January 29, 2010
Here’s a good book. A novel about family, friendship and a successful man making bad decisions. There is mystery, too, with questions that don’t get answered until the end, propelling the narrative forward.
Indeed, Lauren Grodstein’s engaging new novel absorbs with the convincing narration of Dr. Pete Dizinoff, a 50ish internist who’s facing malpractice and the rejection of his wife and son. Ostracized, he lives above the garage of their impressive Victorian home in a wealthy New Jersey suburb called Round Hill.
Up to now Dr. Pete has lived a successful, respected life. His college best friend Joe Stern, an ob-gyn specialist, and wife Iris live in the same suburb. It is not exclusiveness that defines these happy, self-assured couples, rather their down-to-earth desires to live the good life in secure suburbia and share the joy of raising their kids. As Dr. Pete looks back over the years from his fallen state, Grodstein deftly keeps us wondering what exactly he did wrong.
The build-up of events includes a crime of neonaticide. Laura, the Stern’s oldest daughter, hides a teen-aged pregnancy and then delivers the baby and kills it in a library bathroom. It’s a horrendous act that Dr. Pete can never forgive. Thirteen years later, his son Alec has dropped out of college and the beautiful Laura returns to Round Hill from California. She’s 30, Alec is 20, and they hook up. The overprotective father, Dr. Pete, makes it his personal mission to derail the romance.
To reveal much more would risk giving away the story’s conclusion, and it’s too good to allow that. But I will say, the arrogant, blinding wish to “get it right” with his son reveals Dr. Pete’s warped sense of parenting. He regards Alec as his legacy into the future. That is why Alec should go to a prestigious university, sign up for an impressive career, get married and have kids. In the end, thankfully, Grodstein doesn’t let her narrator off the hook with a brilliant, subtle touch arrived at by this fallen man’s inability to see outside of himself.
January 26, 2010
Several months ago, I referred to Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks as rubbish in a blog post. It didn’t take long for someone to tell me to lighten up. A week later, one of my All Sides panel colleagues — an esteemed poetry professor – recommended Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide on our live radio show about books. I couldn’t believe it. At that point, I had to laugh at myself and accept the message. Perhaps I do need to lighten up or, at least, see zombie publishing in another light. One person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure. Or good reading.
Zombies marched back into my periphery in a Publisher’s Weekly article a few days ago informing there are 1,050,000 copies of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies in print. That’s phenomenal. It indicates just how much that “good reading” is taking off, and it’s not just happening for zombies.
Quirk Classics, the publisher of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, is doing quite well with its other mash-up, Sense & Sensibilities & Sea Monsters. BTW, mash-ups here refer to the art of mixing pop culture into public domain classics. According to Fine Books & Collections, P&P&Z is comprised of 85 percent original text and 15 percent “bone-crunching zombie mayhem”.
A prequel to P&P&Z – Dawn of the Dreadfuls — is coming this March from Quirk Classics. And if you’d like to move on from zombies, there’s:
- Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter also due out in March from Grand Central publishing. Not a mash-up, it’s original writing about the U.S. President’s side job as a vampire slayer.
- Android Karenina is to be published in June by Quirk Classics, an enhanced edition of the classic love story set in a dystopian world of robots, cyborgs, and interstellar space travel.
Why why why am I writing about this??? I think I’m stunned and also wondering what some of my lit professors back in the 1970s would’ve thought if they’d seen the future of zombies and other creatures lurching into their favored classics. They’re lurching not just within the confined walls of horror fiction anymore, but in the mainstream of bookselling and reader popularity. Yes, the night of the living dead is here to stay. Those zombies are probably lurching their way toward Jane Eyre and Madame Bovary as I blog, but who knows. Emma Bovary just might find death by zombies more pleasant than that wretched poison.
January 23, 2010
The annual list of National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) award finalists is almost always inspiring. Typically, I recognize books on the list I’ve read and loved the previous year as well as bought and left calling to me from the reading table. The best part is the ones I’m not familiar with that excite me. The 2010 list is terrific. Ah! So many good books, so little time.
