When Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude came out, there was much discussion of how the novel paralelled Lethem’s own upbringing in pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Now we’re getting the real Lethem story for those who want to compare and contrast. It arrives in the form of a book of essays, The Disappointment Artist, which comes out in two weeks. An excerpt, which depicts a young Lethem immersed in obsessions with books, movies and music while trying to come to turns with his mother’s death appeared in last week’s New Yorker (but it’s not available online). I’m beginning to wonder if this exercise in autobiography (with the New Yorker as the stage) has become a rite of initiation for American novelists who have made the big time. Most prominent among them is Jonathan Franzen, who has had a number of meandering autobiographical essays in the magazine over the last few years. I wonder what drives the phenomenon. Do people really want to know about their lives or are these novelists just good at telling a story?
I've talked about "sale books" once or twice here at The Millions, but since I just a got a great deal on some "sale books," I decided to revisit the topic. "Sale books" are also known in the book biz as remainders. These are the books you see in your local Barnes & Noble, usually near the front, piled together in bins or on shelves under signs that say things like "clearance" or "all books on this shelf $5.99 or less." It's usually a rather odd assortment of books: super cheap hardcovers that mere months (or even weeks) ago were selling for full price. If you dig around you can sometimes find some decent books, but usually the titles are a who's who of bad books, kind of like the mangled sale rack at your local department store. However, the path from frontlist to remainder bin can be a lot more circuitous than path from shop window to sale rack. And so I present the life cycle of the remaindered book. The remaindered book starts out as a regular old frontlist book, that is, one of the season's new offerings from a publisher. Let's call our new book Voyage to Hoboken, a widely anticipated coming of age story by a best-selling author. Since the book is expected to be a big seller, your local Barnes & Noble places a frontlist order of 60 copies from Turnpike Press. The book is released, and amid bad reviews and underwhelming publicity the book is a dud, an outright disappointment. After three months only nine people have bought the book at the full price of $26.95. Now, the book industry is rather odd in that, if a book doesn't sell, the retail establishment can simply return it to the publisher and get most of their money back. Sometimes, when you work at a bookstore, you begin to get the eerie feeling that rather than selling books, you're merely storing them until the publisher is willing to take them back. So, the time comes when the buyer at Barnes & Noble decides enough is enough and returns 50 copies to Turnpike Press, leaving one copy on the shelf in case some unwitting reader decides to buy it. At a Turnpike Press warehouse, thousands of copies of Voyage to Hoboken come in from all over the country. But the folks at Turnpike aren't worried, they are ready to cut their losses. They have negotiated with "remainder houses," companies that deal with these unwanted books, to get rid of our unfortunate novel in bulk, lets say $1.50 per copy. The remainder house then turns around and calls up the very same book buyer at Barnes & Nobel and sells back this once bought book at a severely reduced price, $3.00 per copy, and then Barnes & Noble tries to sell it to you, the reader, for $6.00. And, in the end, most folks can't resist the bargain. So, such is the odd journey that bargain books take before arriving in their bargain bin. What inspired me to write about this? Well, the other day I got a catalog in the mail from one of those remainder houses, Daedalus Books, and, since shopping from a catalog is a lot easier than picking through the bargain bin, I got myself four fantastic books for about sixteen bucks. Not bad, eh? Here they are: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey, Pastoralia by George Saunders, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, and The Founding Fish by John McPhee. By the way, bargain books can be found at Amazon, too.Speaking of Amazon, here is an interesting article about what those sales rankings at Amazon actually mean. It's written from the perspective of a self-publishing expert.One last thing. During my time at the bookstore, one of the hottest sellers was a collection of short stories by David Schickler called Kissing in Manhattan. Now Schickler has a novel coming out called Sweet and Vicious. It looks interesting.
