This week is turning out to be a mini-family reunion for me. My parents and two of my brothers are in town as are some aunts and uncles and cousins. Yesterday evening at a family barbecue near Venice Beach I fell into a conversation with my aunt and uncle about the reading habits of my young cousin, Tim, who is 10. He’s a very precocious reader and has finished off nearly all of the highly recommended children’s series that are out there right now: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and Brian Jacques’ Redwall Series (I recommended Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy since he hasn’t gotten to that yet.) The thing is, there’s a limited amount of high quality young adult fiction out there, so what do you do if your kid has read it all? Since I started working at the bookstore I have occasionally been posed this question by parents. It’s actually a crucial moment in the life of a young a reader, the point where they could very easily lose some interest reading because they have read all the kids’ books and aren’t allowed to read adult books. What folks sometimes forget is that there are quite a few books that, though they are shelved in the adult fiction section, are perfect books to help segue strong, young readers into the wider world that lies beyond the young adult section. Some people call these books classics, but they are perfect for challenging kids and keeping them interested in reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, to name just a few. I would also recommend that these children read the books in their original forms, not the abridged versions. I remember reading abridged versions of various classics when I was younger, and I think lots of other folks do as well, but looking back it just doesn’t seem necessary. In fact, as an eleven or twelve year old, I learned a lot of complex things about the world around me from the books I read, and these important details, the harsh language in Huck Finn, for example, seem to be just the things that are excised in order to create the kid friendly versions. We challenge kids in many aspects of their lives, why not challenge them to explore the big questions that arise from reading the classics. I hope that the children’s book industry continues to move in this direction, and a lot of the intelligent and challenging kids’ books that are out there indicate that it will. On the other hand, my friend Edan pointed out to me the other day the upcoming release of a “Student Edition” of Yann Martel’s international bestseller Life of Pi, from which, one can assume, the editors have removed anything that might distress, and therefore challenge, a young reader. Here’s hoping that this doesn’t kick off a new trend.
Between July 1 and November 5th, I don’t think I read anything longer than a three-page spread on Politico or anything more literary than a New Yorker cartoon. Political campaigns are experiments in all sorts of deprivations. The days are long and narrow, filled with fast food containers and the sounds of vibrating Blackberries. I started on the Obama campaign back in January in South Carolina. Many of my colleagues on the general election campaign in Pennsylvania had been at this for almost two years, a stunning feat of endurance that stretched from hours spent knocking doors after dark in frozen New Hampshire, straight through to the week of all-nighters that preceded Election Day.Among the things I lost to an around-the-clock schedule, books were not the most precious. On any given day I missed talking with my friends, or going for a run, more. But if books were not the things I missed most, their absence was in one way the most profound. While the hurly-burly of the campaign never caused me to question the importance of calling my dad or cooking a meal, it did cast doubt over the value of reading.In this past Sunday’s Times Book Review Jonathan Lethem wrote of the author Roberto Bolano, that he “never tires of noting how a passion for literature walks a razor’s edge between catastrophic irrelevance and sublime calling.” The frantic activity of a campaign questions the relevance of a reading life. It was energizing these past few months to feel myself so squarely in the flow of history, and coming down the homestretch in October, it would have felt like I was stepping out of the current to have spent an afternoon reading. But just as one can only subsist on almonds and M&Ms for so long (I made it a week), after awhile I found I needed books as much as I needed vegetables. Literature is sublime when it invigorates awareness of the world around us, and we rely on the store of that awareness in times, like campaigns, when there is not a lot of opportunity to assess where we are or to question where we’re going. Now that it’s over and I’m reading again, I find that stories are not so much a refuge or a pause as they are a way for me to put my feet on the ground again.
I am almost done reading a very remarkable book. Actually, it’s not really a book, it’s seven novellas about one man, a mysterious character by the name of Maqroll the Gaviero. He is too complex to really describe, but I suppose I might try: he is an adventurer first and formost, preferably by sea, but he is not in it for the excitment. His travels are constant because it is his compulsion. He is a lover of the world and ships and beautiful women. He is an excellent judge of character, though he is often drawn into disregarding his own judgements. He encounters many fascinating characters, and we follow as well the Gaviero’s companions and trusted friends, Abdul Bashur (Dreamer of Ships) and Ilona Rubenstein (the Nymph of Trieste).The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is, dare I say it, on par with and even surpasses the work of Borges and Garcia Marquez. These novellas span the globe like no book ever has. Maqroll visits every continent and sniffs out schemes and companions in every port. This Maqroll, he is no vain adventurer, no hero. He is tortured by his restlessness. He is at the same time a most exceptional man, well-read and loyal, courteous and brave when bravery is required. And yet he is so fragile. I worry about Maqroll as he is blown about the globe by the whims of a strange fate. I am almost done with the 7th and final novella. I have almost reached the last of the 700 pages, but I am not ready to say good bye. This Maqroll, he can really get ahold of you. I have read some books, and though I am by no means an expert, I can say that this book will have to be a classic. It is just so good.
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.
Oprah and her minions must read my blog because a little bird told me that her next book club selection is a book that also happens to be on my reading queue. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a somewhat forgotten classic by Carson McCullers. From what I’ve heard, the book resembles To Kill a Mockingbird and several other works of fiction by Southern women authors. And now it will be a bestseller. If you are one of those people who gets annoyed about the Oprah logo, hurry and get one before they run out of unbesmirched copies.
