30 April 2009

Walk, drink, listen to readings

Sorry this is turning out to be a New York-centric week on the old blog, but I keep running into good stuff that is both book- and city-related. Today's recommendation: The New York Lit Crawl on May 16. I don't know how exactly this works, but I gather it's a San Francisco import where people go from bar to bar and listen to authors read. If I were in town that weekend I would definitely be checking it out.

29 April 2009

Somebody's been reading the Style Section!


Right on the heels of last week's article about how the Kindle hides what you're really reading, I saw this ad campaign on the subway shuttle for M-Edge Kindle accessories. (Please excuse the blurriness; it was taken on a moving train with my non-smartphone.)

They are sharp, and as someone with a carefully considered iPod case I can see the utility of them as well.

28 April 2009

Announcing the next Talk of the Town topic

We haven't quite nailed down a date yet, but May's Talk of the Town episode will feature an interview with author Maria Espinosa, whose new book DYING UNFINISHED was released in January. Details to come as soon as I'm done practicing my radio voice.

27 April 2009

It may have been a mirage, but I'm pretty sure it was a...

About a month ago on vacation I read Lawrence Block's A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, a detective novel in which a P.I. investigates the death of an attractive young woman and finds she may be just the latest in a series of grisly killings. The book is set in New York City, and while most of its locales were remote enough from me that I didn't actually feel any fear, there was one -- a stretch of Park Avenue South which a near-victim describes as the place where she was plying her trade as a sex worker when she was abducted.

As it happens, I do some business at a widget factory* nearby and can occasionally be found making widgets late into the night.** I always thought of the neighborhood as pretty good -- its branch gym is freaking spectacular compared to mine -- so it surprised me that this kind of trade would be going on there, even late at night.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES was published in 1992 so I took its gritty details to be a remnant of the pre-Giuliani era, a time in which I never lived in New York but keep hearing about as either the best or the worst of times. Besides, the only people I usually saw out after a day of industrious widgetry were workers from the 28th Street Duane Reade taking smoke breaks and clumps of tourists who had taken a wrong turn from Union Square... until early this morning.

I would like to give Ms. 3:15AM the benefit of the doubt -- after all, I was out there too, albeit dressed more like the hipster grifter*** than in shorts and fishnets -- but what struck me as odd was that she didn't seem to be going anywhere. There's pleasant loitering, such as I was doing earlier that afternoon on Amsterdam Avenue in the sunshine, and then there's a deserted street just begging to be crossed. She lit up a cigarette and sank down to the sidewalk looking more bored than anything, while I was so tired I found myself putting the word "cab" into this little ditty (0:57 if you're in a rush). Cabs were scarce that night, so I could overlook her pacing east from Park and back again, but when I finally found one she didn't even attempt to beat me to it.

It was a glimpse into a different New York -- or a sign that I really should try getting more sleep.

*much more colorful than the truth
**behind two levels of security, Mom
***if you haven't heard of this story yet, perhaps don't read New York-centric media, you are simply missing out. As a correspondent put it, "Never, ever start a relationship with a tattoo as stupid as 'I love beards.'"

25 April 2009

Easiest rhetorical answer ever

Of course you can't tell it's Proust, and that's worked out really well for the iPod, or so I've heard. Clearly the point of this article was for author Nicholson Baker to confess he used to be super pretentious:
Years ago, [Baker] walked into a temporary job with a copy of ULYSSES. “I wanted people to know I wasn’t just a temp,” he said, “but rather a temp who was reading ULYSSES.”

