Monday, June 28, 2010

Top 10 Literary "Things" of 2010...So Far

Here we are, already at the midpoint of 2010. So let's take a post and look back at the Top 10 most interesting, funny, and stupid book-related events, stories or general happenings of the first 180 days of the year.  

10. Jonathan Safran Foer on The Colbert Report — It's very rare that a literary novelist makes an appearance on a mainstream TV talk show, so this was exciting. Let's just conveniently ignore the facts that Foer's Feb. 8th appearance was on a "fake" talk show to discuss his non-fiction book, Eating Animals, okay? Foer kept up with Colbert pretty well, which is significant as Colbert almost always gets the best of his guests, or at least flusters them to some degree. It's just a great clip. "Since you seem to be very interested in animal love-making..." 

9. Publish or Perish — This mid-April New Yorker piece laid out the e-book landscape and explained how iPad is changing it. The article is as complete and interesting as any piece you'll find on the changing publishing culture.

8. Walter Kirn Snubbed for Oscars (at first) — Note to readers: If you ever publish a novel, and that novel is adapted into a screenplay, and that screenplay is made into a movie starring George Clooney, and that George Clooney is nominated for Best Actor (and the movie is nominated for Best Picture), your invitation to attend the ceremony is far from a sure thing. Up In The Air novelist Walter Kirn eventually did get to attend the Oscars, but his initial snub seemed like a huge slap in the face to the real creative genius behind many movies.

7. Dan Brown is MIA — I don't have a link for this one, but in my view, when it comes to Dan Brown, no news is good news. I must say I find it refreshing that after the initial publicity bounce from last year's deplorable The Lost Symbol, we seem to have collectively decided to ignore Dan Brown. Kudos to us! 

6. Tinkers, by Paul Harding Wins Pulitzer; Heads Are Scratched — Though I still haven't read it, I have it on good authority that Tinkers is actually a very good book. Still, it seems very bizarre that the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, awarded in April, was awarded to a novel actually published on January 1, 2009 and that it was a book very few had heard of and even fewer had read. 

5. R.I.P. J.D. Salinger and Jose Saramago —  The Catcher in the Rye novelist, also famous for his reclusiveness, died Jan. 27. Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Laureate, probably most famous for Blindness, died June 18.

4. This Just In: Christopher Moore IS Funny — I'd put off reading Christopher Moore for years, but finally got around to Lamb in January. I absolutely loved it! On another note, because I love books and I love music, I thought, naturally, I'd love books about music — but I wasn't really a fan in my first foray into Nick Hornby. 

3. Sparks to Readers: Stop Miscategorizing Me! — And we have our leader in the clubhouse for the 2010 "Totally Un-Self-Aware Award." Nicky Sparks, who clearly didn't understand that photo-posing with Miley Cyrus wouldn't help his cause when attempting to make himself appear smart, tried to make the case that he's a literary, not romance, author. Anyone who knows anything about books (and terrible romance movies) laughed heartily after reading this March USA Today article, and then went about their day. 

2 . Millenium Series on Cover of Entertainment Weekly — Especially as EW has increasingly toed the People/US Weekly line, it was refreshing to see a novel show up on the front cover of a pop culture mag, as it did for the June 25th issue. I really gotta get to these Stieg Larsson books, or you're going to start wondering about my literary cred.

1. Amy Greene's Bloodroot is the Best Book of 2010...So Far Bloodroot is simply mesmerizing.You should definitely check it out. If you do, I'll read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Deal? 

So what has caught your eye so far in 2010? What did I miss here? Any nominations of your own for Best Book of 2010...So Far (must have been published in 2010)?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Motherless Brooklyn: Brilliantly Defying All Convention

In his treatise On Writing, Stephen King says the spark for many of the best novels is when a writer combines two or more disparate ideas/topics/themes and then figures out how they can complement each other in interesting or unexpected ways. Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn is one of the best examples you'll ever find of this theory in action.   

To explain why, let's try to follow (an absurdly abbreviated version of) what must've been Lethem's thought process before actually sitting down to write: "What I want to write is a literary detective novel that pays tribute to the masters like Raymond Chandler. I like that. But I need something more. What if one of the characters has Tourette's Syndrome? Yeah, that'll add intrigue. But he can't be a punchline, he has to be sympathetic. And his relationship with language is how I'll make him sympathetic. Boom, novel."

Then, he sat down to write, and the book he produced (in 1999) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, turned out to be one of the most-read novels of the aughts, and is often cited as a favorite novel of all time.  

