book/daddy: December 2006 Archives

The Guardian reports that many of us insecure, simple-minded sorts like it when a mystery's whodunnit is easy to solve -- or so says a Ohio State University study. When we pick out the right suspicious-looking character, we feel a fairly pathetic "little self-esteem boost" (we now know we're at least as smart as the author, and certainly smarter than all the dimwits still scratching their heads).

On the other hand, any of us with high self-esteem find it disappointing when the suspect we thought was just too obviously guilty turns out to be, in fact, guilty. All of this seems a little self-evident for a scientific study to prove. It's rather like spotting the female guest star on a Law & Order episode: Seven times out of 10 on a Dick Wolf TV production, you know the woman is the perp, no matter how contrived the killing mechanism or how thorny the legal issue. This goes against the reality of violent crime statistics, but hey, if we had a uneducated, male drug addict-murderer in the docket every week, it'd get boring.

Don't get me wrong -- I love the shows. But it always does seem to be Dick Wolf's ex-wife, doesn't it? Or maye it's his mommy.

December 31, 2006 10:06 AM | | Comments (2)

Funny thing is, now that Christmas is over, I realized that quite a few of the books I was giving as presents weren't actually on my "favorites" list. Or anyone else's that I knew of, for that matter. So although it's too late for Christmas, it's not too late for a year-end wrap-up. What follows are some of the funnier books of the year that aren't novels (Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart would be my nominee for one of the funniest novels of 2006, Eddie Campbell's The Fate of the Artist the quirkiest, most amusing pseudo-memoir).

Previous year's delights in this category have been Molvania, How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Jon Stewart's America and anything by Chris Ware.

Books I read in public and embarrassed myself by howling at during 2006:

1. Dictator Style: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colorful Despots, by Peter York. When it comes to the monumental vulgarity of tyrants, it's easy to snicker at their bunker decorating, and GQ columnist Peter York has uproarious fun doing just that to 16 of them here. Mussolini, the poor dear, never learned how drapes can lend some badly needed color to a despot's cavernous sanctum. But amidst the bitchy putdowns (all of the their hankering for grand French antiques lends a generic "Louis the Hotel" style to many dictator's headquarters), York makes some smart observations about how dictators either ram their provincial tastes down the throats of their country's elite or hanker desperately (futilely) for tasteful legitimacy.

2. The Areas of My Expertise, by John Hodgman. Yes, this book originally came out last year, but it was released in an expanded paperback form in 2006, which is how I caught up with it. As the author of this demented Schott's Miscellany, Hodgman, best known from his pudgy appearances just about everywhere (The Daily Show, This American Life, the PC vs. Mac TV ads), has an almost-perfect control of tone, a blend of bland astonishment ("Can this be true?") and complete, stupid assurance, even as he relates the most ridiculous items, listing presidents who had hooks for hands or the 700 names of hoboes. An almanac of misinformation and deadpan literary parodies, Areas fades, gets tiresome, is best read in bits and pieces, but it's a rich lode of nonsense.

3. They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books, edited by David Rose. Line for line, this may be the funniest, most enjoyable book of the year. I used to be in the habit of scanning the personal ads in The New York Review of Books and the Village Voice because they often were wonderful and off-the-wall. But as the readership aged and the internet wiped out most personal ads and dating services, the ads became precious or tediously earnest. The London Review of Books, on the other hand, has maintained a high level of British silliness. OK, so perhaps the editors are making them all up. At the least, the ad writers clearly started competing with each other to write the most self-pitying pitch ("Either I'm desperately unattractive or you are all lesbians"), feebly defiant declaration ("I've divorced better men than you") or embarrassing personal revelation ("Last time I had this much fun, I was on 40 tablets a day.") But let's face it, they're British. They excel at that stuff. The book's only weaknesses: Its title (there are a lot wackier lines than that here) and its footnotes, which are welcome when it comes to only-the-Brits-would-know trivia but a little ridiculous when they explain cultural references any semi-awake LRB reader ought to know. I mean, Seamus Heaney? Dave Eggers? "Shrooms"? Hello?

4. I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, by Amy Sedaris. The surprise here is actually how much of this guidebook really is useful, although personally, I'd prefer fewer bits of real info (all those recipes) and more of the cheeky entertainment pointers (advice about drunks -- "Better to cut them off rather than pretend it's not happening and then allow them to stay over and wet your bed" -- or how to make yard-sale money at your own parties). Kitschy photos, a white-trash-meets-Jewish-New-York practicality -- what's not to like?

