Links: Closing the Books

A list of my ten favorite books of 2010 is up at Washington City Paper, along with some prefatory notes about my frustration with many of the year’s “big” novels. You should do one of the nation’s finest alternative weeklies the kindness of your clicking on the link, but if you’re eager to cut to the chase, here’s the list:

1. Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
2. James Hynes, Next
3. Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
4. Ander Monson, Vanishing Point
5. Dinaw Mengestu, How to Read the Air
6. Paul Auster, Sunset Park
7. Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction
8. Stephen O’Connor, Here Comes Another Lesson
9. Mark Slouka, Essays From the Nick of Time
10. John D’Agata, About a Mountain

I filed the piece in early December, and since then I’ve come across a few titles that would make me consider retooling the list. Two deserve special attention. Stanford literary scholar Terry Castle‘s The Professor and Other Writings is an uproarious collection of personal essays that generally deal with such unliterary topics as shelter mags and Art Pepper, but mostly with a focus on the author herself (particularly in the extended title essay), and she never loses her intellectual rigor even at her most willfully unserious and self-deprecating. And Paul Murray‘s novel about life at an Irish private school, Skippy Dies, artfully merged the rich humor that emerges only when 14-year-olds are sniping at each other with the kind of pathos that emerges only when 14-year-olds are being themselves—which is to say, seeing a transformative moment in nearly every interaction. The very bulk of Skippy Dies somewhat wrecks my thesis about being frustrated with big books. But my main complaint about the year’s doorstoppers is that they were built on a punishing number of archetypes; a few of those creep into Skippy Dies too, but the boys and girls it chronicles are generally unburdened of such baggage.

A few more notes and links before we close out the year:

The Chicago Sun-Times gathered up a host of suggestions for its year-end books feature, in which I also recommended Li.

Not on my list: David ShieldsReality Hunger, but for Jim Hanas it raised two very good questions: “1) What sort of stories, if any, can only be told with the written word? and 2) What stories, if any, can only be told as fictional narratives?” (via)

Luc Sante on reviewing Shields: “When you review a book that’s contentious, people respond to the reviewer as if he had written the book.”

Another book I’ve read over the holiday break is Robert Alter‘s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, which investigates commonalities of style between the King James Bible and the works of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy. Alter’s discussion of the King James Bible’s influence on the latter three authors isn’t as convincing as I’d like, and as David E. Anderson writes, “his basic case, that the King James Bible determined ‘the foundational language and symbolic imagery’ of the wider American culture, has not been made.” But he registers a spirited defense of reading an author through his or her style instead of through theory.

Speaking of Bellow, Andrew O’Hagan writes of his Letters: “they show an altogether smaller man, an underman, who struts his way through a million miniature resentments and hassles, only to land the reader, again and again, very far short of the novelist’s great capacities. He’s not even a Herzog, stewing in his own deepness, but a whiner, itching and scratching with agitation.”

Looking ahead to 2011, I recommend Charles Baxter‘s forthcoming omnibus collection of short stories, Gryphon, which comes out next month. He answers a few questions at Fictionaut. (via) And at Lapham’s Quarterly, he considers P.T. Barnum‘s autobiography, a “rather dull and ill-written primer on selling shoddy goods.”

Ruth Franklin has a few thoughtful reading resolutions for 2011.

A brief history of the novel-long sentence.

Cynthia Haven laments the absence of Menlo Park’s Kepler’s on a recent list of the country’s best U.S. bookstores. I’ve never been, but I can second her recommendation of Paperback Dreams, a documentary about the death of the independent bookstore in which Kepler’s is prominently featured.

A host of writers are organizing a benefit on February 6 to help the family of Beautiful Children author Charles Bock, whose wife, Diana Colbert, is hospitalized with leukemia. Various big-name authors will put their services up for auction; Gary Shteyngart, for instance, will “buy you a hot dog and flatter the pants off you.” You needn’t be in New York (or wish to have a famous author buy you a hot dog) to make a donation. (via)

“Going through the gate still has certain benefits, but it’s no longer the only way for authors to get to where they want to go,” a publishing consultant tells the Los Angeles Times in a story about how publishers’ gatekeeping status is eroding—though the examples the story cites are all authors who did well enough thanks to those gatekeepers that they can afford to reject that model and shift to one more to their liking. Unknown authors can do it too, yes, but it’s a lot of work, and tends to lead back to those “gatekeepers” (which, again, is not a four-letter word). More from Mike Cane.

On the key distinction between American fiction set in the east and the west.

According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cane author Jean Toomer was a black man passing as white, “running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited.”

Michael Chabon talks with the Atlantic about his Fountain City excerpt in McSweeney’s.

If you’re here intentionally, you likely already have heard that Arts & Letters Daily creator Denis Dutton has died. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie has a succinct appreciation that gets at why the site mattered.

A win-win situation: The Washington Post reports on a new collaboration between libraries and publishers in which libraries get advance copies of young-adult books and readers deliver feedback on them to the publishers. According to the Post story, the young readers enjoy the thrill of getting hold of books before they go on sale, and what’s more it cultivates an enthusiasm for critical thinking and reviewing. Wait, scratch that: “[T]he dream that motivates some reviewers is the possibility of an even wider audience: Perhaps one day, their words will grace a book’s cover or inside pages, as part of a promotional blurb, or be posted on a publisher’s Web site.”

And that’ll do it for me for 2010. Thank you for reading, commenting, and generally helping me be a better reader in the past year. See you in 2011.

Links: Crisis Mode

Following this week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, the main spokesperson for the nation from the world of American literary fiction has been Edwidge Danticat, who’s spoken to the Wall Street Journal about the catastrophe and provided the paper with a brief primer on Haitian culture. A little surprisingly, I’d heard nothing from fiction writer Ben Fountain, who famously visited the country more than 30 times while researching his excellent short-story collection, Brief Conversations With Che Guevara. But Texas Lawyer caught up with him:

I expect that recovery will be long, difficult, expensive and complex. It may well be that the country never recovers in this generation. On the other hand, I think there’s a possibility, however hard it may be to focus on at this point, that the earthquake provides the impetus for a sustained, concerted and well-planned effort by the international community to help Haiti overcome its problems. In any event, Haiti certainly won’t be the same country that it was on Jan. 10.

My new favorite litblog: Years of BASS, in which a Virginia researcher makes his way through the Best American Short Story series.

Films inspired by the films described in David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest will screen soon at Columbia University.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s very clear to me now—as I’d always supposed—that we can’t really choose what we write about in any passionate way: the material chooses us.”

Just because Twitter forces you to be concise doesn’t mean it’s going to make you an Ernest Hemingway.

Jill McCorkle goes off-Broadway.

Christopher Hitchens on Gore Vidal going off the rails.

Jaws meets Deliverance, with bears“—the elevator pitch an author needs to catch a publisher’s attention grows ever shorter.

On a related note, here’s Charles Bock on pursuing fiction writing as a career: “A teacher of mine once told me that as a writer you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll be humiliated again, and when you think you can’t be humiliated any more, they’ll find new ways to humiliate you.”

A Day of Reading “A Year in Reading”

Once again litblog the Millions has launched its annual Year in Reading series, in which a raft of writers and critics weigh in on their favorite books of the year, regardless of pub date. There are plenty of admirable participants—Joseph O’Neill, Elizabeth McCracken, Nam Le and many more. I gave special attention to Charles Bock‘s list, though, and not just because I admired his novel, Beautiful Children, or because any guy who gives a thumbs-up to Slash‘s autobiography is aces in my book. Bock also plugs a few worthy books that didn’t get nearly as much attention as they deserved (links are to my reviews): Vincent Lam‘s Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures, Leni ZumasFarewell Navigator, and Susan Choi‘s A Person of Interest. Part of the fun of year-end lists is learning about something you hadn’t heard about, but it’s also nice to see your own interests validated by a writer you respect.

One quibble: If Bock wants to recommend State by State, a mediocre attempt at rebooting the WPA guides’ mission, that’s his call, but it couldn’t have hurt for him to note that he has a piece in it. (One of the better ones as it happens, on Nevada.)

Roundup: Don’t Talk That Way

In the process of blogging about Richard Price‘s Lush Life for the National Post, police dispatcher Heather Clark seems to have acquired a touch of Price’s rhythms: “I lived with a cop who metaphorically swept away the stress of his world with the comforting, sucking hum of the vacuum cleaner. In our seven years together he hoovered his way through three rugs, and blew the engines on six Dirt Devils (that doesn’t include the busted Bissell brooms). It doesn’t take the pain away, but it sure as hell takes away the caring.” (Lush Life is now out in the U.K., receiving unsurprisingly enthusiastic reviews.)

The Santa Barbara Independent has an expansive feature on Selden EdwardsThe Little Book, a fall big book decades in the making. (h/t Liz)

Novelist Herbert Gold speaks with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles about his new memoir, Still Alive!, which recounts his relationships with Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and other literary folk.

Finally, trust Radar to ask the tough questions. From an interview with Charles Bock:

I’m actually supposed to ask you about Bennington. Apparently, all of the girls there have claw-shaped vaginas that can recite Andrea Dworkin to the tune of “Old Dixie.” Is this true?
That’s really, really funny. I don’t know if Dworkin might be too outdated now. I can tell you this: During my time in the MFA program, I worked like absolute hell to get laid as much as I possibly could. At no time did any woman’s intimate area recite anything to me to the tune of “Old Dixie.”

Back to Bock

I recently finished Beautiful Children after having to set it aside for a bit, and…well, Ruth Franklin has the time and space to say it much better than I could:

All the characters in Beautiful Children seek means of escape– if not actually through running away, then through comic books, video games, music, porn. Reading a novel, too, is a form of escapism, and one measure of Bock’s great success is that his book allows the reader metaphorically to enact this escape. More than one scene was so terrible to read that I actually cried out, but the pleasures of immersion in this fictional universe are nonetheless so considerable that–like Lincoln watching his porn videos, or Bing presented with Cheri’s flaming nipples–you cannot turn away. Indeed, the imaginative world of the novel is so vivid and complete that it is a little dismaying to find, at the very end, the only false note: an appended list of resources and advocacy groups for runaways, as if the subject of the novel were just another issue of the day. A work of fiction is not a position paper, and whatever didactic purpose it serves is finally irrelevant.

