Sunday, January 21, 2007


Cheaper by the dozen

In this amusing Sun-Times piece, Cheryl Reed visits that authorial necropolis known as the Chicago International Remainder & Overstock Book Exposition. Reed endures her trial by fire in the very first paragraph, when she's told that her own book (Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns) is among the thousands of sacrificial victims on hand. Yet she maintains a stiff upper lip and a sense of humor:
Welcome to the used car lot of the book world or--as I see it--the publishing world's version of limbo, the waiting ground for books in between bookstore and pulp fire pit. These books are either overproduced, undersold, or their publishers just want to clear their warehouses for newer, flashier models. With stacks piled across the vast expanse underneath the Michigan Avenue Hilton, this is the largest remainder book sales convention in the world.
The metaphors spring to mind, most of them bleak. The charnel house. The glue factory. The archaeological dig, with its shards of pottery and chipped atlatls. But Reed finds the sunnier side, too. And at least one buyer argues that the post-mortem pricing system is actually more sensible, more correct, than the inflated numbers on the jackets.
The used book world is like a small fraternity, and the Chicago Remainder Book Expo is the yearly reunion. More than 1,100 book buyers thumb through stacks that represent millions of books sitting in warehouses. Despite the plastic name tags around their necks, there seem to be no strangers here--even among the international book dealers from Germany, Australia and England, Russia and Ukraine.

"This side of the business is important," insists David Crane, who buys for Columbia Marketing, a London book firm. "This isn't just selling books cheap. It's about buying a book at the right price at the right time. This is the futures market for books. Some people are less likely to take a chance with an author at $25 but for $4 they will."
For some fearsome photos of the 2004 show (lots of books, lots of people, lots of industrial carpeting), click here.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


I'm an author, not a bricklayer!

Apparently I'm last person to hear this, but Ian McEwan has now discovered his long-lost older brother. The novelist's mother conceived David Sharp during a wartime affair, and her first son was born in 1943. After placing a newspaper ad ("Wanted, home for baby boy, aged one month: complete surrender"), she handed the infant over to his adoptive parents at the Reading train station in Berkshire. The brothers, who were unaware of each other's existence, lived just 15 miles apart for two decades. And McEwan's brother, a retired bricklayer, sounds like a very decent guy. "I had never heard of him," Sharp told the Oxford Mail. "Of course, I've read all of his books now, but whether he's a road-sweeper or an author is immaterial. He's just my brother to me."

Monday, January 15, 2007


From Russia with love

Surprise, surprise: there's been a lively debate about the new Martin Amis novel. Some see House of Meetings as a return to form, others view it as merely the latest manifestation of the Soviet fetish that began with Koba the Dread. (Incidentally, I had forgotten that the beleaguered wife's name in Yellow Dog was Russia. Dissertation students, start your engines.) Anyway, here's my take on the novel, published in yesterday's Los Angeles Times Book Review. I began this way:
Every novelist nods. For Martin Amis, who's been able to write better than almost all of his peers since he was in bellbottoms, this dreaded moment came in 2003 with Yellow Dog. The book did garner some grudgingly positive notices. More prominent, though, was the slew of brickbats taking the author to task not so much for his prose--which still contained its share of glinting felicities--as for his clunky exploration of male rage and erotic violence. Nobody argued that these were inappropriate topics for a novel. What bothered many readers was the suggestion that every man was a rapist manqué, just waiting for a blow to the head to release his Inner Brute.

How did Amis respond? He's done what any stubborn, self-respecting novelist would do: He's written another novel about male rage and erotic violence. And this time, he's serious. House of Meetings is darker than its predecessor. Instead of ascribing his hero's poisonous impulses to a cerebral head trauma, the author has now latched onto a bigger, badder and more diffuse culprit. Yes, folks, we're talking about the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Here is the devil that made the narrator do some very nasty things.
You can read the rest here.

Friday, January 12, 2007


Dante's nose

So it turns out we were wrong about Dante's nose. Traditional images of the poet--based on after-the-fact portraiture and a suspicious number of "death masks"--have always featured a major-league aquiline nose. It seemed appropriate. It was Hazlitt who called the nose "the index of the will," and Dante's pointy proboscis was an emblem of sorts: for haughtiness, determination, wisdom, and downright superiority. But now Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist at the University of Bologna's campus in Ravenna, has done a more scientific job of reconstructing the poet's appearance. Dante's bones were last exhumed in 1921, at which pointed Fabio Frassetto made precision measurements of the skull. The team in Ravenna has used Frassetto's data--plus (here's my favorite part) a bootleg plaster cast made by the naughty professor when nobody was looking. Anyway, Dante's nose was a mite snubbier, his features more prosaic. Gruppioni says: "When we finished with it, he looked more ordinary, like the guy next door. I thought this would have caused a scandal but most people think this is more human."

