I was poking around Amazon today and I came across a listing for a new book by Pete Dexter called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. I’m a fan of Dexter’s (see my review of Train, my review of Brotherly Love, and my review of Paris Trout), so I’m excited to see he’s got a new book, but what has me especially thrilled is that, if the subtitle is to be believed, the book is non-fiction. I had the chance to attend one of Dexter’s signings once, and he rattled off story after story, many of them from his days as an old newspaper guy in Philadelphia; it was definitely one of the most entertaining readings I’ve ever been to. This new book is being put out by Ecco. If anyone knows anything else about the book (or can get me a copy), let me know.
Brandon, who runs the blog antimodal, has created a little application that “handicaps” the great 20th century novels. It allows you to assign scores for different features, like “stream of consciousness,” and themes, like the “Black experience.” The scores enable you to promote or penalize a book based on these different characteristics. Note that you can add additional categories to the ones already listed by pressing the “Add New Category” button at the top of the page. In Brandon’s words, “The book list is still a work in progress. I am not familiar with many of the books there, so if you have information that would help classify a book, let me know.” Check it out.
The roadside hedges were gone to rows of black and twisted brambles. Burnt matchstick limbs, frail and carcassed treetrunks. A gray pond lay near the low bomus of a sorghumfield, its yieldless surface oily and wan. Ruminant bones in a shallow rocky ditchrun, faint scattered nothing. In a sunlit patch of green, a mother robin fed its chicks, a fat worm at her beak. Oh wait, check that. Sorry. All was dead.
The boy stood in the road with the pistol while the man climbed an old set of limestone steps and walked down the porch of the farmhouse, peering in the windows. He pushed his way in through the kitchen door. Lucy, I’m home, he shrieked, the Cuban accent poor from disuse. Trash in the floor. Broken saucers, a heap of old magazines. He looked them over. Jen’s Revenge. Kendra’s Baby Bump. J.Lo’s Booty Wars. The shelves bare save for a chipped Garfield mug, two rough spots where its handle had been. I too hate Mondays, he whispered. He went down the hallway, regarding himself in a broken woodframed mirror. The eyes haunted and sunk. Weatherbeaten cheeks, a matted gritty beard. He looked like Viggo Mortensen.
In the parlor, a television set in the corner. Beneath it a Sega Genesis, Battletoads still inside. Arrayed Ikea furniture, brittle and sagging as always. He climbed the stairs and walked through the bedrooms. Everything covered with ash. In a child’s room, a Tickle Me Elmo on the dresser. He went to it, lodestar of plush, the crimson jape. The man squeezed the doll and a thin laughter filled the room. Remains of joy discaptured. He took out his pocketknife and stabbed at the toy until it was no more than scrap and fluff. Breathing hard, he watched as a plastic eyeball rolled slowly across the floor and settled against the moulding. Then he went to the other rooms.
He emerged into the gray with three good blankets and the J.Lo magazine and laid it all in the cart. The boy handed him the pistol.
Was it okay in there? the boy said.
Yes, it was okay.
Were you scared?
No, the man said. Theres little left to be afraid of.
They set out along the road again and the boy looked back at the shinglefallen house that receded into haze. There wasnt anything scary inside, Papa?
There was no basement dungeon thing?
No. There was no basement dungeon thing.
Okay. The boy was silent for a moment, then looked up at him. There were no people locked in an underground room? With a secret hatch? And they were eating each others feet and hands and things?
The man frowned at the boy. No. There was nothing of the sort. Where do you get such ideas?
The boy shrugged.
They trod on, and after a time the man smiled. There was a Tickle Me Elmo though.
The boy brightened. There was? May I have it, Papa? he said.
Oh. I’m sorry. He scanned the cart, feigning concern. I must have forgotten it.
The boy tried to hide his disappointment. Thats alright Papa, he said. My rusty beancan is better anyway.
Later in the day the boy turned to him. Can you tell me about apostrophes?
What do you want to know about them?
I dont know. Where did they all go?
I dont know, the man said, and it was truth. He didnt know where all the apostrophes had gone.
In the gray and cloven coldstunt they came upon a supermarket. A few old cars in the lot, the windswept bleary goam. The man pushed the cart towards the cartstation nearest the entrance, nesting it with the others, and went inside. The boy gripped his hand. They walked slowly up and down the aisles, hoping to find something that had been overlooked. A bottle of water. A can of soup. Craisins, even. In the dustfilled refrigerator case he came upon a warm stack of Lunchables. With his hand, he brushed one clean and looked it over. The ham, cheese, and crackers each sat in its individual station, looking suspiciously fresh. The man’s eyes narrowed as he inspected the pink roundlet of ham, the tiny orange cheddarblock.
