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.
There are two types of people in this world: (Segment One) people who adhere, as a point of pride, to every last comma and period of the laws of punctuation, and then there the people who just don't have the time (Segment Two) and, frankly, are a little tired of hearing about these numerous and arcane rules that are supposedly all that separates us from the animals. Bearing in mind that Segment One would be offended that anyone might suggest that punctuation rules are not self-evident and that Segment Two will tell you to blow it out your ear, a book aimed at teaching the populace the in and outs of punctuation doesn't seem likely to be a blockbuster. Yet just such a book was a huge seller in England last year. Are the Brits crazy or are we Americans missing out on the pleasurable nuances of punctuation? We're about to find out. Next week, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss comes out, and its current sales ranking of 6 at Amazon indicates that it will indeed be a success on this side of the Atlantic. And the New York Times seems to like it, which can't hurt. The success of this book will cement the notion that Americans appreciate this British brand of book that delivers dull subject matter contained in a humorous package and prove that the big sales of last year's most delightfully useless British book, Schott's Original Miscellany, was not a fluke. (I hope that I punctuated everything correctly in that post.)
In the world of Google, we are all aware of our doppelgangers. These people share our names, but we never meet them except to rub elbows in search engine results. In pre-Internet days, however, fewer of us felt the odd sensation of sharing your identity with another person. In order for this to happen, you either needed serendipity or a very common name, or you needed to share a name with someone notable.My parents aren't big football fans so when they named me, they had no way of knowing that the name they gave me was effectively identical to the man who scored the first touchdown in the first Super Bowl.Max McGee was a tight end for the Green Bay Packers, and it didn't seem to matter to football fans that our names are off by a letter (like me, he also went by his middle name). My whole life, people, upon hearing my name have asked me if I knew about him. It wasn't long before I knew by heart the story of that first Super Bowl. I'll let Wikipedia recount it:In his final two seasons, injuries and age had considerably reduced his production and playing time. Ironically, these two seasons would be the ones for which his career is best remembered. In the 1966 season, McGee caught only four passes for 91 yards and a touchdown as the Packers recorded a 12-2 record and advanced to Super Bowl I against the Kansas City Chiefs. Because McGee didn't expect to play in the game, he violated his team's curfew policy and spent the night before the Super Bowl out on the town. The next morning, he told starting receiver Boyd Dowler, "I hope you don't get hurt. I'm not in very good shape."However, Dowler went down with a separated shoulder on the Packers' second drive of the game, and McGee, who had to borrow a teammate's helmet because he had not even brought his own out of the locker room, found himself thrust into the lineup. A few plays later, McGee made a one-handed reception of a pass from Bart Starr, took off past Chiefs defender Fred Williamson and ran 37 yards to score the first touchdown in Super Bowl history. By the end of the game, McGee had recorded seven receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns, assisting Green Bay to a 35-10 victory.I bring this up because I've just heard the news that McGee died at the age of 75. Tragically, it happened following a fall from his roof, where he'd been clearing leaves. Since I've talked about McGee with people regularly for my whole life, it seemed strange not to mention his passing. I suspect people will still note the name we (almost) share, but probably less and less as his gridiron feats recede into history.
Erik Larson has followed up his blockbuster book The Devil in the White City with Thunderstruck, another narrative history that ties together a pair of men one "good" and one "bad." This time he focuses on "the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of wireless technology (Guglielmo Marconi) and the most notorious British murderer since Jack the Ripper (Hawley Crippen), who dispatched his overbearing wife in ways most foul," according to a profile of Larson in the Seattle PI. In the PI profile Larson says that he didn't want to do another history with a parallel structure, but in the end he couldn't help himself.I found Devil to be an engaging read, but didn't love it, writing: Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen's ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don't necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read.It sounds like Thunderstruck will be a book with similar strengths and weaknesses, but undoubtedly an engaging read.
