Tomorrow I will double my teampower by marrying a wonderful woman who shall be dubbed Mrs. BookFox (at least online). So please enjoy some of the other book blogs in the blogosphere as I take a honeymoon until January 8th. Best wishes from Belize, where doubtless I will have at least some time on the beach to read, and once I’m back maybe I’ll even give a report on what tomes Mrs. BookFox is reading.
Francine Prose gives a very favorable review to Dave Egger’s latest novel/memoir What is the What in the Dec. 24th edition of the New York Times Book Review. Unfortunately, Egger’s book was released Oct. 25, two months ago. I know they were coordinating it with the podcast interview of Eggers, but isn’t two months a bit large of a gap, especially when they’re getting review copies? Editor Tanenhaus’ taste is quite good, but the timing is kinked.
(Click on the Dave Eggers tag below to read my account of the Los Angeles talk)
Not to get too much of a head start on things, but before the Christmas rush I wanted to make a list of books coming out next year.
Anthony Swofford: Exit A [January 9, 2007]. Swofford, author of the memoir Jarhead, turns to fiction in Exit A.
Martin Amis: House of Meeting. [January 15, 2007] For this Gulag-centric book, Publisher’s Weekly gave a negative blurb, saying it was "disappointing", filled with "trite cliches" and that his "trademark riffs are all too muffled in his obvious research," while the Guardian review is much kinder.
Norman Mailer: The Castle in the Forest [January 23, 2007]. First novel in a decade.
Chris Abani: The Virgin of Flames. [January 30, 2007] If you don’t know this writer, you should. Scroll a few posts down to see what I said about him after going to one of his readings.
Milan Kundera: The Curtain [January 30, 2007]. This is the third part of a non-fiction trilogy on books and reading, containing seven essays, and I’ve been waiting for it ever since the first of the series, The Art of the Novel. Expect Kundera’s trenchant insights into the form and state of the novel – these treaties should be categorized up with Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination for their ability to categorize and describe the genre.
Jonathan Lethem: You Don’t Love Me Yet. [March 07] The Random House blurb makes it sound completely over the top and hilarious. Characters working at a masturbation boutique called "No Shame"? Someone else who steals a kangaroo from the zoo to "save it from ennui?’ And it all centers around two characters who fall in love over the phone, one working at a complaint line, the other who calls and complains. How could we resist?
Anne Lamott: Grace. [March 07] Who doesn’t like Anne Lamott? Honestly, her how-to-write book Bird by Bird is not only practical, it’s knee-slappingly funny. Every semester I teach the chapter "Shitty First Drafts" and every semester students laugh and identify. And it’s also refreshing to see her new religious reflections, as this book Grace is the third book in her Thoughts on Faith series (including Traveling Mercies and Plan B)
Jim Crace: The Pesthouse. [May 07] Love, love, love Jim Crace. Quarentine was my first introduction, and all his others have not disappointed. I’ll also mention The Devil’s Larder, simply because it was such an uncategorizable book, a book that his publisher and editor must not have liked the sound of (what? a book all about food with each story from 500 to 1000 words? How will we market it?), and therefore a book that I think he was brave to write, as well as a book that’s very entertaining. Here’s the first chapter excerpt for The Pesthouse and here’s a short summary in Crace’s words: "It’s set in America’s medieval future and is an inquiry into my – and the world’s – love-hate relationship with the United States . . . the first line of the book was going to be ‘This used to be America’."
