I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah’s Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah’s name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah’s new focus on classic literature was having on America’s reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah’s club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight “book of the year” titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
I am a loyal subscriber to The Paris Review, which, for my money, is still the best literary journal on the market. With the most recent issue came a bookmark noting the launch of a new Paris Review online feature. It seems that founder and long-time editor George Plimpton had always wanted to make the hundreds of interviews the journal had published as part of its series “The Art of Fiction” available to anybody, anywhere, anytime. Now, thanks to the miracle of the interweb, that dream is a reality. “The DNA of Literature” is a complete catalogue of every interview The Paris Review has ever published. The series is being posted by decade every few weeks. The 1950s are up there right now, available as easily printable PDFs. The best of the excerpts shown on the page: William Saroyan on when he writes: “I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late…. The afternoon is the only time I have left…”Also, the DNA of Literature was paid for by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. I encourage anyone and everyone to check it out, if only so they may one day say to their grandkids, “There once was this thing called the National Endowment for the Arts…”And for anyone who is more into the whole aural side of interviews, I recommend the very strange yet wonderful “Live from Prairie Lights” series. This is a live interview show taped right here in Iowa City featuring interviews with writers like Marilynne Robinson, Max Allan Collins, Jeff Shaara, and many more. The interviewer is a rather eccentric woman who has become a local celebrity around this town. You can listen to the events live or hear clips from previous interviews via Real Player. It’s a hoot!
The Loggernaut Reading Series has a truly exceptional interview up with Daniel Alarcon author of the acclaimed collection, War by Candlelight. He touches on many topics: the Iowa Writers Workshop, Peruvian literature, falling out of love with the New York Yankees. There’s also this bit about being on book tour:I like readings. I like meeting people, and generally it works this way: folks that don’t like your book or don’t like you as a person stay at home. The folks who are likely to enjoy it are the ones who show up. So of course it’s very gratifying to have ten or fifteen or however many people buy your book and tell you they think you’re very smart, write well, smell good, etc. Still, I can’t say that I really enjoy traveling, though these days I seem to do a lot of it. When I started the tour I’d been traveling already for three months in Latin America, didn’t really have a place to live in the US, and still had books and clothes scattered in the apartments of various friends, my parents’ place in Oakland, my sister’s house, and elsewhere. I felt incredibly un-tethered to anything, which is exactly the wrong time to be spending nights in hotels, airports, and shopping malls: the trifecta of sad American non-destinations. They bring out the very bleakest in people who are prone to be depressed from time to time.The best readings were in places I’ve lived before – New York, Iowa City, the Bay Area, Birmingham – where friends showed up and brought their friends, or where peruanos showed up just to say they were proud of me and whatnot. Chicago was also excellent, lots of fun. In Boulder I started my reading with two people in the audience. I introduced myself to both of them and shook their hands. The reading was fine, I think they both enjoyed it, and actually a few more people showed up by the time the story had ended. They asked me to read another story and I did. Then afterwards some dude wanted me to sign a galley, an advance reader copy, the one that says very clearly “not for sale, uncorrected proof” on the cover. He told me with an innocent smile that he’d bought it used on Amazon. I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? I think he expected me to congratulate him on having found such a bargain. But he was so earnest and excited to meet me that he even had his two daughters pose for a picture with me. Maybe he’ll buy my next book. Or not. I don’t even know why I was mad; it’s not like I don’t buy used books.
For some reason I’ve always been wary of audio books. For one thing, they are expensive and for another the whole idea of listening to a book seems antithetical to the author’s original task of putting words to paper. Recent events, however, have alleviated this wariness. A friend of mine has suddenly gained access to free audio books, and when she offered me some titles to choose from, I couldn’t help myself. I am in a constant struggle to read as many books as possible, and, working at the book store, my list of must-read books increases at a far greater rate than I am able to manage. With my newfound acceptance of audiobooks, though, I have mbeen able to greatly increase my reading productivity. In fact, I finished listening to a terrific book on the way to work today, Positively Fifth Street by James McManus, and I must say I was sad to have it end. McManus’ book did wonders for my terrible Los Angeles commute (I know, it’s such a cliche, but LA traffic is no joke). This book has been very popular since it came out a few weeks ago, and many had been eagerly anticipating it ever since the Harper’s magazine article that was the book’s progenitor. McManus was sent to Vegas to cover the both the trial of the murderers of Ted Binion and the World Series of Poker that Binion’s father had created and that the family he left behind continued to run every year. Upon his arrival, McManus makes the fateful decision to use his advance money for the Harper’s article to enter the tournament, and, though he has never played professionaly, he makes it all the way to the final table. He paints both the trial and his no limit poker travails with vivid prose, and he really makes you root for him. The Vegas setting combined with the participatory journalist angle reminded me