Ask a Book Question

Ask a Book Question: #68 (Building a 21st Century Contemporary Fiction Syllabus)

Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I've hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year's syllabus. We currently read Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace ("E Unibus Pluram") to Chuck Klosterman ("The Real World"). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more "critical" eye.So. I'm trying to replace Fortress for this year's class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year's students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven't read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I'm currently considering Bock's Beautiful Children, Ferris' Then We Came To The End, Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers' Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I've tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven't. Of the four you're considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It's told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they're written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It's equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage's DeNiro's Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys - where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage's debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn't say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen's All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus - not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages - oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) - not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into - particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book ("Fame - fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.").Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition - almost zeugma perhaps? - in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political - the sublime and the ridiculous - are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith's desire to sleep with the vice president's daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that "refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order" and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it's an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I'd had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction - Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis' The Thin Place; Lydia Davis' Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon's The Question of Bruno - may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn't care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two "21st Century" books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders' Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty's The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It's interesting that the students didn't like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven't read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones's two collections - Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children - Jones's stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones's The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying "reveal" at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven't already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.
Ask a Book Question

Ask a Book Question: The 67th in a Series (The Concierge)

Theresa writes in with this request:I saw a book at Barnes & Noble one day. It was on the new book table. But there was only one copy, and not sure if it's a new book translation or someone just dropped the book on the table. The book was a translation and fiction. The storyline is about a woman who is the "concierge" or lobby supervisor of an apartment building. She secretly loves art and music, but is aloof and "grumpy." She befriends a little girl that has just moved into the building, along with a man who enjoys music.I think it is translated from a female french author (she has had other of her books translated).Unfortunately, I didn't write the name of the book down, or the author. When I went back to get the book, it was gone. I thought the title was a synonym of "concierge", but not sure. I even asked a friend of mine who was a French teacher and she couldn't think of the word. I have checked Barnes & Noble online, but the book doesn't show up.Any ideas on the name of this book? It has been driving me crazy.I can think of few things more frustrating than spying what looks like an intriguing book, only to lose it to the fastidiousness of a book store clerk. Luckily, in this case, a little research has turned up the answer to this missed connection.The book Theresa seeks is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and translated by Alison Anderson, and the plot is much as Theresa recalls: We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renee, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renee is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence. Then there's Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius...The book was recently put out by Europa, a smaller publisher known for its championing of translated works, and was a big seller in France. According to Time, which profiled Barbery recently, The Elegance of the Hedgehog had been "at or near the top of France's sales charts for 102 straight weeks since its September 2006 publication" through the end of August this year. Muriel Barbery is French and something of an overnight sensation in her country:Only two years ago, Barbery, 39, was a philosophy teacher in Normandy whose spare-time fiction writing had produced a single published work: the 2000 novel Une Gourmandise (A Delicacy). That tale of a world-famous food critic with deathbed yearnings for life's forgotten tastes won her a single award for culinary writing and a few encouraging reviews. Elegance, by contrast, which the weekly L'Express hailed for celebrating "the tiny pleasures of life... with the timeless nostalgia of a Marcel Proust," seems to have scored a direct hit on the global zeitgeist.Thanks for the great question and enjoy the book!See also: The Elegance of the Hedgehog would be a great answer to our 52nd book question.
Ask a Book Question, Prizes

