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Thursday, December 30, 2010

You Lost Me There: Ah, Memories

The set-up for Rosecrans Baldwin's debut novel, You Lost Me There, is certainly intriguing. An Alzheimer researcher wrestles with his own rememories. But his problem is not that he's losing his memory. It's that he can't remember things accurately or definitively or with the same assignation of value as others. And this causes him quite a bit of consternation. Indeed, it nearly ruins his life.

Dr. Victor Aaron's wife Sara has been dead for several years -- perishing in a car crash soon after a reconciliation of their rocky marriage. To cope, Victor has lost himself in his research on a small island off the coast of Maine. When he finds some notecards Sara had written in therapy during a rough patch in their marriage, he's astounded to learn that what she had considered the signature events of their marriage, he can barely remember at all. "If two people have the same experience, but remember it differently, what does that say about their respective minds?" Victor wonders.

That's an easy one, isn't it? The answer is that respective minds are simply different; they see and experience the world differently. Not exactly earth-shattering, is it? But that's the idea Baldwin dwells on for the whole of the novel, and so, to me, the story didn't live up to the intrigue of its original set-up. Besides that reason, the novel fell a bit flat because Victor is such a dunderhead. He's humorless. He's a bore. And he's totally oblivious. Not good qualities for a protagonist, in my view. Furthermore, this novel finally made me understand the book reviewer cliche word "uneven." To emphasize the idea of the inconsistency of memories, Baldwin constantly jumps back and forth in his character's lives, often from paragraph to paragraph, between memories and real-time. The effect is that you're constantly a bit off balance trying to place the memories in some sort of chronology to construct a bigger picture of these characters' lives. Some clunky dialogue (Victor, confused, always asks "What are you talking about?") and some first-novel glitches (how does an early-20s girl who only brings a purple backpack for a summer stay suddenly have an evening gown and high heels?) also add to the sense of unevenness.

Finally, though, as Victor begins to slowly yank himself out of his malaise, helped along by some rather strange circumstances (a dream-like conversation with his dead wife, i.e.), the novel does gain some momentum and becomes a bit more fun. There are some very well-rendered and affecting final scenes which don't altogether save the novel, but do show Baldwin's promise as a writer.

To sum up what I consider to be about a three-star novel, it'd be really easy to make a joke like "No, Mr. Baldwin, you actually lost ME there," but I won't. (even though I just did...Did you laugh? No? Damn.) This definitely wasn't my favorite book ever, but I'd say if you're interested in getting in on the ground floor of a writer from whom you'll surely hear, I'd recommend You Lost Me There for that reason.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Year in Review, In Lists of Two

If you're looking for a "Best of 2010" list, probably best not to look here, but instead to Largehearted Boy's collection of every "Best of..." list published. I thought, instead of simply telling you about the best books I've read this year, let's do something a little more encompassing. So here's a look at literary 2010 from several different angles, in short lists of two items each. Why two? Because, if I've learned anything this past year, it's that our collective attention span is approximately equal to the half life of the element Astatine (that would be 125 nanoseconds), and getting shorter all the time. (2011 New Year's Resolution: Stop being so cynical.) But 2010 was still a fantastic literary year. So here's a look at the year that was:

Two Best Books Not Titled Room or Freedom
1. The Instructions, by Adam Levin -- I just read this recently and was floored by Levin's range as a writer, and ability to keep me interested in a 1,030-page story that takes place over only four days.
2. Bloodroot, by Amy Green -- My prediction about this novel winding up on the year-end awards lists didn't come to fruition, but I still count it as one of my favorite novels of the year.
(Two more: Nemesis, by Philip Roth & Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray)

Two Biggest Literary Stories of 2010
1. Google launches eBooks store -- This is hugely significant because Google's ebook standard is open, allowing users to purchase ebooks for any ereader (except Kindle). It's also significant because independent book sellers can sell Google eBooks directly from their sites.
2. Franzenmania -- From about the middle of August (when Time put him on its cover, and President Obama was spotted carrying a pre-release copy of Freedom) to just a few weeks ago, when he appeared on Oprah, Franzen dominated literary headlines during the second half of 2010. I can't ever remember a literary novel garnering as much hype; hype which, thankfully, the novel lived up to
(Two more: Tinkers by Paul Harding wins Pulitzer, & Lords of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon wins National Book Award.)

Two Best Literary Articles of 2010
1. James Frey's Fiction Factory -- This New York Books piece profiles egomaniac Frey and his attempts to extort writers for their creativity. It's a wonderful read!
2. The Unconsoled: Profile of David Grossman -- This is George Packer's intense, moving portrait of Israeli novelist Grossman.It's long, but not a single word is wasted.
(Two more: Publish or Perish & Letters To Santa By Shakespeare Characters.)

Two Writers We'll Miss
1. J.D. Salinger -- Reclusive The Catcher in the Rye writer died Jan. 27 at age 91.
2. Jose Saramago -- The Portuguese novelist most famous for Blindness died June 18.


Two Biggest Non-Stories of 2010 That Took Up Disproportionate Amounts of People's Time
1. Picoult and Weiner Jealous of Franzen, Good Novelists -- When Freedom came out in late August, womens lit (is that the right PC term?) novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult picked a silly, jealousy-fueled fight with Franzen over the perceived slight that the NY Times prefers to review fiction written by men. Even most women were annoyed. 
2.Celebrities Publishing Novels -- I wrote about this annoying trend back in May, and that was before Snooki announced that she (and her ghost writer) is publishing a book. And, after typing that last sentence, I just threw up a little bit.

Two Biggest "Eff You, Amazon" Literary Stories of 2010
1. Amazon sells pedophile book -- People were outraged, and Amazon eventually relented and pulled the book. Its author has since been arrested in Florida for indecency.
2. Amazon still refuses to remove one-star "protest reviews" -- If you've followed The New Dork Review of Books for any period of time, you know the practice of leaving one-star reviews, as many ebook readers have on Ken Follett's new novel Fall of Giants, to protest ebook pricing really, really grinds my gears. I've sent countless emails to Amazon suggesting that if they can decide to not allow a review that includes the word f#$% (and not even the actual word -- the dingbatted word!), then they should remove reviews that have nothing to do with the content. Still no dice. You suck, Amazon. And, you suck, one-star reviewers.

Two Funniest Literary-related Things of 2010
1. Nicolas Sparks Feels Sad -- If you thought Nicolas Sparks is a romance novelist, well, you've got another thing coming...according to Sparks. He's tired of being miscategorized, but no one could stop laughing long enough to take him seriously.
2. Guy Steals Franzen's Glasses -- Some dude swiped Jonathan Franzen's signature intellectual-chic glasses at a signing in London and demanded a ransom of $100,000. The literary world was taken utterly aback. A fake Franzen twitter feed @EmperorFranzen screamed: "I need them back to read your friggin' ransom note. Idiot." The glasses were eventually returned.

Two New Dork Literary Accomplishments
1. I read Gravity's Rainbow without losing my marbles.
2. See #1 -- it counts as two.
(Two more: Podcast interview with writer Teddy Wayne & Getting to meet novelists Jonathan Tropper and Joshua Ferris.)

One last thing: I want to say a heartfelt thank you to all the New Dork readers and commenters. I honestly never thought I'd still be posting twice a week after 13 months of this blog, but it's never stopped being fun - and that's because of you. Really, thank you.Cheers!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Instructions: How To Review a Massive Novel in Six Simple Adjectives

(Much like the very-long novel itself, I fully realize this very-long review won't appeal to most readers. For that, I make no apologies — brevity not being the soul of wit here, hopefully. But if you've heard of The Instructions or Adam Levin and are the least bit intrigued, I'd suggest you make at least a good skim of what follows. This is a novel you should read.)

Imagine the frustration: You may or may not be the Messiah, destined (or not) to lead your people to "perfect justice." But the world is imperfect and so is the god who rules it.* So what do you do? If you're Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, the 10-year-old protagonist of Adam Levin's debut novel, The Instructions, you lead a rag-tag group of pre-teens self-dubbed the Side of Damage in a holy war against "the Arrangement" — the jocks and teachers at their suburban Chicago junior high school — after which, you deliver your scripture.**

The Instructions, all 1,030 pages of it, captures four days of this struggle. And it's one of the more inventive, exhausting, entertaining, beguiling, hilarious and just awesome (technical reviewer term) novels I've read in a long time. But instead of doing what I just did — stringing together a list of unsupported adjectives and leaving you to trust me that they're true — let me instead make the case why The Instructions is each. Hopefully, what emerges here is a more complete picture of this huge novel than a boring, run-of-the-mill book review could provide.

1. Inventive — Building a novel around a messiah (false or otherwise) is nothing new, but when that maybe-messiah is a 10-year-old "Israelite, Chicago born" who agonizes over whether or not he is the Messiah, and then decides he really wants to be after he falls in love with 12-year old June*** well, kudos for creativity. The Instructions is actually Gurion's scripture, written and published seven years after the events of 11/17/06, the fourth of the four days over which the novel takes place. But to tell his story and give us the best possible understanding of his university, Gurion uses a number of storytelling strategies: He gives us emails from former teachers (Gurion's been kicked out of several Chicago-area schools for fighting, including an incident where he threw a stapler at the headmaster), reports by his social worker in his new delinquent-youth program at Aptakisic Junior High in Dearbrook Park, Illinois, and backstory on how his parents met and fell in love. What's more, Gurion lets us read his ISS (in-school suspension) assignments, where he explains such playground concepts as "snat" and "face," the history of "slapslap," and shows us how to make a pennygun — a weapon created with a balloon and the top of a plastic soda bottle, and his soldiers' weapon of choice. The effect of all these different strategies and style is a much better relationship with Gurion than a strict first-person narrative could've provided.

2. Exhausting — Besides the fact that this wrist-cramping novel weighs about 3 pounds, which is exhausting in and of itself, Levin's characters are extremely, um, thorough. They dissect everything logically and talk to each other in long, polished paragraphs. But these conversations aren't so much digressions as they are scrutinies under magnification to the nth degree — of words, ideas, arguments. They read as logical syllogisms (if, if, if, then) and if you're not in the right mood to be reading them, they can drive you mad, or cause you to doze off — which can be hazardous when you're holding a heavy book. As one example, Gurion spends three pages debunking the Jewish superstition that if a pregnant woman steps on nail-clippings, she'll miscarry. That one in particular is a lot of fun to read, but not all of them are. And, so, parts of the novel are exhausting..


Adam Levin
3. Entertaining — You don't pick up a 1,030-page novel and expect that the story alone will keep you reading — unless the name on the front is Stephen King or Tom Clancy. Levin's prose is magnificent — as entertaining in spots as it is exhausting in others. Did I mention Philip Roth has a cameo? As does a  Smashing Pumpkins song. That was fun. Plus, characters have names like Boystar, the Janitor, and My Main Man Scott Mookus. Now, to address the 600-lb gorilla — comparisons to David Foster Wallace: Yes, they are appropriate. And never is this more clear as we're thinking along with a character as s/he spells out an argument. That ability to allow his readers to see into his brain as he wrote was Wallace's gift, and it's Levin's as well. And it's infinitely entertaining to read prose written that way. But as amazing as it is that Levin keeps you interested in such a small universe over such a short period of time, the novel picks up some pretty amazing speed after the halfway point. I read about the last 300 pages in what seemed like five minutes.

4. Beguiling — Levin's most astonishing trick in this novel is that he quietly winks at his readers, and allows them to be okay with a 10-year-old thinking, acting, and arguing like a scholarly grown-up. He knows it's not realistic, you know it's not realistic, so you just go with it. If you don't, you'll probably stop reading on page 2. Beyond the messiah stuff, the real question of the novel and thus the real challenge for the reader is to understand Gurion's overarching life philosophy. It's not an easy question at all. Gurion is the son of a civil rights lawyer father, presumably far to the left ideologically, who defends anti-Semites and a psychologist mother who is a former member of the Israeli Defense Force, presumably far to the right ideologically. But Gurion's own ideology is harder to pinpoint. His own outlook emerges slowly, piece-by-piece over time, and you really have to pay close attention to get it. The one thing that's clear is that Gurion is frustrated and that leads to violence and damage. What's less clear is why. Does Gurion believe the ends justifies the means? Is damage wrought in the pursuit of higher good acceptable damage? 

5. Hilarious — Ranging from slapstick to subtle to sarcastic, Levin brings the funny — it's one of the many carrots that keeps you reading, and willing to forgive the exhausting arguments and logic. Here's one (of hundreds) example: Gurion's teacher tells him to "Mind the cheese doodles, Maccabee." Gurion responds: "The mind Maccabee, cheese doodles" and then explains why he likes that joke.**** Another: Gurion explains, when Boystar is injured, that Boystar's mother is upset because "she was shot in the son." Part of the fun of the novel, too, is how badly Gurion's followers misinterpret how they're supposed to be following him.***** But Gurion, because he's in love, and because he hopes he's the messiah, goes with it and concocts a scheme so fantastical, you can't help but laugh a little.

6. Just Awesome —This is my catch-all, which basically just gives me an excuse to gush. I'm not Jewish, so I'm sure there was much inside-joke-wise I missed. Even so, I loved this book! It's a book I couldn't wait to finish work or showering or eating lunch to get back to. Again, it's really too bad this novel won't find a larger readership (probably much like this review, which is running at a ratio higher than one word of review per page of book reviewed.) The thousand-plus pages and relative unknownness of its author (though, hopefully that'll change soon) will scare most readers away. But I encourage you whole-heartedly to carve out a few weeks and take it down.

Footnotes
(These footnotes are intended to give you an idea of Levin's style, while attempting to mimic part of it.)

*"Hashem is not perfect, I said, and I've never said He was perfect. I said, he's not all-powerful, either."

**There is damage. There was always damage and there will be more damage, but not always. Were there always to be more damage, damage would be an aspect of perfection."


***I said, I used to think I wanted to be a scholar, then a soldier — but now, whenever I'm near you, i start to think I've been confusing means with ends. I think I wanted to be the messiah all along and I didn't know it. I mean, I knew I wished the messiah would come, and a lot of times I wish I was the messiah, but the wishing — it wasn't wanting; there's a difference, I think.... What I'm saying is I want to be the me messiah, now. Or at least I want to bring him. Whenever I'm near you, I do. And I think that all along I thought that being a scholar or a soldier would help me become the messiah, or bring him, but—"

****"I liked that joke. I used the exact same words that Botha had used but the words meant nothing the way I put them in order, and they sounded like they meant something since I said the sentences in the same way he'd said the originals, and with the same rhythm, and that demonstrated that English words were meaningless by themselves, that they were just lung- and mouth-sounds unless they were in the correct order, which was a paradox because the correctness of the order of a string of words depended on what the words meant, but if correct order was what gave words their meanings, then how could their meanings determine the correctness of the order? No one knew, and no one else thought the joke was funny, either."

