30 November 2009

Times' Notable Books of 2009: Already?

So while I was out, the New York Times dropped its massive list of the most notable books of the year. Accountability first: I have read six of these and they are, in order of appearance (fiction then nonfiction, alphabetical by title): CHRONIC CITY, THE LITTLE STRANGER, A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN, THE SONG IS YOU, THE LOST CITY OF Z and ZEITOUN. That is not very many -- one less than last year, in fact -- but it gives me a lot of ideas of what I want to read! (I've never even heard of ASTERIOS POLYP or HORSE SOLDIERS, to give two examples.)

I haven't made my personal best-of-the-year list, although (plug alert!) I already participated in a best-of-the-decade selection. Frankly I'm still recovering from being in that smoke-filled room for so long. Next to that I think reckoning with '09 will be a cakewalk, though as soon as I do I will read a book that blows me over completely and want to retract everything I've been saying about The State Of Literature. But in fairness, I always want to have that experience... the closing of the decade has nothing to do with it.

The Times' decade list has not appeared yet, but if you are the type to have a favorite critic, Michiko, Dwight and Janet have all put up their top tens of this year for you to judge as you will.

Back from the not so wild West

Months since leaving New York before last week: Almost 4.

Books packed: 6
Hours spent on flights each way: 6.5, approx.
Books left in airports or on airplanes: 1
Books lent to other members of the family: 1
Books borrowed from family members: 2, THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING and THE BIG BURN

Books bought: 0.
Books read: 4.

Adaptations watched of books I haven't read: 2 ("The Blind Side" and "The Men Who Stare At Goats" -- guess which one made me want to read the source material more?)
Adaptations not watched of books I have read: 1 ("The Time Traveler's Wife" was showing on the plane; I am mildly curious, since I liked the book.)

Books I saw people reading on my last flight (an incomplete study):
  • Arundhati Roy, THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS
  • Terry Pratchett, NIGHT WATCH
  • Nicholas Sparks, DEAR JOHN
  • Martin Amis, TIME'S ARROW
  • Patrick Tyler, A WORLD OF TROUBLE
  • William P. Young, THE SHACK

29 November 2009

All sewn up

It may not have won a National Book Award, but I still recommend you read David Small's memoir STITCHES, a book I was surprised to find on the new-release shelf at my local branch library on my last trip. It's unfair to level this criterion against all books, but it's hard to find something this powerful that can also be wrapped up in a day's commute or less.

Small depicts himself growing up in the Detroit area in a household bare of affection and almost all communication except the rhythmic slamming of doors. His idea of "fun" is sneaking up to the wards he's not allowed to go into in the hospital where his dad works. Frequently ill as a child, he goes into the hospital as a teenager for what he is told is a benign growth removal; two surgeries later, he has lost most of his vocal chords, forced to contribute to the house's sullen silence and to discover, in a letter he wasn't meant to see, what was really wrong with him.

Where Alison Bechdel loads her illustrations with text including layers of literary references, Small's style is closer to last year's Caldecott winner THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, which sought to recreate the magic of early film (and the lives of its creators) in illustrations. (That said, there are two very clever allusions here to appreciate, one connected with the harrowing page 211, my favorite panels I never want to look at again.) Small's illustrations toy with scale and the process of imagination to capture that childhood feeling when things are happening around you that you aren't quite old enough to process yourself. FUN HOME gave me the feeling that I could find Bechdel's childhood house using her pictures, but even if Small's buildings were more detailed I wouldn't want to go looking for them; his world is a little Edward Hopper, but more Edvard Munch.

As for the question of whether or not it should have been categorized as YA -- it could have gone either way, but the publisher was probably right to put it where it would face less competition, even if it didn't pay off. (From the previous paragraph, FUN HOME would definitely be adult, HUGO CABRET YA or even middle-grade children's.) Normally books are bumped up to adult because either the language or the content are too sophisticated; there isn't really a case for the former, and for the latter, I don't think it's out of reach for teenagers. What happens to Small is definitely not a "teen issue" in the after-school special sense, but that doesn't mean it should be kept from that age group either. I can't remember where I saw this, but Small said in an interview that he wanted to wait until his parents were dead to publish this book; he drew this short but striking graphic essay for Publishers Weekly about the process.

Panel from STITCHES: Galleycat

28 November 2009

Opening this weekend: The apocalypse!

"The Road" is finally out after over a year in delays -- bad, very bad sign, but tell me this trailer doesn't clutch at your heart:

It's an action movie for the art house! Then again, a special operative for this blog went to see it on Thanksgiving Eve with his folks and gave it a review of "Meh" which was not in any case the reaction I had expected someone to have to it.

