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.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Chuck Palahniuk

This is totally a work-related post & not at all Catapult-related, except for in-spirit. But c'mon, it's Chuck! 
I heard he sent a box of sex toys to Warwick's in advance.
Tickets HERE.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

David Mitchell Conversation Recap

"Literature! Art! The future of the Anglo-American novel is at stake!"
As faithful readers of the Catapult know, on this past September 22 I had the immense pleasure and mind-blowing honor of sharing a stage with Mr. David Mitchell for an "In Conversation"-style event at MCASD's Sherwood Auditorium in San Diego. I really don't think I can ever thank David enough for humoring this fanboy and subjecting himself to a litany of my questions in front of an audience. Whew... well, thanks, David.

And thank you, of course, to Warwick's bookstore for selling the books and helping get the word out and putting the whole thing together. We pitched the idea for an event to David's publisher together and there's no way I could have ever pulled it off without them, of course. All I knew was that I wanted to get David to San Diego, I pleaded my case and Julie (their director of events) took care of the logistics. A rockstar.

So! We have some raw video and a separate audio track of the conversation and if we can stitch things together and make it watchable/listenable, I'll post it here. David and I talked for the better part of an hour, covering his vast multiverse, the übernovel, the primal nature of storytelling and being read to at an author event, ("Here we are in semi-darkness, hearing a story. It's the oldest form of narrative there is.") whether (ala Crispin Hershey) he reads his own critical reviews, ("I used to.") the untapped comedic well of Christmas letters "written" by family pets, and our shared fascination of what lies beyond the Sea of Rhûn. I concluded the chat with a lightning round of questions called Coincidence or Not Coincidence, as pertaining to the David Mitchell universe. This was my way of asking all the nerd questions (tying together characters from previous books) that I tried to steer around for the first part of the evening. A few choice excerpts:
Me: The Sykes family in The Bone Clocks and Mr. Sykes in Cloud Atlas. Coincidence? Not a coincidence?
David: Coincidence. Who’s Mr. Sykes? (audience laughter)
SM: He’s on the Prophetess – he’s a... just maybe a deckhand (actually a very briefly mentioned shipbuilder from the Adam Ewing section who is performing repairs on the Prophetess while she’s in port in the Chatham islands)
DM: I might nudge that into not a coincidence then. I mean, deckhand, Gravesend, east end of London, where Her Navy got Her sailors from, often press ganged... could be, could be.
Exhibit A: Cloud Atlas, page 4

SM: Veronica Costello from Cloud Atlas and Vincent Costello from The Bone Clocks
DM: Not a coincidence. Aunt Veronica owns the house that the untrustworthy Vinnie is sort of minding.
SM: Marinus and Meronym (from Cloud Atlas)

DM: Meronym... is a member of a kind of tribe... who are the last technologically advanced outpost on earth – she calls her people the “prescients” – and the think tank that the surviving Horologists - whom you will meet in The Bone Clocks - form on Iceland, which will be kind of an environmental lifeboat when the rest of the world is gone to pot with climate change, the end of oil, and Ebola, scarily enough – the name of that think tank is "Prescience." Meronyn is a potential descendant of Marinus... except for... I made the point that the Horologists don’t have children, can't have children...

SM: Can't she be Marinus?
DM: Um... he-e-e-e-ey... um... (audience laughter) The showrunner of Doctor Who – which is the 4th mention (of Doctor Who) this evening – a man named Steven Moffat, when he’s asked a nerd question - when he’s being asked to square a nerd circle – his grumpy answer is “I’ll sort that out in Christmas special.” Which is to say, I’ll sort this out in the Christmas special.
Then I laid out this scenario: in Number9Dream Eiji Miyake watches a film called "The Voorman Problem" in a theater called the Ganymede Cinema. In The Bone Clocks Crispin Hershey wrote a short story called "The Voorman Problem" and his father was a filmmaker famous for a film called "Ganymede 5." Coincidence?
DM: That’s a delicious coincidence. That’s great! I’ll use that then. (audience laughter) It makes sense that they would’ve named the theater after the film that the owner of the movie theater loved. Right. That’s easy to sort out in the Christmas special.
There's lots more, of course, so as soon as Team Catapult figures out what we have & how to share it, you will be the first to know.

At the end of the evening, Assistant Catapult Operator, Scott Ehrig-Burgess and I presented David with the first ever Book Catapult Golden Slingshot® award for "mid-life achievement in literary excellence with all the honors, rights, and privileges appertaining thereto." Whatever those are.

