Telegraph Avenue: A Novel

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The Millions Top Ten: May 2017

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Norwegian by Night 6 months 2. 2. Lincoln in the Bardo 4 months 3. 4. A Separation 4 months 4. 7. Ill Will 2 months 5. 5. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living 4 months 6. 6. The North Water 6 months 7. 8. American War 2 months 8. - Men Without Women: Stories 1 month 9. 9. Homesick for Another World 5 months 10. 10. Swing Time 4 months   April showers bring May flowers, but a month of May book purchases launched Michael Chabon's Moonglow into our Hall of Fame. It's the author's second appearance there; Telegraph Avenue made the list four years back. Chabon's success freed up an opening on this month's Top Ten. Filling his place in 8th position is another author who's no stranger to our Hall of Fame: Haruki Murakami. In our Great 2017 Book Preview, Murakami's latest story collection, Men Without Women, was said to "concern the lives of men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone." Emily St. John Mandel continued: In “Scheherazade,” a man living in isolation receives regular visits from a woman who claims to remember a past life as a lamprey; in “Yesterday,” a university student finds himself drawn into the life of a strange coworker who insists that the student go on a date with his girlfriend. Could this book become Murakami's third to make our Hall of Fame? Only time will tell. Meanwhile Derek B. Miller's Norwegian by Night continues its reign over our list, further demonstrating that if you want to sell books to Millions readers, you ought to get an endorsement from Richard Russo first. Elsewhere on the list, a few movers moved and shakers shook, but overall things held steady. Next month, we'll likely graduate two titles to our Hall of Fame, which means we'll welcome two more newcomers. By then, we'll be in full swing with our Great Second-Half 2017 Book Preview, which was a shocking thing to type. Can 2018 come soon enough? This month's other near misses included: The IdiotEileenThe Nix, Exit West, and Enigma Variations. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 3 months 2. 3. Tenth of December 3 months 3. 4. An Arrangement of Light 4 months 4. - The Middlesteins 1 month 5. 5. Building Stories 3 months 6. 6. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 6 months 7. - Stand on Zanzibar 1 month 8. - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk 1 month 9. 8. Arcadia 3 months 10. 7. Both Flesh and Not 4 months   Last fall saw the arrival of three hotly anticpated titles from a trio of the most popular literary writers working today. Now those three titles are ending their run in our Top Ten by graduating to our Hall of Fame: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz, NW by Zadie Smith, and Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. Those graduations made room for three debuts. Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins pops up at number four. Attenberg made an appearance in our Year in Reading in December. The most popular piece on The Millions last month, by a wide margin, was Ted Gioia's unearthing of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar and the remarkably prescient predictions contained within. The essay sent readers running to check out the book. Finally, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain completed its long, stead ascent onto our list. Fountain also appeared in our Year in Reading, and Edan Lepucki interviewed him in these pages last June. Our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, stayed atop our list and continues to win praise from readers and critics. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Near Misses: The Round House, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Dear Life, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Sweet Tooth. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 2 months 2. 2. This Is How You Lose Her 6 months 3. 3. Tenth of December 2 months 4. 4. An Arrangement of Light 3 months 5. 5. Building Stories 2 months 6. 8. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 5 months 7. 9. NW 6 months 8. - Arcadia 2 months 9. 10. Telegraph Avenue 6 months 10. 7. Both Flesh and Not 3 months   With our top five remaining unchanged, the big action in February was the graduation of a pair of books to our Hall of Fame. Gillian Flynn's juggernaut Gone Girl won over Millions readers with help from Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter's entertaining tag-team reading of the book in September, though copies were already flying off the shelves in the months prior. Meanwhile, D.T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace was hotly anticipated by Millions readers from the moment the book was announced. We ran an excerpt and interviewed Max. Those graduations made room for the return of Lauren Groff's Arcadia (recently interviewed in our pages) and, appropriately enough, David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not. Our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, stayed atop our list and continues to win praise from readers and critics. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Near Misses: Dear Life, Sweet Tooth, The Round House, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 1 month 2. 1. This Is How You Lose Her 5 months 3. - Tenth of December 1 month 4. 5. An Arrangement of Light 2 months 5. - Building Stories 1 month 6. 4. Gone Girl 6 months 7. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 6 months 8. 3. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 4 months 9. 6. NW 5 months 10. 