If you haven’t already checked it out, there’s a great discussion of the latest LBC pick, Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, going on at the LBC site. I added my two cents today with a post called The Slacker Hero.
Over the past few years, I’ve read a good amount of twentieth century Russian history, and I’ve come to wonder, with dismay, why the Soviet regime – especially during Stalin’s reign – is not acknowledged as one of the great horrors in human history. One does not see memorials and museums to this tragedy in cities around the world, nor even in Russia. This view was reinforced in me by books like Anne Applebaum’s Gulag and Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread. Now Millions reader Brian has read another book about Stalin’s reign and sent in his thoughts:I just read Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore– One of the most intense and fascinating books I’ve ever read in my life. Wow. Focuses mostly on Stalin’s life after Lenin’s death and the lives of the Russian magnates that surrounded him. At about pg. 200 the Great Terror kicks in, leading into negotiations and subsequent war with Germany and… it is indescribable. Truly. We all know about Stalin, but I never really understood…- There is one scene in this book, the Russians had 17,000 Poles imprisoned. Stalin ordered 7,000 of them killed. Blohkin was the man to do it. At various times during the Terror he was denounced by Yezhov or Beria, but Stalin wouldn’t let him be killed as nobody could murder with such speed or efficiency. Moreover, like Stalin, it didn’t jangle Blohkin’s nerves; he didn’t turn to excessive drink, decadent sex, or lose him mind. (Although his mother, years later, recalled that he would come home, throw himself at her feet, and sob uncontrollably) – so, on the abovementioned night, Blohkin put on his rubber butcher’s apron, a cap, and took a German pistol (blame it on the Nazis if the crime was discovered) and personally shot 250 poles. He did this – 250 murders a night – for 28 nights. It is the single largest (known) mass murder by one individual in history.- Montefiore provides day by day descriptions of life in the Kremlin, the intrigues amongst Stalin’s ‘court’, the denunciations, confessions, and sexual liaisons amongst the men and women at the ‘top’ (one of Stalin’s favorite things, which he did over and over, was to order the murder of a top official’s wife and then force the official to hang around (and, possibly take orders from) her murderer); the meetings between Molotov and Hitler, Stalin and Ribbentrop, FDR, Churchill, etc. – he gives actual confessions, testimonies, and descriptions of Stalin’s right hand men being beaten so hard that their eyeballs pop out of their heads (for some reason this is mentioned frequently — what must be done to a man or woman’s head to have an eyeball pushed, not picked, out?) by their former best friends, and, at times, their sons or brothers. Seriously.The paperback came out last week. A must read.
There’s a very entertaining article at the CBC Web site about the pros and cons of being prolific as a writer. It leads with a discussion of the output of Alexander McCall Smith of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame, who regularly churns out 3,000 words at a sitting. Prolific authors are often envied, but if they happen to be genre writers they are likely to be derided as well, even as publishers covet them and count on them to bankroll riskier publishing endeavors: The dream of most publishers is to have at least one “house author,” a writer with a robust fan base who can dependably churn out one title a year – giving the publisher the financial solidity to take the occasional flyer on more challenging (read: less gainful) authors.The article also includes a great quote from DFW: Musing on the seemingly inexhaustible John Updike, David Foster Wallace once asked, “Has the son-of-a-bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” Updike’s absurdly prodigious output – in the form of novels, as well as short stories, travel writing and literary criticism – has undermined his stature in the eyes of Foster Wallace, as well as many fiction readers. I would tend to agree that volume can degrade one’s reputation in the eyes of the reader. The article goes on to mention Joyce Carol Oates whose level of output many seem to take as a personal insult, and closes with an amusing comparison of Oates and Stephen King courtesy George Murray, proprietor of Bookninja.Curious about the output of different writers? This search returns lots of interesting numbers.
My dad’s family is from New Jersey, and they are proud of it. I lived there for a couple of years when I was younger. Folks from Jersey tend to have chips on their shoulders because New Jersey is the butt of a lot of jokes. They will strenuously claim that the state consists of more than just the Turnpike. They will describe the beaches and the countryside. Now they don’t have to bother with the arguments, they can just leave the Encyclopedia of New Jersey sitting out on the coffee table. With nearly 3,000 entries and lots of entertaining factual tidbits like “did you know that New Jersey was once divided into two parts — East Jersey and West Jersey?” perhaps this book will help Jersey join its rightful place among the states. Fittingly, the project was inspired by a classic case of New York envy. As this FOX News article recounts, Marc Mappen, head of the New Jersey Historical Commission, was perusing a popular encyclopedia of New York City and decided that New Jersey ought to have its own reference book. He worked with co-editor Maxine N. Lurie for ten years, and now the book has arrived. You can check out some sample entries hereMy sources are telling me that The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler is turning out to be something of a surprise hit. Two largely positive reviews from the New York Times, one in the daily and one in the Sunday Book Review, are helping. This sort of meta-fiction has proven quite successful in recent years; The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair are two examples. And believe it or not, a book that centers on a book club is seen as perfect for book clubs.
