Everything you're used to is still here, but you may notice a slight design change this week. Instead of listing links to all our regular book reviews at the very bottom, I've sprinkled them throughout the newsletter. I'm hoping this encourages more of you to check out the great literary coverage Book World produces every day.
(Random House; Simon & Schuster; Mariner; Vintage; Scribner)
This week in Alaska, literature enjoyed a little victory that holds lessons — and warnings — for the rest of the country. The Mat-Su Borough school board voted 6-1 to rescind their earlier decision to remove five classic books from an English elective course for 11th and 12th graders (background). The board’s judgment on such “controversial” titles as “The Great Gatsby” and “Invisible Man” had sparked outrage and derision across the country and especially within the Mat-Su district.
Wednesday’s climactic meeting was long — six hours! — and included semantic analysis of “banning” and “controversial.” (If only some of these board members would read books as closely as they read the negative news stories about their meddling.) But there were some dramatic highlights. One of the board members who has consistently opposed excluding the five books noted that she was the descendant of a woman hanged for witchcraft. “We used to kill people who did not believe as we believed,” she said.
The board’s vice president countered by reading into the record a brief section of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in which Maya Angelou describes being raped as a child. “In the hands of minors is that appropriate?” he asked, as though somebody had proposed teaching this memoir to third graders. Superintendent Monica Goyette coolly flayed him for ignoring the fact that a real teacher would present that episode in context along with appropriate emotional support.
After rescinding their April 22 decision to remove the five books, the board moved to revisit the issue of literary standards next year. But there was another issue raised — and largely passed over — that I think is more alarming than any discussion about which books should be excluded from school. Board member Jeff Taylor said that while considering this controversy, he had consulted with a literacy advocate and curriculum developer. “One thing she said that stuck out to me,” Taylor noted, “is that literature classes should be established for the purpose of teaching reading concepts and skills. Content and subject matter should be discussed in other settings, such as book clubs.”
Let that pernicious suggestion sink in for a moment and imagine what unspeakable damage it could do to English classes. Remember how moved you were by the “reading concepts and skills” in “To Kill a Mockingbird”? We could end up winning the war against book banning while losing the war against literature.
Annie Proulx’s “Barkskins” is an awesome, sprawling novel about the exploitation of North America’s forests over 300 years (review). On Monday, an eight-episode TV adaptation, starring David Thewlis, will debut on the National Geographic channel (trailer). Proulx tells me she was not involved with the script or the filming — which is not unusual — but she’s feeling a little nervous about what liberties may have been taken with the portrayal of the Mi’kmaq people in the novel.
While acknowledging “that books and films are different mediums,” she fears that her message about the major role that deforestation plays in the climate crisis might be “transmuted into brave pioneers struggle against elements and natives.” When you’re an 84-year-old genius who’s won every prize in the realm, you can say what you want about tinseltown. “I could be quite wrong to have these black thoughts, but we will see.”
Meanwhile, Proulx is riding out the Covid-19 quarantine on the Olympic Peninsula. “It is a dark, dangerous and exciting time to be alive,” she says, but “stay-at-home is not very different from a writer’s regular life.” Her work on “Barkskins” changed her focus. “I had become so sensitized to noting the damage humans have done to the earth that I found I could no longer write fiction,” she says. “It was impossible to think of anything but the vast breaking apart of what I, who had lived a rural life, knew as the natural world.”
She has turned to doing research for a series of essays on wetlands. “I am enjoying some of the most wonderful reading of my life,” she says. “There are people who care passionately about the fate of the Amazon, the lobes of ice in Siberia, the drifting soot that darkens Arctic snow, the indigenous people making a desperate stand against conscienceless business entities, the pathogens and viruses that we push out of their evolutionary homes.”
Proulx takes some cautious delight in the resurgence of nature during the world-wide quarantine. “Young whales who have never experienced a silent sea will have something to remember all their lives,” she says, “although the noise is sure to come back. . . . Humans are habituated to, and very fond of noise: Noise is money.”
Random House; author Curtis Sittenfeld (Photo by Josephine Sittenfeld); special prosecutor Kenneth Starr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee, Nov. 19, 1998 (Photo by Ray Lustig/The Washington Post); Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe in Washington (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post)
Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, “Rodham,” is a liberal fantasy and a Fox News nightmare (review). The story imagines that Hillary never married Bill Clinton, which changes everything. Well, not everything. Hillary still has to contend with the toxic sexism of American politics. But one of the surprising elements of this often surprising novel is how brilliantly Sittenfeld captures a bombastic real estate developer named Donald Trump. Several great novelists — including Salman Rushdie and Howard Jacobson — have tried to parody “the short-fingered Vulgarian,” but nobody gets him as right as Sittenfeld does.
The secret to her success is her fidelity to the man’s language. “I watched some of his speeches and other television appearances and transcribed his words,” she tells me. “I also studied the patterns in his tweets.” The research was painful. “It felt a bit like exposure therapy,” she says, “and even made me question why I was choosing to spend my time this way.” I’m glad she did. The Donald scenes of “Rodham” are the funniest, though you may be laughing through tears.
