Saturday, July 31, 2010

Assorted Reading-related Digital Diversions

A few reading-related technology baubles to divert you on this late summer weekend:

1.    ReadMore (iPhone):
We know there is a approaching pathological need in some readers to track what, when, and where they read. ReadMore aims to enable such matters by helping you track how many reading sessions it takes you to finish a book, how fast you read, when you read, and other statistics. We only wish that the program could aggregate and publish your stats so that you could share them, like little baseball cards with your key numbers. For two bucks, there’s a lot of OCD potential here.

2. (web)
Long have we bemoaned the lack of a centralized resource for tracking upcoming releases and books in progress. ReaderAlert helps with the first; you can create custom searches by author, genre, and subject so that you can be notified when new books are either released or scheduled for release. It’s not quite as precise as we’d like, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

3.    Live Book Depository Buying Map (web)
Now this is mesmerizing. The Book Depository now has a live map showing what is being bought and where. Publishing voyeurism at its purest. We don’t know why watching someone in the UK buy Lauren Conrad’s L.A. Candy (?!) or someone in Singapore by The Lost Symbol (o, what American cultural imperialism hath wrought) is so addictive, but it is. We’re thinking that we’re going to buy a 40 inch plasma for the sole purpose of having this running twenty four hours a day. What? Is it really that much weirder than a giant box of water with tropical fish floating around?

We love this sort of stuff, so if you’ve discovered something akin to these, please let us know. Seriously, don’t hold out. We got the fever and the only cure is more techno-literary detritus.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review Policy --- DRAFT

Dear readers and fellow book bloggers,

The Ape has been putting off crafting a review policy, but a recent mini-spike in inquiries has at last forced our hand. Below is our attempt at a reasonable policy, and we'd be enormously appreciative of any feedback you might have the time to offer. Have we left something out? Said something, in Orwell's words, "avoidably barbaric?" Let us know in the comments, on Twitter, or by email.
                                                       ---Thanks in advance, TRA

The Ape is open to receiving review copies from publishers, agents, and authors.  However, we only make time for literary fiction and literary history, so unless your book could reasonably be shelved in either category, we’re probably not a good fit for you.

Also, we make no promises about giving the book a review, let alone a positive one.  We’re committed to giving any accepted book a fair chance, but our reading time is too dear to us to promise more.  Unfortunately, we’re not currently equipped to accept e-books or other digital formats.

We’re also not interested, for the time being, in blog tours, author interviews, guest posts, or giveaways, but this state of affairs is subject to change.

If, after all this, you’d like to discuss submitting your book or would like to know more about our readership, please do email us at readingape (at)

The Reading Ape

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Trouble with "The Trouble with Amazon"

Colin Robinson, writing for The Nation, offers a consideration of Amazon’s massive influence in the publishing world. It’s a complicated picture to be sure, but Robison gives a lucid if somewhat incomplete (more on this in a minute) snapshot of how Amazon’s dominance, business practices, and worldview are shaping the books being written, sold, and read.

There’s a lot here, and, using our earlier consideration of The New Yorker’s e-publishing state-of-the-union coverage as a model, we’d like to think about several of the specific points in detail.

1.    Nervous more than scared
[R]eaders and writers may ultimately not be best served by Amazon's race to become the biggest, cheapest and most convenient bookseller around.
Takeaway: This is as close to an argument as Robinson offers, and it seems to capture the tone and equivocation of much concern about Amazon. One thing to note here: writerly and readerly interests are aligned here, which we’re not so sure is either helpful or accurate.

2.    Distasteful insider baseball, Amazon-style
In 2004 a representative of the retailer contacted Melville's distributor demanding an additional discount. Such payments are illegal under antitrust law, which precludes selling at different prices to different customers. Large retailers circumvent this restriction by disguising the extra discount under the rubric of "co-op," money paid to the bookseller for promotional services, often notional. In this case the distributor did not bother with such niceties, describing what Amazon was after as "kickback."
Takeaway: So this clearly isn’t at all cool. That said, we’re not sure how much to care about this. The internecine warfare among publishers and retailers is nothing new really, though Amazon has definitely taken a page out of Wal-Mart’s playbook. Are these kinds of stories earth-shaking or just really irritating? Who is really being squeezed and why does that matter to the average book-buyer? Hard to know.

