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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The New Dork Review of Literary 2011

From Leo Tolstoy (twice) to Vince Flynn and from Stieg Larsson to Margaret Mitchell, an eclectic year in reading, it was. So much so that I'm writing like Yoda now, apparently. Anyway, in total, I read 43 novels comprising about 19,000 pages. Out of that, here are some high (and low) lights:

Novels That Had Me Near Tears...of Funny
Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman, and Fathermucker, by Greg Olear -- Of all the novels I read this year, I probably had the most pure fun reading these two.

Best (But Most Depressing) Novel About Catholicism
Faith, by Jennifer Haigh -- Haunting. A gut-punch to your guilt-basket. But very, very good.

Longest, Most Scaled-the-Summit-Feeling-When-Finished Novel
War and Peace, of course. As one commenter suggested, I can now where the "I Read War and Peace" Tshirt. You know, if something like that existed. It doesn't, right? Right?

Uber-Hyped Trilogy That Kept Getting Worse As The Books Got Longer
I liked The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But The Girl Who Played With Fire was mostly dull and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest made me glad there are no more novels.

First Time With a Famous Novelist...Success
Haruki Murakami -- I loved both Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore. I'm hoping to take on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 in 2012.

First Time With a Famous Novelist...Failure
T.C. Boyle -- When The Killing's Done just didn't do it for me. But it was just intriguing enough to give Boyle another try...at some point.

Most Sobering Reading Moment of 2011
Finishing The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace. Made me incredibly, incredibly sad.

Most Overrated Book of the Year
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht -- The writerly chops are clear, but why this novel won so many awards isn't.

Biggest Surprise of the Year
I really, really enjoyed Gone With The Wind. I had assumed it would be an ooey-gooey slog. Not so at all. Ta'dow, Rhett!

Favorite Non-Fiction
In The Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson -- Just a fascinating, intricately researched look behind the curtain of Berlin in the 1930s.

(and finally...)

Favorite Fiction of the Year
3. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
2. Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman
1. The History of History, by Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Cheers to a great Literary 2012!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fathermucker: Parenting is Rewarding?

Joshua Lansky, the SAHD (that's "stay at home dad") protagonist of Greg Olear's fantastically comic meditation on parenthood and marriage, hates a lot of things -- Josh Duhamel, The Devil Went Down To Georgia, the Kardashians, 99 percent of Facebook status updates. But he does love his children, even though they drive him practically batty. And, thus we have a novel. The conflict between Josh's striving to be a good parent and his sarcastic cynicism (he still hasn't quite given up the ghost on being "cool") are what make Fathermucker such an awesome read.

This novel takes place over the course of one particularly hectic day. While Josh's wife is away for what is ostensibly a week-long business trip, Josh has to hold down the fort with his two high-maintenance little whipper-snappers, three-year-old Maude and four-year-old Roland. An early-morning playdate yields a potentially life-changing secret: Another mother tells Josh she suspects his wife is cheating on him.

The rest of the novel chronicles Josh's day. Josh is quite the contemplative chap, but hilariously so. And so we get his meditations on everything from oral sex to rock and roll to why the hell he can't seem to write another screenplay -- he'd sold the option for one five years ago, but has been basically blocked ever since. We watch as Josh takes Roland on a fieldtrip, deals with his idiotic babysitter and even more idiotic pest control guy, tries to score an interview for a freelance article with the frontman for a popular 90s punk band whose kid happens to be in Roland's class, and all the while wonders if his wife of 10 years is, indeed, having an affair. 

I'm not a parent, but I loved this novel. It's a quick, easy read (I read it in two days) that'll have you alternating between giggles, *snorts* and gut-wrenchingedness -- Josh's wife isn't really cheating on him, is she? IS SHE? Sometimes Josh is sure she is, sometimes he's positive she's not. But most of the time, he literally doesn't have time to think about it as he's trying desperately to shepherd the kids to the next thing. At any rate, this book is high quality. Definitely check it out!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Submission: Confronting Beliefs

This is a novel that demands a lot of its readers. That's not to say Amy Waldman's The Submission is difficult or dull -- in fact, it's the polar opposite of both. What it is, though, is a novel that makes readers think; that asks readers to challenge long-held beliefs and ideas, no matter how firmly they think those ideas are held. Notions you may judge to be obvious, aren't. And ideas that may have seemed odious suddenly may not seem that way either. To me, it's one of the best kinds novel: A novel that feels perfectly in tune with how our society operates (for better and, mostly, worse), and that demands that you confront your own feelings and beliefs.

Enough with abstractions. Here's the deal: Two years after the attacks of 9/11, a jury convenes to select a design for the memorial to be built at Ground Zero. The jury selects (without knowledge of the designer, since the submission process was anonymous) a design for a beautiful garden with flowing canals and the victims' names written on the walls in the shapes of the twin towers. Most everyone's happy, until...envelope please...the designer is revealed to be a Muslim. Or at least he's a guy with a "Muslim name": Mohammed Kahn.

The public outcry is immediate. And furious. How could a Muslim be allowed to design an "Islamic paradise" to effectively memorialize the "jihadist martyrs," not the victims, right-wing conspiracy theorists ask? Obviously, not all Muslims are terrorists, you bigoted fools, say Mo's advocates. So why shouldn't Mo, an irreligious American architect, be allowed to build his design, since the design was judged the winner based on aesthetics, not politics or religion? But Muslims are responsible for 9/11, counters the opposition, so it'd be, at best, insensitive,and at worst, horribly insulting, to allow a Muslim designer to memorialize them.

This culture war is the basis of the novel, and the frenzy that follows is examined through the eyes of several New Yorkers -- including Mo himself, and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow who is the leading proponent of Mo's design. But both of these characters begin seeing themselves through the lens the increasingly polarized public sees them. They begin to question and doubt, to yield, especially in Mo's case, to others' (often stereotypical) visions of them.

A Bangledeshi immigrant who lost her husband in the attacks, a woman who runs an organization called Save America From Islam, a buffoonish right-wing talk show host, and a down-on-his-luck blue collar fella named Sean who lost his brother round out the cast of characters that give this novel a really complete feel. And the media circus (another character is a less-than-ethical journalist) and the political wrangling (the governor of New York has national ambitions and is constantly waiting to see which way the wind blows and maneuvering politically) feel spot on. As do the difficult questions the novel raises. 

Are moral absolutes really absolute? Why is bigotry so wrong (and idiotic...and harmful)? Can art ever really be separated from artist? The readers must grapple, especially those of the conservative persuasion, at whom Waldman often takes aim.

