The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.
- Thomas Berger, the witty and feverishly prolific author of Little Big Man, died July 13 in Nyack, N.Y., following an illness, his publisher said Monday. He was 89. Although Berger was most famous for Little Big Man, which became a movie starring Dustin Hoffman, he wrote dozens of other books in genres varying from sci-fi to crime to Westerns. "Berger's books are accessible and funny and immerse you in the permanent strangeness of his language and attitude, perhaps best encapsulated by Berger's own self-definition as a 'voyeur of copulating words,' " Jonathan Lethem wrote in a 2012 essay. "He offers a book for every predilection: if you like westerns, there's his classic, 'Little Big Man'; so, too, has he written fables of suburban life ('Neighbors'), crime stories ('Meeting Evil'), fantasies, small-town 'back-fence' stories of Middle American life, and philosophical allegories ('Killing Time')." In a 1980 interview, Berger told The New York Times, "I should like the reader to be aware that a book of mine is written in the English language, which I love with all my heart and write to the best of my ability and with the most honorable of intentions — which is to say, I am peddling no quackery, masking no intent to tyrannize, and asking nobody's pity. (I suspect that I am trying to save my own soul, but that's nobody else's business.)"
- Publishers Lunch reports that the dispute between Amazon and Hachette Book Group may be deterring customers: A survey by the Codex Group found that about 39 percent of 5,300-plus respondents were aware of the conflict and, of those, 19 percent said they were buying fewer books from Amazon. Also, 4.4 percent said they have increased their spending at Amazon. "This is the first time we've measured consumer dissatisfaction with Amazon resulting in significant declines in purchase intent," Codex's Peter Hildick-Smith said.
- Dwight Garner of The New York Times reviews a new Harper Lee biography: "The Mockingbird Next Door conjured mostly sad images in my mind. Ms. Lee has a regular booth at McDonald's, where she goes for coffee. She eats takeout salads from Burger King on movie night. When she fishes, she uses wieners for bait. She feeds the town ducks daily, with seed corn from a plastic Cool Whip Free container, calling 'Woo-hoo-HOO! Woo-hoo-HOO!' Somehow learning all this is worse than it would be to learn that she steals money from a local orphanage." (We book critics, on the other hand, compose our reviews in sharply cut tailcoats and drink tea steeped in the ashes of former poet laureates.)
- Buzzfeed asked a bunch of writers and journalists of color for their best pieces of career advice. Cord Jefferson said, "Get into the habit of talking to people and asking them questions about their life, and don't do the thing where you zone out of conversations until it's your turn to speak — actually listening to people and the world around you is like 35 percent of being a good writer. Don't surround yourself only with other writers/journalists/media people; self-imposed insularity is the fastest way to smother your creativity. And don't stress out about ingratiating yourself with The Media Scene. A lot of the parties suck."
In September 1777, Samuel Johnson declared to his friend James Boswell, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."
Johnson was actually referring to his hectic social calendar, but still, he did have a point. The city he was discussing was on course to become the largest metropolis the world had ever seen. In 1800, London was home to one million residents. By 1911 that number had grown to a staggering seven million: a population far greater than Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Moscow combined at that time.
London during the 19th century was, in some respects, driving the rest of the world into modernity. It was where the world's first police force and underground railway system emerged. Meanwhile, the inexorable forces of the industrial revolution, running parallel to Britain's massive imperial expansion, made it the most powerful global trading center on the planet.
Most of us, when we think of this period of history, probably associate it on some level with the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. It's an association the historian Judith Flanders delves into with The Victorian City, first published in the U.K. in 2012: "Dickens would describe all of [London's] qualities as though no one had ever seen them before," she writes. "And [afterwards] no one would be able to see them again except through his eyes."
Flanders uses secondary historical sources alongside Dickens's own impressions of the city to take us on a dazzling journey through an imperial city plagued by poverty and deeply divided by class.
She arranges the book's chapters thematically rather than chronologically; similarities can be drawn here to Peter Ackroyd's London: a biography which also maps out the history of the city through topics such as work, theatres, prisons, murders, slums, and the harrowing working conditions of the poor.
Nor is Flanders afraid to challenge received wisdom about Victorian London. For example, she refutes the stereotype that the city was rampant with prostitutes. In 1851 an official statistic put the number of working girls in London at 210,000. But Flanders says that during that era, the term "prostitute" could be given to any woman who had sexual relations outside of marriage. Dickens, like many men of the Victorian age, was prone to bouts of hypocrisy and snobbery when speaking about sexual mores, especially when it came to the less well off in London society.
And despite his sympathy for the poor, he still used words like "wild" and "voracious" to describe workhouse children who could barely keep themselves fed and alive. But this attitude — which Flanders reminds us of with frequent quotes from both Dickens' novels and his large body of journalism — may have arisen from the man's constant fear of destitution. He had narrowly escaped a life of poverty: Dickens' father was locked in a London debtors' prison, while he lived and worked alone as a young man. And he once admitted that if circumstances were different, he might have turned into a "little robber or [vagabond]" himself.
Flanders is clearly a historian with a strong moral conscience, who repeatedly looks to address issues of social justice. And there's something else underlying her recreation of the streets of 19th century London: the great paradox of the British Empire, where inequality grew exponentially as industry increased and profits soared.
That said, I would have enjoyed a chapter or two analyzing how and why this poverty evolved with such extremity. Nevertheless, Flanders must be given credit for doing an astounding job of recreating every nook and cranny of London in this richly detailed compendium.
Shying away from academic pretension, Flanders tells the epic story of this biggest and boldest Victorian city in all its complexity, with verve, color and a straightforward approach to language that still manages to give a voice to ordinary Londoners — something Dickens would no doubt approve of.
J.P. O'Malley is a freelance journalist based in London who writes mainly on books. Follow him on Twitter: @johnpaulomallez
A refrigerated train carrying the remains of the people who died aboard the downed Malaysia Airlines plane arrived in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. That's a city controlled by the central government in Kiev and 17 hours away from the chaos of Hrabove, the eastern city controlled by pro-Russian separatists, where the debris and remains were scattered.
"Pushed by a diesel locomotive, five gray refrigerated wagons and a red passenger car crawled into the grounds of a decrepit Soviet-era tank factory shortly after noon, completing the first and most difficult stage of a long journey home for victims of the crash. ...
"The train was met by police forensic experts and other representatives of countries that had citizens on the doomed flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Security guards kept reporters outside the factory gates, and it was not immediately clear whether the bodies would be kept in Kharkiv for preliminary examination or swiftly transferred to a nearby airport for transport out of Ukraine."
As we reported, the transfer of most bodies happened after days of international wrangling and confusion over who was in charge of the accident scene in Ukraine.
By Monday afternoon, the Malaysian prime minister announced a deal with separatists leaders that would allow the train carrying the bodies to leave rebel territory. By the time early morning rolled around in Ukraine, separatists had also handed over flight data recorders in front of reporters.
Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, European Union foreign ministers are meeting today to discuss whether to impose more sanctions on Russia, which the U.S. says supplied the missiles used to down the plane.
"The meeting in Brussels is thought likely to discuss expanding the list of Russian officials targeted by sanctions, but the EU has so far steered clear of targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy.
"Both the EU and the US imposed sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
On Monday, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for unrestricted access to scene of the accident for investigators.
The measure was approved unanimously, with even Russia jumping aboard after the text was changed to say the aircraft was downed not shot down.