When Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude came out, there was much discussion of how the novel paralelled Lethem’s own upbringing in pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Now we’re getting the real Lethem story for those who want to compare and contrast. It arrives in the form of a book of essays, The Disappointment Artist, which comes out in two weeks. An excerpt, which depicts a young Lethem immersed in obsessions with books, movies and music while trying to come to turns with his mother’s death appeared in last week’s New Yorker (but it’s not available online). I’m beginning to wonder if this exercise in autobiography (with the New Yorker as the stage) has become a rite of initiation for American novelists who have made the big time. Most prominent among them is Jonathan Franzen, who has had a number of meandering autobiographical essays in the magazine over the last few years. I wonder what drives the phenomenon. Do people really want to know about their lives or are these novelists just good at telling a story?
Patric (who’s got a pretty cool website) wrote in with this question, which tested my research skills.What was Entertainment Weekly’s #1 Fiction Title for 2003?Before I set to figuring this one out, I guessed what it might be just to see if I would be right. Knowing Entertainment Weekly’s tastes, I figured that Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a pretty good candidate, but, no it turns out to be EW’s number two book. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger seemed like a good pick because, while a book club favorite, it broke new ground, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude for its genre-bending hipness, and maybe Monica Ali’s Brick Lane for its multicultural bent. But: no, no, and no. It turns out that the EW editors decided that 2003’s best novel was Samaritan by Richard Price. It’s actually a pretty good choice; Samaritan was well-reviewed, and sold well, but was not considered one of the “hot” books of the year. In the book, Price (who also wrote Clockers) weaves a mystery of sorts about a man who returns to his roots in a hard-edged New Jersey town and is brutally assaulted, but refuses to implicate his attacker. It’s a bold and interesting pick by EW for best book of the year. (My pick, by the way, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones, hands down.)
Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)
Jeff wrote in with this question about The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem:I guess this is a book question. Certainly it’s a question related to a book. In this week’s Village Voice, there is an article about a promotional 2CD-set meant to be a companion to Jonathan Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude.” It sounds quite interesting. Does anybody know how it can be obtained? Here’s the URL to the article: http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0401/christgau2.phpI found this question especially intriguing because there were many times while I was reading Fortress of Solitude that I wished the book had come with a cd. Music of many genres permeates the book, some of the songs and artists I was familiar with, others I had never heard of, and as I was reading I found myself creating a soundtrack to the book in my head, inventing my own songs if I didn’t recognize an artist or song. It was an interesting reading experience. But, now, apparently there is a cd out there, and as Robert Christgau, the Village Voice music reviewer, makes clear in his review, you’re not going to get your hands on it. This seemed to be confirmed by my research as none of my contacts at Random House / Doubleday had even heard of the cd. Apparently the 2 cd set has been handed out here and there to friends and fans at book signings, and due, of course, to copywrite issues, this fantastic compilation will never truly be released. But, as is often the case these days, now you can make your very own at home. Lucky for us, David, who runs a Jonathan Lethem site has posted the track listing, so with a little bit of elbow grease and a modest disregard for copywrite law you can have your very own Fortress of Solitude compilation.
