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.
It’s been a moment since my last post, and I am here to apologize and explain. Ever since the fifth grade, when I took my birthday party to see the movie Outbreak and then read The Hot Zone thrice a row, I have been terrified of epidemics. Two weeks ago, my beloved and I returned from a week’s holiday in Mexico and immediately commenced moving our household to the other side of the country, in an automobile. We had spent the holiday in points around the state of Oaxaca, and then the last day we were in Mexico City, larking around the metro and holding hands with everybody.I know that currently public opinion finds the Swine Flu to be very passe, and we’ve all been reminded several times that regular flu kills a third of Americans every year, but three days after we returned from Mexico it was very scary to receive a phone call informing us of the new flu that was killing all these young people in the place from whence we came, and it was more scary when my beloved shortly thereafter developed a sniffle. What with my intense paranoia and the terrifying reportage on every website, I insisted we spend two days sitting in a seedy motel, taking our temperatures with a Hello Kitty thermometer which cost ten goddamned dollars yet recorded our temperatures at a steady ninety-six degrees. It was truly a long, dark teatime of the soul (for me, that is. The invalid was remarkably cheery about the whole thing), but it was only a cold that he had, and we are fine. However, all the furor, and the move and all, has limited my brain function; furthermore, most of my books are still packed away. So, friends, excuse this post, for it is budget, as budget, perhaps, as the motel in which we awaited our deaths. Here is my holiday/cross-country move reading list:1. The Magus. I have read and really enjoyed this book about four times. This time it sort of soured on me (or did I sour on it? I can never remember how that expression goes). The narrator Nicholas is, in the crude parlance of our times, a “douche.” This never bothered me before, but this time I found him sort of boring. Maybe it’s the fact that the novel, which is about a big elaborate game perpetrated on the narrator by some crazed rich people, is very mysterious and fast-paced and racy when you don’t know what’s going on, and once you are familiar with the plot you have more gray matter available to ponder how annoying the narrator is. Maybe it’s just not holiday reading. I do find it bizarre that it is on the Modern Library List (#93), while The French Lieutenant’s Woman is recognized only on the Modern Library Reader’s List (#30). The French Lieutenant’s Woman strikes me as an incredibly elegant and complex jewel in the crown of twentieth century literature, while The Magus is just kind of thrilling and has sexy twins in it. Am I being unfair here?2. The Things They Carried. Kind of contemporary for me. During my phase of reading about sad things I read a lot of novels about Vietnam, but it has been a long time since I revisited that period of American history. I thought these stories by Tim O’Brien were wonderful, but I don’t have a lot to say about them. I wept. War is awful. I don’t understand why anybody would want to send a young person off to kill people and die. We should stop having wars. Full stop.3. Garden of the Gods. The sequel to My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives. It pains to say this, but this third in the trilogy was kind of rubbish. The writing was careless and I got the distinct impression that Durrell needed to raise money quickly and decided to dash out something along the lines of the earlier successes. Although, in his defense, he probably needed the money to save a rare pink-footed equatorial mongoose, or some such. So, while disappointed with this third effort, I do not hold it against him.4. The Rise of Salas Lapham. I always wanted to read something by William Dean Howells, and now I have.5. The Bonfire of the Vanities. We stayed in a hotel in Oaxaca that had a classic example of the hotel/hostel library of books left behind by guests. Most of the books are in Dutch or German, the ones in English either have something to do with the Dalai Lama, or are by James Michener, or are a Tom Wolfe novel with the first sixty-three pages ripped out. I’ve read this before so I wasn’t worried about the first sixty-three pages, but I did miss them once I had gotten underway. I really get a kick out of Tom Wolfe. Everyone is reprehensible and there is no justice, but he doesn’t make me feel sad. Possibly contributing to the downfall of civilization, but super holiday reading.
With one round done in TMN’s Tournament of Books, things are looking good for The Millions bracket which, along with Condalmo, was the only one that had Brady Udall picking Chimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun over Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. How did I decide to pick it? It was a favorite of Dan Wickett’s and I trust that guy’s taste.Also, if you’ve checked out the Book Bloggers’ Office Pool page, you may have noticed that the reader that I’m playing for, who was randomly selected by TMN, shares a last name with me. He is, in fact, my dad. So this means one of two things. Either it’s quite a coincidence, or my bracket was only selected by family members who decided to support me out of pity. Regardless, if my bracket wins and my dad gets all those books that should have me covered for quite a few Fathers Days and birthdays.
I took a peek at the Amazon page for The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and was surprised to find that the book has vaulted to #533 in their sales rankings (the book previously sported a ranking in the hundred thousands.) Now, I know that Amazon rankings are next to meaningless, but still, it’s pretty cool to know that my appearance on Weekend Edition Sunday sent readers looking to pick up the book. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.
A brand new blog called The Happy Booker has arrived on the litblog scene, and its proprietor Wendi is wasting no time jumping in to the fray. Also worth noting: I Read a Short Story Today in which Patrick reads and discusses a new short story (almost) every day. It’s pretty entertaining so far, but he should add comment functionality so we can get some discussion going.
