The Count of Monte Cristo (Penguin Classics)

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Alexandre Dumas in the Kitchen

Most people know Alexandre Dumas for his classics (usually assigned as required reading for class) The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, but fewer people are aware of what he considered his masterwork: Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine. This giant tome was part memoir, part encyclopedia, part cookbook. Rohini Chaki at Atlas Obscura describes the project as “more than a cookbook. Dumas meant it to be a formidable inquiry into both gustation and gastronomy, utilized by enthusiasts and culinary professionals alike.”

The Ghost in My Hands: On Reading Digital Books

During my last two years of college in Chicago, I rode downtown by commuter train a few times each week. The trip took about 40 minutes, and I always brought a book to pass the time.

I read most of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain on the tracks between the Loop and the Davis Street stop. I paged through The Satanic Verses that way too. These were strange book choices, but I was a strange reader. I never felt like I had read the right books. Everyone else seemed to have read everything. I was so far behind I had no idea where to start. I had hunger, but no sense of taste.

I certainly got no guidance from what other people on the train were reading. My fellow riders seemed to subsist on the Trib or Wall Street Journal alone. No novels other than the occasional Scott Turow or John Grisham. This was the golden age of the courtroom potboiler. I didn’t understand the priorities of these people whose lives were swarmed with mortgages, kids, and 401(k)s.

In 1998, I came to New York for graduate school, and at once I felt as if I’d found my people at last. I loved how so many people read books on the subway. Not just bestsellers, either. Novels, biographies, poetry collections. Books for people who loved reading.

To pay my bills, I got a job downtown at the Seaport. Once again, I was riding a train for most of an hour a few times a week. Nearly every day I would see a person reading a book that I had on a class syllabus, or a title from my own personal reading to-do list. New York felt like a place I knew, even though I didn’t really know it yet. The covers of books I recognized would stand out like friendly faces—well, hello, Gabo! What’s up, Woolfie? I see you’re a thing they carried, too, Mr. O’Brien!

Because I wanted so much to be a writer in those days, I spent many hours every week at the many bookstores of Manhattan. I bought used books because I couldn’t afford brand new ones. I was always waiting for a new release that I really wanted to show up as a remainder or as someone else’s cast off. If you want something that you cannot afford badly enough, then the packaging itself becomes an object of desire, and I began to be able to identify a book that I wanted after just the barest glimpse of its cover.

My favorite book covers were Vintage International paperbacks; their stately design, metallic hues, and dark tones were so lovely and pure. I would pick up a new author just because of the Vintage colophon. This was how I met Julian Barnes and William Maxwell. They had the right kind of references.

As it so happens, on a crosstown bus many years later, I fell into conversation with a woman who was the purchasing editor for Vintage International. I couldn’t find the words to express my gratitude to her; later, when she got off at her stop, I resisted the urge to ask for her email address. I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea.

Even after I finished graduate school, I still carried a book to the office each day. (In this way, I told myself I was different from those commuter train riders in Chicago years earlier.) Sometimes, at work I’d put the book face down on my desk, but usually I’d leave it out in the open: not to parade what I was reading but as a kind of invitation to anyone who wanted to talk books.

One winter, a colleague stopped by every few days to see how far along I’d gotten in War and Peace. Eventually, he began to offer up his own daily updates on his journey through books like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Killer Angels. I learned that he was a one-time history major who got swallowed up by the corporate world and was trying to find his way out.

Shortly before I got married, I was transferred from the office at the Seaport to the corporate headquarters out in Newark. Once again, I found myself on a commuter train each day. My friends would grimace when I told them about my daily commute. To reassure them that it wasn’t terrible, I pointed out that I had time to read.

Smartphones and e-readers made their debut while I was commuting to Newark. I tried this out one evening when I downloaded The Time Machine onto a first-generation iPad. At the time, I was sitting in bed while my wife slept, and I needed no lamplight because the screen was illuminated. This pleased me at first. But as I read, I realized that the tablet weighed just a fraction too much; it pulled gently at my fingertips, tugging me back to the real world more than a physical book.

The technology for e-readers has improved greatly since then. I read more digital books than physical ones now. I don’t feel quite right about it. But I love the convenience and simplicity of reading via Kindle. I opted for a digital copy of Ian McEwan’s

That’s Too Much: The Problem with Prolific Writers

On Thursday, The New York Times published an op-ed defense of prolific writers by one of the modern era’s most prolific writers himself, Stephen King. It was a timely bit of writing for me, a non-prolific writer with a first book deal in the works, for whom the question of appropriate literary output is often debated.

In King’s take, which is certainly worth a read, he basically argues two things. One, that there are great works buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of some writers. (i.e. “Alexandre Dumas wrote ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ — and some 250 other novels.”) And two, that for some authors, like him and Joyce Carol Oates, “prolificacy is sometimes inevitable.” He describes the crazy-making clamor of the voices in his head since his youth, all the stories crying out to be written.

The potential for those unwritten works is an interesting point of entry. Like most everyone, I’ve always found a particular romance in the notion of lost works of literature. There are so many different kinds, aside from those that never manage to be written. There are the truly lost, like William Shakespeare’s missing play The History of Cardenio. The nearly lost, like the poems of Emily Dickinson. There are the mostly-lost works that could have died with their authors but were published anyway, like Vladimir Nabakov’s The Original of Laura or David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

But lately I’ve been struck by the notion that there might be no books more lost than those buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of authors who have simply published too damn much.

What’s your opinion, for instance, of the William Faulkner novel Pylon? How about Joyce Carol Oates’s Solstice? Larry McMurtry’s incredible doorstop of a novel Moving On? Or the only book in which Philip Roth wrote of a female protagonist, When She Was Good? Any non-John Updike scholars out there recall A Month of Sundays?

No? Well, who can blame you? Faulkner wrote 19 novels. You could hardly be expected to read them all. Larry McMurtry has written over 45 books. Roth, nearly 30 novels and novellas. Updike, more than 20 novels and almost as many short story collections.

Joyce Carol Oates, as King points out is “the author of more than 50 novels (not counting the 11 written under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly).” But that’s just the novels. I stopped counting the short story collections listed on her Wikipedia bibliography entry after 20 — which just brought me to the early 1990s. Oh, and that entry is listed as “incomplete.” Wikipedia would be grateful for your help in expanding it, though it’s unlikely you could do so faster than Oates herself.

Seeing a bibliography like that I can only wonder, isn’t it possible — even likely, perhaps — that Oates’s best novel is some forgotten, out-of-print book she wrote in, say, 1982, maybe one that hasn’t even landed on that incomplete bibliography yet? If so, most of us will never know it, because her massive output has built a body so forbidding that it deprives us of the experience of her books.

