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 New Yorker pays tribute to Leonard Michaels this week by printing a story of his… a terriffic story called “Cryptology.” The weird timing of all this Michaels stuff has got me thinking that I really ought to read some more of his work. I will have to look around for some of his books. Scroll down a few entries to see more on Michaels. Also in the New Yorker James Wood reviews God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicholson. This is a book about the creation of the King James Bible. It is not the sort of subject matter that I am necessarily drawn to, but it has been incredibly well reviewed by some rather prestegious publications and reviewers: Jonathan Yardley and Christopher Hitchens to name a couple. If any of that looks interesting check out the first chapter.
If you hear kids throwing the word “book” around a lot more than you’re used to, don’t assume that a new literary craze is sweeping the land. According to some cultural observers, “book” is becoming a substitute for “cool” thanks to the pervasive influence of text messaging.As some of you are no doubt aware, when the “T9” predictive text function is activated your cell phone will try to guess the word you’re typing as you key it in on those frustrating number keypads. As it turns out, when you try to type in “cool” – that is, 2-6-6-5 – phones will, by default, suggest “book,” and, according to some, the kids are running with it, and “book” has become another word for “cool.” So, all you teachers out there, your work is officially done. Books are now cool, literally. (via Zorn)
In noting our new Nobel Laureate on Thursday, I also mentioned that “dating back to my bookstore days, out of all the major literary awards – the National Book Award, the Booker, and the Pulitzer – only the Nobel reliably drove significant interest. On the day the prize was announced, customers on the phone and in person would descend on the store, occasionally leading to problems when a relative unknown with little in print, like Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek, won the award.”Now, granted, this is purely anecdotal, but based on that experience and my haunting of various other bookstores over the years, I’d guess that generally speaking, the awards that generate chatter in the book pages are more important for burnishing writers’ reputations than for inciting genuine interest among the general reading public.It’s very different in the UK, of course, where the Booker Prize is a national event that lands on page one of the country’s newspapers. Even the gamblers get swept up in the action. In my experience, we Americans get swept up too, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up when American writers are excluded from the action. To give some specific examples. Winning the Booker undoubtedly helped The Life of Pi become a big seller in the US, but it was a slow building crescendo of word of mouth that made the book a mega hit. Vernon God Little, on the other hand, not so much. Still, if the Booker were to make American books eligible, a plan that has been proposed and scuttled in the past, I could see it becoming nearly as popular in the US as it is in the UKHere in the States, we have a pair of literary awards that are generally regarded as the most prestigious: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The National Book Award could be the US equivalent of the Booker, but it doesn’t market itself as well. The name is too… on the nose, and the judges have at times shown an odd predilection for the obscure.The Pulitzer, meanwhile, has plenty of name recognition, but it treats its “Letters” awards as little more than afterthought to its centerpiece journalism prizes. Bringing the book award to the forefront and creating a shortlist, as I have suggested, might be enough to create some Booker-esque excitement here in the States.And so, that leaves the Nobel, which in my experience, actually sells books. I think there are a few reasons for this. With its broad slate of awards and century old pedigree, it’s got serious name recognition. At the same time, it doesn’t push aside its literature award to put the spotlight on the other categories. Finally, it recognizes a body of work rather than a single volume, perhaps subconsciously appealing to people in that it presents readers with a reading list ready to be explored.In the end, these awards, even the Booker and the Nobel, are more fun to talk about than to get book recommendations from. I prefer to hear from my trusted fellow readers than any panels of judges.Some other favorite awards: The Lettre Ulysses, the IMPAC, the MacArthur Genius grants
The first of the three books I read between starting and finishing The Fortress of Solitude is The Underdog: How I Survived The World’s Most Outlandish Competitions by Joshua Davis. Hilarious. I am not sure where to begin but Davis’s interest in excelling in obscure or at times plain ridiculous fields of “sports” stems from two sources: the Ipski-Pipski stories his dad told him during his childhood (where Ipski-Pipski would overcome any and all difficulties in a very James Bondesque manner) and his mother’s undying hope that her son be best at something (she was the 1962 Miss Nevada and a contender for Miss Universe, who barely missed first spot because of a bad hairdo). So, Davis decides to overcome his shortcomings that keep him from becoming a traditional achiever (such as a high school basketball star or college football