Bookfinding is a science of sorts. Ostensibly, it is a money issue: the goal is to find books for two dollars or less a piece. But there is another element to this exercise. When you walk into a Salvation Army store, or any non-bookstore that has a few shelves full of books at the back, you never know what you’ll find. It’s a real treasure hunt. Sometimes you walk out the door with arms full of books, other times you walk out with one or none. Some of the highest yield bookfinding spots that I have found so far are the Out of the Closet thrift stores that are ubiquitous in some parts of Los Angeles. Out of the Closet is a charity that raises money for AIDS, and like any charity-based thrift store it does not discriminate. Along with a vast selection of clothing, each store has a ton of housewares and furniture and a mindboggling array of random junk. Still, there’s something slightly more hip about Out of the Closet. The staff is young, helpful, and fashionable. They’ve always got good tunes on the radio, and they put together clever displays and windows. It’s only a half step away from the church basement, but that half step makes a difference. I always go straight for the shelf or two of books tucked away at the back of the store, in the dimly-lit corner behind the broken exer-cycle. Though it requires the same amount of digging, the treasures that can be found are incrementally better. At the Salvation Army, I’m pleased to find old paperback editions of classics, but at Out of the Closet, you might just as easily come upon a cult-favorite and books that are more obscurely charming. Which brings me to Monday, when I made a quick run to an Out of the Closet that I hadn’t yet raided, spent ten bucks, and walked out with eight books. Good ones, too. I’m most excited about finding a hardcover edition (though it lacks its dust jacket) of Woody Allen’s print masterpiece Without Feathers. You really can’t go wrong with a book that in its first three pages has about two dozen gems like this one: “Play idea: a character based on my father, but without quite so prominent a big toe. He is sent to the Sorbonne to study the harmonica. In the end he dies, never realizing his one dream — to sit up to his waist in gravy. (I see a brilliant second-act curtain, where two midgets come upon a severed head in a shipment of volleyballs.)” Genius! I also picked up Fraud by David Rackoff, the frequent contributor to This American Life. I usually recommend this one to fans of David Sedaris who have read all of Sedaris’ books. I also somehow remembered that Michael Lewis is the name of the author of Moneyball, and when I saw a copy of Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, his 1989 memoir about working in the cut-throat, 1980s Wall Street world, I snagged it. I also found another first book by an author I like: Michelle Huneven’s debut Round Rock. And I picked up a slick little paperback edition of a somewhat forgotten 20th century American classic, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I rounded out my purchases with three classics of the Calvin & Hobbes oevre which I gleefully found sitting neatly in a row: The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, Weirdos From Another Planet!, and Yukon Ho!… not a bad take for 10 bucks!
Just about four years ago, we were asked when Robert Caro might wrap up his much praised, award-bedecked, and quite massive four-part biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. The best we could offer at the time was to say:Well, the short answer is that they don’t have a date yet, but we can at least hazard a guess. The first book, The Path to Power came out in 1982; the second, Means of Ascent, in 1990, and the third, Master of the Senate, in 2002. So, after doing some back of the envelope calculations, I would expect to see the fourth and final volume (tentatively titled The Presidency) some time between 2010 and 2014.As it turns out, my guess may still be on target. Marking the 100th anniversary of LBJ’s birth (which is tomorrow), Caro spoke with the AP on LBJ’s legacy. The article offers this update on the book:The historian says he has completed the opening section of his fourth LBJ book, filling hundreds of pages just to tell of Johnson’s brief, unhappy vice presidency under John Kennedy, concluding with Johnson being sworn in as president after Kennedy’s assassination. The last book will be “very long,” although likely less than the 1,000-plus length of Master of the Senate. He is reluctant to reveal details, but says the Kennedys will be “more than characters; they are protagonists in this book.”Sounds like I might have just enough time to read the first three before this one comes out.
Looking for some new fiction? Here are the new books that people are talking about:The Maze by Panos Karnezis; a profile from The IndependentThe Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen; a review from the Barcelona ReviewThe Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer; the San Francisco Chronicle reviews this tale of a backward aging protagonist.Bandbox by Thomas Mallon; the Fort Worth Star Telegram likens this one to Wodehouse.Waterborne by Bruce Murkoff; the San Francisco Chronicle also reviews this one.The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson; it’s a Today Show book club pick and USA Today likes it. Could be the first breakout hit of 2004.The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe; the Christian Science Monitor wonders if this outstanding Canadian novel will be ignored by Americans.Coming Soon…May will see the release of Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s follow up to big seller Bel Canto as well as a new collection by E. L. Doctorow, Sweet Land Stories. In June look for new Thomas Keneally, The Tyrant’s Novel and a new collection of short stories by David Foster Wallace called Oblivion.
If I’m planning on seeing a movie, I don’t typically look at reviews of it beforehand. I prefer to go into the experience with an open mind. And even though newspaper movie reviewers don’t tend to “spoil” the key plot points, I’d just as well not know anything about the plot so that every twist and turn is unexpected. The same thing goes for book reviews. There have even been times when I’ve stopped reading a book review halfway in when I realized that I wanted to read the book being reviewed. Setting the review aside, I’ll revisit it once the book is complete.And so with early reviews of books I’d like to read trickling in, I’m setting them aside to pour over once I’ve read the books. At the top of my list is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I was able to get my hands on an early copy, and I’ll be eagerly jumping in as soon as I finish this week’s New Yorker. Bookforum, meanwhile, has already posted its review of the book. In the third paragraph, reviewer Benjamin Anastas writes “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is many things at once: a work of alternate history, a medium-boiled detective story, an exploration of the conundrum of Jewish identity, a meditation on the Zionist experiment, the apotheosis thus far of one writer’s influential sensibility.” I haven’t read further than that, though, as I don’t want anything to put a dent into my anticipation.Elsewhere, hungry readers have cracked into some other hotly anticipated novels. Bookdwarf has a look at Ian McEwan’s slim new tome On Chesil Beach. She initially calls it an “odd, intimate book,” but ultimately gives it her seal of approval, calling it “superb.”Anne Fernald landed a copy of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Falling Man and offers up her initial thoughts. The book is yet another entrant in the “9/11 novel” category, but Anne clearly didn’t find it hackneyed or overwrought. Instead she calls it “wonderful… excellent but not the very, very best of his work.” Later on she declares, “Oh, the marvel of watching DeLillo reveal the poisonous thoughts of an ordinary unhappy woman to us.”Finally, Haruki Murakami has a new book, After Dark, on its way. For those who seek them out, early looks at Murakami novels can nearly always be found since his books come out in Japan well in advance of the English translations. One need only find a bilingual reader to share his thoughts in English. An excerpt, however, is harder to come by, but that’s what was recently offered up at Condalmo, where Matthew Tiffany recently shared the book’s opening sentences.Previously: The above books are just a few of the most anticipated books of 2007.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.