My Life

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The End of One Era & Start of Another

"[I]n the world of letters, it is hard to imagine a more seismic change than this one." The New York Times announces that its longtime book critic Michiko Kakutani is stepping down after nearly four decades of reviews. The Times also offers a roundup of her greatest hits, including writeups of Beloved, Infinite JestHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Bill Clinton's memoir My Life: The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull — the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history. This announcement was followed by the great news that repeat Year in Reading alumna Parul Sehgal will join Jennifer Senior and Dwight Garner as a Times book critic, leaving her position as senior editor of the NYT Book Review. Congratulations, Parul!

Happy Days

I'm back and I'm fully married now (call us Mr. and Mrs. Millions). It was great. We're off to the honeymoon shortly, and have a pretty full traveling schedule for the remainder of the summer, so, as I mentioned in my last post, expect to hear from me only every ten days or so until we reach Chicago. (If any of you eager readers wants to write in with book news, though, I will happily post it when I can.) But while I've got this free moment, let me mention a couple of book related things that have crossed my desk.I finally, finally, finally finished Edith Grossman's wonderful translation of the Miguel de Cervantes classic, Don Quixote. To any younger readers or any older readers who might one day return to school to study literature, if you ever have the opportunity to read this book in a classroom setting, jump at it. There is so much to unlock in this book, in the techniques of Cervantes, in the tribulations of his characters, and in the historical backdrop of 17th century Spain. When I wrote, months ago, of my frustration at the character of Don Quixote, his brashness, his willful refusal of reality, I still had many hundreds of pages to go. Over the course of those pages, my feelings about Quixote mellowed. The more he interacted with people, the more it became evident that their mockery of him was more foolish than his futile quests. Still, even at the end, Quixote is a character who inspires frustration. I came to realize that there are Quixotes all around us. Those who reject simple explanations for their problems in favor convoluted excuses, conspiracies, and narratives, in which their mundane lives take on a aura of excitement, today's compulsive liars and humble neighbors with delusions of grandeur, these are modern-day Don Quixotes. And Sancho Panza is just as foolish as the rest of us who humor those who are touched with this special madness. As a work of literature the book is quite astounding, wrenching you out of the mistaken frame of mind that before James Joyce, before the "modern day," literature was uncomplicated and linear. Especially in Part 2 when Part 1, itself, becomes a sort of character in the book, one realizes that today's writers are not innovators so much as the great great grandchildren of Cervantes, and in fact Cervantes was the progenitor, the ur-novelist (and Don Quixote the ur-novel), from whom all novelists must necessarily borrow. The book is essential to all who wish to understand "the novel" as a literary form.PoliticsImperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, anonymously penned by a longtime CIA agent, will make waves this week, as the New York Times attests. Also in the Times, Daniel Okrent addresses what was and wasn't appropriate about Michiko Kakutani's front page slam of the Clinton book.

Bubba and the High Seas

The reviews are beginning to come in for Bill Clinton's My Life, and Michiko Kakutani, at least, wasn't very impressed. Read the review here.In other book news, I happened to catch a reading of a very interesting book on the radio last night. Here in DC we have C-SPAN radio, and they occasionally air the audio from their "Book TV" broadcasts (Yes, radio in DC is pretty bad, and that's why I end up listening to C-SPAN radio). The book was The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche and his account of the sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea was riveting. Also in the book: modern day pirates in Indonesia and the Department of Homeland Security's attempts to secure 95,000 miles of American coastline.

Getting Back on the Road

I just got back from the Baltimore Orioles game, my first at Camden Yards in several years. I had forgotten how close, compared to Dodger Stadium, the fans sit to the field. Even when I sat in the "Dugout Club" field level seats at Dodger Stadium, I didn't feel as involved in the game as I do at Camden Yards. It's much more a city park surrounded by tall buildings, compared to Dodger Stadium's desert crater feel.Tomorrow I head up to New York on the train. There is wedding planning to be done with Miss Millions, but hopefully some diversions as well.This morning, at a local bookstore, I saw McSweeney's 13. It's amazing looking. I've got a copy on its way in the mail. Also in book news, Bill Clinton's keynote speech at Book Expo was well-received, and retailers are salivating over the expected sales numbers for his memoir. And for the Brits, check out this awesome deal being offered by The Times. When you buy a copy of the newspaper you get a bestselling paperback for 99 pence. Now that's a great reading initiative. (Better than "One Book, One City" anyway)

Ask a Book Question: The Eighteenth in a Series (Showing Your Cards)