This kind of output isn’t limited to the literary scene, as King’s piece clearly illustrates. In fact, things only get really wild when you start talking about genre. There’s King himself, of course, who is at around 70 books all told. Agatha Christie who, as he points out, published 91 novels. Isaac Asimov, who, King says “hammered out more than 500 books and revolutionized science fiction.” James Patterson — also name-checked by King — has produced (mostly co-authored) nearly 150 books. He released about 15 in 2014 alone. And where would Modern Culture be without Nora Roberts, who has written more than 200 romance novels?

Maybe King is right that this kind of output is a good thing. But something about it still makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s because, upon discovering a book I love, I invariably feel compelled to track down and devour everything else by the same author.

With some it’s simple. Flannery O’Connor’s entire bibliography basically consists of four books, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Then, if you’re really hungry, there are her letters, interviews, whatever remains of her collected “uncollected” marginalia, and, most recently, a prayer journal. Finish those, and you’ve done it. You know Flannery all the way from “The Geranium” to “Judgment Day,” and whatever else she thought, wondered, or murmured to the heavens. There’s something wonderful about having seen all that an author has to offer, following the progression of her skill, obsessions, the recurring tropes and themes, the trails of subconscious leakage.

The problem comes when I happen upon an author, like one of the above — King included — whose body of work defies, by its sheer heft, that kind of close study without lavishing a truly abnormal amount of time and devotion upon it.

It’s not as if reading a novel is the same as watching a movie or viewing a piece of art. After all, one could see all of Vincent Van Gogh’s 860 oil paintings in a few days if they were physically available. And a cursory appreciation of Johannes Vermeer’s 34 mightn’t take longer than an hour. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography amounts to 13 feature films I could watch in a few of days if I felt like a binge. But it’s not so simple for writers, unless I want this to become my own personal Year of John Updike, Two Years of Philip Roth, or Decade of Joyce Carol Oates.

King concludes his op-ed by saying that he’s glad Ms. Oates continues to write new books “because,” he says, “I want to read them.” I wonder if he really has. If anyone has read them all. Or truly does anxiously await the next one’s arrival. Whoever has or does is in possession of far more free time than I. If we were immortal, if our time on the planet was infinite, I’m sure I’d feel differently, but as King wisely points out in his own piece, “life is short.”

And let’s say I wasn’t an obsessive completionist. When considering huge bodies of work, there’s still the uncertainty about where to enter and where to go next once you’ve found a way in. If I wish to dig into the oeuvre of Oates, McMurtry, Updike, Roth, or even James Patterson, I’m forced to either choose at random or rely on others to tell me which work is most important and worthy. Which might be fine if the people on whom I were relying had read all of the work themselves, but of course they haven’t — with the exception perhaps of King’s devoted fan base.

I experienced a similar anxiety many years ago at a record store. I had gone there determined to finally delve into Frank Zappa’s music. Unfortunately, it was quite a good record store, and they stocked most of his 100 albums. Finally, after trying to make a decision based on the album art, I gave up and decided to get into punk instead, a lot of short-lived bands that self-destructed after just an album or two, tidy discographies I could learn by heart. Of course there were probably some truly great albums buried in Zappa’s discography, as in the Grateful Dead’s 144-plus record output. But I’ll never know. The volume of work becomes a barricade, a wall that one cannot reasonably scale even if one wishes to.

So it is with novels. It’s true that telling Oates, et al., not to write so much might deprive us of great works, but the net effect is the same either way. Each new book is, for me anyway, another lost in the flood.

Image Credit: Flickr/library_mistress.

Bound and (Un)gagged: Why Orange Is the New Black Appeals to Us Outside

1.
In the opening montage for Orange Is the New Black, the made-for-Netflix series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, disembodied lips of different races and ethnicities mouth the words to Regina Spektor’s song “You’ve Got Time.”  The message is clear: we are all the same (we all have lips, I suppose). The faces are both stripped of identity, yet are identifiably female. The introduction sets the stage for the show’s focus on the idea of a universal feminine experience. From the illicit groping between Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) to the hair salon run by Sophia (the awesome Laverne Cox), the show treats its viewers to a titillating version of female camaraderie that might exist on the WB or in the catalogues of a Seven Sisters college.

In fact, Piper Kerman (renamed “Chapman” for the Netflix series) invites the comparison to an all-women’s collegiate experience herself in her memoir. “I was surviving,” she writes about her time in a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., “perhaps [because] I had gone to an elite women’s college. Single-sex living has certain constants, whether it’s upscale or down and dirty…There was less bulimia and more fights…but the same feminine ethos was present — empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on good days, and histrionic drama…on bad.”

The series reflects this same “all women be crazy” ethos, and the comparison to college dormitory living does seems apt. The viewing experience is really a lot like Felicity in its gossipy will-they-or-won’t-they feel, down to the symbolic meaning attributed to hairstyles (for some reason, this is the sine qua non of feminine culture on popular television). It’s also deliciously, compulsively watchable, not just because the acting is compelling, but also because it reinforces what the audience would like to view as a universal truth: there isn’t much difference between people on the inside and people on the outside. The success of both the show and the memoir evince the public’s current insatiable thirst for prison narratives — so long as they aren’t too violent or dirty. (Kerman inoculates her memoir, and the show, against any charges of girl-on-girl sexual assault: Oz this is not.) Still, one wonders, is this perceived similarity between those on the inside and us on the outside just to make us (liberal, middle-class, educated) feel better (or worse) about the prison state that is the U.S., circa now?

2.
The prison narrative has been around for a long time. Not only have great authors spent time in prison (Thomas More, Marquis de Sade) but great works have also been written about prisons (The Count of Monte Cristo, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). “Prison lit,” as a dedicated genre consisting of first-person accounts of trial and punishment, seems to have come about around the 16th century as large numbers of literate, educated dissenters spent time behind bars; they wrote as a way to spark conversation about the role of incarceration in society. Not coincidentally, the 16th century also saw the rise of imprisonment as legal punishment. On top of the religious and political minorities, there were also greater numbers of vagrants and debtors who were locked up.

Similarly, the American tradition of “prison lit” has its roots in social protest. Thoreau, in Resistance to Civil Government, wrote that, “[u]nder a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” launching the idealistic notion that great thinking and writing come from behind prison walls. Early 20th century prison writings were generally by activists who sought to expose the inequities of the justice system. My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie was one of the first widely-read first-person accounts of prison life. Lowrie was sentenced to 15 years at San Quentin for burglary (he was out in 10 on good behavior). Lowrie attempts to chronicle the daily humiliations of prison life while also maintaining the idea that he wasn’t a born criminal, but rather a victim of bad circumstances that conspired against him: “And despite a long term in prison, I am not yet a criminal.” He separates himself and his fellow inmates from their crimes: “But I know that all men are human.” This idea of a constant humanity resonates with the same appeal as other “outsider” narratives.

During the Civil Rights era, prison literature became a way to unite both individual struggles with political ones, although the works were arguably still the product of a few great minds. The Autobiography of Malcom X, for example, galvanized a movement. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice similarly links the African-American male prison experience with the greater historical atrocities of colonialism and slavery, crimes where African-Americans lost their ability to move freely. Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, published in 1967, is heralded as one of the greatest prison novels, reveling in psychological verity and presenting an array of criminal “types” familiar to any outside audience today.

Unsurprisingly, the rise of prison narratives in America coincided with a dramatic increase in prison populations during the ’70s, putatively as a reaction to the anti-establishment mores of the ’60s. This trend continues today at least partially because of popular anti-crime campaigns, the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” political rhetoric. Various memoirs and stories emerged to expose the horrendous conditions of most penitentiaries; not coincidentally, many of them focus on social conditions preceding incarceration, like poverty, lack of family support, substance abuse, homelessness, and exposure to criminal activity. Many of these narratives are written by African American writers addressing a presumptively white audience and take on a semi-educational stance not unlike slave narratives: John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), for example, in addition to the works mentioned above.

One role of the prison narrative is to combat the dehumanizing process that is the modern prison system. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explained incarceration as a way for the State to maintain its absolute power and authority over its citizens. Certainly, penal institutions try their very best to effectively erase the individual as we know it. For this reason, prisons separate inmates by race, women are housed separately from men, and a series of bureaucratic trials are imposed — bodies are counted at certain times of day, sleeping situations are altered, and procedural delays are rampant. Some states also have versions of various laws that prevent author-inmates from profiting off of their writing, which limits free expression, a Constitutional ideal that we profess to hold dear.

It makes sense, then, that prison literature today seeks to reaffirm the triumph of the human spirit, so to speak. Kerman, as an example, continually reasserts her ability to maintain her can-do pluckiness: “I hated the control the prison exercised over my life, but the only way to fight it was in my head.” Rather than dwell on her misfortune or become too accustomed to prison life, Kerman stages a protest, Oprah-style: no one can keep her down. She still has her favorite things: her radio, her running, her prison “cheesecake,” and the companionship of the other women.

At the same time, the inmate-author is in a unique position to testify as to the conditions and injustices rampant in the system. Interestingly, contemporary prison narratives rarely claim that incarceration is wrong in itself, but rather focus on cruel and inhumane treatment. Kerman relates in detail the administrative nightmare that is the judicial process — she pleads guilty and surrenders but must wait over a year for her sentence to begin. Yet, she does not ever argue that she did not deserve punishment. The PEN Prison Writing Program’s website includes thoughtful essays about concerns like solitary confinement and the death penalty without exhorting the reader to rethink the concept of the penitentiary more generally. No one, it seems, wants to argue that murderers and rapists don’t belong in prison.

For example, in writing about the death penalty, J. Michael Stanfield Jr. speaks directly to us, the outsiders: “Okay, so maybe I’m coming off as just a tad bit facetious here, but it doesn’t change the fact that murder, even the government-approved variety, is still murder, by the very definition of the law. What’s more (and I’m going out on a limb here), capital punishment is immoral, and it’s a sin of our modem, civilized society.” The reader of this cannot help but be morally implicated, particularly since the political reality is that prisoners cannot vote (and most states limit the ability of ex-felons to vote in some manner). In Stanfield’s piece, the reader, who is viewed as potentially complicit with the government, becomes an agent for moral decision-making: we can decide that murder, in all its varieties, is immoral and, therefore, seek to eliminate the death sentence. Yet, Stanfield doesn’t argue that crimes (like murder) are undeserving of punishment; in fact, he says quite the opposite.

Prison narratives exert their moral authority by emphasizing their “truth.” Whether the piece is fiction or not, readers want to feel as though the information or story is conveyed with some deeper understanding, similar to the way readers want to read about war but never actually want to go there. One way that present-day prison writing emphasizes the notion of “truth” is by sheer volume. Infamous bastions like San Quentin publish anthologies of inmates’ stories and verse, and the PEN Program fosters prison writing’s “restorative and rehabilitative” powers and sponsors writing contests. Wally Lamb has assembled two anthologies (Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away) of work by women inmates in a Connecticut women’s maximum-security prison. In these cases, the emphasis is on a collection of writing, a community on the inside speaking truth to us on the outside. Rather than one great writer, like Thomas More, writing for a small intellectual elite, these anthologies are mass marketed for a consumer audience of liberals. We cannot deny the power of these stories because there are just too many of them; however, the highly consumable quality of the publications — not entirely unlike the idea of watching a whole season of Orange at one sitting — makes it less likely we will act.

3.
In truth, the American prison system is in crisis. The number of people in prison since the 1980s has more than tripled, to 751 per 100,000 people (that’s nearly 1 percent of our population). The U.S. puts more people behind bars than any other country in the world. We house half of the world’s prison population. Over half of those in prison are African-American or Hispanic. There are more black men within the various incarnations of incarceration — prison, probation or parole — than there were slaves during the height of slavery. For many urban, minority communities, prison is simply a fact of everyday life (as is prison rape, if evidenced by the number of times detectives on Law & Order: SVU threaten accused rapists and pedophiles with it). The penitentiary is both a subculture and the dominant culture all in one.

Whatever you may think about the causes of the prison population explosion or what should be done about it, America has long held contradictory views about incarceration. On the one hand, incarceration is perhaps ideally all about rehabilitation: after a certain amount of time (not necessarily commensurate with the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines), we assume or believe, given evidence, that an offender can grow to regret his crimes and become a productive member of society.

There are a lot of problems with that view, not the least of which being that overcrowded prisons seem unlikely to produce anything productive. It does, however, explain the surge in prison programs that teach inmates job training, anger management, art, drama, music, writing, etc. The idea is that these programs reduce recidivism, and most of them seem to do so. Reducing recidivism is popular among the public and politicians alike — while no one wants to be seen as “soft on crime” (especially when it comes to violent offenders — it’s a bit easier to make the case for nonviolent offenses), arguing that programs prevent ex-cons from returning to prison reduces costs all around.

But rehabilitation is at war with the other main ideology driving prison sentencing, retribution. In other words, people should be punished for what they do. This is, after all, the American way — submitting oneself to a greater authority (God and/or the state), manfully accepting that one has done wrong and deserves punishment. In his book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, author Robert Perkinson traces this foundation back to slavery — subjugate, discipline, punish (especially African-Americans).

