31 December 2014

Tournament of Books 11 -- yes, already

Buried over Christmas was the longlist for the annual Tournament of Books, The Morning News' highly idiosyncratic literature competition.

Although I always enjoy these lists, I approached this one with a little disappointment for my perceived lack of progress (only 7 titles down?!) but largely with excitement. As someone who found 2014 slightly disappointing in its offerings I look forward to this tournament proving me wrong, but -- just as when I scanned the NY Times Notable Books of 2014 -- I felt myself at the bottom of a very large hill. How embarrassing is it to admit that I'm more caught up on potential Oscar nominees than year-end notable books? Very well, then I won't.

I also noticed that a few of these books are either sequels (MY STRUGGLE, BOOK 3) or actual series in themselves (Jeff Vandermeer's), suggesting that either some judges are going to have to do a lot of extra homework or (more likely I think) they have just been included as a courtesy nod in the longlist and don't have a chance at making it to the tournament itself.

Here's my best guess at what is going to make the short list:

Megan Abbott, THE FEVER
Chloe Caldwell, WOMEN
Nick Harkaway, TIGERMAN
David Mitchell, THE BONE CLOCKS
Emily St John Mandel, STATION ELEVEN

Round-robin 16th spot: Jesse Ball, SILENCE ONCE BEGUN; Richard Flanagan, THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH; John Darnielle, WOLF IN WHITE VAN. Darnielle will win.

30 December 2014

Every crazy person is crazy in his own way

You could apparently go nuts contemplating how much of Tolstoy is left on the page with each new translation that comes out, writes Masha Gessen for the New York Times.

11 November 2014

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

--Lt Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army, "In Flanders Fields." McCrae was a field surgeon and a field hospital chief during WWI; he died at No. 3 Canadian General Hospital in Boulogne on January 28, 1918.

05 November 2014

It's a trajectory

"I associate happiness with having a plan. The Plan, mind, doesn’t have to be grand – “Write 1,000 pages in three weeks” or “Save the world”. It can be, “Find out if Lidl is still selling shelled pistachios” or “Please get around to replacing the water filter in the cellar this afternoon, you idiot.” Happiness isn’t a position. It’s a trajectory.
"More an ongoing affair, happiness isn’t getting something, but wanting something. It’s having appetite, being filled with desire. It’s being pointed in a direction. It’s caring about something, which means the condition always comes with the threat of disappointment, injury or loss. As giving a toss about anything or anyone makes you a sitting duck, happiness is intrinsically precarious; it entails putting yourself at risk. It has nothing to do with feeling pompously, fatuously puffed up over your wonderful self and your wonderful life. It’s being too driven, too busy, too focused on what’s on the docket for today to remember to even ask yourself if you’re happy. If you’re really happy, you’re probably thinking about something else."
-Lionel Shriver (greatest) on happiness for The Guardian.

03 October 2014

"Gone Girl": See it or skip it?

I wanted to poll the audience here. The hotly anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL opens today in theatres. Anecdotally I've heard everything from "Looks terrible" to "I'm already lining up to see it," but one thing I haven't heard is the classic "I don't want to see it because I don't want it to affect how much I like the book."

Are you planning to see "Gone Girl"? Where are your expectations for it?

30 September 2014

My Summer Reading List, 2014

Jesmyn Ward, MEN WE REAPED

Lawrence Wright, GOING CLEAR
Meg Wolitzer, THE TEN-YEAR NAP
Michael Gibney, SOUS CHEF
Dylan Landis, RAINEY ROYAL
Jennifer Weiner, FLY AWAY HOME

Kate Christensen, THE GREAT MAN
Rainbow Rowell, ATTACHMENTS
Carol Rifkin Brunt, TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME
Jennifer Haigh, MRS. KIMBLE
Lori Rader-Day, THE BLACK HOUR

Megan Abbott, THE FEVER
Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), THE CUCKOO'S CALLING
Peter Heller, THE PAINTER
Charles Duhigg, THE POWER OF HABIT
Jessica Grose, SAD DESK SALAD
Christina Alger, THE DARLINGS

19 September 2014

"I Leave You," "Walk Among the Tombstones" open today

Now this is what I call a major week for book adaptations. Jonathan Tropper's THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU hits the big screen thanks to director Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum," "Date Night," other movies that don't have "Night" in the title) starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey "Hemingway in 'Midnight in Paris'" Stoll and Adam Driver as siblings coming home for their father's funeral. Watch out for Ben Schwartz ("Parks and Recreation," "House of Lies") as a childhood friend turned rabbi.

For the dramatic minded, check out "A Walk Among the Tombstones," the first time mystery writer Lawrence Block's PI Matthew Scudder has appeared onscreen. (I read A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES back in 2009.) Scudder, a depressed ex-cop in AA, takes a case involving a kidnapped and murdered woman that takes him to dark places in New York City. For you "Downton Abbey" fans, this movie also costars Matthew Crawley, er Dan Stevens. (Irresistible film trivium: Block cowrote "My Blueberry Nights," Wong Kar-Wai's English-language debut.) "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is in possession of a kick-ass trailer and was directed and written by Scott Frank ("Get Shorty," "Out of Sight"). Why did I write all this when I could have just written "Liam Neeson is a badass, in the US this time"?

Also in theatres today: "The Maze Runner," based on the YA book by James Dashner of the same name, and "Hector and the Search for Happiness," based on the Paulo Coelho novel (nooope) and starring Simon Pegg. See 'em or skip 'em?

12 September 2014

Opens today: "The Drop"

Hey, remember "Mystic River" and "Gone Baby Gone"? Dennis Lehane's work returns to the big screen today with "The Drop," by Belgian director Michael Roskam (Academy Award nominee, Best Foreign Film 2012 -- lost to "A Separation") with a cowriting credit for Lehane himself. The plot concerns a local bartender who gets mixed up with the Mafia, but the movie will probably get most of its notice from its costar, the late great James Gandolfini. (Not to diminish his work, but I'm also looking forward to seeing Noomi Rapace, who played Lisbeth Salander in the original GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO adaptation, in an English-speaking role.)

Have you read THE DROP? Are you going to see this movie or skip it?

11 September 2014

"Roll of Film: Photographer Missing"

Vines of smoke through latticework of steel
Weave the air into a garden of smoke.

And in the garden people came and went,
People of smoke and people of flesh, the air dressed

In ash. What the pictures couldn’t say
Was spoken by the smoke: A common language

In a tongue of smoke that murmured in every ear
Something about what it was they’d been forced

To endure: Words spoken in duress,
Inconsolable words, words spoken under the earth

That rooted in smoke and breathed in the smoke
And put forth shoots that twined through the steel,

Words plunged through the roof of the garages’
Voids, I-beams twisted; the eye that saw all this

Tells and tells again one part of the story
Of that day of wandering through the fatal garden,

The camera’s eye open and acutely
Recording in the foul-smelling air.

--From Tom Sleigh's "New York American Spell, 2001."

The Library of Congress now has an official landing page for resources related to Sept. 11 poetry.

05 September 2014


Going on vacation with other people's dysfunctional families isn't always that fun, but I'll make an exception for the Posts and co. of THE VACATIONERS, who pack all their secrets and quiet disappointments with each other off to Mallorca for two weeks. Manhattanites Jim and Franny Post are off for sun and fun with son Bobby (a not-very-successful real-estate broker in Miami), daughter Sylvia (about to head off to college), Bobby's girlfriend Carmen, plus Franny's best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence. What none of the other guests know is that Franny is using this trip to decide whether she and Jim should divorce after Jim strayed, an act of infidelity that already cost him his job.

