Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Books of 2011: Looking Ahead

I’m still working on my best of 2010 list (and still reading a couple of things before the new year), but I also have one eye on the horizon. It’s been a terrific year for fiction (hell, a writer was on the cover of Time. Too bad it didn’t get any coverage), but birds in hand are starting to bore me so it’s time to go beat the bush. Publishers apparently don't schedule the fall and winter releases until later, so these are just what have cropped up thus far; there are sure to be more titles of interest appearing in the next few months.

So, here are five titles I’m looking forward to in 2011, in order of their release:

Update: Here are the titles to look forward to for the last six months of 2011

If there’s any American that writes place better than Proulx, I’d like to read them. The Shipping News, Bad Dirt, and Open Range are all masterly evocations of setting. Bird Cloud is actually a memoir of Proulx’s years in Montana, and I am fascinated to see her turn her prodigious gifts on her own life, which is somewhat of a mystery (a recent Literary Fact of the Day: she and her four sisters had not been in the same room for forty years before they were reunited for their father’s funeral). I generally avoid memoirs, but I will have to tune in here for the sentences. My god, the sentences.

I’m succumbing to hype a little bit here. Evison’s last novel, All About Lulu, was pretty good, about par for the kinds of books I read. Normally, this kind of experience would lead me to wait for some post-release chatter before picking up his next one, but I’ve heard some pretty serious superlatives thrown about for West of Here.  This, combined with a setting and plot that scratch one of my itches (frontier narratives), has my active sonar pinging pretty loudly.

All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow (March 22, 2011)
I read everything Doctorow writes. I’ve said before that while I love Roth, I do think Doctorow is actually the leading candidate to be the next American to win the Nobel. His historical range is absolutely stunning: The March, Billy Bathgate, Ragtime, and on and on. That said, he is still somehow underrated as a short story writer: I adored Sweet Land Stories and look forward to this collection. (As an aside, Homer & Langley didn’t get a lot of praise, but what an attempt. I actually think it is best thought of as a fantastic short story that is just 150 pages too long).

Curfew by Jesse Ball  (June 14)
UPDATE: Here's my review. (This turned out to be a truly great novel)

Poet Jesse Ball’s debut novel, The Way Through Doors, was one of my favorite books of 2009. Inventive, playful, and vertiginous, the book was part MC Escher, part Italo Calvino. I don’t know much about Curfew at this point, except that it is about a father and a daughter and something happens to the father. It doesn’t matter—I’m already sold.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (?)

Does it really matter what the plot is? Actually, here guess (answer at the end of the post):

A) A band of sentient monkeys descends from Mount Kilimanjaro with evidence of extra-terrestrial life. Mistaking a group of Midwesterners on a safari for the leaders of humanity, they impart the secrets of the universe before vanishing into the ether. The tour group, mistaking the encounter for an act of French cultural terrorism, shrug s it off.

B) A character named David Foster Wallace takes a job at the IRS where the work is so mind-numbing that all employees undergo boredom survival training. Wallace finds himself fascinating with his co-workers bizarre psychology and uncovers a plot by the IRS to make working conditions even more onerous.

C) The Pale King is actually the altered text of David Foster Wallace’s favorite book, The Street of Crocodiles. Meticulously cutting words out of every page thereby exposing words on subsequent pages, Wallace transforms a signature work into a textual-sculptural masterpiece of reinvention and homage. The book will only be published in England in limited quantities on archival paper and cost 40 bucks for the paperback.

That's mine---anything else I should be looking forward to?

You should also check out 2011 Anticipated Lists from Greg at The New Dork Review of Books and Michele at Read and Breathe. Thanks to Rachel at A Home Between the Pages for some research help.

And the correct plot for The Pale King is (B). (C) actually describes Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Tree of Codes.  (A) is a fabricated novel plot. Did the monkeys give it away?

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Funny Probably Would Have Been Better

I couldn't resist: I had to throw my hat into the ring for The Tournament of Books' open call for judges.

Here's my entry, which now seems to me exceedingly square:

I should first be accountable to my own demands of a Rooster-dispensing judge: catholic taste, love of craft, passion, honesty, and a little sense of play.  

A good ToB judge also has to know that people are going to read their evaluations but then immediately forget it, for what separates The Rooster from other awards is transparency. We don't expect a judge to be objective, but we do expect them to dramatize their tastes. 
Of course, there's really no way to prove I'll do the above, but maybe I have shown that I wouldn't be titanically embarrassing. That's something, right? 
If you want to enter, and you should, deadline for submissions is tomorrow. 100 words or less to talk AT themorningnews DOT org.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The 2011 Tournament of Books Longlist: Handicapping the Field

There are many reasons I love following The Morning News’ Tournament of Books every year. 

For one, it is the most inclusive competitive award (meaning not top 10 list or the like), with writers coming from multiple countries. Second, it releases an extensive long list then a longer than average short list: this gives interested spectators a chance to do some pre-game reading and follow along. Third, the round-by-round judging is completely transparent; the judges explain their reasons for choosing the winner in each match. This offers a rare window into how informed, passionate people make decisions about why they like one book better than another. The results are sometimes frustrating, sometimes inspiring, but always revealing. 

There’s another reason I like the ToB: I’m pretty good at picking it. Since I began following it in 2006, I have picked the winner three times, though admittedly at the short list stage: The Road, A Mercy, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Now, if you’ve been paying attention to contemporary literature you’ll realize that these prognostications were not the work of Nostradamus: these winners were all widely read and lauded going into the tournament. 

So, if you’re interested in trying to predict the winner, that’s hint number one: you’ve already heard of the winner, and, if you are a reasonably serious reader of new fiction, there’s a good chance you’ve already read it. 