Ask a Book Question: The 66th in a Series (A Little NBA Speculation)

| 8
Chall writes in with this question:Any National Book Award predictions?Awards season is upon us. The Booker shortlist is out, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced in the next week or so, and the National Book Award finalists will be named on October 15th. Chall's question gives us an excuse to engage in a bit of speculation, though we'll stick with fiction for the most part. Offering up some guesses at who might make the NBA cut are Garth and Edan, our two contributors most plugged in to the latest in contemporary fiction.Edan: (some of whose guesses were "completely pulled from thin air, for no reason.")The Boat by Nam Le (see Edan's interview with Nam)America, America by Ethan CaninFine Just the Way It Is by Annie ProulxIndignation by Phillip RothThe Good Thief by Hannah TintiEdan also likes An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken and The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston in non-fiction.Garth: ("Edan's got some good stuff going on with her picks. I think there will be at least one debut author and one book of short stories, and The Boat is a good call. The Canin is interesting, too, as he's well-regarded and this book hasn't gotten as much ink as it might have. For the sake of doing something different, I'm going to go another way")Home by Marilynne RobinsonThe Lazarus Project by Aleksandar HemonAtmospheric Disturbances by Rivka GalchenA Better Angel by Chris AdrianLush Life by Richard Price (a "sleeper" pick)Incidentally, both also wanted to pick Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, which was recently snubbed by the Booker. But I don't think O'Neill is a U.S. citizen, and that would disqualify him from the NBA. And here are a few of my guesses:Max:Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa LahiriThe Monsters of Templeton by Lauren GroffPeople of the Book by Geraldine BrooksCity of Thieves by David BenioffHome by Marilynne RobinsonShare your picks in the comments below. Name up to five books, and the whoever is closest will get bragging rights. Remember: only books with "scheduled publication dates between December 1, 2007 and November 30, 2008" are eligible. And the author must be a U.S. citizen.
Ask a Book Question

Ask a Book Question: The 65th in a Series (Poetry in the Waning Days of Summer)

| 4
Michael wrote in with this question:For some reason (an end of summer shortening of attention span, perhaps) I'm in the mood for poetry, so I was wondering if, in the interest of discussing that other form of literature, the crew at The Millions could suggest some favorite poems, poets or poetry collections (the latter would be especially helpful, its the easiest way to carry around a dozen great mind in your pocket). Anyway, thanks for any suggestions.A trio of Millions contibutors chimed in on this one:Andrew: Full disclosure: my experience with poetry has been minimal, and for the most part it is my obsession with song and music that has led me to certain poets. In this context, then, I have been stirred most by the poetic voice of Leonard Cohen. The very fact that I know his voice intimately from his songs means that I hear his poems, too, spoken in my ear in that same voice. And while he's often labeled as a darkly intense romantic, in fact some of his finest poems have a light, playful quality. The one that first caught my attention is a little thing called "I Wonder How Many People In This City", from The Spice-Box of Earth, his second collection of poems from 1961. Here it is in its entirety:I wonder how many people in this citylive in furnished rooms.Late at night when I look out at the buildingsI swear I see a face in every windowlooking back at meand when I turn awayI wonder how many go back to their desksand write this down.All his collections are great, and his first one Let Us Compare