Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Road: Sparse but Stunning, Bleak but Beautiful

What's the bleakest, most depressing book you've ever read?  If you've meandered down Cormac McCarthy's The Road, chances are it's in your top 5. I read the book about a year ago, and was absolutely blown away by the beauty of the prose, and the bleakness of McCarthy's vision.

For those unfamiliar, the novel is about a father and son (simply called The Man and The Boy) trying to survive a post-nuclear world, dodging roving gangs for whom desperation has led to cannibalism. The goal of The Man and The Boy is simple: "to keep carrying the fire," to remain good in a slowly dying world that is increasingly debauched. The book is really about what happens when humanity is boiled down to its essence, when all notion of culture and decorum is removed. A father's love for his son remains, and love, therefore, must be the source of hope. Otherwise, humanity and decency decay into chaos.

I've hated everything I'd ever read by McCarthy, including Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy, and only read The Road because it was short, it had won the Pulitzer Prize, and I'd heard it was different than most of McCarthy's other work. It is, and then some, and I absolutely loved it!

I write about this now, because earlier this week, I went to see the movie-ization of The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen. Putting real, concrete images to the bleakness of McCarthy's story certainly had its pros and cons. The landscapes in the movie, gray and lifeless, were beautifully rendered. But several of the more shocking scenes in the novel were even more frightening on the big screen, making me, at least, just incredibly uncomfortable. Even though it takes some intestinal fortitude to enjoy the movie, enjoy it I did. Mortensen is his usual brilliant self, and the child prodigy actor, Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays The Boy is pretty solid, also. And, for the ladies, there are the usual Viggo Mortensen gratuitous nude shots -- though, thankfully, they don't rival the naked knife fight scene in Eastern Promises. Sweet Lord, that scene scarred me deeply! ;)

Have you read The Road, or seen the movie?  What were your impressions?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Books as Gifts: Homework over Christmas?

Doesn't it seem logical that if you love books, you'll love receiving books as gifts, right?  Well, consider the following: Your Uncle Chester, who you haven't seen in ages, and who knows only that you like to read, surprised you at Christmas with a gleaming new copy of....some book you've never heard of. (Or worse, one you HAVE heard of, like L.A. Candy.)

Reaction A: You smile politely, say "Thanks, I've been meaning to pick this up," and then mentally calculate the profits from your impending ebay sale.

Reaction B: You tell Uncle Chester how delighted you are (and truly mean it!) at his thoughtful gift, explain that you hadn't read this writer before but can't wait to dive in, and then you dive right in.

Which more closely describes your reaction to a gift of a book you didn't specifically ask for?  Me, I'm decidedly Reaction A, and I tend to think most book dorks feel similarly. Here's my logic: If the giver is someone like Uncle Chester, who won't care if you read the book or not, then you're off the hook. Luh-cky! However, if you actually respect and/or are close to the giver, than an unsolicited book gift is essentially a homework assignment. You're expected to read the book promptly and provide a reasonably coherent report. When there are billions of good books out there (including approximately 2,852,329 on my 'to be read' shelf), it's hard to justify "wasting" time on a book that wasn't in the plans. A little jerk-waddy? Probably. And, yes, I do realize there is something to be said for that "it's the thought that counts" cliche. And, I suppose you never know: What if the unsolicited book gift winds up being the most brilliant book you've ever read?  Not likely, but I'm willing to concede the possibility.  ;)

So, what is your take?  Do you enjoy getting unsolicited book gifts? Why? Or, are you like me? Do you feel like you've just been issued a book report assignment, due by the end of the week?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Open: An Autobiography -- Advantage: Readers

Even if you're not exactly up to speed on your deuce courts and forty-loves, you could still do much worse than spending a few days with tennis champion Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open. Yes, first and foremost, it is the story of an athlete, but the book is equally engaging when it moves beyond the matches to reveal the man -- conflicted, flawed, and at odds with the sport he's supposed to love. Through the prose of J.R. Moehringer, of The Tender Bar fame, Agassi chronicles his pockmarked journey from berated child prodigy, to precocious, rebellious teenager, to husband, father and legend.

The defining characteristic of this book is its honesty. With anecdotes (often hilarious -- if you're not easily offended, see the bottom of this post for an e.g.) about his infamous on-court tantrums or fights with his first wife Brooke Shields, Agassi frequently appears the prize idiot. That makes the book incredibly fun to read -- and you're willing to indulge Agassi here and there when he makes himself out to look better than he may have deserved. Even so, throughout the book, it seems clear that Agassi's not publishing this book as a testament to his own ego (though, yes, autobiographies are by definition self-serving). Nor is he grinding an axe. Sure, there are the requisite asides about other players he didn't care for, but on the whole, what we have is a rare, riveting and unbelievably forthright glimpse into the life of one of the most beloved American athletes of all time.

(Brief aside for tennis geeks, and I'm a huge one -- here are some of Agassi's thoughts on his peers: He HATED Boris Becker and he thought Jimmy Connors deserved his own class of egotistical as$. He constantly made fun of Michael Chang's propensity for thanking God after matches, and he begrudgingly respected Sampras, despite the fact that there may not be two more different human beings on the planet.)

Don't let the fact that many of the juiciest tidbits were already widely reported deter you from picking up the book. Yes, he used crystal meth on occasion for a brief, particularly rough patch in his life. Yes, his famous 'do of the early '90s was actually a hairpiece. And, yes, he really did hate tennis. And that is the one admission that ties the whole book together. Agassi played tennis the way many of us do our jobs, we put our heads down and go to work, looking forward to those things that make us truly happy. Agassi was no different: As he matured, he found ways that tennis could be a means to an end, like providing money and visibility for his charity that built a charter school in Las Vegas, and finally marrying the love of his life, Steffi Graf (one of the greatest women tennis champions of all time, for those unfamiliar).

