30 September 2009

New Yorker Festival '09: Best Book Picks

This will be my third year attending the New Yorker festival, because that's how I roll. I'm not going to all of these, but if you're making up your literary dream slate now based on available tickets as of posting time, it would look like this. As I pointed out before, signings are free.

David Bezmozgis and Jonathan Franzen, 7PM (tickets) Bezmozgis I know only by reputation but it would be great to see Franzen have more air time than he got at last fall's State by State reading. Also, according to an interview he gave to an Italian newspaper Franzen's new novel will be out next fall, so -- will there be excerpts?
George Saunders and Gary Shteyngart, 9:30PM (tickets) In this hour it would be best to clone yourself in order to make Saunders/Shteyngart, Joshua Ferris/ Aleksander Hemon and Jonathan Lethem/ Colson Whitehead simultaneously. But since my duplicator is broken I'd try something new in Saunders (whom everyone tells me I should or would get into) and looking for more of Shteyngart's winning deadpan as seen at the Brooklyn Book Festival.


Annie Proulx, 10AM (tickets) I'm not a huge fan of Proulx's writing -- the real attraction here is seeing how New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman handles the interview.
"Quai des Orfevres" with Anthony Lane, 1:30PM (tickets) How did a movie sneak into my book picks? Lane's collection of criticism, NOBODY'S PERFECT, is that good that I would more or less see him discussing anything. (Well, except this time, because my mom, who is visiting for the festival, wanted to go to see Malcolm Gladwell -- yes, that Malcolm Gladwell. The relevant parties have already been notified.)
Signings to check out (McNally Jackson, 52 Prince St.): T. Coraghessan Boyle, noon; Junot Diaz, 1PM. I wonder if Bill James would sign my copy of MONEYBALL? Nah, probably not.


The real prize is getting into Calvin Trillin's eating tour of Little Italy and Chinatown, but I blinked and it was sold out. Bad daughter.

Tailing Tilley, 11AM (tickets) The program describes this as "a live, interactive game drawing on eighty-four years of New Yorker history," which has a camp counselor-ish ring to it. But if it's not fun -- and how could anything starting at a place called Galway Hooker not be? -- unlike with your camp counselor, you can quit.
Signings to check out: Colson Whitehead, 2PM; Hendrik Hertzberg and Adam Gopnik, 3PM.
"I did start 20 novels, and then went, 'Ah, too hard,' and went to the bar."
-- The reading world's loss is the rest of the world's gain when it comes to Ricky Gervais; instead of those novels we get "The Invention of Lying" which opens Friday in perhaps the best box-office field since last year's award-show season.

29 September 2009

The time-traveler's widower is also dead (but it's okay)

Audrey Niffenegger's HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY hits stores today, the follow-up to the wildly popular novel (which I actually liked) THE TIME-TRAVELER'S WIFE. The new book follows a London woman buried in Highgate Cemetery (pictured) who becomes a ghost haunting her younger lover and her twin nieces, who have inherited her apartment. I hear not-so-great things, including from Commenter Marjorie who called it "twisty without being really satisfying" but I'm still putting it on my library hold list.

Guilty pleasure Sara Paretsky's new V.I. Warshawski thriller HARDBALL is also out today. I don't need to pretend like the Washington Post that these books have some Greater Significance other than gluing my eyeballs to the page for hours at a stretch. I won't buy this one in hardcover either, I'll wait for the mass-market, but I'll enjoy it when it gets there. On the other end of the teeter-totter from Paretsky, Richard Powers' GENEROSITY, his follow-up to the National Book Award-winning THE ECHO MAKER, describes a writing teacher in Chicago who becomes involved with a perpetually cheerful student. Surprised he didn't go for the Homesian title THIS BOOK WILL MAKE YOU HAPPY.

Photo: tyla

66. W. Somerset Maugham, OF HUMAN BONDAGE

This one's been a while in the making, not only because I started it in installments back in July but because this is the 50th book off the Modern Library list I've read. It only took four years (and a lot of other books in between). Of course, that's a false measurement since I had already read 30 books when I started, so I'm not really halfway through--but to the novel!

Somerset Maugham's best known book begins with the orphaning of Philip Carey, age 9, and follows him through boarding school, adventures abroad, and ultimately into professional life. Along the way, he falls in love, contemplates a life in art and experiences several strata of London life. If you think I'm being vague for a book that's almost 100 years old, you are correct: but that's because you should go out and read it, preferably right away.

I have to pay this novel a high compliment: I didn't always enjoy the company of Philip Carey but his life and the things that happen to him forced me to think. This book depicts, in a way I wouldn't have expected for its age, the way a personality and a belief system can change over time, gaining and shedding layers of itself based on experiences and friendships and hardships. Even reading it in bits and pieces as I did, I found myself returning to earlier passages, wondering who was Philip now? And who now? But it was all a continuum; even the moments where he acknowledged for himself that a change was taking place joined that endless curve rather than throwing up the stop sign of epiphany.

For me OF HUMAN BONDAGE represents the bridge between the "classic" novel pummeling the reader with Lessons and the modern novel for which the presence of a moral is either an insult or evidence of poor writing. Okay, I'm coming down a bit hard on both ends, but to the extent that instructional fiction has gone out of vogue, it is out of vogue now (which is not to say moral fiction isn't being written). I think Somerset Maugham would have had a lot to say to Zoë Heller's conviction about the point of fiction, but he still employs a moral avatar, doesn't he? In a way his predecessors never would have dared, but there it is.

And nothing exemplifies this better than my reactions to the ending, which I will not spoil nor use as a sort of emotional Rorschach test, though it is tempting. (Personally I cycled through vague disappointment and suspicion to recognition of the decisions Philip Carey makes throughout the book, into which the last fits like a puzzle piece -- recognition, but not full acceptance.)

In terms of the Modern Library project, this is one of those books (like THE GOOD SOLDIER) I'm sure I would have gotten around to eventually, but I'm so glad to have read now. Guess I'll have to re-read it in 10 years (in my hovercraft, I assume) to see how it strikes me then. Frankly, it reminded me of when I started looking at this list lo these many months ago, which, now that I'm numerically halfway done, is just the mind I want to have.