Chuck Palahniuk: Rant. [May 07] Okay, other than the fact that the title seems rather suitable for a Palahniuk novel, as much of his prose resembles a rant, I have to admit that the only novel I’ve really liked from him was Fight Club. There, I’ve said it. And no, sorry, even with all the inventive sexuality of Choke it wasn’t entertaining apart from that sexuality, and I didn’t buy the basis premise of Lullaby that an African culling song can kill people. But I’m putting Rant up here because deep down I somehow like Chuck, maybe because he’s hyper-masculine, probably because anyone who writes three novels while working as a mechanic before finally getting one published has a lot of pathos going for him. Here’s the gist of the book: "Rant takes the form of a (fictional) oral history of Buster "Rant" [who] becomes the leader of an urban demolition derby called Party Crashing, where on designated nights, the participants recognize each other by dressing their cars with tin-can tails, "Just Married" toothpaste graffiti, and other refuse, then look for designated markings in order to stalk and crash into each other. It’s in this violent, late-night hunting game that Casey meets three friends. And after his spectacular death, these friends gather the testimony needed to build an oral history of his short life. Their collected anecdotes explore the charges that his saliva infected hundreds and caused a silent, urban plague of rabies…." Definitely working on the same level of violence as Fight Club, only instead of bodies we have cars. Oh, and plus Rabies.
Don DeLillo: Falling Man. [June 07] Other than 288 pages and the ISBN, I don’t know a thing.
Annie Dillard: The Maytrees. [June 07] No, all of you who just sucked in a breath hoping for a non-fiction collection, this one is fiction. I know, I really wanted a non-fiction collection too, ever since I read a superb new essay by her in Harper’s a few years ago, post "For the Time Being", which gave me hope that a new non-fiction collection was in the works, but alas, not in 07. And not that her fiction is terrible, it’s just that her essays are world-class. It was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that made me want to become a writer (I have such a beautiful 1st edition – one of my most valued books), but I reckon you can only go Thoreau when you’re young, without responsibilities, and as you grow older you it’s easier to make fictional adventures rather than take them yourself.
- Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Lecture.
- Conversational Reading’s Epiphany on how Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer critiques space (or the lack of a defined, unique space).
- Syntax of Things makes a list of Underrated Writers.
- Lastly, Pinky’s Paperhaus comments on After the MFA’s post about whether MFAs should take Lit Crit Class.
On that last link . . .
My opinion is that reading books and critiquing them is good (big news flash, eh?) but that Lit Crit, as performed by an English PHD, is very different than reading and critiquing as a writer. PHD programs are so inundated by critical theory nowadays that they very rarely read as writers – that is, they don’t read for the things that the author intends to put inside the book, and there is less and less overlap between authorial intention and critical commentary.
After going through a MA program with a heavy dose of literary theory at New York University (but what program doesn’t rely heavily on literary theory for literary criticism?) and then transferring to an MFA at USC, I realized that the two ways of speaking were completely different. In essence, I had to re-learn how to use language (I nearly said utilize instead of use – that would be Theory-speak). I also had to re-tool how I read, and start to read as a writer looking to glean technique rather than a critic looking to trampoline off the original text and create a new one that deconstructs the original.
So it’s really impossible to talk about Lit Crit nowadays without referencing and dealing with Literary Theory. And since literary theory is so much a part of Lit Crit, a writer is much better off sticking to an MFA rather than a PHD. A writer is also better off not doing Lit Crit classes in an MFA, unless the workshop is run by a writer rather than an academic (English PHD).
More bad news: in recognizing the “blogosphere”, Tanenhaus disparages us (yet again, yet again) as sloppy writers. I insist to the New York Times Book Review staff that the best bloggers out here (and I volunteer to be on the team) can at least hold our own, and could possibly kick the Book Review’s ass in a grammar/style face-off. I hereby offer a challenge.
Bloggers VS Tanenhaus and the NYTBR.
In a pay-per-view match, a tag-team from the blogosphere will take on the fearsome establishment of the New York Times Book Review. See Ed, Max and Mark perform syntactical judo moves with arm twists of grammatical rules on Sam and Rachel.
This asskicking will be dirty.
Went to see Chris Abani read at the Rhapsodamancy Reading Series last night. I had seen him twice at the UCLA/LA Times book fair last year, and was impressed by the way he spoke – with gravity, authority, and insight into the way that literature works.
What I knew about him before the Rhapsodamancy reading was that he wrote a prodigious amount of words on a daily basis, that he was hired as an associate professor at University of California Riverside before he even graduated from USC with his PHD in creative writing, that he came from Nigeria and wrote poetry as well as fiction, and that his work often contained Catholic elements.
What I quickly learned during the reading was that he played the saxophone, that the saxophone’s name was Janice, and that he could make a song called "Iraqi boy" sound soulful.
Aside from his musical talents, we all got to hear several of his poems, as well as a selection from The Virgin of Flames, his novel which comes out in January 2007 from Penguin. The Virgin of Flames displays Abani’s encyclopedic knowledge of Los Angeles, especially downtown, as the main character "Black" is taken on a quest around the city by the angel Gabriel, who appears as a pigeon. It’s a search for identity for Black, who is a muralist living in East L.A., and somehow this identity will be found through a transvestite stripper and the Virgin Mary who keeps on appearing. Strange sounding, I know, but Abani’s got the prose to pull it off.
While everyone else is busy making lists of Best Books of 2006, I thought I’d respond a little differently and make a literary mix tape of selections from a few of my favorites, all united around the theme of death. Why death? Because I’m morbid.
When I was five years old I tried to kill my sister. All day long I tried to kill her. In the morning I put mothballs in her cereal, but our mother woke up and threw them away, not because she smelled the naphthalene, but because she thought cereal was for trailer park kids, and on the days when she couldn’t get out of bed in time – a century’s weight of ghosts kept her sleeping or staring at the ceiling in her darkened room until noon many days – she would make us fancy omelets.
I took my sister for a walk and tried to sacrifice her on a stone picnic table in the Severna Forest Coliseum. I knew the story of Isaac. I knew the whole of the Old Testament by then. I raised a smooth stone as big as my fist and prepared to knock a hole in her skull. I waited too long, imagining the blood on the stone and the clump of her hair matted to it. A troop of Brownies came rustling through the tall grass – the coliseum was built by a wealthy Baptist with a passion for Greek tragedy and outdoor theater, but once he moved away it was let to fall into disrepair – and Jemma leaped off the table and ran to dance with them around one of the decaying plaster statues.
I tried to drown her in the tub. Our mother was throwing a party for the elites of our neighborhood, which is to say for everybody, since everyone who lived there was odiously rich, the cat-food magnate having established a tradition of exclusivity in this heavily wooded peninsula on the Severn. She sent us together to the tub, and I washed my sister’s hair, just as I had been taught to do, and then when she ducked under the water to rinse I held her there. I had never been taught to drown a person, but I knew just what to do. My hands felt old and wise as she struggled under them. I am sending you to Jesus, I told her. But I remember the moment perfectly, and I knew I was not trying to kill her because I thought it would make her happy.
Chris Adrian, The Children’s Hospital
They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he’d seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Because last week when I’d called my old friend Juliette and said I was coming to the city to see Nana, she said sure I could stay at her place and naturally I assumed I’d be hanging out there a bit when I got in from the airport and we’d catch up and so on. But when I arrived, some guy, Juliette’s newish boyfriend, evidently – Wendell, I think his name might be – whom she’d sort of mentioned on the phone, turned out to be there, too. Sure, let’s just kill them, why not just kill them all, he was shouting. Juliette was peeling an orange. I’m not saying kill extra people, she said. I’m just frightened; there are a lot of crazy angry maniacs out there who want to kill us, and I’m frightened. You’re frightened, he yelled. No one else in the world is frightened? Juliette raised her eyebrows at me and shrugged. The orange smelled fantastic. I was completely dehydrated from the flight because they hardly even bring you water anymore, thought when I was little it was all so fun and special, with the pretty stewardesses and trays of little wrapped things, and I was just dying to tear open Juliette’s fridge and see if there was another orange in there, but Wendell, if that’s what his name is, was standing right in front of it shouting, What are you saying? Are you saying we should kill everyone in the world to make sure there are no angry people left who want to hurt anyone? So I waited a few minutes for him to finish up with what he wanted to get across and he didn’t (and no one had ever gotten anything across to Juliette) and I just dropped that idea about the orange and said see you later and tossed my stuff under the kitchen table and plunged into the subway. When Juliette and I were at art school together, all her boyfriends had been a lot of fun, but that was five or six years ago.
Deborah Eisenberg, Revenge of the Dinosaurs, Twilight of the Superheroes