31 July 2011

"Nabokov is my favorite writer, but in that same vein I also love Martin Amis. He aspired to be a young Nabokov. At least in the early days, he wrote with such fire, right up through The Information. Sam Lipsyte, who teaches at Columbia, is another favorite. His characters are dour and miserable. My taste in books is really different from my taste in songs. If you applied my taste in books to songs, I would like songs with someone soloing virtuously the entire way. A song that makes no sense at all. I like to read writers who are adept at their use of language, like the way Nabokov invents words all the time. I love writers who are challenging with words more than I love a good story."
- Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne, Writersonprocess.com. Fountains of Wayne's new album "Sky Full Of Holes" is out Tuesday.

30 July 2011

"Summer is for paperbacks. Toss them in a bike basket, read them in the pool (iPads don't like water) or leave them at the cottage for next year's readers."
Oprah.com is on the vacation reading bandwagon with this list of paperbacks perfect to take out this summer, including a contribution by my friend Ruth Baron. (Arguably I'd replace SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY with, hmm, maybe THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET [out in paperback this summer!!]. Otherwise, no complaints.) And as someone pointed out on Twitter, they never overheat in direct sunlight like electronics might. So where are we on that cabin-getaway-weekend, folks? I think it's hot enough.

29 July 2011

Free Advice Friday: How not to name your daughter

When someone has a book-related problem, I have a totally unsolicited solution! It's the new occasional feature Free Advice Friday.

I'm pretty sure that this article is a prank, but from this week's Dear Prudence:

Dear Prudence,My husband and I met in college in an English class, and our first date was mostly a conversation about our favorite novels. One of my all-time favorite works is LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov. I'm pregnant with my first child, and I want to name our daughter (it's a girl!) Lolita. However, I'm worried that all the ties the name has with pornography and child molestation may outweigh the beauty of the name and significance the book has had in my life. My husband is ambivalent regarding the idea. What should we do?
Lolita Lover

What qualifies me to be an expert on this: Very little. I thought for a few years that I was named for the Beverly Cleary book ELLEN TEBBITS, but not true. And I don't have any children, but I did have six fish and I named them all for characters from GONE WITH THE WIND. Scarlett outlived all the rest, which if you think about it is rather fitting. So what I'm saying is I am a naming expert.

Free Advice Friday responds:

You are worried for a very good reason, and that reason is Are you kidding me?????? Little Lolita may not get picked on more than any other on the playground, but just wait till she grows up! If I met an adult named Lolita as a non-stage name, I would have to excuse myself from the room because I would be too busy dying of mutual shame and/or disbelief.

Are you for real??? 

But very well, in case the pedophilia aspect of the name isn't enough let's consider the character Dolores Haze. (Mild spoilers for LOLITA follow as they must.) As described in LOLITA, part of Dolores' appeal is her ordinariness. She's not ambitious, not charming, not particularly emotional over her own mother dying... Even before Humbert Humbert gets to her, and this is not to excuse him at all, she's not a heroine. Is that the kind of character you want your daughter to emulate? No way, particularly when she gets old enough to read about her namesake and is, likely, horrified at you. (I was 18 when I read LOLITA for the first time, but your mileage may vary.)
While Dolores isn't a bad alternative, it's kind of musty for a little kid. If it's a family name, you might consider it. But surely there are other, better female characters out there. You could use Scarlett, but not if she's a red-head because that's cruel. I personally would go for Rebecca (Becky) Sharp of VANITY FAIR. Now there's a woman who knew which side her bustle was tied.
Argh, now I've gotten so exercised I can't even focus on how nice it was that your husband and you met and bonded over books. That's sweet! We should all be so lucky. Read Dear Prudence's answer here.


28 July 2011

NYC: Center for Fiction Reading Groups announced for fall

Thomas Mann, David Foster Wallace, Herman Melville, et al. "For information on our ongoing Proust groups, click here"? Don't mind if I do! Maybe I also could read IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME in a year!

But wait... people will pay for the same kind of question-asking I do here for free?

STOP READING THIS BLOG RIGHT NOW and pay me my $2. And I promise I will never refer to "writer's cannons," because for the love. (It's in the PALE KING blurb. I know, right?!)


I can't wait to read this fall's big book UNTITLED, by Anonymous! Or can I...

The stack-of-books T-shirt

I normally wear my love of books on my sleeve. Wearing them on my chest doesn't seem like an upgrade.

(Smith St., Brooklyn, July 2011. Portrait of the photographer at right.)

27 July 2011

Insert insurance joke here

The Daily Telegraph in Britain has been ordered to pay author Sarah Thornton 65,000 pounds ($106,736.50 as of writing) after one of its critics, Lynn Barber, criticized her book SEVEN DAYS IN THE ART WORLD by saying its claim to have interviewed her for it was false. (Thornton had proof of the interview and, apparently, a correction didn't cut it.)

Granted, as I understand it libel laws in Britain are much tougher than here -- that is tougher on the person doing the libelling, more sympathetic to the libeled, see the Polanski suit in 2005 (and that the plaintiff chose to sue in the UK) -- but that's fairly chilling. At the very least Barber's editor will probably have reservations about hiring her again.

(Tangential note, if you recognize the name Lynn Barber, it's probably because of her memoir which was made into the 2009 movie of the same name, AN EDUCATION. It really has nothing to do with her work, but jumped out at me right away.)

The judge presiding wrote in his decision that Barber's review was "spiteful" -- but who decides that? I personally don't think I ever criticize a book without clear and lucid reasoning for doing so (ahem ahem) but surely a few authors whose works I did not like would disagree. Meanness is in the eye of the beholder, for the most part. (So's favor -- been accused of that too.) If you have an axe to grind, suddenly everything looks like a wood pile.

Thornton's real victory in this case is making me want to read her book, which I hadn't even heard of, but it must be juicy -- right?

Filmbook: My AFI 100 Top 5

I'm over at The Sophomore Critic this week opining on my favorite books whose adaptations appear on the AFI Top 100 Movies of All Time list. Thanks to Orrin Konheim (who also writes at Examiner.com) for making room for me, and stay tuned for his picks of movies based on the Modern Library list for me.

26 July 2011

Man Booker Longlist 2011: Who's your favorite?