LN vs. ML progress: 50 read, 50 unread.

Next up: #22, John O'Hara's APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA in paper, and from Dailylit, #49, D.H. Lawrence's WOMEN IN LOVE.

28 September 2009

Another Noughties round-up

It's early days yet, but The Millions just counted down its 20 best books of the millennium. It's not a spoiler to say that some made me go "Yes!!!", some "I'm on that!" and some "Huh?" Unlike the list I put together earlier, the choice wasn't restricted to American authors, so great books I couldn't even consider made it into competition (like #3).

My dream was realized but I was sleeping

One person who's got to be closely watching the arrest of director Roman Polanski is author Christopher Sandford, whose biography of Polanski came out last year (and is scheduled to be released in paperback in November). Its final chapter expressing the hope that Polanski would reach a deal with U.S. authorities soon looks foolish now, but it offers valuable background on the director's early life and on the 1977 case.

Washington Post: A new public-interest campaign is calling for congressional representatives to sign a pledge that they will read every word of the bills they vote on. Does anyone in the world have time for that? That is the question. This isn't the class of reading normally discussed around here, to be fair, but it's interesting to think about.

Via wallace-l: Remember a few weeks ago when I mentioned betting over the Man Booker in Britain? Here are the current odds for the Nobel Prize for Literature, announced next week; I had to Google the top 3 names, but the next two are well-known American authors. Maybe next year, Paul and Maya. Warning: Depending on where you're reading this, actually betting on this may be illegal.

YouTube: For his new book GENERATION A, Douglas Coupland released a free 10-minute video of himself talking about odd subjects. You can get it on iTunes, but for now, here's this totally bizarre teaser.

The Hamlet Weblog: Some of the news on the only blog I've ever seen devoted to one particular Shakespeare play is scary, like a 3-D children's version of the big H, but creator Stuart Ian Burns has seen an impressive twenty Princes so far. (This month's outing makes 8 for me, counting movies, not counting "Hamlet 2.") Mostly, I just wish I'd thought of this first, but it may come in handy.

826NYC: Want to see "Where The Wild Things Are" two whole days before the discriminating public? 826NYC, the creative-writing outfit we know and love, is hosting a preview screening on October 14 at the Paris Theatre hosted by professional nerd John Hodgman. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers will conduct a Q&A afterwards, included in your $75 ticket price. ETA 10/9 Sorry, this is sold out. But if you have that kind of money, could you just rent Hodgman for me for a few hours? Uh, I'll return him in good condition?

Please enjoy this ridiculously twee accompaniment to today's suggested reading (video is a static image):

27 September 2009

Dear Nicholas Sparks,

We know how you feel. Really, we do! There was an era in our lives during which no work got done unless "Family Guy" was on in the background. (Fun times.) But... come on, man. At least pretend that you're somewhat engaged in the business of churning out your fifteenth best-seller (yes, we looked it up). You're not alone, you have your characters. If you don't want to spend any time with them, why should we?

Thank you,

The Management

26 September 2009

We ain't popping no Kris, that's $500 a bottle. It ain't that serious.

I would be hard pressed to explain what exactly I find so hilarious about this article speculating on Malcolm Gladwell's dating success. It's probably the second bitchiest story about an author I've read this year.* It contains so much hearsay as to practically be fan fiction, and the author's "Women really go for that?" stance gets a bit grating, but what can I say? I still laughed. And though I've never met the man, I bear him no ill will and I never skip his New Yorker articles, I proceeded to forward it at the rate of a vengeful ex-girlfriend. Sorry, Malcolm.

*And the first one's so toxic I can't post it, so you'll just have to trust me it's a masterpiece.

25 September 2009

Mamet to Disney: That's who I am, and you're nothing.

Hey, remember when David Mamet was announced to be adapting THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK for Disney, and we all laughed? Vegas marriage, Reno divorce: Sources say Disney is severing ties because the script he turned in was too "intense" for their purposes. Apparently they didn't like the climactic scene in which Anne shouts, "Nothing's black and white? Nothing's black and white? ... What about a Nazi?"

New Yorkers, there is a shitload of Mamet onstage this fall: "Oleanna" on Broadway and two one-acts off-Broadway now and the world premiere of "Race" (with James Spader and Kerry Washington) in November. He's also rumored to be working on the screenplay for "The Prince of Providence," the adaptation of Mike Stanton's book about Operation Plunder Dome. As a former Providentian, I have very high expectations for that project.

The Autumn of Dick

A couple weeks ago I wrote about some group reading projects that I wasn't doing. Well, here's one I am doing, and you should too.

My blogmigos over at Common Sense Dancing are tackling Herman Melville's classic MOBY DICK for an Infinite Summer-inspired project beginning October 1st called the Autumn of Dick. Head over there now for the schedule and thereafter for Sunday discussion posts and hardtack. It's 50-60 pages a week, fewer than INFINITE JEST (and depending on your edition, fewer footnotes!)

To be fair, I have already read MOBY DICK once, so in theory it shouldn't be as difficult this time. In theory. But I think it's worth revisiting regardless.

Undermining the project with adorable crochet work: cristina_r_t

24 September 2009

NYC: Housing Works Open Air Street Fair Saturday

10AM, 126 Crosby Street, and they had me at "thousands of $1 books." I know, I'll go early and browse, then I can go home and be productive. No, I'll go in the afternoon so I won't be able to buy any more than I can carry out with me (though this strategy has never worked before). I'm not even trying to come up with a decent excuse, am I?

Here's hoping for hot cider and good finds.

Photo: zizzles

Reading on the rails?

The blogger behind the Subway Book Club is using reader spottings in transit in New York to guide her reading. That is so brave! So far, titles have included Pete Hamill's DOWNTOWN and Erik Larson's THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. Granted, there are some ground rules, but if I did this on my regular trains I'd be praying for a pretentious subway reader to come along.

Mostly it's a good thing Ms. Subway Book Club has not run into Sarah Wendell, blogger and romance fan who told the Daily Beast people are always judging her subway reading material:
"You’d think that people in New York City would have better senses of self-preservation than to mock the reading material of an uncaffeinated morning commuter, but it’s happened to me more than once."
Judgment oils the city, allowing us to slide past each other without getting stuck. As long as we're all equally covered in it, no one is hurt! So the best defense, as she clearly has done, is to judge the judgers.

