- For Sayonara, Gangsters by Genichiro Takahashi: “Sayonara, Gangsters is one of those rare books that actually defies description… It’s funny, sure. And beautiful. And slightly insane. And haunting. And heart-breaking. But all those words miss the point. The point is you have to read it. So read it.”
- For The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy: “A beautiful, deeply moving story of a family. The more I read, the more I felt the family was mine.”
- For It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick: “This novel is huge — in size, ambition, intelligence, and heart.”
- For The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done by Sandra Newman: “Sandra Newman has an original way of thinking. The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done is often hysterically funny, profoundly strange, and unbearably beautiful. Often all at once.”
- For My Life with Corpses by Wylene Dunbar: “My Life with Corpses is overwhelming: in its beauty, emotional force, and uniqueness. While I finished the book a few weeks ago already, I have the strange feeling that I’m still reading it — it’s that resonant.”
- For Please Don’t Kill the Freshman by Zoe Trope: “I am in awe of Zoe Trope. This book is more than the kind of good story we’ve become satisfied with. It’s more than interesting. It’s art.”
- For The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs: “The Know-It-All is funny, original, and strangely heroic. I found myself rooting on Jacobs’s quixotic, totally endearing quest.”
- For The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian: “The Noodle Maker is hugely entertaining and deeply serious. It’s something to celebrate.”
The boy wizard isn't gay, but apparently his beloved professor is. J.K. Rowling "outed" Dumbledore at a Carnegie Hall reading, inspiring "gasps and applause" as well as wire stories. Over the years, Rowling hasn't been particularly aggressive about being a self-promoter; she hasn't had to as the Harry Potter books have made her rich and famous without her having to occupy too much of the spotlight. Still, this seems like an all too easy way to gin up a little controversy and keep Harry Potter in the headlines now that the series is over.Now I won't deny that it makes plenty of sense for writers to flesh out the lives of their characters in their minds. Many writers take this a step further and put these fictional biographies on paper. And it's quite probable that in writing Dumbledore over the years, Rowling decided that he was gay.As the creator of perhaps the most beloved set of characters in literary history, Rowling has a tremendous amount of power. This sort of power can be easily abused. Knowing they will get no more books from Rowling, fans will take each new tidbit about Harry and the gang like the starving might savor a crumb. Meanwhile, each of these out-of-thin-air details will be folded neatly into the growing pantheon of Potter companion literature.To me, though, there's something terribly spare and arbitrary about these post-publication revelations. What are we as readers supposed to do with these out of context details? Can we ignore them? Should we?As a side note, have there been other examples of similar, post-publication, extra-textual revelations related to famous books? I tried to think of some, but came up empty.
Looking at what people are reading while they ride to work on the train is an odd hobby, but I've been doing it for several months now and I can't seem to stop myself. In fact, it's become all the more fascinating now that I've noticed some patterns emerging. Here's what I observed during my travels between the North Side and the Loop on Friday:Reading for school: This is the broad category that includes everyone from high schoolers reading Shakespeare to the upper echelons of post-graduate academia. Since school's out, you mostly just see the post-grad end of the spectrum at this time of year. Friday's sighting: Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000 by Kevin Fox GothamConsumers of popular non-fiction: This may be the largest group of readers on the train. Perhaps fiction is too light (or too heavy) for the commute, and these nine-to-fivers require something concrete, yet engaging, to bookend their working day. Friday's sighting: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich; Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; Arc of Justice by Kevin BoyleReading for fun: These people, on the other hand, require a diversion on their way to and from work, something boldly written and fast-paced to inject a little excitement into the weekday. Spotted on Friday: The Broker by John Grisham; Harry Potter #4 and #6 (Potter - and not just #6 - is nothing short of ubiquitous on the train these days)The readers: These are the people I envy. I like to imagine that they're not on their way to or from work but that they ride the rails, like modern day hobos, all day long, enjoying the gently swaying carriage with their noses buried in books. Spotted on Friday: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.
Amazon has introduced a new feature that promises to be more useful than the Statistically Improbable Phrases feature that launched a few months ago. The "SIP" feature finds distinctive phrases inside books and then linked users to other books that contained those same distinctive phrases. For example, Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World contains five instances of the distinctive phrase "deer poaching," which Amazon tells us also appears in several other books, including Deer and Deer Hunting Book 2: Strategies and Tactics for the Advanced Hunter. Amusing, but not terribly useful. Amazon's new feature, Capitalized Phrases" or "CAPs," links books by proper names and places, so by clicking on "King Lear" from among the CAPs for Will in the World, you get a list of books that mention "King Lear." This seems like a potentially very useful research tool - especially if Amazon decides not to limit the results to twenty or so books as they are currently doing. These "phrases" features by Amazon also represent a foray into the relatively new Internet phenomenon of tagging, which sites like del.icio.us use to categorize Web sites. Since the process is external - in the case of del.icio.us, the tags are applied by users - and has a human element to it, sites that employ tagging have the potential to be "smarter" than those that rely on old-fashioned search engines. It will be interesting to see if Amazon begins to allow user submitted tags in addition to its Search Inside a Book data to create a deep and highly intuitive way of organizing its massive inventory.