Yet, even more contrarily, the manner in which prisons dehumanize individuals — stripping them of possessions, bodily integrity, identity, community, and dignity — confuses the issue of retribution. If someone who commits a crime is a monster, someone with whom we don’t want to identify, then the arduous procedural elements of the criminal justice process — the hearings, the trial, the parole board hearings, the write-ups for good or bad behavior, the psychological profiles — simply impede the public’s desire for good old retribution. Hangings in the public square at least are consistent, and possibly more humane than solitary confinement in a supermax. As some said, or thought, when Ariel Castro hung himself in his cell, good riddance. In other words, he was so subhuman that he didn’t deserve the chance to be stripped of his humanity. It’s often even the same voices who so quickly demonize unlikable offenders — people who, say, shoot down innocent civilians in a movie theater or plant bombs at the end of the Boston marathon — that will also exhort the virtues of rehabilitation. Furthermore, advances in science may well indicate that the causes of violent behavior are at least partially biological, which may mean that rehabilitation is simply asking the wrong questions.

Retribution is fundamentally inconsistent with rehabilitation. Retribution relies on a theory of individual choice, arguing that wrong-doers deserve punishment, while rehabilitation accepts that some people may not have been capable of making other choices at that moment (but they should know better in the future once they are schooled in guilt). You cannot think that people deserve to be punished for wrongdoing and simultaneously believe that people who commit offenses are wrong-headed and need guidance to find the proper path. And, yet, we do.

4.
You can see these conflicting ideologies within any prison memoir. In the PEN anthologies and others like it, the author chooses how much he would like to reveal about his crime and the events which landed him in prison. Does it affect our reading of the work? It only seems to serve as a way to further sell the outside audience on an authentic experience while also making the author an autonomous agent capable of self-reflection, even though that self-reflection is state-imposed. Part of the current allure of the authorial gesture in contemporary prison writing is that the writer is permitted to become someone else — the past is in the past. As the tagline of an O magazine article on Wally Lamb’s work with inmate-writers states: “In prison, they are robbers and murders. On paper, they are women not so different from the rest of us.” Even if the crime is revealed, usually a redemptive gesture follows to argue that this crime merely represents one bad decision or moment; the writer’s life is (or now is) composed of more than that.

This rehabilitative gesture allows us, the readers, to see the inmate as like us on the outside (presumably the readership of O magazine does not include large numbers of incarcerated individuals). I was at a performance in San Quentin where inmate-actors all gave their own short pieces based on their life experiences. Someone in the audience said, “It made me think about my own life.”  This move — my, he is relatable/yes, I am just like you — explains the enduring appeal of these narratives. Wouldn’t we all like to truly understand our motives and improve ourselves if only we had the time to do so? And in order to make this mental turn, to go from seeing oneself as worthless to worthy of someone’s time and attention, requires a belief in personal agency, both the ability to commit crimes of one’s own free will and to seek forgiveness for them. The writer must feel the pain of his acts, an action consistent with parole board hearing where an inmate must express requisite apologies.

At the same time, a prison narrative must reinforce its boundaries, physical and emotional. In other words, since the very function of a prison is to display the mighty power of the state, a prison narrative must focus on the day-to-day, mundane nature of life behind bars. In Kerman’s memoir, I lost count of the number of times she runs around the track. Bray’s novel spends many pages on the mundane details of prison life alongside the portrayal of each character’s inner struggles. The potential for growth in a prison narrative comes from the interior journey. Since prison, by its very nature, circumscribes a person’s ability to move freely (and is very, very boring), writers have ample opportunity to reflect on past events and motivations.

5.
Part of what makes Orange so interesting is the fact that Piper Kerman is the presumptive consumer of her own material. She is white, liberal, educated, scornful of the trappings of uneducated femininity (like big weddings), with just a bit of a wild streak (which I like to fancy I have myself). This places her in the unique position to both testify to her own dehumanizing treatment and advocate for the better treatment for others who cannot achieve her level of discourse.

It’s a forgone conclusion that Piper is dreadfully sorry for what she has done. She writes this over and over. Yet, is this memoir a rehabilitative one? Did Piper need to spend 16 months in a federal prison to learn that being involved in a drug cartel was a bad idea? Per the book, no. Piper spends little time dwelling on why she made that decision — instead, at moments, she seems to glorify the freewheeling, thug life she had. She very judiciously states that she is “no better” than anyone else she meets in prison.

And yet, in saying so, she clearly marks herself as not from the inside. Her time in prison is like a student spending a study abroad trip in South America, a dip into an exotic culture. What about the other inmates? Do they exercise the same autonomous agency that Kerman claims she possesses? Both the show and the books seem to argue no. The other inmate characters’ crimes are as accidents, the wrong place at the wrong time, born of circumstances like poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. The show deals with this neatly — it provides each character an intriguing backstory, giving them psychological motives for their crimes, but also humanizing them, so that the audience can imagine, if they wish, that the characters have the ability to reclaim their non-criminal individual identities. Yet Kerman/Chapman herself never wrestles with this question of her own agency, so she is always an outsider, placing any authenticity of her claim to self-improvement in question.

Since the writing of the memoir and the production of the Netflix series, Kerman mostly devotes herself to advocating for improvement in prison conditions, a worthy goal. Certainly, Kerman and other writers of prison narratives are not defending the current penal system; the contradictions in their narratives are related to the contradictions inherent in the criminal justice system. But as a consumer audience, we can wonder whether these works really serve the political purposes they’d like.

We must acknowledge that, like all creative works, prison narratives are intended for consumption by readers like us. Do we read them just to exorcise our guilt? That seems to take away from the profoundly moving nature of the genre. Whether it’s because people are seeking authenticity of individual expression in an era where so much feels prepackaged and marketed or whether it’s because incarceration speaks to some kind of universal human experience, I am not sure. But the emotions are not manufactured. During the performance I attended at San Quentin, people in the audience were profoundly, genuinely moved — I saw tears and handholding, a vast swelling of catharsis among the non-incarcerated audience. Even I wanted to believe.

Image Credit: Flickr/wallyg

Seven Reasons Why Alexandre Dumas Will Never Die

Alexandre Dumas is once again — still, always, forever — with us. There he is in Umberto Eco’s new novel, The Prague Cemetery, aiding Giuseppe Garibaldi and his redshirts during the fight for Italian unification. And there he is up on the silver screen, for at least the 200th time, with a splashy new 3-D version of one of his most durable tales, The Three Musketeers, a voracious movie franchise that has drawn on talents ranging from Douglas Fairbanks to Christopher Walken and Charlie Sheen. Dumas has been dead for more than 140 years, but he refuses to go gentle into that good night. What’s his secret? How does he manage to continue to engage readers and moviegoers year after year after year? The answer, I believe, is that Dumas had the good sense (and the good fortune) to do the following seven things:

1.  He Came From Humble Origins

Perhaps the central fact of Dumas’s life was that he was of mixed race, a “quadroon.” His paternal grandparents were a French nobleman stationed in Haiti and a Creole woman of mixed French and African descent. Their son became a general in Napoleon’s army, but he fell out of favor and his own son, Alexandre, was born into poverty in 1802.