Speaking of philandering presidents, Washington, D.C. is up in arms this week over reports that Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe might leave Dupont Circle, where it’s been for more than 40 years (story). Political junkies will remember that in 1998 Kramerbooks was drawn into the Clinton sex scandal when independent counsel Kenneth Starr demanded that the store reveal what books former White House intern Monica Lewinsky had purchased (archives).
Publishers, booksellers and free speech groups objected strenuously to Starr’s fishing expedition. (This was long before his Trumpian conversion.) The standoff was eventually resolved when Lewinsky volunteered to hand over details about her book purchases, which permanently embedded Nicholson Baker's phone-sex novel, "Vox," in presidential history (review).
Tomorrow, the New York Public Library celebrates its 125th anniversary by . . . staying closed. That’s a drag, but nothing keeps those lions down. Today, the NYPL has released a list called “125 Kids Books We Love.” You’ll find all your old favorites here from the last 125 years, including A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” and Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” along with new classics like Jacqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming” and Jason Reynolds’s “Ghost” (full list). Most of the books on the list are available to anyone with a NYPL card to borrow digitally in ebook or audio format. But no matter where you live, this is a great guide for parents, so check your local library for similar electronic offerings.
Clearly, the quarantine has turned lots of library patrons into e-book borrowers for the first time. Libby, the e-reading app from OverDrive that most libraries use, has seen e-book check-outs soar more than 50 percent since March. Since schools closed down, young adult nonfiction experienced a whopping 165 percent increase. But if the quarantine has sparked interest in new ways to read, it hasn’t inspired as much interest in new titles to read. Overdrive reports that the most popular books — in both e-book and audio format — are still these bestsellers from 2018:
- “Where the Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens (review)
- “Becoming,” by Michelle Obama (review)
- “Educated,” by Tara Westover.
Numbers don’t lie, but they lag. Although booksellers know their stores are burning down, the latest sales data still indicate only the first whiff of smoke. The Association of American Publishers reports that sales this March were about 8 percent lower than last March. April’s numbers will not be so gentle. It might even be the cruelest month, as somebody once said.
Authors are feeling the chill, too. Online appearances are filling some of the publicity desert, but Zoom can’t replace talking with readers and local media in cities all over the country. Like many writers with books coming out this spring, Laura Hankin was looking forward to her book tour. Instead, her new comic novel, “Happy and You Know It,” has just been released into the great silence. So she decided to sing about her disappointment in a music video. It’s hilarious (watch).
Ralph Nader (Photo by David Alfaya); Akashic Books; Ralph's mother, Rose B. Nader with her great-grandson Adnaan Stumo (Courtesy of Akashic Books)
Ralph Nader has spent his life fighting to stop deadly cars, dirty water and crooked politicians. Now he’s determined to stop dull meals. His latest book is “The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook.” It’s a beautifully photographed collection of “classic recipes from Lebanon and beyond.” It’s also a loving tribute to his parents, who ran a restaurant in a small town in Connecticut. Their customers wanted traditional American food seven days a week, but back home, Nader and his three siblings were getting “meals full of garlic, mint, and the spices of our ancestors” — that is, the Mediterranean diet that so many nutritionists now recommend.
More than just a collection of recipes, though, this is a window on a culture and a family. Nader’s description of his mother convincing 8-year-old Ralph to eat radishes speaks volumes about this persuasive matriarch and the tireless activist she raised.
It’s no coincidence that the first photo in the book is not of lamb-filled fatayer; it’s of Nader in a suit and tie working the phones. Clearly, the 86-year-old consumer advocate has no intention of settling down. Even while telling me about his mother’s dinner table, he breaks off to explain the case against President Trump for breaking the Hatch Act. This man deserves all the ma’mool he wants.
A few of the hundreds of books published by Thomas Dunne. (Photo courtesy of Macmillan)
It’s easy to forget that behind the authors we love are editors and publishers who make their books possible. Thomas Dunne is one of those legendary figures in a field that doesn’t commemorate its legends very fulsomely. Dunne started working at St. Martin’s in 1971 when it had 24 employees. His imprint, Thomas Dunne Books — marked with a silhouette of his dachshund, Sparky — launched in 1986. Over the years, he’s published an enormous range of titles, from political memoirs by Sen. Bernie Sanders to novels by Sophie Kinsella to a thriller by a guy you may have heard of named Dan Brown. Perhaps even more important, Dunne offered some promising young people their first jobs in publishing, including Reagan Arthur, now publisher of Knopf; Pamela Dorman, now publisher of Pamela Dorman Books/Viking; Bob Miller, now publisher of Flatiron Books; and many more.
Last month while Dunne was in Florida, he got a brief phone call informing him that after 49 years of service he was being laid off. “That’s business. That’s life,” he tells me. Cuts were being made across Macmillan as part of a general restructuring. “I would have liked to have stuck around for another year or so to make it to 50 years on January, but it was not in the cards.” He won’t miss marketing meetings and sales conferences, but he’ll miss the Washington gossip. “It’s fun to be in touch with people on both sides of the aisle,” he says. “I’m a liberal Democrat, but I published Pat Buchanan for five books and Newt Gingrich’s novels and so on. I love to know the news 24 hours before it’s on the tube.”
