31 December 2009

2009: The Year In Reading

Best Fiction
Glen David Gold, SUNNYSIDE
Arthur Phillips, THE SONG IS YOU
David Foster Wallace, INFINITE JEST
Nick Hornby, JULIET, NAKED
W. Somerset Maugham, OF HUMAN BONDAGE

Best Nonfiction
Leslie T. Chang, FACTORY GIRLS
Dave Eggers, ZEITOUN
Patrick Radden Keefe, THE SNAKEHEAD

Best Memoir

Biggest Page-Turners: The Stieg Larsson "Failed To Finish GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST" Memorial Category
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, WATCHMEN

Best Discoveries of 2009
Bit silly to claim "discovery" for a writer who has been widely celebrated and another who has been publishing novels for 30 years, but it's a tie between DFW and Jane Gardam. I expect they will have a run-off in '10.

Modern Library of Awesome

Edith Wharton, ETHAN FROME
W. Somerset Maugham, OF HUMAN BONDAGE

Best Book With A Perfect Ending
Walter Kirn, UP IN THE AIR

Best Books With Not-The-Best Endings

Peter Straub, GHOST STORY
Ulrich Boser, THE GARDNER HEIST (though, since it's nonfiction, I can't pin this one on the author in fairness)

Most Quoted
From Michael Chabon's THE FINAL SOLUTION: "Mr. Panicker was not so hopeful or so foolish as to imagine that finding a refugee boy's lost parrot would restore the meaning and purpose to his life. But he had been willing to settle for so very much less."

A Few Random Stats
Best months for reading: Travel-heavy March and May.
Worst: August, which makes perfect sense given that I was working on INFINITE JEST at the same time.
Percentage of books read that were library books: 22.2. I love the NYPL!
Percentage of books read that are actually being published next year: 2. (Not counting half of ...HORNET'S NEST. Gah.)
Average number of books per month that I reviewed for the A.V. Club, the place where most of my reviews ran: 3.25. On pace, could be improved.

As of November, number of years I have been keeping a running list of books I've read: 9
First book on the list: THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. It was the first time I read it, and I remember very clearly that I was sitting in Logan Airport in Boston with my mom.

30 December 2009

A Wormbook Year: 13 Notable Posts of 2009

January: Seeing the adaptation of "Revolutionary Road," one of my favorite books of '08, was exciting. Finding out my hometown indie bookstore, Harry W. Schwartz, would be closing was depressing.

April: "You haven't read ETHAN FROME? Get out of my house!" I read it later this year, thus making that inadvertent lie true, for what it's worth.

May: I traveled a lot in May this year but one of my favorite destinations was John K. King Books in Detroit, Michigan. Also, this blog turned 4, so according to PBS Parents it wants to be self-reliant and it should have "learned to better manage intense emotions."

June: I signed up for Infinite Summer and copped to other long books I hadn't read. I still haven't read any of those, but at least I can check INFINITE JEST off (in a kind of full-body gesture of checking, I imagine).

July: Bulwer-Lytton winner Eric Rice came by to share some secrets for writing a very, very bad sentence.

August: The Noughties reckoning began early with this list of the best American novels of the past decade.

September: I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival for the third time and it was wildly entertaining.

October: The discovery of a new Shakespeare play prompted me to wish a different one had been found instead. Great is thy ungratefulness.

November: I hope I'll always be adding to a list of books that make me laugh, and less often to its companion list from July.

29 December 2009

I Have Had It With These Fill-In-The-Blank Books On This Fill-In-The-Blank Plane

While you and I were snug in our beds while visions of sugarplums danced in our heads, some asshole tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas. In the wake of this jerk's actions, the TSA rushed to add new regulations to flights entering the U.S. Because this jerk tried to ruin Christmas during landing, now, among other rules, passengers will have to remain in their seats without any personal items "in their laps" or electronic devices engaged for the last hour (or on some planes, 90 minutes) of a flight.

If I had to describe these new regulations in two words I would bow to author Bruce Schneier for creating the term "security theater," and offer my condolences that for his work he probably gets triple-searched on every single trip he takes, but what I really want to know is: Can you read for the last hour of a flight? I'm not flying internationally in the next few days, but it's in my interest to know as a person who loves to travel with books. And the answer is: Depends on how your flight crew interprets the new rules.

Here's the official DHS wording: "Passengers may not have any blankets, pillows, or personal belongings on the lap beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination." Travel blog Gadling cites an industry source saying that books and other reading material are okay, but a Gizmodo reader reports that on a domestic flight (SF to Eugene, Oregon) passengers were not allowed to read paperbacks they had brought with them during the last hour.

(Even scarier, I was talking about this with my family and my mom said, "Oh yeah, that happened to me last year." A flight attendant made her put her book away before landing, reasoning that it was a "carry-on" and it had to be stowed, or else she would have a surprise meeting with an air marshal. What? This touching holiday moment brought to you by the TSA.)

From all accounts these rules are just temporary, but that's how the liquid and shoe regulations began. On the bright side, in-flight entertainment has been deemed even more of a threat to our way of life than multiple carry-ons and airline blankets, which feels like poetic justice for being subjected to new classics like "Bride Wars" and "Inkheart" on unavoidably big screens.

28 December 2009

Unlikeliest Books I Read In 2009

There are the books you always wanted to read... and then there are some others that just end up under your eyeballs. Here, I celebrate some of those from 2009.

Bollywood chick lit! I borrowed this debut, about a single hotel manager in New Delhi, from my mom while on vacation and it was surprisingly good. I'd definitely read this author's next book.

Whoever put this guy up at BEA with James Ellroy did him a solid. Harrison wasn't allowed to get many words in edgewise, but most people who came for the free copy of BLOOD'S A ROVER also picked up a copy of his novel RISK, a cool and current noir.

A friend of mine on Goodreads gave this book two stars but called it "a cute little story about New York in the magical mid-century days." I wouldn't say run out and get this memoir about an Iowan in New York in the summer of 1945, but I needed a breather and this did the trick.

Worst. Cover. Ever. But when seven copies of this book showed up at once on my library's New Releases shelf, I got curious. I imagine they give this book to head-injury patients to determine whether they've suffered a concussion or not, because that is the only condition under which this book is at all coherent. My favorite parts are the mini-essays by coaches and friends, the theme running through which being "Whatever it is, it's not Chad's fault." Does not bode well for the inevitable Morningside/Manhattanville/Warlem community read.

Just kidding, I was always planning to read this book, and it was even worse than I had expected -- so bad in fact I couldn't even find anything funny to mock about it. All that money and they couldn't even have hired a decent ghostwriter.

27 December 2009

Best Books of the Noughties

Subject to change, oh, about every 15 minutes or so.

Jonathan Franzen, THE CORRECTIONS
Francine Du Plessix Gray, THEM: A MEMOIR OF PARENTS
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, RANDOM FAMILY
David Mitchell, CLOUD ATLAS
Rick Perlstein, NIXONLAND
Zadie Smith, WHITE TEETH

26 December 2009

My dad gave me his old Kindle for Christmas. It wasn't on my list, but can you ever trust me again??

25 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

I hope you unwrapped a lot of good books today. You deserve it! And if I may? Thanks for reading, commenting and sending in recommendations this year. I always appreciate it, even when I forget to say so.

24 December 2009

Live from Whoville

  • I didn't do a proper Reading On The Road list because it was unclear, once again, if the weather would ever allow me to leave New York. On that account I got really lucky, because I can't claim to have foreseen the tiny window left by Eastern and Midwestern weather patterns and pitched myself through it. If you need that luck now, consider it my gift to you.
  • Waiting for my mom to finish THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST is the new waiting for Santa.
  • I went to Best Buy yesterday and was surprised to see they (now?) sell books there. Most of it expected -- the new John Grisham stories, Glenn Beck, THE LOST SYMBOL, teen vampires -- but they also have UP IN THE AIR and THE BLIND SIDE, in case you're marooned somewhere without spare reading material. They also had THE ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE in stock, and it's hard to not see that as some sort of ironic comment.
  • We crashed my cousins' early Christmas and watching my 12-year-old cousin open the Kindle she had begged and done extra chores for all year, well, you'd have to be a Luddite not to light up a little. She'll get years and years of use out of it. (Or else, Amazon. Or else.)

23 December 2009

Filmbook: Up In The Air (2009)

Ryan Bingham: Road warrior. Corporate high achiever. Professional destroyer of worlds. Walter Kirn's 2001 novel went inside the mind of a frequent flyer chasing the elusive one-million-mile mark, and while a lot has changed in the airline industry since it was published -- 9/11, to begin with -- you've probably crossed paths with a traveler like Ryan, George Clooney's character in the movie, for whom an on-the-road hookup is de rigeur and being saddled with a trainee for the common corporate good is a drag.

I liked Jason Reitman's adaptation, but I didn't love it. I feel tempted to go a little harsher on it than I really intend because of the raves it has been drawing, but before I do, I will point out that I'm glad I saw it and my expectations were probably too high. If you're at all invested in the end-of-the-year critical blowout or the race for Best Picture, you were going to see this anyway, but it won't be a chore.

That said: Reitman and co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner made significant changes to the book, most of which I didn't mind, but my major problem with this movie was its tone, the aspect in which it least resembles Kirn's work. This movie suffers from a sort of directorial anxiety, constantly prompting its viewers for their reactions until settling on a desired response too late to have me trust it. I was left feeling that Reitman had made a vessel into which viewers put their own feelings instead of a statement, something Kirn's novel decisively rejects. (Giving examples of this would verge into spoiler territory, but I'm happy to duke it out in the comments if anyone has seen it and wants to fight.) If this movie wins Best Picture, and it already seems like a lock to be nominated, I think it will hold a mirror up to the voters rather than truly giving them something to latch onto.

Despite having that reaction, I did latch onto the characters in this movie, particularly Vera Farmiga as Alex (great in a somewhat limited role) and Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener. Danny McBride's key scene moved me quite a lot, although again I'd have to venture into spoilers to tell you why. As for Clooney, if you like him generally you will like him here, but I didn't see anything unexpected or notable about his performance. I think he's a solid actor who picks great projects (and promotes them with his presence) but his range is somewhat limited, and coupled with the predictability of the script he couldn't pull off the reaction that Reitman finally settles upon for his audience at the end. Reitman's last movie "Juno" managed a similar transition well, but here the switch feels very jarring.

Filmbook verdict: It feels wrong to do this, but I've been recommending people who are disappointed by the movie to read the book after, so I'll make that my official advice (do as I say, not as I did).

See also: The most thoughtful thing I've read about "Up In The Air" is this spoilerrific essay by J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader; it's a shameless plug, but some friends and I collaborated on a piece about our personal best movies of the year; and because it's awesome, watch a young Anna Kendrick as an understudy who poisons her rival to do some Sondheim in 2003's "Camp."

Still from Screen Daily.

22 December 2009

Three Bad Book Trends For Which We Have The Noughties To Thank

First, and it must be said, this list is largely tongue-in-cheek. If you want to be really depressed, I recommend Time's 10 Worst Things About The Worst Decade Ever. After that slideshow, I sort of lost enthusiasm for listing the 10 worst books I read, because I probably didn't even bother reading the worst books of the decade and the rest weren't, I don't know, life-alteringly bad.

Contrarianism: Up is down! Left is right! Sometimes there are black swans! I can't deny enjoying several of the nonfiction books I read this decade that sought to challenge or overturn the conventional wisdom -- I even liked FREAKONOMICS when I read it -- but the further into the Noughties we got, the more, shall I say, predictable the entries became. I participated in the indignant uproar over, for example, Chris Anderson's FREE with its shadowboxing with reason and its annoying tendency to use the title as a proper noun ("Free wants your love, and Free wants your revenge" -- not actually a direct quote). But I didn't much enjoy it. One recent and welcome exception: Cristina Nehring's A VINDICATION OF LOVE. And if I ever have the time to write a proper entry again, I'll gladly tell you why.

Memoir skepticism: Just as we have all absorbed the news that pop stars can get their voices fixed in post-production to the extent that they are incapable of performing their own songs live, so this decade caused us to doubt any true story that fell into our laps. I haven't read A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, and now I probably never will, but I still felt duped when James Frey sat on Oprah's couch and tried to look contrite. Life was better before I scoured acknowledgments for mentions of "composite" characters (FAKE people) or "condensed timelines" (FAKE series of events). Far sadder is knowing there are lives out there that don't need to be fixed to be incredible-but-true nonfiction. Welcome exceptions: Fiction authors who write purported memoirs that are completely fictional -- not new (one could argue Stein did it first) but a pleasant tonic nonetheless.

"Book Vs. Technology-Of-The-Week: There Can Only Be One!" stories: It's not good for journalism and its battle lines are completely fake. First, even the use of devices unrelated to reading isn't mutually exclusive with reading; no one's making me choose between my iPod and my library card. I'm not a linguist, but I'm fairly sure the creation of a hieroglyphic language didn't cause the Ancient Egyptians to stop talking to each other because they could just draw two reeds, a cane and an open palm instead. (COPYING ROSETTA STONE, BRB) On another level, I love to make fun of the Kindle and related devices, but if a person's reading on that, that's still reading. And I'm sure Kindle users still pick up a regular book from time to time. But maybe I feel that way because the Kindle and its ilk are nowhere close to replacing the mighty book. Maybe this story will have legs again in 10 years, but not before. Welcome exception: Infinite Summer and other projects that use blogs and Twitter to encourage, not stifle, conversation about books.

21 December 2009

Federico García Lorca is still dead, now also missing

Frig! It wasn't a mass grave after all: Archaeologists failed to find any human remains on the site where executed Spanish poet García Lorca was believed to be buried.

According to Spanish newspaper El País, researchers were relying on the account of a waiter who first came forth in 1956 to show an American visitor the gravesite (and who along the way somewhere picked up the nickname "The Communist"). A competing theory from the testimony of a jailer who witnessed his execution places his remains about 1400 feet away from where they've been digging now.

As one archaeologist on the project told the paper, "Basing ourselves on oral history and one informant is a mistake." No kidding.

20 December 2009

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

--C.P. Cavafy, "Ithaka"

19 December 2009

Does your favorite author have a new book coming out in 2010?

I haven't seen too many lists focused on next year yet, but several books on D.G. Myers' list, despite its dour title, made me delighted. Lot of big names on there, even if you leave off the two at the top.

