I spotted this essay by James Wood in the Guardian about endings that disappoint. I agree that there is hardly anything more disheartening than a novel that just peters out at the end. To me reading a book is like making an investment. You put in the time, and at the end you hope to walk away with some pleasure. A bad ending screws up the whole arrangement. I tried to think of some really good endings and off the top of my head I came up with a couple. In terms of paying off on an investment, one of my favorites is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The “a ha!” moment is almost too perfect but Irving has set it up so well that you can’t help but believe it. Another great ending that comes to mind is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. After such a long journey, one almost expects the book to run out of steam, but Steinbeck magnificently collects everything together at the end and sends you out of the book with real emotional force. When I read the last words of that book and put it down, I said to myself, “Wow, that was worth it.”
So, What’s new this week? Studs Turkel might be the originator of the “oral history” genre that seems to be reaching market saturation of late. After a while, it just seems like a lazy way to write a history book, even if it is the undeniably rockin’ history of punk. Turkel strays from these glorified interviewers in a couple of ways. First, he is adept at picking broad but compelling subjects and at finding the common and divergent threads that run through these subjects. His huge seller from 1972, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, is an incredibly readable chronicle of the most common of American experiences. Second, as I have already implied, Turkel is able to paint history in the words of everyday people, not famous folks who practically make a living giving interviews, sketch comedy actors, for example. His new book, Hope Dies Last is the study of his most esoteric subject yet, America’s collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it. Once again, he solicits the views of people from different generations and walks of life. Speaking of different walks of life, lots of folks out there seem to be excited by the general who is ready trade in his stars for a chance to become the President. Those curious to know more about Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark can see him showing off his military chops in his new book Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire.Those in a fictional frame of mind should look out for David Guterson’s long-awaited followup to Snow Falling on Cedars, a book called Our Lady of the Forest. To paraphrase what Guterson was saying this afternoon on a local public radio show, Our Lady of the Forest is about the occurrence of a mystical, Catholic phenomenon in a destitute Pacific Northwest logging town and the effect it has on four characters. 16-year-old runaway, Anne Holmes, believes that she is having visions of the Virgin Mary. This produces in the young town priest, Father Don Collins, a crisis of conscience. For sometime drifter and mushroom-picker, Carolyn Greer, the apparitions mean money and opportunity, and for guilt-ridden former logger Tom Cross, they signal a chance for redemption. It was especially interesting to hear Guterson talk about how he tried to infuse the book with both the beauty of the rainforests of the Northwest and the squalor of the once-prospering logging towns nearby. Also new in fiction: Shipwreck, another spare and haunting novel by Louis Begley, the author of About Schmidt. Also just out is Train, a must-read LA noir novel by Pete Dexter. I read it and loved it. Here is my review. In paperback people are buying Koba the Dread, Martin Amis’ powerful indictment of Stalin and his Western sympathizers, The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene’s almost-creepy investigation of the ways in which people manipulate one another, and Songbook, Nick Hornby’s paean to his own considered and considerable music collection.AwardwinningThis year’s Booker Prize has been awarded to Australian author D.B.C. Pierre for his debut novel, Vernon God Little.
On day ten of our recent cross-country drive, it became clear that we had twenty hours left of driving and no more music and nothing to say to each other again, possibly ever. At one point we realized that we were fools and that for ten days we could have been listening to audio books instead of children’s programming on the Focus on the Family radio station, which is evidently the only radio station broadcasting in some portions of the country, which explains a lot of things about a lot of other things.We went to a Barnes and Noble in a strip mall in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and found that our audio options mostly consisted of self-help, Janet Evanovich, Sean Hannity, and six ponderous Classics. Moby Dick, at twenty-one hours, was the closest to our remaining driving time, so that was our pick. To my great shame, I have tried and failed to read that novel a number of times. It’s not the length, but the alarming density of it. The sentences, while exquisitely made, are exhausting, so many of them one after another like that. I had never listened to a book on tape, because the concept sounded too confusing, but I thought it might be an ideal format for this, my own white whale (if you will).And it was great! We were having such a fun time with Ahab and Queequeg and the gang, and during the parts which made my eyes glaze over in reading (like the whale classifications and whatnot), I could just look out the window and listen to the dulcet tones of Audie Award™ Winner Frank Muller!We had just finished disc six of eighteen, somewhere around chapter forty, and I went eagerly for the next one. Only to find that instead of discs 7-12, we had been given two sets of 13-18. There was a lot of suffering in the car at that moment. My traveling companion suggested, with choice words, that we call the company and have a representative read us those chapters over the phone. Unsurprisingly, however, their solution was to mail the missing discs. To our home, in which we will have no need for an audio book. It’s so obvious that I am never finishing Moby Dick.
