Monday, August 30, 2010

Getting Over a Dud, or Don't Judge a Book By Its Author

Free of charge, let me provide a short bit of advice regarding a lesson I've learned as a reader: While you're busy making sure you're not judging books by their covers, also do your best to refrain from judging books by their authors. Wait, what? That seems counter-intuitive, right? How could you not? Because that name splashed across a cover is probably one of (if not THE) highest priorities in selection criteria, who wrote the thing will always influence whether you read a book, won't it?

Sure, it will. I'm not naïve. But the seedy underside of that vacuum-writer-judgment is that one reading experience can often determine your future with a writer. Let's be honest, we've all had reading experiences where we've been so put off by a book, we vow never to read that writer again. It happens all the time, and we rationalize it thusly: "There are just too many books to waste time on an author I didn't like when I tried him/her the first time" or "his/her writing style didn't appeal to me, so I'll never read him/her again."

I would argue, however, that keeping an open mind and giving second and third chances may lead you to some of your more rewarding reading experiences.

We all know that any writer, even the best, or your most favorite writers, like John Irving (The Fourth Hand, Until I Find You) and Zadie Smith (The Autograph Man), are capable of spectacular duds. The key is to not let the frustration of the time you wasted with those duds, or maybe not a dud but a book that just didn't agree with you, color your decision too much of whether to try the author's next book. Sure, that's easier said than done, I know.

But here's why I bring this up now: I read Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows a few years ago. By all rights, I should've loved it — a literary mystery about a lost Shakespeare play written by a novelist famous for his cross-genre success.  I was bored to tears. I wrote after finishing it, "It's always a roll of the dice when I try these 'literary thrillers' and this one crapped out." But then I read about Gruber's new novel — The Good Son, an international thriller about a kidnapping in Pakistan in terrorists with nuclear weapons. It sounded like a literary version of a Vince Flynn novel, so given my weakness for international thrillers, I was intrigued. It took several weeks of internal coaxing, but I managed to overcome my Gruber Trepidation, and I picked it up. You know what? I'm about halfway through it, and I'm really, really diggin' it.

By way of further example, I'd absolutely despised everything I'd ever read of Cormac McCarthy, including the famed Blood Meridian and his Border Trilogy. But, I read The Roadtwo years ago, only because it was short, it had won the Pulitzer, and it sounded a lot different than McCarthy's other work. Wow, what a reading experience! That novel is now in my Top 10 of all time. Thank goodness I didn't give up on good 'ole Cormac!  

I could cite many other examples, both positive and negative. Of course, yeah, this open-mindedness sometimes backfires — for instance, I loved Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, and so I picked up his newest novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, the day it came out. It made me kinda sleepy. But in all reality, the positive times far outnumber the negatives, in my experience — especially when you're second-chancing writers with great range, like Gruber. And the incomparable feeling of being surprised by how much I liked a book I took a big risk with is one of my favorite things about being a reader! 

What about you? Any anecdotes about a novelist to whom you gave a second or third chance, and are thrilled you did?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

August's Compendium of Literary Links

In this month's edition of The New Dork's list of interesting, fun or just silly literary stories, Dayton, Ohio hands out a literary prize, for some reason. President Obama causes a literary stir. And James Patterson is richer than God. 

1. "James Patterson" Makes $70 Million — In one year, Patterson, who tops the list of most-earning authors, made roughly the payroll of an entire mid-tier Major League Baseball team. You know how much I made in one year of periodically making fun of Patterson on this blog? Zero. Advantage: Patterson. Patterson's name "emblazons" one out of every 17 books sold in the U.S. He (and his "team of collaborators") publishes eight books per year. Amazing. Good on you, James.

2. Obama Causes Literary Stir — When President Obama was spotted leaving a Martha's Vineyward bookstore with a copy of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom — which doesn't go on sale until next Tuesday — Franzen fans all over the country damn near lost their minds. Apparently, bookstores were inundated with folks who thought they, too, could get the book early. But then it was revealed that Obama's copy was an ARC, so then most people (except, apparently, the one gentleman who was somewhat indignant) relaxed again to settle in to wait until the 31st.  

