Friday, October 28, 2011

Uncollected Thoughts On the Literary Week That Was

Crazy week. Brain fried. Some brief thoughts:  

1. Wanna win $100? If you're a book blogger, Book Riot is giving away a $100 gift certificate to your favorite book store. All you have to do is write a post "about the time you went the crazy nerdiest for a book." More details are here.

2. Speaking of Book Riot, I put up a post yesterday about David Foster Wallace. There are always so many emotions when I write about my favorite writer. The post is here, if you're interested. Something about DFW always seems to resonate with people — the post has gotten more than 1,000 pageviews in two days! 

3. I was in Phoenix for work this week. I've been trying to think of any literary novel set (or even with a scene taking place) in Phoenix. Coming up blank. Anyone else have any ideas?

4. Lots of people have started Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. I wish I could, but B&N has yet to deliver mine. Have you started it? Any first impressions? 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion: A Sordid Affair...

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Girl convinces boy to murder her jerk husband. While not your standard love story, it is an easily recognizable literary plotline. And Ron Hansen's new novel A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion deftly chronicles a famous real-world instance of such a story of manipulation and murder.

Dateline: New York City, 1925. Voluptuous Ruth Snyder, secure in her sex appeal and her ability to manipulate men, begins a torrid affair with brassiere or corset salesman Judd Gray. Both are unhappily married — Ruth because she's abused, Judd because he's bored. Over the course of several alcohol-soaked rendezvous (Hansen makes clear how easy it was to get around Prohibition) and trysts at the Waldorf-Astoria, Ruth slowly breaks down Judd's moral defenses, convincing him that he really has no other choice but to help her kill her husband.

The last section of the novel, to me, was the most fascinating, as Hansen departs a little from the fiction of Ruth and Judd's relationship, and carefully recounts (from newspaper accounts and other primary sources) the trial and the publicity circus around it. Think OJ Trial of the '20s. And if you've read Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (which Hansen mentions in Guilty Passion), you're familiar with how well this narrative structure can work. It reads like non-fiction, and it's absolutely riveting.

I'd highly recommend this slim novel, especially if you're not familiar with Ron Hansen, who is a vastly underrated novelist. This novel's a perfect example of what he does best — turning a footnote of history into a rich, elegant novel. My biggest complaint about this book is the cover — which earned me more than one dirty looks whilst reading in public. But A+ for the novel itself! 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Notes From a Chad Harbach Reading

I can't make this sound any other way but disparaging, but if you look at Chad Harbach's author photo on The Art of Fielding, he looks, well, nerdy; and even a bit smug — like a dude who was always joshin' the jocks in high school and therefore was constantly having to buy new pairs of tighty-whiteys to replace the ones destroyed by Atomic Wedgies.   

In real life, though, he's neither nerdy nor smug. I don't know why I'm always surprised that successful novelists are actually cool in person, but Harbach is another in a long line of novelists I've met who is as good an entertainer as he is writer. Harbach was comfortable enough cracking jokes as answer to one question but then answering seriously and insightfully to others, including the inevitable question about his "writing process." Anyway, it was a great event, and I was thrilled to get to meet him.

Here are a few other notes from the reading:

1. The event took place at  Boswell Book Company, an indie bookstore in Milwaukee (Harbach is from Racine, about 30 miles south of Milwaukee). The place was packed, and for the first time at any reading I've ever attended, there were more men than women there. Harbach opened by joking that he'd hoped no one would show up tonight because everyone would've been occupied rooting on the Brewers in Game 2 of the World Series. Sadly, that didn't happen.

2. I asked Harbach what he thought of the article Keith Gessen wrote partially about him titled How A Book Is Born. He said he didn't read it until it was finished — that Gessen, who is a friend of his, had sort of awkwardly asked Harbach if it was okay to write about him, and that was it. There was no formal interview or anything — since the two were living together in New York at the time, Harbach said Gessen pretty much had all the material he needed. (If you haven't checked out that piece, definitely do. It's really enlightening!)

3. An attendee asked Harbach what he thought about all the hype and attention his novel has gotten. Whether Harbach's answer was a (very well orchestrated, 'cause he has to have been asked that question before) act or not, I don’t know, but it was the only time of the night he seemed uncomfortable. He stuttered, started to answer, stopped, looked down at the podium for a beat, then composed a smile and just said “It’s really, really nice.” And that was it.

4. Several of the sweet people of Wisconsin may need to take a gander at Spoilers: A User's Manual, as not one, but two, of the audience questions blatantly gave away key plot points — one all but revealed what happens at the end! Unbelievable!

5. When Harbach was signing my book, I asked him if he'd really chosen Little, Brown because of the opportunity to work with David Foster Wallace's editor, Michael Pietsch. (He actually took less money to publish Little, Brown, as reported in How A Book Is Born.) He kind of smiled and said that Pietsch editing his book was certainly one factor, maybe the dominant one, but he also knew what Little, Brown, as a publishing house as a whole, could offer him in other areas (publicity, marketing!). Makes sense — and a very diplomatic answer.

6. You should’ve seen Mr. Harbach’s socks. To be honest, I rarely notice another man’s hosiery, but Harbach was wearing these what must’ve been flannel, multi-primary-colored things that were far and away the brightest thing in the room. I tried to subtly get a photo of them without appearing to be a foot-fetishy creeper, but sadly, it didn’t turn out. I only mention it as another example of Harbach’s somewhat quirky personality.

Here are some other photos from the event that did turn out. My apologies for my substandard photography skills.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Art of Fielding: A Baseball Fan's Baseball Novel...With a Twist

I love baseball. Always have. In fact, my one and only bar trick is to be able to recite on command any or every World Series winner since 1972. Name a year, I'll tell you the winner. And so, as an enormous baseball fan, I couldn't have been more delighted to spend a couple weeks with Chad Harbach's debut novel The Art of Fielding.

The biggest reason I enjoyed the novel — and I think you will too, especially if you're a baseball fan — is that it's as authentic as they come; authenticity being the No. 1 factor in a good sports novel, in my view. I mean, when a writer totally flubs sports jargon in a novel (i.e, "He got a homerun," or "He made a touchdown,"), even if not critical to the plot, not only does Matt Christopher roll over in his grave, but to me that writer has lost credibility for his/her novel at large. Writing about sports and making it sound authentic is tricky — perhaps one of many reasons why there are so few good sports novels.

Harbach, though, absolutely nails it. He clearly knows and understands baseball and writes about it as realistically as any novelist I've ever read. And he doesn't dumb it down. That was my No. 1 fear going into this novel — that the baseball scenes would be cheesy and cliche. Not so here at all. Hell, the whole plot hinges on a little-known "condition" called Steve Blass Disease, made famous by a 1970s Pirates pitcher who suddenly and inexplicably lost his control. Harbach clearly understands the big-picture view of baseball — its quirks, superstitions and deference to history. But even on a granular level, passages like the following illustrate just how adept Harbach is at rendering in-game scenes authentically and in a way that's fun and exciting to read:
"In the bottom of the fourth, finally, and Opentoe batter laced a low shot into the hole between short and third. Henry broke toward it with typical quickness, snapped it up cleanly on the backhand side. As he set his feet to throw, though, the ball seemed to get stuck in his glove. He had to rush the throw, which flew low and wide of the bag. Rick O'Shea stretched to full length and scooped it out of the dirt, lifted his glove to show the ump he had the ball."

But this novel has much wider appeal than just a baseball novel. Indeed, if you're not a baseball fan, to you, this will probably be more a story about relationships. But instead of continuing to talk in abstractions, let's take a look at the story.

Ankiel had one of the most famous cases of Blass Disease
Henry Skrimshander is a smooth-fielding shortstop who, along with his mentor Mike Schwartz, have double-handedly turned the Westish College baseball program from laughing-stock to powerhouse. Henry is about to break the all-time collegiate record for error-less games in a row, previously held by his idol Aparicio Rodriguez (not a real baseball player, if you're wondering). But, suddenly, quirk strikes — as it so often does in baseball. Henry makes an errant throw that drills his bench-bound roommate Owen in the skull. And after that, Henry can't seem to make the routine throw to first anymore — the notorious Steve Blass Disease.

But speaking of quirk, Guert Affenlight, the previously heterosexual president of Westish (which is a fictional liberal arts school in northern Wisconsin) finds himself head-over-heals infatuated with Owen (Owen actually is gay). And so the rest of the story chronicles how Henry deals with his affliction and how Owen and the president deal with their budding love. Guert's daughter Pella and Mike Schwartz are also caught up in the maelstrom, and no one's life will ever be the same.

Only time will truly tell if The Art of Fielding will join The Natural and The Brothers K in pantheon of great baseball novels. It's definitely not a perfect novel — Harbach can be long-winded at times and part of the resolution is a tad, for lack of a better word, preposterous (nothing to do with baseball, thankfully). So I'd give this four and a half stars. Still, to paraphrase a common Owen-ism: "You are skilled, Chad Harbach. I exhort you." And furthermore, as my all-time favorite baseball broadcaster Marty Brennaman is fond of saying, "If you swing the bat, you're dangerous." And Harbach has definitely swung for the hallowed fences of baseball literature lore.

(One other note: I loved the names in this novel. Henry Skrimshander, Guert Affenlight, Owen Dunne, Adam Starblind, etc. I felt like it may have been a tribute to the goofy names in Philip Roth's The Great American Novel — another terrific baseball novel.)


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Top 10 Books I Wish I Could Read Again For the First Time

I've always wanted to do one of these Top Ten Tuesday posts — but since, until recently (launch of Book Riot), I always posted on Mondays, I never did. It's kind of liberating stepping out of your own rigid self-imposed rules, isn't it?

