Yet another use for books (other than reading them): pile them up and use them as a bar.
For some reason I’ve always been wary of audio books. For one thing, they are expensive and for another the whole idea of listening to a book seems antithetical to the author’s original task of putting words to paper. Recent events, however, have alleviated this wariness. A friend of mine has suddenly gained access to free audio books, and when she offered me some titles to choose from, I couldn’t help myself. I am in a constant struggle to read as many books as possible, and, working at the book store, my list of must-read books increases at a far greater rate than I am able to manage. With my newfound acceptance of audiobooks, though, I have mbeen able to greatly increase my reading productivity. In fact, I finished listening to a terrific book on the way to work today, Positively Fifth Street by James McManus, and I must say I was sad to have it end. McManus’ book did wonders for my terrible Los Angeles commute (I know, it’s such a cliche, but LA traffic is no joke). This book has been very popular since it came out a few weeks ago, and many had been eagerly anticipating it ever since the Harper’s magazine article that was the book’s progenitor. McManus was sent to Vegas to cover the both the trial of the murderers of Ted Binion and the World Series of Poker that Binion’s father had created and that the family he left behind continued to run every year. Upon his arrival, McManus makes the fateful decision to use his advance money for the Harper’s article to enter the tournament, and, though he has never played professionaly, he makes it all the way to the final table. He paints both the trial and his no limit poker travails with vivid prose, and he really makes you root for him. The Vegas setting combined with the participatory journalist angle reminded me a lot of Fear and Loathing, and though the books are very different, Fifth Street is easily as invigorating as the original tale of a lost weekend in the desert.Books I’d love to read (but will I ever get around to it?)As I mentioned above my list of books to read is monsterous and ever-increasing. In fact, my list is so long that there are quite a few books on my shelf that I fully intend to read — that I would love to read — but are constantly being bumped farther down my list by books that I deem to be of a higher priority. Long gone are the days when I would casually finish up a book and then blithely wander around the local bookstore hoping to come across something that piqued my interest. My backed up piles now stare up at me plaintively, wondering if I will ever get around to reading them. Since, I’m not sure when I will ever get around to reading some of these, I will do what I have determined arbitrarily to be the next best thing: mention them here. A casual glance at the book shelf behind me reveals several books that are waiting out their purgatory: The Hole in the Flag is Andrei Codrescu’s account of the fall of the oppressive regime in his native country. I want to read this because I love Codrescu’s commentary on NPR and because I visited Romania almost ten years ago and have been fascinated by the country ever since. I hope to read Mr. Jefferson’s University by Garry Wills for similar reasons. Wills is a masterful historian and biographer, and I attended the college that is the subject of the book. Plus, the National Geographic Directions series of travel writing, of which this book is a part, has proven, in my experience, to be very much worth reading. Down to Earth by Ted Steinberg is about nature’s role in American history. I read about this book when it came out last fall and it reminded me of Guns, Germs, and Steel the Pulitzer Prize winner by Jared Diamond. I loved that book so figured I’d be into this one as well. I snagged an advance copy of An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson when it appeared in the book store last summer. I had just finished John Keegan’s masterful history of The Second World War, and so I couldn’t pass on a free book about the Allies liberation of North Africa. The book has since won the Pulitzer and I haven’t even cracked the spine. I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Well, there are many more to name, so I think I’ll stop there before this gets too depressing. So many books to read.Leonard Michaels RIPIn my rant about that 70’s O. Henry book yesterday, I neglected to mention the collection’s first story “Robinson Crusoe Liebowitz” by Leonard Michaels. The story centers around a man hiding in his lover’s bedroom. He is persecuted by twin tormentors: his fear of being discovered by his lover’s fiance and his burning need to urinate. It is a dark and clever story. It stuck in my mind, and when a customer mentioned today at the store that Michaels had recently passed away, I remembered poor Liebowitz and his straining bladder. I don’t know much about Michaels, though I would like to read his novel The Men’s Club if I can manage to track it down, so I’ll let his obit tell the rest of the story.
