We’re not shy about our praise for NYRB Classics. Their volumes are smartly edited and well designed and quite a few favorite books of The Millions contributors – The Dud Avocado, Wheat That Springeth Green, and, of course, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – were first encountered in their NYRB Classics incarnations.While I had always planned on passing NYRB Classics books down to my progeny one day, I’ve just discovered that I may get to do that sooner than I had anticipated. NYRB Classics has a line of children’s books, the NYR Children’s Collection.One of the latest to come out under the imprint is James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Marc Simont. The new book provide fodder for Sonja Bolle’s sentimental (in a good way) essay in the LA Times.The 13 Clocks is the first book I remember loving, and it is one of the few books I managed to wrest from my family’s library and preserve through all the mundane disasters of my life. Everything about it is dear to me: The texture of the cover, the cloth spine now in shreds, the gorgeous endpapers with the Duke’s shadowy castle on the hill overlooking the sunlit town.Young readers – and the older readers who are trying to get young readers to read good books – will likely find many more such discoveries among the NYR Children’s Collection.
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 thought it a good idea to offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature that will be appearing irregularly. We hope you discover something you like.+ Take Five (Dalkey Archive) by D. Keith Mano recommended by GarthD. Keith Who? This guy has written for TV and Sports Illustrated, which hardly explains how, in 1982, he came up with this gloriously funny, word-drunk modern mock-epic. Over the course of 5 days, filmmaker Simon Lynxx, in pursuit of a project called Jesus 2001, loses his senses…one by one. Recommended for: shaggy undergrads, lovers of Pynchon, Barth, Coover, and John Kennedy Toole.+ Fear And Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (Grand Central) by Hunter S. Thompson recommended by AndrewI confess: I’m an election junkie. And though I’m a proud Canadian, it’s U.S. presidential elections that really get me going. So as we (and by we, I mean you) gear up for primary season, here’s a masterpiece of political journalism as the irrepressible Hunter Thompson chronicles a year on the campaign trail. You’ll feel like you’re back in 1972, rooting for McGovern, booing at Muskie and “Hube,” your eyes darting about in case the ghost of Nixon is spying on you. There’s lots of minutiae, but as with the best of Hunter Thompson, the devil’s in the detail.+ Boss Ladies, Watch Out! Essays on Women, Sex, and Writing (Routledge) by Terry Castle recommended by EmilyThis collection of essays and reviews, by turns deliciously irreverent (“Was Jane Austen Gay?”), devastatingly funny (the opening of “Women and Criticism”), and astonishingly poignant (“To the Friends Who Did Not Save My Life”), is a must-read for any connoisseur of literary criticism – and, really, any connoisseur of literary style or authorial persona. Castle’s masterfully elegant prose style, her irrepressible and self-deprecating sense of humor, and her shrewd yet humane readings of Cather, Colette, Charlotte Bronte, Austen, Casanova, and Lillian Hellman, to name a few, offer a new hope to those down-cast about the state of criticism, both academic and lay. Recommended for: aspiring Lady-Critics, despairing literature grad students, and belletrists of all stripes.+ The Dud Avocado (NYRB Classics) by Elaine Dundy recommended by EdanOriginally published in 1958 and reprinted this year by the wonderful New York Review of Books, this book follows the adventures and misadventures of young Sally Jay Gorce, an American expat in Paris. She drinks too much, wears ridiculous outfits, and sleeps with the wrong men – it’s like Sex and the City, but far smarter and funnier.+ Wheat That Springeth Green (NYRB Classics) by J.F. Powers recommended by PatrickJ.F. Powers writes about Catholic priests the way Michael Connelly or David Simon writes about homicide detectives – they’re all burned out, chain-smoking, overworked, borderline alcoholics. It’s for precisely these reasons that anyone, Catholic or not, can enjoy Wheat That Springeth Green. More of a bildungsroman than some of Powers’ other work, Wheat follows its protagonist, Joe, from childhood through the seminary and into his priesthood at a parish in Minnesota, where he has to put up with the new generation of sandal-wearing, folk guitar-playing priests. Funny, sexier than you’d think, and vaguely political (Powers went to jail for being a conscientious objector during WWII), this book has been a favorite of mine for years.+ The Horned Man (Norton) by James Lasdun recommended by MaxToo many novels take academia as their backdrop, but few break the mold as thoroughly as Lasdun’s 2002 debut. Amid inter-departmental backbiting, Professor Lawrence Miller discovers a bookmark shifted by a few pages in a book he’s been reading. Beginning with this tiniest lapse from reality, the unexplained events get weirder and wilder: is a vagrant inhabiting his office? is he a killer? This psychological roller coaster is everything I’ve wished Paul Auster’s novels could be.
Patrick Brown, one of my old bookstore compatriots, is now living in Iowa, a circumstance that affords him a lot of reading time. Here are his favorite reads of the year:Non-Fiction (and Best overall for the year): Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 2 by Robert Caro. This biography, which is one part Western, one part Shakespearean political tragedy ala Richard III, is among the best books I’ve ever read. In 1948 Lyndon Johnson ran a do-or-die campaign for the US Senate against the most popular man in Texas political history — former governor and all-around-bad-ass Coke Stevenson. It really must be read to be believed.Rounding out the top five non-fiction books are (in order): Master of the Senate (part 3 of the LBJ series), Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan (a dreamy, meandering ode to horse culture and fatherhood), The Path to Power (part 1 of the LBJ series), and Vermeer in Bosnia by Lawrence Weschler.Best Fiction I’ve read this year: Morte D’Urban by JF Powers. While not as off-beat or quite as funny as Powers’s other novel Wheat That Springeth Green, Morte D’Urban succeeds in being an entertaining and tender novel about a priest who’s ambition to take over his dying religious order’s leadership lands him in rural Minnesota. Like Wheat That Springeth Green, the book is a conversion tale of sorts. Don’t let the subject matter scare you away.The rest of the top fiction 5: Any Human Heart by William Boyd, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, and You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon. I haven’t been reading enough new fiction. Shame on me.I’ve embarked upon my annual holiday excursion to the East Coast. Sporadic posting is likely but all possible effort will be made to keep The Millions rolling along.
So, I’m back again after a week in New York. We move to Chicago in three weeks, and after a summer living out of suitcases, an apartment all our own will be a relief. Over the past few weeks I’ve read four books. I read them on the beach, in cafes, in cars, subways, and airplanes, and in halflit, air-conditioned rooms over the course of long, languid afternoons. This has been some serious summer reading. I plan to get to all of them this week, beginning today with the modern classic and winner of the National Book Award in 1962, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I had never heard of this book before I started working at the book store, and it seems to be one of those books that is half-remembered and dimly loved by those who read it decades ago. The moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a successful businessman and a member of a prominent and eccentric New Orleans family. He is unmarried and enjoys the escape that going to the movies provides. He is unable to keep himself from dating his secretaries, and he is constantly trying to hold “despair” at bay. It is an existential novel of the American suburbs where Binx tries to find meaning or hope in the midst of mundanity. But it isn’t preachy or didactic, it meanders and searches, and one begins to wonder if Binx is a madman and not just a lonely bachelor. In this sense it has a lot more depth than some other books of middle-aged male suburban angst that I’ve read over the years, The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford and Wheat That Springeth Green by J.F. Powers to name a few, and Binx seems far more ethereal than Frank Bascombe or Joe Hackett. It’s short and cleverly written, and I recommend the book to anyone with a taste for the internal monologues of a Southern thinker.I added Adam Langer’s much-praised debut, Crossing California to the reading queue, and I’m about to start reading part one of Peter Guralnick’s two-part biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis. More soon!
Back to finish things up:Bangkok 8 by John Burdett: As I was reading this murder mystery set in Thailand, I was also following the travels of my friend Cem, who happened to be in the same part of the world at the time. Cem’s back now and I keep meaning to ask him about the element of the book that I found most fascinating: a Thai brand of Buddhism that allows the main character of this book to be both resourceful and calm despite his madcap surroundings. I’ve never managed to fully engage myself in learning about Eastern religions, I think because there is a certain lifestyle associated with them in the West, but the fully modern and worldly Thai police officer who is at the center of this murder mystery cuts an interesting path through life. I left the book satisfied, though not enthralled, and wanting to know more about Thai Buddhism.Train by Pete Dexter: This book was thrown in, unasked for, with a couple of books that a contact at a publishing company gave to me. I’m really glad she did that because I’m always looking for writers whose catalog I want to read all the way through. I’ve already done this with a few and am on the cusp with a couple of others, so adding a new writer to this category is exciting. Dexter’s book really blew me away. Train is both spare and violent and there is a lot going on beneath the surface, like Hemingway but darker and with more at stake somehow. I saw Dexter read, and knowing his personality, part guffawing storyteller, part literary outlaw, lends even more depth to my experience with the book. (note: I’ll be reading Dexter’s National Book Award winner Paris Trout, next.)Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers: This book was highly recommended by a coworker as well as by Edwin Frank of the NYRB Press, and so, when I came across a hardcover copy of it on a bookfinding expedition, I snatched it up. I read it in the early fall, a perfect time of year for me to read this sort of book, as it reminded me of my early years as a student at a Catholic elementary school in the suburbs. The book follows the life of a Catholic priest named Joe Hackett who struggles with faith and politics and more than anything else the shattering mundanity of his suburban life. Tree-lined streets, shopping malls, station wagons, vinyl siding, and wall to wall carpeting are Hackett’s foils in a book that manages to be charming, melancholy, and very funny at the same time. Reading the book turned out to be a great way to spend a few September weeks. If anyone out there happened to enjoy The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford, then you will enjoy this book as well.The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell: I read this book little by little on lunch breaks over the course of couple of months. The Tipping Point is one of those books that is so popular that it has generated its own vocabulary, and it is now not uncommon to hear people talk about tipping points when discussing trends and fads. Most books like this have a sort of hucksterish salesman’s pitch quality to them, but this one is different. Gladwell approaches the topic of how things become popular and universal scientifically, and in the process you learn a lot more about the world you live in.Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman: Ah, Klosterman… Like him or not, I’m afraid Chuck Klosterman is here to stay. Here’s what I had to say about this book after I read it: “The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip.”Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: After several readers of The Millions came together to help me select which book by the great Russians should be my first, I settled on and then into Crime and Punishment, and it carried me through the fall. I was deep into this one for many weeks, fully immersed really, and when I finally came up for air again, it felt as though I had been gone a long time. It had been a long time since I had read such a challenging and rewarding book. Here were my initial thoughts.Jamesland by Michelle Huneven: And then came Jamesland, another great book to add to a year of great reading. If you’ve been reading The Millions regularly you probably remember my comments well enough, so I’ll just link to them for anyone who wants a refresher.The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski: And so, with the clock striking midnight, I finished another book and the year was done. Well, not quite, but it was a great year in reading. Kapuscinski provided bookends more or less to the healthy doses of everything else that I read in between. Shadow of the Sun, I should say, was yet another amazing effort by Kapuscinski. The book covers his time in Africa over the last 40 years, and he is as illuminating as ever on the subject. As I read, it seemed to me that he had perhaps slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every village on the continent. This book is ideal for anyone who has that urge to wander around the most exotic locales. My favorite part: Kapuscinski arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane. Though he knows no one there, Kapuscinski is soon taken under the wings of some Lebanese business men who live there and who explain to him that the “transaction” at the airport is simply a part of how business is done in the war torn country. Kapuscinski eventually leaves the country, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.So, that was my a year in reading, and a good year it was. My goals for 2004? Well, I don’t want to put a number on it, but 50 books would be nice.
I used part of my day off to sit around my house and listlessly attempt to get things done. I used the other, smaller, part of my day off to run some errands, and when I spotted a goodwill store in Glendale, I just had to run in and check out their book selection. I’m really glad I did.Find #1: A hardcover edition of J. F. Powers’ cult classic Wheat That Springeth Green. As you can see from the link, New York Review of Books Press has recently reissued this one, and it has been a favorite among my coworkers.Find #2: A hardcover edition of a book called Shah of Shahs by one of my all time favorite writers, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski has spent the last 50 years writing for the Polish equivalent of the Associated Press. During this time he has been on the scene for nearly every international conflict from front page news to the one paragraph comment buried in the International section. He wrote under the auspices of a state run news agency controlled by a Communist country and yet he spent nearly all of this time abroad, witnessing the wider world as few Communist citizens were able to. His writing betrays this interesting perspective in that he takes nothing for granted and never resorts to cliche to describe cultures that are utterly foreign. In this way, his journalism bears little resemblence to his Western counterparts, and instead he is just a man describing other men, exploring the universal nature of conflict, and occasionally pining for the cold winters of his homeland. Shah of Shahs is about the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah as told by Kapuscinski who was, of course, in Tehran at the time. I already own this in paperback, but I couldn’t help buying the hardcover.Find #3: The two books about Russia that I read recently made frequent mention of two interesting points. First, that for a long time the West had no idea what sort of horrors went on in Stalin’s Russia, and for a long time after many downplayed these horrors. Second, that there was a large officially sanctioned community of writers, known as the “Writers’ Union,” that spewed out official literature, hailed as a great achievement but often little more than thinly disguised propaganda. At the store today I found a book called Short Stories of Russia Today, edited by Yvonne Kapp and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1959. This corresponds with the height of Khrushchev’s “thaw,” three years after he had denouced Stalin in his “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the General Assembly, which must somehow account for how this collection came to be. There is also inherent in this book the sort of thinly disguised awe and fear that Americans felt towards Russia at the time. The dust jacket copy can be read almost as a warning that there is no endeavor that Russians can not apply their might towards. Here’s one little snippet “Like Sputnik, this collection shows that there is more going on in Russia than is revealed by the facade of Communist propaganda.” Whatever the point of this collection, it certainly is a relic of a different time.Finds #4 & 5: When I go bookfinding, I like to pick up books that I’ve never heard of. This can be tricky because most books that end up where I’m scavenging are pretty bad. Usually I solve this problem by getting short story anthologies or literary journals when I see them. There’s usually a hidden gem or two contained within. Today, I snagged O. Henry Awards Prize Stories of 1992 featuring stories by Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ann Packer among many others. I also came across an interesting-looking old hardcover (Knopf, 1969) of a book called The Coming of Rain by Richard Marius. I’d never heard of him, but after getting home and doing a little research I discovered that he’s fairly well-known Southern writer and that this book is the first of a series of four novels that, between the four of them, take place over the course of the last century in the South.