The Lay of the Land

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Weekend Links

This past week at the LBC was a lot of fun. We discussed the book I nominated, The Cottagers by Marshall Klimasewiski. If you missed it, you should check it out, particularly Friday’s podcast which includes an appearance by yours truly.In other podcast news, Ed, who is an accomplished podcaster, tried and failed to interview Marisha Pessl, author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, for his show. Callie also had some thoughts on Pessl, as did CAAF.Fresh off of declaring that the typical litblogger is “some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute,” Richard Ford will see his Bascombe trilogy turned into an HBO mini-series (via Scott). Litblogger Noah gave Ford’s Lay of the Land a good review last year, but for all Ford knows, Noah was writing from here.Scott looks at Dave Eggers’ What is the What and ponders how atrocity is portrayed in fiction.

The Madness Approaches

All sorts of madness is coming in March. Of course, there is the basketball sort, of which it appears my long beleaguered alma mater may finally be taking part (go Wahoos!)But more cogent to this blog and its readers, the literary world’s more refined yet no less raucous brand of madness is on its way, The Morning News 2007 Tournament of Books. If you aren’t familiar, here’s how it works: the TMN editors pick a bunch of books from the past year or so and align them in a bracket, tournament style. However, instead of having these books hash it out on a basketball court, which wouldn’t make much sense, TMN assigns each pair of books to a prominent blogger or reviewer or literary type, who then picks which one goes through to the next round.Why does TMN do this? Well, tournament commissioner Kevin Guilfoile explains it thusly in this year’s introductory essay:Exchanging emails with the TMN editors after a few glasses of Argentinean Malbec, we each confessed that we’re attracted to the sexiness of book awards despite the fact that book awards are also arbitrary and stupid.And so the Tourney was born. Just like with that other tournament, the brackets aren’t out yet, but several candidates have been named, among them a few books that have been reviewed here at The Millions, including Against the Day, which was reviewed by Garth, The Lay of the Land, which was reviewed by Noah, and Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, which I wrote about a few months back.Also, at the bottom of that introductory essay, readers can vote to pick which books should be included in the “Readers’ Favorites round.”

Monday Links

We’ve got some great stuff in the pipeline at The Millions, starting with a lierary magazine roundtable (part one of which will be up shortly), but before we get to that a couple of quick links:This week at the LBC we’re discussing our winter 2007 Read This! selection, Wizard of the Crow by Ngugl wa Thiong’o. A roundtable discussion kicks off a week that will include a contest, an interview, a podcast, and more.Speaking of the LBC, a past selection, and one of my favorites from among the books we’ve read, Firmin by Sam Savage, has been named a finalist for the Barnes & Noble 2006 Discover Great New Writers Awards. That little rat just keeps on trucking along.And finally, Robert Birnbaum sits down with Richard Ford (again) for another great interview. Thanks to Millions contributor Noah, we had some great coverage of Ford’s most recent book, The Lay of the Land, in November, including a review, a reader question, and a (very brief) interview..

Book Critics’ Nominees Unveiled

The National Book Critics Circle announced the nominees for its annual best of the year awards over the weekend. Ed has stepped up to call the fiction selections in particular “safer than a dinner for four at the Olive Garden.” The relative safety of the books aside, my understanding was that this award was meant to be given to the books that the nation’s critics believe are of the highest quality, regardless of how well known or how obscure they are.While it might have been more interesting to for us to discuss five relatively unknown and incredibly challenging novels, I think that such a slate would have been intellectually dishonest when the critics are charged with picking the books they think are the best. Let us not forget 2004, when the five National Book Award nominees in fiction were basically unknowns across the board. The people behind the Award that year were roundly derided for their selections and those nominees were anything but safe. In that case, and in looking at this year’s NBCC nominees, I would suggest that we debate the books’ quality rather than whether they are too “predictable,” which strikes me as an even more slippery qualifier.For more on how the NBCC makes its picks, check out TEV’s interview with NBCC president John Freeman. Here are this year’s nominees in fiction and nonfiction along with excerpts where available (nominees in other categories can be found at the NBCC site):Fiction:Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (excerpt, an Emerging Writers best of the year)The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (excerpt)What is the What by Dave Eggers (excerpt, Garth’s review)The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford (excerpt, Noah’s review)The Road by Cormac McCarthyNonfiction:The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn (One of Cockburn’s Iraq diaries in the LRB)The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade by Anne Fessler (NYT review)The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (Patrick’s review)Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama (excerpt)The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan (excerpt)

Asking Ford

New Millions contributor Noah, who recently wrote a review of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land and helped answer a question (see the comments) about where to start when reading Ford’s books, managed to get a question in at yesterday’s Washington Post online chat with Ford. The question elicited a fairly long response from Ford, one that name drops a pair of his more well-know contemporaries. I’m quite certain that Noah is from Brooklyn but for some reason, the Post indicated his question was coming from Queens:Queens, NY: At a Barnes and Noble reading in NYC, you said, almost inaudibly because someone was mad to ask another question of you, that one of your personal favorite pieces of your own was “Communist”, the last story in Rock Springs. Can you talk just a little about that story, what it means to you? Do you ever feel that Bascombe-mania overpowers your other work, like the dog that is most aggressive in pursuing the owner’s attentions?Richard Ford: I don’t feel like these Bascombe books overpower my other work, because they are so different from other work that I have done, and I actually value them all pretty much equally. I probably couldn’t write a book or a story without thinking at the time, This is the best thing I could possibly do.”Communist” I feel a lot of affection for, for several different reasons. One is its origin: that my friend Tom McGuane once asked me while we were hunting if I had ever written a hunting story. I told him I had never written a hunting story because I didn’t like to read them. And he said, If I would write a hunting story, he knew some guy that was doing an anthology that would probably publish it. And so I wrote a hunting story. And from that innocent little inception came a story that was much more than a hunting story. I sort of like the humbleness of the origin. And I liked the story because it let me describe something, which is something I never do, it let me describe something I specifically experienced rather than just made up, which is an enormous number of geese taking flight, which I found was a very stirring experience both to have and to write. Two other things: I was moved by the opportunity to write the final conversation at the end of the story between the narrator and his mother, which I thought was quite an intimate relationship but that maintains the proprieties of parent and child. Finally, when I wrote the story, which was in 1983 in Mississippi, far from Montana, where the story is set, I wrote the story to an end which didn’t feel like the right end although it felt like an end. And I showed the story to my friend Joyce Carol Oates, and she gave me the best advice any other writer has ever given me. She said, Richard, you need to write more on this story. Write more words. And I had to figure out what more words to write.

Ask a Book Question: The 46th in a Series (The Third Ford First)

Poornima wrote in with an interesting question about what to do when you really want to read a book, but there are books that come before it. Her question has to do with Richard Ford’s new book The Lay of the Land, which was recently reviewed on this blog by Noah. Poornima asks,I have been very tempted to read the new Richard Ford book after reading the review on The Millions. Does one need to have read the first two to read this one?I suspect that you would enjoy The Lay of the Land without having read the other books. All three books – the first two are The Sportswriter and Independence Day – cover the life of a New Jersey everyman, Frank Bascombe, but I don’t think there’s anything in the book that is only fully explained in the previous books. On the other hand, you would likely not get the full sense of who Frank Bascombe is, since he is after all, one of the more storied characters in contemporary literature.This raises another interesting question, as well. I have read the first two Bascombe books, but I read them both more than six years ago. As such, I don’t remember much about Bascombe, though I have impressions of him left from when I did read about him. I have to wonder how much those faint impressions would affect my experience of reading the new book. My thinking, though, is go ahead and read The Lay of the Land and if you like it, go back and read the first two Bascombe books. Readers, what do you think?

Welcome Noah

As you’ve probably noticed from the new byline attached to the review of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land that I posted earlier today, we’ve been joined by a new contributor at The Millions. Noah is an old friend of mine whose book reviews have appeared in a handful of publications, and I’m glad to have him aboard.

Lay of the Land by Richard Ford: A Review

Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, must be the most eloquent real estate agent on God’s green earth. Indeed, he once was a writer, as those who have read the other two Bascombe books, The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995), will recall. The latter garnered Ford some impressive hardware, both the Pulitzer and Pen/Faulkner awards, and put Frank Bascombe on the literary map. So, The Lay of the Land is like a delicate piece of urban planning, with Ford endeavoring to expand on the Bascombe legacy while avoiding the pitfalls of largess and sprawl.What is the Bascombe legacy, after all? It’s a question that Bascombe himself is forced to confront from the first pages of The Lay of the Land, because he is now 55 years old and has recently had radioactive BBs fired into his cancerous prostate. The prospect of death from within is all the more troubling because it is from within, exclusively, that Frank Bascombe’s life on the page has been recounted, with solipsistic alacrity. A great part of the Bascombe legacy, then, is his voice, honed to near perfection over the course of three books: funny with a sardonic edge, searching and unsure, eschewing lapidary truths, reveling in life’s persistent ambiguities. Wives, ex-wives, and other women have passed before his eyes, children, too, both dead and living; great professional successes and profound failures have been endured, all recounted by this voice, which in the end (and it is probably the end: Ford has said that this is the last of the Bascombe books), and like many great literary voices, is both unique, and, somehow, universal.What emerges is a struggle to separate the permanent from the protean. Frank Bascombe has now entered into what he calls life’s “permanent period,” where the forks in the road have all been taken, and what’s left is to sort out what it all means, and, simply, how, or even if, he will be remembered: “But very little about me, I realized – except what I’d already done, said, eaten, etc. – seemed written in stone, and all of that meant almost nothing about what I might do. I had my history, okay, but not really much of a regular character, at least not an inner essence I or anyone could use as a predictor. And something, I felt, needed to be done about that.”It’s soulful stuff, with a definite Eastern orientation – the enduring quality of the soul – hinted at during Frank’s often humorous interactions with his business partner, a Tibetan with the unlikely name Mike Mahoney (make money?), who has given Frank a book on the teachings of the Dalai Lama, but who also displays a framed picture of Ronald Reagan above his desk.Frank has fled the formerly idyllic township of Haddam, New Jersey, now a phantasmagoria of suburban development gone awry, for the seaside calm of the Shore. His house faces East to the open ocean, from whence he, and all others, came. Haddam is a not so shining example of change, as it’s now devoid of the less-spoiled innocence of the Shore, bloated, a mockery (The place where his ex-wife lives. In his own, old house no less.) And Frank, as a purveyor of land, is in as good a position as any to make observations about Haddam, though he sometimes sounds like he’s dictating a real estate primer. The implication is that, unlike that of the human character once it has reached the permanent period, the lay of the land, that which is observable, ownable, is in a constant state of flux. Uncertainty reigns over the American landscape. It is, finally, The Year 2000, and, after the great millennial let-down, the country must now watch the disputed presidential election play out (Frank voted for Gore, the apparent loser.)And perhaps the economic boom of the last decade is ready to go bust? And perhaps other storm clouds are brewing, misfortune of a different sort set to make landfall in the not-too-distant future? It is a deep source of interest, setting the book at this pivotal time in American history, and Ford evokes the turmoil skillfully, the problems inherent to “progress” as described by an older and undeniably crankier Frank Bascombe, with just enough veiled reference to future events to make the narrative seem retroactively prescient without being (too) smug.But, with a nod to almost every aspect of modern American life that you can name, the book is ultimately about death. And one cannot discuss America and death without discussing violence, too. Surprisingly, violence plays an important part in the narrative. As a device, its presence seems meant to allow Frank to cross that last hurdle, to allow the lay of the land around him, so troubling at times, fraught with worry and doubt and misfortune, to fall away, his body just an ephemeral shell, his essence, his greater consciousness, which is all that the reader has had all along, taking finally its proper place as all that is permanent.Frank Bascombe has always been obsessed with the notion of “disappearing into your life.” It is a condition borne in on an existential riptide that sucks men into obscurity, nothing to show for themselves at the End save for the mundane details: the family, the career, the political affiliations, the kind of car you drove (a Chevy Suburban, in Frank’s case, one of many little ironies from the sometimes impish Ford). These contours in life’s landscape, this glorious topography, is not mundane when lived, of course, only when surveyed from a distance, a process for which Frank Bascombe has a singular talent. He recognizes that this territory has been negotiated before in past American lives, where second acts are hard to come by, if for no other reason than because it is damn near impossible to lower the curtain on the first.

Weekend Extras

Corey Vilhauer, host of his Book of the Month Club here at The Millions, has put together a great collection of lists of greatest writers, straying outside of the purely literary realm into music, film, and other areas. He has his own top 25, as well as top tens from a number of guests.The Guardian interviews Richard Ford in anticipation of his upcoming third Frank Bascome novel, Lay of the Land. “It is quite some novelty to find myself waking up in Richard Ford’s bed,” it starts.The Boston Globe profiles John Hodgman, who, with his book The Areas of My Expertise, regular “Daily Show” appearances, and ubiquitous Mac ads is suddenly everywhere. Update: Hodgman gets interviewed by Radar.Did you know there are two books about “Jeopardy!” out right now? Brainiac is by Ken Jennings, the guy who was the game show’s champion for about six months in 2004. A somewhat wackier look at the show is Prisoner of Trebekistan by another former champion, Bob Harris. The Village Voice recently reviewed both books.

The Most Anticipated Books of 2006 – Part 2

Back in January, I took a look at some of the “most anticipated” books of the year. Well, those books are old news now, but there are some great-looking books on the way. September and October in particular are looking pretty stacked. Please share any relevant links or books I may have missed.July:Gallatin Canyon by Thomas McGuane (New Yorker interview)Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle (Boyle’s blog)The Driftless Area by Tom Drury (Drury’s story “Path Lights“)The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (a new translation, thanks Bud)America’s Report Card by John McNally (Thanks Dan)The Judas Field by Howard Bahr (Thanks J.D.)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)September:Moral Disorder by Margaret AtwoodThe Dissident by Nell Freudenberger (Her first novel; following up her collection, Lucky Girls)All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones (very excited about this one – the title story appeared in the New Yorker.)A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon (a first look at the book)The Road by Cormac Mccarthy (a first look)After This by Alice McDermott (PW Review [scroll down])Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (thanks Dan)Smonk by Tom Franklin (thanks Dan)Dead in Desemboque by Eddy Arellano (Thanks Laurie)October:One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (sequel to Case Histories)What is the What by Dave Eggers (based on a true story, excerpted in The Believer – Part 1, 2, 3)Lay of the Land by Richard Ford (The third Frank Bascombe novel – I wrote about it last year.)Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier (A big enough deal that the announcement of a publication date came as an Entertainment Weekly exclusive.)Restless by William Boyd (A World War II novel)The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi JulavitsGolem Song by Marc Estrin (thanks Dan)The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke (Thanks Laurie)November:The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro (The title story was in the New Yorker)Soon the Rest Will Fall by Peter Plate (Thanks Laurie)The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross (Thanks Laurie)December:Untitled Thomas Pynchon novel (as confirmed by Ed.)January 2007:Zoli by Colum McCannFlora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce (Thanks Laurie)February 2007:Knots by Nuruddin Farah (based on “Farah’s own recent efforts to reclaim his family’s property in Mogadishu, and his experiences trying to negotiate peace among the city’s warlords.”)May 2007:The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (Posts about the book: 1, 2, 3, 4)Addenda: Books suggested in the comments are being added above.

