Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow “Year in Reading” contributor Meghan O’Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I’m thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate’s audio podcasts. Future interviews, we’re told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Among the first to announce their lists of best books of the year is the CS Monitor, which delivers a solid but unsurprising batch of books. Here's fiction and here's nonfiction. Am I just out of the loop or was this year's crop generally lacking in books by exciting, young authors? Was 2004 the year of the old reliable?
The unexpected pleasure and wonder of my book year is Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, which was a birthday present from dear friend Judith Schneider. I started the novel because Judith was egging me on and realized immediately that I was in for a treat. The story of the Stephanides family begins in Uludag, now Turkey's premier skiing resort, in the city of Bursa, during the Turkish Independence War. Brother and sister Stephanides leave Bursa as the Greeks are pulling out and travel to Izmir (Smyrna) to take a ferry to France, during which the siblings get married. In the epic story that follows, Eugenides takes the reader through the struggles of this first generation Greek couple in Detroit during extraordinary times: first prohibition, then the Great Depression, and finally World War II. In the meantime, the Stephanides family grows and Eugenides moves on to the baby boomers, the hippies, and the seventies as he describes the life of the narrator and third generation granddaughter Calliope Stephanides. Calliope, or Cal for short, discovers during her teens that she is a hermaphrodite and develops an affection for a girl she names "Object of Desire." Middlesex is a very unusual novel, and as weird as the protagonist is, it is really easy to connect with Cal and travel through the extraordinary events of the twentieth century and the psyche of a teenager, who is more at odds with her/his being than most others. Euginedes' writing is very fluid and Middlesex is an amazing piece of work that leaves one wondering how autobiographical it is. I suggest that you find out for yourself.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
There are dozens collections of New Yorker cartoons available, and all of the will serve you well enough if you need a fix of that particular and unique brand of humor. A new collection, however, promises something a little different, the rejected cartoons: "Some were too racy, rude or rowdy. Some are too politically incorrect or too weird. A few are probably too dumb." Those are the words of Matthew Diffee, New Yorker cartoonist and editor of the The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker. In a brief piece about the book in the LA Times Diffee writes: So most of our stuff gets rejected; and sure, some of the rejected cartoons are pretty bad and deserve to be hidden forever. But there are always a few gems that are missed, and believe me, we remember them. So I decided to collect the best rejects from a number of my friends and colleagues - all regular New Yorker cartoonists, but all of whom, like me, have nine out of 10 of their submissions rejected.I might have to check this one out.
The search for the person who will fill what is perhaps academia's most prestigious creative writing job, director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is in its final stages. Four finalists have been announced, Richard Bausch, Lan Samantha Chang, Ben Marcus and Jim Shepard. Each will have an audition of sorts, which includes a reading, a mock workshop, and a talk on craft. Some friends in Iowa have been filling me in on this last part of the selection process, which got underway with Bausch's visit to campus on February 10.I'm told that the process, itself, is somewhat odd, since it's more of a performance than a way to discern teaching ability. During the mock-workshop, Bausch zipped through three stories in and hour and a half, faster than the typical workshop pace, and he digressed from the stories at hand to tell some stories of his own. He quoted some of his favorite works and seemed genuinely passionate about books and the writing life. He said he teaches patience, not writing, and said there are two rules to fiction: you have to use words and you have to be interesting. Though his commentary was somewhat liberal, Bausch's critiques of the stories at hand were traditional, with specific recommendations about tone and pacing. For the public reading later in the evening, Bausch read a recently completed, as yet unpublished story, and during his "talk about craft," he talked about memory and dispensed his 10 Commandments of writing, which included - to paraphrase - doing the work is the only thing that matters. Not if it's good or bad, but that it gets done, everyday.Stay tuned for the next dispatch in a couple of weeks.