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Monday, November 30, 2009

A Short Post About LONG Books

In addition to being a book dork, I'm also a huge statistics and numbers geek — probably stemming from my love for baseball and its heavy reliance on numbers. This obsession doesn't exactly jibe with my career as a magazine editor — you know, because mathletes and wordsmiths are usually situated at completely opposite ends of the nerd spectrum. But whatever...Anyway, so when there's a chance to combine books and statistics, my God, I'm in seventh heaven.

Have you ever checked out the Text Stats part of amazon's "Inside This Book" section?  For example, if you look at the text stats for David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, you'll discover that the late writer's 1,079-page magnum opus clocks in at a staggering 484,001 words! War and Peace (which, you'll gather from the photo to the right, I've never read) is 568,880. By way of comparison, the average 300-plus page novel is about 80,000 words. Here are the top 5 longest books I have read:

1. The Count of Monte Cristo — 484,030
2. Infinite Jest — 484,001
3. The Stand — 462,138
4. War and Remembrance — 442,038
5. The Pillars of the Earth — 401,316

Sadly, the statistics for Stephen King's 1,088-page Under the Dome, which I dug into this weekend, aren't yet available. But if they were, there's a good chance it'd take its place in the top 5.

What are the longest books you've read, by word count?  Be careful — you could easily lose an afternoon checking the statistics on books you've read. But it's fun!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Two Reviews: Tropper's Family Antics and Russo's Failing Marriage

Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You is, simply put, one of the best books I've read this year. Edgy, witty and fantastically hilarious, the story follows four adult siblings who gather with their mother in their childhood home to sit shiva (the seven days of mourning in Jewish tradition) for their recently deceased father. Our narrator is third of the fourth siblings by age: Judd, a radio producer who has recently caught his wife of nine years cheating on him with his boss, a Howard Stern-style shock jock. And that's merely the kick-start for one hellacious week...

Throughout the week, the siblings constantly quarrel, even boiling over into physical altercations. Even so,  no one ever takes anything too seriously. There's a lot of baggage here, but the family isn't so much dysfunctional as it is damaged. They truly love each other, but they can only handle each other in very small doses. Slowly, they begin to bridge the gaps of their pasts that had driven them apart, and come to terms with their father's death. It doesn't sound like it would be, but God, is it fun to read about.

And that's the one point I can't stress enough: how much pure fun this book is to read. Tropper's voice (as Judd) is just a blast -- a pitch perfect rendition of a mid-30s male. Just consider these two sentences Tropper unleashes within the first 15 pages: "He is the Paul McCartney of our family: Better looking than the rest of us, always looking a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead" and "We knew marriage could be difficult in the same way we knew there were starving children in Africa."  Before you've really even had a chance to settle in, you know you're in for a great time with this book! This Is Where I Leave You is very, very highly recommended! 

Review #2: I had more free time than usual this week, so I also made my way through Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic. This novel seemed less like a story and more a "character study" of a marriage. Pock-marked with flashbacks, the book spends nearly two-thirds of its pages in the past examining the events that have led to Jack and Joy Griffin's failing marriage. Some of these are compelling, others are eye-crossingly dull. The end result is a novel that feels more like a first draft at times because it includes so much -- especially at the beginning -- it seemed the writer needed to know about these characters, but that the reader didn't, necessarily, need to know.

The strength of the novel is the real-time action. Framed around two wedding days a year apart (one a Griffin family friend, one the Griffins' daughter Laura), Russo is at his best in scene, not in flashback. Sadly, I kept getting frustrated when Russo would open yet another section with a six- or seven-page flashback before jerking us back to the present. I did, however, really like the characters, and found myself rooting for them.

On the whole, I'd give Cape Magic a "decent, but certainly not great." The novel doesn't approach the emotional intensity and appeal of previous Russo reads like Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls -- two fantastic books. But it's definitely worth reading if you enjoy delving into the causes and effects in relationships -- one thing Russo seems to understand and relay very well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bringin' the Funny: Characters, Plot and Writing

For the past few days, I've been chuckling my way through Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You. I'm almost finished, so I'll post a thought or two later this week, but suffice it to say, the novel is fantastic. And its zaniness, "Oh, snap"py dialogue, and overall hilarity have gotten me thinking about some of the funniest books I've ever read — among which, this book certainly takes its place.