*****SLOKUM DIES FRIDAY; WE DAMAGE WE

Monday, December 20, 2010

What Are You Reading in 2011?

To be frank, when I see the words "reading goals" or "challenges" in other bloggers' posts, I skip them almost as quickly as if they'd been reviews of Twilight. I don't mean to be a jerk, but in my view, what others are reading, for the most part, is only interesting once they've actually read them.

But this is different. For me, it's always fun to look at upcoming fiction releases, especially for big-name writers. It gives you something to dorkily look forward to, right? I mean, how annoyed did you get with my near-constant, summer-long references to Freedom? I was excited!

Usually, around this time, we're flush with lists of the next year's big releases. But for some reason, this year it's been exceedingly difficult to find a good list of upcoming literary titles for 2011. I've heard of a few here and there, but I don't have anything approaching a comprehensive list. So, as book fans in this modern, wiki world, let's pool our resources and get a list together of what we've heard is coming out and what we're looking forward to in 2011.

(By the way, it is worth mentioning that Publisher's Weekly's On-Sale Calendar is updated through April 2011, but it's kind of hard to read — it's just a list separated by release date and there are no descriptions, so you can't search with any kind of effectiveness and you can't tell what's literary and what's Dan Browny.)

And but so, for me, the list of 2011 releases I'm looking forward to practically starts and ends with The Pale King. On April 15, 2011, Little, Brown will publish David Foster Wallace's last novel. The novel was incomplete at the time of his death, but no one is saying what the exact level of completion is.

Also, TC Boyle is publishing a new novel titled When The Killing's Done on Feb. 22nd. Every year I say I'm going to read TC Boyle, and I still haven't. But this one sounds especially interesting. Count me in, Tom Coraghessan. 

That's about it, really. I can't find anything else. Are we in the midst of some sort of industry-wide publishing slump? Or am I just too picky? What are you reading in 2011?

(Oh, and about those 2011 reading goals...(Hypocrite, hypocrite, says the reader)...Mine are threefold: War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Gone With the Wind. I'm hoping none of these will be as painful as completing my 2010 reading goal: Gravity's f@$#ing Rainbow. )

Thursday, December 16, 2010

December's Compendium of Literary Links

'tis the season of "Best of 2010" lists. And far from it from me to be a Grinch. So this month's compendium of literary links has some decidedly "best of" flair — but not in the traditional sense. Here, you'll find everything from the year's best book-related videos to the annual Tournament of Books. Enjoy!

1. The Millions' A Year in Reading — It's always fun to find out what famous authors are reading, right? The Millions has been posting a guest-written article a day from writers like Margaret Atwood, Lionel Shriver (who I just recently discovered is a woman! Holy George Eliot, Batman!), and Sam Lipsyte. A lot of these favorite authors' favorite books are rather obscure — for instance, Tom McCarthy, author of C, picked a book published in 1971 by someone named Ingeborg Bachmann. Got that one? But I thought it ironic that the author (Michael Cunningham) of one of my least favorite books this year (By Nightfall) chose Room, by Emma Donoghue, one of my favorites of this year, as his favorite. But then he also picked The Hunger Games, at which I thumb my non-YA, non-sci-fi-reading nose. ;)

2. Book Videos: 19 of the Best and Worst — Cheers to The Huffington Post for collecting these book-related videos and book trailers in one easy-to-view spot. The idea of the "book trailer" really took off in 2010, and while opinions are generally mixed, mine's not: I love 'em. And my favorite of the 19? Tie between Denis Leary and James Franco with Gary Shteyngart. Both hilarious. What's your favorite?

3. The 2011 Tournament of Books — To paraphrase The Simpsons, this annual tradition is one of my favorite yearly customs. The longlist for the tournament was just announced, so as to give holiday shoppers a good list. It includes just about all the heavy-hitters you'd expect. The tournament will be pared down to 16 in January, and the winner announced in March. I wish there was somewhere you could gamble on this, like the NCAA Tournament. But I'm happy to see The Instructions made the longlist — that is my choice for most underrated book of 2010. What book is your pick to win?  (Also, if you can explain in 100 words why you'd like to be a judge, you might just get to be a judge. The deadline to enter is this Sunday, Dec. 19.)

4. Letters To Santa By Shakespeare Characters — Right off the bat, we have Ophelia asking for a "He's Just Not That Into You" book and DVD. It gets better from there. God bless you, McSweeney's.

5. 12 Common Misperceptions About Book Publishing — This article from The Nervous Breakdown by writer J.E. Fishman is one of the most interesting, comprehensive, no-nonsense pieces on publishing I've ever seen. It's a must-read for anyone interested in the biz. (Side note: E-book price-whiners: Pay special attention to No. 12.)

6. The Top Five Sins of the Book Reviewer — Today's post is my 100th post of 2010, so I hope you'll allow me the sell-indulgence of linking back to my favorite post of the year — not because I think it's the best-written or anything but because it generated the most (and most interesting) feedback. Cheers!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Philip Roth's Nemesis: What Hath God Wrought?

Bucky Cantor is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore. The protagonist of Philip Roth's thought-provoking new novel Nemesis believes that life isn't fair, that life's dealt him a horrible hand, and he is fed up living under the reign of an angry god who kills people willy-nilly. It all just seems so arbitrary, or, as Roth eloquently puts it, "He was struck by....how powerless each of us is against the force of circumstance."

As the cover blurb states, this theme is one Roth has played with frequently in his recent quartet of slim novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis). Nemesis, though, may be the best of the lot. The novel is set in Newark in the summer of 1944, amidst a burgeoning polio epidemic. Bucky supervises a playground of grade-school-age kids and laments the fact that his poor eyesight has prevented him from joining the war effort, as his two best friends have.

Some fellas just aren't happy unless they're miserable, and Bucky seems to be one of these. When kids on his playground start contracting — and dying from — polio, Bucky gets angrier and angrier, and he feels more and more helpless against chance. So he takes a chance of his own, accepting a job as an instructor at a summer camp in the Poconos where his new fiance is a counselor. But he immediately feels badly about it — like self-preservation is a sin, like not taking a challenge (even an invented one) head-on is a discredit to himself. For Bucky, the fact that his two friends are fighting the Germans seems to mean he should have to create and fight his own battles, whatever they may be — even if they're against himself and his own desire to be happy.

Bucky is such a tragic character — but one with whom it's easy to sympathize. He's your standard nice guy, he has the respect of everyone who knows him, and the reader can't help but like him. His harangues against God's unfairness are few and far between at first, and seem more like a minor glitch in an otherwise normal guy, rather than a overarching philosophy that guides Bucky's life. But guide his life his God-anger does. And the angrier he becomes with God, the angrier he is with himself for what he perceives is his helplessness to stop these fresh-faced youths from getting polio. So the question — which Roth spends the rest of the novel answering — is who is Bucky's real nemesis, himself or God?