7. Telegraph Avenue 5 months   To kick off a new year of our Top Ten lists at The Millions, we made a slight adjustment to our calculations. The change has to do with how we account for lower-priced, shorter-form ebook originals that have become popular with our readers and effectively gives a modest penalty to the cheaper ebooks and recognizes that a purchase of a $1.99 ebook is different from buying a hardcover costing $20 or more. Despite this change, thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response from our readers, our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, lands atop our list. So far, the feedback from readers has been great, and we hope more will be inspired to pick it up. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Also debuting is Tenth of December by George Saunders, one of our Most Anticipated books and a title that has gotten a ton of positive press. Finally, also debuting is Chris Ware's Building Stories, reviewed in these pages by none other than Mark O'Connell. Ware also participated in our Year in Reading in December. Dropping from the list were David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not, Lauren Groff's Arcadia and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan Other Near Misses: Dear Life and The Round House. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. This Is How You Lose Her 4 months 2. 3. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 5 months 3. 4. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 3 months 4. 8. Gone Girl 5 months 5. - An Arrangement of Light 1 month 6. 5. NW 4 months 7. 6. Telegraph Avenue 4 months 8. 7. Both Flesh and Not 2 months 9. - Arcadia 1 month 10. - Sweet Tooth 1 month   After an impressive run, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava graduates to our Hall of Fame (check out Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava that introduced many of our readers to this unusual book). This makes room for Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) to be crowned our new number one. Also joining our Hall of Fame is The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn (see our review of the last book in the series). Debuting on our list is Nicole Krauss's An Arrangement of Light, a bite-sized ebook original. And Krauss is joined on our list by Lauren Groff's Arcadia (selected by Alexander CheeEmily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter in our recent Year in Reading series; Groff was also a participant) and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (which we recently reviewed). Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King slipped off the list. Other Near Misses: Dear Life, Building Stories, The Round House, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 6 months 2. 3. This Is How You Lose Her 3 months 3. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 4 months 4. 6. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 2 months 5. 4. NW 3 months 6. 5. Telegraph Avenue 3 months 7. - Both Flesh and Not 1 month 8. 7. Gone Girl 4 months 9. 10. A Hologram for the King 4 months 10. 9. The Patrick Melrose Novels 6 months   With our November list, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava is enjoying the final month of its miracle run at the top before graduating to our Hall of Fame next month (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava before it goes). A Naked Singularity will join Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, as the Booker winner, which has just been inducted Mantel's first Thomas Cromwell book, Wolf Hall, is now also a Hall of Famer. Moving up to number two on the list, Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) continues its climb, surpassing D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Wallace looms large on our list as his posthumously published collection of essays Both Flesh and Not debuts at number seven. The book is the third by Wallace (after Infinite Jest and The Pale King) to appear on a Millions Top Ten list. The new Paris Review anthology is another big mover, hopping two spots in its second month on the list. We've got an interview with one of the editors. Near Misses: The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, The Fifty Year Sword, The Round House, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month's list.

The Notables: 2012

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: Arcadia by Lauren Groff (a Staff Pick, Paradise Regained: An Interview with Lauren Groff) At Last by Edward St Aubyn (Most Anticipated, Illicit Pleasures: On Edward St Aubyn’s At Last) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Everything is Political: An Interview with Ben Fountain, National Book Award Finalist) Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner) Building Stories by Chris Ware (Infographics of Despair: Chris Ware’s Building Stories) By Blood by Ellen Ullman (Who We Are Now: On Ellen Ullman’s By Blood) Canada by Richard Ford (Across the Border: Richard Ford’s Canada) City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (The Mad Music of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane) Fobbit by David Abrams (Post-40 Bloomer: David Abrams Taking As Long As It Takes) The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli (Going Back to the Page: An Interview with Tatjana Soli, A Millions contributor) Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His ReadersFractured World: Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men) HHhH by Laurent Binet (Exclusive: The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH) A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (National Book Award Finalist) Home by Toni Morrison (Where the Heart Is: Toni Morrison’s Home) Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (So, Nu?: Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy) How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (How Should a Writer Be? An Interview with Sheila Heti) NW by Zadie Smith (Lamenting the Modern: On Zadie Smith's NWExclusive: The First Lines of Zadie Smith's NW) The Round House by Louise Erdrich (National Book Award Winner) Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (National Book Award Winner) Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (Mothers and Daughters: On Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name) Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (The Lies We Tell: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth) Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (Booker Shortlisted) Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Golden Oldie: Michael Chabon’s Telegraph AvenueExclusive: The First Lines of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue) This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (The ‘You’ In Yunior: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose HerA Brief Wondrous Interview with Junot Díaz) Watergate by Thomas Mallon (I Am Not A Character: On Thomas Mallon’s Watergate) What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (Speaking of Anne Frank…) The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (National Book Award Finalist)