2.  He Worked Like a Galley Slave

No writer ever succeeded without hard work, and Dumas often put in 14-hour days producing more than 200 books, plus plays, stories, and a small mountain of journalism. Soon after arriving in Paris from his native Villers-Cotterêts, he was writing hit plays, followed by hit novels. After turning one of his plays into a serial novel, he opened a production studio with a team of writers who cranked out hundreds of stories. Dumas used many collaborators during his career, most notably Auguste Maquet, who helped him write dozens of plays and novels, including Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Maquet would later take Dumas to court seeking joint rights to their collaborations, but the court awarded him financial damages while Dumas retained the rights to the works. It was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. After the court case, neither man, working alone, produced any memorable work.

3.  He Lived Large

Dumas was as colorful as any of the characters who populated his fiction. As his biographer André Maurois would later put it, “Dumas was a hero out of Dumas.” He amassed and spent several fortunes, ate and drank like a king, kept mistresses, fathered illegitimate children, ran a theater, built a mansion, and showed resourcefulness when it came to dodging creditors. He traveled to Belgium and later to Russia before arriving in Italy during the Risorgimento in 1860. Simone Simonini, Umberto Eco’s supremely unreliable narrator in The Prague Cemetery, winds up aboard the ship that is carrying Dumas to Sicily. “Dumas welcomed me with much cordiality,” the fictional Simonini reports:
He was wearing a pale brown lightweight coat and looked unmistakably like the half-caste he was — olive skin, protruding, fleshy, sensual lips and a head of frizzy hair like an African savage.  Otherwise he had a lively, wry expression, a pleasant smile and the rotund figure of a bon vivant… I remembered one of the many stories about him: some impudent young Parisian had made a malicious reference in his presence to the latest theories suggesting a link between primitive man and lower species.  Dumas replied: ‘Yes sir, I do indeed come from the monkey.  But you, sir, are returning to one!’
4.  He Was a Peerless Storyteller and Unapologetic Entertainer

Simonini disparages a couple of redshirts because they are “storytellers like Dumas, embellishing their recollections so that all their geese are swans.” Guilty as charged. Dumas did his historical research, but he had the good sense not to let facts get in the way of a good story. Unlike his contemporaries Balzac and Dickens, he shunned realism in favor of escapist entertainment, and so instead of taking his readers into the salons and slums of Paris, he took them back to the 17th century (The Three Musketeers and its sequels), back to the French Revolution, back to the aftermath of Napoleon’s downfall earlier in the 19th century (The Count of Monte Cristo), always back. Many critics dismissed him as a lightweight, but readers couldn’t get enough. Like Dickens, Dumas sold many of his novels as serials, which called for brisk action, constantly rising and falling fortunes, and titillating cliff-hangers. And, as with Dickens, you sometimes get the sense that Dumas had one eye on the meter — that is, that he was a little too well aware that he was getting paid by the word. But readers didn’t complain. They were too busy devouring Dumas’s tales of unjust imprisonment, stock market swindles, buried treasure, blackmail, back-stabbing, suicide, poisoning, kidnapping, forgiveness, revenge, and countless other human virtues.

5.  He Would Have Hated – and Loved – the New Three Musketeers Movie

Though Dumas surely would have recognized the new Musketeers movie for the dog it is, he just as surely would have appreciated it for keeping the franchise alive until the next adaptation comes along. The cast of this new 3-D version looks like it was culled from an L train full of hipsters headed for Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The shining exception is Christoph Waltz, who plays duplicitous Cardinal Richelieu. Waltz is such an interesting actor that I would pay money to watch him paint a door, but here he is given some wooden lines — “Evil is just a point of view” and “I am France” — that would have dismayed Dumas, a master at writing dialog.

6.  He Died Broke and Happy

If every smart person’s goal in life is to die broke, then Dumas was an unqualified success. But while a lesser man would have bemoaned the cruelties of fate that left him penniless on his deathbed, Dumas had this to say about death as it approached him in 1870: “I shall tell her a story, and she will be kind to me.”

7.  He Figured Out How to Stay in the News

Dumas was still making news more than a century after his death. He was buried in the town of his birth and remained there until Nov. 30, 2002, when French President Jacques Chirac ordered the body transported in solemn procession to its rightful resting place in the Panthéon in Paris, where Voltaire, Rousseau, Émile Zola, Victor Hugo, and other French immortals are entombed. Dumas would have loved the spectacle. During a televised ceremony, the coffin was flanked by four Republican Guards dressed as the Musketeers Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and their sidekick D’Artagnan. Chirac said France was “repaying an injustice which marked Dumas from childhood, just as it marked the skin of his slave ancestors.” Two centuries after his birth, Dumas had finally overcome his humble origins.

The critic Jules Machelet has called him “an inextinguishable volcano.” Don’t expect the lava to stop flowing anytime soon.

Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]

Ask a Book Question: #74 (Just One Book)

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.

