After Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut declared that his career as a novelist was over, but in recent years Seven Stories Press has collected the scattered writing he has done since his retirement into small books. A new, and perhaps more substantial, collection called A Man without a Country comes out in September. Seven Stories describes it thusly: “Based on short essays and speeches composed over the last five years and plentifully illustrated with artwork by the author throughout, A Man Without a Country gives us Vonnegut both speaking out with indignation and writing tenderly to his fellow Americans, sometimes joking, at other times hopeless, always searching.”
When I asked people earlier this month to tell me about the best book they read this year, several wrote back to say that they honestly couldn’t because, over the course of a long and busy year, they had forgotten many of the books that they had read. Now I’m sure that they could have reconstructed their year of reading by combing through old reciepts and library records and interviewing the local barristas: “I’ll have a tall latte, and do you happen to remember what book I was reading during the last week of March?” But who wants to do that. So, if you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, I would like to propose one. It’s easy: make a list of all the books you read this year. If you want to do something a little more rigorous, commit yourself to putting some words down about every book you read (And if you deem these words ready for public consumption, I’ll happily post them here.) Somehow, this sort of casual reflection makes the reading experience that much more fun. Have a great New Year. Things will be slowly returning to full speed around here, so stay tuned.
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.)
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.
For the President’s brother, you would think it would be pretty easy to get your first novel published. Especially when that novel includes a thinly fictionalized account of life with the President’s father. You’d be wrong, though. Such is the case of Obama’s half-brother, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who today announced the publication of his semi-autobiographical novel, Nairobi to Shenzhen. The book draws extensively on Ndesandjo’s life in Kenya and China–where he currently lives and works as a consultant–and prominently features an account of his relationship with the President’s father. But it wasn’t released by a major publishing house, nor did it win Ndesandjo a hefty advance. Rather, Ndesandjo published the book himself, using Aventine Press, a POD self-publishing company.
Until now, Ndesandjo has kept a remarkably low profile, avoiding both the spotlight and his brother’s coattails. His greatest contribution to the 2008 election season was a statement that he was “proud of his brother.” When approached by a New York Times columnist hungry for information about the President’s family life, Ndesandjo stayed mum, commenting that he “had a limited interest in their father” and, “Life’s hard enough without all the excess baggage.”
A lot can change in a year, and it seems that Ndesandjo has decided to cash in. The popularity of Obama’s autobiography Dreams of My Father in the lead-up to the 2008 election and the insanity of the birther movement have contributed to a public interest in the details of President Obama’s paternity. Despite his insistence that some things are best left forgotten, Ndesandjo has stated that the novel explores his parents’ relationship in detail. In a Reuters report leading up to the novel’s release, Ndesandjo described his father as abusive, a man who beat his wife and children, stating “I remember times in my house when I would hear screams and I would hear my mother’s pain.”
Ndesandjo is clearly not afraid to take advantage of any residual Obamania (though he has said 15% of the profits from the book will go to support Chinese orphans). The book launch was scheduled for the one year anniversary of Obama’s historic election (and several weeks before his inaugural trip to China this month), and the story was quickly picked up by virtually every major media source in the country. Nor did he forget to mention that he had another, autobiographical book in the works, this one dealing with his relationship with his brother. Looks like that hefty advance might be on the way after all.
The screws are tightening as the holiday season draws near, and though all I want to do is post on this blog, there is just so much to get done before I head back home for the holidays. Luckily, head Millions correspondent, Brian, has supplied me with a wealth of material over the past couple of days, from which I will borrow liberally and/or quote verbatim.I was at the book store yesterday, and I saw that Brian had placed this book on display with a little card reading. “Has a book ever become so obsolete, so quickly,” which, along with this news story about bearded Saddam dolls, is proof that the American news-based satire business is as fast-paced as the news itself… I’ll just have to add those items to my cache of “most wanted” decks of cards (which come in original [Iraqis], retaliatory [Republicans], and counter-retaliatory [Democrats]), Enron spoofs, and hilarious um… other Enron humor. Seriously, though, there are literally hundreds of books like these: super-topical, amusing books that are rushed to market while the story is still hot in the hope that it will drag on long enough to bring in a nice profit before the books become obsolete, relics of the churning news cycle.Brian also sent me links to a couple of interesting book-related news stories: “This link is to Harold Bloom’s review of the new Don Quixote – Bloom considers it the greatest novel ever written. Note: the review is an edited extract from Bloom’s introduction, so those that have the book… skip it — Bloom does mention that he believes [Edith] Grossman’s translation to be amongst the finest of the past 500 years.” Another story from across the pond: “An interesting article using Vernon God Little (this year’s Booker Prize winner) as the jumping off point to explain why the Booker Prize is irrelevant crap!”
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion