Thursday, March 31, 2011

The GoodReads Project: Book Statistics Are Fun!

(Since today is Major League Baseball Opening Day, one of the best days of the year, this post is a tenuous attempt to connect baseball and books. Statistics! I love 'em!)

I originally signed up for GoodReads in early 2007. Back then, there were only a couple hundred people on the site, and it was cumbersome and error-prone. I added a few books, checked back a few times, but then promptly forgot about it.

In the last year or so, though, it seems as if GoodReads has grown in popularity at a rate approximately equal to that of quoting Charlie Sheen. Most of my favorite book bloggers are there, so  I decided to give it another try and revamp my account. This involved going through the exercise of adding all the books I've read since June, 2001 — when I started my reading log-journal thing. I used said reading log-journal thing to add the exact date I'd finished each book. And when I was done, I had a fascinating overview of my reading habits for the last 10 years.

Take a look at the books per year stats:

One conclusion that can definitely be drawn is that blogging has sped up my reading pace. I read 44 books last year in my first full year of running The New Dork Review of Books. That total was 14 more than the highest number of any previous pre-blog year. Before 2010, though, I was pretty consistent year-to-year in the number of novels I read — averaging 25.9 books per year between 2002 and 2009. That's almost a book every other week. Not as prolific as some, sure — but not terrible.

The pages statistics are interesting, too:


In 2010, when I read the most novels, I averaged 418.9 pages per book. In 2002, I only read 17 books, but they averaged a whopping 550.4 pages! That year, I read a lot of bulky historical fiction, including Caribbean by James Michener (832 pgs.) and Herman Wouk's The Winds of War (896 pgs.) and War and Remembrance (1,056 pgs), and The Count of Monte Cristo (1,168 pgs!), by Alexandre Dumas. My lowest page-per-book year was 2007, at 383.3. Over all nine years, my average is 435.3 pages per novel. Glad the stats bear out my assertion that I prefer longer books

Anyone else do a similar study of their reading habits and/or statistics? I'd love to hear about it!

(Also, add me on GoodReads, if you're there. It's a lot of fun comparing books and ratings.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

March's Compendium of Literary Links

This month's issue of literary links includes an all-out assault on your senses, and your funny bone hopefully. Here we have novelist David Mitchell writing about talking, Margaret Atwood talking about writing (and publishing), as well as Charlie Sheen's "talkings" condensed into New Yorker cartoons. Enjoy!

1. Lost For Words — Novelist David Mitchell (of Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet fame), and "owner of speech defect" gives his take on this year's Oscar Best Picture winner, The King's Speech.

2. The Publishing Pie: An Author's View — (video) — Margaret Atwood delivers this talk at a "tech" conference in February. She talks the changing author/publisher dynamic, and she's surprisingly hilarious!

3. Charlie Sheen's Quotes as New Yorker Cartoons — Speaking of hilarious, here are some very well done faux-New Yorker cartoons of some of Charlie Sheen's more memorable (read as: crazy) quotes.

4. E-books Rock — The trade journal Publisher's Weekly is now, for the first time, collecting sales data on e-books. Still, many publishers have declined to provide that information. This article gives some background, and also a list of the best-selling e-books for which PW does have data.

5. National Book Critics Circle Award Winners — In case you missed it, Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad nabbed this year's NBCC award for fiction.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Science of Fiction, or Why I'm a Bigger Dork Than You Thought

If you've stopped by The New Dork Review of Books once or twice over the last year or so, you've probably read about (laughed at, and then hopefully come to terms with) my weakness for a good thriller. There is nothing better than taking a break from the metaphor and metonymy of literary fiction for the the break-neck pace, disposable characters, hilariously bad dialogue and just general silliness of a good thriller (or "suspense-fiction," if you're not into that whole brevity thing).

And one of my favorite subgenres of thriller is those that are centered upon science. I've always been fascinated with science, which I realize is a bit at odds with my supposed right-brained literary thinking. I even majored in chemistry for a solid three semesters in college, before coming to my senses and switching to English. Not coincidentally, my GPA (as well as my beer consumption) jumped an entire point in a single semester.

But so, to be clear, I'm not talking about what's generally considered to be science fiction — novels by Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick about faraway places in future times. What I like is closer to the contemporary techno-thriller than to Star Wars. For instance, I'm reading a novel now you've no doubt not heard of. It's titled Final Theory, written by an editor for Scientific American magazine named Mark Alpert. Interestingly, Alpert has a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from Princeton and a MFA in poetry from Columbia.

