29 February 2012

It's the eating raw game that gets me.

Jon Methven at the Awl asks, What if THE HUNGER GAMES were real?

The fictional characters must be protected

The New York Post reports that the hot new book among Upper East Side moms is the BDSM romance novel E.L. James' FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, the first in a trilogy about... well, I haven't read it, but I gather sexy sex, and also there is some sex in it. Moms be readin' about sex!

But they won't print excerpts from the book (that might actually help the writer, or at least give the rest of us something to talk about) because they're a "family newspaper." Maybe they weren't a family newspaper when they printed the photo of the woman accusing the police commissioner's son of rape on the front cover and read through her text messages to determine if she was slutty enough to discount her testimony. That was, what, three weeks ago? It's a new world.

(The Daily Mail has an excerpt with a bunch of "BLEEP"s in it. But romance megablog Smart Bitches Trashy Books gave it a DNF, calling the narrator irritating.)

28 February 2012

Dear library

This book has been "in transit" since November. Where is it? Did it take a detour to Max's Kansas City to skip out on the check with Patti Smith?

Tournament of Books '12: GREEN GIRL: It's not that easy

I took an entire literature class in college on the making of modern urban literature and the idea of the flâneur, the person observing the city and him- or herself becoming part of its landscape in going about that observation. Kate Zambreno's GREEN GIRL clearly wants to hold to that tradition with its interspersed quotes from Walter Benjamin and Jean Rhys (whose GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT portrays a flâneuse like Zambreno's) and its portrayal of a woman whose job forces her to be part of that city.

The titular GREEN GIRL is Ruth, an American in London working as a perfume sprayer in a department store she has nicknamed "Horrids." Living in a small and dirty apartment, being casually hazed by the well-coiffed mean girls who run the makeup department, nurturing a crush on the one straight male coworker everyone likes, Ruth seems to lack more ambition than just a generalized feeling that things ought to be going better for her. She covets everything, but behind that longing is a desire for experience, relying on others -- more street-smart, more outgoing, taking greater risk -- to show it to her.

I wouldn't say I disliked GREEN GIRL, but it felt sort of unfinished to me. I wasn't waiting for a major plot twist, but I felt like the conceit was very tidy and self-contained and after a while began to re-tread the same territory it had covered. There's a thread about Ruth's previous life, back in the U.S., that doesn't get picked up, and another about her love of the movies -- in fact she debates whether to get the "Rosemary's Baby" haircut or the "Breathless," which as everyone knows look very similar but aren't. I grew frustrated with Ruth and her frozenness in this kind of unstable situation, not only as a foreigner trying to fit in but also as a young-ish person -- it's not clear exactly how old -- who is operating below her water level. (Actually, it was the same kind of frustration I felt reading GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT, so maybe it's just me?) The roles that Ruth tries on are derivative, even she knows that, but her story doesn't have to be.

ToB First-Round Opponent: THE MARRIAGE PLOT, which I believe will go forward in the tournament (and should).

27 February 2012

Overheard in the cafeteria

"So how's your new apartment?"
"We have a six-bedroom place."
"Six bedrooms!"
"We have a library."
"Whoa, that's so Brooklyn."

Tournament of Books '12: Shocked by LIGHTNING RODS

Nicholson Baker's latest novel HOUSE OF HOLES depicted a number of ordinary citizens with the ability to visit a sexual playground where no fantasy is out of bounds -- a sort of really dirty but (spoiler) temporary Eden. Baker's book didn't hold back in description, but suffered from a poverty of imagination beyond its premise stretching to the real-life implications of such a fanciful setup. The map was drawn but the territory didn't come to life. The bizarre corner of permissiveness explored in Helen DeWitt's isn't necessarily any more realistic than the secret territory in HOUSE OF HOLES, but its application of this scenario in a real-world context makes its narrow stripe of thought more engrossing, despite what can only be described as a thoroughly morally repellent scenario.

The novel chronicles the rise and success of the company Lightning Rods Inc., founded by a failed vacuum salesman named Joe who has a brainstorm related to one of his private fantasies and purports to 'solve' sexual harassment in the workplace. The implementation of this company's service is great for the businesses that adopt it (we are told), is good for the careers of some of Lightning Rods' employees, and makes Joe rich although not much happier.

Joe's 'solution' is, and let's not get too fancy about this, a form of company-sponsored sex work. In contracting with another business Lightning Rods hires a number of women in dual roles as assistants/secretaries and sexual partners for the company's top performers. The women are hired knowing about their sexual function (with a substantial pay increase over comparable secretarial work) but with the promise of double-blind anonymity -- that is, no one in the office will know they are "lightning rods," but they also won't know who they're having sex with.


Where to start with this minefield of a scenario? Were it not for the omniscient second-person narration telling us that this business has already succeeded (i.e. before the book has been written), the fact of its success would be hard to believe. This is DeWitt's stroke of genius, forcing us to ask "How?!" instead of exclaiming "No!", engaging with the problems of implementation in a jaunty management-advice tone. (How to choose just one problem? Well, all right, how about the fact that such a scheme is not only sexist but also heterosexist in design, assuming that the companies' top performers are straight dudes. We could have a discussion about that alone, given that the book takes place in the late '90s.)

The narrator couches Joe in these sort of feel-good business cliches about being a visionary and hiring the correct personnel (oh no kidding!), the kind that he probably internalized before starting Lightning Rods. The narration exhorts him not to give up when, as expected, nearly every company he approaches for a test run turns him away. It's creepy how real this makes it. It's Joe's fervor for his idea and the 'solution' it provides that makes it a success -- that, and a certain degree of venal human nature to be determined later.

I can't in good conscience recommend LIGHTNING RODS to most of you, because most of you have already been put off by what is often a jauntily immoral business case. (More by the immorality than the business part, I assume, but I could be wrong.) And those of you I would recommend it to, I don't want to single out, see previous. I don't want to make it some kind of audacity test, although I did find it that audacious. I lost count of how many times my jaw hit the floor while I was reading this book, and in the end, I think it accomplished what HOUSE OF HOLES couldn't: It shocked me.

ToB First-Round Opponent: Jesmyn Ward's National Book Award-winning SALVAGE THE BONES, which I liked -- but -- I would go with LIGHTNING RODS, on originality. Let's argue about this some.


25 February 2012

Seven of the 2011 "Best American" anthologies are on Kindle sale for $1.99 today. I made myself pick one and I picked... well, can you guess?

Also, these daily deals are going to ruin me.

24 February 2012

This is Neko Case's library with book wallpaper. I want to go to there. You can covet her entire house thanks to Country Living (photo credits: Bjorn Wallander) -- I'm also partial to the lavender wall and the piano in the kitchen, in case you happen to be designing a mansion for me or anything.

Filmbook: The race to Best Picture

Six of the nine nominees for this year's Best Picture at the Academy Awards are book adaptations. I don't know if that's a record, but it has to be up there, and however else I may feel about the Oscars this year (heavy sigh) I'm glad that books are still an enduring source for movie magic.

This graphic masterpiece (available for purchase for your private collection!) doesn't represent the books in the order of likeliest win, although I did put my personal favorite out in front. Come on, Alexander Payne!

23 February 2012

Harry Potter and the future of the press

J.K. Rowling plans to save literary news, book publishing, possibly the world with her forthcoming novel for adults. And everyone who doesn't work for Little, Brown is crying right now.

22 February 2012

And that's how your sausage gets made

Spoiler for the end of the New Yorker's feature on Quentin Rowan alias Q.R. Markham, the spy novel plagiarist discovered last fall: At the end he got another book deal, this time for a memoir, because people who serially fail to tell the truth should just get more money and attention thrown at them because that will totally make them go straight. To quote from the piece itself:
"One publishing executive told me that scanning every manuscript for plagiarism would be like 'vaccinating the entire population because two people had come down with some nasty disease.' Instead, publishers hope that editors and agents are well read enough to detect plagiarism, and they rely on intuition about an author’s credibility."
That intuition worked so well the first 20 times...

