30 June 2009

"She wasn't wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble, which those birds usually aren't"

From commenter Elizabeth: The Washington Post quotes from the winners of this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the worst opening sentence to an imaginary novel. (Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote "It was a dark and stormy night" for the opening to his very real novel PAUL CLIFFORD.) Read all the winners and dishonorable mentions, including implied atrocities against ham and a "royal spittle reader," here.

My favorite teacher in elementary school once assigned us to write stories based on the pictures and one-line captions in Chris van Allsburg's THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK; could not a high school teacher struggling with what to do in the last few days of the term ask students to write the rest of the story from these groaners?

(Title from the detective winner with this noir roarer: "She walked into my office on legs as long as one of those long-legged birds that you see in Florida - the pink ones, not the white ones - except that she was standing on both of them, not just one of them, like those birds, the pink ones, and she wasn't wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble, which those birds usually aren't." - Eric Rice, Sun Prairie, WI)

If your book can stand, let it.

If publishing a book is like having a child, author Alice Hoffman this week played the playground mom who interrupts a classic and voluntary game of "tag" to punch out the child playing "IT" for the crime of chasing her child. I was never any damn good at tag, nor have I published a book, but I get the feeling neither should involve real or virtual punching.

Hoffman, a popular novelist best known for PRACTICAL MAGIC, got a negative review for her latest book THE STORY SISTERS from Roberta Silman of the Boston Globe, who said it "lacks the spark of the earlier work" although deeper into it her "heart lifted" and there were "wonderful passages." The author counter-attacked on Twitter (@AliceHof, since deleted), attacking Silman's credentials ("any idiot can be a critic"), Boston and anyone telling her to be quiet, before posting Silman's phone number and e-mail address. Oops!

Even though she was clearly upset, Hoffman would probably not agree that no book reviews ever should be negative -- just not hers. But the old argument about grade inflation applies: If I give every book an A, then an A is meaningless. (Conversely, as in "Men on Film," every book getting a "Hated it!" would make the phrase meaningless; that's what separates us from Dale Peck.) A hateful review is not "a love letter," as Hoffman's straw man alleges; not every piece of mail is a love letter, which is what makes love letters all the more unique.*

Hoffman can say "Silman's opinion means nothing to me," and welcome she is to it, but she shouldn't have threatened Silman's ability to do her work in this bizarre display of hackle-raising. I'll give Silman the benefit of the doubt and assume that she read THE STORY SISTERS hoping for it to be good; I certainly do with every book I read professionally. (Personally, I sometimes need to exorcise my demons by reviewing a book I expect to hate, but at least I'm honest!) I know they won't all be The Best Book Of The Year, but I want to be informed or entertained (or both), and I owe it to readers to determine when those things don't happen.

This actually happened to me a few years ago over a mostly positive review of a book by an author I'll call Ernest Hmmmingway, who contacted me directly about it. The message contained several points, began as a correction of something I had legitimately got wrong (sorry, Mr. Hmmmingway) and devolved into a list of phrases I had used with question marks after them, as if their error required no explanation; the passive-aggressive CC was also deployed in the hope my editor on the piece** would give me what-for. What-for was not given; my review was factually corrected but otherwise unchanged. I wouldn't go out of my way not to review a book by Hmmmingway again, but I might not specifically request it; overall, I felt that I had been used as a vent for other things that weren't my concern.***

In publishing her book, Hoffman made her case; she doesn't need to follow it around with a pep band because that's what Shaye Areheart's publicity department is for. Silman did the best thing she could do, which was not respond; Hoffman should have accepted by now (as she would undoubtedly advise a first-time author, who might have even more stake in reviews) that sometimes you're IT, and sometimes you're not.

*Oh look, the inner Luddite came out to play.
**I wanted to refer to my editor here as Maxwell Smirkins, but that would technically be Hmmmingway's editor [uninvolved in this exchange], not mine. Such a shame when a pun goes to waste.
***"For indeed a book critic may be used as a Vent, in that he is often turned sideways, offering Aire, but for his purpose see that you ask him not to become detached." Hey, I went to see "Twelfth Night" last week, and I'm a huge nerd!

29 June 2009

"For me the idea of writing not for publication is a little like drinking alone. To me, drinking is sort of a social experience. [Writing] is like coming home from a great trip and sitting around a dinner table and saying, I've got to tell you about this."
--Susan Orlean in Newsweek in a writers' roundtable also featuring Lawrence Block, Elizabeth Strout, Robert Caro, Annette Gordon-Reed and Kurt Andersen.

The MTA Menace strikes again

Another day, another book dropped onto an innocent subway passenger -- and I was sitting down this time! It was during rush hour this morning when the much worn Library of America edition I was holding slipped from my hands and tapped the foot of a bike messenger standing at the end of the car with his bike. The messenger, who already looked cranky, gave an injured sniff after my "sorry," but in my defense, I wouldn't have been able to hit him if he had been using his bike in the intended manner. The book in question was not hurt.

28 June 2009

And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

Thoughts while reading the Brooklyn Paper's slate of nominees for Brooklyn poet laureate:

1. Who the heck are these people besides They Might Be Giants? I don't follow poetry with anything resembling diligence, but I was hoping at least one of them would ring a bell.

2. I can't decide whether I'm surprised or not that Brooklyn has a poet laureate, and I mean that in the best way possible. Why shouldn't every city have a poet laureate? Never hurt anybody, and if you can find evidence contravening that, I'm sure it will be hilarious.

3. Still, TMBG vs. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"? Two men and a poem enter, one poem leaves.

27 June 2009

Weekend library scheming

Since when did the NY Public Library drop its number of requested items per patron from 15 to 10? I was just calling up a couple of books online for a project and backed right into my limit. Oh, the indignity.

I have definitely used all 15 slots before, but never have I had all 15 come in at once. Requests stay in the system for up to a year, which is probably the time frame I'm looking at for getting hold of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES -- I'm 156th in line, albeit with 86 circulating copies. C'mere, zombies... wait... not what I meant...

I'm sure there's a good reason for dropping the limit -- too many requests that people don't pick up in a timely manner clog the shelves as well as the system, and make it more difficult for patrons to get the books they want. But this made me curious as to whether the library had a numeric limit of materials it would allow patrons to check out. Turns out, it's 30 items (books/CDs/DVDs nonspecific). At last, an upper boundary I have never even approached.

Naturally, the workaround is for me to take my list of requests, find out the individual libraries which have those particular books on the shelves right now and hunt them up. I would make a joke here about the forthcoming Wormbook internship program here, but... no. Too cruel.

26 June 2009

Too timely and incredible not to post: Richard Price, author of LUSH LIFE and a writer on "The Wire," wrote the screenplay for the full 18-minute version of Michael Jackson's "Bad" video. (Via @PicadorUSA on Twitter, and well done for ferreting that out.)
Ooh, nifty: Indiebound, the independent arm of the American Booksellers Association, offers an app that will find the indie bookstore closest to you when you're out and about. There's also a book search and recommended reading lists. I can't use it because I have a dumbphone, but what a cool idea. (Via peterwknox.com)

25 June 2009

NPR's Summer Fiction Contest

It has to be able to be read in 3 minutes or less, and it has to charm James Wood. That's the gist of the Three-Minute Fiction Contest and I'm thinking about entering. (Don't worry... I'll spare you the prose.)