18 December 2009

10 Classics That Mattered To Me In The Noughties

James Joyce, ULYSSES
F. Scott Fitzgerald, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE
Pedro Calderón de la Barca, LIFE IS A DREAM
Daniel J. Boorstin, THE IMAGE
William Faulkner, THE SOUND AND THE FURY

17 December 2009

Hey, remember when everyone used to talk about Generation X?

Details made a list of the 25 best Generation X books, representing "authors who composed their masterpieces on computers instead of Underwoods, and were affected more directly by Nintendo than Nagasaki." Oscar Wao makes an appearance, as do THE CORRECTIONS, EVERYTHING BAD IS GOOD FOR YOU, RANDOM FAMILY and A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN.

I guess it shouldn't be surprising that this list is way more enticing than I had expected when AMERICAN PSYCHO came up as the first title. (I liked it, but Bateman as a standard bearer was not promising.) Picking that Rick Perlstein book about Goldwater is a stroke of genius -- or I think it will be when I get around to reading it. But the notion of Gen-X, so beloved of '90s magazine writers (they're ruining everything! Wait, they're actually the best!), never gets aired out any more. By some researchers' stats the President would be a Gen-Xer (if you consider that the last members of the Baby Boom generation were born in 1960), but no one ever referred to his campaign as "the Gen-X campaign." You wouldn't, it would sound silly. It was such a powerful social term, and then it vanished.

So why publish this list now that the term has fallen out of favor somewhat? Well, Generation X writers have had time now to establish themselves. I didn't check to see if every author on there would fall into that demographic*, but to take two mentioned up there, both Junot Diaz and DFW had substantial gaps between first success and next major acclaimed work (11 and 9 years, respectively). If Details had made this list in 1996, DFW would have made it but Diaz probably wouldn't have on the strength of his first book alone.

A list of Generation Y writers made today would consist largely of prodigies -- or whatever you would call people who had been published at age 28 or under -- and perhaps not be representative of trends shared by the entire group. (And while we're on my generation, we reject the label "Millennials," as if being born in the '80s were akin to joining a cult and we're going to go all comet-eyed any minute, so stop trying to make fetch happen.)

*I checked the authors mentioned here -- Diaz b. 1968, Franzen b. 1959, Steven Johnson b. 1968, DFW b. 1962, Ellis b. 1964, Perlstein b. 1969. LeBlanc I couldn't confirm but she graduated from undergrad in '86 according to her website so we'll put her b. 1964. Franzen is probably over the line into late-Boomer, but that's a wavery line.

Holiday Gift Guide 2009: The Neiman Marcus Options

In honor of the annual celebration of decadence and (this year) host to the $200k "Algonquin round table experience."

The Complete Penguin Classics: "Only" $8,047 on Amazon (plus applicable storage charges) for 1,082 books encompassing the greatest works of Western literature. Fun fact: According to Amazon, the bestselling volume out of the bunch is John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH, which I happen to own in Penguin edition.

Cormac McCarthy's typewriter: Of course, that depends on whether the anonymous buyer who just picked it up for $254,000 at Christie's is willing to sell. On the other hand, he wrote THE ROAD and BLOOD MERIDIAN on it. P.S. It doesn't work.

Tiffany & Co. silver bookmark: So much classier than my usual "envelope the ConEd bill came in" accessory.

Anthropologie's A Rather Novel Collection fragrances: They smell like tea, not books, but this inaugural collection ($48 for each of 6 scents) comes in book-shaped packaging. In other words, they'll look great on your existing shelves.

Tickets to "Gatz" at the American Rep in Cambridge, Mass.: Gather 'round, your weirdo aunt is going to tell you a theatre story. Once upon a time, a Brooklyn-based theatre company wrote a 6-hour play in which THE GREAT GATSBY is read verbatim in a modern office setting. And there was much rejoicing, because it was supposed to be awesome. Then the Fitzgerald estate stepped in and said they couldn't do it in New York, because they'd given the rights to someone else, and the little would-be theatre critic went home and felt pretty fucking angry actually, which passion surprised her a little but that is Art, friends. Anyway, that company, Elevator Repair Service, went on to do that play (called "Gatz") in Philadelphia in 2007 to raves all around, and now they are doing it in Cambridge at the American Repertory Theatre Jan. 7-Feb. 7. You can buy tickets in two parts or see both sections of the play on one weekend day (that's what the little would-be theatre critic would do).

16 December 2009

Stereotypes save time?

The wackier this list of stereotypes by favorite author gets, the more I like it. Cormac McCarthy: "Men that don't eat cream cheese." Margaret Atwood: "Women whose favorite color is hunter green." Elmore Leonard: "People that know how to perform a 'Michigan left.'" (Looked it up, it is safe for work.)

Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Six Reading-Related Gifts That Aren't Books

I know, I know, why would you want anything else? Well, maybe you might have too many books, or have a stocking to fill.

A witty T-shirt -- "Hyperbole..." and "Irony" are particular favorites.

A Moleskine -- I know it's the bookworm hipster douchebag medium of choice, and it's not worth the money to switch exclusively. But I like the pocket ones for trips.

A donation to a local public library or literacy-minded charity -- I like First Book and Donors Choose. Both got 4 stars (of 4) from Charity Navigator.

Bananagrams -- one of my college roommates just raved about this word game, saying her whole family played it together. I wanted to put Penguin Bookchase in this space, but I couldn't find it available stateside (why) -- UK and European readers, play a vicarious round for me.

Glommets or glittens -- The mythic reading mittens I always wanted are not only in style, they have their own name. Suitable for turning pages or operating your smartphone. I'm constantly losing gloves which is why Santa puts some in my stocking every year. (From what I can tell, glommets and glittens are the same, but men's outlets will use the former term, women's the latter.) Basic black or striped with a matching scarf.

A wine and book pairing -- Technically this is cheating since it involves books, but the guidebook company The Little Bookroom teamed up with a wine store here in New York called Le Dû's to put together wine-and-book pairings. I'm not a connoisseur, but I think it's a super idea, albeit not cheap and they don't ship everywhere even in the 50 states due to some bullshit regulation. (I believe it was the Some Bullshit No Fun No Wine Act of 1920.) Try At the Bistro (4 books, 3 bottles) or La Douceur de Vivre (6 books, 3 bottles).

FTC cover-assery: I was not given any of this stuff to review. I bought the Irony shirt, and worse, I wear it.

Photo: Travelin' Librarian

15 December 2009

What books "Gossip Girl" viewers will be begging for this Christmas

Now here's something a little different, a best-of-'09 list from fictional character Dan Humphrey, who began life in the YA series by Cecily von Ziegesar and lives on in a form on the CW. If you don't watch "Gossip Girl" I won't bother to catch you up but suffice it to say Dan is the sensitive writer guy; in an earlier season he met Jay McInerney (playing himself). To the list, then:

First, he might have read THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU but it wouldn't be at #1.

Second, THE HELP? I've missed a few episodes this season, I must have skipped the one where he joins a middle-aged woman's book club in the South. Can we blame Hilary Duff for this?