Filmbook: "We Need To Talk About Kevin" (2011)

Lionel Shriver's breakout novel WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is a horrifying, riveting piece of fiction. I barely put it down while I was reading it like a thriller, even though its major traumatic event has already taken place: A teenager named Kevin Khatchadourian has committed a Columbine-style killing at his high school, has been convicted and is about to be sent to an adult prison to serve out his time. His mother, Eva, from whose perspective the book is written, still lives in the same town where the killing took place, eking out a living (but hardly a life) as a travel agent after losing her business and the family home to legal bills. In letters to her husband Franklin that she believes will never get to him, Eva processes Kevin's crime and other events from his childhood.

The genius of this book is the high level of ambiguity with which it operates regarding the causes of Kevin's behavior. When I went to see Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of the book (which has been kicking around unfunded for several years now, but finally produced last year), a fellow audience member described it as "scarier than a zombie movie or a disaster movie," because those take place in a heightened reality separate from our own. Because Eva doesn't know why her son turned out the way he did -- because there may not be one empirical answer to the question of "Why?" -- it could happen to any parent.

This movie isn't perfect but I'm devoting an entire entry to it because I feel like it got short shrift in this awards season, and it may be because of the delay. School shootings, in our collective imagination, have been taking a back seat to terrorist attacks for a while, and with them went the discussions of violent video games and the indicating powers of when your teenage son starts wearing a trench coat. But Shriver's book talks about the people to whom mercy is customarily not extended and led me to question (as I'm sure Ramsay intended) how we decide who is "at fault" and who is worthy of grief in this situation. Has Eva not lost a son, in a way? She lives with the consequences of his actions and with the bullying (no better word) of other people in town who feel that her presence alone is offensive to them.

In addition, even before Kevin's violent act, Eva and Franklin's marriage was coming apart in slow motion (something explored with more depth in the book, but still present in the movie). Unprepared for Franklin's commitment to the family "appearance" and the switch from full-time work to full-time parenting, Eva shows clear signs of post-partum depression -- there's a marvelous scene in the movie in which she stands near a jackhammer so it will drown out baby Kevin's constant crying -- and lacks the support for her to get help. Seeing her as a "career-minded" woman (as one unfortunate review described her) who is a "bad mother" is a reductive conclusion. Ramsay's film brings a nuance to those feelings to the screen with the help of Tilda Swinton, as Eva, whose performance harnesses her natural perception of iciness but also her effortlessness. (The Best Actress Oscar category is such a mess this year, maybe she should have been included.)

In an interview with The Guardian that I read after seeing "We Need To Talk About Kevin," Shriver says her version of the movie would have been extremely talky because she is "enamored" of the dialogue she wrote. It's true, this is not a talky movie, but what is lost with, say, not having a voiceover is gained in composition and those marvelous images that course through it. Ramsey especially plays with the color red, which I didn't think was overkill (although some people I know who have also seen this movie thought it was). Shriver's novel is riveting, but the movie challenges in a different way: It even more strongly forces us to identify with Eva and the situation she finds herself in, because you spend so much time with her.

I came out of this movie thinking and continued to think about it for a long time after. I don't know that I would be able to watch it again.

Filmbook verdict: Read the book, then see the movie.

Here are some alternate titles I came up with: 
  • "We Need To Talk About Getting Kevin Some Therapy" 
  • "We Should Have Talked About Kevin A Long Time Ago"
  • "We Tried To Talk About Kevin, But Weren't Listening To Each Other" 
  • "A Professional Needs To Talk To Kevin" 
  • "Kevin Has An Uncanny Sense For When We Are Talking About Him"
  • "Look Who's Talking About Kevin" 
  • "It's Too Late For Us To Talk About Kevin"

21 February 2012

David Foster Wallace would have been 50 today.

20 February 2012

Troll move of the week

"Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she'd looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy."

--Jonathan Franzen, who inexplicably needs to share his opinion in the New Yorker that Wharton was not very attractive even as he says he likes her! (If you don't find this ludicrous, just replace the names with "Ernest Hemingway," "Marlon Brando" and "James Dean" respectively.) If Franzen's forthcoming book of essays is all going to be like this, I better stock up on outrage sauce.

