In Books: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’

German soldiers march through Paris, June 1940 (German Federal Archive)

German soldiers march through Paris, June 1940 (German Federal Archive)

allthelightwecannotsee1Sometimes it can just take you a while to get around to that book that everybody has been reading. Anthony Doerr’s fairly beloved novel All the Light We Cannot See has been hanging around on the bestseller lists pretty much since it was published last summer, and for good reason. It’s not just the France-during-the-occupation setting or the gorgeous language, though both of those attributes help, of course. It has a magic to it, plain and simple.

All the Light We Cannot See is available in hardcover everywhere, with a paperback edition scheduled for this December; my review is at PopMatters:

Like many great novels of the Second World War and other epic clashes of civilizations, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a story of the grandeur of terror. At least it begins that way. It’s August 1944 in Saint-Malo, a venerable seaside town on the northwestern coast of France. The Allies have landed and are steadily punching their way out of Normandy. The war is nearing another crescendo of death…

In Books: The Best Nonfiction of 2014

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(image by pepo)

After PopMatters published their best fiction of 2014 feature earlier in the week, they ran the (perhaps more serious in tone, but still somehow more fun) compilation of the awesomest (yes, that’s a word) nonfiction titles that came out last year.

greilmarcus1Doing my part, I wrote about:

  • Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond
  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Pikkety
  • The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Greil Marcus
  • The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Rick Perlstein
  • The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing

You can find the feature here.

Reader’s Corner: Keeping Up

bookswantedAny serious reader is never satisfied with how much they’re reading. They’re more likely to be anxious and perturbed by the ever-growing stack(s) of books that threaten to blot out the season’s weak winter sun.

Still, few readers have a to-read list to rival that of Times critic Dwight Garner, who says he gets about 25 books a day in the mail and that it takes him on average 8 hours to read one. Do the math.

Here’s a few of the better lines from a recent interview with Garner:

One doesn’t review one’s friends. Having said that, “friend” is an elastic term.

A lot of books are like first dates. You know in 25 seconds if it’s going to work out.

[On whether he reads every page of every book he reviews] I do. Out of moral obligation. Also out of fear. You don’t want to miss something crucial. You want to be definitive in your pronouncements. You want to be able to write things like, “Not once in 350 pages does Mr. Borges huff paint.” You don’t want to worry about a huffing scene on Page 211 that you skipped over.

Writer’s Corner: Grim Children’s Stories

It seems like the youth of America are about the only ones still reading these days. According to NPR:

Young Americans are more likely to have read a book in the past year than their older counterparts, a new study finds. According to data from the Pew Research Center, “88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older.” The findings go against the oft-repeated narrative that the Internet is degrading the reading habits of the young (those millennials supposedly Snapchatting themselves into a cultureless stupor). In another surprise, people under 30 were also more likely to say that there is “a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet.”

Bookstores are filled with new and ever-burgeoning series of novels targeted at the young adult market, not to mention slightly simplified versions of nonfiction bestsellers like Unbroken. In other words, this is a big and potentially growing market.

grimm_talesAlso, young readers are generally being given more latitude in terms of the subject matter deemed appropriate.  Jack Zipes’ new translation of Grimms’ fairy tales from Princeton University Press makes a point of including some “gruesome” additions previously unknown to modern readers:

How the Children Played at Slaughtering, for example, stays true to its title, seeing a group of children playing at being a butcher and a pig. It ends direly: a boy cuts the throat of his little brother, only to be stabbed in the heart by his enraged mother. Unfortunately, the stabbing meant she left her other child alone in the bath, where he drowned. Unable to be cheered up by the neighbours, she hangs herself; when her husband gets home, “he became so despondent that he died soon thereafter”. The Children of Famine is just as disturbing: a mother threatens to kill her daughters because there is nothing else to eat.

Whether or not any children will be read these as bedtime stories remains to be seen. But in any case, if you’re looking to sell books, write with the youth market in mind.

Quote of the Day: In Defense of Idleness

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Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.” Being a highly virtuous child, I believed all that I was told and acquired a conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment. But although my conscience has controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached … I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

—Bertrand Russell, “In Defense of Idleness,” Harper’s Magazine (October 1932)

Readers’ Corner: Taking Books to the Street

bookmobileMost people who read as children have fond memories of the bookmobile. One had normally thoroughly ransacked the age-appropriate shelves at the local public library and the thin offerings in the school itself. So having an RV pull up with an appropriately stern librarian with some new offerings (or at least the old offerings newly presented) was manna from heaven.

In Portland, Oregon, a phenomenal little nonprofit group is taking that idea in an entirely different direction. Street Books is a small band of dedicated booklovers who spend a few hours each week bicycling books around to the city’s homeless population. From the Times writeup:

The Street Books project is nothing if not messy. The librarians — the three salaried employees, including Ms. Moulton, are paid $60 a week for a three-hour shift — fill their carts based on their tastes and their patrons’ tastes.

Diana Rempe, 48, a community psychologist who recently completed her Ph.D. and pedals the bike one afternoon a week, stops at a day-labor assembly site on the city’s east side, where many Mexican and Latin American men gather, waiting to be hired. So she loads up on books in Spanish. (Her proudest book coup, she said, was getting a hard-to-find book on chess moves in Spanish for two Cuban players.)

You can donate money here, or email them and ask about donating books that people have been asking about.

Reader’s Corner: Run this Bookstore

Wigtown (Shaun Bythell)

Wigtown, book town (Shaun Bythell)

Hey, wanna run a bookstore? If you can get yourself over to Wigtown in beautiful, not-independent Scotland, they’re giving away the chance to learn all the ins and outs of the trade. According to The Bookseller:

The Open Book project will invite interested parties to apply to live in and run a local bookshop, renamed The Open Book, for a period of up to six weeks. Anyone is invited to apply, with preference given to artists, writers, thinkers, and “bibliophiles”. Participants will be given a crash course in bookselling and will be asked to contribute to a blog outlining their experiences, as well as keeping the shop open for a set number of hours a week.

Check it out. Wigtown (it’s Scotland’s National Book Town, don’t you know) is on the western shore, looks remote and positively gorgeous. You’ll get a lot of reading done and perhaps learn why booksellers are both frequently grumpy and at the same time highly content with their lives.