Tired of fighting the good fight alone, pitted against the world, and one another, several of your favorite litblogs are joining forces. The Litblog Co-op…
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.
I am back. My long hiatus was partially due to grad school applications, heavy workload, holiday binge drinking and just sheer laziness. I have been meaning write about all the books I read, some of which definitely stand out, as (I hope) you will see. The first book I want to mention is Crash by J.G. Ballard. I rarely stop reading books that I begin, even if I strongly dislike them. The only book/memoir I stopped reading in the recent years is Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire, which I found pompous, belittling and badly written. Nevertheless, that is not why I stopped reading Crash. I intend to finish Crash one of these days. That is, if I can overcome the absurdity of the main character Vaughan’s obsession with car crashes and reconstruction of scenes for erotic purposes, which did not resonate too well with me. I am an avid fan of weird and disturbing situations (e.g. Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris), but Ballard’s dry, calm style and heavy language adds another layer of complicity to an already shocking storyline. I have by no means given up on Crash, though I find it difficult to return to the read. Good luck to any and all that pick up this novel. FYI: I have not seen the movie, but I heard that it is quite weird and disturbing.Around the period that I was reading Crash, I was also studying for the GREs and took a week off from work to visit my aunt in Madison, WI to study and get away from NYC. I figured that Crash was not the best book to read while trying to study for the GREs and turned to Harry Potter for a dose of happiness, as well as to clear my mind. I had not read The Order of the Phoenix and borrowed it from my roommate Uzay. I started on the plane and by the time I landed in Madison I was, as with the previous four novels, hooked. So much for studying for the GREs. I read straight through The Order of the Phoenix and was pleasantly surprised to find that J.K. Rowling decided to reveal a darker side of Harry Potter. I was curious to see if Rowling would ever cast Potter as the not-so-perfect adolescent, which she successfully did in this installment. I enjoyed the clash between Dumbledore and the Ministry, the background stories that came with the introduction of the Order, the blackmailing campaigns that attempt to undermine evidence of Voldemort’s return and the developing relationship between Sirius Black and Potter. After a long sleepless night and not studying for the GREs, I headed straight to Borders and picked up The Half Blood Prince, which had been published very recently.The Half Blood Prince was an entertaining transition to the approaching grand finale. There were the cutesy parts of love stories and jealousies between Hermione and Ron, and Potter and Ginny Weasley, as well as the development of a closer camaraderie between Dumbledore and Potter, which I had long anticipated. The mystery surrounding the identity of the Half Blood Prince is well crafted and kept me guessing until the very end. Potter’s rival at Hogwarts Draco Malfoy has, in the meanwhile, been recruited by Voldemort to carry on mysterious activities at the school. As Dumbledore is showing Potter Voldemort’s past and preparing him for the looming battle (one book away, I dare say) Malfoy is brewing his own plans. The Half Blood Prince is a good staging book, with clever twists and turns, that left me hungry for the last novel. I am a big Harry Potter fan for a number of reasons (they’re easy to read, fun, thrilling and I feel like I’m on Prozac when I read them) but the series’ foremost quality is its continuity and how, at the end of each book, it gets me waiting for the next one. I hope it is soon.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5See Also: Emre’s previous reading journal
I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah’s Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah’s name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah’s new focus on classic literature was having on America’s reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah’s club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight “book of the year” titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Andrew writes:It began, as brilliant decisions generally do, in a bar. A Saturday evening, over drinks with two friends, a few months into my first real job (for the benevolent media magnates that still pay my salary). Why not, one of us spat out, drive to New York City? Uh, right now? Yeah, right now! One of us had a car. We’d need music for the 10-hour (each way), international journey. And, oh yeah, passports. Off we went.Sunday early morning we arrived in Manhattan, walked around in a daze until very late Sunday night, then drove back to Toronto, arriving minutes before my Monday shift.That I hadn’t slept since Friday night could easily be offset with a quick shower and several swigs of Jolt Cola which my colleague poured into me. And, oh, I would wear a suit, something neither I nor anyone else would conceive of wearing in the newsroom, unless heading out for an interview. But the improbable vision of young Andrew in a suit at work would distract my senior editors, I hoped, from the snoring.As it turned out, the caffeine jolt and the adrenalin rush of the whole experience kept me awake, and in retrospect, I doubt that I would have done anything differently.But I’m guessing it wouldn’t win me any awards for professionalism.Megan Hustad responds:The suit was a good call. I got promoted once because I was between apartments, living out of a duffel bag, and the suit I wore twice a week for a month because it hid stains and didn’t wrinkle prompted my boss to imagine I was going on a lot of interviews. This has historically been the best argument for wearing a suit, after all – it communicates you’re going places, and little else. Suits obscure all appetites other than ambition. Horatio Alger and other early American capitalists were nuts about suits.In any event: Children, if you took a long, hot shower and still smell of beer, consider a suit. Don’t do as I once did and show up in an orange (orange that highlighted my bloodshot eyes!), moth-eaten wool turtleneck. Uselessness rating: 1For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: Garth
Time’s book critic Lev Grossman made a splash on this week’s NYT bestseller list, debuting at number nine in the hardcover fiction category with his second novel, The Magicians. The book has gotten a healthy publicity push, but strong sales numbers also suggest that readers are responding to its hook: “a kind of Harry Potter for grown-ups.” I haven’t read The Magicians yet, but its premise – the academic and extracurricular adventures of a contemporary East Coast Wizard – puts me in mind of an unjustly neglected fictional opus: John Crowley‘s Aegypt Cycle.
After Matt Ruff chose Aegypt for our 2007 Year in Reading, I picked up the first novel in Crowley’s tetralogy and was hooked. Wands and fairies – er, faeries – were never my thing, but I probably learned more about magic, myth, and historiography than I would have from any work of nonfiction this side of Joseph Campbell. Moreover, Crowley is a beguiling stylist, a constructor of Joycean intertextual games, and (ultimately) a passionate humanist. For several years, The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, and Daemonomania were out of print, but now Overlook Press has brought them back into print, and Small Beer Press has published the concluding volume, Endless Things.
The Times points to an interview where Grossman muses about “all the things that were missing from J. K. Rowling’s Y.A. series, from sex and booze to . . . fantasy novels”; those are the very sorts of inclusions that make Aegypt so rewarding. This is not to undermine the originality of Grossman’s approach; rather, it is to demonstrate one of Crowley’s big ideas: that we make new stories, and new magic, out of the old.
Bonus Link: Michael Dirda on Aegypt in The American Scholar.
In the Times (UK), a look at the forthcoming Rough Guide to Cult Fiction begs the question: what is cult fiction? “The editors note in an introduction that Toby Litt once said that in their purest form, cult books ought to have been out of print for ten years,” Erica Wagner writes. She also notes that in order for there to be “cult fiction,” the fans of such fiction must be cult-like in their devotion. The Rough Guide apparently contains some odd inclusions as well as omissions, but the concept made me think of my experience with cult fiction. Based on working at a book store, I would say that, among contemporary authors, Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Coupland, and, to a certain extent T.C. Boyle had cultish fans. During my reading life, I’ve only gotten really cultish about one author, Richard Brautigan, of whose poetry and fiction I was enamored as a teenager. Brautigan, I would imagine, fits the “cult fiction” label pretty well. Curious if anyone else uses this label, I found an interesting list of books that a library in Indiana has labeled “cult fiction.”