30 April 2011


Here's the entry I really wanted to write today before I went all US Weekly on you.

Jennifer Egan's A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD is as good as everyone says it is, so run along and read it in haste.

What, you need more? Very well, here’s why Jennifer Egan’s lauded all over book is this good: Its structure and narrative are working perfectly in concert with each other to deliver the kind of meaning you so often want in life, but don’t get.

Like a good house, it’s all in the bones. The 13 chapters in GOON SQUAD initially present themselves as linked stories in which you get to know a set of characters, a lifestyle, a social group, up close -- and then you jump away, trailing off with one of the characters to a new city or (sometimes) a new life. Only (and here’s the genius thing) they don’t really fall away and when you encounter them later, you’re so happy to find them again. The ones who don’t get that kind of grace are often immortalized within the text itself, but not in the sense that you feel they need to be gotten rid of. Even the book’s arguably most tragic figure doesn’t end at his ending. (I loved that chapter. Heartstopping.)

And then there’s the matter of Chapter 12, the unconventional one (whose unconvention I’m about to spoil if you haven’t heard about it yet). Let me tell you, I open PowerPoint at work more days than I don’t, and thus believed myself to be inoculated against Chapter 12’s charms. This simple story, told by a kid (which makes perfect sense not only in the future, but because kids are the population for whom PowerPoint is still a fun cool alternative to papers and posters) absolutely worked on me. There are plenty of words to describe that loneliness the narrator of that chapter feels, but none better than its format for that moment.

(I cried over both Tournament of Books finalists this year and I own it.  My sticky-marshmallow heart, covered in lint and salt -- take it or leave it.)

If I had one minor quibble with this book, it’s that some of the innovations described for the future aren’t so much futuristic as current. That’s my only complaint, really, and it’s tiny, but I thought it was worth pointing out. If you feel like you’re in a reading rut, this book will shake you out. I can’t wait to catch up on Egan’s back catalog. So just in case you were waiting for my endorsement… this is it.

Earlier on Egan:

Local author spotting!

I knew this guy was a neighbor but not a neighbor neighbor. Good thing he caught me when I was at the tail end of my run and lacked the breath to say anything.

29 April 2011

Posted without comment: 111 Male Characters of British Literature, In Order Of Bangability (The Awl)

Okay, one comment: #21?? Ahead of #28, #69 (heh) (We read that one in book club!) #94... incorrect.

How you sell tickets to a literary event

"On May 5th, Elizabeth Gilbert will be in conversation with Paul Holdengräber to speak in public for the last time about her EAT, PRAY, LOVE journey before retiring to a quieter life of, as she puts it, 'working on slow fiction and even slower gardening.'" I mean, I wouldn't put down $25 on the chance that it will be the last time, but someone will. What do we think? Is Gilbert over pizza, meditating and my Javier Bardem jokes?

28 April 2011

Oh, these pants? Why, they're...

I don't do this a lot but please to read my review of Tina Fey's book BOSSYPANTS over at The AV Club. I didn't so much sweat bullets as entire magazines over this because my first draft looked like:
Tina Fey is really awesome, right everybody? So cool. Pretty much the neatest lady ever. There aren't even words to describe how awesome she is.
If that doesn't entice you to check out the finished product I don't know what will.

Taken two weeks ago, Asbury Park, NJ

27 April 2011

Back home, I got to work on another rewrite. Deborah got to work, too, coming home each night with pages she'd marked up on the train. Her notes were about fleshing out the world of the story, digging deeper into the characters, raising the level of the language—things any good writer knows any good story must have, but that I needed her push to do. Pages flew between us as the book went from copy edit to proofs to second proofs. By Christmas, she'd gone through the manuscript three times, making painstaking comments on every page.

Somewhere along the line, the book came together. Scenes came into focus. The narrator finally found his voice. And by the time I turned in my last batch of revisions just after New Year's, the novel had become the piece of fiction I'm proudest of.

"It's surprisingly not bad," Deborah said, with a smile.

--Will Allison in Slate on being edited by his wife.

Filmbook Preview: Spring/Summer Adaptations Of Doom

They aren't all that doomful, it just looked nice to write, I think you'll agree. Note: I excluded all comic-book movies from this round-up, less as a judgment on their putative merits (after all, I haven't seen them) than because that would nearly double this list and for my purposes I'll consider them a different subgenre of adaptation.

