In today’s Public Editor column in the New York Times, Daniel Okrent takes the opportunity to mercilessly bash the Tony Awards as well as the Times’ lavish coverage of them. The only productions eligible for Tony’s are ones that take place “on” Broadway as opposed to “Off,” despite the fact that “the various Off or Off Off Broadway houses … launched all but one winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in the last decade (the exception originated in a nonprofit theater in Florida).” Meanwhile back at the Times, Okrent claims that there will soon be better coverage of theatre: “the Times is on the brink of a long-planned, apparently expensive and unquestionably overdue renovation of its cultural report, scheduled to premiere in the fall.”
A few weeks back the Rake posted a first look at Cormac McCarthy's forthcoming No Country for Old Men that he spotted on the forums of the "Official Website of the Cormac McCarthy Society." Now from those same forums comes news that an excerpt of No Country will run in the Summer 2005 Virginia Quarterly Review.
I'm a map person. There are random maps all over the walls of my house, mostly freebies that my coworkers at the book store, knowing my interest, have passed along to me. Looking around right now I can see a "Rail Map of Europe," "World Terrorism: a Reference Map," and this odd, black and white, line drawing map of Illinois, among several others. When I live somewhere with enough room, I intend to have several atlases. Thus, I was excited to find today a book called You Are Here by Katharine Harmon. It's sort of a popular history of maps with heavy focus on amateur maps, folk art maps, and maps that are related to popular culture. She is especially interested in what maps can tell us about the way we see the world. I'm looking forward to getting this one.
It's a good time for books right now. In my year and half at the book store, I haven't quite figured out the nuances of the publishing calendar, but it seems like spring is always the best time of year for new books. I suppose the publishers anticipate that people will have plenty of time to read during the summer. There were several interesting new releases this week: Dry is Augusten Burroughs' follow up to last year's Running with Scissors a memoir about his growing up in the care of a profoundly disturbed shrink. It is hilarious until you remind yourself that it's a true story. Not sure if Dry will live up to Running with Scissors but it's certainly worth reading if you enjoyed that book. Several great books about baseball have come out this spring (including Game Time a collection of essays by one of my favorite baseball writers Roger Angell). This week's baseball book is Moneyball by Michael Lewis which strives to explain how the Oakland A's and their general manager, Billy Beane, have managed to become successful while sporting one of the lowest payrolls in the Major Leagues. This has easily been the most interesting story in baseball over the last couple of years so it's not at all surprising to see a book that focuses on it. The big novel release of the last week or so was Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood author of, most notably The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, The Blind Assassin. I have never read Atwood, but several of my trusted fellow readers are most devoted to her work.Heard on the RadioNPR often broadcasts gushing reviews of the world's blandest music. In fact, their review of the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album was unequaled in both the reviewer's unabashed worship of the band and the grinding dullness of the music that accompanied it. Which is saying a lot, since typically I don't really have a huge problem with the Chili Peppers. On the hand, NPR regularly devotes air time to some very worthy books, and last week was no exception. Morning Edition devoted a long segment to interviewing Adrian Nicole LeBlanc author of Random Family. To write this remarkable book, LeBlanc spent more than ten years spending time with a family in a decaying neighborhood in the Bronx in order to chronicle their lives. She was able to draw a masterful picture of one troubled family among many. In her interview, it was especially interesting to hear how the assignment to write a single article for Rolling Stone blossomed into a ten year odyssey in the writing of her book. I also caught a tidbit of an interview with Mary Roach the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which chronicles, in a light hearted way, the numerous ways in which society has been advanced by putting the dead to work. There are the obvious medical examples, but some rather strange examples, as well. Apparently, the first crash test dummies were actually dead bodies, strapped into cars and rammed into walls. Pretty bizarre. I also caught an interview with a couple of the guys (I'm not sure which ones) who put together the book Temples of Sound. This is a fun little illustrated encyclopedia of the most storied recording studios of our musical century. Fantastic pictures accompany text filled with the magic-moment-of-creation stories that all music fans love to read about. Temples of Sound, by the way, is put out by Chronicle Books, which accounts for its great look. When perusing the shelves look out for books put out by Chronicle; they are always interesting or funny and they are beautiful visually.Yes, but is it Art?The art book that caught my eye this past week is a monograph on the artist Gordon Matta-Clark who is most famous for slicing the facades off of derelict buildings. In keeping with the style that made Matta-Clark famous, Phaidon, the publisher of many popular art books, put out a book from which a section of the spine has been cut away to reveal the bare structural binding of the book. It is a wonderful tribute to an artist who died very young as well as a triumph of creative book design.What I'm Reading NowIn Nine Innings Daniel Okrent writes about a single baseball game. In the early '80s he followed the Milwaukee Brewers for well over a year in order that he would know this team more intimately then even their most rabid fan. Then he picked a single baseball game and used the knowledge he had gathered to write about it. The book is both a microscopic look at the elementary unit of America's pastime and a study of the many individuals involved with the game as a backdrop. A grand book, especially for a baseball fan.
Hubert Selby Jr., a controversial American writer, has died. He was best known for his unsparing look at Brooklyn's seamy underbelly, Last Exit to Brooklyn, a landmark book that was widely praised but also spawned obscenity trials. His career reached another apogee when his novel Requiem for a Dream, a chilling portrait of addiction, was turned into a movie by director Darren Aronofsky. Here's the obit from the Times.Also, check out the web only interview with Edward P. Jones at the New Yorker. He talks about Washington, DC, his life, and his upcoming collection of stories. An excerpt: "One of the things that I found out when I did go to college is that people had a very narrow idea of Washington. They thought it was basically the government and the Supreme Court and all of that, and they didn't know that there were people who had lived there for generations and generations and had really almost nothing to do with the government. That was certainly my mother's case. She came from the South and was a dishwasher in a French restaurant that just happened to be about a block or so from the White House. Around that time in college, I also came upon James Joyce's "Dubliners," and I admired what he had done for the people in Dublin--just everyday, good people. I took a creative-writing course, and I began to think, well, maybe one day I would like to do the same thing for the people of Washington that Joyce had done for the people in Dublin."
Over the past few years, I've read a good amount of twentieth century Russian history, and I've come to wonder, with dismay, why the Soviet regime - especially during Stalin's reign - is not acknowledged as one of the great horrors in human history. One does not see memorials and museums to this tragedy in cities around the world, nor even in Russia. This view was reinforced in me by books like Anne Applebaum's Gulag and Martin Amis' Koba the Dread. Now Millions reader Brian has read another book about Stalin's reign and sent in his thoughts:I just read Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore-- One of the most intense and fascinating books I've ever read in my life. Wow. Focuses mostly on Stalin's life after Lenin's death and the lives of the Russian magnates that surrounded him. At about pg. 200 the Great Terror kicks in, leading into negotiations and subsequent war with Germany and... it is indescribable. Truly. We all know about Stalin, but I never really understood...- There is one scene in this book, the Russians had 17,000 Poles imprisoned. Stalin ordered 7,000 of them killed. Blohkin was the man to do it. At various times during the Terror he was denounced by Yezhov or Beria, but Stalin wouldn't let him be killed as nobody could murder with such speed or efficiency. Moreover, like Stalin, it didn't jangle Blohkin's nerves; he didn't turn to excessive drink, decadent sex, or lose him mind. (Although his mother, years later, recalled that he would come home, throw himself at her feet, and sob uncontrollably) - so, on the abovementioned night, Blohkin put on his rubber butcher's apron, a cap, and took a German pistol (blame it on the Nazis if the crime was discovered) and personally shot 250 poles. He did this - 250 murders a night - for 28 nights. It is the single largest (known) mass murder by one individual in history.- Montefiore provides day by day descriptions of life in the Kremlin, the intrigues amongst Stalin's 'court', the denunciations, confessions, and sexual liaisons amongst the men and women at the 'top' (one of Stalin's favorite things, which he did over and over, was to order the murder of a top official's wife and then force the official to hang around (and, possibly take orders from) her murderer); the meetings between Molotov and Hitler, Stalin and Ribbentrop, FDR, Churchill, etc. - he gives actual confessions, testimonies, and descriptions of Stalin's right hand men being beaten so hard that their eyeballs pop out of their heads (for some reason this is mentioned frequently -- what must be done to a man or woman's head to have an eyeball pushed, not picked, out?) by their former best friends, and, at times, their sons or brothers. Seriously.The paperback came out last week. A must read.
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1. A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on? 2. My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail. I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book. Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor. 3. I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler? These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus. Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces. But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best? 4. Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description. Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel. 5. It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom? The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery. In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on. (Image: fading contrail from dnorman's photostream)
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The depth of Ignatius' wisdom gave me an urge to read history, and I started with Napoleon: A Political Life, by Steven Englund. Englund is a notable scholar and the book was released to wide acclaim. Napoleon is a personal, political and military approach to one of the most influential leaders of history. I picked the book especially because I did not know much about Napoleon and sought enlightenment, which I got thanks to the book's thorough historical content, the presentation of Napoleon's personal background, and a very scholarly - yet novelistic - narrative. It is for certain that Englund is extremely passionate regarding Napoleonic studies and the controversies that surround it. His determination to relate to the reader both the specifics of Napoleon himself (character quirks, political ideas, practical implementations, the myth) and the historical evolution of the time (the French Revolution, Continental power struggles, trade issues) without any high opinions leads the reader to ask questions and wonder about different interpretations of the Napoleons life and actions.I was so moved by the joy of reading on historical matters that I picked up on Ryszard Kapuscinski - a foreign correspondent for the Polish press during the communist era who was recommended to me by the very C. Max Magee of The Millions and Cem Ozturk, great friend and emissary to Japan. I started with The Shadow of the Sun and realized once again how ignorant I was with regards to Africa. Since reading The Shadow of the Sun I feel ashamed to refer generally to Africa, as if it were one country, and it's inhabitants as strictly African. Kapuscinski's accounts are a mix of personal adventures that make James Bond stunts lame, coup d'etats surrounding the liberation of African colonies, and detailed descriptions of various cultures and peoples of Africa. Of course, immediately after finishing The Shadow of the Sun I picked up Imperium, Kapuscinski's account of his visits to the USSR. Kapuscinki's visit to the world behind the iron curtain, the different cultures that the USSR housed and worked diligently to eradicate and replace with communism, and the succinct description of the big brother situation is full of wonders. Imperium is a great read that is thrilling and unnerving at the same time. I still long to read The Soccer War, Kapuscinki's accounts of the revolutions he witnessed in Latin America but rein myself not to finish all his works in one breath.See also: Part 1
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