Somehow I waited two months to take a look at the “best of 2003” column from my favorite book critic Jonathan Yardley. For him 17 rather interesting books make the cut, and his two picks for best of the year are The Known World by Edward P. Jones and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale. Both of these are on the reading queue, and I’m very much looking forward to reading them. Here is Yardley’s column.
Two British papers have put out their “best books” lists for the year. The Guardian asked some literary luminaries to pick their favorites, while The Independent compiled a mega-review that amounts to the story of 2004 in books. If you like year-end “best of” lists about any and all things, check out Fimoculous, who is collecting them.Bookspotting: spotted on the el: Best New American Voices 2005. Everyone says the short story is dead, so it’s nice to see people reading a collection while they’re out and about.
On my way home from work on Thursday, I was driving down Sunset Blvd. In the mornings, groggy and unobservant, I will take any old route to work as I focus mostly on getting there on time and the cup of coffee I will consume once I arrive. In the afternoons I am antsy and Sunset Blvd. provides the distractions necessary to take my mind off the ridiculous amount of time that it takes me to get home. While Los Angeles traffic is generally a constant in my mind, the entertainment provided by the prostitutes (trans-sexual and otherwise), the idle rich, and the ambulant insane are the variables that keep me from glazing over entirely. So it came to be on Thursday afternoon that I was amused, but not the least bit shocked as I watched a time-worn scene unfold as I waited at a red light at the intersection of Sunset and Highland. In front of me an over-tan gentleman in a silver BMW convertible leaned aggresively towards the healthful blonde who was sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. I was listening to my Steely Dan Greatest Hits tape, and the AC was turned all the way up. The blonde’s uncomplicated smiles and nods were reflected in the Beamer guy’s wraparound sunglasses, and in some part of my brain I was repeating over and over again, “please don’t get in the car. Please don’t get in the car.” With a shrug and a smile she bounded over and jumped in, and the creepy guy recoiled back into his seat, launching into what I have no doubt was a volley of self-aggrandizing small talk. The light turned green, and we were driving. The anticlimax to this story is best heard now: he dropped her off about four miles down Sunset, at Western Ave unmolested, as far as I could tell. I know because I followed them, out of both morbid curiousity and my wierd protective nature that crops up from time to time. Plus, it was on my way home. In L.A. it seems, it is not hard to stumble upon these representative set pieces grown cliched with overuse, since everyone is an actor, professional or otherwise. In this one, which has multiple showings each day, set in the dusty, smoggy, sunny backdrop we have two characters: the not unattractive but entirely guileless leading lady who has only just arrived in the city via Greyhound in order to give chase to one dream or another meets the older, moneyed man whose false and condescending smile has from overuse etched wrinkles into his leathery face. He quickly becomes the chameleon and embodies the qualities of the dream she has been chasing. Only many years later will she realize that this dream could not have been pursued any other way. What seems like Hollywood magic when you gaze upon it from afar is really just the collective false solicitude of thousands of these men in wraparound sunglasses.When I pulled into my driveway in what is unaccountably considered a bad neighborhood, I looked skyward to see five helicopters overhead, hanging like spiders from silk. Since this constituted about four more helicopters than usual, it could mean only one thing: police chase in progress. I lack even basic cable, and this ensures that if there is a police chase going on in Los Angeles I will be watching it. If the chase happens to coincide fortuitously with one of the local news broadcasts, it will be shown on all of the channels, each from a different angle and with different commentary. I settled into channel four whose newscasters tried on their best shocked and dismayed act as they conducted off the cuff interviews with a police expert and a psychologist and tried their best to delve into the criminal mind who was giving chase (in this case it was a burly man in a florist van who had been approached by an undercover cop who seemed to think that the burly man had turned his florist van into a “motel on wheels” and all that that entails. The burly man then attempted to run over the undercover cop with his “motel on wheels,” and the chase was on). The fact that the chase was occurring in my neighborhood was an added bonus, and each time the florist van barrelled down a nearby street the noise of the sirens and the droaning helicopters mingled with the sirens and the droaning helicopters on TV. For a while I laid on my couch, unguiltily entertained by all this (I have lived here for three years; I’m way past that). Then, just in time for the end of the local news broadcast, the chase reached its frothy climax. The florist van veered onto the sidewalk at the MacArthur Park subway station and the burly man got out and started sprinting down Alvarado. You could see the point at which he lost his delusions of escape (they replayed this moment on TV several times as though it were a game ending touchdown). He slowed to shambling jog, shoulders