My travels to the East coast last weekend swept away any doubt about the importance of the current wave of bestselling books about the Bush administration. In airport lounges, on planes, and in the New York City subways people everywhere are getting their news, not from the Times or from the weekly newsmagazines, but from a handful of books by people who enjoyed unfettered access to the current administration. I especially noticed an abundance of copies of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack as well as a handful of copies of Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, (which, at the moment, come in at number one and number six respectively on Amazon’s Top 100). The content of these books is interesting, but so is the phenomenon behind them. According to many who have been following this trend, we are in uncharted territory. In the Times, David K. Kirkpatrick explains why all of this is unprecedented and suggests that the administration’s vigilance over the information that ends up in newspapers and magazines has caused a spillover into books. Here is the article.
Short short stories, that is. For nearly four years now, writer Bruce Holland Rogers has been offering an e-mail subscription to his short stories. For $5 a year, subscribers get 36 stories – 3 a month delivered by e-mail – that range in length from 500 to 1500 words. So far he’s got 600 subscribers from about 60 countries. Rogers describes his stories as “an unpredictable mix of literary fiction, science fiction, fairy tales, mysteries, and work that is hard to classify.” It’s a neat idea and a good example of how writers can use the Internet to go directly to their readers rather than through publishers and literary magazines.
10. Angstrom and Zuckerman Fistfight in Heaven, by John Updike, as told to Philip Roth“World-weary Lieutenant Nathan Zuckerman’s got one day left until retirement. But when the district commander pairs him with hot-headed rookie Rabbit Angstrom, s–t gets bananas..”9. Moms are Not Nice, by Christopher Hitchens“The next in this droll Englishman’s series of fearless attempts to speak truth to power. To be followed in 2009 by Your Furniture is Ugly.”8. War & Peace Redux: The Official Restored Director’s Cut (with Deleted Scenes and Commentary)“Finally, experience this great novel as the author intended it! 3,000 pages of previously unreleased material flesh out Prince Andrew’s sordid backstory, and introduce us to one of Tolstoy’s greatest creations, ‘Crazy Uncle Louie.'”7. Cookin’ with the Franz, by Jonathan Franzen“Learn how to cook, the Jonathan Franzen way!”6. Tammy O’Shanter and the Curse of the Missing Cowpoke, by Michael Chabon“Once again, the award-winning novelist puts his unique stamp on our favorite fictional genres: in this case, Horror, Western, and Leprechaun.”5. Bigger Than You and You are Not Me or Him and Her, by Miranda July“Envelope-pushing first novel.”4. How We Became You and What It May Mean, Someday, Someday, Never by Dave Eggers“Envelope-pushing story collection.”3. Ten Days Later in the Hills, by Jane Smiley“A group of chatty and libidinous zombies retreat to the Hollywood Hills for a week of stimulating politico-philosophical dialogue and sexual athleticism. That’s right: zombies.”2. A Perfectly Fine Generation, by Tom Brokaw“Just in time for Father’s Day, Brokaw brings Baby Boomers a much-needed reminder that, hey, they’re just fine.”1. Finite Jest, by David Foster Wallace“The expurgated version (180 pp).”[*Editor’s Note: Not Actual Books]
I don’t know why I bother to cover the One Book, One Chicago program. I haven’t seen any evidence that the locals actually read the books that are selected two times a year. As far as I can tell, on the day of the announcement, the local paper writes it up, and then nobody talks about One Book, One Chicago until six months later when they pick a new book. (I am impressed that Mayor Daley presides at all of these unveilings; it seems like a duty he would have handed off to an underling by now.) I think maybe I’m interested in it because I’m curious to see what a government bureaucracy is able to come up with in such a circumstance. Rarely do we get a recommendation from our government so simple as “read this book,” and rarely is the government called upon to advise people on a subject so ephemeral as literature. Given all of this, I think they do reasonably well with their selections – some uninspired, others quite good. And while it would be great to see people spontaneously talking about the latest pick in the trains and on the sidewalks of Chicago, it would be quite odd if that actually happened.All of this brings me to todays pick, as always, unveiled by Mayor Daley: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great selection if you ask me.