Third, I have never heard of THE BLONDE OF THE JOKE, but now that I've looked it up let's drop something well above his pay grade in there like GENEROSITY: AN ENHANCEMENT. No, wait, come to think of it, Dan would totally be an Infinite Summerer. Takes one to know one.

Fourth (and somewhat related to the last) is that while I believe he would read THE BELIEVERS, I doubt he'd really be able to grasp the subtlety of same. Despite everything the show writers do to convince us he's smart (having him, for example, publish a story in the New Yorker of the exploits of one "Charlie Trout"), he's basically Finn from "Glee" with sideburns. Let's just say I don't have a picture of him on my fridge.

Despite all this, as presented I believe he would wade through all these books, consider it due diligence and go back to moping. And if loyal viewers are moved to get these books, that can only be good.

Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Books for the Current Climate

Memoir, schmemoir: Here are some new (or newish) nonfiction books that caught my eye this year, all topical, mostly serious. Just like the dude at left, who is reading MASTER OF THE SENATE.

Jane Mayer, THE DARK SIDE. I've read some of Mayer's dispatches in the New Yorker, but this National Book Award Finalist account is supposed to be eye-opening. And now that it's not annoying me in the news every day, it's past time to confront the legacy of Dick Cheney.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY. This Washington Post reporter's work on contractors gone amok in L. Paul Bremer's Iraq has been developed into a Matt Damon-starring thriller in theatres early next year.

Nick Reding, METHLAND: THE DEATH AND LIFE OF AN AMERICAN SMALL TOWN. Investigative reporter Reding had a hard time even finding a publisher for his report on middle American drug culture; then he got a cover review in the New York Times. Might not want to read it in front of your Sarah Palin-loving relatives but it's supposed to be excellent.

Chris Hedges, EMPIRE OF ILLUSION: THE END OF LITERACY AND THE TRIUMPH OF SPECTACLE. Not sure how this July release slid past me given my love of a good polemic. Hedges argues that in its quest to continually entertain, American society has become meaningless and morally bankrupt. Maybe I'll want to throw this book across the room when I'm finished, but it seems like a chance worth taking.

Liaquat Ahamed's LORDS OF FINANCE: THE BANKERS WHO BROKE THE WORLD won the Financial Times-Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award, and even if you find the title a bit histrionic the subject sounds fascinating. It also comes out in paperback on the 29th, in case your recipient prefers that.

FTC cover-assery: I got IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY as a gift, but I can't remember from whom.

Photo: gwilmore

14 December 2009

Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Funny? Funny!

I love to laugh -- it's getting worse every year. All the books I singled out that make you laugh would make great gifts, but here are five more I read this year that made me laugh.

Jeff Martin, MY DOG ATE MY NOBEL PRIZE. Martin spoofs fatuous memoirs (other memoir mentioned in this post not included in this body of work) by making a series of bigger and bigger claims, describing a life chronically undisturbed by failure. And reviewing it this summer gave me the opportunity to quote my favorite H.L. Mencken passage of all time.

Hadley Freeman, THE MEANING OF SUNGLASSES. I'm not positive that this is the funniest book about fashion ever, but since I haven't read any others that even attempt to be funny, I will go ahead and so garland it. The Guardian writer's perspective in this book, organized as an A to Z list of various sartorial topics, is that you can follow fashion and want to dress well while acknowledging the inherent ridiculousness of trends and rules; an Amazon reviewer described its audience as people who "are more concerned with the perfect sentence than the perfect shoe." Get a sense of her tone by reading her columns -- a recent one on cankles I thought was pretty witty.

Alison Lurie, FOREIGN AFFAIRS. I took this book on vacation not fully remembering why I sought it out, but I knew it was about a woman who goes on a trip and I figured if it wasn't good I could just take a nap. It turned out to be a satire of Americans abroad through the misadventures of two professors on sabbatical in London, stewing in their own prejudices, falling in love with the wrong people and not getting any work done. Virginia Miner, one of the professors, is one of those characters who is so painfully true to life you hate her, and then you hate to leave her.

Nathan Rabin, THE BIG REWIND. I am fully compromised on this pick via the AV Club connection, but this was one of my favorite memoirs of the year. It's incredibly painful at times, but also incredibly funny, where the humor acts as a sort of balm to the reliving of uncomfortable experiences. As suggested by the subtitle "A Memoir Brought To You By Pop Culture," you may also pick up a good movie or album recommendation here too.

Andy Zaltzman, DOES ANYTHING EAT BANKERS? AND 53 OTHER INDISPENSABLE QUESTIONS FOR THE CREDIT CRUNCHED. Okay, I'm asking for this one for Christmas, so I can't guarantee that it will be hilarious. But Zaltzman cohosts my favorite podcast of the moment and his topical British humor can't be beat. Since he never does stand-up in the U.S., this will have to suffice.

FTC cover-assery: I got a copy of MY DOG ATE MY NOBEL PRIZE from Soft Skull to review. I think I got FOREIGN AFFAIRS and THE MEANING OF SUNGLASSES on BookMooch. I bought THE BIG REWIND.

Graphic: LOLerature

13 December 2009

Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Books for a Long Winter's Nap

Had we but world enough and time, we might spend the rest of the winter hibernating and racking up some substantial page counts. None of us have the time, I know, but you might enjoy a good thick book anyway. Consider it a vote of confidence in your recipient's reading abilities or a way to say, "I love you so much I don't want you to be bored, ever." I set the cut-off line for these completely arbitrarily at 500 pages, though your scale for what makes a long book long may be slightly different.

THE COLLECTED STORIES OF LYDIA DAVIS. This is on my list because after reading James Wood's essay on her I'd really like to get into her work. Despite tipping the scales at over 700 pages, the edition is as relatively compact as her stories.

Roberto Bolaño, 2666. Just in time for Infinite Summer's group read starting in January! I have come to terms with my shame that this book could not go on my best-of-the-noughties list (as commenters far and wide demanded). That it's in paperback now is a bonus for carrying it back from wherever you are spending your non-denominational holiday time.

Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL (also a write-in from Wade Garrett) was named Time's top fiction book of the year and won the Booker Prize. I haven't read it yet but a common theme running through the reviews I've read is how immersive it is for a book about such well known figures as Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. And while we're making ill-informed judgments, I love its cover design.

Stieg Larsson, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO/ THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE. The message of this pair of Swedish crime thrillers starring a disgraced journalist and the country's best hacker is, "I love you but I more or less don't want you to get any sleep until you finish these." Need to make it better? If your recipient once saved your life or something, try getting hold of a copy of the third book in this series, THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST. It won't be published in the U.S. until May but can be had on Amazon for, as of this writing, $22 used. ETA: I was on the phone with my mom this morning and she revealed that she just bought HORNET'S NEST, confounding my good gift intentions for her but giving me yet another reason to look forward to coming home. I don't say this lightly, but: OMG.

Glen David Gold's SUNNYSIDE. Recently I had to name my top two books of 2009, and SUNNYSIDE (which I reviewed for the AV Club back in May) missed that bracket by a hair. Sprawling novels evoking the spirit of an age through a string of unrelated characters who are destined to somehow be connected are in vogue right now, but this one does it right, and gloriously.

David Foster Wallace, INFINITE JEST. How can I not recommend this after spending three months with it? I realize now I never wrote a concluding post on that experience, and I guess my only defense could be that in some way I feel as though I'm not finished with the book -- that its effect on me is still taking hold. I know it's daunting, but you're up to the challenge. It's not too late.

