Shah of Shahs

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Pants on Fire: The Genre That Cannot Be Named

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In her April review of Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm discussed Mitchell’s beloved, beautiful stories — “cryptic and ambiguous and incantatory and disconnected and extravagant and oracular and apocalyptic” — and his inclination toward invention — toward “radical departures from factuality.” “Mitchell’s genre,” she wrote, “is some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named.”

Almost three-quarters of a century after The New Yorker published Mitchell’s first story, Mitchell’s genre, some kind of hybrid, still has yet to be named. Or, rather, perhaps, Mitchell’esque genres have yet to be given a name that fits. Literary Journalism? New Journalism? Literary Nonfiction, Narrative Nonfiction, Immersion, Creative Nonfiction, Faction? Fiction?

Some time ago, I received the suggestion that I conflate two characters in a manuscript I hoped would someday be a book that, in the tradition of, say, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, combined field reporting, memoir, essay, and history. Some kind of hybrid.

Conflating my characters — two children, in this case — would create a single and more compelling protagonist, I was told. Reflexively, I etched in quotes. “My” characters? But I also felt a different urge: It was true. Inventing one composite kid from two could make the story stronger. Certainly it would make writing the story easier for me, and I wanted that too. But how did what I want matter? I come in part from cheating stock — thieves, adulterers, at least two murderers, as far as I know. I was curious: Could I be a cheater, or, more precisely, a compositor, too?

According to Dan Ariely, absolutely. We all are cheats and liars, his research suggests, and, for writers of some kind of hybrid, this matters, perhaps a great deal. Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, Ariely has spent more than a decade studying why humans don’t tell the truth. Last month, with collaborator Yael Melamede, he released a documentary film, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies. In 2012, he published a book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, including a back-cover blurb by A. J. Jacobs, author of the immersion memoir The Year of Living Biblically: “…those who claim not to tell lies are liars.”

Humans, evolved to find advantage at the lowest possible cost, possess “a deeply ingrained propensity to lie to ourselves and to others,” Ariely reports. We are dishonest to serve the self — the ego, Latin and Greek for “I,” distinct from the world and others. We are dishonest to serve our fears — of inadequacy, of rejection, of difference, obscurity, going broke, oblivion, death. We are dishonest to serve our desires — for meaning, love, power, fame, a single compelling protagonist. In Joseph Mitchell’s case, perhaps, for art.

Sometimes, he says, we’re dishonest so we can think of ourselves as good and honest people. As Marcel Proust once also observed, “It is not only by dint of lying to others, but also of lying to ourselves, that we cease to notice that we are lying.” To further complicate matters, says Ariely, “The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.” This, it seems to me, is both the good news and the bad.

Orwell for one believed that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” He himself was sometimes a cheat, and also a coward, at least as far as we know. I’ve read Homage to Catalonia several times over now, and an essay he wrote about writing books. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle,” he observed, “like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

The Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński, complicated, enigmatic, alternately choleric and charming, comes to mind. “One Kapuściński is worth more than a thousand whimpering and fantasizing scribblers,” said Salman Rushdie of his friend. Said John Updike, Kapuściński wrote “with a magical elegance that…achieves poetry and aphorism.” Yet, in Imperium, a personal account of communist Russia — the camps, the purges — Kapuściński reports nothing of his onetime collaboration with the communist party in his homeland Poland. When the director of Iranian studies at Stanford met with Artur Domoslawski, Kapuściński’s biographer and friend, he said to Domoslawski, “You can open Shah of Shahs at any page, point to a passage, and I will tell you what’s wrong or inaccurate.” And then he proceeded to do so.

Kapuściński once yelled at a friend asking about his books’ omissions and fabrications. “You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up — the point is the essence of the matter!” On this point, Kapuściński was right. In literature, the essence of the matter rather than the adding up of details is the point. But, if in the end, readers perceive that “essence” comes in disregard of the worlds of possibility found between writer and reader — and if readers never pick up another of your books again — what’s the point at all?

