31 October 2011

Viscounts and bullshit

THE GO-BETWEEN relies on the naïveté of its narrator-protagonist, a boarding school kid about to turn 13, to pull the plot forward, but that's not a problem: the problem emerges with the way he acts when he has been brought to wisdom.

Leo has been invited to spend summer break at a boarding school classmate's house, and goes even though he's not really close friends with the classmate in question (on first reference it's, "I can hardly remember his name now" -- Marcus Maudsley -- you're welcome). The Maudsleys are fairly well off and Leo spends a happy idyll kicking around the grounds, developing a bit of a crush on Marcus' older sister Marian who also dotes on him a little although everyone knows she's going to marry the local viscount, a gentleman who owns a lot of property so is tolerated despite his disfiguring war injury.

Leo's other new friend is a local farmer named Ted who is super-strong and has a haystack suitable for boys to slide down; he also promises to tell Leo about the facts of life (a conversation that goes badly, to say the least). Both the viscount and Ted use Leo to pass notes to Marian, which he gladly does without gandering at their contents. If you have a suspicion about what those notes contain, you are probably not a 13-year-old British boarding-school pupil (any more?)

Thus, Leo's introduction into the ways of the rich, the super-rich and the grown-ups.There's a lot of fascinating material in here about the ways that class is introduced to him, and deference, and how to act around different people; this all comes to a point during a village-manor cricket game that I could only have enjoyed more if I understood cricket better and knew which turn was a good one. For now, I'm going to focus on Leo's perception of the role he plays in the plot, and how unsatisfying I found that.

It's startling how naïve Leo actually is, but plausible that he could be so sheltered (widowed mother, company of boys from a young age) that he wouldn't realize to what he was a party. Here's what bothered me (and this is not a spoiler): Leo narrates this entire book in flashback as an old man, when he has come across his diary from that summer, although the amount that it truthfully reveals about its events is questionable. A likely story, but again, it's a device, there's nothing wrong with it -- until everything that comes after when Leo figures out what he's been doing as the go-between. The way he behaves in the end, I found shocking (and out of character), but he dismisses so quickly it's as if he still isn't taking responsibility for himself. Not that Leo or Hartley would phrase it as such, but this book exemplifies what I would call the "It is what it is" ending. I hate this phrase not only for its absolution but for the sort of cosmic shrug that says, "Eh, well, nobody cares about it any more."

But wait -- I cared about it now. If the ending of this book (which I am furiously writing around) is meant to deliver a moral lesson, then I for one am going against that moral lesson, even though I wouldn't condone what some of these people do. In the end it's Leo that I wanted to be punished. 

Maybe it's because of his obsession with the zodiac that Leo is able to let himself off the hook so easily. Not only is Leo convinced that the zodiac moves all things around him, a bit of a bizarre obsession for a British schoolboy, his name Leo corresponds to the sign of the zodiac under which he was born, feeding his conviction that we all act as we are destined to do -- again, absolution of responsibility. This book relies more on the zodiac than a teenage girl reading the back pages of YM to find out what her crush is thinking. Maybe I wouldn't expect so much of a 13-year-old, but when it comes to the present-day, 70-something Leo, I wanted him to sit up and say "You know what, I did do [X, Y and Z for spoilers]" and either express contrition or take responsibility. That's what adults do.

30 October 2011

Your last-minute topical literary Halloween costume

Leonard Bankhead (THE MARRIAGE PLOT): Bandanna, copy of A LOVER'S DISCOURSE to throw at people, self-satisfied smirk.

Ava Bigtree (SWAMPLANDIA!): Plastic alligator spray-painted red. Also, dirt and lots of it.

Lisbeth Salander: Black clothes, spiked hair, drawn-on dragon tattoo in prominent location. Piercings optional.

The Penguin (DEATH AND THE PENGUIN): Tuxedo.

BOSSYPANTS Cover Tina Fey: Hat, tie, large male friend to stand behind you and put his arms through yours (look, you put this off, you figure it out).

Andy with The Death-Ray (THE DEATH-RAY): Tiny megaphone or earhorn, blue shirt, red face paint, indignation that you are not Superman, for the love.

Shakespeare? (THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR, "Anonymous," etc.) Printer paper folded accordion-style to make ruff over your 21st-century clothes.

The Terrifying Cover Illustration Of Drew Magary's THE POSTMORTAL: Full-length cloak, cheap scythe broken and glued to the back and front of the cloak.

A Memorizing Genius (MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN): They look just like everybody else!

Girl In A Murakami Book (A WILD SHEEP CHASE, SPUTNIK SWEETHEART, ): Stuffed cat, T-shirt with a cartoon character on it, absent expression. Make sure not to show any emotions, particularly if your friends see you and greet you enthusiastically. 

Owen Wilson's Character Whose Name Has Already Escaped Me From "Midnight In Paris": Tweed jacket with leather elbow patches (can be thrifted); tendency to express every sentence as a question.

A Kindle Fire: Since it's not out yet, any old robot costume should suffice.

29 October 2011

#20

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.

Escribir, por ejemplo: «La noche está estrellada,
y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos».

El viento de la noche gira en el cielo y canta.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso.

En las noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos.
La besé tantas veces bajo el cielo infinito.

Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería.
Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Pensar que no la tengo. Sentir que la he perdido.

Oír la noche inmensa, más inmensa sin ella.
Y el verso cae al alma como al pasto el rocío.

Qué importa que mi amor no pudiera guardarla.
La noche está estrellada y ella no está conmigo.

Eso es todo. A lo lejos alguien canta. A lo lejos.
Mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Como para acercarla mi mirada la busca.
Mi corazón la busca, y ella no está conmigo.

La misma noche que hace blanquear los mismos árboles.
Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise.
Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar su oído.

De otro. Será de otro. Como antes de mis besos.
Su voz, su cuerpo claro. Sus ojos infinitos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero.
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.

