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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Place Your Bets...It's Nobel Prize Time!

Here's a strange book-dorky habit of mine: Each year, I eagerly, and I mean eagerly, anticipate the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It's the Heisman Trophy of the literary world, only multiplied by about 100 in terms of prestige. My anticipation always reaches damn near fever pitch when a British bookmaker called Ladbrokes releases its annual betting odds for who might win, as it did yesterday. The list combines two of my delightfully disparate favorite things: books and betting!

Who ya got? I'm taking Philip Roth (as I have every year since about 2004) at 18:1. (If you're not familiar with how odds work, 18:1 means that if you put down a $1 bet, you win $18.)  That may be a sucker bet, though. As I wrote last year, the committee seems to have decided to ignore Americans recently, and some conspiracy theorists say it's a protest of...well, a lot of things I can't get into here without going off on a political rant.

At any rate, no American has won since Toni Morrison in 1993. This year, Americans Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates, perennial candidates for the prize, are also 18:1 odds, which as this New Yorker blog points out, is actually much longer odds than last year. (Don DeLillo, though, has improved from 25:1 last year to 22:1 this year.) A few other Americans dot the list — Maya Angelou is 25:1, Cormac McCarthy and Paul Auster are both 66:1 odds, and Bob Dylan (yes, that Bob Dylan...WTF?!) is 150:1. So, what all this really means is don't look for an American to break our 17-year prize-less drought this year.

According to Ladbrokes, the favorite (at 10:1) is a Swedish poet named Tomas Tranströmer. Are you familiar with his work?  Can't say that I am. (This Guardian piece tells us a little about him and his work. Is it poetry's year?) But then again, I hadn't heard of any of the winners when they were announced the last three years. The writer with the highest odds that I've actually heard of (but still, sadly, never read) is Huraki Murakami. 

The prize will be revealed about the second week in October. The exact date is always a secret until about the day before. Here's kind of a fun list of Nobel Prize in Literature facts.

So, who are you taking? Why?

(One point of clarifications: Since Ladbrokes doesn't take bets from the U.S., all this is totally just for fun.) 

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Reasonably Short, Fairly Impassioned Defense of Reading Fiction

Just about every literary nerd has had this conversation at least once (and I had one recently):

Me: Oh, you're a reader - cool! What do you like to read?
Non-Literary Nerd: Non-fiction, almost exclusively.
Me: You don't like fiction?
NLN: Nope. There's too much to learn about the real world to read stuff that's made up.
Me: Sure, dude.

Hey, to each his/her own, I suppose. But to dismiss fiction for that reason, to me, is silly. Good fiction can teach us as much about the world — and more about what's important about the world — as any non-fiction. David Foster Wallace said that "fiction is about what it means to be a f#!@ing human being," and though fiction-haters would argue that that is counter-intuitive, my belief is that no truer words have ever been uttered.

I think it's pretty clear there is definite and demonstrable value to reading fiction. Of course, there are the obvious reasons: It's fun. It can relieve stress. It can lead to better spelling skills. It can make you sound smarter than that annoying acquaintance who knows everything about everything.

But, as DFW suggested, the real value of fiction is that it can help you learn to empathize with people who are different than you. You often hear writers say that when they finish a book, they "miss the characters." I've only begun really understanding what that means in the last several years, as my favorite novels of the last decade or so are realistic enough that they provide the opportunity for an actual relationship with the characters. And with that relationship comes an understanding of an alternate view of the world than my own. I love that. I love seeing the world through another set of eyes — even though they're fictional. 

And so reading fiction also makes you more tolerant. It helps you see, in a non-contentious setting, different ways of thinking, world-views, philosophies, political theories than your own. You may disagree, but at least you understand. And understanding is ultimately the foundation for tolerance. Wouldn't things be much better with more tolerance, more moderateness? So, not only is fiction about what it means to be human, fiction can save the world!

