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.)
Genevieve Tucker, the blogger behind Reeling and Writhing (formerly known as You Cried for Night) has penned an article for The Australian about book blogs that covers briefly the medium's numerous squabbles and scuffles (have there really been that many? I blame Ed) in what amounts to a history of the nascent "litblogosphere." A handy sidebar of prominent litblogs is included, though, sadly, The Millions has been left off. (Perhaps that will serve as fodder yet another litblog battle? Nah, I'm used to it.)
After bringing us rankings and tags and reviews and recommendations and lists and blogs and discussions, Amazon, which never met a feature it didn't want to add to its product pages, has now added wikis. They live way down close to the bottom of the page. There aren't many of them yet, and it's hard to see a reason why they would really take off at this point, but who knows. To give an example here's the text that currently resides in the wiki for James Frey's infamous A Million Little Pieces: Author James Frey was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969. He was educated at Denison University and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2000, he spent a year writing A Million Little Pieces, which was published in 2003 by Doubleday Books, a division of Random House, Inc. He is married and has one child. In early 2006 he admitted that much of the content in A Million Little Pieces, which is presented as a memoir, had been fabricated.That's it. Not very exciting, is it. But perhaps there are more exciting wikis floating around in Amazon-space. If you're inclined to explore, the list of most-edited wikis might be a good place to start.
It is of passing interest to me when a site like Gawker gets bookish. So they did on Saturday in a typically hard -to-peg post about Ben Kunkel's piece in this weekend's NY Times Book Review in which the "it-novelist" discussed the new Nirvana biography, Nirvana: The Biography, by Everett True. I often have no idea what is being said on Gawker. Are their writers simply sarcastic, or are they being cleverly sarcastic about their use of sarcasm?My best guess is that the gawkers generally dug the review. To the extent that this assessment is accurate, I concur. The new Nirvana book sounds a little lackluster. How many biographies of Nirvana can we as a culture absorb? I myself have read two, Michael Azerrad's Come As You Are, and Christopher Sandford's Kurt Cobain. What I have taken away from these books, and what Kunkel articulates in his review, is that Nirvana is a tough nut to crack: "What does 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' sound like when you're in your 30s, as Kurt Cobain, dead at 27, of course will never be?" It sounds to me like the epitome of artistic-commercial conflict, but I'm only 29. To wit, Nirvana, the ferocious guitar-pulverizing punk band, sounded best on an unplugged album. Not surprisingly Ben Kunkel, who cut his literary teeth chewing on twenty-something angst, sounds pretty good discussing the band.
It's always interesting, to me anyway, to see how current events drive books sales. Everybody is interested in Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath right now, but it will likely be at least a month or two before the first books on the storm are published - and those will be the rush jobs with lots of photographs and not much text. So for now, the vaccuum must be filled by other books. One of these, apparently, is Rising Tide a book from 1997, which according to the AP, has gotten a big boost in sales since the storm. The book by John M. Barry is subtitled "The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America," and I'm guessing that people are reading it in order to see how a natural disaster might cause America to change once again. Barry spoke about Rising Tide on NPR's Weekend Edition. And here's an excerpt from the book. Another book seeing increased sales - judging by its Amazon ranking - is Isaac's Storm, Erik Larsen's 1999 book about the 1900 Galveston hurricane (which may be surpassed by Katrina as the deadliest storm in American history.) Here's an excerpt from that book.
