Thursday, September 29, 2011

Domestic Violets: A Heartbreaking Tale of Staggering

When you endeavor to review a novel you enjoyed as much as I enjoyed Matt Norman's Domestic Violets, it's easy to slip into platitudes and/or hyperbole: "I loved this novel more than fat kids love cake" or "This novel reminded me why I love reading...and why I hate work" or "This is a deeply affecting family drama. Matt is a modern-day Tolstoy." But I won't. I promise. Hopefully I can cover all those (maybe slightly exaggerated sentiments) with just this: Domestic Violets is one of my favorite novels of the year. It's very, very good.

Here's the deal: Tom Violet is 35. He's married to a smart, modern woman named Anna, and they have a precocious seven-year-old daughter named Allie. The family lives in Washington, D.C and for the last seven years, Tom has written copy for a soulless management consulting company, and therefore, is woefully unfulfilled professionally. His only joy at work is a hot 23-year-old copywriter named Katie, who may or may not have a crush on him (a crush which he may or may not reciprocate).

But let's back up a second: In the very first scene in the novel, we find out Anna is as unfulfilled in the bedroom as Tom is at work. To put it bluntly (or softly, as it were), Tom can't get it up (which is hilariously ironic; Tom's mother tells us later that the Greeks believed violets symbolized potency and fertility). That same night, after they've tried and once again given up hope of carnal delights, Tom's father Curtis Violet, a celebrated novelist and serial philanderer, swoops drunkenly into the house, announcing that he has finally won his first Pulitzer, completing a grand slam of literary prizes. The sadly funny juxtaposition of the marital "failure" with his father's literary success sets the tone for the rest of this story.

Domestic Violets is Tom's first-person account of his collisions with the trials life. It's part workplace comedy, part brutally honest meditation on the difficulty of marriage (Tom's mostly-happy-but-hitting-a-rough patch marriage is often contrasted with Curtis' several unhappy ones), and part about what it means to have a famous father (especially in a field in which Tom is interested in joining himself — he's been secretly writing a novel for the last five years).

Because Tom is a wise-cracking, self-deprecating, smart ass, it'd be easy to pigeonhole this novel as your run-of-the-mill dude lit. But similar to other novels — like those by Jonathan Tropper and The Financial Lives of the Poets (by Jess Walter) — to which Domestic Violets will reside adjacently on my  categorized shelves, the mix of low-brow comedy with wit, honesty and empathy is what raises this novel from beach read to brilliant.

There are scenes is this book that I don't possess the writerly chops to describe (well, without again resorting to platitudes, like "I laughed, I cried...oh, the emotional ride"). Suffice it to say, a couple times, I literally had to put my hand over the page and reveal a line at a time so I wouldn't accidentally glance ahead and ruin the drama.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll readily admit that part of the reason (maybe most) I connected so well with this novel is that, as a near-35-year-old, self-deprecating dude myself, I felt often like Matt (I'm calling him Matt, not Matthew; he won't mind, I hope) Norman had crawled into my brain, thieved my thoughts, and spilled them onto his pages. Would that I were as clever, honest and funny as Tom (and Matt) are. I can't recommend Domestic Violets more highly.

(A big thanks to Rachel at A Home Between Pages, whose own glowing review first put Domestic Violets on my radar.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

My Top Five Fantastically Filthy (Ban-able?) Books

An entire week dedicated to combating stupidity, censorship and narrow-mindedness? Yes, please!* To celebrate Banned Books Week, many bookish folk are reading from their favorite banned books and posting the videos on YouTube, which is awesome.

But I'm going to do something a little less high-road. What follows is my list of filthy, but fantastic, books that are (and probably at one point have been) easy targets for book banners. Just so we're crystal clear, I'm not AT ALL suggesting that these books be banned. I'm only suggesting that they're easy pickins for the type of people who do try to ban books.

