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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rioting Through December

I'll have some new content for you soon -- including some (probably a lot of) thoughts on Donna Tartt's masterpiece, The Goldfinch, as well as Elliott Holt's debut novel, You Are One of Them. In the meantime, here are links to a flurry of my bookish activity on Book Riot this month. Enjoy, and happy holidays!

1. In Defense of Liking Books -- As I looked back on the books read in 2013, I realized I'd rated something like 65 percent of them either four or fie stars. Does that make me a less discerning reader? Indeed, does liking more books than not mean you can't think critically about books? Spoiler alert: No.

2. Four Bookish Phrases That Could Use Improvement -- I'd been storing up this post for awhile, and finally couldn't hold my tongue anymore. These bookish phrases are so pervasive...and so meaningless. It's sort of an addendum to the post I did a few years ago titled the Top Five Sins of the Book Reviewer.

3. Five Novels For Environmentalists -- The motivation for this post was twofold. 1) I love smart fiction that raise awareness about an extremely important issue, and 2) I wanted to put Jonathan Miles's Want Not on another bookish list to try to talk more readers into reading it. It's so good -- my favorite of the year.

4. The Seven Funniest Novels of 2013 -- Get a good dose of humor from these seven hilarious novels, all published this year.

5. Jason Segel is the Perfect Choice to Play David Foster Wallace -- Like many, my first reaction to the news that Segel would play David Foster Wallace in a movie set to starting filming next year was "WT everloving F?!" But I thought about it some more, re-read some of the Lipsky book on which the movie is based, and finally talked myself into the idea that Segel is actually perfect. This post explains why.

6. 12 Literary Predictions for 2014 -- Silliness wins in this goofy post about fake literary predictions for 2014.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The New Dork Review Top 10 of 2013

What a great year in reading! Here's the New Dork Review Best of 2013 (links are to my own reviews):

1. Want Not, by Jonathan Miles — Bar none, my favorite of the year. It's the one book I read this year for which I want to tell you, "Just read it. You won't be sorry."

2. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — This'll make you think! It's an honest novel about race in America, but also a love story, an indictment of our poor treatment of immigrants, and joke at the expense of we silly Americans and many of our silly foibles.

3. The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman — This book absolutely slayed me. It's one of the crazier, funnier, romp-ier things I've ever read.

4. The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri — This was favorite book of the year from strictly a prose perspective, but it's sure not a bad story, either.

5. & Sons, by David Gilbert — This ultra-literary, New York-set novel about an aging novelist (and with crazy twist!) and his failed relationship with his sons is right in my bookish wheelhouse. I loved it!

6. Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, by Ron Currie, Jr. — This postmodern tale of a bad breakup and how it inspired a novel was the first great book I read in 2013. It's the kind of novel I wish I could write.

7. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra — This is the one novel I read this year that totally knocked me on my ass — it's a difficult read about love and war in Chechnya.

8. Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright — The only non-fiction I read this year (whoops!), this in-depth examination of Scientology will scare the crap out of you. The church's reach and influence are just crazy.

9. Tenth of December, by George Saunders — As you may have noticed, I read a ton of short story collections this year. This was the first one I read, and it's still my favorite. And the story "Escape from Spiderland" from this collection is my favorite short story of the year.

10. All That Is, by James Salter — This was my second favorite novel of the year from strictly a prose perspective. Could this be the last novel from one of the greatest American writer?

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Thing Around Your Neck: Stories of Nigeria

This year, I've made a concerted effort to read more short stories — specifically, after reading a novel I love, I've been going back and reading that author's collection(s), as well. In the case of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, this "strategy" couldn't have worked out better. That's because Adichie's short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck (published in 2009) reads like a blueprint for her fantastic novel that came out earlier this year, Americanah. Indeed, the themes and issues in many of these stories are what form the cornerstone of that novel — race, class, the treatment of women in Nigeria, and the Nigerian immigrant's experience (including poking fun at American quirks).

It's a great collection, overall — each of the 12 stories designed to provide a different perspective on characters and issues that may be unfamiliar to American readers. As is usually the case with short story collections, there are a few clear standouts.

My favorite is titled "On Monday of Last Week," about a Nigerian woman named Kamara who babysits the spoiled middle-school-aged boy of a wealthy American couple. (In Americanah, Ifemelu also babysits for rich Americans.) The mother is an artist, and spends her days in her basement studio. The father coddles the son, and Kamara thinks his over-parenting is ridiculous. She gives us what I think is the best line of the collection:
“She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure.”
The story concludes on a rather somber note though — when Kamara finally meets the artist mother, the mother asks her to draw her without her clothes. This causes Kamara to form something of a crush on the mother, thinking she's been singled out; that she's special. But she finds out at the end she's not as special as she might have thought.

Another standout story is titled "Jumping Monkey Hill," about a writer's colony for African writers. The Nigerian writer is constantly being ogled by Edward, the guy who's running the workshop, and it annoys her to no end. She can't understand how he thinks it's okay. The story she writes for the workshop is about a woman who goes to work for a bank in Nigeria to try to secure new accounts — on her first sales call to a rich Nigerian man, it becomes clear he'll expect more from her than to just manage his account. The character immediately quits the job. Edward tells her the story is unrealistic — no woman would quit such a good job. And the Nigerian writer decides this is the last straw, and like her character (who may be her!) she quits and leaves the workshop. 

All of the stories here are pretty short — some fewer than 10 pages — and many of them feel simply like character sketches or experiments with a theme. They're good on their own, but it was really fun to see how many of the ideas Adichie explores in these stories are brought to fruition in her novel Americanah.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Want Not: This Is A Near-Perfect Novel

I really, really loved this book. I mean, REALLY loved it. This is the one novel I've read this year that when I finished, my first reaction was to run out to the street corner to start preaching it. It's that good.

Why is it so good? Because it's exactly what fiction should be — it's clever, funny, totally engrossing, sobering, and dammit, if it doesn't give you a good attack of conscience. And the ending to this novel? Imagine the ending to the movie Requiem for a Dream, but on the page — it's about like that. It's good swift kick to the groin — but in a good, satisfying way (if that's possible) — a perfect conclusion both thematically and plot-wise to the novel.

The novel itself consists of three storylines that are related thematically, but don't seem to be related plot-wise until the very end. The theme is waste — you can almost hear the implied "waste not" from the famous maxim that would precede the title, right? The idea here is that greed leads to waste. We collect things (and people) that we don't need or necessarily even want, and we throw them away (people, too) just as easily.

One of the many strengths of this novel is its characters — the best (if least likeable) of which is Dave. Dave is skeezy middle-aged New Jerseyan who has gotten rich from a business he started that acquires debt at auction and then employs any means necessary to collect them. We first meet Dave on Thanksgiving Day as he's just taken what he considers to be a beautiful poop — so beautiful in fact, he snaps of photo with his camera phone, and later shows it to his teenage stepdaughter. Dave has very little scruples — he'll do whatever it takes to collect a debt, and he uses the proceeds to buy meaningless stuff, like fake boobs for his second wife Sara.

Then there's Elwin — a 54-year-old overweight linguistics professor whose wife has just left him. This has left him feeling discarded and sad. In our first scene with Elwin, he hits a deer with his car late at night, and decides to take it home and save the meat (waste not!) — with an assist from his young-20s neighbor Christopher, a Jersey Shore wannabe who is also one of the highlights of this novel. Elwin's father has Alzheimer's and Elwin struggles to comes to terms with the idea that all the memories his father has accumulated over his life are disappearing.

Finally, the third story is of Micah and Talmidge, a mid-20s couple who live off the grid in a squat apartment in Manhattan, and feed themselves from the waste of others — they basically dumpster diving to live from food that's discarded by restaurants and grocery stores. Things go south for the couple when Talmidge's college buddy Matty, just off a nine-month stint in jail for dealing drugs, comes to live with them. Micah's backstory is one of the more fascinating dozen or so page set-pieces in the novel — raised in rural Tennessee after her father had a religious vision. Now, the ideal of living independent of society (and gross consumerism, and its resulting waste) is what governs her life. And she's brought former frat-boy Talmidge along for the ride.

