31 July 2009

Adjectives on the typewriter, he moves his words like a prizefighter

A few years ago in the New Yorker, Nora Ephron wrote about the pain of losing her rent-controlled apartment at the venerable Apthorp building in an essay more moving, to me, than any of her movies. Freshly divorced with two children, Ephron "was planning to live there forever," but as her neighbors changed and her rent went up, she resigned herself to living somewhere that just wasn't as special. It describes the process by which one becomes attached to a place perfectly, and it's why I still make a point of walking past the Apthorp and peeking into its curved entryway now and then.

The place he lives is also a central preoccupation of Harry Lesser, one of the titulars in Bernard Malamud's 1971 novel THE TENANTS. As with Ephron, keeping his sixth-floor apartment is more than just trying to avoid the hassle of moving: Lesser is running out of money after spending the last ten years writing his third novel, which he needs to be great because his second was a commercial disappointment. The building's owner, Levenspiel, is trying to tear it down and build a new and expensive one, but Levenspiel can't legally evict Lesser so long as he pays his miniscule rent -- he can only come by and offer him buyouts which Lesser inevitably declines. (Incidentally, his building is placed at 31st St. and 3rd Ave. in the charmless Murray Hill -- but there is a six-floor building there on one of the corners.)

Convinced he can't finish the book anywhere, Lesser watches the rest of the building fall into ruin around him and tries to write. Then one day, another writer moves in next door -- an African-American squatter named Willie Spearmint, who parks his typewriter there to get away from his actress girlfriend and work on his semi-autobiographical novel (which at one point is titled BLACK WRITER). Lesser, who rarely leaves the building because of fears as to what Levenspiel will do while he's out, gets drawn into Willie's life to a degree neither man is comfortable with.

I picked up THE TENANTS because of New York magazine's New York Books Canon, which yet again would make an excellent path to follow for a book club. Reading its synopsis though, I can't help thinking the editors got it just a little wrong. This book addresses "the existential precariousness of New York real estate," but I could suggest several just as good, and just might get around to same. The building Lesser is clinging to is just the dilapidated stage on which a larger conflict is set the day Willie asks Lesser to read his book and give him advice on it. The men don't share a class, a race or a lifestyle, but their most fervent clashes spring from the approaches they take to their parallel work. Nothing about that conflict feels dated, or even particularly New Yorkish.

Not surprisingly, I enjoyed this book more than my last Malamud experience with THE NATURAL, although the ending similarly left me a little unsatisfied. The author is probably spinning in his grave knowing that in a 2005 movie adaptation, the tenants were portrayed by the (so not Jewish) Dylan McDermott and Snoop Dogg.

30 July 2009

Jennifer Weiner, BEST FRIENDS FOREVER: I used to know you when we were young

From the day they found out they were living next door to each other, Valerie and Addie were inseparable... until senior year in high school, when something happened. The glamorous cheerleader and the dumpy outcast hadn't had much in common before something happened, but after that, they barely spoke. Now Val's a local weather anchor with her face on billboards and Addie's a lonely single artist who still lives in her dead parents' house. Thanksgiving weekend, Val leaves their high school reunion to find Addie, because she's the only one she can trust.

There's always a whoosh of disappointment when an author you generally like delivers something not up to her game. After tearing through Weiner's last book in record fashion, I struggled to even finish this one, which felt in a lot of places derivative of her other books. Addie goes through the same transformation as the heroine of GOOD IN BED, but in a manner that the book builds up to like it's going to be a huge surprise what happens to her, and it's not; in a B-plot, the local police officer takes an undue interest in where the missing man is, which is like GOODNIGHT NOBODY but feels contrived. There is a getaway of sorts, just like in IN HER SHOES but not as resonant, and like CERTAIN GIRLS, there is a last-10-pages-twist that made me feel only vaguely pissed that I hadn't guessed it beforehand. With the something that happened I didn't even get to that level of outrage; it's hinted at so predictably at the beginning, and approximately every 15 minutes thereafter that the revelation is rendered completely pointless.

I might have been able to overlook all those flaws, though, if the central relationship had been better fleshed out. Starting from two people who used to be very close and then had a falling out is an emotional gold mine, particularly when it's rooted in adolescence. You could write a million novels from that place and each one would be different. But since Addie narrates most chapters, and Val doesn't at all, I never bought that Val would seek her out for help, nor that she wasn't just using her for her own purposes. At some point, and this isn't really a spoiler, you are asked to trust that their old bonds are strong enough to be reactivated in a time of trouble, and I couldn't make that leap.

I don't think Weiner is going to start repeating herself; maybe this one just wasn't for me. I'm passing it on to my mom, who went on a tear with her books earlier this year (P.S. it rhymes with whiner, not... yeah) and want to see if she notices the resemblance.

29 July 2009

Where my Zeldas at?

She doesn't just bob her hair, drink dubious gin and horrify her parents: Flappers have feelings too! Janet Flanner's THE CUBICAL CITY is the only flapper problem novel I have ever read, and the fact that it wasn't successful at its time doesn't surprise me considering how it is both arch and melancholy.

A longtime writer for the New Yorker, in her life Flanner palled around with the Lost Generation as a correspondent in Paris, took many a lover of either gender and once tried to stop Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal from fighting. 1926's THE CUBICAL CITY was her only novel, written in medias res, and it disappeared till being revived in the '70s (from whence my yellowed mass-market copy dates).

I couldn't help reading it more as an artifact than a novel on its own, but in that state I found it fascinating. Flanner's writing lacks the punch of a Parker, and most of the fun her heroine Delia Poole has takes places offstage so to speak. We know Delia, a successful illustrator and a great beauty, is always out on the town, but we join her (literally and figuratively) in the wee hours when the doubts take over. She considers but rejects a marriage proposal from a nice boy who wants her to move to the Philippines for him; she attempts to help her parents after her father is cut out of his own business; she watches her Jewish boss (whose portrayal w.r.t. his appetite for success and his fear of going back to the tenements was just this side of offensive) stake his fortune on a project she feels is ridiculous.

These scenes are punctuated by Forsteresque, almost aphoristic statements that comment on the action. Early in the book, Delia and Paul (the nice boy) have just spent the night together and he exclaims how he can't wait to tell his mother that he met her. Delia's actual response is "Tell her if you wish," but then:
"Love did not unite people once they were out from the privacy of the alcove retreat where for long hours two individuals seemed honestly to share ideas and theories, the members of the mind seeming like members of the body over which agreement was part of passion, contact with streets, hose fronts, pedestrians, public lights, disengaged the individual brains again as actively as it disengaged lips and knees and if indeed no struggle resulted, there came at any rate a feeling of isolation which nurtured either generosity or retreat."
The undercurrent of isolation in Delia's life leads her to continually question why she makes the choices she does, but we don't like our flappers to think. I'm sure Hemingway would have hated this book with all its messy feelings, none of which are in Jake Barnes' pants. But I took her seriously, even if no one in her own time did. There are elements of GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT and THE BELL JAR in here as well as its contemporary, MRS. DALLOWAY; if you're interested in those books it's worth digging around for a copy.

