Monday, February 28, 2011

Books Before the Blog: Mini-Reviews

Nobody really knows how much influence book bloggers have in the publishing world. It's not nothing, but how much exactly is indeterminable. On a more micro scale, though, influence is often easier to tell — and more satisfying. For instance, last week, I got an email from a friend who said she'd gotten a lot of great ideas for books from reading this blog. I didn't even know she read the blog. It made my freakin' day. But it also made me think about all the books I've read before this blog that I greatly enjoyed, and that others might too. So, here's a top 5 pre-New Dork Review of Books list.

1) The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud — I read this book in October, 2006, and when I finished I wrote "This may have been the best book I’ve read this year – complex, literary, funny, fast-moving, beautifully written and just generally a joy to read." It's about three young New Yorkers struggling to find their way just prior to 9/11. It didn't get many great reviews (it only averages 2.5 stars among 266 reviews on Amazon), which is absurd to me, because I agree with the blurber who called Messud a "writer of near-miraculous perfection." Sometimes it's fun that you like something everyone else hated, right?

2. Zeitoun & What Is The What, by David Eggers — Zeitoun is the most rage-inducing book I think I've ever read. Told in sparse, unadorned prose, the tale of a Syrian immigrant mistreated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina spotlights how wrong things can go when common sense fails. It's simply brilliant. What Is The What is Eggers' story about a Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng escaping the country's civil war. It's based on a real person, but tells the collective story of the Sudanese "Lost Boys" who come to American and try to remake their lives. Eggers is one of my all-time favorite writers.

3. Beautiful Children, by Charles Bock — I'm going deep cut here. This is a great story (which I read in February, 2008 before a trip to Vegas) of the Las Vegas tourists or conventioneers never see. But it's also the story of failed marriages and flawed characters. The characters' stories are told separately, but all intersect in surprising ways. As interesting as these stories are, Bock is at his best when he's simply describing the absurdity of Las Vegas — his hometown. This is the debut novel by a writer I can't to wait to read more of. 

4. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt — This novel, which I read in December 2003, absolutely blew me away. I wrote: "These were some of the most vivid, graphic, intense scenes I have read in any literature." The story's about a group of New England college students and a secret society. This is one of the very few novels I've actually ever stayed up until dawn to finish.

5. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill — I finished this book in March 2009, and wrote that O'Neill's style reminded me of an Irish Philip Roth. I'm still not 100 percent sure I "got" this novel, but I know I really liked it. The story itself revolves around a Dutch immigrant trying to start a cricket league in New York City post-9/11 as his marriage unravels. It's a novel about safety and fear, about the immigrant experience in American, and about how easy it is to lose your moral compass. It's not beach reading, exactly, but very, very good.

Have you read any of these? Thoughts?

Do you have novels like these mentally queued up when friends ask you for recommendations?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Choose Your Own Swedish Adventure

Remember those awesome "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that were super popular in the '80s? I basically cut my literary teeth devouring those books. From solving mysteries to traversing fantastical worlds to winning the all-city basketball championship, those suckers were a thrill a minute.

For some reason I couldn't quite put my finger on, those books have been on my mind lately. I knew it wasn't just childhood nostalgia, but I couldn't understand why I kept thinking about those books. (By the way, do kids these day still read these books? Apparently they're still being published!) Yesterday, though, I had a revelation: Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, which I'm about 200 pages from finishing, is about the closest thing I've ever read to those books, only the "choosing" is being done by a dead Swede.

Of course, I know that sounds preposterous. There's no choice for the reader in these books. Everything's locked in. The writer's already made every choice, and those decisions are the same on the day Stieg keeled over as they will be 300 years from now. So how could Lisbeth and Mikael's thrilling saga be even remotely similar to Choose Your Own Adventure?

It's because the choices the characters make throughout these novels are often questionable at best, which means they're highly unpredictable. It almost feels like there's a goblin in the next room throwing a dart at a "plot" board to determine which choice a character will make — choosing the adventure for me. As one example from Dragon Tattoo, when Mikael is out running and suddenly finds himself getting shot at, I felt like the novel should've stopped and Stieg should've inserted something like: What should Mikael do now? A) Sensibly retreat back to Stockholm to finish his research. B) Stay put in his remote, rural cabin knowing full well someone's hell bent on knockin' him off. (I honestly thought he was gonna choose A.)