I’m apparently not the first person to wonder, in connection with last week’s PEN World Voices Festival, What makes a good panel discussion? It may seem a parochial concern – the kind of thing best hashed out at… well, a panel discussion – but it has real-world implications. Discussions of books by people who write them can be exhilarating to witness, but there’s also the potential for gnaw-your-own-leg-off tedium.Wednesday’s celebration of 40 years of Anagrama, the illustrious, Barcelona-based independent publisher, highlighted some of these possibilities and pitfalls. The panelists themselves, including Anagrama founder Jorge Herralde and four of his authors, had personality to spare. According to Herralde, these authors occupied the “in-between spaces” of culture and language – always a good thing for conversation. And yet translation problems kept the evening from sustaining any real momentum.Francisco Goldman led off, attempting to capture the role of Anagrama in Hispanophone literary life. He likened it to “Knopf, FSG, Grove, and New Directions” rolled into one. With a novelist’s eye for detail, he described the dustjackets of Anagrama’s various series – “bright, marigold yellow” for translations; “mint green” for Spanish-language originals; gray for “grown-up books” like philosophy. Anagrama, he pointed out, was founded at the tail end of the Franco era, when publishing serious literature was itself an act of editorial daring. And yet even in a more genteel 21st Century Spain, the house keeps renewing itself, most recently by bringing to international attention the extraordinary “flowering of Latin American fiction” in the last decade.Goldman promised to tell us later about Anagrama’s great parties and “How I got to get drunk with the heavy metal rock band Slayer.” But, as the translator fumbled with Herralde’s introduction of the next speaker, A.M. Homes, it seemed increasingly unlikely we would have time to hear from Goldman about Slayer, or about anything else. By the time the translator (an American, it seemed) described Homes’s work as “misericordian” and (I swear) “vorocious,” half of the audience was laughing in embarrassment, and the other half, including the elderly woman next to me, were yelling out the correct translations. Given the floor (finally) Homes spoke movingly about what it meant to a “horribly American” writer like herself to be published abroad. “It means my work has relevance,” she said. Being translated was “an honor. . . and a gift.” The panel had righted itself again.Next up was Siri Hustvedt, looking prosperous in a designer cardigan as her husband, Paul Auster watched from the front row. Herralde’s introduction made it clear that Hustvedt is huge in Spain, with something like 20,000 copies of Sorrows of an American in print. For previous books, she shared a Spanish publisher with Don DeLillo, he said. (I figured that out, and I don’t speak Spanish.) The translator’s version? “She shared a car with Don DeLillo.” At this point Hustvedt herself interjected – “No, no, no, no.” Fortunately, after Hustvedt’s fanciful disquisition on neurology and the imagination a new translator had arrived. The first young woman may merely have been pinch-hitting for the second, who I’m guessing got lost or had train problems. And so the two Spanish-speaking novelists on stage were the beneficiaries of fluid translation.The first to speak was Daniel Sada, who, according to Herralde, was on Roberto Bolaño‘s short-list of favorite writers, which fluctuated according to who he was friends with at any given time. The other candidates? Rodrigo Fresán, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Marías, and the man seated to Sada’s right, Enrique Vila-Matas. Sada spoke about the 19th-Century tradition that shaped him, and its two great problems: managing character and managing time. He quoted Zola: “a novel with less than 25 characters is not worth reading.” Sada’s ambition as a young man was to write a 19th-Century novel that would also be a piece of poetry. “I understand now that this is an idiotic idea,” he said. Still, his fiction is apparently difficult to translate because of his careful attention to the rhythms of his sentences. (All of this made me hungry to read his novel, Almost Never, which will be published in English next year by Graywolf.)The final panelist was Vila-Matas, whom I can only describe as looking like an Iberian Christopher Hitchens. Open-collared and looking pleasantly sauced at 7 p.m., he delivered a fluid series of anecdotes and aphorisms, most of them offering a rascally picture of his dealings with Herralde. My favorite had to do with bumping into Herralde in a discotheque while “in a euphoric state” and lying about having completed a novel. In the end, though, Vila-Matas turned earnest. “Without the trust [of Herralde and Anagrama] it’s not clear I would still be a writer.”The best part of any panel discussion is the discussion, but because so much time had been burned up by prepared remarks and language difficulties, there was hardly any time for these panelists to mix it up. (Note to future programmers: the next best thing to a good translation is not a bad translation, but no translation at all.) Still, this remarkable gathering of writers offered an effective introduction to Anagrama’s work, and offered a testament to the power of independent presses and iconoclastic publishers.[Ed.’s note: Vila-Matas does look like an Iberian Hitch, but does not write like one. We apologize for any confusion.]
