Penguin, well-known for classics with sophisticated packaging, has decided to cede creative control to its readers with a new slate of books that feature “naked front covers… printed on art-quality paper.” Penguin announced the initiative on its blog and they have already posted some reader-designed covers in a gallery on its site. So far, the books are only available from the UK, and the titles that come with blank covers are:
The first of the three books I read between starting and finishing The Fortress of Solitude is The Underdog: How I Survived The World’s Most Outlandish Competitions by Joshua Davis. Hilarious. I am not sure where to begin but Davis’s interest in excelling in obscure or at times plain ridiculous fields of “sports” stems from two sources: the Ipski-Pipski stories his dad told him during his childhood (where Ipski-Pipski would overcome any and all difficulties in a very James Bondesque manner) and his mother’s undying hope that her son be best at something (she was the 1962 Miss Nevada and a contender for Miss Universe, who barely missed first spot because of a bad hairdo). So, Davis decides to overcome his shortcomings that keep him from becoming a traditional achiever (such as a high school basketball star or college football player) and get rid of his unfulfilling job as a data-entry clerk by embarking on a quest to be really good at something. Davis not only faces the challenge of finding out what he can excel in but also of providing for his wife, who is about to enroll in gradate school and considers his actions very childish. It is, therefore, difficult to see where Davis is going when he chooses arm wrestling as the first sport to prove himself in. At 125 pounds and 5 foot 9 (and wearing glasses) Davis is not the usual imposing arm-wrestler you would imagine. But despite his physique, Davis manages to join the American Arm Wrestling Team and attend the world championships in Poland, ranking 19th worldwide due and placing 4th in the lightweight category worldwide. Quite a title for a first timer, but it sure helps that there were a mere 4 lightweight contenders. Encouraged by his mediocre success, Davis pursues bullfighting, sumo wrestling, backward running and a Sauna World Championship. Through each of his misadventures Davis meets people such as celebrity bullfighter Miguel Baez Litri, sumo wrestling Yokozuna (grand champion, a title granted to only two people) Musashimaru, world-class backward runner (and inventor) K. Veerabadran, and the Swedish sauna lover Markku Mustonen, who influence and encourage him to pursue his heart’s desire. As Davis runs (at times backwards) from one outrageous feat to another, he also manages to pull his family together, please his wife and land a job at Wired as a staff reporter. The Underdog is an unusual and genuinely encouraging take on the American dream of being all you can be (or whatever you want to be) and it points out that doing ridiculous things might work after all.My second book during the Lethem intermission was Kurt Dosyasi (The Kurdish File) by Ugur Mumcu. Mumcu is a Turkish journalist murdered in 1993 (suspects still at large) whose works were very detailed and influential. I talked a lot about him during my journalism school applications, which made me want to read more of his work. Mumcu was murdered while working on Kurt Dosyasi, hence it is unfortunately cut short in its early investigative stages. The parts that were published, however, tell the parallel stories of (currently imprisoned head of PKK) Abdullah Ocalan’s life as a student, as well as his involvement in the 1970s left-wing student movements, and the government policies regarding the Kurdish population in the Eastern and South-eastern parts of Turkey in the 1930s. The documents that Mumcu presents are interesting and shocking, such as reports by ministers and minutes of parliamentary hearings that talk about assimilating Kurds to Turkish society, dispersing Kurdish clans, and replacing internal populations for the Turkification of Eastern Turkey and the Kurds. Kurt Dosyasi also draws on the government’s shortcomings in peacefully penetrating Kurdish societies and its failure to deal with the threats posed by armed militias that disrupted trade, prevented investments and threatened the newly founded republic with uprisings. Unfortunately, Mumcu was killed before tying all the pieces together and explaining the emergence of Ocalan as the leader of the Kurdish insurgency in 1984. I am sure that his work would have been invaluable in assessing the “Kurdish Issue” in Turkey and it is a shame that it is incomplete. Still, it is a great source of information and sheds some light on the wrong nationalistic policies of the 1930s that led to the creation of Kurdish discontent in Turkey. I would recommend it to all parties interested in the issue; the only drawback is that you have to know Turkish, as the book is not translated.My third and last intermission book was another one by Ugur Mumcu: Sakincali Piyade (The Problematic Private). This collection of short memoirs constitute a satirical take on life, as mostly experienced by Mumcu, in the period following the coup d’etat of March 12, 1971, in Turkey. This was the second time since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923 that the military dissolved the parliament, declared martial law and ran the country until new elections, which, in this instance, they took place two years later in October 1973 (the other 2 coup d’etats are May 27, 1960 and September 12, 1980 – there is also a military decree issued in February 28, 1997 that caused the government to resign). Mumcu was an Assistant Dean of the Ankara Law School at the time. His leftist politics were widely know and not hidden. In the two years that the military administered the country a lot of leftists were persecuted on extremely flimsy charges. Mumcu was one of them. His bitter experiences led to Sakincali Piyade, which points at the outrageous claims made against him, as well as other leftist scholars, thinkers and activists of his generation. His memoirs chronicle life in prison, court hearings and the army. Mumcu had to serve his mandatory military service in this period and at the hands of army officials that hoped to “correct” his “thinking” during the service. The courtroom antics that Mumcu lists are ridiculous in retrospect, but point directly to the gravity of the situation in the 1970s and the sad consequences of “enforcing” democracy through the military. I would recommend Sakincali Piyade to everyone who is looking to laugh and think deeply (and do those simultaneously) about the tragic-comic situations that plague Turkey to this day. Unfortunately, Sakincali Piyade is also not translated.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
In the Province of Saints, a first novel by the Irish writer – and Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad – Thomas O’Malley is being compared to Angela’s Ashes. The subject here is a down-on-its-luck family in an Ireland of the late 70s and early 80s that was still ravaged by sectarian violence. PW says “his sentences have a judicious clarity even as they twist into gnarled shapes; they carry O’Malley’s characters though their incomprehension with poise and assurance.” Here’s one excerpt and another. The book comes out in late August.Xue Xinran was a radio show host in China before she moved to England. Her first book, The Good Women of China collected the stories she heard from women who called in to her radio show. Xinran’s first novel, Sky Burial, is fictionalized from a story she heard in her more recent journalistic endeavors. It’s about a couple split up by the conflict in Tibet in the 1950s. Scott recently pointed to this review in the SF Chronicle, and PW says, “Woven through with fascinating details of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, Xinran’s story portrays a poignant, beautiful attempt at reconciliation.” The book is out this week. Here’s an excerpt.
Mrs. Millions thanks all of you for your suggestions. We stopped by the Borders today, and she selected Michael Frayn’s Headlong. She wanted to purchase The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, as well, but the staff at Borders was unsuccessful in its half-hearted attempt to locate the book for us nor did it appear to be on the new releases/bestsellers table, all of which seemed odd to me because isn’t this supposed to be one of the big books of the summer? Well, hardcovers are no good at the beach anyway, so maybe we’ll pick it up when we get back. That’s all for now; time to go catch a plane.
If the Food Issue is the highlight of the New Yorker publishing year, then the Style Issue is certainly the nadir. Crammed full of glossy ads, the too-thick-to-not-be-a-double-issue magazine dwells endlessly on profiles of fashion industry bigshots, all of whom seem to have shared the same eccentric quasi-European upbringing. (They bring to mind Dr. Evil and his famous: “My childhood was typical – summer in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we would make meat helmets. When I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds. Pretty standard, really.”) And don’t get me started on those Patricia Marx shopping sprees. I do, however, note that Oliver Sacks has an article about amnesia in there, so perhaps it won’t be all bad.
Today I happened to walk by one of those thrift stores connected to a hospital, and, thinking they might have a couple of shelves of books, I decided to stop in. I’m glad I did. The books were way in the back in this weird garage-like annex, and the room smelled pretty bad. This made browsing unpleasant, but I had a theory that the odor might have kept prospective shoppers out – more books for me. The store was also right on with their pricing: 50 cents for paperbacks and a dollar for hardcovers, which, in my opinion, should be the standard pricing scheme if the customer has to sift through messy, disorganized shelves. The selection turned out to be pretty great, and I had to restrict myself to only the best books I could find – books that I was surprised enough to see on the shelves that I felt passing them up would be criminal, so I ended up leaving a lot of pretty good stuff behind. If I had bought everything I wanted, I would have had a hard time getting home on the el, and furthermore, empty bookshelf space is somewhat scarce in my apartment these days. So it was only the cream of the crop for me.I grabbed three hardcovers: The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez. I was working at the bookstore when the poker craze started getting pretty big, and this classic from 1983 was one of the books we recommended to people wanting to read up on the game. I also found a copy of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which I’ve been told is one of his best. And I was delighted to spot baseball guru Bill James’ out of print treatise on the Hall of Fame, Politics of Glory. I also snagged a pocket paperback edition of John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy. All in all, a pretty good haul.
I caught a few minutes of Fresh Air on NPR while I was out running a quick errand today. Terri Gross was interviewing David Denby, the New Yorker film critic who has a new book out. The book is called American Sucker and it is a memoir of the boom years. In 2000 Denby and his wife split, and he decided that he wanted to keep the Upper West Side apartment that had been their home for many years. In order to do this, Denby hatched a plan to buy out his wife’s share of the apartment. Lacking the funds to make the apartment his and cast adrift by the collapse of his marriage, Denby threw himself wholeheartedly into the mania of the stock market boom with the hopes that he, like so many others seemed to be doing, could hit it big. It would be the solution to all of his problems. A sort of addiction to his quest set in and American Sucker was the result. Today, Terri Gross, in her way, was trying to get him to relate his experience to some classic gambling films, Denby being a film critic and all. Denby, however, begged off and mentioned two interesting books that he feels are most analogous to the way he felt during his ordeal. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and a somewhat forgotten Victorian classic by Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, to Denby’s mind, best portray a sense of monetary desperation in the midst of a boom. I’m hoping that over the next few years there will be more books that look at the boom of the late nineties through a literary lens. It was a strange and fascinating time. Denby’s colleague at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has penned a less personal book about business and money called The Wisdom of Crowds which is slated to come out at the end of May. A quick look reveals that Surowiecki has put together a readable tome meant to illustrate a principle that many economists hold dear: the idea that decisions can be made, problems can be solved, and the future can be predicted by the market. Imagine the Nasdaq but replace companies with possible outcomes. At the end of the day the outcome that is trading at the highest level is probably the correct answer to whatever problem was trying to be solved. Using markets you can, as Surowiecki terms it, unlock the “wisdom of crowds.” Last summer there was much public outcry when it was announced that one of our government agencies was considering setting a market that was meant to predict future terrorist attacks. The idea of people profiting off of this sort of speculation was abhorrent to many people and the plans were shelved, but, in The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki will likely argue that the plan would have worked.
In a post last December, I briefly explained why books first come out in hardcover and then, nine to eighteen months later, they come out in cheaper paperback versions. This has become a standard in the book industry, and as a result, some readers, myself included, are leery of books that come out in paperback first without ever being released in a hardcover edition. “What is wrong with this book,” I think to myself, “that the publisher didn’t want to release it as a hardcover?” At the same time, many readers, including myself, are frustrated that the book industry is so rigid like this, and that it is so expensive to purchase a brand new book. Laura Miller in the Times Sunday Book Review goes over many reasons why the current setup is counter-intuitive, including this one: “riskier books rely heavily on reviews and other media coverage to attract readers, but the reviews appear when the books are new. By the time the books show up as affordable paperbacks, the spotlight has moved on.” Miller wonders if the industry’s rigid selling strategy might be thawing, and she points to David Mitchell’s popular new book Cloud Atlas, recently released as a paperback original, as a sign. Read the column here.