Mythologies, from 1956, has recently been reissued. Additionally, many of his poems (including the one cited) and song lyrics can be found within the pages of the massive Stranger Music.Garth: Inspired by Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, I've been working my way through John Berryman's Dream Songs this year. Even for someone like me, who enjoys the fragmentary and fractal poetry of, say, John Ashbery, the Dream Songs were an adjustment, in that point-of-view and syntax are ever-shifting. For the first ten poems, I found myself searching for a way in. But this seems to be one of those great books that teaches you how to read it; I latched on to the rhythm, started reading the poems aloud to myself, and was off and running. One of the pleasures of reading this book is that so many of my friends turn out to have read it, and everyone has different favorites. Dream Songs Week at The Millions, anyone?Emily: If you don't have a preexisting taste for a particular kind of poetry and you like browsing, there's really nothing like The Norton Anthology of Poetry - then you've got everything from Beowulf to Billy Collins (our former poet laureate, whom I loathe, but many people seem to like) in chronological order, along with brief bios of all the poets, and a bit of a reader's guide on versification (rhyme, meter, forms) and poetic syntax. But it's not cheap and with 1828 poems by 334 poets, it's not a pocket book either.For price and selection - oh, most beloved of American publishers! - you cannot beat Dover paperbacks for poetry collections (where, right now, you can also get Obama and McCain paperdolls). All of their books are between a dollar and $10 and they have both single author collections (Yeats, Rochester - one of my favorites - a dirty, disillusioned Restoration poet, Browning, most wonderful Keats, Blake, Christina Rosetti, Tennyson, Sandburg), and multi-author collections. Favorite American Poems and 101 Best Loved Poems both looked good, but they have historical collections as well, like English Romantic Poetry, if you want to be more methodical in your reading.I also highly recommend the Academy of American Poets. They have an extensive online collection of poetry by American and English poets - more poets than the Norton - and they also have recordings of many of the poets reading their work. I highly recommend listening to Gwendolyn Brooks reading "We Real Cool" or Langston Hughes reading "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." It's a very user-friendly site and in addition to better biographical sketches than the Norton, they have an index of occasional poems for those so inclined (wedding, funeral, etc).As for individual favorite poems: I love Christopher Smart's crazy "Jubilate Agno" - it's a long poem, but a small portion of it gets anthologized and excerpted a lot as "For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry" or just "My Cat Jeoffry." I also love Ogden Nash's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man" (also, if you can find the recording of this, it's delightful). Robert Herrick's short poems: "The Night Piece, to Julia," "Upon Julia's Clothes," "Upon Prue, His Maid," "Delight in Disorder," and also his pastoral poems like "The Hock Cart" and "Corinna's Going A-Maying." Milton is great but he's a workout - his syntax can be a bit like taking part in WWF Smackdown for some readers. And Marvell's "The Garden," his "Mower" poems, and "Bermudas." Others to try: Gerrard Manly Hopkins, Christina Rosetti's "Goblin Market," Dorothy Parker's "Resume," Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes' "The Thought Fox" ...There are so many more, but I think I've probably already said too much.As a final note: I recommend you begin by reading William Carlos Williams' "This is just to say" and then read Kenneth Koch's "Variations on a theme by William Carlos Williams."
Ask a Book Question