● ● ●
The next novel I picked up was Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. I was, as some of you might recall, very impressed by Middlesex and wondered about The Virgin Suicides. Most of my friends who have only seen the movie despised it, and those who read it suggested that the book was a success and that I should never bother with the movie, which is precisely what I did. The Virgin Suicides has a very complex storyline, narrated in contrasting simplicity by a man years after a quiet suburb of Detroit was shaken up by the suicides of the Lisbon girls. Eugenides is very successful in capturing the mental state of teenagers, as well as their struggles in growing up and establishing an identity. The lack of a male influence among the Lisbons - a family of seven with five daughters - the dominant, repressive and over-protective nature of Mrs. Lisbon, and the disengaged, mostly submissive stance of Mr. Lisbon form the nexus of complexities that eventually infect the Lisbon family and drive the daughters to suicide. The sexual escapades of Lux - the youngest of four sisters following thirteen year old Cecilia's suicide - and the enigmatic Trip Fontaine's obsession with her expand the plot and provide a window into the social environment of 1970s suburbia. The Virgin Suicides presents a good glimpse of Eugenides' immaculate prose by the delightful narrative of a grown up from the stand point of a '70s teenager obsessed with inward girls and the mysteries that surrounded them. I would strongly suggest The Virgin Suicides as an intro to Euginedes.Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale is my fourth book of 2005. The time-bridging adventures of Peter Lake, a fantastic protagonist raised by the Baymen out on the Jersey shore and thrown into the life of New York at age twelve in the late 1800s, Pearly Soames, a gold-obsessed thief and the nightmare of all gangs in New York (think Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York), Beverly Penn, daughter of media magnate Isaac Penn who suffers from consumption, and the bridge builder Jackson Meade, who aims to build the rainbow bridge that will bring the Golden Age all reflect on the essence of the human spirit, which is warmest in the bitter colds of Winter. The narrative moves from the late 1800s to the early 1900s in a chronological fashion until a crucial showdown between Peter and Pearly, whom the former had wronged by ambushing the gang - the notorious Short Tails - during an attack on the Baymen. Next, you find yourself in the 1990s (and keep in mind that this novel was written in 1983), in a futuristic world not so different than the one we live in today, but one that has lost all sense of romanticism and sincerity. Still, there are those affiliated with the Lake of the Coheeries (a mystical upstate town, unbeknownst to common eyes - a pseudo Neverland more along the lines of The Shire) who have assimilated into modern culture yet maintain a hidden greatness inherent in their heritage of understanding and love. As characters cross paths in search of the Golden Age, and few know what to look for, back comes Peter Lake, Pearly, and Jackson Meade. When these characters of a century ago find themselves in New York, in the 1990s, they are befuddled to say the least. But shortly, everyone comes to realize that the unsettled accounts of the past were but the beginning of a reckoning scheduled for a hundred years later. As events unfold, New York suffers from a terrible fire and one gets the feeling that things are headed for the worst. Helprin's fantastic story is touching and surreal, the beauties he draws upon are essential elements that most of us are prone to forget or overlook. Winter's Tale is also a great ode to New York, one of the central and most beautiful characters - yes a character indeed - in the novel. The early image and infinite ideal of New York is best described in another character, Hardesty Marratta's proclamation: "For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone." If you are not a staunch realist and love a long build up, you will be delighted at the interplay of history, characters, New York, and romantic idealism that leads to a fantastic resolution.
● ● ●
I've been a bit under the weather lately, but I think I'm starting to get better. I'm well enough to post here anyway. Which is good, because I noticed a couple of books that I thought people might be interested in. Remember a few years ago when everyone was suddenly talking about "string theory?" This was because of a book by Brian Greene called The Elegant Universe, which somehow managed to solve a longstanding dilemma in the world of physics, that "general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right," in a book readable enough to become a best seller. Greene proved to be one of those remarkable writers, of which there are very few, who have the ability to make a very boring and difficult topic interesting for everyone. And now he has a new book out: The Fabric of the Cosmos : Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, in which he continues to unwind scientific complexities with a combination of analogy and wit.My friend Edan pointed out another interesting, new book to me other day. Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution by the remarkably named, Alma Guillermoprieto. Edan and I both read an excerpt of this book in the New Yorker a while back. I enjoyed the way Guillermoprieto's fierce Latin personality was tempered by her lyrical love of dance. This book seems perfect for anyone enamored by ballet and/or Cuba.A NoteFrom the book I just finished: "From his windows at MacGregor Road, he watched the President Polk leave the harbour. He knew nothing of President Polk, but assumed that the shipping company would have checked the record, beforehand, for anything scandalous. Then he did miss Audrey, with whom he could have spoken of such things."
