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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

“Why do novelists write essays? Most publishers would rather have a novel. Bookshops don’t know where to put them. It’s a rare reader who seeks them out with any sense of urgency. Still, in recent months Jonathan Safran Foer, Margaret Drabble, Chinua Achebe and Michael Chabon, among others, have published essays, and so this month will I. And though I think I know why I wrote mine, I wonder why they wrote theirs, and whether we all mean the same thing by the word ‘essay’, and what an essay is, exactly, these days.” (cont’d @ Guardian)

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“In an online poll conducted by the National Book Foundation, [Flannery O’Connor’s] collection ‘The Complete Stories’ was named the best work to have won the National Book Award for fiction in the contest’s 60-year history. The competition was steep: other finalists in the poll were ‘The Stories of John Cheever,’ William Faulkner’s ‘Collected Stories,’ ‘The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty,’ Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ and Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.'” (more @ NY Times)

Related: Colum McCann Wins National Book Award

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“The story of the seduction of a lesbian by an ageing stage actor, which includes an eye-watering scene with a green dildo, has won Philip Roth the dubious honour of a place on the shortlist for the Literary Review’s bad sex in fiction award.

“Roth can comfort himself with the fact that a roll call of literary fiction’s great and good, from Booker winner John Banville to acclaimed Israeli novelist Amos Oz, Goncourt winner Jonathan Littell and Whitbread winner Paul Theroux, have made it into the line-up for this year’s bad sex prize, set up by Auberon Waugh to ‘draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.'” (cont’d @ Guardian)

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ToniMorrison“The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved. Upon its initial publication, it was rightly passed over for the 1988 National Book Award, which went to Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story, while the National Book Critics Circle handed its fiction award instead to Philip Roth for The Counterlife. In protest, forty-eight ‘black critics and black writers’—their own self-description—wrote to the New York Times Book Review, ‘asserting [them]selves against the oversight and harmful whimsy’ by which white males were preferred to Toni Morrison. ‘The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied,’ the forty-eight declared.

“Not quite ten weeks later Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Everyone quoted on the record agreed that the protest and demands for recognition did not influence the prize committee’s decision—not a chance, no way, no how. Just to be sure, the Swedish Academy gave Toni Morrison the Nobel Prize in literature four years later. ‘She is the first black woman to receive the prize’ the, Times helpfully noted on the front page.” (cont’d @ A Commonplace Blog)

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HopperChopSuey“Is there anything more American than Chinese food? Remember that scene in ‘Manhattan’ where Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway cozy up in bed in his cramped apartment with cardboard boxes of something in black-bean sauce while W. C. Fields plays on the television? Or the scene in ‘A Christmas Story’ when the holiday meal is rescued by crispy duck? Both examples highlight one of the key features of American Chinese food: it’s always there when you’re in a tight spot. And it really is always there. One of the fascinating facts in Andrew Coe’s new history ‘Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States’ is that there are today over forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the country, ‘as exciting,’ Coe writes, ‘as the corner gas station or the Super 8 Motel down by the highway entrance.'” (cont’d @ The New Yorker)

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Pastrami“He may have written a book about Jewish food, but David Sax is quite a ham. He refers to a deli’s finances as ‘pastraminomics,’ describes a knish as being ‘baked to a George Hamiltonesque hue,’ and titles a chapter on Las Vegas’s deli scene ‘Luck Be a Brisket Tonight.’

“But in addition to Catskills shtick, journalist Sax brings passion and substance to Save the Deli, his paean to the Jewish delicatessen experience. The heart of the book is his cross-country road trip, during which he sizes up the state of the deli in cities obvious (New York, Los Angeles, Miami) and unlikely (Boulder, Salt Lake City, Houston).” (cont’d @ Barnes & Noble Review)

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“Good writers show us new places. Great writers give us new ways of looking at the old one. Just as Ruskin enabled a generation of Europeans to see the landscape that was actually in front of them rather than the conventionalized approximations they carried around in their heads, so is Gaitskill one of those rare artists who can endow us with braver, more vigilant senses. You step out of her books and into a whole new world.”

So says William Deresiewicz in his fine review of Mary Gaitskill‘s novels and early short fiction.

But not so, concludes Deresiewicz, with her new short story collection, Don’t Cry:

“A young writer pours her agonies of soul into work of uncompromising honesty. She stares into an abyss of pain so that we may see the truth. But few have the energy to sustain such effort indefinitely. Eventually, the spirit seeks rest–seeks comfort, seeks consolation, seeks peace. It happened to Wordsworth and Conrad, and now it seems to be happening to Mary Gaitskill. The hunger has gone out of her work. Gaitskill was a great poet of youthful suffering. Whether she can reinvent herself as a chronicler of maturity remains to be seen.”

I am among the many fans of Gaitskill’s fiction disappointed by the largely unfavorable reviews for Don’t Cry. Readers new to Gaitskill’s work — and she deserves a wide audience — are best to begin at the beginning, with her first short story collection, Bad Behavior.

