Last time I was at the book store I noticed an interesting cultural history sort of book called Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. The “city” is, of course, New York City and the book uses rats as a vehicle to explore the New York’s intricacies and tribulations. The author of the book, Robert Sullivan, is known for his quirky, narrative-based non-fictions, The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt. If you’re into the whole rat thing check out this Newsday journalist’s account of an evening spent “ratting” with Sullivan. From rats to elephants: during my daily travels the other day I caught an interview with the author of an interesting-sounding book on one of the local public radio shows. Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear is a history of the magic act written by a master magician, Jim Steinmeyer. The book describes the origins of tricks that have become magic cliches, like sawing a lady in half. He also seeks to describe the interesting blend of mystery, showmanship, and hucksterism that embodied the turn of the century magic show. Finally, I mentioned the other day the centennial of the birth of Dr. Suess. It turns out that there is a sturdy coffee table book to commemorate this event. It displays his life and work and bears the somewhat dubious title: The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss.
1. Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh's oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to "celebrate culture." I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I'd send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent. But among my harshest critics was a writer friend, who in a scorching series of emails said mine was this obnoxious, privileged gaze, that in every description of Saudi lives, I mainly revealed that I wanted Saudis to grow up and be good democratic Westerners -- which was an impossible goal, he said, because good democratic Westerners are monsters who started wars and were a menace to the whole world. Years later, I lived in Beirut, where I was still writing stories. As part of an effort to do better this time, I began to read The Innocents Abroad, a record of traveling by Mark Twain. As a traveler, I had always written earnestly about my observations. Twain, it seemed, was all too eager to write wryly about his own ignorance. There was probably a lot I could learn. 2. In 1867, a crew of Americans set sail for Europe, Asia, and the Holy Land. For the benefit of the reader and to fulfill his duties as a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, one of the passengers, Mark Twain, set to writing a book about what happened. In the first pages, the reader encounters Twain's unease with the basic notion of trying to be original in a travel book. "A little after noon on that distinguished Saturday I reached the ship and went on board. All was bustle and confusion. [I have seen that remark somewhere.]" Then the ship sees its first island, and Twain isn't too excited about the Azores. "All the opera glasses in the ship were called into requisition to settle disputes as to whether mossy spots on the uplands were groves of trees or groves of weeds, or whether the white villages down by the sea were really villages or only the clustering of tombstones or cemeteries." Better to temper any real enthusiasm with a protective cloak of detachment and humor. In Riyadh, I faced the same problem, but I tried to write with kindness and heart, explaining what I saw with detail and nuance. Twain? "Out of our whole ship's company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them," he writes of the Azores. It's a sly trick -- substituting his fellow shipmates for the reader. "These considerations move me to put in a paragraph of dry facts here," he writes -- but of course the paragraph isn't dry. Twain has protected himself and us by suggesting no normal person would know the Azores, then he protects himself further by saying any information about the strange place would be "dry." Then he unloads: "The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy." Twain writes simultaneously with contempt and fondness, and we're left to puzzle out what he's trying to do, and where in the mess we should stand. What he's doing, it seems, is deploying a constantly changing mix of both sincerity and irreverence, making his position on things hard to pin down. Take the way he grapples with the tired subject of a famous church. "We went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame," he writes. "We had heard of it before. It surprises me sometimes to think how much we do know and how intelligent we are." Twain was making himself hard to take seriously, protecting himself from the question of whether writing like this made the world a better understood place. The whole situation was captured in the way he recounted the story of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th-century French lovers: With infinite pains I have acquired a knowledge of that history, and I propose to narrate it here, partly for the honest information of the public and partly to show the public that they have been wasting a good deal of marketable sentiment very unnecessarily...Heloise was born seven hundred and sixty-six years ago. She may have had parents. There is no telling. She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of the cathedral is, but that is what he was. I have come to admire that paragraph very much. In it, Twain is humorous and self-deprecating about the project of historical storytelling, but he is also contemptuous of stupid readers and of disinformation and false sentimentality, but then he acknowledges again that he himself doesn't actually know much -- for instance, what on earth is a canon? There's a kind of crazy disregard for accountability, a carnival of intention and expectation. You sense a plan, but it's hard to divine where, if at all, Twain is willing to draw a line. In a storm of riotous laughter, who could quiet the room and suggest to Twain that what he does has serious consequences? But there's no need to lecture; Twain's well aware of his power. "In Marseille, they make half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillaise only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained from books of travel, just as they have acquired an uncertain notion of clean shirts, and the peculiarities of the gorilla, and other curious matters." Books of travel change the world, Twain is ready to acknowledge. But all you'll probably remember is that line about the clean shirt. In the end, travel books -- or personal essays -- are doomed. Try to describe the gorilla and you fail. Words are never enough, and most will ultimately be forgotten. And if that gorilla is a man? Maybe better not to have begun at all. The other day, the American-born Nigerian writer Teju Cole posted a line on Twitter: "I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly." Cole was probably right. "I have camped with the Indians," Twain writes. "I have been on the warpath with them, taken part in the chase with them...I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had a chance." Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.
