Recommended Reading: The New York Times’s feature on Dana Spiotta. “When Dana Spiotta was working on her fourth novel, Innocents and Others, she sat beneath a huge bulletin board pinned with her sticky notes and research materials: lists of relevant words (passion, transformation, intimacy) and ‘seeing’ devices (zoetrope, stereoscope, camera obscura), and photographs of Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard and the Maysles brothers. ‘It’s like walking into the book,’ Spiotta told me. ‘You feel it all around you.’” To prepare for her upcoming release, revisit our review of Stone Arabia.
The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes one of the biggest fiction releases of last year, but all five of the finalists got a fair amount of ink. No huge surprises. In fact, as we’ve noted in the past, the NBCC seems to do a better job of catching the zeitgeist than other major prizes like the National Book Award and the Booker, which like to play kingmaker by annointing less well known titles. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.
Teju Cole, Open City (our review, excerpt)
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write The Marriage Plot, our review, excerpt [pdf])
Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (our review, The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics, excerpt)
Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision (excerpt)
Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (our review, excerpt)
Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (excerpt)
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Ben Marcus on The Information, excerpt)
Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (excerpt)
Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War (excerpt)
John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (Staff Pick, excerpt [pdf])
For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit the NBCC.
For the first six months of 2011 I was pregnant, and for the other six months I’ve been a mother. While parenthood has of course changed me irrevocably (etc., etc.), it’s comforting to know that certain parts of myself and my life remain exactly the same as always. Namely, reading. Namely, that I still do it. Taking a book to bed or to the bath, or sneaking to a cafe to read over a latte (decaffeinated now, alas), remains a joy and a privilege that I value. Perhaps now more than ever.
Many books were meaningful to me this year, but there’s probably nothing more tedious than a woman talking about breastfeeding manifestos, so email me if you want that kind of recommendation. Instead, I present to you two writers of fiction that rearranged my brain, origamied my heart into a better heart: a bigger and stranger and certainly weirder one, more equipped to face life. Oh, life! I haven’t slept in ages!
I recommended We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver back in May, when I was a very, very pregnant lady. What I said then still holds true: “Shriver’s brilliant and dark novel is narrated by Eva, whose son Kevin is guilty of carrying out a Columbine-style high school killing. It’s a grim but often very funny narrative of maternal ambivalence, and it’s certainly a mind-fuck for any mom-to-be.” Now that I have a son, whom I am certain is 100 percent good and kind, possessing a 100 percent good and kind soul, I love Shriver’s investigation into motherhood even more. What if you were this kind of mother? What if you had this kind of child? All good fiction begins with questions that are risky, scary. I admire Shriver for her bravery, for her what-the-hell-let’s-go-there. Eva is what I call a likeable-unlikeable narrator, and to identify with her is to understand and acknowledge a thorny part of oneself that you didn’t know existed, or perhaps didn’t want to know existed.
This year I also discovered Dana Spiotta, whose new novel Stone Arabia moved me unexpectedly. I’m not sure why I wasn’t expecting it. After all, the book is about siblings, Denise Kranis and her musician brother Nik, who were raised in Los Angeles. Sibling relationships and L.A. are subjects I hold close to my heart, as a writer and a reader, and as a person: I was raised in L.A. with three sisters and one brother. This novel isn’t perfect: its opening confused me so much that I had to start it three times, and there are shifts from third to first person and back again that bugged me. But! But! A flawed novel can be a great one, and never before did this fact seem so true. I loved that Nik diligently kept The Chronicles, a fictional account of his life as a rock legend, fake music reviews and all. I loved Denise’s neurotic obsessions, with news stories, with memory. I loved reading about her commute, and about the contents of her fridge: “…the jar of butter-flecked jelly, the container of capers floating in leaky brine, the optimistic bottle of multivitamins now in a moist, smelly lump…” I loved the final scene; it got me thinking about the past, and how it can be resurrected by memory and narrative, but not really, but maybe, just maybe, for a few sweet moments. Dana Spiotta is like Don DeLillo with a vagina, and, wow, that vagina makes all the difference. I just finished her second novel, Eat the Document, and her use of the adverb “unstoppingly” had my whole body buzzing. I plan to read her first novel, Lightning Field, as 2011 slips into 2012. Write more imperfect stories, Ms. Spiotta. You’ve got a fan in me.
