31 January 2013

This week in Fitzgerald

In honor of the end of "30 Rock" (I don't want to discuss it), the Princeton Alumni Weekly created a yearbook page for Alec Baldwin's character Jack Donaghy, one of its famous fictional alumni.

He deserved the "Amory Blaine Handsomeness Scholarship" too.
"As long as we have these epic, improbable reading projects arrayed before us, we cannot breathe our last." -Joe Queenan

30 January 2013

Not cool, Robert Frost!

Love it or hate it, the kid's got moves.

29 January 2013

I will, my lord. I pray you pardon me.

An LA theater group is performing a version of "Hamlet" in Chicago that runs 2 hours and incorporates drinking games. I'll be right there!
"My laptop battery died after 3 hours...American does not have electrical outlets in Economy Class. And it does not have WiFi. And it does not have personal video screens, either. And I don't carry printed reading material anymore. So that left 5 hours with little to do but look out the window and try to sleep." 
--Imagine the suffering of poor Henry Blodget, First-Class Whiner, after he had to -- I can barely write the words -- fly in coach. Oh, the agony! He had nothing to do! A grown man unable to entertain himself even though he could have been prepared!

28 January 2013

One-Star Revue: Gillian Flynn, GONE GIRL

In 2012 Flynn's third novel broke through the potential genre bounding of its missing-white-female plot to become the year's second true book blockbuster, sharing space with Cheryl Strayed's memoir WILD. It may be of interest to imagine "Amazing" Amy, the disappeared spouse who kicks GONE GIRL into high gear when she vanishes, trailing along behind Strayed, but the authors of these one-star reviews from Amazon would just as soon leave her up there without a pack. Not surprisingly, most of them focus on the book's very divisive ending, which I personally liked. But you'll find no spoilers here:
  • "It felt like halfway through the author just got bored and decided to torture us."
  • "It wasn't entertaining, just depressing as all get out. Shame on the author for such a let down."
  • "I don't mind being "played" as a reader if the payoff is 'Of course!' the way it often is in these twisty little passages of novels, but this just made me feel I was playing in a mudbox and I wanted to wipe it off my hands."
  • "A book of pure hate, not the least of which is a long series of characters (not all of them men) who are both obvious and subtle misogynists."
  • "Mystery readers like to have all information and try to figure out the plot. Did not happen in this book."
  • "As obviously brilliant and insightful as the author is about the mind of men and women, SURELY she could have come up with a twist in the end to not leave you feeling like you need a shower to wash it off of you. And I don't mean that in a good way."
  • "I read fiction in order to have a vicarious experience that I enjoy. That's why I don't read stuff with excessive gore, explicit endless hump-hump-hump sex, or 'inside the mind of a serial killer' because I do not WANT to be in there. I want to be in a fun rollercoaster ride that delivers what it promises. This did not."
  • "I'm sorry it didn't turn out better for all of our sakes."

Bang bang, the author shot me down

Reasons offered by THE PASSAGE's Justin Cronin in defense of his gun ownership in today's New York Times:

  1. I like guns.
  2. I enjoy learning about them. 
  3. I grew up pretending to have them. 
  4. I need to protect my family because no one else will, even though "I am aware that, statistically speaking, a gun in the home represents a far greater danger to its inhabitants than to an intruder."
  5. This one time, I was in a hurricane and wished I had had a gun. (To shoot the storm with?)
  6. Everybody else in Texas (where Cronin lives) has one. 
  7. It's okay because I don't like the NRA either. 
  8. It's okay because I'm not a Republican.
  9. It's okay because I am in favor of some regulations.
  10. My daughter and I bonded over them this one time.
  11. It's unrealistic to hope or express the desire for a world with no guns in it. 
  12. People on Facebook who want to get rid of guns are meanie name-callers. 
  13. My wife says it's OK. 

