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.”)
Amazon has introduced a new feature that promises to be more useful than the Statistically Improbable Phrases feature that launched a few months ago. The “SIP” feature finds distinctive phrases inside books and then linked users to other books that contained those same distinctive phrases. For example, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World contains five instances of the distinctive phrase “deer poaching,” which Amazon tells us also appears in several other books, including Deer and Deer Hunting Book 2: Strategies and Tactics for the Advanced Hunter. Amusing, but not terribly useful. Amazon’s new feature, Capitalized Phrases” or “CAPs,” links books by proper names and places, so by clicking on “King Lear” from among the CAPs for Will in the World, you get a list of books that mention “King Lear.” This seems like a potentially very useful research tool – especially if Amazon decides not to limit the results to twenty or so books as they are currently doing. These “phrases” features by Amazon also represent a foray into the relatively new Internet phenomenon of tagging, which sites like del.icio.us use to categorize Web sites. Since the process is external – in the case of del.icio.us, the tags are applied by users – and has a human element to it, sites that employ tagging have the potential to be “smarter” than those that rely on old-fashioned search engines. It will be interesting to see if Amazon begins to allow user submitted tags in addition to its Search Inside a Book data to create a deep and highly intuitive way of organizing its massive inventory.
It is of passing interest to me when a site like Gawker gets bookish. So they did on Saturday in a typically hard -to-peg post about Ben Kunkel’s piece in this weekend’s NY Times Book Review in which the “it-novelist” discussed the new Nirvana biography, Nirvana: The Biography, by Everett True. I often have no idea what is being said on Gawker. Are their writers simply sarcastic, or are they being cleverly sarcastic about their use of sarcasm?My best guess is that the gawkers generally dug the review. To the extent that this assessment is accurate, I concur. The new Nirvana book sounds a little lackluster. How many biographies of Nirvana can we as a culture absorb? I myself have read two, Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are, and Christopher Sandford’s Kurt Cobain. What I have taken away from these books, and what Kunkel articulates in his review, is that Nirvana is a tough nut to crack: “What does ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ sound like when you’re in your 30s, as Kurt Cobain, dead at 27, of course will never be?” It sounds to me like the epitome of artistic-commercial conflict, but I’m only 29. To wit, Nirvana, the ferocious guitar-pulverizing punk band, sounded best on an unplugged album. Not surprisingly Ben Kunkel, who cut his literary teeth chewing on twenty-something angst, sounds pretty good discussing the band.
Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been on my reading list for a long time. Upon Max Magee’s suggestion I picked up the recent translation by Edith Grossman sometime in January 2004. It took me a good 11 months to work up the appetite, desire and guts to indulge in this phenomenal piece of writing. Described by many as the beginning of modern novel, Don Quixote relates a crazed Alonso Quixano’s sallies from his native La Mancha to various provinces of Spain. Beyond the usual adventures of the windmills, freeing of the slaves, and fair Dulcinea – all of which are a part of every child’s introduction to fairy tales and literature – lies the second part of the novel. Cervantes published two Don Quixote novels, and whereas the first one colors our imaginations as children, the Part II – published ten years after Part I, in 1615 – brings forth Cervantes as a witty author who employs Don Quixote’s insanity to illustrate the genius of his loyal servant Sanco Panza; the trivial entertainments of the Duke and the Duchess, whose cunning knowledge of the first novel, which is referred to numerous times in Part II, provide for the creative and chivalric plots that the nobles employ to ridicule Don Quixote; and a grand finale of sobriety that settles for once and all the history of Don Quixote. Cervantes ends the illustrious misadventures of Don Quixote to prevent new issues of fake Don Quixote novels from appearing. Cervantes’ answer to authors who attempted to profit on the first Don Quixote’s success, one Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda in particular, is derisive and rash – bordering on self flattery through his diatribe on other authors. Don Quixote opened a new window in my mind with its accessible language – thanks mostly to Grossman’s spectacular translation – and cunning use of word plays, romantic approach to the bygone days of knight errantry, mockery of social dogmas, integration of tangent plots – oh yes, you read at least 3 unrelated short stories in the novel – and eternally modern style. The novel’s mix of fantasy and reflections on society definitely place it in the pile of books the are must re-reads, albeit not in the short term – it will certainly take me a while to put aside another chunk of time for the second serving.I was distracted at times from reading Don Quixote by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings. Matt Clare, a close friend and literary fiend, was kind enough to present me with this magnificent work that captures a unique time period in British society. Clare’s inscription on the cover reads “no Baron [on the Trees, by Italo Calvino, which I had presented to him earlier] to be sure, [but] the Lord may still have something to teach us.” Indeed, Lord Henry Wotton quickly became a new idol of mine, decadent and lost, with no particular interest in anything that the London high society of the 1880s held dear, nor any high aspirations that provided for the chatter at tea parties. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of The Picture of Dorian Gray presents vain struggles and trivial issues in an intentionally serious tone, which mocks the core of British culture at the time. There is much to be said about the twists and turns of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which keep the reader on his toes and makes the story an amazing, insightful and philosophical page turner. What follows in the 4 plays and final ballad also collected under the same volume (Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Ernest, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol) is not as intense as the opener, but nevertheless very entertaining and universal. Oscar Wilde’s only drawback is the limited nature of his subjects, but he does a phenomenal job in conveying the stuck up nature of the crowd that he once was a part of.Related: Max’s thoughts on Don Quixote
I’ve talked about “sale books” once or twice here at The Millions, but since I just a got a great deal on some “sale books,” I decided to revisit the topic. “Sale books” are also known in the book biz as remainders. These are the books you see in your local Barnes & Noble, usually near the front, piled together in bins or on shelves under signs that say things like “clearance” or “all books on this shelf $5.99 or less.” It’s usually a rather odd assortment of books: super cheap hardcovers that mere months (or even weeks) ago were selling for full price. If you dig around you can sometimes find some decent books, but usually the titles are a who’s who of bad books, kind of like the mangled sale rack at your local department store. However, the path from frontlist to remainder bin can be a lot more circuitous than path from shop window to sale rack. And so I present the life cycle of the remaindered book. The remaindered book starts out as a regular old frontlist book, that is, one of the season’s new offerings from a publisher. Let’s call our new book Voyage to Hoboken, a widely anticipated coming of age story by a best-selling author. Since the book is expected to be a big seller, your local Barnes & Noble places a frontlist order of 60 copies from Turnpike Press. The book is released, and amid bad reviews and underwhelming publicity the book is a dud, an outright disappointment. After three months only nine people have bought the book at the full price of $26.95. Now, the book industry is rather odd in that, if a book doesn’t sell, the retail establishment can simply return it to the publisher and get most of their money back. Sometimes, when you work at a bookstore, you begin to get the eerie feeling that rather than selling books, you’re merely storing them until the publisher is willing to take them back. So, the time comes when the buyer at Barnes & Noble decides enough is enough and returns 50 copies to Turnpike Press, leaving one copy on the shelf in case some unwitting reader decides to buy it. At a Turnpike Press warehouse, thousands of copies of Voyage to Hoboken come in from all over the country. But the folks at Turnpike aren’t worried, they are ready to cut their losses. They have negotiated with “remainder houses,” companies that deal with these unwanted books, to get rid of our unfortunate novel in bulk, lets say $1.50 per copy. The remainder house then turns around and calls up the very same book buyer at Barnes & Nobel and sells back this once bought book at a severely reduced price, $3.00 per copy, and then Barnes & Noble tries to sell it to you, the reader, for $6.00. And, in the end, most folks can’t resist the bargain. So, such is the odd journey that bargain books take before arriving in their bargain bin. What inspired me to write about this? Well, the other day I got a catalog in the mail from one of those remainder houses, Daedalus Books, and, since shopping from a catalog is a lot easier than picking through the bargain bin, I got myself four fantastic books for about sixteen bucks. Not bad, eh? Here they are: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey, Pastoralia by George Saunders, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, and The Founding Fish by John McPhee. By the way, bargain books can be found at Amazon, too.Speaking of Amazon, here is an interesting article about what those sales rankings at Amazon actually mean. It’s written from the perspective of a self-publishing expert.One last thing. During my time at the bookstore, one of the hottest sellers was a collection of short stories by David Schickler called Kissing in Manhattan. Now Schickler has a novel coming out called Sweet and Vicious. It looks interesting.
I have another gig besides my day job. Myself and my old friend, Derek Teslik, have started a record label, Realistic Records. Our first release will be a full length vinyl LP by The Recoys, the former band of currents members of The Walkmen and The French Kicks. It’s a great album with a great album cover. I can’t wait to own it. There’s word of a reunion show as well.