28 December 2012

Vacation notes

  • Filmbook extra: My mom and I watched "Pitch Perfect" (the 2012 feature film starring Anna Kendrick) and she reports that it is not at all like the nonfiction book it's based on by Mickey Rapkin. In particular, "that book didn't have a romantic subplot or focus on one person." You read it here first.
  • This won't really count, but in the process of cleaning out some of my old stuff I was able to part with about 50 books from my old childhood bedroom. A lot of them weren't even that hard to part with, which indicates that I still own too many. But it made getting rid of old clothes feel really easy.
  • (They're all bound for the Half Price Books in Northridge, in case you are local. Fire away!)
  • The upside to cleaning out that room was that I found my parents' copy of Pauline Kael's FOR KEEPS, which is out of print. I thought I would just have to make myself scarce for the week in order to get through it, but then I decided to stick to Brian Kellow's biography PAULINE KAEL: A LIGHT IN THE DARK instead. 
  • I got a lot of books for Christmas, but most hilariously, not one but 2 copies of FEMINIST RYAN GOSLING. My people who know me, really know me.

24 December 2012

Get them to a book

"One basic tool for holding students accountable for reading outside of class is a “reading log.” This is essentially a paper where a student tracks what he or she read, for how long, and how many pages. I made dozens of different reading logs over the course of two years. Some were multiple pages long with stars and pictures of books, and gave students ample room to write responses to what they read. Some had lots of instructions at the top for how long to read and how to write about the books. When I wasn’t getting enough writing back from students, I squished blank lines together and made the spaces smaller. With less room to write, some students wrote more.
Later, I created an web form for students to type in their reading logs online. Students gamed it by saying that they were sure they had submitted it the night before. I changed the form to time-stamp when they hit submit. I took down the form when students gamed the system again by typing the same responses day after day (some did the same on paper). Even with the form deleted from the Internet, students still came in saying they had used it the night before.
I collected young adult books for my students to read and built a sizable classroom library. I made Amazon wish lists and asked friends to buy a few titles. Family members sent me books in the mail, scoured sales at public libraries, brought me bags full to take into school. I interviewed students on the kinds of TV shows they liked, the sports they played, if they liked scary stories or funny stories—all so I could make recommendations on what book to borrow next and read at home. 

Whenever I spoke with a parent, I talked about reading at home. I told them it was just as important as working in class. I made suggestions for THE HUNGER GAMES, DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, TWILIGHT. It didn’t matter, I said, just read a book! 

I pirated ebooks and posted them online so that students with iPads and smartphones could download and read them at home. Eventually, I just gave print books away."

Within this essay on Teach for America at the Billfold is a fascinating progression of what one teacher attempted to get his middle-school students to read more outside of class. In my own education I remember various reading logs, including response journals (high labor on the teacher's part) and page counts by month (extra math lesson! but too competitive?). 

21 December 2012

Reading on the Road: Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow

This is my 2,300th post on this blog! So it seems a fitting platform to announce that today I'm flying to Wisconsin where I will go into a cabin in the woods with no WiFi and never come out again, seriously. Okay, my parents' house is not that remote, but I am facing major burnout and lucky to be looking forward to a little unplugged time over the holidays.

I'm bringing Lionel Shriver's SO MUCH FOR THAT, Sara Paretsky's BREAKDOWN and Maria Semple's WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, recently picked for Tournament of Books '13. These seem too cheerful so I'll pack this Kurt Vonnegut bio AND SO IT GOES that I got from my grandparents last Christmas. Seems like the perfect thing to read in the warm glow of my parents' flatscreen while my brother plays video games, one sister grades papers and the other one dozes off. My family is just so crazy this time of year.

Whether you are going away or celebrating at home, holidays or not, I hope you are happy and among those you love.

20 December 2012

Tournament of Books '13 is a Christmas miracle

I can only assume it was a gift to me that the Morning News' annual Tournament of Books selections were announced today, over a month earlier than last year, so as to give me more time to read all of them! But really, it is a gift to all of us. Take a look at the list (the ones I've already read have been italicized):

Laurent Binet, HHhH
Louise Erdrich, THE ROUND HOUSE
Gillian Flynn, GONE GIRL 
Lauren Groff, ARCADIA
Sheila Heti, HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE?  (Fritz: if you're reading this, I owe you an email on it. I did not forget)
Miles Klee, IVYLAND
Madeleine Miller, THE SONG OF ACHILLES
Alice Munro, DEAR LIFE
Pre-Tournament Playoff Spot: David Abrams, FOBBIT; Ben Fountain, BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK; Kevin Powers, THE YELLOW BIRDS

In the bleak midwinter, long, long ago

I love this post from Jeanette Winterson about Christmas and ritual. Her mentioned memoir WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU CAN BE NORMAL? was one of my favorite books of the year, and to quote the worst song of the year, I think you might like it. It sits at the oft crossed intersection of "books about terrible childhoods" and "books about how writers became writers."

19 December 2012

Nothing but net

I'm about to go out of town, so today I returned all the library books I had out. 

Usually at this time of year I just throw up my hands and try to renew everything into the new year, or suck it up and pay fines. I remember one December I tried to return the rest of my books, only to discover a snowstorm had shut the library and I couldn't even get to a book drop in time. I believe I was schlepping them to the main branch in Manhattan to do so. All I remember is ducking into a Bank of America vestibule with my tote bags to warm up. No semester's end in college was complete without a similar trip. Everything Must Go!

I'm not positive, but I believe the last time I was library book-less happened was in early 2007 just before I moved to New York, but after I made a similar slate-cleaning at my old library in Pennsylvania. (I sort of miss that place!) Truly, a triumph of organization and disciplined errand-doing! Now, how am I going to wrangle all these book donations in by tomorrow? 
Need an incentive to pre-order an author's book instead of waiting till it comes out? Author Jason Mulgrew breaks down why pre-orders are important, coincidentally a few short months before his second memoir 236 POUNDS OF CLASS VICE PRESIDENT comes out. (Amazing title. I should get on that.)

17 December 2012

The shades of Dickens

This weekend I went to Housing Works' third annual reading of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I haven't been to the play in years, but since Housing Works started doing this three years ago, I find it a welcome substitute.

I wasn't able to arrive until midway through the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Present, but I felt lucky to see Mike Albo act out one of the people who came to loot Scrooge's belongings and put names to faces with two authors whose work I have recently enjoyed, David Goodwillie and Teddy Wayne. Simon Van Booy was the closer (with bonus appropriate accent -- he grew up in Wales after all) and said a few very nice things at the end tying the message of the book to the help that Housing Works is able to give, through donations, to people who are homeless and HIV-positive. (Next year, guys, use that opportunity to pass around a festive hat! Free idea.)