Throughout this novel, Miles is at his best when he veers into several-page set pieces on topics ranging from Dave's specific tactics for making collection calls to Elwin's father's memory of liberating a concentration camp during World War II. Miles is a spectacularly good writer — he's as good at cracking one-liners as he is stringing you along for a paragraph-length, stream-of-consciousness sentence.

So, to wrap up, if you only take one of my book recommendations all year, let it be this one. If you've read and enjoyed Jess Walter or Jonathan Tropper, you'll love this too — it's a similar style of writing, though I'd suggest that Miles might be even better. I cannot recommend this more highly. It's so, so good.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bobcat and Other Stories: Academics Being Academic-y

I love campus stories — Richard Russo's Straight Man is one of my favorite comic of all times — and so when I read about Rebecca's Lee's short story collection Bobcat and Other Stories (published summer 2012) being mostly about academics or students doing academic-y and/or student-y things, I was all over it (2013 is unquestionably the year of the short story for me. And it is good.)

Of course, then, my favorite story in the collection — the title story "Bobcat" — is the only one in the collection not specifically about academics. It's about a dinner party where the hosts are trying to decide whether a their friend knows that her husband is cheating on her. The guests are an eclectic group — there's a book editor waiting patiently for a call about a Salman Rushie memoir, a woman who wrote a memoir about being attacked by a bobcat and who annoys the other guests by talking about nothing else (the other guests wonder if her story is even true), and a woman who is a descendent of the members of the infamous Donner party. It's a riot!

Another highlight is the longest story in the collection (but they're all pretty short, no more than 20 pages) titled "Fialta" about a small group of students studying at an artist colony under a famous architect named Franklin Stadbakken. Here, at Fialta, romance between the student is strictly forbidden, but there may be a romance between the hallowed architect and the woman (oddly named Sand) for whom our narrator develops a massive crush. I loved this story. I didn't realize it until just now as I sat down to write this and learn a little bit more about Lee (she's a creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington) but this story actually won Lee a National Magazine Award in 2001. Impressive, but not surprising!

The other five stories in the collection were mostly interesting in their own ways — one titled "Min," which I thought just bizarre and am still not sure if I liked or not,  was about a woman who goes to Hong Kong with her good friend after they graduate college, where her friend has promised her that his rich father, a Hong Kong big wig, will give her a job. The job isn't what she expected — she has to help her friend's father find him a wife by culling through hundreds of applications to marry him. And then there's a tangent (or is it?) about Vietnamese refugees possibly being deported. One of the cool things about these stories is that you're never quite sure where we're going — you'll think it's pretty straightforward, but the a minor detail becomes a major issue, and you have to stay on you toes to figure out what the story is actually "about." It's pretty cool. Another titled "The Banks of the Vistula" is about a freshman who cheats on a linguistics paper, but finds herself forming a bond with her professor anyway. "World Party" is about a college campus that is the victim of lots of student group protests, and amused me because it reminded me a little of the movie PCU.

So it's a solid collection — not my favorite of the year, but I enjoyed these stories as short snacks between longer reading sittings. It's not a huge investment in time, and it was chance to read a new-to-me writer.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Americanah: An Honest Novel About Race in America

"You can't write an honest novel about race in this country," says a character in Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new novel, Americanah. Adichie is winking at her readers, in some ways telling us it's her devout hope that she has done just that.

Honestly, I don't know if this book is "honest" regarding race — that's probably not for me, as a "privileged white" to judge. It's funny at times, glib at others. It seems too earnest and too generalizing at times, but deeply profound and thought-provoking most often. But what I do know is that, overall, this novel is fantastic — I absolutely loved it! It's a substantial novel (just picking up the hardcover gives it that feel), but an easily readable one you'll fly through (if you're like me). It's easily one of my favorite novels of the year. And it's one of the rare novels I wish we could just make everyone read, so that they, too, could learn as much as I did from this book.

The story is about a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu who comes to America in her early twenties to attend college in Philadelphia. She struggles to understand American-ness in general (why do Americans say "excited" and "wonderful" so much, and why is everything infused with irony?!) but race in American specifically. She doesn't understand the hypersensitivity to race by some (why does a student in her class consider it offensive when another student asks Ifemelu if she likes watermelon?). It seems to her as an over-correction. But what's worse, of course, are the people who treat her differently because she's black. She's Nigerian, so she's never before thought of herself as black. Why do people speak more slowly to her when they hear her accent? Do they assume she's stupid? Why does she have such difficulty getting a job? In general, why do people treat her differently?

After graduating, Ifemelu begins a blog about race, which quickly earns her a wide following because of her unblinking, honest examination. The blog (full posts are included in the novel at the end of many chapters— and they're awesome) becomes the thematic cornerstone of the novel, and the jumping-off point for many of the conversations throughout the novel between Ifemelu, her boyfriends (one, a white rich man, another a liberal black Yale professor) and their friends. These conversations are fascinating as well, adding dimension to the questions (some much stupider than others) of race — Are we ready for a black president? Why are whites automatically on top of the American race hierarchy, and blacks on the bottom? And why are non-American blacks "different" than American blacks?

But there so much more to this novel than just discussion of race — there's a strong (and seemingly justified) condemnation of how we treat immigrants in this country, as well as how England treats immigrants. One whole section of the novel is about Ifemelu's former lover's (Obinze) experience trying to make his way as an immigrant in London. (Obinze, by the way, is an important character in the novel, as one of the underlying questions is, after Ifemelu breaks off contact with him, will he re-emerge? Is he really her soulmate?) And Adichie doesn't forget to tell us how different life is in Nigeria as well — and to me the sections that take place in Lagos are some of the most fascinating in the novel.

Adichie is a luminous, profound writer. (On the night Obama is elected, as Ifemelu celebrates with her friends, she's overcome with emotion, and Adichie writes "And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America." It's simple, but that passage gave me all the goosebumps.) You may have first heard of her from her 2006 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which was also fantastic, and may have been one of the reasons she won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2008.

I can't recommend Americanah more highly. (Don't just take my word — it has a 4.20 average over more than 4,200 ratings on GoodReads.) It's an important novel, but one that's still fun to read. It's the rare novel that combines profundity in subject with profound entertainment as well. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri's INTERPETER OF MALADIES: Swift Shot Right To The Feelings

The first story in Jhumpa Lahiri's first published work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, absolutely killed me. Talk about announcing your presence with authority, this story, titled "A Temporary Matter," is absolutely heart-wrenching — a theme-setter for most of the rest of the collection.

The story is about a young-ish married couple in the midst of one of those long lulls that plagues every relationship — but this one is a result of a tragedy. They'd recently had a child die soon after birth, and now both have retreated into themselves and their routines. Then, a breakthrough: A nightly hour-long power outage gives them occasion to talk again, to reconnect, and they begin sharing secrets they'd never revealed before. At first, these are harmless, mundane, almost humorous — but they soon become more consequential. Ostensibly, this secret-sharing brings them closer — but we soon learn the wife had a very different reason for re-building her ability to share than the husband does. And, as I said, the conclusion is just numbing. It really laid me out.

And again, this story sets the tone for many of the other stories about marital problems and the consequences of not communicating, or of keeping secrets. The title story is about a wife who shares a sordid secret with a tour guide while on vacation in India. Another story "Sexy" is about a young woman who has an affair with a married Indian man, all the while hearing one of her co-workers complaining about her cousin whose husband left her to take up with a younger woman. It's an incredible story about how difficult empathy is sometimes, and how we often willfully ignore consequences of bad things we do until we have full and terrible understanding of how they affect others.

Another of my favorites in the collection is titled "This Blessed House." I'm not sure if this story is supposed to be funny, but I thought it was. It's about a newly married couple who move into a new house. As they clean and paint, they keep finding Christian relics — like posters and prayer cards — hidden (or just forgotten about) all over the house. The wife — whose name is Twinkle — is a bit flighty, and loves the novelty of the items, and wants to display them prominently (in some sense, ironically) all over the house. But the straight-laced husband hates this idea, and starts to wonder — especially during the couple's housewarming party — whether he's made the right decision with this marriage.

