Monday, June 28, 2010

Top 10 Totally Decent Books of the Century

Jane Ciabattari, critic, novelist and President of the National Book Critics Circle, ranked the ten best books (just in fiction, we assume) of the now decade-old century. Her list:

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz 
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan 
The Known World by Edward P. Jones 
Atonement by Ian McEwan 
A Mercy by Toni Morrison 
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro 
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett 
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips 
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Now normally these types of list don’t get our gears grinding, but this list caught our attention. We’ve read eight of them and it’s hard to argue against any of these, but it’s also pretty hard to argue for most of them either. Admittedly, we’d include Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Gilead on our own version of this list (and did in our utilitarian Swiss Army 10), but it seems like we should feel more strongly about the rest.

To be clear, these are definitely admirable books, but we want to feel something more than admiration for the best books, don’t we? Perhaps we need some other scale, or even some specificity about what the scale is measuring. For us, that special something is hard to articulate, but it is some combination of surprise, pleasure, depth, craft, innovation, and risk. And we think it’s that last element that seems to be the one that most even very good books sometimes lack. For example, Gilead, probably my favorite book of the last decade, isn’t risky. It’s beautiful, intelligent, and moving, but it not at hazard.

There is an element of danger to greatness; it threatens our settledness and even our sense of the world. There have been a few instances where I have felt my complacency threatened in the last decade (The Road, 2666), but, either because it’s a quality in short supply or because I’ve somehow avoided it, I have a hard time coming up with ten books I would call great. That's not to say, though, that there haven't been really good books or that I think we live in a fallow artistic era. But it is worth remembering that the great works of the past have been transgressive, challenging, and misunderstood--in their own time and in ours. So perhaps the Ape, in search of the extraordinary, needs to abandon the pleasant shallows of the very good.

Monday, June 21, 2010

On E-books and the End of the World as We Don't Know It

One thing that we’re really enjoying about the ongoing discussion about ebooks and the future of publishing is how it tends to bring out the nuttiness that so many writers and critics usually try to suppress. Though as entertaining as Garrison Keillor’s speech o’doom and the like are, we’re less impressed by the lack of historical thinking that happens when people are performing such prognostications. Consider for a moment this bit from the first in a series (shudder) on the “future of books” at The Globe and Mail:
One distinct trend of the Internet age is the return of the Victorian-style triple-decker: huge, unwieldy novels that let netizens tune out the annoying chatter of their native realm by means of total immersion in alternative realities. Between them, J.R.R Tolkein and J.K. Rowling set a powerful magic afoot, and it took flight in the Internet age.
Right, because, you know literary masterworks are generally slight, like The Iliad, The Decameron, Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans, Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Quick and The Dead, and on and on.

What bothers us here is not that this is wrong (we all make mistakes from time to time), but the way in which it is wrong. Because this author, John Barber, sees that there are some large novels out there (as there have always been) and that the Internet, well, exists, so therefore the two must be somehow causally related. The entire history of the novel here is swept under the rug to connect dots because the dots seem to be close together, not because they form any sort of whole.

Using this mode of thinking, I could also make the exact opposite argument for the recent interest in flash fiction? By this logic, the Internet makes people want to read things that are both longer and shorter.

My point here is that the Internet, especially in the publishing world, becomes a nexus for all sorts of anxieties that often don't have anything at all to do with ebooks, digital publishing, Kindles, iPads, book piracy, Google Editions or any of the other several dozen barbarians at the gate.

Perhaps reading and publishing will change forever—it wouldn’t be the first time—and perhaps they won’t. The damnable part is that most of us don’t know which of those possibilities is more desirable, and this fact seems to be the core motivator for much of our contemporary befuddlement. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and, what’s worse, we don’t know anyone who does know.