That is to say, if people who tried to banned books actually read or understood good literary fiction, these would probably certainly be near the top of their list. But they don't, usually. So it's a pretty safe bet that some chucklehead in, say, Wakefield, Mass., who, say, banned Harry Potter, probably isn't going to have a good working knowledge of Philip Roth. In other words, he's ignorant of Philip Roth. And isn't ignorance the dominant characteristic of a book-banner anyway?

And, so without further adieu, here is my Top Five Books That Would Be Banned If Ignorant Idiots Had Their Way:

5. Sabbath's Theater, by Philip Roth — Everyone knows about the liver scene in Portnoy's Complaint, but Roth's National Book Award-winning (1995) novel is probably his filthiest. Mickey Sabbath, the novel's 64-year-old sex-tagonist, in one memorable scene, um, chokes the bishop on the grave of his dead wife. And that's one of the more tame scenes.When I finished this novel, I wrote: "I don’t know whether...I’m in awe of Roth, or terrified of him, or just grossed out by how perverted he seems to be." Good times!

4. Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami — This was the first Murakami book I'd read, and after hearing about his ethereal prose and how his novels hinge upon their own metaphysical logic, I was surprised by the sheer amount of sex in this novel. Careful: includes lesbians.

3. Lamb, by Christopher Moore — Lest you think I'd only consider dirty sexual novels ban-worthy, here we have a satiric look at the life of Jesus Christ, told by his childhood pal Biff. If the ultra-religious type gets itchy about Harry Potter, my God, reading (or kids reading, God forbid!) this novel would cause paroxysms of penance prayer on par with news that the Rapture is imminent.

2. Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell — There are certainly a lot of options for books that would meet the "way too violent" criteria, but I picked this one, because I loved it, and because it's so-over-the-top violent, I couldn't look away — including a ball-shrivelingly violent ending that will leave you fetal-positioned. I'll let Rachel of A Home Between Pages explain, as she did in a comment on my review: "When I got to the end of Beat the Reaper, I literally sat there with my mouth hanging open, holding the book over my head, going Oahhmaahhhgawd!!!!!"

1. Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, by Tom Robbins — One of the funniest novels I've ever read is also one of the filthiest. It includes some, um, non-traditional, sex with a nun. And that's I probably all I need to say about this novel's gross-out factor. But it's awesome (the novel, not necessarily the fact that it includes nun sex). 
What would be on your list? 

*Banned Books Week, if you're unfamiliar, is an almost 30-year-old week-long celebration of books that at one point or another have been, well, banned. Check out this awesome map of censorship activity just in 2010 — 348 just in one year. Ugh!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Lonely Polygamist: Can Anybody Hear Me?

Golden Richards has chewing gum stuck in his pubic hair, and he has no earthly idea how it got there. It's just one more calamity in the life of this lonely polygamist, who, with four wives and 28 children, has all but lost control. As Udall tells us about halfway through the novel, "(Golden's) very life, including his marriages to his wives, his children, his church position, was none of his own doing." Indeed, his life is a combination of a careful orchestration by his wives of where to be and when, and putting out fires caused by misbehaving kids and a failing construction business. Dude just can't get a moment to himself to relax!

Brady Udall's irony rich (starting with the title!), tragi-comedy novel is a fantastic (if a bit lengthy) read. Believe it or not, Golden is one of the more sympathetically pathetic characters I've read in a while. Will he ever be able to take control of his life? Here's a great detail to illustrate just how much he's been emasculated: His first wife Beverly, who rules the brood, has placed instructional signs everywhere in Old House (where she lives with her litter of 10), most notably above the toilet: "Golden, Please Take A Seat." Poor guy can't even pee like a man.

Really, the gum-in-the-pubic-hair (the reader does know how it got there, and it's hilarious) is a rather inventive metaphor for Golden's life — it's tangled beyond relief. And, other than making a clean break/cut, he has no idea how to extract himself. Despite being surrounded with his family, he's lost the emotional attachment to them, and starts looking elsewhere to relieve his loneliness. 