December 27, 2006 4:52 PM |

The book industry is supposedly atwitter about the 'monster editor-bosses' in a pair of new novels. These books portray publishing in the sinister way the lackluster novel (but decent film) The Devil Wears Prada portrayed fashion: as an eat-or-be-eaten, extremely hierarchical, snob factory and sadomasochistic proving ground.

In both industries -- fashion and publishing -- the focus of gossip has always been on who was the original model for the book's despotic boss. But anyone who has dealt extensively with either industry can tell you that, as nice as an individual boss may be, the system itself is designed as (and perpetuates itself as) a kind of ruthless (mostly) 'female boot camp.'

Publicity assistants in publishing, for example, are often young women, single, with no social life, who are willing to fetch and grovel and grind the work out on weekends and until 11 at night during the week, all for wretched pay and all in the belief that if they eat shit like this for several years, they get to be Max Perkins (or Meryl Streep) and lord it over their own staff.

Sounds caricatured, doesn't it? OK, several months ago, when I first considered leaving The Dallas Morning News and began looking around for other employment possibilities (still looking! ahem), I spoke to several publicity directors/managers in publishing. Remember, these are successful women -- people who, more or less, are in positions of authority. And half a dozen of them told me flat-out that the system essentially thrives on exploiting young women. Yet unless someone climbs through that boot camp, they'll find it hard to enter publishing because this is how publishing trains people.

[A late addition -- my memory was jogged by a former publicity assistant's e-mail to me about this post: Years ago, I was at a book event in New York, had gotten to know and generally respected this particular publicity director. Then I saw her order around her underlings at the event. For a moment I thought they had to be the catering staff to be so peremptorily spoken to and dismissed. Or I figured, well, maybe this is what they do with illegal immigrants in Manhattan -- the New York equivalent of the Highland Park matron shouting at her lawn boy in bad Spanish (Highland Park is the extremely exclusive, all-white-until-very-recently inner suburb of Dallas.)

I tried to have as little to do with the manager as I could after that.]

All of this only confirmed what I'd learned 25 years ago during a summer in graduate school. I went to New York and interviewed at a couple of houses -- at 26, I was already considered too old, too educated for the jobs (and I suspected, too male, therefore, more able to find something better and leave at the first sign of abuse). I was even asked on occasion how eager I was to do anything for the manager -- not just basic publicity tasks like writing press releases but fetching manuscripts for the manager on weekends or fixing hors d'oeuvres.

In short, this exploitation has existed for decades. It's systemic. And it continues, in part, because publicity has little glamor or clout in the book industry; most people don't want to do it, even though, if publishers had any brains, they'd realize that publicity/marketing these days is almost the whole game (how can you get any bookstore browser to distinguish your new release from all the hundreds of new thrillers/romances/movie tie-ins?). Yet they leave the front lines of publicity/marketing to the lowliest, most powerless staff members. If they ever were in publicity, big-cheese editors like Nan Talese and Judith Regan got out of it fast and got to the source of real corporate power: courting and signing profitable authors.

As a book critic, I learned that I often had to get beyond the assistant to get much real information or help. That's because the assistants didn't know who I was, didn't even know their own authors very well, didn't know the territory. After all, they are impossibly young, horribly overworked and hardly well-read, and they often vanish within a year (sometimes promoted, but usually gone to another firm to a better job). I sympathize with them -- I once wanted to be one -- but I had to keep explaining basic facts about Dallas or Texas to them (which bookstores to send authors, what radio or print outlets there are in the area). My book editor eventually created a lengthy phone message directed solely at publicists: what reviews we published and when, what we didn't review, whether there was a local angle to a book or author. All the basic info publicity people ought to know about one of the largest newspapers in the country but rarely ever do. There seems little "institutional memory" at most publishing house's publicity departments -- or inclination to learn the field out there -- because of the incredible turnover in unhappy assistants. As for the assistants' bosses, mostly what they know, it seems, is how to get ahold of someone at a network morning talk show and pitch them an author. That's their chief duty, their prized knowledge. Forget about print coverage; forget about the world outside New York media. No one earns social or professional advancement in Manhattan by getting an author interviewed in Gainesville.

I must add that in this area, journalism can hardly hold up its own head as an enlightened, equitable employer, given the exploitative nature of many internships at newspapers, magazines and TV stations. And over the years, I have certainly worked with any number of extremely intelligent and blessedly helpful publicity people. My thanks to all of you; I couldn't have done my job very well without you. But my primary (and ongoing) experience with publicists has been with the unfortunate grunts, the cheap migrant labor of the book industry, and I suspect that's true for the vast number of journalists who cover publishing and who don't happen to write for the NYTimes.