Today's topic is the top ten books you wish you could read again for the first time. I like this idea a lot, because whenever I see someone starting a book I really loved, my first thought is jealousy — that s/he is at the precipice of a really great experience.

So, here we go:

10. Trinity, by Leon Uris — For a good part of my life, this was my answer to the "favorite book of all time" question. It's fallen down the list a little, but I still wish I could be as transfixed by it as I was the first time I read it when I was in college.

9. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides — With all the buzz about Eugenides' follow-up, I've been reminded how fantastically original Middlesex is.

8. Straight Man, by Richard Russo — This is one of the funniest books I've ever read. If I could start fresh, I'd do a better job of slowing down and appreciating the humor. 

7. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein — If I had this one to do over, I'd do something really manly right before reading this, so I wouldn't feel so bad about this novel turning me into a blubbering fool.

6. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth — I read this at a point in my life (college) when I couldn't give it the attention it deserved. I'd love to go back and give this the close read it deserves.

5. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski — If there's one book I've ever read I wish I could erase from memory to start again fresh, this is it. Some books are good on a reread, but for others (like this one), once their secrets are revealed (and your mind is sufficiently blown), it's no good going back.

4. Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer — I had no idea Foer was such a quirky writer when I read this the first time, and therefore was annoyed with this book as much as I enjoyed it. I wish reverse and reread with a better understanding of what I was about to read.

3. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith — It's been so long since she published new fiction, I wish this — her best novel — could be new to me again.

2. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving — My favorite Irving. Enough said.  

1. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace — My favorite author's best book? Also a no-brainer...

Friday, October 7, 2011

Looking For Something To Read?

You are? That's fantastic! Here are five suggestions for five great novels from five great bloggers:

1. The Submission, by Amy Waldman — reviewed by Brenna at Literary Musings: This novel has some real ripped-from-the-headlines appeal. It's already high on my priority list, and Brenna says it's one of her favorites of the year.

2. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern — reviewed by L.L. at The Story Girl: This book has garnered the biggest buzz of the fall. My copy just arrived, and after reading this review, I'm even more excited to dive in.

3. The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta — reviewed by Rebecca at The Book Lady's Blog: What if the Rapture happened, but those who were Raptured weren't just sanctimonious Christian fundamentalists? Here's how Rebecca describes how Perrotta's apparently fantastic novel answers that question: "So, The Leftovers. It’s like the Left Behind books if they were smart and funny and not about religion but the human condition in general and well-written and did I mention smart?"

4. Fathermucker, by Greg Olear — reviewed by TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog: This looks like the pseudo-dude-lit hit of the fall. It's also far and away the best titled book of the year! I just ordered it myself, and was happy to see this glowingly positive review.

5. We the Animals, by Justin Torres — reviewed by Rachel at A Home Between Pages: I'd only heard bits and pieces about this novel, and because it's so short, I'd all but written it off. But Rachel loved it, so it's back on my radar — maybe for a lazy fall Sat. afternoon in the near future.

Also, in case you missed, and if you did you're kind of a jerk (kidding), here is my first contribution to Book Riot. Why aren't there more good literary sports novels? 

Monday, October 3, 2011

The New Dork Review Turns Two: Time to RIOT!

On the scale of momentous book blogging days (a scale which totally exists), today might be an all-timer. For one, I'm celebrating two years of computerized-scribbling about books here at the New Dork Review — or, as they say in the biz, it's my two-year blogoversary. (Actually, the real anniversary is Oct. 1, but since I'm a dude, I get a little leeway on the exact date, right?)'

As totally mind-blowingly awesome as a two-year blogoversary is (whoops, the sarcasm font isn't loading properly today), the really exciting news today is the launch of Book Riot. I couldn't be more thrilled to be involved with 11 other contributors in this new website dedicated to all things bookish, with a decidedly snark, humorous and absolutely-not-at-all stuffy tone. I mean, one of the first posts up is a conversation between two contributors about Jersey Shore and pop culture and books. It's awesome! Please go check it out and visit frequently — it just launched today and there's already a ton of fun content there to peruse, but there will be new content every single day. 

So, naturally, you're wondering how Book Riot and The New Dork Review of Books will complement each other, buy each other beers, scratch each other's back, etc. I mean, you've been stopping by here twice a week for two years now, right? (RIGHT?!) You're used to your routine. Am I just going to leave you hanging? Short answer: No. Longer answer: Nooooooooo. (Hehe...)

Frankly, I don't know what's going to happen here, but I do know that I probably won't be as OCD about posting twice as week here as I was in the pre-Book-Riot past. I'll be contributing there twice a week, at least, and I'll be recycling some of that content here (after a Book Riot exclusivity window expires). There will still be new content here, too, so don't delete your bookmark or "stop following this blog" in Google Reader, or cancel your email subscription. The New Dork Review of Books is not going away. After two years, and 210 posts, it'll continue to go strong. Thanks as always for your continued readership!