Fabricators like Mitchell and Kapuściński may now be the exception, as Charles McGrath wrote in his New Yorker review of Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, “because now…it’s harder to get away with,” but their stories, Ariely’esque in the telling, are enduring, and enduringly stirring.

Consider anthropologist Wendy “Wednesday” Martin, for instance. Her new book, The Primates of Park Avenue, one of two books she’s written that she describes as “very research-intensive blendings of memoir and social science,” earned this New York Post headline in early June: “Upper East-Side Housewife’s Tell-All Book Is Full of Lies.”

After The Post published its revelations of Martin’s practices — compression, conflation, fabrication — Cary Goldstein, vice president and executive director of publicity at Simon & Schuster, told The New York Times, “It is a common narrative technique in memoirs for some names, identifying characteristics and chronologies to be adjusted or disguised, and that is the case with Primates of Park Avenue.”

Ariely argues that the human inclination toward deception, highly evolved and driven by dread or desire, has a slow corrosive effect on society. Think subprime mortgage crisis. Neural MRIs show the more we lie, the less the region of the brain associated with guilt responds, suggesting the act of lying desensitizes us to the shame of lying. There are those who argue dishonesty has a slow, corrosive effect on nonfiction. Think Jim Fingal, the one-time Harper’s fact-checker who took John D’Agata and his fictionalized essay “About a Mountain” to task in the book they co-wrote, called The Lifespan of a Fact. Near the end of the book, Fingal and D’Agata come to verbal fisticuffs. Fingal writes, exasperated, “I mean, the whole point of all these shit storms over the last ten years…isn’t that the reading public doesn’t understand that writers sometimes ‘use their imaginations.’ It’s about people searching for some sort of Truth…and then being devastated when they find out that the thing they were inspired by turned out to be deliberately falsified…for seemingly self-aggrandizing purposes.”

Or maybe don’t think of Jim Fingal, however spot-on his words. Maybe we ditch Jim Fingal, who, it was revealed in post-publication coverage, partially reinvented his correspondence with D’Agata for their nonfiction book. “Contrary to the impression created by the promotional material, and the way it has subsequently been characterized in reviews,” wrote Craig Silverman on, “…The Lifespan of a Fact isn’t, you know, factual. D’Agata never called Fingal a dickhead, to cite but one example.”

In journalism, where truth is an explicit part of the deal between writer and reader, shit storms are understandable and necessary, as real harm is often a consequence.

Ironically, during filming, Ariely and Melamede couldn’t find any journalists who’d talk to them about deception in their field.

Yet in hybrid genres where rules are less clearly defined, the consequences of unreliability are also often felt at great intensity. Even in memoir, recently described by Daphne Merkin as an “elasticized form for truths and untruths,” outrage and pain seem to register when a writer is perceived to betray the trust.

It is curious to note the research that suggests the emotional experience of social pain, and betrayal specifically, lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain. Humans remember social pain more acutely and for a longer duration than physical pain. Neurologically, the experience of being cast away appears to mirror that of being burned. Like, with fire. I confess to feeling something akin to this when I learned the cat in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek didn’t exist. It was a metaphorical cat. Jesus Christ. Annie Dillard. I thought she was perfect.

The truth is, many readers want to believe they know who the author is. Readers have for millennia. In Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, novelist Gish Jen reminds us that the independent self — “the self unhitched from the collective” — has been “making things up [since] even before the words ‘fiction’ and ‘poetry’ were coined.” In ancient Rome and Greece, writers who fabricated were eyed with suspicion, “not only because they could make the untrue seem true, but because they tended to be highly individualistic, with interests that might or might not be yours.” This has not changed. Many readers still eye with suspicion writers who fabricate. Which, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, (which, as Ariely notes, is harder than it might first appear) is quite a lot of writers. Hell, many readers eye with suspicion writers who don’t fabricate. As author Robin Hemley observes in A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, “Whether you’re putting yourself in harm’s way emotionally, psychologically, or physically, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re going to get pummeled in one way or another.”

Orwell called for “discipline.” In Homage, he copped, “…beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.”

