Friday, April 30, 2010

Uncollected Thoughts: On Stieg Larsson's Milliennium Trilogy

Like boatloads of others, the Ape has torn through the first two novels in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy and has already pre-ordered the final chapter. And while you couldn’t reasonably call them edifying, they do read awfully damn well.

Still, the Ape is the Ape and we can’t let the particular weirdness of this phenomenon pass without some eye-brow raising. So here are a few observations on the series so far:
  1. A word on the writing style—there isn’t one. And I don’t mean that in the Hemingway/Salter minimalist sense but in the it-reads-like-a-shooting-script sense. Leafing back through The Girl Who Played with Fire, the Ape couldn’t find one sentence that might described as pleasurable or well-crafted. This is narrative functionalism at its very bleakest. We’re going to assume for the moment that the translation is faithful to say the following; this might be the plainest prose of any literary blockbuster I can remember.
  2. The directness of the narration, though, consistently dissolves when either of the two protagonists, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, is shopping, especially for food, technology, and Billy bookcases at Ikea. Larsson is oddly specific about Salander’s computers; we get screen size, model number, exact price, hard drive size, and amount of RAM (all Apple, of course). We even get the specs of the staff machines at Millienium, the excruciatingly boring investigative rag run by Blomkvist. I suppose if you know that an Apple G3 is an old computer, this might tell you something, but even the Ape’s freakish fascination with technology wasn’t enough to remain interested in this minutia. The random detailing extends to home furnishings as well: you can tell Larsson had an IKEA catalog out and open whenever it was time to describe an apartment. Do we really need to know the names of the IKEA armchairs and sofas?
  3. I know Larsson was primarily a journalist, but I don’t think we needed parenthetical citations for the books mentioned. I’m not kidding; titles of a book were immediately followed by publication information, like (Harvard University Press, 2001, $19.99). I’ve never seen anything like it.
  4. Lisbeth Salander is as close to a super-hero as you can get in a supposedly reality-based novel. She’s the greatest computer hacker in the world; she has a photographic memory; she is a chess savant; she is independently wealthy; she is a professional quality boxer; and she has a mathematical mind capable of grappling, untrained, with the most rarefied equations, including Fermat’s theorem and spherical astronomy.  Salander is one of the series’ great attractions, but the Ape is reminded of Aristotle’s observation that ,in art, a probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility. That is, I would almost rather she was a mutant or had been bitten by a radioactive caterpillar than possess a litany of nominally possible abilities.
  5. As mentioned in an earlier post, the books are startlingly and disturbingly violent, slotting somewhere above The Silence of the Lambs and somewhere below the Saw movies on the Gruesome Scale. There’s more to say about this, but the Ape is saving it for a long post to be published on the release of the final novel. Sufficed to say, we have our concerns about the popularity of the book, and perhaps even our own enjoyment of it, considering the degree and nature of the violence against women.
  6. Deus ex machina—the fledgling crime writer’s best friend. Not to spoil the plot, but let’s just say there are some laughably staged rescues.

This list is a bit grumpy, but it’s born of a head-scratching affinity for the books that the Ape even spends this much time thinking about them. If you are traveling by plane or spending some quality relaxation time somewhere this summer, you could do a hell of a lot worse than these. Just don’t think too much about why you like them.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mother's Day Books: Avoid at all Costs Edition

The Ape was visiting a local chain bookstore recently and happened to spend a few minutes perusing the “Mother’s Day Idea” table. Not surprisingly, the proffered selections were not candidates for the Ape’s matriarchal unit, but the catalog of banal, tittering, and down-right insipid offerings did come as a shock. Now it is true that the Ape has been guilty on occasion of, shall we say, “aspirational” book-giving, the practice of giving books that are somewhat more challenging than a gift should be. That said, better a good book tried and disliked or unread than  even handling certain titles.