3. Picoult and Weiner State Their Cases — Earlier this week, best-selling female novelist Jodi Picoult caused a kerfuffle when she tweeted that the NY Times's positive review of Franzen's new novel proves that the paper only likes its "white male literary darlings." Uh huh. Anyway, the story touched off a gigantic e-argument about, as best I can tell, why the NY Times hates women and popular fiction. Thankfully (thankfully!), the Huffington Post allowed Picoult and another famous female novelist, Jennifer Weiner, to state their cases. Since like 95 percent of my readers are women, I'm treading lightly here. LIGHTLY! So, I'll say this: Picoult's comments, for the most part were thoughtful and interesting, I thought. But some of Weiner's comments are so powerfully stupid they practically drool. 

4. Literary Dayton — Look, I lived in Dayton, Ohio for two years, and that city giving out a literary prize is a bit like Milwaukee handing out a prize for sobriety or Chicago handing out a prize ethical government and physical fitness. And what's more, it's a lifetime literary achievement award! At least the novelist who won — Geraldine Brooks — is a well-deserving recipient. It just slayed me that Dayton, Ohio, whose public schools were ranked last in the state of Ohio both years I lived there, and whose only downtown bookstore is called Exotic Fantasies, would hand out a literary prize. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. But not much stranger.

5. The Ape's List for the Textually Diseased — I loved this post from The Reading Ape about strange (or normal?) habits of obsessive readers. Read the comments — you'll find it heartening to learn you're not alone in your literary quirkiness. My favorite comment was Kenneth Griggs, who says he uses the same bookmark over and over again, until he reads a bad book. Kind of like a baseball player wearing the same underwear during a hitting streak. I've actually had the same bookmark since 2004 — it's a ticket stub (now, well taped up) from a Marquette basketball game.

6. Help Other Book Blogs — Cool idea on Twitter today (pointed out by Man of La Book): Use the hashtag #helpotherbookblogs and tweet a review from another book blogger you enjoyed. By the way, you can find me on Twitter here.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Bout of Literary Schizophrenia

I'm not sure how this happened, exactly, but I think I may be in the process of accomplishing a literary feat the world has never seen. There's no question this defies any literary logic and, presumably, precedent, as well. I'm reading Gravity's Rainbowand Harry Potter at the same time. Yep, Pynchon and Rowling — hanging out, one on top of the other on my coffee table. Isn't that just silly?  I mean, I understand that the literary mash-ups are all the rage these days, but this combo is absurd, even by the standards of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

And you know what? Harry Potter's kind of entertaining. And so here is one of the great ironies of my literary career: I like the kids book, but I'm absolutely despising the novel I should be loving. Gravity's Rainbow is the novel that brought postmodern literature from the fringes to the mainstream, and was a huge influence on my favorite writer of all time, David Foster Wallace. But I'm now into my fourth month with this ridiculous train wreck of a book, and I hate it. I really do. It's worse than homework. But I'm committed to finish. I can't not finish a book — especially one I've put so much time into, and the one book I declared to be my ultimate to-be-read. I cannot freakin' wait to throw it on my shelf, tell people I finished it, and never have to open its pages again.

But back to "the boy who lived." For years, I've been promising my girlfriend that I'd give Mr. Potter a try, but why now? I'm not sure, except that I think maybe some part of my literary subconscious thought it'd be funny to play a joke on me; sort of payback for forcing it to ingest pages of Pynchon's non-sensical prose. And so last week while I was laying around watching baseball, I found myself wandering over to the bookshelf, grabbing The Sorcerer's Stone, and settling in. But the joke's back on you, stupid literary subconscious, because I'm not kidding at all — I like it!  Maybe I wouldn't if I didn't need it as a Pynchon-balancer, but with a straight face and a clear conscience, I can tell you that I'm enjoying it.

I haven't yet decided whether to continue with the Harry Potter series after the first one (The Sorcerer's Stone), but maybe. Maybe I'll start Ulysses and the second Harry Potter (The Chamber of Secrets) at the same time, just to pull off another goofy literary stunt.

