When a person “of a certain age” reaches said age, various reactions have been known to ensue. Among the more traditional: depression, extramarital affairs, the purchasing of impractical items (e.g. little red sports cars), dramatic career changes, food or alcohol abuse. The non-traditional but possible: deciding to climb Mt. Everest, joining the Peace Corps, taking up improvisational comedy. Yes, the ubiquitous midlife crisis, a phrase first coined in 1965 by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques. We know it. We fear it.
But what about the rest of us, pre-midlife—are we not entitled to our crises? Do they not deserve a name? Enter the quarter-life crisis: melancholia for the rest of us! According to the BBC (all the way back in 2002), a couple of twenty-somethings coined this analogous name after interviewing hundreds of their contemporaries and unearthing “a sense of hopelessness.” The interviewees “felt adrift and unsure of anything.” Today’s youth now have two periods of spiritual crises to anticipate. The Fallback Plan, Leigh Stein’s first novel, may also be the first (good) book to focus wholeheartedly on the aimless post-graduate experience, or crisis, that so many young Westerners now face. A young, penniless graduate named Esther, with no marriage to ruin, no money to scatter, does what more and more graduates are doing:
In June, the monsoons hit Bangladesh. Chinese police discovered slaves in a brickwork factory who couldn’t be sent home because they were too traumatized to remember anything but their own names, and Dr. Kevorkian was released from prison.
In other news, I moved in with my parents.
In the brief but affecting story that follows, Esther spends her time babysitting a darling young neighbor named May Brown, retelling the story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe starring pandas, wishing to contract a serious but non-fatal illness, cavorting with old high school friends, and thinking. The novel is strongest when Stein lets lose Esther’s avalanche of paranoia and malaise so we receive gems like: “Maybe my life could be saved with a lobotomy. Do they perform lobotomies anymore? I wondered.”
“In America, we believe that each person is the central character in his or her own story. In the stories we tell ourselves, characters’ deep-seated desires and motivations send us on trajectories toward what we strive to attain. Along the way, there are complications and conflicts that challenge us and invite us to look inward, but in the end, our characters change, grow and understand.
Imagine a world in which no writer has written a literary novel in sixty years. Imagine a place where not a single person has read a book that is truly about the character at its center.”—
In reading the two stories contained in Smut—”The Greening of Mrs Donaldson” and “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes”—most Americans will probably concur that Bennett’s writing is “very British.” What characteristics do I think of as traditionally British? A certain detachment and concern with propriety. These elements are obvious throughout the stories, even in more affecting passages:
Mrs Donaldson had been coming to the medical school for a month or so now and to the hospital for much longer. It was here that Mr Donaldson had slowly and not unpainfully died, visited daily by his uncomplaining wife in a routine she had begun by finding irksome but to which she had grown inured and even attached so that his eventual death came as a double deprivation.
Appearing on the fourth page of “The Greening of Mrs Donaldson,” this passage quickly establishes Bennett’s leading lady as rather cold, detached. “Where does smut belong in the life of such a woman?” seems to be the question.
Click-through the above link for “The Twittering Author,” a little bit I wrote for The Lit Pub about poets who tweet (specifically, D.A. Powell and Arda Collins).
The particularity of a writer on Twitter: this is not People magazine’s best-dressed listor a dance competition, an improv comedy show or a submarine mission. These are words, the fodder and folly of writers and the element in which they should excel. We can only expect so much from Lindsay Lohan’s tweets, an update on her sobriety, at best. And, while, yes, Twitter was designed for just such exhilarating celebrity news, this social media is also a neatly crafted space for writers to test their wordsmithing skills. As for the metalsmith, the work becomes more difficult and more intricate with smaller objects.
Big parts of this piece I made up. I didn’t want to say that, but the editors are making me, because of certain scandals in the past with made-up stories, and because they want to distance themselves from me. Fine.
— John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Violence of the Lambs”
I purchased You Deserve Nothing a few days before the troublesome Jezebel story broke: it’s not fiction, it’s true! Alexander Maksik had an affair with a student in Paris! Let outrage ensue.
