A “Minority Opinion” has been posted over at the LBC Blog by the Co-op members who were not fans of the first LBC pick – Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Some good discussion is already brewing in the comments. As for me, I fall somewhere in between the Minority Opinion and the LBC members who wholeheartedly endorse the book. To me, Case Histories is a worthwhile read, but perhaps not up to par with the big things that many seem to be expecting from the LBC. The most vocal commenters seem to pulling for the Co-op to choose a book that is of impeccable quality, yet has been ignored by big publishing houses and major reviewers. If such a book exists, I hope we can find it for our readers. “Read This” picks aside, I think the LBC may also prove valuable in determining whether or not the Great American (or British, or Chinese, etc.) Novel is in any danger of being ignored or underappreciated.
A while back, we diagnosed David Brooks‘ Bobo Shuffle; now it’s time to call The New York Times’ most pugnacious and prolific book reviewer on her patented move: The Kakutani Two-Step. It works roughly like this: belittle a novelist’s finest work to date – preferably by tossing around unsupported adjectives…say, “arbitrary,” “flimsy,” and “unfinished.” Then, five or six years later, when the novelist in question brings forth his next book, or the one after that, complain loudly about how lame it is compared to his previous masterwork, which, it is to be inferred, you adored. (Bonus points if you actually now call the previous book a “masterwork.” Double bonus points if you also work in the word “limn.”)
The Kakutani Two-Step depends on readers having short memories (or perhaps sagely avoiding Kakutani’s “Books of the Times” columns altogether) and so not noticing the cognitive dissonance. Only fans of the writers she caricatures (and, one imagines, the writers themselves) are likely to detect the sinister signature of the KTS. The latest victim is Jonathan Lethem, whose new Chronic City Kakutani calls “tedious [and] overstuffed”…and that’s just the first sentence of the review! “This fictional Manhattan,” she continues,
has none of the energy or keenly observed grittiness of the real-life Brooklyn that Mr. Lethem captured with such verve in his 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude.
But wait, wasn’t that “dazzling” novel “fundamentally flawed,” with
a series of unconvincing and weirdly forced passages that break the spell that Mr. Lethem has so assiduously created?
Not to mention a “contrived” and “melodramatic” ending?” And “many defects” in between? According to Kakutani, circa 2003, it was. Your takeaway from the Fortress of Solitude review: flawed, uneven, defective. Your takeaway from the Chronic City review: Michiko misses the “vividly . . . movingly” dazzling Fortress of Solitude.
To be sure, it’s possible to square the two Lethem reviews, if you’re enough of a Kakutani exegete to infer that her kneejerk distaste, in each case, is for Lethem’s forays into genre-bending. But all the casual reader will notice is the invidious comparison between the two books, the sudden vanishing of any her earlier reservations, like a magician’s cloth being whisked away to reveal a tiny, perfect turd.
I’m too tired right now to track down other instances of the KTS, but you don’t have to look hard to find them; you might start by Googling David Foster Wallace (and if you think of more, why not leave them in the comment thread?) To be sure, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. It may also be true that Michiko’s judgment works on the time-release principle of certain antacids…that hindsight makes the heart grow fonder. But, even in these lean days for newspapers, the Times presumably employs fact-checkers who could easily catch La Kakutani’s self-misrepresentation. One thing is clear: she can’t be bothered to check herself.
Book hoarder that I am, I tend to buy most things second-hand, occasionally remaindered, almost always paperback, ideally pocketbook. But never hot-off-the-shelf hardcover. Okay, occasionally. When Bob Dylan’s Chronicles came out a couple of years ago, I bought it after work on the first day and actually refused to return home without a newly-minted copy in my backpack. (It’s an obsession. I’m handling it.)The portability of paperbacks and the affordability of second-hand makes for an appealing combination. But the odd time that I do dig into my wallet for something new, especially a new hardcover, I’m astounded by the cost. This might sound a bit trite. The high cost of newly published books is hardly news. But I look at the price on the jacket and I see a massive difference between the US dollar cost and the Canadian dollar cost. This difference bears no resemblance to the 2007 economy.Less than five years ago, the Canadian dollar was sitting at around 65 cents US. In recent years, it’s been inching its way up and now sits at around 95 cents US. So you’d think that a new hardcover sold here in Canada would be only slightly more expensive than the same book in a US store. How then do bookshops and the publishing industry justify the 30 per cent premium that Canadians are often paying?A recent article from the Globe and Mail examines this phenomenon and explores the actions that Canadian booksellers are taking to bring book prices more in line with economic reality. And, in the process, corral more wayward book-buyers like myself, into their stores.With any luck, this matter will be resolved by the time Dylan’s Chronicles Volume Two comes out.
The Litblog Co-op blog is stirring once again. Here’s what’s going on. The spring Read This! selection will be revealed on Monday followed by the rest of the finalists for this round. There will be six weeks worth of discussion about the books, and anyone who comments over the course of the six weeks will be entered into a drawing to win all five books for the round. And while you’re there be sure to check out the four finalists for the summer round. We’ve decided to start announcing the finalists early so that everyone has enough time to read the books. For all the details, get yourself over to the LBC blog.