Monday, January 08, 2007


No contest

When it was first announced back in July, the Sobol Award was greeted with general derision (here's one example among many). Recognizing unpublished writers seemed like a worthy goal. Dinging the entrants at $85 a pop sounded less worthy, especially if the funds flowing in from the projected pool of 50,000 applicants happened to outweigh the $100,000 prize granted to the winner. Even after Simon & Schuster sweetened the pot by offering to publish the top three books, some doubts remained. Now, however, the point is moot. Having received no more than a feeble trickle of entries--less than a thousand all told--the organizers have canceled the whole shebang. The entrants will get their money back, and the manuscripts will be destroyed.


Ship ahoy

In the course of translating a short book of meditations by Saul Steinberg--tentatively titled The Rose Is From The Cabbage Family--I went back and reread Reflections and Shadows, a similarly dapper, diminutive collection published in 2002. On many occasions, the artist referred to himself as a "novelist manqué," for whom the visual arts were merely an acceptable substitute. Not true, of course. Yet his prose did share much of the wit, strangeness, and melancholy displacement you find in his drawings. Here's a tiny bit I've always liked, a Proustian principle enunciated by a guy who thoroughly despised his Romaninan childhood:
Nothing that has been deposited in the memory is lost. Memory is a computer that all one's life goes on accumulating data which are not always used, since man is often like an ocean liner that sets sail with only a single cabin occupied.
More on Steinberg later, since I've meaning to write about the fantastic show of his work at the Morgan Library. At the moment, duty calls.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


Now and Then

Back in the balmy Nineties, when the three surviving Beatles collaborated on the Anthology project, they used a pair of John Lennon's home demos to record "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love." At the time, they considered working on third demo. It's possible that "Now and Then" would have been the strongest of the three singles. The song boasts one of those wistful, minor-key melodies that were a specialty of Lennon's. There were, however, a couple of obstacles. The recording itself was marred by a persistent hum. Digital wizardry can easily remove hiss, clicks, and other high-end interference. But this was different: on the bootleg versions of the demo, it sounds as if the composer is shaving with an electric razor. And George Harrison was reputedly lukewarm about spending any more time in the studio with Paul McCartney--they had mended their personal relationship but left the professional one in a rickety state.

Well, it now appears that McCartney will take a second shot at the demo. According to this story in Undercover, the ex-Beatle is "gearing up to record his parts" on the unfinished track (which, according to the article, dates from the twilight era of the Fabs). Perhaps the project is a kind of consolation for Macca during his wretched, post-Heather-Mills interval. If so, I hope it helps. No word on whether Ringo will pitch in.

Friday, January 05, 2007


A book is not forever

According to this story in the Washington Post (courtesy of Jon Swift), librarians have begun drinking the Darwinian Kool-Aid. Which is to say, they're using computer technology to weed out the ink-and-paper weaklings: the books nobody wants to take out. In theory this is just dandy. Libraries contain limited shelf space, after all, and somebody's got to cull the herd. The director of the Fairfax County (VA) Library System is quite frank about his brand of tough love:
"We're being very ruthless," said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system since 1982. "A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that's a cost."
Okay, you can pulp some of the tulip books. But what about the other authors being expelled from the shelves? Apparently the losers include Marcel Proust, Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, Boris Pasternak, Gertrude Stein, Eugene O'Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and George Eliot. Even Virgil has failed to hit his quarterly numbers and may be escorted off the premises. Drat.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Newby, Augustine, Agnew, etc

On Tuesday night I sincerely believed I was too tired to think straight. I got in bed, fired up Toru Takemitsu's From me flows what you call Time, and assumed I would conk out long before that beautiful, gong-tormented piece of music was over. No dice. I woke up. At 1:30 AM I was having one of those terrible sessions of wakefulness on the sofa, eating pretzels and reading Martin Amis. So last night I took an Ambien plus the freaky-looking fish oil pill the doctor recommended--to keep the lid on my perfectly okay cholestorol numbers--and looked for something to thumb through. I grabbed What the Traveller Saw, a delightful collection of photos taken by Eric Newby on his (many) peregrinations. His visual sense resembles his verbal sense: crisp, intelligent, and unfailingly modest.