  • May 6: "Something Borrowed," Ginnifer Goodwin, Kate Hudson, based on the Emily Griffin novel of the same name. I haven't caught up on the book itself but this is highly anticipated among my chick-lit-reading friends, so keep an eye on it. 
  • Also May 6: "Everything Must Go," Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, based on the Raymond Carver short story "Why Don't You Dance." This one snuck up out of nowhere! (Costar: Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of Chris "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace.) 
  • June 3: "Submarine," Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, based on the Joe Dunthorne novel of the same name. This troubled/obsessed teenager flick may be a little too quirky/ "Harold and Maude"esque, but that approach has worked out well for a lot of directors.
  • June 17: "Mr. Popper's Penguins," Jim Carrey, based on the Richard Atwater children's book of the same name. I expect nothing. 
  • July 8: "One Day," Jim Sturgess, Rebecca Hall, based on the David Nicholls novel of the same name. If adaptations have a season this is more or less the tentpole. Unpopular opinion: I expect to like this movie more than the book. 
  • July 15: "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2," Ralph Fiennes, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson. Oops, did I say "One Day" was the tentpole? This is just a wee bit bigger. 
  • Also July 15: "Winnie the Pooh," voice work of John Cleese, Craig Ferguson. Oh please don't screw this up.
  • Also July 15 (whew): "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," based on the novel of the same name by Lisa See. Curious about this movie despite knowing nothing about the book (I believe it's a club favorite, which could go a lot of ways)
  • August 12: "The Help," Emma Stone, Viola Davis, based on the Kathryn Stockett novel of the same name. I am the last person in the continental U.S. to read this book, I'm fairly certain. I wonder if Stockett's lawsuit by her family's former maid will be settled by then? HMMM.

26 April 2011

Why is everybody talking about SAVAGES?

I was not able to "turn my brain off" enough to enjoy this thriller, a lot of which reads like bad poetry, about a pair of snarky young'uns (science genius and ex-Middle Eastern mercenary) who decide to take on a Mexican drug cartel to protect their share of the SoCal pot trade. I still finished it, but then I was re-irritated because you've seen the ending of this book onscreen a dozen times, likely with a Nickelback song scrolling over it.

It is in fact being adapted by Oliver Stone, with a string of not-terrible casting choices attached (Benicio del Toro as the local 'muscle' of the drug queenpin; Taylor Kitsch [sigh] as the ex-mercenary). Stone probably picked it because one of the characters quotes the "Life is a game of inches" speech from "Any Given Sunday." Or someone leaked him the (spoiler) threesome scene. It's so shocking!!! Hollywood, thou art easier than a two-piece puzzle.

25 April 2011

"A little company during the workday. I used to think that I was the only one hunched over a keyboard in soiled pajamas, rummaging through the catalogue of my failures and intermittently weeping. Now, I open Twitter and see that I am not alone. I am part of a vast and wretched assembly of freaks who are not fit for decent work and thus must write, or wither. I am fortified by their failures, and I hope they take succor from mine. Some of those out there are established, some are just starting out. I don't give a whit about your accomplishments—all I care about is your facility for describing the fine grain of your work-related suffering, in less than 140 characters, preferably 100, so I have room to add a footnote."

-Colson Whitehead in Publishers Weekly on willpower, the Internet, and writing
Unnecessary book of the month! One of the Italian guys Elizabeth Gilbert met in Rome and wrote about in EAT, PRAY, LOVE is coming out with his own memoir of her visit, UN AMICO ITALIANO: EAT, PRAY, LOVE IN ROME. (Looks like she already blurbed it so she must know it exists.) Finally, the untold story! How many pieces of pizza did she really eat??

24 April 2011

Don't look, author is working

Last night I went to the international premiere of a movie called "Black Butterflies" at the Tribeca Film Festival, a Dutch biopic of the South African poet Ingrid Jonker. I didn't know much about Jonker going in, but she was a confessional poet who launched her career concurrent with the rise of apartheid; her early poems were very personal and then she became politicized. Ironically her father was a conservative political leader and on the national censorship board, so they were often at odds (and he frequently overruled on votes to ban her books). She also suffered from some ill-defined mental illness and ended up committing suicide in her early 30s.

This movie was beautifully shot and mostly well acted (well, Rutger Hauer as the father seemed to be somewhere else, but that's not new) but the dialogue was pretty hackneyed. I would have liked it to go more into how young Ingrid started writing; from what I've read since going in, she was sort of a prodigy. At first when the "political awakening" began I was apprehensive as to how it would be handled, but for the most part it was done well.

It strikes me that there are a few stock ways to show onscreen that someone is writing:

  • Hand with a pen moving over the paper (or fingers moving over the keys) 
  • Author staring at the wall above the typewriter, or at the screen
  • Author looking up wistfully, sometimes accompanied by voiceover
  • Author reading a page, then crumpling it up and throwing it out (is there ANYTHING more satisfying than this? naught can compare, and that's from someone who writes on the computer 85 percent of the time) 
  • Montage of the first four images

One sort of neat device used in this film was showing Jonker's childhood bedroom -- actually the servants' quarters of her father's house, where she and her sister had to live along with his next wife and stepchildren -- with poetry scrawled over the walls, but it wasn't clear when she had written those or whether they were more in her head than visible (although another character reads them later).

Sadly I think the most realistic recent movie about writing is "Stranger Than Fiction" and -- if I remember correctly -- you hardly even see Emma Thompson's character in the act of writing. (Anyway, this is apples-to-oranges in the case of "Black Butterflies," which deals with a real person.) Like the rest of us, Hollywood just wants to skip through that dull middly bit of actually writing to get to the other side.