FTC cover-assery: With my work for the AV Club I received copies of SUNNYSIDE and the two published Larsson books from Knopf to review. I bought my copy of INFINITE JEST three years ago, even though I let it incubate on my shelf after that.

Photo: it's my own invention via fyeahreading

12 December 2009

Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Books About Reading, Writing And Writers

Let's kick this off with the books you're most likely to want to buy for yourself if you are reading this blog. Don't do it. Think about how surprised your reading-mad relatives and friends will be when you pull out something stellar like these five-plus entries.

Elizabeth Benedict, MENTORS, MUSES AND MONSTERS: 30 WRITERS ON THE PEOPLE WHO CHANGED THEIR LIVES. I love a good thick biography but these anthologies scratch the same itch with their snapshot versions. I'd love to know what Jane Smiley found at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, or what it was like for Joyce Carol Oates to meet her rival and actually like him. As with all books you want to give around this time of year, this is the kind of volume you'll want to keep around.

Haruki Murakami, WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING. This is not an accident, this book is as much about the Japanese author's career in letters as it is his penchant for marathons and triathlons. While occasionally self-contradictory, Murakami's startlingly personal memoir explores how his hobby feeds his work because, as he writes, "when we use writing to create a story a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it."

Shahriar Mandanipour, CENSORING AN IRANIAN LOVE STORY. This book, another James Wood-approved pick, presents itself as a novel written by a Tehran college student which has been pre-censored (but not indecipherably) by the authorities. I'm captivated by the unconventional form and the opportunity to get to know Mandanipour (an exiled Iranian film critic) through his first novel being translated into English.

Heidi Julavits, Ed Park and Vendela Vida (ed.), READ HARD: FIVE YEARS OF GREAT WRITING FROM THE BELIEVER. Collection of essays from everyone's favorite anti-snark McSweeney's project. **Bonus 2008 Re-Run** As long as a few people I know have not read them yet I will keep recommending and giving Nick Hornby's Believer essay collections. I only wish he'd kept up the column so they didn't have to end. (I finished the last one, SHAKESPEARE WROTE FOR MONEY, in January.)

THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS, VOLS. I-IV. Frankly, I haven't been that good this year; one volume a year for the next four Christmases would probably be fair. And I might need that long to absorb the wealth of interviews in this box set. Maud Newton writes for NPR that the collection "enables us to continue believing that the authors we revere are effortlessly wise and entertaining."

FTC cover-assery: I got the Murakami book from the library and I bought all the Nick Hornby books. Seriously: so good.

Photo: Detail from tofuttibreak

11 December 2009

Books at the movies this weekend

It's a great time of year to be a book readin' person going to the movies. "The Lovely Bones" is here as previously mentioned and the Clint Eastwood-directed movie "Invictus" is also based on a book (John Carlin's PLAYING THE ENEMY). But here are a few smaller flicks you might not have heard about:

"A Single Man" is based on a Christopher Isherwood novel about a day in the life of a gay middle-aged college professor (played by Colin Firth). He's supposed to be great in it although the reviews are mixed. I haven't heard anything about "The Last Station," a movie about Tolstoy and his wife starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, but the names alone (also involved, James McAvoy and Paul Giamatti) have me curious. Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" isn't about a writer but follows a production of "Julius Caesar" in 1930s New York.

Also, since the movie described is expanding to more screens, here's Walter Kirn's spoiler-free essay on "Up In The Air," "George Clooney Saved My Novel." If that doesn't get him Sexiest Man Alive 2010, who knows what will.

10 December 2009

Worst. Decade. Ever.

Is it time to stop celebrating everything the Noughties gave us? No, but the Guardian flips the script and asks for people's least favorite books of the past decade. There are some amazing zingers in the comments, like someone referring to "The Shite Runner" (Brits!), but to be fair a lot of books I love are coming up as well.

For me there's a real chasm between books I hated and books that simply weren't worth my time in retrospect. I know I just ripped on THE DA VINCI CODE, but when I read it I didn't turn every page thinking "God, why hast thou cursed us with this book?" (I'm Midwestern, not a Pilgrim.) It was like watching "The Rock" on TV; there were better things I could have been doing with my time than spending those two hours on the couch, but hey, I was mildly entertained, it gave me something to talk about with other people and after two hours it was over. (The "Da Vinci Code" movie, on the other hand, I regret every minute of, because I was expecting it to be funny-bad and it was just bad.)

This is a reminder to myself to do a full post of these, but let me just say, any article that calls Ian McEwan's ON CHESIL BEACH one of the worst books of the decade is crazy.

09 December 2009

This post might need to disappear later

This publication has been sitting on a desk at work for a few months, and every day my resolve not to ask the owner of that desk about it weakens a little. I've been doing my anti-snark breathing, but it isn't working! Someone send me laryngitis!

Filmbook: "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009)

This has been the season of fiction authors I love writing nonfiction books and directors I really like making children's movies. While I want to reward both for stretching outside their comfort zones, there's a greater potential for disappointment in each.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is definitely a Wes Anderson movie first and a children's movie second, and I think I liked it better that way. For me, this movie was a great escape: I went in fretting about whatever it is I normally fret about and walked out 90 minutes later with a smile on my face. Beautifully composed with dollhouse-level details, witty without resorting to topical jokes (that's for you, "The Squeakuel" trailer we had to sit through first), stacked with solid voice work -- it was strong on all fronts, even if I don't think I'll be watching it over and over like Anderson's others.

Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah "Minor Dickens" Baumbach did a fair amount of re-arranging on the original Roald Dahl book; Mr. Fox gets an opossum sidekick I didn't remember from the book (seen above), and his four children are condensed into one, Ash, a neurotic teenager voiced by Jason Schwartzman in the Schwartzmanest role he has ever Schwartzmanned. Mr. Fox's theft gets a backstory as well as a B-plot in the form of Ash feeling deprived of his dad's attention when cousin Kristofferson comes to stay with the Foxes. The screenwriters also add to the ending substantially, but I won't spoil that for you here.

I wouldn't call it inappropriate for children (except for the peril of having to explain to your kid what the rat calling Mrs. Fox "the town tart" means), but I can see how they would get bored, and maybe even a little scared once the Foxes go toe to toe with Boggis, Bunce and Bean. As for the Wes Anderson humor, some of it will go over their heads, but then again some people in my (kid-free) audience weren't laughing either.

I was surprised that Anderson managed to keep "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" mostly within his comfort zone; Dana Stevens wrote about the movie in Slate that "the Anderson tics that threaten to get in the way of his storytelling in live-action films serve as assets here," and while I like the director more than she does, I do think this one plays to his strengths in a kind of unique way. It may yet sneak onto my top 10 of the year, although I have a lot of movies to catch up on before making that call.

FTC cover-assery: I paid for this ticket myself, but because I signed up for MovieWatcher 800 years ago, I now have a free ticket to burn off in the next three weeks. If I'm going to use it on a literary depress-o-fest this weekend, should I go for "The Road" or "The Lovely Bones"? I like the former book better, if that helps.