Here are a few other thoughts on this year’s long-list:

1.       The Favorites
So, if the winner is most-likely a big, established book, then who are the candidates? Well, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen has to be the dauphin at this point. Even though there was some relatively significant backlash, Freedom is appearing on virtually every end-of-year list and is the choice of many for book of the year (though some are admitting this somewhat sheepishly).

If Freedom is the number one overall seed, then Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is a close number two. The darling of independent booksellers and short-story writers everywhere (even though it is called a novel of linked stories), Goon Squad has a more contemporary and experimental feel than Franzen and thus probably the best contender to knock off the Dickens of 21st Century America

2.      Comic Novels: Always a Bridesmaid
Sam Lipsyte’s Homeland and Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan made it to the championship rounds in their respective years, so a comic novel is a good bet to go far, but not to win. Brief Wondrous Life had the most humor of any of the winners, but I don’t think you could reasonably call it a comedy. Wolf Hall, Cloud Atlas, A Mercy, The Road and The Accidental are all as dour as a meeting of the G8.

3.       Don’t Be Afraid of Picking a Doorstop
Two previous winners, Wolf Hall and Cloud Atlas, are not the quickest reads in the world.  This is good news for the thick, from the longish The Surrendered to the hefty Skippy Dies to the never-ending The Instructions.

4.      Debut Authors Need Not Apply
Every winner had at least one previous book-length publication. Diaz was probably the least established author in terms of backlist, but his short story collection Drown was a major critical success. Bad news here for folk like Adam Levin and Amy Greene, but a flicker of hope for Charles Yu and Julie Orringer, who both followed up terrific short story debuts with fantastic novels. Probably the prime contender who is knocked out by this trend is Karl Marlantes, whose Matterhorn was my favorite book of 2010.

5.     English is the National Language.
No translated works have won. Even Bolano’s 2666 got knocked out in first round. I don’t want to talk about it.

So, Ape, what’s the pick at this point?

Well, I’m going to reserve my official selection for the short-list, but at this point, I’m going with A Visit from the Goon Squad. I think there’s enough reservation about Freedom to keep it from being a runaway train like The Road or Brief Wondrous Life, and Goon Squad’s combination of creativity and sensitivity make it really versatile: both technique-fetishists and emotional readers will find reasons to love it.

That’s something else to remember: the winner has to get through four judges, so it can’t be too specific a flavor *sniff* 2666 *sniff.* This would be a reason to bet against blogger-fav Room; there have been enough people who hate the book to suggest it has a certain something that could turn a judge off. 

There’s my pick, anybody else want to stick their neck out with me?


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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Poor Will Be With Us Always

I saw Gilberto Alvarez almost every day, in summer heat and winter storm. I remember seeing him on my 30th birthday and on the first anniversary of September 11th. I knew something about him; he loved baseball, talking about the MTA, and dogs. Now that I think about it, I probably saw him more often than anyone except my girlfriend. And, until he died, I didn't know his name.

I suppose most of us have a Gilberto Alvarez in our lives, or perhaps I should say around our lives. Someone who is both oddly present and discomfiting. Someone who is off-putting because of some combination of station, appearance, and behavior. Someone on whom we spend more energy ignoring than acknowledging.

In Jon Clinch's strange and fascinating Kings of the Earth, these are the Proctor brothers: Creed, Vernon and Audie. The bizarre sons of hard and gnomish parents, the Proctors live, work, and sleep together on their scrub farm in central New York. They aren't charming misfits or wizened hermits waiting for someone to discover their hearts of gold. They are illiterate, ignorant, stubborn, and disquieting. Their connection to the world beyond the farm extends only to their sister, who somehow escaped the family, and one interested neighbor.
It should be said that this is not a story of rescue or redemption. Clinch isn't interested in making us feel better about these men, but he is interested in getting us to see them.

I didn't go out of my way to see Gilberto, and I really don't know if he ever recognized me.
Still, there he was, every morning, outside the subway station. I never saw him arrive or leave, and, judging by the state of his wheelchair, he either didn't go far or had someone help him to wherever he spent nights. Some days his prosthetic leg was with him, some days it wasn't, but I never did see him wearing it. It might be propped up next to wheelchair or laying on one the stairs down to the platform. I once saw him use it as a kind of scepter, waving it emphatically to underscore his more passionate points about the Mets’ lack of pitching.

Clinch gives us some insight to how the brothers ended up this way, a disquietingly believable combination of poverty, distrust, and pathology. We end up feeling about the Proctors in much the same way as the people around them do—a little curious but mostly repulsed. And the local farmers and businesspeople leave them well enough alone until the middle brother, Vernon, dies in his sleep. The mystery of his death supplies what little plot there is here, but Kings of the Earth isn't a story of these men so much as it is a mediation on difference: not the discourse of diversity or of multiculturalism or of a "rainbow society" but of the difference that makes us scurry past someone or avert our eyes. 

Over the nine or so years I walked past Gilberto's change cup, I probably gave him less than three dollars.  I'm not even so sure he was really there for the money, though I know he needed it. More than anything, he watched and waited for the few people who would spend a minute talking to him. From what I can tell, most of these were living rough like him, though with varying degrees of wear, and I don't have any idea what they talked about. I try to imagine their conversations now, but I don't come up with much and can only guess at the kinds of things that occupied their minds.

In the end, Clinch doesn't ask us to like or understand the Proctors. Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure what our attitude toward them is supposed to be. I think most readers will feel sympathy for them, especially Audie, but it's a qualified and awkward sympathy. Even after getting to know them, we wouldn't want to spend time with them. Does that make us callous? Would our better angels have us play cards with them on cold February nights or invite them to our summer barbecues? I doubt it. As we see the Proctor brothers through the eyes of those around them, we don't just see the brothers, we see they way they are seen; they are misunderstood, caricatured, ignored, exploited, and underestimated, and so our own misunderstanding, ignorance, exploitation is cast into the open. 

