Over at More Intelligent Life, you’ll find my reflections on the Joseph Mitchell centenary. Mitchell is, for my money, the greatest reporter-stylist of his era; the essay points to a few reasons why. In related news, The New York Times today reports on a blog version of the diaries of that other great reporter-stylist, George Orwell.
I'm in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It's an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: "The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes." Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like "profiting from the hiatus." The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene's, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the "civilized" is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can't comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I'm only a little ways into the book, it doesn't seem like this is a bad thing.
When Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude came out, there was much discussion of how the novel paralelled Lethem's own upbringing in pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Now we're getting the real Lethem story for those who want to compare and contrast. It arrives in the form of a book of essays, The Disappointment Artist, which comes out in two weeks. An excerpt, which depicts a young Lethem immersed in obsessions with books, movies and music while trying to come to turns with his mother's death appeared in last week's New Yorker (but it's not available online). I'm beginning to wonder if this exercise in autobiography (with the New Yorker as the stage) has become a rite of initiation for American novelists who have made the big time. Most prominent among them is Jonathan Franzen, who has had a number of meandering autobiographical essays in the magazine over the last few years. I wonder what drives the phenomenon. Do people really want to know about their lives or are these novelists just good at telling a story?
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So, What's new this week? Studs Turkel might be the originator of the "oral history" genre that seems to be reaching market saturation of late. After a while, it just seems like a lazy way to write a history book, even if it is the undeniably rockin' history of punk. Turkel strays from these glorified interviewers in a couple of ways. First, he is adept at picking broad but compelling subjects and at finding the common and divergent threads that run through these subjects. His huge seller from 1972, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, is an incredibly readable chronicle of the most common of American experiences. Second, as I have already implied, Turkel is able to paint history in the words of everyday people, not famous folks who practically make a living giving interviews, sketch comedy actors, for example. His new book, Hope Dies Last is the study of his most esoteric subject yet, America's collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it. Once again, he solicits the views of people from different generations and walks of life. Speaking of different walks of life, lots of folks out there seem to be excited by the general who is ready trade in his stars for a chance to become the President. Those curious to know more about Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark can see him showing off his military chops in his new book Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire.Those in a fictional frame of mind should look out for David Guterson's long-awaited followup to Snow Falling on Cedars, a book called Our Lady of the Forest. To paraphrase what Guterson was saying this afternoon on a local public radio show, Our Lady of the Forest is about the occurrence of a mystical, Catholic phenomenon in a destitute Pacific Northwest logging town and the effect it has on four characters. 16-year-old runaway, Anne Holmes, believes that she is having visions of the Virgin Mary. This produces in the young town priest, Father Don Collins, a crisis of conscience. For sometime drifter and mushroom-picker, Carolyn Greer, the apparitions mean money and opportunity, and for guilt-ridden former logger Tom Cross, they signal a chance for redemption. It was especially interesting to hear Guterson talk about how he tried to infuse the book with both the beauty of the rainforests of the Northwest and the squalor of the once-prospering logging towns nearby. Also new in fiction: Shipwreck, another spare and haunting novel by Louis Begley, the author of About Schmidt. Also just out is Train, a must-read LA noir novel by Pete Dexter. I read it and loved it. Here is my review. In paperback people are buying Koba the Dread, Martin Amis' powerful indictment of Stalin and his Western sympathizers, The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene's almost-creepy investigation of the ways in which people manipulate one another, and Songbook, Nick Hornby's paean to his own considered and considerable music collection.AwardwinningThis year's Booker Prize has been awarded to Australian author D.B.C. Pierre for his debut novel, Vernon God Little.
One of my roommates moved out last summer, but he hasn't changed his address so we still get a lot of his mail. Every month or so he comes by to pick up another mound of ephemera. It seems mostly to be junk mail and cell phone bills, but the occasional magazine can be found jutting from the pile. Today, in fact, I couldn't help but notice the corner of the most recent issue of Esquire peeking out from under envelopes and circulars, and on that corner of glossy magazine cover I could see the words "The Best Books of 2003," so, naturally, I took a gander. It's not much of a list. They asked eight of their writers to name their favorite book of the year, so there are eight random books on the page, each with a blurb. Still, it gives us something to talk about. Here they are (with my comments, of course): Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown: I had forgotten about this book, but I remember when it came out it sounded very interesting. In the book, Brown, a literature professor at UC Berkeley, tries to discover the truth behind the legend of Stagger Lee, a quasi-mythical figure who is the inspiration for hundreds of versions of the seminal blues song of the same name. It sounds like a really interesting book, full of folklore and roots music. The book's official website offers up a couple dozen versions of the song (along with a neat map showing when and where they originated) for your listening pleasure.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I feel like I spent most of the summer talking about this book. If you've been lurking around here for that long you'll remember. Several folks have called it "the book of the year," and it's hard to argue otherwise. The book is extremely compelling on many levels, even for a non-baseball fan, as it delves into psychology and economics and business. For a baseball fan the book approaches divine.What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller: I think I've mentioned this one, too. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In it, a prudish, old schoolteacher recounts the indiscretions of a younger colleague's dalliances with a 15-year-old student. What starts as a clearcut case, slowly turns itself inside out.Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Hmmm... didn't this book come out last year? Anyway, this one won the Booker in 2002 and has been a slow burn sensation. It was released to modest acclaim, began to sell well on word of mouth, won the Booker, and never looked back. The paperback edition still appears on many major bestseller lists. I, for one, am still dying to read it, but haven't gotten to it yet. Everyone I know who has read it (including my grandmother who is one of the "best" readers I know) adores this book about a boy and a tiger.BBQ USA: 425 Fiery Recipes from All Across America by Steve Raichlen: Mmmmm, BBQ. Actually, BBQ is a major American cultural artifact, with countless versions (at least 425) betraying the rich regional diversity of American cooking, which reminds me, some friends of mine have been working for over a year now on a BBQ documentary called Barbecue is a Noun. Sounds pretty tasty.Platform by Michel Houellebecq: Somehow it seems inevitable that Esquire would name this among the best books of the year. I know that there are some serious Houellebecq fanatics out there, but I'm afraid I don't get it.Rumble, Young Man, Rumble by Benjamin Clavell: Released last spring to stellar reviews, this book surely ranks among the top two or three short story collections released this year.Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers by Katy Lederer: I hadn't really heard of this one, but it's one of those "f'd-up-childhood" memoirs, but this time it's not about being the child of shrinks or mobsters, but gamblers instead. This sort of book has really become a genre of its own and is therefore getting somewhat tiresome; on the other hand, the jacket of this particular book features a blurb from none other than the late, great George Plimpton so it must be good.Actually, that list turned out to be pretty fun.
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Art Spiegelman has a new book out about 9/11, and it appears to be generating some controversy. USA Today and most other papers are praising the new book, which is short on pages but big on production value. Others, like the customer reviews at Amazon, are very disappointed. Meanwhile, controversial cartoonist Ted Rall has written a scathing indictment of Spiegelman in the Village Voice.