Charles Bock was born in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has an MFA from Bennington College, and has received fellowships from Yaddo, Ucross, and the Vermont Studio Center. He lives in New York City and is the author of the runaway New York Times bestseller Beautiful Children. Visit his website at www.beautifulchildren.net.After I turned in my list, the editor of this blog asked for 100 words on one or two of the books. I was resistant because the request immediately would place that book as my fave or as better than the others. Which it would not be. The books on this list all thrilled and impressed me. They all deserve attention, would be a treat for your eyes. Seriously, If you are looking for something to read, you can’t go wrong with anything on my list. Still, I decided to be agreeable. A hundred words is not a lot.So: the book with the lowest profile. The Hammer of God: The Art of Malleus Rock Lab. Malleus actually refers to a trio of Italian rock poster artists; this anthology of the work they’ve done in their six years together as a poster collective. Fucking amazing. The art in this book is sensuous and dreamlike and tinged with erotic dread and longing. Most of the posters cannot be done justice by words (at least not by me). But here’s an attempt at describing what’s inside, or a taste of it, anyway: A Queens of the Stone Age poster. A renaissance-era, very sexy looking Mary Magdaline-type woman. Her head is surrounded by rays of sunlight. She looking to heaven, and is crying. We see her robe opened; her chastity belt. We see her standing knee high in keys that don’t work.That, my friends, is genius.Okay, now to the other genius-ey works I was exposed to in 2008:A Person of Interest by Susan ChoiThe 19th Wife by David EbershoffBlindness by Jose SaramagoStoner by John WilliamsSlash by SlashSick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis by Jonathan CohnLush Life Richard PriceGo With Me by Castle Freeman Jr.Black Flies by Shannon BurkeState by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America edited by Matt Weiland and Sean WilseyBloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures: short stories by Vincent LamFarewell Navigator stories by Leni ZumasMore from A Year in Reading 2008
The distractions of a good book have been in high demand this year. A quiet corner and a transporting story offered a reprieve from relentless campaign news not to mention cheap entertainment for the many feeling a sudden impulse for thriftiness. 2008 was a loud year, and this final month seems likely to be only more deafening. The annual shopping frenzy has already ramped up, this year with overtones of desperation and the macabre.Yet in the spirit of the season (though in defiance of the prevailing mood), we offer a month of gifts – collected with the help of many generous friends – to our readers. There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008’s best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call “the tyranny of the new” holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the “Best Books of 2008” feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library.Being a reader is about having millions of choices, and a lucky reader has trusted fellow readers as her guides. With this in mind, we’ve asked a number of our favorite readers (and writers and thinkers) to be your guides for the month of December, with each contributor sharing with us the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date. And so we present to you our 2008 Year in Reading, a non-denominational advent calendar of reading recommendations to take you through to the end of 2008.We’re doing it a little differently this year. The names 2008 Year in Reading contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.Stephen Dodson author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of LanguagehatNam Le author of The BoatBenjamin Kunkel founding editor of N+1 and author of IndecisionRosecrans Baldwin founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me ThereHamilton Leithauser lead singer of The WalkmenMark Binelli author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!Dan Kois founding editor of VultureAmanda Petrusich author of It Still MovesJoseph O’Neill author of NetherlandRex Sorgatz of Fimoculous.com.Elizabeth McCracken author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My ImaginationJoan Silber author of Ideas of Heaven and The Size of the WorldAnder Monson author of Other ElectricitiesDon Lee author of Wrack and RuinTraver Kauffman of Black GarterbeltBuzz Poole author of Madonna of the ToastEdan Lepucki of The MillionsJim Shepard author of Like You’d Understand, AnywayPeter Straub author of seventeen novelsRachel Fershleiser co-editor of Not Quite What I Was PlanningCharles Bock author of Beautiful ChildrenEdward Champion of The Bat Segundo Show and edrants.comHelen Dewitt author of The Last SamuraiManil Suri author of The Age of ShivaCharles D’Ambrosio author of The Dead Fish MuseumChristopher Sorrentino author of TranceWells Tower author of Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedLawrence Hill author of Someone Knows My NameJohn Wray author of LowboyEd Park founding editor of The Believer and author of Personal DaysSarah Manguso author of The Two Kinds of DecayKrin Gabbard author of Hotter Than ThatJosh Henkin author of MatrimonyJosh Bazell author of Beat the ReaperBrian Evenson by The Open CurtainCarolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.comHesh Kestin author of Based on a True StoryScott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and proprietor of Conversational ReadingGarth Risk Hallberg author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The MillionsSana Krasikov author of One More YearSeth Lerer author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s HistoryLorraine López author of The Gifted Gabaldon SistersAnne Landsman author of The Rowing Lesson and The Devil’s ChimneyMark Sarvas author of Harry, Revised and proprietor of The Elegant VariationBrad Gooch author of City PoetKyle Minor author of In the Devil’s TerritoryChristine Schutt author of Florida and All SoulsTodd Zuniga founding editor of Opium MagazineDavid Heatley author of My Brain is Hanging Upside DownV.V. Ganeshananthan author of Love MarriageFrances de Pontes Peebles author of The SeamstressLaura Miller cofounder of Salon.com author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in NarniaDustin Long author of IcelanderMaria Semple author of This One is MineRob Gifford of NPR, author of China RoadJohn Dufresne author of Requiem, MassMatthew Rohrer author of Rise UpMickey Hess author of Big Wheel at the Cracker FactoryGregory Rodriguez author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and VagabondsDavid Ebershoff author of The 19th WifeTim W. Brown author of Walking ManPablo De Santis author of The Paris EnigmaHugo Hamilton author of DisguiseJoshua Furst author of The Sabotage CafeKevin Hartnett of The MillionsRoland Kelts author of JapanamericaNikil Saval assistant editor at n+1The Year in Reading RecapBonus Links: A Year in Reading 2007, 2006, 2005
