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Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Pillars of the Earth: Finally Finished!

Man, it was starting to feel like that cathedral would NEVER get built!  But it did, and I finally finished reading about it. For those unfamiliar, The Pillars of the Earth takes places in 12th century England, and chronicles a monk's challenge-fraught endeavor to build a beautiful, modern cathedral. What was amazing to me, though, as I talked with people during the month it took to read this 1,000-page behemoth, is how many people actually were familiar with the book; many more people than I would have expected — from my uncle Rick, to the CEO of my company, to my friend Emily.

As I posted previously, Follett is best known for his thrillers, but delved into historical fiction because of his life-long fascination with dark-age European cathedrals. The risk certainly paid off — while not the least bit intellectually challenging, this novel is just a solid, fun read. It's got everything — murder, political scheming, sex (though, these are some of the cheesiest, most unintentionally hilarious sex scenes ever rendered on paper), war, descriptions of architecture, a few touching love stories, and evil characters who get their comeuppances. It's a "story" in the truest sense of the word — Follett only delves into the characters' thoughts when it serves the purpose of advancing the plot or explaining the particular scheme one of them is cooking up. Again, it's not at all deep or literary — it's just a great, great story.  Have you read Pillars?  What did you think?

There is a sequel to the book called World Without End that takes place in the same fictional town of Kingsbridge about 200 years after the events of Pillars. I have the book on my shelf, and will certainly dive in the next time I'm looking for some good historical brain candy.

And speaking of brain candy, now it's on to The Lost Symbol. I can't believe I just typed those words. Hopefully I can knock this sucker out in about a week...

(One last note — as an addendum to my John Irving post — snooty NY Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, well-known for hating just about everything, absolutely laid into Irving as a writer in a review published this week. She did add a few positive comments about Twisted River ("...it evolves into a deeply felt and often moving story."), though after basically calling him a sentimental hack, those kind words seem rather begrudging.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Publishing Event of the Year: New John Irving!



Forget Dan Brown and Stephen King, and with apologies to the late Senator Kennedy (whose memoir came out in September), in my mind, the fall publishing season hits its crescendo tomorrow with the release of the new John Irving novel — Last Night in Twisted River.

I've been a huge, huge John Irving fan since I stumbled across The Cider House Rules several years ago, and I've since read just about everything he's published, including A Prayer for Owen Meany and A Widow For One Year, which are two of my all-time favorite books. 

So I couldn't be more excited to read Twisted River! But when a favorite novelist publishes something new, I'm always a little bit apprehensive, as well. Even if the new book is legitimately terrible, it's still not easy to read someone you admire getting trashed by snooty reviewers. Sadly, that was the case for both of Irving's last two books — the abysmal Until I Find You, and the mediocre The Fourth Hand.

Thankfully, the reviews for Twisted River have been very positive. Entertainment Weekly gave it an A- and the LA Times gushes that "reports of Irving's demise are greatly exaggerated."  Twisted River is "majestic yet intimate, shot with whimsy, dread and molten pathos."

Finally, if my enthusiasm isn't quite enough to sway you to check it out, maybe Mr. Irving himself can. Here is video of Mr. Irving discussing the story. "...to appall is a good thing..."




(By the way, does anyone know why new books, DVDs and CDs always come out on Tuesdays? I've heard plenty of theories, but never heard the REAL reason. Help!?)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The eBook Craze Gains a New Nook

The big news in the publishing world this week is that Barnes & Noble has officially joined the e-book reader battle. The company released nook, a product it hopes will steal some of the market from amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader line of products.

BN is touting two major advantages of the nook over its competition. 1) Part of the display — where you can browse through books — is in color, and 2) You can lend your e-books to other nook users for up to 14 days. That's kind of cool, until you discover that you can't access a book you've lent, just like a physical book. Isn't it a bit odd that they went out of their way to add this restriction? Anyway, nook costs $259 (same price as Kindle), uses a 3G wireless connection and most new release books are available for $9.99.