You already know that the vacationers of THE VACATIONERS are eventually going to find the house too small, the walls too thin, and their family ties too itchy and constraining. For the most part, the reader of THE VACATIONERS feels none of these things, and can even enjoy the Spanish setting in moments when the family can't. (A private pool and the beach? Send me away!) One of the most nuanced relationships I found in here was between Franny and Charles -- it's rare, in a way, that you see that kind of friendship between older people in fiction, while the woman-and-her-gay-best-friend dynamic is all over millennial pop culture). And then there's Sylvia and her image of herself in that pivotal moment between high school and college. She could so easily have been a dumb cliche but I found her fascinating.

If I had any complaints (and alas, I always have one) I had trouble getting a handle on Franny Post, the matriarch who pushed this trip into being. She's in the book plenty, but I lacked a sense of her inner life that I got from even brief sketches of the other characters. (I think Carmen's sections are my favorite. Poor Carmen.) Perhaps I had trouble understanding why she chose to go through with the vacation in the first place, given the currents of familial strife underlining it.

03 September 2014

Current reading: THE LAST MRS. ASTOR

Reading about Brooke Astor's multiple marriages reminds me of the debate earlier this year over the connection between marriage and financial stability and how we equip people (or don't) to take advantage of that.

Mrs. Astor was married 3 times in her life and author Frances Kiernan makes a pretty clear case that Marriage #3, to Vincent Astor, was primarily financially motivated, with #1 and #2 having contributing financial factors. The woman born Roberta Brooke Russell was of a class where it would have been unseemly for her to work, and her education (ending at 16) did not equip her to do so anyway. But Husband #1 was a feckless unfaithful alcoholic who more or less stashed her at her in-laws for years, and after her divorce from him, and in her widowhood after Husband #2, she didn't have an independent income nor a way to make it. That said, she did work for a few years at House and Garden and for interior designer Dorothy Draper -- but she had to maintain the facade that it was a lark or a diversion, something she could enlist her friends in, rather than being 'real' about (Kiernan points out that Conde Nast paid badly in those years because it was expected that editors were of the leisure class and independently supported -- so they didn't need the money. Also, they had expense accounts.)

You can fault Mrs. Astor for marrying for money, and some friends quoted in this book do -- I was surprised at how barbed they were sometimes given that this is an authorized biography. (What is your damage, Louis Auchincloss?) But her other options were to live on her annual income from her second husband's will or fall back on her mother or other relatives. Whether that annual income would have been a struggle or not to live within isn't clear -- this calculator from the terrifically named WestEgg.com estimates it would have been around $248,000 in 2013 dollars, not exactly a pittance. But her marriageability was what she had to trade for financial stability. It was all she had. And to her credit, at least she knew that she was marrying a fortune. According to Kiernan, Vincent Astor courted her quite aggressively (bizarrely, with the help of his soon-to-be-ex-wife who apparently wanted him to settle down so she could leave him), so it wasn't a question of who got hoodwinked in that trade.

In conclusion, it's another day I am grateful to be a woman in 2014, where I can hope and plan to support myself for the rest of my life no matter what happens. And this book is some real-life Edith Wharton business and if you like Old New York you should take a look.

P.S. If you follow NYC tabloids, this is the Mrs. Astor whose grandson and son went to court over charges that her son was keeping his mother in reduced circumstances while pocketing over $2 million a year of her fortune. That's her son from her first marriage. I think that is covered in this book, although I'm not there yet. I was called for jury duty right around the time they were trying to empanel jurors for that trial, which was an impossible struggle according to courtroom scuttlebutt.

02 September 2014

Unbookening update

It's a new season and still the books are flooding in. If you didn't notice me stealthily dropping off posts about unbookening in the past few months, you probably can guess by that update that I haven't been doing very well with it. My record-keeping has been shoddy... also my will to get rid of books, or take 30 seconds to think before buying a new book.

So, I'm drawing a fat black line and starting over. I've been staycationing this weekend (in the joyous sense of the portmanteau, not the "economic necessity" sense, although the saved $$$ is nice too) so I have a nice fat stack of books to read. I don't have any out from the library right now, so I'm going to focus on reading my inventory down. 

Additionally, a friend of mine introduced me to The Minimalism Game, which is a method of getting rid of your extra stuff by making it a competition over 30 days. I'm not 100% on board with the minimalist movement, but since I moved into my apartment a year ago (whoo!) and I know there's stuff lurking around that I haven't used in the past year, this seems like a fun way to weed out. I'll update in the middle of the month, probably.

01 September 2014

One-Star Revue: Roxane Gay, BAD FEMINIST

Roxane Gay's essay collection BAD FEMINIST will probably end up on my best-of-the-year list this year. I follow Gay on Twitter and, not surprisingly, like other women I follow who write about issues touching women, people say the most egregious garbage to her. This is hardly groundbreaking news but the strength of it makes me depressed.

Take Amazon, for instance. The lowly product review was invented as a buyer's service to other buyers: Do or don't do what I did! The product review has steered me away from many consumer products in the past (my favorite is for clothes, because clothing copy is notoriously fluffy in its lack of description). It also lends a platform to express closely held beliefs beyond the pages of the book, especially when the book contains any political matter. It's like the letters section of your newspaper, turbocharged.

It's worth considering whether the form of the anonymous content is not long for this Internet. Just kidding, of course most of us can handle it, and some people evidently can't. Last year Popular Science announced it would shut off comments entirely due to (of course) research showing such online debates negatively influenced how people viewed the science discussed, describing a "decades-long war of expertise" that has led to absurdities like (and this is my example, not theirs) Jenny McCarthy speaking as a physician on autism. In August the editors of the women's blog Jezebel.com wrote an open post to their parent company Gawker Media begging them to change the structure of anonymous comments, due to an overwhelming volume of anon. accounts depositing porn and other upsetting images in comments sections. How much time should be spent regulating online comments and reviews before it can be concluded that there's no saving them?

For now the Amazon review stays, which is great because we can examine the perspectives of people who didn't agree with me and/or are just wrong on Gay's book. But for the first time since starting this survey, I didn't have that much to choose from; there aren't too many reviews of BAD FEMINIST on Amazon, but the ones that are there are overwhelmingly positive. Granted, a well-articulated negative review can be a great provoker of thoughts, but as this series has shown, the one-star reviews on Amazon are normally not examples of that. So I dipped into Goodreads (which is owned by Amazon so it's not honestly cheating) to borrow 2: 
  • ""Bad Feminist" Or The Secret Life of the Remainder Shelf Where Dust Mites Prevail Over All Things Paper" This review is signed "God" because if you write it, it's true.
  • "It was pure nagging"
  • "She spends half the book talking about movies, books, and articles she likes or dislikes." Yup, that's how criticism works. 
  • "Instead of focusing on real events in life, she was obsessed with TV, the book wasn't even about feminism." Sigh

25 August 2014


This weekend's New York Times travel section included a trip that, reading about it, I realized I always wanted to take: Searching for Anne of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island. I loved the Anne of Green Gables books and Montgomery's other books (the Emily of New Moon series is also quite good though I don't want to talk about the ending). Travel writer Ann Mah (a former book editor at Viking Penguin, I have just learned) weaves in scenes and places mentioned in the books in her account. It's totally captivating and I'm in. 

The L.M. Montgomery memoir mentioned in the article, THE ALPINE PATH, is available on Kindle for 99 cents (a deal even at the modest 78 pages). Falling down a rabbit hole there, I also found out that Montgomery's selected journals were published in several volumes, but were edited with a view toward small-town Canadiana and max marketability; the ones you want are in the Complete Journals, which I obviously bought, so see you in 2016 sometime when I'll have all the gossip on 1890s Canadian provinces. 

