Books Acquired, 6.25.2012—Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

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A nice stack from the good folks at Picador this month, including two new entries in their ongoing Nadine Gordimer reissues. I like the design on the series:

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There’s also a reissue of Denis Johnson’s 1991 novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which I haven’t read, but will read soon, because Johnson is just one of those writers I’ll end up reading everything by eventually. From a 1991 NYT review of the novel:

There has never been any doubt about Denis Johnson’s ability to write a gorgeous sentence. The author of “Angels,” “Fiskadoro” and “The Stars at Noon” has become increasingly musical in his prose, and his latest novel, “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,” depends on such sentences as the primary unit of narrative motion. The novel seems, like a poem, to be written line to line. It is very much a book about one man, one sensibility.

At the outset of the novel, Leonard English, driving to the tip of Cape Cod in the off season, stops for a drink, then spins out of control, running his car onto a traffic island. He ends up taking a taxi to his destination, which is Provincetown. He has attempted suicide before the book’s beginning; now he is moving to the Cape to work for Ray Sands, a private investigator who also owns a small radio station. When we can see him most clearly, English seems very similar to the narrator of the short story — drifting, guilty, in a world of strangers, striving to connect with another person and with his God.

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Last year’s With Liberty and Justice for Some is out now in trade paperback. If you are even slightly familiar Glenn Greenwald’s columns at Salon, you’ll likely know what to expect. For those of us predisposed to agree with his analyses, With Liberty and Justice for Some is likely to inspire outrage and a certain kind of fatigue.

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Here’s an excerpt from an interview between Harper’s Scott Horton and Greenwald:

American history is suffused with violations of equality before the law. The country was steeped in such violations at its founding. But even when this principle was being violated, its supremacy was also being affirmed: resoundingly and unanimously in the case of the founders. That the rule of law—not the rule of men—would reign supreme was one of the few real points of agreement among all the founders. Arguably it was the primary one.

There’s an obvious element of hypocrisy in this fact; espousing a principle that one simultaneously breaches in action is hypocrisy’s defining attribute. But there’s also a more positive side: the country’s vigorous embrace of the principle of equality before law enshrined it as aspiration. It became the guiding precept for how “progress” was understood, for how the union would be perfected.

And the most significant episodes of progress over the next two centuries—the emancipation of slaves, the ending of Jim Crow, the enfranchisement and liberation of women, vastly improved treatment for Native Americans and gay Americans—were animated by this ideal. That happened because “blind justice”—equality before law—was orthodoxy in American political culture. The principle was sacrosanct even when it was imperfectly applied.

The Ford pardon of Nixon changed that, radically and permanently. When President Ford went on national television to explain to an angry, skeptical citizenry why the most powerful political actor would be fully immunized for the felonies he got caught committing, Ford expressly rejected the rule of law. He paid lip service to its core principle—the “law is no respecter of persons”—but then tacked on a newly concocted amendment designed to gut that principle: “but the law is a respecter of reality.”

In other words, if—in the judgment of political leaders—it’s sufficiently disruptive, divisive, or distracting to hold powerful political officials accountable under the law on equal terms with ordinary Americans, then they should be exempt and the rule of law suspended, all in the name of political harmony, of “moving on.” But of course, it willalways be divisive and distracting, by definition, to prosecute the most powerful political leaders, so Ford’s rationale, predictably, created a template for elite immunity.

The rationale for Ford’s pardon of Nixon was subsequently legitimized, and it created a precedent for shielding the most powerful elites from the consequences of their lawbreaking. The arguments Ford offered are the same ones now hauled out over and over whenever it is time to argue why the most powerful among us should not be held accountable: It’s not just for the good of the immunized criminal, but in the common good, to Look Forward, Not Backward. This direct assault on the rule of law was pioneered by the pardon of Richard Nixon.

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Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies is a Swedish novel in English Translation by Sarah Death. Look, I’m generally dismissive of Holocaust fiction because 1) the sheer number of books that come in to Biblioklept World Headquarters that use the Holocaust as a milieu and 2) the tacky and generally lazy way that such books often attempt to manipulate their audiences. Still, The Emperor of Lies seems like it’s probably a sight better than most such books, and it’s gotten generally good reviews, including this one from The Independent (UK), which apparently thinks that a book review of five sentences is fine:

Any writer – let alone one from neutral Sweden – who sets out to place another brick in the vast wall of Holocaust fiction must be deluded or inspired. Astonishing to report: Sem-Sandberg belongs in the tiny second band.

