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.”
I used part of my day off to sit around my house and listlessly attempt to get things done. I used the other, smaller, part of my day off to run some errands, and when I spotted a goodwill store in Glendale, I just had to run in and check out their book selection. I'm really glad I did.Find #1: A hardcover edition of J. F. Powers' cult classic Wheat That Springeth Green. As you can see from the link, New York Review of Books Press has recently reissued this one, and it has been a favorite among my coworkers.Find #2: A hardcover edition of a book called Shah of Shahs by one of my all time favorite writers, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski has spent the last 50 years writing for the Polish equivalent of the Associated Press. During this time he has been on the scene for nearly every international conflict from front page news to the one paragraph comment buried in the International section. He wrote under the auspices of a state run news agency controlled by a Communist country and yet he spent nearly all of this time abroad, witnessing the wider world as few Communist citizens were able to. His writing betrays this interesting perspective in that he takes nothing for granted and never resorts to cliche to describe cultures that are utterly foreign. In this way, his journalism bears little resemblence to his Western counterparts, and instead he is just a man describing other men, exploring the universal nature of conflict, and occasionally pining for the cold winters of his homeland. Shah of Shahs is about the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah as told by Kapuscinski who was, of course, in Tehran at the time. I already own this in paperback, but I couldn't help buying the hardcover.Find #3: The two books about Russia that I read recently made frequent mention of two interesting points. First, that for a long time the West had no idea what sort of horrors went on in Stalin's Russia, and for a long time after many downplayed these horrors. Second, that there was a large officially sanctioned community of writers, known as the "Writers' Union," that spewed out official literature, hailed as a great achievement but often little more than thinly disguised propaganda. At the store today I found a book called Short Stories of Russia Today, edited by Yvonne Kapp and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1959. This corresponds with the height of Khrushchev's "thaw," three years after he had denouced Stalin in his "Secret Speech" to a closed session of the General Assembly, which must somehow account for how this collection came to be. There is also inherent in this book the sort of thinly disguised awe and fear that Americans felt towards Russia at the time. The dust jacket copy can be read almost as a warning that there is no endeavor that Russians can not apply their might towards. Here's one little snippet "Like Sputnik, this collection shows that there is more going on in Russia than is revealed by the facade of Communist propaganda." Whatever the point of this collection, it certainly is a relic of a different time.Finds #4 & 5: When I go bookfinding, I like to pick up books that I've never heard of. This can be tricky because most books that end up where I'm scavenging are pretty bad. Usually I solve this problem by getting short story anthologies or literary journals when I see them. There's usually a hidden gem or two contained within. Today, I snagged O. Henry Awards Prize Stories of 1992 featuring stories by Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ann Packer among many others. I also came across an interesting-looking old hardcover (Knopf, 1969) of a book called The Coming of Rain by Richard Marius. I'd never heard of him, but after getting home and doing a little research I discovered that he's fairly well-known Southern writer and that this book is the first of a series of four novels that, between the four of them, take place over the course of the last century in the South.
Yesterday I mentioned John Keegan's latest book, The Iraq War. The book is meant to be an overview of the conflict, yet in the eyes of most people the Iraq War is still brewing. Yes, large scale military operations have long been over with, but, with breaking news coming from the region daily, one suspects that the history books, looking back, will not describe this conflict as being finished. As such, it is difficult to look at Keegan's book as a definitive overview of this war. This is Janet Maslin's take in today's New York Times (she also thinks that Keegan's angle is too Western and "snobbish.") My suspicion is that this book was rushed to completion and into book stores by the publisher in order to get in on the brisk sales of Iraq-related titles. Undoubtedly, a little temporal distance from the subject matter would have improved Keegan's effort.Lovers of architecture and books alike are raving about Seattle's new Central Library, a graceful steel and glass structure designed by the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas. Here's praise from the Seattle Times, and here's the official website with pictures. One of the more interesting aspects of the new library: the stacks are laid out on continuous, unbroken shelves that spiral through the center of the building.A few months ago there was an interesting article in the New Yorker about one of the world's lost treasures, the Amber Room, "an entire chamber paneled and ornamented in amber presented to Peter the Great of Russia in 1717 by King Frederick William of Prussia as a gift to seal the friendship between their two states." The New Yorker article described the search for the room, thought to have been hidden in Germany by the Nazis during World War II, as well as the construction of a costly replica of the room that was being built in Russia. As with much that occurred behind the Iron Curtain, there was much doubt about the true fate of the Amber Room. Now, in a book entitled The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, new evidence is revealed that solves the mystery once and for all. Read an edited extract from the book.
I was looking at today's installment of the Publishers Lunch newsletter (which I highly recommend for those interested in the book business, even if you only get the free version like I do), and something jumped out at me. News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings this week, including the regular update on HarperCollins, which is owned by Murdoch and company. Publishers Lunch got some additional color on the news from HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. It's not linkable because it's an email newsletter, but here's the quote:Segment by segment, Friedman says the general books group continued to grow sales and profits significantly in the US, as did the children's group. "There's one area where we are having a lot of problems--religious publishing is in a lot of trouble." Though religious books "have had a fantastic run for the entire 9 years I've been at this company," Friedman observed, "it is starting to see hard times. Right now we are seeing heavy returns--product that just didn't work, but more significantly, we're seeing a contraction in the CBA, which is what we went through with the ABA." Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Life still sells more "than almost any other book" on the religious list, but Friedman has "concerns about the whole religious sector."Emphasis mine. I was surprised to read this because, as Friedman indicates and as book industry-watchers know, religious books have been a huge seller in recent years, growing much faster than most other types of books.As I read this, though, it occurred to me that peoples' reading tastes, taken broadly, might be a good indicator of the philosophical mood of the country. It may be that HarperCollins' religious titles were duds this year, but it's also possible that the fervent hold of religion -- and when we talk about "religious books" we're talking primarily about born-again Christian themes -- on this country is loosening. I don't want to read to much into this, but is it possible that, among the broader public, conservative Christianity was a cultural fad, with its own attendant movies, music, and books, and that people who don't have too much invested in it will move onto the next thing that promises to help them with their lives? I'd be curious to see if there's any other evidence out there that lends itself to this idea.