3.    What should the price of books be?
…an industry worried that low prices of electronic versions would undermine profits from printed books and generally lower the perceived value of the product.
Takeaway: The people who seem to care about publishing profits probably don’t care about the profits of Pfizer or BP or Coca-Cola. Why should a book-buyer care about “undermining” (read: lowering) the profits publishers make? This isn’t a rhetorical question, but a critical one. Also, “perceived value” of the product feels to us like just so much hand-wringing.

4.    It is a zero-sum game.
Amazon gave in with a statement revealing contempt toward the very idea of a publisher. "We will have to capitulate," it said, "because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles."
Takeaway: Amazon and publishers are fighting over who gets the profits from publishing. This is the main story, though perhaps not the most important one from The Ape’s point of view. What we care about is that the kinds of books we want to read are still available, no matter who is publishing or profiting from them. We’d like, if possible, for the people most responsible for writing and championing great books to enjoy some reward for their efforts. But, if we are honest, this isn’t as important to what we care about as the availability of quality books, especially literature. Professional writers are, in a historical perspective, a relative recent phenomenon, and we’re not sure that it’s the case that engrossing, meaningful literature will vanish if author’s don’t get six-figure advances or can give up their day jobs.

5.    Ah yes, the fetid waft of parentalism.
…a number of studies have shown that when people are offered a narrower range of options, their selections are likely to be more diverse than if they are presented with a number of choices so vast as to be overwhelming. In this situation people often respond by retreating into the security of what they already know.
Takeaway: Let’s say, for a moment at least, that this is true. Tough. That’s how ideas work. The suggestion that we should therefore somehow limit choices for readers’ own good seems both cynical and short-sighted. Who is to say that we should trust the people doing the limiting? We think it’s worth the extra effort of consciously selecting the ideas we consume if it means the full range of ideas are open to us. If some people retreat into intellectual solipsism, so be it. That’s the price of doing business in a free society.

6.    Apparently, book buying is magic.
The loss of serendipity that comes with not knowing exactly what one is looking for is lamented by ex-Amazon editor James Marcus: "Personalization strikes me as a mixed blessing. While it gives people what they want—or what they think they want—it also engineers spontaneity out of the picture. The happy accident, the freakish discovery, ceases to exist.”
Takeaway: This strikes us a literary romanticism. “Happy accident?” Really? This is what the traditional publishing industry is protecting? No wonder Amazon is eating their lunch. Media, publicity, and word of mouth are also given no quarter in this formulation, though these things, in our experience at least, are hugely important in the choice equation.

7.    You can buy more books if you buy from Amazon.
In addition to regularly offering bestsellers at more than 50 percent off, Amazon offers a wide range of titles for around a third off the recommended price.
Takeaway:  There’s no way to make this go down any easier; your book-buying budget goes farther at Amazon. If you save 50% off the cover price at Amazon, you can buy twice as many books with the same cost. What’s debatable is if the cost-saving Amazon provides is worth the hidden “prices” to the end-buyer.

8. Your concern would be more compelling if it didn’t align directly with your interests.
Responding to the effects of price wars last fall the American Booksellers Association warned, "If left unchecked...predatory pricing policies will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to maintain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public."
We do not think that the availability of ideas is what is freaking the ABA out. We think this is what they think will scare book-buyers, who tend to be more liberal and educated than the general public, into buying books in ways that benefit the members of the ABA. Try again, please.

9. Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?
…a healthy publishing industry would ensure that skilled authors are recompensed fairly for their work, that selection by trusted and well-resourced editors reduces endless variety to meaningful choice and that ideas and artistry are as important as algorithms and price points in deciding what is sold.
Takeaway: When have ideas and artistry been the primary determinant of what is sold? How many book-buyers think about the trustworthiness and resources of editors? The case seems to be that Amazon is threatening the viability of things that don’t exist. Author compensation does seem to us to bear directly on the production of good writing, but little evidence is presented in this article one way or the other on the matter. (If anyone out there could point us to some information along those lines, we’d love to see it)


 We’re not arguing here that Amazon isn’t a problem; we’re arguing that we’re not yet sure how, as a reader interested primarily in the reading itself, how to deploy the finite book-buying resources we have. Would it really be better to buy half as many books from independents and fill out the rest of our library with used books, which don’t contribute at all to the health of the publishing industry? This is the question we’re interested in—how to make buying choices that balance our individual needs with the literary world as a whole.

There's quite a bit more of interest in Robinson's piece, so we encourage you to check it out for yourself. Here again, is the link.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Best Novels of far...

Like a keg at a frat party, it seems like we just tapped 2010, but now it is already half-finished.  Lest we find ourselves face down in the yard, wondering what the heck happened last year, The Ape offers the three best novels from the first six months. (Note: these are books published in 2010)

In ascending order:

3. The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

Comic novels rarely enjoy much award-love (Take a look at the past winners of the major book awards; you’ll find more laughs at a burn unit), but Lipsyte’s inventive, caustic, and down-right funny The Ask should be on your radar. Milo Burke, Lipsyte’s protagonist, is the worst kind of mediocrity—the kind that not-so-secretly believes they are destined for some ill-defined greatness. Struggling along at this job as a fund-raiser for a pretentious, mid-level university in New York City (this is starting to hit a wee close to home), Burke has disdain for the wealthy donors he must woo, contempt for comfortable liberalism of his friends, and a one-liner for everything. One to scratch your misanthropy itch, by way of your funny bone.

2. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

From our review:

Like many Holocaust stories, this one is harrowing, but the time Orringer spent establishing these characters and these stories in the first half of the book deepens our investment; the dreadful cost is brought home all the more powerfully because The Invisible Bridge shows us a time before the fall. Orringer's great achievement here is to give us the Holocaust anew, to remind us of the scale of what was lost and to cherish what survived.

The Invisible Bridge is a two-fer: the first half about a young man going to school in Paris, getting into trouble, and falling in love. (It’s the “We’ll always have Paris” backstory from Casablanca, if Bogie were Hungarian and Bergman older and had killed a cop.) The second half leverages our emotional investment from this deep grounding, as the Nazis, and their allies, round-up and exterminate Eastern Europe’s Jews. This is an engrossing read that has lingered in our minds, even as our raging bibliophilia has marched on.

1.  Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

We’re not alone in our admiration for Marlantes’ steady, enveloping novel of the Vietnam War, and it is sure to be in the mix for all of the major American literary awards. From our review:

Marlantes [is] unrelenting in his account of the Vietnam War's operational and political confusion; he doesn't spare us the arcana of a Marine officer's life, knowing full well, as one of the characters says, that the truth is not found, but assembled:
"Intelligence, Lieutenant," Simpson went on, "is built up by the fastidious collection of minutiae. You understand that, don't you? It isn't the result of spectacular finds. It's the result of hard work, constant attention to detail--to minutiae. Mi-nu-tiae."
And though Marlantes tries to guide us through the minutiae with a chart of the chain of command, a detailed map of the operation, and a lengthy glossary of military terminology, the deluge of call signs, equipment, procedures, ranks, titles, and tactics is beyond comprehension. And once Mellas [the novel’s protagonist] realizes (the reader alongside) that these particulars are not in themselves meaningful, but the minutiae out of which meaning is made, he comes to be himself at last.

Like The Invisible Bridge, Matterhorn re-visits familiar territory, but, and this is the sign of great writing, forces to reconsider what we thought we knew.


So, there you go—the leaders in the clubhouse for 2010. Several marquee releases await (seriously, just release the new Franzen already), but someone's going to have to bring some serious heat to top Matterhorn.

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.

Shop Indie BookstoresVisit

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Little Stock Taking

We're taking a look at our blogging efforts here at the Ape, trying to see what we've done, what we haven't done, what we do well, and what we don't. As part of that process, here are some hits and misses from our recent activity (the idea for this came from ProBlogger's 7 Links Exercise).

