Books aren’t too long, they’re too big. They don’t fit in your pocket or purse. You have to cram them into backpacks or shove them under your arm. And I’m not even talking about hardcovers (I can’t afford those); I’m talking about these big paperbacks. Sure, some of them look pretty but wouldn’t it be great to have a paperback stowed in my jacket pocket, ready for an idle moment? If you’ve ever been to a used book store, you’ve seen that they used to make books like this, small and pocket-sized. These books weren’t limited to the mysteries, romances, and mega-bestsellers that garner “mass-media” releases these days. On my bookshelves I have editions of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, for example. They aren’t the editions you’ll find by clicking the links I’ve provided, instead they fit very nearly in the palm of my hand. I’ve always been enamored by those little books, the Dells, the Bantams, the Penguins and the rest, but I’ve been thinking about these little books a lot more of late because I spend a lot of time on public transportation these days. And, frankly, it’s a pain to maneuver a big book around on a crowded bus or train. It’s no fun trying to extricate my book from my bag only to cram it back in hastily when I arrive at my destination. I can tell my fellow travelers experience the same difficulties, too. I would make a plea for publishers to bring back the pocket-sized books that I love, but I know that probably won’t happen. I’m told that publishing company consolidation in the 1980s and an ever-growing concern for the bottom line have made that impossible. But if you want to relive the glory days of the paperback, take a look at these very cool sites: The Paperback Revolution (a stunning presentation of the glory days of the paperback book) and Edward Gorey’s legendary covers for Anchor books (read the article and then click the link at the bottom to see the covers).
The other day I threw myself across the bed and began lamenting my writing career (or lack thereof). This is one of my hobbies–if not my favorite one, then at least the one at which I most excel. My husband (and fellow Millions contributor), Patrick, said, “Oh be quiet. You just want a two-book deal and Marion Ettlinger to take your author photo.”
The nerve! I might have thrown a pillow at his face, and went on with my self-loathing. You see, Patrick and I love to make fun of Ms. Ettlinger. She is probably the most famous photographer of authors, (she even has a book of them), and her images of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Joyce Carol Oates are burned in the cultural retina. Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we’d only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned. Perhaps it’s that last quality–old fashioned–that rubs me the wrong way. Looking at these photos, I get the sense that the writers (even the young ones) are long gone, lost to an era when people gazed longingly out of train windows, mailed handwritten letters, or actually read books. I can’t imagine any of these writers alive, moving their mouths, checking their email, eating dinner. Maybe that’s the point: we want our authors to be Authors, unreachable and removed from the world of the reader. But as we head towards 2010, that’s more and more implausible. Newsflash: writers live in the world.
There are a few of Ettlinger’s photos I like. The full-body shots are better than the close-ups. Take the one, for instance, of David Foster Wallace; his plaid jacket, his downward gaze, and the sky above, create a lovely, even haunting, composition. Or the one, of James Ellroy: he’s gone whole hog with the photo’s anachronistic qualities, and it’s fun. Other full body shots, however, are a disaster. Hey, Melissa Bank, did you learn that pose in yoga? If I were to title this picture, I’d call it, “The Failed Seduction.” We’ve all been there, Ladies, haven’t we?
Some of the close-ups, particularly of the women, are just weird. I hate when authors cup their own head with their hands. What, will it fall off? Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful. Most of the time, though, they look like they’re starring in a pain killer ad. Ann Patchett and Amy Hempel’s pictures are the worst examples of this, although, to be fair, this is an epidemic in many author photos, not just ones by Ettlinger.
Browsing through these pictures got me thinking about other author photos. Many bad examples abound. There’s the “I love my dog!” variety, a la Dean Koontz and J.A. Jance–somehow Ellroy doesn’t fall into this category, perhaps because the dog in his photo looks hired, just another old-timey prop. There’s also the Trench Coat Club, which is usually reserved for mystery writers, but we see it here, with Adam Haslett. And there’s the “I’m just a harmless debut author” Club, wherein the writer strikes a more casual pose, and smiles like a well-intentioned, but potentially useless, babysitter. Aimee Phan is a good example of this, but she is just one of many. Lastly, there’s the “My spouse took this picture the night before it was due” Club. I won’t even bother with an example–just imagine your least-flattering Facebook picture, and you’ll understand.