A good funny book for me has to include most of the following: silly, but not over the top, set-piece scenes; a witty, seamless blend of the high- and low-brow; some degree of satire or parody; and liberal use of sarcasm and/or irony. (Side note: Great Simpsons quote — Comic Book Guy: "A sarcasm detector? That's a real useful device.) Rarely does any book include all of these elements, because if it did, it'd be a spaghetti-thrown-at-the-wall, choice-less mess. So, allow me to explain what I think to be the three different categories of "funny" novel.

1) Funny characters: Character-driven novels are my favorites! I love "watching" bumbling, silly characters who can't seem to get out of their own ways engage in all sorts of misadventures. In these novels, the plot and writing have to have some semblance of funny, but it all hinges on the one or two main characters committing acts of dumbassery and nonsense. The best example I've come across is Switters, Tom Robbins' depraved CIA agent in Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. Switters, a lothario in every sense of the word (he even seduces a nun!) travels the globe, hilariously expounding on everything from technology to religion to linguistics to the evils of advertising. I wouldn't necessarily want to have a beer with Switters, but I'd definitely pay to see his stand-up comedy routine! Another, perhaps more familiar, character is Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius, an overweight sometimes-hot dog vendor who lives with his mother, spends several hundred humorous pages navigating his way through the various absurdities of life in New Orleans. Purpose for earlier Comic Book guy quote: Doesn't Ignatius Reilly have to be the basis for the Comic Book Guy character on The Simpsons???

2) Funny plot: Here I'm thinking about books that are funny on a scene-by-scene basis, or novels themselves that are framed around a ridiculous and/or hilarious premise. This is probably the most common type of funny novel. Most representative of this type, and probably most widely read, is Joseph Heller's classic war satire Catch-22. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaugherhouse-Five is another classic that fits this bill. I loved both of these novels! Though a bit more obscure, since it's one of his lesser known novels, Richard Russo's Straight Man is an absolutely hysterical skewering of academia. Have you heard that old joke: Why are arguments in academia so fierce?  Because there's nothing at stake. (Hmm...that probably translates better verbally.) Anyway, Straight Man also includes one of the funniest scenes I've ever read — involving the main character, a professor at a small college in Pennsylvania donning a fake nose and glasses, and threatening on live TV to murder one duck per day from the university's pond until he gets his budget.

3) Funny writing: These novels make you laugh on a line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, whether or not the plot even hangs together or the characters are the least bit memorable. The conversation starts and stops here with David Foster Wallace. Yes, Infinite Jest, is difficult, disturbing and sad, but the novel also includes some of the best funny writing ever included between two covers. I'm also a huge fan of DFW's essay collections — his writing on everything from the Adult Video News Awards to his experiences on a cruise are the standard by which all sarcastic, high-brow/low-brow-blend writing should be judged. I still get a little misty eyed thinking about the fact that he's no longer with us.... Anyway, in this category, I'd also toss in Junot Diaz' The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The blend of Spanish and English euphemisms and deeply funny dialogue make this book as memorable as it is fun to read.

(I suppose I could add a fourth category: Unintentionally funny. This would include general writing, scenes, or entire novels that are so stupidly awful they're funny. Hello, Dan Brown!)

I'm sure there are hundreds and hundreds more examples, so what am I missing here? What are your favorite funny novels?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Last Night in Twisted River: Irving's Back, Baby!

About midway through John Irving's new novel, a skydiver is blown a bit off course and accidentally lands in a poop-filled pig pen. Oh yeah, and the skydiver is a rather large woman...and she's naked. The scene makes about as much sense in the scheme of the plot of the novel as it does here. But Irving's latest effort is so carefully constructed, so deliberately and cautiously revealed, that by the time you're reading this scene, you've already learned that such absurdities aren't just slapstick, they have a precise meaning, and all will be made clear eventually.

Last Night in Twisted River is a return to form for Irving, and an absolute godsend for his long-suffering fans (and we DID suffer through The Fourth Hand and Until I Find You!). It contains all the Irving signatures: It's laced with symbolism; it's populated with his requisite tragic, fatalistic characters; and it alternates between hilarious and deeply, deeply affecting.

The story unfolds over the course of 50 years, following Danny Baciagalupa and his father Dominic through life's follies and fortuities. All the while, their invective-spouting friend Ketchum ('Constipated Christ!,' 'Mountains of moose shit!', e.g.) a woodsman and logger, watches carefully over them, giving them advice and helping them navigate their thorniest dilemmas. This includes the event that really sets the novel in motion. Twelve-year old Danny mistakes his father's lover for a bear. While she and his father Dominic are in a rather "compromising" position, and thinking he's saving Dominic from a mauling, Danny bashes the woman over the head with a cast iron skillet. The novel hurdles forth from there.

