Ms. Millions, who listens to KCRW (LA’s hipster/NPR beacon) while at work, heard somebody mentioning quirky holiday book gifts on the NPR show Day to Day and immediately thought of me. I’m a lucky guy. From a list, which she scrawled in her delicate feminine hand, I’ve gleaned a few books worth mentioning… and I commend the folks at Day to Day for coming up with some quirky books. The Girl Who Played Go is a novel by Shan Sa, a Chinese writer by way of France, who won a number of international awards for her previous novels, including the French heavyweights the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Cazes. This book, her first to appear in English, tells the story of a 16-year-old Manchurian girl and a Japanese soldier who tragically fall in love in the midst of war in the 1930s. From Manchuria to Tuscany: the NPR culture mavens also mentioned a new book by the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who is pretty well known for landscape photography that is rich in color and clever with light. Tuscany: Inside the Light is a pleasant take on a charming place. And now from Tuscany to….. the bomb shelter? 100 Suns is an eerie collection of photographs of mushroom clouds from atomic bomb testing sites at the height of the cold war. The mushroom cloud is a familiar, iconic symbol, and seeing so many in one place with such a stark presentation is an oddly moving experience. The book was put together by Michael Light, who salvaged and reprinted the photographs. He did the same thing a few years back with NASA’s collection of lunar photography in a book called Full Moon. Thanks to the little lady for giving me some books to talk about
Two weeks ago, the presidential commission appointed by President Obama to investigate the causes of the Gulf Oil spill released its final report. Have you read it yet? Neither have I. How different from the days and weeks following the release of the 9/11 Report. Debates about how well this newest presidential report assigns or distributes blame for the disaster in the Gulf appeared briefly in the press, then disappeared. Have we already lost interest in this catastrophic oil spill, or is it possible that the report itself is to blame for our fading interest? When a tragedy on this scale strikes, a familiar pattern follows. A time of confusing and conflicting news stories is followed by a call for an independent investigation, followed by an inquiry, and then, many months later, a report. A great deal of hope—for explanation, reform, redemption—is placed in this inquiry and report-writing process. But what exactly is the role of a government report? It attempts to be the truth, but is not always complete. It presents a story, but not always the one the most people believe. Most fail to reassure because the public considers them either politically motivated or the product of bureaucratic compromise. A review of presidential reports (the first dates back to the George Washington administration and its investigation of the Whiskey Rebellion) suggests that the right balance between a punitive, backward-looking function—“How did this happen? Who is to blame?”—and a forward-looking hope for prevention—“How can we make sure this never happens again?” is important but difficult to achieve. If a commission lays blame too heavily, the report is easily dismissed as a political maneuver. When the Roberts Commission blamed Adm. E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short for leaving Pearl Harbor vulnerable to air attack from Japan, the two were demoted. But many thought they were being scapegoated by President Roosevelt to cover up military mistakes, and Kimmel and Short were later exonerated. On the other hand, if a report appears not to find enough blame, it is easy to disbelieve. The Warren Commission’s conclusion that the Kennedy assassination was the work of a lone gunman resulted in decades of conspiracy theories. We live in a report-saturated age, the news often filled with the findings of the latest commission assembled to examine every tragedy, accident, or misdeed. In this national library of government documents, the 9/11 Report stands out, exceptional in its aim for and achievement of narrative excellence. With a novelistic opening chapter titled “We Have Some Planes” and a first sentence that doesn’t sound much like a government report—“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States”—it felt like a hybrid. This led some to worry about the role art can or should play in such a work. Writing in the Threepenny Review in the spring of 2005, Dan Chiasson asked, “What is the connection between style and policy, style and cultural memory—style and truth?” He wondered if the narrative panache of the 9/11 Report would foreclose further discussion. I think time and the release of other, lesser reports shows that we discussed the 9/11 Report more than any other. The 9/11 Report’s emphasis on style was not completely without precedent, though the report it reminded me of is not well-known. When the UK investigated the largest civilian tragedy of WWII—a massive crush that occurred in an air raid shelter in East London in 1943—a lone magistrate was asked to investigate and in three weeks produced a report noted for its style and admired for its objectivity. The report stopped short of ascribing individual blame, yet like the 9/11 Report and now the report into the Gulf Oil spill, suggested the disaster could have and should have been avoided. The Bethnal Green report was suppressed until after the war, but when it was released, the writer was knighted and promoted to Chief Metropolitan magistrate. Our report writers aren’t eligible for such rewards, but why not? Handling the question of blame deftly requires art. Concrete finger-pointing in all but the clearest of cases leads to the charge of scapegoating, political influence, and a morass of misdirected blame. To tell a complex story well requires the tools of art and literature. Perhaps the wisest, most powerful reports contain some version of an idea expressed in the preface of the 9/11 Report, a line I admired: "We want to note," the Commission wrote, "what we have done, and not done." A compelling admission of incomplete work or an acknowledgment that our perception of blame will change over time? It might just be the room our thoughts need when all the fact-finding in the world still doesn't make sense of a tragedy. So why don’t we reward our report writers in a literary fashion? I think someone should fund a prize for “best government report issued in the previous calendar year.” If we gave an annual report prize, perhaps we would receive more artful reports, and they would, in turn, be read by more than a handful of journalists. This September will see the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and as we begin to ponder what an appropriate commemoration will look like, I hope we won’t forget this legacy of the well-written 9/11 Report. It did not answer all our questions, but it got an enormous number of people reading and thinking. By contrast, the report into the Gulf Oil spill seems to be disappearing without a trace. Future report writers, take note.
