Friday, January 28, 2011

A Little Reading Music

This is going to be one of those posts where I pretend like I am offering something useful but really am just fishing for good ideas to steal.

I don't know how the habit formed, but sometime in my early readerhood, listening to music while reading became an absolute necessity. I don't know why really, but like macaroni and cheese, coffee and doughnuts, Charlie Sheen and stomach pumps, cracking open a book and turning on some music are, for better or worse, bound together.

Finding suitable music, though, has turned out to be a bit of a chore.  For when it comes to picking out something to listen to while reading, I am pickier than Goldilocks, if Goldilocks were also Cher and had OCD. I need something quiet but not soporific. Something ignorable yet not boring. Something stimulating yet not diverting. Something I like, but not something I'll notice. You get the idea.

Anyway, here are my three go-to reading soundtracks:

Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool (1957)
This the spriteliest of my sonic arsenal, best suited for springtime and pleasure reading. Davis is reacting to the hard-bop of the day with mellower, more melodic tracks that are inspired as much by classical music as jazz. Well, not as much, but a lot. I always start with "Boplicity"--to the point that if I hear it out and about I get a junkie-like hankering for a hardback.

Bach, The Goldberg Variations
Generally, there is too much going in classical music for me to be able to focus on what I'm reading, so solos and concertos tend to work the best. For a long time, Bach's cello concertos were my favorite classical option, but a recentish recording of The Goldberg Variations by Simone Dinnerstein has turned out to be even better. I used to play the cello (very badly. Really, I might have been the worst cello player of all time. Actually there was this one kid who tried to play the cello who only had four fingers on his left hand and he was tone deaf. So I was tied with him for the worst cello player of all time) so every now and again I would have a flashback, just enough to take me out of whatever I was reading. I also used to play the piano, but with not near the trauma associated with my cello days. So this works better for me.

The National, Boxer
I wouldn't be a 30-something Brooklynite if I didn't listen to The National, but little does your run-of-the-mill indie rock fan know, this is a great record to read to. Three central virtues: virtually indecipherable lyrics, soothing baritone lead-singer, and enough rhythm to cover any ambient noise you might be fighting. Ideal use case: subway reading.

So there are three recommendations from me. Now to what I am really interested in---what do you read to? And more importantly, do you think it would work for me?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Internet Fiction: Too Soon to Tell

Laura Miller, writing in The Guardian, examines the uneasy relationship between literary fiction and the internet. Citing a spate of recent works incorporating the emergence of our digital lives, Miller suggests that "the situation has begun, tentatively, to change."

Her readings of Chronic City, Super Sad True Love Story, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Freedom and other novels from the past few years is more of catalog of examples than it is analysis, but the essential question she asks at the outset is an interesting one: is it the province of literary fiction to show us our lives as they are now?

The problem, as Miller sees it, is this:  
the American novelist is buffeted by two increasingly contradictory imperatives. The first comes as the directive to depict "The Way We Live Now" – a phrase whose origins in the title of a Trollope novel have been almost entirely obscured by countless deployments in reviews and publisher's blurbs….Which brings us to the other designated special province of the literary novelist: museum-quality depth. The further literature is driven to the outskirts of the culture, the more it is cherished as a sanctuary from everything coarse, shallow and meretricious in that culture.
In her estimation, the balancing of the “contemporary life” imperative is “incompatible” with “depth”: tweets, likes, views, LOLcats and the like being too insubstantial to sustain the gaze of a serious writer:

Literature is where you retreat when you're sick of celebrity divorces, political mudslinging, office intrigues, trials of the century, new Apple products, internet flame wars, sexting and X Factor contestants – in short, everything that everybody else spends most of their time thinking and talking about.

The main logical error, here, is the assumption that the Internet has ushered in a new era of frivolity. It seems to me equally likely that the Internet has not created this fascination with the frivolous but merely spectacularly exposed it. That we make manifold snap, public judgments now does not mean that we didn't used to make snap private ones. That we are served a buffet of voyeuristic dishes now does not mean we didn't have the appetite before. Of course, this frivolity may turn out not to be worth expending literary energy on, this will be for the writers themselves to decide, but that there isn’t yet a robust corpus of work about it doesn’t mean there cannot be one.

