In other book news, I happened to catch a reading of a very interesting book on the radio last night. Here in DC we have C-SPAN radio, and they occasionally air the audio from their “Book TV” broadcasts (Yes, radio in DC is pretty bad, and that’s why I end up listening to C-SPAN radio). The book was The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche and his account of the sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea was riveting. Also in the book: modern day pirates in Indonesia and the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to secure 95,000 miles of American coastline.
Tonight’s installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series here in Brooklyn features two Millions favorites: Paul Beatty, author of Slumberland and The White-Boy Shuffle, and Matthew Sharpe, author of Jamestown and The Sleeping Father. Books will be for sale on-site, and drink specials will be chosen by dartboard. The reading starts at 7 p.m. at Pacific Standard. Hope to see you there!Bonus link: Matthew Sharpe’s “Year in Reading” 2007
Holy Crap! Have you been into a bookstore lately; have you noticed how good books look these days? When I go to used book stores, I find that all the books released during a particular decade tend to look like one another with not much variation. But now you walk into a book store and each new book looks like a work of art. Some remarkably attractive books have come out over the last few years, and book design has come into its own as an art form that it is peculiar adventurous considering the publishing industry’s ever tightening ties to multi-national conglomerates. A lot of this is marketing. Many of the companies that own the publishing houses also have major entertainment divisions, and they tend to use the same marketing style to push both their movies and their books. Hence, book covers have gone the way of movie posters and trailers; they seek to grab the attention of the reader with an alluring display of eye candy. Every day, I see people buy books simply because of how cool the cover looks. You would be surprised at how often it happens. Which brings me to another reason why book covers have become more adventurous: people are ready for it… they need it even. People are constantly bombarded by interesting and strange visual imagery on television, in movie theaters, on billboards. If every book looked the same, people wouldn’t buy as many books, no matter how amazing the contents. It’s kind of sad, but not entirely. Though a result of the pervasive marketing that seems to have taken over our culture, the good looks of these book covers are still a good thing. Where else do graphic designers get such freedom in such a corporate setting? Where else is art combined in such an interesting way with the written word? If you want it to be, you can now treat every visit to a book store like a trip to an art gallery. Walk slowly down the aisles and admire the artwork, take the books in your hands and inspect the detail as closely as you want, then buy whatever it was you came in for. You’ve just turned an everyday act of commerce into an experience in art appreciation.Which brings me to Chip Kidd. If there is any one person who is at the forefront of forward looking book design, it is Kidd. As a book designer for Knopf, he has designed literaly hundreds of covers, and, as a result, has been heralded as the best in the business. To celebrate his work Yale University and Veronique Vienne have come together to produce a very attractive volume collecting and celebrating some of Kidd’s many covers. It is entitled, appropriately, Chip Kidd. Here are a few of Chip Kidd’s book covers:
We’re back, and I’m sifting through my emails where a couple of friends have left some interesting tidbits and recommendations:Garth writes: “Europeana, by Patrik Ourednik, is one of the weirdest, funniest, most disturbing, and most wonderful books I’ve read in the last year. It’s also, as a vacation bonus (depending on how one looks at it) a shorty: a two-hour read. I heartily recommend it to your readership. Description is difficult, but an interview with Ourednik is up on the Dalkey Archive website. These guys do amazing work finding and translating literature from around the world.”And Millions contributor Andrew Saikali pointed out that Edward P. Jones was just awarded the $150,000 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel The Known World. Add that to his $500,000 MacArthur Grant from 2004 and Jones is doing pretty well for himself. I just hope he takes some time off from all of this award collecting to write another novel!
In Russian, the term ostranyeniye means “the act of making strange.” In the early twentieth century, the idea was coined and used by Russian Formalists, authors and artists, who sought to make the familiar seem foreign — to make those who consumed their art question everyday words and forms.
Still Here, the third novel by Moscow-born Lara Vapnyar, bears very little resemblance to any of the experimental works by those Russian Formalists. But though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life.
Still Here is the story of four Russian immigrants in New York City. There’s Vadik, certain only of what he doesn’t want; Regina, a formerly famous translator who has married a wealthy American man; Vica, stuck in Staten Island with her son and husband but certain she’s “pure Manhattan”; and Sergey, Vica’s husband, a former prodigy who dreams of developing an app — “Virtual Grave” — that allows people to communicate with the dead by preserving and recycling what they said online in life. Virtual Grave is Sergey’s final chance to prove himself the brilliant man he was always expected to become. Given his difficulty holding down a job, it’s a last shot at providing for his family — and so a point of tension in his already troubled marriage with Vica. The characters’ respective stories unfold and intersect as they, as a group, try to come to terms with death in a way that enriches life.
