I got a package today from my inlaws who decided to get me five books for my birthday (which was Jan. 5). They came right off my wishlist, so, of course, they’re exactly what I wanted. Two of the five are coffee-table books. I’ll be spending a lot of time with the utterly gorgeous book The World on Sunday. Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano have put together really nice reproductions of Joseph Pulitzer’s colorful newspaper. Baker’s foreword and Brentano’s captions really elevate the book. I wrote more about it last month. The other big book I received is a monograph, put out by Aperture, of photography by Robert Capa. Capa is famous for his war photography from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. His photographs, all in black and white, are unflinching and powerful. He’s essential to the grand tradition of war reportage. (This one actually wasn’t on my wishlist but they knew I’d like it.) In keeping with the Capa theme, I also received his illustrated memoir of World War II, Slightly Out of Focus. I also got The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux which Andrew wrote about a few months back, and Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster, which I think I first heard about at Language Hat.
The book that sent the most people to this site this week via the search engines was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book and the flap surrounding it has been a huge story on sports radio so it’s no surprise that there are quite a few people looking for more info. The new books that have people talking this week are not a big surprise. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek a noted presidential biographer, revealed the news that JFK had an ongoing ralationship with an 19 year old intern codenamed “Mimi.” “Mimi” then broke her 40 year silence and went to the press. Don’t be surprised if her book shows up soon. The other book in the news is The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal which is, according to the reviews I’ve read unabashed in annointing the Clinton years as paradise on earth. The book I talked about most this week was The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. It is by far the best book I have read in a long time, and now that several friends have read it, our new hobby seems to be speculating on the whereabouts of the mysterious Maqroll the Gaviero. Read it…Judge a book by its coverI have come to notice during my time at the bookstore that, compared to the Brits, American book cover design is pretty dull. It seems that publishers are convinced that the only way to sell books to Americans is to make the covers as bland and non-threatening as possible. Compare the American cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s new book to the British one and you’ll see what I mean.
Looking for some new fiction? Here are the new books that people are talking about:The Maze by Panos Karnezis; a profile from The IndependentThe Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen; a review from the Barcelona ReviewThe Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer; the San Francisco Chronicle reviews this tale of a backward aging protagonist.Bandbox by Thomas Mallon; the Fort Worth Star Telegram likens this one to Wodehouse.Waterborne by Bruce Murkoff; the San Francisco Chronicle also reviews this one.The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson; it’s a Today Show book club pick and USA Today likes it. Could be the first breakout hit of 2004.The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe; the Christian Science Monitor wonders if this outstanding Canadian novel will be ignored by Americans.Coming Soon…May will see the release of Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s follow up to big seller Bel Canto as well as a new collection by E. L. Doctorow, Sweet Land Stories. In June look for new Thomas Keneally, The Tyrant’s Novel and a new collection of short stories by David Foster Wallace called Oblivion.
Lots to report… first in Max’s writing news, the new issue of period magazine has been posted. It features the little piece I posted here earlier about Dodger Stadium. I like it, but it sure seems awfully short up there on the page. At any rate, it’s a pretty neat little online mag, eclectic and just for fun. Now, on to more pressing matters. I had a full and eventful last 3 days. On Friday, I saw The Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Henry Fonda Theater. It was the second time I’ve seen them, and I was more or less equally as disappointed as I was the first time I came to LA. I still enjoy the music, and I think the EP is great little chunk of rock and roll, but they don’t seem to have the heft to carry a show in venues as large as the theaters they’ve been playing in LA. In fact, in vast cavernous spaces like the Henry Fonda and the Palace (where they played their first LA gig) the rock energy sounds hollow. Plus, I’m not really into Karen O’s onstage antics…. I mean I love onstage antics as much as the next guy, but it seems like she’s just mugging for the camera.On Saturday, quite unexpectedly, I had a remarkable, unforgettable experience. While I was working the cash register Gabriel Garcia Marquez came into my bookstore. I was floored. He is absolutely one of my heroes, perhaps my favorite writer of all time (or as I have occasionally phrased it “the best writer of all time”). He wandered slowly around the store, taking his time, looking at various books. When he came up to the register, another, younger gentlemen joined him, and he translated for me as I talked to Marquez. It turns out that he speaks very little English. Mostly, I talked to him about Maqroll since Alvaro Mutis is one of his oldest friends, and since I love that book so much. Plus I felt a little strange about talking to him about his own books. He told me that there will be no more novellas about the Gaviero and his friends, but that Mutis continues to write poetry in which Maqroll plays a central role. He also signed some books for me, including the Spanish-language edition of his autobiography which he inscribed “Para Max, del amigo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez 2003”.How fucking cool is that! I also got some signed copies of his other books. They have quickly become some of my most prized possessions.Last night, Easter Sunday night, I went back to the Henry Fonda to see The Faint and Les Savy Fav. I had never really heard The Faint, but I’m really into Les Savy Fav, and I’ve been dying to see their legendary live show. They didn’t disappoint: lead singer Tim Harrington’s antics (remember: I love onstage antics as much as the next guy) had a charming easter motif to them, and he made good use of chocolate bunnies and jelly bean filled plastic eggs. For the last song, he brought a few dozen people on stage and everyone really rocked out. The Faint followed, and while I don’t really get their electro-goth sound, their video projection light show was impressive… plus the kids really seemed to dig it. Finally, if you haven’t checked it out already. Go to 3wk It’s the best internet radio in the world.
