Ms. Millions and I embarked upon a whirlwind trip to the East Coast this weekend for equal parts partying and wedding planning, and although Jet Blue’s inflight television distracted me from my reading, I managed to get some done, as did several other folks that I spotted in airports and on the planes. Lots of folks had their noses in the usual, low impact airport reading, but I also noticed quite a few people diverting themselves with some pretty literary fare. Off the top of my head I can remember spotting Family History by Dani Shapiro and Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds by America’s super intellectual, Harold Bloom, but there were others as well. It was good to see people getting some reading in on their way to their far flung destinations, which reminded me about an award I heard about last week that celebrates books that take place in far flung destinations. The Kiriyama Prize recognizes books “that will contribute to greater understanding of and among the peoples and nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asia” in two categories, fiction and non-fiction. Here’s their map of the Pacific Rim. The fiction finalists are Brick Lane by Monica Ali, My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa, and The Guru of Love by Samrat Upadhyay: five highly regarded books from last year. It’s interesting to see an award that groups books by subject matter and setting rather than the location, nationality, or gender of the author. Here are the non-fiction finalists.
I stopped by the Vroman’s Bookstore blog today to answer some questions about teaching creative writing. On Tuesday, June 3rd, I begin teaching a 6-week beginning fiction class for their Vroman’s Ed program.Also, if you have a teenager, you might consider signing him or her up for my summer fiction writing class for high school students, which begins Tuesday, June 24th. If you are a teenager, and you’re reading this blog, well, you rock and I want you in my class!
The revelation of the so-called “Book of Judas” last week made for some good news stories. The newly discovered gospel claims that one of history’s oldest bad guys wasn’t so bad. It’s a provocative story and there’s an element of Indiana Jones to it all, as the lost text was found in Egypt and made its way to the public through years of intrigue and backchannel trading. Scholars, meanwhile, are already debating how relevant the document is. The New York Times article on the gospel gets into the scholarly debate somewhat, but an illuminating essay by David Kopel at the Volokh Conspiracy explains why the “Gospel of Judas” is not a lost book from the Bible, but rather a Gnostic text. But what interests me most are not the theological ramifications of the find, but how its public unveiling is tied to the release of so many books (and a movie).First of all, it’s unlikely that this news would be of such interest were it not for the success of The Da Vinci Code, which has made once obscure Gnostic texts mainstream reads for fans of Dan Brown’s book. It’s also worth noting that The Da Vinci Code movie comes out soon, on May 19th, which is sure to keep early Christian mysticism in the news. But then there are the books themselves. National Geographic, which officially made the documents public, has two related books out now: The Gospel of Judas, which is an annotated translation of the original documents, and The Lost Gospel, which is about the discovery of the gospel and the research that went into deciphering it. The David Kopel essay cited above mentions an AP story in which James M. Robinson, a rival to the National Geographic scholars, explains why the find is probably not all that important. It turns out Robinson has his own book on the gospel coming out, too, The Secrets of Judas, which gives his view on the find.So, for something that was portrayed in the media as a stunning new find, this all seems to be very stage managed to me. The Gospel of Judas itself has been floating around since the 70s, but the three books (and the National Geographic TV special) all seem timed to hitch onto The Da Vinci Code’s next wave of publicity as Dan Brown emerges from his court proceedings and his best seller hits the big screen.
In the comments to the last post, Erin left a note about “depraved” Amazon reviews for Family Circus books. With a little Googling, I was quick to discover that this was something of an internet legend, dating back to the late-nineties when pranksters started leaving all sorts of silly reviews for Bil Keane’s anthologies. There’s even mention of them in Wikipedia (as of this writing.) Sadly it appears that most of the reviews have been expunged, but I was able to find a few that were subtly wierd enough to elude the censors:For What Does This Say?: Yeats once wrote, “None other knows what pleasures man/At table or in bed.” Bil Keane, however, seems to have found in his latest ‘Family Circus’ opus a treasure-chest of pleasures for each and all of us. There are some who chafe at the seeming repetitive themes within Keane’s major works; I would respectfully submit that all great stories are about life and death, love and loss, fear and triumph. If not Keane, then so go Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Callimachus, too, for good measure. It is not originality that spawns thought and wonderment; it is the vessels of those themes (Billy, Grandma, Barfy, PJ) that inspire and enlighten. Keane, as carrier of these vessels, reminds us of a truth so eloquently immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Some books leave us free and some books make us free.” In ‘What Does This Say’, it is clear that the tome achieves the latter, with gusto and aplomb.For Smile! With The Family Circus: Though universally popular with critics, Smile! has never been commercially successful. It’s been in and out of print — mostly out — so this hardcover 30th anniversary edition is an especially welcome event to discerning FC readers. Along with his day job with United Features Syndicate to produce the more commercial Family Circus strips we know and love, Keane labored on Smile! on evenings and weekends from 1966 through 1972 in a cathartic period when he confided to friends that he had to complete Smile! before the effort killed him. Smile! is Keane’s FC adaptation of the legendary unreleased Beach Boys album of the same name. Keane met Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks at the Fillmore West in late 1966 and quickly the three became inseperable. The next six months were a happy, artistically productive time for the three, and it’s during this time that most of the widely-bootlegged Smile! demos were recorded. Unfortunately Parks and Wilson had a falling out in February 1967, after each discovered that Keane had been sleeping with the other, and the lovers’ betrayal ended the Beach Boys’ Smile! sessions. Wilson spent the next year in solitude, finally giving up on Smile! without giving a public explanation. Keane, having been spurned by both Wilson and Parks, returned to the comfort of the Family Circus to lick his wounds. Some critics have derided Keane as “the Beach Boys’ Yoko Ono” for his unfortunate role in the Smile! sessions. Nevertheless, Keane’s book remains the only fully-realized version of the work that the three men envisioned together in late 1966. Music historians trying to guess how the bootlegged Smile! demos would have been pieced together need look no further than this book.And for Kittycat’s Motor is Running: I weep for Jeffy. The language, however base and stomach cramp inducing, does the job of transporting the reader to the suburban hell that only Keane can imagine. The amount of ennui overflowing from this wasp-ish family of innocents staggers. If you cannot see their pain, you are blind. I am Jocasta, my eyes bleed for the family circus.
Amazon reviews are kind of silly. One has to wade through lots of cranks to get to a useful review, and even then it’s hard to put that much faith in a few sentences penned by a complete stranger (although I have been known to pen Amazon reviews, on occasion). Still, they undoubtedly do have an effect on sales and on peoples’ perceptions of particular books, so when instances of unfair play come to light it can piss people off – like when it was revealed that authors were pseudonymously reviewing their own books (scroll down). With these same concerns in mind, I reprint this email that I received from an eagle-eyed Millions reader today.If you go to this page and scroll down to reviewer #235 (who calls him/herself “nyy”) you should notice that this reviewer has not reviewed any books. Zero. I emailed Amazon about it, and just got a canned reply about how their reviewers are rated. What do you think — a typo or a hack or something else?I have no clue, and I’m sure Amazon would explain it away as a glitch, but it does make me wonder if the customer review system is completely on the level.Update: The original New York Times article about authors reviewing their own books at Amazon.
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.