Amazon has blog, and they’ve been at it since May. Why did it take me so long to find it? The Amazon bloggers don’t seem to link to any of the many book blogs out there very often, and that, typically, is how bloggers discover one another.
I made mention of a young writer named Ben Mezrich in my poker post earlier this week. Well, it turns out he’s got another high-stakes book out, but this time international finance, not poker, is the focus. Ugly Americans is about an Ivy Leaguer who follows a nebulous job offer to Japan where he ends up pulling off “a trade that could, quite simply, be described as the biggest deal in the history of the financial markets.” And it’s a true story. Kinda makes ya curious, no?In case anyone is feeling very generous as you read this. I found two things today that I really want: George Plimpton on Sports and The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus Megaset. (They’re on my wishlist.)Coming soon: “Goodbye, Los Angeles!”
One of the nice things about working at a bookstore is that after constant exposure to thousands of books I tend to have a sizable stash of titles and authors that I know are worth reading stored in the back of my head. Lately, during my day-off wanderings around LA, I make sure to duck into any good will/Salvation Army type places I come across, in order to make good use of this extra information that I lug around involuntarily. Luckily, in my neighborhood there seems to be an inexhaustable supply of such stores. Almost all of these places have a ramshackle shelf of books against the back wall. The standard pricing is fifty cents for a paperback and an even dollar for a hardcover, so it’s worth it to wade through the broken appliances and dusty clothing racks in order to do a little treasure hunting. I invariably am able to walk away with a gem or two. A couple of weeks ago I came across hardcovers of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I swiftly decided to rescue them from an extremely seedy second hand store a few blocks from MacArthur Park, but before I left a third book caught my eye. A hardcover copy of Prize Stories of the Seventies from the O. Henry Awards was tucked away among some lesser books, so I grabbed that too. I was especially pleased to find this book for two reasons. First, in my opinion the O. Henry short story collections are the best out there, far superior to the Best American Short Story series, which, while always filled with excellent stories, never does anything to surprise you. Second, my contemporary liturature classes and creative writing workshops in college taught me that the ’70s were an especially fertile time for the short story. The editor of this collection, Willie Abrahams, rightly states that the collection of stories he has assembled “repudiate altogether the notion — widely held in the previous decade — of the story as an endagered or outmoded species.” This collection, in fact, represents the last time that the form was commercially viable, a time when there were many more publications devoted to the form, the heyday of Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, John Updike, and Tim O’Brien, all of whom are represented here. While it is always a joy to read stories by these luminaries, the beauty of the short story collection is that it will almost always yield a writer or two whom I have never encountered. This collection included several. Judith Rascoe’s story “Small Sounds and Tilting Shadows” is remarkable; it is the tale of an addled woman who insinuates herself into taking care of a mysterious man’s vacant apartment. As time passes the apartment becomes both her prison and her haven, and the presence of apartment’s missing owner looms ever larger. After just a handful of stories it’s hard not to see that many are inhabited by addled women “The Dead” by Joyce Carol Oates (a breathtakingly masterful story), “Last Courtesies” by Ella Leffland, and “My Father’s Jokes” by Patricia Zelver. These struggling women are neatly countervailed by stories about creaking, crumbling families: Updike’s “Separating” and “Alternatives” by Alice Adams, to name just two. The remaining stories, with a couple of notable exceptions, fall neatly into a third catagory, the experimental, post-modern story, betraying the mirthless, helpless rage of the author toward the frustrations that the decade presented. These were both dated and barely readable, but their themes were consistent with rest of the stories in the collection.In the movie “Dazed and Confused” set in 1976, the middle of this forsaken decade, Cynthia, the red headed dreamer who’s too smart for her backward Texas town says “The fifties were boring, the sixties rocked. The seventies, oh my God they obviously suck. Maybe the eighties will be radical.” As I recall, the eighties comment got a big laugh in the theatre, but, in terms of the general well-being of the populace, she wasn’t very far off. The seventies really did suck. Americans were disillusioned, over-medicated, and terrified of cities that had turned into war zones. This level of disgust is so palpable that it is both the surface and the subtext of nearly every story in the collection. The characters are irreconcilably distraught by the failures of the previous decade. A startling proportion of the characters are addicted to pills, and not a few commit suicide if they aren’t killed first, whether by neighbors or the Vietcong. It is a painful collection to read, and it is remarkable to see how bleak a picture of the decade is painted. At the same time, the pain produces beautiful emotional prose. Most of the stories, though imbued with sorrow, were a joy to read. And my favorite “A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow was perhaps the most sorrowful of all.Why Dontcha Take a Picture, It’ll Last LongerTwo very cool photography books came in today. One was called The Innocents, a collection by the photographer Taryn Simon. The book is a chronicle of former death row inmates who have been exonerated. The book combines faces with stories to powerful effect. The second photo book of note today is no less political, though it is far more colorful. Photographer Jamel Shabazz was responsible for one of the coolest books of the last few years, Back In The Days, a collection of street photgraphy from the early hip hop era, before the look was commodified, back when it was real. His new book The Last Sunday in June chronicles New York city’s yearly gay pride parade. Days brims with solemn authenticity while Last Sunday explodes with audacious color. Both are worth more than a look.
