"A Promised Land" on sale at Barnes & Noble Union Square in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
The Obama magic is stronger than ever. First-day sales of Barack Obama’s memoir “A Promised Land” set an all-time record for Penguin Random House (review). The publisher said his book rocketed out of the gate with more than 887,000 copies sold on Tuesday.
The pandemic makes it impossible for Barack to conduct the kind of world tour that eventually helped boost sales of Michelle’s “Becoming” to more than 10 million copies (review). But the former president is taking full advantage of all media platforms, with appearances on “60 Minutes,” “The Oprah Conversation,” “CBS News,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” He published a substantial excerpt in the New Yorker and gave a lengthy interview to the Atlantic. On Monday, he posted a list of his favorite songs on Facebook. This is buzz creation at the Olympic level.
Indie bookstores have reported strong sales of “A Promised Land,” but that success could be bittersweet. In normal times, Obama’s memoir would have drawn customers into the aisles where they’d see other books, cards and gifts to purchase. Nowadays, though, with phone and online orders dominating, that sort of collateral buying will be way down. Many purchases of a single, heavily-discounted book won't save our indie bookstores this holiday season. So buy broadly, give recklessly!
(Pantheon; Wave; Riverhead; Liveright; Scholastic)
The 71st National Book Awards ceremony on Wednesday night will be remembered as a milestone in this country’s celebration of Asian and Asian American literature. Three of the five prizes conferred during the virtual event went to books by Asian or Asian American authors:
- Fiction: “Interior Chinatown,” by Charles Yu (review).
- Poetry: “DMZ Colony,” by Don Mee Choi (see poem below).
- Translated Literature: “Tokyo Ueno Station,” by Yu Miri; translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles (review).
- Nonfiction: “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X,” by the late Les Payne and his daughter Tamara Payne (review).
- Young People’s Literature: “King and the Dragonflies,” by Kacen Callender (profile in last week’s newsletter).
The usually glitzy awards ceremony couldn’t be held this year because of the pandemic, but the National Book Foundation produced an elegant virtual event hosted by Jason Reynolds, the national ambassador for young people's literature. Among the evening's highlights – aside from seeing the winning authors speaking from their homes, which was adorable – was a video mosaic of Black authors who have been recognized by the National Book Awards over the years (watch).
Also, you need to hear Walter Mosley accept the foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He spoke movingly about what it meant to him to be the first Black man to receive that honor. “One might be cowed by the monumental negative space surrounding that pinprick of light that this award represents,” he said. “One might ask, can such a thing make a difference? Is this a dying gasp or a first breath? Is today different from any other day over the past 400 years? I prefer to believe that we are on the threshold of a new day, that this evening is but one of 10,000 steps being taken to recognize the potential of this nation” (watch).
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo performs with her band at the Library of Congress, Sept. 19, 2019. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)
Poetic justice: Joy Harjo has been appointed to a third term as U.S. Poet Laureate. Only one other writer — Robert Pinsky — has ever served three terms. Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Nation and a powerful voice for Native people, is the author of nine poetry collections, most recently “An American Sunrise” (review).
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden noted that a third term will allow Harjo to complete work on a ground-breaking project launched this week in celebration of Native American Heritage Month: “Living Nations, Living Words” is an interactive online map that features audio recordings of 47 contemporary Native American poets, including Louise Erdrich, Natalie Diaz and Ray Young Bear. Look and listen here. It’s easy to use and beautifully designed. (Attn: English and history teachers!)
Given the complex role that maps have played in American history — as weapons of oppression and tools of legal recourse — a map of Native American poets is particularly resonant. “You will not find us fairly represented, if at all, in the cultural storytelling of America, and nearly nonexistent in the American book of poetry,” writes Harjo. This project, a first for the Library of Congress, grew from her desire “to counter damaging false assumptions — that indigenous peoples of our country are often invisible or are not seen as human.” She concludes, “We must make a new map, together where poetry is sung.”
Douglas Stuart accepts the 2020 Booker Prize for his debut novel, “Shuggie Bain,” during a virtual ceremony streamed by the BBC on Nov. 19, 2020. (Courtesy of BBC)
“Shuggie Bain,” a debut novel by Douglas Stuart, won the Booker Prize last night during a virtual ceremony streamed from London. The autobiographical story, which was rejected by dozens of editors before it finally found a publisher, describes the working-class life of a young gay man and his alcoholic mother in Glasgow in the 1980s. Margaret Busby, chair of judges, said, “‘Shuggie Bain’ is destined to be a classic — a moving, immersive and nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world, its people and its values.”
It's rare for debut novelists to win the Booker, but it's even rarer for Scottish writers. Stuart, who was born in Glasgow and now lives in New York, is only the second Scottish author ever to win the 51-year-old prize (James Kelman won in 1994). In his acceptance speech, Stuart said, “I wanted just to tell the story of what it was like to grow up queer in Glasgow, to grow up with a parent who you love but you couldn’t save.”
President Obama was one of several special guests who participated in Thursday night’s Booker ceremony. “I am always impressed by authors who can write incredible works of fiction, even if that’s what my critics call my speeches,” he said. He went on to praise “fiction’s power to help us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, understand their struggles and imagine new ways to tackle complex problems and affect change.”
This 1904 anti-monopoly cartoon by Udo Keppler shows Standard Oil as an octopus with tentacles wrapped around the various industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol — and one reaching for the White House. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
If the Justice Department doesn’t step up quickly, the publishing industry will soon be even more concentrated. Penguin Random House and News Corp., the owner of HarperCollins, are reportedly among the leading bidders for Simon & Schuster. ViacomCBS put the famous publisher up for sale earlier this year; final bids are expected by Thanksgiving.
What’s so bad about the Big Five publishers becoming the Big Four? Sally Hubbard is the author of a new book inelegantly called “Monopolies Suck.” She tells me, “Diversity of speech and a marketplace of ideas are incredibly important. We’re seeing this across the whole economy, whether it’s online speech and the consolidation of the control of speech with Facebook and Google or whether it’s the destruction of local news and journalism. You start having a less pluralistic society, more concentration of ideas through fewer gatekeepers.” That’s already led to margins so squeezed that publishers have less money “to take risks on new authors who don't have followings.” Projects that require years of research fall by the wayside.
Hubbard blames the unfettered rise of Amazon for this situation. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) The Justice Department’s fixation on low prices has allowed Amazon to become, she says, a monopsony: a single, large buyer that can dictate prices and terms to publishers. “That’s an extortive and extortionary relationship,” she says, “not a healthy marketplace.” Publishers have responded in the only way they know how: further consolidation. Hubbard says the situation is now so extreme that the Justice Department should allow publishers to engage in collective bargaining with Amazon. That may be the only way to protect publishers’ margins, preserve the industry’s waning diversity and ensure variety among our creative gatekeepers.
“Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” by Abigail Shrier, experienced a big bounce in sales after Target temporarily stopped selling it. (Regnery Publishing)
Nothing increases interest in a book like efforts to repress it. That irony was on full display last weekend. Back in June, Abigail Shrier published “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.” It was not widely reviewed, and sales were modest. But then, last Thursday in response to tweets calling the book transphobic, Target briefly removed it, and a short time later a staff member of the ACLU tweeted on his personal account that he was determined to stop the book’s circulation. Suddenly, “Irreversible Damage” was transformed into a cause célèbre.
On Saturday, Shrier published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with the sensational headline, “Does the ACLU Want to Ban My Book?” A chorus of right-wing sites flew into a rage on her behalf, but according to the ACLU, I was the only journalist to take the extraordinary step of asking the organization for a response. In less than an hour, I learned that, no, the ACLU does not want to ban Shrier’s book. “Since our founding in 1920, the ACLU has opposed censorship in all its forms,” a spokesperson told me. “Our commitment to free expression is unequivocal. This commitment also demands that we respect the freedom of our employees to express themselves on their personal time.”
In Saturday's WSJ op-ed and an earlier one complaining about Amazon’s refusal to let her advertise on its site, Shrier sounds a free-speech alarm, but I also smell crafty marketing. Shrier’s publisher, Thomas Spence, tells me that “Irreversible Damage” has been “selling like crazy” since Target temporarily stopped selling it. He ordered a third printing on Wednesday. “We had modest expectations for it,” he says, but “it’s now gone to a different level — thanks to Target.” On Amazon, “Irreversible Damage" is now the No. 1 bestseller in LGBT Demographic Studies.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s that books need to be countered in ways that don’t inadvertently magnify their presence.
The Romantic Novelists’ Association has chosen the Ripped Bodice as the bookseller of the year. The Los Angeles area store is one of the few devoted exclusively to romance books, and like true love, it’s persevered through the pandemic. Co-owner Leah Koch attributes the Ripped Bodice’s survival to “a never-quit attitude and a lot of packing tape!” (Attn: Christian Grey!) The store is open, but most of its business is conducted online these days — a tribute to customers’ devotion. “In the very early days,” Koch says, “readers were really wanting things to help them escape. The longer things have gone on, the more people seem to return to regularly scheduled reading.” As Emily Dickinson (or Selena Gomez) said, “The heart wants what it wants.”
My younger daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, forced me to watch a rom-com called “Dash & Lily.” Forced? — who am I kidding? It opens in the Strand Bookstore; I was tearing up faster than you can say “Franny and Zooey.” The eight-episode Netflix adaptation, heavily decked out with Christmas garland, is based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s “Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares” (2010) It’s about a couple of bookish teens, played by Austin Abrams and Midori Francis, who fall in love by passing a journal back and forth in the stacks of the Strand, which, of course, is the way most people find their soulmates.
The bookstore scenes were filmed over two days back in October 2019, which provides a bittersweet reminder of what life was like before quarantines, masks and boarded-up streets — back when we were all young and falling in love. Levithan tells me bookstores are a natural spot for budding romance. “It’s the underlying bookish kinship: If you see a fellow browser in a bookshop, you know that you at least have books in common. And most of us who love books are looking to fall in love with someone who also loves books.” He still remembers striking up a conversation with somebody leafing through “A Wrinkle in Time.” “My intentions weren’t romantic at first,” he says, “but then as the conversation went on, I was like, Oh, wow, this might be the first time I’ve ever flirted with a stranger like this.” Nothing came of it, and the bookstore is gone now, but 20 years later, he still recalls the thrill.
I wouldn’t be surprised if clerks at the Strand start finding red journals mixed in the stacks. James Odum, the store’s communications director, tells me, “It’s not uncommon for us to hear from people that they met their significant other here, or they went on their first date here. People have gotten married in our rare book room. We allow engagements, as well.” He’s received notes from sweethearts asking to stage proposals in the science fiction department. Live long and prosper! As Odum says, “The Strand is for lovers.”
Upcoming literary conversations you can enjoy from home next week:
- As part of its Literary Conversations series, PEN/Faulkner has assembled an amazing group of writers to talk about building new worlds as a way of exploring the human condition. Margaret Atwood, Rion Amilcar Scott and Nisi Shawl will participate in a discussion hosted by Morgan Jerkins on Monday, Nov. 23, at 7 p.m. ET. (Tickets are free, but you need to register.)
- From the Library of Congress: Director Ron Howard will discuss his adaptation of “Hillbilly Elegy” with the book’s author, J.D. Vance (profile). When “Hillbilly Elegy” was published in 2016, the memoir sparked a nationwide discussion about the white working class and its attraction to Donald Trump (review). Alas, our movie critic calls Howard’s new film “glaringly obvious,” “melodramatic” and “a mounting pile of baloney” (review). Ouch. You can watch Howard and Vance talk with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden on Nov. 23 at 7 p.m. ET on the Library’s Facebook page and its YouTube channel.
Harper Business; iStock file photo
As Thanksgiving approaches, you may be dreading an afternoon with your brother-in-law, the Fox News addict who knows Bigfoot helped Joe Biden rig the election. Fred Dust has some good advice. He's the author of a forthcoming book called “Making Conversation.” Dust knows what he’s talking about: He’s worked with and listened to everybody from the prime minister of Greece to Quakers in Brooklyn.
“We love to imagine that Thanksgiving is just this joyful, amazing and wonderful, lovely dinner. And sometimes it is,” Dust tells me. “But for many families, it’s always been bad.” It doesn’t have to be that way! “Thanksgiving is a great example of a meal that you don't just do, you always plan, right?” he says. “That’s actually what you should be doing with really hard conversations, too: planning ahead. Put as much care into the conversation as you would the meal.”
For instance, if food preparation is a perennial source of dispute, lay down a code of silence in the kitchen. Rather than making sure everything is done before guests arrive, set the table together. “You’re setting the table for the conversation you want to have,” Dust says. “It’s like a sacrament. We’re rebuilding the history of what our families might be like.” And when you sit down, rather than inviting guests to say what they’re grateful for — which can spin off into nasty politics — try asking everyone to say whom at the table they’re grateful for and why. If things go off the rails, try resetting the conversation by physically changing the space: sit on the floor, break into groups, go outside.
Of course, many families will heed the CDC's advice and skip holiday gatherings this winter (story). In that case, Dust suggests keeping in mind that your family Zoom session doesn’t have to last the full nine hours of a traditional Thanksgiving get together. Fifteen happy minutes could be just what everybody needs to hear you love them.
National Book Award-winning poet Don Mee Choi. (Photos courtesy of Wave Books)
Don Mee Choi’s “DMZ Colony,” which won the National Book Award for poetry on Wednesday, is a collection of prose, verse, drawings and photographs about violence and terror inflicted on the South Korean people. “The language of capture, torture, and massacre is difficult to decipher,” Choi writes, but “DMZ Colony” succeeds with terrifying clarity.
Orphan Kim Gyeong-nam
My little brother came home barefoot covered in blood.
He got out alive from the mass grave.
He said, I stepped on dead bodies.
The grave filled with blood.
I asked, Did our parents run away without us?
No they are all dead.
He screamed and screamed.
I didn’t believe him.
No they’ll come back alive.
Our big sister hid my brother under her skirt and sat on him to keep him alive.
He screamed and screamed.
I could only grab a clump of Mother’s hair.
I couldn’t put out the flames.
Father sizzled and crackled.
My brother screamed and screamed.
In a dream I chew and chew Mother’s hair.
From “DMZ Colony.” Copyright 2020 by Don Mee Choi. Used with permission of the author and Wave Books.
“Perilous situation of whalemen,” wood engraving, 1861. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)
This week Sidney Powell, the lawyer defending President Trump against an intergalactic conspiracy controlled by Hugo Chavez's ghost, announced, “I’m going to release the Kraken!” Given the dark web of secrets Powell is privy to, it’s surely no coincidence that today is the 200th anniversary of one of the most horrific sea monster attacks in nautical history. On July 20, 1820, an American ship called the Essex was sunk by an aggressive sperm whale. The crew of 20 survived, but as the weeks wore on and their food ran out, they turned to cannibalism. Eight men were ultimately rescued. Decades later, that sensational story of a sea creature inspired Herman Melville to publish “Moby-Dick.” In 2000, Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the Essex, “In the Heart of the Sea,” won a National Book Award. So take heart: Who knows what great books our era's krakens might someday inspire.
One of the things I’m grateful for this year is your continued interest in this newsletter. May you all have a peaceful and healthy Thanksgiving. Until next week, 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.
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