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?
If the Food Issue is the highlight of the New Yorker publishing year, then the Style Issue is certainly the nadir. Crammed full of glossy ads, the too-thick-to-not-be-a-double-issue magazine dwells endlessly on profiles of fashion industry bigshots, all of whom seem to have shared the same eccentric quasi-European upbringing. (They bring to mind Dr. Evil and his famous: “My childhood was typical – summer in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we would make meat helmets. When I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds. Pretty standard, really.”) And don’t get me started on those Patricia Marx shopping sprees. I do, however, note that Oliver Sacks has an article about amnesia in there, so perhaps it won’t be all bad.
There’s an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the under-the-radar boost in book sales due to the increasing popularity of home-schooling. According to the article, home-schoolers come in a few different flavors. “The majority of families who home-school are conservative Christians, to be sure. But another sizable portion are secular counterculturalists, and then there are the diplomats, foreign-aid workers or those living in the desert or Alaskan wilderness–anyone far from a school.” But what’s more interesting is what these students have in common as readers: a preference for long books, often parts of a series, consumed with a leisure that public-school curricula don’t allow; an emphasis on narratives, which children like, divorced from contemporary politics, which surely can wait; and a powerful sense that children are major players in the world, the kind of people, perhaps, who deserve better than large classrooms and who may grow up more likely to write books than to be told which ones to read.The most popular series, across the political spectrum, are the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books and the books of G.A. Henty.
For Sayonara, Gangsters by Genichiro Takahashi: “Sayonara, Gangsters is one of those rare books that actually defies description… It’s funny, sure. And beautiful. And slightly insane. And haunting. And heart-breaking. But all those words miss the point. The point is you have to read it. So read it.”For The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy: “A beautiful, deeply moving story of a family. The more I read, the more I felt the family was mine.”For It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick: “This novel is huge — in size, ambition, intelligence, and heart.”For The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done by Sandra Newman: “Sandra Newman has an original way of thinking. The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done is often hysterically funny, profoundly strange, and unbearably beautiful. Often all at once.”For My Life with Corpses by Wylene Dunbar: “My Life with Corpses is overwhelming: in its beauty, emotional force, and uniqueness. While I finished the book a few weeks ago already, I have the strange feeling that I’m still reading it — it’s that resonant.”For Please Don’t Kill the Freshman by Zoe Trope: “I am in awe of Zoe Trope. This book is more than the kind of good story we’ve become satisfied with. It’s more than interesting. It’s art.”For The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs: “The Know-It-All is funny, original, and strangely heroic. I found myself rooting on Jacobs’s quixotic, totally endearing quest.”For The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian: “The Noodle Maker is hugely entertaining and deeply serious. It’s something to celebrate.”
I was looking at the list of “Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions in the English language,” which was linked to in our recent Curiosities installment (and which is culled from a new book, A Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare), and a thought occurred to me. The Millions has been around for nearly six years. Over our exactly 1,800 posts (not including this one), just how annoying have we been?Hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, I performed some searches. Here’s what I found:At the end of the day – We’ve used this clunker just three times, including way back in 2004 when it crept into a post called “Books of the Boom“. In my defense, I was referring to an actual day, and not the hypothetical one that is the target of those Oxford wordsmiths’ ire.Fairly unique – I’d never thought about it, but that is a fairly silly phrase. Thankfully, we’ve never used it at The Millions.I personally – Another redundancy, and this time I am guilty. I’ve used it twice, though not since 2004 when it crept into this roundup. I blame Kakutani.At this moment in time – That one hurts my ears, and indeed it has thankfully never made it into print at The Millions.With all due respect – A classic, used but once in 1,800 posts. The guilty party is Garth who was clearly struck briefly mad by a slight against his beloved Bolaño.Absolutely – This one, in that it is not a phrase, strikes me as a bit unfair, pernicious as this adverb may be. We’ve used it 41 times over the years, and I feel absolutely no guilt about that.It’s a nightmare – No nightmares here.Shouldn’t of – That’s just bad grammar, and we’ve never used it. Phrases like that keep us up at night.24/7 – We’ve used this one twice. Contributor emeritus Patrick gets a pass because he used it as part of this phrase: “24/7 mingle mode.” I can think of no better way to describe BEA in LA.It’s not rocket science – we’ve never used this one, but “rocket science” was used in one of my all-time favorite Millions posts, Andrew’s “Distinguished in a David Niven Mustache.”