It’s as though the New York Times was using this blog to decide what to write articles about: check out this review of Joseph Roth’s newly released collection of essays, Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939.
Some media pundits suggest that, as the new owner of the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch has set his sights on taking down the New York Times, or at least giving the paper a run for its money. So it was with no doubt some glee that the Times was able to report that the WSJ is a bit more thin skinned than Murdoch would have you believe.The Times yesterday reported on a parody of the WSJ, My Wall Street Journal, created by Tony Hendra and with contributions from Andy Borowitz, Richard Belzer and Terry Jones. Apparently, the WSJ wasn’t too keen on the tabloid format send-up and actually sent people around the city trying to snatch up copies before they landed in the hands of the general public. Or as the Times cheekily put it: “It seems someone at The Wall Street Journal really likes a biting new parody of the paper – likes it enough, in fact, to leave at least one newsstand with no copies remaining for anyone else to buy.”Media spat aside, it is also interesting to see an attempt at a one-off publication like this, particularly in the age of the internet. Fishbowl NY explained the business model:The goal is to break even and, ideally, make money on the printing. “The business model is pretty simple, Hendra says. “Sell a lot of them.” Manhattan Media will be “well into break even territory” if half of the 200,000 available on newsstands are sold (an additional 50,000 will be sold in bookstores). At $3.95 per paper, the company will gain almost $1 million in revenue – an amount Murdoch “loses on the New York Post before lunch,” Hendra jokes – if the print run sells out.They are even available at Amazon, sold as a “Single Issue Magazine.”
I went to my first baseball game of the season the other day, and it made me hope that I manage to get into some of the baseball books on my queue this summer. Jonathan Yardley also has the baseball bug as he reviews a forgotten baseball memoir in his “Second Readings” series. Jim Brosnan was a relatively unknown pitcher with Reds who just happened to be deft with a pen. His book, The Long Season, was the first to break the code of silence and look behind the clubhouse door at a world that is equal parts bliss and daily drudgery. Brosnan’s book paved the way for a more famous baseball memoir, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, which did not spare the reader the vulgarities of professional sports.
When I asked people earlier this month to tell me about the best book they read this year, several wrote back to say that they honestly couldn’t because, over the course of a long and busy year, they had forgotten many of the books that they had read. Now I’m sure that they could have reconstructed their year of reading by combing through old reciepts and library records and interviewing the local barristas: “I’ll have a tall latte, and do you happen to remember what book I was reading during the last week of March?” But who wants to do that. So, if you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, I would like to propose one. It’s easy: make a list of all the books you read this year. If you want to do something a little more rigorous, commit yourself to putting some words down about every book you read (And if you deem these words ready for public consumption, I’ll happily post them here.) Somehow, this sort of casual reflection makes the reading experience that much more fun. Have a great New Year. Things will be slowly returning to full speed around here, so stay tuned.