slackened, waiting for the rush of officers who were closing fast. And then it came and in an instant he was at the bottom of pile of cops.LA is well-known for it’s cliches. After a while though, you begin to detect the vast complexity that underlies it all. Then, after another while, the complexity is all you can see. They key is to focus on the nuances and not the cliches themselves. The dominance of the Los Angeles cliches has given the city a reputation that is at odds with reality. One outcome of this is the perception of L.A. as a city lacking literature. This is, of course, a gross understatement. Over the past century, L.A. has produced a great number of writers. A new collection of criticism seeks to address misconceptions while discussing LA literature as it stands now. It’s called The Misread City. Here is an excerpt.JulavitsOn Saturday night I attended a reading at another bookstore by young author and Believer co-editor Heidi Julavits. She read a passage from her new novel The Effect of Living Backwards. The novel takes place on a plane that is being hijacked, and makes use of copious flashbacks and flash-forwards to fill out the story. The nine pages she read were clever and engaging. During the question and answer period, she told us that she had been aided in the writing of such a claustrophobic book by two books that took on that same challenge. In the The Verificationist by Donald Antrim the narrator is enveloped in the bear hug of a colleague for the duration of the novel. The Woman Who Escaped from Shame by Toby Olson is a many layered frame story that centers on a porn ring and miniature white ceramic horses. Julavits also offered the two writers she felt most influenced by in general, Philip Roth and Joy Williams. The next day Julavits came into my bookstore and we had a nice conversation about The Believer and its astounding level of popularity.
Recently I got a very interesting email from a reader. Frank Kovarik writes and teaches English in St. Louis. For the last five years, he has also been keeping meticulous track of the fiction that appears in the New Yorker. Not just the titles and authors, but things like gender, country of origin, and frequency of appearance.Frank has generously offered to make his spreadsheet available to download in Excel format. If you’re interested, you can get it here.Having this data allows us to dig deeper into the proclivities of New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and whoever else has a hand in what fiction appears in the magazine’s hallowed pages.Gender: From the database we learn that, of the 257 stories in the New Yorker from 2003 through 2007, 96 or 37.4% were penned by women.Nationality: Americans account for a fairly substantial portion of the stories that appear in the New Yorker, 134 of them, or 52% (and this leaves off several writers who could be conceivably classified as both American and a native of another country). Coming in tied for second are the Brits and the Irish at 18 stories apiece.Frequency: Much of that Irish total comes from master of the short story form, William Trevor, who readers were most likely to find if they flipped through an issue these last five years. Trevor was there on nine occasions. Including, an issue that included three separate but linked stories, Canada’s Alice Munro comes in second with eight stories. 12 other writers have appeared at least five times over the last five years, meaning that 14 writers have accounted for 32% of the fiction in the magazine during that period.9 stories:William Trevor8 stories:Alice Munro7 stories:Tessa HadleyHaruki Murakami6 stories:Thomas McGuane5 stories:T. Coraghessan BoyleRoddy DoyleLouise ErdrichLara VapnyarJohn UpdikeGeorge SaundersEdward P. JonesCharles D’AmbrosioAntonya NelsonIf anybody else draws interesting conclusions from the spreadsheet, we’d love to hear about them.
Today at the bookstore I had the pleasure of meeting a young author named Felicia Luna Lemus. Her debut novel, published by FSG, is titled Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties. This book is about both “princess dykes” and the chicana life, a blend that could only occur in Los Angeles. She seemed almost giddy at seeing her book on the shelves, and understandably so. She is diligently at work on another novel which she foresees finishing in about five years, which is about how long the first one took. In the meantime, she is actively seeking a position teaching creative writing, which should be well within reach considering this first novel and her MFA from Cal Arts. If you want to hear more check out this review at the San Francisco Chronicle and here is a double interview with her and one of the original outlaws of queer fiction, John Rechy (City of Night is the book that made him famous), which appeared in The Advocate magazine.
So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it’s good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn’t get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So…. where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like “he wondered what colour knickers she wore” and “I’m also very fond of this girl with a squint.” To be more precise, it wasn’t just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn’t fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent’s Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they’re just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante’s Ask the Dust. Nunez’s hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante’s Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I’d say it’s worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later….