The plot is pretty simple: Gangster Frank Minna is murdered, and the four wise guys he's nurtured since orphan-hood (Tourrette's-afflicted Lionel Essrog being one of them) try to find out who killed him and why. Lionel tells us the the story in first person, as he wanders around New York City and then coastal Maine looking for clues and doing his best to manage his disease.

In my mind, Motherless Brooklyn succeeds spectacularly for two reasons: 1) The novel is incredibly inventive, and avoids cliche, when cliche would've been easy, and 2) It's very clear how much fun Lethem must've had writing this novel, which makes it fun to read.

First, how easy would it have been to make Lionel and his Tourette's a silly source of comic relief? Instead, Lethem uses Lionel's Tourette's in an  unexpected way: He uses the disease to show us how intricate and clever language can be. Lionel must use the "wall of langauge" as a way to protect himself from his disease-addled brain's attempts to destroy him. For Lionel, language isn't what sets him apart from what's normal, it's what helps him be normal himself. If he didn't have language, even nonsensical strings of language, as an outlet to oppose his other physical tics, his disease would get the better of him, rendering him useless. This is part of Lethem's trick to make Lionel a sympathetic and incredibly self-aware character, as opposed to a source of cheap laughs. He also has Lionel continuously explain Tourette's to us so that we not only understand it (see below for an amazingly written passage explaining Tourette's), but we also understand how his unconventional thinking is actually helping him solve the mystery.

Secondly, if we understand #1, then we can also understand that when Lethem has Lionel let loose with a string of language (Franksbook! forkspook! finksblood, i.e.), the effect is not meant to be comic relief. It's just Lionel being Lionel. But, those Tourette's word explosions (ghostradish! pepperpony! kaiserphone!), which appear frequently, sure had to be helluva lot of fun to write! If Lethem wants to be funny, he'll have his characters tell a joke, use a pun (i.e., soon after Frank's dead: "my mourning brain had decided renaming itself was the evening's assignment"), or toss in a word like "chucklehead" — which cracked me up every time. It wasn't until about two-thirds of the way through the novel when this notion of how much fun the novel had to be to write dawned on me. And that's the moment the novel really clicked for me. Lethem's not showing off or being superfluous, he's having a blast! And therefore, as a reader, you can't help but have a blast also. 

I read this book as the third in my personal New York trilogy (Let The Great World Spin and New York: The Novel being the other two). And while I'm sad to "leave" New York, I'm thrilled that I finished up with one of its resident poets. I'd always met to read Lethem but never had until now, and can't wait to take on his other stuff. I'd highly, highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys detective novels, the complexities of language, and just great writing. 

Have you read Motherless Brooklyn? What'd you think?

(Side note: Motherless Brooklyn is currently being made into a movie —- though set in the 1950s instead of the late '90s. Edward Norton wrote the screenplay, is directing and starring. I can't find a firm release date, but some sites say late 2010.)

(Passage explaining Tourette's that I absolutely loved: "Tourette's teaches you what people will ignore and forget, teaches you to see reality-knitting mechanism people employ to tuck away the intolerable, the incongruous, the disruptive — it teaches you this because you're the one lobbing the intolerable, incongruous and disruptive their way.")

Monday, June 21, 2010

When Writers Write Outside Their Comfort Zones

Remember several years ago when John Grisham — master of the courtroom thriller — came out with a slim, satirical novel titled Skipping Christmas?  Reactions were divided. Grisham fans scooped it up and devoured it with a semi-surprised look on their faces that seemed to say "Well, there's no lawyery intrigue here, but this actually isn't half bad." Then, of course, there were the skeptics who, simply upon hearing the title/author combo, guffawed noisely and retreated to the New York Review of Books to learn what Hilary Mantel thinks about VS Naipaul. (Sweeping generalizations are fun, aren't they?)

Despite the risk and the resulting blood-pressure-hike for their publishers, writers who publish outside the basic genre or type they're known for is a relatively frequent phenomenon. Most recently typified by Justin Cronin, an erstwhile literary writer who just published the much-acclaimed apocalyptic thriller The Passage, these cross-genre efforts, more often than not, seem to meet with a fair degree of success.

Take, for instance, arguably the most successful and highest quality example of this cross-genre writing: Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. Follett, known since the mid-70s for his international spy thrillers like Eye of the Needle and Lie Down With Lions, says in the preface to Pillars: "In the book business, when you have had success, the smart thing to do is write the same sort of thing once a year for the rest of your life." Certainly, there are many novelists, both good and crappy, following that formula. But Follett had always been fascinated with architecture and how these cathedrals not just were built, but were built so that they've stood for more than 800 years. So he did his research and published the 1,000-page epic. And the result was what Follett considers his "best book" and what readers have definitely made his most popular. Talk about a risk that paid off!