The book isn't without a few annoyances, though. For instance, the first sentence of the jacket blurb reveals the plot point (woman mistaken for bear, brained with skillet) on which the rest of the novel hinges. But that scene doesn't occur until 100 pages into the novel, which makes you hustle through the first few chapters, possibly missing key details. Also, there are a few political-rant detours, which just seemed out of place in such an elegantly told and carefully built novel. Finally, parts are just slow. You could put a positive spin on it and say Irving was measuring his pacing, and maybe he was, but that doesn't make parts where he painstakingly describes food, and peripheral characters' histories any more interesting.

Despite these, I'd still recommend the book, especially (ESPECIALLY!) to fans of Irving's previous work. The story itself is just magnificent, and my mind is totally boggled, looking back at the whole thing, at the talent and craft required to fit it all together. Let's just hope this isn't it for Irving -- that he's got a few more Twisted Rivers in store for us!

(PS. The heavy favorite, Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin, avoided the upset and brought home the National Book Award for Fiction at a ceremony last night in New York. From what I've heard about it, the award is well-deserved. If you've read the book, please comment below with a few thoughts about it.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Under the Dome of Debate: Genre vs. Literary Fiction

Look out! There may be airborne swine heading your way. The NY Times (a supposed bastion of America's intellectualism) just described Stephen King's new novel Under the Dome as having "the scope and flavor of literary Americana" and placing "more value on humanity than on horror."

Stephen King, literary? More than a few snobby critics probably just choked on their bagels and lox. Certainly the guru of genre fiction, the maestro of horror and fantasy, the king of the laughably cardboard characters isn't entering the same literary hollowed ground as your Philip Roths and Don DeLillos?

Actually, I think a more important question is: Who cares if he is? For whatever reason, King always seems to be at the forefront of the age-old debate about bestsellers vs. literary fiction. My rant about Dan Brown notwithstanding, what is it about writers who sell well that inspires such self-righteous indignation amongst the literary illuminati? 

With King, nothing illustrated this more clearly than when, in 2003, the National Book Foundation awarded King a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. One of the country's foremost and well-respected literary scholars, Harold Bloom, responded by writing a scathing op/ed piece in the Boston Globe arguing that King's award is "another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life" and King "is an immensely inadequate writer." Ouch.

I know this high-brow vs. low-brow debate isn't exactly new ground, but I bring it up now because I've totally changed sides over the last several years. Part of the reason for my about-face is the Harry Potter books. I haven't read them myself, but it has been really fun to see people (both kids and adults!) excited enough about books that they'd turn off the Playstation and skip the season finale of "Rock of Love" (now THAT's the dumbing down of our cultural life) to read.

Even so, I still was no real fan of King's, based solely on the few (what I thought were) crappy novels of his I'd read back in high school — more than 15 years ago.  Last summer, though, I picked up Duma Key on a whim.....and totally read the hell out of it. I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it. As my friend Jeff says, "the man just knows how to tell a story," and I think that's what made that particular book so much fun — it was absolutely riveting. So, I'm stoked to read Under the Dome.

Anyway, at the end of the day, there really is no accounting for taste (to use an overused cliche). There will always be good and bad genre fiction, and there will always be good and bad literary fiction, and there will always be disagreement about which is which. Reading should be fun, so I say read for whatever it is about books that makes you happy — not for what some contrarian critic thinks! 

What's your take on the bestselling vs. literary fiction debate? Do you plan to read Under the Dome?

(Addendum added 11/17: With thanks to Jen Knox for making a great point, King just published a short story in The New Yorker. Seems like a sure sign of King's literary appeal when the good folks at The New friggin' Yorker will publish him!)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Here Come the "Best of..." Lists

Much like the gun-jumpers who insist on decorating for Christmas in early November, a few Web sites have already put out their Best Books of 2009 lists. No doubt we'll soon be inundated with such lists, but I thought I'd point out these two, in order to ease us all into the "Best of..." season.  

Publishers Weekly released its list a few weeks ago, and has distinguished itself for picking books in its Top 10 that almost NO ONE has read and for including a grand total of zero women authors. PW claims that's just how things shook out, and the no women thing is just a coincidence, but many book bloggers were incensed — no Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, nor A.S. Byatt, who all published noteworthy novels this year.