Is it okay to eat, Papa?
I dont think so, he said, laying it back with the others. There’s something not right. We’d best not take the chance.
By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar, the work of colascavengers. He sat and ran his hand around inside the gutted machines and in the second one found a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Mountain Dew.
What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat.
Oh. What is it though?
He frowned as he looked at the garish can, its mad red typeface. I cant really say. High fructose cornsyrup. Yellow number five. A few other things. It’s good. Try it.
The man slid his thumbnail beneath the aluminum tab on the top of the cylinder, squeezing the ringside opposite with his forefinger. Leveraging at the rimple, he pushed upwards, springing the lidsheath below. There was a crisp popping noise as the ovoid sheath lowered into the canchamber, releasing the fizzing sugardrink. After flattening back the tab at the rimplejoint with his thumb, he handed it to the boy. It’s more complicated than it looks, he said.
The boy sniffed at the can, eyes batting at the fizz. It smells kind of funny.
He looked at his father uncertainly and then tilted the can and drank. An odd look crossed his face. It tastes like pee-pee.
Yes, a little bit. Sweet, sweet pee-pee.
You can have it, Papa.
I want you to drink it.
No, it’s your treat. Drink it.
The boy took another sip and they sat in silence, each in his own thoughts. The man recalled an old television show whose title now escaped him though he felt certain that two characters had been called Roz and Bull. Such happiness as he had never known. Madcap wheelings, a sundrous reverie. The judge’s sly magic. After a time, the gray light outside began to fade. We should go, the man said, lifting their knapsacks. Did you like your treat? The boy nodded and managed a weak smile. Yes, Papa. It was very good. Thank you. The man waited until the boy’s back was turned and bent to heft the can. It was still full.
I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but I wanted to echo and add to something I wrote about last year around this time. I’ve always been an avid reader. As long as I can remember, I’ve spent a portion of my day reading, but it was keeping this blog that really helped me grow as a reader. I’ve valued the discussion, the community and having a platform to share my thoughts. I think, though, the most valuable part of this experience for me has been using the blog as a reading journal. Keeping track of what I read and writing a few sentences about most of those books has changed the way I read. Before, I never kept track of what I read, but now I feel like I’m building a library of knowledge to mull over and share. Books live on in my memory a lot longer than they used to.So, if you happen to be in the market for a resolution this New Year’s, feel free to borrow this one. It’s simple: Keep track of every book you read this year. Write down the title and author, and, if you feel like it might be a worthwhile exercise for you, jot down a few thoughts about each book. It will enrich your reading experience.
Scott’s Friday Column is a thoughtful look at why independent bookstores in the Bay Area, and everywhere else, seem to be disappearing.All this has taken a toll on me, the book shopper. Whereas I once aimlessly browsed through local bookstores thinking of nothing other than a new book, I now keep an eye out for warning signs, wondering which one will be the next to fall.
Perhaps all crystal balls are cloudy, at least where literary fiction is concerned. In 2006, as publishers seemed inclined to keep the heavy artillery under wraps until the lucrative holiday season, our January “Most Anticipated” round-up could not help but overlook Pynchon, Edward P. Jones, Richard Powers, or Claire Messud, as well as a number of eminently worthy books from independent publishers.That said, the “Most Anticipated” post can help register some of the early buzz that later gets drowned out by other books’ more formidable marketing campaigns. Readers who tend to keep their own private lists of titles to check out may have remembered to pick up Brief Encounters with Che Guevara in August, when the talk of the town (at least my town) was Special Topics in Calamity Physics. And so, in the spirit of getting the word out early, I offer an otherwise completely silly alert about a couple of books slated for publication in 2008.Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes, winner of last year’s Prix Goncourt, has sold over a quarter of a million copies in France. This novel presents the first-person confession of a homosexual SS officer. I first heard about it on NPR, where a number of francophone readers praised the power of the story and of Littell’s prose – remarkable, given that Littell is actually an American. And if these raves are accurate, readers have a lot to look forward to: in French, Les Bienveillantes (The Furies or The Kindly Ones) runs over 900 pages. HarperCollins has purchased the American rights, and is waiting for the translation to be finished, according to the December/January issue of Bookforum. I’m tempted to just buy the damn thing in en francais, but fear that it would take me all winter to read… and I’m already committed to Against the Day.Another huge novel discussed in Bookforum’s “The Insider” column is the Chilean author Roberto Bolano. FSG is bringing out a Bolano novel this year, but fans of monumentality might wish to wait for 2066, an 1100-pager about a series of slayings in Ciudad Juarez.Maybe it’s just the frisson of delayed gratification, or my big-book fetish, but these two – a cumulative 2,000 pages – are my Most Anticipated novels. Now let’s see if, a year and a half from now, when they actually hit the market, they will have been worth the wait.