December 27, 2006 10:54 AM | | Comments (13)

Thanks to my brother Tim for sending this along. I was familiar with the Bulwer-Lytton Contest and, but the other wordsmith websites, I confess, were new to me:

How to write worse and improve your Spinnish

By Sara Ledwith
LONDON, Dec 21 (Reuters Life!) - Self-improvement is a common theme on the Web, and there are countless sites offering help for people whose vocabulary is like, whatever.

Websites like and - mined for much of the jargon in this item -- often offer regular dictionary doses, by email or other Web software.

Spinnish - "the language used by spin doctors and other political operatives" - is a fast-moving language. Chief table-pounders whose work requires them to be buzzword-compliant need sites like these to grab first-mover advantage in an al-desko array of corporate fuzzwords.

And every self-respecting CxO who works for a self-licking ice cream cone needs to know how and when to wave a dead chicken.

When it comes to exposing corporatese -- and the self-serving motivation of many people working in institutions -- the Web has for years offered a machine to help the verbally challenged talk the talk, at

Need a strategy? Try "monetize next-generation vortals." Of course, on the Web you have to "empower sticky paradigms" and to do that the systems you morph must be granular and best-of-breed.

If the delights of camouflanguage soon pall, there are also sites where people who can write well get together to generate pitiful prose on purpose.

One currently riding high via - a site whose users vote for stories they find interesting - is a blogger's collection of bad analogies, including the one at the start of this article.

Ostensibly submitted by schoolteachers but something of an urban legend, the list highlights the timeless fun in inappropriate analogies such as: "It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools."

But for the holy grail of woeful writing, wordsmiths need look no further than Host to an annual contest, the archived entries at the site "where www means wretched writers welcome" are rich pickings.

Here, from Gerald R. Johnson in Vancouver, WA, is an example that epitomizes the contest's spirit:

"It had been a dark and stormy night, but as dawn began to light up the eastern sky, to the west the heavens suddenly cleared, unveiling a pale harvest moon that reposed gently atop the distant mesa like a pumpkin on a toilet with the lid down."

© Reuters 2003
All rights reserved

December 22, 2006 8:48 AM |

Yes, I'm headed out of town, once again, this time to nogg with the other side of the family, the in-laws. If you don't hear from me before then, know this: I am grateful to all the readers and posters to this web endeavor. Merry Christmas to you all. Happy New Year. I will return as glib and unreasonable (but remarkably well-read!) as before ...

December 21, 2006 1:39 PM | | Comments (1)

Along the way, in his Guardian essay on the nature of "Britishness," Rafael Behr makes Vic Gatrell's City of Laughter sound like a lot of filthy fun:

"Students of this nobody's-got-any-respect-anymore school of hand-wringing should read City of Laughter, Vic Gatrell's study of humour in the 18th century. The primary subject of Gatrell's prodigious research is the trade in satirical prints that circulated in Georgian London. But City of Laughter is also an intimate portrait of what was then the biggest, noisiest, smelliest and most exuberant city in the world. The print industry fed a hearty public appetite for scandal, grotesque caricature, gossip and smut, from which we get a pretty good sense of what sort of place the capital was: not unlike the noisy, smelly, exuberant, smutty place it is today.

Gatrell doesn't draw explicit parallels, but they leap off the page anyway. The obsession with sex and celebrity, the love of drunkenness for its own sake, the libertinage, the traffic jams, the ribaldry and all the indiscretion that is the cultural stamp of 21st-century Britain - they aren't a deviation from some more discreet and serious-minded course of historic Britishness, they are themselves antique. They are vintage Regency fun. Modern Britain even has, in Harry Windsor, its own equivalent of the Prince Regent, the simple-minded toffee-nosed oaf with the taste for pleasure and the habit of getting his picture in scurrilous papers. If anything, today's tabloid paparazzi are kinder to our royals than the 18th-century satirical cartoonists were to theirs."

December 19, 2006 2:41 PM |

On November 20th, when the plug was pulled on her OJ book and TV interview (reportedly by Rupert Murdoch himself after FOX TV affiliates rebelled -- FOX TV affiliates found something appalling: news at 11!), I wondered how long before Judith Regan was given the boot.

It happened yesterday, Dec. 15.