If I haven't convinced you yet, well, Entertainment Weekly loved it also -- it gave the book a rare A, and installed it on its Top 10 for 2009 Non-fiction. Also, the book has 164 reviews on amazon, 139 of which are five stars. Really, I promise you, you'll like it!

(Off-color anecdote: One example of an on-court tantrum...Chair umpire: "Did you call that linesman a c@cks#cker?"  Agassi: "I said it. And you want to know something? He IS a c@cks#cker!")

Monday, December 21, 2009

To Those Who Are Gone, But Whose Words Remain

As is customary around this time of year, let's take a post and say a fond literary farewell to these brilliant writers we lost in 2009.

1) John Updike -- "Shut up, Updike," grunts Krusty the Klown in a 2000 Simpsons episode. Cartoon Updike is giggling at Krusty's "misfortune" at being reunited with his long-lost daughter. Rare is the literary novelist with such mainstream crossover appeal, but Updike was as popular as he was ubiquitous. A memoirist, critic, prolific novelist and short story writer, and literary feuder, he was as close to a literary celebrity as our reality-show soaked culture will allow. Updike is probably best know for his quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels, the first two of which (Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux) are the only two Updike novels I've actually read. I did enjoy them, though, and have promised myself to one day soon finish the Rabbit series. Updike died of lung cancer on January 27. He was 76 years old.

2) Frank McCourt -- I feel a little guilty that McCourt's death was the motivation I finally needed to read his wonderfully brilliant memoir Angela's Ashes. His sobering tale of his impoverished Irish childhood, complete with alcoholic father, stunned critics and book clubs alike when it was published in 1996. It's a sad book, indeed, but infused with humor and Irish wit, as well. I loved it! He published a sequel to Angela's Ashes titled 'Tis about his young manhood in NYC, and another memoir about his experiences teaching in NYC public schools titled Teacher Man. He died July 19 of  melanoma with meningeal complications. He was 78 years old.

3) Jim Carroll -- Most folks are more familiar with Carroll's famous work The Basketball Diaries because of Leonardo DiCaprio's role as Carroll in the movie version of the book. But the book is fantastic -- it's a coming of age tale that reads like a much racier version of The Catcher in the Rye. Carroll's autobiography chronicles his descent into drug addiction on the streets of NYC in the mid '60s. I read the book for a literature survey class in college and have been slightly haunted by it ever since. It's terrifying. Carroll, who also wrote poetry and composed music, died September 11 of a heart attack. He was 60 years old.

4) E. Lynn Harris -- Frankly, I'm not real familiar with Harris's work, but judging from the news stories about him after he died, he had a small but very loyal following, especially in the gay community. His novels depicted black men struggling to come to terms with their closeted homosexuality. He published 15 books, including novels, short story collections and memoirs. He died June 20 of heart disease. He was 54 years old.

5) Dominick Dunne -- Dunne is another writer I haven't read. He was actually a novelist, movie producer, TV personality, investigative reporter and writer for Vanity Fair. His novels were generally centered on real-world crimes and punishments. He died August 26 of bladder cancer. He was 83 years old.

What are your reactions to any of these brilliant writers? Has their deaths changed your level of appreciation for their work? 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Under the Dome: Over The Top

It's hard to imagine more fertile ground for a thrilling novel — a small town in Maine is trapped under an impenetrable dome, its citizens left to their own devices. As you'd imagine, especially in the world of Stephen King, chaos ensues.

Under this dome, however, the chaos is rather predictable. This novel is supposed to be about characters, and how they respond to their dire circumstances. But the main reason this novel failed for me is that these characters are rendered as flimsy stereotypes of real people; and they always do exactly what you'd expect. The bad guys do increasingly bad things, and the good guys scramble to stop them. There's no middle ground. There's no moral confusion. And hence there's no real conflict, other than the obvious and predictable good vs. evil.

Chester's Mill, Maine, is supposed to be a microcosm of American culture in general, and the political culture war specifically, but the people who populate this small town of King's imagination are nothing but tropes and types. Not one single character in this supposedly character-centric novel has any nuance or depth whatsoever.

To zero in on specifics: This caricature of a small town, populated with a bunch of bumpkins, is led by Big Jim Rennie, a religious, self-righteous, hypocritical despot (he's almost EXACTLY the same character as the Warden in The Shawshank Redemption, to give you a frame of reference). Big Jim and his ever-increasing band of nogoodniks are opposed by a small band of rebels for whom common sense, decency, and the welfare of the town are, of course, their guiding principles. The two sides collide in increasingly clunkily plotted and laughable ways. ("...the book’s broad conspiratorial strokes become farfetched..." understates a NY Times review.)

I tried to consider this novel as simply a novel, not a Stephen King novel, and I'm sure many King fans will scream about how wrong that approach is. But given how this novel was positioned (this NY Times piece, e.g.) as a a real literary leap for King, I thought it should be held up to some literary standards, as opposed to just saying I liked it because it was a fast read and the action was cool — both of which are true.

Still, even holding the book up to the "King Standard" — it's only an okay book; that according to my friend Jeff, a huge King fan. Here's what he told me: "More than any disappointment about the book -- which is mild at most -- I'm more disappointed by the fact that such a talented storyteller spent almost two years writing this mediocre genre fiction rather than something more soulful/lasting/engaging/humorous/thought-provoking/etc." Jeff mentions Hearts in Atlantis and Misery as two examples of novels where King moves beyond genre-y, predicable fiction.

So, my advice: Venture under this dome at your own risk!

(On a related note, kudos for King and his wife Tabitha!  They're paying bus fare for a bunch of Maine soldiers stationed in Indiana to return home for the holidays. That almost made me feel guilty about totally laying out his novel here.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

That David Foster Wallace Post

Today is something of a literary anniversary for me. It was one year ago today I conquered David Foster Wallace's epic tome, Infinite Jest. The book took me more than two months to read (and blog about), and even with a companion guide book to help me navigate its twists and turns, it was still the most difficult book I've ever read. But, it was very, very rewarding and I count it as one of my favorite novels of all time. 

