Monday, March 29, 2010

Ruminating on the 2010 Pulitzers

The 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners will be announced in two weeks on April 12th, and it seems like that fact is stalking me. I'm reading a Pulitzer winner, I'm drafting a comprehensive list of fiction winners for the local library; even the local library's book club is doing a Pulitzer winner.

Last year when Olive Kitteridge was announced the 2009 recipient, I didn't know anything about the book or couldn't have even made any sort of prediction as to what might have won. Over the course of that year however, I read five new titles* and more importantly became more conscious of the titles being released, so I'm a little more prepared to weigh in this time around. Last year, I consulted for their list of likely winners. This is their prognostication, in order of likelihood:
1. My Fathers Tears by John Updike
2. Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Philips
3. Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
4. The Humbling by Philip Roth
5. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
6. The Maple Stories by John Updike
7. American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell
8. Spooner by Pete Dexter
9. Generosity: An Enchantment by Richard Powers
10. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by David Mueenuddin
11. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
12. A Good Fall by Ha Jin
13. The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich
14. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
15. Dear Husband (or Little Bird of Heaven) by Joyce Carol Oates
So that's a lot of books, not all of which am I familiar with and only one of which I've actually read. Based on reviews, I'd argue that Roth and Doctorow are both easily discounted, despite their high positions on the list; Both books were at one point priorities for me, but with mediocre reception, they've been relegated to sometime in the future.

John Updike, though his final collection My Father's Tears got very good reviews, is likely featured so prominently on the list due to his passing at the beginning of 2009. True he had passed by the time of the 2009 nominations, but the Widows of Eastwick was poorly received and would have been discrediting. I wouldn't expect Updike to win this year either. Updike has won twice in the past, and so there's no sense of career validation (though I don't feel that's a concern with the Pulitzers anyway) and additionally, there has never been a Pulitzer winning short story collection that hasn't begun with "The collected stories of" or "The stories of."

I also wouldn't bet on Oates. Her prolifacy is a bit of a detriment to her, and more over if her most successful novels such as them or Blonde were passed over, I don't think this is the year to expect a change. I do think Jonathan Lethem has a strong chance of winning. Chronic City has a strong literary progeny, has been frequently cited as one of the best books of the year, and has had -- at least for myself -- a near ubiquitous presence creating the urge for me to read it.

Call it a kind of vanity, or naivete, but I genuinely believe that the one book on this list I did read, Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, has an especially good chance of taking the award. The Pulitzer is an American award, given to American authors, yes, but also with preference given to books dealing with American life. Let the Great World Spin is a book about how lives converge in the face of massive events; a novel about New York in the 1970s, but also unmistakably tied to New York in the wake of 9/11. Not only did Let the Great World Spin win the National Book Award (which isn't a great signifier, actually. Only five works of fiction have taken both in the National Book Award's 60 year history), but I think it also, at least of what I know the books above, meets the criterion best.

However, that leaves a number of books I'm familiar with on levels ranging from having thought about buying it, book in hand to complete ignorance of both author and title. Anyway. That's my predictions for what they're worth.

*Lowboy by John Wray - Nobody Move by Denis Johnson - Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz - This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Authors and their Fan Pages

I was crawling around the internet last night, and for some reason it struck me to compare the number of fans authors have on facebook (some authors have more than one page because people don't know how to search properly on facebook, and in the purpose of cleanliness only the combined number will be shown).

Biggest Legion Found: Dan Brown, 144, 742
Smallest Group Found: Betty Smith, 91 Fans
Greatest Unexpected Reality: Paul Auster, 35, 887 Fans

J.K. Rowling: 69,912 Fans
Stephanie Meyer: 30, 400 Fans

Danielle Steel: 30, 030 Fans
Nora Roberts: 16, 077 Fans

Stephen King: 141, 521 Fans
Dean Koontz: 36, 590 Fans

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 34, 164 Fans
Leo Tolstoy: 17, 651 Fans

Norman Mailer: 1,692 Fans
Gore Vidal: 6, 043 Fans

Harper Lee: 287 Fans
Truman Capote: 10, 437 Fans

Ernest Hemingway: 10, 631 Fans
William Faulkner: 11, 740 Fans

Nathaniel Hawthorne: 1, 614 Fans
Edgar Allen Poe: 32, 487 Fans

Philip Roth: 1, 620 Fans
Don DeLillo: 897 Fans

Kurt Vonnegut: 17, 662 Fans
Ray Bradbury: 17, 615 Fans

So that doesn't include Austen, Dickens, Salinger, Orwell, Kerouac, Joyce, Jackson, Mann, Forster, Cheever, Carver, or an absurd number of others, but I think it gets the job done.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

E.M. Forster's Maurice

by E.M. Forster

(10: 15/50)

"There seem two roads for arriving at Beauty-- one is in common, and all the world has reached Michelangelo by it, but the other is private to me and a few more. We come to him by both roads."