December 16, 2006 10:25 AM | | Comments (1)

. . . to visit family for a few days. So no posts for a while. Until I return, you can excitedly check out the New Statesman's list for notable books in 2007 (naturally, this includes a history of cricket's early years -- woo hoo!).

December 15, 2006 4:18 AM |

Here's Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair on why men tend to be funnier than women and enjoy humor more than women (in general, that is -- you, of course, are wickedly funny): It's because women must contend with the really important, messy things in life -- giving birth and raising kids. Men get to act childish and be silly as a way of hiding the fact that they're not the ones really in charge. And men know that if you can make the woman laugh, you've eased up the tension a bit. It's a step forward.

OK, you may go ahead and argue with Mr. Hitchens if you disagree. A couple of years ago on the topic was why there were all of these sitcoms with dim shlubs married to (or dating) sharp, good-looking women (Everybody Loves Raymond, Grounded for Life, King of Queens, etc.).

This was my take on it:

Everyone has already said the obvious about the fantasies of a male-dominated entertainment industry, the desire to keep male audiences interested and the rather unsupported notion (but one widely held by women) that women are just plain smarter. But there's also the fact that many men develop their comic talents in their teens/twenties precisely because they're not scoring up there with Brad Pitt. It's one of the great forms of come-on compensation -- make 'em laugh.

I'm not saying Mr. Pitt can't do comedy, but that's not his primary appeal. He could be flat-out dreadful with a punchline and it would make squat difference to his popularity with women.

But look at the hordes of horny, unattractive men who succeeded through comedy and almost entirely through comedy: Charlie Chaplin, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Gleason, the Belushis, Jim Carey, Howard Stern, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Bill Murray -- indeed, any male performer who ever started on Saturday Night Live -- the list goes on and on.

In fact, other than Tom Hanks and maybe Marcello Mastroianni, I can't think of a single, good-looking comic who is also an appealing person. That is, there are comics who may be considered good-looking by some women but there's something essentially needy or odd about them. Think of Gene Wilder or Steve Martin. And then there are comics whom women may find adorable because of their public personas but they're not exactly eye-pleasers. Think of Drew Carey.

It's not just that fat women don't get much respect in Hollywood and fat guys can. It's that comedy has long been a way for ordinary Joes to score, to get attention. It's been that way for ordinary Janes, too, but to a much, much lesser degree. Me, I like a witty woman (hello, Sarah Bird!), but a lot of men don't. In general, though, it's true: Great-looking men and women never had to develop their comic skills. Hollywood always casts brainless pretty people in absolutely everything. But let's say you're casting a sitcom and you need a guy to play the funny, shlubby, slightly dim hubbie.

You gonna hire Antonio Banderas? Or are you gonna try to put in a call for Homer Simpson?

December 11, 2006 9:58 AM | | Comments (5)

... the day ArtsJournal launches its new look with a more prominent place for the blogs, I have problems with my server, my wife's car has died and she can't take care of it (it's finals week at her school, plus her students' show is going to open) and I am due to finish a freelance gig (actual real money) and fly out to visit my parents.

All of which is to say: A slow week is likely.

But it probably doesn't matter, anyway: You're all off at the shopping websites right now, looking for gifts.

Oh lord, I knew I forgot something ....

December 11, 2006 9:26 AM | | Comments (1)

Emma Rodgers, the founder of Dallas' oldest black bookstore, has e-mailed me that she's finally going to close Black Images Book Bazaar. The store will shutter at the end of the month. And this time, it's going to happen; it'll have been 20 years for Black Images in its Wynnewood Village location and almost 30 years since Emma began the store as a mail-order outfit.

In 2004, Emma announced she was going to pull the plug but then didn't when just enough community response allowed to her to sign a new, but shorter lease. She says she's planning on setting up a way for customers to help pay off Black Images' debt.

More than anyone, Emma showed me how much an independent bookstore can bring to a community. Here's my column from April 2004:

Era's end tears at the heart
by Jerome Weeks

Last fall, Emma Rodgers, owner of Black Images Book Bazaar, and I spoke about authors she was bringing to town -- who was coming and when.

Though its author wasn't on her list, I had been impressed by The Known World, a new novel by an African-American author I'd never heard of, Edward P. Jones. If he ever came to Dallas, I said, I might want to talk to him.

Emma got him to Dallas in October. Got him on KERA, got him to her store, got an audience.

This is not about Emma doing me a favor. It's about her helping Dallas readers in general and the black community, specifically. And how all of that help is going away.