Truth is a tricky thing. Maksik, Europa Editions (his publisher), and the American School of Paris, from which Maksik was dismissed as a teacher in 2006, declined to comment on Jezebel’s story. What we have are the words of some students, and, after reading the article’s accusations, I wonder why we choose to trust these youths as reliable journalistic sources but do not trust that they can make informed sexual decisions. When the school administration uncovers the student-teacher affair in You Deserve Nothing, they assume that the teacher “took advantage” of his impressionable (weak) student. The school therapist meets with Marie, the student, who remembers their sessions as such:
She kept saying it, He needed to assert his power. He took advantage of you. Do you understand? You must understand that. You have to understand it for you to heal.
Marie does not understand it, and the author makes it difficult for the reader to understand either. We are aware that Will loves the power of teaching. “All that attention, it’s hard to resist,” he admits. “You know that the subject you teach isn’t nearly as important as how you use it.” If Will, or Maksik for that matter, took it upon himself to teach more than English literature to a student, is it possible to judge whether that was an assertion of power or an extension of teaching or simply a man caring about a younger woman?
It is difficult to read Biblical stories unattached, without religious sentiment—positive, negative, ambivalent—creeping in. But, Christian or not, they are stories and great ones. In college, I took a Religion class titled “The Genesis Narrative,” the name implying a kinship with my English Literature studies. In it, we studied the Book of Genesis as a text, a semester of Biblical exegesis. Narrative structure, character consistency, the potential of each story to represent some Greater Truth, which reliably seemed to be: death, destruction, damning.
Like the Book of Genesis, Bradford Morrow’s first story collection contains a lot of pain. Trials and tests, fratricide, incest. Vengeance, theft, an Ark. Morrow’s stories sing a tune of isolation. In “The Hoarder,” the first story in the collection and one of the strongest, a young man catalogues his habit of hoarding objects, beginning with seashells and butterflies and ending with furtive photographs of his brother’s girlfriend. Our narrator remarks that, in observing his brother and the object of his obsession,
…I learned how lovers speak, what kind of extravagant lies they tell each other, the promises they make, and all I could feel was gratitude that my brand of intimacy didn’t involve saying anything to anybody.
His “brand of intimacy” being lurking about town and the mini-golf course where he works, observing others’ emotional and physical intimacy, and (yes) hoarding his own potential for human affection until a critical moment.
“When first learning to read, I hoarded words just as I would shells, nests, butterflies. Like many an introvert, I went through a phase during which every waking hour was spent inside a library book. These I naturally collected, too, never paying my late dues, writing in a ragged notebook words which were used against Tom at opportune moments. He was seldom impressed when I told him he was a pachyderm anus or runny pustule, but that might have been because he didn’t understand some of what came out of my mouth. Many times I hardly knew what I was saying. Still, the desired results were now and then achieved. When I called him some name that sounded nasty enough—eunuch’s tit—he would run after me with fists flying and pin me down demanding a definition and I’d refuse. Be it black eye or bloody nose, I always came away feeling I got the upper hand.”—
—Bradford Morrow, “The Hoarder”
Currently reading Morrow’s story collection, The Uninnocent (Pegasus, December 2011).
BONUS: Today only, the price of the book will begin at $9.30. For every ten tweets containing the hash tag #LambertoLambertoLamberto, the price will drop by a penny. Why? Because Melville House rocks. Tweeting begins at noon; track the price drop and buy the book at Lamberto Lives.
The Untraditional Love Story: Q by Evan Mandery and Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
What is fiction if not the language of possibility? An older man lusts after a girl and seduces her, possibly. A group of ghosts visit a miser and convince him to amend his ways, possibly. A wealthy young woman and the son of a servant fall in love and are betrayed, possibly. Similar to the “willing suspension of disbelief”—Samuel Coleridge’s notion, which contemporary culture now deems necessary for any fiction—belief in love insists on belief in possibility: that one day we will be at the grocery store or a bookstore or a public swimming pool, meet eyes with one other person, and learn to say no to other possibilities.
In Q: A Novel, Evan Mandery unravels all of these ideas. Love, possibility, fiction, time, they are no longer static. The book’s narrator asks his titular lover, Q, this heavy question: “If you were going to die, would you want to know?” In other words, would you want to reduce one of life’s foremost possibilities to knowledge?
