In light of the epidemic of violence and political repression in Zimbabwe – and South Africa’s African National Congress’s insistence (until much of the damage had been done) that interference from “outsiders” was not welcome – avid fiction readers may want to revisit a sub-Saharan perspective on political misrule: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Writing here a couple years back, I gave the book a mixed review, finding some fault with the breadth of the satire. But, much as magical realism is said to just be called “realism” in Columbia, broad satire starts to seem awfully pointed the more one learns about the tactics of strongmen like Robert Mugabe. Which is to say, Mugabe’s decision to proceed with the election runoff in Zimbabwe borders on farce. As Ngugi shows, these antics can make for rich fiction. In life, of course, they are merely infuriating.
When: Afternoon 11/16/03Where: The Pig, a Bar B Q joint on La Brea Ave. In Los AngelesWho: The woman behind the counterWhat: The Corrections by Jonathan FranzenDescription: "A comic, tragic masterpiece of an American family breaking down in an age of easy fixes, Franzen's third novel brings an old-time America into wild collision with the era of home surveillance and New Economy speculation. Winner of the National Book Award."A Lingering QuestionAs much as I loved Crime and Punishment, it is refreshing to step away from Raskolnikov's paranoid world; however, I still have one unresolved question about the book... Towards the beginning, Raskolnikov has an encounter with a very drunk girl wandering in the street. At first he is protecting her from a predatory man lurking in the shadows, then a police officer shows up and Raskolnikov begins to antagonize him. It's a very odd scene that I assumed would have some significance later in the book, but as far as I could tell, the three characters never appear again and the incident is forgotten. Has anyone read the book recently? Does anyone remember this scene? Can anyone shed some light on why it is in the book and what it means... if I manage to figure it out on my own. I'll let you know.
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.
Confirming some rumors that have been floating around the Internet, Amazon unveiled a new design for its product pages today. This may not be of interest to many, but I am fascinated by the way Amazon evolves, adding features and slowly reinventing itself over time. Most striking about the new pages is the huge photo of the book cover that now gets prominent placement. This seems like a good thing for shoppers. When you're buying books over the Internet, it's hard to assess the more tangible aspects of a book, so the big photo seems like a good move. At first glance the pages are much longer as well with editorial reviews and then customer reviews stretching well down the page. The sidebar(s) are gone too, giving the pages a more spare look. I guess the idea here is that Amazon is pushing for the impulse buy... maybe trying to make readers more likely to buy the book without reading the reviews below. Here is a look at one of the new pages. Any thoughts?Update: Whoa, they've added other features, too. Check this out. You can see the "the 100 most frequently used words in this book," and see other stats like number of characters (444,858 in Gilead) and words (84,830), which amounts to 5,424 words per dollar... not a bad deal, I guess.Update 2: Now all this new stuff is gone. I wonder if the new features and look will come back or if Amazon was just performing some cruel experiment on us.
I spotted this essay by James Wood in the Guardian about endings that disappoint. I agree that there is hardly anything more disheartening than a novel that just peters out at the end. To me reading a book is like making an investment. You put in the time, and at the end you hope to walk away with some pleasure. A bad ending screws up the whole arrangement. I tried to think of some really good endings and off the top of my head I came up with a couple. In terms of paying off on an investment, one of my favorites is John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. The "a ha!" moment is almost too perfect but Irving has set it up so well that you can't help but believe it. Another great ending that comes to mind is John Steinbeck's East of Eden. After such a long journey, one almost expects the book to run out of steam, but Steinbeck magnificently collects everything together at the end and sends you out of the book with real emotional force. When I read the last words of that book and put it down, I said to myself, "Wow, that was worth it."
In Russian, the term ostranyeniye means “the act of making strange.” In the early twentieth century, the idea was coined and used by Russian Formalists, authors and artists, who sought to make the familiar seem foreign -- to make those who consumed their art question everyday words and forms. Still Here, the third novel by Moscow-born Lara Vapnyar, bears very little resemblance to any of the experimental works by those Russian Formalists. But though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life. Still Here is the story of four Russian immigrants in New York City. There’s Vadik, certain only of what he doesn’t want; Regina, a formerly famous translator who has married a wealthy American man; Vica, stuck in Staten Island with her son and husband but certain she’s "pure Manhattan"; and Sergey, Vica’s husband, a former prodigy who dreams of developing an app -- "Virtual Grave" -- that allows people to communicate with the dead by preserving and recycling what they said online in life. Virtual Grave is Sergey’s final chance to prove himself the brilliant man he was always expected to become. Given his difficulty holding down a job, it's a last shot at providing for his family -- and so a point of tension in his already troubled marriage with Vica. The characters' respective stories unfold and intersect as they, as a group, try to come to terms with death in a way that enriches life. Vapnyar is not the first to use something like Virtual Grave in art. A short story in Adam Johnson’s excellent collection Fortune Smiles centered around a very similar concept, as did an episode of the hit television show Black Mirror. What makes Vapnyar’s book unique is neither the idea of the app nor the use of four friends trying to make it in New York City (Vica is obviously the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch), but rather how these elements -- a slightly forward-looking app and the perspective of four very different immigrants -- are used together to “make strange” the modern world. There’s always someone having more fun on Facebook; always a better match out there on Tinder or OkCupid (in the book, the app is "Hello, Love!"); always someone wittier on Twitter. Except that, of course, there isn’t. The book, like each of Vapnyar’s key players, is not without its faults. It’s a fresh take on an old theme, but it is nevertheless an old theme, and one that uses some old tropes—about New York City, about immigrants, about social media, etc. And there are points at which it feels more beach-read than smart satire. Of Regina, Vapnyar writes, “Being an introvert, she had trouble making friends.” It is the sort of sentence at which she herself might smirk elsewhere in the book. Such shortcomings aside, Vapnyar ultimately offers a literary representation of the way we live now. She shows us America, the beautiful and absurd, managing to satirize it without ever losing sympathy for the people living in it, and certainly not for her four main characters. At one point, Regina, sure that today is the day she’ll start reading and writing again, puts off work to watch television; with the help of an app called “Eat’N’Watch,” which recommends the right food-show binge combination, she wastes hours and winds up disgusted with herself. In another moment, Vadik recalls the one-night-stand he had in New York City, who he left the next morning and who, he later realizes, he may have loved. The morning after, Vadik remembers that he had left his copy Hell Is Other People at the diner where he met the woman: "He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He would never be able to go back there. Vadik felt a surge of panic and regret, so bad that it made his heart ache." The book gives us plenty on which to reflect. Would we want an app like Virtual Grave? What would it mean to control our own online presence after we’re dead? If we aren’t exactly living in the book’s universe of constant app updates and addiction, how far removed are we? It makes strange the world we think we know. But even within that -- in the bounds and bonds of satire and reflection and ostraneniye -- it manages to remind us of the humanity that existed before there was an app for that. One that will remain, we can hope, once we’ve moved on.
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