I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)
Flip to the back of a new book. What do you see? Blurbs. Line after line of praise, proclamations, and predictions. Tucked in a small corner square is an author’s photo, a passport-size acknowledgment of the face behind the book. Often those faces are hidden inside a jacket flap.
Bring back the book jacket photo.
Bring back those full-page portraits that pronounced I wrote a book, damn it.
For The Reivers, William Faulkner stands in front of a bookshelf full of Modern Library titles. He wears a tie and suspenders, with The Philosophy of Nietzsche and Cities of the Plain at his back. He doesn’t look at us, but at the book open in his hands.
Framed in gold and set against black, Louise Erdrich’s photo for Tales of Burning Love feels pronounced. The novel begins: “Holy Saturday in an oil boomtown with no insurance. Toothache.” You can hear Erdrich, confident yet controlled, spin that yarn for us.
I’m a little afraid for Richard Ford on the back of Rock Springs, his collection of stories. Ford stands in the middle of a snow-lined Montana dirt road, against a backdrop of mountains. He doesn’t seem too concerned, and the pose matches the prose, after all. The first line of the title story is “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.”
A novel is an accomplishment, something to be celebrated. Paradise by Toni Morrison got a fuller photo treatment than Beloved and Song of Solomon, and the author deserves it. Morrison’s countenance tells us: here is a story. Read it.
“Even a selected display of one’s early work,” John Cheever writes in the preface to The Stories of John Cheever, “will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” Cheever, wearing an open-necked shirt and sport jacket, smiles on the back. He looks pleasantly resigned.
John Steinbeck channels Vincent Price on the back of The Winter of Our Discontent. Appropriate for the novel’s ominous epigraph: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.”
Published in 1992, Susan Minot’s shot on the back of Folly is early ’90s cool: hair up, back, and messed, with an unbuttoned denim jacket. An interesting contrast with a work of historical fiction prefaced by an endlessly appropriate quote from Blaise Pascal: “Man is so necessarily foolish that not to be a fool is merely a varied freak of folly.”
Previously: Edan Lepucki on Marion Ettlinger
Recently I got a very interesting email from a reader. Frank Kovarik writes and teaches English in St. Louis. For the last five years, he has also been keeping meticulous track of the fiction that appears in the New Yorker. Not just the titles and authors, but things like gender, country of origin, and frequency of appearance.Frank has generously offered to make his spreadsheet available to download in Excel format. If you’re interested, you can get it here.Having this data allows us to dig deeper into the proclivities of New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and whoever else has a hand in what fiction appears in the magazine’s hallowed pages.Gender: From the database we learn that, of the 257 stories in the New Yorker from 2003 through 2007, 96 or 37.4% were penned by women.Nationality: Americans account for a fairly substantial portion of the stories that appear in the New Yorker, 134 of them, or 52% (and this leaves off several writers who could be conceivably classified as both American and a native of another country). Coming in tied for second are the Brits and the Irish at 18 stories apiece.Frequency: Much of that Irish total comes from master of the short story form, William Trevor, who readers were most likely to find if they flipped through an issue these last five years. Trevor was there on nine occasions. Including, an issue that included three separate but linked stories, Canada’s Alice Munro comes in second with eight stories. 12 other writers have appeared at least five times over the last five years, meaning that 14 writers have accounted for 32% of the fiction in the magazine during that period.9 stories:William Trevor8 stories:Alice Munro7 stories:Tessa HadleyHaruki Murakami6 stories:Thomas McGuane5 stories:T. Coraghessan BoyleRoddy DoyleLouise ErdrichLara VapnyarJohn UpdikeGeorge SaundersEdward P. JonesCharles D’AmbrosioAntonya NelsonIf anybody else draws interesting conclusions from the spreadsheet, we’d love to hear about them.
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.
In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
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
Franzen’s name looms appropriately large on the cover (in a font that recalls Ed Ruscha [edit: or Wayne White]), as does what appears to be a variety of blue jay a Cerulean Warbler. All of this is set atop a lake scene at sunset, the evergreen trees in the background suggesting northern latitudes.
As we noted in our 2010 book preview: “The excerpt from the novel that appeared last year [in The New Yorker] was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our ‘Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel.'”