Even before being totally blown away by Infinite Jest, I'd already considered David Foster Wallace as my favorite writer. I picked up his book of essays Consider the Lobster on a whim about three years ago, and since then, I've been obsessed with him and have devoured just about everything he's ever written.  I love his essays. I love his short fiction. And I LOVE Infinite Jest. Probably my favorite DFW piece, though, is the commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 — recently published in book form as This is Water. Please, please do yourself a favor and spend 30 minutes or so reading it. Not a day passes when I'm not somehow reminded of DFW's simple message about empathy and respect. It's absolutely beautiful.

DFW's special gift was to allow his readers to think along with him and discover what he was trying to explain almost simultaneously with him. No topic was too far afield for him (tennis, porn, rap, infinity), as evidenced by the fact that his essays would often end up miles from the original assignment. The best example is his piece for Gourmet Magazine, which was supposed to be a simple slice-of-life report from the Maine Lobster Festival, but which DFW turns into a philosophical treatise on whether lobsters can feel pain, and if so, whether it's ethical to eat them.

When you read DFW, you discover that in the span of a single paragraph, he could make you think very, very hard, make you scramble for a dictionary, and make you laugh out loud. He had a knack for seamlessly mixing high and low-brow. Two of my all-time favorite DFW essay moments: 1) In the midst of a long, rather academic essay on descriptivism, he quotes a long passage contrary to his view, and then immediately dismisses it with "This is so stupid it practically drools."  2) In "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," about his experience on a cruise, he spends a long footnote (one of his signatures) discussing the service industry/customer relationship. He explains why he feels slighted when he doesn't get the obligatory smile, but then explains why it's not necessary, and then throws up his hands and ends with "What a f@cking mess."

His short fiction was as fun to read as it was bizarre, as he experimented and pushed the limits of what he thought fiction could be. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is an often hilarious, but often frustrating, genre-bending book. Oblivion is dark, and many have argued it represents a window into the last few years of his life. Girl With Curious Hair is just, um, curious. 

Like every other DFW fan, I was absolutely devastated when I learned of his suicide last year. As explained in this brilliant Rolling Stone profile published soon after his death, he'd been battling depression most of his life. Until the year before his death, he'd managed it with an antidepressant, but he'd gone off the medication in 2007 because the side effects were interfering with his work. When he tried to return to the medication, he discovered it no longer worked and he spiraled deeper into his depression, until it got the better of him once and for all. He hung himself on the patio of his California home the evening of Sept. 12, 2008. He was only 46 years old.

The good news is that DFW left a nearly finished manuscript of a novel titled The Pale King, which is scheduled to be published in April 2011. A short story titled "All That", most likely an excerpt from The Pale King, was published a few weeks ago in The New Yorker. Read it! 

Have you read DFW? What are some of your favorite DFW pieces, moments, ideas?

(RIP, DFW. I wish you way more than luck.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What To Read When You're Not Reading Books

If you're a true book dork, not only do you love to read, but you also love to read about reading. And if you're like me, whenever you check your Google Reader, it's practically smoking as it tries to keep up with all the feeds.

From posts by other amateur books bloggers to professionally produced content from major media outlets, I love it all! So I figured I'd spend a post here telling you what I look at, so you can add these to your Reader as well, if you so choose. (Also, please, please, please comment below about where you go to read about what to read next! )

Here are some of my favorites:
Baby Got Books: This blog includes author interviews, reviews and news in short, digestible posts. It's especially well-written and probably my favorite "amateur" blog.
Entertainment Weekly's Shelf Life: This is a hipper, more pop culturey look at books — one of my favorites!
LA Times Jacket Copy: This is a great source of Hollywood-slanted book news.
The Millions: A book dork's dream, this site includes publishing industry news, author interviews, lists, reviews, and general book-related articles.
Amazon's Omnivoracious: This is a simple daily update of general book news. I like it because it often provides heads-ups on upcoming releases. 
Publisher's Weekly's Morning Report: A daily update of all that's interesting amalgamated from news outlets all over the country. 
The NY Times: One of the few newspapers that still publishes daily book-related content, I read this page religiously. The book reviews by critics such as Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin, as well as frequent big name guest critics, are the standard by which all other book reviews are judged.
New Yorker's Book Bench: Though I wish I read this more than I do, the one thing I always check out is the "covers contest" every Wednesday. They give you four little image snippets from book covers, and you have to figure out the books they came from. Only once have I gotten all four correct.  
NYR Blog: With much more of an academic bent, I rarely read this blog, and only mention it because its parent publication is the inspiration for the name of my own blog.

And here are two actual print magazines (yes, they still exist...for now) I highly recommend, too:
Bookmarks Magazine: The best feature of this bi-monthly is the enormous review section — where the editors and contributors gather reviews from major publications, give the book a star rating based on an average of those reviews, and then offer a critical analysis. Top notch! Also, the author profiles in every issue are wonderfully written.
Poets & Writers: I'm a new subscriber to this bi-monthly, which offers advice to writers on all aspects of the publishing industry, i.e. finding publishers, agents, graduate programs, etc. It also has some nice author profile articles; Jonathan Lethem and Audrey Niffenegger in the most recent issue, for instance.

So, now the million dollar question: Which book blogs and publications are you addicted to? Which best scratch your itch for all things book-related?

(...almost finished with Under the Dome, by the way — review coming next week.)

[Addendum:  With thanks to Kath at [Insert suitably snappy title here...] for nominating The New Dork Review of Books to her Top 5 Best Blogs list, here are five of my faves:
1. Jen Knox
2. JB in Hollywood
3. Paper Cut
4. Fiction Fanatic
5. Home Between the Pages   ]

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Good Dose of Listomania

Alright, last post on the year-end "Best of..." lists, I promise. But this bears mentioning: If you're a fan of said "best of..." lists, well, this list of lists by a blogger who goes by the very apt moniker Largehearted Boy should keep you occupied for several bleary-eyed hours.