Pitting a novel entitled Am I a Redundant Human Being? against Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love may initially seem like an imbalanced match. Eat, Pray, Love is more than double its length, a best-seller turned blockbuster movie, an inspirational book devoted to the pursuit of sensuality, spirituality, personal independence, and love. Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being? is a conspicuous underdog, a slight volume in translation written by the Austrian actress turned novelist Mela Hartwig who befriended Virginia Woolf in Woolf’s final years. Gilbert’s book is a travel memoir that recounts a year-long pilgrimage in search of personal enlightenment that Gilbert the writer planned to chronicle well before booking her flights, while Hartwig’s is a bildungsroman, centered on the ineffectual Aloisia Schmidt who aspires to significance as she bemoans the dullness of the existence she was born into. The titles alone reveal the divergent natures of the two books, and demand that you answer, as a reader, are you drawn to pleasance or neurotic self-doubt? The Library of Congress classifies Am I a Redundant Human Being? primarily as a book about “self-realization in women,” which is the topic of Gilbert’s book, too: the process of growing into the person you dream of becoming (or, in Schmidt’s case, of failing to do so). Gilbert’s path to self-actualization is fairly clear-cut: first stop Italy, where she learns Italian and binges on pasta and pizza merely because she wants to, next an ashram in India in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and a final stop in Bali for balance, where inevitably, it’s no secret, she falls in love. As Gilbert states towards the end of her journey: “I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself.” However inspiring or cloying or annoying you find Gilbert’s self-satisfaction by book’s end, this becoming one’s ideal is exactly what Hartwig’s Aloisia Schmidt yearns to do, so desperately in fact that she’s willing to destroy her life in this pursuit. Aloisia Schmidt is wonderfully insufferable. She recounts the sad events of her insignificant life in tireless detail. She is neither beautiful nor ugly, intelligent nor stupid, good student nor bad: the sum of her life is one large zero, or at least that’s what she would lead you, dear reader, to believe. However, Schmidt has penetrating insight into her own inadequacies and shortcomings, as well as the strength to willfully unravel her unexceptional life, as her first boyfriend, Emil K., accuses: “it’s hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself… You’re acting as if you’ve been singled out. As if it’s your destiny to feel this way.” She rejects suitors with good intentions in favor of caustic affairs, erodes the faith of others, especially lovers, with her own self-doubt, and alienates anyone who believes in her - true to Groucho Marx’s adage, she wouldn’t care to join any club that would have her as a member. Gilbert, on the other hand, identifies as being “social and bubbly and smiling all the time,” and makes friends wherever she goes. Her tone conveys personal warmth. She speaks plainly, offering intimate details and asides as if confiding in a good friend. In India, Gilbert admits her lifelong desire “to be the quiet girl,” but then counters this quickly with: “Probably precisely because I’m not.” She is the well-intentioned socialite, and never, however much she halfheartedly wishes, the despondent wallflower. However, Gilbert’s glibness and sometimes pussyfooting make one wonder about her depth. We need not forget that Gilbert is on a professional mission. Following her divorce and failed love affair, the self-proclaimed “administrator of my own rescue” had the wherewithal to pitch her book, pack her bags, and journey solo around the world for a year, under the pretense of finding herself. Gilbert is closer in nature to one of Schmidt’s prep school classmates who are better dressed, better prepared, just more advantaged in general, something that Schmidt later identifies as “two-faced arrogance that comes with money and social position - things I completely lacked, and still lack.” When she has moved on to office life, Schmidt becomes “conscious of my pathetic tendency to be impressed by anyone the least bit self-assured.” Lacking confidence distinguishes Schmidt from the women she both envies and admires, and this distinguishes her from Gilbert, too. Schmidt later befriends an actress (uncannily) named Elizabeth, who she wants so much to be that she imitates her, and this emulation becomes Schmidt’s one inspired role. After Elizabeth’s suicide, Schmidt attempts to inhabit her character, wanting “to make her fate my own, to experience it as a dream and desire.” Aloisia Schmidt is like Eve Harrington, the cunning understudy in All About Eve, though it’s not Elizabeth's fame and prominence she covets, it’s her entire existence. Where Gilbert grows into her ideal self in the end, Schmidt’s ideal self is someone else entirely. Of the two books, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is the one Aloisia Schmidt would prefer to read. Of her reading habits, Schmidt says, “I read in order to forget myself, to slip from one life into another, to identify myself with my newest heroine… When I read, I lived on credit; I literally borrowed from the author what I myself so painfully lacked - namely, fantasies. I dreamed, you could say, at the author’s expense. But wasn’t it his job to dream for me?” Gilbert speaks to fantasies, specifically the twenty-first century American variety of jet-set enlightenment by way of paradisiacal settings, and reassurance that broken hearts mend to love again. The fantasy is so persuasive that her book has singlehandedly augmented spiritual tourism in Bali. Eat, Pray, Love owes no small part of its success to the fantasy it sells to multitudes of readers who, à la Aloisia Schmidt, question the significance of their lives, who find, if not hope, then escape from their thwarted aspirations and dreams. Schmidt would prefer to lead Elizabeth Gilbert’s life, and honestly, if I had to chose between their lives, I would, too. But as a reader, I find that Schmidt’s hand in her own downfall and her relentless refusal to settle for redundancy make her a more interesting if also more complicated character. Bonus Link: Zen and the Art of Image Maintenance
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Amazon shoppers: I recently discovered a couple of nifty ways to save a little money at Amazon. First, as this article explains, if an item is marked down within 30 days of your purchase, you can use a refund request form to ask that the difference be refunded. Since prices are constantly fluctuating at Amazon, this seems like a great way to get the best price on whatever you're buying. Second, users of Amazon's search engine A9 can get an extra 1.57% off of all their purchases. It's not a huge discount, but it can add up, especially on those big ticket items. Here's how to qualify.