Related: Authors tell their favorite underground stories in THE SUBWAY CHRONICLES; does that cover really say KEEP CLUBBING?

Photo taken on the downtown platform of the 96th St. 1/2/3: Ed Yourdon

23 September 2009

Holiday Gift Guide 2010, Part 2

I was joking the first time I did this, but here's something every bookworm on your list will want this year: The 1128-page NEW LITERARY HISTORY OF AMERICA. With over two hundred essays by authors you already love like Sarah Vowell and Cass Sunstein, you'd better put in for an extra-long vacation. And even at a $49.95 cover price (ouch!) it's still $249.05 cheaper than the Kindle. (Via Shelf Life.)
Really, what is the point of dispensing rabbinical wisdom if you people are just going to take no notice? If you’re coming to an event over the next few weeks, in the UK and the US, with the express purpose of asking me for my guidance in professional or matrimonial matters, I really must insist that you do what I say, otherwise the whole thing is a waste of my time and yours. (There may be a simple but legally binding document for you to sign.)
--Nick Hornby wants his words of wisdom to be taken seriously, damn it! Keep it in mind if he's coming to your East or West Coast town on tour for his new book, JULIET, NAKED. But what would you go to Hornby for advice for, pray tell?

22 September 2009

Genius time!

Congrats to Edwidge Danticat, Heather McHugh and Deborah Eisenberg for holding up the writerly end of this year's MacArthur genius grants. Who's your favorite genius?

Are you noir enough for Ellroy?

Two big books come out today that you should know about, Margaret Atwood's YEAR OF THE FLOOD and James Ellroy's BLOOD'S A ROVER -- but only one of those authors is hosting a write-alike contest.

Even if, like me, you haven't caught up on the trilogy (the first two books being AMERICAN TABLOID and THE COLD SIX THOUSAND), you can still impress Ellroy with your noir-writing skills in a competition sponsored by Dailylit (the folks through which I'm subscribed for free to OF HUMAN BONDAGE over e-mail). Post your 50-word mini-crime-noir here by October 4, and you could win a signed copy of BLOOD'S A ROVER. Don't forget, she wasn't wearing pink!

Related: Earlier this year I read L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and named it one of my favorite books of 2009 so far; I wondered about running into Atwood in New York and talking to her about how often I've re-read THE ROBBER BRIDE.

Wanna mess, Margaret? Photo of Ellroy, summer '09: ALA on Flickr

21 September 2009

Wrapped Up in Books Meets Michael Chabon

I said I wasn't going to nag any more -- but I'm sure you will understand if I do it one more time.

This week at the A.V. Club we're discussing Michael Chabon's THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH, which is MY pick. Come over and let me tell you why you should read this book if you haven't already! If you have, even if you hated it, please comment freely.

If I have already pestered you about it somewhere else, sorry for the rerun. I'll go e-mail my mom instead.

Finite Summer

"Choosing Gertraude to love as my wife was necessary for the others, these other choices. Without the choice of her life there are no other choices. I tried leaving at the commencement. I got only very few revolutions of the fauteuil."

--Remy Marathe

"It's obvious everything's pointing towards getting you in a cell belting out Mermanalia."

--Michael Pemulis

I finished last night. I'm confused about the ending, but sorry that it's all over.

ETA 9/22: In catching up on
IJ blogs and whatnot, I have found a pretty convincing explanation of what happens at the end, which I will link to in the next sentence even though it is purposefully spoilery. You have been warned: the ending of the book is discussed in detail. More about the ending in a general sense later.

20 September 2009

Renesmee: still not a name

I laughed straight through the entries of this contest to make TWILIGHT-style book covers (hint: click "More, more, more!" under the VOTE button to show). This one by Marcy is my favorite, although this reference book won.

The contest was inspired by the new decried-by-some UK design of WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which is apparently mentioned in the TWILIGHT books. The plot summaries I read on Wikipedia didn't mention it, but it seems the books name-drop other classics as well. Crafty! That's why in my forthcoming novel (working title: VAMPIRE MICHAEL JACKSON AND PATRICK SWAYZE SOLVE THE HEALTH CARE DEBATE WITH TWITTER, AND BUT SO RON PAUL), the vampires will frequently take breaks to flip through THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE and ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES.

Full credit to Metalia for the title.

19 September 2009

And if it's crowded all the better 'cause we know we're going to be up late

This week I lavished attention on the Brooklyn Book Festival, but here are two more literary happenings outside of New York you may be lucky enough to attend. Step right up:

Wisconsin Book Festival -- Madison, Oct. 7-11. Free, no tickets required except for Wendell Berry reading on the 11th, tickets at the door an hour ahead of time. Not to be missed: Lorrie Moore and Michael Perry (and Michael Perry's band), 7:30PM, Oct. 8; Harvey Pekar, 10AM, Oct. 10 (way fun to hear in person); aforementioned Berry, 4PM, Oct. 11. Plus there's a Friends of the UW-Madison Library book sale all weekend, including a $3-a-bag event on Saturday; bring your really, really big duffel bag. I could couch-crash with relatives for this!

Boston Book Festival -- for the first time ever, Oct. 24. Most events are free except the Boston Phoenix's party for BOSTON NOIR featuring Dennis Lehane ($15, tickets on the website). There isn't a schedule up yet, but we're bullish on Orhan Pamuk's keynote and a Richard Russo/ Michael Thomas/ Elinor Lipman panel on family. There's also an event called Writer Idol where an actor will read a page of your manuscript to judges who will offer suggestions -- sounds like a trainwreck! As a New Yorker now, my feelings for Boston are as inappropriately warm as my feelings as a mostly-Mac user for John Hodgman (who will also be there), but it sounds like much fun.

18 September 2009

Post-Its: Oprah umps the doubleheader

Photo of the audience at the Brooklyn Book Festival's Happy Ending reading from the L.A. Times' Jacket Copy, with "proof" that I was there. (I promise this isn't going to become one of those blogs.)

