The LBC members have unveiled their latest selection. It’s a great little book about a literary rat.
J.K. Rowling’s slow, inexorable slide out of retirement continues. As we noted a couple of months ago, “For someone who’s not writing any more books about Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling sure is doing a lot of dabbling.”Earlier this year, we wrote about one of Rowling’s post-retirement dabblings, the production of seven handmade copies of Beedle the Bard, a book of “wizarding fairy tales” referred to in the Harry Potter series. Amazon spent $4 million on a copy, and then used it to market a writing contest. Part of the prize, incidentally, was the opportunity “to spend a weekend with the rare and delightful book of fairy tales (security guards included, of course).”Now that prize doesn’t look quite so exclusive, as Bloomsbury and Scholastic have made an edition the book available for the masses for just $7.59 and arriving in early December, just in time for the holidays. Amazon is going one further, offering up to 100,000 pricier facsimile “collector’s editions,” with “a reproduction of J.K. Rowling’s handwritten introduction, metalwork and clasp, and replica gemstones,” as well as various other accouterments.All net proceeds go to a charity co-founded by Rowling.
The next novel I picked up was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. I was, as some of you might recall, very impressed by Middlesex and wondered about The Virgin Suicides. Most of my friends who have only seen the movie despised it, and those who read it suggested that the book was a success and that I should never bother with the movie, which is precisely what I did. The Virgin Suicides has a very complex storyline, narrated in contrasting simplicity by a man years after a quiet suburb of Detroit was shaken up by the suicides of the Lisbon girls. Eugenides is very successful in capturing the mental state of teenagers, as well as their struggles in growing up and establishing an identity. The lack of a male influence among the Lisbons – a family of seven with five daughters – the dominant, repressive and over-protective nature of Mrs. Lisbon, and the disengaged, mostly submissive stance of Mr. Lisbon form the nexus of complexities that eventually infect the Lisbon family and drive the daughters to suicide. The sexual escapades of Lux – the youngest of four sisters following thirteen year old Cecilia’s suicide – and the enigmatic Trip Fontaine’s obsession with her expand the plot and provide a window into the social environment of 1970s suburbia. The Virgin Suicides presents a good glimpse of Eugenides’ immaculate prose by the delightful narrative of a grown up from the stand point of a ’70s teenager obsessed with inward girls and the mysteries that surrounded them. I would strongly suggest The Virgin Suicides as an intro to Euginedes.Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is my fourth book of 2005. The time-bridging adventures of Peter Lake, a fantastic protagonist raised by the Baymen out on the Jersey shore and thrown into the life of New York at age twelve in the late 1800s, Pearly Soames, a gold-obsessed thief and the nightmare of all gangs in New York (think Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York), Beverly Penn, daughter of media magnate Isaac Penn who suffers from consumption, and the bridge builder Jackson Meade, who aims to build the rainbow bridge that will bring the Golden Age all reflect on the essence of the human spirit, which is warmest in the bitter colds of Winter. The narrative moves from the late 1800s to the early 1900s in a chronological fashion until a crucial showdown between Peter and Pearly, whom the former had wronged by ambushing the gang – the notorious Short Tails – during an attack on the Baymen. Next, you find yourself in the 1990s (and keep in mind that this novel was written in 1983), in a futuristic world not so different than the one we live in today, but one that has lost all sense of romanticism and sincerity. Still, there are those affiliated with the Lake of the Coheeries (a mystical upstate town, unbeknownst to common eyes – a pseudo Neverland more along the lines of The Shire) who have assimilated into modern culture yet maintain a hidden greatness inherent in their heritage of understanding and love. As characters cross paths in search of the Golden Age, and few know what to look for, back comes Peter Lake, Pearly, and Jackson Meade. When these characters of a century ago find themselves in New York, in the 1990s, they are befuddled to say the least. But shortly, everyone comes to realize that the unsettled accounts of the past were but the beginning of a reckoning scheduled for a hundred years later. As events unfold, New York suffers from a terrible fire and one gets the feeling that things are headed for the worst. Helprin’s fantastic story is touching and surreal, the beauties he draws upon are essential elements that most of us are prone to forget or overlook. Winter’s Tale is also a great ode to New York, one of the central and most beautiful characters – yes a character indeed – in the novel. The early image and infinite ideal of New York is best described in another character, Hardesty Marratta’s proclamation: “For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.” If you are not a staunch realist and love a long build up, you will be delighted at the interplay of history, characters, New York, and romantic idealism that leads to a fantastic resolution.
Millions contributor and ardent Canadian, Andrew Saikali, dropped me a line to let me know that Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist and one of my favorite writers will be on the CBC Radio program Writers and Company this Sunday, June 5th. If you’re interested, you can listen live by clicking through from here. (Check that page to see when it will air in your time zone.) It appears as though the show will also be available here for download for a week after it airs on Sunday.
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.