But I don't think I was the only one to find particularly evocative the stretch of "The Last Of The Spirits" in which the Cratchits mourn Tiny Tim together, as read sensitively by Times drinking columnist Rosie Schaap. Prepare to be boarded by feelings:

The mother laid her work upon the table, and put her hand up to her face.
"The colour hurts my eyes," she said.
The colour? Ah, poor Tiny Tim.
"They're better now again," said Cratchit's wife. "It makes them weak by candle-light; and I wouldn't show weak eyes to your father when he comes home, for the world. It must be near his time."
"Past it rather," Peter answered, shutting up his book. "But I think he's walked a little slower than he used, these few last evenings, mother."
They were very quiet again. At last she said, and in a steady, cheerful voice, that only faltered once:
"I have known him walk with -- I have known him walk with Tiny Tim upon his shoulder, very fast indeed."
"And so have I," cried Peter. "Often."
"And so have I," exclaimed another. So had all.
"But he was very light to carry," she resumed, intent upon her work, "and his father loved him so, that it was no trouble -- no trouble. And there is your father at the door!"
She hurried out to meet him; and little Bob in his comforter -- he had need of it, poor fellow -- came in. His tea was ready for him on the hob, and they all tried who should help him to it most. Then the two young Cratchits got upon his knees and laid, each child a little cheek, against his face, as if they said, "Don't mind it, father. Don't be grieved."
Bob was very cheerful with them, and spoke pleasantly to all the family. He looked at the work upon the table, and praised the industry and speed of Mrs Cratchit and the girls. They would be done long before Sunday, he said.
"Sunday. You went to-day, then, Robert?" said his wife.
"Yes, my dear," returned Bob. "I wish you could have gone. It would have done you good to see how green a place it is. But you'll see it often. I promised him that I would walk there on a Sunday. My little, little child!" cried Bob. "My little child!"

13 December 2012

Time for a stretch goal!

A group I am involved in at work is starting an associated book club. Their goal is to read three books a year. I also joined a second book club at work, this one for my specific department, and its goal is to read four books a year.

You don't want to work here

Before yesterday Dalkey Archive Press was known as a well-regarded small press specializing in translations.

Today it is known as the issuer of one of the most insane job postings of all time. Apparently to work at Dalkey, one must have no life and no soul. Click for full insanity or enjoy these excerpts:

  • "The Press is looking for promising candidates with an appropriate background who... do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.)"
  • "Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above."
  • "Office Manager [duties include]... doing all and everything that will make work for others easier."
  • "Assume that you will be one of the unpaid interns until you are ready to take on all the responsibilities of a position."
  • "We certainly seek people with relevant experience, but just as important or more so, we seek people who know what a job is."

Also, would you trust someone who works at your press and doesn't write? just curious.

12 December 2012

Holiday book shopping tip!

Don't give someone a book that you already gave him just six months ago, which you only discover at the shipping stage.

Brought to you by Housing Works Books and Yes-I-caught-it-just-in-time-thank-you-6-pound-8-ounce-baby-Jesus. 

NYC: CHRISTMAS CAROL marathon on Saturday

All I want for Christmas is to spend an arbitrarily long time looking at this GIF. So magical!

11 December 2012

As Eva Longoria supersedes Karl Rove as a power player, Republicans act as shellshocked as the Southern gentry overrun by Yankee carpetbaggers in GONE WITH THE WIND.
--Maureen Dowd, who has been kind of uneven this year but finally produced that cacklingly good editorial on the election some of us have been waiting for.
    We were very tired, we were very merry—
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
    It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
    But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
    We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
    And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.
    We were very tired, we were very merry—
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
    And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
    From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
    And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
    And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.    
    We were very tired, we were very merry,
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
    We hailed "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
    And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
    And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and pears,
    And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

--Edna St Vincent Millay, "Recuerdo"

10 December 2012

On small good fortune

As someone who knows a few of the people affected, I find it amazing how much attention the Random House bonuses-for-everyone announcement is getting. This is in New York, where we have bankers! Bankers who would probably cry if they opened up a $5000 check at Christmas!

I think everyone's getting worked up about it because the announcement was so public. We know bankers get obscene bonuses, but we don't always find out how obscene. For all we know, Random House has been giving out comparable amounts all along -- we just didn't know about it. (Far more awkward it is when your company makes a big show of canceling its holiday party, in some kind of weird recession concession. It happened to me! I was laid off about 3 months later.)

I feel sorriest for the person I know who left RH earlier this year and now has to endure the gloating of her ex-coworkers, but she is much happier overall. It is useful for us to all take her example and be less Scroogey about it. Also, imagine all the FIFTY SHADES jokes those people have endured. Maybe they should have called it hazard pay.

08 December 2012

Open-source entertainment

"Inman’s 'gripe' comics take ideas that are already being expressed by certain constituencies around the Internet and simply put them in comic form. For example, many people get irked by the incorrect use of grammar and spelling, so he writes explanatory comics on this subject to attract that traffic. Inman has admitted in multiple interviews that spelling and grammar are not actually interests of his, but the comics get traffic (and sell a lot of posters to schools, ads for which appear at the bottom of each of those comics), and he works with an editor to correct his own use of language in those comics." 

-- I don't want to wade too far into this bizarre profile/ attack on Matthew Inman, who draws the web comic The Oatmeal, but I kind of love that writing about spelling and grammar is considered one of his fiendish tactics to grow readership. (His response, including what would happen if they put a comment board next to the Mona Lisa, is also worth reading.)

07 December 2012

The Morrissey theory

The Morrissey theory holds that when a person is sad, she or he should indulge in other sad things to make her or himself feel better.

I had a bummer day, so here's a picture of the sign going down at one of my old favorite bookstores, Harry W. Schwartz in Milwaukee.

Maybe I should have stuck to reading Lena Dunham's leaked book proposal. (Possibly contrary opinion: It's terrific!)

Photo: czelticgirl

06 December 2012

Got a library card?

Allow me to ruin your day with this Times report on bedbugs in library books. "Fewer than 10" cases in my home library system, the NY Public Library, is still more than zero...

05 December 2012

November Unbookening: Not impressed edition

Bought: 4 books (2 Kindle, 2 at The Chatham Bookseller)
Checked out: 11
Received to review: 5
20 in

Donated: 14
Returned to library: 7
Gave away: 2

As the prospect of my moving soon looks more and more likely, this is not so stellar. Wouldn't even call it a silver-medal performance, actually.

03 December 2012

First bookstore with its own beer line?

Portland's Rogue Brewery has come out with a MOBY DICK-themed pale ale in partnership with Powell's:

"Michael and Emily Powell took pages from a copy of the book and, along with Rogue Brewmaster John Maier, placed them into the brew kettle."

I have been on three brewery tours in my life, and none of them prepared me to answer how this could work. But I might have to order it online to do a taste test... A Baltimore brewery, not to be outdone, is rolling ahead with Edgar Allen Poe-themed beers, even though the author's drinking problem makes that a little, pun intended, distasteful.

30 November 2012

The New York Times has released its list of the 10 best books of the year. I have read 3 of 10 (ironically, I did read a biography of Joseph P. Kennedy this year, just not this one) and agree with 2 of those 3. How did you do? 

Winston Churchill

is believed to be the recipient of the first piece of correspondence using the abbreviation "OMG." I'm sure you can imagine my reaction to this piece of history.

29 November 2012

Feels like capitulation: Film publication admits "authors were behind some of 2012’s biggest stories"

The Hollywood Reporter hasn't done this before, but its list of "Hollywood's Most Powerful Authors" gives a lot to chew on. First of all, that bestselling authors can and do power movies, and may no longer be content to just hand off the rights and retreat. (Well, if they aren't already public figures.) 