1. Our second post (supposed to be the first post, but our first posted has already been recently recycled):
Our Kind of Guy: a re-post of a story from the New Yorker about an inveterate book collector. We don't do as much re-posted+commentary as we thought we might, but maybe we should reconsider that.

2. A post we enjoyed writing: 
The Top Twenty Literary Characters of the Last Twenty Years: This was a hoot. Not sure if the list is a good one or not, but it got us to think about what we've read and what has stuck with us (and why).

3. A post that had a great discussion:
The amount and quality of interaction we've had around our Reading and the Gender Gap series has been a pleasant surprise. This segment, Reading and the Gender Gap Redux, focused on book blogging and, perhaps not surprisingly, spurred some interesting thinking.

4. A post on someone else's blog you wish you'd written:
A couple of weeks ago, there was interweb conversation about the phrase "having time to read." We weighed in as did many others, but Nymeth's thoughts over at Things Mean A Lot seemed to strike the right chord/ Here's an excerpt.  
Obviously I WANT people to read – I’m very passionate about literature, and I want more people to experience the many, many splendid things books have to offer. I want to share this thing that I love so much, but I worry that the prescriptive approaches I sometimes see, particularly in educational contexts, will backfire.
The post was personal, passionate, and carefully considered. We strive for all three.  

5. Your most helpful post:
This is a bit difficult to judge, but from re-posting and re-tagging, the Swiss Army 10 feature seems to have had some follow-through. The goal was to offer general purpose recommendations that are both serious and entertaining.  We've been meaning to get back to this with a variation, tentatively titled 10 Readable Classics. Sound interesting?

6. A post with a title you are proud of:
We're not terrible good at titling, either for SEO or for entertainment value, but we kind of liked The Special Disappointment of a Failed Conceit. It summarized our review of Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, while not so gently mocking it. We thought it clever....ish.

7. A post you wish more people had read:
It was an early post, so it's perhaps not surprising that it didn't get as many eyeballs as some others, but Hoping for an End to Fate was the first post we wrote that we felt like said something in a style we're aiming for: considered, serious, readable, and a wee bit humorous. It also was commentary on a literary idea, born out of a reading experience---a kind of writing somewhere between review and criticism.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Special Disappointment of a Failed Conceit

When does a conceit become gimmicky? Or when does a gimmick rise to the level of a conceit? I’ve been thinking about this for the last few days, trying to formulate something more substantial than “I know it when I see it.” It’s not going particularly well.

I’d never really thought about this distinction before reading Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Usually, a gimmick announces itself loudly and plainly: stuffed crust pizza, a special holder in the dashboard for flowers, every storyline with “amnesia,” television shows with judges.  Hooks like these are supposed to get you in the door, but they aren’t the show itself; they are the amuse-bouches of modern commerce, the sizzle that sells the steak.

But conceits are different. Conceits look like gimmicks. Probably some people think that competitive cooking is the conceit of Iron Chef, though it’s just a gimmick, like bearded ladies or everything David Blaine does. The goal of a gimmick is differentiation, but the goal of a conceit is something deeper.
In fact, conceits are as old as the novel itself. In the Decameron, Boccaccio imagines 10 young courtesans fleeing plague-ravaged Florence for the countryside, telling rowdy and ribald stories along the way.  Cervantes came up with perhaps the best conceit ever-the simple, almost believable idea that an obsessive reader of medieval romances might come under the belief that he himself is a knight-errant. Like fiction itself, a good conceit uses the unreal to uncover and examine something about the real. Don Quixote’s delusion disjoints him from the society of his day, and the way characters react to him forms the center of Cervantes’ commentary on Spanish morality. (Alan Moore’s Watchmen is one of the better contemporary analogues; his proposition that superheroes are “real” allows him to explore power and control in ways both unexpected and fascinating.)