But first, let's talk about the NY Times Top 10 list that came out last week. What kind of book dork hasn't read a single one on the list? Yep, that'd be me. I have Lethem's Chronic City in my sights (in fact, it's got next, right after I finish Under the Dome), but other than Moore's A Gate At The Stairs, I haven't even heard of the other three on the Fiction list.

It's also worth noting that neither the National Book Award Fiction winner (Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin) nor the Pulitzer winner (Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge) made the list. It's been a strange year in terms of awards and best books lists...

Alright, now back to the huge list of lists — a few highlights:
— The EarlyWord link actually gives you an Excel spreadsheet that lists more than 320 authors alphabetically and tells you which list their books were on and which awards they won. It's a lot of fun (in a dorky sort of way) to read through!
Flashlight Worthy's best books includes the most of my favorites (see below) of the year, so that gets my award for Best "Best of..." list.
— For pure eclecticity (shut up, it's totally a word), and because it's a fellow book blogger, I thoroughly enjoyed reading through this list from Living Read Girl. (Great name for the blog, too!)
— Oh god, and this one includes The Lost Symbol. What?  The only time "Best" and that book should be included in the same thought is "Best proof of Dan Brown's hack-ness."

And, finally, here's my own Best of 2009 list:
1. The Song Is You, by Arthur Phillips.
2. This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper.
3. Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.
4. Last Night In Twisted River, by John Irving.
5. Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese

What's on your "Best of 2009" book list? Any thoughts on any of the lists that have grabbed your attention?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Looking Literarily Towards 2010

As if winter isn't depressing enough, especially here in Chicago, usually the new book landscape in the months from January to April is about as barren and cold as the weather outside. Thankfully, 2010 looks to be a little different. While everyone is polishing up their Best of 2009 lists, I'm looking forward to some great books coming out in the first few months of 2010. Here are a few choice cuts:

1) The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris — Jan. 18.  Ferris's Then We Came To The End, about a Chicago ad agency, was one of the best and funniest debut novels I've ever read. It's like a literary version of the movie Office Space. So, naturally, I can't wait for his follow up, though amazon describes the book as a "heartbreaking story of a life taken for granted and what happens when that life is abruptly and irrevocably taken away." That doesn't sound very funny.

2) The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova — Jan 12. I attended a Kostova signing several years ago on her tour for her debut novel The Historian, and really, really liked her. The Historian itself, however, I only liked a little bit. But The Swan Thieves has been very well-reviewed by those lucky enough to get ARCs (for instance, this one by fellow book blogger Cym Lowell), so I'm looking forward to the book, because I really WANT to like it.

3) Point Omega, by Don DeLillo — Feb. 2. Even though the novel's clocking in at a mere 128 pages, whenever DeLillo publishes something new, the literati practically cream their shorts because of DeLillo's status as "one of the greatest living American writers." So, I guess Point Omega is worth anticipating, if not because you're a DeLillo fan, than definitely for its cool title and cover art. The only DeLillo I've read is White Noise, which I liked well enough. But I haven't had the guts to take on Underworld, supposedly DeLillo's signature work.

4) The prolific Chris Bohjalian (Secrets of Eden, Feb. 2) and Dan Simmons (Black Hills, Feb. 23) are also both adding to their already significant outputs. Regarding Bohjalian, Secrets of Eden will be a tiebreaker of sorts for me. I hated The Double Bind, but loved Skeletons at the Feast. Here's to hoping this new one is good. And Simmons:  The Terror and Drood have both been languishing on my shelf untouched, so maybe if Black Hills is really good, I'll get motivated to back-read.

5) Bite Me: A Love Story, by Christopher Moore — March 23. That's it, I'm jumping on the Christopher Moore bandwagon. In any discussion about funny books, Moore's name ALWAYS comes up. I'd always had this perception of Moore as a glorified comic book writer, but I think I've gotten over that. I've ordered Lamb, and can't wait for this new one.

6) Solar, by Ian McEwan — March 30. I totally dug Atonement and Saturday, but I skipped On Chesil Beach because the idea of an entire novel, albeit a short one, about "rambling nature walks and the naming of birds" just doesn't do it for me. So, I'm excited about this new book  about a washed-up physicist who tries to save his marriage and the world from disaster.

7) Finally, I can't WAIT for Lauren Conrad's (ghost writer's) book titled Sweet Little Lies — Feb. 2. (Yes, I am totally kidding — just making sure you're still paying attention.)

If you're interested, my sources for discovering these future releases are Barnes & Noble's "Coming Soon" list, amazon's "Popular Pre-Orders" and Publisher's Weekly's "On Sale Calendar."

Any I'm missing here? Which 2010 new releases are you most looking forward to?

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Short Post About LONG Books

In addition to being a book dork, I'm also a huge statistics and numbers geek — probably stemming from my love for baseball and its heavy reliance on numbers. This obsession doesn't exactly jibe with my career as a magazine editor — you know, because mathletes and wordsmiths are usually situated at completely opposite ends of the nerd spectrum. But whatever...Anyway, so when there's a chance to combine books and statistics, my God, I'm in seventh heaven.

Have you ever checked out the Text Stats part of amazon's "Inside This Book" section?  For example, if you look at the text stats for David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, you'll discover that the late writer's 1,079-page magnum opus clocks in at a staggering 484,001 words! War and Peace (which, you'll gather from the photo to the right, I've never read) is 568,880. By way of comparison, the average 300-plus page novel is about 80,000 words. Here are the top 5 longest books I have read:

1. The Count of Monte Cristo — 484,030
2. Infinite Jest — 484,001
3. The Stand — 462,138
4. War and Remembrance — 442,038
5. The Pillars of the Earth — 401,316

Sadly, the statistics for Stephen King's 1,088-page Under the Dome, which I dug into this weekend, aren't yet available. But if they were, there's a good chance it'd take its place in the top 5.