So, there you have it: A short, but fairly impassioned defense of fiction. But I'm hoping you can help me expand on this idea. How does reading fiction help you interface with the world? Is this just a pie-in-the-sky idea, or do you think DFW was right?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

September's Compendium of Literary Links

After posting my review of Freedom last week, this blog will officially be a Franzen-free zone for awhile. (And there was much rejoicing, I'm sure...) But I did want to quickly point out this silliness to start this month's compendium of literary links: If you buy the "August 31st" edition of Freedom, which is Oprah-sticker-free, on Amazon, you're shelling out $15.12. However, if you can bear the Oprah stank (I mean, sticker) on your book, you get to save $1.12. Weird. Funny. Oprahtastic. If you haven't bought the book yet, which would you pick?

And speaking of big things (uh, I mean Franzen's book, not Oprah) let's get right to this month's literary links:

1. Is Big Back? — This piece from The Million points out that the excess of the '90s is back, baby! That is, contrary to the notion that our short attention spans (squirrel!), reality TV and Twitter are killing novels, publishers are actually more willing to take chances on long novels these days; The Lonely Polygamist, The Instructions and Matterhorn — all by little-known novelists — are cited as three of many examples. One reason given is that long novels do a good job of spreading the recession-addled entertainment dollar much further. As someone who loves a good doorstop of a book, I loved hearing this, especially: "At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader. In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival." How about you? Enjoy the occasional thousand-pager?

2. The Plot Escapes Me — I loved this essay by James Collins in the NY Times about not being able to remember the plots of books he's read. Collins wonders "Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?" Is reading, then, ultimately a waste of time? Of course not, but not being able to remember books I've read terrifies me. So, almost 10 years ago, freshly out of college, I decided to combat the problem by keeping a running "diary" of books I've read. I started spending 30 minutes or so writing out some thoughts after finishing a book — a plot summary or just general impressions —  in a document...which has now grown to more than 300 single-spaced typed pages and almost 200,000 words. But don't worry, I'm not plotting to blow anything up. As OCD as it sounds, I love going back and looking over what I wrote about a book I read 6 or 7 years ago. How do you remember the books you've read?

3. The Unconsoled: Profile of David Grossman — This moving, engaging New Yorker profile of Israeli novelist David Grossman is, simply put, one of the best magazine articles I've read in a long, long time. It's lengthy, but very well worth the time, as it describes how Grossman's politics and view of his country have evolved in war-torn Israel. "For Grossman, literature has offered a refuge from the relentless glare of history," the article explains. The article also explains the inspiration for his newest novel (titled To The End of the Land, due out next week) and how a tragic event caused that vision for the book to change. Very highly recommended!

4. 10 Pulitzer Winners Everyone Should Own —  How many of these 10 have you read? Me: Kavalier and Clay, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Killer Angels, and The Color Purple — 5 of 10.  Has anyone read The Executioner's Song? Interesting that Norman Mailer's thousand-plus page tome is at #2 — but as best I can tell, it's out of print. You SHOULD own it, but you can't buy it new. Amusing. I do like that Kavalier and Clay is #1, though.


5. The Pale King Cover and Release Date — David Foster Wallace's last novel will be released April 15, 2011. Tax day — appropriate for a novel about IRS workers. 'nuff said. Can't wait.


There ya have it. What out there in media land has caught your eye this month?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Thieves of Manhattan: Mmm...That's Good Satire

In the acknowledgments at the end of his hilarious new novel The Thieves of Manhattan, Adam Langer doles out "thanks to all the fake memoirists, fictional poets, literary forgers, and hoaxers who have provided such great inspiration." That's funny because it's true — this novel IS an inspired piece of fiction. It's a skewering of the publishing industry. It's an adventure tale, complete with a treasure hunt. And it's a treasure trove of inside jokes for literary geeks (Philip Roth signs a book to a smarmy literary agent: To Geoffrey, a true human stain...Cigarettes are called "vonneguts"...Trendy glasses are called "franzens".)

