Thursday, December 30, 2010

You Lost Me There: Ah, Memories

The set-up for Rosecrans Baldwin's debut novel, You Lost Me There, is certainly intriguing. An Alzheimer researcher wrestles with his own rememories. But his problem is not that he's losing his memory. It's that he can't remember things accurately or definitively or with the same assignation of value as others. And this causes him quite a bit of consternation. Indeed, it nearly ruins his life.

Dr. Victor Aaron's wife Sara has been dead for several years -- perishing in a car crash soon after a reconciliation of their rocky marriage. To cope, Victor has lost himself in his research on a small island off the coast of Maine. When he finds some notecards Sara had written in therapy during a rough patch in their marriage, he's astounded to learn that what she had considered the signature events of their marriage, he can barely remember at all. "If two people have the same experience, but remember it differently, what does that say about their respective minds?" Victor wonders.

That's an easy one, isn't it? The answer is that respective minds are simply different; they see and experience the world differently. Not exactly earth-shattering, is it? But that's the idea Baldwin dwells on for the whole of the novel, and so, to me, the story didn't live up to the intrigue of its original set-up. Besides that reason, the novel fell a bit flat because Victor is such a dunderhead. He's humorless. He's a bore. And he's totally oblivious. Not good qualities for a protagonist, in my view. Furthermore, this novel finally made me understand the book reviewer cliche word "uneven." To emphasize the idea of the inconsistency of memories, Baldwin constantly jumps back and forth in his character's lives, often from paragraph to paragraph, between memories and real-time. The effect is that you're constantly a bit off balance trying to place the memories in some sort of chronology to construct a bigger picture of these characters' lives. Some clunky dialogue (Victor, confused, always asks "What are you talking about?") and some first-novel glitches (how does an early-20s girl who only brings a purple backpack for a summer stay suddenly have an evening gown and high heels?) also add to the sense of unevenness.

Finally, though, as Victor begins to slowly yank himself out of his malaise, helped along by some rather strange circumstances (a dream-like conversation with his dead wife, i.e.), the novel does gain some momentum and becomes a bit more fun. There are some very well-rendered and affecting final scenes which don't altogether save the novel, but do show Baldwin's promise as a writer.

To sum up what I consider to be about a three-star novel, it'd be really easy to make a joke like "No, Mr. Baldwin, you actually lost ME there," but I won't. (even though I just did...Did you laugh? No? Damn.) This definitely wasn't my favorite book ever, but I'd say if you're interested in getting in on the ground floor of a writer from whom you'll surely hear, I'd recommend You Lost Me There for that reason.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Year in Review, In Lists of Two

If you're looking for a "Best of 2010" list, probably best not to look here, but instead to Largehearted Boy's collection of every "Best of..." list published. I thought, instead of simply telling you about the best books I've read this year, let's do something a little more encompassing. So here's a look at literary 2010 from several different angles, in short lists of two items each. Why two? Because, if I've learned anything this past year, it's that our collective attention span is approximately equal to the half life of the element Astatine (that would be 125 nanoseconds), and getting shorter all the time. (2011 New Year's Resolution: Stop being so cynical.) But 2010 was still a fantastic literary year. So here's a look at the year that was:

Two Best Books Not Titled Room or Freedom
1. The Instructions, by Adam Levin -- I just read this recently and was floored by Levin's range as a writer, and ability to keep me interested in a 1,030-page story that takes place over only four days.
2. Bloodroot, by Amy Green -- My prediction about this novel winding up on the year-end awards lists didn't come to fruition, but I still count it as one of my favorite novels of the year.
(Two more: Nemesis, by Philip Roth & Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray)

Two Biggest Literary Stories of 2010
1. Google launches eBooks store -- This is hugely significant because Google's ebook standard is open, allowing users to purchase ebooks for any ereader (except Kindle). It's also significant because independent book sellers can sell Google eBooks directly from their sites.
2. Franzenmania -- From about the middle of August (when Time put him on its cover, and President Obama was spotted carrying a pre-release copy of Freedom) to just a few weeks ago, when he appeared on Oprah, Franzen dominated literary headlines during the second half of 2010. I can't ever remember a literary novel garnering as much hype; hype which, thankfully, the novel lived up to
(Two more: Tinkers by Paul Harding wins Pulitzer, & Lords of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon wins National Book Award.)

