At the end of The Snow of the Admiral, the first novella to feature Maqroll the Gaviero, or “Lookout,” the hero finds himself presiding over the remote café of Flor Estévez, “the woman who understood him best and shared the exaggerated scope of his dreams.” Situated high on a plateau, the roadside stop has a dramatic bathroom—patrons, mainly passing truckers, must walk out onto a jerry-built deck and urinate into the ravine below, which is so deep that they can’t hear their pee hitting ground. It is only fitting that an “uncommon urinal” so perched should have such elevated bathroom graffiti, a sample of which succinctly lays out the ethos behind the Gaviero’s adventures: “I am the disordered creator of the most obscure routes, the most secret moorings. Their uselessness, their undiscovered location are what feed my days.” Unlike other epic heroes, Maqroll is armed only with a small collection of treasured books and a confidence that a hidden world of signs will reveal itself to him in due time.
Maqroll’s creator, the Colombian Álvaro Mutis, died last year at the age of 90 in Mexico City after a long career as a television executive, poet and, later, writer of the acclaimed Maqroll novellas, best known to American readers as collected in the NYRB Clasics edition The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. I can think of no better way to honor both the man and his singular hero possessed of an “incurable wanderlust” and a “vocation for defeat” than by quoting the latter’s bathroom graffiti, bits of wisdom written by the Gaviero in his seclusion. Some of these are gnomic: “Two metals exist that prolong life and sometimes grant happiness. Not gold or silver or anything else you can imagine. I only knew they exist.” Some convey practical advice: “Follow the ships. Follow the routes plowed by worn, melancholy vessels…Deny all shores.” And as befitting the long tradition of outhouse scribblings, women do come up, though in keeping with the fundamental gentillesse du coeur that defines Maqroll and his band of conspirators (no matter how shady their dealings), the tone is reverential:
Women never lie. Truth always points from the most secret folds of their bodies. Our lot is to interpret it with an implacable paucity. Many men never can and die in the inescapable blindness of their senses.
Needless to say, there are no phone numbers provided.
The Snow of the Admiral was spun out from a short prose poem. (Maqroll was conceived in poetry, a recurring character in Mutis’ poems before featuring in his prose works.) The novella describes Maqroll’s eerie journey up a fictional South American river and into “the half-light of the immeasurable jungle’s vegetation.” His scheme is to buy timber at a remote sawmill, whose location and very existence are in doubt, then sail it downriver to sell it a higher price.
Maqroll realizes at journey’s beginning that it is bound to end poorly, and thus the drama lies less in the specific plot turns of the disastrous adventure than in the otherworldliness of the tableaus: a nightmarish orgy involving an Indian family and a Slavic “blond giant”; the life-threatening fever contracted from the encounter; the harrowing upstream navigation of the rapids in the barely functioning boat, preceded by a “barbaric” litany recited by its alcoholic captain; the sawmill in the middle of nowhere, no less illusory for being real, a “floating Gothing marvel of aluminum and glass lit by that morguish light and lulled by the gentle hum of its electrical plant”; and Maqroll’s return to the isolated café, where he pauses for several years, spiritually exhausted and nursing a suppurating wound on his leg, a stoic Philoctetes in exile.
Over the next six books, a group of elect gathers around Maqroll, confreres whom John Updike astutely referred to as a kind of Arthurian roundtable: the Lebanese Abdul Bashur, partner in many adventures, the glamorous Ilona, the narrator, a zealous collector of all things Maqroll, and Alejandro Obregón, the expansive artist who seeks to paint the wind that Gaviero the Lookout has “so often watched as it comes toward the sails and then changes direction and never arrives.”
There are schemes aplenty: counterfeit rugs, arms running, gold mining, a timber operation run from the middle of a rain forest, a Panama City brothel staffed by fake airline stewardesses, signal flags to facilitate pirate communications and a Quixotic quest to buy the perfect tramp steamer of one’s dreams. Moreover, casual references to past adventures and doomed schemes, some eventually recounted, some destined to remain untold, are dropped like loose debris from a speeding flatbed truck.
Yet throughout the series, there is an ever-present tension between the limitless fund of stories accreting around Maqroll and his realization that all of his projects “empty into the same mudhole of ennui and bad luck.” Indeed, the serial production of the novellas works in some way to support Maqroll’s fatalistic contention that it’s all one story, that all men act the same, from the grand machinations of petty criminals to the petty machinations of the grand historical figures whom he reads about. (Maqroll’s journal in The Snow of the Admiral is discovered tucked away in a copy of Paul Raymond’s investigation into the assassination of Louis Duc d’Orléans in 1407.)
The recurring character needs to be both sharply delineated and a bit of a blank. The weary but charismatic Maqroll develops a cult of personality even as he refuses to impose his will on the adventures in which he becomes embroiled with “suspicious ease”:
The presence of danger, unspecified but obvious, plunged him into an all too familiar state of mind: ennui, a weary tedium that invited him to admit defeat, to halt the passage of his days, for they were all marked by a kind of venture in which someone else always profited, took the initiative, forced him into the role of the innocent dupe who served other people’s purposes without realizing it.
That word innocent stands out in regard to a man, however duped, is nonetheless so experienced, so thoughtful about life and so well read in history. But as his painter friend clarifies in a different adventure, Maqroll is an innocent in the Russian sense of the word, “which means vigilant servants of truth. And that’s the most dubious state there is for people.”
This “dubious state” perhaps explains Maqroll’s love affair with the past. Maqroll is a historical character, not in the sense of having actually lived but in his near Quixotic belief that he belongs to another, nobler age: “Maqroll’s ability to enter fully into another time, a world so foreign to the present, had often saved him from succumbing to the tribulations brought on by his nomadic calling.” Arrested after a brawl in Canada and asked what he does for a living, he tells that police only that he is “a Chouan lost in the twentieth century.” (A Chouan is a member of the 18th century, pro-royalist reaction to the French Revolution.) He gets a day in the cooler for his impertinence, though his curious admission is in some ways more revealing than the information on his forged Cypriot passport.
Maqroll’s sense of historical displacement, of “living in a time completely alien to [his] interests and tastes,” takes another form in Mutis’ nostalgia for tramp steamers, particularly those pieces of “nomadic sea trash” whose obsolescence only heighten their mythic allure. In The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, the narrator encounters such a ship in Helsinki, the first of several encounters all over the world with the dilapidated yet dignified vessel. He immediately feels a
…warm solidarity for the tramp steamer, as if it were an unfortunate brother, a victim of human neglect and greed to which it responded with a stubborn determination to keep tracing the dreary wake of its miseries on all the world’s seas.
As with Maqroll’s adventures, the tramp steamer’s demise is evident from the start; it is so covered in grime that its name, Halycon, must be inferred from the few visible letters. That end, when it does come during a storm, is memorable and violent, “like watching a prehistoric beast being torn to pieces by a voracious, inescapable enemy.”
Mutis could never bring himself to finish his hero off so definitively. Death, the one experience exotic enough to rescue Maqroll form his “mudhole of ennui,” is the Gaviero’s constant, tantalizing companion. In The Snow of the Admiral, Maqroll muses: “Perhaps my own death is beginning now. I don’t dare think about this too much.” And over the next six adventures, he is half in love with easeful death; his “nomadic mania” is an extended trial, less a series of discrete tests than a lifelong readying for the right death:
Each of us is cultivating, selecting, watering, pruning, shaping our own death. When it comes, it takes many forms, but its origin, the moral and even aesthetic circumstances that ought to shape it, is what really matters and makes it not tolerable, which is very rare, but at least harmonious with certain secret, profound conditions, certain requirements that have been forged by our being during the time of its existence and outlined by transcendent, ineluctable powers.
Maqroll’s is an “irredeemable odyssey” precisely because it will be redeemed in a different sense — not via a homecoming or a spectacular success, but through a lifelong, moral, and aesthetic commitment to “reckless wandering.” Now does the meaning of Maqroll’s “vocation for defeat” become clear; his is a vocation in the earliest sense, a spiritual calling, the resistance to becoming a protagonist in the “old, tired story of the men who try to beat life.” In a way, Maqroll lives to die.
And “die” he does throughout the novellas, multiple times, in multiple ways, his supposed end recounted by multiple sources of varying trustworthiness (including an account by Garcia Marquez, a good friend of Mutis’s). But a definitive notice proves elusive and he keeps coming back:
Artists and adventurers tend to plan their end so it can never be clearly deciphered by others. It is a privilege that has been theirs since the days of Orpheus the thaumaturge and the ingenious Ulysses…
It is no wonder then that on the scraps of paper collected by his chronicler on which Maqroll writes his adventures, his handwriting resembles Dracula’s Transylvanian scrawl. Like the famed vampire, Gaviero is immortal, and everyone around him knows it: “‘It doesn’t matter that you’ll die one day like the rest of us. That doesn’t change anything. You’re immortal for as long as you live.’”
I have a soft spot for literary adventure tales. It’s why, for example, I’m a big fan of certain of T.C. Boyle’s novels and also why Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is on my personal best novel shortlist. So it was with great pleasure this summer that I finally read Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, a book I suspected I might enjoy when I first heard about it several years ago.
Kneale pairs two plots that by the book’s final quarter have converged. One plot centers on the swift and brutal demise of Tasmania’s indigenous people upon contact with English colonists in the early 1800s. The other follows an expedition, around the same time, led by pastor and geology enthusiast Reverend Geoffrey Wilson whose research has led him to believe that the Garden of Eden lies in Tasmania. It’s a volatile mix, involving Manx smugglers; eugenicists; prison colonies; long ocean voyages; short chapters in the maritime literary tradition of Moby Dick; clever narrative devices like diary entries, scientific notes, and inventive use of dialect; and ample humor. It’s the sort of book that has you running for atlases and encyclopedias to try to learn by what alchemy the author has turned history into such invigorating fiction.
