Monday, August 20, 2012

Top 10 Most Difficult Books? Oh, it's ON, Publisher's Weekly!

Last week,  of the "Difficult Books" series over at The Millions selected ten of the hardest of the hard tomes for Publisher's Weekly.  Two were works of philosophy, but here are their picks for fiction:

Hardest Novels

1.  Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
I'd never heard of Djuna Barnes until earlier this week, when I read a piece over at BookRiot on women writers as bad ass or more so than Hemingway.  According to Scott Beauchamp, "Nightwood, Barnes’ best novel, has the distinction of being the only lesbian-themed Modernist gem to garner praise, and an introduction, from arch-conservative T.S. Eliot. Before writing it, Barnes was born in a log cabin, raped as a teen, and lived as a Bohemian journalist in Greenwich Village. She was ahead of her time in just about every way possible, even pioneering the kind of New Journalism that wouldn’t catch fire until mid-century. A poet, novelist, playwright, and illustrator, Barnes exemplified both the glory and isolation that come with being a perpetual outsider. Hemingway wouldn’t have known what to make of her."  I'm intrigued!

2.  Women and Men by Joseph McElroy  
Apparently, this is a postmodern mega novel on par in terms of complexity with Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.  

3.  A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
A religious satire.  Allegory.  Written in the late 1600s.  All things that scream "find a copy with an awesome introduction and some thorough footnotes!"

4.  Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson
According to Wikipedia (so take it with a grain of salt) this is the longest real novel in the English language.  I still haven't finished Infinite Jest and I LOVE me some DFW.  So check in with me when I'm 40 and I'll let you know my thoughts...

5.  To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
I just finished Mrs. Dalloway, and I've really enjoyed my time with Woolf so far!  This reminds me of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but was a far more enjoyable reading experience.  Bring it on!

6.  The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser
An incomplete epic poem? Sign me up?

7.  The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
An epic chronology of a two fictional families interspersed with insights on the writing process itself.  Let's do this.

8.  Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce
Oh Joyce.  You are not my favorite.  And he actually made up a language from other languages to write this book.  Probably the only book on the list I can't imagine every willfully picking up.

Now, I'm one of those really obnoxious people who takes pride in doing the intellectually challenging, and doing it well.  Lists like these do nothing to deter me.  In fact, I read them like personal challenges. So the gauntlet has been thrown down.    To the Lighthouse and Nightwood are both now on my holds list. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

EVERYBODY loves LISTS: 10 Classic Books I Feel Like I Need to Read

I am a list lover.  I actually keep a running master list in a notebook of books I want to read. (Prior to that, book recommendations lived in the margins of my planner...and in my phone...and on tons of random post-it notes...I needed to consolidate!).  Over the course of my literary self-education, I feel like there are several classic tomes that keep coming up as essential reading.  I've narrowed my list down to ten for the next year or so...or more... (in the spirit of manageability):

  1. Middlemarch by George Eliot    I feel like I keep coming across this title, and I've never read anything by Ms. Evans, so the time has come to see what all the fuss is about.
  2. The Brothers Karamazov by Foydor Dostoevsky   Crime and Punishment was required reading back in high school, and I think enough time has gone by that I've sufficiently recovered enough to give him another go.
  3. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf     Last time I was in Baltimore, I rescued some books my parents were ready to part with that were originally published in the 50s and 60s.  Among them was Mrs. Dalloway, which has been on my "must read" list since reading Bouillier's The Mystery Guest.  I'm about 2/3 of the way through.
  4. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray   His middlename is "Makepeace."  'Nuff said.
  5. Persuasion by Jane Austen   I'm an Austen lover, and was given her complete works for my 18th birthday by my Aunt Aimee, but as of yet haven't made it past Emma and Pride and Prejudice.
  6. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens    Similar to Dostoevsky, I read Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities in 6th grade and haven't revisited his work since.  It's time.
  7. Ulysses by James Joyce      I hated Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I read it in high school, but I feel like maybe with the benefit of age and perspective, I'll come to feel differently about Joyce...
  8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust     I accidentally bought Sodom and Gomorrah a few years ago not realizing (until I started the introduction) that it was 4 novels into a 6 novel I'd like to start at the beginning and work my way through...or at least try...
  9. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee     I know.  I know.  It's time.  Past time, actually.
  10. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence    I LOVED reading about Geoff Dyer trying to write about reading D.H. Lawrence.  So maybe reading D.H. Lawrence will be equally as enjoyable?
What do you think?  What should I add?  Omit?  

Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

title:  Battleborn [purchase here]
author:  Claire Vaye Watkins
pages: 287
genre: short stories
published: August 2012
source: I received an advanced reader's copy from Riverhead via 
LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.

    "'Dudes,' Danny says, 'that was fucking beautiful.'
     A laugh spreads across Jules's big bright face, ravenous the way a wildfire is.  'I know, right?'
     I laugh too.  These are my friends.  These are the funny, empty things we do so we can be the kind of funny, empty people who do them." (page 257-258, Virginia City)

Battleborn has been my constant companion during my commutes for the past few weeks, and I'm actually pretty disappointed that I finished the book.  I was floored by how talented Claire Vaye Watkins is...her short stories are practically flawless!  Tight, incredibly thoughtfully crafted, richly descriptive...I have a feeling this is a collection I will read and reread for years to come.  

A few standout stories (and it was hard to choose just a few!!!):

The Archivist  The moving account of a woman as she, post-breakup, preserves her past and imagines her future.  Raw and delicate at the same time.

The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past     An Italian tourist visits a brothel as police comb the desert for his missing traveling companion. The way Watkins chose to end this story was unbelievably perfect.

The Diggings    Imagines two brothers as they travel West at the height of the California Gold Rush, and how their relationship changes when they fail to strike it rich.  Watkins imagery and use of subtle metaphor in this piece was particularly striking.  

Ghosts, Cowboys    Addresses her own family history, which is a big a part of the history of the contemporary American West (her biological father, Paul Watkins, was an early member of the Manson Family, but never participated in the murders and ultimately testified against Manson).  

This marks the first time I have ever said this:  GO BUY THIS BOOK.  NOW.  WHATEVER YOU ARE DOING AT THE MOMENT CAN WAIT.  BUY IT.  You will thank me.  Or wait until I buy it for you.  Chances are, if we're friends, and you're a lit nerd like me, I'll be buying you a copy.  But buy it anyway.  Then you'll have two.  So when you lend it to someone, and they fall in love with it as well and "forget" to give it back, you have a backup copy.

Rubric rating:  8.95  I can't give her a nine, because this is her debut collection...but you bet I will be keeping an eye out for more of her genius.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Review: Understories by Tim Horvath

title: Understories [purchase here]
by: Tim Horvath
pages: 252
genre: short stories
published: May 2012
source:  I received an advanced reader's copy from Bellevue Literary Press via
LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.

"It was the comfort of your tongue tripping on your own sweat, a friendly reminder that of the world's salt, a share is yours." (p. 14, Circulation)

The back jacket copy is what compelled me to request Tim Horvath's Understories from the May Early Reviewers batch on LibraryThing:  "What if there were a city that consisted only of restaurants? What if Paul Gauguin had gone to Greenland instead of Tahiti? What if there were a field called Umbrology, the study of shadows, where physicists and shadow puppeteers worked side by side.  Full of speculative daring though firmly anchored in the tradition of realism, Tim Horvath's stories explore all of this and more, blending the everyday and wondrous to contend with age-old themes of loss, identity, imagination, and the search for human connection. Whether making offhand references to Mystery Science Theater, providing a new perspective on Heidegger's philosophy and forays into Nazism, or following the imaginary travels of a library book, Horvath's writing is as entertaining as it is thought provoking."