Two Best Literary Articles of 2010
1. James Frey's Fiction Factory -- This New York Books piece profiles egomaniac Frey and his attempts to extort writers for their creativity. It's a wonderful read!
2. The Unconsoled: Profile of David Grossman -- This is George Packer's intense, moving portrait of Israeli novelist Grossman.It's long, but not a single word is wasted.
(Two more: Publish or Perish & Letters To Santa By Shakespeare Characters.)

Two Writers We'll Miss
1. J.D. Salinger -- Reclusive The Catcher in the Rye writer died Jan. 27 at age 91.
2. Jose Saramago -- The Portuguese novelist most famous for Blindness died June 18.

Two Biggest Non-Stories of 2010 That Took Up Disproportionate Amounts of People's Time
1. Picoult and Weiner Jealous of Franzen, Good Novelists -- When Freedom came out in late August, womens lit (is that the right PC term?) novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult picked a silly, jealousy-fueled fight with Franzen over the perceived slight that the NY Times prefers to review fiction written by men. Even most women were annoyed. 
2.Celebrities Publishing Novels -- I wrote about this annoying trend back in May, and that was before Snooki announced that she (and her ghost writer) is publishing a book. And, after typing that last sentence, I just threw up a little bit.

Two Biggest "Eff You, Amazon" Literary Stories of 2010
1. Amazon sells pedophile book -- People were outraged, and Amazon eventually relented and pulled the book. Its author has since been arrested in Florida for indecency.
2. Amazon still refuses to remove one-star "protest reviews" -- If you've followed The New Dork Review of Books for any period of time, you know the practice of leaving one-star reviews, as many ebook readers have on Ken Follett's new novel Fall of Giants, to protest ebook pricing really, really grinds my gears. I've sent countless emails to Amazon suggesting that if they can decide to not allow a review that includes the word f#$% (and not even the actual word -- the dingbatted word!), then they should remove reviews that have nothing to do with the content. Still no dice. You suck, Amazon. And, you suck, one-star reviewers.

Two Funniest Literary-related Things of 2010
1. Nicolas Sparks Feels Sad -- If you thought Nicolas Sparks is a romance novelist, well, you've got another thing coming...according to Sparks. He's tired of being miscategorized, but no one could stop laughing long enough to take him seriously.
2. Guy Steals Franzen's Glasses -- Some dude swiped Jonathan Franzen's signature intellectual-chic glasses at a signing in London and demanded a ransom of $100,000. The literary world was taken utterly aback. A fake Franzen twitter feed @EmperorFranzen screamed: "I need them back to read your friggin' ransom note. Idiot." The glasses were eventually returned.

Two New Dork Literary Accomplishments
1. I read Gravity's Rainbow without losing my marbles.
2. See #1 -- it counts as two.
(Two more: Podcast interview with writer Teddy Wayne & Getting to meet novelists Jonathan Tropper and Joshua Ferris.)

One last thing: I want to say a heartfelt thank you to all the New Dork readers and commenters. I honestly never thought I'd still be posting twice a week after 13 months of this blog, but it's never stopped being fun - and that's because of you. Really, thank you.Cheers!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Instructions: How To Review a Massive Novel in Six Simple Adjectives

(Much like the very-long novel itself, I fully realize this very-long review won't appeal to most readers. For that, I make no apologies — brevity not being the soul of wit here, hopefully. But if you've heard of The Instructions or Adam Levin and are the least bit intrigued, I'd suggest you make at least a good skim of what follows. This is a novel you should read.)