The Millions Top Ten: October 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 4 months 2. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 2 months 3. 5. This Is How You Lose Her 2 months 4. 3. NW 2 months 5. 4. Telegraph Avenue 2 months 6. - Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 1 month 7. 8. Gone Girl 3 months 8. 6. Bring Up the Bodies 6 months 9. 10. The Patrick Melrose Novels 5 months 10. - A Hologram for the King 3 months   Our hurricane-delayed Top Ten for October has arrived. This month we see a new Paris Review anthology land on our list. We recently covered its creation in an interview with one of the editors. Meanwhile, Dave Eggers'A Hologram for the King returns to our list after a month off wandering in the desert. A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava remains in our top spot (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava from June), and D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace holds on to the second spot (read the book's opening paragraphs), and Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) leapfrogs other big fall books to land the third spot. We had two books graduate to our Hall of Fame: How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees (don't miss the hilarious, yet oddly poignant interview) and Stephen Greenblatt's Pulitzer winner The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Near Misses: Shakedown, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, An Arrangement of Light, The Fifty Year Sword, and New American Haggadah. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 4 months 2. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 2 months 3. - NW 1 month 4. - Telegraph Avenue 1 month 5. - This Is How You Lose Her 1 month 6. 3. Bring Up the Bodies 5 months 7. 5. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 6 months 8. 7. Gone Girl 2 months 9. 4. How to Sharpen Pencils 6 months 10. 6. The Patrick Melrose Novels 4 months Millions readers know: we had been looking ahead to September as a big month for books for quite some time, with new titles arriving from three of the biggest names working in literary fiction working today. We reviewed all three books and all three landed high up in our Top Ten this month with NW by Zadie Smith (our review) besting Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (our review) and This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (our review). A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava remains in our top spot (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of La Pava from June), and D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace holds on to the second spot (read the book's opening paragraphs). Dropping off our list are New American Haggadah (just missing our Hall of Fame), A Hologram for the King, and Binocular Vision (read our interview with author Edith Pearlman) Other Near Misses: An Arrangement of Light and How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life. See Also: Last month's list.

Golden Oldie: Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue

Peel away Michael Chabon’s luminous prose, and his new novel Telegraph Avenue would be a pretty lackluster book. In the novel, two old friends, Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, one white, the other black, run a used-record shop under threat from a gigantic new mall devoted to music and movies planned for their racially diverse neighborhood between Oakland and Berkeley, California. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Telegraph Avenue offers side plots galore, but the central engine of the plot is a direct steal from the 1998 Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks rom-com You’ve Got Mail, which was itself a remake of a 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner, which was itself an adaptation of an 1937 play called Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo. You get the picture. There may not be any truly original plots left, but in this case Chabon’s seems unusually shopworn. It also feels oddly dated. The book is set in 2004, but its preoccupations with race, class, and corporate co-optation of poor people’s art seem far better suited to 1994, when identity politics were the rage and people still looked upon Borders and Tower Records as cultural hegemons and not roadkill on the information superhighway. Chabon himself seems to sense this and loses interest in the-mall-eats-the-scrappy-corner-shop tale two-thirds of the way through, returning to his old chestnuts, marriage, fatherhood, and quirky folk obsessed with popular culture, before tying the whole thing up with a treacly happy ending, which seems to suggest that all the problems the characters were worrying about for the past 460 pages could be solved if a few people just said they were sorry. Thus, to sum up: plot-wise, Telegraph Avenue is a sprawling, ungainly mess. In addition to the struggling used-record shop plot, there is a secondary plot involving Nat and Archy’s wives, Aviva and Gwen, who are themselves partners in a small, marginal business, in their case midwives to Berkeley’s