The Warwick's staff (past and present) with the author and the Book Catapult "staff" mixed in.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 36/37

Books read (all or part of) this week & last: 
Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin
The Valley by John Renehan
Young Skins by Colin Barrett
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Deborah Levy-Bertherat
Soil by Jamie Kornegay
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback
Black River by S.M. Hulse
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
Mercy 6 by David Bajo
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by KA Yoshida & David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell 

The more weeks that go by in the year - and the closer I get to David Mitchell Day 2014 - the harder and harder it becomes to write a regular post about what I've read in any given week. I started this weekly posting idea as a writing exercise for myself, but as usual, life gets in the way. Actually, in this case, reading has gotten in the way, since all my free time of late has been taken up by reading for the Indies Introduce panel. (Plus, for the first time in 17 years, my baseball team is looking to win their division outright. Very distracting.) That said, it may be time for the Catapult to evolve into its next self, whatever that may be. Or maybe I'm just blowing smoke. After the next week or so, these posts should become more regular. But I can't make any promises... 

As for what I have been reading over the last few weeks, we did finish up the Indies Introduce panel readings and the nine of us selected our collective Top Ten:

Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin 
The Valley by John Renehan 
Young Skins by Colin Barrett 
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry 
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Deborah Levy-Bertherat 
Soil by Jamie Kornegay 
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper 
The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria 
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback 
Black River by S.M. Hulse 

Get ready to touch that golden apple, friend.
A solid list, I believe - and, this being a democratic process, there's no sense in griping over favorite books that didn't make the cut. I made a very strong push to include The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein - easily in my Top Three - but alas, it may have been too weird for the majority of the group. (I have plans to write more about Sunlit in the future. Just let me get through September.) The top six listed of the above final list were on my personal top ten - Young Skins and Hammer Head especially being two of the best books I've read all year. I firmly believe that all the others - with one exception which will go unnamed - belong on the final list. An overall great experience - if there are any booksellers out there reading this, give me a holler if you'd like to be a part of the next Indies Introduce panel. 

After finishing up with that, I read David Bajo's new Mercy 6 - a strange, esoteric medical thriller of sorts set in a newly renovated SoCal hospital that goes under quarantine after 4 people mysteriously drop dead all at the same time. First impressions by the medical staff are of some sort of viral outbreak, but it soon proves to be something much, much weirder. Bajo is one of our most underappreciated writers, in my opinion - and not just because he reads this blog. (Hi David!) His earlier books, The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri and Panopticon were outstanding - and totally weird in their own right. Mercy 6 is a metaphysical handful but one of the smartest novels I can think of. 

Then back into David Mitchell Land - I re-read The Bone Clocks to prepare myself for September 22. I found that there were some things I mentioned in my first BC post that were edited out of the finished book, much to my dismay. No Luisa Rey, no Timothy Cavendish, no Nurse Noakes. We shall be discussing this on September 22, have no fear. I've also been dipping into Mitchell's translation of Naoki Higashida's memoir, The Reason I Jump, which is an outstanding glimpse into the mind of a 13-year old Japanese boy with autism. Just incredible. 

Tickets are still available for The Event HERE.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 34/35

Books read (all or part of) this week:

The Valley by John Renehan
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
Black River by S.M. Hulse
Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade
Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny
Soil by Jamie Kornegay
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin
Etta, Otto, Russell, and James by Emma Hooper
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

So, I know, it's been a few weeks since I really wrote one of these posts about what sort of things I've been reading. I had been steadily plugging away at that stack of titles for the Indies Introduce panel until I received my finished copy of The Bone Clocks in the mail. Yeah, yeah, I've already read it - in a pretty rough manuscript form back in May. But I wanted to read through it again - in its polished version - before the big Book Catapult/Warwick's/David Mitchell event on September 22

Here's the thing - if you're a regular reader of this website and/or a San Diego resident, I strongly encourage you to attend this event. There's no monetary interest in this thing doing well for me - Warwick's is selling all the books, but I just want people in seats listening to David Mitchell. That would make me really happy. Yeah, it's on a Monday night and it costs 30-something bucks, but I guarantee you, it will be worth it. There are some book industry-types out there who don't believe that San Diego can or will support a literary event like this. I desperately want to prove them wrong. But I need your help. Let's fill that theater and prove them all wrong together.