23 April 2011

NYC: Charles Bukowski-honoring bar opens in Brooklyn

Bukowski isn't my favorite but this review of Post Office in Williamsburg piqued my curiosity. "Nightcaps and tête-à-têtes"? I'm there.

I should just post this one every year

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

--W. Shakespeare, Sonnet 29

22 April 2011

Good news! There's an Off-Broadway play about a book club. Bad news! The New York Times says it sucks. I feel like this premise is always better in theory than in execution (see also: "The Jane Austen Book Club," a not-great movie based on a just-okay novel of the same name) but is hard not to touch given the built-in audience of People (mostly Women) In Book Clubs.

21 April 2011

Duh! Winning!

If I find myself playing "Never have I ever"* with Jonathan Franzen, I'll make sure to use "Never have I ever... stored weed in my freezer," as Elif Batuman reveals he apparently does. I knew this clean living was going to pay off eventually!

I feel a little sorry that Batuman's extremely thoughtful essay is frankly overshadowed by this trivium about some dude, but first, she did throw it out there, and second, I think she is gaining in cool points what she is losing in highbrow esteem from all this.

* Game occasionally involving drinking in which one player says "Never have I ever [done a thing]" and the other players who have done that thing either have to drink, or do something humiliating as previously agreed upon before the start of the game. I sort of doubt anyone plays this any more, because in adulthood you must ferret out all the dangerous tidbits of other people's lives instead of having them throw them out there for sport -- which in itself is like a game in which sometimes there is drinking and sometimes there is humiliation, but there is definitely risk and the risk you cannot avoid if you want to be semi-decent at it.**
** Of all the footnotes I have ever written, this is surely the least relevant to anything, but when I write my summer-camp book I know it will be useful background.
You should read this post on Eating Stuff in South Asia (now just Eating Stuff. Everywhere.) about the global-nonprofit implications of the Greg Mortenson scandal. And if you haven't already downloaded Krakauer's expose, it's at a new site I've never heard of but will definitely be watching now, called Byliner.com.

20 April 2011

I think I might start this on May 1st. Anyone want to play along?

Arthur Phillips

Looks like a character actor (who you recognize, but can't quite land on the name) who plays an author in a movie you really like.

I went to his book party/reading last night (I knew because there was free wine) and I don't want to give away much of what he said, for spoiler purposes, but you should see him on tour. He'll be in Cambridge on Thursday, Seattle on May 10 and Washington D.C. (at Politics and Prose!) on May 24, to name places where the 1.8 readers of this blog live.

19 April 2011

Now that I've finished mine, I feel safe admitting that this is my favorite BOSSYPANTS review ever. I know who I'm using for my arm double.
Canteen Magazine is raising money to "make authors hot," ahem, for a special issue featuring photos of authors in fashion-mag-style spreads. Worth (tax-deductibly) donating, if you're into that sort of thing.

18 April 2011

"The only way I know how to work is to move away from what I’ve already done. To start imitating myself – I hope that doesn’t happen until I’m really old."
--2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Jennifer Egan (in the Wall Street Journal)

Greg Mortenson, the James Frey of 2011?

"60 Minutes" is alleging that Greg Mortenson, author of THREE CUPS OF TEA, made up the central event of the book in which he (spoiler) is rescued from a K2 climbing attempt by an Afghan village where he will later come back to build a school. (I haven't actually read the book yet so if that summary is incorrect, feel free to reword.) He also claimed he was kidnapped by the Taliban which is being questionedThe L.A. Times has none other than Jon Krakauer, identified as a "former donor" to Mortenson's charity, calling the book "a lie."

There are also (arguably more serious) complaints that Mortenson's nonprofit, the Central Asia Institute, is is mismanaged and spending more money to promote itself domestically than actually building schools abroad as is its mission, although it currently gets 4 stars on Charity Navigator. Also charged, that Mortenson draws from the nonprofit to pay for book-related expenses, but isn't putting his proceeds from speaking engagements or book royalties back into it. (This is all from the "60 Minutes" transcript which I now cannot stop reading.) Oh, and of the 30 schools (out of 141) CBS visited that Mortenson was claiming to give money to, half were empty or not receiving any support.

This could be even worse than the Frey thing in my eyes because of the damage done to both the beneficiaries of the charity (who may or may not have gotten what they promised) and to the image of nonprofits as a whole (giving any prospective donors doubts). So disheartening.

