Kind of like a Hot-or-Not for books (and cds and movies), judgeabookbyitscover.co.uk lets you rate by books by appearance, something I suspect many readers do (subconsciously or not) when they go shopping for books. (via)
It’s officially been summer for coming up on two weeks, which means that, in accordance with typical publishing and bookselling practices, near the front of the bookstore there will be stacks of books by new and unknown authors all vying to become this summer’s “breakout hit.” Last year the winner of the “breakout hit” lottery was won by Alice Sebold whose book, The Lovely Bones, was much purchased and enjoyed by the majority and vehemently despised by the minority of readers who are not willing to shut off the part of the brain that determines what is tasteful and what is not. What’s funny about this way of selling books is that every bookstore that you walk into will try to make its customers think that their staff personally discovered these new authors and that the customers are among the lucky first few to enjoy these newcomers. In reality, the candidates for “breakout hit” are chosen months in advance by the publishing companies and aggressively marketed much in the same way that one would market a film. In a sense The Lovely Bones is not very different from The Hulk. In my opinion this year’s winner has already been declared: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is already the book that recreational readers ask for by name when looking for a summer reading distraction. This non-threateningly clever, historical thriller acheived success in a couple of ways. First, like all of the other “breakout hit” candidates it is engagingly written and also contains a “hook,” in this case the idea is that embedded within da Vinci’s famous artwork are hidden clues that can solve a present day murder mystery while at the same time unravelling some of humanity’s great unsolved conundrums. Very Indiana Jones. Secondly, in the weeks leading up to the release of The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday reps blitzed bookstores to talk up the book, hand out advance copies, and put up teaser posters. Finally Doubleday’s publicists were able to get the book mentioned in all the weekly newsmags and grocery store aisle gossip rags. Voila! Breakout hit… There are lots of books sitting on either side of The Da Vinci Code on the “breakout hit” display, all are almost as heavily marketed but some might be a bit more rewarding: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is narrated by a 15 year old autistic math savant who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes and tries to find out who murdered his neighbor’s dog. Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy is an example of what a multi-generational saga can look like when written by a young writer. Bangkok 8 is a debut by John Burdett. This one is perfect for those who like thrillers in exotic locals. (In this case, a U.S. Marine is dead in Thailand. Great cover art, too). Finally, Benjamin Cavell’s Rumble, Young Man, Rumble and Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians are two much lauded short story collections. Bye now…
At The Morning News, Robert Birnbaum interviews Jonathan Safran Foer. In his email announcing the interview, Birnbaum tries to elevate the current level of discourse surrounding Foer, who seems to have a target painted on his back these days: First, a word about what you will not read here – no reference to Steve Almond’s kvetchy and disingenuous hand wringing about Jon Foer’s new novel (at MobyLives.com)or the exponentially vile and bombastic heaving by Harry Siegal about the same at the loathsome and vile NYC weekly that produces journalistic marvels such as “50 Loathsome New Yorkers” and includes novelists on that hit list.The interview is long, and once again portrays Foer as thoughtful and unwilling to respond to criticism or praise, preferring to concentrate on just the reader and the writer:Foer: Really good books are books that have two authors, the reader and the writer. Or maybe the idea of an author is actually just a combination of two people, the reader and the writer? So when writing you use the word “tree.” Four letters. Very, very short word. Fits a couple millimeters on a page. But in the reader’s mind it becomes a kind of idealized version of a tree, and that tree is different for each person who reads the book and because of that a book is customized for each person in a way a song never could be and as a painting never could be.
John Burdett’s sequel to Bangkok 8, his mystery set in Thailand, has come out. It’s called Bangkok Tattoo. Here’s my review of Bangkok 8 (scroll down). Here’s EW’s review of Bangkok Tattoo. And here’s an excerpt.I noticed that Penguin has put out a smart-looking new edition of John Keegan’s essential history book, The Second World War. The new edition includes a new foreword by Keegan.It looks like T.C. Boyle will have a new collection of short stories out this fall called Tooth and Claw.