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short-storiesIn Sunday’s New York Times, A.O. Scott writes in praise of the American short story (long my favorite literary form), challenging “the conventional wisdom in American letters . . . that size matters, that the big-game hunters and heavyweight fighters . . . go after the Great American Novel,” and posits this fascinating future for short fiction:

“The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?

“The death of the novel is yesterday’s news. The death of print may be tomorrow’s headline. But the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.” (more @ NY Times)

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bolanoawardThe awards keep rolling in for the late Roberto Bolaño and 2666:

“On Thursday, March 12, 2009, at a crowded ceremony at the New School in New York, the National Book Critics Circle announced the winners of its book awards, covering books published in 2008. . . .

“Roberto Bolaño’s monumental 2666 (Farrar, Straus), a tale of love and violence set within the framework of the fictional town of Santa Teresa, Mexico, that’s widely regarded as the late author’s masterpiece, won the fiction award. Fiction committee chair Marcela Valdes called the work ‘a virtuoso accomplishment that ranks with Moby-Dick and Blood Meridian as one of the trenchant and kaleidoscopic examinations of evil in fiction.'”

Other winners included:

  • Poetry (co-winners): August Kleinzahler, Sleeping It Off in Rapid CityJuan Felipe Herrera, Half the World in Light
  • CriticismSeth LererChildren’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter
  • BiographyPatrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul
  • AutobiographyAriel Sabar, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq
  • NonfictionDexter Filkins, The Forever War.

(more @ National Book Critics Circle)

RelatedMas Bolano: Part VI of “2666” Discovered in Author’s Papers

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bolanosmall“Two new novels by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño have reportedly been found in Spain among papers he left behind after his death. The previously unseen manuscripts were entitled Diorama and The Troubles of the Real Police Officer, reported La Vanguardia.

“The newspaper said the documents also included what is believed to be a sixth section of Bolaño’s epic five-part novel 2666. . . .

“It follows the discovery of another novel, entitled The Third Reich, which was shown to publishers at the Frankfurt book fair in October. . . .

“The writer, who spent the last part of his life in the Costa Brava region of Spain, died at the age of 50 in 2003.

“Uncompromising in his style and critical of authors who sold out to the market, he did not publish a novel until he was 43. He supported himself by, among other things, working as a security guard at a campsite and selling cheap jewellery to tourists visiting the Costa Brava. . . .

“Bolaño published his first novel in 1993 and posthumously grew in popularity after 2666 was translated into English and was one of the New York Times‘s top 10 books of 2008. His novel The Savage Detectives appeared on the same list the previous year.” (more @ The Guardian)

Related

UpdateChilean Bolano Posthumously Wins Book Critics Circle Award

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kissingercartoon“The Kissinger image [left] (by David Levine) is one of 320 illustrations – by 142 of the world’s most acclaimed contemporary artists – that The New York Times itself originally commissioned for its Op-Ed Pages, but then got cold feet about running, and eventually paid more than $1 million in ‘kill fees’ to hide from public view (sometimes for as long as 38 years).

“What didn’t the Times want you to see?

“Can you imagine illustrations so ‘blasphemous,’ so ‘politically embarrassing,’ so sexually ‘over the line’ that The New York Times gladly paid a fortune just to protect your delicate eyes from being exposed to them?

“You’ll find hundreds of such allegedly ‘not-fit-to-print’ illustrations – together with the bizarre and often ludicrous reasons for suppressing them – in a sly and deliciously funny new book called All The Art That’s Fit to Print (And Some That Wasn’t), by Jerelle Kraus, former Art Editor of the Times Op-Ed and Editorial Pages, who reluctantly quit her ‘dream job’ at the Times after 13 years in order to publish it. . . .

“Unfortunately, if you’re looking for more information about this book — don’t expect to consult a review in The New York Times. You won’t find one. For years the Times tried to discourage Ms Kraus from publishing this book, but now that it’s out, the Times is spitefully refusing even to acknowledge its existence, let alone actually review it. Since the Times‘ Book Section is a bible of the publishing world, not being noticed in its pages can often destroy a book’s chances of attracting a large audience.

“Which may be the the Times’s purpose — a publicity blackout might make the book quietly disappear.” (more @ AlterNet)

[Then there’s the New York Post, which had no problem running the Obama-as-stimulus-writing-monkey cartoon just last month. Seems to me both papers need to redraw their standards.]