Again, this collection was Lahiri's first book, published in 1999. And, sadly for me, it's the last of her published work I've gotten to read. I won't cliche and say I saved the best for last (I'm still sorting it all out, but I think The Lowland is my favorite of her four published works), but I really loved most of this collection. These are stories that hit you right in the feelings.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Five Tips On How To Enjoy Dave Eggers' The Circle

David Foster Wallace once said something to the effect that a good book teaches you how to read it. That is precisely the case with Dave Eggers' hilarious new dystopian satire The Circle — about a young-20s woman named Mae, and her meteoric rise through a Google-like company dedicated to making everyone's lives better and more efficient. (Or, taking over the world. Whichever.)

From signals very early on in the novel (and over the course of the rest it, as well), we learn quickly not to take this too seriously. It's a novel that's very much intended to be funny. And it really, really is. From the ultra-cheesy product names that "Circlers" introduce with pure earnestness — like a camera called SeeChange, or (my personal favorite) a way to vote electronically called Demoxie (democracy + moxie, natch) — to the goofy slogans like "All that happens must be known," and "Privacy is theft," this is less like Orwell's 1984 and more like Bill and Ted's 1984. 

But so, the novel has been getting somewhat mixed reviews, which, to some degree I guess I understand. If you read it as a serious cautionary tale about the dangers of technology, then, yeah, I can imagine you might push back and label Eggers a Luddite and his novel a clunky mess. But I don't think that's the case. I loved this book. And think you will too, especially if you keep in mind these five tips:

1. Don't go in expecting to dislike it — For whatever reason (I'm at a loss to explain this), Dave Eggers has become a target of cynicism, so some readers have gone in to this novel sharpening their hatchets. I don't get this — for Eggers or for any novel. It's a lot more fun to go in expecting to enjoy a novel. So do that.

2. These are serious issues, but a not-very-serious novel — As Jon Stewart and The Simpsons say, "Mmmm...that's good satire." Yes, the issues Eggers brings up — disappearing privacy, addiction to social media, one company ruling the world (?) — are real issues, and if you do a thought experiment (which, in some ways, this novel is) about taking all these issues to the worst possible place, then yeah, shit! This is scary. But Eggers isn't really worried about that. And we know he's not because he has too much fun making fun of all these possibilities to believe he actually thinks things like cameras literally everywhere could really happen. Here's another random example of how funny this novel is: Mae has just been recorded getting frisky with her new boyfriend. She's furious, and asks him to delete the video. But he won't, and her friend Annie explains why: Because, for the leader of the Circle, deleting information is like killing babies. "He'd weep. It hurts him personally," she explains to Mae. Mae replies: "But this baby's giving a handjob. No one wants that baby. We need to delete that baby." I mean......

3. This isn't OUR America. It's a dystopian version of our America — "My God, Mae thought. It's heaven." That's the opening line of the novel, and it's quite the ironic tone-setter. Dystopia is only dystopia to those who aren't on board. But what really indicates that this story doesn't take place in the real world is that almost none of the things that happen in this novel could realistically happen in real-life (politicians wearing cameras 24/7 so that they're totally transparent, for instance). Oh, and one point there's a reference to the demise of Facebook. Yeah, this isn't the real world.

4. Of course, the technology is ridiculous. Of course it is — Eggers has gotten dinged a lot for not understanding technology, being way too simplistic, and writing about totally unrealistic tech products — like the product the Circle is founded on called TruYou, an online profile which allows you, from one profile, to comment on blogs, zing (the Circle version of Twitter), pay bills, store passwords, find love, and do just about everything else on the Internet. Of course, it (and many of the other products the Cirlce has created) is ridiculous. But you don't think Eggers knows that? Give him some credit. He's not a stupid guy.
  
5. Accept that it's far from perfect. But it's still pretty good — At some point, all the product presentations start to get a bit repetitive and silly. Eggers has made his point, but he continues to hammer it home. What's more, there's a lot about kayaking. Mae kayaks. A lot. The kayaking parts were boring. And I can certainly see how women would be annoyed by Mae — she's a bit flighty and constantly finds herself in the thrall of lust for no particular reason. Eggers doesn't write female characters well, that's for sure.

But so, to conclude, I'd definitely recommend The Circle — as long as you can laugh with it, not at it. It's a fast-paced, fun read.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reading Alice Munro For the First Time

Reading outside a comfort zone doesn't get much more outside a comfort zone than Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women was for me. But this is a perfect case study for why reading outside a comfort zone is almost always a good thing. This is a phenomenal book, and I'm surprised it's not more widely read.

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, and since over the last two years or so, I've been reading a ton more short stories (sad to think what I'd been missing all these years by not reading short story collections), I was embarrassed that I'd never read the newly minted Nobel and oft-described Queen of the Short Story.

I chose Lives of Girls and Women because it was Book Riot editor and Alice Munro fan Jeff O'Neal's recommendation for where to start. (Well, the title story anyway.) Though this is often billed as Munro's only novel, it actually consists of a group of connected short stories with the same character, Della, who is telling us about growing up in a small town in rural Ontario in the 1940s and 1950s. These are, for the most part, quiet stories where nothing earth-shattering happens. Della's neighbor answers an ad in the paper for a housekeeper, marries her, and then she leaves. At a funeral, Della bites a mentally challenged woman who tries to drag her in to see the body. Della participates in a school pageant and has her first crush. She has a very weird experience with a male friend her mother's boarder. And finally, she has her first boyfriend and sexual experience.

What's most interesting about these stories — beyond just Munro's prose, which, of course is sparklingly clear and just so easy and enjoyable to read — is how a theme introduced in a previous story becomes the central focus of the next. The stories are in chronological order, but it seems clearer that they're arranged in a thematic progression, which is more important than the chronology. For instance, Del has the typical early-youth struggle with what death is and if there's an afterlife. Then, a later story is focused solely on Del's "quest" to understand religion. In one of the funniest moments in the book, she prays to God to get her out of sewing class as a sign that He exists. But then she realizes the folly here:
"And surely too it was rather petty, rather obvious of God to concern Himself so quickly with such a trivial request? It was almost as if He were showing off. I wanted Him to move in a more mysterious way."
Later, when the older man performs a sex act in front of her (he's a pervert and this is NOT okay), the next story tells of her first relationship, and her trying to come to terms with normal sexuality — whatever that is. In some ways, it's a power struggle.
"Sex seemed to me all surrender —not the woman's to the man but the person's to the body, an act of pure faith, freedom in humility. I would lie washed in these implications, discoveries, like somebody suspended in clear and warm and irresistably moving water, all night." 
Man, how good is that?! So, yes, I really enjoyed reading Munro for the first time. Jeff suggested in his Reading Pathways post that this a "female, Canadian cousin of Catcher in the Rye," and that feels right on the mark to me. So if you've never read Munro, this is, indeed a great place to start. I'm excited to move on to some of her other collections now!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Will The Inherent Vice Movie Be Good?

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to his critical darling The Master is an adaption of Thomas Pychon’s 2009 goofball of a novel, Inherent Vice. It’ll be the first time a Pynchon novel has ever been adapted for the big screen. Filming wrapped in August, and a release of mid- to late-2014 is expected. But will it be any good? Let’s take a look.

Source Material/ScreenplayWhile Inherent Vice is often described as “Pynchon lite,” it’s still a wacky pun- and joke-laden, indecently complex, and heavily charactered piece of fiction. The story is about a stoner P.I. named Doc Sportello who, in 1970s Southern California, tries to solve an increasingly mixed-up plot involving the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Shasta and a real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann. I liked the novel a lot — reading it feels like what it must be like to go through life as a stoner. Cause is often loosed from effect, things just happen, and there’s a plethora of plot and thought digression (though not as much as in a typical Pynchon novel). So I think the key to making this work will be the judiciousness of the cuts PTA, who wrote the screenplay, is able to make and still capture the complexity of the mystery and the “romp-like” feel of the story. One last note: A clear strength of the novel is its dialogue — and this will be a lot (I mean, A LOT) of fun on the big screen.