Let me be clear: I am not damning these writers, or their work–far from it. It’s simply the photos I protest. But getting one’s picture taken for a book jacket must be a daunting task. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the reading public? You want to look serious, but not too serious! You want to look attractive, but not too attractive! You want to look young, but not…you catch my drift. It can’t be easy. I remember an author-friend telling me he wanted to forgo the photo altogether. I said he couldn’t, or else people would assume he was ghastly. And that’s true. Only Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger can pull off real anonymity.
I suppose that if Marion Ettlinger ever calls me, I’ll do my hair, slap on some eyeshadow, and ready for my close-up. Perhaps Patrick is correct: it is my most embarrassing fantasy.
So, there’s this guy Chuck Klosterman. Here is the “About the Author” blurb from the dust jacket of his first book, Fargo Rock City: Chuck Klosterman is a music, film, and culture critic for Ohio’s AKRON BEACON JOURNAL. He began his career with THE FORUM in Fargo, North Dakota, where he interviewed numerous metal gods and once consumed nothing but McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets for seven straight days. Chuck still tries to dance like Axl Rose when he’s drunk.” Here is an “anecdote” pulled from said book. Now that you’ve read both of these items, I’m sure you already love Klosterman as much as I do and will be delighted to hear that he has a new book out, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. I’ve barely delved into this one, although, at work the other day I happened to flip to his chapter about the odd proliferation of “naughty housewives” on the internet.File under my second dimensionLest you think my book obsession and it’s accompanying website indicate that I am a one dimensional person, I went to Amoeba Music today and purchased two cds, which I will tell you about. The first is a selftitled ep by a band called The Vells. The Vells are a side band for a couple of guys from Modest Mouse. The ep is pretty good, too indie rockish at times, but really good when it’s not. I also got an amazing little gem. You probably didn’t know that Johnny Cash made a concept album in 1960. Well he did, and now I own it. A self-described “stirring travelogue of America in Song and Story,” the album invites you to follow Johnny across this great country of ours as he paints a rustic sort of picture, half in spoken word and half in song, of a whole buch of salty, backroad sort of places. It’s called Ride This Train, and there’s even train noises so you feel like you’re along for the ride with Mr. Cash. Amazon’s got it, if you want it.
I am a loyal subscriber to The Paris Review, which, for my money, is still the best literary journal on the market. With the most recent issue came a bookmark noting the launch of a new Paris Review online feature. It seems that founder and long-time editor George Plimpton had always wanted to make the hundreds of interviews the journal had published as part of its series “The Art of Fiction” available to anybody, anywhere, anytime. Now, thanks to the miracle of the interweb, that dream is a reality. “The DNA of Literature” is a complete catalogue of every interview The Paris Review has ever published. The series is being posted by decade every few weeks. The 1950s are up there right now, available as easily printable PDFs. The best of the excerpts shown on the page: William Saroyan on when he writes: “I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late…. The afternoon is the only time I have left…”Also, the DNA of Literature was paid for by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. I encourage anyone and everyone to check it out, if only so they may one day say to their grandkids, “There once was this thing called the National Endowment for the Arts…”And for anyone who is more into the whole aural side of interviews, I recommend the very strange yet wonderful “Live from Prairie Lights” series. This is a live interview show taped right here in Iowa City featuring interviews with writers like Marilynne Robinson, Max Allan Collins, Jeff Shaara, and many more. The interviewer is a rather eccentric woman who has become a local celebrity around this town. You can listen to the events live or hear clips from previous interviews via Real Player. It’s a hoot!