What's your take on the e-book craze? It definitely elicits some strong opinions, mostly along the lines of "I need to have the touch and feel of the physical book in my hands, and I like collecting books for my shelves." Certainly valid points.

I'm not fundamentally opposed to the idea of the e-book reader — I don't own one myself, but if I traveled a bit more or had fewer unread books on my shelves, I could definitely see myself enjoying one. Besides, I think anything that gets people to read more is a good thing in my book, and that's exactly what's happening, according to this NY Times piece. 

(Side note: Wal-Mart, amazon, Target and Sears are waging quite the price war on new and future best-sellers. For example, you can get all 1,088 pages of Stephen King's new novel Under the Dome, which comes out Nov. 10, online at any of these stores for about $9. It's list price is $35!)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Angela's Ashes: Funniest Sad Book Ever

10877927Have you read Angela’s Ashes?  You’re probably nodding with a bit of a wistful look on your face right now. Until last night, when I finished the book, I felt like I was the only one in the world who hadn’t read it. It’s one of those books that’s been on my shelf for years, and I always promised myself I’d get to it “soon.” When Frank McCourt died this summer at the age of 78, I almost felt guilty for never having read it while he was still in the world.

You ask anyone about the book and inevitably you get the same response: “Wow, what a great book, and so, so sad.” And they’re right, the family’s poverty, sibling deaths and the father’s alcoholism and utter disregard for the welfare of his family make for, on the whole, a rather melancholy 360 pages. But what I didn’t expect is how absolutely hysterical the book is at times. In fact, the scenes I’ll almost certainly remember the most from the books are the funny ones.

mccourt_frank2My favorite scene in the book is the First Communion episode. Young Frank has just received his First Communion and is excited about going on The Collection – a tradition whereby he gets to go around to the neighbors and receive gifts, after which he can afford the rare treat of going to the cinema. But before he can go, his grandmother insists on serving him a rich breakfast, which he promptly vomits all over his grandmother’s backyard. His grandmother is horrified, screaming “I have God in me backyard.” She makes him skip The Collection and go immediately to confession. Even the priest is doing all he can not to crack up when Frank tells him “I threw up my First Communion Breakfast and now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do.” The priest tells her to wash God with a little water, but when Frank relays this advice to his grandmother she sends him back in to the confessional to ask “Holy water or ordinary water?”  If you don’t think that’s funny, well, you may not have a soul…

The other thing that stands out about this book is McCourt’s lyrical childlike voice. The dialogue is wonderfully Irish and seemingly pitch perfect, and his portrayal of his childhood version of an almost superstitious Catholicism and the accompanying guilt is practically gut-wrenching (i.e., he is stricken with guilt that he sent the girl of his first sexual encounter to hell because she never had a chance to confess before she died).

I loved this book, for its humor, its pathos, its general “funness.” The only thing that made this book sad for me is the knowledge that its author is no longer with us. RIP, Mr. McCourt!

(PS. Yes, I’m still chugging along on The Pillars of the Earth, too, but I had some flights the last two weeks and didn’t want to lug that 1,000-page behemoth in my carry-on bag. Hence, Angela’s Ashes.)

CymLowell

Thursday, October 15, 2009

NBA Nominations: Where Obscurity Happens

With apologies to hoops fans, the book-dork meaning of the acronym NBA has nothing to do with LeBron, Kobe or D-Wade. NBA means National Book Award, and outside of the Pulitzer, it's probably the most prestigious American literary award.

So, yesterday, the National Book Foundation released its list of nominations for the 2009 NBA for Fiction. And by all accounts -- including this rather angry one from an Entertainment Weekly blogger, who was also mad about the noms for the other categories as well -- the list is a real head-scratcher:

Here are the NBA Fiction Nominees:
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Perhaps I'm not as hip to the goings-on in the literary world as I'd thought, but I'd only actually heard of one of these novels - McCann's Let the Great World Spin. It's on my amazon wishlist, but wasn't even approaching the top of my priority heap. Regarding the rest of the list: I mean, talk about obscurity!  Five bucks to anyone who knows how to pronounce Mueenuddin. And then there's American Salvage -- which apparently is a slender volume of short stories about Michigan published by the Wayne State University Press???  I guess, man.