PW split its list into several categories, including Comics and Mass Market, which I think is sort of like giving an all-conference high school basketball player the same recognition as the NBA MVP. But, whatever... I've added several of the novels from the fiction list to my 'to be read' pile, and I did read and greatly enjoy several of the novels on the list. I'd recommend these to anyone looking for a great read:  Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead; The Believers, by Zoe Heller; and Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Amazon's Best Books of 2009 list is a bit more traditional — it mashes all genres into a straightforward ranking of 100 books. Its #1 is Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, which is the far-and-away favorite to win the National Book Award for Fiction when the winner is announced next week. Just to highlight one book in particular on the list: Zeitoun (#54) by Dave Eggers, is an absolute must-read. It tells the story of a Syrian immigrant who paddles around helping people after the levees broke in post-Katrina New Orleans. Producer and director Jonathan Demme, of 'The Silence of the Lambs' fame, has purchased the rights and is planning to make the story into an animated feature, which I think is a fantastic idea!

Of the books on amazon's list I've read, my only quibble is with #83, American Rust, by Philipp Meyer. This novel about a teenager who runs away from a dying Pennsylvania steel town just didn't do it for me — too many point-of-view shifts and the somewhat amateur writing were both huge turn-offs.

One final note: Neither of these lists include my favorite book of this year: Arthur Philips' brilliant, lyrical, not-put-downable The Song is You. I couldn't recommend this one more highly. 

Any thoughts on these lists?  Have you read any of the novels that made these lists that are must-reads?  Anything left off the lists you feel is a glaring omission?

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Writer is a Writer, Whether Fiction or Non

Much to my chagrin, this happens all the time: Upper-echelon novelists take a break from their fiction to publish nonfiction. These books range from works about the writing process to memoirs to book-length essays on just about any topic. Examples include Philip Roth (Reading Myself and Others),  Robert Stone (Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties), and Jonathan Franzen (The Discomfort Zone).

Even though such "cross-over" is common, it still bums me out a bit. My first reaction upon seeing these books is usually along the lines of "Dammit! Why did this novelist waste all the time it must've taken to write this nonfiction book I'll probably never read? Why couldn't they have just produced another brilliant and engrossing novel?" Selfish and stupid? Probably, but I can't help it. 

I bring this up because in the last month, two of my favorite novelists — Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon — have published nonfiction books. Chabon, whose novels The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I greatly enjoyed, published a book in October titled Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.

JS Foer, securely installed by critics and readers alike as the "hottest young American novelist," has published two novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, both of which are absolutely fantastic. His recent foray into nonfiction is titled Eating Animals, a memoir about his vegetarianism. 

(Side note on Foer: I went to a Foer reading/signing a few years ago and was simply stunned by the atmosphere. It was like the literary equivalent of an 'NSYNC concert. More than half of the attendees were mid-20s women, who were openly fawning over Foer. [Isn't he dreamy?] Anyway, that made me laugh — and more than a little jealous. Also, Foer mentioned that Roth is one of his favorite novelists, so when he was signing my book, I asked him if he'd ever met Roth. He smiled and guffawed, and said, "No, thankfully." He paused a beat, and then said, "That'd be like Hamlet meeting his father." I have no idea what that means. Okay, back to the blog...)

Even though I'm not exactly enthralled by the subjects of Chabon and Foer's books, I'm thinking I may have to reconsider my long-standing resistance to favorite novelists' nonfiction books. After all, if I enjoyed their fiction, why wouldn't I enjoy their non, right?  Right?

In my entire reading career, I think the only nonfiction by a fiction writer I've ever read is Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, which was boring, and A Tale of Love and Darkness, a memoir by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, which was actually awesome! (I've always had a strange fascination with Israel and Palestine.)

What's your take? Do you read your favorite novelists' nonfiction? Is there good nonfiction by fiction writers out there I'm missing?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Lost Symbol: Signifying Very Little

First and foremost, here's the answer to the question everyone seems to want to know:  No, The Lost Symbol is not as good as The Da Vinci Code.

Now, down to business: In the interest of full disclosure, I was predisposed not to like this book, because I think Dan Brown is an egotistical tool and an untalented hack who got lucky once...but the more in-depth reasons behind that opinion is a subject for another post. Still, I tried to give the book as much of a chance as possible. I know The Lost Symbol isn't War and Peace, so I tried it enjoy it for what it is: A best-selling thriller. 

I did my best. I really did. I suspended disbelief. I ignored the obvious plot holes...the Architect of the Capitol doesn't have a key to the front door? I looked past the annoying italics peppered throughout EVERY page, which are supposed to reveal characters' dramatic inner thoughts, but really just jar you out of the narrative. I even ignored the false-drama cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. (But when a dumb cliffhanger and an italicized thought were combined, I couldn't help but laugh out loud — eg. Katherine's destiny is to light this torch. Mine is to destroy it.) I really tried to enjoy it. I promise.