28 July 2009

Passing Mrs. Dalloway on the street

Anna Quindlen struggles to justify in her book IMAGINED LONDON: A TOUR OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST FICTIONAL CITY why, having loved English literature her whole life, she never visited London till well into adulthood and writerly fame. Perhaps she was worried about living out the oft-quoted Samuel Johnson aphorism about a man being tired of life when he is tired of London as she paced its blocks looking for the characters she studied and loved; judging by the book, she should have stayed longer.

Quindlen clearly did her reading before she left: IMAGINED LONDON is peppered with Brit-lit tidbits from Shakespeare on up and offers a wealth of recommendation for the armchair and otherwise traveler. (I especially appreciated her section of novels about Blitz-era London and her description of VANITY FAIR's Becky Sharp as a latter-day W.A.G.) But for a writer who paints herself in the book as a writer of details, she resorts too often to generalities to tackle the city itself. She quotes her mother saying about Dickens that he "describes every leaf on every tree in every street in every town," then floats statements like "London is a city of bookshops" and "No one in London will stop and give you directions."

At crucial moments, she seems almost reluctant to engage with the books she's read on the page, preferring Gentle Reader to have read them and know instinctively what she's talking about. Unlike Dickens, she probably wasn't paid by the word for this book, but why apologize for quoting MRS. DALLOWAY at length in a passage about the view to Big Ben? That's what we're here for! She begins a chapter on THE FORSYTE SAGA by disparaging it for being middle-class, then goes on to write about it at length anyway. (She also in passing slags off two things I love, the "Muppet Christmas Carol" and the Tate Modern, and if loving them both is a contradiction, very well then I contradict myself.)

The book may have disappointed me but I'm still curious to check out others in the series it belongs to, in which National Geographic paired writers like Ariel Dorfman and Oliver Sacks with places to write about. Most of them don't have an explicitly literary focus, so maybe I would find less to nitpick in them. (My trip to London was not at all literary except for a night out at the New Globe for "Hamlet," which was magical.) I am grateful to Quindlen for giving me the descriptor "autogeographical," to describe a novel that takes place in a real space with correct identifiable landmarks. Fidelity to the real world isn't always desirable or necessary, but still fun to catch.

27 July 2009

Think about it! Um, they're looking left, and we're running right. Bang! We score! We win.

With a bit of tinkering, two brand-new sections have been added to the sidebar, The Chattering Classes (most-commented recent posts) and Blogmigos (friends, countrymen, the otherwise not to be missed), where they will be joined by the newly restored Goodreads widget. These will hopefully entertain you while I'm away and auto-posting most of this week. See what I did there? This concludes your semi-annual metablog.

26 July 2009

Sixteen candles

Hey, did you know Jeffrey Eugenides' THE VIRGIN SUICIDES was published 16 years ago? The Daily Beast tracked down the rarely interviewed author, who was just in the news as his second book was optioned by HBO (summer is for reruns!), for a look back.

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is one of those books I'm not sure I would have liked so much had it not reached me at a particular moment. I ought to re-read it and re-watch the movie now that I'm not in high school, etc., and see if it still resonates.

25 July 2009

Off to the beach today

...putting the "summer" in Infinite Summer. (Photo taken yesterday while packrastinating.) It's probably not a suitable book, but after I factored in the travel time it seemed to make sense. New Jersey here I come!

24 July 2009

Primed for bookbuying

Remember Unbookening Hero Jessa Crispin who was preparing for a move to Berlin? She revealed on Bookslut that she got her collection of about 1500 volumes down to 17. Incredible! And also kind of scary. Crispin writes:
It's actually nice to admit to yourself that really, if we're all being honest here, you are not going to read WAR AND PEACE, probably ever, so give it to someone who might. It was just that, over and over again. Then you drink your vodka and watch nice young men come over and take your books away in crates and hope the books find better lives.
It's the admitting part where I run into trouble. I still believe I will get around to THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG and VANITY FAIR and THE COLLECTED STORIES OF RICHARD YATES*, so it would be foolish to give any of those away. I've got a lot of good reading years left! As does Crispin, which is why I hope she's out doing a massive rebookening right now. (Or would it be just a bookening? Will someone please adjudicate my fake words?)

*My most spectacular used score of the year so far, out of print and practically pristine from Kaboom Books in Houston, but also a hardcover rivaling INFINITE JEST in size. On the bright side, I'm used to carrying around IJ now, a habit that could be transferred to other books.

23 July 2009

NYC: Nathan Rabin reading tonight!

My fellow AV Clubber Nathan Rabin is reading from his new book THE BIG REWIND: A MEMOIR BROUGHT TO YOU BY POP CULTURE tonight in New York. I'm clearly biased, but it made me laugh, added some entries to my cultural to-do list and gave me a lot to think about otherwise.

I'm so disappointed that I can't make to the reading, but you can! It's 7PM at the (not yet dead) Borders in Columbus Circle. His next and last tour stop, since I know there are left coasters in the audience, is July 30 in Los Angeles.

22 July 2009

Infinite July: Why

(Second part of a two-part post on my INFINITE JEST experience so far; here's the first. Again, carte blanche to skip this, it's mostly for me.)

So as I mentioned, I started INFINITE JEST the weekend of the Wimbledon semis and finals, which seemed like a cosmic "This Way" signpost to keep me reading. (I haven't gotten tired of the tennis stuff so far; it reminds me of John Feinstein's HARD COURTS, a great piece of nonfiction despite being extremely dated now.) For a spell there it felt like I kept hitting all these references that said move forward, move forward, but I realized about 50 pages ago that there are so many references in this book, to movies or other books or bits of cultural detritus, that naturally as you read it you will pick up pieces that seem targeted just to you.

At the same time, these pieces more than the development of plot have pulled me into the book thus far. What has happened so far in terms of "action" would be extremely hard to describe; I'm not sure why the jacket copy doesn't just say "Nice try, sucker! Read the damn thing!" I keep reading because I'm sure those pieces will all lock into place someday, but for now I'm enjoying the exuberance of something so rich and playful in language.

I was beginning to despair of finding an example of Wallace's prose till I hit this one which some of you may recognize. Take it away, page 226:

The Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed was unofficially founded in London in B.S. 1940 in London U.K. by the cross-eyed, palate-clefted, and wildly carbuncular wife of a junior member of the House of Commons, a lady whom Sir Winston Churchill, P.M.U.K., having had several glasses of port plus a toddy at a reception for an American Lend-Lease administrator, had addressed in a fashion wholly inappropriate to social intercourse between civilized gentlemen and ladies. Unwittingly all but authoring the Union designed to afford the scopophobic empathetic fellowship and the genesis of sturdy inner resources through shame-free and unconstrained concealment, W. Churchill -- when the lady, no person's doormat, informed him with prim asperity that he appeared to be woefully inebriated -- made the anecdotally famous reply that while, yes, yea verily, he was indeed inebriated, he would the following A.M. be once again sober, while she, dear lady, would tomorrow still be hideously and improbably deformed. Churchill, doubtless under weighty emotional pressures during this period in history, had then proceeded to extinguish his cigar in the lady's sherry and to place a finger-bowl napkin delicately over the ruined features of her flaming visage. The laminated non-photo U.H.I.D. membership card Joelle showed the interested old black gentleman related this data and more in a point-size so tiny the card looked somehow both blank and defaced.

