A while back I discussed the minor furor over proposed changes at the New York Times Book Review, including charges of dumbing down and sensationalism. Now the helm has been handed over to a new editor, Sam Tanenhaus, a widely published journalist and the author of a well received biography of Whitaker Chambers. It remains to be seen if the New York Times Book Review will change significantly. On another, much more visible front, the Jayson Blair affair has reemerged due to the release of the book in which he tells his side of the story, Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at the New York Times. It is hard to imagine that anyone will take seriously a book by someone whose claim to fame is his astounding lack of credibility. In fact, the venomous pans are already rolling in (Dallas Star Telegram, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe. Even the Brits get into the act.) My favorite, though, is this headline from the Christian Science Monitor: “Jayson Blair: ‘I lied.’ Reader: ‘No kidding.’” I’m rather happy to see the level of outrage that Blair’s book is generating. Meanwhile some are reporting that the Times stands to benefit if Blair’s book does well (LINK). I’m not sure if that story has legs, though.
My good and old friend Garth, while describing what struck at his most recent visit to a book store, alerted me to an intriguing first novel by a 26 year old writer. According to the Washington Post, “Matthew McIntosh, young and despondent though he may be, is the real thing.” His book is called Well, and every review I’ve found so far is very positive and at times a touch awed. This is definitly in the “yes pile.” You can find an excerpt on the official page.
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.
AbeBooks, home of what is likely the most extensive commercial book database on earth, announced today that its online inventory now “exceeds 100 million” books. That’s books for sale right now, folks, not the number of books it has ever sold. The 100 millionth book added was A Checklist of the Vertebrate Animals of Kansas by George D. Potts and Thomas T. Collins. CEO Hannes Blum bought the milestone book. While Amazon and others get lots of press here and elsewhere, AbeBooks is really a remarkable site as it allows one to search through the inventories of “over 13,500 independent booksellers.” Sure it’s not as musty as your neighborhood used book shop, but think of all the treasures to be discovered.In commemoration of the 100 millionth book, the Guardian’s Comment is Free site prints an appreciation of AbeBooks, which “turned a cottage business into an international industry, and created millions of grateful readers.” From the Frankfurt Book Fair, meanwhile, comes news that AbeBooks continues to evolve. The site is using 40%-owned book cataloging site LibraryThing to develop a sophisticated recommendation engine. Unlike Amazon’s recommendation engine, which picks books based on what you buy, LibraryThing makes recommendations based on what you own.
In an effort to keep up with my Turkish reading, I reverted to one of my favorite authors Atilla Ilhan for the fifth book in a series of 6 titled Dersaadet’de Sabah Ezanlari (Morning Calls to Prayer in Istanbul). This novel too, unfortunately, is not translated into English. Frankly, I could have used a good translation myself as the language of the novel was embroidered in early 1900s “high” Istanbul Turkish, hence employing a lot of Persian and Arabic words, and therefore extremely difficult to follow. Nevertheless, Atilla Ilhan is a master whose historic novels reflect the power struggles among the politically significant personalities of Istanbul – as well as their indecisive nature and pitiful lack of influence – during the occupation of the city in the aftermath of World War I. I strongly recommend Dersaadet’de Sabah Ezanlari to any Turkish readers that follow the Millions. Surely, you must read the prequels first, which are Kurtlar Sofrasi volumes I and II, Sirtlan Payi and Bicagin Ucu.Next I turned to The Moviegoer by Walker Percy upon my good brother John D. Davis’ recommendation. Indeed, the novel was everything that he described to me: struggles of an elite Southern gentleman about to turn thirty and seeking a meaning, goal, and career in life. The subject is deeply intriguing since I, save for the Southern part and minus a couple of years in age, battle with similar issues. What is most intriguing is Binx Bolling’s ambivalence to his family’s legacy. This particular quality enables Binx (Jack) to analyze everyone surrounding his life with utmost precision. There is his ever criticizing Aunt Emily, his successful, catholic and acquiescent Uncle Jules, his manic-depressive cousin Kate, his hot secretaries, a bunch of relatives that Binx cares little for, and his fraternity brothers from Tulane who are all full of advice and ideas as to the proper way of going about life, getting settled, and marrying the right woman. Binx, for his part, could care less for advice. The internal struggles of this Korean War veteran push him to resist his customary temptation to tease life and instead to take matters into his own hands. The events that subsequently shape Binx’s life unfold on the eve of Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the mid-1950s, much to the self-reflective amusement of the reader. The Moviegoer is a very witty and entertaining read, with a great language and good hold on Southern culture. I look forward to reading other works of Walker Percy and have rather high hopes.You can see Max’s thoughts on The Moviegoer here.