  • Julian Barnes, THE SENSE OF AN ENDING
  • Sebastian Barry, ON CANAAN'S SIDE
  • Patrick deWitt, THE SISTERS BROTHERS
  • Esi Edugyan, HALF BLOOD BLUES
  • Yvvette Edwards, A CUPBOARD FULL OF COAT
  • Alan Hollinghurst, THE STRANGER'S CHILD
  • Stephen Kelman, PIGEON ENGLISH
  • Patrick McGuinness, THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS
  • A.D. Miller, SNOWDROPS
  • Alison Pick, FAR TO GO
  • D.J. Taylor, DERBY DAY
Aaaand I've read one of these books (and have the Hollinghurst on the way, and when it gets here oh boy howdy). So I guess we will all just procrastinate till the shortlist comes out in September and then the real prize in October, right?

(Via Themanbookerprize.com)

Dinosaur Extincted

Bill Keller, who wasted his New York Times magazine column on railing against Twitter and people ever writing books, will publish his last installment in September. So where do I apply for this job?

25 July 2011

If you've read CHRONIC CITY you will take a particular interest in (spoiler for that, and also the movie "Beneath The Planet Of The Apes") this article about the New York City subway system. I still didn't like the book very much but I think about its New York quite frequently (OBSTINATE DUST anyone?)

Earlier (in the same vein): Tigers.

On second thought...

Two recently published exceptions to the talking-animals rule:

Recommended if you like: Stories of orphans or plucky kids who are making the best of bad situations. The three children in THE SUMMER OF THE BEAR aren't really orphaned (or young; Alba, the oldest, is a teenager) but after the mysterious death of their father, who worked in British intelligence, their exile-by-mother to her childhood town in the Outer Hebrides may as well be a one-way trip to the moon -- particularly when Mom is too preoccupied with how her husband was killed to look after the kids. Meanwhile, the town is on the lookout for an escaped circus bear (based on a strange but true story).

Recommended if you liked THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. A Ghanaian immigrant teenager investigates the murder of one of his classmates around his London tower block, tries to stay in good with the local gang without actually having to join, avoid his older sister's friend who wants to kiss him, win all the footraces at school and befriend the pigeon who sometimes strolls right into his apartment.

Full disclosure, I got both these books in e-galleys to my Kindle (from Atlantic Monthly Press and Harper Perennial).

24 July 2011

Jeffrey Eugenides is a badass...

...for showing up to a book preview party with a blackeye after getting punched in the face on a train in New Jersey last week. The story according to the New York Post is he intervened on behalf of a female passenger after some guys refused to pipe down, but you know what, it doesn't matter, badass status assured.

They don't _all_ lead to heartbreak.

One wonders if the writer who led the Times style piece about dresses this week with a mention of "The Girls In Their Summer Dresses" read the story first. Also, why everyone at the Times is on vacation right now and they have to fill space with such a non-event. (I'm a huge fan of dresses, but come on!)

23 July 2011

Blind Item

Which famous author was nowhere to be found last night as his wife was spotted out on the scene in Brooklyn? Perhaps he prefers his dream worlds to our hipster realm?

22 July 2011

True reader confession

I went on a book-acquiring bender this week and it was awesome, but slightly distracting to the rest of my life. When you start wishing for train delays on hundred-degree days...

On the other hand I introduced an acquaintance who has lived here for several years to Housing Works, and that has to be worth a few karma points.

Love For #fridayreads (If Not For THE HELP)

If you hang out on Twitter among bookishy folk, or are an SMDB*, you have probably either used #fridayreads or follow someone who has used the hashtag. #Fridayreads is a trend started by Bethanne Patrick (@thebookmaven) in which everyone is invited to tweet what book(s) she or he is reading on Fridays with the aforementioned label. #Fridayreads discussion combines three things I like, namely books, social media and nosiness. (Naturally everyone who participates in #fridayreads chooses to do so, which sort of negates the third, but I admit to searching the hashtag sometimes just to see what perfect strangers are reading.)

A few weeks ago I tweeted for #fridayreads, "I finally read The Help and...I still don't know what the fuss is about." Because I did I was able to connect with follower @shalahowell, who happened to be in the middle of reading it, and when she finished we had a chat as the last two women in North America to have read Kathryn Stockett's bestselling debut and forthcoming movie. (Although, ironically, we "discussed" it on Goodreads, finding Twitter's character limit to be a roadblock.) We ended up splitting on our overall opinion of the book, despite liking some of the same things about it, but it was more fun to digest

Here's my essential non-spoilery objection to THE HELP: The novel, which takes place in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, is narrated by three characters, two African-American maids who work in white households (the titular "help") -- Aibileen and Minny -- and Skeeter, an interchangeably spunky college graduate who decides to write a book about "the help" instead of trying to get married as her parents want. Aibileen and Minny's cooperation is essential not only to Skeeter's book, but to her rising understanding that the society she has been raised in is racist all the way down, that the way "the help" is treated is wrong and that she (as a white woman in the segregated South) is guilty in both those respects. So, not only do they have to help Skeeter achieve her dream, they also have to teach her what is apparent to readers from the first page. Their reward is... ah... well... Skeeter is really grateful to them! And they are both happy, in the end, to have helped her.

This is a less egregious example of what Spike Lee used to call, in film, the "magical mystical Negro" archetype -- think Bagger Vance, or (thank you Wikipedia) Bubba in "Forrest Gump." The book's essential message was, "If you try to change the status quo, not only will you not get anywhere, the best you can hope for is for nothing to get worse." One could argue this outcome is reflected in other literature of the Segregation-era South such as the conclusion of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but Harper Lee didn't make me feel that way, even while that plot mechanism was underway. And yet even to the end, Skeeter isn't thinking about Aibileen and Minny and the risks they have run in helping her, but instead of why the "help" who raised her left one day and never came home, because she misses her. It's all about Skeeter, and despite the time Stockett invests in splitting the narrative, in the end it's still all about her.