Compounding the loneliness theme of the novel is the interspersed narratives of two other characters. One is Golden's 12-year-old son Rusty, who is a misunderstood miscreant who tries on his sisters' underwear, steals things from his siblings and generally misbehaves as a sincere cry out for attention. Golden's young and beautiful fourth wife, Trish, also is just beginning to realize the true degree of her own loneliness. She grew up in a polygamist sect and vowed never to live that life herself, but after an abusive first marriage, her mother has convinced her to join Golden's family for security and emotional support. She's getting neither, and she may soon look elsewhere, too?

But this is really Golden's story, and again, it's equal parts funny and sad. This novel had gotten great reviews when it came out last year, but I put it off because I was worried that it might be a "look how bizarre polygamy is" story in which I'd have to keep track of a War-and-Peace-like number of characters. Not the case. Udall doesn't totally ignore the "abnormality" of the Richards clan, mentioning awkward moments for Golden here and there in the community at large, and that Rusty gets teased at school for being a "plyg kid." But it's really a story of how Golden, Trish and Rusty combat their loneliness. And it's really good. Highly recommended!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reading To Remember, or One More Way Books Are Awesome

Last spring, when I was "stuck" in Berlin, thanks to an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano, I was reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. Now, whenever my eye catches that book where it sits on my shelf, thoughts of that trip immediately come to mind.

But it's not just travel for which this "book/memory association" works. For instance, whenever I happen to glance at Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, I'm reminded of Marquette's surprise run to the Final Four in 2003. The memory of reading that fantastic book and that fantastic few weeks of basketball are permanently intertwined.

Indeed, what I realized is that my bookshelf has become a virtual travelogue / diary / database of memories. Of course, memory is associative, so it makes sense that this would be the case. I just never really consciously considered it before.* It certainly doesn't work for every book (I'm not some sort of literary Rain Man. Sadly. 'cause that'd be awesome!), but when I look at many of the hundreds of books on my shelves, I know what I was doing, where I was reading, what was happening in my life at that time. It's kind of awesome. Actually, it's really awesome! 

And here's what I also realized: I love technology and gadgets and such, and yet I still haven't bought an e-reader. The main reason I haven't is not because I'm opposed to reading electronically (I'm not), or because I like the "feel" of physical books (I do), or that I like collecting my books (I really do.) No, the main reason is that I'd lose this "book memory" phenomenon that only comes from glancing through physical books ensconced in their permanent home on my shelf. That, I'm not willing to give up.

So I'm sure this "book memory phenomenon" isn't unique to me. How does it work for you? Do you ever spend an afternoon just staring at your shelf and reminiscing?

*The funny thing is, this whole idea — or at least the reason it crystallized into enough of a coherent idea to write a post about it — came as I was watching the movie Limitless this weekend. If I could have one Super Power, it'd be to remember and connect any memory anytime I wanted. C'mon, that would be cool, right?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How Has Blogging Changed Reading Habits?

Last fall, I had one of those rare moments when I finished a book and wasn't sure what to read next. So I went to my shelf, fixed it with my most withering glare, and hoped a book would present itself. It did. Sean Wilsey's memoir Oh The Glory Of It All jumped right out. That book had been high on my priority list for a long time and I'd just read an article in which Jonathan Franzen had recommended it.

"But," said the red literary devil who popped up on my right shoulder (and who bore a striking resemblance to Nic Sparks), "this is an obscure book, such that when you blog about it later, you probably won't get as many readers/visits/pageviews."

That's when the white literary angel (sporting a du-rag and long hair) popped up: "And but so, read what you want, dude. After all, fiction is what it means to be a f#$%ing human being — even though that book's a memoir. You know what I mean, though. Oh, what a f#$%ing mess." So I did (though I was still reeling a bit by the amount of cursing the angel did). And Wilsey's memoir was great!