For those of you who prefer slightly smaller scale disruption, Rebecca Miller's adaptation of her own novel THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE is also out, featuring Robin Wright Penn as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

27 November 2009

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style

It's the official Curmudgeons Admit The Start Of The Christmas Season day. I can't lie, I love the trappings, looking in windows of stores where I never shop and inhaling peppermint bark and watching the Claymation Christmas Special for the 475th time (and doing the latter two things sacked out on the couch with my siblings, reminiscing about the year the twins were young enough to fit into their stockings, or the year my sister got sick and begged for a Chia Pet, or the year my dad kept pulling relatives aside during dinner to watch "A Special Christmas Box").

One of the holiday chores we would typically be doing the day after Thanksgiving is getting out the box of Christmas movies and books. I try to re-read David Sedaris' HOLIDAYS ON ICE and the first two chapters of LITTLE WOMEN every year. For picture books you can't go wrong with HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (best read aloud in Boris Karloff voice), THE POLAR EXPRESS or the edition of THE NUTCRACKER with the almost-too-scary Sendak illustrations in it. What's your favorite holiday book?

(Sorry this list is so Christmas-centric; despite working in a hillel I don't know of any Hanukkah books. Please pitch in and correct my ignorance.)

Since today is also Buy Nothing Day, here are the free full texts of "The Gift of the Magi" and A CHRISTMAS CAROL; you can also listen to Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries" radio pieces (my first ever exposure to him) here.

Still from "Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas": GeekUSA

26 November 2009

Books cited in Zadie Smith's new essay collection, CHANGING MY MIND

(An incomplete list)
  • George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH
  • THE BBC TALKS OF E.M. FORSTER, 1929-1960
  • Roland Barthes, "The Death Of The Author" and THE PLEASURE OF THE TEXT
  • Kingsley Amis, "No More Parades"
  • Vladimir Nabokov, LECTURES ON LITERATURE
  • Franz Kafka, LETTER TO MY FATHER
  • Joseph O'Neill, NETHERLAND
  • Tom McCarthy, REMAINDER
Giving thanks for reading that begets reading!

25 November 2009

Reading on the Road: Giving thanks for paperbacks edition

In terms of surviving long flights and delays there is no better technology. Four of these are paperbacks, which is good enough:
Jonathan Miles, DEAR AMERICAN AIRLINES (already started, haven't had time to finish even though it is really short and debatably a waste of space)
Malcolm Gladwell, WHAT THE DOG SAW
James Dickey, TO THE WHITE SEA (Wrapped Up in Books)
Tom Mendocino, PROBATION (review)
I know, still too many, but I have two long travel days and this should help. (I'll be in the land of sketchy WiFi, although this blog will continue to magically write itself until I can find a signal.) If you're going somewhere for the holiday, what are you taking with you?

Photo: fabiovenni

24 November 2009

I guess it could be a compliment...

If a critic writes of an author, "You don't read a novel by [author] so much as you give in to one... You read on to be free of it. You read on because you must," is she paying a compliment or giving him an expert backhand? You be the judge, because my feeling about this author is infecting my perspective.

Speaking of infecting, I'm still sick. I'm not a doctor but I'm pretty sure that it's the first recorded female case of Man Cold.

23 November 2009

I don't have any court documents to back up this observation, but yesterday I saw James Frey at my favorite neighborhood brunch place. He probably just had coffee and called it brunch.

ETA: I'm super sick today, and I think we all know whose fault it is (although he likely had nohing to do with it). What else would you like to blame on James Frey?

22 November 2009

Sesame Street Sunday

Lazyblogging, I know, but I just saw on Twitter that the Brooklyn Public Library is hosting a 40th-anniversary exhibit on the show which just opened last weekend. The show has been teaching kids to read for 40 years and the West Coast bureau and I can't be the only ones who have near-photographic memory (videographic?) of these snippets given how many people have tried to set them to rap songs and so on.

And now, a few favorite videos.

Bert and Ernie's rhyming game:

"Ma! There's an alligator in my room!"

The Yip Yips discover the telephone:

Cowboy X

Smokey Robinson being groped by the letter U (because even though I posted it before, it is just so unsettling and would never make it into a children's show today):

21 November 2009

People who've gone diving in Yellowstone Lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it could go on Thursday. No one knows.
--Cormac McCarthy gives one of his very few interviews (first one since Oprah? Maybe) to the Wall Street Journal and takes advantage of the opportunity to scare us all. Also covered: the real-life kid behind the kid, his own one-star review of MOBY DICK and one more pullquote of awesome:
I was at the Academy Awards with the Coens [for "No Country For Old Men"]. They had a table full of awards before the evening was over, sitting there like beer cans. One of the first awards that they got was for Best Screenplay, and Ethan came back and he said to me, "Well, I didn't do anything, but I'm keeping it."

