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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."

Monday, October 25, 2010

Room: "Human Kind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality"

A novel narrated by a five-year-old boy with the title water-colored on the cover? Awww, how precious, right? Not so. Not by a long shot. Emma Donoghue's Room is one of the most fresh, terrifyingly good novels I've read this year, but it's anything but precious. Room works for three reasons: 1) The originality of five-year-old Jack's voice. 2) The originality of the story itself. 3) How these two combine to create a work of fiction that leaves its readers absolutely floored.

First, Jack's voice: He narrates the story as any normal five-year-old would. He's curious. He's unintentionally funny. And he negotiates some pretty tricky existential questions. (Is Room still there if we're not in it?) But my favorite part of Jack's voice is how he points out the absurdity of things we often take for granted. For instance, Jack hits his head, an adult says "careful," and Jack wonders, "Why do persons only say that after the hurt?" Also, Jack explaining lottery tickets: "The little cards with numbers all over are called a lottery, idiots buy them hoping to get magicked into millionaires." That one slayed me!

Secondly, Donoghue's plot is bold. A woman is kidnapped and forced to live in a shed in the backyard of the kidnapper's house. She has a son by her kidnapper. The son lives the first five years of his life in captivity with his mother. Donoghue says the plot was inspired by real-world events. But imagining what that ordeal must have been like to someone who doesn't consider it an ordeal but as simple reality, and then telling it as realistically as it seems, is a tremendous literary feat. The only thing I'll say about the rest of the plot — and normally I hate when reviewers do this, but I can't think of a book for which this is more true — is that the less you know about it, the more rewarding your reading experience. That's how it was for me. But know this: It's not always smooth emotional sailing. It can be dark, it can be incredibly sad, and it can be frightening, in the sense of getting a glimpse at humanity's worst. That's really what I mean by "terrifyingly good."

Finally, the combination of Jack's voice and the creativity of the plot make for a novel that unpacks in such a way that we, as adults, learn about the world along with Jack. Inasmuch as any five-year-old can come of age, we practically come of age with him. It takes Jack's innocent perspective for us to see things like evil, celebrity, family and friendship in new and interesting lights. Additionally, the strength of the mother-son bond in the worst of circumstances comes through extraordinarily clearly as the plot unfolds. The connection could not possibly have been so strongly rendered with an omniscient narrator, or really even if the mother had been telling the story.

I can't recommend this book more highly. Because Room was on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, I took a flier on it and am absolutely delighted I did. Simply put, Room's one of the best novels of 2010.

(The title quote is from a TS Eliot poem. It is quoted by a character in Room, and is a near-perfect seven-word representation of the book.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Should Art be Separated From Artist?

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite musicians tweeted about something rather politically inflammatory. It so ground my gears and I was so disillusioned, I wondered if I'd ever be able to enjoy his music again. But then I calmed down. Reason (somewhat) returned. And I let it pass. That episode got me thinking, though, about a question I daresay every person who loves music, movies, and especially books, must've considered at some point. What if you learn something about an artist you find objectionable, but you love the art? Does that influence how you evaluate his/her art? Thus, is it truly possible to separate a work of art from the artist who created it?

There are really two parts to these questions: 1) To what degree should a writer's lifestyle, politics or general disposition affect how you read and evaluate his/her work, if at all? 2) To what degree do autobiographical details show up in a work? In other words, at its most simplistic, are character/event/setting based on a writer's own life?

To me, the more interesting question, and the one that readers really should put some thought into, is the first one. The second one is interesting, but doesn't matter quite as much (in most cases). That's because every piece of fiction necessarily contains some aspect of the writer. What, exactly, and how much is true shouldn't matter strictly in terms of evaluating a work objectively. Those details will only matter in terms of taste towards subject — you won't read Philip Roth if you don't like stories about Jewish kids growing up in mid-20th century Newark, for instance.