"Do I love books or do I love reading?"

Ann Kirschner writes in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about reading one book (Charles Dickens' LITTLE DORRIT, currently enjoying something of a renaissance because of its Madoffian plot elements and Masterpiece Theatre presentation) in paperback, audiobook, on Kindle and on iPhone. Result: Audiobook is more convenient than paperback; iPhone beats Kindle no contest.

I've never really gotten into audiobooks despite being a regular podcast consumer. (Current favorite: The Bugle, by "The Daily Show"'s John Oliver and fellow British comedian Andy Zaltzman.) I own two, downloaded from the iTunes store, one by a performer reading his own -- John Hodgman's THE AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE -- but I rarely listen. My unscientific theory on this: I organize information better when presented with it visually, down to sometimes being able to call up various quotations by their placement on the physical page. Great trick for studying off an outline, and it doesn't handicap me on shorter, discrete audio pieces, but would be crucial to enjoying a novel like LITTLE DORRIT.

The iPhone-with-Kindle-app vs. Kindle battle is not personally applicable to me, but I still think it's interesting. Kirschner argues Amazon has actually undermined itself by making books you buy on the Kindle available on the iPhone, because you're more likely to take your iPhone everywhere already, and the smaller screen isn't a dealbreaker for younger readers. I disagree on that latter point, but consolidation of devices is an issue -- I ruefully considered the benefit of an iPhone a few weekends ago when I left for Michigan with iPod but no cell phone. A paperback or two aren't arduous cargo until you add cell phone, wallet, iPod, day planner and notebook, at which point the unbookening of my tote bag looks slightly more enticing.

(Chronicle link via Ed Champion on Twitter.)

24 June 2009

And now, a brief fashion interlude

Cannot recommend this highly enough for the ironic T-shirt portion of your life, even if my grandma gets the vapors whenever I leave the house with it on. Since we all know Shakespeare wrote for money, I'm sure he would appreciate the sentiment. (Busted Tees, $20)

Summer Reading #2: Joseph Berger, THE WORLD IN A CITY

When I got this book as a gift last year I expected a light cultural romp among different neighborhoods of New York City -- but I also got an intelligent examination about the modern immigrant experience. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Times writer Joseph Berger approaches his series of essays about different neighborhoods as traveler and sociologist, and manages to have it both ways.

Berger's thesis, threaded through his accounts of interviews and travels in different New York neighborhoods, is that since the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 -- which abolished the system of national quotas -- American immigration has changed in ways that have eradicated the older patterns in which new Americans settled. (It's pretty disturbing to think that 50 years ago the huddled masses yearning to break free were still controlled according to some ethnic balance sheet.) In New York City in particular, areas largely known for having one particular ethnic character have grown and shifted to accommodate new groups, from Italian barbers of East Harlem cutting the hair of new Hispanic immigrants to Afghans living alongside more established Indian communities in Flushing. Newer immigrants can video chat with their families in South America or watch the Pakistani national cricket team's test matches on satellite, but still face the challenges of maintaining cultural identity while adapting to new living arrangements here.

Berger's position in this is not at all objective, to be clear; the child of Russian Jews displaced by the Holocaust, he emigrated to New York as a young child and lived in the Grand Concourse neighborhood, once known as a lower-middle-class Jewish enclave, and where he reports for the book on Ghanaian immigrant communities saving up for property not in their adopted homeland, but in their ancestral villages to which they hope to retire someday. His extensive reporting acknowledges that even in a melting pot there are insoluble bits, whether among new arrivals (like the tension among Bukharan Jewish families when the women become the primary breadwinners) or between established and newer communities (like complaints against Korean shopkeepers in Douglaston who post signs in Korean without translation), but sees the melting taking place and enriching the city -- not exactly a revolutionary position but one with which I think many New Yorkers would agree if questioned.

THE WORLD IN A CITY is by definition insider-y, and I don't know how much people who aren't interested in the specifics of different neighborhoods of New York (for example, the difference between Jackson Heights and Rego Park) would enjoy that territorial aspect. But it works as an off-the-beaten-path sightseeing guide as well; the suggested sites at the end of every chapter are occasionally obvious, but emphasize local restaurants and places of worship, which at least would give you a place to kick off your adventures in outer Brooklyn or the south Bronx.

23 June 2009

Excuses are free

Remember the San Francisco Public Library's amnesty program with appearance by inadvertent delinquent borrower Captain Chesley Sullenberger? The program netted over 29,000 overdue items, according to NBC Bay Area, as well as explanations ranging from "lost it while cleaning room" to "sabotaged by sibling" to "abducted by aliens." Meanwhile, the library saved itself some $730,000 in replacement costs, which is not too shabby.

The program's prize, a copy of MAN AND SUPERMAN, will be put on special display -- it had been missing since January 1964, or, in contemporary terms, 112 times as long as South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.

22 June 2009

Holiday Gift Guide, 2010 Edition

You know I love you, but next year you're all getting 10-cent remainders of LOOK AT THIS FUCKING HIPSTER, the book version. The site is kind of horrible to look at, but it did give us this regrettable literary tattoo currently making its second appearance on Wormbook this month. (Summer is for reruns!)

Revealed as the caption writer: Comedian Joe Mande, whose show Totally J/K with Noah Garfinkel I saw a few times at the late great Rififi. Of course, by the time the book comes out hipsters will have moved beyond self-portraiture as a means to annoy us (oh please) but we wish Mr. Mande the best of luck in claiming photo rights from his subjects per the landmark 2009 ruling, Hot Chicks vs. HOT CHICKS WITH DOUCHEBAGS.

Related: How to tell if you are one of the titular hipsters.

Monday Bouquet: Lewis, Sedaris, Salinger Again

Gawker: The Brad Pitt-Steven Soderbergh adaptation of MONEYBALL is in big trouble because of alleged script issues. Having read MONEYBALL last year among other baseball books, I have no reason to suspect this won't be snapped up by another studio, hopefully one that has a cool idea on how to illustrate statistical principles without putting audiences to sleep. Not loving the idea of Pitt as Billy Beane, but Demetri Martin as Paul de Podesta? Interesting.

Boston.com: NH public school pulls Sedaris, Hemingway, King, Lippmann stories from curriculum. This probably happens so often it barely merits a mention, but while we're here, listen to Sedaris reading "I Like Guys" on "This American Life," because it might make you laugh and break your heart. And since I really was assigned "Hills Like White Elephants" in high school: Do these same students have to read THE SUN ALSO RISES? 'Cause it would sure be hilarious if they were allowed to read about the tragedy of a red-blooded American male not being able to express himself in the sack, but not about the potential consequences of same.

NYT Week in Review: "Get A Life, Holden Caulfield" CATCHER IN THE RYE may not be catching as many high schoolers' eyes as it did in decades past, because the kids today, they're all about their text messagin' and "Gossip Girl" watchin' and prescription drug takin'. (All mentioned in the article!) The socioeconomic angle on it is valid, but then I hit this sentence: "Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry [Potter] — not the beautiful losers who reject it." Why didn't any of you call me during the part of history where nerds conquered the world? Related: John Hodgman's speech at the Radio and TV Correspondents' Dinner this weekend, in which he dwells at hilarious length on the question of whether the President is a nerd. (Via @kenkrim on Twitter.)