20 November 2009

How to make your best-of-decade list have no meaning

British newspaper The Times has come out with its 100 best of the noughties, and though I'm running dangerously low on processing power at this time in the week I scanned it and some of the choices were pretty interesting. Then I skipped to the top 11, which I will reprint here to save you from clicking through 17 gallery pages (gah, impression-happy designers; see the full list here). Editorial comments follow:

1. Cormac McCarthy, THE ROAD -- Somehow it has gotten out that I don't like this book. Untrue! I liked it, though not as much as NO COUNTRY... or BLOOD MERIDIAN.
2. Marjane Satrapi, PERSEPOLIS
4. Robert Bringhurst (trans.), MASTERWORKS OF THE HAIDA MYTHTELLERS -- I've never heard of this, but won't rule it out just for that reason.
5. Irène Némirovsky, SUITE FRANCAISE -- Own it, haven't read it -- is it worth the hype?
6. Malcolm Gladwell, THE TIPPING POINT
7. Yann Martel, LIFE OF PI -- Ooooooooverrated.
8. Margaret Atwood, PAYBACK: DEBT AND THE SHADOW SIDE OF WEALTH -- I didn't like it but I've seen it pop up on some other lists like this.
9. Ian McEwan, ATONEMENT
10. Dan Brown, THE DA VINCI CODE
11. Leo Tolstoy, WAR AND PEACE (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

Sorry, what? I know I'm on record as declaring WAR AND PEACE overrated, and since I haven't read the new translation I can't speak to its greatness. (There's also a debate to be had over whether new translations count as new publications.) But this juxtaposition should never have been allowed to happen. I hope there was a big fight a dreadful row over that at the Times office, with people throwing around terms like "death of print."

(There ought to be a subset of Godwin's Law about that phrase and conversations about publishing, but naturally I'm not willing to donate my last name to it.)

To: HOLLY'S INBOX From: Ellen Subject: Re: The future of literature as we know it

When I heard someone had written a best-selling novel consisting of a series of e-mails, my first thought was, "This is going to be awesome." To the extent that people these days spend their lives on e-mail, it was about time that someone updated the 19th-century model of people sending letters back and forth to each other. (Not that people have stopped writing those; Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott's WHICH BRINGS ME TO YOU is a great recent novel-in-letters.) Such is the premise behind HOLLY'S INBOX -- using the conceit of all the different e-mails a person gets and sends in a day to draw a life and scoot the plot forward without any ancillary scenes.

The author apparently got the idea from reading a former employee's left-behind e-mails (note to self: delete everything), which he described to Entertainment Weekly as "gripping." It's too bad he didn't just copy and paste them into HOLLY'S INBOX, because this book was so, so slow. I would say it was too realistic, but the real inbox of a new receptionist with a slutty best friend, an in-office boyfriend and a secret dark past -- and no discretion about putting all of this on company e-mail -- would have to be more interesting.

As Pie Not Included pointed out, some of the exchanges are much more like IM conversations than proper e-mails and the story one character is telling is dragged out much longer than it would be in a proper e-mail exchange. Holly is a total twit who (spoiler) nearly loses her job over an unnecessary lie, but she's capable of writing multiple-paragraph e-mails.

Why did I finish this book if it was so boring? First, it accurately replicated several e-mail forms common to homo sapiens sapiens cubiculi -- the passive-aggressive assignment thread, the snarky response to the non-response, the thinly disguised code for bitching about superiors. Second, I held out hope that it would get better once Holly's secrets were revealed (didn't).

And third, it's rare I read a novel which I think is not good but which I also believe could and will be done better soon. (Either a lot of bad novels I come across are flawed in the fundamentals, or I don't look at them with a charitable enough eye.) When it got really dull I even started thinking, "I could have written this book." Of course I'm deluded, but you would be too; think about how many e-mails you send in a day! This book tops 650 pages but because the to/from fields are constantly repeated, it doesn't contain that much text. Grandstanding aside, it's a form I'm excited to see taking shape, if not this particular shape.

19 November 2009

Internet high-five!

Blogger Evany insisted a librarian take a picture of her with her brand-new library card. I'm pretty sure it's what Jay-Z would do.

Your 2009 National Book Award Winners

Colum McCann won for his novel LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN; the nonfiction winner was T.J. Stiles for THE FIRST TYCOON: THE EPIC LIFE OF CORNELIUS VANDERBILT. Flannery O'Connor's collected stories garnered her the Best National Book Ever Award (not its official title). Epic prediction fail!

Also, Keith Waldrop, professor at the best school ever, took home the poetry prize, and YA honors went to Philip Hoose's CLAUDETTE COLVIN: TWICE TOWARD JUSTICE, about an African-American woman who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus a year before Rosa Parks did.

To be discussed:
1. Does embracing the biography of a rich entrepreneur mean America's animosity towards captains of industry has ended?
2. The buzz on the YA category was whether David Small's STITCHES should have been included in that category or was more properly an adult book. Should publisher W.W. Norton be kicking itself? Why or why not?
3. Will Thomas Pynchon ever come out now after this epic snub?

