June 28, 2009
I once made a snide remark about a woman reading a steamy romance novel with all that ravishment happening on the book’s cover. I didn’t know the woman – I was sitting across from her on the city bus. My mother, hearing my remark, quickly deflated what I thought was a clever snip at trashy novels, saying: “At least she’s reading.”
That was a long, long time ago, but I never forgot my mother’s message that literary snobbery is empty – it’s good to read books, period.
The article reveals Roberts’ way of living, thinking and writing, including the fact she’s disowned one of her books – Promise Me Tomorrow (1984) – for its clichés and unhappy ending. The book now sells for $100 and more by used booksellers on Amazon.
Writer Lauren Collins describes Roberts as (I love this) “the Raymond Carver of romance. Her characters thirst for cold beers on the porch, not Daiquiris by the pool.”
Interesting statistics in the article from the Romance Writers of America (RWA) indicate the romance genre is a front runner for money-making in the book publishing business – nearly $1.4 billion in sales in 2007, exceeding:
- science fiction and fantasy combined ($700 million)
- mystery ($650 million)
- or literary fiction ($466 million)
The RWA website also provides results from a survey commissioned by Random House of adult reading and book-buying habits: 14% of Americans buy more than 20 books per year for themselves.
On a closing note – Collins refers in her article to Pamela Regis’ book, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), for the esteemed “who’s who” in twentieth-century romance writers. One author on that list is Georgette Heyer (1902-1974), whom I discovered in Michael Dirda’s book Classics for Pleasure (2007).
Dirda describes Heyer’s writing as astute and witty with complex plots, falling into the Regency Romance genre. Based on his recommendations, The Grand Sophy (1950) and A Civil Contract (1961) are two of her books on my “would like to read” list.
Heyer’s books don’t come with steamy ravishment on the covers. I’m surprisingly disappointed.
June 24, 2009
Michael Thomas published his first novel, Man Gone Down, in 2007. He won much critical acclaim for the work, landing it on several “best of the year” lists in December 2007.
The book caught my attention on one of those lists and eventually landed in my reading hands in February 2008. I thought I was at the tail end of the excitement, but here it is two years after publication, and Thomas’s debut is still winning attention.
This month, Man Gone Down received the 2009 International Impac Dublin Literary Award. According to The New York Times(6.23.09), the award drops the tidy sum of approximately $138,000 into Thomas’s pocket.
If you’ve missed this book along your recent reading way, don’t shrug it off. Man Gone Down is one of those novels that resonates “classic” due to its enduring story of a protagonist wrestling with disheartening realizations about where he’s been, how he got to present circumstances and if he can salvage his promising future.
That protagonist is a 35-year-old African American man married to a white woman from a wealthy East Coast family. They have three children, and they’re broke.
His wife has gone to live with her mother, giving her husband the ultimatum that in four days he must come up with the $12,000 they need to keep their kids in a private school, get a new apartment and put their life back in order.
What evolves, then, from the commentary, poetry and life events is a penetrating story about a black man pressured to succeed in white society. He feels artificial and man-made, trying to force himself into expected stereotypes that just don’t fit.
In the last chapter, he delivers this closing message, this last line from Eliot’s “East Coker” Quartet: “In my end is my beginning.”
The finalists for the Impac Dublin prize included books from the United States, Norway, India, Pakistan and France.
June 21, 2009
Today I turn 54, and in celebration of my birthday, I created a list of 54 favorite books.
They are books I read compulsively or couldn’t forget; books that were memorable in either content or in reading experience; books that may have enlightened me; and books I simply enjoyed.
The list is random (no ranking) and unorganized (memoir, mystery, fiction, history are intermingled) because this is a top-of-mind list recorded as the titles came to me.
Due to brief commentary or summaries with each entry, the length prohibited delivering the list as a blog post. Hence, the new blog page 54 Years, 54 Books.
