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.
It’s been hard to watch the news the last couple of days. I’ve been interning with chicagotribune.com this summer, so, since Monday, I’ve been pretty immersed in what’s been happening on the Gulf coast – as immersed as one can be, I suppose, with out being actually immersed. Judging from the light traffic this blog has gotten over the past few days, I’m guessing most folks have been spending their online time reading the news, as I have. Aside from the major news sources – CNN, etc. – here’s what I’ve been refreshing many times a day: the WWLTV blog, the Times Picayune Breaking News Weblog, The Irish Trojan’s blog, and The Interdictor. It’s amazing how much all the blogs out there have enriched the coverage of this catastrophe. It’s a great time to be a news consumer.But you may, like me, also need a diversion from the news. Luckily, my favorite New Yorker of the year has just arrived at my doorstep: The Food Issue. I can’t wait to start reading it. Other diversions:The Chicagoist is giving away three books to promote Picador USA’s 10th anniversary event at the Harold Washington Library in ChicagoI might have to try this: Library Thing is a Web site where you can catalog your library. You can tag the books by subject, and the system pulls in Library of Congress cataloging data. Free for the first 200 books and 10 dollars for a 20,000 book limit. (via H2O)Bookfinder.com, the ultimate Web site for tracking down hard to find books, has released their latest list “of the most sought after out of print titles in America.”
Two new books from Princeton Architectural Press crossed my desk recently. Jason Bitner is one of the guys behind Found Magazine, where bits of discarded ephemera are turned into art or maybe a decontextualized historical record of the present day. Bitner calls it “a show-and-tell project.” When he found over 18,000 studio portraits from the 1950s and 60s in the back of a diner in a small, Midwestern town, they became the star of a new show-and-tell project. La Porte, Indiana is the name of the town where Bitner found the photos and the name of the book he made from them. As Bitner describes it in his introduction to the book, “we rifled through an entire town’s population, as if it were a card catalog, a huge visual archive of Midwestern faces.” As with looking at any of the FOUND crew’s finds, flipping through this book leaves one with odd sensations. We’re not used to seeing stuff like this so lovingly presented, so it makes us look a little harder. As I flip through the book, I enjoy the unintentional artistry of the black and white portraits, but more so I wonder who these people are or were. There’s more about the book at this Web site.A Year in Japan by Kate T. Williamson is an illustrated travelogue. Williamson, an illustrator and filmmaker, spent a year in Japan, filling notebooks with her illustrations and observations. This book is like peering into those notebooks. Williamson’s curly cursive elaborates on her rich, colorful drawings. Most of the illustrations are of details of every day life: foods and clothing, but they are exotic both in being from in Japan and in the care Williamson lavishes upon them, presenting them in close up on the page. But there are also portraits, collages and abstract compositions.
Attention prospective authors: not to discourage, but the number of books coming out each year is getting out of hand. According to Bowker, a company that compiles and distributes bibliographic information, approximately 175,000 different books came out in 2003, a rise 19% from the previous year. Many believe this “book glut” is at least partly to blame for the financial woes of many publishers. Here’s the full press release with all the facts and figures. Following up on the comment that Edan left under yesterday’s post. Missing novelist, Helen DeWitt, author of The Last Samurai, has been found in Niagara Falls. Here’s the article. Look for Dan Chaon’s first novel, You Remind Me of Me to be a hot read this summer. Janet Maslin gets the ball rolling with her warm review in the New York Times.BookspottingWhen: Evening 05/26/04Where: The gym at George Washington UniversityWho: A girl on one of the stationary bikesWhat: Catch 22 by Joseph HellerDescription: “Catch-22 is like no other novel we have ever read. It has its own style, its own rationale, its own extraordinary character. It moves back and forth from hilarity to horror. It is outrageously funny and strangely affecting.”When: Late 05/26/04Where: At the bar at Cantina Marina on the waterfront in downtown Washington, DCWho: A man in a suit, puffing a cigar, sipping his drinkWhat: The Prince of Providence by Mike StantonDescription: “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stanton tells the incredible story of Buddy Cianci, America’s most colorful mayor, in this classic story of wiseguys, feds, and politicians riding a carousel of crime and redemption.”