Marathon Monday: Top 5 Books About Running

In honor of today's 115th running of the Boston Marathon, five books you definitely don't need to be able to run a marathon in order to read (and hey, none of them are BORN TO RUN!):

John Bingham, THE COURAGE TO START. The cheese factor is such that it must be digested in small bits, but Bingham's positive uptalk of running as a Sport for Everyone doesn't wear and is easy to internalize.
John L. Parker, ONCE A RUNNER. The Mile of Trials, the Trial of Miles! This novel about a superior college athlete (earlier described as the THE FOUNTAINHEAD of running) feels at once like a long work of poetry and the kind of paperback that might be passed around in a locker room from teammate to teammate.
Kathrine Switzer, MARATHON WOMAN. Fittingly, Switzer was the first woman to run with an official number in the Boston Marathon (acquired through registering with her initials instead of her full name), but went on to carve out a career in managing and publicizing women's sporting events, dealing with organizations that wanted to negate her entire career.
Dean Karnazes, ULTRAMARATHON MAN, because before he was an ego on legs and a "fighter" "against" "childhood obesity" he was just a dude at a desk job who was kind of regretting life.
Haruki Murakami, WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING. Murakami is probably the most serious writer-runner and this book is about half writing, half running. But if you can shake the laughable image of Murakami running with a MiniDisc player in the first chapter, you will probably underline a dozen passages in this book and press it into the hands of all your friends... says my friend.

17 April 2011

Phillips returns!

Arthur Phillips, whose last book THE SONG IS YOU I raved about, has a new novel out Tuesday called THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR which I may be reading this very minute. (Anyone going to see him that night in NYC? Pop a comment if you want to.) It's a Shakespeare conspiracy, because apparently that's how we're rolling around here. 

Goodreads commissioned from him a list of books with plays in them, a sub-subgenre both deeply esoteric and extremely aligned with our interests. Spoiler alert for the list: Phillips looks really different from his paperback cover appearance. Ah, the perils of fame...

16 April 2011

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS: What a bunch of clowns.

Here's what I knew about WATER FOR ELEPHANTS before I started this book:
1. A blockbuster movie is being made of it
2. It takes place in a circus
3. Book clubs love it

#1 and #2 are inarguable but I'm no closer to understanding #3 than when I started, regrettably. But I am interested now as to how a Bildungsroman starring a basically unlikeable straw protagonist obsessed with his own manliness is going to be spun into the gold of a romantic drama starring Robert "The Vampire From 'Twilight'" Pattinson.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is told in flashback by 90something Jacob Jankowski about a tumultuous time in his life in which he dropped out of college and became a circus vet. His plan was to join his father in veterinary practice, but after his parents are killed in a car accident, young Jacob more or less wanders away from his senior-year final exams at Cornell and hops aboard a train, which is a popular thing to do during the Great Depression. He ends up on the train of The Benzini Brothers and in the employ of penny-pinching Uncle Al who allows Jacob to stay even after he can't save one of the show horses who has gone lame in a plot twist that makes no sense, but ensures that Jacob meets married circus performers August and Marlena. August is an angry crazy psychopath; Marlena is a hottie who is also good with animals. Later an elephant is acquired from another failing circus (remember, it's the Great Depression!), over whose training Jacob and Marlena fall in love despite existence of angry crazy psychopath husband. (At one point someone says he's a paranoid schizophrenic, which seems a little out-of-era... but I digress.)

Most of the characters in this book are very flat, except Jacob, who is all over the place. I think he's meant to evolve from a know-it-all college boy to a man aware of The Ways Of The World and that there are horrors he never had to face in his formerly cushy life. (The major character who imparts this lesson to him, a man named Camel [I KNOW], is an alcoholic who is slowly becoming paralyzed, whom Jacob helps hide from the circus heavyweights so he can stay on the train. Oh, there's also a dwarf involved in that, 'cause what circus isn't complete without a bitter dwarf?) But his wild swings between knowing and know-nothing make it difficult to accept that he's really learning anything. He's part naif, part partier, and in no part do you see why Marlena would risk life and livelihood for him. I guess it would help if she had more of a background than "My family disowned me when I married into this circus."

By the way, Christoph Waltz is totally getting typecast in this movie as August, and prediction: I will love it.

The "The Notebook"-esque frame story didn't do much for me either. Old Jacob is angry when his kids and grandkids come to visit, and sad when they don't; hates being cooped up in assisted living, so acts like a total jerk. (If this ended up any more like "The Notebook" I was going to make a special trip to the Hudson River so I could chuck this book in. As it is I'm not a dirty polluter but the temptation remains.)

Anyway, I didn't like this book, but I didn't like the first hundred pages the most (which set up the book, but also revel in Jacob's desire to divest himself of his virginity to a bad-Updikean level of detail including dirty comic books and his first circus job of guarding a stripper/prostitute). Even then I'm not sure finishing it was worth the effort. My curiosity about the movie stands, mostly because a friend and I are going to write about it and possibly pick it apart for laughs.

A fun fact I later remembered about this book (#4, I guess) was that Gruen's book started as a National Novel Writing Month project, and for that it is pretty impressive. Maybe it just needed a heavier editing hand, or some nuance.

15 April 2011

Detail from Austin Kleon's "How To Steal Like An Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)."

Now That I Am In Madrid And Can Think

I think of you
and the continents brilliant and arid
and the slender heart you are sharing my share of with the American air
as the lungs I have felt sonorously subside slowly greet each morning
and your brown lashes flutter revealing two perfect dawns colored by New York

see a vast bridge stretching to the humbled outskirts with only you
standing on the edge of the purple like an only tree
and in Toledo the olive groves’ soft blue look at the hills with silver
like glasses like and old ladies hair
it’s well known that God and I don’t get along together
it’s just a view of the brass works for me, I don’t care about the Moors
seen through you the great works of death, you are greater

you are smiling, you are emptying the world so we can be alone

--Frank O'Hara (Happy National Poetry Month!!)