21 June 2009

Ray Bradbury: Science fiction writer, Bo Derek admirer and public library crusader. (New York Times) If you haven't read DANDELION WINE, it's a very summery book with a shimmer of nostalgia you wouldn't expect from the author of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES.

Infinite Summer: It begins!

I'm going to go ahead and tempt fate by saying, it's not the length I'm worried about, but the complexity and the effort to balance this book with the other stuff I'm reading. Long books and I, we have a history. You don't become the kind of pretentious person who lists ANNA KARENINA as a favorite book overnight, oh no! (WAR AND PEACE isn't even close, just sayin'.)

A short list of long books I also haven't read:
DON QUIXOTE. I carried a sunny yellow paperback two-volume set back from Spain, only to have it sit on my shelf through 4 moves unopened. I read an abridged English version for a school project, but that doesn't count.

ATLAS SHRUGGED. I didn't skip it deliberately because of the hordes of people who love and hate this book, but that certainly didn't help. I liked THE FOUNTAINHEAD all right. I imagine once I get around to it I will suggest it for the most commented on ever Better Late Than Never entry (title currently held by WATCHMEN).

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST. I imagine if I were in some kind of work situation where I was going to be posted somewhere remote, Afghanistan or Antarctica or Archangel, I would take these with me and Discover Many Things About Myself. (Then, I would naturally write a memoir about how Marcel and I became best friends forever. Possible title: MY YEAR IN SWANN'S WAY.)

A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME. This one's on the Modern Library list, so I will have to get there someday, although I have read the first volume, A QUESTION OF UPBRINGING. (Do I think it's cheating to list a 12-volume cycle of novels as one entry on that list? Yes, yes I do.)

FINNEGANS WAKE. And if I want to finish the Modern Library list, I have to tackle this bad boy -- I imagine with much scholarly assistance.

20 June 2009

It could be my readin' chair

Interior design isn't my forte but I really dig these Penguin deck chairs. Can't really picture myself lugging one to the park, nor does the design look all that comfortable, but it would be perfect for my non-existent deck, and the wood frame would match my Scandinavian design concept.

The website advises they are "perfect for lazy summer days in the garden, reading novels, sipping Pimm's and listening to cricket..." Actually, I know just what I could read in this hypothetical chair: This must be a coincidence, but yesterday in the mail I got an offer for a Marie Claire subscription. Just $6 to be told what to read to catch a man? Seems a bit steep to me! If they threw in one of these chairs though I'd be happy to donate my subscription to the gym where at least someone would get enjoyment out of it.

Found via ReadySteadyGo. Photo: rich_w

19 June 2009

New York Times vs. David Simon on seasonal violence

From the Metro section yesterday:
The prime time for murder is clear: summertime. Indeed, it is close to a constant, one hammered home painfully from June to September across the decades. And the breakdown of deadly brutality can get even more specific... Summer is when people get together. More specifically, casual drinkers and drug users are more likely to go to bars or parties on weekends and evenings, as opposed to a Tuesday morning. These people in the social mix, flooding the city’s streets and neighborhood bars, feed the peak times for murder, experts say.
From David Simon's HOMICIDE (1991):
Summer is a four-to-twelve shift of nightsticks and Western District wagon runs, with three hundred hard cases on the Edmondson Avenue sidewalk between Payson and Pulaski, eyefucking each other and every passing radio car. Summer is a ninety-minute backup in the Hopkins emergency room, an animal chorus of curses and pleas from the denizens of every district lockup, a nightly promise of yet another pool of blood on the dirty linoleum in yet another Federal Street carryout. Summer is a barroom cutting up on Druid Hill, a ten-minute gun battle in the Terrace, a daylong domestic dispute that ends with the husband and wife both fighting the cops. Summer is the seasons of motiveless murder, of broken-blade steak knives and bent tire irons; it's the time for truly dangerous living, the season of massive and immediate retaliation, the 96-degree natural habitat of the Argument That Will Be Won.
Different cities, but the same point.

Books not to take to the doctor's office (even if it's only a check-up)

  • Samuel Butler, THE WAY OF ALL FLESH


  • Elizabeth Bowen, THE DEATH OF THE HEART

  • Margaret Lazarus Dean, THE TIME IT TAKES TO FALL

  • Daphne du Maurier, THE PARASITES



  • And one I was glad to see there: Atul Gawande, BETTER

Because it's Friday -- a medically titled song (starts at 1:09 if you're allergic to banter):

18 June 2009

Salinger Vs. Swede Update: Swede Down But Not Out

At yesterday's hearing about the lawsuit between J.D. Salinger and the author of a new book which allegedly updates CATCHER IN THE RYE, a federal judge ruled that Holden Caulfield is a character protected by copyright -- but did not say the defendant would not be allowed to publish his novel. Caulfield is now the first single character from a single work to get copyright protection, which I hope in illustrations would be rendered as a sort of cape.

The judge has 10 days to decide whether the publication of 60 YEARS LATER: COMING THROUGH THE RYE can go forward regardless, and thanks to the Times we know a little bit more about the plot: "In order to regain control over his own life, which is drawing to a close, [a character named] ‘Mr. Salinger’ tries repeatedly to kill off Mr. C[aulfield] by various means: a runaway truck; falling construction debris; a lunatic woman with a knife; suicide by drowning and suicide by pills." Well, it's not zombies, but...

"It’s not okay to remake CATCHER IN THE RYE and use it to make a comment on adolescence or old age or something else," says Marc Reiner on the WSJ Law Blog, who says the closer the book is to a sequel, the more likely Salinger and his publishers will prevail in court. (Salinger wasn't in court for any of the filings or hearings.) But 60 YEARS LATER... has one surprising defender: Sara Nelson, formerly of Publishers Weekly, who has read it and writes in a declaration filed with the court:
CATCHER is one of the highest-selling novels in recent history. Its position in the canon of American literature is unassailable. The story and its protagonist Holden Caulfield retain timeless and universal appeal, as evidenced by the continued sales to this day... The audience to whom 60 YEARS would appeal is decidedly narrower than that of CATCHER's broad readership. In fact, it is more likely that 60 YEARS, through its critical content and the attendant publicity it will likely generate, will actually contribute to renewed interest in, discussion of, and consequently sales of, CATCHER.
I think, with disclosure to follow, that it was incredibly smart for Colting and his publishers to get Nelson's testimony; she would have extensive knowledge of the last major case of this type, the Mitchell estate vs. THE WIND DONE GONE, in terms of its effect on sales and the attention paid to the original author. (Disclosure: I review for PW and have done so in the time that Nelson was employed there, which would have made her technically my boss although we never directly interacted in such relationship; I have also met her, although it was before that professional relationship was established.)

The author's real name (as revealed by The Smoking Gun, a site heretofore not known for its literary reporting) is Fredrik Colting and, with all due respect to his legal team, he seems unaware of the hot water into which writing a novel based on a beloved-by-some book would land him. He told the Times: "In Sweden we don’t sue people." Not when there are Viking broadswords available -- that's how we do it in Göteborg, right?

