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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Road: Sparse but Stunning, Bleak but Beautiful

What's the bleakest, most depressing book you've ever read?  If you've meandered down Cormac McCarthy's The Road, chances are it's in your top 5. I read the book about a year ago, and was absolutely blown away by the beauty of the prose, and the bleakness of McCarthy's vision.

For those unfamiliar, the novel is about a father and son (simply called The Man and The Boy) trying to survive a post-nuclear world, dodging roving gangs for whom desperation has led to cannibalism. The goal of The Man and The Boy is simple: "to keep carrying the fire," to remain good in a slowly dying world that is increasingly debauched. The book is really about what happens when humanity is boiled down to its essence, when all notion of culture and decorum is removed. A father's love for his son remains, and love, therefore, must be the source of hope. Otherwise, humanity and decency decay into chaos.

I've hated everything I'd ever read by McCarthy, including Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy, and only read The Road because it was short, it had won the Pulitzer Prize, and I'd heard it was different than most of McCarthy's other work. It is, and then some, and I absolutely loved it!

I write about this now, because earlier this week, I went to see the movie-ization of The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen. Putting real, concrete images to the bleakness of McCarthy's story certainly had its pros and cons. The landscapes in the movie, gray and lifeless, were beautifully rendered. But several of the more shocking scenes in the novel were even more frightening on the big screen, making me, at least, just incredibly uncomfortable. Even though it takes some intestinal fortitude to enjoy the movie, enjoy it I did. Mortensen is his usual brilliant self, and the child prodigy actor, Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays The Boy is pretty solid, also. And, for the ladies, there are the usual Viggo Mortensen gratuitous nude shots -- though, thankfully, they don't rival the naked knife fight scene in Eastern Promises. Sweet Lord, that scene scarred me deeply! ;)

Have you read The Road, or seen the movie?  What were your impressions?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Books as Gifts: Homework over Christmas?

Doesn't it seem logical that if you love books, you'll love receiving books as gifts, right?  Well, consider the following: Your Uncle Chester, who you haven't seen in ages, and who knows only that you like to read, surprised you at Christmas with a gleaming new copy of....some book you've never heard of. (Or worse, one you HAVE heard of, like L.A. Candy.)

Reaction A: You smile politely, say "Thanks, I've been meaning to pick this up," and then mentally calculate the profits from your impending ebay sale.

Reaction B: You tell Uncle Chester how delighted you are (and truly mean it!) at his thoughtful gift, explain that you hadn't read this writer before but can't wait to dive in, and then you dive right in.

Which more closely describes your reaction to a gift of a book you didn't specifically ask for?  Me, I'm decidedly Reaction A, and I tend to think most book dorks feel similarly. Here's my logic: If the giver is someone like Uncle Chester, who won't care if you read the book or not, then you're off the hook. Luh-cky! However, if you actually respect and/or are close to the giver, than an unsolicited book gift is essentially a homework assignment. You're expected to read the book promptly and provide a reasonably coherent report. When there are billions of good books out there (including approximately 2,852,329 on my 'to be read' shelf), it's hard to justify "wasting" time on a book that wasn't in the plans. A little jerk-waddy? Probably. And, yes, I do realize there is something to be said for that "it's the thought that counts" cliche. And, I suppose you never know: What if the unsolicited book gift winds up being the most brilliant book you've ever read?  Not likely, but I'm willing to concede the possibility.  ;)

So, what is your take?  Do you enjoy getting unsolicited book gifts? Why? Or, are you like me? Do you feel like you've just been issued a book report assignment, due by the end of the week?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Open: An Autobiography -- Advantage: Readers

Even if you're not exactly up to speed on your deuce courts and forty-loves, you could still do much worse than spending a few days with tennis champion Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open. Yes, first and foremost, it is the story of an athlete, but the book is equally engaging when it moves beyond the matches to reveal the man -- conflicted, flawed, and at odds with the sport he's supposed to love. Through the prose of J.R. Moehringer, of The Tender Bar fame, Agassi chronicles his pockmarked journey from berated child prodigy, to precocious, rebellious teenager, to husband, father and legend.

The defining characteristic of this book is its honesty. With anecdotes (often hilarious -- if you're not easily offended, see the bottom of this post for an e.g.) about his infamous on-court tantrums or fights with his first wife Brooke Shields, Agassi frequently appears the prize idiot. That makes the book incredibly fun to read -- and you're willing to indulge Agassi here and there when he makes himself out to look better than he may have deserved. Even so, throughout the book, it seems clear that Agassi's not publishing this book as a testament to his own ego (though, yes, autobiographies are by definition self-serving). Nor is he grinding an axe. Sure, there are the requisite asides about other players he didn't care for, but on the whole, what we have is a rare, riveting and unbelievably forthright glimpse into the life of one of the most beloved American athletes of all time.