21 August 2014

A book I'm in, a roommate lesson

Last year I read an irresistible request for interview subjects around the topic of roommates. I have had a lot of roommates in my life but I agreed to be interviewed about one in particular, my experience with whom is captured in the chapter "Newborn Baby." (Some of you have heard that story, and the rest will just have to go seek the book out, I guess.)

Now that I've read my portion, I am pretty happy with how it looks. (I do sound a little naive, but that's on me. And perhaps I was at the time!) I would probably stress again that my story differs from most in the collection in that my experience was uniquely positive. I think if my roommates were to come across it independently, they would be pleased with their portrayal (though they might not remember it the exact same way). The way they handled the stage of their life that they were in was remarkable to me at the time, which is one of the reasons I agreed to be interviewed; it was an uncommon thing.

I haven't read the whole book yet (though I planned to) but I get the sense, again, that most of the stories collected are about bad or bizarre roommates. That can happen, as can the million tiny petty aggressions that come of living with people and that can slowly drive a person crazy. But overall, living with roommates has been beneficial to my life. Even if I would rather have lived alone at times given my druthers, and even though I sometimes still relish the solitude that comes from an empty apartment, on balance it was good for me to have that close-range personal experience. In the portion of this book that came from me, it was much more than that. If you're afraid of moving in with roommates, you shouldn't be, because everyone has her own weird quirks. Sometimes, living with people is as much about discovering what your weird quirks are, and when something goes from "weird quirk that I can get used to" to "intolerable state that I devoutly wish never to experience again." Self-discovery is just the bonus. And the best part is, as long as you're not legally attached, you can always move.

20 August 2014

Three books to talk about when we talk about Ferguson

The Left Bank Bookstore in St. Louis is putting together a recommended reading list for residents and others who want to learn more about the underpinnings behind what's been going on in Ferguson, Missouri these past (nearly) two weeks. The list, which is here, incorporates fiction and nonfiction, recent books and some classics. This is not the only necessary response but for me it is an important one; one of its effects on me has been to make me aware of how much I need to learn about the U.S., racial politics, policing, etc.

Here are some recommendations I have gotten from Twitter and elsewhere that I intend to follow up on:

  • James Loewen, SUNDOWN TOWNS: A HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICAN RACISM. A "Sundown Town," historically, was a town that unofficially kept African-Americans and other minorities from living or working there through intimidation, threats or indirect local ordinances. Ferguson may have been one of those towns, prior to the 1980s when the demographics of the town began to shift to today (majority African-American population). 
  • Radley Balko, THE RISE OF THE WARRIOR COP. Some of the most striking images coming out of Ferguson have been focused on the silhouettes cut by the Ferguson police against the protesters, seemingly over-militarized in their riot gear. This book elaborates on and evaluates the programs that have armed local law enforcement divisions (largely since 9/11) in places like Ferguson. 
On the fictional side, I have been also reminded of some of the historical pieces in Jonathan Franzen's debut novel THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY, which is set in St. Louis and whose plot involves suspicion among several racial and ethnic groups in and around the city. 

What have you been reading about Ferguson lately?

11 August 2014

Creative juices

What should I bring to my writing class next week when I go up for critique? Here's my shopping list so far:

  1. Wine for me

17 July 2014

Would you Netflix your books?

Rumor has it Amazon is launching a "Kindle Unlimited" service that allows free monthly access to all Prime titles. Any Amazon Prime subscribers want to give me an idea of how extensive that library is? 'Cause whoa

10 July 2014

Filmbook-to-Be: "Wild" (2014) first trailer

I'm cautiously optimistic about this even though I really didn't like Jean-Marc Vallee's last movie "Dallas Buyers Club." (Is it OK yet to admit that? Oh, well.) That's Nick Hornby on the script, Reese Witherspoon as the driving force and star, Laura Dern as Strayed's mother and Michiel Huisman in a supporting role because he has to be in every film project now.

08 July 2014

Because it's best to have goals

Dear Activate Apparel: if you make "work out" two words, I will buy this shirt and I know at least 2 other people who will as well.

07 July 2014


Not surprising, it was the top selling Kindle book of 2014 so far, but surpassed by Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT which was the top selling book overall. Despite some critics' best efforts (joking, but not) THE GOLDFINCH rang in as the 20th best selling book overall, #5 on the Amazon Kindle list. 

25 June 2014

Filmbook: "The Fault In Our Stars" (2014)

I didn't head out to see this movie with All The Teens, for reasons I can share below, but it's for the best.

This movie had two problems it doesn't share with the book: First, Ansel Elgort, who plays love interest Augustus Waters, can't pull off the kind of smart-aleck-yet-sexy '80s characterization that the movie needs him to do. He either comes off as someone rattling off lines he doesn't understand, or as a creep. Neither helps his case as the fellow cancer survivor who sweeps Hazel off her feet. Gus' lines are mostly taken from the book (from what I remember), but while book-Gus is improbable yet charming, movie-Gus punctuates everything with a leer or a smirk. The one time I thought it worked for him (mild spoiler ahoy) is in the travel sequence, when Hazel says "We're just friends" and Gus says "She is, I'm not." He sold that line but many others seemed kind of beyond them. Nothing against the guy, but I think he was cast more for his ability to be a blank palette for teenage girls to project their interest onto than for his own skills. His chemistry with Woodley is fine, but in his verbal moments I was reminded of last summer's "The Spectacular Now," a much better movie featuring an actor much more up to the task of banter (Miles Teller).

The second problem is probably more subjective, if possible, but here goes: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, the book, works in part because it pulls against the sentimentality of the person-with-cancer subgenre. Being narrated by Hazel, who tends to be blunt and resist being classified as a saintly patient or a martyr, the book is able to cut through those subgenre elements quickly. Apart from a sprinkling of voiceover, the movie doesn't have that, and while it's a good deal less sentimental than your Walks to Remember or your Notebooks, it is constantly trying to be a sappy, soppy, weepy, gummy Hollywood Cancer Flick. There's a moment when one character accuses Hazel and Gus, our young lovers, of only wanting to get their way, of living in a world where they always get their way due to their protected status. They protest: No! That's not how they live at all! But the movie betrays them in that moment and indulges them there, and later, so that they do get the important moments to round out their story, if not the ending they might have scripted.

Throughout, the tearjerking quality that Hazel resents drowning out her own story is constantly leaking out at the seams, from too-on music cues to super-clumsy dialogue. It made its emotional peaks feel cheap and ordinary. (I'm thinking, especially, of the scene on the park bench.) And believe me, I went into this movie primed to cry, having spent a whole weekend trying not to cry. I was almost looking forward to it, the way that you hesitate in a winter month before getting into the shower because you know you'll just be freezing when you get out, but at least in the middle there you will be comforted in a way. Forget America needing a catharsis; I needed one. I didn't get it from this movie, and I have to lay that at the feet of director Josh Boone, because the book made me feel differently.

Woodley's performance is very good, along with Laura Dern's as her mother and Mike Birbiglia's as an over-eager youth counselor. But I probably won't remember this movie much when I look back at the end of the year, never mind beyond that.

Filmbook verdict: Read this book, then go watch "The Spectacular Now," "Atonement" or "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" (1996, Luhrmann) to see young adults falling in love and tragedy.

Next up, Chicken Karenina

A book of Tolstoy family recipes has been rescued from obscurity, including (according to Open Culture) one closely resembling our popular mac and cheese. Macaroni was probably an upper-class delicacy with fancy European connotations in those days, since it took so long for those blue boxes to ship to Russia. 