fascistically right-thinking, litigationally trigger-happy professional moms. Then, too, there is the subplot involving Nat Jaffe’s gay son, Julie, who falls madly in love with Archy’s long-lost son, Titus, who is straight as a one-dollar bill but not above accepting the occasional public hand job. And that doesn’t even touch on Gwen’s troubled relationship to her own pregnancy, or Archy’s troubled relationship with his druggy father, Luther, a down-at-heels former blaxploitation film star who is trying to blackmail an Oakland city councilman over a thirty-year-old botched hit on a pimp named Popcorn Hughes who crossed Black Panther leader Huey Newton back in the day. Oh, and wait, I almost forgot another side plot involving a musician named Cochise Jones and his talking parrot, Fifty-Eight, who during one tour-de-force twelve-page, single-sentence riff, flies above the Berkeley-Oakland flatlands like some great omniscient parrot God. See what I mean? That’s just a paragraph and already your eyes are glazing over. In an interview, Chabon told Mother Jones that the novel began life as a 90-minute television pilot for TNT and that he struggled to shift from a TV pilot model, which is designed to set up a situation that other writers can riff upon for many seasons to come, to a novel, which must tell its own story. It’s obvious that as talented as Chabon is – and, sentence for sentence, he may well be the most talented American writer of his generation – he never truly made that leap, and the book remains all wind up and no follow-through. Yet until the final pages, when the meshugas that is the plot of Chabon’s novel finally falls of its own weight, Telegraph Avenue is a sparkling, mesmerizing read. As a prose stylist, Chabon possesses two great gifts in abundance: a talent for giving inanimate objects a personal identity and purpose, and an eye for the outlandish but weirdly appropriate simile. He also has a hell of a way with an adjective. These talents, along with an omnivorous intellectual curiosity and a working vocabulary that rivals Shakespeare’s, enable Chabon to create on the page a world that looks and sounds very much like the one we see every day, but is richer and more nuanced, more alive, than anything we mere mortals can see with our own eyes. Early in the novel, for instance, we find ourselves at a memorabilia convention where a scuffle breaks out requiring a pair of private security guards to escort one of the offenders off the convention floor. We have all seen these security guys. They are large men, squat-built and neckless, their hormone-pumped pecs stuffed into too-tight white shirts. Chabon knows you know all this, and so his lone physical descriptor is that the younger of the two goons has his “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.” There it is, in a phrase, what makes Chabon’s books so electric, so much fun to read. The simile is apt: a private security goon’s head and a porn star’s testicle are both shaved, and both look frankly a little weird. But it’s more than that. The line is funny because it would never occur to anybody but Michael Chabon to compare a security guy’s head to a porn star’s balls, but we should have because, of course, in both cases, the men are shaving away a sign of their masculinity – their natural body hair – to better play their role as a symbol of masculinity. It’s a joke, but it’s also a lightning-quick commentary on the demeaning lengths working-class guys will go to in order to take on the only jobs left to them, that of being professional slabs of man-meat. Chabon tosses all this off in eight words and we’re back to the scene at hand. The book is filled with these brilliant little brushstrokes of language. Here’s another, taken almost at random, depicting a moment when Archy Stallings, anticipating a marriage-threatening fight, is watching his wife pull up in front of their house in her car: Daylight was taking its sweet time fading into dusk, and the street at suppertime seemed to be holding its breath, torn into patches of deep shadow and sunshine, motionless but for the little white moths stitching their loopy crewelwork in the honeysuckle. In the sandpit of the tiny playground, dozens of toy vehicles and appliances lay bleached and upended, primary-colored plastic ruins as of some toddler cataclysm. This is marvelous writing on so many levels that it by itself makes an argument why, in a digital age when no byte of information is ever out of reach and images can be frictionlessly zapped from one corner of the globe to the other, the humble printed book is still culturally relevant. Look at what Chabon has done here. At one level, it’s a pretty accurate description of how a semi-urban Berkeley street looks and feels at the moment when day slides into night. But it also captures, in its superbly rendered details, precisely what is going on inside Archy Stallings as he watches his wife pull up in her car: he is a man “holding [his] breath,” his life “torn into patches of deep shadows and sunshine,” standing “motionless” as he prepares to see the “ruins” he has made of his marriage laid out “bleached and upended,” except in this case he is the “toddler” who has created this “cataclysm.” That’s what Chabon’s books do, sentence after sentence, page after page: they force you to bring your game up to his level. Chabon is such a good noticer, and such an effortless explainer of what he’s noticed, that you, his reader, become a better noticer under his spell. For the week I was reading Telegraph Avenue, I found myself studying the world around me more closely, drawing mental similes, seeing new patterns in the avalanche of data we all are assaulted with every day. I will never write a line as smart and funny as his about the security guard’s “head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.” But then I don’t have to. We have Michael Chabon for that, and even when he is not at the top of his game, his writer's eye makes the world a more vivid, vital place to live.