Ian Minot is a Manhattan coffee slinger, trying desperately to publish his short stories before the dregs of his inheritance run out. His girlfriend, Anya, has become a rising star, earning a deal to publish a book of short stories about her childhood in Romania. (Would she have gotten a deal if she wasn't from somewhere exotic?) When Ian, desperate for publishing fame, enters into a scheme to publish a fake memoir with a former book editor looking for revenge on an industry he believes has lost its soul, things go a bit awry. The line blurs between real life and fiction. And Ian finds himself running for his life.

The James Frey fiasco shines through clear as day (two chapters are even titled "Bright, Shiny Morning" and "A Million Little Pieces") as the go-point for this book. But with all the great jokes (see below for another), some hilarious caricatures, like an ebonics-spouting fella named Blade who becomes the toast of the literary world when he publishes a memoir about his gangsta life, and with the morph into adventure novel as the rubber meets the road on Ian's fake memoir plot, the novel moves way beyond what could have been a too-simple 250-page insult to Frey and other fakers.

At times you feel like Langer himself is angry or disillusioned, that he has his own axe to grind. At one point, he writes: "In the press, these hoaxes were viewed mostly as symptoms of a declining industry struggling for relevance and attention and a society of declining morals." More often, though, you get the sense he's just being funny — and it's pretty clear he had a blast writing this book.

For anyone interested in how the publishing industry works (or doesn't), and who enjoys a good laugh at its expense, this is a must. It's a slim little book, written specifically for literary nerds. And it's a whole lotta fun!

Another literary joke: Langer setting the scene at a party: "There was a trio of drunk writers, all named Jonathan, each of whom was complaining that the Times critic Michiko Kakutani had written that she'd like their earlier books better."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Franzen and Freedom and One Effed Up Family: A Review

The quest for limitless freedom is a common theme in literature — from Jack Kerouac's character in On the Road to George Clooney's connectionless corporate downsizer in Up In The Air (via Walter Kirn's novel). Just about every red-blooded American has fantasized about the attractiveness of no attachments, of total privilege to do whatever is wanted whenever. But, as Jonathan Franzen explains in one of the more profound passages in his fascinating new novel Freedom: "The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should that dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage."

And so what we have here is 550 immensely readable pages devoted to the idea of exploring the limits of freedom within the context of oft-damaged and then re-mended relationships between a family and one particular friend. At what point does one person's freedom infringe upon another's? And at that point, is freedom still freedom? Indeed, these questions have fluid, multi-hued answers, especially as time passes and relationships change. But one thing about this book is clear: Many years from now, this novel will no doubt be cited as the prime example of the Franzen oeuvre: stories about families that aren't so much dysfunctional as problem-heavy.

And liberal environmentalist Walter Berglund, his wife Patty, and their long-time musician friend Richard Katz, are certainly besought with problems; but these problems are generally a result of their own poor choices, and the resulting secrets. In fact, another question the novel poses is to what degree do families have freedom to keep secrets from each other?

That question and the delicious conflict it creates is what makes the meat of the novel — and what makes it un-putdownable. Will these secrets be revealed, and if so, how will the revelation effect the characters' relationships? Franzen is a master at rendering these relationships — the ebb and flow, the who-needs-whom-more dynamic, the power struggles. Walter and Patty's marriage is the cornerstone of the novel, but how they both relate to Richard provides the intrigue. Walter and Patty's children, Jessica and Joey also flit in and out of the novel, often playing key roles in the side-taking and blame game when things go awry. And their stories are interesting in and of themselves — from the moment teenage Joey tests the limits of his own freedom by moving out of his home to his next-door neighbors'.

