I usually listen to the BBC World Service when I listen to radio online, but Millions contributor Andrew recently told me about an excellent programme (as they say) on BBC4. “In Our Time” is hosted by Melvyn Bragg who, each week, is joined by three guests as he explores “the history of ideas.” To give an idea of the varied topics the program touches upon, the most recent show was about Samuel Johnson, 18th century author of Lives of the Poets among many other books (here’s his greatest hits), and “England ‘s most famous and well connected man of letters,” while next week’s show is on asteroids. All the old shows are archived and organized by subject.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer points to a small press that is “one of the most intriguing additions to the Northwest literary landscape in recent years.” Clear Cut Press in Astoria, Oregon, distinguishes itself by publishing books in “handy pocket-size editions, inspired by a popular Japanese format, and with detachable covers with arresting images,” and by splitting profits 50/50 with its authors, a cut far higher than authors can expect to get at a typical publishing house. The Post-Intelligencer calls books like Matt Briggs’ debut novel, Shoot the Buffalo worthy of more prominent presses. Clear Cut also put out a collection of essays, Orphans, early this year by Charles D’Ambrosio who frequently appears in the New Yorker.
I’d noticed that over the last few months, John McPhee’s articles in the New Yorker have been somewhat thematically linked, and it occurred to me that his next book would probably be about that theme, transportation. Based on the contributor’s notes from last weeks issue, it appears as though this is indeed the case: “This piece” – about coal trains – “is part of a series about freight transportation that will be published as a book, Uncommon Carriers, in May.” None of those articles are available online, but off-hand I recall ones about river barges, UPS’s gargantuan shipping operation and riding along in a tanker truck. In an interview at the New Yorker site, McPhee talks a little bit more about the book, which he says grew out of his work on Looking for a Ship – which Emre and I both read recently. He also discusses the enormity of his twenty year undertaking, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about American geology, Annals of the Former World.
I’m back and I’m fully married now (call us Mr. and Mrs. Millions). It was great. We’re off to the honeymoon shortly, and have a pretty full traveling schedule for the remainder of the summer, so, as I mentioned in my last post, expect to hear from me only every ten days or so until we reach Chicago. (If any of you eager readers wants to write in with book news, though, I will happily post it when I can.) But while I’ve got this free moment, let me mention a couple of book related things that have crossed my desk.I finally, finally, finally finished Edith Grossman’s wonderful translation of the Miguel de Cervantes classic, Don Quixote. To any younger readers or any older readers who might one day return to school to study literature, if you ever have the opportunity to read this book in a classroom setting, jump at it. There is so much to unlock in this book, in the techniques of Cervantes, in the tribulations of his characters, and in the historical backdrop of 17th century Spain. When I wrote, months ago, of my frustration at the character of Don Quixote, his brashness, his willful refusal of reality, I still had many hundreds of pages to go. Over the course of those pages, my feelings about Quixote mellowed. The more he interacted with people, the more it became evident that their mockery of him was more foolish than his futile quests. Still, even at the end, Quixote is a character who inspires frustration. I came to realize that there are Quixotes all around us. Those who reject simple explanations for their problems in favor convoluted excuses, conspiracies, and narratives, in which their mundane lives take on a aura of excitement, today’s compulsive liars and humble neighbors with delusions of grandeur, these are modern-day Don Quixotes. And Sancho Panza is just as foolish as the rest of us who humor those who are touched with this special madness. As a work of literature the book is quite astounding, wrenching you out of the mistaken frame of mind that before James Joyce, before the “modern day,” literature was uncomplicated and linear. Especially in Part 2 when Part 1, itself, becomes a sort of character in the book, one realizes that today’s writers are not innovators so much as the great great grandchildren of Cervantes, and in fact Cervantes was the progenitor, the ur-novelist (and Don Quixote the ur-novel), from whom all novelists must necessarily borrow. The book is essential to all who wish to understand “the novel” as a literary form.PoliticsImperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, anonymously penned by a longtime CIA agent, will make waves this week, as the New York Times attests. Also in the Times, Daniel Okrent addresses what was and wasn’t appropriate about Michiko Kakutani’s front page slam of the Clinton book.