If you read a lot of blogs, you've either discovered RSS by now, or you are spending a lot of time visiting your favorite sites each day. If you don't know what RSS is, this site explains it pretty well. Basically, you can subscribe to the blogs that you like, and when the owner of a blog puts up a new post, it shows up in your "feed reader." No more checking and rechecking all your favorite blogs to see if anything new has been posted.The really cool thing is that lots of newspaper sites have begun to jump on the RSS bandwagon in recent months, and now you can subscribe to their news feeds, most of which are divided into categories - world news, sports, etc. Why do we care about this at The Millions? Well, a handful of newspapers now have special feeds for their book sections, making it much easier to stay on top of all the reviews and book industry gossip. All the links listed below are to book news feeds. If you are already set up with a feed reader, go ahead and subscribe. If you aren't set up yet, I recommend using Bloglines or My Yahoo. Here are the feeds I've found so far:New York Times > Bookswashingtonpost.com - Book Worldwashingtonpost.com - Jonathan Yardley - The Post gave Yardley his own feed, which I think is pretty cool.Guardian Unlimited BooksChristian Science Monitor | BooksLondon Review of BooksPowell's Books: Overview - You may have seen Powell's Review-a-Day where each day they post a book review from places like Salon.com, New Republic, and the CS MonitorSeattle Post-Intelligencer: BooksTelegraph Arts | Booksbaltimoresun.com | books & magsNPR Topics: BooksArts and Letters Daily - ideas, criticism, debate - not strictly book news, but a consistent, daily collection of links to thought-provoking articles many of which happen to be book reviews (not included in the Book News via RSS feature to the right)added 2/16/06: USATODAY.com BooksThere are quite a few publications that don't yet have book news feeds, but hopefully they will add them soon. If you spot any new book news feeds or know of any that I missed, leave a comment or send an email, and I'll add them to this post, which as time goes on will become a compendium of all the book news feeds out there. Finally, if you don't want to bother with setting up your own feed reader but still want to keep up on all the book news, you can go here.Update:I found some tools to aggregate the book news feeds, and now the latest book news shows up in the column to the right. Enjoy!
The eulogies are already being written, but there are still six weeks of life left in Toronto's best bookshop. There's no escaping reality though: Pages, that literary hotbed amid the faux-cool of Queen Street West, is shutting its doors at the end of August.A casualty of skyrocketing rents, Pages has been THE place to go - for me, anyway - whenever I wanted something new and interesting. Independent, central, staffed by knowledgeable, friendly and literate people, the shop was always a pleasure to pop into. I often walked out with something I'd never heard of before.The discount table near the back was always an affordable, eclectic mix. Walls of shelves were devoted to cult favorites and small-press publications. (This was one of the first shops in the city to display Garth's Field Guide to the North American Family. Art, music, photography, gender studies, cultural studies, belles lettres, poetry, and a damn fine literature section - Pages had it all.Yes, there are still many fine bookshops in Toronto: Book City, particularly its Annex location, is good. BMV, with its mix of new, remaindered and used, has become a bright, lively, late-night Annex haunt. And my favorite second-hand shops still seem to be going strong - chief among them Balfour Books in Little Italy and Seekers in the Annex. But head right downtown and Pages stood out, offering a bracing tonic to the flat fizz of the big chains.Fortunately, the long-running, Pages-sponsored "This Is Not A Reading Series" - a performance series held at various venues where writers and artists can do anything except read - will continue under the leadership of Mr. Pages himself, Marc Glassman.[Image Credit: Sweet One]
Pat Conroy recently unleashed a verbal beating on a West Virginia school district that, prodded by complaints from parents, suspended the teaching of two of his novels. English teachers, in particular, will smile when they read this. It begins:I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.Keep reading.