Utterly involving, morally scrupulous, written with a verve and pace that belie its dreadful setting, The Emperor of Lies – in Sarah Death’s masterly translation – really does renew the genre.

Its portrait of resistance and survival in the ghetto of Lodz between 1940 and 1944 focuses on the monstrous enigma of Chaim Rumkowski, despotic overlord of his fellow-Jews. Sem-Sandberg catches his capricious charisma. Other characters, who record their fate or fight it, also shine, while their tragic destiny moves on at mesmerising speed.

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Books Acquired, 4.23.2012 — Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

20120502-162855.jpgNice little stack from the good people at Picador—novels, reissues, first-time-in-trade-paperbacks, nonfiction . . . a nice little spread.

First up is Chris Adrian’s latest novel The Great Night, which, improbably, I’ve yet to read—I’m a huge fan of Chris Adrian’s other books, especially The Children’s Hospital (although I’ve reviewed his other books here too, for those inclined to hit the archives), and I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I know The Great Night basically riffs on. Anyway, my wife snapped this one up right away (I had to go through her nightstand to fetch it up for yon photograph), so my reading will be delayed (although I will likely con her into reviewing it here).

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From Patrick Ness’s review at The Guardian

The Great Night is set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco. Titania and Oberon – the very ones from Shakespeare’s play – live under the park’s main hill with their full court. Puck is there too, a malevolent but chained force, chafing for revenge against his masters. He may get his chance, for Titania is collapsing under grief. Boy, a changeling brought in by Oberon to amuse her and for whom she felt the first maternal feelings of her immortal life, has died of a very human disease, leukaemia.

Consumed by the pain of her loss, Titania makes a terrible mistake and tells Oberon she never loved him. Furious, he abandons her and shows no signs of returning. But perhaps if Titania releases Puck, who the other faeries refer to as the Beast, then Oberon will have to return to enslave him again. Won’t he? She breaks Puck’s bonds on the Great Night – Midsummer’s Eve, naturally – for which he says, “Milady, I am in your debt, and so I shall eat you last.” . . .

. . . Adrian does nearly everything right here. The Shakespearean references are worn lightly, and the plotting is so skilful you barely notice it falling into place. The characterisations are rich, too. There’s a spellbinding chapter on Molly’s childhood in a performing Christian family band that is both deeply weird and blisteringly sad. Plus there’s an eye-wateringly matter-of-fact approach to sex (and lots of it), which here is essentially indistinguishable from magic, and from love as well, in all its “intimations from the world that there was more to be had, something different and something better”.

I like the cover of the Adrian, which I only mention here to transition into The Eye of the Storm, the novel that won Patrick White the Nobel in 1973. The book has been adapted into a film, so of course there’s a reissue with a film tie-in cover. (Buzzfeed’s addressed this phenomena recently; I did it a few years ago myself).

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Speaking of covers: Love love love this one for The Sly Company of People Who Care by  Rahul Bhattacharya:

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Here’s novelist Dinaw Mengestu, from his review in The New York Times:

In the opening paragraph of Rahul Bhattacharya’s first novel, “The Sly Company of People Who Care,” the unnamed narrator, a former cricket journalist from India, declares his intentions for his life, and thus his story — to be a wanderer, or in his words, “a slow ramblin’ stranger.” That rambling, through the forests of Guyana; the ruined streets of its capital, Georgetown; and out to the borders of Brazil and Venezuela, constitutes the novel’s central action. But its heart lies in the exuberant and often arresting observations of a man plunging himself into a world full of beauty, violence and cultural strife.

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The Kirkus review of Mike Magner’s Poisoned Legacy:

This angry investigative report begins well before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

In the first chapter, National Journal editor Magner describes a possible cancer epidemic in a Kansas town where refinery wastes have poisoned a wide area and where a courageous retired schoolteacher is fighting an uphill battle to force BP to clean up. Apparently, he had been researching this problem when the Gulf blowout forced him to change the book’s focus, but both stories alternate throughout the narrative. Readers with a taste for heated fist-shaking will have plenty of opportunities as Magner delivers detailed accounts of BP’s mishaps, emphasizing the massive 2005 Texas refinery explosion, leaks and malfunctions along the Alaska pipeline and the Deepwater disaster. Each follows an identical pattern: BP officials cut costs, safety budgets drop, employees grumble and warn of disaster, disaster occurs, individuals who suffered terribly tell their stories and government regulators and the media suddenly show interest, resulting in an outpouring of outrage, investigations, damning reports, fines and apologies from BP executives and the inevitable avalanche of lawsuits. Magner makes a strong case for BP’s negligence and the American government’s feeble oversight, but his case that BP operates less competently than other oil companies is not as convincing. Perhaps wisely, the author makes no argument that Americans are willing to make the painful sacrifices necessary to ensure that these catastrophes never recur. We want oil, and we don’t want it to cost too much.