Vapnyar is not the first to use something like Virtual Grave in art. A short story in Adam Johnson’s excellent collection Fortune Smiles centered around a very similar concept, as did an episode of the hit television show Black Mirror. What makes Vapnyar’s book unique is neither the idea of the app nor the use of four friends trying to make it in New York City (Vica is obviously the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch), but rather how these elements — a slightly forward-looking app and the perspective of four very different immigrants — are used together to “make strange” the modern world. There’s always someone having more fun on Facebook; always a better match out there on Tinder or OkCupid (in the book, the app is “Hello, Love!”); always someone wittier on Twitter. Except that, of course, there isn’t.
The book, like each of Vapnyar’s key players, is not without its faults. It’s a fresh take on an old theme, but it is nevertheless an old theme, and one that uses some old tropes—about New York City, about immigrants, about social media, etc. And there are points at which it feels more beach-read than smart satire. Of Regina, Vapnyar writes, “Being an introvert, she had trouble making friends.” It is the sort of sentence at which she herself might smirk elsewhere in the book.
Such shortcomings aside, Vapnyar ultimately offers a literary representation of the way we live now. She shows us America, the beautiful and absurd, managing to satirize it without ever losing sympathy for the people living in it, and certainly not for her four main characters. At one point, Regina, sure that today is the day she’ll start reading and writing again, puts off work to watch television; with the help of an app called “Eat’N’Watch,” which recommends the right food-show binge combination, she wastes hours and winds up disgusted with herself. In another moment, Vadik recalls the one-night-stand he had in New York City, who he left the next morning and who, he later realizes, he may have loved. The morning after, Vadik remembers that he had left his copy Hell Is Other People at the diner where he met the woman: “He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He would never be able to go back there. Vadik felt a surge of panic and regret, so bad that it made his heart ache.”
The book gives us plenty on which to reflect. Would we want an app like Virtual Grave? What would it mean to control our own online presence after we’re dead? If we aren’t exactly living in the book’s universe of constant app updates and addiction, how far removed are we? It makes strange the world we think we know. But even within that — in the bounds and bonds of satire and reflection and ostraneniye — it manages to remind us of the humanity that existed before there was an app for that. One that will remain, we can hope, once we’ve moved on.
I’m guessing that Oprah’s latest choice for her book club was timed to coincide with BEA (the big book expo) going on in New York right now. Despite recent pleas for a return to contemporary fiction, Oprah has decided to stick with the classics. The latest pick is notable in that it’s not just one book, it’s three. Vintage Books has combined three novels by William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August – into one Oprah-branded set called The Summer of Faulkner which retails for close to 30 bucks. To my mind, the selection is also notable in that these novels are probably the most challenging books that Oprah has ever recommended. I’ve said before that I don’t think that Oprah’s focus on classic books is a bad thing, but I have to wonder if this latest pick won’t provoke a backlash. Among the literary types there is already much consternation over Oprah co-opting classic novels for use on her TV show, and this latest pick, which repackages three of the greatest American novels into a “summer of” set, might be enough to stir critics into a frenzy. From the standpoint of the regular Oprah Book Club readers, Oprah may lose some fans who find Faulkner tough going and resent the 30 dollar price tag that got slapped on this pick. On the other hand, if this really does turn out to be the “Summer of Faulkner” and hundreds of thousands of Americans read his novels, I’ll be hard-pressed to say that this was a bad choice.See also: All of Oprah’s classic picks.
As many of our readers know, long-time Millions staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel City on Fire is coming this fall. It landed on our annual preview last month and has been the subject of much media interest. Right now, Hallberg and the book are being featured at the ABA’s annual Winter Institute, a sort of Davos for independent booksellers. We were able to secure a copy of City on Fire and can share the novel’s opening lines. The book’s Prologue begins:
IN NEW YORK, you can get anything delivered. Such, anyway, is the principle I’m operating on. It’s the middle of summer, the middle of life. I’m in an otherwise deserted apartment on West 16th Street, listening to the placid hum of the fridge in the next room, and though it contains only a mesozoic half-stick of butter my hosts left behind when they took off for the shore, in 40 minutes I can be eating more or less whatever I can imagine wanting. When I was a young man—younger, I should say—you could even order in drugs. Business cards stamped with a 212 number and that lonesome word, delivery, or, more usually, some bullshit about therapeutic massage. I can’t believe I ever forgot this.