Thursday, May 30, 2013

Top Shelf

ISBN-10: 1594488398 ISBN-13: 9781594488399 Published: Riverhead Hardcover, 04/09/2013 Pages: 480 Language: English
"Over centuries, the broad literary brush strokes and the big-canvas page have belonged mostly to men, whereas 'craft' had belonged to women, uncontested. It’s no wonder that the painted-egg precision of short stories allows reviewers to comfortably celebrate female accomplishment, even to celebrate it prominently in the case of Alice Munro. But generally speaking, a story collection is considered a quieter animal than a novel, and is tacitly judged in some quarters as the work of someone who lacks the sprawling confidence of a novelist."

This is a passage taken from Meg Wolitzer's fantastic essay The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women, wherein she explores the gender inequality still deeply rooted in so-called "literary fiction," especially with regard to sprawling "event books" such as Freedom or The Marriage Plot. She correctly points out that while the literati have made room for closely observed, powerful, and-- more significantly-- slender novels such as Toni Morrison's Home, the grander stage of Great American Novels has largely remained the province of men. 

Enter Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, which thankfully lacks none of the sprawling confidence of a true epic. Her recently published novel is about a group of angsty teenagers-- is there any other kind?-- that find each other at a hippy-dippy summer camp for artistically inclined youngsters. After this meeting of unformed minds, the book explodes outward far into the future and even into the past of each of these teenagers, with a special focus placed on the acerbic Jules. The Interestings is a meditation on a generation of dreamers that grew up to find out that talent and luck aren't distributed equally.

It's also very, very good. Wolitzer avoids, for the most part, the clinically detached omniscience that Franzen and his male counterparts seem to cultivate, perhaps out of a desire to avoid sentimentality. Wolitzer doesn't inflict suffering on her characters like a bored scientist plucking legs off of an insect-- she cares about her characters, and their sufferings seem all the more real and tragic for her "sentimentality." 

Wolitzer may have confidence and ambition, but she thankfully also avoids the oft-committed sins of arrogance and self-indulgence. There are no radical changes of voice in The Interestings, no-books-within-books-within-books, no page-long footnotes. She doesn't need to do the prose equivalent of a triple back flip in order to tell her story, which is fascinatingly dense and rich with-- I can hardly think of a way to say it that won't come out sexist-- emotional intelligence. Wolitzer's characters aren't pieces that move around her richly imagined world-- the characters are her world, and they sprawl and sprawl. There shouldn't be anything inherently feminine about a book that revolves around relationships and emotion, but we live in an imperfect world, so I have already read a fair amount of vaguely condescending reviews that subtly suggest Wolitzer should have edited her book down into a slim volume to jam into a corner of their shelf alongside Woolf, Atwood, Lahiri, etc.

The Interestings is a proof of concept for the author's essay in more than one way. First, she proves with her own book that women deserve a bigger piece of the literary fiction pie. Second, critics respond in virtually the same way she implicitly predicted, even though nary a review goes by without mentioning The Second Shelf. Seeing The Interestings already shunted into the category of Women's Fiction is depressing and retrograde, but hardly surprising. Take heart, though. Perhaps hers is the crest of a wave. I am reminded of this passage from The Interestings: "He paused to wonder which Disney character Jules was, and realized that Disney did not make women or girls or woodland animals that were remotely like her."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Rant Regarding Classification

ISBN-10: 0930289234
ISBN-13: 9780930289232
Published: DC Comics, 04/01/1995
Pages: 416
Language: English
Watchmen is one of the greatest works of literature of all time, and it is a comic book. It is not, despite what you may have read, a graphic novel. Okay, in a broad, Merriam-Webster sense, the "trade paperback" format that collects various issues of a particular comic technically is "a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book," but that definition is ludicrously broad and does not adequately reflect usage, the most important consideration for my purposes. The term "graphic novel" has been bouncing around for years, but it gained a lot of credence when comics maestro Will Eisner used it to describe his revolutionary collection of "tenement stories" published in 1978. Even at its popular inception, though, the term hardly seems accurate to me. After all, Eisner's The Contract with God Trilogy has much more in common with a collection of short stories than a novel.

The term "graphic novel" came into broad usage with DC Comics' re-publication of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as graphic novels in 1987. Both were originally published as limited-run comic books-- the appellation "graphic novel" was added by marketing executives to sell more copies. As comics luminary and general grump Alan Moore has said: "The problem is that 'graphic novel' just came to mean 'expensive comic book'...because 'graphic novels' were getting some attention, they'd stick six issues of whatever worthless piece of crap they happened to be publishing lately under a glossy cover and call it The She-Hulk Graphic Novel." That crass marketing strategy has continued into the 21st Century, as both DC Comics and Marvel have continued to stretch the applicability of the term to the point of meaninglessness. 

Commercial forces can be counted on to flail around stupidly in search of relevance, so I find it more disappointing that pretty much every mainstream bookstore, website, and magazine has started using graphic novel as a euphemism for "sure, it looks like a comic book, but you shouldn't feel bad about reading it." On being told that he wrote graphic novels instead of comic books, omni-competent writer Neil Gaiman remarked that the speaker "meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who'd been informed that she wasn't actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening." In effect, the term has become used to reclassify comic books with potential artistic merit and comfortably place them on the "literary" spectrum, which is fundamentally condescending to an entire medium.

Writers have suggested various substitutions for "graphic novel," but ultimately I think there is nothing wrong with the term when it is applied correctly. Masterworks like Maus and Blankets that were published as complete works can be described as graphic novels because they are structured in a manner that is at least novel-adjacent. However, Watchmen was published as a comic. Like practically every comic, Watchmen has a tightly circumscribed structure created by the imperative to have a satisfying mini-arc within every short issue. As fluidly as the collected Watchmen may read, it was naturally designed to be serialized and segmented. These so-called limitations are actually essential to Watchmen's superb pacing and Dave Gibbons' frighteningly detailed art. According to Annotated Watchmen, the comic's fifth issue "Fearful Symmetry" is composed so that "the entire issue’s story pages are a mirror image.  Page 1 reflects page 28, page 2 reflects page 27, and so forth; the two-page spread on pages 14-15 is where the mirror lies.  Each page is a reflection both of layout and content." Have you ever read a novel that does something remotely similar?

Terminology is important, and usage is the key determinant. I don't necessarily want people to give up "graphic novel," but to accept "comic" as a term that indicates equal artistic merit. That graphic novel section in your bookstore may be totally comprised of graphic novels, but if you carry comic books don't be afraid to call them what they are. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Game of Thrones Withdrawal: Part the Fourth

ISBN-10: 0312429983 ISBN-13: 9780312429980 Published: Picador, 08/31/2010 Pages: 640 Language: English 
In case you haven't already noticed, dear reader, this rather loosely defined "series" of blog posts is really just an excuse for me to recommend books that I quite like, so here goes another one: Wolf Hall. Now, Hilary Mantel's masterful historical work does share some  characteristics of A Game of Thrones-ian novel: byzantine plotting, courtly intrigue and-- sometimes literal-- backstabbings, strong female characters, etc. However, Wolf Hall sets itself apart in the way it so convincingly inhabits the mind and body of Thomas Cromwell, a low-born courtier who earned eternal notoriety by using Henry VIII's marital problems as a springboard into the upper stratosphere of 16th Century politics. Mantel radically reinvents the oft-reviled character as compassionate, worldly, and endlessly practical. 

Historians can argue over the validity of such an assessment-- it would seem like a severe case of nit-picking, given the obviously immense amount of research put into the book-- but Mantel's characterizations of Cromwell and his chief rival, Thomas More, sets up a philosophical conflict that is at the heart of the novel. Although Thomas More is usually depicted as a hero (A Man For All Seasons comes to mind) for refusing to sanction the king's divorce, in Wolf Hall he is shown to be a fanatic with a rigid sense of morality and justice. Spoiler alert: More was eventually executed and given a sainthood for his trouble, while English majors continue to study his--admittedly classic-- Utopia and do their best not to think about his ruthless persecution of "heretics."

Mantel forcefully makes the case that one should try to live in the world as it is, not as it should be-- a simple but resoundingly powerful philosophy that informs the entirety of the work. Wolf Hall is no mere writing exercise, but is instead imbued with a strong sense of purpose that is rare in our irony-soaked age. I'm afraid that I barely scratched the surface of this book-- not to mention its sequel, now out in paperback-- nor have I even touched on the subject of Mantel's highlighter-worthy prose, but blog posts have limitations. Mantel, fortunately, has few.

Monday, May 20, 2013

What to Make of the "Foodie"

ISBN-10: 0226651401
ISBN-13: 9780226651408
Published: University Of Chicago Press, 04/01/2013
Pages: 200
Language: English
As a person who considers peanut butter on rice cakes to be the pinnacle of culinary achievement, I have found the growth of "foodie" culture to be fairly puzzling (the term "foodie" is nebulous and ill-defined, but, essentially, a foodie really really likes food). However, the rise of foodie literature clearly indicates some sort of shift in cultural attitudes towards gourmet eating, and an excellent book review on Slate convinced me to explore the topic further. I discovered a complicated, surprisingly heated world of pro- and anti-foodie literature. Take, for example, B.R. Meyers' fire-breathing polemic published in the Atlantic titled "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies." It's not hard to guess where he goes from there, but I'll give you the deliciously over-the-top closing argument: "Whether gluttony is a deadly sin is of course for the religious to decide, and I hope they go easy on the foodies; they’re not all bad. They are certainly single-minded, however, and single-mindedness—even in less obviously selfish forms—is always a littleness of soul." Ouch.

