Back to finish things up:Bangkok 8 by John Burdett: As I was reading this murder mystery set in Thailand, I was also following the travels of my friend Cem, who happened to be in the same part of the world at the time. Cem’s back now and I keep meaning to ask him about the element of the book that I found most fascinating: a Thai brand of Buddhism that allows the main character of this book to be both resourceful and calm despite his madcap surroundings. I’ve never managed to fully engage myself in learning about Eastern religions, I think because there is a certain lifestyle associated with them in the West, but the fully modern and worldly Thai police officer who is at the center of this murder mystery cuts an interesting path through life. I left the book satisfied, though not enthralled, and wanting to know more about Thai Buddhism.Train by Pete Dexter: This book was thrown in, unasked for, with a couple of books that a contact at a publishing company gave to me. I’m really glad she did that because I’m always looking for writers whose catalog I want to read all the way through. I’ve already done this with a few and am on the cusp with a couple of others, so adding a new writer to this category is exciting. Dexter’s book really blew me away. Train is both spare and violent and there is a lot going on beneath the surface, like Hemingway but darker and with more at stake somehow. I saw Dexter read, and knowing his personality, part guffawing storyteller, part literary outlaw, lends even more depth to my experience with the book. (note: I’ll be reading Dexter’s National Book Award winner Paris Trout, next.)Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers: This book was highly recommended by a coworker as well as by Edwin Frank of the NYRB Press, and so, when I came across a hardcover copy of it on a bookfinding expedition, I snatched it up. I read it in the early fall, a perfect time of year for me to read this sort of book, as it reminded me of my early years as a student at a Catholic elementary school in the suburbs. The book follows the life of a Catholic priest named Joe Hackett who struggles with faith and politics and more than anything else the shattering mundanity of his suburban life. Tree-lined streets, shopping malls, station wagons, vinyl siding, and wall to wall carpeting are Hackett’s foils in a book that manages to be charming, melancholy, and very funny at the same time. Reading the book turned out to be a great way to spend a few September weeks. If anyone out there happened to enjoy The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford, then you will enjoy this book as well.The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell: I read this book little by little on lunch breaks over the course of couple of months. The Tipping Point is one of those books that is so popular that it has generated its own vocabulary, and it is now not uncommon to hear people talk about tipping points when discussing trends and fads. Most books like this have a sort of hucksterish salesman’s pitch quality to them, but this one is different. Gladwell approaches the topic of how things become popular and universal scientifically, and in the process you learn a lot more about the world you live in.Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman: Ah, Klosterman… Like him or not, I’m afraid Chuck Klosterman is here to stay. Here’s what I had to say about this book after I read it: “The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip.”Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: After several readers of The Millions came together to help me select which book by the great Russians should be my first, I settled on and then into Crime and Punishment, and it carried me through the fall. I was deep into this one for many weeks, fully immersed really, and when I finally came up for air again, it felt as though I had been gone a long time. It had been a long time since I had read such a challenging and rewarding book. Here were my initial thoughts.Jamesland by Michelle Huneven: And then came Jamesland, another great book to add to a year of great reading. If you’ve been reading The Millions regularly you probably remember my comments well enough, so I’ll just link to them for anyone who wants a refresher.The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski: And so, with the clock striking midnight, I finished another book and the year was done. Well, not quite, but it was a great year in reading. Kapuscinski provided bookends more or less to the healthy doses of everything else that I read in between. Shadow of the Sun, I should say, was yet another amazing effort by Kapuscinski. The book covers his time in Africa over the last 40 years, and he is as illuminating as ever on the subject. As I read, it seemed to me that he had perhaps slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every village on the continent. This book is ideal for anyone who has that urge to wander around the most exotic locales. My favorite part: Kapuscinski arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane. Though he knows no one there, Kapuscinski is soon taken under the wings of some Lebanese business men who live there and who explain to him that the “transaction” at the airport is simply a part of how business is done in the war torn country. Kapuscinski eventually leaves the country, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.So, that was my a year in reading, and a good year it was. My goals for 2004? Well, I don’t want to put a number on it, but 50 books would be nice.