This state of affairs reminds me of passage by a writer likewise concerned about the direction of literature:
If we make a century our test, and ask how much of the work produced in these days in England will be in existence then, we shall have to answer not merely that we cannot agree upon the same book, but that we are more than doubtful where such a book there is. It is an age of fragments.[…]Can we go to posterity with a sheaf of loose pages, or as the readers of those days, with the whole of literature before them, to sift our enormous rubbish heaps for our tiny pearls?
And while the subject matter here is somewhat related to the questions of our day, it is again not just the nature of the question itself that I find resonat, but also the way it is framed and who framed it----Virginia Woolf in 1923.

It would seem the more we think things change, the more we forget that often much stays the same.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Welcome to the Ape (and some of our favorite posts)

It’s Friday so once again many of you might be visiting The Ape for the first time via the Book Blog Hop, hosted weekly by Jenn at Crazy for Books. A couple other folks have mentioned us recently, including a very kind recommendation from the guys at 3:17am, so some of you might have found us from those places. In any case, welcome and have a look around.

Might we recommend a few posts that we think capture what we’re trying to do? Here’s a brief sampling of life here at The Ape:

If you like what you see, you can subscribe through our RSS feed on the left sidebar, or perhaps follow us through Google, same sidebar, just a little further down. You can also contact us at readingape (at)

The Ape

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ask the Ape!: Did Somebody Call for a Doctor? Edition

Welcome back to Ask the Ape!, wherein readers, acquaintances, and even possibly fabrications of our imagination pose questions of the literary stripe. This week’s question is about doctors.
My brother just graduated from college and will be starting medical school in the fall. This summer he’s not doing much of anything and I thought a good, belated graduation gift idea might be some books about being a doctor. He’s a good reader, but it is his only free time of for the next like 20 years, so maybe nothing too hard. 
This was a little more difficult than we initially thought it would be; it seems like the medical profession hasn’t been as mined as some others, though that might be some sort of selection bias. Still here are a few ideas for a doctor-to-be, with the special twist that all of these were written by doctors themselves. Unfortunately, they cost ten times what they should (kidding).

The House of God by Samuel Shem is the story of six new doctors trying to survive a year-long internship. I’ve been told by MDs who’ve read it that it’s remarkably spot-on with medical details and the practice of medicine—a fact that non-doctors, (re: the Ape),  will find vaguely terrifying. Throw in some sexual melodrama and the faintest whisp of existential dread, and you have a brisk and captivating read.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. There’s a lot going on in Cutting for Stone, including family melodrama, sibling weirdness, Ethiopian politics, and nuns, but the core of the novel is medicine. Set largely in a Catholic missionary hospital in Ethiopia, this is the story of Marion Stone, progeny of a nun and the missionary doctor who loved her. After his mother’s death in childbirth and his father’s subsequent flight to America, Marion, and his twin brother Shiva, is adopted by another of the hospital’s doctors. Together, the two boys grow up watching and learning what it means to commit one’s life to the betterment of others—and the costs of doing so. This is an epic book, and though it is a little overwrought in places, it somehow manages to be both moving and informative—a rare and welcome combination. (Also, your knowledge of prenatal care in sub-Saharan Africa will increase exponentially, and if you’re anything like me, you’re always thirsting for more knowledge of African prenatal care.)

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam
The Novel-as-linked-stories is probably an especially useful technique in writing about medicine, since medicine itself seems quite episodic; each patient is a new story connected only by the physicians and nurses who tend to them. Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures uses the flexibility of short stories to great effect, moving from the trials of being accepted to medical school in China, to the sleep-deprivation and soul-searching of medical education, to the cultural and racial mélange of the modern health care system. Lam’s dialogue is a little tin-eared, but Bloodletting is generous and imaginative—a higher-rent version of something like Grey’s Anatomy.

So those are three picks from us, what would you, sage readers, suggest for books about the scions of Hippocrates? Let us know in the comments.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

You Can't Handle the Truth

As a Twitter newbie, the Ape is still figuring out what can/cannot be done with it (and by proxy, what should/shouldn't be done with it).

