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’m excited to announce that I’ll be appearing as a judge in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books. (Click through to see the other, far more distinguished, judges, as well) It’s exciting to be a part of what just might be my favorite ongoing series on the web. Stayed tuned for my second-round judgment once the Tournament kicks off in a few weeks.And by all means, get your bracket (pdf) now and start handicapping.
A little more than 10 years ago a couple of Wall Street Journal reporters got together to write about the calamitous rise and fall of RJR Nabisco, an episode that would epitomize the back room shenanigans of a decade of junk bonds and hostile takeovers. They ended up with fantastic book called Barbarians at the Gate, which was later made into a decent HBO movie of the same title. The book is a thrilling account of cutthroat billion dollar deals, and gross misappropriation of funds, like when the CEO has the company plane pick up his dog to keep him company at a golf tournament. Now, after barely a pause it seems, there are again dozens of stories of greed to be told, starting of course with the biggest one of all, Enron. Once again two Wall Street Journal reporters have used their singular knowledge and access to tell the story of the bust that has come to define the boom that preceded it. Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller are the reporters who originally broke the story, and their book 24 Days, is as much about the collapse of Enron as it is about the investigative journalism that uncovered this massive fraud.On the way to work I caught the tail end of an interview with Richard Polsky. He was talking about how tremendously juvenile the world of high end modern art collectors, gallery owners, and artists can be. He was illustrating the point with a story about how a food fight erupted at a gallery, and an extremely expensive Ed Ruscha painting was marred by a grease stain from a thrown chicken wing. He describes this and the many other antics he encountered on his quest to purchase his first piece of modern art in his book I Bought Andy Warhol, which is, from everything I’ve heard, a tremendously funny jab at the inner circle of modern art.I read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware about two months ago, and it continues to infect my brain as few other books have. Reading the book felt like a view into the psyche of writer and artist and character, a comic more real than a dream yet somehow just slightly less real than life. I was delighted to see that Chronicle Books that will allow me to further delve into the world of Jimmy Corrigan. Acme Novelty Datebook is the collected sketches of Ware from when he was writing Jimmy Corrigan. There are many things packed onto the pages: sketches for Jimmy Corrigan, great little sight gags and five or six panel comics that lead into a pleasant oblivion, and a lot of stuff that seemingly comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere, but is fascinating to look at. The book is beautiful. I can’t wait to spend more time with it.Three Pt. 2 (Advice for Those Abroad)My buddy Cem is trying to figure out what to do next. He’s currently in northwestern Thailand near the border with Burma. Help me help him decide what to do. Here are his three options:1. Stay in town and teach English to Burmese Refugees. Commitment: 2 months2. Move to the border town of Mae Sot and work with 10 young guys who live in a shack in the woods and produce an anti government magazine that they circulate in the refugee camps, internationally, and in Burma. Also teach english to Shan and Wa and Karen exile youth part time. Commitment: 3 months3. Pack up and head into Burma itself for 3 weeks doing major research for a big article, also purchasegood to sell at home (laquerware, etc). Record everything in Arabic script. Work on article and get published via NY contacts. Leave for Cairo or the beach when I get back.(I’m leaning towards option three by the way)
Michael Chabon’s official Web site doesn’t get much attention from the author. He’ll post longer items from time to time as well as the occasional cryptic note about the various projects he’s working on. Chabon has now, however, decided to pack it in with this Web site business:Lately I have been suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury that makes typing a chore and clicking an agony. As I have been spending less time online I have found that I’ve lost interest in the web as a whole, and in my site in particular. I’m tired of having to maintain www.michaelchabon.com, but I hate that it gets stale, and so quickly. Yet I don’t feel comfortable with or have any interest in getting somebody else to do it for me. So I’ve decided, not without regret, to take it down, a little at a time, starting with the posting of my monthly Details column.On the other hand, Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union will be arriving in May.
At the Powells blog, Alexis writes about the awkward transition young readers make from young adult fiction to regular fiction.When the children are still young – toddlers to fifth grade, say – parents will sometimes make a point of telling us how advanced their kids are. It might go something like this: She’s only two but she’s way beyond board books; or, He’s in fourth grade but he reads at a seventh grade level. But get the kids to junior high, and suddenly the parents start to fret that their intellectually advanced kids are going to be reading books that contain “mature” content.I definitely remember this experience from my bookstores, even in permissive Los Angeles. Later on Alexis writes:That said, I often wish that I could recommend more adult books to some of my teen customers. Nothing is stopping me, I suppose, except my own anxieties about parents flipping out that a Powell’s employee exposed their high school freshman to Margaret Atwood’s sexual dystopia.When I was a teenager, discovering Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving and T.C. Boyle was a revelatory experience, and I’d certainly recommend books by them to today’s teenagers. I’ve also said in the past that classic novels can be a great bridge from young adult novels to adult novels. Sometimes, when I worked at the bookstore, I would recommend classics to precocious youngsters who had read “all” the young adult stuff. In this post from last summer, I and a few others put together a very short list of classics that kids might start with.Some might say that kids won’t be willing to read these “old” books that they associate with school, but it’s also true that kids can get a lot more out of a book they read for fun rather than for school, even if it’s the same book.
The plight of the literary magazine and the demise of the short story are often bemoaned here in the US, but compared to the state of things in Britain, America is paradise for short story writers and readers. So says a recent essay in the Guardian, which hopes that a newly announced short story prize – worth 15,000 pounds, the world’s richest – will ignite a passion for short fiction in that part of the world. According to Aida Edemariam, who penned the essay, in Britain, size matters: The British attitude to the short story – that it is somehow lesser, a practice space for the real thing, which is, of course, the novel; that you can perhaps start out writing a collection of stories, but you have somehow failed if you don’t graduate to a minimum of 200 pages – has always baffled me. I cannot comprehend the underlying assumption that a particular kind of stamina is somehow better, of more value. It’s like privileging the marathon, or the 1,500m, over the 100m.After citing several examples of the form, Edemariam goes on to write: “I know these are North American examples, but it is there where, as (Dave) Eggers points out in his introduction to The Best of McSweeney’s Volume I, there ‘are probably over a hundred high-quality literary journals,’ that the short story is truly alive; disdain for the form is a British phenomenon.”Who knew we had it so good?