Following the lead of powerhouses Bookforum and The New York Review, the interdisciplinary magazine BOMB appears to be in the middle of a major project to make a lot of its content available free, online. This should be a boon to highbrow bibliophiles. For years, BOMB‘s author interviews have offered deep perspective on the state of the art, while its monthly publication schedule has indemnified it against the faddishness that characterizes so much cultural coverage. Visitors to the new version of www.bombsite.com can browse interviews with the likes of Peter Nadas and Roberto Bolano (archived from 2001)… as well as the current cover-story: a conversation with Kate Valk, my favorite actor in New York and “a national treasure.” Be sure also to peruse the BOMB’s excellent literary supplement, First Proof.
Longtime Millions reader Laurie writes in with news of a sale on classic lit at Barnes & Noble. These Barnes & Noble-branded editions are sometimes criticized for cannibalizing the editions of other publishers because the chain store offers them so cheaply. Then again, some might argue that cheap books (and especially cheap classics) are always a good thing. It appears that the series Laurie mentions is now sold out (at least on the B&N Web site), but I thought the issues Laurie raised about the series interesting enough to merit posting anyway. Laurie writes:Here’s another item for your “book deals” section, if you’re comfortable with it (I have no affiliation with this publisher; I just like a bargain. Comments on the moral dimensions welcome.):Barnes & Noble publishes their own editions of classic literature. One series, the “Collector’s Library,” focusing mainly on works of the 19th century, went on sale the day after Christmas. Each pocket sized (6 inch x 4 inch) edition is hardbound in red cloth with an attached red ribbon placeholder held in firmly a stitched binding (at least it appears well-made) that also holds the printed work in small but sharp type, on good quality, gilt-edged paper. These little books look good and feel nice. Marked down from $5 or $6, which was already cheaper than most paperbacks, they are now marked for clearance at $2.00 each. About the worst thing you can say about them is that the striped dustjackets are pretty unimaginative. Want a copy of Moby Dick or Treasure Island, though, that can fit in the back pocket of your jeans and that also looks nice on a bookshelf (probably sans dustjacket)? Scour your local B&N — they’re going fast.Two further notes about this series:B&N’s choice of titles here is pretty eclectic — of the 65 or so I could find (they have no published list of all the titles and have not yet responded to a request for such a list), they’ve published Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina but not his War & Peace; Dickens’ Great Expectations but not David Copperfield or Oliver Twist; Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, but no other poets of the era (Tennyson was incredibly popular but appears left out, ditto Byron, Shelley, Browning, Wordsworth, etc.), the French Revolution drama A Tale of Two Cities is present but not Les Miserables. On the plus side, there’s a good mix of adventure (Treasure Island, Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe), horror (Frankenstein, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera), and human interest (Little Women, Sense & Sensibility, The Scarlet Letter), among others.The books are printed in China, which probably accounts for their cheap price, but that may be objectionable to environmentalists (industrial waste laws are weaker there) or supporters of U.S.-based printers. Or it may be a moot point – just what percentage of American books are printed overseas these days anyway?
Some things I’ve noticed today:This review of a new biography of one the founding fathers of fantasy and science fiction, H. P. Lovecraft. What’s interesting about this bio is that it is done in the form of a graphic novel, a fitting medium in which to describe the life of a visionary. Lovecraft was almost a movie before it was adapted by Keith Giffen from a script by Hans Rodinoff and illustrated by Enrique Breccia.Great capsule reviews at the Christian Science Monitor of the nominees for National Book Critics Circle awards in the criticism category, “far and away the most intimidating [category].” The nominees are Gritos by Dagoberto Gilb, Songbook by Nick Hornby, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King, River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. The winners are announced on March 4th in New York.And a group reads all of Shakespeare in one day, which reminded me of this awesome big ticket item.
I recently bought a t-shirt. This is not exactly news, though my sartorial spending typically averages four or five dollars per year. What was notable, however, was that it featured the art from the Nintendo game “Contra”—two gun-blasting mercenaries shadowed by a drooling, looming alien. I later realized that I hadn’t bought such a shirt in years—and not just because it horrified my wife. My drawers were once full of such tees, but through the endless clothing cycle, they’ve ceded to whites and blues. I wonder where they’ve gone.
