Following up on Monday’s post, as it turns out, that missing issue of the New Yorker turned up (bearing a paper jacket reminding me to renew and sporting a torn cover) a day after this week’s issue landed in the mailbox. So it appears as though I won’t be skipping an issue after all. Luckily for me, I’m going on vacation for a few days, and I’m hoping this will afford me some time to catch up. (Incidentally, you can expect The Millions to go dark through Sunday while we take a break.)
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…
Next, non-fiction. People seem to be very excited about a new book by the French philosopher (and best-selling author in Europe) Bernard Henri Levy. Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is both a journalistic account of the kidnapping and brutal murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter and a deeper look at the rift between extremist Islam and the rest of the world. Imagine the musings of a philosopher detective retracing the final steps of a man he has never met. In other news, I proudly voted in an election that is sure to be a footnote in the history books. I did not vote for Arnold for personal reasons: I happen to be a rabid celebrity-ist, as in I discriminate against celebrities and, by law, I don’t think they should be allowed to hold public office. Just because someone appears regularly on television and movie screens, in magazines and on billboards does not mean they are qualified to do anything other than look pretty and pretend to be another person. But, of course, this is California and it is important to have leaders who are sufficiently glamorous representing the extremely glamorous populace. Needless to say, California is a peculiar and maddening place, progenitor and betrayer of national hopes and dreams, which, in so many words, is what Joan Didion is saying in her book, Where I Was from. My hope is that the reason this book continues to sell so well is that it is people’s way of taking this election with a grain of salt. Now I’m going to do something a bit hypocritical, watch as I go from celebrity-bashing to the Rolling Stones. But what can I say? The Rolling Stones, as The Beatles did a few years ago, have put together a beautiful and comprehensive coffee table book called According to the Rolling Stones, and people are buying it like crazy.Finally, a couple of paperbacks to mention: Dan Brown, like John Grisham before him, is using his huge breakthrough hit, The Da Vinci Code to sell his previous books which had, up until now, been ignored. Since everyone in the world seems to have read the Da Vinci Code by now, folks looking to keep the good times rolling have been buying an earlier book of his, Angels & Demons in droves. Also big in paperback is the recently released collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called How to Be Alone. I seem to be one of the few who hold this opinion, but Franzen’s non-fiction bugs the heck out of me. The Corrections, however, is a must read.
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:Meditations by Marcus AureliusCrime and Punishment by Fyodor DostoyevskyMagic Tales by Jacob GrimmThe Waves by Virginia WoolfThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar WildeEmma by Jane Austen
Check out an excerpt of the Art of Fiction with Haruki Murakami from The Paris Review. If you are a Murakami fan like me, you should buy the issue and read the complete interview. If you do, you will find a discussion of Murakami’s upcoming novel Kafka on the Shore, which is due out in January. And from the British Library: “On this site you will find the British Library’s 93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642.” (LINK)
There’s a very entertaining article at the CBC Web site about the pros and cons of being prolific as a writer. It leads with a discussion of the output of Alexander McCall Smith of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame, who regularly churns out 3,000 words at a sitting. Prolific authors are often envied, but if they happen to be genre writers they are likely to be derided as well, even as publishers covet them and count on them to bankroll riskier publishing endeavors: The dream of most publishers is to have at least one “house author,” a writer with a robust fan base who can dependably churn out one title a year – giving the publisher the financial solidity to take the occasional flyer on more challenging (read: less gainful) authors.The article also includes a great quote from DFW: Musing on the seemingly inexhaustible John Updike, David Foster Wallace once asked, “Has the son-of-a-bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” Updike’s absurdly prodigious output – in the form of novels, as well as short stories, travel writing and literary criticism – has undermined his stature in the eyes of Foster Wallace, as well as many fiction readers. I would tend to agree that volume can degrade one’s reputation in the eyes of the reader. The article goes on to mention Joyce Carol Oates whose level of output many seem to take as a personal insult, and closes with an amusing comparison of Oates and Stephen King courtesy George Murray, proprietor of Bookninja.Curious about the output of different writers? This search returns lots of interesting numbers.
