Oprah Winfrey speaks with poet Amanda Gorman for “The Oprah Conversation” on Apple TV+, March 26, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Apple)
You don’t need a crystal ball to see that this year’s best-selling poetry book will be “The Hill We Climb,” by Amanda Gorman. The hardback version of Gorman’s inaugural poem, with an introductory note by Oprah, has been racking up pre-sales since it was announced in January (story). When the official release finally arrives next Tuesday, Viking will be ready with 1.5 million copies. In a world in which even the most renowned poets usually sell enough copies for everybody on a baseball team, this is an extraordinary event.
Gorman’s celebrity status is confirmed not just by her performance at the Super Bowl or today’s conversation with Oprah on Apple TV. No, these days the true mark of fame is the proliferation of knock-off merchandise spreading across Amazon. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Vendors are offering Amanda Gorman t-shirts, scarves, mugs, posters, coloring books, planners, notebooks, reflection journals, gratitude diaries and — my favorite — the all-encompassing “Amanda Gorman Goals, Inspirational, Aspiration, Motivation, Lined Journal Notebook.”
There are also several exceedingly brief self-published books about Gorman, but caveat emptor. Toward the end of “The Biography of Amanda Gorman,” which is to say on page 18, author Maureen Nicole notes, “Clearly, there are more new stuff we are to learn about Gorman.” Indeed. But those new stuff are hard to find. In a competing biography of Gorman, Cypriana Dumm explains, “Being an introvert, not too much is known about her yet. In due time, more details, such as her relationship will be made public, unless she chooses to keep it private, which we will have to respect.” Meanwhile, young readers with $2.99 to waste might consider Yusra Vali’s nine-page picture book, “The Hills We Climb: With Thanks to Amanda Gorman,” optimistically labeled “Book 1.” Its front cover looks like a doodle drawn during an HR seminar on goal-setting.
A more serious and fraught issue concerns foreign translations of Gorman’s work. The question of what kind of person should be hired to translate “The Hill We Climb” has roiled the world of international translators. Reflecting difficult conversations about White novelists creating Black characters, a debate has erupted about how effectively a White person can translate the work of an African American. Earlier this month, Gorman’s Catalan translator, who is White, was taken off the project. A White Dutch translator voluntarily resigned from the job for similar reasons (story).
A newly discovered original draft of “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg (Courtesy of Type Punch Matrix)
Sixty-four years ago this week, customs officials seized 520 copies of an “obscene” poem published in England. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” couldn’t have asked for a better marketing campaign. With the help of the ACLU, Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti fought back. The rest is literary history.
But that history and that poem have suddenly returned in a most unexpected way. Rare book dealer and Beats specialist Brian Cassidy has found a previously unknown original draft of “Howl.” This uncorrected carbon typescript is believed to be the very one Ginsberg used when he read the poem at Reed College in early 1956 — at least a year before “Howl” became the anthem of the counterculture revolution. Coincidentally, a long-lost recording of that Reed College reading — the earliest audio version of “Howl” — will be released next week (listen to a sample).
Originally titled “Howl for Carl Solomon,” Ginsberg’s masterpiece went through considerable revision before it was published in 1956 by Ferlinghetti in “Howl and Other Poems” (story). That complex publishing history and the poem’s prominence make this 11-page unrevised version particularly valuable to scholars of 20th-century poetry.
“To say that finding an original previously unknown draft of a major American work of literature is unusual is certainly an understatement,” Cassidy said in a statement. “And given that 'Howl' was famous pretty much from its inception, that an original typescript for it could have been unknown for this long . . . I was just blown away."
For anyone “burning their money in wastebaskets,” Cassidy is offering to sell this copy of “Howl” for $425,000 (add to cart).
(G.P. Putnam's Sons)
After two and a half years in hardback, Delia Owens's “Where the Crawdads Sing” is finally being released in paperback next week. With more than 10 million copies already sold around the world in 46 international editions, those crawdads have been singing everywhere. Owens's murder mystery was the best-selling novel of 2019 and 2020, and it’s still hovering at No. 14. (Can we talk about the “Crawdads” ending?)
The new paperback release will undoubtedly goose sales all over again. It includes a brief discussion guide, an interview with Owens and a letter to readers in which she talks about the loneliness she once felt in Botswana's Kalahari Desert. The book ends with excerpts from “Kya’s Cookbook,” but, alas, not this recipe for crawdad pie. (You're welcome.)
But wait, there’s more: A movie adaptation of “Crawdads” starts filming next month starring Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya; Taylor John Smith as her friend Tate; and Harris Dickinson as her ex-boyfriend Chase, whom Owens says “is not very different from a buck deer in rut.” (Paging Stanislavski!)