The narrator inquires because he must face, rather unwillingly, a similar conundrum. His future self, nicknamed I-60, has arrived in the present to declare that the narrator “must not marry Q.” What precedes this revelation is nothing short of the ideal, New York City love story. The narrator and Q meet at the Anjelika Theater during a double-feature of Casablanca and Play It Again, Sam. Q introduces him to the secret, organic garden that she is fighting to save. Q is mystical, beautiful, and life-affirming. We never know quite what the narrator offers besides love and, when his future self gives this devastating decree, even that falters.
Mandery’s book inspires me to ask a lot of questions because it is a question. If you knew when and how you would die, perhaps you would benefit from knowing. You could make plans. See Morocco. Find a home for your cat.
“Were he to put his hand on me, I would be revealed as nothing more than a newspaper, erect. A screen on which is projected the image of a boy. How could he love me? There’s nothing to me except a place where the light resists moving forward.”—
Currently reading: Edinburgh by Alexander Chee.
It’s about love and growing up, homosexuality and pedophilia. Butterflies, birds, and fire. Tunnels beneath us. If you enjoy beautiful words—Chee has written some of the loveliest prose I’ve ever read—and stories filled with deep yearning, read this book. Quickly.
HTMLGIANT and Blake Butler (who, you may have heard, is one of the craziestand mostinteresting people ever) have created a Tournament of Bookshit. This means: they chose 64 sort of book-related “entities” and arranged them in an NCAA style bracket. Each week, a judge will decide which thing moves forward. So make your picks now! A few pairings:
'magic realism' vs. living in Brooklyn 'is the author of' vs. bowties hating on Jonathan Franzen vs. hating on Jonathan Safran Foer
Over at the Barnes & Noble Review, Daniel Menaker has listed 16 rules for writing flap copy, including, “1. Always use “stunning,” except when the book is about the history of the stun gun.”
Sometimes I visit The Rumpus and repeatedly refresh the page to experience their ever-changing taglines. Self-centered, but generous. The Rumpus isn’t a democracy, it’s a triumvirate. Conjugate that ass. I recommend this as a mid-morning gift to yourself. While you’re there, read the latest Dear Sugar column, which includes 94 letters of thanks from readers. Aw.
A Love Letter, A Review: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Where did our love go wrong? Was it in my worship of The Line of Beauty? Was it too much pressure? What did I know of gay British life before I knew you (I was a 20 year-old American female—very little)? I moved on to The Swimming-Pool Library, The Folding Star, but neither moved me so. I should have known.
I will not say you are a one-hit wonder, a one-trick pony, a tease. You are not unlike Halley’s Comet: reliably stunning and guaranteed to return. So I will always keep my eye out, waiting for you. Please come back soon.
Let’s be honest: we, readers, have most enjoyed Hollinghurst’s writing at its peaks of eroticism. He makes sex literary and, thereby, acceptable to read on subway trains. If you weren’t aroused while reading Nick Guest’s escapades in The Line of Beauty, please, seek help. So are we doomed to be disappointed by The Stranger’s Child, a novel in which the “gay author” seeks to distance himself from this label? Daniel Mendelsohn’s review, in The New York Review of Books, begins by describing a scene in which one of the novel’s characters regards a young man’s tomb and considers the sculpture’s absent penis. The character, George Sawle, was once the dead young man’s lover so he inevitably ponders all of the effigy’s deficiencies, including the missing bulge, once so vital to the departed Cecil, and the hands, chiseled much too small.
As I read Hollinghurst’s much-anticipated novel, I also found myself considering what was missing and why I was dissatisfied with his creation. Was I, like George, troubled mostly by the absent penis (or penises)? The sex and homoeroticism still emerge, albeit more quietly. They, like Cecil Valance’s hands, have been restructured, stylized, made polite, and Hollinghurst’s latest work relies on subtle suggestion.
“…everything we brought to the park is gone. The beautiful library is gone. Our collection of 5,000 books is gone. Our tent that was donated is gone. All the work we’ve put into making it is gone.”—
— Stephen Boyer, a librarian at the People’s Library
The thoughtless destruction of property and the disposal of 5,000 books—all of which could have been donated elsewhere and reused and loved again—seems more reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 than of the American I thought I knew.
UPDATE According to the NYC Mayors Office Twitter account, confiscated property from Zuccotti Park and the People’s Library books are being stored in a sanitation garage on 57th Street and can be retrieved tomorrow. See photo.
“Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant, or we are incalculably precious and interesting. I tend toward the second view. Scarcity is said to create value, after all. Of course, value is a meaningful concept only where there is relationship, someone to do the valuing. If only to prove that I can, I will forbid myself recourse to theology and proceed as if God were not, for me, a given. Let us say that God is an unnecessary hypothesis here because we ourselves can value our kind. There is perhaps nothing more startling about human circumstance than the fact that no hypothesis can be called necessary, that we are suspended in time ungrounded by any first premise, try as we may to find or contrive one.”—
"I can take all the madness the world has to give, but I won’t last a day without you."
To give a book that we love to one whom we love—what a frightening and delicate act! We release a part of ourselves for scrutiny and endless variations of disappointment. We place the judgment of our taste in the hands of someone we want terribly to please. Is any act more terrifying? Five little words. I hope you like it.
In 2000, the ever-delightful Algonquin Books released First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors, edited by Paul Mandelbaum. The idea being that, even at young ages, nine or seventeen, many of our beloved writers were already cunning wordsmiths. The publisher recently released one of Margaret Atwood’s early short stories on their blog; please enjoy “The English Lesson, 1957,” a young story by one of the greats.
* * *
Miss Murdock adjusted her thick, steel-rimmed glasses in front of the mirror. She regarded the reflection before her: her own familiar shapeless face with its wispy frame of brownish-gray hair (those wisps would never stay in place—she had ceased to try); the green leather armchair in the corner; the legs of Miss Spencer, the History teacher, who was dozing by the window with her shoes off; and the mirror on the opposite wall that reflected her own reflection. If there were three mirrors, she thought, I would see a whole line of Miss Murdocks, one after the other, all moving together like puppets. She wondered idly why Miss Spencer, who was fifty-six if a day, wore red nail-polish on her toes. She dabbed powder on her biscuity cheeks with her fluttery, irresolute hands, applied her lipstick (unevenly, as usual) in a thick, dark line and blotted most of it off, twitched her pearls and flicked a few crinkly hairs from her collar. I really don’t know why I bother, she thought; struggle, struggle for survival like an amoeba in a glass dish, without purpose, without direction. Miss Spencer stirred in her sleep as the door wheezed shut.
“The possibility of venting or distilling friendly or unfriendly feelings through the medium of literary criticism is what makes that art such a skewy one.”—Vladimir Nabokov, interview with Alvin Toffler (Playboy, January 1964)
1. Lackluster graphic novel/comic book adaptations …the medium itself isn’t the problem here… The issue lay with the idea behind graphic novel and comic book cash-ins just because it’s the thing to do, paying little heed to the original story, the medium or both.
2. “Self-help” guides doing more harm than good Fun Fact: That “The Secret” thing the kids were into a few years ago? The whole “law of attraction” thing essentially foists the blame of abuse and suffering onto innocent victims. What a concept!
3. Bandwagon-jumping Exploiting narrative and trope trends is about as new as the Marianas Trench and probably won’t stop happening until never.
4. Self-indulgent celebrity memoirs Publishing resources that could go towards brand new, talented writers with something fresh and interesting to say instead supporting the same old “fame totally happened, oh man I lost everything, but yay, spirituality” narrative. These people get (or got) enough attention as it is, earned or not.
5. “Revolutionary” diet plans Here’s the only diet plan anyone needs. Exercise regularly. Practice portion control. Eat a diet comprised primarily of nutritious foods. No book necessary.
6. Celebrity authors who just can’t write Lauren Conrad, another bafflingly famous “personality” who arguably doesn’t really do much of anything…ended up on the bestseller list. Twice.
7. “Women’s literature” with reductionist views of women Enjoying fluffy, escapist reads carries absolutely no shame, but the problem lay with some of the disconcerting tropes. Like how “women’s literature” tends towards problems involving men and shoes, painting its protagonists as shrill, empty-headed, materialistic archetypes instead of real people. Or the fact that so many books ostensibly about the ladies always seems to involve men. Specifically, attracting, keeping and tolerating the fact that they just aren’t perfect.
8. Remixing the classics Although this definitely falls under bandwagonning, the added element of building on popular public domain works adds an extra literary dimension. Yeah, the cheekiness definitely amuses, but the market’s become quite saturated with them. Enough already!
