June 2008 Archives

Summer sales

With summer comes blockbuster movies, bathing suit sales, and additions to some of my favorite fantasy series. Here are three books being released in the next two months which I am ridiculously excited to read.

July 7: Y: The Last Man, Volume 10


The final volume of Brian Vaughan's popular graphic novel series comes out in July. If you're keeping up with this issue-by-issue then you already know the answers to the series' questions: what killed all the men? What happened to Yorick's Beth? Who will he wind up with? Is humanity going to recover? I'm reading the series by volume, rather than issue, and cannot wait to find out.

July 14: Jhegaala


Steven Brust's fantasy books about a young assassin and his jhereg (kind of a reptile/bird) have been keeping me on the edge of my seat since I was knee-high to a Dzur lord. The world is complex and original, the assassin is sharp-tongued and quick-witted, the jhereg is sassy and the stories are always surprising. I am doing a little dance in preparation for the latest installment.

August 4: Breaking Dawn


The last book in the much-touted Twilight series comes out in August. Will Edward make Bella a vampire? Will Jacob bond with the irritating wolf girl? (Well, duh.) Will Edward and Bella finally do it already? Will Bella's self-esteem develop to normal human levels, and will she then tell both her supernatural dudes to take a hike and walk off into the sunset with nice, normal Mike? No one but Stephanie Meyer knows.

I'm still alive

First of all, J.D. Salinger is still alive. I've been mourning him since I read Franny and Zooey in 2006, so this is a little surprising for me, and just goes to show you that not checking Wikipedia about absolutely everything can really impact your life.

Second, I now discover that Salinger published a story which I have never read and cannot get at. Called Hapworth 16, 1924, it's a Seymour Glass story and I am drooling giant puddles on my desk in my desire to read it. It is currently difficult, if not impossible, to find, but rumour has it the story will be re-released in January of 2009, though Salinger has changed his mind on this before and may do so again.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is also alive (I think they mentioned this at the end of Capote, but I guess I missed it). Both Lee and Salinger wrote some of the best fiction ever produced in the English language, then stopped publishing for years and years and years. But they're still here! Lee could still write another To Kill a Mockingbird. Salinger could tell us more about the Family Glass.

I don't know. I'm so used to the frustration of reading dead authors. That two of my favorite authors of all time are still alive makes me feel the world is a very promising place.


Book of the week

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, by L. Frank Baum

"Have you heard of the great Forest of Burzee? Nurse used to sing of it when I was a child..."

This is one of the worst books I've ever read. I picked it up at a library sale for a quarter, and thought it was one of those finds of the century that one does occasionally discover at sales of this kind. Finding a quirky book from a notable children's author (Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz and sundry other Oz books) is like finding a live album recorded in a tiny bar in Memphis by the hugest band you've ever loved. Quite possibly you are the only person in the world who owns this album. Your cool points become astronomical. Paying only a quarter for it is just the cherry.

Unfortunately, the quality of the narrative is piss-poor in this book. The story is just a catalog of all the happy woodland immortals who love Santa Claus from his early boyhood. There is no conflict, no plot, and very little character detail. This is a ninety-eight page weakling of a book, and even at that short length I could not force myself to finish it.

I'd love to see the story of Santa Claus in the hands of a sharp-voiced re-teller of legends like Gregory Maguire, who wrote Wicked. In the hands of Baum it becomes something so cloying that I would not recommend it for even the dullest idiot child.

However, I will totally keep it. Because it's still an awesome find.


Book of the week


Nina Balatka, by Anthony Trollope

"Nina Balatka was a maiden of Prague, born of Christian parents, and herself a Christian -- but she loved a Jew; and this is her story."

Irritated by the reading public's habit of choosing books based on the fame of the authors, Trollope published this anonymously, trying to disguise his style with a Prague setting and slightly more formal prose.

But not even Trollope could disguise Trollope. Only he could put an all-consuming world-class love affair into the hands of such charmingly ordinary protagonists. Starving to death and almost alone in the world, Nina Balatka struggles with issues bigger than she is, but Trollope never lets the narrative sink under the weight of her problems. Even in the depths of agony over the perfidy of her lover, Nina can still be delighted by the gift of used stockings from her friend. She is pleasingly real.

Read this if you've read other Trollope novels and liked them, or if you were exasperated by the melodrama of Anna Karenina.


John S. Zinsser Jr., who compressed countless works of fiction for the Readers Digest Condensed Books series, died yesterday at age 84.

Zinsser's job was to take great works of fiction and make them succinct works of fiction, shortening the classics into bite-sized bits for the Condensed series. I can't imagine what that would do to you. To spend your life knocking the heavy-breathing landscape descriptions out of a Lawrence novel, or the light-loafered witticisms from Wilde -- that has to be bad for your soul. Right?

Well, according to his son, "He believed ardently in the Digest's populist mission of making well-written books with strong stories and interesting characters available to people who might not otherwise be readers." I think the other name for people who do that job is "movie producer."

It's funny: this process makes literary snobs shudder in horror, but it's their fault, really. When you hold up a book as an example of something everyone must read in order to be considered educated or cultured or even just human, you're putting more pressure on it than any book can handle. People who are unmoved by it still feel compelled to read it, and then you find yourself with the Readers Digest books clotting the shelves.

