In today’s Public Editor column in the New York Times, Daniel Okrent takes the opportunity to mercilessly bash the Tony Awards as well as the Times’ lavish coverage of them. The only productions eligible for Tony’s are ones that take place “on” Broadway as opposed to “Off,” despite the fact that “the various Off or Off Off Broadway houses … launched all but one winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in the last decade (the exception originated in a nonprofit theater in Florida).” Meanwhile back at the Times, Okrent claims that there will soon be better coverage of theatre: “the Times is on the brink of a long-planned, apparently expensive and unquestionably overdue renovation of its cultural report, scheduled to premiere in the fall.”
In Russian, the term ostranyeniye means “the act of making strange.” In the early twentieth century, the idea was coined and used by Russian Formalists, authors and artists, who sought to make the familiar seem foreign — to make those who consumed their art question everyday words and forms.
Still Here, the third novel by Moscow-born Lara Vapnyar, bears very little resemblance to any of the experimental works by those Russian Formalists. But though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life.
Still Here is the story of four Russian immigrants in New York City. There’s Vadik, certain only of what he doesn’t want; Regina, a formerly famous translator who has married a wealthy American man; Vica, stuck in Staten Island with her son and husband but certain she’s “pure Manhattan”; and Sergey, Vica’s husband, a former prodigy who dreams of developing an app — “Virtual Grave” — that allows people to communicate with the dead by preserving and recycling what they said online in life. Virtual Grave is Sergey’s final chance to prove himself the brilliant man he was always expected to become. Given his difficulty holding down a job, it’s a last shot at providing for his family — and so a point of tension in his already troubled marriage with Vica. The characters’ respective stories unfold and intersect as they, as a group, try to come to terms with death in a way that enriches life.
Vapnyar is not the first to use something like Virtual Grave in art. A short story in Adam Johnson’s excellent collection Fortune Smiles centered around a very similar concept, as did an episode of the hit television show Black Mirror. What makes Vapnyar’s book unique is neither the idea of the app nor the use of four friends trying to make it in New York City (Vica is obviously the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch), but rather how these elements — a slightly forward-looking app and the perspective of four very different immigrants — are used together to “make strange” the modern world. There’s always someone having more fun on Facebook; always a better match out there on Tinder or OkCupid (in the book, the app is “Hello, Love!”); always someone wittier on Twitter. Except that, of course, there isn’t.
The book, like each of Vapnyar’s key players, is not without its faults. It’s a fresh take on an old theme, but it is nevertheless an old theme, and one that uses some old tropes—about New York City, about immigrants, about social media, etc. And there are points at which it feels more beach-read than smart satire. Of Regina, Vapnyar writes, “Being an introvert, she had trouble making friends.” It is the sort of sentence at which she herself might smirk elsewhere in the book.
Such shortcomings aside, Vapnyar ultimately offers a literary representation of the way we live now. She shows us America, the beautiful and absurd, managing to satirize it without ever losing sympathy for the people living in it, and certainly not for her four main characters. At one point, Regina, sure that today is the day she’ll start reading and writing again, puts off work to watch television; with the help of an app called “Eat’N’Watch,” which recommends the right food-show binge combination, she wastes hours and winds up disgusted with herself. In another moment, Vadik recalls the one-night-stand he had in New York City, who he left the next morning and who, he later realizes, he may have loved. The morning after, Vadik remembers that he had left his copy Hell Is Other People at the diner where he met the woman: “He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He would never be able to go back there. Vadik felt a surge of panic and regret, so bad that it made his heart ache.”
The book gives us plenty on which to reflect. Would we want an app like Virtual Grave? What would it mean to control our own online presence after we’re dead? If we aren’t exactly living in the book’s universe of constant app updates and addiction, how far removed are we? It makes strange the world we think we know. But even within that — in the bounds and bonds of satire and reflection and ostraneniye — it manages to remind us of the humanity that existed before there was an app for that. One that will remain, we can hope, once we’ve moved on.
If you read a lot of blogs, you’ve either discovered RSS by now, or you are spending a lot of time visiting your favorite sites each day. If you don’t know what RSS is, this site explains it pretty well. Basically, you can subscribe to the blogs that you like, and when the owner of a blog puts up a new post, it shows up in your “feed reader.” No more checking and rechecking all your favorite blogs to see if anything new has been posted.The really cool thing is that lots of newspaper sites have begun to jump on the RSS bandwagon in recent months, and now you can subscribe to their news feeds, most of which are divided into categories – world news, sports, etc. Why do we care about this at The Millions? Well, a handful of newspapers now have special feeds for their book sections, making it much easier to stay on top of all the reviews and book industry gossip. All the links listed below are to book news feeds. If you are already set up with a feed reader, go ahead and subscribe. If you aren’t set up yet, I recommend using Bloglines or My Yahoo. Here are the feeds I’ve found so far:New York Times > Bookswashingtonpost.com – Book Worldwashingtonpost.com – Jonathan Yardley – The Post gave Yardley his own feed, which I think is pretty cool.Guardian Unlimited BooksChristian Science Monitor | BooksLondon Review of BooksPowell’s Books: Overview – You may have seen Powell’s Review-a-Day where each day they post a book review from places like Salon.com, New Republic, and the CS MonitorSeattle Post-Intelligencer: BooksTelegraph Arts | Booksbaltimoresun.com | books & magsNPR Topics: BooksArts and Letters Daily – ideas, criticism, debate – not strictly book news, but a consistent, daily collection of links to thought-provoking articles many of which happen to be book reviews (not included in the Book News via RSS feature to the right)added 2/16/06: USATODAY.com BooksThere are quite a few publications that don’t yet have book news feeds, but hopefully they will add them soon. If you spot any new book news feeds or know of any that I missed, leave a comment or send an email, and I’ll add them to this post, which as time goes on will become a compendium of all the book news feeds out there. Finally, if you don’t want to bother with setting up your own feed reader but still want to keep up on all the book news, you can go here.Update:I found some tools to aggregate the book news feeds, and now the latest book news shows up in the column to the right. Enjoy!