(Brief aside for tennis geeks, and I'm a huge one -- here are some of Agassi's thoughts on his peers: He HATED Boris Becker and he thought Jimmy Connors deserved his own class of egotistical as$. He constantly made fun of Michael Chang's propensity for thanking God after matches, and he begrudgingly respected Sampras, despite the fact that there may not be two more different human beings on the planet.)

Don't let the fact that many of the juiciest tidbits were already widely reported deter you from picking up the book. Yes, he used crystal meth on occasion for a brief, particularly rough patch in his life. Yes, his famous 'do of the early '90s was actually a hairpiece. And, yes, he really did hate tennis. And that is the one admission that ties the whole book together. Agassi played tennis the way many of us do our jobs, we put our heads down and go to work, looking forward to those things that make us truly happy. Agassi was no different: As he matured, he found ways that tennis could be a means to an end, like providing money and visibility for his charity that built a charter school in Las Vegas, and finally marrying the love of his life, Steffi Graf (one of the greatest women tennis champions of all time, for those unfamiliar).

If I haven't convinced you yet, well, Entertainment Weekly loved it also -- it gave the book a rare A, and installed it on its Top 10 for 2009 Non-fiction. Also, the book has 164 reviews on amazon, 139 of which are five stars. Really, I promise you, you'll like it!

(Off-color anecdote: One example of an on-court tantrum...Chair umpire: "Did you call that linesman a c@cks#cker?"  Agassi: "I said it. And you want to know something? He IS a c@cks#cker!")

Monday, December 21, 2009

To Those Who Are Gone, But Whose Words Remain

As is customary around this time of year, let's take a post and say a fond literary farewell to these brilliant writers we lost in 2009.

1) John Updike -- "Shut up, Updike," grunts Krusty the Klown in a 2000 Simpsons episode. Cartoon Updike is giggling at Krusty's "misfortune" at being reunited with his long-lost daughter. Rare is the literary novelist with such mainstream crossover appeal, but Updike was as popular as he was ubiquitous. A memoirist, critic, prolific novelist and short story writer, and literary feuder, he was as close to a literary celebrity as our reality-show soaked culture will allow. Updike is probably best know for his quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels, the first two of which (Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux) are the only two Updike novels I've actually read. I did enjoy them, though, and have promised myself to one day soon finish the Rabbit series. Updike died of lung cancer on January 27. He was 76 years old.

2) Frank McCourt -- I feel a little guilty that McCourt's death was the motivation I finally needed to read his wonderfully brilliant memoir Angela's Ashes. His sobering tale of his impoverished Irish childhood, complete with alcoholic father, stunned critics and book clubs alike when it was published in 1996. It's a sad book, indeed, but infused with humor and Irish wit, as well. I loved it! He published a sequel to Angela's Ashes titled 'Tis about his young manhood in NYC, and another memoir about his experiences teaching in NYC public schools titled Teacher Man. He died July 19 of  melanoma with meningeal complications. He was 78 years old.

3) Jim Carroll -- Most folks are more familiar with Carroll's famous work The Basketball Diaries because of Leonardo DiCaprio's role as Carroll in the movie version of the book. But the book is fantastic -- it's a coming of age tale that reads like a much racier version of The Catcher in the Rye. Carroll's autobiography chronicles his descent into drug addiction on the streets of NYC in the mid '60s. I read the book for a literature survey class in college and have been slightly haunted by it ever since. It's terrifying. Carroll, who also wrote poetry and composed music, died September 11 of a heart attack. He was 60 years old.

4) E. Lynn Harris -- Frankly, I'm not real familiar with Harris's work, but judging from the news stories about him after he died, he had a small but very loyal following, especially in the gay community. His novels depicted black men struggling to come to terms with their closeted homosexuality. He published 15 books, including novels, short story collections and memoirs. He died June 20 of heart disease. He was 54 years old.

5) Dominick Dunne -- Dunne is another writer I haven't read. He was actually a novelist, movie producer, TV personality, investigative reporter and writer for Vanity Fair. His novels were generally centered on real-world crimes and punishments. He died August 26 of bladder cancer. He was 83 years old.

