Links: Kiddin’ on the Keys

Jason Hartley reviews page 86 of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad: “Later, Stephanie and Bennie have gin and tonics, while watching fireflies and listening to a pianist playing ‘harmless melodies on a shining upright.’ … I find the word harmless a strange choice; is it a value judgment? Should a pianist play harmful melodies while people have cocktails? Is there even such a thing as a harmful melody?” I’m probably wrong, but I think that in the context of the critical theory Hartley helped invent, Hartley is being Overt; more on this Sunday.

Paul Auster‘s City of Glass is 25.

David Means on how even short-story collections that aren’t linked are still…linked: “As a reader, you’re moved from one completely individual unit to the next, and you know that they’re not linked and that they can stand on their own, but you still have a kind of sense, in the end, that you’ve been through an experience that comes from the complete entity.”

A lengthy profile of The Taqwacores author Michael Muhammad Knight in the Abu Dhabi National.

Adam Langer recalls the deep imprint Beverly Cleary‘s books had on him.

Barbara Kingsolver: “My inspiration comes from living in the world and seeing things that aggravate me to the back of my teeth or sing for joy.”

Some pushback on the Gary Shteyngart hype (note the comments as well).

Chicago crime novelist Marcus Sakey on the anxiety-inducing but curiously predicable process of writing a novel.

The Wall Street Journal talks with Rick Moody about Kurt Vonnegut‘s reputation, music, New York, and the “old-fashioned, big long story.”

Vendela Vida on the Believer, which she edits: “I think a lot of the people who like The Believer are people who will always be devoutly attached to the physical object of the magazine.”

I’m still conducting email Q&As with literary websites for the National Book Critics Circle blog: Interviews with Three Percent and Open Letters Monthly are now up. More coming; if you have suggestions for sites to cover, please let me know. (Simple criteria: I’m looking for online publications that are committed in some way to regularly reviewing and covering books, and use multiple contributors to do so.)

Sunday Miscellany

The Guardian makes an argument for Richard Yates‘ membership in the American canon.

Marcus Sakey‘s second novel, At the City’s Edge, is next on my to-read pile. (I’m probably sublimating some Chicago homesickness in reaching for that before Beautiful Children, but Sakey’s debut was a smart thriller, and I’m curious to see what he’s done the second time around.) The Chicago Tribune has a glowing review; the Toledo Blade has an interview.

More homesickness: Chinua Achebe, living on the campus of Bard College and missing his native Nigeria, discusses Things Fall Apart on its 50th anniversary.

There’s apparently an award for everything, and the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association has announced its nominations for the Dilys, given to the mystery and crime novel that its member bookstores most enjoyed selling. This sort of thing would be off my radar entirely, except that one of the nominees, Marcus Sakey‘s The Blade Itself, was one of the best crime novels I’ve read in recent years. To be truthful, I don’t keep up with the genre as much as I’d like to, but the novel scratched a lot of itches: it’s a Chicago novel that understands how fractured Chicago’s class structure is, its heroes are defined by their ordinariness (something I’ve always liked about George Pelecanos‘ books), and there’s an out-of-time, postwar noir feel to the story that recalls my all-time favorite noir author, David Goodis. Here’s what I wrote about The Blade Itself for Kirkus Reviews:

One man’s attempts to shake off his checkered past are foiled when his old partner in crime returns.

Danny Carter and Evan McGann used to be a great team. The two grew up in Bridgeport, a rough-and-tumble and predominantly Irish Chicago neighborhood, where they quickly graduated from shoplifting to knocking over pawnshops. When one such heist goes bad, Danny’s able to get away without being caught, but Evan winds up doing a seven-year prison bid. Once paroled, Evan makes a beeline for Chicago, where Danny’s been keeping his nose clean by working as a construction foreman and settling into a comfy life with his girlfriend, who runs a hip nightclub. A standard-issue kidnapping plot ensues, but though there’s a ring of familiarity to the material, Sakey proves he has the chops to eventually do better things. He has a great feel for the moral dilemmas created by Danny’s return to criminal life, and he makes the most of Chicago’s geographical split between its north side (upscale, educated) and south side (working-class, pugnacious) without overworking the metaphor. The dialogue has all the efficiency and punch the genre demands, and Evan is a fully imagined thug-he’s simultaneously charismatic and fearsomely violent, and though his actions strain believability in the later chapters, he never becomes a tough-guy caricature. (And Sakey doesn’t shy away from describing the occasional bit of savagery in unsettling detail.) The author is working with themes and tones reminiscent of George Pelecanos; he shares the same interest in exploring the ill-lit corners of a city, prefers heroes who have a rough past and some dirt under their fingernails and has little interest in police or professional gumshoes. That streetwise attitude makes him a valuable addition to Chicago crime lit, a landscape currently dominated by authors of detective stories (Sara Paretsky) and legal thrillers (Scott Turow).

A promising start from a writer willing to get deep into a city’s grit. Agent: Scott Miller/Trident Media Group