I added several books to the reading queue today. In New York last weekend I found a half price paperback copy of Jon Lee Anderson’s Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World. As you may know, Anderson is a stellar war reporter for the New Yorker. His writing combines thrill and adventure and danger with an unmatched depth of knowledge on the conflicts he covers. Guerrillas collects his reporting on “the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and a group of young Palestinians fighting against Israel in the Gaza Strip.” A few weeks earlier, at Myopic Books, an unbelievably well-stocked used bookstore in Wicker Park, I picked up a couple of late 20th century classics, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow and Winter’s Tale (on Emre’s recommendation) by Mark Helprin. I was also lucky enough to receive in the mail from my publisher friends: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (I’m a big Ronson fan), Rick Moody’s upcoming novel The Diviners, and the Booker longlister The People’s Act of Love by James Meek, which I’m a quarter of the way through. Recently, I finished the five LBC nominees for the fall, and in the meantime, with the additions of the books listed above, the queue has ballooned to it’s largest size yet, 48 titles – so much to read, so little time.
Over at More Intelligent Life, you’ll find my reflections on the Joseph Mitchell centenary. Mitchell is, for my money, the greatest reporter-stylist of his era; the essay points to a few reasons why. In related news, The New York Times today reports on a blog version of the diaries of that other great reporter-stylist, George Orwell.
Yesterday I mentioned John Keegan’s latest book, The Iraq War. The book is meant to be an overview of the conflict, yet in the eyes of most people the Iraq War is still brewing. Yes, large scale military operations have long been over with, but, with breaking news coming from the region daily, one suspects that the history books, looking back, will not describe this conflict as being finished. As such, it is difficult to look at Keegan’s book as a definitive overview of this war. This is Janet Maslin’s take in today’s New York Times (she also thinks that Keegan’s angle is too Western and “snobbish.”) My suspicion is that this book was rushed to completion and into book stores by the publisher in order to get in on the brisk sales of Iraq-related titles. Undoubtedly, a little temporal distance from the subject matter would have improved Keegan’s effort.Lovers of architecture and books alike are raving about Seattle’s new Central Library, a graceful steel and glass structure designed by the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas. Here’s praise from the Seattle Times, and here’s the official website with pictures. One of the more interesting aspects of the new library: the stacks are laid out on continuous, unbroken shelves that spiral through the center of the building.A few months ago there was an interesting article in the New Yorker about one of the world’s lost treasures, the Amber Room, “an entire chamber paneled and ornamented in amber presented to Peter the Great of Russia in 1717 by King Frederick William of Prussia as a gift to seal the friendship between their two states.” The New Yorker article described the search for the room, thought to have been hidden in Germany by the Nazis during World War II, as well as the construction of a costly replica of the room that was being built in Russia. As with much that occurred behind the Iron Curtain, there was much doubt about the true fate of the Amber Room. Now, in a book entitled The Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, new evidence is revealed that solves the mystery once and for all. Read an edited extract from the book.
“Calvin and Hobbes” has begun reappearing – in reruns – in newspaper funny pages around the country as a way to promote what will surely be among the big-ticket book gifts during the upcoming holiday season, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. The 1440 page, 22 and a half pound, three volume, slipcased behemoth is an attempt by the publisher Andrews McNeel to recreate the success of its similarly mammoth offering from two years ago, The Complete Far Side. Judging from the current Amazon ranking of the Calvin and Hobbes book (81), it looks like another high-priced winner for the publisher. Meanwhile, Bill Watterson, the famously reclusive artist behind the strip, is still not speaking publicly, and newspapers around the country are notifying their readers of the beloved strip’s brief return with a palpable sense of disappointment. For example in the St. Petersburg Times:We announce their return with, shall we say, bridled joy. For starters, this is not permanent; Universal Press Syndicate is offering the feature only through Dec. 31. And the strips have been published before.Will Watterson ever make a comeback, as, I suspect, so many newspaper comics fans hope, or should we just shell out the dough for this voluminous shrine to the best strip to grace the funny pages, well, in my lifetime, anyway. (With apologies to “Bloom County.”)