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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.