18 November 2009

You Too Can Be A Romance Novelist (For $599)

Harlequin announced it will open a new imprint called Harlequin Horizons for self-publishing projects. The 60-year-old publisher is teaming with Author Solutions to give both general self-publishing clients and rejectees from Harlequin imprints the chance to carry the romance publisher's name -- por dinero. Packages start at $599 and go up to $1,599, which will get you 25 free copies, a close edit of the first chapter "or 1700 words" and a "book signing kit" containing bookmarks and posters.

I have read some self-published books, and as you would expect some are good enough to blend in seamlessly at your local literature purveyor and some are error-ridden meandering nightmares. (Hint to self-publishers out there: At least make sure your protagonist has the same name throughout the book. Yes, that happened.) I know of at least one self-published author among those whose next book went to a major publisher, and hey, good for him.

But if I were a Harlequin author I'd be pretty depressed about the cheapening of the brand at its lower end. Regardless of what you think of their normal output -- of which I have read nothing -- the gap between being paid to publish and paying is still important in terms of what readers and other authors expect from you. Harlequin top brass may have thought it wasn't quite so important as making money, but as covered before, romance isn't feeling the recession like the rest of publishing.

Not to get all Snooty McHighbrowpants here, but the most I know about these books comes from the protagonist of LADY ORACLE who writes historical romances in secret -- a very funny subplot, if likely unrealistic.

New York Public Library: Judgy

I think there are more doubters in the world than gymnasts, but what do I know.

17 November 2009

This is way better than vampire Darcy

Book A Week With Jen got the following in the mail:
But wait, it gets better! This is the fourth in a series of books about a Latino P.I. who became a vampire while serving in Iraq. That's right, a Latino veteran vampire P.I. -- if I'm putting those modifiers in the correct order, which I suspect I am not. It's as if the author had character dice he threw up in the air to create this guy, which means the world will never know about his Asian-American mattress salesman who was bitten by a werewolf in his old job as a postal worker.

The other books in the series, since you're dying to know now, are THE NYMPHOS OF ROCKY FLATS, X-RATED BLOODSUCKERS and THE UNDEAD KAMA SUTRA. Here's the author's book trailer for JAILBAIT ZOMBIE. It's SFW but may leave you totally speechless:

Straw Poll Tuesday: My library, your library

If you live with other people, do you or have you comingled your books?

I have with roommates before, although I don't now because we don't have a communal bookshelf. (Since both of my roommates are grad students, I think it would be pretty easy to separate most of theirs from most of mine, and I trust them on the rest.) Throughout most of college my roommate and I were each issued our own bookshelf, but one year we shared a sweet built-in bookshelf; it was still inadequate, but it looked stylish.

I like to think if I were married or cohabitating I would gladly oversee the merging of the libraries, but I haven't been either so I don't know. Anne Fadiman has a funny essay in her collection EX LIBRIS: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMON READER about what happened when she and her husband combined their collections, a task they put off until they had been married for five years and had a child. That seems absurd to me, but maybe she was just really busy, or moving around a lot.

16 November 2009

Two notes on memoir

"I will never write a book memoir unless something really interesting happens to me which is not likely."
--Ben Yagoda, author of the new book MEMOIR: A HISTORY, tempting fate or being honest in an interview with Reuters. Yagoda's ABOUT TOWN: THE NEW YORKER AND THE WORLD IT MADE is excellent reading, and this looks good too, although I imagine his publishers wouldn't have let him call it MEMOIR: A MEMOIR.

"Memoir is the Barbie of literary genres. It exaggerates the assets and invites the reader into an intimate alternative world, sometimes complete with a dream house. We hungrily buy and read memoir even as we express contempt for it. Memoirs are confessional and subversive; memoirs drop names. Memoirs print whispered secrets on their covers in 24-point type. Memoir is so much the genre of our time that sophisticated readers look for memoirs in fiction, hunting for clues to the “real story” with a fervent appetite for details of the writer’s real life."

--Susan Cheever, memoirist in review of Mary Karr's memoir LIT, NYT

NYC: Independent Bookstore Week Events to Watch

Every year, children stay up the night before Independent Bookstore Week begins, hoping to catch Book Santa and his sleigh pulled by pigeons. Okay, this is actually the first annual, and any sleigh pulled by pigeons should be shot down, but here are three free events you should check out.

Tonight at Unnameable Books: Sarah Palin-Vladimir Nabokov midnight release party. You are encouraged to dress as your favorite character from either GOING ROGUE or THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA, the novel Nabokov told his family to destroy before he died. (11:30PM; 600 Vanderbilt Ave., Prospect Heights)

Wednesday (11/18) at WORD Brooklyn: STATE BY STATE, an anthology of essays about America, comes out in paperback this week and co-editor Sean Wilsey will be talking about how he put it together. I went to a reading for this when it came out in hardcover, and it was really fun. (7:30PM; 126 Franklin St. in Greenpoint)

Thursday (11/19) at Book Culture: David Hajdu, author of THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE and POSITIVELY FOURTH STREET (excellent) reads from his new book of cultural essays. (7PM; 536 W. 112th St. in Morningside Heights)

15 November 2009

What they're saying about reading and writing on Twitter

"I'm pretty sure this is the 1st time I have seen the word 'masshole' appear in print. Good on you, Mr. King."
--@mcgee_gorgo reading UNDER THE DOME for the good stuff, including (if you haven't heard) derogatory slang for residents of Massachusetts.