But today, following the #booksthatchangedmyworld hashtag, we've had our favorite early Twitter experience yet. And oh the wonders and horrors to be found there. If you are on Twitter, I highly recommend spending a few minutes *coug* hours *cough* gazing in stupified wonder. For the tweetless, here is a sampling of the books that have, apparently, changed the world of at least some tweeps:

  • Pleasure by Eric Jerome Dickey ("I re-read it at least twice a year")
  • The Seductive Art of Japanese Bondage
  • Rich Dad, Poor Dad (generously tweeted by the book's author, the cad.)
  • A Yaqui Way of Life ("It totally reinforced by belief in Native American shamanism and sorcery!")
  • Sony Ericsson T300 User's Guide
  • 1984 & Harry Potter. Tied. (I'm inexplicably fascinated by this. Damn you 140 character limit. Damn you.)
  • the B.I.B.L.E. (about some sort of evangelical android, we assume)
  • Crazy number of Judy Blume mentions. No one sticking up for Beverly Cleary? No one? 
  • Every book by Iceberg Slim ("ESPECIALLY PIMP!!!")
  • The Austism Book (ok, tearing up now, gotta wrap this up)
  • And the two hands-down, runaway leaders: The Bible and Twilight. (Green Eggs and Ham and Pride and Prejudice seem to be fighting it out for third).
I should say also that there many, many really wonderful books being mentioned as well. But listing To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-5, and Catcher in the Rye isn't quite as interesting. 

Oh and in case you're wondering, here was our meager tweet: @readingape 
In biographical order: East of Eden, The Iliad, As I Lay Dying, Mrs. Dalloway, The Professor's House, Gilead #booksthatchangedmyworld

Monday, June 14, 2010

On having time to read

Jodi Chromey over at I Will Dare takes a few minutes to rant about a little phrase that secretly (well, maybe not so secretly) rankles book lovers everywhere: "I just don't have time to read."

She gives two primary reasons for why this is so off-putting to true-believers: it minimizes the value of reading as being somehow frivolous, and it implies that time for book-reading is something "found" rather than "made." Her take, one with with which we largely agree, is that the phrasing is condescending, subtly equating reading with "leisure." In a comment on her post, the Ape contributed the following:
Pretty much agree here, though I think the phrasing is more defensive than condescending. If people don’t watch American Idol, they say “I don’t like American Idol.” Saying “I don’t like reading” is culturally gauche, so instead someone’s aversion to reading gets couched in “business.” It’s not that I am a lazy, uninterested, intellectually stagnate gadfly–it’s that I simply don’t have enough time in my busy and important/glamourous life. Had I more time, I would be re-reading Proust for the third time. In French.
Upon further reflection, though, we know that there is something else going on here. Readers are not righteous, and non-readers aren't sinning, even if those of us who kneel at the altar of literature might feel it otherwise. No, it seems to use that the defensive/offensive nature of the "I don't have time to read" comment is born of an intellectual paradox; most educated people "know" that reading is somehow valuable, and yet they don't "feel" it. That is, they have been taught, in the classroom or elsewhere, that reading is good and noble, but in their daily lives, the echo of that instruction is not supported by their lived experience of reading; Reading well is always time-consuming, largely isolating, sometimes unsatisfying, and frequently difficult.

The truth of the matter is that the value of reading for oneself, not for a degree or for information or even for entertainment, is elusive. This is a sort of open secret among teachers and scholars of literature. If you ask one of us to list the benefits of being well-read, you'll receive numerous reasons, from cultural history to personal edification, but the plurality of the reasons belies the lack of a conclusive, central one.

So I can't help but think that my frustration at the "I don't have time" phrase stems, at least in part, from my inability to articulate a cogent reason why you should make time to read, why you should fight for time, why you should make reading seriously a core element of your life. I could give reasons, of course, but the main reason is not one I can use--I think you should read because reading makes my life richer and that I feel the lack for those who don't read. I can't make you feel that nor can I call logic to my aid to prove it to you. And that is a frustration that borders on despair.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

To be a citizen of Per Petterson's Norway is to be a stranger to yourself; your nine-year-old self walks shoulder-to-shoulder with your 37-year-old self, who in turn remembers what it was to be 22. As a result, the eternal question of "Who am I?" is doubled, folded, and refracted into "Which I exactly am I?"