24 June 2014

Take 2 chapters and call me in the morning

The American Academy of Pediatrics is expected to announce today that it officially recommends parents read to their children starting at birth. This may be the area of hypothetical parenting where I feel the most prepared!

23 June 2014


June 22, 2014: Powell's closes its post-security stores at Portland International Airport.
June 23, 2014: I have a 3-hour layover at PDX.

One-Star Revue: Hillary Clinton, LIVING HISTORY

This year, Hillary Rodham Clinton released her second memoir HARD CHOICES. HARD CHOICES, also the unpromising name of a very good ethics class offered at my university (aka the Best School Ever), has variably been reviewed as boring, unnecessary, overwritten, and too safe -- and that's from all from people who would strongly consider voting for her. She sure is polarizing! But let's face it, these memoirs are no fun anyway. As the commentators on Slate's Political Gabfest recently pointed out, the only good political memoirs are ones from people with nothing to lose (career-wise), and however you feel about Fmr. Secretary Clinton, you can't say she would fall into that camp.

Should we journey back to 2003 and the release of Clinton's first memoir, LIVING HISTORY, the story is pretty similar. But is there any hilarity in the vituperative heap of one-star reviews that attended that book? Already, HARD CHOICES' Amazon customer review section is overrun with one-star reviews from people who just don't seem to like the author and have nothing of substance to say on the book. Moreover, most of them aren't funny, and seem to fault the book's author for painting herself in a positive light. Isn't that what these books are intended for? Consider the source! At least the older ones are funnier -- take a look:

  • "LIVING HISTORY is basically the mass-market, nationally published equivalent of one of those big, splashy (but completely respectable, & in no way offensive to the Establishment or, most of all, the Principal) student-body election campaign posters from back in high school."
  • "This book could pass for a grainy selfie in print." Note: this review is from 2014, it's not just abnormally prescient. 
  • "I pride myself for having read many autobiographies. This book just lost me."
  • "This book is just about as dumb and unneccessary as California." "Rude." --California
  • "I just receiver my book and to day the price is much cheaper. Why do I have to pay more because I order early? I don't think that is fair Do you? I will not buy from Amazon if I don't hear from you. Unhappy customer. Beware before you buy." I hope this person isn't still waiting to hear. 
  • "The book was written completely by a ghost writer, not by Hillary." You're catching on! 
  • "[A] big sale does not make a book great, even though meager sale indicates inferiority." This review is also titled "What A Irony" which I nominate for official one-star hashtag of the week. #WhatAIrony
  • "Very boring, unrealistic." ???

19 June 2014

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and Hanya Yanagihara are two of the PEN American Center's finalists for its debut fiction prize this year. Expect Janet Malcolm, David Sedaris, Rebecca Solnit and James Wolcott to duke it out in the very competitive essay category, while biography is anyone's guess. 

18 June 2014

Served by Michael Gibney

This book wasn't what I was expecting at all, and a pleasant surprise.

I snagged a copy of this new memoir/ culinary nonfiction book on Netgalley a few months ago when it came out. SOUS CHEF: 24 HOURS ON THE LINE is about the craft of modern restaurants, from the perspective of a day in the life of the sous chef (the chef's right-hand person). "You," the sous chef (for in fact this book is all written in the 2nd person), are responsible for a million nitty-gritty details in providing dinnertime service at a well-regarded (and unnamed) Manhattan restaurant, serving customers you will never see but who are responsible for the restaurant's success or failure. Parse the chef's instructions on your own or ask for clarification? Send an ailing cook home or let him stay put? All of these decisions await you, and hours before the place is even open.

Being somewhat less of a foodie than most of my peers, I expected , but there's a case to be made to shelve this book under organizational behavior. Given his responsibilities, the sous chef has limited power and unlimited peril in his grasp. (Well, peril may be a strong word, but I spent some paragraphs nervously waiting for someone to cut or scald himself, as invariably seems to happen in my kitchen.) His responsibilities outstrip his power and there's never a time when he's not 'on call.' It's both hands-on and higher-level. Don't look to SOUS CHEF to dish the kind of secrets that KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL became famous for, but those were overblown anyway; the biggest secret of SOUS CHEF is how maddeningly complex these operations are, and how skilled the people down to the lowest prep cook need to be to pull it all off. It's choreography, not just chemistry.

I did struggle a little with some long passages of dialogue late in the book that broke with the reality of Gibney's portrayal, and which seemed equally plausible and implausible that they could have taken place as described. They were a little novelistic. Then again, the concept of immediacy that surrounds its narrative is crafted in such a way as to make us believe what could not be possible (that Gibney literally transcribed an actual day in the kitchen and everything that happened in it). It's sleight-of-hand, just like the process of serving an entire table's entrees at once -- way more complicated in its works than its face.

SOUS CHEF is a fresh and unique take on the culinary industry whose limited scope pays off well. Gibney is still a working chef and currently works at a restaurant called Urbo (of which I could find very little information, but here is a map) so if you're in New York, check it out.

17 June 2014

Sleepin' On Meg Wolitzer

Like a lot of people, I was impressed with Meg Wolitzer's THE INTERESTINGS last year and looked forward to delving into her back catalogue later. As I always say, there's nothing better than getting acquainted with an author and discovering that she has an extensive list already. I had been aware of Wolitzer for years but it seems like suddenly she's everywhere, including on the fiction table at a local book swap where I snatched up THE TEN-YEAR NAP, her novel two before THE INTERESTINGS. (She was also at BEA when I was, promoting her first YA novel BELZHAR, but I unfortunately wasn't able to check that out.)

THE TEN-YEAR NAP surrounds a circle of mothers whose sons attend the same Manhattan schools. These are mostly stay-at-home moms who feel, and display, varying levels of ambivalence toward that role and how it overlaps with their identities. In particular, Amy, a former lawyer with a ten-year-old son, feels stranded between her working persona (and the office where she met her husband, who still works there) and what her next career should be. The uncertainty is paralyzing, and none of her friends have it any clearer themselves: Her best friend Jill moves to the suburbs and sees that journey from the wrong end of the periscope, feeling lonely and set apart. And her new friend Penny, the rare mother who works full-time (as a museum director), divulges a shocking secret that leads Amy to further question what exactly she wants.

In format and content, THE TEN-YEAR NAP is a less savage, more modern reworking of Marilyn French's THE WOMEN'S ROOM, a semi-landmark feminist novel featuring a very large cast of women reckoning with their feminist awakenings. It's a format I found strangely hypnotic in French's treatment (I remember a long trip on the Caltrain when I had to remind myself to look up as we passed through stations) and only a little less so in Wolitzer's. French's novel is first-/second-wave, Wolitzer's is third-wave; this is a novel taking place in the "opting out" era but where the women are hyperaware of how their personal decisions may not reflect what they feel they as women ought to do. Amy's mother used to hold a consciousness-raising group in her living room; along with her fear and ambivalence, Amy feels guilty for disappointing her too. It's worth noting, though, that both of these are character studies, not Agenda novels; some of my favorite vignettes from NAP feature characters revealing something that has been referenced in another section, elaborating, clarifying, and building that world around them. They felt like women, not like subjects in a New York Times Magazine profile.

The stumbling blocks of NAP are the very short chapters set in the past, exploring the perspectives of women tangentially related to the main ensemble of the book -- the mothers, primarily, but also a few other women and even a historical figure. I see what Wolitzer was trying to do with these, but they felt shallow and not fully realized due to their length. Some were also overly didactic, having less space to pack in the character work necessary to tie them into the rest of the novel at large. It felt like Wolitzer doing French when Wolitzer should just do Wolitzer; the nuance with which the characters in NAP are handled sets it apart from the many many other novels covering this same territory.