24 April 2009

Odds, also ends


  • Your eyes don't deceive: That's best-selling author Jennifer Weiner surveying the virtual crowd before her July release BEST FRIENDS FOREVER. I don't think she needs any help, but if I were her I would advertise on blogs I like (could be reading, could be otherwise) and do a major author tour.
  • Flavorwire just had a little wrap-up of reading-related iPhone applications. The author concludes that reading on your iPhone is "worth it to carry a few books on it for when you get restless at a bar" and goes on to suggest reading ULYSSES at 1AM in bars, which coincidentally is going to be the theme of my New York-based social club should I ever found one.
  • Speaking of New York and fancyphones, a Brooklynite used his subway commute to write an entire novel -- 45 minutes each way, twice a day. This is clearly a scheme for someone with supreme focus, but I can see how it would work. The author is Peter Brett, and the book is called THE WARDED MAN. Let's hope the MTA doesn't hear about it, or they'll just cut more service under the guise of making us all Joyces.
  • Online reading clubs are the new hot thing: The New Yorker Book Club is "discussing" DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON, which I recommend, while New York magazine kicked off their "Vulture Reading Room" feature with Charlotte Roche's WETLANDS, the racy German bestseller that is either a boundary-breaking erotic classic or a dirty, dirty book. (I don't know since I haven't read it yet.)
  • On a more personal yet still literary note, yesterday outside my apartment I nearly bumped into one of my high school English teachers from back home. While it would have been indecorous to point out, I am always a little pleased when this happens in New York, the "small town with a subway." He's not teaching any more or even working at my high school, but I'm reasonably sure that wasn't my class's fault.

23 April 2009

Be assured I am both yellow-stockinged AND cross-gartered.

Cheers to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley for proclaiming today Talk like Shakespeare Day in honor of what would have been the Bard's 445th birthday. It probably won't be as popular as Talk Like A Pirate Day, but you can message @ShakespeareSays on Twitter for help and chuckle over other people's Shakesperiences.

By the way, my first Shakesperiences? Reading "The Tempest" and watching, cringe all ye purists, the Baz Luhrmann "Romeo and Juliet." And yours?

22 April 2009

Should literary novels be more like "The Wire"?

...is the title of a New York Observer article which takes a Bookforum essay about literature and the downturn to a bunch of novelists who, according to the essay writer, should not have written the books they wrote. Walter Benn Michaels criticizes books that take place in the past, most notably BELOVED and THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, because they aren't relevant to our current problems and in fact distract from those problems by reminding us that things can always be worse. Memoirs (too myopic!) and stories that emphasize ethnic over class difference are also out.

What's in? Novels about "society," for which Michaels provides the examples of AMERICAN PSYCHO and HBO's "The Wire," though only one of those is a book last time I checked. Naturally, the authors the Observer asks to account for their inability to write more generally claim they either have already done what's been asked of them (Wells Tower) or at least thought about it (Joanna Smith Rakoff), because apparently there's nothing indecorous about asking a writer point-blank "Why didn't you do it differently?"

"The end of the novel is sort of like the weather, people are always talking about it . . . but maybe this time, we’ll get some results," Michaels writes. This caught my eye because I have just started watching "The Wire," approximately 5000 years after the rest of the world crowned it the Best Show Ever. Michaels heaps on:
If AMERICAN PSYCHO harks back to the great novels of Edith Wharton—novels of manners in which the hierarchy of the social order is always what’s at stake—"The Wire" is like a reinvention of Zola or Dreiser for a world in which the deification of the market is going out rather than coming in.
I like "The Wire" so far although I'm only partway through season 1, but my viewing is undoubtedly filtered by having read David Simon's books HOMICIDE and THE CORNER. While both address the problems of Baltimore generally, in some ways they fail Michaels' test: They depict the past (the '90s) in specific detail (i.e. naming the bars where policemen drink) and develop particular characters, some of whose problems have to do with their ethnic and cultural background. Of course, Michaels would probably retort that Simon later learned his lesson, but I don't totally buy that either.

21 April 2009

Meet your Pulitzer Prize winners

In fiction: Elizabeth Strout, OLIVE KITTERIDGE
In nonfiction: Annette Gordon-Reed, THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO
In biography: Jon Meacham, AMERICAN LION: ANDREW JACKSON IN THE WHITE HOUSE
In poetry: W.S. Merwin, THE SHADOW OF SIRIUS
In general nonfiction (how is this different?): Douglas A. Blackmon, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME
In drama: Lynn Notage, RUINED

I'm 0 for 6 on these... anyone else?