 On the other side, there are your Anthony Bourdain's, who seem to be dedicated to providing a kind of culinary voyeurism. These books re-shape the pursuit of a good meal into an exotic adventure. Many of these are surprisingly aggressive or visceral, such as Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (I usually try to cut long subtitles, but this one was irresistible). Even the skillfully written Blood, Bones, and Butter seems to promise violence and grit with its very title. I struggle to imagine where the legendary Julia Child would fit into this new cooking landscape.  

Memoirists thrive on the foodie literature scene. Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life is a good example of this sub-genre. Foodie memoirs often seem to link the preparation and enjoyment of food with spirituality. This phenomenon can be observed even in the more scientifically-oriented Michael Pollan, arguably the king of modern food writing, who constructed his new book around the four elements-- earth, water, air and fire-- and frequently references philosophy to support his exhaustive arguments. In opposition to B.R. Meyers, Pollan and his ilk seem to view good food as a window into a kind of primal expanded consciousness

As fun as it is to watch intelligent people squabble among themselves, the wisest approach is often the least flamboyant. Alison Pearlman's Smart Casual, the subject of the earlier Slate review, appears to be an academic and even-handed take on the evolution of fine dining in America. Give it a read and see which side of the fence you stand on. Join the discussion. Or hang back with me and watch the intellectual fireworks. I'll be eating a bagel.


Friday, May 17, 2013

The Quiet Contrarian

ISBN-10: 0374157693 ISBN-13: 9780374157692 Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 05/07/2013 Pages: 320 Language: English
On the occasion of the publication of Janet Malcolm's newest collection of nonfiction articles and essays, Slate posted an excellent feature about her body of work and its far-reaching influence. The subheading of the feature, written by Alice Gregory, says simply: "I'm in awe of her," and it's hard not to reach a similar conclusion after you've read one of Malcolm's slim books: The Silent Woman, In The Freud Archives, or Reading Chekhov, to name a few. Malcolm synthesizes literary criticism, biography, journalism, and just about every other discipline that comes to hand in a dazzling display that makes practically every other essayist look dim-witted in comparison. 

Malcolm's writing is somehow three-dimensional: she attacks her subject from every conceivable angle (and a few inconceivable ones as well), until the thorny question at the heart of each of her books seems to give way beneath her logical onslaught. Her arguments are bravely impersonal in an age of over-sharing-- there are a few exceptions, which are all the more fascination for their rarity-- and she is as unsparing in examination of her own profession as she is of any other. The Journalist and the Murderer famously opens with the line: "“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” If I ever wrote anything half as good, I would probably put away my (metaphorical) pen and go (metaphorically) home. 

You may also intuit from that line that "Malcolm’s severity, her terrifying neutrality" somehow does not prevent her from having strong opinions. And indeed, she has gotten plenty of academicians, artists, journalists and everyday readers such as myself stirred up for what Errol Morris called, in an excellent interview on Slate, making an argument for "the relativity of truth." Their concerns are understandable and even, in some cases, shared by myself, but you can't say anything really compelling without ruffling a few feathers: witness every truly revolutionary author ever. Besides, I would argue that Malcolm makes a case for humanity's inability to perceive truth with absolute clarity rather than for the nonexistence of truth itself. After all, her books are often made compelling by her focus on alluring, if flawed, human beings such as Sylia Plath or Ted Hughes rather than dry rhetoric.

Errol Morris rather memorably attacks Malcolm in his interview by giving this description of a hypothetical encounter between her and a drowning man: "I’d like to help you, but you misunderstand the nature of our relationship. You see yourself as a drowning man and me as a woman with a life preserver, but there’s a meta-narrative here. I’m studying the relationship between a drowning man and a person with a life preserver, and for me to throw it would be to break the constraints of the meta-narrative.” Now, that's a rather pointed satirical jab that's probably a lot funnier to an English major who's read a ton of Malcolm, but the important thing to note is that, just a few sentences later, Morris declares her one of his heroes, and her writing "extraordinary." You just don't get reactions that complicated and beautifully articulated without digging deep into the core of things that matter. For that, if for no other reason, give one of Malcolm's books a try.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Hoarding: Buried Alive (in Books), Pt. 1

Inspired by Nick Hornby's fantastic column in The Believer (which you should check out here), I thought I'd share with you a list of recent purchases and recent reads, mostly so that I'm held accountable for my hoarding-style habit of purchasing too many novels.