Still: ign.com

08 December 2009

Some notables are more notable than others

Fresh on the heels of its list of 100 notable books of the year, the New York Times recognized your attention span is too short to appreciate it and made a new list of the 10 best books of '09. Two of the six books I singled out made the cut, A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN and CHRONIC CITY. (I also requested HALF BROKE HORSES and RAYMOND CARVER: A WRITER'S LIFE to review, but didn't get either. Scribner, are we not friends any more? Is this about what happened in Valencia?)

Funny thing about CHRONIC CITY, though: Jonathan Lethem's latest received two reviews from the Times, one from editor Gregory Cowles in the Sunday Book Review and another from big-name critic Michiko Kakutani. Cowles' was positive, calling it "astonishing" and praising its "beautiful drunken sentences," but Kakutani's was first and negative, concluding that it was "lame and unsatisfying." A few books every year get this treatment, but normally the review people remember is the most timely one.

My own review (which can be read here) is closer to Kakutani's than Cowles', but in promoting the book to the top 10 I sense a little skirmish among the Gray Lady's luminaries. Was a tie-breaker brought in? Did Sam Tanenhaus administer an arm-wrestling bout for that contested spot? I picture the disgruntled critic, having been overruled by her boss, storming back to her office, slamming the door and taking the whiskey bottle out of the bottom drawer before prank-calling Philip Roth and Photoshopping Thomas Pynchon's Naval portrait onto the bodies of World's Strongest Man competitors.

But I'm letting my imagination run away from me. If you've read one of the other books on the list that you'd like to speak up for, the floor is yours.

A benevolent dictatorship at worst

In a way, I was disappointed that John Freeman's THE TYRANNY OF E-MAIL failed to convince me of the dangers of e-mail, although I ultimately agreed with some of his points. Yes, the irregularity of e-mail can make it strangely addictive, and yes, it can be very distracting. But I wasn't sold on the case that those were the faults of the medium which therefore should be used sparingly. Perhaps Freeman's argument would have been more convincing had he not started with a history of mail from cuneiform tablets of empire to the postcard, which I was happy to learn was the last medium fated to ruin American literacy forever -- which is to say, when this section wasn't dry, it didn't help him build his case. Nor did anecdotes about celebrities' marriages breaking up because they told national magazines they brought their BlackBerrys to bed with them.

Freeman concludes the book by offering tips, but those, too, have their weaknesses. His first tip is never to send an e-mail unless it's absolutely necessary, a rule that, conservatively, I have broken at least six times today already. (That spirited debate on the Best One-Hit Wonders Of The Naughties, however, was necessary.) There are many times when an e-mail is not the most efficient method of getting what you need, but the medium can be a joy and a comfort -- what of those? Writing in Slate about Thomas Mallon's new book on letters, Megan Marshall paraphrases V.S. Naipaul's plea to his sister into "Please keep me alive with your e-mails," terming it "an appeal only Google could love." I don't think that's the case. A message can be very much needed without being necessary.

Sure, I probably check my e-mail too often and get distracted by it when I do, but I think I can moderate my own exposure to it. That said, if you believe you have an e-mail problem, I suggest this alternate reading list. Disclaimer: I am not an expert (or while we're at it an editor at a well regarded literary magazine, as Freeman is), nor am I particularly well organized.

If you are short on time, read Merlin Mann's articles on Inbox Zero which encourage ruthlessly dealing with every e-mail you get and not treating your inbox like an urgent to-do list. (I believe this is the subject of his forthcoming book as well). If you have a little more time, read Julie Morgenstern's NEVER CHECK E-MAIL IN THE MORNING, focusing specifically on work productivity and how to get more done in your day. If you think your problem is more systemic than with just your e-mail, read Liz Davenport's ORDER FROM CHAOS. She's a professional organizer, but not the kind that will encourage you to go out and buy a bunch of bins or folders for your existing junk, more of the kind that will help you determine what parts of your existing junk will help you get more done.

FTC cover-assery: I got THE TYRANNY OF E-MAIL from the library; I had checked out the Morgenstern book when I read it a while back and I bought the Davenport book. I got my first e-mail address in 1997. Hotmail, naturally.

07 December 2009

Once, when Amy and I were fourteen, the three of us were getting out of the car after a trip to the mall. The neighbor woman, who was out watering her yard, saw the shopping bags and asked what we'd bought. Amy showed off her new candy-colored sweater and her hoop earrings and hot pink pants. The woman congratulated Amy. She then turned to me, pointing at the rectangular bulge protruding from the small brown bag in my hand. I reluctantly pulled out my single purchase -- a hardback of THE GRAPES OF WRATH. My mother looked at the neighbor, rolled her eyes in my direction, and stage-whispered, "We're going through a book phase."

It's such a hopeful, almost utopian word, that word "phase." As if any minute "we" would suffer some sort of Joad overload, come to "our" senses, and for heaven's sake, do something about our godforsaken shoes. But the book phase never ended.
--Sarah Vowell, "American Goth" (from TAKE THE CANNOLI)

06 December 2009

Notes of irritation

For those of you who thought I would break my streak, in the words of former president Calvin Coolidge, "You lose." That said, these are all remnants unworthy of being turned into posts of their own:
  • Re. the FTC blogger crackdown: The way I understand the rules, I don't have to disclose any book I don't specifically get from a publisher or author for the purpose of reviewing on this blog. But I think I'm going to try massively over-disclosing for a while, so the FTC gets bored and go away. (Joke!) You probably don't care whether I got a book from BookMooch or as a birthday present or from the library, but maybe you do. Also, despite what some bloggers who have gotten thousands of dollars of freebies have whined, it's not that hard.
  • Don't you hate it when the lyrics of the song you're listening to have a very glaring grammatical error in them, the type that rankles every time you listen to it? I'm thinking of one in particular where making it correct would not affect the rhyme scheme or melody at all, but fill in your own example. (ETA: This is exactly the one I was talking about.)
  • I strongly feel there should be a term for a superhero's sole weakness that is not his/her/its Kryptonite or Achilles' heel. Even in metaphor I find those too specific. If you prefer, put it like this: Imagine you are taking superheroes with a group with no knowledge of the Trojan War and only the most basic knowledge of Superman -- how do you address this? Surely there is a lexicon.
  • Speaking of creating words, I don't normally get indignant about nouns that have been converted into verbs, but I have to call out Markus Zusak's THE BOOK THIEF for this sentence: "Every night, Liesel would nightmare." Was it really necessary to use that over "have a nightmare"? At some point an editor must have said "Hey, just because this book was a best-seller in Australia doesn't mean we need to let it run rampant over the rules of grammar." (So saith a person who uses the word "unbooken" regularly.)

05 December 2009

NYC: WORD's Holiday Open House

Booksellers everywhere will be nervously watching the till this December to end the retail fiscal year on a high note. WORD in Greenpoint has one of the most original ideas I've seen so far: They're having local authors come in today and tomorrow to sign their books for your giftee. Today, pick up and personalize A.J. Jacobs' THE GUINEA PIG DIARIES or Amy Braunschweiger's TAXI CONFIDENTIAL (1-3PM); tomorrow, conspicuously show your copy of INFINITE JEST to Lev Grossman (3-5PM), whose book THE MAGICIANS I still haven't read but I hear is just great.

What's a book you got signed that you treasure?