25 January 2013

Mystery solved

I finally figured out why no one on the subway ever talks to me about books. It's because I always have my headphones jammed in my ears, even when I'm not listening to anything, so people leave me alone. I figured this out when my iPod died earlier this week (don't worry, it recovered, just static) and a guy stopped me on the subway to tell me he loved the book I was reading. (Barbara Kingsolver's FLIGHT BEHAVIOR - possibly the only book my entire book club liked, so you probably will too.) Mea culpa, my neighbors! I will try to be more open to your casual conversations! Except when I'm rushing or tired or cranky or etc.

24 January 2013

Seven of the "Best American..." collections are on Kindle sale today. I gave 2 and got 2 for Christmas. A great way to discover new-to-you writers!

23 January 2013

Your move, Barbie

One of my preferred New York Public Library branches is in the Times today for an uncommon item in its collection -- an American Girl doll, donated by the company, who travels among its young patrons without a due date. I grew up with this very American Girl doll, who now lives in storage at my parents' house for a hypothetical mini-Ellen of the future and I loved the accompanying chapter book series as well.

22 January 2013

Tournament of Books '13: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

Writer Claire Zulkey wrote a piece for WBEZ recently on "cry crack," media whose primary output is to make its consumers cry. She singled out a scene from "Dumbo," although the example I normally reach for in this case is the opening from a more recent Disney(-affiliated) film, the Pixar production "Up." I'm not linking to it because I'm not a monster, and also if I look for it I'll probably start weeping myself.

"How is it legal that Disney could ever share something so sad with the whole world?" Zulkey asks about her "Dumbo" clip, but it seems fairly clear why we don't start banning stuff this sad (besides all that free-speech goodness and the importance of prioritizing the things we want to ban). Catharsis can be kind of nice in the right place. It's why summer camp ends with a big campfire and songs about how friendship is eternal. It's how a real-life tragedy of marriage and amnesia gets made into "The Vow." The word catharsis was first used by Aristotle as a medical term, and whether or not there are provable benefits to that whoosh of relief after letting that strong emotion out, it's still an identifiable feeling.

And so we come to THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, the tale of two teenagers with cancer who fall in love after meeting at a support group for teenagers with cancer. I carried it home from the library thinking to myself "Oh boy, get ready to cry this weekend!" and steeled myself appropriately. I lasted about 96 pages. Emotionally, I found this book incredibly effective, even though its narrative weakness led me to question it later.

The strengths of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS are quite clear: Narrator Hazel is not a Movie-of-the-Week heroine, and her navigating her path between her sameness as a teenager (going to school, having a crush, fighting with her parents) and the difference of having cancer is vivid and sharp. When she meets and falls in love with Gus, who lost his leg to osteosarcoma, their relationship is all about and not at all about their collective health  And of course, the most identifiable thing about Hazel for me (and many readers I'm guessing) is her obsession with her favorite book, which is also about a young person with cancer -- something she shares with Gus that becomes a passion for them together. (This fictional book has, of course, its own fairly impassioned but spoilery thread on Goodreads already.)

So why was I not as caught up as I felt I should have been? Of the people I know who have read this book, almost all loved it and they really loved it. I felt almost guilty in a way that I was plagued by questions about the realism of some of the plot turns (which I won't spoil here, but for those playing at home: when Hazel gets authorized, and what she gets authorized to do). These moments happened much more frequently in the second half of the book, which I would characterize as more serious and dramatic, just when I thought I should be digging into the plot further.

I think the main element that pulled me out was the characterization of Gus, Hazel's fellow fighter and object of her crush. I didn't find him to be a fully realized character, and he often acted in ways that contradicted what we already knew about him. Teenagers, of course, are not always known for their consistency, but Hazel's own actions seemed to fit into a larger pattern, whereas his made no sense. And I don't want to go out on a limb here and say that teenage boys like that don't exist, but in an R.L. Stine/ Christopher Pike book his sweetness would definitely be Act I to something really evil. For a time I thought there was going to be a twist that (and this is not what happens, so: un-spoiler alert?) he was actually a hallucination brought on by Hazel's experimental drug-taking. I'm sorry! You have to admit that would have been kind of cool!