In noting our new Nobel Laureate on Thursday, I also mentioned that “dating back to my bookstore days, out of all the major literary awards – the National Book Award, the Booker, and the Pulitzer – only the Nobel reliably drove significant interest. On the day the prize was announced, customers on the phone and in person would descend on the store, occasionally leading to problems when a relative unknown with little in print, like Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek, won the award.”Now, granted, this is purely anecdotal, but based on that experience and my haunting of various other bookstores over the years, I’d guess that generally speaking, the awards that generate chatter in the book pages are more important for burnishing writers’ reputations than for inciting genuine interest among the general reading public.It’s very different in the UK, of course, where the Booker Prize is a national event that lands on page one of the country’s newspapers. Even the gamblers get swept up in the action. In my experience, we Americans get swept up too, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up when American writers are excluded from the action. To give some specific examples. Winning the Booker undoubtedly helped The Life of Pi become a big seller in the US, but it was a slow building crescendo of word of mouth that made the book a mega hit. Vernon God Little, on the other hand, not so much. Still, if the Booker were to make American books eligible, a plan that has been proposed and scuttled in the past, I could see it becoming nearly as popular in the US as it is in the UKHere in the States, we have a pair of literary awards that are generally regarded as the most prestigious: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The National Book Award could be the US equivalent of the Booker, but it doesn’t market itself as well. The name is too… on the nose, and the judges have at times shown an odd predilection for the obscure.The Pulitzer, meanwhile, has plenty of name recognition, but it treats its “Letters” awards as little more than afterthought to its centerpiece journalism prizes. Bringing the book award to the forefront and creating a shortlist, as I have suggested, might be enough to create some Booker-esque excitement here in the States.And so, that leaves the Nobel, which in my experience, actually sells books. I think there are a few reasons for this. With its broad slate of awards and century old pedigree, it’s got serious name recognition. At the same time, it doesn’t push aside its literature award to put the spotlight on the other categories. Finally, it recognizes a body of work rather than a single volume, perhaps subconsciously appealing to people in that it presents readers with a reading list ready to be explored.In the end, these awards, even the Booker and the Nobel, are more fun to talk about than to get book recommendations from. I prefer to hear from my trusted fellow readers than any panels of judges.Some other favorite awards: The Lettre Ulysses, the IMPAC, the MacArthur Genius grants
Even though this blog is devoted almost exclusively to books, I would be remiss if I did not mention the remarkable natural phenomenon that has been going on around me these past few days. The 17 year cicadas have emerged en masse from underground. Everyone, I’m sure, in their lifetime has had an encounter with a swarm of one type of bug or another, termites, bees, mosquitoes perhaps. In one of my grungier apartments in Los Angeles I once walked into to the kitchen to find more ants than one ever likes to see in one place. But the cicadas, they are something completely different. Brood X, as the scientists call this particular population, inhabits highly localized spots in the mid-Atlantic and Ohio River valley, and in some areas, like where I live, there are as many as 1.5 million per densely forested acre. The bugs themselves are large, larger than nearly any bug I’ve encountered, but they are oddly non-threatening. They are so dumb as to be barely functioning organisms. Walking through my yard, I’ll see a cicada approaching at a distance of fifty feet, and it will continue to fly in a straight line until it plows into me and then falls to the ground, dazed or unconscious. Each morning there are hundreds of them in piles against the side of the house, which they were unable to avoid during their night time travels. We sweep them away and an hour later there are dozens more. They give off this high pitched drone, and when you get a million or so together you can hear them from inside the house. Combined with the ungodly humidity, the noisesome, gigantic bugs have lent a prehistoric feel to the summer, not unlike the dinosaur simulation I remember from Epcot Center when I was younger. I half-expect a giant plastic animatronic T. Rex to be lurking behind my house. But they’ll be gone in a month, not to return for another 17 years, and I’ll be able to put away the plastic whiffle bat that I use to beat them back every time I leave the house.Vladimir Nabokov, of course, adored a more likeable sort of bug, the butterfly. In yet another fantastic “Second Reading” column, Washington Post book reviewer, Jonathan Yardley revisits Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. If this all sounds familiar to you, you may recall that a New York Times article about Nabokov inspired me to write about this book a few weeks back.And in non-bug news, E. L. Doctorow, whose new book Sweet Land Stories came out recently, comments in the Washington Post on the heckling he received during his controversial commencement speech at Hofstra University last weekend.
There’s been a lot about soldiers in the news recently, both good and bad, and suddenly all us civilians are struggling to understand military culture. For the curious it might be worth taking a look at David Lipsky’s Absolutely American (I’ll be reading it sometime soon since it’s on the reading queue). The book is about the four years that Lipsky spent following a class of cadets through West Point. Lipsky is not a military guy, and his outsider’s perspective helps explain how the military fits in to our heterogeneous society. Of special interest to those who might have read the book already, here’s the transcript of a chat with Lipsky that follows up on a lot of the cadets that are in the book. Nearly all of them have been stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq.
