Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cartwheel: Love and Murder in Argentina

Jennifer duBois's second novel, Cartwheel, just out this week, is a fictional retelling of the Amanda Knox story — the American study abroad student who was arrested and tried for allegedly killing her roommate in Italy in 2007. duBois's novel takes place in Buenos Aires, and her Amanda Knox character is a self-centered New Englander named Lily Hayes, who is arrested for killing her cute Californian roommate Katy. The question in duBois novel, though, seems not to be whether she actually did it, but whether she COULD have done it.

The novel's a quick, thrilling read —it examines Lily's character and the case from several different angles; we're in her head for a lot of the novel, but also we jump to the perspectives of Lily's mysterious, kind of douchey next-door-neighbor-lover Sebastien, the lead detective on the case named Eduardo, and Lily's parents and younger sister Anna.

The eponymous cartwheel here refers to the fact that while Lily was being interrogated for the murder, she does a cartwheel in the interrogation room. Why did she do that? For the detective, and for the easy-to-judge public (like the Amanda Knox story, Lily's story has touched off a media circus), this detail is a sure sign of her guilt. “It was the joy that was the key; nobody cartwheels when they’re paralyzed with grief.” And the cartwheel is also a representative detail of one of the themes of the novel — can oddities like these really be an indicator of guilt? (After Lily discovers the body and calls 911, she's spotted on security camera at a convenience story winking suggestively at Sebastien in the condom aisle, etc.) 

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel, because we see several different perspectives, is how each character views these little oddities, as well as the uncontested facts of the case — including that Lily's DNA was on the knife and one of Katy's bras. How does each side — Lily's lawyers and her parents vs. Eduardo the detective — concoct a story that fits all the evidence?

Another of the best parts of the novel is duBois's penchant for characterization. She often lets different characters describe each other to show us the lens through which they're building their stories about what happened. For instance, Eduardo the detective describes Lily's somewhat mysterious boyfriend Sebastien thusly: "But he was also, by all accounts, impossible: sphinxlike, maddeningly detached, forever circling around life and speech, both, in half-ironic, riddle-filled whirlpools." duBois, though, is at her best describing Lily, who "thinks the whole world revolves around the gaping vacuum of her needs.” Lily is totally oblivious about the effects of her actions on others or how her actions might be perceived — whether answering her host family's phone, or taking selfies at a church in a revealing tank top. She is someone who learns things, and can't imagine others around her not knowing that thing she just learned. And so it's the most interesting thing of all time.

But do these qualities of her character make her a murderer? Do they make it possible that she COULD be a murderer? And so we cruise through this incredibly read-able, incredibly well-written novel at breakneck speed to find out.

I loved this book — and I'm actually someone who actively avoided information about Amanda Knox, because I couldn't have cared less about that story. But this story is much more interesting because it doesn't have the dirty feel of news filtered through the tabloid machine. Highly, highly recommended!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Lowland: The Year's Best Novel?

Jhumpa Lahiri's second novel, The Lowland, out today, might be the best novel of the year. It's the story of two brothers, lifelong secrets, the immigrant experience, and how parents' mistakes can still resonate decades later, influencing the lives of their children, even as adults.

It's a masterwork; an absolutely awe-inspiring piece of storytelling. Lahiri's prose is so clear and crisp, you cruise through her story effortlessly. There are no extra words, no tortured metaphors, no page-long stream-of-consciousness sidebars. Every word has it's place and there's a place for every word.

But if you've read Lahiri before, none of this comes as a surprise. She already has a Pulitzer under her belt for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. And even before its publication, The Lowland already appears on the short list for the Man Booker Prize, as well as the long list for the National Book Award. That's some serious literary cred.

Beyond the craft, what makes the story itself so compelling is Lahiri's ability to slow-burn the secrets. The big reveals aren't BIG REVEALS — they're often tinier details that change our whole way of thinking about characters' relationships or what we understand to be their motivations.