After two weeks of distractions, spotty internet service, and a massive dose of holiday merriment and madness, I am finally back in Los Angeles, which is why I can now move towards completing the year end list that you are all awaiting so patiently.Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum: Earlier in the year, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book Imperium had made me more fully aware of the vast Soviet prison system. Years ago, when I was in high school, I had read bits and pieces of The Gulag Archipelago, and, bewildered by the density of it, I had come away with little more than the notion that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been a political prisoner held by an evil, totalitarian state. I carried this notion of the Gulag with me for a long time, and though Solzhenitsyn certainly would have been able to correct my misconceptions had I been a more diligent reader, I encountered nothing else that showed me the real picture of a state-run system that killed tens of millions. Then Kapuscinski’s forays into the long-hidden depths of Siberia opened my eyes to a tragedy that is, of course, no secret, yet manages to be overlooked when people are taking stock of recent historical tragedies. This negligence is the launching point for Applebaum’s considered history of the Soviet prison system. She covers the system from all the angles, from the bureaucrats at the top to the zeks toiling in mines and forests and withering away on frozen ground. I began reading the book in early June and I was halfway through it when I left for Europe. I didn’t bring it with me because I didn’t want to lug the heavy hard cover with me, but I ruminated over what I had read for much of my trip.Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick: This was one of three books I read while I was in Europe, mostly on interminable airplane rides and also while I was in Ireland as I recall. I hadn’t planned to read all those books about Russia, but the three put together taught me more about the subject than any course might have been able to. Remnick’s Pulitzer-winning book about the fall of the Soviet Empire is truly exhilarating. Through his eyes, you see the collapse of the great empire from Moscow. The book reads like breaking news, and though I was, of course, aware of the ultimate outcome, his blow by blow account is really exciting. Being halfway through Gulag at the time, I was especially fascinated by the role that “Memorial,” a group dedicated to uncovering the crimes of the Soviet regime, played in the process.The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez: I spent a week in Barcelona last summer, and before I left I decided it would be fun to read a novel set in the city while I was there. I managed to track down this slim volume, which I found to be a bit thin, but nonetheless a perfect book to read at three in the morning in a steaming bedroom whose only window looks into an airshaft, and when I walked through the bustling old city, I have to admit, I felt like I could see the city through Frankie’s eyes. Here are my comments on the book, which I posted after my trip was over.Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: Years from now, people won’t remember that the graphic novel was once a marginal format, consigned to hobby shops and newsstands. Literary historians, however, will point to Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan as the book that brought graphic novels out of the dark and into the cultural spotlight. I read this one in Europe, too. It’s one of my favorites ever.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I mentioned this book dozens of times this year, so I won’t bother to once again mention how much I enjoyed it. Instead you can read what I wrote right after I read it. (It’ll be at the very bottom.)The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem: Ditto on this one, which I probably talked about on this blog and in the aisles of the bookstore more than any other new book this year, so here’s my review.That’s all for now. I’m jetlaggin’.
It’s that time of year. “Best books of 2003” lists have begun to appear. So let’s dive in: the editors over at Amazon have released their Best Books of 2003: Top 50 Editors’ Picks list. According to them, the best book of the year is James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces. I know a lot of people who read this book and really enjoyed it, but I personally am not a huge fan of addiction memoirs or messed-up-childhood memoirs. I think I find them to be too internal and personal, and I’m not usual that interested in getting up close and personal with someone I’ve never met. So, does it deserve to be named best book of the year? Maybe top 25, but not number 1. Some books that I actually did read and enjoyed that appear on this list: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which my friend Patrick anointed “book of the year” months ago, comes in at #4. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is #6, and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus is #9. Publisher’s Weekly has a very interesting interview with one of Amazon’s editors, who explains how this list was created, justifies the inclusion of certain titles, and comments on how relevant this list is to the prevailing tastes of the reading public. It’s a good read.
Last night myself and my friend Edan were the facilitators for the first installment of a new book club at the book store where I work. It was the first time either of us had ever been in a book club, and I think we both had a good time. Last night we discussed The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. After a few minutes of polite discussion, it came out that half the people in attendance strongly disliked the book, which made for some excellent debate. As best as I could tell, the dislike for the book is a part of the backlash against the “virtuoso perfomances” of young writers of late, who, according to certain readers, are over-writing in order to produce a novel that is “big” and masterful. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen are two examples of this trend that came up during our discussion. I, on the other hand, am relatively lenient in my feelings about this book at least in part because I have always rather enjoyed the over-written modern novel, John Irving (see The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany) and T. C. Boyle (see The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, and Water Music) being among my favorite practitioners. The question now is: what do we read for next month?
