As the Amazon review says, “it takes a world of confidence to name your debut novel The Great Stink,” but that’s just what Clare Clark did. Clark’s novel is set in the sewers of Victorian England as it follows the lives of William May, who has been hired to overhaul the decrepit system, and Long Arm Tom, who makes his living scavenging in the filth. According to a recent New York Times review, Clark is quite explicit in her descriptions of the vile sewer, but “Clark’s triumph is that she makes us see and smell everything we politely pretend not to, and she even manages to give the miasma its own kind of beauty.” The book has been shortlisted for the British Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for first time authors. You can read an excerpt here.Rachel Cusk’s Booker longlister In the Fold comes out in a few days. Despite the Booker nod, reviews have been mixed. Says Louise France the Guardian: “Cusk has a knack for scene-setting and handles certain setpieces with an unflinching eye for anything pretentious or fake; but throughout the novel, tediously little happens,” a sentiment echoed in the Independent: “at the novel’s heart there’s not very much going on.” An excerpt is available for those who’d like to see for themselves.The Village Voice compares the twin protagonists of Marcy Dermansky’s Twins to those of the Sweet Valley High books, but Dermansky’s twins “have acquired a fearsome host of modern ills: pill habits, self-injury, bulimia, a penchant for juggling.” Twins is getting good reviews on lots of blogs, as well, including at Collected Miscellany where Kevin describes it as “oddly compelling.” And Dermansky herself recently recommended a book at Moorish Girl. If you want to know more, Dermansky’s got her own Web site, and an excerpt of the book is available as well.
In the Province of Saints, a first novel by the Irish writer – and Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad – Thomas O’Malley is being compared to Angela’s Ashes. The subject here is a down-on-its-luck family in an Ireland of the late 70s and early 80s that was still ravaged by sectarian violence. PW says “his sentences have a judicious clarity even as they twist into gnarled shapes; they carry O’Malley’s characters though their incomprehension with poise and assurance.” Here’s one excerpt and another. The book comes out in late August.Xue Xinran was a radio show host in China before she moved to England. Her first book, The Good Women of China collected the stories she heard from women who called in to her radio show. Xinran’s first novel, Sky Burial, is fictionalized from a story she heard in her more recent journalistic endeavors. It’s about a couple split up by the conflict in Tibet in the 1950s. Scott recently pointed to this review in the SF Chronicle, and PW says, “Woven through with fascinating details of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, Xinran’s story portrays a poignant, beautiful attempt at reconciliation.” The book is out this week. Here’s an excerpt.
A few posts back I touched upon the idea of the “style guide.” As a newly minted journalism student, I have been taught that these guides are essential for creating the “clean copy” that my editors will want to see. They are fascinating books in a way. In my AP Stylebook some entries are brief, just one word: tiptop says one, instructing me not hyphenate. Other entries go on for a few pages like the one for possessives, which explains how to deal with “nouns the same in singular and plural,” “special expressions,” and “quasi possessives.” I know, exciting. One of the undercurrents of journalism school seems to be that writing is a lot more than just putting words on paper. There are rules to be followed and facts to be vetted. The rules are covered by the Stylebook, but vetting the facts can often be done with The World Almanac and Book of Facts, where one might discover a daily astronomy calendar, a list of popes, and the name of every town in Alabama with more than 5,000 people. Armed with these two books, I ought to have much of the guidance I need, but I have also been known to refer to a couple of my favorite writing reference books when necessary. The Elements of Style is a thin, little book that is so elegant and efficient in teaching proper usage it supersedes many of the fatter, drier grammar books you may have encountered in your studies. I also love my The Synonym Finder, which I bought when I worked at the book store after a customer became misty when describing her devotion to it. I’m glad I bought it. Every time I go looking for a synonym, I find one so good that it feels like I’m cheating somehow. My reference library is by no means complete, however. I’m still looking for that perfect dictionary (any recommendations?). And though I’m always dropping hints that I’d love to get a nice hefty atlas for a gift, I still haven’t received one.
Three months ago, after HarperCollins parent News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings, I noted comments from HarperCollins’ CEO Jane Friedman regarding sales of religious books. “Religious publishing is in a lot of trouble” was the pull quote. More recently, I pointed to the latest hot publishing trend, books about atheism, signalling something of a backlash against the religiosity that has pervaded our culture in recent years.News Corp reported its fiscal first quarter numbers this week, and once again the Publishers Lunch newsletter went back to Friedman to get her thoughts on HarperCollins’ performance (no link since it’s only available by email). This time her language seemed even stronger on this topic:As she noted last quarter, Friedman observes, “I’ve got big softness in Zondervan [HarperCollins’ Christian imprint] — and that is something we’re going to have to be watching all year… It’s not getting better.” She reports that spiritual books are “going steadily upward,” like the books published by Harper San Francisco, but “there’s a softness in the bible business” and “this is the most disturbing news, since that’s our staple.”With the Republicans so recently trounced in the elections, one has to wonder if the cultural enthusiasm for the type of Christianity that yields these sorts of books is waning (and indeed if earlier sales softness was a predictor of what would happen with the elections.)