Of course, the argument could be made that we see Gus subjectively through Hazel, so of course he seems like the best person to ever walk the face of the earth -- and Hazel's crush causes her to see him in a rosier light than seems necessary. I don't believe this interpretation, but I'm open to discussion.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS may be "cry crack" for a lot of people, and it wasn't exactly for me. But it brought to mind other books of my youth in which characters die or disappear forever, and how incredibly invested I was in that sadness and the act of grieving over those people. Green's YA audience may see this book similarly, and I can see why they attach to it. It wouldn't be correct, though, to say that I enjoyed this book. I experienced it, and it gave me a lot of pause, and in the end I indeed felt that whoosh of cathartic relief.

21 January 2013

One-Star Revue: Zadie Smith, NW

Normally when reading these dreadfuls I try to steer clear of books I personally liked a lot, for fear I will fly into a rage tip my hand more than usual at my own preferences. Still, in honor of killing my darlings (and out of respect to those of you whose favorite books have already been slaughtered) I submit Zadie Smith's fourth novel. And to be honest, I could see where their critiques were coming from, except for one of these which is just bizarre:

  • "I've gotta say this- its hard top be pretentious and boring at the same time."
  • "What was the real issue here? Maybe good to discuss this one in a Book Club."
  • "I know the 'new' form for her is this disjointed writing but while I 'got' it-- i didn't enjoy reading it-- it was hard to get through those parts and it was just so ANNOYING."
  • "I should have known when a reviewer said it was 'Joycean'..."
  • "I thought it would show the flavor of NW instead it was about a bunch of sorry people I cared nothing about."
  • "Ms Smith seems to be burdened by having to carry the weight of having street credibility."

18 January 2013

I made a Powerpoint slide for the launch of my company book club next week. Sorry you can't join.

Anybody read any good business or social media-related books lately? (Our CEO, Gary Shteyngart fan though he may be, doesn't get to pick all of them.)

I'm biased, but you're going to want to own this mock biography of Vice President Joe Biden today.

15 January 2013

Non-Best Picture winner still mad

The adaptation of Walter Kirn's UP IN THE AIR faced off against "The Hurt Locker" and lost. Now Kirn, Hollywood expert, breaks it down for us in New York magazine:
"'The Hurt Locker' won that year. It wasn't a film that was widely seen at the time, and I didn't think it was a terrific movie — it bored me a little bit — but what seemed to win was Hollywood's guilt over having not paid proper attention to the Iraq War, our long national agony. Plus, it was directed by a female director, Kathryn Bigelow. To me, the movies that win have social dimensions that are ultimately noncontroversial."
Well, maybe. But he makes a better point about why "Up in the Air" didn't get more credit for dealing with "real-world" issues:
[Interviewer Jennifer Vineyard]: But "Up in the Air" also had social relevance — it dealt with job loss in the recession.
The country didn't want to face it yet. This is how absurd it gets with "Up in the Air" — they wanted to hire a plane and fly all these unemployed people to Hollywood for a free vacation as a publicity stunt. That is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard — the most patronizing, tone-deaf thing of all time. Everyone thought the recovery would end soon. Jason Reitman was even asking, "Do you think by the fall ... ?" No one thought the recession would still be operative years later.
Ha ha ha oh boy. For the record, Kirn thinks "Lincoln" will win because of its connection with the President (?). By this logic, Congress and the President will have a Constitutional showdown in the year 2017... sounds plausible. (DOMA repeal? We can only hope.)

14 January 2013

Nobody trolls it better than the English

This book came up in a library search for one of the referenced works... okay, it was THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, which I've never actually read cover to cover. (Dinesh D'Souza: "But I thought you went to liberal arts college! KABOOM!") I am impressed by the ballsiness of this title, and really this concept (though none of these authors are going to be stopping by to give the author a piece of their minds). I guess the analogy to its title would be a restaurant review called "Great Meals That Made Me Sick To My Stomach Afterward"?

This is a great example of how academic publishing (Princeton U. Press in this case) doesn't have to be boring or use colons on its titles.

The author, a senior research fellow (?) at Cambridge, is a 3rd viscount of Doxford (not a typo, it's in Northumberland), his father's name was Leslie and previously their family were barons. And this is a picture of him, also known as my face when coworkers schedule 8:30am meetings and then don't start them on time:

11 January 2013

My well spent youth

One of my favorite lit professors ever, Arnold Weinstein, is teaching a free class on Coursera this summer encompassing Melville, Woolf, Faulkner, Borges... just sign up right now. It's not the same as attempting to read ULYSSES in three weeks while taking a full course load, but close!

10 January 2013

Filmbook: Oscars 2013: Doris Kearns Goodwin knows how to party

Expect stacks of TEAM OF RIVALS movie tie-ins to mysteriously appear at your local bookstore as "Lincoln" chugs along toward Best Picture with its 12 Oscar nominations, announced this morning. Other big winners: Yann Martel, with "Life of Pi" picking up 11 nominations despite its middling reviews*, Victor Hugo and playwright Lucy Alibar, whose adaptation "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (beginning life as "Juicy and Delicious") was a surprise Best Picture and Best Director nominee, along with the youngest Best Actress nominee ever.

Losers: Leo Tolstoy ("Anna Karenina" picked up 4 including production design, which it deserves, but no acting or directing nominations) and J.R.R. Tolkien with 3 for part one of "The Hobbit" (better luck in 2015, right?)

Now if you will excuse me, I have some movies to watch.

Rumpus: Have you come to know why you write, or what compels you to do it?
Zadie Smith: No. No I don’t feel compelled. It was a job. In more recent years, I’ve seen that’s not quite true because if I don’t write—I do apparently need to write. Maybe it’s true. The way for me to deal with writing is to deal with it as a daily task I set myself and then I carry on. I don’t look at the big picture very often, I don’t know why that is, but it suits me better that way.

09 January 2013

Still in need of a readerly or writerly New Year's Resolution? (You have until the 31st to lock those in. I just made this rule up, but it is completely valid.) Courtney Maum of Tin House asked a bunch of writers what they're doing and got some really thought-provoking answers. I like Matthew Spektor's in particular, being myself "at once a slave to habit and at the mercy of my flabbiest whims."
Now that he's set to score part of the new adaptation: Line from the GREAT GATSBY, or Jay-Z lyric?

08 January 2013

Internet and books attached

Caught this story on "the future of libraries" on WNYC this morning and I just have to say: It makes me sad to think of a bookless library, but all this reminds me of the furor over the New Main Library in San Francisco, which replaced a library with more book space and was criticized for its "public-serving" design necessitating the culling of its collection. (I haven't been to that library, so I can't say for myself what the design accomplished.) I believe this was in Nicholas Basbanes' PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE which is all about book collectors and archives. Here's an article about that book and Nicholson Baker's review of the library in the New Yorker, which is stinging. And that's your wild-goose chase for the day!

Spotted in the courthouse

Hey, are you a YA editor at a publisher rhyming with "Carper Hollins"? Did you send the person you live with to jury duty recently? He and I barely made it out of our required service yesterday. He did not laugh at my terrible joke but I won't hold that against him, for it was terrible. And this is the book he was reading.

(As part of questioning we were asked to list the occupations of the people we lived with, but his was not so thrilling when you have a TSA agent and an old-school gravedigger in the room. Again, no offense meant.)

I myself was reading snippets of Jess Walter's BEAUTIFUL RUINS when our breaks were too short to do work but too long to stare at the wall.

07 January 2013

I won't say no - how could I?

More and more people in my workplace have begun using the word "ask" as a noun. (Example: I have a quick ask for you -- can you look up X and Y statistics for me?)

The only place I have run across this usage is in the title of Sam Lipsyte's latest novel, in which "the ask" is a request for a substantial donation made to a donor. I don't know whether this is relevant, but I don't work in development so the people I know who use it do not use it like this.

Anyway, it is ridiculous and needs to stop. Ask is a verb. It grates on me so, I'm about to start doing that first-grade-teacher thing where I say "You mean, you want to ask me to do something? I don't know, can you?"Potential substitutions include the accurate "request," the elegant "query," the utilitarian "question" or unfortunately "demand."