As a collection, Understories was a bit uneven.  Not all of the stories seemed like they belonged in the same book.  That said, there were more than a few that stood out to me as really quite good:

  • Runaroundandscreamalot   By far, my favorite story in the book, but also the story that felt the most misplaced.  The action follows a divorced father as he takes his daughter, Sasha, to a local indoor playground and the relationship that develops between himself and the mother of a child named Hahn.  Really tight with strong, compelling characters...I just really bought into this slice of the characters' lives he allows us to peek in on.
  • Altered Native     This piece ponders what would have happened if Gauguin found his inspiration in icy Greenland, as opposed to tropical Tahiti.  Particularly deliciously crafted for the reader who knows a bit about Gauguin's Tahiti experiences...
  • The Conversations    Spontaneous combustion sporadically occurs across the globe during specific types of discussion, and Horvath explores what happens when we worry as much about what we shouldn't talk about as what we're trying to communicate.
  • Urban Planning: Case Study Number Seven  A City in the Light of Moths     Horvath imagines a world where film is shown 24 hours a day on every available square inch of surface, and his world building and description in this piece is exceptionally strong.
  • The Understory      Heidegger.  A Jewish arborist.  An unlikely friendship.  Nazis and philosophy and trees.  Horvath's result is nuanced and balanced. 

In between many of the stories were short pieces entitled Urban Planning, created I imagine to weave the stories together into a cohesive collection.  A couple of these, particularly Case Study Number Six and Case Study Number Eight, were delightfully strange taut little mini-stories and would have worked out of the context of the greater collection as well.

Horvath's strength is absolutely concept:  he imagines places and scenarios, and "what ifs" himself into the most interesting premises.  To be a fly on the wall in that man's imagination...which also sounds like a plausible premise for one of Horvath's stories...

One thing I did notice is that Horvath does have a tendency to use several words where one would suffice, so if economy of word is your thing, he might not be the right writer for you to explore. 

Rubric ruling: 7

I have no idea why, but my reading has tended toward the dystopian/surreal/ speculative/downright bizarre lately.  Just wait until I share with you my thoughts on Blake Butler's There Is No Year... I'm beginning to have some really strange dreams, and I absolutely blame Butler...I think it might be time to crack into Anna Karenina and The Dud Avocado!  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

title: The Flame Alphabet [purchase here]
by: Ben Marcus
pages: 287
genre: literary fiction
published: 2012
source:  New York Public Library

"In his early writings, Thoreau called the alphabet the saddest song.  Later in his life he would renounce this position and say it produced only dissonant music.
     Letters, Montaigne said, are a necessary evil.
     But are they? asked Blake, years later.  I shall write of the world without them.
     I would grow mold on the language, said Pasteur.  Except nothing can grow on that cold, dead surface.
     Of words Teresa of Avila said, I did not live to erase them all.
     They make me sick, said Luther.  Yours and yours and yours. Even sometimes my own."  (page 187)

This book *almost* made it on to my 30-Before-30 list, and has been on my holds list at the library for ages.  It's a bit funny, actually, that I ended up reading it instead of one of my 30-Before-30 titles.  But look at the cover!  I am a sucker for a gorgeous cover!  I really have no self control when it comes to gorgeous books...superficial, I know!

Marcus' The Flame Alphabet has a fabulous premise:  an epidemic gradually spreads across the country wherein the speech of children has become toxic to adults.  The story follows one family (Sam, his wife Claire, and their teen daughter Esther), and Sam in particular, as he cares for his wife and adjusts to find a means of coexisting with the lethal member of the family.  

This book takes on a lot:  the bonds of marriage and family; religion (in the story, Sam and Claire are "forest Jews," Jews who venture to the forest once a week to a hidden hut to worship, but are forbidden to speak about their practice, even to each other); science; ethics; morality; and, above all, how a world communicates when communication itself is lethal, which in and of itself would pose a massive challenge to the novice writer.

The first third of the book was incredibly strong.  I really respect how Marcus treats his reader as an equal; he writes as if we already have the context we need, and he trusts in the reader's intelligence.  As opposed to over-explaining, he lets us make discoveries and draw conclusions for ourselves as we read, which I really appreciated.  Marcus is really good at world-building.  This reality he constructs for his characters is chilling but also super consistent and easy to imagine considering the events in the story.

