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.
Penguin, well-known for classics with sophisticated packaging, has decided to cede creative control to its readers with a new slate of books that feature “naked front covers… printed on art-quality paper.” Penguin announced the initiative on its blog and they have already posted some reader-designed covers in a gallery on its site. So far, the books are only available from the UK, and the titles that come with blank covers are:Meditations by Marcus AureliusCrime and Punishment by Fyodor DostoyevskyMagic Tales by Jacob GrimmThe Waves by Virginia WoolfThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar WildeEmma by Jane Austen
When I picked up my first Kurt Vonnegut book, Slaughterhouse-Five, I noticed the greatest literary feat I missed out on by growing up in Turkey. My friend Annastacia left a copy at our house and her boyfriend/my roommate Uzay read the book in a day, his first Vonnegut as well. Uzay was so startled that he urged me to pick it up immediately. I did as suggested and was much surprised and pleased. I have yet to read more of Vonnegut’s works but his stream of conscious style in Slaughterhouse-Five, the disjointed stories that flow together more like an epic poem, the simplistic wording that carries heavy thoughts and emotions, and the personal reflections mixed with fiction were most startling. It took me only a day to read Slaughterhouse-Five (I am usually a slow reader) and I felt that I should go back and reread it immediately to better grasp the stories contained therein. The combination of World War II stories that culminate in the bombing of Dresden, the life of a stereotypical suburban businessman in post-war America and his interactions with Tralfamodarian aliens are at times difficult to piece together. They do, nevertheless, connect on a certain, higher level, which I hope to better understand by reading more of Vonnegut’s works, following the characters that reappear in his novels and get a better sense of his outlook on matters of life and death. And so it goes.Around the same time that my friend John gave me Crash, he also gave me Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. It took me a long time to get into The Fortress of Solitude. I picked it up in mid-summer and read about fifty pages and stopped. Then I saw The Squid and The Whale, which I liked very much, and the Brooklyn feel of it made me return to Lethem’s novel. I read another forty pages and stopped again. In the meanwhile, I was reading other books for fun or out of interest. Around Thanksgiving I picked up the novel again. I was preparing for my 2nd annual Chicago trip to visit Mr. and Mrs. Millions, brother Jozef and aunt Murvet, and I thought that a journey would be the best opportunity to turn to The Fortress of Solitude one last time. I am very glad I did, because now that I fully read Dylan Ebdus’s story I am mesmerized by Lethem’s style and the strong storyline that picks up after, for me at least, page 120 and accelerates until the reader hits the end. Dylan Ebdus is the sole white kid in a mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Dylan, the only child of a not so successful painter and an eccentric hippie mother, is a total stranger to the culture of the block and is constantly “yoked,” i.e. bullied, humiliated and robbed, by his peers. One day Mingus Rude moves to the block with his once famous, now low profile, soul singer father Barrett Rude Jr. Mingus and Dylan become steady friends and slowly, sometimes painfully, Dylan embarks on a new path. While the first third of the novel is slow and establishes a strong setting, the second third flies by as the reader flips through the adventures of Mingus and Dylan in the ’70s, sees them drop out of high school/go to college, smoke a lot of dope, become crack/coke heads, discover and dive into music, and form their own tag team. The language is rich with graffiti, music and popular culture in the ’70s. At the third and final section of the novel the reader finds Dylan in Berkeley during the ’90s. A lot has changed except for his fascination with music and adaptation of a white-boy immersed in African-American culture life style. It is easy to empathize with Dylan as he tells his story through music ranging from Brian Eno to Talking Heads, Devo, the Temptations, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. Dylan’s struggles with his insecurities and search for identity are amazing portrayals with very strong supporting characters. There also is the parallel story of Aeroman and the ring, which I am still trying to decipher and digest. I am very glad to have read The Fortress of Solitude, it is, along with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, one of my favorite reads in 2005 and I definitely intend to read more of Lethem’s writings in 2006.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
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.
The depth of Ignatius’ wisdom gave me an urge to read history, and I started with Napoleon: A Political Life, by Steven Englund. Englund is a notable scholar and the book was released to wide acclaim. Napoleon is a personal, political and military approach to one of the most influential leaders of history. I picked the book especially because I did not know much about Napoleon and sought enlightenment, which I got thanks to the book’s thorough historical content, the presentation of Napoleon’s personal background, and a very scholarly – yet novelistic – narrative. It is for certain that Englund is extremely passionate regarding Napoleonic studies and the controversies that surround it. His determination to relate to the reader both the specifics of Napoleon himself (character quirks, political ideas, practical implementations, the myth) and the historical evolution of the time (the French Revolution, Continental power struggles, trade issues) without any high opinions leads the reader to ask questions and wonder about different interpretations of the Napoleons life and actions.I was so moved by the joy of reading on historical matters that I picked up on Ryszard Kapuscinski – a foreign correspondent for the Polish press during the communist era who was recommended to me by the very C. Max Magee of The Millions and Cem Ozturk, great friend and emissary to Japan. I started with The Shadow of the Sun and realized once again how ignorant I was with regards to Africa. Since reading The Shadow of the Sun I feel ashamed to refer generally to Africa, as if it were one country, and it’s inhabitants as strictly African. Kapuscinski’s accounts are a mix of personal adventures that make James Bond stunts lame, coup d’etats surrounding the liberation of African colonies, and detailed descriptions of various cultures and peoples of Africa. Of course, immediately after finishing The Shadow of the Sun I picked up Imperium, Kapuscinski’s account of his visits to the USSR. Kapuscinki’s visit to the world behind the iron curtain, the different cultures that the USSR housed and worked diligently to eradicate and replace with communism, and the succinct description of the big brother situation is full of wonders. Imperium is a great read that is thrilling and unnerving at the same time. I still long to read The Soccer War, Kapuscinki’s accounts of the revolutions he witnessed in Latin America but rein myself not to finish all his works in one breath.See also: Part 1
For the last several months, the web site of the British Library has been hosting the online diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA). As many readers are likely aware, the Library was looted in the early days of the American invasion, and Eskander has spent much of his time since trying to rebuild his collections under perilous conditions.Reading through the diary it quickly becomes apparent that Eskander and his team are faced with far greater challenges than simply picking up the pieces of the wrecked library. Instead they face daily threats to their lives, and the laundry list of wound and killed friends and colleagues and many more near misses makes one wonder how the library staff can go on living in Baghdad. At the end of 2006, Eskander compiles a list (scroll down) of violent acts committed against INLA staff and their families and determines that 70 have been killed since the conflict began. The number has ticked higher in subsequent months.Last month, Eskander posted an entry (scroll down) about the day that al-Mutanabi Street, the home of Baghdad’s outdoor book market and just a short distance away from the INLA, was bombed. “This day will be always remembered, as the day when books were assassinated by the forces of darkness, hatred and fanaticism,” he says. “Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood.”As a whole, the diary is an incredible chronicle of lives lived under siege and put in terrible danger to keep Iraq’s cultural institutions from disappearing entirely.via The Eclectic Chapbook, which also remarks on a BBC program about Eskander and the INLA.
The New York Times has a little piece about books that have been blurbed by recently discredited authors. Taking the cake is Nic Kelman’s Girls which was blurbed by both JT Leroy and James Frey.Just for fun, here are some more blurbs from each.Frey:”[This] should join Catch-22 and The Things They Carried as this generation’s defining literary expression of men at war.” for The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell by John Crawford (Note how he cites two works of fiction in blurbing a memoir.)”Charlie Huston is a bad-ass writer, Six Bad Things is a bad-ass book. I loved it, absolutely loved it, as I did his first book. Can’t wait for whatever else comes from him.” for Six Bad Things by Charlie Huston”Blue Blood is real, authentic, true. Beautiful and inspiring, terrifying and heartbreaking. It is a great book.” for Blue Blood by Edward Conlon”Perverse and somewhat depraved, Rod Liddle’s fiction is a sexy but not too beautiful montage of what happens when people succumb to their urges and fantasies without considering the consequences.” for Too Beautiful for You by Rod Liddle”I have read many translations of this ancient text but Mitchell’s is by far the best.” for Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen MitchellAnd finally there’s an “Amazon.com exclusive” where Frey reviews Jay McInerney’s new novel, The Good Life (review available here until Amazon realizes it and gets rid of it): “It’s also a deeply personal book, McInerney’s most personal since Bright Lights, and it feels to me like I’m reading about variations of McInerney’s own life. He, like Fitzgerald, is at his best when he’s putting his own experiences into the lives of his characters, and I’ve never felt more of McInerney, or felt more vulnerability, which to me is a sign of strength in a writer, Unfortunately, Fitzgerald’s life was unsustainable. He died drunk, penniless, alone, forgotten. McInernery could have followed his path, and it sometimes seemed like he would. Thankfully he didn’t. People wondered what kind of writer Fitzgerald might have been had he lived. McInerney, his closest succesor, is starting to show us.”And two more from Leroy:”Corgan steps to the plate at the first scent of menace, prepared, as one who is born into the language of battle. His hands might be balled tight, but his soul absorbs what his fists cannot truly deflect. Never just the spectator, Corgan transforms his world into the palpable, lyrical beauty of the heartbreak of one who cannot turn away, allowing us to get as close as we dare without blinking.” for Blinking with Fists: Poems by Billy Corgan”Really, really great…close-to-the-nerve honesty, severe suffering, intertwined with that leavening cynical humor.” for Important Things That Don’t Matter by David Amsden
Not to make excuses, but when you’re helping plan a wedding, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for things like blogging. I’ll keep posting as often as I can, though. So without further ado, here are three interesting news items that caught my eye today. The first, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the suggestion that Harry Potter may not survive the series of books that bears his name. (LINK). At csmonitor.com, Amazon’s list of bestselling books among US Military Personnel (LINK). And, from the Guardian UK, John Updike tells the Brits that they don’t have to be jealous of American novelists any more because those Brits are pretty good after all (LINK).