Emma Rodgers brought in Mr. Jones and filled her store six months before he won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1998, she did the same with another unknown writer, Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, a controversial history of his white family's blood relations with the black families they once owned. Emma sold me on talking to him, filled her store again. And this was seven months before Slaves in the Family won the National Book Award.

In short, Emma has brought authors to Dallas no one else would. Or before anyone else would. She's sold their book, got people talking about them. Even for celebrity authors such as Walter Mosley or Tavis Smiley, her store is a required stop in Dallas.

So when Mrs. Rodgers told me this week that she's planning to shut down her store when her lease is up next year, it came as a shock.

Yes, it's the old story about a small outlet being undersold by the chains, Web sites and huge discounters like Wal-Mart. And yes, Afro Awakenings in Arlington closed last year, so it shouldn't have been entirely unexpected.

But Ms. Rodgers and her partner, Ashira Tosihwe, have run a store in Wynnewood Village since 1986, a heroic lenght of time for a black bookstore in Texas. I wasn't the only one who thought she'd be there forever.

"A lot of us in the community," said Harry Robinson, Jr., president and chief executive officer of the African American Musuemm, "thought Emma was invincible."

Emma should be near-invincible (as close as a specialty store can get). No one else in Dallas really does what she does -- not on her scale, not with her selection.

But one of the disturbing aspects of Black Images' slow demise is that it has no single villain. Wynnewood Village isn't being torn down for a mini-mart nor has the landlord jacked up Emma's rent, forcing her to close. There's no nearby superstore crushing her.

Emma's problems are long term, broadly based and not easily turned around. It has actually been a mark of the success of specialty stores -- gay bookstores, comics, Christian -- that their products are now mainstream. And half of all book sales in American aren't in bookstores at all but in drugstores, computer stores.

As the poet Nikki Giovanni said last week, "I saw the new Toni Morrison on sale for $12 at Kroger's. Who would have thought?"

We pay more at Black Images because we pay for Emma's wisdom, her support of authors, the depth of her stock, her ties to community groups and events. Books have meant more in the African-American community than just books. Literacy and education were once the hopes for getting away from slavery, out of the ghetto, into power. So bookstores have been cultural crossroads, Ms. Giovanni said, information centers.

"You remember [in the movie] Barbershop, they call the barbershop 'the black man's country club'?" she said. "Well, the bookstore is our mall. It's where we meet, where we talk. In the '60s, in Harlem, at 125th and 7th? That was Louis Michaux's bookstore.

"And that's where you'd go if you wanted to talk to Malcolm X."

April 4, 2004. Copyright, The Dallas Morning News

December 8, 2006 11:50 AM |

Very nice piece in Slate by Stephen Metcalfe summarizing the thinking of George W. S. Trow, the New Yorker writer who died last week, best known by some of us for his work with the National Lampoon and his long essay, "Within the Context of No Context," about how Mr. Trow's Eastern establishment elite and all its cultural accoutrements had ceased to matter during his lifetime:

"Operating alongside the cotillions and Henry Luce's Time were the petty hustlers, the little showbiz grifters, the gossip merchants; and what they existed for wasn't the mainstream, established and maintained according to the normative modes of adult behavior, but a limelight, there for the grasping. For Trow, the hustle was a vicious thing. Its seeds lay in the '20s; they effloresced in the '50s; and as Trow observed in the late '90s, had by the end of the century finally come into unchallenged cultural dominance .... In Trow's view, the hustler's ascendancy represented a sustained assault on normal, self-respecting adulthood. Conversely, any tradition of any strength, as a bearer of cultural memory, stood as a threat to the hustler's regency. The best friend of the hustler-elitist, then, was television."

December 8, 2006 8:05 AM |

I had heard of -- but never seen -- the 2001 CNN piece about Thomas Pynchon that included footage of him walking in Manhattan. What I didn't know was that it's widely available on the web.

This is a Daily Telegraph article about Pynchon and the bootleg video, and this is the Youtube video version.

December 7, 2006 8:29 AM | | Comments (1)

It has taken me awhile, but finally, back to my list of intriguing espionage-related fiction this year.

Surprisingly, Ward Just's Forgetfulness is my second nominee, after William Boyd's Restless, as a current literary novel that can fit in satisfyingly with some of the great Graham Greene/John le Carre spy thrillers.

It is hardly a genre book. People looking for suspenseful chase scenes or elaborate "tradecraft" conspiracies will be disappointed. Mr. Just, however, does supply some stunning set pieces. The French wife of an elderly painter living in a village in the Pyrenees dies mysteriously, prompting his old "agency" friends to hunt down the smugglers or terrorists responsible. The interrogation sequence alone is one of the most remarkable ever rendered -- appalling, fascinating, almost clinically reported. Yet little real violence occurs.