Also, this week's sign of the apocalpyse (TM Sports Illustrated): Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin of the Mesa, AZ East Valley Tribune shared an award for best local reporting for a five-part story on a local sheriff's undue focus on immigration enforcement; Giblin has since been laid off as was metro editor Patti Epler who shepherded the project. The paper's publisher told Portfolio that she didn't think it diminished the prize at all. Hmmm.

20 April 2009

So little space on the nightstand

I've been starting a lot of books lately. Notice I didn't say reading a lot, because I've somehow gotten to the point where I have a lot of half-finished books sitting around, things that I've set down to work on something else but never managed to pick up. I look like a slouch but I do intend to finish all of these, someday...

Anna Quindlen, IMAGINED LONDON
Started when: I was on the flight back from the Dominican Republic.
And why: Recommended by my madre.
Possible obstacle: Was hoping to use it for a different writing project, which is why I put it down in the first place, opting instead to finish a book I could leave on the plane guilt-free.

James Ellroy, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL
Started when: I had just gotten back from the D.R.; this was one of the two books I brought and didn't read.
And why: I really liked THE BLACK DAHLIA and wanted to experience more Ellroy.
Possible obstacle: Ellroy's novel is less a procedural than a series of overlapping procedurals told from multiple characters' points of view. The longer I stay away from this on the harder it might be to get back into it.

Gerald Kolpan, ETTA
Started when: Right after I returned hme
And why: I was thinking about reviewing it. Upon reading some I felt it maybe wasn't a good fit, but was still sufficiently interested to keep reading.
Possible obstacle: The only hardcover in this bunch.

Janet Flanner, THE CUBICAL CITY
Started when: This past weekend.
And why: I was headed out on the town and swapped my usual carry-all for something smaller before realizing none of my books fit in it. What's that you say? Go out without a book? Please. I think we know each other better than that.
Possible obstacle: Its diminutive size could also work against it as, with room for only one book, I'd be more likely to take a more substantial one where there is room. Maybe I should just leave it in the handbag which required it.

Ted Conover, WHITEOUT: LOST IN ASPEN.
Started when: I can't remember.
And why: I took a college class in long-form writing in which we read an interview with Conover, a journalist who specializes in experiential writing where he goes undercover as a prison guard or rides the rails with hobos. For this one, he drove a cab in Aspen, which doesn't sound quite so rigorous, but I have been to Aspen several times and thought it might be interesting.
Possible obstacle: Not remembering what has happened in the book so far? I was only a chapter or two in, though, so it shouldn't be too hard to regain that ground.

19 April 2009


I was at home and working this week, but it felt like a vacation. With one of my sisters in town, my usually prosaic off hours became a mad dash to see and do things I either would never have thought of or had been putting off. I love being a tourist in my own town.

One of the places we stopped by was this park near the Hudson River whose name I didn't notice (and, somehow, can't find online) -- just one of those tiny corners of Manhattan I seem to forget about and suddenly rediscover. A policeman strolled the oval looking bored; across the lawn, a blond man and a curly-haired girl rehearsed some kind of scene with a coach in a white T-shirt. We were flush against the West Side Highway but it seemed preternaturally quiet inside, despite the pile of bikers in the grass and the older couple on the bench next to us. New Jersey looked on, placid.

I'm looking forward to coming back this summer, with a book, a friend, or both.

Photo: ShellyS

18 April 2009

Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd read passages from romance novels

Rush to repurpose these clips in 3... 2... 1...


Via 52books.

17 April 2009

What Zooey Deschanel is reading

Via Gothamist:

So being named after Franny and Zooey, we wanted to know how many times you had read it. Once. Just once. Maybe twice.

Are you reading anything right now? Yeah, I'm constantly reading. I read like ten books at once, I'm like one of those people. I got one of those Kindle things. So awesome. The Kindle 2. I'm reading this book called "Under the Banner of Heaven."

