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.
I used part of my day off to sit around my house and listlessly attempt to get things done. I used the other, smaller, part of my day off to run some errands, and when I spotted a goodwill store in Glendale, I just had to run in and check out their book selection. I’m really glad I did.Find #1: A hardcover edition of J. F. Powers’ cult classic Wheat That Springeth Green. As you can see from the link, New York Review of Books Press has recently reissued this one, and it has been a favorite among my coworkers.Find #2: A hardcover edition of a book called Shah of Shahs by one of my all time favorite writers, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski has spent the last 50 years writing for the Polish equivalent of the Associated Press. During this time he has been on the scene for nearly every international conflict from front page news to the one paragraph comment buried in the International section. He wrote under the auspices of a state run news agency controlled by a Communist country and yet he spent nearly all of this time abroad, witnessing the wider world as few Communist citizens were able to. His writing betrays this interesting perspective in that he takes nothing for granted and never resorts to cliche to describe cultures that are utterly foreign. In this way, his journalism bears little resemblence to his Western counterparts, and instead he is just a man describing other men, exploring the universal nature of conflict, and occasionally pining for the cold winters of his homeland. Shah of Shahs is about the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah as told by Kapuscinski who was, of course, in Tehran at the time. I already own this in paperback, but I couldn’t help buying the hardcover.Find #3: The two books about Russia that I read recently made frequent mention of two interesting points. First, that for a long time the West had no idea what sort of horrors went on in Stalin’s Russia, and for a long time after many downplayed these horrors. Second, that there was a large officially sanctioned community of writers, known as the “Writers’ Union,” that spewed out official literature, hailed as a great achievement but often little more than thinly disguised propaganda. At the store today I found a book called Short Stories of Russia Today, edited by Yvonne Kapp and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1959. This corresponds with the height of Khrushchev’s “thaw,” three years after he had denouced Stalin in his “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the General Assembly, which must somehow account for how this collection came to be. There is also inherent in this book the sort of thinly disguised awe and fear that Americans felt towards Russia at the time. The dust jacket copy can be read almost as a warning that there is no endeavor that Russians can not apply their might towards. Here’s one little snippet “Like Sputnik, this collection shows that there is more going on in Russia than is revealed by the facade of Communist propaganda.” Whatever the point of this collection, it certainly is a relic of a different time.Finds #4 & 5: When I go bookfinding, I like to pick up books that I’ve never heard of. This can be tricky because most books that end up where I’m scavenging are pretty bad. Usually I solve this problem by getting short story anthologies or literary journals when I see them. There’s usually a hidden gem or two contained within. Today, I snagged O. Henry Awards Prize Stories of 1992 featuring stories by Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ann Packer among many others. I also came across an interesting-looking old hardcover (Knopf, 1969) of a book called The Coming of Rain by Richard Marius. I’d never heard of him, but after getting home and doing a little research I discovered that he’s fairly well-known Southern writer and that this book is the first of a series of four novels that, between the four of them, take place over the course of the last century in the South.
Some news stories that caught my this morning:People come into the bookstore all the time to make lists of books that they want to read. Then they head over to the library to try to find them. Every once in a while a doleful customer will remark that the book that he or she wants to read has an interminable waiting list. From these folks and from personal experience I know that it can be next to impossible to borrow a bestseller from the library. What I didn’t know is that adding your name to those waiting lists inspires libraries to buy more books. As this article describes, a waiting list of 296 people prompted the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan library system to buy 96 copies of The Da Vinci Code. So, signing up for library waiting lists is a way to give a boost to the book industry, even if you never spend a buck.Amazon’s UK site has launched an interesting venue called the Authors’ Lounge. The Authors’ Lounge features video clips of authors talking about their books. Right now they’ve got John Le Carre talking about his new book Absolute Friends as well as several other folks.
So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it’s good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn’t get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So…. where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like “he wondered what colour knickers she wore” and “I’m also very fond of this girl with a squint.” To be more precise, it wasn’t just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn’t fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent’s Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they’re just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante’s Ask the Dust. Nunez’s hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante’s Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I’d say it’s worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later….
In case you haven’t been to your local drugstore and noticed that they removed all of the useful items to make way for Christmas decorations, the holidays are here. Here at The Millions headquarters we’ve got our turkey pan ready for a Thanksgiving feast. In fact, I see a lot of good food in my future… and of course the cruel flipside to all that eating is the horror of holiday shopping. There are articles coming out everywhere saying that this year’s holiday season will be big, which must make retailers happy, but there probably won’t be any rejoicing until they have the cash in hand. From my own limited observations, people already seem to be shopping for books this year, and with no clear “hot book gift” out there folks seem to be spreading the joy around, at least so far. So here’s what I’ve spotted lately in the hands of eager book buyers:In fiction Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code continues to sell at an ever-increasing rate. This sort of thing happens every couple of years, and it is pretty interesting to watch a new super-seller burst onto the scene backed by savvy marketing and a steamroller of word of mouth. Brown has now assuredly joined the ranks of John Grisham, Tom Clancy and the rest, and true to form his once forgotten backlist (Angels & Demons, for example, originally released in 2000 to no acclaim) has now hit bestseller lists. Almost like hitting the lottery. People also continue to buy some of the more bookish titles out there. I’ve already mentioned DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little which continues to sell well on the strength of its Booker Prize win, and Train an LA noir novel by Pete Dexter (which I really dug) is doing quite well also. The big newcomer, to my eyes, is Tobias Wolff whose first novel Old School (no relation) has hit shelves. There was an excerpt of this in the New Yorker way back a few months ago which I enjoyed, and people who have read a lot of his other work (the memoir and short stories) seem excited to read this new book. What is astonishing to me, though, is how big a literary name Wolff has become without, until now, having written a novel (in a day and age when readers supposedly only care about novels). I suppose this is a testament to the quality of his PEN/Faulkner Award-winning memoir This Boy’s Life and his various short story collections (Back in the World for example).Fiction is all well and good, but when people buy books as gifts, four times out of five they buy non-fiction. The reason: you don’t have to have read the book to know what you’re getting; Madeleine Albright’s memoir is Madeleine Albright’s memoir, but who knows what sordid scenes lurk in the middle of The World According to Garp. Of course one of the current big sellers, The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970-1980, is full of sordid middle parts, but I think the folks giving and receiving that one know what they’re getting into. Meanwhile, in less sordid waters, the ranting Left continues to redouble its efforts against the ranting Right with Michael Moore’s sure-fire bestseller Dude, Where’s My Country?. Another big seller right now is a book that I can’t wait to read, Living to Tell the Tale the first volume of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ memoirs. Once I get to it, I’m sure I’ll talk about it a lot here. Artist David Hockney’s new book Hockney’s People is also selling well. It’s a collection of his portraits, both of himself and of his various friends and lovers. I’m not a huge fan of Hockney, but I like his portraits; they tend to be warm and interesting.Paperbacks, meanwhile, are not big sellers during the holidays, which is why I don’t have much to report on this front. The only serious paperback that has been selling really well of late is Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, which is probably piggy-backing the success of her recent memoir/family history Where I Was From. The other big selling paperbacks are destined for stocking stuffer status, which I’m sure is just what their authors hoped for. Try Russ Kick’s 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know for your paranoid relatives and Michael Flocker’s The Metrosexual Guide to Style for the trendy, sexually ambiguous ones.Extravagant Gift Alert: Have you seen this!?!?! How can something so silly be so expensive and…. huge (it weighs 20 lbs.!). Now if that isn’t nearly expensive or heavy enough, try this one… Still not enough? Try the “Champion’s Edition”. These heavyweights weigh in at 75lbs, by the way.