One morning a couple of months ago, Gilberto and his wheelchair were missing. Instead, there was a piece of white paper taped to a light pole that read "Gilberto Alvarez, ????-2010" and a plastic tray full of sandwiches on the sidewalk. A couple of men were standing there, talking and eating the sandwiches. It took me a minute to realize that someone had brought them to mark Gilberto's presence and passing.

I don't know if I should have tried talking to Gilberto or gave him a few quarters every couple of weeks. I'm not naive enough to think everyone can be saved, but I'm not so callous that I want to ignore them. And perhaps that's what Kings of the Earth offered me: a way of seeing Gilberto and not flinching, of acknowledging his existence and his death without sentimentalizing or marginalizing him. He was here, and he was one of us. That's not the best I can do, but it's all I can do now. 

Literary Fact of the Day Round Up: November 13-December 9, 2010

Here's your tri-weekly Literary Fact of the Day round-up. You can get these delivered hot and fresh daily by following me on Twitter (@readingape). Also, if you have a good LFOTD candidate, shoot me an email (readingape AT gmail DOT com), leave a comment here on the blog, or hit me with a direct message on Twitter. I'm an academic at heart, so I'd like some sort of documentation (re: link) to verify the fact. I'll of course give you credit both in the tweet and here at the round-up when it comes time. 

On to the facts:
  • In 1840, Margaret Fuller was the first woman allowed to use Harvard's library & was widely considered the best-read person in the US.
  • Alice Munro & her husband James opened their own independent bookstore in 1963 in downtown Victoria, Canada. It is still open today.
  • Thomas Pynchon dictated Gravity's Rainbow to his college friend Richard Farina.
  • Oprah Picks an Underdog Edition: Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities is the best selling novel of all time.
  • Isabelle Allande once lost a job translating English romances for changing the heroines' dialogue to make them seem more intelligent.
  • Theodore Dreiser's early short story, "Cracker," was based on a lynching he witnessed in 1893.
  • John Steinbeck claimed to be audited by the IRS every year of his literary life because of a personal vendetta by J. Edgar Hoover.
  • Mark Twain studied 2000 miles of the Mississippi for two years as an apprentice before earning his steamboat pilot's license in 1859.
  • Nicole Krauss won a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford, eventually earning a masters in art history, writing on Rembrandt.
  • Zora Neale Hurston's father was mayor of the first all-black town in America: Eatonville, Florida.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne died while touring the White Mountains with Franklin Pierce. The two had been friends for more than 40 years.
  • Dickinson's literary executors edited her work heavily; a complete, nearly unedited collection of her poetry didn't appear until 1955.
  • Paul Auster was struck by lightning as a teenager.
  • Bill Clinton once said that his favorite novel is Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
  • Between 1971 & 1978, Don DeLillo wrote and published six novels.
  • Self publishing success: Ezra Pound's first book of poetry was self published. The 100-copy run sold out, for a price of 6 cents each.
  • Only two of Robert Frost's six children outlived him, and one of those two spent the last 20 years of her life in a mental hospital.
  • Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm have together sold more copies than any two works by any other 20th Century author.
  • Katherine Anne Porter decided to become a writer while in a sanitarium and recovering from tuberculosis.
  • When Flannery O'Connor was six, she trained a chicken to walk backward, which gave her a certain local celebrity status.
  • Eudora Welty was the first living author to have her collected works published by the Library of America.
  • Kurt Vonnegut's mother committed suicide on Mother's Day in 1944.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Larry Watson: Recent Reading Round-Up

Sunset Park by Paul Auster
You would be forgiven if you thought, from the cover synopsis and most of the reviews, that Sunset Park is a downer. A quartet of confused, lonely, and otherwise discontented 20-somethings living in an abandoned house on a forlorn street in a forgotten neighborhood does not portend sweetness and light. However, this novel, especially by Auster's standards, is really pretty darn uplifting. Arranged around the reconcilition of a father and son, the various characters all use their time of isolation and exile to regroup (if they ever were "grouped" at all). Friendships are made. Love blossoms. Dissertations get written. Compared to what I was expecting, it's a bleeding Disney movie—albeit one with statutory rape, police brutality, sibling murder, and extended discussions of Chinese political dissidents.

Nemesis by Philip Roth
Man is it interesting to be here for Roth's endtimes. To my mind (and to the minds of many others), he is one of the two or three most interesting American writers of the last half-century, with a scale, scope, and diversity of work that will probably only be recongized in the years to come. It's quite difficult to avoid seeing his last few novel/novellas as the dusk-watching thoughts of an old man. By turns frightened, angry, nostalgic, bitter, and elegaic, they are possessed of the chaos, thrashing, and poignancy of a raged-against mortality. Nemesis is a novel of remembrance, of growing up in Weequahic, New Jersey during the Second World War. Roth's evocation of place is as masterful as it is understated: dress, demeanor, and decorum suffuse this story of the polio scare of 1945. His protagonist, viewed by the narrator some four decades after the main action of the story, seems to stand in for a generation: once vigourous, purposeful, and secularly righteous, but now worn down by fortune's outrageous arrows. This will not, I don't think, find its way into the first, or perhaps even second rank, of Roth's work, but seen in the real-time decrescendo of Roth's life, it is fascinating.

