There’s been a lot about soldiers in the news recently, both good and bad, and suddenly all us civilians are struggling to understand military culture. For the curious it might be worth taking a look at David Lipsky’s Absolutely American (I’ll be reading it sometime soon since it’s on the reading queue). The book is about the four years that Lipsky spent following a class of cadets through West Point. Lipsky is not a military guy, and his outsider’s perspective helps explain how the military fits in to our heterogeneous society. Of special interest to those who might have read the book already, here’s the transcript of a chat with Lipsky that follows up on a lot of the cadets that are in the book. Nearly all of them have been stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq.
The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani shows her extreme distaste for E. L. Doctorow’s new collection, Sweet Land Stories, as well as movies based on Doctorow’s books. (LINK) “Several of E. L. Doctorow’s novels – Ragtime, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel and Billy Bathgate – have been turned into plodding, overproduced movies. Here, in his latest collection of short fiction, “Sweet Land Stories,” he seems to be trying to turn old movie ideas into stories with equally little success at recycling,” Kakutani says. I personally enjoyed both of the stories from this collection that originally appeared in the New Yorker, “A House on the Plains” and “Jolene: A Life,” so I will probably get some more opinions on this one before I declare it a dud.A New LunchI noticed that Kevin over at LA Observed occasionally reports on publishing industry deals listed in something called “Publisher’s Lunch.” Intrigued, I used my book industry credentials to sign up for these weekly newsletters, and so now, from time to time, I will pass along to you publishing industry news that may be of interest to you. For example, Dave Eggers’ new collection of stories, entitled Visitants, will be published by McSweeney’s (of course) this fall, and J. Robert Lennon’s next book will be called Happyland and will be put out by Norton.
Last week I wrote a brief post about football books and wondered why there aren’t more of them, especially compared to baseball. In yesterday’s Baltimore Sun, reporter Childs Walker takes that same idea and runs with it much farther than I did in his comprehensive article. Walker’s impetus for writing the piece is a trio of recently released football books: John Feinstein’s first pro football book, Next Man Up, David Halberstam’s book about Bill Belichick, The Education of a Coach, and Allen Barra’s bio of Bear Bryant, The Last CoachWalker cites many compelling theories as to why baseball books dominate the sports literature landscape even though football is the more popular sport (at least in terms of TV ratings).”It’s funny how few good books get written about the passions of people who don’t read books,” Michael Lewis wrote in the New Republic. “There are vast tracts of human experience that, because of the sort of humans having the experience, go ignored by talented writers. Football is one of them.”Baseball is the older game, having risen to popularity at a time when the written and spoken word were the only ways for many fans to experience players and games. Football, by contrast, found much of its audience through television, and its early history feels cut off.Walker goes on to run through several football books that are worthy of the mantle “sports literature,” starting with the two books I mentioned last week, George Plimpton’s Paper Lion and Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer, a guard for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and Dick Schaap. Also mentioned are a pair of novels – progenitors of the Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday, it seems – North Dallas Forty by former Cowboys receiver Peter Gent and Semi-Tough by Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins. And finally several non-fiction books about football: H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book “of a Texas town’s obsession with high school football” in Friday Night Lights (also recently a movie); Mark Bowden’s study of the Philadelphia Eagles, Bringing the Heat; When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss’ bio of Vince Lombardi and Mark Kriegel’s bio, Namath. These books all sound like a great way to pass the time for those six days between Sundays.
It’s that time of year. “Best books of 2003” lists have begun to appear. So let’s dive in: the editors over at Amazon have released their Best Books of 2003: Top 50 Editors’ Picks list. According to them, the best book of the year is James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces. I know a lot of people who read this book and really enjoyed it, but I personally am not a huge fan of addiction memoirs or messed-up-childhood memoirs. I think I find them to be too internal and personal, and I’m not usual that interested in getting up close and personal with someone I’ve never met. So, does it deserve to be named best book of the year? Maybe top 25, but not number 1. Some books that I actually did read and enjoyed that appear on this list: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which my friend Patrick anointed “book of the year” months ago, comes in at #4. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is #6, and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus is #9. Publisher’s Weekly has a very interesting interview with one of Amazon’s editors, who explains how this list was created, justifies the inclusion of certain titles, and comments on how relevant this list is to the prevailing tastes of the reading public. It’s a good read.
Finishing a book is a great accomplishment, but does a writer revel in it? A rock star plays the last note and the crowd roars, a gymnast sticks a landing and thrusts her arms into the air, and an actor walks on the stage to take a bow. How about a writer?