Much like the politically charged environment portrayed, this novel itself was also divisive. It's the only book I've seen wind up on a "most overrated novel of the year" list, as well as several "best of the year" lists, including this one from Entertainment Weekly. I tend toward the latter -- perhaps not one of the best books I've read this year, but a very, very good one, nonetheless. Waldman (a former journalist) writes lucidly and knows her stuff -- whether architecture or the ins-and-outs of a newsroom. You trust her, even if her characters piss you off. This is highly recommended!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Marriage Plot: A Book Report

Here's how Jeffrey Eugenides tells this story: Each section starts in the present and continues for just a couple of pages. (eg. The novel opens with main character Madeleine waking up hungover on her graduation day from Brown in 1982.) Then, we go back six months to a year or more so it can be explained how everything leading up to where we are now came to be that way. (eg., Madeleine had been dating mysterious, but sexy, Leonard, but they fought and broke up. And she'd also fought with her friend Mitchell, who is secretly in love with her.) Then, once we're caught up on everything, the story continues onward. (eg. Leonard and Madeleine reconcile. Mitchell's left out in the cold, and goes to Europe.)

Of course, that's a fine way to tell a story. But here's the problem: The "rehashing" parts are all much, much longer than the real-time parts, so the novel has the effect of seeming like a book report of the book this book was supposed to be. We feel like we're constantly reading summary, not story.

Here's the other problem: The first 100 pages are a LOT about literary theory and semiotics, which not only adds to the "book report" feel, but also makes the beginning of the novel feel like a freshman weed-out class — it's tough to get through, but once you do, you're supposed to be treated to the "good part." But what happens here is that high expectations for this novel (based on how awesome Middlesex was) are almost immediately dampened. And unfortunately, the novel never fully recovers.

So the rest of the story is about Madeleine and Leonard's troubled life together, and Mitchell's travels throughout Europe, during which time his college crush, Madeleine, is never far from his mind. But is Mitchell really in love with Madeleine, or is he in love with the idea of being in love with Madeleine?

Look, I'm more surprised than anyone I didn't like this novel. I'm willing to allow that certain readers who have more of an appreciation for 19th century literature (Madeleine considers herself a "Victorianist" and loves novels by writers like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters) may decode some allusions in this novel that I missed, and therefore like it much more. And furthermore, parts of the novel are amazingly lucid and insightful. Other than the first 100 pages, this is a really smooth, easy-to-read book.

But sadly, Eugenides fluid prose can't save many other snooze-inducing episodes — eg., as we learn about Leonard's family history and while Mitchell is working in India. So I'm giving this 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Upon Finishing War and Peace

Did I like it? Sure, I liked it well enough. That is to say, I liked chunks of it. Parts were snooze-inducing, but parts were as fast-paced and fun to read as any modern thriller. It's only when you see the whole and start thinking about the scope and how it all came together — and start missing the characters — that you realize that you did truly enjoy it; that you didn't just keeping reading to say you'd read it.

So was it worth it? Absolutely! Indeed, the hardest part isn't reading the novel itself — contrary to popular opinion, it's not difficult at all; it's just long. No, the hardest part is coming up with anything reasonably intelligent to say from 1,400 pages and three months of reading. 

One thing I can tell you for sure; here's my favorite quote from the novel, about Pierre:
"And it was the lack of an purpose that gave him the complete and joyous sense of freedom underlying his present happiness." 
If you're unfamiliar, Pierre, a Russian nobleman who inherits a huge sum when his father dies, spends most of the novel on a sort of vision quest to find life's meaning. He carouses with women. He drinks heavily. He gets religion. He turns philosophical. And then mystical. But then he finally gets it, and the moment of his catharsis is one of the great moments of the novel. I loved it!

The thing that most surprised me about the novel is the much higher proportion of "peace" scenes to "war " scenes. Only about a third of the novel takes place on the battlefield, or deals with other men-at-war-related stories, including a few chapters from the point of view of Napoleon, which were hilarious in that it was clear how much Tolstoy detests him.

But it's in one of these war scenes in which Tolstoy gets to what seems to be the point of the novel, inasmuch as you can pinpoint a single point in a 568,880-word novel.
"The course of a battle is affected by an infinite number of freely operating forces (there being no greater freedom of operation than on a battlefield, where life and death are at stake), and this course can never be known in advance; nor does it ever correspond with the direction of any one particular force."
Just as true in war as in peace (life), yeah? This is an idea Tolstoy brings full circle in his (rather tedious) epilogue, in which he discusses his philosophy of history and argues that free will is false.

Anyway, so here we are, at the end of a three-month climb. And you know what the best part about it is? Finally (finally!), this photo I've been bandying about on this blog for more than two years isn't just a sad example of blatant grandstanding anymore. It's real. Yeah, this actually happened! Woohoo!  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Two Months of Book Rioting: A Short Update

It's been a great few months over at the new site venture Book Riot. Have you been by to check it out? There's a TON of great content over there — from one of the funniest, most gruesome book-related things I think I've ever seen (When Used Books Attack: Banana Edition) to a post that stirred up quite a bit of controversy (Why Aren't Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult Pissed At Jeffrey Eugenides?).

I've been posting twice a week over there, and really enjoyed the developing community and the feedback. (...except for the guy who called my Booze and Books "stupid" and "insensitive." That guy can ram it.) One of my posts is currently second (behind the Banana thing) in traffic — George Orwell's 1984 vs. Real 1984: Which Was More Gnarly?  (If I had it to do over again, I'd probably re-write that headline and not try to be overly clever with the word "gnarly." It's kind of cringe inducing now. So it goes...) And my David Foster Wallace Reading Pathways post is currently sitting at third. Good times! 

On the not-so-successful-but-still-fun-to-write-front: I did a post trying to evoke a Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal — satirically "explaining" why we need more celebrity-penned novels, like those that have recently been published by Snooki, Tyra Banks and the Kardashians. It pretty much went over like a lead balloon. So later that week, I posted a companion piece that was a bit more straightforward. Lesson learned. But they were still fun to work on, even if they were mostly ignored. 

Anyway, if you haven't swung by, please do. Here's the page that lists my posts from the last two months, in case there's anything you missed.

As always, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Top 10 Winter Reads

Like many readers, I tend to spend the winter reading long books. (Unlike many readers, I tend to spend a lot of the other three seasons reading long books, too. But that's neither here nor there.) I've got the mother lode queued up for this winter (with a few shorter novels sprinkled in). Here's a list: 

10. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (944 pages) — I missed out on joining in the initial post-publication wave of readership, from which the response seems to be generally positive. So I'm still excited to check it out.

9. Reamde, by Neal Stephenson (1,056 pages) — I've still never read Stephenson, and this thriller seems a good way to ease my way into his style; inasmuch you can ever ease into a writer by reading a thousand-page novel. 

8. Oryx and Crake / The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood (combined 824 pages) — Atwood's another author I've never read, and since I've been on a post-apocalyptic kick lately, and also since I've surprised myself by not at all hating those types of novels, these two are must-reads. 

7. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (601 pages) — You're going to kill me for this, but I've also never read anything by Steinbeck. I'm definitely going to knock this one out this winter.

6. The Submission, by Amy Waldman (320 pages) — I like the occasional fiction tinged with politics, and I'd already been interested in this one anyway because I like books about New York, and after Brenna at Lit Musing's positive review, this is a must-read this winter.

5. Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin (768 pages) — This novel is on a lot of readers' "favorites of all time" lists, and it's been on my shelves for a really long time, and see above about enjoying New York books, and it has freakin' "winter" in its title. Must. read.

4. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (400 pages) — The "it" book of the late summer/early fall, I'm going to read it this winter.

3. To the End of the Land, by David Grossman (592 pages) — I bought this well-reviewed, though-supposedly-not-exactly-action-packed novel about Israel last summer, with every intention of reading it last winter. Didn't happen. Take two. 

2. Fathermucker, by Greg Olear (320 pages) — I'm hoping this short, funny novel provides some much-needed comic balance to some of the other heavier winter reads on the list.

1. 11/22/63, by Stephen King (849 pages) — Can't not read the new King.

See you in April!

(Note: This post is part of The Broke and the Bookish's Top Ten Tuesday meme. I definitely suggest heading over there to see what other readers are checking out this winter. Good stuff. )

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Zone One: The "Literary" Zombie Novel

If the Jesse Eisenberg/Woody Harrelson film Zombieland (one of the more underrated movies of the last five years, in my humble opinion) was slightly less funny and slightly more disorienting, detailed and flash-backy, you'd have Colson Whitehead's Zone One

The basic plot is the same in each — survivors of a zombie apocalypse try to continue to survive. Zone One, however, takes place over three days in New York City at the supposed tail end of the plague, as main-character Mark Spitz and his three-person "sweeper" crew go building-by-building to clear out the remaining "skels" in an attempt to make lower Manhattan re-habitable.

The schtick for Zone One, as you may have heard, is that it's a "literary" zombie novel. Just as Zombieland was a new take on the traditional zombie apocalypse story, so is Whitehead's novel an attempt to break out of the genre's convention. He does so with incredibly detailed, metaphor-laden sentences and paragraphs, constant flashbacks, and digressions inside of digressions. It's all very disorienting. And not always fun. 

Put it this way: It's not a novel everyone will enjoy. But even if you don't enjoy the novel as a whole, there are several set pieces (a flashback to Mark Spitz and some friends holed up in a farmhouse, the story behind how our Mark Spitz came to be known as Mark Spitz) that are absolutely dazzling. And the last 30 pages or so scream by at a pace approximately triple that of any 30-page stretch in the rest of the novel. So even though it's a difficult novel to engage with — you have to really be in the mood to read diligently — I'd still recommend checking it out.

Whitehead is an amazingly skillful writer. As one of the back blurbs states, "Whitehead has a David Foster Wallace-esque knack for punctuating meticulously figurative constructions with deadpan slacker wit..." Agreed. Whole-heartedly.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Who Still Cares About Book Awards?

Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction earlier this week. And there was much....indifference?

The novel sounds really interesting — it's about 12 days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — but I'd never heard of it before it was nominated, and I'd guess most casual readers hadn't either. Such was also the case when the Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced in September. Most readers glanced casually at the list, gave each other a shoulder shrug, and went about the rest of their days.

I don't know how big a deal the literary prizes ever really had been to casual readers, and if we put the debate over selection criteria aside (merit vs. popular, etc.), it still seems like interest is waning more and more. Earlier this year, Jeff at The Reading Ape wrote a piece ostensibly defending the literary prizes, explaining that readers still care about them because, for one, they vet novels for us that are probably pretty good. That's certainly true, and it's also true, as Jeff says, that they funnel an invaluable resource towards a novel: reader interest.

Sure, there's an overall bump in readership resulting from an award. There's no question about that. But I wonder if that bump isn't declining, as only dyed-in-the-wool word-junkie literature geeks put any stock in these awards anymore.

Frankly, I don't make any special effort anymore to pick up an award-nominated book I hadn't heard of before it was nominated...or awarded. I'm no closer to reading Salvage the Bones now than I was on Monday. Neither am I any closer to reading last year's NBA winner, Jaime Gordon's Lord of Misrule, or either of the last two Pulitzer winners, Paul Harding's Tinkers (2010) or Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.

And in some cases, an award may even be a deterrent for readers. When Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer this year, I heard several readers say they'd probably skip it now (and I'm paraphrasing here), as the Pulitzer, in their minds, is synonymous with pretentious, boring ficiton. I thought that was interesting. (For the record, I did try to explain that it's not, and they should read it!)   

So all this brings us to the question, and I'm really interested to hear what you have to say. How much do you care about literary awards? Why do you care or why don't ya? Do the awards factor into your book-purchasing decisions?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Leftovers: The Rapture Is Real! (...kind of)

The standard "disappearance" novel usually goes something like this: A guy says he's going out for a pack of cigarettes. And he never comes back. His family, then, is forced to confront the emotional pain of his disappearance/abandonment.

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta, also explores the idea of dealing with emotional pain when loved ones suddenly disappear. But in this novel, the loved ones disappear in a rather different way. Perrotta concocts a Rapture-like event called the Sudden Departure, in which people quite literally disappear, seemingly at random. One second they're eating dinner or riding their bikes or piloting airplanes. The next, they're gone. And there's no discernible reason why and no recognizable pattern of disappearance — those Raptured aren't just Sanctimonious Evangelical Christians.

And so this narrative trick gives Perrotta a new and inventive way to explore how those who are left behind must move on with their lives. Some join cults or follow crazy but charismatic prophets, thus disappearing from their families in a different way. Some try to prove that the ones who were taken actually were bad people  — that way, those who are still on Earth can talk themselves into the fact that the Sudden Departure was not actually the prophesied Rapture of religious lore. But the majority of people do their best simply to try to go on with life as it used to be.

That last category includes Kevin Garvey. Kevin is the mayor of the small suburban town of Mapleton. As the novel begins — three years after the Sudden Departure — Kevin's wife Laurie has abandoned the family to take up with a group that calls themselves the Guilty Remnant. Kevin and Laurie's son Tom has quit college, and begun following a nutjob named Holy Wayne. That leaves daughter Jill, an increasingly precocious teenager, who drinks and does drugs and has casual sex — but at least she's still there.

The story chronicles six months in these characters' lives, showing how individual decisions to "disappear" from one's family can be just as sad and with just as many emotional consequences (perhaps more!) than if disappearance was sudden and unexplained.