What are the longest books you've read, by word count?  Be careful — you could easily lose an afternoon checking the statistics on books you've read. But it's fun!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Two Reviews: Tropper's Family Antics and Russo's Failing Marriage

Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You is, simply put, one of the best books I've read this year. Edgy, witty and fantastically hilarious, the story follows four adult siblings who gather with their mother in their childhood home to sit shiva (the seven days of mourning in Jewish tradition) for their recently deceased father. Our narrator is third of the fourth siblings by age: Judd, a radio producer who has recently caught his wife of nine years cheating on him with his boss, a Howard Stern-style shock jock. And that's merely the kick-start for one hellacious week...

Throughout the week, the siblings constantly quarrel, even boiling over into physical altercations. Even so,  no one ever takes anything too seriously. There's a lot of baggage here, but the family isn't so much dysfunctional as it is damaged. They truly love each other, but they can only handle each other in very small doses. Slowly, they begin to bridge the gaps of their pasts that had driven them apart, and come to terms with their father's death. It doesn't sound like it would be, but God, is it fun to read about.

And that's the one point I can't stress enough: how much pure fun this book is to read. Tropper's voice (as Judd) is just a blast -- a pitch perfect rendition of a mid-30s male. Just consider these two sentences Tropper unleashes within the first 15 pages: "He is the Paul McCartney of our family: Better looking than the rest of us, always looking a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead" and "We knew marriage could be difficult in the same way we knew there were starving children in Africa."  Before you've really even had a chance to settle in, you know you're in for a great time with this book! This Is Where I Leave You is very, very highly recommended! 

Review #2: I had more free time than usual this week, so I also made my way through Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic. This novel seemed less like a story and more a "character study" of a marriage. Pock-marked with flashbacks, the book spends nearly two-thirds of its pages in the past examining the events that have led to Jack and Joy Griffin's failing marriage. Some of these are compelling, others are eye-crossingly dull. The end result is a novel that feels more like a first draft at times because it includes so much -- especially at the beginning -- it seemed the writer needed to know about these characters, but that the reader didn't, necessarily, need to know.

The strength of the novel is the real-time action. Framed around two wedding days a year apart (one a Griffin family friend, one the Griffins' daughter Laura), Russo is at his best in scene, not in flashback. Sadly, I kept getting frustrated when Russo would open yet another section with a six- or seven-page flashback before jerking us back to the present. I did, however, really like the characters, and found myself rooting for them.

On the whole, I'd give Cape Magic a "decent, but certainly not great." The novel doesn't approach the emotional intensity and appeal of previous Russo reads like Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls -- two fantastic books. But it's definitely worth reading if you enjoy delving into the causes and effects in relationships -- one thing Russo seems to understand and relay very well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bringin' the Funny: Characters, Plot and Writing

For the past few days, I've been chuckling my way through Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You. I'm almost finished, so I'll post a thought or two later this week, but suffice it to say, the novel is fantastic. And its zaniness, "Oh, snap"py dialogue, and overall hilarity have gotten me thinking about some of the funniest books I've ever read — among which, this book certainly takes its place.

A good funny book for me has to include most of the following: silly, but not over the top, set-piece scenes; a witty, seamless blend of the high- and low-brow; some degree of satire or parody; and liberal use of sarcasm and/or irony. (Side note: Great Simpsons quote — Comic Book Guy: "A sarcasm detector? That's a real useful device.) Rarely does any book include all of these elements, because if it did, it'd be a spaghetti-thrown-at-the-wall, choice-less mess. So, allow me to explain what I think to be the three different categories of "funny" novel.

1) Funny characters: Character-driven novels are my favorites! I love "watching" bumbling, silly characters who can't seem to get out of their own ways engage in all sorts of misadventures. In these novels, the plot and writing have to have some semblance of funny, but it all hinges on the one or two main characters committing acts of dumbassery and nonsense. The best example I've come across is Switters, Tom Robbins' depraved CIA agent in Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. Switters, a lothario in every sense of the word (he even seduces a nun!) travels the globe, hilariously expounding on everything from technology to religion to linguistics to the evils of advertising. I wouldn't necessarily want to have a beer with Switters, but I'd definitely pay to see his stand-up comedy routine! Another, perhaps more familiar, character is Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius, an overweight sometimes-hot dog vendor who lives with his mother, spends several hundred humorous pages navigating his way through the various absurdities of life in New Orleans. Purpose for earlier Comic Book guy quote: Doesn't Ignatius Reilly have to be the basis for the Comic Book Guy character on The Simpsons???

2) Funny plot: Here I'm thinking about books that are funny on a scene-by-scene basis, or novels themselves that are framed around a ridiculous and/or hilarious premise. This is probably the most common type of funny novel. Most representative of this type, and probably most widely read, is Joseph Heller's classic war satire Catch-22. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaugherhouse-Five is another classic that fits this bill. I loved both of these novels! Though a bit more obscure, since it's one of his lesser known novels, Richard Russo's Straight Man is an absolutely hysterical skewering of academia. Have you heard that old joke: Why are arguments in academia so fierce?  Because there's nothing at stake. (Hmm...that probably translates better verbally.) Anyway, Straight Man also includes one of the funniest scenes I've ever read — involving the main character, a professor at a small college in Pennsylvania donning a fake nose and glasses, and threatening on live TV to murder one duck per day from the university's pond until he gets his budget.