Beyond Bucky's misguided self-castigations — and how brilliantly, though simply, Roth renders them — the other thing I loved about this novel is how the idea of people's fear of the unknown about polio, and their need to assign blame, definitely draws to mind contemporary issues. Folks in 1944 had no idea what caused polio and how it spread. And, despite reactionary and ineffective strategies to try to contain it, fear spread at the same rate.. Sound familiar? 

I loved this book, sure. But in the interest of full disclosure, Roth can do little wrong in my eyes. He's one of my favorites, and I've read him more than any other novelist. Nemesis isn't quite in the top-tier, American Pastoral or Portnoy's Complaint level of Roth novels, but it's very, very good. Highly recommend!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Look At Literary Chicago: A Top Five List

For the last several weeks, I've been engaged in a titanic struggle with the 1,030-page behemoth The Instructions, by Adam Levin. The novel is about a 10-year-old Jewish kid who thinks he might be the Messiah. It also takes place in Chicago, which, as a Chicagoan myself, got me thinking about other novels I've read set in the Windy City. I had to think hard, because there aren't many — at least when compared with the number of novels set in New York (which I posted about back in May). Wonder why that is? (I'm being sarcastic. I know why it is: New York novelists write about New York. It's the same reason why there are so many novels about writers: When writers are out of ideas, they write novels about writers. It's what they know. So, hold the jokes about Chicago's corrupt politics, terrible traffic and awful weather...those aren't responsible for the dearth of Chicago novels. Well, they're probably not responsible.)

Anyway, let's take a look at five novels I've read and enjoyed that call the City of Broad Shoulders home:

5. The Instructions, by Adam Levin — I'm on page 651 of this huge book and cannot wait to finish and tell you about the precise reasons why you should read it too. It is really, really good. Chicago, its suburbs, and its public transportation all have supporting roles in Levin's debut novel. Levin is a Chicagoan himself — he teaches creative writing at Chicago's Columbia College.

4. Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers — Speaking of Columbia College, this novel examines an Algerian immigrant, who is a student at a thinly veiled fictional version of that small school. She is preternaturally happy all the time and therefore becomes the subject of much scrutiny. Characters in the novel whisk around the city on the 'El' and visit Chicago's many, many, many bars. Regarding the novel, normally I like Powers' combination of fiction and science, but this one fell flat for me. But, as I wrote here, it was largely my own fault.

3. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow — Beginning with its famous opening line, "I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city...", Bellow's famous picaresque novel follows its protagonist through Chicago's lively streets during the 1920s and 30s. Augie's somewhat erratic moral compass makes this classic a fantastic read. One of my favorites!

2. Native Son, by Richard Wright — This is the tale of Bigger Thomas, a poor black man trying to make his way in the slums of the Chicago's South Side during the Great Depression. Beginning with the famous opening scene in which Bigger kills a black rat in his family's apartment, Bigger's life spirals into violence and despair, ending with a death sentence for killing (accidentally, or inevitably?) a white girl.

1. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger — Of course, right? This much-loved novel (but very-much-less-loved movie) about the time-torn love between Henry and Clare is awash in Chicago landmarks — from the Field Museum to the Newberry Library to Grant Park. Niffenegger still lives in Chicago (I'm 99 percent certain I saw her at a restaurant not too long ago) and also teaches at Columbia College.

So what novels have you enjoyed with Chicago as their setting? Which ones did I miss here?

(And, if you're interested, here's a pretty comprehensive list from Chicago Magazine of Chicago novels. Frankly, I've never heard of most of these. But yeah, The Jungle, The Studs Lonigan Trilogy, Sister Carrie and Humboldt's Gift are probably pretty notable omissions from my list.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Milwaukeeans: Literary Chuckleheads?

If once is a fluke, and twice is a trend, then I've noticed a literary trend. And it's one that really grinds my gears (you might even say it's a literary pet peeve - which is this week's topic for the Literary Blog Hop.) Haughty New York novelists seem to enjoy picking on the city of Milwaukee, characterizing it as a cultural wasteland to be escaped from at all costs for the literary Oz that is New York City. As evidence, two novels I've read recently have set up Milwaukee as a sort of symbol of Midwestern bumpkinery.

Exhibit A: In Michael Cunningham's new novel By Nightfall,  NYC art dealer Peter Harris grew up in Milwaukee, and doesn't miss a chance to explain how he overcame what he sees as a birth obstacle. "Can he help having been born in Milwaukee?" Cunningham even wonders (for Peter) at one point. At another, point Peter considers the possibility that Milwaukee actually killed his brother Matthew, who died of AIDS. "Is it any wonder Matthew got out of there two days after he graduated from high school, and had sex with half the men in New York?" To his (and Cunningham's) slight credit, Peter quickly corrects himself, realizing how dumb that is. But this Milwaukee-hate is one reason I felt the novel underachieved: because it overachieved in pretentiousness.

Secondly, in the novel A Fortunate Age, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, about a group of 20-somethings trying to make their way in New York, a character named Beth who is away doing graduate work complains about her "mounting disgust with boring, freezing Milwaukee." I'll give her freezing, but Milwaukee's far from boring! What do they say — only boring people are bored? Beth spends most of the first half of the novel complaining about her "fate," being stuck in Milwaukee. I can think of worse. But here's a bit of schadenfreude: Rakoff's novel was pretty much universally panned as shallow and silly. It's average rating is only three out of five stars on Amazon. 

So, yeah, I take these affronts to Milwaukee personally. I'm a Midwesterner, born and raised. And I went to college in Milwaukee and spent another five years there after I graduated. (I've been in Chicago for almost three years now.) I love Milwaukee, and still visit frequently. And seeing it dragged through the mud in such condescending ways burns me up.

Look, I thoroughly enjoy New York City, and I certainly recognize why many consider it the center of the cultural universe. I'd never claim that Milwaukee is on par with New York culturally. But that certainly doesn't mean Milwaukee is devoid. Despite its reputation as a blue-collar, beer swilling town (which it certainly is, too), Milwaukee does have a modicum of culture. Independent and used bookstores are everywhere, it has one top-tier university (Marquette) and several other commuter and community colleges, including a college of art and design. And it has several museums, including an absolutely stunning art museum designed by international starchitect Santiago Calatrava. (In the photo above, it's the white building on the right that looks like it has wings.)

So, I say to New York novelists: Leave Milwaukee — a great city on a Great Lake — alone. If you need a symbol of a town of what you consider good, hard-working, but culturally stupid, people, make one up. Take a hint from Mr. Sherwood Anderson. That strategy turned out pretty well for him.

Have you noticed similar literary biases against Midwesterners?  Do you think such a characterization is justified, or does it annoy you as well?

Literary Blog Hop

Thursday, December 2, 2010

By Nightfall: Not All Art is Prententious, But This Novel Is

Midway through Michael Cunnigham's slim new novel, By Nightfall, a character describes a rich woman's expensively decorated living room as "...so magnificent it transcends its own pretensions." That's also a good description for what Cunningham must've hoped his novel would be. But since it's not exactly magnificent, we're pretty much left with just pretentious. And the novel, though well-crafted, sure is that.

