As I do here every three months, I'm rounding up the most popular books purchased by the readers of Conversational Reading via this site's Amazon links.
To have a look at the most popular books purchased by readers in all of 2008, see here.
- Machine by Peter Adolphse–this is a great example of what a strong blog review can do for a lesser-known book these days. The popularity of Machine on this site can be traced directly to Three Percent's review, which I blogged here. The review blew me away, and judging by purchases it blew away a number of you as well. Here, once again, is the part of the review I excerpted:
Although Danish author Peter Adolphsen has made a name
for himself as a formalist for whom economy is a virtue (to date his
five novels and short story collections are less than 300 pages
combined), “as a reader,” one reviewer writes, “you feel you have
covered a huge distance with him.” Drawing comparisons to Borges and
Kafka, Adolphsen has written parables and parodies, “ultrashort
biographies,” children’s books, and a collection called En Million
Historier (A Million Stories), which allows the reader to construct,
well, a million stories, from ten pages of interchangeable two-line
segments. Machine, Adolphsen’s second novel to be translated into
English, fits very well within this paradigm, spanning millions of
years, several continents, the lives of three people, and one drop of
gasoline within its brief 85 pages.
The book opens with the untimely death of a prehistoric horse. This
end, however, is really the beginning: “Death exists, but only in a
practical microscopic sense,” the quirky omniscient narrator intones.
“Biologically, one cannot distinguish between life and death; the
transition is a continuum.” And so, ever so slowly (over fifty-five
million years), the heart of this horse is transformed into a drop of
crude oil. Once refined, “our drop” is pumped into the engine of a Ford
Pinto. It then combusts, becomes exhaust, and a few hours later,
transforms one last time into a carcinogen. And that’s Machine in a
It's not hard to see why this review moved units. For one, the book simply sounds like something I need to read. But beyond that, this review does exactly what I think a review should do. With very few words, we have context, an idea of what the author has done in the past, a feel for his concerns and technique, and then a very concrete example drawn directly from the text. Add in some critique and a smattering of interpretation, and you've got yourself a review.
- The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinn–this book can also be traced to a review I excerpted on this blog. A big part of the success if, of course, the book, which intrigues ("The protagonist of The Howling Miller is, as the title suggests, a miller prone to howling."–how odd . . .)
Another part of the success is that the reviewer in question was The Complete Review, which carries much authority with readers of this blog. When they say a book is worth reading, as they did in this case, readers trust that. In fact, in linking to the review, TCR notes "there's no one like him in the English-speaking world. Why hasn't he caught on here yet?" Now that's an endorsement.
- The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball–this one can also be traced to a review, although with a twist.
The review in question was published at The Quarterly Conversation and linked to from here; however, unlike the previous two reviews, this review was strongly negative.
What I think carried the sales on this book was that the reviewer was clearly engaged by the text and had respect for Ball as a writer. (The book also has a very noteworthy conceit.) Part of why the review was so harsh was because the reviewer felt that Ball was a writer capable of much more than what he gave us in The Way Through Doors; a simply mediocre writing probably wouldn't have gotten his critical energies up do much.
So, despite a negative review, readers responded. This perfectly illustrates something I've been saying for a long time: readers aren't stupid. They can tell when a critic is engaged versus when one is simply fulfilling an assignment. Honest engagement–whether for good or for ill–will beat faint praise any day.
As a quick aside, another example of this is our review/essay on Zone by Mathias Enard. This was quite clearly a mixed review, but many readers that I heard from only wanted to read the book more after reading our review. The reason is simple: our reviewer was clearly engaged by the text, even if he thought the book didn't merit all the praise it has thus far received.
- The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson–this is something of an interesting pick, because The Unfortunates is a book that I first mentioned way back in December of 2007. It was immediately popular among readers and has been ever since, and this is probably traceable to its highly particular construction: the book is a set of unbound signatures collected in a box. The book is also by one of the UK's most notable experimentalists of the 20th century (mentioned in the same breath as Joyce and Beckett), and although he was neglected during his time, he seems to be undergoing something of a restoration right now.
An interesting footnote to this case is that Johnson couldn't get The Unfortunates published in his lifetime in this format. His publisher would only print is as a regular book, with instructions on how to hopscotch around the chapters to replicate the experience one was supposed to have with the unbound signatures. It didn't sell terribly well in that format.
- Cesar Aira–Although no one book by Aira particularly distinguished itself this quarter, the collective popularity of his books (currently 4 in English, and surely more to come) made him a popular author this quarter.
This is probably due to the fact that I love Aira, and I've been using the fact that New Directions just published a translation of Ghosts (which we reviewed here) to mention him at every conceivable juncture. And it seems to be working.
Well, more power to him. I think Aira is one of the Latin American authors most in need of discovery, and signs seem to be that he is finally beginning to break his way into mainstream literary discourse in this country.
- Lowboy by John Wray–Lowboy is this quarter's example of one of those books that I never actually mentioned on this blog (in fact that I had barely even heard of), but that merited purchases by its popularity in other media.
For some reason, at least one of these will creep up on me every quarter. Strangely enough, in the past one of these titles was Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, and indeed O'Neill shows up in the Amazon review of Lowboy:
What's most seductive for me about John Wray's third novel–and
arguably the one that puts him squarely on the map alongside
contemporary luminaries like Joseph O'Neill, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot
Diaz–is how skillfully it explores the mind's mysterious terrain. This
isn't exactly uncharted land: John Wray's Will Heller–a.k.a.
Lowboy–is a paranoid schizophrenic off his meds and on the lam,
certain of both his own dysfunction and of the world's imminent
collapse by way of global warming, but Wray handles that subtext
delicately and is careful to make Will's mission to "cool down" and
save the world feel single-minded without being moralistic. Wray
invokes all the classic elements of a mystery in the telling, and
that's what makes this novel such a searing read.
Perhaps there's a hard-core cadre of realist readers somewhere in this site's audience.
- Enrique Vila-Matas and W.G. Sebald criticism–Last but certainly not least, I'm going to put these two in a dead heat for seventh place.
Vila-Matas is an author that I've championed on this site ever since I first read his books in the summer of 2007. And since then there has been a steady stream of purchases of his two available translations. (I'm still hoping for a third from New Directions, or anywhere else.) I think this is a good example of what a blog should do: free from the need to constantly write about new books, blogs can keep older books in the conversation simply by mentioning them now and again, discussing them as they see fit, or linking to bits and pieces of news and criticism.
That was what also happened with the two works of Sebald criticism that I've mentioned on this site. Almost a year after I published it, my post on J.J. Long's book continues to be very popular via Google, and I have mentioned both Long's book and the collection of criticism that he edited whenever it seemed appropriate.
Other Interesting Books
Here now are some interesting books that I've discovered through readers' Amazon purchases this quarter:
And finally, for comparison, the results from Q4 2008:
1. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
2. The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson
3. Senselessness, 2666, The Siege of Krishnapur, and A Rhetoric of Irony