A relentlessly critical denunciation of the latest environmental disaster that leaves the impression that more will follow.

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Groove Interrupted immediately piqued my interest and quickly found its way into my stack. Excerpt from Jazz Time’s review:

New Orleans native Spera, a longstanding music writer for The Times-Picayune who was also part of the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage team, focuses on tales of musicians confronting the challenges of trying to continue to make music in a post-Katrina environment. He covers those displaced New Orleanians forced to seek refuge in Houston, Austin, Nashville and other points around the country in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (known around New Orleans as “the Federal flood”). His profile of the cantankerous, Slidell-based blues guitarist-singer-fiddler Gatemouth Brown, who succumbed to lung cancer shortly after Katrina hit, is particularly moving, as is his eloquent recounting of Aaron Neville’s escape from his beloved hometown in the face of Katrina, his subsequent mourning over the loss of his wife to lung cancer in 2006 and triumphant return to New Orleans in 2008.

The Pale King Paperback (Book Acquired, 4.07.2012)

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I was happy to get a trade paperback of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King this weekend (thanks Hachette!) for a few reasons. First, I detest hardback books — that didn’t stop me from picking up (and reviewingTPK when it debuted last year — but I know I’ll prefer this paperback for rereadings. More to the point, the paperback boasts four vignettes not published with the hardback last year, which I’m sure is in no way a cynical marketing ploy cooked up by the publishers. On those scenes:

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Okay, so yes, I read them. They’re short, and they don’t really add to the novel; actually, they probably take away from the Michael Pietsch’s fine editing work. Still, DFW fans will eat them up. I’ll try to reflect more later.

There’s also one of those reading group guide sections, which cracks me up. Are book clubs gonna read this book? I mean, I hope they do, but they’ll likely hate it. Here’s a question that caught my eye, mostly because I wrote a bit about §19 this summer.

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Book Shelves #2, 1.08.2012

. . . it’s not too difficult, very obviously, to keep ten or twenty or let’s say even a hundred books; but once you start to have 361, or a thousand, or three thousand, and especially when the total starts to increase every day or thereabouts, the problem arises, first of all of arranging all these books somewhere and then of being able to lay your hand on them one day when, for whatever reason, you either  want or need to read them at last or even to reread them.

Thus the problem of a library is twofold: a problem of space, first of all, then a problem of order.

—Georges Perec, from “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books” (1978)

Book shelves series #2, second Sunday of 2012. Master bedroom: Corner piece bookshelf in the southwest corner; two tiers + top shelf.

I didn’t take a picture of the entire bookshelf, a humble little two-tier piece that abuts the corner of any room with corners. Actually, I did take a picture—a few—but they just looked awful. Like I said in the first installment of this series, it’s not my goal to present aesthetically pleasing portraits of bookshelves.

This corner bookshelf was my grandmother’s and I’ve had it for at least 10 years. The top shelf holds five books that rest there for entirely aesthetic purposes; looking at them now I realize that, with the exception of the Audubon volume in the middle and the Lewis Carroll on the end, I’ve never even bothered to flick through them. They look strange photographed here without the framed photographs, plants, and tchotchkes that attend most shelves in the house:

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At one point, this entire piece of furniture was double shelved (is this a term? Do you know what I mean here?) with cheap mass market paperbacks, the kind of books that I bought and received for years. I rarely buy mass markets anymore; nor do I like hardbacks. I’m a trade paperback man. Still, some of the sci-fi/dystopian lit here was fundamental to my early reading habits, to the point where I even pick up newer volumes (like Philip Pullman’s books) in mass market paperback.

We also see here the first of many cameras scattered throughout the books in this house. This particular Polaroid is likely the least antiquated; I think it’s from 1999 or 2000. I took all these photos with an iPhone:

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The shot is blurry, so you might not make out the cracked spines, but there are many Huxley books there (although it occurs to me now how odd it is that only one Vonnegut volume is there, when I know that I have so many more somewhere). Two noteworthy Huxleys:

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We have children. There are children’s books everywhere in the house, organized in no particular fashion. The drawing and painting books belonged to my grandmother, who was an amateur painter. I am fairly familiar with these books.