The entry below will openly analyse E.M. Forster's Maurice and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

If you were to look up works of gay fiction, there are few titles-- if any-- you would find referenced as one of the best as frequently as Maurice. First published in 1971, Forster's novel actually dates back to 1914, and yet, perhaps distressingly so, its reason for literary significance, even at such a late date, hadn't seemed trivial. It's the first novel of my run on gay fiction that is of substantial note in the cannon.

Characteristic of Forster, Maurice is a novel with a humanist theme. Maurice is a normal man in almost every imaginable way: He's an attractive young man, of good social rank, capable but not impressive, nor is he very brave or especially smart. He's perfectly average except, of course, that he's gay and it's this that sets Maurice apart from other people. It is part of his private road: The way by which he comes to the world and other people that is unlike that of anyone else.

Through Maurice, Forster is making a case for empathy. Not only is Maurice misunderstood by other people, but he misunderstands them as well; two struggles that are at the heart of this novel, consistently embodied in Maurice's loneliness. Forster makes Maurice normal in every way imaginable to insist on normalcy's relativeness to personal nature. It's not something that can be weighed comparatively between people.

Maurice and Clive, at first so similar to one another become the other's foil, and the results, sparing detail here out of consideration, elicit strong emotion. Maurice, Clive and Alec each serve, in their way, Forster's assertion.

Maurice is a work of deft subtly, exploring empathy, love, and class within the confines of the old novel: elaborate craftsmanship in the guise of a simple romance. It's the sort of novel whose beauty doesn't dawn on you until the crisis of plot and cleaver turns of phrase have turned to embers in your memory: still drawing oxygen, but no longer serving to distract. The novel insists upon being read twice.

It's a book worthy of it's place in the cannon not only for its historical literary significance, but also for its genuine merit. Perhaps I come to Forster by two paths myself, but I can only expect I'll be returning soon.

Up Next: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


There are a few things that when my attention is forced upon them, my heart aches as though someone is pulling apart the organ's tissue. I suppose am I the worst capitalist in America because nothing effects me quite so significantly as a failing business. I don't know if it's the prospect of the jobless, or of the spectral husks of former places of commerce, or simply the demarcation of some sort of change but any place threatening to close its doors forever has never failed to instill a sense of profound sadness.

I've mentioned the looming decline of booksellers before I believe, but if you're wanting for concrete proof, you can find it here.

I could write a long post about how terrible the world would be without actual, physical booksellers, or detail the path of the store's decline but I don't feel there is a particular need. I don't know what it's been like in the rest of the country, for you, but in my little niche of New York I've seen a lot of places, local and chain alike, close up shop. Frankly, it depresses the hell out of me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Defining Gay Fiction

As I've mentioned previously, I'm making an effort to read gay fiction at present. For this reason, I've spent a good deal of time reading about and exploring the internet for direction as to which books I should be reading in this short period of narrowed focus. Finding a definitive list of significant pieces of gay fiction has proved a significant challenge.

If you google "best gay fiction", you'll find goodreads and afterelton at the top of the results. These are both democratic mob-rule type lists and they're helpful to an extent but if you're like me, by the time you get to the tail end of each you start the doubt the total credibility. I don't know a thing about Faith and Fidelity by Tere Michaels or A Better Place by Mark A. Roeder but if we were to judge books by their cover... they don't look like the kind of books that belong on any "best of" fiction list.

Conversely, you can find lists like the one compiled by Publishing Triangle which includes works such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Moby Dick, and Little Women among the ranks of the best gay fiction, and although I haven't read all of these, their inclusion seems to be the result of great exaggeration or radical readings.