Such self-absorption is a criticism I have heard lobbed at Twitter a lot, but that's the opposite of my experience there. I started using Twitter not because I needed another venue to broadcast my thoughts in (I already had this blog, for instance) but because some of my Internet-savvy friends were using it, and I wanted to know what they were saying. I'm not going to claim we're all hashing out how to save the world over there, but if I have a question about books, New Jersey, knitting or how long the line for Tina Fey at Barnes & Noble is, I know where to go. (I have asked and gotten answers to all of these queries. And by the way NJ, Cheesequake State Park is still silly.) You may get around to asking your friends anyway what they're reading, but initiatives like #fridayreads strengthen that sense of community in allowing a venue to say, "Hey! I read that" or "I'm about to read that, how is it?" in hopes that, as happened to me, a conversation opens.

*If you have to read this you aren't, but it's social media douchebag.

21 July 2011

Nothing new can stay?

Elizabeth sent me this article, "Wait five years," on newspaper editor John McIntyre's decision not to read any more new books, a tip he picked up from a professor he once had.

This is a radical step toward balancing one's reading load, but it wouldn't work for me -- not just because of reviewing, but also because my impatience will not permit me to do it. Knowing what people are talking about and being able to make up my own mind on new books is part of the fun of the hobby! It's the thrill of the page-turn! Don't worry, I don't think I'm special in that regard; this is how books become bestsellers, after all.

At times I have felt too tilted in my own shelf-awareness toward new books and The Latest, but so far I haven't been tempted to go over too far to the other side. While it wasn't begun for this purpose, the idea of the Modern Library list as reading prompt has been useful (when I'm actually working on it) to give me exposure to older books and keep me from falling into a rut of titles about down-on-their-luck rural teenagers or quarreling upper-class families.

In the end, the editor just sounds kind of incurious. However, in passing he mentions reading everything on the New York Times bestseller list for a year, the kind of insane project I am attracted to -- so presumably he once was more curious, before he went out finger-guns a-blazin'.

Well, I know what I'm putting on my wall this weekend.

This is majestic. Via Lapham's Quarterly, artist unknown.

20 July 2011

The Smiths, "Cemetery Gates"

Top comment on this video:
"Basically, being an English major involves sitting in a room with lots of people who don't want to be there and a few who want to be there way too much. And forget about having deep conversations with your peers about FCanterbury Tales. or the most part you're dealing with frizzy-haired, acne-laden girls who first learned about Oscar Wilde from The Smiths."
COOL STORY BRO. I think I was in section with that guy! He was the interrupt-y one.

Filmbook: "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2" Open Thread

I do kind of want to talk about this movie because I am feeling All Alone In My Thoughts about it, so I'm going to go ahead and spoiler-comment a little about My Feelings. I sense that most of you who wanted to see this movie have already seen it, but just in case.

Come join me in the comments if you either have seen the movie, or don't care about its details being revealed to you.

19 July 2011

I don't want to say "who needs this object," but, you know.

You can win a beach towel at The Paris Review by Photoshopping their new towels into a picture of literary leading lights. (See example at Galleycat.) This is much improved over what I expected the contest to be when I was pointed to the link, which was "Which Of Our Readers Is The Hottest???" Join their Flickr pool for more.

RIP Borders

Of all the commentary on yesterday's announcement that Borders would be liquidated, its stores closed starting this Friday and its 10,700 employees let go -- more dead than the last death -- this one really hit home for me.

Granted, as an author Lancaster is somewhat biased. But so are we all reading this. Borders wasn't the best bookstore, but in a lot of places, it was the only bookstore... and now there will be none there. Where people once had the pick of thousands of titles, they will now have to be content with two rows of shelves at Target, or that one at the pharmacy (if the pharmacy even has one). My A.V. Club colleague Keith Phipps put it like this: "Wasn’t it kind of nice that, for a blip in time of about 15 years, stores for book lovers competed for space shoulder-to-shoulder with housewares stores and chain restaurants? The next generation of readers aren’t going to be stumbling into a place that overwhelms them with the sheer volume of books out there to be discovered." What you aren't exposed to, what you can't see, you can't read.

So today I ordered my book club book from the Strand instead of buying it on Kindle (by price they were almost the same anyway) -- and when I go to pick it up I will probably be tempted by something else in there, and buy another book I don't need, but at least I did that. I should be buying local more often anyway, and... I don't want to know that I didn't at least do a little. (And yeah, I realize the ironic juxtaposition between this post and news, and yesterday's celebratory note on Greenlight, an indie I love and do support.) 

Modern Library Annual Suggestion Box

Last time I called for suggestions on what to read next on the Modern Library list, these were the books you recommended:

  • Robert Graves, I, CLAUDIUS
  • E.M. Forster, A PASSAGE TO INDIA
  • Joseph Heller, CATCH-22
  • Salman Rushdie, MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN
  • John Fowles, THE MAGUS
  • Vladimir Nabokov, PALE FIRE
  • Anthony Powell, A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME (series) (...fall project? winter?) 
  • Virginia Woolf, TO THE LIGHTHOUSE

I haven't read any of those yet, but if there's another one that you think I should accelerate that's not up there, I would love your suggestions.

Here's the complete list and here's the list with the ones I've read crossed out. (Read all the things!!!)

18 July 2011

Indie might!

Beloved-to-blog Greenlight Bookstore is expanding into the building next door and adding a coffee bar, Publishers Weekly reports. I'll see you there if you're smart.

83. V.S. Naipaul, A BEND IN THE RIVER

This was exactly the kind of book I needed to read after LORD JIM, the kind that reminded me that sometimes great books don't coast in on decades of hoary accolades. Its protagonist offered the kind of self-awareness and regret that I felt was sorely lacking from most in Conrad's book. Dense, philosophical, totally fulfilling.

The self-aware regretful one is the book's narrator, Salim, Indian by heritage, East African by birth, running a general store in another African country during the end of its occupation by Europeans and the rise of a dictator known in the book as "The Big Man." (My idle Googling suggests the model for the unnamed country was either Uganda or Zaire; that it could be any number of countries is probably the single most depressing aspect of this book.)

Salim's friend Nazruddin owns the general store but decided to get out amid the political upheaval; for Salim, the city at "the bend in the river" represents a way to postpone the arranged marriage expected of him, the management of the family servants and compound in the East and as a substitute for the European graduate education he won't be receiving -- a sort of summer-abroad approach to career building. But it doesn't really work out that way, because at first Salim sees great opportunity in maintaining the store through independence... and then it becomes dangerous for him to do anything but stay.