Director As I read the novel, I kept thinking that it had Coen Brothers written all over it — there’s definitely some Lebowski-ness to this story. But if there’s any other director who can pull off a Pynchon adaptation it’s gotta be PTA. If you’re not familiar with his stuff, in addition to The Master, PTA is the genius behind There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights (which he made when he was only 27 years old!), among others. Like Pynchon, some say PTA is an acquired taste, but if you like his stuff, you’d have to agree that the chances are good he’ll nail this one, too. 

CastJoaquin Phoenix plays the lead character/detective, stoner Sportello. I purposefully waited until I finished the novel to see who was playing this role, and I was really surprised. Phoenix seems too “dark” to play the happy-go-lucky stoner Sportello. I guess we’ll see. Josh Brolin is cast as hard-boiled LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen. Inspired! And some of the other minor roles are brilliant, as well — Martin Short as a goofy dentist named Blatnoyd, and Benicio del Toro as Sportello’s not-quite-on-the-level lawyer Sauncho. Here’s the list of
the entire cast — it’s an impressive group.

Wild CardThere’s a reason Pynchon’s never been filmed, and again, while Inherent Vice is probably Pynchon’s most accessible novel, it’s still not Dan Brown. Will it work? Here’s something else to think about: Pynchon had to have given his sign-off on the option for the film — what if he makes an appearance at the premier? Is that something you might be interested in? Okay, probably a long shot. But overall, I think PTA can steer this to success, but like The Master, it may be more critical success than commercial.

Confidence Index: 7 out of 10

Monday, October 28, 2013

Inherent Vice: Pynchon's Stoner Romp

If you've never read the venerable Thomas Pynchon before, and are looking for a good place to start (so, you know, you can tell people at parties you've read him, and be immediately worshiped as well-read), 2009's Inherent Vice might be a good choice. (Certainly, it's a better choice than Gravity's Rainbow, anyway.)

It's a goofy romp of a novel about a stoner private investigator in 1970 Southern California named Doc Sportello. Doc has to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Shasta, and her new boyfriend, a real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann. Along the way, he has to avoid running afoul of the hippie-hating, straight-laced LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, who is also investigating the case.

But then things get a little odd — there's an organization called Golden Fang that is made up of dentists may be a drug front for...something else. There are beach bunnies, and threesomes, and LSD trips, and an awesomely hilarious trip to Vegas, and some crooked cops, and a hitman, and man, this novel was just a lot of fun.

The dialogue in this novel is freakin' fantastic — it contains a lot of Pynchon's signature jokes and puns. (Guy says, in reference to evidence, "we'll have to run this by the lab," calls his dog, a Labrador comes bounding in, etc.) It's stupid, but it's funny. Beyond the jokes, though, there are plenty of digressions, and things just happen for no particular reason — you won't not confuse this with a Pynchon novel, even if the "psychedelic noir" is a new genre for Tommy P. And just when you start think you've got it figured out, you veer off into another direction. It's definitely not just a straightforward mystery, but that is part of the fun of the novel.

And I really did have fun with this book. It's one of those novels that, if you don't let yourself get frustrated that you don't get every joke and movie and music reference (you won't) or remember every tenuous character connection (you won't), and just enjoy the plot and writing, you'll probably have fun with it, too.

Also of note, director Paul Thomas Anderson (of The Master, There Will Be Blood, and Boogie Nights fame) has just wrapped filming on an adaptation of Inherent Vice. It's the first time a Pynchon novel has been adapted for the big screen. And it's expected to be released mid- to late-2014. I wrote a post for Book Riot about the adaptation today, which I'll post here later this week, as well.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Working Theory of Love: Tropper on Downers

I picked up Scott Hutchins' debut novel, A Working Theory of Love, because it sounded like a good facsimile of a Jonathan Tropper novel. And it is, to some degree, but it's more a like a Tropper on downers.

The novel's about mid-30s dude named Neill Bassett, recently divorced and living in San Francisco, and working for a start-up company attempting to bring consciousness to a computer. Neill's a self-deprecating, semi-depressed dude, who can't seem figure out where life will lead next.

In the opening pages of the novel, we see a desperate Neill pretending to be a tourist at a youth hostel so that he can pick up younger women who are visiting San Francisco and need a "tour guide" — it's a move a friend told him about, but which he's not sure he's fully committed to. But it works! He meets cute, mysterious 20-year-old Rachel who is pretending to be from Tel Aviv, but who is actually from Jersey, having just moved to SF to get a new start on life. Once Rachel and Neill come clean about their respective ruses, they start hanging out and form an unlikely, but tenuous bond.

But Neill, in general, seems to be annoyed by people, especially hipsters, ("The tight clothes, the tiny hats — their major struggle as a generation seems to be reducing drag. As if success in life requires being ever ready to slip through a narrow opening."), and he's somewhat confounded by the absurdity of his job. That's especially true when you consider the computer he works with — built by a famous artificial intelligence scientist and an Indonesian programmer — is based on 5,000 pages of journal written by Neill's dead father (who committed suicide when Neill was in college).

Neill spends his days talking via instant messenger to essentially what is a computerized reanimation of his dead father. The goal for the computer — named Dr. Bassett (Neill's father was a physician) is to pass the Turing test — that is, fooling human judges at least 30 percent of the time that it is a real person. What will it take to do that? Will the computer need to be programmed with real human vices? Or, conversely, with real human love? What, indeed, is the working theory of love that will allow the computer to learn real human connection? And, similarly, what is the working theory of love that will allow the divorced Neill, who thought he'd found his soulmate, to form real human connections in his own life? 

This is one of those novels that's probably a much better book than I'm willing to give it credit for. For one thing, it seemed odd that we don't find out until near the end why Neill's father killed himself, and we never really see Neill wondering at all about it. For another, while the novel is really funny at times (most often when Hutchins is ripping on silly hipsters), it felt like Hutchins tossed too many balls in the air for this to work completely. For me, whatever Hutchins intends the real theory of love to be got a bit lost in theories on artificial intelligence, set-piece love letters to San Francisco (which, actually, were fairly cool — San Francisco is one of my favorite cities), Neill's strange relationship with his mother, Neill's relationships with various other women, and Neill's relationships with his coworkers. 

If you liked Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, you may like this, too. The subject matter is very different, but the writing and overall feel are similar. (For the record, I wasn't a huge fan of that novel either.) But if you're looking for a Tropper-esque breezy, funny dude lit, this may not be the best solution. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Uncollected Thoughts On Neil Gaiman's American Gods

Is it fair to say that Neil Gaiman's American Gods, published in 2001, has already achieved "new classic" status? I bet Gaiman's diehard fans would say so. Me? I liked this book well enough, but it didn't change my life. I appreciated the storytelling, the craft, and the creativity. I enjoyed reading it. But it's not a novel that left me breathless, as it has so many Gaiman fans. So in lieu of a review, here are a few general thoughts about the book.

1) This is the first time I've read Gaiman, and through the first 200 pages or so I had to remind myself I wasn't reading Stephen King. Gaiman fans probably see that as a slight. I don't mean it as such — it was just a thought that occurred to me in the first pages, probably because of the supernatural elements, the dialogue, and the roadtrip-ness, and that I had trouble removing from brain after.

2) Strangely enough, even with all the supernatural flair here, my favorite section of the novel is the part where Shadow makes a domestic life for himself in the cold environs of Lakeside, Wisconsin. It's such a contrast to everything that came before and then comes after. It's a quiet, mysterious section of story. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

3) Man, there are some wonderful pieces of wisdom in this novel. Here are three of my favorite quotes:
"Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives."
"Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you — even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition."
“What I say is, a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore it knows it's not fooling a soul.”
4) There are a surprising number of surprises in this novel! Just when you think you've got it figured out — new gods vs. old gods, old gods are fading because Americans lack belief, Wednesday is leading a war to the death — Gaiman gives you the slip. I really liked this about the novel, as I'd been under the impression that it was lots more "straightforward" than it is.

