Posting has been light because I’m nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I’ll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I’m thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I’m not sure how close I’ll be to the Internet. I’m excited about this vacation (we’ll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it’ll be a much needed break from school, but also because there’s no place I’d rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales – and by “exotic” I mean simply “not home.” For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy’s Binx Bolling is trying to keep “despair” at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven’t even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I’ll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I’ve been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I’m going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher’s publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I’m also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky’s account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I’m also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book’s premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it’s even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as “summer reading,” but I’ll just be happy that it’s summer and that my only obligation is to read.
It began as a way to pass the time at the Frankfurt Book Fair: find and log the strangest book titles of the year. And so the Diagram Prize For Oddest Title of the Year was born. Now, thirty years later, and indeed not to be outdone by the fine folks over at the Booker, we will soon have a Diagram of Diagrams.You can read about the history of the Diagram prize at Bookseller.com, see the list of past Diagram prize winners and vote for the Diagram of Diagrams.My personal favorites: 1982’s Population and Other Problems, 1986’s Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality (with a sequel!), 2002’s Living With Crazy Buttocks, and for those with a penchant for the macabre: 1995’s Reusing Old Graves and 2005’s People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It – (It’s the What to Do About It part that I need to know).Sadly, there are no links to text excerpts for any of these titles. It is left to my fertile imagination, then, to envision how one actually lives with crazy buttocks (and just how crazy they need to be to require instruction).I’m sure there are countless odd titles out there that have been neglected. Feel free to comment with your favorite unsung odd title, or tell us your favorite odd title from the full list.
On Monday I saw Marjane Satrapi speak at a local bookstore. Her graphic novel Persepolis has been a great success, and now she’s out promoting the sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. As a speaker she was surprisingly frank and funny. When someone asked her about her self-imposed exile in France, she described Iran as her mother, but France as her wife. “You can cheat on your wife,” she said as the audience chuckled. She also wryly called out an audience member who implied that she was an Arab in asking whether Satrapi’s ethnicity posed any problems for her in her adopted country. “No,” Satrapi said, “in France they know that there is a difference between an Iranian and an Arab” (emphasis hers). Satrapi also said that she wrote fourteen children’s books and received hundreds of rejection letters before she shifted her focus slightly and morphed her project into a graphic novel. She proved to be a delightful and entertaining speaker, and I found myself thinking that she would probably be as successful doing speaking engagements as she is at penning graphic novels.After pushing the literary world’s buttons last year by awarding Stephen King an honorary National Book Award for contributions to American letters, the National Book Foundation has decided to continue in that same vein by giving this year’s award to the iconic writer of children’s books, Judy Blume. The New York Times reports.In book review news, Michiko Kakutani doesn’t like T.C. Boyle’s new novel, The Inner Circle, likening it to a couple of his lesser works, Riven Rock and The Road to Wellville. Meanwhile, in the New Yorker, Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America gets a good review, but I’ve received some emails from readers who managed to get their hands on advance copies saying the book isn’t Roth’s best.
Adam Langer has an entertaining essay at The Book Standard which is full of discarded titles for classic books and films. But the fact is that Thomas Wolfe’s original title O, Lost doesn’t have quite the same ring as Look Homeward, Angel, nor does Margaret Mitchell’s Fontenoy Hall, which became Gone with the Wind. If F. Scott Fitzgerald had gone with Trimalchio in West Egg, one of his working titles for The Great Gatsby, God knows what we’d have studied in high school.In the essay, Langer also reveals that his next book is tentatively titled The Washington Story.
The other day I threw myself across the bed and began lamenting my writing career (or lack thereof). This is one of my hobbies–if not my favorite one, then at least the one at which I most excel. My husband (and fellow Millions contributor), Patrick, said, “Oh be quiet. You just want a two-book deal and Marion Ettlinger to take your author photo.”
The nerve! I might have thrown a pillow at his face, and went on with my self-loathing. You see, Patrick and I love to make fun of Ms. Ettlinger. She is probably the most famous photographer of authors, (she even has a book of them), and her images of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Joyce Carol Oates are burned in the cultural retina. Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we’d only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned. Perhaps it’s that last quality–old fashioned–that rubs me the wrong way. Looking at these photos, I get the sense that the writers (even the young ones) are long gone, lost to an era when people gazed longingly out of train windows, mailed handwritten letters, or actually read books. I can’t imagine any of these writers alive, moving their mouths, checking their email, eating dinner. Maybe that’s the point: we want our authors to be Authors, unreachable and removed from the world of the reader. But as we head towards 2010, that’s more and more implausible. Newsflash: writers live in the world.
