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.
I got back from New York yesterday. The Recoys show was unforgettable. Look for pictures here and here. Everybody packed into the sweaty back room of the Kingsland Tavern, and the Recoys became, for the last time, an underappreciated and raucous band from Boston. This time plenty of people knew better. In the years since the Recoys split, I’ve heard several people say that they are far better than many of the big name bands that they presaged. I agree with them, and so do a lot of folks, it seems. It looks like the record (Recoys Rekoys) is pretty much sold out, so hopefully we’ll be able to get a cd out soon. I was definitely digging New York this time around. I haven’t been in a while (about nine months I think). I rode the subway a bunch. At one point I noticed a girl reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel and I thought to myself… wouldn’t it be great if I could sit and read on the way to and from work each day, or on the way anywhere really, and I could check out what my fellow citizens are reading as we lumber along in our rolling athenaeum. Instead I gas and break my way around like everyone else in L A, and I have less time to read and everyone here has less time to read (assuming they would want to read anyway). It’s a shame. On the other hand, the radio here is really good.Watch out Harry Potter gonna kick yo assIsn’t it annoying when a writer is writing about some really popular nugget of pop culture and he opens his snarky article with “Unless you’ve been living in a cave (are a yak-herder in Khazakstan… have been trapped under a large pile of potatoes, etc. etc.) you’ve heard of Harry Potter (The Matrix… The Lord of the Rings, etc. etc.). Yes… ha ha ha, we all know about this very popular thing, oh snarky commentator, now get on with your witty dressing down of popular culture. Well, for the weekend anyway, I made like that yak-herder and forgot all about Harry Potter for a couple of days. I forgot he ever existed and then I stumbled sleepily and still a little bit drunkenly into JFK where they had a towering heap of yet another J. K. Rowling juggernaut Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You’ll notice on the Amazon page that it says “in stock June 25.” That’s because Amazon shipped a million copies on the first day! In fact, it turns out that the full 8.5 million copy first run was pretty much sold out before it ever hit the shelves due to the preorders alone. Through some serious finagling (like the buyer buying a few hundred copies from Costco on Saturday) my book store has managed to keep this 870 page behemoth of a book in stock so far. And since midnight on Friday we’ve gone from general book store to Harry Potter store. In the past 3 days we’ve probably sold more of this book than all other titles combined. This is all the more shocking when you consider that my store, due to location and clientele, has a meager childrens’ section and typically very few children ever come in. I just hope Rowling has enough room for the dump trucks full of money she’s making. As for the book itself, I doubt I’ll be reading it any time soon, but here’s what Michiko Kakutani had to say on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold no less.A Tasty BookI have a soft spot for food writers. Maybe it’s because I enjoy a good meal, perhaps too much, but I think it’s because I’ve found food writers to be charming in their obsession with food related minutiae. No one is more charming than Calvin Trillin whose “register of frustration and deprivation” leads him to travel the world seeking those foods that he can’t live without. the result of this is Feeding a Yen I can’t put this book down. He’s like an adventurous and kindly uncle. It’s a treat.
It’s been over a decade since James Wood came on the scene to reclaim literary criticism as its own kind of literature, and though all his enthusiasts have a top-ten list of the Wood essays with which they most strenuously disagree, he comes by his reputation as “our best critic” honestly. Indeed, disagreeing with Wood can be an education in and of itself; if I had to choose one critic to pan my own work, it would be Wood. But what if I could choose a critic to praise it?For several years, Wyatt Mason of Harper’s has quietly been reinvigorating an even more recondite form than the critical essay: the literary encomium. As with Wood’s considered corrections, one can disagree with Mason’s glowing appraisals of Mary Gaitskill or Charles Chadwick (I wasn’t as enamored of It’s All Right Now as Mason was), while still being provoked to think – and feel – more deeply about literature.Congenially, Mason’s tastes are closer to mine than are Wood’s. (Witness his translation of Eric Chevillard’s wonderfully weird Palafox.) I’m particularly in his debt for introducing me to the fiction of Leonard Michaels, and at the end of the month, harpers.org will be offering the essay in question to non-subscribers. For the time being, one can check out a brief, but interesting enough, interview about Michaels.
I went to my first baseball game of the season the other day, and it made me hope that I manage to get into some of the baseball books on my queue this summer. Jonathan Yardley also has the baseball bug as he reviews a forgotten baseball memoir in his “Second Readings” series. Jim Brosnan was a relatively unknown pitcher with Reds who just happened to be deft with a pen. His book, The Long Season, was the first to break the code of silence and look behind the clubhouse door at a world that is equal parts bliss and daily drudgery. Brosnan’s book paved the way for a more famous baseball memoir, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, which did not spare the reader the vulgarities of professional sports.
For those of us wondering whether David Foster Wallace will ever publish another novel, the February issue of Harper’s seems to augur something good. The magazine’s “Readings” section features an excerpt from a “work in progress” Wallace first read at last year’s Le Conversazioni festival (heretofore notable mainly for its photo-ops of writers in short pants.) The excerpt itself concerns an Illinois-based IRS auditor, and, though it’s not a radical semantic departure from the stories in Oblivion, DFW is always good on bureaucracies, and on Illinois. A crackerjack ending had me eager to read more.Video from the Le Conversazioni reading is available.
