Last summer Oprah’s book club returned from its hiatus touting Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s East of Eden as “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back.” By doing this she turned her powerful book club on its head. Up until this point, book industry types had been treating the Oprah book club as a lottery of sorts by which a previously unknown (but hardworking and extremely talented writer) could be lifted from obscurity and delivered into the homes of readers everywhere. Apparently, after much behind-the-scenes horsetrading and Jonathan Franzen’s high profile disdain for receiving the award for The Corrections, Oprah became disgusted with the politics and controversy surrounding her club and suspended it. Then, months later she brought it back, and now she is sticking, more or less, to the classics. Recently, in fact, she announced her next selection, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by another Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Between the two Nobel Laureates, by the way, was Cry, the Beloved Country a largely forgotten book from the 1940s by Alan Paton.) Many serious readers, and perhaps I might suggest that they are being a bit snooty, are inconsolably annoyed that the covers of books that they have adored for decades are suddenly besmirched by book club logos. If anything is to be blamed, though, it is not Oprah for placing her mark on these “sacred” books; it is, perhaps, our greater culture of reading. In a better world, Steinbeck and Marquez, to give two examples, would be so widely read, that naming them for this book club would seem utterly ridiculous. Instead, and we should be happy about this, East of Eden, thanks to Oprah, was one of the most widely read books of 2003, and the same will likely be true of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 2004. So, perhaps the earlier incarnation of the Oprah Club was getting ahead of itself as it steered readers to somewhat more obscure books though they had never read, or perhaps even heard of, many of the classics. In the end, one can hardly fault Oprah for making readers out of millions of Americans, though the marketing effort behind the whole thing can make one a bit queasy. In an excellent guest post to The Millions a few months back, the author Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) wrote about her experience of being plucked from relative obscurity and brought to national prominence after being selected for the Oprah Book Club. If you haven’t yet read it, here it is.
With recent postings devoted to the second Litblog Co-op pick, Steve Stern’s Angel of Forgetfulness, the LBC Blog is living up to its promise. This weekend, Stern’s editor Paul Slovak posted his comments about the book and also delved into details about some of the other writers he works with including T.C. Boyle and William T. Vollmann. Also making a guest appearance was Stern himself, who responded to the dialogue about his book that Derik and Dan had going last week.
Over the last year it seems that Spencer Reece has become the poet laureate of The Millions, mostly because his poem in last summer’s new fiction issue of the New Yorker was so amazing. Now, finally, his first collection of poetry, named after that poem I loved, The Clerk’s Tale, has been released. I’ve got my copy on order and I can’t wait to get it. While I’m waiting, I’ve been reading this interview with Reece.A NoteFrom the book I’m reading right now: “For it is certainly true that negligence in ladies destroys shame in their maids.”
The holidays are upon us, and I suspect that many of the folks reading this will be cutting out early this week. I think I’ll do the same, so don’t expect much in this space until 2005. I’m glad everyone seemed to enjoy the year end extravaganza. It was great fun seeing what everyone read this year. I’ll leave you with a couple of late additions and addenda before sending you off to your holiday jollification.Dan Wickett, proprietor of the Emerging Writers Network, previously gave us his Emerging Best of 2004, but he recently wrote in with some more of his personal favorites from this year. Novel: Steve Yarbrough – Prisoners of War; George Garrett – Double VisionShort Story Collections: Aaron Gwyn – Dog on the Cross; Percival Everett – Damned If I DoPoetry Collections: Beth Ann Fennelly – Tender Hooks; David Huddle – GrayscaleNon-Fiction: Steve Almond – Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America; Owen Gingerich – The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus CopernicusAnd last week, Brian shared with us his thoughts on a couple of books he enjoyed this year, but he couldn’t let me close things out without posting this:Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan: I lived in mortal fear that the genius of Bob Dylan – lyrically, melodically, and just plain cool-as-a-motherfuckerally – wouldn’t translate to prose. Naw, nothing to worry about. His book reads like nothing else: a smashed-up collage of history, (auto)biography, anecdote, music criticism, politics, fiction, lies, truth, and more. Dylan hangs with Chinese philosophers, New York playwrights, John Wilkes Booth(!!!), Tiny Tim, John Wayne, Gorgeous George, Bono, and, in my favorite scene in the book, during an early 60’s freezing cold NYC day, within the confines of a friend’s crash-pad, a teenaged Dylan skims through a wall of books and loses himself in ancient Greece, the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War, etc… a badass rootin-tootin’ tale of America(na) told through the eyes of one of its greatest (and most eccentric) poets.Now that sounds pretty good! Enjoy the holiday everyone. Coming after the break: a new installment from Millions contributor Andrew, the introduction of two brand new Millions contributors, my year in reading, and, yes, much, much more.