9. Assuming genre fiction has nothing to say When it comes to science-fiction, for example, Snow Crash says just as much about the human condition and experience as most classics with a grounding in reality — and considering its technological themes (even prediction of services such as Second Life!), eerily resonates today. Rebecca and some Sherlock Holmes books really deliver academically when it comes to mysteries, but how about The New York Trilogy? And so forth. Scratching the surface makes a great introduction to different genres, but try and find examples beyond the tried and true to really diversify the canon.
10. Dismissing all self-published literature …self-published writers run the gamut from creative, thought-provoking and talented to those so genuinely frightening and outright offensive that linking them here would probably cause the FBI to shut this whole site down.
The list is not the most well-written articulation of some of the publishing industry’s prejudices and problems, but it is well-balanced. And may I just add: NUMBERS 4 AND 9, 4&9!
Click-through to the article to read longer explanations of each point.
One of the most remarkable features of this modern age—apart from the iPhone and Netflix, of course—has been the development of online communities of interest, this easy discussion between strangers. 4chan, Mac Rumors, YouTube, Yelp. Viral videos, webcomics. Cute Overload!
Far from the least of these burgeoning communities, the digital bookish world continues to grow, helped greatly by sites like Tumblr and Twitter. Every Friday, over 7,000 readers participate in Bethanne Patrick’s ingenius creation, FridayReads. Just search the tag #fridayreads on Twitter for thousands of new book recommendations. Goodreads, a wonderful online reading community (which I use obsessively to catalogue my books), has over 6 million users who rate and review books, discuss books in online forums, win books in daily contests.
Two new websites have honed in on the importance of virtual reading communities, inspiring literary conversations instead of lectures and giving readers a voice. Don’t worry, Bookforum, Times Literary Supplement: you will always have your place. But make a little room for:
Book Riot The Riot has begun, and Book Riot is different. They have gathered some of the best book thinkers—young & old, new & accomplished, bloggers & critics—to write about anything book-related. Book Riot does not discriminate. It’s literary fiction and teen fiction and non-fiction. It’s book fetishes (It Was a Dark and Stormy Night board game, anyone?). Book Riot welcomes readers, insists on interaction and comments, and promises an engaging, friendly place for great, bookish minds.
The Lit Pub Like Book Riot, the Lit Pub (developed by poet Molly Gaudry) craves engagement between readers and writers. The core idea is that the Lit Pub is styled as an online, independent bookstore. Books are “recommended,” not reviewed, and every post about a book or writer links to the Lit Pub’s community bookstore. If you’re looking for a smaller, independent title and not another review of 1Q84, visit this site. And look for a few of my own recommendations, starting with Gianni Rodari’s grown-up fairy tale, Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto (out from Melville House next month).
My reading choices are subject to many whimical notions: the temperature, what I’m wearing, what I last ate, how much sleep I got the previous night, if Jupiter is in retrograde, my cat’s mood.
Sometimes, when the weather is just cool enough and I’ve been listening to Carla Bruni’s “Le Toi Du Moi” on repeat and Jupiter is, in fact, in retrograde, the only logical thing to read is love poetry (preferably near the humming music of water that is blue, early and instant blue).
Peccadillo by Mary Ruefle
I love you like pink tiles and white cigarettes and the brown underfeathers of a fat hen and I do not even know you, you are like my toes which I have never seen because I was born in shoes whose laces continually come undone so I am forever stooped and while I am down I gather for you all the porcupine quills left by the rain, my collection is formidable but not for sale, and when I am up I make for you color enlargements of the day: look at this cloud will you, until you arrive I will not know if the rain fell beautifully or dripped continually, I assume by now my commitment to you is transparent and that you accept the topographical error in the depths of my atlas, still there will be many mysteries between us, you were not exactly here when my alarm clock was stolen or my cat sold without my permission, but those days are behind me, after a life of expensive moments devoured by fogs they mowed the fields into haystacks, they covered the haystacks with white shrouds and rolled them off to the side like stones and brought in the trembling lights of a carnival where it is my one desire we will hang together upside down on the wheel while the crowd gasps as you kiss me.
From Ruefle’s book, Indeed I Was Pleased with the World (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2007). Buy it.
