Lulu, a self-publishing outfit, went back through 50 years of New York Times fiction bestseller lists and determined that the average age of the bestselling author is 50 and a half (via BBC). It makes sense in that the upper reaches of that list are often dominated by franchise-type writers – Stephen King and Danielle Steel are cited – whose careers plateau at a point where every book they write goes to number one, no matter the quality. A younger writer with few books under his or her belt has no reputation to ride on, but the middle-aged writer can ride on reputation to year after year of number ones. But NYT bestsellers are kind of a bore, I’d be more curious about the average ages of the winners of different prizes. Regardless, it almost goes without saying that the most exciting voices in fiction are younger than 50, except for the ones who aren’t.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading two illuminating books about the Soviet Union. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum is the first compresive account of the Soviet system of forced labor and random terror. Now that the shroud of secrecy and propaganda is lifted, the reality of twentieth century Soviet Union, and especially the period of Stalin’s rule, is of a catastrophically malfunctioning totalitarian state. At times the horror of the Gulag is almost unfathomable. Applebaum’s research here is clearly very thorough. She makes ample use of survivor memoirs, recently opened Soviet archives, and interviews. Gulag is an unwavering look at a piece of human history that is difficult to behold. Any inclination to sympathise with the Soviets is dispelled by this remarkable book. If Gulag is a book about the rot at the center of the Soviet system, then Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick chronicles the point at which the rot became more powerful than the Communist Party’s iron fist. Remnick is a storyteller telling the story of a riveting period in history. As he writes, “To live anywhere between Bonn and Moscow in 1989 was to be witness to a year-long polical fantasy. You had the feeling you could run into history on the way to the bank or the seashore.” Lucky for us, Remnick spent 1989 (as well as the years before and after) in Moscow. Reading these two books simultaneously has provoked in me a minor obsession with 20th century Russian history, which is fantastic because in the last year alone several compelling books about the subject have come out. I’ll let you know if and when I read them.Some Good BookfindingToday, on my day off, I went by a nearby Goodwill store and found a mini treasure trove of good reading. The best find was 7 old issues of Granta, each one chock full of fantastic writers, including some of my favorites like Ryszard Kapuscinski, T. C. Boyle, and Haruki Murakami. Flipping through the tables of contents, I can see I’m in for some great reading. I let you know what I find. I also bought an old issue of Story magazine from 1997 featuring stories by Heidi Julavits and Bobbi Ann Mason among several others. I don’t know who is giving away old literary magazines but I was more than happy to find them. I also found two history books that look pretty great: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan which is about Eastern Europe and The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan, a history of naval warfare. And just in case all these books are too serious I found a copy of The Essential Calvin And Hobbes for only two bucks… yes!Don’t ForgetGo to Realistic Records to get a copy of the Recoys album. And go see them play Friday June 20th 9pm… Kingsland Tavern at the corner of Kingsland and Nassau in Greenpoint (that’s Brookyn by the way). I’ll be there!
The Guardian has a story in which some notable writers suggest what they think kids should be reading. While I don’t agree with British poet Laureate Andrew Motion who proffers Don Quixote, Ulysses and The Wasteland, I love that lots of more appropriate classics are suggested. I’ve long thought that young readers, perhaps having read all the Harry Potters and Lemony Snickets, should be pointed in the direction of classic books which often do not reside in “young adult” sections and thus are not always offered to young readers. Robinson Crusoe (suggested by JK Rowling), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (suggested by Philip Pullman) and Great Expectations (suggested by Motion) are all great suggestions. Nick Hornby, meanwhile, declined to make any suggestions saying:I used to teach in a comprehensive school, and I know from experience that many children are not capable of reading the books that I wanted them to read. If I choose 10 books that I think would be possible for all, it wouldn’t actually be a list that I would want to endorse. I think any kind of prescription of this kind is extremely problematic.
Edith Grossman has lately become the definitive translator when it comes to Spanish-language fiction. She is responsible for producing the English-language editions of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (including his upcoming autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale), Mario Vargas Llosa (most recently The Feast of the Goat), and of course she brought The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis to American readers. Now, for the first time, she turns her translator’s pen to a classic. Her beautiful edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote has just been put out by Ecco, and, having never read the book, I will be delighted to turn my attention to this new edition soon.New CoetzeeMy friend and trusted fellow reader Brian informed me that he has read recently lauded author, J. M. Coetzee’s new novel Elizabeth Costello, and that he found it quite good and thought-provoking (better than Disgrace, anyway, which is his point of reference for Coetzee). So I was mildly surprised when I saw that the book received an unflattering and somewhat dismissive capsule review in last week’s New Yorker. The New York Times Book Review, however, confirms Brian’s assessment of a dense and philosophical, yet readable book.Amazon’s Mega SearchLast week Amazon announced their mind-boggling new search feature, which allows users to search the complete text of tens of thousands of new books. Talking to readers and checking out the buzz on the internet, I encountered a wide range of reactions to this new development, ranging from anger at Amazon’s ever-widening reach and annoyance at the plethora of extraneous results when searching for book titles or authors to exultation at this vast resource that has suddenly appeared at our fingertips. Meanwhile, the New York Times covers authors’ concerns. Any thoughts, press the comment button below and let us know.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut— and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
It’s Thanksgiving here in America, a day of infamy for turkeys. At my place in Humboldt County, northern California, turkeys learned their lesson a few years ago, when five fine specimens of Meleagris gallopavo—wild turkey to you—wandered onto my property. I assume they forgot to check the calendar. Under California fish and game regulations, you can shoot them legally for two weeks around Thanksgiving.