In her essay for the anthology Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations on the Fringes of Nonfiction, Naomi Kimbell advises, “[T]he first and most important gesture a writer can make to the reader is letting him or her in on the joke.” And yet, in the words of author Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, there are no “creative nonfiction police” handcuffing those who don’t, nor should there be.

Gutkind, identified on his website with a quote from Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” advises writers to rely upon conscience. Yes, fact-checking is critical, he writes in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction, but so too “following the old-fashioned golden rule by treating your characters and their stories with as much respect as you would want them to treat you.” “Conscience,” he writes, “a reminder and an invisible artbiter over us all.”

And, yet, as Ariely’s research and the nonfiction world’s regular shit storms reveal, relying on conscience is slippery business.

Ariely recommends concrete approaches designed to address the conflict of interest between self and other — a signed legal contract, if you’re a trader at J.P. Morgan Chase & Company, for instance. If you’re a writer of some kind of hybrid that blends fact and invention, an author’s note, disclaimer, afterword, use of the conditional tense, caveat, or limitless other artful and crafty techniques. It’s reasonable to assume this is why Simon & Schuster announced soon after The Primates of Park Avenue shit storm that they would add “a clarifying note” to the e-book and subsequent print editions. At the back of the Kindle edition I consulted in mid June, in addition to an introduction that describes the book as “an academic experiment,” is now an author’s note:
This work is a memoir. It reflects my experiences over a period of several years. Some names and identifying details have been changed, and some individuals portrayed are composites. For narrative purposes and to mask the identities of certain individuals, the timeline of certain events has been altered or compressed.
“Every time we lie, we dilute the trust,” Ariely said when we corresponded. Ariely can’t prove this with empirical evidence, but he believes it to be true. When Ariely was in high school in Israel, a magnesium battlefield flare exploded at his feet, and he was trapped in a chemical fire. He spent three years in a hospital. “The experience of pain has led me to beauty,” he later wrote in an essay. Also, “as I am not very concerned with my personal ‘small problems,’ I…can’t get too excited about the ‘small problems’ others are experiencing.”

All the same, Ariely took time to respond to my questions: Given everything we know, why do nonfiction writers continue to make stuff up and not tell readers? Given everything we know, why do readers continue to feel betrayed and outraged when nonfiction writers do this?

“I don’t think this is planned,” Ariely said in a recording he made because typing can be hard. “I think people start writing something that is based in reality, and then the boundary for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable is not very clear.” He said, “It’s very human.”

So, too, the timeless desire for a good story well told. Writes Malcolm of Mitchell, “We should respect his inhibiting reverence for literary transcendence and be grateful for the work that got past his censor.”

While Mitchell’s genre remains nameless, there is a name for the startling discovery of the truth of it: Anagnorisis, Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, the moment of change from ignorance to knowledge. I was wrong. It is here, he believed, “the finest recognitions.”

This essay was adapted and updated from a longer article about constructing nonfiction personae, originally published in the pedagogy department of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

Image Credit: Pexels/Sergey Zhumaev.

Found In Translation

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In the summer of 2004, in what seemed like a simpler time when the Millions was barely a year old, and I was still a couple of months away from adding my two-cents worth (Canadian) to it, Max introduced me to the writings of Ryszard Kapuscinski. While reading Shah of Shahs, and marveling at the reportage and at the powerful, witty and humane voice jumping off of the page, I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading a translation, and that not only were Kapuscinski’s magnificent words and images being translated, but William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand had managed to capture the subtleties of his literary voice.Delivering those translated words so that the reader gets the full experience – all the nuances hidden in the shadows of the language – seems to me to be a monumental task. Think, then, what is involved in translating something which is entirely image. Where the flashes of color, and the music of the words, the rhythms and the tones, must all be conveyed to the innocent reader. Think what must be involved when translating poetry.A recent Globe and Mail article, “An Athlete in the extreme sport of poetry,” profiles Erin Moure, who, along with Robert Majzels, has translated Nicole Brossard’s Cahier de roses et de civilisation (Notebook of Roses and Civilization).On the seemingly daunting task of translating Brossard’s poetry, Moure says: “There are challenges because she has a kind of tone and register, on what we call the macro and micro level, that we have to maintain. Plus, Brossard does things in French that are syntactically strange that we have to find a way of doing in English as well.”The article also discusses the collaborative method that Moure and her co-translator used. Moure would “do three pages in a row, then Bob’ll translate three pages in a row, the next three pages, and so on.”As an interesting aside, Moure also wishes that there were other translations of Brossard’s book: “You can only start to see the texture of the original language really, really when there’s more than one translation.”