16 June 2014


I recently read a review roundup of the box-office powerhouse "The Fault In Our Stars," noting that the movie's performance (beating up Tom Cruise among others) didn't seem to be affected by people who were unhappy with its ending. Even though the book has been out for two years now, a distinct population of moviegoers didn't get around to reading it -- and those were the angriest at Green, and "Fault" director Josh Boone by extension, regarding the movie's ending. I haven't seen it, so I couldn't tell you exactly how it plays out, but with a book seemingly designed to elicit strong emotion, it's not surprising that some would boomerang back onto its creators as fury.

The book haters were there before the movie haters, though, so let's take a warm bath in the kind of reviews that must have been intended to hit Green like toxic steam. But first: I did not include, on purpose, anyone who criticized this book from the vantage point of having a loved one with cancer (as the main characters of this book do). I have been lucky yet not to walk in those shoes and I am willing to concede that they have a point. Also, there's nothing funny about that. That said, we're off:
  • "Albert Camus for babies"
  • "The first chapter was rude, the kids can't speak proper English (like...I have cancer) and the whole thing is a liberal cliche' from the get go."
  • "I am thinking the author is trying to live out his teenage years all over again, but it just comes off as a public service announcement." Being a teenager is so awesome and fun the first time, after all.
  • "Yes, I'm glad I read it, but I never will again. It SUCKED!!!"
  • "I bought the book based upon an interview with the author on 60 Minutes. The consensus was it wasn't a book about cancer but a love story. Sorry, but so far all it's been is about cancer."
  • "I have read many books in English and Spanish and this is the first time I have felt this way about a book...complete emptiness." Spanish books are special, you see.
  • "I didn't finish with any lasting feelings." This is the harshest, yet the most hilarious.
  • "This is only more evidence that America needs a catharsis." Just kidding, this is the most hilarious.

12 June 2014

Each year the dead grow less dead, and nudge
Close to the surface of all things.
They start to remember the silence that brought them there.
They start to recount the gain in their soiled hands.

Their glasses let loose, and grain by grain return to the river
They point to their favorite words
Growing around them, revealed as themselves for the first time:
They stand close to the meanings and take them in.

They stand there, vague and without pain,
Under their fingernails and unreturnable dirt.
They stand there and it comes back,
The music of everything, syllable after syllable
Out of the burning chair, out of the beings of light.
It all comes back.
And what they repeat to themselves, and what they repeat to them-
Is the song that our fathers sing.

--new American poet laureate Charles Wright, from "Homage to Paul Cezanne"

11 June 2014

On re-reviewing THE GOLDFINCH

The best time for a book critic to get her or his point across regarding the merit of a particular book is within the review, not months later. Why attack after the enemy has marched away? You look petty and there is plenty more to work on, anyway. As for why those pesky readers don't always listen to critics, see also: every other entertainment medium ever.

(I would fall in the Liked-It-Didn't-Love-It/ Definitely Literary quadrant for THE GOLDFINCH. My book club railed against it for 90 minutes and then averaged out at 3 stars. Perhaps it's just the kind of book that bothers literary types.)

10 June 2014

Wasn't me

Here's the first 6 paragraphs of a press release I got this morning, do with it what you will:

REGGAE ICON SHAGGY (best known for his hit singles "Boombastic," "It Wasn't Me," and "Angel") records the audio-book version of the Jamaican patois "translation" of the New York Times, Amazon.com, & Wall Street Journal #1 best seller and worldwide phenomenon, Go the F*** to Sleep:

Written by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo Cortes,
translated by Kwame Dawes & Kellie Magnus
Audio-book narrated by Shaggy
Audio-book publication date: June 10, 2014

In June 2011, actor Samuel L. Jackson's reading of Go the F*** to Sleep redefined the audio book for the Internet-driven 21st century. Samuel L. Jackson's appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman marked the first time an audio book had been promoted to such a large TV audience, and soon more than one million people had listened to the audio book, which continues to sell thousands of copies every month.

With the publication of Go de Rass to Sleep, audio-book publisher Buck 50 Productions/Urban Audio Books has recruited worldwide reggae superstar to repeat Samuel L. Jackson's coup, in a Jamaican fashion. Shaggy's humor and verbal prowess are on full display as he reads the book's stanzas such as:

Modda puss a hug up har pickney,
Young sheep a lay down wid big sheep.
Yuh wrap up an warm inna yuh bed, putoos,
Beg yuh, go de rass to sleep.

To our knowledge, this is the first book ever to be translated into Jamaican patois other than the Bible (for which there is no audio book read by Shaggy). As with the original, Go de Rass to Sleep is a bedtime book for parents who live in the real world, where a few snoozing kitties and cutesy rhymes don't always send a toddler sailing blissfully off to dreamland. Profane, affectionate, and radically honest, California Book Award-winning author Adam Mansbach's verses perfectly capture the familiar--and unspoken--tribulations of putting your little angel down for the night. In the process, they open up a conversation about parenting, granting us permission to admit our frustrations, and laugh at their absurdity.

29 May 2014

BEA14: What Editors' Buzz Tells Us About the Industry as a Whole

The Editors' Buzz panel at BEA is one of the most highly attended and hotly anticipated panels every year. The conference selects several forthcoming books they think are going to be hits or breakouts, and the editors responsible for those books present them to the crowd. (There are also free galleys, causing a near-stampede at the end of every panel. Surely we can fix this! But I digress.) Even though the titles are made available well ahead of the event, there's something about hearing these pitches in person. It's a very positive, upbeat event with a side of the cliches you think of when you think of book reviewing. There's always an "astonishing" debut, a family saga, a ground-breaking nonfiction book, and so on.

What struck me most about the seven chosen authors this year, though, is how many of them were presented as mid-career authors experiencing a breakout or longtime scribes finally achieving hard-won fame. I don't want to say "comeback narrative," because that would be incorrect; some had sold fairly well and been highlighted for praise before, but still hadn't yet reached the spotlight in the way they were presented at BEA. Author Eula Biss of this fall's IMMUNITY: AN INOCULATION, compared floridly to Joan Didion (calm down now), has been a working writer for several years; Emily St. John Mandel is described as breaking out with her novel STATION ELEVEN, but it's her fourth book, and I would consider her breakout to be her previous one, the Indie Next darling THE LOLA QUARTET. Jeff Hobbs is a fiction writer joining the other side of the table with the nonfiction reported book THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE OF ROBERT PEACE. None of these authors' backgrounds were hidden; instead they became part of the pitch, reasons to root for them. And they overshadowed the debut novels presented (Jessie Burton's THE MINIATURIST, Matthew Thomas' WE AE NOT OURSELVES and M.O. Walsh's MY SUNSHINE AWAY). Here's what I think this says about publishing now:

1. In these tough economic times for the book industry as a whole, sometimes a known name beats an unknown name -- despite past performance. Mandel, Biss, Hobbs and Laird Hunt (whose novel NEVERHOME was presented on the panel) already have some entry, publicity speaking, into the market. If their publishers struggled in the past to market them, they are improving upon those mistakes. This isn't a case where the reclusive author is found and uplifted. These authors already have platforms, websites, some activation in place. And more importantly for them --

2. Despite the ominous stories, it is easier for authors to continue in the industry and make up for what were seen as damaging sales records with later books. If you want we can call this the MIDDLESTEINS Phenomenon, for author Jami Attenberg's bestseller as she started over with a new publisher and was able to get a second chance, you could say, to make her name. (If you've read MIDDLESTEINS and haven't read her backlist yet, you have some delights ahead of you.) This is heartening for what should be obvious reasons. And it makes publishing feel great about itself for spotting the talent early (even if it didn't know how to handle them then).