(I had to type that whole thing up because it wasn't Googleable. You're welcome, Internet.)

That's perhaps a third of a paragraph, and well, just look at it. Is it overwritten, especially compared to the original joke? Absolutely -- any newspaper editor would strike the repetition of the word London in the first sentence first without batting an eye. But it's not the periphrastic scramble of a student trying to finish a paper; it's all deliberate. How different a world the characters of INFINITE JEST live in from our own, I'm not sure, but Wallace has created it and I'm just living in it.

New Yorker critic James Wood coined the term "hysterical realism" to describe this kind of prose as seen in the "big, ambitious" novels of Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and DFW himself. Know what those authors have in common? The ones I've read deep enough into to know, I love. I came across the term a while ago but never have I thrown it around with such loving abandon as I have in my Infinite Summer. I want to buy that T-shirt and join that team. I am that which Wood fears! What a feeling.

In mentally preparing myself for the Long Book, I didn't stop to contemplate why people read INFINITE JEST. I anticipated that it would "get good" eventually. I didn't realize it was going to be funny almost from the beginning in the wry vein that I love. I actually laughed out loud where Hal says to Orin, "Everybody said you'd regret not coming to the funeral. But I don't think this is what they meant." And that's in one of the most harrowing sections so far! (And if I explain it, it will not be funny any more.)

Even amid those torrents of prose, little gems like that turn up. The one bit of DFW warming-up I did was reading his Harpers essay "Shipping Out"(PDF version available here) which became the title essay of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN. In a passage about cruise-ship dining options, Wallace describes one as offering "the sort of coffee you marry somebody for being able to make." I carried that phrase around with me for weeks. I can dig a long, long way for phrases like that.

ETA 7.27: Welcome to everyone coming over from Infinite Summer. Tonight I had dinner with a family whose three children are nationally ranked tennis players, and it was all I could do to not start spouting off about the Enfield Tennis Academy and Eschaton. I'm sure you can relate! Anyway, thank you so much for reading, please make yourselves at home.
"There is some selfishness involved, because I figure that if everyone reads a lot there’ll be more people to have intelligent conversations with. What’s more, if someone reads a book that I haven’t read yet, they can tell me about it and I can learn whether or not I’m interested."

-- Russell Wattenberg, founder of the Baltimore Book Thing, a nonprofit giving away free books in David Simon's favorite city. I don't know, Elizabeth, he sounds like a non-scoundrel to me! (Via non-scoundrel Paul Brady.)

21 July 2009

Infinite July: How

It's been a month since Infinite Summer began. How am I doing? ...I am in the thick of it. Specifically, page 259 of the thick of it, slightly behind the group, not quite a third of the way -- but I think we can all agree, definitely in the thick.

There are so many ways I could write about my experience with this book so far; the Wallacean method would be to write about all of them, but I have a lot to get through yet! So instead, today I will comment on the process of beginning this long book and where to find the time. Tomorrow I'll talk about narrative and style a little bit with an eye to exposing those of you who haven't read the book to what it is, in the most general sense, "about."

(Also, I give you carte blanche to skip this post if you truly don't care; somewhat more so than others here, I'm getting this down so I can remember and go back to it later.)


The truth is that even after living on my bookshelf for two and a half years, INFINITE JEST then spent two weeks on my nightstand being slowly buried by magazines and library books, just another sedimentary layer. Then I was heading home for the Fourth of July, and well, what was the point of bringing it, I had so many other things to read, who brings a 1000-plus page book on a 3-day trip along with other stuff?

I took the book. I read the intro, in which Dave Eggers wrote that he read it at the same age I am now. I will not be defeated by an Eggers! I started reading, and then a glorious thing happened: I really enjoyed it. It didn't hurt that I had a few blocks of unscheduled time or that I hit a tennis section just after watching the Epic Battle of the Andies from this year's Wimbledon. (More on that later.)

Yesterday on the Infinite Summer blog, Brittney Gilbert, who blogs for a living, wrote about the immersive experience she had had in reading the novel, which she strove to "really commit to... the way one commits to a college course or a part-time job or a new lover." She describes taking it into a quiet room, closing the door, lighting some candles. That's her approach, whereas mine, to extend the metaphor, is dragging the book into a coat room at a party for a couple of pages. (Not that I've literally done that with the book. Yet.)

What I'll do is take it with me everywhere for a few days when I don't have an imminent review due, and get as far as I can in those few days. The night I did the biggest chunk was the night I got home from a concert with my ears ringing past the point of sleep. I have read it in a number of morally indefensible public places, including on the subway during rush hour and in the lobby of a movie theatre before watching "Brüno." (There's probably a law against that.) At some point, I wanted to read it more than I wanted to not be self-conscious, and it's amazing when a book can do that, isn't it?

I haven't lost the romance of reading, but to treat this book differently from everything else I read would go against the plot of this blog. Of course I worry about whether the book is being polluted by giving it less than my full attention, but I have determined to draw the line when that worrying cuts into my reading time. My fellow Infinite Summerers, how are you coping?

And the rest of you, what was the last book you wanted to take with you everywhere?

ETA 7/27: Welcome to everyone coming over from Infinite Summer! Here's a funny story: I told my mom about the project a few weeks ago and today I found out she had picked up a copy of INFINITE JEST on vacation, only she hadn't started it yet because "it's not the sort of book you can read in 2 minutes here or there." I was still proud. Anyway, thank you so much for reading and make yourselves at home.
Falling through the cracks from last week: According to the New York Times, LIFE OF PI author Yann Martel just sold his next book for a not-shabby $3 million. The description in the article is not very appealing, so let's skip to the good stuff, connected under the category "whimsical novels about animals": "[WATER FOR ELEPHANTS author Sara] Gruen is working on APE HOUSE, a novel about bonobo apes who star in a reality television show." Oh my.

20 July 2009

Regarding Borders

I have ignored reports of the imminent demise of Borders Books for a long time now, mostly for personal reasons. As a suburban teen staying out of trouble I spent a lot of time at my local Borders because they were open late and didn't require you to buy anything. In sociological terms, it was a "third place," and they tend to pop up when you need them.

Then this weekend two things happened: First, I got a slightly too useful coupon from them offering a free book (list price $8 or lower) with purchase of a new hardcover. I didn't indulge, but I've never seen them offer a free book, and that could be gamed in magnificent fashion with a little strategy. And second, I saw on Reading Matters that Borders UK closed five of its stores, allowing for a spectacular clean-up but not boding well for the chain in general. Included in the closing was its Oxford Street flagship, and that seems like a bellwether.

Even if I hadn't already striped it in the colors of nostalgia, there is a case to be made that big-box bookstores have done some good for America. They're bad for independent booksellers, but what about those towns that didn't have a locally owned bookstore when they got their mall Borders or Barnes & Noble? Like the dinosaurs, they might not be able to adapt to the current climate, but eventually we'll miss them.

