Joel Stein of the LA Times is bravely calling the wrath of legions of Harry Potter fans down upon himself, but I can’t say that I agree with what he’s trying to say. First there’s the headline: “Hogwarts fans, you’re stupid, stupid, stupid.” Not mincing any words there. Stein is apparently infuriated that so many adults are excited about the upcoming Harry Potter book. “Next Saturday, when the sixth Harry Potter book comes out, at the very least I want you to stammer excuses when I see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on your nightstand. I want you to claim you’re reading it to make sure it’s OK for your kids, or your future kids, or even, if you have to, for kids in general,” he writes. He goes on to bash adults who enjoy C.S. Lewis, E.B. White and J.R.R. Tolkien (“Isn’t it a clue that you should be ashamed of reading these books past puberty when the adults who write them are hiding their first names?”) and Finding Nemo. Stein’s grating tone aside, there are two points I’d like to make: First, some of the best books and movies we have were written for kids (or kids AND adults). It must be sad to go through life avoiding “kid stuff” because you don’t deem it to be intellectually up to par. Secondly, what do you think all these adults who are reading Harry Potter will read instead? It will be Dan Brown and James Patterson on their nightstands, if they read at all. Is that really so much better? I say that if people are reading it’s a good thing for the book industry and for our culture – even if it is just a kids’ book.
The summer, that great season of reading, is now on the wane. And as the autumn swings into view, you might be looking for a book to prolong the escapism of the season or perhaps to provide you with some comfort as the cooler months settle in. August is not traditionally a great month for new books. It’s too late for “summer reads” and too early yet for the holiday retail push. Still, this August there will be several books that will be worth a look. It’s an eclectic and intriguing list, and I’ll start with the title that I am most looking forward to. Harbor is a novel about an Algerian immigrant named Aziz who has stowed away in a tanker’s hold for 52 days in order to illegally enter the United States. Upon his arrival, however, there isn’t much stopping him from becoming an unwitting participant in the war on terror. The book was written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Lorraine Adams. For those who enjoy short stories, check out a new collection by young writer named Courtney Eldridge. Unkempt consists of seven stories as well as a novella entitled “The Former World Record Holder Settles Down” in which the “world record” refers to the now happily married title character’s past life as a porn star. The Wasp Eater, a debut novel by William Lychack, sounds especially intriguing. The book is set in New England in 1979 and is about a nine-year-old boy who is caught between his estranged parents. It is, I’m told, beautifully written, and both wrenching and uplifting. For those looking for a more light-hearted book there’s another debut effort: An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray. The lead character, Charles Hythloday, is a loveable drunkard from an eccentric family, and his life of leisure is about to be severely curtailed by his feisty sister and the return of his long lost mother. This one is being described as a hilarious update on classic British humor and it was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award no less. Also sure to tickle your funny bone is Eating Crow by Jay Rayner about a restaurant reviewer named Marc Basset whose cruel review drives a chef to suicide. Basset is compelled to make an apology, and, after discover the palliative effects of such an act, decides to make a career of it, eventually becoming Chief Apologist for the United Nations. Viciously funny, I’m told. Two better-known authors will be releasing books in August as well. Arthur Phillips will release The Egyptologist, which is supposed to be even better than his big selling debut Prague. Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has a new book out as well, Snow. Pamuk’s previous book, My Name is Red, was a favorite among many readers, but this new offering is supposed to be dense and challenging. Still, some believe that a dense and challenging book is the best way to counteract a summer’s worth of fluffy beach reading.Harbor by Lorraine Adams — excerptUnkempt by Courtney Eldridge — short storyThe Wasp Eater by William Lychack — interviewAn Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray — excerptEating Crow by Jay Rayner — excerpt, The Apology LogThe Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips — excerptSnow by Orhan Pamuk — excerpt