28 May 2014

BEA14: Selling Ebooks By the Byte

Are books quite the same as other digital media, or are they different? The panelists taking part in "What the Digital Book Industry Can Learn from Other Digital Media" approached the idea of opportunities for publishing to get better at digital media through different paths, but they were agreed that books aren't like other media -- better than a pat one-size-fits-all answer, but strangely unsatisfying.

Panelists David Steinberger and Joanna Stone Herman are both startup entrepreneurs working with publishing, while not necessarily of it: Steinberger is the CEO of Comixology, the iOS comic book app recenttly purchased by Amazon (somewhat controversially as its one-stop shopping capabilities were recently stripped) while Stone Herman is the CEO of new kid on the block Librify, a subscription ebook service just launching this summer. As such they are on opposite ends of the startup rainbow, but share a similarly sunny view of the power of digital media to win new consumers. (They kind of have to be.) I haven't tried out Librify yet but it sounds like it is designed to cater to the more casual reader with an emphasis on book club materials and book-of-the-month type subscriptions. ComiXology was more equitable in its treatment of new and hard-core readers in comic books, partnering with retail stores in order not to "disrupt" the direct retail business of selling comics. Naturally Stone Herman is in favor of subscription models to purchase ebooks, and Steinberger isn't.

My favorite panelist was Anoushka Healy, chief strategy officer of News Corp (have you heard of it?), who spoke from her newspaper background and the opportunities for consumer research presented by engaging in the digital space. I pray this wasn't just an apocryphal anecdote, but Healy shared some feedback when she worked on FT.com and a customer told their team "This is a great website -- have you thought about a newspaper?" Even when properties seem closely connected from the inside, those connections aren't necessarily apparent to people outside the industry. (If you don't believe me try quizzing a consumer about which imprints belong to which publisher. I myself sometimes mix them up.) Social media is a piece of that consumer research, but it isn't all of it. Healy also encouraged the audience to think about what consumers really want and not get too hung up on the use of specific platforms over others. That second piece could be the history of book publishing in the past 10 years, or a really strange country song I guess. Wherefore books and how to protect them? But if you can believe that digital sales will lift all boats, then you can forge ahead digitally without fear (or at least with less fear).

And indeed this panel seemed to be designed to reassure book publishing professionals that that cannibalization would not happen. It's what we want to hear but is it what we need to hear? Or am I being doom-and-gloomy for no reason? I'll never forget the Ghost of BEA Past that asserted ebook sales would eventually level off and what the heck would we do then; I felt the chill of that ghost in the room today. A better topic for next year's panels might be what print marketing can learn from digital.

22 May 2014

5 BookExpoAmerica tips from a veteran

I'll be attending my fourth BookExpo America conference this year, and I'm super excited. I'm not a conference-type person, but BEA is just the most fun ever. I probably shouldn't give away my trademark BEA secrets since they allow me to see more conference stuff, get more awesome free books... too late:

1. Wear the most comfortable shoes you can get away with for the purpose of your visit. The home of BEA in New York (for now) is the Jacob A. Javits Center on 34th Street and 11th Avenue, practically falling into the Hudson River (if only). If you're from out of town or you just haven't visited it recently, let me tell you: The Javits Center is far. It's three avenues or about 10 walking minutes away from the nearest subway stop (that's the A/C/E at 34th) and the physical plant is massive. You're smart enough not to wear brand-new shoes, but I cannot impress upon you enough how much walking you will be doing (and want to do). Admittedly, I am spoiled in this aspect since I am visiting on my own behalf and can wear something casual but clean, but my advice still stands.

2. Ask all the questions. What's this line for? Where are you visiting from? What did you think of that guy? Do you have a fall catalog I can take a look at? Where did you come up with the idea for this booth? Who are you looking forward to seeing? BEA is way more fun to schmooze at than most conferences, and I'm an introvert, so you can trust me on that.

3. Pack snacks. You may have time and inclination to sit down for a meal at the Javits Center, or you may not. But the food is expensive and you may find your time better spent going to a session or getting in line to meet an author. Anything non-perishable like granola bars or trail mix oughta work. But, make sure to get at least one actual meal a day. For health reasons I must insist. The McDonalds on Tenth Ave doesn't count (although it's a great place to buy a soda and spend half an hour catching up on emails). I mean, go sit down somewhere. You've earned it!

4. The wifi is not great, but you can use it for free in the food court. That is the best reason to go to the food court (see #3). Around lunch time, get there early so you can camp out at a table.

5. Wear a backpack and carry a tote bag. The backpack is for all the swag you will accumulate throughout the day; the tote bag can be carried in your front with essentials like a pen and paper (necessary), cash money (so necessary) and your conference pass after you leave (so necessary). I know it's dorky, but you'll thank me when you have to grab yet another free book (see #2) and you see someone else weighed down with half a dozen tote bags going for the same prize.

05 May 2014

One-Star Revue: THE WIZARD OF OZ

The other day, I was unhappily subjected to a trailer for "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return," an animated sequel to "The Wizard of Oz" featuring your favorite actors doing a cash-grab in return for a few weeks in a recording booth. (Bernadette Peters? Oliver Platt? For shame.) The actual Oz books are a good deal weirder than the first (and eventual movie adaptation) but are a useful precursor to this century's fantasy franchises: L. Frank Baum, who eventually wrote 13 sequels to THE WIZARD OF OZ, was an odd duck but he had a Piers Anthonyesque approach to world-building: He just kept expanding and heck if anyone got in his way. Now that Dorothy et al are in the public domain, anyone can write his or her own "Wizard of Oz" sequel, and the fact that I feel strangely protective of these characters is no doubt a remnant left over from my own childhood. But not everyone enjoyed THE WIZARD OF OZ, and some hilariously failed to do so:

  • "I think it has too much old talk in it."
  • "I thought it was boaring [sic] it was not realistic or creative like the movie."
  • "I hate it and it was terrible so I really hates it so good luck trying to read this book." Only including this one because it was from user "1dfan." Well, I can't get through a One Direction song without experiencing internal distress, so we're even now.
  • "Why do you make it so stupid. I was going to put it down, but it got interesting then it got boring. Dorothy had red shoes not silver ones. They didn't adventure through the forest at the end or the kingdom of the winkies, or the field mice. So make a better book that goes with the movie." Yes, sir and/or ma'am.
  • "Any books with this type of cover is bad." 
  • "Awesome book I love it I can not stop myself from reading it over and over again get this book." This is one of several very positive Amazon reviews whose writers filed them under one star. Not sure why the concept was so confusing. 
  • "Haven't used this yet but..." 

29 April 2014

Jo March wins

In a survey updated from 2008, Louisa May Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN has jumped into America's top 10 books list. Other major winners were MOBY DICK, THE GRAPES OF WRATH and THE GREAT GATSBY, bumping out ATLAS SHRUGGED, two Dan Brown books (ha ha) and Stephen King's THE STAND. THE BIBLE is still #1 across all demographics, but millennials' #2 favorite is HARRY POTTER, the East Coast loves THE LORD OF THE RINGS and white people like GONE WITH THE WIND. (Via Jezebel)

15 April 2014

Meals of famous book characters

This gallery isn't complete enough but it's a good start. (Huffington Post Books)

14 April 2014

Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning bird

Donna Tartt's third novel THE GOLDFINCH won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction today.