A BEND IN THE RIVER personalizes the post-colonial experience through Salim's surrogate family in his adopted hometown, from the other two Indian expats who come to own the town's brand-new fast food franchise, to the priest who runs a nearby school for local boys and collects tribal masks on the side, and even the famed journalist rumored to be writing a biography of The Big Man. At one point he looks after the son of one of his downriver trading partners and one of his family's rebellious servants, who have been packed off in hopes that Salim would be a good influence; Salim himself doubts this, and their own entanglements arguably outstrip his. These characters transcend their specificity to illuminate that moment in history without losing their personalities, and as political changes roll through the town with the rise of The Big Man, they all take them in differently.

Lonely and somewhat aloof from his African neighbors, Salim has a lot of time on his hands to consider that there may no longer be a place for him in the country (and by extension, in all of Africa). Not a colonizer, he still feels something of a patriarchal responsibility to the people he meets, without being able to define where that assignment stops. His ruminations on the state of the nation are in tune with his characterization; I never felt like Naipaul was delivering me something through him, nor did he seem too aware of the ways he has failed what he sees as 'his' role to the city as it shifts and disappears.

Naipaul is still a sexist toolbag, but he wrote at least one riveting book. When I finished it I sat and thought about its eventual conclusion (which I'd prefer to see as not depressing, but analytical, scientific) for a long time, rather than jumping straight into the next one; and there are few higher compliments to be paid here.

Ellen vs. ML: 55 read, 45 unread

Next up: I got an e-galley of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, the new unexpurgated version, so likely that? Tomorrow I'm going to post a list of all the reader suggestions that were made to me the last time I called for htem, and maybe I should start working through those as an approach.

17 July 2011

Sorry, Flavorwire, but these Weird Writing Habits of Famous Authors are simply not weird enough. What, Faulkner liked to drink? Imagine.

16 July 2011

PETRUCHIO: Why came I hither but to that intent?
Think you a little din can daunt mine ears?
Have I not in my time heard lions roar?
Have I not heard the sea puff'd up with winds
Rage like an angry boar chafed with sweat?
Have I not heard great ordnance in the field,
And heaven's artillery thunder in the skies?
Have I not in a pitched battle heard
Loud 'larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets' clang?
And do you tell me of a woman's tongue,
That gives not half so great a blow to hear
As will a chestnut in a farmer's fire?
Tush, tush! fear boys with bugs.

--"The Taming Of The Shrew" I.ii

15 July 2011

Free Advice Friday: There is life beyond Pleasant Company

In what seems to be setting a trend for Advice Column Friday, the Paris Review features a parent soliciting reading suggestions for his daughter:

My ten-year-old daughter is going to drive my family into bankruptcy because of her obsession with everything American Girl: the dolls, the books, the furniture, everything! I'm reluctant to put a limit on her love because it has been getting her excited about reading (even if the books are well ... you know). I also think it might be time for her to read something a bit more mature. Can you suggest a cheaper, and perhaps more worthy, literary obsession for my doll-loving daughter? —Marta, Los Angeles

Dear Marta,
The great thing about the American Girl books (and yes, I have fond memories of Changes for Samantha) is that they do get kids interested in history. And depending on which doll has taken her fancy, your daughter may want to explore “her” era further. You don’t mention a particular obsession, but there’s a terrific body of historical fiction for her age group: a few classic stories she might enjoy—all of which feature young girls, AG-style—are Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Sidney Taylor’s “All-of-a-Kind” series. And needless to say, if she’s not yet discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder, she’s in for a treat!
I read all those AMERICAN GIRL books, although recent family discussion suggests I have lost some of the plot points. But I did see a girl on one of my flights last weekend reading ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS and it made me so happy.

Also, and not that this should be taken as any kind of advice for parenting that I am not so equipped to give, but I remember buying those American Girl books out of my allowance when I was 6 or 7 (at least when I didn't get them as Christmas or birthday presents). I got $1 a week, and the hardcovers were $6 (now $12.50) so it was a Lesson in Saving. Oh boy, maybe we'd better call this Unqualified Advice Column Friday.

"I read all seven Potter books and they were AWESOME. You read those books and you spend days and weeks and months at a time picturing yourself as a wizard... That's all you can really ask from a story: that it gets deep into your brain and creates a whole new place for you to reside in. I loved most everything about those books. And if I were younger, I bet I'd have loved them even more.
"The movies are something of a different animal. I've seen the first seven movies (my favorite was the fifth, which is weird for me because that was my least favorite book in the series), and the movies, for me, were really just two-hour reminders of the shit I read in the books. Oh, right! [EDIT: Spoiler.] Luna Lovegood's dad totally sells out Harry, Ron and Hermione! I had completely forgotten that shit. Thanks, movie-length visual recap!
"But that's because, again, I'm old. Because I'm old, I brought all my prejudices into those movies (They won't be as good as the books, Chris Columbus was the shitheel hack who made Stepmom and Bicentennial Man, etc.). If you were twelve or thirteen when the first Potter movie came out, you probably didn't care about any of that. All you cared about was HOLY SHIT! IT'S THE HARRY POTTER MOVIE! That pure youthful joy was still there. It hadn't been ruined for you yet by reading horrible baseball columns about pure youthful joy. So the movies were gonna be better for you. And as you get older, very little else will manage to stack up, if anything."
--Drew Magary (who, believe it or not, has a novel coming out later this summer) on the HARRY POTTER series whose final movie installment, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2)," opens today. Of course I'm going, but I don't expect to have the same depth of feeling as I did reading the last book because, like Magary, I am also old.

14 July 2011

THE GIRL IN THE GREEN RAINCOAT: Hitchcock, Acknowledged

I really liked mystery author Laura Lippmann's collection of short stories HARDLY KNEW HER, so I snatched a galley of her latest THE GIRL IN THE GREEN RAINCOAT up when offered knowing it featured her best known character, P.I. Tess Monaghan. I didn't know it was the latest in the Tess Monaghan series, future uncertain, so I guess if you are following it and you don't want to know, I will only say: I really liked this one! I would definitely consider going back to the beginning (that's 1997's BALTIMORE BLUES) and reading the whole series.