“For a writer there is no such thing as an exemplary life … Certain writers do good work at the bottom of a bottle. The outlaws generally write as well as the bankers, though more briefly. Some writers flourish like opportunistic weeds by hiding among the citizens, others by toughing it out in one sort of desert or another.”—Tobias Wolff, Old School
“Some of the books we’re doing are almost avant-garde, a lot of them are by young writers, and a lot of the promotional efforts we do are online or in innovative new ways,” Morgan said in a recent interview. “But it still is all coming from this very deep-rooted sense of the physical book as our little sacred item.”—
I first become familiar with Harper Perennial when I went to every night of Blake Butler’s marathon reading of There Is No Year. It was obvious: anyone who would arrange a marathon reading of this wild, experimental novel was worth knowing. Led by the inimitable Cal Morgan (also of !T Books and Fifty-Two Stories), Harper Perennial has published some of the most interesting and riskyworks of fiction in recent years—including Matthew Norman’s Domestic Violetsand Blake Butler’s Nothing, both of which I reviewed and admired.
Over at the Barnes and Noble Review, Harold Augenbraum has taken inspiration from tomorrow’s 2011 Man Booker prize announcement, revisted all 44 previous winners, and summarized each in 25 words. Exactly.
While I still recommend reading the novels, the summaries are a clever way to pique interest in the previous prize winners. A few gems:
1974 (shared) — Holiday by Stanley Middleton — Middleton shows consummate craft in an exploration of marriage told in flashback. So many Bookers take place near water; it should be the (Sea)Man Booker.
1989 — The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro — I have read three perfect novels in my life, and this is one of them. The British class system as realism, symbolism, and metaphor. Brilliant.
1994 — How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman — Who hasn’t awakened in an alley missing his shoes? Portrait of the downsliding of a soon-to-be down-and-out, the prose style mirrors the story’s blithery content.
2009 — Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — English history is a fetish for the Brits, like Star Wars for the Yanks: They love to parade in costumes and jostle with their (anti)heroes.
“In England there’s a hell of different words for everything. It’s for if you forget one, there’s always another one left over. It’s very helpful.”
Stephen Kelman achieves something wonderful in his debut novel, Pigeon English, which has been shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker prize: Kelman reawakens the reader’s awareness of language and its possibilities, via a young Ghanaian transplant in London named Harri.
Using Harri’s efforts to acclimate to English life and to accept (and investigate) the murder of another young boy—the novel’s jumping off scene—Kelman demonstrates how vital language is to everyday life and how personal words can be. Harri, who narrates most of the story in a simple but open manner, as an eleven-year old might, peppers the pages with Ghanian dialect, and we (English readers) can see our language bending. By pushing together “donkey” and “hours,” we have a new way to say “a long time.” Common phrases are elided, “go away, you” becomes “gowayou.” Harri never explains his words because there are that: his.
Kelman deftly creates a novel that is as much about language as it is about youth, and Henry’s two languages neatly reflect both his naïveté and his confidence. Harri is still adjusting to life in London. He has made some bad friends, the type of friends who defile churches, harass the elderly, and may very well have murdered “the dead boy,” as Harri calls him throughout. Kelman emphasizes the dichotomy of Harri’s two lives, two countries; half of his family remains in Ghana, waiting. Harri, aware of his own weakness and the weaknesses in others, consistently translates English words and idioms for the reader. He explains that AKA “stands for also known as” and that superheroes are “special people who protect you.” Harri wants so much to understand his new world and to be a part of it that he cannot stop voicing his discoveries.
Conversely, Harri never explicates the pieces of his Ghanian dialect. This, he understands. Here, he is confident. One must admire the author’s ability to weave this pidgin language—not his own—into the novel. A literary maxim insists that most first novels are rooted in autobiography; Kelman’s work defies that, and he should be admired even more for his ability to give a believable voice to such a compassionate young boy.
With endless aplomb, Harri and his best friend resolve to illuminate the truth behind “the dead boy’s”—simply because it must be done. Their confidence is beautiful and naïve, like that which we have in our native languages. We understand how our own language is supposed to work, though often only implicitly. Harri asks, “Who’d chook a boy just to get his Chicken Joe’s?” Such an act represents a grave disturbance, and even Harri, coming from so far away, knows this.
Kelman created a fine first novel, worthy of its Man Booker prize nomination. In a recent article in The Guardian, former UK Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion accused the prize judges of focusing their nominations on readability rather than quality. Kelman countered, “I don’t get the idea that readability and quality should be mutually exclusive. I think they should be combined.” Which is exactly what he has done.