One of the nice things about working at a bookstore is that after constant exposure to thousands of books I tend to have a sizable stash of titles and authors that I know are worth reading stored in the back of my head. Lately, during my day-off wanderings around LA, I make sure to duck into any good will/Salvation Army type places I come across, in order to make good use of this extra information that I lug around involuntarily. Luckily, in my neighborhood there seems to be an inexhaustable supply of such stores. Almost all of these places have a ramshackle shelf of books against the back wall. The standard pricing is fifty cents for a paperback and an even dollar for a hardcover, so it's worth it to wade through the broken appliances and dusty clothing racks in order to do a little treasure hunting. I invariably am able to walk away with a gem or two. A couple of weeks ago I came across hardcovers of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I swiftly decided to rescue them from an extremely seedy second hand store a few blocks from MacArthur Park, but before I left a third book caught my eye. A hardcover copy of Prize Stories of the Seventies from the O. Henry Awards was tucked away among some lesser books, so I grabbed that too. I was especially pleased to find this book for two reasons. First, in my opinion the O. Henry short story collections are the best out there, far superior to the Best American Short Story series, which, while always filled with excellent stories, never does anything to surprise you. Second, my contemporary liturature classes and creative writing workshops in college taught me that the '70s were an especially fertile time for the short story. The editor of this collection, Willie Abrahams, rightly states that the collection of stories he has assembled "repudiate altogether the notion -- widely held in the previous decade -- of the story as an endagered or outmoded species." This collection, in fact, represents the last time that the form was commercially viable, a time when there were many more publications devoted to the form, the heyday of Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, John Updike, and Tim O'Brien, all of whom are represented here. While it is always a joy to read stories by these luminaries, the beauty of the short story collection is that it will almost always yield a writer or two whom I have never encountered. This collection included several. Judith Rascoe's story "Small Sounds and Tilting Shadows" is remarkable; it is the tale of an addled woman who insinuates herself into taking care of a mysterious man's vacant apartment. As time passes the apartment becomes both her prison and her haven, and the presence of apartment's missing owner looms ever larger. After just a handful of stories it's hard not to see that many are inhabited by addled women "The Dead" by Joyce Carol Oates (a breathtakingly masterful story), "Last Courtesies" by Ella Leffland, and "My Father's Jokes" by Patricia Zelver. These struggling women are neatly countervailed by stories about creaking, crumbling families: Updike's "Separating" and "Alternatives" by Alice Adams, to name just two. The remaining stories, with a couple of notable exceptions, fall neatly into a third catagory, the experimental, post-modern story, betraying the mirthless, helpless rage of the author toward the frustrations that the decade presented. These were both dated and barely readable, but their themes were consistent with rest of the stories in the collection.In the movie "Dazed and Confused" set in 1976, the middle of this forsaken decade, Cynthia, the red headed dreamer who's too smart for her backward Texas town says "The fifties were boring, the sixties rocked. The seventies, oh my God they obviously suck. Maybe the eighties will be radical." As I recall, the eighties comment got a big laugh in the theatre, but, in terms of the general well-being of the populace, she wasn't very far off. The seventies really did suck. Americans were disillusioned, over-medicated, and terrified of cities that had turned into war zones. This level of disgust is so palpable that it is both the surface and the subtext of nearly every story in the collection. The characters are irreconcilably distraught by the failures of the previous decade. A startling proportion of the characters are addicted to pills, and not a few commit suicide if they aren't killed first, whether by neighbors or the Vietcong. It is a painful collection to read, and it is remarkable to see how bleak a picture of the decade is painted. At the same time, the pain produces beautiful emotional prose. Most of the stories, though imbued with sorrow, were a joy to read. And my favorite "A Silver Dish" by Saul Bellow was perhaps the most sorrowful of all.Why Dontcha Take a Picture, It'll Last LongerTwo very cool photography books came in today. One was called The Innocents, a collection by the photographer Taryn Simon. The book is a chronicle of former death row inmates who have been exonerated. The book combines faces with stories to powerful effect. The second photo book of note today is no less political, though it is far more colorful. Photographer Jamel Shabazz was responsible for one of the coolest books of the last few years, Back In The Days, a collection of street photgraphy from the early hip hop era, before the look was commodified, back when it was real. His new book The Last Sunday in June chronicles New York city's yearly gay pride parade. Days brims with solemn authenticity while Last Sunday explodes with audacious color. Both are worth more than a look.