Even though this blog is devoted almost exclusively to books, I would be remiss if I did not mention the remarkable natural phenomenon that has been going on around me these past few days. The 17 year cicadas have emerged en masse from underground. Everyone, I’m sure, in their lifetime has had an encounter with a swarm of one type of bug or another, termites, bees, mosquitoes perhaps. In one of my grungier apartments in Los Angeles I once walked into to the kitchen to find more ants than one ever likes to see in one place. But the cicadas, they are something completely different. Brood X, as the scientists call this particular population, inhabits highly localized spots in the mid-Atlantic and Ohio River valley, and in some areas, like where I live, there are as many as 1.5 million per densely forested acre. The bugs themselves are large, larger than nearly any bug I’ve encountered, but they are oddly non-threatening. They are so dumb as to be barely functioning organisms. Walking through my yard, I’ll see a cicada approaching at a distance of fifty feet, and it will continue to fly in a straight line until it plows into me and then falls to the ground, dazed or unconscious. Each morning there are hundreds of them in piles against the side of the house, which they were unable to avoid during their night time travels. We sweep them away and an hour later there are dozens more. They give off this high pitched drone, and when you get a million or so together you can hear them from inside the house. Combined with the ungodly humidity, the noisesome, gigantic bugs have lent a prehistoric feel to the summer, not unlike the dinosaur simulation I remember from Epcot Center when I was younger. I half-expect a giant plastic animatronic T. Rex to be lurking behind my house. But they’ll be gone in a month, not to return for another 17 years, and I’ll be able to put away the plastic whiffle bat that I use to beat them back every time I leave the house.Vladimir Nabokov, of course, adored a more likeable sort of bug, the butterfly. In yet another fantastic “Second Reading” column, Washington Post book reviewer, Jonathan Yardley revisits Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. If this all sounds familiar to you, you may recall that a New York Times article about Nabokov inspired me to write about this book a few weeks back.And in non-bug news, E. L. Doctorow, whose new book Sweet Land Stories came out recently, comments in the Washington Post on the heckling he received during his controversial commencement speech at Hofstra University last weekend.
Strolling around the bookstore the other day, a book with a startling cover and a wacky title caught my eye. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a humorous travelogue about one of South America’s more obscure countries, Paraguay. Pig is the first book by John Gimlett who has written articles for a number of travel magazines over the years. This excerpt is definitely worth a peek.
Zoltán Abádi-Nagy: The Faustian pact with the devil is nothing but giving up originality, isn’t it? And vice versa, a painter, Wyatt, manipulated into selling his soul, giving up originality, is bound to be Faustian, besides being emblematic of the artist’s position in a corrupt, manipulative, counterfeit world. Is this a correct interpretation of Wyatt’s central function as a Faust figure?
William Gaddis: It is, yes, originality also being Satan’s “original sin” if you like. I think also, further, I tried to make clear that Wyatt was the very height of a talent but not a genius — quite a different thing. Which is why he shrinks from going ahead in, say, works of originality. He shrinks from this and takes refuge in what is already there, which he can handle, manipulate. He can do quite perfect forgeries, because the parameters of perfection are already there.