Tuesday New Release Day: Chabon, Díaz, Straight, Boianjiu, Powers, Byrne, Woodward

Another big week for books is headlined by Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue (the book's opening lines) and Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her. Also out are Susan Straight's Between Heaven and Here, touted debuts The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, How Music Works by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, and Bob Woodward's latest Beltway tick-tock The Price of Politics.

Is This Book Bad, or Is It Just Me? The Anatomy of Book Reviews

1. The book review is dead. At the very least, it’s very obviously dying. Anyway, we can all agree that it should be killed off, because it’s gotten to be irrelevant. If not downright parasitic. (Though maybe it might be salvaged if the average review was a little meaner.) I exaggerate only slightly here. This past August, a pair of meta-critical essays by Dwight Garner in The New York Times and Jacob Silverman in Slate sent everyone who fancied him- or herself a critic — whether institutionalized or not — into a collective fit. It was probably the biggest literary-cultural dustup since the Great MFA Debate of 2010-2011, when Elif Batuman’s London Review of Books article, “Get a Real Degree,” made everyone feel just a little bit bad about the existence of MFA programs. I found it hard to get terribly worked up about literary criticism’s emotional register. For every Laura Miller or Lev Grossman who has foresworn negative reviews, I know that there will be just as many qualifiers for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award to fulfill the angry review quota. For every purchased five-star review, there will be that lady on Goodreads who says that the only good thing about the new Junot Diaz novel is that it taught her the Spanish word sucio. But enough about the State of the Art! I enjoyed all of these essays, but the one thing that struck me was that they were all essentially negative, in the sense that they set out to describe how things were going wrong or why things ought not to be the way that they are. What they didn’t do a very good job of was describing what criticism or book reviewing is, or what it should be. Okay, there were some nice, bold mission statements thrown in there. Here’s Dwight Garner: “What we need more of…are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics.” Agreed. Or Daniel Mendelsohn, in the New Yorker: “the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in...hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.” Sounds great. Or Richard Brody, again in the New Yorker: “Criticism is the turning of the secondary (the critic’s judgment) into the primary.” Sure, why not. So I think we can all agree that A) the “book review” is a prestigious class of writing that people aspire to write, and B) there is a continuum of, shall we say, critical perceptiveness — what in the pre-everyone-gets-a-trophy age we might call “value” or “quality” — on which the multiple-thousand-word, tightly-argued essays of the New York/London/L.A. Review of Books reside at one end, and the rapid reactions of John Q. Tumblr reside at the other. (By the way, I don’t want to suggest that there is something philosophically corrupt or intrinsically wrong about the latter, or that just because something is edited and not self-published, it is automatically better than a blog post. Advanced degrees, journalistic credentials, and/or getting published in hard copy is not a guarantee that a book review is any good. See, for example Janet Maslin’s misreading of This Bright River.) But what should this excellence and interpretation and maybe a little bit of hard-headedness actually look like, in practice? Why has it been absent? And why does any discussion about literary criticism turn into a giant game of dodging the question, as if the concept of a book review were like the concept of pornography, in that you might not know how to define it, but you’d know it when you see it? In the interest of getting everyone on the same page (book pun!), I thought it would be an interesting exercise to dissect a book review, to pick apart what makes it work or not work, what makes some book reviews great and others — most of them, really — bland and unhelpful and immediately forgettable. Because book reviewing is a genre with its own conventions, just as every murder mystery must start with a body, and every epic fantasy must feature elvish words with too many apostrophes. It’s worth figuring out what those conventions are. 2. In the beginning, there is ego. As George Orwell put it in his essay “Writers and Leviathan”: “One’s real reaction to a book, when one has a reaction at all, is usually ‘I like this book’ or ‘I don’t like it,’ and what follows is a rationalization.” The decision to like or not like a book is where every book review begins. This is what gives the genre its underlying suspense — will Michiko Kakutani like this book or won’t she? — but also its frustrating sense of chaos, because no matter how technically sound or philosophically sophisticated or beautiful a book might be, something minor or tangential can turn off a reviewer so much that he or she decides the book is not good. A lot of book reviews never get past this first stage, and this is where the whole free-for-all of online reviewing can get frustrating. For instance, the Goodreads lady on Junot Diaz, or the people who unironically give one-star reviews to classic literature: all of these