Friday, July 29, 2011

Super Silly Speculation About Super Secret Memoir

This week, publisher Little, Brown announced a super-secret non-fiction release about "one of the most controversial people of our time." Booksellers have a strict embargo until the book's publication date on November 14th. Speculation is that the person in question is Bernie Madoff. Or is it……

Here are a few other "rumored" candidates:

1. Kim Jong-Il

Fresh off shooting 38 under par in his first golf outing, Kim Il Jong sat down and completed this 1200 page memoir while watching Game of Thrones and learning to speak Icelandic--all in the same afternoon. It would have only taken about 30 minutes, but a surprise attack by 17 bears kept him busy. Immediately after finishing the manuscript, he had to write an additional 400 pages about his exploits that occurred in the time it took his agent to negotiate a 19 billion dollar advance with every Big Six publisher. Early reviews from the North Korean press have been positive; one critic said it "makes the Big Bang look like a raccoon's carcass."

2. Dobby the House Elf

Beloved by a psychotic few, reviled by thinking people everywhere, Harry Potter's noblest and most irritating character tells the world what it's like to be a terribly rendered character. Shedding his trademark third person, Dobby recounts his exploits in the bizarre and hedonistic world of CGI celebrities. Which Pixar female character has a heroin problem? On what Caribbean island is Jar Jar Binks hiding from public scorn? And which Avatar pixel pixie never leaves his side? Not since Who Framed Roger Rabbit have Hollywood's animated A-listers been so nervous.

3. Donald Trump's Barber/Sculptor

Hailed in cosmetology circles as the "Houdini of Hair," the Donald's stylist lives a life of solitude and secrecy. Rumors have swirled for decades that this mysterious follicular maestro made his bones touring as in-house quaff-manager for 1980s hair-champions, Poison. Long gagged by a prodigious annual hush payment, he finally has decided that the truth, as shocking and disturbing as it might be, must finally come out. Also, he is super bored.

4. The Executive Who Keeps Giving Jennifer Aniston Leading Roles

Little is known about this shrouded figure, but someone keeps giving Aniston parts. In this tell-all confession, Exec X as she is known explains in stunning and revealing detail the economics of Hollywood mediocrity. Do these movies make money? Where? How? Who exactly gave The Bounty Hunter the green light? or Rumor Has It? Does Aniston have some sort of sordid blackmail material? These questions and others (like where David Schwimmer is right now) will be asked and answered.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Friday Forum: An ethics of reviewing?

Every once and again the issue of what a reviewer owes a writer gets bandied about in the book blogosphere. Should we write negative reviews? Should we disclose friendships/acquintances? If we criticize a book, what do we owe in the way of evidence an argumentation?

Well, a British court went a step further than "should," fining a newspaper more than $100,000 in damages for libel. Turns out, one of their reviewers made a claim about a book that turned out to be wrong, legally and libelously wrong. 

This story and decision exceeds the bounds of what your average reviewer, professional or otherwise, will likely encounter, but it does remind us that reviews affect, in a very real way, the material well-being of authors. A bad review can hurt their ability to ply their trade. A good review can bolster it. 

If there is an ethics of reviewing, it certain begins well-short of legal wrong-doing, but it's extremely difficult to define. Clearly, making up counter-evidence is beyond the pale. But how about if you just make a mistake? What if you give a book a bad review because you misunderstood, overlooked, or just plain forgot something?

These wouldn't be actionable offenses, but they seem to me breeches of a reviewer's responsibility to make judgments based on the books before them. 

So the question is: what might an ethics of reviewing look like? What is the bare minimum standard that people who discuss books publicly and render judgments of them should uphold? 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

KAFKA ON THE SHORE Close-Read, Vol. 2: The Lyrics to "Kafka on the Shore"

These posts are part of The Atlantic's #1book140 read-a-long of Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. Last time out, I looked at the first 48 words of Kafka on the Shore (interesting to read that now that I've finished the novel). The following posts attempts to make sense of the novel by looking at the lyrics to the titular song.