But the novel failed for another reason, too: Its protagonist is an utter dolt. Far be it from me to need likable characters to enjoy a novel, but Peter Harris is not just unlikeable — he's totally unbelievable. Here's the story: Peter's a mid-40s New York City art dealer in the midst of a crisis. He's not sure he's happy with his life. (Real original, right?) When his wife Rebecca's much-younger, much-troubled brother Mizzy comes for a visit, idealistic Peter develops all these notions of Mizzy as quintessential Youth, Beauty, and the Happiness of his marriage when it was still new. And then, Peter thinks he might be in love with Mizzy. But is he actually in love with Mizzy or is he in love with what he's convinced himself that Mizzy represents?

But heterosexual, married Peter's possible homosexual crush on his brother-in-law (which to Cunningham's credit is certainly an original take on the mid-life crisis dilemma!) is not even the ridiculous part. The ridiculous part is how silly Peter, who Cunningham painstakingly renders as this uber-self-aware, contemplative, hip New Yorker, seems at various points in the novel. He's like a rocket scientist who can't balance his checkbook. As one example of this: Early in the novel, he comes home and sees Mizzy naked in the shower and actually mistakes him for his wife, wondering why she looks so much younger all of a sudden. Yes, this is a foreshadowing of what's to come, but its too gimmicky to be believable. And then later, Peter so blatantly misses some rather important signs that by that point are so obvious to the reader, it's impossible to take him seriously anymore.

So, then, Peter's naïvete contradicts with his (and the novel's) pretentiousness. As evidence of that pretentiousness, read this sentence (from Peter's thoughts): "She sighs voluptuously. She could so easily be a Klimt portrait, with her wide-set eyes and bony little apostrophe of a nose." A beautiful sentence, no doubt. But how does someone sigh voluptuously? And who is Klimt? Peter certainly knows, and maybe that's how an art dealer would think, but Cunningham is practically holding it over his readers' heads that they don't. And that, and dozens of similar examples throughout the novel, are what drags the novel into pretentiousness.

I do think By Nightfall is an original, smart piece of contemporary lit. But to me, the annoying peripherals cancel out the ingenuity of the story and Cunningham's often stylish prose. I'd like to give Cunningham's work another shot, though, because while I didn't much like this one, I know a lot of people really like Cunningham's other work, especially The Hours. Is Specimen Days good?  Any other suggestions on where to look for another shot at Cunningham?

Monday, November 29, 2010

How Much Does the Publisher Matter to Readers?

Much of the commentary about the National Book Award for Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule earlier this month focused on the ideas that the win was both a huge upset and also a coup for small, independent publishers. The novel, which Gordon nearly gave up on after it was rejected by several larger publishers, finally found a home at McPherson & Co., a tiny literary press that had only planned to print 2,000 copies of the novel before its NBA nomination.

But this got me thinking, in general, how much do readers really care about who publishes a novel? Sure, everyone likes rooting for the underdog, it's always fun when a David slays the Goliaths, and I certainly understand that some readers enjoy supporting small, independent publishers in the same way that I enjoy supporting small, independent bookstores. But when all else is equal, does a novel's publisher really have any influence on readers' purchasing decisions?

To me, as I suspect for most readers in most cases, the answer is 'no'. Quick, without looking, can you name the publisher of your favorite novel this year? I couldn't — I had to cheat. And when I did, I discovered that the publishers for some of my favorites this year are all different. (See below for a list, if you're interested.)

Of course,  bigger publishers try to force themselves to matter more to readers by spending obscene amounts of marketing dollars on their darling authors — something smaller presses just can't afford to do. And oftentimes, publishers have "imprints" or divisions that focus on particular types of writing. But to me, the big publishers all seem to cancel themselves out in these ways, and I really can't (or don't try to) distinguish between any of them. Is Little, Brown known for a particular type of novel? Does Simon & Schuster publish more womens lit than other houses? I have no idea. (And frankly, don't care.)

For me, the one exception to the rule that publisher doesn't matter is McSweeney's Books. McSweeney's is the San Francisco-based publishing house founded in 1998 by author (one of my favorites) Dave Eggers. Probably better-known for its quarterly literary journal, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, than its books, McSweeney's publishes an eclectic mix of young talent and established writers, including Eggers' own books. So I'd been reading a few somewhat mixed reviews (but the positive ones were very enthusiastic) about Chicago-based writer Adam Levin's 1,000-plus-page tome The Instructions. You're always hesitant to pick up a novel it's going to take you several weeks to read if you're not positive you're going to love it. But when I saw the book at B&N, and noticed it's published by McSweeney's, that was it — I pulled the trigger. I figured Eggers wouldn't lead me astray. And so far, so good — I love it!

But again, that's the exception. Generally, for me, the publisher doesn't matter one iota. How about for you?  Do you even look at who published a novel? If you do, what are the circumstances? Do you go out of your way to support smaller houses? 

Bloodroot by Amy Green, published by Knopf; Room by Emma Donoghue, published by Little, Brown; Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, published by Farrar, Straus Giroux; Let The Great World Spin (paperback) by Colum McCann, published by Random House; and Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr., published by Viking.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

November's Compendium of Literary Links

Happy Thanksgiving! To help you celebrate, here's an over-stuffed, extra meaty edition of the New Dork's compendium of literary links. Enjoy!

1. James Frey Is a Gigantic Tool — This fantastic article from New York Books Magazine written by a Columbia journalism graduate student named Suzanne Mozes reveals her experience working with Mr. Frey's company, Full Fathom Five. The company is dedicated to churning out commercial fiction, specifically, young adult and sci-fi novels, while ridiculously extorting the writers themselves. My friend Jeff, who sent me this piece, says it best: "...and I thought he was an ego-maniac BEFORE reading this article." It's a long article, but very well worth the time — especially when you get to the "...to be in a room with the big, bad James Frey" part. He is one teterrimous fella. 

2. Consider David Foster Wallace — This Newsweek piece takes a look at the University of Texas's collection of the more than 20,000 documents that now comprise the David Foster Wallace archive. From a draft of Infinite Jest to DFW's heavily annotated personal books to a story about a tea kettle he wrote when he was nine, it's an eclectic collection that provides even more insight into how one of the greatest writers of all time read, wrote and thought. I highly recommend clicking on the "View Interactive" link to see some of the documents with explanations of DFW's notes, as well as the "View List" link to see some pages that were cut from Infinite Jest. This LA Times Jacket Copy blog also discusses the archive, and points to the Newsweek piece.

3. Save the Words! — This site provides the one-of-a-kind opportunity to adopt a word that is slowly dying from the English language. All you have to do is commit to use the word you adopt as frequently as possible in everyday conversation. My word is teterrimous, which means "most foul." I picked it because the sample sentence the site provide made me giggle like Beavis for a good 30 seconds: "The ninja inadvertently announced his presence when he let out a teterrimous fart." What's your word?

4. Jonathan Safran Foer Reinvents the Book? — This short piece looks at Foer's new experiment in publishing, Tree of Codes. Here's how the article describes Foer's work: "Imagine a book — in this case the 1934 novel The Street of Crocodiles, a surrealistic set of linked stories by the Polish Holocaust victim Bruno Schulz — whose pages have been cut out to form a latticework of words. The result is a new, much shorter story and a paper sculpture, a remarkable piece of inert, unclickable technology: the anti-Kindle." The piece also says the "book" is read-able in about half an hour. Because of the complicated printing process involved, the book will retail for $40. What do you think — groundbreaking or gimmicky? 