Reading in Translation

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Tomorrow, as part of Scott’s month-long Reading the World series, I’ll have a review of Per Petterson’s In the Wake up at Conversational Reading. Reading the World is focused on “bringing international voices to the attention of readers,” and reading In the Wake and considering it as a “work in translation” rather than simply a novel got me thinking about how much non-English language reading I actually do. As it turns out, I don’t read many books that weren’t written in English. I don’t think this is necessarily a deficiency, but considering how much I’ve enjoyed the literature in translation that I’ve read, it seems I should seek these books out more often. Here are the books in translation I’ve read over the last few years (As you might expect, Ryszard Kapuscinski figures heavily.)2003:Imperium by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThe Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez – my thoughtsThe Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski2004:Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes – my thoughtsShah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski my thoughts2005:Generations of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov my thoughtsThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – my thoughts2006:Television by Jean-Philippe ToussaintWhite Spirit by Paule ConstantWizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa’Thiong’O – Garth’s review2007:In the Wake by Per Petterson

New Work from Kapuscinski

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The Paris Review has published some work by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died last year. The essay (not available online) covers more of Kapuscinski’s travels through Africa, a familiar subject to those who have read his books. What’s notable is that this issue also includes some of Kapuscinski’s photography, which nicely augments his writing – though those who have read Kapuscinski’s work know that he is more than able to conjure up images with his writing.It’s a good time for Kapuscinski fans because in addition to The Paris Review essay, a new book by Kapuscinski is on the way. I noted Travels with Herodetus at the end of my “most anticipated books of the year” post, but there were few details available at the time. Now we have a cover (as you can see), as well as the book’s description, which tells us that Kapuscinski has written about his years as a young reporter.From the master of literary reportage whose acclaimed books include Shah of Shahs, The Emperor, and The Shadow of the Sun, an intimate account of his first youthful forays beyond the Iron Curtain.Just out of university in 1955, Kapuscinski told his editor that he’d like to go abroad. Dreaming no farther than Czechoslovakia, the young reporter found himself sent to India. Wide-eyed and captivated, he would discover in those days his life’s work – to understand and describe the world in its remotest reaches, in all its multiplicity. From the rituals of sunrise at Persepolis to the incongruity of Louis Armstrong performing before a stone-faced crowd in Khartoum, Kapuscinski gives us the non-Western world as he first saw it, through still-virginal Western eyes.The companion on his travels: a volume of Herodotus, a gift from his first boss. Whether in China, Poland, Iran, or the Congo, it was the “father of history” – and, as Kapuscinski would realize, of globalism – who helped the young correspondent to make sense of events, to find the story where it did not obviously exist. It is this great forerunner’s spirit – both supremely worldly and innately Occidental – that would continue to whet Kapuscinski’s ravenous appetite for discovering the broader world and that has made him our own indispensable companion on any leg of that perpetual journey.Bonus Link: Google video has Kapuscinski’s appearance in 2000 on The Charlie Rose Show. (You may need to turn the volume all the way up to hear it.)