Oprah.com: Oprah's latest book club selection is Uwem Akpan's SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM, a collection of short stories first published in 2008 by a Nigerian Jesuit priest with an MFA. The Washington Post broke the news yesterday, saying the distributor had "accidentally" leaked the choice. Did you have your money on BRIGHT-SIDED: HOW THE RELENTLESS PROMOTION OF POSITIVE THINKING HAS UNDERMINED AMERICA? You lost. (That's the title of the new Ehrenreich.)

Via the Book Bench: A new T-shirt company has created a line-up of baseball jerseys for an imaginary 19th-century-American-lit team. So many questions: Is it safe to mix fictional characters with nonfiction authors? How are Hester Prynne's reflexes? And would even the biggest Melville fan buy a shirt that has the number 1 and "Dick" on it?

NYT: Another literary movie goes head to head with "Bright Star" this weekend for the readin' crowd -- an Australian-helmed adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's DISGRACE starring John Malkovich as a recently dismissed college professor. Normally it would be a bad thing that I had never heard of this before, but perhaps it was just on the festival circuit because the consensus is good.

Via the Manhattan Users Guide: When was ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND banned and why? Most of the other titles on this kitschy Banned Books bracelet I recognize, but that one stumped me. (Is too relevant.)

Matthew Schneier's round-up of guidebooks for men on how to be men is entertaining, not least for its discussion of yeomanliness versus gentlemanliness. Having seen the other side of how men's magazines come up with their tips, though, I'm not sure I would trust any of them.

NYT/ The Lede: You probably haven't spared a thought as to what Osama bin Laden wants you to read, but he's coming through for you. Check out the books an al Qaeda leader wants all Americans to read at your own risk -- after he saw it, Glenn Beck swore never to read again.

Via Idealist: Here's a category of Things Named For Writers I never contemplated before. The first annual Runyon 5K on November 15 will memorialize journalist and short-story writer Damon Runyon with a bit of a lope through Yankee Stadium. I have not been in the new stadium yet, and I wouldn't call myself a fan, but the proceeds are going to cancer research, and this sounds downright cool. I... am seriously thinking about doing this. (Lobotomy went well, by the way.)

Likely last ever Infinite Summer
corner: This week after one of their numbers was nice enough to link to my Brooklyn Book Festival coverage I joined wallace-l, the David Foster Wallace listserv, although when they find out how new I am to the magic of DFW they will probably kick me off. But that's where I learned from New York magazine via Sarah Weinman that -- are you ready for this piece of trivia -- DFW was a creative writing classmate at Amherst of none other than Dan Brown. Yes, that Dan Brown. My mind is blown like I just watched The Entertainment. (Now they've got another reason to get rid of me, my horrible jokes.)

Overheard at a preview of "Hamlet" on Broadway

  • "Is this a musical?"
  • "I didn't understand a word."
  • (On the street outside afterwards) "Jude Law's going to come out of that building? What's he in there for?"
  • (At intermission) "It's already been an hour and a half, how much more can there be?"
The Donmar New York "Hamlet" opens October 6. Law's Danish prince is more energetic than the norm, but I liked it; too many Hamlets use the brooding direction to become a negative onstage space and project as old and tired. Then again, I like "Hamlet," so your mileage may vary.

17 September 2009

Brad Meltzer celebrates his weaknessess

What to do when some major outlets give you negative reviews? Get old people and adorable children to read them! That's what Brad Meltzer did for the paperback release of his seventh novel THE BOOK OF LIES:

Confession: I watched this video all the way through to see if my (also negative) review was mentioned in it in it. No dice. Once I dug up my actual review, though, I realized I hadn't really written anything particularly blurbable. I didn't hate the book, I just thought the mythology got way out of hand.

(Via Debbie Ridpath Ohi.)

Jane Austen and zombies: 'tis as good as a lord.

At length quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which [Miss Bingley] had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, "How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!"
"Spoken like one who has never known the ecstasy of holding a still-beating heart in his hand," said Darcy.

Two years ago around Halloween, I attended a production of "Twelfth Night of the Living Dead," a combination of Shakespeare's classic comedy and the George Romero movie often credited with bringing the idea of zombies into mainstream popular culture. Instead of joining Illyrian society, Viola and Sebastian infect it, and no one looks awry at them for not being able to walk upright or stop drooling. By the time suspicions are raised, enough of the courts of the Duke Orsino and the Lady Olivia have been bitten that the rest of the play is washed out in groans, and an epic amount of stage blood.

I didn't peek ahead in Seth Grahame-Smith's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES to see if the last 10 pages were composed of "Graaaaaaaaahhhhh. Braaaaaaaaaains." But by definition a zombie novel has to draw out its readers' attention for longer than a 90-minute play, and for me P&P&Z did that. If this were a simple copy-and-paste job, it wouldn't still be flying off the shelves (as of last week, #9 on the NYT paperback bestseller list).

The notion of a family attempting to go about its business while England is besieged by hordes of the "sorry stricken," a figure that is so delightfully period appropriate I kept racking my brains (braaaaaaains) to see if I had heard it before, is fully integrated into Austen's original text. For example, Grahame-Smith doesn't leave his Bennet sisters alone and defenseless; they are all Shaolin masters who have trained rigorously and painfully and can fend for themselves against zombies. So right there, you aren't dealing with just zombies, but zombies and ninjas. (Other characters in turn get added dimensions, and might I say, never have I liked Lady Catherine de Bourgh so much as in this book.)

At the same time, he makes some alterations to the plot which will only be funny to people who have read P&P before -- if there are people out there who would pick up P&P&Z without having read P&P. (Not recommended.) The back half of the book is flavored with the salt of comeuppance, which Austen would have used sparingly if at all, to some piquant results.

I'm sure I would have gotten more of the jokes had I read P&P more recently than about five years ago. (Do I have to turn in my lady badge for that?) On the other hand, I was happy enough to be reunited with these characters, albeit in such an unorthodox way. I realized, for example, that I had no idea why Wickham and the other military officers were stationed in the country when they met the Bennets; having them there to train against a zombie invasion almost made more sense, if that makes any sense. Interestingly, the author of the next book in the series, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS, wrote in Slate that his version will be about 60 percent Austen as compared to 85 percent for P&P&Z -- so if you felt it wasn't original enough, you might be less bored. (Hat tip to the Hawaiian office for that.)