3) Funny writing: These novels make you laugh on a line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, whether or not the plot even hangs together or the characters are the least bit memorable. The conversation starts and stops here with David Foster Wallace. Yes, Infinite Jest, is difficult, disturbing and sad, but the novel also includes some of the best funny writing ever included between two covers. I'm also a huge fan of DFW's essay collections — his writing on everything from the Adult Video News Awards to his experiences on a cruise are the standard by which all sarcastic, high-brow/low-brow-blend writing should be judged. I still get a little misty eyed thinking about the fact that he's no longer with us.... Anyway, in this category, I'd also toss in Junot Diaz' The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The blend of Spanish and English euphemisms and deeply funny dialogue make this book as memorable as it is fun to read.

(I suppose I could add a fourth category: Unintentionally funny. This would include general writing, scenes, or entire novels that are so stupidly awful they're funny. Hello, Dan Brown!)

I'm sure there are hundreds and hundreds more examples, so what am I missing here? What are your favorite funny novels?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Last Night in Twisted River: Irving's Back, Baby!

About midway through John Irving's new novel, a skydiver is blown a bit off course and accidentally lands in a poop-filled pig pen. Oh yeah, and the skydiver is a rather large woman...and she's naked. The scene makes about as much sense in the scheme of the plot of the novel as it does here. But Irving's latest effort is so carefully constructed, so deliberately and cautiously revealed, that by the time you're reading this scene, you've already learned that such absurdities aren't just slapstick, they have a precise meaning, and all will be made clear eventually.

Last Night in Twisted River is a return to form for Irving, and an absolute godsend for his long-suffering fans (and we DID suffer through The Fourth Hand and Until I Find You!). It contains all the Irving signatures: It's laced with symbolism; it's populated with his requisite tragic, fatalistic characters; and it alternates between hilarious and deeply, deeply affecting.

The story unfolds over the course of 50 years, following Danny Baciagalupa and his father Dominic through life's follies and fortuities. All the while, their invective-spouting friend Ketchum ('Constipated Christ!,' 'Mountains of moose shit!', e.g.) a woodsman and logger, watches carefully over them, giving them advice and helping them navigate their thorniest dilemmas. This includes the event that really sets the novel in motion. Twelve-year old Danny mistakes his father's lover for a bear. While she and his father Dominic are in a rather "compromising" position, and thinking he's saving Dominic from a mauling, Danny bashes the woman over the head with a cast iron skillet. The novel hurdles forth from there.

The book isn't without a few annoyances, though. For instance, the first sentence of the jacket blurb reveals the plot point (woman mistaken for bear, brained with skillet) on which the rest of the novel hinges. But that scene doesn't occur until 100 pages into the novel, which makes you hustle through the first few chapters, possibly missing key details. Also, there are a few political-rant detours, which just seemed out of place in such an elegantly told and carefully built novel. Finally, parts are just slow. You could put a positive spin on it and say Irving was measuring his pacing, and maybe he was, but that doesn't make parts where he painstakingly describes food, and peripheral characters' histories any more interesting.

Despite these, I'd still recommend the book, especially (ESPECIALLY!) to fans of Irving's previous work. The story itself is just magnificent, and my mind is totally boggled, looking back at the whole thing, at the talent and craft required to fit it all together. Let's just hope this isn't it for Irving -- that he's got a few more Twisted Rivers in store for us!

(PS. The heavy favorite, Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin, avoided the upset and brought home the National Book Award for Fiction at a ceremony last night in New York. From what I've heard about it, the award is well-deserved. If you've read the book, please comment below with a few thoughts about it.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Under the Dome of Debate: Genre vs. Literary Fiction

Look out! There may be airborne swine heading your way. The NY Times (a supposed bastion of America's intellectualism) just described Stephen King's new novel Under the Dome as having "the scope and flavor of literary Americana" and placing "more value on humanity than on horror."

Stephen King, literary? More than a few snobby critics probably just choked on their bagels and lox. Certainly the guru of genre fiction, the maestro of horror and fantasy, the king of the laughably cardboard characters isn't entering the same literary hollowed ground as your Philip Roths and Don DeLillos?

Actually, I think a more important question is: Who cares if he is? For whatever reason, King always seems to be at the forefront of the age-old debate about bestsellers vs. literary fiction. My rant about Dan Brown notwithstanding, what is it about writers who sell well that inspires such self-righteous indignation amongst the literary illuminati? 

With King, nothing illustrated this more clearly than when, in 2003, the National Book Foundation awarded King a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. One of the country's foremost and well-respected literary scholars, Harold Bloom, responded by writing a scathing op/ed piece in the Boston Globe arguing that King's award is "another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life" and King "is an immensely inadequate writer." Ouch.

I know this high-brow vs. low-brow debate isn't exactly new ground, but I bring it up now because I've totally changed sides over the last several years. Part of the reason for my about-face is the Harry Potter books. I haven't read them myself, but it has been really fun to see people (both kids and adults!) excited enough about books that they'd turn off the Playstation and skip the season finale of "Rock of Love" (now THAT's the dumbing down of our cultural life) to read.

Even so, I still was no real fan of King's, based solely on the few (what I thought were) crappy novels of his I'd read back in high school — more than 15 years ago.  Last summer, though, I picked up Duma Key on a whim.....and totally read the hell out of it. I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it. As my friend Jeff says, "the man just knows how to tell a story," and I think that's what made that particular book so much fun — it was absolutely riveting. So, I'm stoked to read Under the Dome.

Anyway, at the end of the day, there really is no accounting for taste (to use an overused cliche). There will always be good and bad genre fiction, and there will always be good and bad literary fiction, and there will always be disagreement about which is which. Reading should be fun, so I say read for whatever it is about books that makes you happy — not for what some contrarian critic thinks! 

What's your take on the bestselling vs. literary fiction debate? Do you plan to read Under the Dome?