So Freedom is highly recommended. It's a long book, yes, but very readable — Franzen's prose flows effortlessly. He's just a joy to read. (By the way, see below for one of my favorite sentences of all time.) But in order to "limit" this novel to 550 pages, Franzen has to spend vast swaths of pages in summary — the one part of the novel, though minor, that was irritating. Just tell me the story, I thought. I'd happily read another 500 pages of this! Also, isn't it sort of clunky to write an entire novel that plumbs the limits of freedom, and then title it "Freedom"? Again, a minor annoyance. So I'd subtract a half a star from my rating: 4.5 out of 5. This is top-shelf contemporary literature. Enjoy it! 

Near-perfect sentence: "He'd lost his good looks, or, more precisely, they had shrunk into a small facial oasis in a desert of sunburned bloat."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Century (Post) Mark, and What I've Learned From Readers

When I started this blog 99 posts ago, I did so with a full heart, an open mind and a goal of....PSYCH! Nope, this isn't one of "those" self-congratulatory, wistfully-looking-back posts. Those are silly.

But this is indeed my 100th post since starting The New Dork Review of Books, though I'm quite certain I'm the only one who cares about that....and frankly, I'm not even sure how much I care. It's not like I'm stopping now. It's just a number. And in fact Post #101 later this week will be my review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom — which will hopefully be much more intellectually stimulating contentwise than this one will be. 

And but so, because this is Book Blogger Appreciation Week (for my non-blogger readers, BBAW actually is a pretty significant "event" — check out the website for some great articles, awards, book giveaways, etc.), I actually wanted to appreciate my readers on this, the occasion of my 100th post. You, the readers, via your comments and feedback, really make this blog a lot of fun. So, thank you. And to give this post just a tad more meat, here are five quirky, fun literary things I've learned from your comments over the course of 100 posts:

5. Eat, Pray and Love is a total shamockery! Patrick at The Literate Man — a fantastic blog geared toward dudes, but don't let that stop you if you're of the female persuasion — pointed out on my post about the Franzen Hype Machine that Elizabeth Gilbert had pitched her book and had a contract in place PRIOR to going out and having the spiritual, life-changing experiences chronicled in her memoir. Patrick puts it much more eloquently in his comment — highly encourage you to check it out.

4. I was heartened to learn that readers are just as outraged as I am about the continued practiced of leaving one-star reviews on Amazon to "protest" e-book prices. Again, not exactly an ideological limb, but people who do the one-star review that has nothing to do with the content really grind my gears.

3. I've learned about (and subsequently read) more great books and writers than I can possibly name. The first two examples that spring to mind as books I'd never have read are The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, and Lamb, by Christopher Moore. These two novels showed up more frequently than any others in the comments as recommendations; the latter in a post about favorite funny books. Side note: You know how when you hear your voice on a recording, you usually cringe and say something self-deprecatory to hide your embarrassment like, "Why didn't you tell me I sounded like Gilbert Gottfried on helium?" That's how I feel about that post. Ugh. Terrible. Did I really write that verbose garbage?  Which reminds me...

2. My readers have discerning tastes and high standards for what they want from The New Dork Review of Books. Back in January, on a day I was a little under the weather and just not feelin' like writing something, I tossed together this poor post about memoirs vs. autobiographies. Readers pounced. Lesson learned. 

1. Did you know that some novelists (newer ones, I'm guessing) have clauses in their contracts forcing them to blurb other writers from the same publisher? To learn that from readers on my post about the blurbs was a little disconcerting. But I still like blurbs, and still put stock in who is doing the blurbing — only with a slightly larger grain of salt now.

Any further comment on any of these? If you're a blogger, what are some of your favorite tidbits you've learned from readers?

(Oh, and since yesterday was supposed to be the day you tag your favorite book bloggers, per the theme of the day for BBAW, let me do so now by referring you back to a post I did earlier this summer where I named five of my favorite books blogs. And thanks to Kerry at Entomology of a Bookworm, who is mentioned in the post, and also to Trisha at eclectic / eccentric for their really nice shouts out to The New Dork Review of Books yesterday. Cheers!)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Writer Hiatuses: Wherefore Art They?

