Even though this blog is devoted almost exclusively to books, I would be remiss if I did not mention the remarkable natural phenomenon that has been going on around me these past few days. The 17 year cicadas have emerged en masse from underground. Everyone, I’m sure, in their lifetime has had an encounter with a swarm of one type of bug or another, termites, bees, mosquitoes perhaps. In one of my grungier apartments in Los Angeles I once walked into to the kitchen to find more ants than one ever likes to see in one place. But the cicadas, they are something completely different. Brood X, as the scientists call this particular population, inhabits highly localized spots in the mid-Atlantic and Ohio River valley, and in some areas, like where I live, there are as many as 1.5 million per densely forested acre. The bugs themselves are large, larger than nearly any bug I’ve encountered, but they are oddly non-threatening. They are so dumb as to be barely functioning organisms. Walking through my yard, I’ll see a cicada approaching at a distance of fifty feet, and it will continue to fly in a straight line until it plows into me and then falls to the ground, dazed or unconscious. Each morning there are hundreds of them in piles against the side of the house, which they were unable to avoid during their night time travels. We sweep them away and an hour later there are dozens more. They give off this high pitched drone, and when you get a million or so together you can hear them from inside the house. Combined with the ungodly humidity, the noisesome, gigantic bugs have lent a prehistoric feel to the summer, not unlike the dinosaur simulation I remember from Epcot Center when I was younger. I half-expect a giant plastic animatronic T. Rex to be lurking behind my house. But they’ll be gone in a month, not to return for another 17 years, and I’ll be able to put away the plastic whiffle bat that I use to beat them back every time I leave the house.Vladimir Nabokov, of course, adored a more likeable sort of bug, the butterfly. In yet another fantastic “Second Reading” column, Washington Post book reviewer, Jonathan Yardley revisits Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. If this all sounds familiar to you, you may recall that a New York Times article about Nabokov inspired me to write about this book a few weeks back.And in non-bug news, E. L. Doctorow, whose new book Sweet Land Stories came out recently, comments in the Washington Post on the heckling he received during his controversial commencement speech at Hofstra University last weekend.
One of the most anticipated books of the summer is Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. The book will be out a week from Tuesday, and already it’s pushing into Amazon’s top 100. All spring there were reports of galleys (advance copies for reviewers) selling for a couple of hundred dollars on eBay. Rake’s Progress posted a report from one of the lucky few who got their hands on the book early. Granted, this reader was posting to the Cormac McCarthy Society Web site, but still his review was glowing. Other glowing reviews have come in at PW and Booklist, and the newspaper book pages will weigh in soon. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the report that McCarthy, a notorious recluse, has given his first interview in 13 years, which will appear in the August issue of Vanity Fair.Booklist’s starred review of Lydia Millet’s satirical novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart compares the book to “Twain, Vonnegut, Murakami, and DeLillo.” Not bad. The novel opens in 2003 with reincarnation of three of the creators of the atomic bomb. After taking stock of the current state of the world, these scientists decide to work for disarmament, but the American military isn’t too keen on that idea. Though the premise seems a bit high concept, reviewers are saying that she pulls it off.If you ever wanted to read a novel set in the exotic locale of Zanzibar, you’re in luck. Lisa Kusel’s novel, Hat Trick, is about two estranged friends who, by chance, happen to be reunited on the small island off the coast of Africa. Mona is there in her capacity as a powerful film producer, while Hannah is there looking for merchandise to sell in her store back home. The man who caused their split is there, too. Peter is a journalist who is writing about the star of Mona’s movie, but he is in Zanzibar to be close to Mona, too. There are no major reviews out yet, but PW was positive about the book.Avner Mandelman’s collection of short stories, Talking to the Enemy, won the Jewish Book Award when it was published in Canada, and now, Seven Stories Press has released the book in the US. Mandelman was a member of the Israeli Air Force and he fought in the Six Day War before moving to Europe and then to Canada. His collection looks at Israelis and Israeli emigres living in a culture of violence. As PW puts it: “With these agile, vernacular stories, Mandelman takes a clear-sighted yet empathetic view of a fraught nation.”