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Today I heard from a reliable source some very interesting info about Eric Schlosser. Yes, the same Schlosser who I derided two days ago for phoning in the follow up to his huge best seller Fast Food Nation. First of all, it turns out that Schlosser is currently hard at work on another Fast Food Nation style expose. This time he's tearing the lid off of America's prisons. It seems like there is wealth of material here, and there must be plenty of improprieties and outrages that the American public needs to know about. I don't forsee such a book being quite as successful as Fast Food Nation. Everyone has eaten more than their share of fast food, but not everyone has spent a lot of time in prison. Still, I'm sure it will prove to be a very good read. There is another tidbit of info on Schlosser, as well. Apparently he and the director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) have collaborated on a treatment for a film version of Fast Food Nation I suppose that the book does contain a number of compelling characters, and each of these characters has an interesting enough, if not completely fleshed out, story. But, it would definitely take a director as imaginative as Linklater to really pull it off.More MeloyMaile Meloy's new book, Liars and Saints came out today. She has been widely lauded for her short stories, so it will be interesting to see how well her first novel is recieved.
Adam Langer has an entertaining essay at The Book Standard which is full of discarded titles for classic books and films. But the fact is that Thomas Wolfe's original title O, Lost doesn't have quite the same ring as Look Homeward, Angel, nor does Margaret Mitchell's Fontenoy Hall, which became Gone with the Wind. If F. Scott Fitzgerald had gone with Trimalchio in West Egg, one of his working titles for The Great Gatsby, God knows what we'd have studied in high school.In the essay, Langer also reveals that his next book is tentatively titled The Washington Story.
This month the book club that I help run read and discussed Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. We had our usual raucous and meandering discussion for the first hour, but for the second hour we had a real treat: a visit from Huneven herself. Over the past couple of years I've had the opportunity to meet a number of authors, and I've also become well-versed in the sort of dynamic that occurs at a typical book reading and signing between author and reader. This was different and refreshing. She sat down with the 12 or 15 of us who were there and let us poke and prod her book and very much participated in the action. It almost reminded me of the various creative writing workshops that I took in college, except our writer was not a beshawled or behatted fellow student recounting the fictionalized tale of their high school relationships, this is a writer who is published by a highly reputable publishing house, the author of a book recently dubbed notable by the New York Times. Nonetheless, she graciously allowed us our comments and criticisms and had quite a bit to share about the book and herself. First: for those who read the book and wondered why, after Alice's first dream-like experience with the deer in her house, when she was trying to figure out if it had been real or not, she didn't look in her washing machine to see if the towels she used to clean up after it were there in the morning, that scene was in the original manuscript. She and her editor went back and forth trying to decide if she should leave it in or not, and then, months later, when the book came out, she had forgotten that they had removed the scene and was surprised to see it gone. Other tidbits: Huneven found that writing the character Pete came most easily, and the rest were a struggle. Jonathan Gold, author of the best LA restaurant guide there is, Counter Intelligence, was a big fan of the Helen character. Huneven is on page nine of her next book, which will include a character who is a scrapbooker. As a writer, it was heartening to meet a fellow writer who, though she is published and successful, still sees her work as a challenge and even a struggle, a fact that some writers might not admit in that situation. And, by the way, the book is a great read, and I encourage anyone out there who is looking for a good novel to pick it up.An Intriguing List or TwoMy good and old friend Hot Face has taken a cue from the New York Times and... People Magazine to compile his list of most intriguing books of the year. Since he asks for additions, I put forward Bangkok 8 by John Burdett and Gilligan's Wake by Tom Carson, but he's pretty much got everything else I could think of there already. Meanwhile, my buddy Andy emailed me a link to this, a new take on the year end book list.
