Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
I have an article in the newest issue of Poets & Writers. It’s about the publishing industry’s recent interest in doing business in China and in bringing Chinese writers to the rest of the world.Not unlike European explorers five hundred years ago, the U.S. publishing industry is looking for a route to China. And, like those explorers, each company seems to be setting a different course. HarperCollins recently partnered with a Chinese publisher and plans to release new and classic Chinese books in English translation in the United States, the U.K., and China. Penguin has also secured a local publishing partner and is already offering Chinese readers ten of its Penguin Classics in Mandarin – and it has an open-ended plan to bring out more. At the same time, Penguin has stepped up its efforts to release more Chinese literature in translation in Western markets. Macmillan, meanwhile, has started a new publishing division, Picador Asia, based in Hong Kong.
When I was in high school, I was quite enthralled by Edgar Allan Poe. I’d been familiar with his most famous stories from a young age (I remember being particularly haunted by “The Cask of Amontillado”), but in high school I had the opportunity, poked and prodded by teachers, to delve deeper into some of the lesser known (or perhaps just less famous) stories, as well as his essays. The assigned reading begat extracurricular reading, as it sometimes did for me, and in looking for more Poe, I came across the one novel he ever wrote, an appropriately peculiar book, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It turned out to be a bizarre maritime tale rich with allegory and supernatural elements, not to mention cannibalism and geographic oddities (with particular attention paid to the mysterious Antarctica).It’s one of those books that stuck with me even though I don’t remember all that much about it, but I hadn’t thought about it for a while until Mrs. Millions asked me the other day if I’d ever heard of it. As it turns out, this is the book that Paul Theroux reads to Jorge Luis Borges in The Old Patagonian Express (as Mrs. Millions mentioned in writing about the book this week.)This juxtaposition led me to read up on the book at Wikipedia and elsewhere. I came away with a few nuggets: for example, I discovered that Jules Verne – in a fan fiction sort of turn – wrote a sequel to Pym called An Antarctic Mystery. Pym also inspired writers like H.P. Lovecraft, who drew from it in his book At the Mountains of Madness, Yann Martel, for his Booker-winning Life of Pi, and Rudy Rucker for The Hollow Earth. It also turns out that Borges once called Pym “Poe’s greatest work.” I think my copy is still tucked away at my parents house somewhere, so I’ll have to dig it up at some point. In the meantime, the full text of the book is available online.
Time’s book critic Lev Grossman made a splash on this week’s NYT bestseller list, debuting at number nine in the hardcover fiction category with his second novel, The Magicians. The book has gotten a healthy publicity push, but strong sales numbers also suggest that readers are responding to its hook: “a kind of Harry Potter for grown-ups.” I haven’t read The Magicians yet, but its premise – the academic and extracurricular adventures of a contemporary East Coast Wizard – puts me in mind of an unjustly neglected fictional opus: John Crowley‘s Aegypt Cycle.
After Matt Ruff chose Aegypt for our 2007 Year in Reading, I picked up the first novel in Crowley’s tetralogy and was hooked. Wands and fairies – er, faeries – were never my thing, but I probably learned more about magic, myth, and historiography than I would have from any work of nonfiction this side of Joseph Campbell. Moreover, Crowley is a beguiling stylist, a constructor of Joycean intertextual games, and (ultimately) a passionate humanist. For several years, The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, and Daemonomania were out of print, but now Overlook Press has brought them back into print, and Small Beer Press has published the concluding volume, Endless Things.
The Times points to an interview where Grossman muses about “all the things that were missing from J. K. Rowling’s Y.A. series, from sex and booze to . . . fantasy novels”; those are the very sorts of inclusions that make Aegypt so rewarding. This is not to undermine the originality of Grossman’s approach; rather, it is to demonstrate one of Crowley’s big ideas: that we make new stories, and new magic, out of the old.
Bonus Link: Michael Dirda on Aegypt in The American Scholar.
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.