Not having read any of these novels, I'm in no position to contest whether or not they belong on a literary-merit basis. Maybe these really are the best five novels America has produced this year. Still, it's hard for me to imagine that any of these are better than Verghese's Cutting For Stone. So, I concur with the EW blogger -- what a friggin' disappointment that it wasn't on the list.

One piece of good news from yesterday's announcements, however, is that one of my favorite writers, Dave Eggers, will be receiving something called the The Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. I'd be willing to bet a huge reason for the award is that Eggers is donating all the profits from his book published this July called Zeitoun to a charity called the Zeitoun Foundation. The book is the true tale of a Syrian immigrant trying to survive post-Katrina New Orleans and the charity was was founded this year to "aid in the rebuilding and ongoing health" of NOLA. Eggers also founded and runs an organization called 826 Valencia, which a non-profit writing center for youth located in the Mission District of San Francisco. Anyway, if you haven't read Zeitoun, I couldn't implore you more strongly to buy it and read it immediately. It is eye-opening and rage-inducing and mind-boggingly fantastic all at once. 

You can see the lists of NBA nominees for all categories here. And here's a list of past NBA Fiction winners. This year's award will be announced November 18th in New York City.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The REAL Meaning of 'Voracious Reader'

Check out this story in yesterday's NY Times about a woman in Connecticut who has read one book per day every single day for the past year. Her blog where she publishes her daily review is really interesting, too!

Needless to say, my own pace is a tad slower - I try (often unsuccessfully) to get through a book about every week, which I think is about average among fellow book dorks. When I start a book, I mentally set a goal for when I hope to have it finished - depending on length, my upcoming schedule, etc. That way, even if I'm not enjoying it, I'll stay motivated to plow through it. So, what is your reading pace? Any quirky reading-related habits?  

Speaking of which, my other quirky habit is that when I finish a book, I never start another until the next day. That next day, I always spend 20-30 minutes typing out my thoughts, impressions, likes/dislikes, etc., about the book. These musings certainly don't approach the coherence of a formal review - they're just more or less my way of keeping a record of what I've read to return to years later to remember the book. I started the document in May of 2001, and it's now about 240 single-spaced, typed pages. Sheesh....

Thursday, October 8, 2009

And the Award Goes To...

Much like film buffs look forward to January and February and the hype hovering around the Oscars and Golden Globes awards, fall is the literary awards season — and, hence, an exciting time for book dorks like me. Here's a brief rundown of the goings-on so far:

The season kicked off on Tuesday, with the announcement of the Man Booker Prize, which is basically England's equivalent of our National Book Award. The Prize was awarded to Hilary Mantel for her novel about King Henry VIII titled Wolf Hall. Even though the novel won't be released in the U.S. until next Tuesday, it quickly shot up the amazon best-sellers list, currently holding fast at #4.

Herta MullerSecondly, the most prestigious literary prize of the year was awarded this morning — and if you had Romanian-born poet and novelist Herta Muller (pictured, left) in your Nobel Prize for Literature pool, well, drinks are on you! The Swedish Academy continued its penchant for picking rather obscure European writers whose works chronicle some sort of struggle against injustice. Sure, that's admirable, but that criteria totally ignores what the Prize seemingly should be — a lifetime achievement award recognizing a body of critically acclaimed literature. Every year I root for the very-deserving American writers like Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, and (one of my absolute favorite novelists) Philip Roth. And every year I'm disappointed. You can go here for a list of winners. There hasn't been an American winner since Toni Morrison in 1993.

Finally, rounding out the season, the National Book Award — which recognizes the best American-published book of the year, as decided on by a panel of judges selected by the National Book Foundation — will be announced November 18th. If I were a voter, I'd definitely pick Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. This novel about Ethiopian twins who grow up to be doctors was published in February, and has steadily gained word-of-mouth momentum and overwhelmingly positive reviews since. It's a fantastic read! As a dark horse candidate (i.e., no real chance in hell), I'm rooting for The Song Is You, by Arthur Phillips. This sweet, lyrical novel about a man's muse/artist relationship with an up-and-coming singer, is easily the best book I've read this year, but it didn't sell too well, so it probably won't get a look. 