The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski

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Reading the books of Ryszard Kapuscinski, it sometimes seemed to me that he had he had slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every dusty village in the forgotten corners of the world. He brought us with him to peer at the world’s unknown “little” wars. There are many who, in the last few decades, have taken up this sort of reporting, people like Jon Lee Anderson, William Langewiesche, and Mark Bowden, but none possess the sympathetic eye of Kapuscinski.In his book Imperium, Kapuscinski chronicles the invasion of Poland by the Soviets in 1939, which he witnessed as a boy, and one can see how being one of history’s forgotten people shaped his view of the world. Kapuscinski’s writing is notable as much for what is there as for what it lacks, namely a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it, which even the best Western reporters are rarely able to avoid. Living much of his life behind the Iron Curtain, he could write about oppressed people from the point of view of the oppressed, but from enough distance to eschew any of the ideologies involved. He had a gentle eye for details and always satisfied by being just as incredulous, weary, and terrified as I would have been had I somehow found myself in the astonishing situations he sometimes ended up in. No tough guy swagger for Kapuscinki.And those moments, they were incredible: Kapuscinski, out of bribe money watching his driver plow though flaming roadblocks in the Yoruba country of Nigeria in The Soccer War; arriving in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane in The Shadow of the Sun; stuck for days in a stifling, crowded airport in Yakutsk with little hope of getting a plane out of there in Imperium.But Kapuscinski does not assume he is the only one with a story to tell. For entire books – Shah of Shahs about the abuses of the Shah of Iran and The Emperor about the mad Ethiopian king Haile Selassie – he turns his pen over to the people who were there. Those two books fit into the now familiar genre of “oral history,” and they provide an invaluable look into the lives of the oppressed.Kapuscinski’s singular point of view is perhaps best summed up by what he wrote in a section of The Soccer War about his time in Ghana: “The so-called exotic has never fascinated me, even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head-hunters, although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality, one that attracted me more than expeditions to the villages of witch doctors or wild animal reserves.”Kapuscinski brought that different reality to his readers, and in doing so helped shed light on the forgotten corners of the world.Kapuscinski died on Tuesday, the PAP news agency said. He was 74. The AP obit.Some Links:New work from KapuscinskiMy review of Shah of ShahsA bit on Imperium (scroll down)A bit on The Shadow of the Sun (scroll down)Excerpt from ImperiumExcerpt from Shah of ShahsExcerpt from The EmperorExcerpt from The Soccer WarExcerpt from The Shadow of the SunExcerpt from Another Day of LifeWikipedia bioKapuscinski’s writing in GrantaBill Buford interviews Kapuscinski

The Millions End of Year Extravaganza (It Begins)

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Some time during the month of December, squeezed in between the eggnog and the marathon sessions at malls swollen with frantic shoppers, I hope everyone has a moment or two to reflect on the last year. And as you are reflecting, I hope you set aside another, smaller moment to think about some of the great books you’ve read in the past year. I’ve asked several readers of The Millions to do some reflecting, and the results have begun to pour in. Over the next days and weeks, I’ll be sprinkling these reflections throughout The Millions for your enjoyment. Pay close attention because some of these folks may become regular contributors to The Millions in the coming months. If you want to join in the fun, email me and tell me what the best book you read this year was. Today, we’ll start things off with a couple of Canadians. Andrew Saikali (a new contributor here at The Millions).Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski – the first book I read by him and the book that single-handedly changed the way I think of non-fiction books. A collection of journalistic notes and descriptions of historical photos, assembled in such an extraordinary way that the reader gets a complete and provocative impression of the atmosphere and revolutionary mind-set leading up to the fall of the Shah.Also weighing in is Roy Santin, another reader from north of the border.My pick of the year is Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal (excerpt), shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2003- it’s very juicy, verging on nasty gossip, coming across as a very light insignificant thing that was tossed out, but actually is a very deep and thoughtful meditation on contemporary society both in our personal communities of family and friends and wider social trends. It’s also an interesting meditation on communication, intention and conflicting interests. It’s a lot of fun, with significant intimations on important issues.Stay tuned for more reflections coming soon.