Man, Murakami is one slippery writer. His themes and concerns seem to bubble, burst, and then reform, sometimes within the space of a single page. We get philosophy, and then discussions of why philosophy is bogus. We get doublings and dreams, but also bodies, blood, and food (did you notice how much mention there was of meals in this book? I don't know if it was unusually prominent, but the attention to the characters' caloric intake was noticeable).

There's so much allusion, mystery, and contradiction throughout that it's tough for the close-reader to find a hand-hold. That is until you see the inclusion of the full lyrics to "Kafka on the Shore" in Chapter 23. Fictional lyrics within a work are enough on their own to warrant attention, but when the song also gives the novel its title, then it's time to put on the bib and dig in….this could get messy. 

First off, here are the lyrics:

You sit at the edge of the world, 
I am in a crater that is no more.
Words without letters
Standing in the shadow of the door. 

The moon shines down on a sleeping lizard,
Little fish rain down from the sky.
Outside the window there are soldiers,
steeling themselves to die.


Kafka sits in a chair by the shore,
Thinking of the pendulum that moves the world, 
it seems. 
When your heart is closed,
The shadow of the unmoving Sphinx, 
Becomes a knife that pierces your dreams. 

The drowning girl's fingers
Search for the entrance stone, and more.
Lifting the hem of her azure dress, 
She gazes---
at Kafka on the shore. 

The dominant symbol set is of being between: "edge of the world," "crater, "shadow of the door," "window," "shore," "dreams," "entrance stone," "drowning girl," "hem of the dress." These various images highlight the novel's consistent attention to borders: between people, spaces, times, genders, and consciousnesses. At one level, it seems that these liminal spaces are undesirable: Miss Saeki's psychic purgatory, Oshima's indeterminate gender, and Nakata's half-mind are sources of great consternation. Still, other between spaces seem liberating: Colonel Sanders' transcendence of good and evil and Kafka's journey to the forest are both generative. 

We might be able to further separate these borderlands then into positive and negative. On the positive side we might have "dreams," "shore," and "edge." On the negative side we have "crater" (as an image of damage), and "drowning girl," "soldiers waiting to die."

The positive images come from natural sources like the collision of land with water and the shared space of sleep and waking that is dreaming. The negative images are of violence that has happened, happening, or that will happen (crater, drowning, and waiting to die respectively). 

The other way to categorize these might be according to permanence: the borders that are more transitional and in movement tend to be neutral to positive, while the borders that suggest permanent change are characterized as negative. This would seem to hold for the wider novel. Consider that the twinned villains, Kafka's father and Johnnie Walker, are in the business of producing fixity, in the form of sculpture and distilling souls into an all-powerful weapon. 

This preference for movement helps explain the central (in terms of location) image of the song: "the pendulum that moves the world." According to this metaphor, the root of the world, actually the root of that root, is a mechanism of perpetual, cyclical motion. The characters, then, who are fixated (Saeki, Kafka's father, Johnny Walker, and even to an extent Crow) are centers of unhappiness. Oshima, Nakata, and Colonel Sanders, conversely, are centers of wisdom and possibility, precisely because they neither insist on nor are subject to illusions of permanence. To use the language of the second half of that stanza, their "hearts," a sign of interiority, remain "open" to the world. Kafka's journey, in this language, is from "closedness," in the form of his father and of his anger toward his absent mother, towards the openness of forgiveness and indeterminacy. 

The "shadow of the unmoving Sphinx" phrase troubles me a bit here. The logic of the lyrics suggests that the Sphinx's shadow only bothers the closed-hearted, but why the Sphinx? The fixity of the Sphinx is emphasized in "unmoving" but what is it about the Sphinx that bothers the closed-hearted so? Perhaps it's not the Sphinx itself, but what the Sphinx represents. In this case, perhaps it is the central truth of the Sphinx's riddle, solved so long ago by Oedipus (ah, that's the ticket. Our boy Kafka gets his own Oedipean curse), that human life is characterized by change, from infancy, to adulthood, to old-age. Those that are "closed" perhaps are haunted by this simple truth; that change is inevitable, that power, comfort, and knowledge are all conditional. 

