In his contribution to our Year in Reading series last year, Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland, began, “Prompted by a writing assignment, I’ve been re-reading the novels and stories of Saul Bellow for the first time in years – and I’m completely smitten all over again, only more deeply.” I was curious to know what that assignment was, but my digging at the time turned nothing up. Now, however, I have an answer. The new edition, coming in November, of Bellow’s 1997 novella The Actual will include an introduction by O’Neill.
The other day I threw myself across the bed and began lamenting my writing career (or lack thereof). This is one of my hobbies--if not my favorite one, then at least the one at which I most excel. My husband (and fellow Millions contributor), Patrick, said, "Oh be quiet. You just want a two-book deal and Marion Ettlinger to take your author photo." The nerve! I might have thrown a pillow at his face, and went on with my self-loathing. You see, Patrick and I love to make fun of Ms. Ettlinger. She is probably the most famous photographer of authors, (she even has a book of them), and her images of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Joyce Carol Oates are burned in the cultural retina. Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we'd only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned. Perhaps it's that last quality--old fashioned--that rubs me the wrong way. Looking at these photos, I get the sense that the writers (even the young ones) are long gone, lost to an era when people gazed longingly out of train windows, mailed handwritten letters, or actually read books. I can't imagine any of these writers alive, moving their mouths, checking their email, eating dinner. Maybe that's the point: we want our authors to be Authors, unreachable and removed from the world of the reader. But as we head towards 2010, that's more and more implausible. Newsflash: writers live in the world. There are a few of Ettlinger's photos I like. The full-body shots are better than the close-ups. Take the one, for instance, of David Foster Wallace; his plaid jacket, his downward gaze, and the sky above, create a lovely, even haunting, composition. Or the one, of James Ellroy: he's gone whole hog with the photo's anachronistic qualities, and it's fun. Other full body shots, however, are a disaster. Hey, Melissa Bank, did you learn that pose in yoga? If I were to title this picture, I'd call it, "The Failed Seduction." We've all been there, Ladies, haven't we? Some of the close-ups, particularly of the women, are just weird. I hate when authors cup their own head with their hands. What, will it fall off? Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful. Most of the time, though, they look like they're starring in a pain killer ad. Ann Patchett and Amy Hempel's pictures are the worst examples of this, although, to be fair, this is an epidemic in many author photos, not just ones by Ettlinger. Browsing through these pictures got me thinking about other author photos. Many bad examples abound. There's the "I love my dog!" variety, a la Dean Koontz and J.A. Jance--somehow Ellroy doesn't fall into this category, perhaps because the dog in his photo looks hired, just another old-timey prop. There's also the Trench Coat Club, which is usually reserved for mystery writers, but we see it here, with Adam Haslett. And there's the "I'm just a harmless debut author" Club, wherein the writer strikes a more casual pose, and smiles like a well-intentioned, but potentially useless, babysitter. Aimee Phan is a good example of this, but she is just one of many. Lastly, there's the "My spouse took this picture the night before it was due" Club. I won't even bother with an example--just imagine your least-flattering Facebook picture, and you'll understand. Let me be clear: I am not damning these writers, or their work--far from it. It's simply the photos I protest. But getting one's picture taken for a book jacket must be a daunting task. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the reading public? You want to look serious, but not too serious! You want to look attractive, but not too attractive! You want to look young, but not...you catch my drift. It can't be easy. I remember an author-friend telling me he wanted to forgo the photo altogether. I said he couldn't, or else people would assume he was ghastly. And that's true. Only Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger can pull off real anonymity. I suppose that if Marion Ettlinger ever calls me, I'll do my hair, slap on some eyeshadow, and ready for my close-up. Perhaps Patrick is correct: it is my most embarrassing fantasy.
