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.
Interesting article in the Chicago Tribune (reg. req.) that answers the question, “How did Roddy Doyle write a novel — well, half a novel — about Chicago from 3,700 miles away?” The novel in question is Oh, Play That Thing. Here’s part of the answer:Originally, when he prepared to write the novel, Doyle considered moving to Chicago for a year with his family, but that didn’t work out. (For one thing, his three children, ages 6 to 13, didn’t want to leave their friends.) So he relied on key Chicagoans and several shelf-loads of books for insights into the city. I’m always impressed when a novelist can present a place and time as though he or she had been there.
Philip Caputo’s new book Acts of Faith is being favorably compared to The Quiet American. Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has traveled extensively in Africa, and this new novel is set in Sudan. According to PW, Caputo “presents a sharply observed, sweeping portrait, capturing the incestuous world of the aid groups, Sudan’s multiethnic mix and the decayed milieu of Kenyan society.” Though the novel has a timely, flashy, “ripped from the headlines” sound to it, Kakutani called it “devastating” before comparing it to the work of Robert Stone, V.S. Naipaul and Joan Didion. Scott noted Kakutani’s “heady praise” a couple of weeks ago. And here’s an excerpt from the book (which weighs in at 688 pages, by the way. Whoa!)Charles Chadwick wrote recently about being a first time novelist at the age of 72 (scroll down): “A first novel of 300,000 words by a 72-year-old sounds like someone trying to be funny. Acceptance by Faber and then by Harper Collins in the US – the recognition that all along one had been some good at it – took a lot of getting used to. Still does.” The book, It’s All Right Now, which also weighs in at 688 pages, oddly enough (not exactly light Summer reading, these books), was panned by Nick Greenslade in The Guardian. Greenslade suggests that its publishers were more enamored by the idea of a 72-year-old debut novelist than by the book itself. I’m curious to see what US reviewers say because the book doesn’t sound all that bad to me.As I recall, Jonathan Coe’s 2002 novel, The Rotters’ Club, was well-received by my coworkers and customers at the bookstore. A sequel, The Closed Circle, comes out soon. Here’s a positive review from The Independent and an excerpt. These are good times for Coe. His recently released biography of British writer B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant has been shortlisted for the $56,000 Samuel Johnson Prize.
November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a group project which encourages participants “to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30” – (they couldn’t have picked a month with 31 days?). The quality of work produced by such speedwriting is questionable at best, I’d guess, but people seem to have fun doing it, just like some people seem to have fun climbing Mount Everest or participating in eating contests. The NaNoWriMo community also employs a lot of slap on the back, “you can do it!” type of encouragement, and the Web site lets you track your progress along with the other writers participating. I can think of many, many better ways to spend one’s time (and there are probably many, many better ways to write a novel), but NaNoWriMo is harmless, if a bit irritating if you stray too close to the frenzied participants.Perhaps there have always been NaNoWriMo haters (it started in 1999), but I don’t recall having seen NaNoWriMo haters before this year (although that may have more to do with my studied averting of the eyes from the NaNoWriMo frenzy). However, this year I happened upon Eric Rosenfield’s anti-NaNoWriMo post, which lays out a few reasons to hate the endeavor, calling it “nothing if not oblivious to the absurdity of its own project.” The Rake has also jumped in to explain why NaNoWriMo is like eating so many shrimp.In the end, though, hating NaNoWriMo is both too easy and pretty fruitless, like hating hippie music or “blue collar comedy.” It will always have its devotees, but the appeal of it probably doesn’t make sense to most people.Update: More NaNoWriMo
In his contribution to our Year in Reading series last year, Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland, began, “Prompted by a writing assignment, I’ve been re-reading the novels and stories of Saul Bellow for the first time in years – and I’m completely smitten all over again, only more deeply.” I was curious to know what that assignment was, but my digging at the time turned nothing up. Now, however, I have an answer. The new edition, coming in November, of Bellow’s 1997 novella The Actual will include an introduction by O’Neill.