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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list 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:
The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo (Most Anticipated)The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (The Gay Question: Death in Venice, By Nightfall, and The Art of Fielding)The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (2011 National Book Award Finalists Announced)The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (The Sea and the Mirror: Reflections and Refractions from a Voyage by Ship in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table)Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy (William Kennedy’s Long Dry Spell Ends with Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes)11/22/63 by Stephen King (Most Anticipated)The Free World by David Bezmozgis (The Price of the Dream: David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, The Millions Interview: David Bezmozgis)Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet (Most Anticipated)Gryphon by Charles Baxter (Most Anticipated)House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Ham Steaks and Manstarch: Nicholson Baker Returns to the Sex Beat)The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Most Anticipated)The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Most Anticipated)Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Porn, Lies, and Videotape: On Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin)The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’, Wanting it Bad: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides)A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles (Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles)My New American Life by Francine Prose (Albania the Beautiful: Francine Prose’s My New American Life)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (A Novelist Unmoored from Himself: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (The Burden of Meaningfulness: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King)Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (Most Anticipated)Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Most Anticipated)The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (The Favorite Takes Home the Booker)Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (Rock ‘n Roll Malaise: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia)The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (The Impermanence of Memory: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics)Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (The Millions Interview: Karen Russell)Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (The Millions Interview: Eleanor Henderson)The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife)The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (Most Anticipated)Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Most Anticipated)
“Do you need an audience to create work or does not having an audience liberate you and make you a truer artist?” This is the question twenty-something Brooklynite Ada poses on her blog before she leaves Greenpoint to interview her eccentric uncle Nik in Los Angeles for the documentary she’s making. Ada’s film will be called Garageland, she writes, and it “will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.” Turn that question inside-out, and it is just as relevant to Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s third novel: How is fame constructed? Do the famous make themselves for us, their fans and consumers, or do we make them? What do their narratives truly represent, and who do their stories belong to?
Nik is a rockstar, but only a handful of fans — his sister Denise, her daughter Ada, and a small collection of ex-girlfriends and former band-mates — know it. Over the years, Nik has released dozens of LPs to Denise and his few loyal followers, and he’s kept a meticulous record of his career in what he calls the Chronicles, a thirty-volume scrapbook filled with letters, reviews, and other “willful esoteria,” all of his own creation. The rock ’n roll posture gives Nik’s creativity a framework — one that provides cover for his self-destructive habits, but also spurs him to keep producing music long after his early, promising bands fail to make it. For Nik, celebrity is a state of mind.
Nik’s story drives the book’s plot, but it’s Denise who provides Stone Arabia’s narrative lens — and her slow, shapeless days of sorting through bills and checking in on her declining mother couldn’t be further from rock ’n roll. Spiotta writes that the hills of Santa Clarita, the Los Angeles suburb where Denise lives, are “tired” but it seems it is simply Denise who is tired. When Denise begins compiling her own Counterchronicles, her fragmented writings reveal the extent of her mental displacement from her own life. Denise is not an unreliable narrator, but she is clearly an unstable one; there are entire days she can’t account for. She sobs in front of the television while watching the news, and spends hours tunneling through search engine results for more details on the most sensational stories. The ceaseless onslaught of headlines depletes her emotional resources. “It is the feeling that your life has just left the room,” Denise says, broodingly.
In the age of the Internet, when we have an instant portal into the lives (real or imagined) of others through our computers, televisions, and smart-phones, it is a feeling many readers will surely relate to in some form, and this is the novel’s key strength. Stone Arabia’s pull largely lies in its ability to recreate the feeling of media saturation that permeates modern life. Take Denise’s birthday for example:
Ada called me in the morning from New York. She made me promise to look at her blog. She had posted a photo of us and it said, “happy birthday to my mom,” just like that, no caps or anything. Not “happy birthday mom” but “to my mom” because it was really reportage to some audience beyond me. It wasn’t a personal message to me, but a public announcement about me.