In giving its heroines (particularly Jane and Elizabeth) the warrior talent, P&P&Z provides them with both an obstacle as far as their marriageworthiness and an opportunity to do more than sit at home and write letters. There's a great jab where Elizabeth is looking at Mr. Collins and feeling ill because he's barely accustomed to slicing Gorgonzola, much less dead rotting flesh. As you might expect, she meets her match in a Darcy who at no point jumps in a lake with his shirt on.

16 September 2009

Flirting tips from Keats

"Bright Star," a biopic about the romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne (whose letters scandalized the public of the day) opens this week in limited release. Looks like a renter to me, but A.O. Scott had a good time:
A sequence in which, fully clothed, the couple trades stanzas of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” in a half-darkened bedroom must surely count as one of the hottest sex scenes in recent cinema.
It's worth noting that Keats is played by Ben Whishaw, last seen as the monomaniac in Tom Tykwer's adaptation of PERFUME (but also quite good, briefly, in "I'm Not There"). According to IMDb he's playing Ariel in the upcoming Julie Taymor-directed version of "The Tempest" opposite Djimon Hounsou's Caliban and Helen Mirren as Prospera.

Rainy September

A blogger called Editorial Ass is leading a group read of GRAVITY'S RAINBOW beginning this week. Surf on over to get the full details and sign up.

Much as I cannot resist ambitious reading projects and the chance to knock off another major book I have never read, I am more on the fence with this one than usual. First, I am not done with INFINITE JEST yet, and fear that if I put both of those books on my nightstand together they might spontaneously combust. Second, I'm readying my pick for Wrapped Up in Books which goes up in less than a week. Third, once I do those two things I have a lot of other reading to get to which I've been putting off, as my sedimentary nightstand ought to attest. But if you sign up, let me know how it goes.

ETA: The folks behind Infinite Summer have also announced their next group read; it's DRACULA for October. I think I'll jump in for their not-officially-confirmed next pick of 2666 in January, but again: if you sign up, let me know how it goes!

15 September 2009

More on the Brooklyn Book Festival

A few stray thoughts that didn't fit into yesterday's quotation round-up...

This was my third year going to the festival and I'm a big fan -- really pleasant to kick off the fall with a proper nerd-out. I always wonder why Manhattan hasn't tried to steal this idea out of the clutches of its fellow borough, but I only assume if it did, it would be held on a weekday during work hours, tickets would be $200 and there would be no free bookmarks left after 9AM. (What? I can knock it, I live here.)

Simply by virtue of being there early for the Updike/DFW panel, I squeezed in more talks this year than previous years when I came in later. If there's one thing I thought could be improved about those, it's that some of the panel topics were not very useful or weren't what the panelists really wanted to talk about. I don't know how authors or commentators are grouped for these talks, but it wasn't always clear whether they really wanted to talk about that or something else.

To take an example of an event I still enjoyed: The "Literature in a Digital Age" consisted of Times critic Dwight Garner (who also wrote a book about book advertising in America), the yesterday-quoted John Freeman (who also wrote a book called THE TYRANNY OF E-MAIL) and Sarah Schmelling, a new author whose book OPHELIA JOINED THE GROUP MAIDENS WHO DON'T FLOAT adapts classic literature to the Facebook status-feed format. The way it played out was that Freeman would say something like "Authors are not meant to be public personas" and criticize new-media publicity, and then Schmelling would say "Well, I use those things, they've turned out all right for me." Then Garner would say something about how Alfred Kazin caused the trend of literary celebrity, and no one would dispute it so they would just end there till Maud Newton (very capably) jumped in with a new topic.

I think Schmelling was a little uncomfortable, as anyone might have been, speaking for The 21st Century Author; perhaps adding another author up there, a blog-to-book adapter or someone else who had run more online publicity, would have struck a better balance. Freeman was on fire, though, so maybe it wouldn't have helped.

I didn't hit a lot of the booths, and I didn't get to the all-new Comic-Con section of the fest, although I saw someone reading a collection by Kate Beaton of Dude Watchin' With The Brontës fame and it made me happy. If you went, what was your favorite event? What authors are you looking forward to checking out now?

Publishing Apocalypse

Dan Brown's THE LOST SYMBOL comes out today. OMFG. No one will ever buy or read another book again!! Let's panic!!!

In lieu of reading the actual spoilers, I'm sticking to my prediction from four months ago. I didn't use the Slate Dan Brown generator to come up with that, but it's fun to play with anyway.

I hope everyone associated with Brown's publisher, agent, assistant and movie franchise is taking the day off to drink Hypnotiq in a bubble bath.

But to plug a book that I will actually read -- Jon Krakauer's long-awaited WHERE MEN WIN GLORY: THE ODYSSEY OF PAT TILLMAN hits shelves today. Such is my confidence in the author, I pre-ordered this book; haven't read a word, but you should all go out and buy it anyway.

14 September 2009

As Heard At The 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival

Six panels and two fun events later...

"I'm not even sure people are reading INFINITE JEST now."
--Lev Grossman, getting his BHD status revoked for never having heard of Infinite Summer. This was only the third most insane thing I heard at this panel on David Foster Wallace and John Updike, actually.

"If there are people out there who want me to co-write a vampire or zombie novel, I'm down."
--T Cooper: Novelist whose work I most want to get into after hearing him speak.

"When people get ahold of technology, they're bound to do something stupid with it."
--Keith Gessen of n+1 (who backed up this claim with an example from Philip Roth, so at least he was keeping the brow high). Same panel as T Cooper, and unfortunately they were both mowed down by a fellow panelist who used the opportunity to complain that she wasn't a famous best-selling author yet. Sorry, guys!

"It's the difference betwen having sex with a person and having sex with a piece of technology."
--John Freeman of Granta on e-books. Freeman was incredibly insightful on a panel moderated by blogger Maud Newton, but this analogy is questionable on a few levels.