CSPAN's Book TV is an odd entity. It seems like it's just used to fill the time, although there are occasionally interesting guests. Though CSPAN has never struck me as particularly publicity-hungry, the nonetheless have the Book Bus, "a mobile television production studio that travels the country promoting Book TV's unique non-fiction book programming." Recently, the Book Bus came through Laurie's town, and she sent in her report:CSPAN's "Book Bus" stopped by the Athens, GA public library for a couple hours on a very wet Wednesday afternoon in February. The two twenty-something female staffers, Ann and MaryAnn, gave tours and explained their traveling broadcast facility. It has a small kitchen and bathroom in the back, but the bulk of the bus is set up with broadcast equipment and a mini-studio for taping interviews. They were just finishing interviewing a local author when we arrived (I think, but am not certain, it was Mary Padgelek talking about her book In the Hand of the Holy Spirit: The Visionary Art of J.B. Murray, a biography of a self-taught Georgia artist). We toured the bus and I asked so many questions you could say they got interviewed for a change, though most of the answers were disappointing. What follows is my best recollection of the conversation:Q: We know BookTV is dedicated to nonfiction, but why so much on politics, American history and American biographies? Why not more on world history, world figures, nature, technology, explorers, science....?A: We do some of that. We're primarily focused on what is of interest to our audience.Q: In that case, when you get to Atlanta in April, will you be interviewing Neal Boortz and Congressman John Linder, authors of The Fairtax Book which came out in 2005 and made the New York Times bestseller list?A: We hadn't planned to, but that's a good idea.Q: Atlanta seems to have trouble attracting good authors for visits. Most of them seem to stick to the Northeast and West Coast. Do you think BookTV could come to Atlanta more often and maybe raise publishers' awareness of our existence?A: We come as often as we can. We recently covered an author talk for the Center for the Book at the Decatur public library, and have covered events at the Jimmy Carter Library.Q: You visit a lot of book festivals. Some great nonfiction has also been written in graphic format yet you've never been to a comics convention. Why not go to one and interview some of the nonfiction authors/illustrators there?A: We do nonfiction.Q: But some good nonfiction has been done in graphic format -- most recently In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegleman, La Perdida by Jessica Abel, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Epileptic by David B. and Pyongyang by Guy Delisle, among others. There are even a couple annual conventions near Washington, D.C., your headquarters, that would be easy for you to get to and cover.A: It would be up to the comic book convention organizers then, to contact us about coming.(One of the staff gives out her business card as a contact point. I have no connection to these conventions but may forward the info to the organizers.)Q: Why are you staying in Atlanta for 12 days in early April?A: We're attending a cable producers' convention, but that's not open to the public. We'll basically be reporting to the industry that provides our production budget.Q: Earlier this year you stopped in Katrina-ravaged Mobile, Alabama. What was it like there? How did people with no homes or public facilities respond to a "Book Bus?"A: Another crew handled that, so we can't say, but some interviews were taped that may be broadcast.They in turn asked if I would think up something to ask political theorist Francis Fukuyama for an upcoming 3-hour interview to air on March 5th, and then filmed me asking the question. Who on earth wants to listen to a political theorist for 3-hours?!! Is that their big audience -- cable tv producers closely following political trends? Marjane Satrapi could easily fill one of those Fukuyama hours with the story of her life in Iran before and after the revolution and be a lot more interesting. (Postscript: we taped the show and saw that they aired my question, but I look awful. A friend called and said, "You look better in real life." Thanks.) They rewarded us with free BookTV t-shirts, which come squeeze-packed in the shape of a 2" x 1.5" x 6.25" bus, round wheels and all. My husband opened his and it was less interesting than the way it was packaged. My package is now displayed on a shelf at work, t-shirt still squeezed inside.The BookTV Bus folks wanted to try local food and planned to have dinner at Athens vegetarian institution The Grit. Maybe they got another interview out of it. Too bad Weaver D's only serves lunch; that's truly Deep South soul food - and Weaver's definitely worth an interview by the BookTV bus folk.
Using Amazon.com bestseller rankings as his data set, a physicist at UCLA, Didier Sornette, and his coauthors have just completed a study to investigate which phenomena lie behind the creation of best-selling books. While Sornette acknowledges that a big sales spike occurs after a book receives a prominent review or a mention on television, "the slower peaks tend to generate more sales over time." He finds that word of mouth is -- scientifically -- the best way to sell books. Or, to put it another way, it appears as though the laws of physics decree that creative marketing will win out over the more aggressive variety. Here's the abstract for the original study with all its scientific mumbo-jumbo.A Baseball Book MiracleAs Janet Maslin notes in her review of Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan couldn't have picked a better year than this one to write a fan's-eye-view book about their beloved Boston Red Sox. Maslin likes the book and I'm not surprised; passion for the subject matter often leads to inspired and entertaining writing.