What are your reactions to any of these brilliant writers? Has their deaths changed your level of appreciation for their work? 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Under the Dome: Over The Top

It's hard to imagine more fertile ground for a thrilling novel — a small town in Maine is trapped under an impenetrable dome, its citizens left to their own devices. As you'd imagine, especially in the world of Stephen King, chaos ensues.

Under this dome, however, the chaos is rather predictable. This novel is supposed to be about characters, and how they respond to their dire circumstances. But the main reason this novel failed for me is that these characters are rendered as flimsy stereotypes of real people; and they always do exactly what you'd expect. The bad guys do increasingly bad things, and the good guys scramble to stop them. There's no middle ground. There's no moral confusion. And hence there's no real conflict, other than the obvious and predictable good vs. evil.

Chester's Mill, Maine, is supposed to be a microcosm of American culture in general, and the political culture war specifically, but the people who populate this small town of King's imagination are nothing but tropes and types. Not one single character in this supposedly character-centric novel has any nuance or depth whatsoever.

To zero in on specifics: This caricature of a small town, populated with a bunch of bumpkins, is led by Big Jim Rennie, a religious, self-righteous, hypocritical despot (he's almost EXACTLY the same character as the Warden in The Shawshank Redemption, to give you a frame of reference). Big Jim and his ever-increasing band of nogoodniks are opposed by a small band of rebels for whom common sense, decency, and the welfare of the town are, of course, their guiding principles. The two sides collide in increasingly clunkily plotted and laughable ways. ("...the book’s broad conspiratorial strokes become farfetched..." understates a NY Times review.)

I tried to consider this novel as simply a novel, not a Stephen King novel, and I'm sure many King fans will scream about how wrong that approach is. But given how this novel was positioned (this NY Times piece, e.g.) as a a real literary leap for King, I thought it should be held up to some literary standards, as opposed to just saying I liked it because it was a fast read and the action was cool — both of which are true.

Still, even holding the book up to the "King Standard" — it's only an okay book; that according to my friend Jeff, a huge King fan. Here's what he told me: "More than any disappointment about the book -- which is mild at most -- I'm more disappointed by the fact that such a talented storyteller spent almost two years writing this mediocre genre fiction rather than something more soulful/lasting/engaging/humorous/thought-provoking/etc." Jeff mentions Hearts in Atlantis and Misery as two examples of novels where King moves beyond genre-y, predicable fiction.

So, my advice: Venture under this dome at your own risk!

(On a related note, kudos for King and his wife Tabitha!  They're paying bus fare for a bunch of Maine soldiers stationed in Indiana to return home for the holidays. That almost made me feel guilty about totally laying out his novel here.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

That David Foster Wallace Post

Today is something of a literary anniversary for me. It was one year ago today I conquered David Foster Wallace's epic tome, Infinite Jest. The book took me more than two months to read (and blog about), and even with a companion guide book to help me navigate its twists and turns, it was still the most difficult book I've ever read. But, it was very, very rewarding and I count it as one of my favorite novels of all time. 

Even before being totally blown away by Infinite Jest, I'd already considered David Foster Wallace as my favorite writer. I picked up his book of essays Consider the Lobster on a whim about three years ago, and since then, I've been obsessed with him and have devoured just about everything he's ever written.  I love his essays. I love his short fiction. And I LOVE Infinite Jest. Probably my favorite DFW piece, though, is the commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 — recently published in book form as This is Water. Please, please do yourself a favor and spend 30 minutes or so reading it. Not a day passes when I'm not somehow reminded of DFW's simple message about empathy and respect. It's absolutely beautiful.

DFW's special gift was to allow his readers to think along with him and discover what he was trying to explain almost simultaneously with him. No topic was too far afield for him (tennis, porn, rap, infinity), as evidenced by the fact that his essays would often end up miles from the original assignment. The best example is his piece for Gourmet Magazine, which was supposed to be a simple slice-of-life report from the Maine Lobster Festival, but which DFW turns into a philosophical treatise on whether lobsters can feel pain, and if so, whether it's ethical to eat them.

When you read DFW, you discover that in the span of a single paragraph, he could make you think very, very hard, make you scramble for a dictionary, and make you laugh out loud. He had a knack for seamlessly mixing high and low-brow. Two of my all-time favorite DFW essay moments: 1) In the midst of a long, rather academic essay on descriptivism, he quotes a long passage contrary to his view, and then immediately dismisses it with "This is so stupid it practically drools."  2) In "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," about his experience on a cruise, he spends a long footnote (one of his signatures) discussing the service industry/customer relationship. He explains why he feels slighted when he doesn't get the obligatory smile, but then explains why it's not necessary, and then throws up his hands and ends with "What a f@cking mess."

