In light of the epidemic of violence and political repression in Zimbabwe – and South Africa’s African National Congress’s insistence (until much of the damage had been done) that interference from “outsiders” was not welcome – avid fiction readers may want to revisit a sub-Saharan perspective on political misrule: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Writing here a couple years back, I gave the book a mixed review, finding some fault with the breadth of the satire. But, much as magical realism is said to just be called “realism” in Columbia, broad satire starts to seem awfully pointed the more one learns about the tactics of strongmen like Robert Mugabe. Which is to say, Mugabe’s decision to proceed with the election runoff in Zimbabwe borders on farce. As Ngugi shows, these antics can make for rich fiction. In life, of course, they are merely infuriating.
"Calvin and Hobbes" has begun reappearing - in reruns - in newspaper funny pages around the country as a way to promote what will surely be among the big-ticket book gifts during the upcoming holiday season, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. The 1440 page, 22 and a half pound, three volume, slipcased behemoth is an attempt by the publisher Andrews McNeel to recreate the success of its similarly mammoth offering from two years ago, The Complete Far Side. Judging from the current Amazon ranking of the Calvin and Hobbes book (81), it looks like another high-priced winner for the publisher. Meanwhile, Bill Watterson, the famously reclusive artist behind the strip, is still not speaking publicly, and newspapers around the country are notifying their readers of the beloved strip's brief return with a palpable sense of disappointment. For example in the St. Petersburg Times:We announce their return with, shall we say, bridled joy. For starters, this is not permanent; Universal Press Syndicate is offering the feature only through Dec. 31. And the strips have been published before.Will Watterson ever make a comeback, as, I suspect, so many newspaper comics fans hope, or should we just shell out the dough for this voluminous shrine to the best strip to grace the funny pages, well, in my lifetime, anyway. (With apologies to "Bloom County.")
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Still in the throes of controversy surrounding James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, Oprah has selected Elie Wiesel's memoir Night as the next selection for her book club. While this selection was no doubt in the works long before the Frey controversy, the juxtaposition is still remarkable. Frey's confessional, sensationalized addiction memoir, the credibility of which seems to crumble further with every passing day, looks awfully silly next to the beloved memoir of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor whose character is unassailable as far as I know. In the New York Times, Wiesel says he hasn't read Frey's book (big surprise), but then goes on to make some comments that seem to me to be directed at Frey's fast and loose treatment of the truth (emphasis mine):He acknowledged that some people and institutions, including on occasion The New York Times, have referred to Night as a novel, "mainly because of its literary style.""But it is not a novel at all," he said. "I know the difference," he added, noting that Night is the first of his 47 books, several of which are novels. "I make a distinction between what I lived through and what I imagined others to have lived through."As it is a memoir, he said, "my experiences in the book - A to Z - must be true." He continued: "All the people I describe were with me there. I object angrily if someone mentions it as a novel."Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Amazon is changing the classification of Night from fiction to memoir. As of this writing, Night is number one on Amazon, bumping Pieces to number two.
Sure, today Apple unvailed the "iPod phone" and the superslim iPod Nano, but the real news is that for the first time, via iTunes, the entire Harry Potter series will be available on digital audio (that's $249 for the whole set). This is more interesting to me for what it represents. As iPods and other high-capacity digital audio players have become ubiquitous and as digital audio delivery (via podcasts and/or services like audible.com) has become more user friendly, the stage has been set for a revolution in reading. Though digital audio books will never overtake paper ones, they will only grow in popularity and sometime soon we may see a mini-revolution in the way people consume literature.