Denise stares at her screen for a while; she knows her daughter wants her to post a comment, but she just can’t bring herself to. “I just couldn’t say something spontaneous and pithy and then have it hang there for all eternity,” she thinks. “Those are opposite pulls — eternity and pithy — and if I thought at all about what to say it was even worse.” It’s a familiar dilemma, rendered strangely lyrical through Denise’s eyes. Moments like these repeatedly animate the novel. Again and again, Spiotta perfectly captures the static sound of our televisions and Ethernet cables numbly pumping in more information than we need (or can respond to). And she elegantly depicts the ambivalence this unending electronic stream inspires.
In her debut novel, Lightning Field, Spiotta depicted Los Angeles at its most brutally superficial — and female friendship at its most intimate. This was followed by Eat the Document, a mesmerizing story about a fugitive who reinvents herself in hiding, based on the true story of a real-life 1960s activist and her lover. Stone Arabia is also set in Los Angeles, and is also based on a true story. In the Author’s Note, Spiotta writes that though Nik Worth is a character of her imagination, he’s based her real-life stepfather, “Richard Frasca, a.k.a Jon Denmar. Richard Frasca is not Nik Worth but Richard’s devotion to his own music and Richard’s self-documented chronicle of his life as a secret rock star gave me the idea for Nik.” Most novelists invariably incorporate characters and experiences from their lives into their fiction, but there’s something particularly sly about publishing a work of fiction built off someone else’s semi-ironic, private fiction — particularly when that person is the author’s family member.
It’s a fittingly post-modern back-story for a novel which finds each of its main characters trying to make sense of their world through art/music, memoir, and film. Stone Arabia’s tangled layers not-so-subtly mimic the tangled layers of media we all live in. Obsessed with its obsessions (“Even the most pointless obsession can yield a certain kind of depth if it is pursued unfailingly,” Denise thinks), and enchanted by the tension between private and public personas as well as the blurry boundaries between self-documentation and self-creation, Stone Arabia is a truly contemporary novel. Do our stories bring us closer to ourselves, or do they simply hide and splinter our real identity? Stone Arabia assembles an impressive collage of questions about aging, identity, art and its audience, fame and its construction, privacy, knowing and being known, and how we define who we are.
But as the novel slips from third to first person, from Ada’s video transcripts to Nik’s fake-archives, from blog posts to voicemails to movie rentals to search engine results, its narrative coherence meanders. Surely these are deliberate structural choices, but flattened into prose, the onslaught of technology fractures Spiotta’s story-telling. Spiotta is a writer of keen observation and careful craftsmanship, but — though it summons Lightning Field’s cool disaffection and Eat the Document’s enchantment with secret lives and self-invention — Stone Arabia lacks the grace and fluidity of her previous novels. Denise’s recollections from her childhood and early adulthood with Nik are evocative, but they are strung together only tangentially, and none of the book’s secondary characters stick around long enough to matter much. By the end of Stone Arabia, Nik has concluded The Chronicles, Ada has finished Garageland, and Denise has completed her Counterchronicles, but these works offer no real answer or argument to the questions — both stated and understood — that fill their lives. Ultimately, the interruptions of many forms of media — precisely the kinds of interruptions most novels insulate their readers from — give the book a jagged immediacy that raises more questions than it’s capable of answering.
New this week is George R.R. Martin’s latest Song of Ice and Fire installment, A Dance with Dragons. Also hitting shelves: Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia (Don’t miss our preview with tons more upcoming books.) Jesse Ball, whose The Curfew has just come out, also has a new collection, The Village on Horseback. Jennifer Weiner’s new book, Then Came You, is out, as is the first issue of McSweeney’s new food magazine, Lucky Peach. Out in paperback: Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector.