Not too many David Mitchell blurbs out there, and some of them are quite brief - cropped for maximum impact by editors, I suspect. Note as well the extremely British use of the term "wrong-footed."For Strangers by Taichi Yamada: "Highly recommended. A cerebral and haunting ghost story, which completely wrong-footed me."For The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore: "combines smartness and wisdom"For Book of Voices: "A treasures box"For Silence by Shusaku Endo: "One of the finest historical novels written by anyone, anywhere... Flawless"For Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam: "It depicts an extraordinary panorama of life within a Muslim community... Thoughtful, revealing, lushly written and painful, this timely book deserves the widest audience."See also: Jonathan Safran Foer: The Collected Blurbs
Still in the throes of controversy surrounding James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, Oprah has selected Elie Wiesel's memoir Night as the next selection for her book club. While this selection was no doubt in the works long before the Frey controversy, the juxtaposition is still remarkable. Frey's confessional, sensationalized addiction memoir, the credibility of which seems to crumble further with every passing day, looks awfully silly next to the beloved memoir of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor whose character is unassailable as far as I know. In the New York Times, Wiesel says he hasn't read Frey's book (big surprise), but then goes on to make some comments that seem to me to be directed at Frey's fast and loose treatment of the truth (emphasis mine):He acknowledged that some people and institutions, including on occasion The New York Times, have referred to Night as a novel, "mainly because of its literary style.""But it is not a novel at all," he said. "I know the difference," he added, noting that Night is the first of his 47 books, several of which are novels. "I make a distinction between what I lived through and what I imagined others to have lived through."As it is a memoir, he said, "my experiences in the book - A to Z - must be true." He continued: "All the people I describe were with me there. I object angrily if someone mentions it as a novel."Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Amazon is changing the classification of Night from fiction to memoir. As of this writing, Night is number one on Amazon, bumping Pieces to number two.
● ● ●
I went to my first baseball game of the season the other day, and it made me hope that I manage to get into some of the baseball books on my queue this summer. Jonathan Yardley also has the baseball bug as he reviews a forgotten baseball memoir in his "Second Readings" series. Jim Brosnan was a relatively unknown pitcher with Reds who just happened to be deft with a pen. His book, The Long Season, was the first to break the code of silence and look behind the clubhouse door at a world that is equal parts bliss and daily drudgery. Brosnan's book paved the way for a more famous baseball memoir, Jim Bouton's Ball Four, which did not spare the reader the vulgarities of professional sports.
They recently announced the finalists for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Awards. The winners will be announced on March 4th. I tend to be more interested in "critics circle" awards when it comes to books and movies. Critics have to read or watch many more books or movies than the average person, and it is their job to pass judgment on this sort of thing. It is also important that they are not "insiders" in their respective industries, thus their choices are relatively unsullied by politics and personality conflicts. Nor is anyone really campaigning for these awards as one might campaign for an Oscar, a Pulitzer, or a Booker. Here are the nominees:FictionMonica Ali, Brick Lane (Scribner)Edward P. Jones, The Known World (Amistad/HarperCollins)Caryl Phillips, A Distant Shore (Knopf)Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Tobias Wolff, Old School (Knopf)General NonfictionCaroline Alexander, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (Viking)Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Doubleday)Paul Hendrickson, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy (Knopf)Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner)William T. Vollmann, Rising Up and Rising Down (McSweeney's)Biography/AutobiographyBlake Bailey, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (Picador)Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards (Yale University Press)Carol Loeb Shloss, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Norton)PoetryCarolyn Forche, Blue Hour (HarperCollins)Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf)Venus Khoury-Ghata, She Says (Graywolf)Susan Stewart, Columbarium (University of Chicago Press)Mary Szybist, Granted (Alice James Books)CriticismDagoberto Gilb, Gritos (Grove)Nick Hornby, Songbook (McSweeney's)Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (Walker)Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Viking)Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)My thoughts: Brick Lane, The Known World, and Gulag continue to make appearances as finalists for major awards. None of the National Book Award winners are even listed as finalists for these awards. McSweeney’s is shown some love for its two most serious and most ambitious releases of the year. Now, if only they would take this as a cue to leave the forced silliness of their other releases behind.
My winter reading project this year is War and Peace. On an average night I make it through 15-20 pages before I become too tired to follow the story anymore. At this rate I should be done by Easter. I have read Anna Karenina and The Death Ivan Illych so I am well-acquainted with the pleasures of Tolstoy. A 2007 NYRB article on a new translation of War and Peace described those pleasures well: “No other writer,” wrote Orlando Figes, “can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy.” Reading War and Peace, there is the sense of beginning one of the great experiences one might have in a lifetime. It is an enervating feeling, but also a melancholy one. I imagine I will feel a step closer to death 1,300 pages from now. But before that happens, I’d like to annotate the most beautiful, strange, penetrating and sublime moments from the book. This desire owes in part to the natural inclination to want to share something as good as Tolstoy. But there are selfish motives at work, too. I hope that I might, by sharing the experience of reading War and Peace, be able to hold onto it a little longer. First, A few of my favorite passages from the first third of the book: I found his description of obligatory and irreproachable idleness to capture an unexpected pleasure of parenthood: that even something as lazy as a late-morning nap feels purposeful, even dutiful, when taken alongside a sleeping child. The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor—idleness—was a condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. If man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of man’s primitive blessedness. And such a state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is the lot of a whole class- the military. The chief attraction of military service has consisted and will consist in this compulsory and irreproachable idleness. It’s astounding how often in War and Peace Tolstoy is able to write about overwhelming elements of human experience as easily as if he were observing a rock in his front yard: After dinner Natasha, at Prince Andre's request, went to the clavichord and began singing. Prince Andre stood by a window talking to the ladies and listened to her. In the midst of a phrase he ceased speaking and suddenly felt tears choking him, a thing he had thought impossible for him. He looked at Natasha as she sang, and something new and joyful stirred in his soul. He felt happy and at the same time sad. He had absolutely nothing to weep about yet he was ready to weep. What about? His former love? The little princess? His disillusionments?...His hopes for the future?...Yes and no. The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable within him and that limited and material something that he, and even she, was. This contrast weighed on and yet cheered him while she sang. I often wonder whether the elements of our lives—the Internet, chain stores, abundance, self-consciousness—influence a conscious experience that is unique to our time. Tolstoy’s answer is that they don’t: “Yes, that is true, Prince. In our days,” continued Vera—mentioning “our days” as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing, imagining that they have discovered and appraised the peculiarities of “our days” and that human characteristics change with the time.
● ● ●