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.
Before we get too far into 2009, let’s take a look at what was keeping readers interested on The Millions in 2008. This year, I’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, and we’ll start with the “evergreens,” posts that went up before 2008 but continued to interest readers over the last year:Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Our “definitive” literary pronunciation guide continues to bring people to The Millions. I guess people really do want to know how to pronounce Goethe.Hard to Pronounce Literary Names: Underscoring the interest in pronunciation, even our first, aborted attempt at the pronunciation post remains popular.Food Fight: Anthony Bourdain Slams Rachael Ray: For whatever reason, there remains an abiding interest in the bad blood between these two food (and publishing) celebrities.A Year in Reading 2007: 2007’s series stayed popular in 2008.The World’s Longest Novel: Ben’s profile of this work of record-breaking performance art continues to fascinate.Why Bolaño Matters: 2008 was the Year of Bolaño, but Garth’s 2007 piece helped set the stage.The Reading Queue Revisited: My goofy way of picking books to read.Reading List: World War 2 Fiction: There are a few books still on my wish list as a result of this post.A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2005: My ridiculous attempt to catalog all the New Yorker fiction in 2005. Will I ever do it again? Maybe.A Rare Treat for Murakami Fans: Pinball, 1973: Ben dug up a link to a “lost” Murakami novel, and the post has remained a constant draw for his fans.And now for the top posts written in 2008:A Year in Reading 2008: It was a big hit this year.The Best Sports Journalism Ever (According to Bill Simmons): This fruitful list of sports writing links hooked a lot of fans.Big in Japan: A Cellphone Novel For You, the Reader: Lots of big-name outlets covered the cell phone novel story in 2008, but only The Millions had a translated excerpt.Haruki Murakami in Berkeley: A rare American appearance by Murakami generated many memorable quotes.David Foster Wallace 1962-2008: Few did a better job of trying to make sense of the literary world’s great tragedy in 2008 than Garth did with his compassionate piece.The Most Anticipated Books of 2008: Books we all looked forward to.On Our Shelves: 45 Favorite Short Story Collections: Short story fans can get lost in this one.The Most Anticipated Books of the Rest of 2008: More books we all looked forward to.Obama and the Faulkner Quote: In the most memorable election year in a generation, politics crept in everywhere. Even at The Millions.Google Settlement Could Change the Literary Landscape: Google continued to roil the publishing world in 2008.Where did all these readers come from? Google sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers come from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2008:Conversational Readingkottke.orgThe Elegant Variationmimi smartypantsThe Morning NewsThe Complete ReviewMarginal RevolutionMaud NewtonThe New York Times Lede BlogNathan BransfordFinally, we can look at our Amazon stats to see what books Millions readers were buying in 2008. Here are the top-10 books bought by Millions readers over the last year.2666 by Roberto BolañoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot DíazInfinite Jest by David Foster WallaceThe Savage Detectives by Roberto BolañoThe White Boy Shuffle by Paul BeattyA Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster WallaceHear the Wind Sing by Haruki MurakamiLush Life by Richard PriceThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
Mrs. Millions and I will be departing tomorrow for a trip to Greece and Turkey. Of all the many things to be excited about, we are most excited about the food. And in Turkey, we will have a local tour guide in the form of Emre, our longtime Turkish correspondent here at The Millions.We’re trying to travel very light, just a backpack each, and that doesn’t leave much room for reading material. We allowed ourselves to each select a paperback (and a magazine or two) and presumably we will swap the paperbacks if we finish them before our trip is over. Mrs. Millions is bringing The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, and I have decided to read Maqroll for a second time. I’m also bringing the latest New Yorker, which is, regrettably, the Style Issue.While I’m gone, the rest of the gang at The Millions will be taking over. See you soon!
We’re not shy about our praise for NYRB Classics. Their volumes are smartly edited and well designed and quite a few favorite books of The Millions contributors – The Dud Avocado, Wheat That Springeth Green, and, of course, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – were first encountered in their NYRB Classics incarnations.While I had always planned on passing NYRB Classics books down to my progeny one day, I’ve just discovered that I may get to do that sooner than I had anticipated. NYRB Classics has a line of children’s books, the NYR Children’s Collection.One of the latest to come out under the imprint is James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Marc Simont. The new book provide fodder for Sonja Bolle’s sentimental (in a good way) essay in the LA Times.The 13 Clocks is the first book I remember loving, and it is one of the few books I managed to wrest from my family’s library and preserve through all the mundane disasters of my life. Everything about it is dear to me: The texture of the cover, the cloth spine now in shreds, the gorgeous endpapers with the Duke’s shadowy castle on the hill overlooking the sunlit town.Young readers – and the older readers who are trying to get young readers to read good books – will likely find many more such discoveries among the NYR Children’s Collection.
In my recent review of Alvaro Mutis’ The Mansion, I noted the paucity of Mutis’ writing available in English. Basically, there is Maqroll and not much else. From what I understand, much of what would remain of Mutis’ writing to be published in an English-language edition would be his poetry, much of it featuring “Maqroll the Gaviero.”But there is also Mutis’ account of his time in Lecumberri, a Mexico City prison, after being accused of fraud by his employer Standard Oil in Columbia. Mutis would write, “I never would have managed to write a single line about Maqroll el Gaviero, who has accompanied me here and there in my poetry, had I not lived those fifteen months in the place they call, with singular precision, ‘the Black Palace.'”Mutis’ account, The Diary of Lecumberri, was published in 1959 by the Universidad Veracruzana and reprinted by Alfaguara in 1997.In 1999, a journal called Hopscotch translated and published a substantial excerpt of The Diary of Lecumberri, which is available as a PDF. Also included are a petition to the President for Mutis’ release penned by Octavio Paz and several letters that Mutis wrote to the journalist Elena Poniatowska from prison.When things go bad in jail, when someone or something manages to break the closed procession of days and shuffles and tumbles them in a disorder coming from outside, when this happens, there are certain infallible symptoms, certain preliminary signs that announce the imminence of bad days. In the morning, at the first roll, a thick taste of rag dries the mouth and keeps us from saying hello to our cellmates. Everyone sits himself as well as he can, waiting for the sergeant to come and sign the report. Then comes the food. The cooks don’t yell their usual “Anyone who takes bread!” to announce their arrival, or their “Anyone who wants atole,” with which they break the mild spell left over from the dreams of those staggering around, never able to quite convince themselves that they are prisoners, that they are in jail. The meal arrives in silence and everyone approaches with his plate and his bowl to receive his allotted ration, and nobody protests, or asks for more, or says a word.
Longtime readers of this blog will know that The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is one of my favorite books. While I think it stands as a very good book by nearly any standard, it has several qualities that appeal particularly to me. To boil these down, my affinity for the book is tied to the vast geography it covers, including many exotic locales and a few mundane. I also like the book as an example of Latin American magical realism that is stylistically different from Borges or Garcia Marquez, but to me just as satisfying.Mutis is still relatively unknown, and were it not for the NYRB’s impressive packaging of Maqroll, really a collection of seven novellas, and Edith Grossman’s typically readable translation, it’s likely that Mutis would have almost no presence among English-language readers at all. Prior to the NYRB edition of Maqroll, a pair of earlier collections had been put out, one containing three of the novellas and another containing four (those editions were also translated by Grossman). Aside from that, Mutis had published some short stories and quite a lot of poetry, much of it featuring “Maqroll the Gaviero,” who would star in Mutis’ novels.As best as I’ve been able to tell, none of Mutis’ poetry has been published in English-language editions, but in 2004, a small Canadian publisher Ekstasis Editions, put out a thin collection of some of Mutis’ short fiction. Maqroll does not appear, but the book, The Mansion offers what felt to this reader, a batch of stories in which Mutis tries out the various writerly tools that he will wield to great effect in Maqroll.The first portion of The Mansion is a novella, The Mansion of Araucaima, which supposedly was Mutis’ answer to the director Luis Bunuel who claimed that it wasn’t possible to write a gothic story set in the tropics. The idea being, I suppose, that the lushness of the region is at odds with the castles and dark mood that is emblematic of the genre. (It should be noted that the Bunuel story may be apocryphal. I read about it a few years ago, but more recent Googling hasn’t turned much up about it.)Regardless, Mutis’ effort is fairly successful, and appropriately moody and dark. As he does in Maqroll, Mutis experiments with structure in The Mansion of Araucaima. He divides the story up into brief chapters, focusing on the different characters and on their dreams (the dreams presumably being a key gothic element) before, after much stage setting, he offers a chapter called “The Events,” during which the novella’s narrative commences.The remaining stories also play with structure. Frame stories abound (Maqroll, of course, is a frame story which contains other frame stories). The stories in The Mansion start with sentences like “The pages you are about to read belong to a bundle of manuscripts sold at a book auction in London a few years before the end of the Second World War.” and “A few facts surrounding the death of Alar the Illyrian… came to the attention of the Church at the Council of Nicaea when it discussed the canonization of a group of a group of Christians who had been martyred at the hands of the Turks.”While Mutis takes the reader, in this handful of stories, to many arcane places and dreams up snippets of immersive histories and mythologies, they also feel like explorations and fragments (one story is in fact subtitled “A Fragment”), as opposed to fully formed pieces. As such, it is impossible to recommend the book ahead of Maqroll, which makes, out of the threads that Mutis plays with in The Mansion, a deep and layered tapestry. Maqroll perhaps also benefits from Grossman’s translation, which seems to disappear into the narrative, whereas Beatriz Hausner’s translation of The Mansion is more workmanlike. For those who have already read Maqroll and have an interest in Mutis, The Mansion will be an instructive and brief diversion. In terms of pure reading pleasure, however, rereading Maqroll might be a better bet.