Any John Keegan fans out there? Here’s a review of his latest book Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda from the New Zealand Herald. I’m looking forward to reading this one.The Brits have something called the WHSmith Book Award, which is basically a “people’s choice” award for books. If you are so inclined, you can vote now. Some interesting nominations include Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the adult fiction category, former professional wrestler/current professional novelist Mick Foley‘s Tietam Brown in the debut novel category, and LA Weekly contributor Geoff Dyer‘s book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It in the travel category. I wonder how something like this would go over in the States.
Airports and airplanes are a great place to go bookspotting. They are also a great place to confirm that the bestseller lists aren’t lying. In fact, it sort of made me realize that there should be two different categories of bestseller lists: one for people who buy less than fifteen books a year and one for people who buy more. The vast majority of people fall into that first category, and when you realize this, you realize why the publishing industry isn’t very different from other entertainment industries. If people have a certain finite number of movies that they will be able to see in a given year given constraints on time and money, I think they will be less likely to take a risk on an unproven independent instead of a known quantity like one of the Matrix movies (maybe this is why sequels do so well.) The same is true of video games and any other form of entertainment that can be consumed as a unit. Therefore it makes sense that authors like John Grisham and Stephen King and many bestselling authors of lesser talent have such a strong repeat business. Readers who don’t have the time or inclination to seek out risky books will therefore prefer to purchase books that they ALREADY know that they will enjoy. (This theory, by the way, also explains why political rant books do so well, no matter how absurd they seem to some people). So, I like to test this theory of book consumption when I travel, because airports and airplanes are the one place where people who do not have the time or inclination to read regularly read for lack of any better way to pass the time. Here’s what I spotted:Buffalo Niagara International Airport:Hide & Seek by James Patterson: “Maggie Bradford is one of the most beloved singer/songwriters anywhere. She’s also the devoted mother of two children. She seems to have it all. And so, how could she have murdered not just one, but two of her husbands? With unrelenting suspense, James Patterson answers that question.”The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank: “As it explores the life lessons of Jane, the contemporary American Everywoman–who combines the charm of Bridget Jones, the vulnerability of Ally McBeal, and the wit of Lorrie Moore–The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing offers wise, poignant, and laugh-out-loud insight.”Q Is for Quarry by Sue Grafton: “The #1 “New York Times” bestseller, based on an unsolved homicide that occurred in 1969, is now available in paperback. Revisiting the past can be a dangerous business, and what begins with the pursuit of Jane Doe’s real identity ends in a high-risk hunt for her killer.”A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: “With the compassionate realism of Dickens and a narrative sweep worthy of Balzac, this internationally acclaimed novel draws an unforgettable portrait of the cruelty and corruption, kindness and heroism of India. Set in 1975, A Fine Balance follows the destinies of four strangers who are forced to share a cramped apartment in an unnamed city by the sea.”Krakatoa by Simon Winchester: “From the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World comes an examination of the enduring and world-changing effects of the catastrophic eruption off the coast of Java of the world’s most dangerous volcano–Krakatoa.”Detroit Wayne County:The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: “In her most highly acclaimed book to date, Kingsolver presents a compelling exploration of religion, conscience, imperialist arrogance, and the many paths to redemption, telling the story of an American missionary and his family in the Congo in 1959.”The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle: “According to Tolle, accessing the deepest self, the true self, can be learned by freeing ourselves from the conflicting, unreasonable demands of the mind and living ‘present, fully and intensely, in the Now.'”Los Angeles InternationalThe Testament by John Grisham: “This ‘compulsory page-turner’ journeys deep into the halls of justice–and the rain forests of Brazil. An eccentric billionaire leaves his fortune to his illegitimate daughter, a Christian missionary in Brazil. Rachel stands to inherit $11 billion, but only if attorney Nate O’Reilly can find her.”Four Blind Mice by James Patterson: “Alex Cross is plunged into a case where military codes of honor conceal dark currents of revenge and ambition, and the men controlling the moves have the best weapons and training the world can offer.”Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling: “In the richest installment yet of J. K. Rowling’s seven-part story, Harry Potter confronts the unreliability of the very government of the magical world, and the impotence of the authorities at Hogwarts. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) Harry finds depth and strength in his friends, beyond what even he knew; boundless loyalty and unbearable sacrifice. Though thick runs the plot (as well as the spine), readers will race through these pages, and leave Hogwarts, like Harry, wishing only for the next train back.”So, there you have it, a small, but interesting cross-section of what the American casual reader is reading right now. Some is good and some is bad, but it’s nice to see so many people reading in one place.