Porque en noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos,
Mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Aunque éste sea el último dolor que ella me causa,
y éstos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo.

--Pablo Neruda (Unsatisfying, but translation here.)

28 October 2011

27 October 2011

7. Joseph Heller, CATCH-22


I don't know if I can do justice to how terrific this book is... so here's my pitch for why you should read it if you haven't already, because maybe you made the same mistake I did.

This is the 50th anniversary year of the publication of CATCH-22 and I can't speak to whether the military is more absurd than it was 50 years ago, but I'm comfortable with the grand assertion that modern life is more absurd than it was 50 years ago.


I knew CATCH-22 was about World War II; I knew it was funny but dark, somewhere along the lines of SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (I can address the accuracy of that in a bit); and I knew what a Catch-22 was, as one of those cultural gems one picks up. I assumed that based on those facts, I pretty much knew what this book was going to be "about"...

...omitting of course that the absurdity of Catch-22, as revealed in perhaps the first 50 pages of this book, is deepened and multiplied throughout the book, to the extent that you realize that you also are living under the obscure military rule that gives the book its name (trivia alert! It was originally Catch-18) and that it's not just "oh, how funny, what is one to do!" but that it can make you crazy... just not crazy enough for you to exempt yourself from it.

And the only way to express that there are stakes to that is to set that story of contradiction against a literally life-or-death backdrop, where Yossarian may actually have to die in order to get out of combat missions (and even that's not enough, given that he still lives with a dead man! Or does he.)


This past weekend I was reading a review of Nathaniel Philbrick's new book WHY READ MOBY DICK?, making the case for Melville's book as the ur-text of American literature. I can't lie, my first reaction to this wave of press was "But I diiiiiiid." Is Melville that unknown to people in America as a whole? Did this book really need a champion? (All this I say without actually having read Philbrick's book, which I might yet do anyway.) From there I jumped to which book I would choose, cycling through old favorites like THE HOUSE OF MIRTH and THE GREAT GATSBY and at-first-overlooked novels like THE SUN ALSO RISES and OUR TOWN. And out of all of those, I realized that the one I would pick would be CATCH-22, in spite of its baggy middle and the mild injury that there isn't more Major Major in it (wordplay!)

This book ought to be to young-ish adults what ON THE ROAD is to teenagers. The fact that Heller wrote a particular sort of book better than I ever will is somehow not dampening to the spirit. This is a book to be celebrated. Why read CATCH-22? Because you're already in it -- that's why.

"Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy. Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?" --Joseph Heller

Ellen vs. ML: 56 read, 44 unread

Next up: I skipped FROM HERE TO ETERNITY for this, so probably that?

26 October 2011

Filmbook: The Great Prestige Circus of Book Adaptations, Fall 2011

Now playing: "Moneyball," based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, already receiving Oscar buzz; "The Three Musketeers," adaptation approximately #2745, not receiving any Oscar buzz whatsoever.

Opens Oct. 28: "The Rum Diary" (Johnny Depp) based on the Hunter S. Thompson book about Puerto Rico. I mistweeted when I said the only NY Public Library copy available to me was in Spanish and called DIARIOS DE RON (trans. RUM DIARIES); it's actually DIAS DE RON (RUM DAYS). I probably won't see the movie till I read that but I expect Peter W. Knox will have something up as soon as it opens. Also 10/28: "Anonymous" (I saw it already and blogged about it here), "Sleeping Beauty" (an adaptation of sorts).

Opens Nov. 18: "The Descendants," Alexander Payne's long awaited return to our screens (since 2004's "Sideways" or his heartbreaking segment in 2006's "Paris, je t'aime") -- it's George Clooney! It's Hawaii! It's sur...prisingly heartfelt? Highly anticipated by me in any case. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Also week of 11/18: "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1" (fourth of the planned 5 "Twilight" movies, in case you're keeping score)

Opens Nov. 24: "Hugo," based on the Caldecott Award-winning THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick. So it's a kids' movie, fine, but what if I told you that it was a kids' movie directed by Martin Scorsese starring such casual players as Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Johnny Depp (again?) and Michael "Deserves to Be Slightly More Famous" Pitt? Also, the book is spectacular (about the invention of film in turn-of-the-century Paris), but I'm trying to focus on what you want. Take your small cousins or something. It's a mitzvah. Also week of 11/24: "A Dangerous Method," based on the John Kerr nonfiction book of the same name about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, starring Viggo Mortenson and Michael Fassbender and I don't know why he keeps coming up either, it's a mystery, and "My Week With Marilyn," based on a memoir by one of Monroe's studio escorts while shooting in London (with Michelle Williams as Monroe).

Opens December 9: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," based on the John le Carre novel of the same name about Cold War espionage and the search for a plant, starring Colin "Hey do you remember when I won an Academy Award last year? That was awesome" Firth and Tom "Universal Mancrush" Hardy. Hey, did you know this book is almost impossible to find in used bookstores? Also 12/9: "We Need To Talk About Kevin," Toronto-buzzed feature based on the Lionel Shriver novel.

Opens December 16: "Carnage" (dir. R. Polanski), which is technically based on a play by Yasmina Reza but I'm propping it up because the four-handed cast is terrific and there will be fireworks. Also 12/16: "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" (a tenuous adaptation at best but will probably live up to the "silly but fun" I gave the first movie).

Opens December 23: "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," U.S. adaptation, tracked here for almost two years.If you think you're going to hate David Fincher's take with Daniel Craig as Mikael "Kalle Bastard" Blomkvist, you could always rent or buy the Swedish trilogy as insurance. Also 12/23: "The Adventures of Tintin," 'starring' Simon Pegg because this is one of those creepy real-ish animation jobs, and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," adapting the Jonathan Safran Foer novel in what will probably be an all too realistic 9/11 tearjerker. You have plenty of time to read this book, which I regard very highly, before it comes out. Not much up to Christmas but more holidays anyway.

25 October 2011

New favorite holiday?