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:Beautiful Children by Charles Bock (Garth’s review, Beautiful Children Goes Free, Beautiful Children: The Numbers)A Better Angel by Chris Adrien (a most anticipated book)The Boat by Nam Le (Edan’s interview with Le)Breath by Tim Winton (a most anticipated book)Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee (Mark Sarvas’ pick for a Year in Reading)His Illegal Self by Peter Carey (Garth’s review)Home by Marilynne Robinson (a most anticipated book, a National Book Award finalist)Indignation by Philip Roth (a most anticipated book)A Mercy by Toni Morrison (a most anticipated book)My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru (Garth’s Inter Alia #9: The Aquarian Age is All the Rage)Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (Garth’s review, Kevin’s review)Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff (a most anticipated book)Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner (a National Book Award finalist)2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Why Bolaño Matters, Arriving 658 Years Ahead of Schedule…, Bolaño’s Big Book Makes Landfall)Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (a most anticipated book)When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (a most anticipated book)The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike (a most anticipated book)
Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.
According to John Updike’s “Rules for Reviewers,” critics review books, rather than reputations. Then again, most readers also expect reviewers to situate a book in its proper generic context, and here Charles Bock’s debut novel presents a sort of paradox. Beautiful Children’s burgeoning reputation – the unusual amount of attention it has garnered from media outlets including The New York Times and this blog – positions it as a literary novel for grownups, part of the great tradition that runs from Flaubert through Updike and down to Rick Moody (the writer to whom Bock is most often compared). In at least one respect, this claim may have merit. But at the level of several of the basic elements of fiction – plot, character, setting, prose style, themes – the book comes across as something quite different: less a novel about its titular children than a novel for them.The story centers on – or circles around – the disappearance of 13-year-old Newell Ewing one summer night in Las Vegas. At first, we surmise that Newell has been kidnapped; later it turns out that he has run away. Specifics notwithstanding, the novel insists on the magnitude of Newell’s fate by tracing its effect on other characters, much as Rutherford studied the nucleus by examining the way it scattered smaller particles. And so Beautiful Children takes on complexity, moving backward and forward through the lives of nearly a dozen characters, at times quite beautifully. The melodrama of Newell’s disappearance may enforce narrative momentum, but it’s the fractal structure of the novel that actually earns it. Like Donald Kaufman in the movie Adaptation, Charles Bock is “good with structure.”The problem is that he seems unsure how to fill a structure meaningfully. Inner life, in Beautiful Children, consists more of sordid backstory than of consciousness, or perhaps Bock sees the two as interchangeable terms. With the possible exception of Newell’s father, his characters never rise above the level of caricature. He seems unwilling to imagine a thinking, feeling human being sinking to the depths of the novel’s sleazier denizens. But our literature is full of characters who are unpalatable but alive, like Joseph Heller’s Slocum, or Henry James’ many schemers.Bock’s discomfort with interior life puts an added pressure on the surface details he uses to deliver characters, and here, too he falters. The strained banter of the younger characters consists largely of dated catch-phrases – for realz – and their attire, on which Bock lavishes detail, tells us little more. Beautiful Children is the sort of novel that refers to a major character only as The Girl With the Shaved Head, as though that, at this late date in history, still connotes anything.To the extent that plot arises from human choices, the novel’s characterological vacuum sucks steadily at the foundations of its story. Because Newell is so generically a pain in the ass, and because his sorrows exist mainly to serve Bock’s tee-shirty themes – Modern Life is Rubbish; Growing Up is Hard – his actual disappearance, when we witness it, seems wholly unmotivated. The many events that follow from it chronologically (though they precede it in the novel) become random, the products of a counterfactual.Bock seems to sense and to fear the moral unintelligibility his book builds toward, and attempts to salvage significance in fits of inflationary prose. As one suspicious reader’s letter to the Times pointed out, Bock’s grandiosity is often clumsy:Electricity lit up Ponyboy’s skeletal structure as if it were a pinball machine on a multi-ball extravaganza, and the mingling odors of brimstone and sulfur and sweat and burning skin filled Ponyboy’s nostrils.But I’m not convinced that Beautiful Children doesn’t sometimes stumble into a kind of Dreiserian grandeur. And, as I learned from Charles McGrath’s profile of the author, Bock came to writing rather late; his sentences may, with time, mellow into eloquence. Likewise, his gift for warping narrative time into audacious shapes seems to hint at better novels to come. On the strength of word-of-mouth, this one could have found a respectable natural audience: seventeen-year-olds eager to hear their melancholy reaffirmed, explicitly. But now, through the good offices of Random House et al, the woeful tale of Newell Ewing will have to contend with the expectations of a much larger group of readers…at least one of whom holds out hope that Bock’s bestseller status won’t blind him to the need to work harder to satisfy those expectations. That might be an actual tragedy.