The concept of self-improvement through reading has always struck me as hopelessly vexed. I was surprised and delighted, then, to discover in Megan Hustad’s How to Be Useful an erudite, pragmatic, funny, and endearingly humble “Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work.” It was the kind of book I wish someone had given me when I was fresh out of college.Back then, in the giddy afterglow of the Clinton years, my enormous sense of entitlement hid behind a contorted ideological posture. Sure, I would benefit financially from global capitalism, but I would maintain my purity by doing a really mediocre job. (Take that, Milton Friedman!) What’s refreshing about How to Be Useful is that it presents an ethical, rather than a moral, argument for working hard. Hustad doesn’t attempt to say that you should work for The Man; rather, she argues that if you have to, you might as well do it well.Surprisingly, the secret to success, according to Hustad’s meta-analysis of a century of business advice, is making yourself indiscriminately useful to those around you. At some point, she argues, people will want to return the favor. And in the meantime, while you may not have addressed global economic inequality, you will have made the world around you a little more pleasant for your coworkers and for yourself.This week, we’ve invited Ms. Hustad to give us some “Usefulness Training” based on our own first-job hijinks. Every day, one of our contributors will post an anecdote about his or her misguided work ethic. Hustad will rate us on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being Mildly Useless, and 5 being Irremediably Useless. She’ll also try to tease out the misguided assumptions we held upon entering the workforce, and to explain how we might have conducted ourselves more helpfully. These links will become active as the posts are published:Welcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: AndrewFinally, we invite our readers to contribute their own first-job stories (ideally 100 words or less) in the comments box. At the end of the week, perhaps we’ll ask Ms. Hustad to respond to one of them.
Millions contributor Rodger Jacobs is continuing his efforts to get a street in Los Angeles named after F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now, he’s put together a short story competition to further commemorate the author. Here’s the release:The film production and web publishing company responsible for the petition drive to name the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Hayworth Avenue in honor of the late F. Scott Fitzgerald has announced a short fiction competition to further commemorate the author on the sixty-fifth anniversary of his passing. At the time of his demise on December 21, 1940, the celebrated author of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night was living at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue in the home of gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Rodger Jacobs, President of 8763 Wonderland Ltd., is requesting works of original fiction of no more than four hundred words on the subject of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last days in Hollywood. “The stories can deal with Scott directly or indirectly,” says Jacobs, “just as long as they somehow address F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood.” Entries will be judged on originality and overall style. Prizes will be announced “sometime in the near future.” The deadline for short fiction entries is August 1, 2005. Entries may be e-mailed to [email protected] There is no fee for entrants, though Pay Pal donations are suggested to help defray costs involved in mounting the continuing petition drive. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Memorial Petition can be viewed and electronically signed here.