THE GIRL IN THE GREEN RAINCOAT is atypical from the volumes that precede it for another reason: As the book opens, Tess is on doctor-ordered bed rest for her surprise pregnancy, with little to do besides read books people bring over and stare out the window. Naturally, a nosy enough person can get into a mystery anywhere, as does Tess after the very striking woman she sees at the dog park across the street (wearing the green raincoat) leaves her greyhound behind one day. Now why would a husband not want to take back his wife's dog or let on where she is... unless... "Rear Window" jokes are made, but Tess gets a fair amount of investigating done from confinement, and what she can't do she leans on her best friend Whitney, her investigations assistant Mrs. Blossom and her long-suffering boyfriend Crow to accomplish with their feet.

Somewhat extraneous biographical details that will delight some of you: Tess is a lifelong resident of Baltimore, Maryland; She and Whitney, a flaky socialite type, met at Washington College where they were both on the rowing team, after which Whitney transferred to Yale. Lippmann, also a Baltimore native, lives in the Federal Hill neighborhood (according to Wikipedia) and is married to Other Famous Baltimorean David Simon.

I don't even want to demean THE GIRL IN THE GREEN RAINCOAT by saying it's a "poolside read," although it is fairly short. It reminded me of a Nancy Drew book, but in a good way -- all the loose ends all tied up. The ending comes kind of unglued, but it didn't bother me because there was enough suspense to carry me up to that point, part of which is furnished by Tess' need to not stress herself no matter how exciting the case gets.

13 July 2011

"Sure, I would miss books — and so, by the way, would my children — but at least the death of books would put an end to the annoying fact that everyone who works for me is either writing one or wants to. I would get my staff back!
"Every month, it seems, some reporter drops by my office to request a leave of absence to write a book. I patiently explain that book-writing is agony — slow, lonely, frustrating work that, unless you are a very rare exception, gets a lukewarm review (if any), reaches a few thousand people and lands on a remaindered shelf at Barnes & Noble. I recount my own experience as a book failure — two incompletes, and I’m still paying back a sizable advance with a yearly check to Simon & Schuster that I think of not as a burden but as bail.
"But still the reporters — and editors, too — keep coming to sit in my office among the teetering stacks of Times-written books that I mean to read someday and to listen politely to my description of book-writing Gethsemane, and then they join the cliff-bound lemmings anyway."

--Bill Keller on Brian Stelter's book deal in "Let's Ban Books, Or At Least Stop Writing Them." Okay, old man, time for your nap! Ironically, this article is also a gigantic humblebrag on behalf of the New York Times staff and its prolificacy.

Like I said I would

Well, this was fun.

Just as I got back to civilization Laura Miller wrote this great piece on reading vacations: "The ideal reading retreat to my mind would involve four or five friends renting a big country house for a long weekend (at least three full days). They ought to be people who know each other well enough that they won't be tempted to spend all their time either getting acquainted or catching up. Everyone agrees that the rooms with the comfiest chairs are strict quiet zones. Everyone takes turns cooking meals. And everyone reads whatever they want, because trying to get four people to agree on a single book on top of all the above conditions is asking too much of the gods."

Sounds dreamy. Someone write me a grant so a well-meaning organization can shower the necessary funds on me to make this happen. (I'm guessing a Kickstarter account will not find much of a sympathetic audience.)

12 July 2011

Euphemisms, with John O'Hara

This one was new, from A RAGE TO LIVE: "I'd sure like to dip my socks in her coffee."

Uh... yeesh. Sounds more like a bad prank if you ask me.

How to only get as many library books as you can actually read

Time to give away all my secrets! Or this one, which may be variously applicable to you depending on your local book-furnishing services. Here is a tip for bulk library users, or frequent swipers, or "my people," what ever you prefer to be called.

In my library system I'm allowed 15 reserves, and normally I keep that list very close to the maximum. (It was 10 for a while before the NY Public Library smiled upon me once more.) Sometimes, this resulted in my having 5-6 books to pick up in one trip, all non-renewable, all things I really wanted to read. Bad news!  Poor unbookening!

Enter the freeze button.

(Hey Elizabeth! This is next month's book club book. I wish I had remembered to grab my copy when I was at home.)

Freeze allows you to add books to your hold list without getting closer to the top of the pile -- essentially a "not right now" feature. In the NYPL system, you hit the freeze check mark and then "Modify Selected" to confirm your choice. You can 'unfreeze' at any time by reversing the process. So what you can do, which is to say what I do, is unfreeze some books you want right away, then unfreeze a few more. I don't know how this works exactly; it's just one of life's great mysteries.

Granted, as long as you have 15 books listed you aren't able to add any more, and the odd book slips through the cracks still, like Dan Barry's BOTTOM OF THE 33RD, which I just had to return without rereading because I didn't get to it before it was due. Still, it's a huge help and you should go play with your local library's web interface (If your library still doesn't do online requests or renewals, I sympathize. In the last place I lived before NYC I had online requests at my local library, but when the book came in a librarian would call me on the phone. Every time. For added funtimes the librarians would call me at work, because they didn't want to spend the long-distance dollars to call my cell phone. I must have sounded So Busy And Important. All of which is to say, I believe you will get there.)

11 July 2011

Up north

I found out J. Courtney Sullivan's second novel MAINE was about to come out through Twitter, as one does. Electronic galleys were being promoted specifically to romance bloggers, which struck me as odd since Sullivan's debut COMMENCEMENT, about four Smith graduates four years out of college, was described to me as making a big literary splash. And the more I read about MAINE, the harder pressed I was to find the romance in it because, spoiler alert, there really isn't one.*

Maybe "romance bloggers" was some kind of code for "people who enjoy ultimately evanescent, but pleasant books dealing with realistic problems." MAINE was very well-written, but if someone asks me in two years to summarize it, I probably won't be able to differentiate it from similar Jennifer Weiner/ Elin Hilderbrand families-on-Northeastern-vacation tomes -- which is different from saying I didn't enjoy it, because I did.