After all, if I remember correctly, weren't the choices in the Choose Your Own Adventure novels similar in scope to that? One was the safe one, but that one often got you in trouble, too. And one was the ballsy one, but it often played out in an unexpectedly safe way...or you died. You just never knew! It was great — and I get the same feeling with these Millennium Trilogy novels. They're masterfully plotted and pretty unpredictable on a choice-by-choice basis. (I won't beat the dead horse of the false drama in The Girl Who Played With Fire again.)

Stephen King says that he never knows how a book will end when he starts, he just writes characters and lets them do what they want. Stieg's books have this feeling as well, but he's juggling several more flaming sticks at once than King ever does (this is especially the case in Hornet's Nest, as more and more characters are introduced, yielding at least a half a dozen concurrent plot lines). And so you know the plotting isn't haphazard — it's all been carefully planned. It's just has the feeling of chaos, or arbitrariness. And it's quite entertaining!

I'm not saying the logic of this comparison is airtight. All I'm saying is I'm happy that I finally figured out why I've had those CYOA books on my mind for the last month. You buying this at all?  I'm interested to hear your take!

(Almost scary coincidence: As this post was knockin' around my mind yesterday, I came across a review of debut novelist Hannah Pittard's The Fates Will Find Their Way, in which the reviewer describes the book as a "a sort of morbid 'choose your own adventure' story." Frightening. Fate?)

Monday, February 21, 2011

February's Compendium of Literary Links

This month's edition of literary links is a bit eclectic: We'll attempt to debunk the idea that reading is overrated, we'll give you a new reading-related social network to check out, and we just might get you laid. Intrigued? Good! Then, without further ado, here's the cream of the crop from around the literary world this month.

1. Reading Is Overrated — A more accurate headline for this Guardian op/ed piece would be "Famous Quotes About Reading Are Overrated." But the Guardian is nothing if not sensational, right? (Sarcasm oozing from that last sentence.) Still, the article's an interesting read, as the author pokes subtle fun at long-held truisms by such quotable, notable readers as Francis Bacon ("Reading maketh a full man.") and CS Lewis ("We read to know we are not alone."). The author closes by making the fairly obvious assertion that reading isn't always a good thing. And then he admits that his real issue is simply with the overwrought hyperbole with which book lovers defend books. So, don't get all freaked out by the screamer of a headline, as Guardian no doubt is hoping you will. Ironic, no?

2. To Blurb or Not To Blurb — Novelist Bill Morris faced an ethical dilemma. A friend asked him to blurb his new book, and he didn't want to. Certainly, that's about as common in the publishing world as people making fun of James Frey, but in this Millions piece, Morris discussing his thought process, gives a wonderful, comprehensive overview of all things blurb-related, and attempts to explain if he (and publishers) think readers really pick books based on blurbs. This topic is one to which I've given a lot of thought since my own attempt to examine blurbs, and this piece is the best thing I've ever seen written on the topic.

3. 15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else Ever Has or Will — I'm sure our friend from #1 who hates book-related exaggeration will take issue with this headline for this collection of Vonnegut quotes, but screw him: The headline's legitimate, in my view. My favorite of the list is "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." So it goes. Which is your favorite?

4. 30 Literary Quotes That Just Might Get You Laid — And while we're on the quotes kick, here's a link that made the rounds around Valentine's Day. My favorite this time comes to us from Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask: “Stuff me in a tutu and let’s screen experimental videos all day.” That couldn't not work, right?! My favorite romantic quote of all time, though, comes from Nicole Krauss' The History of Love: "Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering." What's yours?

5. Nurture Your Books — Just what you need, right: Another social networking site! But if you've been by the Ning Book Blogs site recently, you know it's sort of turned into....well, I'll be nice....something a literary book blogger/reader might not be quite interested in anymore. Nurture Your Books is brand new — it grew out of the Bloggers Unite group on Goodreads. And I think this one has potential. And, speaking of Goodreads, I'm making a better effort to keep my page updated, so if you're there, please "friend" me.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Few Thoughts on the Borders Bankruptcy

As I'm sure you've heard, Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week. If you didn't know any better, you'd probably nod smartly to yourself, and just assume the bankruptcy is merely a casualty  of the tough times for the entire publishing industry. (According to Publisher's Weekly, bookstore sales were down 1.4 percent in 2010.)

But this NY Times article provides some great analysis on what really led to Borders' collapse. And it's kind of infuriating, in that strange way you can be infuriated about something you didn't care about much until you found out there was blatant stupidity involved.  They had no cohesive e-book strategy when even your 80-year-old grandmother could tell how hot the e-book trend would be? They didn't have their own e-commerce site until 2008? (seriously?!) And now they're stiffing publishers on books shipped during the holiday season. As David Foster Wallace would say, what a f$#@ing mess. Frankly, it's amazing they lasted as long as they did. What's particularly interesting about the supposed-to-be-objective NY Times article is its tone: almost an exasperated frustration, no doubt mirroring the sentiments of many Borders employees, customers, publishers and creditors.