So perhaps this higher-calling of the literary conceit is the reason that Bender’s latest novel was such a disappointment. The conceit (we’ll go with term  for a minute) is pretty clever, and when I’ve told people about it, the universal response has been “That sounds kinda cool.” So here it is. On her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein discovers, while eating a birthday cake made for her by her mother, that she can taste the feelings of others.  Not bad, right? (Have you noticed that nine out of ten cooks interviewed on the Food Network say that “love” makes their food special? How can “love” make it special if everyone says that? I want someone to say “Actually, it’s a gripping fear of death that makes my hamburgers so moist.”)

Indeed it’s a good hook, and Rose’s realization, detected somewhere between the butter and sugar of the cake, that her mother is fundamentally unhappy with her life jolts Rose into a premature adulthood (I’m assuming, for the moment, that being an adult corresponds with recognizing that other people have, you know, feelings). This happens in the first dozen or so pages of the novel, leaving the 250 or so remaining pages for Bender to explore the ramifications of this little skill/curse. But….nothing much happens.

Rose goes to school. She tries, unsuccessfully, to make friends. She avoids eating food made by people she knows, and when possible eats mass-produced food as it has the bare minimum of human emotion in it. She gets interested in cooking. And that’s pretty much it. About one hundred pages in, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is like many other earnest, well-meaning coming-of-age novels. No worse, but not a whole lot better.

And it’s really quite disappointing. Bender writes well and Rose is the kind of lonely, likable (though perhaps by now overly familiar) child protagonist that readers tend to cheer for. But there is a missed, and I’m tempted to say wasted , opportunity for Bender to chart the hiddenness of our daily lives. It is a strange choice to give Rose this ability and then spend the novel having her avoid it. Indeed, the reader is likely to feel much the same hollowness in the novel that Rose detects in her mother:
None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness. My mother’s able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

You Don't Have a Favorite Author, Redux

Every week, Jenn over at Crazy for Books hosts the Book Blogger Hop--a chance to explore some new book blogs. This week, she asked that participants talk about a favorite author, but we always bristle at that question, like, we think, many readers do. However, in the spirit of good sportsmanship, we don't want to shirk the task, so will instead offer a previous post on the subject (in fact, the very first post here at The Ape).

You Don't Have a Favorite Author

As a proud and pugnacious fanboy of literary fiction, the Ape is often asked THE question question that all of his fellow bibliophiles both love and dread: "Who is your favorite author?"

This seemingly innocuous, even kind-hearted question causes a peculiar paralysis, one born of self-consciousness and existential dread. Because here's a little secret---no one has a favorite author. That's right, you heard it here first; we're all lying when we tell someone that John Steinbeck or Barbara Kingsolver or Toni Morrison or Tolstoy or Austen is our favorite author.

Don't resist; you know this to be true. Can you really say that you always crave Dostoyevsky on the beach? Or Dickens on a long plane ride? Or Margaret Atwood on the subway? Or Hemingway on rainy Sundays or Joyce on a bright September morn? You see what we're getting at here. 

One of The Reading Ape's founding principles is that our tastes are as changeable as the weather and twice as unpredictable. So, we need a stable of go-to authors to attend to our carousel of whim, our revolving door of obsession. So stay tuned as we offer bizarrely specific recommendations for the myriad of reading occasions that comprise our literary lives.

You Should Be Listening to RadioLab

They say there's no zealot like the convert, and so it is with the Ape and podcasts. We have several favorites, though not many yet of the bookish variety. Still, when we recently listened to this episode of RadioLab, our favorite current podcast, it became clear we had to share it.

From the show's teaser:
In [this] podcast, a look at what scientists uncover when they treat words like data. In [Agatha] Christie’s case, an English professor makes a diagnosis decades after her death. And in a study involving 678 nuns—as Dr. Kelvin Lim and Dr. Serguei Pakhomov from the University of Minnesota explain—an unexpected find in a convent archive leads to a startling twist. In both examples, words serve as a window into aging brains…a window that may someday help pinpoint very early warning signs for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. We also hear from Sister Alberta Sheridan, a 94-year-old Nun Study participant.
It's a fascinating twenty minutes for the bookishly-inclined and serves as a good example of the kinds of stories and ideas RadioLab covers--smart and puckish considerations of science in the everyday. Highly, highly recommended. (You can subscribe through iTunes here)

(PS- Anyone have any good leads on literary podcasts? We currently listen to Books on the Nightstand, but haven't uncovered any others to our liking. We'd especially like a Siskel and Ebert-model, but about books, preferably fiction. Anyone know of one? And are we crazy, or would that work? Drop us a note in the comments or by email: readingape (at)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wishing We Were at the Beach...

