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 got a free cd through work the other day. It’s called Stars and it’s by Kazufumi Kodama. I’ve been trying to track down more info on this guy, but so far I haven’t uncovered much. The music, though, is wonderful. It has a dub base to it, but it’s skeletal with computerized beats and the spare plinking of steel drums and xylophones. Over top of all that is a soaring layer of trumpet. At times it reminds me of the background music to video games back before they had their own soundtracks full of real songs. It is a very interesting listen though. I haven’t heard much else like it.
Stumbling through Amazon’s MP3 store today (I’ve recently become an iPod owner), I was surprised to find that they have quite a bit of music available for free download. In fact, they’ve collected it all in one place, so you can click through and grab what you want.Some of the goodies on offer include songs by The Apples In Stereo, David Byrne and Brian Eno, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, The Streets, Loudon Wainwright III, Bob Mould, an entire Amazon Jazz Sampler, and a bunch more.
First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a really long time, you’ll recall that I was a big fan of Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ look at the inefficiencies of baseball as a business. What could have come off as dry, numbers-heavy, and “inside baseball,” if you’ll pardon the phrase, turned out to be a fascinating treatise that delved into psychology and economics and contained profiles a number of interesting people. With that in mind, I was excited to learn of a new book by Lewis coming out later this fall, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which, if Malcolm Gladwell is to be believed, will be just as good. Says Gladwell, It’s about a teenager from the poorest neighborhood in Memphis who gets adopted by a wealthy white family, and who also happens to be an extraordinarily gifted offensive lineman. Simultaneously Lewis tells the story of the emergence of the left tackle as one of the most important positions in modern day football. I thought Moneyball was fantastic. But this is even better, and it made me wonder if we aren’t enjoying a golden age of sportswriting right now.As has been previously discussed here, the world could use more good books about football, so I’m pleased to hear about this one.Update: Here’s an excerpt. Thanks Patrick.
Tam Tam Books, my friend Tosh’s labor of love, released it’s fourth book this past week: Boris Vian’s Foam of the Daze. Vian is mostly unknown in the States but he is one of France’s modern masters. His novels are at once absurd and doleful. Foam of the Daze is his masterpiece.An AdmissionI’ve done something that I do every once in a while and that I feel a bit of guilt about. I’ve put a book down without finishing it. In this case, though, the book was actually very good, and what I read I enjoyed very much. Chris Hedges pulls no punches in War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. He ruthlessly whittles away the myth of war and violence until all that remains is the set of lies on which they are based. His arguments are almost too convincing, and after he lays it out, it is hard to make a case for a situation in which the use of force is warranted. I especially enjoyed the way he went about laying all of this out. Instead of proclaiming the virtues of peace, he very clearly described how war becomes a tool that those in power use, willingly or not, to maintain their power. And that’s it, that’s the whole book. And that’s pretty much why I quit about halfway through. He made is argument very convincingly and I found myself quite moved, but then he made his argument again and again. I’ve described here in the past the lingering anxiety that has accompanied opening the throttle, so to speak, when it comes to reading. And now sometimes when I feel that I have extracted the essential nugget of wisdom from a book, I am ready to cast the book aside so that I can get to that next nugget. And, sometimes, this nugget is given away freely before the end of the book. I have become a very thirsty reader.
Anyone who read Jon Lee Anderson’s accounts in the New Yorker of the weeks leading up to and during the American invasion of Baghdad probably shares my interest in Anderson’s new book, The Fall Of Baghdad, which chronicles those events. I was recently told by someone from Penguin that this book is all new material, so if you liked the articles, this should be a real treat.In another news, a comment of mine over at Bookdwarf is inspiring some discussion about bloggers trying to make money off of blogs. I encourage you to weigh in if you have thoughts on this.
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.