04 December 2009

Your Friday afternoon entertainment: Help Goodreads pick its best books of the year in the book-centric social networking site's massive poll. It's not clear how they picked the nominees in each category, especially when it breaks down into genre, but still fun.

If they were really smart, though, they'd only let you vote for books you had marked as read in your account. I made a few uninformed choices -- I wasn't actually aware, for example, that Michael Ian Black had written a children's book before now.

And they all fell under their spell

"Puritanism had landed smack on that rock and after regaining its strength at the expense of the soft-hearted Indians had thrown its steeples and stone walls all across Connecticut, leaving Rhode Island to the Quakers and Jews and antinomians and women."

I cannot lie, I picked up this book because of TV. As mentioned in my library queue post, I had to watch the pilot of "Eastwick," which I enjoyed slightly at best, and began to question that this premise had fueled not only a novel but also a movie, a play, a musical and two TV pilots prior to this one. The show has since been canceled, but I resolved not to judge author John Updike's work based on, for example, being asked to pretend that Lindsay Price is unattractive when she has her hair up and her glasses on. (Come on!)

The first surprise waiting for me in THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK was that it was set in my former home state of Rhode Island. The second, that this book is very funny and cutting. And the third, that this book isn't really about witches at all. You already knew that, because you're smart, but I'm just getting there now.

It's true that Alexandra, Jane and Sukie, three friends in the bucolic town of Eastwick, are all witches. But their neighbors don't suspect and dislike them because of their powers, but rather because they're all divorcées rumored to be sleeping with some of the town's married men. In fact, they all are, and continue to do so after the appearance of wealthy stranger Daryl Van Horne, who -- spoiler, because I feel like it -- embarks on separate affairs with all three after a Halloween night to remember in which they all get high and have a foursome in his custom hot tub. (Speaking of Bad Sex in Fiction though! Like the other sex scenes in the book, I found this one alternately funny and over-detailed; I think the author goes out of his way to make them untitillating.)

While carrying a moderate load of scorn for the radicalism outside their borders, especially after one of their lovers runs away with a teenage girl and goes underground, the witches participate in it in this trickle-down capacity, mostly heedless of the consequences until their arrangement with Van Horne goes awry. Updike attributes this to their desire to heal others, which I read as a fairly tongue-in-cheek summation of their own justifications for the affairs, although from reading around I see the debate over how the author really regards these women has been going on more or less since it was published. In some ways, they're far ahead of their fellow citizens, but prove to be just as petty and mean as them when they have to be.

Maybe it's embarrassingly on the nose to use images of witchcraft to portray these three working single mothers, standard bearers of feminist change -- and in case you don't get it, Updike finally delivers the sanctimonious stay-at-home mother saying of them, "I don't know why those women bother to go on living, whores to half the town and not even getting paid. And those poor neglected children of theirs, it's a positive crime." (To be fair, her husband was having an affair with one of them.) But I thought it was clever. This book in fact spills over with cleverness; one potent image contained both a dirty joke and a semiotician's dream of an analogy. The author flirts with obviousness -- a late scene set in a church contains a Randishly pompous, interminable speech -- but doesn't fall in love with it.

My exposure to Updike before this has been slim but I own RABBIT, RUN and am looking forward to checking out more of his books. At the same time, I'm not all that curious about the 1987 movie or the 2008 sequel to this book, THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK; I guess I'm satisfied with the ending of the story as presented here.

FTC cover-assery: This was a library book and the back cover copy (this edition) calls it a "hexy, sexy novel." Oh, the wrongness.

03 December 2009

Holiday Gift Guide 2009 is coming...

Stuck on what to buy for your book-loving friends and family? Let me help you with that! I did a holiday gift guide last year and it was so fun I'm doing it again next week (although radio component is pending) combining books I have read and liked with books that generally intrigue me.

It's earlier than last year's not because of the inexorable march of holiday consumerism, but rather to motivate me to get my holiday shopping done earlier.

Know what you're giving already? Would love to hear your suggestions. Shameless plugs are welcome but (since we have now entered into the era of FTC cover-assery) only in the "I/ My friend/ employer/ Twitter follower wrote a book," not in the paid product placement sense.

Photo: witheyes

November Unbookening

Checked out 6 from the library
Received 5 to review
Borrowed 5
Bought 1
Received 2 from BookMooch
19 in

Returned 6 to the library
Gave 3 away
Donated 5
Returned 1
Lent 3
Left 1 behind en route
19 out

Photo of a Swiss art installation: timtom

02 December 2009

It's an upset!

Prix Goncourt winner Jonathan Littell snuck past Philip Roth to take the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex in Fiction award for a passage in his novel THE KINDLY ONES, joining an exclusive club of winners like Tom Wolfe and John Updike.

Unlike the Bulwer-Lytton, there's really no way to quote these here in their horrifying glory, but having read all the very NSFW passages from the longlist, I'm not sure they gave it to the right man.
Not one person in a hundred keeps to a reading regimen. Every American over the age of thirty-five exercises regularly, or feels volubly guilty about not doing so. But almost no one approaches middle age with the ambition of getting around to George Eliot at last. Ask someone his favorite kind of food and he will answer as if he’d been waiting to be asked; his list will be ranked and comprehensively annotated. Ask him about his favorite genre and he won’t even bother to look puzzled; he will laugh at you.
-- D.G. Myers, "What have you been reading?" I realize I'm showing my youth by saying this, but I will not grow old to be like that, I will not. Now I'll stop before I sound any more like a 12-year-old about to get grounded.

01 December 2009

Three funny things and one amazing

McSweeney's: Terrible Poetry Jokes

Quantz: "It's DEFINITELY time for me to fix the great works of fiction!"

Hark! A Vagrant: Hipsters Ruin Everything, Part 1 (it's germane, trust me)

YouTube via Like Fire: Silent film footage of Mark Twain from 1909, shot by Thomas Edison.

NYC: A.V. Club Reading December 7

I'll just point out at the top here that I am massively biased. While I didn't contribute to the A.V. Club's new collection of "obsessively specific pop-culture lists," the authors include my Wrapped Up in Books co-panelists, former and current bosses and people I look up to in general.

So it's for them, not for me that I beg you to come to the book tour's only NYC stop next Monday, December 7 and let these very, very funny people entertain you for free. It's at 8PM at Union Hall (702 Union St., Brooklyn) and yes, there will be a Q&A afterwards.

If you don't live here, you can still buy and enjoy the book.

30 November 2009

Times' Notable Books of 2009: Already?

So while I was out, the New York Times dropped its massive list of the most notable books of the year. Accountability first: I have read six of these and they are, in order of appearance (fiction then nonfiction, alphabetical by title): CHRONIC CITY, THE LITTLE STRANGER, A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN, THE SONG IS YOU, THE LOST CITY OF Z and ZEITOUN. That is not very many -- one less than last year, in fact -- but it gives me a lot of ideas of what I want to read! (I've never even heard of ASTERIOS POLYP or HORSE SOLDIERS, to give two examples.)

I haven't made my personal best-of-the-year list, although (plug alert!) I already participated in a best-of-the-decade selection. Frankly I'm still recovering from being in that smoke-filled room for so long. Next to that I think reckoning with '09 will be a cakewalk, though as soon as I do I will read a book that blows me over completely and want to retract everything I've been saying about The State Of Literature. But in fairness, I always want to have that experience... the closing of the decade has nothing to do with it.

The Times' decade list has not appeared yet, but if you are the type to have a favorite critic, Michiko, Dwight and Janet have all put up their top tens of this year for you to judge as you will.

Back from the not so wild West

Months since leaving New York before last week: Almost 4.

Books packed: 6
Hours spent on flights each way: 6.5, approx.
Books left in airports or on airplanes: 1
Books lent to other members of the family: 1
Books borrowed from family members: 2, THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING and THE BIG BURN

Books bought: 0.
Books read: 4.

Adaptations watched of books I haven't read: 2 ("The Blind Side" and "The Men Who Stare At Goats" -- guess which one made me want to read the source material more?)
Adaptations not watched of books I have read: 1 ("The Time Traveler's Wife" was showing on the plane; I am mildly curious, since I liked the book.)

Books I saw people reading on my last flight (an incomplete study):
  • Arundhati Roy, THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS
  • Terry Pratchett, NIGHT WATCH
  • Nicholas Sparks, DEAR JOHN
  • Martin Amis, TIME'S ARROW
  • Patrick Tyler, A WORLD OF TROUBLE
  • William P. Young, THE SHACK

29 November 2009

All sewn up

It may not have won a National Book Award, but I still recommend you read David Small's memoir STITCHES, a book I was surprised to find on the new-release shelf at my local branch library on my last trip. It's unfair to level this criterion against all books, but it's hard to find something this powerful that can also be wrapped up in a day's commute or less.

Small depicts himself growing up in the Detroit area in a household bare of affection and almost all communication except the rhythmic slamming of doors. His idea of "fun" is sneaking up to the wards he's not allowed to go into in the hospital where his dad works. Frequently ill as a child, he goes into the hospital as a teenager for what he is told is a benign growth removal; two surgeries later, he has lost most of his vocal chords, forced to contribute to the house's sullen silence and to discover, in a letter he wasn't meant to see, what was really wrong with him.

Where Alison Bechdel loads her illustrations with text including layers of literary references, Small's style is closer to last year's Caldecott winner THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, which sought to recreate the magic of early film (and the lives of its creators) in illustrations. (That said, there are two very clever allusions here to appreciate, one connected with the harrowing page 211, my favorite panels I never want to look at again.) Small's illustrations toy with scale and the process of imagination to capture that childhood feeling when things are happening around you that you aren't quite old enough to process yourself. FUN HOME gave me the feeling that I could find Bechdel's childhood house using her pictures, but even if Small's buildings were more detailed I wouldn't want to go looking for them; his world is a little Edward Hopper, but more Edvard Munch.

As for the question of whether or not it should have been categorized as YA -- it could have gone either way, but the publisher was probably right to put it where it would face less competition, even if it didn't pay off. (From the previous paragraph, FUN HOME would definitely be adult, HUGO CABRET YA or even middle-grade children's.) Normally books are bumped up to adult because either the language or the content are too sophisticated; there isn't really a case for the former, and for the latter, I don't think it's out of reach for teenagers. What happens to Small is definitely not a "teen issue" in the after-school special sense, but that doesn't mean it should be kept from that age group either. I can't remember where I saw this, but Small said in an interview that he wanted to wait until his parents were dead to publish this book; he drew this short but striking graphic essay for Publishers Weekly about the process.

Panel from STITCHES: Galleycat

28 November 2009

Opening this weekend: The apocalypse!

"The Road" is finally out after over a year in delays -- bad, very bad sign, but tell me this trailer doesn't clutch at your heart:

It's an action movie for the art house! Then again, a special operative for this blog went to see it on Thanksgiving Eve with his folks and gave it a review of "Meh" which was not in any case the reaction I had expected someone to have to it.

For those of you who prefer slightly smaller scale disruption, Rebecca Miller's adaptation of her own novel THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE is also out, featuring Robin Wright Penn as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

27 November 2009

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style

It's the official Curmudgeons Admit The Start Of The Christmas Season day. I can't lie, I love the trappings, looking in windows of stores where I never shop and inhaling peppermint bark and watching the Claymation Christmas Special for the 475th time (and doing the latter two things sacked out on the couch with my siblings, reminiscing about the year the twins were young enough to fit into their stockings, or the year my sister got sick and begged for a Chia Pet, or the year my dad kept pulling relatives aside during dinner to watch "A Special Christmas Box").

One of the holiday chores we would typically be doing the day after Thanksgiving is getting out the box of Christmas movies and books. I try to re-read David Sedaris' HOLIDAYS ON ICE and the first two chapters of LITTLE WOMEN every year. For picture books you can't go wrong with HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (best read aloud in Boris Karloff voice), THE POLAR EXPRESS or the edition of THE NUTCRACKER with the almost-too-scary Sendak illustrations in it. What's your favorite holiday book?

(Sorry this list is so Christmas-centric; despite working in a hillel I don't know of any Hanukkah books. Please pitch in and correct my ignorance.)

Since today is also Buy Nothing Day, here are the free full texts of "The Gift of the Magi" and A CHRISTMAS CAROL; you can also listen to Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries" radio pieces (my first ever exposure to him) here.

Still from "Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas": GeekUSA

26 November 2009

Books cited in Zadie Smith's new essay collection, CHANGING MY MIND

(An incomplete list)
  • George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH
  • THE BBC TALKS OF E.M. FORSTER, 1929-1960
  • Roland Barthes, "The Death Of The Author" and THE PLEASURE OF THE TEXT
  • Kingsley Amis, "No More Parades"
  • Vladimir Nabokov, LECTURES ON LITERATURE
  • Franz Kafka, LETTER TO MY FATHER
  • Joseph O'Neill, NETHERLAND
  • Tom McCarthy, REMAINDER
Giving thanks for reading that begets reading!

25 November 2009

Reading on the Road: Giving thanks for paperbacks edition

In terms of surviving long flights and delays there is no better technology. Four of these are paperbacks, which is good enough:
Jonathan Miles, DEAR AMERICAN AIRLINES (already started, haven't had time to finish even though it is really short and debatably a waste of space)
Malcolm Gladwell, WHAT THE DOG SAW
James Dickey, TO THE WHITE SEA (Wrapped Up in Books)
Tom Mendocino, PROBATION (review)
I know, still too many, but I have two long travel days and this should help. (I'll be in the land of sketchy WiFi, although this blog will continue to magically write itself until I can find a signal.) If you're going somewhere for the holiday, what are you taking with you?

Photo: fabiovenni

24 November 2009

I guess it could be a compliment...

If a critic writes of an author, "You don't read a novel by [author] so much as you give in to one... You read on to be free of it. You read on because you must," is she paying a compliment or giving him an expert backhand? You be the judge, because my feeling about this author is infecting my perspective.

Speaking of infecting, I'm still sick. I'm not a doctor but I'm pretty sure that it's the first recorded female case of Man Cold.

23 November 2009

I don't have any court documents to back up this observation, but yesterday I saw James Frey at my favorite neighborhood brunch place. He probably just had coffee and called it brunch.

ETA: I'm super sick today, and I think we all know whose fault it is (although he likely had nohing to do with it). What else would you like to blame on James Frey?