Like COMMENCEMENT, MAINE frames its world from the perspectives of four women, this time with a familial bond even stronger than college ties. At the beginning of the summer, Boston-born matriarch Alice Kelleher is up in Maine by herself at the cabin that has been in the family for fifty years, ever since her late husband Daniel won it in a bet. Unbeknownst to the family, Alice plans to leave the cottage and the now-incredibly valuable beachfront property surrounding it to a local Catholic church, but until then each of her children get a month: June is for Kathleen, long since moved to California to run a worm farm (!!!) but who plans to send up her daughter Maggie, a writer in New York. Maggie was hoping to bring her boyfriend Gabe, but they break up on the eve they were supposed to leave -- before Maggie had time to break the news that she's pregnant. July is for son Patrick and the perfect daughter-in-law Ann Marie, who by turns frets about Alice being lonely in the cottage and envisions the day her family will inherit it. (August is for third daughter Clare, who doesn't get much ink.) And as soon as everyone starts thinking how glad they would be to get up to Maine without interacting each other, you know their hands will be forced at some point.

Some of the details in MAINE are exact, and some are too exactingly precious -- like Ann Marie's obsession with her new hobby of decorating doll houses and entering them in competitions. O suffocating perfection is there. (But I for one appreciated the single telling detail of Gabe's friend who is described as saying "[Insert verb] this, motherfucker" constantly.) I just don't think that was enough glue. The one story that will stick with me is the revelation of a tragic incident in Alice's past that is explicitly given as how she ended up a great-grandmother instead of fulfilling her dream to be a painter in Paris -- and even given all that, her crustiness sometimes verges to nastiness.

The cloud hovering over the four women of MAINE isn't love at all, but rather money, and each woman's relationship to it. Alice owns the big house but reuses her tea bags, remembering how her father would threaten to beat her for not bringing home enough money from her job as a legal secretary during World War II. Ann Marie, from a similar background but insecure as an empty-nester, spends too much and frets about it, but not enough to make corrections to what she feels she deserves. Kathleen feels resented by the family for a special bequest in her late father's will, although she saw it as the price of independence from judgment for her divorce and AA membership. And Maggie, with a stable and flexible job, wonders if it's stable enough to support two, not even envisioning her future seaside retirement. In the end the women can talk about some of their contradicting attitudes, but not these.

Not growing up in a cabin-going family or culture is no impediment to having fun with MAINE, although those who did may be able to relate to the resultant tangle of family issues and roster of traditions such as outdoor showers and "summer people" versus the year-rounders. Better to read it closer to vacation than just after, though.

* There is, however, a hilarious anti-romantic figure in the young priest of the parish where Alice is bequeathing her property, who thereafter hangs around fixing stuff in the house and who Maggie has a brief crush on before realizing, right, a priest. No THORN BIRDSy stuff going on. Retroactive spoiler alert.

10 July 2011

Your Assistance, Please

How many essays would you expect to find in a typical (consumer trade)
book of essays? Say 10-12?

This is how unbookening is supposed to work

Selected things my brother can do better than me:
  • Mini-golf
  • Multivariable calculus and beyond
  • Get rid of books he's already read or has no plans to read
Yeah, those are his stacks (taken last weekend when I was home). In my possible defense, as an econ/engineering major he clearly doesn't understand the true meaning of a good library.

09 July 2011

Gary Shteyngart's Somewhat Sad, Occasionally True Story With Some Lovers In It

Gary Shteyngart's third novel suffers from the crowded market of the subgenre where he's located it. The lovers who people his love story belong to a highly commercialized dystopic future America, where every corporation is a megaconglomerate of several names, citizens use their smartphones called "apparati" to hawk the brands they like and new graduates aspire to a job in Retail if they can't place themselves in Media. In short, a world close enough to our current state to jostle, while also having gone through some undescribed political upheaval that has left the U.S. at the mercy of China (oh, wait) and deeply in debt (oh, wait). There's also a South American war in there, somewhere.

A fair amount of cultural critique can still be pulled out of the hypercommercialization of the U.S., and I would not want to be the person to claim that vein has been exhausted. The trouble with SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY is that the critique doesn't do much that's new, and hijacks the narrative to the point that the super sad true love story itself is lost. Lenny Abramov, the New Yorker who narrates most of SUPER SAD TRUE through journal entries he is instructed to keep by his boss, is kind of an aberration to this world for his love of books. Not that he believes himself better than anyone else; in fact, he knows far worse, as whenever he walks into a bar or other public place people dole out ratings on his personality and fuckability (not so great).

(How long till the makers of Grindr add that functionality? Soon enough that I emailed someone who actually uses it and asked whether it was already there. [If you are reading this at work and you don't know what Grindr is, do not look it up at work. Or at all, if you are my parents.] [Just kidding, they never read this.])

In short, Lenny is a hopeless case, slightly disappointing to his Russian-Jewish emigrant parents, who is on the verge of losing his job in Post-Human Services, a department that culls very rich people and treats them to live forever. (The ethical ramifications of this business are fairly underdiscussed.) But his luck seems to turn when he meets recent college graduate Eunice Park on a business trip to Rome. Eunice is from a different generation, aspires to wear the coolest brands and writes slangy communiques to her best friend in southern California about how she met this guy she really doesn't like that much, only, she's going to stay in his apartment anyway. (Among other things, she's shocked to find him reading Tolstoy instead of just streaming the movie of THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE like her last date.) Lenny calls it love.

So, boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl is persuaded to stay with boy. It's at this moment that Shteyngart begins world-building so furiously that the boy and the girl are, while still present, shoved to the side. The more elements that are added, particularly along the politico-economic axis, the less relevant Lenny and Eunice's relationship seems, even though they are still living through the thick of what turns out to be a very bad time to live in New York City. (A subplot about Eunice's sister's potential political awakening seems to have had a part cut out, although it may have added some useful context.)

And these new elements are emphasized to the point that it seems like everything is emphasized except the love story. In a way, the repetitious branding mirrors Lenny's not-totally-requited absorption in his new girlfriend, but the 18th time he mentions that someone is sporting clothes from popular-in-the-future retailer "JuicyPussy," the joke is over. (There were similar bits in the 2006 movie "Idiocracy," for example.) The gradual awakening of Eunice to books and a more literate existence is interrupted by new slang terms introduced deep in SUPER SAD TRUE that don't add any more context to her world than what we already know: Kids in the future are stupid and they don't read things that aren't on screens. On some level, it feels like Shteyngart just wanted to revel in that stupidity instead of wielding it as a cultural cudgel.

