Monday, April 20, 2015

Anthony Doerr! Pulitzer Prize!

What sort of (albeit self-proclaimed) go-to "literary" website would the Book Catapult be if the proprietor - suffering from the early stages of fatherhood, cooped up at home with a 12-day-old infant daughter (and an adoring wife) - didn't poke his head in and at least acknowledge the fact that Mr. Anthony Doerr was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction today for his second novel, All the Light We Cannot See? Nuthin', that's what. The Pulitzer citation:
Awarded to "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr (Scribner), an imaginative and intricate novel inspired by the horrors of World War II and written in short, elegant chapters that explore human nature and the contradictory power of technology. 
As readers of this here website know well, I have long been a huge fan of Tony's work and have written of him and his writings often. (This novel was placed at #2 on the 2014 Catapult Notable list.) Last July I had the insanely cool experience of sharing a (small) stage with Tony as we were (sort of) "in conversation" as a part of his author event at Warwick's bookstore. My reaction, when I read the news today, was actually, "Holy shit! Tony Doerr just won a Pulitzer!" (Baby startles in crib. Wife frowns.) 

Needless to say, I am very proud of Tony and honored to have gotten to know him even a little bit over the years. Good on ya, brother.


"Catapult Operator Embraces Pulitzer Winner in Front of 100 Strangers"

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Times, They Are Uh... Well, You Know

I started this writing this post - my first Catapult post of 2015 - sometime in early January. And here we are at the end of March beginning of April. If you thought my posts on the Catapult were intermittent before, friend - oh-ho-ho! brace yourself.

Well, for one thing, I got a new job. No longer buying books for a bookstore, I am now selling them to said bookstore as a publishing rep. I've spent much of the last two months on the road, visiting independent bookstores all over California, talking to people about books, and getting paid for all of it. Yep. 

Also - and this is bigger news in my world - Mrs. Book Catapult and I are expecting a Junior Catapulteer any day now. Like, literally any day. So there's that pretty much all-consuming item happening too.

But I have STILL been reading, precious flowers. Have no fear. Maybe just not with the frequency of my youth. And life may not leave much time for posting on the Catapult in the future, so we will have to see where I end up. I have absolutely no clue what my life will look like next week, let alone in a month, but for the moment, here are a few gems that have come my way since last we talked:

All Involved by Ryan Gattis:
Really dug this one, a novel about the 1992 Rodney King riots in L.A. - and I'm excited that he will be in San Diego on May 12. This thing truly blazes across the page - a lot like the arson fires that scorched the Los Angeles landscape during those six days of riots in '92. Rather than being about the riots themselves, this is about the vacuum left by the chaos - what the criminals and gangs did while the cops were distracted by arson and looting all over town. Each chapter offers a different perspective - mostly from the members of one Latin gang in South Central - as a series of violent circumstances and lapses in judgement unfold as a Shakespearean tragedy. Like The Wire in L.A. Super-great grit.

Blood Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera
Absolutely loved this one too, from Brazilian novelist (and Portuguese translator of David Mitchell) Daniel Galera. After the suicide death of his father, our unnamed narrator - who suffers from Prosopagnosia or face-blindness - retreats from his past and the big city (Porto Alegra, Brazil) to the small coastal town of Garopaba. Grieving his father and uncertain about his own life trajectory, he rents a small seaside cottage and tells himself that he is there to learn what happened to his mysterious gaucho grandfather in Garopaba years before. Is it true that he was murdered in a dance hall by the entire town? He soon finds that the people of the town have long memories - and no desire to dredge them up, defending their own past violently if need be. He half-heartedly tries to insert himself into the fabric of the town, teaching swimming lessons and dating a local girl, but his grief and questions about his familial past force him to an arms length with everyone he meets. There is a great dreamlike quality to this - a face-blind narrator often doesn't even know who he is talking to each time he encounters another person, so we in turn have to just float along with him. Gorgeous writing too. Dwight Garner from the New York Times put it this way: "At various moments, it put me in mind of the work of Roberto Bolaño, Jim Harrison, the Coen brothers and the Denis Johnson of his black comedy Already Dead." Right-o.

The Red Notebook by Paul Auster
A little Auster gem that fits in your back pocket. (Part of New Directions' pocket-sized Pearls series.) These little true story vignettes from Auster's life all share the theme of coincidence: Auster finds a note for an old friend under the bed in a random Paris hotel room; lost coins come back around when needed most; a tale of half-siblings in wartorn Europe who accidentally fall in love and marry; and the creepy coincidence that mirrors a central plot thread from his first novel, City of Glass. These all read as if flowing from the mouth of a storyteller crouched over a fire, audience rapt. Great emergency reading for when you're stuck waiting somewhere...

True Grit by Charles Portis
I've been meaning to read Portis for years - and now I'm so glad I did. There's an almost tongue-in-cheek humor to Grit, the dialogue is so formal in places it comes across as hilarious.