5. Renaissance of Literary Magazines — "Literary magazines are getting popular again," proclaims this piece in the Guardian's Books Blog page. To clarify, though, irreverent, non-stuffy literary journals are the ones thriving in this low-attention-span information age. This jibes with many of the arguments put forth by The Power of Print ad campaign you've probably seen in many leading magazines: Magazine readership has actually grown in the last five years and four out of five adults read magazines. As someone who works for a magazine (though not a literary one), I couldn't be more delighted!

Monday, November 22, 2010

C, by Tom McCarthy: Literary Is As Literary Does

Remember the mid-'90s tune "Everything Zen" by Bush? Remember how everyone loved the song 'cause it  rocked, but no one had any idea what it was really about because the lyrics are a goofy mess of seemingly unrelated phrases and ideas? That's kind of how I felt about Tom McCarthy's uber-literary, Man Booker-shortlisted novel C.

There's a pretty straightforward story here that I enjoyed strictly on a "beat and rhythm" level. And then there's what it really means. McCarthy creates a laundry list of themes, images and ideas that recur throughout the novel. The meaning of these in terms of how they fit together and complement each other and the story holistically is frequently tough to decipher.

The story is Serge Carrefax's, who is born to English wealth right before the turn of the 20th century. Serge's father runs a school to teach deaf children to talk and experiments with various wireless communication technologies, and so Serge becomes infatuated with the burgeoning field of radio from an early age. He fights in World War I as a navigator, parties in post-war London and then moves on to Egypt to scout locations for new communications ventures.

Serge is a bit of an odd ball. He finds out early in his life during an art class that he "just can't do perspective: everything he paints is flat." And Serge's lack of perspective — in the broader sense of the phrase — is a cornerstone of the story. Serge is an impartial observer to his own life. In fact, oftentimes, the reader is left to form his/her own conclusions about things Serge tells us about, but doesn't understand or doesn't care enough about to explain more fully. Is that his sister he sees having sex in an early scene in the novel? Or is it something else he's describing? It's hard to tell.

The novel also has its own unconventional logic and rules, which McCarthy uses to pack in his list of tropes and tricks. For instance, he'll mention something seemingly inconsequential at the time, only to have the idea re-emerge later in a more symbolic context. Serge and some of his fellow soldiers discuss free will vs. determinism, and then soon after, they're building a tunnel to nowhere and no one is in charge of its construction. The effect is disorienting — it's hard to figure out which instance is the one McCarthy intends you to decode and add to the meaning of the story.  And then there is the recurrence of several images and themes: Insects, wireless communication, descriptions of shapes and geometry, and drugs all flit in and out of the novel. What do they all mean? 

C is not difficult, as some reviewers have purported. But extracting meaning might be. You constantly feel like you're missing something or left out of a joke or not understanding a reference. And that can make reading frustrating at times. There's so much going on here, it's obviously a novel meant to be read several times — like a Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch film is meant to be viewed several times to pick up a little more each time. The story's interesting, but I'm not sure it's enough of a draw to get me to read again. So, three out of five stars for C.
CymLowell

Friday, November 19, 2010

A List of Totally Unrelated, Somewhat Humorous (Hopefully) Book-Related Anecdotes

I've been at a conference for work most of the week, and as a result, today my brain feels like it resembles the approximate consistency of Southern fried grits. I've had little time to read, or even think about books. So, in lieu of any sort of intelligent, reasonably well-written post, here this instead: A Top 10 list of silly book-related stories. Enjoy! (And please try not to think less of me as a result of any of these.)

10. In college, my senior-year creative writer teacher was novelist A. Manette Ansay (author of the Oprah-selected Vinegar Hill). One of the stories I wrote for her class was so abysmally bad, she accused me of re-purposing an essay she thought I might've written for another class as a story for her class. Wasn't true, and so I managed to squeak by with a C. That debacle put my erstwhile promising fiction-writing career into long hiatus.

9. I once hit on a girl in a bar by asking her if she knew who Zadie Smith is, and that she looked exactly like her. Result: Swing-and-a-miss.

8. A few weeks ago, when in Boston, I visited Harvard and picked up a cheap bookmark at one of the Harvard bookstores. When I got home, I put the bookmark inside the cover of my copy of War and Peace. The rationale (of rather dubious logic) is that they're both "smart" things, so they go together nicely. And so when I read the book next year (it's my literary goal for 2011), because those two smart things are together, maybe I'll be extra smart, too. Right?

7. I've only finished an entire book in a single day on two occasions. The books: The Neon Bible, by John Kennedy Toole and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom. I'm really, really not proud of the latter.

6. My favorite book when I was a kid was Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. I picked it up recently as a gift for a friend's kid, and re-read it quickly before wrapping it. Did you know that the whole story's a simple metaphor for religious freedom and the Pilgrims?! How did I not pick up on that when I was five? 

5. My poorly chosen book for a drunken vacation with my buddies in Negril, Jamaica several years ago was The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas. It's not exactly a difficult book, but it's not James Patterson either. And so let's just say my level of mental concentration was sorely lacking for what was required to derive any pleasure from the novel.

4. When I saw novelist and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein sitting on a bench in Central Park this summer, I turned into the equivalent of a teenage girl who's just seen Justin Bieber. (Yeah, I know that's a recycled analogy. But it's still the best I can do — especially right now.) And I couldn't summon the courage to try to talk to her. Regret. 

3. I used to read a lot of non-fiction, but not so much anymore. The last non-fiction book I read was The Yankee Years, by Joe Torre. Which is odd, 'cause I friggin' hate the Yankees.

2. I just rejoined the Book of the Month Club (for about the 7th time), and this time instead of offering a crappy overnight bag or flimsy tote as the enrollment bonus, they're offering a free "surprise book." That's great, right? Well, yeah, until you discover the free book is Secrets of The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code Sequel. Thanks, jerks. I already know The Lost Symbol's secret: It's friggin' terrible. Worst free gift ever.

1. The only book I've ever started but not finished is titled The Iron Wall, by some guy named Avi Shlaim. It's a non-fiction history book about Israel. I'm not Jewish, but I find Israel fascinating. Also, I have an obsessive compulsion to finish books I start, no matter how bad or painful they are. See recent experience with Gravity's Rainbow as evidence.

Your turn — what are your funny, embarrassing or just silly book-related anecdotes? Spill it!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Skippy Dies: Kids Can Be So Cruel

Life is hard. Life can be absurd. And when you're a teenager, you're not equipped with the same perspective as an adult, and every decision, every crush, every cruel joke seems like the most critically important thing that will ever happen. That notion is the foundation on which Paul Murray builds his profound, often-funny, rather lengthy Booker Prize long-listed novel Skippy Dies.

Murray's trick, though, is keeping his readers interested when he kills his main character in the prologue. What emerges after we learn that Skippy really does die — that the title isn't just a gimmick — is a portrait of Seabrook College, a modern-day boarding school in Dublin, Ireland. The novel begins several weeks before Skippy's death, and follows him and his group of kind of nerdy (his overweight roommate Ruprecht is obsessed with astrophysics; 11-dimensional M-theory, in particular), prank-pulling, drug-doing, girl-obsessed friends through their day-to-day trevails.