BONUS: The 2011 Man Booker prize winner will be announced tomorrow, October 18. Stay tuned.
SCORE: 4.0 / 5.0 pigeons
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2011 ISBN: 978-0547500607
If you follow any literary people on Twitter, you were probably engulfed by #NBA11 tweets this morning. No, it’s not basketball season yet—it’s literary award season!
The Background The National Book Awards, established in 1950, annually award American writers for the best fiction, nonfiction, young people’s literature, and poetry books of the year. Each finalist (5 in each category) receive $1,000 and a medal. The winner receives $10,000 and a fancy bronze sculpture. But, at the end of the day, I think the best part is this:
That shimmery gold medal on a cover certainly tempts bookstore browsers. Analyzing the book buying habits of readers is a bit beyond my abilities, but the visible approval of the Awards judging panels—right there on the cover!—must be a factor.
Some Past Winners You may have heard of them:
Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn, Poetry 1951 Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night, Arts and Letters (Nonfiction) 1969 Elizabeth Bishop, The Collected Poems, Poetry 1970 Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, Fiction 1972 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, Fiction 1974 John Ashbery, Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, Poetry 1976 Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Science 1980 John Updike, Rabbit is Rich, Fiction 1982 Maurice Sendak, Outside Over There, Children’s Picture Books 1982 Don DeLillo, White Noise, Fiction 1985 Annie Proulx, The Shipping News, Fiction 1993 Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections, Fiction 2001
The 2011 Finalists Visit the National Book Award Foundation’s website for a complete list of the finalists. Here’s an overview and my thoughts on the announcement:
Small presses are also beautifully represented by this year’s finalists. Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, a fiction finalist, was published by Lookout Books: a brand new literary imprint of the Department of Creative Writing at UNC Wilmington.
A finalist in the nonfiction category, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, is a visual biography (think graphic novel but more so). What a great example of how genres can overlap or, as one of my college English professors often said, “why genre doesn’t matter.”
And the three books there I’m placing money on (please don’t hold me to that) are:
1. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt for Nonfiction. I have not read it yet but loved his earlier book, Will in the World, which was a 2004 finalist but lost to Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. I hope it’s Greenblatt’s year. 2. Double Shadow by Carl Phillips for Poetry. A fantastic and funny poet who has yet to win a National Book Award, though he has been a finalist three times. He’s also a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. He deserves this. 3. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward for Fiction. Though some of the other finalists have garnered more buzz (ahemteaobrehtcough), I think Ward’s second novel is well-placed for a win. It’s her second novel, picked up by a significantly larger house (Bloomsbury USA) than her first (Agate Bolden). She has also published a fair amount of shorter fiction and was interviewed on The Paris Review blog in late August—all good signs.
Within the bustling debate about whether or not people still read books and whether or not the book industry will endure, one tiny, rather neglected question has always glimmered for me. What about poetry? We talk about fiction, which, in my opinion, will continually swagger onward, but the underserved art of poetry flickers in and out of attention, quiet and undemanding.
At one time, poets were great revolutionaries. Poets were invited into castles. Poets were sent to jail. Poets defined literary ages.
People will always read fiction. But will people always read poetry? Do people read poetry now? The art has been haphazardly questioned for years, by poets and non-poets. Most famously, Marianne Moore began her poem, “Poetry,” with the line: “I, too, dislike it.” Wisława Syzmborka, the brilliant Polish poet, wrote a poem titled “Some People Like Poetry.” “Some people— / that means not everyone. / Not even most of them, only a few.”
Szymborka was also the most recent poet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1996) until today. Today, the Swedish Academy awarded that honor—and that money, nearly $1.5 million—to Tomas Tranströmer. A Swedish poet and, despite being widely translated, a not very prolific and not very widely read one (in the United States, at least). Could we possibly be entering a new age of poetry appreciation?
The tell-all indicator of contemporary sentiment, Twitter, suggests we may be. Even with the news of Steve Jobs’s death, “Tomas Tranströmer” was trending in New York this morning. The Nobel announcement beautifully corresponded with the United Kingdom’s own National Poetry Day, also today. On Twitter, tweets with the hashtag #nationalpoetrymonth appear every few minutes, including tweeters’ favorite lines of poetry, thoughts about the “holiday,” and links to celebrities (literary and other) reading poetry.
