Arts and Letters Daily recently linked an article from the National Journal that takes stock of an interesting development at the New York Times. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and a good amount of internal and external strife about wavering journalistic standards, the Times has appointed an ombudsman, a position more commonly found at campus newspapers than at the world’s most important dailies. This ombudsman happens to be an author and journalist, Daniel Okrent, whom I admire for his baseball book Nine Innings and who was recently named a Pulitzer finalist for his book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. His columns bring an impressive amount of transparency to a very powerful newsroom, and I suggest everyone read them before Okrent’s fellow employees stage a coup and kick him out. The most recent column can be found here.
Confirming some rumors that have been floating around the Internet, Amazon unveiled a new design for its product pages today. This may not be of interest to many, but I am fascinated by the way Amazon evolves, adding features and slowly reinventing itself over time. Most striking about the new pages is the huge photo of the book cover that now gets prominent placement. This seems like a good thing for shoppers. When you’re buying books over the Internet, it’s hard to assess the more tangible aspects of a book, so the big photo seems like a good move. At first glance the pages are much longer as well with editorial reviews and then customer reviews stretching well down the page. The sidebar(s) are gone too, giving the pages a more spare look. I guess the idea here is that Amazon is pushing for the impulse buy… maybe trying to make readers more likely to buy the book without reading the reviews below. Here is a look at one of the new pages. Any thoughts?Update: Whoa, they’ve added other features, too. Check this out. You can see the “the 100 most frequently used words in this book,” and see other stats like number of characters (444,858 in Gilead) and words (84,830), which amounts to 5,424 words per dollar… not a bad deal, I guess.Update 2: Now all this new stuff is gone. I wonder if the new features and look will come back or if Amazon was just performing some cruel experiment on us.
I was rather astounded by this article in The Guardian today about publishers taking retailers on lavish trips to promote their latest books: to Pompeii for Robert Harris’ Pompeii, to New York for Hillary Clinton’s Living History, and to Madrid for David Beckham’s Beckham aka My Side. Before I get into how unsavory this practice is, can I first say that if such thing are going on, why was I never invited on an overseas publicity junket to promote a bestselling book? In fact, I must admit that before today I had never heard of this practice in the publishing world. In the film industry, pushover movie reviewers are routinely wined and dined in exchange for positive press, but I never noticed the general manager of my store jetting off on an all expenses paid trip to Pompeii. Of course, it’s possible that such perks are reserved for the folks who make the decisions at the big chains. A happy regional VP translates to prominent displays in 300 stores and a frontlist order of 30,000 copies. Then again, perhaps this is more of a British phenomenon than an American one. The odd thing, to me, is why bother spending all that money on a book that is already going to have prominent placement due to public interest. This is what those midlist authors are bemoaning when they say there’s not enough publicity money to go around.Back to VirginiaI was born in Albemarle County, I returned their for four years of college at the University of Virginia, and I’ll be heading back there again this summer for my wedding. But it’s more than all the history that I have there that makes it a special place for me. It’s beautiful country, peaceful, serene, and full of history. And for those who share my feelings on Albemarle County, there is now a lovely coffee table book about the place called Albemarle: A Story of Landscape and American Identity. Here are some sample pages.
Flip to the back of a new book. What do you see? Blurbs. Line after line of praise, proclamations, and predictions. Tucked in a small corner square is an author’s photo, a passport-size acknowledgment of the face behind the book. Often those faces are hidden inside a jacket flap.
Bring back the book jacket photo.
Bring back those full-page portraits that pronounced I wrote a book, damn it.
For The Reivers, William Faulkner stands in front of a bookshelf full of Modern Library titles. He wears a tie and suspenders, with The Philosophy of Nietzsche and Cities of the Plain at his back. He doesn’t look at us, but at the book open in his hands.
Framed in gold and set against black, Louise Erdrich’s photo for Tales of Burning Love feels pronounced. The novel begins: “Holy Saturday in an oil boomtown with no insurance. Toothache.” You can hear Erdrich, confident yet controlled, spin that yarn for us.
I’m a little afraid for Richard Ford on the back of Rock Springs, his collection of stories. Ford stands in the middle of a snow-lined Montana dirt road, against a backdrop of mountains. He doesn’t seem too concerned, and the pose matches the prose, after all. The first line of the title story is “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.”
A novel is an accomplishment, something to be celebrated. Paradise by Toni Morrison got a fuller photo treatment than Beloved and Song of Solomon, and the author deserves it. Morrison’s countenance tells us: here is a story. Read it.
“Even a selected display of one’s early work,” John Cheever writes in the preface to The Stories of John Cheever, “will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” Cheever, wearing an open-necked shirt and sport jacket, smiles on the back. He looks pleasantly resigned.
John Steinbeck channels Vincent Price on the back of The Winter of Our Discontent. Appropriate for the novel’s ominous epigraph: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.”
Published in 1992, Susan Minot’s shot on the back of Folly is early ’90s cool: hair up, back, and messed, with an unbuttoned denim jacket. An interesting contrast with a work of historical fiction prefaced by an endlessly appropriate quote from Blaise Pascal: “Man is so necessarily foolish that not to be a fool is merely a varied freak of folly.”
Previously: Edan Lepucki on Marion Ettlinger
In fiction, people are reading a new novel by a former sports writer, Mitch Albom. Perhaps you recall an earlier book of his: Tuesdays with Morrie, it sold millions of copies. This new book, Five People You Meet in Heaven, though fictional, covers much of the same life and death territory that his bestseller did. Also big right now is the latest incisive and sharply funny novel by Diane Johnson, L’Affaire. From what I’ve heard, her books are character driven, modern, droll, and witty. Johnson is a two-time Pulitzer finalist and a three-time National Book Award finalist, so she is the real deal. Also, a new book by newly minted Nobel Laureate, J. M. Coetzee, has been rushed to stores. Originally intended for release in November, Elizabeth Costello, was released early to take advantage of and celebrate Coetzee’s latest honor.And in non-fiction??? Plath-mania continues with the release of what is apparently one of the best books yet written about the deeply troubled poet and her husband Ted Hughes. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage by Diane Middlebrook is another in a long line of books that look at Sylvia Plath and Hughes, and from what I hear it’s quite good. Steel yourself for a tremendous resurgence in interest in Sylvia Plath, as the release of a biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow approaches. For those of you intending to keep it real, get a copy of The Bell Jar quick before they put Gwyneth’s face on it. Meanwhile, true crime aficionados and Mafia watchers are rushing to get their copies of The Brass Wall by New York Times journalist David Kocieniewski which is about an NYPD detective who infiltrated the mob, but was later betrayed by a fellow officer. Apparently this one reads as though written directly for the screen.Lots of movie talk today, which is good because it allows me to mention that Phillip Roth’s highly-regarded novel, The Human Stain, while always a strong seller, has kicked it up a notch in anticipation of what is apparently a highly-regarded film version. (As I mentioned a few weeks ago, ditto Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River). The other paperback that people are buying is a bit less serious, but it seems like a pretty terrific gag gift for David Beckham fans as well as anyone who watches Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: The Metrosexual Guide to Style: A Handbook for the Modern Man.
I have a Bloglines account. Since you’re reading this blog, you probably know what I’m talking about, but in case you don’t, I’ll explain. Bloglines takes all the blogs and websites you read everyday and bundles them together in one place, so you can check them without getting repetitive stress disorder from your web browser. Bloglines is like the newspaper of stuff I care about. There is no real estate section in my paper, no classifieds, only sports, food, the occasional political rant, and then an extensive cultural section that includes the blog you’re reading now, and more than a few others that cover film, music and celebrity gossip (the lifeblood of the modern news media).For the last couple of months, my “newspaper” has included a metro section, and that section has been dominated by the Homicide Report, written by Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy. The Homicide Report is a straightforward, factual account of every homicide in Los Angeles County. It runs five days a week. Most of the homicides only a get a line or two, a simple description of the facts, under a stark and pointed headline (“Man shot working on a car”; “Teacher Found Killed”), but more importantly, whenever possible, the identity of the victim is revealed. For most homicides, this is a few lines more recognition than they would get in the Los Angeles Times or in any newspaper, for that matter. As Leovy says, “The media often covers homicide as a statistic story, marking up-and-down jags in the rates.” In an interview with the blog LA Observed (another of my daily reads) she explains some of her motivation for starting the blog:”At the very least, seeing all the homicides arrayed in a list like this will give readers a much more real view of who is dying, and how often. And for me, it means no longer having to confront weeping mothers who say their sons’ deaths were never covered by the press.”It seems fitting that LA would lead the way with a blog about murder (Note: other cities have followed suit; just this week the Houston Chronicle launched its own homicide blog (via bloghouston.net)). After all, this is the city of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler, of Michael Connelly and Joseph Wambaugh, of Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. Crime is woven into the fabric of the city and its culture in a way that doesn’t seem to be the case in the other American cities (except maybe Baltimore). While the classic noirists and the masters of the procedural used crime in the city to tell stories of the evil that lurked within it, the Homicide Report seems determined to tell of the innocence, as well. It remains to be seen what effect the blog will have on crime rates, if any, but it already raises my awareness on a daily basis.
“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane (from Open Boat and Other Stories)This 1898 story, about the last survivors of a shipwreck as they fight for the safety of land on a soaked and cold dinghy, contains one of my favorite sentences in all of short fiction: “It was probably splendid, it was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.” That repetition of “probably” gets me every time.“Merry-Go-Sorry” by Carry Holladay (from Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Award)It’s a shame that Holladay hasn’t yet published a collection, for This tale of a town affected by the killing of three young boys, told in a fluid omniscient narration, is strange, ambitious, and beautiful. We venture into the minds of the accused killer, of the girl who writes him letters, of the cops investigating the murders, and so on and on, until a complicated world has emerged on the page.“Do Not Disturb” by A.M. Homes (from Things You Should Know)This story concerns a wimp of a husband and a bitch of a wife. She gets cancer, and she gets meaner. What now?“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link (from Magic for Beginners)In this wild story, a family moves from a cramped Manhattan apartment to a big haunted house outside the city. Objects start to feel “wrong” and must be discarded; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rabbits on the front lawn; the wife cannot stop painting the rooms; the daughter sleepwalks; the husband won’t return home from work. Just as the story begins to create a coherent universe, the narrative embraces something new and strange, and the reader must remake meaning once again. It’s a big, messy, playful collision of a story.Stay tuned for more recommended stories from The Millions later this week.
Coinciding with the start of the PEN World Voices Festival, Tuesday’s installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series in Brooklyn features three internationally acclaimed novelists. Francisco Goldman (The Ordinary Seaman), Anne Landsman (The Rowing Lesson), and Ceridwen Dovey (Blood Kin) will read from works set in Guatemala, South Africa, and an unnamed dictatorship. In honor of Mr. Goldman’s latest, a work of nonfiction, the theme for the evening is “Art, Politics, and Murder.” The event is free. (For more information, see Time Out.)[As Mr. Goldman has blurbed two of The Millions’ favorite books, it seems fitting to offer a bonus link to his fantastic 2003 essay, “In the Shadow of the Patriarch,” featuring cameos from Gabriel García Márquez and Alvaro Mutis, as well as early praise for Roberto Bolaño. ¡Buen apetito!]