Part of the reason for the Franzen mania the last several weeks (months?), I think, is the simple fact that it's been NINE years since he last published a novel. That's a long time for fans to sit with bated breath. Before I started Freedom this week, I went back and paged through The Corrections for a few minutes, just to reminisce a bit. When I put it down, I started thinking about other novelists whose books I've enjoyed, but who haven't published in a long, long time.

Here are three that came immediately to mind:
1) Jeffrey Eugenides — The writer of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex hasn't published a novel since. He's published several short stories in literary mags, and has edited a collection, but no new long fiction. What gives, Jeff? I gotta believe that as well-received and still-loved as Middlesex (and The Virgin Suicides, too) is/was, when or if word hits the street that Eugenides is publishing again, the hype will approach the Franzen level. Won't be the same, but it'll approach.

2) Robert Stone — This aging American master of arts and letters hasn't published a novel since 2003's Bay of Souls — which, frankly, sucked. But I loved Stone's Damascus Gate and Children of Light, and people say Dog Soldiers is one of the all-time great war novels (it won the 1975 National Book Award). The 73-year old novelist and journalist did publish a memoir titled Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties a few years ago, as well as a volume of short stories titled Fun With Problems a week ago. But no new novel in seven years. Does the man have one left in him? I sure hope so!

3) Zadie Smith — After publishing three novels in five years between 2000 and 2005, Smith's fiction has gone silent — not even a published short story since 2007. Smith is a wonderful essayist (publishing a collection late last this year titled Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays) and seems to have found a David Foster Wallace-esque mid-career love for journalism. Come back to fiction, Zadie! Please!

Sadly, unlike musicians or movie producers, writers are usually pretty quiet about what they're working on. So who knows if any of these writers even plan to publish again. Anyone have any insight? Who is on your list of novelists who seem to be on hiatus?


(By the way, did anyone catch the cameo of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint on The Daily Show last night? To make a rather satiric point about religious freedom, Jon Oliver reads one of the all time slapstick, hilarious, and disgusting scenes in all of literature. Click here and skip to about the 6:00 minute mark...if you're not easily offended.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Good Son: A Thinking-Person's Thriller

Isn't it great when a novel surprises you? Despite the fact that Michael Gruber's The Good Son contained three of my literary pet peeves -- story told in flashback, story told in alternating strains of storyline, and dreams and their interpretations playing important roles in the story -- I really enjoyed it.

Gruber is known as a writer with incredible range, writing books about forged paintings, lost Shakespeare plays, cop thrillers, and now this: a ripped-from-the-headlines international thriller with an intellectual bent. Indeed, if Gruber's name wasn't splashed across the cover, you might think Vince Flynn, who had suddenly learned how to write well, had been trapped in a room with John LeCarre, with the resulting work edited and polished by Khaled Hosseini (of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns fame).

The Good Son contains three strains of story: 1) Theo Laghiri is a special forces soldier back in the US to recuperate after being injured in Afghanistan by friendly fire. 2) His mother Sonia, a bit of a free spirit, is organizing a conference in Lahore, Pakistan to discuss how to bring peace to Central Asia. This is a risky move, to say the least, as she is infamous in the Muslim world for a book she wrote in her younger years in which she chronicled her experience of dressing as a man and going on haj to Mecca. Muslims were not amused, and there is a Rushdie-esque fatwa out on her. 3) National Security Agency up-and-comer Cynthia Lam has translated some intercepted communications between what appear to be Muslim terrorists plotting something big. She follows leads and hunches, and plots to use the situation to advance her own career.

And so, as they must, the stories converge at first subtly, and then rapidly, making for a fast-paced, exhilarating second half. But even the back-stories of Sonia's young-womanhood and Theo's childhood in Pakistan that make up good chunks of the front part of the novel are so rich in detail and intrigue, it'd be impossible to tell the real-time story as effectively without them. Sometimes, with back-story, you wonder how much is relevant or even necessary. Not here -- it all is.