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More kids books. They were probably stuffed here after piling up on the floor one night. The box is full of homemade dice and preserved insects:

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And more mass markets—sci-fi and fantasy. Many of these were, uh, “borrowed” and never returned, either from a school that I used to work for (The Left Hand of Darkness; Alas Babylon, the aforementioned Pullman volumes), or from dear friends (I’m looking at you, William Gibson books). There are probably 50 more books like this in a secret stash in the back of the house, out of sight:

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The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an early paperback edition, sporting Tolkien’s original illustrations. My aunt gave me these. I’ve probably read The Lord of the Rings more than any other book, and I’m almost certain that I’ve owned it in more editions than any other book:

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 A dear friend lent me Gibson’s Neuromancer years ago; I know Gibson’s other early books (the first two trilogies) must be somewhere around the house, unless I passed them on, but I’ve always been fond of this book, which taught me how to read in some ways:

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So we’ve made it out of my bedroom—I chose not to take a picture of my wife’s night stand, for her privacy, I suppose, although she might not have cared. (She doesn’t read this blog and is likely unaware of this weird project). There was a Hayao Miyazaki adaptation she was reading to our daughter there, and Hemingway’s novel The Garden of Eden, which I think she finished just the other night.

Book Acquired, 9.06.11

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The kind people at Picador sent me a copy of the trade paperback of this book called Freedom by some guy named Jonathan Franzen. The hardback came out last year, but it kinda went under the radar; one of those obscure underground reads. Maybe he’ll have more success in the paperback (it’s certainly lighter). The book has apparently been BeDazzled, too—a nice touch. The bird’s eye is this bumpy little bumpy bump—I tried to angle the cover so you might see it in the closeup below, but I’m not sure if it comes across.

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Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 Revisited

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Any bibliophile can attest that one of the greatest pleasures of re-reading a favorite book is that it doesn’t change. You change, but it doesn’t, and somehow, you can measure your own change against it. So when Picador’s new single-volume trade paperback edition of Roberto Bolaño’s magnum opus 2666 (out today) showed up at my doorstep a week or two ago, I was thrilled. I already own the book, but having another copy of it, for some reason–no logical reason, of course–seemed really important. It also puts 2666 in good company: I own two (or more) copies of Moby-Dick and Ulysses, and I’ve had to buy at least three copies of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (damn biblioklepts don’t return books). I bought FS&G’s triple trade paperback edition of the book at the end of last year, and I loved it loved it loved it (review here if you don’t believe me). So how does the new single-volume edition differ, you ask? Well, first off, it’s important to note the gracious similarities–Picador’s edition retains the same pagination, a trend that I hope will always continue with this book (editions of Infinite Jest have managed to keep cohesive to date as well). The new trade paperback is surprisingly supple and portable, with wider margins than the FS&G triple-job. With more room for marginalia in the cohesive package of a single volume, Picador’s edition will likely be the go-to for scholars and book clubs (it’s also about half the retail price of the FS&G editions, but just as attractive).

So, anyway, why should you read 2666 if you haven’t already? I’m going to be lazy and refer again to my original review, but I’ll also be generous and direct you to Macmillan’s resource site for 2666. The site already has plenty of great links to full reviews and interviews with Bolaño, and Picador’s publicists have assured me that they will be updating the site frequently with additional content to aid readers, including artwork and images. Also really cool — the folks at The Morning News, who host Infinite Summer, the Infinite Jest reading project, will launch a similar site for 2666 on January 1st of next year. Even though I’m pointing out all of these resource sites, I think it’s also important to note that 2666 is an incredibly readable book. Which leads back to my current re-reading–and, hopefully, to an argument why you should re-read 2666.

So I bought my original copy in San Francisco last year, on vacation, and began digging into it on the plane ride home. I read most of Part I, “The Part about the Critics” in something of a dazed post-hangover travel stupor. I was familiar with Bolaño’s epic sentences from The Savage Detectives, but I instantly liked this book better. It also seemed to defy all of my expectations–wasn’t this supposed to be an unremitting catalog of horrific murders? Anyway, I got to that part later. Fast forward ten months or so. Again, I’m on a plane, again, coming home, returning from Las Vegas, more dazed, more hungover than before, and I pick up 2666, and again, I dig into Part I. The book is a different book. Lines that made me crack up before seem sinister. I see murder where I’d seen academic squabbling. But there’s also that hope, that possibility, that force of humanity that might be Bolaño’s signature rhetorical move, and I see it too now. Upon a first reading, 2666 might seem impossibly incomplete: a book that could never end, a book that would have to keep going. And it is. It’s a cycle; it returns to itself, a series of calls and responses far richer than can be puzzled out over one, or two, (or three, or four . . . ) readings. But best of all, it’s great, greater than before. What might have seemed a fortunate fluke of a forceful voice reveals itself to be profound and measured control–Bolaño’s themes are layered like a labyrinth, but what a joyful labyrinth to traverse! Re-reading 2666 on the plane was a strange echo, doubled in the myriad echoes that I found on my re-reading. I finished most of Part I (skipping occasionally into sections of Part V, and then Part III, and so on, liberated all of a sudden), and when I got home, despite the paramount exhaustion of a long Las Vegas weekend with a few dozen friends, I collapsed in my bed and into the book, not wanting to put it down, staying up far too late reading. Again. Great stuff. Go get it if you haven’t yet, and if you’ve got it, read it again.

Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson

One year after it topped book critics’ best-of 2007 lists everywhere (including ours), Denis Johnson’s Vietnam War epic Tree of Smoke is finally available in a handsome trade-paperback. Picador’s edition retains the original orange and yellow cover, only now affixed with the proud blazon “National Book Award Winner.” However, that Tree of Smoke won this prestigious award no doubt ruffled a few feathers. It still remains an urgently divisive work.

Although plenty of critics and readers loved the novel, including The New York Times‘s Jim Lewis (who cautiously called it “something like a masterpiece”) and Michiko Kakutani, it has had more than its fair share of haters. Consider B.R. Myers’s downright mean review, “A Bright Shining Lie” in The Atlantic. Here, Myers displays the worst kind of vitriol. He’s the critic who feels the need not only to trumpet his hatred of the work he’s assessing, but also to lambaste the dignity, taste, and intellect of anyone who would disagree with him. Myers specifically attacks Johnson’s rhetorical style, his diction and syntax, and concludes that those idiots who would praise such inane, base, and clichéd language (idiots like me, that is) are clearly the cause of all current social and political problems and “have no right to complain about incoherent government.” Uh, sure. Myers’s baseless zealotry aside, it’s worth looking at the popular reception of Tree of Smoke, and what better place to do so than scouring Amazon reviews, right?

A cynic might say that Amazon reviews are the bottom-barrel of literary criticism, yet it’s still worth considering the almost perfectly mathematical split between 5- and 4-starred reviews of the book and 1- and 2-starred reviews (although none of the negative reviews I read on Amazon suggested that praising Johnson’s novel disenfranchised one from political opinions). Put simply, most people tend to either hate or love Tree of Smoke, which, I believe, is a sign of great art. And, were I inclined to inflate my rhetoric to a grandiose level like Myers, I might here wax philosophical about opinion, perspective, history, and the value of great art to ignite debate and discussion within the marketplace of ideas. However, I don’t think a book review is necessarily the best venue to make grand sweeping statements. At best, such writing presents a shallow or hollow endorsement of a collective truth (e.g. “Everyone assesses literature from their own perspective and therefore everyone values books differently”); at worst–in the case of Myers’s grotesque review–we get a pompous, overblown, self-important declaration (here, praising Tree of Smoke = losing the ability to authoritatively comment on society or politics) that can only be supported within the limited rhetorical bounds created the sophist has constructed (i.e. Myers’s review). But I’ve made a long digression, and, worse, I’ve failed to really discuss the book at all.

My initial review of Tree of Smoke last year was really a review of Will Patton’s masterful audio-recording of the novel (I was reading Ulysses for graduate school at the time and simply did not have the time to read both). I loved the experience; Patton did a great job, and I found myself wholly addicted to the narrative. When the advance copy of Tree showed up in the mail earlier this week, I immediately re-read the coda of the book in a single sitting. I would say the measure of a great narrative is not its core, its climax, or its beginning, but how well the conclusion is able to deliver the promises established throughout the book. Tree of Smoke delivers, and its ending continues to haunt the reader well after the book has been set aside. Readers like Myers may not get the payoff–he claims that “Johnson’s failure to understand [his character’s] faith is such that when he uses it to end the novel on an uplifting note, the reader feels nothing.” However, I hardly think that a watery Hallmark-word like “uplifting” properly connotes the weight, pathos, and sheer pain that Johnson conveys and addresses at the end of the book (Myers’s shallow diagnosis leads me to believe he merely skimmed the novel). Ethics of literary criticism aside, the real triumph of Tree of Smoke is simply that Johnson manages to comment in a new way on a subject that, by 2007, had been done to death. Who knew that we needed another story about the Vietnam War? Denis Johnson, apparently. Read the book for yourself. Very highly recommended.

Tree of Smoke is available in paperback from Picador on 2 September, 2008.