Humans have at least one really redeeming quality. We are loath to abandon a good story. In light of cold, hard facts, our imagination, an engine fired by hope and curiosity, suspicion and fear, will and wish and programmed for storytelling, pushes back. For the last week of December, on Twitter, the Central Intelligence Agency rounded up #Bestof2014 — its ten most-read blog posts and declassified documents from the past year. Number one was a somewhat gently redacted 272-page PDF about an overhead reconnaissance program tested outside of Las Vegas, at a site the agency acknowledges by name as Area 51. “Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the ’50s?” the CIA tweeted. “It was us.” Lockheed spy planes flying at the then unheard altitudes of 60,000 feet and above, sure, but not extraterrestrials casing the planet in saucers. By simply cross-referencing UFO sightings with flight logs, the agency said it was able to rule out more than half of the reports. The reaction? To the bureaucratic dispelling of Area 51, one of the great American wonderlands?
“@CIA Nope, I am still going with aliens from outer-space.”
“@CIA Sorry, but this is STUPID! The USAF began investigations in the late 40s, and #UFOs were seen in abundance all over the US.”
“@CIA with all those redactions 64 years later… who could deny Aliens.”
Squinting into the night, thinking we are not alone…even believing we have routinely been visited upon by a greater intelligence, is one thing. But then there are the creatures presumed indigenous to Earth. From diehard mythos (vampires) to diversions in cryptozoology (the Skunk Ape). In November, BBC published news of an 18-month period in Scotland, which, for the first time since 1925, had failed to produce any confirmed sightings of the lake monster initially reported 1,500 years ago by the Irish abbot and missionary Saint Columba. (By the father’s account, Nessie roared and tore a man “with a most savage bite,” but was driven away by the sign of the cross.) “It’s very upsetting news,” an accountant who apparently moonlights as the registrar of sightings said of Nessie’s recent disappearance, “and we don’t know where she’s gone.” Fresh witnesses came forth shortly thereafter, but then so did a local forest conservation group, which had the bad taste to offer a reasonable explanation: the rivers were washing woodland deadfall into Lake Loch Ness, logs and branches, they suggested, which could look an awful lot like a brontosaurus-style neck on the water’s foggy stage. For believers this was, as one commentator put it, “profoundly unsatisfying.” (A more satisfying explanation, which the BBC noted, is the fact that circus elephants were sometimes exercised in that lake.)
These episodes recall what happened in 2012, when Animal Planet broadcast Mermaids: The Body Found. The faux documentary blended some real science — such as the aquatic ape hypothesis — and legitimate mysteries — such as an unexplained sound recorded during Navy sonar tests — with the sexiest writing and editing television has to offer. It was a narrative feat of speculative biology that claimed merfolk actually exist, and here the proof. “As if we didn’t have enough probably fictitious but possibly real beings to worry about,” The New York Times pooh-poohed. But Mermaids became the station’s most-watched telecast since the Steve Irwin memorial special aired in September 2006. Indeed, it scored the highest ratings of any Animal Planet program, ever, and with so much of the public convinced, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt compelled to issue a statement. The official federal position was (is): “No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” Tumblr, a mood board, erupted — “95% of the ocean is undiscovered. You can’t tell me mermaids don’t exist yet.”
There are, of course, deep, necessary reasons for all of the above. Mythology, as Karen Russell often observes, speaks to perennial aspects of human nature. Half-human creatures are vehicles for reconciling our species on the continuum of other beasts. Monsters are projections of an atavistic unease — born of the sense that something bigger and badder is out to get us (because for the long course of mammalian history, something was). These stories get weird and totally out-of-hand, but they never end.
I’m thinking of the hilarious Victorian novel Cranford. I was just about finishing it, and noticing the CIA’s roundup in the periphery, when the modern new year rang in. Here was a corner of civilization awash, clinging to habits and opinions morbidly out of date. In the last chapter, Peter Jenkyns returns to entertain the village women with tales from afar. He tells them about the time he was up in the heights of Himalaya, hunting, when he accidentally felled an angel. The Honorable Mrs. Jamieson does not call bullshit. “But, Mr. Peter,” she howls, “shooting a cherubim — don’t you think — I am afraid that was sacrilege!”
Art by Ellis Rosen, illustrator of Woundabout by Lev Rosen, forthcoming from Little, Brown.