The one problem I had was with the character of LeBov.  I don't want to give anything away, but there was a scene or two between LeBov and Sam toward the middle of the story where it definitely felt as if Marcus was directly channeling some sort of Bond-era super villain, which took me out of the story a bit.  Seriously, throughout the whole second part of the book, every time LeBov entered a room, despite Marcus' descriptions, this is who I pictured (and consequently giggled a bit):
Part three of the book was a bit jarring.  The story stopped and picked up at a completely different point, which at first felt a bit like cheating on Marcus' part, as he had seemed to have written himself into a hole at the end of part 2 (for those of you who have read the book, that was a deliciously unintentional pun).  Marcus does, a few chapters down the line, fill in the gaps, but this jump still interrupted the flow a bit and as a result, the last part of the book didn't flow as easily as the first two.  But from a stylistic perspective, considering the events of the end of the narrative, this jolt and stumble may have been intentional. 

Rubric rating: 7.  I'm absolutely going to check out The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women at some point.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

Coming next week...

Sorry for the lack of daily posting this week.  I've been spending my evenings watching the morning's Olympic tennis matches!  Of course, I've been pulling for John Isner (who I caught live at the US Open last year and who is also unfortunately out of the running for gold) and Serena Williams and the Bryan brothers, but my heart and allegiance belong to Novak Djokovic and his ridiculous ability to DOMINATE the court...sigh...
(I studied dance for 13+ years and was NEVER that flexible...)
 (I love how, even from this far away, his calf muscles are INSANELY defined!)
(He's so dreamy...)

Semifinals are this morning...REALLY looking forward to catching the Murray-Djokovic match on DVR after work.  But I promise, once Men's and Women's Singles gold medals have been awarded (hopefully Serbia and America respectively will come out on top) you will have my undivided attention again ;)

Here's what to look for on the blog next week:

1) Review of Understories by Tim Horvath

Summary (from the Strand website):  "What if there were a city that consisted only of restaurants? What if Paul Gauguin had gone to Greenland instead of Tahiti? What if there were a field called Umbrology, the study of shadows, where physicists and shadow puppeteers worked side by side? Full of speculative daring though firmly anchored in the tradition of realism, Tim Horvath's stories explore all of this and more? blending the everyday and wondrous to contend with age-old themes of loss, identity, imagination, and the search for human connection. Whether making offhand references to Mystery Science Theater, providing a new perspective on Heidegger's philosophy and forays into Nazism, or following the imaginary travels of a library book, Horvath's writing is as entertaining as it is thought provoking."

2) Ask and ye shall receive!  I was recently asked by a reader to share my thoughts on Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, a book I've mentioned several times here but never formally look for that next week as well!
Summary (from the Strand website): "'Time's a goon,' as the action moves from the late 1970s to the early 2020s while the characters wonder what happened to their youthful selves and ideals. Egan takes the music business as a case in point for society's monumental shift from the analog to the digital age. Record-company executive Bennie Salazar and his former bandmates from the Flaming Dildos form one locus of action; another is Bennie's former assistant Sasha, a compulsive thief club-hopping in Manhattan when we meet her as the novel opens, a mother of two living out West in the desert as it closes a decade and a half later with an update on the man she picked up and robbed in the first chapter. It can be alienating when a narrative bounces from character to character, emphasizing interconnections rather than developing a continuous story line, but Egan conveys personality so swiftly and with such empathy that we remain engaged. By the time the novel arrives at the year '202-' in a bold section narrated by Sasha's 12-year-old daughter Alison, readers are ready to see the poetry and pathos in the small nuggets of information Alison arranges like a PowerPoint presentation. In the closing chapter, Bennie hires young dad Alex to find 50 'parrots' (paid touts masquerading as fans) to create 'authentic' word of mouth for a concert. This new kind of viral marketing is aimed at 'pointers,' toddlers now able to shop for themselves thanks to 'kiddie handsets' the preference of young adults for texting over talking is another creepily plausible element of Egan's near-future. Yet she is not a conventional dystopian novelist; distinctions between the virtual and the real may be breaking down in this world, but her characters have recognizable emotions and convictions, which is why their compromises and uncertainties continue to move us.Another ambitious change of pace from talented and visionary Egan, who reinvents the novel for the 21st century while affirming its historic values."

I'm almost finished both Claire Vaye Watkin's powerhouse of a short story collection, Battleborn, and Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet, so reviews for those should be up soon as well!