- A nice rememberance of Hunter S. Thompson by his friend Paul Theroux in The Guardian.
- William T. Vollmann’s substantial look at Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Phillip Short in the NY Times.
- Deborah Solomon sits down for a long chat with Jonathan Safran Foer which reveals this: “he received a $500,000 advance for his first novel and a $1 million advance for his second, meaning that he is probably the highest-earning literary novelist under 30.”
Last month, when I started reading War and Peace again, this time with the intention of finishing it, I decided that I would do so methodically, opening the book at least once every day, and not closing it until I’d finished a chapter (which, in that novel, is relatively short — a handful of pages at most). I would read it on the train or I would read it before sleep. I would read it while standing in the kitchen making toast. This way, I thought, the book would become a habit as much as a pastime. It would become part of my routine. I would get through it little by little, even if my pace would be that of a tortoise.
There was the danger, of course, that I was approaching the book as a chore — measuring my progress too closely, not enjoying it as much as I ought to have been, or could have been. But I was amenable to that. I mean that if this is what it took (approaching the book as a chore) in order for me to finish it, then that is what I was prepared to do. For I had decided that if I did not read the book now, at this point in my life, then I would never. And for some reason this scared me.
One day, about two weeks ago, having finished the first 150 pages (my paperback version, a Signet Classic, contains 1,455) I walked into a bar to have a beer before going home. It was a Saturday afternoon, sunny, and I had gone to the park to read. But I hadn’t got much reading done. There were people everywhere, and I’d felt distracted, restless, bored. Maybe there was a reason for this feeling and maybe there wasn’t. I wouldn’t say it was the book’s fault.
In the bar was another man, older than me by about 20 years, and he said to me, when he saw the book (for I didn’t have a backpack or satchel to hide it in), “It’s too nice a day out to be reading.” And when I casually agreed with him, not wanting to start a conversation but not wanting to avoid one, he said, in an irritable voice, not looking at me but away from me, as if he didn’t expect an answer, or desire one, “Then why are you doing so?”
It would have been easy then for me to get in an argument. I wanted to, in fact, because I was irritable myself and because I was embarrassed now about the way I must have appeared. Fortunately, however, the bartender was there, and she said to the man, before I could reply, “Listen, you, just because you’re in a bad mood doesn’t mean you have the right to take it out on others.”
The man, surprisingly, apologized. “Sorry,” he said to me, in a chastened voice.
And because I felt as though my embarrassment now had lessened, and in fact had been ridiculous, I said to him, “It’s fine, it’s fine,” or something to that effect.
The bartender got me a beer, and when she placed it on the coaster in front of me, she said, having noticed the book herself, “War and Peace. Now that sounds like a book that covers everything.”
I smiled at this, but the man said, as if he’d been waiting to say something and now had the opportunity, “It doesn’t actually. It should’ve been called War and War. Even the parts about domestic life aren’t tranquil.”
We all considered this a moment in silence.
“How far along are you?” the man said.
I thought back to the chapter I’d just read, where Prince Andrei leaves his father’s estate to join the Russian army at the front, which at that point is in Austria. “There’s about to be a battle scene,” I said.
“I like battle scenes in movies,” the bartender said.
“I like them in movies, but in books they can be better,” said the man.
A trio of girls came in, and the bartender moved away to greet them.
“I’m sorry about what I said,” the man said to me again, this time in a confiding voice. “I’m having a bad day.”
“Why?” I asked him.
“No reason,” he said. “Or you could pick any reason, and that would be it. This city used to be different. I used to have a job I liked. I used to be happier.”
“Why?” I asked again, and immediately I regretted it. Not because I didn’t want to hear him, but because I was afraid that if I did hear him then I’d have to respond to what I’d heard. And I knew that in a conversation like this, at some point my responses would seem inadequate, or blasé. Not because I intended them to, but because conversations between strangers require an energy that other conversations do not. And I knew that I lacked that energy, or that I possessed it but couldn’t maintain it for long.
But for some reason, anyway, the man didn’t reply.
He got up and went to the restroom.
And when he returned he didn’t sit down again, but continued on out through the front door of the bar, and out onto the sidewalk, where he disappeared past the windows, on his way to wherever he was going.
When the bartender returned to get me another beer, she didn’t seem surprised that the man was gone. She had a pleasant, unworried look on her face. And when I said to her, “Where did that guy go?” hoping she’d shed light on who he was (for now I was curious, if not interested), she said, “Probably home. He’s been coming in here every day for years.”
And that was that.
I mean it was the end of my conversation with the bartender, though I did stick around and finish my beer.
As I walked home it was sunny, and I thought I’d sit on the stoop of my building and read another chapter of War and Peace. But when I got there I was tired, and I went inside and up to my apartment and fell asleep on my bed.
The latest catalog to cross my desk is from the Soft Skull Press, the daring Brooklyn-based publishing house that always manages to deliver books from well outside the mainstream. Their books strike a balance between rage and art, and I like looking through their catalog because I know there will almost nothing familiar in it; I will be introduced to new writers and artists.Coming in May is Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, a historical novel about Custer’s Last Stand as told by Captain Frederick Benteen who managed to survive the massacre. Benteen’s account is told from a distance of twenty years, and the catalog calls the book “an exploration of our dawning age of celebrity (the lionization of Custer, carefully tended to by Custer himself while alive), and what it is to be a soldier (in this era of Iraq memoirs.)”Soft Skull, which often publishes books in translation, is putting out three books originally published in French this time around. One of these, a graphic novel called Siberia by Nikolai Maslov, sounds particularly intense. In the mold of Marjane Satrapi, this is a memoir, and it tells of the brutality of Maslov’s life in the Soviet Union. According to Soft Skull, it’s the first ever Russian graphic novel published in the U.S. The book is already outAlso originally published in France are SuperHip JoliPunk by Camille de Toledo and Electric Flesh by Claro. SuperHip JoliPunk is a “manifesto, examining present day counterculture from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the present. He asks what it is, exactly, his generation is protesting against.” Harry Houdini is at the center of Electric Flesh, but its protagonist is Howard Hourdinary, who claims to be the bastard grandson of the great magician.Publishers, if you’d like to send me your catalog, please email me.