Conveniently, #1 Stephen King just announced that he is developing a project based on his recent and well-regarded novel UNDER THE DOME. Despite all the hubbub around HBO's adaptation frenzy, only one of these has a currently running series on the channel (#14).  #20 can lay claim to having the only balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and if this list had been done a decade ago #24 would be in the top 10, no question. (It's okay John -- you can get it back!) 

In comments that have nothing to do with power: 
  • I would like the dress Gillian Flynn is wearing in the shot taken with Reese Witherspoon. 
  • Michael Lewis is married to former VJ Tabitha Soren -- insert thinkpiece about how they are the ultimate 80s couple here! 
  • EL James looks just like a neighbor in Wisconsin whose kids I used to babysit.

Let's go buy furniture

I don't want a lot for Christmas, there is just one thing I need... (via exp.lore.com, information regarding purchase available on atelier010.nl)

28 November 2012

Stereotypes save time

Spotted on the shelf at my local New York Public Library. I realize this cover's supposed to shock, but even to this Northerner I feel that it's a little needlessly inflammatory. (Not to mention, we also have Christians up here. And hot ladies. Heck, and sawed-off shotguns and elephants also.)

27 November 2012

Libraries and the kids these days

Library of the Chathams, Chatham, NJ

26 November 2012

Loot and New Jersey

I Black Friday-ed this year, I pray you pardon me. The scene of the crime was the Chatham Bookseller in Madison, New Jersey, a really stellar crammed shop with a $3 paperback fiction shelf that's better than yours. From there I picked up a copy of Richard Russo's BRIDGE OF SIGHS and Iris Murdoch's THE SEA, THE SEA. I almost bit the bullet on a John Updike collection of criticism just because of its amazing cover (holy shorts tan!) but then remembered I was supposed to be buying presents for other people.

There were a lot of Richard Ford books around, which didn't strike me as weird the more I thought about it.

Later we went to a nearby comics store where I didn't buy anything but ogled Arne Bellsdorf's graphic novel BABY'S IN BLACK about the early years of the Beatles, and the giant box containing Chris Ware's BUILDING STORIES. What I hear about Comics These Days is that nobody particularly likes The New 52 and Green Lantern has been unfairly maligned by its terrible 2011 adaptation.

On the train back to New York I read part of Daniel Wolff's THE FIGHT FOR HOME, about rebuilding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I picked this up at the library after reading an op-ed the author wrote about Hurricane Sandy and Asbury Park, and was originally looking for his book about that city, but now there's some common ground (sadly) between them.

22 November 2012

Reading on the Road: I shall never be sorry I was left over in Camden

I'm off to New Jersey for the day Thanksgiving and a few more days after. I never thought I would be relieved not to be flying for this holiday, but I should have less trouble getting this pie I'm bringing onto the train. (Chocolate bourbon pecan, from Sweet Melissa in Brooklyn.)

I'm taking Daniel J. Wolff's THE FIGHT FOR HOME: HOW (PARTS OF) NEW ORLEANS CAME BACK, a shameless pander to the interests of my hosts -- but I may just binge on back issues of the New Yorker for the rest of the week. Thankful for those.

21 November 2012


USA Today pop culture blogger* Whitney Matheson lives in New York somewhere**, and today the adaptation of Mark Helprin's WINTER'S TALE is shooting outside her house. Look, fake snow! (credit: Matheson on Twitter)

The film stars Colin Farrell as the criminal Peter Lake (LOLOLOL), Jessica Brown Findlay (from that abbey show) as Beverly with whom he falls in love, and Russell Crowe as Javert the gangster chasing Peter.

*and credit to her parent organization 
**I would guess the Village, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens. They had been shooting in downtown Manhattan but were delayed or had to reschedule because of the hurricane. 

20 November 2012

The Four-Hour Tiny Violin Symphony

Movement 1: Allegretto, "Help! My book isn't doing as well as it should because the stores that compete with my publisher are acting competitively and refusing to sell it!"
Movement 2: Andante to Scherzo, "Sure, people could special-order the book, or buy it and return it. But I should get more attention that I'm not getting! Me! I have a new book!"
Movement 3: Waltz, "It's not fair, I am being banned just like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and ANIMAL FARM. Also, I have never used hyperbole before and we have always been at war with Eastasia. See, that's a reference you won't get if you refuse to sell my book!"
Movement 4: Allegro, "It's going to be totally awesome anyway and I'm going to sell a ton of books! I will not be ignored! Wait till you get my rabbit stew recipe, which is only in my book! Did I mention I have a book out?"

Secret Proust

Last night I found out my volunteer co-coordinator (who I see practically every week, September-May) is in a Proust book club. And they're almost done! They started IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME about two years ago and they're going to finish by the end of the year. I think he's the first non-professor I know who will have read the whole thing. And! When he mentioned it, it was like "Oh, my book club," not "Have you read Proust? Because I've practically read the whole monkey-fighting thing."

I wanted to take this opportunity to invite you to tell me if you have also been in a secret Proust book club. Just because it would make me happy.

19 November 2012

I left the house: Bill Roorbach at KGB

Last night I went to see Bill Roorbach read from his new novel LIFE AMONG GIANTS.

If John Irving rewrote THE ART OF FIELDING, you'd get something like LIFE AMONG GIANTS -- a coming-of-age story backed with extremely messed-up rich people into whose problems the comer-of-age is drawn. In the novel that part is played by David "Lizard" Hochmeyer, an uncannily tall 17-year-old who becomes obsessed with his famous neighbors in tony Westport, Connecticut in the year that his parents are murdered in front of him. The murders derail Lizard, bound for Princeton on a football scholarship and striving to be the dutiful son in his older sister's absence, and change the course of his life.

Roorbach read part of the book's opening, in which Lizard goes over to his neighbor's after the man of the house has been killed (under murky circumstances, of course), ostensibly to help out with chores but really out of curiosity. He joked that he was censoring it on the fly for the benefit of his daughters, who were manning the sales table at the front of the room next to him and whom he had sent to "Annie" while he was having meetings in the city. Unfortunately, this meant the reading was somewhat start-and-stop as the author skipped around in the opening chapter.

LIFE AMONG GIANTS is Roorbach's eighth book but has already gotten more attention that the author said he was used to. He described a meeting with a TV agent who asked him, perplexingly, what the "takeaway" for viewers would be at the end of the first season. I doubt I could answer this question for shows I watch, let alone a series that doesn't exist yet. (For what it's worth: Because the book takes place in 3 different eras -- Lizard's high school years, everything that happened before, and decades later when he moves back to Westport as an adult -- I would do 3 seasons, present, past and present-narrative, which wraps up the unanswered questions of both. But I don't have HBO, so what do I know?)

A poet opened for him doing Americana-style works (the open road! Gettysburg! Hot ladies in the desert!) accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Less said the better about that.

18 November 2012

There has been a terrible mistake

"Nearby was an iPhone he had bought recently. 'Why?' he said. 'Because I’m free. Every morning I study a chapter in IPHONE FOR DUMMIES, and now I’m proficient. I haven’t read a word for two months. I pull this thing out and play with it.'