Our first reaction was to offer a list of Mother’s Day recommendations that would embarrass neither the Mother nor the giver. But this, it turns out, is pretty damn hard, since the only stable quality of mothers, it would seem, is that they have had, at some point, one or more children. This seems to us insufficient data for recommending much of anything, save ibuprofen and massages.

So in lieu of a recommendation list, here is a counter list---otherwise quality books you should never, under any circumstances give for Mother’s Day.

The Orestia by Aeschylus.
Father kills daughter to please the gods. Mother kills father for killing daughter. Son kills mother for killing father. Athena invents the jury trial to figure out who to blame only to have a hung jury. She sides, based on a technicality, with the father. Mother ends up both guilty and unavenged. So pretty much the most horrifying family drama of all time.

Mildred Pierce
 by James Cain.
So it’s hard to compete with total familial annihilation, but being such a bad mother that your daughter hates you, sleeps with her step-father and murders him, and then blackmails you for escape money is also pretty freaking rough. In fact, I’m not so sure that everyone being dead is worse. I feel like I need therapy just thinking about this book.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
 by Steig Larsson.
Many, many people have read and enjoyed this book, the Ape included. But I can’t imagine giving to your mother. First, the original Swedish title was “Men Who Hate Women,” so the watered-down title right there means the American publisher knew they had some image work to do (plus they probably thought people would be confused by it, thinking they were buying a family history of the Baldwins). Second, I don’t know what single phrase is a more terrifying subject for a parent than “long-term, serial rape.” So unless you want be personally responsible for your mom’s new Lunestra prescription, let this one lie.

Sophie’s Choice
by William Styron.
Here’s a moral dilemma sure to reduce any mother to a quivering pile of goo: if you could only save one of your children, which would you save? There aren't enough Kleenex in the world, man. Though I suppose if one of your children gave you this book for Mother’s Day, then your choice might be a smidge easier.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ask the Ape!: Paris Edition

Here’s the first edition of what I hope will be a regular feature here: Ask the Ape! (in which readers ply the Ape for bizarrely specific, wildly idiosyncratic, and utterly mundane answers to questions about literature)
Dear Ape-
I love Paris. Miss it dearly and wish I were there right now---and all the time really. What would you suggest to sate my Paris jones?
                                                          Bisous, M. LaFarge
Ah, April in Paris. “I never knew the charm of spring”….anyway. Well, there’s a bunch, way too many to do anything like justice to the question, and I’m going to leave out the obvious (Les Miserables, Moveable Feast, A Sentimental Education, etc). Here are two picks:

A Sport and Pastime by James Salter
Soooo, I’m cheating already. This one isn’t set it Paris, but rather in the countryside outside of it. Sue me. I include it here primarily for the opening chapter, which follows a young American ex-pat on his train ride out of the city for the fall. First line: “September. It seems these luminous days will never end.” Are you kidding me? Have mercy. The rest of the book is stunningly beautiful (and steamy to boot). A quick warning though; Salter doesn’t do the whole la vie en rose thing. The central relationship is difficult and the book is short on sentimentality—but the result is all the more resonant.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Recycling one from the Swiss Army Knife list, but it’s a great little Paris book, set in one of those apartment building-enclaves that inhabit my dream-Paris. Truth be told, I only picked up this one because I saw so many people reading it on the F train and I felt out of the loop (the F train being, after all, a fairly good barometer of middlebrow literary taste). And despite a plot that could reasonably be accused of pandering, I really enjoyed it. Barbery's nimble prose prevents her forays into watered-down phenomenology and aesthetics from stopping the narrative dead in its tracks. For it is the personalities of the two protagonists, a 12-year-old girl and a 50-something woman, that make TEOTH eminently readable. (I need a literary equivalent of the oenophile’s "quaffable," which I understand to mean something like "pleasing to drink." Suggestions can be sent to I think the characters are so good that I'd rather the book just follow them for a while rather than put them through the paces of an unsatisfying plot that, in the end, takes a short cut to pathos. One other aside: why does the 12-year-old have to be 12? She has the inner life of a much older person to the point that it strains credulity. Perhaps it's just that I've had enough of the weirdly precocious child character. Where did this start? It seems a relatively recent innovation. I need a patient zero so we can contain this outbreak. Anyway, good characters, lush prose, an immortal city. Not too shabby.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Hoping for an End to Fate