In its never-ending roll-out of new features and incremental redesigns, Amazon has introduced “Author Stores,” which Amazon calls “new corners of our bookstore dedicated to offering customers a new way to browse and shop favorite authors, discover new books, and more.”Basically, Amazon has created dedicated pages for several hundred authors. It’s a nice little navigational upgrade since it is sometimes difficult to get a sense of an author’s oeuvre using Amazon’s search, though for Author Stores to be a truly useful navigational tool, Amazon would need to create them for many thousands more writers.The Stores themselves are moderately interesting. At their most bare bones, Sherman Alexie’s, for example, the Stores offer just a list of the books the author has written. Stephen King’s, on the other hand, offers more substantial diversions including a video of the author himself. It will be interesting to see how much Amazon expands these stores and whether the features Amazon promises to add “in the months to come” will be genuinely unique or just more repackaging of content.Meanwhile, LibraryThing’s author pages are far cooler, with lots of meta-data and interesting tidbits supplied by LibraryThing’s active community. By way of comparison, here is David Mitchell on LibraryThing and on Amazon.
The other day I threw myself across the bed and began lamenting my writing career (or lack thereof). This is one of my hobbies–if not my favorite one, then at least the one at which I most excel. My husband (and fellow Millions contributor), Patrick, said, “Oh be quiet. You just want a two-book deal and Marion Ettlinger to take your author photo.”
The nerve! I might have thrown a pillow at his face, and went on with my self-loathing. You see, Patrick and I love to make fun of Ms. Ettlinger. She is probably the most famous photographer of authors, (she even has a book of them), and her images of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Joyce Carol Oates are burned in the cultural retina. Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we’d only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned. Perhaps it’s that last quality–old fashioned–that rubs me the wrong way. Looking at these photos, I get the sense that the writers (even the young ones) are long gone, lost to an era when people gazed longingly out of train windows, mailed handwritten letters, or actually read books. I can’t imagine any of these writers alive, moving their mouths, checking their email, eating dinner. Maybe that’s the point: we want our authors to be Authors, unreachable and removed from the world of the reader. But as we head towards 2010, that’s more and more implausible. Newsflash: writers live in the world.
There are a few of Ettlinger’s photos I like. The full-body shots are better than the close-ups. Take the one, for instance, of David Foster Wallace; his plaid jacket, his downward gaze, and the sky above, create a lovely, even haunting, composition. Or the one, of James Ellroy: he’s gone whole hog with the photo’s anachronistic qualities, and it’s fun. Other full body shots, however, are a disaster. Hey, Melissa Bank, did you learn that pose in yoga? If I were to title this picture, I’d call it, “The Failed Seduction.” We’ve all been there, Ladies, haven’t we?
Some of the close-ups, particularly of the women, are just weird. I hate when authors cup their own head with their hands. What, will it fall off? Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful. Most of the time, though, they look like they’re starring in a pain killer ad. Ann Patchett and Amy Hempel’s pictures are the worst examples of this, although, to be fair, this is an epidemic in many author photos, not just ones by Ettlinger.
Browsing through these pictures got me thinking about other author photos. Many bad examples abound. There’s the “I love my dog!” variety, a la Dean Koontz and J.A. Jance–somehow Ellroy doesn’t fall into this category, perhaps because the dog in his photo looks hired, just another old-timey prop. There’s also the Trench Coat Club, which is usually reserved for mystery writers, but we see it here, with Adam Haslett. And there’s the “I’m just a harmless debut author” Club, wherein the writer strikes a more casual pose, and smiles like a well-intentioned, but potentially useless, babysitter. Aimee Phan is a good example of this, but she is just one of many. Lastly, there’s the “My spouse took this picture the night before it was due” Club. I won’t even bother with an example–just imagine your least-flattering Facebook picture, and you’ll understand.
Let me be clear: I am not damning these writers, or their work–far from it. It’s simply the photos I protest. But getting one’s picture taken for a book jacket must be a daunting task. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the reading public? You want to look serious, but not too serious! You want to look attractive, but not too attractive! You want to look young, but not…you catch my drift. It can’t be easy. I remember an author-friend telling me he wanted to forgo the photo altogether. I said he couldn’t, or else people would assume he was ghastly. And that’s true. Only Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger can pull off real anonymity.
I suppose that if Marion Ettlinger ever calls me, I’ll do my hair, slap on some eyeshadow, and ready for my close-up. Perhaps Patrick is correct: it is my most embarrassing fantasy.