Books Bought:
*The Yellow Birds -- Kevin Powers
*My Antonia -- Willa Cather (Penguin Drop Caps Edition)
*Sisters -- Brigitte Lozerech
*Swamplandia -- Karen Russell
*All That Is -- James Salter

Books Read:
*The Kings and Queens of Roam -- Daniel Wallace
*Black Warrior Review Issue #39.2, Spring/Summer
*You Lost Me There -- Rosecrans Baldwin (in progress)
*Tin House Issue #54, Winter Reading
*The Liars' Club -- Mary Karr

Disclaimer: There are probably four or so more titles that I'm forgetting at the moment.

In the Books Read column, Wallace's Kings and Queens of Roam was a fantastical romp (more on that later...), Black Warrior Review was worth reading but still hit or miss, and The Liars' Club was positively life-changing. If you come into Flyleaf, I'm prone to recommend it. It's a little scary right now to have no memoirs on the slate, seeing as non-fiction is a perennial favorite of mine, but if the first couple of pages are any indication, The Yellow Birds might fill that void despite being fictional. Tin House was also hit or miss for me, but I think that's the nature of a lit review; I like seeing things that aren't readily accessible to me, that require some effortful reading.

What are you sinking your teeth into at the moment?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Book is Better

ISBN-10: 0743273567 ISBN-13: 9780743273565 Published: Scribner, 09/30/2004 Pages: 192 Language: English
Before watching Baz Luhrmann pile-drive all the nuance out of The Great Gatsby with his recently released film adaption, I thought it would be worth reflecting on what makes Fitzgerald's book such a timeless masterpiece. For one thing, The Great Gatsby has never ceased to be relevant. Take a listen to this excellent Studio 360 episode on "how this compact novel became the great American story of our age." It presents a fascinating cultural history of the work and how its particular take on the American Dream has infiltrated everything from film to hip-hop. Gatsby is not the earliest attempt to define the allure and danger of America's rags-to-riches ethos-- Mark Twain's unfortunately little-remembered 1873 novel The Gilded Age springs to mind-- but it did inject a corrosive fairy-tale romanticism into the oft-told story that gave it a memorably dreamy, surrealist quality. This is why-- snob that I am-- I shudder to think of Luhrman's literalist, 3-D take on the greenish light at the end of Daisy's dock. Not everything has to be seen to be felt.

In addition, The Great Gatsby is an extraordinary demonstration of the value of writing with economy and verve. Every single sentence is beautifully crafted, as can be seen in the Studio 360 piece when an actor who has memorized the entirety of the book is asked to read from it at random and every line comes out like a perfectly formed gem. Although I think Jonathan Franzen might be better served if he took those lessons to heart, his take on Fitzgerald's winning combination of style and substance is dead-on: "In 50,000 words, he tells you the central fable of America...and yet you feel like you are eating whipped cream." In other words, it's the rare classic that's short and fun-- famous counter-culture comedian Andy Kaufman once read the entirety of the novel at a show. Granted, most of the audience was less than pleased, but there's no accounting for taste. 

So go buy it! At Flyleaf preferably. And avoid the garish movie tie-in covers, the one featured in this post is absolutely perfect. This is THE Great American Novel. With the exception of Moby Dick, of course, but I'll leave that post for another day.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What Not to Give Your Mom on Mother's Day

ISBN-10: 147781647X ISBN-13: 9781477816479 Pages: 22 Language: English
I considered writing a post on possible Mother's Day gifts, but the internet has been inundated with enough of these lists recently that I thought I might take a cue from this delightful picture book and tell you what not to buy them. For one, the book makes a few crucial points: under no circumstances should you give her, say, a rotting log or a bunch of flies. I'm told human mothers find that strange.

On a more serious note, don't pigeonhole your mother. Not everything has to be Oprah-approved (though Elizabeth Strout might not be a bad pick). Family drama is a fine subject for a novel, but not every novel. She might appreciate a change of pace with a whip-smart thriller like Gone Girl or Turn of Mind. History and social science are not as dry as you might think: let her give Cleopatra: A Life or Quiet a try. Don't give her "guilty pleasure" books-- it's condescending to a woman who is almost certainly older than you and probably wiser! 