So, what would it be about a writer's personal life that would cause you not to be able to separate a writer from his/her fiction? Would it be something about his/her personal life? As everyone knows, Ernest Hemingway was a unapologetic drunk married four times who offed himself with a shotgun. Not exactly a moral stalwart. Yet every high school kids reads at least The Old Man in the Sea, and he's generally regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. There's no question that bad, even morally reprehensible, people can create good art, but where is the line? IS there a line? If a modern writer is convicted of pedophilia, would we stop reading him? Seems like a no-brainer, but people still seem to love Roman Polanski's and Woody Allen's films, right?

How about politics or religion? Would learning that a writer was across the aisle influence whether or not you'd pick up his/her fiction? I'm not talking about novels by political figures with clear political agendas, like, let's say Glenn Beck's The Overton Window or California Senator Barbara Boxer's series of thrillers. How about if you're an evangelical Christian and you just learned that Vladimir Nabokov was an atheist? Is Lolita off limits forever? What if your favorite writer converts to Scientology? Is that a deal-breaker?

And what if the novelist is a celebrity? Doesn't that carry some pretty strong preconceived notions about how good the fiction will be? Let's be honest, Snooki probably hasn't committed Word One of her novel to paper yet, and we're already positive it's the worst novel of the last quarter-century. In that case, I'm sure we're right, as we are with Pamela Anderson, Lauren Conrad and Tyra Banks. But James Franco's book of short stories seems to have gotten an unfair number of poor reviews simply because no one believes a movie star can write. Doesn't celebrity — or even success in another field  — automatically notch down a novel in our minds before we even pick it up?

What if your issue with the person is tame and unimportant? You went to a reading, and the guy cussed too much or was wearing stupid-looking red sweater? Or, on the other side of the coin, what if there was something unimportant about a novelist that actually influenced you more to pick up her book? I've done this before — I'll readily admit that, on more than one occasion, I've picked up a book by a female novelist who is smokin' hot. Silly, right? But I guarantee you every reader has done something similar.

So what's my take? Easy. Art should always be evaluated separately from feelings regarding details of an artist's life. To most academics, I think, this is a no-brainer. But that doesn't mean it's easy. Feelings about a writer flit unbidden into the subconscious while reading, and we may not even know how those thoughts are influencing our ability to diagnose a work. Even Mein Kempf has literary merit, but is it possible for most people to read it objectively? Probably not. 

It seems like the inability to separate art from artist is something that has become more common recently. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it has something to do with our celebrity-soaked culture where we want to know everything about everyone's private life. Maybe it's because the Internet has made that easy. Maybe it's because we're getting more shallow and less serious. Whatever the reason, the implications are scary. Let's reverse it. Let's be smart. From now on, let's endeavor only to evaluate literature on its merits, not what color a writer's sweater is. Deal? Terrific.

Of course, I can't wait to hear what you think. Do certain personal details about writers influence how or whether you'll read them, whether consciously or not? Which? Do you think they should?

Monday, October 18, 2010

An Across-the-Pond Book Bonanza

I don't know about you, but the Man Booker Prize is one of my favorite literary prizes. The reason: I'm a mostly American-centric reader, and so the Booker nominees (see below for a short description of what the prize is, if you're not familiar) are usually authors I'd never heard of, thus opening an entirely new world of literary possibilities, already vetted by some pretty prestigious peeps (well, presumably — I've actually never heard of any of the Man Booker judges). 

My next three reads — Room, by Emma Donoghue (which I started over the weekend); C, by Tom McCarthy; and Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray (who is actually Irish) — were all on the Man Booker longlist this year, and I've never read (or even heard of) any of those three writers until the longlist came out over the summer. The winner was actually Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which sounds okay, but I'm not getting a speeding ticket on my way to B&N to pick it up. (Additionally, after much prodding from the peanut gallery, I finally read David Mitchell a few months ago — The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was also a Booker longlister. Wasn't my favorite book ever, but not terrible.)

In the past, I've found some stuff from across-the-pond novelists I'd never have heard of had they not wound up on the Booker list. Some I really liked — Sarah Hall (The Electric Michaelangelo) — some were a tad dull — Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss). In both of those cases, I vividly remember being in a bookstore and picking them up on a whim, hoping to "get in on the ground floor" of a novelists not many of my fellow Americans may have heard of. Isn't one of the best book dork feelings recommending books to others that they end up loving?