reviews consist entirely of the initial response and a subsequent explanation, and no self-reflection about whether there might be more to the book — and to the reviewer’s response — than that initial, emotional decision. If the nauseating chumminess of the publishing world is the Scylla of book criticism, than this kind of reviewerly narcissism is surely its Charybdis. But hopefully, no matter how much reviewers are in love with themselves, they will at least step aside and say a few things about the book. In the case of fiction, its plot, its characters, some of the backstory, and the setting. In the case of nonfiction, the overall narrative or argument of the book, the author’s source material and expertise in the subject matter. This is the next stage in the evolution of a book review, and it is plain nuts and bolts kind of stuff. But it’s so important to do readers this simple courtesy because, unlike an oil filter or a frying pan, the world of literature is so expansive and dependent on authorial decisions and whims that two books within a genre, or a sub-genre, or even a sub-sub-genre, may vary wildly in so many ways. Is the protagonist of this hard science-fiction story an astrobiologist on a generation ship or a detective on an asteroid base? And so on. This is where things start to get complicated. The average paid reviewer gets one scant paragraph in Publisher’s Weekly, maybe four or six in your average major metropolitan daily, to appraise a book. And more often than not, they splurge on summary — often to the exclusion of everything else. So their concluding paragraphs tend to be a little overstuffed, as these recent examples show: But finally, of course, this kind of rigidity exacts its own price, and Natalie can’t avoid paying. Each of the novel’s sections ends with a scene of violence, something Ms. Smith presents as inescapable in northwest London. Some characters die from it, others survive, but none are unscathed. What Ms. Smith offers in this absorbing novel is a study in the limits of freedom, the way family and class constrain the adult selves we make. In England, the margin for self-invention is notoriously smaller than it is in the U.S. — which is one reason why Ms. Smith, with NW, seems more than ever a great English novelist. (Adam Kirsch, review of NW in The Wall Street Journal) There are moments here and there in Telegraph Avenue where Mr. Chabon, himself sounds as if he’s trying very hard “to sound like he was from the ’hood,” but for the most part he does such a graceful job of ventriloquism with his characters that the reader forgets they are fictional creations. His people become so real to us, their problems so palpably netted in the author’s buoyant, expressionistic prose, that the novel gradually becomes a genuinely immersive experience — something increasingly rare in our ADD age. (Michiko Kakutani, review of Telegraph Avenue in The New York Times) The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving deals with sorrow and disability and all the things that can go wrong in life. But mostly Evison has given us a salty-sweet story about absorbing those hits and taking a risk to reach beyond them. What a great ride. (Ellen Emry Heitzel, review of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving in The Seattle Times) In other words, you can see where these reviews are trying to do too much with too little space. Trying to sum up the quality of the prose with a few abstract descriptors. Making a final plea for the cultural relevance of the book. Ending on a gnomic, life-affirming mantra. And all this in fewer than 100 words. The fact that these reviewers are reaching for something beyond what they have space to cover is, to me, a tacit admission that there is more to be done here; that saying “Here is the plot of the book, and here is a pile of adjectives to show how much I (dis)liked it” just barely scratches the surface of what book criticism can cover. But if you’ve already done all that and you still feel that readers ought to take away one more big idea — what do you do? 3. Matt Taibbi hated The World is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded. He hated their titles. He hated their premise. Hated their predictability, their utter lack of real insights, and most memorably of all, hated their language. In his reviews of Thomas Friedman’s two books, Taibbi tracked dozens of bizarre proclamations and just plain bad writing, from the first confusion between herd animals with hunting animals to his last, triumphant-until-you-think-about-it graph of freedom vs. oil prices, which used four data points selected basically at random to make a point about the march of democracy across the globe. (“What can’t you argue, if that’s how you’re going to make your point??” wrote Taibbi, two question marks included.) This might make Taibbi sound like a prescriptivist grump, a Grammar Nazi who just happened to find the one guy who was famous enough and bad at writing enough to deserve this kind of thrashing. Except that the reviews do more than that. It turns out that Friedman’s “anti-ear” is actually the most obvious symptom of a larger case of intellectual and moral fraud. In Friedman’s world, the rules of basic logic and historical causation do not exist; he invents new realities out of a few cherry-picked events and the limited frame of reference of a privileged, jet-setting columnist based out of New York City. On the one hand, this entire review stems from an act that we all can do: to try and gauge the quality of