Post-Its: Frank McCourt Memorial Edition

ETA 9/23: The public memorial service for Frank McCourt will be held on October 6 at 5PM at Symphony Space (2537 Broadway) in New York. According to their site, a limited number of tickets will be available at the box office between 3 and 5PM that day, or you can stream it online at symphonyspace.org. Malachy McCourt mentioned the memorial earlier in an August 5 article in the Irish Echo, where he also said authors Peter Quinn and Colum McCann would be in attendance. I'm not affiliated with the McCourt family, Symphony Space or Stuyvesant HS; I'm just trying to help!


Even if you didn't like his books (or don't remember what you thought about them when you read them, ahem), the ANGELA'S ASHES author put in 30 years as a New York City public school teacher and that is nothing to sniff at. Here's a nice recollection from RAPTURE READY author Daniel Radosh. We choose to honor this Irish-American with Brits who are sad, drunk and barely legal:
  • Another week, another book list. The L.A. Times runs down the best postmodern books from "Hamlet" (yes, that one) to I AM NOT SIDNEY POITIER. (Two cheers in this corner for THE BLIND ASSASSIN and REMAINDER.) This list is flawed in ways that the commenters have already started pointing out, but I still want to do it. Book club, anyone?

  • "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" opened this past week atop the box office despite being, tonally speaking, a complete mess. If you have any interest in this movie, you'll probably get these not-for-children Harry Potter "Yo Mama" jokes. (via Cristin Stickles on Twitter)

  • From the Department Of What Nick Hornby Is Up To: His new movie, "An Education," out in limited cities October 9:

    Looks like a British version of a movie I once walked out of, but I will withhold judgment. (via lindsayism)

  • Same department, via Emily of The General Point, here's a link to Dominic West reading from HIGH FIDELITY. Oh, that brow.

  • Thanks to Joe Queenan in the New York Times, I'm officially adding literary escort to my list of fantasy jobs, since I love books and am not above playing cruise director. In fact, electronic shingle: If you are an author coming to New York City inexplicably reading this blog and you need a literary escort, drop me a line. I speak Midwestern nice and I know where things are.

  • Finally, I can't remember where I saw Dude Watchin' With The Brontës first, but I love it, particularly every expression on Anne's face. Anne, I'm sorry I never read any of your books.

19 July 2009

"When the shopping was done they often went down a side street of little houses, mostly of wood, in which fishermen dwelt (and here and there a fisherman sat on his doorstep mending his nets, and nets hung to dry upon the doors), till they came to a small beach, shut in on each side by warehouses, but with a view of the sea. Mrs. Carey stood for a few minutes and looked at it, it was turbid and yellow, [and who knows what thoughts passed through her mind?] while Philip searched for flat stones to play ducks and drakes."

--W. Somerset Maugham, OF HUMAN BONDAGE

It's good to know that if he were still alive Mr. Maugham could be my buddy in Aside Rehab.

18 July 2009

How much is your e-book worth to you?

Amazon sells e-books at one price, but publishers want to charge more, says Jack Shafer who asks in Slate, "Does the Book Industry Want To Get Napstered?"

First, let's not use "Napstered" as a descriptor any more; as the kids say, that's so 2000-and-late.* I remember using Napster but let's not deny that piracy has made enormous strides since then.

Second, publishers and Amazon should look into the example set by Amie Street, a music site where the price of a song starts at a set low point and then rises to a capped price as more people buy it. The cost of entry into a new author's work is low, early adopters get rewarded, and all the Nora Roberts fans were going to buy that book anyway.

Third, piracy for e-books won't take off until the Kindle approaches the ubiquity of the iPod, and it is nowhere near close. Back in the day, if you downloaded an mp3 off of Napster, you didn't have to have an mp3 player to enjoy it; you could just listen to it on your computer and, if you got fancy, burn it to a CD. (Or so I have heard.) Here's my personal non-e-book-owning track record on free e-books: Downloaded BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN, didn't read it; downloaded WOMEN AND MONEY, read 2 chapters of it and eventually got it out of the library. And just a few weeks ago, I downloaded THE WOMAN CHASER but kept my Amazon purchase anyway, which was littered with typos, seriously, Black Mask, what is the matter with you?

And fourth, I don't own a Kindle so I can't speak to this, but if there are loopholes by which one might sneak on a pirated book, surely Amazon knows where they are and how to close them. Whether publishers will ask them to is another matter.

* As God is my witness, the Black Eyed Peas will never appear on this blog again.

17 July 2009

What's your reading soundtrack?

Fun Friday poll: Do you listen to music while you read? And if so, what kind of music?

I often read with music on, because I like a bit of background noise when I'm working or puttering around. When I'm reading on public transit, adjust that upwards to "almost always." But it has to be music I know well, and at the same time to which I don't have an overwhelming attachment that will distract me out of my book. Old playlists work well. For me this works on almost any book except the densest stuff -- NIXONLAND is a recent example of a book I more or less read in silence for fear of missing something. (Don't let that put you off, it's worth it.)

Here's a jaunty accompaniment for your thoughts from Camera Obscura:

16 July 2009

How to smell like books

No dead virgins necessary! Via 52 books: A perfumier has created a library-smelling perfume with notes of "English novel, Russian & Moroccan leather bindings, worn cloth and a hint of wood polish."

Writes Christopher Brosius, "I love books, particularly old ones. I cannot pass a second hand bookshop and rarely come away without at least one additional volume... Don't you find there are few things more wonderful than the smell of a much-loved book?" Good point, but we've all been in that library or used bookstore that smells like silverfish and old-lady-basement, and no one wants to bottle that up (or breathe it in).

Even though I'm not sold on the category, here are more book-scented options you won't find in the department store. Not saying that you smell bad! You smell fine! I mean, you smell like you should! However that is!:
Recommended reading:
Chandler Burr, "The Scent of the Nile," the New Yorker on the creation of a new Hermès scent.
Vendela Vida, "America's Deodorized Fiction," Slate.com on the use of evocative smells in literature.

15 July 2009

"Instead of being saved from bad weather and a sprained ankle, this time it's from a giant octopus."

Via a Facebook friend: Quirk Books, publishers of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, will crash the release date for the new Dan Brown book with its latest mash-up, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS, about "Elinor and Marianne Dashwood contending with giant lobsters, rampaging octopi, two-headed serpents and other ferocious sea monsters as they set out on their quest for love."

S&S&S will be co-written by Ben H. Winters, P&P&Z author Seth Grahame-Smith being occupied with the fictional biography ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. I did not make that title up.

To follow up on the last list, here are yet five more classic novels that could be improved by adding zombies:

TOBACCO ROAD -- These sharecroppers are already ugly caricatures of Southern life; at least introducing a family of zombie sharecroppers would give you someone to root for.

THE TIN DRUM -- This year already saw the screen debut of zombie Nazis, so it's really a short hop to zombie Nazi-era self-inflicted dwarfs.

CATCHER IN THE RYE -- What were those children running from, anyway? Holden Caulfield was right when he said the people around him were phonies, but he should have been more specific as a survivor of the Zombie Wars of New York City. (Tomorrow on Wormbook: I am raided by the Salinger estate!)

PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT -- Because shiksas have been taking it on the chin for too long.

MADAME BOVARY -- Emma knows he's a zombie, but she's still in love with him, and his fragrant bite makes her thirst for something better than her bourgeois home. It's like TWILIGHT for married people.

Summer Reading #3: Edith Wharton, ETHAN FROME

Edith Wharton: Author. Society matron. Inventor of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

A stranger comes to a small town in Massachusetts and meets the sad and disfigured Ethan Frome, of whom a wise local says, "Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters." Does he have a tragic past? Oh, does he!

Book-long flashback: Ethan is a poor farmer and the light of his life is a fresh flower of youth named Mattie Silver, who unfortunately is also his disabled wife Zenobia's caretaker. (That's how he met his wife as well; she came to nurse his ailing mother and he couldn't bear to see her leave. Sir, you have a type!) Ethan and Zeena haven't been happy for ages, but predictably she is Not Pleased to see her husband do things for Mattie, like finish her chores or shave regularly. As the song goes, it's tough to have a crush. Then one day, Zeena goes to the doctor a few towns over...

I figured I wouldn't take to ETHAN FROME because of its rural setting, but the difference between Ethan Frome and the similarly torn Newland Archer isn't geography, it's money. The cold hand of poverty clamps around this threesome and squeezes. Ethan dreamed of entering a trade once, but then his parents went crazy and he had to take care of them, and then his wife got sick; we're told he isn't a good farmer and she's a spendthrift. Newland can buy distance from Madame Olenska with livery cabs and European tours, but there's no getting away for Ethan; at the end of the day, he still has to come back to the same house as Mattie. (And she can't afford to go either, her father having died and left the family so destitute she was forced to sell her piano.)

At one point Ethan passes a graveyard with Mattie and is comforted by the thought that she will eventually lie there beside him when they're both dead. A graveyard. It's a remarkable passage, but that's not Puritan, that's downright medieval.

I didn't really enjoy this book, but I am glad I read it, and not just for the score-settling. I hadn't specifically planned to read it in the summer, but it helped with the bleakness factor. (Incidentally, and perhaps inappropriately, if you are feeling a Frome-ish level of dissatisfaction with your life, please get help. Life is too short to live in Starkfield.) When I returned it to the library I found a collection of Wharton short stories set in New York, which I think will suit me better.

14 July 2009

Munroed, Bethlehemmed

James Collins' BEGINNER'S GREEK: Hardcover (Little, Brown)...

Paperback (Back Bay, also an imprint of Hachette)...

From offbeat collage to GOSSIP GIRL reject. I didn't adore the orange-blue combination of the former, but the latter informs me that Mr. and Ms. Modelface are separated by a fake pillar of emotion! I wish them well in dismantling it. (The Munro, for comparison.)

Now, from two same things that are different we move on to two different things that are the same. I was visiting a friend in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania last weekend who suggested we hit the Moravian Book Shop, where I saw these books side-by-side on a table:

North Point Press, 2007

Little, Brown, 2008

"Maybe it's part of a larger plan," I said to my friend. "Why look, the books above them both have horses on the cover." A tired voice called from elsewhere, "That's because they're by the same author."

The Moravian Book Shop, which I vaguely remember visiting once before when I lived in the area, is the world headquarters for signed books by John "the ME in MARLEY & ME" Grogan. They had a really well-stocked spinner of black Penguin classics, most of which I had (paradoxically) never heard of before. They also were prominently featuring a book on how to classify your farts with a blue sound box built into the cover. I watched a woman mash down a few of the buttons and then look horrified at what came out, but really, she was warned.

13 July 2009


Guardian: A ninth Anne of Green Gables book, THE BLYTHES ARE QUOTED, will be published by Penguin this fall. I knew it! I never liked RILLA OF INGLESIDE to begin with and now I am vindicated. (C'mon, she was so spoiled and stupid. She should have been sent off to die in World War I instead of her sensitive brother. Back me up, here, people.)

A.V. Club (yeah, I know): Before HBO optioned MIDDLESEX they picked up the rights to George R.R. Martin's A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series with Peter Dinklage to star. (That's George R.R. Martin as in "is not your bitch.") We got sent a copy of A FEAST FOR CROWS at my college magazine for some reason and one of the editors practically wept with joy over it.

Reuters: The MONEYBALL movie news this week is that Soderbergh is out after Columbia reportedly rejected his script, and here he comes to save the day... Aaron Sorkin is in. Script issues begone! Sorkin had most recently been working on an adaptation of BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE author Ben Mezrich's new book about Facebook, THE ACCIDENTAL BILLIONAIRES.

New York Observer: He may be the only rapper to rewrite history without a pen, but Jay-Z is about to sign a deal with Spiegel & Grau for a book about his lyrics. I suspect it will have slightly more celebrity involvement than the Kanye book, but that may just be wishful thinking.

Finally, despite the bad haircuts inflicted on its stars, its apparent creation of a site called "blogspot @ salon.com" (to double the trademark claims?) and the premise that led to the author's next book, I am looking cautiously forward to this movie:

12 July 2009

There is no compensation for beta-testing my patience

I became a fan of the New York Public Library on Facebook just before it launched its new catalog system this week. I don't have a strong feeling about the new system either way; it took me a minute to find out how to tell if a hold has come in, but it seems to work about as well while being slightly better organized.

Thanks to Facebook, I know I am the only one who feels this way! After the NYPL acknowledged in a status message that users were "experiencing difficulties" with the new catalog it got twice as many comments as the next item, a link to an article on Michael Jackson. Check out these real comments from two separate posted items about the new catalog:
  • "The NYPL should have adhered to the old adage, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' The new system is terrible even without the glitches." (?)
  • "I was not surprised..."
  • "This new system is a bit stressful for the employees as well. :-("
  • "today is NOT the day to do something with the library if you don't need to..." (??)
  • "I can't believe how badly this new catalogue has broken the system! Sure doesn't make me a happy camper specially since the old one worked just fine!!!"
  • "Personally I'd rather see the site go down for a few more days until all this is worked out." (Now that is just crazy talk.)
One epic complainant left both of these notes.
  • "Logging in? The least of the problems. Try six items that were renewed on line on Sunday and when I stopped by the library on Monday I found that they had been un-renewed. I tried four times to renew them, but the system didn't want to do that. Try that the librarian had to go on-line and renew five of the six. Try the fact that the sixth item couldn't be renewed because it was suddenly missing? And you can upgrade all you want, but I get paid to be a beta tester of some second rate glitchy system that feels as if it was designed by some programmer who couldn't find his -ss in the dark with a candle and both hands. Try finding out if it works before opening it up to the public. Well, unless you were figuring that the fines that would result from the system might be good cash flow, right?"