It's St. Crispin's Day, so I'm going to reprint the most famous motivational speech ever:

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford, and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
Of course, "Henry V" IV.iii. Eat your heart out, Every Sports Movie In Existence.
William Carlos Williams famously (apocryphally?) wrote first drafts of
his poems on prescription pads at the office where he worked as a
doctor. What medium would a 21st-century WCW use? Excel? Twitter?
PowerPoint? Post-Its?

24 October 2011

Or one really excellent sandwich

Just for kicks I looked up the value of my hand-me-down Kindle on Amazon's new trade-in site. Of course it works like a charm and everyone on the block covets its "'80s computer gray" palette, so I have no interest in actually trading it in for a sad amount of cash.

The best part of this listing is that every other Kindle pictured is set against a white background with a human hand (or two) holding it, while the original gets the Extreme Halo Treatment. (Damn right.)

Writing Advice I Love (From A Teacher I Hated)

Here are a few accusations I wish to level against my eighth-grade English teacher:
  • Ruined LORD OF THE FLIES for me
  • Almost ruined TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for me
  • Insisted the classroom window be kept open all year... including in January... in Wisconsin... knowing full well I wasn't allowed to wear my coat to class
  • Told my parents at conferences that I wasn't trying that hard (with consequences)
  • Picked on everyone in the class, but one day really ripped into a friend of mine for using a word I had used in an earlier assignment, making me want to fold up into my desk and disappear
  • Introduced New Criticism to us in the worst possible way, by making it look idiotic instead of meaningful
  • Forced us to write 2-word rhyming papers which is a stupid assignment for the 8th grade
  • Forced us to write 1-sentence papers, see above
  • Told my parents at later conferences that I was really starting to shape up thanks to all he taught me, which was nothing
  • Spent 5-10 minutes at the top of class playing with a basketball instead of teaching...
  • Ruined Fleetwood Mac for me for about 9 years, which is either a small crime or a large crime, depending on how you view that band
  • At the end of the year, made us write evaluations of him including grades...
  • ...and told us they would be anonymous, but collected them in alphabetical order. (Ever wary of a trap, I gave him a B+ but now I would give him a D-.)
Sorry I'm not sorry, I did a little dance when I found out this august gentleman had left teaching and is now working privately.

And yet, there is one thing he taught us that has always stuck with me, that I try to remember in my own writing and tell my students (paraphrased). In my memory he told us this on the first day and I wrote it in my notebook, underlining each word separately -- one of the only notes I would take in his class all year. Here is the teaching: Writers make conscious choices. It doesn't matter how caught up they get while writing or how "naturally" one scene needs to flow toward another, the writer is always in control, for better or worse (and sometimes it's definitely worse). When Homer wrote "Sing to me of the man, Muse," he decided THE ODYSSEY was going to start there and not with "When Odysseus walked in the front door after 20 years the first thing he saw was his son, but he couldn't tell it was him" or "Once upon a time, when men were men" or "Odysseus had 99 problems, but his wife wasn't one."

When I teach writing now and my students throw up their hands and say "That's the end!" I goad them: What happened next? Where did it go after that? How did the character feel? How did others react? Sometimes it's as little as taking a story that travels from A to B, and nudging it in the direction of C, but that is always within their power.

I'm not going to say it was worth it, but I'm grateful for that piece.

23 October 2011

Tom Wolfe: "I was 54 years old when I wrote my first piece of _intentional_ fiction."



Check out those socks. Gentlemen, please all wear these socks when seasonably appropriate.
"Another harsh critic [of the emoticon] is Michele Farinet, a parent coordinator in an elementary school in Manhattan who spends much of her days answering and responding to e-mails of the (largely professional) body of parents. The whole subject touches a raw nerve.

"'To me, it's like bad moviemaking, where as soon as Dad grabs the puppy, the shot immediately goes to Junior's teary face — like the director does not trust the audience to have an appropriately developed emotion by itself,' Ms. Farinet wrote in an e-mail. 'That's what emoticons do. PLEASE don't 'show' me that I should be happy-faced or sad-faced or that you are sad-faced or happy-faced.

"'Can you imagine,' wrote Ms. Farinet, 'reading the end of THE GREAT GATSBY like that?: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past :-( '"

--New York Times, "If You're Happy And You Know It, Must I Know Too?" Now I feel like an emoticon moderate in comparison...

22 October 2011

Filmbook: HBO might buy your book but where will it go?

Sarah Weinman (Publishers Marketplace, plus a ton of other places) has been keeping a running list of books purchased to adapt by HBO this year -- to which we can add, recently, THE CORRECTIONS and SWAMPLANDIA! (A few other properties we're keeping an eye on, although they weren't from 2011: THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, coproduced by Oprah; I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR BAND, produced by Will Ferrell, starring Lizzy "Did you have an awesome time?" Caplan; AMERICAN TABLOID, coproduced by Tom Hanks.)

These are great buys provided that they actually get made, and forgive me for being a little skeptical about that. HBO is currently airing, by my count, 3 book adaptations -- "Game of Thrones," "Boardwalk Empire" and "True Blood." "True Blood" is rounding up on its fifth season (in '12) but the other two are only in their 2nd seasons. How many adaptations are they realistically going to run in a year? I'm not in their target audience (never subscribed to HBO, don't have basic cable) so maybe there's a clamor for it, but at the rate they're going we all will have had time to read all these books before they go up onscreen. Of course, A GAME OF THRONES was published in 1996... so either Franzen or Gaiman ought to be next.

Just to show I'm not a hater, my casting for "The Art Of Fielding" on HBO, ready, go: Liam Neeson as Guert, Max Greenfield plus about 30 pounds as Mike, Jessica Chastain as Pella (she's having a moment), Darren Criss as Owen (ditto) and blond American-accented Ben Whishaw as Henry. Do it this year, gents.