I was going through the site analytics, checking out what kind of year The Millions had and I thought it might be fun to share some of the stuff I found out.Looking at the site’s most visited pages, there were some “evergreen” favorites in the top spots:Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: In August 2006, we unwittingly struck a chord with the reading public. We don’t know how to pronounce our favorite writers’ names, but we want to be able to discuss them. We took a first stab at creating a list, but after much debate about proper pronunciation, we hit the library and came back with this definitive version. It remains our most popular post and may stay that way for a long time.A Year in Reading 2007: This post only went up on December 1st, but thanks to dozens of great contributors, it was our best year-end series yet.Hard to Pronounce Literary Names: Our first, abortive attempt at the pronunciation post remains popular.The Most Anticipated Books of 2007: Readers got the year started with a look at the books we were most excited about. 2008’s installment is now posted.Keepers of the Flame: A Reply to n+1: Back in March, we noted N+1’s essay that took on the “litblogs.” It ignited a mini-controversy and The Millions was ground zero.We get a lot of traffic from Google, of course, but quite a few of our visitors arrive from other sites. These were the top 5 sites to send us traffic in 2007:The Elegant VariationConversational ReadingKottke.orgNPR.orgGawkerThose who take the Google route, however, come from these searches:the millionsbook blogsbook blogthe millions bloghow to pronounce namesFinally, I also thought it would be interesting to see which books were most popular on the site last year. We link to all the book titles mentioned on the site, and these were the ones that got the most clicks:The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisReporting: Writings from The New Yorker by David RemnickPastoralia by George SaundersThe Cottagers by Marshall N. KlimasewiskiThe Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez
I took a peek at the Amazon page for The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and was surprised to find that the book has vaulted to #533 in their sales rankings (the book previously sported a ranking in the hundred thousands.) Now, I know that Amazon rankings are next to meaningless, but still, it’s pretty cool to know that my appearance on Weekend Edition Sunday sent readers looking to pick up the book. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.
I’d like to second Max’s endorsement of Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll on yesterday’s Weekend Edition Sunday appearance. While many NPR listeners will be familiar with some of Max’s other recommendations, Mutis remains relatively obscure in the U.S. I hadn’t heard of him until Max forced the book on me in 2003; I promptly devoured it.Part Conrad, part Divine Comedy, part comic book, Maqroll is actually a set of seven short novels, totaling 700 pages. Mutis’ enigmatic protagonist, the sailor Maqroll, moves through a world that seems to be falling apart… mining mishaps, political intrigues, a decaying shipping economy… but imbues everything he sees with a romantic tenderness. Friendship, love, and the inevitability of failure are the only constants.In addition to its maritime motifs, Maqroll makes great summer reading because of its form. Readers spending hours on the beach can consume the collected Adventures and Misadventures as though it were one long picaresque… while those more pressed for time can dip into its constituent novels separately. Ilona Comes with the Rain one week, Un Bel Morir another. And of course, you’ll have something to recommend to friends looking for something to fill the void left behind by Harry Potter.
If you’re arriving here after hearing my appearance on Weekend Edition Sunday, welcome! Just to give you a little background, I started The Millions in early 2003 when I was a bookseller at an independent bookstore in Los Angeles. I’ve since moved on from there, but the blog has stuck around. We now have seven contributors besides me, and we write nearly daily about books and other cultural topics.If you want to look around, a great place to start is the notable posts on the right-hand sidebar. You can get to the archives by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.Finally, in case you want to get more info on the books I mentioned during the segment, here are some links to the books on Amazon (I haven’t heard the segment yet, so not sure if they edited any of these out):Ragtime by E.L. DoctorowPastoralia by George SaundersEast of Eden by John SteinbeckOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia MarquezThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThanks for checking out The Millions!
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
Come the new year, Ben will be joining us as a regular contributor. I’ll leave formal introductions until then, but in the meantime, he decided to get a jump on things by sharing the best books he read in 2006:Since reading The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll several years ago in a back alley, flea trap of a hotel in Nadi, Fiji, I’ve been lending myself to a series of flawed and inherently hopeless business schemes in the hope of not just getting rich quick, but adding to my life even one iota of the melancholic romance the book so neatly distilled. For better or worse, my ventures have amounted to nothing more than a series of lessons in humility, and, in the process, they consumed a large part of my free time. Which is a long way of saying that I didn’t have much time to read this year.Of the books I did read, I will unequivocally recommend three, none of which were written in 2006. (Life is short, books are many and often long, so I prefer to wait a few years until a book has received some kind of critical imprimatur before digging in.)My first recommendation is Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy. It’s a coming of age story that deals with a young boy’s relationship with a malevolent, gender ambiguous tooth fairy (the age old story), and the resulting consequences for his family and friends. The tooth fairy’s presence is (much to my pleasure) never really explained, but her (?) antics serve as a catalyst for a long and engaging series of seemingly unrelated incidents that come together in the last few chapters with an extremely satisfying snap. The writing and humor are sharp enough to make your eyes bleed, and the characters are so well developed that by the end you won’t know if you’re crying because of the resolution’s poignancy or just because it’s time to say goodbye.Book number two, The Orchid Thief, gained some notoriety when Charlie Kauffman “cinematized” it several years ago, ending up with a film not so much based on the book as about the book. His film, Adaptation (IMDb), which dwelled on the Sisyphean process of wringing a screenplay from a story that is, for all intents and purposes, unfilmable (at least by Hollywood standards), piqued my interest in the book, and when I found it on my grandmother’s coffee table, I immediately dove in. I am pleased to say that while the word “unfilmable” might be the stuff of screenwriter’s nightmares, it’s a compliment when used here. Susan Orlean’s tale of a man and his orchids spins off into a fascinating and sometimes surreal account of passion – what it is, what it isn’t, why some people have it, and why some people (namely Susan herself) don’t. On the way she introduces us to alligator wrestlers, Victorian explorers, and real estate scam artists, drawing from these disparate characters’ lives the threads of a tapestry that when woven together makes you realize why people still bother to write books in this age of moving pictures.Last but not least, book number three is one that I’ve read at least once a year every year since I first read it several years ago. Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes was a Christmas present that spent many lonely years on my bookshelf before I finally picked it up and realized what I’d been missing. If any book has so neatly captured the essence of the long malaise that we call life in these United States, I have yet to read it. Exley’s book is in turns appalling and laugh out loud funny, but it is always brutally, unflinchingly honest. Billed as fiction, the story follows Exley, as himself, as he wanders across the country, working odd jobs, getting married, going insane, reading Lolita, drinking himself to death, and pursuing an unhealthy obsession with the New York Giants. If suffering has ever created art, then this it. For my money, it’s as close as anyone has yet gotten to the “Great American Novel.”Thanks Ben!
It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned Alvaro Mutis here. His book, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, is one of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately, though Mutis deserves to be counted among the greats of Latin American literature, aside from Maqroll, not much of his work is available in English, which is why I was excited to see that he’s written the forward to a new book that sounds interesting in its own right. The Adventures of a Cello follows the path of a cello known as the Piatti that was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1720. According to the book description:Over the next three centuries of its life, the Piatti cello left its birthplace of Cremona, Italy, and resided in Spain, Ireland, England, Italy, Germany, and the United States. The Piatti filled sacred spaces, such as the Santa Cueva de Cadiz, with its incomparable voice. It also spent time in more profane places, including New York City bars, where it served as a guarantee for unpaid liquor tabs. The Piatti narrowly escaped Nazi Germany in 1935 and was once even left lying in the street all night.Since 1978, the Piatti has been owned by Carlos Prieto, the author of this book and friend of Alvaro Mutis.
There’s a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the “staff recommendations” shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn’t long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended — The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two — climbed the store’s bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.
