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.
In the Guardian, Richard Adams comments on the proliferation of “biographies of things,” and the tendency of authors and publishers to assert that these things “changed the world.” e.g. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky.In a sense, yes, all these things have changed the world, but only in a general sense that everything that exists changes the world.
Miss Snark is the blogging pseudonym of a New York agent who has made herself available to all the aspiring writers out there who are befuddled and bewildered by the publishing process. When particularly perplexed, these writers turn to Miss Snark with their questions – despite the better than fair chance of being called a nitwit by Her Snarkiness. Aided only by her faithful poodle Killer Yapp (KY), Miss Snark has come to the rescue of hundreds of writers in the months she’s been online answering questions on protocol, procedure and not looking like a fool when trying to turn your manuscript into a published masterpiece. Her advice is refreshingly frank and entirely devoid of BS, and she has a loyal following. Why does she devote so much time to such a thankless endeavor? I can only assume she’s trying to make the world a better place (but then again she may be banking on the many pails full of gin she’s now owed by the many writers she has helped.)I had been under the assumption that all aspiring writers were avid readers of Miss Snark, but it has recently come to my attention that this is not the case. So, if you hope to have your book published one day, and you aren’t yet reading Miss Snark, I suggest you start now. And this is doubly true if you are agentless and looking. These conditions are not, however, prerequisites. I have no plans to write a book anytime soon, and I can’t help but read Miss Snark, if only for the fearful laughs she elicits.
I recently noticed a couple of interesting books about the newspaper biz, and, more specifically, the New York Times. City Room is Arthur Gelb’s memoir of his career with the paper. He was there from 1944 to 1999, a career that saw him rise from night copyboy to managing editor. The book is an account of the vast changes in the business over that time, both in process of producing the paper and in the business itself. Over time, manual typewriters and wise guy reporters have given way to laptop computers and media conglomerates; Gelb, however, retains the ability to see the inherent specialness that lies at the center of the “paper of record.” Backstory: Inside the Business of News, on the other hand, is a more critical exploration of the news media. Ken Auletta is the media reporter for the New Yorker, and this collection of articles from the last ten years serves to paint a picture of the thorough modernization of mass media. The centerpiece of the book is a profile of Howell Raines the controversial executive editor of the Times who was ousted in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. I’ve always enjoyed Auletta’s articles, so it would have been nice to see new material from him rather than this collection of previously published material, some of which is no longer extremely relevant.Vintage This and Vintage ThatIf you’ve been inside a bookstore in the last few days, you may have noticed a display featuring a collection of sleek new books. Vintage, a paperback division of Random House devoted to putting out paperback editions of modern literary fiction, has put out a classy series of “readers” which compile various snippits of work from 12 of the most luminous 20th century writers into individual volumes. The selection of writers is interesting and fairly eclectic (necessarily so, for reasons I will get into shortly). Martin Amis, James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Joan Didion, Richard Ford, Langston Hughes, Barry Lopez, Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, V. S. Naipaul, and Oliver Sacks each have their own attractive little book. Now, there are two schools of thought on this sort of thing. The first is that by pulling easily digestible segments from this or that book you can snare the more cautious, less adventurous reader by offering something that seems less daunting. I can imagine this scenario: cautious reader is a bit intimidated by the idea of picking up a book by Nabokov or Hughes and diving in, but when they see these slim, little Vintage “readers,” they think, “Hey, I can handle this, I’ll give it a go.” After reading a “teaser” chapter from Lolita, our cautious reader is hooked, and everybody is happy. The world has gained a more adventurous reader and Vintage (which is to say Random House) has sold an additional book, Lolita. But don’t throw a parade just yet. “Readers” like this, or digests as they are sometimes known, have been around for a very long time, perhaps hundreds of years. Individual books are something of a luxury compared to earlier times, when condensed versions of books and digests were far more affordable than the real thing, in terms of bang for the buck, for the general reading public. Nonetheless, I think there are problems with this particular series, primarily that it is a little too easy to look at these books as “movie trailers” or catalogs with pricetags for other Vintage publications. And, indeed, at just $9.95, these books aren’t meant to land on readers’ bookshelves, they are meant to sell more books. Even if I try to keep things in perspective, to acknowledge that it is better that they are hawking Didion and Munro and Naipaul rather than the Atkins diet or American Idol, I would still prefer that if someone is going to walk into a bookstore with intention of purchasing a single book (as is so often the case), that they read an entire book by any author at all, whether he or she measures up to James Baldwin or not. I don’t know if the inherent “goodness” of the Vintage writers can overcome the sales pitch packaging, which brings me to another point. Though these books are marketed as a collection of the best of the best, the really only represent the best of Vintage books. A reader who is overly devoted to this series will miss countless amazing writers. Finally, there is a predictably PC, overly marketed quality to the whole endeavor: among the twelve, there are two African American writers, two Hispanics, and two non-minority women, and since the folks in editorial feel like they’ve got their bases covered in that department, the folks in marketing worked up a catchy sales pitch, Vintage this and Vintage that, though it sounds to me like they are selling Vodka, not Murakami.So, thoughts? Am I overreacting? Let me know by pressing the “comments” button below.
