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.
Last night the winners of this year’s National Book Awards were announced:Fiction: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (I’ve got this book lying around somewhere, and I’ve been somewhat interested in reading it… and I’m still somewhat interested in reading it.)Non-Fiction: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire (I was hoping that Gulag by Anne Applebaum would win. Of course, in these situations, I always want the book that I’ve read to win. It’s more fun that way.)Poetry: The Singing by C.K. Williams (This is exciting. C.K. Williams has been one of my favorite poets for a very long time. Here’s an anti-war poem of his called “The Hearth.”)Young People’s Literature: The Canning Season by Polly Horvath (I’m no expert on kid’s books, but I’m actually pretty familiar with Horvath. A few years back I worked at an agency that repped the film and TV rights for a huge catalog of books. Polly Horvath’s books were among them, and they were favorites around the office.)Additional info: Past National Book Award WinnersDexter SpeaksI found this great mini-profile of author Pete Dexter yesterday. It helps illuminate the qualities of his character that I was unable to quite describe in a post a while back about seeing him read. He is a very old-fashioned hard-nosed guy, a newspaper man. He’s got a great sense of humor too. They sort of gloss over it in the article, but I think it’s pretty remarkable that he’s driving himself around the country for this book tour. He clearly enjoys doing that sort of thing. I do, however, happen to disagree with the remarks he makes about Stephen King and the American reading public. King himself admits that he has written several clunkers along the way, but he has also written some astoundingly good books that, given a little perspective years from now, will be thought of as some of the best books of our era. I know it’s a bold statement, but think about how good The Stand, It, and The Shining are (just to pick a few of the many good books he’s written). Just because he sells as many or more books than Tom Clancy or John Grisham doesn’t mean he writes at their level. I also disagree with this: “The winner of a National Book Award argued that the reason John Grisham and James Patterson novels are so popular ‘has something to do with our lack of attention span.'” Dexter mentioned this at the reading I attended with unironic and grave concern. It’s true that millions of people read books by those authors, but I don’t think that it’s due to a lack of attention span. My theory is that people read the same types of formulaic books over and over again because it is comfortable. The vast majority of the people out there lead busy, stressful lives and they read for fun and for an escape. They don’t have time to browse endlessly at bookstores seeking out a hidden gem. They don’t want to risk buying a book that is unknown to them and that might not serve their needs, when there is a shelf full of books that they know with certainty will give them what they need. A lot of these same people would gladly be more adventurous readers if their lives permitted it, they just don’t have the time or the money to support it. This is why all those polemical right-wing and left-wing books do so well even though they bring no new discussions to the table. This is why Jerry Bruckheimer movies do so well. It is an unfortunate fact that our modern lives do not typically leave room for the adventurous consumption of creativity, and to say that people consume all this stuff that is “bad” because they are deficient in some way misses the point entirely. (I know I made essentially the same point in a post last week, but I’ve had this idea on my mind a lot lately).
I was rather astounded by this article in The Guardian today about publishers taking retailers on lavish trips to promote their latest books: to Pompeii for Robert Harris’ Pompeii, to New York for Hillary Clinton’s Living History, and to Madrid for David Beckham’s Beckham aka My Side. Before I get into how unsavory this practice is, can I first say that if such thing are going on, why was I never invited on an overseas publicity junket to promote a bestselling book? In fact, I must admit that before today I had never heard of this practice in the publishing world. In the film industry, pushover movie reviewers are routinely wined and dined in exchange for positive press, but I never noticed the general manager of my store jetting off on an all expenses paid trip to Pompeii. Of course, it’s possible that such perks are reserved for the folks who make the decisions at the big chains. A happy regional VP translates to prominent displays in 300 stores and a frontlist order of 30,000 copies. Then again, perhaps this is more of a British phenomenon than an American one. The odd thing, to me, is why bother spending all that money on a book that is already going to have prominent placement due to public interest. This is what those midlist authors are bemoaning when they say there’s not enough publicity money to go around.Back to VirginiaI was born in Albemarle County, I returned their for four years of college at the University of Virginia, and I’ll be heading back there again this summer for my wedding. But it’s more than all the history that I have there that makes it a special place for me. It’s beautiful country, peaceful, serene, and full of history. And for those who share my feelings on Albemarle County, there is now a lovely coffee table book about the place called Albemarle: A Story of Landscape and American Identity. Here are some sample pages.
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.
Yesterday I mentioned John Keegan’s latest book, The Iraq War. The book is meant to be an overview of the conflict, yet in the eyes of most people the Iraq War is still brewing. Yes, large scale military operations have long been over with, but, with breaking news coming from the region daily, one suspects that the history books, looking back, will not describe this conflict as being finished. As such, it is difficult to look at Keegan’s book as a definitive overview of this war. This is Janet Maslin’s take in today’s New York Times (she also thinks that Keegan’s angle is too Western and “snobbish.”) My suspicion is that this book was rushed to completion and into book stores by the publisher in order to get in on the brisk sales of Iraq-related titles. Undoubtedly, a little temporal distance from the subject matter would have improved Keegan’s effort.Lovers of architecture and books alike are raving about Seattle’s new Central Library, a graceful steel and glass structure designed by the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas. Here’s praise from the Seattle Times, and here’s the official website with pictures. One of the more interesting aspects of the new library: the stacks are laid out on continuous, unbroken shelves that spiral through the center of the building.A few months ago there was an interesting article in the New Yorker about one of the world’s lost treasures, the Amber Room, “an entire chamber paneled and ornamented in amber presented to Peter the Great of Russia in 1717 by King Frederick William of Prussia as a gift to seal the friendship between their two states.” The New Yorker article described the search for the room, thought to have been hidden in Germany by the Nazis during World War II, as well as the construction of a costly replica of the room that was being built in Russia. As with much that occurred behind the Iron Curtain, there was much doubt about the true fate of the Amber Room. Now, in a book entitled The Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, new evidence is revealed that solves the mystery once and for all. Read an edited extract from the book.
I spend so much time talking about serious (grown up) books that I sometimes forget that books had a completely different hold on me when I was a little fella. These days I like to read something that will challenge me, and I seek people out who will discuss a particular book with me. We turn the book around in our heads poking it and prodding it, making this or that judgment, and then we set the book carefully aside and rush onward to the next one. It really doesn’t bear much resemblance to the way my five year old self felt about books. Back then it was the purest escape. I could open a book and be utterly immersed within its confines. Such is the boundlessness of the young imagination that I could dwell in the same book almost endlessly. I gave no thought to picking up the same book day after day for weeks on end. As we grow older, our imaginations atrophy and it becomes difficult to immerse ourselves in a story and pictures in the same way. There are, however, a special handful of books that are powerful enough to remind you of what it was like to be five again. The Olivia series by Ian Falconer is able to do this. Something about the dreamy illustrations and the antics of a stubborn pig can make you forget yourself for a few minutes. The third Olivia book comes out today. It’s called Olivia . . . and the Missing Toy, and if you are at a bookstore today and you want a bit of merriment, take a look, you won’t be disappointed.