21 October 2011

But you don't have to take my word for it

Every so often after I've reviewed a book, I read another review of the same book that makes me want to jump up and down because it's so incisive (and, okay, confirms what I've already said about it). This week, may I direct you to Thomas Mallon on THE STRANGER'S CHILD in the New York Times Book Review. The news at the bottom that Mallon has a new book out soon (February!) is an extra treat.

The latest person to show a lack of respect to Roberto Bolaño

From, unsurprisingly, an Esquire piece about James Frey:

Richardson: But ultimately it's the stories, right? The stories that you're telling are genre fiction. You got your vampire story, you got your witch story. But the real stuff is gonna come from an individual who's sitting there working it out on his own with great ambition. It's not gonna be somebody who says, "I think I can do a pretty good rom-com."

Frey: But my point is there aren't really any Henry Millers left. Tell me one person in the world you think is doing that.

Richardson: Roberto Bolaño.

Frey: But Roberto Bolaño is dead.

Richardson: Recently.

Frey: But again, you're saying that one thing is somehow more valid or more important than the other.

Richardson: Yes, Roberto Bolaño is better than Teenage Action Ranger Force. Yes. I am saying that.

Frey: Who do you think has done more to keep the culture of books alive, Roberto Bolaño or J. K. Rowling?

Richardson: It's really kind of apples and oranges.

Frey: It's not apples and oranges at all. It's a pretty cut-and-dry answer.

Richardson: Really? Who do you think is more important: Picasso or Mickey Mouse?

Frey: Probably Mickey Mouse.

Richardson: So if you had a choice to buy something and put it on your wall, you'd choose Mickey Mouse instead of Picasso?

Frey: No, but —

Richardson: Then you're lying!

Frey: No I'm not!

Richardson: You're making a choice. You're making a distinction between what's good and bad.

Frey: No I'm not. I didn't say Picasso's more important than Mickey Mouse. I don't even necessarily think he is. He's just different.

Richardson: But when it comes time to put your money on it, you're choosing Picasso — and so collapses your entire flimsy edifice of self-justification.

Frey [visibly gritting his teeth]: You may think I'm a dick or arrogant or delusional or whatever, and frankly it doesn't matter to me. I've written four books. Published in thirty-nine languages. I sold millions and millions and millions of copies. Do I want to be more famous? I could give a shit. Do I want to publish in more languages? There are a few left. What matters to me is a hundred years from now when people look back at our time, what writers are they gonna say, "Holy fuck!" I think I am and will be one of those people.

20 October 2011

"I imagine that in the majority of people who are conscious of the wish to live--that is to say, people who have intellectual curiosity--the aspiration to exceed formal programmes takes a literary shape. They would like to embark on a course of reading. Decidedly the British people are becoming more and more literary. But I would point out that literature by no means comprises the whole field of knowledge, and that the disturbing thirst to improve one's self--to increase one's knowledge--may well be slaked quite apart from literature. With the various ways of slaking I shall deal later. Here I merely point out to those who have no natural sympathy with literature that literature is not the only well."

--Arnold Bennett. Annual re-reading of HOW TO LIVE ON 24 HOURS A DAY (available for free on Dailylit) in full effect.

There's really nothing funny about Stonewall, but this has to be one of the funniest book titles/ covers/ concepts I have ever seen in my life. In vain have I tried to find out whether this is one of a "History's Passion" series of erotica set against Famous Stuff Happening:

  • "History's Passion: Sex Before The Fall Of Rome"
  • "History's Passion: Sex Before Columbus"
  • "History's Passion: Sex Before Washington Crossed the Delaware"
  • "History's Passion: Sex Before Haymarket"
  • "History's Passion: Sex The Night Before The Trinity Test" (actually, who am I kidding, I would read that)

19 October 2011

How to write about zombies

Last night I took a writing class called "How to Write a Zombie Fiction or Horror Novel." I found out about this class from one of the 80,000 "daily deal" newsletters I now subscribe to and, naturally, my curiosity was piqued.

There were a lot of fans of "The Walking Dead" (both comic book series and TV show) in class and the author who was teaching said the comic is what inspired him to write a zombie book as well as the Romero movies and WORLD WAR Z, both mentioned in reverent tones. The author, who resembled a more realistic James Franco, had worked in TV and in book publishing before his writing career had taken off. He described being around editors as "the most exciting thing" about working in publishing. (That's one for all my editor and would-be editor friends. Suitable for framing.)

There were several self-described working writers in the class, as well as a few filmmakers, a woman with a children's book and man whose company is organizing a zombies vs. vampires scavenger hunt.
A woman in an argyle sweater who looked like my mom described a recent Sears appliance ad featuring zombies and described herself as "fairly zombie obsessed at the moment." There was a couple on a date, and she was more attentive than he was.

A man who said he had worked with Neil Gaiman (he even referred to him as "Neil") asked the author whether zombies had peaked as a concept for entertainment, an opinion held by at least one person who reads this blog, and if the "market was going to collapse" for zombie-related entertainment. "Yes," the author said. "No. I don't know. I mean." It may not be as easy to get your zombie fiction read now, he said, because it has to be taken to the next level -- zombies and something else. In some cases the "something" is represented by a social critique (i.e. Romero's malls) or a moral dilemma (my wife has turned into a zombie, should I kill her before she can get to me?). But in that sense, the novelty has worn off.

A few examples of "zombies and something else" I did not know existed before this class: The movie "Zombie Strippers!" The market for zombie erotica ("larger than literary fiction," apparently?) The Beatles parody book PAUL IS UNDEAD.