  • "The developers might need time, but OUR TIME? How about I get to send them out to the get my lunch? Pick up my drycleaning? Do my job without pay? Run that DVD over to the library so that although somehow the new system was reporting it as missing (oh, right, missing and somehow still charged to my account), I had it. Oh, right, that's peonage. Not going to happen. As I said, I get paid to be beta testing. And that's what we are doing, being uncompensated beta-testers. How was that acceptable? It seems to me that this thing didn't work right out of the gate. And someone else needed to find that out."
One could argue that judging by this feedback, the public library should never have gotten on Facebook in the first place and allowed people to air their dirty laundry. But those 7,600-plus fans aren't trying to take the library down -- they're just speaking their minds! Hilariously, passionately, and with no self-awareness.

Their comments were much more illuminating than the subsequent inevitable Times article, which I'm not linking to because it contained no reporting besides "Oh look, there was a long line at the Mid-Manhattan library." By chance I also hit the Mid-Manhattan in person last week, something I rarely do unless I'm in the neighborhood or in a hurry. My impressions: Most of what I was looking for wasn't on the shelf, the after-work line was substantial and the security guard spent a long time contemplating my checkout slip. But I expected all these things! How luxurious then to go back to requesting books from my desk with a dirty coffee cup at my elbow. There are bound to be bumps, but the library is moving forward, and I am a fan of that.

11 July 2009

Back to school with J. Courtney Sullivan

It's been a few weeks since I finished Courtney Sullivan's debut novel COMMENCEMENT and I'm still not sure what I exactly want to say about it. Having read the positive-to-glowing reviews it was garnering before I started (I was hoping to use it for Talk of the Town, but it didn't work out), I wondered if they couldn't be attributed to rosy nostalgia -- most professional reviewers of the book being slightly more removed from their college years than I, memory having plucked the bugs off the lettuce of their salad days.

But the depiction of college is the truest thing about this book -- the petty squabbles that dominate campus, the random encounters occasioned by living with your friends, the myopia and the wonder. It's not hard to see why graduates of Smith College, where the book is set (and from where Sullivan graduated), have embraced the book, which I'm told uses real buildings and locations to orient its characters. While not all of the experiences described are positive, it's only out in the real world that the messes can no longer be contained.

COMMENCEMENT follows four Smith classmates reuniting for a wedding on campus four years after graduation. (One character even compares her first year after graduating to "freshman year of life," and so on.) Narrated in turn by each of the women -- the Southern-belle-turned-lesbian, the radical political activist, the nonprofit exec turned young newlywed and, of course, the perpetually single New York City publishing assistant -- the book looks back at their college memories and forward as they struggle with jobs they dislike, relationships moving to new places and milestones looming dangerously close.

The most direct reference point for the novel is THE GROUP, Mary McCarthy's 1963 novel about conflict and conformity among eight women graduating from Vassar in the '30s, but I found myself thinking more about Rona Jaffe's little read 1958 novel THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, about a group of women who meet in a New York City typing pool. Despite being set in the mom-and-pop '50s the novel feels somehow ahead of its time in its approach to ambition -- the women come to New York against their parents' wishes and, once employed, don't seem in that big a hurry to abandon their charming apartments and married lovers.

COMMENCEMENT's characters, coming of age when the quarterlife crisis was invented, must all have one, but none of them are particularly ambitious. That's not the only thing that made it feel slightly behind the times, but it didn't help. Its women are types, not necessarily clichés, but they still ran together in narrative voice to the extent that I had trouble telling them apart, although the girls emphasize among themselves how different they are and how much they've grown apart.

This presents a pretty serious narrative problem when the women reunite in the middle of the book for the wedding, and then after when something happens that would not be out of place in THE GROUP on the melodramatic scale. (A lot of reviews spoil this bit; suffice to say, one character gets into a situation which causes the others to reconnect on very short notice.) The differences is that in THE GROUP it would be over in two chapters, swept off to make room for the next dilemma, and here it consumes the novel. Just as it's about to tip into tedium, this plot strand is resolved in a way that I found, frankly, sadistic. It didn't completely drain my goodwill from the things I liked about it, but it made me wish I had skipped that chapter, and maybe a few of those before.

I'm still glad I read COMMENCEMENT because the combination of heiress-to-50s-career-girls and modern-fiction-set-on-a-campus was enough to pique my interest as it may yours. But if you're going to read it, I'm assigning you THE BEST OF EVERYTHING as a companion piece.

10 July 2009

"At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices."
--James Wolcott in Vanity Fair on the case of self-identification vs. the Kindle and the iPod, into which he manages to work "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," "Clerks" and that classic Hugh Hefner female-acquaintance bit. I think he goes to some unwarranted conclusions here -- what is replacing the movie posters on my walls exactly? -- but cannot resist pointing out that if Kindle users are culturally nude, that would logically make the rest of us cultural never-nudes. You're welcome! Happy Friday!

Theologian missed his calling as book critic

“There are paragraphs that sound like Ayn Rand, next to paragraphs that sound like THE GRAPES OF WRATH. That's quite intentional."
--Vincent J. Miller of the University of Dayton, commenting on Pope Benedict XVI's latest encyclical CARITAS IN VERITATE to the New York Times. I heard the G8's midnight release party for the book was crazy. That Medvedyev will do anything to get out the nun costume!

(via My Open Wallet)

09 July 2009

WAR AND PEACE is still overrated

From the Hawaiian office: Newsweek has come up with what it's calling the "Top 100 Books: The Meta-List," formed by an unholy hybrid of 10 lists including the Modern Library lists of fiction and nonfiction, but also Wikipedia's biggest best-sellers and Oprah's book-club picks. (I'm not certain Oprah herself would call those the best books ever.) The list is more than a little British, Greek- and Roman-friendly and 4 percent Shakespeare; The Lesser Tolstoy tops the list with 1984 and ULYSSES nipping at its heels.

Accounting for the facts that I have read one book in the His Dark Materials trilogy and the ODYSSEY but not the ILIAD, and rounding up on the Bible, I have read 50.83 books on this list. Dare you best me on the field of literature?

08 July 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri's short story "Hell-Heaven" from UNACCUSTOMED EARTH is available for free for now in 10 e-mail installments from Dailylit. (For the spam-averse, their newsletter arrives only about once a month.)

The Royal Nonesuch Farewell Tour '39 (Women And Children Not Admitted)

This week in ironic literary fashion, via the Chicago Tribune: A store called "Novel-Tees" offers T-shirts inspired by fictional locations by Dennis Lehane, Chuck Klosterman and (at left) Nick Hornby. Put more simply, it's Glarkware for books. The proceeds benefit the National Association to Protect Children, which works on issues related to the federal Internet Crimes Against Children task force.

You could go a million cool places with this concept. I'd love to see some corporate-challenge gear inspired by THEN WE CAME TO THE END but I don't think the agency is ever named in the book... pity. Where else?

In penance for once again invoking Rob Gordon (summer is for reruns!), top 5 literary Threadless tees:

1. Attack of Literacy
2. Shakespeare...
3. Movies...
4. Haikus are easy
5. Books are good for you

07 July 2009

Possibly watchable: HBO has optioned Jeffrey Eugenides' MIDDLESEX for an hour-long series produced by Rita Wilson. It's been a big Hollywood year for the Pulitzer Prize winner (and Brown alum!); a big-screen version of his short story "Baster," which originally appeared in the New Yorker, has been filming this spring with Jason Bateman, Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Aniston.

