BMW got huge publicity and probably sold a few cars with their BMW Films campaign a few years back, in which the company commissioned several famous directors to create short films that featured various BMW models. Now BMW is trying again with BMW Audiobooks, “a unique series of specially-commissioned short stories showcasing the work of some of the finest contemporary writing talent.” A new story will be available for download every two weeks. Now, this being BMW, I’m sure the product placement will be done in a classy way, but I can’t help but think that this does little more than turn “some of the finest contemporary writing talent” into shills writing ad copy. And lest BMW think they are being innovative, it should be known that another car company was seen paying an author to get characters into its cars less than two years ago.
1. In the building where I live, in the crevices of upper Manhattan, there also lives an Easter Bunny. This Easter Bunny leaves, every week or two (or three), one, or two, or a half dozen books in the foyer. These books are almost always fantastic. Sometimes, there are piles of lush NYRB Classics, waiting patiently to be coddled. Other times, they’ll be unreleased novels, obtained who knows where (this is how I read Karen Russell’s fantastic Swamplandia months before it was published). Sometimes the books will seem new, unread. More often then not, the mysterious fairy leaves more…used goods. 2. Lately, I’ve been into taking baths. Baths are pleasures that until recently I thought were reserved for the very young and the very old. After a semi-recent running injury, though, I found that a nice, long bath was just the thing to revitalize sore knees. The problem I have with baths is similar to my problem with massages. That is, no matter how pleasant they may feel, they are almost inherently boring, in that they consist of long minutes of doing absolutely nothing. I know some, more meditative people than myself would say that this is, in fact, the point, and I do think that taking time out of one’s hectic schedules to do precisely nothing is one of the great joys of life, but I still could never help feeling that long baths are simply boring. Compounded with this fact is the idea I’ve always had that reading in the bath would be a sort of primal pleasure. Sort of like in that episode of Seinfeld where George realizes that sex would never be perfect unless he was also concurrently watching t.v. and eating pastrami. When you’re bathing, you’re sitting, doing nothing, alone with your thoughts. It seems like the perfect place to read. Except. Except I have this thing against getting books dirty. The books I buy – whether they are new or used – tend to be in relatively good condition, and I try to keep them that way. I believe it is important to treat books, like people, with respect. Which makes it hard for me to do things like, for example, bring a fine book near a full bathtub, where it will more likely than not get wet. Enter the Easter Bunny. 3. Last night, I started an old, stained hardcover copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full left to me by the Easter Bunny a few months back. I started the book in the bathtub. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a first edition. The book got wet, yes, but the pages were already brittle, having been turned and spilled on by at least one and more like numerous hands before mine. There is some pleasure in reading a book and not caring about the surface the book is on. An aversion to this pleasure is one reason I have been reluctant to embrace e-readers. Books as books – as tangible things you can hold in your hands and show off to curious onlookers on the subway and friends who visit your apartment – are something I hold in high esteem. But there is, as I say, some pleasure in letting go, in allowing a book to get wet, in treasuring a book not for what it looks like but for what it says. As I began the novel of Atlanta society chronicled by the great Tom Wolfe, I felt free to lose myself in his well-wrought world, to ignore the splashes that were doubtlessly increasing the already significant wear the book had sustained. 4. Don’t get me wrong. I would still never take a book in good condition and do anything consciously to harm it. Books do have value, to me, as objects. There is something to be said for the cover, the pages, the (dare I say it) e-readers themselves. But, that said, it is nice to let go, sometimes. Everyone deserves to read a good book in the bathtub once in a while. (Image credit: accent on eclectic/Flickr.)
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I found an interesting interview with Jonathan Safran Foer today. I'll be including this in an upcoming post about books to look forward to this year, but I wanted to post it separately first because I think it's pretty interesting, and I can't recall seeing it posted anywhere else. In the interview he talks about his forthcoming novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which will include photography along with the text, and which seems to be a continuation of the rule-breaking, avant-garde style he has been cultivating. The rest of the interview provides an interesting picture of this young author. The only annoying thing is that the interview is kind of hard to get to. First go to this link, click on Foer and then click on "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
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Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading two illuminating books about the Soviet Union. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum is the first compresive account of the Soviet system of forced labor and random terror. Now that the shroud of secrecy and propaganda is lifted, the reality of twentieth century Soviet Union, and especially the period of Stalin's rule, is of a catastrophically malfunctioning totalitarian state. At times the horror of the Gulag is almost unfathomable. Applebaum's research here is clearly very thorough. She makes ample use of survivor memoirs, recently opened Soviet archives, and interviews. Gulag is an unwavering look at a piece of human history that is difficult to behold. Any inclination to sympathise with the Soviets is dispelled by this remarkable book. If Gulag is a book about the rot at the center of the Soviet system, then Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick chronicles the point at which the rot became more powerful than the Communist Party's iron fist. Remnick is a storyteller telling the story of a riveting period in history. As he writes, "To live anywhere between Bonn and Moscow in 1989 was to be witness to a year-long polical fantasy. You had the feeling you could run into history on the way to the bank or the seashore." Lucky for us, Remnick spent 1989 (as well as the years before and after) in Moscow. Reading these two books simultaneously has provoked in me a minor obsession with 20th century Russian history, which is fantastic because in the last year alone several compelling books about the subject have come out. I'll let you know if and when I read them.Some Good BookfindingToday, on my day off, I went by a nearby Goodwill store and found a mini treasure trove of good reading. The best find was 7 old issues of Granta, each one chock full of fantastic writers, including some of my favorites like Ryszard Kapuscinski, T. C. Boyle, and Haruki Murakami. Flipping through the tables of contents, I can see I'm in for some great reading. I let you know what I find. I also bought an old issue of Story magazine from 1997 featuring stories by Heidi Julavits and Bobbi Ann Mason among several others. I don't know who is giving away old literary magazines but I was more than happy to find them. I also found two history books that look pretty great: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan which is about Eastern Europe and The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan, a history of naval warfare. And just in case all these books are too serious I found a copy of The Essential Calvin And Hobbes for only two bucks... yes!Don't ForgetGo to Realistic Records to get a copy of the Recoys album. And go see them play Friday June 20th 9pm... Kingsland Tavern at the corner of Kingsland and Nassau in Greenpoint (that's Brookyn by the way). I'll be there!
The weather is nice, and we've got all the windows open in the apartment. We ran some errands earlier today - although the task of going to Whole Foods to buy cheese and olives deserves a term with better connotations than "errand." Now I'm flipping through a stack of catalogs from Penguin while I listen to baseball on the radio. This is why I look forward to weekends.I think I'll start with the Plume, Portfolio, Overlook, etc. catalog. These imprints do both paperback editions of books that have already come out in hardcover, and paperback originals, which are initially published as a paperback without a prior hardcover release.There's a nifty little collection coming out in August as a paperback original. The Subway Chronicles "offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives on this most public of spaces," New York's legendary subway system. Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Francine Prose and Calvin Trillin are among 27 contributors whose essays look at New York's subterranean city from every angle. The anthology's editor, Jacquelin Cangro, runs thesubwaychronicles.com.I've heard sections of Dan Savage's book The Commitment read on This American Life. Savage writes in the David Sedaris, David Rackoff, public radio funny man vein. Like those two Davids, Savage is gay and his sharp comic timing and casual mastery of the memoir style transcend any label. In The Commitment, Savage recasts the gay marriage "debate" as his own family drama, injecting some much-needed humor and personality into a controversy that is so often portrayed as faceless. The hardcover is already out and the Plume paperback comes out in October.Under the Portfolio imprint is the paperback of John Battelle's book The Search. The book tells the story of how a goofy little search engine called Google grew into a $120 billion company that enjoys global ubiquity and is seemingly able to reinvent any industry it touches (publishing for example). Aside from my general fascination with Google, I'm also interested in this book because I read and enjoy Battelle's blog. As the creator of FM Publishing and the "band manager" of Boing Boing, Battelle is someone to watch in the world of new media. The paperback edition comes out in September.Extras: Andy Riley's morbidly hilarious The Book of Bunny Suicides and The Return of the Bunny Suicides are being collected in a box set called A Box of Bunny Suicides due in September. Haven't seen the bunny suicides? Go here and click excerpt. Also, Plume is putting out great-looking new editions of Fences, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. (The snazzy new covers aren't showing up at Amazon yet, but I'm assuming they'll switch out the old ones soon.)
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In light of the epidemic of violence and political repression in Zimbabwe - and South Africa's African National Congress's insistence (until much of the damage had been done) that interference from "outsiders" was not welcome - avid fiction readers may want to revisit a sub-Saharan perspective on political misrule: Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow. Writing here a couple years back, I gave the book a mixed review, finding some fault with the breadth of the satire. But, much as magical realism is said to just be called "realism" in Columbia, broad satire starts to seem awfully pointed the more one learns about the tactics of strongmen like Robert Mugabe. Which is to say, Mugabe's decision to proceed with the election runoff in Zimbabwe borders on farce. As Ngugi shows, these antics can make for rich fiction. In life, of course, they are merely infuriating.The latest: Mugabe declared winner in Zimbabwe's one-man election
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader's comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24's President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running - Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes - and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life - and particularly public opinion and national politics - a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, "So this is the little lady who started this Great War." Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe's novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe's lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel's sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative - by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic - is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom's Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe's work - not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass - is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass' work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass' narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe's, but it is Stowe's - the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama - that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass' best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe's Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine - in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country's readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain's age and history of skin cancer). It's all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.