I’d noticed that over the last few months, John McPhee’s articles in the New Yorker have been somewhat thematically linked, and it occurred to me that his next book would probably be about that theme, transportation. Based on the contributor’s notes from last weeks issue, it appears as though this is indeed the case: “This piece” – about coal trains – “is part of a series about freight transportation that will be published as a book, Uncommon Carriers, in May.” None of those articles are available online, but off-hand I recall ones about river barges, UPS’s gargantuan shipping operation and riding along in a tanker truck. In an interview at the New Yorker site, McPhee talks a little bit more about the book, which he says grew out of his work on Looking for a Ship – which Emre and I both read recently. He also discusses the enormity of his twenty year undertaking, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about American geology, Annals of the Former World.
“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane (from Open Boat and Other Stories)This 1898 story, about the last survivors of a shipwreck as they fight for the safety of land on a soaked and cold dinghy, contains one of my favorite sentences in all of short fiction: “It was probably splendid, it was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.” That repetition of “probably” gets me every time.“Merry-Go-Sorry” by Carry Holladay (from Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Award)It’s a shame that Holladay hasn’t yet published a collection, for This tale of a town affected by the killing of three young boys, told in a fluid omniscient narration, is strange, ambitious, and beautiful. We venture into the minds of the accused killer, of the girl who writes him letters, of the cops investigating the murders, and so on and on, until a complicated world has emerged on the page.“Do Not Disturb” by A.M. Homes (from Things You Should Know)This story concerns a wimp of a husband and a bitch of a wife. She gets cancer, and she gets meaner. What now?“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link (from Magic for Beginners)In this wild story, a family moves from a cramped Manhattan apartment to a big haunted house outside the city. Objects start to feel “wrong” and must be discarded; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rabbits on the front lawn; the wife cannot stop painting the rooms; the daughter sleepwalks; the husband won’t return home from work. Just as the story begins to create a coherent universe, the narrative embraces something new and strange, and the reader must remake meaning once again. It’s a big, messy, playful collision of a story.Stay tuned for more recommended stories from The Millions later this week.
I had such a good time reading the Count of Monte Cristo that it made me wonder why I don’t read more so-called “classics.” So many times I have wandered into a book store or browsed through Amazon fruitlessly, when I might have gone for the known quantity that is the classic. First, let me define what I’m talking about here. People shy away from classics for two reasons: because they are old. You worry that the book will seem moldy and out of touch. And a classic is the sort of book that is assigned in middle school and high school, and therefore it doesn’t seem like the sort of book you’d want to read for fun (it might bring back bad memories, after all). But again and again I find that this is the wrong way to look at it. I am almost never disappointed when I read a classic novel. So, for all you casual readers out there, consider the classic.But classics aren’t just great for us grown ups, they’re perfect for precocious young readers. When I worked at the book store, I would often encounter parents trying to find books for kids who had read all the kids books. These young readers had read all the Harry Potter, all the Lemony Snicket, and the parents were looking for more of the same. I realized that classic novels are the perfect way to graduate these young readers to the next level of reading. Sure they may get assigned some of these books in school, but I know that when I was young, I found reading books for fun to be far more gratifying than reading for school. Here’s a quick list of classics that I like to recommend to precocious young readers (I’m only recommending books that I have read, so if you’ve got any ideas please share – there are so many more!):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthornePride and Prejudice by Jane AustenGreat Expectations by Charles DickensGulliver’s Travels by Jonathan SwiftFrankenstein by Mary ShelleyOr you could just get ALL of themUpdate: From the comments:Awakening by Kate Chopin (suggested by edan)Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (suggested by edan)Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (suggested by erin)The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (suggested by The Happy Booker)Related: Ask a Book Question: The 27th in a Series (Classifying Classics)Related: Giving Kids the Classics
The Loggernaut Reading Series has a truly exceptional interview up with Daniel Alarcon author of the acclaimed collection, War by Candlelight. He touches on many topics: the Iowa Writers Workshop, Peruvian literature, falling out of love with the New York Yankees. There’s also this bit about being on book tour:I like readings. I like meeting people, and generally it works this way: folks that don’t like your book or don’t like you as a person stay at home. The folks who are likely to enjoy it are the ones who show up. So of course it’s very gratifying to have ten or fifteen or however many people buy your book and tell you they think you’re very smart, write well, smell good, etc. Still, I can’t say that I really enjoy traveling, though these days I seem to do a lot of it. When I started the tour I’d been traveling already for three months in Latin America, didn’t really have a place to live in the US, and still had books and clothes scattered in the apartments of various friends, my parents’ place in Oakland, my sister’s house, and elsewhere. I felt incredibly un-tethered to anything, which is exactly the wrong time to be spending nights in hotels, airports, and shopping malls: the trifecta of sad American non-destinations. They bring out the very bleakest in people who are prone to be depressed from time to time.The best readings were in places I’ve lived before – New York, Iowa City, the Bay Area, Birmingham – where friends showed up and brought their friends, or where peruanos showed up just to say they were proud of me and whatnot. Chicago was also excellent, lots of fun. In Boulder I started my reading with two people in the audience. I introduced myself to both of them and shook their hands. The reading was fine, I think they both enjoyed it, and actually a few more people showed up by the time the story had ended. They asked me to read another story and I did. Then afterwards some dude wanted me to sign a galley, an advance reader copy, the one that says very clearly “not for sale, uncorrected proof” on the cover. He told me with an innocent smile that he’d bought it used on Amazon. I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? I think he expected me to congratulate him on having found such a bargain. But he was so earnest and excited to meet me that he even had his two daughters pose for a picture with me. Maybe he’ll buy my next book. Or not. I don’t even know why I was mad; it’s not like I don’t buy used books.