I shudder to think what HBO's advertising team will do to promote this show after recently slathering New York with "Pimp" and "Ho" posters for "Hung."

Odds, also ends

According to the 10,000-word Vanity Fair profile which I have yet to finish, former vice presidential candidate, former mayor and former governor Sarah Palin will publish two versions of her memoir, one with "supplemental material on faith" from the Bible-selling Zondervan. This could set a dangerous precedent for made-to-order literature, but did we expect less? (Via Bookslut.)

Sequel news! Author Vikram Seth has written a follow-up to his family epic A SUITABLE BOY, also known as my big fat pretentious Indian novel of yore. A SUITABLE GIRL comes out in 2013 and will focus on the grandchildren of original heroine Lata, the seeker of the suitable boy. I'm telling you now so you have time to read the first one! (Via Quill & Quire)

Which one of the seven types of bookstore customer are you? The commenters got all exercised but I thought it was funny and likely true. I'm a Browser with a sideline in Grazing, which is why I can never just waltz in and pick something up. (Via fuckyeahreading)

I can't remember where I saw this first, but Awful Library Books is kind of genius. My sister once found a book in an elementary school library called WHEN WE GO TO THE MOON -- who knows how many bouts of shelf-tidying it survived.

06 July 2009

Books That Make You Cry (Maybe)

The holiday has left me in a bright & shiny mood, so it seems like the appropriate time to talk about sad books. (We'll save the list of books that make you cry of laughter for a more dire time, like... November.) These books moved me, even if they didn't move me to tears, so in case you've been having too much of a good time:

Sad Childhood Tie Wilson Rawls, WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS/ Katherine Paterson, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA. I wasn't allowed to have a dog growing up, but I did have a best friend.

Sad And True That You Can't Put Down Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, RANDOM FAMILY. LeBlanc followed this Bronx family for over 10 years and you want them to improve their lives so badly, even when it seems like they're stuck in the same self-destructive cycles. This book is a nonfiction Tolstoy novel, and everyone should read it, but it's hard to take sometimes.

Sad But Beautiful Elizabeth Hay, LATE NIGHTS ON AIR. I named this my favorite book of 2008 and at its conclusion felt what the Portuguese call saudade -- an immense longing for the characters and the situation that could never come to pass again.

Sad... Or Frustrating? If my mom were making this list COLD MOUNTAIN would probably top the sad heap as the saddest. Without giving away the ending, when I finished the book, I just felt fooled. I would put MY SISTER'S KEEPER into this pile as well.

Saddest (And True) If you can read Rob Sheffield's LOVE IS A MIX TAPE and walk away unmoved, you should probably put yourself on the transplant list for a heart. Sheffield and his wife met as DJs and fell in love through music, and then one day she fell over dead, just like that. He uses the device of mix tapes he made and they exchanged, and I meant to make some of them in playlist form, really I did, but it just got really dusty in my apartment, okay?!

Has a book ever made you cry... that you can admit?

05 July 2009

June Unbookening: In which I might have gotten in a van with Borat (but then again, maybe not)

That's Unbookening Hero Jessa Crispin of Bookslut, in the process of moving from Chicago to Berlin.

Bought 5 books
Got 21 to review
Checked out 14 from the library
40 in

Gave away 7 books
Donated 25
Returned 1 I borrowed
Returned 8 to library
41 out

A particularly difficult category to deal with, unbookening-wise, are books that come for whatever reason with bad memories. Don't feel like you have to share, but here's a fairly innocuous example of mine: Six weeks after I moved here, I got locked out of my apartment on a rainy night with about $10 but no phone. (I went out for pizza and the key fell off my keychain; my friend a block away was not home.) I still had the key to the downstairs door, but my genius plan to sit on my grody welcome mat and hope one of my roommates would magically come home soon failed, and I ended up calling one of those 24-hour locksmiths who advertise by sticker. They sent a dude who looked like Sacha Baron Cohen who drilled me in and then accompanied me in, yes, a sketchy van, to the ATM to withdraw an obscene amount of money for the privilege.

Do I really want to be hanging onto the book I was reading (of course I had a book with me, just nothing useful) as I was trying not to fall asleep on my own doorstep and cursing myself for the millionth time? I'm officially putting that rookie mistake behind me by packing the book off to Small Thrift Store heaven. Be thus freed of your errors.

04 July 2009

12 For 6: The Best Books I Read In 2009 So Far

Because what's more American than recklessly ranking shit? Truth be told, this list was a little too easy to put together -- I'm hoping to be overwhelmed by choices in the next six months. (Want something that has had time to age a bit? Check out my list of the best books I read last year.)

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, WATCHMEN -- Superheroes grapple with their powers in a world that doesn't need them any more in this landmark graphic novel, which was adapted into a movie this year. (Begun in 2008, technically, but the first book I really liked this year.)
Richard Price, LUSH LIFE -- The effects of a late-night murder ripple through the Lower East Side. Took a lot of complaining, but I'm glad I got around to it.
Arthur Phillips, THE SONG IS YOU -- A lonely advertising executive and an up-and-coming singer make an unorthodox connection in New York City (review here). Also, the book I read this year that I'm most likely to re-read first.
Glen David Gold, SUNNYSIDE -- The lives of three men unexpectedly converge during World War I, and only one of them is Charlie Chaplin (review here).
James Ellroy, LA CONFIDENTIAL -- Three L.A. cops in the 1950s get wrapped up in the investigation of what looks like a routine coffee-shop robbery but turns out to be anything but. Also suitable for airports.
Cormac McCarthy, BLOOD MERIDIAN -- "For even if you should have stood your ground, yet what ground was it?" This book is so fresh in my mind I can't bear to boil it down to a sentence, but if you've read it I have some thoughts here.

Nick Hornby, SHAKESPEARE WROTE FOR MONEY -- The third and final collection of Hornby's reading columns for The Believer only underlined how much they will be missed by book lovers everywhere. Clearly if you're here they are up your alley, so start with THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE.
Leslie T. Chang, FACTORY GIRLS -- The best reported book of the year as a former Wall Street Journal correspondent spent years with young Chinese women who leave home for economic opportunities unheard of in the previous generation.
Peter Carlson, K BLOWS TOP -- Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev's visit to the U.S. in the 1950s has to go down as one of the most surreal episodes in the Cold War (review here).
Joseph Berger, THE WORLD IN A CITY -- An immigrant looks at the new melting pot from the vantage point of New York neighborhoods succeeding and struggling with cultural change.

So what are your favorite books of the year so far?

03 July 2009

The Best Bad Writer Ever: An Interview With 2009 Bulwer-Lytton Winner Eric Rice

You loved his sentence about a lady who looked a little like a bird. Now, in an exclusive WORMBOOK interview, detective category champ Eric Rice talks about bad writing and good reading.

How did you first hear about and decide to enter the Bulwer-Lytton contest?
I first heard about the Bulwer-Lytton contest a few years ago. I didn't specifically decide to enter it at the time, but I thought it would be fun to try to come up with some entries. It wasn't until this year that I actually actively tried to think of some opening lines that would be worth entering.