You ever done anything so literarily absurd? Anyone out there want to make a case that I should continue on with the Harry Potter books?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Hard Work of Fiction

This here is one of them there smart folk books. And as such, in order to enjoy it, you have to really enjoy weeding your way through smart folk stuff, like mazes of logical proofs, esoteric Jewish mysticism, faith vs. reason debates, and metaphysical philosophy. Believe it or not, though, 36 Arguments for the Existence of Godactually is a work of fiction with characters and a plot and the whole nine yards.

To be clear, it's not "a novel," it's "a work of fiction." And you have to believe that someone as intelligent as Guggenheim fellow and Harvard faculty member Rebecca Newberger Goldstein would choose her words carefully when deciding how to describe her book on its cover.

My guess is that she is hoping to subtly signal to her reader not to expect a novel, as one would normally conceive it. Instead, because the characters on which Goldstein's builds her work of fiction are almost too easily recognizable, too typical, it's pretty clear they are just vessels. The real point of this work of fiction isn't the fiction, it's the work required to understand the ideas. That's not inherently a bad thing, just something to be aware of.

Cass Seltzer is our protagonist — a middle aged college professor, and best-selling author of an atheist tome titled The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Despite his fame (notoriety?) as an atheist, Cass's charisma and humbleness have earned him the label "atheist with a soul." Cass is brilliant, but for all his logical faculties, he can't quite seem to reason out love. His first marriage ended when his wife got sick, and then fell for her doctor. Now he's dating a fellow academic, and he's trying to decide if he loves her. "Romantic infatuation can be form of religious delusion, too," Cass realizes at one point.

Cass studied for his doctorate under the eccentric, mercurial Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Values, Jonas Elijah Klapper. Goldstein takes us through several scenes that flashback to Cass's graduate school days. When Klapper learns that Cass's family came from a relatively famous ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect, he insists Cass take him to visit. Klapper becomes infatuated. We get our first real signal that he has gone off the deep end when he tells Cass his doctoral dissertation must be on the specific symbolism and or Kabbalistic meaning of traditional Jewish foods — like kugel.

Then, there's Azarya, the child genius "imprisoned" in that Hasidic sect. The kid is a math prodigy, proving that there's no largest prime number at the age of 6. Azarya's purpose in the book seems to be to give Goldstein a vehicle for discussing the philosophy and ethics behind "wasted genius." Will Azarya waste away in the insulated religious sect or will he be permitted to leave and enrich the world with his gift?

Much of this work of fiction is told as conversation, or, like the first scene of the novel, Cass standing on a bridge in Boston doing an internal review of his current state of affairs, much is also told through characters' contemplations. There is also quite a bit of description of Jewish mysticism and Hasidic ritual, much of which is a real slog, frankly. The novel is capped off by a Harvard debate between Cass and another guy about the proposition "God exists." Who will win?

It should be pretty clear by now that this novel isn't exactly beach reading. I'm not going to lie, it's hard work at times to keep up with the arguments and concepts. And so to use a cliche, you get out of it what you put into it. I was a lazy reader on this one and didn't expend the necessary effort to really enjoy it. So I didn't. But you might...

Tip on reading the work of fiction, should you decide to: The Appendix contains the 36 Arguments for the existence of God Cass included in the appendix of his book. There are (surely not coincidentally) 36 chapters in Goldstein's book, so I read one argument in the Appendix after each chapter. That seemed to work out nicely, and made them more interesting and manageable. I can't imagine reading all 50 pages of those 36 Arguments after finishing the story.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Hype Machine: Love It or Loathe It?

Personally, I hate it, and yet this time, I'm uncontrollably drawn to it. The hype machine: It makes people, at best, skeptical, and at worst, cynical — but let's face it, the hype machine always works.

For the purposes of this post, if you'll permit me to back up a second, let's define the "hype machine" simply as the glut of articles, interviews and other press that make their way across our Starbucks tables and computer screens during the lead-up to a "publishing event." Sure, publishers drop millions on marketing for books they know will be hits, and novelists have publicists who carefully manage that writer's image in the media. Many times, though, the hype machine builds on itself naturally, as each new media outlet notices a trend that's drawing readers and wants to make sure they're not left out.