One-Star Revue returns with extra vigor in 2013. This month, we take a look at some of the best-reviewed books from last year.

The latest installment of Robert Caro's expansive biography of Lyndon B. Johnson made best-of-2012 lists all across the land. Caro is very old now, and researching the next installment in Vietnam (as he has said he will) will be a tough endeavor for him, but at least he can bask in the unqualified support and respect of readers everywhere. No one would dare to criticize the work of this nonfiction titan, right?

Ah, Internet, you never disappoint. Even removing reviews that address a potential cover-up in the matter of the JFK assassination, what riches abound:
  • "This book contains the most ungrammatical writing I have ever encountered."
  • "Are we reading serious history or merely fat Si Newhouse copy?"
  • "He never even begins to explain why the early sixties was marked by so much hope and enthusiasm and excitement."
  • "Once you read the book, and check the sources Caro uses, you can see what he is up to... Very unbalanced and selective in order to make LBJ somehow look good and presidential."
  • "The one book that Caro does seem to have read is a good one." Actually, this is an excellent burn and I plan to save it for future use.
  • "The frequent repetition of [Caro's] earlier points reads like an essay from a student lacking confidence in his own paper panties thesis."
  • "When a man of Caro's unarguable caliber gives four decades of his life to do the definitive biography of a key figure in our time, we expect him to BE THE EQUAL of his subject."
  •  "Well, without having read one word of this part, I must say, that I am disapppointed."
  • "Actually this book is not as bad as my 1 star rating would suggest, but given the old wives tales that are in this book and who this is a 1 star rating is dead on."

04 January 2013

Free novel idea

Composition-book heiress keeps a secret diary for most of her 88 years of life, chronicling her young widowhood, the changing face of New York City and the places that made her happiest. (Source.)

In the future, we will all be Thomas Pynchons

It may be impossible to get a current photograph of him, but the famously reclusive author will publish his first new book since 2009. To the woods, everyone! (Oh wait, he lives here in New York? Never mind.)

December Unbookening

Received for Christmas: 14 books
Checked out of the library: 4 books
Bought 4 books (2 Kindle, plus THE ROTTERS' CLUB and BREAKDOWN)
22 in

Returned to library: 9 books (none out as of the end of the year)
Gave away: 3
Donated: 18
30 out 

Meg Hourihan's Makeit.do blog, as featured in a January unbookening post, hasn't been updated since August, but in the meantime she made a dress out of a duvet, took advantage of the NY Public Library app (wait, I need this toy!) and stopped herself from buying a new computer just to post more often. I can relate. I could have used that magic computer this week as responsibility whumped me too hard to put coherent thoughts together.

Want to play the unbookening game? Two easy ways to get started that don't involve sacrifices (YET):
1. Decide that for January, whenever you get a book you will write it down. Buy, borrow, find... steal... This will give you a baseline into where all your books are coming from. 

2. Pick a bookshelf in your home -- just one shelf -- and go through each of the books on it to see if you want to keep it in your permanent collection. Did you love it when you read it, but have no desire to go back to it? Did you buy it because you wanted to read it someday, but the original reason for your wanting to read it has evaporated? These are prime candidates to be donated because they come with the weight of obligation. Obligating yourself to read things is a fine practice, but it shouldn't feel like a 100% drag.

01 January 2013

New Year's Reading Resolutions 2013

1. Call an electrician to fix our power so I can blog because the handyperson my landlord sent over claimed he couldn't turn it back on till Friday, and my roommates refuse to pay for a real electrician, preferring to spend New Year's Eve in the dark

2. Read at least 12 books on the Modern Library list so I can finish it in the next 5 years.

3. Read THE POWER BROKER so the next time I rip on Robert Moses I will have concrete examples to cite besides "getting to LaGuardia Airport is terrible"...

4. In fact, read more biographies in general because they offer perspective that I badly need right now.

5. Read as many of the Tournament of Books picks as possible before the tourney. (One down!)

6. Keep reading the unread books I own and giving them away as appropriate.