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!
Here are some book reviews and book related stories that have caught my eye in recent days. In the New York Times Charles McGrath reviews a forward-thinking anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. The review is tepid, but McGrath takes the opportunity to give us an interesting little summary of the state of the American short story. Also from the Times, Michiko Kakutani delivers a review of Arthur Phillips latest, The Egyptologist. She makes the book sound pretty exciting, but in the end quibbles that it is not sufficiently weighty. Despite her reservations, The Egyptologist seems worth a look. I would imagine that it's great airplane reading.
Over the past few years, I've read a good amount of twentieth century Russian history, and I've come to wonder, with dismay, why the Soviet regime - especially during Stalin's reign - is not acknowledged as one of the great horrors in human history. One does not see memorials and museums to this tragedy in cities around the world, nor even in Russia. This view was reinforced in me by books like Anne Applebaum's Gulag and Martin Amis' Koba the Dread. Now Millions reader Brian has read another book about Stalin's reign and sent in his thoughts:I just read Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore-- One of the most intense and fascinating books I've ever read in my life. Wow. Focuses mostly on Stalin's life after Lenin's death and the lives of the Russian magnates that surrounded him. At about pg. 200 the Great Terror kicks in, leading into negotiations and subsequent war with Germany and... it is indescribable. Truly. We all know about Stalin, but I never really understood...- There is one scene in this book, the Russians had 17,000 Poles imprisoned. Stalin ordered 7,000 of them killed. Blohkin was the man to do it. At various times during the Terror he was denounced by Yezhov or Beria, but Stalin wouldn't let him be killed as nobody could murder with such speed or efficiency. Moreover, like Stalin, it didn't jangle Blohkin's nerves; he didn't turn to excessive drink, decadent sex, or lose him mind. (Although his mother, years later, recalled that he would come home, throw himself at her feet, and sob uncontrollably) - so, on the abovementioned night, Blohkin put on his rubber butcher's apron, a cap, and took a German pistol (blame it on the Nazis if the crime was discovered) and personally shot 250 poles. He did this - 250 murders a night - for 28 nights. It is the single largest (known) mass murder by one individual in history.- Montefiore provides day by day descriptions of life in the Kremlin, the intrigues amongst Stalin's 'court', the denunciations, confessions, and sexual liaisons amongst the men and women at the 'top' (one of Stalin's favorite things, which he did over and over, was to order the murder of a top official's wife and then force the official to hang around (and, possibly take orders from) her murderer); the meetings between Molotov and Hitler, Stalin and Ribbentrop, FDR, Churchill, etc. - he gives actual confessions, testimonies, and descriptions of Stalin's right hand men being beaten so hard that their eyeballs pop out of their heads (for some reason this is mentioned frequently -- what must be done to a man or woman's head to have an eyeball pushed, not picked, out?) by their former best friends, and, at times, their sons or brothers. Seriously.The paperback came out last week. A must read.
With Thanksgiving come and gone, the end of year best book lists are beginning to arrive. The New York Times list is 100 strong as usual, and despite not being particularly exclusive, the accolade is sure to grace the covers of the paperback editions of many of these books. It's good marketing really. Something about that word "Notable" (along with the Times name, of course) on the cover of a book makes browsing readers want to pick it up.The Guardian has a less conventional list up. For that list, a number of well-known writers share their favorite books of the year. Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black makes an impressive showing, cited by John Banville, AS Byatt, Philip Pullman and Zadie Smith. Mantel herself names John McGahern's Memoir and The Tyrannicide Brief by Geoffrey Robertson. The New Yorker ran a substantial piece on Mantel earlier this year. I love that the Guardian runs features like this, and I wish that there were an American paper that would do the same thing with American writers.
In December, we noticed the slimness of the New Yorker's year-end Fiction Issue, and more recently Gawker has been on the case. Now, the Anniversary Issue hitting newsstands last week, though chock-full of goodies, also felt much lighter than normal. As it turns out, at 122 pages, it was 38 pages lighter than a year ago.While I have been taking advantage of the freed up reading schedule that a shorter New Yorker affords, I do hope that this is as short as it gets.(Hopefully Not) Related: Culture and Vigilance: Look for the Whimper, Not the Bang
We at The Millions have been anticipating Roberto Bolaño's magnum opus, 2666, for months now. While I'm not convinced that a book review is capable of capturing the beauty and profound oddity of this novel, my best effort is currently featured at More Intelligent Life.Bonus link (from the archives): "Why Bolaño Matters"
It's officially been summer for coming up on two weeks, which means that, in accordance with typical publishing and bookselling practices, near the front of the bookstore there will be stacks of books by new and unknown authors all vying to become this summer's "breakout hit." Last year the winner of the "breakout hit" lottery was won by Alice Sebold whose book, The Lovely Bones, was much purchased and enjoyed by the majority and vehemently despised by the minority of readers who are not willing to shut off the part of the brain that determines what is tasteful and what is not. What's funny about this way of selling books is that every bookstore that you walk into will try to make its customers think that their staff personally discovered these new authors and that the customers are among the lucky first few to enjoy these newcomers. In reality, the candidates for "breakout hit" are chosen months in advance by the publishing companies and aggressively marketed much in the same way that one would market a film. In a sense The Lovely Bones is not very different from The Hulk. In my opinion this year's winner has already been declared: Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is already the book that recreational readers ask for by name when looking for a summer reading distraction. This non-threateningly clever, historical thriller acheived success in a couple of ways. First, like all of the other "breakout hit" candidates it is engagingly written and also contains a "hook," in this case the idea is that embedded within da Vinci's famous artwork are hidden clues that can solve a present day murder mystery while at the same time unravelling some of humanity's great unsolved conundrums. Very Indiana Jones. Secondly, in the weeks leading up to the release of The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday reps blitzed bookstores to talk up the book, hand out advance copies, and put up teaser posters. Finally Doubleday's publicists were able to get the book mentioned in all the weekly newsmags and grocery store aisle gossip rags. Voila! Breakout hit... There are lots of books sitting on either side of The Da Vinci Code on the "breakout hit" display, all are almost as heavily marketed but some might be a bit more rewarding: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is narrated by a 15 year old autistic math savant who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes and tries to find out who murdered his neighbor's dog. Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy is an example of what a multi-generational saga can look like when written by a young writer. Bangkok 8 is a debut by John Burdett. This one is perfect for those who like thrillers in exotic locals. (In this case, a U.S. Marine is dead in Thailand. Great cover art, too). Finally, Benjamin Cavell's Rumble, Young Man, Rumble and Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians are two much lauded short story collections. Bye now...