You may have noticed that I haven’t posted for a few days. I’m busy finishing up my work for the quarter, and I still have some more to go. But when I’m finished, I promise to share my spring break – via this blog – with all of you. See you then!
I have a short article in the latest issue of Poets & Writers.The piece grew out of a post here on the blog a while back about LibraryThing, the Web-based book cataloging community. For the record, I haven’t yet put all of my books into LibraryThing, though I probably will at some point. I’ve been putting it off because I know that once I get started I won’t be able to stop and, well, I just don’t have the free time at the moment.
There is a sort of raw bitterness gripping the country these days. People in the red states and the blue states are feeling fear and rancor, and it is directed at each other, not terrorists. From every radio, television, and newspaper, we are hearing that we live in a nation divided. It is true, the citizens of this country occupy a wide and diverse range of viewpoints on many subjects. And we each huddle around one party or the other, one candidate or the other, and the distance between the two camps can seem vast. A sampling of the headlines: “Bush vows to unite a divided nation” says the Chicago Tribune. “Very close vote shows U.S. still deeply divided” says the San Francisco Chronicle. “A deepening divide between red and blue” says the CS Monitor. There are hundreds more. So this might be a good time to look back at some other times when our nation has been divided, just for the sake of perspective. And, of course, there are some great books that can help us do this.The Civil War: A nation doesn’t get much more divided than this. Forget red map, blue map; this was grey map, blue map, brother against brother. For four years the nation was torn asunder. 560,000 dead. It becomes hard to declare that our nation is divided when you remember the Civil War. You can read about the period of time when the country was at its most divided in The Civil War, 3-Volume Box Set, an iconic history by Shelby Foote. Or if you prefer a one volume treatment, you can try James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, another fantastic book. These are, of course, just two selections among hundreds on the topic. Civil rights: These days we’ve got battling bumper stickers and arguments about torn up lawn signs. People are declaring that they will move to Canada, while others say good riddance, but it wasn’t long ago that this nation was divided over Civil Rights and desegregation. Brave souls fought against voter intimidation and school segregation and faced the seething anger of those who used firehoses, police dogs, and even murder to maintain the status quo. The pundits will tell you now that we are a nation deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided, but how divided can we be compared to our struggles against segregation and Jim Crow? There is much to read on the topic, but the articles contained in the Library of America’s collection Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 provide a glimpse of the Civil Rights movement as it was happening (don’t forget the second volume, 1963 to 1973, when you finish the first). Another (again, out of many) worth reading is Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer winner from 2002, Carry Me Home : Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (excerpt).McCarthyism and the Red Scare: Do you regret anything you did in college? Did you used to be a member of another political party? In the 1950s you could have been dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and made to explain yourself. Those labeled “Reds” faced blacklists and public derision. The nation for a time was divided between McCarthy’s supporters and those they sought to label as communists. People may accuse the recent campaigns of similar fearmongering, but our country is not so divided that House Committees are wrongfully accusing private citizens of treasonous acts. There are many books that cover the historical details, but I’ve always found Arthur Miller’s parable of McCarthyism, The Crucible to be much more powerful. One of my favorite films is also a parable of these troubled times. Elia Kazan’s On the WaterfrontSo there are just three examples of exactly how divided this country can get. I don’t think the red-staters and blue-staters will be getting together for a picnic any time soon, but things aren’t going to get as bad as these examples from American history. We live in times that are difficult and uncertain, but after witnessing the self-pity and rending of garments that have resulted from this campaign and the election that followed, I thought it best to try to put things in perspective. It made me feel better, how about you?Update: Some of my fellow bloggers are also turning to books to get them past their post-election malaise. Have a look at this excellent post at Conversational Reading. Bookninja, meanwhile, gives us a more foreboding reading list.
If you’ve got a portrait of Pushkin on your back or the complete text of The Waste Land on your shins, aspiring anthologists Justin Taylor and Eva Talmadge want you! Here’s their call for images of literary tattoos:We are seeking high quality photographs of your literary tattoos for an upcoming book. Send us your ink! …All images must include the name (or pseudonym) of the tattoo bearer, city and state or country, and a transcription of the text itself, along with its source. For portraits or illustrations, please include the name of the author or book on which it’s based. We’d also like to read a few words about the tattoo’s meaning to you — why you chose it, when you first read that poem or book, or how its meaning has evolved over time. How much (or how little) you choose to say about your tattoo is up to you, but a paragraph or two should do the trick.Please send clear digital images of the highest print quality possible to [email protected].(via Jacket Copy)Bonus Link: The above image and pictures of many more literary tattoos are available at YuppiePunk.