Other chunks of the novel are conversations between characters (Sonia vs. Muslim jihadists) in argument regarding the terrorist rationale and the debunking of such. Part of this is Sonia (as a trained Jungian psychologist) interpreting dreams. These dreams and their well-written and logical interpretations provide a fascinating insight into the Muslim religion; one that makes you appreciate the purity and beauty of a religion that has been polluted by radical fundamentalism. Additionally, Gruber's handle on Pakistani and Afghan culture is brilliant, especially in showing the profound differences between those and American culture and thought.

Another really interesting part of the book emerges in the first 100 or so pages, as Theo tries to re-acclimate himself into day-to-day American life. Three different times, he ruminates about the ignorance of Americans about what is happening on the other side of the world; about how angry it makes him and other soldiers that we deign to "support our troops" but have no idea what the wars are really like.  Theo says, "...when you come back, you kind of secretly want your fellow citizens to get blown up a little; we don't admit it, but it's true. How the f#@k can they be so -- I don't know, normal, like in a dream of shopping and careers and ordinary daily bullsh!t, while what's going on over there is going on?" And then later: "...maybe obsessing about money and sex and celebrities and celebrity sex and the teams is a sign that the terror has failed to bite, which is great, but if it's no big deal, why the hell are we breaking the army into pieces over it? ...it's another thing that makes me snap and get pissed at my fellow Americans."

Overall, I'd rate The Good Son 4 out of 5 stars -- minus a star because at times, you really have to suspend disbelief. Still, this will certainly be a satisfying read for anyone who likes fast-paced thrillers that challenge readers to think deeply...maybe about some preconceptions you've never really spent any time or energy to really consider.

Friday, September 3, 2010

On Retellings: Novels as Remakes

One of the ongoing tragedies happening out in Hollywood these days is the glut of remakes that seem to be re-making their ways to the silver screen. The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans, and soon, Total Recall. For the love of God, wasn't Total Recall practically perfect the first time?! To me, this trend is a travesty of the same order as the epic bombing of the new 3D Clash of the Titans'.

In the literary world, thankfully, the remake/retelling is a rarity. But luckily, when a writer does endeavor to retell a tried-and-true story, it actually seems to work pretty well.

Let's take a look at a few examples. The story that has been retold most frequently in a variety of forms is Homer's The Odyssey. And the most famous retelling is James Joyce's Ulysses. That novel, often considered one of the greatest (and most difficult) novels of all time, parallels Homer's epic through the eyes of character Leopold Bloom over the course of one day. I've never read the thing, and I've never met anyone who has who's really, really liked it. Most people who have read it discuss it more as a war wound than a rewarding literary experience — which, incidentally, is how I'll feel about Gravity's Rainbow when I finish it. 

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, is a retelling of what many consider to be the best story ever written in the English language: Shakespeare's Hamlet. Wroblewski sets his novel in rural Wisconsin and follows a family of dog breeders through all the Hamlet-ey twists and turns. The novel sold really well, despite its lukewarm reviews, partly due to the Oprah Effect, partly due to the fact that it has dogs in it, and partly because people really wanted to see what the Wisconsin Hamlet might be like. I thought it was solid, if a little longer than necessary.

And, finally, Zadie Smith's third novel On Beauty is a contemporary reimagining of E.M. Forster's classic Howards End. Smith has mentioned in several interviews and essays how much of an influence Forster's been on not just her own fiction but her love of literature. And she points out in her author's note: "My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could." Both novels, which I actually read back-to-back a few years ago, include inter- and intra-family political and social friction that sets up some delicious conflict. On Beauty isn't a great book — definitely not on par with her debut White Teeth — but it's still very good. And, much to my surprise, I actually really enjoyed Howards End. 

What did I miss? What are your favorite novels that are retellings of others? Anyone else hate the Hollywood-IS-out-of-ideas remake trend as much as me?