Imagine the frustration: You may or may not be the Messiah, destined (or not) to lead your people to "perfect justice." But the world is imperfect and so is the god who rules it.* So what do you do? If you're Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, the 10-year-old protagonist of Adam Levin's debut novel, The Instructions, you lead a rag-tag group of pre-teens self-dubbed the Side of Damage in a holy war against "the Arrangement" — the jocks and teachers at their suburban Chicago junior high school — after which, you deliver your scripture.**

The Instructions, all 1,030 pages of it, captures four days of this struggle. And it's one of the more inventive, exhausting, entertaining, beguiling, hilarious and just awesome (technical reviewer term) novels I've read in a long time. But instead of doing what I just did — stringing together a list of unsupported adjectives and leaving you to trust me that they're true — let me instead make the case why The Instructions is each. Hopefully, what emerges here is a more complete picture of this huge novel than a boring, run-of-the-mill book review could provide.

1. Inventive — Building a novel around a messiah (false or otherwise) is nothing new, but when that maybe-messiah is a 10-year-old "Israelite, Chicago born" who agonizes over whether or not he is the Messiah, and then decides he really wants to be after he falls in love with 12-year old June*** well, kudos for creativity. The Instructions is actually Gurion's scripture, written and published seven years after the events of 11/17/06, the fourth of the four days over which the novel takes place. But to tell his story and give us the best possible understanding of his university, Gurion uses a number of storytelling strategies: He gives us emails from former teachers (Gurion's been kicked out of several Chicago-area schools for fighting, including an incident where he threw a stapler at the headmaster), reports by his social worker in his new delinquent-youth program at Aptakisic Junior High in Dearbrook Park, Illinois, and backstory on how his parents met and fell in love. What's more, Gurion lets us read his ISS (in-school suspension) assignments, where he explains such playground concepts as "snat" and "face," the history of "slapslap," and shows us how to make a pennygun — a weapon created with a balloon and the top of a plastic soda bottle, and his soldiers' weapon of choice. The effect of all these different strategies and style is a much better relationship with Gurion than a strict first-person narrative could've provided.

2. Exhausting — Besides the fact that this wrist-cramping novel weighs about 3 pounds, which is exhausting in and of itself, Levin's characters are extremely, um, thorough. They dissect everything logically and talk to each other in long, polished paragraphs. But these conversations aren't so much digressions as they are scrutinies under magnification to the nth degree — of words, ideas, arguments. They read as logical syllogisms (if, if, if, then) and if you're not in the right mood to be reading them, they can drive you mad, or cause you to doze off — which can be hazardous when you're holding a heavy book. As one example, Gurion spends three pages debunking the Jewish superstition that if a pregnant woman steps on nail-clippings, she'll miscarry. That one in particular is a lot of fun to read, but not all of them are. And, so, parts of the novel are exhausting..

Adam Levin
3. Entertaining — You don't pick up a 1,030-page novel and expect that the story alone will keep you reading — unless the name on the front is Stephen King or Tom Clancy. Levin's prose is magnificent — as entertaining in spots as it is exhausting in others. Did I mention Philip Roth has a cameo? As does a  Smashing Pumpkins song. That was fun. Plus, characters have names like Boystar, the Janitor, and My Main Man Scott Mookus. Now, to address the 600-lb gorilla — comparisons to David Foster Wallace: Yes, they are appropriate. And never is this more clear as we're thinking along with a character as s/he spells out an argument. That ability to allow his readers to see into his brain as he wrote was Wallace's gift, and it's Levin's as well. And it's infinitely entertaining to read prose written that way. But as amazing as it is that Levin keeps you interested in such a small universe over such a short period of time, the novel picks up some pretty amazing speed after the halfway point. I read about the last 300 pages in what seemed like five minutes.

