As TV book clubs fall by the wayside in terms of the public’s interest, the “Today Show” club appears willing to make some more off-beat, interesting selections. The most recent pick, chosen for the club by Walter Mosley, is Graceland by the Nigerian Chris Abani. The book, about a Nigerian Elvis impersonator trying to survive in the urban desolation of Lagos, has been out nearly a year – it was well-reviewed but not a big seller – yet it will get a second life thanks to this selection. Here’s an excerpt.
We’re not shy about our praise for NYRB Classics. Their volumes are smartly edited and well designed and quite a few favorite books of The Millions contributors – The Dud Avocado, Wheat That Springeth Green, and, of course, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – were first encountered in their NYRB Classics incarnations.While I had always planned on passing NYRB Classics books down to my progeny one day, I’ve just discovered that I may get to do that sooner than I had anticipated. NYRB Classics has a line of children’s books, the NYR Children’s Collection.One of the latest to come out under the imprint is James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Marc Simont. The new book provide fodder for Sonja Bolle’s sentimental (in a good way) essay in the LA Times.The 13 Clocks is the first book I remember loving, and it is one of the few books I managed to wrest from my family’s library and preserve through all the mundane disasters of my life. Everything about it is dear to me: The texture of the cover, the cloth spine now in shreds, the gorgeous endpapers with the Duke’s shadowy castle on the hill overlooking the sunlit town.Young readers – and the older readers who are trying to get young readers to read good books – will likely find many more such discoveries among the NYR Children’s Collection.
Arts and Letters Daily recently linked an article from the National Journal that takes stock of an interesting development at the New York Times. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and a good amount of internal and external strife about wavering journalistic standards, the Times has appointed an ombudsman, a position more commonly found at campus newspapers than at the world’s most important dailies. This ombudsman happens to be an author and journalist, Daniel Okrent, whom I admire for his baseball book Nine Innings and who was recently named a Pulitzer finalist for his book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. His columns bring an impressive amount of transparency to a very powerful newsroom, and I suggest everyone read them before Okrent’s fellow employees stage a coup and kick him out. The most recent column can be found here.
This week’s New Yorker gives word of two more new new books that I am excited about. Robert Polidori is an architectural photographer by trade. If you look at his photographs, though, you will see that he is also something more. He is gifted in his ability to draw out the stunning colors that lay dormant within his subjects as an astronomer might reveal fantastical nebulae somehow hidden from the naked eye. His last book, Havana, is an exploration of the wilted beauty of a crumbling city (click here for some photos). His new book, Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl, is a study in the deadlier decay of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.I’ve often thought to myself that Knopf would do well to put out a comprehensive collection of John Updike’s short stories, and it appears as though this will come to pass this fall in the form of The Early Stories, 1953-1975. There are many who have claim to the mantle of best American Short Story writer, and Updike is incontrovertibly among them.
Digging through some old files on my computer I found a document called “50 Words” that contains a couple of tiny stories that I wrote several years ago. They were meant to be for a little collection that a friend of a friend was putting together in which all the stories would be just 50 words long. As far as I know, though, the collection never happened, so rather than have the stories waste away in the depths of my hard drive, I thought I’d share them. Here they are:”There’s a difference between a woman and a girl, Jack.” Jack looked dumbly at his knees, hands in his lap, bunching his slacks in his fists. Janet knew he didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, and though she wanted to be the good person, she knew that she had never really cared.and,Carl has a fishing rod and tackle. He has large engraved beer steins and four pairs of shoes. He has a steamer trunk lined with green velvet. Carl’s fridge is almost empty, but there is fish in the freezer downstairs. Carl keeps Diane’s pink woolen gloves in his sock drawer.Feel free to share your own creations in the comments.
