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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?