I have written in the past about the importance of a bookstore’s “front table.”The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.To me, this epitomizes what separates the engaging indie from the faceless chain, but this selling point has not helped indies win out in a climate that has been tough for all book retailers. Among the many struggles indies have faced is how to translate the relevance and ambiance described above to the internet, where a large portion of book buying, selling, and discussion now takes place.2008’s launch of IndieBound, an aggregated indie web presence that is a vast improvement over its precursor BookSense, shows that the indies are hard at work trying to unlock the online conundrum.Recently, Scott pointed to another far smaller but particularly resonant example of online experimentation by an indie bookstore. The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago has started replicating its front table on its blog. This book curation done by a knowledgeable staff rather than the chains’ corporate number crunchers, fulfills the bookstore mission that I noted above, giving readers “what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.” (This notion of curation is important. In many ways, I’d argue that it’s a key mission of The Millions. Our “staff” selects and sheds light upon certain books at the exclusion of others, bringing to bear our different areas of expertise, interest, and taste.)The front table alone, however, is not enough to make a bookstore. A truly great bookstore and its front table will inspire conversation in the aisles among patrons and staff. Seminary Co-op is part of the way towards making its front table live on its web site, but, as the “comments are closed” message at the bottom of the page indicates, it’s not all the way there. However, the sight of all those covers, laid out neatly, makes me think that we may not be far from an indie bookstore website that makes you feel like you are walking into the store itself.See also: Niche Bookstores: A Dying Breed, Islands in the Stream: A Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers
I went back home to Istanbul for my cousin’s wedding (yes, a lot of weddings indeed, fun nevertheless, and may all of them be happy) and there picked up Tuna Kiremitci’s third novel Yolda Uc Kisi (Three People on the Road). I had briefly mentioned Tuna Kiremitci’s first two novels in my Year in Reading for 2004. I had found both very pop but at the same time sincere and interesting. Yolda Uc Kisi has an interesting storyline, but it does not explore feelings, ideas, conflicts, and desires as strongly as its predecessors. The author’s involvement as the narrator was also too cheap and easy at times, helping Kiremitci to skim over facts that could well make the novel more interesting. I understand that he is a poet and would rather take the short cut, but Yolda Uc Kisi was a disappointing read with certain highlights and no identifiable resolution. I would recommend Orhan Pamuk’s Sessiz Ev (also reviewed last year) for those interested in the divide between the understanding of revolutionaries and consumers, as well as young and old, and the political life in Turkey before the military coup of 1980, it goes much deeper than Yolda Uc Kisi, and actually presents a full story.Funny book given as present by my friend Roland at the Virginia wedding: In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot by Graham Roumieu. Absolutely hilarious, from the myth to pop culture, everything that Bigfoot presents in his broken English puts a smile on your face or makes you laugh out loud. You will read the whole book in 5 minutes and then rush over to your friends to read what you thought was the funniest, realizing soon thereafter that you have read the whole thing to them, too. Go to a bookstore, pick it up, and see if it makes you smile. [Ed. Note: I’m also a big fan of the Bigfoot book. Go here to get a taste of Roumieu’s art.]Next I turned to Danyel Smith’s Bliss, which hit the shelves on July 12 to great acclaim. Smith takes the reader through the booming world of hip hop in the late ’80s and the ’90s, through the experiences, ambitions, and personal conflicts of Eva Glenn, a successful executive at Roadshow Records. Although fairly well concentrated on her career and personal freedom, Eva actually has little time to focus on her real problems as she juggles Sunny, her successful, multi-platinum artist; Ron Lil’ John, her rival record executive and part-time lover; Dart, Sunny’s manic-depressive brother and manager; and all other rivals in the cut-throat recording industry. Bliss is very pop and fun to read: Eva’s constant musings over songs – relating developments in her life through verses from artists like the Temptations and Tupac – her constant inner dialogue, which explains the real motivations behind her actions, and stories of making mixed tapes from radio broadcasts make for a novel that captivates the reader. Bliss is very similar to Syrup by Maxx Barry in both style and context. I had enjoyed Syrup a lot when I read it and think that it covers personal vice and dynamics of a cut-throat industry – marketing in this instance – stronger than Bliss does. Nevertheless, it was really entertaining to read about the recording industry especially when the story is of success, competition, music. If you are headed to the beach before the summer is over, or have a sweet life like Eva Glenn and will be traveling to an exotic island, take Bliss with you and marvel at how, maybe one day, your life can be like that too.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3