In the meantime, I also started re-reading Catch-22, probably one of my all time favorites. I made plenty of references to Catch-22 in connection with William Boyd’s An Ice Cream War and probably some other novels I read over the course of the last two years. Nevertheless, re-reading Catch-22 was a feast precisely because of all the literary horizons this modest novel created. Never a bestseller, Catch-22 became a cult classic and sold millions despite staying under the radar. Its influence on other writers is, I believe, huge. Aside from Yossarian being my obvious favorite for fearing that everyone, from his own commanders to the German anti-aircraft gunners, are conspiring to kill him, I mostly enjoy Milo Minderbinder’s stories. Milo is a good-hearted capitalist who contracts the Germans for the Syndicate he has formed, and no one can oppose him in that – or in bombing his own squadron for a hefty sum paid by the Germans – because everyone has a share in the Syndicate, and “what is good for M & M Enterprises [i.e. the Syndicate] is good for you.” Simply brilliant. The tragic story of Major Major Major Major, who became a Major in the squadron strictly due to an IBM deficiency and whose name – Major Major Major – ruined his life at every turn, is a major influence in my father’s efforts to name me savci (prosecutor) in Turkish. As some of you might remember, my father hoped that with such a name I could avoid any and all run-ins with the law by declaring my name, which in that case would go “I am Prosecutor Peker!” Luckily, my mother rejected the idea, but in essence that is Major Major Major Major’s story. Aarfy with his calm pipe smoking in the plane while flak explodes all around them, Orr with his mastery in crashing planes, Appleby with the flies in his eyes, Nately with his psychotic lover whore, General Peckem with his hate for General Dreedle, Dreedle’s hate towards his son-in-law, his son-in-law’s affection towards Dreedle’s nurse, Colonel Cathcart with his insecurities, Colonel Korn with his tendency to manipulate Colonel Cathcart, Sheisskopf with his love of marches, and many more. There are too many insider jokes and brilliant moments in Catch-22 to write a decent review of the novel. I just believe, like I only do with The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that everyone should absolutely read this novel and cherish its wonderful moments of hilarity and sad reflections on humanity.By the time I finished Catch-22 I was already back in Turkey for the summer. I am now done with my paralegal job and await the beginning of school in the fall. Nevertheless, next I picked up Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey edited by Anastasia A. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen. I have been meaning to read this collection of essays by expatriate women in Turkey for a long time now. I remember coming to Turkey over a year ago and reading reviews of The Expat Harem in local papers and thinking that it could be very interesting. Right before coming back to Istanbul a month and a half ago I saw my Turkish roommate Uzay’s Minnesotan girlfriend Annastacia reading the book and assumed that she picked it out of my library. Wrong! She’d actually bought it and told me that she enjoyed it a lot. I’ve always viewed Annastacia as a potential candidate for the expat society of Turkey, so her reading the book egged me on and I picked it up. The collection is organized in nine parts, which are unique to Turkey and include various customs that foreign women find especially strange, unique, pleasant or repelling. I started reading the stories at random, there are twenty-nine of them, and realized that each one identifies a unique quality of life in Turkey. Seen through the eyes of an expat who chose to live in Turkey adds a different color to the customs and qualities that I already knew. To a Turkish person the stories are very revealing, flattering and intriguing. It is, after all, very refreshing to see commonalities in society through a different pair of eyes. I imagine that any foreign person reading The Expat Harem would find the stories equally revealing, informative and interesting. Each author employs a fresh style and tone, the stories are fluid and the collection is organized very neatly by Ashman and Gokmen, which creates an excellent journey through the quirky experiences of expats, all women in this case, in Turkey. If you are planning a visit to Turkey I urge you to pick up The Expat Harem to get a solid idea about the country’s culture. If not, I believe you would still enjoy the collection for its down to earth tone, accessibility and humane moments.See also: Part 1, 2
This was the year I played catch-up. My failing as a reader has always been my near-total ignorance of contemporary authors (say, those that emerged in my own lifetime). That all changed this year thanks to some wonderful recommendations from my Millions cohorts. In no time at all I was transfixed by Alvaro Mutis (The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll) and captivated by Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex). I delved further into Ryszard Kapuscinski (Imperium), feasted on a trio of novels from the wonderful William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach, Blue Afternoon, Armadillo), and finally read Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Edward P. Jones (The Known World), and T.C. Boyle (The Tortilla Curtain). Most if not all of these have been written about by either Max or Emre so I’ll just echo them and say READ THESE.To this list I’d like to add one of my own. I was blown away, earlier this year, by the young Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap and his short story collection Sightseeing. Set in Thailand, the seven stories present a vivid and engaging depiction of families and friends and day-to-day life. The locale is exotic, the sounds and smells permeate the pages, but the relationships are familiar, universal. It was a treat to read. [See also: Andrew’s review of Sightseeing]
Looking for a Ship by John McPhee pulled me straight out of the vertigo that was The Corrections. After I read the review on The Millions, read how journalists interviewed in The New New Journalism discussed McPhee, and found a cheap used copy on Amazon, Looking for a Ship made it to the top of my reading list. I started the book on my way down to a wedding in Virginia and finished it on the way back. Looking for a Ship struck me as a very nostalgic piece, with romantic characters, and a simple, fluid style. For all Maqroll fans out there, Looking for a Ship is a good insight to the way of the sea, as well as the tradition that is the U.S. Merchant Marines. John McPhee discusses the decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the shifty economics of commercial shipping, and the hazards and wonders of Latin American ports with a journalist’s matter-of-fact clarity and through the delicate eyes of an aging crew. The personal stories are heartwarming and interesting: sometimes they reflect on a sailor’s love for the sea, at other times on his contempt and wish to be land-bound; they scrape off all romantic ideas of working on a ship and demonstrate the hard tasks – 145 degree engine rooms, being the lookout from 4AM to 8AM, working 16 to 20 hour days, union laws restricting time of employment and the difficulty of finding a ship once allowed to work again, and pirates to state a few; and still it provides hope for the aspiring sailors with stories of finding the route using the constellations when the ship’s power fails – hence annulling the compass and the radar – or of one of the captains not trusting the tug boats, hence docking the ship himself at the risk of great cost and insurance liability if something were to go wrong. Looking for a Ship is one of the books I wished did not end.In the meantime, I also picked up the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl which includes stories from Kiss, Kiss, Over to You, Switch Bitch, Someone Like You, and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected. It was quite entertaining reading the discussions about Harry Potter and the possibility of J.K. Rowling writing adult stories on The Millions the other day. Though I am a Harry Potter fan and will make no excuses about it I have no ideas of how Rowling would do with adult novels, but Roald Dahl surely succeeded in both genres. I remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was quite young, but of course, the name of the author never struck with me. So, after reading a couple of stories at random from the Collected Stories, I read Dahl’s biography to my amazement and shock. I have yet to finish the collection, yet I already have my favorites: “The Visitor” and “Bitch” (the Uncle Oswald Stories, oh how I wish all 24 Volumes of Oswald were published), “Madame Rosette,” “Death of an Old Man,” “Vengeance is Mine Inc.,” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” I feel that my selections are bound to change as I read on, but for the time being I would strongly suggest keeping a copy by your bed and reading a story each night, starting with the above.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
Confirming some rumors that have been floating around the Internet, Amazon unveiled a new design for its product pages today. This may not be of interest to many, but I am fascinated by the way Amazon evolves, adding features and slowly reinventing itself over time. Most striking about the new pages is the huge photo of the book cover that now gets prominent placement. This seems like a good thing for shoppers. When you’re buying books over the Internet, it’s hard to assess the more tangible aspects of a book, so the big photo seems like a good move. At first glance the pages are much longer as well with editorial reviews and then customer reviews stretching well down the page. The sidebar(s) are gone too, giving the pages a more spare look. I guess the idea here is that Amazon is pushing for the impulse buy… maybe trying to make readers more likely to buy the book without reading the reviews below. Here is a look at one of the new pages. Any thoughts?Update: Whoa, they’ve added other features, too. Check this out. You can see the “the 100 most frequently used words in this book,” and see other stats like number of characters (444,858 in Gilead) and words (84,830), which amounts to 5,424 words per dollar… not a bad deal, I guess.Update 2: Now all this new stuff is gone. I wonder if the new features and look will come back or if Amazon was just performing some cruel experiment on us.
John writes in with this question:Anyway, I have a question about a book: As an Umberto Eco fan, and having read Foucault’s Pendulum and loved it, I am skittish about becoming physically ill if I read The Da Vinci Code. Should I be worried? Did Eco already write the book and Brown stupidize it? That’s the impression I get.I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, but I suspect that you would find it entertaining but not, shall we say, satisfying. Read it, or don’t. But how about some other books that you might enjoy which are more substantial and pleasurably complex (and much of this is just speculation because I haven’t read all of these books): First, I’d like to recommend two childrens’ series that – though they are written for kids – are loaded with allegory that make them rich reading, or rereading, for adults. They are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and CS Lewis’ classic the The Chronicles of Narnia. I know, Narnia, it sounds ridiculous, but I reread the series as an adult and found the books to be full of intricacies to be mined. From the grown-up side of things, I’m told that Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon might fit the bill, as will his more recent, and enormous, Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, & The System of the World). If you don’t mind a bit of a tropical lilt to your complex, fantastical fiction, I highly recommend trying out some magical realism. The The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is a terrific, meandering tale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is similarly enjoyable, and you can’t go wrong with the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. I may be getting a bit far afield here… anyone else want to chime in?
I was in search of something light after Libra and turned to Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. Miller wrote this piece for spare money after his return from Paris by submitting 5-10 pages at a time. He got paid $1 for each page and submitted them to a Mr. xxxx who ran a bookstore in LA. One day he dropped off 10 pages and let Mr. xxxx know that this was it, the novel was complete. The catch is that Mr. xxxx also carried nude pictures and pornographic literature at the back of his store. I don’t know if you already guessed but Miller was writing for the illicit part of the store, hence Under The Roofs of Paris is pure pornography, and well, it is sick. I enjoyed the book immensely, mostly because it left me gaping at the obscenity Miller put into words: incest relationships, black masses at the French countryside, tricking prudent American women into orgies, and teenager whores are just the beginning in this 126 page book. There is a very loose plot that revolves around sex and I would suggest that you do not approach Under The Roofs of Paris unless you are already perverted or have a desire to be.To snap out of the ludicrous state of mind Miller put me in, I turned to Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, which I had been meaning to read for a second time since November ’03. [Emre’s piece on Maqroll previously appeared here.]After Maqroll I could not bring myself to start a new novel and turned to Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions. I had kept my brother John Leahy’s present at my bedside table for most of the year but the period immediately after Maqroll is when I turned my full attention to Borges’ labyrinths and tried to decipher them. I must admit that I feel very illiterate while reading Borges and have quite a difficult time connecting certain dots in his stories, mostly because of all the literary references that I cannot catch. Still, I enjoy Borges’ stories a lot and value his old-school language, use of fairy/folk tale language, and matter-of-fact style. He drops gems such as “One man’s dream is part of all men’s memory” in each story, which I believe Maqroll would value greatly and inscribe on the walls of the restroom corridor at The Snow of the Admiral. Collected Fictions is best read in a coffee shop, Lucy’s, or in bed, accompanied by black coffee, vodka, or water.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Lisa is a bookseller from Colorado whose eclectic tastes are appreciated here at The Millions.Non-FictionThe Elements of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell 1938-1978: In this delightful volume English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner and New Yorker editor William Maxwell’s relationship blossoms from professional correspondence to a deep friendship. The two never actually met in real life, but their love for one another is apparent in their incredibly erudite and often quite funny years-long correspondence.The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary Lovell: I’m not usually one for biographies, but The Sisters is a thoroughly engrossing tale of these Bright Young Things of England’s interwar years. The five Mitford sisters ran the gamut from Nazi sympathizer to best selling novelist. Lovell’s book is heavily researched, but she maintains a light tone throughout, which makes it enjoyable for those of us who prefer to take our history with a bit of gossip and froth.It Must’ve Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten: Steingarten, the inimitable gourmand, former Harvard Lampoon editor and lawyer returns with a sequel to his first collection of food essays, The Man Who Ate Everything. Many of these pieces appeared first in Vogue and the New Yorker. Steingarten loves food and the sociology and mythology behind the art of eating. He is, most definitely, a latter-day Liebling. Delightful!The First World War by John Keegan: This book seems to be the definitive volume on WWI. It is an all-consuming narration on all aspects of WWI. Incredibly moving and never dull, it is essential reading, I think, as it profoundly informs the politics and culture of the world today.FictionMadeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum: More of a prose poem than a novel, this 2004 NBA nominee is a time and space bending fantasia populated by a young girl in a catatonic state, a photographer turned pornographer, a fat woman who sprouts wings and a woman who takes on the shape of a cello. Absolutely spell-binding.Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt: This most recent offering from A.S. Byatt, seemingly the most erudite and sensual of all women writing today, consists of five stories, some of which were previously published in various publications. By turn haunting and dark, Byatt maintains her trademark ability to effortlessly blend fairy tales into the everyday world.The Courage Consort: Three Novellas – Michel Faber: Michel Faber seems to be one of the most dynamic authors writing today. Coming off of his huge, Dickensian novel of last year, The Crimson Petal and the White, he returns with these three somewhat surreal, incredibly entertaining novellas.The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis: This is the best novel (or collection of novellas, I suppose) that I think I’ve ever read. Words cannot even begin to describe the stories here. The most imaginative, magnificent, gorgeous words I’ve read in a very long time. I didn’t want to ever leave Maqroll!Thanks for that, Lisa. We’ve got a few more year end lists on the way, and then I’ll be back at the helm.
