by Campbell Geeslin
When wintry days whistle in, it’s time to reach for Nicolai V. Gogol’s The Overcoat. Next to a warm fire, there’s nothing more satisfying than a vodka-sized shot of Russian literature.
The boisterous wind “cut his face like a knife, covering it with lumps of snow, swelling out his collar like a sail.”
A priest told Gogol that he must renounce his literary work and enter a monastery. He replied, “Not to write means the same to me as not to live.”
RE-WRITE: The fourth of the late Oscar Hijuelos’s novels is Mr. Ives’ Christmas. How the prize-winning author came to write a novel that is “a window to an author’s beliefs” was the subject of an “On Religion” column in The New York Times.
Hijuelos’s first version of Mr. Ives was rejected by his editor with a “This is not what I had in mind for you to write” sort of comment. When Hijuelos rewrote the book, he produced what the Times‘s Samuel G. Freedman said “is surely one of the most fully achieved novels about religion.”
Hijuelos himself is quoted from an interview he did for a literary blog not long before he died. He said, “Nothing will ever quite capture the human inner voice and the spirit the way that books do.”
SURPRISED: When his name was announced as winner of the National Book Award fiction prize, James McBride said he was “so stunned I walked up there with my napkin in my hand.”
The book is The Good Lord Bird, a novel about slavery, evoking for one critic, “sheer glee with every page,” The New York Times said.
A novel about slavery that’s funny? McBride, a musician, said, “I knew what the melody of the song was going to be. It was a little improvisatory.” McBride said. “I was just standing in the right place when the Lord coughed.”
NO MEMORIAL: It’s been a hundred years since Albert Camus was born. The news, according to The Guardian, was that no grand French retrospective was held. Camus wrote The Stranger, The Plague, The Rebel and The Fall, and was awarded a Nobel in 1957. He died in a car crash in 1960.
His daughter, Catherine Camus, 68, said “that there was no national celebration of him which is natural; those in power in France have never liked Camus, and he detested those in power. He always said he was in the service of those who suffered history, not those who made it. In many ways, Camus is still l’etranger (the outsider) in France. I find it astonishing that ministers don’t realize what Camus represents for the country.
SELECTIONS: New York City has elected a new mayor, Bill DeBlasio. He takes over next year. He answered a question about his favorite books on the website Reddit. “Growing up,” he said, “it was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I still love that book. More recently I’ve taken great inspiration from Nothing to Fear by Adam Cohen, about the New Deal and the people who made it happen.”
RELICS: Why are so many readers keen to examine things that their favorite authors left behind? The Guardian asks: Do a writers’ homes or personal effects get in the way of the text or bring readers back to the prose?
Paula Byrne, author of The Real Jane Austen, believes that Austen’s readers can make a connection with her through objects that once belonged to her. Fiona Jenkins, of the Charles Dickens Museum, said that the view out the window of the study where he did his writing offers something special to visitors.
The house where Herman Melville lived in New England has his desk in front of a window that provides a view of a mountain that suggests a whale. That brought an unexpected chill to this visitor.
AUDIO IMPROVES: Gregory Maguire is an author who writes for both adults and children. One of his titles is Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation.
In an essay for The New York Times Book Review, he wrote: Roald Dahl’s “stories work better in audio than in print. Indulging a taste for lip-smacking vengeance in the privacy of one’s chamber is a bit, well, creepy. Revenge comedy is essentially theatrical, a community purge . . . At comeuppance we need to laugh in concert; audiobooks can allow that.”
BIG IS HOT: The current crop of thick books has been joined by Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwick: Steel-True, 1907-1940. It has 1,056 pages. And it’s just the first volume. Other current bios tell all about Norman Mailer, Ted Williams, and Woodrow Wilson.
It was suggested in The New York Times that the trend to long biographies was begun by Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker (1974) about the urban planner Robert Moses. It’s 1,300 pages and still selling.
Jonathan Karp of Simon & Schuster said, “These are big lives.” The book on Stanwick “is about the rise of the motion picture industry.” As easy as it would be to attribute the length of these biographies to the portability of e-books, Karp added, “the answer is more prosaic: Each of these authors had a tremendous story to tell.”
SOLD: A copy of the first book printed in English in North America, Bay Psalms Book (1640), sold last week. At $14,165,000, it set a record as the most expensive book ever auctioned. The New York Times said, “The Puritans, who disdained the King James Version of the Bible, retranslated the psalms from Hebrew.”
The buyer was David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group, a Washington, D.C., investment company. He told Sotheby’s auctioneer that he planned to lend the book to libraries across the country, eventually arranging a long-term loan to one of them. The New York Public Library owns one of the 10 other copies that exist.
WARNING: If you have any manuscripts that you want to make certain no one ever reads, you’d better burn all copies yourself. Three secretly-printed short stories by J.D. Salinger have appeared on the Internet.
Buzzfeed reported the sighting, and The New York Times traced the likely and complicated route. The Times said, “The appearance of the stories would undoubtedly have enraged Salinger, who died at 91 in 2010 and had worked very hard to prevent people from publishing anything he had written (or conceived) that he didn’t want published.”
One of the stories, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” is about the final day in the life of Holden Caulfield’s younger brother and so proceeds the action in The Catcher in the Rye.
NO NOES: Buzzfeed made the Times again in an op-ed article by Bob Garfield, author of a novel, Bedfellows, and co-host of “On the Media” on WNYC radio.
Garfield wrote in praise of Buzzfeed’s announcement that it will no longer publish negative book reviews. By doing this it “eradicates the depressing negativity that has for so long kept literary criticism from becoming a full-fledged economic sector, like agriculture, transport and erectile dysfunction.
“It also brings us one step closer to my two lifelong dreams: first, a newspaper that delivers only good news: and second, diet bacon.”
TICK-TOCK: This holiday season is critical for Barnes & Noble and every other retail bookstore. An analyst told The New York Times, “There is a clock ticking here, and this Christmas will accelerate the clock.”
There have been no blockbusters like Fifty Shades of Grey or The Hunger Games as there were in 2012. Booksellers are hoping that new books by Stephen King, Donna Tartt, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Giada De Laurentis will take up the slack.
Barnes & Noble said last week that its revenue had suffered an eight percent decline in the quarter that ended Oct. 26.
GETTING HELP: “When I’m struggling with my own work,” said author Tom Perrotta, “I’m often drawn to biographies of writers.” His latest book is The Leftovers, and an interview appeared in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.
He cited the difficulties other writers have had: “Henry James suffered terribly from constipation, Kafka chewed every bite of food 32 times, Flannery O’Connor cared for a flock of around 40 peacocks, Montaigne never saw his wife with her clothes off, Balzac fortified himself with a paste made of unroasted coffee beans.”
Perrotta added: “There’s no single path for living a successful creative or personal life. It’s inspiring to read about a flawed human being who struggled with his or her demons and afflictions, experienced paralyzing episodes of failure or self-doubt, but somehow managed to do the work anyway, and produce something that enriched the world. That’s my version of self-help.”