In the same vein, don't think you're so 'cool with the moms, dig,' as the young people say, that you can buy her erotica. In an article filled with some great recommendations, a writer on Bookriot suggests you do just that, to which I present my eloquent counterargument: Ew. Besides, since when does romance have to be cheap and tawdry? Where my Jane Austen fans at? How 'bout my Anna Kareninites? Just because they're classics doesn't mean your mom has gotten around to reading them. She's been busy birthing you and keeping you alive! Plus there are plenty of fancy-schmancy editions conducive to gift-giving.

If you want to be more conservative, that's fine. Just don't ever waste a chance to give someone something good to read. Even in the stereotypical mom wheelhouse of cross-generational drama there are plenty of very interesting writers out there putting out quality product. Whatever you give her, take the lessons of What Not to Give Your Mom on Mother's Day to heart: something that was recently alive is probably not a good present.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sick Day Reading

Dear reader, I have been forced to stay home today by some unknown pathogen, probably passed on to me by one of our valued customers visiting the store, so I figure all of you collectively owe me one. I will accept remuneration in hard cash or in suggestions of good literature to read while sick. I'm currently midway through the excellent Wolf Hall, but I have found it difficult to follow the intricacies of the Tudor court while feeling gross. 

Normally, I would pick up my copy of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, but I seem to have hit a wall at around a dozen re-reads. I'm burning through an immense backlog of comics that includes spin-offs of television maestro Joss Whedon's greatest creation: Angel-- yeah, Buffy fans, I said it. Most of them are workmanlike, but I am finding John Byrne's collection quite enjoyable. Strangely enough, I also enjoy a good rant when sick and so find some solace in Christopher Hitchens' polemics or in the heated debate over foodie-ism prompted by some recent books that I might treat on in another blog post.

I started this post with the intention of figuring out what makes for a good sick day read, but looking back on my own, very strange, picks, I realize I have no idea. Hey, I'm sick, give me a break. If you have any suggestions or just want to let me know what idiosyncratic literature you reach for when you have the sniffles, write below in the comments.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover, And Other Original Things You've Heard a Million Times Before

It’s sort of astounding how, sometimes, those old adages prove true.  I don’t think there’s a phrase better than “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” as illustrative metaphors go, but still, I’m guilty of doing just that. I work in a bookstore, and still – still! – certain covers make me cringe. 

The trite is the most offensive category. Certain redundant images resurface like cat hair on your favorite sweater. Just when you thought you’d seen the last picture of a pair of hands cupping some seashells or sand, think again. That image of a woman looking over her shoulder, deep in thought, will reappear in countless incarnations. The image of a pensive eyeball surrounded by futuristic scrawl will probably continue to exist as long as books do, for better or for worse (probably for worse).

While it’s sometimes fun to play “spot the overused stock photo” (what can I say, booksellers are easily amused), there’s a deeper, sadder truth here, one that actually hurts a book’s chances at getting its due. If we’re assuming, for argument’s sake, that a book takes about a year to write, give or take a lot of wiggle room, the lines of ink on a given bookshelf represent hundreds or thousands of hours, not to mention a massive intellectual effort. There are exceptions, surely, in which some wunderkind or other writes the next great American novel in five or so days, but otherwise, an unappealing cover can correlate with time spent in vain. It can render all those hours at a computer almost useless, and it can reduce an intricate, multi-dimensional novel into the sort of one-off categories that make editors and many readers shudder: chick lit, beach reads, something with the insinuation of fluff or lack of artistry.

And of course, that’s not to say there aren’t some novels that deserve their design. Maybe they do, indeed, fall into an easy category. It should be obvious, but we all want different things: the backseat of my car holds a YA novel, some classic literature, and some sci-fi at any given moment. Books come in all shapes, sizes, and types, and that’s sort of the point; when there are so many eccentricities and tastes, why standardize covers? Why reuse images that evoke a connotation far more reductionist than what’s actually inside?

I could theorize until I ran out of free space on the internet, but the truth is, there’s a lesson to be learned here. I could be better, you could be better, we all could be better about dismissing a title because it’s got a holographic cover or a dragon on the front. Instead, why not make your trip to the bookstore more luxurious. Pick an unlikely title and settle into a chair, and then open it up. Spend some time between its pages, and discover for yourself the difference between visual perception and literary reality.

Cutting Krypto

It may be self-indulgent for me to write more than one post about a biography of Superman, but I couldn't resist linking to this hysterical article by Glen Weldon presenting the "transcript" of an argument with his editor concerning the inclusion of thirteen pages on Krypto the Super-dog, Superman's Kryptonian pet. Any writer will sympathize with Weldon's desire to hang on to every bit of esoterica he spent hours writing and researching, while any editor will be reminded why writers are the worst.