17 June 2009

NOT: Maria Espinosa on Talk of the Town this week

Lo these several days ago I had a nice chat with author Maria Espinosa about her new book DYING UNFINISHED, writing, life and occasional Spanish. We had a good time and I hope that shows in the finished product, which will play tonight on Talk of the Town:

Starts at 7PM EDT (4PM PDT, 1PM Anna Time) on WEBR (and available through your TV) for D.C./Virginia/ Maryland locals
Everyone else: Listen online.
You can call in to the show live at (571) 334-9189 if you want to complain about my throwaway Jack Kerouac comment. (All in fun, kids!)

Sorry everyone, there appears to have been some miscommunication about that. Thanks to Elizabeth for alerting me and sorry for subjecting you to what sounded like very boring music.

Hey baby, what turns your pages?

There are at least two things this "Marie Claire" article "8 Ways To Use Books to Flirt" does right; one of them is that it talks about books and reading in a slightly more intelligent way than expected from that title. The writer interviewed Jack Murnighan, author of a collection of summaries of all those books you should have read already called BEOWULF ON THE BEACH (oh, Beowulf) to get some lighthearted tips on using books to attract the opposite gender, and you can tell it's lighthearted because in the answer to the first question they spelled ULYSSES wrong. (And all the copy editors in the world just died.)

In any case, some stray thoughts:
  • Having actually read LOLITA, I would not classify it as a titillating book either in title or subject matter. (As for THE NAUGHTY BITS, I got it confused with THE NASTY BITS, the Anthony Bourdain food collection, and started thinking about offal, but your mileage may vary.) I would never cast undue aspersions on a man or a woman I saw reading LOLITA in public, but I would cast them on people who called it "titillating." Just... consider it.

  • At what party are ANNA KARENINA and MADAME BOVARY coming up in regular conversation? First, I would like to be at that party, and second, that could go horribly wrong. ("I went to visit my friend who's having a horrible time; she just found her boyfriend's been cheating on her." "You know what Flaubert would have to say about that?")

  • As for bringing up Márquez, I quote the immortal Rob Gordon: "Hey, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I've read books like THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, and I think I've understood them. They're about girls, right?"*

  • In college, the sole class required of everyone in my in my concentration (or "major" for the rest of you) was a literary theory course in which we used THE CANTERBURY TALES as our main text for writing tedious papers on which my TA, for whom English was not a first language, would change words apparently at random and leave no other comments. In fact, maybe the real purpose of the class was to get concentrators to bond over how much they hated the class, in which case, mission accomplished. A Daily Beast interview reveals Murnighan is a fellow alum, which suggests at least he must have had a different TA. Anyway, that ruined me for ever using THE CANTERBURY TALES as an aphrodisiac, but if Chaucer works for you, God bless you and make you happy in love and life.

*Completely off-topic, but if you enjoy "High Fidelity" and use Twitter you should be following Emily's tweeting of the movie. It's been too long since I've watched it, but this will tide me over.

16 June 2009

Happy Bloomsday round-up

Novelist Colum McCann found reading ULYSSES helped him connect with his grandfather.

BoingBoing has audio of James Joyce reading which will blow your mind.

What would ULYSSES on Twitter look like? Pretty incredible.

In New York, Symphony Space reads passages from the book dealing with food tonight at 6 and WBAI broadcasts a Joycefest starting at 7:30 including Alec Baldwin doing the priest from PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST...

Answer me this

If you owned a Kindle and could have any living author sign it, who would you pick? Choose carefully because in this hypothetical question, you don't get another gadget to deface.

15 June 2009

Non-shopping update

Message from the friend I went browsing with this weekend: "I can't buy any more books. My makeshift bookshelf is overflowing. And that's after I hid all the ones I've already read under my bed." (Never tried that... it's like the book version of a floordrobe.)

He's hoping to get a little more reading done this week en route to jury duty, which apparently is contagious.

Summer Reading #1: Jhumpa Lahiri, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH

This one has been on my to-read list forever because I read THE NAMESAKE, really liked it, read INTERPRETER OF MALADIES, also liked it, then saw the adaptation of THE NAMESAKE and really liked that too. So when I didn't really get into the first story I thought, "Whoa, differences," and set the book down for a week or two while I was reading other things. I'm glad I went back to it, not least because I have to return it to the person from whom I borrowed it.

As in her previous books Lahiri writes in her milieu of immigrant Indian families and the second generation adjusting to adulthood in what is usually the upper-middle-class Northeast. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but UNACCUSTOMED EARTH largely dwells there like the others while dropping little insights that have nothing to do with being of that particular population. I found myself nodding to "Nobody's Business," the story of a Cambridge grad student who becomes almost unwittingly involved in the romantic life of his housemate, for the way it juxtaposes the specificity of his situation (falling in love the same year he is desperately trying to pass his oral exams on the second attempt) with the odd situations created by having housemates whose lives peek out in odd ways. Close to that in terms of my favorites was the sibling relationship and gulf of disappointment described in "Only Goodness."

The first and title story "Unaccustomed Earth" is very finely tuned -- the story of an older man who goes to visit his daughter and her family in Seattle soon after her mother has died -- but it didn't contain that little turn which I was looking for, the small moment of surprise or epiphany which I was looking for. I'm not saying that every short story must have it, but even though it's pretty long for the form, this story never surprised me, and I wished it would.

More Jhumpa Lahiri

14 June 2009

In the criminal justice system, there are ampersands.

Did a little non-shopping after brunch yesterday. My friend bought: Toby Barlow's SHARP TEETH, Lionel Shriver's WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, Bryan Lee O'Malley's SCOTT PILGRIM'S PRECIOUS LITTLE LIFE (vol. 1) and Josh Kilmer-Purcell's I AM NOT MYSELF THESE DAYS.

Another book which I considered buying for its puntastic title: Lynne Sharon Schwartz's NOT NOW, VOYAGER.

We also walked by, but didn't stop in, a specialty mystery bookstore I had never seen before called Partners & Crime, which itself kind of sounds like something for which "Law & Order" is the lead-in.


If you find yourself unoccupied in New York tonight, come to the Women of Mystery reading at KGB Bar (85 E. 4th St.) at 7. A friend of mine works for sponsor Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and recent James Ellroy jousting partner Sarah Weinman is on the bill. I'll be there in disguise as a person cool enough to hang out at KGB all the time.

13 June 2009

Just so we're clear, I don't like horror movies either

I was told I should read Gavin de Becker's personal safety handbook THE GIFT OF FEAR because it would really scare me. Even before I moved to New York I was told it was a must-read for any women who want to do things like "leave the house alone" and "go out after dark." So naturally I put it off until I had lived here more than 2 years without incident.

Normally, I would steer clear of any books whose raison d'être is to destroy my feelings of security for my own good, but THE GIFT OF FEAR has some good information in it, although I probably could have gotten the relevant info from a longish magazine article rather than a whole book. I can summarize de Becker's findings in two bullet points:
  • People don't just "snap" and do something violent; their behavior usually provides clues before a major incident.
  • If you're paying attention, you can get yourself out of a dangerous situation, even if you don't realize what exactly is making you feel uncomfortable.
About 70 percent of the book is absorbed with this first point, giving examples from postal clerks gone postal (statistically, not all that common) to date rape and assault. I think I would've liked more about the second, the seeming "gift" of the title, because knowing that my instinct might save me I wanted to find out why. I don't mean to be flippant, these are really scary incidents, but the book often substitutes practical knowledge for "A woman was once being tailed in her car to the supermarket but she somehow knew to pull into a gas station, and that's instinct."