Ed points to a great article about silly blurbs, namely Dave Eggers’ blurb for Daniel Handler’s novel Adverbs: “Adverbs describes adolescence, friendship, and love with such freshness and power that you feel drunk and beaten up, but still want to leave your own world and enter the one Handler’s created. Anyone who lives to read gorgeous writing will want to lick this book and sleep with it between their legs.” I’ve noticed that a lot of Eggers’ blurbs tend to draw attention to the blurber rather than the blurbee.Another notorious blurber is Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight. Here’s his blurb for Apocalypse Culture II edited by Adam Parfrey: “Adam Parfrey’s astonishing, un-put-downable and absolutely brilliant compilation… will blow a hole through your mind the size of JonBenet’s fist. This book should be in hotel rooms.” And how about this for Mall by Eric Bogosian: “Eric Bogosian writes like an M-16 ripping through the brain pan of Western civilization. A read-till-your-eyes-bleed chronicle of American appetites run amok.” There’s a whole bunch of them collected in this old LA Weekly piece (scroll down). Interesting note: The compiler of the aformentioned piece called the book store where I was working with the list of books, and I read the blurbs to her over the phone. Ah, the magic of journalism. At any rate, the experience inspired me to, much much later, compile some collected blurbs here, here, here, and here.
Sorry about the infrequency of updates. I saw the Walkmen play two nights this weekend. The new songs are great. The new album will be called Bows and Arrows and it’ll be out some time next February.If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I am a fan of food writing (Jeffrey Steingarten, Calvin Trillin, and Jonathan Gold are my favorites), and all too often I find myself allured by a brand new restaurant that I can’t possibly afford. Food writing, more than any other type of journalism, tends to dwell upon the personality of the writer, and so as I devote untold hours to living vicariously, I get to know my food writers pretty well. For quite awhile now I have enjoyed weekly imaginary meals with LA Weekly food writer Michelle Huneven. She’s eloquent and friendly and thorough; not as adventurous as her predecessor Jonathan Gold, but sometimes a peaceful and upscale imaginary lunch is exactly what I’m in the mood for. So, naturally, the other day when I saw that she had a new novel out, I was intrigued. It’s called Jamesland, and it was put out by Knopf (a good sign). Then I noticed that the LA Weekly published an excerpt, which I promptly read. It was surprisingly good, compelling enough to make me want to read the book. You can find the excerpt here.You may have heard of “the original club kid,” James St. James. He arrived in New York City towards the end of the Warhol heyday, and with his cadre of maniacs, built a new “scene” from the ground up. It was Studio 54 for the next generation: drugs, sex and a taste for the macabre and bizarre. Fast forward a few years: a murder has shattered the fantasy they created for themselves, and James is spiraling into drug addiction. At this point he decided to write a book: it is half memoir, half true crime account of the “clubland murder.” It came out a few years ago under the title, Disco Bloodbath. Then this year it was made into a (profoundly forgettable) movie called Party Monster. Though the movie is bad, the book is not, and now it has finally been released as a paperback (and retitled Party Monster: A Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland). It’s hard to find a book more fun than this one.A new issue of my favorite magazine came out. The latest installment of Colors is devoted to slums. In classic Colors fashion, their eye is unblinking, yet they do not dwell upon misery or pass judgment, instead they focus on how these hand made cities are an example of human ingenuity and a will to survive and live a life of dignity. Where there is beauty and humor to be found in these places, Colors finds it. These people are everyone, the magazine seems to say.
It’s been over a decade since James Wood came on the scene to reclaim literary criticism as its own kind of literature, and though all his enthusiasts have a top-ten list of the Wood essays with which they most strenuously disagree, he comes by his reputation as “our best critic” honestly. Indeed, disagreeing with Wood can be an education in and of itself; if I had to choose one critic to pan my own work, it would be Wood. But what if I could choose a critic to praise it?For several years, Wyatt Mason of Harper’s has quietly been reinvigorating an even more recondite form than the critical essay: the literary encomium. As with Wood’s considered corrections, one can disagree with Mason’s glowing appraisals of Mary Gaitskill or Charles Chadwick (I wasn’t as enamored of It’s All Right Now as Mason was), while still being provoked to think – and feel – more deeply about literature.Congenially, Mason’s tastes are closer to mine than are Wood’s. (Witness his translation of Eric Chevillard’s wonderfully weird Palafox.) I’m particularly in his debt for introducing me to the fiction of Leonard Michaels, and at the end of the month, harpers.org will be offering the essay in question to non-subscribers. For the time being, one can check out a brief, but interesting enough, interview about Michaels.