I took a peek at the Amazon page for The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and was surprised to find that the book has vaulted to #533 in their sales rankings (the book previously sported a ranking in the hundred thousands.) Now, I know that Amazon rankings are next to meaningless, but still, it’s pretty cool to know that my appearance on Weekend Edition Sunday sent readers looking to pick up the book. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.
Hello! I’m back, this time reporting from Chicago, IL. Without further ado, I’ll move on to what I have been reading lately. The first book I picked up since my last post was Asne Seierstad’s A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal. I was longing for some non-fiction and Seierstad’s memoirs of her visit to Baghdad three years ago seemed like a good choice (I have been meaning to read it for the past two years). Seierstad is a Norwegian freelance journalist that covered the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan prior to her trip to Baghdad. She arrived in Baghdad roughly 80 days before the war started and began reporting. Seierstad organizes her book in three parts: Before, During, and After. In these simply, yet carefully, organized sections Seierstad conveys her observations of the Iraqi society under Saddam Hussein, during the initial stages of the war, and after the capture of Baghdad. Seierstad has a very personable voice that almost embeds the reader alongside her. She provides good eyes and ears in a society that, under Saddam, became introverted and isolated. One learns about the difficulties of finding out about the regime, the spy network, the reluctance of locals to talk with foreigners, and how Iraqis perceived the brewing US attack on their country.Throughout the whole affair Seierstad also shows the bureaucratic network in Iraq, explains how she had to bribe officials to remain in, and once to re-enter, the country, and draws a unique portrait of Uday, Saddam’s most feared son. Seierstad also communicates to the reader the difficulties endured by average Iraqis, both under Saddam and in face of advancing US troops. Civilian casualties inflicted by “smart bombs,” the lack of resources in hospitals, and the fear of the emerging power vacuum each represent a part of the untold story, particularly during the initial stages of the war. Seierstad also mentions (or maybe even predicts) the emerging power struggle between Shiites and Sunnis as early as April 2003, a month after the war started. A Hundred and One Days is a very insightful and well written piece of work. Some of the stories are heart wrenching and leave one wondering how the great powers, and their leaders, could not foresee all the misery that would follow the war. If you are curious about the mood in Iraq, and mostly in Baghdad, at the onset of the war, I suggest that you get your hands on Seierstad’s brilliant memoirs. (See Andrew’s review of A Hundred and One Days)Next I turned to Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares, which had been sitting on my shelves for the past four years. My brilliant friend Mitch had bestowed the book upon me during our final year of college, telling me that it was the best written novel he ever read. Now, that’s a pretty strong statement but I have to agree with Mr. Maddox that Welsh’s narrative in Marabou Stork Nightmares is smart, innovative, and fluent.The protagonist Roy Strang is in a coma when the reader first meets him. The narrative moves between Strang’s perceptions of things happening around him (such as visits from parents, friends, nurses, doctors, and unrecognized people), to Strang’s fantasy world (set in South Africa, where he and Sandy Jamieson are trying to hunt the leader of the Marabou Storks, who are dominating and ruining the wildlife) and Strang’s autobiography. The three worlds intertwine as Welsh brings the reader to the current day, sheds light on the demise of Roy Strang, connects his fantasy world with the real, and presents a grand finale at the hospital where the protagonist is stranded. This quite awesome story is further enhanced by Welsh’s portrayal of Scots living in “schemes” (i.e. projects) outside Edinburgh and the personal anxieties he created for each character. Child abuse, gay tendencies, rape fantasies, a retarded sibling, a dysfunctional family, and hooligans all add new dimensions to the great story that Welsh devised. If you are a fan of Trainspotting and/or The Acid House, want a good laugh, and can stomach some disturbing moments, you should definitely pick up Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares.See Also: Part 2
A perfect post to leave you with as we head into the long weekend. Perhaps, like many people, you’ve been wondering what Art Garfunkel’s been reading for… oh… the last 39 years, give or take. Luckily, he’s been keeping track.As a result, perusing through the nearly 1,000 books he’s read in that time, I now know that:When I was born, Art Garfunkel was reading Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur.When I graduated high school, he was reading “Our Crowd” by Stephen Birmingham.When I graduated college, he was reading Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.And when I got married, he was reading Love, Groucho, the letters of Groucho Marx.What was Art Garfunkel reading on the important dates in your life? (Thanks to John for sending that brilliant link my way)
Millions contributor Emily’s award-winning review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale has been posted by VQR. Check it out.
Kurt Vonnegut fans will be interested to know that a collection of previously unpublished non-fiction is set to be published by Penguin in April, a year after his death. From the catalog:Armageddon in Retrospect is a collection of twelve new and unpublished writings on war and peace. Written with Vonnegut’s trademark rueful humor, the pieces range from a visceral nonfiction recollection of the destruction of Dresden during World War II – a piece that is as timely today as it was then – to a painfully funny story about three privates and their fantasies of the perfect first meal upon returning home from war; to a darker and more poignant story about the impossibility of shielding our children from the temptations of violence. This is a volume that says as much about the times in which we live as it does about the genius of the man who wrote it. Also included here is Vonnegut’s last speech, as well as an assortment of his drawings, and an introduction by the author’s son, Mark Vonnegut.I’m also told that Mark Vonnegut’s introduction, “sheds some light on their family life and Kurt’s writing habits.”
We’re not shy about our praise for NYRB Classics. Their volumes are smartly edited and well designed and quite a few favorite books of The Millions contributors – The Dud Avocado, Wheat That Springeth Green, and, of course, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – were first encountered in their NYRB Classics incarnations.While I had always planned on passing NYRB Classics books down to my progeny one day, I’ve just discovered that I may get to do that sooner than I had anticipated. NYRB Classics has a line of children’s books, the NYR Children’s Collection.One of the latest to come out under the imprint is James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Marc Simont. The new book provide fodder for Sonja Bolle’s sentimental (in a good way) essay in the LA Times.The 13 Clocks is the first book I remember loving, and it is one of the few books I managed to wrest from my family’s library and preserve through all the mundane disasters of my life. Everything about it is dear to me: The texture of the cover, the cloth spine now in shreds, the gorgeous endpapers with the Duke’s shadowy castle on the hill overlooking the sunlit town.Young readers – and the older readers who are trying to get young readers to read good books – will likely find many more such discoveries among the NYR Children’s Collection.
A year and a half ago, when BEA was in New York, Max and I decided, against our better judgment, to attend a panel discussion on the fate of book reviewing. The headliner was the intellectual performance artist Christopher Hitchens. However, we both walked away more impressed by the grit, gravity, and grace of panelist John Leonard than we were by Hitch’s charming bloviations.I’d been reading Leonard’s “New Books” column in Harper’s for years, but I emerged from that panel with a more expansive sense of the man, and promptly dug into his essays of the 1970s and 1980s. Those were years when vernacular brio and moral seriousness were not mutually exclusive – when glibness wasn’t held in such high esteem. Like Pauline Kael, Leonard made criticism feel like a vital part of the American intellectual landscape.Moreover, Leonard was a fearless explorer (and often defender) of the new and the unconventional. To name but one example, his last essay for The New York Review of Books (on Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) was a model of sympathetic inquiry.Leonard’s death last week, at age 69, is thus both a substantial loss and a reminder that the life of the mind still matters. Leonard was a great critic. He was also something nobler: a great reader. He will be missed.