Perrotta writes a smooth, easy-to-read story — a modern parable, if you will. It's 90 percent great, and then 10 percent poor near the end, so I'm giving it four stars. But if you like modern, hip writing and an inventive story, The Leftovers is definitely for you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pop Culture Pervasiveness: George Orwell's 1984

You know those lyrics in the Rage Against the Machine song Testify that go "Who controls the past now, controls the future / Who controls the present now controls the past"? (And then it rocks your face off!) Yeah, those are direct quotes from Orwell's 1984. And the line in the Muse song Resistance that goes "Kill the prayers for love and peace / you'll wake the thought police"? Obviously "thought police" is another 1984 reference. Radiohead wrote a song titled 2+2=5 and the Incubus song Talk Show On Mute invites us to "come one, come all into 1984."

And those references are just off the top of my head — which, I'm sure, means the above is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of references to the novel 1984 in music specifically, but also in general pop culture. (Just so we're clear, I'm not even mentioning the idiotic show Big Brother.)

It's a pretty influential novel (...states Captain Obvious). If you've never read it, give it a try. It's not nearly the slog some "classics" are. There are slower parts where there's no "action," per se, but if you're like me, and you're interested in politics and philosophy and the philosophy of politics, even the slow parts are fascinating.

One example: Orwell spends 30 pages showing us Winston Smith reading a book about the counterarguments to the Party's ruling philosophies (Ingsoc, or English Socialism) and slogans (i.e., War is Peace). It takes some brain work, but unpacking the arguments is rewarding. So is reading the epilogue in which Orwell describes Newspeak — the invented language of the Party that reduces the number of words in order to reduce critical thinking and opposition to the Party.

And you get to learn about solipsism — which, if you don't remember your Phil 101 course, is the notion that reality exists only in the mind. So once you get that, then you can sound smart at cocktail parties by saying things like, "You know, Greg seems like a reasonably intelligent person, but his solipsistic views and the fact that he rejects the objective nature of reality, make me want to brain him with blunt object."

Finally, here's this: A little tongue-in-cheek thought experiment on Book Riot to determine which was better, Orwell's 1984 or real 1984.

So, what other 1984 pop culture references have you noticed?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Nod To The Classics

I sure didn't want to be on Stephen King's shit list, so I put off reading War and Peace until the fall. It makes sense, anyway — the chill in the air these days signifies more than just a shift in the weather. People's reading habits shift from the fluffy summer reads to the more "stuffy" classics.

I can personally back up that claim. In addition to my continued assault on War and Peace (I'm on page 727 of about 1,400...whew), I've been re-reading George Orwell's 1984 for the third or fourth time. Man, is it good — one of my favorite "stuffy" classics.

But that's not all — chatter on the bookish interwebs about the classics has picked up recently, almost from the moment the calendar switched from October to November. Exhibit A is this fantastic Book Riot post by Wallace Yovetich about how to read a classic.

Additionaly, Twitter's been a flutter about next year's Back To The Classics Challenge. Every year, I sort of do a personal Classics Challenge (without having to limit myself to certain categories). This past year, my goals were Gone With The Wind, Anna Karenina and War and Peace. (Last year, it was Gravity's Rainbow, which damn near ended me.) Next year, I have five classics goals. Here they are:

5. Underworld, by Don DeLillo
4. Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin
3. The USA Trilogy, by John Dos Passos
2. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
1. Sophie's Choice, by William Styron

There was no real method to the madness for picking those five books — they're just five books I've always wanted to read, and fear never well unless I set them aside with targets on their covers.

Have you read any of those five? What did you think? What's on your classics schedule for this winter?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Uncollected Thoughts On the Literary Week That Was

Crazy week. Brain fried. Some brief thoughts:  

1. Wanna win $100? If you're a book blogger, Book Riot is giving away a $100 gift certificate to your favorite book store. All you have to do is write a post "about the time you went the crazy nerdiest for a book." More details are here.

2. Speaking of Book Riot, I put up a post yesterday about David Foster Wallace. There are always so many emotions when I write about my favorite writer. The post is here, if you're interested. Something about DFW always seems to resonate with people — the post has gotten more than 1,000 pageviews in two days! 

3. I was in Phoenix for work this week. I've been trying to think of any literary novel set (or even with a scene taking place) in Phoenix. Coming up blank. Anyone else have any ideas?

4. Lots of people have started Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. I wish I could, but B&N has yet to deliver mine. Have you started it? Any first impressions? 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion: A Sordid Affair...

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Girl convinces boy to murder her jerk husband. While not your standard love story, it is an easily recognizable literary plotline. And Ron Hansen's new novel A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion deftly chronicles a famous real-world instance of such a story of manipulation and murder.

Dateline: New York City, 1925. Voluptuous Ruth Snyder, secure in her sex appeal and her ability to manipulate men, begins a torrid affair with brassiere or corset salesman Judd Gray. Both are unhappily married — Ruth because she's abused, Judd because he's bored. Over the course of several alcohol-soaked rendezvous (Hansen makes clear how easy it was to get around Prohibition) and trysts at the Waldorf-Astoria, Ruth slowly breaks down Judd's moral defenses, convincing him that he really has no other choice but to help her kill her husband.

The last section of the novel, to me, was the most fascinating, as Hansen departs a little from the fiction of Ruth and Judd's relationship, and carefully recounts (from newspaper accounts and other primary sources) the trial and the publicity circus around it. Think OJ Trial of the '20s. And if you've read Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (which Hansen mentions in Guilty Passion), you're familiar with how well this narrative structure can work. It reads like non-fiction, and it's absolutely riveting.

I'd highly recommend this slim novel, especially if you're not familiar with Ron Hansen, who is a vastly underrated novelist. This novel's a perfect example of what he does best — turning a footnote of history into a rich, elegant novel. My biggest complaint about this book is the cover — which earned me more than one dirty looks whilst reading in public. But A+ for the novel itself! 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Notes From a Chad Harbach Reading

I can't make this sound any other way but disparaging, but if you look at Chad Harbach's author photo on The Art of Fielding, he looks, well, nerdy; and even a bit smug — like a dude who was always joshin' the jocks in high school and therefore was constantly having to buy new pairs of tighty-whiteys to replace the ones destroyed by Atomic Wedgies.   

In real life, though, he's neither nerdy nor smug. I don't know why I'm always surprised that successful novelists are actually cool in person, but Harbach is another in a long line of novelists I've met who is as good an entertainer as he is writer. Harbach was comfortable enough cracking jokes as answer to one question but then answering seriously and insightfully to others, including the inevitable question about his "writing process." Anyway, it was a great event, and I was thrilled to get to meet him.

Here are a few other notes from the reading:

1. The event took place at  Boswell Book Company, an indie bookstore in Milwaukee (Harbach is from Racine, about 30 miles south of Milwaukee). The place was packed, and for the first time at any reading I've ever attended, there were more men than women there. Harbach opened by joking that he'd hoped no one would show up tonight because everyone would've been occupied rooting on the Brewers in Game 2 of the World Series. Sadly, that didn't happen.