I was hoping he would elaborate more on what specifically made zombie fiction such, but instead he focused on the following principles:
  1. Almost anything can have zombies in it. He had us go through newspapers to find stories that could be adapted to be zombie stories. His concept of CATCHER IN THE RYE with zombies was particularly attractive. 
  2. Focus on writing a good story, not just a good zombie story -- effectively contradicting my class expectations, oh well. 
The class was organized through the Learning Annex, which is kind of the New York version of "community enrichment" courses. A lot of celebrities teach one-off seminars; on the cover of the catalog they gave us last night was a Real Housewife, Patricia Field (fashion designer, "The Devil Wears Prada," "Sex and the City," etc.) and a woman I had never heard of with the fantastic name of Drita D'Avanzo, who is married to someone in the Mafia. I'm not sure what her hook was. They were holding several classes concurrently at our site (the basement of a Hilton in midtown) and next door's was "How to Marry a Millionaire." I did not attend, because who cares, but I heard that the audience was "95% women" and "fairly scary," which is something coming from a fellow attendee of a class about zombies.

Chip Kidd on designing a book jacket for Haruki Murakami's 1Q84



I just preordered my copy of this book! Chip Kidd is a delightful speaker and if you ever get a chance to hear from him, please do so. Check out a collection of his covers here (favorites: SCHULTZ AND PEANUTS, POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN).

18 October 2011

Jennifer Egan on Brooklyn and childhood, for Slate



"I wasn't a kid who always wanted to be a writer." Also, her debut THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS (which I just read), etc.

Stuff I recommend that you read

17 October 2011

Joan Didion is tiny and cute

Is it required that every profile of Joan Didion mention her weight, her height or her seeming fragility? I saw 3 mentions in this New York magazine profile. Show some respect to a dignified older lady.

Didion's next book BLUE NIGHTS comes out next week -- and although it has made many a fall books list -- it just feels wrong to describe it as an "anticipated" book or one "to get excited about." Have we all forgotten being completely wrecked by THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING? Just me then?

In which "Tintin" is already ruined

A few weeks ago on a whim I downloaded Simon Pegg's NERD DO WELL thinking I could listen to it when it was otherwise impractical to hold a book. I started listening to this morning. Did you know the second chapter of this book is about his sexual milestones at the age of 14? In a related story, I am wide awake now.

16 October 2011


LESLIE KNOPE: Lauren, what did you make?
LAUREN: I made a Gertrude Stein!

--"Parks & Recreation" 4.04, "Pawnee Rangers"
"As a child, my favorite book was probably HARRIET THE SPY. You’ve seen pictures of me [as a child in the book]. I wasn’t child actor material at all — I wasn’t a conventionally cute child. I think if there’s one thing that I regret never having gotten a chance to do as a kid — and there’s literally only one — it would have been to audition for HARRIET THE SPY. That was such a great book because it was not about how cute she was. In fact, she wasn’t especially adorable or anything. She was such just an adventurous city kid and she had weird confidence even though she wasn’t that popular. She was a nosy little chubby kid who was special."
--Mindy Kaling in Entertainment Weekly

15 October 2011

Semiotics, so hot right now

On the heels of THE MARRIAGE PLOT, here's "I Was An Under-age Semiotician" by Steven Johnson (Brown '90?) who sneaks in that he was roommates with Sam Lipsyte (so also '90 I'm guessing?) and drops a few other names. For more on semiotics and the best school ever, I like this Boston Globe article "The semio-grads" from 2004. (To answer the question no one is asking, I wasn't a semio-grad myself, but I took classes.)

14 October 2011

Perhaps I will do JUST that

Currently appreciating this blog: Go the Fuck to the Library

So I says to Joyce, I says...

On Wednesday night I went to see Jeffrey Eugenides read from his new book THE MARRIAGE PLOT at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. It was the most crowded reading I had been to in months, probably since Jonathan Franzen last year, but that was at a ginormous Barnes & Noble, not a storefront. There was an expectant crackle in the air already when I arrived, with 20 minutes to go, and the store looked full though it wasn't yet. 

The staff had turned off the air conditioning so that we could hear over the noise. I was crammed next to a display featuring a book on crafts you can make out of cat hair (true story), by the register; I couldn't even see the top of Eugenides' head. A store employee would periodically sweep the people in front of me toward the back of the store, where they would have been facing bookshelves instead of the windows; then more people would filter in, and would be swept back as well.

Jeffrey Eugenides is balding in a circular, cartoon way, like my father. When we went up for the signing afterward he was wearing a white shirt printed with tiny purple and coral flowers and off his right elbow there was one half-empty Brooklyn Brewery beer, and another resting in what used to be ice in a plastic pitcher. He said he likes going on tour, joking about how his slow publishing schedule (3 novels in 3 decades) makes this easy on his readers; but he had been talking to Joyce Carol Oates who attempted to dissuade him from going at all. He didn't do a Q&A, although I think many of us in the audience would gladly have stood around to hear more. Then again, we might have been subjected to questions like "What's your secret to channeling the female perspective?"

After meeting him I believe he would be the kind of man to laugh about getting punched in the face by a disgruntled train passenger, but I could be wrong. 

The title of THE MARRIAGE PLOT is a palimpsest; the student Madeleine, an English major becoming infatuated with (and to the lines of) Roland Barthes in the newly created semiotics department, has written her senior thesis on the 19th- and early 20th-century novels (I think she locates the end of the genre around the time of SISTER CARRIE but I could be wrong) and refers to it as being about "the marriage plot," but its significance doesn't stop with her coursework. When I was reading it on the subway (its title bearing an elegant wedding ring that, on closer examination, is a Mobius strip) I wondered if people thought it was a self-help book, or a scholarly text along the lines of SEX AT DAWN or MARRIAGE: A HISTORY.

After looking for it at 3 bookstores on Monday, the day before it was published (begrudging kudos for not breaking the embargo), I purchased the book on Tuesday morning at a Hudson News in O'Hare Airport in Chicago -- it was the first time I had ever bought a hardcover at the airport, a gesture I associate with men in business class zipping down to Dallas for the day. I was flying JetBlue, an airline that doesn't have a business class. It was a little indulgent but I had my head down reading all the way back to New York, and then through Queens back to Brooklyn.

13 October 2011

Which means I'm in District 13, right?

