With recent postings devoted to the second Litblog Co-op pick, Steve Stern’s Angel of Forgetfulness, the LBC Blog is living up to its promise. This weekend, Stern’s editor Paul Slovak posted his comments about the book and also delved into details about some of the other writers he works with including T.C. Boyle and William T. Vollmann. Also making a guest appearance was Stern himself, who responded to the dialogue about his book that Derik and Dan had going last week.
Reuters reported today that The New York Sun is in financial trouble, and may be forced to close shop before the end of the month, unless it can find a backer. In some ways, this isn’t a surprising development. Global affairs, in the current, real-time sense of the term, require enormous resources to cover thoroughly, and economies of scale would seem to cut against a small-circulation newspaper. But the intellectual seriousness of the conservative-leaning Sun has helped it make inroads in an increasingly wide-open market: the book section.Under the editorship of the poet and critic Adam Kirsch (who has two books out this year), The Sun has become, for my money, the best newspaper book section in the country. Kirsch resembles James Wood in his donnish regard for literary tradition, but, more importantly, he shares with Wood an appreciation for the notion of writerly sensibility – and has been willing to assign books to writers whose well-honed sensibilities diverge from his own. Recent pleasures include Kirsch on canonical German Adalbert Stifter, Benjamin Lytal on contemporary master Marilynne Robinson, Otto Pinzler on the varieties of crime fiction, and Caleb Crain on the evolving English language. This breadth of interest and commitment to excellence (in reviewer and subject) are the key ingredients in the kind of book reviews worth reading. It would be sad, after such a promising start, to see The Sun go.[Correction: An attentive reader informs us that, although Adam Kirsch is “the book critic for The New York Sun“, and is, in some sense, the book section, he is not the section’s editor. That title, and presumably the role of assigning reviews, belongs to David Wallace-Wells.]
I once lived for furthering my collection of autographed books. Getting a book signed meant going to hear the author read, waiting in line with other fans, and then, finally, being presented with the chance to utter words of praise. Sometimes it meant getting teary-eyed with envy, worrying over whether I would ever write anything so poignant. This happened when Amy Tan walked by in purple velvet with her lap dog trailing behind her. During middle and high school, at the height of my obsession with autographs, I spent a lot of time writing letters, poems that exhibited the same longing for impossible love, and short stories that revealed I was fixated on the same themes of displacement and loneliness that I am now.
I heard Jamaica Kincaid read twice. The first time she read at the local university from her novel Lucy. I was in seventh grade and inexperienced in matters of love. She read a passage about sucking on a boy’s tongue and I was mesmerized. She stood before a large audience and I couldn’t help but see that she was someone important. The second time I went to hear her read, I got Lucy signed by her before she spoke. My father told her that I wanted to be a writer. She didn’t say anything, only proudly signed her name. Later, during the Q & A, she asked in perfectly enunciated words, “Where is that girl who wants to be a writer?” I shyly raised my hand. She went on to recommend Gertrude Stein to me. Following the reading, I began to imagine Jamaica Kincaid as my writing teacher. With her intimidating stature, I divined she would be just as intimidating of a teacher. I thought only she would be capable of whipping my writing into shape. I wanted her to treat my writing so harshly that my only option would be improvement.
Yevgeniy Yevtushenko read in Russian at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Neither my father nor I spoke Russian, but my father decided to expose me to culture. What I remember is Yevtushenko’s ostentatious blue jacket and his sweeping gestures when he spoke. I later learned Russian, partly thanks to falling in love with his incomprehensible poetic voice, I read some of the poems from his collected works, wondering which he might have read that evening.
When Jennifer Egan came to the suburban Barnes and Nobel to read from her novel The Invisible Circus, my mother and I were the only audience members. Afterwards, I asked Egan one of those typical questions about her writing schedule. I came away with the interesting information that she worked part-time as a detective. Later, I composed a letter to her, which led to another obsession. I spent a grand portion of the day waiting for the mail. A letter was just another passage into the literary world. Not only was I waiting for personal letters, I was also waiting for acceptances from literary journals.
The postman arrived after I got home from school, so I would sit in the armchair near the window and wait for his footsteps. They would culminate in the metal clamor of the mailbox closing. When he had moved on to the next house, I would open the door and collect the mail.
I received one response from Jennifer Egan and an acceptance from a neighborhood newspaper, but most often I received letters from my pen pal who lived on the other side of the city. I met her at a poetry reading at a café called Brewed Awakenings. I played Irish tin whistle and read some poetry. She came up to me afterwards and gave me a copy of the literary journal called Zink in which she had been published. She was also a writer and yet she was incredibly accessible. She asked for my address, and pulled a blank piece of paper from the pouch around her neck for me to write on. I felt uncomfortable about giving a stranger my address, but I did it anyway. At that time of my life I said “yes” to everything.
To my surprise, a few days later I received a typed letter from her in a handmade envelope. I wrote back and she was quick to respond. It wasn’t long before I began to live my life in order to write it to her in a letter. The events that occurred during the day, occurred so that I could describe them. It was then that my writing probably took on its autobiographical quality.
As an adult, I haven’t had such a faithful pen pal, another writer with whom to commiserate. The advent of email and real responsibilities make it impossible to live just for handwritten letters, but most of all, it’s hard to find someone who can be a friend and somewhat of an idol at the same time.