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tobias_wolffOn Wednesday night, shortly after reading from his well-known story ‘Bullet in the Brain,’ Tobias Wolff was called back to the stage of the New School’s Tishman Auditorium to accept The Story Prize. The other two finalists were Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf) and Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring (Akashic Books). . . . The $20,000 award Wolff received, in addition to an engraved silver bowl, is the largest first-prize amount of any annual U.S. book award for fiction.” (via Reuters)

RelatedWhat Wolff knows

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oddmanout“Matt McCarthy, a graduate of Yale and of Harvard Medical School now working as an intern in the residency program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital in New York, has gained national attention in recent weeks for “Odd Man Out,” his salacious memoir of his summer as an obscure minor league pitcher. He writes about playing with racist, steroids-taking teammates, pitching for a profane, unbalanced manager and observing obscene behavior and speech that in some ways reinforce the popular image of wild professional ballplayers.

“But statistics from that season, transaction listings and interviews with his former teammates indicate that many portions of the book are incorrect, embellished or impossible. It comes during a difficult period for the publishing industry, which has recently had three major memoirs — James Frey’s infamous “A Million Little Pieces” and the recollections of a Holocaust survivor and of an inner-city foster child — exposed as mostly fabricated. The authors of those books have acknowledged their fraud.” (more @ NY Times)

Disputed passages from the book can be found here.

Related

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“Joseph O’Neill’s novel ‘Netherland’ was named the winner of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation said on Wednesday. The honor for ‘Netherland,’ about a Dutch-born equities analyst, his British wife and their son, who live in New York during the Sept. 11 attack and its aftermath, is something of a comeback for Mr. O’Neill. The novel, though widely praised, was shut out in the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle awards.” (via NY Times)

Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review of “Netherland” can be found here.

[In many ways “Netherland” is a book about sports — in this instance cricket — and national identity; but the novel also contains some of the finest descriptions of ethnic New York City found anywhere. Related20 Are Detained After Cricket Attack (3/4/09, via NY Times)]

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“Every few years, someone counts up the titles covered in the New York Times Book Review and the short fiction published in the New Yorker, as well as the bylines and literary works reviewed in such highbrow journals as Harper’s and the New York Review of Books, and observes that the male names outnumber the female by about 2 to 1. This situation is lamentable, as everyone but a handful of embittered cranks seems to agree, but it’s not clear that anyone ever does anything about it. The bestseller lists, though less intellectually exalted, tend to break down more evenly along gender lines; between J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer alone, the distaff side is more than holding its own in terms of revenue. But when it comes to respect, are women writers getting short shrift?” (more @ Salon)

Related

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pessl2Writing in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Jacob Silverman denounces the “lazy and shallow tactic” of discussing an author’s looks in a book review. He recalls the often overheated commentary about Marisha Pessl‘s dust jacket photo in her 2006 debut novel, Special Topics In Calamity Physics, and takes Janet Maslin to task for her February 15th New York Times review of Miriam Gershow’s The Local News.

[Related: “The dust jacket photo remains a crucial promotional device. In fact, says Antonia Hodgson, the editor-in-chief at the publisher Little, Brown, it’s more important than ever.” (more @ Looking the part, 4/10/09, The National)]

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best-sex1In a posting earlier this week on his New York Times blog about books, David Kelly included an excerpt from Daphne Merkin’s essay, “Penises I Have Known,” one of the 23 pieces in the recently released compilation, “Best Sex Writing 2009,” edited by sex commentator and erotic author Rachel Kramer Bussel.

Merkin’s essay, previously published in Playboy, considers Norman Mailer‘s and Harold Brodkey‘s writings about sex as well as D.H. Lawrence‘s curious penchant for naming body parts.

[Available from Amazon.com as a Kindle Edition download, I hadn’t previously thought of the Kindle as the modern-day equivalent of the tried-and-true brown paper wrapper. We’ve come a long way, baby.]

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kafkaIn his fine essay published earlier this month in The Nation, Alexander Provan considers the recent literature on the life and work of Franz Kafka and argues for a more expansive appreciation of the novelist and short story writer than the impression of him in “the popular imagination [which has] been subsumed by a one-word slogan: Kafkaesque.”

“Kafka’s singular insight,” writes Provan, “was that the ‘rationalization’ of society, with the bureaucracy as its engine, was increasingly shaping individuals and relations between them. His genius was to make this observation into something more than a trope or a theme in his writing, to give this new social force a literary form.”

Yet if “Kafkaesque” is as author Louis Begley describes — the existential predicament of struggling “in a maze that sometimes seems to have been designed on purpose to thwart and defeat [Kafka’s characters]. More often, the opposite appears to be true: there is no purpose; the maze simply exists” — then, as Provan enumerates, these are indeed Kafkaesque times:

Kafkaesque “is the explosion of the international market for mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, in which value is not attached to the thing itself but to speculation on an invented product tangentially related to (but not really tied to) that thing. It is FEMA’s process for granting housing assistance after Hurricane Katrina: victims were routinely informed of their applications’ rejection by letters offering not actual explanations but ‘reason codes.’ It is the Bush administration’s declaration that certain Guantánamo Bay detainees who had wasted away for years without trial were ‘no longer enemy combatants’ and its simultaneous refusal to release them or clarify whether they had ever been such.”

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