, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King, River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. The winners are announced on March 4th in New York.And a group reads all of Shakespeare in one day, which reminded me of this awesome big ticket item.