14 April 2011

NYC: Housing Works opens new store (inc. book section) in Brooklyn

This is a picture of my feelings about that. And yes, they are taking donations right now. (Credit for original image: Here's Park Slope)

Wallaceblogging: Jonathan Franzen, "Farther Away"

Jonathan Franzen has a piece on (or rather discussing) David Foster Wallace in this week's New Yorker which you can read on Facebook by "liking" the New Yorker page. I like the New Yorker anyway so this didn't bother me, but it seems as though it has bothered some other people as a cheap gesture (as when Cee Lo Green did the same with the official "Fuck You" video last fall). I suppose it's worth pointing out that you can go back and "unlike" a page after you've finished, uh, enjoying its benefits. 

Much of the essay seems almost comical; deciding he needs a break from book tour, Franzen wakes up a long-held backpacking dream to go to the island of Masafuera (or Alexander Selkirk Island), near where the real-life inspiration for ROBINSON CRUSOE (that's Selkirk) was marooned for four years. Franzen wanted to be outdoorsy like his dad and older brother, but didn't have the knack; in a scene reminiscent of some of my camping trips of old, he endures a lonely 'solo' outing as a teenager by writing about himself. On his way to Masafuera he visits DFW's widow Karen Green, who gives him some ashes to scatter.

And then there's this:
"The curious thing about David’s fiction, though, is how recognized and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it. To the extent that each of us is stranded on his or her own existential island—and I think it’s approximately correct to say that his most susceptible readers are ones familiar with the socially and spiritually isolating effects of addiction or compulsion or depression—we gratefully seized on each new dispatch from that farthest-away island which was David. At the level of content, he gave us the worst of himself: he laid out, with an intensity of self-scrutiny worthy of comparison to Kafka and Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, the extremes of his own narcissism, misogyny, compulsiveness, self-deception, dehumanizing moralism and theologizing, doubt in the possibility of love, and entrapment in footnotes-within-footnotes self-consciousness. At the level of form and intention, however, this very cataloguing of despair about his own authentic goodness is received by the reader as a gift of authentic goodness: we feel the love in the fact of his art, and we love him for it."
The rest is difficult. It did make me want to read PAMELA, and allow me to continue to put off ROBINSON CRUSOE. What did you think? Is prompting a "like" fair for free content? Would you go on a camping trip with JFranz? Am I ducking the real questions prompted by this piece?

13 April 2011

Also Filmbook-to-be:
1. Actor Adam Scott ("Party Down," "Step Brothers," "Parks and Recreation") has optioned Chuck Klosterman's novel DOWNTOWN OWL... so I should probably figure out where my copy went.
2. The Wachowski siblings are adapting David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS with the help of Tom Tykwer ("Perfume"). Tom Hanks is reportedly attached to play Dr. Henry Goose; Halle Berry and James McAvoy are also supposedly involved at some level as Meronym and Adam Ewing respectively. So, a lot of uncertainty, but one to watch.

Filmbook to be: "My English teacher is gonna get PISSED..."

So saith a comment on the trailer for "Anonymous," a big-budget period thriller about Shakespeare. Look, it's a blockbuster for meeee! It's by Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day") and set to come out this September in the U.S.

While I think most authorship conspiracy stuff is fun but ultimately pointless, it's so rare that an authorial controversy gets made into a movie that you all know I'll be in the middle of the theatre with a big bucket o' popcorn for this one. Not to mention among the cast members is one of my favorite Shakespeareans and a fellow graduate of my high school, Mark Rylance. He doesn't do a lot of movies; you'd be better off trying to catch him onstage (currently, in "Jerusalem" on Broadway).

12 April 2011

It's Beverly Cleary's birthday! This weekend's New York Times had a sweet profile of her complete with props from Judy Blume.

Titus Andronicus samples Charles Bukowski

...at the beginning of their garagey cover of "Birdhouse In Your Soul":

Titus Andronicus covers They Might Be Giants

I'm biased, but I thought it was a cool piece to weave in.

11 April 2011

Oh, speaking of! Through the end of April, the Brooklyn Public Library is offering overdue-book amnesty on their whole collection. Get in while it's good, if you are a library debtor.

Sarah Vowell: "Why do people want Hawaii to be fun?"

Yesterday I went to see Sarah Vowell speak at the central location of the Brooklyn Public Library. I had joked about the huge crowds that would be waiting for the author of THE PARTLY CLOUDY PATRIOT, ASSASSINATION VACATION, the "Incredibles" voiceover actress and frequent "This American Life" contributor, but it turned out most of the mass of people assembled outside the BPL were only waiting for it to open, a very cheering sight on a number of levels. It was a standing-room-only crowd in the end, but much more intimate in scope than the last time I saw her.