In the comments to the last post, Erin left a note about “depraved” Amazon reviews for Family Circus books. With a little Googling, I was quick to discover that this was something of an internet legend, dating back to the late-nineties when pranksters started leaving all sorts of silly reviews for Bil Keane’s anthologies. There’s even mention of them in Wikipedia (as of this writing.) Sadly it appears that most of the reviews have been expunged, but I was able to find a few that were subtly wierd enough to elude the censors:For What Does This Say?: Yeats once wrote, “None other knows what pleasures man/At table or in bed.” Bil Keane, however, seems to have found in his latest ‘Family Circus’ opus a treasure-chest of pleasures for each and all of us. There are some who chafe at the seeming repetitive themes within Keane’s major works; I would respectfully submit that all great stories are about life and death, love and loss, fear and triumph. If not Keane, then so go Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Callimachus, too, for good measure. It is not originality that spawns thought and wonderment; it is the vessels of those themes (Billy, Grandma, Barfy, PJ) that inspire and enlighten. Keane, as carrier of these vessels, reminds us of a truth so eloquently immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Some books leave us free and some books make us free.” In ‘What Does This Say’, it is clear that the tome achieves the latter, with gusto and aplomb.For Smile! With The Family Circus: Though universally popular with critics, Smile! has never been commercially successful. It’s been in and out of print — mostly out — so this hardcover 30th anniversary edition is an especially welcome event to discerning FC readers. Along with his day job with United Features Syndicate to produce the more commercial Family Circus strips we know and love, Keane labored on Smile! on evenings and weekends from 1966 through 1972 in a cathartic period when he confided to friends that he had to complete Smile! before the effort killed him. Smile! is Keane’s FC adaptation of the legendary unreleased Beach Boys album of the same name. Keane met Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks at the Fillmore West in late 1966 and quickly the three became inseperable. The next six months were a happy, artistically productive time for the three, and it’s during this time that most of the widely-bootlegged Smile! demos were recorded. Unfortunately Parks and Wilson had a falling out in February 1967, after each discovered that Keane had been sleeping with the other, and the lovers’ betrayal ended the Beach Boys’ Smile! sessions. Wilson spent the next year in solitude, finally giving up on Smile! without giving a public explanation. Keane, having been spurned by both Wilson and Parks, returned to the comfort of the Family Circus to lick his wounds. Some critics have derided Keane as “the Beach Boys’ Yoko Ono” for his unfortunate role in the Smile! sessions. Nevertheless, Keane’s book remains the only fully-realized version of the work that the three men envisioned together in late 1966. Music historians trying to guess how the bootlegged Smile! demos would have been pieced together need look no further than this book.And for Kittycat’s Motor is Running: I weep for Jeffy. The language, however base and stomach cramp inducing, does the job of transporting the reader to the suburban hell that only Keane can imagine. The amount of ennui overflowing from this wasp-ish family of innocents staggers. If you cannot see their pain, you are blind. I am Jocasta, my eyes bleed for the family circus.
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
In case you haven’t been to your local drugstore and noticed that they removed all of the useful items to make way for Christmas decorations, the holidays are here. Here at The Millions headquarters we’ve got our turkey pan ready for a Thanksgiving feast. In fact, I see a lot of good food in my future… and of course the cruel flipside to all that eating is the horror of holiday shopping. There are articles coming out everywhere saying that this year’s holiday season will be big, which must make retailers happy, but there probably won’t be any rejoicing until they have the cash in hand. From my own limited observations, people already seem to be shopping for books this year, and with no clear “hot book gift” out there folks seem to be spreading the joy around, at least so far. So here’s what I’ve spotted lately in the hands of eager book buyers:In fiction Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code continues to sell at an ever-increasing rate. This sort of thing happens every couple of years, and it is pretty interesting to watch a new super-seller burst onto the scene backed by savvy marketing and a steamroller of word of mouth. Brown has now assuredly joined the ranks of John Grisham, Tom Clancy and the rest, and true to form his once forgotten backlist (Angels & Demons, for example, originally released in 2000 to no acclaim) has now hit bestseller lists. Almost like hitting the lottery. People also continue to buy some of the more bookish titles out there. I’ve already mentioned DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little which continues to sell well on the strength of its Booker Prize win, and Train an LA noir novel by Pete Dexter (which I really dug) is doing quite well also. The big newcomer, to my eyes, is Tobias Wolff whose first novel Old School (no relation) has hit shelves. There was an excerpt of this in the New Yorker way back a few months ago which I enjoyed, and people who have read a lot of his other work (the memoir and short stories) seem excited to read this new book. What is astonishing to me, though, is how big a literary name Wolff has become without, until now, having written a novel (in a day and age when readers supposedly only care about novels). I suppose this is a testament to the quality of his PEN/Faulkner Award-winning memoir This Boy’s Life and his various short story collections (Back in the World for example).Fiction is all well and good, but when people buy books as gifts, four times out of five they buy non-fiction. The reason: you don’t have to have read the book to know what you’re getting; Madeleine Albright’s memoir is Madeleine Albright’s memoir, but who knows what sordid scenes lurk in the middle of The World According to Garp. Of course one of the current big sellers, The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970-1980, is full of sordid middle parts, but I think the folks giving and receiving that one know what they’re getting into. Meanwhile, in less sordid waters, the ranting Left continues to redouble its efforts against the ranting Right with Michael Moore’s sure-fire bestseller Dude, Where’s My Country?. Another big seller right now is a book that I can’t wait to read, Living to Tell the Tale the first volume of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ memoirs. Once I get to it, I’m sure I’ll talk about it a lot here. Artist David Hockney’s new book Hockney’s People is also selling well. It’s a collection of his portraits, both of himself and of his various friends and lovers. I’m not a huge fan of Hockney, but I like his portraits; they tend to be warm and interesting.Paperbacks, meanwhile, are not big sellers during the holidays, which is why I don’t have much to report on this front. The only serious paperback that has been selling really well of late is Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, which is probably piggy-backing the success of her recent memoir/family history Where I Was From. The other big selling paperbacks are destined for stocking stuffer status, which I’m sure is just what their authors hoped for. Try Russ Kick’s 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know for your paranoid relatives and Michael Flocker’s The Metrosexual Guide to Style for the trendy, sexually ambiguous ones.Extravagant Gift Alert: Have you seen this!?!?! How can something so silly be so expensive and…. huge (it weighs 20 lbs.!). Now if that isn’t nearly expensive or heavy enough, try this one… Still not enough? Try the “Champion’s Edition”. These heavyweights weigh in at 75lbs, by the way.