Here they are — five candidates in six categories — announced this Saturday night. Flannery already sits on my reading table. I’ll be heading to the library and/or bookstore for Blame and Enemies of the People. They, too, will likely sit on my reading table for a while, but so be it. They sound too good to miss.
The winners will be announced in March.
-Blame by Michelle Huneven
-American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell
-The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
-Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
-Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
-The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
-The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger
-Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin
-Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder
-Imperial by William T. Vollmann
-Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir by Diana Athill
-Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love by Debra Gwartney
-Lit by Mary Karr
-Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America by Kati Marton
-City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s by Edmund White
-Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
-Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
-Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser
-Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone by Stanislao G. Pugliese
-Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss
-A Village Life by Louise Gluck
-Versed by Rae Armantrout
-Chronic by D.A. Powell
-Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960-2008 by Eleanor Ross Taylor
-Museum of Accidents by Rachel Zucker
-Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein
-Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss
-Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry by Stephen Burt
-Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu
-Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music by Greg Milner
January 20, 2010
Occasionally, I like to read children’s books — picture and chapter books — because the illustrations and stories allow me to see and read through a kid’s eyes again. That is, me as kid, when I read Caldecotts and Newbery winners, such A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle and Sam, Bangs & Moonshine by Evaline Ness.
Earlier this week, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, announced this year’s Caldecott and Newbery award winners. Already, and not surprising, there are waiting lists at the libraries for the books. I’m debating whether to put in my request at the library or buy these new award-winners.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won the 2010 Newbery. From the ALSC website: “Twelve-year-old Miranda encounters shifting friendships, a sudden punch, a strange homeless man and mysterious notes that hint at knowledge of the future. These and other seemingly random events converge in a brilliantly constructed plot.”
The Newbery Medal is awarded annually for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year. It is named for John Newbery, an 18th century London bookseller and publisher of children’s books, including Little Goody Two Shoes. (So that’s where the phrase originated.)
The Lion & the Mouse, illustrated and written by Jerry Pinkney won the 2010 Caldecott. From the publisher’s website: “In award-winning artist Jerry Pinkney’s wordless adaptation of one of Aesop’s most beloved fables, an unlikely pair learn that no act of kindness is ever wasted. After a ferocious lion spares a cowering mouse that he’d planned to eat, the mouse later comes to his rescue, freeing him from a poacher’s trap. With vivid depictions of the landscape of the African Serengeti and expressively-drawn characters, Pinkney makes this a truly special retelling, and his stunning pictures speak volumes.”
The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually to the most distinguished picture book published the previous year. It is named in honor of the nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph J. Caldecott.
Up next on January 23: This weekend we’ll get the list of National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) finalists in the running for the annual award. The categories are autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
January 17, 2010
In the 1980s, I read an article in The Wall Street Journal that said a first edition of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot was selling in the range of $250. I couldn’t believe it. I owned a first edition. It was a Christmas present from my mother the year King’s second novel was published, 1975. Years afterwards, it traveled with me as I boxed up books and moved to new cities, new homes. I wasn’t a book collector during those years. I didn’t even know book collecting was something someone did, or that some books increased in value over time. I just kept my books. It was second nature.
Reading The Wall Street Journal article I figured, what the heck, I’m not a Stephen King fan. I don’t need to keep this book. Off I skipped to a local dealer and traded it in. Too bad it didn’t dawn on me that Salem’s Lot would continue to increase in value. That maybe I should hang onto it.
I saw Salem’s Lot for sale at a local dealer a few days ago. Asking price is $700. It’s a first edition book with a second issue dust jacket. That’s likely what I had. Salem’s Lot was published with the wrong $8.95 price on the dust jacket, and the publisher quickly reprinted it with the correct $7.95 price. Consequently, there are hardly any first edition books with first issue dust jackets. Sellers online are asking prices similar to the $700 for Salem’s Lot in a second issue dust jacket, so that seems the going price. Of course, much more is being asked for signed editions.
Not all books increase in value, and that’s the gamble when we sell our books. When Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was published, how could a reader know it would become a cultural icon let alone valuable in its first edition? The same could be said for the first Harry Potter book.
