Thursday, January 28, 2010

Juliet, Naked: Bad People, Good Music, So-So Read

For a light, breezy book, Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby sure deals with some pretty heady questions: Can bad people create good art? (Sure!) If so, is that art lessened if it is disingenuously inspired? (Um, maybe?) And from the fan perspective, at what point does obsession so cannibalize appreciation, that the fan can no longer assess art objectively? (A good hint is the point you lose your 15-year relationship over your obsession...)

But as interesting as these questions are to think about, the plot that frames those questions in this novel sort of falls flat. The characters are real and fully developed (if not entirely likable) and the writing is excellent. So, what's the problem? 

Let's look at the characters first: Tucker Crowe is a formerly famous American singer-songwriter who hasn't recorded since his masterpiece album Juliet more than 20 years ago. Now, as a 55-year-old do-nothing, he's slowly destroying his third marriage and beginning to regret the path his life has taken.

On the other side of the pond, in a small English seaside town, Annie and Duncan are immersed in a 15-year, childless, largely loveless relationship of convenience. Duncan loves Juliet, is obsessed with Tucker Crowe and spends all his free time moderating a Website dedicated to "Crowology." He's your typical Internet message board nerd — spending thousands of words discussing every word, phrase and note of Crowe's music, and spending hours speculating about where Crowe is now and whether he might make a comeback.

Annie also loves Juliet as a passionate, beautiful piece of music, but doesn't nearly share Duncan's obsession for the musician. She's also beginning to realize she may have wasted the last 15 years of her life with him. The spark for the novel is when a PR person sends Duncan a "new" Crowe record titled Juliet, Naked —  a stripped down version of the classic Juliet. Duncan's and Annie's opinions vary widely on the new version, which creates more than a little strife in their already failing relationship. On the Website, Duncan posts a 3,000-word gush-fest while Annie posts a less-than-favorable review. Out of the blue, Tucker emails Annie to praise her for her honesty. This touches off a flirty and brutally honest e-mail conversation between the two, and lays the groundwork for the rest of the novel.
So, why doesn't the plotting succeed? Part of the reason is that the interesting meditations on music and regret are vastly overshadowed by the banal. The book spends entirely too much time following Tucker's day-to-day life as a stay-at-home dad and chronicling Annie's attempts to arrange a museum exhibit in her home town, among other things. These aside, there just seems to be a tinge of inevitability throughout the entire plot — like the characters were extensively developed, but then simply dropped into a pre-built plot structure so rigid there's no chance for the unexpected. It seems all the choices Hornby makes regarding the plot are the too-safe ones — that is until the ending, in which one character finally does something so OUT of character, it's laughable and totally silly. But, perhaps I've said too much...

This was my first foray into Hornby's work. I absolutely love the movie High Fidelity, based on a Hornby novel, and I love novels about music, so I had really high hopes for Juliet, Naked. But while I wasn't a fan of this one, I will say that Hornby's writing and characterization was definitely intriguing enough that I'll try one of his other, hopefully better-plotted, books.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Sad Case of the Independent Bookstore

I was in Houston this past weekend for a friend's wedding, and as I'm inclined to do when in a new city, I found a cool-looking local independent bookstore. As colorful and cheerful as Brazos Bookstore appeared when I first walked in, after spending a few minutes browsing, I realized it was pretty representative of most small, independent bookstores I've visited lately — the fiction selection was pretty tiny, new release hard covers were priced in full, and for most of the time I was there, despite the fact that the store is located in a busy strip mall, I was the ONLY one there.

I absolutely love small independent and/or used bookstores, and so I think the fact that they're being squeezed out is one of the saddest ongoing trends in the book industry. Here's how significant the decline is: As of October of last year, the American Booksellers Association is down to about 1,500 members from 4,000 stores 15 years ago. On a more micro scale, last year my beloved Harry W. Schwartz franchise closed its doors after 82 years of business in Milwaukee. That was an absolute gut-punch.

Look, I know this post isn't exactly a revelation. You're all likely familiar with the reasons why independent bookstores are going out of business at approximately the same rate as banks. And it's even more likely that I'm preaching to the choir here. But this is just something I've been thinking about with a tad more immediacy the last few days after the trip to Brazos. It's a worthwhile reminder that if you haven't set foot in your local store in awhile, or if you're traveling in another city, why not pop into the mom-and-pop-shop on the corner and buy something?

After all, what better souvenir is there than a book?! I love looking over my shelf and remembering that, for instance, I purchased Zeitoun at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, or Everything Matters! at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, or The Historian at Schwartz in Milwaukee.  (RIP Schwartz!)

Have you made similar souvenir book purchases at independent bookstores? What and where? Also, do you think these independent stores have a future? Why or why not?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Generosity: An Enhancement — Powers' "Science Fiction"

Actually, Generosity: An Enhancement could probably be more accurately classified as "fiction about science...and fiction." That's Richard Powers' shtick: He has a unique gift for giving readers multiple entry points to his novels; fusing real science with literary themes into tightly constructed novels of ideas.
And Generosity: An Enhancement illustrates that gift nicely. If you're interested in genetics (or genometics, as it's now more accurately called, apparently), then this novel is right in your wheelhouse. Or, if you're interested in how fiction helps us interface with the real world, that's there too. Bioethics, filmmaking, Chicago, psychology, and even a love story, are all part of this slim, but stocked to the hilt, novel. 

The story is about an Algerian refugee and Chicago college student named Thassa Amzwar, who is "cursed" with preternatural happiness. Despite a horrible past which included the death of her parents and escaping from the Algerian civil war, she is constantly buoyant and enthusiastic. She meets our other protagonist, Russell Stone, in a creative non-fiction writing workshop he is substitute instructing. Stone is a rather misanthropic mid-30s magazine editor, who has all but given up on life and has taken the teaching gig on a whim. Thassa's infectious happiness soon wins over the hearts and minds of her fellow students, Stone, and university psychologist Candace Weld — Stone's eventual lover.

Meanwhile, celebrity scientist Thomas Kurton (think a more suave, dashing version of Richard Dawkins) is studying how particular genes and their interactions can result in traits like happiness or generosity — far beyond the conventional notion of genes affecting only height, or weight, or risk for certain disease. When he learns about Thassa, he realizes she (or, more accurately, her genetic make up) may be the piece of evidence he needs to prove his theories and publish his findings. If happiness is based on genes, then can't these genes be implanted in embryos to "genetically design" happy children?

But the paper Kurton publishes also results in a swell of public attention and media scrutiny on Thassa — all of which is none too welcome. So, amidst the bioethical questions about whether humans can or should be enhanced with particular genes for mood and disposition, the novel builds to the question of whether Thassa's happiness (her nature) will help her withstand the pressure exerted upon her by the world's attention to that happiness, or will she fold under the stress her environment (her nurture) imposes upon her?

And yet another ball in the air is Powers' meditations on fiction. He literally talks to us in the form of an intermittent meta-narrator, implicitly assuring us that this is all an invention. Part of the point, it seems, is to juxtapose (or maybe just compare?) the way science tries to explain and enhance the world with how fiction tries to help us understand it.

The novel has been very well-received by critics (Jay McInerney did the guest review for the NY Times!) and Amazon reviewers alike. But have you ever read a book you know is good, and brilliant, and well-written, but you just can't find your way in?  That's sort of how I felt about Generosity. I didn't understand a lot of the very detailed science, and didn't put in the work required to read up and try to understand. Normally, I don't mind difficult, heady novels, but here I was more worried about finishing it quickly instead of extracting every ounce of meaning.

I also committed another cardinal sin: I gave up on the novel too early. After the first third or so, the novel speeds up and becomes incredibly engrossing, but I'd already mentally checked out, just cruising through it to get it finished. Whoops. So, my advice if you decided to take this book on: Slow down, think it through, make it meaningful. It can be difficult at times, but it's not un-overcome-able, by any means. I really should give Powers his due, and read it again — but, alas, on to other things.
Have you read Power's before? If you're not familiar (and I'd be willing to be that not many are), dude ain't no dummy, as evidenced by his 2006 National Book Award win for The Echo Maker. I enjoyed that one much more than Generosity!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Is a Book Reviewer an Artist?

A few years ago at a Zadie Smith reading I attended, a young man stood up during the Q&A and asked Ms. Smith what she thought about the role of the critic in contemporary literature. In addition to her terrific novels, Smith has also written some insightful essays and reviews on fiction, so her answer was authoritative and fascinating! She resisted the temptation to spout academic theories regarding New Criticism vs. Post-structuralism, and instead explained that she believes that critics are artists themselves, and that reviewers and literary critics who bring a new understanding (or new audience) to their source texts are infinitely valuable for furthering the cause of literature.

Now, I'm not sure if this particular idea of criticism has a name, but I love it and agree wholeheartedly! Anyone who has ever spent an hour rewriting the same sentence until it's just right — whether in a piece of fiction or in a piece about a piece of fiction — certainly understands the craft, skill and dedication required to write meaningful prose. To me, good writing in most forms is art. For instance, essays and other "creative non-fiction" that move or inspire are widely regarded as art, right?  I mean, if you can spend 2,000 words describing a tree, and keep your reader interested and focused, and give him/her something to take away from your piece, I say you're definitely on par with the writer of a good story!

And at the end of the day, what is a book review but a piece of creative non-fiction about a piece of creative fiction?  No, the Janet Maslins and Michiko Kakutanis (pictured, left) of the world aren't as well-known as the Dan Browns or Stephenie Meyers, but I'd argue that those critics have done tons more to advance the cause of GOOD literature. So, yes, I'm on board with Ms. Smith: Good critique of art IS art! 

Not everyone will agree, of course. Cynics will spout their cliches: "Those who can't write teach, and those who can't teach, review," or "Critics are nothing but failed novelists." To that, I say: "Step down from your high horse, and join us here among the grounded."

But even if you do agree with the notion of criticism as art, there still may be discussion about degree. In talking about this with my friend Jeff — a very good bellwether on topics like this — he basically agreed, but also said "I suspect there is no substitute for those who actually create." I guess it depends on your definition of "create," but this point is well-taken, too...

The sad thing is, especially in this wiki world, where opinions and blogs are like noses (everyone's got one, and some are larger, more forceful, and more slanted than others), good, thoughtful criticism — the kind that Ms. Smith thinks is art — is disappearing rapidly. Too many newspapers are cutting their book review sections and it seems that amateur critics who, for whatever reason, thoroughly enjoy eviscerating a book, just to make themselves feel better, are proliferating. (And yes, I fully realize the irony of decrying blogs that exhibit bad criticism ON A BLOG — which may or may not be considered bad, depending on whether I've pissed you off at some point.)

There's really no agreed-upon definition of what "art" is. And what inspires folks (either to write or while reading) is as widely varied as opinions on particular pieces of art themselves. So I can't wait to hear what the community has to say about this one!

Your move, fellow book readers and reviewers: Is a book review a piece of art? Why or why not?

(Side note: Yesterday, I came across this post by David at Follow the Thread, which included a link to an Examiner article that spelled out 20 most annoying book reviewer cliches. I had to laugh, as I'm often guilty of many of these — especially "compelling," "nuanced," and "riveting." That said, (haha), I take issue with the David's point that cliche isn't cliche if it's in the right context. Cliche is cliche because the words or phrases are overused, regardless of the context, in my opinion.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Financial Lives of the Poets: A Delightful Foray Into Despair

This is going to take some linguistic acrobatics. I'm going to spend the next 500 or so words trying to convince you that a story about bad choices, despair, near-financial ruin, and a failing marriage is one of the funniest, most charming, and downright best books you'll read in a long, long time. 

Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets is fantastic — an authentic and timely story, featuring cameos from the mortgage crisis, the slow death of newspapers, and the increasingly intense culture wars. But Walter manages to keep it light, and it's just a whole lot of fun!  

The story goes like this: Middle-aged Matt Prior's comfortable upper-middle-class suburban life has imploded, and now he's like a guy in one of those air-blown-money-grab phone booths, trying to grasp at the tatters of his sanity. Two years ago, Matt had quit his secure job as a financial journalist to start a Web site in which financial advice is doled out in poetry form (hence, the novel is peppered with snippets of free verse). At the last minute, he got cold feet, went back to his newspaper, but was laid off four months later. Now, Matt is a few days from losing his house. And his wife, apparently fed up with how things have gone down lately, is ramping up a Facebook flirtation with an old boyfriend.

But this all happened "off page." The novel actually begins in medias res with unemployed, increasingly desperate Matt (who I kept envisioning looking exactly like Walter's photo [at left] on the back flap) going out late at night to buy milk at a 7-Eleven. Offered a joint by a stoned teenager in the parking lot, Matt thinks "what the hell?" and spends the rest of the night out partying.

Over the next few days, Matt agonizes over whether to confront his wife about her impending infidelity and attempts to navigate the maze of automated answering options to beg his mortgage holder for an extension. Finally, believing himself out of sensible options, he decides that the only way to make enough money to solve his problems is to leverage his new pot-smoking buds to help him make a massive marijuana purchase, which he'll then sell to middle-aged folk like himself who are nostalgic for happier times.

This is the first of many terrible decisions that speeds Matt's demise. You know how when you spend way more than you wanted to on, say, a suit, and so then it's not hard to convince yourself that "hey, since I'm already way over budget, what's another $100?" So you pick up the silk tie, too. On a much grander scale, this is exactly what Matt does — bad decisions beget bad decisions, each time eroding any notion of possible consequences. Still, amazingly, by the end of the novel, you just feel terrible for him! 

The best part of this book is the writing. It's...just...fantastic.** The NY Times once called Walter "a ridiculously talented writer," and frankly there's no better way to put it than that. Like Beat the Reaper, this was an under-the-radar hit in 2009, and landed on many Best Of 2009 lists, including Time's, which is very, very well-deserved. Do yourself a favor — read this! 

**If you're interested, here is my favorite passage from the book. The setup: Matt has gone to the home improvement store where his wife's Facebook flirt works to do some anonymous reconnaissance. He's pretending to be building a tree fort for his two sons: "He stops in the aisle of how-to books and clicks his tongue as he runs his hand across the spines of books that show how to do simple electrical work and how to repair and carburetor and how to fix a clogged sink and how to build a porch and how to stain your fence and, finally, how to build a tree fort. This long bookshelf seems taken directly from my insecurities — an entire library of things I cannot do. In the next aisle of this hell-library would be books about how to manage your billions and what to do with your foot-long penis."

Monday, January 11, 2010

What's It Called When You Write About Your Own Life

Here's one for the group: What is the difference between autobiography and memoir?  Is it just a matter "pot-AY-to" / "pot-AH-to," or is there a real, defined delineation between the two?  Does it even matter?

My general sense is this: Presidents, poets and scientists write memoirs, whereas athletes, actors and porn stars write autobiographies. To me, just the word "memoir" has that ineffable je ne sais quoi that makes it high-brow, thoughtful, and decidedly not trashy. Not that all autobiographies ARE trashy, but memoirs most certainly ARE NOT. Memoir is personal and emotional, whereas autobiograpy is simply a chronological chronicle of things that happened, without much exposition.

I've read a few that would probably fit into either category, and a few that I'm not sure how to classify. For instance, and the reason I've been tossing this whole question around in the back of my skull, is that even though tennis legend Andre Agassi's recent book Open is subtitled "An Autobiography," and even though he's an athlete, and even though it does contains tawdry details about his love life and drug use, the book still has an incredible amount of heart and passion. It's sort of halfway in between.

In the camp of decidedly memoir is Israeli writer Amos Oz's book, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The book, about growing up in war-torn Israel, is richly affecting and poetic. It's probably the best of the memoirography genre I've read. 

I don't read too many of these, so help me out — what, in your mind, is the difference?  What are some of the better memoirographies you've read?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Beat The Reaper: Mafia, Murder,, Medicine?

On the surface, the premise for this novel seems absolutely ludicrous — a mafia hitman turns his back on his violent ways, enters the witness protection program, spends seven years in medical school, and becomes a doctor. You know what, though? It totally works!

From a pure entertainment standpoint, you really can't do much better than Josh Bazell's Beat The Reaper. It's like reading a movie** — and one for which you pay for the whole seat, but only need the eddddgggeeee.  Bazell writes with such flair and humor, but also intelligence and credibility (he actually IS a doctor), that you have no trouble sinking into this story.

Our protagonist is Dr. Peter Brown (f/k/a, Pietro Brnwa, Bearclaw), who is slugging through a shift at Manhattan Catholic hospital, popping pills to stay alert and expounding on the utter ridiculousness of hospital politics. His past and present worlds collide when a patient recognizes him as the former assassin and threatens to inform his mafia colleagues of his whereabouts. Since he'd thrown the son of his former boss out a fifth-story window, that would be real bad. Through dueling past-and-present story lines, Bazell speeds us through Brnwa's hitman days and hurdles us to a conclusion that is almost as ludicrous as the premise of the story itself. But guess what? Somehow, it works too!  I put down the book when I finished and just shook my head. Did that really just happen? 

One of the really fun parts about this novel is its footnotes. Most people, I'd guess, are annoyed by footnotes, but you won't be here. There's not that many of them, and they're consistently hilarious (i.e., "Scrub suits are reversible, with pockets on both sides, in case you need to run anesthesia or whatever but are too tired to put your pants on correctly.") They're Bazell's (actually, Brown's, since it's first person narrative) way of talking directly to the reader, usually revealing some little-known fact that may have gotten in the way of the fast-paced narrative flow.

Beat The Reaper was a sleeper hit last year — it found its way onto several Best of 2009 lists, including Time and Amazon's Best Mystery & Thriller.  If you're looking for a real fast, diversionary read, this book is just the thing.  

(**A movie version actually is in the works, apparently, with Leonardo DiCaprio rumored to have signed on to play Brown/Brwna. Now, THAT would be a smart casting decision. I can't find any sort of timetable on filming or release, though.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lamb: The Unauthorized Biography of Jesus Christ

No doubt a sarcastic, occasional-F-bomb-dropping rendition of Jesus may tick off more than a few religious folk, but if you're not of that persuasion, then Lamb, by Christopher Moore is a whole damn (and possibly damning?) lot of fun! All you have to do is read the novel's subtitle — The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal — to understand that this is satire of the richest variety.

The hinge for the plot of the book (again, written by the rather vulgar, dimwitted Biff) is that Jesus knows he's the Messiah, but has no clue how to be a Messiah. So, just short of his teenage years, he decides to travel with his buddy Biff to find the three wise men who were in attendance at his birth to see if they can clue him in. Each wise man — Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior — represents a different religious tradition (mysticism, Buddhism and Hinduism), and Jesus learns everything from how to multiply food to the idea of the Divine Spark, which he and Biff re-brand as the Holy Ghost. 

But the real genius of this book is its humor; a delicious mixture of slapstick, wordplay, and inside joke (thank goodness for those 12 years of Catholic education!).  As one example, Biff spends the better part of two weeks sexing prostitutes as a "favor" to the Christ, so he can better understand the sin of lust. "Thanks for sinning for me, Biff," he says. Or, consider that the "real" reason that bunnies are associated with Easter is that Jesus gets hammered at the Cana wedding (you know, the one where he changes water to wine) and is drunkenly fascinated by the cuteness of a nearby bunny. They're so cute, he wants them around anytime anything bad happens to him, he says.  Finally, here's one of the many silly forehead-slappers: The "H" in Jesus H. Christ stands for "Hallowed" because "....hallowed be thy name," we pray.

My only complaint about the book is that it's about 100 pages too long. There is a rather pronounced tone shift in the last quarter of the book, as Biff begins to relate the actual New Testament events of Jesus' public ministry and the crucifixion. It's almost touching in spots, and doesn't really fit with the rest of the book. I wish Moore had just stuck to the "unchronicled" part of Jesus' life, and concluded with Biff and Jesus returning from their journey.

Still, on the whole, this was a great read — lots and lots of fun. Have you read Lamb?  What were your impressions? Any favorite humorous moments?