Likely aware that most of us are now jaded to the astronomical sales numbers that the Harry Potter books put up, Amazon has grabbed shoppers’ attention with an interesting ploy. The site is now looking to inspire further frenzies of buying by pitting town against town. “The Harry-est Town in America” is the American city or town that pre-orders the most copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and with that honor comes a $5,000 gift certificate to be donated by Amazon to a charity of the city’s choice. Unsurprisingly, suburban locales make up pretty much all of the top 100 “Harry-est” towns in America, and the D.C.-area suburbs of Northern Virginia appear to have a particular affinity for the boy wizard. Also, following up on yesterday’s “limited edition” post, a new box set of Potter books (pictured above) has been announced. It features “a collectible trunk-like box with sturdy handles and privacy lock” and “decorative stickers.”
I have discovered these past few days that there are two types of people: those who like daylight saving time, and those who do not. The folks who like daylight saving are like me. They are optimists who look forward to a long summer of sun-drenched evenings, where you can spend the evening hours outside in the warm, lingering dusk. Those who don't like daylight saving moan about losing a single hour on one weekend of a year of weekends. These people's lives are mercilessly scheduled, and they apparently find no way to derive joy from the extra daylight, they instead cling to that lost hour as an example of the many ills that befall them. I don't like those people.
I've written often of books about baseball (especially ones by Roger Angell). Baseball values words over images - I prefer listening to games on the radio to watching them on television, for example - and so lends itself well to the page. Football is a different story, entirely. If one doesn't see these men bash each other on cold, gray Sunday afternoons, then what's the point really? Reading about a spectacle kind of defeats the purpose. And this probably explains why there isn't much "football literature" to speak of. The only football book I've ever read is George Plimpton's Paper Lion, which, though terrific, is really more about Plimpton than football. Most of the other football books I've seen have been the ghostwritten memoirs of retired Hall of Famers. But the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley, in his series which "reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past" recently wrote about a football book that deserves to sit amongst all those baseball books on the shelves of sports literature. Instant Replay was a collaboration between Jerry Kramer, a guard for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and Dick Schaap, a sportswriter. By unlikely but entirely happy coincidence, Kramer had been persuaded to keep a diary of his 1967 season by Dick Schaap, an uncommonly capable and convivial sports journalist. Schaap knew that Kramer was intelligent, literate, observant and thoughtful, and suspected -- rightly -- that he could provide a unique view of pro football from its innermost trenches: the offensive line.The book sounds like a treat for any football fan, especially at this time of year.
Some good new fiction paperbacks have come out in the past days and weeks. Today's new arrival is Porno by Irvine Welsh. This one apparently resurrects the characters from Trainspotting and chronicles their foray into the world of adult films. I read Trainspotting while I was staying with my friend Derek and his folks at their house in Maine. I loved the book; I was thrilled when I found myself thinking in the thick Scottish accent of the book: bairn for baby, bird for girl, etc. It was the summer after my senior year in high school. I was of an age and at a moment for which Trainspotting was perfect, plus there is something special about a book read while vacationing, when huge chuncks are read at a time, and nothing that happens in between these reading sessions is weighty enough to detract from a full immersion in the story at hand. I became sufficiently attached to Renton, Sick Boy, and the rest that had Porno been around, I probably would have begun reading it the moment I set down its predecessor. Instead, with the intervening pause approaching ten years, I never mustered the interest to read Porno. Maybe if I ever read Trainspotting again, I will read Porno as well. Also out recently in paper: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Since Murakami's stories appear frequently in the New Yorker, and since I read the New Yorker each week, by the time this earthquake-centered collection came out I had already read many of the stories. Once some time has passed, a decade perhaps, I will buy this book and read all the stories again. I feel confident that Murakami will remain in print. One day I would also like to reread his book Norwegian Wood. It is a favorite book of mine, in large part bacause it reminded me of that great feeling you get when you find one that's really good. Life of Pi by Yann Martel, I suspect, may be able to deliver that same feeling. This one, since it came out, has had an ever-growing swell of support, cresting with it's being awarded the Booker Prize. My grandmother, whose taste in books I trust considerably, found this book to be remarkable. Out of all the books I'm mentioning today, I'll most likely read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer soonest. I read an excerpt of the book many months ago in a "New Fiction" issue of the New Yorker. I was both surprised by and somewhat skeptical of its more daring stylistic flourishes. There is no denying that this is a good book though, unless I'm foolish enough to go against the recommendations of several of my trusted fellow readers.A Small but Important Poker AddendaIn my mention of Positively Fifth Street, I forget to mention a related book that, at the very least, I would like to have on the record so that I remember to read it one day. The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez is another account of the World Series of Poker and is, from what I hear, a must read for all poker fans. Plus, Chronicle Books is the publisher, which is why it looks so cool.