Some historical perspective might be illuminative, if only to show that literary treatments of “frivolity” do have the ability to become, paradoxically, Timeless. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf plumbed the artifice and hand-wringing of a woman about the party she was throwing. Wharton’s most celebrated works portrayed the comings and goings of polite society. I suspect that our digital age is but the most recent, and perhaps most radically altered, manifestation of social manners. That reply cards and the complex social signification of flowers have been replaced by Facebook friends and Twitter followers doesn’t mean that the undergirding desire to be seen, heard, and taken seriously is all that different.

As is the case in human life, the surfaces of our existence are not surfaces only, but entry points into the lower depths of our condition. Miller herself seems to have committed a digital-age error by noticing the absence of something and positing its impossibility, of mistaking the slowness of consideration for vexed consternation. As much as we have a hard time waiting for it these days, time will tell. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2011 Tournament of Books Shortlist | The Sweet Sixteen

Now it gets really interesting: The Morning News has whittled literary 2010 down to sixteen finalists for its annual single-elimination tournament. And, as important as the surviving titles, the judges step onto the stage. There’s a lot to say here, so let’s take it piece by piece.

Update: Check out all of my slightly obsessive coverage from the 2011 Tournament of Books here.

The Finalists

5 Things I Like About the Shortlist

1. The Rooster Brings the Funny
Though my rules for handicapping the event suggest that a comic novel won’t win, it’s good to see them well-represented: Skippy Dies, Super Sad True Love Story, and The Finkler Question lead the pack here.

2. No Beatrice and Virgil. 
I was sure this wasn’t even a possibility, but still. So bad. So, so bad.

3. Poetry!
I’ve seen Anne Carson’s NOX in the bookstore, and it’s a truly beautiful book. I have no idea if the poetry itself is good, but as physical object, this is a stunner. I’ll be picking this up soon, especially if I can find the hardback/looseleaf edition somewhere for a reasonable price.

4. Room, not The Passage
My sense was that only one of these two buzz books would make the shortlist, and I am glad it’s Room. I have not read either it or The Passage, but I didn’t want to read 700 pages about a girl-child savior of a zombie world. I’m not particularly looking forward to 500 pages about a kid stuck in a small room, but 200 pages is 200 pages.

5. Gender Balance.
Eight dudes. Eight ladies. That there’s a fair fight.

5 Things I Don’t Like About the Shortlist

1. It’s Pretty White
Not bone, nor even ecru: this list is whiter than a lacrosse team. There were several strong Asian-American writers on the longlist, and I thought Mingestu’s How to Read the Air could have been a finalist. Now, I haven’t read the books by Puchner,  Winslow, or Hynes, but that’s three white guys writing about white dude things. Nothing wrong with that of course; I am myself a white dude who enjoys reading about white dude things. But didn’t Murray and Franzen have that particular segment of the literary universe covered pretty well?

2. Whither Matterhorn?
This is head and shoulders above both Bloodroot and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. And Lord of Misrule. And Super Sad True Love Story.  Also, how about a book set sometime before 1999? Gravitas is in relatively short supply as it is. This is a real shame.

3. Other Snubs
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge and Lipsyte’s The Ask, but I can understand leaving them off. I am shocked though, that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and C didn’t make the list. Not in a bad way—just regular, neutral shock.

4. Are The Finkler Question and Lord of Misrule here just because they won big awards?
I’ve not read the former, but the latter seems to me to be riding the NBA win. Or maybe I am just still pissed about Matterhorn.

5. The Special Disappointment of an Overrated Book
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a fine book with an interesting idea and some beautiful writing, but there’s just not much to it. Child protagonist with a gimmick just leaves me unimpressed these days. At least there’s not another book with a child protagonist and a gimmick. Oh wait.

The Judges

5 Things I Like About the Judges

1. The Ideal Reader
The at-large selection of Catherine George is a compelling one. Who else is the ideal reader for an internet contemporary lit competition than a MFA turned lawyer with a novel in the drawer?

2. In Case You’re Wondering Whom I’ll Agree With
I’ll be paying special attention to John Williams’ judging here: I’m a fan of The Second Pass and tend to agree with his assessments.