Authors include Alice McDermott, Saul Bellow, Daphne du Maurier, Joan Didion, Ellen Gilchrist, Bernard Malamud, Norman McLean, Penelope Lively, Alice Kaplan, David Denby, Joan Chase, Michael Herr, Ward Just, Graham Greene, Anne Lamott, Francisco Goldman and many more.
For me, the list was a chance to revisit several books I’ve not touched in years. For you, I hope it provides ideas for good summer reading.
June 18, 2009
In his new memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, Walter Kirn confesses he learned zilch in school.
It has nothing to do with poor educational systems or inadequate teachers (he attended Princeton and Oxford), rather Kirn’s skill at finding an angle and playing it.
Early on in his school years, he deduced education was a game and the way to win was to enter contests and events so as to accumulate impressive citations, awards and honors.
“Learning was secondary, promotion was primary. No one ever told me what the point was, except to keep on accumulating points, and this struck me as sufficient.”
At Princeton, he relied on his gift of mimickry, reformulating professors’ ideas to come across as his own. He strung together complicated words that said nothing but made him appear to be thoughtful and on-target. Even when all the trickery drove him to a nervous breakdown, he recovered and kept at it.
When interviewing for a scholarship to Oxford, he determined the personality the judges were looking for and acted accordingly.
It’s astonishing that Princeton profs failed to see through Kirn’s game of manipulating a win, not learning.
The book’s last page says he changed “not instantly but decisively” when he began reading Mark Twain and Charles Dickens in earnest the summer before he went to Oxford. In other words, we’re told he changed, but we’re not shown what that looked like going forward.
I closed the book thinking Kirn’s intent is to reveal how he intellectually hacked through the academic meritocracy. Nothing more. But because he doesn’t share concluding insight on the experience, I wonder if Kirn is one of those smart frauds who believe the suckers are the ones who are wrong for being deceived. Hence, no need for personal mea culpa or the transformation explained.
It’s a hollow ending, but what comes before that last page is sobering and laugh-out-loud entertaining.
June 15, 2009
I recently searched for the meaning of life. Literally. I entered the phrase in a Google search hoping to quickly locate a passage of such content from William Somerset Maugham’s classic coming-of-age novel, Of Human Bondage. Obviously, I needed to refine my search, but eventually Google delivered what I was looking for, and much more. It came in an absorbing essay published in Open Letters Monthly: An Arts and Literature Review.
The essayist shares his experience of being forced to drop out of college because of an oppressive tuition bill. He turns to Of Human Bondage in his journey of loss and reawakening, saying: “I figured, in the depressing, starved landscape in which I resided, I could do worse than to knock on Mr. Maugham’s door and ask for some help.”
Of Human Bondage, originally published in 1915 and considered Maugham’s masterpiece, is a semi-autobiographical work that follows the life of protagonist Philip Carey. Born with a club foot, this memorable character enters the world not only deformed, but an orphan. As an adult, he aspires to be an artist in Paris, and then a doctor in London, struggling with money and love. At one point, his friend, Cronshaw, points him toward the meaning of life:
“Have you ever been to the Cluny, the museum? There you will see Persian carpets of the most exquisite hue and of a pattern the beautiful intricacy of which delights and amazes the eye. In them you will see the mystery and the sensual beauty of the East, the roses of Hafiz and the wine-cup of Omar; but presently you will see more. You were asking just now what was the meaning of life. Go and look at those Persian carpets, and one of these days the answer will come to you.”
Philip’s epiphany arrives a few hundred pages later. In essence, he realizes that a person’s life is its own woven pattern of exquisite hue and detail. Some patterns/lives are simple, some elaborate. What that epiphany ultimately leads Philip to think about the meaning of life isn’t a conclusion I agree with. But the beauty and power of Cronshaw’s Persian carpet as a means to teach Philip has remained with me ever since I first read Of Human Bondage 30 years ago. At that time, not unlike the essayist in Open Letters Monthly, life events were unraveling my sense of stability, and whatever logic I’d once held for my future got lost. This classic, that I read in the library of Chicago’s Art Institute on my lunch hours, became a refuge. Perhaps that’s why the metaphor stuck all these years.