Do you have trouble finishing books when you're reading ten at once? When I'm reading like five books at once, I feel like I never finish any of the five. Yep, that's a big problem. But I always have tons of scripts to read to so my fun reading is books and magazines.

Do you subscribe to any magazines? On my Kindle, I subscribe to The New Yorker.

Well, look at you. Well, look at me.

Deschanel's musical project She & Him is officially endorsed by Wormbook as a great soundtrack for reading (and other things).

16 April 2009

Your Assistance Please: Fiction about college (for the non-jaded)

The trauma of the month of April for high school seniors is unbearable at the time but fades gradually with the years. This year I got to relive the nail-biting all over again as my younger brother and sister waited for their letters, but at long last the decisions are in, the commitments sealed. I'm so proud of them, not that I was surprised when the shadowy folks in admissions were impressed.

As a potential graduation present, I wanted to recommend them some fictional books about college, which take place in college or somehow reflect the "college experience," but I'm coming up a little short. To appreciate a great academic satire like LUCKY JIM, they'll probably have to spend some time in a department or at least get to know some grad students, good and otherwise. Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY is awesomely moody, and has twins in it to boot, but also a plot twist which would be inappropriate under the circumstances. And I was only in high school when I read JOE COLLEGE, so maybe it wasn't as stellar as I remembered.

All of this is to say that maybe the great American twenty-first-century liberal-arts college novel has not been written yet. Well, at least I'll know to whom to dedicate it. But I must be missing something! Got any great fictional books about college to praise?

15 April 2009

A book club you will want to join.

I try not to cross-breed my book-related activities, but if you read this you might be interested in Wrapped Up In Books, the brand-new Onion A.V. Club online book club. We'll be virtually discussing the first book, Katherine Dunn's novel GEEK LOVE, starting May 11. There will be blog posts of varying opinions and a live chat. Come by, it should be fun.

14 April 2009

Never go in against the offspring of an English teacher when death is on the line!

--So she said, "Ellen's probably into that Jane Austen stuff, right?" And I said, well, actually, one of her favorite books is THE HOUSE OF MIRTH--
--I probably like it better than any Jane Austen book, yeah--
--She digs HOUSE OF MIRTH, and ETHAN FROME too--you have read ETHAN FROME, right?
--Um.
--You haven't read ETHAN FROME?
--Oh no. Oh man.
--Because I said "Yeah, she really likes ETHAN FROME too..."
--There goes my last chance. Now I have to read it and like it, or else.
--[laughter]
--Easy for you to say. "You haven't read ETHAN FROME? Get out of my house!"

Okay readers, now it's your turn to either tell me why I will definitely like ETHAN FROME, because somebody backed me into a corner on this one, or confess the last book you pretended you'd read which you didn't. Don't worry, death is not really on the line.

13 April 2009

Five More Classic Books That Could Be Improved With Zombies

Seth Grahame-Smith's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES has sold like gangbusters, so it's time to mine this zombie vein as long as it holds out. A little punch-up and high school students need no longer fear their nightly reading assignments.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES -- Sure, it's supposed to be about the French Revolution, but the First Zombie Revolution has such a good ring to it! Peasants want representation in the government; zombies want to eat the other estates' delicious, cake-fattened brains.

OF MICE AND MEN -- It all makes sense now! Why would Lennie have to be contained? What made him different from everybody else? Clearly John Steinbeck's past as a zombie hunter in pre-Depression California has yet to be explored in depth.

BEOWULF -- Note to self: Rent 2007 Robert Zemeckis adaptation to find out if zombies have already been added. Unable to discern from online screenshots.

THE SCARLET LETTER -- It's a little creepy how the tiny Puritan town moves in such lockstep with its leaders. It's like none of them remember what it's like to be human and fallible. Maybe they don't...

JANE EYRE -- Would she still fall in love with Mr. Rochester if he was (spoiler) a zombie instead of blind? Wait, yes she would. Boring. But girls will go for it.

