I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
I only took the train one way today – Mrs. Millions was kind enough to pick me up this afternoon – but I still spotted at least three people reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in various stages of completion while riding the El this morning including one young man who was vigorously finishing the final pages. I wasn’t surprised to see Harry Potter on the train this morning, nor will I be surprised to see it a lot in the coming weeks considering the astonishing sales numbers the book generated this weekend. According to Scholastic Books, Potter sold 6.9 million copies over the weekend – that’s 250,000 copies an hour, more copies than 99.9% of books will sell in a lifetime. Barnes and Noble reported selling about 105 copies a second. You can get all the numbers here. Here’s my favorite stat, though. From the Guardian: “Retailers said that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had sold more copies in a day than The Da Vinci Code sold in one year.”All of this reminded me of my days selling Harry Potter books when I worked at a bookstore. As I recall, the day Part 5 came out, we sold more copies of that book than all the other books we sold that day combined, and this was at an independent bookstore on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, not exactly the kind of place that caters to kids. People can banter back and forth about whether or not Harry Potter books are any good – or whether or not adults should read them – but I know that they were good for our bookstore. For an independent, a big seller like Harry Potter can subsidize that less profitable business of trying to supply good literature to a dwindling group of interested readers.
Following up on my recent post about HarperCollins teaming with the BlogHer women’s blog network, I received from clarifications from HarperCollins on the nature of the arrangement. As I noted, HarperCollins is sponsoring “virtual book tours,” making review copies of several books available for bloggers in the network to read and review “and participate in book title discussions on their own blogs and on BlogHer.org.”I had also noted that BlogHer runs an ad network, and said that “it doesn’t appear as though HarperCollins will be buying ads through the network, but if that does happen, then this initiative will have crossed a line.” It turns out that I missed the point. The whole thing is an above board ad campaign from HarperCollins with no real editorial involvement in what BlogHer members write or don’t write about the books.HarperCollins wrote me today to say that the arrangement is purely a branded sponsorship. HarperCollins is getting to promote and advertise its books, but it’s up to the bloggers decide if they want to discuss the books. BlogHer’s editors, meanwhile, have no involvement in the tour in any way, nor do they endorse the selected titles. It was also pointed out to me that the virtual book tour will never appear on the BlogHer home page, which is reserved for editorial content, but it will be promoted in an ad. HarperCollins also stressed to me that BlogHer is very sensitive about its editorial integrity, and both sides see this feature as a branded sponsorship, rather than a stamp of editorial approval from BlogHer on HarperCollins books.And, now that this has all been cleared up, I think it’s a pretty creative way for a publisher to build a presence in the world of blogs. I’m curious to see how successful it turns out to be.
Nolo Press, which puts out “trustworthy and approachable legal guides,” spent “two years and ‘hundreds of thousands'” coming up with a redesign for its book covers, according to Publishers Weekly. What did Nolo come up with? Dogs. Chip Kidd, book designer extraordinaire, happened to be guest blogging at Powell’s this week and registered his horror. (Thanks Laurie)
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.
A few days ago Scott put up a post about audiobooks in which he put forward the idea that listening to a book isn’t quite the same as reading it. There were quite a few people who disagreed with him, though not persuasively enough to change his mind. I happen to be a fan of audiobooks which I see as an alternative to bad radio rather than a substitute for reading. Anyway, in light of the recent discussions at Conversational Reading, I was intrigued by this article in the CS Monitor about the “Audies,” the Oscars for the world of audiobooks. The three finalists for Audiobook of the Year are an eclectic bunch: The Bad Beginning: A Multi-Voice Recording read by Tim Curry et al, My Life read by Bill Clinton, and Ulysses read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan (that’s 22 CDs or 27 hours worth of Ulysses by the way.)