His short fiction was as fun to read as it was bizarre, as he experimented and pushed the limits of what he thought fiction could be. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is an often hilarious, but often frustrating, genre-bending book. Oblivion is dark, and many have argued it represents a window into the last few years of his life. Girl With Curious Hair is just, um, curious. 

Like every other DFW fan, I was absolutely devastated when I learned of his suicide last year. As explained in this brilliant Rolling Stone profile published soon after his death, he'd been battling depression most of his life. Until the year before his death, he'd managed it with an antidepressant, but he'd gone off the medication in 2007 because the side effects were interfering with his work. When he tried to return to the medication, he discovered it no longer worked and he spiraled deeper into his depression, until it got the better of him once and for all. He hung himself on the patio of his California home the evening of Sept. 12, 2008. He was only 46 years old.

The good news is that DFW left a nearly finished manuscript of a novel titled The Pale King, which is scheduled to be published in April 2011. A short story titled "All That", most likely an excerpt from The Pale King, was published a few weeks ago in The New Yorker. Read it! 

Have you read DFW? What are some of your favorite DFW pieces, moments, ideas?

(RIP, DFW. I wish you way more than luck.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What To Read When You're Not Reading Books

If you're a true book dork, not only do you love to read, but you also love to read about reading. And if you're like me, whenever you check your Google Reader, it's practically smoking as it tries to keep up with all the feeds.

From posts by other amateur books bloggers to professionally produced content from major media outlets, I love it all! So I figured I'd spend a post here telling you what I look at, so you can add these to your Reader as well, if you so choose. (Also, please, please, please comment below about where you go to read about what to read next! )

Here are some of my favorites:
Baby Got Books: This blog includes author interviews, reviews and news in short, digestible posts. It's especially well-written and probably my favorite "amateur" blog.
Entertainment Weekly's Shelf Life: This is a hipper, more pop culturey look at books — one of my favorites!
LA Times Jacket Copy: This is a great source of Hollywood-slanted book news.
The Millions: A book dork's dream, this site includes publishing industry news, author interviews, lists, reviews, and general book-related articles.
Amazon's Omnivoracious: This is a simple daily update of general book news. I like it because it often provides heads-ups on upcoming releases. 
Publisher's Weekly's Morning Report: A daily update of all that's interesting amalgamated from news outlets all over the country. 
The NY Times: One of the few newspapers that still publishes daily book-related content, I read this page religiously. The book reviews by critics such as Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin, as well as frequent big name guest critics, are the standard by which all other book reviews are judged.
New Yorker's Book Bench: Though I wish I read this more than I do, the one thing I always check out is the "covers contest" every Wednesday. They give you four little image snippets from book covers, and you have to figure out the books they came from. Only once have I gotten all four correct.  
NYR Blog: With much more of an academic bent, I rarely read this blog, and only mention it because its parent publication is the inspiration for the name of my own blog.

And here are two actual print magazines (yes, they still exist...for now) I highly recommend, too:
Bookmarks Magazine: The best feature of this bi-monthly is the enormous review section — where the editors and contributors gather reviews from major publications, give the book a star rating based on an average of those reviews, and then offer a critical analysis. Top notch! Also, the author profiles in every issue are wonderfully written.
Poets & Writers: I'm a new subscriber to this bi-monthly, which offers advice to writers on all aspects of the publishing industry, i.e. finding publishers, agents, graduate programs, etc. It also has some nice author profile articles; Jonathan Lethem and Audrey Niffenegger in the most recent issue, for instance.

So, now the million dollar question: Which book blogs and publications are you addicted to? Which best scratch your itch for all things book-related?

(...almost finished with Under the Dome, by the way — review coming next week.)

[Addendum:  With thanks to Kath at [Insert suitably snappy title here...] for nominating The New Dork Review of Books to her Top 5 Best Blogs list, here are five of my faves:
1. Jen Knox
2. JB in Hollywood
3. Paper Cut
4. Fiction Fanatic
5. Home Between the Pages   ]

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Good Dose of Listomania

Alright, last post on the year-end "Best of..." lists, I promise. But this bears mentioning: If you're a fan of said "best of..." lists, well, this list of lists by a blogger who goes by the very apt moniker Largehearted Boy should keep you occupied for several bleary-eyed hours.

But first, let's talk about the NY Times Top 10 list that came out last week. What kind of book dork hasn't read a single one on the list? Yep, that'd be me. I have Lethem's Chronic City in my sights (in fact, it's got next, right after I finish Under the Dome), but other than Moore's A Gate At The Stairs, I haven't even heard of the other three on the Fiction list.