I was disappointed in UNFAMILIAR FISHES, an opinion that hurt me more than it hurt her (well, that's probably true anyway) -- but it wasn't the kind of disappointment that would cause me to give her up for good. And as with all her books I was impressed at the level of research she put into it; she told Leonard Lopate, who moderated, that this was a body of knowledge where she had started practically with no background and worked up from there over several years. "The point of what I do is learning -- that's when I'm happiest," she said, adding that she believed the nonfiction writer shouldn't be having fun throughout the writing process in order to produce the best book. For Vowell, the most fun part of writing is working over the second and further draft(s), which in this case she did after shaking the sand of Hawaii out of her shoes back in Manhattan where she lives. To that end, she spent most of her trips to Hawaii "as one would imagine, wearing a cardigan sweater going through archives." (Someone in the audience referred to a Wall Street Journal article she'd written describing herself as "the only person dressed like Lou Reed" wherever she went in the state.)

Most of the audience hadn't read UNFAMILIAR FISHES (by a show of hands) so Vowell gamely recapped many of the book's main points -- the missionaries who brought literacy and religion to Hawaii, but also capitalism and greed; the troubled ruling families who were already struggling with their own traditions when Westerners arrived; the unpacked analogy of President Obama attending the missionary-founded Punahou school and inviting its band to play at his inauguration. She seemed comfortable, not bored discussing the book; the only off note was struck when she said that because of Western-harbored disease, 85 to 90 percent of native Hawaiians "were dead within 100 years" of the missionaries' arrival (I mean, they would be anyway -- it got a little garbled there). She even diplomatically handled the comment -- not really a question -- from a man whose movement is trying to end Western land ownership in Hawaii by returning to pre-statehood land laws ("Basically, their lease is up," he said), putting in "I think you have a case, and good luck with that."

Vowell didn't give any clues as to her next project but preemptively shot down my secret private idea for her, which was that she should go to Europe and spend a few years writing about corrupt aristocrats and leading families to cleanse her palate from all the Puritans. Okay, I didn't actually tell her that, but she was pretty open in this interview about her distaste for royal families, even though in UNFAMILIAR FISHES she comes to sympathize with the rulers of Hawaii, being cast out of their own kingdom as authors of a revolution they never would have pulled off anyway. I still think it would make a spectacular next project, but American history is her terrain, and for all my differences with UNFAMILIAR FISHES I can't wait to see what she tackles next.

A few other choice Vowell bon mots I couldn't work in anywhere else:

  • "When you believe cleanliness is next to godliness, you have a lot of laundry to do."
  • On MOBY DICK, one of her favorite books: "There's all this violence and bloodshed and it's all pretty disgusting. Killing animals is disgusting. Men living on a boat for two years is disgusting."
  • On the sons of the original missionaries in Hawaii: "While they were mostly Christians, they weren't so hardcore about it." 
  • Characterizing herself as "a certain kind of Northeastern killjoy" and her fellow Montanans as outdoorsy to the extreme of "9-day backcountry treks with nothing but a granola bar and a knife."

10 April 2011

This made me upset today

My local Barnes & Noble has copies of THE PALE KING on a table with other David Foster Wallace books labeled "Signed By The Author."
"A few days ago, on a slow evening, a young couple lingered on the sofa at the back of the store. I wasn't working, having long ago discovered that I am more of a rooster than an owl, but my good friend who usually works nights reported that the couple shuffled up to him, both beaming and bashful, and reported that they'd just gotten engaged, right there on the couch. They wanted to know if there were security cameras, because they'd like to play back the moment, over and over again. Maybe there is also that impulse inherent in a bookstore romance, that the love story itself will be codified and reproduced, printed and bound. Bookstores offer the hope that love, like any favorite novel, can be enjoyed over and over again, until one knows every sentence by heart."
-Emma Straub, "Love In Bookstores"

09 April 2011

Modern Library news! Open Road media is publishing an uncensored ebook of James Jones' FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (#62 on the list) restoring the cursing and references to some sexual activity between men (my paraphrasing of the Times article on it). See, I wasn't procrastinating, I was just waiting for the real unexpurgated edition to come out! Pun definitely not intended! 

Open Road is also bringing out nine (9) of Jones' books which have never been published at the same time, in case I love FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and want to go back through the catalog.

08 April 2011

"As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15 cent movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works–quick, and away from the point. I read simple voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards."

--from Eudora Welty's application to work for the New Yorker (she didn't get the job)
A little late, but I loved "Nothing, They Wrote," Sarah Weinman's round-up of book deals that never came to fruition. I know a lot of people who will be sorry about the absence of a "Rumours" tell-all, but honestly: are you that surprised?

Belated birthday present. Stay tuned for the debut of my next blog, "Ellen Versus Mark Bittman's Outsized Expectations Of Her Kitchen Capabilities."

07 April 2011

Wallaceblogging: The error of I

Unrelated to the rest of this post: an extensive survey of DFW's self-help library.

The rest of this post may contain THE PALE KING spoilers, although they are more general knowledge at this point. I'm still processing this book, obviously, so I'm going to keep writing about it. 

That is your warning.

There may not even be actual spoilers in this, but better safe, etc. 

It is with regret that I have to call out some other critics who have reviewed THE PALE KING and decided, based on the fragments that are extant, that it is some kind of boredom-related manifesto dressed up as a novel. We can debate whether it is or isn't (see below), but in jumping to that conclusion is dangerous, especially the frequency of conclusion-jumping I'm seeing. I'm seeing the same error made over and over again, conflating characters' narration for the stance of the author/ Conflating one character in particular whose name is "Dave Wallace" and who shares some biographical detail with David Foster Wallace, author, and making a one-to-one correlation thereof. 

This is such a basic mistake that it really makes my head throb to have to correct it. This is like Book Reviewing 101. Characters are not authors, and unless authors are very widely acknowledged to be writing roman a clefs, it's important -- I think -- to go in to a fiction experience not assuming that the author has some axe to grind. A lot of them do, but that's not the point. Maybe you even have a novel in your bottom drawer that espouses Your Correct And Right View Of The World God Damn It (...no comment) but you can't assume everyone is like you.

Dave Wallace, character, waxes nearly poetic on the state of his job. So does Irrelevant Chris Fogle. So do several other characters, and the ones that don't narrate, indicate their own world-views, some more clearly than others. Maybe these are authorial stand-ins, maybe not, but automatically jumping to that conclusion is sloppy and foolish. At the New York Times critical level? Hard to believe. 

As to that debate I mentioned I think the correct answer to the question is, alas, "Maybe, but we don't really know." (Everything beyond this point is my untutored speculation.) If DFW had lived to finish THE PALE KING he would have many points to make, and none so unsubtle as spelled out in the extracts of TPK. The passages most often quoted to support this decision are sometimes very moving, but there are dozens of those in INFINITE JEST. (How soon we forget...) I think had he finished we might have had a new model for the didactic or moral novel that is not the 19th century, and not the postmodern, and it wouldn't be so awkward having to point to a piece of fiction and say "I learned something really, really important from this book." But since he won't be taking up that task...

How an author can get my attention on Twitter

Here's Matt Batt's bio: "Sugarhouse, my book about renovating a Salt Lake City crackhouse and my life along with it, comes out in 2012 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Meanwhile, tacos."

What I like about it: 
1. It tells me what his book is about in <140 characters (brevity is the soul of Twitter)...
2. ...and when it's coming out. 
3. And there's a joke in it.

That's all you need! By the way, that other author who recently followed me on Twitter has unfollowed me again, before (as threatened) I even got a chance to be offended enough to hit the button myself. Clearly he couldn't handle my Lenny Brucesque material on WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, the German language or creative writing on checks. Maybe today I'll drink sangria and bust out some "Friday" jokes. What will occur?!????

06 April 2011

I love this paperback redesign. Best I've seen so far this year. The book is really good, too.
Vanity Fair: Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Tina Fey: Veruca Salt, Francie Nolan, Miss Havisham. That’s me in a nutshell, actually.

05 April 2011

Books sold at my local drug store that I would actually like to read

  2. Chris Cleave, INCENDIARY

Indie bookstore hopping: Washington D.C.

This past weekend I went to Washington D.C.'s famous independent bookstore Politics and Prose for the first time. Several visits later my grasp on D.C. geography is still not stellar, so I can only place P&P in a neighborhood called "not near the monuments and close to the Maryland border without going over" -- but its reputation so precedes it that you can probably just ask for directions by name. 

P&P has been in the news lately because its owners put it up for sale last year, but happily it was recently purchased by the ghostwriter of Hillary Clinton's LIVING HISTORY and her husband. The store doesn't specialize in reads for policy wonks, but instead offers the full range of fiction and nonfiction, including handsome shelves of local bestsellers in the front window and tables of recent paperback fiction in a side room. I appreciated the table of authors who had appeared on "This American Life" (including signed copies of Sarah Vowell's latest, UNFAMILIAR FISHES); that's a clever idea.

The basement holds a coffeehouse, the children's books (including a nook with a beanbag perfect for hiding out and reading -- check under the stairs!) and a fairly good bargain section, although there aren't any crazy deals. If you like audiobooks and biographies/memoirs, you'll probably be most pleased at it. I ended up walking away with a used copy of A TRAGIC HONESTY: THE LIFE AND WORK OF RICHARD YATES myself. There was a panel going on about the new Smithsonian jazz anthology, but it was too sunny for us to linger and eavesdrop. 

04 April 2011

The winner of the Tournament of Books

...is a familiar name if you have been reading this blog recently, and strengthens my resolve to read this book (not that I didn't have it before). Mini virtual book club, anyone?

THE PALE KING (part 1)

I finished this book last night. Here are my preliminary thoughts (only spoilery if knowing anything about the book is a spoiler to you):

1. It's a fragment, a tantalizing fragment to be sure.

2. That said, and having no idea what kind of editing went on behind the scenes, what has been published is more complete within itself (or at least arranged in such a way) than I had expected reading about the book. You can start to see the outlines of something, but...

