The month of November leading into the holiday shopping season has been hectic and busy here at Amazon. I have missed writing Media Monday, and hopefully a few of you have missed reading it. It's late here in Seattle, the end of a long Cyber Monday, and I've been looking forward to writing this since this morning.
First things first: For those readers who like biographies, I highly recommend Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie. It's the best thing I've read in the last month-- one of those histories that's more novelistic than most fiction you'll read. It's also very difficult to put down once you get into it. A few months back my colleague, Jason Kirk, called it the best biography he'd read all year. I'll admit I was skeptical going in, but he was right.
Christopher Buckley reviews And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields, a book that Buckley calls a "sad, often heartbreaking biography." It's hardly a pick-me-up. Vonnegut's life didn't start out very well-- like Mark Twain, to whom his writing and general disposition is often compared, he seemed to have earned his dark view of life. As Buckley points out, "It's a truism that comic artists tend to hatch from tragic eggs." In this case, that egg was first laid by Vonnegut's mother. "When he was 21," Buckley tells us, "his mother successfully committed suicide "” on Mother's Day."
The art critic, Deborah Solomon, writes about a book that's been getting a lot of coverage. It's called Van Gogh: The Life, and some of you may remember the piece that ran on "60 Minutes" a month or so ago in which evidence was presented that Vincent Van Gogh didn't actually commit suicide. There's a lot of other detail in the book that wasn't touched upon in the "60 Minutes" piece. Solomon describes the book as "energetic, hulking and negatively skewed," and she writes that the authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, see him as "bitter and manipulative, more of a perpetrator than a victim." She continues: "In some ways, Van Gogh resembles the authors' previous biography, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. As an example of what might be called Extreme Biography, the Pollock book is extremely long (more than 900 pages) and larded with extreme theories (e.g., Pollock's famous drip paintings originated in a childhood memory of watching his father urinate on a rock). The van Gogh biography, while free of any attempt to link the advent of Post-Impressionism to the workings of the urethra, does float at least one sensational theory. It strongly suggests he was murdered." Like the politicians we keep seeing on the news these days, what these authors have to say is often compelling. Whether or not it's correct is another question.
Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book that's enjoyed some quality time on bestseller lists lately. Reviewer Jim Holt describes it as "an astonishingly rich book: lucid, profound, full of intellectual surprises and self-help value. It is consistently entertaining and frequently touching." He admits to attempting to read the book with some skepticism-- afterall, books about the mind are a dime a dozen, and often they present foggy hypotheses as clear fact-- but Holt summarizes as follows: "By the time I got to the end of Thinking, Fast and Slow, my skeptical frown had long since given way to a grin of intellectual satisfaction."
Chuck Palahniuk has a new novel out called Damned, and it's about hell. Reviewer Chris Barton says, "Enlisted by Palahniuk as our guide into the underworld is Madison Spencer, an overweight, recently deceased 13-year-old girl sentenced to an eternity in hell after an apparent marijuana overdose (though, of course, there's more to her death than that)." Hooked? The review goes on to say, "If you're already a fan of Palahniuk's gleefully misanthropic voice, there's a lot that will seem familiar in "Damned" "” a knowingly sarcastic first-person narrator, a pointed use of repetition that develops into something like a lyrical hook (such as Madison's reflexive defensiveness about her advanced vocabulary) and a ravenous appetite for society's sacred cows, from all sides of the political spectrum." Dante is probably rolling in his grave.
Our very own Jeff Vandermeer intrepidly took on the review of Micro. Jeff asks, "What if we had the technology to miniaturize people and objects? That's the central premise behind "Micro" by Jurassic Park's Michael Crichton and The Hot Zone's Richard Preston. Crichton wrote one-third of "Micro" before his death in 2008 "” which third seems largely irrelevant." It should be no surprise that Micro is described as a book whose "prose that is supremely functional and most of the workmanlike characters seem resigned to being transformed into actors on a movie screen." That's what Crichton does as well as anyone. Vandermeer summarizes the book as follows: Micro would definitely make someone's idea of an entertaining Hollywood blockbuster: The Nanigen MicroTechnologies corporation, founded by the evil psychopath Vin Drake, has secretly developed miniaturization machines and will stop at nothing to satisfy its limitless greed." If there's one thing I've learned about books, it's that people read for all different types of reasons. And if you're not feeling too big-minded, a book like this can be the perfect ticket to escapism.
Somewhere on the other end of the spectrum lies Don DeLillo, whose new collection The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories is reviewed by David L. Ulin. The review states, "DeLillo is among the most consistent of writers; his books are like installments in one ongoing novel, an inquiry into the confusion and intractability of contemporary life." These nine stories date back to the 70s (the most recent was published this year), and Ulin writes, "it's impossible not to get a sense of dÃ©jÃ vu reading The Angel Esmeralda, the first book of short stories in Don DeLillo's 40-year career. The themes here are echoes "” of one another, yes, but even more, of the issues that have defined DeLillo's writing since his first novel, Americana, came out in 1971.
At the risk of overkill, here's another review of Delillo's new collection, brought to you by Troy Jollimore: "The short stories collected in The Angel Esmeralda span the majority of Don DeLillo's long and tremendously accomplished career. The earliest piece dates from 1979, eight years after DeLillo's first novel, Americana. The most recent was published this fall in Granta. The most surprising thing about the book, then, is that it exists at all: Forty years of writing is a long time to wait to publish one's first collection of short fiction." He then goes on to say, "In other respects, the book is fairly unsurprising. Nothing I can say about DeLillo on the basis of The Angel Esmeralda will come as news to anyone familiar with his novels: His prose is masterly and austere, he has a deconstructionist's obsession with the arbitrariness of language, and his interest in human beings often seems less a matter of passionate engagement than of clinical detachment." In the end, Jollimore concludes "this collection nonetheless offers some real pleasures." It's almost like the reviewers are afraid to say they liked these stories. Or else they're afraid to say they didn't like them.
Liesl Schillinger has a review of Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, the beautiful actress who reportedly just sat down one day and drew up plans for the technology that would eventually lead to wireless communication. Schillinger summarizes as follows: "Rhodes's beguiling book shows Hedy Lamarr to have been a secret weapon in more ways than one. 'Any girl can be glamorous,' she was famous for saying. 'All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.' But it's not every girl who can be glamorous, stand still, and take the future in a new direction."
This was an interesting essay, although it took me halfway through to realize that it was a different Chris Wallace.
Here's a nice list of art design books that you might not have seen before.
As an editor, I never would have written these rejections. And yet I couldn't stop reading them.
Vonnegut talks about the shapes of stories.