Actually, I’m not entirely on board with the complaint with the “resources” section—I suspect the book will have a way of gravitating toward the hands of parents of runaways (if not the runaways themselves), and if the novel has anything to say, it’s that every bit helps. I was actually a little more irked by Bock’s working runaway statistics into the story, but even there he’s lashed it to stories (maybe apocryphal, maybe not) about runaways that are suffused with grit, loss, and deeply black humor—a style you might call Bockian.

I certainly wouldn’t call what Bock has done DeLillo-like, as Franklin suggests, if only because DeLillo is the master of the big, widescreen, 35,000-foot view of the world, and though Bock works from multiple perspectives none of them are much higher than a sand dune. But that’s fine—I’m not convinced that DeLillo’s big-picture ironic portraits are worth imitating anymore, and if Beautiful Children is what we get instead, that trade is more than fair.

Scattered Glass

Polly Morrice writes in the New York Times about the literary inheritors to J.D. Salinger‘s Glass children. I was hoping for more examples than the three she presents–Kate Walbert‘s story “Playdate,” Charles Bock‘s Beautiful Children, and Tom Perrotta‘s Little Children. (And I’m kinda calling shenanigans on that last one–Perrotta’s tykes are bright, but too young to be legitimate inheritors of the Glassian quiz-kid type, and the notion that the kids in the novel are “near-magical” doesn’t mean they’re especially interesting in any Salinger-esque way. Just that they play the role of moral polestars in the plot.)  Who else is there? I don’t think the world is hurting for more examples of precocious, smart kids, but there have got to be more than Morrice suggests.

First Thoughts on

The first episode of Titlepage, an online video site featuring much-decorated literary editor Daniel Menaker in conversation with writers, is up now. Featured in episode one: Richard Price, Charles Bock, Colin Harrison, and Susan Choi. I haven’t had a chance yet to process the full hour-long conversation, but there are a lot of things to like: Menaker is an engaging host who’s clearly familiar with the books he’s talking about, he’s made some good choices in writers to feature, and the video format allows you to easily skip ahead to the interview with each author.

Not so great:  The “Talking Together” bit at the end, which makes me wonder why four authors  are sitting together in the same room if they’re not going to engage with each other too much. Much of the conversation is polite and round-table-y, and while I wasn’t hoping for a Price-Choi cage match, the energy level doesn’t change a whole lot throughout, and one-on-one conversations can be more fun to watch (even if Charlie Rose is the guy doing the interrupting).

Roundup: Frome Here to Eternity

Continuing our ad hoc Wharton Week here: studiously monochromatic Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt made a point of reading Edith Frome annually because “it expresses everything about how horrible New England is.” (via)

Jim Shepard‘s 2007 collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, has won the Story Prize.

Interested in reading a novel that’s stuffed with mouse-over ads because the authors have put every word up for sale? Your ship has just come in.

Hillary Jordan‘s Mudbound gets the big push in USA Today.

Charles Bock‘s Beautiful Children gets the big push from its publisher, Random House, which has made the novel free to download as a PDF until Friday at midnight. The Millions rings up publicist Jynne Martin for details. “If it’s good enough for Radiohead it’s good enough for us!” Martin exclaims. Hang on: It was good enough for Radiohead because the band has alternate revenue streams (back catalog, touring) and a fan base willing to kick in a few bucks out of sheer loyalty, two things a debut novelist has in short supply. Even so, this is probably a winner, thanks to the tight download window and the PDF format, which is clunky–you can’t carry it around with you unless you print out the pages (which is slow with PDFs). Anybody who’s seduced by the book online will likely drop money to own it.

Saturday Miscellany

The New York Times Book Review‘s Web site excerpts the first chapter of Charles Bock‘s Beautiful Children.

Financial Times profiles James Wood. The critic was no fan of D.C., which was home to his long-time outlet, the New Republic, before he recently jumped to the New Yorker:

“It’s a dead place,” says Wood. “Unless you are going to conquer it like something out of a Balzac novel, or climb the political world, it’s dead, totally dead.”

The article also includes some of Wood’s more pointed assessments, like his take on Tom Wolfe‘s A Man in Full:

Unfortunately, Wolfe’s characters only feel one emotion at a time; their inner lives are like jingles for the self. As Picasso had his Blue Period, so Wolfe’s characters have their Angry Period, or their Horny Period, or their Sad Period. But they never have them at the same time, and so the potential flexibility of the stream of consciousness, precisely its lifelike randomness, is nullified.

Theodora Keogh’s stepdaughter notes in the comments of my brief item on Keogh’s death that the Charlotte Observer piece I pointed to wasn’t an obit. True enough: What I linked to was an appreciation. The Observer‘s obituary was published on Jan. 8. Clearly, I’m not the Keogh expert. Brooks Peters, however, very much seems to be.