2. I asked Harbach what he thought of the article Keith Gessen wrote partially about him titled How A Book Is Born. He said he didn't read it until it was finished — that Gessen, who is a friend of his, had sort of awkwardly asked Harbach if it was okay to write about him, and that was it. There was no formal interview or anything — since the two were living together in New York at the time, Harbach said Gessen pretty much had all the material he needed. (If you haven't checked out that piece, definitely do. It's really enlightening!)

3. An attendee asked Harbach what he thought about all the hype and attention his novel has gotten. Whether Harbach's answer was a (very well orchestrated, 'cause he has to have been asked that question before) act or not, I don’t know, but it was the only time of the night he seemed uncomfortable. He stuttered, started to answer, stopped, looked down at the podium for a beat, then composed a smile and just said “It’s really, really nice.” And that was it.

4. Several of the sweet people of Wisconsin may need to take a gander at Spoilers: A User's Manual, as not one, but two, of the audience questions blatantly gave away key plot points — one all but revealed what happens at the end! Unbelievable!

5. When Harbach was signing my book, I asked him if he'd really chosen Little, Brown because of the opportunity to work with David Foster Wallace's editor, Michael Pietsch. (He actually took less money to publish Little, Brown, as reported in How A Book Is Born.) He kind of smiled and said that Pietsch editing his book was certainly one factor, maybe the dominant one, but he also knew what Little, Brown, as a publishing house as a whole, could offer him in other areas (publicity, marketing!). Makes sense — and a very diplomatic answer.

6. You should’ve seen Mr. Harbach’s socks. To be honest, I rarely notice another man’s hosiery, but Harbach was wearing these what must’ve been flannel, multi-primary-colored things that were far and away the brightest thing in the room. I tried to subtly get a photo of them without appearing to be a foot-fetishy creeper, but sadly, it didn’t turn out. I only mention it as another example of Harbach’s somewhat quirky personality.

Here are some other photos from the event that did turn out. My apologies for my substandard photography skills.
DSCF0636DSCF0637DSCF0638

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Art of Fielding: A Baseball Fan's Baseball Novel...With a Twist

I love baseball. Always have. In fact, my one and only bar trick is to be able to recite on command any or every World Series winner since 1972. Name a year, I'll tell you the winner. And so, as an enormous baseball fan, I couldn't have been more delighted to spend a couple weeks with Chad Harbach's debut novel The Art of Fielding.

The biggest reason I enjoyed the novel — and I think you will too, especially if you're a baseball fan — is that it's as authentic as they come; authenticity being the No. 1 factor in a good sports novel, in my view. I mean, when a writer totally flubs sports jargon in a novel (i.e, "He got a homerun," or "He made a touchdown,"), even if not critical to the plot, not only does Matt Christopher roll over in his grave, but to me that writer has lost credibility for his/her novel at large. Writing about sports and making it sound authentic is tricky — perhaps one of many reasons why there are so few good sports novels.

Harbach, though, absolutely nails it. He clearly knows and understands baseball and writes about it as realistically as any novelist I've ever read. And he doesn't dumb it down. That was my No. 1 fear going into this novel — that the baseball scenes would be cheesy and cliche. Not so here at all. Hell, the whole plot hinges on a little-known "condition" called Steve Blass Disease, made famous by a 1970s Pirates pitcher who suddenly and inexplicably lost his control. Harbach clearly understands the big-picture view of baseball — its quirks, superstitions and deference to history. But even on a granular level, passages like the following illustrate just how adept Harbach is at rendering in-game scenes authentically and in a way that's fun and exciting to read:
"In the bottom of the fourth, finally, and Opentoe batter laced a low shot into the hole between short and third. Henry broke toward it with typical quickness, snapped it up cleanly on the backhand side. As he set his feet to throw, though, the ball seemed to get stuck in his glove. He had to rush the throw, which flew low and wide of the bag. Rick O'Shea stretched to full length and scooped it out of the dirt, lifted his glove to show the ump he had the ball."

But this novel has much wider appeal than just a baseball novel. Indeed, if you're not a baseball fan, to you, this will probably be more a story about relationships. But instead of continuing to talk in abstractions, let's take a look at the story.

Ankiel had one of the most famous cases of Blass Disease
Henry Skrimshander is a smooth-fielding shortstop who, along with his mentor Mike Schwartz, have double-handedly turned the Westish College baseball program from laughing-stock to powerhouse. Henry is about to break the all-time collegiate record for error-less games in a row, previously held by his idol Aparicio Rodriguez (not a real baseball player, if you're wondering). But, suddenly, quirk strikes — as it so often does in baseball. Henry makes an errant throw that drills his bench-bound roommate Owen in the skull. And after that, Henry can't seem to make the routine throw to first anymore — the notorious Steve Blass Disease.

But speaking of quirk, Guert Affenlight, the previously heterosexual president of Westish (which is a fictional liberal arts school in northern Wisconsin) finds himself head-over-heals infatuated with Owen (Owen actually is gay). And so the rest of the story chronicles how Henry deals with his affliction and how Owen and the president deal with their budding love. Guert's daughter Pella and Mike Schwartz are also caught up in the maelstrom, and no one's life will ever be the same.

Only time will truly tell if The Art of Fielding will join The Natural and The Brothers K in pantheon of great baseball novels. It's definitely not a perfect novel — Harbach can be long-winded at times and part of the resolution is a tad, for lack of a better word, preposterous (nothing to do with baseball, thankfully). So I'd give this four and a half stars. Still, to paraphrase a common Owen-ism: "You are skilled, Chad Harbach. I exhort you." And furthermore, as my all-time favorite baseball broadcaster Marty Brennaman is fond of saying, "If you swing the bat, you're dangerous." And Harbach has definitely swung for the hallowed fences of baseball literature lore.


(One other note: I loved the names in this novel. Henry Skrimshander, Guert Affenlight, Owen Dunne, Adam Starblind, etc. I felt like it may have been a tribute to the goofy names in Philip Roth's The Great American Novel — another terrific baseball novel.)


CymLowell

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Top 10 Books I Wish I Could Read Again For the First Time

I've always wanted to do one of these Top Ten Tuesday posts — but since, until recently (launch of Book Riot), I always posted on Mondays, I never did. It's kind of liberating stepping out of your own rigid self-imposed rules, isn't it?

Today's topic is the top ten books you wish you could read again for the first time. I like this idea a lot, because whenever I see someone starting a book I really loved, my first thought is jealousy — that s/he is at the precipice of a really great experience.

So, here we go:

10. Trinity, by Leon Uris — For a good part of my life, this was my answer to the "favorite book of all time" question. It's fallen down the list a little, but I still wish I could be as transfixed by it as I was the first time I read it when I was in college.

9. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides — With all the buzz about Eugenides' follow-up, I've been reminded how fantastically original Middlesex is.

8. Straight Man, by Richard Russo — This is one of the funniest books I've ever read. If I could start fresh, I'd do a better job of slowing down and appreciating the humor. 

7. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein — If I had this one to do over, I'd do something really manly right before reading this, so I wouldn't feel so bad about this novel turning me into a blubbering fool.

6. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth — I read this at a point in my life (college) when I couldn't give it the attention it deserved. I'd love to go back and give this the close read it deserves.

5. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski — If there's one book I've ever read I wish I could erase from memory to start again fresh, this is it. Some books are good on a reread, but for others (like this one), once their secrets are revealed (and your mind is sufficiently blown), it's no good going back.

4. Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer — I had no idea Foer was such a quirky writer when I read this the first time, and therefore was annoyed with this book as much as I enjoyed it. I wish reverse and reread with a better understanding of what I was about to read.

3. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith — It's been so long since she published new fiction, I wish this — her best novel — could be new to me again.

2. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving — My favorite Irving. Enough said.  

1. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace — My favorite author's best book? Also a no-brainer...

Friday, October 7, 2011

Looking For Something To Read?

You are? That's fantastic! Here are five suggestions for five great novels from five great bloggers:

1. The Submission, by Amy Waldman — reviewed by Brenna at Literary Musings: This novel has some real ripped-from-the-headlines appeal. It's already high on my priority list, and Brenna says it's one of her favorites of the year.

2. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern — reviewed by L.L. at The Story Girl: This book has garnered the biggest buzz of the fall. My copy just arrived, and after reading this review, I'm even more excited to dive in.

3. The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta — reviewed by Rebecca at The Book Lady's Blog: What if the Rapture happened, but those who were Raptured weren't just sanctimonious Christian fundamentalists? Here's how Rebecca describes how Perrotta's apparently fantastic novel answers that question: "So, The Leftovers. It’s like the Left Behind books if they were smart and funny and not about religion but the human condition in general and well-written and did I mention smart?"

4. Fathermucker, by Greg Olear — reviewed by TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog: This looks like the pseudo-dude-lit hit of the fall. It's also far and away the best titled book of the year! I just ordered it myself, and was happy to see this glowingly positive review.

5. We the Animals, by Justin Torres — reviewed by Rachel at A Home Between Pages: I'd only heard bits and pieces about this novel, and because it's so short, I'd all but written it off. But Rachel loved it, so it's back on my radar — maybe for a lazy fall Sat. afternoon in the near future.

Also, in case you missed, and if you did you're kind of a jerk (kidding), here is my first contribution to Book Riot. Why aren't there more good literary sports novels? 

Monday, October 3, 2011

The New Dork Review Turns Two: Time to RIOT!

On the scale of momentous book blogging days (a scale which totally exists), today might be an all-timer. For one, I'm celebrating two years of computerized-scribbling about books here at the New Dork Review — or, as they say in the biz, it's my two-year blogoversary. (Actually, the real anniversary is Oct. 1, but since I'm a dude, I get a little leeway on the exact date, right?)'

As totally mind-blowingly awesome as a two-year blogoversary is (whoops, the sarcasm font isn't loading properly today), the really exciting news today is the launch of Book Riot. I couldn't be more thrilled to be involved with 11 other contributors in this new website dedicated to all things bookish, with a decidedly snark, humorous and absolutely-not-at-all stuffy tone. I mean, one of the first posts up is a conversation between two contributors about Jersey Shore and pop culture and books. It's awesome! Please go check it out and visit frequently — it just launched today and there's already a ton of fun content there to peruse, but there will be new content every single day. 

So, naturally, you're wondering how Book Riot and The New Dork Review of Books will complement each other, buy each other beers, scratch each other's back, etc. I mean, you've been stopping by here twice a week for two years now, right? (RIGHT?!) You're used to your routine. Am I just going to leave you hanging? Short answer: No. Longer answer: Nooooooooo. (Hehe...)

Frankly, I don't know what's going to happen here, but I do know that I probably won't be as OCD about posting twice as week here as I was in the pre-Book-Riot past. I'll be contributing there twice a week, at least, and I'll be recycling some of that content here (after a Book Riot exclusivity window expires). There will still be new content here, too, so don't delete your bookmark or "stop following this blog" in Google Reader, or cancel your email subscription. The New Dork Review of Books is not going away. After two years, and 210 posts, it'll continue to go strong. Thanks as always for your continued readership!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Domestic Violets: A Heartbreaking Tale of Staggering

When you endeavor to review a novel you enjoyed as much as I enjoyed Matt Norman's Domestic Violets, it's easy to slip into platitudes and/or hyperbole: "I loved this novel more than fat kids love cake" or "This novel reminded me why I love reading...and why I hate work" or "This is a deeply affecting family drama. Matt is a modern-day Tolstoy." But I won't. I promise. Hopefully I can cover all those (maybe slightly exaggerated sentiments) with just this: Domestic Violets is one of my favorite novels of the year. It's very, very good.

Here's the deal: Tom Violet is 35. He's married to a smart, modern woman named Anna, and they have a precocious seven-year-old daughter named Allie. The family lives in Washington, D.C and for the last seven years, Tom has written copy for a soulless management consulting company, and therefore, is woefully unfulfilled professionally. His only joy at work is a hot 23-year-old copywriter named Katie, who may or may not have a crush on him (a crush which he may or may not reciprocate).

But let's back up a second: In the very first scene in the novel, we find out Anna is as unfulfilled in the bedroom as Tom is at work. To put it bluntly (or softly, as it were), Tom can't get it up (which is hilariously ironic; Tom's mother tells us later that the Greeks believed violets symbolized potency and fertility). That same night, after they've tried and once again given up hope of carnal delights, Tom's father Curtis Violet, a celebrated novelist and serial philanderer, swoops drunkenly into the house, announcing that he has finally won his first Pulitzer, completing a grand slam of literary prizes. The sadly funny juxtaposition of the marital "failure" with his father's literary success sets the tone for the rest of this story.

Domestic Violets is Tom's first-person account of his collisions with the trials life. It's part workplace comedy, part brutally honest meditation on the difficulty of marriage (Tom's mostly-happy-but-hitting-a-rough patch marriage is often contrasted with Curtis' several unhappy ones), and part about what it means to have a famous father (especially in a field in which Tom is interested in joining himself — he's been secretly writing a novel for the last five years).

Because Tom is a wise-cracking, self-deprecating, smart ass, it'd be easy to pigeonhole this novel as your run-of-the-mill dude lit. But similar to other novels — like those by Jonathan Tropper and The Financial Lives of the Poets (by Jess Walter) — to which Domestic Violets will reside adjacently on my  categorized shelves, the mix of low-brow comedy with wit, honesty and empathy is what raises this novel from beach read to brilliant.

There are scenes is this book that I don't possess the writerly chops to describe (well, without again resorting to platitudes, like "I laughed, I cried...oh, the emotional ride"). Suffice it to say, a couple times, I literally had to put my hand over the page and reveal a line at a time so I wouldn't accidentally glance ahead and ruin the drama.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll readily admit that part of the reason (maybe most) I connected so well with this novel is that, as a near-35-year-old, self-deprecating dude myself, I felt often like Matt (I'm calling him Matt, not Matthew; he won't mind, I hope) Norman had crawled into my brain, thieved my thoughts, and spilled them onto his pages. Would that I were as clever, honest and funny as Tom (and Matt) are. I can't recommend Domestic Violets more highly.

(A big thanks to Rachel at A Home Between Pages, whose own glowing review first put Domestic Violets on my radar.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

My Top Five Fantastically Filthy (Ban-able?) Books

An entire week dedicated to combating stupidity, censorship and narrow-mindedness? Yes, please!* To celebrate Banned Books Week, many bookish folk are reading from their favorite banned books and posting the videos on YouTube, which is awesome.

But I'm going to do something a little less high-road. What follows is my list of filthy, but fantastic, books that are (and probably at one point have been) easy targets for book banners. Just so we're crystal clear, I'm not AT ALL suggesting that these books be banned. I'm only suggesting that they're easy pickins for the type of people who do try to ban books.

That is to say, if people who tried to banned books actually read or understood good literary fiction, these would probably certainly be near the top of their list. But they don't, usually. So it's a pretty safe bet that some chucklehead in, say, Wakefield, Mass., who, say, banned Harry Potter, probably isn't going to have a good working knowledge of Philip Roth. In other words, he's ignorant of Philip Roth. And isn't ignorance the dominant characteristic of a book-banner anyway?

And, so without further adieu, here is my Top Five Books That Would Be Banned If Ignorant Idiots Had Their Way:

5. Sabbath's Theater, by Philip Roth — Everyone knows about the liver scene in Portnoy's Complaint, but Roth's National Book Award-winning (1995) novel is probably his filthiest. Mickey Sabbath, the novel's 64-year-old sex-tagonist, in one memorable scene, um, chokes the bishop on the grave of his dead wife. And that's one of the more tame scenes.When I finished this novel, I wrote: "I don’t know whether...I’m in awe of Roth, or terrified of him, or just grossed out by how perverted he seems to be." Good times!

4. Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami — This was the first Murakami book I'd read, and after hearing about his ethereal prose and how his novels hinge upon their own metaphysical logic, I was surprised by the sheer amount of sex in this novel. Careful: includes lesbians.

3. Lamb, by Christopher Moore — Lest you think I'd only consider dirty sexual novels ban-worthy, here we have a satiric look at the life of Jesus Christ, told by his childhood pal Biff. If the ultra-religious type gets itchy about Harry Potter, my God, reading (or kids reading, God forbid!) this novel would cause paroxysms of penance prayer on par with news that the Rapture is imminent.

2. Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell — There are certainly a lot of options for books that would meet the "way too violent" criteria, but I picked this one, because I loved it, and because it's so-over-the-top violent, I couldn't look away — including a ball-shrivelingly violent ending that will leave you fetal-positioned. I'll let Rachel of A Home Between Pages explain, as she did in a comment on my review: "When I got to the end of Beat the Reaper, I literally sat there with my mouth hanging open, holding the book over my head, going Oahhmaahhhgawd!!!!!"

1. Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, by Tom Robbins — One of the funniest novels I've ever read is also one of the filthiest. It includes some, um, non-traditional, sex with a nun. And that's I probably all I need to say about this novel's gross-out factor. But it's awesome (the novel, not necessarily the fact that it includes nun sex). 
 
What would be on your list? 

*Banned Books Week, if you're unfamiliar, is an almost 30-year-old week-long celebration of books that at one point or another have been, well, banned. Check out this awesome map of censorship activity just in 2010 — 348 just in one year. Ugh!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Lonely Polygamist: Can Anybody Hear Me?

Golden Richards has chewing gum stuck in his pubic hair, and he has no earthly idea how it got there. It's just one more calamity in the life of this lonely polygamist, who, with four wives and 28 children, has all but lost control. As Udall tells us about halfway through the novel, "(Golden's) very life, including his marriages to his wives, his children, his church position, was none of his own doing." Indeed, his life is a combination of a careful orchestration by his wives of where to be and when, and putting out fires caused by misbehaving kids and a failing construction business. Dude just can't get a moment to himself to relax!

Brady Udall's irony rich (starting with the title!), tragi-comedy novel is a fantastic (if a bit lengthy) read. Believe it or not, Golden is one of the more sympathetically pathetic characters I've read in a while. Will he ever be able to take control of his life? Here's a great detail to illustrate just how much he's been emasculated: His first wife Beverly, who rules the brood, has placed instructional signs everywhere in Old House (where she lives with her litter of 10), most notably above the toilet: "Golden, Please Take A Seat." Poor guy can't even pee like a man.

Really, the gum-in-the-pubic-hair (the reader does know how it got there, and it's hilarious) is a rather inventive metaphor for Golden's life — it's tangled beyond relief. And, other than making a clean break/cut, he has no idea how to extract himself. Despite being surrounded with his family, he's lost the emotional attachment to them, and starts looking elsewhere to relieve his loneliness. 

Compounding the loneliness theme of the novel is the interspersed narratives of two other characters. One is Golden's 12-year-old son Rusty, who is a misunderstood miscreant who tries on his sisters' underwear, steals things from his siblings and generally misbehaves as a sincere cry out for attention. Golden's young and beautiful fourth wife, Trish, also is just beginning to realize the true degree of her own loneliness. She grew up in a polygamist sect and vowed never to live that life herself, but after an abusive first marriage, her mother has convinced her to join Golden's family for security and emotional support. She's getting neither, and she may soon look elsewhere, too?

But this is really Golden's story, and again, it's equal parts funny and sad. This novel had gotten great reviews when it came out last year, but I put it off because I was worried that it might be a "look how bizarre polygamy is" story in which I'd have to keep track of a War-and-Peace-like number of characters. Not the case. Udall doesn't totally ignore the "abnormality" of the Richards clan, mentioning awkward moments for Golden here and there in the community at large, and that Rusty gets teased at school for being a "plyg kid." But it's really a story of how Golden, Trish and Rusty combat their loneliness. And it's really good. Highly recommended!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reading To Remember, or One More Way Books Are Awesome

Last spring, when I was "stuck" in Berlin, thanks to an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano, I was reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. Now, whenever my eye catches that book where it sits on my shelf, thoughts of that trip immediately come to mind.

But it's not just travel for which this "book/memory association" works. For instance, whenever I happen to glance at Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, I'm reminded of Marquette's surprise run to the Final Four in 2003. The memory of reading that fantastic book and that fantastic few weeks of basketball are permanently intertwined.