There are some very lyrical, touching "Love Among The Ruins" passages in SUPER SAD TRUE that escape the author's constant need to overdeliver on his dystopia, but the epilogue to this book, as sort of another shell, demonstrates what's really important here. And that's why it doesn't feel necessary to rule on Eunice's ultimate motives or whether Lenny was better off taking her in when she gets to New York, or the ultimate products of Post-Human Services. The conclusion that it sort of matters, as literary motivator, is insufficient for this reader.

08 July 2011

Free Advice Friday: Help! My spouse is writing novels!

Interesting Dear Prudence question this week:
Q. How Much Hobby Sharing Can Spouses Expect From One Another?: As strictly a hobby, I write fictional novels in the evenings after my daughter goes to bed. I am a stay-at-home mom more by circumstance than by desire, though I have loved being there for my daughter. This activity has given me a chance to step into a fictional world for a few hours a night and something to do as my husband is fooling with his computer modeling, music, various artistic pursuits, or video games for the evenings after a day of work for him. I try to be supportive of his hobbies. Is it too much for me to ask for him to read what I write? The only friend I have I feel comfortable enough to read what I write is visually impaired and does most of her reading through audio books. He just never gets around to it when I do ask. I gave him an early draft of a novel I was messing around with and have since finished two sequels to it. I know they will never go farther than taking up memory space on my laptop hard drive, but I still want it to be the best I can make it, and to me that includes having someone I love and trust read it.
A: In her recent memoir, Joyce Carol Oates reveals her late husband didn't read her novels. Of course, she wrote a novel a day, so maybe it was too much to ask. If you even harbor secret dreams of someone besides your spouse reading your work, I think you need to get braver and join a writing circle, or take a class in which others are forced to read your work. Your husband may be the most sensitive, brilliant reader you'd ever encounter and he's unkindly refusing to be your Lionel Trilling. Or he may be thinking, "I love her, but if I have to read one more word about a sexy werewolf, I'm going to kill myself." Don't make reading your trilogy a test of your marriage.

Dang, First Mr. Joyce Carol Oates, that is harsh. (RIP.)

Reading on the Road: Sea of Tranquility edition

I'm off to a wedding in which the bride is, and I hope she doesn't mind me saying this, the biggest Jane Austen fan I know. Back when we were unfinished young ladies yearning to put our hair up, sitting in the drawing room dreaming about Mr. Darcys past and future, contrasted with the quality of the gentlemen who at that time would not dance with us at balls and whose calling cards were so often grievously misspelled... but I digress.

She didn't go for the Regency Wedding option in the end, but I'm fine with that. Wouldn't be as fun doing the above-pictured in England anyway.

I'm taking my Kindle and a few paperbacks, including A BEND IN THE RIVER and A RAGE TO LIVE, because I have some epically long flights ahead. It's an unfortunate redundancy packing-wise but shouldn't be too much of a luggage strain. I look forward to returning no longer "Printer Paper White" but at least "Acid-Free Paperback Buff." ("Seventies Paperback Yellowed" is to be avoided for a number of reasons. "Amazon Carton Brown," impossible.) Enjoy the automagical (TM Shauna Reid) blog updates in my absence.

Photo: emma_maria

07 July 2011

Ladies believe everything they read, psychologist says

Heh! A British psychologist says romance novels cause women to (article illustration somewhat NSFW) have "unrealistic sexual expectations" and behave in reckless ways. According to an abstract published in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, romance novels stress female characters being "awakened" to awesome sex with absolutely no complications and deemphasized use of birth control, which leads female readers to believe that they can have all that, because everything in fiction is true:
While Quilliam admits that more recent Mills & Boon novels are truer to life, with female characters holding jobs and addressing challenges such as disability and domestic violence, as well as enjoying "many and varied" sexual activities, "still a deep strand of escapism, perfectionism and idealisation runs through the genre."
(Cultural note: The article refers to Mills & Boon which is the British equivalent to and now subsidiary of Harlequin.)

See, ladies? Escapism is dangerous for us! Women and their crazy ideas! They're so gullible, they think those books are true! Why that's like men thinking they can be like Chev Chelios... which gives me a great idea:
Michael Bay's action films should come with a health warning, according to a report published in an academic journal.

Blaming big-budget blockbusters for unprotected sex, unwanted murders, unrealistic physical expectations and social breakdowns, author and psychologist Susan Quilliam says that "what we see in our consulting rooms is more likely to be informed by Jerry Bruckheimer than by the Family Planning Association", advising readers of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care that "sometimes the kindest and wisest thing we can do for our clients is to encourage them to put down the movie tickets – and pick up reality."

Her comments follow a recent claim that big-budget shoot-'em-ups can "dangerously unbalance" their readers, with Christian psychologist Dr Juli Slattery saying she was seeing "more and more men who are clinically addicted to action movies" and that "for many men, these novels really do promote dissatisfaction with their real relationships."

Writing in the latest issue of the academic magazine, published by the British Medical Journal, Quilliam said that the messages of "the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sylvester Stallone movies of the 1980s and Bruce Willis/ Jason Statham/ Matt Damon As Jason Bourne Only movies of the '90s and '00s," which typically see "the hero returning from certain death, and then abandoning himself joyfully to a life of mass murder and endless trouble-free bloodshed in order to cement his badassedness," run "totally counter to those we try to promote."
Ahhhh, much better.

06 July 2011

Stealing that term.

COWORKER: Do you have the third Stieg Larsson? [We've been talking about these books for weeks ever since she picked up #1.]
ME: Sorry, I have no idea where it is.
COWORKER: No worries. I guess I'll have to stop being a library fugitive and pay my fees. 

85. Joseph Conrad, LORD JIM


I started this book on Dailylit way back in, oh good grief, July. Along the way somewhere I got behind and the emails piled up -- it was even one of my reading regrets of last year -- but I was too stubborn to delete them, so in a fit of inbox-clearing I finished the last 40 or so installments last week. Might I have just lost momentum unable to regained in the time between when I started and when I finished? Might I believe that because someone whose tastes I respect gave this book 5/5 stars on Goodreads? Yes, and yes. I might. But I still maintain that the essential content of this book could be contained in a short story... wait no... how about a limerick? (Spoilers.)