Ask a Book Question: The 64th in a Series (Closed Room Mysteries)

Judy wrote in with this question:What is a "closed room mystery?" I came across this term in the blurbs for the ARC of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, which I have been assigned to read for a certain project.I googled the term and got some hints, such as that all the suspects are in one room, but not an actual definition. The term is used in all kinds of reviews and critcism and I would like a definitive definition, if you know what I mean.Judy, imagine you and five other writers are at a retreat on a remote estate working on your books, and then, one day, promising young novelist Jonathan Foster Gatsby turns up dead. As you and the other four remaining residents of what is now seeming like an awfully remote piece of real estate stand over the body, a chilling fact dawns on you and your colleagues: everyone in the room is the suspect. Luckily you have a knack for detective work, and following a few clues (and sidestepping a couple more dead bodies), you determine that it was the soft-spoken Zelda Eyre that did it.That is a very hasty and very silly example of a "closed room mystery." Essentially, from the moment the mystery commences, every character in the book is a suspect, and typically some form of isolation precludes the notion that the culprit came from outside this group. Millions contributor Emily suggests some examples: [Agatha Christie's] Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None (originally titled Ten Little Indians) or the boardgame Clue.
Ask a Book Question

Ask a Book Question: The 63rd in a Series (Chicago Stories)

Rob writes in with this question:I'm a seventeen year old who is going to be spending five weeks this summer in Chicago (to be specific – Evanston, since I'll be part of Northwestern's summer high school music institute). I'm a life-long New Jerseyan, and have never been in the city of broad shoulders for longer than three days.So, since I like reading books about the place I'm visiting, I was wondering if you could recommend anything that captured the essence of Chicago – I'm looking for works that encapsulate Chicago in the same way Kavalier & Clay encapsulates New York.I was thinking about The Lazarus Project and Carl Sandburg's work. Do you have any other ideas?Chicago has inspired some of America's greatest fiction and continues to be a fruitful setting for contemporary writers. I've just completed The Lazarus Project (review hopefully forthcoming), and its twinned stories - set in Chicago 1908 and present day Eastern Europe - mine Chicago's multicultural past and ignominious history. The book, based on the true story of the mysterious death of immigrant Lazarus Averbuch reminded me a lot of The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson's non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the serial killer who lurked in its shadows (my review here). Both Devil and Lazarus vividly evoke the chaos of Chicago, a turn of the century boomtown of slaughterhouses, nascent industry, and the first "skyscrapers" that was quickly aligning itself as the country's center after only decades earlier being its frontier.An interest in this era in Chicago will inevitably lead one to Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel The Jungle is a muckraking, contemporary account of the slaughterhouse workers who drove Chicago's economic engine. The novel is a landmark among American social novels.Jumping forward in time, Chicago produced one of America's greatest novelists, Saul Bellow, who haunted the hauls of Northwestern in the 1930s. Garth writes that "the greatest Chicago novel ever is The Adventures of Augie March, which is highly recommended for someone who liked Kavalier & Clay." This contention is hard to dispute.Patrick points us to another, more contemporary literary lodestar for Chicago: "The poet laureate of Chicago is Stuart Dybek (I mean, I don't think he actually is, I just think he should be). The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan are both absolute must reads. They both entirely take place in Chicago (mostly the South Side, but not exclusively). He's one of my favorite authors, and somebody who should have a much larger audience."Patrick also throws a more recent selection into the mix: "Also, it's not like a totally Chicago Chicago book, but I think [Joshua Ferris's] Then We Came to the End is about Chicago in a really interesting way, as it encapsulates life in the Loop, full of business people commuting from all the suburbs, folks who live in Lincoln Park, people who drive up from the South Side. Plus it's really fun."To these I would also add Adam Langer's well received duo of books set in West Rogers Park, a neighborhood at the northern edge of the city not far from where I used to live: Crossing California and The Washington Story. Finally, anyone interested in Chicago fiction should consider Chris Ware's landmark graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. It's another twinned story, with threads taking place in the near present and during 1893 Chicago World's Fair, for so many the moment of Chicago's emergence. Ware's pathos is haunting and his spare, eccentric drawings are mesmerizing. Along with Devil in the White City, it is a favorite of contemporary Chicagoans.We've undoubtedly skipped over much worthy Chicago literature, so please enlighten us with further suggestions in the comments. Rob, thanks for a great question!
Ask a Book Question

Ask a Book Question: The 62nd in a Series (Book Review Aggregators)