Indeed, what I realized is that my bookshelf has become a virtual travelogue / diary / database of memories. Of course, memory is associative, so it makes sense that this would be the case. I just never really consciously considered it before.* It certainly doesn't work for every book (I'm not some sort of literary Rain Man. Sadly. 'cause that'd be awesome!), but when I look at many of the hundreds of books on my shelves, I know what I was doing, where I was reading, what was happening in my life at that time. It's kind of awesome. Actually, it's really awesome! 

And here's what I also realized: I love technology and gadgets and such, and yet I still haven't bought an e-reader. The main reason I haven't is not because I'm opposed to reading electronically (I'm not), or because I like the "feel" of physical books (I do), or that I like collecting my books (I really do.) No, the main reason is that I'd lose this "book memory" phenomenon that only comes from glancing through physical books ensconced in their permanent home on my shelf. That, I'm not willing to give up.

So I'm sure this "book memory phenomenon" isn't unique to me. How does it work for you? Do you ever spend an afternoon just staring at your shelf and reminiscing?

*The funny thing is, this whole idea — or at least the reason it crystallized into enough of a coherent idea to write a post about it — came as I was watching the movie Limitless this weekend. If I could have one Super Power, it'd be to remember and connect any memory anytime I wanted. C'mon, that would be cool, right?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How Has Blogging Changed Reading Habits?

Last fall, I had one of those rare moments when I finished a book and wasn't sure what to read next. So I went to my shelf, fixed it with my most withering glare, and hoped a book would present itself. It did. Sean Wilsey's memoir Oh The Glory Of It All jumped right out. That book had been high on my priority list for a long time and I'd just read an article in which Jonathan Franzen had recommended it.

"But," said the red literary devil who popped up on my right shoulder (and who bore a striking resemblance to Nic Sparks), "this is an obscure book, such that when you blog about it later, you probably won't get as many readers/visits/pageviews."

That's when the white literary angel (sporting a du-rag and long hair) popped up: "And but so, read what you want, dude. After all, fiction is what it means to be a f#$%ing human being — even though that book's a memoir. You know what I mean, though. Oh, what a f#$%ing mess." So I did (though I was still reeling a bit by the amount of cursing the angel did). And Wilsey's memoir was great!

The point here is this: Blogging has changed my reading habits in a number of ways (at least five, as you'll see below), but it hasn't changed my fundamental philosophy on choosing books: I'm gonna read what I want. I'm not going to feel pressure to read what's popular or what other people think I should or what will get the most pageviews. I know, bold statement, that. But I think it's important. (And just so we're clear, I'm literally patting myself on the back right now.)

That said, there are several ways my reading habits have changed since I started The New Dork Review of Books in October 2009 (yep, creeping up on two years). Thankfully, they're all positive. Here there are:

5. I read a lot more — I covered this earlier this spring in a post about GoodReads. My greater reading pace has borne out so far in 2011, too. I'm probably going to eclipse by a wide margin the number of pages read last year — which was by far and away the most ever.

4. I've been motivated to read my bucket-list books and authors — Last year, I took down Gravity's Rainbow. Being able to tweet, periodically blog, and receive encouragement about that chore is pretty much the only thing that kept me sane enough to get through it. This year, so far, I've read Gone With The Wind, Anna Karenina, and I'm 11 percent done with War and Peace. That rules. Also, I finally read Haruki Murakami. Twice. That also rules.

3. I've read more indies and other books I'd never have heard of — One of the biggest unexpected benefits of blogging about books is getting free books. I'm still really particular about accepting books for review, but I have a few times, and as a result, read books I might never have heard of. Two examples: Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne, and Fight For Your Long Day, by Alex Kudera. Reading the latter led to one of my favorite blogging experience so far: The conversation with the author about how he viewed book bloggers. Also, other bloggers' recommendations have expanded my reading horizons widely. But that's a topic for another post.

2. I've read with greater attention and more depth — I mean, you have to, right? Nobody wants to look like an idiotic jerk when they post a review. So I try hard not to. Secondly, and it's hard to avoid being totally unoriginal here and saying something like "I've gotten more out of my reading," but, I've gotten more out of my reading. I use little post-its to mark quotes in books ('cause writing in books is a mortal sin) and reviewing those quotes when I go to write a review or reaction really does jog memory and help solidify connections between themes, characters, etc. I never did that before I started blogging.

1. Frankly, reading has never been more fun — Of course it is. And of course, reading being more fun isn't necessarily a changed habit. But what would this list be without more fun? The reason reading's been more fun is that I know for sure I'll have someone with whom I can discuss the book. And, as solitary as reading is, it's a million times more enjoyable in a community. Cheers to this community!

(For those curious about why there's that weird logo at the top of this post, this week is Book Blogger Appreciation Week — a fairly cool five-day back-pat to all things book bloggery.)

Monday, September 12, 2011

How A Book Is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding

Chad Harbach is broke. He's spent all 10 years of his post-Harvard life writing a novel that, at one point, even his best friend calls "insubstantial." He writes, and rewrites and writes more. Then, he gets his break, and it's a big one. An up-and-coming agent falls in love with the novel, and sells it for $665,000.

That's the basic origin story of this year's debut du jour, The Art of Fielding — a novel I've been describing to my friends as The Help for dudes. (I haven't read it yet, but my copy just arrived and I can't remember the last time I've been so excited to read a book.) And the piece that describes Harbach's odyssey from struggling mid-20s New Yorker to the toast of the literary world is one of the more interesting pieces of journalism I've read in a long, long time.

The article actually takes the form of an 18,000-word e-book written by Keith Gessen. It's an expanded version of an article that appears in the October issue of Vanity Fair. Gessen and Harbach went to Harvard together, remained close in their post-college years and founded n+1 (a Brooklyn-based literary journal) together.

So Gessen has VIP access to Harbach's story. And it's a fascinating one, to be sure. But how The Art of Fielding went got published is also the vehicle that allows Gessen to give us a behind-the-curtain look at the publishing industry. Drawing on his own experience (Gessen published a novel titled All the Sad Young Literary Men a few years ago. I read it. It's okay. Not my favorite book ever, though.) and that of many of his publishing industry friends, Gessen discusses the health of the Big Six publishing houses, their often contentious relationship with Amazon, all that goes into marketing and publicity for novels, as well as how they're sold to bookstores, how a cover design comes to be, and what it's really like to be able to hear from your agent something like "Yes, David Pietsch, David Foster Wallace's editor, has said that if we accept Little, Brown's offer, he'll personally edit your book." How awesome is that?

How A Book Is Born costs $1.99 as an instant download from Barnes & Noble or Amazon. I can assure you, it's the best two bucks you'll spend this week. If you don't have a Nook or Kindle, you can download a Nook or Kindle app for your PC or Mac to read this piece on your computer; that's actually what I did. Isn't technology great?