4. Beguiling — Levin's most astonishing trick in this novel is that he quietly winks at his readers, and allows them to be okay with a 10-year-old thinking, acting, and arguing like a scholarly grown-up. He knows it's not realistic, you know it's not realistic, so you just go with it. If you don't, you'll probably stop reading on page 2. Beyond the messiah stuff, the real question of the novel and thus the real challenge for the reader is to understand Gurion's overarching life philosophy. It's not an easy question at all. Gurion is the son of a civil rights lawyer father, presumably far to the left ideologically, who defends anti-Semites and a psychologist mother who is a former member of the Israeli Defense Force, presumably far to the right ideologically. But Gurion's own ideology is harder to pinpoint. His own outlook emerges slowly, piece-by-piece over time, and you really have to pay close attention to get it. The one thing that's clear is that Gurion is frustrated and that leads to violence and damage. What's less clear is why. Does Gurion believe the ends justifies the means? Is damage wrought in the pursuit of higher good acceptable damage? 

5. Hilarious — Ranging from slapstick to subtle to sarcastic, Levin brings the funny — it's one of the many carrots that keeps you reading, and willing to forgive the exhausting arguments and logic. Here's one (of hundreds) example: Gurion's teacher tells him to "Mind the cheese doodles, Maccabee." Gurion responds: "The mind Maccabee, cheese doodles" and then explains why he likes that joke.**** Another: Gurion explains, when Boystar is injured, that Boystar's mother is upset because "she was shot in the son." Part of the fun of the novel, too, is how badly Gurion's followers misinterpret how they're supposed to be following him.***** But Gurion, because he's in love, and because he hopes he's the messiah, goes with it and concocts a scheme so fantastical, you can't help but laugh a little.

6. Just Awesome —This is my catch-all, which basically just gives me an excuse to gush. I'm not Jewish, so I'm sure there was much inside-joke-wise I missed. Even so, I loved this book! It's a book I couldn't wait to finish work or showering or eating lunch to get back to. Again, it's really too bad this novel won't find a larger readership (probably much like this review, which is running at a ratio higher than one word of review per page of book reviewed.) The thousand-plus pages and relative unknownness of its author (though, hopefully that'll change soon) will scare most readers away. But I encourage you whole-heartedly to carve out a few weeks and take it down.

(These footnotes are intended to give you an idea of Levin's style, while attempting to mimic part of it.)

*"Hashem is not perfect, I said, and I've never said He was perfect. I said, he's not all-powerful, either."

**There is damage. There was always damage and there will be more damage, but not always. Were there always to be more damage, damage would be an aspect of perfection."

***I said, I used to think I wanted to be a scholar, then a soldier — but now, whenever I'm near you, i start to think I've been confusing means with ends. I think I wanted to be the messiah all along and I didn't know it. I mean, I knew I wished the messiah would come, and a lot of times I wish I was the messiah, but the wishing — it wasn't wanting; there's a difference, I think.... What I'm saying is I want to be the me messiah, now. Or at least I want to bring him. Whenever I'm near you, I do. And I think that all along I thought that being a scholar or a soldier would help me become the messiah, or bring him, but—"

****"I liked that joke. I used the exact same words that Botha had used but the words meant nothing the way I put them in order, and they sounded like they meant something since I said the sentences in the same way he'd said the originals, and with the same rhythm, and that demonstrated that English words were meaningless by themselves, that they were just lung- and mouth-sounds unless they were in the correct order, which was a paradox because the correctness of the order of a string of words depended on what the words meant, but if correct order was what gave words their meanings, then how could their meanings determine the correctness of the order? No one knew, and no one else thought the joke was funny, either."


Monday, December 20, 2010

What Are You Reading in 2011?

To be frank, when I see the words "reading goals" or "challenges" in other bloggers' posts, I skip them almost as quickly as if they'd been reviews of Twilight. I don't mean to be a jerk, but in my view, what others are reading, for the most part, is only interesting once they've actually read them.

But this is different. For me, it's always fun to look at upcoming fiction releases, especially for big-name writers. It gives you something to dorkily look forward to, right? I mean, how annoyed did you get with my near-constant, summer-long references to Freedom? I was excited!