A final note: Traveling in Alaska in 2001, I met a man who said he didn’t read books. I wanted to say something that would make him unbearably curious, driving him to open a book. So I said, “If you read Of Human Bondage, you’ll learn the meaning of life.” He laughed. I said, “No, seriously.”
Update: This blog post was updated 4.26.11 with a new photo of the book plus edits that tightened the copy but did not change its content or meaning.
June 11, 2009
When once asked the question, “What would you be if you weren’t a book critic?” I answered, “a photojournalist.” A desire to capture life experience and what it means drives that answer.
The Photographer captures Didier Lefèvre’s 3-month life experience in Afghanistan in 1986, when he joined a humanitarian expedition to set up a field hospital in the northern region. With camera in hand, this photojournalist teamed up with French physicians and nurses with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières and later sold a few photos.
Thirteen years later, he collaborated with friend and graphic artist Emmanuel Guibert to produce this visual treat. The First American Edition was published last month (May 2009).
The story is basically this: Afghanistan is at war with the Soviets. The group enters the country at great risk, treats patients and leaves.
Where it diverges from the ordinary, however, is through the presentation. In a brilliant merging of black and white photos with cartoon storytelling (in graphic novel technique), the book vividly portrays – employing a sobering kaleidoscope of narrative and visual media – the long, harsh journey going inland, the regional people met along the way, the rudimentary operating conditions of the mission hospital and a dangerous return.
More than uniquely crafted photojournalism, this is a powerful take on the practice of medicine in the middle of nowhere, far from the medical technology we take for granted. One of the doctors says to Lefèvre:
“I really like technology. Thank God for CT scans and supplementary tests. But when you don’t have them, you have to learn to do without. And then you re-learn how to pay attention, how to listen to a body, how to interpret a cold sweat or a toenail that’s turning blue. You re-learn the essence of the job.”
The large, cumbersome format and busy, small-print pages make the book appear uninviting. I thought it would be an effort to read, but once I began, the story flowed and the elements that create it disappeared, leaving only the marvelous sensation of the experience.
Engaged in this absorbing book – that is, looking at the photos taken by Didier Lefèvre, reading the cartoons drawn by Emmanuel Guibert and enjoying the artwork of Frédéric Lemercier – I entered Afghanistan … sitting in my reading chair … through a uniquely angled and enlightening lens.
June 8, 2009
A friend of mine recently took a short business trip. Before leaving town, she confessed worries about “the mess we would leave behind” should she and her roommate die in a plane crash. The worry often comes up in e-mails, prior to her trips. This time, trying to lighten things up, I mentioned Sloane Crosley’s pony problem. It’s the topic of Crosley’s first essay in the hilarious 2008 collection I Was Told There’d Be Cake.
Leaving her New York City apartment, should Crosley die in some tragic accident (“Say someone pushes me onto the subway tracks.”), her loved ones will find an embarrassing mess of clothes and dust balls in her apartment. Worse, in the drawer beneath the kitchen sink, her mother will find her stash of plastic toy ponies.
“…there is that flash of my mother dressed in black, staring aghast into the open kitchen drawer. In a city that provides so many strange options to be immortalized by the local tabloids, it is just as important to avoid humiliation in death as it is in life. … ‘Look!’ my mother would howl, picking up Ranch Princess Pony (with matching bridle and real horseshoe charm necklace!) by her fax flaxen mane. Just before she passed out.”
