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.
Back in 1996, Imani Josey wrote a 60-page draft of a story she called “The Secret Cave,” about three girls who travel to an alternate universe and discover they are fairie princesses. Josey now cites this the first draft of The Blazing Star, a young adult fantasy novel about three black girls who time-travel to ancient Egypt that she self-published last fall.
For years after that draft, though, Josey didn’t write publicly. She was busy being a student and a beauty queen—she was crowned both Miss Chicago and Miss Black Illinois USA—as well as a dancer. She still wrote, keeping journals, penning stories for her friends, and composing fan fiction that, she says will “never see the light of day.”
She did her writing privately until, around 2011, she felt ready to dive back in. The story on her mind? That same one from 1996, the one that had stuck with her through all the years and would blossom into her debut novel in 2016.
Josey has written before about the importance of black girl magic, and her novel features three black female protagonists, which, in 2017, is still unusual, even while books featuring black girls and women continue to prove themselves in the marketplace (Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, for example, has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 21 weeks now). Josey felt passionately that her girls’ stories deserved to be told. “It’s important to tell black girls’ stories with agency because it normalizes blackness,” she says. “These stories ensure we’re not ‘othered.’” She added that her parents surrounded her, in childhood, with images of black girls being normal, through dolls and books with black protagonists.
“These images showed me that I could be a well-rounded, complex person with likes and dislikes and experiences that matter like anyone else’s, and who knew her black skin was beautiful just the way it was,” she said. “It was my parents’ mission to ground my normalcy in my agency, not in my proximity to whiteness.”
So, in her book, Josey gives her girls agency.
The Blazing Star is the first book in a projected trilogy, with each book written from the point of view of one of the main characters. The Falling Star, its sequel, will be released in February 2018.
The book is published by Wise Ink, an self-publishing company. Josey said she originally tried to go the traditional publishing route, but was rejected by countless agents. Nonetheless, she believed in her story, her characters, and her mission, and says her confidence paid off: the book sold out on release day.
“I was hell-bent on my book series doing what traditional pub is dragging its feet to do—fixing the representation gap—a major component of why I went indie,” she said. “I’m not sure how many other black girls are on the cover of YA fantasy book series, and I’m not sure how many lead their own stories as protagonists. But judging by Lee & Low’s annual research, the number is incredibly low.”
In fact, Lee & Low wrote a blog post in March of this year revealing that, while the number of protagonists of color is increasing, the number of authors of color is not: last year, “Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote just 6% of new children’s books published,” the post reports.
Josey gave a bit of advice for white allies who wish to support the work of black creators: make use of their privilege to ensure black writers get their voices heard: “It means being vocal advocates, suggesting marginalized authors for mainstream events, giving their books as gifts and signal boosting crowdfunding projects,” she said, “as well as supporting marginalized traditional and independent authors.”
Josey said she loves that self-publishing allowed her the “freedom to make [the book] exactly how I wanted,” but adds that the self-publishing road is hard. She said it’s been a struggle, especially when it comes to marketing and large-scale distribution.
But she considers herself a fighter, a tough person, traits she partially attributes to her pageant history. “Pageants made me tougher,” she said. “[They] taught me about scrutiny and rejection…They taught me about marketing. They taught me about chasing big dreams, even when you don’t know if everything will turn out alright.”
So who are the lucky people who own the The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection, which costs nearly $8,000, weighs 700 pounds and is available exclusively through Amazon.com? Well, a New York Times article estimates that there’s only about two dozen people who have purchased the mammoth set. According to the article, one of them is Kate Bolton an avid reader who lost her entire library when her house burned down in a forest fire. I’d love to own that collection, but I’d need a separate apartment just to house it.
One of the most anticipated books of the summer is Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. The book will be out a week from Tuesday, and already it’s pushing into Amazon’s top 100. All spring there were reports of galleys (advance copies for reviewers) selling for a couple of hundred dollars on eBay. Rake’s Progress posted a report from one of the lucky few who got their hands on the book early. Granted, this reader was posting to the Cormac McCarthy Society Web site, but still his review was glowing. Other glowing reviews have come in at PW and Booklist, and the newspaper book pages will weigh in soon. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the report that McCarthy, a notorious recluse, has given his first interview in 13 years, which will appear in the August issue of Vanity Fair.Booklist’s starred review of Lydia Millet’s satirical novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart compares the book to “Twain, Vonnegut, Murakami, and DeLillo.” Not bad. The novel opens in 2003 with reincarnation of three of the creators of the atomic bomb. After taking stock of the current state of the world, these scientists decide to work for disarmament, but the American military isn’t too keen on that idea. Though the premise seems a bit high concept, reviewers are saying that she pulls it off.If you ever wanted to read a novel set in the exotic locale of Zanzibar, you’re in luck. Lisa Kusel’s novel, Hat Trick, is about two estranged friends who, by chance, happen to be reunited on the small island off the coast of Africa. Mona is there in her capacity as a powerful film producer, while Hannah is there looking for merchandise to sell in her store back home. The man who caused their split is there, too. Peter is a journalist who is writing about the star of Mona’s movie, but he is in Zanzibar to be close to Mona, too. There are no major reviews out yet, but PW was positive about the book.Avner Mandelman’s collection of short stories, Talking to the Enemy, won the Jewish Book Award when it was published in Canada, and now, Seven Stories Press has released the book in the US. Mandelman was a member of the Israeli Air Force and he fought in the Six Day War before moving to Europe and then to Canada. His collection looks at Israelis and Israeli emigres living in a culture of violence. As PW puts it: “With these agile, vernacular stories, Mandelman takes a clear-sighted yet empathetic view of a fraught nation.”