So now to the meat of this post: Unless you've been living in Dan Brown's basement, you're probably aware that Jonathan Franzen will publish his follow-up to 2001's The Correctionsin approximately 348 hours, 14 minutes, and 23 seconds. (That would be August 31st, for you non-mathletes.)  The hype machine for Freedom has been churning along at near break-neck speed all summer. In fact, I can't ever remember the anticipation for a literary novel as intense as it is for this one.

The hype for Freedom peaked late last week when Time published its Aug. 23rd issue with Mr. Franzen eruditely and intellectually gazing off to the side of the cover. The headline: "Great American Novelist." It's the first time in 10 years a living American novelist has been on the cover. Stephen King was the last in 2000. (Unfortunately, you can only read part of the story online — another sure sign that Time feels like the story will grab readers and newsstand sales.) I thought it was a great article, especially the parts about Franzen's friendship with David Foster Wallace and how, with Freedom, Franzen's realized that story and characters matters most, and has laid off the literary tricks and fireworks.

Also, the NY Times' Michiko Kakutani big-worded her way through a really positive review that appeared yesterday — for a book that doesn't come out for two weeks! In fact, most reviews so far have been very positive — feeding the hype machine even more.

There are tons of other examples of the hype: a Huffington Post piece about why books still matter framed around Freedom; the fact that the film rights have already been sold. Franzen is everywhere. And, as usual, the hype machine is working. At the time of this writing, Freedom is #8 on Amazon's bestsellers list — a full two weeks before it's published. 

Frankly, I can't get enough. It may diminish my enjoyment of the book (which is what people who hate the hype machine are known to claim, right?), but I love the fact that a literary novelist has so pervaded our consciousness. And so I continue to devour every clip I can find. Yes, normally I hate the hype machine — but this time, the end justifies the means. 

So, what say you? Can you remember a non-Twilight, non-Harry Potter, non-Girl Who novel hyped as much as Freedom? What's your take on the hype machine? Cynic? Skeptic? Loathe it? Love it?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Dog (Book) Post

Yoshi, his now-faceless toy and his favorite book.

Lately, the Casa de New Dork has not exactly been an environment conducive to literary pursuits. My girlfriend and I adopted a mini-dachshund named Yoshi last week, so reading time (and sleep) has been scarce. But Yoshi coming to live with us is really exciting and has been a lot of fun.

Yoshi's arrival has also gotten me thinking about dog books, and how few I've actually read — either fiction or non. So maybe you can help — what are your favorite dog books? Any recommendations as far as books that'll teach me to train a dog how to stop barking and lunging at other dogs three times his size?

Anyway, here are a few dog books I've read, and a few I've heard are good and I mean to read.

The first book that came to mind was one I enjoyed a lot — The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. This was one of those books that went viral about two years ago, sort of like The Helpthis year. And then Oprah helped  even more by selecting it for her book club. But just so we're clear, I read it before Oprah picked it. The story, which is an inventive retelling of Hamlet, is about dog breeders in rural Wisconsin.

The only other dog books I've read, at least that my sleep-deprived brain can conjure up right now, are childhood classics — books I read when I was just a pup myself. Of course, any dog book list would be incomplete without Old Yeller, which if you're a dog lover may be the saddest book of all time. Then, there's The Call of the Wild— which made me want to be a dog-sledder. And, finally, Where the Red Fern Grows, which is one of the first books I remember really loving.

Leading off the haven't-yet-read list is the "new classic" Marley & Me. I don't know a single female who has read this book without bawling her eyes out. That's just touching, isn't it? Owen Wilson's silly-looking mug on that movie tie-in cover, though, is enough to take any emotion out of even the most heart-felt book, in my humble opinion. Another non-fiction dog book I've heard is good is Tell Me Where It Hurtssubtitled A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope In My Life As An Animal Surgeon, which pretty much explains it well enough. Finally, in the fiction category, I've heard a few dog-lovers say Catherine Schine's sort of obscure novel The New Yorkersisn't too bad.