Okay, so I've read portions of A LOT of books in the last couple of weeks for this Indies Introduce panel. Here's a quick rundown of all the ones I've read but haven't discussed yet:

The Valley: fairly outstanding. Billed as a war novel about US soldiers in Afghanistan, this thing is anything but straightforward and reads more like a detective novel than Matterhorn or Yellow Birds. It's not perfect and the prose is a little clunky in parts, but it's one of my favorites for this panel, for sure - and one of 3 that I've read cover to cover so far.

The Sunlit Night: also one of my favorites - and one of the more polarizing titles the panel is considering. It's a little bit weird, I guess - maybe that's the part people are having a hard time with. These kids are bringing a little bit strange to the party - and it's a little hard to pin it all down,  which I like. Frances' family is disintegrating (a divorce and a marriage) before her eyes as she heads for an internship at a Norwegian artist colony. Yasha's family disintegrates in a different way, through abandonment and untimely death, both of which lead him, bizarrely, from a Brooklyn bakery to the same Norwegian oasis of art. I especially love this because it has two narrative perspectives - Frances in first person, Yasha in third - and when the two intersect, you can see the other narrator through the eyes of the other, but in a strange sort of way due to the differing tense. Plus it makes me laugh - and I want to keep reading it. So there.

Signs Preceding the End of the World: the jury may still be out on this one. It's a border story, which always interests me, but the style is odd - a bit slippery and strange, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. My issue with it may be a translation thing, but certain words keep popping up and I can't figure them out. "Makina thanked him and versed out of there." Versed? It's used like ten times in the first 60 pages - I just found it to be super distracting & maybe enough to keep it off my list. I'm not sure yet.

Church of Marvels: very elegant historical fiction about two sisters from a Coney Island sideshow, a woman shuffled off to an asylum by her nightmarish mother-in-law, and a literal shit-shoveler who finds a live baby in his pile of night soil one evening. How they all come together, I'm not sure yet, but I'm kind of digging the whole thing. (No pun intended.)

Black River: this has a bit of a morose vein running through it, but I've read enough of it to believe that the bright, solid prose can conquer all that. Wes is a former prison guard who, after his wife dies, returns to his home town and the scene of his greatest life tragedy to try and make some sense out of his wrecked life. It's good and earthy and gritty like the best of Ron Carlson, even if there's a little too much fiddle playing in it for my taste. I've putting it in my top ten despite that.

Single, Carefree, Mellow: I only read three stories out of this collection and while I really liked what I read, (and laughed out loud more than once) the stories sort of blurred together. It was a little like run-together episodes of Girls. Not that I watch Girls. But someone in this house does. Anyway, it's off the list but I will read more of it, just for funs.

Secret Wisdom of the Earth and Etta, Otto, Russell, and James: I haven't read enough of these to fully weigh in yet, but one is about some kid in Appalachia and the other about an old lady who walks across Canada. That's all I got.

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter: definitely the surprise of the list, for me. I am fuckin' loving this book. The author was a journalist working in Boston throughout her 20's, then the shift toward young, hip digital content happened and she found herself sitting and clicking and scrolling all day at work. "Mouse in my limp, damp hand, my head raw and frayed, I spent months thinking, I've got to get out of here." So she quit. Wanting to do something "more to do with reality," she stumbled on a Craigslist posting that read "Carpenter's Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply." So she did - and she got the job. This book is about that life-altering experience of building things with her hands - real things, in the real world. Stairs and walls and cabinets for people to walk on, lean against, and store things in. And I'm super jealous. Anyone who knows me knows that as much as I LOVE books and everything to do with them, my current employment situation is... less than stellar. I'm clawing at the walls, desperate to do something with my life. (Hence things like the David Mitchell event, to be honest.) Nina MacLaughlin has given me hope - in the form of her eloquent, wonderfully written memoir - that if I want to do something different with my life, all I have to do is DO IT.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 33

Oh, a long week, friends, followed by another long week. So, even though I'm days late on Week 33's post, I don't feel like writing about all that action tonight. Instead, I will share this little gem with you - a paperback pulp novel Flash and Filigree by Terry Southern given to me by my friend Dave. As yet unread, but... that doesn't really matter. Published in 1958, the Omaha World Herald called it "Marvelous." The Cincinnati Enquirer said it was "Delightfully and horribly funny."

The best part, though, is on the back jacket. 

Babs Mintner - a girl with the body of an angel and the mind of a child. Her seduction at a drive-in theater is the funniest scene you'll ever read.
Just a few events in Flash and Filigree
The famous television show, 'What's My Disease'; a hashish party; a head-on collision at 120 m.p.h.; an alcoholic private eye; a mad judge...
So choice. Imagine! An alcoholic private eye! Craziness!! And hashish! Oh dear!