Anyway, here's a (not at all inclusive) list of other British/Irish authors I've enjoyed: Ian McEwan, Ken Follett, Zoe Heller, Zadie Smith, Colum McCann and Nick Hornby. And here's a list of the best British writers since 1945, from The Times (London). There are several on here I've always meant to read, but haven't: Salman Rushdie, VS Naipul, AS Byatt, John Fowles, etc., etc.

Who are some of your favorite across-the-pond novelists? Anyone obscure or up-and-coming you'd recommend? 

The Man Booker Prize aims to reward the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. The Man Booker judges are selected from the country's finest critics, writers and academics to maintain the consistent excellence of the prize.  The winner of the Man Booker Prize receives £50,000 and both the winner and the shortlisted authors are guaranteed a worldwide readership plus a dramatic increase in book sales.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On the Occasion of Finishing Gravity's Rainbow: A Conversation With Tom Pynchon

It's finished. I can tell you that much. And not to be melodramatic, but it really does feel like the end of an ordeal. Finishing Gravity's Rainbow is the hardest literary thing I've ever done. And, frankly, one of the least pleasant. But that doesn't mean there isn't some fun to be had. Because writing a traditional review of this book would be an exercise in futility on the scale of trying to get an interview with the famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon himself, here's this instead: A combination of the two.

What if Pynchon really cared what people — me specifically — think about his novel? What if he wanted to figure out if he'd succeeded? (Let's pretend he doesn't know he's won the National Book Award in 1974.) What if there were an opportunity for a reader (me!) to spout off to Pynchon about his frustrations with the book? So, what follows is an imaginary conversation between Tom and me about my experience reading the most difficult book I've ever read.

Thomas Pynchon: So, why did you decide to read Gravity's Rainbow?
Me: Well, Tommy, in my mind, there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who have read Gravity's Rainbow, and those who haven't. I used to be in the latter category, now I'm in the former. It feels good, I can tell you that. But to answer your question, it's been a book I've always wanted to read, especially after David Foster Wallace cited it as one of his influences. It's been on my shelf for years. And when I blogged in March about my one to-be-read book, I realized GR was mine. So, I started.
TP: You started in March? And just finished now?
Me: Yep, I started in late March. It took me literally an entire baseball season to read this thing. Six months. It even went to Berlin and back with me — so that was fun, to be in the city where part of the novel is set. But, yeah, it took awhile.
TP: I've already gotten the sense that you weren't much a fan. Any chance the inordinate amount of time it took you to read my book contributed to your dislike?
Me: Oh, I don't doubt that's true. Through the guidebook I had to help me along the way, I understood that, as a prototypical example of the post-modern, there was no linear narrative, and ideas, characters and literary devices circled back and forth and danced around each other. When I remembered and understood a connection, I was thrilled. But more often than not, I'd forgotten how one or two of the 142 (it seemed) characters were related and what each of their stories were.
TP: Yeah, I'll grant you it's a difficult novel from that standpoint. And purposefully so. But what else made it difficult for you?
Me: Well, Tom, it seemed like fairly frequently you took explicit pleasure in aggravating your readers, solely for the purpose of aggravating them. David Foster Wallace, in regards to the difficulty of Infinite Jest, once explained that you had to toe a fine line between aggravating readers and giving them enough that was entertaining and understandable so that they'd keep reading. He admitted his editor was a big help in this. Where the heck was your editor? Where was the voice of reason that could've told you that 20 pages relating the story of a lightbulb named Byron that has nothing to do with the rest of the narrative is a poor idea? To me, your book is 80 percent reader aggravation and 20 percent entertaining. I mean, I do understand that readers of GR are not supposed to understand everything the first time through; that many of the sections/jokes/references/connections are better understood with a second read. But if you piss off a reader so much during a first read that he'll never go through a second time, haven't you failed?
TP: I suppose that if I cared what my readers thought, I might concede that. But isn't it pretty clear that I don't? I mean, there are sex scenes where people eat poop in there!
Me: Yeah, you're definitely right about that — there is some really, really sick stuff. S&M, incest, pedophilia, beastiality...and lots and lots of just normal sex. I'm not easily offended, but a lot of that goes back to my earlier point about reader aggravation: Was all that necessary?
TP: Probably not, but it was fun to write! Haha. Okay, so we're sort of circling the main thrust (hehe..) of the novel. What's your take there?
Me: Well, let's see: So our main character, inasmuch as there is one, is American serviceman Tyrone Slothrop, hanging out in London in 1944 as German rockets rain down on the city. He has an unusual condition whereby he gets an erection in the spot a rocket is going to land, before it lands. I learned from my guidebook that this notion of backwards cause and effect is called hysteron proteron. This is a common theme throughout the novel, and occurs frequently. So Tyrone goes to France, and is taught about rockets. But he's paranoid that he's being manipulated. So he escapes into the Zone (war-torn Germany) to look for one particular rocket and find out about his affliction for himself. He has many adventures in many different disguises. Does many drugs. Has much sex. Between this loose narrative, a huge cast of characters on both sides of the war all converge is some way or another on the rocket. And everything from Kabbalistic mysticism to incredibly detailed rocket engineering are discussed along the way. That about cover it?
TP: Very, very basically, yeah. You should read it again.
Me: Okay, I'll get right on that — right after I win the lottery, pitch in the World Series, and swim around the world.
TP: You're laying the sarcasm on pretty think there, fella. Okay, so what will be your one, enduring memory from reading this novel?
Me: Well, other than how difficult it was, I will definitely remember Tyrone. And I'll remember some of the jokes. But I think I'll always remember the drug-induced hallucination near the beginning of the novel in which Tyrone perceives himself to be flushed down a toilet. Specifically, I'll remember the line that leads off that section: "You never did the Kenosha Kid." That line in particular is a good representation of the novel as a whole. It would probably makes sense in some inside-joke context if I read the novel again, but on a first read, it was just an interesting line that left me searching for meaning...and not finding it. 
TP: Well said. So, are you going to try any of my other books?

Me: Hey, thanks, Tommy. Well, I have Against the Day and Inherent Vice on my shelf. Maybe anyone reading this (if they're still with us) could chime in about the relative quality of those novels?
TP: Okay, I have to go see a man about a horse.
Me: Alright, take care fella.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Oh The Glory Of It All: Parents Just Don't Understand

Near the end of Sean Wilsey's hilarious, engrossing coming-of-age memoir, Oh The Glory Of It All, he explains that "A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are." But there are other reasons, too — like outing your evil stepmother as a gold-digging, morally barren ho-bag; like creating a tribute to your dead father, who wasn't always your biggest fan; and like illustrating how different rich people are than we normals.

Rich people are interesting. Crazy people are interesting. And rich, crazy people, like Sean's parents and step-mother, are absolutely fascinating! It all starts with the divorce. Sean's mother and father are the prototypical rich, San Francisco socialites. And their split and the almost immediate re-marriage of his father to another San Francisco socialite, Dede, send shockwaves both through San Francisco society and Sean's delicate rich-kid life. (Random note: Dede's ex-husband then married Danielle Steele, who previously had been having an affair with Sean's dad.)

Sean's childhood and adolescence becomes a mess of under-parenting and over-schooling — he goes through three high schools, literally escaping from the third one, which is a cult-like, brainwashing place called Cascade. His father disowns him, his mother is furious, and Sean's on his own.

Sean's complicated relationship with his parents is the underlying theme of the memoir. His mother wavers back and forth with a strange version of love, and totally using Sean to advance her own agenda. His horrible stepmother Dede never misses any opportunity to flat-out tell Sean what a screw-up he is, and what a disappointment he is to his father. But nevertheless, through all his misbehaving, and despite the fact that his father wants nothing to do with him (Dede's influence!), he still desperately seeks his father's approval.

What's most interesting about the book is about how Sean changes in the reader's eyes several times throughout the memoir. He starts off as a "character" for whom readers have this incredible sympathy because of his horrible parents. At one point, his mother suggests that she and Sean kill themselves together, ostensibly to avenge the divorce! But then he becomes your typical rich kid brat — he's cruel to his boarding-schoolmates, he has no concept of consequences, and he does things for no other reason than to be a jerk, like throwing fruit at cars off the balcony of his mother's 30th floor penthouse. It's not until an arrest and a deal to attend a school in Italy that he finally has the experiences necessary for him to mature, and finally graduate high school at age 20. Then, throughout the last third of the book, we're squarely on his side as he battles Dede and grows into manhood.

This book came out more than five years ago and has been on my shelf most of that time, but it recently showed up on Jonathan Franzen's list of "Four Overlooked Books," so I finally took it down. I loved it! It's absurd at times (Sean is SURE he's going to lose his virginity to his step-mother Dede. But that's before he's SURE he hates her more than any other human in the world.) It's hilarious in a sarcastic, smart, but also understated way. (Sean relates how angry his mother was when she lost to Elie Wiesel for the Nobel Peace Price — "When it was announced that Wiesel had won, Mom, crushed, threw the pyramid (a glass desk ornament) into a mirror." I literally laughed out loud after reading that scene.) And it's even often sad and affecting, especially near the end as Sean relates his father's death. It's a long book, but definitely worth a read. (And you can get it on Amazon for $6 right now!)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What's On Your National Book Award Shortlist?

It won't be long before we're inundated with year-end best-of-2010 lists. I'm not complaining — I think they're great fun — I'm just sayin'. But with the National Book Award (NBA) nominations, a de facto "best of 2010" list, due out next Wednesday (Oct. 13), I wanted to put out a few guesses about the noms.

First, a few notes:
1) The nominations are being announced by Pat Conroy. That's funny. That'd be like Keanu Reeves presenting the nomination for the film that wins the Oscar for Best Picture. What? That happened this year? The world's going to hell in a hand basket, I tell ya. (You kids get off my lawn!)
2) Lady T over at the terrific pop culture blog Living Read Girl posted about her NBA noms earlier this week. Check it out — it's a good read! (Preview: The Passage is one of her picks!)
3) Last year's five nominations, more so than any other year I can remember, were really obscure novels not many people had read, or even heard of. The prize ultimately went Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann — a book that once I got around to reading, became one of my favorites of the last few years. But if the trend toward obscurity continues, trying to guess at the nominations is really an exercise in futility. 

That said, here's who I'd nominate:
1. Bloodroot, by Amy Greene — When I reviewed this book back in April, I predicted it'd show up on this list, so I'm hoping Conroy proves me a prophet. 
2. Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen — Yeah, it'll most likely be there.
3. Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes — I haven't read this huge Vietnam War novel yet (it's on my shelf), but even people who don't normally like war novels have raved about it. Here's a well-written review by the Reading Ape. And another by Patrick at The Literate Man. The novel has 311 reviews on Amazon, 235 of which are five-star. (This is my guess for the winner.)
4. Nemesis, by Philip Roth —  Just out this week, the novel has been pretty well-reviewed. Finally, Roth's back! So after a publishing a few so-so novels in a row, maybe Nemesis will earn Roth his 453rd (or so) literary prize.
5. The Instructions, by Adam Levin — A long-shot, to be sure, but I'm guessing this 1,024-page novel may get a nod because it's long, obscure and no one's read it — sort of like any William T. Vollmann tome, one of which actually won in 2005 (Europe Central).

So, what books would you nominate? Anything totally off the beaten path you've read and loved in 2010 that you think has an Obscurity Factor chance? 