The point here is this: Blogging has changed my reading habits in a number of ways (at least five, as you'll see below), but it hasn't changed my fundamental philosophy on choosing books: I'm gonna read what I want. I'm not going to feel pressure to read what's popular or what other people think I should or what will get the most pageviews. I know, bold statement, that. But I think it's important. (And just so we're clear, I'm literally patting myself on the back right now.)

That said, there are several ways my reading habits have changed since I started The New Dork Review of Books in October 2009 (yep, creeping up on two years). Thankfully, they're all positive. Here there are:

5. I read a lot more — I covered this earlier this spring in a post about GoodReads. My greater reading pace has borne out so far in 2011, too. I'm probably going to eclipse by a wide margin the number of pages read last year — which was by far and away the most ever.

4. I've been motivated to read my bucket-list books and authors — Last year, I took down Gravity's Rainbow. Being able to tweet, periodically blog, and receive encouragement about that chore is pretty much the only thing that kept me sane enough to get through it. This year, so far, I've read Gone With The Wind, Anna Karenina, and I'm 11 percent done with War and Peace. That rules. Also, I finally read Haruki Murakami. Twice. That also rules.

3. I've read more indies and other books I'd never have heard of — One of the biggest unexpected benefits of blogging about books is getting free books. I'm still really particular about accepting books for review, but I have a few times, and as a result, read books I might never have heard of. Two examples: Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne, and Fight For Your Long Day, by Alex Kudera. Reading the latter led to one of my favorite blogging experience so far: The conversation with the author about how he viewed book bloggers. Also, other bloggers' recommendations have expanded my reading horizons widely. But that's a topic for another post.

2. I've read with greater attention and more depth — I mean, you have to, right? Nobody wants to look like an idiotic jerk when they post a review. So I try hard not to. Secondly, and it's hard to avoid being totally unoriginal here and saying something like "I've gotten more out of my reading," but, I've gotten more out of my reading. I use little post-its to mark quotes in books ('cause writing in books is a mortal sin) and reviewing those quotes when I go to write a review or reaction really does jog memory and help solidify connections between themes, characters, etc. I never did that before I started blogging.

1. Frankly, reading has never been more fun — Of course it is. And of course, reading being more fun isn't necessarily a changed habit. But what would this list be without more fun? The reason reading's been more fun is that I know for sure I'll have someone with whom I can discuss the book. And, as solitary as reading is, it's a million times more enjoyable in a community. Cheers to this community!

(For those curious about why there's that weird logo at the top of this post, this week is Book Blogger Appreciation Week — a fairly cool five-day back-pat to all things book bloggery.)

Monday, September 12, 2011

How A Book Is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding

Chad Harbach is broke. He's spent all 10 years of his post-Harvard life writing a novel that, at one point, even his best friend calls "insubstantial." He writes, and rewrites and writes more. Then, he gets his break, and it's a big one. An up-and-coming agent falls in love with the novel, and sells it for $665,000.

That's the basic origin story of this year's debut du jour, The Art of Fielding — a novel I've been describing to my friends as The Help for dudes. (I haven't read it yet, but my copy just arrived and I can't remember the last time I've been so excited to read a book.) And the piece that describes Harbach's odyssey from struggling mid-20s New Yorker to the toast of the literary world is one of the more interesting pieces of journalism I've read in a long, long time.

The article actually takes the form of an 18,000-word e-book written by Keith Gessen. It's an expanded version of an article that appears in the October issue of Vanity Fair. Gessen and Harbach went to Harvard together, remained close in their post-college years and founded n+1 (a Brooklyn-based literary journal) together.

So Gessen has VIP access to Harbach's story. And it's a fascinating one, to be sure. But how The Art of Fielding went got published is also the vehicle that allows Gessen to give us a behind-the-curtain look at the publishing industry. Drawing on his own experience (Gessen published a novel titled All the Sad Young Literary Men a few years ago. I read it. It's okay. Not my favorite book ever, though.) and that of many of his publishing industry friends, Gessen discusses the health of the Big Six publishing houses, their often contentious relationship with Amazon, all that goes into marketing and publicity for novels, as well as how they're sold to bookstores, how a cover design comes to be, and what it's really like to be able to hear from your agent something like "Yes, David Pietsch, David Foster Wallace's editor, has said that if we accept Little, Brown's offer, he'll personally edit your book." How awesome is that?