player) and get rid of his unfulfilling job as a data-entry clerk by embarking on a quest to be really good at something. Davis not only faces the challenge of finding out what he can excel in but also of providing for his wife, who is about to enroll in gradate school and considers his actions very childish. It is, therefore, difficult to see where Davis is going when he chooses arm wrestling as the first sport to prove himself in. At 125 pounds and 5 foot 9 (and wearing glasses) Davis is not the usual imposing arm-wrestler you would imagine. But despite his physique, Davis manages to join the American Arm Wrestling Team and attend the world championships in Poland, ranking 19th worldwide due and placing 4th in the lightweight category worldwide. Quite a title for a first timer, but it sure helps that there were a mere 4 lightweight contenders. Encouraged by his mediocre success, Davis pursues bullfighting, sumo wrestling, backward running and a Sauna World Championship. Through each of his misadventures Davis meets people such as celebrity bullfighter Miguel Baez Litri, sumo wrestling Yokozuna (grand champion, a title granted to only two people) Musashimaru, world-class backward runner (and inventor) K. Veerabadran, and the Swedish sauna lover Markku Mustonen, who influence and encourage him to pursue his heart’s desire. As Davis runs (at times backwards) from one outrageous feat to another, he also manages to pull his family together, please his wife and land a job at Wired as a staff reporter. The Underdog is an unusual and genuinely encouraging take on the American dream of being all you can be (or whatever you want to be) and it points out that doing ridiculous things might work after all.My second book during the Lethem intermission was Kurt Dosyasi (The Kurdish File) by Ugur Mumcu. Mumcu is a Turkish journalist murdered in 1993 (suspects still at large) whose works were very detailed and influential. I talked a lot about him during my journalism school applications, which made me want to read more of his work. Mumcu was murdered while working on Kurt Dosyasi, hence it is unfortunately cut short in its early investigative stages. The parts that were published, however, tell the parallel stories of (currently imprisoned head of PKK) Abdullah Ocalan’s life as a student, as well as his involvement in the 1970s left-wing student movements, and the government policies regarding the Kurdish population in the Eastern and South-eastern parts of Turkey in the 1930s. The documents that Mumcu presents are interesting and shocking, such as reports by ministers and minutes of parliamentary hearings that talk about assimilating Kurds to Turkish society, dispersing Kurdish clans, and replacing internal populations for the Turkification of Eastern Turkey and the Kurds. Kurt Dosyasi also draws on the government’s shortcomings in peacefully penetrating Kurdish societies and its failure to deal with the threats posed by armed militias that disrupted trade, prevented investments and threatened the newly founded republic with uprisings. Unfortunately, Mumcu was killed before tying all the pieces together and explaining the emergence of Ocalan as the leader of the Kurdish insurgency in 1984. I am sure that his work would have been invaluable in assessing the “Kurdish Issue” in Turkey and it is a shame that it is incomplete. Still, it is a great source of information and sheds some light on the wrong nationalistic policies of the 1930s that led to the creation of Kurdish discontent in Turkey. I would recommend it to all parties interested in the issue; the only drawback is that you have to know Turkish, as the book is not translated.My third and last intermission book was another one by Ugur Mumcu: Sakincali Piyade (The Problematic Private). This collection of short memoirs constitute a satirical take on life, as mostly experienced by Mumcu, in the period following the coup d’etat of March 12, 1971, in Turkey. This was the second time since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923 that the military dissolved the parliament, declared martial law and ran the country until new elections, which, in this instance, they took place two years later in October 1973 (the other 2 coup d’etats are May 27, 1960 and September 12, 1980 – there is also a military decree issued in February 28, 1997 that caused the government to resign). Mumcu was an Assistant Dean of the Ankara Law School at the time. His leftist politics were widely know and not hidden. In the two years that the military administered the country a lot of leftists were persecuted on extremely flimsy charges. Mumcu was one of them. His bitter experiences led to Sakincali Piyade, which points at the outrageous claims made against him, as well as other leftist scholars, thinkers and activists of his generation. His memoirs chronicle life in prison, court hearings and the army. Mumcu had to serve his mandatory military service in this period and at the hands of army officials that hoped to “correct” his “thinking” during the service. The courtroom antics that Mumcu lists are ridiculous in retrospect, but point directly to the gravity of the situation in the 1970s and the sad consequences of “enforcing” democracy through the military. I would recommend Sakincali Piyade to everyone who is looking to laugh and think deeply (and do those simultaneously) about the tragic-comic situations that plague Turkey to this day. Unfortunately, Sakincali Piyade is also not translated.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5