3. Oh, yea, Publishing is a Business
Michele Filgate’s inclusion seems particularly smart: she has several fingers in the publishing pie. I’ll be interested to see which hat she wears when it comes score-card time.

4. Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone
No, that’s not what I wrote in my high school yearbook: it’s the title of a great album by The Walkmen. Hamilton Leithauser, the band’s lead singer, is a judge this year and, well, I’m just a fan.

5. I Think We Have a Weiner
Juicy, juicy coup to get Jennifer Weiner in the mix here. First, her books would never, ever make the shortlist, though she outsells all these folks. Second, she had some choice things to say about the Freedom hoopla. From an objectivity standpoint, I’m not sure this works: from a blood on the carpet angle, though, this is good internet.

5 Things I Don’t Like about the Judges

1. Time to Have a Blogger
And no, not a blogger who would rather be writing novels or working for their online site. I mean a passionate, knowledgeable book blogger with their fingers on the pulse of the blogosphere. Ron Hogan, Rebecca Schinsky, whoever. The time has come.

2. Literary-Industrial Complex
No editor, publisher, or agent? I don’t know much about the biz, but from what I hear these people do things.

3. Tickle the Ivory
While we’re at it, how about someone who studies literature for a living? It would be frickin’ great to have Andrew Delbanco deciding between Room and Super Sad True Love Story. He would either explode or eviscerate. I would hope for both.

4. So, so young. 
Old people read books too. In fact, most books are read by old people. So what if they still dial-up through AOL?

5. When’s He’s Not Writing, He’s Tweaking his Twitter bio.
The cute, random last line of your bio is now cliché. We just assume you made it up now.

5 Things I Think I Think

1. Egan and Franzen Still in Front
Hard for me to see who is going to beat these two here, based on what I’ve read and seen. I still have half the list to read, but it seems to me that the next tier of contenders, Skippy Dies and Room, are a good two furlongs back from the leaders.

2. The Refs are Part of the Game
In case you are wondering what judge(s) might knock off Freedom, surely the number one overall seed, look to Weiner of course, but also watch John Williams. He was largely unimpressed by it and could easily find something else more worthy.

3. Favorites and Cinderellas
The one seeds (four favorites): Franzen, Egan, Murray, Jacobsen. The four four seeds (longshots): Bender, Greene, Winslow, Puchner.

4. Upset Alert #1 
Super Sad True Love Story will make it farther than Lord of Misrule.

5. Upset Alert #2
Freedom wants no part of So Much for That.

Alright, I think that’s it for now. I’ll be catching up with these books over the next month and then presenting a full breakdown before the judging gets underway on March 27th.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dictionary of Fictional Techniques: The Generalized Categorical

I've long admired the formidable Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. When I was studying poetry early in my graduate education, I coveted my poetry studying colleagues' ability to reference this work to identify and articulate poetic devices and always wanted an equivalent for the close study of fiction.

Unfortunately, I've never run across anything up to scratch. So, I am going to write one. Or at least write one entry for one and then try slowly to add more entries over time. (If any readers out there want to suggest future entries, even just point out something that seems like it might be a technique, let me know and I might write about it).

So here's my first entry (with example), inspired by my current read, Jaimy Gordon's NBA-winning Lord of Misrule:

The Generalized Categorical

Definition: a reference to an unknown, abstract category or condition. Primarily used to describe a specific, elusive quality.

Example 1:
"But she sensed a thread  had been dropped somewhere, the route to some secret heart of this business had been lost"

Example 2:
"Was she some sort of born slave herself, a prostitute in a temple, a hierodule?"

The generalized categorical posits the existence of a class to suggest the membership of the described person, behavior, or condition within that class. In first example, the existence of "some secret heart" ratifies the character's sense "that a thread had been lost somewhere." The generalized categorical need not exist for its descriptive function to work, and indeed it often functions with the reader's express knowledge that it does not.

Consider an slight alteration to "the route to a secret heart of this business had been lost": the switch to the indefinite article moves the sentence into the realm of the actual, rather than the realm of the possible. This leveraging of possibility also invokes a sense of indeterminacy and unknowability; in the above examples, this uncertainty seems at least as important as the specific descriptors.