"Totally sucked at Borges Hero tonight. Failed out of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" on Easy, and now I'm not even sure if I'm real."
--@hotdogsladies wants you to try and beat him on Jorge Luis Borges.

"Avoid using 'gadzooks,' lest your monocle pop out and land in your jar of mustache wax."
--@FakeAPStylebook is still pure gold. I don't think I've ever said this about a Twitter account before, but someone get this guy a book deal (and a lawyer for the inevitable Associated Press lawsuit).

"in the midst of a SESTINA FAIL"
--If like me you would be completely unable to help @allysonkalea with her poetics emergency, here's an example of a sestina by W.H. Auden.

14 November 2009

Opening this weekend: "The Fantastic Mr. Fox"

I haven't seen this yet, but I'm going to go ahead and recommend it because I like Wes Anderson that much. In fact, this would be a great place to report on the free talk Anderson gave earlier this week in New York, but I didn't get to it early enough and was turned away (and went home to flavor my can of Sparks with tears). Meryl Streep was there too! Oh well.

I might be more hesitant if this were one of my favorite Roald Dahl books, but it's not. I think we're all more susceptible to bad movie adaptations of our childhood favorites; I had to change the channel on "Matilda" after about 20 minutes.

13 November 2009

Books That Make You Laugh

Back when I wrote my list of books that make you cry I promised to write its counterpart later in the year when it would be necessary. What I didn't consider was that really, there are two potential opposites for books that make you cry, being those that make you laugh (the direct correlation) and books that somehow make you feel better or uplifted, but aren't necessarily funny. I've been pretty grumpy recently so I will now hold forth on the former.

Sentimental favorite: Gordon Korman, NO COINS, PLEASE. This is the first book I can remember reading and laughing at; it's a middle-grade chapter book about an eleven-year-old con artist on a chaperoned trip across America who runs a new scam in every city. What's even cooler about it is that Korman was a writing prodigy who published this book when he was just 21.

Sentimental favorite II: P.J. O'Rourke, MODERN MANNERS. As I wrote before, my parents took this book away from my sister and me after we discovered it and thought it was the funniest thing in existence. Now I'm grown-up and no one can stop me from owning a copy of this book, or from listening to him on "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" I even think he's kind of handsome in an elder-statesmanly way, which: yeah, I know.

Algonquin Round Table pick: I love Dorothy Parker, but you all know about Dorothy Parker, so might I direct you to the Robert Benchley collection THE BENCHLEY ROUND-UP? As a miniaturist writing about topics like how to read a newspaper in public and the psychological benefits of chewing gum, he is often overlooked in the pantheon, but I think it was his work more than any other's that shaped the Shouts & Murmurs column as it appears today.

Funny and best-selling for a reason: The writers of "The Daily Show" could have just regurgitated some of their best known bits into book form. Instead they came up with AMERICA: THE BOOK, which resembles a real(ly unorthodox) textbook, including wacky definitions and a recurring sidebar entitled "Would You Mind If I Tell You How We Do It In Canada?"

Funny in 2009: Steve Hely, HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST. I mentioned this book last week in the context of Colson Whitehead's "What To Write Next," but I'm plugging it again here. This satire of a frustrated writer can get pretty cutting and if I were Hely's publisher, it might not be the kind of mirror I'd want to see myself in, but it's funny enough to risk the injury. The four people I know who actually took my advice and read it all liked it, and how can a not-at-all random sampling of four people be wrong?

Funny, but also sort of uplifting: Mark Salzman's memoir LOST IN PLACE: GROWING UP ABSURD IN SUBURBIA has been one of my favorites for going around 10 years now. The author was a teenage cello-playing dork who one day became obsessed with kung-fu movies and decided his true calling was to become a Buddhist master with a black belt. Sometimes, he acts like a complete idiot, but his reckless passions are enviable -- maybe I'll regret sneaking it onto this list when it comes time to do the other.

What are the books that make you laugh the most?
How is the housing crisis playing out in fiction? According to this incredible write-up by i09, by showing the "scary underside" of "real-estate fetishism." I wouldn't have thought to put Sarah Waters' Booker-nominated THE LITTLE STRANGER in that category, but since it concerns a family on the verge of losing its potentially haunted house, it's not too much of a stretch.

12 November 2009

Culture Jamming With Charles Darwin

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, and some people aren't happy about that. Weird evangelical actor whose last name is not "Baldwin" Kirk Cameron is one of those people, and he's doing something about it: He's raising money to pass out 50,000 copies of a special edition of Darwin's work on Nov. 19 at college campuses, since that is where America's youth learn to be atheists from their godless professors. (His [slightly paraphrased] words, not mine.) This special edition features an introduction pointing out that Hitler loved evolution, the Big Bang doesn't make any sense and this one time some Girl Scouts came to Darwin's door selling cookies and he pretended not to be home.