This month the book club that I help run read and discussed Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. We had our usual raucous and meandering discussion for the first hour, but for the second hour we had a real treat: a visit from Huneven herself. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of authors, and I’ve also become well-versed in the sort of dynamic that occurs at a typical book reading and signing between author and reader. This was different and refreshing. She sat down with the 12 or 15 of us who were there and let us poke and prod her book and very much participated in the action. It almost reminded me of the various creative writing workshops that I took in college, except our writer was not a beshawled or behatted fellow student recounting the fictionalized tale of their high school relationships, this is a writer who is published by a highly reputable publishing house, the author of a book recently dubbed notable by the New York Times. Nonetheless, she graciously allowed us our comments and criticisms and had quite a bit to share about the book and herself. First: for those who read the book and wondered why, after Alice’s first dream-like experience with the deer in her house, when she was trying to figure out if it had been real or not, she didn’t look in her washing machine to see if the towels she used to clean up after it were there in the morning, that scene was in the original manuscript. She and her editor went back and forth trying to decide if she should leave it in or not, and then, months later, when the book came out, she had forgotten that they had removed the scene and was surprised to see it gone. Other tidbits: Huneven found that writing the character Pete came most easily, and the rest were a struggle. Jonathan Gold, author of the best LA restaurant guide there is, Counter Intelligence, was a big fan of the Helen character. Huneven is on page nine of her next book, which will include a character who is a scrapbooker. As a writer, it was heartening to meet a fellow writer who, though she is published and successful, still sees her work as a challenge and even a struggle, a fact that some writers might not admit in that situation. And, by the way, the book is a great read, and I encourage anyone out there who is looking for a good novel to pick it up.An Intriguing List or TwoMy good and old friend Hot Face has taken a cue from the New York Times and… People Magazine to compile his list of most intriguing books of the year. Since he asks for additions, I put forward Bangkok 8 by John Burdett and Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson, but he’s pretty much got everything else I could think of there already. Meanwhile, my buddy Andy emailed me a link to this, a new take on the year end book list.
Cem’s travels have continued. As one of the few Westerners to visit Burma (recently, anyway), he has decided to take advantage of the opportunity by bringing along some literature that might be of use to the Burmese. Good luck and be careful Cem!I am heading into Mandalay via Air Mandalay the day after tomorrow. Mandalay is the second most significant city in Burma, a country which has been under the boot, physically and psychologically, of one of the most oppressive governments in the world for some 30 years. save N.Korea and maybe now Tajikistan, there are few places more old-school totalitarian – even Syria is more free than this place.Books, fiction and nonfiction, have always played an important role in denting the armor (and often more) of authoritarian rulers, just ask Vaclav Havel and George Soros. So – I would like to do my part in bringing in some interesting material, in denting the armor, even if the tiniest chink. I don’t intend on smuggling in tomes of guerilla tactics, or explicitly subversive rants published by expatriot opposition groups – I just want to bring in some books to give to these information starved people (well, the English speaking upper-mid class, probably students and hopefully not ‘guest’ intelligence, that read English), something that will either give them some inspiration, distract them, help them deal with/understand the living in an authoritarian/totalitarian society in an explicit way.Now, 1984 is an obvious choice, and I already have 3 used copies in my bag. Anyone could have come up with that. I need some titles that will impress the fleshy white activist chick crowd in Chiang Mai! Anyone else have any ideas? Even if I am unable to get them in time -which is almost certain – I’d love to hear what people have to say.I agree that 1984 is the perfect book for this situation. With simple, yet riveting prose, Orwell creates a generic totalitarian society, which, stripped of its ceremonial trappings becomes instantly recognizable as a society of horrors. One can imagine a Soviet dissident reading his samizdat copy by candlelight in an attic or basement and being struck by wave after wave of sickening, empowering recognition. It is no question that Orwell is most needed in places where books are banned and burned, so it seems fitting to bring along a book that addresses that very topic, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Other suggestions that come to mind are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. And finally there is The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the towering giant of dissident literature. These books, once cutting edge, but now required reading in our schools, will surely fail to impress the “fleshy white activist chick crowd.” Anyone have anything sufficiently subversive to recommend? Send me an email or press the comments link below.Mystery and the Buddha I finished reading Bangkok 8 by John Burdett yesterday. The mystery genre is highly underrepresented on the list of books I’ve read. I’m not sure if this is from lack of interest or lack of time (all these guys wrote so many books, and I’m worried that once I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.) Anyone who has read this blog consistently knows that I’m a sucker for books set in exotic locales, and the fact that this book is set in Thailand and was well reviewed, led me to pick it up. First the bad: I found the book to be less than gracefully written. At times the language is painfully stilted. I know that I am not used to the “hard-boiled” style that many detective stories employ, but too often the prose caused me to lurch to a standstill while my brain rotated the offensive sentence around in my head, unwilling to go on. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Burdett used Thai Buddhism to add fascinating depth and nuance to the story. I have often been wary of Buddhism in general, mostly because my only experience with it is as a trendy religion, the accessory of Beastie Boys fans and cause-hungry hippies for whom the Free Tibet bumper sticker perfectly conceals the country club parking permit on the bumper of the Volvo (cf: “fleshy white activist chick crowd” in previous paragraph). Burdett’s Thai Buddhism, however, is both unassuming and universal. He presents it as inseparable from Thai culture, and naturally the Buddhist way of thinking, so different from our cold Western logic, becomes integral to solving the mystery (we are investigating the gruesome death by multiple snakes of an American marine, by the way.) It’s not so tidy as most detective stories, but then that too, follows the Buddhist way of thinking and is the strongpoint of the book.Two More Books That Bear Mentioning and an Important Programming NoteI’m starting to hear good things about the new Garrison Keillor novel Love Me. Brian pointed out the laudatory review in the Washington Post. Also, how could I have not mentioned this yet. Though I have never cracked the spine of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, I should mention that fans of his will be pleased to hear that he has a new book coming out very soon: Diary: A Novel. I haven’t seen any reviews yet, but I have heard that this one might be his most twisted yet.Tomorrow I’m getting on a plane and flying to the East Coast for 10 days. I have a lot planned and so I will probably not be able to post extensively. However, if any of you feel like picking up the slack and have some book-related news that just can’t wait email me or use the form at the right, and I will post it up. Thanks!
Garth and Elise had some aditional thoughts on yesterday’s question: Elise, daughter of a children’s librarian and a great afficianado of too-smart-for-kids-too-fun-for-adults fantasy, likes the Garth Nix books (Lirael, Sabriel, and something else I can’t remember). I used to love Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer. Also, the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett collabo Good Omens is pretty awesome. And did anyone actually read Summerland [by Michael Chabon]? Maybe it’s good, too.Great ideas. I can’t speak to many of these picks, although they sound intriguing. I didn’t read Summerland and I didn’t have any customers rush back into the store a week after buying it saying that it changed their kid’s life, as I occasionally do with, say, the Philip Pullman books. On the other hand, Chabon is a talented writer, so it makes sense that the book is at the very least quite readable. Moving on. Garth also posed an interesting question in which we enjoy the pleasures of trying to predict the future: Here’s my book question. Who are the under-50 writers you and your readers think are capable of producing something that will be read widely and passionately 100 years from now? Here’s my extemporaneous list: Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle, Nick Baker, Paul Beatty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Conor McPherson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Patrick Chamoiseau and myself. Any thoughts?This is an interesting question having to do with capabilities. I think it’s fair to say that with the possible exception of Franzen’s The Corrections, none of these writers has as of yet written something that will be read in a 100 years. I am familiar with most but not all of the writers mentioned above, having said that, here are the writers that I think have the best chance to become immortal from the above list: Franzen, Wallace, Whitehead, and Lahiri. On the other hand I’m not sure that Zadie Smith or Suzan-Lori Parks should be included at all, though that may have to do more with my personal taste than the quality of their writing. This is of course an impossible question to answer, but you have to wonder what the prevailing opinion might have been to the same question posed 50 to 100 years ago. Do Hemingway and Faulkner get mentioned? Or is everyone convinced that Sinclair Lewis wll have enduring undying popularity. At any rate, it’s clear that the most fervent current acclaim is no guarantee of canonization. (For what it’s worth, the most voraciously read books that are at least 50 years old are as follows: The Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, 1984 and Animal Farm. These will be joined by To Kill a Mockingbird in a few years when it turns 50.) I would add a few names to Garth’s list George Saunders, Gary Schteyngart, Maile Meloy, and my favorite to take the title, Jonathan Safran Foer. Finally, I would like to point out three authors who may have already written something that will be read by future generations. All three have only recently turned fifty, so I don’t mind bending the rules to include them in this discussion. They are: Denis Johnson (age 54), Ian McEwan (age 55), Haruki Murakami (age 54), and maybe I’ll throw in Paul Auster (age 55) for good measure…….. Anyone else got some ideas???Loving the Little GuysI went to a “publishing party” at Book Soup in West Hollywood the other day to celebrate the emergence of two local publishers. First Cut Books is the coolest online book store ever. Each month or so they feature a new set of great books that their dedicated staff of reviewers selects and recommends. First Cut is also a publisher and their first publication is Filthy, a quarterly about baseball pitching, to which I am a contributor. Also there was Tam Tam Books, devoted publisher of all things Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian, and Guy Debord. Small publishers and the devoted people who run them may be the most exciting thing about the publishing industry.A Brief ExcerptFrom the book I’m reading right now: “I watch him go not without a tinge of envy. In nearly two decades of meditation the Buddha has not told me a single joke. Surely one would laugh for eternity?”