Any other thoughts on the Generalized Categorical? I'm also thinking about writing a taxonomy of dialogue formats: with and without quotations marks, with dashes, embedded in to paragraphs, etc. So if you can think of a good example of an unusual dialogue format, I'd be really interested to hear about it.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx

It seems that the only thing Annie Proulx cannot write about is herself. Lest you think this is an indictment of her new memoir, Bird Cloud, let me assure you that it is not. Don’t be fooled by the back cover description of the work as “autobiography, history of a place, naturalist’s journal”: this suggests a level of intimacy that just isn’t present here.

No, Bird Cloud is about Annie Proulx in the same way that a dissected frog is about a microscope; only by inference, omission, and distance do we begin to see what it is that Proulx does not want to say plainly.

 The simplest pitch is that Bird Cloud is about the construction of her ideal home on a 640-acre stretch of Wyoming wilderness. And that’s part of it. But the most interesting part for Proulx fans will be the realization of how difficult it must be to live life as Annie Proulx, to be possessed of the desire to know everything about something, even unto the spoiling of it.

Her restless inquisitiveness infects all elements of the book: from her examination of her life-long rootlessness, to her historical digging into the ugly history of the land’s former owners, to the imperfection of all human creations. Her careful mapping of the property unearths faint reminders of its original inhabitants and their fate.
Her reading about the wild-fowl of the area leads her to the story of an infamous eagle-killer, who would roam the Wyoming skies in a helicopter, rifle in hand.

These anecdotes and forgotten histories are the only real path into Proulx's mind; she tells us very little of what she feels or thinks. Her troubled family history gets the slightest brushstroke: the centuries-long genealogy of her “hard to know father” is here, but any sense of what Proulx thinks of him is omitted. She recalls carrying one of a pair of sisters, twins, across the lawn as a child, but they never appear in the text again. She has a couple of children, but their father remains loudly silent.

It’s hard not to see her minute re-enactment of the house’s construction as a metaphor for her own life: beautifully conceived, carefully and painfully crafted, but in the end cold, lonely, and unsatisfying. Her similarities to her most iconic character, Enis del Mar, become distressingly clear: a wounded loner whose temporary retreats into the high country are ultimately upended by the brokenness of this mortal life.

By the close, I found myself seeing Proulx much as Proulx saw her beautiful, damaged homestead: “Wildlife has cautiously moved onto the property, several elk now spending the winter near Jack Creek. Owls enjoy the busque at the east end. Skunks wander around, eating insect and bothering no one. A sage grouse restoration project is in the talking stage; it would produce water and shade for these birds. The land has generously responded to the slightest care. I wish I had a lifetime to watch it recover.”

Soon though, the realities of this feral fortress of solitude wear on Proulx, and like her beloved pair of Golden Eagles, it is time for her to move on to someplace free of the stain of self.


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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Stieg Larsson, The New Yorker, and the "Good Enough" Theory of Culture

Is there a better entertainment than watching The New Yorker try to understand popular culture? It seems to be the last pocket of the universe that can't wrap its head around a de-coupling of aesthetic merit and commercial success.

This has never been more striking than in Joan Acocella's  recent attempt to account for the popularity of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, "Man of Mystery" (sub-heading: "Why do people love Stieg Larsson's novels?"). The piece serves as one-stop shopping for newcomers to the series, those who, presumably, have seen the books on subways and in airport bookstores but have little sense of what the fuss is about. The resulting discussion, I think, tells us more about Acocella's literary sensibilities than sheds the faintest photon on America's taste for these novels.

Her distaste for the series, its success, and perhaps even the story she is writing, suffuses her discussion, right from the first sentence:
"[h]aving got American readers to buy more than fourteen million copies, collectively, of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy books-“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2008, American edition), “The Girl Who Played with Fire” (2009), and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010)-the management at Knopf has decided that it would like them to buy some more." 
Let's ignore the stylistic clumsiness of "having got" and instead focus on her view of the matter. Readers haven't wanted to read these books; they have been "got" to buy them. That the content of the books should generate such interest befuddles Acocella, so she looks for forces other than readerly pleasure, up to and including the ability of publisher to manufacture a literary blockbuster. Her project seems to be to catalog her own problems with the series ("The loss of Larsson's style would not be a sacrifice, "the most crippling weakness of the trilogy is its hero," and "[l]ike many mediocre novels, the trilogy is far better on the screen than on the page" among other complaints) more than it is a think-piece on its wild success.