Cameron announced this plan in a video not worth your time posted to the Hollywood Reporter, which calls the books "Trojan bibles" and compares him to Dr. Horrible -- but that is giving him way too much credit. (Sidebar: If you haven't watched "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," yet, I will wait here until you're finished.)

As my italics might suggest, I am not an advocate of intelligent design, but that's not why I'm posting this -- though I do giggle at edition editor Ray Comfort's theory that God put fossils on Earth just to mess with us. He thought of everything!* Besides the obvious, this effort is misguided for three reasons: First, college students are too busy reading their assigned work (or not) to read a random book someone gave them in the quad. Second, if by slim chance they do, they're going to skip the introduction, making it ineffective as a culture jam. And third, if you're handing out your refutation of one of the most important scientific works of our time to a small army of people who are learning how to be critical thinkers, your argument had better be airtight -- and early reviews suggest it is not. I mean to begin with, the Girl Scouts hadn't even been established during Darwin's lifetime.

In terms of appropriation of forms, this is a really lazy way to get your point across. Anyway, I can't find a list of the lucky campuses that will be swamped with free books, but if you get your hands on one please report back on the insanity. I haven't read all of ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, and now I sort of feel that I should -- post-anniversary book club anyone?

*This was not, I hasten to point out, a God angle explored by my own religious upbringing, which was about evenly split between the Methodists and the Presbyterians.

Words I use so often I fear I am depriving them of their meaning

Current offenders:
1. Awesome
2. Dysfunctional

For the New York Times writers, it's "famously." At a Massachusetts high school, the overused word is "meep" for a reason no one could tell the local paper. And yours?

11 November 2009

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
-Wilfred Owen, killed in action, World War I

More books mentioned recently in New York City missed connections

By way of explanation: I used to do a travel column where I read different cities' missed connections and derived from them cheery lists of where to meet available people in those cities. Highly unscientific, but it was anthropologically interesting.

John Hodgman, MORE INFORMATION THAN YOU REQUIRE (at the John Hodgman reading at B&N Union Square)
John Steinbeck, EAST OF EDEN (1 train)
THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO ("furiously underlining" on the 4 train to Brooklyn)
J.D. Salinger, FRANNY AND ZOOEY (Manhattan-bound L train)
Kurt Vonnegut, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (6 train)
Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland, ed. STATE BY STATE (G train)

Honorable non-literary mention: Bennett Ave. Chupacabras.


10 November 2009

NYC: Austen exhibit includes LADY SUSAN manuscript

Via the Hawaiian office: The Morgan Library just opened an exhibit called "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy," which includes the only complete Austen manuscript in existence (LADY SUSAN, seen here). Also on display: drawings that inspired her, rare editions of books that she read and loved, and letters to her family and friends. The museum is also holding several talks on Austen as well as a preview of the new Masterpiece Theatre production of "Emma" starring Romola Garai (best known as 18-year-old Briony in "Atonement").

I've never actually been to the Morgan, nor do I know how this news managed to get all the way out to Hawaii and bypassed me, but it looks like a great gloomy-winter-afternoon outing. There's also a William Blake exhibit up there right now, if that is your thing, and of course the awesome-looking library. The Morgan Library, at 225 Madison Ave. (between 36th and 37th), is open Tuesday through Sunday; admission is normally $12 but free Fridays from 7 to 9PM, in case you want to stop by before the ball.

Detail from a letter to her sister Cassandra, themorgan.org.

Portrait of the blogger as a no-longer-young man

"There were no impediments left to love, no restrictions or barriers or secrets, and thus love had lost its power."
Nick Laird's second novel GLOVER'S MISTAKE is a trap. It plays for your sympathy from the beginning as the protagonist, David, watches his former art professor Ruth (a very successful artist in her own right, when he has all but given it up) and his cheerily naïve roommate Glover fall in love and withdraw from his world into their own. The insult builds within him, not least because he had contemplated kindling a relationship with her himself before she confessed her feeling, but that he’s come to see her as a confidante and his intellectual champion -- only to have her prefer youth and sincerity untainted by ambition. (Neat bit of gender-switching, that.)

Laird coaxes you over to this side, to David’s incredulous view of the happy Ruth and Glover, until his voice seeps into your head, and it’s too late to remove it when David decides to save his friend and his roommate from what he views as their “real” selves. He doesn’t feel guilty, but you do, because what he does is not so outlandish that you can deny having the urge to ruin. His resolve strengthens and you recoil from his efforts to prove that the world is, in fact, as grim and fractured as he sees it. Can a novel in fact be too realistic?

But let’s get to the important part: How was the blogging in it? As a subplot, it doesn’t function the way it should. As a portrayal of Contemporary Internet Habits, it was all right.