5) Speaking of which, man, there's a lot to unpack here — the foundation and nature of belief, delusion vs. faith, the soul of America, the fine line between life and death, loyalty, evil, etc. The depth of this novel was also a surprise. I'd gone in thinking it was a fairly straightforward book with some goofy supernatural stuff — I even kind of made fun of this book before giving it a try. It's a profound, smart story that does really require a second (or third or fourth) reading to figure out in total. I don't know whether I'll be doing that, but I'm certainly glad I finally gave Gaiman a shot — and looking forward to reading more by him. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Unaccustomed Earth: Somber Stories About Culture Collisions

You don't read Jhumpa Lahiri if you need a giggle. The short stories here in her 2009 collection Unaccustomed Earth are at best somber (with just a smidgen of hope here and there?), and at worst, downright depressing. But you do read Lahiri to be awed, if not by the stories themselves, then by the polish of her prose. In fact, I didn't like all, or even most, of the stories in this collection. But I loved reading them.

This collection includes five stand-alone stories, and then three connected stories about the same two characters. If you're familiar with Lahiri (and if not, I'd highly recommend checking out her new novel The Lowland, one of the best books I've read this year), you'll be familiar with the theme here — the collision of old tradition and Indian culture with new tradition and American culture. Many of these stories are about marriages or relationships between the children of Indian immigrants and Americans, and the sometimes uncomfortable tension between Indian traditions (like arranged marriages) and American ones (not arranged marriages).

My favorite story in the collection is titled "Nobody's Business," about a young Indian woman named Sang, who rents a room in a house in Boston occupied by a nerdy grad student named Paul. Sang is constantly getting phone calls from ambitious Indian men — directed to her by her parents — asking, in so many words, to marry them. Sang, meanwhile, is dating a guy named Farouk, who may or may not be cheating on her. Paul, as well, has found himself with a crush on Sang, and soon things get all tangled up and feelings are trounced upon. I loved the idea of the tradition of Indian arranged marriages juxtaposed with Sang's "modern" relationship. Both are rather fraught with difficulty.

The title story "Unaccustomed Earth," the longest story in the collection, is also a favorite. It's a quiet, somber story about a woman named Ruma, who has moved to Seattle with her husband Adam. When Ruma's widower father comes to visit, she debates whether to invite him to live with them, per what Indian tradition would expect of her. But Ruma's father isn't willing to give up his independence so readily — nor is he willing to reveal his new secret late-in-life love.

The quasi-novella of three connected stories tells the not-so-whirlwind romance of Hema and Kaushik, the children of two families of Indian immigrants. The stories shift perspective and follow the characters into adulthood, where they eventually meet up again by coincidence. This forces us to wonder that since these two knew each other as children, and meet again later in life, what is the difference between "fated" lovers and arranged lovers? Don't read this story if you're already feeling a little down. It's a downer times ten.

I read these stories one-a-day over the course of a couple weeks, and as I said, really enjoyed the experience of reading them, if not each of the stories themselves. But as far as short story collections, you could definitely do worse than this — especially, if like me, you're totally enthralled with Lahiri.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The New Dork Review of Books Turns FOUR

Do you believe it? This lightly trafficked corner of the web has now existed for four solid years!

While the focus of the content here has slowly shifted over the past several years to almost strictly book reviews and reactions, writing here is still a thing I really enjoy. Yes, it's still fun for me. I still wake up in the morning on days I'm planning to post excited to write. I still lay in bed at night thinking about how to frame a reaction to a book, how to make sure you get the best idea of how to make a decision on whether to try the book yourself, and how to really capture what I thought of a book without resorting to "Mehs" or "I just didn't connect with the characters."

Of course, the thing that most keeps this fun is interaction with you readers. I'm still energized by your comments, and hearing that you enjoyed a book I wrote about here. Seriously, even if it's only one person who gets something out of a post, it's worth it. I feel like I write this often, but I started this blog mostly as a creative outlet for me. I had no idea if anyone would read, and I'm still not one who religiously tracks traffic numbers or anything. Honestly, I'm just happy to still be here, and that you are too. Thanks, as always, for reading!



And while we're celebrating, let's all wish a heartfelt happy second birthday to Book Riot! I'm continuously in awe of the hard work and creativity that goes into that site. It a site that has constantly evolved and come up with new and fun ways to keep readers interested. (Have you checked out the Book Riot Podcast? It's really, really good. I can assure you you'll be entertained.) I'm very privileged to be a part of Book Riot, and I hope that if you're not yet a regular Riot reader, you'll give it a chance.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cartwheel: Love and Murder in Argentina

Jennifer duBois's second novel, Cartwheel, just out this week, is a fictional retelling of the Amanda Knox story — the American study abroad student who was arrested and tried for allegedly killing her roommate in Italy in 2007. duBois's novel takes place in Buenos Aires, and her Amanda Knox character is a self-centered New Englander named Lily Hayes, who is arrested for killing her cute Californian roommate Katy. The question in duBois novel, though, seems not to be whether she actually did it, but whether she COULD have done it.

The novel's a quick, thrilling read —it examines Lily's character and the case from several different angles; we're in her head for a lot of the novel, but also we jump to the perspectives of Lily's mysterious, kind of douchey next-door-neighbor-lover Sebastien, the lead detective on the case named Eduardo, and Lily's parents and younger sister Anna.

The eponymous cartwheel here refers to the fact that while Lily was being interrogated for the murder, she does a cartwheel in the interrogation room. Why did she do that? For the detective, and for the easy-to-judge public (like the Amanda Knox story, Lily's story has touched off a media circus), this detail is a sure sign of her guilt. “It was the joy that was the key; nobody cartwheels when they’re paralyzed with grief.” And the cartwheel is also a representative detail of one of the themes of the novel — can oddities like these really be an indicator of guilt? (After Lily discovers the body and calls 911, she's spotted on security camera at a convenience story winking suggestively at Sebastien in the condom aisle, etc.) 

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel, because we see several different perspectives, is how each character views these little oddities, as well as the uncontested facts of the case — including that Lily's DNA was on the knife and one of Katy's bras. How does each side — Lily's lawyers and her parents vs. Eduardo the detective — concoct a story that fits all the evidence?

Another of the best parts of the novel is duBois's penchant for characterization. She often lets different characters describe each other to show us the lens through which they're building their stories about what happened. For instance, Eduardo the detective describes Lily's somewhat mysterious boyfriend Sebastien thusly: "But he was also, by all accounts, impossible: sphinxlike, maddeningly detached, forever circling around life and speech, both, in half-ironic, riddle-filled whirlpools." duBois, though, is at her best describing Lily, who "thinks the whole world revolves around the gaping vacuum of her needs.” Lily is totally oblivious about the effects of her actions on others or how her actions might be perceived — whether answering her host family's phone, or taking selfies at a church in a revealing tank top. She is someone who learns things, and can't imagine others around her not knowing that thing she just learned. And so it's the most interesting thing of all time.

But do these qualities of her character make her a murderer? Do they make it possible that she COULD be a murderer? And so we cruise through this incredibly read-able, incredibly well-written novel at breakneck speed to find out.

I loved this book — and I'm actually someone who actively avoided information about Amanda Knox, because I couldn't have cared less about that story. But this story is much more interesting because it doesn't have the dirty feel of news filtered through the tabloid machine. Highly, highly recommended!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Lowland: The Year's Best Novel?

Jhumpa Lahiri's second novel, The Lowland, out today, might be the best novel of the year. It's the story of two brothers, lifelong secrets, the immigrant experience, and how parents' mistakes can still resonate decades later, influencing the lives of their children, even as adults.

It's a masterwork; an absolutely awe-inspiring piece of storytelling. Lahiri's prose is so clear and crisp, you cruise through her story effortlessly. There are no extra words, no tortured metaphors, no page-long stream-of-consciousness sidebars. Every word has it's place and there's a place for every word.

