We're not shy about our praise for NYRB Classics. Their volumes are smartly edited and well designed and quite a few favorite books of The Millions contributors - The Dud Avocado, Wheat That Springeth Green, and, of course, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll - were first encountered in their NYRB Classics incarnations.While I had always planned on passing NYRB Classics books down to my progeny one day, I've just discovered that I may get to do that sooner than I had anticipated. NYRB Classics has a line of children's books, the NYR Children's Collection.One of the latest to come out under the imprint is James Thurber's The 13 Clocks with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Marc Simont. The new book provide fodder for Sonja Bolle's sentimental (in a good way) essay in the LA Times.The 13 Clocks is the first book I remember loving, and it is one of the few books I managed to wrest from my family's library and preserve through all the mundane disasters of my life. Everything about it is dear to me: The texture of the cover, the cloth spine now in shreds, the gorgeous endpapers with the Duke's shadowy castle on the hill overlooking the sunlit town.Young readers - and the older readers who are trying to get young readers to read good books - will likely find many more such discoveries among the NYR Children's Collection.
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Last time I was at the book store I noticed an interesting cultural history sort of book called Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. The "city" is, of course, New York City and the book uses rats as a vehicle to explore the New York's intricacies and tribulations. The author of the book, Robert Sullivan, is known for his quirky, narrative-based non-fictions, The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt. If you're into the whole rat thing check out this Newsday journalist's account of an evening spent "ratting" with Sullivan. From rats to elephants: during my daily travels the other day I caught an interview with the author of an interesting-sounding book on one of the local public radio shows. Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear is a history of the magic act written by a master magician, Jim Steinmeyer. The book describes the origins of tricks that have become magic cliches, like sawing a lady in half. He also seeks to describe the interesting blend of mystery, showmanship, and hucksterism that embodied the turn of the century magic show. Finally, I mentioned the other day the centennial of the birth of Dr. Suess. It turns out that there is a sturdy coffee table book to commemorate this event. It displays his life and work and bears the somewhat dubious title: The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss.
The other day I threw myself across the bed and began lamenting my writing career (or lack thereof). This is one of my hobbies--if not my favorite one, then at least the one at which I most excel. My husband (and fellow Millions contributor), Patrick, said, "Oh be quiet. You just want a two-book deal and Marion Ettlinger to take your author photo." The nerve! I might have thrown a pillow at his face, and went on with my self-loathing. You see, Patrick and I love to make fun of Ms. Ettlinger. She is probably the most famous photographer of authors, (she even has a book of them), and her images of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Joyce Carol Oates are burned in the cultural retina. Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we'd only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned. Perhaps it's that last quality--old fashioned--that rubs me the wrong way. Looking at these photos, I get the sense that the writers (even the young ones) are long gone, lost to an era when people gazed longingly out of train windows, mailed handwritten letters, or actually read books. I can't imagine any of these writers alive, moving their mouths, checking their email, eating dinner. Maybe that's the point: we want our authors to be Authors, unreachable and removed from the world of the reader. But as we head towards 2010, that's more and more implausible. Newsflash: writers live in the world. There are a few of Ettlinger's photos I like. The full-body shots are better than the close-ups. Take the one, for instance, of David Foster Wallace; his plaid jacket, his downward gaze, and the sky above, create a lovely, even haunting, composition. Or the one, of James Ellroy: he's gone whole hog with the photo's anachronistic qualities, and it's fun. Other full body shots, however, are a disaster. Hey, Melissa Bank, did you learn that pose in yoga? If I were to title this picture, I'd call it, "The Failed Seduction." We've all been there, Ladies, haven't we? Some of the close-ups, particularly of the women, are just weird. I hate when authors cup their own head with their hands. What, will it fall off? Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful. Most of the time, though, they look like they're starring in a pain killer ad. Ann Patchett and Amy Hempel's pictures are the worst examples of this, although, to be fair, this is an epidemic in many author photos, not just ones by Ettlinger. Browsing through these pictures got me thinking about other author photos. Many bad examples abound. There's the "I love my dog!" variety, a la Dean Koontz and J.A. Jance--somehow Ellroy doesn't fall into this category, perhaps because the dog in his photo looks hired, just another old-timey prop. There's also the Trench Coat Club, which is usually reserved for mystery writers, but we see it here, with Adam Haslett. And there's the "I'm just a harmless debut author" Club, wherein the writer strikes a more casual pose, and smiles like a well-intentioned, but potentially useless, babysitter. Aimee Phan is a good example of this, but she is just one of many. Lastly, there's the "My spouse took this picture the night before it was due" Club. I won't even bother with an example--just imagine your least-flattering Facebook picture, and you'll understand. Let me be clear: I am not damning these writers, or their work--far from it. It's simply the photos I protest. But getting one's picture taken for a book jacket must be a daunting task. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the reading public? You want to look serious, but not too serious! You want to look attractive, but not too attractive! You want to look young, but not...you catch my drift. It can't be easy. I remember an author-friend telling me he wanted to forgo the photo altogether. I said he couldn't, or else people would assume he was ghastly. And that's true. Only Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger can pull off real anonymity. I suppose that if Marion Ettlinger ever calls me, I'll do my hair, slap on some eyeshadow, and ready for my close-up. Perhaps Patrick is correct: it is my most embarrassing fantasy.