So, maybe you’re curious about what books people are reading right now. I’ll start with new fiction. There’s a lot of interesting new books out there right now. The book that everyone is talking about remains The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem has recently been interviewed in periodicals ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the Paris Review, and the book is the current pick for countless book clubs. Despite the hype, this book is a worthy read, and you’ll have something to talk about at cocktail parties. In the category of science fiction for those who don’t typically read science fiction comes Quicksilver, the first book in a new series by Neal Stephenson. The book has been out for a week and is already flying off the shelves, most likely to the very same folks who are always telling me how much they love Stephenson’s previous novels, especially Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. Meanwhile, Zoe Heller is nearing breakthrough status with her second novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, which is about a teacher who carries on an affair with her fifteen year old student. It sounds trashy, but from what I hear it turns out to be a nuanced and moving character study. It’s been short-listed for the Booker Prize and is beginning to sell accordingly. Also short-listed and selling incredibly well in England is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Following in the footsteps of fellow young Londoner Zadie Smith, Ali’s debut novel is another unsparing look at multi-cultural London. Finally, another debut, this one is a cleverly wrought time traveling romance by Audrey Niffenegger titled, appropriately, The Time Traveler’s Wife. So there you go. A few things to read this fall. Stayed tuned for the next installment: new non-fiction.
For some reason, the CBC never made their interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski available online after it originally aired. Luckily, Millions contributor Andrew Saikali listened to the show live and sent me a quick recap:- It was a half-hour interview which actually was recorded by the CBC at his home in Warsaw.- he’s a very thoughtful, eloquent man- Much of it was devoted to growing up during the war, in Pinsk in the Poland/Belarus border area – I gather it sort of pingponged back and forth between the two jurisdictions throughout history- childhood poor – the war hit on what would have been his first day of school. – grew up with War being the norm. Peace, when it came, felt transitional, tentative- Pinsk was multi-ethnic then – Poles, Belarussians, Jews, Ukrainians maybe, and probably others that I forget. – Pre-war it was functional, the various ethnicities mixed and worked together in order to get by.- his parents were both teachers- hunger during the war caused him and others to ask the Russian soldiers for food, but all they could get were cigarettes.- often went barefoot (as children, during the war) – because shoes were in short supply – still sees people in their fancy shoes and flashes back to when he thought of them as “luxuries”- as a young reporter he was sent to both China and India (on two separate occasions) – and in each case the following happened: he was so overwhelmed by the culture, and got so immersed, that he felt as if he could spend the rest of his life reporting from there and writing about there – and so he asked to be transferred from there quickly – because as absorbed and fascinated as he was by it, he knew that first and foremost he was a man of the world and wanted so see and experience everything, everywhere – which, I think, shows remarkable self-awareness, especially in a young reporter, to know that one’s worldly-tendencies were in danger of being trumped by a specific-regional fascination – to know enough about your own strengths and weaknesses to leave, and follow your “true path” before getting (permanently) drawn in to something specific (no matter how great it may be)
So, I’m done with journalism school. It was a quick fifteen months. I’m excited about the journalistic climate of these times; I’m very caught up in all the heady things being said about blogs and the new medium in general. It’s an exciting time to be in this business. But then again I suppose journalism has always been exciting. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of journalists, I realize that they are a backward-looking bunch – which isn’t to say that they are anachronisms, just that they are very conscious of their history. I don’t blame them. It’s a very rich history. One thing I learned in journalism school is how our newspapers are shrinking – and one day they may shrink into nothing, living only on the Internet. Newspapers used to be much bigger than today’s, but high newsprint costs and the changing tastes of readers have made newspaper companies skew smaller and smaller. At the turn of the last century, though, newspapers were quite big, and, as it turns out, at least one of them was very colorful.It’s an odd experience looking at pictures from the The World on Sunday (found here and here), a New York paper from more than one hundred years ago, because I think that we’re trained to think of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a black and white world. These colorful images have recently gotten some attention thanks to Nicholson Baker and his wife Margaret Brentano who rescued the papers from the refuse pile of the British Library and used them as raw material for a book that came out this fall: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898 – 1911). As Jack Shafer said in his column on Slate:But what made this vivid copy sing was its graphic and typographical presentation. Pulitzer’s people bulldozed the dreary, gray newspaper design template. The World ran headlines across a couple of columns, not just one, or completely across the page if it really wanted to provoke readers. Halftone photos, dramatic and comic illustrations, inset graphics, hand-lettered headlines, and buckets of color enlivened these artful pages.The Internet promises photos, audio, video and all kinds of interactivity. I love that, but I’m a little sad that newspaper like The World won’t be showing up on my doorstep any time soon.Earlier this month, Ron at Beatrice.com singled out this book as great gift idea, and I have to agree. This is the perfect gift for any fan of the news (and for future journalists, as well.)