First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
The South African J. M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today. This prize seems to be given alternately to the obscure or the internationally known. Coetzee most assuredly falls in the latter category, and his receiving this award comes as no surprise. He has won the Booker Prize twice, an unprecedented feat, as well as countless other major and minor awards, and long ago passed from the realm of “author” into the realm of “master.” The Nobel Prize seems to surpass all other prizes in inducing people to read, and rightly so. It is as close as the literary world comes to “officially” admitting a writer into the canon of world literature from which he or she can never be removed or forgotten. So, if you are among the many who decide to read or reread Coetzee in the coming days or weeks, allow me to suggest two books, first his breakthrough novel and arguably his best, Waiting for the Barbarians, and then the second of his two Booker Prize winning efforts, Disgrace. If you want to learn more about Coetzee check out the “bio-bibliography” provided on the Nobel Site.Beyond FreaksDiane Arbus has long been considered among the greatest photographers of all time. Her work is a staple of art museum collections throughout the world. Arbus (who committed suicide in 1971) was best known for her unnerving photographs of circus freaks, street performers, and other “outsiders” dwelling on society’s margins. Though she focused on the margins, she also illuminated just how blurry these margins can be. Sometimes we can feel like outsiders in our own homes or in our own families. The two new Arbus books that have come out recently help to illuminate this aspect of her work. Neither book focuses on her circus and sideshow work, yet each book retains the visceral power that her “freak” photography is known for. The first is a collection of previously unpublished photographs called Diane Arbus: Family Albums, which is devoted to family portraits she took over the years. Some were commissioned and others were not, but they all retain that powerful quality of dread that her photographs seem to take on. The other book is an impressively thorough volume put out by Random House that amounts to a biography as well as a retrospective of her work. It is one of the most extensive collections of her photography ever put into book form.Shout OutsGarth, a friend and trusted fellow reader, has weighed in on The Fortress of Solitude. After finishing the book, I eagerly waited for Garth to read it so that I could hear his opinion. It was worth the wait. I also want to give a shout out to Jeff Mallett creator of Frazz who I am told is a fan of the site. This also gives me the opportunity to tell all of you that I always have been and always will be a newspaper funnies junkie.
So, maybe you’re curious about what books people are reading right now. I’ll start with new fiction. There’s a lot of interesting new books out there right now. The book that everyone is talking about remains The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem has recently been interviewed in periodicals ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the Paris Review, and the book is the current pick for countless book clubs. Despite the hype, this book is a worthy read, and you’ll have something to talk about at cocktail parties. In the category of science fiction for those who don’t typically read science fiction comes Quicksilver, the first book in a new series by Neal Stephenson. The book has been out for a week and is already flying off the shelves, most likely to the very same folks who are always telling me how much they love Stephenson’s previous novels, especially Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. Meanwhile, Zoe Heller is nearing breakthrough status with her second novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, which is about a teacher who carries on an affair with her fifteen year old student. It sounds trashy, but from what I hear it turns out to be a nuanced and moving character study. It’s been short-listed for the Booker Prize and is beginning to sell accordingly. Also short-listed and selling incredibly well in England is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Following in the footsteps of fellow young Londoner Zadie Smith, Ali’s debut novel is another unsparing look at multi-cultural London. Finally, another debut, this one is a cleverly wrought time traveling romance by Audrey Niffenegger titled, appropriately, The Time Traveler’s Wife. So there you go. A few things to read this fall. Stayed tuned for the next installment: new non-fiction.