And now it is time to go. After more than three and a half years in LA, a city I knew nothing about, hated, grew to love, and still kind of hate, Ms. Millions and I are hitting the road. First there will be a wedding and then a new start in Chicago where I will attempt to be a student again. I fear that the culture shock I experienced upon arriving in Los Angeles will pale in comparison to the culture shock of leaving LA now that I have grown so accustomed to its inherent weirdness. Still, I managed to carve a niche for myself here and perhaps I can do that again somewhere new. Funny that I didn’t figure it out at the very start, but this “niche,” this sudden feeling of comfort in a bewildering place would have a lot to do with books.First, some history. I have always read a lot. Early on it was to combat my chronic insomnia, and I guess it just took. But there was a time here in Los Angeles during my first year that I would find myself without a book. This had never really happened to me before. Whereas I used to have a stack of books next to my bed ready for devouring, I had now resorted to fishing out old Entertainment Weeklies from under the coffee table. I was distracted, profoundly so. I was in a new place trying to be good at jobs I didn’t care about, lacking ambition, and devoted to those twin goddesses of self-diversion, television and video games. But then things happened, too numerous and predictable to mention here, and I found myself unemployed again and ready to try something new. So I said the hell with it and walked into a little bookstore on the Sunset Strip. Moments after I got the job I remembered (how had I forgotten?) how much I love books. And soon my hunger for words became insatiable, like that of a beggar who suddenly has daily access to feast worthy of a king. Soon I felt guilty. I had to share.My friend Derek, always a step ahead, had begun blogging. I pronounced it to be silly and a huge waste of time and then promptly started my own blog. I realized after a month or so that it had to be about books and nothing else, since that’s the only thing that really moved me at the time.And plus, I had so much material: a constant torrent of new releases and a cadre of coworkers and customers with whom I discussed books eight hours a day. (This was when I discovered, by the way, that LA is an obsessively literary place, and it doesn’t care if anyone knows it, so it doesn’t bother to tell anyone.) And then there were the authors, constant visitors it seemed, nearly all of them willing to chat with the folks who hock their wares. I felt I had to share: Julie Orringer, Jocelyn Bain Hogg (a photographer), Felicia Luna Lemus, George Plimpton, Nick Hornby, Rick Atkinson, Pete Dexter, DBC Pierre and Dan Rhodes, Michele Huneven, A. Scott Berg and Jeff Bridges, Ron Chernow, and of course, one of my heroes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Unbelievable.My last day at the bookstore was yesterday and my last day in LA is tomorrow. I never thought I would live here. I never, ever thought I would love it. It has raised the bar, in my mind, that other cities will have to live up to. But I figure: if I keep seeking out the little bit of LA that no doubt resides in other places, I’ll get along just fine. Goodbye, Los Angeles.I’ll be back in a week. Read a book while I’m gone!
I have an odd schedule this fall – I’m a part time grad student and a part time professional. I’m spending time north of the city in Evanston as well as downtown and at my apartment on the North Side. This means a lot of off-peak time spent on the El, where I’ve been able to continue my quasi-sociological study of Chicago based on what I observe people reading on the El. One thing I learned today: there’s not as much reading going on during those off-peak hours. Apparently, if you’re riding around on the train at ten in the morning or three in the afternoon, you’re not likely to have your nose in a book. On the four trains and one bus (purple line, red line, and the 92) that I rode today I only spotted four books, three of which I was able to identify.Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach – It seems a bit morbid for an afternoon train ride, but I’m told that this book is a quite entertaining example of the “biography of a thing” genre.Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power by Timothy B. Tyson – This one sounds pretty interesting. It’s about a militant civil rights radical who was forced to flee the country. He ended up in pre-revolutionary Cuba where he started a radio show called Radio Free Dixie.Bloodlines by Dinah McCall – mass-market paperbacks are to bookspotting as pigeons are to bird watching.Previously: May, July, August
I’m going to pretend to be a music blog for a second — The new Walkmen album, Bows & Arrows, is coming out on February 3rd. They played some of their new songs at the last show I went to, and I have been looking forward to this cd for a while now. Here’s the tracklist:Track List:What’s In It For MeLittle House of SavagesMy Old ManNo Christmas While I’m TalkingThe Rat138th St.The North PoleHang On, SiobhanNew Year’s EveThinking of a Dream I HadBows & Arrows
They passed through the city the day following. He kept the pistol to hand and held the boy close to his side. The city was blackened, burned to completion. No sign of life. Not a hobo nor trollop, tourist nor knishvendor. Cars swimbled with ash, heavy with parkingtickets. Never to be paid nor contested, no weary fist shaken at the judge’s vacant robes. A corpse in a doorway dried to fruitleather, yellowed newspaper still in hand. Reds lose, five to two. Springtime gardening tips. Ten cents off salsa. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. Not like the things you put into your mouth. Those fall from your bottom.