I just finished this book to discuss at book club, in a talk that was pretty critical although ultimately more people liked the book than didn't. We all agreed it had some pacing/ plotting issues; for me, the coincidence-ness of the last third became distracting just as the action was picking up, and fell apart a little when I stopped to think about it. I liked Tartt's style, which several people in the club found distracting or too verbose. I remember being more impressed by THE LITTLE FRIEND, but found I hardly remembered anything about it specifically. Did you read it? What did you think?

Other Pulitzer winners included Alan Taylor for history, Dan Fagan for nonfiction, Megan Marshall for biography, Annie Baker for playwriting (yeah!) and Vijay Seshadri for poetry. But everyone's really talking about the Washington Post and the Guardian's joint Pulitzer for covering Edward Snowden, and the Boston Globe's marathon bombing coverage. Read more over at Longreads.

28 March 2014

The Tournament of Books meets the NBA

THE GOOD LORD BIRD triumphed over LIFE AFTER LIFE this morning in the 2014 Tournament of Books.

I had grand plans to read as many of these books as I could, plans which lasted through about 3 books (I'm still in the middle of A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING -- it's great, by the way) due to other events making it impossible to do more. But despite not having read THE GOOD LORD BIRD, I feel confident about the judges' decision. I just couldn't shake the ridiculous conclusion of LIFE AFTER LIFE though some of the writing is really spectacular and all of it is very good. (I recommend Atkinson's BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM instead.) 

27 March 2014

"I sold my first novel, SLEEPWALKING, back when I was a senior in college, for five thousand dollars. I thought that money would last a very long time, which naturally it didn’t. The book got very good reviews but didn’t sell well, and as a result the paperback was published to look like a kind of cheesy novel meant for teenagers. So, happily, the novel is now being reissued for the first time since then, in a new edition. I’m quite proud of it; it’s about a group of college girls who are knows as 'the death girls' on the Swarthmore campus, because they are really into the work and lives of certain women writers (Plath, Sexton, and a third writer I invented) who committed suicide. It’s about the romanticization of despair, and I guess it’s about growing up." -- Meg Wolitzer with happy news (The Daily Beast)

26 March 2014

It's Expensive To Live In Manhattan, Even If You Are A Bookstore

Seriously, they distracted Robert Caro from the next LBJ book so he could tell us that not having bookstores around is bad? That dude will use anything to procrastinate! But congratulations to Williamsburg for getting a McNally Jackson soon. I suggest the name McNalliam Jacksonburg. 

25 March 2014

We are all Sherlocks, we are all Watsons

A federal judge has ruled that Sherlock Holmes and his universe are now in the public domain, clearing the way for the adaptations we hope, but more likely the ones we deserve. (NPR)

The movie adaptation of Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT topped the box office this past weekend. The Hollywood Reporter referred to its breaking the "YA curse," but what I think that means is that nobody wanted to see "The Mortal Instruments" or "Vampire Academy" but they wanted to see this movie. (We opted for "Grand Budapest Hotel" instead, an homage to the work of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. It was just OK.) 

I didn't see DIVERGENT, one in several ways I failed the quiz, "Can You Tell These YA Stories Apart?" I staunchly maintain that Harry Potter does too get drawn into a love triangle. (Vulture)

13 March 2014

It's Fantod's Day

To be the Merriam-Webster word of the day. I thought it was a David Foster Wallace invention, but I was wrong: 

"You have got strong symptoms of the fantods; your skin is so tight you can't shut your eyes without opening your mouth." Thus, American author Charles Frederick Briggs provides us with the oldest recorded use of "fantods" in 1839... The exact origin of "fantod" remains a mystery, but it may have arisen from English dialectal "fantigue"—a word (once used by Dickens) that refers to a state of great tension or excitement and may be a blend of "fantastic" and "fatigue."

06 March 2014

Believer Fiction Award nominees include Rebecca Lee, Fiona Maazel

The winner of my "Best Book Award To Routinely Feature Great Reads I Have Never Heard Of Before" is the annual Believer Book Award, and this year's slate is no exception. With just one book I've read (Fiona Maazel's WOKE UP LONELY, great) and two I've never even heard of, I anticipate some high-quality new discoveries.

11 February 2014

Retcon Camels To Rule Them All

New scientific data suggests the Old Testament was written hundreds of years after its events, based on the appearance in it of camels. Camels were domesticated in the 10th century B.C., hundreds of years after the Patriarchs. 

10 February 2014

And the Oscar for book trailer soundtracks goes to...

I was interested in this project anyway based on its appearances on Jezebel and Deadspin, but this tune is downright jaunty:
My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha from Spinks on Vimeo.

07 February 2014

Bell's South Africa ad celebrates adult literacy

You'll cheer for the man learning to read and write in English, and then drink with him. Maybe? Well, I thought it was touching.
One of my favorite books of 2006, Blair Tindall's memoir MOZART IN THE JUNGLE, is one of Amazon's newest show pilots starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Lola (sister of Jemima) Kirke. And Malcolm Macdowell! What could go wrong?

03 February 2014

Check under the bed, Brooklyn

70,144 books went AWOL from the Brooklyn Public Library last year. We heard they just moved home for a few months and they'll be back soon, though!

28 January 2014

Filmbook-to-be: Highbrow word salad

Your chosen terms are New York Review of Books, Berlin and Martin Scorsese...

20 January 2014

Thanks to Calliope Author Readings, it is now possible to hear '60s-era recordings of John Updike, Nelson Algren and James Baldwin among others reading some of their famous works. (The recordings were released on 33 1/3 RPM records and only freed for this CD issue.) But who will be the first to turn them into a peppy dance remix for the gym?

The Best Picture Nominees, If They Were Historical Romance Novels


16 January 2014

Tournament of Books X: Herman Koch's THE DINNER

What makes the term "page-turner" a pejorative is books like this one. Composed of flash paper, THE DINNER startles and then disappears, a sub-Pinter drama of familial nastiness more invested in shoving surprises into its back half than having those surprises make sense when piled on each other.

Moving back and forth in time, THE DINNER's central meal is held at a slightly-too-fancy restaurant where brothers Paul and Serge are having dinner with their wives. Serge is in politics and picked the restaurant because he knows the maître d'; Paul, a former school teacher, resents the venue and the tiny portions. Both of them dance exaggerated politeness around each other in order not to confront the central issue, a concern involving a crime and their sons. The central issue arrives like clockwork just before dessert.

The first review that popped up under a recent search for this novel called it a European GONE GIRL, and THE DINNER retains that slippery nastiness that causes every character, including the supposedly trustworthy narrator to leave a slime trail throughout the book. If only as much time had been invested into the origins of that nastiness! For example, a major feeder of tension into this dinner, the narrator's relationship with his brother, is never properly established; the reader gets only glimpses and thrown-out asides, intimations of a grand history without which they both look even more petty and graceless than they do already. But even that gets more airtime than the cartoonish wives, who play pivotal roles in what happened but talk such nonsense they might as well be Charlie Brown's parents.

That's what makes THE DINNER a meager meal, although the cultural issues barely perceptible in its flavors give it more potential (which it didn't live up to). There are suggestions of a discussion of race and class in the Netherlands that are more interesting than what has been reproduced on the page, suggesting that something could have been lost in translation. That would stoke the flames of what is otherwise a pretty cold dish.

(P.S. this is the U.K. cover of the novel. The U.S. one is not bad but this is great.)