Jonathan Lethem’s new book The Fortress of Solitude comes out today. Here is my review:Now it is Jonathan Lethem’s turn to write a “big book.” The breakout success of his last novel, Motherless Brooklyn, set the stage for an eagerly anticipated follow-up. As if borrowing from the title of his previous book, Lethem’s two protagonists grow up motherless in Brooklyn. One is Dylan Ebdus, whose father is a morose and cloistered artist and whose mother is a frenetic but flaky hippy, who, before she is distracted away from their rugged corner of Brooklyn, is determined to blend her white family seamlessly into the black neighborhood. For Rachel Ebdus, gentrification is a dirty word. Next door lives young Mingus Rude, son of soul superstar Barrett Rude, Jr, a brooding musical genius who permits himself to slide into a sort of secluded decay. The two boys are ostensibly best friends, but as is perhaps more true to life, their adolescent lives intertwine, split apart, and become intimately joined as they make their way warily through a minefield of street-borne dangers. The dangers are different for each boy, more often than not according to skin color, but to say that this is a novel about race would be to simplify in a way that Lethem does not.In the second part of the novel, Dylan is all grown up, and still sorting things out. He doesn’t know what it means to have had such a peculiar upbringing, but he knows that if he weren’t white, he would probably be in prison like Mingus. His black girlfriend accuses him of collecting poor black people as she looks at his obsessive music collection and mementos from his youth.There is to this book, as there has been to Lethem’s others, a supernatural element, a fantastical token that lifts the story from the realm of reality. With the chaos that surrounds them, it comes as no surprise that young Dylan might see a homeless man named Aaron X. Doily fall from the sky, or that, having found Doily’s secret, Dylan and Mingus might become a couple of low rent super heroes. This fantasy realm never becomes the point of the story; if anything, it underscores the insurmountable mania of the world around them. Lethem’s insistent devotion to music is perhaps a more dominant trope, and the timeframe of the novel allows him to delve into soul and rap and punk in an enjoyably voyeuristic sort of way.It is exciting to watch an author like Lethem put together a largely successful, career-changing type novel. This is a deserving book that a lot of people will read. Look for Lethem to join Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon at the top of the youngish American writers heap.
Heather wrote in with a great question about life after Harry Potter:Recently I have devoured the series of books by Philip Pullman called “His Dark Materials” (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). While the shelf at the bookstore I found them in was young adult and science fiction/fantasy, I felt they went far beyond the scope of what a young person would appreciate. Much like the fascination with the Harry Potter series by both young and older, but far more compelling in my opinion. Can you recommend any other authors/books similar to Pullman other than the more familiar Tolkien and Lewis?Harry Potter, as everyone knows, has dominated the world of young adult and fantasy fiction of late. J. K. Rowling’s greatest asset is her boundless imagination, but she can be lacking in her mastery of language and form. So what else is there? As you suggest, Philip Pullman has emerged with an incredible series of books (which I, too, devoured about a year ago). They exceed Harry Potter in nearly every sense, and Pullman manages to strike the perfect balance, appealing to children (and clearly adults, as well) with thrilling adventures, characters, and a seamless world, while never ever dumbing down for his young readers. It’s really a great series, one of the highlights in books from the last few years, if you ask me. But you already know this. My other favorite children’s fantasy series is Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. The world he creates has a medival, Tolkeinesque feel to it, though instead of knights and princesses or hobbits and orcs, this world is populated by tribes of animals, mice and ferrets and stoats and many others. I started reading these when I was very young and I made my way through at least six or seven, so I can vouch that these are great books. The series begins with Redwall, Mossflower, and Mattimeo with many beyond those. Having said that, I don’t think that anything out there is as good as C. S. Lewis’ “Narnia” series or J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series. They are the masters that preside over the genre. Another thought: try revisiting (or making your acquaintance with) some classic books. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne or The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Great books one and all. Anybody else have thoughts on though this one. Hit the comment link below and let us know.Mucho Mutis!!!My buddy Brian who is a fellow follower of the travels of Maqroll the Gaviero notified me of two recent developments concerning the head Maqroll-watcher himself, Alvaro Mutis. First, and most exciting, it appears as though a new book by Mutis will appear in English for the first time ever this fall. It’s called The Mansion & Other Stories, and it will be released by the Canadian publisher Ekstasis Editions. I have so many questions: will there be stories about Maqroll, will this edition be well-translated, will the stories bear any resemblence to the novellas that I know and love? I can’t wait to find out. So far all I know is this. In the early 1970s, Mutis got