28 February 2009

Not here to make friends

“I don’t write books for people to be friends with the characters,” [Zoe] Heller said as she tucked into a spartan brunch of a boiled egg and seven-grain toast. “If you want to find friends, go to a cocktail party.”

She is tall, in tight gray jeans, her hair tied back in a ponytail, with big hoop earrings that reach almost to her prominent chin. “The point of fiction is not to offer up moral avatars,” she added, “but to engage with people whose politics or points of view are unpleasant or contradictory.”

--from the NY Times profile of Zoe Heller, author of WHAT WAS SHE THINKING? NOTES FROM A SCANDAL among others. I don't think it's necessarily so bad to sympathize with fictional characters, but I can see how, in terms of Heller's work, the way the people she writes about are presented, that would be an incredibly annoying criticism to make.

24 February 2009

"The one and only March Madness battle royale of literary excellence"

The Morning News just posted its Tournament of Books bracket for this year. I love brackets, although I feel woefully underqualified to judge most of the match-ups. (The exception: NETHERLAND vs. A PARTISAN'S DAUGHTER -- I'll take the former, please.) I love the idea of the Zombie Pick wherein us common folk can overturn a decision and bring a defeated book back before the finale.

23 February 2009

Well, that happened.

Today I dropped the book I was reading on the subway and it fell into a sleeping guy's lap, waking him up and dislodging his iPod. Why am I writing this down? As a firm believer in subway karma, I want to remember this moment when I fail to even see let alone board a train for the rest of the week (month? year?)

I didn't hurt the guy, luckily, nor did he unleash a tirade of expletives on me. Thank goodness it was only a paperback.

22 February 2009

Jessica Z.

A funny thing happened to me on Goodreads: I made two new friends in two weeks who both recommended the same book to me. It was a book I had never heard of, a debut novel, and being naturally suspicious I became convinced it was part of a very well designed viral campaign designed to capture the 4.7 of you who regularly read this thing.

I am a fool. And I'm pretty sure there was no underhanded ploy at work to pick up Shawn Klomparens' JESSICA Z (albeit at the library). But I liked the book and so far as I can tell it is not getting much attention. It's a sort of mystery with modern geopolitical consequences, and a love story, and manages those boundaries in a pretty interesting way.

Jessica Z. is a San Franciscan copywriter occasionally sleeping with her upstairs neighbor and more or less satisfied with her life. She meets and falls into an intense relationship with an artist who, intentionally or not, always seems a little aloof to her. Then at the height of their affair, she loses him -- in a way that leads her to question their entire relationship.

One reason JESSICA Z. stuck with me was because of the way it handled and manipulated these multiple genres. There's a hint of a quarterlife crisis and a work conflict dominating the book, and then something happens in the first 30 pages that jars you out of what seems like a comfortable world. So that either makes that one of the most plot-dense pieces of serious fiction I've read in a while or one of the most earnest and realistic pieces of chick lit. Not all of this is sustained -- a subplot about a blogger, which naturally I loved, gets dropped, and there are some family issues that stay behind. But if you like looking and thinking about different genres and transitioning among same, this book will be right up your alley. And no one told me to say that. Promise.

21 February 2009

Lush Life

Don't let its bulk deter you.* This book is really good!

One night in the Lower East Side, a white waiter is shot outside a deli. He's with two people, a friend who is so drunk he has no recollection of the night and a coworker who tells police they were held up by two African-American males. But two witnesses only placed 3 people at the scene, and despite the coworker's sworn statement that he called 911, his phone shows no record that he called. Who's really responsible? And is the case getting the attention that the dead man's father, the cop assigned to the case or the waiter's boss, a local business owner, think it deserves?

I was impressed by how much information Price managed to pack into the book without using classical modes of exposition. Apparently he spent a lot of time with cops in the neighborhood in order to write about local procedure, and the novel opens with a routine patrol night -- so routine you expect it to segue right into the crime, and it doesn't. (You should pay attention, though.)

It's that kind of frustration of expectations that made me enjoy this book so much. Occasionally I didn't like that frustration -- there's a revealing moment that happens very early in the book (by design) so the reader knows what happened that night before the police do, which I would have nudged back a few chapters -- but overall I thought it was really effective. I'm definitely looking forward to reading CLOCKERS, which my friend Henry recommended in lieu of LUSH LIFE.

*Paperback comes out March 3 if you're feeling spend-y.

18 February 2009

In which Ed Champion has a breakdown

I can't say this has happened to me, only in that the crying-on-the-floor books I have encountered did not take me three days to read. So I guess I got lucky. I can't wait, though, to see which book brought this on.

16 February 2009

"I shop rarely and poorly. But I would say that if I had to pick something that’s my shopping weakness, it’s books. I’ll buy books I’ve already read because I’ve misplaced them and I love them."
--Isla Fisher, star of "Confessions of a Shopaholic"

15 February 2009

Remembering Updike at the register

Permit me to parade my own ignorance once more: When I was away last weekend, as is my custom, I went into a few bookstores. Well, if you count airport varieties, six to be exact. Of those six, only one seemed to have any interest in selling more Updike in the wake of the announcement of his passing -- and maybe it was just coincidence that THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK was in the front next to other new hardcovers like 2666.