I wrote "surprisingly" because Forgetfulness is rather different from the other Ward Just novels I've read. Perhaps it's because of their Washington, D.C.-government settings, but I've rarely found them compelling -- a little too quiet. A slender novel itself (258 pages -- and it's only that length because of the pages' reduced size and larger typeface), Forgetfulness has a dry, subtle, insinuating power. The minor-but-still-respected painter, Thomas Railles, has really only been an occasional contract agent, an "odd jobber," and his wife's death leaves him hollowed out. A reclusive neighbor-friend, an elderly British Word War I vet who deserted from the trenches, also dies, making Thomas wonder about any possible "separate peace" in the midst of war and whether some possible enemy of his own sought to punish him through his wife.

The title is significant because it becomes plain that only two things stand against the oblivion, the forgetfulness into which we all will disappear some day. One of them is art, and Thomas finally creates a portrait of his wife from memory.

The other is revenge.

December 6, 2006 10:39 AM |

In the wake of Michael Richards' racist rant and the response of black celebrities such as comedian Paul Mooney never to use "nigger" again, Christopher Hitchens writes that perhaps this might put to rest the tiresome argument, often made by whites, that if African-Americans can call each other "the N word," why can't we?

Because a white person saying "nigger" calls up this rather starkly marked history of hatred, that's why. The tradition of (one might even say instinct toward) the targeted group's ironically turning such slurs around and de-fanging them goes back at least as far as Tory and now includes suffragette and queer.

But Mr. Hitchens wants a third way of using such words, minus the bigotry -- using them for what one might term intellectual and educational purposes. Seeing as he seeks to get around the taboo, seeing as he wishes to use such words without the bigotry he himself feels will "always be able to outpace linguistic correctness" -- well, it's an admirable goal, but good luck.

December 6, 2006 9:38 AM | | Comments (1)

A list of books I enjoyed reading this year and probably would happily read again. The oddity, for me, is that I mostly remember slogging through nonfiction after nonfiction, most of it having to do with the Iraq War. Yet the vast majority of books that first leapt to mind in compiling this list were the novels and short-story collections.

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart.
A funnier, sharper book than his debut, The Russian Debutante's Handbook (here, rendered as The Russian Arriviste's Hand Job): A fat, young Russian-American heads home but then can't get back to the rap music and South Bronx Latina he loves because his mobster father knocked off an Oklahoma businessman. So Misha heads to Absurdistan instead because he might be able to buy a black market visa in a country that falls apart just as he arrives.
Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta.
Spare, coolly observant and smart. A somewhat settled, mildly-lefty, middle-class pair of adults who rarely even see each other turn out to have been a radical couple who triggered a political bombing in the '70s. Now the woman's teenage son begins to uncover clues to her real identity. The best post-DeLillo novel on domestic terrorism and consumer culture.
The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers.
Too long and not his best, but still a fascinating rumination on the human brain, family and our connection to wildlife: A truck accident near a prime whooping crane sanctuary in Nebraska sends the young driver into a coma; when he awakes, he has no memory of the event or of this strange woman who's helping him and claims to be his sister. She calls in an Oliver Sachs-like neural scientist who only makes things worse. The National Book Award finally caught up with the brilliant Mr. Powers.
The People's Act of Love, by James Meek
The most unusual, most haunting thriller of the year, certainly the best Russian-based, noir-ish novel since Gorky Park. Czech regiment is stranded in Siberia at the tail-end of the Russian revolution in a town with a religious sect whose members castrate themselves to be like angels. A murderer, a possible madman has escaped from a nearby Siberian camp. And then the Bolshevik army shows up. Dark, poetic, almost other-worldly. Oh, and I forgot to mention: The sect and the stranded Czech regiment are based on history.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.
His starkest, most nihilistic novel yet, heartbreaking in its simplicity and cold, Beckett-like beauty. Pushing their little cart of canned goods, a man and his young son try to survive in a nuclear-wintry world of hungry cannibals and roving bands of thugs. It's something like Lone Wolf and Cub set in the Southwest.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl.
All right, she's beautiful, young and irritatingly brilliant and her novel about a genius teenage daughter, her wandering, history-prof father and the murder they become involved in is too precociously clever and Nabokovian-derivative by half. But hell, it's still a lot of fun to read.
Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky.
A novel of French Jewish refugees and World War II, this has the emotional heft of Tolstoy. Amazingly old-fashioned in its human detail and historic sweep, yet it works; it pulls you in.