But you forget some things, don’t you, Papa?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget. Sometimes you remember what you want to remember, but you have to write it down. He knelt, held the boy’s frail shoulders. I cannot stress that enough.
The boy looked down the avenue, pointed towards a bench. Another corpse. Its head had been long ago removed, feet sawn clean at the ankles. Left arm gone, right gnawed to the elbow. A desperate feast.
Will I remember that? the boy said.
The man regarded the ruined figure as they passed, tousled the boy’s hair. Yes. That’s exactly what I meant.
They bore on in the days and weeks to follow, working deeper into the scrub and barren southlands. Solitary and grim through the raw hill country, a fiddler’s cribbled nosegay. In the ruined and empty shoppingcenters, Perkins gave way to Shoneys, PathMarks to Krogers. They passed flimsy aluminum houses, wracked and sagging trailerparks. Rusted truckparts in the sideyards, a longdead satellite dish. Faded beercans, flypaper porches. Remains of a deer. What was it like here before, Papa? the boy said. Was it much different? The man thought for a moment, passed a roadsign riddled with bulletholes. No, he said. Not so different at all.
The blackness he woke to on those nights was blind and impenetrable, a ditchdigger’s bunglet. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees, his softly running pee. He stood tottering in the chill and bleakened air, arms outstretched, eyes closed as his mind calculated its browngreen trigonometry. How to know what lay in the truncheoned dying inkwell? Beelzebub’s snowsuit. To whisper in supplication. A fearsome slant, a sleekening wampum. He counted his steps as he trod the pitchdark wood, the nameless outer. Who was its grumble? Something unfound in the night, beagled and harpy. To which he owed a debt, a skimbled arcane gratitude. Rockhard Easter Peeps, a turnip’s mad prerogative. As the great pendulum in its orbit sweeping through its movements of which you may decline an invitation or respect its velvet welcoming. Half the time he didnt know what he was talking about.
In an old slumpboard smokehouse they found a ham, hidden away in a high and dusty corner. With his knife, he cut into the rockhard porkskin, finding the meat pink and salty. Rich and good. They fried it that night over their fire, the thick slices simmered with a tin of beans. From the few things that remained in their satchel, he made a spinach sidesalad with dried cranberries and bluecheese, candied ginger almonds. Balsamic vinaigrette. Skewers of Portobello mushroom and Vidalia onion, rockshrimp and red pepper. A side of rice pilaf. Crème Brulee for dessert, the boy’s favorite. He stared into the embers as they ate the simple meal. It wasnt much, but it would have to do.
In dreams he found his bride in a warm and dewy lea. Breasts flangent in the soft purple air. Legs white and long. She wore a dress of cream-colored silk, her dark hair to her shoulders. Breath even and sweet. She smiled sadly as the clothing fell from her, revealing to him God’s bounty, the longitude of rivers. When he woke, it was snowing. Icebeads hanging from the trembling branches above. He had a big ol’ boner.
He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the reaper’s call. Yet he dreamt of skipping through a marshmallow cozyland where chipmunks knitted sweaters and carebears sold cottoncandy to put their cubs through Montessori school but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. Staring towards the sightless bottomwater sky, the boy asleep at his side, he would curse himself for the lapse. He preferred the one where he had to give a presentation but had again forgotten his pants.
They plodded on in the wet and sodden cold. At the broan of a hill was a curve and a break in the trees. They walked out and surveyed the valley where the land swumbled off into the dreary gray fog. A lake down there. Dead and still. A leviathan’s idled crockpot.
What is that, Papa?
It’s a dam. It made the lake. Before they built the dam that was just a river down there.
How did they build it?
They put pieces of concrete one on top of the other.
They lowered them on wires from helicopters. I told you about helicopters, didnt I? The boy nodded. Then scubadivers guided the blocks into place. For the higher ones, they used ladders.
How did the pieces stay put?
Little nubs on top. Like Lego.
Did they need glue?
No. Large nails. Damnails.
What about the fish?
They helped too.
The boy took it all in, looked up at him. How do you know so much, Papa? About everything?
He smiled at the boy. I know what I know, he said.