But if you've read Lahiri before, none of this comes as a surprise. She already has a Pulitzer under her belt for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. And even before its publication, The Lowland already appears on the short list for the Man Booker Prize, as well as the long list for the National Book Award. That's some serious literary cred.

Beyond the craft, what makes the story itself so compelling is Lahiri's ability to slow-burn the secrets. The big reveals aren't BIG REVEALS — they're often tinier details that change our whole way of thinking about characters' relationships or what we understand to be their motivations.

The two principals here are brothers Subhash and Udayan, who we first meet as young boys in Calcutta in the 1950s. The story follows them over the course of their young lives, as their paths diverge, and there's an unspoken, almost subconscious, competition between the two, even as they remain extremely close. Soon, Udayan is inspired by the Naxalite movement in 1960s India — a fascinating piece of Indian history of which I'd been totally ignorant until this story — and becomes increasingly radical, running with other revolutionaries. Subhash takes a less confrontational path, emigrating to the U.S. for post-graduate studies at a small, seaside college in Rhode Island.

Life continues. Bad things happen. Good things happen. There is marriage, children, career, heartbreak. But you don't want to know the details. You want to let Lahiri reveal them to you in the way she intended. It's a story that first draws you in, and then moves you through at different speeds — it's contemplative when it needs to be, but it slings you along at an appropriately brisk pace (both in terms of years and action) when it has to. We traverse more than 60 years in this novel, but it never feels like you missed anything important. That's truly a neat trick.

Some readers may nit-pick with certain details or choices characters make, or with the generally "soft" feel of the novel. But to me, these are both strengths — the characters do actually keep you guessing, and Lahiri's prose...well, I just can't find any fault. As I mentioned, it's just so sharp and readable. It's a novel I didn't want to end, a novel we'll all be talking about on year-end lists, and a novel I can't recommend more highly.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Salinger Contract: Publishing ON DEMAND!

J.D. Salinger is all the rage these days, and Adam Langer capitalizes on this Salinger-mentum by centering his new novel, The Salinger Contract, on a fun little literary thought-experiment: What responsibility do writers bear for how readers react to, interpret, or are inspired by their fiction? Any? Maybe just a little? Maybe it depends on the subject and reader? Early on, Langer points out that Mark David Chapman (who shot John Lennon) and John Hinkley (who shot Reagan) were obsessive fans The Catcher in the Rye.

So are writers to blame if their readers do horrific things? Before you jump to say "of course not," consider the opposite: Why, then, can writers take credit if readers' reactions are positive; if they're inspired by a novel to do good things?

Langer begins the novel with this fantastic first line: "I never believed a book could save your life." And so we immediately wonder what will cause this change of heart. And what in God's name could it possibly have to do with why Salinger and Thomas Pynchon and other reclusive writers who shunned fame and their adoring public their whole lives?

So that's the basic framework for the plot of this fun, fast-paced story. A narrator named Adam Langer (you'll find out why this is important at the end) tells us the story of a buddy of his, a novelist named Conner Joyce, who has become disillusioned with publishing. Joyce has tasted success, but his last several crime thrillers have suffered from ever-declining readership, and ever-less-well-attended readings on his book tour. (If you read Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan — and if you haven't, I'd recommend it highly — you'll recognize the same basic level of cynicism about the state publishing here as well. And also some bookish references definitely aimed at avid readers.)

Soon, however, Joyce is thrown a lifeline when a rich and mysterious Chicagoan approaches him and offers him a pile of money to write a novel. So, Langer asks us to consider another question — as the publishing industry is supposedly failing, and no one is reading anymore (he thinks), what if rich guys who still love books hired writers to write novels — sort of like a medieval patron? Could there be unintended consequences, or is this a way to keep fiction writers in business?

The catch for Conner, though, is this: Conner can't tell anyone he's writing the novel, and the novel will never actually see the light of day — it'll be kept for the personal enjoyment of the shadowy rich dude, who by the way, also owns novels by Salinger, Pynchon, and Norman Mailer; all whom had similar contracts. Can Conner accept those terms? For sure, man! But naturally, things go a bit awry, and Conner finds himself running for his life.

Langer's a great lampooner of the publishing industry. One of the subplots of the story is a about a writer named Margot Hetley, a foul-mouthed lady who writes an immensely popular Harry Potter/Twilight mashup called the Wizard Vampire Chronicles. She and Conner share the same editor, a beautiful, devil-wears-Prada-esque woman hilariously named Shascha Schapiro.

In total, despite the deep-meaning questions Langer asks you to consider, The Salinger Contract is mostly just a quick, speed read. When the plot turns from the set-up to the action, you have to turn down your bullshit detector just a bit, and sort of just go with it. Langer has a tendency to gloss over key plot points, and provide short, brusque explanations for some of the "hows" and "whys," leaving me to wonder if this whole thing might not have been better rendered either as a short story or a longer novel with more fleshed out details.

Still, the questions he asks his readers to consider here are interesting and relevant to anyone who loves books. And it's a fast-paced, sometimes funny, often thought-provoking, read. So it is a book I'd recommend, with only minor hesitations.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

On The Road: Diary of the Midwest Indie Bookstore Tour 2013

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

Over Labor Day weekend, I crossed a significant item off my bookish bucket list. I spent the weekend driving 1,200 miles, through four states and five cities…all for books! I visited eight different independent bookstores along the way, and I did this for no other reason than that it was something I’ve always wanted to do. What follows is a chronicle of my adventures. Enjoy!
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(Note to the reader: In most cases, the hyperlinks are to Flickr for photos I took on the trip. You can go here for a list of and links to the bookstores I visited.)


Friday, August 30th

11:30 am — I’m off! Man, am I excited! I climb into my trusty blue Honda Civic, armed with the Google maps app, four apples, two bags of trail mix, two Gatorades, and Reza Aslan’s Zealot on audiobook. I head west!

2:30 pm — I’m crossing the mighty Mississippi…at 5mph. Stupid road construction.

4:05 pm — I arrive at my first stop — Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, IA. Wow — my first thought as I walk in is that I hope all of my stops are as awesome as this one. Prairie Lights is near the campus of the University of Iowa, and clearly caters to a student crowd — indeed, two comely coeds were in line in front of me, asking about books for a psychology class. But Prairie Lights has a huge fiction section, too. I look around for awhile, then I earn a wary glance from a clerk when I take out my phone and snap a photo of the super cool old-school refrigerator door with bookish magnets. So I pick up a hardcover copy of Elliott Holt’s novel You Are One Of Them, and beat a hasty retreat.

5:30 pm — It’s 102 degrees. I’m hoping the trusty blue Civic makes it. And it does! Here’s the second stop of the day, Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, IA. This is a tiny store situated in a shopping plaza on the west side of the city. The selection here is meager, but the store has one full wall of shelves dedicated to Iowa authors and books, which is cool. There’s also a bin at the front of the store that offers shoppers a free Advanced Reading Copy with purchase. Very cool. I buy a paperback of Adam Langer’s Crossing California (he has a new novel out 9/17 titled The Salinger Contract, which I’m really excited about!), and head out to find some food.

7:00 pm — I check into my budget roadside motel in west Des Moines. I find a liquor store, buy a bottle of scotch, and return to my room to continue reading the new Jonathan Lethem (Dissident Gardens, out 9/10). I feel like Jack Kerouac. Or Charles Bukowski. Or Hunter S. Thompson. I keep telling myself that.


Saturday, August 31

9:45 am — I gas up at a Kum and Go station, suppress a giggle, and hit the road!

1 pm — I drive through downtown Kansas City, head west, and arrive in Lawrence, Kansas. My first stop is a used bookshop called The Dusty Bookshelf. The place is swamped with what appear to be professor sorts — one man has situated himself in the “classics” section on a chair and appears to be simply sitting there gazing lovingly at the books. This goes on for awhile. I butt in, scoop up a copy of Jane Eyre, pay $2 for it, and head out.