Usually, around this time, we're flush with lists of the next year's big releases. But for some reason, this year it's been exceedingly difficult to find a good list of upcoming literary titles for 2011. I've heard of a few here and there, but I don't have anything approaching a comprehensive list. So, as book fans in this modern, wiki world, let's pool our resources and get a list together of what we've heard is coming out and what we're looking forward to in 2011.

(By the way, it is worth mentioning that Publisher's Weekly's On-Sale Calendar is updated through April 2011, but it's kind of hard to read — it's just a list separated by release date and there are no descriptions, so you can't search with any kind of effectiveness and you can't tell what's literary and what's Dan Browny.)

And but so, for me, the list of 2011 releases I'm looking forward to practically starts and ends with The Pale King. On April 15, 2011, Little, Brown will publish David Foster Wallace's last novel. The novel was incomplete at the time of his death, but no one is saying what the exact level of completion is.

Also, TC Boyle is publishing a new novel titled When The Killing's Done on Feb. 22nd. Every year I say I'm going to read TC Boyle, and I still haven't. But this one sounds especially interesting. Count me in, Tom Coraghessan. 

That's about it, really. I can't find anything else. Are we in the midst of some sort of industry-wide publishing slump? Or am I just too picky? What are you reading in 2011?

(Oh, and about those 2011 reading goals...(Hypocrite, hypocrite, says the reader)...Mine are threefold: War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Gone With the Wind. I'm hoping none of these will be as painful as completing my 2010 reading goal: Gravity's f@$#ing Rainbow. )

Thursday, December 16, 2010

December's Compendium of Literary Links

'tis the season of "Best of 2010" lists. And far from it from me to be a Grinch. So this month's compendium of literary links has some decidedly "best of" flair — but not in the traditional sense. Here, you'll find everything from the year's best book-related videos to the annual Tournament of Books. Enjoy!

1. The Millions' A Year in Reading — It's always fun to find out what famous authors are reading, right? The Millions has been posting a guest-written article a day from writers like Margaret Atwood, Lionel Shriver (who I just recently discovered is a woman! Holy George Eliot, Batman!), and Sam Lipsyte. A lot of these favorite authors' favorite books are rather obscure — for instance, Tom McCarthy, author of C, picked a book published in 1971 by someone named Ingeborg Bachmann. Got that one? But I thought it ironic that the author (Michael Cunningham) of one of my least favorite books this year (By Nightfall) chose Room, by Emma Donoghue, one of my favorites of this year, as his favorite. But then he also picked The Hunger Games, at which I thumb my non-YA, non-sci-fi-reading nose. ;)

2. Book Videos: 19 of the Best and Worst — Cheers to The Huffington Post for collecting these book-related videos and book trailers in one easy-to-view spot. The idea of the "book trailer" really took off in 2010, and while opinions are generally mixed, mine's not: I love 'em. And my favorite of the 19? Tie between Denis Leary and James Franco with Gary Shteyngart. Both hilarious. What's your favorite?

3. The 2011 Tournament of Books — To paraphrase The Simpsons, this annual tradition is one of my favorite yearly customs. The longlist for the tournament was just announced, so as to give holiday shoppers a good list. It includes just about all the heavy-hitters you'd expect. The tournament will be pared down to 16 in January, and the winner announced in March. I wish there was somewhere you could gamble on this, like the NCAA Tournament. But I'm happy to see The Instructions made the longlist — that is my choice for most underrated book of 2010. What book is your pick to win?  (Also, if you can explain in 100 words why you'd like to be a judge, you might just get to be a judge. The deadline to enter is this Sunday, Dec. 19.)

4. Letters To Santa By Shakespeare Characters — Right off the bat, we have Ophelia asking for a "He's Just Not That Into You" book and DVD. It gets better from there. God bless you, McSweeney's.

5. 12 Common Misperceptions About Book Publishing — This article from The Nervous Breakdown by writer J.E. Fishman is one of the most interesting, comprehensive, no-nonsense pieces on publishing I've ever seen. It's a must-read for anyone interested in the biz. (Side note: E-book price-whiners: Pay special attention to No. 12.)

