Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Soup and Salad: PEN/Faulkner finalists, White House Medals, Naked Book Covers, Alternative Steig Larsson, Buying Indie, Bookmobiles

On today's menu:

1.  Finalists for the annual PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction have been announced.  Congratulations to Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad), Deborah Eisenberg (The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg), Jaimy Gordon (Lord of Misrule), Brad Watson (Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives) and Eric Puchner (Model Home).  Puchner was a new name for me, but his novel about a family muddling through busted real-estate dreams in California in the 1980s sounds like a good one--a little Franzenesque in its plot summary.  The other four books are all at or near the top of the To-Be-Read stack (aka Mount Never-rest).  The winners will be announced on March 15.

2.  Meanwhile, the White House has draped accolades around the necks of several of our most treasured living literary icons.  Later today, President Obama will award the 2010 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal to 20 honorees in the East Room.  Authors receiving the Medal of Arts include Harper Lee and Donald Hall; those getting the Humanities Medal are Wendell Berry, Jacques Barzun, Joyce Carol Oates, and Philip Roth.

3.  Speaking of breasts--we were, weren't we?  I mean, P. Roth once wrote a book* about them, right?--here's what happens when you try to put a naked one on the cover of your book: About a Boob or The Hermeneutics of a Woman’s Body.  I can think of plenty of other books beside Lidia Yuknavitch's
The Chronology of Water to sport bare breasts on their jackets, but she raises some interesting (and valid) points in the discussion about the design and marketing of her memoir:
You are just going to have to trust me with this next statement when I say, virtually NO agents or mainstream or commercial presses would touch this cover. Few literary presses would. Ditto for some of the sexually explicit content in the book.
There appear to be two main reasons for this. The first involves when and where and why you can present nudity in America, and its relation to our notions of obscenity. Put more simply, if it’s buck naked, it’s “pornographic.” However idiotic that notion is.
A very smart and successful person I know told me, “Oh my God! You can’t have that cover! No one will want to be seen holding it in public, you know, like on a bus or at a restaurant. And stores won’t sell it! And I was planning on giving it to several of my friends who are very important women over fifty!”
Hmmm. The same bus, with the potential person holding my book in it, is barreling by billboards with giant (yet tiny!) women in recline, half-clothed in black velvet to sell booze. Further down the road there is a billboard with a hot chick in a bikini and a Bud Light can pressed up against her rack. On the corner is a woman literally making her living with her body. And the woman next to me? On the bus today? She’s reading Vogue. Have you looked at Vogue lately?
I know what my friend meant though. She meant people would be embarrassed to be seen with a boob book in their hands. Though it’s true enough that LOTS of other people would be downright skippy and proud to hold one in public and wave it around – I have a boob book! HA! – she also meant, at least implicitly, you can’t have a nude woman on the cover of your book if you intend to be taken seriously by the wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the literary industry.

4.  The New Dork Review of Books has been reading Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy lately and says it calls to mind those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure children's books.  (Which reminds me, I need to choose to read those Girl Who... books.  Someday.)

5.  At the other "Dork" book blog, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Kim vows to put her money where her mouth is when it comes to supporting indie bookstores.
I’m a bargain and used book shopper. I used to justify used book purchase because I was a student without a lot of money. Plus, I loved the feeling of walking around used bookstores to see what treasures I could find. But in the last couple of years, I shifted from making these used purchased from brick and mortar stores and started taking that habit online, which totally eliminates any local benefit from the transaction.
I also rarely buy new books, and if I do it’s inevitably with a coupon at a major box bookstore. While this behavior is better for authors and publishers than the used habit, it’s not supporting local bookstores that I want to survive.
Kim's pledge to "buy local" is an inspiration.  We should all adhere to it as much as possible in our book-buying habits.

6.  Remember the Bookmobile?  The Smithsonian takes a trip down memory lane to revisit the famous books on wheels--which are still going strong in many places, including the Burning Man Festival in Nevada and "camel bookmobiles" in Africa (about which Masha Hamilton once wrote a novel).  Bookmobiles were never a prominent part of my life growing up in Pennsylvania and Wyoming, but I'm sure I stepped foot in at least one or two over the years (most likely when I was wee lad just starting to explore books in Kittanning, PA).  As a child, I was fascinated by the idea of carting books from place to place in a contraption not much bigger than the family station wagon; as an adult, however, I wonder if bookmobiles aren't too limited in what they can offer browsers--with little shelf space and a large diversity of readers' tastes, the catalogues of titles are inherently shallow and wide.  This is not to take anything away from the humanitarian spirit of the bookmobiles--they deliver a much-needed service to communities lacking a library or bookstore.  As Anne Lamott notes: “They’re traveling cathedrals of beauty and truth and peace.”  What are your memories of the "perambulating libraries"?  Share your bookmobile stories in the comments section.

*In fact, many books.

Photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis


  1. The only bookmobile I remember was the one that stopped by our elementary school. I remember checking out "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" at one point, and the librarian surprised me by saying it was about Jesus. I couldn't have been more surprised. Never occured to me. Symbolism; what a concept.

  2. There was a bookmobile that stopped by my elementary school as well. I was in high school at the time, and the librarian suggested "Woman on the Edge of Time" by Marge Piercy. I will never forget the experience--my introduction to more "adult" material. It was almost like losing my virginity, and I got to do it in a completely different space and time.

  3. We had a local bookmobile down in Lethbridge, Southern Alberta, that I frequented with my kids in tow. I don't know if they still do it as we have moved away. It's a great idea though!

    I came across your blog in a bit of a round about way from Furgality is Free and before it I Am a Reader, Not a Writer. Interesting content. Now a follower.

  4. I'm so behind -- thanks for linking to my post on buying from local bookstores. I really hope people start to pay more attention to where their books come from. I feel like that's the only way the brick and mortar stores we all love are going to be able to stick around.