Ultimately for my own purposes I've had to come to a decision as to what I felt was or could included among the ranks of the best gay fiction. This is how I have come to define gay fiction: Fiction written by a LGBT author, fiction concerned with gay themes or subjects, and/or ideally, a work of fiction with a LGBT central/major character whose sexuality is in some minor or major way an element of the composition.

I think this definition gives the niche the breadth it's due without being absurd about what's inclusive. I think it would be a great thing to see a list, considerate of historical and influential importance, assembled of the legitimate best gay fiction.

If the world is waiting on me to do it they'll be waiting awhile. I have far too much reading to do.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Scott Heim's Mysterious Skin

Mysterious Skin
by Scott Heim

(10: 14/50)

"'Yes,' Avalyn said. 'And it's okay. As hard as it is to believe, it's going to be okay'"

The entry below will openly analyse Scott Heim's Mysterious Skin and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

A lot of debut novels are the product of a master's thesis, it's not a particularly uncommon occurrence. The downside to these works, despite that many are very good, is that they often have in them the ticks and missteps of a young writer. Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim is one of those kinds of books.

This a book is concerned with sexual trauma: exploring the different avenues in which a mind comes to cope with it, but how ultimately rooted in each is simple denial of the truth. Neil and Brian both grapple with their past in significantly different ways, and to a far lesser extent, some of the supporting characters share in that as well. However, this is a difficult book to make a case for thematically without simply outlining the plot, and that thematic monotone is just one of the problems with the novel.

The great danger of writing a novel with multiple narrators is that you have to be assured that each of your narrators as equally interesting as the others. The other great danger is that if your narrative is one that converges, as is the case with Mysterious Skin, you have to be assured that the assembling parts are equally interesting. I'm unconvinced that Heim does this successfully.

The narrative is split between its two major characters, Neil and Brian, and I believe that the major problem here is that Heim manages to imbue a fascinating perversity to the sections concerning Neil that is aptly absent from Brian's sections, but to unsatisfying effect as there is nothing equally fascinating in his narrative line. You're forced to read Brian's sections with a certain apathy as they lack anything especially compelling, and are -- I believe-- leading to an obvious resolution. Sex will always trump people talking about aliens.

Heim is also very fond of similes. He shouldn't be. His have a tendency to be silly, contrived, and on occasion, unnecessary. Do we really need to know the toothpicks were like "tiny swords"? Also, why should the toothpicks be like tiny swords when they might as well be tiny sword toothpicks? There is exactly one simile in the entire novel I remember liking, something to the effect of "like the clouds had been dunked in grape juice"-- and, well, that's all.

Unnecessary components are a large part of the issues with this novel too. It goes far beyond similes, and well into major narrative points: some of which aren't even adequately resolved which furthers the problem. I, for one, liked Eric Preston as a narrator and was a little tiffed when he left the story without any indication of his romantic future but was the story component necessary at all? Why play it up if you're not going to resolve it? Sure it helped give him a character, but that's all and the disinterest in resolution speaks to its general and thematic unimportance.

Heim's novel is certainly readable: It's never especially boring, and the depths of perversity that he explores are fascinating and engaging, but the novel is weak in the knees and it's only a slight push away from collapse at times.

Up Next: E.M. Forster's Maurice

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Taking a Critical Lens to the Critical Lens Essay

Every state has its own education guidelines and requirements. In New York State these include the regents exams; a series of tests spread out over the four years of high school in every major subject. The English regents examine is perhaps the biggest of them. The test is taken in the Junior year, and it consists of two three-hour testing sessions. In my own experience the critical lens essay, a major component of the test, was what our school prepped us for with the greatest amount of rigor.

The critical lens essay, for those who are unfamiliar, is an essay which examines the validity of a quote, and either supports or refutes the statement using two pieces of literature to support their position. The perceived intent here is to show that our students are thinking creatures by asking them to interpret and analyse these quotes and by default the literature they have already read. That's a fine intention but the critical lens, at least within its present state, isn't the proper method of execution.

Firstly, let me share with you the quotes which have appeared on regents exam over the past two years or so
"A real hero is always a hero by mistake..."
-Umberto Eco

"Fear always springs from ignorance."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

"...the strongest man upon the earth is he who stands the most alone."
-Henrik Ibsen

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly..."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"Whoever does wrong, wrongs himself..."
- Marcus Aurelius
Notice anything strange about these? You can, of course, form a dissenting opinion about anything but by large these quotes conform to general ideals. They're all very safe; notions chosen to elicit a conformity of opinion. And even if one were to disagree with Marcus Aurelius or Umberto Eco, how apt are they to do so on a weighty exam when the notion of consensus is so palpable?

Moreover, consider that, at least in my neck of the woods, it was actively encouraged by our under read educators not to draw support from literature outside of the school cannon. I challenge anyone to dissent with Ibsen when your primary support is limited to the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm. The answers and therefore the evaluation of these statements is built in; brainwashed. The suggestion of a literature pool limited to works you didn't select already conforms you to world view, even if the relative safeness of the quotes hasn't already forced a specific answer. Analysis within these parameters is a joke.

Now let's talk about the burden of proof, and literature analysis. In an ideal world a novel is written because an author wants to make statement about something. The shallow notions the regents tends to choose can conform to these intents because they're shallow. What does Eco's quote require of a text besides a reluctant protagonist? There are few components of storytelling that, to me, seem more text book. But the problem here as I see it is that the critical lens asks a student to conform at least moderately complex novels to simpler notions. The danger of this is that legitimate analysis of intent can devolve into an exposition of plot.

For instance Antoine de Saint-Exupery's quote can be interpreted as simplistically as "Our ability to view the world is dependent on a good conscience," which is in itself not an analysis but rephrased comprehension. A student can proceed to detail the events of To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies, making point of Scout and Ralph respectively, for a legitimate "essay". Where in this are analytical reading skills demonstrated? Where are the major themes of these texts referenced in such an essay?

The truth is these types of tests are made easier by the year so that more students are able to pass and more funding is acquired. It's more important that book X be added to the curriculum next year than it is those who will read it understand it.

My two cents? Drop the critical lens essay entirely, and throw a piece of flash fiction on the test. Something like Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants or Carver's Little Things and ask students to analyse them much in the way I analyse books here, sans colloquium. Would this prove students read their assigned literature? No, but it would prove they know how to read.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Beyond Prose Fiction: Graphic Novels

I've been using this blog as a forum to post my thoughts on the fiction I've read for a little over two months now, and that will continue to be my primary concern but I thought for all of you who might read this, I'd share the other things I've read recently in little groupings when the opportunity arises. Here are the graphic novels I've read since the beginning of the year:

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young.
Based on the children's novel by L. Frank Baum.

There's no denying that writer Eric Shanower got lucky on this one. Skottie Young's playful, whimsical characters and sweeping Ozian landscapes sell this adaptation on their own. Young's take on Oz manages break away not only the iconic film, but also from the not exactly unrecognizable original illustrations by W. W. Denslow.

It's good that's the case, because Shanower's adaptation is limp. I've said it before: Adaptation is Revision. Shanower doesn't do much beyond lifting Baum's original, repetitive text from the source. While it made sense for Baum to be repetitive when he wrote it in 1900, the elements of the story have become so ingrained in our collective memory at this point that to repeat basic knowledge (The Scarecrow is in search of brains) a dozen times is inexcusable, if for no other reason than wasted panel space. If you haven't ever read the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, It's a fine way to go about it, but returning readers have nothing new to look forward to in the adaptation.

American Born Chinese
by Gene Luen Yang

In an era with novels such as The Joy Luck Club, and Middlesex, there's a very high bar set for cultural identity stories. This isn't to say I'm holding American Born Chinese to quite that standard, but a work-- and a Printz medalist, at that-- audacious enough to approach the subject again best have something to worthwhile to contribute.

I feel the success and notoriety American Born Chinese is due almost entirely to the low expectations of the graphic novel. The three parallel narratives employed work well together, and Cousin Chin-Kee is an inspired literary devise, but Yang's attempt at weaving these three stories together-- or rather, incorporating one of them in particular-- left me annoyed due to tonal inconsistencies and that's damning for a work I had only felt was "pretty good" up until that point.

by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo

Joker is a solid Bat-verse story told from the perspective of no-name thug turned Joker's protege, Jonny Frost. It's a gritty crime story akin, as many who reviewed it at the time of release commented, to the movie universe of The Dark Knight. Lee Bermejo's dirty artwork goes a long way to establishing a tone, and his quasi-realistic take on the Batman villains are, at least, interesting to see.