The Ape just returned from a much-needed and enjoyable Caribbean sojourn. And like on many such past occasions, the reading selection for the trip was, shall we say, somewhat less rigourous than our normal fare. Enough praise and poison has been written about Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy that we aren't interested in piling on another review or reflection.

Instead, the Ape would like to spend a few minutes thinking about a particular cliche of fantasy and sci-fi, especially of the young adult variety. It's familiar to us all, dates back to the earliest stories, and suffuses many religious traditions, especially in the West. In fact, this particular crutch is so common that I don't think we even think about it as a narrative device, though it's as hackneyed as a Jennifer Lopez vehicle. Yes my friends, it's time to be rid of destiny.

I have a sort of philosophical objection to leaning on "fate" to motivate plot, but that in a minute. Let me get the rant out of the way first. And the rant is thus: dear god, is destiny boring. Harry Potter. Anakin Skywalker. Neo. Lyra Silvertongue. Aragorn. The kids from The Chronicles of Narnia whom I don't want to look up right now to get their names straight. See what I'm getting at? At this point I'd prefer a Bruce Willis wisecrack in the middle of a terrorist plot to another fantasy/sci-fi protagonist who has special powers, no parents, and a lame-ass prophecy.

So that's the first part of this little diatribe and it's something I've been thinking about for awhile. But this next little bit is new, and it crystallized around His Dark Materials. First a little unavoidable plot summary: His Dark Materials follows young, parentless, and fated Lyra and her long-foretold role in the remaking of the world. An infuriatingly played-out set-up to be sure, but not, on its own, unforgivable.

What is unforgivable here, or at least extremely annoying, is that the idea of fate contradicts the ideological ax Pullman is grinding. See, His Dark Materials is about the triumph of reason, understanding, and tolerance over the oppressive, dictatorial, and soul-crushing power of the Catholic Church (though he probably wouldn't mind if we threw even the most benign Protestant sects into the vat as well. Like Presbyterians. And Banana Republic).

So the idea that there is some age-old prophecy about how some little English girl will overthrow the tyranny of organized religion seems just downright wrong-headed. And it gets even more convoluted from there. Not only is there a prophecy about the girl, but she can't know about it, or it screws up the prophecy. Except that she finds out about the prophecy and still fulfills it. Oh yea, and knowing about the prophecy didn't in any way advance, enable or otherwise activate the plot; it was, as a practical matter, totally unnecessary. So what in the hell was it doing there in the first place? I suppose you could ask the author, but getting a statement from an author about a literary question just shows that you aren't trying hard enough. What's next? Reading the instruction manual for your phone?

Here's my take: we want to believe in destiny, but we know it doesn't exist, so we look for it in fantasy. Rarely will you find references to fate in political thrillers, crime novels, literary fiction of virtually any stripe, war stories, or family drama--really anything except certain kinds of romances. So we relegate expressions of destiny to books that already have dragons and faster than light travel for the simple reason that while it would be really cool, like magic swords and food replicators, we know it doesn't.

And that's fine. Escapism is as escapism does. But I do worry about feeding all of these stories about fate to kids. They probably can tell that photon torpedoes and invisible cloaks belong to a world other than our own, but can they also see that prophecy is a load of hooey? Prophecies offer ready made meaning and purpose; if you have a prophecy, then you don't need to do the hard work of figuring out who you are, what you believe, or what in god's name you should spend your short, miserable life doing. But the fact is that this is precisely what we all have to do; destiny isn't going to save us.