Anyway, Final Theory assumes that Einstein was successful in developing his unified field theory — the so-called Theory of Everything that would marry quantum mechanics with general relativity — he spent the latter part of his life work on. But he kept it secret, telling only a few of his apprentices. And now, some really bad guys are trying to get their hands on it, presumably to do very bad things. Awesome, right?! Alpert's also published a sequel to Final Theory titled Omega Theory, which I can't wait to dive into after this one. So far, Final Theory is fantastic, in that unintentionally funny, but strangely entertaining way these thrillers are.

By way of another example, and probably my favorite of these science-based thrillers, The Footprints of God, by Greg Iles. This novel's about a team of scientists who successfully store a digital copy of the human brain on a computer. Things don't turn out quite as they'd planned. (And if you read this Time article about the point (or singularity) at which some scientists theorize that computers will be more powerful than humans, and thus self-perpetuate, it's crazy to think that Iles isn't too far off.)

Finally, believe it or not, I also really enjoyed Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, despite it's totally implausible plot twists and horrendous writing. And I also really dig Richard Powers — who writes a sort of literary version of science-based fiction — though his novels, at least the ones I've read (The Echo Maker and Generosity: An Enhancement) tend to focus more on medical mysteries and science's attempt to understand them. The Echo Maker actually won The National Book Award in 2006.

So, any other science-techno geek thrillers out there? What are your favorites? 

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Book of Joe: Unpolished Tropper

Isn't it fun watching the evolution of a writer? If you've read any of Jonathan Tropper's three most recent novels, This Is Where I Leave You (2009), How To Talk To A Widower (2007) and Everything Changes (2005), how much better he's gotten each time is pretty apparent.

The Book of Joe (2004) is Tropper's second novel, but it reads more like a shaky debut. We have some pretty common tropes here: It's a novel about a mid-30s novelist named Joe Goffman. Joe's father has suffered a stroke, so he returns to his hometown after a long absence. But because Joe's best-selling novel and the subsequent movie basically lampooned his hometown and everyone in it, he's not exactly welcomed with open arms. Joe's also hoping to re-fire things up with his former high school sweetheart (who has been in an abusive marriage, but is now conveniently divorced and single). We've seen these movies before, haven't we?

Tropper's also got rockhead bully characters saying things like "You besmirched my reputation" and delinquent high school punks saying things like "Whatever floats your boat, man." And there are some sex scenes that would make Harlequin romance novelists wince. So it's a pretty raw novel, even comically bad in some parts.

Even so, Tropper's wit and humor are here. And so if you like Tropper, and can get by the fact that there's not much very original here, it's still a fun, quick read. The foundation for the three novels that follow this one is clearly apparent in terms of the occasional laugh out loud one-liner. And the makings of Tropper's signature dude-lit with heart are here as well, as Joe seeks his redemption. You do root for Joe, even though he's a self-proclaimed self-absorbed jerk. He's trying to make things right, in his own wise-cracking, sometimes-counter-productive way.

Two stars for The Book of Joe. Definitely No. 4 on my Top 4 list of Tropper novels, but it was fun to see how far the man has come as a novelist. The cosmic leap between this book and This Is Where I Leave You is really amazing!  

Friday, March 18, 2011

The "Bucket List" Novel: War and Peace

This week's prompt for the Literary Blog Hop at The Blue Bookcase is one near and dear to my heart. And it's been awhile since I participated in this super-cool literary "event," so here we go.

The question: What one literary work must you read before you die? I spend far too much time contemplating this question, possibly because I feel like if I want to consider myself an expert book dork, I'd lose credibility if someone asks me if I've read (insert canonical staple here), and I haven't.

I actually wrote about this topic at almost this exact same time last year. Then, the answer was Gravity's Rainbow, by Tommy Pynchon. I started reading right after that post, and spent the next six month in sort of a suspended state of reading masochism. It wasn't fun, except for the rare instances when it was — like when I finished. I decided to invent a conversation between myself and my boy Tommy to air my grievances. That all made the six months somehow strangely worthwhile.

Now, to actually answer the question — and to be absolutely unoriginal. War and Peace is my bucket-list book. I've had various editions of the "greatest novel of all time" on my shelf since high school. I even spent a fruitless hour in a B&N once trying to determine which translation is the "best." I plan to read it this year, however. In fact, conquering Tolstoy's two masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, is my literary goal for this year.

You know, I can't even give you a good reason why War and Peace is that one book I must read before I die. It's probably mainly because it stands as a sort of symbol of smart. That, and I like a good literary challenge. Ingrid at The Blue Bookcase, who lists War and Peace as her favorite novel of all time, wrote this fantastic post providing five tips for reading the novel. I just re-read her post, and not only does it terrifically demystify a scary book, but also it got me all amped again to start. No time the like the present!