De Becker has worked with some famous people, although he doesn't usually name names; it's a shame, because celebrity problems with people are much magnified from the rest of us, and at least with some name recognition they might have been of more interest. He does discuss the O.J. Simpson case in some detail in the chapter on domestic violence, which, having been protected from the gory details in the '90s, was new to me but probably won't be to you.

If you already know to be suspicious of strange men who approach you offering help, take off your head phones in an unfamiliar place at night and be discreet about where you scatter your home address, you can probably skip this book. It did, however, give me a wild hair about taking self-defense classes, which I might still do.

12 June 2009

I'm sure Chip Kidd knows how that feels

From the Times summer-books-by-women round-up, a concept which was flawed from the start to be sure:
Julie Metz’s PERFECTION is a visual standout for good reason: Ms. Metz designs book jackets. And she has given her all to the vibrant tulip on her memoir’s cover.
Really, Maslin? That's how you start a write-up of a memoir about a woman torn apart by infidelity only discovered after her husband's death? "Oh, but it looks pretty!" Then again, I should have been warned by the implication a couple paragraphs up that lady-books in summer all look the same:
This is the season when prettily designed books flood the market and compete for female readers. It’s a time when literary and lightweight books aimed at women become hard to tell apart. Their covers use standard imagery: sand, flowers, cake, feet, houses, pastel colors, the occasional Adirondack chair.
As opposed to the rest of the year, when no one cares about how their book covers look, because we're all wearing sackcloth and ashes and reading Philip Roth. I am not immune to the allure of a good cover -- in fact I write about them fairly frequently -- but in a piece with little enough room for each of the 11 books mentioned, that just seems like a very lazy approach.

(Chip Kidd: Graphic designer responsible for hundreds of covers among them JURASSIC PARK, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and the original cover of GEEK LOVE; also author of THE CHEESE MONKEYS, which might've made my college fiction list, and THE LEARNERS.)

Closed minds versus the West Bend Library Board

Sometimes the stuff you miss is the closest to home, which must be why I only now have heard about a battle in the West Bend, WI library system which has reached near-tornado velocity.

A group calling itself West Bend Citizens For Safe Libraries has been petitioning the board to remove certain books it considers obscene from the young-adult section of the library (including THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER), wanting them to be labeled with a warning and require parental permission. (The main members of this WBCFSL are a married couple but I couldn't verify whether they had kids or if so what ages.) Last week, the library board voted to tell them to jump in a-- oh wait, they just rejected their proposal. This made them very upset.

Then, a group calling themselves the Christian Civil Liberties Union sued the city, the mayor, the library director and board over Francesca Lia Block's BABY BE-BOP. They want the right to destroy (burn, if possible) the library copy of the book, $120,000 ($30k per plaintiff) in damages for having been exposed to it, and the mayor to resign. And while they're at it, they'd like a pony! Only one of the plaintiffs actually lives in West Bend, leading the very witty blogger Sleepless in West Bend to question why they didn't just go after the much larger Milwaukee Public Library, which dares to have multiple copies of BABY BE-BOP.

I don't mean to get up on my soapbox but -- oh, who am I kidding, of course I do. I grew up not too far from West Bend, and while I can't say I understand what these people are doing, I am familiar with the type. Of course, they only want what's best for West Bend, despite representing only a small percentage of its residents. But community standards are not really the issue here.

These people are charging that the books in question are actually dangerous to teenagers (and suggesting that the rest of us shouldn't be reading them either). We're all entitled to our own tastes. But if a book can make you not a Christian, it's your faith you should be questioning, not the library. If a book can make you gay, perhaps you actually weren't straight. (Actually, if a book can make you gay, then judging by the hours I fell asleep re-reading THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE in high school I should be gay by now.)

To the parents of West Bend and everywhere else: YA is a popular battleground for these because of the imperative to protect our children, but teenagers are questioning their beliefs anyway -- it's what they do. If you only let them read the Bible (or related religious book of choice), they will find something in it to question. You can tell them gays and lesbians can never live happy lives, be successful and fall in love... until they watch "Ellen" at someone else's house and hear Ellen DeGeneres talk about her wife. You can teach them that all sex is unclean except when blessed by the covenant of marriage for the purpose of procreation, but when they turn 18 they can still buy porn.

Why not talk to your kids about what they're reading? Heck, why not read along with them and talk about whether you find it appropriate or not? No one's taking away the right for you to parent -- to screen what your kids read. West Bend Library Parents For Free Speech would never take that right from you. But if you think censorship is the way to protect them, well, good luck censoring the world.

11 June 2009

Wrapped Up in Books: Live chat 5PM EDT today

We'll be talking about Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN over at the AV Club this afternoon. Comment along if you're free; if you have to miss the chat, the transcript will be available on the same site afterwards. There will be spoilers aplenty as we try and figure out that final scene where John Wayne arrives to save the American West,* so you have been warned.

* Not really.

Book Adaptations Hitting Theatres, Summer 2009

I was at my unfriendly neighborhood drug store the yesterday when I noticed they had added a mass-market paperback section. When I went over to take a look, I found the usual raised-letter romances and thrillers with forgettable titles, plus -- what's this? -- Larry Doyle's I LOVE YOU BETH COOPER, a book that is actually on my to-read list. Turns out the movie version starring Hayden Panettiere (the cheerleader from "Heroes") comes out July 10, a pretty rapid turnaround considering the hardcover was published in 2007.

Here are several more book adaptations hitting theatres this summer for your reading and viewing pleasure, and none of them are from the director of "The Notebook":

"Public Enemies" (J. Depp, C. Bale) - Michael Mann's newest movie follows an FBI agent trying to shut down the Dillinger gang in the middle of their latest Midwestern spree. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough. Cause of great frenzy in Wisconsin when the production shot in several cities there last year. Looking forward to the scene where Bale confesses he's only chasing Depp because "he's got a GREAT ass!" (July 1)

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" (R. Fiennes, D. Radcliffe, A. Rickman) - Hey, in case you're one of the 7 people in the world who hasn't read it yet -- there's still time. Not gonna lie, I fully expect to see this in theatres and when I saw the trailer ahead of "Watchmen" in IMAX I got chills. (July 15)

"Julie & Julia" (M. Streep, A. Adams) - Most likely of this list to be described as "delightful." Based on the blog-to-book adaptation by Julie Powell, who tried to cook her way through MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING in a year. Unlike the book, the movie weaves in more of Child's life, which by all accounts was fascinating. (August 7)

"Taking Woodstock" (E. Hirsch, L. Schreiber, E. Levy) - Ang Lee's latest puts the world's most famous concert on the big screen through the eyes of an upstate New York resident who gets involved in planning the big shindig. Based on the memoir by Elliot Tiber, who is played by Demetri Martin and whose talk I unfortunately missed at BEA. (August 14)

"The Time-Traveler's Wife" (E. Bana, R. McAdams) - Audrey Niffenegger's best-seller is a love story with a sci-fi twist, but this movie has been pushed back about 8 times already, which is not promising. But anything that brings Rachel McAdams back from being a former up-and-comer is a good thing, and I did really like this book. (August 14)

"Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs" (voice work by A. Samberg, A. Faris) - Sneaking this in even though it's a fall release because this was one of my favorite books as a kid, about a time when food started falling from the sky. Naturally, for the movie they had to improve on Judi Barrett's words, by adding a plot, and Ron Barrett's illustrations, by putting it in 3-D. Still, it makes me smile. (Sept. 18)

10 June 2009

First Book asks: What book got you hooked?