There are some books that just demand to be reread. For Emre, who I’m hoping will become a regular contributor to The Millions, the book he reread this year is also the best book he read this year.I never read a book twice until The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. When I finished reading the outlandish escapades of Maqroll in early November of ’03, I knew that I would read the book at least two more times. The seven novellas that Alvaro Mutis wrote over the past twenty years are now collected in one 700 page volume, which relates the wanderings of one Maqroll the Gaviero (the lookout). The stories of Mutis’ inconspicuous protagonist are presented by different narrators and in a random chronological order. The cleverly placed references in each novella help the reader discern the order of events, which unfortunately does little to dispel the mystery surrounding Maqroll and leaves the reader aching to know more about him. Mutis consoles the reader, albeit a little, each time a new character crosses paths with Maqroll. Presenting each person very skillfully and in great depth, Mutis ultimately paints a picture in which lifelong adventurers, crooks, lovers, sailors, miners, farmers, truckers, and dreamers cross paths by way of the most unimaginable, yet very possible, events. The Adventures and Misadventures is not just a modern day Don Quixote, as some termed it, but more a lyrical novel, a great ode to beautiful friendships, novel personas, and true emotions – joy and agony alike. It has been only one month since I finished reading The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll for the second time and I am already itching to read it again, this time in the chronological order that I discerned. It is a great novel that leaves the reader asking for more. The good thing is, you can go right back to page one. Enjoy.I should note here that I often cite Maqroll as the best book I have ever read (I, too, intend to reread it some time soon). If you care about fiction, I implore you to become acquainted with the Gaviero. You won’t regret it.
I was chided by my buddy Brian for devoting most of my previous post to the “mean book review” and not going into the dumbing down of the book review. To elaborate, along with ratcheting up the level of controversy, the New York Times Book Review is going to shift its focus away from more esoteric and literary fiction. In its place expect to see more non-fiction and more popular fiction reviewed. Also, the reviews themselves may become more bite-sized: “why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do?” Now, I happen to think that the New York Times Book Review isn’t a terribly engaging read in its current incarnation. Typically, I pick it up to see which new books are being mentioned and read reviews of any books that I might have already read or that I am particularly interested in for some reason. All the reviews are essentially the same length and I find that they usually don’t keep me engaged if I’m not already interested in the book that’s being reviewed. I agree that there’s a problem, but I don’t think that the solution is capsule reviews full rancorous banter. Once you start down that road it’s only a matter of time before you start issuing Entertainment Weekly-style report card grades so that we can skip the reviews entirely. I would suggest that they devote at least a few of their pages for longer format reviews where, sure, the book is being reviewed, but it’s really just a jumping off point for a broader discussion of the topic at hand. The New Yorker and the Atlantic do this and they are among the most consistently readable and interesting reviews that I come across. John Updike’s review in the New Yorker of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is an example of this. Believe it or not, the review wasn’t altogether positive, but Updike managed to convey, nonetheless, the essence of the book, and I was able to tell from the first few paragraphs of his review that I wanted to read the book. Another New Yorker book review moment: I can’t even remember the name of the book that Louis Menand reviewed when I realized that I was far more enamored by the writing and breadth of knowledge of the reviewer than by the book being reviewed (which I can’t remember anymore anyway). Menand’s book The Metaphysical Club came out soon after and proved to be even more engaging than that first review that had turned me on to his writing. Those are good “book review experiences,” and if the New York Times Book Review could manage to provide one or two of those a week, they might find the positive change that they were looking for.An update at Poynter Online has Times executive editor Bill Keller saying, “We’re not turning the Book Review into Mad magazine.” And here’s the article that got me started on all this in the first place.
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.
Whew… Ok, I feel much better now. Well rested and ready to continue:Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin: It’s not that I love all food writers or that I necessarily am enamored by all writing about food. I’ve just noticed these past few years that there are particular characteristics shared by a lot of food writers that attract me to them as writers. They are very knowledgeable but also self-effacing. They tend to be intrepid travelers with acquaintances on most continents who will gladly direct them to the finest cuisine in the area, and often times these writers, in order to fuel their pens, will receive the finest that these far-flung kitchens have to offer. Ideally, the reader will get an insider’s view of a place, one that he will not be able to necessarily be able to replicate, but that he might strive for. An example, when I was in Barcelona this summer, stoked by the writing of Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten and Jonathan Gold, I was probably most intrigued by the food of the place, a regional cuisine that isn’t duplicated elsewhere. Though I might not end up at a four star spot nor be able to decipher the recipe for the grilled sardines or paella that I just ate, I can nonetheless follow in these writers’ footsteps as I strive to learn about a place by looking for and at its food. And most of all I can follow in Trillin’s footsteps as I seek out deliciousness in all its forms. There’s something wonderful about devoting yourself to seeking out the joy comes from a good meal.The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten: Steingarten shares with Trillin a love for food, but beyond that they couldn’t be more different. Trillin is folksy and innocent, while Steingarten is a brash, but hilarious, know-it-all who spends as much time writing about himself as he does about food. He puffs himself up and then lets out the air. Most often this occurs over the course of one of his kitchen experiments where he attempts to make the perfect french fry or the perfect fried chicken during which he makes an unholy mess, comes to no conclusion (which is all the more funny considering the certitude with which he undertook the venture), and fun is had by all. The Man Who Ate Everything, his first collection, is good, though a bit wearying by the end. I’ve read bits of It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, and it seems to be even better, since by this time he has really mastered his style.Yours, and Mine: Novella and Stories by Judith Rascoe and…..Last Courtesies and Other Stories by Ella Leffland: I was inspired by a couple of things to read these two books. First, I had the opportunity last summer to meet Edwin Frank, the editor of the NYRB press. We talked a lot about The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, of course, but we also talked about how he finds titles to bring back into print. Many are books that he has long been aware of, that he has watched go out of print, and then he has stepped in and reissued them, but there are other titles that he has found by trolling the sidewalk book tables in Manhattan looking for hidden gems, a name that sounds familiar or a title that sounds intriguing. At the time, I had recently finished the collection Prize Stories of the Seventies: From the O. Henry Awards, and I though that it might be interesting to track down the long out of print books by a couple of the writers whose stories I had enjoyed, but whose names were unfamiliar. Though the books themselves were quite good, I really enjoyed reading these as an exploration of the trajectory of the American short story. There is a sorrowful decadence to these stories, a feeling that the world might be unraveling before our eyes. Leffland and Rascoe certainly deserve their places in the O. Henry collection, and it’s a shame that they cannot be more widely read today.The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: In August, over the course of this post and this one there was a discussion here at The Millions about who currently holds the title of best young writer, and who, among those under 50, will still be read voraciously a generation or two from now. Many names were batted around, but the one book that everyone agreed upon was The Corrections. Due to my perhaps unfounded dislike of Franzen, I hadn’t yet read the book, but inspired by the discussion, I immediately went out and read the book, was pretty dazzled by it, and wrote this post about it. I hope that The Millions can be host to more great discussions like this one in 2004.Well, it looks like there will be a part four. I promise I’ll finish soon. Maybe even this afternoon!