So if you have a half-finished young adult novel about twin orphans who can turn into animals and are destined to save mankind, please reconsider. I hear the Coast Guard offers flexible hours and a variety of excellent dental plans.

PS- "Soulmates" be warned; the Ape is coming for you next.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Take that New Media

The heart-warming story of how Tinkers won the Pulitzer, showing that there's a little life in old media. And that I am an unfeeling cyborg.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How do you pronounce "permalink"?

You'll never have to resort to "that guy who wrote Lolita" again....

Hiding in Plain Sight

Marisa Silver, guest-blogging this week over at The Elegant Variation, selects a brief list of personal favorites by just glancing over her shelves. Couple of Ape Favs, Being Dead and Stoner, appear alongside a couple of authors we've been meaning to get around to (Chaon, Graham Swift, Yoon).

We'll play along with Silver's useful constraints against classics and the overly familiar:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Quick Review: Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil

Yann Martel's Life of Pi was an enormous hit; it enjoyed the kind of commercial success that writers of literary fiction daren't hope for because very few ever experience anything like it. And I can imagine that it was hard for Martel to process. One day you are an obscure writer and suddenly, improbably, your book is translated into 40+ languages and selling millions and millions of copies. What, for the love of all that is holy, do you do next?

Unfortunately, for Martel and for us, what he did next was spend eight years writing a mess of a book. It's a little hard to know where to start. I suppose some plot summary is in order, but hold on to your hats--it gets weird. Beatrice and Virgil begins with about 30 pages of what would seem to be thinly-veiled autobiography; a writer named Henry is trying to write a follow-up to a best-selling novel. After struggling for five years, he comes up with an idea to write about the Holocaust as fiction and non-fiction simultaneously (I would explain more about this, but it was so titanically boring the first go-round that I can't bear to go through it) only to find that both his publisher and editor killed it dead. O that they would have done us the same favor here.

Anyway, distraught at the end of this project, Henry and his wife move to a large unnamed city where Henry regroups by joining a theatre cooperative, working at chocolate shop, and answering fan mail. Now, let the coincidences pile. First, Henry is captivated by a bizarre fan-letter that includes a highlighted Flaubert short-story, a draft of a surreal play featuring a monkey and a donkey (the titular characters, we'll soon discover) discussing pears, and a terse request for help. Henry, for reasons passing understanding and credulity, is interested and decides to find the guy. Luckily, he lives down the street. And guess what? He's writing a Holocaust allegory! Whoda thunk it. The rest of the novel unravels in ways that manage to be both contrived and oddly predictable.

I'm usually willing to overlook a certain "serendipity" in narrative, but the plotting here just seems so lazy and the metaphors so ham-handed. Acutally, it would be one thing if the metaphors were ham-handed, but here they are also clumsily explained. Martel, apparently worried that we may not understand every last detail, has his protagonist "realize" things that would be best left for the reader to ponder on their own. The combination of spoon-fed symbolism and nakedly artificial plot makes the work feel condescending. One of the admirable qualities of Life of Pi is that the central metaphor of the novel went largely unexamined or explained until the very end. In short, the story worked on its own; Beatrice and Virgil is an allegory in search of a story.

My advice? Leave Beatrice and Virgil be. If you are still interested, then do yourself a favor and wait a few months for a remaindered copy--they are sure to be bountiful.

"What is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?"

So says Alice. Not an ebook person myself, but this is pretty amazing:

Mixed Emotions: On the 2010 Pulitzer Fiction Prize

I should say first that I really liked Paul Harding's Tinkers. Really liked it. It is a beautiful little book; the prose is intricate, precise, and elegant, not unlike the clocks that that main character attends to. And there is much to relish about the win outside the merits of the book itself; it was published by a small press and only in paper back; it is a debut novel; and The New York Times didn't even review it. I wonder when the last time, if ever, that happened.

