Amar Bakshi was about five years behind me at my high school in Washington DC, but he has my dream job, traveling the world to author a blog for the Washington Post, taking on the charged topic, “How the World Sees America.” I started reading it because of the high school connection (Amar is a friend of my little brother’s), but I’ve become an avid reader of it over time as Amar follows in the footsteps of some of my favorite traveling journalists: Jon Lee Anderson, Paul Theroux, and, of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Unlike those masters of the form, Amar also carries a video camera with him to further chronicle his experiences. Since starting in May, he’s been to England and India, and now he’s back in the States hashing out plans to travel farther afield. It’s an interesting experiment from a young writer. Worth a read if you’re looking for another blog to follow.
It's been a moment since my last post, and I am here to apologize and explain. Ever since the fifth grade, when I took my birthday party to see the movie Outbreak and then read The Hot Zone thrice a row, I have been terrified of epidemics. Two weeks ago, my beloved and I returned from a week's holiday in Mexico and immediately commenced moving our household to the other side of the country, in an automobile. We had spent the holiday in points around the state of Oaxaca, and then the last day we were in Mexico City, larking around the metro and holding hands with everybody.I know that currently public opinion finds the Swine Flu to be very passe, and we've all been reminded several times that regular flu kills a third of Americans every year, but three days after we returned from Mexico it was very scary to receive a phone call informing us of the new flu that was killing all these young people in the place from whence we came, and it was more scary when my beloved shortly thereafter developed a sniffle. What with my intense paranoia and the terrifying reportage on every website, I insisted we spend two days sitting in a seedy motel, taking our temperatures with a Hello Kitty thermometer which cost ten goddamned dollars yet recorded our temperatures at a steady ninety-six degrees. It was truly a long, dark teatime of the soul (for me, that is. The invalid was remarkably cheery about the whole thing), but it was only a cold that he had, and we are fine. However, all the furor, and the move and all, has limited my brain function; furthermore, most of my books are still packed away. So, friends, excuse this post, for it is budget, as budget, perhaps, as the motel in which we awaited our deaths. Here is my holiday/cross-country move reading list:1. The Magus. I have read and really enjoyed this book about four times. This time it sort of soured on me (or did I sour on it? I can never remember how that expression goes). The narrator Nicholas is, in the crude parlance of our times, a "douche." This never bothered me before, but this time I found him sort of boring. Maybe it's the fact that the novel, which is about a big elaborate game perpetrated on the narrator by some crazed rich people, is very mysterious and fast-paced and racy when you don't know what's going on, and once you are familiar with the plot you have more gray matter available to ponder how annoying the narrator is. Maybe it's just not holiday reading. I do find it bizarre that it is on the Modern Library List (#93), while The French Lieutenant's Woman is recognized only on the Modern Library Reader's List (#30). The French Lieutenant's Woman strikes me as an incredibly elegant and complex jewel in the crown of twentieth century literature, while The Magus is just kind of thrilling and has sexy twins in it. Am I being unfair here?2. The Things They Carried. Kind of contemporary for me. During my phase of reading about sad things I read a lot of novels about Vietnam, but it has been a long time since I revisited that period of American history. I thought these stories by Tim O'Brien were wonderful, but I don't have a lot to say about them. I wept. War is awful. I don't understand why anybody would want to send a young person off to kill people and die. We should stop having wars. Full stop.3. Garden of the Gods. The sequel to My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives. It pains to say this, but this third in the trilogy was kind of rubbish. The writing was careless and I got the distinct impression that Durrell needed to raise money quickly and decided to dash out something along the lines of the earlier successes. Although, in his defense, he probably needed the money to save a rare pink-footed equatorial mongoose, or some such. So, while disappointed with this third effort, I do not hold it against him.4. The Rise of Salas Lapham. I always wanted to read something by William Dean Howells, and now I have.5. The Bonfire of the Vanities. We stayed in a hotel in Oaxaca that had a classic example of the hotel/hostel library of books left behind by guests. Most of the books are in Dutch or German, the ones in English either have something to do with the Dalai Lama, or are by James Michener, or are a Tom Wolfe novel with the first sixty-three pages ripped out. I've read this before so I wasn't worried about the first sixty-three pages, but I did miss them once I had gotten underway. I really get a kick out of Tom Wolfe. Everyone is reprehensible and there is no justice, but he doesn't make me feel sad. Possibly contributing to the downfall of civilization, but super holiday reading.
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Australian author, Elliot Perlman scored a minor hit last year with his novel Seven Types of Ambiguity, and now Riverhead is capitalizing on that success by putting out a collection of Perlman's stories, originally published in Australia in 2000, but yet to appear in the States. The book, called The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, contains nine stories. The title story of this collection was good enough to be included in the The Penguin Century of Australian Stories.In his second novel, In Lucia's Eyes, Dutch author Arthur Japin, takes an episode out of Casanova and runs with it. The novel follows Lucia, Casanova's first love, who leaves him after she is disfigured by small pox, and, after years as a secretary, housekeeper and veiled prostitute, encounters Casanova 16 years later in Amsterdam. Japin's first novel, The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, received a lot of praise. This new book has a different translator, and some early reviews - PW calls the translation "sometimes stilted" - wonder if In Lucia's Eyes is worse off for it. Knopf has an excerpt up.Michelle Lovric's novel, The Remedy covers similar ground - a 17th century woman, the colorfully named Mimosina Dolcezza, traveling across Europe before encountering her true love. Dolcezza is enamored with Valentine Greatrakes, whose business is concocting the remedies that the book is named for. The Remedy was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, which had this to say about the book: "Funny, mischievous and thoroughly melodramatic, written by an author with a poetic way with verbs. And featuring a slew of original recipes so you can concoct eighteenth century remedies in the comfort of your own home." An excerpt is available here.