When I was a teenager and I slept in my teenager’s bedroom in the basement of my parents’ house, I used to keep my stereo on all the time. Every moment that I was in that bedroom there was music playing. I kept it on while read at night, and then I left it on while I was asleep. I liked my music so much that I would have rather listened to it all night than go to sleep. My compromise was to try to do both at the same time. The lasting effect of this, aside from my residual insomnia problems, is that I have intense musical connections with many of the books I read in high school. This has given rise to some odd but unbreakable pairings, like whenever I happen to see a copy of Lloyd C. Douglas’ classic of historical fiction The Robe, I get songs from Bob Marley’s Legend stuck in my head. I can use these odd musical, literary pairings like an archeologist to dredge up memories from years ago. Likewise, I can look back over the books I read this last year and extract the various experiences that are wrapped up with each one. When 2003 began I set a goal to read 75 books over the next twelve months. I didn’t even come close. Unless I have left one or two off the list, and I may have, I read 29 books last year. I have many excuses for this, but the one I like the most is that I read a few books this year that I enjoyed so much that I couldn’t help but to savor them, to ingest them nibble by nibble as I pushed aside my silly goal of gluttonous literary consumption. What I’m saying is, it was a good year, so lets get started.Annals of the Former World by John McPhee: This monster of a book is McPhee’s paeon to the geology of the United States. As always McPhee is readable, but the ambition of this book (which is really five books in one) is what won him the Pulitzer when it came out. Sometime in the summer or fall of 2002 I read McPhee’s book about Alaska, Coming into the Country, because it happened to be sitting on the bench next to me on my break at the bookstore. Once I started reading it I was hooked, and I’ve been a big fan of McPhee’s ever since. This one is big (almost 700 pages) and it took me a while to read. I was also moving at the time to the house where I live now with fruit trees and a balcony and a guy who sells tamales out of the back of his car on our street every day. As far as I can tell, though, there are no exposed rock faces nearby and therefore no opportunities for amateur geology, though the book did manage to get me very interested in the subject.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I have long bemoaned the huge gaps in my library. There are many classics that I have never read. As I recall, I was particularly struck by this notion early in 2003 and one Sunday night shift at the book store, afroth with my desire to get some of those classics out of the way, I dove into Gatsby. I read half the book that night on my breaks and the other half when I got home, staying up late to finish the last few pages. I hadn’t read a whole book in a day in a long time, and that felt good. When you digest a book as a single unit like that, you are able to look at differently. It’s like the difference between falling in love in one night and falling for someone over a period of weeks or months. I enjoyed the book, of course, though it is referred to so often, in so many settings, that it felt like I had already read it. Still, it was great to finally see what all the fuss is about.Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson: It was a very happy coincidence that I happened to read Gatsby right before I read this book because one of the sections of this book is an extended riff on the Daisy character. Gilligan’s Wake is a truly bizarre post-modern confection the created a minor splash at the beginning of 2003. It’s outlandish premise is to describe the lives of each of the characters of Gilligan’s Island before they went on their fateful three hour tour. The result is a vibrant pastiche of twentieth century history and popular culture, for, you see, the Skipper and Ginger and all the rest happened to lead very complex lives that intersected with the lives of some very important people. Having said that, this book isn’t a farce or a parody or anything like that, and in fact the language can be quite brutal. It might be best to describe the book as Pynchon soaked in TV culture. It’s an interesting read that I never would have come across had it not been for the fact that many of the folks at the book store read it when it came out.Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski: When I read Kapuscinski’s book The Soccer War a couple of years ago, I did so under the assumption that it was his best book. Maybe I was told this by a book store clerk somewhere, or I based it on Amazon rankings and reviews. It’s a very good book, kind of mind-blowing for me, really, since I had never read anything like it. I was very excited about discovering the work of this globe-trotting Polish journalist, but I assumed that his other books might be slightly lesser works. So, naturally, I was thrilled when I discovered that Imperium, his book about the Soviet Union and its fractured remnants, was a fantastic book, full of Kapuscinski’s usual personal insights and vision. This book propelled me on to a Soviet kick that would lead me to read several books on the subject before the year was out.The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor: For some reason, the review of this book in the New York Times put me in a real frenzy to read it. I think because it reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan, a book from 2002 that I really loved. Although I have read and enjoyed many of Trevor’s short stories, I just couldn’t get into this book. It was too even. There is a dramatic event at the center of this story but it is too buried by the passage of time to be a driving force.On Writing by Stephen King: I’ve always been a defender of Stephen King. As he will readily admit, he has written some clunkers for a buck, but his best books are really fantastic. I have also always enjoyed his writing about himself. This book is part memoir, part writing handbook, and part pep talk, and it is very readable. King avoids all the double talk that many writers will shell out when they write about writing. King manages to tell us that, just like anything else, writing is best when you have fun doing it, and if you’re having a lot of fun, it’s probably good enough to be publishedThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis: This was the great discovery of the year for me, a book that I spent a lot of time on and a book that I never wanted to finish. I spent nearly two months reading this one, and Mutis’ book is so vivid with adventure and characters, it felt like I was living a double life. It all started with a review of the book by John Updike in the New Yorker early last year. I read the first few paragraphs and something clicked. I knew I had to read this book, and as soon as I started I knew it would be fantastic. Soon, I had convinced several coworkers to read it and we recommended it to many others. Over the course of the year my bookstore alone sold hundreds of copies, and friends of friends of friends were asking me if I had ever read this incredible book about a mysterious fellow named Maqroll. In March I happened to meet a hero of mine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and we talked briefly about Maqroll. Lately, my thoughts have turned to reading it again, and I’m thinking that sometime soon I will add it to my reading queue so that I can read it again soon, and I think I will probably keep it on the queue so that I can read it again every year or two. It’s just that good.American Studies by Louis Menand: After reading Menand’s Pulitzer prizewinner The Metaphysical Club, I added Menand to my list of favorite writers, so I was excited to read his follow up, a collection of essays with subjects ranging from T. S. Eliot to Larry Flynt. Menand is truly a master of the form, but I yearned for another book-length work that would allow him to really strut his stuff.Prize Stories of the Seventies: From the O. Henry Awards: I picked up this hardcover on a bookfinding expedition and had a good time reading through it. It’s chock full of pill popping divorcees and heavily cloaked anti-Nixon screeds. Joking aside, there are actually some truly remarkable stories in this book as I describe in this post from May 13th.Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent: I’ve always been a baseball fan, but it seems like I spent much of 2003 in a baseball frenzy. Recognizing this, my friend Patrick recommended this book to me and I really enjoyed it. Okrent spent months researching and preparing to write an entire book about a single game. The result is a detailed picture of the individual intricacies that combine to create one ballgame.That’s all for now. Parts 2 and 3 to come.
As I write this my old friend Cem is nearing home after almost nine months of traveling the world. Here’s a little note he sent me about Maqroll.i dont think ive told you. i never finished the book. i have been slowly savoringthe entirety Maqroll throughout the whole of this trip. i have managed to spreadthe 700 pages out, making the book my only constant through the time zones. thiswas partly an attempt to reflect the character himself, his love for that deadfrench scribbler whose name i cannot pronounce or remember, his careful rereadingof the text. another element of my devoted fanaticism is the habit i have developed of scratchingor writing certain quotes from the book certain places ive been. most of thesequotes have been the memorable bathroom wall etchings from ‘the snow of theadmiral’, and indeed some of these quotes have been etched onto the walls of filthybathrooms. under mattresses in the most tranquil places in southern thailand. i have been trying to put them in places where travelers and english/spanishspeakers might find them, but this has been somewhat difficult at times (easternmyanmar). im sure some people have seen them already. i did not limit thequotations with actual quote marks. after all of my bags have been unpacked, i will read the last 5 pages. then thetrip is over. Welcome back Cem!
Ms. Millions and myself are expecting a number of house guests for Thanksgiving, so there probably won’t be much posting on the old blog for a few days. Luckily for you guys, though, I’ve brewed up a post chock-full of fascinating info for all of you. First off, Time Magazine columnist, Andrew Arnold put together a list of 25 best graphic novels of all time as part 2 of a series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the birth of the graphic novel, which, according to him (and many others), was the publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God: And Other Testament Stories. I haven’t read it but it’s supposed to be incredible. At any rate, Arnold has put together a great list that includes a couple of my favorite books of all time. Here are the ones from the list that I have read.From Hell by Alan Moore was lent to me, forced on me really, by a friend of mine who is really into comic books. I was skeptical, but this one turned out to be pretty riveting. The art, especially, is magnificent: noirish fields of black create an ominous mood that permeates the story.Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: This is one that really transcends the genre. When I read this, it made me wonder why people aren’t making graphic novels out of everything all the time. There are so many stories out there that can be made fascinating by the artists’ pen. Everyone should read this book.Maus Vols. 1 & 2 by Art Spiegelman: It’s hard to put into words how incredible these books are. If anyone requires proof that the graphic novel medium, when wielded expertly, can bring more to the table than the plain old written word, then these books provide it. Reading Maus is an emotional experience, and I think a lot of that emotion comes from reading a tragic story rendered in a format that seems so innocent. Everyone should read these two books, too.Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud: I’ve talked about this book before. There is something about comics, about the format of comics, that makes them enchanting and that makes them peculiarly well-suited for telling stories. I had always just accepted this as fact, but McCloud decided to find out why, and the result is a phenomenal book — itself a comic — that is both illuminating and entertaining. I should also thank Scott for pointing me in the direction of this list via his blog.More Mutis ManiaThis is good. This is really good. I open my email today to find this email from friend and fellow Alvaro Mutis & Maqroll the Gaviero obssesive, Brian:Man, oh, man, do I have some info for you! I was just casually glancing through a copy of Video Store magazine, when you wouldn’t believe what movie I came across…. “Ilona Arrives with the Rain.” Yep, apparently, it’s a Columbian film from 1996 that’s billed as “A dangerous romance full of international intrigue…. Based on the novel by award-winning Columbian author Alvaro Mutis.” Not sure if its really any good, but am still very curious to see it. A DVD is being released by Facets, and Amazon has a release date of December 16. Here’s the link: Ilona Arrives With the RainI’ll definitely be checking that one out.MoreMy friend Edan, who loves cookbooks, wants everyone to know that Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World is a great new book by globe-trotting husband and wife team Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. And since we’re talking about cooking, here’s a quote from the book I’m reading right now: “‘Restaurants make lousy hobbies. You have to be obsessed and driven and completely out of your mind to own one.”But you had–”Two, yes. But Alice,’ Pete said almost tenderly, ‘I’ve been totally nuts my entire fucking life.'”
Edith Grossman has lately become the definitive translator when it comes to Spanish-language fiction. She is responsible for producing the English-language editions of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (including his upcoming autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale), Mario Vargas Llosa (most recently The Feast of the Goat), and of course she brought The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis to American readers. Now, for the first time, she turns her translator’s pen to a classic. Her beautiful edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote has just been put out by Ecco, and, having never read the book, I will be delighted to turn my attention to this new edition soon.New CoetzeeMy friend and trusted fellow reader Brian informed me that he has read recently lauded author, J. M. Coetzee’s new novel Elizabeth Costello, and that he found it quite good and thought-provoking (better than Disgrace, anyway, which is his point of reference for Coetzee). So I was mildly surprised when I saw that the book received an unflattering and somewhat dismissive capsule review in last week’s New Yorker. The New York Times Book Review, however, confirms Brian’s assessment of a dense and philosophical, yet readable book.Amazon’s Mega SearchLast week Amazon announced their mind-boggling new search feature, which allows users to search the complete text of tens of thousands of new books. Talking to readers and checking out the buzz on the internet, I encountered a wide range of reactions to this new development, ranging from anger at Amazon’s ever-widening reach and annoyance at the plethora of extraneous results when searching for book titles or authors to exultation at this vast resource that has suddenly appeared at our fingertips. Meanwhile, the New York Times covers authors’ concerns. Any thoughts, press the comment button below and let us know.
Hardcovers are expensive! So, what about paperbacks. What are people buying and reading right now? Last year’s addition to the Mariner Books “Best American” series of the Dave Eggers edited The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002 was a big hit. It reprinted the best and the wierdest articles and stories culled from a wide array of publications from The Onion to Spin to The New Yorker. People are quite excited to see that another installment is out. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 is once again edited by Eggers and the book features a clever introduction by none other than Zadie Smith. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, an early Oscar favorite, is already pushing sales of the book that it’s based on, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. The book gets rave reviews from everyone who reads it (and I suspect the movie will be similarly received once it hits theaters.) Also, in fiction, two big award winners are selling like proverbial hotcakes now that they are out in paperback. Last year’s Booker Prize winner Life of Pi by Yann Martel shows no sign of slowing after months of steady sales. Almost every single person I know has read it by now. New in paperback is the book that was awarded last year’s Pulitzer, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, a sweeping family saga with a healthy dose of gender confusion. Finally, a book that I haven’t mentioned in at least a week, one of my all time favorites, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis, a future Nobel Prize Laureate if there ever was one. It’s been nearly a year since I read this book, and I still can’t stop talking about it. I would estimate that my endless chatter about this book has sold hundreds of copies by now, and if the people who bought it recommend it to their friends, as they surely must have, and those friends recommend it to their friends and so on, then before long we will have a worldwide Maqroll revolution on our hands, and the world will be a better place.
At work yesterday, after my first 15 minute coffee break, but before my 30 minute dinner break, I thought about some things. Among them was the idea that The Millions really ought to have a manifesto. A manifesto takes this messy collection of asides and non sequiturs and gives it purpose and meaning. You are no longer reading my uncollected natterings… you are reading a means. And ideally this is a means to an end. It seemed like a good idea save one problem. I’m not really a manifesto guy. They strike me as too rigid, too static. Will I adopt a manifesto and then stop delighting myself, and perhaps a few others, with the promise of a varied discussion on varied topics? On the other hand, I decided a while ago to devote the blog to books primarily, so what’s another artificial restriction anyway? Plus, what if my manifesto is purely a force for good, and by devoting myself to it, I provide a service to whomever encounters this little blog. Still, that word manifesto bugs me… so maybe it’s just a problem of language then. Perhaps if I think of it as a declaration, a statement of purpose, an annunciation, a mission statement… a pronunciamento if you will, perhaps then I will have less reservations about its formulation. Luckily, last night when I decided that perhaps The Millions needs a manifesto (or whatever you want to call it), a manifesto sprung fully-formed into my mind. It stems from a fact that most readers are not fully cognizant of: there is a concrete number of books that you or I will be able to read in our lifetimes. I’d say that on average, given my moderately busy lifestyle and the fact that I read the New Yorker in full each week, I am able to read approximately one book a week, and therefore, allowing for longer reading time for some of the behemoths that I occasionally undertake, about 50 a year. (n.b. I set a goal for myself to read 75 books this year, but it looks like I’ll be lucky if I hit 50). So therefore, I would estimate that I have probably read about 500 real books in my life, give or take a few dozen, and assuming I live until I’m 80 (and am still able to read at such a rate), I’ll read another 2750 give or take a few hundred. 3250 books may seem like a lot to read in a lifetime, but a look around the book store and you quickly realize that it is possible to read only a very small fraction of what has been written, and only a fraction of what is worth reading. Which brings me to my manifesto (or whatever), given that you and I will only be able to read a finite number of books in our lifetime, then we should try, as much as possible, to devote ourselves to reading only the ones that are worth reading, while bearing in mind that for every vapid, uninspiring book we read, we are bumping from our lifetime reading list a book that might give us a profound sort of joy.I know, heavy shit: death, obligations, the conversion of unimportant choices into important ones… that’s why I wanted to keep my mouth shut. But we have to look at this the right way. I am not making the declaration that if you haven’t read Dostoyevsky or Joyce, you are under some sort of moral obligation to do so. I am saying that, given the finite number of books that you will be able to read, you ought to read ones that are good for you, not so much nutritionally, but spiritually. I’m partly inspired here by the food writers that I seem to enjoy inordinately. Calvin Trillin refers in Feeding a Yen to seeking “deliciousness” wherever he can find it. He and his fellow food writers are not saying that if you don’t eat at this place or eat this type of food you are doing yourself a disservice; the goal is simply deriving joy from food as often as possible, ideally at every meal. The list of foods that qualify as delicious is different for different people. Likewise the list of books is different for different people. To reiterate: this isn’t about compulsory reading; this is about making sure that whatever you read will serve a purpose for you and that, as often as possible, this purpose is to bring you the curious sort of joy that only a book can. Clearly there are some problems with my manifesto, first among them being that, I need a word as good as deliciousness to describe the quality we are looking for in our books. Any suggestions???Lighter NotesMy good and old friend Hot Face has finally joined the rest of us and got himself a blog… follow his adventures if you dare. I continue to feel obligated to mention The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis at least twice a week. I do this because, more than any other book, I insist that you read this… Never have I enjoyed a book so profoundly. My excuse for mentioning it this time is that I just found an interview of Mutis in Bomb Magazine. The interview is conducted by another Latin American writer Francisco Goldman, who is an old friend of Mutis’ and provides the introduction for Maqroll.The book I’m currently reading refers to this historial event that I was unaware of: “Dan White, on trial for shooting and killing San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, was convicted of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder after his lawyer raised the Twinkie Defense, the claim that Dan White’s brain had been so deranged by Hostess Twinkies and other sugary junk foods that he should not be held fully responsible for his actions. Twinkies, the argument went, made him do it.” (Apparently this occurred in 1979, but it was news to me)Anybody know of any decent book blogs or websites about books?… I haven’t been able to find any besides Arts & Letters Daily and the various newspaper book sections, of course… I’d like to find something that’s a little less review focussed and more discussion focussed. (Something I hope to do here in the future).
