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.”)
Millions contributor Emily’s award-winning review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale has been posted by VQR. Check it out.
Canada’s national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O’Neill’s novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, “collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal’s red-light district.”Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy).This year’s contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page’s pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year’s contest.In 2003, Bombardier’s pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson’s first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada’s rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen’s second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it’s tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don’t shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians – past and present – wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this year’s and last year’s championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.
Some new books that are getting lots of praise, and some excerpts from those books:Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis — review, excerptLittle Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt — review, excerptYou Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon — review, excerptCrossing California by Adam Langer — reviewAlso of note: the creation of the Man Booker International Prize has been announced. From the press release, “Worth £60,000 to the winner, the prize will be awarded once every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language. The first winner will be announced in mid 2005.” Now Americans will finally be able to get their hands on a Booker.
My soon-to-be-father-in-law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and recently he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 80’s. They contain a recorded performance of a baseball-themed show put on by the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and one of my favorite writers, Roger Angell. The show, which is about two hours long, consists of readings of baseball essays, stories, and poetry. The work of John Updike is represented as is that of Garrison Keillor. I was most interested in an excerpt from a book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, a book that was put together by Lawrence Ritter, an economics professor at NYU. Ritter also happens to be a baseball fan, and shortly after Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, inspired by the outpouring of myth and legend that occasioned Cobb’s passing, Ritter decided to record for posterity an oral history of the early years of professional baseball. Over the next several years Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, tape recorder in hand, seeking out the game’s grizzled veterans. The result is a book that is, I am now learning, cherished by aficionados of baseball literature, and since, I suppose, I must consider myself a member of this group, my copy should be arriving via post shortly.An AddendaI knew I had forgotten at least one of the books I read last year, and I think I forgot because I didn’t actually read it; I listened to it. Thanks to a friend who gave me a copy, Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker by James McManus was my driving companion for a week or so, which both doubled my reading output and made that much more tolerable the vast amount of time that I, like any Angeleno, must spend in his car.
Millions contributor and ardent Canadian, Andrew Saikali, dropped me a line to let me know that Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist and one of my favorite writers will be on the CBC Radio program Writers and Company this Sunday, June 5th. If you’re interested, you can listen live by clicking through from here. (Check that page to see when it will air in your time zone.) It appears as though the show will also be available here for download for a week after it airs on Sunday.
When: Late Afternoon 10/2/03Where: Walking down my street in a leisurely sort of way.Who: On older gentleman wearing a really sharp fedoraWhat: The Hot Zone by Richard PrestonDescription: “The true story of how a deadly virus from the central African rain forest suddenly appears in a Washington, D.C., animal test lab. In a matter of days, 90% of the primates exposed to the virus are dead, and secret government forces are mobilized to stop the spread of this exotic ‘hot’ virus.”Anyone else like to go bookspotting?
I’m apparently not the first person to wonder, in connection with last week’s PEN World Voices Festival, What makes a good panel discussion? It may seem a parochial concern – the kind of thing best hashed out at… well, a panel discussion – but it has real-world implications. Discussions of books by people who write them can be exhilarating to witness, but there’s also the potential for gnaw-your-own-leg-off tedium.Wednesday’s celebration of 40 years of Anagrama, the illustrious, Barcelona-based independent publisher, highlighted some of these possibilities and pitfalls. The panelists themselves, including Anagrama founder Jorge Herralde and four of his authors, had personality to spare. According to Herralde, these authors occupied the “in-between spaces” of culture and language – always a good thing for conversation. And yet translation problems kept the evening from sustaining any real momentum.Francisco Goldman led off, attempting to capture the role of Anagrama in Hispanophone literary life. He likened it to “Knopf, FSG, Grove, and New Directions” rolled into one. With a novelist’s eye for detail, he described the dustjackets of Anagrama’s various series – “bright, marigold yellow” for translations; “mint green” for Spanish-language originals; gray for “grown-up books” like philosophy. Anagrama, he pointed out, was founded at the tail end of the Franco era, when publishing serious literature was itself an act of editorial daring. And yet even in a more genteel 21st Century Spain, the house keeps renewing itself, most recently by bringing to international attention the extraordinary “flowering of Latin American fiction” in the last decade.Goldman promised to tell us later about Anagrama’s great parties and “How I got to get drunk with the heavy metal rock band Slayer.” But, as the translator fumbled with Herralde’s introduction of the next speaker, A.M. Homes, it seemed increasingly unlikely we would have time to hear from Goldman about Slayer, or about anything else. By the time the translator (an American, it seemed) described Homes’s work as “misericordian” and (I swear) “vorocious,” half of the audience was laughing in embarrassment, and the other half, including the elderly woman next to me, were yelling out the correct translations. Given the floor (finally) Homes spoke movingly about what it meant to a “horribly American” writer like herself to be published abroad. “It means my work has relevance,” she said. Being translated was “an honor. . . and a gift.” The panel had righted itself again.Next up was Siri Hustvedt, looking prosperous in a designer cardigan as her husband, Paul Auster watched from the front row. Herralde’s introduction made it clear that Hustvedt is huge in Spain, with something like 20,000 copies of Sorrows of an American in print. For previous books, she shared a Spanish publisher with Don DeLillo, he said. (I figured that out, and I don’t speak Spanish.) The translator’s version? “She shared a car with Don DeLillo.” At this point Hustvedt herself interjected – “No, no, no, no.” Fortunately, after Hustvedt’s fanciful disquisition on neurology and the imagination a new translator had arrived. The first young woman may merely have been pinch-hitting for the second, who I’m guessing got lost or had train problems. And so the two Spanish-speaking novelists on stage were the beneficiaries of fluid translation.The first to speak was Daniel Sada, who, according to Herralde, was on Roberto Bolaño‘s short-list of favorite writers, which fluctuated according to who he was friends with at any given time. The other candidates? Rodrigo Fresán, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Marías, and the man seated to Sada’s right, Enrique Vila-Matas. Sada spoke about the 19th-Century tradition that shaped him, and its two great problems: managing character and managing time. He quoted Zola: “a novel with less than 25 characters is not worth reading.” Sada’s ambition as a young man was to write a 19th-Century novel that would also be a piece of poetry. “I understand now that this is an idiotic idea,” he said. Still, his fiction is apparently difficult to translate because of his careful attention to the rhythms of his sentences. (All of this made me hungry to read his novel, Almost Never, which will be published in English next year by Graywolf.)The final panelist was Vila-Matas, whom I can only describe as looking like an Iberian Christopher Hitchens. Open-collared and looking pleasantly sauced at 7 p.m., he delivered a fluid series of anecdotes and aphorisms, most of them offering a rascally picture of his dealings with Herralde. My favorite had to do with bumping into Herralde in a discotheque while “in a euphoric state” and lying about having completed a novel. In the end, though, Vila-Matas turned earnest. “Without the trust [of Herralde and Anagrama] it’s not clear I would still be a writer.”The best part of any panel discussion is the discussion, but because so much time had been burned up by prepared remarks and language difficulties, there was hardly any time for these panelists to mix it up. (Note to future programmers: the next best thing to a good translation is not a bad translation, but no translation at all.) Still, this remarkable gathering of writers offered an effective introduction to Anagrama’s work, and offered a testament to the power of independent presses and iconoclastic publishers.[Ed.’s note: Vila-Matas does look like an Iberian Hitch, but does not write like one. We apologize for any confusion.]