The Millions Quiz: Fresh, Old, and Moldy

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So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: New, Used, or Antequarian?Edan: My preference is for new books – to me, reading someone’s yellowed copy of Pride and Prejudice feels too much like wearing that same someone’s stinky sneakers. Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but I can never drum up the same kind of lust for the used as I can for the new. This might have its origins in childhood trips to Children’s Book World in West L.A. where I went to attack L.M. Montgomery’s entire oeuvre, or to get the latest installment of the Babysitter’s Club series. My appreciation for the new became part of my job at Book Soup; there I spent a lot of time stacking smooth hardcovers and shiny paperbacks, and oohing and aahing over what the receiver unpacked next. Even now I can’t help but fix displays at my local bookstore – it’s just too pleasurable to handle all those new novels.For me, buying a new book is an event, and after a day or two of reading, I write my name, and the month and year, on the book’s inside cover. I rarely get rid of the new books I buy; the connection is too deep. I love starting with a stiff and shy paperback, and ending with something dog eared, scribbled on, and creased – in that process, the book becomes read, and becomes mine.Andrew: I know I’ve been in a good used-book shop if, upon leaving, I begin to muse what it would be like to quit my job, buy the shop in question, and become Andrew Saikali, bookseller, Esq. Then reality usually sets in, and I forget this fanciful notion.Second-hand book shops are like an extended version of my den – they are what it would resemble if I had the resources. So, for me, because of the experience of buying used, coupled with the cost-savings, second-hand books trump even the shiniest new books. That said, on occasion I’ll comb the city looking for a just-released title, price be damned. (Bob Dylan’s Chronicles was a case in point.)While I admire antiquarian books – taunting me as they do from their snobby little perch behind the glass, behind lock and key – I’ve always resisted the temptation to splurge. However, if anyone wishes to initiate me into the rarified world behind that glass, my birthday is in April. You’ve missed this year’s, but you can begin to think about next year’s. I also like imported wine and fine chocolate.Kevin: I don’t know if the problem is with me or with used book stores, but either way, the relationship always ends in disappointment. I want to like used book stores, to see them as little pockets of virtue in the miles and miles of new, shiny waste sold by other stores on the block. I want to admire the shy, balding hippy who runs the place, and his quiet young apprentice, who volunteers five hours a week for unlimited free trade-ins. In my first year in every city I’ve ever lived in, I’ve made the rounds of the local used bookstores. Usually my initial trip is also my last. My latest such dalliance was with two places down in Old City Philadelphia. Not wanting to leaving empty handed, I walked out with a frayed history of colonialism in Latin America and a collection of Vonnegut short stories. Both are sitting just where I left them when I came home, in a stack at the foot of my bed. One problem with big chain bookstores, I suppose, is the way they press books upon you, with table displays and prominent shelf placements. It’s hard to discern value that way, too, as hard as it is to determine the same among the undifferentiated clutter of most used book stores. That’s why, all in all, I prefer hand-me-downs from friends, and the library.Emre: I find it hard not to get new, crisp books. There is a certain delight in slowly molding a novel’s spine until the covers bend for a comfortable one-hand-hold read. And, they smell good. That said, I prefer used books when reading not-so-recently published works. I appreciate three qualities in used books: artwork and fonts from a different era, notes by various previous owners (I enjoy the conversation regardless of whether we agree or not) and the randomness that often characterizes how I get them. So far they have – through friends, hole-in-the-wall bookstores or sidewalk vendors – introduced me to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and The Sirens of Titan, and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, among others. As for collecting and caring for vintage books, I got nothing. Some sort of book karma seems to be recycling everything that passes through my hands.Emily: Although I love a good rare books room (nothing like the feel of vellum and a little paleographic challenge), I don’t own anything much that’s worth more than the paper it’s printed on. I do own a first edition of Mary McCarthy’s first novel The Company She Keeps, but that wasn’t more than fifty dollars. No, the most expensive book in my collection, coming in at a whopping $92 plus shipping, is (try to contain your jealousy) the out-of-print Life, Letters, and Philosophical Regime of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, edited by Benjamin Rand (1900). It’s a discharged copy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and falling apart in spite of the fact that quite a few of the pages were uncut when it arrived. This purchase was practical: The Stanford library didn’t have a copy and since I didn’t make it to see the manuscript version of Shaftesbury’s regimen at the National Archives in London, this was the most expedient solution. In general, I’m pretty cheap when it comes to books. My most recent acquisition, for example, was a copy of La Princesse de Cleve (1678) by Madame de Lafayette, considered by some literary historians to be the first European novel. And that was free! (The only treasure in box of books left outside a used bookstore after hours.) Probably my best “find” after a copy of Colley Cibber’s classic (and then, perhaps still, out of print) early eighteenth century play The Careless Husband that I found on the sidewalk in Park Slope.Max: All three types of books speak to me. I blossomed as a reader thanks to used bookstores in Washington, DC and Charlottesville, where the books were cheap and I could easily compile the oeuvre of whoever I was obsessed with at the moment, Vonnegut or John Irving or Hemingway. But I’ve soured a bit on used books because too often used bookstores are hobbies of hoarders and impossible to navigate, or they are too polished and expensive. I will always love, however, the pocket paperbacks of the 50s to the 70s. I love the cover designs across those eras and I love being able to have a book with me, quite literally in my pocket, without having to schlep it awkwardly under my arm.But new books are in most cases better. I find them incredibly tempting with their shiny covers and crisp pages, though, as noted, I do get a bit weary of lugging hardcovers. As for the antiquarian books, I sometimes fancy the idea that it might be fun to be a book collector, but I know I do not have the temperament for it. I cannot see books as objects in that way, and, with the few books of value I have accumulated over the years, I fret about what I am supposed to do with them… sell them? Lock them in a safe? They sit in a box so that they won’t get wrecked. And that’s no place for books to be.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: Used, new, or antiquarian?