Anyway... More to say about the books I've been reading next week - which is really this week. See you in a few.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 32

Books read (all or part of) this week:
Soil by Jamie Kornegay
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein
Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian
A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison
The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyker
The Turner House by Angela Flourny
Pieces of My Mother by Melissa Cistaro
Benefit of the Doubt by Neal Griffin
Mercy 6 by David Bajo

I was back into the swing of the Indies Introduce readings this week - some pretty good, some outstanding, and some... The tricky thing here is that because of the sheer volume of books I have to get through for this thing, I have yet to finish more than a couple of them. The good ones, I shall return to - with more to report, hopefully.

A Small Indiscretion: see Week 30. I don't have anything more to say on this one, other than that I keep dipping back into it, which continues to surprise me.
The Book of Speculation: the circus, librarians, mysterious books... the pieces are there, but this thing just isn't keeping me hooked for whatever reason. I'm sure it will go through into later rounds - and most likely be a indie bestseller. Think Night Circus etc.

Soil: this is right up there with Young Skins as one of the better books I've encountered for this panel. A gritty Southern Gothic in the vein of Tom Franklin written by the owner of an independent bookstore in Mississippi. I'm listening. I can already tell (100 pages deep) that this is one of those divisive books where readers are either totally on board, loving it or can't stand to be in the company of its characters for more than a few pages. One of the main narrators is one of those guys that makes horrible decision after horrible decision, forcing us to watch his descent down the slippery slope of madness. What would you do if you found a dead guy on your property in the aftermath of a flood? A: call the police? or B: chop the body up in to small pieces and burn it into charcoal in your backyard? But it's really great.

The Sunlit Night: also fairly outstanding. Two narrative threads gradually come together - Frances is adrift after college and heads to an apprenticeship at a Norwegian art colony above the Arctic Circle and Yasha has spent his formative years in a Flatbush bakery, never yearning for more until his life is forced in directions he never expected. The narrative has a weird little lilt to it that I really like - Frances' especially, with her painting only in yellow under the 24-hour Norwegian sun. If I didn't have all these other books to wade through, I'd be reading this one.

Orhan's Inheritance: atmospheric (set in two timelines in 20th-century Turkey) and well-crafted, at least 50-something pages in. When Orhan's grandfather offs himself in a vat of indigo dye, the presumption is that the family business will go to Orhan while the assets and the family estate will go to his father. But grandpa's will says otherwise - and the homestead has been left to a woman in California that no one in the family has ever heard of. So Orhan tracks her down to try and sort things out. I'd keep reading this - which is saying something, I guess.

The Turner House: the main character is a man named "Cha-Cha." I'm already gone. This one seems like it's struggling to be a story about a large family from Detroit, but there's a strange ghost story element that keeps rearing its head, keeping the whole thing from ever getting flowing. Maybe after 100 pages it hits a narrative stride, but what I've read of it just keeps spinning its wheels. (I found the most surprising element to be that the author is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Hmmm...)

Pieces of My Mother: there's nothing wrong with this one, per se, just that personal memoirs about mothers aren't really my thing. It's fine, really. Next.

Benefit of the Doubt: oh, if I were actually able to give this book the "benefit of the doubt" and just politely decline and move along. But I really want to know how this got published. I know this is a bit mean spirited to poke fun at an untested debut novel - not to mention, relatively dangerous, since the author is a cop in a North San Diego County city. But this has been vetted as an entry for this process, edited by professionals, represented by an agent, and even blurbed by SoCal crime novelists Joseph Wambaugh and Don Winslow. Fair game, I say. Here's an excerpt from the prologue - this bad dude, Harlan has just shot this woman in the gut:
Her eyes shone clear and hateful.
"Go to hell."
"You first, Missy."
Harlan took aim and squeezed the trigger a smooth four times. The sacs of silicon that had created the sensual swell of her round breasts erupted an instant before her heart did the same, spraying blood and other fluids in all directions.

Lastly, in between all of this, I've been reading David Bajo's forthcoming novel, Mercy 6. Bajo also wrote The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri - a 2008 Catapult Notable - and Panopticon - a 2010 Catapult Notable. So he's got some chops. 