The two principals here are brothers Subhash and Udayan, who we first meet as young boys in Calcutta in the 1950s. The story follows them over the course of their young lives, as their paths diverge, and there's an unspoken, almost subconscious, competition between the two, even as they remain extremely close. Soon, Udayan is inspired by the Naxalite movement in 1960s India — a fascinating piece of Indian history of which I'd been totally ignorant until this story — and becomes increasingly radical, running with other revolutionaries. Subhash takes a less confrontational path, emigrating to the U.S. for post-graduate studies at a small, seaside college in Rhode Island.

Life continues. Bad things happen. Good things happen. There is marriage, children, career, heartbreak. But you don't want to know the details. You want to let Lahiri reveal them to you in the way she intended. It's a story that first draws you in, and then moves you through at different speeds — it's contemplative when it needs to be, but it slings you along at an appropriately brisk pace (both in terms of years and action) when it has to. We traverse more than 60 years in this novel, but it never feels like you missed anything important. That's truly a neat trick.

Some readers may nit-pick with certain details or choices characters make, or with the generally "soft" feel of the novel. But to me, these are both strengths — the characters do actually keep you guessing, and Lahiri's prose...well, I just can't find any fault. As I mentioned, it's just so sharp and readable. It's a novel I didn't want to end, a novel we'll all be talking about on year-end lists, and a novel I can't recommend more highly.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Salinger Contract: Publishing ON DEMAND!

J.D. Salinger is all the rage these days, and Adam Langer capitalizes on this Salinger-mentum by centering his new novel, The Salinger Contract, on a fun little literary thought-experiment: What responsibility do writers bear for how readers react to, interpret, or are inspired by their fiction? Any? Maybe just a little? Maybe it depends on the subject and reader? Early on, Langer points out that Mark David Chapman (who shot John Lennon) and John Hinkley (who shot Reagan) were obsessive fans The Catcher in the Rye.

So are writers to blame if their readers do horrific things? Before you jump to say "of course not," consider the opposite: Why, then, can writers take credit if readers' reactions are positive; if they're inspired by a novel to do good things?

Langer begins the novel with this fantastic first line: "I never believed a book could save your life." And so we immediately wonder what will cause this change of heart. And what in God's name could it possibly have to do with why Salinger and Thomas Pynchon and other reclusive writers who shunned fame and their adoring public their whole lives?

So that's the basic framework for the plot of this fun, fast-paced story. A narrator named Adam Langer (you'll find out why this is important at the end) tells us the story of a buddy of his, a novelist named Conner Joyce, who has become disillusioned with publishing. Joyce has tasted success, but his last several crime thrillers have suffered from ever-declining readership, and ever-less-well-attended readings on his book tour. (If you read Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan — and if you haven't, I'd recommend it highly — you'll recognize the same basic level of cynicism about the state publishing here as well. And also some bookish references definitely aimed at avid readers.)

Soon, however, Joyce is thrown a lifeline when a rich and mysterious Chicagoan approaches him and offers him a pile of money to write a novel. So, Langer asks us to consider another question — as the publishing industry is supposedly failing, and no one is reading anymore (he thinks), what if rich guys who still love books hired writers to write novels — sort of like a medieval patron? Could there be unintended consequences, or is this a way to keep fiction writers in business?

The catch for Conner, though, is this: Conner can't tell anyone he's writing the novel, and the novel will never actually see the light of day — it'll be kept for the personal enjoyment of the shadowy rich dude, who by the way, also owns novels by Salinger, Pynchon, and Norman Mailer; all whom had similar contracts. Can Conner accept those terms? For sure, man! But naturally, things go a bit awry, and Conner finds himself running for his life.

Langer's a great lampooner of the publishing industry. One of the subplots of the story is a about a writer named Margot Hetley, a foul-mouthed lady who writes an immensely popular Harry Potter/Twilight mashup called the Wizard Vampire Chronicles. She and Conner share the same editor, a beautiful, devil-wears-Prada-esque woman hilariously named Shascha Schapiro.

