Houghton Mifflin has posted a long excerpt of Jonathan Safran Foer’s forthcoming book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Amazon also has the excerpt up.) And, well, I don’t quite know what to say about it. Have a look. You’ll see. It’s a long, furious stream of consciousness – the warp speed thought process of the 8-year-old, genius protagonist, Oskar – with a punch in the gut finale. It seems that this book is sure to produce a frenzy among critics and readers when it comes out in April, but it’s too early to know whether that frenzy will be positive or negative. On Neal Pollack’s blog, the quality of the excerpt and the book’s use of 9/11 as a plot point are already being debated.
One of the nice things about working at a bookstore is that after constant exposure to thousands of books I tend to have a sizable stash of titles and authors that I know are worth reading stored in the back of my head. Lately, during my day-off wanderings around LA, I make sure to duck into any good will/Salvation Army type places I come across, in order to make good use of this extra information that I lug around involuntarily. Luckily, in my neighborhood there seems to be an inexhaustable supply of such stores. Almost all of these places have a ramshackle shelf of books against the back wall. The standard pricing is fifty cents for a paperback and an even dollar for a hardcover, so it’s worth it to wade through the broken appliances and dusty clothing racks in order to do a little treasure hunting. I invariably am able to walk away with a gem or two. A couple of weeks ago I came across hardcovers of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I swiftly decided to rescue them from an extremely seedy second hand store a few blocks from MacArthur Park, but before I left a third book caught my eye. A hardcover copy of Prize Stories of the Seventies from the O. Henry Awards was tucked away among some lesser books, so I grabbed that too. I was especially pleased to find this book for two reasons. First, in my opinion the O. Henry short story collections are the best out there, far superior to the Best American Short Story series, which, while always filled with excellent stories, never does anything to surprise you. Second, my contemporary liturature classes and creative writing workshops in college taught me that the ’70s were an especially fertile time for the short story. The editor of this collection, Willie Abrahams, rightly states that the collection of stories he has assembled “repudiate altogether the notion — widely held in the previous decade — of the story as an endagered or outmoded species.” This collection, in fact, represents the last time that the form was commercially viable, a time when there were many more publications devoted to the form, the heyday of Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, John Updike, and Tim O’Brien, all of whom are represented here. While it is always a joy to read stories by these luminaries, the beauty of the short story collection is that it will almost always yield a writer or two whom I have never encountered. This collection included several. Judith Rascoe’s story “Small Sounds and Tilting Shadows” is remarkable; it is the tale of an addled woman who insinuates herself into taking care of a mysterious man’s vacant apartment. As time passes the apartment becomes both her prison and her haven, and the presence of apartment’s missing owner looms ever larger. After just a handful of stories it’s hard not to see that many are inhabited by addled women “The Dead” by Joyce Carol Oates (a breathtakingly masterful story), “Last Courtesies” by Ella Leffland, and “My Father’s Jokes” by Patricia Zelver. These struggling women are neatly countervailed by stories about creaking, crumbling families: Updike’s “Separating” and “Alternatives” by Alice Adams, to name just two. The remaining stories, with a couple of notable exceptions, fall neatly into a third catagory, the experimental, post-modern story, betraying the mirthless, helpless rage of the author toward the frustrations that the decade presented. These were both dated and barely readable, but their themes were consistent with rest of the stories in the collection.In the movie “Dazed and Confused” set in 1976, the middle of this forsaken decade, Cynthia, the red headed dreamer who’s too smart for her backward Texas town says “The fifties were boring, the sixties rocked. The seventies, oh my God they obviously suck. Maybe the eighties will be radical.” As I recall, the eighties comment got a big laugh in the theatre, but, in terms of the general well-being of the populace, she wasn’t very far off. The seventies really did suck. Americans were disillusioned, over-medicated, and terrified of cities that had turned into war zones. This level of disgust is so palpable that it is both the surface and the subtext of nearly every story in the collection. The characters are irreconcilably distraught by the failures of the previous decade. A startling proportion of the characters are addicted to pills, and not a few commit suicide if they aren’t killed first, whether by neighbors or the Vietcong. It is a painful collection to read, and it is remarkable to see how bleak a picture of the decade is painted. At the same time, the pain produces beautiful emotional prose. Most of the stories, though imbued with sorrow, were a joy to read. And my favorite “A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow was perhaps the most sorrowful of all.Why Dontcha Take a Picture, It’ll Last LongerTwo very cool photography books came in today. One was called The Innocents, a collection by the photographer Taryn Simon. The book is a chronicle of former death row inmates who have been exonerated. The book combines faces with stories to powerful effect. The second photo book of note today is no less political, though it is far more colorful. Photographer Jamel Shabazz was responsible for one of the coolest books of the last few years, Back In The Days, a collection of street photgraphy from the early hip hop era, before the look was commodified, back when it was real. His new book The Last Sunday in June chronicles New York city’s yearly gay pride parade. Days brims with solemn authenticity while Last Sunday explodes with audacious color. Both are worth more than a look.
I heard from my friends in Iowa about the latest in the search for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop DirectorOn Feb. 24, Lan Samantha Chang was in Iowa for her “audition” for the Director position. During the mock-workshop portion of the presentation, Chang showed off her analytical skills rather than her personality, as previous finalist Richard Bausch had. There was a lot more in depth discussion about the stories that were critiqued, and Chang was adept at giving feedback and facilitating discussion. She talked about Frank Conroy, the current director, who is battling cancer right now, taking inspiration from his high standards for writing and teaching. She also quoted Marilynne Robinson, perhaps in homage to her own Iowa education, saying, “you have to have 3, if not 4, if not 5, reasons for putting something into a story.” Chang even discussed the aesthetics of words on a page. She talked about utilizing the power of the “white space” between sections, saying that the connection between two sections should, and can be poetic. She said at one point, “I’m a sucker for beauty.” If the workshop faltered at all it was in the discussion of a novel excerpt when Chang delved into more theoretical ideas that might be hard to put into practice. She read from her first collection of stories for the reading – again, perhaps giving a nod to her student days at the Workshop. It didn’t seem like anyone was blown away by her reading. Her work is quite sad and subtle, perhaps not the stuff of public performance. Chang’s craft talk was on novel structure – her first was recently published – which received mixed, but generally good reviews.Jim Shepard visited Iowa today, so hopefully we’ll get a report on him soonPreviously: Richard BauschUPDATE: Chang gets the job.
It’s that time of year. “Best books of 2003” lists have begun to appear. So let’s dive in: the editors over at Amazon have released their Best Books of 2003: Top 50 Editors’ Picks list. According to them, the best book of the year is James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces. I know a lot of people who read this book and really enjoyed it, but I personally am not a huge fan of addiction memoirs or messed-up-childhood memoirs. I think I find them to be too internal and personal, and I’m not usual that interested in getting up close and personal with someone I’ve never met. So, does it deserve to be named best book of the year? Maybe top 25, but not number 1. Some books that I actually did read and enjoyed that appear on this list: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which my friend Patrick anointed “book of the year” months ago, comes in at #4. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is #6, and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus is #9. Publisher’s Weekly has a very interesting interview with one of Amazon’s editors, who explains how this list was created, justifies the inclusion of certain titles, and comments on how relevant this list is to the prevailing tastes of the reading public. It’s a good read.