Here's the best part: the man himself will be reading from, discussing, and signing Mercy 6 at ye olde UCSD Bookstore on Thursday, September 11 at 4:00pm. David is a super-nice guy and a San Diego original - so if you're in the 'hood on 9/11, head on over and join us!

Monday, August 04, 2014

2014 Booker Longlist: Padded with Americana?

Let's just get the opinion thing out right away: personally - and I say this as an American reader, really - I think opening up the Booker Prize to American authors cheapens and diminishes the award significantly. But let me back up.

Until this current year, these were the requirements for eligibility for the Man Booker Prize, established in 1969:

Any full-length novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland and published in the United Kingdom for the first time in the year of the prize. The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and must not be self-published.  

Then, just before the announcement of the 2013 Booker, they switched things up (this is from a press release from the Booker Foundation chair, Jonathan Taylor):

...the Man Booker Prize is to expand eligibility for future prizes to include novels originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of the author.

Okay, I can sort of see the value in this - they're trying to globalize this award that seemingly no one pays attention to outside of the UK and this website that you are currently browsing. But the United States has the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for American authors - was it really necessary to water down the soup from which the Booker committee ladles their winner? I happen to believe that there are more than enough broad-reaching novels written by writers falling under the Commonwealth umbrella to still make the Booker a viable UK-only award. But for the sake of acquiescence, I suppose, let's see what the first expanded longlist looks like - announced on July 23:
Joshua Ferris - To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (American)
Richard Flanagan - The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Australian)
Karen Joy Fowler - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (American)
Siri Hustvedt - The Blazing World (American)
Howard Jacobson - J (British)
Paul Kingsnorth - The Wake (British)
David Mitchell - The Bone Clocks (British)
Neel Mukherjee - The Lives of Others (British)
David Nicholls - Us (British)
Joseph O'Neill - The Dog (Irish/American)
Richard Powers - Orfeo (American)
Ali Smith - How to be Both (British)
Niall Williams - History of the Rain (Irish)
Now... ahem... we all know who I'm rooting for - and let's be honest, this really has got to be Mitchell's year. Which is what worries me. Five of his six books have now been nominated to the Booker longlist - and Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas made it to the shortlist. And, as you all know, The Bone Clocks truly is a masterpiece and should win easily. Easily! Looking at the rest of this list, none of the American authors feel like they'll make the cut to the short, so was the change really necessary? Joshua Ferris? Really? In all fairness, I haven't read this new book, but I did read Then We Came to the End (which was a sort-of funny, unusually narrated debut) and only half of The Unnamed, a story about a guy who literally can't stop walking that felt to be wandering completely aimlessly. (Neither of which I thought were worthy of award consideration, to be honest.) Karen Joy Fowler's book definitely sounds interesting, but c'mon, she also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club. Siri Hustvedt and Richard Powers seem like serious contenders, but I'm only basing that on assumptions. I've never read anything by Hustvedt, although I've often thought that a dinner party at her house with her husband, Paul Auster, would be the most terrifying, intimidating party possible. And I've been told to read Powers on many occasions (mainly by a friend who only reads novels with head injuries in them) but just haven't managed it. But actually the biggest news for this longlist is actually an omission - and I'm not talking about the lack of Canadians: American Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning, Catapult Notable novel, The Goldfinch is nowhere to be seen. Say what you want about Tartt's work being less-than literary (see this Vanity Fair piece for a summary of the snooty bullshit) but all signs point to her inclusion on this first-ever "global" Booker Prize list. (Actually, if you are one of those obnoxious idiots claiming that Tartt is not literary, shut your stupid mouth - she should've been on this list.)

Honestly, the rest it is pretty solid, as far as I can tell. Flanagan, Jacobson, O'Neill, and Smith are all known as legit, literary writers with some backbone. Did the field need to be expanded to America? (I say "America" becuase that's the only country represented outside the Commonwealth in this "global" list.) At first glance, definitely, absolutely not. 

But this is one of those snobby, pretentious things to debate when your life isn't threatened by Russian missiles, Ebola, or dudes tunneling under your walls or shooting rockets into your living room. Yes, I am complaining - publicly - about the rules and regulations for an arbitrary award (worth over $80k, by the by) given to someone who has written a book. Please punch me in the face. 