What does it take to write a truly bad sentence? How is the process different from writing a regular sentence?
I think that to write a really bad sentence, you first have to know what makes a sentence good. Not rules, but guidelines about what makes a sentence flow well, what makes it sound effortless instead of awkward, etc. Then deliberately make all those mistakes. What I really like about the sentence I wrote is all the interruptions and irrelevant clauses that completely mess up the pace of the sentence. Several people have told me that their favorite part is that I emphasize that the birds are pink a couple of times, and then state that "she wasn't wearing pink."

I think the biggest difference between writing a good sentence and writing a bad sentence is the amount of laughing you do when no one is around.

Being as vague as you have to, what is your non-writing-contest-winning occupation?
I pay the bills by cooking and baking.

You won the detective category; would you describe yourself as a fan of detective fiction? If not, what do you like to read?
I'm somewhat a fan of some detective fiction. I lean more towards the thriller side of mystery fiction, especially if there's a serial killer involved. I also love science fiction, horror, psychological thrillers, anything funny, parodies. The list is very long. I've whittled my library down to just over a thousand paperbacks, and about three hundred hardcovers. It used to be larger.

What kind of writing do you do when not attempting to craft the worst sentence possible?
I'm very new to trying to write fiction myself, so I don't know if I've really settled on a style or voice yet. The few stories I'm currently working on are all science fiction/fantasy. That's probably what I have the most experience reading, so it's easiest to fall into that sort of style. I'd like to try to come up with a noir detective parody, sort of Douglas Adams meets Mike Hammer. I think that would be fun.

Thanks Eric! We feel inspired.

No smile to be his umbrella

A couple months ago I wrote about a book called JESSICA Z. that I had been recommended on Goodreads and liked; later I got a note from author Shawn Klomparens thanking me for it and asking, would I like a copy of his new book? Well, why not? He didn't ask me to write about it, but it strikes my fancy, so I will, but now you know.

The plot of the book is an inversion of a very very common trope in chick lit: Woman with life falling apart gets her physical act together and begins a new chapter in her life (usually via new job and new city), with the rebirth of romantic life following it. Instead of the sad single lady of convention, we meet Andy Dunne, a radio weatherman whose wife has just filed for divorce after cheating on him repeatedly with more than one person. Andy deals with this news and with the suspicion that his job is about to disappear into a corporate reorganization (not that a San Diego in a massive drought needs its own weatherman anyway) by drinking heavily. Near the eye of his personal storm system, Andy goes on a random audition and is chosen to host a new children's show for more money and fame than he's ever had, but they need him looking happy to do it -- in the next eight weeks. As set-ups go, I thought it was pretty clever and reminded me a lot of Jonathan Tropper, whose books aren't personal favorites but who is very in vogue right now with tales of men in crises that don't have to do with mistresses or motorcycles. Andy is an acerbic guy, inclined to see the funny in the serious and vice versa, and even in his personal Slough of Despond he was entertaining as a narrator.

Several twists and turns await Andy from there, but that was part of the problem I had with the book: That thread reinvention was enough for me to be interested in the story, but it got doubled over with personal tragedy and family issues and even a little PTSD, and none of those elements were quite as compelling. Andy's niece, for example, a high school film nerd who eventually comes to stay with him for a few weeks, has one very memorable turn at the beginning of the book and then pops up now and again with problems that Andy has to resolve; I got why he was involved, but her issues didn't really matter to me.

The other thread that's carried through the book besides Andy's career crisis is his relationship with a married coworker named Hillary, with whom he's been in (unconsummated) love with for years. My friend on Goodreads with whom I have discussed JESSICA Z. at length hated Hillary and found her completely manipulative and annoying, but I thought the position she and Andy were in, as work friends with the occasional frisson of something else, was an interesting narrative complication -- up to a certain point. I won't spoil that point, but I couldn't become invested in the outcome after that. After the umpteenth time that she re-sets the terms of their friendship I realized I was waiting for a moment of clarity to happen on his part, and that probably says more about my moral framework than the novel, but there you go.

Overall, I think I liked the book slightly more than JESSICA Z., and its ambiguous ending cast (for me) hope over its muddled middle. If you liked HOW TO TALK TO A WIDOWER or THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER, you'll probably like it more than I did.

02 July 2009

Conrad v. Conrad

From the Daily Beast: Can you tell the difference between a 20th century novelist and a 21st century "writer" famous for starring in an MTV reality show?

Conrad once wrote of "The Hills," "[LC and her friends] live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset." Just kidding! That's actually from HEART OF DARKNESS about women in general.

Salinger wins! (Stateside.)

Anyone going to Europe soon? 60 YEARS LATER: COMING THROUGH THE RYE has officially been banned in the U.S. on grounds of copyright infringement. Of course, you can get it used on Amazon.co.uk or on eBay for £7.99 ($13.13) as I write this. (Do it! Be a rebel!)

01 July 2009

Filmbook-to-Be: Borne back ceaselessly into the past

Via one of my Facebook friends (language, two small photos potentially NSFW): Storyboards for Michael Bay's "The Great Gatsby," starring Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis from "Armageddon" as Nick and Gatsby, Megan Fox (what's the correct punctuation for a massive eye-roll?) as Daisy and a wolf as Meyer Wolfsheim.

This document is thankfully a joke, but Australian director Baz Luhrmann announced last year he would be adapting Fitzgerald's book yet again for the big screen. (Apparently this is also a plot line on "Entourage" with Martin Scorsese the fictional director; judging by his adaptation of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, he would be faithful to the book without really capturing its essence. I gave up on "Entourage" ages ago, but if it were true you know Leonardo DiCaprio would be playing Gatsby... yikes.) Luhrmann is a love-it-or-hate-it director, so you already know where you'll fall on his take; you can probably figure out where I stand given that I didn't just call the news "the end of the world as we know it." (Really, Sarvas? ...Really?)

Luhrmann's as well-equipped as anyone to handle it. All three adaptations of "The Great Gatsby" now available on DVD are, to say the least, frustrating. It's been years since I saw the Redford-Farrow-Waterston adaptation, but I remember it being very slow and Mia Farrow being annoying. The 2000 TV version is weighed down with a confusing performance by unknown-to-yours-truly Brit Toby Stephens, although the casting of Paul Rudd as Nick Carraway is a stroke of genius. And then we have "G," the "urban" version set in the P. Diddy White Party Hamptons -- yes, I Netflixed that on purpose, and I tell you it is not worth your time. (A silent version has been completely lost, and no one cares enough about a 1949 Alan Ladd version to get it on DVD.)

GATSBY seems to break the unwritten Hollywood rule that books get just one shot at the big screen. Bookforum wonders why so many Fitzgerald adaptations aren't very well-regarded, and points out rightly that "the problem might have to do less with the chemistry of movie stars and more with a film culture that insists on seeing [his] stories as swooning romances in the first place." (If anything, last year's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" could have used more romance, or at least more emotion.) According to the Bookforum article, Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart actually wrote to Luhrmann begging him not to make this latest version, but he might just be protecting his legacy from working on the Redford version. But none of the adaptations before can touch the book and there's no reason to believe this one will.