The brilliance of this book is that we read with the same sense of immediacy that these kids seem to be living their lives. We're constantly looking for clues that might predict why Skippy will die; like everything seems important at the time, but we have no way of know what actually is. Isn't that the way teenagers are? Like everything that happen, or every decision may forge the path for the rest of you life? Ruprecht, wise beyond his years, explains (in example of some of Murray's sagacious prose):
"...that every path you take, no matter how lofty or effulgent, aches not only with the memory of what you left behind, but with the ghosts of all untaken paths, now never to be taken, running parallel." 
Murray's writing (see below for another fantastic theme-furthering passage) and the huge cast of characters make this book tremendously readable. I especially enjoyed the story of Howard the history teacher, his crush on the substitute geography teacher, and his failing relationship with his American girlfriend, Halley. Murray is very insightful and writes with an amazing sense of affinity for his characters, even the ones who are real jerks. After all, life is hard. But reading this novel sure is lots of fun! Four out five stars (minus one for missing a few chances to edit some sections, which drag a tad). But still very highly recommended.

("And she realizes that love doesn't go in straight lines, it doesn't care about right or wrong or being a good person or even making you happy; and she sees, like in a vision, that life and the future are going to be way more complicated than she ever expected, impossibly, unbearably complicated and difficult. In the same moment she feels herself grow older, like she's finished a video game and moved on invisibly to the next stage; it's a tiredness that takes over her body, a tiredness like nothing before, like she's swallowed a ton of weight...")

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Literary Blog Hop, A Difficult Read

Literary Blog Hop The prompt for this week's Literary Blog Hop hosted by The Blue Bookcase (for my non-book-blog readers, a short description of what, exactly this means, is below) is to describe the most difficult literary book I've read and why it's difficult.
Easy one: Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. I spent pretty much the whole summer in close range, hand-to-hand combat with this novel, and have written several times about why it's so hard. Here's my post from May when I was about half way through describing why it's difficult. And here's my post upon finishing it — a fake conversation with Tommie P, in which I took the opportunity to vent about how ludicrously tough it is.

So, since I'm pretty much Gravity's Rainbowed out, the second most difficult book I've ever read is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. I read this book from Oct. 7th through Dec. 14, 2008 — right after DFW  committed suicide (in Sept, 2008). So it was extraordinarily difficult to read in the sense that, since DFW is my all-time favorite writer, I was reading his masterpiece when he was no longer in the world. There was just something incredibly sad about that, especially when I came across this quote about two-thirds of the way through: "It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not even sure you know."

But it's a difficult read in the traditional sense of "difficult," too  — it's not exactly a John Grisham. To start with, it's 1,079 pages long. It includes 378 footnotes spanning 96 pages. And for about the first 200 pages, you really have no idea what's going on. DFW jumps around from scene to scene, creating an alternate reality, near-future world. He goes back and forth in time — and because years are sponsored by corporations (Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, eg.), you're not really sure whether you're in a scene chronologically after the scene that immediately preceded it in the book, or several years before. DFW's style is often described as difficult as well — dude has quite the vocabulary, can spend four pages on the same paragraph, and can spend 200+ words on the same sentence. It's an acquired taste, to be sure — but one I love! While I was reading the novel, I did a silly little blog about my thoughts. Here's my post with a little more about why Infinite Jest is so difficult.

Infinite Jest is easily in my top 5 favorite novels of all time. The reasons? Other than writing that is some of the best ever rendered in the English language, the genius of the novel is comparing different types of addiction — to substances and to entertainment  — in such a way that the line between the two becomes quite blurry. Last December, I wrote a brief tribute to DFW on my one-year anniversary of finishing the book. Here that is, if you're interested. I'm still incredibly sad that he's gone. 

(The Literary Blog Hop is essentially a networking event for book blog dorks. Several bloggers post about the same prompt, and then get to post a link to their Website on the host's site. The, they Make sense?)

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Top Five Sins of the Book Reviewer

A few months ago, I came across this piece in the Examiner identifying the 20 most annoying book review cliches. Because I am often guilty of several, it made me laugh. But it also got me thinking about my own pet peeves when reading reviews — and as an obssessive-compulsive "book comparison shopper" I read a TON of reviews.

So what follows is a list of "sins" I've noticed, mostly from the 100+ amateur reviewers on my Google Reader feed, and explanations of why I consider them to be no-nos. I hope you won't take this personally if you've committed these sins, as I don't have any particular reviewer, blogger, friend or family member in mind in pointing these out. But since today is Monday, and I'm already draggin' ass, what better time for a good, 'ole fashioned book-related vent?

1. "I really wanted to like this book, but I didn't." — This one always cracks me up. Really? You wanted to like it? Thanks, Captain Obvious. If you read a book hoping to hate it, well, you're not reading for the right reasons. Sure, it's fine if you didn't like a novel, but I already know you wanted to like it. Why else would you have picked it up? My guess is that reviewers mean this as a sort of backwards way of trying to rationalize that the time they spent with a book wasn't wasted. Instead, they've wasted their readers'.

2. "I don't really know what to say about this novel/how to review this novel." — It's amazing how many book reviews lead off with this supposed witticism. If you've ever had any training on public speaking, one thing you'll quickly learn is to never apologize (i.e, "I'm sorry, I don't know this subject as well as maybe I should.") because you immediately lose a ton of credibility. Well, this is the book review equivalent of apologizing right off the bat. While this sentence (or its derivatives) is often used to convey a sense of awe about the book, to me the translation is: "This review is going to be a cluttered, unorganized mess. So you should probably just skip it." And I usually do.

3. "I don't want to say too much about the plot..." — Sometimes, this can work. I did this in my review of The Art of Racing in the Rain. But I still didn't feel good about it. Really, this tactic conveys to me a sense that the reviewer is just being lazy; that he or she isn't willing to craft a review that teases out what a potential reader needs to know about the plot, its themes and characters, without giving away too much. There are ways to do that. It just requires a little work. 

4. Confusing empathy and sympathy — I realize this is quite nit-picky, but when I see this in a review — "I could really empathize with the characters," when it's pretty clear the reviewer means sympathize — it's as much as a turn-off as if s/he'd written "your" when s/he meant "you're." Back in March, I wrote a post about the difference between empathy and sympathy. They are certainly not synonymous as, sadly, many people these days assume. As one commenter said, "There is after all a reason why the two words exist, why they mean something different and to use an excuse of semantics is to mask one's ignorance and lack of knowledge in regards to language."

5. "I didn't connect with or like the characters/plot, so I'm giving it a poor review." — This one requires a little more explanation. There are two ways to review a book, in my opinion: 1) Based solely on how you reacted to book, and 2) Evaluating a novel as objectively as possible on its literary merits, and then providing an opinion. I much prefer the latter, as I suspect most people do. If you can explain why the novel (or particular parts of the novel) did or didn't work based on some objective criteria and logical argument, I'm much more willing to believe you than if I read that you didn't like the book because "I didn't like Character A, because he's a schmuck" or "the plot about 17th century Japan just didn't interest me." I was fairly bored by David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but I had to begrudgingly admit that others probably would find it brilliant. Same thing with Richard Power's Generosity: An Enhancement. I realize this is slightly counter-intuitive, because your opinion of a book is the cornerstone of the review. But I'd still maintain that a reviewer telling me that s/he may not have enjoyed it, but other readers might because  X, Y and Z is far superior to simply dismissing a book because it wasn't to your taste or because you didn't "connect" with it. That sort of implies that you think a writer sat down to write a book only to please you. And that's just simple-minded, isn't it?