(Addendum added 11/17: With thanks to Jen Knox for making a great point, King just published a short story in The New Yorker. Seems like a sure sign of King's literary appeal when the good folks at The New friggin' Yorker will publish him!)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Here Come the "Best of..." Lists

Much like the gun-jumpers who insist on decorating for Christmas in early November, a few Web sites have already put out their Best Books of 2009 lists. No doubt we'll soon be inundated with such lists, but I thought I'd point out these two, in order to ease us all into the "Best of..." season.  

Publishers Weekly released its list a few weeks ago, and has distinguished itself for picking books in its Top 10 that almost NO ONE has read and for including a grand total of zero women authors. PW claims that's just how things shook out, and the no women thing is just a coincidence, but many book bloggers were incensed — no Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, nor A.S. Byatt, who all published noteworthy novels this year.

PW split its list into several categories, including Comics and Mass Market, which I think is sort of like giving an all-conference high school basketball player the same recognition as the NBA MVP. But, whatever... I've added several of the novels from the fiction list to my 'to be read' pile, and I did read and greatly enjoy several of the novels on the list. I'd recommend these to anyone looking for a great read:  Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead; The Believers, by Zoe Heller; and Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Amazon's Best Books of 2009 list is a bit more traditional — it mashes all genres into a straightforward ranking of 100 books. Its #1 is Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, which is the far-and-away favorite to win the National Book Award for Fiction when the winner is announced next week. Just to highlight one book in particular on the list: Zeitoun (#54) by Dave Eggers, is an absolute must-read. It tells the story of a Syrian immigrant who paddles around helping people after the levees broke in post-Katrina New Orleans. Producer and director Jonathan Demme, of 'The Silence of the Lambs' fame, has purchased the rights and is planning to make the story into an animated feature, which I think is a fantastic idea!

Of the books on amazon's list I've read, my only quibble is with #83, American Rust, by Philipp Meyer. This novel about a teenager who runs away from a dying Pennsylvania steel town just didn't do it for me — too many point-of-view shifts and the somewhat amateur writing were both huge turn-offs.

One final note: Neither of these lists include my favorite book of this year: Arthur Philips' brilliant, lyrical, not-put-downable The Song is You. I couldn't recommend this one more highly. 

Any thoughts on these lists?  Have you read any of the novels that made these lists that are must-reads?  Anything left off the lists you feel is a glaring omission?

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Writer is a Writer, Whether Fiction or Non

Much to my chagrin, this happens all the time: Upper-echelon novelists take a break from their fiction to publish nonfiction. These books range from works about the writing process to memoirs to book-length essays on just about any topic. Examples include Philip Roth (Reading Myself and Others),  Robert Stone (Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties), and Jonathan Franzen (The Discomfort Zone).

Even though such "cross-over" is common, it still bums me out a bit. My first reaction upon seeing these books is usually along the lines of "Dammit! Why did this novelist waste all the time it must've taken to write this nonfiction book I'll probably never read? Why couldn't they have just produced another brilliant and engrossing novel?" Selfish and stupid? Probably, but I can't help it. 

I bring this up because in the last month, two of my favorite novelists — Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon — have published nonfiction books. Chabon, whose novels The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I greatly enjoyed, published a book in October titled Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.

JS Foer, securely installed by critics and readers alike as the "hottest young American novelist," has published two novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, both of which are absolutely fantastic. His recent foray into nonfiction is titled Eating Animals, a memoir about his vegetarianism. 

(Side note on Foer: I went to a Foer reading/signing a few years ago and was simply stunned by the atmosphere. It was like the literary equivalent of an 'NSYNC concert. More than half of the attendees were mid-20s women, who were openly fawning over Foer. [Isn't he dreamy?] Anyway, that made me laugh — and more than a little jealous. Also, Foer mentioned that Roth is one of his favorite novelists, so when he was signing my book, I asked him if he'd ever met Roth. He smiled and guffawed, and said, "No, thankfully." He paused a beat, and then said, "That'd be like Hamlet meeting his father." I have no idea what that means. Okay, back to the blog...)

Even though I'm not exactly enthralled by the subjects of Chabon and Foer's books, I'm thinking I may have to reconsider my long-standing resistance to favorite novelists' nonfiction books. After all, if I enjoyed their fiction, why wouldn't I enjoy their non, right?  Right?

In my entire reading career, I think the only nonfiction by a fiction writer I've ever read is Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, which was boring, and A Tale of Love and Darkness, a memoir by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, which was actually awesome! (I've always had a strange fascination with Israel and Palestine.)

What's your take? Do you read your favorite novelists' nonfiction? Is there good nonfiction by fiction writers out there I'm missing?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Lost Symbol: Signifying Very Little

First and foremost, here's the answer to the question everyone seems to want to know:  No, The Lost Symbol is not as good as The Da Vinci Code.

Now, down to business: In the interest of full disclosure, I was predisposed not to like this book, because I think Dan Brown is an egotistical tool and an untalented hack who got lucky once...but the more in-depth reasons behind that opinion is a subject for another post. Still, I tried to give the book as much of a chance as possible. I know The Lost Symbol isn't War and Peace, so I tried it enjoy it for what it is: A best-selling thriller. 

I did my best. I really did. I suspended disbelief. I ignored the obvious plot holes...the Architect of the Capitol doesn't have a key to the front door? I looked past the annoying italics peppered throughout EVERY page, which are supposed to reveal characters' dramatic inner thoughts, but really just jar you out of the narrative. I even ignored the false-drama cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. (But when a dumb cliffhanger and an italicized thought were combined, I couldn't help but laugh out loud — eg. Katherine's destiny is to light this torch. Mine is to destroy it.) I really tried to enjoy it. I promise.