I was looking at today’s installment of the Publishers Lunch newsletter (which I highly recommend for those interested in the book business, even if you only get the free version like I do), and something jumped out at me. News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings this week, including the regular update on HarperCollins, which is owned by Murdoch and company. Publishers Lunch got some additional color on the news from HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. It’s not linkable because it’s an email newsletter, but here’s the quote:Segment by segment, Friedman says the general books group continued to grow sales and profits significantly in the US, as did the children’s group. “There’s one area where we are having a lot of problems–religious publishing is in a lot of trouble.” Though religious books “have had a fantastic run for the entire 9 years I’ve been at this company,” Friedman observed, “it is starting to see hard times. Right now we are seeing heavy returns–product that just didn’t work, but more significantly, we’re seeing a contraction in the CBA, which is what we went through with the ABA.” Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life still sells more “than almost any other book” on the religious list, but Friedman has “concerns about the whole religious sector.”Emphasis mine. I was surprised to read this because, as Friedman indicates and as book industry-watchers know, religious books have been a huge seller in recent years, growing much faster than most other types of books.As I read this, though, it occurred to me that peoples’ reading tastes, taken broadly, might be a good indicator of the philosophical mood of the country. It may be that HarperCollins’ religious titles were duds this year, but it’s also possible that the fervent hold of religion — and when we talk about “religious books” we’re talking primarily about born-again Christian themes — on this country is loosening. I don’t want to read to much into this, but is it possible that, among the broader public, conservative Christianity was a cultural fad, with its own attendant movies, music, and books, and that people who don’t have too much invested in it will move onto the next thing that promises to help them with their lives? I’d be curious to see if there’s any other evidence out there that lends itself to this idea.
I’m pleased to report that Freebird Books & Goods, the terminal stop on our “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers,” has reopened its doors. With its packed wooden shelves, comfortable chairs, creaky floors, selection of fine teas, and breathtaking view of Manhattan, Freebird has been my favorite used bookstore since I first moved in around the corner three years ago. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm; guest-blogging at The Elegant Variation earlier this year, Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End, wrote of “a palpable feeling that you’re in a place where books, no matter how old, are alive and well.”Premature nostalgia afflicted me and many of my neighbors when we heard that owners Rachel London and Samantha Citrin were moving on to other endeavors. But it turns out that Freebird is in good hands. New owner Peter Miller is a bibliophile and all-around nice guy. He’s dedicated to building on the traditions of the store, while introducing new amenities to draw in new customers.One such innovation is the Freebird blog, where Mr. Miller’s been posting images of (and commentary on) the wonderful oddities he’s come across in his journey through the stacks. Lively events and a renewed liquor license (coming soon, I’m told), should further burnish the store’s reputation. As Mr. Ferris put it, “It’s the kind of place that reminds you why you read.” So if you’re in New York this holiday season, hop the F train to Bergen and make your way down to the waterfront…and be reminded!
Along with the New Yorker, the only magazine that I read regularly is Colors. Since it comes out every two months or so, spotting a new one on the newsstand is a real treat. Each issue is devoted to a specific theme, from the very broad like Water, to the very narrow; at one point an entire issue was devoted to a South American wood chopper named Rolando Trujillo. The new issue that I read today is all about the city of Birmingham, Engand. In typical Colors fashion, this issue combines the testimony of individuals with statistics and striking photography to give a surprisingly insightful picture of its subject. Colors is one of the few examples of putting the magazine medium to good use.Heard on the RadioThere was a quick review of The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith on All Things Considered this afternoon. I’ve heard from several people that his series of books (this new one is the fourth) is worth reading. They are detective novels. The hero is a woman named Precious Ramotswe. The setting is Botswana. I’m told that this exotic locale sets these already charming stories apart. And since I have always loved stories set in faraway places, I hope to get around to this set sooner rather than later.