"Then he corrected himself: 'I haven’t read during the day. At night I read. I read for two hours. I just finished a marvelous book by Louise Erdrich, THE ROUND HOUSE. But mostly I read 20th-century history and biography. I lived then. I was either a child or at school or at work. It’s time I caught up.'"

16 November 2012

Now who is "The Nominee"?

The Wall Street Journal managed to coax "Marina," the ex-wife of Benjamin Anastas in his memoir TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, to respond after publishing a Q&A with Anastas. Not surprisingly, she takes issue with the way she is presented. EDIT: Not to be outdone, someone on Goodreads has a theory about The Nominee, the man who (spoiler?) "Marina" left Anastas to be with in the memoir.

If you've read the memoir, here is an essay she wrote about the divorce and here is another that you might like to read.

15 November 2012

What was your first job in New York?  
Cutting out pages of David Mamet's Oleanna from a book and scotch-taping them to blank printer paper for St. Martin's.  

-John Hodgman in NY Magazine

Congratulations to the 2012 National Book Award winners

In a slight upset, Louise Erdrich took this year's fiction prize for her novel THE ROUND HOUSE, while the New Yorker's Katherine Boo pulled off a well-deserved win in nonfiction for her tale of poverty in Mumbai BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS. William Alexander received the YA prize for his book GOBLIN SECRETS (YA books have the coolest titles) and David Ferry's book BEWILDERMENT was honored in the poetry category.

Did any of you actually go to the ceremony? I was surprised to see several of my Twitter friends were attending; I thought it was the kind of event you couldn't just go to. Well, there's always next year.

14 November 2012

The more things change...

P.J. O'Rourke is the honored author of one of the few books my parents would not allow us to read as kids, MODERN MANNERS. Now I'm a putative adult and I do what I want, which is why I read this book in a flurry the weekend before the 2012 presidential election. It was worth it, and I don't think I got any more corrupted from it.

The book is a loose collection of essays examining different aspects of the federal government, from the president to military spending, written and published around the time of the 1988 election. (Yes, there is a random Joe Biden mention, thank goodness.) O'Rourke re-balances the federal budget, sits in on a session of Congress and analyzes the workload of the Supreme Court, as well as joining the reporter "pool" during the 1988 election to cover the people covering the candidates. (O'Rourke's biography in the back of my edition, which bears this cover at left, lists him at the time as a correspondent for Rolling Stone -- still a surprisingly rich source of political reporting and analysis -- so I'm assuming some of this book began life in its pages.)

I knew from his odd appearances on Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me that O'Rourke leans conservative, so he naturally approaches the government with suspicion, even the parts that conservatives have traditionally held up. In the last essay, he moves from national to local level and describes sitting through a city function in his New England hometown and feeling himself bubbling over with rage as the deliberations stretched on without end or point. But he doesn't hate it completely; he shows a lot of respect to the congressperson who lets O'Rourke shadow him for a day (and some restraint in withholding his name), and stands duly impressed in front of a military installation.

His anger at government as an organism is one I think even people on my side of the political spectrum might have felt at one time. To paraphrase Avril Lavigne: why did our nation, framers and elected representatives have to go and make things so complicated? One layer below the eighth-grade-U.S.-history "three branches"  explanation of government and the head swims. (This week, for instance, we learned about the part of the CIA that might read your emails in case you are highly classified, yet suspected of a security breach, and guess from that what kind of breach you have committed, of which there are many. Did I make that explanation dry enough? Cool.) I thought most of O'Rourke's non-governmental vitriol was misplaced, but there were moments when I agreed with him -- a good frame of mind to enter at the end of the election cycle after all.

13 November 2012

Polling the audience

Does anyone really believe Philip Roth is quitting writing, as he is quoted as telling a French magazine last month? Maybe I'm just overly optimistic or suspicious of a translation error (here's the original article, for you French speakers), but I'm not prepared to accept his resignation yet.

He also says in that interview that he hasn't wanted to write in 10 years, and look how that turned out.

12 November 2012

Book makes peace; news at 10

After writing about his feud with John LeCarre in his memoir JOSEPH ANTON, Salman Rushdie and the TINKER TAILOR author have finally made up.
all this time
The sun never says to the earth,

"You owe


11 November 2012

A book blogger was fired from the magazine Commentary after writing a post arguing the conservative case for gay marriage. (My favorite part of that post is its title, "GOP Can't Be The Party Of Old White Men," proving that at least that old white man is self-aware.) Yet his editor says the timing was just a coincidence. Hmmm...

09 November 2012

Instead, I choose vodka and Chaka Khan

2013 will see the publication of the first Bridget Jones novel in 13 years, author Helen Fielding confirmed yesterday. There is also a 3rd movie and a musical in the works around the fictional godmother of chick lit (for better or for worse).

Who can find an insane conspiracy theory tying this to the 2012 U.S. presidential election? Wait, I can! Just as the success of the big-screen "Sex and the City" and "Bridesmaids" made marketers mysteriously wake up and discover that women watch movies, so this election was a watershed moment for political analysts who discovered that not only do women vote, but that they are a bloc not to be ignored as incumbent Barack Obama enjoyed an 11 percent advantage among women over opponent Mitt Romney. (This edge also showed up in more local elections, such as the Missouri Senate race in which women helped Claire McCaskill shut that whole Todd Akin thing down.)

The Obama-Romney gap was even more pronounced among unmarried women in which the President held down a 67-31 margin and close to it in key swing states Ohio and Wisconsin, an advantage Rolling Stone linked to the GOP "agenda to limit access to not only abortion but birth control." It's not only single women using birth control, but the Affordable Care Act's provision forcing insurers to cover contraception at no cost went into effect in August and may have been a decisive factor in these women's votes. Keep in mind, it's only been 40 years since the Supreme Court made it illegal to prohibit birth control sale to single Americans. Her preoccupation with her weight and endless fumbling may make her a bit of a caricature, but the single Bridget Jones is more relevant than ever to American women.

 ((mic drop))

08 November 2012

On children

Last night I read from this book to my 3rd roommate, who moved in in September directly from the hospital where she was born.

Chalk it up to the combination of New York real estate craziness and ex-roommate PTSD that when my current roommates told me they were going to have a baby, I didn't immediately start making plans to move out. We don't belong to a commune or anything, and they told me they understood whatever I chose. My reasons for staying were complex, and I looked into breaking my lease; but I think the tipping point occurred with a desperate email to my dad about what-if-the-crying-never-stops-and-I-go-crazy. He wrote back: "Babies are not like that!"

It's true. The baby in question is 6 weeks old now, born with extraordinary timeliness exactly on due date. (The night before, I came home to an empty house and my first thought was, "They must have gone out to dinner." Nope.) I bought a 20-pack of earplugs and got used to the hushed astronaut feeling they give me. In general, having a baby around that you aren't the primary caregiver for is pretty great if you like kids but don't plan to have your own for a while. It has been instructive, but not that much of an interruption -- for me. (Her parents feel quite differently.)