"Bonobos laugh when they see something weird -- as if to say, 'That's weird, but it's okay now.' Satire is the opposite. It's seeing something perfectly normal and it scares the hell out of you."
--Jeffrey Rotter (THE UNKNOWN KNOWNS*) holding his own against seriously funny co-panelists Sloane Crosley and Gary Shteyngart.

"I think in five years this will be the Brooklyn Blogging Festival."
--Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is probably right, but that is still sad.

"We should start blogs. We could get famous through our blogs."
--girl behind me at the Crossroads coffee stand. It's already starting! Noooooooooo... (She went on to say, "I have a burlesque blog"--pause while I struggle mightily not to turn around, 'cause wouldn't you?--"but I haven't been to any performances recently." A burlesque review blog! The world is so full of a number of things.)

"I have never kissed a man onstage."
--David Cross checked that one off his list at the Happy Ending event with the help of Jonathan Ames. Just thought the Internet should know one way or the other. And there is video (not shot by me).

*Correction: I incorrectly referred to the title of Jeffrey Rotter's book earlier as THE KNOWN UNKNOWNS. Sorry, Mr. Rotter.

13 September 2009

Dubs Sunday: On re-reading.

Robo-posted; at the Brooklyn Book Festival; carry on.
"I don't see the use of reading the same thing over and over again," said Philip. "That's only a laborious form of idleness."

"But are you under the impression that you have so great a mind that you can understand the most profound writer at a first reading?"

"I don't want to understand him, I'm not a critic. I'm not interested in him for his sake but for mine."

"Why d'you read then?"

"Partly for pleasure, because it's a habit and I'm just as uncomfortable if I don't read as if I don't smoke, and partly to know myself. When I read a book I seem to read it with my eyes only, but now and then I come across a passage, perhaps only a phrase, which has a meaning for ME, and it becomes part of me; I've got out of the book all that's any use to me, and I can't get anything more if I read it a dozen times. You see, it seems to me, one's like a closed bud, and most of what one reads and does has no effect at all; but there are certain things that have a peculiar significance for one, and they open a petal; and the petals open one by one; and at last the flower is there."

Philip was not satisfied with his metaphor, but he did not know how else to explain a thing which he felt and yet was not clear about.

Hayward could still talk delightfully about books; his taste was exquisite and his discrimination elegant; and he had a constant interest in ideas, which made him an entertaining companion. They meant nothing to him really, since they never had any effect on him; but he treated them as he might have pieces of china in an auction-room, handling them with pleasure in their shape and their glaze, pricing them in his mind; and then, putting them back into their case, thought of them no more.

--OF HUMAN BONDAGE. This week I learned the term Künstlerroman, which is a bildungsroman specifically dealing with an artist's coming of age. But if OF HUMAN BONDAGE is a Künstlerroman, what of the sections of the book where Philip is not engaged in art at all? How much of your fictional artist's story has to be devoted to art before it becomes more than just a coming-of-age tale? Joyce's A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST... is definitely a Künstlerroman, but early in the novel it may as well have been called A PORTRAIT OF THE YOUNG MAN WHO THOUGHT ABOUT BECOMING A PRIEST, and despite being one-eighth German, I do not know the term for that. Anyway, I assume all will be revealed on the Maugham when I finish it.

12 September 2009

What is this, Horseville? Because I'm surrounded by naysayers.

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from author Jag Bhalla asking if I wanted to check out his book I'M NOT HANGING NOODLES ON YOUR EARS, about idioms from around the world. I love wordplay as much as Tracy Jordan, if not more, so I took him up on it and he sent me a copy.

Bhalla collected thousands of idioms from different languages and grouped them into categories such as expressions of time (in Chilean Spanish, to say something happened a long time ago you would say "when snakes wore vests") or of love (a womanizer in French is "a lover of a goat whose hair is combed"). To read these lists is to experience over and over again the delight I took in Anna Quindlen's sharing a British expression from the 1930s for not getting worked up over something, as one character admonished another not to "make a cake out of yourself."

Interspersed with these lists are short chapters on language acquisition and philosophical inquiries into what our idioms say about us. In the chapter on food-related expressions, for example, Bhalla ranges over the popularity of curry in his native Britain, the origins of sushi and the role of satiety in hunter-gatherer cultures. They're not exhaustive, but they're entertaining. What's also really fun about the book are the illustrations by Julia Suits, who is a New Yorker cartoonist. (Here's a great book-related New Yorker one from her.) This wasn't my favorite idiom of the book, but with Bhalla and Suits' permission I am able to post my favorite cartoon:
I had never heard this idiom before, but I can't look at the juxtaposition of the primly seated woman and the rock with the tie on it without cracking up. (Apparently it's menswear week around here.)

If you're a word nerd like, me, you should check this book out. For more on it, visit HangingNoodles.com or check out an interview with Mr. Bhalla at Wormbook-approved literary news outlet, Bookslut.com. "Hanging noodles on your ears," by the way, is the Russian equivalent of an American English speaker saying he's "pulling your leg," while suggesting in Russian this is much more of a feat.

11 September 2009

Post-Its: The Get Well Soon, Garrison Keillor Edition

The chronicler of Lake Wobegon (where the women are strong, the men are good-looking and all the children are above average) is expected to be released from the hospital today after suffering a minor stroke last week. It would be hard to imagine Saturday-night dinners at home without his voice in the background. Quick recovery wishes also go out to Raych of Books I Done Read.

EW.com: A week from Sunday is the premiere of "Bored to Death," Jonathan Ames' HBO series about a writer turned private detective. We don't have HBO and weren't impressed by Ames' I LOVE YOU MORE THAN YOU KNOW (subgenre: Look At My Crazy Sex Life, Isn't It Sooooo Crazy?), but love the "Pink Panther"esque theme song co-written by Ames and sung by star Jason Schwartzman. Trailer's not half bad, either.

io9: Neil Gaiman let a lucky photographer in to shoot his private library, and the result is awe-inspiring.

Slate: Dear Prudence tackles the question of how to handle a mother who won't stop reading to interact with her daughter because she needs the "escape." (Please let us be better than this.) As a parting shot, she suggests a Bookfinder list of bad mothers in literature, which is about as bitchy and misogynistic as it gets so we're not linking to it.

