In a post last December, I briefly explained why books first come out in hardcover and then, nine to eighteen months later, they come out in cheaper paperback versions. This has become a standard in the book industry, and as a result, some readers, myself included, are leery of books that come out in paperback first without ever being released in a hardcover edition. “What is wrong with this book,” I think to myself, “that the publisher didn’t want to release it as a hardcover?” At the same time, many readers, including myself, are frustrated that the book industry is so rigid like this, and that it is so expensive to purchase a brand new book. Laura Miller in the Times Sunday Book Review goes over many reasons why the current setup is counter-intuitive, including this one: “riskier books rely heavily on reviews and other media coverage to attract readers, but the reviews appear when the books are new. By the time the books show up as affordable paperbacks, the spotlight has moved on.” Miller wonders if the industry’s rigid selling strategy might be thawing, and she points to David Mitchell’s popular new book Cloud Atlas, recently released as a paperback original, as a sign. Read the column here.
Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing has delivered her acceptance speech. In it, she discusses her native Zimbabwe, where there is still a thirst for books even amid oppression, inflation, and deprivation. “Having taken a box of books out to a village – and remember there is a terrible shortage of petrol – I can tell you that the box was greeted with tears.” Her speech doesn’t offer specific ways to help, but look at another recent post here for other ways to give back with books.Those in a charitable and literary mindset may also be interested in an auction being held by the Paris Review to benefit the venerable magazine. Contained within, a number of intellectual big ticket items, including lunch with editor Philip Gourevitch. $450 gets you the top bid for that lot. The auction ends on December 13th.
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.
The American press’ characterization of the late Roberto Bolaño as a one-time heroin addict is “stupid,” according to people close the the celebrated Chilean writer. The novelist Enrique Vila-Matas, in a recent El País column, joined European bloggers in suggesting that The New York Times Book Review’s allusion – “Bolaño was a heroin addict in his youth” – was “a biographical error.” Now, apparently, Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, has written a letter to the Times clarifying the point.The letter, which we’re told will be published soon, will likely reiterate López’ comments after a recent festchrift for Bolaño’s work. At that celebration, the audience was treated to a dramatic reading of the story “La Playa” (“The Beach”), in which the narrator recalls his struggles to kick heroin. Afterward, concerned that there might be some confusion, López reiterated to performer Subal Quinina that “La Playa” was fiction.As we reported last week, “La Playa,” published as a newspaper column several years ago, was the source for Natasha Wimmer’s characterization of Bolaño as a recovering addict in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Savage Detectives. It was also the only specified source for Daniel Zalewski’s earlier mention of a heroin habit in The New Yorker. (Whence, presumably, it made its way onto the Bolaño Wikipedia page). Since then, heroin has become a ubiquitous detail in the American media blitz for 2666, and though the NYTBR may be the most recent example, references can be found in sources from The Buffalo News to Time to The Texas Observer…and The Millions.As we suggested last week, the myth of Bolaño as junkie neither honors nor dishonors the work; the two long novels, over time, will prove unassailable. However, if the heroin story is false, we owe it to the man to correct the record. And perhaps in the future we should all be more careful readers.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut— and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
Strolling around the bookstore the other day, a book with a startling cover and a wacky title caught my eye. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a humorous travelogue about one of South America’s more obscure countries, Paraguay. Pig is the first book by John Gimlett who has written articles for a number of travel magazines over the years. This excerpt is definitely worth a peek.