Petterson's 2003 breakout novel Out Stealing Horses is relatively straightforward. At age 67 Trond Sander, retired and living in a sparsely populated corner of the country, is trying to come to terms with a childhood trauma that has haunted him for more than five decades. The persistence of that event in Sander's life (and the trouble it causes him) seeps into the water, dirt, trees, and air around him; the muted colors and winter barrenness of the landscape become the stage for his memory play. His daughter Ellen has no such access. She visits him and tries to understand what it is that has driven him back into himself.

Petterson's masterly new novel, I Curse the River of Time, might be thought of as a sort of companion piece. Not only does it reside at the same juncture of identity, memory, and time, but it also mirrors Out Stealing Horses's narrative structure. This time, however, a child's confusion with a parent's distance is the center of the story.

Three major parts of Arvid Jansen's life are drawing to a close. His marriage is ending. The Berlin wall is coming down, along with the left-wing idealism of his youth. And his mother is dying. The failure of this triad has sent him into an existential tailspin, and he is left wondering how his life ended up in such tatters. What Arvid doesn't see, but that Petterson allows us to see, is that Arvid is not, to borrow from the opening sentence of David Copperfield, the hero of his own life.

No, I Curse the River of Time, is the story of how one tragedy in his mother's life echoed across Arvid's. Though perhaps, given the novel's title, derived from a poem by Mao, "echoing" is the wrong metaphor. The river-as-time construction does to a degree capture the particular causality of Arvid's life — because of cataracts upstream, he is subject to turbulence beyond his control or ken. In turn, his own daughters' lives will be shaped by how he deals with his estrangement from his mother.

If we live long enough, it seems we will all eventually find ourselves in Arvid's position, struggling to understand how things for which we so ardently hoped have collapsed and why people so important to us have left. How will we deal with that realization? How will we, if we can, come to terms with our insufficiency and not be crushed by it?

Petterson's great gift to us here is to show us the cost of this kind of despair. Arvid thinks that he has some "flaw, some crack in the foundation of his character" that has caused him to be something other than what he had hoped, but it is only his mourning for an idea of himself that prevents him from living in full:
"Now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be is gone forever, and the one you were, is the one that those around you will remember. Then that must feel like someone's strong hands slowly tightening their grip around your neck until you can breathe no more." 

Some are foolish enough to claim they have no regrets, but most of us know that is delusion. Petterson challenges us to acknowledge both our frailty and our folly while not flinching at them, to value not what we had hoped for, but what we have saved.
This review references an advance copy; the final published version may have minor changes.

I Curse the River of Time will be available starting August 3, 2010.

This article first published as Book Review: I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Blogging and the Gender Gap, Redux

A couple of things related to a previous post about gender and  book-blogging caught our attention recently, so we thought we'd take a moment to consider what, if any, help they might be.

First, Ed Champion, in breaking down Michiko Kakutani's apparent distaste for fiction, provided a list of the most negative (mainstream) book reviewers working today. That discussion is interesting in itself, but what we noticed was the gender-spread, or rather, the relative lack of one; of the sixteen reviewers listed, ten are men.

Along the same lines, we came across  More Intelligent Life's 2008 list of best book reviewers. Of the ten reviewers mentioned, eight are men. It also seems worth noting that one of the female reviewers was Jessica Crispin of Bookslut, who works primarily online. (The other, not surprisingly, is Kakutani).

We noted these the gender paradigms of these lists but were having a hard time relating it to the dominance of women in book blogging circles until Girl from the Ghetto made a remark in a discussion the Ape started on the Book Blog Ning: "Niche bloggers aka male (and all other kinds) bloggers don't fit into the existing molds. I believe until someone breaks the book blogging mold, it is going to stay exactly the same."