This will probably be of little interest to anyone who is not a book industry professional, but I couldn’t help myself. I happened to notice the other day a mention of the impending adoption of the 13-digit ISBN. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and it’s the 10-digit number typically found on the back of your books near the barcode. Every new edition of every book has its own ISBN, making it a unique identifier that can be used when organizing books in a computer library system. By 2007 all new books will be assigned 13-digit ISBNs. This is being done so that books conform with other products, which are all identified by a 13-digit number (usually next to the barcode.) I’m sure there are good reasons for doing this. Standardizing these numbers will probably streamline the business and make books easier to integrate with other products in stores. But I felt compelled to bring this up because I suspect the change might be detrimental to independent bookstores for two reasons. First, anything that makes it easier for books to be sold at the Walmart, Target, and the other “big box” stores is bad for independent bookstores (and chain bookstores, for that matter). Secondly, due to the expense, many independent bookstores do not have great inventory systems. Typically they have some sort of makeshift system, or they use an antiquated inventory system with poor tech support and little or no adaptability (the latter was certainly the case at the bookstore where I worked). Books are organized in these systems by ISBN, and I doubt that they are designed to handle an ISBN longer than 10 digits. While the chain stores probably have more robust systems and staff dedicated to the upkeep of their inventory programs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of independent bookstores scrambling to adapt when the 13-digit ISBN comes along. Then again, this could be another Y2K situation, which I’m blowing out of proportion. We’ll see, I suppose. If you are really intrigued by this, you can learn all about it here.In other news, the New York Times has named one-time restaurant reviewer William Grimes its new book reviewer. He joins Janet Maslin and Madame Kakutani. It will be interesting to see how this changes the overall persona of the Times’ book coverage. I should also note here that an inordinate number of people come to this website by searching for “Michiko Kakutani.” She is the object of much fascination, I think.The Publisher’s Lunch email newsletter mentions an upcoming book by one of my favorite writers, the inventor of rotisserie baseball and current New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent. “Daniel Okrent’s new book will also form the basis of a Ken Burns documentary, an illustrated biography of Einstein.”
Perhaps you’ve seen it on the news. A historic and potentially catastrophic storm, Hurricane Katrina, is about 24 hours from plowing into New Orleans. If there ever was a “big one,” this is it. Sustained winds are at 175 mph, and some experts think it may maintain this strength all the way to landfall. Despite the fact that New Orleans lies below sea level and needs levies and pumps to keep out the water, Mayor C. Ray Nagin has only just now ordered a mandatory evacuation. Many experts think it’s already too late. If you want to keep an eye on this storm here are some links. Blogs: Dr. Jeff Masters, Steve Gregory, Eye of the Storm, Brendan Loy, Fresh Bilge. Links to TV coverage on the web at Lost Remote. The National Hurricane Center. I may add more to this post as I find more links.
Most fiction is about people breaking up, right? So why not collect a bunch of fiction together and call it what it is.Two years ago Philadelphia based writer Meredith Broussard decided to do just this. She put together an anthology of stories about relationships gone wrong: 26 of them – arranged alphabetically – by various female authors. The result was The Dictionary of Failed Relationships, which includes stories by Heidi Julavits, Anna Maxted, Thisbe Nissen and Jennifer Weiner. Now Broussard is back with a follow up anthology from the men’s point of view – again, 26 stories about love troubles arranged alphabetically – called The Encyclopedia of Exes with stories by, among others, Adam Langer, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Ames, Gary Shteyngart and Neal Pollack. Tou can find out more about both books at failedrelationships.com.
To celebrate the release of Issue 5 of the Los Angeles Review, published by Red Hen Press, I will be reading tomorrow (Tuesday) night at Skylight Books, along with fellow contributors Eloise Klein Healy, Stephanie Eve Halpern, Jamey Hecht, and Timothy Green. If you’re in the L.A. area, come on by!
My great friend Emre recently experienced some misfortunes, but he has been doing a lot of reading which is keeping his spirits high. Here is what he wrote me:Another thing aside form your wedding that helped lift my spirits after the debacle was William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with his writing, but that was the first I read by him and it blew me away. So, I was back at Barnes and Noble this week to pick up his Stars and Bars which sounds very promising as well. Nevertheless, back to An Ice-Cream War. It is the story of various characters in England, the British East Africa and German East Africa, starting in the summer of 1914 when talk of an Anglo-German war seemed ridiculous and ending with the surrender of the squareheads as the Britons in the novel call them kind of peoples. The satirical approach is akin to Catch 22, a terrible comparison, I am aware, as it is hard to beat Catch-22, but nevertheless unique in its tone and weaving of characters. Yossarian’s cowardly rationalization of the stupidity of war might be unparalleled, but Boyd’s snotty British approach makes you laugh out loud at the most obscene death. It’s not because of the circumstances, but because of the silliness that surrounds all the characters and the world involved in a war about which few had an idea why it started and dragged on for so long and did not realize for a while that it had ended. Man, I can’t rant about Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War enough. In the opinion of a sweet lady that runs Biography Books, two blocks down from us, Boyd is one of the most under-rated contemporary authors. I don’t know much about the ratings, but he sure is a phenomenal story-teller, and certainly is interested in historic events and contexts, which I dig. I’m currently recommending the book to everyone as a terrific summer read that you’ll blast through in under a week.Thanks Emre! Sounds pretty good. I’ll have to check it out.