How A Book Is Born costs $1.99 as an instant download from Barnes & Noble or Amazon. I can assure you, it's the best two bucks you'll spend this week. If you don't have a Nook or Kindle, you can download a Nook or Kindle app for your PC or Mac to read this piece on your computer; that's actually what I did. Isn't technology great?

Friday, September 9, 2011

What Should We Expect From 9/11 Fiction?

Four years ago, in a review of Don DeLillo's Falling Man, NY Times critic Michiko Kakutani noted that:
"not enough time has passed for any novelist to put the events of that day (9/11) and its shuddering consequences into historical perspective; perhaps not even enough time has passed for any novelist to grapple convincingly with those actual events, without being eclipsed by the documentary testimony (from newspaper articles, television footage and still photographs) still freshly seared in readers’ minds."
Does that seem right to you? I've wrestled with that sentence since I first read it four years ago. Part of me thinks she is right. Even now, 10 years later, it's still impossible to "grapple convincingly" with those events with any degree of perspective and detachment.

Part of me also thinks it's a too-easy dismissal for why, Kakutani would likely argue, there hasn't been a truly great 9/11 novel yet. But many readers, me included, would argue that there have been many very good ones.* And so why is historical perspective such a critical criteria for a great novel about an event? 

The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer, was published a mere three years after World War II ended, is still hailed as one of the best examples World War II fiction. James Jones' From Here to Eternity was published in 1952, seven years after the end of the war. It's also still regarded as a classic of World War II fiction.

I'll admit, two novels published half a century ago is slim evidence for the notion that it's possible to write a great novel based on an event soon after that event. But my point here is this: Perhaps the historical perspective Kakutani referred to is required not by novelists to write a truly great novel about an event, it's required by readers and critics to recognize and appreciate the true greatness of such novels. Once the historical perspective for the event itself melds with the historical perspective on the novel, then, and only then, do we recognize a novel's greatness as a depiction of that event.

In that review, Kakutani goes on to pan Falling Man as "small, unsatisfying and inadequate" — a sentiment with which I whole-heartedly disagree. If were to wager on any of the 9/11 novels I've read standing as the 9/11 novel, it'd be this one. (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a close second.)

Still, this question of what to expect from a 9/11 novel is one I think about frequently. And it's sort of shaped — positively or not, I have no idea — how I've read subsequent 9/11 novels.

What do you think? Is it reasonable to expect a great 9/11 still so relatively soon after an event? What would be the criteria for a great 9/11 novel? Or is a great 9/11 impossible until more time (how much) has passed? 

* The list I've read includes: Falling Man, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Netherland, The Garden of Last Days (Slate put this one on its worst 9/11 fiction list, with which I also lustily disagree), The Emperor's Children, and Let the Great World Spin

(By the way, the most emotionally stirring scene about 9/11 in any novel I've read is, strangely enough, in The Time Traveler's Wife. Henry knows what's about to happen, and gets up early just to quietly experience the world before it changes forever. Something about that scene really resonated with me. I think about it often.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On Starting War and Peace (War, What Is It Good For?)

I know it's a tad cliché, but I can't think of War and Peace without thinking of that one Seinfeld episode. Elaine makes a misguided attempt to ingratiate herself with a famous Russian writer (hilariously named Testikov) by telling him what Jerry had jokingly told her earlier: that the original title of War and Peace was War, What Is It Good For? Things don't turn out well for her after that.