A few days ago, during my weekly visit to the comic book store, I stopped at the dense graphic-novel shelves, tyrannized by choice. Before me sat row upon row of the laughably misleading (The Essential Dazzler), the highly unnecessary (ElfQuest: Volume 14), and the already-read (Essex County). After a minute of unfocused browsing, I arrived at a chunk of Punishers. Thanks to a 2009 alt-weekly story, I’d recalled that The Punisher’s Six Hours To Kill was set in Philadelphia, where I live. I picked it up and flipped on through, remembering why I hadn’t read The Punisher since I was 13: it was really kind of dumb.
Still, I’d come closer to buying the book than I reasonably should have—and the only reason for that was its setting. Eighteen years had passed since I’d given Frank Castle any thought—eighteen years in which he’d killed his way through Queens, Detroit, and Nome. Yet all it had taken to rekindle my interest was for him to hop in his van and roar down the Turnpike. Had I read Six Hours To Kill, I might’ve recognized a street, a park, or a building—and that would’ve drawn me in. Whether in comics, films, or novels, this verisimilitude is a gift—recognition that you actually exist.
In 1995, Steve Lopez debuted with Third and Indiana, named after an intersection in Philly’s crumbling Badlands. The book was mediocre—its villain was a cartoon, its heroes whimpering saints—but its street details were compelling. “An old man with a white mustache and a newsboy hat cooked ribs and chicken on the sidewalk in a barbecue fashioned from a black metal drum.” “Kensington Avenue… sat in eternal darkness and gloom under the El, and the tracks were supported by an archway of rusted iron crablegs, a symbol of the city’s industrial death.”
In Pete Dexter’s Brotherly Love, gangsters and union guys battle it out on similarly gritty streets: “Michael sees them too late, one on the sidewalk, one on the street. He takes the pistol out of his coat pocket, beginning to run, and shoots four times, blowing out the front window of a poultry store kitty-corner in the Italian Market.” I live two blocks from the Market, and when I walk through with my wife, I’ll point towards Ninth and Catherine. “In Brotherly Love, there was a shootout right over there,” I’ll say. My hope, perhaps, is that she’ll find me somehow tougher—after all, I witnessed a goddamn shooting. Instead, she’ll ask, “Wait—this was in a book? So it didn’t actually… happen?” “No, not really,” I’ll mumble. But… I could’ve sworn…
Such split thinking speaks, of course, to the vitality of narrative, to how it tricks us towards belief. But unlike camping with the Joads or mourning poor Piggy, reading about one’s hometown doesn’t transport so much as extend, enlarging our maps with each page. I’ve spent time in nearby Germantown thanks to David Goodis’ Black Friday: “He was very careful about it as he walked along Morton Street, watching the doors, the porch posts, the brick walls underneath the porch.” When Point Breeze makes the paper, I’ve been there through The Corrections: “Friable houses with bedsheet curtains. Expanses of fresh asphalt that seemed to seal the neighborhood’s fate more than promise renewal.”
Until I wrote this piece, I hadn’t seen the thread that runs through my Philly reading: I focus on areas that I’d otherwise never enter; on things I’d rather not see. Like a Baltimorean watching The Wire, I experience the nearby underbelly without having to actually experience it. This might make me an earnest investigator or an entitled cultural sightseer; probably a mixture of both. But whatever my motive, I’m not nearly as interested in the places I already know. Were there a Philadelphia novel about a Bella Vista freelancer, I’d probably have to skip it. I spend enough time with myself.
In a recent issue of Superman, The Man of Steel began a cross-country walk in West Philadelphia. As with The Punisher, his visit made the news—but this time, much of it harped on errors. For one, Superman trekked through “The South Side”—a term used in Chicago, but never Philadelphia. And at a diner, he ordered a “Philly cheese steak sandwich,” as natural-sounding as a Bulgarian weekender. Such details, while seemingly petty, are crucial to hometown readers. We might be too busy, or nervous, or lazy to go out and explore what surrounds us—but if you’re the author, by God, you’d better get it right. Because we’ll take your stories as journalism; they’ll shape our thoughts for years. We may or may not be tourists, but you are surely our guide.
(Image: west philly, from lisacee’s photostream)
Along with the New Yorker, the only magazine that I read regularly is Colors. Since it comes out every two months or so, spotting a new one on the newsstand is a real treat. Each issue is devoted to a specific theme, from the very broad like Water, to the very narrow; at one point an entire issue was devoted to a South American wood chopper named Rolando Trujillo. The new issue that I read today is all about the city of Birmingham, Engand. In typical Colors fashion, this issue combines the testimony of individuals with statistics and striking photography to give a surprisingly insightful picture of its subject. Colors is one of the few examples of putting the magazine medium to good use.Heard on the RadioThere was a quick review of The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith on All Things Considered this afternoon. I’ve heard from several people that his series of books (this new one is the fourth) is worth reading. They are detective novels. The hero is a woman named Precious Ramotswe. The setting is Botswana. I’m told that this exotic locale sets these already charming stories apart. And since I have always loved stories set in faraway places, I hope to get around to this set sooner rather than later.