It is a happy ending then to have Kafka sit on the shore and contemplate the world's ever-changing nature and yet not be bothered by it. Miss Saeki was unable to relinquish her desire for a single thing, and thus was "drowning" in grief before finding relief in death. Their two divergent narratives give perhaps the simplest gloss of the novel, and it's all here in these crucial eighteen lines. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Little Follow-Up: Someone Write This Novel and The Girl Who Studied

A couple of follow-up items to previous discussions here:

1. Someone Write This Novel
After New York passed legislation legalizing gay marriage last month, I asked for recommendations for a novel about a long-term same-sex relationship. There were some interesting ideas, but nothing that fit what I was looking for. In the coverage of the first gay weddings in New York City this week, I saw the story I am looking for, though not in novel form.

From The New York Times:
“We feel a little more human today,” Ray Durand, 68, said moments after marrying his partner, Dale Shields, 79, whom he met 42 years ago by a jukebox in a West Village bar.
This is the novel I want to read. Or if you want to write a memoir fellas, I'll break my embargo on them and snap yours up. In hardcover even. 

2. The Girl Who Studied
I should have written more about Hermione in my scattered, omnibus thoughts on the end of Harry Potter. My basic thesis would have been something like this: Hermione was our avatar for the serious. A muggle and wizard-world fangirl, she made bookishness seem cool and capable. In short, she was the kind of kid many of us who are bonkers for books were (and are).

This piece, a revisionist satire imagining a recentered Hogwarts world, attempts to show what made Ms. Granger so enchanting:

There’s no prophecy assuring her importance; the only way for Hermione to have the life she wants is to work for it. So Hermione Granger, generation-defining role model, works her adorable British ass off for seven straight books in a row. Although she deals with the slings and arrows of any coming-of-age tale — being told that she’s “bossy,” stuck-up, boring, “annoying,” etc — she’s too strong to let that stop her. In Hermione Granger and the Prisoner of Azkaban, she actually masters the forces of space and time just so that she can have more hours in the day to learn.
And it pays off.
And, as I said on Twitter, I would read this series. And it might well be a better one.  

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Forum: The Ingredients of a Good Book Discussion

This week, Edward Champion hosted an online roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta's new rock novel, Stone Arabia (which sounds fantastic by the way and I am eager to read it).

In the five part series, the participants, which included Champion, Sarah Weinman, Levi Asher, and Diane and others, wrote about the book in turn, sometimes responding to each other, sometimes not. 

In all, it was a compelling, insightful read, but I am not sure, in the end, that I would call it a discussion, but more like analytical turn-taking. This is not an indictment of the project; I would gladly read another such document about a contemporary novel. 

In addition to getting me interested in the novel at hand, this experiment got me thinking about the structure of online book discussions. There are all sorts of them happening online, from read-a-longs to challenges to book clubs, to forums, and so forth. And while I haven't tried every available format, one thing is clear to me from those that I have tried: none of them comes close to a old-fashioned, in-person, book discussion.

My instinct is to blame the medium--that there's something irreplaceable about being in the same room with someone, something in the more subtle ebb-and-flow of face-to-face interaction that lends itself to intimacy, investigation, and encouragement. 

When I think of the best discussions I've ever had about books, though, I'm not sure it's about physical proximity but about shared experience; there's something about knowing the people you are discussing a book with. But, there's something else that is harder to define that makes for illuminating, sustaining book talk, something much harder to define.

So, here's my question: what's the best book discussion you've ever had? What made it so great? How does it compare to online book discussion (or was it online)? What do you think the qualities of a good book discussion are? 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Calendar of Notable Book Releases

For whatever reason, it's devilishly hard to keep track of when new books are being released, and The Millions does the literary web a great service by providing a road-map of notable new books every few months.

I find the list invaluable both for seeing what's coming and remembering when to look for certain things. One problem: their list is neither terribly glanceable nor arranged in strict chronological order. So, I went ahead and entered their picks into a shareable Google calendar (embedded below).