And if you're also interested in reading the novel, check out Kath at [insert suitably snappy title here]'s progress, as she makes her way. She has a bit of a head start.

Literary Blog Hop

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Ask: Dark Comedy, Self Pity, Death of the American Dream?

Turn to any page at random of Sam Lipsyte's darkly comic novel The Ask, and there's approximately a 99 percent chance you'll find a sentence or two that will have you guffawing, rolling your eyes in amusement or outright laughing out loud. Let's give it a try:

Pg. 33 - Yep, here we go: "The room seemed cozy and cavernous at once, the kind of place I would later describe to Maura as tastefully lit. A few bourbons, and so was I."
Pg. 69 - Aha! "'I know you think I'm homophobic, but I'm not. You're the one who betrayed all your gay friends by having a baby."
Pg. 147 - Again: "It meant not much. Physical bravery probably held the same value in our milieu as skill at parallel parking: A useful quirk."

Amidst all this wit is a rather inventive plot. Milo Burke works in the development office in a crappy NYC liberal arts college, a job from which he is promptly fired in the first chapter of the novel for balling out a rich donor's daughter. Milo is coasting through a boring marriage the only joy of which is his four-year-old son Bernie. When his now-filthy-rich college friend Purdy offers a significant give to Milo's college, but only if Milo be put in charge of "the ask," Milo is re-recruited to his job. Also, Purdy has a secret problem, which he hopes Milo will help him resolve. Will Milo succeed for once in his miserable, self-pitiful life?

Two characteristics of this novel stuck out for me, besides the humore: 1) It's much less successful when it tries to be profound and serious, which it does over the course of the second half, as Milo's life and marriage careen southward, and 2) The peripheral characters in this novel are much more interesting than its main characters Milo and Purdy.

You may notice that the three quotes above are all in the first half of the novel. That's not an accident. The turn-to-any-page-experiment actually on works in the first 150 pages or so. The second half of the novel is sad. Milo turns from lovable loser to just loser. And the quirky dialogue, snappy turn-of-phrase and hilariously observed observations largely disappear to be replaced by supposed profundities and appeals for sympathy that sort of fall flat.

Thankfully, the supporting cast, Milo's mid-20s co-worker Horace, and Purdy's secret son, Don, rescue the novel. Horace opens the novel by proclaiming that America is a rundown, demented pimp. He's the hilarious counterbalance to Milo's sad wussiness. Don, an Iraq vet who lost his legs to a bomb, is angry. But he's also glib and sarcastic, with quite the "don't give a shit" attitude. He gets the best lines in the novel. For instance, Don tells Milo that "Arab men are attracted to me. They have a whole different take on buttly rapaciousness over there." So, just when you're starting to get annoyed over Milo and Purdy's sobfests, Horance or Don will show up, steal a scene, and make you remember what a fantastically funny writer Lipsyte is.

Overall, 3.5 stars for The Ask. I'm a sucker for good funny writing, and Lipsyte's sense of humor closely matches my own. For the first half of the book, I was envisioning writing an absolute gushfest and proclaiming it my favorite book of the year. But the tail end sort of put a damper on that. Still, though, it's a fun book. I'd recommend it to fans of Jonathan Tropper, Gary Shteyngart and Jess Walter.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Imperfectionists: All In A Day's Work

Joshua Ferris pretty much cornered the market on the "workplace novel" a few years ago with his story of a Chicago ad agency titled Then We Came To The End. But Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists stands rather adequately on that novel's shoulders, advancing the theme that we never really know anything important about the folks with whom we spend 40-plus hours a week. However, where Ferris's novel was funny, with the occasional instance of sentiment, Rachman's novel is more sad and sincere — with a touch of humor sparingly sprinkled about.

It's a just-right mix, though, to tell us about the lives of these lonely journalists, toiling away at a failing English-language newspaper in Rome. We get 11 path-crossing vignettes describing the lives of 11 people. There's the lonely copyeditor who spends New Year's Eve in a hotel room drinking by herself, all the while dousing herself with the cologne of the married man she's obsessed with. There's the young journalist trying out for a stringer position in Cairo, and soon realizing he's in way over his head. And there's the overworked news editor who has overachieved in his love life, snaring a beautiful woman 14 years his junior. But can he keep her interested?