Frost isn't a very unique protagonist; characters of his ilk are as common his profession but Azzarello does at least make some nice use out of the familiar. Azzarello has a tendency to be subtle to a fault here, but in contrast to the crushing obviousness frequently found in cape-and-cowl dialog it's almost forgivable. The plotting is a bit tenuous but what else can you expect about a story starring the Joker?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian

Memoirs of Hadrian
by Marguerite Yourcenar*

(10: 13/50)

"But the gods do not rise; they rise neither to warn us nor to protect us, nor to recompense nor to punish."

The entry below will openly analyse Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

French writer Gustave Flaubert wrote in correspondence, "Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." This observation, carefully plucked from published letters, would become the genesis of Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian.

Hadrian, so long entombed at the foot of Rome's seven hills, is resurrected in these pages. This book is not a novel but a laboriously achieved possession. Here is a voice of candor, eloquence, and placid, careful consideration; of perfect recollection of time, place, and company. Yourcenar ceases to exist in these pages; There is only Hadrian. It is with bitter resentment that one remembers that this great voice, this god of a man, is now only a shade upon the Earth.

And therein is the perfect beauty of Yourcenar's novel. Fixed within a period of history where the Roman gods were fond tradition but of no substance, and the cult of Christ had no more credence than that of Mithra, Yourcenar deifies Man. Embodied within Hadrian, the strong but largely pacifistic Emperor; the passionate and later mournful lover of the fair Antinous; the brilliant and read but far from diluted intellectual, is the paradigm of mankind. The Man who is as worthy of deification and veneration as any god.

Yourcenar doesn't use history to her ends; From the transience of religion to the common deification of mortal men like Antinous, it bends to her.

Memoirs of Hadrian is an exhaustingly precise, exquisite rendering of one man, and his place in history. Through his triumphs and failures, his virtues and vises, his passion and his heartbreak, Yourcenar tenderly insists on Man's assent to godhood and place in a pantheon, which surely already houses at least one charlatan or two.

Memoirs of Hadrian is beautiful, and impressive, filled with insights both familiar and fresh, and written in the voice of a man whose inability to continue existing is almost painfully lamentable. And as Hadrian-- or rather, Yourcenar-- tells us, the gods do not rise.

*Translated by Grace Frick

Up next: Scott Heim's Mysterious Skin

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why I Won't Read Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Almost exactly two years ago, over the course of a week long recess from classes, I hunkered down in the common room of my all but abandoned dormitory and began to read John Green's Looking For Alaska. There's nothing particularly special about Looking for Alaska; It's a printz medalist, yes, and also a very good, if flawed, young adult novel but these aren't the reasons for my strained recollection. Looking For Alaska, if I may be so indulgent to say so, was a baptism of sorts into this epoch of my life. Zeitgeist or no, one way or another, I owe John Green a hefty debt. Which is why I can't help but feel a margin of guilt for not planning to read his new novel, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, due out in April.

The primary reason for my betrayal stems from John Green's 2008 novel, Paper Towns. His third novel, like his first and second, featured an intelligent, forlorn, nerd protagonist and an enigmatic, wild, and ultimately misunderstood love interest. The themes, at least of Alaska and Paper Towns, are identical twins, different in appearance only under pedantic, critical inspection. I'll spare you further details, but needless to say I was very disappointed.

In addition, Will Grayson, Will Grayson is co-authored by fellow YA writer David Levithan, best known for the novels Boy Meets Boy and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Levithan is one of the few young adult authors I'm aware of writing stories about gay characters, which I regard to be of particular importance. I don't have much first-hand experience (though I'm working on it, as you'll see by my next few book choices) but most adult gay fiction seems to be cynical or smut. Neither is what a young gay teen needs and so I have a lot of respect for him, but because his work seems to be sticky adolescent faith-renewer, I have always hoped to avoid reading him. I'm far too much of a cynic myself.

And then, of course, there's the description of the novel itself:
One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical.
If using fabulous and musical in the same sentence weren't enough of a turn-off, If I were to hazard a guess, this novel is going to concern itself with self-appreciation or-- God help me-- truly understanding other people. Two characters with the same name? Really? There's only so many places you can go with that in a YA novel.