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The weather is nice, and we've got all the windows open in the apartment. We ran some errands earlier today - although the task of going to Whole Foods to buy cheese and olives deserves a term with better connotations than "errand." Now I'm flipping through a stack of catalogs from Penguin while I listen to baseball on the radio. This is why I look forward to weekends.I think I'll start with the Plume, Portfolio, Overlook, etc. catalog. These imprints do both paperback editions of books that have already come out in hardcover, and paperback originals, which are initially published as a paperback without a prior hardcover release.There's a nifty little collection coming out in August as a paperback original. The Subway Chronicles "offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives on this most public of spaces," New York's legendary subway system. Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Francine Prose and Calvin Trillin are among 27 contributors whose essays look at New York's subterranean city from every angle. The anthology's editor, Jacquelin Cangro, runs thesubwaychronicles.com.I've heard sections of Dan Savage's book The Commitment read on This American Life. Savage writes in the David Sedaris, David Rackoff, public radio funny man vein. Like those two Davids, Savage is gay and his sharp comic timing and casual mastery of the memoir style transcend any label. In The Commitment, Savage recasts the gay marriage "debate" as his own family drama, injecting some much-needed humor and personality into a controversy that is so often portrayed as faceless. The hardcover is already out and the Plume paperback comes out in October.Under the Portfolio imprint is the paperback of John Battelle's book The Search. The book tells the story of how a goofy little search engine called Google grew into a $120 billion company that enjoys global ubiquity and is seemingly able to reinvent any industry it touches (publishing for example). Aside from my general fascination with Google, I'm also interested in this book because I read and enjoy Battelle's blog. As the creator of FM Publishing and the "band manager" of Boing Boing, Battelle is someone to watch in the world of new media. The paperback edition comes out in September.Extras: Andy Riley's morbidly hilarious The Book of Bunny Suicides and The Return of the Bunny Suicides are being collected in a box set called A Box of Bunny Suicides due in September. Haven't seen the bunny suicides? Go here and click excerpt. Also, Plume is putting out great-looking new editions of Fences, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. (The snazzy new covers aren't showing up at Amazon yet, but I'm assuming they'll switch out the old ones soon.)
In the comments to the last post, Erin left a note about "depraved" Amazon reviews for Family Circus books. With a little Googling, I was quick to discover that this was something of an internet legend, dating back to the late-nineties when pranksters started leaving all sorts of silly reviews for Bil Keane's anthologies. There's even mention of them in Wikipedia (as of this writing.) Sadly it appears that most of the reviews have been expunged, but I was able to find a few that were subtly wierd enough to elude the censors:For What Does This Say?: Yeats once wrote, "None other knows what pleasures man/At table or in bed." Bil Keane, however, seems to have found in his latest 'Family Circus' opus a treasure-chest of pleasures for each and all of us. There are some who chafe at the seeming repetitive themes within Keane's major works; I would respectfully submit that all great stories are about life and death, love and loss, fear and triumph. If not Keane, then so go Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Callimachus, too, for good measure. It is not originality that spawns thought and wonderment; it is the vessels of those themes (Billy, Grandma, Barfy, PJ) that inspire and enlighten. Keane, as carrier of these vessels, reminds us of a truth so eloquently immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Some books leave us free and some books make us free." In 'What Does This Say', it is clear that the tome achieves the latter, with gusto and aplomb.For Smile! With The Family Circus: Though universally popular with critics, Smile! has never been commercially successful. It's been in and out of print -- mostly out -- so this hardcover 30th anniversary edition is an especially welcome event to discerning FC readers. Along with his day job with United Features Syndicate to produce the more commercial Family Circus strips we know and love, Keane labored on Smile! on evenings and weekends from 1966 through 1972 in a cathartic period when he confided to friends that he had to complete Smile! before the effort killed him. Smile! is Keane's FC adaptation of the legendary unreleased Beach Boys album of the same name. Keane met Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks at the Fillmore West in late 1966 and quickly the three became inseperable. The next six months were a happy, artistically productive time for the three, and it's during this time that most of the widely-bootlegged Smile! demos were recorded. Unfortunately Parks and Wilson had a falling out in February 1967, after each discovered that Keane had been sleeping with the other, and the lovers' betrayal ended the Beach Boys' Smile! sessions. Wilson spent the next year in solitude, finally giving up on Smile! without giving a public explanation. Keane, having been spurned by both Wilson and Parks, returned to the comfort of the Family Circus to lick his wounds. Some critics have derided Keane as "the Beach Boys' Yoko Ono" for his unfortunate role in the Smile! sessions. Nevertheless, Keane's book remains the only fully-realized version of the work that the three men envisioned together in late 1966. Music historians trying to guess how the bootlegged Smile! demos would have been pieced together need look no further than this book.And for Kittycat's Motor is Running: I weep for Jeffy. The language, however base and stomach cramp inducing, does the job of transporting the reader to the suburban hell that only Keane can imagine. The amount of ennui overflowing from this wasp-ish family of innocents staggers. If you cannot see their pain, you are blind. I am Jocasta, my eyes bleed for the family circus.
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