This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
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
I noticed that in the past few days several people have come to this blog after searching Andrei Codrescu and hurricane. Codrescu, a Romanian poet, writer and NPR commentator, is a favorite of mine and when I realized that he makes his home in New Orleans, I became worried that he might be missing. I’m guessing that those searching for him on Google are worried, too. In an interview a little more than a year ago Codrescu, like so many others, dismissed the threat to New Orleans:Standaert: You live in New Orleans, which could be submerged in a matter of a few short hours if a ‘category five’ hurricane hits the city full bore. Does this frighten you? Sorry if I brought it to mind! I’ve heard other residents say with a devil may care wave of the hand that it would be appropriate if New Orleans was Pompeii-ed, Atlantis-ed, or otherwise Sodom and Gomorra-ed. Are these people nuts? Or does living in New Orleans breed a laissez faire attitude toward eminent apocalypse? Is it the decadent caramelized, sugar powdered, steaming apple beignets?Codrescu: So what’s living in San Francisco like? Or L.A.? Or New York? Or anywhere on the path of Comet from Hell? Be serious, Mike. This just ain’t a safe universe. People in New Orleans get great pleasure out of possible disaster just like Venetians do: they are in a hurry to make beauty because they are so close to the elemental (fury) gods. But anyone who decided to be boring because they live on a rock under the desert, is either crazy or hasn’t taken enough LSD. Or they may just be boring, which is incurable. There is nothing sicker than a bunker.I was relieved to hear that Codrescu is safe and in Baton Rouge. Yesterday he mourned on NPR. Like so many others he is both chastened by the wrath of Mother Nature and angry that his beloved city has been destroyed.
Wanting to know a bit more about me and the site? I’ve been interviewed at the literary community site LitMinds. In this interview you can find out the answers to such burning questions as why I started the blog and how it got its name. And for the truly obsessed Millions fans, they’ve even managed to score a picture of me to adorn the interview.
A debut novel called Poppy Shakespeare is getting rave reviews in England. The book, by Claire Allan, follows the narrator “N” and the eponymous Poppy at the Dorothy Fish, a mental institution, among 25 residents, one for each letter of the alphabet, “the ‘X’ chair is vacant.” Some quotes from the British press: “Allan’s story comes armed with a voyeuristic potency, because she spent 10 years inside the kind of institutions she satirises so well.” – from The Independent. “Her voice is so idiosyncratic in its rhythms and terminology… her habit of exaggeration so surreal and her use of metaphor so extravagant, as to subtly transform the reader’s perspective of the natural order of things.” – from the Telegraph. In the Times (London), a profile of Allan charts her course through mental illness to become a published author. Also, the British cover is way cooler than the American one. An excerpt is available.Set in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Kutar in 1983, Scott Anderson’s Midnight Hotel sounds like a broad satire of America’s travails in that region. Diplomat David Richards first toes the party line, but ends up abandoned in the country watching as American meddling goes awry. An excerpt is available. Scott Anderson is also a war correspondent like his brother Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer for the New Yorker, author of The Fall of Baghdad, and one of my favorite writers.Guillermo Arriaga wrote the screenplays for Amores Perros (which I loved) and 21 Grams (which I hated). The Night Buffalo is his first novel to be published in the U.S, though he originally wrote it 11 years ago. He’s also bringing it to the silver screen (as El Bufalo de la noche). In a profile, the Financial Times compares the novel to Amores Perros, saying that both are steeped in violence, but it sounds to me like 21 Grams, steeped in melodrama. From the jacket: “The Night Buffalo is set in Mexico City, revolving around the mysterious suicide of Gregorio, a charismatic but troubled young man who was betrayed by the two people he trusted most.” Still, I’ll see any movie he writes, so perhaps his novel is worth a try, too.Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey has a new book out, Theft: A Love Story. The big news about this book is the claim that it is a thinly veiled attack on his ex-wife. The Independent has ex-wife Alison Summers’ side of the story: “The phrase ‘alimony whore,’ repeated within the pages of Theft: A Love Story, has left her feeling ‘devastated’ by Carey’s version of events.” Controversy aside, the Sydney Morning Herald sidesteps the drama and says of the book, which is, indeed, about a man who has been divorced and bankrupted by his former wife, “All in all, Carey’s new show contains much that is lively, engaging and teasingly self-referential.” An excerpt is available.
For the President’s brother, you would think it would be pretty easy to get your first novel published. Especially when that novel includes a thinly fictionalized account of life with the President’s father. You’d be wrong, though. Such is the case of Obama’s half-brother, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who today announced the publication of his semi-autobiographical novel, Nairobi to Shenzhen. The book draws extensively on Ndesandjo’s life in Kenya and China–where he currently lives and works as a consultant–and prominently features an account of his relationship with the President’s father. But it wasn’t released by a major publishing house, nor did it win Ndesandjo a hefty advance. Rather, Ndesandjo published the book himself, using Aventine Press, a POD self-publishing company.
Until now, Ndesandjo has kept a remarkably low profile, avoiding both the spotlight and his brother’s coattails. His greatest contribution to the 2008 election season was a statement that he was “proud of his brother.” When approached by a New York Times columnist hungry for information about the President’s family life, Ndesandjo stayed mum, commenting that he “had a limited interest in their father” and, “Life’s hard enough without all the excess baggage.”
A lot can change in a year, and it seems that Ndesandjo has decided to cash in. The popularity of Obama’s autobiography Dreams of My Father in the lead-up to the 2008 election and the insanity of the birther movement have contributed to a public interest in the details of President Obama’s paternity. Despite his insistence that some things are best left forgotten, Ndesandjo has stated that the novel explores his parents’ relationship in detail. In a Reuters report leading up to the novel’s release, Ndesandjo described his father as abusive, a man who beat his wife and children, stating “I remember times in my house when I would hear screams and I would hear my mother’s pain.”
Ndesandjo is clearly not afraid to take advantage of any residual Obamania (though he has said 15% of the profits from the book will go to support Chinese orphans). The book launch was scheduled for the one year anniversary of Obama’s historic election (and several weeks before his inaugural trip to China this month), and the story was quickly picked up by virtually every major media source in the country. Nor did he forget to mention that he had another, autobiographical book in the works, this one dealing with his relationship with his brother. Looks like that hefty advance might be on the way after all.