Another comprehensive collection by a short story master is hitting shelves this week. Bradbury Stories is a collection of 100 stories by, who else, Ray Bradbury. Aside from being delightful reading, this collection displays his mastery of the form, providing whatever “proof” might be necessary that Bradbury diserves to be considered one of our best writers. Here’s a good interview with Bradbury from The Onion.A Letter to ThailandHere’s a letter to my friend Cem. He’s world travelling and I thought I might recommend him some books.Cem…Checking in. Southern Turkish still in Northern Thailand I presume. From my little hammock of paradise, it’s hard to imagine your jungle roamings. I don’t know if you have the time to read or the ability to acquire these books, but I’ve got two more for you: War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges. He talks about the effect of national conflict on individuals, and, more specifically, he explores his own addiction to war, which has led him around the world. Also, I’m reading a surreal mystery novel called Bangkok 8 by John Burdett. As the title suggests, it’s set in the country where you hang your hat.It’s all picnics and baseball here in the states. I hope you’re enjoying an appropriate Thai substitute.Dreaming of Ships,Max[Note: These books are great for the general populace, too. Not just world travelers]
It’s officially been summer for coming up on two weeks, which means that, in accordance with typical publishing and bookselling practices, near the front of the bookstore there will be stacks of books by new and unknown authors all vying to become this summer’s “breakout hit.” Last year the winner of the “breakout hit” lottery was won by Alice Sebold whose book, The Lovely Bones, was much purchased and enjoyed by the majority and vehemently despised by the minority of readers who are not willing to shut off the part of the brain that determines what is tasteful and what is not. What’s funny about this way of selling books is that every bookstore that you walk into will try to make its customers think that their staff personally discovered these new authors and that the customers are among the lucky first few to enjoy these newcomers. In reality, the candidates for “breakout hit” are chosen months in advance by the publishing companies and aggressively marketed much in the same way that one would market a film. In a sense The Lovely Bones is not very different from The Hulk. In my opinion this year’s winner has already been declared: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is already the book that recreational readers ask for by name when looking for a summer reading distraction. This non-threateningly clever, historical thriller acheived success in a couple of ways. First, like all of the other “breakout hit” candidates it is engagingly written and also contains a “hook,” in this case the idea is that embedded within da Vinci’s famous artwork are hidden clues that can solve a present day murder mystery while at the same time unravelling some of humanity’s great unsolved conundrums. Very Indiana Jones. Secondly, in the weeks leading up to the release of The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday reps blitzed bookstores to talk up the book, hand out advance copies, and put up teaser posters. Finally Doubleday’s publicists were able to get the book mentioned in all the weekly newsmags and grocery store aisle gossip rags. Voila! Breakout hit… There are lots of books sitting on either side of The Da Vinci Code on the “breakout hit” display, all are almost as heavily marketed but some might be a bit more rewarding: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is narrated by a 15 year old autistic math savant who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes and tries to find out who murdered his neighbor’s dog. Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy is an example of what a multi-generational saga can look like when written by a young writer. Bangkok 8 is a debut by John Burdett. This one is perfect for those who like thrillers in exotic locals. (In this case, a U.S. Marine is dead in Thailand. Great cover art, too). Finally, Benjamin Cavell’s Rumble, Young Man, Rumble and Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians are two much lauded short story collections. Bye now…