Kind of a sad day for Douglas Brinkley, the historian who had a shot of getting the troll move of the week for describing Jodi Kantor's book about the Obamas as "chick nonfiction" in the New York Times. Because only chicks like reading about the Obamas' marriage, and there's no reason to see that as say an important part of the President's life or anything. (Fetch the sauce!)

19 February 2012

Maya Angelou Prank Show

From last night's "SNL." But if NBC thought it could save itself with this show In Real Life, it would be in production already.

17 February 2012

"I'm pretty dense. I don't understand people... I'm good at sitting in a room in a chair for hours by myself. That's my superpower. No wonder Poe drank."
-Stewart O'Nan

16 February 2012

Farewell, thou 1970 Brutalist hulk!

The New York Public Library will close its largest library, the Mid-Manhattan, and move its books into the central Fifth Avenue building that it's known for by 2014. Now, I love libraries, and I love that branch (best place to find a recent bestseller on 7-day loan!) but it is ugly and unfriendly to visitors. (Looks better outside than inside, trust me.) I have confidence any architect could do better, and Norman Foster of "the Gherkin" and Hearst Tower fame will be the man to do it.

If they could only replace the annoying bag-search stations while they're at it...

Photo: Ilya Eric Lee

Social media for authors: Play now, get to work later

Last night I went to a panel called "Getting Published and Beyond in the 21st Century," about the interaction between publishing and social media. This was one of those instances where work life overlaps with blog life -- the panel was offered as part of Social Media Week in New York, and just that morning I had been sitting in on a presentation from one of my day job clients -- and which I find strangely satisfying.

A mix of authors, publicists and literary leading lights populated the panel; the initial draw for me was Emma Straub, author and bookseller, who credited social media with the jump she just made from a small press to Riverhead with her book OTHER PEOPLE WE MARRIED, but that was before they announced that the Goodreads executive on panel would be founder/CEO Otis Chandler. I think everyone on panel gave sound advice though for writers (but not only them) just getting involved in social media. They all seem like common sense, but if you've spent any time on the Internet lately you'll notice there isn't a lot of that to spare out there: 

Find the social media you're "easy and comfortable with using," because those are the ones that will stick. That's from Amanda Pritzker, a publicist at Penguin, but others echoed that the kind of interactions that correlate to one outlet may not make the same impact on another (or, why nobody on Facebook cares about my tweets). Ron Hogan, who used to be the blog mastermind behind Galleycat and is now an independent consultant, stressed connecting all of your outlets to one central page (either a website or a blog) where you can put as much information as you want without putting it in a Facebook-sized box. Straub brought up the case of "Sugar," the anonymous-no-longer advice columnist for The Rumpus who revealed her identity last night and, coincidentally, has a memoir coming out in a month. Maybe an anonymous platform wouldn't work for most people but it sure seems to be going well for her. (It's Cheryl Strayed, by the way, and I hear her memoir is fantastic.)

Build up your social-media network before you need it for promotions. Pritzker again: "If authors don't have a platform they can market to, I can't do that for them." Hogan: "It's okay to sell Tupperware at a Tupperware party, but if it's not a Tupperware party -- don't bring your Tupperware." One of the best audience questions involved an actual hopeful author, with an agent, who wanted suggestions on how to build up his network around the subject of his book (baseball, nonfiction/history) before even getting a deal. Blogger Kristin Gdula even said "There is someone out there on the Internet who will listen to what you have to say," which is brave though possibly exaggerated.

Be genuine and don't freak out too much about saying the right thing. Because it's unavoidable this week, there was a little discussion of how convicted felon (and singer) Chris Brown responded to people on Twitter who were criticizing his role in the Grammys, then tried to delete the evidence -- and how most of us don't need "handlers" to tell us how to behave, on social media or elsewhere. The goal if you're marketing yourself is to give people something to do (Like my Facebook page! Comment here to win a giveaway of my book!) but also to establish a tone that goes with your book and your expertise that you're establishing. Straub: "The message the publisher wants you to be on is your message."