By way of further example, post-modern stalwart Thomas Pynchon recently published a detective novel set in the early 1970s titled Inherent Vice. Reviews are generally positive, and the novel's been acclaimed as Pynchon's most accessible work. Philip Roth (The Plot Against America) and Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen's Union) both published wonderful alternate history novels, way outside the zone of their typical literary fare. And then there's the case of John Banville. The Booker Prize-winning (for The Sea), undisputed literary novelist also writes crime fiction under they pseudonym Benjamin Black — almost as if Banville hopes to stay far clear of the cross-genre discussion by creating an entirely separate identity lest his genre fiction goes awry.

And let's be clear, sometimes it really does go awry. Again, our example is John Grisham, whose Playing for Pizza, a sad, silly swing-and-a-miss sports novel, has been roundly booed by his fans and unfans unlike. As a literary snob, I sort of wish there were more examples like this to make fun of. But, as I said, I must begrudgingly admit these novels by writers who defy their own conventions, seem generally to be successful.

So, what's your take? Do you agree that these cross-genre novels seem to generally work? And which novels/novelists am I missing? 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

New York: The Book Review

Edward Rutherfurd's New York: The Novel delivers what it promises: A sprawling historical fiction that links generations of characters through significant events of the city's rich history. Beginning in the 1600s with the original Dutch settlers, we work our way through the Revolution, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the Depression and into contemporary times. The cornerstone characters are the "old money" Master family, who trace their roots back to the original Dutch and English settlers on Manhattan island. Over the centuries, though, the story brings in tangential characters from all walks of life that range from slaves to Italian immigrants who land at Ellis Island to a middle-class Jewish family.

But much of the joy of this book is the little-known nuggets of historical fact, and how Rutherfurd relates these episodes to his characters. For instance, did you know that to quell the Panic of 1907, when widespread unscrupulousness in investing and banking practices nearly brought down the entire financial system, President Theordore Roosevelt handed $25 million to JP Morgan and basically said, "Save us"? And he did.

These bits of trivia (Wall Street is so-named because it at first literally was a wall that protected Dutch settlers from Indian attacks) are the take-aways from the book because looking back, it's tough to remember which Master character made a narrow escape from the 1863 New York Draft Riots or the name of the Italian immigrant who helped lay bricks for the Empire State Building as it went up during the Depression.

But that's okay, because this is an event-driven novel. For the most part, the characters are simply the vessels through which Rutherfurd allows his story of New York to flow. They're there to be representatives of their time and as a way to interface with the historical events. In a novel that spans 400 years, there's not time to give these characters a full emotional range.
That said, it's also worth mentioning that Rutherfurd's style can be a bit grating at times. Even during the longer sections that span a few hundred pages and several years with the same characters, Rutherfurd writes in page to page-and-a-half sections, which gives the narrative a bit of a choppy, start-and-stop feeling. James Michener, who invented this historically hefty genre, writes better than Rutherfurd does, in my view.

The book winds up telling the stories of Gorham Master, a rich Wall Street banker, and his wife Maggie O'Donnell, a lawyer and descendant of the Masters' 19th century poor servants from Five Points. Though it takes more than 800 pages to get to the one part of New York's story that will really resonate with readers, Rutherfurd does a very commendable job of fitting his characters into a dramatic and harrowing 9/11 narrative. The wait is worth it for this part.

Overall, if you're a fan of the Michener-esque long historical novel, you'll probably enjoy this. I'd give it 3.9 out of 5 stars (yes, just slightly below four stars). I learned a lot from this book and, for the most part, enjoyed the three weeks I spent with it. It also was a lot of fun to read this book before, during and after trip to New York — and then visiting Battery Park, Wall Street, Trinity Church, the Empire State Building and other historical landmarks, all which figure prominently in the story. So if you have similar plans, that'll probably bump up your enjoyment of the book as well.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Are Plane Reads Better Because You Read Them On A Plane?

My friend Mike and I have a theory: No matter how much you'd normally hate the genre, actors or story, if you watch a movie on a plane, it is automatically 1.5 to 2 stars better than it would have been if you'd watched it in your living room. By way of example, on a recent London to O'Hare flight, I found myself totally engrossed in the Zac Efron vehicle 17 Again. Pathetic, right? Another example: Mike, who's forgotten more about movies than most people will ever know and who frequently watches really obscure foreign language and artsy films, admitted to being moved to tears at the end of the laughably bad Jamie Lee Curtis/Lindsay Lohan film Freaky Friday. Enough said.