According to a new PEW Research Poll published last week, Republicans are still – in spite of the nation’s economic woes, their epically unpopular current president, and their party’s doubtful prospects for the upcoming election – happier than Democrats: 37% of Republicans versus 25% of Democrats consider themselves “very happy” – and more of them have been “very happy” since research on the subject began in 1972. While I have always suspected that a melancholic disposition is the first cause of Leftist political thought (see Why So Serious: Batman and the Intellectuals), I nonetheless find it disturbing to see this impression quantified in tidy pie graphs on the PEW website.But perhaps I should be gratified to have hard evidence of the truth of my suspicion that a basic dispositional division between people is the source of our two parties: fundamentally optimistic people, believing in the power of the individual human will and spirit to triumph at last over all obstacles, become Republicans; fundamentally pessimistic people (some might also call them realists), who recognize how powerless the individual can be against institutions and larger social forces, become Democrats.My theories, however, are for another day. The PEW report stresses that being Republican does not actually cause happiness, but it does find that setting aside all other extenuating factors that tend to increase happiness (money, being married, being healthy), a Republican is more likely than a Democrat to be very happy. And the report finds that more Republicans have more of the things that make people happy (And I quote):They have more money.They have more friends.They are more religious.They are healthier.They are more likely to be married.They like their communities more.They like their jobs more.The are more satisfied with their family life.They like the weather better.They have fewer financial worries.They are more likely to see themselves doing better in life than their parents did.They’re more like to feel that individuals – rather than outside forces – control their own success or failure.They have more of what they most value in life. (No, it’s not money.)So, while the Democrats may win the White House in a few weeks time, they are and will be still, it seems, losers in the art of getting happy.
A little more than 10 years ago a couple of Wall Street Journal reporters got together to write about the calamitous rise and fall of RJR Nabisco, an episode that would epitomize the back room shenanigans of a decade of junk bonds and hostile takeovers. They ended up with fantastic book called Barbarians at the Gate, which was later made into a decent HBO movie of the same title. The book is a thrilling account of cutthroat billion dollar deals, and gross misappropriation of funds, like when the CEO has the company plane pick up his dog to keep him company at a golf tournament. Now, after barely a pause it seems, there are again dozens of stories of greed to be told, starting of course with the biggest one of all, Enron. Once again two Wall Street Journal reporters have used their singular knowledge and access to tell the story of the bust that has come to define the boom that preceded it. Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller are the reporters who originally broke the story, and their book 24 Days, is as much about the collapse of Enron as it is about the investigative journalism that uncovered this massive fraud.On the way to work I caught the tail end of an interview with Richard Polsky. He was talking about how tremendously juvenile the world of high end modern art collectors, gallery owners, and artists can be. He was illustrating the point with a story about how a food fight erupted at a gallery, and an extremely expensive Ed Ruscha painting was marred by a grease stain from a thrown chicken wing. He describes this and the many other antics he encountered on his quest to purchase his first piece of modern art in his book I Bought Andy Warhol, which is, from everything I’ve heard, a tremendously funny jab at the inner circle of modern art.I read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware about two months ago, and it continues to infect my brain as few other books have. Reading the book felt like a view into the psyche of writer and artist and character, a comic more real than a dream yet somehow just slightly less real than life. I was delighted to see that Chronicle Books that will allow me to further delve into the world of Jimmy Corrigan. Acme Novelty Datebook is the collected sketches of Ware from when he was writing Jimmy Corrigan. There are many things packed onto the pages: sketches for Jimmy Corrigan, great little sight gags and five or six panel comics that lead into a pleasant oblivion, and a lot of stuff that seemingly comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere, but is fascinating to look at. The book is beautiful. I can’t wait to spend more time with it.Three Pt. 2 (Advice for Those Abroad)My buddy Cem is trying to figure out what to do next. He’s currently in northwestern Thailand near the border with Burma. Help me help him decide what to do. Here are his three options:1. Stay in town and teach English to Burmese Refugees. Commitment: 2 months2. Move to the border town of Mae Sot and work with 10 young guys who live in a shack in the woods and produce an anti government magazine that they circulate in the refugee camps, internationally, and in Burma. Also teach english to Shan and Wa and Karen exile youth part time. Commitment: 3 months3. Pack up and head into Burma itself for 3 weeks doing major research for a big article, also purchasegood to sell at home (laquerware, etc). Record everything in Arabic script. Work on article and get published via NY contacts. Leave for Cairo or the beach when I get back.(I’m leaning towards option three by the way)
C.S. Forester’s fictional naval hero, Horatio Hornblower (of the Hornblower series of adventure novels), has one of the more memorably silly names in literary history. So, British researchers were quite surprised when they found a real life Hornblower in centuries old census records. Other silly names uncovered: Boadicea Basher, Philadelphia Bunnyface, Faithful Cock, and many more.