Sure, you can play the HUNGER GAMES district-matching game if you're willing to sign your Facebook or Twitter accounts over to them. Those are your only options. That's not an odd request to be made by a forthcoming movie based on a trilogy of books about a totalitarian state at all.
Barnes & Noble is running a Buy 2 Get 1 Free paperbacks sale right now. Four titles I will personally vouch for:

Patti Smith, JUST KIDS
Lily Koppel, THE RED LEATHER DIARY
Simon Winchester, THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN
Bill Bryson, SHAKESPEARE: THE WORLD AS STAGE

National Book Award 2011 Nominees

Hey, at least I did better than last year!

You have until November 16 to read the following:

Fiction
Andrew Krivak, THE SOJOURN
Téa Obreht, THE TIGER'S WIFE (read it, liked it)
Julie Otsuka, THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC
Edith Pearlman, BINOCULAR VISION (short stories)
Jesmyn Ward, SALVAGE THE BONES (read it, liked it but thought it had protagonist issues)

Nonfiction
Deborah Baker, THE CONVERT: A TALE OF EXILE AND EXTREMISM
Mary Gabriel, LOVE AND CAPITAL: KARL AND JENNY MARX AND THE BIRTH OF A REVOLUTION
Stephen Greenblatt, THE SWERVE: HOW THE WORLD BECAME MODERN
Manning Marable, MALCOLM X: A LIFE OF REINVENTION
Lauren Redniss, RADIOACTIVE: MARIE & PIERRE CURIE, A TALE OF LOVE AND FALLOUT

In this fall: Biographies of couples. Out this fall: Hyped doorstopper books by white dudes? (Fiction by dudes in general, 4/5 nominees agree?)

Now I'm not saying anyone should do such a foolish thing as read all 10 of these (plus 10 poetry and YA books, available here), and definitely not that I am tempted to pull such a stunt. But if you did an e-book reader would be a great way to pick all these up (hardcovers, all) at some savings. You may also save yourself some pain from lugging all of those around. (That's my left shoulder and neck, FYI.)

12 October 2011

Speaking of literary gossip... BLOOD, BONES AND BUTTER chef/author Gabrielle Hamilton is probably not having a great day right now. (Also, I assume that the NY Post's summary of her book has been sexed up for its audience, but has anyone read her memoir who can say for sure? I make this assumption because that's a pretty lame Sturm und Drang if you ask me, if that's all it yields.)

Speaking of Franzen...

You also read about this deal, right?
Jonathan Franzen's collection FARTHER AWAY: Essays, including two previously unpublished works, "On Autobiographical Fiction" and "Comma-Then," again to Farrar, Straus, for publication in May 2012, by Susan Golomb at the Susan Golomb Agency.
Keeping an eye on it...

I also found every other blurb in the free (abridged) Publishers Lunch this week to be extremely hilarious, for some reason. It's like HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST come to life in there. It just... makes you happy to be alive.

11 October 2011

Wallaceblogging: David, Jon and Jeff and everything after that

Today among other things I read "Just Kids," Evan Hughes' feature in New York magazine about (a little about) the relationships between David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and most timely Jeffrey Eugenides (whose new novel THE MARRIAGE PLOT comes out this week) when they were young, frustrated, up-and-coming writers. Not a lot of its information is new or surprising, but it does provide some tidbits like Eugenides' firing from his publishing job that will further flavor the stew for people who enjoy things like this, and I am a person who enjoys things like this.

The Franzen/DFW friendship is fairly well trod particularly in the past year or two as Franzen has spoken and written about it (most notably in the New Yorker). I had no idea Eugenides was friends with them, although I appreciated the early reference to the road trip he took with fellow graduate of the best university ever Rick Moody after graduation. (Moody covers a little of this in his memoir THE BLACK VEIL, which somewhat addresses his literary ambitions before getting down to the business of linking his addictive history with the man he believes to have been his Puritan ancestor, as told about in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil.") Nor does it address, although I'm sure this will be discussed in some interview soon, what in the blue hay Eugenides has been doing for the past 9 years since MIDDLESEX came out, whether he lives in Europe now (I want to say it's Paris?)

I guess this is my disgruntled way of saying I wish the essay had been longer -- say at least the length of the Atlantic cover story on single women in the U.S. which I also read today (, is also worth a read,  could also be book-length etc.)

As to how it relates to THE MARRIAGE PLOT, I believe that was just a convenient temporal hook; although the book is about 20somethings with ambitions, they aren't writerly ones.

What draws me to these pieces, personally, is not just the temptation of some long-preserved literary gossip, the hiss of a jar lid being opened, the whiff of something musty and strange. The glimpses of these writers who were not all that noble and good to each other, nor easy on each others' work, nor frank about their jealousy for each other, are also nice... but not just that either. I think it's because of the coincidence as presented here of these authors all coming up at roughly the same amount of time and being friends, or friends of sorts, what you prefer.

I'm sure there were gaps in time and communication Hughes elided to make his portrait and I don't begrudge him doing so, to overcome the odds of having this kind of group persist over time and varying levels of success. It humanizes them and makes them figures of envy at the same time.

Also, whenever the city of Syracuse decides to start offering authors-who-lived-here-for-a-while tours I will be the first one standing next to the tour guide, expectantly. Or, road trip? I probably have at least two weeks before it starts to snow there.

09 October 2011

Blind item

Novelist who complains long and loudly about the unfairness of the publishing industry towards her, specifically the inability of a Particular Weekend Press Book Section to drive sales based on what is viewed as paltry ink spilled, claims of marginalization, etc. Writes a new novel with a satiric publishing satiric component and: tada! Review ink! Are you happy now? Will you stop complaining?

08 October 2011

Today I bought a copy of CRYPTONOMICON for $1 at a church sidewalk
sale. I'm not in New York and at this rate I may never come home again
(only joking)

Random House employees make "It Gets Better" PSA



I think this is the first publisher who has done one, and frankly, it's about time.