Though her astute remark was about book blogging, it came to us that we might consider the make-up of book bloggers as being itself a reaction to the male-dominated mainstream book reviewing establishment. Here's what we wrote in respose: "I mean, can it be a coincidence that the most books most discussed online (YA/romance/chick lit/scifi/paranormal) are precisely the kinds of books that would have a damn near impossible time being included in the NY Times, The Washington Post, etc? This might help explain why so few men blog about books--male-oriented book discussion already HAS a venue."

Does it seem reasonable to think that as mainstream reviewing is more and more an online practice that the gender disparity among book bloggers will change? Or has the die for book blogging largely been cast?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson: A Kakutani Review-a-long

So, the final chapter in Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy arrived last week and the Ape has made it through to the end. As is our habit, we took a look at some mainstream reviews after finishing the novel and found a surprising, to us at least, amount of praise for this frustrated and frustrating coda. 

Perhaps least expected was the warmth with which Michiko Kakutani received The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (especially considering that she hates more than half of the fiction she reviews). So rather than offer another review, we thought we'd read along with Kakutani's. She begins: 
Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s fierce pixie of a heroine, is one of the most original characters in a thriller to come along in a while — a gamin, Audrey Hepburn look-alike but with tattoos and piercings, the take-no-prisoners attitude of Lara Croft and the cool, unsentimental intellect of Mr. Spock.
No problem here--Salander is clearly the spinning, molten core of the trilogy. Like all great characters, we miss her when she's off-stage. This is problem one with Hornet's Nest; Salander spends nearly all of it in the hospital, writing a brief autobiography for her eventual trial and dispatching her hacker comrades to infiltrate the hard-drives of her enemies. As boring as Salander's computer hacking was in the first two novels, at least there she did it herself. Here, she just tells other people to do it. 

It is a problem, though, Larsson created for himself. As we noted in an earlier post, by the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander is so, as Kakutani writes, "incandescently proficient," that she must be sequestered for there to be any doubt about her fate. (This is something you see in other stories with characters who are simply too powerful to be interesting. Professor X exemplifies the narrative conundrum; it seemed like baldy was in a coma, drugged, captured, or in an alternate spectral plane in every major X-Men series. Dude was just too powerful for the stories to work with him around.)

So rather than follow the character we've signed on for, we have to follow around a series of cops, journalists, and bureaucrats for the preponderance of the story, which makes the following evaluation from Kakutani all the more head-scratching: "It’s also a thoroughly gripping read that shows off the maturation of the author’s storytelling talents."

To our mind, Hornet's Nest is the most confused and inert of the three. It seems that Kakutani has a soft-spot for the novel despite the absence of Salander, whom she acknowledges is the trilogy's engine: "The novels’ central appeal, however, remains Salander herself: a heroine who takes on a legal system and evil, cartoony villains with equal ferocity and resourcefulness."

Somehow, she also manages to ignore the book's heavy-handed social critique ("these novels actually don’t have any didactic thesis to convey"), even though each section of the novel is preceded by an historical vignette about warrior-women and that the moral of the story is neatly and clearly articulated by a main character: "When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it's about violence against women, and the men who enable it." 

And while it's certainly possible to enjoy the novel despite the moralizing, suggesting that there isn't a larger issue at stake seems a misreading. In fact, the disjointed ending that Kakutani herself notes is a direct result of Larsson's twin narratives: Salander's personal story of liberation, which culminates with a grizzly, caricatured battle with her half-brother, and the journalistic critique of Swedish law enforcement and constitutional oversight, which is really the main "drama" of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Kakutani seems to collpase these narratives--"the real showdown in this harrowing novel is between Salander and a ruthless government cabal"--when in fact there really is no such showdown. Salander's interaction with the "cabal" is carried out almost entirely by intermediaries. Indeed, her persistent refusal to talk with anyone but her lawyer is itself a major plot element. 

In our final analysis, we find the second and third installments an order of magnitude weaker than the tight, propulsive The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where Kakutani finds that Larsson has brought things to a close "with dexterity, ardor and a stoked imagination." 

We wish we could agree.