Mañana by William Hjortsberg
Full disclosure: this is actually one of the books I represent as a sales rep now. But I would've read it anyway. Hippie in 1970 wakes up next to a dead hooker (that he may or may not have murdered with a hunting knife) ends up traveling across Mexico looking for his wife, doing bad things to other people, making bad decisions, stealing/doing drugs. Huzzah! Reminded me a lot of Inherent Vice, actually, but written more like a Don Winslow novel. Solid writing, atmospheric, & quite funny.

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
I'm about halfway through this weighty tome - it's taking me forever to finish because it's been too heavy to lug with me on the road. This is Knopf's big fiction of the coming Fall - multiple character perspectives from all different walks of life intertwine in 1970's NYC. Family drama, possible murder mystery, unreliable narration. Franzen without the angst, Wolfe without the bad humor. So far at least. 

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
Reading this as we speak. A gorgeous mix of nature writing and a woman's memoir of dealing with the death of her beloved father that's both heartbreaking and endlessly fascinating. MacDonald brings us into that ancient world of training hawks - you know, hawk with a hood, gripping the leather-clad fist of a fusty, tweed-covered Brit? But the hawk acts as a grief counselor for her, as she pours her soul into forging a bond with this bird. Gradually we learn how intertwined the hawk and she truly are - and she starts to deal with her heart-rending grief. "The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life." It's not all sadness and tears, mind you - and her descriptions of this amazing bird she has literally brought into her home are lush and vivid entries into a world I know nothing about. Here she sees her hawk (whom she awesomely names Mabel) for the first time:
The hawk's wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porcupine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette with wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Catapult Notable List 2014

A notable sampler
The 9th annual Catapult Notable list is upon you. Huzzah!
This was a "tough" year for building this list, mainly because I read so many books (for the Indies Introduce panel) that aren't being published until 2015. Some of the best books I read this year, in fact, were reluctantly put aside because of their publishing year: 501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine (2007), Detroit by Charlie LeDuff (2013), The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Deborah Levy-Betherat, Soil by Jamie Kornegay, Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin, Young Skins by Colin Barrett, The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein (all 2015). In fact, I think there are 5 or 6 books arriving in 2015 that I wouldn't be surprised to see on next year's Notable list. We'll just have to wait & see. But despite this "difficulty," there were 10 books from 2014 (with a couple of extras) of exceptional quality that crossed my path this year. Behold:

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

#10a. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
One of the last books I read this year that made it to this rigorous list - and definitely the weirdest. As every critic has written, it does unfold backwards in time, but strangely subtly. Calling it "backwards" oversimplifies the structure to the point of detriment - it felt so much more complex and unusual than that. I won't tell you what the nature of the accident that occurred to Sean, our narrator, was when he was a teenager, but I will say that it left his face horrifically disfigured. In the intervening years of depression and isolation, Sean spent his time creating a sort of role-playing game called Trace Italian - not a board game or an online game, but one played exclusively through the mail. Like a choose your own adventure played through regular old USPS snail mail. Sean writes out a scenario, mails it to you, you decide your next course of action, and mail it back - the ultimate, unattainable goal being a fort in the middle of Kansas. As the story opens, Sean is recovering from a spot of legal trouble he got in over a pair of teenaged players who took Trace Italian a bit too literally, which didn't work out so well for them. This serves as a bit of a hinge to the way things unfold. As Sean's story is dispensed in a rounded format - rolling back and forth through the previous 15 years - the nature of his accident is gradually revealed. Sean is a bit stalled at the age when the accident happened - he's no doubt some sort of mad genius and certainly an adult, but he still seems fixated on elements of his life from before the accident (ie: Conan the Barbarian) as a way of not fully coping with the incident. Slowly, perhaps triggered by the tragedy of the Trace players court case, he begins to reclaim the lost memories and they unfurl for us as they come back to him...
And then I had a memory from childhood, not childhood really but a while afterward, but what felt, in that moment, like childhood.
Darnielle is a truly wonderful writer, fully willing and able to probe the despairing depths of Sean's shattered psyche and unfold them on the page for us with his lyrical prose. "Lyrical" makes sense, since his other job is being the front man (and then some) for the band The Mountain Goats - from which he is known as a master lyricist. Can't wait to see more fiction from him.


#10b: Animalium by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom
Let's be honest, this book is just plain awesome. When I was 8 I would have gone completely apeshit over it. As it is, I've gone at least partially apeshit. Written by Jenny Broom and illustrated by Katie Scott, Animalium is laid out like the rooms in a natural history museum, filled with incredible artwork and fascinating tidbits about the animal world. An outstanding book for kids (8-12) who dig animal factoids and eye-popping artwork. (And despite what the publisher's website says, you can buy this book from places other than Amazon UK - you can find it in pretty much any store in America. Big Picture Press is distributed in the US by Candlewick, which most places buy from. Just sayin'.) By the way, you need to check out katie-scott.com. I want it all.