Jim did a bad thing when he fled,
"So unfit for duty," they said,
Then to Patusan folks
He was happily yoked, 
But sadly now Lord Jim is dead. 
(Brushes shoulders off.) 

In slightly nicer prose: Jim was a lively up-and-coming sailor when he and his crew decided to abandon ship and all their passengers in an accident, rationalizing that the passengers would probably die anyway. Unfortunately, they didn't, and Jim's career is ruined, so he takes a series of jobs in outer Indonesia (...I think?) where people don't know what he did and thus still respect him.

The trouble is (and I suppose, the fascination for people who like this book) that the book is largely narrated by Marlow, that's HEART OF DARKNESS Marlow, whose obsession with Jim seems to stem from the fact that he doesn't understand him. Why is Jim constantly striving to prove himself to other people as a result of this long-ago mistake, in which he was not alone? Marlow doesn't know, thus we don't know, and his usefulness as a tragic figure waxes and wanes (mostly wanes!) in the degree to which we care about these answers.

Maybe my moral compass is a-spin but perhaps Jim's "unknowability" as displayed in this book is due to the fact that everyone around him is super racist, and doesn't care about all those passengers he abandoned because they weren't white. Just a thought! So the burden of his guilty conscience drives him to earn the respect of others who the people around him think, "Well, they're not so important, who cares about them?" (Marlow's emphasis on Jim's likely non-white common-law wife supports this theory. There's a discussion we could have along the lines of fidelity vs. racism and the white man's sexual burden of non-monogamy toward any non-societally-blessed pairing, if I were willing to go back and dig up the relevant passages, which I'm not, but you can.)

Or maybe Jim just liked living in Patusan where people looked up to him, rather than being forced to reintegrate into civilian life. Maybe that was his best prospect after all. By the end of LORD JIM I didn't really care how Jim had gotten there, had drawn my own conclusions long before Marlow was finished a-tellin'.

Conrad is probably spinning in his grave right now due to his limericization, but he will have his revenge as I still have one more of his books to get to on this list. But that's not going to be next, because I just can't face the guy.

Ellen VS. ML: 54 read, 46 unread

Next up: After getting into another rantfest about V.S. Naipaul at book club last week, I'm thinking it's time to crack my copy of #83 A BEND IN THE RIVER. Let's see who writes like a lady now!


05 July 2011

Spotted on the peoplemover

When I'm looking at other people's books, it's not a prestige game.
Really! I may be judging but I'm not competing, exactly. I like to see
what's out there. I'm not judging against me (normally because if I'm
looking, I'm not reading myself, for whatever reason).

...But if I did play it that way, I would have been bested on my
flight tonight. Two brunettes in the second row of the plane, one
reading FREEDOM (I would say "in hardcover" but it isn't in paperback
yet, so that's redundant), the other with Frank Bruni's BORN ROUND
face-up on her iPad. Both great choices.

My middle seatmate is one of the last to board: 19 or 20, black curly
hair, black T-shirt, black jeans, traveling with a guy who I realize
on deplaning is probably his father. (Before all I could see was his
plaid shirt, and it was an ambiguous plaid. Dad-or-hipster plaid.)
Before takeoff he fidgets with an iPod Nano, one of the newish square
ones, then pockets it and takes out ULYSSES. In hardcover. He even
took the jacket off. Kids these days!

He broke from its spell only to explain the merits of Aftereffects Pro
versus Photoshop to his probable-dad. Well played my friend.

04 July 2011

Top 10 Books Of 2011 So Far (The Freedom To Judge!)

Published in 2011
Kate Christensen, THE ASTRAL
Douglas Kennedy, THE MOMENT
Jim Knipfel, THE BLOW-OFF

Published earlier
David Foster Wallace, THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM

03 July 2011

Unbookening #FAIL

Checked out 6 books from the library
Bought 3 books at the Housing Works sale
Received 9 books to review

Donated 3 books
Lent out 2
Returned 7 to the library

Too much awesomeness. That is all I can say. On the bright side, I have 2 books checked out from the library. Just 2! I bet that's the least I've had out since I moved. So Project Read or Return Your Library Books went pretty well.

02 July 2011

This cartoon is hanging above my desk in my childhood bedroom right now. I completely forgot it was there and when I walked in at 1AM this morning I had to sit down I was laughing so hard. (New Yorker, 2004)

01 July 2011

"But next morning, at the first bend of the river shutting off the houses of Patusan, all this dropped out of my sight bodily, with its colour, its design, and its meaning, like a picture created by fancy on a canvas, upon which, after long contemplation, you turn your back for the last time. It remains in the memory motionless, unfaded, with its life arrested, in an unchanging light. There are the ambitions, the fears, the hate, the hopes, and they remain in my mind just as I had seen them--intense and as if for ever suspended in their expression. I had turned away from the picture and was going back to the world where events move, men change, light flickers, life flows in a clear stream, no matter whether over mud or over stones. I wasn't going to dive into it; I would have enough to do to keep my head above the surface. But as to what I was leaving behind, I cannot imagine any alteration."
-Joseph Conrad, LORD JIM

Reading on the Road: "Is it the Fourth?"

Well, no, TJ, and thanks for reminding.

These past weeks have just been one long road to Suckville over here, so I didn't even try to pack light this weekend. I no longer care about whether my plane is going to make weight or how irritated my seatmates will feel. I'm taking two hardcovers (review) and my Kindle (so I can finish some half-begun books like Courtney Sullivan's MAINE and Bella Pollen's THE SUMMER OF THE BEAR) because I just don't have the energy to decide. If previous holiday weekends are to set the tone, I'll probably have plenty of time to get to each as I am slow-roasting in my parents' backyard. (For best results, turn every half-hour.)

I'm also packing my copy of 2666, because it looks like single-book book club is really going to happen this summer. I plan to propose in the first order that we give the club a catchy name, like The Future Or Bust. That's probably the point at which I am voted out of single-book book club. Que sera, sera. 

What are you reading this weekend?