Montana, 1948 by Larry Watson
I've been working by way through Milkweed Prize Winners and this one is my favorite so far. It is a burnished, quietly ferocious story of a boy watching what will be the signal, tragic event of his family's life. His uncle, the doctor both to the white and Native American populations of a small part of Montana, has been abusing some of his patients until one day the boy's father, town sheriff, gets wind of the goings-on. The novel, as you might imagine, gets a little tense at this point, with almost Sophoclean levels of moral tumult. On the punch-per-page scale, Montana, 1948 might be belt-holder for my 2010 reading.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Paul Auster | Sunset Park | Audiobook Giveaway

So I've had this audiobook version of Paul Auster's Sunset Park sitting here just waiting to be given away, but I wanted to make sure I at least liked the book a little. And, a couple of hundred pages into it, I do. So, if you are interested, leave a comment below. I'll pick the winner out of a hat (the name, not the actual person) and contact them about mailing information. This is limited to folks living in the US or Canada. Sorry about that, rest of the world (well, that and all the pollution and stuff). I'll take entrants until Friday, December 3rd at 11:59 pm EST.

Hope everyone out there had a Happy Thanksgiving and is settling in for a pleasant winter of reading.

                                     Cheers, the Ape

UPDATE: Well, the gods of randomness have spoken and congratulations Savannah! Thanks all for entering.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Literary Fact of the Day Round Up: Oct 28-November 12, 2010

In case you don't use Twitter or for some inexcusable reason have missed a LFOTD from the last couple of weeks, here's a recap:

  • At age 26, Edgar Allan Poe married his 13 year old cousin, Virginia Clemm. 
  • Robert Lowell was a conscientous objector during World War II and spend several months in Danbury's minimum security prison.
  • Edna St Vincent Millay got her middle name from the NYC hospital where her uncle's life was saved just before her birth.
  • The creator of Lifesavers candy was the father of the poet Hart Crane, who drowned in the Gulf of Mexico. (Can't make this stuff up)
  • Wallace Stevens' father disapproved of his son's marriage, and after the engagement announcement they never spoke to each other again
  •  In 1912, William Carlos Williams married Florence Herman, but only after her older sister rejected his proposal.
  • Joyce Carol Oates was Foer's advisor @ Princeton & oversaw his senior thesis, which would eventually become EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED.
  • Annie Proulx and her four sisters had not been all in the same room for more than 40 years until their father's funeral.
  • During the Nazi occupation of Italy, Italo Calvino went into hiding to avoid conscription & the Nazis put his parents in detention.
  • Ralph Ellison wrote over 2000 pages for his second novel, worked on it for more than 30 years, and never finished it.
  • If Dostoyevsky had not submitted CRIME & PUNISHMENT to his publisher on-time, he would have lost his rights to all past & future work.
  • In 1824, Lafayette returned to an adoring US. During his parade in NY, he embraced a boy in the crowd. It was 5 year old Walt Whitman.
  • Princeton has conferred multiple honorary degrees on only one person: Booth Tarkington.
  • Only three writers have multiple Pulitzer Prizes for fiction: Updike, Faulker, and Booth Tarkington.
  • Acutely aware of his condition & ever the wit, Oscar Wilde's last words were "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do." Wallpaper stayed.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Are Book Blogs the Next Big Threat to Independent Bookstores?

First it was Barnes and Noble. Then Amazon. Then Target and Wal-mart and Oprah's Book Club Then the Kindle and iPad. So what's the next major threat to independent bookstores? Here's a hint: you're reading one right now.

I've been thinking about the relationship of bookstores and book blogs for a few months now, ever since I openly thought about how best to spend $100 on books. The long and short of it was this: you can get more for your money through Amazon, but patronizing a local bookstore has significant, if difficult to quantify, benefits as well. Depending on whom you ask, these benefits range from supporting the local economy to supporting new and emerging writers.

Last year Praveen Madan and Christin Evans, writing for The Huffington Post, outlined the three qualities that separate independent bookstores from their big chain brothers and online retailers: provide a cultural experience, provide an outlet for new and lesser-known writers, and enable positive social change in their local communities.  Their article is definitely worth a read, but the thing that struck me about the functions they described was how much book blogs do these things as well. Let's have a look:

1. Provide a Cultural Experience

 Madan and Evans: Like a wine sommelier, good independent booksellers are valued by readers for their thoughtfully curated selection of books and personalized service.  Good independent bookstores facilitate discovery of new books and provide a life-long means of education and learning for their customers.

To be blunt, book blogs are amazing at this. Not only will your typical book blog be open and accessible to readers, but book blogs are also extremely well-networked. I know of a book blog for every kind of book I can think of and that book blog will be connected to many other book blogs in the same niche. Recently, I was perusing the new fiction wall at my local bookstore and realized I had already heard of all of the books there--and noticed the absence of some others.

2. They Provide a Nurturing Environment for Lesser Known and Emerging Writers

Madan and Evans:  Independent booksellers are valued by authors (and their publishers) for their skill at promoting new books and emerging writers.

I'm not sure there is anything most book bloggers like to do than tell the world about an unknown gem. From what I can tell, it's not clear whether the book blogging community can move the needle on a particular author or title, but if my buying habits are any indication of what's possible, then book blogs have the potential to do everything an independent bookstore can do to promote a book. And, given the book blogging world's use of social media, there's a upside of distributed promotion that has yet to mature.

3. They Enable Positive Social Change in Local Communities

Madan and Evans: Another function independent bookstores have historically served has less to do with books, and more to do with thought leadership and good citizenship. Many independent booksellers have been the catalysts of enabling positive social changes in their communities.

I'll have to admit that positive social change is not something I readily associate with bookstores, but it seems that some do. From what I can tell, activism in the book blogging world is present, but in it's nascent stages. Recent conversations around banned books, gender bias in reviewing, and the funding of public libraries shows that there is room and interest in book blogging for issue-oriented activity, but this seems a tertiary concern at the moment. The physical location of independent bookstores is something that would be difficult for a blogger or group of bloggers to replicate in a local community, but the potential for regional, national, and possibly international activity is largely untapped.  

I'm not sure if this congruence in the functions of bookstores and book blogs is good or bad...or even for whom it might be good or bad. There's more to be said about how they are different, of course, but it does seem that, at their core, good book blogs and good bookstores are in much the same business. 