As I embarked on the project of asking writers how it felt finish a book, I was reminded of what Kurt Vonnegut said about a reviewer who rages about a book, “He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Vonnegut speaks to the post-publication feeling of being reviewed, often hot and gooey, but also goes some way to describing the feel of publishing a book from writer’s perspective.
How did it feel to finish your book? I asked nine writers.
What I found was a group of people who seemed to have put on full armor — broadly acknowledged to be the minimum protective gear needed to get through a book length project — only to be tackled by a hot fudge sundae. They were in various states of recovery. Most had chocolate sauce still dripping from their chins.
Bream Gives Me Hiccups, actor Jesse Eisenberg’s book of stories, will be published September 8. As one who has stood under the lights, he might carry a sense of a finale into fiction. When I asked, though, he said, “I mainly write stage plays, so most of what I have written has been intended to be performed. In that way, finishing a book of short stories feels, by comparison, incomplete because there is no cathartic performance of it.”
Patrick deWitt might agree as catharsis remains elusive. His novel, Undermajordomo Minor, comes out on September 15 and he remains in a restless state, “I still find myself considering the galleys, almost daily, reviewing this or that section, thinking of little things I might tweak.” He made clear, however, that the book is actually finished, “I’m not prepared to say goodbye to it yet.”
How long will this continue for deWitt? Sonya Chung pointed out that the flaws in a published novel might be, “fundamental flaws of the self.” She went on to say, “like the self, a novel is never really finished: pencil markings abound throughout my copy of my first novel Long for This World, which has been in print and between covers since 2010.” There could be trouble.
I found small relief in Lori Lansens’s mix of emotions. The author of The Mountain Story said, “typing those final lines — doesn’t bring a sense of euphoria for me, but relief, supplanted by fear merging with pride, upended by grief.” She also acknowledged the personal connection, “I imagine I’ll feel exactly the same way when I send my son off to college.”
It could be that Nicholas Ripatrazone has already sent a kid to college in Texas or somewhere close, as he felt a release after finishing his novel Ember Days. For him, “place comes first in the genesis of a story.” As New Mexico and Texas dominated the narratives, now that the book is published it has freed him up, “to reach beyond the Southwest and allow new settings to guide my fiction.” When my kids leave the house, may I also fly free.
Hannah Gersen showed wisdom in allowing the finish of her as yet untitled novel to sneak up from behind, “I wrote the final sentence of my novel without knowing that it would be the last one.” Perhaps this is why she was able to find a quiet and peaceful place. “That was it. I was done. My mind got really clear and calm.”
I wouldn’t exactly describe Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor as clear and calm, but he was enthusiastic as he talked about the experience of writing non-fiction. He sold the book proposal first and then set out to write the story. “The world, as always, turns out to be stranger and more amazing than you imagined. And you lose yourself in a story — a true story — that has never been told before.” That sounded fantastic and couldn’t wait to hear what happened, was it a triumphant end? “Then I pressed send,” he said. “And it was over.”
I did find jubilance in Jonathan Evison who talked of his novel that will publish on September 8. “Finishing This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! felt triumphant.” But where there was a now party, there had once been pain: “The early drafts were a mess. They were stultifying in their linearity. I didn’t have my ‘aha’ moment until very late in the game. Once I re-imagined the structure, the final draft wrote itself in two weeks.”
Naomi Jackson said of finishing: “ending was also a beginning.” She described how triumph and pain came together, “I knew that finishing The Star Side of Bird Hill meant giving it over to readers, and allowing something that had been private for so long to enter the public sphere. This moment of opening myself and my book up to the world was thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.”
How does it feel to finish? The answers range from delicious to messy to many things in between. Schatzker, as a food expert, was able to precisely describe the sensation in a way that could double for the feeling of being tackled by a hot fudge sundae. “It’s relieving, it’s gratifying, it’s sad, but above all, it’s weird.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy Page.
Amazon shoppers: I recently discovered a couple of nifty ways to save a little money at Amazon. First, as this article explains, if an item is marked down within 30 days of your purchase, you can use a refund request form to ask that the difference be refunded. Since prices are constantly fluctuating at Amazon, this seems like a great way to get the best price on whatever you’re buying. Second, users of Amazon’s search engine A9 can get an extra 1.57% off of all their purchases. It’s not a huge discount, but it can add up, especially on those big ticket items. Here’s how to qualify.