In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
Garth writes in with this question about Michiko Kakutani, the menacing daily book critic for the New York Times:Honestly, what is wrong with Michiko Kakutani? I’m referring here to her unflattering review of David Foster Wallace’s new book, but, just in general, what is her deal?Kakutani seems to be one of those people who is feared and misunderstood more than disliked, though many profess disliking her. She is unknowable, reportedly something of a recluse, and yet twice a week she exercises swift justice in one of the world’s most public forums. Her reviews can often seem mean-spirited, and authors and readers sometimes wonder if she holds some sort of mysterious grudge against much of the literary world. To get a taste of her importance in the literary world, this NPR story is worth a listen. In it, her penchant for going for the jugular is discussed, and the theory is proffered that Michiko Kakutani’s “problem” is one shared by many reviewers. The book reviewer’s plight has been touched upon by many writers: book after book shows up at the doorstep, deadline begets deadline and the reviewer begins to hate the idea of books rather than the books themselves. After reviewing hundreds of mediocre books they forget what it feels like to be surprised and refreshed by the written word, they dread that the joy of reading has been forever destroyed. So, perhaps Kakutani’s mean reviews are just a form of occupational rage. On the other hand, Jonathan Yardley, the much warmer reviewer for the Washington Post, has been in the reviewing business for decades and his love for his work is clearly evident. To top it off, he was reported to have been “so unimpressed with Kakutani that when he heard she won a Pulitzer, he wanted to send his back.” Still, given her consistent meanness, it is undeniably exhilarating when she bestows praise upon a new book, and I am always interested in reading this new book that managed to warm Kakutani’s cold, unfeeling heart.If you don’t like my explanation, an old piece by Colin McEnroe on the McSweeney’s website offers a different theory.
The Washington Post raves about David Sedaris’ latest book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Here’s an excerpt. At the local chain store I noticed, prominently displayed, David Foster Wallace’s new collection of short stories, Oblivion. Here’s an excerpt from that one. Also in the news, Oprah makes her summer selection, and in keeping with her recent predilection for dead authors, she chooses Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts.
Looking for some new fiction? Here are the new books that people are talking about:The Maze by Panos Karnezis; a profile from The IndependentThe Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen; a review from the Barcelona ReviewThe Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer; the San Francisco Chronicle reviews this tale of a backward aging protagonist.Bandbox by Thomas Mallon; the Fort Worth Star Telegram likens this one to Wodehouse.Waterborne by Bruce Murkoff; the San Francisco Chronicle also reviews this one.The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson; it’s a Today Show book club pick and USA Today likes it. Could be the first breakout hit of 2004.The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe; the Christian Science Monitor wonders if this outstanding Canadian novel will be ignored by Americans.Coming Soon…May will see the release of Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s follow up to big seller Bel Canto as well as a new collection by E. L. Doctorow, Sweet Land Stories. In June look for new Thomas Keneally, The Tyrant’s Novel and a new collection of short stories by David Foster Wallace called Oblivion.