Last night myself and my friend Edan were the facilitators for the first installment of a new book club at the book store where I work. It was the first time either of us had ever been in a book club, and I think we both had a good time. Last night we discussed The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. After a few minutes of polite discussion, it came out that half the people in attendance strongly disliked the book, which made for some excellent debate. As best as I could tell, the dislike for the book is a part of the backlash against the “virtuoso perfomances” of young writers of late, who, according to certain readers, are over-writing in order to produce a novel that is “big” and masterful. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen are two examples of this trend that came up during our discussion. I, on the other hand, am relatively lenient in my feelings about this book at least in part because I have always rather enjoyed the over-written modern novel, John Irving (see The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany) and T. C. Boyle (see The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, and Water Music) being among my favorite practitioners. The question now is: what do we read for next month?
Pitting a novel entitled Am I a Redundant Human Being? against Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love may initially seem like an imbalanced match. Eat, Pray, Love is more than double its length, a best-seller turned blockbuster movie, an inspirational book devoted to the pursuit of sensuality, spirituality, personal independence, and love. Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being? is a conspicuous underdog, a slight volume in translation written by the Austrian actress turned novelist Mela Hartwig who befriended Virginia Woolf in Woolf’s final years. Gilbert’s book is a travel memoir that recounts a year-long pilgrimage in search of personal enlightenment that Gilbert the writer planned to chronicle well before booking her flights, while Hartwig’s is a bildungsroman, centered on the ineffectual Aloisia Schmidt who aspires to significance as she bemoans the dullness of the existence she was born into. The titles alone reveal the divergent natures of the two books, and demand that you answer, as a reader, are you drawn to pleasance or neurotic self-doubt?
The Library of Congress classifies Am I a Redundant Human Being? primarily as a book about “self-realization in women,” which is the topic of Gilbert’s book, too: the process of growing into the person you dream of becoming (or, in Schmidt’s case, of failing to do so). Gilbert’s path to self-actualization is fairly clear-cut: first stop Italy, where she learns Italian and binges on pasta and pizza merely because she wants to, next an ashram in India in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and a final stop in Bali for balance, where inevitably, it’s no secret, she falls in love. As Gilbert states towards the end of her journey: “I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself.” However inspiring or cloying or annoying you find Gilbert’s self-satisfaction by book’s end, this becoming one’s ideal is exactly what Hartwig’s Aloisia Schmidt yearns to do, so desperately in fact that she’s willing to destroy her life in this pursuit.
Aloisia Schmidt is wonderfully insufferable. She recounts the sad events of her insignificant life in tireless detail. She is neither beautiful nor ugly, intelligent nor stupid, good student nor bad: the sum of her life is one large zero, or at least that’s what she would lead you, dear reader, to believe. However, Schmidt has penetrating insight into her own inadequacies and shortcomings, as well as the strength to willfully unravel her unexceptional life, as her first boyfriend, Emil K., accuses: “it’s hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself… You’re acting as if you’ve been singled out. As if it’s your destiny to feel this way.” She rejects suitors with good intentions in favor of caustic affairs, erodes the faith of others, especially lovers, with her own self-doubt, and alienates anyone who believes in her – true to Groucho Marx’s adage, she wouldn’t care to join any club that would have her as a member.
Gilbert, on the other hand, identifies as being “social and bubbly and smiling all the time,” and makes friends wherever she goes. Her tone conveys personal warmth. She speaks plainly, offering intimate details and asides as if confiding in a good friend. In India, Gilbert admits her lifelong desire “to be the quiet girl,” but then counters this quickly with: “Probably precisely because I’m not.” She is the well-intentioned socialite, and never, however much she halfheartedly wishes, the despondent wallflower. However, Gilbert’s glibness and sometimes pussyfooting make one wonder about her depth. We need not forget that Gilbert is on a professional mission. Following her divorce and failed love affair, the self-proclaimed “administrator of my own rescue” had the wherewithal to pitch her book, pack her bags, and journey solo around the world for a year, under the pretense of finding herself.