I browsed at two airport bookstores (large and small), 2 branches of 1 indie secondhand bookstore, 1 major chain and 1 major secondhand chain. I pray you believe me when I say I absolutely did not intend to do this research, it was just a lark. (Also I only bought two books among all these stops, and please, where is my damn medal?) One of the indie secondhand bookstores had the best selection of Updike, but you had to go all the way to the back corner to find him properly alphabetized. The small airport bookstore didn't have any; the large one had WIDOWS up front and TERRORIST in the fiction section. The major chain couldn't compete with the secondhand in terms of stock, but it was the only bookstore to have the one I would have bought if I were starting a study of Updike, RABBIT, RUN. (Maybe people in my line of thinking bought out the copies at the other locations.)

I don't think it would be disrespectful to set up a shelf, tag it "Honoring Updike" and have it where casual visitors like me would see it first. I happened to notice at the major chain the display of a writer who is not dead but whose health is a matter of discussion with all of his books -- Philip Roth. My shoppin' buddy asked what book I (though no Roth scholar) would start with, and I noticed the cover turned out on the Roth shelf was THE DYING ANIMAL from 2001. THE DYING ANIMAL is the third in a series, but it was made into a movie last year (with applicable tie-in edition last year. So are browsers more likely to buy the one with Ben Kingsley's name on the cover? They must be banking on it. (I suggested GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, which I prefer over PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, by the way.)

14 February 2009


Cover of a debut novel I'm looking forward to reading, Bernadine Evaristo's BLONDE ROOTS, cover design by Evan Gaffney (source: BN.com):

Detail of a Kara Walker installation from UCLA's Hammer Museum (source: catheadsix):

Not the same at all, I just remembered Walker's New Yorker profile and thought it was interesting. Maybe Gaffney saw the Walker exhibition at the MoMA (which I missed).

13 February 2009

Playwright on a hot tin roof

I do so love a juicy fair-use case, even if I'm abysmally late in posting about it. Meet Mark Sam Rosenthal, an actor and writer who wrote a one-man show called "Blanche Survives Katrina In A FEMA Trailer Named Desire." Does that title remind you of something? You bet! So after Rosenthal's play returned to New York for its second run there Off-Broadway, the estate of Tennessee Williams (currently managed by the University of the South) is coming after him for infringing on their rights. Rosenthal is arguing that the play is a performance piece incorporating elements of but not the entirety of "A Streetcar Named Desire"; the university counter-argues that the show is not in fact a parody.

I think Rosenthal is right, and I've seen the show albeit in its first run here, at the New York International Fringe Festival. I am no legal authority, but I am a fan of Mr. Tennessee Williams; "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is one of my very favorites. And while I didn't love Rosenthal's work, which basically plops Blanche, her sister and the immortal Stanley in New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina, I thought it used the character in an interesting way. To me it was more sad than funny -- Blanche has a long, long way to fall from her former glory -- but it made me think a lot about "Streetcar" and the public image of Katrina survivors, victims, what-else they prefer to be called.

And correct me if I'm wrong, but fair use has a lot to do with revenues collected from appropriating elements of someone else's work, right? This play may be making money, but no one is mistaking it for a Broadway revival and plunking down $125.60 a ticket for it. I'm not saying copyright infringement is wrong so long as you're doing it for free, that would be ridiculous, but I wonder if anyone from the University of the South's legal team has bothered to experience the play and allowed that to shade their conclusions. I suspect not.

09 February 2009

Doesn't fit into my (lush) life

So I'm finally reading Richard Price's LUSH LIFE, sort of. Finally, because this is the third time I have checked this member of the New York Books canon out of the library, and I don't know what I was thinking the first two, because it's really good. Sort of, because I was away all weekend and didn't bring it with me -- something that torpedoed at least my first attempt at reading Price's much acclaimed novel.

There are those who say the hardcover must be sacrificed to save the book industry; there are others who insist it must remain as the ne plus ultra of the printed word. To this latter group I say: Anyone want to carry my books for me? I'm really into LUSH LIFE so far, and yet I made no progress on it this weekend despite having ample reading time, because have you seen this book? It is a beast! I would say it's about the size and weight of 12 iPods, one of which I was also taking with me, but at least you can divide iPods among your various pieces of hand luggage. I probably would have finished it on my trip, too.

I know LUSH LIFE reaped the benefit of its hardcover presentation in one specific way: By getting a lot of positive notices from critics, which definitely contributed to my finding my (circuitous) way to the book. Some narrow-minded outlets won't even look at paperback originals; for this book, given its criminal plot, a paperback printing may have stuck it into mystery or true crime instead of getting it the attention of mainstream critics. But what I want to know is, should the hardcover be saved?