Even though this blog is devoted almost exclusively to books, I would be remiss if I did not mention the remarkable natural phenomenon that has been going on around me these past few days. The 17 year cicadas have emerged en masse from underground. Everyone, I’m sure, in their lifetime has had an encounter with a swarm of one type of bug or another, termites, bees, mosquitoes perhaps. In one of my grungier apartments in Los Angeles I once walked into to the kitchen to find more ants than one ever likes to see in one place. But the cicadas, they are something completely different. Brood X, as the scientists call this particular population, inhabits highly localized spots in the mid-Atlantic and Ohio River valley, and in some areas, like where I live, there are as many as 1.5 million per densely forested acre. The bugs themselves are large, larger than nearly any bug I’ve encountered, but they are oddly non-threatening. They are so dumb as to be barely functioning organisms. Walking through my yard, I’ll see a cicada approaching at a distance of fifty feet, and it will continue to fly in a straight line until it plows into me and then falls to the ground, dazed or unconscious. Each morning there are hundreds of them in piles against the side of the house, which they were unable to avoid during their night time travels. We sweep them away and an hour later there are dozens more. They give off this high pitched drone, and when you get a million or so together you can hear them from inside the house. Combined with the ungodly humidity, the noisesome, gigantic bugs have lent a prehistoric feel to the summer, not unlike the dinosaur simulation I remember from Epcot Center when I was younger. I half-expect a giant plastic animatronic T. Rex to be lurking behind my house. But they’ll be gone in a month, not to return for another 17 years, and I’ll be able to put away the plastic whiffle bat that I use to beat them back every time I leave the house.Vladimir Nabokov, of course, adored a more likeable sort of bug, the butterfly. In yet another fantastic “Second Reading” column, Washington Post book reviewer, Jonathan Yardley revisits Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. If this all sounds familiar to you, you may recall that a New York Times article about Nabokov inspired me to write about this book a few weeks back.And in non-bug news, E. L. Doctorow, whose new book Sweet Land Stories came out recently, comments in the Washington Post on the heckling he received during his controversial commencement speech at Hofstra University last weekend.
This will probably be of little interest to anyone who is not a book industry professional, but I couldn’t help myself. I happened to notice the other day a mention of the impending adoption of the 13-digit ISBN. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and it’s the 10-digit number typically found on the back of your books near the barcode. Every new edition of every book has its own ISBN, making it a unique identifier that can be used when organizing books in a computer library system. By 2007 all new books will be assigned 13-digit ISBNs. This is being done so that books conform with other products, which are all identified by a 13-digit number (usually next to the barcode.) I’m sure there are good reasons for doing this. Standardizing these numbers will probably streamline the business and make books easier to integrate with other products in stores. But I felt compelled to bring this up because I suspect the change might be detrimental to independent bookstores for two reasons. First, anything that makes it easier for books to be sold at the Walmart, Target, and the other “big box” stores is bad for independent bookstores (and chain bookstores, for that matter). Secondly, due to the expense, many independent bookstores do not have great inventory systems. Typically they have some sort of makeshift system, or they use an antiquated inventory system with poor tech support and little or no adaptability (the latter was certainly the case at the bookstore where I worked). Books are organized in these systems by ISBN, and I doubt that they are designed to handle an ISBN longer than 10 digits. While the chain stores probably have more robust systems and staff dedicated to the upkeep of their inventory programs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of independent bookstores scrambling to adapt when the 13-digit ISBN comes along. Then again, this could be another Y2K situation, which I’m blowing out of proportion. We’ll see, I suppose. If you are really intrigued by this, you can learn all about it here.In other news, the New York Times has named one-time restaurant reviewer William Grimes its new book reviewer. He joins Janet Maslin and Madame Kakutani. It will be interesting to see how this changes the overall persona of the Times’ book coverage. I should also note here that an inordinate number of people come to this website by searching for “Michiko Kakutani.” She is the object of much fascination, I think.The Publisher’s Lunch email newsletter mentions an upcoming book by one of my favorite writers, the inventor of rotisserie baseball and current New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent. “Daniel Okrent’s new book will also form the basis of a Ken Burns documentary, an illustrated biography of Einstein.”
Hunky Viggo Mortenson (of Lord of the Rings fame) was a big draw when he made appearances at the bookstore where I used to work. He’s got some dedicated fans who love the fact that he’s an actor and a poet and an artist. If you look at an Amazon search for his name, his many books of poetry and art come up. But, as the New York Times recently noted, there’s another Viggo Mortenson, a Danish professor who has written a book about theology, much to the chagrin of wayward Viggo fans who end up picking up his book, Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue (note the angry customer reviews.)BookFinder.com Journal notes the article and discusses the frustration of running an online book database and dealing with multiple authors who share the same name.