#10c: Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, illustrated by Allen Crawford
This one's on the list for the same reasons as Animalium - mainly that the artwork is mindblowingly awesome. I've never been a humongous fan of Whitman, but this edition of Song of Myself (the core of Walt's epic Leaves of Grass) illustrated by Allen Crawford is just incredible. Here's Crawford on the book, taken from a speech he gave at a fundraiser for the University of Arizona's Poetry Center: "The entire 256-page book is drawn by hand: every comma, every period. I wanted to keep Whitman’s lines supple and wild. So in my edition, the words flow around hundreds of images. The book is meant to be viewed and read, and I think most readers intuitively understand that my book is asking them to approach Whitman’s poem in a way they hadn’t before."


#9. The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim
Donald Antrim is the underappreciated mad god of contemporary fiction. (See Catapult post, "Donald Antrim, Mad Genius?" from 2013 about his novel, The Hundred Brothers.) These stories in Emerald, his first story collection, are all almost all about protagonists with severe depressive pasts or anxiety issues that they're working through - although there's so much Antrim weirdness in them that they don't feel so weighty as all that. The hilarious, super-strange "An Actor Prepares" is about an overly enthusiastic drama professor at a small college who stages an alternative version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with nudity, simulated sex, a blind Puck, and a mud pit with a duck in it. "Another Manhattan" is a tragicomic mess between two couples meeting for dinner - each wife is sleeping with the other's spouse. Jim is a psychological wreck - he attempts to purchase flowers before dinner, although for which woman he's still not sure. When his cards are declined, he steals the bouquet, ending up torn to shreds by the thorns on his way to the restaurant. An anxious husband goes shopping in Manhattan with his wife in "He Knew." He is constantly filled with dread and amphetamines, she's popping Valium and thinks he's planning an affair with every woman he meets. And in the emotional, powerful title story that closes the collection out, on a rainy night, severely depressive & unstable Billy French gets his car stuck in the mud on a rural road. A boy approaches him, thinking Billy is the doctor coming to help his dying mother - leading to a meeting that may change Billy's life, or at least the course it may have been on for that particular evening.

There's a really wonderful piece on Antrim written by John Jeremiah Sullivan that ran in the New York Times Magazine back in September - "Donald Antrim and the Art of Anxiety". Read that, then try and not read Antrim. 


#8. Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
A monstrous, visceral, shocking, and brash debut that scared the pants off me. Nikki is a 13-year-old young lady from backwoods North Carolina who finds herself rather nonplussed when her mother dies falling off a rocky outcrop one fine summer afternoon. See, Nikki has been unwanted and discarded for all of her time on the planet - which has made her callous, bold, and relatively fearless. She seeks out her wayward, drug-dealing father, Coy Hawkins, and shacks up with him - quickly learning how to smoke heroin, how to identify a hooker, how to cut a drug deal, how to scare off a rival pimp, how to snort ecstasy, how to remove a corpse's teeth, and how to inject heroin. (I'm proud that I was able to get that last bit published in the conservative San Diego Union Tribune in a review.) Morris imparts all of this with an insane staccato pace that blazes across the page with an unparalleled frenzy, leaving you both breathless and feeling filthy from head to toe. I read this pretty much in one frantic go - it's one of those books that is absolutely impossible to tear your eyes away from, no matter how much you desperately might want to.


#7. Redeployment by Phil Klay
Fresh from winning the National Book Award, this amazing and important collection of stories is some heavy shit - these are war stories, after all, set either in Iraq or back home where soldiers try to deal with the leftover fog of war. We civilians stay at home, drinking our coffee & cruising the internet while these men and women are deployed over and over and over again to a futile and pointless war, all the while expected to be able to reinsert themselves seamlessly back into society. The opening title story was perhaps the most powerful to me - a soldier returns home from a hellish place where soldiers regularly killed dogs for eating human flesh and blood. At home with his wife, he silently struggles with a return to life, but his aging dog is dying & needs to be euthanized. Despite his war experiences, this proves to be more than he's capable of - or so it seems. This was just a gigantic punch in the gut to kick start an absolutely vital and brilliant collection of stories. Despite being number seven on this list, Klay's may be the one I would encourage you to read the most. (There's a really great interview Klay gave to BOMB magazine that shows his erudition and insight into his own experiences as a former Marine and communicating his thoughts on war and trauma.)


#6. The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson is proving to be one of the more versatile writers out there these days - and one of my all-time favorites. In his ever-expanding canon he now has (among many other things) a National Book Award-winning Vietnam War novel, a gritty collection of short stories about addiction, a Pulitzer-nominated atmospheric meditation on an early-20th century everyman, several books of poetry, and this - a crazy, whirlwind spy-novel-ish adventure set in West Africa. The Laughing Monsters is complete madness contained within a slim novella, filled with enough double-crosses, double-double-crosses, lying, cheating, trickery, craziness, boozing, spying, and mayhem to make Raymond Chandler proud. Roland Nair is a NATO operative keeping tabs on person-of-interest Michael Adriko in Sierra Leone. Or maybe he's actually Michael's friend and they're working on the score of a lifetime? Or perhaps Roland is a Danish spy? Wait, maybe he's an American... And is Adriko a Green Beret? Or Ghanaian? Or just a drug smuggler? Or is he stealing enriched uranium? You know what, I think everyone is lying to me, actually. This is Hunter S. Thompson-esque bad craziness and... I loved every weird word of it. I felt like I was dropped into the middle of a 25-year long conversation, had almost no idea what was happening around me for 200-pages worth before I was sucked back out to my own life. Which now feels emptier somehow.


#5. Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves by James Nestor
The full Catapult review
As you know, I naturally pick up any book about the ocean, whales, sharks, squid, octopuses, waves, etc, but I didn't know anything, really, about freediving before I read this - and any preconceived notions I might have had were firmly smashed. The sport of freediving involves diving into the ocean as deep as you can on one single breath. That's pretty much it. The purists use nothing in support - no fins, weights, ropes - just a huge breath and the pull of gravity. (The current world record-holder is William Trubridge at 331 feet.) As Nestor discovered – while reporting for Outside magazine - some subscribe to a less competitive, more respectful, philosophical side of freediving, smartly passing up the possibility of dying while diving too deep. It turns out that we humans are actually hardwired to be able to hold our breath and dive underwater. The Master Switch of Life – or the "mammalian dive reflex" – is the set of physiological survival reflexes we all share that trigger whenever we put our faces in water. By slowly sinking with the aid of gravity & without pressurized air in our lungs (like from a scuba tank) nitrogen doesn't build in our blood (giving us the bends) and we are able to float to unprecedented depths. Yes, even you have this innate ability. When Nestor reaches that point in his research where he starts wondering about his own Master Switch, he heads out on a quest to unlock the secrets of the deep and figure out what our place is down there. He swims with huge whales, freedives past the point he thought possible, rides in a homemade submersible to unfathomable depths. "What are we?" Nestor asks at the end. Deep-swimming mammals, it would seem. Freediving, master switches, blue holes, really loud sperm whale clicks - it all kind of scares the hell out of me. But part of me wants to try flipping that switch to see how deep I can go.... 


#4. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
The full Catapult review
This outstanding debut could've easily been the book of the year - in any other year but this one, which is stacked so deep at the top. An ode to the American Midwest that made me pine for seasonal changes, fields of corn, forests, snow, & cold air, Shotgun also about the complicated friendships between men and women. And it's certainly a novel about marriage - featuring prominently in the lives of all the characters, meaning something different for each one of them. Circling around everything else is the theme of the bonds of friendship; how sometimes old friendships supersede all else, while sometimes they just complicate everything. The moral compass seems to be Hank - but when his compass gets cracked by the long-ago actions of those he cares about the most, he has a hard time righting the ship. As most of us would. That's the best part about all of these people - more than just their fallibility, it's their tangible reality that so entrances you. They're just like you, me, and all the people we know. And we love them for it. 


#3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The full Catapult review
The global pandemic book of the year! 99.999% of the world's population has been wiped out by the Georgian Flu, 20 years past. Yet the world of this future is not as violent and horrifying as many post-apocalypse novels may be. Certainly not as terrifying as some of the things Hig does to survive in The Dog Stars - and we definitely see nothing like a Cormac McCarthy baby-barbecue in this. Really the plague was so all-inclusive that there just aren't enough people left and the ones who survived seem to just want to live in peace. There are actually two factions of people living in this post-flu world - those that remember how good we had it and those who don't. And that seems to be an underlying theme to this: we do have it pretty good right now, at this particular point in human history. Many of us in the world are comfortable and have every creature comfort we could ever imagine, yet we take it all for granted on a daily basis. That right there is what this magnificent, lyrical novel is about - recognizing that actual human connection is the most important element to human life. We are nothing without each other - just animals roaming the wasteland, muttering to ourselves. Once all the trappings of modernity are stripped away, what is left? Mandel's prose is fluid, emotive, and airy - yet there is a palpable tension to everything, hanging over every conversation, every act. But the thing is, I was never in doubt that this was the way we would behave if faced with the terrible reality of such a devastating collapse of human life. Tense, yes, of course, but it seemed a much more optimistic - and frankly, refreshing - view of a potential post-apocalyptic world. We regroup, we refocus, we reevaluate - and we move on and try to make the world worth living, however we can. 


#2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The full Catapult review

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. 