Acutally, I made two calendars, one with just The Millions' picks and one that uses The Millions' list as a base, but includes other books I am looking foward to. (examples: What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate).

And if you like, you can use them too.

Here are a few options for doing so:

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Critical Linking: Harry Potter Edition

The Ape's weekly link-fest finally returns, this time with a special all-Harry edition.


From one of the first news stories about Rowling, published just a few weeks before the first book appeared:
The eponymous hero of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone is an orphan who is brought up by a cruel aunt and uncle. He discovers he is a wizard and passes through a time warp into a world of make-believe.
This description seems like a time-warp into a world of make-believe.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Friday Forum: Stories Best Untold?

As Dance with Dragons burns up the fiction bestseller list, a considerably more sobering title has been the talk of the non-fiction world this week: Jayce Duggard's A Stolen Life. From the little I know of her story, it is an unconscionable tale that strains the limits of what we understand as survivable. The early reviews of the book have been somber, almost reverent, and have remarked on Duggard's calm and restraint.

But I will never read this book. Not only am I quite squeamish by nature, but I am not sure that hearing this story is really, well, good for me. I'm not saying the truth shouldn't be told if we find it discomforting, only that the general outline is enough for me. People are fascinated by her story, and I can understand why. But it does lead me to wonder: at what point does a story become harmful? Should some stories not be told?

In the final chapter of Beloved, Toni Morrison includes the line "This is not a story to pass on," suggesting, quite paradoxically, that the harrowing story we have just read is not one we should have heard.

In Elisabeth Costello, J.M. Coetzee's titular character wonders about the limits of story-telling when she reads the memoir of particular villainous Nazi commandant. She is afraid that the evil of his being, revealed intimately in prose, can infect or damage her own humanity.

At what point does a story become dangerous? Would you listen to any story? Does it matter if it is factual? If we believe that stories can be good for us, doesn't it necessarily follow that some of them might well be bad for us?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Well done, Mr. Potter: Uncollected Thoughts on The Boy Who Lived

Though the final book came out more than four years ago, the capstone (for now at least) on Harry Potter couldn't be placed until the final movie premiered. And here we are. Harry Potter is such a phenomenon that it's difficult to get any kind of perspective on it. From a publishing perspective, it was a once in a generation event, perhaps even a singular one. From a cultural standpoint, it cut across all traditional demographic lines. From a commercial angle, it is probably the most profitable artistic work in human history not named Star Wars. So to try to reduce The Boy Who Lived into a single essay or editorial seems foolhardy. Instead, here are some uncollected thoughts:

1. This will probably be the last book/series of books that are so conspicous out in public. Not only were the volumes themselves big and recognizable, but they were printed. Future mega-sellers will be consumed in large part on e-reading devices. I've often wondered if the public consumption of the Harry Potter books contributed their wild success, publicizing and legitmizing children's books for adult consumption. 

2. In many ways, Harry Potter represents the final integration of geek culture into mainstream culture, perhaps even becoming mainstream culture itself. Importantly, the first Harry Potter movie came out in 1999, 28 years after Star Wars premiered. I think the first generation of cultural geeks that Star Wars produced had a major influence on the fate of the Harry Potter franchise; not only were the children of Star Wars ready to consume fantasy themselves, but they could sanction their children to do the same. The generational pressure against genre that often exists was considerably lessened by the flowering of nerdom that had reached maturity by the late 90s. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Deaths of Minor American Poets: The Answers

Thanks to those of you who participated in the Deaths of Minor American Poets Quiz in celebration of one year of Literary Facts of the Day on Twitter. Here are the answers:

Theodore Roethke suffered a heart attack in friend's swimming pool

 Robert Johnson drank whiskey poisoned by bartender (allegedly over a woman)

Philip Freneau died in a snowstorm while walking home from a tavern

Weldon Kees just up and disappeared.