My mildly contrarian take on the print version of Watchmen appears today at More Intelligent Life. Name-checked within the piece: Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Rhys, Charles Dickens, Georges Eliot and Saunders, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Herman Hesse, Jack Kerouac, Batman, Art Spiegelman, James Wood, Kenneth Turan,and a couple of guys who worked at a little comic-book shop in North Carolina in the early 1990s.Notwithstanding this cavalcade of stars, I found Watchmen somewhat frustrating, for reasons I attribute to the term “graphic novel.” This may or may not be original and/or provocative. Still, I’m bracing for comments from Watchmen enthusiasts and Comic Book Guys of all stripes…
Every so often in a reader’s life, he stumbles upon two books that complement each other like red meat and red wine. Such a happy accident befell me last month, when I happened to read Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker hard on the heels of Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God.The Frank book, an evisceration of the free-market discourse and management culture of the 90s, was a fine read on its own: funny, incisive, and angry. And yet, in its argumentation, it at first struck me as inferior to Frank’s more recent What’s the Matter With Kansas? Like Lewis Lapham, who published excerpts from both books in Harper’s, Frank has a tendency to preach to the choir. This often doesn’t bother me; I sit right in the middle of that choir. When Frank demonstrates the tension between a free market and economic democracy, I say “Amen.” When he decries the commodification of the counterculture, I shout “Hallelujah.”When Frank gets down to naming names, however, I get uneasy. One Market Under God does not hesitate to lay the sorry state of the world at the feet of specific, individual evildoers, and I, raised to try to see the best in people, prefer to blame systemic ills. And so I’m not sure if Frank’s depiction of scheming, iniquitous fat cats is a workable belief or a bit of populist wishful thinking.Or I wasn’t sure, until I picked up Liar’s Poker. Here Michael Lewis, himself a former stockbroker, takes us inside Salomon Brothers, the investment bank where he worked in the rip-roaring 80s. Lewis establishes his centrist credentials early and often, and generally eschews editorializing. It is especially appalling, then, (if weirdly engrossing) to discover that Salomon Brothers is full of…scheming, iniquitous fat cats!Liar’s Poker is like a nonfiction version of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (IMDb). The visionary salesmen and traders of Solomon Brothers screw the little guy at every turn, and we get to see every dirty detail. They rip off investors, lie to the public, devalue successful companies, inflate worthless ones, lay off employees, throw phones at underlings, grope secretaries, consume conspicuously, and generally turn themselves into caricatures of the worst kind of capitalist exploitation. The free-market they promote is, in fact, far from free.In an ideal marketplace, knowledge is symmetrical. The vulgar version: buyer and seller are in possession of the same set of facts, and prices reach equilibrium according to the law of supply and demand. This is why there are laws against rolling back odometers, and against making false claims in advertisements. But investment banks, as Lewis portrays them, rely on the market’s inefficiency at distributing information – its tendency to allow those most heavily invested in a market to control the flow of knowledge within and about that market – to buy below fair-market value, and to sell well above it.Of course, we are assured, such excesses have since been curbed by regulation. (This is part of the 90s market populism analyzed in One Market Under God, wherein Wall Street is brought to heel by Main Street.) Insider trading laws are now stringent, we are told; firewalls have arisen between the trading floors where commodities are sold and the equity departments where they are underwritten. But Wall Street is still raking it in, while Main Street drifts and eddies on stagnant wages.Perhaps the current investment bank bonanza is merely the financial industry’s reward for its own newfound virtuousness. Still, the next time you hear an I-banker lamenting the regulatory climate, or claiming that Sarbanes-Oxley is driving all the moneymen to London, ask him what kind of bonus he got last year, and whether he’s still living in New York. Then tell him you’ve got a bridge you’re looking to sell…See also: Max’s review of Liar’s Poker