A few days ago, during my weekly visit to the comic book store, I stopped at the dense graphic-novel shelves, tyrannized by choice. Before me sat row upon row of the laughably misleading (The Essential Dazzler), the highly unnecessary (ElfQuest: Volume 14), and the already-read (Essex County). After a minute of unfocused browsing, I arrived at a chunk of Punishers. Thanks to a 2009 alt-weekly story, I’d recalled that The Punisher’s Six Hours To Kill was set in Philadelphia, where I live. I picked it up and flipped on through, remembering why I hadn’t read The Punisher since I was 13: it was really kind of dumb.
Still, I’d come closer to buying the book than I reasonably should have—and the only reason for that was its setting. Eighteen years had passed since I’d given Frank Castle any thought—eighteen years in which he’d killed his way through Queens, Detroit, and Nome. Yet all it had taken to rekindle my interest was for him to hop in his van and roar down the Turnpike. Had I read Six Hours To Kill, I might’ve recognized a street, a park, or a building—and that would’ve drawn me in. Whether in comics, films, or novels, this verisimilitude is a gift—recognition that you actually exist.
In 1995, Steve Lopez debuted with Third and Indiana, named after an intersection in Philly’s crumbling Badlands. The book was mediocre—its villain was a cartoon, its heroes whimpering saints—but its street details were compelling. “An old man with a white mustache and a newsboy hat cooked ribs and chicken on the sidewalk in a barbecue fashioned from a black metal drum.” “Kensington Avenue… sat in eternal darkness and gloom under the El, and the tracks were supported by an archway of rusted iron crablegs, a symbol of the city’s industrial death.”
In Pete Dexter’s Brotherly Love, gangsters and union guys battle it out on similarly gritty streets: “Michael sees them too late, one on the sidewalk, one on the street. He takes the pistol out of his coat pocket, beginning to run, and shoots four times, blowing out the front window of a poultry store kitty-corner in the Italian Market.” I live two blocks from the Market, and when I walk through with my wife, I’ll point towards Ninth and Catherine. “In Brotherly Love, there was a shootout right over there,” I’ll say. My hope, perhaps, is that she’ll find me somehow tougher—after all, I witnessed a goddamn shooting. Instead, she’ll ask, “Wait—this was in a book? So it didn’t actually… happen?” “No, not really,” I’ll mumble. But… I could’ve sworn…
Such split thinking speaks, of course, to the vitality of narrative, to how it tricks us towards belief. But unlike camping with the Joads or mourning poor Piggy, reading about one’s hometown doesn’t transport so much as extend, enlarging our maps with each page. I’ve spent time in nearby Germantown thanks to David Goodis’ Black Friday: “He was very careful about it as he walked along Morton Street, watching the doors, the porch posts, the brick walls underneath the porch.” When Point Breeze makes the paper, I’ve been there through The Corrections: “Friable houses with bedsheet curtains. Expanses of fresh asphalt that seemed to seal the neighborhood’s fate more than promise renewal.”
Until I wrote this piece, I hadn’t seen the thread that runs through my Philly reading: I focus on areas that I’d otherwise never enter; on things I’d rather not see. Like a Baltimorean watching The Wire, I experience the nearby underbelly without having to actually experience it. This might make me an earnest investigator or an entitled cultural sightseer; probably a mixture of both. But whatever my motive, I’m not nearly as interested in the places I already know. Were there a Philadelphia novel about a Bella Vista freelancer, I’d probably have to skip it. I spend enough time with myself.
In a recent issue of Superman, The Man of Steel began a cross-country walk in West Philadelphia. As with The Punisher, his visit made the news—but this time, much of it harped on errors. For one, Superman trekked through “The South Side”—a term used in Chicago, but never Philadelphia. And at a diner, he ordered a “Philly cheese steak sandwich,” as natural-sounding as a Bulgarian weekender. Such details, while seemingly petty, are crucial to hometown readers. We might be too busy, or nervous, or lazy to go out and explore what surrounds us—but if you’re the author, by God, you’d better get it right. Because we’ll take your stories as journalism; they’ll shape our thoughts for years. We may or may not be tourists, but you are surely our guide.
(Image: west philly, from lisacee’s photostream)