I caught a few minutes of Fresh Air on NPR while I was out running a quick errand today. Terri Gross was interviewing David Denby, the New Yorker film critic who has a new book out. The book is called American Sucker and it is a memoir of the boom years. In 2000 Denby and his wife split, and he decided that he wanted to keep the Upper West Side apartment that had been their home for many years. In order to do this, Denby hatched a plan to buy out his wife’s share of the apartment. Lacking the funds to make the apartment his and cast adrift by the collapse of his marriage, Denby threw himself wholeheartedly into the mania of the stock market boom with the hopes that he, like so many others seemed to be doing, could hit it big. It would be the solution to all of his problems. A sort of addiction to his quest set in and American Sucker was the result. Today, Terri Gross, in her way, was trying to get him to relate his experience to some classic gambling films, Denby being a film critic and all. Denby, however, begged off and mentioned two interesting books that he feels are most analogous to the way he felt during his ordeal. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and a somewhat forgotten Victorian classic by Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, to Denby’s mind, best portray a sense of monetary desperation in the midst of a boom. I’m hoping that over the next few years there will be more books that look at the boom of the late nineties through a literary lens. It was a strange and fascinating time. Denby’s colleague at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has penned a less personal book about business and money called The Wisdom of Crowds which is slated to come out at the end of May. A quick look reveals that Surowiecki has put together a readable tome meant to illustrate a principle that many economists hold dear: the idea that decisions can be made, problems can be solved, and the future can be predicted by the market. Imagine the Nasdaq but replace companies with possible outcomes. At the end of the day the outcome that is trading at the highest level is probably the correct answer to whatever problem was trying to be solved. Using markets you can, as Surowiecki terms it, unlock the “wisdom of crowds.” Last summer there was much public outcry when it was announced that one of our government agencies was considering setting a market that was meant to predict future terrorist attacks. The idea of people profiting off of this sort of speculation was abhorrent to many people and the plans were shelved, but, in The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki will likely argue that the plan would have worked.
We're back, and I'm sifting through my emails where a couple of friends have left some interesting tidbits and recommendations:Garth writes: "Europeana, by Patrik Ourednik, is one of the weirdest, funniest, most disturbing, and most wonderful books I've read in the last year. It's also, as a vacation bonus (depending on how one looks at it) a shorty: a two-hour read. I heartily recommend it to your readership. Description is difficult, but an interview with Ourednik is up on the Dalkey Archive website. These guys do amazing work finding and translating literature from around the world."And Millions contributor Andrew Saikali pointed out that Edward P. Jones was just awarded the $150,000 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel The Known World. Add that to his $500,000 MacArthur Grant from 2004 and Jones is doing pretty well for himself. I just hope he takes some time off from all of this award collecting to write another novel!
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A few months ago the New York Times had an article about a study that challenged the conventional wisdom that used books cannibalize new book sales (see my post about it here). Now the Book Industry Study Group has released a report that delivers some numbers on used books sales, which are famously difficult to collect. A post at the bookfinder.com journal breaks down the data, but one key point is that the majority of used book dollars go to textbooks; understandable considering what college students are expected to shell out. Another key point is this: "General used book sales account for 3% of the value of all general book sales." That number seems awfully non-threatening to me, but as this AP story makes clear, the book industry is not worried about the total number, they are worried about the growth of general (non-textbook) online used book sales (25% between 2003 and 2004); they are worried about promotional copies getting sold on eBay or Amazon; And they are worried that the consumer book market will start to look like the market for textbooks, where prices spiral ever upward and (where applicable) new editions are released with alarming frequency in order to combat losses from used book sales. Is this the book industry's fault for making books too expensive and not finding better ways to embrace the new economy or are Amazon and eBay destroying the book industry as we know it (and would that be a good thing?)
Filthy magazine is debuting at the Los Angeles Times Book Fair this weekend. And it will also be available at the lovely internet book store First Cut Books. The hippest online book store ever. The debut issue of this pitching quarterly includes a piece by yours truly about the seaon I spent as a ghost in Little League... Sounds intriguing, eh? Believe me, this is one good looking magazine; think McSweeney's but all about Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, and countless other fireballing luminaries. Also, yesterday George Plimpton was joined by Maile Meloy and Bernard Cooper at the book store to present the new Paris Review. Plimpton is fascinating, a throwback to a literary culture that has likely disappeared, both times I have seen him speak he has told stories about his sporting (and writing) youth that are as entertaining as they are valuable as artifacts of a different time. I should add that the new Paris Review book is a really fantastic collection.
The Rake put together a terrific column on lazy reviews, the prevalence of lists masquerading as criticism, and the army of meta-critics that has emerged online. I'm late in linking to it, but it's a very worthwhile read. A taste:Yes, Virginia, your pal the Rake has been willing witness to countless hours of VH1's laziest programming. He's not made of stone. The professional listmakers' core insanity lies in the way in which they hold up sub-B list comedians and other cultural freaks as insightful, worthy commentators. Certainly there are subjects upon which Ron Jeremy is an expert, but the Top 100 Scorchtastic Movie Kisses is not one of them, not least of all because the very object of his commentary is chimerical.There's more, too.
It started with Nick Adams. I discovered Nick while reading through the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway a while back, and it is his voice, more than any others in the Hemingway corpus, that sticks with me years later. Nick Adams is in many ways Hemingway’s alter ego. Like Hemingway, Nick grew up in a rural part of the Midwest that still felt like (that still was, perhaps) Indian territory. Like Hemingway, Nick had a doctor for a father. Like Hemingway, Nick’s father commits suicide when Nick is a boy – this is the subject, by the way, of one of Hemingway’s most arresting Nick Adams stories, “Fathers and Sons”. As Nick grows up, and the stories progress and begin to slightly contradict one another (these are distinct stories, after all, and were never meant to be a coherent novel) his life grows murkier. The Nick Adams stories, though published as a complete volume in 1972 – years after Hemingway killed himself in a manner similar to his own father – were never meant, I think, to be read in one sitting. The Nick Adams stories were written over a period of decades – during, not coincidentally, Hemingway’s most productive and most fruitful period – and they are each one of them distinct, many of them gems. They can be read together, that is certain. But part of the beauty of these stories is how well they stand on their own, each one highlighting a facet of Nick’s character, a specific moment in time. A day, as it were, in the life. Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasure to piece these stories together, to chronologize them and evaluate them – and the character of Nick Adams – fully. But the real pleasure of these stories, for me, is in realizing that while they do not exist in solitude, they can and do stand alone as complete works of art. Nick Adams hooked me on the episodic short story. By which I mean, as it should by now be obvious, the tale of an individual told over several loosely related episodes. Finishing a story – a good, well-written story – about a character both well developed and personally intriguing, and knowing that another story about that very same character is out there somewhere, has become, for me, one of the best feelings in the world. One of the finest modern practitioners of the episodic short story was the late Leonard Michaels. Though Michaels is most well known for his 1981 novella of male angst, The Men’s Club, in my opinion his greatest achievement came near the end of his life, when he started chronicling the fictional life of a mathematician named Nachman. Nachman, a professor at Berkeley (where Michaels himself taught) is a lonely, trusting man who understands the most complex equations but cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of human interaction. Michaels, along with his character Nachman, pulls you in from the very first sentence of the very first story, and never lets go. Here is that first sentence, of the eponymously titled story, “Nachman”: “In 1982, Raphael Nachman, visiting lecturer in mathematics at the university in Cracow, declined the tour of Auschwitz, where his grandparents had died, and asked instead to visit the ghetto where they had lived.” There may be a better first sentence to a short story in existence, but I don’t know what it is. The Nachman stories, like those of Nick Adams, stand well (stand very well indeed) on their own. Pieced together, though, they really are something of a masterpiece. The seven Nachman stories Michaels completed before his untimely death can be found at the end of Leonard Michael’s Collected Stories. They are well worth the price of the book. In my opinion, the most promising episodic short story sequence currently being published is being written by Nathaniel Bellows. Bellows is the author of On This Day – a beautiful, painfully moving novel of a pair of siblings who lose both parents in the same year – as well as a magnificent poetry collection, Why Speak. While I am a great fan of all of Bellows’ writing, it is his Nan stories that really blew me away. Bellows has a strong New England sensibility. With his vivid evocations of cold Maine winters and lonely, ice-strewn landscape, the poet he most consistently reminds me of (in content if not in form) is Robert Frost. Wisps of Emersonian self-reliance – as well as, perhaps, tacit acknowledgments of self-reliance’s limits – also carry through his work. In his Nan stories, Bellows takes that lonely New England self-reliance and brings it to New York in the character of Nan, a magnificently drawn Columbia University undergrad who comes from a sheltered, broken (in ways that I won’t ruin for you here) lower-middle class Maine family. Nan, like Bellows, comes from upstate New England. Also like Bellows, Nan comes to Columbia to study literature and to become a writer (Bellows received his MFA from Columbia). Nan, like Michaels’ Nachman, has a fundamentally good although somewhat naïve personality. In these stories, she faces a world, often complex and underhanded, that she does not (at first, at least) really understand. The beautiful imagery of the stories, as well as the slow-paced, heart-piercing development of Nan’s character, make these stories not simply delights but, I would argue, necessary reading. The three Nan stories that have so far been published – here is a link to the first one, published in the excellent literary magazine Post Road – are uniformly fantastic. According to Bellows’ website, there are at least four more Nan stories awaiting publication. I am sure I am not the only one who eagerly awaits piecing the rest of the puzzle of Nan’s life together.
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In the Times (UK), a look at the forthcoming Rough Guide to Cult Fiction begs the question: what is cult fiction? "The editors note in an introduction that Toby Litt once said that in their purest form, cult books ought to have been out of print for ten years," Erica Wagner writes. She also notes that in order for there to be "cult fiction," the fans of such fiction must be cult-like in their devotion. The Rough Guide apparently contains some odd inclusions as well as omissions, but the concept made me think of my experience with cult fiction. Based on working at a book store, I would say that, among contemporary authors, Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Coupland, and, to a certain extent T.C. Boyle had cultish fans. During my reading life, I've only gotten really cultish about one author, Richard Brautigan, of whose poetry and fiction I was enamored as a teenager. Brautigan, I would imagine, fits the "cult fiction" label pretty well. Curious if anyone else uses this label, I found an interesting list of books that a library in Indiana has labeled "cult fiction."