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.)