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.
I started flipping through Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point the other day. In the book, Gladwell explores the idea that all popular trends essentially behave like epidemics, and a slight change in external factors can cause a trend, like an epidemic, to “tip” and then become ubiquitous. He describes how word of mouth is an important part of why this occurs, and also how some initial shift of circumstances begins the process. I quickly realized that I see this phenomenon occurring constantly at the bookstore. The recommend shelf phenomenon that I described a few days ago is an example of this. An intitial shift occurs when I read a book and enjoy it and then pull it from its spot tucked away on the shelf. Once I have displayed it prominently on the recommended shelf, the second part of the phenomenon takes over, word of mouth. Soon, a book that was sitting, forlorn, in a tucked away corner of the store, is selling briskly and you overhear people in the aisles talking about it. Earlier, I spoke about this recommended book phenomenon somwhat disdainfully, but when viewed this way, as a shifting of initial circumstances playing out over time, like Stephen Wolfram’s cellular automata in A New Kind of Science, it is more a fascinating piece of science than indictive of society’s lemming-like tendencies.Addenda Pt. 2My good and old friend Hot Face emailed me with some addenda and additions to yeasterdays post about upcoming books. The new David Foster Wallace collection is tentatively called Oblivion and will come out in March of 2004. Prior to that, in October, he has a new non-fiction book coming out, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. He also mentioned that Stuart Dybek has a new book coming out in November called I Sailed with Magellan. Dybek has long been highly regarded as a short story writer (here’s one called Ant), but this new book is a novel.
Amazon has introduced a new feature that promises to be more useful than the Statistically Improbable Phrases feature that launched a few months ago. The “SIP” feature finds distinctive phrases inside books and then linked users to other books that contained those same distinctive phrases. For example, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World contains five instances of the distinctive phrase “deer poaching,” which Amazon tells us also appears in several other books, including Deer and Deer Hunting Book 2: Strategies and Tactics for the Advanced Hunter. Amusing, but not terribly useful. Amazon’s new feature, Capitalized Phrases” or “CAPs,” links books by proper names and places, so by clicking on “King Lear” from among the CAPs for Will in the World, you get a list of books that mention “King Lear.” This seems like a potentially very useful research tool – especially if Amazon decides not to limit the results to twenty or so books as they are currently doing. These “phrases” features by Amazon also represent a foray into the relatively new Internet phenomenon of tagging, which sites like del.icio.us use to categorize Web sites. Since the process is external – in the case of del.icio.us, the tags are applied by users – and has a human element to it, sites that employ tagging have the potential to be “smarter” than those that rely on old-fashioned search engines. It will be interesting to see if Amazon begins to allow user submitted tags in addition to its Search Inside a Book data to create a deep and highly intuitive way of organizing its massive inventory.
A while back, we diagnosed David Brooks‘ Bobo Shuffle; now it’s time to call The New York Times’ most pugnacious and prolific book reviewer on her patented move: The Kakutani Two-Step. It works roughly like this: belittle a novelist’s finest work to date – preferably by tossing around unsupported adjectives…say, “arbitrary,” “flimsy,” and “unfinished.” Then, five or six years later, when the novelist in question brings forth his next book, or the one after that, complain loudly about how lame it is compared to his previous masterwork, which, it is to be inferred, you adored. (Bonus points if you actually now call the previous book a “masterwork.” Double bonus points if you also work in the word “limn.”)
The Kakutani Two-Step depends on readers having short memories (or perhaps sagely avoiding Kakutani’s “Books of the Times” columns altogether) and so not noticing the cognitive dissonance. Only fans of the writers she caricatures (and, one imagines, the writers themselves) are likely to detect the sinister signature of the KTS. The latest victim is Jonathan Lethem, whose new Chronic City Kakutani calls “tedious [and] overstuffed”…and that’s just the first sentence of the review! “This fictional Manhattan,” she continues,
has none of the energy or keenly observed grittiness of the real-life Brooklyn that Mr. Lethem captured with such verve in his 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude.
But wait, wasn’t that “dazzling” novel “fundamentally flawed,” with
a series of unconvincing and weirdly forced passages that break the spell that Mr. Lethem has so assiduously created?
Not to mention a “contrived” and “melodramatic” ending?” And “many defects” in between? According to Kakutani, circa 2003, it was. Your takeaway from the Fortress of Solitude review: flawed, uneven, defective. Your takeaway from the Chronic City review: Michiko misses the “vividly . . . movingly” dazzling Fortress of Solitude.
To be sure, it’s possible to square the two Lethem reviews, if you’re enough of a Kakutani exegete to infer that her kneejerk distaste, in each case, is for Lethem’s forays into genre-bending. But all the casual reader will notice is the invidious comparison between the two books, the sudden vanishing of any her earlier reservations, like a magician’s cloth being whisked away to reveal a tiny, perfect turd.