While most kids were playing with G.I. Joes or Barbies, we at The Millions were more likely to have our nose in a book. Finally, there are molded plastic figurines for us too, though its not clear whether they are fully posable or offer kung-fu grip action. We’ll take what we can get. Who among us wouldn’t enjoy staging our own literary roundtables with the likes of Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Dickens? Those who prefer their literary action heroes to be more macrocephalic, might prefer the Edgar Allen Poe bobblehead (pictured here).For those with less of a literary bias, there are actually quite a few of these “historical figures” on offer, from Marie Antoinette to Harry Houdini to Carl Jung.
It’s a good time for books right now. In my year and half at the book store, I haven’t quite figured out the nuances of the publishing calendar, but it seems like spring is always the best time of year for new books. I suppose the publishers anticipate that people will have plenty of time to read during the summer. There were several interesting new releases this week: Dry is Augusten Burroughs’ follow up to last year’s Running with Scissors a memoir about his growing up in the care of a profoundly disturbed shrink. It is hilarious until you remind yourself that it’s a true story. Not sure if Dry will live up to Running with Scissors but it’s certainly worth reading if you enjoyed that book. Several great books about baseball have come out this spring (including Game Time a collection of essays by one of my favorite baseball writers Roger Angell). This week’s baseball book is Moneyball by Michael Lewis which strives to explain how the Oakland A’s and their general manager, Billy Beane, have managed to become successful while sporting one of the lowest payrolls in the Major Leagues. This has easily been the most interesting story in baseball over the last couple of years so it’s not at all surprising to see a book that focuses on it. The big novel release of the last week or so was Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood author of, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin. I have never read Atwood, but several of my trusted fellow readers are most devoted to her work.Heard on the RadioNPR often broadcasts gushing reviews of the world’s blandest music. In fact, their review of the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album was unequaled in both the reviewer’s unabashed worship of the band and the grinding dullness of the music that accompanied it. Which is saying a lot, since typically I don’t really have a huge problem with the Chili Peppers. On the hand, NPR regularly devotes air time to some very worthy books, and last week was no exception. Morning Edition devoted a long segment to interviewing Adrian Nicole LeBlanc author of Random Family. To write this remarkable book, LeBlanc spent more than ten years spending time with a family in a decaying neighborhood in the Bronx in order to chronicle their lives. She was able to draw a masterful picture of one troubled family among many. In her interview, it was especially interesting to hear how the assignment to write a single article for Rolling Stone blossomed into a ten year odyssey in the writing of her book. I also caught a tidbit of an interview with Mary Roach the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which chronicles, in a light hearted way, the numerous ways in which society has been advanced by putting the dead to work. There are the obvious medical examples, but some rather strange examples, as well. Apparently, the first crash test dummies were actually dead bodies, strapped into cars and rammed into walls. Pretty bizarre. I also caught an interview with a couple of the guys (I’m not sure which ones) who put together the book Temples of Sound. This is a fun little illustrated encyclopedia of the most storied recording studios of our musical century. Fantastic pictures accompany text filled with the magic-moment-of-creation stories that all music fans love to read about. Temples of Sound, by the way, is put out by Chronicle Books, which accounts for its great look. When perusing the shelves look out for books put out by Chronicle; they are always interesting or funny and they are beautiful visually.Yes, but is it Art?The art book that caught my eye this past week is a monograph on the artist Gordon Matta-Clark who is most famous for slicing the facades off of derelict buildings. In keeping with the style that made Matta-Clark famous, Phaidon, the publisher of many popular art books, put out a book from which a section of the spine has been cut away to reveal the bare structural binding of the book. It is a wonderful tribute to an artist who died very young as well as a triumph of creative book design.What I’m Reading NowIn Nine Innings Daniel Okrent writes about a single baseball game. In the early ’80s he followed the Milwaukee Brewers for well over a year in order that he would know this team more intimately then even their most rabid fan. Then he picked a single baseball game and used the knowledge he had gathered to write about it. The book is both a microscopic look at the elementary unit of America’s pastime and a study of the many individuals involved with the game as a backdrop. A grand book, especially for a baseball fan.
I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but I wanted to echo and add to something I wrote about last year around this time. I’ve always been an avid reader. As long as I can remember, I’ve spent a portion of my day reading, but it was keeping this blog that really helped me grow as a reader. I’ve valued the discussion, the community and having a platform to share my thoughts. I think, though, the most valuable part of this experience for me has been using the blog as a reading journal. Keeping track of what I read and writing a few sentences about most of those books has changed the way I read. Before, I never kept track of what I read, but now I feel like I’m building a library of knowledge to mull over and share. Books live on in my memory a lot longer than they used to.So, if you happen to be in the market for a resolution this New Year’s, feel free to borrow this one. It’s simple: Keep track of every book you read this year. Write down the title and author, and, if you feel like it might be a worthwhile exercise for you, jot down a few thoughts about each book. It will enrich your reading experience.