Thursday, November 23, 2006

Seth's Notable List 2006

At the bookstore ( if you're interested) where I spend 80% of my waking days, people always ask for more book recommendations - some even flatter me for some reason and say that I should "really write more", etc. Hence, this website - where I am free to voice my unfiltered opinions on the books I read to whoever wants to read them. Since the New York Times just announced their 2006 Notable List, here are several from the last year that impressed me the most. If there were _ number of books that you HAD to read from this past year or so, these are they - in no particular order, of course.
***Breaking news in Seth's world: my recommendation for Robert Wilson's latest book, The Hidden Assassins was selected as a Booksense Notable Pick for December 2006. Check me out.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
No surprise to anyone who has listened to me talk for more than 5 minutes on the floor at Warwick's. Mitchell has just barely edged out Lethem as my favorite author. For the moment. Sorry Jonathan.

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
An extraordinary novel of modern Cairo (almost a 21st century retelling of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy) that offers a fascinating glimpse for Western eyes into the world of a modern Arab society. Considered scandalous in Egypt, where it has rested atop the Arabic bestseller lists for over 2 years, it encompasses all aspects of Egypt’s complex society – a melting pot of the traditional Islamic world & that of the modern, sexually frank & Western-influenced Egypt – all struggling to find a balance with faith and modernity. A fascinating book.

The Zero by Jess Walter
The least pretentious 9/11 novel I have yet to see - if it wasn't set in the aftermath, I never would even venture to label it as such. After the events of The Day, NYPD officer Brian Remy's life & memories have been shattered like mirror glass, casting him into a memory-less netherworld of acquaintances he cannot remember and events that he cannot find any familiarity to. As he struggles with enormous, insurmountable gaps in his short-term memory, he slowly begins to realize that he truly is not the same person that he was before 9/11, and has become something altogether sinister and devious in his apparent absence. I think this should have been the National Book Award winner this year (it was a finalist) instead of Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, which I just couldn't get into on the first go-round.

The Road by Cormac Mcarthy
I have had a hard time writing any kind of recommendation for this book, simply because I don't think that I could do it justice by blurbing it. I was flat out floored by this novel. Shoved to the ground and stomped by this novel. Punched in the stomach by this novel. And I loved every second of it. (Well, as much as you can really love post-apocalyptic baby-eaters.) Really just the most powerful piece of fiction writing I have read in my life - it resonated on a personal level, for me, (the father/son line) as well as a much broader, look-at-what-we-have-become sort of level. If you can get past the pretty overt Christian undertones, you need to read this. It should be required reading for everyone in America.

The One From the Other by Philip Kerr
Nowhere near as serious a novel as these others - I read A LOT of literary, crime noir "mysteries" (not who-dun-it type mysteries, so I hate that genre label. I think "Noir" is more apropos.) This is an unanticipated fourth novel to Kerr's brilliant Berlin Noir trilogy, which I loved and recommend all the time. This is the best book Kerr has written, at least of the noir novels that I have read of his. Set in post-WWII Germany, it follows struggles of Bernhard Gunther, private investigator. I know, I know, come on, a private investigator? Like Magnum PI or the Rockford Files? Bernie's more like a German Philip Marlowe - dames, drinks, crimes. Again, the key here is "noir". Very dark, shadowy, mysterious. Great fun.

Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
Honestly, in recent years, Auster has been pretty hit-or-miss with me. I was sadly disappointed with the way he failed to wrap up the beautiful narrative filaments from his last novel, Oracle Night. But for this one, I feel he has returned to form with a magnificent tale of mid-life crises, mortality, & redemption. Reminiscent of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Auster brings us the story of Nathan Glass, a retired insurance salesman, recently divorced, estranged from his daughter, recovering from cancer, and ready to wither and die slowly in his hometown of Brooklyn. Ah, but don’t forget the ensuing redemption! Hilariously funny, powerfully moving – this novel was the first in long while that I could not shake afterwards. I dreamed of it the night that I finished.

The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens
Fergus is the Irish everyman - set adrift in the wake of the 1847 Famine, without family or friend - he makes his way in the world through his quixotic pursuit of life anew in England & ultimately, America. Written in a style that is wholly Irish - lyrical, sparse, emotional - Fergus's tale is one of survival, love, and persistence - reminiscent of Frank McCourt or Leon Uris's Trinity. A beautiful first novel.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
How many people do you store in your conscious? 1000? 10,000? 1,000,000? Suspend your disbelief and discard all preconceptions of a denominational, religious “afterlife” for this one – you soon find yourself given over to the truth: you stay in the next world (the “city”) only as long as there is someone in this world with a firsthand memory of you. Your own questions pile up: Would I remain in the city for 100 years? Or would my time be fleeting because no one would remember me? What if a worldwide pandemic wiped out everyone except one woman in Antarctica? Does she remember me? Brilliant!

Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke
Have you not read JLB?? Unfortunately, his publishers prefer to package his books like throwaway James Patterson novels, but they are stunning in their evocation of southern Louisiana. His writing was at least somewhat responsible for my moving to New Orleans in 2001. (Seriously, ask my mom.) The book: for whatever reason, detective Dave Robicheaux cannot seem to shake the demons of his past. He’s created a stable, sober life for himself with a loving wife & daughter, a solid job, and yet past mistakes continue to rear up and punch his lights out. Continually thwarted by unsavory good ol’ boys with Louisiana names like Whitey Bruxal and Bello Lujan, Dave struggles to find out how the petty crimes of the daughter of a long dead friend are related to the brutal death of a young college student. Writing so vivid you can smell the evening salt marsh and hear the wind through the pecan trees and the summer rain on the tin rooftops.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
Chabon is in constant rotation with Mitchell, Lethem, and Michael Malone as my favorite auteur. This one was just enough to tide me over until his next full length book arrives.

The Futurist by James P. Othmer
Yates is a professional futurist – world famous for telling CEOs & governments what they want to hear about their economic & social futures. Until he realizes that he’s more of a nihilist than an optimist. Following his potentially career ending flameout speech, Yates is hired by mysterious government agents to travel the world & find out why everyone hates Americans. Except he really doesn’t feel like doing that either. A very funny satire on the current state of American society, why we don’t recognize why the world despises us, and one man’s unlikely quest to figure out who he really is.

The Planets by Dava Sobel
(Yes, I occasionally read nonfiction) Did you know: Due to the immense pressure in Jupiter’s atmosphere, Hydrogen gas is reduced to a nearly impossible “metallic liquid” phase? That Pluto & its moon, Charon, operate in a symbiotic, “binary planet” existence? That the Moon formed as is only because it was just out of reach of Earth’s tidal forces, keeping it from forming as a ring? All this knowledge and more can be yours! Sobel spins a brilliant web of exploration of our solar system – weaving fascinating scientific facts with history & philosophy, forming a remarkable, cohesive, spinning gas-giant of a book.

This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M Homes
I'm not sure that it will literally save your life, but... I really liked it. Filled with fantastic imagery – a horse stuck in a sinkhole, a woman in red swimming in an azure pool, a ferris wheel tumbling into the sea – and a wealth of memorable, bizarre characters. It also had the best jacket blurb EVER: "If Oprah went insane, this would be her favorite book." - John Waters

Of course, if you wanted to actually buy any of these books, for godsakes go to your local INDEPENDENT bookstore! Don't shop the chains or Amazon - these places are rapidly putting small chain stores out of business. Go ask someone at Costco if they've read the David Mitchell book and you'll see what your world would be like if independent stores disappeared. For your local independent, check out or if you're in San Diego, just go to Warwick's in La Jolla and we'll talk.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Thing That Makes Me Ashamed To Be a Member of the Human Race

Note: Yes, you can still read my rant on this topic, but, smarter powers (Rupert Murdoch, believe it or not) intervened and the book got yanked this week. And in response to my sister's comment: YES I am angry at these people! And so should every intelligent American - they are an insult to both our national identity and our collective intelligences. So there - get your own blog, Rosie. :)
The glove doesn't fit...fuck you America!The O.J. Simpson book. I know you've heard about this "book" already, so I'll spare you the details - or you can check out this non-biased article here.

Until this week, Judith Regan was a moderately respectable book publisher under the HarperCollins (aka News Corp) umbrella. I won't pretend to like most of her list - which includes such superstar assholes as Dick Morris, Neil Cavuto, and John Gibson - but she has published one of my favorite authors of recent years, Mr. Jess Walter (his books Citizen Vince and The Zero are winners of the 2006 Edgar Award for Best Novel and a National Book Award finalist, respectively), as well as relatively innocuous writers like Paolo Coelho and Tom Piazza (an insanely gifted writer and super nice guy from New Orleans).

But now she has revealed the evil that has apparently been lying dormant inside her human shell.

Dilemmas ensue: Should bookstores carry this book? If we do not, is it censorship? Which member of the Goldman family is going to finally clean O.J.'s clock? What does he tell his children? Do they believe him?
How does Regan sleep at night? (Other than on a pile of blood soaked cash.) Look, I don't really give a shit what O.J.'s story is. His face, fame, and money made a mockery of our judicial system in '94 - everyone with half a brain knows that he did it. The fact that he's now rubbing it in our faces is what makes me so incensed. More than that, is the fact that a major American publisher allowed such a sick, twisted cash grab to happen. It makes me want to puke.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

"Scarface" Sucks

"I am so fucking sick of this movie, man." -Tony Montana

I'm sick of hearing about how great Scarface (1982) is. I know that this "film" has a crazy cult following these days (every NBA player has a copy), but I still think that it's a laughably shitty movie. Pacino's worst film. That accent? Are you kidding me? I read this article in Entertainment Weekly while sitting in a doctor's office waiting room that quoted the effusive, still-excited-about-Scarface-producer Martin Bregman as saying, ''I think it's a better film than Star Wars. It's about something. [It has] a moral code. We were shocked by the negative reaction. We did not get a good review, not one. The critics did not get the movie."