11 April 2009

Mysterious Hunk Helps America Get Over Recession

Libraries and romance novels are up in this economic downturn. Scifi and fantasy are also doing well, according to that New York Times article, but those are not sexy enough to devote an entire feature to by themselves. This is a really interesting nugget, though:
Romance readers have always tended to buy in much higher volumes than people who read other genres like literary fiction. So even though some romance readers may be cutting back — Sue Grimshaw, the romance buyer at Borders, says people are buying four or five instead of five or six books a week — they are still buying more than readers of other book categories.
Five books a week? Oh look, we just found the people who are keeping the lights on in book publishing.

10 April 2009

"Novels are excluded from 'serious reading,' so that the man who, bent on self-improvement, has been deciding to devote ninety minutes three times a week to a complete study of the works of Charles Dickens will be well advised to alter his plans. The reason is not that novels are not serious--some of the great literature of the world is in the form of prose fiction--the reason is that bad novels ought not to be read, and that good novels never demand any appreciable mental application on the part of the reader. It is only the bad parts of Meredith's novels that are difficult. A good novel rushes you forward like a skiff down a stream, and you arrive at the end, perhaps breathless, but unexhausted. The best novels involve the least strain.
Now in the cultivation of the mind one of the most important factors is precisely the feeling of strain, of difficulty, of a task which one part of you is anxious to achieve and another part of you is anxious to shirk; and that feeling cannot be got in facing a novel. You do not set your teeth in order to read 'Anna Karenina.'"

--Arnold Bennett, HOW TO LIVE ON 24 HOURS A DAY

09 April 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Embargoes

What's scarier than brain-devouring Regency heroines? The Internets! Quirk Publishing sent a strongly worded letter to some bloggers lucky enough to get early copies of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES suggesting that they play nice or else... braaaaaaiiiins. Flavorwire's Kristen O'Toole, who got a copy, writes that the letter is "a lesson in how not to treat bloggers."

Because Quirk Publishing assures these folks that they will be watching, I should specify that I did not ask for, nor was I offered a copy of P&P&Z (as I have just decided it shall be abbreviated). And embargoes, as old-world as they seem in this case, can mean big money for publishers. Breaking them is not just a new-media thing: did Scholastic freeze Michiko Kakutani out when she famously got hold of a copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS and published a full review of it before the street date?* But in this case it sounds like Quirk got a little indignant about the standards of the online buzz machine it was trying to court at the same time. I assume there was some egregious violation which prompted such a stinger, but I can't find it.

The simplest solution would have been the best: If you don't want people writing about your free books ahead of time, don't give them out ahead of time. I highly doubt Quirk would have gotten the brush-off had P&P&Z arrived on bloggers' doorsteps precisely on March 31. For longer-lead publications, send 'em out earlier. If, by chance, a blogger had walked into the store on March 25, the day the book went on sale, bought a copy and went home to write about it... well, that would be his or her right.

That said, I am still looking forward to P&P&Z. How can I not? Zombies, folks.

*Actually, I don't know the answer to this question; I just assume it wouldn't happen.

08 April 2009

Talk of the Town Tonight!


Do you believe I will rave about or pan Zoe Heller's THE BELIEVERS? Find out this evening.

Tune in ~7:15PM EDT (4:15PM PDT, 1:15PM Anna Time) on WEBR (and available through your TV) for D.C./Virginia/ Maryland locals
Everyone else: Listen online.
If you've read THE BELIEVERS and want to air your grievances live on "Talk of the Town," don't forget you can call in to the show live at (571) 334-9189.
And yes, I know there were technical issues last show -- sorry if you tuned in for naught! I feel confident we've got that all ironed out now, though.

British cover of THE BELIEVERS (love!): fantasticfiction.co.uk

07 April 2009

Last month I wrote about my disappointment with Margaret Atwood's PAYBACK. There's a piece in this week's New Yorker that handles the same subject (the place of debt in society and changing attitudes towards how to treat it) much better and more succinctly, but you have to be a subscriber to see it. Still, if you are, check out "I.O.U." by Jill Lepore.