Margaret wrote in with the question:Why does there not exist (or if it does exist, why isn't it easy to find) a website for books analogous to Rotten Tomatoes for movies? Wouldn't that be one way to drive traffic to newspaper book reviews? (In their online form, at least; that would have the added benefit of being trackable, and proving the number of people that actually do read book reviews.) I'm imagining something that would index reviews from major newspapers, magazines, and blogs, all together in one place, so that I can say "Hey, I wonder if Title X is any good" and I don't have to hope that the New York Times reviewed it, or figure out who did. Metacritic did this for a while, I think, but their coverage was spotty, and their "metascores" seem sort of antithetical to what good book reviewing ought to be. In any case, they've stopped, so whatever they were doing to fill this hole isn't exactly helpful any longer.I realize this is a bit un-questiony, but I really would like to know your (and the other Millionaires') take on such a thingThis is actually a very common question, up there with: "Why isn't there an IMDb for books?" I've often wondered about these questions and my best guess on the paucity of such sites is that there are number of factors in play.The first is volume. There are a huge number of books put out every year, and even if we narrow those down to the books one might read for fun, the number is still quite large. And so, putting together a comprehensive site would be a Sisyphean task. Still, thousands of albums come out every year and Metacritic makes short work of many of them (and allmusic dutifully catalogs them), why not so for books? Especially considering that even looking at twenty books a month in this fashion would be at least adequate for many readers.The second reason might be competition. Amazon has been around a very long time, is very closely identified with books, and, in a way, already serves the Metacritic function. Most of its pages for relatively current books have a number of reviews, or at least blurbs, listed. Combine that with the reader reviews and other meta-data and it's hard to imagine how a competitor might improve upon it. Meanwhile, sites like Goodreads and Librarything do ample cataloging and aggregating on a more user-centric model.Finally, and perhaps most importantly, book fans aren't quite like film and music fans, and book reviews aren't quite like the film and music reviews. Film and music are far more likely to be consumed in group settings than are books, and so large group endeavors devoted to the cataloging of those media seem more fitting somehow. Even as there is an amorphous and no doubt large community of avid readers, it is a solitary enjoyment that does not always lend itself to the scorekeeping at the heart of the big meta-review sites. Likewise, book reviews are rarely as easily classified as film and music reviews (which often come with their own arcane scoring system, so as more easily to be averaged in with the rest). To my mind, it is a relatively poor book review that simply describes how good or bad a book is, while those that mine the book's context in the service of a broader discussion tend to be more rewarding. How do you score something like that?Having said all of that. There are a few spots worth checking out (some of which I've already mentioned).The Complete Review is well known and much beloved by many readers. In Metacritic fashion, M.A. Orthofer parses the coverage available for the book in question and assigns scores accordingly, adding his own often insightful reviews to the mix. For some readers, one drawback is that Orthofer's taste in books is a departure from the mainstream, with a heavy bias towards books in translation. Of course, the Complete Review's fans see this as a strength, and avid followers of the site are sure to be introduced to many unfamiliar titles.Reviews of Books is a very lo-fi site that may be closest in spirit to what Margaret is looking for. The site aggregates the reviews of a handful of the most notable books of the week. The site can be useful, but the number of titles is limited and it's not the easiest to navigate.Bookbrowse does some aggregating (see the "thumbs up icons.") But here again, I find the navigation a bit challenging.The Week, one of my favorite magazines, aggregates reviews on a handful of books on a weekly basis. There are no archives to dig through or anything, but it's not a bad way to keep up to date.Amazon actually has a pretty great page called "Best of the Month." It doesn't explicitly aggregate book reviews but it does a good job of pushing to the fore the handful of books that would probably rise to the top as a result of such aggregating. Plus they add a sprinkling of intriguing meta-data and stats to give a sense of what's "hot" right now. It's worth bookmarking.Finally, there's no aggregating going on there, but I should mention them again. LibraryThing and Goodreads emphasize just how much word of mouth matters when it comes to books, often at the expense, I might add, of book reviews.Those are the sites I'm familiar with, but if you know of any others, please let us know about them in the comments. Thanks for the question, Margaret.
Ask a Book Question, Lists

Ask a Book Question: The 61st in a Series (World War II Books for Younger Readers)

We compiled some excellent lists of World War II fiction and non-fiction a while back, but one topic that wasn't broached during those discussions was books about the war for younger readers. Ryo wrote in with a question that has spurred us to close that gap:Im a Thirteen Year Old Boy who is interested in WW2. I like books where the character is actually in the war. Can you recommend few for me?This is really a perfect question for a librarian, but not having one close at hand, I searched around and was able to find some great lists on the topic, specifically a pair of pdfs. One from Thomas Branigan Memorial Library in Las Cruces, New Mexico and another from Grand Rapids Public Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both offer up a wide selection of books to look into. Here are a few titles and descriptions from each list that seem like they might fit what Ryo is looking for.The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat - Originally published in 1951, "One of the classic naval adventure stories of World War II, Monsarrat's novel tells the tale of two British ships trying to escape destruction by wolf pack U-boats hunting in the North Atlantic."Under a War-Torn Sky by L.M. Elliott - "In 1944, 19-year-old Hank is an American pilot flying his 15th bombing mission when his plane is shot down over Alsace, near the Swiss border. Locals assist him in getting to neutral territory. There, a Red Cross doctor advises him to attempt an escape from Europe across France with the help of the French Resistance. Hank's many adventures as he makes his way toward home and freedom comprise the rest of the story. This is a gritty, unblinking look at the horrors that the Nazis visited upon France during the occupation."Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes - "Parallel stories follow teenagers Spence Morgan, a farm boy from Utah, and Dieter Hedrick, a farm boy from Bavaria. Stirred by complex feelings of patriotism and adolescent insecurities, both young men find themselves fighting for their respective countries in World War II. The first part of the story follows Spence from his small-town life to the rigors of basic training as a paratrooper; Dieter has left his family in order to supervise other Hitler youth, digging trenches on the German border. Then suddenly, both teens are thrust into the chaos and carnage of the Battle of the Bulge."A Boy at War: A Novel of Pearl Harbor by Harry Mazer - "Adam Pelko has lived for only two weeks in Honolulu, where his father is an officer assigned to the USS Arizona in nearby Pearl Harbor. When he befriends Davi Mori, a high school classmate whose parents are Japanese, Adam's rigid father forbids him to associate with Davi, fearing that the anti-Japanese sentiment so rampant on the island will tarnish the Pelko family and Lieutenant Pelko's navy career. When his father is called back to the ship unexpectedly, Adam slips away from his house the following morning-December 7, 1941-to go fishing with Davi and another classmate. Rowing close to the fleet in Pearl Harbor, they witness the horrific Japanese air attack and are nearly killed themselves, their boat shot from beneath them by a low-flying fighter plane. Desperate to reach home and find out if his father is alive, Adam is spotted by an officer who mistakes him for a young enlisted man and orders him into action to help rescue survivors and restore order."Soldier X by Don L. Wulffson - "Veteran and teacher Erik Brandt's students deem him a hero, but he confides to readers that in WWII he fought for the Germans--not the Americans. He then flashes back to March 21, 1944, when at age 16, Erik, the son of a (deceased) German father and Russian mother, and a member of the Hitler Youth, boards a train bound for battle in Russia."Readers, if you have any other suggestions, let us know. Ryo, thanks for your question. Let us know if you read any of these.
Ask a Book Question

Ask a Book Question (#60): Suicide Notes

Reese wrote in with this question:I'm a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I'm attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I'm having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I'm really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I've got is John Barth's The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez's study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I'd be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes' "Suicide's Note":The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles' Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil's Aeneid (Dido's suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare's Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia's suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney's late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London's pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce's micro-Anna Karenina "A Painful Case" in DublinersWilkie Collins' The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called "The Shivering Sands"The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and "Desirée's Baby," Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf's Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov's Pale FireAlice Munro's "Comfort"Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly "Lady Lazarus" (But you might also check out Anne Sexton's work and that of Ted Hughes' second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)"A Perfect Day for Banana Fish" J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker's "Resumé" - as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren't lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]
Ask a Book Question

Ask a Book Question (#59): Books for Recent Graduates

| 4
Bryan wrote in with this question:I'm a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I'm a huge fan of the Millions. I'm attaching a recent reading list, if there's any chance you'd be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 - april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy's Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known - n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O'HaraSwann's Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan's recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a "very testosterone-y" reading list and added, "I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets)." Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several "upgrades" that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow's Herzog. If you're going to read Exley, read A Fan's Notes, and "Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature," Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan "needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O'Hara, and Hemingway," all authors featured on Bryan's list.In thinking and discussing Bryan's list, we also hit the idea of a "staff picks" for recent grads - a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson's version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don't let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey's argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you're holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you're untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you've been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age - mid-twenties or so - when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell's social soul. "I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny."Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.