6. The Top Five Sins of the Book Reviewer — Today's post is my 100th post of 2010, so I hope you'll allow me the sell-indulgence of linking back to my favorite post of the year — not because I think it's the best-written or anything but because it generated the most (and most interesting) feedback. Cheers!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Philip Roth's Nemesis: What Hath God Wrought?

Bucky Cantor is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore. The protagonist of Philip Roth's thought-provoking new novel Nemesis believes that life isn't fair, that life's dealt him a horrible hand, and he is fed up living under the reign of an angry god who kills people willy-nilly. It all just seems so arbitrary, or, as Roth eloquently puts it, "He was struck powerless each of us is against the force of circumstance."

As the cover blurb states, this theme is one Roth has played with frequently in his recent quartet of slim novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis). Nemesis, though, may be the best of the lot. The novel is set in Newark in the summer of 1944, amidst a burgeoning polio epidemic. Bucky supervises a playground of grade-school-age kids and laments the fact that his poor eyesight has prevented him from joining the war effort, as his two best friends have.

Some fellas just aren't happy unless they're miserable, and Bucky seems to be one of these. When kids on his playground start contracting — and dying from — polio, Bucky gets angrier and angrier, and he feels more and more helpless against chance. So he takes a chance of his own, accepting a job as an instructor at a summer camp in the Poconos where his new fiance is a counselor. But he immediately feels badly about it — like self-preservation is a sin, like not taking a challenge (even an invented one) head-on is a discredit to himself. For Bucky, the fact that his two friends are fighting the Germans seems to mean he should have to create and fight his own battles, whatever they may be — even if they're against himself and his own desire to be happy.

Bucky is such a tragic character — but one with whom it's easy to sympathize. He's your standard nice guy, he has the respect of everyone who knows him, and the reader can't help but like him. His harangues against God's unfairness are few and far between at first, and seem more like a minor glitch in an otherwise normal guy, rather than a overarching philosophy that guides Bucky's life. But guide his life his God-anger does. And the angrier he becomes with God, the angrier he is with himself for what he perceives is his helplessness to stop these fresh-faced youths from getting polio. So the question — which Roth spends the rest of the novel answering — is who is Bucky's real nemesis, himself or God?

Beyond Bucky's misguided self-castigations — and how brilliantly, though simply, Roth renders them — the other thing I loved about this novel is how the idea of people's fear of the unknown about polio, and their need to assign blame, definitely draws to mind contemporary issues. Folks in 1944 had no idea what caused polio and how it spread. And, despite reactionary and ineffective strategies to try to contain it, fear spread at the same rate.. Sound familiar? 

I loved this book, sure. But in the interest of full disclosure, Roth can do little wrong in my eyes. He's one of my favorites, and I've read him more than any other novelist. Nemesis isn't quite in the top-tier, American Pastoral or Portnoy's Complaint level of Roth novels, but it's very, very good. Highly recommend!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Look At Literary Chicago: A Top Five List

For the last several weeks, I've been engaged in a titanic struggle with the 1,030-page behemoth The Instructions, by Adam Levin. The novel is about a 10-year-old Jewish kid who thinks he might be the Messiah. It also takes place in Chicago, which, as a Chicagoan myself, got me thinking about other novels I've read set in the Windy City. I had to think hard, because there aren't many — at least when compared with the number of novels set in New York (which I posted about back in May). Wonder why that is? (I'm being sarcastic. I know why it is: New York novelists write about New York. It's the same reason why there are so many novels about writers: When writers are out of ideas, they write novels about writers. It's what they know. So, hold the jokes about Chicago's corrupt politics, terrible traffic and awful weather...those aren't responsible for the dearth of Chicago novels. Well, they're probably not responsible.)