How do I occupy myself during the hours upon hours that I must spend in my car each week? My boredom with the music offered on commercial radio stations and (sadly) LA’s current array of noncommercial radio stations has led me more and more to listen to the various talk radio outlets, both public and commercial. The fact that my car doesn’t have a cd player exacerbates this situation, and the selection of tapes scattered around my car, under seats and wedged in pockets, is a sad bunch, indeed. And too often, in fact there are several blocks of time during the day when this occurs, there is nothing the least bit compelling on the talk outlets. In this situation I am resigned to listening to either music I don’t like or talk I’m not interested in, which is why listening to the audio version of James McManus‘s Positively Fifth Street last year was such a revelation. Having a good book to switch over to when radio went bad was a lifesaver. And you must understand, driving in Los Angeles is a life and death situation, and often your sanity is the first thing to go. Many people I know here have complicated arrangements which keep them entertained. Some have industrial-sized binders of cds that they rotate in and out of their cars, always fearing that a criminal might wipe out their entire music collection by breaking just a single pane of glass. Others resign themselves to staying on top of every trend in car and/or portable audio and month after month discmen give way to mp3 players followed by cd/mp3 players followed by iPods and the inevitable satellite radio, the current savior of all who must spend hours in transit. I fit in to neither category, and books on tape and cd are both costly and bulky, so I am always searching for my own solution to the mobile entertainment dilemma… Here, maybe, is a solution: an interesting article a while back in the New York Times about the digital revolution in audiobooks caught my eye. It’s already in the pay-to-read archives at nytimes.com , but I found a mirror of it here. Of course, in order to take advantage of this I would have to purchase some sort of digital audio device (an iPod would be pretty sweet), but the fact that I could use it to listen to books as well as music makes the idea much more appealing. Digital audiobooks are much more convenient and much cheaper than their cd and tape counterparts, and with the proliferation of portable digital audio devices, I suspect that this will be big trend in books this year.
As per family tradition the youngest generation gave out their gifts today, on Christmas Eve. Since I work at a book store, it’s hard not to give everyone books. So, once again, that’s what they got. My grandmother is a prodigious reader, and I owe much of my literary affinity to her. She instilled in me her depression-era view of books as the perfect escape into other worlds, and she divides the world into two categories: readers and non-readers, and she quite simply does not understand the latter group. I decided it would be fitting to introduce her to the latest Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee. She was aware of him but had not read any of his books, so I gave her what is by most accounts his greatest book: Waiting for the Barbarians. My mother is an art teacher with a vast library of art books that I enjoy adding volumes to. One of her favorite museums is the Hirshhorn Gallery, which is located on the mall in downtown Washington, DC, and when I was doing my shopping, I found a really good-looking book about the museum and its solid modern collection called Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: 150 Works of Art. My father, a big fan of presidential politics, received The White House Tapes, a nine cd set of illuminating recordings of our presidents over the last fifty years. It also includes commentary and a radio documentary that ties the whole thing together. I gave my 24-year-old sister a novel called Dirt Music by an Australian writer named Tim Winton. I read it when it first came out and really liked it, and I know my sister loves well-crafted plot-driven novels, so it seemed like a good fit. I gave my 21-year-old brother Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s irreverent and enlightening memoir of the First Gulf War, which I guess is now that war’s official title. (aside: it’s interesting that wars first must receive temporary names, and then years or decades later when history has fully played itself out, a war receives its “official” name for the history books, and yet when a war is going on, there is no suggestion that it will one day be viewed in a larger historical context, perhaps spanning decades.) I gave my 20-year-old sister, who has lately become very interested in the latest and hottest contemporary fiction, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which has fast become an “essential” member of this genre. My 20 and 16-year-old brothers both received Schott’s Original Miscellany. At first, they seemed perplexed by the stark little white tome, but before long they were unable to pull themselves away from such tidbits as “The Deaths of Some Burmese Kings” and “Some Shakespearean Insults.” I was pleased to receive some excellent items as well, including John Keegan’s The First World War, and the unbelievable new Looney Tunes – The Golden Collection, from which I have already derived much enjoyment. I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday.Brief Programming NoteYou have probably noticed the modest redesign of the site. This was done mostly because I was bored, but I sincerely hope you will let me know if it is taking away from your enjoyment of The Millions. You have probably also noticed the Amazon category links to the left. This is so you can cut through the noise of Amazon’s main page and get to a book you might be looking for more quickly. I have also added the Reading Queue so that everyone will have a good idea of what is on my plate should you feel like reading along at home.
Erik Larson has followed up his blockbuster book The Devil in the White City with Thunderstruck, another narrative history that ties together a pair of men one “good” and one “bad.” This time he focuses on “the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of wireless technology (Guglielmo Marconi) and the most notorious British murderer since Jack the Ripper (Hawley Crippen), who dispatched his overbearing wife in ways most foul,” according to a profile of Larson in the Seattle PI. In the PI profile Larson says that he didn’t want to do another history with a parallel structure, but in the end he couldn’t help himself.I found Devil to be an engaging read, but didn’t love it, writing: Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read.It sounds like Thunderstruck will be a book with similar strengths and weaknesses, but undoubtedly an engaging read.