I know that some folks out there are interested in the travels of our friend Cem. But because he is currently somewhere near the border of Thailand and Burma, it has become difficult for him to update as often as he (or we) would like. Therefore I have taken it upon myself to excerpt some of the emails that we have been exchanging. I do this partly because it’s another way to keep track of this wily character but also partly because I always find talk of travels to be a good igniter of interesting discussion. So, lets leave it at that for now. His last email bore some good news for Realistic Records (from halfway around the world no less!!) as well as the sort of scheming that would make Maqroll and Bashur proud ( You should really read this book! Gabriel Garcia Marquez loves it. And frankly, I think it might be the best book I’ve ever read. I gave it to Cem to read while he travels around the world. You can see how it has already attached itself to his psyche):max,couple things.1.a qoute from my friend kevin, a serious music junkie and collector, whose taste in music i respect more than anyone i know. this email was sent to me before i told him to buy your record:”music-wise, soulseek is still saving my life. i’m watching out for the RIAA these days, though. $150,000 a song! http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/internet/07/01/download.music.ap/index.htmlmy top 8 albums in 2003 so far: (no particular order)junior senior : d-d-d-don’t stop the beatdelgados : haterecoys : rekoysdat politics : plugs pluspostal service : give uporanges band : all arounderlend oye : unrestbroken social scene : you forgot it in people”thats right fooo! realistic up an runnin![2 is of little interest to you, faithful reader, so let’s move on to 3.]3.i think that ill be following maqroll, thanks very much. as you know and i now fear, this will mean going dead broke and having to figure a way out of it. i have already begun the most basic level of planning for a small import venture involving Burmese laquerware from Mandalay and/or ethnic textiles for sale in small markets and possibly wholesale to shops. i need to speak with Thibault. i am not kidding max – the stuff is beautiful, cheap, pleantiful, and there is noone selling it that i can find in the US. you will hear more on this later – i really think that it might work.. if it aroused your interests, Mr Bashur, we could both perhaps share in the success.all for now,cem.Indie Rockers kan rede 2Cem’s friend Kevin and his fantastic list of this year’s best indie rock reminded me of, what else, a book. If you walk down the music aisle in any bookstore you will see shelves and shelves of books about the Beatles and the Stones and their compatriots in classic rock. There will also be bulging shelves of books on jazz, blues, and even world music. Punk rock, once the vanguard of the antiestablishment even warrants it’s own chunck of shelf space (Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil is by far the best book on punk, by the way). But what about indie rock? Should a fan of this lowly but noble genre of music go without adequate reading material? No longer. A couple of years ago music journalist Michael Azerrad put together a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life that chronicles the rise and fall of thirteen seminal indie rock bands. Detailed chapters on Black Flag, The Minutemen (whose line from Double Nickels on the Dime supplies the title of the book), Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Fugazi Mudhoney, and Beat Happening, effectively constitute the history of rock and roll for a generation of music fans.Hey Hey L. A.I’ve been in LA for almost 3 years now, and it long ago lost it’s shiny newness for me, but it’s still a big enough place that it continues to reveal itself to me bit by bit. The other day I was driving home from work and something I heard on the radio reminded me of the way radio stations in other towns that I’ve lived in used to do spoof versions of popular songs to make them refer to something going on in that city; like when I was growing up Washington DC and the morning drive guys were always playing Aerosmith songs that had been turned into spoofs of Mayor (for life) Marion Barry and his crack habit. For a second, whatever I was hearing on the radio made me think that they were playing a goofy made up song about LA. Then I realized that I wasn’t listing to a spoof song, but a real song, probably a song that’s very popular among the kids right now. It just so happened that this song, subconsciously almost, heavily references Los Angeles. The more I thought about this and the more I let it inform my music listening and TV watching and movie viewing, the more I realized that a huge portion of American pop entertainment consciously or, more frequently, subconsciously references Los Angeles in such a way that you could only really be aware of it if you have spent a decent chunk of time in this odd city. The implications of all this are somewhat startling. Many folks get upset that America’s monopoly on popular entertainment results in a monopoly of American values and beliefs. The reality, though, is that America’s popular effluvia is simply the values of Los Angeles and its accompanying entertainment culture masquerading as American culture. It’s possible that because I am simultaineously a Los Angeles insider and a Los Angeles outsider I am particularly apt to find this disturbing. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that this is not a particularily good thing.A couple more quick notesYesterday when I was out driving, I saw a car with this vanity plate: FAKE TAG. I gave a chuckle and then decided that it’s only funny if the plates really are fake.
As some of you may know, my very good friend Cem has been travelling through some remote parts of the world. The other day, in a very long email, he asked me whether or not I thought he should stay in northern Thailand or keep on moving toward the Middle East which is, ostensibly, his final destination… here is my advice (plus a little plug for the record label, which he had asked about): Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner, your email took me 4 days to read. Seriously though, what I wouldn’t give to be in your place with your dilemma… should I go to this frighteningly exotic place or this other one? My jealousy aside, I’m not sure I can make this decision for you, but I might be able to give you a little insight. First, you have to decide, irrespective of the girl or whatever gig you have set up in Thailand, whether this adventure is all about getting to the destination (i.e. Cairo and the Middle East) or allowing yourself to be follow the whims of the world and just be wherever you end up… like Maqroll. I think both are perfectly admirable plans, but you have to pick one or the other. Secondly, I don’t know how tuned in you are to world events right now given your isolation, but American soldiers are dying every couple of days in Iraq, and the situation seems, to me anyway, to still be very much up in the air, with a guerilla war still a possibility, however remote. I’m sure that Cairo and Istanbul and Amman are all plenty safe, but I guess you should figure out if you prefer to be in the Middle East soon (while there is still uncertainty) or later when things have calmed down. So there you have it… no easy answers just more dilemmas. I love what you’re doing, and if and when you get settled somewhere, I am coming to visit. In other news, the website for my record label is www.realisticrecords.net so tell all your indie friends to check it out. There are mp3s up and pictures of the recoys reunion show/record release party. You can also buy the album there (It’s called Recoys Rekoys) and it’s a vinyl only run of 1000. Since that is almost sold out though, we’ll probably get a cd together soon enough.Now if there are any world travellers out there who are aspiring to do the sort of thing that my friend Cem is doing, I suggest you pick up The World’s Most Dangerous Places by Robert Young Pelton. It’s a very informative and wildly entertain look at some of the more hazardous corners of the planet. As if to underline his fealty for sticky situations, Pelton himself was kidnapped by leftist rebels in Columbia earlier this year. He was later released.
The emergence of the New York Review of Books publishing arm has been a treasure. They have managed, with this line of books, to package the feeling of falling suddenly in love with a book that you only even opened on a whim, perhaps being drawn in by an intriguing cover or title. They have hand selected the most deserving of the unknown and the out of print and returned them to bookshelves. Among the hundred or so titles that they have put out in their four or fve years is the book that I will keep mentioning until everyone on the planet has read it: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. Thanks to the Book Expo’s being in town this weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to Edwin Frank the editor of the New York Review of Books series. We discussed Maqroll at length, of course, trading theories as to whether or not the Gaviero will appear in print again, or whether it is up to us readers to track down his further adventures on our own. (Read the book; you’ll understand). We also talked about uncovering lost treasures in used bookstores, at good will, and at sidewalk book stalls. We also discussed several of the other titles in the series. When I asked him for the hidden gem among the hidden gems, he passed this title my way: To Each His Own, a Sicilian mystery by Leonardo Sciascia. He rated this one among the very best of the series, and since he’s the one who picks the books, I can’t help but trust him.
The big sellers around my neck of the woods this week were: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown was the big seller in hardcover fiction. This book is no big surpise as it has already taken the New York Times bestseller list by storm. This looks like a pretty exciting read, definitely one for the summer. It’s got a real Indiana Jones vibe to it, full of puzzles and unravelling the mysteries of the past, in this case the source material is the Mona Lisa. In hardcover non-fiction there’s Reefer Madness by Eric Schlosser, who wrote the book that blew the lid off McDonalds and the rest of the burger slingers: Fast Food Nation. Now, I found Fast Food Nation to be a bit preachy and I felt that sometimes he went over the top trying to get his point across, but at the same time I was impressed by his feats of investigative journalism. So when I first heard about Reefer Madness, ostensibly an expose on the illegal drug industry, I was looking forward to reading it. The reviews I have read have tempered my enthusiasm, however. Michiko Kakutani wasn’t very impressed, and I was especially disappointed to find that the book consists of three distinct essays cobbled together to represent a discussion of “the underground economy,” in this case pornography, the plight of illegal migrant workers, and the domestic marijuana industry. After the book came out, I realized that I had already read most of the section on pornography when it appeared in the New Yorker a few months ago. I hadn’t really been that into it at the time. So, unfortunately, it seems like Schlosser, instead of attacking a new subject with the zeal he displayed in his attack on fast food, has thrown together a follow up and slapped a catchy title on it, knowing that his name will sell the book. For now, at least, it seems to be working. In the realm of paperback fiction, Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis were the big sellers. I have already talked about both of these books, but it is good to see more and more people coming around to old Maqroll the Gaviero.My trip to EuropeNext week, I am travelling to Barcelona and then to Ireland. I have some serious airplane time ahead of me so I am packing several books. I had a thought that it might be a fun idea to read a novel that takes place in Barcelona while flying over there. I did a little research and found myself an intriguing little book: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez. Apparently it is about a lonely man in Barcelona, who joins “a lonely hearts club” to alleviate his solitude. Instead, it throws him into contact with the most eccentric characters in an eccentric city. Sounds like fun.
The book that sent the most people to this site this week via the search engines was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book and the flap surrounding it has been a huge story on sports radio so it’s no surprise that there are quite a few people looking for more info. The new books that have people talking this week are not a big surprise. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek a noted presidential biographer, revealed the news that JFK had an ongoing ralationship with an 19 year old intern codenamed “Mimi.” “Mimi” then broke her 40 year silence and went to the press. Don’t be surprised if her book shows up soon. The other book in the news is The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal which is, according to the reviews I’ve read unabashed in annointing the Clinton years as paradise on earth. The book I talked about most this week was The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. It is by far the best book I have read in a long time, and now that several friends have read it, our new hobby seems to be speculating on the whereabouts of the mysterious Maqroll the Gaviero. Read it…Judge a book by its coverI have come to notice during my time at the bookstore that, compared to the Brits, American book cover design is pretty dull. It seems that publishers are convinced that the only way to sell books to Americans is to make the covers as bland and non-threatening as possible. Compare the American cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s new book to the British one and you’ll see what I mean.
I am almost done reading a very remarkable book. Actually, it’s not really a book, it’s seven novellas about one man, a mysterious character by the name of Maqroll the Gaviero. He is too complex to really describe, but I suppose I might try: he is an adventurer first and formost, preferably by sea, but he is not in it for the excitment. His travels are constant because it is his compulsion. He is a lover of the world and ships and beautiful women. He is an excellent judge of character, though he is often drawn into disregarding his own judgements. He encounters many fascinating characters, and we follow as well the Gaviero’s companions and trusted friends, Abdul Bashur (Dreamer of Ships) and Ilona Rubenstein (the Nymph of Trieste).The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is, dare I say it, on par with and even surpasses the work of Borges and Garcia Marquez. These novellas span the globe like no book ever has. Maqroll visits every continent and sniffs out schemes and companions in every port. This Maqroll, he is no vain adventurer, no hero. He is tortured by his restlessness. He is at the same time a most exceptional man, well-read and loyal, courteous and brave when bravery is required. And yet he is so fragile. I worry about Maqroll as he is blown about the globe by the whims of a strange fate. I am almost done with the 7th and final novella. I have almost reached the last of the 700 pages, but I am not ready to say good bye. This Maqroll, he can really get ahold of you. I have read some books, and though I am by no means an expert, I can say that this book will have to be a classic. It is just so good.