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.
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Friday, September 24, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

For the life of me, I can't formulate a coherent reading of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. There are plenty of reviews out there, so I was hoping to offer some kind of different perspective on the book, but find myself unable to corral them into anything. So, to the devil with corralling and let commence a parade of critical non-sequitors! These observations are probably best suited for those who have already read the book, since I don’t go into anything like context or summary, so I apologize for those who have yet to read it. (Past here, there be spoilers.)

1. I can't help associating Patty Berglund, the female lead in Freedom, with Mad Men's Betty Draper. And you know what? Betty Draper is more interesting and I'll tell you why. In Freedom, we get a couple hundred pages of Patty's diary, explaining the ins and outs of her personality, her childhood, her fantasies, and her disappointments. Betty, on the other hand, is still a mystery. Her future therefore seems more open and unpredictable, whereas Patty's psychology is so over-determined that there's really nothing left to be interested in.

2. Much of the coverage of Freedom seems to figure the book as somehow standing apart from most contemporary literary fiction (the Time cover would seem the most striking embodiment of this exceptionalist view). But I couldn't help but see the long line of Freedom's literary forebears: Henry James' The Golden Bowl, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, John Updike's Couples, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, James Salter's Light Years and on and on; the long trail of American novels about married couples of the ruling class (and the just under the ruling class) feels quite present here.

3. This reminds me of something one of my undergraduate professors, the great James Carothers, once told me: "I have never yet read an accurate portrayal of the silent life of a couple that has lived together for many years." My own reading experience has born this out as well, but the absence of any sustained effort on Franzen's part to show us how Patty and Walter were together during their good years empties their later struggles of much interest. (For the record, Prof. Carothers also said that he thought repetitive manual labor and excruciating physical pain were unrepresentable in prose. Always found this fascinating. And true.)

4. Even though Patty's "autobiography" takes up a significant part of the novel, I am reminded that we should not be fooled into thinking we know her any better than any of the other characters. In fact, I might argue that we know her less well. In literature, a character's direct composition (diary, letters, etc.) are actually further removed from their interiority than direct narration for one simple reason: they have control over their self-representation in these moments. A great example is Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For most of the novel, we get Stephen Daedalus' story in the form of third-person omniscience. However, the last part of the novel is Stephen's diary, and we end up knowing less about what he's feeling and thinking for it.

5. With this in mind, you can see the trouble Franzen has with writing women. Patty's text (with a prose style that is remarkably similar to the rest of the novel) is really an end-around of having to write her as Franzen writes Richard, Walter, and Joey. And none of the other important female characters (Lalitha, Jessica, Connie, Carol) have passages in which Franzen explores their interiority. Even the history of Walter's family is strikingly patrilinear. It's somewhat difficult not to see Franzen's depiction of women here as somewhat akin to Richard's womanizing; they find women interesting and important, but distant and unknowable--with Patty, for both of them, the exception that demonstrates the rule.

6. Franzen's success as an essay writer in the years since The Corrections has, to my mind, had a deleterious effect on his fiction. There are simply too many essayistic moments in Freedom (close-reading the persona of Conor Oberst being perhaps the most glaring example) for my taste. His impulse seems to be to diagnose, rather than to portray, the world around him. The Berglunds are so overtly emblematic of a particular swath of American life that they, conversely, represent no one. Compare them to a literary couple like, say, Nicole and Dick Diver from Tender is the Night, and I think Franzen’s deductive portrayal which culls character from the zeitgeist is less effective than Fitzgerald’s inductive one, which achieves transcendence through specificity.

7. I am no longer really interested in this story. The domestic struggles of the well-off seem sufficiently well-trodden in popular culture. Frazen's strain to connect the Berglund discord to larger social issues seems to me to exemplify the barrenness of this particular milieu. Maybe there's something new and interesting to be said about it, but it has to be, you know, new and interesting.

8. To add my ballot to the voting on the meaning of the title: I think it's a canard. Like the fate of the Cerulean Warbler, freedom here is seen as an end in itself whose propagation and maintenance justifies a great deal of wrong-doing. In Walter's professional life, the warbler provides cover for huge crimes against the environment by corporate America. This situation is doubled in his son Joey's foray into defense-contracting, in which he profits mightily from the war in Iraq where "freedom" is the nominal casus belli. This association between the warbler and "freedom" is codified, perhaps even too overtly, on the cover of the American edition itself: the warbler and freedom stand nearly face to face.

9. Speaking of mirrors, what an amazing selection for Oprah. I've only read a dozen or so of the books she has selected, but I can't imagine there has been one that represents her viewership so directly. How many Patty Berglunds will read Freedom? And what will they see in it?

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week Interview Swap

One of the really fine ideas coming out of Book Blogger Appreciation Week is an interview swap. We were randomly assigned a fellow book blogger to interview and asked to post the interview on our own site. 

My interviewer/interviewee is Adele from Persnickety Snark. She reads, reviews, writes about and realy immerses herself in the world of young adult literature. She's comprehensive, smart, funny, and honest---all things I think you'll see in the interview which begins now:

1. I'm going to start of selfishly here: give me three YA recommendations for someone who mostly reads literary fiction. What are the most interesting titles out there?

Some Girls Are (Courtney Summers - 2010) - reading this is like being hit in the gut with a baseball bat and then being dragged behind a speeding train.  Told from the perspective of a mean girl hench(wo)man on the outs from her hellish tribe it is a visceral tale of escalating cruelty.  Instead of being the victim, the protagonist keeps the fight going strong while grappling with the notion that redemption is not possible.