3. Most of the reviews seem to be based on the potential book, that is Where This Is Going, and not the extant fragment(s). If it's impossible to review the latter it seems at least unfair to be reviewing the former. I'm going to try to do so, but it may be difficult. Warning you now.

4. Did anyone catch that the book-jacket bio reads that DFW "leaves behind unpublished work, of which THE PALE KING is a part"? What else is in that vault?! ...

5. Which leads to my initial reaction to this book, to wit, disappointment that there isn't more of it, and that there won't be more. It would be wrong of me to pretend otherwise.

03 April 2011

Well, I could have congratulated National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon on her excellent taste in graduate schools, but she told a crowd in Brooklyn on Wednesday it was the proximity to horse-racing tracks that made her decision, so... In other last-week NBA news, Patti Smith announced she is working on a follow-up to memoir JUST KIDS -- a curiosity since the book covers her whole life, but I can think of some years that might be well fleshed out.

Unbookening: Too big to fail

It was a great month for books... getting them at least. 

Received 5 books to review
Checked out 5 books from library
Received 7 books as gifts
Bought 4 books

Donated 4 books
Returned 2 to library

21 in... 6 out. I did end up counting Kindle books after your very thoughtful comments, but might change that in the future. The more books I buy on Kindle, the fewer of my physical books I am reading -- but at the same time I'm in no danger of running out of room on mine yet.

Meanwhile, this is required reading: "You Are Not A Book Hoarder," on the colloquial use of the terms hoarder or hoarding to describe a person who has a lot of things. I am definitely guilty of doing this. I have not read Ms Sholl's book but I can recommend Gail Steketee and Randy Frost's STUFF: COMPULSIVE HOARDING AND THE MEANING OF THINGS as a nonfiction, nonsensationalized look at hoarding behavior.

02 April 2011

SO MUCH PRETTY and the "message" thriller

Cara Hoffman's debut completely collapses at the end into a borderline preachy 'message' novel... and I was okay with it, but concerned as to what that says about me. 

SO MUCH PRETTY takes place in the upstate town of Haeden, New York, where family dairy farms are the most successful business in town for lack of any meaningful competition. Several months after being reported missing, a young woman named Wendy White is discovered dead by the side of a road; forensics confirms that she had only been dead an hour. Many perspectives are given room within the White case, but two stand out in their obsession with it: teenager Alice Piper, who knew Wendy from the swim team, and Stacey Flynn, the city paper's sole reporter and editor who originally moved to Haeden hoping to expose environmental crimes among the dairies for a career breakthrough. Without any spoilers, they both decide to 'do something' about Wendy's death.

There are shades of this kind of thing in (I would venture to guess) every successful thriller series. Lawrence Block's PI Matthew Scudder has been covering the same cases for 20 years, but now that he's in AA he has that parallel track occupied in his brain, and his stories contain the narrative of how to live with addiction and still do your job. Cornelia Read's Madeline Dare (A FIELD OF DARKNESS, etc) used to have family money and now only has rich friends and regrets, and her anger about the world outside hers sometimes echoes in the sense of entitlement she struggles to shed.

To come out with your debut, which is well regarded, and go out after an issue like violence against women with a crack like a bat is a mighty thing, but it works best close up. (By the way, the title, which I hate, is a phrase used by one of the town's leering men toward Wendy while she's at work -- the most obvious image of the male entitlement about which the book wants to comment. Anyway.) After I had thought about SO MUCH PRETTY for a few days, the motivations presented at the end completely break down. Alice Piper is an incredibly well-written character, until she's (no spoilers!) not, and I wanted the old Alice back. The resolution of the plot falls apart even as the 'message' terrifies. It's not surprising that small-town reporter Flynn more or less commits career suicide over it. At the same time, if I didn't share her convictions personally, I would have resented being presented over and over again (can't bring myself to write "beaten over the head") with the same strident statements.

01 April 2011

NYC: Also not an April Fool's post

I meant to do one this year but I was too busy wrapping my coworker's desk in pictures of Justin Bieber. (It went over great, trust me.)

Anyway, my point is, Housing Works Bookstore (home of the CHRISTMAS CAROL reading I went to last December) has a $12-for-$25 Groupon today. (Note: If you buy through that link I might get some money, but I promise to blow it on books.) Come on, you're going to be buying some books between now and expiration date October 2nd anyway.

Rosie the Riveter Is No Fool

Two additional notes on the Jennifer Egan reading I went to on Monday:
  • Via the Brooklyn Paper, Egan's next book is "a novel about the women who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II."
  • Egan credited her writing group with helping her through GOON SQUAD, noting that it's a group with a twist: No one reads work in advance before meetings; instead, the writer reads her or his work aloud to the rest of the group and gets instant reactions. This sounds (heh) like a great idea, although obviously it works for some particular forms and subgenres better than others. Anyone in?