It's also worth noting that neither the National Book Award Fiction winner (Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin) nor the Pulitzer winner (Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge) made the list. It's been a strange year in terms of awards and best books lists...

Alright, now back to the huge list of lists — a few highlights:
— The EarlyWord link actually gives you an Excel spreadsheet that lists more than 320 authors alphabetically and tells you which list their books were on and which awards they won. It's a lot of fun (in a dorky sort of way) to read through!
Flashlight Worthy's best books includes the most of my favorites (see below) of the year, so that gets my award for Best "Best of..." list.
— For pure eclecticity (shut up, it's totally a word), and because it's a fellow book blogger, I thoroughly enjoyed reading through this list from Living Read Girl. (Great name for the blog, too!)
— Oh god, and this one includes The Lost Symbol. What?  The only time "Best" and that book should be included in the same thought is "Best proof of Dan Brown's hack-ness."

And, finally, here's my own Best of 2009 list:
1. The Song Is You, by Arthur Phillips.
2. This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper.
3. Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.
4. Last Night In Twisted River, by John Irving.
5. Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese

What's on your "Best of 2009" book list? Any thoughts on any of the lists that have grabbed your attention?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Looking Literarily Towards 2010

As if winter isn't depressing enough, especially here in Chicago, usually the new book landscape in the months from January to April is about as barren and cold as the weather outside. Thankfully, 2010 looks to be a little different. While everyone is polishing up their Best of 2009 lists, I'm looking forward to some great books coming out in the first few months of 2010. Here are a few choice cuts:

1) The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris — Jan. 18.  Ferris's Then We Came To The End, about a Chicago ad agency, was one of the best and funniest debut novels I've ever read. It's like a literary version of the movie Office Space. So, naturally, I can't wait for his follow up, though amazon describes the book as a "heartbreaking story of a life taken for granted and what happens when that life is abruptly and irrevocably taken away." That doesn't sound very funny.

2) The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova — Jan 12. I attended a Kostova signing several years ago on her tour for her debut novel The Historian, and really, really liked her. The Historian itself, however, I only liked a little bit. But The Swan Thieves has been very well-reviewed by those lucky enough to get ARCs (for instance, this one by fellow book blogger Cym Lowell), so I'm looking forward to the book, because I really WANT to like it.

3) Point Omega, by Don DeLillo — Feb. 2. Even though the novel's clocking in at a mere 128 pages, whenever DeLillo publishes something new, the literati practically cream their shorts because of DeLillo's status as "one of the greatest living American writers." So, I guess Point Omega is worth anticipating, if not because you're a DeLillo fan, than definitely for its cool title and cover art. The only DeLillo I've read is White Noise, which I liked well enough. But I haven't had the guts to take on Underworld, supposedly DeLillo's signature work.

4) The prolific Chris Bohjalian (Secrets of Eden, Feb. 2) and Dan Simmons (Black Hills, Feb. 23) are also both adding to their already significant outputs. Regarding Bohjalian, Secrets of Eden will be a tiebreaker of sorts for me. I hated The Double Bind, but loved Skeletons at the Feast. Here's to hoping this new one is good. And Simmons:  The Terror and Drood have both been languishing on my shelf untouched, so maybe if Black Hills is really good, I'll get motivated to back-read.

5) Bite Me: A Love Story, by Christopher Moore — March 23. That's it, I'm jumping on the Christopher Moore bandwagon. In any discussion about funny books, Moore's name ALWAYS comes up. I'd always had this perception of Moore as a glorified comic book writer, but I think I've gotten over that. I've ordered Lamb, and can't wait for this new one.

6) Solar, by Ian McEwan — March 30. I totally dug Atonement and Saturday, but I skipped On Chesil Beach because the idea of an entire novel, albeit a short one, about "rambling nature walks and the naming of birds" just doesn't do it for me. So, I'm excited about this new book  about a washed-up physicist who tries to save his marriage and the world from disaster.

7) Finally, I can't WAIT for Lauren Conrad's (ghost writer's) book titled Sweet Little Lies — Feb. 2. (Yes, I am totally kidding — just making sure you're still paying attention.)

If you're interested, my sources for discovering these future releases are Barnes & Noble's "Coming Soon" list, amazon's "Popular Pre-Orders" and Publisher's Weekly's "On Sale Calendar."

Any I'm missing here? Which 2010 new releases are you most looking forward to?