Out came my 12-gauge, and I loosed off a shot that at some 100 feet did no discernible damage, and after a brief bout of what-the-hell-was-that the turkeys continued to forage. A fusillade of two more shots finally brought down a 14-pounder. I hung him for four days, plucked him and by Thanksgiving’s end he was history.
Wild turkeys hadn’t been seen in California since earlier in the Cenozoic era, but in recent years two ranchers in my valley imported a few and now they’ve begun to appear in our neighborhood in substantial numbers. I’ve heard reports of flocks of up to 100 wild turkeys 15 miles up the Mattole River around Honeydew, an impressive quantity though still far short of the thousand birds counted in one day by two hunters in New England in the 1630s. The taste of wild turkey? Between you, me, the drumstick, and my dog Jasper, it was markedly similar to farm-raised turkeys, though of course superior to the flanges of blotting paper consequent upon the familiar overroasting of store-bought turkey at low temperatures for 10 hours. I’m for high heat and about three-and-a-half hours for a turkey of average size, though not for the dirigibles they use to raise on a farm in Loleta, near here, which turned the scales at 40 pounds.
Globalism has its alluring sides. It was good that turkeys, potatoes, and peppers got to Europe (though I have my doubts about the squashes, which evoke the bland horrors of pumpkin pie). That was early globalism. It was much more rapid in those days. The speed with which New World foods spread across Europe and Asia is astounding. The first Indian housewife got the basics for what we regard as part of the eternal Indian diet — curry — in about 1550, and within five years it was on every household menu in India.
The Spanish brought turkeys back to Europe from Mexico, and by the 1530s they were well-known in Germany and England, hailed at the festive board as part of tradition immemorial. The Puritans had domestic turkeys with them in New England, gazing out at their wild relatives, offered by the Indians who regarded them as somewhat second-rate as food. Of course, wild turkeys have many enemies aside from the Beast called Man. There are swaths of Humboldt and Mendocino counties where coyotes and mountain lions now hold near-exclusive sway.
Ranchers running sheep used to hold off the coyotes with M-80 poison-gas canisters that exploded at muzzle touch, but these are now illegal, and the alternatives are either trapping, which is a difficult and time-consuming job, or getting Great Pyrenees dogs to guard the flock. But the coyotes are crafty and wait till the sheep have scattered, then prey on the unguarded half.
And not all Great Pyrenees have that essential sense of “vocation.” My neighbors down the river, the Smiths, who raise sheep, had a fine Great Pyrenees, Esme, partnered with the idle Tofu. Esme would rush about protecting sheep while Tofu lounged under the trees near the homestead, reading the paper and barking importantly whenever cars drove up.
Before she died in childbirth, Esme produced Baxter, taken by my neighbors up the river, the Weaver-Wrens. Baxter grew bored at the Weaver-Wrens. I would see him trotting down the road, then up every driveway to gossip with the locals. Jasper would run him off, and Baxter would never make a fight of it but collapse instantly like a vast white eiderdown, paws in the air and throat exposed.
It’s ended well for Baxter. He rapidly ingratiated himself with a new couple on the road, implanting in their minds the notion that he would be a good match for another vast white dog, Grendel, already in their possession. He correctly perceived they were from Berkeley, where he knew that at last he would be able to get a decent shampoo. They commute to the Bay Area and I hear that Baxter is now a familiar flâneur on Shattuck, pausing to review the menu outside Chez Panisse before crossing the road to greet the pizza crowd next to the Cheese Board.
I’ll have to check with Baxter, but doubtless turkey is on the menu at Chez Panisse for Thanksgiving. Most Americans, even the stylish crowd at that fabled restaurant, won’t eat anything else on the big day.
A version of this essay first appeared in 2011 in The Week, a London-based magazine to which Alexander Cockburn contributed a regular column. It is included in A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption, and American Culture, a collection of nearly two decades of Cockburn’s writing published this year by Verso.
Image credit: Flickr/tuchodi