A National Book Award Finalist, a New York Times 10 Best Book (and currently at 32 weeks on the NYT bestseller list - and experiencing a huge holiday surge to #2), an event in San Diego with me co-hosting (or something) 2 readings by the Book Catapult, documented photographic proof of the President purchasing a copy, and now... a Catapult Notable book. This has been one hell of a year for Tony D. - and deservedly so. I've read everything he's published (a few more than once) and in my opinion, ATLWCS is the best thing he's ever written. A beautiful story set in northern France during WWII that follows the lives of a blind French girl and a brilliant reluctant Nazi youth and maps how their lives intersect for the briefest of moments, altering the life of each in immeasurable ways. Behind the plot, which seems very simple when put into one single sentence like that, is the wonder of radio - one of the core story elements that Doerr imparts. In an interview with The Rumpus, Doerr said "One of the great projects of this novel was to conjure a time when radio—when hearing the voice of a stranger, or a distant loved one, in your ear—was still a miracle." That gave me pause, even while I was reading this - for most of us, we cannot remember a time without regular telephone connections, television, let alone radio. In fact, amazingly, in just the last decade, radio has almost become an extinct media. My generation - which is also Doerr's - is the last to remember life without the internet. My god, think about that! Now think about what it must have been like to hear voices on the air for the first time, coming into your home, your own ears, from far away lands. We can't even imagine - yet this was only 70+ years ago.

Catapult & Doerr, Warwick's bookstore, July 30, 2014

In the hands of Doerr, this meditation on technology becomes something heartbreaking, elegant, vivid, and timeless. Coupled with the powerful story of these two people, from vastly different worlds coming together in an unbelievable way in the middle of the worst period of death and destruction that the world had ever seen... It will leave you speechless. Seriously.


#1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The full Catapult review
This was actually a pretty close race for #1 between Doerr and Mitchell. I read both books twice, I studied them hard, I spent a good amount of time with each author, and posed questions to them in front of crowds. For me, the complexity of the narration and the connective threads to previous Mitchell novels that present in The Bone Clocks was more than enough to push this Mitchell Nerd to pick it as #1. Its core structure seems simple enough, following the life arc of a relatively normal seeming woman named Holly Sykes. But as things progress through time, Holly's life splits down several forking path, some more grounded in our own reality than others. Small town England in 1984, a "chance" encounter in the Swiss Alps in the 90’s, events surrounding a wedding in 1997, a series of book tours throughout the early 2000's, and a frighteningly realized vision of the future of our planet 30 years from now. How does all of this come together? The underlying thread - and the plot point that both ties it all together and scares some readers off - is an epic, fantastical battle between good & evil that exists in the shadows of our world. Immortals fighting for the survival of the human race.

I love this dichotomy, actually - that some readers and reviewers are quick to peg this as science fiction and be done with it. I, for one, know that every word Mitchell puts to page has significance, either in the current book or for a previous one or even in service of laying the framework for future writing. (Like, as an example for all the fellow Mitchell Nerds out there, a possible novel set 250,000,000 years in the future. That makes me smile every time.)

In my first post about The Bone Clocks, written after reading a very early manuscript, I was excited about the appearances of Nurse Noakes, Luisa Rey, and other characters from earlier Mitchell novels. Some of them didn't make the cut to the final version - so I apologize for anyone who read that post and then spent hours scouring their copy for Timothy Cavendish. However, Marinus - a somewhat peripheral character from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - shares center stage with Holly in TBC, revealing deep elements of his character never even remotely considered from his earlier appearance. In fact, Marinus' actions here throws the world of Thousand Autumns off its axis in a delicious way - but one you need to discover for yourself, friend.

That right there is what pushed this book to the top of my list for 2014. That playfulness of narrative, the way Mitchell can expand his meta-verse in ways unthought of by his most careful readers, puts him in a different category of writer for me. He has often referred to his works as chapters in one gigantic "übernovel" that he is working on over the course of his whole career. That he is able to create this vast, calculating writing experiment and still knock each book out of the park by stringing together countless indelible, graceful sentences... well... That puts him in a different universe altogether for me - thus, he's top of the Catapult Notables for the second time.

David Mitchell, in conversation with The Book Catapult, September 22, 2014
I'm still working on whether I can salvage the recording from my conversation with David from September of this year. I may just transcribe it for people to read, since the audio is heavy on Seth Marko and a little too quiet on David Mitchell. Stay tuned. You can also check out the Conversation Recap post for a few tidbits on what we discussed. 

*Thanks for reading all these years, everyone. I really appreciate it. Expect a physical change from The Book Catapult coming soon. It's time to look a little more professional, I think.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Catapult Notable List 2014 preview night!