So there is a part of me that is really pleased that it won the Pulitzer this year; the same part of me that likes art house movies, old movie musicals, and cheering for underdogs in sports movies. But there is another part of me that is disappointed, not in the work itself or the author, but in the knowledge that many people who don't follow contemporary literature that well at all will pick up and read the book because of the sticker on new printings, surely coming to a bookstore near you right now, that says "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize." My guess is that many of them will be underwhelmed. And I don't want them to be; I want them to love it. I want them to be reminded of how engrossing and rich reading can be, and I want them to rave to their friends about it. Like they did when The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay won and when Gilead won.

The Pulitzer is the most recognizable award in American fiction and moves the sales needle more than anything but the Nobel, which seems unlikely to be given to an American anytime soon. So while Harding's win puts a giant, bright feather in his cap and that of the independent publishing community, I'm not sure that is a win for the general reading public. I hope I'm wrong.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 Zeitgeisty....

I'm not really sure that reading a book through Twitter counts as, you know, reading a book, but this effort to get a bunch of people to read a book 140 characters at a time is noble. Their list of candidates is pretty good, but none of them seems particularly suited to snippets. Maybe a novel made entirely out of questions would translate well?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Swing and a Miss

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced today and boy did I whiff. The winner, Tinkers by Paul Harding, was to our mind an underwhelming, though well-crafted, little book. A fuller review is in the offing.

Publishers Should Be Happy People Are Buying Books at All

Last week, The Ethicist commented on an increasingly problematic issue in the reading world: pirated books. In this case, a reader bought a hardcopy of Stephen King's new door-stop of a novel, Under the Dome, before later downloading a pirated ebook version. As there was no digital version legally available at the time of his initial purchase, he is wondering if his foray into the illegal might still be ethical.

Cohen, quite reasonably in the Ape's opinion, let him off the hook:
An illegal download is — to use an ugly word — illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical. Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.
A publisher Cohen interviewed wasn't quite so understanding:
Anyone who downloads a pirated e-book has, in effect, stolen the intellectual property of an author and publisher. To condone this is to condone theft. 
Considering how block-headed and retrograde this position is, the Ape wonders if the publisher would have us instead do something that is, while legal, undeniably damaging to authors and publishers---buy a used copy.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


"There are two insults which no human being can endure: the assertion that he hasn't a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble."

-Sinclair Lewis, Main Street

Review: You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers

One of the really great thing about book blogs is that they can talk about books in ways mainstream publications really can't. We can talk about them familiarly, irreverently, gushingly, and idiosyncratically. We can also, and this is maybe the biggest difference, talk about them waaaaaaaaay after they're current. Mainstream publications have to cover what's new; well. maybe they don't have to, but they do. But the fact of the matter is that there isn't something interesting published every week. 

For example, I was browsing the shelves at the Strand the other day and ran across Dave Egger's Zeitoun. The Ape has been looking forward to reading it, but it's not out in paperback yet and for some reason I want to read it in paperback (I'm getting a little tired of shoving hardbacks in my bag and dragging all over tarnation). Anyway, thinking about Eggers reminded me how much I like one of his earlier books, You Shall Know Our Velocity! and I've spend a few minutes remembering what I liked about it. So here's a review....6 years after its original publication.

I don't know Dave Eggers. Don't know what he looks like, don't know what he sounds like, heck, I don't even read McSweeney's. I do know that he's sold a shitload of books and that he's a literary maverick of some sort (a lesser breed of maverick, the literary kind, but they do exist).

I know a little more about Dave Eggers as a writer. His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, demonstrated a keen, flexible wit that tempered the potentially maudlin story of a young man taking care of his younger brother after their parents' death. And while that book is a fine achievement, especially the first half, it seemed a bit of a fastball-down-the-middle for Mr. Eggers. It was, after all, his story. Furthermore, the somber backdrop allowed him to perform his dervish-like literary flourishes without the danger of floating off into the same lighter-than-air domain inhabited by The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" section.
Eggers has selected a far more difficult task this go-round, and perhaps the most difficult task for any writer of fiction. For, despite a premise that would feel more at home in an undergraduate writing seminar, You Shall Know Our Velocity! is ultimately about the nature, and function, of story-telling itself. 