For some reason I found myself studying this shot of the Galata Bridge in Istanbul--possibly because I've been there, albeit in sunnier weather. In the background you see the dome and minarets of the New Mosque: new meaning it was completed in 1663. The falling snowflakes, some so close to the camera lens as to resemble pingpong balls, make for an intensely atmospheric image. (It must have been the Ambien, too.) Anyway, the late author also supplied some brief, irresistible texts. Here he talks about the fat ledger book in which he took notes during his boat trip down the Ganges:
Even the thought of losing the Gujurati account book filled me with apprehension, and then, one day, I did lose it. Waking up in what had been a church hall in Bihar in the middle of the night, plagued by rats, I realized I had left it on the platform at a railway junction, miles away. Arriving there by cycle rickshaw in what was by then the early hours of the next morning, I found that there had been no cause for alarm. "Sir," said the ticket clerk, when he handed it over to me, "it is only a book of writing, of no value to anyone at all."
Touché! There is more I could write but the meter is running. So I'll leave you with two final notes. Steve Augustine has now plunged into the blogging thing--my favorite post so far is this fictionalized note on Beatlemania, touching and also full of his characteristic saeva indignatio. (Of course I speak fluent Latin--who doesn't?) And here's Gary Wills on Spiro Agnew, from my dogeared copy of Nixon Agonistes. Boy, is he good. I couldn't get far with What Paul Meant, but the older books are just right for this nervous non-believer:
Spiro Agnew's career has about it a somnambulistic surefootedness, an inevitability of advance, that reminds one of Mencken's Coolidge, of the juggernaut of snooze: "There were massive evidences of celestial intervention at every step of Coolidge's career, and he went through life clothed in immunities that defied and made a mock of all the accepted laws of nature." In an election-eve TV broadcast, Hubert Humphrey proudly displayed Ed Muskie, his monkish second-string Eugene McCarthy. Nixon, on the same night, sat alone, remasticating answers for Bud Wilkinson, his kept TV interrogator. No Agnew in sight. It was said that Nixon regretted his choice, his deal with Thurmond. But Agnew was a guided missile, swung into place, aimed, activated, launched with the minute calculation that marks Nixon. Once the missile was fired, the less attention it drew to itself the better--like a torpedo churning quiet toward its goal. Agnew has a neckless, lidded flow to him, with wraparound hair, a tubular perfection to his suits or golf outfits, quiet burbling oratory. Subaquatic. He was almost out of sight by campaign's end; but a good sonar system could hear him burrowing ahead, on course.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Phoning it in

What's the latest literary craze in Japan? According to this piece in Wired, it's the "mobile phone novel"--a work of flash-frozen fiction circulated via the trusty cellular. Alas, I'm not joking. These books are immensely popular, and they may constitute the first genre that is written and read at the same speed:
Chaco is becoming one of the most popular mobile phone novelists in Japan. We don't know much about her--except that she's a twenty-something Pisces from Osaka--but we do know that she can spit out books faster than Danielle Steel. In the last 14 months, she wrote five novels, including her best seller, What the Angel Gave Me, which has sold more than 1 million copies to date.

"I can type faster on my phone than on a standard keyboard," she says. In between chapters, Chaco logs on to her blog and puts up a progress report for her eagerly waiting fans. "My god, it's already 9:30!" she writes. "Where was I? I was sitting at my desk with writer's block."


HOM returns

Welcome back, everybody, and Happy New Year. As you may have noticed, there's been a lengthy intermission here. I'm tempted to plead the seasonal blahs--the entire month of December brings out my Inner Scrooge--but the real reason was overwork. I translated a short book of ruminations by Saul Steinberg and a heftier book about post-9/11 espionage, Collusion, and after a long day of wrestling with subjunctives, I felt too beat to blog. I stopped reading. My eyes were turning to gelatin. Now, however, I'm almost out of the woods. So why not resume broadcasting?

By now I've got a backlog of topics to blog about. But I'll start off easy, with my Best of 2006 thing that appeared in Newsday on Sunday. Apparently I read almost nothing thicker than a beef patty last year. Here's what I wrote:
Thinking back over the last year, my first impression was that I had read very few books. In fact I had read a good number, but many were so slender as to be almost invisible when viewed from the side. Here, then, are some of my favorites, in order of increasing girth. The tiniest (and yet the weightiest) was The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka (Schocken), the whole of which could have been printed on a cereal box.

I suppose two titles are tied for second place: David Kipen's sparkling little tour of the screenwriting universe, The Schreiber Theory (Melville House), and The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O'Hara (Turtle Point Press). I greatly admired Philip Roth's Everyman (Houghton Mifflin) for its death-defying concision, and Grégoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) for its sheer weirdness and comical woe. Marjane Satrapi's latest also won my heart, although I wish Chicken With Plums (Pantheon) had a little more of the graphic pizzazz on display in her previous books.

Now we're actually moving into the ranks of the tubbier titles. In The Discomfort Zone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Jonathan Franzen wrestled with the more unsavory aspects of his own persona, and pinned them to the mat; the result was an eloquent and unflinching collection of essays. David Galef ventured something even more unsavory in How to Cope with Suburban Stress (Permanent Press)--a pedophile with a human soul--and earned his reader's sympathy the hard way. In Persuasion Nation (Riverhead) delivered everything we've come go expect from George Saunders (brilliant ventriloquism and pan-blackened satire), plus a couple of pieces that seemed to point in a gentler direction. And finally, I was entertained and enlightened by a trio of genuinely fat books: Peter Behrens' The Law of Dreams (Steerforth), Phillip Lopate's American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now (Library of America), and Michael Hofmann's Twentieth-Century German Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
I promise to read some thicker books in 2007. Meanwhile, check out the Best of 2006 pieces by the other Newsday top guns, my favorites being this one and that one. Call me prejudiced.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?