That said...
The Booker shortlist will be announced on September 9 and the winner (aka: Mr. David Mitchell) on October 14. If you have any questions for a five-time Booker nominee, head on over to and get your ticket.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 31

This was Anthony Doerr Week - all I read were things written by him.
This is just after Wednesday night's event at Warwick's - Tony Doerr (plaid shirt) and yours truly in front of 110 adoring All the Light We Cannot See fans. A staggeringly amazing, humbling evening. We discussed the impetus for the new novel, the ten years of research and writing he spent crafting it, his life as a "dilettante" college student (which ultimately lead him to writing as an outlet), the connectivity of radio in the 1940's, Edward R. Murrow, the connections between people every day that may set the course of our lives in innumerable ways, the perils of writing about Nazis, and whether the ease of information access through modern technology is a detriment or an asset to humanity. You know, small picture stuff.

A HUGE thank you to Anthony Doerr for letting me crash his party and be a part of his universe for an evening - and for being one of the most wonderful, inspiring, and generous human beings I've ever had the honor to meet.

And of course, massive thanks to my whole Warwick's extended family - Julie, Nancy, Adrian especially. Thank you for so graciously letting me come back to my bookselling roots and be a part of this amazing event.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 30

Books read (all or part of) this week:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger
Young Skins: Stories by Colin Barrett
A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison
The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria
The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

This week was full-steam ahead on the Indies Introduce panel reads - and luckily, nothing was outright terrible. Hooray!

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris: destined to do well in independent bookstores without the help of this program, just simply because it's a comedic memoir about grammar and writing. Norris has been a copy editor at the New Yorker for 35 years - her book is a mix of that experience and her proclivity for proper grammar usage. I've been finding it a bit disjointed, if well-written - if that makes any sense. I want a little more New Yorker and a little less of the grammar lessons, which come off a bit dry and elitist. But she is very funny.

Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger: I read way more of this than I both wanted to and expected myself to - nearly 200 pages. There is something compelling about the conniving, lying, oddball protagonist that I couldn't stop reading. It's a bit of a novel about nothing - this girl is just floating from pub to pub, crap job to crap job, toying with everyone she interacts with, not really getting anywhere. It stuck me as a bit of a Bret Easton Ellis/F. Scott Fitzgerald/something grittier & meaner mash-up. Every time I thought I'd had enough, a one-liner would cross the page that gave me pause or some scene would make me laugh out loud. "She reeked of a celebrity-endorsed perfume. She was square like a tank but had a smiley face." I don't know, I'm positive that the rest of the panel will vote it out, but I think I'll finish it either way. (Here's a great review of it from the UK's Guardian.)

Young Skins by Colin Barrett: definitely the best book I've read yet for this panel and certainly the one most in my own wheelhouse. These short stories set in & around the small Irish town of Glanbeigh, County Mayo are just small glimpses, vignettes of the lives of some of the younger class of residents. A bit of grit clings to each story, each sentence - maybe a hint of an outburst, a drinking binge, a fight, a spat over a girl. Yet they didn't strike me as overtly dark stories, even if they are a bit mournful at times or introspective, at the least. "I am young, and the young do not number many here, but it is fair to say we have the run of the place." I thought they were just brilliant - infused with life and realism and characters that stick in your craw, even if you're with them for only 20 pages. (This also just won the 2014 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award - a pretty prestigious literary award. This dude's going places, trust me.)

A Small Indiscretion: another that I've read more of than I expected to - I was trying to hold myself to the 50 page limit, just for a cursory assessment, but I kept going past 100 yesterday morning on the couch. Annie Black, mother of three, has shattered her marriage based on the title's "small indiscretion," but it seems to be far more complex and has tendrils reaching 20 years into her past. Told in a confessional, story-telling style to her eldest son, who lies in a coma after a car crash - which is somehow related, but I'm not sure how yet. It's good - the prose isn't blowing me away, but I keep reading because I want to find out how all the pieces come together.

The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria: I've only read about 50 pages of this and while it's not my normal cup of tea, it's definitely has the heft of an "important" book - and one that I'm glad to have read what I've read of. It's a mix of Zakaria's personal (& family) memoir and the history of Pakistan - which is a fascinating history in and of itself, following Partition from India after the Brits relinquished control in 1947. Zakaria's family relocated from Bombay to Karachi along with the other millions of India's Muslims in the decade after Partition and the book is a mix of their story and the story of their new homeland - including the violent, conservative state it has become in recent years. I feel like I'd be a jerk if I put it down.

And... it's Tony Doerr Week this week! Of course you've marked your calendars, but just as a quick reminder: this Wednesday the 30th at 7:30pm, Warwick's in La Jolla. A riveting, fascinating discussion between The Author and The Catapult Operator. An evening that will change your life.