06 April 2009

Brian Eule's MATCH DAY is a book to neatly check one's complaints about overwork. You think you have trouble balancing work and life now? At least you're not a first-year intern at a major hospital, looking down the barrel at 4 years working 80-plus-hour weeks on their way hopefully to becoming doctors. The three female doctors profiled don't have time to make time charts or read aspirational books; they're too busy just trying to keep up with their patient loads, answer specialists' questions, become better doctors.

Alternately, if you feel like you haven't accomplished anything in life and may not accomplish anything, it makes an excellent tool of self-flagellation.

05 April 2009

Weekend Reading Music


I can feel the New York weather making the slow upward climb towards summer. Soon enough I'll be listening to this with a book on a blanket in Central Park.

04 April 2009

The adaptation that could have been...

There are a lot of surprises in this article about Vikas Swarup, the author of Q&A, the novel which became Best Picture Winner "Slumdog Millionaire" -- Swarup is an Indian foreign diplomat who wrote the book in two months, eschewing research on purpose, a stance so stubborn it actually kind of delights me. But to throw this into a discussion of the changes in the adaptation is just cruel:
[Times writer Mark McDonald] They cut out the gay, tattooed, cocaine-snorting priest with a leather fetish who dies in a murder-suicide with another priest. They changed a lot.
I liked "Slumdog Millionaire," but now I will always be waiting for the "Satan's Alley" section.

03 April 2009

But you still owe me 2/3 of a memoir!

SeƱor, we need to talk. I wouldn't have made it through LIVING TO TELL THE TALE had I not known you were going to write more and the story was about to get better. Now your agent thinks you are done writing forever? Oh, no, this is not going to work.

02 April 2009

Picador launches Twitter Book Club

Not that I really have time to join another book club, but this is an interesting experiment: Picador is giving the book in question away on Twitter and then, two weeks later, will hold some kind of discussion on it. First selection, Yoko Ogawa's THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR, is up for debate a week from Friday here. (This page has some of the upcoming choices, including Andrew Sean Greer's THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE, which I read last summer.)

I haven't read the Ogawa book yet but Picador is one of the first imprints I ever knew by name because they published paperback editions of two books I remember very vividly from my teen years, Brian Hall's THE SASKIAD and Kate Atkinson's BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE MUSEUM (specifically this cover design). I can't totally recommend them given that I haven't read either since the late '90s, but THE SASKIAD was one of my favorite favorite books when I was 12, and reading them and their slightly racy moments made me feel like I was getting away with something. See kids, back in the day, we didn't have YA like they have now; it was SWEET VALLEY UNIVERSITY and Christopher Pike, or Real Grownup Books. I was going to call this the B.S.M. (Before Stephenie Meyer) era, but it wasn't TWILIGHT which caused YA literature to catch on like a house afire... but what was it?

01 April 2009

Oh, Ford!

I completely forgot it was April Fool's Day when I posted this morning. One of my favorite holidays!

Not that I really fooled anyone last year, but check out my post on books about worms. Elsewhere, check out Improv Everywhere's inappropriate mission, ThinkGeek's amazing new product and the Justice Department getting their jollies. Note: One of these links leads to a true story.

March Unbookening Epic Fail Edition

I thought I had this one in the bag because I was away and not tempted. Turns out, not so much.

Mooched 3 books
Got 4 from the library
Received 4 books for my birthday
Got 13 books to review
Bought 3 books, 2 of which for review projects (still!)
Borrowed 5 books on vacation
Borrowed 1 when I got back
33 books in

Donated 3 books to Small Thrift Store
Returned 5 to the library
Gave away 7 books
Left 9 books on vacation
24 books out

This month I'm going to try not to buy any books except for book club, something which is unavoidable when the book in question has a long wait at the library. I'm thinking it's time to filter out those Bookmooch e-mails too. Beyond that, though, I need to seriously edit my to-read shelf. At least I solved my library problem, but that isn't helping much overall.