At the center of these beautifully rendered character studies is a paradox: The newsroom encompasses the entirety of the world in terms of access to and dissemination of information. But yet those who inhabit that newsroom on a day-to-day basis, reporting the goings-on across the globe, are some of the most lonely, troubled people you've ever met. They are constantly making messes of their personal lives, cheating on their spouses, and sweating their careers. Journalists are a different breed, to be sure — and job-related stress, especially in this age of declining newspaper readership, adds to the plight of these characters, but also to the delight of the novel's reader.

This is a great novel, covering a wider breadth of themes — ambition, mortality, experience, love, loneliness — than you'd think possible in such a slim book. Near the end of the novel, Rachman describes a character reacting to a painting: "(The artist) flubbed it, not simply because his human forms were inept but because the human form can never be rendered beautiful." Part of what makes this novel great is that Rachman doesn't try to render characters beautifully. He emphasizes their flaws, and that's what makes them more interesting.

Four out of five stars for The Imperfectionists. Minus one only because one or two of the vignettes aren't quite as compelling as all the others.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Short Post About Short Novels

Probably because it runs contradictory to my inclination towards verbosity, I have an irrational hesitancy towards reading short books. In fact, whenever I read a review of a new novel that sounds interesting, I'll immediately go to Amazon or B&N and check to see how many pages it is (the NY Times is very helpful in this respect because it publishes the number of pages with its reviews). If it's fewer than 300, I'm disappointed. If it's fewer than 300, that's a strike against the book in my internal debate on whether or not to buy it. Some readers are scared away by long novels. I'm scared away by short ones.

When Lords of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, won the National Book Award last year, I was chapfallen to learn that it clocks in at only 296 pages. Similarly, last year's Pulitzer winner, Tinkers, by Paul Harding, is a slight 192 pages. And so I still haven't read either. I'm just now getting around to reading The Imperfectionists (288 pages), which, because it's a novel about journalists, about 134 people have told me I'd love. And I do.

So why this hesitation against short novels? Yes, well, in addition to my inclination towards verbosity, I think it's simply because they go by too quickly. The quicker you read a novel, the faster you forget it — in most cases (see below for a few of my exceptions). I'm never happier than when I spend a few weeks immersed in a fictional world, and frankly, that's just not possible with a 250-page book.

But that's not to say my rule is ironclad. I have read and greatly enjoyed many short novels, including many that have stuck with me. Here's a top 5 list of my favorite sub-300-page novels:
5. Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen (192 pages)
4. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn (272 pages)
3. The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss (272 pages)
2. Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer (288 pages)
1. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (256 pages)

Anyone else have this hesitancy towards short books? What's on your list of favorite short novels?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest: Out On A Low Note

Put it this way: The 2010 Literary Hype Machine was only 1 for 2, in my view. Of the two most anticipated book of last year — Freedom and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest — only Franzen's novel delivered. The conclusion to the Millennium Trilogy is a dull, scatterbrained police, journalistic and courtroom procedural with a foregone conclusion. The drama  — indeed, the thrill of this supposed thriller — is too few and way too far between.

I know this probably won't be a popular sentiment, but the reason I was bored is that the entire plot of this novel hinges on a mystery that Stieg actually spoils for us early in the novel— i.e., who is part of the Section, that the Section protected Zalachenko, and what they're planning going forward to protect the secret. This means that Mikael and the law-and-order folks of Constitutional Protection spend most of the novel hunting for answers the reader already knows. Not much drama there. 

As usual, there's some "romance," some computer hacker stuff, some legitimately thrilling scenes here and there, and several side stories — including a semi-interesting one about Erika Berger and a stalker at her new job as editor-in-chief of a big Swedish newspaper. But in this case, which is another negative in my view, there were too many damn side stories, and the interesting ones got lost amidst the boring ones. For instance, when a section about the Section would start, I'd immediately look to the next pages to find out how long I'd be bored by their maneuverings. Usually, mercifully, it wasn't too long, as Stieg jumps back and forth between each story line on almost an every-other-page basis. But this also means the parts that include the interesting story lines — Mikael spying on his those spying on him, etc. — were just as short. There's no flow and the reader (at least this one) feels totally disconnected from the narrative.

Writing negative reviews is no fun, so let's end on a positive. Even though Hornet's Nest was a let down, I really did enjoy the first book in the series, and I also enjoyed a lot about the second book. In fact, I just looked at my ratings on Goodreads for these — 4 stars for Dragon Tattoo, 3 for Played With Fire, and now 2 for Hornet's Nest. I can assure you, that symmetrical descent in rating wasn't on purpose — just happened that way. And I can also assure you that this is the last New Dork post about Stieg. How disappointed are you right now?

If you've read these novels, which was your favorite (see poll in sidebar)? Anyone have a similar reaction as me to the last one?