past I went to graduate school at an MFA program that burbled along in its own little universe. My first year there, I was the only one who went to AWP -- nobody else even knew what it was. We weren't given a lot of tools for getting our writing out into the world, and only the most stubborn have gone on to get published. And my friend David James Keaton is the stubbornest: his 500-page novel The Last Projector came out in hardcover Oct. 31 from Broken River Press. The book is partly about a aging porn director, partly about a young couple absently plotting revenge against a cop, partly about a former paramedic's crime. But it's not the what -- which tends toward the wickedly outrageous -- as much as the how. The writing is fluid in ways it's not supposed to be -- a plot point picks up and reverses itself, a girl morphs from one look to another to another in the telling, not a magic thing, just in the narration (because I know him I recognize some of the referents, which include girlfriends and even our friends' dog). There are great meandering conversations about movies, and strange sick setpieces. It feels like stream of consciousness but it's only partly that, because Dave is smart and funny and he knows what he's doing, and there are nudges in the text to let you know he's having fun all along. He really is. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
In March I bought a cabin in Joshua Tree: 1958, with cinder block walls, cement floors, a massive stone fireplace and a wood-beamed ceiling. Once it was truly mine, I realized I had to figure out what to put in it. What would the people who had built this place have done? I borrowed the Guide to Easier Living. Originally published in 1950 and reissued in 2003, it's a thoroughly articulated idea of a new American style and lifestyle from Mary and Russell Wright. Like the Eames, the Wrights were a design team that created sleek furniture and housewares; they had a strong philosophy about making good-looking things affordable, so they created lines for Montgomery Ward. The best known, the ceramics line American Modern, was designed to be beautiful as well as durable and unfussy. Unfussiness, in fact, is their approach to easier living: using indoor and outdoor space together, designing open floor plans, emphasizing ways to share space together. It's illustrated by their drawings, often from an angle above like the one on the cover: see how it's OK to put your feet on the coffee table? The chore lists were a tad exhausting, but the living has only gotten easier since those days (less ironing). The only thing I didn't like about the book is that it's out of print a second time -- I had to borrow a friend's copy. Collectible again, the book is $40 and up. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, by Wesley Stace: I had a college roommate who was obsessed with John Wesley Harding. She played his music constantly, went to every show, cherished the dream that he would become her betrothed, sweeping her off to a life of bliss. The more I heard, the less I could stand. And yet John Wesley Harding, who uses his not-stage name, Wesley Stace, when he's writing, wrote one of my favorite books of 2011. Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer is a story of creativity and expropriation with murder, of course. The genius-and-envy tensions between two musicians in the early 20th-century England play out in the style of Salieri and Mozart, told by a funnily pretentious, unreliable narrator. Just as his voice gets to be a little too much, the book makes a turn, and the plot cinches with a cleverness and perfection rarely found in literary fiction, which this is. It's really terrific. It's even made me like John Wesley Harding's music, after all. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
In the fall of 2009, in New York, I tagged along with a group of mostly-strangers after an event as they headed for cocktails. When the person who was nice enough to chat with me told me her name, Rebecca Skloot, I was surprised. "Hey, they're still passing out your book proposal at my grad school!" I said. We'd both gotten MFAs at Pitt, and while I wasn't in her department, nonfiction, Skloot's book proposal was notorious. It was perfect, it was aspirational, and it had been used as a model for other students for a very, very long time. "So did the book --" I blurted, too late to stop, "ever come out?" Ouch. Skloot was undaunted. No! But yes! It was coming out! She had just met with the publisher and the team about its release! It was coming in February 2010! It was going to be great! And then she told me about HeLa cells (remember them from bio class?) The cells were the first human cells to reproduce in a laboratory. They kept reproducing; they were something like a miracle. They were sent to scientists all over the world; they helped cure polio; they had enabled more scientific discoveries in the 20th century than I could wrap my head around. And that the woman the cells came from was named Henrietta Lacks. Nobody had really thought about her, the person, once the cells were on their way to making history. That she had died -- the cells that reproduced so well had been cancer, and killed her. That her family didn't know the cells had been taken, and they'd grown up poor, often without the benefits of the health care advances her cells enabled. She told me, quietly, that decades later, when they first got a phone call about the cells, the family had a terrible misunderstanding. They'd never learned about the things the doctor on the other end of the line was trying to say and thought that, somehow, Henrietta was alive. Alive all that time, but held away from them. Woah. Skloot said she'd gotten to know the family, that because of that earlier misunderstanding, it was really hard to earn their trust. And while that was about all I heard that evening, not realizing that there was still much more, I left thinking, I've got to read that book! So did lots of other people. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has been on bestseller lists all over. Skloot's relentless book tour helped; so did Oprah. There is much more to this book -- Henrietta's short life, what happened to her kids as they grew up without a mom, the leaps of scientific discovery (and sometimes wrong turns), and how Skloot came to feel that this was a story that she had, had, had to tell. Skloot's tenacity is impressive, and the book is unforgettable. And I bet they'll be using that book proposal at Pitt for a very, very long time to come. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