After deciding 2011 would be the year I'd finally read War and Peace, it took me eight months to gear myself up to start, but here we are. I finally started it last night. When I wrote about War and Peace as my "bucket list" novel back in March, the advice about how to read the novel poured in fast and furious. Last night, I reviewed all those comments, as well as Ingrid's (of the Blue Bookcase) post offering five tips on how to read the "greatest novel of all time." I took her advice and reviewed the Wikipedia pages on the Napoleonic Wars, specifically on the French invasion of Russia. I read Anna Karenina earlier this year to familiarize myself with Tolstoy's style. I've bookmarked the Wikipedia character page, as well as the one provided in my edition. And I've set a goal to finish the novel by the end of the year, which seems entirely realistic.

My edition is the Anthony Briggs translation, which has been on my shelf for years, and has morphed into a sort of symbol of not-yet-achieved intellectual nirvana. Several folks have warned me off of that particular translation, but I have to use this one. I just have to. It's been with me on four different moves and three different cities. I can't imagine completing this mission without this particular book. Is it strange that an unread novel could have emotional significance?

Anyway, 20 pages in, I'm having no quarrels with the style at all. It seems to read easily enough, and it includes common phrases like "the straw that broke the camel's back." So, it's very early, but so far so good. The Briggs edition also includes endnotes, maps and an essay by some British wanker named Orlando Figes. It's actually the one you can see me pretending to read in the "About Me" page.  (Have you stopped over there to check out my favorite joke, by the way?)

So, all this is a long-winded way of getting to the point. Here at the start, I need your help. If you've read the novel, what tips, tricks or (to use a tired business-speak) best practices have you used to get through the 1,400+ pages? Did you honestly like the novel (or do you just tell people that you did so they'll think you're smart)? Will I be a changed literary man four months from now? I'm looking forward to your input!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

West of Here: Past, Present and One Giant Dam

On the surface, Jonathan Evison's West of Here is pretty simple: It's the story of the people who inhabit the small fictional town of Port Bonita, Washington. Two dueling story lines from two different times (1890 and 2006) chronicle the fortunes of the folks in the tiny burg located on the northern coast of Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

But when you really dig into the underbrush, you discover an incredibly inventive story that churns along at a deceptively quick pace. Having told you that, it may seem hard to believe that the centerpiece, as well as the central symbol, of the story is a dam. Yep, a dam. But it works, because the dam is really only the unifying force of the various themes of the story. This is a character-driven novel, and these characters are a lot of fun to "watch."

Ethan Thornburgh built the dam in 1890, hoping it'll be the key to putting Port Bonita on the map. Now, Ethan's great-grandson, Jared runs the last remaining processing plant of the town's dying fish industry, bemoaning what he perceives to be his inescapable past. "...he forever lived in the shadow of this obsolete dam, his fortune linked inextricably to its hulking existence, its legacy of ecological menace...Such were the trappings of history."

The dam is a symbol both of progress, as well as attachment to a flawed past. Exploring that idea of the past's link to the present is what drives this story. That in itself is less original than some of the ways Evison chooses to tell the story, sprinkling in a little Native American mysticism, providing a hugely diverse cast of characters, and shifting perspectives among them to keep the story fresh. 

Like Ethan and Jared, each of the novel's character from the 1890s story has a sort of counterpart in the 2006 story. In addition to the past-present link, this also gives Evison fertile ground for examining another main thrust of the story: the age-old nature vs. nurture question — or, as one character asks, "Do you think people are born a certain way? Or do you think people are made?"

West of Here is far from a perfect novel — for instance, there's a scene told from the perspective of a mule about to be shot, which is just silly. And some of the parts in which characters are exploring the peninsula start to sound repetitive — but I really enjoyed it. What you have here is a touch of David Mitchell (in terms of story originality and fluid prose), a sprig or two of David Guterson (in terms of writing about the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest), and a pinch of Richard Russo (in terms of vivid, empathetic writing about small-bust-town life). Give it a try if you're a fan of any of those three novelists, or if you like the dueling past-present storytelling strategy, or if you simply like an original story that explores some common themes in new ways.