A debut novel called Poppy Shakespeare is getting rave reviews in England. The book, by Claire Allan, follows the narrator "N" and the eponymous Poppy at the Dorothy Fish, a mental institution, among 25 residents, one for each letter of the alphabet, "the 'X' chair is vacant." Some quotes from the British press: "Allan's story comes armed with a voyeuristic potency, because she spent 10 years inside the kind of institutions she satirises so well." - from The Independent. "Her voice is so idiosyncratic in its rhythms and terminology... her habit of exaggeration so surreal and her use of metaphor so extravagant, as to subtly transform the reader's perspective of the natural order of things." - from the Telegraph. In the Times (London), a profile of Allan charts her course through mental illness to become a published author. Also, the British cover is way cooler than the American one. An excerpt is available.Set in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Kutar in 1983, Scott Anderson's Midnight Hotel sounds like a broad satire of America's travails in that region. Diplomat David Richards first toes the party line, but ends up abandoned in the country watching as American meddling goes awry. An excerpt is available. Scott Anderson is also a war correspondent like his brother Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer for the New Yorker, author of The Fall of Baghdad, and one of my favorite writers.Guillermo Arriaga wrote the screenplays for Amores Perros (which I loved) and 21 Grams (which I hated). The Night Buffalo is his first novel to be published in the U.S, though he originally wrote it 11 years ago. He's also bringing it to the silver screen (as El Bufalo de la noche). In a profile, the Financial Times compares the novel to Amores Perros, saying that both are steeped in violence, but it sounds to me like 21 Grams, steeped in melodrama. From the jacket: "The Night Buffalo is set in Mexico City, revolving around the mysterious suicide of Gregorio, a charismatic but troubled young man who was betrayed by the two people he trusted most." Still, I'll see any movie he writes, so perhaps his novel is worth a try, too.Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey has a new book out, Theft: A Love Story. The big news about this book is the claim that it is a thinly veiled attack on his ex-wife. The Independent has ex-wife Alison Summers' side of the story: "The phrase 'alimony whore,' repeated within the pages of Theft: A Love Story, has left her feeling 'devastated' by Carey's version of events." Controversy aside, the Sydney Morning Herald sidesteps the drama and says of the book, which is, indeed, about a man who has been divorced and bankrupted by his former wife, "All in all, Carey's new show contains much that is lively, engaging and teasingly self-referential." An excerpt is available.
The plight of the literary magazine and the demise of the short story are often bemoaned here in the US, but compared to the state of things in Britain, America is paradise for short story writers and readers. So says a recent essay in the Guardian, which hopes that a newly announced short story prize - worth 15,000 pounds, the world's richest - will ignite a passion for short fiction in that part of the world. According to Aida Edemariam, who penned the essay, in Britain, size matters: The British attitude to the short story - that it is somehow lesser, a practice space for the real thing, which is, of course, the novel; that you can perhaps start out writing a collection of stories, but you have somehow failed if you don't graduate to a minimum of 200 pages - has always baffled me. I cannot comprehend the underlying assumption that a particular kind of stamina is somehow better, of more value. It's like privileging the marathon, or the 1,500m, over the 100m.After citing several examples of the form, Edemariam goes on to write: "I know these are North American examples, but it is there where, as (Dave) Eggers points out in his introduction to The Best of McSweeney's Volume I, there 'are probably over a hundred high-quality literary journals,' that the short story is truly alive; disdain for the form is a British phenomenon."Who knew we had it so good?
Today, while I was driving, I caught a review of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle on Fresh Air. It was a very favorable review (in fact the book has been getting great reviews in most places). I would love to read the book and comment on it here, but I can't forsee myself getting to it any time soon. And therefore, I won't get to talk about it here. The stack of books is just too high. Yet I happen to have an advance copy of Triangle, and I hate to see it gather dust. So here is my idea: whoever among you would like to read this book and put together a little review or comment or whatever on it for this site, email me and I will send you the book. Then I was thinking, I am lucky enough to have access to advance copies of books from time to time, and wouldn't it be great if I could pass them along to people so they can write a little something which I can then post on The Millions. It sounds like good fun to me. So... if you would like to review Triangle for The Millions email me and I will send you the book. (By the way Triangle is about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, an unconscionable tragedy that proved to be a watershed event in improving working conditions [and especially working conditions for women] in America.) As I get other new books, I will offer them up for review as well. Also, if you happen to have access to review copies of books, and would like to help stock my guest review program, well, that would be really sweet.
This week at the LBC blog, we'll be discussing my nominee for this round of books, All This Heavenly Glory by Elizabeth Crane. Ed has done a very entertaining podcast with Crane, and I can be heard at the beginning introducing the book (Ed decided to portray me as some sort of bionic man. I'm not sure I get the reference, but I like it!). Also up is a dialog about the book, featuring me and Kassia (of Booksquare). Tomorrow the dialog will continue with help from Sam (of Golden Rule Jones).