Sunday, May 01, 2005

Appointment in Samarra

Do you remember the date of your first day online?

Mine was 20th August 1997.

It changed my life as radically as four other memorable days

  • my first day as a newspaper reporter

  • my wedding day

  • the day a publisher called to say he liked my first book and had sold serialisation rights to a high-circulation magazine

  • the day, or rather the midnight, our son was born

Yet now, almost eight years after that first tentative step into cyberspace, I know intelligent people, with telephone connections and the means to buy a computer, who still choose to ignore this amazing resource.

Towards the end of 1997, I wrote to Louis Baum, then editor of
The Bookseller, to suggest that his readers might be interested in a column about the online book world. He had been thinking along the same lines. The first column was published on 27th February 1998 and recently I re-read it to see how much the online book world has changed. A lot!

My first-ever visit to a website was to
Amazon, at that time advertising itself as “earth’s biggest book store…the best book shopping experience around” with 2.5 million titles on offer. Today it sells all kinds of things from electronics and jewellery to gourmet food, beta. For anyone who might not understand the meaning of the word beta after gourmet food, it’s explained.

“In addition to being the second letter in the Greek alphabet, the word "beta" is also often used to describe a project or process that is being tested. With that in mind, we'd like to introduce you to our new Gourmet Food Store, currently in beta. We are continually adding products--from feta cheese and prosciutto to jelly beans and macadamia nut oil--to expand our selection, which already includes hundreds of brands and tens of thousands of products. During this beta phase we'll be testing different features and gathering input from customers like you to ensure provides the best possible experience for online gourmet-food shopping. Even though this store is in beta, everything works, so feel free to search, browse, and buy your favorite foods. But be sure to come back often, as we'll only be making it better.”

Over the years I’ve spent many happy hours browsing the US and UK Amazon sites where now I’m greeted by name and offered recommendations. Last Friday these included The Bitch Posse and Chronicles, Vol 1, by Bob Dylan.

As these are not my kind of books, I checked the reason for the recommendations. In both cases, it was “because you were interested in Ginny Good by Gerard Jones”.
But, although I checked the reviews of Ginny Good there, I didn’t buy this novel from Amazon. The author kindly sent me a signed copy because I had discussed
his website – a must for anyone interested in publishing - in one of the Bookworm columns.

In fact I’ve bought very little from Amazon, which is rather unfair considering how much time I spend reading the reviews on their sites. The reason is that I feel Amazon will survive and prosper without my support, but realworld independent bookshops might not. So the money I spend on books is generally handed over the counter of one of the four bookshops in
Guernsey during the time I spend on that lovely island.

In February 1998
my favourite living novelist, whose new books I bought in hardback, had long been Patrick O’Brian. Since his death in Dublin in January 2000, I’ve been searching for someone to take his place.

Last week two candidates came up. A friend lent me the paperback of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, which I loved.

If it hasn't come your way, read the
Alden Mudge interview with Guterson. His problem with post 9/11 writer's block is also interesting, as is Chapter One of his second novel East of the Mountains.

Soon after my discovery of Guterson, Michael Allen in his
Grumpy Old Bookman blog – one of my regular ports of call on the Net - commended Alan Furst whose work I have yet to sample.

Michael Allen is a big fan of Furst's novels, but I’m slightly put off because in an interview with Patrick Birnbaum at
Identity Theory, I read the following exchange.

PB: I have read that Anthony Powell is your favorite writer? Why?
AF: Yeah, pretty much. I think he is the finest novelist of the Twentieth Century. By a lot. Because he handles more things with more reserve and precision and with this most beautiful, oblique, quiet, knife-edged perception. He does a willing seduction in the second book, where Nicholas Jenkins seduces the woman who is to be his wife. It's done in a hundred and fifty words. In the back of a car. It's brilliant.