I'd like to second Max's endorsement of Alvaro Mutis' The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll on yesterday's Weekend Edition Sunday appearance. While many NPR listeners will be familiar with some of Max's other recommendations, Mutis remains relatively obscure in the U.S. I hadn't heard of him until Max forced the book on me in 2003; I promptly devoured it.Part Conrad, part Divine Comedy, part comic book, Maqroll is actually a set of seven short novels, totaling 700 pages. Mutis' enigmatic protagonist, the sailor Maqroll, moves through a world that seems to be falling apart... mining mishaps, political intrigues, a decaying shipping economy... but imbues everything he sees with a romantic tenderness. Friendship, love, and the inevitability of failure are the only constants.In addition to its maritime motifs, Maqroll makes great summer reading because of its form. Readers spending hours on the beach can consume the collected Adventures and Misadventures as though it were one long picaresque... while those more pressed for time can dip into its constituent novels separately. Ilona Comes with the Rain one week, Un Bel Morir another. And of course, you'll have something to recommend to friends looking for something to fill the void left behind by Harry Potter.
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Scott's Friday Column is a thoughtful look at why independent bookstores in the Bay Area, and everywhere else, seem to be disappearing.All this has taken a toll on me, the book shopper. Whereas I once aimlessly browsed through local bookstores thinking of nothing other than a new book, I now keep an eye out for warning signs, wondering which one will be the next to fall.
Books as books – as tangible things you can hold in your hands and show off to curious onlookers on the subway and friends who visit your apartment – are something I hold in high esteem. But there is, as I say, some pleasure in letting go, in allowing a book to get wet, in treasuring a book not for what it looks like but for what it says.
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As the Amazon review says, "it takes a world of confidence to name your debut novel The Great Stink," but that's just what Clare Clark did. Clark's novel is set in the sewers of Victorian England as it follows the lives of William May, who has been hired to overhaul the decrepit system, and Long Arm Tom, who makes his living scavenging in the filth. According to a recent New York Times review, Clark is quite explicit in her descriptions of the vile sewer, but "Clark's triumph is that she makes us see and smell everything we politely pretend not to, and she even manages to give the miasma its own kind of beauty." The book has been shortlisted for the British Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for first time authors. You can read an excerpt here.Rachel Cusk's Booker longlister In the Fold comes out in a few days. Despite the Booker nod, reviews have been mixed. Says Louise France the Guardian: "Cusk has a knack for scene-setting and handles certain setpieces with an unflinching eye for anything pretentious or fake; but throughout the novel, tediously little happens," a sentiment echoed in the Independent: "at the novel's heart there's not very much going on." An excerpt is available for those who'd like to see for themselves.The Village Voice compares the twin protagonists of Marcy Dermansky's Twins to those of the Sweet Valley High books, but Dermansky's twins "have acquired a fearsome host of modern ills: pill habits, self-injury, bulimia, a penchant for juggling." Twins is getting good reviews on lots of blogs, as well, including at Collected Miscellany where Kevin describes it as "oddly compelling." And Dermansky herself recently recommended a book at Moorish Girl. If you want to know more, Dermansky's got her own Web site, and an excerpt of the book is available as well.