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling. I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks: The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169 Goodnight Moon (1947), #227 Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314 The Giving Tree (1964), #342 Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559 Pat the Bunny (1940), #743 Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817 For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063). The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another. There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes. Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us. That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back. In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child. I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away. As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore. I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration. When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least. For me, the feeling I had after I'd closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself. Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?
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On Friday in a flurry of commerce, exchanging currency for goods, frenzied gift wrapping, and the filling out of shipping forms, I finished (almost) all of my Christmas shopping. I'm dying to tell you what I got everyone, but I don't want to ruin the surprise for my family, members of which like to lurk here from time to time. So instead, I'll tell you what I got myself for Christmas. Like most years, I couldn't resist picking up a few things for myself. I don't really shop very often, and I like to do it all at once. Plus, there are so many books out right now that I would really like to own, all but a couple of which I was unable to purchase due to lack of funds Still, I did get a few, and I can't wait to read them. Here's the rundown: I picked up a copy of the new Edith Grossman-translated edition of the Cervantes classic Don Quixote. I've been wanting to read this book for a long time, and I have enjoyed Grossman's translations of some of my favorite Latin Americans. Also, (along with the new John Updike story collection) it is one of the most good-looking books out right now. Grossman's been busy this year because the other book that I have been looking forward to reading all year was also translated by her. It's the first volume of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's memoir, Living to Tell the Tale. Expect to hear more about those two books sooner rather than later. I also got a copy of The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapusciski, which I've already begun to read. Kapuscinski, whose bio notes that he has witnessed 27 coups and revolutions worldwide and has been sentenced to death four times, is a wonderful curiosity of a writer. He has spent many decades as the foreign correspondent for a Polish news agency, and his travels have brought him to every corner of the earth. Peppered throughout each of his books are his accounts of the terrifying situations one can get themselves into while covering a revolution in the Congo, for example. There are quite a few writers out there who make a career out of this sort of sport, but Kapuscinski alone writes with a compassion for his subjects and a gift for illuminating both the similarities and the differences that define humanity. His observations always feel fresh, and I think this because Kapuscinski spent his career with one foot behind the iron curtain and the other firmly planted in the so-called Third World. This peculiar combination must account for his singular voice. Finally, in anticipation of a possible trip to Ecuador next summer that is still just a twinkle in the collective eye of myself and Ms. Millions, I picked up the Lonely Planet guide to help out with some preliminary factfindingDo you want to give someone a book as a gift, but you don't know which book to get? Ask a Book Question and maybe me and my colleagues can lend a hand...
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Some new books that are getting lots of praise, and some excerpts from those books:Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis -- review, excerptLittle Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt -- review, excerptYou Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon -- review, excerptCrossing California by Adam Langer -- reviewAlso of note: the creation of the Man Booker International Prize has been announced. From the press release, "Worth £60,000 to the winner, the prize will be awarded once every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language. The first winner will be announced in mid 2005." Now Americans will finally be able to get their hands on a Booker.