Randall Jarrell was hiit by car while walking to hospital to receive treatment for injuries suffered during a suicide attempt.

Adelaide Crapsey died from tuberculosis of the brain lining.

Lew Welch left an ominous note, walked into the woods with a rifle, and was never seen again. 

Frank O'Hara was hit by a dune buggy.

Jack Spicer succumbed to psoriosis, and his last words were "My vocabulary did this to me."

Congratulations to Robert, who got them all correct. Jesse Ball's The Curfew is winging its way to you as we speak. 

2012 Tournament of Books: Judges Wishlist

Well, I thought yesterday’s 2012 Tournament of Books forecast would quench my thirst for Rooster talk, but it turns out it only made it worse.

So, today we’re back with more; this time looking at the judges. Had a good crop of judges last year, but a dragoon of new judges is surely in the offing. Here’s who I’d like to see, using last year's mix as a guide.

Group A: The Morning News Staff

This Year: 
Rosencrans Baldwin, Matthew Baldwin, Andrew Womack

Wishlist for Next Year: 
They get to pick their team here, but I’d like to see them go from 3 slots to 2. Let’s slot the Baldwin brothers in here, if for no other reason than the mental image of Stephen and William Baldwin trying to judge a literary prize.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Forecasting the 2012 Tournament of Books

We've reached the half-way mark of 2012 and many around the literary web are listing their favorite books of the year so far. This seems like as good as excuse as any to scratch my Tournament of Books itch. If literary 2011 ended right this very minute, what would the 2012 Tournament of Books look like? Commence totally unsupportable speculation. Let's take a look at this year's books that have the best chance of making the field of sixteen.

First, here were last year's contenders:

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
Nox, by Anne Carson
Bad Marie, by Marcy Dermansky
Room, by Emma Donoghue
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon
Bloodroot, by Amy Greene
Next, by James Hynes
The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
Model Home, by Eric Puchner
So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne
Savages, by Don Winslow

One thing The Morning News does well is give us a nice mix: satire, short stories, poetry, coming-of-age, page-turners, comedies, etc. So the prime directive here is not necessarily to list the year's sixteen "best" books, whatever that means exactly, but to replicate the heterogeneity of previous tournaments. Here's my effort, with a brief explanation for each contestant.

In no particular order:

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
State of Wonder seems to be the literary novel of the moment. Like So Much For That from last year, it takes on the health care industry, though with considerably more adventure, style, and daddy issues than Shriver's novel. Should State of Wonder make the field, it has to, at this point, be considered a favorite.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Forum: Is there an ethics of reading?

The idea of the Friday Forum is to take some idea, issue, or story from the week, think about it a little, and then open it up for discussion. Last week's discussion of why we care about authors was fantastic, but it's a new week, so time for a new topic.

I saw a couple of posts this week that, while not on the same topic directly, both spoke to a larger issue.

First, from Rachel's post on reading guilt:
I read a lot. I read a lot of books that I’m pretty sure I’m going to like. When my constant refrain is “so many books, so little time,” doesn’t it make sense to choose books I’m pretty sure I will enjoy? How much obligation do I have – as a reader, as a book blogger, as a consumer – to discover and promote books that may not get as big of a voice as others because they come from small publishing houses or because they do not get as large a cut of the promotional pie in their big houses? And is the obligation to my readers, to authors who need the voice, or to myself ? Am I too comfortable in my reading choices? And is that okay?

Next, from Amy's thoughts on reading and diversity:
If your passion are the new big books I’m not saying you should abandon them, and I have nothing against people who read only review copies or only new books. But I do think, as Teresa said, that we all have to think about what our passions truly are and what we find important. We have to realize that these books are often white, heterosexual, cisgender, and North American or European. If you only request those books, what message is that sending to the publishers about what sells? Diverse books are being published (though not enough), so if new books are your passion there are still options to diversify if you are willing to try!