Anyway, let's take a look at five novels I've read and enjoyed that call the City of Broad Shoulders home:

5. The Instructions, by Adam Levin — I'm on page 651 of this huge book and cannot wait to finish and tell you about the precise reasons why you should read it too. It is really, really good. Chicago, its suburbs, and its public transportation all have supporting roles in Levin's debut novel. Levin is a Chicagoan himself — he teaches creative writing at Chicago's Columbia College.

4. Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers — Speaking of Columbia College, this novel examines an Algerian immigrant, who is a student at a thinly veiled fictional version of that small school. She is preternaturally happy all the time and therefore becomes the subject of much scrutiny. Characters in the novel whisk around the city on the 'El' and visit Chicago's many, many, many bars. Regarding the novel, normally I like Powers' combination of fiction and science, but this one fell flat for me. But, as I wrote here, it was largely my own fault.

3. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow — Beginning with its famous opening line, "I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city...", Bellow's famous picaresque novel follows its protagonist through Chicago's lively streets during the 1920s and 30s. Augie's somewhat erratic moral compass makes this classic a fantastic read. One of my favorites!

2. Native Son, by Richard Wright — This is the tale of Bigger Thomas, a poor black man trying to make his way in the slums of the Chicago's South Side during the Great Depression. Beginning with the famous opening scene in which Bigger kills a black rat in his family's apartment, Bigger's life spirals into violence and despair, ending with a death sentence for killing (accidentally, or inevitably?) a white girl.

1. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger — Of course, right? This much-loved novel (but very-much-less-loved movie) about the time-torn love between Henry and Clare is awash in Chicago landmarks — from the Field Museum to the Newberry Library to Grant Park. Niffenegger still lives in Chicago (I'm 99 percent certain I saw her at a restaurant not too long ago) and also teaches at Columbia College.

So what novels have you enjoyed with Chicago as their setting? Which ones did I miss here?

(And, if you're interested, here's a pretty comprehensive list from Chicago Magazine of Chicago novels. Frankly, I've never heard of most of these. But yeah, The Jungle, The Studs Lonigan Trilogy, Sister Carrie and Humboldt's Gift are probably pretty notable omissions from my list.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Milwaukeeans: Literary Chuckleheads?

If once is a fluke, and twice is a trend, then I've noticed a literary trend. And it's one that really grinds my gears (you might even say it's a literary pet peeve - which is this week's topic for the Literary Blog Hop.) Haughty New York novelists seem to enjoy picking on the city of Milwaukee, characterizing it as a cultural wasteland to be escaped from at all costs for the literary Oz that is New York City. As evidence, two novels I've read recently have set up Milwaukee as a sort of symbol of Midwestern bumpkinery.

Exhibit A: In Michael Cunningham's new novel By Nightfall,  NYC art dealer Peter Harris grew up in Milwaukee, and doesn't miss a chance to explain how he overcame what he sees as a birth obstacle. "Can he help having been born in Milwaukee?" Cunningham even wonders (for Peter) at one point. At another, point Peter considers the possibility that Milwaukee actually killed his brother Matthew, who died of AIDS. "Is it any wonder Matthew got out of there two days after he graduated from high school, and had sex with half the men in New York?" To his (and Cunningham's) slight credit, Peter quickly corrects himself, realizing how dumb that is. But this Milwaukee-hate is one reason I felt the novel underachieved: because it overachieved in pretentiousness.

Secondly, in the novel A Fortunate Age, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, about a group of 20-somethings trying to make their way in New York, a character named Beth who is away doing graduate work complains about her "mounting disgust with boring, freezing Milwaukee." I'll give her freezing, but Milwaukee's far from boring! What do they say — only boring people are bored? Beth spends most of the first half of the novel complaining about her "fate," being stuck in Milwaukee. I can think of worse. But here's a bit of schadenfreude: Rakoff's novel was pretty much universally panned as shallow and silly. It's average rating is only three out of five stars on Amazon. 

So, yeah, I take these affronts to Milwaukee personally. I'm a Midwesterner, born and raised. And I went to college in Milwaukee and spent another five years there after I graduated. (I've been in Chicago for almost three years now.) I love Milwaukee, and still visit frequently. And seeing it dragged through the mud in such condescending ways burns me up.