Gilbert is closer in nature to one of Schmidt’s prep school classmates who are better dressed, better prepared, just more advantaged in general, something that Schmidt later identifies as “two-faced arrogance that comes with money and social position – things I completely lacked, and still lack.” When she has moved on to office life, Schmidt becomes “conscious of my pathetic tendency to be impressed by anyone the least bit self-assured.” Lacking confidence distinguishes Schmidt from the women she both envies and admires, and this distinguishes her from Gilbert, too.
Schmidt later befriends an actress (uncannily) named Elizabeth, who she wants so much to be that she imitates her, and this emulation becomes Schmidt’s one inspired role. After Elizabeth’s suicide, Schmidt attempts to inhabit her character, wanting “to make her fate my own, to experience it as a dream and desire.” Aloisia Schmidt is like Eve Harrington, the cunning understudy in All About Eve, though it’s not Elizabeth’s fame and prominence she covets, it’s her entire existence. Where Gilbert grows into her ideal self in the end, Schmidt’s ideal self is someone else entirely.
Of the two books, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is the one Aloisia Schmidt would prefer to read. Of her reading habits, Schmidt says, “I read in order to forget myself, to slip from one life into another, to identify myself with my newest heroine… When I read, I lived on credit; I literally borrowed from the author what I myself so painfully lacked – namely, fantasies. I dreamed, you could say, at the author’s expense. But wasn’t it his job to dream for me?” Gilbert speaks to fantasies, specifically the twenty-first century American variety of jet-set enlightenment by way of paradisiacal settings, and reassurance that broken hearts mend to love again. The fantasy is so persuasive that her book has singlehandedly augmented spiritual tourism in Bali.
Eat, Pray, Love owes no small part of its success to the fantasy it sells to multitudes of readers who, à la Aloisia Schmidt, question the significance of their lives, who find, if not hope, then escape from their thwarted aspirations and dreams. Schmidt would prefer to lead Elizabeth Gilbert’s life, and honestly, if I had to chose between their lives, I would, too. But as a reader, I find that Schmidt’s hand in her own downfall and her relentless refusal to settle for redundancy make her a more interesting if also more complicated character.
Bonus Link: Zen and the Art of Image Maintenance
I’m guessing that Oprah’s latest choice for her book club was timed to coincide with BEA (the big book expo) going on in New York right now. Despite recent pleas for a return to contemporary fiction, Oprah has decided to stick with the classics. The latest pick is notable in that it’s not just one book, it’s three. Vintage Books has combined three novels by William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August – into one Oprah-branded set called The Summer of Faulkner which retails for close to 30 bucks. To my mind, the selection is also notable in that these novels are probably the most challenging books that Oprah has ever recommended. I’ve said before that I don’t think that Oprah’s focus on classic books is a bad thing, but I have to wonder if this latest pick won’t provoke a backlash. Among the literary types there is already much consternation over Oprah co-opting classic novels for use on her TV show, and this latest pick, which repackages three of the greatest American novels into a “summer of” set, might be enough to stir critics into a frenzy. From the standpoint of the regular Oprah Book Club readers, Oprah may lose some fans who find Faulkner tough going and resent the 30 dollar price tag that got slapped on this pick. On the other hand, if this really does turn out to be the “Summer of Faulkner” and hundreds of thousands of Americans read his novels, I’ll be hard-pressed to say that this was a bad choice.See also: All of Oprah’s classic picks.
In those first years the roads were filled with refugees huddled in their rags. Filthy anoraks, torn and dustshraffled Starterjackets. Masked and mittened, tatterslumped on the macadam. Ruined hitchhikers on a boak and godless freeway. Their barrows heavy with shoom, dented pails of dirthat. Towing carts or wagons. On tandembikes and tricycles, eyes wild and heedless. Husks of men shuffling towards a charred and empty nothingwaste. Feverdreams of turkey on rye, barrelpickle on the side. Good, thick tomatoslices. But their ravenous mouths were sandwichless, the frail lie exposed. A cracked and empty cicadashell. The new world gray and skeletonboned, heavy with reckoning. No barrelpickles anywhere, not even Polish dills.
Late in the year and growing colder. The mountains looming. He told the boy that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that there was no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that. Their rotting bodies found by the bloodcults, flesh boiled in great pots and eaten from wooden bowls. Their bones whittled to rude spears, hair made as twine. Hands dried and hollowed, worn as gloves. Skulls for soccerpractice. You had to hand it to those bloodcults. They really knew their way around a corpse.
They pressed on through the withered highcountry. Peckers small and anxious against the cold. Scrotes rocksolid, scrunched to the taints. In the afternoon it began to snow and they made camp early and crouched under the tarp. The cold gripped merciless, a silent oblivion. The man made a fire with a few meager branchscraps but it gave little heat. Camping, the man said with a grin as the snow came down all around them. Gotta love it. No response from the boy save a chattering of teeth. A tear frozen to his windreddened cheek. Kids these days, the man thought as he peered out at the steadyfalling snow. They never appreciate anything.
He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him. The boy. The man was holding the boy. Shh, he said. The man was saying that. Shh. It’s okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know. Your pants are wet.
Should I tell you what it was?
Please do, he said. He was lying though. He didnt want to hear it at all. He’d rather do almost anything.
Okay Papa. So we were in the house that we used to live in, and I was eating a pancake for breakfast. But then it wasnt really a pancake. It was more of like a car that uses syrup instead of gas. But there werent any wheels on it. It kind of lifted off the ground and hovered around? But only when youre singing the pancake song.
Interesting, the man said. For dreary grinding months, he had pushed a balky shopping cart through a numb and deadened land. Not a sound, nothing to see besides lowhanging fog and immolated ruin. Yet he had never been this bored.
The boy went on.
And mommy was driving me to school in my pancake car. She was singing the song, about pancakes being tasty and theyre better with blueberries in them. And the seats were big pieces of banana but they werent that sticky even though they were big pieces of banana. And then I told her that I forgot my mathbook and we’d have to go back but all of a sudden her head wasnt her head. It was a baseball player’s head.
Was it Sid Bream’s head?
Yes Papa. It was Sid Bream’s head. I dont remember what happened next. But it was really scary.
I know, the man said, hugging him closer. But he was lying again. He didnt think the pancake dream was scary at all.
In the morning of the day following they heard a low steady thunder that grew louder as they walked. Soon they were before a waterfall plunging off a high shant of rock and falling eighty feet through a gray fleen of mist into the pool below. They stood side by side calling to each other over the din.
Is the water cold?
Yes. It’s freezing.
Would you like to go in?
No. Thats okay, Papa.
Are you sure?
Yes Papa. It looks really cold.
Oh, come on. Lets go for a swim.
Okay Papa. If you say so.
The man took off his clothes and walked into the water. Snausage retreating like the head of a boxturtle. The boy undressed too and tarried at the edge, paleblue and wracked with shiver.
Come on in. It’s not too bad.
Are you sure Papa? It looks really cold.
The boy took a breath and dove in, screaming from the shock of it. He hopped up and down, bony arms hugging his thin chest. The man smiled, paddling to keep his head above water.
Are you okay?
Yes Papa, he said, jaw clenched tight. It’s really fun.
I knew youd like it.
Just then, the man saw movement on the swackened hillcrest up along the road. He swam to the boy and pulled him towards him. What is it, Papa? The boy said. The man said nothing and paddled them to a low bunt of stone behind the waterfall. Shh, he said as they settled in. We must be quiet.
It was a group of four, a man and three women. They were talking quietly. The man’s eyes widened. He knew what they were. If they saw the boy they would surely snatch him up. Never to be seen again. He cradled the boy to his chest.
Who is it, Papa?
They carried filefolders and clipboards, wore sweaters and cheap haircuts. The man looked away. Theyre from Protective Services.
Never mind, the man whispered. His heart ached as he watched them pass by. If they see us here they’ll take you from me.
Really? the boy said. He watched them with interest as they trod through the haze.