Some people like poetry, and I like to think that some people always will. Here’s to you, National Poetry Day, Mr. Tranströmer, and the rest. To paraphrase Ms. Szymborska, we cling to you like a redemptive handrail.
THE COUPLE by Tomas Tranströmer. Translated by Robert Bly
They turn the light off, and its white globe glows an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then a rising. The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.
Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep, but their most secret thoughts begin to meet like two colors that meet and run together on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.
It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come. They stand packed and waiting very near, a mob of people with blank faces.
In literature, how much is too much? Minimalism certainly has gone out of vogue, with James Wood’s “hysterical realism” rising prominently. But when does a signature style, be it minimal, hysterical, pun-filled, or filled with metaphor, become overly aggressive? Many enduring writers—Joyce, Faulkner, Pynchon, Woolf—owe their success to a distinct voice but, also, to knowing how and when to control it.
With Fathermucker, his second novel, Greg Olear has penned an enviably heartfelt story about the pains of childrearing. The plot loosely spins around the possibility that the protagonist’s wife is having an affair. This weakly spun narrative, however—the wife’s Headless Whoresman—is far less captivating than what fills most of the novel’s pages: the rich relationship between a SAHD (stay-at-home dad) and his two children. While Josh’s wife has been in California for a work conference—piquing suspicion about the suggested affair—he has been sole caretaker of Maude and Roland, two, luckily, adorable children with their share of demands and quirks. One of Olear’s most successful feats is his slow release of the information that Roland has Asperger’s Syndrome, which readers and characters alike may not easily guess. Breaking from the narration of Josh’s hellish day, Olear devotes one chapter to the history of Asperger’s Syndrome and the Lanskys’ personal history of discovering and identifying Roland’s disorder. Side-by-side, the two narratives—one factual, one more personal and emotional—create a delightful balance. The chapter also delights because it contains fewer pop culture references than any other section of the book.
The stylistic trick that Olear has defined for himself: relate everything in the story to pop culture. Music, movies, television shows, reality TV stars, celebrity relationships, they ooze from nearly every page. At times, it’s appropriate and genuinely interesting: the Director of Cambridge’s Autism Research Center is Simon Baron-Cohen, the well-known comedic actor’s cousin. A curious fact and related to the story. At other times, Olear’s ability to meld music into the action, nearly to give the book a soundtrack, proves successful. But I return to my opening question of How much is too much? When the gracefulness of the narrative actually suffers from too many references to Heidi Montag’s plastic body and Brangelina and “Max & Ruby.” When it is difficult for the reader to remember what the point of the sentence was at all, after five or six celebrity names intercede. When Olear creates caring and relatable characters but sacrifices their story to his pop culture style.
Allusion-heavy writing is always risky, and Olear seems to have no fear of it. But perhaps a little fear is a good thing; after all, readers want to read Josh Lansky’s story, not Josh Duhamel’s, however similar they may be.
Score: 2.8 / 5.0 Us Weekly’s
Fathermucker by Greg Olear Harper Paperbacks, October 2011 ISBN: 9780062059710
EVIL IS AN OLD WIDESPREAD LEGEND ALL LEGENDS ARE ROOTED IN TRUTH. IS EVIL A MERE MATTER OF FUSION GONE MAD? NO FOR IT IS NOT A STUPID FORCE IT SEEKS THE WORLD. DOES HELL EXIST? IT ALSO IS LEGEND THERE4 PART TRUE U SEE, I AM NOW FREE TO SPECULATE
If only we were less free to reflect; If diametrics of the mirror didn’t Confirm the antiface there as one’s own…
— James Merrill, from The Changing Light at Sandover
“If we romance readers are filling our own heads with romantic fantasies, real men and real life won’t and cannot possibly measure up to our fairy-tale expectations, right? Wrong. Wrongity wrong wrong wrong. That accusation implies that we don’t know the difference between fantasy and real life, and frankly, it’s sexist as well. You don’t see adult gamers being accused of an inability to discern when one is a human driving a real car and when one is a yellow dinosaur driving a Mario Kart, but romance readers hear about their unrealistic expectations of men almost constantly.”—
Sarah Wendell, Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels