Monday, March 29, 2010

That One Book: The Ultimate 'To Be Read'

What is the one book you have on your shelf that you've never read, but have always intended to? You know, that single book that actually stares you down when you approach your "to be read" shelf to select your next novel? That One Book that makes you feel like an uncultured dolt for never having cracked its cover?

I'm quite certain every reader has that That One Book. And no matter the reader, The Book usually has some commonalities. It's considered a classic. It's really long. And a general reader would consider it dull, difficult or all-but-impenetrable. Books like War and Peace, Infinite Jest, The Satanic Verses and Ulysses are oft-cited examples of That One Book. 

For me, The Book is Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. I've had it on my shelf for more than five years, ever since I read somewhere that my favorite writer David Foster Wallace counted Pynchon and his opus as huge influences. I even purchased a reading guide that's faithfully kept the novel company on the shelf, waiting for the day I'll take them both down together.

If you're not familiar, Gravity's Rainbow takes place during the Blitz of London in 1944 and 1945. The novel clocks in at 784 postmodern pages, and is often considered Pynchon's seminal work. It's also considered one the most inaccessible books published in the English language, due to near-constant time and narrative shifts and obscure references that would make even Dennis Miller lose his mind. My friend Brad says he's started Gravity's Rainbow three separate times, giving up each time and literally burning the book after his third attempt. Despite its relative inaccessibility, it's also considered one of the best novels ever published, winning the National Book Award in 1974 and finding its way onto just about every Best of the 20th Century lists, including Time's.

So you know what? I'm going to start it now. I've read two Vince Flynn thrillers in the last month, so I definitely need to do some penance for my literary "sins." Besides, reading Gravity's Rainbow is my one and only literary goal for 2010. But I'm going to read it slowly (and in the background of this blog, so don't worry about having to slog through dozens of Gravity's Rainbow posts) and try my absolute best to understand as much of it as I can. I've heard people sometimes read books like War and Peace in 10-page-per-day chunks, just to make sure they're staying disciplined and keeping at it. That sounds like a good plan to me. So, without further ado, "A screaming comes across the sky...."

Wish me luck!

So, what is your Book? Why haven't you read It? Are you going to anytime soon, you uncultured dolt? ;) 

Also, anyone who has conquered Gravity's Rainbow, and can offer any tips or advice, I'd be eternally grateful! 

Finally, one last heads-up that if you're interested in winning a copy of Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, details on the giveaway are here. Deadline for entry is this Wednesday, March 31.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

2009 Bestsellers List: The Symbol of Lost Literary America?

If literary-loving aliens descended this week, and took a gander at Publisher Weekly's recently released list of the bestselling hardcover books of 2009 without knowing anything else about literary America, they'd probably draw some pretty embarrassing conclusions. We love our brainless mysteries, our bodice-ripping romances, and currently, our conservative punditry. The Lost Symbol sold more than 5.5 million hardcover copies last year (a pretty staggering number, but still less than The Da Vinci Code), James Patterson (or the team of sweat shop factory writers known as James Patterson) has five books in the Top 25, and more than 2.5 million people "went rogue" with Mrs. Palin.

If you'll excuse me for a minute, as I veer across three lanes of traffic to hurriedly make an exit from the high road: Wow, are our book tastes TERRIBLE. Where is the literary fiction? After The Help at No 3, there's not even another literary book in the top 30 — and no, I don't count Nicholas Sparks (especially after this utter buffoonery) or Pat Conroy. As I've mentioned, I'm all for the occasional mind-dumber, but who the heck is reading all these James Patterson's Ghost Writer novels? Does Janet Evanovich really deserve such a loyal following?  I will say, though, that I was heartened to see that John Irving's novel Last Night in Twisted River, which I thought was fantastic, did sell relatively well — more than 200,000 copies.

Regarding the nonfiction list... But, first, please don't confuse this next paragraph with any kind of political stance-taking. And PLEASE, don't comment about your passionate and beyond-reproach opinion of the health care law. There's enough of that on Facebook and the rest of the blogosphere. But isn't it interesting that whenever there's a Democrat in office, conservative authors sell very well, and vice versa? Three of the four top nonfiction bestsellers in 2009 were conservative tomes. And this CNN piece from last year explains why Ayn Rand (generally considered somewhat of a conservative hero) has experienced quite the resurgence in readership due to the recession and a Democrat in office. On the flip side: The nonfiction bestsellers lists during the Dubya years are peppered with liberal-authored books. Just a few better-known examples: Barack Obama's second book The Audacity of Hope was a bestseller in 2006 and Bill Clinton's memoir My Life topped the charts in 2004, followed closely by Jon Stewart's conservative-rankling America (The Book).

The only books on the 2009 lists (in the top 30, anyway) I read were Under the Dome and The Lost Symbol, both which I thought sucked. How about you? Which of 2009's bestsellers did you read? Any you particularly enjoyed? Loathed?  

One other note, according to Entertainment Weekly's blog about the bestsellers list, 2009 is the last year that e-books will NOT be counted in the bestselling tally. I don't know about you, but I was kind of surprised that they haven't been counted all along.

(Also, in case you missed it earlier this week, I'm giving away a copy of Lorrie Moore's novel A Gate at the Stairs. Details to enter are here.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

50th Post Giveaway: A Gate At The Stairs

Welcome to Post No. 50 of The New Dork Review of Books! To thank all of you for your continued readership, I'm giving away an extra copy of Lorrie Moore's novel A Gate at the Stairs.

Even though A Gate at the Stairs is listed on my "Currently Reading" gadget, I'm still finishing up another mindless Vince Flynn thriller titled The Third Option, so I actually haven't started it yet. But based on good reviews, like this one by Kath at [Insert suitably snappy title here], I'm excited to check it out!

To enter to win the book, which is the actual novel just as you'd buy it from a bookstore (i.e., not an ARC), please just leave a comment explaining how you meet the following criteria. You'll get:
— 2 entries for being an existing follower.
— 1 entry for being a new follower.
— 2 entries for linking to this giveaway on your own blog (please provide link in comment).

The deadline for entry is March 31. I'll announce the winner April 1. Good luck! 

Finally, if you'll indulge me a bit of a "clips show," here are links to a few of my favorite posts. By "favorite," I just mean the ones that touched off the best discussions. Enjoy!

1. Feb 11th - The Play's The Thing: A Look At Literary Gimmicks
2. Jan. 18th - Is a Book Reviewer an Artist? 
3. Dec. 14th - That David Foster Wallace Post
4. Nov. 5th - The Lost Symbol: Signifying Very Little

And just for posterity, here's my first post from back on Oct. 1.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Everything Changes: Dude Lit with Heart

Many people's immediate reaction to Jonathan Tropper — author of last year's critically acclaimed This Is Where I Leave You, one of my favorite books of 2009 — is to pigeonhole him as the dude version of chick lit writers like Sophie Kinsella, Lauren Weisberger and Candace Bushnell. Everything Changes certainly has elements of what could be considered "dude lit" — laughably bad dialogue, silly gratuitous sex scenes, drugs and rock'n'roll. Even the cover art plays into this notion of "for fellas only."

But I'd argue that Tropper is so adept at describing the psychology of relationships and love and connecting his readers to his characters that Everything Changes moves well beyond a brainless genre fiction novel to a memorable, affecting literary experience. At least, that was the case for me. I loved Everything Changes. Frankly, I was surprised by how much I liked it, and how it's stayed with me since I finished it several days ago.

The story is about 32-year-old Zack King. Ostensibly, his life is great — he lives rent-free with his millionaire buddy in New York City, is engaged to the beautiful, intelligent Hope, and has a well-paying job as a consultant. But then Zack wakes up one morning and pees blood, and then his long-absent father reappears, and then he begins to realize he's in love with his dead best friend's widow, and then he has a career-threatening crisis at work. That's a helluva lot to deal with in one week, and everything begins to, well, change.

The idea of the book is that even though Zack's life seems to be moving in the direction any early-30s dude would be happy with, he's really stuck in the neutral middle of just about every facet of his life. He's conflicted about his feelings for his fiance Hope and Tamara, the woman he thinks he really loves; he's a middle man at work, helping match up American companies with overseas manufacturers; and his ridiculous Viagra-popping father's re-emergence, has him torn between anger at his prolonged absence, skepticism about his real motives, and the possibility of forgiveness. And all this is weighing on him at once as he considers the possibility he might have bladder cancer.

The resolution is decidedly messy, as everything does, in fact, change. But following Zack through his decisions — both good and poor — and Tropper's acumen for explaining them, make Everything Changes just an out-and-out good time. Both male and female readers will enjoy this book. For females, Tropper provides a pitch-perfect peak behind the proverbial curtain of what the hell goes on in the male mind. For dudes, there are several "ah, yeah!" moments where Tropper describes something you may have thought about but aren't able to articulate. Again, at least that was the case for me. Though Everything Changes isn't quite as good as This Is Where I Leave You, it's still a great read — perhaps a good introduction to Tropper if you haven't read him at all.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Look At Literary Prize Overlap

Last week, Wolf Hall collected a second major literary prize for its "Mantel" (sorry...) when it won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hillary Mantel's period piece about Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the court of King Henry VIII also won The Man Booker Prize last year. 

Wolf Hall's second award got me thinking: Is such award overlap frequent among the major literary prizes? By major literary prizes, I mean the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Man Booker and the NBCC. And I only mean the fiction version. 

So let's take a look: Wolf Hall's dual Booker and NBCC prize isn't even the first time it's happened in the last five years. Karin Desai's The Inheritance of Loss won the Booker and NBCC in 2006. That book won my own literary prize, too: Longest, most fractured, and totally boring book I've ever read. 

In the last 30 years, other prize overlap also has happened several times — most frequently with the Pulitzer and NBCC. Junot Diaz's fantastic novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the NBCC in 2007 and the Pulitzer in 2008.  Edward Jones's The Known World (which bored me silly) won the NBCC in 2003 and Pulitzer in 2004. Rabbit at Rest by John Updike won the Pulitzer in 1991 and the NBCC in 1990. And Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres won both in 1992.

Only twice in the last 30 years have the NBA and Pulitzer overlapped: Alice Walker's The Color Purple won the NBA and the Pulitzer in 1983 and Annie Proulx's The Shipping News won the NBA in 1993 and Pulitzer in 1994. 

So there you have it — award overlap isn't nearly as rare as I might have thought. Apparently when the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award go to the same novel, then we'll really have a piece of news.

By the way, have you read Wolf Hall? I haven't, but with another award under its tunic, I'm moving it several slots up my priority list. I've heard it's not difficult, just long. Your thoughts?

(Side note: I thought it a little odd that this English novel had won an American critics' award, but when I looked at the list of NBCC winners, I realized that a foreign writer winning an award voted on by more than 600 U.S. book reviewers is not that unusual either. Last year, in fact, Argentinian writer Roberto Bolano won the NBCC Award posthumously for his massive (and all-but-unreadable, I've heard) tome 2666.  British novelist Ian McEwan won the NBCC in 2002 for Atonement.)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Everything Matters!: We're All Gonna Die!!

Ron Currie Jr. would probably take umbrage with a Bud Light commercial making the rounds these days. In it, scientists spot a meteor heading toward Earth, realize that death is imminent, and commence partying as if nothing matters anymore. But Currie takes a rather unconventional route toward trying to convince you that, even when you know you're going to die, everything in fact, DOES matter. 

When our protagonist, Junior Thibodeau, is born, a mysterious voice, which stays with him his entire life, informs him the exact moment the world will end. A comet will crash into the planet on June 15, 2010 at 3:44 pm EST, approximately 36 years from the day he's born. So Junior has to go through life trying to make meaning out of a seemingly purposeless existence, or as he says at a particularly low point of his adulthood, " has never been any great f#$%ing shakes in my opinion. In fact, it's always seemed a messy and heartbreaking and overall pointless affair."

Will Junior ever change his mind? I kept hoping so, and that's why I couldn't stop reading. Everything Matters! is a novel about discovering the pleasures of life, the importance of love, and capitalizing on opportunities. Look, death is a part of life, Currie would say. We all know we're going to die. Whether we know exactly when doesn't matter. What does is that for life to fulfilling, to matter, we must find our own paths toward life's meaning. So, carpe diem!

The story is told though a cadre of shifting narrators — Junior himself, his family and his girlfriend Amy, and the Voices Junior hears, which tell their sections to Junior ("We should tell you at this point," eg.) in a numbered countdown to Comet Day. We see Junior come of age, struggle with alcoholism and heartbreak, and generally try to make meaning of his life.

The pleasures of this novel are two-fold: the characters and the writing. The characters: Junior's brother, recovering from a teenage cocaine addiction, which rendered him, um, simple-minded, plays baseball for the Cubs. His mother is an alcoholic and his father a workaholic. And, addition to the fact that he hears the Voices, Junior himself is also the 4th smartest person on the planet, according to the Voices. But he's still a normal, easily recognizable dude, as are all these flawed-but-real characters.

Secondly, Currie is a fabulously talented, fun-to-read writer. At one point, writing about Junior and his classmates watching the Challenger explosion, he describes the booster rockets that " wildly away...tracing slow, chunky vapor trails, like illiterate skywriters." I got chills. What an image!

But beyond a sentence-by-sentence basis, the inventive structure of the novel — the different narrators, the omniscient Voices counting down section-by-section to doomsday — gives a well-rounded perspective on Junior and the events of the story. The fact that other characters tell their own stories in the first person also lends a bit more realism to the novel, lest you're turned off by the narrative gimmick of the Voices telling us what's happening to Junior. And, finally, the structure works and is necessary because Junior is often so jilted and misanthropic that the multiple narrators bring much-needed reliability and trust to the story. They also provide some essential levity. If we only heard Junior's story, most readers would stop after page 75, depressed and frustrated.

The only major problem I had with the book is that just after I understood the point, and was kind of in awe of Currie's writerly prowess and looking forward to a great, profound ending, Currie turns to a sort of silly narrative trick. It made me wonder if Currie's editor didn't request another 50 or so pages to beef up the book a bit. But I don't want to dissuade you from reading this great book. The good far outweighs the bad, and the uplifting message makes it a fine book for anyone who has ever struggled to understand what it all means.

(Two other reasons I loved this novel, that I'm putting down here because most readers of this review probably won't care:  1) Currie includes a hilarious inside joke intended solely for sports geeks: Junior's older brother Rodney plays for the Cubs, and in one the sections Rodney narrates, he explains that he has to use a fake name to check into hotels to avoid stalkers. That fake name: Ron Mexico, which is also the fake name Michael Vick used when he checked into hotels. 2) There's a homage to David Foster Wallace's short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men — a conversation between Junior's brother Rodney and a therapist in which we only get to read Rodney's side of the conversation. Don't worry, if this post-modern strategy isn't your cup of tea, it's only a few pages and doesn't distract from the main story at all.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Do People Still Read Philip Roth?

Not long ago, I was talking with a high school English teacher about which books and writers he most enjoys teaching. He gave me the standard answers: Shakespeare, Catcher in the Rye, Toni Morrison. So I asked him if he'd ever considered teaching Philip Roth. He looked at me quizzically and said "Who? What has he written?"

That seemed odd to me, like a high school geography teacher unable to locate California on a map. But when I thought about it more, the more I worried that this wasn't just an isolated example of an English teacher who should probably consider a new profession. Is Philip Roth, one of the most prolific and brilliant American novelists ever and one of my all-time favorite writers, really losing his vaunted status as a staple of the American literary canon?  Even though he's still publishing frequently, is anyone still reading him? 

My first exposure to Roth was about 12 years ago in a literature survey class in college. Reading Operation Shylock was something of a literary awakening for me. I'd always loved to read, and even though I was wrapping up my degree in English, most of my reading-for-fun was unfocused and directionless. I didn't quite understand what I liked and what I didn't. I just read, and didn't think too deeply about what I was reading — mostly because extracting meaning from Dean Koontz isn't exactly challenging. I was skeptical of literary fiction as stuffy and boring and not cool. Reading Roth, however, was the first time I can remember reading something I knew was supposed to be heady and literary and really smart, and actually really enjoying it!

Soon after, I tried Portnoy's Complaint, perhaps Roth's most famous novel. This wasn't too long after the movie American Pie came out, and I nearly died laughing at the American Pie-esque scene in the novel (first published in 1969!) that involves the main character, and a unique and rather disturbing way of ruining the liver his family was going to have for dinner.

And that's what I've always loved about Roth (and my favorite writers, in general, for that matter.). Yeah, he's regarded as a literary genius who has won the National Book Award twice and the Pulitzer once, and is only the third novelists to have his work collected and published by the Library of America while still alive. But he can also slip into Beavis and Butthead mode, and regale you with low-brow hilariousness.

So, even though Roth, at 76 years young, is still publishing frequently (his latest titled The Humbling came out last fall, though to fairly poor reviews), it just seems to me like you don't hear much about Roth anymore. Every October, I get excited for the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature, because any year now, Mr. Roth will get his due. But so far it hasn't happened. Maybe if it does, Roth's work will see a Renaissance. I can only hope!

What do you think?  Do you still read Roth? What are your favorite Roth novels? 

(If you haven't read Roth, I'd certainly encourage you to try him. A good place to start is American Pastoral, but The Human Stain, Indignation, The Plot Against America and The Great American Novel [if you're a baseball fan] are all terrific as well. )

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sympathy vs. Empathy: Ya Feel Me?

Normally, conversations or arguments that dissolve into "Well, it's just a matter semantics" are a tad lame, aren't they? It's like throwing up your hands and agreeing to disagree. But without getting into a whole thing here about prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar ('cause David Foster Wallace already took care of that for us), in my humble opinion, words DO have specific meanings and misusing a word can't be argued away with "Well, that's what I mean." And that brings me to my point: Especially in book reviews, precise language is critically important. So, today, on National Grammar Day, I wanted to spend a post to comment on something of a book review word-choice-related, um, issue I've noticed a lot lately.

Here's the deal: Many reviewers seem to use the words "empathy" and "sympathy" interchangeably when trying to explain their feelings for or reactions to literary characters. The difference is subtle, I'll grant you, but they're certainly not the same. Let's take a look...

Empathy suggests a very deep level of understanding of and identification with a character, a sense of vicariousness. To empathize is to know what it's like to walk a mile in a character's shoes, to see the world through his/her eyes. For a novelist, creating empathetic characters is really, really hard, and novelists who do so successfully are truly masters of the craft. When reading Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You, about a mid-30s dude colliding with life, I kept think "YES! He nailed it. I know exactly what that's like, why he's thinking like that, and why he just did that!" That's empathy, in my view.

To sympathize, on the other finger, seems to imply that something bad has happened and you feel sorry for a character. There is certainly a level of understanding here as well, but the sharing of feeling isn't quite as complex or fully realized as when you empathize. Sympathy can actually be counterproductive if taken to its extreme: pity. Pitiful characters are usually not well-liked characters. But as an example of good sympathy, in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, I sympathized the holy bejesus out of Liesl, the teenage girl stuck in Nazi Germany. But, I actually have NO idea what it's like to dodge air raids and eat nothing but weak pea soup at every meal. So I can't say that I could empathize with her. 

To illustrate the difference another way, I'd argue that you can sympathize with a cat, dog or duck billed platypus (normal, non-talking ones), but unless you're a Buddhist (reincarnation), it would be all but impossible to empathize with an animal.

What's your take on this "matter of semantics"? Am I right about the difference between empathy and sympathy, in your view? Have you notice these words used synonymously as well?  Does it bug you?

(By the way, I just went 'agoogling, and discovered that I am about the 4,563rd person to write on this topic. Perhaps, in the interest of originality, I should've looked into that before spending time crafting a post. D'oh!)

Monday, March 1, 2010

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: Class Struggles in Pakistan

You've never read anything like this slim volume of eight interconnected short stories about life in modern Pakistan. I can almost guarantee it. Rescued from obscurity by its 2009 National Book Award nomination, Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a blend of portraits of Pakistani people, both rich and poor. The effect is a holistic image of everyday life in a country stuck in an seemingly endless loop of feudalism and class struggle.

Mueenuddin, who was born to a Pakistani father and American mother, spent seven years after college at Dartmouth trying to untangle the twisted network of kickbacks, favors, and below-the-level law enforcement at his father's farm in Pakistan. This experience — the basis for these stories — seems to have jaded Muennuddin a bit, as evidenced by a theme-setting Punjabi proverb included at the beginning of the book: "Three things for which we kill — Land, women and gold."

The strength of the book, no doubt due to Mueenuddin's dual nationality, is how these stories cross the cultural divide. When a story focuses on the servant class, American readers have no trouble understanding these Pakistanis, their lot in life and their struggle to rise. That's true even if you're revolted by the male-dominated society and poor treatment of women. When these characters do bad things — like commit adultery, or steal from their bosses — it's still not hard to comprehend why. Sometimes there is no other choice. Sometimes it's a calculated strategy to try to move up.

In one story, a young woman, whose previously rich family has fallen on tough times, believes herself to be entitled to wealth and comfort. So she seduces the rich landowner Harouni (who is the common denominator in all the stories), takes him as her lover, and takes advantage of his generosity. However, when he dies, Harouni's scornful family turns her out completely. Now, her poverty is accompanied by even more shame. Similarly, in one heartbreaking story, a woman finally turns her life around by working hard as a servant at the rich landowner's house, only to wind up back on the streets as a heroin-addicted prostitute when  Harouni dies.

So, the idea seems to be that if you're among the lower class, even if you adapt to the system, your margins still are rather thin. Your entire life and well-being is dependent on the whims and fate of your landowning boss. My favorite passage in the book sums up the dependency of servants on their masters. It is also emblematic of Mueenuddin's beautiful, elegant prose: "Gone, and they the servants would never find another berth like this one, the gravity of the house, the gentleness of the master, the vast damp rooms, the slow lugubrious pace, the order within disorder."

Several stories also focus on the upper class. The longest story in the collection, for instance, is about a rich Paris Hilton-like character who spends all her time partying, ordering servants around and living off her parents' wealth. Another story focuses on the son of a rich landowner, who is dating an American girl. These stories are okay, but don't match the pathos and poignancy of the stories about the servants.

Mueenuddin's writing and storytelling reach their pinnacle in the last story of the collection, my favorite. An old man, who has worked hard his whole life, finally catches a break when he's hired on as gardener at one of Harouni's farms. Newly wealthy (in relative terms), he hopes to sire a son, so he takes a deal to marry a mentally challenged girl, believing it to be his only chance to carry forth his name. The "simple" girl, though, promptly runs away. When he reports this to the police, he is beaten and accused of killing her. So even when things begin to look up for the poor man, the system beats him back down. It's the sad reality for life in the lower class in Pakistan, and these stories illuminate that brilliantly. This is an important book, and highly, highly recommended!