07 February 2009

"Margaret had often wondered at the disturbance that takes place in the world's waters, when Love, who seems so tiny a pebble, slips in. Whom does Love concern beyond the beloved and the lover? Yet his impact deluges a hundred shores. No doubt the disturbance is really the spirit of the generations, welcoming the new generation, and chafing against the ultimate Fate, who holds all the seas in the palm of her hand. But Love cannot understand this. He cannot comprehend another's infinity; he is conscious only of his own--flying sunbeam, falling rose, pebble that asks for one quiet plunge below the fretting interplay of space and time. He knows that he will survive at the end of things, and be gathered by Fate as a jewel from the slime, and be handed with admiration round the assembly of the gods. 'Men did produce this,' they will say, and, saying, they will give men immortality."

-Howards End

03 February 2009

The Hudson ate my library book

One of the pieces of luggage on US Airways Flight 1549, which made an incredible water landing earlier this month, contained a library book checked out to Captain Chesley Sullenberger from his local library. But he won't be paying fines for it: Conscientious, perhaps, that the entire nation is watching him, the captain called and asked for an extension on the book -- which was an interlibrary loan from Cal-Fresno -- and the Danville Public Library not only waived all its late fees, it'll replace the book (whose title I couldn't find, sadly) with a copy dedicated to Sullenberger.

From work on the travel blog I write for I had already concluded that Sullenberger is The Man, and his crew who assisted in the rescue top-notch. This sure doesn't hurt, though. (Source: Jacket Copy via Gawker)

02 February 2009

Eat, Pray It Hits #1, Love

Apparently there is trouble with the film adaptation of "Eat, Pray, Love," despite its connections to Brad Pitt (his production company) and Julia Roberts (who hopes to star). Paramount is putting it back on the shelf so someone else (Sony, perhaps?) can deal with its problems. Take it away, Deadline Hollywood Daily anonymous sources:
Paramount bigwigs decided that the pic should only cost $25M but was too hard to make cheaply because it takes place all over the world and therefore the budget would balloon to $60M with 15% of the gross out the door. As a source put it to me, "The concern is it's a 1-quadrant movie that would have to make over $150M worldwide to make money. So my question for you is: when was the last time a Julia Roberts-lead movie grossed that much? (And Oceans Eleven doesn't count.)" ... I heard Paramount's marketing department doesn't believe this is another Mamma Mia or Sex And The City and turned thumbs-down on its commercial viability. And there's thinking that 41-year-old Julia Roberts is too old to play the 31-year-old lead.
I have to disagree with the naysayers here. This film is going to make a bazillion dollars. How do I know? Because so many people have read this book, especially women, and they will turn out in droves and bring their friends who haven't read it yet. Heck, I was pretty lukewarm on it myself, but I'm very interested to see how they adapt it. I don't know if Julia Roberts is the best person for the part*, but I find her quite likeable (and I hate "Pretty Woman," a distaste which is beyond the scope of this blog). If she's going to step back into a lead role after being largely absent for the past few years, this would be a plum.

This film is going to make a bazillion dollars, and every commentator is going to repeat what was said after "Sex and the City" topped the box office last year: Who knew women buy movie tickets?! Well, this woman does. DHD's Nikki Finke does too, to her credit; she even championed "The Women" for at least attempting to market to the women-over-25 quadrant while acknowledging that the movie was no good at all (or so I've heard).

We'll see where this one goes; meanwhile, I can already think of three huge adaptations aimed at women coming out this year, "He's Just Not That Into You" (apparently a fictional take on the Greg Behrendt self-help book), "Confessions of a Shopaholic" and "Julie & Julia." I will be seeing two of these.

Interestingly, the director named for the "Eat, Pray, Love" adaptation is responsible for the Augusten Burroughs adaptation "Running with Scissors," which was his debut. I'll say this much, watching the movie is way more fun than reading the book.

*Months ago I dropped the name Emily Mortimer, but while I love her, she's not quite right. I'm thinking Uma Thurman, although -- with no judgment -- neither of these actresses is 31 either. Then again, when has Hollywood ever actually tried to cast age-appropriate actors?

01 February 2009

Unbookening 12: Well, It Could Have Been Worse

Mooched 4 books
Got 13 from the library
Got 10 to review
Bought 1 book for myself -- LOLITA, for book club
Brought 2 (more) books back from home
30 books in

Gave away 8 books on BookMooch
Gave away 1 book otherwise
Donated 8 books to Small Thrift Store
Returned 12 books to the library
Returned 1 book I had borrowed
Lent 2 books to my mom
32 books out

If I hadn't paid a visit to Small Thrift Store, this never would have worked. One of the benefits of donating books (versus putting them up on BookMooch): All my books were accepted! Nothing worse than putting a book on BookMooch and discovering that there are already 5 other copies of it for the takin'.

I could have done better but I'm pretty happy with myself.