Hey, this is cool. First Book, a nonprofit that buys new books to give to kids in low-income communities, just launched a summer campaign called What Book Got You Hooked? Enjoy the choices of celebrities like Stephen Colbert, Scarlett Johansson and John Hodgman, then add your own story. I have donated to First Book before and I probably will again this year. (And for what it's worth, Charity Navigator gave them 4/4 stars.)

The first book I thought of for their prompt about reading as a kid was Laura Ingalls Wilder's LITTLE HOUSE series. I have a flashbulb memory of being told not to read my copy of FARMER BOY in the bathroom before bed while I should have been brushing my teeth. I remember being very upset when I finished THE FIRST FOUR YEARS with so much of Laura's life ahead of her, undocumented on the page. I hope my butter-colored copies survive (in a box at my parents' house, I believe) until if and when I can hand them off to a human child who may or may or not be genetically connected to me.

09 June 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, I've traveled over half our country to be here tonight.

Author Dan Baum, whose book NINE LIVES on New Orleans is on my to-read shelf right now, wants to talk to your book club -- remotely! "I won't even drink any of your wine," Baum pitched on Twitter, with a very short video message about his proposal.

This would be fun I think for my own book club to do -- Marjorie, we could even patch you in from Ely! -- were it not for two factors: First, we try to go for books already in paperback, being urban and of a frugal nature. And second, I was under the impression, perhaps incorrect, that authors get paid to make these appearances (see again, frugal nature). I don't blame them (especially for in-person appearances which could be very inconvenient) but I wouldn't want to preemptively invite anyone and then withdraw.

It is a cool idea, though; even if you're not in the cult of Mac, webcams run pretty cheap these days.
Good news: The Jon Krakauer book about Pat Tillman that was withdrawn last summer under the title THE HERO will arrive in stores this fall, knock on wood, with the new title WHERE MEN WIN GLORY. It's his first since 2003's UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN.

08 June 2009

Just don't ask him about the Finer Things Club

John Krasinski seems determined to prove he is not just the hipstery hanger-on for which I'd pegged him. From TIME magazine:

How hard was it to write the screenplay for David Foster Wallace's BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN? --Zach Watson, Columbus, OH

I think David Foster Wallace is one of the greatest writers that has ever lived. The majority of the movie is his words. I didn't change too much. I felt really nervous pretty much every day for about five years because I know how many people love his work.

What other writers or novels do you admire? --Jude Lovell, Bethlehem, PA

I'm a huge classics fan. I love Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger. I'm that guy who rereads a book before I read newer stuff, which is probably not all that progressive, and it's not really going to make me a better reader. I'm like, "Oh, my God, you should read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD." And people are like, "I'm not 15." Still good, though.

He also jokes he wanted to be an English professor "for the corduroy jackets with patches on the side." With his choices one might quibble but there's only so far I can knock him since we share an alma mater. IMDb doesn't have a release date listed yet for "Brief Interviews..." which also stars Julianne Nicholson, Timothy Hutton and (hipster alert) Ben Gibbard.

Wrapped Up in Books: It's BLOOD MERIDIAN Week

If you've read what may arguably be Cormac McCarthy's breakout book, please be The AV Club's guest at our book club this week. (And if you don't think it's his breakout, perhaps you'd like to come and argue about it. You are welcome to do so.) Last month in my commentary I referenced "The Little Mermaid"; find out what crazy pop-culture tidbit I try and apply this month.

ETA 10:13AM I just took three exclamation points out of this post. I am so ashamed. McCarthy never had to use an exclamation point in his life.

07 June 2009

J.D. Salinger sues!

If you've been waiting for someone to write a sequel to CATCHER IN THE RYE, you may have to wait a little longer: The author of 60 YEARS LATER: COMING THROUGH THE RYE, which supposedly follows an aged Holden Caulfield adrift in New York, is going to court along with his company "Windupbird Publishing" (hmmmm) against the too-reclusive-to-appear-on-"The Simpsons" author.

I have no particular love for CATCHER... but a poll last year found it was America's 10th favorite book. Let's hope 60 YEARS LATER author John David California's prose is more inventive than his pseudonym.

Photo of a tattoo someone will live to regret: LATFH.com

And now, your moment of meta

As a teaser for an article about abandoned blogs, the New York Times writes, "Why do blogs have a higher failure rate than restaurants?" Well, the start-up costs are lower, for starters?

There are a lot of dead blogs out there because there are plenty of reasons to stop blogging. I'm no stranger to abandoned blogs; visitors to my profile can see this blog had a general-interest sibling which didn't even make it to its first birthday. (I killed it even though I had plenty to write about, because I wasn't happy with what I was writing there. Now you know.) If you start blogging to live off your site, and it doesn't happen right away (and probably won't), you might not see the use of the habit. I have written and currently write for blogs that pay, and there's nothing wrong with that, but financial success may not always be proportionate to the amount of time you put in.

As usual, the Times is years behind the already questionable trend. When I started my first blog-before-you-called-it-that, I saw plenty of other writers walk away, great writers, too, writers I liked. But most of them didn't quit over failure to make a fortune, undue fame or ineffectiveness in spurring one's presidential candidate to victory. (That was once my earnestness too.) Just like any other habit, they had to decide for themselves whether it was worth fitting into their undoubtedly full lives.

If anything has changed about my interaction with the Internet, it's that most of my fly-by-night ideas for blogs never make it out of the "Hey, wouldn't it be great if..." stage, because I'd rather start something lasting. But if I felt constrained to blog now about what I did when I started, I might have abandoned ship too.

06 June 2009

NYC: Housing Works Open Air Street Fair today

Oh, sweet temptation! SoHo's Housing Works is having one of its two annual street fairs today on Crosby and there will probably be $1 books galore. I need a good excuse not to be there -- perhaps I'm too busy reading Louis Menand's New Yorker essay on creative writing programs, which reveals (among other things) that Jonathan Safran Foer is teaching creative writing at NYU when not hanging out at the Public.

Thanks for the tips, Flavorpill and SPD.

Photo: kosloff

05 June 2009

Raindrops keep fallin' on my head...

but I'm all about Infinite Summer today, because New York will eventually dry out. I just started a Goodreads group for it, so if you use the site and are planning to tackle the book, come on over. Wouldn't you rather get through it with the "loving" "support" of the Internet than by yourself?

