When Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude came out, there was much discussion of how the novel paralelled Lethem’s own upbringing in pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Now we’re getting the real Lethem story for those who want to compare and contrast. It arrives in the form of a book of essays, The Disappointment Artist, which comes out in two weeks. An excerpt, which depicts a young Lethem immersed in obsessions with books, movies and music while trying to come to turns with his mother’s death appeared in last week’s New Yorker (but it’s not available online). I’m beginning to wonder if this exercise in autobiography (with the New Yorker as the stage) has become a rite of initiation for American novelists who have made the big time. Most prominent among them is Jonathan Franzen, who has had a number of meandering autobiographical essays in the magazine over the last few years. I wonder what drives the phenomenon. Do people really want to know about their lives or are these novelists just good at telling a story?
In my most recent “Year in Reading” post, I mentioned Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, a 1200-page novel it took me six weeks to consume and six months to digest. A somewhat longer, though still woefully inadequate, consideration appears today at The Los Angeles Times’ Jacket Copy blog, as part of “Postmodernism Month.” If you are like me one of those odd readers for whom the conjunction of the phrases “1200-page” and “Postmodernism” whets your appetite, pop on over to Jacket Copy and check it out.
It’s been over a decade since James Wood came on the scene to reclaim literary criticism as its own kind of literature, and though all his enthusiasts have a top-ten list of the Wood essays with which they most strenuously disagree, he comes by his reputation as “our best critic” honestly. Indeed, disagreeing with Wood can be an education in and of itself; if I had to choose one critic to pan my own work, it would be Wood. But what if I could choose a critic to praise it?For several years, Wyatt Mason of Harper’s has quietly been reinvigorating an even more recondite form than the critical essay: the literary encomium. As with Wood’s considered corrections, one can disagree with Mason’s glowing appraisals of Mary Gaitskill or Charles Chadwick (I wasn’t as enamored of It’s All Right Now as Mason was), while still being provoked to think – and feel – more deeply about literature.Congenially, Mason’s tastes are closer to mine than are Wood’s. (Witness his translation of Eric Chevillard’s wonderfully weird Palafox.) I’m particularly in his debt for introducing me to the fiction of Leonard Michaels, and at the end of the month, harpers.org will be offering the essay in question to non-subscribers. For the time being, one can check out a brief, but interesting enough, interview about Michaels.
There’s some interesting fiction hitting stores in the next few weeks. Here are some to look for.You may remember Daniel Alarcon’s story “City of Clowns” from the summer 2003 debut fiction issue of the New Yorker (it also appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004. Now the story, about a newspaperman in Lima, will anchor a debut collection called War by Candlelight. According to HarperCollins the collection “takes the reader from Third World urban centers to the fault lines that divide nations and people.” If you want to sample more of Alarcon’s writing try “The Anodyne Dreams of Various Imbeciles,” originally published in The Konundrum Engine Literary Review or you can enjoy this musing about the Mall of America at AlterNet.Another debut collection coming in April is Shalom Auslander’s Beware of God. In a recent review at small spiral notebook, Katie Weekly compares Auslander’s writing to that of Philip Roth and Woody Allen, but goes on to say: “Unlike the angst-ridden, often cynical work of Roth or Allen, Auslander’s stories are more observational, sometimes magical and always humorous.” (err… don’t know if I’d describe Woody Allen as angst-ridden, but anyway…) If that sounds like something you’d be into, I highly recommend you listen to Act 3 of this recent episode of “This American Life,” in which Auslander reads his story “The Blessing Bee.” If you like that you can read another story from the collection, “The War of the Bernsteins,” here.The Harmony Silk Factory, the debut novel by 25-year-old Malaysian author Tash Aw has been compared to The English Patient in the British press. The book takes place in Malaysia in the first part of the 20th century, and centers around the textile factory that gives its name to the novel. The book is already creating a generous amount of buzz on both sides of the Atlantic including being chosen as one of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers selections for 2005.As this recent article in USA Today discussed, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t the only novel to deal with 9/11 that’s coming out this spring. French author Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World takes place in the final hours of the restaurant of the same name. The book is actually two years old and was very successful when it first came out in France, debuting at number two on the French bestseller list. The early reviews are good, with Publishers Weekly describing the book as “on all levels, a stunning read.” Still, the subject matter may be too wrenching for American readers. Beigbeder acknowledges in the Author’s Note that he altered the English version of the book slightly because he was concerned that the book was “more likely to wound” than he intendedStay tuned. I’ll be posting about more forthcoming books soon.
One of my roommates moved out last summer, but he hasn’t changed his address so we still get a lot of his mail. Every month or so he comes by to pick up another mound of ephemera. It seems mostly to be junk mail and cell phone bills, but the occasional magazine can be found jutting from the pile. Today, in fact, I couldn’t help but notice the corner of the most recent issue of Esquire peeking out from under envelopes and circulars, and on that corner of glossy magazine cover I could see the words “The Best Books of 2003,” so, naturally, I took a gander. It’s not much of a list. They asked eight of their writers to name their favorite book of the year, so there are eight random books on the page, each with a blurb. Still, it gives us something to talk about. Here they are (with my comments, of course): Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown: I had forgotten about this book, but I remember when it came out it sounded very interesting. In the book, Brown, a literature professor at UC Berkeley, tries to discover the truth behind the legend of Stagger Lee, a quasi-mythical figure who is the inspiration for hundreds of versions of the seminal blues song of the same name. It sounds like a really interesting book, full of folklore and roots music. The book’s official website offers up a couple dozen versions of the song (along with a neat map showing when and where they originated) for your listening pleasure.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I feel like I spent most of the summer talking about this book. If you’ve been lurking around here for that long you’ll remember. Several folks have called it “the book of the year,” and it’s hard to argue otherwise. The book is extremely compelling on many levels, even for a non-baseball fan, as it delves into psychology and economics and business. For a baseball fan the book approaches divine.What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller: I think I’ve mentioned this one, too. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In it, a prudish, old schoolteacher recounts the indiscretions of a younger colleague’s dalliances with a 15-year-old student. What starts as a clearcut case, slowly turns itself inside out.Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Hmmm… didn’t this book come out last year? Anyway, this one won the Booker in 2002 and has been a slow burn sensation. It was released to modest acclaim, began to sell well on word of mouth, won the Booker, and never looked back. The paperback edition still appears on many major bestseller lists. I, for one, am still dying to read it, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Everyone I know who has read it (including my grandmother who is one of the “best” readers I know) adores this book about a boy and a tiger.BBQ USA: 425 Fiery Recipes from All Across America by Steve Raichlen: Mmmmm, BBQ. Actually, BBQ is a major American cultural artifact, with countless versions (at least 425) betraying the rich regional diversity of American cooking, which reminds me, some friends of mine have been working for over a year now on a BBQ documentary called Barbecue is a Noun. Sounds pretty tasty.Platform by Michel Houellebecq: Somehow it seems inevitable that Esquire would name this among the best books of the year. I know that there are some serious Houellebecq fanatics out there, but I’m afraid I don’t get it.Rumble, Young Man, Rumble by Benjamin Clavell: Released last spring to stellar reviews, this book surely ranks among the top two or three short story collections released this year.Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers by Katy Lederer: I hadn’t really heard of this one, but it’s one of those “f’d-up-childhood” memoirs, but this time it’s not about being the child of shrinks or mobsters, but gamblers instead. This sort of book has really become a genre of its own and is therefore getting somewhat tiresome; on the other hand, the jacket of this particular book features a blurb from none other than the late, great George Plimpton so it must be good.Actually, that list turned out to be pretty fun.