Remember a little more than a month ago when I implied that spring had arrived in Chicago despite the insistence of the natives that I was being laughably optimistic? Well, the natives were right, and I was wrong. Since then we’ve had our fair share of plunging overnight temperatures and frigid rainy mornings. But now I’m hoping I can safely say that spring is really here, and our first brutal Chicago winter is behind us. Since leaving Los Angeles, where weather is stubbornly perfect 95 percent of the time, I have enjoyed the seasons despite the difficulty getting acclimated to bad weather. In LA it’s green all the time, but here watching the leaves appear on the trees has been an enjoyable novelty. And yesterday, which may have been the best day of the year thus far, I decided to dust off my tree books, unused since I left the east coast for California five years ago. I was curious to see what kinds of trees line our street, and what’s living in our back yard. (I was partly inspired to do this by the Talk of the Town piece in this week’s New Yorker about the guy who’s running New York City’s “tree census.”) So, using my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees and Trees of North America, I discovered that we’ve got a Northern Catalpa and an American Elm in the front and some kind of Maple in the back yard. If the thunderstorms stop today, I might go back out and see what else is growing around here.
At The Morning News, Robert Birnbaum interviews Jonathan Safran Foer. In his email announcing the interview, Birnbaum tries to elevate the current level of discourse surrounding Foer, who seems to have a target painted on his back these days: First, a word about what you will not read here – no reference to Steve Almond’s kvetchy and disingenuous hand wringing about Jon Foer’s new novel (at MobyLives.com)or the exponentially vile and bombastic heaving by Harry Siegal about the same at the loathsome and vile NYC weekly that produces journalistic marvels such as “50 Loathsome New Yorkers” and includes novelists on that hit list.The interview is long, and once again portrays Foer as thoughtful and unwilling to respond to criticism or praise, preferring to concentrate on just the reader and the writer:Foer: Really good books are books that have two authors, the reader and the writer. Or maybe the idea of an author is actually just a combination of two people, the reader and the writer? So when writing you use the word “tree.” Four letters. Very, very short word. Fits a couple millimeters on a page. But in the reader’s mind it becomes a kind of idealized version of a tree, and that tree is different for each person who reads the book and because of that a book is customized for each person in a way a song never could be and as a painting never could be.
A while back I discussed the minor furor over proposed changes at the New York Times Book Review, including charges of dumbing down and sensationalism. Now the helm has been handed over to a new editor, Sam Tanenhaus, a widely published journalist and the author of a well received biography of Whitaker Chambers. It remains to be seen if the New York Times Book Review will change significantly. On another, much more visible front, the Jayson Blair affair has reemerged due to the release of the book in which he tells his side of the story, Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at the New York Times. It is hard to imagine that anyone will take seriously a book by someone whose claim to fame is his astounding lack of credibility. In fact, the venomous pans are already rolling in (Dallas Star Telegram, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe. Even the Brits get into the act.) My favorite, though, is this headline from the Christian Science Monitor: “Jayson Blair: ‘I lied.’ Reader: ‘No kidding.’” I’m rather happy to see the level of outrage that Blair’s book is generating. Meanwhile some are reporting that the Times stands to benefit if Blair’s book does well (LINK). I’m not sure if that story has legs, though.
Rick Atkinson, sometime reporter for the Washington Post and author of several books, most recently An Army at Dawn and In the Company of Soldiers, stopped by school today and gave a brief talk to a gathering of students and faculty. Atkinson describes himself as a narrative non-fiction writer and “recovering journalist,” and he divided his writing into three categories: journalism, instant history and true history – or history’s first, second and third drafts. He also said that great events like World War II are “bottomless” and thus can have no final draft. Atkinson called journalists “paid eyewitnesses.”During the talk, he listed a series of books that are examples of first-hand accounts of war, several of which he encountered researching An Army at Dawn, which is about the Allied liberation of North Africa. Atkinson’s list fits into that second category, instant history in the form of the battle memoir:The Battle is the Pay-Off by Ralph Ingersoll – WWII, North AfricaRoad to Tunis by David Rame – WWII, North AfricaBrave Men by Ernie Pyle – WWII, EuropeSlightly Out of Focus by Robert Capa (the famous war photographer) – WWII, North Africa and EuropeThe Road Back to Paris by A.J. Liebling (writing for the New Yorker) WWII, EuropeThe End in Africa by Alan Moorhead – WWII, North AfricaMartyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War by Michael Kelly (who died in a humvee accident in Iraq in 2003) – Persian Gulf War