1:30 pm — Right around the corner from The Dusty Bookshelf is The Raven Bookshop, a tiny store, but with a deceptively large fiction selection. The woman in line in front of me at The Dusty Bookshelf is here, too. We nod at each other — a mutual booklovers’ acknowledgement. I browse for just a minute, and pick up a hardcover copy of Max Barry’s Lexicon.

2:30 pm — I have very few non-bookish plans for this trip. But visiting Allen Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Kansas is one. I’m a fanatical college hoops fan, and this is an essential stop — Allen Fieldhouse is one of the oldest and most venerable college basketball facilities in the country. I approach the building on Naismith Drive (as in Dr. James, the inventor of basketball), park, and walk across a large grass field to snap a photo or two. It’s quiet, there’s no one else around. I’m wearing a Marquette University tshirt (my beloved alma mater). I’m trying to exorcise the demons of the 2003 Final Four. Somewhere, Dwyane Wade is smiling. I keep telling myself that.

4:00 pm — I’m back in Kansas City. It’s started to rain, appropriately, just as I pull up to Rainy Day Books. Heartbreak! It’s closed for the Labor Day weekend. Gah! So I go check into my hotel, and walk around the Country Club Plaza area, where there’s a three-story Barnes and Noble. It’s pretty awesome. I spend an hour there browsing and buy a paperback copy of Nelson DeMille’s The Panther.

8 pm — I’m in my hotel room reading. I’m not in the mood for Dense Lethem right now, so I read Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons. I’ve never read Dee before, but this novel seems…purposefully obtuse? As one example, the following passage: “Holding the phone with her shoulder, she Googled his name and hit Return.” Hit Return?! Is she Googling on a typewriter? This reminds of me that Senator from Alaska who thought the Internet was a “series of tubes.” This, and other similar silly passages, throws off my reading mojo, so I retreat to the bar next door for barbeque and beer. Boulevard beer is very good.


Sunday, September 1


12:30 pm — I’m driving from KC to St. Louis (middle Missouri is beautiful!), and I decide to take a break from Aslan to rock out for a bit. “Pardon me…while I burst…into fla..” SHIT! TIRE IN THE ROAD! /Swerve /Regain control /Briefly hyperventilate. I go back to Aslan.

2:30 pm — I’m at Main Street Books (no photo, ’cause it was pouring) in historic St. Charles, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis). The best and probably only way to describe this tourist-oriented bookshop is Cute (yes, with a capital C). It’s tiny with creaky wood floors, and a steep staircase that leads to an upstairs used and children’s section with a fireplace and all. The street out front is even made of red bricks. I feel like I’m in an episode of Little House on the Prairie. The fiction selection here is small, but the store has a sign that reads “Browse here, find it here, buy it here, keep us here.” I love that — it’s sort of the theme for the trip (and the mantra for all indie bookstores). I buy a hardcover copy of Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway.

3:00 pm — Holy shit, it’s raining very, very hard. The gods are angry, my friends.

3:30 pm — I arrive safely at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, near the campus of Washington University — it’s a long, narrow bookstore with a huge fiction section. But the first thing I notice when I walk in is that they’re displaying Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam — which is exciting because I didn’t think it was available for three more days. I buy a copy. I also love this wall of bookish tshirts near the entrance to the store. On the walk back to my car, I literally stumble on a William Burroughs star on a pseudo-star-walk-of fame.

5:00 pm — I check into my hotel in downtown St. Louis, near the Arch, and walk to the last stop on the indie bookstore tour — Left Bank Books. I really love this place — it’s all hardwood floors, and open plenum, and with a really industrial/loft feel. I browse for awhile, and then chat up the guy at the register about the other Left Banks location in the Central West End part of town, which, he tells me, is actually the original store. He says it’s a little bigger with a bit better selection. But I like the selection here, too. I splurge a little, since this is my last stop, and buy a hardcover copy of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah and a paperback copy of Scott Hutchins’s A Working Theory of Love. I leave the store, and I’m little sad. I go visit the Arch, and call it a day.


Monday, September 2

1:30 pm — About halfway home, I finish listening to Zealot. I give myself a high-five, as this is my first ever audiobook — no longer am I an audiobook virgin!  I enjoyed the experience, with a few reservations — but more on that in a later post. Also, Zealot is really interesting. I’d highly recommend it if you’re into religion and history and such things.

3:30 pm — Sweet home, Chicago. What a trip. Here’s my final haul. Time to get to work reading!
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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Two Jonathan Novels, Two Mini-Duds

Today, Jonathan Lethem's new novel Dissident Gardens hits bookstores. It's his first novel since 2009's Chronic City, and his first since moving from his beloved (and frequent setting for his fiction) Brooklyn to take over the teaching post previously held by David Foster Wallace at Pomona College in Pomona, Calif. 

I got a pre-pub copy of Dissident Gardens, and so I can tell you there's good news and bad news. First the good: If you're a diehard, and I do mean DIEHARD, Lethem fan, you'll probably love Dissident Gardens. The bad news: If you're not, you probably won't.

Dissident Gardens is, in a word, dense. It's the story of Rose Zimmer, a Communist living in Sunnyside, Queens, in the mid-1950s. And it's the story of various other characters — Rose's daugher, Miriam, Rose's lover's son, Cicero, Rose's gross cousin, Lenny, and Rose's grandson, Sergius. The novel's told in 20- to 30-page episodic increments, each slowly (and slog-tastically) building the story of each character — showing how interactions with each other in their formative years affects the way these characters interact with each other in the future.

It's also a novel is about ideology — specifically how rigid ideology (Rose's communism, etc.), ideology that doesn't consider actual human people and the ideologist's relationship to them, can easily alienate the people closest. What happens, the novel asks, when firmly held beliefs fail to bear out in the real world?

A few of these mini-stories are really entertaining — one of the first chapters is teenage Miriam coming home with a boy, determined to lose her virginity, but Rose interrupts, and they fight. And this singular fight affects their life-long relationship. Another shows Sergius in modern times, meeting a girl at an Occupy at a small college town.

But for the most part, these episodes (Lenny trying to talk William Shea, the new owner of the Mets, into using a folk song as the new team's theme) were either just weird, or felt like the writing a novelist must do to learn more about his characters before actually writing the novel and setting them into the story. So, unless you're a Lethem Diehard, I'd think about skipping this one.



While trudging through Jonathem Lethem's novel, I also was reading another New York novel by another Jonathan (Dee) — this one titled A Thousand Pardons. Since I finished these two Jonathan novels within a day of each other, I thought it made sense to write about them together — especially given that I wasn't a huge fan of Dee's novel, either.

A Thousand Pardons is a slim, uneven novel about a failed marriage, a chance for redemption, and a drunken movie star who may or may not have killed a woman. Helen and Ben, ensconced in suburban New York City, with their pre-teen adopted daughter Sara, are in couples counseling. Ben is bored, and soon the marriage blows up in spectacular fashion when Ben invites a comely intern at his law firm to a hotel room for a sexy rendezvous, is beaten up there by her boyfriend, gets drunk, passes out, gets a DUI, loses his job, is sued for sexual assault, gets divorced, and goes to jail. It's a bad week.

Helen tries to pick up the pieces by moving with Sara to Manhattan, where she has discovered a talent for public relations — specifically getting jerks to apologize for jerky actions (a cheating councilman, eg.). Soon, Helen finds herself working for the top PR company in New York, and reconnects with a movie star named Hamilton Barth, with whom Helen had gone to grade school. Hamilton goes on a bender, and calls Helen for help, and the novel veers into a mystery — did he or didn't he kill a woman? He honestly can't remember!

This novel's a decent, light read, not to be taken too seriously. So much of this novel is so improbable, you can't help but snigger a bit at it. For instance, Helen, with no experience and not having worked for 12 years, is easily able to set up four interviews in Manhattan on the same day— including one for an editorial assistant at a Conde Nast magazine. Riiiiiiiiight. At another point, when Ben is jail, and trying to keep that a secret from his now-ex-wife and daughter, he wonders if his daughter will know that he's emailing her from a different IP address, and therefore will find out he's in jail. Um, okay? (Maybe that's nit-picky, but it just added to the avalanche of unreality in this novel.)