Millions contributor Ben penned a post in February about a documentary called Operation Homecoming about the National Endowment of the Arts’ (NEA) program of the same name which is designed to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put their experiences into words. (One participant in the program was Brian Turner whose book of poetry Here, Bullet was reviewed here a few months back.)As was noted in a comment on the original post, Operation Homecoming is also going to be covered as part of a PBS package called America at a Crossroads. That series is set to air beginning this weekend. The 11-part, six-night series covers “the war on terrorism, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan’ the experience of American troops serving abroad, the struggle for balance within the Muslim world, and global perspectives on America’s role overseas.” The Operation Homecoming installment airs Monday at 10pm (check your local listings, of course.)
In early 2002, the mogul for whom I worked began reimagining his prize property, The Atlantic Monthly. For a few weeks, I and other David Bradley employees at The Advisory Board Company received emails asking how The Atlantic might be improved. Would expanded political coverage make us more likely to subscribe? How about an expanded travel section? And: Could we recommend a witty British essayist to round out the list of contributors? (I’m pleased to say I botched this last question, and so can claim no credit for Christopher Hitchens.)Indeed, for a while, I wanted nothing to do with The Atlantic at all. Though the changes inaugurated that year improved the circulation numbers, they seemed to me to damage The Atlantic’s brand. The palpable rightward lurch; the proliferation of infographics, polls, and lifestyle coverage for the country-club set; and especially the breathless editorial hooks – “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “Was Rumsfeld Right?” “Is Feminism Bad for Women?” – had made this intellectual institution everything it once wasn’t. While reading an article pegged to season five of The Wire, I could practically hear cut-and-paste mouseclicks turning good reporting into vacuous bloviating. (The Wire’s chief offense? It’s fiction!)It was around this point that I began to toy with an essay called, “Is The Atlantic Monthly the Death of Journalism?”The most telling weakness of The Atlantic circa 2005 – 2007, I would have argued, was the way that it had assimilated in print form a quality conventional wisdom assigns to online writing: i.e., an instinct to manufacture controversy, at the expense of common sense. This pseudo-blogginess was on vivid display in the magazine’s letters section, wherein master sophists such as Caitlin Flanagan hectored any reader who dared to point out the tendentiousness of their logic.Even as the editorial standards of the print magazine slipped, however, a stealthy inversion was happening on the magazine’s blogs, whose readership numbers soon eclipsed newsstand sales. Marc Ambinder sought some middle ground in our contentious political discourse. James Fallows and Clive Crook, freed from their editorial overlords, offered thoughtful feuilletons. And even as Ross Douthat and I got into a mini-contretemps about presidential fiction, I came to admire the high standards of logos and ethos he brought to that mire of pathos, the Internet.Now, with a new design and a new slogan, the print and online arms of The Atlantic have perhaps reached some happy accommodation. The current print issue reveals the virtues of editorial patience; Hannah Rosin’s piece on transgender juveniles, in particular, is a model of probity. By far the most interesting aspect of the redesign, however, can be found on the web. The new version of www.theatlantic.com sports a svelte and user-friendly index of the magazine’s blog offerings (a.k.a. “Voices”). Moreover, the central panel of the homepage features a rotating selection of current content, making no distinction between print and online provenance. It’s a credit to The Atlantic’s intrepid bloggers – and a nod to the possibilities of the blog as a medium – that readers won’t miss the distinction.