Bookfinding is a science of sorts. Ostensibly, it is a money issue: the goal is to find books for two dollars or less a piece. But there is another element to this exercise. When you walk into a Salvation Army store, or any non-bookstore that has a few shelves full of books at the back, you never know what you’ll find. It’s a real treasure hunt. Sometimes you walk out the door with arms full of books, other times you walk out with one or none. Some of the highest yield bookfinding spots that I have found so far are the Out of the Closet thrift stores that are ubiquitous in some parts of Los Angeles. Out of the Closet is a charity that raises money for AIDS, and like any charity-based thrift store it does not discriminate. Along with a vast selection of clothing, each store has a ton of housewares and furniture and a mindboggling array of random junk. Still, there’s something slightly more hip about Out of the Closet. The staff is young, helpful, and fashionable. They’ve always got good tunes on the radio, and they put together clever displays and windows. It’s only a half step away from the church basement, but that half step makes a difference. I always go straight for the shelf or two of books tucked away at the back of the store, in the dimly-lit corner behind the broken exer-cycle. Though it requires the same amount of digging, the treasures that can be found are incrementally better. At the Salvation Army, I’m pleased to find old paperback editions of classics, but at Out of the Closet, you might just as easily come upon a cult-favorite and books that are more obscurely charming. Which brings me to Monday, when I made a quick run to an Out of the Closet that I hadn’t yet raided, spent ten bucks, and walked out with eight books. Good ones, too. I’m most excited about finding a hardcover edition (though it lacks its dust jacket) of Woody Allen’s print masterpiece Without Feathers. You really can’t go wrong with a book that in its first three pages has about two dozen gems like this one: “Play idea: a character based on my father, but without quite so prominent a big toe. He is sent to the Sorbonne to study the harmonica. In the end he dies, never realizing his one dream — to sit up to his waist in gravy. (I see a brilliant second-act curtain, where two midgets come upon a severed head in a shipment of volleyballs.)” Genius! I also picked up Fraud by David Rackoff, the frequent contributor to This American Life. I usually recommend this one to fans of David Sedaris who have read all of Sedaris’ books. I also somehow remembered that Michael Lewis is the name of the author of Moneyball, and when I saw a copy of Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, his 1989 memoir about working in the cut-throat, 1980s Wall Street world, I snagged it. I also found another first book by an author I like: Michelle Huneven’s debut Round Rock. And I picked up a slick little paperback edition of a somewhat forgotten 20th century American classic, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I rounded out my purchases with three classics of the Calvin & Hobbes oevre which I gleefully found sitting neatly in a row: The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, Weirdos From Another Planet!, and Yukon Ho!… not a bad take for 10 bucks!
I’m hearing from reliable sources that Bunker 13 by Aniruddha Bahal is a wild thriller with an ending that is not to be believed. It takes place at the India / Pakistan border in the disputed region of Kahmir, so it also includes a good dose of the wider world for folks who are into that sort of thing. Also, Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, stopped in today and as he was signing his book, he mentioned that he will spend the next few months writing his sophomore effort in Italy. It is tentatively titled Absurdistan. Sounds interesting…. First took notice of Shteyngart in the New Yorker (he has contributed fiction and essays), and his book was very well recieved. He also has a great author photo, which I unfortunately can’t find on the web anywhere.
I saw this post at Galleycat about the mysterious transvestite cult author J.T. Leroy (Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things). As the Galleycat post suggests, there has been much speculation over the years about whether or not Leroy is a real person or perhaps simply the pseudonym and persona of another author, and the evidence remains inconclusive. Having never read any of Leroy’s books, I don’t have much to say about Leroy as writer, but, as a bookstore clerk in Los Angeles, I did see him (or someone pretending to be him) in the flesh, so I may have something to add on the subject of whether or not he exists.I’m probably a little off on some of the specifics, but here’s what I remember. On a weekday sometime during 2002 or 2003 (see, I told you I’m a little foggy here), the manager told us that she’d gotten a call from Leroy’s representative and that he would be stopping by to sign some books. We bookstore clerks, aware of Leroy’s reclusiveness, mysteriousness, and even the possibility that he didn’t exist, awaited his arrival with much curiosity. Many speculated that it was a hoax and he wouldn’t show. But then he did. He wore very baggy clothes including a much too large gray hooded sweatshirt. The hood was pulled low over his face, which was further obscured by a disheveled blonde wig. In photos, you almost never see Leroy’s face, and even though we were in close proximity to him as he signed books, none of us got a very good look at him. Nor did he talk much, mumbling one word answers or giggling nervously in response to our questions. The strange thing was, even though my coworkers and I had all seen him in the flesh, after he was gone none of us were any more or less sure that he was actually real.