07 October 2011

How to resist subscribing to The Believer now?

Not only did the Believer bring Nick Hornby back, they also added Daniel Handler reading one Nobel Laureate's book a month? ... I've been really, really good this year... and I had a day of woe yesterday... so tempting. (Great idea of Handler's by the way.)

Do free books make me biased?

Travel writer Paul Brady wrote a thoughtful post last week about the ethics of members of the media accepting free things, and the extent to which their opinion can be trusted based on that free stuff. I don't know if he's referring to something recently, but every so often travel journalists or outlets come under fire for accepting free trips and amenities from places or companies who would like some coverage. (Google "mike albo" + thrillist if you want to read about one particular case that sticks out in my mind.) The point Brady drives at is, many other members of the media accept free goods and services in order to do their jobs, and that no matter what readers may think of it, they accept it as The Way The World Works, and so should we.

I wanted to respond to this post in part because Brady mentions book reviewers among his list of people who need and get free stuff as a matter of course. Also, Paul used to be my editor so I'm sure he's already found an error in here that has caused him to stop reading, or he just stopped now that I so rudely referred to him by his first name. (But if you're still reading, I'll take that fruit basket now. 14th floor.)

Let's be fair, I could still write reviews without publishers' galleys and ARCs, but they would be either not current, or few and far between. I could not afford to purchase the number of new books that fall into my possession through reviewing; I would be either waiting to get them at the library, borrowing them from other people or hoping they would turn up on Bookmooch. (Or reading them in a Borders and not buying them... oh wait.) I know this makes me lucky. I know it. The way I square that bounty with my sense of ethics is to donate my old galleys and review copies, instead of selling them as I have heard some people do, and to try to share the wealth as much as possible among friends and family.

But if I ever got the opportunity to speak somewhere and was compensated somehow for it, you bet your stack of Proust I would take it. (Inquire within! Variable rates! May be funny!)

That said, speaking for "the book review people — rare though they may be" I can't remember the last time I was accused of being biased toward a book I reviewed just because I got it for free -- not that it doesn't happen, but no recent example comes to mind.
  • Is it because a book is $20-$30 and a press trip can be hundreds or thousands of dollars?
  • Is it because my audience is (perceived as) too small, because I don't write for the New York Times?
  • Is it because the people who make such accusations either don't know, or don't care, that the world of publishing can be insular-to-downright-stuffy and that there is some favor trading out there? 
  • Or is it because I write for print publications that are considered as holding to a higher standard than Ellen's Wee Book Reviewe Shoppe-Emporium (Dot Blogspot Dot-Com)?
The divide I see is between old-school newspaper or magazine critics and bloggers; the former are considered more above reproach than the latter, whose public perception can tend to "Yay! I got this free thing and I love it!"* Certainly some bloggers trend positive on books they got to review, but then again, some bloggers only write about books they like in the first place; and some explicitly say that's what they do. Even if, oh, the New York Times Review of Books decided to only run positive reviews, there's no way in hell they would ever admit to that. (Nor will I think they will.)

It would be unfair to insist a person who writes a blog as a hobby must provide objective coverage, acknowledge biases and reflect a balance of opinions in the same way a newspaper would. If I wanted to open Ellen Hated This Book Dot Tumblr-Dot-Com in my spare time, making .3 cents per Amazon referral once in a blue moon, that should be my right. (It's not a terrible idea. I should have started it during my ragier days.) Still, when the FTC implemented blogger disclosure two years ago, it didn't direct the same scrutiny toward newspapers or magazines, implying that the buck stops somewhere, even if it's not here. 

My own conclusion (which I think aligns with Paul's analysis) is that no one is above reproach, and everyone has a bias. I can be trusted and still have a bias. And when I review something, I should think "If I hadn't gotten this for free, would I consider it a good value? Would I recommend a friend pay full price for it?" I think that's a more important question than "To what ethics should we hold our writers?" Not that there shouldn't be a standard -- but as in so many arenas, if we can't all agree on the standard, then we must set it by ourselves.

*And that imitation isn't even of a book blogger but from a sector of bloggers I see as much more prone to rubber-stamping their product recommendations, the "healthy living" bloggers. This can tend to backfire when they all get offered the same products within a few days. Love, and the Internet loves with you, etc.

06 October 2011


I won this cookbook from the Big Gay Ice Cream guys on Twitter yesterday. I hope there's at least one thing in here I can manage without outside help.

A Nobel goal

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize in Literature this morning.

Salon ran an opinion piece earlier this week called "Why American novelists don't deserve the Nobel Prize." I'm not sure I agree with their conclusion -- American writers are too insular, no one can relate -- because it sounds like just another argument that we are special snowflakes, but I agree with the general sentiment of "Oh, get over yourselves." In truth, the U.S. is probably still disproportionately ahead in prizes claimed over the history of the Nobel, and to loudly whine that it's not faaaaaair every time it goes to a non-American writer doesn't do us any favors. And, though I joke every year about having never heard of the winner, the amount of translated literature that makes it to American shelves is (at an estimated 3 percent) extremely poor, so that could be our myopia working. (I won't hear that, say, the great Eritrean novelist can't exist yet. He or she might be out there!) Perhaps we should better inform ourselves a little more about the rest of world lit, before we start swinging.

What I really want to know is what the people who caused the swell in bets placed that Bob Dylan would be the next winner were thinking. Giant swindle, or misinformed prediction?

(Thanks to Henry for sending that in mere hours before the prize announcement... keep that line to Stockholm open.)

05 October 2011

Breaking news: you're old

One of the National Book Award's "5 Under 35" Honorees -- the annual accounting of the next great writers who will wow us all -- is Shani Boianjiu, a 2011 Harvard grad (as in, the 2011 we are now in) whose debut novel won't be out for your judgment until 2013. 2013?!