To kick off this year's Catapult Notable list - which will be unveiled TOMORROW - this is a list of the books I read at least portions of in 2014 - just so you can get an idea of what we're dealing with here. Amazingly, there may be 5 or 6 titles down there that are serious contenders for the 2015 Catapult Notable list. We'll just have to wait & find out.: 

S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (unfinished)
Octopus! by Katherine Harmon Courage (unfinished)
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
Things I Like About America by Poe Ballantine
By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan
Arkansas by John Brandon
The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld by Justin Hocking (unfinished)
Why I Read by Wendy Lesser (unfinished)
Mount Terminus by David Grand (unfinished)
Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
The Painter by Peter Heller
The Silent History by Eli Horowitz et al
The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go
Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff
Bark by Lorrie Moore (unfinished)
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (unfinished)
The Bees by Laline Paull (unfinished)
Redeployment by Phil Klay
A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin (unfinished, reread)
Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
Deep by James Nestor
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nicholas Butler
Eyrie by Tim Winton (unfinished)
Robogenesis by Daniel H. Wilson
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (twice)
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (unfinished)
The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr (reread)
The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert (unfinished)
Hell at the Breech by Tom Franklin
California by Edan Lepucki
A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin (unfinished, reread)
About Grace by Anthony Doerr (reread)
Red or Dead by David Peace (unfinished)
Further Joy: Stories by John Brandon (unfinished)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins
The End of Absence by Michael Harris (unfinished)
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (unfinished)
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Deborah Levi-Betherat (Indies Introduce)
The Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew Ferguson (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (reread)
Mort(e) by Robert Repino (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Between You and Me by Mary Norris (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Young Skins by Colin Barrett (Indies Introduce)
A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Benefit of the Doubt by Neal Griffin (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Soil by Jamie Kornegay (Indies Introduce)
Mercy 6 by David Bajo
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein (Indies Introduce)
The Valley by John Renehan (Indies Introduce)
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Black River by S.M. Hulse (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Night of the Fiestas by Kristin Valdez Quade (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin (Indies Introduce)
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (unfinished, Indies Introduce)
The End of Night by Paul Bogard
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (unfinished)
The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare (unfinished)
Sweetland by Michael Crummey
501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
The Rage by Gene Kerrigan
The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (unfinished)
Turtleface and Beyond: Stories by Arthur Bradford
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (unfinished)
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer 

Monday, December 01, 2014

2014 National Book Awards - A Year of Reading, Week 47 etc, whatever

Phil Klay won the National Book Award for Fiction a week or so ago for his debut collection of short stories about the Iraq War, Redeployment. (Also nominated for the award were Tony Doerr for All the Light We Cannot See and Emily St. John Mandel for Station Eleven. Worthy competition, to say the least.) I mention this because - completely coincidentally - after many months hiatus, a week before the awards, I picked Klay's book back up again to read the last two stories. I do this a lot - read 3/4 of a collection of stories and drift away, my bookmark in a perpetual state of holding place. But there was something about Redeployment that drew me back. I've been thinking about the Catapult Notable list for this year, since 'tis the season, of course, and there had definitely been something about that book that stuck with me, even if I hadn't loved - like, LOVED-loved - every story in it. There were two stories in particular, however, that made this, well, National Book Award-worthy in my book. The title story that opens the collection and one called "Unless It's a Sucking Chest Wound." The "Redeployment" story is about a soldier who has returned home after a tour and really struggles with the day-to-day of civilian life. There is a bit of dog death in this one, but it's all very poignant and powerful. "Sucking Chest Wound" is similarly themed - the narrator spent two deployments writing accommodations and filing paperwork on behalf of other Marines and returned home to a cushy 6 figure job, laden with guilt. In an interview with BOMB magazine, Klay said this character "doesn’t feel he has a right to speak because his story is actually the story of everybody he knew." 

Anyhow, a great book - and most definitely deserving of award bestowal. More on this collection when the Notable list takes shape.

Also at the NBA party, Ursula K. le Guin received a well-deserved medal from the National Book Award foundation for her "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters." During her speech, she had this badass thing to say:
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words. I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.
Ursula, I bow down at your feet, madam.


So, it's looking like the "Year of Reading" experiment is sort of at an end here, if I'm completely honest with myself. The Notable list is peeking over the horizon, so any and all energy I devote to the Catapult at this point in the year will be towards that. I'm sure you understand. The list should be up within a fortnight. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 46

Books Read (all or part of) since last we talked:

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare
Soil by Jamie Kornegay
The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard
Sweetland by Michael Crummey
501 Minutes to Christ: Personal Essays by Poe Ballantine
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Let's get down to it.

For the life of me I cannot get into the groove of Marlon James' Brief History of Seven Killings. I so want to be there, but the patois and the unfamiliar Jamaican history and the what seems like hundreds of characters... I just can't get on that train right now. (This was just picked as one of the ten best books of the year by Publishers Weekly, FYI. James is the coverboy, too.)

