Pete Dexter has been in the news around here lately, and keeping that ball rolling, I've contributed a piece to The Rumpus series "The Last Book I Loved" about Dexter's collection of columns, Paper Trails. Technically, it's not the last book I've loved (more recently there's been Waiting for the Barbarians, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Shadow Country, A Mercy, and a few others), so let's just call it "One of the Last Books I Loved."
Brian from Los Angeles, one of the most prolific readers I have ever known, sent along his to favorites for 2004 (as we continue The Millions End of Year Extravaganza)Non-Fiction: The Fall Of Baghdad (excerpt) -- It is to our great benefit that Jon Lee Anderson was one of the very few journalists to remain in Baghdad throughout (and after) the attack. Anderson remains (mostly) apolitical, to record, with ferocious accuracy and color, what he saw, heard, smelt and felt throughout those turbulent weeks. All those self-important and partisan-hack talking heads and politicians who profess to know what's best for iraq and america are infants next to Anderson. Fiction: Elizabeth Costello (excerpt) - J.M. Coetzee is primarily known for one of his weaker books (Disgrace") as opposed to one of his masterpieces (Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K) -- Elizabeth Costello falls somewhere in between. And, Coetzee knows this, even seems to integrate this into the book itself. Elizabeth Costello perfectly captures, through a series of an old woman's digressions and lectures, the confusion inherent in existence. Proceeding through life with the knowledge that all information has a flip side, that every belief has a counter-belief, that everything one does is both super-charged with meaning and also meaningless, one must... proceed. As does Elizabeth Costello (and Coetzee). A book that intentionally wallows in human fallibility, confusion, flawed logic, and shortcomings, but elevated way beyond most 'perfect works' -- Coetzee is one of our best contemporary prose stylists, novelists, and essayists.--and a shout-out to the new centennial edition Graham Greenes with cooler covers than the Penguin editions and introductions by the likes of Coetzee, Christopher Hitchens, etc... The Heart Of The Matter and The End Of The Affair must be read by all! Look for more great end of year reviews as the Extravaganza continues.
As per family tradition the youngest generation gave out their gifts today, on Christmas Eve. Since I work at a book store, it's hard not to give everyone books. So, once again, that's what they got. My grandmother is a prodigious reader, and I owe much of my literary affinity to her. She instilled in me her depression-era view of books as the perfect escape into other worlds, and she divides the world into two categories: readers and non-readers, and she quite simply does not understand the latter group. I decided it would be fitting to introduce her to the latest Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee. She was aware of him but had not read any of his books, so I gave her what is by most accounts his greatest book: Waiting for the Barbarians. My mother is an art teacher with a vast library of art books that I enjoy adding volumes to. One of her favorite museums is the Hirshhorn Gallery, which is located on the mall in downtown Washington, DC, and when I was doing my shopping, I found a really good-looking book about the museum and its solid modern collection called Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: 150 Works of Art. My father, a big fan of presidential politics, received The White House Tapes, a nine cd set of illuminating recordings of our presidents over the last fifty years. It also includes commentary and a radio documentary that ties the whole thing together. I gave my 24-year-old sister a novel called Dirt Music by an Australian writer named Tim Winton. I read it when it first came out and really liked it, and I know my sister loves well-crafted plot-driven novels, so it seemed like a good fit. I gave my 21-year-old brother Jarhead, Anthony Swofford's irreverent and enlightening memoir of the First Gulf War, which I guess is now that war's official title. (aside: it's interesting that wars first must receive temporary names, and then years or decades later when history has fully played itself out, a war receives its "official" name for the history books, and yet when a war is going on, there is no suggestion that it will one day be viewed in a larger historical context, perhaps spanning decades.) I gave my 20-year-old sister, who has lately become very interested in the latest and hottest contemporary fiction, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which has fast become an "essential" member of this genre. My 20 and 16-year-old brothers both received Schott's Original Miscellany. At first, they seemed perplexed by the stark little white tome, but before long they were unable to pull themselves away from such tidbits as "The Deaths of Some Burmese Kings" and "Some Shakespearean Insults." I was pleased to receive some excellent items as well, including John Keegan's The First World War, and the unbelievable new Looney Tunes - The Golden Collection, from which I have already derived much enjoyment. I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday.Brief Programming NoteYou have probably noticed the modest redesign of the site. This was done mostly because I was bored, but I sincerely hope you will let me know if it is taking away from your enjoyment of The Millions. You have probably also noticed the Amazon category links to the left. This is so you can cut through the noise of Amazon's main page and get to a book you might be looking for more quickly. I have also added the Reading Queue so that everyone will have a good idea of what is on my plate should you feel like reading along at home.
The South African J. M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today. This prize seems to be given alternately to the obscure or the internationally known. Coetzee most assuredly falls in the latter category, and his receiving this award comes as no surprise. He has won the Booker Prize twice, an unprecedented feat, as well as countless other major and minor awards, and long ago passed from the realm of "author" into the realm of "master." The Nobel Prize seems to surpass all other prizes in inducing people to read, and rightly so. It is as close as the literary world comes to "officially" admitting a writer into the canon of world literature from which he or she can never be removed or forgotten. So, if you are among the many who decide to read or reread Coetzee in the coming days or weeks, allow me to suggest two books, first his breakthrough novel and arguably his best, Waiting for the Barbarians, and then the second of his two Booker Prize winning efforts, Disgrace. If you want to learn more about Coetzee check out the "bio-bibliography" provided on the Nobel Site.Beyond FreaksDiane Arbus has long been considered among the greatest photographers of all time. Her work is a staple of art museum collections throughout the world. Arbus (who committed suicide in 1971) was best known for her unnerving photographs of circus freaks, street performers, and other "outsiders" dwelling on society's margins. Though she focused on the margins, she also illuminated just how blurry these margins can be. Sometimes we can feel like outsiders in our own homes or in our own families. The two new Arbus books that have come out recently help to illuminate this aspect of her work. Neither book focuses on her circus and sideshow work, yet each book retains the visceral power that her "freak" photography is known for. The first is a collection of previously unpublished photographs called Diane Arbus: Family Albums, which is devoted to family portraits she took over the years. Some were commissioned and others were not, but they all retain that powerful quality of dread that her photographs seem to take on. The other book is an impressively thorough volume put out by Random House that amounts to a biography as well as a retrospective of her work. It is one of the most extensive collections of her photography ever put into book form.Shout OutsGarth, a friend and trusted fellow reader, has weighed in on The Fortress of Solitude. After finishing the book, I eagerly waited for Garth to read it so that I could hear his opinion. It was worth the wait. I also want to give a shout out to Jeff Mallett creator of Frazz who I am told is a fan of the site. This also gives me the opportunity to tell all of you that I always have been and always will be a newspaper funnies junkie.