Jellicoe Road (Melina Marchetta - 2008) - complex structure meets exquisite characterisation in a deep and connective storyline. Also, there's a really hot guy in fatigues that you will come to love dearly.  This is my favourite YA title in the world and I am even more proud that it was written by a fellow Aussie.  It also won the biggest YA literary prize, the Michael L. Prinz Medal, last year

Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side (Beth Fantaskey - 2009) - a great alternative to Twilight.  Imagine if a teen vampire showed up and declared you were'd tell him he was full of crap and stab him with a pitchfork, right?  Hilarious antidote to the sparkly vampire nonsense.

2. I saw you were in New York for book-related happenings recently. What were your impressions of my fair city? Surprises? Likes or dislikes?

I am a country mouse.  I grew up in small towns in country Australia and have only started traveling the world this year.  New York was completely overwhelming in the best and worst sense.  So many people, so much noise, so much light and yet I could not stop grinning like a loon the entire time.   It was a surprise how lovely everyone was.  I was expecting Soup Nazis a-plenty but people were friendly and helpful.  I fell in love with the ceiling in Grand Central Station, the MET and wanted to sit overlooking the Bethesda Fountain forever.  I was rather enamoured with the bookstores (especially Books of Wonder - a children and YA literature store) after spending most of the year in Japan.  It's a wonderful place and I can't wait to return.

3. What do you think your blogging strengths are? What would you like to improve (or what do you actively avoid)?

I am unfailingly honest and give reasons for my opinions - not always done in the YA blogosphere.  I think my biggest strength is my discussion posts on various aspects of the young adult lit biz.  I receive the most feedback from them and I think they tow the line between snark, humour and an authentic, justified position on matters.

My biggest blog-fail is that I lurk.  I don't comment nearly enough and I do need to engage in the community more.  But in terms of my blog content...probably being more varied in the genres I review within YA.

4. How about a funny/interesting/sad story from your reading life?

A sad (as in pathetic) aspect of my reading history is that for a year or two in my teen years all I read were class assigned texts and Harlequin romance novels....judge away!

5. One question I've been thinking about on my blog of late is the difference between the way and amount men and women read. Some think this difference begins during childhood. You are a teacher and YA blogger: what do you make of this?

I am from a family divided by gender in terms of our reading.  The women read.  The men don't.  My mother modelled reading as part of our goodnight ritual and on a personal basis all throughout my childhood.  My sister reads frequently but I leave both of them for dead.  My dad hasn't read a book since 1967....which I find beyond comprehension.  I am not even taking creative licence on that -  he hasn't read a book since high school.  Frightening huh?  My brother reads sporadically - titles on cricket and war, mainly non-fiction.

So what I am trying to say is that all three of us were brought up the same way with the same influences and we ended up having similar reading habits depending on gender.  Women reading fiction with a bent towards more commercial titles and my brother preferring non-fiction, "blokey" reads like my grandfather (who does read).  I don't subscribe to that as a teacher though, I think there is a right book for just need to look.  But if you look at my family, you see some gender divides that I do witness in my wider sphere of friends, colleagues and students.

6. What do you think is the single most egregious misconception about YA literature?

That it is poorly written. 

There's badly written work in all areas of the literary world (coughNicholasSparkscough) so to discount teen directed titles as bad purely based on its intended audience is ignorant.  YA is no longer equatable with Sweet Valley High.  The rise in adults reading YA is evidence of great stories and great writing available for all. Teen titles are more tightly edited with a clipping pace and are far less likely to be self-indulgent and readers respond to that.

7. Toni Morrison once said that she is writing the books she wants to read but don't yet exist. If you could tell your favorite author what kind of book to write next, what would it be?
I wouldn't.  It would ruin that amazing moment when you read their upcoming title's blurb for the first time.  I like the surprise element.  One of my favourite authors Elizabeth Scott surprised me this year by writing a superb book about a teen suicide bomber (when she's primarily known for chick-lit).  I couldn't in my wildest dreams have imagined that for her.

8. Last one: what is the difference between being merely persnickety and being merely snarky?
What's the difference between the Queen and Perez Hilton?  :)

Many thanks to Adele for her answers (and questions). If you'd like to see the excellent questions she asked me (and my modest answers), she's got them up at her blog.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week Giveaway

So, the Ape will be posting a few things in conjunction with Book Blogger Appreciation Week. First up, a two-volume Jeanette Winterson giveaway.

Winterson won the Whitbread Award for first fiction for Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a funny, sad, thinly-disguised account of her childhood and coming of age in a evangelical family in Northern England. So that's the first title.

The second is Winterson's The Stone Gods, a satrical novel about three people chosen to colonize a second earth but, due to a technical malfunction, end up returning to the past. The New York Times called the novel "Scary, beautiful, witty, and wistful by turn, dipping into the known past as it explores potential futures.

So if you'd like to be entered in the giveaway, please send us an email (readingape AT gmail DOT com) with your mailing address by Friday, September 17 (Sadly, we can only offer this to people in the US and Canada). We'll put the names in the hat to decide the winner.

You can check out a complete list of Book Blogger Appreciation Week giveaways here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The the Desert

Amanda over at Desert Book Chick invited us to offer our further thoughts on reading and the gender gap over at her blog, and we were quite happy to oblige. So if you're interested in our current thinking on the matter/issue/brewhaha, go visit her blog and see what we wrote.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody

Reading Rick Moody's The Four Fingers of Death is somewhat like getting a ticket to DisneyWorld, then being told you must go on every ride, eat every kind of food, and see every show. On a Saturday. In August.

On such a visit, you will spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting while hot, tired, and subject to screaming children, and frazzled parents. You will remark on how crowded it is, how it is both an amazing and revolting place, how it can be strange, terrible, and sublime. How you're not sure if you'd go back, but you're oddly glad that you experienced it.

For The Four Fingers of Death, like DisneyWorld, is over-stuffed, indulgent, boring, dizzying, entertaining, and exaperating by turn. If only it just wasn't so long. Or maybe if the last 250 pages were different. Or if you had any sort of reasonable belief that it all adds up to anything. Or maybe if there was slightly less mechanized sex or perhaps fewer sentient chimpanzees with Napoleon complexes. Like maybe zero sentient chimpanzees with Napoleon complexes.

But then there are moments where you forget the stench and noise and simply marvel at what's possible.

Also like at Disneyworld, the artificiality is part of the fun here. Most of The Four Fingers of Death is the 2025 novelization of a fictional 1960s B-movie, The Crawling Hand. The author of this novelization, Montrese Crandall, took the ob after winning a bet over a chess match with a mysterious baseball card fanatic; trust me, this was the most coherent part of the story.

This frame, of Crandall's artistic frustration, romantic loneliness, and unfulfilled ambition, provides Moody with the opportunity, in the main part of the work, to experiment, to indulge, and to create some of the more amazing set pieces you are likely to read, along with passages that are repetitive, inscrutable, and virtually unreadable.

The "plot" of the novel-within-the-novel is at once irrelevant and crucial. The actual story of a disastrous Mars mission that culminates in the introduction of a rampaging, diseased appendage (the titular "four fingers" are the remaining digits on the hand of one of the Mars astronauts) is not terribly engaging, but it gives Moody such a range of locations, cirumstances, characters, and ideas that it's hard to imagine any other story containing his perambulations.

The central experience of reading The Four Fingers of Death is to be amazed and aggravated in extreme proximity. For example, Moody gives entertaining, psychedelic passages like this:
Silence is a thing onto which meanings can be projected. In silence you might believe, with the proper balance of chemical reagents, that a radical depopulating of the desert landscape is called for, in which the white man and all of his ways, his preposterous medical clinics with their radiological devices, and his steroid-enhanced, lacrosse-playing ubermen, should be deforested, by whatever means there was for deforesting the whiteman.
Elsewhere, his inventions fail, and they fail in extended, spectacular fashion:
He couldn't feel one fucking thing in his leg, not one fucking thing; his leg felt like it wasn't even his own fucking leg, and when he looked down at the leg, or at the other leg, at the pair of legs, it was like they were not legs at all, like they were fucking lengths of PVC pipes or something. (This continues for another six pages.)
There are substantial chunks of gold here, but it requires a sturdy back to sift through all the slag. It is likely that only the intrepid will find the odyssey worthwhile, as The Four Fingers of Death brings Longfellow's "girl with the curl" to mind:
There was a little girl, who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead,
And when she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Is This What Gender Bias in Reading Looks Like?

Our last post about the Weiner/Picoult/New York Times fracas got us thinking about our own reading choices, as we are the breed of primate to read the kinds of books reviewed in The New York Times. If it's possible that the Grey Lady expresses some selection bias in its reviews, might it be possible that your humble, opposable-thumb sporting Ape has some bias in his reading selections?

Unfortunately, the short answer seems to be yes.

After we finish reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom sometime this weekend, The Ape will have read forty-five novels/short story collections this year, most of them new titles. Of these, only eight are by women. Even more startlingly, none of the women writers were of color.

We are not happy about this. It seems that if we reading according only to our taste, we overwhelming choose writers like us: white, male, and American (though we go out of our way to cover contemporary American writing, so that last one is not a surprise).

Some gravitation towards sameness is neither shocking nor undesirable, but the imbalance here is dismaying and is cause for some self-reflection. How did this happen and what is to be done about it?

Some of this is contingent: burning through all three of Stieg Larsson's books and and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy perhaps skewed the numbers. Still even last year, of the sixty-one novels/story collections we read, only fifteen were by women, somewhat better than this year, but still not a ratio we're comfortable with.

Perhaps as Picoult and Weiner charge, there is a bias in mainstream book-reviewing and that bias, paired with whatever our own biases are, materially affects the authors we read. Perhaps we've overlooked some serious, talented women for reasons that are not fully realized.

Perhaps the genre itself is skewed; perhaps it is dominated, for reasons either related or not to our own biases, by white men. Here are the female writers of American literary fiction with new books (either paperback or hardback) we've read this year: Julie Orringer, Lorrie Moore, Hilary Thayer Hamann, Amy Greene, Jennifer Egan, Aimee Bender, and Michelle Hoover. Who have we missed? Jane Smiley has a new book, but we've always been lukewarm on her. Is that the smoking gun, our relative lack of excitement for Jane Smiley?

For comparison's sake, here's a gender breakdown of The Millions' most anticipated books of 2010: forty-two total, eight by women--a ratio that seems oddly familiar. And yet not at all comforting.

We're going to thinking about this further, but are also interested to hear what others make of this. We're particularly interested in titles we might pick up to fill in whatever gaps we've missed from women writers over the past year.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Weiner Picoult v. The World

After a late summer vacation and the beginning of fall classes, the Ape gets back into the blogging-swing. Coming up at The Reading Ape: reviews of Franzen’s Freedom, Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death, a reading disease self-diagnosis, and further considerations of reading and the gender gap.

But up first, we pause a moment to reflect on the Weiner-Picoult v. The New York Times whirlwind that kicked up over the last couple of weeks.  Jason Pinter’s interview with the duo for The Huffington Post provides an abundance of mill-grist, so let’s take a look (Ape note: we have never read a work by either Picoult or Weiner.).

1. I am shocked, SHOCKED, to discover there is gambling in this establishment!
Jennifer Weiner: I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention.
Takeaway:  Unfortunately, Weiner’s basic point is correct: female writers have not received the same sort of attention that male writers have. So it’s not the sentiment that is particularly interesting here, but the timing (after all, Woolf covered this all 80 years ago in A Room of One’s Own). There seems to be something specifically galling about the Franzen hoopla for Weiner (let’s put a pin in the phrase “serious critic’s attention” for future use).
2. Sometimes the Answer is in the Question
Picoult: …When in today's market you only have a limited review space for books, I wonder what the rationale is for the New York Times to review the same book twice, sometimes in the same week.
Takeaway: The people who write about books for The Times want to write about books they think are important, not giving the widest possible coverage. The narrowing of the focus necessarily increases the wattage given to certain books, and multiple reviews of high profile books tempers the clout of any individual review with multiple perspectives. 