That David takes to blogging on his site, “The Damp Review” (heh), to vent his frustration and lack of fulfillment in life is a cliché, but any habit he would have taken up would have functioned as such a vent. If he had stumbled into a knitting store, he would have been a bitter knitter. Because the novel takes place almost entirely from David’s perspective, we never truly get a sense for whether his writing is original or hackneyed, which is probably for the best.

It's clear that his mindset is toxic, not the entire Internet, which is good, but working the ramifications of a particularly nasty post on the Damp Review into the plot was laughable. Still, later there is a confrontation over it that I thought was very out of character for one of the characters involved -- the author brought over very well the complexity of having your relationships shaken up in a way that you hadn't expected, except when it came to this moment, which is violent and dramatic and unrealistic in a way nothing else in the novel is. It also creates a supporting character who seems to serve no purpose other than for us to hate and fear David a little bit more; I would have cut her out entirely.

That said, in the end The Damp Review is not a sufficient vent. (This isn’t a moral, Laird is too skilled for that.) After he has already started to act, David is toying with a post against romantic love called "Wanking Ourselves Senseless,” that will prove obliquely (since Glover doesn’t read his blog) that he’s doing the right thing and that his roommate is a silly fool enveloped in a damaging situation. If he had been able to restrain himself to the poison keyboard, well, GLOVER’S MISTAKE wouldn’t be much of a book. The technology is new, the faults all too old.

09 November 2009

Goodbye (But Why?) To Waldenbooks

Borders announced last week it would close some 200 of its mall stores in January, many of them under the pleasantly literary Waldenbooks sign -- an un-merry Christmas for the 1500 people who will lose their jobs as a result.

It's just another sign of the chain's current troubles, but I'm curious as to the reasoning behind amputating the smaller stores rather than going after some of the less profitable big-box locations (which have higher rents and are more expensive to keep running). My theories, in no particular order:
  • The smaller stores overall weren't as profitable because by necessity they had a smaller selection (modified Long Tail theory).
  • Smaller stores don't offer the browsing experience consumers prefer, being lacking in places to read. Room to linger, including to not purchase anything, has become part of the bookstore visiting experience in the past decade to the extent that customers feel uncomfortable without it.
  • Malls have been hit badly in the current economic climate as cash-strapped Americans opt out of a destination that "has never trafficked in essentials" and whose goal is to make you spend money.
  • Closing the bigger stores and stores that carry the Borders branding (as opposed to Waldenbooks) has a disproportionate effect on the company's image.

What do you think?

08 November 2009

One-Star Revue: MOBY DICK

Inspired by reading a one-star review of MR. DARCY, VAMPYRE I decided to look up some more one-star reviews on Amazon. Today's target is in honor of the Autumn of Dick, which you can still participate in if you are diligent with your reading. These are all real blurbs and there are no spoilers.
  • J. Blackhorse: "There was absolutely no story. It was all about fishing."
  • A Customer (2001-A): "It leaves you with that, 'I hate myself' feeling you get after accidentally destroying a major city with a hydrogen bomb or something."
  • Gertrude Whitman: "It does have some pretty, but useless, drawings of whaling boats."
  • A Customer (1998): "The opening was great, but then all these horrendous allusions kept popping up. I mean: pages devoted to the act of just plain sleeping, and then more pages devoted to eating?"
  • John Boehner: "I came here to fight monstrosities like this" -- oh, sorry, that was about HCR 3962, carry on.
  • A Customer (1999): "I love literatur [sic] just as much as the next guy but we must face it 100 years or so ago American literature was reall [sic] weak and lagging from the rest of the world, perhaps now they're starting to catch up with writers like Ann [sic] Rice and them."
  • A Customer (2001-B) "I feel as if my brainards [Ed.: ???] are going to freeze over and crumble like spoiled peanut brittle."
  • nickoli: "There are many better books on sea adventure."

07 November 2009

October Unbookening

Bookmooched 2
Checked out 7 from the library
Received 12 to review
Got 1 as a gift
22 in

Returned 5 to the library
Gave 4 away
Donated 13
22 out

Photo of old Penguin editions: eifion

06 November 2009

John Irving, That Is Not Helpful

"If I were 27 and trying to publish my first novel today I might be tempted to shoot myself."

--Irving on The Big Think, but there isn't much else to that video unless you enjoy parsing his accent. Is that what all New Hampshirites sound like, or just the crusty ones?

Disney's A Christmas Carol: Bah, Humbug

I think I saw a promotion for this back at BookExpo America, but I must have blocked it out. What do you get when you cross Charles Dickens, Robert Zemeckis' dead-eyed CGI and Jim Carrey? A lot of Sims shouting "Nooooooo!" Even voice talent like Gary Oldman and Bob Hoskins cannot make this okay.

For future reference, this blog only recognizes one true adaptation of A CHRISTMAS CAROL:

"True, there was something about mankind we loved!"
"I think it was their money!"