Ed points to a great article about silly blurbs, namely Dave Eggers’ blurb for Daniel Handler’s novel Adverbs: “Adverbs describes adolescence, friendship, and love with such freshness and power that you feel drunk and beaten up, but still want to leave your own world and enter the one Handler’s created. Anyone who lives to read gorgeous writing will want to lick this book and sleep with it between their legs.” I’ve noticed that a lot of Eggers’ blurbs tend to draw attention to the blurber rather than the blurbee.Another notorious blurber is Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight. Here’s his blurb for Apocalypse Culture II edited by Adam Parfrey: “Adam Parfrey’s astonishing, un-put-downable and absolutely brilliant compilation… will blow a hole through your mind the size of JonBenet’s fist. This book should be in hotel rooms.” And how about this for Mall by Eric Bogosian: “Eric Bogosian writes like an M-16 ripping through the brain pan of Western civilization. A read-till-your-eyes-bleed chronicle of American appetites run amok.” There’s a whole bunch of them collected in this old LA Weekly piece (scroll down). Interesting note: The compiler of the aformentioned piece called the book store where I was working with the list of books, and I read the blurbs to her over the phone. Ah, the magic of journalism. At any rate, the experience inspired me to, much much later, compile some collected blurbs here, here, here, and here.
For the President’s brother, you would think it would be pretty easy to get your first novel published. Especially when that novel includes a thinly fictionalized account of life with the President’s father. You’d be wrong, though. Such is the case of Obama’s half-brother, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who today announced the publication of his semi-autobiographical novel, Nairobi to Shenzhen. The book draws extensively on Ndesandjo’s life in Kenya and China–where he currently lives and works as a consultant–and prominently features an account of his relationship with the President’s father. But it wasn’t released by a major publishing house, nor did it win Ndesandjo a hefty advance. Rather, Ndesandjo published the book himself, using Aventine Press, a POD self-publishing company.
Until now, Ndesandjo has kept a remarkably low profile, avoiding both the spotlight and his brother’s coattails. His greatest contribution to the 2008 election season was a statement that he was “proud of his brother.” When approached by a New York Times columnist hungry for information about the President’s family life, Ndesandjo stayed mum, commenting that he “had a limited interest in their father” and, “Life’s hard enough without all the excess baggage.”
A lot can change in a year, and it seems that Ndesandjo has decided to cash in. The popularity of Obama’s autobiography Dreams of My Father in the lead-up to the 2008 election and the insanity of the birther movement have contributed to a public interest in the details of President Obama’s paternity. Despite his insistence that some things are best left forgotten, Ndesandjo has stated that the novel explores his parents’ relationship in detail. In a Reuters report leading up to the novel’s release, Ndesandjo described his father as abusive, a man who beat his wife and children, stating “I remember times in my house when I would hear screams and I would hear my mother’s pain.”
Ndesandjo is clearly not afraid to take advantage of any residual Obamania (though he has said 15% of the profits from the book will go to support Chinese orphans). The book launch was scheduled for the one year anniversary of Obama’s historic election (and several weeks before his inaugural trip to China this month), and the story was quickly picked up by virtually every major media source in the country. Nor did he forget to mention that he had another, autobiographical book in the works, this one dealing with his relationship with his brother. Looks like that hefty advance might be on the way after all.
The Rake put together a terrific column on lazy reviews, the prevalence of lists masquerading as criticism, and the army of meta-critics that has emerged online. I’m late in linking to it, but it’s a very worthwhile read. A taste:Yes, Virginia, your pal the Rake has been willing witness to countless hours of VH1’s laziest programming. He’s not made of stone. The professional listmakers’ core insanity lies in the way in which they hold up sub-B list comedians and other cultural freaks as insightful, worthy commentators. Certainly there are subjects upon which Ron Jeremy is an expert, but the Top 100 Scorchtastic Movie Kisses is not one of them, not least of all because the very object of his commentary is chimerical.There’s more, too.