At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, by Taylor Branch.
It has been Mr. Branch's contention through his Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil Rights trilogy that we Americans shouldn't think of them as the '50s or the '60s but as "the King Years": His account has been so moving that when the reader finally reaches Memphis, 1968, he can't accept what he knows is coming.
The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder, by Daniel Stashower
No doubt there have been richer, more profound historical-biographical studies this year, but Cigar Girl is highly enjoyable as a biography of Poe, a study of the period's literature and crime and a reflection on the nature of literary mystery. Mr. Stashower cuts back and forth between the real-life murder of Mary Rogers and Poe's miserable life as he struggles with his great invention, the detective story, trying to use it solve the Rogers case and gain some measure of financial stability.
Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, by Hampton Sides.
Kit Carson and the near-destruction of the Navajo: The stories have been told before, but this is an epic history, and Mr. Sides does a remarkably rich job of contrasting and intertwining the two cultures as the illiterate trapper and scout, married twice to Native Americans, ends up leading the tribe's slaughter. A tremendously vast narrrative but one that Mr. Sides keeps (mostly) under control to great effect.
Flaubert: A Biography, by Frederick Brown
This is actually more like "Flaubert's Life and Times" or "Flaubert and His Friends." Mr. Brown, a biographer of Zola and a writer on the French stage, knows the period, knows the secondary characters, so what we get is a (sometimes too) full tapestry of the age and how 'the bear of Croisset' fully fit in it, despite his grumpy-hermit ways.
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright.
Of all the books on Iraq and terrorism that I read the past year (State of War, State of Denial, The End of Iraq, Fiasco, Cobra II, One-Percent Doctrine), Mr. Wright's stands out for its human narrrative and journalistic depth., the way he's managed to interview bin Laden's school chums and sisters-in-law as well as the only Arabic agents our intelligence community had. He tracks bin Laden and Zarqawi on the one side and CIA and FBI agents on the other until they all come together at the burning towers. It's a catastrophe that didn't have to happen.

And (see below, 'tis the season) these were my previous citations for:


>Some Fun by Antonya Nelson

Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain


The Fate of the Artist, by Eddie Campbell

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

Also: The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon.

December 3, 2006 12:21 PM | | Comments (1)

In this New Statesman essay, John Sutherland moves from the faux-Victorian fantasy-folderol of G. W. Dahlquist's The Glass Book of the Dream Eaters (which I found unreadable) to the alarms raised by Bibliotheque national president Jean-Noe Jeanneney in Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: Google's (so far successful, so far very rapid) attempt to digitalize 15 million books will inevitably lead to the decline of languages like French.

More important than the typically Gallic complaint about our American digital-dominance are M. Jeanneney's points about what the largest book marketing project ever undertaken will mean to books and reading in general: the "de-individuation" of books (digitally, they'll all be alike -- whereas you actually do judge books by their covers, and their sizes, and their typefaces), the bulk data processing that reading is becoming (more data, less discrimination) and the Americanization of culture (our prejudices, our tastes, our allegiance to free market values over everything else).

In this context, The Glass Book, Mr. Dalquist's ornate but empty pastiche, figures as nostalgia -- but also, Mr. Sutherland contends, as an ingenious, risky leap forward. Despite the cheat ending, the essay is thought-provoking.

A tip of the hat to Bill for prodding me into reading it.

December 3, 2006 9:46 AM |

... for year-end lists of favorites. Like Christmas-shopping itself, the damned things crop up earlier and earlier each year. But do you ever hear anyone express sympathy for the poor book reviewers who have to start earlier every year, like all those store clerks struggling to put up snowy decorations in August? Noooooo.

So to plunge in, late but polar-bear-like, it must first be noted what a remarkable year this has been for short-story collections. I'm not even the kind of reviewer, I confess, who keeps up with lots of short-story writers, checking out every new writing-school grad who appears in Zoetrope. So my judgment on this may be completely misplaced. But for someone like me to be struck by one short-story collection after another must say something about the year's literary output. Thomas McGuane's Gallatin Canyon. Edward P. Jones' All Aunt Hagar's Children. Cristina Henriquez' debut, Come Together, Fall Apart

But these three were my faves: Some Fun by Antonya Nelson, a master of the sardonic but sympathetic story. Her drily observed work maintains an impressively high quality in this collection about self-destructive teens and troubled young women wrestling with the ghosts of their fathers.

Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg: If a short-story collection is on a best-of list, it's often this one, and deservedly so. A telling sign, for me: Ms. Eisenberg has stories here that do things I didn't think a short story could do, like combining melancholy, Chekhovian insights with catastrophic events and pop-culture ironies. Over at bookslut, Alexa has disparaged Ms. Eisenberg (and Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore) for writing about "so many women who seem to lack fulfilling relationships entirely, to see love as resignation, to survive in such an unvarying state, rejecting and accepting familial relations" -- and that this accounts for all the acclaim (and sales) the three receive: They depict women as glum losers. Alexa's basic argument comes close to saying that Ms. Eisenberg needs to create more uplifting female role models because these characters are too "nihilistic," too filled with "world-weary exhaustion."

Stripped of the crude, moralizing feminism, the same charges were made against Chekhov.

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain. Graham Greene re-born -- with a deadpan sense of humor (and empathy) for naive Americans (a golf pro, a UN inspector) misunderstanding the political violence in Third World countries that they've often helped trigger. An impressive debut collection.

And while critics have hailed this as The Year of the Graphic Novel Memoir, I must put in a plug, not for Alison Bechdel's deeply poignant Fun Home, but for Eddie Campbell's playful and exasperating The Fate of the Artist, in which the author, who has disappeared, hires a troupe of amateur actors to recreate silly scenes from his wretched family life. It's an autobiography of Tristam Shandy-ian complexity, delicate collages and wicked comic-strip humor.

December 3, 2006 9:13 AM |

If you've never seen the series Action, the brilliantly caustic satire of Hollywood, you should. I popped it into the DVD player to watch again while doing my shoulder-rehab exercises.

Created by Chris Thompson, the show, which Fox cancelled after six episodes, revolves around angry, arrogant, action-movie producer Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr), the most amoral, pill-popping, backstabbing, hooker-hiring (and funny) anti-hero ever on American TV -- until, well, those murderous bastards on Deadwood (also created by Mr. Thompson. One senses a thread in his work).

In any event, what follows is practically the very first scene of the very first episode. Remember: Peter Dragon is willing to sell his wife to get a good opening-weekend box office. Try not to compare his reaction with what the response must have been like from Judith Regan, Rupert Murdoch and Barbara Walters when they first heard the pitch for the O. J. Simpson book and interview:

[Interior: Peter Dragon's office. While Peter eats lunch, an agent talks to him.]

Cody: Suppose I could deliver you a star so big that little children in the crap-infested streets of Calcutta know his name.

Peter: Cody, please, I'm eating spring rolls.

Cody: Sorry. But suppose I could deliver this huge star -- a guy better known than Tom Hanks -- and you'd only have to pay him scale.

Peter: Who is it?

Cody: Ah, he's a complicated client.

Peter: Who is?

Cody: I can't tell you.

Peter: Can you give me a hint?

Cody: He has had some legal problems.

Peter: Drugs? Is it Robert Downey, Jr?

Cody: No, Pete! My man's clean. Straight-arrow. Strong. Healthy.

Peter: Can you give me a bigger hint?

Cody: Well, he was falsely accused of a double murder.

[Long pause. Peter stares at him.]

Cody: Now, because of the potential P.R. problems, my agency can't 'officially' represent him.

Peter: You're pitching me O. J. Simpson.

Cody: Yes, I am -- Pete, little children in Calcutta know his face.

Peter: Yes -- they know to run away from it!

Cody: The name is more recognizable than Tom Hanks'!

Peter: OK, but you know what, Tom Hanks refuses to go that extra mile and hack his wife to death.

Cody: He was acquitted, man! Peter, with all due respect, someone is going to put him in something and people are going to want to see him. Yeah, first out of curiosity but I think they're going to be pleasantly surprised with his acting chops. He's been studying with a coach. I recently saw him do a monologue from Raisin in the Sun.

Peter: Really. How was that?

Cody: Truthfully, it was very moving.

Peter: Cody, get out.

Cody: How about a villain? He'll play a villain. C'mon! [making stabbing gestures] Who's scarier?

Peter: You're scarier.

Cody: C'mon, Peter, just the shock value sells a million tickets, and he's going at bargain basement rates. Hey -- do you play golf?

Peter: You know what? I think I just threw up -- inside my throat? Get out, please.

Cody: Just a word of warning [Peter closes the office door behind him, he has to shout] The guys at Fox are all over the guy!

Peter: God. [He pauses at the door.] He's such a good agent.

December 2, 2006 10:00 AM |


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