I get that they're looking for the next big thing, but what sense does it make to choose an author whose book no one has had the chance to read without deep connections? (To be fair, the New Yorker did the same thing to Tea Obreht with its 20 Under 40 list last year. I found that book worthy of praise, but still wished I could have read it in context.)This is nothing against Boianjiu, who I will be keeping an eye out for in future because of this great honor.

Maybe this is the equivalent of the hipster's "Oh, it's an obscure band, you probably never heard of it."

Of the other nominees, Danielle Evans is the only one I have heard of, Mary Beth Keane was nominated by the author I most like of the nominating committee (Julia Glass), Melinda Moustakis has the funniest book title (BEAR DOWN, BEAR NORTH: ALASKA STORIES) and John Corey Whaley wins Most Looks Like Guys I Went To High School With. So we've all got superlatives now!

04 October 2011

Counter intelligence

With the recent addition of WORLD WAR Z and James Sallis' DRIVE (basis for the recent movie of the same name), the outlook for picking up a book in a pinch at my most frequented pharmacy is better than it's been in months. (They also have FULL DARK, NO STARS in stock, which would fit the bill.) Not that I've ever seen anyone even approach the bookshelf, but...you know.

03 October 2011

Maurice Sendak: Still alive, adorably grumpy

Important clippings from a Guardian profile of the WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE author and illustrator:
  • "The monsters from WILD THINGS were based on his own relatives. They would visit his house in Brooklyn when he was growing up ('All crazy – crazy faces and wild eyes') and pinch his cheeks until they were red."
  • Sendak on childhood: "I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence."
  • "If he had come from a happy home, says Sendak, he would never have become an artist, at least not the kind of artist he is."
  • Sendak on work: "I have to accept my role. I will never kill myself like Vincent Van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can't do that. I'm in the idiot role of being a kiddie book person."

September Unbookening and the cloud of inspecific dissatisfaction

Bought 6 books
Received 11 to review
Checked out 4 from the library
Got 1 as a gift
22 in

Lent 3
Gave away 6
Returned 7
16 out

I suppose a better person would have spent that Groupon on books to donate... but I am not that better person. Have I used the excuse that "Well, I'm just going to spend all of [next month] reading and not shopping" yet? I haven't? Sweet!

In September I only finished half the number of books as I did in August, for a few reasons (slogging through a few longer books, fewer holidays, "there's never any time!" etc). But there isn't really an unbookening correlation; I did just about as well last month (i.e. not well). I guess the ideal Unbookening month would either fall right before I move again, or in which I read a lot of books I owned but didn't end up liking -- but those are both unappetizing prospects for life.

02 October 2011

But lately I'm finding/ I am the book, and you are the binding

  • Did anyone else make it all the way through that email from B&N's CEO saying it had bought Borders' customer list? Admittedly, I don't think I've bought something from BN.com in years... so I'm curious what they have on me now, but I just assumed they had all my customer information already.
  • That said, "Barnes & Noble uniquely appreciates the importance bookstores play within local communities, and we're very sorry your Borders store closed" ?? Way to slather it on. Admit it, you're sorry all the way to the bank because you outlived the other big-box bookstore! It's okay!
  • Thank you Dominique Browning for fueling my nightmares
  • This week I used my Kindle while on an elliptical machine and managed to not fall off, not drop it and avoid both of those things for 30 minutes. It made the time fly, but I really felt like a show-offy jerk doing so (or a Stuff White People Like entry). But I wasn't showing off! I just wanted to make a boring chore less boring.
  • Ironic or not, I was reading THE HUNGER GAMES at the time. I have a theory on this book, but I'm not sure whether I should air it out now or wait to finish the trilogy to see if it supports my theory. 
  • I think I'm going to a midnight release party for the new Haruki Murakami book, this despite the fact that I am not the biggest fan out there (although I like certain aspects of his writing). This ought to be good.
  • What's worse: the fact that my mom referred to FREEDOM as "that book set in Minnesota," or that I guessed it right on the first try?
  • This has been a post about nothing.

01 October 2011

Will they or won't they?

Last night I went to a sneak preview of "Anonymous," a big-budget
costume drama about William Shakespeare. It was directed by Roland
Emmerich of "Independence Day" fame and is just like "Independence
Day," except instead of aliens invading New York City, a bunch of
really good plays invade London.

Emmerich personally is of the belief that Shakespeare was not the
author of the plays that bear his name, and "Anonymous" espouses the
view of the Oxfordian faction of people with Shakespeare authorship
issues -- that is, proposes that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays
and, for a couple of reasons, pawned them off on an illiterate actor.
The film will apparently also be accompanied by classroom materials
and a documentary about Shakespearean authorship. (At the screening
last night, Emmerich wore a broad grin and insistently repeated to the
Shakespeare scholar he was paired with, who was indignant at the
movie's flippancy with the facts, "I am not a scholar, but...")

"Anonymous" is packed with ponderous line readings, confusing
intrigues and unconvincing false facial hair. The snippets of plays,
lines and scenarios from Shakespeare (spoiler: someone gets stabbed
Polonius-style) are the best thing about it, including appearances by
the well-regarded Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance as Richard Burbage.
Nor did it convince me to that side of the authorship controversy,
although I wouldn't say people who question Shakespeare as Shakespeare
need to be thrown out of the establishment. (There is some mystery
there.) And yet I am tempted to go easy on it simply because it
exists. It's not as if we get lit-major conspiracy blockbusters every
year, and I'd rather watch a bad movie about Shakespeare than most
other genres of bad movie.

That said, I'm not sure what this movie's audience is -- fans of
Emmerich's last movie (2012, if I recall correctly) probably aren't
interested in period costumes, British royals or actors who aren't
John Cusack. If this is the director's frivolous years-to-fruition
passion project (or one he adopted from a screenwriter, as the Q and A
suggested), maybe I have more in common than I would have thought with
the guy who drowned the New York Public Library in "The Day After
Tomorrow."