Most of the reviews I have seen of this book don't get much farther than laying out the premise (the narrator Will and his friend Hand + 7 days + 32k to give away + around the world) but, in my view, the intrigue of the plot device is more misdirection than meaning. The real narrative tension doesn't come until about two-thirds the way through when Hand provides an epilogue to the story right in the middle of the main action. Hand has several bones to pick; the most important of them is that their friend, whose death is the emotional springboard for their globe-circling, never existed. He goes on to quibble with his own portrayal and to note that Will's mother was dead before the time of the trip, though Will has created several extended phone conversations with her while they are abroad. 

I think the particulars of Hand's interlude are less interesting than the intellectual puzzle Eggers's constructs-a fictional character, interrupting a fiction (though framed as a first-person travel narrative) to remedy the factual lapses in the narrative. Peculiar territory indeed. When Will's narrative resumes, the texture of the book seems strangely altered. Are we to believe Hand? Does it matter? If so, why? If not, why not? I found this moment of re-entry to the most satisfying moment of the novel and its provocations have stayed with me quite strongly. This one moment is enough for me, though I would be remiss not to mention some of the problems that it causes. For one, the narrative leading up to the interlude is strangely uninteresting considering that Eggers's literary talents seem well-suited to turn the adventures of continent-hopping 20-somethings into more than is presented here. Indeed, Will and Hand spend most of their time waiting to go somewhere else, and most of the encounters with their beneficiaries are either anonymous or brief. 
Will's grief for Jack is likewise fairly colorless and non-specific; we get no real sense of who Jack was and thus it is difficult to feel the weight of the loss that Will feels. Hand suggests that Jack is an avatar for Will's mother, and this might explain why Jack's absence is so featureless (though not why Will chooses to change the location of his pain). While Will's displacement of grief, and its subsequent effect on the emotional center of the book may very well be intentional, Eggers's frustrating and inconsistent portrayal of Will and Hand is a real problem. Most of this frustration stems from Eggers's use of unspoken, imagined conversations between Will and Hand:

--I brought this all upon us Hand.
--Don't start.
--We beat up kids. We pushed them down ravines. We ran by the retarded girl, Jenny Ferguson, and we tore her dress on purpose. Remember that, asshole? We did that and this is retribution. There is balance. Everything lives is perfect Newtonian opposition.
--You are fucked.
-- I will have more coming. I acted with unprovoked
aggression and now it is enacted upon me I have done other
things. Things you don't know about

These non-conversations perhaps are intended to capture the experience of being in contact without speaking, but replace any and all serious conversation between the two. This technique would be more effective in more limited use, and with a more limited narrative function.

Another source of consternation is Will and Hand's apparently fluctuating knowledge of the world. One of the principal pleasures of the book is watching Will and Hand encounter a world that resists their conception of it: "I knew nothing, basically, but couldn't bear the fact of the nations of the world, I had only ill-formed collages of social studies textbooks and quickly flipped travel magazines." And yet, they often make massive generalizations about the world like "rural poverty is always incongruous, amid all this space and air, these crippled homes, all half-broken, most without roofs, standing on this gorgeous, lush farmland." This kind of statement is surprising as it comes well into the novel, after Will and Hand have been routinely reminded that their worldviews are not only narrow, but often dead wrong. My diagnosis here is that this inconsistency is a product of Eggers writing characters who know significantly less about the world than he does, leaving little room for his own more sophisticated ideas and experience. A prime example is when Hand has sequestered himself in New Zealand to write his epilogue and is able to produce the following quotation from memory: "To string incongruities, and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American Art." This is an impressive display from someone who "is a scientist, really."