I finally finished Soil by Jamie Kornegay - a book I had read 80% of for the Indies Introduce panel & had to drift away from in order to finish the process. Gritty, funny, not-funny, and dark. Elevator pitch: guy tries to start an organic, self-sufficient farm off the grid in rural Mississippi, fails. Wife leaves him. He finds a dead guy in his flooded-out field. Decides to chop up & dispose of the body instead of calling the police. Descends into further madness & bad decisions. Inept sheriff's deputy is a misogynistic pig driving a souped up Mustang called The Boss. Bumbles into the case. Only not really. More like on the fringes of the case. Farmer thinks deputy is on to him. Lies, deception, paranoia, and chaos ensue. This is definitely a novel of obsession - it doesn't matter which of these guys is relating the events to you (they pretty much alternate chapters, with a few from Jay's wife Sandy thrown in) either Jay the crazy farmer/scientist or Danny the deplorable deputy - both are completely insane in their own way & it's good fun watching their storylines crash together on the delta.

I'm still dipping into and out of Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside. (Which I always want to call "The Sea Inside Me." But that sounds like a different movie.) Hoare has a great voice - memoir laced with both English societal history and the history of the land- and seascape themselves. This book feels like an antidote to everything else - a good buffer against dark places like Soil, for example.

I'm also nearing the end of Paul Bogard's The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. It's bothered me in recent years that I can't see the stars above my home. (The fact that this is something that you haven't thought about is at the crux of what this book is about, by the way.) We've gotten to a point in American cities where so much urban light bounces up off the clouds that we live under a perpetual orange twilight. Bogard tackles this issue - which may not feel like an Issue with a capital "I" but seems to be more important to our overall health, happiness, and well-being than we give it credit for. Does artificial light make us sick or even cause cancer? It at least disrupts our natural Circadian rhythms, which can't be good. Imagine what Florence, Italy would be like under pure starlight. Or how much better driving at night would be without all the excess diffuse light from streetlights illuminating every corner of every parking lot in America. Fascinating.

Sweetland by Michael Crummey - who wrote the wonderful Galore, which was a Catapult Notable book in 2011. Sweetland is set in a tiny town on a remote island off the Newfoundland coast whose residents have been offered a removal package worth $100k from the Canadian government. But the catch is that everyone in town must agree to relocation in order for anyone to collect. Moses Sweetland is the lone holdout. Just like in his previous book, Crummey is incredibly adept at transporting the reader - at least this particular reader - to the land of his creation. The walls of my home fade away and the North Atlantic winds howl across the landscape, whipping around the old lighthouse and the rocky outcroppings. Salty, irascible Moses has lived on this island for his entire life, his family were the original founders of the town, and he'll be damned if he's going to be forced to leave now. Eccentric, rugged characters, a starkly beautiful landscape, and some unpredictable narrative twists - good, beautiful stuff.

501 Minutes to Christ - I've written more than once about Poe Ballantine on this here website. About my love for Poe Ballantine. My kneeling at the altar of Poe Ballantine. This collection is more of the same - nearly a direct extension of Things I Like About America, which I read in Week One of this year. From that earlier post I wrote, "These essays are conversational, hilarious, moving, truthful, and beautifully constructed. How he's struggled to get published and noticed all these years is fucking beyond me." I'm sticking to that assessment for this one too. From the title essay:
Outside of a psychotic who attacked me a few months ago (I stuck his head into a snowbank until he promised to leave me alone) and a middle-aged fellow who drives around town shouting obscenities from a riding mower, there is not much happening here in Middlebury, Vermont.

The Book of Strange New Things - indeed. For whatever reason, Michel Faber's publishers decided that calling his new novel "science fiction" was a bad idea - but that's what it is, pretty much straight up. I've plowed through a good portion of this, but I'm not sure I can make it all the way. It's about a Christian missionary who was chosen by a mysterious corporation to leave his wife and planet behind to fly across the universe to establish a spiritual relationship with an alien race on their home world. It's very, very good, but I'm not particularly keen on Christian theology as the cornerstone of the fiction I read. (Once again, reading is a very personal pursuit when you get down to it.) There's obviously more to it than just that - and there's definitely more going on with the "Jesus loving" residents of this planet - but I'm having a hard time with the self-involved, God-enthusiast narrator. But maybe that's the point? I do want to see where the story takes me though - unless it's to church.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week... uh... Radar!

I have no idea what week this is, sorry. 41? 40? 42? As usual, after a Book Catapult-related event (see David Mitchell Conversation Recap), I've taken an unwise and entirely accidental hiatus from writing on a regular basis. Part of this break, however, is because I'm having the hardest time wrapping my head around this book I just finished reading. 