So, really, the best thing I can say about Dee's novel is that it was a good change of pace from Lethem's. But I don't think I'll be recommending either one.



Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Indie Bookstore Road Trip 2013

It's 350 miles to Des Moines, I got a full tank of gas, an iPhone full of bookish podcasts and audiobooks, it's dark (well, not really)...and I'm wearing sunglasses. Hit it!

Tomorrow, I'm leaving on a four-state, five-city Labor Day weekend roadtrip totally focused on books — otherwise known as the best reason to roadtrip ever. Woo, books! The plan is to stop at eight independent bookstores (and maybe one highly recommended Barnes and Noble in Kansas City) along the way.

Here's the planned route, starting out heading west from Chicago:

And here's the list of bookstores:
1. Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City, IA
2. Beaverdale Books, Des Moines, IA
3. The Raven Book Store, Lawrence, KS
4. The Dusty Bookshelf, Lawrence, KS
5. Rainy Day Books, Fairway, KS (Kansas City)
6. Main Street Books, St. Charles, MO (near St. Louis)
7. Subterranean Books, St. Louis
8. Left Bank Books, St. Louis

Is this trip just a tad dorky? Oh, yeah. Am I super excited about it? Yes. Yes, I am. It's something I've always wanted to do, and since the future spouse's mother and sister are in town this weekend to wedding-dress shop, I have a free pass for a Weekend of Dork. And this is the best possible way I can think to take advantage.


So I'll have a full report next week. Until then...onward!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

& SONS: Famous Novelists Make The Worst Fathers

The opening scene of David Gilbert's fantastic new novel & Sons shows aging, reclusive novelist A.N. Dyer  forced to brave the outside world to deliver the eulogy at his life-long friend's funeral. But A.N. Dyer has barely slept the night before because he — a writer of some repute whose first novel, Ampersand, is now part of the canon — has stayed up all night searching for canned eulogies on the Internet. It's the first sign of many to follow of the sad state of Dyer's life — a revered writer plagiarizing his best friend's eulogy!

And from there, we follow Dyer's predictable and comic botch job of the eulogy, his sudden realization that his own days are numbered, and his attempt to reconcile with his two middle-aged sons, Richard and Jamie.

Oh, and there's the matter of A.N. Dyer's teenage son, Andy — whose birth, the result of an extramarital affair, ruined A.N. Dyer's marriage and estranged his other sons. Andy, attending Exeter Academy, as did his father and his older half-brothers, is, A.N. Dyer believes, his last chance to be a good father, as his other two sons, partially because he's always been a really crappy father, are kind of screwed up. And there's the small matter that they both hate him — partially because of Andy's existence. Richard has battled drug addiction his whole life, but has now settled down in California with a wife named Candy and two kids, and has spent 20 years not talking to his father. Jamie is a filmmaker, but he doesn't actually make films — he just shoots video — and kind of drifts around the world, surfacing in Brooklyn once in awhile.

There's a lot to this novel, both in terms of style and substance. There are long, delicious stream-of-consciousness passages. There are meditations on writing and fatherhood and life in New York and family dysfunction and tons of other things I love in novels. There is teenage angst, and a quest to get laid. There are Hollywood actors and drugs and sex. And there is the mother of all unexpected plot twists about halfway through the novel — which your willingness (or not) to accept this will dramatically influence how much you like this novel. I thought it was great, and I loved just about everything else about this book.

It's a novel that's in my absolute sweet spot of "novels I like" — it's a literary novel about writers and dysfunctional New York families. I think you'll like it, too, though. Highly recommended!

(Also, I don't know why, and probably there is no reason, but the three letters on the cover that are white, as opposed to the other yellow lettering, spell N-A-D. And I can't get past that, and because I'm 12, I giggle every time I pick up the book — because it reminds me of this. How about THAT for elevating the level of discourse for a literary novel?!)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Night Film: Exploring the Dark Arts

Today is pub day for the most buzzed about novel of the summer: Marisha Pessl's Night Film. Will it live up to the hype?

I got a pre-pub ebook from the publisher, and spent the last two weeks with it, and I can faithfully report that it's got a good shot.

You'll hear frequently that Night Film is a "genre-bender" — and that's not wrong. It's a fast-paced mystery and a psychological thriller. It's an examination of the intersection of myth and fact, and art and real life. And it's a glimpse into the bowels of hell. DUM Dum dum... For me, this cross-genre-ness is a delight (Pessl is a supremely fun writer — profound and hip and funny and smart all at once), but to others, this might be confusing; especially if you have a preconceived notion that this is a Stephen King horror novel or a Michael Connelly thriller mystery or a Gillian Flynn head-messer-upper, etc. It's none of those, but a little bit of all of them, too.

Also, Night Film is a story in which you as the reader get to take an active role — not in a "choose-your-own-adventure" sense, but more in the sense that you're practically a character in the novel. This will also, no doubt, appeal differently to different readers. You, the reader, have to decide how much you're going to trust Pessl, while fully understanding that she may be trying to misdirect or confuse you as well. You have to choose what to believe, right along with the characters. Is there a reasonable explanation for such-and-such plot twist, or is there something more sinister going on? To me, that was a delight — indeed, my favorite part of the novel. To other readers, that might be annoying.

But that'll all make more sense once you understand the plot. So, here: Scott McGrath, our first-person narrator, is a mid-40s investigative reporter in New York City. Five years ago, while investigating the reclusive, cult-hero horror film director Stanislas Cordova (think David Lynch crossed with Hitchcock), he'd been publicly disgraced and discredited when, based on details gleaned from an anonymous phone call, he went on a news show and called Cordova a pedophile and possibly a murderer.

Back to the present, Cordova's youngest daughter, the beautiful, troubled 24-year-old Ashley has committed suicide by jumping down an elevator shaft in an abandoned building in Queens. McGrath gets the itch for the story again, and along with two cohorts (a stoner named Hopper and 19-year-old girl named Nora), re-starts the investigation in earnest.

McGrath interviews various people (a man who helped Ashley escape a mental hospital, a freaked-out maid at the Waldorf Towers hotel, patrons of a secret sex club) who came into contact with Ashley during her mysterious last week of life. The story begins to get weird — did Ashley dabble in the occult? Does her father? — and are those connections to the dark arts the basis for Cordova's horror movies?

As McGrath investigates, he's forced to weigh his staunch skepticism as a grounded, rational journalist with the real possibility that there may be elements to Ashley's story that traverse the traditional. And you, the reader, are right there with him, performing a stress test on your own beliefs. Can black magic or curses or worse be really real? Or is Pessl just playing tricks on us? Is our (like the characters') ability to be solely rational slowly eroding? Again, this was my favorite aspect of this novel — trying to figure out how much I wanted to let myself believe.

Another of the novel's calling cards is its inclusion of "real" newspaper and magazine articles, websites, and other documents. This adds another layer of reality to the story — inasmuch as these elements are real to the fictional world of the novel. It's a great strategy because it leads to even greater contrast between the real world and the possibility of a shadowy, metaphysical, "beyond-the-five-senses" one.

There are, however, a few things that will drive you nuts about this novel — one, which you'll hear about frequently, I'm sure, is the ending. It's the WTFiest of all WTF endings. If you need your endings to tie a neat bow around your story, this'll drive you a bit bananas. Additionally, there is a subplot or two that seem superfluous to the environment of mystery Pessl painstakingly creates (which isn't a huge deal, but this IS a long book). And finally, it just seemed strange that the girl Nora — who only knew Ashley because Ashley checked her coat one night at the restaurant at which Nora was working — was so willing to help with the investigation, and that McGrath would let her.

Overall, though, I think most readers will allow themselves to get lost in this novel's 600+ pages, and really enjoy the reading experience. That was definitely the case for me. I didn't think the novel was nearly as frightening as some early readers have claimed, but it's still a bit unsettling in spots. You may, indeed, want to get your nightlight ready — this one will keep you up late.