This seems an understandable, perhaps even expected, failing in the first long work of fiction by someone with such a distinctive literary presence. The third person would probably allow Eggers to write people who are not him and not have to suppress his undeniably provocative sensibilities. Ultimately, the questions about the value of fiction that Eggers is able to raise in the last section of the novel elevate the mildly interesting story into a kind of meditation on the novelist's task. In a way, You Shall Know Our Velocity! is the yin to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius's yang. Where A.H.W.O.S.G was a joy to read but left little mark, Y.S.K.O.V's pleasures begin after the final page has been turned.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Predicting the Pulitzer: Fun and Pointless

On Monday, the 2009 Pulitzers will be announced and PPrize has a list of the 14 novels most likely to win the fiction award. I think it's a pretty good list, but I'll try to go one better: here are the Ape's predictions for the finalists and the winner:

The Shortlist
The Winner

Why you ask?

Much like the previous few winners, LTGWS combines wide-spread critical adulation and pretty reasonable acceptance by the reading public. It's definitely a worthy choice; here's what I wrote about it last year:

This was probably the most universally praised novel of 2009 and understandably so. It's a novel, but I wouldn't be surprised if the four main narratives weren't originally stand-alone stories of some kind. A fragmented narrative generally means a less than compelling plot (and that's true here), but you're not here for plot. No, you are here to experience four distinct worlds: the world of a tightrope walker, the world of a prostitute in the South Bronx, the world of an Irish priest in the projects, and the world of a mother whose son has been killed in action. The stories don't all end well or happily; in fact most of them are goddam depressing, but McCann's message seems to be that they are all beautiful.  The magic here is that the overwhelming tumult and chaos of the world do, for a few brief moments, seem worth the pain.   

And if you are interested (you aren't) and can believe it (you can't), I did predict three of the last four winners correctly: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Road, and Gilead. I whiffed on March, though I was thrilled that it won. 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

You like to read. We get it.

In a short essay at The Millions, Philip Graham gives a brief account of his come-to-Jesus moment as a reader:

I remember the moment, the slow walk across the second grade classroom, to one of those bookshelves that could be pushed around on wheels.  This one was parked, though, and I was heading for it. What was I thinking at the time?  That, I can’t remember now, I can only recall the purposeful walk, as if something about that bookshelf called to me.  And when I got there, I found a book that would change my life. Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary. 

I call bullshit. "Purposeful walk"? "That bookshelf called to me"? Look, I loved Cleary books too as a kid, and I remember these giant aluminum Scholastic monoliths that invaded my grade school every couple of months, but this strains credulity. I find this kind of quasi-mystical teleology unhelpful and even a little insulting. What if you didn't love to read as a kid? Or don't love to read now? Does this mean you weren't chosen or that your fate is somehow apart from the possibilities of a reading life?

How about this--you got lucky. Lucky that the cover of the book caught your eye and that the author you happened to find is fantastic. How about your school and Scholastic went to great lengths to make kids interested in reading and that your family was in position to foster your fledgling bibliophilia. 

I appreciate that Mr. Graham loves reading; I love it too. I also agree that reading can add richness to life in a way that few other pursuits can. But it's not magic---intimating that it is might serve our own sense of purpose, but it also obscures the real work of getting kids (and adults) to think of themselves as readers. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Our Kind of Guy

The New Yorker  (subscription required, damn New Yorker) has a short account of the auction this week of Otto Penzler's collection of mystery novels. Apparently, Mr. Penzler was one of the first collectors to focus on the mystery genre, and his collection has grown to sixty-thousand (!) volumes.

Turning from hobbyist to purveyor, he apparently didn't neglect his personal collection:  
"In 1988, construction began on a spacious Tudor house with a tower library in Connecticut. 'Actually, it's a little house with a big library attached to it,' he said. 'The library took me ten years to finish. I kept running out of money. To this day, when I walk into that room I say, 'Holy shit. I live here.'"

The Ape will now spend the next 3-6 weeks fantasizing about a 'tower library.'