3. The Medium is the Message
Picoult:… I read a lot of commercial fiction and a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdoms as what i see lauded in literary fiction.
Takeaway: One thing that the both Picoult and Weiner seem to overlook is the primacy of form in “serious criticism.” Perhaps Picoult is right that the themes and wisdoms are similar, but presumably the style and shape of those themes and wisdoms are not. The mass market appeal of a Picoult novel (or for that matter a Larsson or Grisham) due to “readability” suggests an artlessness that doesn’t appeal to people who spend their lives thinking about literature. 

4. Careful, your Ad Hominem is Showing
Weiner: First of all, I think it's hilarious that a guy who went to Sidwell Friends, Yale and Johns Hopkins, favors "made-to-measure Lord Willys shirts," snacks on charcuterie, sips Calvados and throws book parties at "the velvet-cloaked Russian Samovar" is presuming to lecture anyone on what constitutes true populism. Let the word go forth: my populism is real...and it's spectacular. 
Takeaway: This is not a takeaway so much as it is context: both Weinder and Picoult went to Princeton. 

5. The Flattening of Culture
Weiner: How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn't exist on the paper's review pages? It would be as if the paper's film critics only reviewed tiny independent fare and refused to see so much as a single frame of a romantic comedy, or if the music critics listened to Grizzly Bear and refused to acknowledge the existence of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. How seriously would a reader take a critic like that?
Takeaway: Weiner suggests that a literary critic should have the same breadth as a critic of music or film, but as any serious reader knows, literature, as a genre, resists that sort of coverage. A film reviewer could reasonably see all the new releases in any given week; this is simply impossible for even the most active book reviewer. Couple that with the relative depth of serious book reviews and you start to see why the reviews in The Times can seem more arbitrary than its film or music reviews. 

6. Yea, But See, They Don’t Care About That.
Weiner: I think if the NYT cares about its darlings finding a wider audience, the smartest thing it can do is be a little more respectful toward the books readers are actually reading.
Takeaway: It’s not at all clear that this is the mission of the NY Times. In fact, we sincerely hope it isn’t. If the goal of The Times was to give attention to the books people were actually reading, we’d have mostly Twilight, Clive Cussler, and Sophie Kinsella reviews. And the food writing would be about Doritos. 
Criticism is the last line of a winnowing process that starts with agents, moves to publishers, then to booksellers and critics. Whatever cache the Times Review still has is because there is a level of discernment implied in what it reviews. Take away that discernment and the prestige evaporates. We’re not suggesting that the Times doesn’t require self-reflection (what doesn’t after all?), but that asking them to map popularity is counter-productive. 

7. I Still Don’t Get It
Weiner: I think a most respectful and informed attitude toward a wider range of books would help everyone - commercial writers, literary writers, men, women, and, most importantly, readers.
Takeaway: Weiner and Picoult, by their own admission, make a jillion dollars from their books and their readers adore them. What “help” do they need exactly? We wish they would just pull a full Fredo and say it: “I want respect and I was passed over!” We can understand this feeling and do indeed sympathize with it.
There is a case to be made, we think, that most readers feel estranged from literary writing; it is difficult, provocative, and sometimes experimental. It is, in a very real way, artistically elitist. And it’s these types of books that The Times highlights. Weiner and Picoult might be spot on when they say their books are similar enough to Hornby or Tropper to warrant inclusion: we are not familiar enough to say. 
If the Ape is honest with his primate-self, though, our attitude about the discernment of “serious critics” echoes the sentiment of Colonel Nathan Jessop in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men: I want them on that wall. I need them on that wall.
          But perhaps those of us who care about such things need to do a better job watching the watchers.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Recent Reading Round-Up

Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie
This collection of short stories captures the range of Alexie's larger body of work quite well. In ten "little" stories, he gives a grand tour of what it means to be Native American in contemporary America, to be both inside and outside, revered and obliterated, living and yet extinct. Considering his somewhat limited scope, his variety is remarkable: these stories are tender, fun, sad, and uplifting by turn--and all take place within a small population of Spokane Indians living in central Washington. Some writers jump from one historical moment and setting to another to spur their creativity (Doctorow comes to mind especially), but Alexie shows that fully exploring the possibilities of even a small group, if done well, offer seemingly limitless possibilities.

Bloodroot by Amy Greene
Bloodroot as several elements that would seem, at first blush, to turn us off the novel: child protagonists, sections labeled by speaker, agrarian mysticism, violence against women as the inciting incident, and an obivous, banal horticultural metaphor. Still, we found ourselves strangely compelled. For one, Greene is fantastic with setting and her rendering of life in the foothills of the Appalachian is reason enough to read Bloodroot. We think perhaps a less complicated narrative and an easing-off of the allegorical pedal would serve Greene well; she writes well enough to do without so much, well, art.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
If Eggers has done nothing else, he's confirmed that the phrase "non-fiction novel" is not a logical absurdity. Combined with What is the What, Zeitoun gives us the beginning of a fascinating direction for Eggers, whose first, blockbuster work, A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, was more a display of textual gymnastics than it was coherent. These true stories of people in the middle of major historical events give Eggers a project worthy of his skills. Zeitoun tells the story of a Muslim man and his family during Hurricane Katrina. It is a dizzying and unbelievable tale, told with reamarkable clarity and restraint.  Part Huck Finn, Part Native Son, Zeitoun is readable, poignant, infuriarting, and, impossibly, true.