Both posts imply, quite correctly I think, that our reading time and attention as both social and economic value. Not only does what we read influence what gets published, but also what kinds of authors and ideas we let into our consciousness.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dictionary of Literary Techniques: The Dostoevsky Dash

I'm using The Blue Bookcase's weekly question as an excuse to start writing new entries in my ongoing Dictionary of Fictional Techniques. Head over there to see what other literary devices people find interesting

The Dostoevsky Dash:
The elision of a proper name or place with a series of dashes. 

"At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S------y Lane, walked out into the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K-----n Bridge."
                 --The first sentence of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky 

This one has always puzzled me. If a real place, why not name it? If a fictional one, why not give it a fake name? The best answer I have for this little convention is that it signals the line between fact and fiction. To give the name of a real place pulls the narrative toward fact, imposing restraints that the author might not want (for example, does Dostoevsky want us to be thinking of real St. Petersburg locations with such specificity? How does that change our experience of the story).

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Close-Read: The First 48 Words of Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I so enjoyed participating in last month’s 1book140 read-a-long of The Blind Assassin that  I am coming back for July’s pick, Kafka on the Shore. Last time, I wrote about just the first sentence of The Blind Assassin. This time, I managed to make it through the first 48 words. Disclosure: I have read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle but no other Murakami. Also, I have only read the first 48 words, so any correct guesses or horrible misses here should be judged accordingly.

Here’s what I saw.

1.  The preface’s title, “The Boy Named Crow,” is deceptively simple. On its surface, this is a basic bit of information: this section is about a boy whose name is Crow. If our eye catches anything, it’s the unusual name “Crow,” but I think the telling part is the more subtle, “named.” We might think that Crow is some kind of nickname, but the “named” indicates that it is quite intentional—this is not an acquired name, it is an original. Now who did the naming is less clear; conventional reading would suggest that this was his given name, but there is also the possibility that Crow gave himself this name. (I think the rest of the first paragraph supports this theory, but more on that in a moment.)

Anyway, the point here is that someone wanted this kid to have a weird name. If it was his parents, then he is that kid with parents who wanted him to have a weird name. If he named himself Crow, then he is the kid that gave himself a weird name. Either of these kids is to be monitored closely.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Best Books of 2011...Looking forward to the Second Half

The Millions is back with its preview of forthcoming books, this time looking at the best books of the second half of 2011.

Looks like a terrific six months of reading (with October being a particular gutbuster).

Setting aside the absolute must reads for a lit fic nut (Eugenides, Whitehead, DeLillo, Didion, Ondaatje, Murakami), here's what I am most looking forward to getting my opposable thumbs on:

We Others: New and Selected Stories by Stephen Millhauser

By my scorecard, Millhauser is 2 for his last 2 with Dangerous Laughter and Martin Dressler, We and Others is a pretty good bet. Millhauser assembles eclectic, compelling stories and characters just about as well as anyone, so this new collections promises to be a smorgasbord of setting and stories.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harback

This is a debut novel about baseball and college with magnificent blurbs by Ape favs Franzen and Evison. Harback is also the found of n+1, so the literary nerd factor here is set to 11.

I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck

Tuck won the 1983 National Book Award for the great The News from Paraguay and then....didn't write a new book. Until now. That alone gets my fingers ready for page-turning, but it also stalks one of the hardest fictional game: portraying the relationship that develops between two people after a lifetime lived together. This, combined with the title, has my tear ducts building up inventory right now.

The Stranger's Child by Allan Hollinghurst

I admired The Line of Beauty more than I liked it; I could appreciate Hollinghurst's portrayal of 1980s England, but I couldn't get myself to care about it. This is my fault, not the works, but summoning my attention won't be a problem for The Stranger's Child, as World War I is a pet and professional interest. This promises a little more action and a little less decadence than The Line of Beauty, which is all to the good.

Nanjin Requiem by Ha Jin
In many ways, this is the book I've been wanting, and fearing, Ha Jin would write. Jin is a master of the finely observed domestic story, with a particular gift for silence, longing, and sadness. Here, the canvas is broadened considerably; the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking could not a be a more harrowing setting for Jin's narrative refinement. I am anxious to see how he manages.