15 January 2014

New York Public Library Pulls a Quikster

I woke up this morning to the unpleasant discovery that most of my library holds had been deleted from my account and I wasn't able to make new ones. Not ideal, given that I just threw everything on the Tournament of Books  An NYPL chat bot directed me to the library's new site, Ebooks.nypl.org, which is an ugly cluster with a weak search function and (apparently) a somewhat depleted resource of books available to reserve.

Yet the really nice thing about the old functionality was the ability to search for physical library books and e-books simultaneously, just like with Netflix, and to have those queues in the same place. That appears to be over. The design is just a fig leaf on my frustration.

14 January 2014

Should high school students read more nonfiction and less fiction?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper refers to this piece for Bookforum as "provocative" but I think it makes a lot of sense! Maybe high schoolers don't relate to the books they read in English class, and if they do happen to relate then the emotional relativity is squashed out of them by the search for Symbolism and Foreshadowing that is being Imparted to them. (Lit majors are allowed to say that. Check the fine print on your membership card.) Nonfiction is just as carefully crafted and can use the same rhetorical arsenal, but can also be similarly transporting. Reading nonfiction is also important to teach the tool of skeptical reading, essential for this Internet age. Vargas-Cooper includes a reading list of her favorite works of nonfiction, which is very useful too.

13 January 2014

Blog favorites Hilton Als, Donna Tartt, Sheri Fink and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are among the 30 finalists for the National Book Critics Circle's 2013 awards, to be presented March 13. The NBCC is somewhat unique in that they have specific categories for criticism, biography and autobiography along with fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Congratulations to the finalists! 

07 January 2014

The Morning News Tournament of Books X: Let's Go Rooster, Let's Go

Good to know I didn't spend my entire winter vacation checking for this to go live, for nothing! The shortlist has been revealed and here we go:

  • Eleanor Catton, THE LUMINARIES
  • Elizabeth Gilbert, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS
  • Herman Koch, THE DINNER
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, THE LOWLAND
  • Kiese Laymon, LONG DIVISION
  • James McBride, THE GOOD LORD BIRD
  • Scott McClanahan, HILL WILLIAM
  • Philipp Meyer, THE SON
  • Rainbow Rowell, ELEANOR & PARK
  • Donna Tartt, THE GOLDFINCH
  • Hanya Yanagihara, THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES
  • either Kate Atkinson's LIFE AFTER LIFE or Fiona Maazel's WOKE UP LONELY

Notable judges include authors Jami Attenberg, Roxane Gay and last year's finalist John Green, Tumblr litmaven Rachel Fershleiser, Mountain Goats impresario John Darnielle, Wormbook #1 Platonic Crush John Freeman and columnist and publisher Lizzie Skurnick.

I am going to try to read as many of these as I can again this year, for I am foolish. The tournament starts in mid-March, TBD. How do you feel? Any early favorites?

What we talk about when we talk about talking about Jennifer Weiner

"Weiner’s readers—who, on the Internet, review her work with all the attentiveness it has not received from the Times—seek out her latest books for the same satisfactions they have found in her earlier books, with their casual prose, happy resolutions, and lovable heroines. It is unlikely that literary critics will ever applaud Weiner’s work for these qualities, because literary criticism, at its best, seeks to elucidate the complex, not to catalogue the familiar."

from Rebecca Mead's profile of Jennifer Weiner in the New Yorker this week. Mead portrays Weiner fairly, I think, as an author with a broad base of commercial success who has also been vocal about the disparity between literary fiction coverage and treatment and commercial fiction coverage and treatment, and the gender lines on which they often fall (men writing about women is literary, women writing about anything is commercial/ not worthy of critical examination).

I am a critic who also enjoys Weiner's books, which I believe makes me a special unicorn* uniquely able to dispense the following points:

1. While Mead clearly read the Weiner canon for this article, some of her characterizations feel like oversimplifications. Weiner's work has in fact gotten darker despite what one might see as "happy endings." The ending of THE NEXT BEST THING was more troubling than satisfying, and it was my favorite Weiner book in years. The box is convenient but the profile doesn't fit in it.

2. Hand in hand with that, I think this article would have benefited from more data points from readers or people who know readers of these books (such as booksellers who successfully handsell copies, or book club programmers) -- to make these generalizations a little more palatable.

3. Clearly some of Weiner's speaking out on this issue is self-serving, but when the notion of self-promotion itself is considered dirty in the first place, it's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. No one was dinging Franzen for being too much in the spotlight when he was on the cover of TIME (and I saved that cover, so I'm not here to attack him either).

4. In a way, the whole idea that Weiner has struggled with using her platforms to talk about highbrow and lowbrow culture is something that a lot of people in public struggle with, but seems to be more of a problem for women striving to be taken seriously. (In a world where Idris Elba can safely discuss the high calling of playing Nelson Mandela on one day and his bowties on the next... By the way, don't Google that if you're at work.) I do not care one whit for "The Bachelor," but I don't see it as an automatic invalidator. (For one thing, a safe margin of people who watch hatewatch it. For another, I watch some ridiculous things too.) How many male newsmakers' feeds out there are fully devoted to professional sports on Saturdays and Sundays? And that, as a form of entertainment, is superior because?

*I'm joking, but "barely intersects" was probably oversalting it.

06 January 2014

December and 2013 Unbookening

Bought 3 books
Received 1 to review
Checked 10 out from the library
Received 8 for Christmas
Borrowed 2
24 in

Returned 12 to the library 
Returned 3 to others
Donated 5 
Exchanged for Amazon credit 1 (wasn't worth it! How could a Kindle book magically degrade in price?)
20 out

As I already know from the hilarious state of my bookshelf/ nightstand, I still finished out the year with too many books (17 more than when I started, according to my very meticulous note-keeping). I have no regrets, but hoping this year I will make some more room. This means trying to get through all my outstanding 2013 galleys before BEA, and continuing to rely on the library ahead of bookstores. But I'll always save room for gifts and books I'm borrowing from friends.

January's goal is to give away 8 more books than I get.

03 January 2014

That kid is a real bully!

HARD LUCK, the 8th book in the DIARY OF A WIMPY KID series, was the best-selling print book of 2013 with over 1.8 million copies sold, says Publishers Weekly.

Best Books of 2013, Part 3

Books read in 2013: 135
Best month: June
Worst month:  Tie, March and September

Best Fiction
Lionel Shriver, SO MUCH FOR THAT
Ben Schrank, LOVE IS A CANOE
Chimamda Ngozi Adichie, AMERICANAH

Best Fiction That’s Practically Nonfiction: Adelle Waldman, THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P
Best Nonfiction
Oliver Burkeman, THE ANTIDOTE
Greil Marcus, DEAD ELVIS
Samantha Irby, MEATY
Amanda Lindhout, A HOUSE IN THE SKY  
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, A SENSE OF DIRECTION

Best Nonfiction Recently Back in Print: Nora Ephron, CRAZY SALAD/ SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE. I don't even like "When Harry Met Sally" (gasp!) but Ephron wrote so much more than that, and her columns from the 60s and 70s reveal a sharp wit straining against the confines of what was expected from female writers. 

Best Books With An Asterisk
Can't resist a brag on behalf of the three people I know who published books this year! My former Ballast editor and fellow book critic Michael Hingston came out with his first novel THE DILETTANTES, an alternately biting and sweet look at the editorship of a failing college newspaper. Speaking of student journalism, my former college co-editor Jason Q. Ng studied Chinese censorship on the level we use the Internet every day -- the search engine -- for BLOCKED ON WEIBO, and Dissolve editor Nathan Rabin compared two passionate groups of music lovers -- Phish fans and the Juggalos -- in his memoir YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT YOU DON’T LIKE ME.