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.
If the Food Issue is the highlight of the New Yorker publishing year, then the Style Issue is certainly the nadir. Crammed full of glossy ads, the too-thick-to-not-be-a-double-issue magazine dwells endlessly on profiles of fashion industry bigshots, all of whom seem to have shared the same eccentric quasi-European upbringing. (They bring to mind Dr. Evil and his famous: “My childhood was typical – summer in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we would make meat helmets. When I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds. Pretty standard, really.”) And don’t get me started on those Patricia Marx shopping sprees. I do, however, note that Oliver Sacks has an article about amnesia in there, so perhaps it won’t be all bad.
I discovered the other day that an ambitious project to publish the complete run of Charles Shulz’s seminal comic, Peanuts, has begun. The books are very attractive and they have rounded up some notable folks to pen the introductions. The first volume, which covers 1950-1952, includes an introduction by Garrison Keillor and is already in book stores. Volume two (1953-1954) will be released this fall with an introduction by Walter Cronkite. According to the publisher, Fantagraphics, the 25 book series will span the full 50 year run of the comic and the books will be released at a rate of two books per year. When it is all said and done, the collection (along with the introductions within) should provide an interesting look into the second half of the twentieth century in America.
In the back office of my bookstore, folks are already abuzz about this year’s Book Expo in Chicago. Book Expo is probably the largest publishing convention in the world, but if you talk to booksellers, they typically bemoan the crowds and the hectic atmosphere of the Expo weekend. However, this year’s keynote speaker happens to be former prez Bill Clinton who will be pushing his new — and as of this writing, not yet completed — memoir, My Life (“The president came up with the title,” says attorney Robert Barnett, who handles Clinton’s literary endeavors.) Also from this Washington Post article about the Clinton book: a first printing of 1.5 million copies and the first of what will likely be legions of sales comparisons with Hillary’s blockbuster. Hillel Italie of the AP hopes that Clinton will depart from all previous presidential memoirs by providing readers and historians with some actual insights (LINK). I would rate the chances of this as extremely slim. And David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times believes that the timing of the book’s release is purely political (LINK). Meanwhile, back in bookseller land, Book Expo attendees are bracing themselves for the media furor that is sure to accompany the book’s unveiling.
Chin Music Press has put together a nice-looking blog to chronicle the long, lingering aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans:After Katrina and its horrible aftermath, Chin Music Press felt compelled to shine its wobbly flashlight on New Orleans. This effort resulted in our second book, Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? Along the way, we met a community of passionate, eloquent writers who care deeply about what happens to the Big Easy. This blog became a natural extension of the book. It’s our way of adding voices to the unfolding story of New Orleans.
Canadian writer David Bernans is embroiled in controversy after being barred from reading his novel, North of 9/11, a fictional account of the reaction to 9/11 in Canada. He had planned to do a reading on the campus of Concordia University in Montreal, but “after filling out an online application to hold a public reading on campus, Bernans received an e-mail on July 25 stating his request had been declined by Concordia’s ‘risk management team,'” according to news reports.A description of the book:North of 9/11 is the story of Concordia student, Sarah Murphy, a political activist determined to stem the tide of war mania emanating from the United States, and racist hysteria affecting her friends Hassan and Hakim. Sarah overhears a conversation between her father, and the executive of a Montreal-based aerospace manufacturer involved in production for the Pentagon.Sarah and her friends plan a non-violent direct action to draw attention to Canada’s participation in US war efforts. Activists are questioned by the RCMP, phones are tapped, movements are shadowed. The RCMP closes in on the presumed sleeper cell while bombs fall on Afghanistan.Update: The Guardian picks up the story, says the University is calling this a mix up due to human error. Bernans isn’t buying it.