So, there you have it. What are your reviewer pet peeves? Take issue with any of these? 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

REPOST (with fixed links): Book Dorky Content in 140 Characters

(Eds note: Apparently, because I'm a giant idiot, I coded all the Twitter links wrong. Sorry about that. They're fixed now.) 

I am an unashamed-to-admit Twitter convert — from hater to addict in record time. How did this happen? Several months ago, I signed up on whim to try to snare a few readers for this blog. I quickly learned what a fantastic resource the site is for book dorks. Let's be clear: I still don't care what color socks you're wearing today or how cute your baby is when he's pooping. But because of the numerous book-related feeds — from authors themselves to publications to amateur and professional book blogs — I've never felt more in-the-loop on all things book-related.

Yesterday, I came across this great article listing the best Twitter hastags for readers and writers, so I thought I'd spend a post and point out a few of my favorite book-related tweeters. (And, of course, I'm very interested to hear yours as well!)

@Jtropper — This is the feed for one of my favorite novelists, Jonathan Tropper. He tweets frequently about his writing process, literary events, and other (usually pretty funny) miscellanea. Side note: I wish there were more literary novelists who tweet. Is it too much to ask for Philip Roth to toss out a dirty joke from time to time? Okay, yeah probably.

@arthurphillips — The author of one of my favorite novels of last year, The Song Is You, Phillips tweets rather wittily about just about everything. Example: "Ugh. I spent 163 million on the campaign and forgot to get my name on the ballot."

@amygreenebr — Amy Greene is the author of one of my favorite novels of the year, Bloodroot. I actually just found her as I was working on this post. I tweeted to her that I loved her novel and included a link to my review. She tweeted back that she loved my blog. Talk about a day-maker!

@PublishersWkly — Easily the best source of publishing news on Twitter. Every morning, the feed tweets a link to the fantastic PW Morning report. 

@GalleyCat — This is the feed for the self-proclaimed "First Word on the Book Publishing Industry." Galley Cat's an off-shoot of the fantastic publishing industry site Media Bistro. The feed is especially good for learning about new book deals and new releases.


@The_MillionsOne of my favorite book-related sites also produces one of my favorite Twitter feeds. The feed provides links to its own articles as well as other timely book-related content.

@bookpage — This is the feed for Bookpage Magazine — "America's Book Review." Like The Millions, this feed links both to its own content and book news at large. I especially like this feed  because it occasionally retweets book blogger content. (Mine included, from time to time).

@deadwhiteguys — This tweeter's tagline says it all: "An irreverent blog/feed about classic literature." I've actually quoted her tweets (which are certainly NOT relegated only to books) a few times in my blog, 'cause they usually make me laugh.

@LitMusings — Brenna's fresh, eager take on books comes through both in her great Twitter feed, as well as her blog. Like Dead White Guys above, she's one of my favorite amateur bloggers.

So which tweeters do you follow to keep up on book-related content? Have you found any of your favorite authors on Twitter?

(By the way, here's me — @GregZimmerman33 — if you want to toss up a follow.) 

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain: Stay the Course!

Wow — what an emotional wallop!  Even as a football-watching, beer-drinking, dude-lit-reading, red-blooded American male, I say the following without an ounce of sarcasm: Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of the sweetest, most heart-wrenching stories I've read in a long time. I haven't been that near to bawling my eyes out while reading a book since I was like nine years old!

You've heard about this book, right? (No shame if you haven't — I hadn't until about 14 people recommended it on my Dog (Book) Post.) It's narrated by dog named Enzo. Enzo is annoyed that he doesn't have thumbs and can't talk, but comforts himself with the notion that in his next life, he'll be human. In fact, he feels like he's ready to be human now. (He also thinks that the domestication of dogs was a conspiracy by humans to prevent them from evolving further. If I were a dog, I'd buy that for sure!)

Enzo lives with Denny, an amateur race car driver, Denny's wife Eve and daughter Zoe. Life is good for awhile. But then it's not. Eve gets sick. Her parents meddle. And increasingly bad things happen. But Enzo sticks by Denny's side, both as a companion and a voice (so to speak) of reason.

Enzo is a dog, to be sure, so there is much he doesn't understand. But what he does, what he's learned from Denny, is that race car driving can be a metaphor for life. And so, the lessons learned on the track are just as applicable when the dog poo hits the fan in real life. Denny explains that the key to racing in the rain is to remember that "that which we manifest is before us." A driver must be proactive because what he initiates, he can control. What he reacts to, he can't. So, too, in life. And as things get increasingly worse for Denny, he's tempted to give in and quit fighting. But it's Enzo's companionship that carries him forward. Denny is an incredibly admirable protagonist, and you root really, really hard for a happy ending. You root so hard, in fact, you're willing to suspend disbelief quite a bit for a few parts (of course, other than the fact that a dog is telling us the story).

This is a must-read for any dog-lover. But if you're a crier, keep the tissues nearby. It's a quick, frenzied read. It's simple, but intellectually engaging. It's funny, but often very sad, too. I really liked it!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

October's Compendium of Literary Links

It seems like long magazine articles are going the way of the woolly mammoth. Shorter attention spans and pressure on the magazine publishing industry have both contributed to slashed word counts on most magazines' feature articles. (The New Yorker, thank goodness, is a notable exception.) To me, this is all too bad. I love spending an hour immersed in a good 10,000-word piece. So, for this month's compendium of literary links, I'd like to highlight few really good, really long articles (among a few other things). Take your time and savor them!

1) Philip Roth Goes Home Again — This Esquire piece profiles Roth on the occasion of publishing his 31st novel, Nemesis. It gives a rare glimpse of the actual personality of an American treasure (to use a tired cliche) who has shunned celebrity. It's a must-read if you're a Roth fan.

2) Nicole Krauss on Writing Great House —Krauss penned this piece for the Huffington Post to explain how she developed the different elements of her new novel. If you've ever wondered how "writers get their ideas" but are too afraid to ask, this piece is an incredible insight — not just for the genesis of ideas, but how those ideas evolve over the course of working on a novel.

3) The Book Collection That Devoured My Life — I suspect that Luc Sante's book-hoarding, described self-deprecatingly in this Wall Street Journal piece, is just slightly more obsessive than 99 percent of book collectors. But it's still fun to read about. Also, here's a semi-related, only-semi-interesting note: I love literary coincidences. The day my friend Jeff sent me this article, my copy of Tom McCarthy's novel C, which I plan to start soon, arrived in the mail — with a nicely written blurb by Sante on the back cover. I'd never heard of Sante before that day. Good times.

4. Good Writers. Bad Men. Does It Matter? — Ostensibly, this article is a review of a biography of writer VS Naipul titled The World Is What It Is. The piece's author says that reading the biography unexpectedly caused him not to be able to read Naipul anymore. The article provides an interesting take on the separation of art and artist question. Pete Karnas, who writes the highly literary and incredibly smart blog What You Read, pointed out this article from a journal called In Character in his comment on my post last week about separating art and artists.

5. Something Rotten in the Facebook Status — Let's wrap up on a note of brevity and levity. Here we have a retelling of Hamlet...in Facebook updates. Thank you, NPR. My favorite: "Hamlet posted an event: A Play That's Totally Fictional and In No Way About My Family."