05 November 2009

The great used bookstore brawl

You can keep your white-gloved price wars, in the secondhand world it's all about real fisticuffs. A San Francisco shopper posted a complainy two-star review of a used bookstore he had visited recently on Yelp. After sending him several angry messages, the store owner then Googled him, figured out who he was and decided to go over to his house -- to apologize, she said -- where they got into a fistfight that had to be broken up by the police.

Here's the offending review:
This place is a TOTAL MESS with minimal organization of titles or subjects.
There are books stacked everywhere - blocking the shelves. Why would someone
want a travel guide from 1982?? I think this place needs to close down for a few
days and do a thorough cleaning and organization and get rid of all the crap!
I think I've been to that bookstore, but it wasn't in San Francisco, it was somewhere else. I think I just shrugged and ducked out -- disorganization and odd stock is pretty standard, and can even be part of the fun. But the following points must be made:

1. I can't wait for the "Dateline" special pegging Yelp as part of the Dangerous Internet along with eBay, Craigslist and Facebook, the three other horsemen of the oh come on you have to be kidding me.
2. The word "fisticuffs" does not get enough of an airing in this modern age.
3. If you are a hater of this blog and you later change your mind and would like to come over and apologize to me, please be aware I live in a yurt in Mongolia surrounded by my herd of very, very mean pigs.

NYC: Toby Talbot reading at the New School next week

This book about bringing art-house movies to New York in the '60s looks like the intersection of a lot of subjects I like. The author is speaking next Thursday at 55 W. 13th St., 7PM for the low price of free (provided you can get in without a student ID, and I'm looking into that).

I only wish her original theatre as seen in "Annie Hall" still existed -- Google Maps tells me there's a cell phone store and a bank branch on the spot now.

04 November 2009

Making "Turdsworth" a $460,000 word

An unknown buyer just dropped £277,250 on a collection of unpublished letters by Lord Byron to a college buddy in which he brags about his vacations, complains about the servant who cheated on him and rips on William Wordsworth.

Will the collectors of the future be bidding on flash drives of famous writers' e-mails in the original fonts? On the "Personal" folder of keithgessendoesntlikeyou@yahoo.com ? On an iPhone containing Sloane Crosley's real text messages? Need to get Margaret Atwood working on this.

03 November 2009

Seen on the subway this morning

Frankly, this is too far:
According to thisnonbritluvslit on Amazon, MR. DARCY, VAMPYRE follows Darcy and Elizabeth as they "travel around Europe meeting Darcy's vampy friends" without her knowing he's a vampire. Her review compares it unfavorably to that vampire book which must not be named and adds, "The only suspenseful thing in the whole story is waiting for Darcy to consummate his marriage. Even that got old after a while."

However, as a silver lining I discovered while looking up a review that someone has written the inevitable mash-up, THE VAMPIRE IS JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. I don't need to read it, the title pretty much says it all.
"I was reluctant to admit that, at the age of 21, my inner life was a whirlwind of giant sand-serpents the size of highways eating their way through the early American Midwest and passing unruffled children who could see the wind; they in turn accompanied by their magical lion guides; and all of them looking for intelligent rodents performing stunts on miniature vehicles in the back cabinets of the homes of Russian peasants. The whole time a soundtrack from naiads singing from the sea's rocks, burning Chinese pictographs written in fire in the air over their heads. It was all a mystery no two brother detectives, also lost in there, might unravel. What could come out after what had gone in?"
--From Alexander Chee's "You Write What You Read." Any author could tackle this subject and they would all be incredible, but I had never heard of Mr. Chee's work before and now I'd really like to know more.

02 November 2009

Publishers Weekly 100, Amazon 10 (not a score)

See if your favorite snubbed by the top 10 made the cut on the long list, divided among fiction, poetry, mystery, SF/fantasy/horror (yes, all lumped together), mass market (is not a genre!), comics and nonfiction. Counting last week's list I have read four of these books -- THE LOST CITY OF Z, THE BELIEVERS, THE LITTLE STRANGER and THE SNAKEHEAD -- not good but no worse than last year.

Meanwhile, Amazon's in-house book blog Omnivoracious posted its top 10 books of the year, attributed to "the editors," which overlaps by one with PW.

Any books you think should have vaulted to the top, or glaring omissions you want to speak for?

01 November 2009

Calling dibs on "The Cubby"

Everything about Colson Whitehead's essay "What To Write Next" is awesome, but this description of the fabulist novel jumped out:
This is the perfect genre for writers who may be tempted to throw out manuscript pages when they get stuck — with magic realism, you can just conjure up a flaming tornado and whisk troublesome characters away. “Where’s Jasper?” “Remember that legend I mentioned 25 pages ago, about the Flaming Tornado of Red Creek?”
Elizabeth, I think he stole your meterorite test and turned it into a viable plot option. How does that make you feel?

Anyway, if you like this essay and haven't read HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST yet, try it, you'll like it.