2021 Audie award winners (Bloomsbury; Audible Studios; Orbit; Random House Audio; Penguin Audio)
Susanna Clarke’s “Piranesi,” a weirdly relevant story about a man trapped forever indoors, has been named the best audiobook of the year (review). British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor narrates the audio version of this haunting fantasy, which one of the judges called “one of the best readings of contemporary literature that I have ever listened to.” The Audie Award winners in 25 categories were announced Tuesday by the Audio Publishers Association (full list).
A breakthrough recording of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley,” narrated by Tony Award-winning actor Laurence Fishburne, was named the best autobiography/memoir. Fishburne also won the prize for best male narrator. This is the first unabridged audio version of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” since the civil rights leader’s memoir was published in 1965 (essay).
The annual Audies ceremony was virtual this year because of the pandemic, but it’s usually a snazzy New York party — a different vibe than other literary awards ceremonies where hunch-shouldered editors and authors shuffle around with pinched smiles, nursing ancient grudges (or maybe that's just me). The Audies audience is filled with glittery actors who have discovered happiness — and financial security! — by switching to book narration. I went a couple of years ago and felt like a little toad on the set of “Bachelor in Paradise.”
The audiobook market has been growing double digits for a decade, and we're curious about what you've really enjoyed lately. For a possible story, please help us out and nominate your favorite audiobook using this form.
The new Nook tablet designed with Lenovo. (Courtesy of Barnes & Noble)
We took a look.
We saw a Nook.
Despite getting walloped by Amazon’s line of Kindles, Barnes & Noble is introducing a new e-reader — its first fresh model in three years. This HD tablet designed with Lenovo will be in stores by next Friday ($129.99). I’ve been using the new Nook this week, and if it isn’t a Kindle killer, it’s at least a viable Kindle competitor.
At 9.5 inches tall, the Nook is shorter than the 10.3-inch Kindle Fire, but its display is the same size, which is a neat trick. And despite its sturdy metal frame, the Nook is three ounces lighter than the plastic Fire, about 15 percent thinner and $20 cheaper. I found the Nook fast and responsive while surfing the web, reading the news and watching shows on Netflix (it sports dual audio speakers). And since it's running Android OS with Google Play, the Google apps I use work great. (With the Kindle app, I could read e-books and e-magazines I’ve bought from Amazon, too.) I never take pictures or video chat with a tablet, but this Nook has front and rear cameras (5MP and 8MP respectively).
The Nook’s real advantage is Barnes & Noble’s cleverly designed software, which emphasizes discoverability and serendipity. It feels much more like browsing a bookstore than meandering around the Everything Store. I like the way book covers are displayed on shelves and organized into channels that feel fun and creative, e.g. Summer Flings, Urban Magic, Native American Mysteries.
Ironically, the only thing I don’t want to do on this tablet is read a book. Text is not as crisp on the Nook screen (1280 x 800 pixels) as it looks on the 10-inch Kindle Fire (1920 x 1200).
B&N CEO James Daunt remains firmly committed to the Nook. “A percentage of people will always want to read electronically,” he tells me, “and Barnes and Noble should always aspire to meet that demand.” While hesitating to cast judgment on his predecessors, Daunt acknowledges that Amazon’s marketing prowess and B&N’s past instability have weighed on Nook’s success. “The interesting thing is that Nook survived, despite all of that, and in its own small way has thrived,” he says. “We can settle down to be an increasingly confident bookseller for whom the e-reading component is an important and worthwhile part.”
March Madness: Pick the best fictional detective (Illustrations by Bo Lundberg/Illustration Division)
We’re getting closer to cracking the great mystery: Who is the best fictional detective? Many of you nominated your favorites last month — from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Maisie Dobbs and many more.
Now the moment of truth: For March Madness, we’ve devised a bracket with 32 detectives. You’ll find the characters broken into four categories: classic sleuths, modern masters, international gumshoes and game changers.
It’s elementary, my dear. Make your selections here. We’ll announce the tournament winner in next week’s newsletter.
(Knopf; Harvard Univ. Press; Scribner; One World; Harvard Univ. Press; Farrar Straus Giroux
Last night’s National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony felt painfully timely. Cathy Park Hong won the Autobiography prize for “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning.” Hong dedicated her award to the memory of the women murdered in Atlanta last week. She read their names and then said: “This is for their families, and this is for all the Asian women, the women in the sex industry, the service industry, the migrant workers, the factory workers, the mothers and daughters who have come from homelands riven by empire, who have labored and struggled and died in the shadows of American history. Your hardship and spirit will not be in vain. We will remember you. We will fight for you. Your lives are not expendable. You will be remembered.”
Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet,” which won the NBCC Fiction prize, imagines Shakespeare’s only son dying from the plague. Who could have predicted that a historical novel set more than 400 years ago would resonate so poignantly with our own era?
Here is the full list of NBCC award winners:
- Fiction: “Hamnet,” by Maggie O’Farrell (review).
- Nonfiction: “Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire,” by Tom Zoellner (essay)
- Biography: “Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World,” by Amy Stanley (review)
- Autobiography: “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” by Cathy Park Hong (review)
- Poetry: “Here Is The Sweet Hand,” by francine j. harris (See poem below)
- Criticism: “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” by Nicole Fleetwood
- The John Leonard First Book Prize: “Luster,” a novel by Raven Leilani (review)
- The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing: New Republic culture writer Jo Livingstone
- The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: The Feminist Press
The National Book Critics Circle is a nonprofit organization of more than 600 critics and book-review editors.
Ernest Hemingway at his desk in Havana, Cuba. (Photographer unknown. Ernest Hemingway Collection. Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)
“Hemingway,” directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, begins on PBS on April 5. The three-part documentary features the voice of Jeff Daniels as Hemingway, with Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson narrating the words of his four wives. The documentary reportedly covers Hemingway’s tumultuous life while using excerpts from his writings (preview).
I’m maintaining a Very Positive Attitude, but a grudging, ungenerous part of me wishes Burns would expend his considerable talent and publicity on a field less plowed. After so many biographies of Hemingway — such as Mary Dearborn's in 2017 (review) — is there a stray stone of Papa lore left to turn over? Is there something a little tone-deaf about heaping more attention on that old man in the sea of adulation when the canon of American literature has grown so much deeper and more diverse since Burns was in high school?
That's unfair, I know. “Hemingway” will be captivating — the battles, the bull fights, the divorces, the Nobel Prize, the rapacious despair. If the documentary drives you back to Hemingway’s work, go to the short stories. Scribner recently released a great new anthology of 19 classics, including “Hills Like White Elephants,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” In his introduction, Tobias Wolff manages to honor Hemingway and demonstrate his own mastery of the short form. “We tried not to write like him,” Wolff recalls of his school days, “knowing we’d be caught out and mocked for it, but even in our conscious disavowal of influence we acknowledged the singular, infectious power of his style.”
Farrar Straus Giroux
“Here Is the Sweet Hand,” by francine j. harris, won the poetry prize from the National Book Critics Circle last night. Brushing away tears as she accepted the award during the virtual ceremony, harris said, “I'm indebted to every Black woman in literature who's ever stood up and offered her voice as a lyric or a tribute or a beacon or a question or a fight or an awkward truth or a difficult conversation or a way forward."
The fat of the fog hovers over
a man who sits inside his canoe, beached at the shore. He sits inside it
swaying. The thick is so close, only a few
ducks swim, visible. The lake itself has vanished. Behind me
traffic lights like helium as evening
rolls forward and I wave. Because one figure is sketched
inside the steam of another and down
the beach, geese lift. A couple on a bench
scatter inside their own gray mist. Earlier
it was clear and warm. I was on the phone
for hours with a woman I keep getting it wrong with.
I tried telling her which fruit I cut too early. The hard green
pulp of avocado that won’t yield its pit. That I bike
out of breath in warm months, and how empty the dark
buildings in the city, glass on the floor. What you could hear
crunch and echo like voice, but that’s a story
she knows. Everybody knows it. Instead, I tell her
I can’t help but wait. In the fog, that cruelty
waves back from his boat. He gets out and wraps
its skin like an ankle inside a ballerina’s slipper. He docks it on a squat
dolly. He walks toward me and drags
the limp thing through the sand.
From “Here Is the Sweet Hand: Poems,” by francine j. harris. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
“Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.” – from “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” by Lewis Carroll; illustration by Sir John Tenniel (1865).
The universe has been punishing me for writing about the problem with monopolies. This week, my wife spent more than six hours talking to Verizon customer service. I think it's fair to say that if Kafka lived in Bleak House, his phone provider would be Verizon. At one point, the agent explained to my wife that if we canceled the home phone service that we have not had for about a year, our bill would go up.
Speaking of absurdities, a reader tells me that she was paying some third party $4 a week for this newsletter. That’s a scam. Book Club is free to anyone — whether or not you subscribe to The Washington Post (though, of course, I hope you do).
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