There are probably two cardinal rules of blogging; that is, there are two things that a blogger must do to have a fully realized blog within the mass that is the blogosphere. One, the blogger should post relatively frequently and consistently, several times a week lets say. Second, a blogger should link to other blogs. I've been reasonably successful at the former, but inadequate at the latter. But I can assure you, this has been out of laziness and not by design. When I started this blog about 18 months ago, it didn't occur to me that there might be other blogs about books out there, but indeed there were, and new ones crop up all the time. It occurred to me recently that the readers of my blog, being book fans, might like to know about the litblogs that are out there. So here are some of my favorites. Add them to your bookmarks, read them. Enjoy their daily nourishment:Beatrice -- It's not what you think. Beatrice isn't an old woman with a beehive hairdo, it's blog run by Ron Hogan. Beatrice is probably my favorite of all the litblogs. Hogan touches on all the big stories with humor, and he often has his own insights to add. Plus, and this is a very big plus, he has an unbelievable archive of interviews he's conducted with literary luminaries over the years.The Elegant Variation -- I met Mark Sarvas once at the bookstore I worked at in Los Angeles. He was there for a sparsely attended reading, by whom I can't recall, and we got to chatting. Like first time fathers, we talked about our, at the time, brand new blogs. And while I would continue to plug away in my fashion, Sarvas quite rapidly put together one of the most widely read litblogs out there. If you want to stay on top of the lit world and the litblog world, the Elegant Variation is essential.Golden Rule Jones -- When I moved to Chicago, my goal was to have the city's second-best litblog. His listings of local readings are indispensable, and his understanding of the city's literary scene is deep. Still, Golden Rule Jones is a quieter redoubt, and Jones isn't afraid to present his readers with the occasional poetic interlude. If you live in Chicago and love books, you might as well make Golden Rule Jones your homepage.The Literary Saloon -- The Saloon is a very newsy sort of litblog with a British bent. It's great place to keep up on Booker gossip and the like. n.b. The Saloon is attached to one of the best book review sites on the web: The Complete ReviewMaud Newton -- Maud Newton is the grande dame of litbloggers. Her tremendously popular blog lays it all out on the table from her literary loves to her daily trials and tribulations. Something about Maud makes you really want to root for her. Go Maud!Rake's Progress -- A relative newcomer, Rake's Progress consists of terrific links and off the cuff literary analysis delivered with a well-developed sense of irony and humor.Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind -- Sarah Weinman is professional book reviewer who has been kind enough to share her talents with the blogosphere. Her background is in crime fiction, but she turns her journalist's eye on all aspects of the literary world. She's a real pro.GalleyCat -- An outgrowth of the publishing networking site, Media Bistro, GalleyCat is a newsy spot that will keep you up to date on all the latest stories in the publishing world and in litblog land. If you just have time to read one blog a day, GalleyCat will keep you in the loop.Bookdwarf -- Bookdwarf is a blog that's close to my heart because it has a lot in common with The Millions. Bookdwarf works at a great independent bookstore, just like I used too. And just like me she can't help but spread all that bookstore knowledge far and wide.Tingle Alley -- Tingle Alley is a blog by a writer who happens to be, as all good writers should be, an avid reader. She shares her thoughts on the latest book news, on the books she reads, and on the progress of her novel.Waterboro Library Blog -- Lots of libraries have a web presence, but none of them blog like the folks in Waterboro, Maine. In the helpful spirit of librarians everywhere, the Waterboro Blog is a great source for important book news. It's a real public service.Conversational Reading -- Scott Esposito's blog is a real readers' blog. He eschews the gossipy book news and sticks to discussing reading, posting long, insightful pieces about his reading experience. Esposito also reviews books for various publications.Casa Malaprop -- Don Lindgren is a rare book dealer who has an eye for interesting links, (and, presumably, rare books).languagehat.com -- I've mentioned languagehat on this blog before. Its not really a litblog per se, but languagehat is so chock full of interesting linguistic information that it really shouldn't be missed. After reading languagehat, you will be tempted to become an amateur linguist yourself.Old Hag -- Jimmy at Old Hag is a funny guy. He finds the humor in the book world, in trying to be a writer, in blogging about all this stuff. He'll make you laugh. (Lizzie's funny, too.)So that's it for now. I've probably forgotten to mention many worthy litblogs and misrepresented some of the ones I did mention. The point is, there's lots of great blogs about books out there, and if you only read mine you're missing out. So check these guys out; you won't be disappointed.