So the company will continue to do business, but will close about 200 of its about 650 bookstores  (here's the list of closures, many of which are having liquidation sales this weekend, if you're interested in some cheap books), including several here in the Chicago area. As mostly a B&N and independent bookstore man myself, I didn't really follow the story at all until the actual announcement earlier this week. But now I learn that the store near me that hosted some great author events (including Joshua Ferris and Jonathan Tropper) is on the chopping block. That makes me sad.

I suppose that if there's anything positive to come from this, it's that it will serve as a cautionary tale on how not to run a book business. In addition, maybe independent bookstores operating in the same neighborhoods as closed Borders stores will see better sales. (The NY Times piece points out that Borders' overexpansion in the 1980s and '90s killed many independent bookstores. Talk about a long overdue comeuppance!) Maybe this will be a signal to other booksellers to circle the wagons and get creative about how to stay afloat. And, a final positive is this tweet from Jimmy Fallon: "Borders filed for bankruptcy & will close 200 stores. When Sarah Palin heard, she was like 'Finally, we’re closing the borders!'"

What do you think? Sad/angry/frustrated about Borders' bankruptcy? Don't care? Think the company will eventually bounce back?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Girl Who Played With Fire: Patience Is A Virtue

There are no two ways about it, The Girl Who Played With Fire is a rather uneven thriller. I slept-read through most of the rather dull first 400 pages and was dreading having to write a blisteringly negative (though likely viewed by most readers as contrarian) review on my iMac G5 with 4 GBs of RAM and a 320 GB hard drive.

It's dull because the hinge for the novel — the murders (not giving away anything here that's not on the cover blurb) of which Lisbeth is accused — doesn't even happen until almost halfway through the book. And so there's nearly 300 pages of scene-setting, including following Lisbeth through a vacation-turned-hurricane-escape in Grenada and then watching as she gets re-acclimated to life in Stockholm. Huh? And then it's dull because there are three separate investigations into the murders, and Stieg keeps repeating details as he tells us about each one. And, finally, it's dull because of the false drama — even though Stieg wants you to, you never really believe that it was Lisbeth who committed the murders

But then everything changed. The turning point for me is the scene in which famous Swedish boxer Paolo Roberto tries to rescue Lisbeth's friend Miriam from the giant blond villain who's right out of James Bond. The reason this particular scene slapped me out of my malaise is simple: It's friggin' hilarious! Paolo sneaks up on the giant, who turns and immediately recognizes him as a celebrity. "You're Paolo Roberto," he says. The absurdity! Not sure why it struck me so funny, but I couldn't stop giggling.

It's probably not coincidental, then, that after that, I was all-in, and Stieg really steps on the gas. As Lisbeth's past secrets are revealed, and the action burns faster, it's tough to put this sucker down. The last third does't quite redeem the first two-thirds, but it's still a fun book. And there's a bit of a cliffhanger at the end to ensure you'll pick up The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest to find out what happens next.

I didn't think this one was as good as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in terms of intrigue, but once you wade through the needed-to-be-edited-and-probably-would-have-had-Steig-not-died parts, finding out about what's made Lisbeth Lisbeth is really interesting.

What'd you think? Better or worse than Dragon Tattoo? Bored as I was for most of the novel? 

(Also, can anyone explain what it is that Lisbeth suddenly realized about the x3+y3=z3 equation on page 472? That's really buggin' me!)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Travesty of False Drama

A terrorist has snuck a nuclear bomb into the U.S. and plans to detonate it in Washington D.C. during Memorial Day weekend. Super CIA agent Mitch Rapp will risk everything to stop him. Dum dum dummmmm.

That's the basic plot of Memorial Day, one of thrillerist Vince Flynn's popular Mitch Rapp series. Last year, I read the first five books in the ten-book (and counting) series when I was traveling and at other times I wanted to read without being consciously aware that I was reading. They're not bad, I suppose — I mean, they deliver what they promise: they're mindless and silly, but they're better than squinting furiously at the plane's 10" screen to catch the latest Zac Efron vehicle.

But my No. 1 problem with most of the Rapp books is also my No. 1 problem with The Girl Who Played With Fire so far (I'm about halfway through). The conflict is false, and thus so is the drama. Here's what I mean: Because I already knew that Vince Flynn had written five more Mitch Rapp novels after Memorial Day, I was at no time concerned that the terrorists were actually going to succeed in blowing up Washington, D.C. Similarly, because I know there's another Millennium trilogy novel after The Girl Who Played With Fire, I can be reasonably confident that Lisbeth Salander isn't actually guilty of the murders she's accused of— or if she is, Larsson's got some (probably far-fetched) trick up his sleeve to ensure that she's not caught, convicted, or killed. (Not spoiling anything there — even though it doesn't happen until about halfway through the novel, the murders that hinge the plot are revealed on the back cover blurb! Seriously? Seems to me like a blurb-writing fail, there.)

The false drama doesn't totally destroy the reading experience, but it sure lessens it a bit. Less cynical readers might be thinking, "Well, Greg, you know what you're signing up for with these thrillers, and if you can't accept that the evil-doers' plot has a chance, then why read them?" My response: I guess I'd hoped that the author is able to create conflict with a touch more nuance and a little less transparency. What we have in these cases is basically a false choice: Either the world is destroyed or it's not, or either the main character on which a trilogy is built will be spending the rest of her natural life in Swedish prison, or she won't. And it's pretty easy to work out the answer.

Please understand an important distinction. My issue here is not that the plot is preposterous or not believable, or that I'm talking about a mystery that's too easy to solve from clues in the text. Sure, Lisbeth could be guilty of the murders and, sure, God forbid, a terrorist could get a hold of a bomb and blow up a city. My issue is that we know the plot is preposterous in the context of what we know from external circumstances, i.e. more novels in a series. I suppose it could be argued that when these novels were first published, readers may not have known there would be future novels with the same characters, so the drama is real. And maybe that's true for some readers, and as a result, they read these books on the edge of their friggin' seats. But I suspect most readers were aware that these weren't isolated books. At least I'd hope so.

But you know what medium does this idea of "false drama" in such a way as to make the fact that you already know what's going to happen irrelevant? Movies. Think Titanic. The King's Speech. Apollo 13. Those are three incredibly dramatic, incredibly fantastic movies, all with an already-known ending. Sure, the comparison to thriller novels isn't not totally accurate, but it's in the same ballpark. Just thought I'd throw that out there...

So what do you think? Have you run across novels in which you lost interest because of this false drama? Why was the drama false?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Gone With The Wind: Four Fascinating Characters, Four Fatal Flaws

It's been said that the most notable characteristic of America's "most beloved epic novel" is its larger than life, yet deeply flawed characters. There's no question about it — these characters, Rhett, Scarlett, Melanie, and Ashley, some of the most famous in all of literature — are as variegated, as alternatingly despicable-and-sympathetic, and as purely human as any characters you might ever stumble across on the fictional landscape. Kudos, Mags! Too bad you got hit by that car, and couldn't tell us what happens next.

Anyway, going back and forth between rooting for and then being disgusted by these characters was by far my favorite part of the novel. For all the ups and downs of each character, each also has the infamous "fatal flaw." No matter the other positive qualities, this flaw is what  leads to destruction — not necessarily of themselves, but certainly of their happiness. So, since this, to me, was the most interesting part of this very interesting novel, let's take a look at look at each. (What follows assumes that you've read the book (or, I guess, seen the movie) and therefore have at least a cursory knowledge of plot. In other words: Contains Spoilers.)

Scarlett is the easiest to talk about in the context of the fatal flaw, because she's quite flawed — she's manipulative, selfish and harsh. But none of those are fatal. What's fatal for her is that she believes that her manipulation, selfishness and harshness are enough for her to overcome any obstacle. And they're not. With Rhett, she meets her match. Scarlett does have fine many qualities. She has a stern sense of tradition, and she's willing to to do what is required. She also is a strong, willful woman, not something that was easy or generally accepted in that society. But those qualities are often overshadowed by her negative ones. For instance, she may be strong and willful, but she's only willing to combat cultural norms when it serves her need to do so. Otherwise, as in the case of her treatment of ex-slaves, she doesn't care. She's by no means enlightened. Even marrying Frank to save Tara isn't altruistic, because it's to her benefit. And she manipulated poor Frank at the expensive of his happiness and her sister Suellen's.

You've heard the "women love him, men would love to be him" idea, right? That's Rhett. In fact, Rhett is the only character whose side I was on from beginning to end. He's the archetype of manliness (how many times does Mitchell describe his mat of black chest hair and hard muscles?). So it's a bit ironic that Rhett's fatal flaw is love. It's only when he sacrifices his independence and aloofness to marry Scarlett and then to dote upon his daughter Bonnie, that he begins to unravel. All his life, he'd shunned normal ways of behaving, and been wildly successful. But the minute he returns to earth, so to speak, he's overwhelmed by the same problems the rest of the mere mortals face. And that's what destroys him. He's not equipped to handle it. He goes insane, not wanting to bury his dead daughter. And he falls out of love with Scarlett, realizing she'll never live up to his ideal.

Melanie is, as Rhett says, "the only completely kind person I ever knew." That's admirable as hell, but she is also blissfully naive, choosing not to believe that there could ever be any cruelty or harshness in the world. Ultimately and ironically, this doesn't destroy her (her death does), but it aides in the destruction (of the happiness) of all three of the other characters. Her flaw is introduced early in the novel as she misinterprets Scarlett's sadness as mourning for Charles — Melanie's brother who Scarlett married to spite Ashley, after he rejected her. But Melanie's naivety becomes much more central to the novel as Scarlett is constantly maneuvering to keep Ashley near her, and Melanie chooses to believe it's out of loyalty, not for ulterior motives. At one point, Scarlett considers "flinging the truth tauntingly in Melanie's face and seeing the collapse of her fool's paradise." Melanie's naivete, even though it works as a shroud of defense for Scarlett's devotion to Ashley, is so frustrating even to Scarlett, who stands everything to lose by revealing the secret of her love, that she actually contemplates revealing it just to spite Melanie. Fascinating.

Ashley, to me, is the least interesting character. He's a milquetoast. No guts. He pretty much packs it in on life after he returns from the war. Mitchell explains at one point that Ashley and Rhett are cut from the same cloth. The difference, though, and it's a big one, is that Ashley's sense of honor and decorum has dissolved his backbone, whereas Rhett isn't worried about such convention. Of course, it is admirable that he is loyal to his wife, resisting the temptation to run away with Scarlett. But he's also too loyal to convention to ever make anything of himself. And it's Melanie's naive loyalty to Scarlett that forces him to go to Atlanta and work in Scarlett's lumber mill, instead of striking out on his own to New York.

So now you're wondering if I liked the book? I did. A lot more than I thought I would, in fact. I had a misconception that this was a lovey-dovey, females-only story. It's far from that. I mean, Scarlett and Rhett don't even "fall in love" until about page 800. I was amazed at that. (In fact, the only really sappy part here is that my GF and I read this at the same time so we could discuss. I know, Awwwww.) As a Civil War geek, I loved all the historical detail — of course, everyone knows about Sherman's march to the sea, but I didn't know about the slow advance towards Atlanta with Johnston defending the railroad the whole way. That was fascinating! And, finally, the last lines are haunting: "I'll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day."

(Also, I was shocked to learn that in the book, Rhett doesn't say "Frankly" as he does in the most famous line from the movie. It's just "My dear, I don't give a damn.")

(One final, final thing — My favorite quote from the novel: "My dear, the world can ignore practically anything except people who mind their own business." — Rhett)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Who Is This Haruki Murakami Fella?

Here's a piece of under-the-radar publishing news from last week: Japanese novelist Huraki Murakami's most recent novel, 1Q84, will be published in English translation this October. The novel appeared in two volumes in April 2009 and May 2010 in Japan, but will be published as a single thousand-page volume in English.

And there was much rejoicing. It's been more than four years since his last English-translation novel After Dark came out. As the Guardian puts it, "Harry Potter-style late-night bookshop openings may be pushing it, but such is the passion of Murakami's loyal readers that publication will certainly be an event."

And I'm excited too. But here's what's strange. I've never read Murakami. He's the one writer I think for whom my fascination is most disproportionate to the amount of actual time I've spent reading him. I know several people who count The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle among their favorite novels of all time. And people I ask about Murakami, to a person, absolutely rave about Kafka On the Shore. And both of those novels have been on my shelf for years, sadly untouched.

Why haven't I read him? I don't know, I honestly don't. It's a riddle as enigmatic as some of Murakami's plots (apparently). Maybe it's something to do with the anticipation being sweeter than the actual anticipated. Maybe it has something to do with my hesitancy toward books in translation. Maybe it's just that I'm an idiot. The LA Times blog, in its announcement about 1Q84 says that Murakami has "an avid following of readers who crave smart and challenging literature." I like smart literature. I like to be challenged. So not having read Murakami seems like a rather glaring omission. 

So, I need your help, Murakami fans, of which I know there are many. Make the case for HMur. Why should I stop what I'm doing right this second and go grab one of his novels?  Which should I start with, as you have my word that I'll read at least one of his novels before 1Q84 is published?