I’m too tired right now to track down other instances of the KTS, but you don’t have to look hard to find them; you might start by Googling David Foster Wallace (and if you think of more, why not leave them in the comment thread?) To be sure, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. It may also be true that Michiko’s judgment works on the time-release principle of certain antacids…that hindsight makes the heart grow fonder. But, even in these lean days for newspapers, the Times presumably employs fact-checkers who could easily catch La Kakutani’s self-misrepresentation. One thing is clear: she can’t be bothered to check herself.
As would befall a good William Boyd protagonist, I fell ill and had to get penicillin shots during my vacation in Turkey. My only consolidation as I lay there was reading Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa, the story of an aspiring diplomat, Morgan Leafy. Morgan is stuck in Kinjanja, a British colony in Africa in the aftermath of World War II, and gets involved in plots to rig the fast approaching elections, hence finding his way out of Africa and to a better, higher, position somewhere more civilized. Torn between his boss, mistress, love affair, local tribe leader, and adversaries among the British population, Morgan struggles to make ends meet but the rising demands of the British government and the impending visit of a duchess further complicates his plans. A Good Man in Africa presents an amazing build up of circumstances and characters for uproarious laughter. Towards the end of the novel I was laughing uncontrollably as Morgan dug himself deeper in a hole. Misfortune and reflection of absolute British arrogance has never been as funny as it is in Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa.Upon my return to the United States and catching up on my Millions reading, I decided to pick up Don DeLillo’s Libra per the venerable J.P. Hasting’s suggestion. Previously, I had only read White Noise by DeLillo, which did not really impress me that much and furthermore left a bad taste for DeLillo in my mind. I am, however, very glad to have read Libra, which, along very similar lines to Oliver Stone’s JFK, presents a conspiracy theory explaining the President’s assassination. I have a tendency to get carried away and believe in the pieces I read, and Libra took my fascination with JFK’s assassination to a new level. The context that DeLillo creates, post-Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crises, and the characters that he presents, all unique with their grudges, distrust, hate of communism, and patriotic frenzy, make for a marvelous “fictional” read and an excellent conspiracy that I, personally, find extremely convincing. I strongly recommend reading Libra and watching Stone’s JFK back to back.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7
That would be “Novel of The Elegant Variation” for the uninitiated. Book blogger Mark Sarvas can now be known as novelist Mark Sarvas because he announced today that his book was bought by Bloomsbury and will be out in a year. Mark’s been talking about this book since he started his blog, so it’s thrilling to see that he’s getting it published. Well done.
Some good new fiction paperbacks have come out in the past days and weeks. Today’s new arrival is Porno by Irvine Welsh. This one apparently resurrects the characters from Trainspotting and chronicles their foray into the world of adult films. I read Trainspotting while I was staying with my friend Derek and his folks at their house in Maine. I loved the book; I was thrilled when I found myself thinking in the thick Scottish accent of the book: bairn for baby, bird for girl, etc. It was the summer after my senior year in high school. I was of an age and at a moment for which Trainspotting was perfect, plus there is something special about a book read while vacationing, when huge chuncks are read at a time, and nothing that happens in between these reading sessions is weighty enough to detract from a full immersion in the story at hand. I became sufficiently attached to Renton, Sick Boy, and the rest that had Porno been around, I probably would have begun reading it the moment I set down its predecessor. Instead, with the intervening pause approaching ten years, I never mustered the interest to read Porno. Maybe if I ever read Trainspotting again, I will read Porno as well. Also out recently in paper: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Since Murakami’s stories appear frequently in the New Yorker, and since I read the New Yorker each week, by the time this earthquake-centered collection came out I had already read many of the stories. Once some time has passed, a decade perhaps, I will buy this book and read all the stories again. I feel confident that Murakami will remain in print. One day I would also like to reread his book Norwegian Wood. It is a favorite book of mine, in large part bacause it reminded me of that great feeling you get when you find one that’s really good. Life of Pi by Yann Martel, I suspect, may be able to deliver that same feeling. This one, since it came out, has had an ever-growing swell of support, cresting with it’s being awarded the Booker Prize. My grandmother, whose taste in books I trust considerably, found this book to be remarkable. Out of all the books I’m mentioning today, I’ll most likely read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer soonest. I read an excerpt of the book many months ago in a “New Fiction” issue of the New Yorker. I was both surprised by and somewhat skeptical of its more daring stylistic flourishes. There is no denying that this is a good book though, unless I’m foolish enough to go against the recommendations of several of my trusted fellow readers.A Small but Important Poker AddendaIn my mention of Positively Fifth Street, I forget to mention a related book that, at the very least, I would like to have on the record so that I remember to read it one day. The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez is another account of the World Series of Poker and is, from what I hear, a must read for all poker fans. Plus, Chronicle Books is the publisher, which is why it looks so cool.