“If an ox begins to sicken,” Cato the Elder writes in his treatise on Roman farm management, “give him without delay a raw hen’s egg and make him swallow it whole. The next day make him drink from a wooden bowl a measure of wine in which has been scraped the head of an onion. Both the ox and his attendant should do these things fasting and standing upright.”
This passage has stuck with me, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, since the time I first read it, whenever that may have been. I’m less interested in the questionable medicine it prescribes than in the image of the ox and his attendant — who, on the farm described by Cato, was most likely a slave — together: the attendant going about his work, the ox patiently enduring his ministrations. The two at once familiar and yet gazing across an unfathomable distance of incomprehension as they stand facing one another, both unfed save the ox’s hen’s egg and measure of wine.
I’ve been thinking of the passage often lately, as my novel, That’s Not a Feeling, is, to my surprise, filled with animals. The novel is set on the rural campus of a boarding school, so it isn’t entirely unexpected that animals should appear. But a brief catalogue of non-human animals seen and discussed in its pages would include deer, bees, ducks, a turkey, cats, a caterpillar, a goat, a pig, some chickens, an owl, two wasps, a peahen, horses, bats, some birds that are not further identified, and a snake. This seems to me, if not quite excessive, then at least curious. It’s the kind of thing I try not to think much about while I’m writing, but now that the book is in its final form, I don’t really see what harm it can do.
In the eighth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the poet contrasts animals’ way of being in the world with that of people. “The creature gazes into openness,” he writes, in A. S. Kline’s translation, “… and when it moves, it moves / in eternity, as streams do.” Humans, however, are always looking inward, “our eyes are / as if they were reversed.” I’m sure that making this type of distinction is not what I was up to. First of all, I find it too romantic, too idealized. And the animals I’ve written about aren’t the free, sure beasts described by Rilke. They are often frightened, in the wrong place, or sick, like the ox in Cato.
In this way, they are mirrors of the human characters in the book, who are also often unsettled, ill at ease, or worse. And these characters’ confusion and anxiety is analogous to the opacity that, it seems to me, exists between people and animals. “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” Wittgenstein says. I take this to mean that a lion’s life, his experiences and concerns, are so foreign to us that even if he shared our language, we wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Just before making this point in the Philosophical Investigations, a point I think we can safely assume applies to all animals and not only to lions, Wittgenstein discusses the transparency, or lack thereof, between people. He says, “…one human being can be a complete enigma to another.” And, Freud might have added, a complete enigma to himself or herself as well.
This begins to feel more like what I may have been after, populating the margins of my book with unsteady animals. They stand (or crawl, or fly) as reminders that proximity doesn’t dispel mystery. Just as Cato’s ox and his attendant can live and work together without claiming to know one another completely, we can live among animals and among people without assuming that we comprehend them. This is less a philistine’s incuriosity about his surroundings than a degree of humility as regards the limits of our understanding. Just as psychoanalysis shows us how we are always telling the truth though we do not know the truth, and can be ourselves — can’t help being ourselves — though we remain strangers to ourselves. And yet we are never so resigned that we stop trying to find out more. I like the way animals in books, what John Berger called “animals of the mind,” can serve as emblems of this. From the meadows and the trees, they gaze out at the human characters, who cannot help but wonder what it is the animals see.
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.
Gather.com, the folks who put together a chat with Jonathan Safran Foer not too long ago, have announced a new writing contest. Online writing contests are a dime a dozen, but the cool thing about this one is that the four winning short pieces (fiction or non-fiction) will be “published and sold on Amazon Shorts,” which would undoubtedly be a terrific venue for any aspiring writer. In fact, it’s along the lines of what I hoped Amazon would do with its Shorts program.