I did terribly at my GREs the first time around (thanks Harry Potter!) and decided to dwell into some more magic to remedy the self-imposed depression that my results caused me. I turned to Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, which I had been meaning to read since it was published in September 2004 - and, of course, mentioned on Max's August 29, 2004, entry. Ayse, a good friend of mine who lives in Istanbul, was hooked on Messrs. Norell and Strange's interesting stories last time I visited home and urged me, as a fellow Harry Potter fan, to pick it up immediately. I heeded her advice shortly. For all the speculation out there, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell has nothing to do with the Potter series, except for the main characters being magicians. The novel is set in the early 1800s against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars that are raging on the Continent. Magic has, at that point, been long dead and more of a scholarly interest for gentlemen, who have nothing to do with their endless days on the English countryside. This goes on until Mr. Norell calls upon them and proposes a bet. The agreement is that Mr. Norell will perform a bit of magic for the self proclaimed magicians in the Northern English town of Yorkshire, and if he succeeds they will disband their community and give up all studies of magic. Mr. Norell wins the bet and, as we see throughout the book, gets a step closer to accomplishing his goal of ridding England of all magicians but himself. Since his fellow magicians are mostly scholars and historians Mr. Norell succeeds fairly easily. The London Society, which hears of this eccentric magician's feats, promptly invites him over for some entertainment. A series of events unfold, leaving the Society in awe and raise the curiosity of the struggling government, which is running out of ideas and resources to stop Napoleon. Soon, Mr. Norell is performing magical feats that win the British Navy some time, trick the French Navy and result in the British victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, making Mr. Norell an irreplaceable commodity to the government. In the meanwhile, another Northern gentleman, Jonathan Strange, arrives in London and is accepted by Mr. Norell as a pupil. Norell and Strange have an interesting relationship that is half mentor-apprentice and half rivalry. In the end Strange becomes just as capable and also enlists his services to assist in the British war efforts against Napoleon in Spain and in the Battle of Waterloo. A falling out between Norell and Strange, as well as some other historical turns suddenly diverts the story line and merges it with the longstanding prophecy of the Raven King, a magician king that once ruled Northern England. Clarke's first novel is very gripping and greatly organized. There are a lot of footnotes that make the stories more colorful and provide entertaining details and "historical" magic facts. Clarke's observations and portrayal of English society in the 19th century is very much like Oscar Wilde: witty, snobbish, entertaining and gravely self-conscious. The magic part of the book seems a lot more traditional and scholarly, involving legends, kings, fairies and interactions of the ordinary and magical worlds. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell was definitely one of my favorite reads this year and I would recommend it everyone who likes Oscar Wilde, fantasy, magic and (well yes) Harry Potter.Next I turned to Ahmet Umid's Beyoglu Rapsodisi for a dose of Turkish reading, per my friend Mehmet's recommendation. Mehmet suggested that the plot was only decent but that I would get a kick out of reading the story because it was set in Beyoglu, a lively neighborhood in Istanbul. Reading Beyoglu Rapsodisi, in that sense, was similar to reading Arthur Nersesian's Chinese Takeout, which vividly outlines the East Village, West Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan, arouses feelings of familiarity and belonging, hence drawing you into the story (that is if you live in NYC or know it well) as a better, more careful and personally acquainted observer. As I followed the three friends that are at the center of Beyoglu Rapsodisi (a poor book dealer, a successful textiles/fashion storeowner and a wealthy eccentric) I found myself walking through streets that I love and cherish, going into bars and cafes that I have not been since my last visit, and tasting the drinks and foods they eat on my palate. The friendship of Selim, Kenan and Nihat is also a familiar one that starts in boarding school, grows through college, and always revolves around Beyoglu. Umid constructed a good mystery novel that is as much a portrayal of Beyoglu and individuals within as it is a thrilling read. It is, unfortunately, only available in Turkish. I would recommend it for light beach reading or at home lying on the couch (that's what I did as I cannot afford to go to beaches these days).Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
In August, Emre mentioned In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot by Graham Roumieu, a very funny book - written in Bigfoot's own voice and filled with illustrations that somehow straddle grotesque and amusing. Now Roumieu has brought Bigfoot back for another book, Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir, so Bigfoot fans can get their long-awaited Bigfoot books. These are certainly my most favorite Sasquatch-themed books. For more, visit Roumieu's Web site.
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