I’m apparently not the first person to wonder, in connection with last week’s PEN World Voices Festival, What makes a good panel discussion? It may seem a parochial concern – the kind of thing best hashed out at… well, a panel discussion – but it has real-world implications. Discussions of books by people who write them can be exhilarating to witness, but there’s also the potential for gnaw-your-own-leg-off tedium.Wednesday’s celebration of 40 years of Anagrama, the illustrious, Barcelona-based independent publisher, highlighted some of these possibilities and pitfalls. The panelists themselves, including Anagrama founder Jorge Herralde and four of his authors, had personality to spare. According to Herralde, these authors occupied the “in-between spaces” of culture and language – always a good thing for conversation. And yet translation problems kept the evening from sustaining any real momentum.Francisco Goldman led off, attempting to capture the role of Anagrama in Hispanophone literary life. He likened it to “Knopf, FSG, Grove, and New Directions” rolled into one. With a novelist’s eye for detail, he described the dustjackets of Anagrama’s various series – “bright, marigold yellow” for translations; “mint green” for Spanish-language originals; gray for “grown-up books” like philosophy. Anagrama, he pointed out, was founded at the tail end of the Franco era, when publishing serious literature was itself an act of editorial daring. And yet even in a more genteel 21st Century Spain, the house keeps renewing itself, most recently by bringing to international attention the extraordinary “flowering of Latin American fiction” in the last decade.Goldman promised to tell us later about Anagrama’s great parties and “How I got to get drunk with the heavy metal rock band Slayer.” But, as the translator fumbled with Herralde’s introduction of the next speaker, A.M. Homes, it seemed increasingly unlikely we would have time to hear from Goldman about Slayer, or about anything else. By the time the translator (an American, it seemed) described Homes’s work as “misericordian” and (I swear) “vorocious,” half of the audience was laughing in embarrassment, and the other half, including the elderly woman next to me, were yelling out the correct translations. Given the floor (finally) Homes spoke movingly about what it meant to a “horribly American” writer like herself to be published abroad. “It means my work has relevance,” she said. Being translated was “an honor. . . and a gift.” The panel had righted itself again.Next up was Siri Hustvedt, looking prosperous in a designer cardigan as her husband, Paul Auster watched from the front row. Herralde’s introduction made it clear that Hustvedt is huge in Spain, with something like 20,000 copies of Sorrows of an American in print. For previous books, she shared a Spanish publisher with Don DeLillo, he said. (I figured that out, and I don’t speak Spanish.) The translator’s version? “She shared a car with Don DeLillo.” At this point Hustvedt herself interjected – “No, no, no, no.” Fortunately, after Hustvedt’s fanciful disquisition on neurology and the imagination a new translator had arrived. The first young woman may merely have been pinch-hitting for the second, who I’m guessing got lost or had train problems. And so the two Spanish-speaking novelists on stage were the beneficiaries of fluid translation.The first to speak was Daniel Sada, who, according to Herralde, was on Roberto Bolaño‘s short-list of favorite writers, which fluctuated according to who he was friends with at any given time. The other candidates? Rodrigo Fresán, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Marías, and the man seated to Sada’s right, Enrique Vila-Matas. Sada spoke about the 19th-Century tradition that shaped him, and its two great problems: managing character and managing time. He quoted Zola: “a novel with less than 25 characters is not worth reading.” Sada’s ambition as a young man was to write a 19th-Century novel that would also be a piece of poetry. “I understand now that this is an idiotic idea,” he said. Still, his fiction is apparently difficult to translate because of his careful attention to the rhythms of his sentences. (All of this made me hungry to read his novel, Almost Never, which will be published in English next year by Graywolf.)The final panelist was Vila-Matas, whom I can only describe as looking like an Iberian Christopher Hitchens. Open-collared and looking pleasantly sauced at 7 p.m., he delivered a fluid series of anecdotes and aphorisms, most of them offering a rascally picture of his dealings with Herralde. My favorite had to do with bumping into Herralde in a discotheque while “in a euphoric state” and lying about having completed a novel. In the end, though, Vila-Matas turned earnest. “Without the trust [of Herralde and Anagrama] it’s not clear I would still be a writer.”The best part of any panel discussion is the discussion, but because so much time had been burned up by prepared remarks and language difficulties, there was hardly any time for these panelists to mix it up. (Note to future programmers: the next best thing to a good translation is not a bad translation, but no translation at all.) Still, this remarkable gathering of writers offered an effective introduction to Anagrama’s work, and offered a testament to the power of independent presses and iconoclastic publishers.[Ed.’s note: Vila-Matas does look like an Iberian Hitch, but does not write like one. We apologize for any confusion.]