Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as “books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written.” The list contains some obvious entries – we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time’s prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967’s The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade’s blockbuster bestsellers – Bridget Jones’s Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code – and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.
Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass has revealed in an interview with a German newspaper that he was in the Waffen-SS in the twilight of World War II. The SS was the Nazi secret service and played a major role in the Holocaust. He has a new book coming out in Germany in September that is a memoir of his wartime years. From the Reuters story:The author, best known for his first novel The Tin Drum and an active supporter of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), said his wartime secret had been weighing on his mind and was one of the reasons he wrote a book of recollections which details his war service. The book is out in September."My silence through all these years is one of the reasons why I wrote this book," the paper quoted Grass as saying in a preview of its Saturday edition. "It had to come out finally."From later in the article: "'It was like that for many of my generation,' he added. 'We were doing army service and then suddenly, one year later, the draft order was on the table. And then I realized, probably not until I was in Dresden, that it was the Waffen-SS.'"
It is a ubiquitous feature in bookstores - especially at airports: The New York Times Best Seller List. The words "From The New York Times Best-Selling Author" flash at a reader from the top of a book cover, capturing interst and, well, dollars.The Times' Public Editor Clark Hoyt explains the selection process, why the list is more widely followed and valued than other, competing "best seller" compilations - from USA Today and Rupert Murdoch's (ouch) Wall Street Journal - in an informative column.Apparently an NYT Best Seller sticker can drive up sales by as much as 57 percent for a first-time author. Publishers are, naturally, conscious of this priceless marketing tool and accordingly try to rig the market, Hoyt writes. Not to worry, the editors at the Times safeguard readers against such shams.But Times editors too might not fully understand the procedure, according to Hoyt. And while the Times might make sure that "evergreens" like Catcher in the Rye or an SAT study guide don't stay on the list forever, Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point - which came out in paperback in 2002 - has been on it for a stunning 164 weeks.The column might leave you a tad confused, but at least you won't ask yourself what the heck an "NYT Best Seller" is next time you are idling at an airport bookstore.
My neighbor and friend Jacob Lambert wrote a powerful piece for Philadelphia Weekly recently about his brother David, who has been diagnosed with acute bipolar disorder:I was at home in Bella Vista when he called. Last I'd heard he'd "eloped" from the hospital and was wandering his old East Village haunts. This was nothing new; many times over the years, his ward status had been upgraded, giving him a bit of freedom - and he'd simply walk off, winding up in Manhattan, then Bellevue, then back at the hospital he'd started from.Today, though, he wasn't calling from a pay phone on Bleecker Street. He was on a cell phone at Seventh and Pine, saying he was browsing apartments, was owed $100,000 and would be buying me a new Mercedes. He sounded as bad as ever, and the call ended when he set down the phone to talk to a stranger.Incidentally, Jacob also runs the hilarious Philly Turkey, a must read for Philly natives.
In the current New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith dives deep into the philosophical frame of avant-garde novels in a review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. The article is, generally speaking, written more for an academic audience than a casual reader (if you don't have a precise working definition of "lyrical realism" it can be hard to gain traction in places), but overall it provides a provocative framework for thinking about the ways that postmodern thought has influenced the form of the novel.McCarthy is the General Secretary for the International Necronautical Society, a group founded around a mash-up of postmodern thinkers and writers - Derrida, Heidegger, Dostoevsky - and fond of manifesto-esque statements about the "brute materiality of the external world."As an intellectual perspective, postmodernism is concerned with the untruth of systems, be they moral, metaphysical, or hermeneutic and in the realm of art it takes aim at the question of narrative authenticity - who exactly is the "I" telling the story. The result is the destruction of traditional form and the rise of the avant-garde. When false systems are stripped away - including the form of a story and the social constructions which gird a narrator's identity - what remains is the "brute materiality" of the world. For this reason, Smith writes, "it's not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry."But poetry, as Auden famously put it, "makes nothing happen," and something has to happen in a novel. Remainder is a search for authenticity, for the Real McCoy, and as Smith describes it, the novel finds it in the game of cricket (her review of Remainder appears alongside an equally rigorous review of Netherland) which is elevated, Smith writes, for its "pure facticity." The game is an array of objects ordered in space: a ball, a batsmen, crisp white lines, and proceeds by a series of events that can be definitively known.What has always perplexed me about avant-garde literature is why the writer conceiving a story does not receive the same high status as a wad of gum on the sidewalk or a cricket ball flying through space. For all the worry of avant-garde literature, I am convinced that a human being telling a story is every bit as real as a rock.
Again, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features one splendid fiction writer's meditations on another brilliant fiction writer Last his time, it was Eisenberg on Nádas; this time it's Zadie Smith considering the critical legacy of E.M. Forster, who provided the inspiration for On Beauty.As a novelist, Forster has suffered by comparison to his more conspicuously innovative contemporaries (for my money, Howards End is as much a technical achievement as that other Bloomsbury monument, Mrs. Dalloway); Smith suggests that Forster is underrated as a critic, as well.Perhaps his critical medium - BBC radio - made it easy to overlook Forster's seriousness; perhaps his characteristic modesty did as well. Still, we can learn much from Forster, and from Smith's appreciation of him:He could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other. Stubbornly he defends Joyce, though he doesn't much like him, and Woolf, though she bemuses him, and Eliot, though he fears him [...] Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry's right to be Valéry. He understood the beauty of complexity and saluted it where he saw it.