Friedman’s writing and thought. But Taibbi manages to do more than wag his finger at Friedman for writing poorly — he discovers something important and true that we didn’t know before, and more importantly, couldn’t know just by taking Friedman at his word. So Taibbi passes Daniel Mendelsohn’s “meaning” test, because we now know something new about Friedman’s book that we didn’t before. He certainly passes Dwight Garner’s bar for being both excellent and punishing. This is not simple aesthetic snobbery: it’s formal criticism that actually matters. Then there is the big picture. It’s hard to get much bigger than James Wood’s famous 2000 proclamation: “A genre is hardening.” In it, he identifies the “perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity” that characterized novelists like Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and mainly, Zadie Smith, whose then-new book White Teeth Wood was reviewing. These practitioners of “hysterical realism,” Wood argued, were to the novel what the van Eyck brothers were to medieval painting — artists who thought that conceptual virtuosity and an inexhaustible supply of detail substituted for a plausible, profound exploration of the human experience. Instead of treating the text as a mirror for the writer’s psyche, this kind of criticism assumes that the novel in question is a mirror of some kind of shared worldview, brought on not just by the writer’s personal choices (of character, setting, plot, and so on) but also by the context in which he or she is writing. In the case of the hysterical realists, they are all too in love with their grand, underlying, and basically untrue idea — everything and everyone is interconnected in ambition and subject to the same fate — that they have to make their characters essentially inhuman to make their plots work. But not everyone has to be present at the birth of a genre to do this sort of criticism. Rosecrans Baldwin discovered a trope that’s almost as old as the modern novel — the “distant-dog impulse” — from Tolstoy to Picoult. Evgeny Morozov tracked not only the intellectual vacuousness, but also the stylistic commonalities imposed by the new line of TED Books. What’s going on here? Elif Batuman explains that all of these reviewers are looking for context in the morass of personal and artistic choices that go into every piece of writing: Literature viewed in this way becomes a gigantic multifarious dream produced by a historical moment. The role of the critic is then less to exhaustively explain any single work than to identify, in a group of works, a reflection of some conditioned aspect of reality. Maybe it doesn’t sound great when reduced to a mission statement like this — in fact, I think it sounds vaguely totalitarian, especially when you consider that this sort of criticism is called “Marxist criticism” in academic circles. But in practice, it definitely works. 4. So. Reaction. Summary. Aesthetic and historical appraisal: these are the four classical elements of literary criticism. To that I might add that it helps to be negative — of the twelve reviews I quote here, eight are at least moderately negative, and about five are relentlessly so. That people are even having this conversation about the supposed niceness of book reviews is great: it shows that book reviews are anything but irrelevant. And now that we’ve teased out the ground rules of what can and should go into a book review, it’s time to turn you loose. You now have the tools to cut through the morass of literary criticism and decide for yourself not only if a book review is worthwhile, but why. You can critique the critics. You can be a meta-Michiko. Use this knowledge wisely. As for me, I eagerly await the next big, invented crisis to strike the world of literature. I hope it involves deckled edges. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Exclusive: The First Lines of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue

We're already looking ahead to a number of exciting titles coming this fall, and near the top of that list is Michael Chabon's new novel Telegraph Avenue. Much is now emerging about this new novel, set for release in September, but we've heard that it grew out of an abortive TV project of the same name, which was said to detail the lives of families of different races living in Oakland and Berkeley, something that is evident in the book's opening paragraphs: A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike. Dark August morning, deep in the Flatlands. Hiss of tires. Granular unraveling of skateboard wheels against asphalt. Summer-time Berkeley giving off her old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat. The black boy raised up, let go of the handlebars. The white boy uncoupled the cars of their little train. Crossing his arms, the black boy gripped his T-shirt at the hem and scissored it over his head. He lingered inside the shirt, in no kind of hurry, as they rolled toward the next pool of ebbing streetlight. In a moment, maybe, the black boy would tug the T-shirt the rest of the way off and fly it like a banner from his back pocket. The white boy would kick, push, and reach out, feeling for the spark of bare brown skin against his palm. But for now the kid on the skateboard just coasted along behind the blind daredevil, drafting. Keep an eye out for our big second-half preview in less than a month, which will include more on Telegraph Avenue and dozens of other books coming this fall and beyond.
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