Even as she turns to her conjecture about the phenomenon, she can't help but couch it in condescension: "It is clear that people like these movies, but what accounts for the success of the novels, despite their almost comical faults?"

And what does "account" (notice the weird passivity of that verb) for this success? First, she does concede (not without a dig) that "Larsson may have had a weakness for extraneous detail, but at the same time, paradoxically, he is a very good storyteller." One might expect that this begrudged attribute might be supported by the same kinds of evidence she used to detail the awkwardness of some of the dialogue, but not one specific instance of this story-telling ability is offered.

This, unfortunately, is the high-water mark of her analysis. Acocella's subsequent reasons for the series' popularity are, in order: the popularity of the revenge genre, the supposedly widespread male sexual fantasy of rape, the rise of the "woman warrior," the inclusion of modern technology, and, I kid you not, Larsson's critique of Sweden's social democracy. I find this somewhat less than persuasive.

I suppose the logic for such grasping is something like this: if something is hugely shocking, then the causes of said event must be equally unlikely. Acocella starts from a point of finding Larsson's success confounding, so the contributing factors must be likewise abstruse.

After reading and enjoying the series, I don't find the success all that unexpected, so would take the opposite tack and assume the reasons are relatively familiar. Here's how I would parse the pieces:

Pre-Existing Popular Taste: 45%
This is crime/thriller fiction, arguably the most popular brand of adult literature. Grisham. Patterson. Ludlum. These dudes move trucks and trucks of books, and Larsson, himself a fan of the genre, is operating in this vein. I don't think Larsson is really any better of a writer than these guys, but I don't think he's any worse, at least in English translation, either.

Lisbeth Salander: 20%
This, however, is not a character we've seen much of. Acocella calls her a "punk-fairy": I would describe her more like a "techno she-devil." She is at once vulnerable and fiercely competent, with a serious nasty streak: equal parts Debbie Harry, Bill Gates, and The Punisher.

Setting: 10%
There is something oddly compelling about the atmosphere of Larsson's Sweden, especially in the first book. Its cold austerity has an almost monastic quality, which plays nicely against the twisted passions of the villains.

Packaging: 5%
I'm sure people who work in publishing would be able to describe this better, but the look and feel of the series captures a certain modern urbanity that separates them from your run of the mill gold-embossed trade paperback thriller. Look at GWTDT next to Patterson's latest.

I've seen that Patterson cover 974123469 times. I've never seen one quite like The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. This matters.

Back-story: 5%
Larsson's biography and death are definitely fascinating. He came out of nowhere and stayed there. I don't discount this sort of thing; I've seen it too many times. Cobain. John Kennedy Toole. Sylvia Plath. That guy who wrote RENT. We can't get enough of a tragic and mysterious success. This could be higher than 5%, actually.

Chaos Theory: 10%
Sometimes, the ingredients bake up in just the right way at the right time—an inscrutable emergent property that is as palpable as it is unknowable. Maybe a tiredness with a popular genre created some room for a variation of it. Maybe everyone has a tattoo and a Mac now. Maybe we all hate flying so much that the page-turning immersion these books provide is especially welcome. Maybe it's all of these, maybe none. How else can you explain the popularity of Hypercolor t-shirts in the mid-1990s or the sudden rise of bacon? I mean, bacon's always been good.

All in all, I’m not sure there’s a great and powerful Oz behind this particular curtain.

One last comment: I think we might find a clue to Acocella incomprehension in the word choice of her sub-heading, “Why do people ‘love’ Stieg Larsson’s novels?” The thinking is that if a bunch of people buy something, then they must love it. My experience, and that of many of the people I know who have read the books, is not really one of love; it was one of “hey, pretty fun read. That made my flight 28% less painful.”

I read somewhere, though I can’t find it now, that the most rated movie among Netflix subscribers is Miss Congeniality: not challenging, a likable lead, familiar, and yet slightly different. Not going to piss too many people off, but also not likely to be named to anyone’s favorite movies of all time. That doesn’t make it bad or worthy of scorn—just hugely popular.

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