From Michael Chabon’s site, an update on his forthcoming novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and a preview of The Best American Short Stories 2005, which Chabon is editing. The inclusion of “at least four” genre stories, including ones by Dennis Lehane and Tom Bissell, will surely rankle literary purists.Letters to Frank Conroy from his studentsThe AP’s books guy, Hillel Italie, profiles FSG and highlights their penchant for publishing award-winning books.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold and the ditch he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Not in a weird way. The nights dark beyond all reckoning of darkness, days endless gray. He rose from the reeking sleeprags and looked towards the east for a hint of light. Long ago snuffed by lowhanging dust, crusted and festering whoremouth. In the dream from which he’d wakened he and the child had wandered in a cave, scrounging for rotted batmeat. Shadows playing the walls like clownpuppets, the whitegloved fingers gnarled and ginshaken. Encircled by the dim, an abattoir lullaby. They came to a great stone room within which lay a longdead lake, its water stagnant and foul. And on the far shore a eunuch mime, naked save for a filthy gray cravat. Dead eyes milky and hollow. With a thin straw to its dirtscarred lips, it knelt, sipping from the brack. It heard their steps, craning its mimeneck to see what it could not. Skin translucent, ribs charbling and swortled, the heart beating tiredly. Facepaint smeared. It waved sadly in their direction, for it could not speak. Then it scuttled into the inky blackness. The man shook his head in the freezing predawn. No more peaches before bed.
With the first gray light he rose and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Godless and blasted. A madman’s timeshare. The trees dead, the grass dead, the shrubs dead also. The rivers dead. And the streams and reeds, the mosses and voles. Dead as well. He glassed the ruins, hoping for a shred of color, a wisp of smoke, a faroff Cracker Barrel. There was nothing but swirling gloom, a grasping murk. He sat with the binoculars and the gray, and thought: the child is my warrant. If he is not the word of God God never spoke, although he might have scribbled something on a paperscrap and passed it along. He bit hard on his blistered upperlip. If only I had thought to give him a name. If only.
An hour later they were on The Road, an Oprah’s Book Club selection. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks in case they had to make a run for it. Cannibal rapists, roving bloodcults. Greenpeace volunteers. In the knapsacks were essential things: tins of food, metal utensils, a broken Slinky, a canopener, three bullets, a picture of ham. He looked out over the barren waste, the scorpled remain. The road was empty, as was its wont. Quiet, moveless. Are you okay? he said, quotation marks dead as the reeds. The boy nodded. Then they started down the road, humming a sprightly tune. The tune was silent, and unsprightly.
In time they had arrived at a roadside filling station. It was still and precise, a blaggard’s assbath. Ashcovered and freighted with doubt. They stood in the road and studied it. The windows were unbroken, the pumps intact. I think we should check it out, the man said. There might be snacks. Cheez-Its, maybe. The boy looked on as he entered an open door. The man, not the boy. Nothing in the service bay save for a standing metal toolbox, a trash-filled wastecan. Waterlogged tittymagazines. In the small office, ash and dust, soot and flumb. A cashregister, a telephonebook, a metal desk. He crossed to the desk, standing over the phone. He picked it up and punched at the numbers. Three three three, three three three, three three five three three. The boy stood at the door. What are you doing? he said. The man hung up the phone. Jingle Bells, the man said.
In the service bay he tipped over the trashdrum and sorted through the plastic oilbottles. Then they sat in the floor decanting them of their dregs, standing the bottles upside down to drain into a pan. This reminds me of ketchup, the man said as he watched the slowdraining oil. The boy brightened. Can you tell me about ketchup, Papa? the boy said. Please tell me. The man stared, remembering another world entire, a world of jellies and mustards, of condiments boundless. Perhaps later, he said. I’ll tell you about ketchup later. The boy watched the slowing oildrip, chin in his hand. Okay.
On the far side of the valley the road passed through a fearsome charswath. Blackened and limbless trees, ashblown and dead. On a distant rise, the heatscorched ruins of a farmhouse. Tilted roadside lightpoles. Faded billboards advertising motels, the use of irony. An abandoned Vespa. Are you having fun? he said. The boy hesitated, shook his head. Are you sure? Yes, the boy said. I’m sure. The man looked out over the blasted land, the pebblestrewn waste. Impressions? the man said. The boy kicked at a small black rock. No, said the boy. The man’s heart ached. The boy used to love his impressions.
That night they lay beneath their filthy plastic tarp as rain fell from a godless heaven. After stowing the cart in a jagged roadside scarp, they had found a spot a good distance from the road. A thick copse of deadburnt spruce. The dirt underhead was hard, and with the wind and the cold and the running viscous ash it was difficult to sleep. Can I ask you a question? the boy said after a time, his teeth chattering.
Yes. Of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
Okay. Tomorrow maybe?
No. Not tomorrow. Not for a long, long time.
Oh. Why not?
Because we’re going to be okay.
The boy considered this. Okay, he said.
There was silence for a time. Then the boy spoke again. But could we maybe die the day after?
No. I will protect you. No matter what.
Okay. The boy paused. But what if we did? Or maybe just me? Could I maybe die?
The man laughed into the tarpgrit as thunder pealed across the wet, bleakened valley. And leave all this? he said.