John Green, I want to support you, I do. I owe it to you to try, and I enjoy being a loyal reader, honestly. So why do you have to make it so goddamn hard?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

No Comprendo

I am a bit of a purist/perfectionist when it comes to experiencing literature. For example: I won't read Zadie Smith's On Beauty until I've read E.M. Forster's Howard's End because I know Smith's work is intimately tied to the novel. By large, I simply consider this good, albeit frustrating, practice. There's no sense reading a work if you don't have the proper tools for comprehension.

This isn't to say I'm fanatical. If I were, Side Effects by Woody Allen would have required countless philosophical perquisites; Gentlemen of The Road by Michael Chabon mounds of adventure fiction. However, I'm now reading French writer Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian. I consider myself fortunate that the English translation of Hadrian was written in conjunction with the author, otherwise I'd probably be waiting until I learned French.

Translations, for me, pose a particularly challenging problem. There is, of course, no perfect translation. Literarial meaning, brevity, tone, and prose quality all battle against one another in translation. This being the case, I have it in my head that I should wait until I know German to read Thomas Mann; Spanish to read Gabrial Garcia Marquez; French to read Gustave Flaubert; Russian to read Dostoevsky. And while I hope to learn some of these languages in the future, it's inane to think I can learn all of them.

While I am aware of this consciously, my mind continues to work in absolutes: What I have read, and what I have not read. I regard each translation as one should: as a separate individual work. After all, how can you say you've read these authors when the words you're reading weren't strung together by them? The author's conceits and the translator's aesthetics. Perhaps most frustrating, a translation is also corrupted by a translator's interpretation.

I've read and own three different translations of Henrik Iben's A Doll's House. Sure they're the similar, but you'd be crazy to say they're all the same. One offers great heightened dialog, another exquisite subtext. If it's not the original, there is always a sacrifice. Every time Hadrian translator Grace Frick incorporates the phrase "Pell-mell" I know it comes at the expense of a much more apt French word or phrase. And all of this ignores the great trouble of actually choosing a translation.

I don't have a conclusion. Simply, it's all very problematic for me, and I don't understand why it has to be.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of The Road

Gentlemen of the Road
by Michael Chabon

(10: 12/50)

"'Well, it looks like our boy found himself an army," the African said, shaking his head. "So much the worse for him'"

The entry below will openly analyze Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

It can be argued that Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road is an exploration or at least a reminder of what Jewish civilization has been; that the Jewish people haven't always been stereotypically perceived as Woody Allen or Mort Goldman. Chabon even addresses these conceptions in his afterword. So yes, it can be argued, however, I wouldn't write a treatise on the subject. Gentlemen of the Road is more an adventure novel cut from the same material as the works of Dumas.

In regard to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I suppose it depends on who you ask. The novel unquestionably makes allusions to the various adventure writers of the past, Dumas coming the surface primarily because he epitomises the genre in many regards. Conscious breaks in the narrative timeline, characters masquerading in disguise; it's a grandfather's child, really. And here is where we come to who you ask.

Genre fiction, because it so rarely concerns itself with higher aims, can only be evaluated by its success as a piece of genre fiction. There's no theme to redeem a lackluster narrative. In the case of Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, it's well plotted and attention-holding but not engrossing. The narrative twists and turns numerous times (every chapter or two, really) but the things that you don't already see coming won't surprise you either. Chabon is playing in a sandbox full of toys we grew up with. Combined with sporadic, painfully overwrought passages, the novel is certainly not perfect.

It's an enjoyable read: It moves swiftly (in the good sense), his characters have a visual presence, and the accompanying illustrations are delightful. And despite being as objective as I have been here, I still be have an innate liking for Chabon and his work. I enjoy reading him even if he doesn't impress me, and he is at least unique in that regard.

Up Next: Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian

Friday, March 5, 2010

Obervations: Privilege

There are moments, rare but wonderful, when I remember what a staggering privilege it is to not only be able to be a writer, but to write at all. These moments bring with them an astounding evocation of diverse emotion that, despite not writing as I should, shame is the most minuscule component of. This is the truth of writing.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Woody Allen's Side Effects

Side Effects
by Woody Allen

(10: 11/50)

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

The entry below will openly analyze Woody Allen's Side Effects and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

Having now read two of Woody Allen's four prose collections, I must profess that I still have no idea whatsoever as to why his prose are considered essays. His "essays" feature fictional characters, absurd situations, and fictional facts, quotes and studies. I understand exaggerated non-fiction, but when you win an O. Henry I think you need to call it what it is. You can call them what you want, but for my own purposes I'm sticking with short stories.