(By the way, the American-less Nobel streak is officially at 17 years. Some Peruvian guy I've only vaguely heard of but never read won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Congrats to you, Peru!)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Awash in Great Fall Books: A Top 10 List

More so than any other time in 2010, I feel like there is quite the collection of new, intriguing literary fiction hardcovers out (or about to be out there). Maybe it's a function of publishers waiting to release their "serious fiction" books until after the summer beach-reading season. Maybe it's because we're on the cusp of literary awards season (National Book Award noms: Oct. 13; winner: Nov. 17;  Man Booker announced: Oct 12; Nobel in Lit announced: about 2nd week in Oct; National Book Critics Circle award winner: Jan 22., 2011) is approaching. Or maybe it's a freakin' coincidence. But, at any rate, it's gonna be a great fall and winter for reading.

What's on your radar this fall/winter? Here's a Top 10 list (in no particular order) of books on mine right now:

10. Skippy Dies — There have been positive review 'aplenty regarding this 600+ book, whose main character is actually killed off...in the title! I'm excited to learn how Irish author Paul Murray can keep us interested for so long, when we already know the ending. The novel is about the day-to-day lives of boys at a boarding school school in Dublin.

9. Nemesis— Philip Roth's new novel comes out tomorrow! ...and there was much rejoicing. It's a slim novel (much like his last few) about a polio outbreak in Newark in the mid-1940s. Sounds pretty typical Roth. And here's a rare interview with Roth in the LA Times.

8. Great House — Sadly, Nicole Krauss' follow-up (and sequel?) to her fantastic The History of Love has been pretty well pooped on by critics so far. Entertainment Weekly calls it "loftily conceived, ultimately confounding." Hey, Debbie Downer, shut it! I'm still excited about it...

7.The Instructions — I saw this shelf-bending, 1,000+ page McSweeny's-published book at B&N yesterday, and had to damn near knock myself out to resist the temptation of making a rather expensive impulse buy. The back cover blurb says Adam Levin's novel "combines the crackling voice of Philip Roth with the encyclopedic mind of David Foster Wallace." Maybe it's just marketing, but if that's even 12 percent true, I'm in! Need to start saving...

6. To The End Of The Land — Here we have the prototypical winter read. David Grossman's novel about a woman who wanders around Israel, hoping to avoid bad news, is dense and slow-moving, by most accounts. But if you read The New Yorker profile of Grossman, and were as fascinated by it as I was, then this novel is a must-read.

5. C — Tom McCarthy's Booker Prize-shortlisted novel establishes him as "a contemporary champion of the experimental novel and heir to the postmodern stylists of the late 20th century," according to the blurb. That's certainly intriguing, but even more so — and also amusing — is the fact that on the same day it was shortlisted for the Booker, Michiko Kakutani wrote sort of the book review equivalent of a yawn in the NY Times. Not sure about you, but a bad (or even indifferent) review from Kakutani is actually a plus in my book.

4. Fall of Giants — This is the ginormous first novel in a Ken Follett-penned trilogy traversing the 20th century. It's also another prime example of a target by the moronic whiners who feel it necessary to leave one-star reviews on a novel to protest its e-book pricing — a vast majority of the 136 one-star reviews on amazon are to cry about the $19.99 Kindle pricing. Nothing gets my blood boiling more than these idiots who denigrate what is probably a great novel (most reviewers who are actually reviewing the novel itself speak positively about it) because they're unwilling to shell out a few bucks to read it. Seriously, shut up.

3. You Lost Me There — How could you not be intrigued by a novel written by a fella named Rosecrans Baldwin?! But the concept is even more intriguing: A comedic, some say Tropper-esque, look at the unreliable memory of a neuroscientist and Alzheimer's researcher.

2. Room — A creative premise — a boy who's lived his entire life in a single room — combined with dozens of overwhelmingly positive reviews combined with some big-name blurbs (Audrey Niffenegger, Michael Cunningham) combined with a Booker Prize shortlisting all make Emma Donoghue's new novel extraordinarily intriguing.

1. Washington: A Life — Let's end with a big 'ol winter-reading biography. Ron Chernow, who several years ago brought us the brick of a biography of Alexander Hamilton, returns with an equally outsized look at George Washington's life. If you're not intrigued by George Washington, go back to Russia, comrade!  ;)

Any of these stick out for you? Read any of them? What's on your list these days?