The Millions Quiz: Nightstand Reader

So that you may get to know us better, we introduce The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments.Today’s Question: What’s on your nightstand right now?Emily: Deciding where the nightstand stops in my dorm room is something of a quandary. And sadly, in this final dissertation push, pleasure reading is a thing of the past (Swift Studies 2006, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory, The Chicago Manual of Style…). But among the piles that daily encroach on my bed are two recent purchases: Dover’s paperback editions of Goya’s print series Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War. If you haven’t seen them, take a look. I hesitate to call either a pleasure, but they are, in their ways.Edan: I’m about to read The Great Man by Kate Christensen, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year. I enjoyed her previous novel, The Epicure’s Lament, and this one, about a recently deceased painter and the women in his life, sounds like something to dive into.After that, I’m going to give Edith Wharton my attention, beginning with The Age of Innocence. I also have a galley of Joan Silber’s novel, The Size of the World, the follow-up to her terrific and pleasing story collection Ideas of Heaven (which was nominated for a National Book Award).I just snagged the latest issue of Field, the poetry journal published by the Oberlin College Press, and a copy of Darcie Dennigan’s debut poetry collection, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse. Aside from this poetry reading, I’ll be steamrolling through months of unread New Yorker and Gourmet magazine issues.Garth: I seem to be having a big books problem this summer; my nightstand is about to collapse under the weight of three of them. The first is Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which I’m about 600 pages into (out of 900). The second is Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which I’m about 300 pages into (also out of 900)… and let’s just say that, for all that she does well. Gertrude lacks the, shall we say, narrative velocity of Mr. Bolano. Finally, clocking in at over 1000 pages, I’ve got Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, which seems insane and brilliant and possibly unfinishable. I keep thinking there are only a finite number of gigantic books, and that once I get them out of the way I can move on, and then I learn about writers like McElroy. I’m also hoping to get to Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker this summer. Seriously. In order not to get hopelessly depressed about my rate of reading, I try to read really, really short things in between the long things. My current favorite amuse-bouche or palate-cleansers are Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance and Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. It occurs to me that I may be suffering from some variety of disturbance myself. Call it gigantobibliomania.Ben: I have 18 books on my nightstand at the moment, three of which I think I’m supposed to be reviewing. Most interestingly, I have two autobiographical accounts by historians who retraced the steps of Mao’s Long March. When I learned would be going to China this summer, I briefly toyed with the idea of spending a few months traveling along the route taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as they fled from the Kuomingtan. The three year journey was a harrowing race across thousands of miles of China’s most unforgiving wilderness, and it would eventually go on to become the founding myth of the CCP. Its story is replete with violence and political intrigue and following in its steps while observing how China has changed in the intervening years “would make one great book,” I thought. I was wrong. It has made two mediocre books. The Long March by Ed Jocelyn and The Long March by Sun ShuyunAndrew: It would appear that thirty or so books have taken up occupancy on or near my nightstand. This is where the triage happens. Every few weeks, books seem to show up, sometimes all at once, sometimes individually. Compulsive second-hand book-buyer that I am, I’m afraid I can’t control the in-flow.Like an ER, this may seem to be a chaotic place, but it’s functional and I give prompt attention to the book that demands to be read next. When completed, the book is transferred to the recovery area (aka the bookcases in my den), a much more orderly place. Calm. Perhaps too calm.I began M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few weeks ago, then had to abruptly stop when my life took a chaotic turn, and now that calm reigns once again, I’ve restarted it. Up next will likely be A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair, by Peter Wiedhaas, unless some literary emergency comes in off the street.Emre: My oft-cluttered, permanently dusty nightstand is home to months-old copies of Harper’s and New Yorker magazines, the occasional New York Times Magazine and four books. The books are all byproducts of articles I read in the aforementioned publications. Yet, despite the enticing reviews/mentions I find myself unable to read any of them. Top of the list is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. After reading an article about the Bronx’s revival and realizing that as an adopted New Yorker with literary vices it is a sin not to have read a single Wolfe novel, I immediately picked up a used copy. Despite my best intentions to get going with it right after finishing Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, I am still only some 20 pages into the book. But it remains my top priority. Kind of.I might have a commitment problem. The second book is Parag Khanna’s The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. A book review in the NYT, as well as an excerpt from the book which appeared in the Times Magazine, sounded oh so interesting and timely that the politics wonk in me returned from the depths, turning me into the four-eyed nerd that I actually am to begin reading about how global powers – U.S., EU, China – are attempting to wrest control of the Second World – a term formerly ascribed to the communist bloc, which now may be morphing to describe emerging-market and resource-rich countries. Despite its accessible, Thomas Friedman-ish language, however, I am stuck at the end of Chapter 1. I blame my job for it. Part of my work description is to read news all day. After reading the Wall Street Journal, NYT, the FT and assorted other publications all day long, I have little appetite left for politics and business. On the other hand, I do feel an urgency – as in, lest I read this in the next six months, it may be obsolete.Sharing the third spot and making for a potential good duo-read are my girlfriend’s birthday presents to me: Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems. The gifts were, of course, not coincidental. They were conceived in the aftermath of a New Yorker article about the dying news industry (damn you, Huffington Post, et al.!) and born of our conversations regarding, well, the dying news industry. As conceptually interesting as Lippmann and Dewey’s books are, they also fall into the realm of thought-provoking, attention-requiring books, a la The Second World, which these days is a far stretch from the TV-watching couch potato I am after work. I might have to add a new book to my nightstand. Something in the 200-300 page range that involves fiction and is a light read – as in Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!-light. Any suggestions?Max: I’ve got just one book on my nightstand: Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which Mrs. Millions recently finished and which is waiting to be put back on the Reading Queue shelf. I’ve also got a teetering stack of magazines – issues of The New Yorker, The Week, and The Economist – that keep from reading my books. The book that I’m currently reading, meanwhile, is more often in the same room as me (or in my laptop bag if I’m on the go). This does make for occasional overnight stops on the nightstand.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What’s on your nightstand right now?

Staff Picks: Winchester, Scrabble, Byron, Dumas, Irving, Christensen

The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester recommended by AndrewThe subtitle says it all: “A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary”. In this engaging slice of history (with a narrower focus than his later The Meaning of Everything), Winchester zooms in on the intersecting lives of two men: Professor James Murray, who oversaw the committee which collected the submitted definitions, and Dr. W. C. Minor, formerly a respected American doctor and medic in the Civil War, who then transplanted to England, and at the time of his 10,000-plus contributions to the dictionary was a psychotic murderer and inmate at a mental institution.The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary recommended by NoahIt sounds ridiculous, but I never travel without my O.S.P.D. Published by Merriam Webster, Inc. for Hasbro, it is the game of Scrabble’s one and only arbiter, from AA to ZYZZYVA (a tropical weevil and a damned hard word to make, given the fact that there is just one Z tile.) My Third Edition, with gold embossed lettering on a stately green hardcover, never sits on the shelf for very long since I became addicted to the Scrabulous application on Facebook. I may be a bit old for social networking, but opening a Scrabulous game with someone faraway by playing ZODIACS for 106 points? Priceless. And as long as I’m using my O.S.P.D., and not online references, it’s not cheating – at least that’s what I tell myself. Scrabulous may carry a price for its creators, who have been sued by Hasbro. If only life came with an O.S.P.D., such disputes would be so much easier to settle.The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron recommended by TimothyIn 1933, British author Robert Byron, a distant relative of Lord Byron, embarked on an 11-month journey with a friend across the Middle East, eventually ending up in India. Along the way he kept a journal – full of caustic wit and genuine discovery – later published as The Road to Oxiana. The book offers an historical look at the people and places of the Orient through the eyes of a privileged and opinionated traveler who makes his way by boat, bus and stolen horse. The journal can be enjoyed either in its entirety or by reading accounts of select cities, such as Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, Kabul and many others in between. The entries, each noting the date and city elevation, range from descriptions about the joys of bargaining to verbatim accounts of memorable conversations concerning local customs. To be sure, Byron occasionally makes sweeping generalizations about the ethnic groups he encounters. While in Baghdad he writes: “The hotel is run by Assyrians, pathetic, pugnacious little people with affectionate ways.” More favorable opinions are formed when Byron gets to know people beyond monetary transactions.At its best, travel writing offers a healthy balance of observation and attitude. And if you’re lucky, the author will not shy from the self-revelation inherent when encountering new cultures. Byron accomplishes both. In his final entry, upon returning home, Byron expresses the timeless sentiment of a world traveler: “I began to feel dazed, dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop, at the impending collision between eleven months’ momentum and the immobility of a beloved home.”The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas recommended by EmreI am easily impressionable. And sometimes my tendencies are highly ephemeral. Yet, for some obscure reason, I have a constant longing for that of the old, which – absolutely – can no longer be had. That is why I venture to recommend The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas to you fellow readers. Granted, it is a classic so oft cast in movie renditions and referred to in modern language that you – just as with the author’s Three Musketeers – might think you know all its details, but Dumas’s Count is still likely to entrap you in the mysterious ways he moves. Born into the lower classes and securing for himself the promise of a decent lower middle-class status, Edmond Dantes, the protagonist, is cast off society’s script as it unfolds with Napoleon’s return to the throne and immediate downfall. But Dantes lives on in the depths of a dark prison cell, and once free, plots a magnificent return, beautifully articulated by his vengeance. If you thought anyone vengeful, peek into the Count of Monte Cristo’s schemes and you will quickly change your mind, not to mention that you will appreciate them for their brilliance and ability to make you fly through upwards of 1,200 pages. Hefty as it might be, and outdated as honor might seem in our age, The Count shines a romantic light on the magnificent Parisian society of the early- to mid-1800s, providing the modern reader with a gripping story, colorful characters and a reflection on times and thoughts that may seem far away but are very much a part of our lives today. See also: Max on The Count.Setting Free the Bears by John Irving recommended by MaxIt was John Irving who introduced me to contemporary fiction. As a young teenager, his novels were the first I digested with an adult mind. Though it pains me to note that his later novels have been sub-par at best, the novels of his most fertile period – Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hotel New Hampshire and of course The World According to Garp – are nearly unparalleled. But often given short shrift is the book that started it all: Setting Free the Bears. Where some of Irving’s novels can sometimes suffer from baroque plotting, Bears is refreshingly direct and light-hearted. Written when Irving was just 25, he submitted the book’s initial draft as his Masters thesis at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (where Kurt Vonnegut was a professor). The book offers a pair of free-spirited protagonists on a motorcycle adventure through Austria and a plan to liberate the animals in Vienna’s zoo. As is so often the case with Irving, things go awry. Though regarded as one of Irving’s lesser works, Bears is good fun that lays the groundwork for the books that made him famous.The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen recommended by PatrickPeppered with references to MFK Fisher, this beautiful, readable novel could be described as the seminal work of foodie fiction (although such an appellation would belittle it). Hugo Whittier has removed himself to his ancestral home on the Hudson River, where he’s dying from a disease that could be cured if only he’d stop smoking. Hugo is the quintessential antihero, a sardonic, narcissistic curmudgeon grown prematurely old. He struggles to stay out of the affairs of his brother, who is stumbling headlong into divorce, and his estranged wife, who has appeared suddenly seeking reconciliation. Hugo is perfectly rendered, in all his self-centered glory. As a bonus, the book contains a ripping recipe for Shrimp Newburg.