I'll keep an eye on her sometimes so her parents can take a shower or do some dishes. After Hurricane Sandy, when my office lost power for a week, I worked from the couch with her sleeping on the Boppy pillow next to me. She can't really smile yet but she looks around with a very adult-looking furrowed brow, as if taking stock of all of us.

One night I was attempting to entertain her in her swing and thought I would read her a book, but none of her books were out, so I gave her about a page and a half of James Wood's essay about Richard Yates from his new book THE FUN STUFF -- editing around the cursing veteran from the short story he was quoting. (Not that I haven't sworn in front of her before; I have plenty, but I'm hoping she'll forget.) I thought she seemed absorbed, because you can more or less project any emotion you want on a non-crying baby. 

Last night's choice, a slow and moving novel about an Ohio teenager who disappears on her way to her summer job, was perhaps not the most appropriate. I was on edge in case the teen in question would turn up in those few pages and something grisly would come up (more to her parents' point than hers I suppose). But as I read a passage to her about the girl's friends reuniting at a high school football game over Thanksgiving, I speculated about what she would be like when she grew up, how she would learn about that time when she was born and there was a hurricane and an election in the span of two weeks. How she slept and how she woke up again. I stopped reading when her mother came back in and said, "She's looking right at you."

07 November 2012

He's got 538 problems, but...

Nate Silver took some time off scoring the election tonight to mention that he has a new book out. I wanted to read it any way, but I feel additionally incentivized.

Via Peter W. Knox

06 November 2012

Happy Election Day!

What's your favorite voting-related Constitutional amendment? I'm going with lucky #19 as I exercise the franchise this morning at the school around the corner from my apartment.

05 November 2012

"I... am... a writer."

Michael Chabon's WONDER BOYS is on sale for Kindle for $1.99 today in case you like academic satire, capers, Old Hollywood or stories about really long books.

Word of the day: loins

a : the upper and lower abdominal regions and the region about the hips
b (1) : the pubic region (2) : the reproductive organs 
(source: Merriam-Webster

From a CNN pool report, Friday

David Axelrod described the message coming from President Barack Obama days before Election Day as "coming from his loins."
"I've never seen him more exhilarated than he is right now. He believes in what he's doing. He believes in what he's fighting for," Axelrod told reporters Friday after the president's event in Lima, Ohio. "You can see in the speech that he's delivering that this is coming from his loins."
"I just wanted to say loins," the president's senior adviser added with a smirk. "I wanted to see if I can get loins in the story."
Axelrod forever.

03 November 2012

This was the book I was going to take to Staten Island to read in the hours before the New York City marathon. (I got it for free with some other galleys... don't judge.) I thought something light with the potential for name-dropping would work a good spell on my nerves surrounding this event, my first marathon, after a nerve-rattling week.

I think it's jinxed now that the marathon has been canceled so I've buried it in the back of the closet.

02 November 2012

PW's Best Books of the Year 2012

Too soon. (Kidding, but I swear, this list comes earlier and earlier every year.) See the slideshow here, or just creep on the full list:

Chris Ware, BUILDING STORIES (graphic novel/ collection)
Hilary Mantel, BRING UP THE BODIES (fiction)
Louise Erdrich, THE ROUND HOUSE (fiction)
Lucia Perillo, HAPPINESS IS A CHEMICAL IN THE BRAIN (short fiction collection)
Victor LaValle, THE DEVIL IN SILVER (fiction, respectfully disagree)
Mark Binelli, DETROIT CITY IS THE PLACE TO BE (nonfiction)
Lisa Cohen, ALL WE KNOW: THREE LIVES (biography, now regretting not buying this when I saw it at the Strand the other day)
Richard Lloyd Parry, THE PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS (nonfiction)
Bernard Bailyn, THE BARBAROUS YEARS (nonfiction)

Lot of unfamiliar titles on this list -- which doesn't mean it's wrong, simply that I have to get cracking on my end-of-year reading. What do you think? Have you read any of these?
I'm a huge fan of whoever created this Eli Cash listing on Goodreads.

01 November 2012

Hurricane Sandy damage to Powerhouse Books (Brooklyn, NY)

Powerhouse sits in a low-lying area of Brooklyn near the water, but thousands of its books were destroyed when the flooding went above the predicted line.

They're holding a book fair on Nov. 17 outside the store (37 Main St.) to raise money to rebuild. Hope you can make it.

Source: mrmullin

October Unbookening

Received 10 for review
Checked out 5 from the library
Bought 4 (2 Kindle, 2 from After-words in Chicago)

Returned 8 to library
Donated 11 

For further reading: 

I enjoyed Kristopher Jansma's Literary Artifacts: The Bibliophiles Move, but think he's slightly underestimating on how many books he has or moved. Jansma claims 900 volumes fitting into 50.5 feet of shelf space through "five overstuffed IKEA bookshelves" and some piles. I would guess I have 17.5 feet of books in my personal collection, one double bookshelf and stacks on stacks on stacks. But if I had to guess how many volumes, I would say 700. Anyone want to come over and count?

This is all giving me a wicked flashback to the time my parents made me count the number of books I had in my room with the goal of getting down to 150. I didn't make it, but children's paperbacks take up a lot less space than the trade paperbacks and hardcovers of adulthood. Also, where did my parents believe these books to be coming from? Space?

30 October 2012

Hunkering down

I had plenty to read during the storm last night, and I didn't read any of it. I sat numbly, watching hours of storm coverage, until my roommates insisted we put on a movie, which I half-watched while scrolling through storm photos. Because we still were lucky enough to have power and lights.

Just like last year's hurricane, it always seems like sheltering from the storm could be fun and cozy, like a snow day for adults, until the weather is bearing down and there's no way out. When there's nothing to be done. 

Thinking of everyone who lost power, their homes, their neighborhoods or their lives due to Hurricane Sandy. We are waiting for things to get back to normal, whatever that is.

29 October 2012

Random Penguin to Rampage Through Publishing

Bertelsmann and Pearson announced this morning they would merge Random House and Penguin to create a Frankenpublisher printing 25% of the world's English language books.

It's difficult to say what the new company, officially known as Penguin Random House, will mean for publishing long-term but similar to all mergers, consolidation (ie layoffs and shutdowns) is coming. The new publisher may be able to throw its weight around more when the former Big Six, now Big Five try to make decisions together -- but their track record on that account hasn't been that great already and it's unlikely this will convince them.

26 October 2012

Fans of terrible reviews of great books will enjoy Publishers Weekly's 13 Worst Reviews of Classic Books, featuring stinkers like LEAVES OF GRASS, LOLITA and OF HUMAN BONDAGE.

24 October 2012

Dear Publishers Weekly: Please consider a targeted email marketing effort.

Emphasis on targeted. I assume you are not profiting every time I forward one of these emails to someone with the appended comment, "WTF?!!???" Sincerely, I work in the Internet and it's not that difficult.

23 October 2012

Reading on the Road: Do you think about me now and then?

To be honest, I haven't been reading a lot lately; everything from late August on has been like a boulder rolling uncontrollably downhill. How out of touch am I? I recently reviewed BACK TO BLOOD and missed out on the chance to crib from James Wood and dub Tom Wolfe's third novel "hysterical racism." Woe is me! Now he'll just have to live to write another one, as I dearly hope he does.

Right now I'm in Chicago for business/ personal reasons and am having a surprisingly relaxing time because most of my errands and yanking tasks are back in New York. Anyway, the only books I brought were review books or review-related, but: what are you reading right now?

22 October 2012

Nick Hornby: "I believe in reading until you find the book that speaks to you"

On Thursday I went to see author, Oscar nominee and Believer columnist Nick Hornby speak at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. Hornby has a shaved head and the kind of unplaceable English accent that would be described by the typical American as "Well, it's not Michael Caine, but..." He was introduced and later interviewed by Believer editor Vendela Vida, who has luminous skin and delivered a hilarious deadpan address casting all of Hornby's accomplishments as annoying side jobs from his central focus on "Stuff I've Been Reading."

The program was billed as a "First Reads" event in which Hornby would read a book assigned to him (by... someone) that he had never read before and then give a talk on it. I felt a little let down upon finding out in the room that the book was going to be MRS. DALLOWAY, but I shouldn't have; Hornby delivered a fascinating talk on how his rebellion against formal literature study (starting from the moment when he decided not to read "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight") and the unsympathetic view of a biography he skimmed for a contest caused him to neglect Woolf entirely until this assignment. Hornby joked that he was surprised that so many people turned up to hear someone talking about something he knew so little about, but "that's America for you." 

Hornby contrasted Woolf's occasional patronizations with Dickens, who is now equally beloved in scholarship but whose novels were rarely reviewed in his own time. There's a moment in MRS. DALLOWAY where a man is described as "nondescript," which he sees as Woolf's opinion in a nutshell: that some people are just not worth the narrative space -- again, not an attitude Dickens would have shared. But he praised Woolf's beautiful structure and the way the consciousness of MRS. DALLOWAY flows from subject to subject.

The Believer column whose fourth collection MORE BATHS, LESS TALKING has definitely shaped Hornby's own reading tastes, beyond his occasionally picking shorter books to read (he admitted, guiltily). He said he feels less pressure now about reading the latest prizewinner just to have an opinion on it, but instead chooses to focus on "books I think I would get something out of." He also acknowledged (without naming names) that some books' faults are the faults of the reader, for not giving them proper attention. Hornby also spoke briefly about his current adaptation projects, Colm Toibin's BROOKLYN and Cheryl Strayed's WILD (I know, right??) as well as his struggles adapting to an e-reader, which he said he can only use while traveling for convenience's sake.

19 October 2012

"To not to have entirely wasted one's life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself."
--Charles Bukowski

18 October 2012

Parenthetical of the day

"(By the way, does it bother anyone else that there is a rather famous English novelist named Julian Barnes? They may as well have named the character Martina Amis.)"
--Accurate critique of the new ABC show "Nashville," in which one of the main characters is a Taylor Swiftian pop star named Juliette Barnes, by Max Weiss for Vulture. I assume Martina Amis is the name of that ingenue waitress whose boyfriend got so angry at her for being great. Don't keep Martina down, world!

17 October 2012

To no one's surprise, Hilary Mantel picked up her second Man Booker prize yesterday for WOLF HALL sequel BRINGING UP THE BODIES. Now I hear there's going to be a 3rd book? Feeling a little Caro'd here!

Filmbook-to-Be: Ready for his close-up, Mr. Mitchell

The L.A. Times has a great profile today of David Mitchell and the high visibility he is enjoying in the light of "Cloud Atlas"' adaptation. Mitchell says he "didn't really think about it" when the book got optioned but has since seen and liked the movie -- he even appears in it. "Cloud Atlas" opens Oct. 26 and I am currently failing to convince anyone to go to a midnight screening with me and have their minds blown way open.

16 October 2012

Word of the Day: Woolgathering

(n) Indulgence in idle daydreaming. First used in 1553. I can tell you're woolgathering at your desk because you still have the webinar window open even though it ended an hour ago. 

15 October 2012

For Elizabeth

Coming soon to a bookshelf near you:
"Iowa grad Mary O'Connell's first adult novel, IN THE RYE, wherein Holden Caulfield steps out of the pages of the The Catcher in the Rye and into the life of a high school senior searching Manhattan for her missing American lit teacher who has always regarded Salinger's classic novel as a book of revelations and a roadmap of sorts, to Amy Einhorn at Amy Einhorn Books, in a pre-empt, by Lisa Bankoff at ICM (world)."
I assume this will solve what happened to the English teacher we studied CATCHER IN THE RYE under, who held a similar worldview and who afterward taught no more at our high school.

This is now a literary comics blog, apparently

This T-shirt is quite good but having "A fellow of infinite gifs" listed under it is better. Kate Beaton, $18.50.
Source: NY Times

12 October 2012

"Today it’s hard to fathom that anyone would think a political novel might be an election game-changer. But 1958 was a different time. Major novelists were celebrities, best sellers could be cultural events and Steinbeck himself had credibility as a moral authority. The Stevenson camp was trying to use an unorthodox media strategy to attack the man they saw as their greatest foe, just as politicians today use social media to bypass traditional gatekeepers and influence public opinion. The question was, would Steinbeck agree?"

This tale of a (spoiler) never-written Steinbeck Nixon attack novel is splendid. I'll definitely take a print copy with me when I jump in my time machine to head back to 1958. I'll have time to make that happen when not chatting up Peggy Olsen in the Sterling Cooper secretary pool.

NYC: Emma Straub and Amy Sohn in Brooklyn tomorrow

I hate giving away my secrets, but... the Brooklyn Public Library does readings on Saturdays and Sunday afternoons and they get huge names for (relatively) little hassle and the low, low cost of free.

This Saturday's is Amy Sohn and Emma Straub, at 4PM at the Central Branch (Grand Army Plaza). They're part of a "Writers In The City" series including Martin Amis (Nov. 3) and A.M. Homes (Dec. 1).

11 October 2012

Bob Dylan is super disappointed in you

Congratulations to Chinese author Mo Yan, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mo Yan, the pen name for Guan Moye, is a former member of the People's Liberation Army and writes like Faulkner mixed with Gabriel Garcia Marquez according to Granta. No word yet on how China, which has been unilaterally boycotting the Nobel Peace Prize after it was awarded to a Chinese dissident in 2010, will react to this announcement. (I'm guessing... not well.)

10 October 2012

"Does the bodyguard..."

Catching up on old New Yorker fiction podcasts, a weird synchronicity appears: from August 2011, Salman Rushdie reads Donald Barthelme's short story "Concerning The Bodyguard," which must have had more than a passing resemblance to his years in hiding.

The other NBA

Your nominees for the 2012 National Book Award:

In fiction:
Dave Eggers, A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (reviewed here)
Louise Erdrich, THE ROUND HOUSE
Ben Fountain, BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK (reviewed here)

In nonfiction:
Anne Applebaum, IRON CURTAIN
Domingo Martinez, THE BOY KINGS OF TEXAS
Anthony Shadid, HOUSE OF STONE

Check out the poetry and YA finalists here.

Hoping for a big win for Katharine Boo, whose BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS is so fascinating and incredibly reported. I don't really have a rooting interest in fiction; I would like Eggers not to take it, for reasons we can discuss, but my review is a good starting point. BILLY LYNN I liked with reservations, and I haven't read the others yet.

09 October 2012

Hit me!

I think I might go as this picture for Halloween. Source: fuckyeahallhallowseve

Salman Rushdie at the New Yorker Festival: "There is no right not to be offended."

The first time Salman Rushdie came to New York after February 14, 1989, when Iran announced it had laid a fatwa on him, he barely saw the city at all. He was rushed from the airport in an armored limo in a motorcade to Columbia University and whisked offstage during his own applause to be taken back. His trip to the SVA Theater on Sunday to talk with New Yorker editor David Remnick about his years in captivity was undoubtedly less complex -- maybe he took a cab, maybe he even walked -- but as he stepped up to the podium a hush fell over the crowd greater than an ordinary reading.

Rushdie is currently on book tour supporting his first memoir JOSEPH ANTON, about his years in hiding (and named for the Conrad + Chekhov code name the British secret police used for him). I finished JOSEPH ANTON right before the event (no, seriously, I was waiting in line at the auditorium with about 10 pages remaining) and, at the risk of sounding like a philistine, it was one of my great surprises of the year. The description of Rushdie's years under the fatwa, how he was a virtual prisoner under state protection forced to find safe houses at his own expense is horrifying -- but also absurd, occasionally bitchy (at last, a chance to settle scores against writers who didn't support him then!) and funny. Rushdie is issued a wig so that he can go out, only to hear someone call out "Look, it's that bastard Rushdie in a wig!" and retreat. When he's allowed to look for a permanent safe house, that location is never "blown," and the only shooting occurs when a policeman's gun accidentally goes off while cleaning. He travels to Australia and New Zealand to spend an off-the-map Christmas, only to practically kill himself and his girlfriend and son in a car crash -- after which the ambulance driver asks for his autograph.

It is easy to have a sense of humor about these events because Rushdie's life is no longer in danger from the official government fatwa (although there are still people out there who want to kill him). The book goes into this bizarre coda after Rushdie becomes officially "free" of protection in Britain, a time in which he continued to publish novels but also left his wife (who had been his girlfriend for most of the  for Padma Lakshmi, moved to New York and then Los Angeles to be with her and was ultimately left by her. Rushdie told Remnick that his biggest regret was signing a conciliatory statement drafted by British Muslim leaders in the early days of the fatwa and believing (wrongly) that if he just sat down with his enemies, they would see that he meant no offense. He may also come to regret the extended passage in which he compares Lakshmi's lover after him to Scrooge McDuck. None of these decisions would have been possible, it is suggested, while Rushdie's life was still in danger; but maybe freedom contains its own noxious consequences.

The furor over THE SATANIC VERSES may have officially died down, but clearly in Rushdie's life it will never end. After the author was prevented from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival in India due to threats against his life, a reading of passages from the book (which is still banned in India -- where Rushdie was born) was held, and he gave an interview to the effect that it probably would not have been published today. He states this case more strongly in JOSEPH ANTON by casting his demonization as a prefiguring moment to the outbursts of violence by fundamentalist Muslims culminating in the September 11th attacks. But the frame he sees both of these events and other examples in the intervening years is, unsurprisingly, extreme. It's very strong to see an author, especially one who grew up Muslim by culture (though secular in practice), suggest that all of Islam has been contaminated by these radical fringes -- since so much time has been spent since 9/11 trying to talk people out of believing that. Rushdie, who says he decided he was an atheist when he ate a ham sandwich at boarding school and nothing happened, sees the past quarter-century cast in the rise of violent Islam and the rise in "the outrage industry -- where you define yourself by what you hate," but clearly hasn't been living in that himself.

Rushdie told Remnick he always knew he would eventually write about his years in hiding, and wanted to be the one to do it -- but waited till he was "in a calm place" to do so. These days Rushdie makes more appearances in the New York Post than in militant speeches. Yet, though he tries, I still don't have any idea how Rushdie went on writing in those years. Perhaps the captivity played a part in his actual productivity, but emotionally -- how did he do it? It is an impulse that perhaps can only be understood by people who have been in similar straits. At several points in the book, Rushdie mentions that he's far from the only writer who has experienced sanctions or death threats the way he did, but notes that up to the end elements of the British press still pushed the idea that he'd brought it on himself. That may be the most enduring shadow of all.

08 October 2012

Rona Jaffe's THE BEST OF EVERYTHING has been adapted into a play in which most of the male roles are played by cardboard stand-ins. I'm on board with everything in the previous sentence, how about you?

05 October 2012

"I personally have at least 7.8% more work today than I did yesterday." --Elif Batuman on Twitter this morning.

Great news! Elif Batuman has a debut novel out there called THE TWO LIVES that just sold to a publisher!
Less great news for us: The publisher is in the UK, with no US deal announced yet, and we won't see it until 2015.

Super-long sentences and fanboyism: Chabon and Smith at 92Y

Last night I went to see Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith read together at 92Y on the Upper East Side. I should just quit blogging and going to all reading events because it's never going to get any better than this! I'm not actually quitting but the sheer joy of seeing two of your favorite authors onstage and having them praise each other cannot be understated.

Chabon read first and Smith introduced him, praising his work for containing multitudes of voices and never losing the fan's spirit which animates his characters and is so often lost to adulthood. He read Part III of TELEGRAPH AVENUE, "A Bird of Wide Experience," a single sentence 11 pages long that follows one character's beloved parrot through Berkeley overlooking other characters in their daily routines. It was a show-stopper and judging by the laughter from the crowd, enough present had already read TELEGRAPH AVENUE to know what was in store and anticipate it appropriately.

As if planned that way, Chabon's introduction of Smith contained a list of things that bring him joy including a new Zadie Smith book (also the First Amendment, his son's Halloween costume and Wes Anderson movies). Smith read a short passage in which Natalie and her neighbors confront a teenage smoker on the playground, and a longer passage in which a character tries to break up with another, which she infused with a pathos beyond the page. She also switched seamlessly between different characters' voices and compared the London neighborhoods mentioned to places in New York (Bed-Stuy, the Upper East Side, the Bronx).

In Q&A both authors were asked if they mentally cast their own books while writing for possible future adaptation; Chabon said not usually, although he tried to put some of "The Wire"'s Wendell Pierce in TELEGRAPH AVENUE Archy Stallings (Pierce, call your agent); Smith suggested Jessica Chastain for Leah Hanwell of NW. Both authors cringed when asked to grade President Obama's performance in Wednesday's presidential debate until Chabon meekly offered, "You know when you're watching a sporting event and you're yelling at the TV, 'Hit him! Punch him'?" Describing dream projects they have yet to complete, Smith said she'd love to write a novel set in 1930s movie musicals; Chabon quipped that he'd like to rewrite MOBY DICK from the perspective of the whale.

04 October 2012

On bold, fresh starts

My paperback copy of Jonathan Franzen's debut novel THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY contains in the front matter one of my favorite absurd blurbs of all time. What's wrong with this picture?
"Franzen's tour de force (to call it a 'first novel' is to do it an injustice) is a sinister fun-house-mirror reflection of urban America in the 1980s... There's a lot of reality out there. THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY, in its larger-than-life way, is a brave and exhilarating attempt to master it." --Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
Still don't see it? Let me isolate it for you:
"To call it a 'first novel' is to do it an injustice." --Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
It is factually true that THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY was Franzen's first published novel (whether it was his first written, who even knows -- but probably not). There are pejorative things to be said about first novels that have traits we associate with them -- clumsiness in plotting, overly clever character names or traits, an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to detail. But a fact is neutral -- you can't call it unjust unless you are in a presidential debate.* Anyway, from what I can find Upchurch is still the critic at the Seattle Times lo these 24 years later, so maybe he can clarify that that's what he meant.

If that's indeed what he meant, then Upchurch is incorrect because Franzen's debut does bear some of these thumbprints of The Debut Novel as I have suggested. Packed with characters who get one scene in the spotlight and are barely mentioned again, inconsistent in timeline, it sprawls completely out of control and the ending doesn't do much to rein it in. But its biggest failure is also its biggest strength: The novel introduces a high concept and sticks to it even when introducing a thousand other things in the middle. It's a crazy concept, but it interested me enough to pull me through a crowd of largely unlikeable errors.

The conceit that Franzen is faithful to, to a fault, can be summed up like this: "What if the political conspiracy a bunch of cranky old white men think is happening in their city is real?" The city in question is St. Louis (the titular 27th city -- I assume that was its ranking in the 80s when this book was published, it's now something like 58th) and the triggering event is the appointment of a new police captain, S. Jammu, from India. Jammu's commitment to cleaning the city up is called into question by a number of successful businessmen who view her as an interloper (some of them with clear racist overtones) and who are skeptical of her popularity and determination; the book is largely told through the perspective of one of them, construction magnate Martin Probst, best known for owning the company that built the Arch. A few even posit that the coincidence of Jammu's arrival and the marriage of another of the city's leading lights to an Indian heiress is proof that there's a conspiracy to change St. Louis' direction. And guess what? There is! (I didn't spoiler-tag it because you find that out in the first 50 pages -- well ahead of poor Probst.)

This week I finally finished D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY, in which Franzen plays a minor role as DFW's friend who encouraged him to write more sincerely and less to cleverness. When they met Franzen was (I think) already 2 published books in to Wallace's 1, and appeared at least to Wallace to have more direction in his life; Max suggests that Wallace looked up to him more than he envied him, although there was probably some of both on both sides.

This charge to write moral, sincere fiction is a little funny but not outright contradictory when looking at THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY, because I did feel sympathetic toward Martin Probst -- to a point. Like Charlie Chaplin, he is caught up in this great mechanism of city politics that he doesn't understand, even though he believes he does. The soul of this book is still fairly cynical, though; having read Wallace's first novel THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM I felt more attuned to its central character Lenore's search for meaning and self-definition. (Then again, maybe I would have anyway given that Lenore's a 20something recent graduate and not a 50something captain of industry.) In any event, it seems that Franzen took his own advice.

*ZING! Guess what I spent too much time watching last night! 

03 October 2012

September Unbookening

Bought 4
Borrowed 4
Checked out 8 from library
Received to review 3
19 in

Donated 6
Gave away 2
Returned to library 9
17 out

So close! I'll make it up next month.

02 October 2012

Genius time!

Congratulations to Junot Diaz and Dinaw Mengestu on being named part of this year's crop of MacArthur Geniuses. (Secondary congratulations to Raj Chetty who is not an author, but who is a fellow survivor of my high school.)

27 September 2012

75. Evelyn Waugh, SCOOP

There's something about expecting to laugh, and not finding anything funny to laugh at, that can make a person believe nothing will ever be funny ever again. The flavor of despair permeates the whole thing. I was so primed with SCOOP to love it, and maybe later on reflection I'll be able to appreciate what it was going for -- but not now.

Satirizing the excesses of the press? I love it. A case of mistaken identity gone global, as rural columnist William Boot is sent to a troubled African country instead of novelist John Boot? On board. International incidents that may not even have been taking place, distorted by reports on the ground? You bet! But this novel felt interminable, because these gags were so visible from a thousand miles away, that they just weren't funny -- and they went over the same points over and over again, without making them more pointed or entertaining.

Yet I hate to even write that because it feels like a personal failing. Hey, I have a sense of humor! I really do! I read DECLINE AND FALL, and I remember liking that (though it was for a class, and I may be confusing its rags-to-riches-to-rags plot with that of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"). I know the difference between satire and comedy. And I would never presume from a British author the same style of humor as, say, in Fox's Tuesday night comedy lineup. (Though if William Boot had crashed a wedding and run out with a bottle of champagne, I might have laughed a little more. Not prescribing. Just saying.) But I didn't find it entertaining at all, I slogged, and that was that.

Naturally, I was prepared to bid He-velyn* goodbye forever until I looked at the Modern Library list and realized I still have one more to get through (A HANDFUL OF DUST).

Ellen vs. ML: 58 read, 42 unread

Next up: Maybe THE GRAPES OF WRATH. 

*Have you heard this one? Evelyn Waugh (m.) married a woman who was also named Evelyn, and apocryphally their friends referred to them as He-velyn and She-velyn. Hyphens are mine there. 

26 September 2012

I was looking for a book, and then I found a book

When a woman collapsed at Strand Books last week, Morrissey was there.

25 September 2012

A mysterious death, a shadowy figure, a large missing sum of money: this Broadway "Rebecca" musical may be worth more dead than alive. (Related: can anyone recommend me a book about Broadway musicals that addresses where all the investor money goes? I know a lot more about Off-Broadway, which I know distorts my viewpoint onto how it can all cost that much.)

Top 5 characters in TELEGRAPH AVENUE

5. Mr. Nostalgia
4. Valletta Moore
3. Nat Jaffe
2. Gwen Shanks
1. Cochise Jones

24 September 2012

Name that book!

My friend got this tattoo last week. I was surprised by her choice but the execution is great.

20 September 2012

Arnold Schwarzenegger releases book trailer

This video has plunged me into existential despair. Who cares about anything? It's just no use.

19 September 2012

Rodents of unusual size? I don't believe they exist.

INFINITE JEST readers might appreciate this report on the rampaging feral hamsters of China.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail; 
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners, 
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me--- 
That ever with a frolic welcome took 
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed 
Free hearts, free foreheads---you and I are old; 
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil. 
Death closes all; but something ere the end, 
Some work of noble note, may yet be done, 
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods. 
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks; 
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep 
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends. 
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
Of all the western stars, until I die. 
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down; 
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles, 
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. 
Though much is taken, much abides; and though 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are--- 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. 

--Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from "Ulysses" 

18 September 2012

Wallaceblogging: What should we call my morning

"I'm still riding on this high from the DFW biography, so hey, why don't I break out this Slate podcast on INFINITE JEST?"

"Hi, I'm Katie Roiphe..."

(I'm exaggerating, she wasn't terrible, but she clearly wasn't a fan.)