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.
Confirming some rumors that have been floating around the Internet, Amazon unveiled a new design for its product pages today. This may not be of interest to many, but I am fascinated by the way Amazon evolves, adding features and slowly reinventing itself over time. Most striking about the new pages is the huge photo of the book cover that now gets prominent placement. This seems like a good thing for shoppers. When you’re buying books over the Internet, it’s hard to assess the more tangible aspects of a book, so the big photo seems like a good move. At first glance the pages are much longer as well with editorial reviews and then customer reviews stretching well down the page. The sidebar(s) are gone too, giving the pages a more spare look. I guess the idea here is that Amazon is pushing for the impulse buy… maybe trying to make readers more likely to buy the book without reading the reviews below. Here is a look at one of the new pages. Any thoughts?Update: Whoa, they’ve added other features, too. Check this out. You can see the “the 100 most frequently used words in this book,” and see other stats like number of characters (444,858 in Gilead) and words (84,830), which amounts to 5,424 words per dollar… not a bad deal, I guess.Update 2: Now all this new stuff is gone. I wonder if the new features and look will come back or if Amazon was just performing some cruel experiment on us.
A few months ago the New York Times had an article about a study that challenged the conventional wisdom that used books cannibalize new book sales (see my post about it here). Now the Book Industry Study Group has released a report that delivers some numbers on used books sales, which are famously difficult to collect. A post at the bookfinder.com journal breaks down the data, but one key point is that the majority of used book dollars go to textbooks; understandable considering what college students are expected to shell out. Another key point is this: “General used book sales account for 3% of the value of all general book sales.” That number seems awfully non-threatening to me, but as this AP story makes clear, the book industry is not worried about the total number, they are worried about the growth of general (non-textbook) online used book sales (25% between 2003 and 2004); they are worried about promotional copies getting sold on eBay or Amazon; And they are worried that the consumer book market will start to look like the market for textbooks, where prices spiral ever upward and (where applicable) new editions are released with alarming frequency in order to combat losses from used book sales. Is this the book industry’s fault for making books too expensive and not finding better ways to embrace the new economy or are Amazon and eBay destroying the book industry as we know it (and would that be a good thing?)
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.)
My book-loving friends keep writing me great emails that I feel compelled to share with all of you. Here’s one from my friend John about the great books he’s been reading:Currently reading Libra by Don Delillo. I’ve heard from a few people that it’s a modern classic, and though I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, it is very good. Fictional retelling of the assassination of JFK. I think it might be overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s JFK, but I would say it’s an even more plausible a version of what happened. Just finished reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. Don’t know if you’ve read it, but you probably should. He was a freelance journalist in Vietnam (which is what the book is about) and was also the screenwriter for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Probably the most readable book about the Vietnam War; haven’t read that much though. I also saw The Sheltering Sky on your queue. Amazing book. That really got me into reading again. Very stark, but somehow it struck a chord. Something about wanting to be an ex-pat, but also seeing the hubris that we Americans have, especially in relation to foreign cultures. Some things never change. Probably my fave author of right now is T.C. Boyle. Love his stuff. His last novel, Drop City, is a great read. The thing about him is that his stories are highly readable. Great stories, great characters.A couple of quick comments: I’ve been wanting to read Dispatches for a very long time, and I think most of you know how I feel about T.C. Boyle. Also, everyone should check out John’s new band The Vanity Fair, they were sent here to rock. I also got a great email from longtime Millions contributor Brian that I’d like to share with all of you:Not a lot of time, but just wanted to drop an e-mail, let you know I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Fantastic. He went to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War but felt so strongly he joined the fight. He was in the trenches, fought, got shot in the throat, recovered, took part in street battles in Barcelona, was pursued by the police for being a member of the Marxist group P.O.U.M., fled to England and wrote the book. This passage is from just before he fled: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination. White sierras, goatherds, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemons, girls in black mantillas, the wines of Malaga and Alicante, cathedrals, cardinals, bull-fights, gypsies, serenades — in short, Spain. Of all Europe it was the country that had had most hold upon my imagination.”Great stuff guys. Thanks! If anyone else out there wants to contribute, just drop me an email. Remember, my Millions is your Millions. I have tons of stuff to write about, including the two books I finished last week, but I’m off to New York tomorrow for a few days, maybe a week, so it may have to wait until I get back.
How do I occupy myself during the hours upon hours that I must spend in my car each week? My boredom with the music offered on commercial radio stations and (sadly) LA’s current array of noncommercial radio stations has led me more and more to listen to the various talk radio outlets, both public and commercial. The fact that my car doesn’t have a cd player exacerbates this situation, and the selection of tapes scattered around my car, under seats and wedged in pockets, is a sad bunch, indeed. And too often, in fact there are several blocks of time during the day when this occurs, there is nothing the least bit compelling on the talk outlets. In this situation I am resigned to listening to either music I don’t like or talk I’m not interested in, which is why listening to the audio version of James McManus‘s Positively Fifth Street last year was such a revelation. Having a good book to switch over to when radio went bad was a lifesaver. And you must understand, driving in Los Angeles is a life and death situation, and often your sanity is the first thing to go. Many people I know here have complicated arrangements which keep them entertained. Some have industrial-sized binders of cds that they rotate in and out of their cars, always fearing that a criminal might wipe out their entire music collection by breaking just a single pane of glass. Others resign themselves to staying on top of every trend in car and/or portable audio and month after month discmen give way to mp3 players followed by cd/mp3 players followed by iPods and the inevitable satellite radio, the current savior of all who must spend hours in transit. I fit in to neither category, and books on tape and cd are both costly and bulky, so I am always searching for my own solution to the mobile entertainment dilemma… Here, maybe, is a solution: an interesting article a while back in the New York Times about the digital revolution in audiobooks caught my eye. It’s already in the pay-to-read archives at nytimes.com , but I found a mirror of it here. Of course, in order to take advantage of this I would have to purchase some sort of digital audio device (an iPod would be pretty sweet), but the fact that I could use it to listen to books as well as music makes the idea much more appealing. Digital audiobooks are much more convenient and much cheaper than their cd and tape counterparts, and with the proliferation of portable digital audio devices, I suspect that this will be big trend in books this year.
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.