That's because the movie fucking sucked, Marty.

Pauline Kael, who always defended director Brian DePalma's work, thought it sucked too. Although she was slightly more eloquent than I: "The whole feeling of the movie is limp. This may be the only action picture that turns into an allegory of impotence." and "...the scenes are so shapeless that we don't know at what point we're meant to laugh." To me, that's when you know a film has problems. DePalma is always hit or miss with me, I don't know how he does it. How does the same man make classics like Carrie and The Untouchables, then turn around and churn out crap like Scarface and The Black Dahlia? Another mystery of the universe.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Jonathan Lethem - "You Don't Love Me Yet"

Yesterday I finished the advance reading copy of Jonathan Lethem’s next book, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Let me preface this by explaining the level of anticipation this held for me: I was pretty excited. Really. I’d had it for about a week before I started reading – I sort of wanted to savor it, but I also hesitated to start it now, in November, since it has a March release date. I really hate that. I always look at things like that as a bookseller – will I remember enough of this book in 5 months to be able to sell it? Why do publishers send these things so far in advance? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it, but at a book a week, I’ll have read like 25 other books by the time Lethem’s hits the shelves. I also had to finish the book I was currently reading, which was apparently SO memorable, that I cannot remember what it was. I generally try to not read multiple novels at the same time – a novel & a nonfiction – OK, but with 2 novels it feels like the plots & characters get interchanged or blurred, or that they start to visit the wrong novel, since they’re both living in my head (Jane Eyre would have a really hard time in Fight Club, know what I mean?) During the Lethem, I was also reading (& still reading) Robert Greenfield’s Exile On Main Street: A Season In Hell with the Rolling Stones, which actually fit in very well with the Lethem. (The Greenfield is also OK, but it’s not particularly erudite or enlightening and reads like he’s on speed – which may be alright for that particular piece of history – but it’s really only for people who think Exile is the greatest album ever recorded in the history of mankind. And I do.)

Anyway, I have to say, I was a bit disappointed with the new book. Maybe it was the level of twitchy anticipation I had, I don’t know. I was looking forward to him leaving his of late comfort zone. His last novel was pure genius, (Fortress of Solitude) but his subsequent collection of short stories (Men & Cartoons) and the collection of essays (The Disappointment Artist) really felt like splintered pieces of his own psyche or his autobiography – which would be fine, if Fortress hadn’t been the perfect format for that. As a fan, I relished every word, don’t get me wrong, but at this point, I was ready for him to explore something else. It felt rut-like to me, which may be totally wrong, since I’m clearly not JL, nor am I particularly qualified to tell him he’s in a rut, for godsakes. But, in You Don’t Love Me Yet, the first 2 acts had me, totally, completely. The characters are interesting, expressive, strange & the situations JL puts them in are hilarious, weird, & human. Lucinda answers phones at a call center that fields general complaints. Nothing specific, just whatever people feel like complaining about. Matthew “rescues” a kangaroo from the zoo because he feels it is suffering from ennui. So he takes it home where it can live in his bathtub & eat cabbage. Denise works at “No Shame”, a masturbation boutique. (sadly, I felt like this comedic tidbit was never explored enough here. So much potential!) And, in typical JL fashion, Bedwin sits at home, a recluse, watching the same Fritz Lang film over & over again. They’re all in a band together, but despite all these excellent quirks in their lives, the band lacks that certain spark that will propel them out of the basement & onto the airwaves. To make a long story short, the third act is more about Lucinda & her confused love for the mystery man in her life – whom she met on the complaint line, of course – and the rise & fall of the band as a band. It fell flat, to me. I stopped caring or sympathizing with Lucinda after awhile. And the rest of the characters, I felt, never really allowed me to look into their lives in the first place. There are fleeting glimpses, like the examples I mentioned before, but they lacked real substance, in a way. They look like people, but they don’t leap off the page like perfectly developed characters should. JL is capable of this, of course, but this is actually the first time I could say this about his characters. In fact, Lionel Essrog from Motherless Brooklyn and Dylan Ebdus & Mingus Rude from Fortress are some of my favorite characters in all of literature. But these guys in Y.D.L.M.Y don’t have that snap of reality. That crispness of vision. They’re a bit blurry and underdeveloped. But this is just one man’s opinion. And it is a pretty funny book. Maybe, dare I say it, it would have been a great short story (or two).

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Day One

On this blog, once I can work on it when I'm not late for work, like today, I'll post musings mostly on books, but really on whatever I want. Thanks for visiting.