Crosley posted a YouTube video about the pony problem. She takes us on a tour of a diorama she created to illustrate it. I Was Told There’d Be Cake is not a new release but, having come off two dark books let alone my friend’s doom and gloom e-mail, I’ve been thinking about books that made me laugh. Crosley’s hits the top of the list, as do these two all-time favorites:
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
This classic memoir about the famous, literary Durrell family relocating to Corfu is told through the 10-year-old eyes of Gerry, who brings his animal friends into the house. The craziness that ensues is very funny. The book originally was published in 1956. The New York Times wrote (as the quote appears on the back of my Pengin Books paperback), “A lot of frolic, fun, and charming ribaldry, as well as the warm feeling of having been transported to a lovely spot where worry is unknown and anything is believable.”
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
I was reading the first two pages of this detective novel to a friend but was laughing so hard I couldn’t get the words out. The detective Lionel Essrog, working in Brooklyn, suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, and it’s his uncontrolled barking and shouting at the wrong time that make for twisted, smart humor. Note: I recommended this National Book Critic’s Circle winner to one friend who loved it and a few times kept saying “Recommend another book like Motherless Brooklyn.” But another friend didn’t like it at all – he went on to read the much more serious Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which he loved.
Update: Sloane Crosley’s YouTube video was added 4/6/2011 as were better book photos.
June 4, 2009
Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road about April and Frank Wheeler now moves off my reading table. I read it compulsively, neglecting the books on my Currently Reading list.
April and Frank’s problems got to me, and Yates’ unembellished, inviting prose reeled me in. Together, it’s a powerful combination confirming the recommendation of the book to me by a poetry professor who said the writing is exquisite and an example of “best writing” available. A “must read,” he said with such conviction I couldn’t ignore it. He was right.
It is the 1950s, and the young Frank and April living in Greenwich Village see themselves as a cut above the common person. April gets pregnant unexpectedly, and they end up living in New York City suburbia miserably surrounded by cookie-cutter homes, identical lawns and personalities.
Their fights, their yearnings, Frank’s life in a boring job and April’s life in an apron gnaw at their desires to rise above what Frank calls “the hopeless emptiness of everything.” In the end, they are devoured by it.
It’s depressing stuff, and that’s what surprised me about my attachment to the book to the very end – the story didn’t weigh heavily on me. In fact, what’s depressing is what makes the story seductive. All that 1950s suburbia entrapment and identity struggle is so very real. It still hits home, pitch-perfectly evoking the demon of ruinous self-deception.
Blake Bailey, Yates biographer, wrote this in a June 2007 Slate.com article “Revolutionary Road – the Movie:”
“Quite simply, Yates meant for the Wheelers to seem a little better than mediocre: not, that is, stoical mavericks out of Hemingway, or glamorous romantics out of Fitzgerald. Rather, the Wheelers are everyday people—you and me—who pretend to be something they’re not because life is lonely and dull and disappointing.”
June 2, 2009
Here’s a fictional crime story with vague whiffs of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (Kansas + farm family + murder).
The strength of Dark Places, Gillian Flynn’s new novel, lies in the “who could’ve dunnit” intrigue that keeps us guessing ’til the surprising but bit-of-a-stretch ending.
Its weakness lies in protagonist Libby Day’s angry, sarcastic, resentful, foul-mouthed and mistrusting voice that comes across as “worked” by the author.
Libby was seven when her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered in their Kansas farm house one January night. She gave the convicting testimony that imprisoned her teen-aged brother, Ben, for the crime.
It’s 25 years later and a fan club obsessed with famous crimes taps Libby for information about her family’s murder, a.k.a. “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” After the club accepts her money-for-information proposal, Libby agrees to talk with brother Ben, her father, Ben’s girlfriend and others connected to the crime and report back.
The club members believe Ben is innocent. Memories of that horrible night are Libby’s “dark places.”
I became impatient with the dead narrative zones in the book’s mid-section – places where actions and conversations stagnate forward movement – but it’s Libby’s cocky, miserable attitude that keeps this crime novel from being a winner. It takes up a lot of emotional space in the book and becomes, at times, inflated prose that competes with Flynn’s otherwise good storytelling.