Nolo Press, which puts out “trustworthy and approachable legal guides,” spent “two years and ‘hundreds of thousands'” coming up with a redesign for its book covers, according to Publishers Weekly. What did Nolo come up with? Dogs. Chip Kidd, book designer extraordinaire, happened to be guest blogging at Powell’s this week and registered his horror. (Thanks Laurie)
India’s economy is growing at a tremendous clip with its expanding, highly educated workforce competing for jobs with Western economies. Pakistan, whose President-General is allied with the U.S., in many ways has become a crucial partner (and some say a liability) in America’s adventures and misadventures overseas since 9/11. Both countries have made the world nervous with nuclear posturing over the last decade or so. So it is natural that on the sixtieth anniversary of both countries’ creation via bloody partition, a number of books have recently been published chronicling this pivotal moment in recent history. I’ve listed five of these books on the birth of Pakistan below (Please use the comments to let us know about any I’ve missed.)Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann – New Yorker review; excerptIndia After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha – San Francisco Chronicle reviewThe Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future by Martha C. Nussbaum – NYRB review; excerpt (pdf)Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India by Stanley Wolpert – Times of India reviewThe Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan by Yasmin Khan – The Economist review; excerptThe Great Partition and Indian Summer seem to be getting the most press, with both being discussed in a recent Slate article.
It’s not just July, it’s the “Harry Potter month” to end all Harry Potter months. With book 7 coming out on the 21st, the frenzy will be ramping up over the next couple of weeks.Amazon has been doing its best to stoke the flames (recall the Harry-est Town in America promotion). A new press release from the online bookseller is breathless even by the form’s loose standards. “Harry Potter Mania Reaches All-Time High on Amazon.com” it proclaims, and I imagine millions of foaming clickers rampaging through Amazon’s digital halls and tearing the place to pieces. Alas, by “mania” Amazon means pre-orders, which at last count are approaching 1.6 million, eclipsing the record total set by book 6. Amazon continues to incite the madness, however, with its new offer of a $5 “promotional certificate to spend in August” for customers who pre-order the new book. Go crazy, Harry Potter fans.
A friend who has long since gotten out of the literary scholarship racket was once, briefly, quite intent on writing a dissertation entitled “Parrots, Pirates, and Prostheses.” I have a vague recollection that the argument was to involve something about how pirates seem often to lose hands, legs, and eyes, and that along with their inanimate prosthetics (wooden legs, hooks, eye patches – if, indeed, eye patches count), they also have animate ones like parrots and monkeys. I am not quite sure where this argument was going. There was, however, an excellent plan to, at the defense of this unwritten dissertation, have a parrot, on the shoulder of the writer, declaim the defense.Though this dissertation (sadly) remains unwritten, it did generate a list of parrot books. Everyone’s favorite genre! Behold:Flaubert’s A Simple HeartKate Chopin’s The AwakeningRobinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeCharles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Scrooge recalls Crusoe’s Poll in the first stave)Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian BarnesVirgina Woolf’s The Widow and the Parrot (this fable-like tale has been published as an illustrated children’s book)Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (Cap’n Flint)20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (parrot hunting!)Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (Aunt March has a parrot who tells Laurie, “Go Away. No boys allowed here.”)Gertrude Stein’s “The Good Anna” in Three Lives briefly features a parrot.Saki’s story “The Remoulding of Groby Lington”Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (which features a haunting scene of a parrot on fire)Willa Cather’s beautiful Shadows on the Rock (Captain Pondaven’s African parrot Coco, who sings songs and drinks brandy in warm water)Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop (at least, I remember vaguely)
In Russian, the term ostranyeniye means “the act of making strange.” In the early twentieth century, the idea was coined and used by Russian Formalists, authors and artists, who sought to make the familiar seem foreign — to make those who consumed their art question everyday words and forms.
Still Here, the third novel by Moscow-born Lara Vapnyar, bears very little resemblance to any of the experimental works by those Russian Formalists. But though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life.
Still Here is the story of four Russian immigrants in New York City. There’s Vadik, certain only of what he doesn’t want; Regina, a formerly famous translator who has married a wealthy American man; Vica, stuck in Staten Island with her son and husband but certain she’s “pure Manhattan”; and Sergey, Vica’s husband, a former prodigy who dreams of developing an app — “Virtual Grave” — that allows people to communicate with the dead by preserving and recycling what they said online in life. Virtual Grave is Sergey’s final chance to prove himself the brilliant man he was always expected to become. Given his difficulty holding down a job, it’s a last shot at providing for his family — and so a point of tension in his already troubled marriage with Vica. The characters’ respective stories unfold and intersect as they, as a group, try to come to terms with death in a way that enriches life.
Vapnyar is not the first to use something like Virtual Grave in art. A short story in Adam Johnson’s excellent collection Fortune Smiles centered around a very similar concept, as did an episode of the hit television show Black Mirror. What makes Vapnyar’s book unique is neither the idea of the app nor the use of four friends trying to make it in New York City (Vica is obviously the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch), but rather how these elements — a slightly forward-looking app and the perspective of four very different immigrants — are used together to “make strange” the modern world. There’s always someone having more fun on Facebook; always a better match out there on Tinder or OkCupid (in the book, the app is “Hello, Love!”); always someone wittier on Twitter. Except that, of course, there isn’t.
The book, like each of Vapnyar’s key players, is not without its faults. It’s a fresh take on an old theme, but it is nevertheless an old theme, and one that uses some old tropes—about New York City, about immigrants, about social media, etc. And there are points at which it feels more beach-read than smart satire. Of Regina, Vapnyar writes, “Being an introvert, she had trouble making friends.” It is the sort of sentence at which she herself might smirk elsewhere in the book.
Such shortcomings aside, Vapnyar ultimately offers a literary representation of the way we live now. She shows us America, the beautiful and absurd, managing to satirize it without ever losing sympathy for the people living in it, and certainly not for her four main characters. At one point, Regina, sure that today is the day she’ll start reading and writing again, puts off work to watch television; with the help of an app called “Eat’N’Watch,” which recommends the right food-show binge combination, she wastes hours and winds up disgusted with herself. In another moment, Vadik recalls the one-night-stand he had in New York City, who he left the next morning and who, he later realizes, he may have loved. The morning after, Vadik remembers that he had left his copy Hell Is Other People at the diner where he met the woman: “He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He would never be able to go back there. Vadik felt a surge of panic and regret, so bad that it made his heart ache.”
The book gives us plenty on which to reflect. Would we want an app like Virtual Grave? What would it mean to control our own online presence after we’re dead? If we aren’t exactly living in the book’s universe of constant app updates and addiction, how far removed are we? It makes strange the world we think we know. But even within that — in the bounds and bonds of satire and reflection and ostraneniye — it manages to remind us of the humanity that existed before there was an app for that. One that will remain, we can hope, once we’ve moved on.
Every day, hours of streamed sound — from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to Dr. Dre to Arctic Monkeys — flow through dirty earbuds and into my scattered brain. The Swedish music service is nearly as important to me as red blood cells, especially when deadlines loom. However, I’ve come to realize Spotify doesn’t exist just to crank out pop songs and other traditional forms of music — it’s a mine of audiobook gems.
Several playlists floating throughout this eighth and 16th note galaxy boast obscure books, crackly poems from the 1920s, and a surprising mix of French and German audiobooks. The easiest way to access this archived library is under “browse” and then “genre & moods” category. Scroll down the tiles, past “Christian” and “Travel” until there, at the very bottom right tile, you find “Word,” a digital funhouse for bookish nerds. A few of the playlists have hilarious names like “A Hipster’s Guide to Poetry” or “Stories for Your Inner Child;” I half expect “Nietzsche’s Existential Crises” and “Sex Books for Basic Girls” to appear soon. To have the world of Audible hidden within the chic confines of Spotify (with student pricing)!
The sexy repartee of Darcy delivered straight to my ears? The transatlantic, resounding voice of Sylvia Plath reading her own multilayered poetry? An entire playlist of William Shakespeare’s sonnets is there to delight, along with biographies of classical composers and Anton Chekhov short stories (“A Tragic Actor,” anyone?) A few book listings were only excerpts or the abridged versions of the full novel, but you can find The Jungle Book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Call of the Wild, among others, in their full-length glory. I’m fast abandoning my playlists of The Beatles, Cage the Elephant, and The Notorious B.I.G. for the sinuous diction of 19th-century English authors and Shakespeare.
It’s not just audiobook publishers offering their wares to the Internet — voice actors listed as independent artists present narrated works, mostly poetry or short story collections. There’s also an extensive body of work narrated by the authors themselves. The rich tones of Sylvia Plath! The lulling drawl of T.S. Eliot reading The Wasteland, or “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (“With Cats, some say, one rule is true: Don’t speak till you are spoken to”).
(There’s one glaring oddity about Spotify books. Most of the audiobooks are classics the copyrights of which have expired (which is, obviously, what allows them to be published). However, a large number of current audiobooks are floating in the netherworld of Spotify — in German! Stephen King’s The Stand, Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat (originally published in French), Dan Brown’s Inferno…all are sketchily encoded in German and broken down into one-minute long segments.)
Audible is great — for passionate book lovers willing to slice $15 from their paycheck. ITunes was tailored for fancy pants, each song and audiobook sold separately (excluding Apple Music, which I won’t go into here). But Spotify? It’s the hot-button music player for students. Several of my friends do not read (*tear*), but with the smirking face of Shakespeare next to the tattoos of Adam Levine, they’re more likely to hear the bard out. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” with “Your sugar, Yes, please, Won’t you come and put it down on me” — what a beautiful mess of sine and cosine waves!
Here is a playlist, for your summer listening pleasure.