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.