There are two kinds of stories in Side Effects: The irreverent, and funny but ultimately unmemorable satirical sketches and the small handful of genuine short stories. The first includes the likes of Remembering Needleman, a short, mocking piece on intellectual jargon, crackpot theories and general academic bullshittery and Fabrizio's: Criticism and Response, which trashes high-brow criticism and analysis by throwing a restaurant review into absurdity ("Was Spinelli trying to say that all life was represented here in this antipasto, with the black olives an unbearable reminder of mortality? If so, where was the celery? Was the omission deliberate?").

These absurdities provide the greatest amount of humor in the collection. They're all short riffs, Allen generally being very careful not to run a joke into the ground. They're fleeting enjoyments, and I'd argue for that reason really only for the Woody Allen enthusiast.

The stories that round out the collection, such as The Lunatic's Tale and Retribution deal with Allen's typical themes. Dissatisfaction in perfection, Cosmic irony and the like. The major piece of note in this collection is, of course, Allen's O. Henry winning The Kugelmass Episode.

The Kugelmass Episode shares a plot devise with one of my personal favorite Woody Allen movies, The Purple Rose of Cairo. They also share similar themes, but while The Purple Rose of Cairo is, I believe, primarily concerned with our need for escapism, The Kugelmass Episode is more concerned with our desire for the unattainable. We've all fallen in love with a fictional character at some point, haven't we? The Kugelmass Episode argues that it is our subject of affection's innate disconnection from our lives that makes them desirable. Frankly, I'm set to start a campaign for this story to be published as a preface to each volume of the Twilight Saga.

Side Effects is a very enjoyable collection, but the Kugelmass Episode is, quite honestly, a little heartbreaking because after reading its flawless concluding sentence there is a definitive sense that you've hit the peak not only of the collection, but of Woody Allen's prose as a whole. It's not a perfect story, but its damn good. If you don't ever plan on reading Side Effects, I encourage you to at least seek out that particular story. There are full-text versions of it online if you google for them.

Up Next: Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Weighing In: Auster or Roth?

Excuse me for taking so much time to find this video (I do like to share these things early on, not months later), but I did want to share it regardless. Paul Auster, whom I recently read for the first time, comments on author Philip Roth's beliefs on the future of the novel:

Personally, I want to side with Auster. I want to keep the faith, but I've written along these lines before and quite honestly I agree with Roth. Auster is correct in asserting that story is cemented, but of the novel I'm doubtful. Auster seems, and I say this without accusation of any kind, out of touch with society: No computer; Mentioning radio-plays without any sense of irony. I'm in no position to accurately compare their fiction, but I'd argue that Roth is more concerned with and therefore more aware of the status of modern society than Auster by a large margin.

A question to the void: Do you agree with Auster or Roth or neither?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Obervations: What They're Reading

I've been shelving books at the local library for about two-weeks now, and despite its tedium it does have one upside: A first-hand cross-section of the books-- at least in this area-- are occupying themselves with.

I reshelve these authors most frequently:
-Sue Grafton
-Robert B. Parker
-Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb
-Nicholas Sparks
-Danielle Steel

Robert B. Parker seems a bit surprising, but considering that a large number of library patrons are mystery readers, and he passed away earlier this year, I suspect the attention is some sort of small retrospective, or new readers. Other culprits for most frequently shelved include Lilian Jackson Braun, James Patterson, and Faye Kellerman.

I've reshelved more Dean Koonz than I have Stephen King. I have yet to reshelve a John Grisham novel at all.

In my short time at the library I've reshelved Romeo and Juliet (twice), Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, and Night. All of which were assigned reading in high school. They also amount to-- with no exceptions coming to mind-- all of the cannonological classics of any description that I've reshelved.

Someone is reading everything the library has of Augusten Burroughs. Whoever they might be I am privately referring to them as my "little ray of hope".

Someone is very interested in period dress and costume. They're quickly working their way through the entire library collection on the section.

Cookbooks and Diet Books are the most common non-fiction sections to need reshelving.