If you can get past all those faults, I suppose the story itself isn't terrible. Now-famous symbologist Robert Langdon speeds around Washington, D.C., deciphering encoded message after encoded message, hoping to save his friend Peter and stop a madman from revealing the Ancient Mysteries kept secret by the Masons for centuries. All the while, Langdon (and Brown) are constantly inserting little-known facts about various D.C. landmarks, as well as history, philosophy and religion. For instance, do you know the meaning of The Apotheosis of Washington (pictured above — click on the image for a larger view), which is painted on the ceiling of the US Capitol dome? That explanation is at the heart of Brown's point for the novel, so I won't spoil it here. But even with all of Brown's historical hmmmms, it still didn't feel like The Lost Symbol delivered the same level of drama and intrigue as The Da Vinci Code. Maybe that's because I was more prepared to be skeptical this time, and I kept asking myself, "Is that really true?" 

And that was the biggest problem for me — I never trusted Brown to lead me through the story to a satisfying payoff. Trust is such an enormous part of the unwritten reader-writer contract — trust that you are in safe hands and the set-up and rising action will ultimately lead to a denouement that makes the time spent getting there worthwhile. Because of the clunky plotting and cliched writing, I expected to be let down at the end, so I never fully invested myself in the story. And so there was never a moment when I put down the book and thought, "Wow, I'm really enjoying this novel."

That said, I have to admit, there IS a payoff at the end. A cool twist, as well as a fairly interesting lesson in philosophy make the last 100 pages or so pretty enjoyable. But I didn't even realize I was enjoying them until the book was over and I was once again rolling my eyes at the cheesy last line. 

Anyway, I'm glad I read it — just to be a part of the hype. Now, it's on to something I've been looking forward to all year — Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving!

Have you read The Lost Symbol? What's your take?

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Unread Authors List

I was browsing at Barnes & Noble this past weekend, and came across a book in the New Releases section titled Crossers by a writer named Philip Caputo. I was tempted to buy the book, both because it sounded interesting and also because I have another of this writer's novels (Acts of Faith) on my shelf, albeit unread. Like many book dorks, my Unread Shelf seems to grow in volume at about the same rate my Read Shelf does.

So, I resisted the urge to purchase Crossers, essentially avoiding banishing it to join its buddy in Unread Shelf purgatory. I should just read Acts of Faith first. But it got me thinking about the authors like Caputo, across whom I seem to keep stumbling and making mental notes to read soon, but haven't gotten to yet. So, here is a list of three other authors on my personal Unread Authors list.

1.) Jonathan Lethem, who just published a new book titled Chronic City, is probably the most well-known and illustrious resident of my Unknown Authors list. I've heard nothing but wonderful things about Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. After reading this fellow book blogger's write-up of his trip to a Lethem signing, I'm even more amped to check him out.

2.) I'm not sure quite what to make of Neal Stephenson, whose 1,168-page novel Cryptonomicon I've had on my Unread Shelf for several years. Stephenson is eclectic...and prodigious. He's published everything from cyberpunk-thrillers (Snow Crash), to futuristic sci-fi geek-o-ramas (Anathem), to a massive trilogy of historical novels about the 18th-century scientific revolution (The Baroque Cycle).  From what I've heard, Stephenson is extraordinarily erudite, but also verbose and, at times, too clearly in love with his own writing. But his fans are passionate and loyal, no matter what genre he's writing in. I tend to think any writer that inspires that sort of following is worth a shot.

3.) Finally, Diana Gabaldon is the author of the Outlander Series, a seven-book historical about a time-traveling Scotswoman named Claire and her beau James Fraser, and their adventures navigating the historical events of 18th and 20th century Scotland. I'm sort of a sucker for long historical series like this — I loved John Jakes' North and South series, the Shaara's Civil War trilogy and Herman Wouk's Winds of War and War and Remembrance. So I bought the first novel in the Outlander Series titled Outlander last year, with the goal of reading one book in the series every year. But I haven't cracked Outlander yet, mostly because a few people I've talked to (all women) who read and admire the series describe it as "romance." Yikes! Yesterday, though, I had an e-conversation with a fellow book blogger, and she suggested that guys might really enjoy the series, too. So, now I have renewed hope that I would like it. 

Have you read any of the authors above? Any advice on which writer or books I should move to the top of my priority list? Who is on your Unread Authors list?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Pillars of the Earth: Finally Finished!

Man, it was starting to feel like that cathedral would NEVER get built!  But it did, and I finally finished reading about it. For those unfamiliar, The Pillars of the Earth takes places in 12th century England, and chronicles a monk's challenge-fraught endeavor to build a beautiful, modern cathedral. What was amazing to me, though, as I talked with people during the month it took to read this 1,000-page behemoth, is how many people actually were familiar with the book; many more people than I would have expected — from my uncle Rick, to the CEO of my company, to my friend Emily.

As I posted previously, Follett is best known for his thrillers, but delved into historical fiction because of his life-long fascination with dark-age European cathedrals. The risk certainly paid off — while not the least bit intellectually challenging, this novel is just a solid, fun read. It's got everything — murder, political scheming, sex (though, these are some of the cheesiest, most unintentionally hilarious sex scenes ever rendered on paper), war, descriptions of architecture, a few touching love stories, and evil characters who get their comeuppances. It's a "story" in the truest sense of the word — Follett only delves into the characters' thoughts when it serves the purpose of advancing the plot or explaining the particular scheme one of them is cooking up. Again, it's not at all deep or literary — it's just a great, great story.  Have you read Pillars?  What did you think?

There is a sequel to the book called World Without End that takes place in the same fictional town of Kingsbridge about 200 years after the events of Pillars. I have the book on my shelf, and will certainly dive in the next time I'm looking for some good historical brain candy.

And speaking of brain candy, now it's on to The Lost Symbol. I can't believe I just typed those words. Hopefully I can knock this sucker out in about a week...

(One last note — as an addendum to my John Irving post — snooty NY Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, well-known for hating just about everything, absolutely laid into Irving as a writer in a review published this week. She did add a few positive comments about Twisted River (" evolves into a deeply felt and often moving story."), though after basically calling him a sentimental hack, those kind words seem rather begrudging.)