Dumas Lost and Found

A literary mystery reached its conclusion about two years ago when a lost Alexandre Dumas novel was published in French. The Last Cavalier had been discovered by a scholar in the Bibliotheque nationale de France as researched Dumas’ life. The book has now made it here in translation. The New Yorker covers the book in its “Briefly Noted” section, calling it “a breathless seven hundred and fifty pages,” which is certainly an apt description of the one Dumas book I’ve ever read, The Count of Monte Cristo.The CS Monitor raves as well and offers some specifics on how the novel was found in serialized form and how it was turned into a novel, “in much the same fashion Dumas himself did when transforming other epic serials into bound novels.”

Reading in Translation

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

Consider the classic

I had such a good time reading the Count of Monte Cristo that it made me wonder why I don’t read more so-called “classics.” So many times I have wandered into a book store or browsed through Amazon fruitlessly, when I might have gone for the known quantity that is the classic. First, let me define what I’m talking about here. People shy away from classics for two reasons: because they are old. You worry that the book will seem moldy and out of touch. And a classic is the sort of book that is assigned in middle school and high school, and therefore it doesn’t seem like the sort of book you’d want to read for fun (it might bring back bad memories, after all). But again and again I find that this is the wrong way to look at it. I am almost never disappointed when I read a classic novel. So, for all you casual readers out there, consider the classic.But classics aren’t just great for us grown ups, they’re perfect for precocious young readers. When I worked at the book store, I would often encounter parents trying to find books for kids who had read all the kids books. These young readers had read all the Harry Potter, all the Lemony Snicket, and the parents were looking for more of the same. I realized that classic novels are the perfect way to graduate these young readers to the next level of reading. Sure they may get assigned some of these books in school, but I know that when I was young, I found reading books for fun to be far more gratifying than reading for school. Here’s a quick list of classics that I like to recommend to precocious young readers (I’m only recommending books that I have read, so if you’ve got any ideas please share – there are so many more!):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthornePride and Prejudice by Jane AustenGreat Expectations by Charles DickensGulliver’s Travels by Jonathan SwiftFrankenstein by Mary ShelleyOr you could just get ALL of themUpdate: From the comments:Awakening by Kate Chopin (suggested by edan)Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (suggested by edan)Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (suggested by erin)The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (suggested by The Happy Booker)Related: Ask a Book Question: The 27th in a Series (Classifying Classics)Related: Giving Kids the Classics

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

As I recall there was a brief burst of interest in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo when the movie came out in 2002. It makes sense because the movie does a good job of capturing this story of intrigue and revenge, and, in fact, the novel lends itself well to the screen because it is so packed full of brilliant schemes and vivid characters. At the start of the book Edmond Dantes, a young French sailor, gets unwittingly wrapped up in the political machinations of his day, and ends up getting hauled off to the Chateau d’If, an island prison as sinister as it sounds. At this point, though we feel sorry for Dantes, we are treated to 50 or so pages of his struggle against hopelessness and his friendship with a priest named Faria. Dumas’ account of Dantes time in prison is thrilling both for its emotional weight and for the ingenious plans that Dantes and Faria concoct. By the next stage of the book, when the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo begins stirring up trouble among the Parisian elite, you wonder what else could be in store, since so many adventures have already occurred. But it turns out there’s a whole lot more. Dozens of characters are introduced, and though at times it becomes a bit overwhelming trying to remember who is romantically involved with whom and who is trying to kill whom, the whole massive web manages to untangle itself wonderfully in the end. The book is a real joy to read and Monte Cristo is a brilliant character. You will find him to be both enthralling and terrifying.

Vacation, n., time spent reading while away from home

Posting has been light because I’m nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I’ll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I’m thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I’m not sure how close I’ll be to the Internet. I’m excited about this vacation (we’ll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it’ll be a much needed break from school, but also because there’s no place I’d rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales – and by “exotic” I mean simply “not home.” For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy’s Binx Bolling is trying to keep “despair” at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven’t even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I’ll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I’ve been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I’m going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher’s publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I’m also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky’s account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I’m also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book’s premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it’s even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as “summer reading,” but I’ll just be happy that it’s summer and that my only obligation is to read.

A Reading Queue for 2004

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

A Weekend Getaway

I’m going away for the weekend. But just in case anyone is in dire need of a book recommendation while I’m gone, try The Count of Monte Cristo. Here’s what you’ll be getting: “Set against the turbulent years of the Napoleonic era, Alexandre Dumas’ thrilling adventure story is one of the most widely read romantic novels of all time. In it the dashing young hero, Edmond Dantes, is betrayed by enemies and thrown into a secret dungeon in the Chateau d’If — doomed to spend his life in a dank prison cell. The story of his long, intolerable years in captivity, his miraculous escape, and his carefully wrought revenge creates a dramatic tale of mystery and intrigue and paints a vision of France — a dazzling, exuberant France — that has become immortal.”Other NewsApparently Arthur Phillips will be following up his best-selling debut novel, Prague, with a thriller about an obsessive Egyptologist, called The Empty Chamber.

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