Emdashes: The official schedule for the 2009 New Yorker Festival has been announced and it is, as usual, a smorgasbord. Most tickets for the October 16-18 events are $25, but here's an insider tip: The signings (scroll down to the bottom) are all free, and in the past have been open to people who don't even have a book to sign, just want to hang out and chat. Much more on this later.


Last year on this date I visited the question of the 9/11 novel. I respectfully re-open that discussion as seems appropriate.

I still think (as I wrote last year) that capital-L Literature is far ahead of other art forms in reckoning, yet I read more and more reviews which flippantly confer status as a "9/11 novel" onto books that aren't up to the task. To pick on one -- not nearly the worst -- Claire Messud's THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN was the most recent novel where I felt labeling it as such added undue weight to the plot. Given that I wanted to shake the characters most of the time, I felt that their reactions to 9/11 and the catharsis they got out of it was somehow unearned. After fervently wishing they would change for two-thirds of the book, though, any Big Historic Event that actually affected them would probably have annoyed me in the same way.

I suspect when the great 9/11 novel arrives it won't be set in New York City in the early Noughties. How will we know it when it gets here? We will know, regardless.

10 September 2009

"I used to write in a local coffee shop, but there was another guy, another writer, who kept sitting in my favorite seat. I would show up, and he would be there, and I would get exiled to a couch or something, and it would throw me off my game. Then I figured out that he was Jonathan Safran Foer. True story. You don’t get over a thing like that."
--Lev Grossman: First-time novelist, TIME book critic, obvious bookworm hipster douchebag. (And I an even bigger one for thinking "Figured out!? All you need is one good look.")

Clearly, JSF's game was not thrown off by working in the vicinity of someone who has written about him; his new book EATING ANIMALS hits stores November 2.

09 September 2009

"I see my political rise with the help of my father-in-law as having elements of 'Henry IV, Part Two' and 'Henry V' and culminating with my own personal battle of Agincourt: winning the gubernatorial election. What happened after I became governor is a story filled with elements from 'Othello,' 'King Lear,' and 'Julius Caesar'; a story of intrigue, of jealousy, of manipulation, of unnatural familial behavior, and of betrayal. And while you're at it, you might as well throw in a little 'Richard the Third.' Because when the story of my years as governor ends, I was left with neither a kingdom nor a horse. Or for that matter, even a car."

-- From Slate: When in doubt about how particularly Shakespearean his story was, disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich decided to go big in his memoir. Unnatural familial behavior, yet no mention of "Titus Andronicus"?

Man Booker Shortlist Announced

Pick the winner if you dare:
Hilary Mantel, WOLF HALL
I'm one for six (the Waters; liked it, didn't love it). Coetzee has already won it twice, Byatt once; Adam Foulds is the youngest nominee at 34. According to the Guardian, bets placed on the list heavily favor Mantel; I know it's illegal, but I really wish America had more of a cultural-gambling culture.

08 September 2009

Via Throwing Things: I'm bookmarking Sam Kashner's article on the writing of DEATH OF A PRESIDENT, the semi-family-authorized account of JFK's final days, to tear into later. I had no idea the book came out so soon after his death, given the exhaustive research involved and the limitations of the available technology.

Once more unto the beach, dear friends, once more

It is the end of summer as we commonly recognize it in this part of the world, so also the end of this year's summer reading. I did much better than last year, but I still didn't finish the list. (EDGAR SAWTELLE, I am so sorry.) But I did a lot of reading overall, and then there's INFINITE JEST, which is not finished yet.

The last book I read was Richard Yates' COLD SPRING HARBOR, and I've been struggling with what to write about it. I loved REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and expected to flip similarly over this book, but Internet, I did not. Yates' last novel, concerning two families united by marriage on Long Island, felt unfinished in that it set up several conflicts and did nothing with them; the most vivid character is a divorcée who is practically a grotesque and described as "dying for love," but even her storyline does not get any kind of resolution. It was a slice of life, but not a flavorful one. I'll still give more Yates a chance, though; I would like to eventually have read all of his books (including the collection of short stories I bought earlier this year).

Got any great reading memories to share from this summer? I remember a particularly cloudless day along Lake Michigan, watching my sisters nosing through their Chabon and Sittenfeld paperbacks and imprinting galley ink onto the whitest strip of my sunscreen-covered arm.

07 September 2009

You always look so cool.

So this happened in my inbox:

The e-mail (from the J. Peterman Company, WHERE ELSE) was also titled "Gatsby would be furious," but really, shouldn't it be "Carraway would be furious"? The man himself would probably nod solemnly and admire the business acumen of such a move.

"All that matters is that you have one, just one," goes the copy. "A piece of how things were." That's great, but on the wrong man (really, most men) this shirt would not look cool at all, but rather stuffy and a bit Puritan, like a stray historical re-enactor who just sat on a freshly painted picnic bench. Still, I'll make sure to order that a cupboard full of these shirts is conspicuously displayed on the set of my rap video.

06 September 2009

Dubs Sunday: On commercial fiction.

[Norah] was separated from her husband and earned her living and her child's by writing penny novelettes. There were one or two publishers who made a specialty of that sort of thing, and she had as much work as she could do. It was ill-paid, she received fifteen pounds for a story of thirty thousand words; but she was satisfied.

"After all, it only costs the reader twopence," she said, "and they like the same thing over and over again. I just change the names and that's all. When I'm bored I think of the washing and the rent and clothes for baby, and I go on again."
--OF HUMAN BONDAGE. This isn't the first time these novelettes have come up in the book; Philip's tearoom love Mildred was also a big fan of what Maugham describes as "a regular supply of inexpensive fiction written to order by poor hacks for the consumption of the illiterate," and he later describes her as "having read too many novelettes" not to do something.

This week in Maugham being everywhere, Bookslut linked to a Daily Mail article questioning whether he was "the most debauched man of the 20th century." (Reached into the Acme Box of Big Claims for that one, they did.) The evidence includes teenage boys in Capri, an affair with a married woman while spying for the Crown and a penchant for towel-whipping -- oops, that last one was James Bond creator Ian Fleming, heh. I'm not convinced, nor do I think it's an important question, but it's funny to see him get the TMZ treatment.