My good and old friend Hot Face, I mean, "Larry 'Boom Boom' Delvechhio" writes in with this question about going for broke and laying it all out on the line.Howyadoin'. I was recently in beyootyful Atlantic City--business trip--and I'm thinkin', geez, this crap is fascinatin'. Is there any, like, books on the subject of gambling/casinos/slots/A.C./Vegas youse might know about? I'm thinkin' like a New Yorkery piece of joinalism with an eye for the math and the drama of the whole thing.Mr. Delvechhio, fresh off celebrating his swiftly disappearing bachelorhood, must have caught the gambling bug in Atlantic City last weekend. I know because I had a similar experience during my celebrations in Vegas about a month ago. Remember? At the time I discussed a number of books that are related to Sin City in one way or another, but I left out books about gambling. Nonetheless, I can recommend three that might serve Mr. Delvechhio's purposes, though I'm sure there are countless others. The first is one that I have read, or rather listened to as an audiobook. In 2000 James McManus arrived in Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker for Harper's. He would leave a lot richer and with a seed for book to be called Positively Fifth Street planted in his brain. A poker player his whole life, McManus couldn't resist jumping into the fray. He used his advance to pay the entrance fee for the tournament. Remarkably, McManus, an unassuming family man, makes it to the final table of the tournament, and in the process is able to give a great insider's view of a grueling tournament that features bizarre personalities and incredibly high stakes. He also weaves into the narrative the intrigue and murder surrounding the Binions, the family whose casino hosts the tournament. It's a fantastic, quick read that will get you hooked on poker if you aren't already. Another poker book is called The Biggest Game in Town by the mysterious A. Alvarez. This book also focuses on the World Series of Poker, though it hails from an earlier era. Though I haven't read it, I've had this book recommended to me dozens of times since I started working at the book store. By all accounts it is a very quality book; in fact, large portions of it originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1981 or so. And finally, a blackjack book: Ben Mezrich uncovered a pretty remarkable story last year when he wrote about the M.I.T. blackjack team in his book Bringing Down the House. I haven't read this one either, but I heard Mizrach several times on the radio last year. The revelation: apparently, for years, there has been a highly secretive blackjack team at M.I.T. Created, recruited, and originally bankrolled by a professor, the team used their considerable math skills to make a killing counting cards in Vegas. Before the operation was permanently blackballed from the casinos, they racked up millions. It got to the point where they were traveling with suitcases full of cash and sitting next to NBA stars at the blackjack table. If you see yourself as a money-making, mathematical genius, this might be the book for you. Oh, and, Delvechhio, I'm looking forward to the nuptuals.The Hype ContinuesMore news in a story that is sure to dominate the book-related headlines for months to come: it has been announced that former prez Bill Clinton has completed his a 900-page manuscript for his memoir due out this June, putting an end to fears that he wouldn't finish on time. They have also released the cover photo, which is just a standard portrait. The remaining intrigue surrounds how revelatory this memoir will be and the timing of the memoir's release, with some conspiracy theorists claiming that Clinton's stealing of the spotlight is meant to sabotage John Kerry in an attempt to clear the way for Hillary in 2008.

More Clinton

It is now being reported that an article in the June issue of Vanity Fair will describe Clinton's struggles to get his new memoir, My Life, completed on time. The reports also confirm fears that the memoir will not provide the deeper reflections that people were hoping for. As this Reuters report indicates, Clinton will have only spent about 5 or so months on the book by the time he is finished. And the AP is reporting "the book will include few mea culpas about Mr. Clinton's role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal or other matters, Vanity Fair said."I wanted to quickly thank four outstanding blogs that have linked to me in the last couple of weeks: beatrice.com, golden rule jones (who will be my competition in Chicago), LA Observed, and largehearted boy. Check them out.

A Presidential Appearance

In the back office of my bookstore, folks are already abuzz about this year's Book Expo in Chicago. Book Expo is probably the largest publishing convention in the world, but if you talk to booksellers, they typically bemoan the crowds and the hectic atmosphere of the Expo weekend. However, this year's keynote speaker happens to be former prez Bill Clinton who will be pushing his new -- and as of this writing, not yet completed -- memoir, My Life ("The president came up with the title," says attorney Robert Barnett, who handles Clinton's literary endeavors.) Also from this Washington Post article about the Clinton book: a first printing of 1.5 million copies and the first of what will likely be legions of sales comparisons with Hillary's blockbuster. Hillel Italie of the AP hopes that Clinton will depart from all previous presidential memoirs by providing readers and historians with some actual insights (LINK). I would rate the chances of this as extremely slim. And David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times believes that the timing of the book's release is purely political (LINK). Meanwhile, back in bookseller land, Book Expo attendees are bracing themselves for the media furor that is sure to accompany the book's unveiling.
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