The panel was hosted by Pubslush, a startup where people can post 10 pages of their manuscripts for people to preorder them in print, with all manuscripts getting 1000 preorders automatically going into print. (So, self-publishing and Kickstarter walk into a bar...) Finally, here is a funny and somewhat germane illustration from Pantheon Books on Tumblr:

15 February 2012

Do you suffer from book blackouts?

A "book blackout" is my friend D.'s term for when you buy books that you don't remember buying or owning later on. Certainly less medically concerning than a literal blackout, a book blackout can still cause duplicates, unsatisfying ogling of in-store shelves and further impulse purchases under the rationale of "There's nothing to read in here!"

This doesn't happen to me much any more, since I've been actively trying to remember the books I already own (and not get more). But I often find that when I forget I bought a book, it's because I bought it for the Kindle. I attribute this to two factors:

1. After two-plus years of use my Kindle is close to full -- I actually got a message over the weekend that I had too little space to leave notes or highlight within the book I was reading, and had to clear out some stuff. (Don't worry, it was all stuff I had already read.) A book I haven't paged past in a while can fade into the metaphoric background -- out of sight, out of mind. And one of the reasons I have so many is...

2. You can't "save" Kindle purchases to buy later, so it's easy to one-click your way into a full device. (I also have a lot of PDFs on there, to be fair.) Clearly, the impulse-buy structure is working out really well for them, but it makes me nostalgic for the times when I would leave all the books I wanted to buy on Amazon in the "save for later" section of the cart. Oh wait... this is still that time.

Am I just spoiled by book shopping frequently enough that I have this problem in the first place? Possibly! But I think this is more a question of the limits of the human memory and the desire to "read ALL the books." And as I always maintain... there are worse faults.

14 February 2012

Work that pays the bills (or: Why do successful authors go to Hollywood?)

Buried in this examination of Michael Chabon's film work (including the forthcoming "John Carter" remake, for which he wrote the script) is an interesting contention about why, despite frustrations and failures, Chabon would have taken something like the pulpy-scifi-looking "John Carter":
It’s likely that Chabon received a hefty paycheck for most of these projects—in addition to having sold the film options for many of his books—and screenwriters can spend years before breaking through with a big movie. Perhaps in no other industry can you toil for so long, be stymied so regularly, and still earn millions, while also being considered a relative success. (Chabon has also mentioned that his screenwriting work has helped to provide health-insurance coverage for his family, which includes four children and his wife Ayelet Waldman, herself a successful novelist.)
What looks like a partial indictment or at least a you're-on-notice for the author who first became known as a novelist, and whose next novel TELEGRAPH AVENUE will be out this fall, resolves into kind of a brash truth. Screenwriters get paid for work that sells but is never made, but if your novel never goes into print, you're not going to get your full advance (and depending on your contract, may have to return all of it). And in the meantime, you're living on your day-job earnings, or your royalties from the last book, or dreams and wishes and unicorn rides, or whatnot.

Jacob Silverman's piece is hardly the first to point out that full-time writing is not a lucrative occupation, and I don't carry his concern that those projects will negatively affect his writing. But it's startling to see as successful an author as Chabon pointing out that, in this case, it actually saves him money to step away from his fiction. Here are a few interviews in which Chabon mentions the health-insurance angle, and without getting too deeply into that flawed American system, well, it's not as if he can draw on COBRA from his previous office job since that was probably 15 years ago. (And if you've never been on COBRA, what gets you is not the high cost to begin with -- it's the irregular, steep price increases designed to make you quit.)

It's easy to make light of (as I have) authors who verge into more lucrative media, who sign HBO deals that may never see the light of day or become the fifth writers on flawed screenplays (like Chabon and "Spider-Man 2"). Maybe they're irresponsible with money and possessed of delusions of grandeur, like latter-day F. Scott Fitzgeralds! (Sorry, Francis.) Or maybe they're just trying to get by, and if a two-author household like the Chabon-Waldman complex finds the most thrifty solution is to take side work -- that is still about creating things, mind -- then maybe the more relevant question is "How did we get to the point where we can't afford to keep our literary writers in business?"

Happy Valentine's Day

Here's a sexist old ad about how much more entertaining Dell paperbacks are than women. True, it is really hard to put me in an overcoat pocket because I am a person,but my laughter production is much higher! (Source: cordjefferson.)

13 February 2012

Tournament of Books '12: The view from THE CAT'S TABLE

Inadvertently I passed from the childhood memories collected in THE LAST BROTHER to a distinct, but occasionally parallel set in Michael Ondaatje's THE CAT'S TABLE. The body count is lower, the relative income is higher and the turn of events is less tragic, but some of the "didn't know then what I know now" animus is the same.

The surviving grown-up in this case is Michael, who as a young teenager was sent from his father's in Sri Lanka to live with his mother in England. On a mammoth passenger ship for three weeks by himself, Michael bunks with a late-night bridge player and sneaks into places he shouldn't with two other boys (what we would, in this century, refer to as "unaccompanied minors") who he met at "the cat's table" -- the nickname for the table in the communal dining room with the least prestige.

The book is subtly structured like a shell, and it took me a while to catch onto this; after reading the first account of Michael's voyage, including a bracing description of the night he and his friends tied themselves to the deck during a storm, I wondered what more there would be to the book; the story peaks there. Then it turns and begins to flesh out things already revealed. For example, in the next layer, we find out a few details about the post-ship lives of Michael's friends; a further turn reveals (minor spoiler) that he has married the sister of one of them, then that they were divorced. At each point it seems as though there is no more to Michael's story, and then there is more. If this shell had a center it would be reduced to a cocktail-party line like "Oh, you're from Egypt? I once took a boat through the Suez Canal when I was younger. Fascinating country."

And so it was that THE CAT'S TABLE grabbed me more and more, despite what I saw was a sometimes colorless narrator in Michael. Observing everything, he peers through events rather than standing in front of them. His lack of opinions, for example, on the major change that was taking place in his life at first bothered me, but his subtle ambivalence (mixed with a sense of adventure) is woven through the outer layers. Its unfinished nature should go without speaking, particularly since Ondaatje hints in an acknowledgment that the book is autobiographical, and undoubtedly there are more layers to his tale than have been revealed.

ToB first-round opponent: Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA! -- this one narrated by actual children in real time, but sharing the adult and/or alien environments and the journey narratives. My pick is SWAMPLANDIA! though; THE CAT'S TABLE, while more solidly constructed, never quite captivated me the same way.

10 February 2012

Kindle sale books of the month

I recommend: Jon Krakauer's EIGER DREAMS and Mary Norton's THE BORROWERS, British children's classic (don't look at me like that!) and the basis for the forthcoming Hayao Miyazaki film "The Secret World of Arrietty."
I'm buying: Nick Reding's METHLAND and Angela Lambert's 1939: THE LAST SEASON OF PEACE, because nothing goes together like Middle American drug crime and pre-WWII Britain.

09 February 2012

Watch now: "The Joy Of Books"

A Toronto bookstore comes to life in this little bit of stop-motion magic. Thanks to my coworker G for sending this (and re-sending it when I lost the link); please check out the blog she co-created, The Style Low Club.

Leave Hathaway alone!

Anne Hathaway, last seen showing off her unconvincing British accent in "One Day," held her engagement party last weekend at the Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo, and Grub Street is wrong to pick on her for it.

True, Hathaway could have gone anywhere, but here are some points in Housing Works' favor. It's in a great location and is an adorable, atmospheric old building with hardwood floors and an interior balcony. I know a non-celebrity couple who got married there and reported that for an extra fee Housing Works will put a book at each of your place settings for guests to take home. Racked.com even named it one of the best wedding venues "that don't break the bank," although having no idea how much these things cost it seems to me that $155 a person isn't exactly "budget" except here. But! Because it's a nonprofit, a portion of that fee for your wedding or other event supports Housing Works' programs for people with HIV/AIDS. If you're going to splash out the cash anyway, you might as well have it for a good cause.

Hathaway has appeared in a million of your favorite book-to-movie adaptations including "Brokeback Mountain," "Nicholas Nickelby," "The Devil Wears Prada" and "The Princess Diaries," and played Jane Austen in "Becoming Jane." She's also going to be in the new "Les Miserables" adaptation, so let's just agree to argue about that instead.