I have to admit, I was pretty pumped to get my hands on Reif Larsen's forthcoming novel, I Am Radar. I loved, loved, loved Larsen's first book, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet - a groundbreaking, genre-busting piece of awesomeness. Radar is very different in most ways and to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I get the whole thing after reading 600+ pages. 

The lead copy reads: In this kaleidoscopic novel, a love-struck radio operator discovers a secret society offering mind-bending performance art in war zones around the world. 

And: In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents. 

Okay, I'm game. And I was with it almost all the way through, until I could see the pages running thin in my right hand and the plot not pulling its narrative tendrils together in any way I was hoping for. There are four main sections - and when I think about it, maybe this is the central problem, the structure. Each section feels amazing in its own right, but when they get stitched together... some bit of connective tissue seems to be missing. There are hints of something magical happening, just at the fringes of everything, but it turns out... well, nothing gets resolved or even revealed on that front - at least to this reader's satisfaction. 

Here’s the thing: there's a whole performance art/puppeteering/quantum entanglement thing happening at the center of this and I could never fully get my head around it. Everything swirls around this group of performance artists who have been staging pieces around the world in wartorn areas. Radar meets them as a child when his parents bring him to arctic Norway to have his skin turned white. (A very strong section, for the most part. Radar's mother struggles mightily with her son's appearance and her regret and guilt is super powerful. Then there's the Norwegian performance artists...) More threads are laid out in Yugoslavia where a man makes magical black box dioramas that enchant the populace. And in the 1970's, tragedy befalls the group when they try to stage a performance for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. All of this leads to Radar joining the gang in the final act and traveling to Congo for one final art piece... that I cannot understand the significance of in the slightest. 

Maybe I just don't "get" performance art? (I thought I sort of did after Scotch Wichmann pulled a fish out of his pants in my store last May...) And since this art form seems to be the centerpiece to understanding I Am Radar... I'm sort of left not getting it.

I kept hoping for if not blatant answers to Radar’s bizarre origins, at least a trail of breadcrumbs that lead somewhere other than into more performance pieces. The hints at a bigger, more mysterious picture are everywhere, yet nothing ever seemed to pull it all together. Why was there a big, strange blackout that happened at the exact moment of Radar’s birth? (You're seriously going to let that thread hang there when Radar is born pitch black and with crazy radio-tuning abilities?) What is the significance of the islands - from different parts of the world, in different story arcs - that all look the same in the artist’s rendering? What's up with the eye iconography? Where did Kermin go? How the hell wasn’t Radar responsible for the second blackout in the final section?? Jesus, I mean, of course he did – didn’t he? Isn’t there something more magical and strange about Radar?? ISN’T THERE??? 

I’ve written before about the importance of having critical voices out there in this new glad-handing internet world we live in, but I’m having trouble throwing Reif completely under the bus here. My main complaint about Radar is that I just didn’t get it - as a whole piece. Reading – and writing, too – is an intensely personal prospect. Just because I can’t see the bigger picture come into view, doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t there. I loved much of the free-standing, individual pieces that form Radar - any one of which could stand alone as an outstanding novella. There seem to be little subtle threads connecting each of the four major parts, yet… they are so thin to me that I could never figure out why or what their significance was. Despite all that, I think I need to reserve final judgment on Radar until I talk to someone else who has also read it. I know, this sounds and feels like a deflective cop-out to me too, but I desperately want to see what other people think about it and as of this writing, I haven't found anyone. Maybe it's me. But then again... maybe it's not. 

Further readings these past weeks:

The Emerald Light in the Air: stories by Donald Antrim. See this old post from 2013 for more on Antrim's novel, The Hundred Brothers - he's the underappreciated mad god of contemporary fiction. You should really read this dude - in fact, the title story from this collection is right here on the New Yorker website for your enjoyment. These stories are all almost all about protagonists with severe depressive pasts or psychiatric issues that they're working through - although there's so much Antrim weirdness in them that they don't feel so weighty as all that. Just as I was starting on this collection, I read a really wonderful piece on Antrim written by John Jeremiah Sullivan (a great writer in his own right, by the way) for the New York Times Magazine: "Donald Antrim and the Art of Anxiety". Read that, then try and not read Antrim.

I've also started reading Marlon James' new novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which centers around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Each chapter is from a different narrator - often speaking in a dense Jamaican patois - and it seems to be arching toward a modern day history of Jamaica, in all her violence and messiness of the past 4 decades. I'm having a bit of a tough go at it right now and may push it to hiatus.

And Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside. For obvious reasons. I thought I would just dip into this meditation on the oceans of the world and humanity's relationship to these waters, but I've spent 2 days and 100 pages on it so far, so I'm probably in it for the duration. (Remember, Hoare wrote The Whale - a Catapult Notable book in 2011.) I like it, but it's hardly just about the sea - and I'm having a hard time figuring out how it all ties together thematically. For example, I just read a very interesting chapter on ravens... ravens don't swim in the ocean, FYI.