The plight of the literary magazine and the demise of the short story are often bemoaned here in the US, but compared to the state of things in Britain, America is paradise for short story writers and readers. So says a recent essay in the Guardian, which hopes that a newly announced short story prize - worth 15,000 pounds, the world's richest - will ignite a passion for short fiction in that part of the world. According to Aida Edemariam, who penned the essay, in Britain, size matters: The British attitude to the short story - that it is somehow lesser, a practice space for the real thing, which is, of course, the novel; that you can perhaps start out writing a collection of stories, but you have somehow failed if you don't graduate to a minimum of 200 pages - has always baffled me. I cannot comprehend the underlying assumption that a particular kind of stamina is somehow better, of more value. It's like privileging the marathon, or the 1,500m, over the 100m.After citing several examples of the form, Edemariam goes on to write: "I know these are North American examples, but it is there where, as (Dave) Eggers points out in his introduction to The Best of McSweeney's Volume I, there 'are probably over a hundred high-quality literary journals,' that the short story is truly alive; disdain for the form is a British phenomenon."Who knew we had it so good?
Hello! I'm back, this time reporting from Chicago, IL. Without further ado, I'll move on to what I have been reading lately. The first book I picked up since my last post was Asne Seierstad's A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal. I was longing for some non-fiction and Seierstad's memoirs of her visit to Baghdad three years ago seemed like a good choice (I have been meaning to read it for the past two years). Seierstad is a Norwegian freelance journalist that covered the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan prior to her trip to Baghdad. She arrived in Baghdad roughly 80 days before the war started and began reporting. Seierstad organizes her book in three parts: Before, During, and After. In these simply, yet carefully, organized sections Seierstad conveys her observations of the Iraqi society under Saddam Hussein, during the initial stages of the war, and after the capture of Baghdad. Seierstad has a very personable voice that almost embeds the reader alongside her. She provides good eyes and ears in a society that, under Saddam, became introverted and isolated. One learns about the difficulties of finding out about the regime, the spy network, the reluctance of locals to talk with foreigners, and how Iraqis perceived the brewing US attack on their country.Throughout the whole affair Seierstad also shows the bureaucratic network in Iraq, explains how she had to bribe officials to remain in, and once to re-enter, the country, and draws a unique portrait of Uday, Saddam's most feared son. Seierstad also communicates to the reader the difficulties endured by average Iraqis, both under Saddam and in face of advancing US troops. Civilian casualties inflicted by "smart bombs," the lack of resources in hospitals, and the fear of the emerging power vacuum each represent a part of the untold story, particularly during the initial stages of the war. Seierstad also mentions (or maybe even predicts) the emerging power struggle between Shiites and Sunnis as early as April 2003, a month after the war started. A Hundred and One Days is a very insightful and well written piece of work. Some of the stories are heart wrenching and leave one wondering how the great powers, and their leaders, could not foresee all the misery that would follow the war. If you are curious about the mood in Iraq, and mostly in Baghdad, at the onset of the war, I suggest that you get your hands on Seierstad's brilliant memoirs. (See Andrew's review of A Hundred and One Days)Next I turned to Irvine Welsh's Marabou Stork Nightmares, which had been sitting on my shelves for the past four years. My brilliant friend Mitch had bestowed the book upon me during our final year of college, telling me that it was the best written novel he ever read. Now, that's a pretty strong statement but I have to agree with Mr. Maddox that Welsh's narrative in Marabou Stork Nightmares is smart, innovative, and fluent.The protagonist Roy Strang is in a coma when the reader first meets him. The narrative moves between Strang's perceptions of things happening around him (such as visits from parents, friends, nurses, doctors, and unrecognized people), to Strang's fantasy world (set in South Africa, where he and Sandy Jamieson are trying to hunt the leader of the Marabou Storks, who are dominating and ruining the wildlife) and Strang's autobiography. The three worlds intertwine as Welsh brings the reader to the current day, sheds light on the demise of Roy Strang, connects his fantasy world with the real, and presents a grand finale at the hospital where the protagonist is stranded. This quite awesome story is further enhanced by Welsh's portrayal of Scots living in "schemes" (i.e. projects) outside Edinburgh and the personal anxieties he created for each character. Child abuse, gay tendencies, rape fantasies, a retarded sibling, a dysfunctional family, and hooligans all add new dimensions to the great story that Welsh devised. If you are a fan of Trainspotting and/or The Acid House, want a good laugh, and can stomach some disturbing moments, you should definitely pick up Welsh's Marabou Stork Nightmares.See Also: Part 2