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.”)
Here are some book reviews and book related stories that have caught my eye in recent days. In the New York Times Charles McGrath reviews a forward-thinking anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. The review is tepid, but McGrath takes the opportunity to give us an interesting little summary of the state of the American short story. Also from the Times, Michiko Kakutani delivers a review of Arthur Phillips latest, The Egyptologist. She makes the book sound pretty exciting, but in the end quibbles that it is not sufficiently weighty. Despite her reservations, The Egyptologist seems worth a look. I would imagine that it’s great airplane reading.
I first experienced ennui while solving a crossword puzzle — no, not the actual feeling of listlessness or dissatisfaction; rather, that’s when I first encountered the word. My adventures in a new tongue had begun, a strange language called Crosswordese, which consists of words used often by crossword makers but rarely experienced in the real world. (By the way, in Crosswordese, a crossword maker is known as a cruciverbalist.)
Do you speak Crosswordese? When you lose a button from a shirt and can’t find the sewing kit, do you ask your partner where the etui is kept? Might you sometimes mischievously refer to margarine as oleo? Have you ever stridden into a church just to point out what a great apse it has?
I started a life of crossword-solving as a teenager, almost three decades before my first novel, Black Chalk, was published, and I give credit to the world of puzzles for helping foster my interest in language.
But crosswords are about more than accumulating words: crosswords are about having fun with words; crosswords are, in fact, about loving words.
Among my favorite crossword clues are the following (answers at the bottom of this piece in case you want to solve):
HIJKLMNO? (5 letters)
Site of unexpected change? (4 letters)
Where there’s a Will? (12 letters)
See, crosswords encourage you to play with language. And, as a novelist, I get to play in the sandbox of words every day. But more than just aiding in a love of language, more than just encouraging you to have fun with words, crosswords also stimulate skills such as lateral thinking, humor, and synonym use. You could say that crosswords are the ideal training tool for a novelist.
But the ways in which puzzles have affected my life as a novelist go deeper than the mere enjoyment of solving crosswords. In my early 20s, having discovered that I absolutely loathed Law (the subject of my college degree and subsequent training, and the area in which my parents wished me to work), I needed to find a job. I had known for some time that I wanted to be a novelist, but at that tender age I think I felt too young to write fiction. (And I know I felt considerably too scared.) So instead of turning to novels right away, I got a job in another area I loved: puzzles. And for years, I edited and compiled all sorts of puzzles — crosswords, logic problems, word searches, sudoku, riddles, spot the difference…How could all of this fail to leach into my fiction?
If Black Chalk reads like a puzzle (and many reviewers have stated as much) then it is as much because of my work in that field as it is because I enjoy challenging myself — I really do like tormenting myself with plot problems, it seems. As a writer you sit on your own in a small room for a very long time — and one of the ways I like to keep myself entertained, it turns out, is by constantly pivoting and twisting my plots like the pieces of a Rubik’s Cube until I come across a pattern I find particularly pleasing.
It feels to me that staring at the blank page is a lot like staring at a blank crossword grid. When I make up a crossword, I have, say, a theme and 10 or a dozen answers that I want to place in the grid. And when I set out to write a novel, I have a theme and 10 or a dozen plot points or developments that I want to place in the story. And so the challenge, in both cases, becomes one of getting everything to interlock, of making everything work together, a matter of filling in the gaps in the most pleasing way possible.
Because, let’s face it, what better way is there than solving puzzles to stave off the feeling of…I’m stumbling for the right word here…It’s something like boredom…Dammit, I’m supposed to be good at synonyms…Ah, that’s it: ennui.
⅄∀M∀H⊥∀H ƎNN∀ ؛∀ℲOS ؛(¡O oʇ\ᄅ H) ᴚƎ⊥∀M :sɹǝʍsu∀
Image Credit: Flickr/Chip Griffin
The depth of Ignatius’ wisdom gave me an urge to read history, and I started with Napoleon: A Political Life, by Steven Englund. Englund is a notable scholar and the book was released to wide acclaim. Napoleon is a personal, political and military approach to one of the most influential leaders of history. I picked the book especially because I did not know much about Napoleon and sought enlightenment, which I got thanks to the book’s thorough historical content, the presentation of Napoleon’s personal background, and a very scholarly – yet novelistic – narrative. It is for certain that Englund is extremely passionate regarding Napoleonic studies and the controversies that surround it. His determination to relate to the reader both the specifics of Napoleon himself (character quirks, political ideas, practical implementations, the myth) and the historical evolution of the time (the French Revolution, Continental power struggles, trade issues) without any high opinions leads the reader to ask questions and wonder about different interpretations of the Napoleons life and actions.I was so moved by the joy of reading on historical matters that I picked up on Ryszard Kapuscinski – a foreign correspondent for the Polish press during the communist era who was recommended to me by the very C. Max Magee of The Millions and Cem Ozturk, great friend and emissary to Japan. I started with The Shadow of the Sun and realized once again how ignorant I was with regards to Africa. Since reading The Shadow of the Sun I feel ashamed to refer generally to Africa, as if it were one country, and it’s inhabitants as strictly African. Kapuscinski’s accounts are a mix of personal adventures that make James Bond stunts lame, coup d’etats surrounding the liberation of African colonies, and detailed descriptions of various cultures and peoples of Africa. Of course, immediately after finishing The Shadow of the Sun I picked up Imperium, Kapuscinski’s account of his visits to the USSR. Kapuscinki’s visit to the world behind the iron curtain, the different cultures that the USSR housed and worked diligently to eradicate and replace with communism, and the succinct description of the big brother situation is full of wonders. Imperium is a great read that is thrilling and unnerving at the same time. I still long to read The Soccer War, Kapuscinki’s accounts of the revolutions he witnessed in Latin America but rein myself not to finish all his works in one breath.See also: Part 1
Today in my mailbox, I found a hardcover edition of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I’ve become something of a Bolaño–phile in the last year… in fact, I already read the English translation of 2666, the late Chilean author’s magnum opus, this summer, in galley form. And so the arrival of the finished book was a pleasant surprise.Superficially, I can report that the dustjacket is a little disappointing; its reproduction of Gustave Moreau’s “Jupiter and Semele” appears mildly washed-out to me, and the author’s name gets a bit lost. In all other particulars, though – the wonderful, sea-sponge endpapers, the sturdy cloth binding, the great typefaces – 2666 has the look of a masterpiece. (The three-paperback edition is handsome, too.)That said, looking like a masterpiece is pretty meaningless. How the book reads is what matters. While I plan to write at greater length in the next month about the contents of 2666, I noted with some interest an early review from Kirkus, excerpted in the press materials: “Unquestionably the finest novel of the present century – and we may be saying the same thing 92 years from now.” This is heady stuff, but once you’ve read the novel, it doesn’t seem hyperbolic; rather, it’s an indicator of the high stakes for which Bolaño was playing in this, his last book.Back in May, I wondered if critics were going to recognize the seriousness of the attempt, or whether, Kakutani-like, they would draw an invidious comparison with the more accessible The Savage Detectives. I guess we’ll soon find out.
A few months ago the New York Times had an article about a study that challenged the conventional wisdom that used books cannibalize new book sales (see my post about it here). Now the Book Industry Study Group has released a report that delivers some numbers on used books sales, which are famously difficult to collect. A post at the bookfinder.com journal breaks down the data, but one key point is that the majority of used book dollars go to textbooks; understandable considering what college students are expected to shell out. Another key point is this: “General used book sales account for 3% of the value of all general book sales.” That number seems awfully non-threatening to me, but as this AP story makes clear, the book industry is not worried about the total number, they are worried about the growth of general (non-textbook) online used book sales (25% between 2003 and 2004); they are worried about promotional copies getting sold on eBay or Amazon; And they are worried that the consumer book market will start to look like the market for textbooks, where prices spiral ever upward and (where applicable) new editions are released with alarming frequency in order to combat losses from used book sales. Is this the book industry’s fault for making books too expensive and not finding better ways to embrace the new economy or are Amazon and eBay destroying the book industry as we know it (and would that be a good thing?)