(One note: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was announced back in late May - won by the book of short stories titled Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Oprah's Book Club: A Pillar of the Earth?

Way back in 1996, Oprah began offering literary suggestions to give her legions of fans guidance on what to read. The Oprah Book Club quickly grew into the most recognizable book club in the world. An Oprah Book Club endorsement was an absolute golden ticket for an obscure novelist, pushing sales into the hundreds of thousands.

Because Oprah's audience is mainly women, I never really paid much attention to her Book Club selections, mentally writing them off as...well, not quite chick lit, but one step above. The novels by writers such as Wally Lamb, Barbara Kingsolver and Toni Morrison seemed to me to be touchy-feely sobfests. Taking a senior-year-of-college creative writing seminar taught by Oprah-selected novelist A. Manette Ansay, did nothing to change my perception. I read Vinegar Hill before the class started so I could get in good with the instructor. It wasn't a bad novel, but it was exactly as foo-foo as I suspected an Oprah book might be. 

In 2001, I found out I wasn't the only one who held this perception. Oprah selected Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections, a novel about a very dysfunctional family (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). Soon after the selection, Franzen mentioned in an interview that he was "uncomfortable" with the selection and somewhat miffed that the novel include the Oprah Book Club Selection on the cover. He seemed also to be worried that his novel would be pigeonholed as an "Oprah book." Oprah got wind of the comments and rescinded Franzen's invitation to be on the show. Franzen wasn't exactly heartbroken.  (That certainly wasn't the only Oprah-book-related ruckus. Remember the James Frey debacle?)

Over the last few years, Oprah's selections have been much more infrequent and much, much more eclectic. She's picked everything from classic literature like Anna Karenina to The Road, a bleak post-apocalyptic tale by Cormac McCarthy.

Which brings me to the point of this post: I'm currently reading The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. By all accounts, this novel about a 12th century monk who builds a cathedral was one of the more bizarre Oprah selections. It's nearly 1,000 pages, violent and sexually explicit, and is written by a novelist who had produced nothing by genre-y thrillers before Pillars. I'm about two-thirds of the way through and am thoroughly enjoying it so far. As you might expect, it's not exactly intellectually challenging, but just a good, fun read. 

Finally, here's a video of an (very uncomfortable, and therefore hilarious) interview of Ken Follett by Oprah. They couldn't have edited out the waiter?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Welcome to NDRB!

So what are you reading?  Have you read anything good lately? Those are two of my favorite questions - both to ask and answer. I love talking about books, learning about new writers others admire and exploring undiscovered literary landscapes. (You should see my amazon wishlist - it's terribly out of hand!) So, I'm starting this blog not just to tell you about what I'm reading, but also to find out what you've stumbled across that I should check out too. 

But the blog will be more than just discussions about and reviews of books, it'll also keep you informed on the most interesting, topical news in the book publishing industry. Furthermore, the blog will feature random thoughts every now and then about publishing-related issues.

(For instance, here's a post from the LA Times book blog about Dan Brown's new book not being quite the boon to e-book sales it was expected to be. Even so, the book's swift sales were no-doubt a boon to many other things: Dan Brown's massive ego, the annoying Dan-Brown-guidebook industry, and the confidence of hack writers everywhere who think that they, too, can follow a generic template, invent some silly conspiracy, and get published.)


One more thing: As we all know, the best way to ruin a joke is to explain it — but for the benefit of those who aren't familiar with the stuffy, uptight, very-far-from-the-mainstream world of literary criticism —  the name of this blog derives from The New York Review of Books, which is "the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language." Ah yeah, nothing like a bad pun....

So, check back often - or enter your email address in the sidebar to the right, or sign up to "follow" the blog, or subscribe via RSS with the links at the bottom. Happy reading!