Tomorrow is Frank Wilson's final day as book editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. This is notable not just because fragile book sections can ill afford to lose advocates like Wilson and not just because of the boisterous and popular link blog, Books, Inq, that Wilson ran on the side (and has hinted he will continue.) It is notable because as much as anyone in the literary world, Wilson embodies the positive changes that have gone on among both the media and the masses in the discourse surrounding books.About a year ago, in taking stock of book blogs' place in the world, I noted that "though there has sometimes been an unhealthy 'us against them' mentality between bloggers and professional critics, in many ways this friction has melted away as critics have become bloggers themselves and as a number of talented bloggers have begun to invade the book pages, providing a pool of talent and a new voice to book review sections that were shrinking and stultified."In this last regard, Wilson was key. While some of his colleagues looked upon bloggers warily, concerned that these "enthusiasts" would squeeze them out by doing their work for free, Wilson was prescient enough to recognize the enthusiasm and talent of quite a few bloggers. Though he was not the first to look to the blogs, he was perhaps the most fervent in tapping this new pool of talent, giving people like Ed, Scott, and Levi the wider audiences that they deserved.All of this is also important in the context of what's going on in the newspaper industry. Wilson has not announced the particulars of his departure - which to this observer seemed sudden - but the Inquirer is as embattled as any newspaper out there. Late last month, Jim Romenesko reported, "Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News chief Brian Tierney told his unions... that there will be 'a dire situation' by summer or fall if the company can't find ways to cut costs by 10%." However, while many of Wilson's colleagues across the country rail against the fate of the industry, Wilson tried something new, both with his blog and by reaching outside of the normal circles for writers.Finally, as a fairly recent transplant to Philadelphia (one who has quickly come to love the city), I will feel Wilson's departure more personally. In a once great newspaper town, Wilson was something to hold onto, even amid the "dire" warnings of the Inquirer and the Daily News. Luckily not everything is so dire. Though Wilson will leave behind his book section, he will continue to be part of a literary conversation that it is as vibrant as it has ever been. Fueled by readers, this conversation has migrated from book club meetings and bookstore aisles out into the open, amongst all the blogs, newspapers, and magazines that choose to take part.
I have a Bloglines account. Since you're reading this blog, you probably know what I'm talking about, but in case you don't, I'll explain. Bloglines takes all the blogs and websites you read everyday and bundles them together in one place, so you can check them without getting repetitive stress disorder from your web browser. Bloglines is like the newspaper of stuff I care about. There is no real estate section in my paper, no classifieds, only sports, food, the occasional political rant, and then an extensive cultural section that includes the blog you're reading now, and more than a few others that cover film, music and celebrity gossip (the lifeblood of the modern news media).For the last couple of months, my "newspaper" has included a metro section, and that section has been dominated by the Homicide Report, written by Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy. The Homicide Report is a straightforward, factual account of every homicide in Los Angeles County. It runs five days a week. Most of the homicides only a get a line or two, a simple description of the facts, under a stark and pointed headline ("Man shot working on a car"; "Teacher Found Killed"), but more importantly, whenever possible, the identity of the victim is revealed. For most homicides, this is a few lines more recognition than they would get in the Los Angeles Times or in any newspaper, for that matter. As Leovy says, "The media often covers homicide as a statistic story, marking up-and-down jags in the rates." In an interview with the blog LA Observed (another of my daily reads) she explains some of her motivation for starting the blog:"At the very least, seeing all the homicides arrayed in a list like this will give readers a much more real view of who is dying, and how often. And for me, it means no longer having to confront weeping mothers who say their sons' deaths were never covered by the press."It seems fitting that LA would lead the way with a blog about murder (Note: other cities have followed suit; just this week the Houston Chronicle launched its own homicide blog (via bloghouston.net)). After all, this is the city of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler, of Michael Connelly and Joseph Wambaugh, of Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. Crime is woven into the fabric of the city and its culture in a way that doesn't seem to be the case in the other American cities (except maybe Baltimore). While the classic noirists and the masters of the procedural used crime in the city to tell stories of the evil that lurked within it, the Homicide Report seems determined to tell of the innocence, as well. It remains to be seen what effect the blog will have on crime rates, if any, but it already raises my awareness on a daily basis.
Elizabeth Gilbert speaks to fantasies, specifically the 21st century American variety of jet-set enlightenment by way of paradisiacal settings, and reassurance that broken hearts mend to love again. The fantasy is so persuasive that her book has singlehandedly augmented spiritual tourism in Bali.
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