into an argument with his friend, the director Luis Bunuel. Bunuel felt that a “gothic” story could not be set in the tropics because that sort of story required the ambient chill of higher latitudes. Mutis strenuously disagreed, and in order to prove him wrong penned the story, The Mansion of Araucaima, the title story of this collection. Bunuel loved the story and expressed his desire to make it into a film, but he died before he was able to carry it out. My friend Brian also alerted me to the fact that the current issue of World Literature Today is devoted to Mutis. If you’re interested, you can find on the site: ten poems by Mutis, Mutis on Mutis, and several more academic papers on this fantastic writer.The Return of PolidoriThe Robert Polidori book that I mentioned a few days ago has hit bookstores. It’s called Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl. Polidori is one of the most skilled and sought after architectural photographers in the world, and in this capacity he is often called upon to capture the sleek and the new. But anyone who has seen his book Havana knows that architectural decay is his true calling. At Chernobyl and in Pripyat he presents the shattered world of nuclear disaster, both frozen in time and abandoned to a new and dangerous mutant form of nature. As always, he lets color do all the work in these photographs, seemingly luring the most poignant hues to the foreground of the compositions. But I have to say, this collection, due to the nature of the subject matter, exudes a cold and souless sort of beauty while the aching, crumbling beauty of Havana is more suited to his particular skills.A note of things to comeI finished Jonathan Lethem’s new novel The Fortress of Solitude, a week or so ago, and I intend to put some more elaborate comments on the book up here once it comes out, but I will make few comments now, too. Look for this book to be huge this fall. There will be a big push from Random House, and along the book distribution pipeline, big numbers are being anticipated. The book is very good in the same way that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon is very good. The books are similar in structure and theme, both are very ambitious and largely succeed in their grand scope. Pehaps most interestingly, the careers of Chabon and Lethem are parallel. Lethem has several books under his belt each more widely read and more favorably recieved than the last, and now this latest book will be a best-seller and will make him more of a household name. The same thing happened to Chabon. Finally, I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that The Fortress of Solitude will win the Pulitzer Prize, (or at the very least will be a finalist) like Kavalier & Clay did a few years back.
I have always wrestled, pretty unsuccessfully I think, with reading and writing poetry, and am often reluctant to discuss it in too much detail, as a novice pilot might be reluctant to land his plane at night. Occasionally, though, poems have the ability to break through whatever barrier to poetry I have inside my head and deliver to me the poignant seed of beauty that supporters of the medium so often rave about. Sometime earlier this year the New Yorker started occasionally putting a poem on its back page instead of the usual “Sketchbook.” One of those back page poems (in the March 3rd issue) was an intensely moving anti-war poem by one of my favorie poets (if it could be said that I have favorite poets) C. K. Williams. It is called “The Hearth.” This one is definitely one of those “break through the barrier” poems for me, as is a very different sort of poem called “The Clerk’s Tale” by Spencer Reece, which appeared on the back page of the New Fiction Issue (June 16 & 23). I love the way this poem makes lyrical the banalities of suburban, modern life. According to the Author Notes for that issue Reece will “publish his first collection of poems next year.” I haven’t been able to find any info about this upcoming book, but I will post if I do find anything out. In other poetry news, FSG recently put out the brick-sized Collected Poems of Robert Lowell. This book has already recieved a ton of press including a major review in the New Yorker and the front page of the New York Times Book Review. The book itself is beautiful and the poems within are melancholy and transcendant; whether you are a longtime fan of Lowell or unaware of his work completely, as you flip from poem to poem you will find it difficult to pull yourself away.So, What Else is NewSometimes, even though there are mountains of unread books all around me, I find myself wishing that one of my favorite writers had a new book out. So instead of continuing to slog dutifully through my teetering piles, I decided to see what will soon be out that I can breathlessly begin to read the very day that I lay my eyes upon it: — David Foster Wallace fans will be happy to hear that an as yet untitled (and perhaps even unfinished) short story collection is slated to come out sometime in January or soon thereafter. — Jonathan Lethem’s remarkable story “View From a Headlock” in this week’s New Yorker turns out to be an excerpt from his new novel The Fortress of Solitude. Look for this one in September. — Vandela Vida, one half of the McSweeney’s super couple, has a new book coming out at the end of August called And Now You Can Go. Here’s an excerpt. — Jhumpa Lahiri has a new book coming out in September called The Namesake. This one was excerpted in the new fiction issue of the New York as a story called “Gogol.” — Apparently David Sedaris’ long-awaited new book will be titled Repeat After Me and will hit shelves a few months shy of a year from now. Anything else out there? let me know.