Though I once attended readings regularly and took great comfort in spending Sunday night at the fiction series at the KGB Bar, some of the luster has been lost. Writers seem so accessible that an autographed book doesn’t bring me the same pleasure as it once did and writers seem just as much friends as idols. Now a writer myself, I realize that writing isn’t such a magical process. Still, there are moments when I can happily transport myself to those simpler times of books and letters, the time when I was open to every ounce of experience. Just recently I came away from a reading with a signed copy of Joshua Cohen’s Witz, heard Mary Gaitskill read at the crowded Franklin Park Reading Series, and went to hear Cory Doctorow, Rivka Galchen, and Gary Schteyngart talk about the bleak future while drinking dark and stormys. I also went to hear Jennifer Egan read at Greenlight Bookstore. This time it was to a packed house, inspiring me with the possibility that my writing can also grow in this way.
[Image credit: Weston Boyd]
Hardcovers are expensive! So, what about paperbacks. What are people buying and reading right now? Last year’s addition to the Mariner Books “Best American” series of the Dave Eggers edited The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002 was a big hit. It reprinted the best and the wierdest articles and stories culled from a wide array of publications from The Onion to Spin to The New Yorker. People are quite excited to see that another installment is out. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 is once again edited by Eggers and the book features a clever introduction by none other than Zadie Smith. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, an early Oscar favorite, is already pushing sales of the book that it’s based on, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. The book gets rave reviews from everyone who reads it (and I suspect the movie will be similarly received once it hits theaters.) Also, in fiction, two big award winners are selling like proverbial hotcakes now that they are out in paperback. Last year’s Booker Prize winner Life of Pi by Yann Martel shows no sign of slowing after months of steady sales. Almost every single person I know has read it by now. New in paperback is the book that was awarded last year’s Pulitzer, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, a sweeping family saga with a healthy dose of gender confusion. Finally, a book that I haven’t mentioned in at least a week, one of my all time favorites, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis, a future Nobel Prize Laureate if there ever was one. It’s been nearly a year since I read this book, and I still can’t stop talking about it. I would estimate that my endless chatter about this book has sold hundreds of copies by now, and if the people who bought it recommend it to their friends, as they surely must have, and those friends recommend it to their friends and so on, then before long we will have a worldwide Maqroll revolution on our hands, and the world will be a better place.
I’ve talked about “sale books” once or twice here at The Millions, but since I just a got a great deal on some “sale books,” I decided to revisit the topic. “Sale books” are also known in the book biz as remainders. These are the books you see in your local Barnes & Noble, usually near the front, piled together in bins or on shelves under signs that say things like “clearance” or “all books on this shelf $5.99 or less.” It’s usually a rather odd assortment of books: super cheap hardcovers that mere months (or even weeks) ago were selling for full price. If you dig around you can sometimes find some decent books, but usually the titles are a who’s who of bad books, kind of like the mangled sale rack at your local department store. However, the path from frontlist to remainder bin can be a lot more circuitous than path from shop window to sale rack. And so I present the life cycle of the remaindered book. The remaindered book starts out as a regular old frontlist book, that is, one of the season’s new offerings from a publisher. Let’s call our new book Voyage to Hoboken, a widely anticipated coming of age story by a best-selling author. Since the book is expected to be a big seller, your local Barnes & Noble places a frontlist order of 60 copies from Turnpike Press. The book is released, and amid bad reviews and underwhelming publicity the book is a dud, an outright disappointment. After three months only nine people have bought the book at the full price of $26.95. Now, the book industry is rather odd in that, if a book doesn’t sell, the retail establishment can simply return it to the publisher and get most of their money back. Sometimes, when you work at a bookstore, you begin to get the eerie feeling that rather than selling books, you’re merely storing them until the publisher is willing to take them back. So, the time comes when the buyer at Barnes & Noble decides enough is enough and returns 50 copies to Turnpike Press, leaving one copy on the shelf in case some unwitting reader decides to buy it. At a Turnpike Press warehouse, thousands of copies of Voyage to Hoboken come in from all over the country. But the folks at Turnpike aren’t worried, they are ready to cut their losses. They have negotiated with “remainder houses,” companies that deal with these unwanted books, to get rid of our unfortunate novel in bulk, lets say $1.50 per copy. The remainder house then turns around and calls up the very same book buyer at Barnes & Nobel and sells back this once bought book at a severely reduced price, $3.00 per copy, and then Barnes & Noble tries to sell it to you, the reader, for $6.00. And, in the end, most folks can’t resist the bargain. So, such is the odd journey that bargain books take before arriving in their bargain bin. What inspired me to write about this? Well, the other day I got a catalog in the mail from one of those remainder houses, Daedalus Books, and, since shopping from a catalog is a lot easier than picking through the bargain bin, I got myself four fantastic books for about sixteen bucks. Not bad, eh? Here they are: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey, Pastoralia by George Saunders, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, and The Founding Fish by John McPhee. By the way, bargain books can be found at Amazon, too.Speaking of Amazon, here is an interesting article about what those sales rankings at Amazon actually mean. It’s written from the perspective of a self-publishing expert.One last thing. During my time at the bookstore, one of the hottest sellers was a collection of short stories by David Schickler called Kissing in Manhattan. Now Schickler has a novel coming out called Sweet and Vicious. It looks interesting.