—“The Art of Fiction No. 101,” The Paris Review, Winter 1987
Writers, if you can call them that, are cowards. They are afraid of being too different from one another. Easily the most pernicious lie they tell themselves is that they have a calling — that they belong to a metaphysical caste with others like them in some ineffable way. This quality may not be something within their powers to describe, as they’d be the first to admit, but that won’t stop them, for they are writers. They will find the words. By an irritating logic, writers may be accidentally correct in this belief of a species-wide likeness, the likeness being that silly belief.
When there is no writing out there to speak for itself, the writer talks about writing. Maybe they write a story about it. Or an essay. Or they read a story/essay about writing, which is an elegant way of avoiding writing, because it provides a writerly fog that nearly simulates writing itself. It’s all very tiresome, because of course you can’t properly write about writing — you just drone on about “the process,” or your close attention to the texture of this world, or your drinking problem, or whether MFA programs destroyed the craft (as if there was anything to destroy). Leaving aside the obvious benefits of a good writing workshop — deadlines, clashing viewpoints, sex — it’s clear they feed the fantasy that writers can coexist at a single set of coordinates. They allow a frivolous, narrow habit to resemble a vocation.
This has already been written about, exhaustively, and writing about it further will only encourage more of that same writing. When a writer writes what we’ll call a book, that book is pitched and sold as a book in the model of other books that came before, and the writer is identified as a writer happily related to several successful writers. This is utilitarian shorthand after a fashion, but it also reinforces the fear of originality. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis blurbs its author as both “heir to the shredding wit and poignancy of Dorothy Parker and the shrewd surrealism of Donald Barthelme” (Donna Seaman, Booklist) and a writer whom there is “no one like” (Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier). Well, which is it?
Admitting that language succeeds through contagion and mutability, it seems redundant to insist that no writer is truly original. But in despairing at that unattainable, likely unpublishable ideal, writers retreat too hastily into the traditional romans-á-clef, the same stunt journalism that a cycling of taste demands. The reasoning appears to be: if you can’t be a unique writer, have the markings of a generic. Glamorize your squalid room in the bohemian part of a bright metropolis. Peddle opinions on the books you read (if you read). Consort with other writers.
Except how friendly can two writers be? They are jealous of each other’s luck, scornful of each other’s methods. Slander flies thick behind backs. And because writers can focus on the business of books while overlooking books themselves, there is little need to have arguments about what has actually been written. Instead of Nabokov gleefully demolishing Dostoyevsky’s idea of the psyche, or David Markson noting mystic “bullshit” in the margins of DeLillo’s novels, it’s an unpacking of a critique of the hyperbole around Jonathan Franzen. This would be writing, not feeling.
What dark, original feelings writers have — and suppress in the interest of community — are purged as the calculated outbursts of token enfants terribles and bitter old cranks (the former smoothly becoming the latter, as Martin Amis can attest). To parse a book’s account of reality, consciousness, and time is to fly too close to the sun; the stakes are simply too high. Better to pigeonhole the prose style. To fetishize the small, lovely sentence. To address the writer’s eccentricities off the page, which he or she is transparently eager to name. Writers, assigned to write about other writing, skip over the gut reaction to nitpick, evading the biggest questions posed. Frightened of their problematic voices, they adopt synthetic tones, stripped of all that troublesome bias but saddled with its outcomes regardless. A century after William James, no one will confess to having a temperament.
You could have ignored the remarks above, and no harm would have befallen you. They are not especially provocative, in that there is nothing to provoke. It is unclear who should actually care what they mean. None of them are meant to suggest that things used to be different, or will soon change, because who knows how things used to or will be. Writing is just what some people do, whenever they stop writing about it. It is an art, as Gaddis had it, for which we can set the parameters of perfection. Why we should want to is, for the moment, beyond answering.
Image credit: design.mein/Flickr
In the meantime, I also started re-reading Catch-22, probably one of my all time favorites. I made plenty of references to Catch-22 in connection with William Boyd’s An Ice Cream War and probably some other novels I read over the course of the last two years. Nevertheless, re-reading Catch-22 was a feast precisely because of all the literary horizons this modest novel created. Never a bestseller, Catch-22 became a cult classic and sold millions despite staying under the radar. Its influence on other writers is, I believe, huge. Aside from Yossarian being my obvious favorite for fearing that everyone, from his own commanders to the German anti-aircraft gunners, are conspiring to kill him, I mostly enjoy Milo Minderbinder’s stories. Milo is a good-hearted capitalist who contracts the Germans for the Syndicate he has formed, and no one can oppose him in that – or in bombing his own squadron for a hefty sum paid by the Germans – because everyone has a share in the Syndicate, and “what is good for M & M Enterprises [i.e. the Syndicate] is good for you.” Simply brilliant. The tragic story of Major Major Major Major, who became a Major in the squadron strictly due to an IBM deficiency and whose name – Major Major Major – ruined his life at every turn, is a major influence in my father’s efforts to name me savci (prosecutor) in Turkish. As some of you might remember, my father hoped that with such a name I could avoid any and all run-ins with the law by declaring my name, which in that case would go “I am Prosecutor Peker!” Luckily, my mother rejected the idea, but in essence that is Major Major Major Major’s story. Aarfy with his calm pipe smoking in the plane while flak explodes all around them, Orr with his mastery in crashing planes, Appleby with the flies in his eyes, Nately with his psychotic lover whore, General Peckem with his hate for General Dreedle, Dreedle’s hate towards his son-in-law, his son-in-law’s affection towards Dreedle’s nurse, Colonel Cathcart with his insecurities, Colonel Korn with his tendency to manipulate Colonel Cathcart, Sheisskopf with his love of marches, and many more. There are too many insider jokes and brilliant moments in Catch-22 to write a decent review of the novel. I just believe, like I only do with The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that everyone should absolutely read this novel and cherish its wonderful moments of hilarity and sad reflections on humanity.By the time I finished Catch-22 I was already back in Turkey for the summer. I am now done with my paralegal job and await the beginning of school in the fall. Nevertheless, next I picked up Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey edited by Anastasia A. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen. I have been meaning to read this collection of essays by expatriate women in Turkey for a long time now. I remember coming to Turkey over a year ago and reading reviews of The Expat Harem in local papers and thinking that it could be very interesting. Right before coming back to Istanbul a month and a half ago I saw my Turkish roommate Uzay’s Minnesotan girlfriend Annastacia reading the book and assumed that she picked it out of my library. Wrong! She’d actually bought it and told me that she enjoyed it a lot. I’ve always viewed Annastacia as a potential candidate for the expat society of Turkey, so her reading the book egged me on and I picked it up. The collection is organized in nine parts, which are unique to Turkey and include various customs that foreign women find especially strange, unique, pleasant or repelling. I started reading the stories at random, there are twenty-nine of them, and realized that each one identifies a unique quality of life in Turkey. Seen through the eyes of an expat who chose to live in Turkey adds a different color to the customs and qualities that I already knew. To a Turkish person the stories are very revealing, flattering and intriguing. It is, after all, very refreshing to see commonalities in society through a different pair of eyes. I imagine that any foreign person reading The Expat Harem would find the stories equally revealing, informative and interesting. Each author employs a fresh style and tone, the stories are fluid and the collection is organized very neatly by Ashman and Gokmen, which creates an excellent journey through the quirky experiences of expats, all women in this case, in Turkey. If you are planning a visit to Turkey I urge you to pick up The Expat Harem to get a solid idea about the country’s culture. If not, I believe you would still enjoy the collection for its down to earth tone, accessibility and humane moments.See also: Part 1, 2