Some good new fiction paperbacks have come out in the past days and weeks. Today’s new arrival is Porno by Irvine Welsh. This one apparently resurrects the characters from Trainspotting and chronicles their foray into the world of adult films. I read Trainspotting while I was staying with my friend Derek and his folks at their house in Maine. I loved the book; I was thrilled when I found myself thinking in the thick Scottish accent of the book: bairn for baby, bird for girl, etc. It was the summer after my senior year in high school. I was of an age and at a moment for which Trainspotting was perfect, plus there is something special about a book read while vacationing, when huge chuncks are read at a time, and nothing that happens in between these reading sessions is weighty enough to detract from a full immersion in the story at hand. I became sufficiently attached to Renton, Sick Boy, and the rest that had Porno been around, I probably would have begun reading it the moment I set down its predecessor. Instead, with the intervening pause approaching ten years, I never mustered the interest to read Porno. Maybe if I ever read Trainspotting again, I will read Porno as well. Also out recently in paper: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Since Murakami’s stories appear frequently in the New Yorker, and since I read the New Yorker each week, by the time this earthquake-centered collection came out I had already read many of the stories. Once some time has passed, a decade perhaps, I will buy this book and read all the stories again. I feel confident that Murakami will remain in print. One day I would also like to reread his book Norwegian Wood. It is a favorite book of mine, in large part bacause it reminded me of that great feeling you get when you find one that’s really good. Life of Pi by Yann Martel, I suspect, may be able to deliver that same feeling. This one, since it came out, has had an ever-growing swell of support, cresting with it’s being awarded the Booker Prize. My grandmother, whose taste in books I trust considerably, found this book to be remarkable. Out of all the books I’m mentioning today, I’ll most likely read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer soonest. I read an excerpt of the book many months ago in a “New Fiction” issue of the New Yorker. I was both surprised by and somewhat skeptical of its more daring stylistic flourishes. There is no denying that this is a good book though, unless I’m foolish enough to go against the recommendations of several of my trusted fellow readers.A Small but Important Poker AddendaIn my mention of Positively Fifth Street, I forget to mention a related book that, at the very least, I would like to have on the record so that I remember to read it one day. The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez is another account of the World Series of Poker and is, from what I hear, a must read for all poker fans. Plus, Chronicle Books is the publisher, which is why it looks so cool.
Over the past few years, I’ve read a good amount of twentieth century Russian history, and I’ve come to wonder, with dismay, why the Soviet regime – especially during Stalin’s reign – is not acknowledged as one of the great horrors in human history. One does not see memorials and museums to this tragedy in cities around the world, nor even in Russia. This view was reinforced in me by books like Anne Applebaum’s Gulag and Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread. Now Millions reader Brian has read another book about Stalin’s reign and sent in his thoughts:I just read Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore– One of the most intense and fascinating books I’ve ever read in my life. Wow. Focuses mostly on Stalin’s life after Lenin’s death and the lives of the Russian magnates that surrounded him. At about pg. 200 the Great Terror kicks in, leading into negotiations and subsequent war with Germany and… it is indescribable. Truly. We all know about Stalin, but I never really understood…- There is one scene in this book, the Russians had 17,000 Poles imprisoned. Stalin ordered 7,000 of them killed. Blohkin was the man to do it. At various times during the Terror he was denounced by Yezhov or Beria, but Stalin wouldn’t let him be killed as nobody could murder with such speed or efficiency. Moreover, like Stalin, it didn’t jangle Blohkin’s nerves; he didn’t turn to excessive drink, decadent sex, or lose him mind. (Although his mother, years later, recalled that he would come home, throw himself at her feet, and sob uncontrollably) – so, on the abovementioned night, Blohkin put on his rubber butcher’s apron, a cap, and took a German pistol (blame it on the Nazis if the crime was discovered) and personally shot 250 poles. He did this – 250 murders a night – for 28 nights. It is the single largest (known) mass murder by one individual in history.- Montefiore provides day by day descriptions of life in the Kremlin, the intrigues amongst Stalin’s ‘court’, the denunciations, confessions, and sexual liaisons amongst the men and women at the ‘top’ (one of Stalin’s favorite things, which he did over and over, was to order the murder of a top official’s wife and then force the official to hang around (and, possibly take orders from) her murderer); the meetings between Molotov and Hitler, Stalin and Ribbentrop, FDR, Churchill, etc. – he gives actual confessions, testimonies, and descriptions of Stalin’s right hand men being beaten so hard that their eyeballs pop out of their heads (for some reason this is mentioned frequently — what must be done to a man or woman’s head to have an eyeball pushed, not picked, out?) by their former best friends, and, at times, their sons or brothers. Seriously.The paperback came out last week. A must read.