There are a few of Ettlinger’s photos I like. The full-body shots are better than the close-ups. Take the one, for instance, of David Foster Wallace; his plaid jacket, his downward gaze, and the sky above, create a lovely, even haunting, composition. Or the one, of James Ellroy: he’s gone whole hog with the photo’s anachronistic qualities, and it’s fun. Other full body shots, however, are a disaster. Hey, Melissa Bank, did you learn that pose in yoga? If I were to title this picture, I’d call it, “The Failed Seduction.” We’ve all been there, Ladies, haven’t we?
Some of the close-ups, particularly of the women, are just weird. I hate when authors cup their own head with their hands. What, will it fall off? Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful. Most of the time, though, they look like they’re starring in a pain killer ad. Ann Patchett and Amy Hempel’s pictures are the worst examples of this, although, to be fair, this is an epidemic in many author photos, not just ones by Ettlinger.
Browsing through these pictures got me thinking about other author photos. Many bad examples abound. There’s the “I love my dog!” variety, a la Dean Koontz and J.A. Jance–somehow Ellroy doesn’t fall into this category, perhaps because the dog in his photo looks hired, just another old-timey prop. There’s also the Trench Coat Club, which is usually reserved for mystery writers, but we see it here, with Adam Haslett. And there’s the “I’m just a harmless debut author” Club, wherein the writer strikes a more casual pose, and smiles like a well-intentioned, but potentially useless, babysitter. Aimee Phan is a good example of this, but she is just one of many. Lastly, there’s the “My spouse took this picture the night before it was due” Club. I won’t even bother with an example–just imagine your least-flattering Facebook picture, and you’ll understand.
Let me be clear: I am not damning these writers, or their work–far from it. It’s simply the photos I protest. But getting one’s picture taken for a book jacket must be a daunting task. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the reading public? You want to look serious, but not too serious! You want to look attractive, but not too attractive! You want to look young, but not…you catch my drift. It can’t be easy. I remember an author-friend telling me he wanted to forgo the photo altogether. I said he couldn’t, or else people would assume he was ghastly. And that’s true. Only Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger can pull off real anonymity.
I suppose that if Marion Ettlinger ever calls me, I’ll do my hair, slap on some eyeshadow, and ready for my close-up. Perhaps Patrick is correct: it is my most embarrassing fantasy.
We’re not shy about our praise for NYRB Classics. Their volumes are smartly edited and well designed and quite a few favorite books of The Millions contributors – The Dud Avocado, Wheat That Springeth Green, and, of course, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – were first encountered in their NYRB Classics incarnations.While I had always planned on passing NYRB Classics books down to my progeny one day, I’ve just discovered that I may get to do that sooner than I had anticipated. NYRB Classics has a line of children’s books, the NYR Children’s Collection.One of the latest to come out under the imprint is James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Marc Simont. The new book provide fodder for Sonja Bolle’s sentimental (in a good way) essay in the LA Times.The 13 Clocks is the first book I remember loving, and it is one of the few books I managed to wrest from my family’s library and preserve through all the mundane disasters of my life. Everything about it is dear to me: The texture of the cover, the cloth spine now in shreds, the gorgeous endpapers with the Duke’s shadowy castle on the hill overlooking the sunlit town.Young readers – and the older readers who are trying to get young readers to read good books – will likely find many more such discoveries among the NYR Children’s Collection.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a really long time, you’ll recall that I was a big fan of Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ look at the inefficiencies of baseball as a business. What could have come off as dry, numbers-heavy, and “inside baseball,” if you’ll pardon the phrase, turned out to be a fascinating treatise that delved into psychology and economics and contained profiles a number of interesting people. With that in mind, I was excited to learn of a new book by Lewis coming out later this fall, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which, if Malcolm Gladwell is to be believed, will be just as good. Says Gladwell, It’s about a teenager from the poorest neighborhood in Memphis who gets adopted by a wealthy white family, and who also happens to be an extraordinarily gifted offensive lineman. Simultaneously Lewis tells the story of the emergence of the left tackle as one of the most important positions in modern day football. I thought Moneyball was fantastic. But this is even better, and it made me wonder if we aren’t enjoying a golden age of sportswriting right now.As has been previously discussed here, the world could use more good books about football, so I’m pleased to hear about this one.Update: Here’s an excerpt. Thanks Patrick.