Very clever of The Morning News to do this whole bracket competition with their Tournament of Books, because here I am writing about it again. I can't help myself, especially with the palpable frisson of being tied for first. In all seriousness, though, I've greatly enjoyed both the write ups by the various judges and the attendant banter by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner. Today's installment, pitting Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day against Pride of Baghdad, a graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon was, as judged by Anthony Doerr, particularly entertaining. The whole exercise has served as reminder, especially in light of recent controversies, that engaging with books in this fun and perhaps silly way can be just as worthwhile as "serious" criticism, especially if one counts among his goals getting more people to read more good books.Regardless of the merits of TMN's endeavors, though, I am in it to win this thing, and I remain tied with the formidable Condalmo. I fear, however, that I may be peaking early in this contest. The "zombie round" may yet give me new life, but as it stands now, my two finalists, Apex Hides the Hurt and The Echo Maker, are out of the competition.
I met several Chicago natives while I was there last weekend, and as we discussed the city's various merits and drawbacks, the subject of bookstores came up. The Chicago natives, being aspiring reporters, astutely asked me what I look for in a "good" bookstore, and why a chain store is unlikely to bear this mantle.When it comes to hanging out, it's hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon. Stay as long as you want, they won't tell you to leave until they're closing down for the night. If you want to kill an afternoon, it's hard to beat Barnes and Noble, likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don't expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don't plan for a literary discovery.And therein lies the problem with the chains, they are designed not to surprise you. Their displays will, as decreed from the home office, contain a calculated mix of bestsellers assembled from the major lists. The information that they disseminate is predetermined by prevailing tastes; they are not, themselves, tastemakers. And yet, if there is any more important generator of tastes, trends, and shared knowledge in the commercial world than the bookstore, then I don't know about it. Nonetheless, there are very few bookstores that serve this purpose. And that, precisely, is what I am looking for.To my mind, a good bookstore will have on display the "important" books not just the bestselling books, though there will always be bestsellers among those important books. For example, The Da Vinci Code is important because it is a cultural phenomenon, but not simply because it sits at number one on the Times bestsellers. There are all sorts of reasons why a book can be important. 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, from Presidential exposes to burgeoning local talent. At a good bookstore you can place your confidence in the people who run the place.At Barnes and Noble you can get any book you want if you can find it in the vast fluorescent retail gymnasium, but at a good indie, the kindly book clerk will take his favorite book off the shelf and hand it to you, as if a gift. Most cities of any size have at least one of these good bookstores, and thanks to some recommendations that I have already received, I'm confident that I'll find what I'm looking for in Chicago.
Anyone who read Jon Lee Anderson's accounts in the New Yorker of the weeks leading up to and during the American invasion of Baghdad probably shares my interest in Anderson's new book, The Fall Of Baghdad, which chronicles those events. I was recently told by someone from Penguin that this book is all new material, so if you liked the articles, this should be a real treat.In another news, a comment of mine over at Bookdwarf is inspiring some discussion about bloggers trying to make money off of blogs. I encourage you to weigh in if you have thoughts on this.
Jonathan Yardley is probably my favorite book critic. Since I'm from Washington DC, and he is the elder statesmen of book reviewing for the Washington Post, my affinity for Yardley probably is at least in part due to home town bias. But Yardley also manages to go beyond the simple grading of new books that so many crics engage in. He also delights in guiding his readers to the myriad great books that are out there yet somehow hidden from view, be they long forgotten or merely obscure. Having such a trusted guide to the literary world can prove invaluable. His assesment of the year 2002 in books alone is enough to provide a plentiful pile of great new books to work through. State of the Art is a truly enlightening assesment of the last 125 years of American literature, and a must read for anyone who thinks they've covered all the classics. Finally, his occasional series, Second Reading, "reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past." The latest installment is a look at The Autumn of the Patriarch, the most overlooked of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's. As a big fan of Marquez, this article is really a treat for me, especially since I have never gotten around to reading Patriarch. By the way, did I ever mention that I once met Marquez.More Leonard MichaelsFolks must have really dug the fantastic Leonard Michaels story in the New Yorker this week, because many of this week's visitors arrived here by searching for his name.