Look, I thoroughly enjoy New York City, and I certainly recognize why many consider it the center of the cultural universe. I'd never claim that Milwaukee is on par with New York culturally. But that certainly doesn't mean Milwaukee is devoid. Despite its reputation as a blue-collar, beer swilling town (which it certainly is, too), Milwaukee does have a modicum of culture. Independent and used bookstores are everywhere, it has one top-tier university (Marquette) and several other commuter and community colleges, including a college of art and design. And it has several museums, including an absolutely stunning art museum designed by international starchitect Santiago Calatrava. (In the photo above, it's the white building on the right that looks like it has wings.)

So, I say to New York novelists: Leave Milwaukee — a great city on a Great Lake — alone. If you need a symbol of a town of what you consider good, hard-working, but culturally stupid, people, make one up. Take a hint from Mr. Sherwood Anderson. That strategy turned out pretty well for him.

Have you noticed similar literary biases against Midwesterners?  Do you think such a characterization is justified, or does it annoy you as well?

Literary Blog Hop

Thursday, December 2, 2010

By Nightfall: Not All Art is Prententious, But This Novel Is

Midway through Michael Cunnigham's slim new novel, By Nightfall, a character describes a rich woman's expensively decorated living room as " magnificent it transcends its own pretensions." That's also a good description for what Cunningham must've hoped his novel would be. But since it's not exactly magnificent, we're pretty much left with just pretentious. And the novel, though well-crafted, sure is that.

But the novel failed for another reason, too: Its protagonist is an utter dolt. Far be it from me to need likable characters to enjoy a novel, but Peter Harris is not just unlikeable — he's totally unbelievable. Here's the story: Peter's a mid-40s New York City art dealer in the midst of a crisis. He's not sure he's happy with his life. (Real original, right?) When his wife Rebecca's much-younger, much-troubled brother Mizzy comes for a visit, idealistic Peter develops all these notions of Mizzy as quintessential Youth, Beauty, and the Happiness of his marriage when it was still new. And then, Peter thinks he might be in love with Mizzy. But is he actually in love with Mizzy or is he in love with what he's convinced himself that Mizzy represents?

But heterosexual, married Peter's possible homosexual crush on his brother-in-law (which to Cunningham's credit is certainly an original take on the mid-life crisis dilemma!) is not even the ridiculous part. The ridiculous part is how silly Peter, who Cunningham painstakingly renders as this uber-self-aware, contemplative, hip New Yorker, seems at various points in the novel. He's like a rocket scientist who can't balance his checkbook. As one example of this: Early in the novel, he comes home and sees Mizzy naked in the shower and actually mistakes him for his wife, wondering why she looks so much younger all of a sudden. Yes, this is a foreshadowing of what's to come, but its too gimmicky to be believable. And then later, Peter so blatantly misses some rather important signs that by that point are so obvious to the reader, it's impossible to take him seriously anymore.

So, then, Peter's naïvete contradicts with his (and the novel's) pretentiousness. As evidence of that pretentiousness, read this sentence (from Peter's thoughts): "She sighs voluptuously. She could so easily be a Klimt portrait, with her wide-set eyes and bony little apostrophe of a nose." A beautiful sentence, no doubt. But how does someone sigh voluptuously? And who is Klimt? Peter certainly knows, and maybe that's how an art dealer would think, but Cunningham is practically holding it over his readers' heads that they don't. And that, and dozens of similar examples throughout the novel, are what drags the novel into pretentiousness.

I do think By Nightfall is an original, smart piece of contemporary lit. But to me, the annoying peripherals cancel out the ingenuity of the story and Cunningham's often stylish prose. I'd like to give Cunningham's work another shot, though, because while I didn't much like this one, I know a lot of people really like Cunningham's other work, especially The Hours. Is Specimen Days good?  Any other suggestions on where to look for another shot at Cunningham?