Garth, Ben, Andrew and Max appear in today’s “Digest” at The Morning News. The topic is movies based on books. Also at TMN: the Tournament of Books is underway.Readers with an interest in sales figures for books and their drawbacks should take a look at the comments of our follow-up post on the Beautiful Children free book promotion. Several anonymous commenters, whom one suspects are probably industry insiders, have shared their insights.A quick but interesting interview with Paul Theroux. This summer, Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star will be published. In it, he retraces his path from The Great Railway Bazaar thirty years ago. (via)The National Book Critics Circle Award winners have been announced. In the fiction category, Junot Díaz took home the prize for The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz was a part of our Year in Reading in December.The finalists have been announced for the Kiriyama Prize, which recognizes books that “relate in some significant way to the Pacific Rim or South Asia, to a particular culture or part(s) of these regions, or to people from these regions.” Among them is I Love Dollars by Zhu Wen, which was reviewed here by Ben, from which a blurb was used on the Kiriyama Prize site.The Stranger reminds us of our bookselling days, chasing those damn book thieves down the street.The Observer reports on two new bylines arriving at the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh and Ariel Levy of the New York Times and New York respectively. (via)Literary frauds are all over the news again, and the LA Times serves up a delightful accounting of hoaxers going all the way back to the 1700s. (via)We are all stereotypical readers: “The British buy books by television personalities, Americans are obsessed with self-improvement, French choices are more highbrow, the Germans like holidays while the Japanese have more eclectic tastes.” (via)A new issue of The Quarterly Conversation is out. Among the offerings: over- and underrated books and Sam J. Miller’s essay positing that short stories are far from dead, as some big names would have you think.Apple head honcho Steve Jobs told the New York Times in January that “people don’t read anymore.” The Raleigh Quarerly took umbrage and is now holding a contest that asks for submissions “featuring a main character named, uh, Steve, who reads something that transforms his life.”
Random House’s experiment allowing readers a limited time only free download of Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children is now over and the numbers are in. Random House publicist Jynne Martin tells The Millions that during the 72 hours that the site was up, it received just under 30,000 pageviews, 20,000 unique visitors, and just under 15,000 copies of the book were downloaded.These stats are only for the Random House hosted site and don’t yet included the downloads from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powells.Of the numbers, Martin said, “We’re thrilled!”
Random House has decided to take a bold move this week, making one of its hottest titles available for free download for a limited time. Charles Bock’s debut effort Beautiful Children has set the literary world aflame, attracting glowing notices from the New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere, and nosing onto the NYT Bestseller List.The download went live last night at midnight and is up until Friday night at midnight. The pdf of the book is also being hosted at Amazon for a limited time.We got in touch with Jynne Martin, the book’s publicist, to find out more about Random House’s move to offer the book for free.The Millions: Though big publishers are embracing technology in many ways, for Random House, releasing a new and popular book for free download seems like quite a leap. Why now and why Beautiful Children?Jynne Martin: If it’s good enough for Radiohead it’s good enough for us! The online landscape is changing quickly, and we must take risks to find new ways to bring people to books. In this case we have a book we think is unique, fearless, and brilliant. Giving this book away for free online is a way to offer everyone a chance to read as much of the book as they want, and if readers love Beautiful Children as much as we do (and as many critics and early readers do), this will spread the word as widely as possible.The Millions: Do you expect this to boost sales of Beautiful Children? Or is it simply an experiment to see what happens?JM: We see this as win-win-win for everyone involved – readers, the publisher, and Charles. Of course we hope readers will love what they read, and want to own an old-world copy of the book for their shelf. But if they read it for free and don’t like it and don’t buy a copy, that’s fine; it’s no different than if they’d gone into Barnes & Noble and read the book in the cafe section and decided they didn’t want to get it.The Millions: What was Charles Bock’s role in making this happen? Was it his idea?JM: It was Random House’s idea but Charles embraced it right away. After ten years typing in his basement with just his computer, coffee maker, and Axl Rose albums, wondering if any other human would ever read his book at all, he’s more than thrilled to get his book out to the widest possible readership.The Millions: Can we expect Random House to do this again in the future?JM: It’s certainly possible. We’ll have to see how this one goes.