In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
So perhaps you've seen the latest bell (or whistle) to come out of Google HQ. It's called Google Trends and it lets you look at the search volume over time for different keywords. It also shows you which regions search for a particular term the most. Initially, I was most interested in that geographic data. I figured perhaps this could settle that tiresome debate about which city is "most literary." Here are the resultsDelhi, IndiaChennai, IndiaAustinPortland (Oregon, I'm assuming)ChicagoSeattleNew YorkDenverMinneapolisPhiladelphiaI was, and still am, a curious about the two Indian cities at the top of the list, but I did recently write a post about the MV Doulos (Ship of Books) being docked in Chennai. But, anyway, to get to the more serious issue, by this metric our most literary city is Austin, and New York (pretender to the crown) comes in at number five, while our venerable Californian cities don't even make the list. Before we get too riled lets remember that these cities are just guesses. From the FAQ: "Google Trends uses IP address information from our server logs to make a best guess about where queries originated."Regardless of Google's guestimates, I was curious about some other bookish searches. "Harry Potter" shows a preponderance of international searches, and the series' impressive ability to stay in the news. Or you can see how the young wizard compares to pretender to the throne, "The Da Vinci Code." If you ever doubted how popular Harry Potter is, that graph should convince you. Getting back to Da Vinci Code, though, to those of you who have grown weary of hearing about Dan Brown's book, would it surprise you to find out that, according to Google, the book is more popular than ever?Moving on to scandals, it turns out an Oprah tie in can help you in that department, too. Observe James Frey's drubbing of JT Leroy. Kaavya Viswanathan, meanwhile, hasn't generated enough of a scandal to register.Turning to awards, remember when the National Book Award generated a stir in 2004 by nominating five women from New York as finalists, looks like it paid off (in search traffic anyway). And here's all the prizes I could think of going head to head (I'll call the Booker the winner, since the Pulitzer includes all those journalists).
At The Morning News, Robert Birnbaum interviews Jonathan Safran Foer. In his email announcing the interview, Birnbaum tries to elevate the current level of discourse surrounding Foer, who seems to have a target painted on his back these days: First, a word about what you will not read here - no reference to Steve Almond's kvetchy and disingenuous hand wringing about Jon Foer's new novel (at MobyLives.com)or the exponentially vile and bombastic heaving by Harry Siegal about the same at the loathsome and vile NYC weekly that produces journalistic marvels such as "50 Loathsome New Yorkers" and includes novelists on that hit list.The interview is long, and once again portrays Foer as thoughtful and unwilling to respond to criticism or praise, preferring to concentrate on just the reader and the writer:Foer: Really good books are books that have two authors, the reader and the writer. Or maybe the idea of an author is actually just a combination of two people, the reader and the writer? So when writing you use the word "tree." Four letters. Very, very short word. Fits a couple millimeters on a page. But in the reader's mind it becomes a kind of idealized version of a tree, and that tree is different for each person who reads the book and because of that a book is customized for each person in a way a song never could be and as a painting never could be.
A debut novel called Poppy Shakespeare is getting rave reviews in England. The book, by Claire Allan, follows the narrator "N" and the eponymous Poppy at the Dorothy Fish, a mental institution, among 25 residents, one for each letter of the alphabet, "the 'X' chair is vacant." Some quotes from the British press: "Allan's story comes armed with a voyeuristic potency, because she spent 10 years inside the kind of institutions she satirises so well." - from The Independent. "Her voice is so idiosyncratic in its rhythms and terminology... her habit of exaggeration so surreal and her use of metaphor so extravagant, as to subtly transform the reader's perspective of the natural order of things." - from the Telegraph. In the Times (London), a profile of Allan charts her course through mental illness to become a published author. Also, the British cover is way cooler than the American one. An excerpt is available.Set in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Kutar in 1983, Scott Anderson's Midnight Hotel sounds like a broad satire of America's travails in that region. Diplomat David Richards first toes the party line, but ends up abandoned in the country watching as American meddling goes awry. An excerpt is available. Scott Anderson is also a war correspondent like his brother Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer for the New Yorker, author of The Fall of Baghdad, and one of my favorite writers.Guillermo Arriaga wrote the screenplays for Amores Perros (which I loved) and 21 Grams (which I hated). The Night Buffalo is his first novel to be published in the U.S, though he originally wrote it 11 years ago. He's also bringing it to the silver screen (as El Bufalo de la noche). In a profile, the Financial Times compares the novel to Amores Perros, saying that both are steeped in violence, but it sounds to me like 21 Grams, steeped in melodrama. From the jacket: "The Night Buffalo is set in Mexico City, revolving around the mysterious suicide of Gregorio, a charismatic but troubled young man who was betrayed by the two people he trusted most." Still, I'll see any movie he writes, so perhaps his novel is worth a try, too.Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey has a new book out, Theft: A Love Story. The big news about this book is the claim that it is a thinly veiled attack on his ex-wife. The Independent has ex-wife Alison Summers' side of the story: "The phrase 'alimony whore,' repeated within the pages of Theft: A Love Story, has left her feeling 'devastated' by Carey's version of events." Controversy aside, the Sydney Morning Herald sidesteps the drama and says of the book, which is, indeed, about a man who has been divorced and bankrupted by his former wife, "All in all, Carey's new show contains much that is lively, engaging and teasingly self-referential." An excerpt is available.