08 February 2012

A "reimagining" of all of Jane Austen's novels due out in 2014 from HarperCollins? Probably unnecessary. Curtis Sittenfeld's take on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Okay, now I'm listening.

Sinking into ...THE EMPTY BOAT

I fairly jumped up and down when I found out that Mark Salzman had written a new memoir. I have read Salzman's nerdy-teenager book LOST IN PLACE: GROWING UP ABSURD IN SUBURBIA at least 15 times (and that's a conservative estimate); I named it as one of my favorite books that make you laugh, but that doesn't cover the kind of bizarre kinship I felt with Salzman seeking the solace in cello playing and kung fu that he wasn't getting anywhere else. Not to be dramatic, but it was a book that saved me. I went on to read his most famous memoir, IRON AND SILK, as well as another (TRUE NOTEBOOKS) and two of his novels, but none of them had as much an effect on me as LOST IN PLACE.

And I can't recall that his other books called back as much to LOST IN PLACE as THE MAN IN THE EMPTY BOAT, even though they chronicle very different periods in Salzman's life. LOST IN PLACE ends with him looking ahead to college; in THE MAN IN THE EMPTY BOAT, Salzman is a father of two struggling with the latest draft of his novel, a world away from the future he might have imagined for himself. In a family crisis, he finds himself going back to his teenage years and the anxiety and doubt that seems to plague his whole family, and how they can be -- if not beaten, at least better governed.

I was riveted; I finished it in one sitting, feeling like I was catching up with an old friend. The creative strand (Salzman's wife is also in the arts, although film is her medium) added a layer to the personal story that lent it resonance beyond the specific details of his crisis. (It also made me hope that Salzman finishes his novel soon. You can do it!) If you haven't read any of Salzman's books I recommend this one as a gateway, or start with my favorite and move on to this one next.

I got an e-galley of this book through Open Road Media.

07 February 2012

Desert island quiz

If you could only bring one book with you to a desert island, would you rather bring a book you've already read and know is great, or one you've never read?

06 February 2012


Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. (Just telling you now so you still have time to rush out and get a present.) Although he tended to the verbose -- a natural output of being paid by quantity and not quality -- and he never met a character he didn't love to excess, Dickens is considered a master of Brit-lit. If you haven't already been bowled over by articles "revisiting" Dickens in his context, you will be this year. He was a devoted spouse! He never got over his dad! He was the first fighter for social justice (or was he...

Just to clarify, these disgruntled comments would not count as revisionist takes on the great man's legacy:
  • "This book might be interesting to someone chained to a palm tree on a deserted island."
  • "Dickens did not seem to know really what he wanted to do with the plot. He even made two endings!!!"
  • "I just wish I could ask the dead author some questions like Why didn't you let Pip grow the Hell up? That poor me, I'm a country peasant with no friends act got real tired real quick."
  • "This story has no meaning and Charles Dickens is going no where with this."
  • "How can those women be so cold-hearted? That's probably why Miss Havisham got burned in the first place. I bet her heart was cooled off after that."
  • "By far the worst literary blunder the world has ever excreted. I would never wish this horific [sic] mass of boredom upon anyone. Avoid this book like the black plauge [sic] (another one of Europe's tragedies)."
  • "In terms of food, it could have used a bit more seasoning, like a trip to Denmark. Of course, they didn't actually go to Denmark. If instead of being named "Magwitch" the convict had been called Bozo the Clown, and gave Pip balloon animals instead of money, I would have enjoyed the book much more."

04 February 2012

"Finn writes in the book every day, he says: lyric lines, possible song titles, diary entries, overheard conversations, grocery lists, to-do lists—his whole life goes into the notebooks. It’s like a used-auto-parts junkyard that you search until you find the part that fits the car you’re working on."

--Geoffrey Himes in Paste on singer Craig Finn's writing process.

03 February 2012

Tournament of Books '12: Looking for THE LAST BROTHER

When an adult narrator looks back on his childhood the author gets to have it both ways. The confusion of not understanding what's going on can be an operant to success, only to reveal all with a swoosh; as the child comes to understanding, so does the reader. It's all so clear now! Well, as clear as the intervening years can make it.

The old man who narrates Nathacha Appanah's THE LAST BROTHER is some 60 years away from the events he describes, but the regret he pours over them seems freshly tapped from some interior source. Raj is the last surviving son of a prison guard and a seamstress growing up in Mauritius, a solitary and dreamy child who plays and dreams unnoticed. In one of the earliest memories described, Raj witnesses a storm that will claim the life of his older and younger brothers while they were out playing -- just one of the several natural disasters overshadowing his childhood.

His loneliness lifts a little once Raj befriends a boy named David in the prison where his father works, who he meets in the hospital. Parentless and apparently bored, David doesn't even share a common language with Raj, but the boys pick up a fast friendship, in the course of which Raj sneaks David out of the prison.

It is here where adult-Raj and I wish to interject that the character David is part of a real-life thwarted migratory pattern in the early 1940s during which European Jews traveled en masse on boats to Palestine, only to be refused entry by the British colonial authority and "deported" to Mauritius. (I dispute the word "deported" on the grounds that the refugees were a. never let into the country into the first place, b. sent to another colony of the same empire and c. imprisoned on site in that colony.)The attempt to address David's religion via the Star of David around his neck is clumsy, and it seems as if Raj would understand little about that aspect of David's situation anyway; what he does understand is that his playmate is imprisoned and he wants him out.

There's something disingenuous about all this sorrow for what amounts to an accident of global displacement, and maybe that's the point: Mixed with his regret for having contributed to David's eventual death (this isn't a spoiler; it's revealed very early in the book) is a sort of secondary creeper of sorrow for forcing David to fill that void in Raj's life, without respect to what David might have been going through. Adult-Raj is aghast at his own insensitivity over this, but perhaps he could cut his younger self some slack. If he would acknowledge his own tragedy, it might go down a little easier. 

ToB first-round opponent: Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.

02 February 2012

Wonderfully funny, you say?

My friend Marjorie Hakala has an essay on The Millions right now called "Seven Reasons To Read A Dance To The Music Of Time," referring of course to Anthony Powell's classic 12-book series. (I'm so ignorant, not only have I not read this Modern Library pick, I had been saying until yesterday that it was 10 books. Sad.) I think I'm convinced! And if you don't want to take my word for it, Roger Ebert also recommended the article.

01 February 2012

WATCHMEN prequels - are you excited?

D.C. Comics announced yesterday that it was going to develop a prequel series to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel WATCHMEN, apparently without Moore's blessing. There are a few narratives to this story:
  • Moore is famously opposed to any adaptations of his work, including the 2009 movie.
  • D.C. owns the characters so he more or less has no recourse as far as that goes. (The Hollywood Reporter quotes artist Dave Gibbons as giving the series his blessing, with reservations.)
  • WATCHMEN has a cult following if not a large one, so it's inevitable that these characters weren't just going to sit in the metaphorical vault forever.
As a casual fan of WATCHMEN who didn't completely hate the movie (although a lot of things went awry there, a lot) I am actually sort of excited that there are going to be prequels -- I think there is a lot of depth and richness to the story that, if done right, could span a bunch of new works. It's a shame they couldn't do it in a way that garnered Moore's blessing, but if he was never going to give it, then how should D.C. proceed?

January Unbookening

Checked out 8 books from the library
Received 4 to review
Bought 2 (aforepictured SWEET VALLEY CONFIDENTIAL, not worth it, and yesterday's Kindle Daily Deal for THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY, probably worth it)
Borrowed 1 from a coworker (ROOM, very exciting)
Received 1 belated Christmas present (Bart Yasso's THE LONG RUN, took a detour in the mail somewhere)
16 in

Donated 6
Returned 4 to the library
10 out

I'm kind of stockpiling library books for this Tournament of Books business but I expect this will end. Right now I'm reading a library book I've been waiting months for, Lionel Shriver's WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. Without spoiling anything, those first hundred pages can really make a person give up all dreams of potential future parenthood, can't they? I'm completely riveted to it though -- I even broke my own rule and read a little while walking to work yesterday. (Don't do this if you're accident prone.)