The reason for this is easily explainable: When you're trapped on a plane and have nothing better to do, of course the movie's going to look good in comparison to staring at the back of the seat in front of you.

I'd never really connected this theory to books before, but now that I think about it, it certainly stands to reason that the same better-on-a-plane phenomenon is true. Most people identify the "plane read" with a low-concentration, breezy book. Of course I would agree with that, and despite my book snobbishness, I enjoy the occasional genre fiction at 35,000-feet as well. But there is still a spectrum of quality, even among plane reads. So does reading a bad low-brainer on a plane make it better than if you'd read it at your corner Starbucks?

I first started thinking about this a few months ago as I was plowing through the second book in Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp series, The Third Option. Judging in retrospect, by just about any objective measure, it's a bad book — it's poorly written and the plot is preposterous. But on the plane I got about two-thirds of the way through the book, and was totally lovin' it! When I picked it up the next day laying on my couch, I skimmed and laughed (at it, not with it) and laughed and skimmed until I was finished. I couldn't believe it was the same book. It was as if Plane Greg had tricked Couch Greg into looking forward to reading it again.

Another example is Jonathan Tropper's How To Talk To A Widower. Now, this book actually is solid, but the plane elevated it to a level whereby I literally got choked up a few times and laughed out loud more than twice — which is totally out of character for me, a rather even-keel reader. The Plane Theory worked to turn this book from a good, readable novel to a novel practically on par with Don freakin' Quixote in my recirculated-air-addled mind.

So, what's your take? Anyone else noticed this phenomenon? Have there been books in which you were totally absorbed on a plane, but which were complete bores on the ground?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Another Compendium of Literary Links

A number of interesting articles have popped up around the literary world in the last few weeks, so I thought I'd spend another post pointing out a few of the items that have caught my eye, in the hope you'll find something fascinating here as well. 

1. The Death and Life of the Book Review — If you're willing to expend quite a bit of intellectual capital, not to mention time, this excellent piece in this month's The Nation explains the real reasons for the slow genocide of newspaper book sections. It's partly "the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves" and partly cultural. But despite the changing culture and the fact that only a few newspaper books sections remain, the author asserts that there's still "a genuine hunger for serious books coverage," and explains how book reviews may flourish in magazines and on the Web, even citing ("despite its commercialism") the wonderful Barnes & Noble Review as a city on a hill. The author ends on a note of clear optimism: "Despite the turmoil and doubts, I think there's no better time than the present to be covering books." It's a truly fantastic article! 

2. 20 Under 40 — The New Yorker's annual list of 20 young novelists isn't interesting for the names themselves because many (Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss) are pretty well-established. It's worth looking at for the interviews with each writer. For instance, I find it fascinating that one of Joshua Ferris's favorite writers is Thomas Pynchon. I'm not sure why that should be interesting, but it stood out to me. The list is in conjunction with the magazine's annual fiction issue, so you can also find stories by writers on the list, including Gary Shteyngart, Salvatore Scibona, and Rivka Galchen.

3. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — This list, which isn't exactly new, but is new to me, is compiled in book form based on the recommendations of hundreds of literary critics. It's a great resource if you're looking for ideas for what to read next. No, I didn't go through the exercise of actually counting how many I've read, but if you do, I'd love to hear your score! 

4. Lethem "Replacing" DFW — Jonathan Lethem is taking David Foster Wallace's spot as the Roy Disney Chair of Creative Writing at Pomona College in California. This kind of made me sad. Nothing against Lethem, but how could anyone ever really fill DFW's shoes in any respect? But, while we're on a DFW kick (and I usually am), here's some happier news: In December, Columbia University Press is publishing DFW's undergraduate thesis titled "Fate, Time and Language." This precedes the publication of his last unfinished novel The Pale King in April, 2011. That, I can't wait for!

5. The Passage review in the NY Times — To atone for my sin of erroneously making fun of Justin Cronin's The Passage as a "paranormal urban vampire romance," here's Janet Maslin's mostly positive review from the NY Times.

Any thoughts on these? Any interesting literary-related articles that have caught your eye recently?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

BBAW Registration Post

Hello judges!  Please consider these five posts as entry for each of the categories (Best Literary Blog, Best Written Book Blog, Best New Book Blog) entered. Cheers!