So, what say you? What are your favorite dog books? Did you like Edgar Sawtelle? As a first-time dog parent, what books should I grab to initiate myself into this close-knit fraternity?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Hiaasen, Boyle, Rushdie: Remaining Unread

Anyone excited about the new Carl Hiaasen novel that came out a few weeks ago? Did you know there was a new Hiaasen? Do you know who Carl Hiaasen is?

Hiaasen, purveyor of the "Florida thriller" genre, is one of those writers who keeps popping up on the periphery of my reading radar. For guilty pleasure reads, he seems like he'd be fun, but I've never quite succumbed to that guilt. His new novel, titled Star Island, seems absolutely ludicrously fantastic — it's a satire about a teen star named Cherry Pye. How could that not be a little fun, even for someone who mostly reads literary fiction?

Anyway, Hiaasen's new novel got me thinking about other writers with extensive catalogs and loyal fans who I've never read. I did an "unread writers" post last year, and it sparked a good conversation. So I figured now might be a good time to do another — to solicit the reading community's advice on Hiaasen, and two writers I've never read (T.C. Boyle and Salman Rushdie.

So, T.C. Boyle, anyone? I have two of his (dozen or so) books on my shelves, The Inner Circle and Drop City but have never taken them down. It seems like whenever Boyle comes out with a new novel, it's always received luke-warmedly. So that's part of the reason I've never picked him up. But I know some people love the guy. What's your take? Any particular Boyle book strike you as exceedingly good?

Finally, there's good 'ol Salman Rushdie, who, truth be told, scares me about as much as a death sentence. Midnight's Children won the Best of the Booker prize a couple of years ago, and of course, The Satanic Versesis one of the more infamous novels of all time. (At some level, wouldn't it be pretty cool to write something that inspires passion and anger enough that people want you dead?) But aren't they both really difficult? His latest two novels, Shalimar the Clown and The Enchantress of Florence, are not exactly spectacular, I've heard. What's your take? Is Rushdie worth a read? 

So, to sum, have you read anything by these three writers? Impressions? Any particular writers on your own "unread, but on the fence" list?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Blurbs! The Blurbs! (Are They Important?)

Browsing at Barnes & Noble a couple of months ago, the attractive cover design and unusual title of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God, by Rebecca Goldstein, caught my eye. My first thought (beyond, "Dammit, am I really judging a book by its cover?") was to wonder what the hell a preachy religious tract was doing in the fiction new releases section. But I investigated further. The subtitle, "A Work of Fiction," hidden in plain sight in black cursive at the bottom, was a clue...

I'd never heard of the novel or its writer (but remember when I saw her in Central Park?), and so turning the book over, I was excited to find two novelists I admire, Jess Walter (The Zero, The Financial Lives of the Poets [my review]) and Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), absolutely gushing in the back cover blurbs. That's it, I thought, this book's coming home with me. 

I've never put much stock in blurbs (or really even read them at all); either from other writers or from the magazine/newspaper reviews usually included on the first few pages. They usually seem like marketing hooey, and more of a hindrance than a help to enjoying the novel. But, as I'm reading and thoroughly enjoying "36 Arguments", a book I selected based solely on its blurbs (a first for me), I started to wonder if other readers have had success using blurbs as a selection criteria for new novels, too.

There's two parts to this consideration, really: What the blurbs say, and who did the blurbing. To me, the second is more critical, since I've heard over and over again how careful writers are when choosing books to blurb. It's always risky for writers to link their names to another's work. No one wants to be associated with a bomb, in any capacity. So if you've enjoyed a blurbing writer's work, it's not a logical stretch to conclude that that the blurbed novel is solid.

What's more, when you get right down to it, all the blurbs invariably say is some variation of "The book is good." So, in the one and only example where this may be true, the content is not as important as the person writing the content.

That is, except when the content is bad. Or wrong. Take, for instance, this hysterically and "painfully overwrought," blurb Nicole Krauss wrote for David Grossman's new novel To The End of the Land. Because I had to read it about three times to really understand it, it doesn't exactly make me want to dive over bookcases to get my hands on the novel.