Remembering vanished shirts is a somewhat wistful thing. Each one means so much, yet each will disappear. In exchange for their service—absorbing our sweat, airing our interests, starting our conversations—the least we can do is offer them tribute. Below, then, are five of my most deserving.
House of Pain (1993-1995)
“House of Pain” represented the nexus of three unfortunate trends: an infatuation with House of Pain, a growing allowance, and a need to go to malls (which also yielded such nuggets as “Big Johnson Erection Company,” “Big Johnson Beer,” and untold swimsuit posters). Its purchase followed two that my mother confiscated: a Cypress Hill pot-leaf shirt and a Funkdoobiest tee, replete with smoking hooker. Yes, I know. My mother was a monster.
“House of Pain,” however, snuck past the censors, and I wore it with dubious pride. To make my tastes even clearer, I bought a House of Pain hat; thank God they didn’t make pants. Eventually, the faux-Heineken logo on its back tore from the fabric, and “House of Pain” was discarded. Farewell, old friend, farewell. I jump around for thee.
Miller Genuine Draft (1995-1998)
“Miller Genuine Draft” wasn’t a particular favorite, but it served a definite purpose: “Hey, look, everybody! I’m drinking!” Throughout the mid-nineties, I sported an array of such shirts, shilling for brands that I hadn’t actually drank: Rumple Minze, Red Stripe, Boone’s Farm, Dewar’s. The idea was that I was “cool,” although I’m fairly sure I wasn’t.
Today, when I see a teen skulking in a Bud Light tee, I think, “Okay, little guy—you’ve had yourself a beer. We get it.” It takes hindsight to see the desperation of such shirts—and that they’re equivalent to wearing a Tampax tee because you’ve finally got your period.
Uff Da! (1997-2002)
As I was told a handful of times over its dazzling five-year run, “Uff Da!” was a Norwegian term of excitement; the shirt may have been the product of a small Wisconsin brewery. Whatever its origin, I found it pleasingly elusive, cheerful but obscure. It never failed to gain mention, and even The Bard took note: I wore it to a 1998 Bob Dylan show, at which I sat in the first row behind the stage. Every so often, Dylan turned to acknowledge the fans at his back, and at one point—possibly during “Joey”—he turned and spotted “Uff Da!” As a Minnesota native, he was likely familiar with the phrase, and its 200-point font would’ve been large enough to see—even from the stage, through the glaring banks of light. There was a glint in his eye, and he gave me a nod, as if to say, “Yes, my son. ‘Uff Da!’ ‘Uff Da!’ ”
He might have been looking at someone else, though.
Matthew’s Bar Mitzvah Was a Big Hit! (1997)
I never knew Matthew, and I don’t know if his Bar Mitzvah was really a hit. And that was exactly the point. For half a decade, my fashion goal was to stockpile the most ironic, snort-inducing shirts I could find. I haunted musty Goodwill racks, ragged yard-sale piles, the drawers of sleeping roommates. The result was a parade of slugs, cheese, and terrible bands. One pictured Howie Mandel; another, Jimmy Carter.
I must have assumed that this conveyed an ornate intellect; as Louis Menand recently wrote in The New Yorker, “Part of the enjoyment people take in parody is the enjoyment of feeling intelligent. Not everyone gets the joke.” Thankfully, though, the joke got stale, and the phase eventually passed (possibly swept off by Graydon Carter’s “death of irony”). But remnants do remain. On hot days, I can still be seen in a kelly-green Detlef Schrempf jersey. Part of me thinks it’s funny.
Blue Shirt (2008-Present)
Like “Miller Genuine Draft,” I mention “Blue Shirt” for its wider personal meaning. After all the rap and beer and irony, I’ve come to value simplicity in my shirts. There’s enough static in the world, enough impotent distraction. Our tastes are not so riveting. This turn towards plainness is likely an effect of aging—an erosion of cultural interest and a shift of priorities. Whatever its cause, such shirts are my present, and will likely be my future. I can’t picture myself in a nursing home, dribbling egg down a novelty tee. Call it a benefit of growing older.
(Image: Ringflash Tshirt Blank Template, image from geishaboy500’s photostream)
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.
It’s becoming a tradition of sorts, the Nobel jury gives the Prize to an author virtually unknown in the United States, and newspaper columnists grumble while small and university presses bask in a moment of publishing glory.