Let The Great World Spin review

The Financial Lives of the Poets review

A Gate At The Stairs review

Is A Book Reviewer an Artist?

A Look At Literary Gimmicks

Monday, June 7, 2010

Would You Approach A Writer At Random?

Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments For the Existence of God has been on my shelf, sadly unread, for a few months now. I’m legitimately excited to read it as I love heady novels that fuse philosophy and fiction, I just haven’t quite gotten to it yet. And never had I wished I’d read it more than this past weekend when my girlfriend and I were walking through Central Park in New York, and I saw Ms. Goldstein sitting on a park bench. You would’ve thought I was a teenage girl who’d just seen Justin Bieber. Well, okay, not exactly – but I was pretty star struck.

Of course, not having read the book, I couldn’t summon the courage to actually talk to her. It was enough to enjoy the “celebrity sighting” experience. Similarly, one other time earlier this year, I saw Audrey Niffenegger in a bar in Chicago enjoying a glass of wine with a friend, and I didn’t approach her either. The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my top 20 favorite novels, but still, I couldn’t talk myself into interrupting her conversation to gush.

Both of these “celebrity sightings” got me thinking about literature fans and writers and the correct etiquette (if there is any) in these situations. Let’s be clear: I’m not counting author-signing events, where the sole purpose of both you and the writer being in the same place is some sort of interaction (usually awkward, in my case). I’m talking about totally random times when you spot a writer just going about his/her day. Is it okay to chat them up? I mean, these aren’t actors or athletes who are used to being accosted by autograph- and photo-seeking fans. Would a writer who is quietly enjoying a sunny summer afternoon on a park bench be annoyed by being approached by a star-struck fan?

What do you think?  Have you ever randomly encountered a writer/novelist just minding his/her own business? How did you react? 

(By the way, if you're wondering, yes, Ms. Goldstein lives in Massachusetts. She's married to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, as a random, but interesting, note. So I was wondering why she'd be on a park bench in New York. I was so sure it was her, I made a point to look at her Website as soon as I got back to my room. There, I discovered from here appearances schedule that she was participating in a panel discussion that night in New York. Yep, that was her.) 

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Summer Reading Season: What's on Your Wish List?

Here we are, at the precipice of glorious summer: Sunny literary dalliance amidst the soothing serenade of the sea. How'd you like my Pat Conroy impression? To translate: It's summer beach-reading season! So I thought I'd spending a post telling you about some of the more anticipated novels of this summer.

Let's start with two that have already been released. For many, the beach-reading season is not only in full swing, but has already peaked. The trilogy-completer The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest came out on May 25 and has already been raved about by those who live the series — which has further motivated me to finally start the series. Soon. Soooooon.

Another great summer read — Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist — has already been widely devoured, enjoyed and raved about as well. Check out The Reading Ape's terrific review, as one example. I just ordered this book and can't wait to devour, enjoy and review it as well.

My most anticipated book of the summer, unfortunately, doesn't come out until near the close —  when the benign joy of the season will have metastasized into the unbearably drippy dog days. (Does anyone else have a weird subconscious association between summer and Pat Conroy's writing?) Anyway, on August 31st, Jonathan Franzen's new book, Freedom, comes out. Talk about anticipation! This is Franzen's first novel since The Corrections in 2002, which I loved!  

Two other summer books I'm eagerly anticipating: David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (due out June 29th) and Sara Gruen's Ape House (due Sept. 7th). Mitchell's Cloud Atlas has come so highly recommended by so many people I'm a little embarrassed to admit I haven't read it yet. So I'm going to start with this new one (which I also just pre-ordered) and drift backwards to Cloud Atlas after that. Gruen's Water For Elephants was one of the best novels of the aughts, and so I'm intrigued to see what she'll come up with next.

Two other randoms that sound good: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart (July 27), and the first in what promises to be quite the tree-killing trilogy, Ken Follett's Fall of Giants (Sept. 28).

If you're in to the paranormal urban vampire romance (or whatever that genre's official name is), Justin Cronin's The Passage (due out June 8th) has been getting an obscene amount of good press — including a rare A- from Entertainment Weekly. Finally, and I realize I'm not exactly breaking news here, but probably THE most anticipated novel of the summer across any genre is the conclusion of Suzanne Collins's fantasy/YA trilogy: Mockingjay is due out August 24. I haven't read any of these Hunger Games novels — anyone want to try to make a case that a literary-book-loving dork would enjoy them?

Now you. What are you eagerly anticipating this summer?