We don’t know where you hang your hat, but out New York City way, it is hot. Surface of the sun hot. Hotter than Marilyn Monroe-reading-Ulysses hot. Such weather makes us long for balmier climes—and the books we would read were we there. And while we know “beach book” has a certain connotation (mindless thriller, mindless romance, mindless sci-fi, mindless chick lit), the Ape has a particular affinity for reading books set on or around the beach while reveling in a little supine sunbathing. Here are a few recent favorites:

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead does a remarkable job of capturing that elusive quality of summering on the shore as a kid. Days are long, but the summer itself remarkably short. Idle curiosity can turn serious in a flash, just as the long years of childhood can change, in one season, into a rush of adolescence. Whitehead manages to dodge the easy wistfulness of many such novels though by giving us such a strong sense of place—the summering enclave for well-to-do African Americans in the 1970s. It’s another strong outing for Whitehead, who now has written four wildly different novels. And while this one doesn’t quite have the virtuosity of The Intuitionist or John Henry Days, Sag Harbor is no vacation from it either.

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard 

It's said of Prince that he can play virtually any instrument in virtually any style. Annie Dillard, it would seem, has a similar felicity with the written word. She has written glittering essays, introspective, moving memoirs, and serious works of theology and philosophy. In 2008, she announced that she'd be retiring from professional writing with the publication of her second novel, The Maytrees. And what a finale it is. The novel follows the meeting, courtship, marriage, divorce, reconciliation and death of the title couple on mid-century Cape Cod. The setting gives Dillard a chance to display her particular gift for setting, and the story itself manages to elicit empathy without resorting the rancor or mawkishness of so many failed relationship stories. As a bonus, Dillard has a penchant for the arcane word, which adds a certain pleasure of discovery to the already sparkling prose.

Spartina by John Casey

The Ape confesses a certain fascination with maritime literature. Fishing, boats, nautical navigation, knots—we can’t get enough of the whole lot of it. Spartina is the name of the boat that Dick Pierce has been trying to build for years and is a metaphor for his life—solid, unfinished, and needing attention he is somehow unable to give it. Casey is quite good both with the details of the life of a Rhode Island fisherman (or at least crafty enough to fool the uninitiated) and with the quiet complexity of middle age. Spartina is a kind of cross between The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (though much less dramatic) and Empire Falls by Richard Russo (though with better prose). This is a personal favorite and an author that deserves a wider readership, which seems strange considering that Casey won the 1989 National Book Award for this novel.

(PS-We’re always looking for more great littoral literature, so drop us a hint in the comments if you’ve got a recommendation)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Some Real Numbers on E-Reading

Analyst Jakob Nielson decided to put the rubber to the road and do a real study on the differences between e-reading and paper-ink reading. Here's the result:
The iPad measured at 6.2% lower reading speed than the printed book, whereas the Kindle10.7% slower than print. However, the difference between the two devices was not statistically significant because of the data's fairly high variability.
Thus, the only fair conclusion is that we can't say for sure which device offers the fastest reading speed. In any case, the difference would be so small that it wouldn't be a reason to buy one over the other. 
Speed is something we hadn't really thought about and don't have a ready answer for why this might be. It may be familiarity; perhaps once people are as used to e-reading as they are to print, these numbers might even out.

Though if it doesn't, this difference is not insignificant: if you read several dozen books a year, this difference could add up to several less read-books over the same time. Sample size here is pretty small and this is early in the game, but this is the first real study we've seen, so we thought we'd pass it along. 