I got back from New York yesterday. The Recoys show was unforgettable. Look for pictures here and here. Everybody packed into the sweaty back room of the Kingsland Tavern, and the Recoys became, for the last time, an underappreciated and raucous band from Boston. This time plenty of people knew better. In the years since the Recoys split, I’ve heard several people say that they are far better than many of the big name bands that they presaged. I agree with them, and so do a lot of folks, it seems. It looks like the record (Recoys Rekoys) is pretty much sold out, so hopefully we’ll be able to get a cd out soon. I was definitely digging New York this time around. I haven’t been in a while (about nine months I think). I rode the subway a bunch. At one point I noticed a girl reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel and I thought to myself… wouldn’t it be great if I could sit and read on the way to and from work each day, or on the way anywhere really, and I could check out what my fellow citizens are reading as we lumber along in our rolling athenaeum. Instead I gas and break my way around like everyone else in L A, and I have less time to read and everyone here has less time to read (assuming they would want to read anyway). It’s a shame. On the other hand, the radio here is really good.Watch out Harry Potter gonna kick yo assIsn’t it annoying when a writer is writing about some really popular nugget of pop culture and he opens his snarky article with “Unless you’ve been living in a cave (are a yak-herder in Khazakstan… have been trapped under a large pile of potatoes, etc. etc.) you’ve heard of Harry Potter (The Matrix… The Lord of the Rings, etc. etc.). Yes… ha ha ha, we all know about this very popular thing, oh snarky commentator, now get on with your witty dressing down of popular culture. Well, for the weekend anyway, I made like that yak-herder and forgot all about Harry Potter for a couple of days. I forgot he ever existed and then I stumbled sleepily and still a little bit drunkenly into JFK where they had a towering heap of yet another J. K. Rowling juggernaut Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You’ll notice on the Amazon page that it says “in stock June 25.” That’s because Amazon shipped a million copies on the first day! In fact, it turns out that the full 8.5 million copy first run was pretty much sold out before it ever hit the shelves due to the preorders alone. Through some serious finagling (like the buyer buying a few hundred copies from Costco on Saturday) my book store has managed to keep this 870 page behemoth of a book in stock so far. And since midnight on Friday we’ve gone from general book store to Harry Potter store. In the past 3 days we’ve probably sold more of this book than all other titles combined. This is all the more shocking when you consider that my store, due to location and clientele, has a meager childrens’ section and typically very few children ever come in. I just hope Rowling has enough room for the dump trucks full of money she’s making. As for the book itself, I doubt I’ll be reading it any time soon, but here’s what Michiko Kakutani had to say on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold no less.A Tasty BookI have a soft spot for food writers. Maybe it’s because I enjoy a good meal, perhaps too much, but I think it’s because I’ve found food writers to be charming in their obsession with food related minutiae. No one is more charming than Calvin Trillin whose “register of frustration and deprivation” leads him to travel the world seeking those foods that he can’t live without. the result of this is Feeding a Yen I can’t put this book down. He’s like an adventurous and kindly uncle. It’s a treat.
Slash’s memoir, Slash, became the surprise hard-rock book hit of the year after it received two votes from two Charleses (D’Ambrosio and Bock) in our 2008 Year in Reading roundup. In contrast, the recent Axl Rose biography, W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose, received none. Slash’s honesty and openness endear him to us – the book literally begins with a bang, with an account of his defibrillator implant going off mid-show – whereas the reports of Axl’s anger and manipulation in W.A.R. make it far easier to identify with the former band members he forced out. Is The Millions yet another outlet that participates, as Axl claims, in the pro-Slash, pro-old Guns media bias? Let’s just say we won’t be granted an interview with Axl anytime soon.Amazingly, twenty years post Appetite for Destruction and fifteen years after the dissolution of the original band, the members have made a resurgence of noise and headlines. Axl breaks his nine-year print-interview silence on recording matters and the possibility of reuniting with Slash, but still thinks everyone’s out to get him, Duff McKagan debuts as Playboy’s new financial analyst, and former drummer Steven Adler’s appetite for self-destruction continues. A related article in this week’s New York Times Magazine remarks on the paradox of Adler’s camera-dodging on “Sober House”: “He was trying to escape reality, and the desire to escape reality is – on ‘Sober House,’ anyway – the height of reality.”
Edith Grossman has lately become the definitive translator when it comes to Spanish-language fiction. She is responsible for producing the English-language editions of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (including his upcoming autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale), Mario Vargas Llosa (most recently The Feast of the Goat), and of course she brought The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis to American readers. Now, for the first time, she turns her translator’s pen to a classic. Her beautiful edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote has just been put out by Ecco, and, having never read the book, I will be delighted to turn my attention to this new edition soon.New CoetzeeMy friend and trusted fellow reader Brian informed me that he has read recently lauded author, J. M. Coetzee’s new novel Elizabeth Costello, and that he found it quite good and thought-provoking (better than Disgrace, anyway, which is his point of reference for Coetzee). So I was mildly surprised when I saw that the book received an unflattering and somewhat dismissive capsule review in last week’s New Yorker. The New York Times Book Review, however, confirms Brian’s assessment of a dense and philosophical, yet readable book.Amazon’s Mega SearchLast week Amazon announced their mind-boggling new search feature, which allows users to search the complete text of tens of thousands of new books. Talking to readers and checking out the buzz on the internet, I encountered a wide range of reactions to this new development, ranging from anger at Amazon’s ever-widening reach and annoyance at the plethora of extraneous results when searching for book titles or authors to exultation at this vast resource that has suddenly appeared at our fingertips. Meanwhile, the New York Times covers authors’ concerns. Any thoughts, press the comment button below and let us know.