I still sell my books, mostly because of shelving space in my home. I’m not a bibliophile who will rent a storage locker for books. (At least, not yet.) My rule is to keep the books I love, review and collect or, for some reason, regard as special. Anything beyond that becomes questionable when space gets tight. Did I love Salem’s Lot? I can’t remember. I just wish I’d kept it.
January 12, 2010
Once again, I’m intrigued by a photography book. Burtynsky: Oil tells a “beautiful and strangely unnerving”* story about the stuff that fuels our cars.
Over ten years, Edward Burtynsky took photos of oil fields, refineries, freeway interchanges and automobile plants to create something we don’t see in the altogether as we merrily drive along. From an art bookseller’s site, “The ideal photographer for this job, Burtynsky locates and documents the sites that urban dwellers never see, and questions human accountability.”
It took several tries at an independent bookstore the other day to check their stock for this book. My fault, though, as it was on a whim that I asked if they had it, and I misspelled Burtynsky. Turns out they didn’t have it (not surprising, as expensive photography books like this don’t tend to be stocked), plus I would’ve had to pay in advance for it to be ordered. I wasn’t taken aback by that, but I began to wonder who the audience/revenue source is for expensive publications like Burtynsky: Oil.
In addition to cost, local habits and demands determine what bookstores keep in stock, so I’m thankful for online slideshows. Still, it would be nice to touch the pages and feel the heft of the book. A phone call to the Columbus Museum of Art bookstore informed me they once had Burtynsky’s Quarries in stock, but the current renovation diminishes room for usual in-stock books. When the renovation is completed, this may be the place to visit Burtynsky’s books and others like it.
January 10, 2010
In January 1910, La Seine overflowed her riverbanks. Not surprising, there’s a book about it released this centennial month: Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910. It tells the story of relentless rain saturating the ground, with water nowhere to go but in the sewers, streets and buildings.
Who knew? Another country’s history, so little cross-referencing. I don’t recall mentions of the Paris flood during readings about Katrina or, another time in my life, when I read about the Great Johnstown Flood that occurred in May 1889.
From the publisher’s website: “Given the Parisians’ history of deep-seated social, religious, and political strife, it was questionable whether they could collaborate to confront the crisis. Yet while the sewers, Métro, and electricity failed around them, Parisians of all backgrounds rallied to save the city and one another.”
Jackson is associate professor of history and director of environmental studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. He was recently honored as one of the top young historians in the United States. In The Guardian, he says: “They could not have known it, but for Parisians it was a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the unity needed in the first world war.”
The Guardian features an 8-photo slideshow of the flood. Also, there’s an extensive gallery of images on a French website, not related to the book. Finally, for more information, the book’s blog gives information about author readings, plus more about the book, including praise.
January 6, 2010
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
This is Ferris’ second novel. I’m hoping it will be as sharp-witted and delightful to read as his first, Then We Came to the End, which I listed as one of the best books of 2007. Publishers Weekly gave The Unnamed a starred pre-pub review.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Smith tells the story of her romance and life-long friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. From the publisher’s website: “Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. It serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions. A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists’ ascent, a prelude to fame.”
Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War by Ted Morgan
Written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, this book focuses on the fateful battle that ended French rule in Indochina and set the stage for the U.S. Vietnam war. From the publisher’s website: “A veteran of the French Army, Ted Morgan has made use of exclusive firsthand reports to create the most complete and dramatic telling of the conflict ever written.”
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman
From an author profile in Publishers Weekly: “…a collection of engagingly fresh essays not just about Russian literature but about people who are enamored with it following a deceptively simple premise of traveling to where the authors – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevski [sic] – traveled while they were writing their novels.”
Something Is Out There: Stories by Richard Bausch
Bausch is one of our present-day masters of moving short fiction that’s richly endowed with unforgettable scenes and characters. Library Journal gave it a starred review and writes, “A powerful, disturbing and significant book for fans of heavy-hitting fiction.” The publisher’s website says the book offers “eleven indelible new tales that showcase the electrifying artistry of a master.”
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Skloot is getting a lot of pre-publication kudos for this science book about an African-American mother of five who, being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins University in 1951, had tissue samples taken from her body without her knowledge. They became HeLa, the first “immortal” cell line and one of the most important tools in medicine. Library Journal writes, “While there are other titles on this controversy, this is the most compelling account for general readers, especially those interested in questions of medical research ethics.”