Plus, reading a Big Book this summer will leave you more to show than, say, trying to find out if Neil Gaiman is really dating half of the Dresden Dolls, a piece of gossip I certainly did not just spend 10 minutes trying to verify.
I'm not exactly objective, but I thought this AV Club interview with authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida was particularly insightful in terms of how they work. Sometimes I wish I could do all my writing after midnight; the air is clearer then.

I guess it's natural to be curious about how writers write their books and when they do. It isn't really fair to take that genesis into consideration when you think about the finished product, but I love a good story. On the one hand, you have your superstar who wrote the entire thing in grad school, and on the other hand -- you have Millard Kaufman, a screenwriter during the Hollywood blacklist days who started his first novel at 86 and finished at 90. (Not that people in grad school are necessarily excluded from having good stories.) Or Beverly Cleary, whose second autobiography MY OWN TWO FEET I just discovered, who surrounded herself with books for years but who finally began after moving into a house where she found a ream of paper in a closet, and worked on what became HENRY HUGGINS every night after her job as a librarian.

Maybe that's one of the reasons I still read blog-to-book adaptations even though they are frequently disappointing -- if you're familiar with the blog already, then you've had a front seat to that process. It's like peeking over your doctor's shoulder and seeing he's writing poems on his prescription pad (for the doctors who still have them, I guess).

04 June 2009

NYC: Another indie bookstore bids goodbye

Don't know how I missed this since it's my neighborhood, but the Morningside Bookshop is no more. From the last newsletter:
So, raise a glass to the ghosts of bookstores past: Gotham Book Mart, Coliseum, Oscar Wilde, Hacker Art Books, Eyore’s, Ivy, Murder Ink, Librería Lectorum, Old Shakespeare and Co., Bloomsday, Different Light, Bookmasters, Walden, Doubleday’s, Scribner’s, Rizzoli, Spring Street Books, and the Fourth Avenue Bookstore Row. To all those other shops that have gone before us, we salute you. We have tried to be the little bookshop that could. We couldn’t. Not for lack of effort; it’s about money – we never had enough.
The store owners were paying $9,000 in rent to Columbia University according to the New York Times and let me tell you, it is not a big place. Some are criticizing the university for not granting an abatement on back rent.

Morningside Bookshop is survived locally by Book Culture (née Labyrinth Books) which may be taking over the lease if allowed.

A summer reading story

We don't have a TV and we don't have Internet and the market down the block doesn't rent DVDs, so what I mostly do is read. I read about infidelity among Muslims in Egypt and obesity-causing food additives and New Jersey wedding bands in the '80s. It's not because I'm unhappy where I am.

I have come to Boston for the summer ostensibly to work, but really to be free, to not be at home. I live in a third-floor walk-up above an ice cream shop and walk to the office. I see Cambridge Street in the twilight after the mosquitoes have tired and I get lost in Coolidge Corner and I don't tell anyone where I'm going most of the time, but I come out all right. My first week I buy a stove-top espresso maker online because it seems like the thing you do when you work, buy coffee and make it for yourself.

I borrow Alice Munro's THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN from the bookshelf of the girl I'm subletting from, an architecture student with a wide, flat drafting table. I borrow Andy Warhol's diaries too but don't finish.

I read Robert Benchley and James Thurber for now, Faulkner for later. I read EUGENE ONEGIN and want to take it apart in a paper. I read PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT and don't. I read Nicholson Baker's VOX in one sitting in the library, sunk down in an overstuffed chair, and feel like I'm getting away with something.

I read after I've left subpar improv shows and Philip Glass operas. I read on the grass while the chattering high school students pass. I read in the Coop and leave without buying anything. I probably brought a book to my first and only Red Sox game, but I don't remember what it was. I even read walking to work until I fall one day, then I stop. There is a heat wave and I read facing into the window fan that blows the hot air from the street into my face.

My housemate reads in the bathtub with a beer between drafts of a paper on Martin Amis' TIME'S ARROW. My fellow intern skips dinner and reads giant design books she gets at MIT. My sister reads my letters and sends me back brightly colored tales of what mischief a camp of 6-year-olds can get into.

At the end of the summer I come home sad. I read EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED on the patio and dream about going back to school. In the fall I will take that Faulkner class and struggle to read anything for fun around editing articles and conjugating verbs. My housemate will move to Iowa and the next time I go to Boston, it will be just for a concert, and not to stay. A few summers later I walk past my old building and it looks exactly as I remember. On the way back to New York I read THE NATURAL.

03 June 2009

LA Confidential: You and your precious absolute justice.

A police-department Christmas party gone wrong sets up the dynamic of James Ellroy’s L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, which shakes three cops like dice over a map of Los Angeles. Jack Vincennes brought the booze, Ed Exley ends up locked in a closet and Bud White lets his temper get away with him, but when the smoke clears that skirmish (based on a real-life incident of police brutality) is just an establishing shot to where the three men are headed in pursuit of the perpetrators of a massacre. Meet your neo-noir if you dare.

The highly stylized language is your narrator as three officers, a pen-pusher, a short fuse and an addict, get wrapped up in the investigation of an April 1953 armed robbery at a coffee shop called the Nite Owl, originally believed to be the work of an African-American gang. The case is nearly closed and then under the weight of new evidence it swings open, and ruins their lives.

I finished this book more than a week ago and have been struggling with what to write about it, because it tested me. With its determination (I had earlier written “unwillingness”) not to leave out any element of the case, employing none as a red herring, it’s designed to frustrate, and when a dead end is hit it inspires a feeling of irritation that makes the same device used in Richard Price’s LUSH LIFE look like a gnat against a swarm of mosquitoes.

Motivated by hate -- of themselves, of each other, of the mighty hand of Fate -- Exley, White and Vincennes work their own angles on the Nite Owl aided or blocked by the bureaucracy in which they operate. (Epistolary remnants which occasionally pop up between sections include departmental memos whose dryness I can only assume is original to the period.) Their approach to it is at times very journalistic, which was easier to buy when I was wondering how they had the time to separate from their open cases and chase down leads. It was never repetitious but as the staccato of the sentences pushed me forward, the plot pushed back. And at first, the language too felt like an impediment; there’s a consciousness to the argot that classic noir doesn’t have, the confetti of “K.A.”s and “NMI”s, the purposeful elimination of articles, that sings its own strange tune. The reconstruction o the case approaches and recedes with each cop’s discoveries and setbacks; as a reader, you have to be willing to exist to a certain extent in that quagmire until the ending, which (to be purposefully vague) I found completely exhilarating.

The complexity of the resolution rewards readers who manage to stick with L.A. CONFIDENTIAL until then, rejecting the common approach of the “twist” which leaves you feeling dim for not picking up on it earlier. It spools out over nearly a hundred pages of lead chasing and confrontations; at one point a character even lays out for the reader the exact gaps which exist in his reconstruction of the case, as if to remind (again) of the gulf that exists between suspicion and arraignment. I wanted to go back into it and poke around in the shot-up wreckage of the Nite Owl not to see what I’d missed the first time but just to experience the whole ride from the beginning.

That’s not how I felt at the conclusion of my previous (and first) Ellroy experience, with THE BLACK DAHLIA over two years ago. I felt the same adaptive curve in getting used to the language, but flew through the book only to be stopped cold at the ending. THE BLACK DAHLIA confirmed what I expected about the genre, that there could not be a satisfying conclusion in this open-ended world (how postmodern!); L.A. CONFIDENTIAL overturned that expectation completely.