Airports and airplanes are a great place to go bookspotting. They are also a great place to confirm that the bestseller lists aren’t lying. In fact, it sort of made me realize that there should be two different categories of bestseller lists: one for people who buy less than fifteen books a year and one for people who buy more. The vast majority of people fall into that first category, and when you realize this, you realize why the publishing industry isn’t very different from other entertainment industries. If people have a certain finite number of movies that they will be able to see in a given year given constraints on time and money, I think they will be less likely to take a risk on an unproven independent instead of a known quantity like one of the Matrix movies (maybe this is why sequels do so well.) The same is true of video games and any other form of entertainment that can be consumed as a unit. Therefore it makes sense that authors like John Grisham and Stephen King and many bestselling authors of lesser talent have such a strong repeat business. Readers who don’t have the time or inclination to seek out risky books will therefore prefer to purchase books that they ALREADY know that they will enjoy. (This theory, by the way, also explains why political rant books do so well, no matter how absurd they seem to some people). So, I like to test this theory of book consumption when I travel, because airports and airplanes are the one place where people who do not have the time or inclination to read regularly read for lack of any better way to pass the time. Here’s what I spotted:Buffalo Niagara International Airport:Hide & Seek by James Patterson: “Maggie Bradford is one of the most beloved singer/songwriters anywhere. She’s also the devoted mother of two children. She seems to have it all. And so, how could she have murdered not just one, but two of her husbands? With unrelenting suspense, James Patterson answers that question.”The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank: “As it explores the life lessons of Jane, the contemporary American Everywoman–who combines the charm of Bridget Jones, the vulnerability of Ally McBeal, and the wit of Lorrie Moore–The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing offers wise, poignant, and laugh-out-loud insight.”Q Is for Quarry by Sue Grafton: “The #1 “New York Times” bestseller, based on an unsolved homicide that occurred in 1969, is now available in paperback. Revisiting the past can be a dangerous business, and what begins with the pursuit of Jane Doe’s real identity ends in a high-risk hunt for her killer.”A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: “With the compassionate realism of Dickens and a narrative sweep worthy of Balzac, this internationally acclaimed novel draws an unforgettable portrait of the cruelty and corruption, kindness and heroism of India. Set in 1975, A Fine Balance follows the destinies of four strangers who are forced to share a cramped apartment in an unnamed city by the sea.”Krakatoa by Simon Winchester: “From the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World comes an examination of the enduring and world-changing effects of the catastrophic eruption off the coast of Java of the world’s most dangerous volcano–Krakatoa.”Detroit Wayne County:The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: “In her most highly acclaimed book to date, Kingsolver presents a compelling exploration of religion, conscience, imperialist arrogance, and the many paths to redemption, telling the story of an American missionary and his family in the Congo in 1959.”The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle: “According to Tolle, accessing the deepest self, the true self, can be learned by freeing ourselves from the conflicting, unreasonable demands of the mind and living ‘present, fully and intensely, in the Now.'”Los Angeles InternationalThe Testament by John Grisham: “This ‘compulsory page-turner’ journeys deep into the halls of justice–and the rain forests of Brazil. An eccentric billionaire leaves his fortune to his illegitimate daughter, a Christian missionary in Brazil. Rachel stands to inherit $11 billion, but only if attorney Nate O’Reilly can find her.”Four Blind Mice by James Patterson: “Alex Cross is plunged into a case where military codes of honor conceal dark currents of revenge and ambition, and the men controlling the moves have the best weapons and training the world can offer.”Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling: “In the richest installment yet of J. K. Rowling’s seven-part story, Harry Potter confronts the unreliability of the very government of the magical world, and the impotence of the authorities at Hogwarts. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) Harry finds depth and strength in his friends, beyond what even he knew; boundless loyalty and unbearable sacrifice. Though thick runs the plot (as well as the spine), readers will race through these pages, and leave Hogwarts, like Harry, wishing only for the next train back.”So, there you have it, a small, but interesting cross-section of what the American casual reader is reading right now. Some is good and some is bad, but it’s nice to see so many people reading in one place.
This week at the LBC blog, we’ll be discussing my nominee for this round of books, All This Heavenly Glory by Elizabeth Crane. Ed has done a very entertaining podcast with Crane, and I can be heard at the beginning introducing the book (Ed decided to portray me as some sort of bionic man. I’m not sure I get the reference, but I like it!). Also up is a dialog about the book, featuring me and Kassia (of Booksquare). Tomorrow the dialog will continue with help from Sam (of Golden Rule Jones).