Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man without a Country is turning into something of a surprise success thanks to prominent TV appearances and the fact that his essays appear to strike a chord with many Americans. From today’s AP story: “The book has reached the top 10 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com, and publisher Seven Stories Press has already more than doubled its first printing, from 50,000 copies to 110,000.” Vonnegut has also taken the opportunity to remark on the onset of old age: “He jokes, sort of, that he has ‘lived too long’ and wishes he had been finished off by a fire at his home a few years ago, from which he escaped unharmed. ‘When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon,’ Vonnegut said with a wheezy laugh worthy of a long-term chain smoker.”
I did not realize that William Boyd would have the same effect that Italo Calvino had on me until I read An Ice-Cream War. When I told the old lady who runs the neighborhood bookstore that lately I had been into Calvino and Henry Miller, and that I really enjoyed Middlesex, she immediately recommended William Boyd, commenting that he is the most underrated contemporary author. Trusting her, I got a copy of An Ice Cream War and began reading. Shortly, I discovered that the novel is an amazing page turner, thanks, mostly, to the cynical British humour with which Boyd approaches the miseries and absurdity of World War I. Over the course of An Ice Cream War, which starts in the neighboring German and British east Africa colonies, the reader travels through Africa, being chased by and also chasing the barbarians (as the British ever so affectionately call the Germans), sees the unfortunate travels of an enthusiastic, newlywed soldier – from his honeymoon in France, back to England, to India, and to Africa – laughs out loud at the most absurd instances of violence, and gets dragged into a very, very cheesy, but still sympathetic love story between an unexpected couple. The reflections on the wartime life in England, the descriptions of three dysfunctional families, and the mockery of the grave consequences of a four year war that no one thought would last past three months are exquisite. Actually, dare I say and yes, here it goes, An Ice Cream War strongly parallels and at times even surpasses the ever great Catch 22 in reflecting cowardice, bravery – for all the wrong reasons, think Milo – and the amazing web of characters who are all interconnected. Read this novel and you too, as I did, will move into the Boyd sphere.Feeling the grips of addiction, I returned to my prime drug, Calvino, for the last novel I read by him in 2004. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is the story of two readers as they attempt to read Calvino’s latest novel and realize that there was a problem with the print, which cut off after the first chapter of the novel. Upon returning the book to the bookstore, both readers discover that they had in fact been reading another author’s novel and decide to stick with it since they really enjoy it, but the same problem occurs. Thanks to the persisting issue, the two readers meet each other and start their quest to reach the end of this bizarre occurrence. Calvino’s prose, which I would categorize as his second phase – splitting from traditional folk tales and becoming more fantasy oriented – cleverly weaves the developing affections between the two readers and the beginnings of novels by different authors. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an ode to books and the pleasure book junkies such as myself derive from them.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Nearly three years ago, I mentioned the El Bulli cookbook, which contains the mad scientist recipes of the famous Catalan chef Ferran Adria. At his restaurant, El Bulli, Adria popularized techniques like creating foams and gelatins using unexpected ingredients and layering flavors and temperatures in his dishes in disconcerting ways. In keeping with what some might call the inaccessibility of his cuisine, his cookbook is large, expensive, and pretty hard to get a hold of. A new edition out in 2005 made it a little easier to take a peak at Adria’s recipes, though, even on sale at Amazon, it’ll still set you back almost $200. This hasn’t kept chefs from coveting the book, according to a recent article in the Contra Costa Times. With Adria’s mystique, and the book’s steep price tag, El Bulli would likely be a jewel in any cookbook collection.
A literary mystery reached its conclusion about two years ago when a lost Alexandre Dumas novel was published in French. The Last Cavalier had been discovered by a scholar in the Bibliotheque nationale de France as researched Dumas’ life. The book has now made it here in translation. The New Yorker covers the book in its “Briefly Noted” section, calling it “a breathless seven hundred and fifty pages,” which is certainly an apt description of the one Dumas book I’ve ever read, The Count of Monte Cristo.The CS Monitor raves as well and offers some specifics on how the novel was found in serialized form and how it was turned into a novel, “in much the same fashion Dumas himself did when transforming other epic serials into bound novels.”
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.
First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.