When are we going to admit that some people are deeply stirred by Shakespeare and some people prefer Tolkein? And some people just don't like to read at all, and that's okay too. Let's give each other a break, already.

Meanwhile, a moment of silence for a guy who did his best to fall in line with the demands of a cultureless society wanting desperately to class itself up.

When he retired in 1987, he told Publishers Weekly, "I do wish that all the books weren't so long and getting longer," adding that "the days of a good story told in a reasonable number of pages — like 'Cry, the Beloved Country' in 283; 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in 296 — seem gone."

Zinsser reportedly died of a heart attack. There is no word yet as to whether this was caused by an attempt to condense David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.


Every now and then I stumble onto something from the NY Times Bestseller List. This time the culprit was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I enjoyed the book, as I always do when I read bestsellers -- they're selling for a reason, after all. Like most NY Times list books I've read, this one was easy to read, with a well-paced plot and simple prose, offering up a few ideas that were clearly stated and repeated in different ways throughout the text. It wasn't a stupid book by any means, but also not a hard book. It took me somewhere else for a few hours, and when I came back I didn't feel overtaxed or like I'd been materially changed. So that was fine.

I don't always want to read books that leave me disaffected, but sometimes it's nice to have the option. I started wondering what else was out there, so for the first time in my life I actually read the NY Times list and learned a few things.

First of all, Ron Paul's manifesto, The Revolution, is at #5 on the hardcover nonfiction list. McCain, Obama and Clinton have all had their moments on the list, but then again, lots and lots of people voted for them. I'm tickled that people are happy to read Paul's ideas, probably nodding their heads the whole way, but won't vote for him.

Laura and Jenna Bush have a kid's book at #1 on the children's list, which led me to the startling discovery that I didn't know the first lady's name. I knew Jenna was a daughter, but couldn't remember if Laura was another daughter or what. I'm ashamed of this: she didn't impress me as the feminist cyclone that Hillary was, so I immediately ignored her. However, Laura was responsible for establishing the National Book Festival, which you'd think I would care about. (Upon closer reading, the Wiki page crows that this festival "invites over fifty published authors" to do their stuff. Over fifty! My goodness! It's like a little kid coming up to her mom on the beach and saying "Look, mom, I picked up over fifty grains of sand!" Wow.) More substantially, she was praised by Desmond Tutu in a recent speech for her efforts to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in Africa, and it is a big deal to be praised by this man.

I also found out that the children's list is a recent thing, prompted by the insane popularity of the Harry Potter series. Publishers of adult books were grumbling because the Potter books were knocking them down the main list, so the new list was created. Controversy ensued, as people questioned whether kids' books that are read by adults should be relegated to a kids-only list. In other words, are the Potter books literature, or are they the placeholders we give kids until they're old enough for literature? I don't have a position on this, but I think it's interesting that we tend to define literature by how elite it is. Books which appeal to a wide range of people -- adults and kids, men and women, blacks and whites -- have less chance of making it into the canon than books that appeal to a select few. Or so it seems to me.

And finally, which perhaps I should have mentioned first, my meandering research led me to discover that visitors to Orlando will soon be able to visit the Harry Potter amusement park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (warning, plays music). Now not only can you see the movies, you can visit the theme park! Soon you won't have to read the blasted things at all!

I am totally going to the theme park, by the way.


Kindle gets more titles

I worked for Amazon.com for a few months in 1999. I was just a lowly receptionist, but still was frequently exposed to the Napoleonic philosophy of that nutty, lovable conqueror of worlds, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

"Not just books!" he would proclaim grandly in the all-hands meetings (and here, let it be understood, I am paraphrasing -- don't let the wholly inappropriate quotation marks fool you). "Not just music! By the time we are done, Amazon will be selling everything people need. We will be your one-stop shop on the internet for everything from lawn chairs to groceries, from diapers to caskets!"

Nearly ten years later, Bezos has made significant progress in his all-items all-the-time plot, but he's taking time out from that to return to the original idea: books. In this case, ebooks, in the form of the Kindle. Bezos's vision for the Kindle, he says, is "to make any book ever printed in any language available in less than 60 seconds."

Ambitious? Sure. But this probably won't be Bezos's Elba. (For one thing, it would be hard to fit into a palindrome.) For example, falling in line with Bezos's plan (as is best if you happen to be standing in his way), Simon & Schuster plans to release 5,000 more titles for the Kindle, bringing the total number of S&S Kindle titles up to 130,000. It's not all books everywhere, but it's a decent start.

Meanwhile, denizens of the book industry are googly eyed and freaked over this new destroyer of (publishing) worlds. I cannot speak to the rightness or wrongness of said wiggins, but I will say it won't affect my hard copy habits, just as the initial advent of Amazon didn't stop me from shopping at bookstores, it just stopped me from shopping at crappy mega-chain bookstores. When I one far-off day can afford a Kindle or similar device, it will definitely be my first choice for reading crap-slinging authors like Laurell K. Hamilton, but the Anne Patchetts and Anthony Trollopes of the world will always earn my hardcover, hard-copy dimes.


This is not my CEO.