05 September 2009

Brooklyn Book Festival '09 Line-Up

Lethem! Crosley! New Russian fiction and an "interactive literary game"! It's September 13 and it's going to be awesome -- even the part when I am apparently sleepwalking to Brooklyn for the 10AM Updike/DFW panel. (If I see a girl in a P.G.O.A.T. T-shirt, I might accidentally spill coffee all over her.)

04 September 2009

Crowd control for bookstore readings? Conceivable!

Blogger MKP reports from the field on "priority seating" at a Wallace Shawn reading at a New York Barnes & Noble:
Anyone who shows up and buys a book by the author can go right in and have a seat. Everyone else has to wait in a line which, for this particular event, they never let inside the room. They proffered "overflow viewing," aka 15 square feet of standing room in front of a TV under the escalators as a placation.
Naturally, people in line went crazy, and there were still empty seats in the end. Oops. (Helpful side note, here's her explanation of what a 3Q is.)

I'm with MKP on seeing why B&N or another bookstore would do this, but since I rarely buy the book when I'm there, I would be stuck in the line -- which is a shame, because readings like this are (normally) great free entertainment.


On that note, it's Labor Day Weekend! Hooray! I'm not actually going anywhere, unless you count the Slough of Despond, but I'll have some time to read, and I hope you will too.

03 September 2009

Your Assistance Please: All high school students should read this book.

If high schools around the country aren't already back in session, they'll be in by Tuesday. At some of them, a computer will suggest what students should read. At others, the students will get to pick.

Readers, we can do better, being neither computers nor still in high school. Even if you are still in high school, you probably have some strong opinions about what should be read. Say, in a sitcom-worthy twist, you have found yourself working at a high school (doesn't have to be yours) and you get one pick to assign the kids. What do you choose?

Unlike a normal teacher, assume you are not constrained by time period, nationality or conflicts with other courses. It can be something you read in high school or something you only wish you had read in high school.

I'll put my pick in a comment, but first, here are the picks of two newly minted high school graduates with whom I am well acquainted! Since their Google searches are relatively unbesmirched, I will refer to them as I met them, as "Twin A" and "Twin B." Keep in mind, I virtually cornered them to help me with no preparation:
  • Twin A picks THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO because it was "exciting, well written and had the best plot ever." Also thinks more nonfiction should be assigned in general, because it isn't represented in either history or English curricula.
  • Twin B picks THE GREAT GATSBY because "not only is it an amazing book, but it also teaches you a lot about symbolism. Everything in that book represents some greater idea which ties into what Fitzgerald is trying to say. It's also beautifully written, and the imagery is striking."
(Thanks, guys.)

02 September 2009

But where are the hideous men?

I inadvertently left this David Foster Wallace-related project off my list of adaptations; it opens September 25, which does not give me enough time to read the book first. Hmm. (Via lapsesinlogic)

How Times Have (Not) Changed

While digging around in my e-mail the other day I found a list of 10 favorite books which I'd written about three years ago. I only vaguely remember having written the descriptions that came with them, mostly that I didn't find the list that hard to pull together -- ah, callow youth! I ought to do this every year, such was my surprise and delight at finding it.

I like to think that my list of favorite books is ever shifting; at the same time, seven of the 10 books on that 2006 list I would still defend as being favorites, and I'm not sure when that would change. Here are my thoughts on the other three:

Bookmarked: Reinaldo Arenas, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS
What I wrote at the time: "An astonishing and heartbreaking memoir about nationality and freedom, from a gay dissident writer persecuted by Cuba's Communist government."
What I'm thinking now: As a comparative lit concentrator in college*, I took a lot of Spanish lit courses, and this was a salute to one of my favorites. I was really moved by it at the time, but I would have to go back to it to allow it back into the category of greats. (Read it first, but there is a great adaptation as well starring a pre-Anton Chigurh Javier Bardem.) Perhaps I don't trust my tastes in Spanish because I feel this way about a lot of books I read in the language, though the ones I have made the time to re-read have largely stood up. Of the ones in translation**, I recommend Carmen Laforet's NOTHING, if you have to read it in English (she says, assholically).

Bookmarked: Judith Kogan, NOTHING BUT THE BEST
What I wrote at the time: "What better way to write about passion and desperation than, as in this work of creative nonfiction, profile several students and student groups at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music?"
What I'm thinking now: I still really like it, but I think it was more of a right-place-right-time read. The book made its mark on me in high school when I was deeply involved in performing music (although let's be clear, I was never on the conservatory track let alone Juilliard-bound). Its reporting is great but not ground-breaking; it has some very awkward scenes where you get the feeling the author is pressing the subjects or situations for a particular point she's trying to make. Still, if you love music or studies of the 10,000 hour rule, you will probably enjoy it.

Bookmarked: Bill Bryson, THE LOST CONTINENT
What I wrote at the time: "It's the rare travel book that takes place in the U.S. and can look at it unsentimentally***; perhaps it took this long-time expat's meandering road trip to reveal the explosively funny and the painfully true about America."
What I'm thinking now: This is a placeholder because I couldn't make all 10 books Bill Bryson books. Not really, but seriously, I love this book, I love all Bryson, and at the same time don't know how I would decide among them if pressed today. It would probably make the top 3 along with NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND and A WALK IN THE WOODS, and be my most often re-read of those three, but beyond that it's just how I'm feeling that day. (Incidentally, Bill, your last travel book was published in 2002; time to get back on the road.)

What are some books that used to be your favorites?

* Brush your shoulders off.
** If you really want to hear me carp on, buy me a drink and ask me about the state of Spanish literature in English translation.
It's my personal grassy knoll.
** Dear Firefox spell check: Justify to me why this is not a word.

01 September 2009

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
-W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

August Unbookening hopes that someday, I'll see without these frames

Bought 7 books
Got 8 to review
Checked out 9 from the library
24 in

Gave away 3 books
Lent 3
Donated 22
Returned 7 to library
35 out

Fourth straight month in the negative!

Along with unbookening I did a little uncloseting this month to get rid of stuff I never wear that doesn't need to be replaced. Overall, this task was about 800 times easier than editing my library; that's the upside, I guess, of having had a dress code for 9 years in school.