Friday, July 2, 2010

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis: A Review-A-Long

Last week, Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel to his stunning 1985 debut Less Than Zero, arrived with no small degree of anticipation. Ellis has been a controversial writer ever since Less than Zero, and the mesmerizing mixture of shock and yawn that characterized that book does reappear in Imperial Bedrooms, but with far less effect. Imperial Bedrooms has not to this point been warmly and, rather than just throw another log onto the fire, we thought we’d do another little review-a-long, this time with Janet Maslin. (Bold text is from her review in the New York Times; italicized text is my response).

Let’s do this:

Whatever its genesis, what this vacant new book does best is demonstrate that there are more ways to be bored and boring in Los Angeles in 2010 than there were in 1985.

Maslin’s dead on here. We get extended descriptions of text-message conversations, marathon YouTube viewing sessions, and repeat visits to high-end retailers and restaurants. There’s a whole lot of nothing masquerading as something here. This was executed to scathing effect in Less than Zero because it was a fresh, contemporary critique by a contemporary. Imperial Bedrooms doesn’t say anything new, and, like the characters in it, masks banality, and eventually malice, with a veneer of techno-sophistication.

As “Imperial Bedrooms” begins, [Clay] is whinging that “someone we knew” wrote an unflattering book about Clay and his friends, and that the book was made into a movie[…]“Imperial Bedrooms” barely has time to set up this hall-of-mirrors conceit before abandoning it.

The ill-considered inclusion of a fiction-world version of Less than Zero feels like an idea born out of drunken bull-session. (“Wouldn’t it be cool if the characters in the new book were also characters in a book? That would be cra-zy.”) Perhaps to his credit, Ellis abandons the thread in the first few pages, but this only adds to the slap-dash feel of the novel. One of Less than Zero’s accomplishments was its remarkable pacing; it was a slow build, a transfixing crescendo from innocence to depravity. No such restraint exists in Imperial Bedrooms, as Ellis seems unable to maintain his prior focus.

It’s typical of Mr. Ellis to write a very long descriptive sentence about the soft beiges and recessed lighting and white-tiled balcony of the place while making only passing, casual reference to the party boy’s death. It’s also very like him to make the apartment a backdrop for casual cruelty.

“Casual cruelty” captures a feature of both novels beautifully, though Maslin seems to be dismissing it as some sort of ethical mis-step. Whatever the faults of Imperial Bedrooms, it does continue the moral flattening begun in Less than Zero. In a world where surface and sensation reign, pain and pleasure are equals, as are aesthetics and atrocities.  Representing cruelty casually gives the reader the sensation of amorality that seems to both fascinate and repel the reader and Clay himself. 

 […]there’s an element of real malaise in “Imperial Bedrooms.” The anomie and plot-derived menace may be contrived, but there’s a dread that feels genuine — and not because the book actually includes the line, “Sadness: it’s everywhere.” It’s the sense that options have narrowed for Mr. Ellis, whose most polarizing (“American Psycho”) or wild-eyed books (“Lunar Park”) have turned out to be his most vital ones.

By the end of the novel, I was thinking along these lines as well. Less than Zero’s ethical nullity pre-empted the need for any further exposition of it; once you’ve showed us the void, what else is there to do? This has been a literary puzzle, from Hamlet’s “there’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” to Joyce’s empty chalice, for some time. While Hamlet and Joyce turned to art to create meaning, to fill the abyss, Ellis seems stuck on gazing into the blackness--as Maslin suggests—a terrifyingly bleak beige. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Swinging in Somebody Else's Tree

Aarti over at Booklust has a recurring feature in which readers and bloggers talk about a favorite, perhaps under-the-radar book.
One book that you adore, that you prize, that changed your life, that you would save from a burning building, that you found serendipitously on a library shelf or at a used bookstore, looking lonely and ignored.  A book that thrills you but that, you have come to realize, no one else has really ever heard of, much less read. 
We offered The Hunters by James Salter, and Aarti was gracious enough to post it. Salter was well-known in the middle of the last century, but he is criminally under-appreciated now. So head on over and check out my humble exhortation to try The Hunters.