Black Swan Green: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Corey Vilhauer

This year, Corey Vilhauer, a blogger from South Dakota, joined us on twelve occasions to present his book of the month. I viewed his regular installments as letters from the reading trenches, from a reader who’s willing to try anything as he expands his horizons to new genres and eras of writing. You’ll be seeing the 2007 CVBoMC starting in January. (to see last year’s entries, you can start in December and work back)I wasn’t asked, but I’m barging in on the Millions Best Books of 2006 section of the party and yelling loudly about what I like. Because it’s brash, and brazen, and lots of other words that start with “B.”Actually, as is the pattern with the Vilhauer library, I only read two or three books that were released in 2006. Two of them – David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (which made my top 10) and The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (honorable mention) – were actually quite worth it.However, my two favorite books this year are as follows:John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – Never before has the plight of the dispossessed seemed so important. With The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s classic Dust Bowl epic, the Okies get the center stage they deserved, one that holds the injustices and bad luck that followed them around up to the light for the entire world to examine. And while one might think that these stories have lost their weight, that modern culture has cut Steinbeck’s novel off at the knees, it’s simply not the case. The Grapes of Wrath is just as important today as it was in the 40s. In fact, you can’t deny the similarities between the Dust Bowl’s mass exodus and New Orleans’ migration of displaced people. Bad luck, injustice – it’s all pretty much parallel.McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, edited by Chris Ware (2004) – I somehow missed the comic phenomenon when I was younger. But, after receiving McSweeney’s #13 in the mail (“the Comic Issue”, with a wonderful cover penned by Special Editor Chris Ware) the fire was rekindled slightly. This book is beautifully bound, with hundreds of full color prints, articles from some of the most well known authors and graphic artists, and simply packed to the gills with today’s important comic creators. If you want to get into modern comics and graphic novels, get this first. You won’t be disappointed.Of course, there were more books – I’ve got an entire top 10 (and more, including honorable mentions) at Black Marks on Wood Pulp. It’s the year end edition of “What I’ve Been Reading.” So if you don’t mind mindless plugging, go ahead and visit.Thanks Corey!

A Year in Reading: The Elegant Variation

Mark Sarvas, proprietor of The Elegant Variation, takes some time to share the books he read in 2006 that he found, shall we say, most to his liking. First off, the more I think about it, the less I care for the whole “Best of” formulation. It offends me on a number of levels, not the least of which is by the assumption that one has read enough of what’s on offer in a year to be able to decide what’s “Best”. (And this is no knock on this inestimable blog; rather, it’s a systemic crankiness that’s afflicting me this year.) So I’m going to come instead from the perspective of “My Favorites of the Year,” which seems more inherently more defensible. (And, in an open note to newspaper editors everywhere, why not opt for the more modest construction “Editor’s Choice” or “Editor’s Favorite”? It seems preferable to the untenably pompous “Best of” declarations that have becomede rigeur.)OK. End of my mini-rant. A list, in alphabetical order, of books thatstruck me as being of particular note in 2006:Amphigorey Again by Edward Gorey: What will probably be the last collection from a master.Black Swan Green: David Mitchell proves he can do “human” as well as “clever” with a breakthrough novel.Christine Falls: It will only be available in the US next year, but John Banville’s first thriller as Benjamin Black is drawing deserved praise forits UK release.Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio: The best short story collection we’ve read in years. Breathtaking.The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas: Flawed but exuberant, it’s a Foucault’s Pendulum for the iPod generation.Everything that Rises: Lawrence Weschler’s brilliant John Berger-esque collection of essays on unlikely visual convergences.Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: The graphic novel that finally won me over to the form.The Lost: Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliantly written memoir answers those who ask if there’s anything left to write about the Holocaust.The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier, translated by Lorin Stein: A delicious Gallic treat, depicting the party from hell and explaining what every man should know about turtleneck sweaters.Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris: OK, this one is a cheat – it’s not out until March of next year but this hilarious and gorgeously written novel might just change my mind about MFAs.Ticknor by Sheila Heti: If there’s a favorite of the year, this bitter comedy of envy and failure would be the one.Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon: It’s not from this year but I only just caught up with it and can see what the fuss was about.Thanks Mark!

The Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month Club: October 2006

I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was young once. So were you.Of course, there are lots of things I’m ashamed to admit about my youth. But I’m not ashamed to say that I was young at one time, and that during that one time I may have done things that were entirely “not cool” and that by doing those things, I managed to ostracize myself from all of the other people who called themselves my classmates.Jason Taylor isn’t that different. From me. From you. We all went through it – whether it was on the cool, invited-to-every-party side or the ridiculously dorky, playing-board-games-with-your-parents side. What makes him different is his ability to transcend everything, to be brilliant and thoughtful and clever while being torn apart by the wolves that make up the popular group.In his head, that is. Jason’s not actually bringing any of these traits into the open. In David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green – our book of the month, if you haven’t caught on – Jason Taylor is a virtuoso; a child who has mastered the art of words at a young age but hasn’t quite mastered the art of fitting in. He’s a poet, which is either wonderful or terrifying, depending on your views. To Jason, it was terrifying.Imagine, if you are male, telling your classmates that you were a ballerina. Or that you wore dresses. That’s the same stigma Jason lived with. Oh, that and the fact that he couldn’t speak without stammering (which is different from stuttering), thus making all of his word-ly talents null and void when it came to saying them out loud.Black Swan Green is set as a series of short stories, joined together in chronological order but not directly tied into each other from story to story. It’s also a classic coming of age story, although instead of “learning how to survive life,” Jason finds himself “learning how to survive middle school.” This, as we all know, is more dangerous than anything life has afterward.Remember the feeling you had when a group of older kids came wandering down the path? That feeling of dread as you hoped they wouldn’t notice you? As you hoped they would just walk on by? That’s Jason’s life. It’s a little chapter out of each of our lives. And it’s nearly frightening how Mitchell pens a story so incredibly close to our awkward adolescent lives.Mitchell has a way with drawing the life out of a common experience – that naughty girl that you kind of liked; the feeling of being (finally) included into the cool kids’ group, even if only for a moment; the overbearing chore of keeping your parents off of the scent that you were being bullied, because after all, there’s nothing worse than your parents getting involved in a school terror ring. It’s all spelled out, exactly the way it happened. It’s stark, it’s hopeless, but eventually, it’s empowering and triumphant. Jason doesn’t just get picked on; he fights back and wins a few battles of his own.If you were one of the kids that slid through school without a care, knowing that when it came down to it you were bred to be successful and rich and fantastically popular, then you should read this book. Just to see the Hell you put the rest of us through. And if you were in Hell during those times, then maybe it would be a good idea to read Black Swan Green as well – to soak in the bad moments and realize, “Hey, I turned out all right. I persevered, and now (hopefully) I am living a richer and more wildly-varied life than any of those popular Neanderthals are.”After all, we shouldn’t forget what made us, right?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept

More Booker Prize News

Now that the 2006 Booker Prize longlist has been out for 24 hours, we’re seeing the commentary roll in. So far, the big story shaping up appears to be Peter Carey, who could win for a record third time with Theft, versus Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, who many believe was robbed when his novel Cloud Atlas failed to win a couple years back. Also getting talked up as potential favorites in the early going are Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan and Sarah Waters for The Night Watch.Looking at the media coverage, The Guardian highlights the difficulty that the judges reportedly encountered in assembling the longlist, taking “more than six hours to pick 19 authors, a length of debate far longer than that taken by previous judges to choose most eventual winners.” The Times leads with Andrew O’Hagan, who lost out to J.M. Coetzee five years ago. Metro notes that Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men is the only debut novel on the list. At the Literary Saloon, Michael looks at the total number of books considered for the prize this year and in years past, while lamenting that this even longer list isn’t made public.Of course, the most amusing part of the annual Booker frenzy is the role of the oddsmakers, who take bets on the prize. Nearly all of the Booker commentary mentions these odds in gauging who might be favored, and the BBC rounds up the details on that front. Serious gamblers, meanwhile, should head straight to William Hill, where the latest odds are posted. As of this writing, Black Swan Green is the favorite at 6 to 1, while Nadine Gordimer’s Get a Life brings up the rear at 26 to 1.

Booker Prize Longlist 2006

The Booker Prize longlist has arrived. I’ll do another post with some articles analyzing the list once the pundits across the pond have weighed in.Theft: A Love Story by Peter CareyThe Inheritance of Loss by Kiran DesaiGathering the Water by Robert EdricGet a Life by Nadine GordimerThe Secret River by Kate GrenvilleCarry Me Down by M.J. HylandKalooki Nights by Howard JacobsonSeven Lies by James LasdunThe Other Side of the Bridge by Mary LawsonSo Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregorIn the Country of Men by Hisham MatarThe Emperor’s Children by Claire MessudBlack Swan Green by David MitchellThe Perfect Man by Naeem MurrBe Near Me by Andrew O’HaganThe Testament of Gideon Mack by James RobertsonMother’s Milk by Edward St. AubynThe Ruby in her Navel by Barry UnsworthThe Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Most Anticipated Books of 2006

I decided to put together a list of the “most anticipated” books coming out this year (as I did last year, in a somewhat different form). I had no idea that there would be so many big name authors. Pretty exciting. If there’s anything you think I missed, please leave it for us in the comments. Happy reading in 2006!Coming Soon or Already Here:Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster (NY Times review)Arthur and George by Julian Barnes (Booker shortlisted, NY Times review)Company by Max Barry (author blog)Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird (Zadie Smith’s husband, Kakutani’s review)The Accidental by Ali Smith (Booker shortlisted)Correcting the Landscape by Marjorie Cole (Thanks Laurie)February:Intuition by Allegra Goodman (PW Review)A Family Daughter by Maile Meloy (excerpt)The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (thanks Gwenda)The Best People in the World by Justin Tussing (thanks Dan)March:Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead (A “Face to Watch“)River of Gods by Ian McDonald (Thanks Laurie)The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (thanks CAAF)Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout (thanks Cliff)April:The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio (EWN interview)This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes (#2 on Stephen King’s list)Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (interview)Seeing by Jose Saramago (Nobel Laureate)Adverbs by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket (interview)The World Made Straight by Ron Rash (thanks Dan)May:Theft by Peter Carey (Carey is a two-time Booker winner)The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq (Guardian review)Everyman by Philip Roth (Guardian interview)Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart (interview)The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld (synopsis)Ludmila’s Broken English by DBC PierrejPod by Douglas Coupland (sequel to Microserfs, an evening with Coupland)June:Terrorist by John Updike (Reuters preview)Alentejo Blue by Monica AliIn Persuasion Nation by George Saunders (interview)The End of California by Steve Yarbrough (Thanks Dan)July:Gallatin Canyon by Thomas McGuane (New Yorker interview)Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle (Boyle’s blog)August:Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami (list of stories)Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell (Thanks Dan)Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain (thanks Stephan)October:One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (sequel to Case Histories)A small sampling of other 2006 previews: Boston Globe, Portland Phoenix, The Australian, Guardian.Addenda: Books suggested in the comments are being added above.

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