Nobody outside a few square miles in New York cares that this year’s Pulitzer or Booker winner was put out by Random House or HarperCollins, but even to the casual observer of the literary scene, there’s something refreshing (and, for some, aggravating) about seeing yet another Nobel winner with only the faintest, most haphazard publishing footprint. The Nobel Prize, probably half the time, shines a huge spotlight some pretty obscure books.
For small and university presses, the Prize is a rare moment of popular notice. Daniel E. Pritchard who works for David R. Godine, Publisher in Boston wrote as much a year ago reacting to J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Nobel win, “Nobel Prizes are usually the playground for big boys. They were noticeably absent from this one, leaving all the fame and street-cred for small independents.” Godine published Le Clézio’s The Prospector.
The University of Nebraska Press also published Le Clézio, with two books in print when the Nobel was announced last year: The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts and Onitsha. According to the press’ publicity manager Cara Pesek, Nebraska sold just “a handful” of copies of both titles in 2007, but “since the prize was announced last year, those two titles have accounted for more than $100,000 in incremental sales.”
The director of University of Nebraska Press, Donna Shear, tempered the excitement somewhat, saying that the Nobel turns a book into “a steady backlist seller” as it finds its way onto University reading lists. But she added that a side-effect of the Nobel jury’s idiosyncrasies is that the Prize becomes “a validation of the efforts of University presses.”
The Euro-centric Nobel also injects some commercial viability into the typically limited world of literature in translation. After winning the Nobel in 2002, Hungarian writer Imre Kertész went from university presses to Knopf and Vintage. Meanwhile, plans are already underway to bring Müller to a wider audience. Shear said Nebraska put in a bid for Müller’s latest, Atemschaukel, recently shortlisted for the German Book Prize, but it’s expected that the book will land with one of the big publishing houses.
We expect our book prizes to confirm that a book or author’s commercial success and positive reviews are well-deserved. Sometimes the Nobel plays this role – a validator of critical opinion – but, for the American audience, it often does something different. And this is where the grumbling comes in. We don’t like to be told that an author we’ve never heard of is one of the greatest ever. But in cases like Müller and Kertész and Le Clézio, the Nobel serves as a reminder that in certain corners of the publishing industry, there are presses shepherding the work of these writers into print and keeping it available until such time as the rest of us are able to take notice.
New Millions contributor Noah, who recently wrote a review of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land and helped answer a question (see the comments) about where to start when reading Ford’s books, managed to get a question in at yesterday’s Washington Post online chat with Ford. The question elicited a fairly long response from Ford, one that name drops a pair of his more well-know contemporaries. I’m quite certain that Noah is from Brooklyn but for some reason, the Post indicated his question was coming from Queens:Queens, NY: At a Barnes and Noble reading in NYC, you said, almost inaudibly because someone was mad to ask another question of you, that one of your personal favorite pieces of your own was “Communist”, the last story in Rock Springs. Can you talk just a little about that story, what it means to you? Do you ever feel that Bascombe-mania overpowers your other work, like the dog that is most aggressive in pursuing the owner’s attentions?Richard Ford: I don’t feel like these Bascombe books overpower my other work, because they are so different from other work that I have done, and I actually value them all pretty much equally. I probably couldn’t write a book or a story without thinking at the time, This is the best thing I could possibly do.”Communist” I feel a lot of affection for, for several different reasons. One is its origin: that my friend Tom McGuane once asked me while we were hunting if I had ever written a hunting story. I told him I had never written a hunting story because I didn’t like to read them. And he said, If I would write a hunting story, he knew some guy that was doing an anthology that would probably publish it. And so I wrote a hunting story. And from that innocent little inception came a story that was much more than a hunting story. I sort of like the humbleness of the origin. And I liked the story because it let me describe something, which is something I never do, it let me describe something I specifically experienced rather than just made up, which is an enormous number of geese taking flight, which I found was a very stirring experience both to have and to write. Two other things: I was moved by the opportunity to write the final conversation at the end of the story between the narrator and his mother, which I thought was quite an intimate relationship but that maintains the proprieties of parent and child. Finally, when I wrote the story, which was in 1983 in Mississippi, far from Montana, where the story is set, I wrote the story to an end which didn’t feel like the right end although it felt like an end. And I showed the story to my friend Joyce Carol Oates, and she gave me the best advice any other writer has ever given me. She said, Richard, you need to write more on this story. Write more words. And I had to figure out what more words to write.