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
I used to know a reader who was so infatuated with the works of this witty, cynical Brit that he traveled to Amis readings and kept a picture of the author and himself on his desk at the office. So, in his honor, I list the new Amis novel in February, where it’s available first in the U.K. (It’s coming to the U.S. in May.) The pre-pub description says the novel is a comedy of manners and a nightmare (quite a combo) about a 20-year-old literature student in Italy during the 1970s.
The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe, translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
A new novel by Nobel Laureate Oe about the friendship between a writer and film director and the latter’s suicide. From the publisher’s website: A “…far-ranging search to understand what drove his brother-in-law to suicide. The quest takes [the writer] to Berlin, where he confronts ghosts from both his own past, and that of his lifelong, but departed, friend.” While this is fiction, Oe’s brother-in-law, a famous film director in Japan, jumped to his death in Tokyo in 1997, according to Publishers Weekly.
Rumored Islands by Robert Farnsworth (poetry)
Farnsworth’s new collection is scheduled for “Spring 2010,” according to the publisher’s website, so I’m placing it in the month of the first day of spring. Publisher’s Weekly describes the collection as “poems of wonder and shame, loneliness and ‘the strange, sun-spun fabric of the world.’” The book currently is not listed on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Orders might have to come directly from the Harbor Mountain Press.
Solar by Ian McEwan
McEwan’s website says this is an “engrossing and satirical novel which focuses on climate change.” Library Journal says it’s bound to be controversial because the protagonist, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, “gets slashed by the media after he says that most physicists are men because of differences between male and female brains.” According to The Guardian: “McEwan found himself under a similar kind of fire last summer, besieged by the media after he told an Italian newspaper that he ‘despise[d] Islamism, because it wants to create a society that I detest’.” Looks like he’s working it out in his fiction.
What Becomes: Stories by A. L. Kennedy
A new collection by this Scottish author of rich, absorbing stories. Released in 2009 in the U.K., The Guardian’s review said: “These are wonderfully textured pieces, varying from sentence to sentence, mood to mood, committed to capturing the precariousness and unsteadiness of individual mental landscapes.”
Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott
A novel about a 17-year-old high-performing, conscientious girl tempted by drugs and alcohol. This is Lamott’s third book about her character Rosie who appeared in Rosie and the Crooked Little Heart.
January 3, 2010
On June 12, 2009, when the TV airwaves went digital, I carried the kitchen and living room televisions into the concrete basement and covered them with a sheet. No more CSI and Law & Order and variations thereof. No more Two and a Half Men, The New Adventures of Old Christine, The Big Bang Theory, The Mentalist, Numb3rs, Dateline, 20/20, 60 Minutes, America’s Got Talent, Chuck, NBC Nightly News and any of the other shows I kept watching night after night, week after week.
I turned on the TV every evening after I walked in the door, let alone any time at night when I entered the kitchen to boil water for tea or get a snack. Thankfully, that never occurred in the morning or daytime but at night? TV turned into an addictive yet illusory companion. Come 8 p.m., I’d settle in to watch shows with a book that I read during muted commercials.
All those messages telling rabbit-eared TV owners to get converter boxes or get cable before June 12 spun me into a back-and-forth mental conversation of what to do. I knew I needed to do something, but I didn’t want to spend the money on either the converter boxes or the monthly cable bills. And I didn’t want to spend the money because that meant making an intentional decision to keep on doing what I was doing. I resented how the shows kidnapped me night after night. That’s what I finally came to understand. A little voice inside me said, Just stop.
I miss the culture of TV, and I miss zoning out to my shows after a long day of work, but going back to them isn’t worth what I’ve gained: a newness of spirit. It’s not something that magically happened, rather unfolded over these past six-going-on-seven months, and it’s still unfolding. Time expanded and then filled up again but in better ways that stretched me in new directions of a well-lived life.
Not surprising, I’m reading more. The book list for 2009 doubled compared to previous years. I can only imagine its size if I’d carried the TVs to the basement in January of 2009 instead of June.
Books read in 2009 are posted on TLC. Look for the page on the right.