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Remember a little more than a month ago when I implied that spring had arrived in Chicago despite the insistence of the natives that I was being laughably optimistic? Well, the natives were right, and I was wrong. Since then we've had our fair share of plunging overnight temperatures and frigid rainy mornings. But now I'm hoping I can safely say that spring is really here, and our first brutal Chicago winter is behind us. Since leaving Los Angeles, where weather is stubbornly perfect 95 percent of the time, I have enjoyed the seasons despite the difficulty getting acclimated to bad weather. In LA it's green all the time, but here watching the leaves appear on the trees has been an enjoyable novelty. And yesterday, which may have been the best day of the year thus far, I decided to dust off my tree books, unused since I left the east coast for California five years ago. I was curious to see what kinds of trees line our street, and what's living in our back yard. (I was partly inspired to do this by the Talk of the Town piece in this week's New Yorker about the guy who's running New York City's "tree census.") So, using my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees and Trees of North America, I discovered that we've got a Northern Catalpa and an American Elm in the front and some kind of Maple in the back yard. If the thunderstorms stop today, I might go back out and see what else is growing around here.
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Biographer Charles Shields has already put this request out on many book blogs, but since he asked, I thought I'd share it here, as well:This past June, I published Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Now I'm beginning work on the first authorized biography - the first biography at all, actually - of Kurt Vonnegut. I'd like to hear from any of your readers about their experiences with Vonnegut, either personally or with his novels.Shields can be reached at [email protected] As a big Vonnegut fan, I'll be looking forward to this one.Related: Some reactions to Shields' book on Harper Lee.
As would befall a good William Boyd protagonist, I fell ill and had to get penicillin shots during my vacation in Turkey. My only consolidation as I lay there was reading Boyd's A Good Man in Africa, the story of an aspiring diplomat, Morgan Leafy. Morgan is stuck in Kinjanja, a British colony in Africa in the aftermath of World War II, and gets involved in plots to rig the fast approaching elections, hence finding his way out of Africa and to a better, higher, position somewhere more civilized. Torn between his boss, mistress, love affair, local tribe leader, and adversaries among the British population, Morgan struggles to make ends meet but the rising demands of the British government and the impending visit of a duchess further complicates his plans. A Good Man in Africa presents an amazing build up of circumstances and characters for uproarious laughter. Towards the end of the novel I was laughing uncontrollably as Morgan dug himself deeper in a hole. Misfortune and reflection of absolute British arrogance has never been as funny as it is in Boyd's A Good Man in Africa.Upon my return to the United States and catching up on my Millions reading, I decided to pick up Don DeLillo's Libra per the venerable J.P. Hasting's suggestion. Previously, I had only read White Noise by DeLillo, which did not really impress me that much and furthermore left a bad taste for DeLillo in my mind. I am, however, very glad to have read Libra, which, along very similar lines to Oliver Stone's JFK, presents a conspiracy theory explaining the President's assassination. I have a tendency to get carried away and believe in the pieces I read, and Libra took my fascination with JFK's assassination to a new level. The context that DeLillo creates, post-Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crises, and the characters that he presents, all unique with their grudges, distrust, hate of communism, and patriotic frenzy, make for a marvelous "fictional" read and an excellent conspiracy that I, personally, find extremely convincing. I strongly recommend reading Libra and watching Stone's JFK back to back.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7