Brave Historians


To continue from yesterday’s post about Iris Chang, I mentioned that she was among the brave historians who choose to study some of the most horrible and painful periods in human history. There are many others like her, and though these books are not a pleasure to read, the knowledge that they impart is a valuable reminder of, as I said yesterday, what we are capable of. So, because I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve compiled an informal list of brave history books. I’m sure there are many others that I don’t have here, so feel free to add your suggestion in the comments field.Gulag by Anne Applebaum (excerpt) — the Soviet forced labor system that underpinned CommunismWe Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (excerpt) — “An anatomy of the war in Rwanda, a vivid history of the tragedy’s background, and an unforgettable account of its aftermath.”Maus by Art Spiegelman — Spiegelman’s unique and emotional look at how the Holocaust shaped his family history.“A Problem from Hell” : America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power (excerpt) — “A character-driven study of some of the darkest moments in our national history, when America failed to prevent or stop 20th-century campaigns to exterminate Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Bosnians, and Rwandans.”Shah of Shahs, The Emperor, and Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski (excerpt from Imperium) — Each book describes how a sick government can destroy its people.Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami (excerpt) — A bizarre cult poisons innocent commuters on the Tokyo subway.Hiroshima by John Hersey — We ended the war, but at what cost?

My Review of Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski

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Readers of this blog know that Kapuscinski is among my favorite writers. He was born in Poland in the 1930s and lived through World War II. He would go on to write for Poland’s national news service (their version of the AP) as a foreign correspondent. He covered the “little wars,” the insurgencies, revolutions, and coups that are barely reported in the western media. His point of view is fascinating: a man living behind the Iron Curtain serves his country by reporting on terrifying conflicts in the most inhospitable parts of the world. When you read Kapuscinski’s work you may at first feel like something is missing, and then you realize that what’s missing is a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it. Kapuscinski, like no other writer I’ve read, is able to delve into the psyche of his subjects and produce remarkable insights about their nature and the nature of their oppression. Which isn’t to say that his writing is dry. More often than not, the episodes he relates are quite harrowing. Shah of Shahs is no exception. Quite unexpectedly, I found this book about the Shah and his overthrow by Ayatollah Khomenei to be very relevant to today’s conflicts, specifically, the difficulties inherent in replacing a brutal and oppressive regime without falling prey to extremism. His discussion of the horrors of the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, is astonishing, and his insight into the vulnerability of the Iranians as they attempted to move on from decades of oppression is fascinating. In assessing the difficulties of undoing the damage of a regime like the Shah’s, the parallels to today’s struggles in Iraq are hard to ignore, and, as such, the book was especially interesting to read at this moment in history. I have one book by Kapuscinski left to read, and after that, I can only hope that some benevolent publisher decides to put out more of his work.Those interested in politics and media may want to read a new book by John Powers called Sore Winners. When I lived in Los Angeles, Powers’ column “On” in the LA Weekly was a must-read for me. Powers strikes a great balance between intelligence and humor, and he has the classic ability of Angelinos, living far from the nation’s capitol, to deliver an unfettered, outsider’s perspective.

A Reading Queue for 2004


I recently reorganized my bookshelves. I straightened and categorized the books, and I separated out all of the books that I haven’t read and that I hope to read sooner rather than later. These are books that I’ve bought at the store, received as gifts, and unearthed on bookfinding expeditions. There are 31 of them. For a while now, I’ve had a quite large “to read” pile, and I add titles almost every week, it seems. The problem is that stacks of books are constantly getting pushed aside while I read whatever book I’m most excited about at the moment. There’s not really anything wrong with this except that there are books that I really would like to read, but never seem to get around to it. So, since I obviously am not to be trusted, I have decided to take some of the decision making out of my hands: I have set aside a special shelf to hold my new “Reading Queue.” On it are all of the books that I own and would like to read but haven’t yet. From this shelf full of books, I will randomly select the next one to read. Before I get into that though, here’s my reading queue, some of the books that will keep me occupied during the coming year:Without Feathers by Woody AllenThe Summer Game by Roger AngellOnce More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader by Roger AngellGame Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger AngellAn Army at Dawn by Rick AtkinsonThe Sheltering Sky by Paul BowlesThe Hole in the Flag by Andrei CodrescuDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesParis Trout by Pete DexterThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre DumasThe Last Amateurs by John FeinsteinA Season on the Brink by John FeinsteinLiving to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezLast Train to Memphis by Peter GuralnickThe Great Fire by Shirley HazzardRound Rock by Michelle HunevenThe Known World by Edward P. JonesBalkan Ghosts by Robert D. KaplanShah of Shahs by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Price of Admiralty by John KeeganEverything’s Eventual by Stephen KingLiar’s Poker by Michael LewisThe Coming of Rain by Richard MariusThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLooking for a Ship by John McPheeMoviegoer by Walker PercyFraud by David RakoffThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver SacksEast of Eden by John SteinbeckQuicksilver by Neal StephensonMr. Jefferson’s University by Garry WillsOnce I had a full shelf to pick from, the only question was how to pick randomly. I thought about writing down names and picking out of hat, but that seemed like a pain, and I would have had to go look for a hat, so instead I located a random number generator to help me make my choice. I’m going back east tomorrow for two weeks, so I picked three books to take with me: Everything’s Eventual, Paris Trout, and Don Quixote. I’m guessing most folks will be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks, and so will I, so I’ll probably only post a couple of times while I’m gone. They should be good, though. Look for “My Year in Books” and a post about the books I gave as gifts. Happy Holidays, all.