Maybe it’s because of the way I read THE BLACK DAHLIA (over a long day of flight delays, when the escapist thrill was as necessary as air), that with L.A. CONFIDENTIAL I sabotaged my reading experience by chopping up its chapters over what turned out to be two months. But it’s worth remembering that both books are considered part of the same sequence of Ellroy novels, known as the “L.A. Quartet,” being the first and third volumes of it. I don’t question that either ending was less than intentional on Ellroy’s part, but my experience with the first clearly set me up for the next.

At one point one of the women in the book, whose representation is problematic enough to deserve its own post, says of her lover that he acts in bed "like he never wants it to end, because when it ends he will have to return to what he is." As much as the LAPD wants to close the Nite Owl case, the obsessive love for it does certain things for our protagonists (don’t call them heroes) -- getting Ed Exley attention from the top brass, Jack Vincennes something to think about besides drugs and his past, and letting Bud White imagine that he can be better than his erstwhile mentor and his reputation, "A DETECTIVE -- NOT A HEAD BASHER." At L.A. CONFIDENTIAL’s best I could smell the dusty files, took a breath before a door was kicked open. I’m not done reckoning with this book; for one thing, I’ve just watched the 1997 movie adaptation, whose acclaim (along with having read THE BLACK DAHLIA) prompted me to persevere.

02 June 2009

Men! Some of them like to read! And then they like to talk about it!

There are many things to love about this Sunday Stylesesque Boston Globe article about men's book clubs:
  • The snobbery right off of the bat that a club whose purpose is to "drink beer and read Charles Bukowski" is not a real book club. A real book club contains two things: Tea sandwiches and ladies.
  • The discovery that it is someone's job to write a column entitled "Books for Dudes." Dude, how do you get that job? If enlisted I would quickly abuse this privilege by using the word "dude" all the time, but it looks like author Douglas Lord (o lucky man) does the same thing: I spotted 19 in this column alone.
  • The Page 69 rule, according to book club member and man Ned Pride:
    "There has to be something pretty sick going on on page 69 for us to read the book. Either a sexual encounter or some crazy situation. You can count on it with [John] Updike or [Tom] Wolfe, guys like that."
  • I went ahead and tested this rule with a book I had in reach, Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN, and it failed! Therefore, Cormac McCarthy: not for men. (On page 69 the boy is being pulled through a market and "traveling medicine show" by soldiers -- not crazy enough.)
  • The ham-fisted attempt to tie book-club participation to the recession ("At a time when men account for nearly 80 percent of the 5.7 million Americans who have lost their jobs") by suggesting that the groups provide both support and networking. Because in a boom economy, no one needs to read.
Much as I would fully support a man joining a book club (friends, brother, the pseudonymous Camus, whoever) this is just silliness. But maybe something good can come out of it: Using the beer-Bukowski model, describe your fantasy of what a book club should be, man, woman or child that you are.

"Revolutionary Road" out on DVD today

Fans of Kate, Leo, suburban derangement, soul-searching, or seekers of proof that I don't hate every movie: The book is still better, but I stand by my claim that last year's Sam Mendes effort was probably the best adaptation that could have happened. And it's not as depressing as the trend wrought by this week's other book "adaptation" on DVD, "He's Just Not That Into You," a film I was happy to skip and plan to keep skipping.

If you like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, you might like THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE which is now out in paperback. I can't find any evidence of a forthcoming adaptation, but I assume we'll see a Weinstein Co. Best Picture nominee in 3 to 5 years. My casting suggestions are a bit spoilery, so I will put them in the comments.

01 June 2009

Dear People Who Signed Off On This Movie Poster For The Forthcoming Adaptation Of Jodi Picoult's "My Sister's Keeper"

What in the blue hell is this? Did any of you READ this book? Because, if so, you know that this poster is a chocolate-covered lie with warm deception sauce and two scoops of preposterous.

I have no particular love for Jodi Picoult's book and think any movie which dares to promote itself "from the director of 'The Notebook'" deserves to lay on the 4 for $20 table at Blockbuster forever(1), but this is a travesty. For those who don't know, this book is about a girl trying to medically emancipate herself from her parents because they conceived her as a genetic match and donor for her older sister, and now Sis needs a kidney. (Or, by the transitive property, NEVER LET ME GO minus PREP.) In other words, this movie is not at all like THE NOTEBOOK. Nor does it take place in a hazy garden sprinkled with motes of light, but I can see how you would make that mistake!

I haven't seen "My Sister's Keeper" because it doesn't come out until June 26, so I can't properly determine that it will suck. And it does have Alec Baldwin in it -- I believe he plays the kindly bubble man who gives Cancer Kid in the corner her first wand. I have seen "The Notebook,"(2) which suffers from a lot of things including the absence of Alec Baldwin, but I would put it in the genre of romantic drama.(3) This is more like a family drama, and anyone who sees the poster and goes in expecting a string of tender moments will probably want their $16.50 (4) back.

What this poster says to me is: "Medically emancipating yourself can be fun! And your mommy will totally understand. And somewhere in the distance, your sister will blow bubbles preciously, as if to emphasize the fragility of life. Hers, in this case. but never mind that!"

If I didn't already have several reasons to not see this movie, I've sure got one now. Shame on you, New Line Cinemas and Curmudgeon Films (ooh, but good call on the name there).

Poster source: filmofilia.com. It's not their fault.

1. On the other hand, judging by Nick Cassavetes' resume, there's not a lot to talk about. "John Q," "Alpha Dog," a Marisa Tomei-Gena Rowlands buddy movie? From the director who is also some dude in "Face/Off"? I would have gone with "From the best-selling novel by Jodi Picoult."
2. Look, my Spanish host mom foisted a pirated copy on me when I was too sick to say no. Do I get any respect back for watching it dubbed in Spanish? No?
3. I hate "The Notebook," but less for what it was (cringe-inducing script, decent acting by leads with good chemistry) and more for what it represents: It is but one course in the unending dinner of movies I, as a lady of a certain quadrant, am supposed to love and instead can't stand. I have even been accused of not being a romantic because I didn't love "The Notebook," but I would argue it isn't even that romantic of a movie, and I could give you ten better without blinking. I am hardly alone in this belief! And this footnote has clearly wandered off another blog, perhaps Tiger Beatdown.
4. Had an Old Moment this weekend at the movies when the machine spat out this price for "Up" in 3-D. It was the glasses. And the fact that we went to the Empire in Times Square, but the glasses played a part. Pixar, do you know how hard it is to cry with two sets of glasses on? Do you??

May Post-BEA Unbookening: We won't dance, we won't sing, we won't talk

Bought 6
Got 7 to review
Checked out 5 from the library
Picked up 10 at BEA
28 in

Gave away 10 books
Donated 24
Returned 11 to library
Left 1 at JFK, 2 on flights, 1 in a hotel
49 out (21 more out than in)

Here is a BEA fiction for you: I met a lot of authors and it wasn't awkward, after which I enjoyed a delicious meal at the Javits Center and took a hovercraft home. See you in 2010!