My friend Nancy sent this story my way the other day. Apparently, back in 1998 a woman posted on her weblog an interesting discovery. She realized after reading the Robert Graves historical novel I, Claudius and the Richard Condon cult classic The Manchurian Candidate back to back that Condon borrowed passages from Graves' book. There has been a little bit of hype surrounding The Manchurian Candidate lately due to an impending remake of the movie and a new edition of the book with a forward by Louis Menand, so perhaps that is what caused this revalation to come to light so long after its original discovery. Menand himself notes the bizarre patchwork of styles in Condon's work and now experts are positing that Condon may have borrowed from a number of different books when writing his novel. What strikes me when reading this is that neither the author of the article nor the experts consulted seem to think this charge is particularly damning. I think maybe this stems from the fact that Condon has never been considered much more than a pulp writer anyway. Here's the full article if you want to read more.More Than Just BaseballWhere have I been? It seems that during the nearly twenty years that have passed since he penned one of the best books ever written about baseball, Nine Innings, sportswriter Daniel Okrent went on to become an editor of Life Magazine and then an editor of Time Magazine. Now he has a new book out that is in keeping with his more recent journalistic pursuits. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center chronicles the interesting story of a landmark of entertainment in New York City. Here's what the New York Times has to say about the book, and here's an excerpt.
So perhaps you've seen the latest bell (or whistle) to come out of Google HQ. It's called Google Trends and it lets you look at the search volume over time for different keywords. It also shows you which regions search for a particular term the most. Initially, I was most interested in that geographic data. I figured perhaps this could settle that tiresome debate about which city is "most literary." Here are the resultsDelhi, IndiaChennai, IndiaAustinPortland (Oregon, I'm assuming)ChicagoSeattleNew YorkDenverMinneapolisPhiladelphiaI was, and still am, a curious about the two Indian cities at the top of the list, but I did recently write a post about the MV Doulos (Ship of Books) being docked in Chennai. But, anyway, to get to the more serious issue, by this metric our most literary city is Austin, and New York (pretender to the crown) comes in at number five, while our venerable Californian cities don't even make the list. Before we get too riled lets remember that these cities are just guesses. From the FAQ: "Google Trends uses IP address information from our server logs to make a best guess about where queries originated."Regardless of Google's guestimates, I was curious about some other bookish searches. "Harry Potter" shows a preponderance of international searches, and the series' impressive ability to stay in the news. Or you can see how the young wizard compares to pretender to the throne, "The Da Vinci Code." If you ever doubted how popular Harry Potter is, that graph should convince you. Getting back to Da Vinci Code, though, to those of you who have grown weary of hearing about Dan Brown's book, would it surprise you to find out that, according to Google, the book is more popular than ever?Moving on to scandals, it turns out an Oprah tie in can help you in that department, too. Observe James Frey's drubbing of JT Leroy. Kaavya Viswanathan, meanwhile, hasn't generated enough of a scandal to register.Turning to awards, remember when the National Book Award generated a stir in 2004 by nominating five women from New York as finalists, looks like it paid off (in search traffic anyway). And here's all the prizes I could think of going head to head (I'll call the Booker the winner, since the Pulitzer includes all those journalists).
So, I'm done with journalism school. It was a quick fifteen months. I'm excited about the journalistic climate of these times; I'm very caught up in all the heady things being said about blogs and the new medium in general. It's an exciting time to be in this business. But then again I suppose journalism has always been exciting. Now that I've had the opportunity to meet a lot of journalists, I realize that they are a backward-looking bunch - which isn't to say that they are anachronisms, just that they are very conscious of their history. I don't blame them. It's a very rich history. One thing I learned in journalism school is how our newspapers are shrinking - and one day they may shrink into nothing, living only on the Internet. Newspapers used to be much bigger than today's, but high newsprint costs and the changing tastes of readers have made newspaper companies skew smaller and smaller. At the turn of the last century, though, newspapers were quite big, and, as it turns out, at least one of them was very colorful.It's an odd experience looking at pictures from the The World on Sunday (found here and here), a New York paper from more than one hundred years ago, because I think that we're trained to think of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a black and white world. These colorful images have recently gotten some attention thanks to Nicholson Baker and his wife Margaret Brentano who rescued the papers from the refuse pile of the British Library and used them as raw material for a book that came out this fall: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898 - 1911). As Jack Shafer said in his column on Slate:But what made this vivid copy sing was its graphic and typographical presentation. Pulitzer's people bulldozed the dreary, gray newspaper design template. The World ran headlines across a couple of columns, not just one, or completely across the page if it really wanted to provoke readers. Halftone photos, dramatic and comic illustrations, inset graphics, hand-lettered headlines, and buckets of color enlivened these artful pages.The Internet promises photos, audio, video and all kinds of interactivity. I love that, but I'm a little sad that newspaper like The World won't be showing up on my doorstep any time soon.Earlier this month, Ron at Beatrice.com singled out this book as great gift idea, and I have to agree. This is the perfect gift for any fan of the news (and for future journalists, as well.)