Once, he knew the news decades before it was on the tube. In 1978, he published a novel of his own, a medical thriller called “The Scourge.” It’s about “a pandemic with a president who first is in denial and then becomes very dangerous.” Preposterous.
Copyright: The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth.
Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.
You may not think “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the cheery pick-me-up you need during a worldwide pandemic. But don’t miss this lush presentation of Coleridge’s haunting epic (watch). Professor Philip Hoare and artists Angela Cockayne and Sarah Chapman have broken the poem up and enlisted people like Willem Dafoe, Hilary Mantel, Rupert Everett and dozens of other writers and actors to read it. Their recitations — performances, really — are accompanied by eerie artwork and a soundscape recorded in Antarctica, the English Channel and at Coleridge’s cottage in Somerset. (In 2012, they produced a similar presentation of “Moby-Dick.”)
“The Rime” project took three years to complete and drew Hoare on a journey of his own. “I sat at Jeremy Irons’s feet in his hotel to record his reading,” he tells me. “He suddenly turned into the ancient mariner himself, a weird and magical transformation.” Hoare is wholly unintimidated by this cast of stars. Iggy Pop sent a recording from Miami; Hoare knew he could do better. “I had the cheek to send him a note, asking him to growl it. He growled it.”
For now, you can watch the episodes as they’re released each day, but on May 28, all the readings will be stitched together “in one crazy mosaic of voices and images.” For Hoare, the 200-year-old poem is shockingly relevant. “It is the first modern work of literature to speak to existential angst,” he says, “to our disastrous disconnection from nature, to our loss of faith in ourselves.” But when he and his team started working on the project, they had no idea that “its themes of loneliness and isolation” would resonate so deeply with a world adrift in quarantine.
Some of the winners of the AIGA 50 Books | 50 Covers contest. (Melville House; MMoCA; Pantheon; W. W. Norton)
You can’t judge a book by its cover. But of course we all do, which is why publishers spend gobs of time and money designing them. For almost 100 years, the American Institute of Graphic Arts has been honoring the very best. This week, AIGA announced the winners of its annual 50 Books | 50 Covers contest (full list). What struck me was how few winners I recognized. Clearly, there’s a gap between publishers’ demands and designers’ inspiration. The jackets of many books I read look trendy or derivative.
“Publishers and popular authors get risk averse,” Silas Munro, one of this year’s jurors, tells me. “Decision makers have a tendency to choose the same visual solutions that have always worked.” And the way books are marketed on the Internet has a big influence, too. “Book cover designers now have to contend with the thumbnail or ‘postage stamp-ification’ that the image grid of online sellers have enforced on book publishing. There are many conversations and pushback between the designer and client about how a cover design will translate to a mobile screen.”
Munro adds, “A great book cover feels like a magic trick,” which sounds exactly right to me. “The solution is striking, unexpected, surprising, but it always points back to the conventions and history of the art of illusion. Suddenly, the meaning of the text and connection to the author can be gleaned just by looking at the cover. You want to pick the book up, read it and buy it.”
Until recently, Daniel Halpern, the publisher of Ecco, had forgotten about this poem that he wrote back in 2013. “What was I thinking?” he wonders now.
There are fewer introductions
In plague years,
Hands held back, jocularity
No longer bellicose,
Even among men.
Breathing’s generally wary,
Labored, as they say, when
The end is at hand.
But this is the everyday intake
Of the imperceptible life force,
Willed now, slow —
Well, just cautious
In inhabited air.
As for ongoing dialogue,
No longer an exuberant plosive
To make a point,
But a new squirreling of air space,
A new sense of boundary.
Genghis Khan said the hand
Is the first thing one man gives
To another. Not in this war.
A gesture of limited distance
Now suffices, a nod,
A minor smile or a hand
Not in search of its counterpart,
Just a warning within
The acknowledgment to stand back.
Each beautiful stranger a barbarian
Breathing on the other side of the gate.
Originally published in Poetry, 2013. Reprinted with permission of the author. Halpern’s most recent collection is “Something Shining” (Knopf).
Farrar Straus Giroux; Harper; Haymarket
I hope you have a peaceful Memorial Day weekend. Like most of you, my family and I will be spending it in quarantine — 67 days so far. My wife, Dawn, is reading Ben Lerner’s brilliant novel “Topeka School,” one of The Post’s top 10 books of 2019 (full list). My daughter Madeline is reading “Detroit: I Do Mind Dying,” by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, about the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. And I’m reading Lionel Shriver’s “The Motion of the Body Through Space,” which I’ll tell you about next week. Till then, wherever you are, I hope you’re staying safe and finding good books. If you have any questions or comments about our book coverage, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, help me out and forward it to them. To subscribe, click here.