If you can get past all those faults, I suppose the story itself isn't terrible. Now-famous symbologist Robert Langdon speeds around Washington, D.C., deciphering encoded message after encoded message, hoping to save his friend Peter and stop a madman from revealing the Ancient Mysteries kept secret by the Masons for centuries. All the while, Langdon (and Brown) are constantly inserting little-known facts about various D.C. landmarks, as well as history, philosophy and religion. For instance, do you know the meaning of The Apotheosis of Washington (pictured above — click on the image for a larger view), which is painted on the ceiling of the US Capitol dome? That explanation is at the heart of Brown's point for the novel, so I won't spoil it here. But even with all of Brown's historical hmmmms, it still didn't feel like The Lost Symbol delivered the same level of drama and intrigue as The Da Vinci Code. Maybe that's because I was more prepared to be skeptical this time, and I kept asking myself, "Is that really true?" 

And that was the biggest problem for me — I never trusted Brown to lead me through the story to a satisfying payoff. Trust is such an enormous part of the unwritten reader-writer contract — trust that you are in safe hands and the set-up and rising action will ultimately lead to a denouement that makes the time spent getting there worthwhile. Because of the clunky plotting and cliched writing, I expected to be let down at the end, so I never fully invested myself in the story. And so there was never a moment when I put down the book and thought, "Wow, I'm really enjoying this novel."

That said, I have to admit, there IS a payoff at the end. A cool twist, as well as a fairly interesting lesson in philosophy make the last 100 pages or so pretty enjoyable. But I didn't even realize I was enjoying them until the book was over and I was once again rolling my eyes at the cheesy last line. 

Anyway, I'm glad I read it — just to be a part of the hype. Now, it's on to something I've been looking forward to all year — Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving!

Have you read The Lost Symbol? What's your take?

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Unread Authors List

I was browsing at Barnes & Noble this past weekend, and came across a book in the New Releases section titled Crossers by a writer named Philip Caputo. I was tempted to buy the book, both because it sounded interesting and also because I have another of this writer's novels (Acts of Faith) on my shelf, albeit unread. Like many book dorks, my Unread Shelf seems to grow in volume at about the same rate my Read Shelf does.

So, I resisted the urge to purchase Crossers, essentially avoiding banishing it to join its buddy in Unread Shelf purgatory. I should just read Acts of Faith first. But it got me thinking about the authors like Caputo, across whom I seem to keep stumbling and making mental notes to read soon, but haven't gotten to yet. So, here is a list of three other authors on my personal Unread Authors list.

1.) Jonathan Lethem, who just published a new book titled Chronic City, is probably the most well-known and illustrious resident of my Unknown Authors list. I've heard nothing but wonderful things about Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. After reading this fellow book blogger's write-up of his trip to a Lethem signing, I'm even more amped to check him out.



2.) I'm not sure quite what to make of Neal Stephenson, whose 1,168-page novel Cryptonomicon I've had on my Unread Shelf for several years. Stephenson is eclectic...and prodigious. He's published everything from cyberpunk-thrillers (Snow Crash), to futuristic sci-fi geek-o-ramas (Anathem), to a massive trilogy of historical novels about the 18th-century scientific revolution (The Baroque Cycle).  From what I've heard, Stephenson is extraordinarily erudite, but also verbose and, at times, too clearly in love with his own writing. But his fans are passionate and loyal, no matter what genre he's writing in. I tend to think any writer that inspires that sort of following is worth a shot.

3.) Finally, Diana Gabaldon is the author of the Outlander Series, a seven-book historical about a time-traveling Scotswoman named Claire and her beau James Fraser, and their adventures navigating the historical events of 18th and 20th century Scotland. I'm sort of a sucker for long historical series like this — I loved John Jakes' North and South series, the Shaara's Civil War trilogy and Herman Wouk's Winds of War and War and Remembrance. So I bought the first novel in the Outlander Series titled Outlander last year, with the goal of reading one book in the series every year. But I haven't cracked Outlander yet, mostly because a few people I've talked to (all women) who read and admire the series describe it as "romance." Yikes! Yesterday, though, I had an e-conversation with a fellow book blogger, and she suggested that guys might really enjoy the series, too. So, now I have renewed hope that I would like it. 

Have you read any of the authors above? Any advice on which writer or books I should move to the top of my priority list? Who is on your Unread Authors list?