Can’t Stop Bookfinding… ech


I used part of my day off to sit around my house and listlessly attempt to get things done. I used the other, smaller, part of my day off to run some errands, and when I spotted a goodwill store in Glendale, I just had to run in and check out their book selection. I’m really glad I did.Find #1: A hardcover edition of J. F. Powers’ cult classic Wheat That Springeth Green. As you can see from the link, New York Review of Books Press has recently reissued this one, and it has been a favorite among my coworkers.Find #2: A hardcover edition of a book called Shah of Shahs by one of my all time favorite writers, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski has spent the last 50 years writing for the Polish equivalent of the Associated Press. During this time he has been on the scene for nearly every international conflict from front page news to the one paragraph comment buried in the International section. He wrote under the auspices of a state run news agency controlled by a Communist country and yet he spent nearly all of this time abroad, witnessing the wider world as few Communist citizens were able to. His writing betrays this interesting perspective in that he takes nothing for granted and never resorts to cliche to describe cultures that are utterly foreign. In this way, his journalism bears little resemblence to his Western counterparts, and instead he is just a man describing other men, exploring the universal nature of conflict, and occasionally pining for the cold winters of his homeland. Shah of Shahs is about the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah as told by Kapuscinski who was, of course, in Tehran at the time. I already own this in paperback, but I couldn’t help buying the hardcover.Find #3: The two books about Russia that I read recently made frequent mention of two interesting points. First, that for a long time the West had no idea what sort of horrors went on in Stalin’s Russia, and for a long time after many downplayed these horrors. Second, that there was a large officially sanctioned community of writers, known as the “Writers’ Union,” that spewed out official literature, hailed as a great achievement but often little more than thinly disguised propaganda. At the store today I found a book called Short Stories of Russia Today, edited by Yvonne Kapp and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1959. This corresponds with the height of Khrushchev’s “thaw,” three years after he had denouced Stalin in his “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the General Assembly, which must somehow account for how this collection came to be. There is also inherent in this book the sort of thinly disguised awe and fear that Americans felt towards Russia at the time. The dust jacket copy can be read almost as a warning that there is no endeavor that Russians can not apply their might towards. Here’s one little snippet “Like Sputnik, this collection shows that there is more going on in Russia than is revealed by the facade of Communist propaganda.” Whatever the point of this collection, it certainly is a relic of a different time.Finds #4 & 5: When I go bookfinding, I like to pick up books that I’ve never heard of. This can be tricky because most books that end up where I’m scavenging are pretty bad. Usually I solve this problem by getting short story anthologies or literary journals when I see them. There’s usually a hidden gem or two contained within. Today, I snagged O. Henry Awards Prize Stories of 1992 featuring stories by Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ann Packer among many others. I also came across an interesting-looking old hardcover (Knopf, 1969) of a book called The Coming of Rain by Richard Marius. I’d never heard of him, but after getting home and doing a little research I discovered that he’s fairly well-known Southern writer and that this book is the first of a series of four novels that, between the four of them, take place over the course of the last century in the South.

Surprise Me!