Ask a Book Question: The 40th in a Series (The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford)

Dee writes in with this question:Do you know when Richard Ford’s sequel to Independence Day will be published?Richard Ford’s Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winning Independence Day from 1995 revisits Frank Bascombe, who Ford first introduced to readers as The Sportswriter in 1986. In the novels, Ford plumbs the angst of the 1980s and 90s through the everyman character Bascombe. A third book in the series would likely place Bascombe in the current decade. I’m sure the Bascombe followers out there would like to see how he is faring.As Dee suggests, Ford is indeed working on a third Bascombe novel, to be called The Lay of the Land, and while I could find no indication that he has completed it, he has been reading from the unfinished book at readings over the last couple of years. In fact, attendees of Ford’s reading tour in the UK in fall, 2004, received a bound excerpt of the new book. As for the actual release date, I don’t think they’ve set one yet, but I did spot a note on one British Web site (see the box labeled “Also of interest”) that seemed to indicate the book will be out some time in 2006, but I couldn’t confirm it. He briefly touched on the new book in a 2002 interview with Robert Birnbaum of identity theory:Birnbaum: You leave it all on the playing field…Ford: Yes. That’s kind of how I go about doing it. I get to that frame of mind perhaps a with little more difficulty. But I’m working on the 3rd Frank Bascombe [The Sportswriter, Independence Day] book…Once I finish that…Birnbaum: I thought you said you weren’t going to do that?Ford: No I said…Birnbaum: I’m kidding, I’m kidding..Ford: I hope I didn’t say that. I might have said it. I do a lot of things to remind myself of how serious projects need to be to do them.Birnbaum: So you are working on the next Frank Bascombe novel?Ford: Yes and I will be working on it. There are moments when I feel like I can really do it. There are moments when I feel like…yesterday was a bad day. You find out things, people don’t like your book, you think to yourself, “I don’t know how I can spend the next three years writing a book when I feel so shitty about this now?” But being a novelist, it is important to average your days. It’s like Olympic diving. You throw out the high score and the low score. I threw out the low score yesterday…Another interview from 2002, with Dave Weich of Powells.com, offers more details:Ford: When I began this third book called The Lay of the Land, I asked, What could I make Frank be next? And I finally decided that he can be a realtor. It seemed to me to be both plausible and to give rise to new speculative developments of his character. Obviously you can’t have him go back and do the same kinds of things – he has to have a whole different orientation to life, which is not difficult to do, really – but it wasn’t broke in the last book, so I think I don’t have to fix that.Dave: What’s the motivation for going back to his character rather than starting fresh with someone else?Ford: To write about Frank again is truly one of the pleasurable things I’ve gotten out of writing – that is to say, palpably pleasurable – so I’m writing about Frank as a gift to myself. I think it would be fun to write about him again and to see what my imagination can turn up for him. Who knows? Maybe I can’t do it. It’s always a possibility. Because you can write two doesn’t guarantee that you can write three. If I can’t, that’ll be okay.Dave: Will Frank be in New Jersey again?Ford: On the shore this time. Married, I think. Have left Haddam. This is much more involved with his daughter, Clarissa. Taking place on Thanksgiving in the year 2000.Dave: A holiday again.Ford: I gotta do holidays. They offer me so much. In particular, for me and the reader, a whole set of associations. If you write about Easter, if you write about the Fourth of July, something as important, almost invisibly important, as the temporal setting of a book…if the reader can say, “Gee, that’s a time I know. I have a whole set of memories and associations to bring to bear on whatever’s happening then,” you’ve got a lot going for you.It may still be a while yet, before we read it, though. According to this post at TEV, by summer of 2004, Ford had “completed 380 typed pages – ‘about half’ – of The Lay of The Land.” And an interview from February of this year has Ford saying, “I’m well past the middle of it, the last fifth of it probably.”Update: In the comments, Stephan notes that an excerpt from the novel appeared in the New Yorker a few months ago. You can read it here.Update 2: Lay of the Land will be released on October 24, 2006.

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