These were the days when the Internet was new, cell phones were for stockbrokers, and if you missed a movie in the theater, you had to wait six months or even a year or more to catch up. We don’t have to wait for anything now. I’m not sure that’s an entirely good thing.
Ms. Millions, who listens to KCRW (LA's hipster/NPR beacon) while at work, heard somebody mentioning quirky holiday book gifts on the NPR show Day to Day and immediately thought of me. I'm a lucky guy. From a list, which she scrawled in her delicate feminine hand, I've gleaned a few books worth mentioning... and I commend the folks at Day to Day for coming up with some quirky books. The Girl Who Played Go is a novel by Shan Sa, a Chinese writer by way of France, who won a number of international awards for her previous novels, including the French heavyweights the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Cazes. This book, her first to appear in English, tells the story of a 16-year-old Manchurian girl and a Japanese soldier who tragically fall in love in the midst of war in the 1930s. From Manchuria to Tuscany: the NPR culture mavens also mentioned a new book by the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who is pretty well known for landscape photography that is rich in color and clever with light. Tuscany: Inside the Light is a pleasant take on a charming place. And now from Tuscany to..... the bomb shelter? 100 Suns is an eerie collection of photographs of mushroom clouds from atomic bomb testing sites at the height of the cold war. The mushroom cloud is a familiar, iconic symbol, and seeing so many in one place with such a stark presentation is an oddly moving experience. The book was put together by Michael Light, who salvaged and reprinted the photographs. He did the same thing a few years back with NASA's collection of lunar photography in a book called Full Moon. Thanks to the little lady for giving me some books to talk about
At 8 a.m. on a recent Monday, my first morning back in New York City after a year and a half away, I looked up from my newspaper – a Wall Street Journal, given away for free at my Financial District hotel – and saw that I was the only rider on the R train leaving South Ferry at the base of Manhattan reading print. Every other rider on the subway car was staring at a screen. In 2004, when I first moved to Brooklyn, the commute on the New York subways was a world of paper. In the evenings most people read books or magazines, and in the morning it was newspapers. Riders from the outermost neighborhoods read the Post and the Daily News while those closer in read the Times and the Journal, fussily folding the broadsheet pages into quarters for easy reading on crowded trains. Here and there, a few younger kids might be sporting earbuds connected to then-newfangled iPods, but even most of them had at least a freebie AM New York parked in front of their faces. To friends living elsewhere I described the New York subway system as a rolling public library. It was like one of those big, messy city library reading rooms where homeless men passing the time reading the day’s news sat next to uptight city-college profs correcting student papers minutes before class. New York is the only place I have ever enjoyed my commute. Each morning, as soon as the doors slid shut behind me I opened up my book and entered a different world for the twenty minutes it took me to get from my Brooklyn neighborhood to Midtown Manhattan. A decade later, like real libraries across the country, New York’s rolling library is going digital. That first morning on the R train turned out to be an extreme example, but on every train I rode during my week back in New York, screens outnumbered printed pages, sometimes by a factor of two to one. When I’ve peeked, some of those screens have been displaying news stories and magazine pages and even a few books, but far more often my fellow subway riders were watching TV shows or playing Candy Crush on their phones. None of this should come as a surprise, of course. The demise of the printed newspaper is by now very old news and it’s hard to imagine a venue where the shift from printed pages to screens makes more sense than on a crowded subway. Still, the speed and starkness of the change is a shock. A decade ago, none of the devices my R train companions were so avidly viewing even existed. Back then, if you didn’t want to read on your morning subway commute, you stared off into space. When we talk about books, we tend to think in terms of great works of art and forget that for most people books, like newspapers and magazines, are merely a handy thing to have around for that idle moment when there isn’t something else better to do. Now, more and more often, those idle moments – on subway cars, on airplanes, in dentist’s offices – are being filled by games and movies and social media. By screens. This doesn’t necessarily mean the end is nigh for literature as we know it. The golden age of American theater came in the 1940s and 1950s, a generation after radio and talking pictures seemingly outmoded live theater. Arguably, some of the greatest movies American directors have ever produced debuted in the 1970s, a generation after television seemingly outmoded movies. Still, a vibrant art form has to serve a utilitarian function in ordinary people’s lives or it gradually becomes relegated to the museum and the specialist viewer, as has happened to visual art and, more recently, to live theater. And if the printed page can’t survive on a New York City subway car, that once-great rolling library, where else can it survive? Image via Erwin Bernal/Flickr
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The Prophet of Zongo Street is the debut collection by the Ghanian writer Mohammed Naseehu Ali. The collection of ten stories has garnered a number of high-profile reviews, including in the NY Times, the SF Chronicle and the LA Times, in which Merle Rubin wrote, "Although many in these stories are misled by philosophies, faiths and ideas that promise to provide all the answers, Ali shows time after time how ordinary human kindness is the one quality capable of redeeming it all." You can read an excerpt from the book here, and Ali's story "Mallam Sile" was in the New Yorker a few months back.Christian Bauman's new novel features a prominent blurb on the front cover from Robert Stone - a good sign if you put stock in such things. Bauman's first novel, The Ice Beneath You, was "a war story for the new millennium," according to PW, about the US effort in Somalia. Bauman's new book, Voodoo Lounge takes on similar themes, set this time in Haiti. From the review in Booklist: "The term 'voodoo lounge' refers to the machine-gun nest on the port bow of a ship. Reading this startling novel is the literary equivalent of standing watch on that perch." Bauman's Web site is here. The book comes out around Sept. 1.T.C. Boyle, an old favorite of mine, has a new collection of stories coming out shortly called Tooth and Claw. All of these stories have been previously published in various periodicals, including several in the New Yorker - here, for example, is the collection's title story. Boyle also has an excerpt up at his Web site. And, by the way, if you are a fan of Boyle at all and haven't visited his site, I suggest you check it out. It features a very active message board that includes frequent appearances from the author himself.John Irving isn't the only one who's written a novel about tattoos lately. Jill Ciment's latest, The Tattoo Artist, is about an artist couple - Sara and Philip, enmeshed in Manhattan's avant garde scene in the 1920s, who travel to the South Pacific in search of inspiration. Once there, they are forcibly tattooed by the natives and then trapped by WWII - a castaway story. The book has recently been reviewed in the NY Times and somewhat more favorably in the SF Chronicle.