Each time I talk about two of my favorite books this year, I find myself discussing what people wanted from them as much as the books themselves. I adored them both, but both seem to need positioning. Take Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. It's a novel of not-quite-real New York, in which a former child actor becomes friends with an obsessive fanatic/critic, threaded through with surrealism, a second-life-type game, esoteric cultural discussions, a romance or two and questions of identity and self. It is everything a novel can be: funny, smart, puzzling, engrossing, layered. It is very Lethem-ian, in that it is Philip K. Dick-ish, but it is more controlled and mature – more ambitious, even – than Dick. It works on several levels; it's the kind of book that's fun to talk about. What it isn't is a noir pastiche with a detective with Tourette's – there's no need for Lethem to write Motherless Brooklyn again, but some people are stuck on it. Re-read Motherless Brooklyn if that's what you want from Lethem -- but you'll be missing out. And then there's Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. A vocal Pynchon contingent loves big, perplexing Gravity's Rainbow - talk about layers! – and looks down on The Crying of Lot 49. The Pynchonmanes like the intellectual challenge of his massive books, and they tend to balk against the straightforward elements of Inherent Vice, which has a relatively clear plotline and a likeable, stoned main character. I would argue that comprehensibility is not a fault, that this book is as full of giddy joy with language and ephemeral ideas as his others. Those who don't see that are looking too close, but perhaps that's because they (we) are the target: when you step back, the book reads as an argument against the ambitious digging of his ardent fans. It's a 400-page case for living with mystery. Long may Pynchon's seclusion reign. More from A Year in Reading
Carolyn Kellogg is a book critic and the lead blogger at the LA Times book blog Jacket Copy. She recently got www.carolynkellogg.com to call her very own.Dracula by Bram Stoker. There are Goths and there are Vampire Weekend fanatics, but I'm not among them; I wouldn't have re-read Dracula if I hadn't had to for a literature class in graduate school. But wow. Written in 1897, Dracula is a fractured, multifaceted narrative told in journals, letters, diaries and newspaper clippings, from the point of view of four different characters. If I'd turned in such a thing in workshop, I would have been accused of the crime of postmodernism. Anyway. It's a terrific crime novel that chases the villain across Europe, and Mina Murray is one ballsy Victorian heroine.The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman he Loved by Judith Freeman. Judith Freeman tries to get to the heart of Raymond Chandler's relationship with his wife Cissy - she was eighteen years his senior, a fact that was kept secret, even, for some time, from Chandler himself. During her research, Freeman begins to stalk his ghost: she goes from house to house across Southern California, trying to see how the couple's many moves inflected what Chandler wrote. I did not always agree with her read of Los Angeles and its neighborhoods, but as a work of biography The Long Embrace is more honest than most. Freeman's obsessions are a frame for her work; she exposes them where more formal biographies keep them under wraps. Yes, she loves reading Raymond Chandler; yes, she is entranced by his marriage; and no, she will never get close enough.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Carolyn Kellogg is a displaced Angeleno getting her MFA in fiction at the University of Pittsburgh. She blogs about books at www.pinkyspaperhaus.com.What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulburg. A classic Hollywood novel that was a surprise hit in 1941, it's set in the thirties and plays as kind of a twisted Gatsby. And it's remarkably contemporary; as the book's screenwriters struggle for leverage with the studios, they sound a lot like the screenwriters striking today.Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe. Set in a dystopian future, this retelling of the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia is actually a soft-hearted romance. If it includes a lot of blood, death and fear and a flaying or two, well, that's historical accuracy for you. It's funny, punny, brutal and sweet all at once.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Carolyn aka Pinky has, of late, been toiling away at -- while also giving us the play by play on -- the MFA program she started this fall, but she found a moment amidst the semester-end crush to send us a note about the best book she read this year:I'll leave it to others to sing the obvious praises of Richard Powers, Thomas Pynchon and Mark Danielewski. For me, the best surprise was the excellent, gripping The Open Curtain by Brian Evensen.I was entirely blown away by The Open Curtain. I didn't know what to expect from a horror book set in the Mormon community in Utah; what I got was a brilliant narrative that's impossible to put down. As the narrator's reliability begins to become a question, the story deepens into issues of identity and desire. It's an incredible, marvelous writerly feat. Plus it's the first book since Nancy Drew to get me bouncing on my bed, literally shouting at the girl in peril.Thanks Carolyn!