I once tried one of Powell’s novels but wasn’t enthralled and I’m not an admirer of his friends Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. But I was a fan of Auberon Waugh and I’ve just read The New You Survival Kit by his daughter Daisy Waugh which has some very funny scenes, and a lovely hero, Charlie, but also a tiresome overuse of f-words.

So Guterson is more likely to become my next favourite storyteller than Furst who sounds a bit too literary.

Now my husband is reading Snow Falling on Cedars, enjoying it as much as I did, and I’m reading The Jane Austen Book Club by
Karen Joy Fowler with a cover-quote “If I could eat this novel, I would” from Alice Sebold of The Lovely Bones fame. As I was disappointed by the Sebold book, I found the quote off-putting rather than encouraging.

Karen Joy Fowler's website is hosted by Science Fiction Writers of America "founded in 1965 by Damon Knight, who also served as its first president. In 1992, the membership voted to officially change the name to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. (SFWA). SFWA(SM) has brought together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world, and has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence. Over 1200 sf and fantasy writers, artists, editors, and allied professionals are members."

The Jane Austen Book Club was lent to me by someone in her sixties who has never read any of the
Austen novels. In my thirties I was a keen Janeite and once sat next to her biographer, Lord David Cecil [1902-86], at a literary lunch in Norwich. Then Professor of Eng. Lit. at Oxford, he turned out to be an amiable man, but not nearly as interesting as I had expected, either as a speaker or a table neighbour. Also he had badly fitting false teeth, causing a fine spray of particles of his lunch to descend on my lunch, a circumstance he didn’t notice or ignored.

Today I think
Jane Austen overrated. According to Patrick O’Brian’s biographer Dean King [A Life Revealed], in 1986 Patrick O’Brian paid £400 for the second edition of Sense and Sensibility.

As readers of the Bookworm column in The Bookseller will know, I’m a frequent visitor to
Arts & Letter Daily where recently, in the Articles of Note column, I found a link to a Washington Post article by Jonathan Yardley about the American novelist John O’Hara.

article is part of “an occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.”

Mr Yardley begins : “Literary reputation and popular taste usually have nothing in common beyond mutual contempt, but in the matter of John O'Hara they are in firm agreement: Once respected by critics for his tart short stories and early novels, beloved by the mass readership for his blockbuster novels of the 1950s and 1960s, O'Hara is now scorned by the literary establishment and pretty much forgotten by readers, except older ones who remember his heyday.”

I can’t be certain but I think I discovered O’Hara in the seldom-used library of a Europeans-only club in the backwoods of South East Asia. There, in my early twenties, when I interrupted my career as a journalist to spend two years as a soldier’s wife, many hours were spent reading, swimming and discreetly watching the Maughamesque characters propping up the bar.

One of O’Hara’s novels was called Appointment in Samarra, the title taken from an Arab tale mentioned in W Somerset Maugham’s play Sheppey. Samarra, 125 km north of Baghdad, and once a great city, is now one of the largest archaeological sites in the world.

Of Appointment in Samarra, Yardley wrote – “It is a wise tale, and O'Hara puts a deft American twist on it. Still, the novel does not hold up so well as one might wish. What seemed daring seven decades ago seems dated now, especially the brand names (many of them long out of business) that O'Hara used as points of reference. He reached for irony but rarely rose above sarcasm. "Appointment in Samarra" indeed has its pleasures, but if it is the best of O'Hara's books -- as probably it is -- then his life's achievement, though massive in size, was limited in art and craft.”

Searching for an illustrated version of the Arab tale, I found one in an unexpected place, on the site of the
Bionic Buffalo Corporation, a source of tools and components for real-time embedded systems, desktop computers, and servers.

At the same site I noticed this quote -
I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed... managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units... Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country.
Colin Powell, My American Journey, p. 148 (1995)

When I emailed the Bionic Buffalo Corporation to ask for details of the "horse and fallen" man painting on the Appointment in Samarra page, I received a most interesting reply, but I can't quote it without permission which I hope to have by next weekend. By which time I'll also have finished reading Karen Joy Fowler's book.