When blurbs are misleading, they can negatively affect your reading experience as well. That was the case for me with Carlos Ruis Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. Blurbers compared Zafon to Arturo Perez, Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, so I was expecting something a lot smarter or more bookish than what I got. (My review here.) But Stephen King is blurbed on the front cover, so that just confused me.  Anyway...

So, how important are blurbs to you when you're prospecting for new novels or novelists? Do you give more stock to a novel that's been blurbed by other novelists you've enjoyed? Examples? Do you read the pages and pages of marketing-tailored fluff on the opening pages?

(Dammit...Ever since I titled this post, I've had the song below by the Chicago rock band Janus stuck in my head...Click "play" on the clip and fast-forward to about the 3:08 mark if you want to understand the connection. The lesson here?  I'm a nerd.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Thousand (Quite Vivid, But Not-Always-Interesting) Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Will Jacob de Zoet ever get the girl? To answer that, David Mitchell leads us through the day-to-day routine of a little-known 18th century Dutch trading post, a bizarre Japanese cult where women are "engifted" and their "gifts" confiscated, and a naval battle with huge geopolitical implications. Still, whether or not the nice guy won't finish last remains the central question in David Mitchell's fascinating new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Mitchell's story is, in a word, vivid. As The Millions pointed out, the novel has a cinematic feel. The sentences sparkle and the plot, told in the present tense, continuously veers off unexpectedly. It's not hard to follow (keep a list of characters, like this helpful fellow did, though; there are many), but sometimes it is hard to stay engaged.

Here's why: Mitchell constantly interrupts himself to provide detail. He stuffs bits of narration into dialogue mid-sentence (see below for an example) and describes in several one-line sentences in a row that read at times like poetry (see below for an example of this, too). These tricks in themselves aren't annoying, but you never quite get used to them, and they tend to distract from the flow of the story. And when you're telling a story about something as abstruse as Dutch-Japanese-British relations in 1799 at an obscure trading post, doing whatever you can to keep your reader with you seems to be the tack to take.

Basically what that all means is that Mitchell's snappy, crackling writing was both a blessing and a curse; both a hindrance to me totally investing myself in the story, but also the way by which I was able to find my way in and derive the enjoyment I did. That said, there are parts — a daring rescue attempt, the aforementioned naval battle — that speed along with thriller-like speed. But the scene-setting — and there's quite a bit to recreate the 18th-19th century world as vividly as Mitchell is able to — and jumps in story (Mitchell basically re-starts the story at the beginning of each of the three "acts" of the novel) cause a few lags in reading enjoyment, at least for me. 

But back to Mr. de Zoet, the mild-mannered, honest-to-a-fault young clerk who is employed by the Dutch East India Company. Charged with cleaning up the company's ledgers and clamping down on the blatant profiteering and corruption, Jacob has quite a challenge on his hands, especially given that his superiors are as corrupt as anyone. A chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife who has the rare opportunity to study under the Dutch Dr. Marinus on Dejima — the Dutch East India's trading post off the coast of Nagasaki — causes Jacob to all but forget his betrothed back home in the Netherlands. Jacob is fascinated with Miss Aibagawa, and is heartbroken when she is essentially kidnapped and forced to take up residence at a bizarre nunnery atop a mountain. Will the two ever be reunited? And if so, will she requite his love? If not, will Jacob ever get back home?

This was my first foray into Mitchell, and I am in awe. Thousand Autumns isn't my favorite book of the year by any stretch, but it's easy to see the genius behind it. The imagination and research that must've been required to tell this tale is simply stunning. There's always two ways to evaluate a book — the way that's objective as possible, putting yourself in the shoes of other readers, and the "it was/wasn't my cup 'o' tea" way. Objectively, it's a stunning book, but one I wish I would've liked more than I did. 

Example of in-dialogue narration:
"So," Vorstenbasch settles himself, "after three days ashore, how are you finding life on the company's farthest-flung outposts?"
"More salubrious"—Jacob's chair creaks—"than a posting on Halmahera, sir."

Example of several one-line sentences in a row that read like poetry:
Steam rises from a bowl of water; light is sliced on the bright razor.
On the floor, a toucan pecks beans from a pewter saucer.
Plums are piled in a terra-cotta dish, blue-dusted indigo.