There are probably two cardinal rules of blogging; that is, there are two things that a blogger must do to have a fully realized blog within the mass that is the blogosphere. One, the blogger should post relatively frequently and consistently, several times a week lets say. Second, a blogger should link to other blogs. I’ve been reasonably successful at the former, but inadequate at the latter. But I can assure you, this has been out of laziness and not by design. When I started this blog about 18 months ago, it didn’t occur to me that there might be other blogs about books out there, but indeed there were, and new ones crop up all the time. It occurred to me recently that the readers of my blog, being book fans, might like to know about the litblogs that are out there. So here are some of my favorites. Add them to your bookmarks, read them. Enjoy their daily nourishment:Beatrice — It’s not what you think. Beatrice isn’t an old woman with a beehive hairdo, it’s blog run by Ron Hogan. Beatrice is probably my favorite of all the litblogs. Hogan touches on all the big stories with humor, and he often has his own insights to add. Plus, and this is a very big plus, he has an unbelievable archive of interviews he’s conducted with literary luminaries over the years.The Elegant Variation — I met Mark Sarvas once at the bookstore I worked at in Los Angeles. He was there for a sparsely attended reading, by whom I can’t recall, and we got to chatting. Like first time fathers, we talked about our, at the time, brand new blogs. And while I would continue to plug away in my fashion, Sarvas quite rapidly put together one of the most widely read litblogs out there. If you want to stay on top of the lit world and the litblog world, the Elegant Variation is essential.Golden Rule Jones — When I moved to Chicago, my goal was to have the city’s second-best litblog. His listings of local readings are indispensable, and his understanding of the city’s literary scene is deep. Still, Golden Rule Jones is a quieter redoubt, and Jones isn’t afraid to present his readers with the occasional poetic interlude. If you live in Chicago and love books, you might as well make Golden Rule Jones your homepage.The Literary Saloon — The Saloon is a very newsy sort of litblog with a British bent. It’s great place to keep up on Booker gossip and the like. n.b. The Saloon is attached to one of the best book review sites on the web: The Complete ReviewMaud Newton — Maud Newton is the grande dame of litbloggers. Her tremendously popular blog lays it all out on the table from her literary loves to her daily trials and tribulations. Something about Maud makes you really want to root for her. Go Maud!Rake’s Progress — A relative newcomer, Rake’s Progress consists of terrific links and off the cuff literary analysis delivered with a well-developed sense of irony and humor.Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind — Sarah Weinman is professional book reviewer who has been kind enough to share her talents with the blogosphere. Her background is in crime fiction, but she turns her journalist’s eye on all aspects of the literary world. She’s a real pro.GalleyCat — An outgrowth of the publishing networking site, Media Bistro, GalleyCat is a newsy spot that will keep you up to date on all the latest stories in the publishing world and in litblog land. If you just have time to read one blog a day, GalleyCat will keep you in the loop.Bookdwarf — Bookdwarf is a blog that’s close to my heart because it has a lot in common with The Millions. Bookdwarf works at a great independent bookstore, just like I used too. And just like me she can’t help but spread all that bookstore knowledge far and wide.Tingle Alley — Tingle Alley is a blog by a writer who happens to be, as all good writers should be, an avid reader. She shares her thoughts on the latest book news, on the books she reads, and on the progress of her novel.Waterboro Library Blog — Lots of libraries have a web presence, but none of them blog like the folks in Waterboro, Maine. In the helpful spirit of librarians everywhere, the Waterboro Blog is a great source for important book news. It’s a real public service.Conversational Reading — Scott Esposito’s blog is a real readers’ blog. He eschews the gossipy book news and sticks to discussing reading, posting long, insightful pieces about his reading experience. Esposito also reviews books for various publications.Casa Malaprop — Don Lindgren is a rare book dealer who has an eye for interesting links, (and, presumably, rare books).languagehat.com — I’ve mentioned languagehat on this blog before. Its not really a litblog per se, but languagehat is so chock full of interesting linguistic information that it really shouldn’t be missed. After reading languagehat, you will be tempted to become an amateur linguist yourself.Old Hag — Jimmy at Old Hag is a funny guy. He finds the humor in the book world, in trying to be a writer, in blogging about all this stuff. He’ll make you laugh. (Lizzie’s funny, too.)So that’s it for now. I’ve probably forgotten to mention many worthy litblogs and misrepresented some of the ones I did mention. The point is, there’s lots of great blogs about books out there, and if you only read mine you’re missing out. So check these guys out; you won’t be disappointed.