a lot of Fear and Loathing, and though the books are very different, Fifth Street is easily as invigorating as the original tale of a lost weekend in the desert.Books I’d love to read (but will I ever get around to it?)As I mentioned above my list of books to read is monsterous and ever-increasing. In fact, my list is so long that there are quite a few books on my shelf that I fully intend to read — that I would love to read — but are constantly being bumped farther down my list by books that I deem to be of a higher priority. Long gone are the days when I would casually finish up a book and then blithely wander around the local bookstore hoping to come across something that piqued my interest. My backed up piles now stare up at me plaintively, wondering if I will ever get around to reading them. Since, I’m not sure when I will ever get around to reading some of these, I will do what I have determined arbitrarily to be the next best thing: mention them here. A casual glance at the book shelf behind me reveals several books that are waiting out their purgatory: The Hole in the Flag is Andrei Codrescu’s account of the fall of the oppressive regime in his native country. I want to read this because I love Codrescu’s commentary on NPR and because I visited Romania almost ten years ago and have been fascinated by the country ever since. I hope to read Mr. Jefferson’s University by Garry Wills for similar reasons. Wills is a masterful historian and biographer, and I attended the college that is the subject of the book. Plus, the National Geographic Directions series of travel writing, of which this book is a part, has proven, in my experience, to be very much worth reading. Down to Earth by Ted Steinberg is about nature’s role in American history. I read about this book when it came out last fall and it reminded me of Guns, Germs, and Steel the Pulitzer Prize winner by Jared Diamond. I loved that book so figured I’d be into this one as well. I snagged an advance copy of An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson when it appeared in the book store last summer. I had just finished John Keegan’s masterful history of The Second World War, and so I couldn’t pass on a free book about the Allies liberation of North Africa. The book has since won the Pulitzer and I haven’t even cracked the spine. I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Well, there are many more to name, so I think I’ll stop there before this gets too depressing. So many books to read.Leonard Michaels RIPIn my rant about that 70’s O. Henry book yesterday, I neglected to mention the collection’s first story “Robinson Crusoe Liebowitz” by Leonard Michaels. The story centers around a man hiding in his lover’s bedroom. He is persecuted by twin tormentors: his fear of being discovered by his lover’s fiance and his burning need to urinate. It is a dark and clever story. It stuck in my mind, and when a customer mentioned today at the store that Michaels had recently passed away, I remembered poor Liebowitz and his straining bladder. I don’t know much about Michaels, though I would like to read his novel The Men’s Club if I can manage to track it down, so I’ll let his obit tell the rest of the story.
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.
Today at the bookstore I met a young writer named Julie Orringer. She talked about Dave Eggers and Heidi Julavits and 826 Valencia, an exciting bunch. She mentioned that her first book, a collection of short stories called How to Breathe Underwater, will come out this Fall. A quick look at the website of one of the big book distributors confirmed that Knopf is expecting a strong debut. After I got home I did a little Google and discovered that a few of her stories are on the web. She has won several awards and fellowships and looks to be a real rising star. My favorite of the three stories that I read today originally appeared in Ploughshares. It’s called Pilgrims. I most enjoyed the ease with which she tells a story full of the troubles of adults from the point of view of children. I also read Care from the Barcelona Review and Note to Sixth-Grade Self from the Paris Review. I enjoyed these stories as well, though I felt that Note to Sixth-Grade Self was unecessarily clever. Keep an eye out for her. She seems likely to do impressive things.
Every time the stock market crashes, someone gets famous for having predicted it. Though some will argue that there’s always somebody arguing that armageddon is right around the corner (and that even a stopped clock is right twice a day), one of the voices who predicted our current economic crisis – banker and economic historian Charles R. Morris – is getting quite a bit of praise on Wall Street and his recently released book, The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash, is selling like hotcakes.Thanks to our 24-hour news cycle, newsworthy events (9/11, Katrina, elections, the Red Sox winning the World Series, etc.) often spawn books that are rushed into print so that they can be in front of readers before the next headline has taken the spotlight. Morris’ book is unique in that it’s not a rush job, he began formulating the ideas behind it back in 2005, basing his pessimistic view on the activities of hedge funds and other Wall Street firms. As a recent NPR interview put it, “He ran a company that created the software investment banks and hedge funds use to build these new, exotic credit instruments. And he saw how they used his software, and thought, ‘This is crazy,’ he says. ‘I was sure that people weren’t keeping track of the trends so they had proper margins and collateral and so forth.'”For those interested in the topic, the NPR interview linked above is good, as is The Economist’s review, which explains just how far back the roots of the crisis go, in Morris’ estimation, “Mr Morris deftly joins the dots between the Keynesian liberalism of the 1960s, the crippling stagflation of the 1970s and the free-market experimentation of the 1980s and 1990s, before entering the world of ultra-cheap money and financial innovation gone mad.”At Foreign Policy Morris has offered up an 8-step explanation for what exactly went wrong and gives some insight into what happens next. Despite some technical terminology, this article should prove quite illuminating for those bewildered by our current economic crisis.