In total, despite the deep-meaning questions Langer asks you to consider, The Salinger Contract is mostly just a quick, speed read. When the plot turns from the set-up to the action, you have to turn down your bullshit detector just a bit, and sort of just go with it. Langer has a tendency to gloss over key plot points, and provide short, brusque explanations for some of the "hows" and "whys," leaving me to wonder if this whole thing might not have been better rendered either as a short story or a longer novel with more fleshed out details.

Still, the questions he asks his readers to consider here are interesting and relevant to anyone who loves books. And it's a fast-paced, sometimes funny, often thought-provoking, read. So it is a book I'd recommend, with only minor hesitations.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

On The Road: Diary of the Midwest Indie Bookstore Tour 2013

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

Over Labor Day weekend, I crossed a significant item off my bookish bucket list. I spent the weekend driving 1,200 miles, through four states and five cities…all for books! I visited eight different independent bookstores along the way, and I did this for no other reason than that it was something I’ve always wanted to do. What follows is a chronicle of my adventures. Enjoy!
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(Note to the reader: In most cases, the hyperlinks are to Flickr for photos I took on the trip. You can go here for a list of and links to the bookstores I visited.)

Friday, August 30th

11:30 am — I’m off! Man, am I excited! I climb into my trusty blue Honda Civic, armed with the Google maps app, four apples, two bags of trail mix, two Gatorades, and Reza Aslan’s Zealot on audiobook. I head west!

2:30 pm — I’m crossing the mighty Mississippi…at 5mph. Stupid road construction.

4:05 pm — I arrive at my first stop — Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, IA. Wow — my first thought as I walk in is that I hope all of my stops are as awesome as this one. Prairie Lights is near the campus of the University of Iowa, and clearly caters to a student crowd — indeed, two comely coeds were in line in front of me, asking about books for a psychology class. But Prairie Lights has a huge fiction section, too. I look around for awhile, then I earn a wary glance from a clerk when I take out my phone and snap a photo of the super cool old-school refrigerator door with bookish magnets. So I pick up a hardcover copy of Elliott Holt’s novel You Are One Of Them, and beat a hasty retreat.

5:30 pm — It’s 102 degrees. I’m hoping the trusty blue Civic makes it. And it does! Here’s the second stop of the day, Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, IA. This is a tiny store situated in a shopping plaza on the west side of the city. The selection here is meager, but the store has one full wall of shelves dedicated to Iowa authors and books, which is cool. There’s also a bin at the front of the store that offers shoppers a free Advanced Reading Copy with purchase. Very cool. I buy a paperback of Adam Langer’s Crossing California (he has a new novel out 9/17 titled The Salinger Contract, which I’m really excited about!), and head out to find some food.

7:00 pm — I check into my budget roadside motel in west Des Moines. I find a liquor store, buy a bottle of scotch, and return to my room to continue reading the new Jonathan Lethem (Dissident Gardens, out 9/10). I feel like Jack Kerouac. Or Charles Bukowski. Or Hunter S. Thompson. I keep telling myself that.

Saturday, August 31

9:45 am — I gas up at a Kum and Go station, suppress a giggle, and hit the road!

1 pm — I drive through downtown Kansas City, head west, and arrive in Lawrence, Kansas. My first stop is a used bookshop called The Dusty Bookshelf. The place is swamped with what appear to be professor sorts — one man has situated himself in the “classics” section on a chair and appears to be simply sitting there gazing lovingly at the books. This goes on for awhile. I butt in, scoop up a copy of Jane Eyre, pay $2 for it, and head out.

1:30 pm — Right around the corner from The Dusty Bookshelf is The Raven Bookshop, a tiny store, but with a deceptively large fiction selection. The woman in line in front of me at The Dusty Bookshelf is here, too. We nod at each other — a mutual booklovers’ acknowledgement. I browse for just a minute, and pick up a hardcover copy of Max Barry’s Lexicon.

2:30 pm — I have very few non-bookish plans for this trip. But visiting Allen Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Kansas is one. I’m a fanatical college hoops fan, and this is an essential stop — Allen Fieldhouse is one of the oldest and most venerable college basketball facilities in the country. I approach the building on Naismith Drive (as in Dr. James, the inventor of basketball), park, and walk across a large grass field to snap a photo or two. It’s quiet, there’s no one else around. I’m wearing a Marquette University tshirt (my beloved alma mater). I’m trying to exorcise the demons of the 2003 Final Four. Somewhere, Dwyane Wade is smiling. I keep telling myself that.

4:00 pm — I’m back in Kansas City. It’s started to rain, appropriately, just as I pull up to Rainy Day Books. Heartbreak! It’s closed for the Labor Day weekend. Gah! So I go check into my hotel, and walk around the Country Club Plaza area, where there’s a three-story Barnes and Noble. It’s pretty awesome. I spend an hour there browsing and buy a paperback copy of Nelson DeMille’s The Panther.

8 pm — I’m in my hotel room reading. I’m not in the mood for Dense Lethem right now, so I read Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons. I’ve never read Dee before, but this novel seems…purposefully obtuse? As one example, the following passage: “Holding the phone with her shoulder, she Googled his name and hit Return.” Hit Return?! Is she Googling on a typewriter? This reminds of me that Senator from Alaska who thought the Internet was a “series of tubes.” This, and other similar silly passages, throws off my reading mojo, so I retreat to the bar next door for barbeque and beer. Boulevard beer is very good.

Sunday, September 1

12:30 pm — I’m driving from KC to St. Louis (middle Missouri is beautiful!), and I decide to take a break from Aslan to rock out for a bit. “Pardon me…while I burst…into fla..” SHIT! TIRE IN THE ROAD! /Swerve /Regain control /Briefly hyperventilate. I go back to Aslan.

2:30 pm — I’m at Main Street Books (no photo, ’cause it was pouring) in historic St. Charles, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis). The best and probably only way to describe this tourist-oriented bookshop is Cute (yes, with a capital C). It’s tiny with creaky wood floors, and a steep staircase that leads to an upstairs used and children’s section with a fireplace and all. The street out front is even made of red bricks. I feel like I’m in an episode of Little House on the Prairie. The fiction selection here is small, but the store has a sign that reads “Browse here, find it here, buy it here, keep us here.” I love that — it’s sort of the theme for the trip (and the mantra for all indie bookstores). I buy a hardcover copy of Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway.

3:00 pm — Holy shit, it’s raining very, very hard. The gods are angry, my friends.

3:30 pm — I arrive safely at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, near the campus of Washington University — it’s a long, narrow bookstore with a huge fiction section. But the first thing I notice when I walk in is that they’re displaying Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam — which is exciting because I didn’t think it was available for three more days. I buy a copy. I also love this wall of bookish tshirts near the entrance to the store. On the walk back to my car, I literally stumble on a William Burroughs star on a pseudo-star-walk-of fame.

5:00 pm — I check into my hotel in downtown St. Louis, near the Arch, and walk to the last stop on the indie bookstore tour — Left Bank Books. I really love this place — it’s all hardwood floors, and open plenum, and with a really industrial/loft feel. I browse for awhile, and then chat up the guy at the register about the other Left Banks location in the Central West End part of town, which, he tells me, is actually the original store. He says it’s a little bigger with a bit better selection. But I like the selection here, too. I splurge a little, since this is my last stop, and buy a hardcover copy of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah and a paperback copy of Scott Hutchins’s A Working Theory of Love. I leave the store, and I’m little sad. I go visit the Arch, and call it a day.

Monday, September 2

1:30 pm — About halfway home, I finish listening to Zealot. I give myself a high-five, as this is my first ever audiobook — no longer am I an audiobook virgin!  I enjoyed the experience, with a few reservations — but more on that in a later post. Also, Zealot is really interesting. I’d highly recommend it if you’re into religion and history and such things.

3:30 pm — Sweet home, Chicago. What a trip. Here’s my final haul. Time to get to work reading!
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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Two Jonathan Novels, Two Mini-Duds

Today, Jonathan Lethem's new novel Dissident Gardens hits bookstores. It's his first novel since 2009's Chronic City, and his first since moving from his beloved (and frequent setting for his fiction) Brooklyn to take over the teaching post previously held by David Foster Wallace at Pomona College in Pomona, Calif. 

I got a pre-pub copy of Dissident Gardens, and so I can tell you there's good news and bad news. First the good: If you're a diehard, and I do mean DIEHARD, Lethem fan, you'll probably love Dissident Gardens. The bad news: If you're not, you probably won't.

Dissident Gardens is, in a word, dense. It's the story of Rose Zimmer, a Communist living in Sunnyside, Queens, in the mid-1950s. And it's the story of various other characters — Rose's daugher, Miriam, Rose's lover's son, Cicero, Rose's gross cousin, Lenny, and Rose's grandson, Sergius. The novel's told in 20- to 30-page episodic increments, each slowly (and slog-tastically) building the story of each character — showing how interactions with each other in their formative years affects the way these characters interact with each other in the future.

It's also a novel is about ideology — specifically how rigid ideology (Rose's communism, etc.), ideology that doesn't consider actual human people and the ideologist's relationship to them, can easily alienate the people closest. What happens, the novel asks, when firmly held beliefs fail to bear out in the real world?

A few of these mini-stories are really entertaining — one of the first chapters is teenage Miriam coming home with a boy, determined to lose her virginity, but Rose interrupts, and they fight. And this singular fight affects their life-long relationship. Another shows Sergius in modern times, meeting a girl at an Occupy at a small college town.

But for the most part, these episodes (Lenny trying to talk William Shea, the new owner of the Mets, into using a folk song as the new team's theme) were either just weird, or felt like the writing a novelist must do to learn more about his characters before actually writing the novel and setting them into the story. So, unless you're a Lethem Diehard, I'd think about skipping this one.

While trudging through Jonathem Lethem's novel, I also was reading another New York novel by another Jonathan (Dee) — this one titled A Thousand Pardons. Since I finished these two Jonathan novels within a day of each other, I thought it made sense to write about them together — especially given that I wasn't a huge fan of Dee's novel, either.

A Thousand Pardons is a slim, uneven novel about a failed marriage, a chance for redemption, and a drunken movie star who may or may not have killed a woman. Helen and Ben, ensconced in suburban New York City, with their pre-teen adopted daughter Sara, are in couples counseling. Ben is bored, and soon the marriage blows up in spectacular fashion when Ben invites a comely intern at his law firm to a hotel room for a sexy rendezvous, is beaten up there by her boyfriend, gets drunk, passes out, gets a DUI, loses his job, is sued for sexual assault, gets divorced, and goes to jail. It's a bad week.

Helen tries to pick up the pieces by moving with Sara to Manhattan, where she has discovered a talent for public relations — specifically getting jerks to apologize for jerky actions (a cheating councilman, eg.). Soon, Helen finds herself working for the top PR company in New York, and reconnects with a movie star named Hamilton Barth, with whom Helen had gone to grade school. Hamilton goes on a bender, and calls Helen for help, and the novel veers into a mystery — did he or didn't he kill a woman? He honestly can't remember!

This novel's a decent, light read, not to be taken too seriously. So much of this novel is so improbable, you can't help but snigger a bit at it. For instance, Helen, with no experience and not having worked for 12 years, is easily able to set up four interviews in Manhattan on the same day— including one for an editorial assistant at a Conde Nast magazine. Riiiiiiiiight. At another point, when Ben is jail, and trying to keep that a secret from his now-ex-wife and daughter, he wonders if his daughter will know that he's emailing her from a different IP address, and therefore will find out he's in jail. Um, okay? (Maybe that's nit-picky, but it just added to the avalanche of unreality in this novel.)

So, really, the best thing I can say about Dee's novel is that it was a good change of pace from Lethem's. But I don't think I'll be recommending either one.