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.
I’ve acquired some books over the last month in various ways, and now I have added them to the reading queue, which at its current swollen proportions will take me over a year to get through. Here’s what I’ve added. As mentioned in this post, I snagged a copy of The Glory of Their Times, an oral history of the early years of baseball by Lawrence Ritter. I can’t believe that spring training is only a couple of weeks away. I also got some books from my mom, who is great about sending books my way. She passed along two books by Virginia Woolf (whose work I have never read), To the Lighthouse as well as a collection of her shorter fiction. She also got me the first play to be added to my young reading queue, Jumpers by Tom Stoppard. I rarely read any drama though I should probably read more. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read a play since college… another Stoppard play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Going in a completely different direction, I’ve added a graphic novel that my friend Chris, insisting that I would enjoy it, kindly lent to me: I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. I also secured a copy of Absolutely American, a book that David Lipsky wrote after spending four years following one cadet class through West Point. And finally I acquired a couple of advance copies of some books that’ll be out this spring. The first is You Remind Me of Me, a new novel by up and comer Dan Chaon. The other is Rick Atkinson’s book about being embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq. Check out the post where I broke the news on this book back in October. Atkinson won the Pulitzer last year for the first book in his “Liberation Trilogy,” An Army at Dawn (also on the reading queue!)Insider ReviewsEver since Amazon instituted the customer review feature there have been a fair amount of complaints from authors and publishers that one vengeful reader’s review can kill their sales. Other improprieties have also been alleged, like authors anonymously reviewing their own books glowingly while disparaging the books of rivals and enemies. A recent glitch at Amazon’s Canadian site lifted the veil of anonymity from the process. This New York Times article describes the fallout. The highlights: John Rechy giving glowing reviews to his own novel, The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens and Dave Eggers writing a positive review of his friend Heidi Julavits’ novel, The Effect of Living Backwards.
I got the latest catalog from Soho Press in the mail recently. Soho is an independent press in New York that puts out a few books of literary fiction a year. They’ve also got a crime imprint. A flip through the catalog drives home Soho Crime’s reputation for detective stories set in exotic locales. This time around there’s New York’s Chinatown, Bethlehem, and Paris, as well as paperback editions for recently released hardcovers set in Seoul, Florence, Granada, and Paris again.Also on the way is a mystery set during World War II called Billy Boyle by James R. Benn. Billy Boyle is a Boston cop who gets unexpectedly thrown into the war and ends up investigating the death of an official of the Norwegian government in exile. It’s the first in a three book series about Boyle. The catalog also has word of the paperback edition of The White Earth, Andrew McGahern’s multigenerational tale set in Australia that I read and discussed in January.If you are a publisher and would like to send me your catalog, please email me.
Time to have some fun with Google. Using the wildcard “*” character I searched Google to see how different famous writers are characterized on random Web pages. I entered searches like “Jonathan Franzen is * writer” to see what would come up for the “*” and pulled the adjectives all into one sentence for each writer. The links go to the sites where the adjectives came from. Arbitrary, but oddly poetic:Jonathan Franzen is… an accomplished, incredibly gifted, curmudgeonly Luddite, talented, serious, rare, amazing, better, American writer.Zadie Smith is… a talented, talented, talented, terribly talented, young, Dickensian, gifted, terrible, very good writer.Jonathan Safran Foer is… a great great, young, great, prehensile, no ordinary, Generation X, very talented, definitely a wunderkind, very talented, uniquely gifted and imaginative writer.Ok, that was fun. How about these guys:James Frey is… an amazing, great, Bestselling, hardly the first, still a great, only, wonderful writer.J.T. Leroy is… a critically acclaimed, fabulous, Incredible, active, the best, truly amazing, fantastic, fiction writer.
This week’s New Yorker gives word of two more new new books that I am excited about. Robert Polidori is an architectural photographer by trade. If you look at his photographs, though, you will see that he is also something more. He is gifted in his ability to draw out the stunning colors that lay dormant within his subjects as an astronomer might reveal fantastical nebulae somehow hidden from the naked eye. His last book, Havana, is an exploration of the wilted beauty of a crumbling city (click here for some photos). His new book, Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl, is a study in the deadlier decay of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.I’ve often thought to myself that Knopf would do well to put out a comprehensive collection of John Updike’s short stories, and it appears as though this will come to pass this fall in the form of The Early Stories, 1953-1975. There are many who have claim to the mantle of best American Short Story writer, and Updike is incontrovertibly among them.
New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, whose global warming opus Field Notes from a Catastrophe has been much excerpted in the magazine of late, is blogging for the week at the Powells.com blog. From her first entry:When you write about global warming, you start to feel that a lot of what we all spend our time worrying (or blogging) about isn’t what we should be worrying (or blogging) about at all. (Which isn’t to say you stop worrying about it – or, I suppose, blogging.)By blogging, Kolbert is briefly joining another New Yorker staff writer who has taken up more permanent digs in the blogosphere.
For the last several months, the web site of the British Library has been hosting the online diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA). As many readers are likely aware, the Library was looted in the early days of the American invasion, and Eskander has spent much of his time since trying to rebuild his collections under perilous conditions.Reading through the diary it quickly becomes apparent that Eskander and his team are faced with far greater challenges than simply picking up the pieces of the wrecked library. Instead they face daily threats to their lives, and the laundry list of wound and killed friends and colleagues and many more near misses makes one wonder how the library staff can go on living in Baghdad. At the end of 2006, Eskander compiles a list (scroll down) of violent acts committed against INLA staff and their families and determines that 70 have been killed since the conflict began. The number has ticked higher in subsequent months.Last month, Eskander posted an entry (scroll down) about the day that al-Mutanabi Street, the home of Baghdad’s outdoor book market and just a short distance away from the INLA, was bombed. “This day will be always remembered, as the day when books were assassinated by the forces of darkness, hatred and fanaticism,” he says. “Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood.”As a whole, the diary is an incredible chronicle of lives lived under siege and put in terrible danger to keep Iraq’s cultural institutions from disappearing entirely.via The Eclectic Chapbook, which also remarks on a BBC program about Eskander and the INLA.