This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
A few days ago, during my weekly visit to the comic book store, I stopped at the dense graphic-novel shelves, tyrannized by choice. Before me sat row upon row of the laughably misleading (The Essential Dazzler), the highly unnecessary (ElfQuest: Volume 14), and the already-read (Essex County). After a minute of unfocused browsing, I arrived at a chunk of Punishers. Thanks to a 2009 alt-weekly story, I’d recalled that The Punisher’s Six Hours To Kill was set in Philadelphia, where I live. I picked it up and flipped on through, remembering why I hadn’t read The Punisher since I was 13: it was really kind of dumb.
Still, I’d come closer to buying the book than I reasonably should have—and the only reason for that was its setting. Eighteen years had passed since I’d given Frank Castle any thought—eighteen years in which he’d killed his way through Queens, Detroit, and Nome. Yet all it had taken to rekindle my interest was for him to hop in his van and roar down the Turnpike. Had I read Six Hours To Kill, I might’ve recognized a street, a park, or a building—and that would’ve drawn me in. Whether in comics, films, or novels, this verisimilitude is a gift—recognition that you actually exist.
In 1995, Steve Lopez debuted with Third and Indiana, named after an intersection in Philly’s crumbling Badlands. The book was mediocre—its villain was a cartoon, its heroes whimpering saints—but its street details were compelling. “An old man with a white mustache and a newsboy hat cooked ribs and chicken on the sidewalk in a barbecue fashioned from a black metal drum.” “Kensington Avenue… sat in eternal darkness and gloom under the El, and the tracks were supported by an archway of rusted iron crablegs, a symbol of the city’s industrial death.”
In Pete Dexter’s Brotherly Love, gangsters and union guys battle it out on similarly gritty streets: “Michael sees them too late, one on the sidewalk, one on the street. He takes the pistol out of his coat pocket, beginning to run, and shoots four times, blowing out the front window of a poultry store kitty-corner in the Italian Market.” I live two blocks from the Market, and when I walk through with my wife, I’ll point towards Ninth and Catherine. “In Brotherly Love, there was a shootout right over there,” I’ll say. My hope, perhaps, is that she’ll find me somehow tougher—after all, I witnessed a goddamn shooting. Instead, she’ll ask, “Wait—this was in a book? So it didn’t actually… happen?” “No, not really,” I’ll mumble. But… I could’ve sworn…
Such split thinking speaks, of course, to the vitality of narrative, to how it tricks us towards belief. But unlike camping with the Joads or mourning poor Piggy, reading about one’s hometown doesn’t transport so much as extend, enlarging our maps with each page. I’ve spent time in nearby Germantown thanks to David Goodis’ Black Friday: “He was very careful about it as he walked along Morton Street, watching the doors, the porch posts, the brick walls underneath the porch.” When Point Breeze makes the paper, I’ve been there through The Corrections: “Friable houses with bedsheet curtains. Expanses of fresh asphalt that seemed to seal the neighborhood’s fate more than promise renewal.”
Until I wrote this piece, I hadn’t seen the thread that runs through my Philly reading: I focus on areas that I’d otherwise never enter; on things I’d rather not see. Like a Baltimorean watching The Wire, I experience the nearby underbelly without having to actually experience it. This might make me an earnest investigator or an entitled cultural sightseer; probably a mixture of both. But whatever my motive, I’m not nearly as interested in the places I already know. Were there a Philadelphia novel about a Bella Vista freelancer, I’d probably have to skip it. I spend enough time with myself.
In a recent issue of Superman, The Man of Steel began a cross-country walk in West Philadelphia. As with The Punisher, his visit made the news—but this time, much of it harped on errors. For one, Superman trekked through “The South Side”—a term used in Chicago, but never Philadelphia. And at a diner, he ordered a “Philly cheese steak sandwich,” as natural-sounding as a Bulgarian weekender. Such details, while seemingly petty, are crucial to hometown readers. We might be too busy, or nervous, or lazy to go out and explore what surrounds us—but if you’re the author, by God, you’d better get it right. Because we’ll take your stories as journalism; they’ll shape our thoughts for years. We may or may not be tourists, but you are surely our guide.
(Image: west philly, from lisacee’s photostream)
I have a short article in the latest issue of Poets & Writers.The piece grew out of a post here on the blog a while back about LibraryThing, the Web-based book cataloging community. For the record, I haven’t yet put all of my books into LibraryThing, though I probably will at some point. I’ve been putting it off because I know that once I get started I won’t be able to stop and, well, I just don’t have the free time at the moment.
Nick Hornby, the British novelist and professional music fan who folks love to hate will have a new novel out in the US in June. Though Songbook is good bathroom reading, Hornby’s books are just too fluffy for me. At Yossarian’s Diary they’ve already had a look at the new book, and the prognosis isn’t good:April brings A Long Way Down, a new novel from Nick Hornby, and sadly I don’t think the showers will wash it away. Yossarian so wants to like Hornby’s fiction, but each book seems to be so much poorer than the last (although his non-fiction is always enjoyable to read)–and How to Be Good was a very poor work from such a high profile author. However, if you liked that book, then you’ll undoubtedly like this tale (known around here as The Pizza Suicides) of four strangers who meet on a roof as they all decide to end it all by jumping off. One of them, a pizza delivery boy, is an American. You can tell this by the way he says “man” a lot. Hmmmm.